Puriel

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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Patreon Snippets 5

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The following is the fifth 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. 

Sariel’s Eldest Missing Child – Several Years Ago

“Come, Nihil.”

Kushiel entered the pristine medical room at a crisp walk, beckoning with her fingers for the child at her heels to keep up. The young girl herself looked to be about five in Earth human years, which would have made her roughly three as far as the Seosten home planet of Elohim was concerned. Her light blonde hair was worn short, almost into a buzz cut, and she wore a simple silver hospital gown, with flashes of a blue Seosten bodysuit visible beneath it as she moved.

The room the two of them entered was taken up almost exclusively by various medical and scanning equipment that lined every wall. In the middle was a single bed, its occupant sitting up and watching them. He was an older man, his long hair gray and his face lined from many millennia of life. Though he was looking their way, he showed no change of expression at their entrance aside from a single blink. Beyond that, his face was empty.

Gazing up at the man, the young girl asked, “This is your husband, Mistress?”

Rather than answer, Kushiel pointed to a single chair that sat in the corner. “Sit, Nihil. Be silent.” She waited until the girl obediently did so before turning to the man. “Puriel,” she announced, stepping that way to take his limp hand. “Puriel, look at me.”

He did so, eyes moving to meet hers and focusing slightly better than they had been. “Kushiel,” he started in a voice that was rough, a testament to how seldom he used it lately. “Are they alive?”

Sighing with obvious annoyance, Kushiel shook her head. “Just like the last time you asked, and the time before that, and every time stretching back to the first, no.” She pulled his hand up to put both of hers around it. “Husband. Love. You have to stop this. It was years ago. The orphanage chose to take you in. They chose to care for your wounds after your transport through the banishment orb. They cared for you when you didn’t know who you were. And yes, you were in no shape to protect them when the Fomorians came. They died, my husband. But you survived. You survived, and now you remember who you are. You have to move on. Your people need you.”

His gaze had gone empty again, as he stared off at nothing. Stared at his memories. Kushiel sighed, dropping his hand as she turned to the nearby counter where various instruments lay. “This is Sariel’s newest spawn.” Her hand waved vaguely to where Nihil sat. “I’ve told you about her. I brought her here because she’s ready for the first experiment.”

Puriel’s eyes focused once more, looking at her. “Experiment,” he repeated the word as though it was entirely foreign to him. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given how much of his mind had been damaged first by the loss (and subsequent return) of his memories about himself through the banishment orb, and then the trauma of every person, adult and child alike, in the orphanage that had taken him in being violently murdered by the Fomorians.

“Yes,” Kushiel snapped a little impatiently. “Experiment. Our daughter, Puriel. We have to fix her. Sariel’s spawn there is a Lie as well.” She smirked. “Even the great Artemis produced a Lie. How shamed must she be?”

“Artemis,” Puriel echoed, head tilting once more. “Sariel.”

“Yes, yes, the one who helped do this to you.” Angrily, Kushiel waved at the man with the laser scalpel she had picked up. “So what justice will it be to make her spawn to whatever experiments it takes to finally find a cure for our daughter? I have… ideas. Ideas I would not put our child through. But that?” She waved to the obediently seated child. “That I will feel no guilt over.”

She turned back to the table then, picking up a vial of red liquid to examine before setting it aside for a glowing green vial instead. Behind her, Puriel spoke again. “Experiment… you will… hurt the girl.”

Sighing long and low, Kushiel kept her attention on the various tools and vials. “To fix our child so that she is not a failure, I will hurt many, yes. You don’t have to concern yourself with it. I have several ideas… such as this.” Holding up what looked like a thin metal rod about three inches long with tiny red glowing spellforms drawn along it, she explained, “Inserting one of these into the spine of two different Seosten should make the first follow the actions of the second while they’re active. Including possessing and then not possessing. If a Lie can’t stop possessing on their own, perhaps they will if they’re remotely controlled by a non-Lie.”

Puriel’s voice came back then. “You can’t hurt the girl.”

Annoyed, Kushiel set the tools down. “For the last time, husband, you must let go of this absurd guilt. Nothing that happened to those–wait.” In mid-sentence, the woman sensed something wrong. She turned, only to find the bed empty. Instead, Puriel was standing next to the chair where the child she had dubbed Nihil was. He had taken the girl’s hand.

“No!” Kushiel blurted, spinning around so fast she knocked over the tray full of vials and tools to crash along the floor. “Get away from–”

It was too late. The girl vanished, reflexively possessing her husband in fear from the loud crash of everything Kushiel had knocked over. With a loud, violent curse, the woman lunged that way to grab her husband by the arms. “What were you doing?! What–Puriel?”

His eyes focused, and the man nodded. “I am here. I… am here. What happened?”

“You just–” Kushiel paused, then sighed once more. “You had one of your fugue states. It… never mind.” Her anger was evident through the way she clenched her fist so tightly, speaking through gritted teeth. “I will just have to find another specimen, since you had to destroy that one.”

She moved to pick up the fallen equipment then, grumbling to herself. Meanwhile, Puriel stared off into the distance, as a small voice spoke in his head.

Where… where am I?

In me, the man thought back. You are a part of me.

But I can’t leave, the child hesitantly informed him. I’m not supposed to touch people. It’s bad. Touching is bad. You… you made me. Why?

Sariel’s child, came the simple response. Her children are Lies. Her…  I remember… children are Lies. I won’t let you be hurt. Not… not this time. Not this one.

I don’t understand, Mister.

Neither do I. But you are safe. I won’t crush you. I won’t… hurt you. I will raise you. I will… show you what I know.

I will keep you… safe.

******

Norbit Drish – Last Month

 

“Yo man, chu know I ain’t like saying bad things ‘bout my homeys. It ain’t fly.”

“Mr. Drish,” Klassin Roe addressed the nineteen-year-old, pale and skinny boy across the desk from him. “No one is asking you to say bad things about your friends. I only asked if you still feel as though he is… different than he was last year.”

For a moment, Norbit (not that anyone was allowed to call him by that hated name) rocked back and forth in his seat, considering the words. “Yeah, man, I mean… sure, it ain’t as bad as it was before, but he still ain’t really here, right? He ain’t like– It’s like, he didn’t give a shit about nothing at first. That was bad. Like–lazy or something. Like he gave up. Then all of a sudden it’s like he do care, but he only care ‘bout that Freshman team, right? Like, like, all his effort going that way and the rest of us, we’re just like… not even there for him, you know? I mean, we there, but we ain’t there. Like he don’t really– like he like us, but not like us like them, you know?”

Klassin stared at him for a moment, then turned his head to cough once. “I think I have the general idea, yes. Do you still see him as a good teammate, as a friend?”

“Hey, he’s a solid guy.” Drish shot back, using two fingers to point emphatically. “Deveron’s always got my back. You know, when he’s there. But he ain’t wanna like… he ain’t wanna hang out. He does work. He aces the tests, he’s all over that shit. But he never wants to–ya know, shoot the shit without actually shooting. He never wants to chill.”

Leaning back in his seat, Klassin nodded. “He’s good to have around, he does all the work. But he’s not really much of a friend to you. He doesn’t play games with you, doesn’t hang out.”

“Right, right, yeah.” Drish’s head bobbed up and down as he pointed at the man. “Like that. Like, if you need him, he’s right there. Always count on him in a fight. But like… if you don’t need him, can‘t ever find him. We used to be buds. We was tight last year. So tight, like this.” He crossed his fingers. “Now he just always running off on his own. Doing his own shit, or shit with those Freshmen. I mean, that’s cool and all, he’s working on the next gen and shiz, whatever. But throw a dog a bone, you know?”

Klassin considered the boy thoughtfully for a moment. “He was one of your best friends last year, and now he never hangs out. I understand. People change, and it can be hard sometimes.”

“Psshhh.” Waving his hand unconvincingly, Drish sat back. “Ain’t no big. I gots plenty of homeys to hang with. Don’t really need another one crowding me out. Ain’t gonna cry about it. Nice to have space. Space to stretch, you hear?”

With a nod, Klassin replied, “I do hear, thanks. But tell me one thing. What do you think of Deveron this year?”

“Man…” Starting to dismissively wave that off once more, Drish then hesitated. “It’s like… he’s a great fighter, great Heretic, good at all that shit. But I miss just like…doing nothing, you know? I miss hanging with him. Sitting on the beach just chilling. He never wants to do nothing. Always gots something to stay busy with. It’s exhausting just watching him.” Seeming to realize that he’d opened up too much for his own liking, the boy finally made a dismissive noise. “But whatevs, just chill with some babes. His loss.”

