Rovon Reinswield

Fusion 1-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We appeared at the back of what looked like an ordinary auditorium or theater. Rows upon rows of seats stretched out on either side of the narrow aisle we were in, leading down toward a large stage. Our seating area was the fourth from the left wall, with one more section to the right. In those other sections were more people of varying age groups, younger to the left and older to the right. Everyone was being directed to find seats. 

“Well, hello again.” The voice came from a man stepping in front of our little group, a familiar figure, with a scruffy, unshaven face, unkempt blond hair, and a pinstripe suit.

“Mr. Reinswield!” Tabbris blurted, quickly jumping that way to embrace the man. “Hiya!”

Sure enough, it was the former Eden’s Garden Heretic-turned-teacher we had met during our last stay here. The man looked surprised, but returned the embrace, murmuring, “You seem a bit more comfortable in your own skin, puella.” 

“We found Mama,” Tabbris declared with a bright smile. 

The man returned her smile, squeezing her again. “Well, that is very good news. But come, we can catch up later. Let’s find some seats for you before this assembly gets started.”

He guided us to a row of empty chairs, and everyone began filing in to sit down. I stayed back, however, waving for the others to go on. My gaze was centered on the man, as I swallowed hard. “Sir,” I started quietly, “I’m really sorry. I… I asked my friend from Eden’s Garden if she knew anything about a Sonya Eulcid, your… your old student, but she didn’t have a chance to ask around before… before she had to leave.” My head shook guiltily. This was the girl he had gotten himself banished to Seosten space by trying to stop her being being turned into a Heretic and losing her innocence when he was posing as a Bystander teacher. No excuse for still not finding out what happened to her felt good enough. “And things have been so busy all this time that–” 

He held up a hand to stop me. “I understand, Flick. Trust me, I do. And now we’ve made it back to Earth. We’re here. If Sonya is alive… I will find her.” His gaze met mine with a wince. “Though it has been so long since I have been here that… some help in that regard might be useful. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Earth in the decades since my disappearance.” 

My head bobbed rapidly. “Of course. Anything. I’ll help you find her. So will Miranda, I know. We talked about it, we just… there wasn’t a way to…” Shaking that off, I waved a hand while pushing on. “We’ll find her. Seller can probably help, he’s my ancestor and knows a lot about–” 

“The sellsword?” Mr. Rienswield raised an eyebrow. “He is your… interesting.” For a second, it looked like he was about to say something else. But in the end, the man just raised a hand to gesture to the seats where the others were. “Yes, we’ll talk about it soon. I may even be able to find answers among my new colleagues here. But for now, I know your sister is quite eager to ensure this presentation comes off without a hitch.” He offered me a wink.  “Let’s not add to her nerves by throwing hitches onto the stage before anything even starts, hmm?” 

It was hard for me to imagine Abigail ever being nervous. At least, not in a situation like this. In a fight maybe, or worried about her daughter or me… yeah. But nervous about talking to a bunch of students? Still, I nodded and squeezed in to find my seat by Avalon. Tabbris took the seat on the other side of me, with Shiori by her. There was enough space in front of us to put our bags down, most likely to accommodate various-sized species. Plus, when I actually sat, the chair itself adjusted to fit me perfectly. Looking around, I saw larger beings, Alters who were bigger than an average human, on seats that had grown to match. Giving a quick look around, I could see just how… eclectic of a population we had in this auditorium. True, it was about three-quarters human or human-passing, a mix of Bosch/Natural Heretics and Alters who didn’t stand out. But it was also one quarter Alters who could not have passed as human without the Bystander Effect. Beings of all different shapes and sizes scattered in groups throughout the room. They bunched up together, some clearly making a point of staying away from Bosch Heretics. And, of course, there were plenty of Heretics who were staying away from Alters. Even though we’d all chosen this side, that didn’t mean everyone was instantly comfortable with each other. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were the boogeymen for entire generations worth of Alters. And Alters had been the ‘evil monsters out to destroy humanity’ for Bosch Heretics for hundreds of years too. This was… definitely going to take time. But that was a big part of what the whole school thing was for, to get us interacting in a… closer to casual environment. In between all the violent life and death stuff happening back on Earth. 

Reaching down to my bag, I opened up the side pocket, taking out Jaq and Gus before setting them on my shoulders so they could look around. Then I produced Herbie, letting him sit on the armrest. Once he was arranged and comfortable, I looked over to Avalon. She had Porthos out, though he was down on the floor having what appeared to be an intense conversation with Choo, who by that point was as large as a normal warthog. His growth was also supposed to accelerate even more around now, apparently. In another month or so, he’d be as tall as I was. It was hard to imagine the tiny sneezing electric-pig as this big, dangerous figure. And also weird to think that there were several more smaller Choos stacked up inside of him, nesting doll-style.

Just another example of the fact that things had changed. And were still changing.I didn’t know what was going to happen this year. But if it was anything even remotely like last year… yeah, I would have to enjoy the relative calm while I had the chance.  

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked in a whisper, leaning over to rub Herbie gently. 

I nodded. “Yeah, I just… that’s Mr. Reinswield, the guy I told you about. And I never found out what happened to Sonya Eulcid, that girl he wanted us to look for.” 

Overhearing that, Miranda, who was seated on the far side of Avalon, leaned forward and looked down at me. “I can ask around, find out if she’s part of the group that rebelled. I probably should’ve done that already, it’s just–” 

“We’ve been busy, yeah.” Grimacing, I nodded. “Can you just check next chance you get? She’d be way too old to be part of this whole school thing, but maybe she’s still out there and has a kid or something here.”

The other girl agreed, just as the lights on the stage came up, while the ones over the audience dimmed a fair bit. Apparently the introduction and orientation speeches were about to start. 

Focusing on the stage, I saw some teachers from Crossroads. Not just the ones from the first year, but a few from higher years too. And there was Hisao, standing by a few other Heretics he was quietly talking to. I was guessing they, like him, were the ones from Eden’s Garden.

Of course, there were also Alter teachers, both ones that had been here already and a couple who had been recruited from on-world, thanks to both Wonderland and Prosser’s people. 

Basically, we had a lot of different teachers from a lot of different groups, to go with all the different students. 

