Reft

Lessons 32-07

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

“Today, we’ll mix in a little bit of your newest power,” Athena announced a few days later. At the moment, we were in a long, empty corridor. I wasn’t sure what it was for, but it kind of look like one of those special wind tunnels.

“So,” she continued then, “let’s see you make one.” She stepped back, folding her arms as she waited expectantly.

Right, she wanted to see that power, the one that I had gotten from that soldier who had been trying to make the portal to pull the rest of his companions through and cut us off while we were fighting Radueriel’s troops. Technically, I had killed two with that. There was the portal guy, of course, and the one who had been partially sticking out of the portal when it closed. From that second guy, I had received a significant boost to my balance. I could go across a beam like one of those trained gymnasts, or even make my way over marbles that were spread across the floor. Tabbris and I had practiced with that one a bit, and it was pretty fun finding out just how easy it was for me to maintain my balance even on slippery or narrow floors. And we’d definitely worked it into training. If nothing else, using my item-transfer power to suddenly cover a floor with a bunch of marbles or something to screw with people’s balance while mine remained just fine could end up being really useful.

But clearly, that wasn’t the power that Athena was talking about. Nor was she talking about the couple of other minor strength, stamina, and speed boosts that I have gotten from the few soldiers who had wandered into my planted mines. No, she wanted to see the other major one. So, I nodded and held up my hand while narrowing my eyes in concentration. Looking to the far end of the tunnel as far as I could see, I focused.

A couple of seconds later, a small, light blue portal appeared in the air right in front of my outstretched hand. It was only about a foot wide, or maybe even a little less. At the same time, an identical tiny portal appeared at the far end of the tunnel where my eyes were focused. With a smile, I stretched my hand forward through the portal. It appeared out the other end, and I waved to myself.

This was the power that I had inherited from that guy. I could make these small portals, not large enough to actually fit through or anything, but at least big enough to put my hand through and grab something small enough. They wouldn’t get any larger than this, or at least I hadn’t managed it yet. And I could only make them reach as far as I could see. The other end of the small portal had to be within my line of sight. But still, it was really cool. And there were a ton of ways to synergize it with my other powers and fighting style. I just needed practice. Especially when it came to making the portals appear quickly, without taking a few seconds to focus. If I could make them in the middle of a fight, it would be pretty awesome. Which, of course, was another advantage to having Tabbris around.

“Good,” Athena commended. “Now shut it down. Lady Tabbris, I would like you to take control of the left hand, and focus on creating portals and dismissing them. In the meantime, I will distract Lady Felicity. We will start very simply,” she promised.

With those words, the woman produced a simple baton. “Lady Felicity, I would like you to simply focus on blocking my blows with your staff. They will come slowly enough that you will be able to block them, but they will be sufficiently distracting that you will be unable to focus on creating the portals. You will need Lady Tabbris to do that. Shall we begin?”

We practiced that way for a little while, getting better and faster each time. Finally, I took a break to pick up a bottle of water, taking a long pull from it before remarking, “I wish you could train the others as much as you’re training me. Or at least Vanessa and Tristan. They deserve to learn from you more than I do. I mean, it’s their mother on the line.”

Blinking at that, Athena tilted her head a little while narrowing her eyes at me. “What do you mean?” she asked carefully. “Who exactly are Vanessa and Tristan?”

It was my turn to blink at that, equally confused. “Wait, you don’t know about them? I thought you knew about… uh, basically about all the stuff.” When the woman simply shook her head at me, I took a breath and let it out slowly. “Wow, okay then. Um, Vanessa and Tristan are Sariel’s other kids. You know, the ones that she had with Haiden, her human husband. The twins.”

For a few long seconds, Athena just squinted at me. “I am aware of Haiden Moon, and his work to locate his wife. But, as far as I am aware, they did not have any viable children.”

She doesn’t know? Tabbris sounded just as surprised as I felt. I thought she knew everything.

“Wow.” My mouth open and shut a couple times before I shook my head. “Well, whoever is giving you that information is either completely full of shit or they’re misinformed themselves. I… I just assumed you knew all this stuff, like… everything basically. I mean, what else don’t you know about? You know why Haiden and Larissa have been immune to Seosten possession, right? I mean–wait, no, you wouldn’t. Only Sariel, Larissa, and Haiden knew about it until we came along…”

Her response was to squint at me for a moment. “Their immunity is a topic of discussion, yes. The prevailing theory is that they were able to obtain the power of a rare creature with such an ability. Those do exist, though any who appear anywhere near Earth are quickly eliminated by non-human forces, and their remains utterly destroyed.”

Swallowing, I nodded slowly. “I can see why. But no, it’s a spell. Well, sort of.” Quickly, I explained what we knew about it, that the original effect came from something that Sariel had done, which Haiden and Larissa had figured out how to copy onto other people while obfuscating what it actually was.

Once I was done, the woman looked thoughtful for a moment. “This raises… many interesting questions, indeed. But not nearly so many as your previous statement. Viable children between a human and Seosten pairing. That is what I would like to know more about, Lady Felicity. If you would be so kind as to… enlighten me.”

So, I told her everything I knew about Vanessa and Tristan. I told her about Tristan being trapped on the Meregan world, about Vanessa ending up with the adoption people, and everything else they had told me. I told her about Tristan being linked to me in order to anchor him to Earth, and how we had to eventually transferred that to Vanessa. I even told her about how Vanessa had managed to make contact with her father thanks to Apollo’s help.

By the time I had finished, Athena was staring at me. If she had been the type, I was pretty sure her mouth would’ve been hanging open with surprise. As it was, she put a hand out to the nearby wall as if to steady herself. Her voice, when she finally spoke, cracked a little bit. “Viable children,” she murmured in a soft, utterly awed voice. “Viable children who show no ill signs or problems after blending human and Seosten genetics.”