“Indeed,” Klassin agreed with the boy. “But let’s talk about something else. You went home for your birthday last week, right? Why don’t you tell me how that went?”

 

******

 

Remember Bennett – Present Day

 

Remember Humility Bennett. Many years earlier, she had been one of the original founding members of Eden’s Garden, before soon becoming one of the Victors of an entire tribe. It went through several names throughout the course of its history, the most recent one being Lost Scar.

She was also the mother of the late Edeva, who had in turn married Lyell Atherby and been mother to Joshua Atherby.

Remember’s great-granddaughter was Joselyn Atherby. Her great-great-granddaughter was Felicity Chambers.

“Victor Bennett?” A soft, hesitant voice interrupted the woman, as a demure young woman appeared in the doorway of her office. “I–I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am. You said you wanted to be informed if there was any news of the missing tribe students.”

Turning from the names that had been scrawled on the wall, Remember focused on her young assistant. “Yes, Aconitum. Did they find Trice?”

“Err…” The girl shook her head. “No, ma’am. It’s about Pace. The… men who were sent to give the warning to the Fellows woman–errr, that is… your… I mean–”

“My great-great-granddaughter, yes,” Remember dismissively finished for her with a wave of her hand. “I am well aware of the nuisance she’s made of herself and the situation surrounding her. Go on.”

Aconitum told her the story, at least as much as they knew, about what had happened back at the Bystander clothing shop. Men were dead, while Abigail, the newly dubbed Stray, and Pace were on the run.

“A werewolf…” Remember murmured under her breath. “No wonder she vanished for so long.” Clearing her throat, she ordered, “Take whoever is needed and find them. Find her. Pace is the priority. I want her brought back here. There may be a lot to learn from the girl if she has been taken into a wild pack.”

Her assistant hesitated before slowly asking, “And your, err… descendent, Victor? Shall we send a request to Crossroads to have her daughter brought in for questioning? They may be amenable to that in exchange for some favors.”

“Yes,” Remember agreed. “Send the request and see what they want in return. Go.”

Waiting until the girl had bowed and left, the old woman turned back to look at the name on the wall once more. Felicity Chambers. No wonder her primitive precognitive power had been pushing her to write the girl’s name. Though Aconitum wasn’t aware of Chambers’ relation to Abigail (or who their mother was), Remember was fully aware of it.

Chambers. The girl had such potential, that much was clear. It was too bad that Remember had failed to follow her first instinct to insist that she be recruited by Garden. Having the potential of that girl under her supervision, before she could be corrupted by Gaia Sinclaire, would have led to great things.

It was a shame, because it was clear that Felicity Chambers had the same great potential as her mother. And just as clear that she had already at least begun to be swayed to the wrong side in this war.

Losing more of her descendants would be a waste. Perhaps there was still time to right the course of things? That may be what her precognition was trying to tell her by making her write the girl’s name so often. A replacement for the loss of Doxer, perhaps? She had been the one to kill the boy, after all. Sinclaire would object, but if she could convince Ruthers that the girl would be better off outside of that woman’s influence…

Hmm. Her descendant… brought back to line as a member of her tribe. It was something to think about. A long shot, of course, and yet… as much as the girl had grown in such a short time, she could be an asset.

It was worth considering, at least. And if she could not be convinced to turn away from the same foolishness that had caused her mother to create such a rift in the Heretical world, then… she would need to be silenced, before she ended up making things worse.

And who better to ensure that happened than her own great-great-grandmother?  

******

 

Fossor – Present Day

 

It was known as Hidden Hills, a gated off community several minutes drive from the edge of a small town in Idaho. It was set up against a range of hills and reachable only via a partially paved road. To the outside world, it was either a retirement community or a cult, no one was quite sure which.

The truth was quite different. Hidden Hills was actually a collection of barracks and training grounds established by a man who called himself Sheol. A self-styled warlord who had broken and forcibly recruited numerous small bands of previously warring Alter groups, Sheol hammered fear of his displeasure into his troops, tempered against the great rewards they received for obedience. Hidden Hills was only one of his training centers, though possibly the largest. What he intended to do with his rapidly growing army was unknown to any but him.

Unknown, but… in at least one man’s opinion, not worth waiting around to find out. That particular man stood in the middle of the road, facing the gate that led into the community. His unassuming, vaguely husky figure appeared less a threat and more a simple tourist who had managed to get himself turned around on these confusing backroads.

Those who knew him, however, would never believe that the two dozen figures who appeared at the gate with firearms and other weapons raised and trained on the man was an overreaction. Indeed, their questions would more fall along the lines of why those men believed two dozen would be enough. Or perhaps why they wasted time with that when they could have been fleeing.

“Well,” Fossor remarked quietly as his eyes passed over the weapons trained on him. “I suppose this leaves out the possibility of asking to see your real estate listings.”

“Leave, necromancer.” The leader of their band, a jackal-headed figure with a wide shotgun-type weapon, demanded. “The grounds here are warded against your magic. You can raise no zombies, summon no ghosts, manipulate no skeletons. You have no power within two miles of these gates.” Even as the man spoke, another couple dozen armed figures joined them, doubling their initial numbers.

If those words (and the reinforcements) were a revelation, or particularly worrisome, Fossor gave no indication of it. He simply gave the man and his companions what might have been mistaken for a kind smile if one didn’t see the empty coldness in his eyes. “Is that right? Well, in that case… I suppose there’s nothing else to be done.” With an idle shrug, he turned to start casually strolling away. With each step, a cloud of dark ashes emerged from the canteen that had appeared in one hand. The ashes flew down to lead the man’s path so that he only stepped on them, creating a black path along the road.

After a few steps, however, he stopped. With those weapons trained on him, the man slowly tilted his head as though considering something. “Unless,” he murmured while raising one finger thoughtfully, “… there were youth in your stronghold back there.”

Slowly turning back that way, Fossor began to continue, only to be interrupted at the sound of a gunshot. That was followed by three more, as a collection of holes appeared in his chest. A final shot put a hole in the center of his forehead.

The gunfire faded at a shout, leaving the gathered troops staring at the necromancer… who appeared none the worse for wear. Indeed, the holes that had appeared in his body vanished almost instantly as his connection to his homeworld shifted the damage to one of the billions of enslaved life forms who dwelled there. His people were connected to him at all times, and any damage done to him was immediately shunted to them. So long as his connection to that world remained active, they would literally have to kill billions of what amounted to hostages before any damage could be done to the necromancer himself.

When the only evidence of the sudden attack that remained were the holes in his white shirt, Fossor raised a hand, touching a finger against the fabric there before uttering a single word. The holes patched themselves, erasing even that sign.

Then, without seeming to acknowledge the assault in any other way, he simply continued speaking. “If there were youth in there, teenagers… well, they might be a bit rebellious. They might… say… sneak out of your complex now and then, to visit town and… express themselves.”

Slowly, casually strolling back the way he had just come, the man went on. “And these… hypothetical rebellious youths could find themselves over the course of… mmm… a couple weeks being talked into receiving tattoos as a sign of the… I don’t know, unity of their little gang. Tattoos of… let’s just say a particular magical spell which, upon their death, causes them to rise once more to attack and brutally murder everyone they see without that tattoo… well, that’s the kind of spell that wouldn’t be affected by your necromancy blockers. Since they brought it in themselves.”

Regarding the increasingly nervous and skittish soldiers, Fossor gave a thoughtful hum. “Of course, the real question would be how to ensure those deaths all happened at a useful time. One can’t simply depend on even the most morose of teenagers to do something useful like a group suicide, after all.” His finger rose illustratively. “But… if, say… the ink in those magical tattoos happened to be of a particular incredibly lethal poison set to activate at a certain time… such as… say…”

Slowly, deliberately, the man raised his arm to look at his watch. As he did so, the sound of screaming and gunfire filled the air. It came not from the troops assembled before the necromancer, but from the stronghold behind them. Smoke rose from several buildings, as the screams of horror and rapidly rising stench of death grew with each passing second.

“Thirty seconds ago,” Fossor finished, giving an apologetic smile. “Oops.”

Some of the men opened fire, to no avail. Most immediately gave up that endeavor and raced back into the stronghold, to put out fires, to put down their risen children, to save their friends. None of those efforts would prove any more fruitful.

As for Fossor, he calmly adjusted his shirt and gave his thumb a slight lick before using that to polish a smudge off of his watch. A cloud of ashes rose from his canteen to create a path to the open gate, and he slowly, casually strolled that way to enter the compound.

Within the hour, there would be nothing left save empty buildings.