Oh, and Abigail, of course. She stood there on the stage, deep in private conversation with Professor Dare, Miss Handsy (the school administrator lady whose body consisted of a green flesh ball with a bunch of tentacles stretching out in every direction to act as both arms and legs, with a smaller ball for her head connected to the larger one), and one of the Eden’s Garden teachers. With the lights down over the audience, all the attention was on that stage. Abigail glanced our way, said something else to the others, and then stepped up to the front. Her mouth opened, before she stopped herself and reached into her pocket to produce a small light blue rock, which she spoke a word into. The spell on it glowed briefly before fading. 

“Good morning,” Abigail started again, her voice magically magnified to fill the room. “Err, wow. Wow, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Good morning–orning–ning…” Making her own echo while a few people snickered and others just stared, she shook her head. “Magic. It uhh, it still takes me by surprise sometimes. Mostly because I only found out it existed a… less than a year ago. It’s still very new to me. All of this is. I’m still a beginner in… every sense of the word.” 

There were some audible murmurs to that, which Abigail allowed for a few seconds before speaking up again. “Then why am I the one standing here talking as though I have any authority? Why am I talking to you instead of any of these people behind me who all know a lot more than I do about all of this?” 

Watching the general agreement with her questions, my big sister added, “For that matter, you all already have so much to grow into here. You’re sitting in this room alongside people you would have run from, hunted, fought, even killed just a few months ago. Many of you have been told your whole lives that the people sitting ten feet away from you right now were monsters. Some of you have lived in fear of being hunted and killed since the day you were born. And now in these past few months, you’ve been told that we, together, are going to try a different way. You Heretics have been told that your entire society, everything you are, has been manipulated; that while you have done a lot of good, others used and manipulated you to make you into the very monsters that you were trying to protect the innocents from. You’ve all been told that everything you know, everything that has been fact for you since before the United States even existed, is changing. 

“In just these short few months, you have all been trying to understand this, trying to come to terms with it. And now you’re here, expected to live and learn and even fight alongside people who have been your enemies for generations. That is so much to ask of any of you. But you’re here. You came to try. But now you get here, you’re among these people, many of whom make you uncomfortable, or even afraid. And you look up here, and you see the person talking to you has barely even known anything of your society, of your existence, for less than a year? Why am I here? What could I possibly present to you that wouldn’t be better coming from someone who has understood you for so much longer? After all, I’m barely even a Heretic. I don’t fight. I barely have any power at all. I’m one step removed from a total Bystander.”

From where he was sitting a bit further down the line, Jason whispered, “Is she trying to talk herself out of this job, or something?”

Smiling a little to myself, I quietly replied, “Just wait for it.”

Abigail let whispers like that go on for another few seconds before she spoke again. “But here’s the thing. That’s exactly why I’m here. Because I didn’t grow up in this society, in this world. I am not here in spite of the fact that I am a terrible Heretic, I am here because I’m a terrible Heretic. I don’t know much about fighting. Almost nothing, really. To the chagrin of my colleagues, I assure you. But I know about learning. I know about injustice, about righting it, and about making others understand it. You do not need the person in charge of this school to be a warrior. You don’t. As I said, that’s what all these people behind me are for. Your principal does not need to be a demigod. She needs to be a principal. That’s headmistress for those of you who might be confused right now. But please don’t call me that, because it makes me feel uncomfortably like I’ve stepped into a Harry Potter fan fiction. And let’s be honest, this entire thing is kind of teetering on the edge of that as it is. 

“I am Principal Fellows. I’m here to organize your teachers, to be the person who talks without any previous personal history in your society. I’m here to teach you, to learn from you, and to listen to you. I’m here to ensure fairness and justice for everyone, Alter, Bosch, or Natural.”

Visibly considering that for a moment, Abigail shrugged. “Besides, considering everything I just said about this being new to everyone, I guess it just fits the theme to have someone who is new to all of it anyway. You all have history. Learn from it, grow from it, but do not allow it to dictate your future. There’s a lot of dirt in everyone’s pasts here. You can use that dirt to bury this whole thing that we’re trying to do. Or you can use it to grow the seed we’ve got into something truly beautiful. It’s up to each of you.” 

Asenath appeared then, stepping across the stage to whisper something in Abigail’s ear. The other woman looked to her, nodded, then turned back to us. “And now that I have… hopefully successfully talked myself out of and then back into this job, we’ll discuss a few particulars. 

“First, you are all being initially grouped by general age level. If you are of a species that matures slower or faster than humans, we have attempted through discussions with you and others of your kind to put you into the appropriate group. Those who are more experienced than their age group generally is may test into higher groups. But do not attempt this lightly, because you will be judged by several critical eyes, in subjects including your physical, magical, and mental faculties.” 

Tabbris nudged me at that, and I smiled a bit before nodding. We’d already gone through arranging for her to live with me, though she was going to be visiting and learning with the younger groups too, just to have time with people her own age. 

Abigail was still explaining. “Our groups begin at age twelve, and each covers two years, up through twenty and twenty-one year olds. Five age groups, which is how you’re sitting right now. If you are in the first two sections here, those who will be twelve and thirteen by December thirty-first, and those who will be fourteen and fifteen, please stand up.” Abigail waited for those first two sections to rise, before explaining, “You are part of our trainee program. For now, please follow Miss Senny here to your dorms, where more will be explained and you can drop off your bags and get settled in. Staff members will be happy to answer more questions throughout the day, and we will all discuss this more at supper this evening.” She indicated Asenath, who descended the stage to lead the first couple groups out. 

Once they were gone, Abigail focused on the third section. “Next, our students who will be sixteen and seventeen years old this year. You will also live in dorms, but separate from the younger groups, as your training and education requirements are different. You may also, if you wish, participate in certain low-danger missions for–” At that point, she had to stop talking for a moment because of the whoops and cheers going up from that middle section. A few quiet words from the staff members in the aisles there quieted the students, and Abigail continued. “That is, if you wish and if your staff mentors sign off on you. These will be missions of mercy, helping those who need us.

“Now, please follow Hisao, the nice gentleman standing right there, to your dorms, where you will be given more information. As I said, use the rest of the day to get settled in and direct any questions you might have to your staff advisers. We will meet again for dinner, and classes will begin tomorrow.” 

She started to move on, but one of the students from that section raised a hand and blurted in a loud voice that carried really well, “What about those of us that are still human and were supposed to get to visit the Edge this year? Are we just boned?” 