Tabbris actually popped out of me then, stumbling a little before catching herself in her hurry. Looking up, she blurted, “You mean you really didn’t know about them?”

Athena looked back-and-forth between the two of us for a moment before her head shook. “I can assure you, I was not aware that any of this was the case. As far as I knew, no human and Seosten offspring had managed to survive past infancy. This is… remarkable. It is…” She trailed off, and I thought she looked pretty emotional about the whole thing. It really drove home to me just how much children meant to the Seosten. I remembered what Athena had said about how the Fomorians had murdered her husband and infant son. And now I wondered if she ever had a human lover after that, or anyone she had cared about that much, whom she was now imagining having another child with. Not to replace the one she had lost, but… to have another chance. I wondered what was going through the woman’s mind, as she blinked rapidly at the news that human/Seosten offspring were possible.

This was Athena, and I thought she might have been about to cry. Literally, physically cry, at the news that there were viable, living human-Seosten hybrid children.

Tabbris offered a hesitant, “I guess you really want to talk to them now too, huh?”

Meeting her gaze, Athena replied softly, her voice somewhat choked with emotion in a way that seemed utterly alien coming from her, “My… my lady, that is quite possibly the understatement of the past several millennia.”

********

“Come on, Tab! Come on, Flick!” Richton called a couple of days after our discussion with Athena about Vanessa and Tristan. He and the other three Seosten kids, along with Bandy and Reft, were standing at the far end of the sidewalk that ran in front of the house that Tabbris and I had been living in. The six of them wore obvious workout uniforms. Even Reft was wearing what looked like a bandana over his rocky head.

Approaching with my partner at my side, I asked, “You guys haven’t been waiting that long, have you?”

Kisea shook her head. “Nope, Richton’s just impatient.” Teasing her friend a little, she nudged him before looking back to us. “But are you guys ready?”

“Oh,” Meley put in then, her attention on Tabbris, “Those all fit okay?”

‘Those’, in this case, referred to the clothes that the little blonde girl was wearing. For once, she didn’t just have on that simple bodysuit. Instead, Meley had given her a pair of blue shorts and a white shirt. When Tabbris had objected, saying that all she really needed was the bodysuit, which would keep growing with her, Meley had pointedly replied that that wasn’t the point, and that Tabbris should have other clothes that were purely hers.

I liked Meley.

There had also been some talk about getting her an entire wardrobe of her own, along with other things. That had quieted down a little, but I was pretty sure giving her this single outfit was just the first step along those lines. Which was fantastic, because I wanted my little sister to have everything she deserved, even if she didn’t think that she needed any of it. She deserved that and so much more. These guys were great. It was just amazing to see how well they did with her, and how much they seemed to understand. Even if I hadn’t been getting all the extra training and everything else that I had been getting over these weeks, staying here would have been worth it just to have given Tabbris a chance to interact with kids at least close to her own age. Not to mention the fact that some were her own species, and weren’t horrible examples. My little partner needed that.

“Oh, uh.” Blinking down at herself, Tabbris nodded quickly. “Yeah,” she confirmed, “they all fit really good.” Belatedly, she added a quick, “Thanks!”

Meley just shrugged. “Plenty more where that came from,” she promised before adding, “Next time, you can pick out the colors.”

Before Tabbris could respond to that, Demeas cut in impatiently, “Okay, okay, can we stop talking about clothes and all that for now and focus on actually getting some exercise in? I’d like to work up a sweat for once.”

Richton nodded. “A couple laps around the neighborhood, and then we’ll make our way back for a break.” He looked to Tabbris then, his voice turning a little hopeful, “Then some magic and possession training?”

That was what we were doing with these guys. Tabbris was getting a little actual exercise of her own for once, while we had the chance. It was helping her with her coordination (which she desperately needed). And in exchange, she was teaching the others a bit of the magic that she knew from her mom, and some possession tricks. In the latter case, Bandy and Reft were the guinea pigs. Both had volunteered to let their friends practice their possession powers on them, which showed an incredible amount of trust between the members of the group.

The relatively short run wasn’t much of a workout for me of course, but I did like learning the magic and possession tricks, especially since I could actually do it myself. We all learned together from my little partner, who knew an incredible amount about that kind of stuff. Her mother had taught her well, and she was passing it on.

“Yup,” I confirmed while rubbing Tabbris’s head a little. “We run, then we practice, right?”

Her little head bobbing up and down quickly. “Right,” she chirped. The smile on her face told me everything I need to know about how much Tabbris was enjoying actually being able to contribute. Yes, these weeks that we were spending here were absolutely worth it. Even though I missed my friends, and especially missed Valley and Shiori, it was still worth it.

“Okay then,” I announced, turning to start jogging. “Let’s go, last one back is a rotten egg.”

Kisea piped up while following after me, her voice curious. “We have heard that kind of thing before, but I don’t understand. Why do Earth children call each other rotten eggs if they are slow? What does one thing have to do with another?”

Blinking at the question, I glanced over to the girl while all of us began jogging together. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maybe that’s another mystery to add onto the pile.

“But hey, at least that’s finally one that shouldn’t be too hard to solve.”

*******

“Are you girls ready?” Athena asked. “They’re going to be a bit faster this time. I think you can move to the next level.”