 

*******

 

Lies/Theia – Last Year

 

A portal opened into a field of grass set beside a wooden cabin. Nearby stretched the crystal clear water of a lake, with a couple of kayaks and other boats tied to a dock.

Through that portal stepped a single, pale figure with brown hair and matching eyes. Appearing to be about fifteen by human standards, the girl set foot on the grass before looking around curiously. Her head tilted back, and she spread her arms to both sides while looking at the sky with her mouth open to taste the air.

The Lie daughter of Kushiel and Puriel had never set foot on Earth before. Nor had she been outside on any planet more than a handful of times. This was… in many ways, a new experience.

She had only stood there for a few seconds like that before the sound of approaching footsteps drew her attention. Lowering her gaze from the sky, she was just in time to spot a small figure running not along the ground, but over the roof of the nearby cabin.

“Hiya!” The call came with a wave, before the figure turned into a blur of motion, going all the way across the roof to hope from one tree to another, then to a third like a some kind of turbocharged squirrel. Leaping from the third tree in the span of less than two seconds since her movement had begun, the small figure rocketed across the remaining distance between them before snapping to an almost vibrating stop directly in front of the newly arrived girl.

The so-called Lie tilted her head, taking in the figure in front of her. She was clearly much younger, appearing to be only nine or ten years old at most. Which, given the fact that Seosten aging didn’t slow for several years after that, meant that Lies was actually over a decade older than her.

The younger girl had dark hair, her eyes so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants, and a white hoody that seemed almost too big for her diminutive figure. And she gave Lies barely a second to take her in before launching into a spiel that came so fast and free of any particular pauses that it was almost impossible to follow.

“Hiyayou’rethenewgirlrightyeahthat’srightwhyelsewouldyoubeheremyname’sDecemberwhat’syours?”

“Breathe, December.” The voice came from the cabin behind them, as a six-foot tall blonde woman emerged. She wore a glittering red gown that made it appear as though she had just stepped from the dance floor of a dinner party for some royal wedding. “Remember what we talked about, leave some space between your words.”

She was joined a moment later by a dark skinned woman who appeared to be in her twenties who wore a very ruffled tan trench coat over a white shirt, and an enormous Hispanic man with heavily patched and fraying clothes.

“Hello,” the blonde woman politely greeted Lies. “We were told you would be coming to pay us a visit while your… group settles in, until a new body can be found for your mission. I am January. You’ve met December already. These are July and September.”

“Julie,” the black woman corrected. “It’s Julie.”

The large man gave a nod. “And you can call me Tember.” He showed a toothy smile. “Like timber.”

Confused, the new arrival tilted her head. “Why are you giving me names? We are all Lies, aren’t we? Lies don’t have names.”

“Hey!” The sharp retort came from a different girl. This one, arriving from around the side of the cabin, appeared to be what the humans would call Asian in her late teens. She wore simple army fatigues with her hair cut short. “We don’t use that word around here!” Clearly bristling with anger, she stormed that way before yet another figure caught her arm.

“May’s right,” that one, a thin man with dirty-blond hair who wore a flannel shirt tucked into his jeans, announced. “We don’t use the L word. Like I said, she’s May. I’m November.”

“We,” announced a black man in a white suit whose dark hair fell to his shoulders as he stepped into view, “are the Calendar. And we do not allow others to define our worth with their contemptuous slurs.” To the new arrival, he added, “February. Though I have been known to answer simply to Feb.”

“Only because I won a bet that made him answer to it.” The correction came from what appeared to be a teenage girl around fourteen or fifteen, with long red hair. She wore clothes that were the spitting image of the uniform worn by the Heretical Crossroads students, and introduced herself as April.

Before long, they were joined by the remaining four members of the so-called Calendar. There was the incredibly quiet and apparently very introverted March, who stood as tall as Tember and had green hair fashioned into a crewcut; a Caucasian man in his mid-thirties who wore a lab coat over a Hawaiian shirt and went by October or Otto, another man around twenty or so with close-cropped dark hair in dark clothes and a white jacket who was June; and a much older man called August whose gray hair went well with his perfectly tailored suit.

Looking around at the gathered dozen, Lies blinked twice. “You wear different clothes,” she noted. “You call yourselves different names. You refuse to answer to the name Lie. Why?”

It was August who spoke, his voice a smooth timbre. “We are the Calendar. We serve Cahethal, and in exchange, we maintain our individuality as we please.”

“Hemeanswedoagoodjobandshelikeswhenwedoagoodjobsosheletsusdowhatwewantwhenwe’renotonajobsowedon’thavetogobackt–”

As December warp-sped her way through her version of the explanation, April took a step forward to cover the younger girl’s mouth. “Sorry, I’d say she’s just excited to meet you, but she’s pretty much always like this.”

“It’s true,” January confirmed. “She is not one to sit still. Which is why she is never assigned to simple, long-term quiet surveillance. The last time we tried that, the humans were treated to the sight of a raccoon repeatedly performing backflips and cartwheels out of a tree before giving them an intricate dance routine set to music from a nearby stereo.”

“I got bored,” was December’s only defense.  

“You possess animals,” Lies put in then, “not people.”

“Animals are easier to dispose of so that we may emerge without drawing attention to missing people,” Otto explained while polishing his glasses on the end of that incredibly loud shirt. “We keep a veritable zoo beneath our feet here.” He tapped the ground demonstrably. “Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to show it to you before your leader calls for your return.”

“Indeed, perhaps we will,” January agreed. “But for now, come. It’s time for lunch.”

The collection of Lies-who-didn’t-call-themselves-Lies began to walk back to the cabin, leaving Kushiel’s daughter to stare after them. They were… odd. Very odd. What kind of Lie refused to answer to that word?

She couldn’t even imagine it.

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Mini-Interlude 68 – Olympian Origins

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Several Thousand Years Ago

Three figures, one much smaller than the others, stood in front of the great transparent wall of the space station Aquilari’s observation deck. Before them lay the vastness of space, filled with innumerable stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond comprehension or belief. The universe, itself to the larger multiverse as this single station was to the galaxy it lay within.

“Are we really gonna see it all, Uncle Lucifer?” The soft, reverent voice came from the child, as she stood between her older companions. Chayyiel, only ten years old, could not hope to comprehend the scale of what lay before them. Despite all the incredible power that had been thrust onto her, despite the accident that had made her into what could become one of the most powerful Seosten in existence, she was still a child. She was still innocent.

With a slight smile at that, Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel. She, in turn, returned the smile. Which was nice, considering he was one of the few people she seemed comfortable enough to smile with. Shy and withdrawn, his female partner didn’t tend to do much talking. She let him do that. And he was good with the arrangement, since he loved to talk.

Even before his own enhancement. An enhancement that had been just as accidental as both Sariel’s and Chayyiel’s. All three of them, accidents.

Well, mostly accidents. Chayyiel’s father had intended to expose her to the physics-defying energies of the other-world. But only for a short time, just long enough to… to help her. Unfortunately, it had gone wrong. The man had been distracted and taken away from his work at the worst possible time. Which resulted in Chayyiel being abandoned in that other-world and assumed lost forever. At least until Sariel and Lucifer, his lab assistants, had saved her with the help of one of the actual project subjects, a man named Amitiel. He had been the one who came to the two in the first place, pleading with them to do something to save the girl. He had begged them to go beyond all safety measures, pleaded for them to not just bend the rules, but shatter them in order to open the portal again and get the girl out.

They had done so, at the cost of destroying the Seosten’s only method of accessing that other-world.

For some time, there had been talk of locking Lucifer and Sariel up, of containing them to some prison lab, of… doing any number of things that angry people talked about doing when something as bad as losing access to the ability to create ageless super soldiers happened. But in the end, higher powers had decided that since their numbers of project successes were limited, throwing away any of them wasn’t viable. The two had instead been assigned to the same exploratory ship as the rest of the products of that project. Though they were currently given no real assignment, being relegated to caring for and watching over Chayyiel herself.

Lucifer didn’t mind that either, any more than he minded being the ‘face’ of his partnership with the shy Sariel. Chayyiel was a good kid, and smart as hell even before she had been upgraded.

“We’re gonna try,” he replied to the girl’s question, giving her a wink. “It’s a pretty big universe though. It’ll take a long time.”

“Very long,” Sariel quietly agreed. Her hand moved to Chayyiel’s shoulder, squeezing it. She had been the one to come up with the solution that allowed herself and Lucifer to extract Chayyiel. It was a solution that had ended up destroying the project itself, even as it saved one child’s life. Lucifer had tried to take that blame for himself, but it was one time where Sariel had not meekly and quietly allowed him to take the lead. He’d wanted to spare her from being the focus of so much anger, yet she had done so anyway, confessing that it was her plan.