A small smile touched Abigail’s face then before she shook her head. “No, you’re not ‘boned’. We have plans to assist all interested human students with potential Natural bonding. Ideally, this will happen when you are younger in order to allow a longer bonding process. But it will work here as well. As I said, there will be details when you reach your dorm. You’ll be able to sign up to match with Alters who have volunteered to help bond with others like you.” 

With that, Hisao led that group out, leaving two more. Ours and the twenty and twenty-one-year-olds. Once it was just us, Abigial focused our way. “And finally, our adults. Or those who will be adults within the next couple of months.” She smiled just a little, a goofy gesture that vanished a moment later. “Instead of dorms, you will live in houses in one of this station’s… neighborhoods. You will be assigned your house to live in, but if you and another person would like to change places, you may do so if both of you agree. Generally, each house will have ten people living in it. These will be a mixture of Alters and Heretics. If there are problems that simply cannot be settled, we will assign people to new homes. But do try to remember that our entire goal here is for everyone to learn to live in harmony together.

“As with the group before, you will be allowed to participate in voluntary aid missions, as well as combat missions for those who have passed a certain level of training and psychological certifications, both of which will be tested and renewed once per month and also at the discretion of faculty. But beyond simply passing your training and psychological evaluations, you must also keep up with your schoolwork. Yes, school even for you, though not quite as long. Generally, your school days will last from nine in the morning until lunch, one hour for each of the three classes you will have each day. Then you will have lunch, followed by training and any missions that have been requested or volunteered for. Again, your participation in these missions is not required in any way, shape, or form. They are not mandatory and never will be. And you may opt out of any. But if you do wish to participate, you must keep up your schoolwork, and pass your evaluations.” 

Raising both hands to forestall all the hands (and tentacles and claws and hooves and… more) that were going up, Abigail assured everyone, “I know, I know, you all have questions. We’ll get to them, I promise. Let’s try to get everyone to your houses so you can put your stuff away and get settled in, like the younger groups. Professor Dare and Kaev here will lead you out.” For the latter name (which was pronounced Cave), she indicated a green gelatinous figure who looked a lot like a full adult-sized version of the Flubber figure from that old Robin Williams movie. 

Dare and that Kaev (I wasn’t sure if they were male or female, or if it mattered) left the stage, walking up the aisles. Well, Dare walked. Kaev sorta… bounced. It was like he or… she or… they were on one of those toys where you sit on the ball and hop with it. Complete with an audible ‘boing’ after each motion. 

Looking over to Tabbris and the others, I shrugged. “Well, I guess we should go see our new home, huh? 

“Let’s hope we don’t end up going to war against this one too.”

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Lessons 32-05

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“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.”

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Lessons 32-03

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From the reaction of the rest of the students, it was clear that this was a story that Athena had told many times before. But none seemed to object to hearing it again, and I saw several glance my way. It was sort of like when you’re watching a movie that you know well and it’s about to get to a really good part, so you look at the person who has never seen it so that you can see their reaction.

“The Seosten,” she continued, “were obviously not the first race to discover Earth. Humans had been interacting with other races for quite some time. But most of the non-Earth species that made their way there did so by accident up to that point. Some arrived through portal or teleportation mishaps or the equivalent, while others stumbled across it with their own starships as they either fled the Seosten/Fomorian conflict or simply explored what was unknown space.

“Either way, Earth, then known as Rysthael or an ancient word meaning Hidden, was just that. It was hidden. The planet was so far away from Seosten and Fomorian space, and so out of the way, that many beings sought it out in order to live apart from that endless conflict. It became a sort of… what you might call a fairy tale, a story about a paradise world free of that violent war.”

Letting her gaze slowly move across the room, the woman took a moment to meet everyone’s gaze, making sure we all understood just what a big deal it was for those people to have a safe haven to flee to that wasn’t part of the intergalactic war. Then she continued. “Unfortunately, this, of course, could not last forever. Rumors of such ‘haven worlds’ had naturally been going around essentially since the very beginning of this eternal conflict. But this one contained details and other evidence that made the Seraphim, leadership of the Seosten, take extra note of it. So, they sent out expeditions to search for it. There were dozens of small scouting vessels whose goal was to find this planet of untouched resources and a strangely Seosten-like species.”

Standing in the center of the room, Athena turned in a circle, her voice softening a little. “It took over thirty Elohim-standard years–” Pausing, she looked back to me. “Elohim is the Seosten home planet. For reasons that are as obvious as they are self-centered, the Seosten have made our world’s cycle into the standard for our space. An Elohim year is roughly eighty percent longer than an Earth year. So thirty Elohim years would have been around fifty-four Earth years.”  

“In any case,” she continued once that was clear, “for those thirty standard years, the scouting ships searched for this mythical paradise that the other species called Rysthael. Then, one vessel found it. Rysthael was located. This was roughly two thousand years ago.” Quickly, she did the mental math for me by helpfully adding, “Just under three thousand five hundred Earth years.

I thought about that for a moment, seeing the Seosten woman (and most of the rest of the class) watching me curiously before I finally put in, “That would be around what we call 1500 B.C?”

Athena nodded. “Somewhere in there, yes. The Seosten scouting vessel came to the planet and found… well, humans. Along with every other species that was there, of course. There were cities full of humans working alongside other species. But there were also places where humans hunted everything that wasn’t human. Or, of course, were hunted by them. But one place in particular stood out to the crew of that Seosten vessel. The land that, at that point, was known as Kemet, or Hwt-Ptah. Hwt-Ptah itself was translated roughly and rather literally by one of Earth’s other peoples into the word Aiguptos. Or–”

“Egypt?” I put in without thinking, then flushed deeply. “I mean, sorry. I don’t know if I should raise my hand or–or what the… yeah. I remember hearing the whole Aiguptos is Egypt thing.”

Athena smiled. “It’s quite all right, of course. Yes. The land then known as Kemet or Aiguptos, what would eventually become Egypt. When the Seosten scouting party investigated, they found that this civilization was comprised of equal parts humans and other intelligent species. They had come together to create one of the most powerful empires on the planet at the time.

“In fact,” she continued, “many of the so-called gods and other mythological creatures that this civilization had been telling stories of for so long were either Bonded humans or powerful non-humans.”

Alters and Heretics, I realized. Which made sense. As far as I knew, Egypt mythology had a lot of different gods and powerful creatures in it.