It had been a little over three weeks since the woman had saved us from Radueriel. If I had my days right, back on Earth it would be about April sixth, a Friday. Over three weeks since I had been brought here and started training with her. The time had pretty much flown by before I even realized it. I missed the others more than I could even try to articulate, but Athena kept me busy. She kept both of us busy. And when she wasn’t, I was kept distracted  by any number of things, from learning more about this place and all the people on it, to playing video games with my new friends, to just sitting in class with Tabbris sometimes. Or just by wandering around and getting to know this place and the people in it. They were all endlessly fascinating, and most were willing to just stand and talk with me as much as I wanted. There were some who were too suspicious, or to private of course, and I tried to give those ones their space. But for the most part, people were almost eager to tell me about themselves. And, I told them about myself in return. It was fun, and infinitely informative. And it definitely meant that I was never bored.

Now, the two of us were back in the training room, standing side-by-side. At Athena‘s question, we looked at one another briefly. “Yep,” Tabbris chirped. She had her hands clenched at her sides as she gave a firm nod. “We’re ready.”

“Good,” Athena replied. “Then let’s see how you do this time.“

With that, Tabbris grabbed my hand, and jumped into me. I felt her presence inside me like a reassuring and comforting blanket. We were together once more.

As soon as my partner was settled, Athena stepped back and hit a button on the remote that she was holding. The training began. From straight ahead of us, what looked like a pitching machine begin shooting small rubber balls at me. With a thought, I transferred my staff from its place at my side, into my hands and smacked the first ball out of the way. More kept coming. They varied in speed and direction, and I had to stay focused on knocking them away, or just dodging them when they came too close together.

Eventually, the balls came not just from in front of me, but from machines that had been placed to either side as well. I had to keep track of all of them, constantly turning one way or the other to bring my staff around as quickly as possible. One after another, I blocked as many balls as I could.

Meanwhile, I could vaguely feel things appearing behind me with my item sense. But I couldn’t focus on them and deal with the incoming balls at the same time. That was Tabbris’s job, and I could sense her intently focusing on those things.

After an intense ten minutes, Athena called a stop to it. She walked forward, stooping to pick up something off the floor. It was one of the things that had been floating behind me, a metal object in the shape of a letter. In this case, it was a W. “Very nicely done, Lady Felicity. Your reflexes and focus are getting better every day. Pretty soon, it will be time to add more speed, variation, and direction to the incoming balls.”

Coughing, I gave the woman a wry smirk. “I think you’re just upset that you’re not hitting me as often as you used to.”

She winked at me then, before asking, “And you, Lady Tabbris?”

My partner popped out of me, already reciting, “The bird flies low and the monkey flies high. Run fast, run slow, eat a banana, and away we go.”

What her part of our little training exercise here amounted to was that a bunch of those letters would float behind me, slowly forming into words. She had to use my item sense to get the idea of where each letter was, and what words they were spelling, then keep track of the actual sentences. She had to do all that while I was distracted with the incoming balls. The point was to show that she could do that kind of support stuff, while I dealt with the immediate threat.

Smiling broadly, Athena congratulated her, “Very, very good. I believe we are ready to move on to your item swapping test next.”

The item swapping test. That was where I would hold a green stick in one hand and a red stick in the other. Various targets would appear in front of me to either side, some red and some green. My job was simply to swing at them with whatever I happen to be holding in that hand. Tabbris’s job was to use the power that could move objects around my body to swap the sticks between different hands so that the right color stick always hit the right color target. Athena had already promised that once we got good enough at that, she was going to start making targets appear all the way around us, and include more than just two colors, while extra color sticks would hang from my belt to be swapped up into my hands. And once we actually got good at that, she would move on to something even harder.

The two of us nodded, and Tabbris started to jump into me again, before Athena held up a hand to stop us. “Hold one moment,” she announced while turning away. It looked like she was listening to something, leaving Tabbris and I to simply shrugged uncertainly at one another.

A moment later, she turned back to us and smiled. “Well,” the woman announced, “it looks as though we are going to need your aid with something else first, before continuing any more of your training.”

“Something else?” I echoed uncertainly while glancing to Tabbris. “You need our help?”

“Yes.” Athena winked. “We have finally located your friends. We can set up a portal to them, but I believe it would be better if you were with us at the time. It would… help avoid any issues.”

My eyes widened dramatically at that, surprise at the news making me gasp out loud. “You found them!?” I exclaimed, before adding quickly, “Yes, yes, yes. Let’s go get them.”

With a soft chuckle at my reaction, Athena turned to lead us out of the room, and I held out a hand to my partner. After Tabbris jumped into me once more, I quickly followed the older woman, unable to hold back the wide smile that had stretched its way way across my face.

The others, I was finally going to be reunited with them. Finally, finally, we could all get caught up on everything that had happened.

And boy were they going to be surprised by how I had been spending my time.

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Lessons 32-05

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

“Lady Tabbris,” Athena started later, once lunch was over. She was standing by our table. “How would you like to spend the afternoon attending classes with the others here, while I have a little bit of a private training session with Lady Felicity?”

My little partner’s immediate reaction to that was to lean closer to me, staring up at the woman with wide eyes.“You don’t want me to be there?” she asked in a squeaky voice that seemed half-suspicious, and half-terrified that Athena was going to insist on separating us.

The Olympian gave her a reassuring smile, shaking her head. “Nothing like that, I promise. I simply would like to evaluate Lady Felicity’s skills without any other influence. I promise, I will also see how she does with your aid. And, I thought that you might enjoy an afternoon of simply being… yourself.”

Staring blankly up at her for a moment, Tabbris finally admitted in a soft voice, “But I don’t know who I am.”

Lifting her hand, Athena gestured to the plate in front of Tabbris, which held the remains of what had been a bunch of dark red meats and peppers. “Did you enjoy your lunch?”