Seeing her small, fragile figure hunched in on herself while being bombarded with so much vitriol from the investigative committee had been the one and only time in his life to that point that Lucifer had been tempted to murder other Seosten. And not just one of them, but each and every figure who had been hounding, insulting, and belittling the woman beside him.

Not deterred in the least, Chayyiel’s head bobbed up and down. “Uh huh, but we’ve got time, right?” She looked first toward Sariel, then to Lucifer, eyes shining with curiosity and innocence as she firmly declared, “We’ve got lots of time to see everything out there.”

Chuckling, the man put his hand on the opposite shoulder from where Sariel’s still was. Both of them stood there with their hands on their young charge. “You’re not wrong about that,” he admitted while turning his gaze back to the stars. “We do have a lot of time.” Curiously, he asked, “So, how long do you think it would take to see everything there is to see out there? Every star, every world, every moon, everything. How long would it take us to see  all of it?”

Chayyiel blinked at that, face scrunching up with thought for a few seconds before guessing, “Ten thousand years?”

“Longer than that.” That was Sariel, her voice quiet, yet firm. “Much longer.”

“She’s right,” Lucifer agreed. “You want to see everything, you better settle in for the long haul. There’s a lot of stuff out there. And,” he added, “a lot of danger. Not just Fomorians. Other things too. A whole universe worth of monsters and problems.”

“We can handle it.” Chayyiel’s voice was assured, arms folded across her stomach as she gazed out at that starfield, determination written across her face. “We’re gonna see it all. And we’re gonna end the war with the Fomorians. We’re gonna fix everything.”

Again, Sariel and Lucifer exchanged brief glances. That time, it was Sariel who spoke up first. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

We can,” Chayyiel corrected.

“We’re gonna do it together.”

******

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome… aboard the Olympus.”

Pride filled the voice of the man who made that announcement. The figure, who was just barely under six feet in height, with black hair that was lined at the temple and along the sides with silver, smiled. It was a smile that spoke of adventure, of daring, and of battles yet to come.

His name was Puriel, and this was his ship. He stood directly in the middle of the bridge, surrounded on all sides by the consoles that his people, his people would use to direct the ship along their journey, through their missions. This pristine, almost perfectly white with hints of gold room was the command center, the brain of one of the most technologically and magically advanced ships in the entire Seosten fleet. Entire planets had worked to put this single ship through its theoretical, testing, and practical phases. And now it was real. It was complete.

And it was theirs. The products of the Summus Proelium Project, the experimental upgrading process created by Director Aysien, who had been granted an endless lifespan as their aging was frozen, along with other enhancements and unique, individual gifts, had all been gathered onto this single ship. A single ship with a single mission: to explore the vast, unending reaches of space and find some advantage that would allow the Seosten to finally finish the forever war. It was a war that had been raging for hundreds of thousands of years. Literally dozens of generations of the Seosten, whose members lived roughly ten thousand years by themselves, had come and gone without ever experiencing anything except this war against Cronus’s children, the Fomorians.

And now, Puriel’s people, his people, would have a chance to find a way of ending that war, of ending the threat that the Fomorians posed to the entire universe, once and for all. Yes, he felt pride at that fact. Yes, he felt immeasurable happiness at the very thought that his children might, might grow up in a universe where they would be safe.

That thought made his gaze move to the console near the very back of the bridge, next to the main door. And to the beautiful figure who sat there, looking back at him from across the room. Tall and regal, with a beauty that was matched only by her sharp wit and sharper tongue for those who had failed her, Kushiel still took his breath away. To have a child with her, to give that child a chance to live in a universe free of the Fomorian threat… he still held to that hope, to that dream. Old as he was even now, that was a dream worth working for.

And he could live to see it. His age, like all of the crew of the Olympus, had been frozen. Unless killed by some outside means, they would never die. They could, conceivably, actually live to see the end of this war, and whatever would come next.

But the others were watching. As much as he felt that he could lose himself in the gaze of his wife forever, this was too important of a day. So, Puriel pulled himself back, clearing his throat. “Logistics,” he used Kushiel’s position rather than her name. Must stay professional. “Report.”

Granting him one of her rare, yet beautiful smiles before it vanished behind a mask of professionalism, Kushiel gave one slight nod, her voice crisp. “Yes, Trierarch. All supplies are in the green. Fuel stores are reporting maximum capacity. Weapons are pristine. We are clear for six months of regular rations and travel before restock and refuel will be required.”

“Good to know how long we’ve got ahead of us,” Puriel replied with a broad smile. He couldn’t help it. He was professional, not dead. Still, he cleared his throat before his gaze moved slightly to the next station. “Engineering?”

Radueriel returned his brief smile, giving a hand gesture that was part wave and part salute. “Believe me, Trierarch, we are just fine down in the engine room. The boys and I have spent the past week going over every millimeter of that beauty down there. She’ll get us where we need to go, and give a little kick to anyone that tries to stop us from getting there.”

“Given the things we’ll be running into,” Puriel replied, “it better be a big kick.” He turned his attention to the next console over then. “Tactical?”

Auriel stood at rigid attention beside her station, hands clasped behind her back. “Sir,” she began crisply, “All weapons are online and at full capacity.” And yet, even the always professional woman (to the point that many had joked when they thought neither she nor Puriel could hear them about the enormous stick that must have been lodged deep in her backside) could not entirely contain the excitement of what was about to happen. There was the faintest of smiles that briefly flickered across her expression. “It will be a very big kick, sir.”

Puriel smiled. “That’s what I like to hear. Security, Crew Liaison, any issues getting everyone settled in?”

From opposite sides of the bridge, Abaddon, as ship’s security chief, and Jophiel, as the crew liaison, both reported negative. The former continued with, “We all did a bit of partying last night, but we’re good for departure.”

It was technically against the rules, as military crews that were about to set off were supposed to remain ‘dry’ for a full day before departure. And Abaddon definitely wasn’t supposed to outright tell the ship’s trierarch about it. But what the hell. It was a special occasion. And everyone knew that no one paid attention to that rule.

Though, from the dirty look that Auriel was shooting Abaddon, if she had her way, it definitely would have been an issue. It was good for him then, that Puriel was far more easygoing. Well, as far as that kind of thing went, anyway.

Next, Puriel turned his attention to the woman who stood near the door, clearly waiting to be dismissed as soon as this launch procedure was over.  “Research and Development?”

The small woman who met his gaze had startlingly green eyes, the result of an earlier enhancement after losing the ones she had been born with. They allowed her to see into many different spectrums, and enhance down to the microscopic level. Her name was Cahethal, and she was also one of the members of his crew that Puriel knew the least about, aside from the late-comers. And they… well, they were a different situation entirely.  

She was also clearly anxious to get back to work, since her response was a simple, “We’d be doing a lot better if I wasn’t wasting my time up here. I have a whole roster of bright-eyed know-it-alls that I need to whip into shape before they run an experiment that blows up this entire ship.”

“Well,” Puriel replied easily, “I guess we’ll have to let you get back there as soon as possible to avoid that, won’t we? Let’s finish up then.” His attention moved to the man next to her. “Medical?”

The man there, Manakel, had been working with Puriel for the past five hundred years. The two knew each other quite well, and exchanged brief smiles. Neither could believe they were finally here, commanding their own ship. And not only that, but one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. It was a dream come true, for both of them, in many different ways.

“The crew checks out,” the medical chief reported crisply. “We are ready to go.”

“Indeed we are,” Puriel agreed before looking at last toward the nearest console to his own seat. “Unless my executive officer has any problems to raise?”

The man there, Sachael, was almost as tall as the giant Abaddon, though he also looked to be much older. His long, pure white hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a beard to match, along with eyes that were pale blue, like a pair of frozen ponds set against the snow of his hair. He had also worked with Puriel even longer than Manakel had. Which meant that Puriel was pretty certain Sachael had been the one to convince the crew to go out for drinks the night before.

On-duty, Sachael was the consummate professional. He did his job, and he did it very well. Perfectly, in fact. He was the best first mate that Puriel could have asked for. But off-duty, the man was another story. He was fanatical about separating his two lives, to the point of almost seeming to be two entirely different people. He valued his freedom and fun. That was why he worked so hard while on-duty, so that he could turn it all off and let loose when he wasn’t. And woe be to the person who made him work when he considered himself done.

In this case, the man nodded crisply. “All departments and systems seem to be green.”

Puriel turned to the front then, his mouth opening to address the helmsman, when the door at the back of the room, near Kushiel, Manakel, and Cahethal, slid open. Three figures entered then, one much smaller than the other two.