Mr. Reinswield briefly interjected. “As a point of fact, one of those Bonded eventually became one of the founding members of what those on earth call Eden’s Garden. The one known as Sobek, he acts as the leader of what they call Vigiles.”

Sobek. That was the crocodile god, right? He was one of the Vigiles, like Hisao? I wondered if that had anything to do with how independent they were. Since, as I understood it, they were basically given blanket authority to make their own decisions in the field, as judge, jury, and executioner.

Athena continued. “More interesting to the scouting team, there were many bits of the Egyptian mythology and stories that were clearly based on somewhat corrupted stories of powerful beings from back within the Seosten Empire. Somehow, the non-humans who dwelt there had lived on the planet for so long, generation after generation, that the actual truth of their origin had faded. All they had were stories that they passed on to one another. Stories that became myth, to the point that they didn’t even realize that they were actually worshipping the very same masters that their ancestors had fled from so long before.”

Reflexively, I started to ask what that meant, but the woman was already explaining, “You see, the Egyptians’ primary god was named Amun. In their language, that was a word meaning ‘Hidden One.’”

I sat back suddenly, blinking a few times. Amun. The Egyptian god Amun actually meant ‘hidden one’? Which itself was a veiled reference to the actual hidden ones, the Seosten. Clearly, it was just like Athena had said. Whatever Alters had settled with the ancient Egyptians had told their descendants about the Seosten, which had eventually become the basis for the god they actually worshipped. Wow. Just… wow.

“Seosten procedure at that time,” Athena went on, “was to quietly infiltrate the world to find out what we could. Unfortunately, having an entire religion that was at least partially based on us was unacceptable. So, the Seosten scouting force took measures to alleviate that problem by possessing the ruler, or as they called it, pharaoh at that time. He was a human male known as Amenhotep. The Seosten-Possessed Amenhotep ordered the worship of Amun and his like to be stopped, and established a new god for them to focus on: Aten, the sun deity. This allowed the Seosten to destroy many records that were solely about how to identify Seosten possession, among other important things.”

Biting my lip, I thought back a bit before offering, “But worship of Aten instead of Amun didn’t… um, it didn’t last very long, did it?” Granted, I was going by half-remembered things on a project I’d done a couple years earlier, but still. I was pretty sure his reign as the main Egyptian god had been relatively short.

Athena nodded. “Correct, as it turned out, there was an unknown force that was aware of the Seosten presence in the city. They eliminated Amenhotep, who had taken the name of Akhenaten in honor of Aten, as well as the Seosten possessing him. They then turned his heir, a young boy named Tutankhaten, into a Bonded with the blood of that same Seosten.” She gave me a brief look before explaining, “Bonded is another word for Heretic. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun, signifying the return of their focus on Amun instead of Aten. In other words, the return of the focus on teaching their people how to identify and defeat the Seosten.”

Tutankhamun or Tutankhaten, I realized, in our day was simply referred to as King Tut. King Tut had been a Heretic. Or rather, I supposed, a Bonded. He had been a Natural Seosten Heretic/Bonded.

“It was the Seosten’s first real encounter with the human method of bonding. Up to that point, they had encountered such things in isolated incidences on the planet, but that was the first time that it was very clearly a human becoming something more by being genetically bonded to another race. It was, obviously, rather surprising that it would work on a Seosten.”

“But who was it?” One of the other students, a furry bunny-like humanoid about four feet tall, asked quickly. “Who turned the human king into a Seosten-Bonded?”

Athena shook her head. “I’m afraid that we still don’t know. But between whoever it was, and the new pharaoh, they managed to fortify their kingdom against Seosten influence, despite the scouting force actually managing to eventually kill Tutankhamun. It didn’t stop the rest of their military from spreading word and spells that could somehow detect and expel Seosten from their hosts.

“So, the Seosten on the planet returned to our space for further instructions. With their information, the plan was made to have another ship go to the planet, a ship with a specially selected crew. Their job would be to locate another civilization on that planet, and use them to create a force that would eliminate the Egyptian problem. That ship was called the Olympus.”

My eyes widened, while Tabbris shifted on my lap, blurting a happy, “Mama was on that ship!”

With a smile, Athena nodded. “Yes, Sariel was my crewmate. The ship was captained by Puriel, while I served as the Chief Tactical Officer. Sariel was one of our infiltration specialists alongside the man who would become Apollo. Essentially, their role on the ship was to discover and research as much as possible about the target species and teach it to the rest of us.”

She trailed off for a few seconds, clearly lost in memory as a somewhat sad smile touched her face. Then Athena shook it off, returning to her story. “But this was no ordinary Seosten ship. The mystery of what force was behind this Egyptian empire, and what exactly humans were and why they could bond with other species so well, was entirely too important to leave to just any ship. Can anyone tell our new friends Felicity and Tabbris here what the Summus Proelium project was?”

That magma-student spoke up in a voice that sounded surprisingly gentle and melodic. “The Seosten Empire always has dozens of special projects running whose intention is to find special ways of challenging or defeating the Fomorians. Superweapon development, essentially. Some are straight-up weapons such as extra powerful ships, missiles, magic spells, and, in some cases, super-soldiers.

“Summus Proelium was the latter. It was a secret project that was intended to create Seosten who were capable of matching Fomorians on the battlefield. They would be stronger than ordinary Seosten, capable of boosting themselves far beyond what most could, and would even have certain special abilities built right in. Abilities that the Fomorians would be unprepared for.”

“Precisely.” Giving the magma-student a brief, encouraging smile, Athena nodded. “Yes, that was the goal, in any case. Well, somewhat. The actual goal was to upgrade Seosten soldiers into having many different abilities and strengths. A full Seosten supersoldier, if you will. But reaching that goal required stepping stones. Which meant that the scientists involved needed volunteers to work with.”

Lifting my chin, I guessed, “And you guys were those volunteers?”

Her head bowed slightly before the woman confirmed, “Yes. We came from many different Choirs, all volunteering to be tested and experimented upon in the name of creating that perfect soldier. We were poked, prodded, injected, and went through more surgeries and other procedures than I can possibly count. They modified our DNA in ways that have not been done since Cronus.”

Okay, that was something I definitely wanted to ask about. But it sounded like a long story, so I elected to wait until later and ask privately.