The little blonde Seosten blinked at the question, tilting her head to look down at it before looking up again with a furtive nod. “It’s spicy. I guess I like spicy food. Really spicy. But Flick doesn’t like it, so I never really tried it before.”

Athena’s smile grew a little bit. “You have my word that I have no intention of forcing you to stay apart. My young warrior, all I wish is for you to find everything that is you. This love of spicy food, a new skill, an interest that you didn’t know before. My wish is for you and Lady Felicity to become the very best versions of yourselves that you can possibly be. I want you to know yourself, to know who you are. Because when you know that, when you have become everything you can be, and then the two of you come together… you will be unstoppable.”

Leaning up really close to my ear, little bunny-eared Bandy whispered, “If you think that was a good speech, you should see the one that she gives the little kids who are scared to use the bathroom.”

Tabbris worked her mouth a few times, opening and shutting it before offering a slightly weak, “And we do all that just by me going classes by myself?”

Chuckling, Athena raised a hand and gave a vague gesture. “It will be a start. But you will not be alone.”

“Yeah!” Richton put in. “We won’t leave you by yourself, promise. I mean, enough of our species are beaufstains as it is. Those of us to know better, we gotta stick together.”

“Language, Richton,” Athena gently admonished. “You are still in school, after all. But yes. A quite admirable point.”

The others all expressed their own eagerness to have Tabbris stay with them for the afternoon, and eventually she looked over to me.

“Sure,” I agreed. “I’m pretty sure I’m just gonna spend the afternoon getting beat up by the goddess of war over there, so maybe you’ll have more fun in class.”

“But… but…” Tabbris winced. “ I haven’t been that far away from you for… forever.”

“Hey.” Reaching out, I put my hand against her cheek. “You can always recall to me, right? Anything happens, you get too nervous, you think something’s going wrong, anything at all, you just come straight back to me just like that.” I snapped my fingers in demonstration.

“Whoa!” That was Meley. “You already know how to use recall like that? We can barely possess people on purpose.”

Kisea was nodding. “And your mom taught you all that, just in your memories? She must be the best memory-witch ever!”

From Athena’s soft smile and the look in her eyes, I had a feeling that there was a bit of a story there. But she just nodded. “Sariel impresses in many ways.”

“So what do you say?” I asked my partner. “Meet up in a few hours and exchange notes?”

She still looked a little hesitant, but it was obvious that everything that had been said had helped a lot. “Yeah, o-okay. But just a few hours.”

Turning back to Athena, I gestured. “Well, you heard her. I guess I’m ready for my ass-kicking, Sensei.”

*******

Three sounds filled the room in rapid succession. First, there was my loud yelp, followed by the solid whumph of my body landing hard on the floor, and then the clatter of my staff bouncing across it.

“Ow.” I took a second to catch my breath, before rolling over onto my side to look up at Athena. “How many days have I been letting you beat me up for now?”

She gave me a small smile, head shaking as she informed me, “Apologies, my lady, but it has not even been half an hour yet.”

“Half an hour, and you’ve knocked me down about fifty-seven times.” I gave her a wry, self-deprecating smile. “I must be one of the worst students you ever had.”

“Only forty-one,” she corrected me. “And no, my lady. The only bad students I have ever had are the ones who do not get back up again after being knocked down. You get up so many times…” Trailing off, she extended a hand and helped me to my feet before adding, “I know that it may seem frustrating, but you truly do learn more from fighting those who are better than you than those who are worse.”

I nodded, rubbing the back of my neck a little. “Yeah, that’s what Avalon says all the time.”

The woman paused at that, squinting at me for a second. “Yes,” she murmured, “Avalon. The name that Liesje Aken’s descendant adopted.”

“Oh, right,” I realized. “I guess that name has special meaning for you, doesn’t it?”

Her response was a little chuckle. “Yes, somewhat. And the girl, she means a lot to you.”

I swallowed hard at that, looking away before bending down to grab my staff off the floor. “I try not to think about it, but I miss her.” I held my staff tightly, closing my eyes. “I miss her so much. Her and Shiori. My girls. I miss them, I miss my dad, I miss the rest of my team. I miss my friends.”

Athena‘s hand found my shoulder, and she pulled me into an embrace. “You will see them all again,” she promised me. “And when you do, you will be so much stronger than you were.”

Managing a weak little smile, I opened my eyes while returning the hug. “You know,” I remarked, “you’re pretty comforting for someone who keeps knocking me on my ass.”

Giving me one more squeeze, the woman finally released me and stepped back, while offering, “Perhaps you’re simply a glutton for punishment.”

I laughed at that. “Lady Athena,” I countered, “if you knew everything that I’ve gotten myself involved in, you wouldn’t say perhaps.”

“You should tell me more about all of it,” she offered. “While we train, of course.”

“Of course,” I confirmed with a vague wave. “After all, if I couldn’t even touch you before, trying to do it while I’m distracted talking ought to do the trick.”

She gave a genuine laugh at that, eyes twinkling a little bit. “Distraction,” she informed me, “is simply another part of training, my lady.”

“In that case,” I replied evenly while readying my staff. “Bring it-”

Aaaand I was on the floor again.

*********

“So, how was it with the other Seosten kids?”

It was later that night, and Tabbris and I were alone in the bedroom that Athena had given us. Well, to be more accurate, we were in the bedroom of the house that the woman had assigned us, in the human section of the habitat that we had originally arrived in. This was where we would be staying for the next month, while they worked on the Sariel-locator spell using a bit of Tabbris’s blood that had been drawn earlier.

The younger girl paused, biting her lip as she looked at me. “It was weird,” she answered honestly. “But good too, I think. It was fun, but also scary. Neat, but I wasn’t sure what to say.” She paused then, her eyes looking down as she amended quietly, “I never know what to say.” 