Lucifer and Sariel, both of them barely past their mid-fifties in age. Barely more than children, really. Neither had actually been selected by their Choirs to be a part of Summus Proelium, or this ship. No, they had been simple lab techs back at the project itself, little more than assistants to Aysien himself until… well, until things had changed. Mostly due to the other figure they had entered with: Chayyiel. The director’s daughter, whose accidentally extended excursion into the other-world where they had drawn their extraordinary gifts from had resulted in the ending of that project.

Or, more specifically, whose unprepared retrieval from that excursion had ended the project, along with any way of actually accessing that other-world, possibly forever.

It was that fact that likely fueled the audible annoyance in Auriel’s voice, as the woman snapped, “What are they doing here?” It looked like she was about to order them off, but stopped herself with a look to Puriel.

Heedless of the reaction (most of the bridge crew looked no less annoyed or outright angry than Auriel herself did) that their presence was creating, Chayyiel all-but sprinted across the bridge, letting out a whoop as she saw the starfield ahead of them. “Are we really leaving, Uncle Puriel?!” She blurted while stopping beside him. Her hands grabbed his arm and she gazed up adoringly. “Really really leaving?”

Kushiel’s own tone was even darker than Auriel’s. “If the girl’s babysitters cannot even perform that duty adequately–”

“We’re sorry. Sorry.” Lucifer hurriedly put in, head shaking quickly as he moved with Sariel right on his heels. The blonde woman was slightly younger than her constant companion, and she was also much more shy. Puriel wasn’t sure he’d heard the woman speak more than a few words that she didn’t absolutely have to speak in the whole time that he’d known her. She relied on her research partner to do that talking for her so much that the rest of the lab, and now the crew here, had begun referring to them as ‘twins.’

“We tried to keep her in the mess hall,” Lucifer was explaining, “so she could watch the launch from there. But she kept insisting that–”

“Ahem.” Manakel raised a hand, drawing Puriel’s attention. “I’m afraid I did indeed extend an invitation to the young miss to bring her guardians with her to see the launch from the bridge. I thought it would be something she would enjoy. Who wants to see the first launch of a ship like this from the mess or the observation deck when you can see it from the bridge?”

Pausing briefly, Puriel looked down to the girl, whose eyes were shining with hope as she stared right back up at him, batting her eyelashes like some kind of innocent bifestel.

“Well,” the man finally replied, “how can I argue with that? Over there.” He nodded to a nearby couple of seats set against the wall near Abaddon. “Strap yourselves in, okay?”

That earned him a hug from the girl herself, before she and her two caretakers (who would have to be given some other job at some point, but Puriel wasn’t sure what that would be just yet, particularly if Cahethal continued to insist that she didn’t want them) moved to the seats.

With that interruption settled, Puriel finally looked to the front. “Helm and Navigation?”

The man there, Amitiel, gave a short nod. He had been looking briefly toward the three newcomers, his attention apparently caught by a wave from Chayyiel herself before belatedly realizing that he had been addressed.

“Ah, ready, sir,” he replied carefully.

Puriel didn’t know Amitiel that well, but he had noticed that whatever else the procedure that changed them all had done, it also seemed to have made him quieter than before. Less boastful of his skill and more… calm than he’d been in those first few weeks. Which was a good thing, as far as Puriel was concerned. Having a calm, professional helmsman would help the ship get through its shakedown voyage without too many problems. Hopefully.

“Very good,” he announced then, realizing that everyone’s eyes were on him. His command crew. His people. They were watching him, waiting for his word to launch. Waiting for him to give the command that would begin their great journey.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began then, turning his attention to the stars.

“Let’s see what she can do.”

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Interlude 13A – Sariel

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March 20th, 1986

The child’s name was Larissa. She was a rather small eleven-year-old girl, whose mess of brown hair never seemed to allow itself to be tamed for long. Not that she often put much effort into attempting to do so. No, Larissa was content to let her hair do whatever it wanted. It left her time to focus on the things she actually cared about, like reading comics and playing baseball with the neighborhood boys.

It was the former hobby she was engaging in then. Seated under a tree at the park, Larissa was intently reading the final issue of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which had just been released that very month.

The young girl was so intent on her reading, desperate to find out how the epic story ended, that she didn’t even notice the man approaching her until he was standing directly next to the tree. When the shadow of the man unexpectedly fell over her comic, she blinked up to see what was going on.

“Report,” the man ordered without preamble. He was as old as her grandfather, and was dressed in a nice suit and tie. He was even holding a briefcase, like he had just walked out of a business meeting.

“Um.” Larissa had no idea who this man was, which meant he fell into the ‘stranger’ category. “Please go away, sir.” She spoke firmly, hoping that the strange man would realize that he didn’t know her after all.

Instead, the man rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath something in some language Larissa couldn’t understand. Then he focused on her once more, his tone sharp. “I said report, Sariel.”

Larissa’s mouth opened, then shut. Her head tilted sideways for a moment before her eyes focused once more as a completely different set of body language settled over the girl. “Puriel.” the girl’s mouth said the name with clear annoyance. “I asked you not to make contact this way. I only take over Larissa while she’s asleep or in an emergency. She still thinks that I’m just an imaginary friend from her dreams.”

“And I told you that we don’t have time to engage with your folly,” Puriel insisted. “You are a spy, Sariel, not a friend. You should be controlling the girl as much as possible, to prepare for the moment that she is recruited by Crossroads. The Seraphim didn’t assign you to her so you could lounge in the back of her mind while she lays around reading this…” He plucked the comic from her hands. “… filth.”

“Actually, there’s some really good stories in those comics, Puriel,” Sariel informed him. Not that she expected the hard-headed being to listen. “And you used to enjoy the stories that the humans came up with. I seem to recall you paying attention to the tales that Greeks told when you were playing Zeus.”

He made an annoyed sound. “That was different. They were different. We directed the humans far more openly then. With the Heretics as numerous as they are now, that is impossible. And in any case, the Greek’s stories were at least entertaining. Not like… this.” He held the comic like it was excrement.

Sariel snatched it back from him, careful to avoid ripping the thing. “You only say that because they let you be the leader of their gods.” She paused before adding, “At least they got the arrogance right.”

“I am no longer Zeus,” Puriel spoke flatly. “And you have not been known as Artemis in quite some time, Sariel. Those days are over. You should focus on your current duties. Maintain control of the girl and keep an eye on her father until Crossroads approaches in a few of the human years. The Seraphim still believe that one of the legal cases that he works will be important some time in the future.”

“I know,” Sariel retorted without looking away from him. “If you’d just read my reports, you’d know that I’ve been using Larissa’s body while she’s asleep to go into her father’s office every night and read his files. I haven’t found anything that would interest the Seraphim. It’s all normal, boring legal cases.”

He just folded his arms while regarding her with clear disdain. “I’ve read the reports. I wanted to speak with you directly to ensure that you were not leaving anything out.”

“Well, I’m not.” Sariel made a shooing motion with the hand that wasn’t holding onto the comic book. “And there’s nothing else to tell you. So would you mind leaving? I already need to fix Larissa’s memory, and I’d like to make sure she has time to finish reading her book before she has to go home.”

Puriel made an expression of distaste before straightening. “Do not wait too long before you report again, Sariel. You may be on extended assignment, but the Seraphim are paying very close attention.”

With that, he pivoted on one heel and strode away silently. Most likely, he’d take the man he’d possessed to a bar of some kind and then leave him there with no memory of the past several hours.

Sariel, on the other hand, carefully used her magic to adjust the girl’s memory so that she would believe the strange man had come up and asked for directions to the nearest mall, which she had provided.

That done, she gave Larissa control of her own body once more and faded into the background. Some of her fellow Seosten maintained a rigid and constant grip on the bodies that they possessed, even allowing their hosts to know what was happening. Sariel, however, preferred to leave the humans she inhabited alone for the most part. As she’d told Puriel, she only took over when she absolutely had to, or at night while they were sleeping. He and his ilk believed that over-complicated things. But to Sariel, if they had to control these humans, the least they could do was leave them alone as much as possible.

It was still a gross violation of privacy, and her time in the back of Larissa’s head had gradually made the Seosten woman question her assignment. Possessing an innocent little girl to spy on her father and then spy on the Heretic school that would eventually recruit her? It was more than a little hard to take.

The entire point of spying on Crossroads was because it had grown beyond the Seraphim’s ability to control or predict. It had been difficult enough while Ruthers was in charge. The man wasn’t one of theirs, and his hard-line attitude was difficult to sway when they would have liked to. Now, the newest headmistress was even less predictable and the Seosten leadership was convinced she was hiding things, important things that none of their implanted people were capable of prying out of the woman.