She went on. “In the end, the project was… relatively successful. Each of us was enhanced, some more than others. And we were each given what you would call special abilities. Mine allowed me to process information incredibly quickly, and granted me an extremely limited form of precognition. I refer to it as scattershot precognition. It provides me with instant and complete knowledge of the immediate results of five or six different actions I can take, up to about five seconds away from the action. In other words, when I use it in the middle of combat, it instantly shows me exactly what would happen up to about five seconds in the future. And it does that for five or six different possible actions, giving me instant knowledge of what will happen for the next five seconds along each of those five or six paths. Then I simply choose one and carry it out. To most beings, it would look as though the world freezes every time I use it. It gives me a snapshot of the entire battlefield, along with the details of each of those potential actions. I choose one, and the battle continues. Nothing actually stops, but in that instant, my mind speeds up so much that the millisecond it takes for me to make my choice of what action to follow seems to be quite long to me.”

After explaining that much, the woman chuckled. “But as I said, we were all enhanced in different ways. Sariel was granted unerring accuracy, Puriel controlled many types of energy including the electricity he became known for, and Radueriel was given the ability to… essentially create and fix things. We all came out differently, based on what the scientists did to us.”

One of the other students bounced up in the air then, floating a little before going back to his seat. “Is that why Chayyiel looks so young?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, obviously. But Athena nodded. “Yes. Chayyiel, the Seosten who would eventually play the role of Hestia on Earth,” she added in an aside that was obviously for my benefit, “was perhaps the closest to a perfect success of the program. Ironic, in some ways, as she was not actually one of the volunteers. Chayyiel was, in fact, the daughter of the program’s director.”

To me, the woman explained, “Seosten do not generally raise their children themselves. Instead, they are raised within groups by qualified and trained professionals, and are later chosen by various Choirs based upon their merits. Each Choir may choose to make their choice from the available… stock,” saying the word made her grimace while continuing, “or allow another to take their turn or turns in exchange for one of their youth.”  

I grimaced. “You mean Seosten children are traded back and forth like baseball players.”

She didn’t look like she was sure what that meant, but nodded anyway. “I… imagine you have the right idea. Director Aysien, however, kept his own child, using his political influence to stop anyone from taking her to be raised by others. He put her through the same process as the rest of us, trying to create the ultimate super soldier. And in the end, she was his greatest success. Chayyiel is not only the strongest and fastest of all of us, she also received two incredibly potent abilities. The first allows her to know the weakness of anything she looks at. A building, a person, a ship, an entire army, anything that she focuses on she immediately understands their weakness and how they can be beaten, broken, opened, and so forth. Looking at a simple box, she would know exactly where to tap it to make the box open. Any living being she looks at, she immediately knows where their weak points are, both mentally and physically.

“Additionally, as though that wasn’t enough on its own, every time she faces an opponent, Chayyiel immediately gains every bit of combat skill, knowledge, and expertise they possess. For example, she started out an ordinary child with no particular skill. After spending less than sixty seconds in a room with one of the veterans, she possessed every single one of his combat skills and could perform them perfectly.”

A perfect understanding of anyone or anything’s weaknesses, and the ability to instantly download all the combat skills of anyone she ever met? God damn, the goddess of the hearth was freaking scary.

“Unfortunately,” Athena went on, “as you already noted, Ulstin, the process wasn’t perfect. We were all essentially frozen at the exact physical age that we were when we underwent it. Even more than most Seosten, our aging process was halted. For Chayyiel, this meant that she was frozen at the physical age of a young child.”

“So they turned you all into super soldiers and sent you to Earth?” I asked.

She chuckled, head shaking. “Actually, the project was ended roughly fifty years before the Earth, or Rysthael as we called it, was located. We were all assigned to the ship Olympus, and worked together on many other combat and exploratory missions before then. We were… shipmates, often friends… like family. Puriel was our captain. Those who had become the most powerful from the experiments were bridge and command officers, while others who were less enhanced were ordinary crew. These would eventually become minor gods on Earth.”

“Like Charmiene,” I muttered a bit darkly.

“Yes,” she confirmed, giving me a brief, curious look. “Charmiene would be known as Nemesis on Earth. On our ship, she was a soldier under the command of Abbadon, the one you know as Ares. Or even Paschar, who took the role of Eros or Cupid while serving as head chef on the ship.”

Cupid. Love potions. Yeah, I supposed that made sense. Under my breath, I mumbled, “Trust me, he’s on my list too.”

Again, the woman gave me a look that made it clear that she would be asking me many questions later, before going on. “In any case, we were eventually given the assignment to go and investigate this new planet. We were to find out what exactly was going on with the humans, who this mysterious force spoiling our plans with the Egyptians was, and whether we could use these humans in our war with the Fomorians.

“To that end, once we arrived on the planet, we began to infiltrate another powerful civilization of the time: the so-called Greeks. We found other gods that they had already worshipped, made alterations where needed so that they would fit us better, and took on their identities. It required minimal record and memory alterations, as we did so over the course of more than one generation. Allowing them to worship us as gods, we focused on making the Greeks as powerful as possible. Powerful enough to subjugate the Egyptians and discover who was responsible for teaching them about us, who had turned Tutankhamun into a Seosten-Bonded.

“Unfortunately, we never did discover that. Our Greece was merged with another potent civilization, the one known as Rome. Soon, it became more and more clear that our group was not going to be able to contain the humans for much longer. They were growing entirely too powerful. We had found that they were very good… weapons to have access to. Once we understood the human bonding ability, they became a goldmine of potential soldiers and hosts. Then came the prophecy.”

Afraid that I was going to regret the question, I nonetheless asked, “Prophecy?”

The Seosten woman snorted. “Well, they call it a prophecy. In reality, a figure appeared before the gathered Seraphim, a figure that was from far, far in the future. They told the Seraphim that the humans would destroy us, that they were the work of the Fomorians, and that when the Formorians returned to claim their creations, the humans would be used to kill all Seosten.”

My mouth worked a bit. “But–I don’t–who? Who was the time traveler who told them that?”

Her head shook. “Apparently, the figure died shortly after delivering the message. I don’t know any more than that, unfortunately. This was all part of the information we were given, along with the news that the Seraphim were debating two possibilities. Either we would destroy the planet entirely and end any chance of that future from coming to pass. Or we would use an incredibly powerful spell to block humans off from all other species, so that you could continue to serve as our weapons, only on our own terms.”

“The Bystander Effect,” I muttered, remembering what she had said earlier about that.