Sitting down on the bed, I reached out to pull her over to sit beside me, putting an arm around her. “Do you like them?”

”Uh huh.” Her head bobbed up and down, before she glanced over to me. “Do you?”

“Well sure,” I confirmed before giving her a firm hug. “But then again, I already knew the very best Seosten kid in the universe.

“Those other guys can’t hold a candle to my partner.”

******

“Mmmm, I love butterscotch pudding.” Three days later, I was sitting in Mr. Reinswield’s mostly-empty classroom, licking the last of that particular treat off the end of my spoon. “That Chef Gisby guy is really good at his job.”

The teacher smiled, taking the last of his own chocolate version of the dessert. “Yes,” he agreed, “the man does very good work. We are quite lucky to have him. Quite lucky indeed.”

Can you ask him how long he’s been a teacher here? Tabbris asked. She was back inside of me for the time being. We had been making a point of having her come out and act on her own more while we had the chance, but she was still more comfortable this way. It felt safe and secure to her. And I thought that part of her insistence on being with me so much also stemmed from wanting to fulfill the job that her mother had given to her, to protect me. Or rather, I amended pointedly within my own thoughts, for us to protect each other.

Obligingly, I looked toward the man in question. “Tabbris would like to know how long you’ve been a teacher here.”

The blond, scruffy-looking man raised an eyebrow at that. “Would she prefer to know how long I’ve been a teacher, how long I’ve been here, or how long I’ve been a teacher here?”

“Honestly, I think we both like to hear all of it.” After saying that, I paused to listen to my partner, that nodded. “Yep, if you want to tell us.”

Chuckling, Reinswield nodded agreeably. “As you might have guessed, I was a Heretic back on Earth. Well, I suppose I technically still am. But they don’t call us that out here.”

“Right,” I nodded, “it’s Bonded.”

“Indeed.” Continuing after that agreement, Reinswield added, “I was a member of Eden’s Garden since its inception. It shames me to say now, but I was one of the more… vicious of our kind. Enthusiastic, you might say.  Eventually I managed to get myself in over my head, and ended up with my leg turned to stone. It was fixable, but doing so took several months. It was quite a curse. While I was incapable of fighting like that, I still wanted to make myself useful. So I chose to fill in as a teacher at one of our outreach schools in London.”

Clearly noticing my uncertain look, the man explained, “Heretics will often take the positions of instructors or other staff members in particular schools within high risk areas, both to protect the students there, and to watch for high potential recruits.”

“So you were basically under cover?” I asked.

He nodded. “Basically, yes. At first I resented it very much. I saw it as a waste of my abilities, but it was the only job they would give me, and I wanted to keep myself occupied. But over time, I came to…” he swallowed. “I came to quite enjoy my time there, and my students. I took up a permanent position. This was during the second World War, so there was quite a need for teachers who could maintain order and keep the children calm.”

The man trailed off, clearly lost in thought for a few seconds before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “They wanted to recruit one of my girls. But she was too innocent. Too bloody pure for this kind of work. So I objected. I took my objection as high as I could, made a stink about it. My objection was noted, and I ended up out here, as the puppet for one of the Seosten warriors on the front lines of the Fomorian war. I spent about a decade out there before Athena rescued me, and brought me here so that I could go back to what I love doing. Teaching children.”

He had glossed over it, probably for both my and Tabbris’s benefit. But I couldn’t help shuddering a little at the thought that he had been enslaved by the Seosten and forced to fight the Fomorians for a whole decade. That was just… I shuddered once more. No wonder he was content to be a simple teacher again.

“Well,” I offered, “you seem happy here, at least?”

“Quite,” he agreed. “I do miss my old students quite often. And I regret never finding out what happened to little Sonya Eulcid. I am very sorry that my attempts to convince the leadership not to turn her into a Heretic and put her into this life led to my not being there to help her when she was recruited anyway.”

Swallowing hard, I repeated the name. “Sonya Eulcid. I have friends in Eden’s Garden. I promise, when I get back to earth, I’ll find out if she still alive. I’ll get a message from you to her, if I can.”

Reinswield smiled at me. “You know, that is a promise that deserves another pudding.”

******

Crack, crack, thump, yelp, thud.

Four days after my conversation with Reinswield, I was back in the training gym with Athena. We had been coming here every day, for at least a few hours. She knew that I didn’t really get tired very often, and took advantage of that, putting me through my paces as often as possible. She was just as much of a taskmaster as Avalon, if not more so.

Picking myself up off the floor that I do not to once again, I asked, “Is there any news about contacting Larissa, Haiden, and the others?”

Athena’s head shook while she stood there holding her own light staff. “We are trying, but it is slow going. As I said, this is a very large galaxy, and the last thing we want to do is be too obvious, and draw unwanted attention to either ourselves or the others.”

I nodded, as much as it pained me to think of what they were going through by that point. Leading the bad Seosten right to them wouldn’t be good for any of us.

From where she was sitting on the sidelines, Tabbris called, “Hey, I think you almost hit her once that time!”

Athena and I exchanged glances. I knew it wasn’t true. The only reason I ever even got one swing off, let alone multiple ones before she put me down each time, was because she was giving me a chance to actually learn. She took it slow and easy on me. For her, it was probably like when an adult play fights with a toddler and lets them think they’re actually getting somewhere. She kept adjusting my stance, correcting where my hands were, telling me when to choke up on the staff, when to turn faster, where my feet should be positioned, and more. Every move I made, she had advice for it. And she drilled it into me over and over again. She had taught me so much in these past few days, and she kept doing it, kept helping me. She was unbelievably patient.