So they had assigned Sariel to Larissa for this two-fold mission. First, spy on the girl’s father, then let herself be recruited by Crossroads when the time came and eventually ingratiate herself enough with Gaia Sinclaire to learn whatever secrets the woman was keeping that might endanger their civilization.

And yet… Sariel didn’t know what to do. Disobeying the Seraphim, the Seosten elite leadership council, seemed both impossible and terrifying. But she truly didn’t want to hurt any of the humans, and she was tired of spying on them, tired of treating them like enemies. She just wanted to talk to the humans. For so many years, she had been watching them, reading their stories, watching their lives from the outside. Part of her… part of her just wanted some of that for herself. A quiet life, maybe even a real family. Puriel and the others thought humans were this enormous threat, just because the Fomorians had created them. But that had been so long ago, and the humans had become so much more than that.

But there was no convincing the Seraphim, and Sariel had no idea if she was brave enough to walk away. And even if she did, then what? They would simply assign another Seosten to possess Larissa and use her as a spy. Worse, the new Seosten would probably be like Puriel, maintaining constant control.

She couldn’t do that to Larissa . There was no good answer, no real solution. For now, she just had to continue as things were and hope that a better solution would present itself eventually.

Before long, Larissa had finished reading her comic and was running through the park, dodging around people in her way. She had to get to the bus stop in the next few minutes, or she’d have to wait for the next bus. And if that happened, she’d be late for dinner and her dad would probably yell again.

Worried as she was about how late it was, the girl cut through a small forested area in the middle of the park rather than following the path all the way around. It would shave a couple minutes off the trip, which might let her make it in time. She was sprinting along, comic held tightly in one hand as she hopped over fallen branches and ducked under the ones that were still attached to the trees.

Halfway through the forested area, however, Larissa  came around a particularly wide oak just in time to see something that horrified her young mind. Directly in front of her, only about twenty yards away, three men stood in a circle around a hole that had been dug in the ground. Next to the hole was the body of a fourth man. He lay there with a hole directly in the center of his forehead, his sightless eyes staring almost accusingly at the girl who was already skidding to a stop while making an involuntary noise of shock.

“Aww, fuck me!” the first man to notice her cursed before pointing. “Grab the kid, god damn it!”

Larissa pivoted and tried to run, but she wasn’t fast enough. One of the men caught her by the arm, yanking her back into the little clearing before throwing the girl hard to the ground. She landed next to the body before letting out a terrified yelp and rolled away from it.

“She’s just a kid, man,” one of the man argued. “Can’t we just let her go? We’ll be long gone by the time she brings anyone back here.”

The one who had shouted for them to grab her slapped him upside the head with a look of annoyance. “No, idiot. Because she’s seen our faces. Which means we’ve gotta get rid of the kid just like we got rid of Benny. Now just make it quick if you’re such a fucking pussy. Do her in the head and let’s get the hell out of here before anyone else shows up. We’ll dump ’em in the same grave. There’s room for her.”

Blinded by her tears, comic long forgotten, Larissa stared up at the men from her spot on the ground. “P-p-please,” she whimpered, “Please, I w-won’t say anything. Please, I’ll be quiet. I’ll be quiet. Please.”

Sighing, the second man lifted a gun from his belt and pointed it at her. “Sorry, kid. Nothing personal.”

The girl’s eyes rolled back a bit and her body seemed to seize into a small spasm. Before the man could pull the trigger, she focused once more, her eyes much harder than before. “You had your chance,” Sariel informed him in a hard voice. “But if you’re willing to kill a child, I’ll show you no mercy.”

“What the fu–” the man managed to get out before the girl’s hand snapped upward. With Sariel’s power, Larissa’s body was strong enough to smack the pistol out of his hand, sending it flying off into the bushes. Before he could react to that, she flipped herself backward and up. In mid-air, the girl lashed out, kicking the confused and startled man directly in his crotch before landing easily on her feet.

The man who had been giving the orders had his own gun out by that point, and was pointing it at her with a shouted curse. He pulled the trigger, but Sariel had already moved the girl’s body out of the way at a speed that would have been impossible for a normal human. The gun had one of those human silencer devices on it, so the shots were only about as loud as a person clapping hard. Both of the ones that the man managed to get off flew right through the air where the girl had been, hitting trees beyond.

She blurred across the ground that separated them, tearing the pistol out of the man’s grip with one hand before punching him in the throat with her other fist. While he was doubling over, she turned her back to him while lifting the gun she had taken from the man. The third man was stumbling backwards while trying to yank his pistol from his waistband. Without hesitating, Sariel shot him through the eye.

The man behind her had almost recovered enough from the punch to his throat to make a threat of himself. Before he could do so, however, she dropping her aim to point the pistol at his shoe and pulled the trigger again. The bullet tore through his foot, dropping the man to the ground with a cry of pain.

Mercilessly and without actually looking at his fallen form, Sariel pointed the gun first at the man’s chest, then at his head, pulling the trigger both times. His cries were silenced.

A sudden noise alerted her to the fact that the first man had not stayed down. Even though she had kicked him in the groin, he managed to pull himself across the grass and retrieve his pistol. Even then, the man was rolling over, lifting the gun toward her while cursing up a storm.

At the same time that he was lifting his own gun, Sariel lifted hers. Both of them shot, and the man’s head snapped back as a bullet tore through it. At the same time, however, Sariel felt the other bullet go through her host’s chest. It didn’t exactly hurt, since there wasn’t much that humans had that could hurt a Seosten. But the damage that it did to her host body was extensive. It was only Sariel’s own power that stopped the bullet from killing the girl immediately. Even then, she was damaged enough to need help. Sariel’s influence would keep her alive long enough to call for help, but they would need to hurry.

Turning on one foot, Sariel tried to make the girl’s body run for a payphone to call 911. Unfortunately, the body itself wasn’t up to the challenge. It stumbled and fell to one knee.

A moment later, Sariel ejected herself from the girl. It would appear as though the semi-transparent ghost of a blonde woman in her early twenties had simply pulled herself up and out of the critically injured child before solidifying into a fully physical form.

Once she was solid again, Sariel turned and bent to pick up the now-unconscious Larissa. Holding the girl in both arms, she began to run through the forest, back to the populated area of the park.

She was almost out of the woods when another large hawk flew down out of the sky. It passed directly over her head before wheeling around in the air ahead of her. Just as she realized what the bird was doing, it stopped in mid-air and rapidly transformed before her eyes. Instead of a bird, a man stood there blocking her path.

No, not just a man. A Heretic.

“I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl,” the man announced while pulling a black sword with a glowing red line running up the center of it from what had looked like an empty belt. “But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

“Wait! You don’t understand–” Sariel started, only to lunge backwards as the man moved with impossible speed toward her. His sword swiped through the air where her head had been.

“I’m–” she snapped her head to the side to avoid the follow-up swing. “–trying to–” She pivoted, lunging sideways as the man instantly teleported his sword from one hand to the other in order to get a better swing at her. “–save her!”

But the man wasn’t listening. He was trying to kill her, intent on ‘saving’ the girl. She wasn’t even sure he was hearing the words she said. He was just blindingly, murderously enraged at the sight of a horribly injured child that he believed she was responsible for. And maybe she was.

With that thought, Sariel stopped dodging abruptly. She turned to the man, kneeling quickly to place the girl on the ground. Then she just straightened and faced him.

“Kill me then,” she said simply. “But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.” At least then she wouldn’t have to spy on innocent people. She’d gladly sacrifice herself to save Larissa.

Flipping his sword around, the Heretic frowned at her. “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

“It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Frowning, Sariel focused on the gun that she had just been using, the one that had fallen to the ground back in that clearing. With a thought and a slight application of her power, it reappeared in her hand. The Heretic moved, but she was already pointing the gun not at him, but toward her own head. “Save the girl,” she said simply, and closed her eyes before pulling the trigger.

She had relaxed all of her power, leaving herself completely vulnerable to the shot. Yet instead of dying, or even feeling any pain, Sariel felt the rushing air of something moving just past her head an instant before the bullet would have hit her. There was the sound of a loud ricochet, and then nothing.

Slowly, the woman opened her eyes. The Heretic was right in front of her, his sword held close to her head. He wasn’t trying to kill her, however. Instead, he’d used the flat of the blade to deflect the bullet.

“Why would you do that?” he demanded. There was no anger or condemnation in his voice, however. Instead, there was wonder and confusion. His eyes were searching hers intently.

“The girl,” she answered simply. “Please. She’s dying.”