She nodded. “What you call the Bystander Effect, yes. It is the Seraphim’s attempt to avoid the future that was relayed to them, while retaining humans as a weapon against our enemies.”

My eyes rolled. “Yeah, because God forbid you guys just say, ‘Hey, wanna team up against these genocidal dickweasels?’ Why do I feel like just working together was never even considered?”

Athena met my gaze, nodding once more. “You know the Seosten too well. But that is precisely what we are trying to change. The Seosten partnering with other species and working together, especially with humans, is the only way that this war against the Fomorians is going to end well.”

She gestured toward Tabbris and me. “That is why you two are so incredibly important. Because with you, we can prove that very theory, that humans and Seosten would fare better working together as partners. And the first step toward that is to rescue all of the Seosten who have been imprisoned and experimented on by Kushiel.”

Tabbris’s voice was quiet. “Like Mama.”

Athena gave a single, grave nod. “Yes, like Sariel. I promise you, we will rescue her, and all of Kushiel’s other prisoners. But you will have to be ready when the time comes.”

“How do we get ready?” I asked, a bit hesitantly.

The Seosten woman smiled slowly. “How? By training, of course.

“Lots and lots of training.”

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Lessons 32-02

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Please note that there is an announcement about a brief, but unavoidable update delay next week in the first comment at the end of this chapter. 

The corridor in front of us as the door whooshed open was much more like I expected a space station to be. It was long and slightly curved toward the end leading off toward the left. The main part of the walls, floor, and ceiling were pure white and somewhat rounded, with wide windows along both sides that showed an absolutely breathtaking visage of star-filled space beyond.

That was the sight that made me pause, my mouth falling open a bit. This wasn’t just like looking up at the night sky. This was incredible. The stars were huge, and I could see all kinds of colors. Off to the left there was some kind of whirlpool of blues and greens, with a little bit of red in the middle that pulsed occasionally. Straight ahead I could see a trio of moons surrounding a planet with a pair of beautiful crystalline rings that overlapped one another in an x-shape. There was a comet streaking across the starry expanse on the right-hand side before it disappeared beyond the wall behind us. Everywhere I looked, there was another gorgeous celestial event.

It was, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Even being in the ship back with the others hadn’t been quite like this. There had been some amazing sights there as we traveled through space, of course. But this was like… it was a world beyond even that. And as I stood there, my knees felt weak. It was all I could do not to cry at the sheer beauty.

“This is wrong.” Tabbris’s voice broke through my brief moment of stunned silence, drawing my attention that way. The young Seosten girl was squinting from one incredible sight to another. “This… this isn’t right,” she mumbled under her breath, head shaking back and forth slowly. “It’s wrong.”  Before I could ask what she meant, the girl continued, “That bit over there.”  

“What bit over where?” I asked, a little confused. She hadn’t actually pointed anywhere.

“Wh–oh.” Tabbris flushed visibly, squirming on her feet. “I forgot to use my own hand,” she mumbled with embarrassment before deliberately pointing toward the cross-ringed planet. “I know that place. Mama showed it to me in her stories. But it shouldn’t be anywhere near that.” Her hand moved then to point toward the whirlpool-like vision of shifting colored energy. “She thought they were pretty and she told me stories about them when I was little. But… but they aren’t near each other. They aren’t anywhere even sorta close!”

Athena was smiling a little, stepping over to the nearby window as she nodded. “Yes. None of these are actual windows. They are viewscreens that are designed to show a vision of various areas of space with visual data that was recorded by any number of other other sources. I’m afraid that having actual windows would be rather… dangerous. And somewhat, ah, blinding.”

“Blinding?” I echoed, blinking over at the woman in confusion. “Why would it be blinding?”

She was clearly watching my reaction closely as she answered simply, “Because this station is located inside of a star.”

Well, that was enough to make me do a violent double-take back toward the woman. Beside me, Tabbris spun around so quickly that she would have fallen over if I didn’t  reach down quickly to grab onto and steady her. Both of us yelped in perfect unison, “Inside of a what?!”

Chuckling at our reaction, the brown-haired woman explained, “The station is located inside of a star. It is, quite literally, the safest possible place that we could find. The Seosten leadership hunts our people quite regularly. Here, the ones that they know about can be protected.”

My mouth opened and shut a few times. “B-but, how do they–how can’t–I mean, the Meregan had the ability to go into the stars, but they had to turn themselves into that stone-like stuff.”

“You have encountered the Meregan then?” Athena sounded impressed, as she nodded. “Yes, the Meregan stasis is very impressive. And we have a variation of it set up here as a failsafe in case anything goes wrong. But generally speaking, the station works somewhat differently. You see, there are spells up within the station that create a layer of portals all along the exterior. Those portals capture the energy from the star, all of that heat and everything else. Most of it is transported out into space to harmlessly be released, while a portion is directed into the station’s own batteries, which fuel everything onboard, including those very same portals. Essentially, the star contributes to our safety by constantly refueling the same portals that keep it from incinerating the station and continually drain its power. It is a… cycle, of sorts.”

“That’s… that’s…” I swallowed, staring at the ‘windows’ once more as a shiver ran through me. “That’s amazing. And kind of terrifying, honestly.”

“Believe me, my lady,” the woman responded softly, “I quite understand the feeling. Would you like to take another minute?” she asked then, gesturing. “It is a rather lovely view.”

I glanced that way briefly before shaking my head. “It’s okay, we should meet the others.” I didn’t want to keep Tabbris from seeing others like her any longer than we had to. Besides, I was sure that Athena and the rest of them all had a lot that they wanted to talk with us about. As amazing as the view was, there would apparently be plenty of time to experience it later.

Athena nodded before pivoting to start leading us down the corridor once more. As we followed her, my eyes kept flicking from side to side. Everything I saw through those ‘windows’ was still just as incredible. Yet there was now a sort of underlying fear as a little voice in the back of my head (one that actually wasn’t Tabbris that time) kept reminding me that we were actually in the middle of a freaking star. If anything happened, if anything actually did go wrong… I shuddered.

The Seosten woman seemed to understand, and led us onward without comment. We made our way along the curving corridor, past a couple doors (which happened to be set right in the middle of the viewscreen ‘windows’ making it look like those doors led out into empty space), before Athena eventually stopped at one door in particular. She looked back to us, giving a brief smile. “This is where some of the children are taught. I’ve told them to expect us.”