And quite honestly, I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually learning from the real Athena. Honestly, how amazing was that? Every time I actually thought about it, I got a little giddy.

After a few more rounds of me ending up flat on my back, or on my face, Athena relented and sent me to get a drink of water from the bottle that Tabbris was holding. While I was gulping it down, she looked to the younger girl. “I have something for you,” she announced.

Tabbris blinked a little in obvious surprise. “For me?”

Nodding, Athena stepped over while extending her hand with what look like a small metal button about two inches across in it. “Go ahead,” she offered, “turn it on.”

Taking the small button, Tabbris put it between her thumb and index finger, and pushed them together. There was a distinct click sound, before she quickly put the thing in the center of her palm. From the little disc, a hologram about a foot and a half high appeared, floating above her hand. It was of a blonde woman.

The girl gave a soft gasp, staring at it. Her voice was soft. “Mama…”

Nodding, Athena explained, “That was the hologram that was taken for your mother’s identification on the Olympus. I thought that you would like to have it.”

While Tabbris nodded fervently, I examined the hologram a little closer. The woman was beautiful, with an intense gaze, and the kind of raw—

Crack. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in my leg, and I yelped, looking up to find Tabbris staring intently at me. She had kicked me.

“Stop it!” Her face was scrunched up as she pointed at me. “I know that look. I know that look! You were doing the whole ‘oooh, it’s a pretty older woman, let me pretend I don’t notice how long I’m staring at her’ thing. That’s my mama! Gross!”

Flushing guiltily, I shook my head. “I wasn’t looking at her like that.”

From where she was standing, Athena cleared her throat. “Well, it’s clear to me that you require another avenue of training as well.”

“I do?” I blinked at that.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Training in lying, of course.

“You are quite terrible at it.”

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

Lessons 32-04

Previous Chapter                                          Next Chapter

Before starting with that promised training, however, we had to eat. After everything that we had been through, I was seriously starving. I had to think back to the last time I had eaten something, which made me remember just how much had happened. Everything, from getting to the Kenkean planet, tracking down and fighting Isaac, fighting that delaying action against the Seosten army until Radueriel had shown up and then getting myself stranded there, only for Athena to show up and end up bringing me here had all been… just a couple hours, really.

Generally speaking, if describing everything that happened to you in the course of a couple hours turned into what looked a run-on sentence, there was probably entirely too much happening in your life. I needed a break, badly. Actually, what I really needed was Valley and Shiori, my dad, the rest of my team, my new (much older) brother and sister, and while I was throwing dreams in the air, my mom. But I was going to have to settle for lunch. Or dinner.

With the class ended for the time being, Athena stepped back and let all those Alter kids lead Tabbris and me out of the room and down the corridor back past Miss Handsy’s office (she called out greetings to us and everyone else as we passed) to the opposite hallway where there was a door leading into an open cafeteria that could have been in any middle school on Earth, if a bit outdated (and honestly, what schools weren’t?). Clearly, Mr. Reinswield had had a big say in how the school was set up. I wondered what his story was, how long ago he’d ended up out here and why. Actually, I had lots of questions in general. Which was pretty par for the course.

Actually, looking closer, there was a bit of a difference in this cafeteria compared to others. This one had tables and chairs of many different sizes. There were big stone-looking seats that looked too heavy for even me to lift, all the way down to tiny doll-sized seats for the pixies.

The whole time we were walking, Tabbris stayed right next to me, her hand in mine. She looked around a lot, continually peeking at the other Seosten kids. They, in turn, kept looking over at her. But they didn’t push or anything. They did, however, point to a table in the corner as we entered the cafeteria. “Come on!” the oldest boy, Richton, called while hurrying that way. “First to silence, first to order!” It sounded like he was quoting an often-repeated phrase. And sure enough, I could see all the other students, including a bunch more who had come out of other classrooms, all hurrying to their own various tables and getting seated as quickly as they could.

It wasn’t just the four Seosten that came with us. The magma kid with the pretty voice and a girl with sleek, dark red fur with a little bit of white mixed in, bunny ears, and a fox-like face accompanied us as well. The magma Alter reached out as we passed one of those big stone chair, hefting it up to carry with before setting it at the table while everyone else took the regular seats. All around us, I could hear other students shushing one another as they sat down.

With a shrug at Tabbris, I promptly sat at the table just to the left of the red fox girl, with Tabbris to my left and Kisea, the vaguely Asian-looking Seosten kid sitting to her left. Going the rest of the way around the table in that direction were Richton, his little sister Meley, then the magma kid, and finally the miniature viking-looking Seosten kid, Demeas, right next to the fox girl.

Once we were all seated, the rest of the kids put their hands flat on the table, sitting up straight in their seats while staying quiet. I saw several of them casting pleading looks our way, so I took the hint and did the same. Laying my hands on the table, I sat up in the seat while Tabbris followed suit. As soon as we did, a small green light appeared in the center of the otherwise white table. It blinked twice, then turned into the number three. Seeing that, the rest of the kids around the table smiled, but didn’t make any other noise. They stayed as still as possible.

A couple tables away, I heard a kid whisper, “Two.” That was followed by a couple frantic hisses for silence, before there was a quiet buzz. Our three promptly turned into a two, and there were even more smiles around the table. Meanwhile, over at the table where the whispering had happened, I caught a glimpse of their former two becoming a three in return. 