At the reminder, the Heretic turned to look at the child on the ground. He didn’t hesitate that time. Instead, he took Sariel by one arm and yanked her after him as he knelt, sheathing the sword once more before putting a hand on Larissa as well.

A moment later, the air twisted around Sariel as the Heretic used some kind of power. The woods were gone, and they were instead standing in the entranceway of a busy hospital emergency room. There were people all around them, who froze briefly when the three figures simply appeared out of nowhere.

Then the Bystander Effect kicked in, and the people’s memories simply filled the idea that these three had come in through the doors, erasing the impossible teleportation.

A nurse was running to them, asking questions even as the Heretic lifted Larissa off the floor. She was put in a nearby gurney and rushed away to be taken care of.

Sariel watched her go, wanting to go after her. But when she took a step that way, she felt a hand on her arm once more. The Heretic was there. His voice was quiet. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

“I…” Pausing, Sariel nodded. “Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

“If that’s my…” the man started before trailing off. He made a face, glancing away before his jaw tightened. Turning back to her, he made a gesture with his free hand.

Again, the world spun, and the two were back in the woods once more. The Heretic released her, stepping back a few steps before watching her with something like fascination.

“You’re not evil,” he said flatly. “You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

“It’s a long story,” she replied. “But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

The man considered that before lifting his chin. “I think we have a lot to talk about.” He paused again, then carefully lifted his hand toward her, extending it. “What’s your name?”

“Sariel,” she answered before hesitantly accepting his hand. “What… what’s yours?”

The Heretic paused before replying, “Haiden.”

Both of them watched one another for a few seconds after introducing themselves. Neither was sure which one began to smile first, but eventually, both were. And then they began to talk. It was a discussion that lasted throughout the day, then through the night.

Eventually, the two checked on the girl, finding that she was indeed alive and would make a full recovery. Just in case, Haiden contacted Crossroads, warning them that a Stranger with possession powers had targeted one of their potentials. There was no love lost between Crossroads and Haiden’s Eden’s Garden group, but they were far more likely to listen to his warning than one that came from Sariel. He made sure the other Heretics took the warning seriously, and Larissa was soon being watched over by enough eyes that sending a replacement for Sariel to possess her again would be as close to impossible as they could make it.

Larissa was safe. Or at least as safe as possible.

To celebrate, the two of them went to dinner that next evening. And then they went to another dinner, and another. Before long, Sariel and Haiden would completely abandon their respective groups. They fell in love and ran away to begin their own family under a new name.

Sariel had enjoyed her time as both Artemis for the Greeks and Diana for the Romans. She wanted to use a name that reminded her of those days, of those lives.

The lunar goddess.

Moon. It was a good name.

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Interlude 5 – Vanessa

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Ten Years Ago

“Nessa, look up here, sweetie. Look at Daddy, okay?” The handsome man with expertly styled dark hair went down to one knee in front of his seven-year-old daughter. A smile tugged at his face. “Just one more set of tests, okay, Nessabird? I need you to focus just for another couple minutes, then you can go play with Tristan. I promise, just one more set of tests and then you can go play, all right?”

Tearing her attention away from the window where she had been watching her twin brother Tristan running through a gymnastics set on the parallel bars that their father had installed in the backyard, Vanessa bobbed her head. “Okay, Daddy.”

“Good girl, great.” Haiden Moon’s smile broadened as he gently kissed his daughter on the forehead. “Okay, let’s run through it again.” He leaned back then and produced a deck of cards, shuffling it up.

Standing there in the living room of her family’s house, Vanessa watched curiously as her father shuffled up the deck of cards. He did so as thoroughly as possible, which considering the time he had spent as a dealer in Vegas, was pretty considerable. After that was done, he went through the deck and tossed out roughly a third of the cards at random, putting them out of the way unused.

Finally, he held the deck up. “One pass, okay?” One at a time, he drew the top card off of what remained, held it in front of Vanessa’s face for about two seconds, then put it down into a new pile.

Vanessa, for her part, simply stood and watched as each card passed in front of her face one at a time.

Once they were through all of the cards, her father pointed to the pile he’d made. “You got it?”

Head bobbing up and down once more, Vanessa chirped, “Uh huh, I got it, Daddy.”

“Good girl, good.” Smiling, her father began to slide cards off of the top one at a time with a single finger without letting either of them see what each was. “One, two, three, four, five…” After the sixth card, he picked up that set and put them on the bottom of the deck. Then he counted down eight more and split those eight into two equal halves, putting four on the bottom and the other four into the spot another six cards down from where they had been. Finally, he cut the deck in half perfectly evenly and put the bottom on the top before gesturing. “Are you sure you’re ready, Nessabird?”

Biting her lip as she looked at the resulting deck, Vanessa hesitated for a moment before nodding. “Yes, Daddy. I can do it.” She wanted to make her father proud of her, even though she didn’t understand what was so special about what she did. It was just remembering stuff. Everyone remembered stuff.

“All right then,” her father thought for a moment before nodding as the first question came to him. “The year that transcontinental railroad was completed in Utah, subtracted from the year that Yellowstone National Park was made the first National Park in the United States.”

Head tilting slightly to the side, Vanessa took a few seconds to think, brow furrowing up a bit. “Uh, 1869 subtracted from umm, uhh, oh yeah, 1872. So three. Three cards, Daddy.”

“All right then,” her father counted three cards off the top and then pointed to the fourth one. “This is?”

Without missing a beat, the little girl promptly replied, “That’s the nine of clubs, Daddy.”

Turning the card over to reveal that she was right, Haiden smiled and leaned in to hug her. “Good girl! My sweet, brilliant little bird.” He mussed her hair fondly before nodding. “Okay, let’s see.” Leaning back once more, he tried again. “The number of years that Julius Caesar was dictator of the Roman Republic, added to the number of letters in the first name of the person who invented the telescope.”

Tilting her head back to look at the ceiling, Vanessa recited, “49 BC to 44 BC, five years. And it was umm, uhh, oh, Hans Lippershey. Eeeee, Lippershey. Isn’t that a fun name, Daddy?”

Smiling fondly, her father chuckled while nodding. “Yes, baby girl, Lippershey is a wonderful name.”

Bouncing up and down happily, Vanessa continued. “Oh, right. Uh, Hans is four letters, plus five years, nine cards. Nine cards, daddy.” She pointed to the deck and waited until her father had counted down that many and rested his finger against the tenth card down before promptly adding, “Four of hearts!”

Turning the card over to reveal that she was right again, her father laughed. “Can’t stump you, huh?”

They continued that game/test through a couple more renditions, Haiden trying the best he could to come up with a selection of questions and numbers that would defeat the memory and historical knowledge of his daughter, only to fail each and every time. She answered everything, and always knew where every single card was, even when he began to put previously set-aside cards back in.

Their game was interrupted as the door opened, admitting Tristan along with a taller blonde woman whose ethereal beauty was astonishing to behold. Seeing her, Vanessa immediately abandoned their game and popped to her feet to throw herself that way with a happy squeal. “Mommy!”

Laughing, Sariel Moon reached down to grab her daughter, lifting the girl off the floor easily. “Nessa! Hey there, baby girl. You hungry, sweetie? Cuz Mommy brought burgers.” She nodded to the bags that Vanessa’s twin brother was already carrying through the room and into the kitchen to set on the table.

“And french fries?” Nessa asked hopefully, bouncing a little in her mother’s arms as she clung to her.

Chuckling, Sariel nodded. “Of course, my sweet little potato-fanatic. I wouldn’t come without fries.”

It was true. Vanessa absolutely adored potatoes. Anything that had to do with them in any way. Fried, baked, mashed, boiled, she loved absolutely any type of potato made in any way. She loved potatoes more than any other kind of food, including cookies and other desserts.

Haiden, by that point, had stood up and crossed the room. He leaned around their daughter to kiss his wife briefly. “Mmm, remember how you were about chocolate when you first… crossed over?”

“Crossed over from where, Mommy?” Tristan piped up from the kitchen doorway. He already had one of the unwrapped cheeseburger in hand with a couple bites taken out of it. The young boy was almost a mirror image of his sister save for a few very minor differences attributed to their genders.

Vanessa noticed the way their mother flinched at the question before shaking her head. “Never mind, sweetie. It’s nothing for you to worry about. Let’s see about getting everyone fed, shall we?”

The four of them were about halfway through enjoying the lunch that Sariel had brought home when there was a knock at the front door, three soft and polite raps against the wood. Hearing that, the woman stood and motioned for Haiden to stay where he was. “Eat, I’ve got this.”

Eating the last of her beloved french fries, Vanessa turned in her seat to watch as her mother went to the door. She was reaching for her half-eaten cheeseburger when the door was opened to reveal an older man with thick bushy eyebrows wearing an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit.