With that, she put a hand against a pad beside the door. It buzzed after a moment before sliding aside, and we stepped through into… well, into what honestly looked a hell of a lot like the main hall of a freaking middle school. Seriously. Straight ahead there was an office area where a secretary sat with more doors behind her, while there were hallways off to either side that led to classrooms. There were even lockers along the walls. It looked like a school.

There were still differences, of course. The secretary looked kind of like a lime green bipedal squid with pink eyes and a dozen tentacle-like arms all reaching for different drawers, phones, and other things. The lockers were all at various heights and shaped differently for various types of students. I saw a rather enormous one that was the size of three lockers back home, and one that was so tiny it had to be for a pixie or something. That one was kind of adorable, with tiny stars painted on it. Actually, a lot of the locker doors were painted in one way or another. I saw names written on them, images of what looked like animals from various worlds, or even people.

If I hadn’t already been convinced of the potential for non-humans to be just as good and ‘humane’ (for lack of a better word) as humans were before, the sight of one particular locker with what was obviously a stick-figure family (some with too many line-like appendages and one with two separate heads attached) scrawled lovingly on it with a word underneath that I was choosing to translate as ‘family’ would have done the trick all by itself. To say nothing of the rest.

Tabbris was clinging pretty close to me, her small hand tight in mine as we walked into that front hall. I saw the many-armed secretary look up briefly. She saw the three of us and immediately set down three different phone-like objects she had been holding while also moving two of her tentacle-hands away from a wall-mounted console. Extricating herself from behind the large metal desk, she made her way out of the room to us. As she came, I saw that her entire body seemed to be made out of tentacles. There was a ball right in the middle that was a couple feet across. Up from that was a single stalk-like structure that her head was attached to. And other than that, the rest of her body was composed of dozens of various sized tentacles with hands on the end that stuck out in every possible direction. The woman was, essentially, two connected flesh balls with a crapload of tentacles attached to the lower ball. She used some of them to walk, setting six or seven hands against the floor at a time as she picked her way over to where we were.  

“Children, children!” she called loudly. Her voice sounded at once melodic and yet slightly garbled, as if it was coming from underwater. It was kind of fascinating to listen to. “Hello!” Her sheer and unadulterated delight, if it hadn’t already been obvious in her voice, manifested quite well in the way her free tentacles shook back and forth, wiggling with excitement that made me giggle a little bit inwardly. “Oh, I’m so delighted that you made it! Positively tickled, I say.”

Smiling a little, Athena gestured. “Miss Handsy, allow me to introduce you to the Ladies Felicity and Tabbris. Girls, this is Miss Handsy. She is entirely indispensable to our educational efforts.”

Reflexively, I raised my free hand, extending it to her. “Miss Handsy? Sounds appropriate.”

The many-tentacled woman’s bright, almost unnaturally pink eyes drifted between us briefly before her wide mouth rose into a warm, beatific smile. She made a sound that was like windchimes that I belatedly realized was her version of a laugh. “Ohhh, of course, of course. Handsy isn’t my real name, but then, it would take an entire school year just to teach the poor children here how to pronounce it, and they’ve got much more important things to worry about. Miss Handsy is good enough.” As she spoke, two of her tentacle hands moved to catch hold of mine. She squeezed firmly, pumping it up and down. “It is my sheer delight to meet you, Miss Felicity Chambers. My sheer delight indeed. And you of course as well, Miss Tabbris.”

For a moment, Tabbris didn’t react at all, even to the extended hand. She just stood there, watching motionlessly and in silence before abruptly announcing. “I like her. She looks fun.”

Blinking at that, I looked to the other two women before giving the girl a little nudge. “Err, Tab?”

She started, looking back to me, then to Miss Handsy. Her eyes shot open wide with abruptly realization, and I heard a horrified and embarrassed noise escape the little girl as she stammered apologies. “Ohh, oh, I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t think–I’m not used to–I didn’t mean t-to, I mean, I mean I didn’t–” Whimpering in sheer mortification then, she tried to slink around behind me. Her arms wrapped around my waist tightly, and the little girl pretty much hid herself as well as she could without simply possessing me again so that she could disappear entirely.

Laughing lightly, another windchime sound, Miss Handsy lowered herself a bit to be closer to Tabbris’s level, her tentacles spreading out to let her dip down toward the floor. “Miss Tabbris,” she started once they were eye to eye, “it is my joy and privilege to make your acquaintance.”  

That time, when Tabbris didn’t respond at first it wasn’t because she had forgotten. It was because she was so embarrassed. She held onto me, swallowing audibly as she hesitated for a few seconds before finally speaking up in a very quiet voice that was barely audible. “H-hello.”

After another brief moment, she finally reached out one hand to shake the other woman’s offered one, though her other arm tightened around me even more, clinging as if she was somehow afraid that Miss Handsy would try to pull her away from me or something.

The woman did nothing of the sort, of course. She just squeezed the offered hand (with only one of hers that time rather than the two that she had used with me), while smiling encouragingly. “I hear that you have been giving old Manakel and the rest of his people quite the headache.”

“I–” Tabbris squirmed with obvious embarrassment at the attention. “I just try to… um, help.”

“They would have possessed me a long time ago if it wasn’t for her,” I announced proudly, moving my hand to rub the top of the girl’s head and through her hair. It was the kind of ‘big sister’ moment that I hadn’t ever actually had before. It felt kind of nice. Kind of really nice.

Chuckling a little, Athena spoke up then. “Well, I thought that we could pay Mr. Reinswield and his class a little visit. Do you know if they are in the middle of anything terribly important?”

Miss Handsy’s head shook at that. “No, their schedule has them working on arithmetic right now.”

Turning her head to us, Athena briefly explained, “Miss Handsy’s people possess incredible multitasking capability, memories that are just as infallible as a Seosten’s, an internal clock, and more that makes her the perfect administrator for our little educational facilities here. She remembers everything about every single student, including all of their special needs and where they happen to be in the course of their instruction. Which, considering how many different species we have here, knowing what each of them need at any given time would be a difficult, demanding position for an entire staff. Miss Handsy here does the work of twelve.”