Right, so obviously the numbers were the order in which tables would be served (or rather, allowed to order, as Richton had said). As soon as everyone got to a table and sat silently with their hands on it, it gave that table the next number in line. But if you made noise after that (I was assuming up until everyone in the room was seated or something), your table switched spots with the next table after you. So if your table was originally fourth, making noise would make the fifth table become the fourth and yours would become the fifth. Fair enough, if kind of strict. It did neatly encourage everyone to get to their tables quickly and quietly, at least. Though I wasn’t sure which aspect of it did so more, the idea of getting food sooner, or competing with the other tables to do so. Whoever had come up with this whole thing had managed to find a way to gamify getting kids to be quiet and respectful. That took some serious talent.

Eventually, everyone seemed to be seated and ready. It looked like there were about three or four hundred students in here, all of them between ages nine up to about twelve or thirteen.

Almost the very second that I noticed that the tables were all full, a door at the back of the room opened and a portly man emerged. His body was as round as a beach ball, with dark green skin, four arms, and a long, luxurious mane of black hair. His eyes were bright red, and were almost all pupil with very little visible white to them. He wore black slacks and an almost blindingly pink, frilly shirt. “Yes, yes, children!” The round man called while making his way through the room, slipping between tables with surprising grace considering his size and shape, “very good, very quiet. Let’s not make you wait long, hmm? Just a little patience, my troopers!”

He reached the middle of the room then, clapping two of his hands. “Okay, number one!”

A bright green light appeared right over one of the tables in the distance, and everyone’s attention turned that way, including the round man’s. As soon as his eyes turned to them, each of the kids there began to take turns saying words that I didn’t understand at all. Belatedly and only through context, I realized that they each naming foods, telling the man what they wanted. He just stood there, nodding after each one without writing it down or saying anything else before he would turn his gaze to the next student.

Beside me, the little red fox-bunny girl whispered, “We’re allowed to talk very quietly while other people are ordering, as long it’s not too loud or disruptive.” She looked at me with these adorable amber eyes, snout twitching a little bit as she introduced herself. “My name is Bandy.”

“Hi, Bandy,” I whispered back. “I’m Flick. And-” I started to introduce my partner before pausing. Given how little chance she had out on her own, maybe giving her a chance to speak for herself would be good. So instead of actually speaking, I just nodded to her and smiled.

“Uh-um.” For one brief moment, it seemed like the poor girl had actually forgotten her own name. Which was doubly bad when the Seosten perfect memory was accounted for. She froze up, looking like a deer in headlights for a second before managing, “T-Tabbris. I’m Tabbris.”

“And I’m Reft,” the magma kid put in. There was a bit more visible lava around the lower part of his face, which I belatedly realized was his version of a smile. “How’re you doing?” As he spoke, the boy extended his hand. When I hesitated, he chuckled (a noise that sounded like softly ringing bells) and shook his head. “It’s alright. I can control how much heat I’m giving off. They just have me sit in the rock chair because it’s more comfortable. Doesn’t feel like I’m about to break it with my big fat butt.” Even as he said that, Reft gave another melodic laugh while all the visible lava on his hand was sealed over by the black rocky shell. That was his body, a mixture of semi-solid lava that stayed in place, and a dark, rock-like substance. Both seemed to shift almost randomly most of the time, the lava almost… flowing along the shape of his body.

Deciding to take the boy’s word for it, I accepted his outstretched hand. It was definitely warm, right on the verge of being uncomfortably so, but not quite. As I shook his hand, I pointed out, “I’m surprised you guys have this gesture all the way out here. I thought it was a human thing.”

It was Demeas who answered. “Mr. Reinswield taught us about human gestures and expressions.” The boy’s eyes grew a bit wider then, as he added excitedly, “He told us all about football too. Have you ever seen Liverpool play? They sound amazing.”

“Liver–” I echoed before realizing, “Oh, British football. Sorry, I haven’t really–”

I was interrupted as the round man stepped over to our table. “Second! Aha, tis my favorite little Reusfeil.” As he spoke, the man reached out a hand to rub the top of Bandy’s head, making the fox-bunny girl giggle. “And our newest galtrosi,” he added with a look toward Tabbris and me. “What would you like to be eating today, hmm?”

“Uh.” I hesitated, uncertain. “I’m not really sure what…  um, the choices are? I don’t–”

“Choices?!” The man sounded almost offended, though I was pretty sure a big part of it was an act, meant to amuse. “You think I would cheat by forcing my galtrosi to choose from a list? No, no, this is not so. Not so at all. You must be choosing something you like, not what I like.”

Meley leaned over closer then, whispering, “Chef Gisby will make anything you ask for. He has a perfect memory, even better than Seosten, and he uses it to memorize every recipe in the universe. And if it happens to be something he doesn’t know, he can usually make it pretty close if you can describe it well enough. Oh, and he really likes it when you make things a challenge.”

Bandy was bobbing her head up and down, her ears bouncing. “Uh huh. He has a machine that can replicate almost any type of meat or vegetable. It tastes just like the real thing!”

“Oh. Uh.” I blinked, shifting a little. “Well, in that case, how about umm… Shrimp Scampi with angel hair pasta and alfredo sauce?” I would have been happy with a plateful of sandwiches at that point, but if he wanted something more challenging than that. “Oh, and garlic bread?”

“Yes, yes, that we can do.” Chef Gisby grinned brightly, looking toward Tabbris. “And you?”

“I… I like that too,” the girl answered after a second, her face flushing a little bit at the attention.

The round man took everyone else’s order, moving on to the other tables. Eventually, he had everyone and disappeared into the kitchen. Once he was gone and the ordering was over with, people started talking a little louder, conversations carrying between tables. Apparently being so quiet and still was only a temporary thing. They still weren’t exactly wild the way I’d seen in public school cafeterias on Earth, but they were at least having normal conversations.

In the case of our table, ‘normal’ apparently meant that the four Seosten kids were focusing on Tabbris, asking her all about what she’d been doing with me on Earth.