As soon as she saw the man, Vanessa’s mother cursed and slammed the door in his face before turning. Her voice was raised in a shout. “They found us! Haiden, get the twins out! Get them out of–”

Before she could finish the warning, the door disintegrated. Vanessa’s young eyes went wide as the wood literally collapsed into dust, revealing the older man with his hand outstretched.

“Sariel,” he spoke for the first time with a voice that was cultured and powerful. “It is time to come home. Your people need you now more than ever. You have responsibilities to attend to. It is not our place to take a mate among the humans. We have entertained this folly for far too long. Come home.”

Haiden, who had already left the kitchen to move into the living room, spoke up. Vanessa saw her daddy produce a funny looking sword from what she swore was a previously empty belt. It was black with a red glowing line running all the way up the center of the blade. “You’re not wanted here, Puriel.”

“M-Mommy?” Tristan had joined their father at the doorway into the living room. “Who’s he?”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was locked in place, still staring with wide eyes at the sword that their father was holding. Where had it come from? She knew she’d never seen it before, and Daddy’s belt couldn’t have held it. There wasn’t even a sheathe for it! He’d just pulled it out of… of nowhere! But how? She wanted to run to her parents, but confusion and fear held her frozen motionless in her seat.

Sariel’s voice was shaken with obvious fear tempered by resolution. “Don’t do this, Puriel. We can make our own choices. We can all have our own lives. This is mine. My family, my choice. Leave us.”

The older man’s face twisted, anger clear in his features. “You are being selfish, Sariel. This lie is not your place.” His hand swept around to take in the whole house and the rest of the people in it. “Your place is alongside your sisters and brothers performing your assigned duties in defense of our world.”

“Our world doesn’t need defending!” Sariel blurted. “That’s a lie that the Seraphim hand down to the Choir to make us do their bidding. You know it is. You know it’s ridiculous. This world is not a threat!”

“This world requires our guidance,” Puriel insisted, his tone brooking no disagreement. “They are savages without our care, and if we allow them to progress without our influence, they will become the force that destroys all of our people. There can be no compromises or our entire world will fall. You are coming home now, and not even your Heretic of a mate will stand in the way.” He stretched a hand out then, and a glowing ball of light appeared between his fingertips, beginning to grow immediately.

“You’re not taking her!” Haiden took a quick step that way, sword coming up to lash out at the glowing ball. As the blade passed through it, the bright orb shattered like a mirror, pieces spraying in every direction. At the same time, Vanessa heard what sounded like wind chimes. Each of a dozen different glass-like shards shot through the room to impact the walls and floor, narrowly missing the occupants.

“Stupid human filth!” Puriel blurted angrily, his hatred obvious as he jerked away from the blade. “You don’t know what you’ve done! The stepping-stone is unstable, it is–” His words were swallowed up into a scream as the man was hauled off his feet by an invisible force and hauled with a loud scream toward the nearest of the shards. Before Vanessa’s astonished gaze, the man literally shrank down before being hauled straight into the glass, disappearing in it.

“Well,” Haiden started. “That was easier than I th–” His words were cut off as he too was suddenly fighting an invisible force that hauled him off the floor toward one of the shards. “What the–”

“It’s seen you!” Sariel caught hold of her husband’s arm, trying to brace him. “It’s seen you, so it won’t stop trying to take you! It’s taking you through the portal, and it’s broken so it could take you anywhere! Any world, any of them! Hold on, just hold on! I’ll think of something. I’ll think of–”

It was too late, however. With a great rush of power and a cry from both man and wife, Haiden was yanked out of Sariel’s grasp. His body was flung through one of the nearby glass-like shards.

“Daddy!” Vanessa cried out in unison with her brother. Finally snapping out of her frozen state, she threw herself off the kitchen seat and began to rush into the living room. Tristan was already leaping toward the spot where their father had disappeared.

Sariel, however, caught her son by the arm while turning to throw her hand up toward her daughter. Vanessa yelped as she ran into an invisible wall that seemed to spring up in front in the doorway, preventing her from entering. “Ow! Wha–” She put a hand up against the slightly warm solid air.

“No, baby!” her mother called. “They haven’t seen you. The shards haven’t seen you so they won’t take you. Stay out of sight, stay out of sight! Don’t let them see you, just stay there until they’re gone. Stay safe! Stay safe! I love you, baby. We all love-”

Those were the last words that Sariel Moon managed to get out before she too was captured by the force that yanked her away from her son and through one of the nearby shards.

“Mommy!” Tristan grasped at the space where their mother had been before whirling toward his sister. “Nessa!” His voice was raised in a blind panic. “Nessa, help me! Help me, Ness! Please, I don’t wanna go! I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared!”

“Triss!” Still unable to get through the invisible forcefield that remained even after her mother’s disappearance, Vanessa began to sob in frustration and terror. “Go out the front door! Go out the front! Maybe it won’t take you! Go, go, Tristan! Go–”

It was too late. Even as her brother made a run toward the open doorway, another invisible force caught hold of him. His cry of fear matched Vanessa’s own horrified cry as he was yanked away and through one of the shards embedded in the floor.

And then the chimes were gone. As suddenly as they had come, the sound vanished along with all of the shards. Vanessa, leaning hard against the invisible wall that had stopped her from coming to her family, yelped as it too disappeared. She fell forward, landing on the living room floor hard.

Then she just lay there, staring at the spots where the shards had been, where her family had been taken. She stared, tears falling heavily as she cried out for her mother, father, and brother.

There was no response. There was nothing. And for a decade, Vanessa had no hope of ever seeing her family again.

******

Present Day

“That’s it, no more library for you.”

Seventeen-year-old Vanessa yelped as her roommate hauled her up out of her seat. Erin was chuckling. “You spend much more time in here today and you’ll turn into one of the books. Then I’d have to get a new roommate.”

“Okay, okay.” Vanessa flushed, shaking her head as she extricated herself from the blue-haired girl’s grasp. “I’ll take a break. For two hours.”

“Nuh uh,” Erin shook her head. “Four hours, at least. We’ve got a movie to watch with the boys, and then Malcolm wants to go surfing. You’re not missing that, babe.”

“But I don’t know how to surf,” Vanessa protested, glancing back toward her book longingly. Just a few more. She didn’t know exactly what her mother was yet, but she was narrowing it down considerably with each new book that she read, comparing the information the Heretics had against what she remembered.

She wasn’t human. Vanessa knew that for a fact. She’d always known that, ever since that day. Whoever her mother had been, whatever she had been, she was from another world.

The police hadn’t listened to her. They thought she was traumatized from some kind of ordinary home invasion and abduction. She’d spent years in hospitals and special group homes until she stopped talking about what she’d seen and pretended to accept that her family had been taken by some mundane group of abductors who never materialized or asked for any ransom. She grew up knowing the truth, yet unable to talk to anyone about it.

Until the Heretics had arrived. Heretics. The same thing that her father had been called. Seemingly unaware of how much she already knew, they had come to recruit her, telling her about what they were and what they considered their duty.

They didn’t seem to realize that she wasn’t fully human. If her mother wasn’t, then Vanessa wasn’t either. That probably had something to do with her impossibly perfect memory, the absolutely flawless recall of everything she ever saw. Tristan too had had his own skills that their parents tested, his lying mainly in the realm of physical prowess. He’d been a remarkable gymnast even at that young age, his balance, coordination, and strength on par with Olympic contenders much older.

The fact that she wasn’t fully human had worried her, thinking that the Heretical Edge wouldn’t work. But it had, and Vanessa had witnessed the marriage between her mother and father through the provided vision. It was a beautiful, touching scene that made her cry heavily when she compared it to what had happened ten years ago and how they had all been split up and taken away from one another. Her family was gone, broken apart by those magical shards.

Erin was still talking, shrugging off Vanessa’s protest that she didn’t know how to surf. “I’ll teach you. Trust me, you’ll be awesome, genius-girl. Now c’mon, let’s go meet the boys.”

With a soft sigh, Vanessa allowed herself to be taken that way, leaving her books behind.

She was getting closer. Everything she did, every class she took, every book she read, every project she put her mind toward was another step toward her goal. The goal she’d had since the moment that the Heretics had arrived to confirm that her seven-year-old self had not been crazy after all.

She was going to find her mother, father, and brother. Whatever it took, however long she had to work at it, she’d find them. That was why she chose the Explorer track in spite of her fear and awkwardness in the face of confrontation. Because they had been dragged to some other place, some other world, and she was going to figure out which one it was. She was going to track them down.

She was going to save her family.

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