“Oh, pish.” The woman in question made a bunch of her tentacles give a dismissive gesture in every direction. “I could never do the kind of things that any of you do to keep us safe. I can barely work any magic whatsoever, and I can’t fight at all. Here, I can actually help. Here, I can contribute. And I can do it with all of you children. That’s good enough. I– oh!” Turning back toward the office behind her, she announced, “It’s almost time for Ruelst and–” The next name  that she announced was completely indecipherable and impossible for me to even begin to spell. “–to come down for their medicine. I better have it ready for them. You know how they tend to put it off to the last minute.”

Athena bowed her head briefly. “Of course. We’ll just go back there now. Thank you, Miss Handsy.”

Tabbris and I offered our own thanks and the woman made her way back to the office. Once she was busy at one of the cabinets there, Athena turned to us. “Come,” she beckoned before starting to walk once more. “Mr. Reinswield teaches our–I believe the he said it was the equivalent of your first through third form students?”

I blinked once, confused for a moment. “Form? Is that like grades? He–wait, no, that’s a British thing, isn’t it? Hang on, wait, I remember something about this. It was…” I paused, tilting my head. Tab, do you…

I stopped. Opening my eyes, I looked over to the girl in question, who stared back at me. For a moment, we just looked at each other. Then she giggled a little. “You were trying to ask me.”

Coughing, I found myself blushing a little. “Uh, guilty. So, do you–”

“It’s like their version of seventh to ninth grade,” Tabbris confirmed quickly, giving a little shrug. “But I don’t think they use that system anymore.”

Athena nodded. “Mr. Reinswield left Earth some years ago. But he is a very good instructor. Ah, here we are.” She had led us to a door at the end of one of the halls, reaching up to press the button next to it.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the door slid aside, and I saw what looked like a pretty eclectic (or outright insane) classroom on the other side. The desks were like the lockers, all different shapes and sizes, and were arranged in a rough semicircle around a holographic projector in the middle of the room. On that projector I saw several math problems floating in the air, along with a couple different formulas for solving them, and examples.

There were kids at those desks. Kids of all kinds. I saw pixies, fur-covered kids, some with scales, one that was little more than a blob with eyestalks, a bipedal deer, even one that looked kind of like a teenage magma monster whose desk was made of obsidian. Most of them instantly set off my Heretic Sense, though there also those who didn’t.

And to one side, I saw four different kids, two male and two female, who looked like abnormally pretty humans. They were all together, none of them set off my sense, and they all looked like they were around eleven or twelve years old.

Seosten. They had to be Seosten. Their eyes immediately found Tabbris, and the girl herself instantly moved behind me with an adorable little squeak. I was pretty sure it took everything that the girl had not to jump right inside me again.

As for the teacher himself, the man looked human. He had short blond hair, a somewhat scruffy-looking face, and perfectly round glasses. He wore a dark pinstripe suit with a burgundy tie, and even had a handkerchief in his front pocket. The guy looked like he was in his early forties. He also didn’t set off the Heretic sense either, but I had a feeling he was human rather than Seosten. Probably a Heretic then. Which made sense, from what Athena had said.

While I was examining him, the man looked back to his assortment of students, announcing in a voice that had a very slight, almost imperceptible British accent. “Class, it seems that Lady Athena has come to tell us another story.”

The Seosten woman herself smiled a little, even as several of the students cheered and a few clapped or made gestures that I assumed were supposed to indicate the same general pleasure. “Yes,” she acquiesced after a moment. “I suppose that it has been some time, hasn’t it? A story it is, then.”

“Excellent.” the man, Mr. Reinswield apparently, gestured to Tabbris and me. “Girls, there are some free seats near Kisea, Meley, Richton, and Demeas.” He indicated the spot where the four Seosten students were.

Tabbris tried to hide behind me even more at that. I had a feeling she was even more nervous about meeting kids of her own species who were close to her own age than she had been about almost anything else.

Reaching down, I took her hand, turning a bit to whisper in a soft, barely audible voice. “I’m here.”

She looked up at me with those big, innocent eyes. Her voice shook. “Wh-what if…. Wh-wha… what if….”

What if they don’t like me, what if they’re mean, what if they’re nasty, what if, what if, what if. I knew everything that was going through her head. With a slight smile, I squeezed her hand once more, repeating, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t leave you, okay? We’re just gonna listen to Athena’s story.”

She hesitated, obviously still a little nervous. But the reassurance worked, and Tabbris gave a little nod. Together, the two of us walked over to one of the desks there, beside those four. I sat first, and Tabbris went up on my lap.

For a few seconds, the four Seosten kids said nothing. They just stared at us. Finally, the youngest looking one, a pretty little girl with black hair that was worn just past her shoulders and a vaguely Asian-look, spoke up. “Hi,” she announced. “My name is Kisea.” She pronounced it ‘Kih-Say-uh.’

My little partner glanced to me briefly before nervously offering, “T.. Tabbris.”

“Tabbris?” That was the oldest looking boy. He suddenly looked interested. “As in Tabbris of Llylewys? Oh, uh, Richton. That’s my sister, Meley.” He nodded to the brunette girl beside him who looked just a little younger. “And that’s Demeas.” Finally, he gestured to the other boy, a red-head who kind of looked like a miniature viking.

The others murmured greetings, and Richton pressed, “So you were named after that Tabbris?”

“I um.” Tabbris squirmed a little before nodding. “I… guess so. I don’t really know anything about him except what A-Athena said a few minutes ago…”

“Oh, that’s okay. I’ve–”

“–got a book about it,” the other three Seosten chorused together, as if they’d heard the same thing a million times.

Huffing a little, Richton sat up straighter, shooting a look at his three companions before pointedly adding, “You can borrow it anytime you want to.”

“Ahem.” Athena cleared her throat from the front of the class. Everyone’s eyes turned that way, and I felt the girl on my lap relax just a little bit. She stole a glance at the other Seosten kids as Athena began her story, clearly fascinated by them.

It was a smart way of doing things. This way, we were seated near them, but with Athena speaking, there was no real pressure for them to do a lot of talking or interaction. They could just sit and look at each other once in awhile. It broke the ice. It let us gradually integrate a little.

“This,” Athena began in a voice that seemed so perfectly suited to narration that I wondered if she was the one who had given lessons to Morgan Freeman, “is the story of how the Seosten first discovered humans, and how our ever-evolving relationship with them truly began. And, of course, it is the story of the Seosten who would go on to be known as gods on that world.

“This is the true history and origin of the Olympians.”

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