“Wait, wait,” Richton blurted, “you mean you were secretly possessing her for years and she didn’t know? I mean you didn’t take control or anything?”

Flinching, the girl hesitantly nodded. “I, um… I did a tiny bit, when… when I had to stop the spells that the um… that the other Seosten were trying to use to spy on her, or… or worse.”

That made Kisea straighten up. “Hold on, you mean you were disabling spells from adults? Like, trained adults? They were using magic and you just… countered them?” Her voice sounded awed in a way that made me reflexively smile with pride despite myself.

“Mama, um, t-taught me how to use magic…” she slowly explained, shifting closer to me while clearly finding it hard to look the others in the eyes. “Well, the memory she implanted in me did, anyway.”

That raised even more questions, but after a couple of them, it looked like Reft realized that Tabbris looked uncomfortable being the center of attention. The magma boy quickly said something to Richton about some game they had been playing. Judging from the quick look at the oldest Seosten shot back and forth between us, he knew what was going on. But he also didn’t object, taking Reft’s hint and letting the subject change. The others seemed to understand too. They still asked Tabbris and me questions, but not quite as intently. They kept moving the subject around the table so that Tabbris didn’t have to feel like she was under a microscope.

It clearly helped, as the girl slowly started to ask questions of her own. She wanted to know about their parents, and how they had all ended up out here.

As it turned out, the answer only made me hate the Seosten in general even more. Basically, the Seosten didn’t actually raise their own children, generally speaking. Instead, children were sent to what amounted to private school/orphanages and raised there. At a certain age or whenever the orphanage in question thought they were ready, the child would be added to the list of potential recruits. Every Choir took turns looking at available recruits and choosing the ones they wanted. It was like the draft in professional sports, only if the players ranged in age from five or six all the way up to their late teens in some cases. Or some really fucked up version of adoption.

In any case, these four had been on their way to one of those ‘drafts’ when Athena’s people had ambushed the ship in question. Most of them had gotten away, but these guys and a few of their older peers were brought here to be raised and taken care of. There were others like that, young Seosten that Athena and her people had begun to rescue and raise differently. It was… encouraging. Especially for Tabbris. I really wanted her to have as many good examples of her own people as possible.

Eventually, our food came, floating in on these small hovering trays that went straight to the right spots before landing. The others quickly dug in, so I followed suit. And they were right, it tasted delicious.

“Bleh.” Beside me, Tabbris was staring down at her own plate, which looked almost identical to mine. She tentatively took another bite, before her head shook. “Gross. What is that?”

“Um. Shrimp?” I offered, a little confused as I tasted one off her plate. “Mmm, good.”

“But–but–I like shrimp too. I mean…” The girl frowned, staring down. “I think I do. Don’t I? I did.”

“Oh.” Meley cut in. “You never tasted it on your own, just when you were possessing her.”

My head bobbed quickly in agreement. “She’s right. You only tasted them through my taste buds, not yours. I guess you don’t like shrimp after all.”

Blinking a few times, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Oh. Um. What do I do?”

Before I could answer, Chef Gisby suddenly spoke up from behind us. “You come with me!” As everyone jumped, the round man smiled. “Apologies. But come.” He offered his hand to the girl. “I will let you taste all of the wonderful things I can make, until you find what you do enjoy.”

“I’ll go with you, if you want,” Meley offered, gesturing to her own plate. “I’m done anyway.”

Tabbris looked to me uncertainly, and I quickly nodded. “It’s okay. Go ahead. I’ll be right here.”

She still looked a little uncomfortable about leaving me, but slowly got up from the table. “O-okay, I’ll be right–” As she was standing, the girl suddenly pitched over backward, her feet somehow having gotten tangled in the legs of the chair. Just before she would have hit the floor, my hands snapped down to catch her, and there was a clatter as her chair landed on its side.

“You okay?” I asked, helping Tabbris back up.

Her face was red, dropping her gaze to the floor as she nodded, mumbling a little about her legs being different from mine. Once she was definitely alright, the girl went with Meley and Chef Gisby to find something that she actually liked to eat.

“I hope she’s okay,” Bandy offered, her ears drooping a little bit as she watched the door that the three went through. “I don’t think Seosten really grow up like that very often, possessing someone else the whole time they’re… um, you know, getting bigger.”

“She’ll be okay,” I assured the bunny-fox girl. “She just needs some practice being out in her own body.”

“Good thing you guys are here, huh?” Kisea put in. “I mean, she doesn’t have to hide or anything. And…” The girl hesitated briefly before adding, “It’s kinda nice to have another Seosten kid around.”

“Yeah,” Richton agreed. “There aren’t very many of us. They’re mostly adults.”

“You are staying here for awhile, right?” Bandy pressed, looking up to me urgently with eyes that made me think that someone had copied them to create Puss in Boots’ adorable pleading eyes in those Shrek movies.

How could I do anything but nod? “Yeah,” I promised. “We’ll be here for awhile. I have to wait for Athena’s people to get hold of my friends, and they’ll use Tabbris’ blood to find Kushiel’s lab.”

As soon as I said the name, the others hissed a little, looking like I’d just said Hitler or something.

“She is a bad woman,” Reft explained. “A very bad woman.”

I nodded slowly, “Yeah, I’ve kind of been getting that impression. She sounds like a real piece of work.”  And the thought that Tabbris’ mother had been in her hands… I swallowed hard, forcing that thought back. “We’re gonna find her. We’re gonna save Tabbris’s mom, and all her other prisoners. She’ll pay for the things she’s done.” For emphasis, I stabbed my fork hard down into the next bite of shrimp.

“She’ll pay for all of it.”

Previous Chapter                                          Next Chapter