Roxa Pittman

On The Edge 42-07

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Catching the swinging arm of the fur-covered figure who was trying to claw me, I pivoted, keeping one hand on his bicep and using the other to grab the back of his neck. With a grunt, I shoved him hard into the nearest wall, then used his body to brace myself as I popped up into a double-kick into the chest of another figure. I used the force from that kick, planting both feet against him and pushing off as he was knocked to the floor, to push myself into a backward flip over the head of a man who had been coming up behind me. My foot kicked his leg out from under him, and as he collapsed I brought the same foot down hard on his back to make him hit the floor with even more force. With one foot there still, I reached out to catch hold of the shoulder of the man I had first shoved into the wall, yanking him backward while stepping aside so that he tripped over the man I had just knocked down. At the same time, three more guys who were running toward me ended up flat on their faces as a cloud of sand flew under their feet.

Got one? I sent inwardly while all that was going on.

Got it, Tabbris shot back, filling my head with the exact information about what she was doing and what she needed, even as the two men on the floor at my feet ended up in a tumbled heap and the one I had kicked was recovering from staggering backward. In the distance, the trio I had knocked down with sand were trying to extricate themselves, but my partner threw more of the sand into their faces. Which would have been bad enough, but this sand was super-heated, so they had to deal with being burned as well. It was… not going well for them.

As the two guys at my feet got themselves situated and lunged at me, I dove into a forward roll to put myself next to the man I’d kicked. All three were right there, practically on top of me as my hand slapped down against the floor. Tabbris used my instant-image power to inscribe a rune into it, before throwing in some of our combined energy to trigger it.

The reverse and increase gravity spell activated, glowing red just before the three men who were diving for me were caught by it. The trio went flying up, slamming hard into the ceiling an instant before the reverse part of the spell cut off, leaving only the ‘increase’ part. Which, of course, yanked them back down again. They landed hard and didn’t move again, aside from a couple of groans.

It was an effect that had been limited to that very small area, and only for a moment. Still, Tabbris would need to recharge for a few seconds, at least. She would watch for another opportunity to use spells that she had learned from her mother over the past couple weeks and let me know.

In the distance, I saw Asenath and Bobbi. The two of them were working together to try and clear a path to the security panel. Unfortunately, the pair had been waylaid by a few controlled security guards and a single Seosten. And they couldn’t make their efforts to clear the path to the panel too obvious, or Kushiel’s forces would figure out what we were trying to do and just destroy it. Or at least make it even harder to reach, which we really didn’t need.  And I couldn’t exactly just use a portal to reach it. I didn’t know precisely where the slot for the USB thing was, and as soon as our friends here saw me groping for it, they’d… again, know to stop me.

No, I had to get to it. And the others were trying to help that happen.

Elsewhere, I could see Roxa in wolf form leaping on top of someone, carrying them to the ground before she bit into their arm. A second later, she shifted into her human self, twisting over to kick an approaching figure hard in the stomach from her prone position, a blow that sent that person flying backward. At the same time, her arm turned into its tree form, extending into an enormous branch that slammed into four more people to knock them over.

Miranda and Theia were fighting together too, also trying to clear a way for me to get to that panel. The two of them (or three, considering Miranda had split herself several times and two of them were there) were teaming up against an adult Seosten who just would not go down.

Further down the hall, the other werewolves of the pack were also fighting. Or… most of them were. Fezzik was on the ground. The big guy… I didn’t think he was ever going to move again. I hadn’t been there to see what happened, but given the size of the silver blade embedded in his chest and the way his head was… yeah. Yeah, he… damn it. God fucking damn it. The other wolves couldn’t even mourn him just yet or they’d risk losing even more of themselves.

He also wasn’t the only one down. A couple of the Seosten who had come in with us were on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or not, but… I wasn’t optimistic.

Then, of course, I had another problem. One of the young Seosten who wasn’t on our side was coming after me with a laser sword. He kept slashing at me, forcing me to back up or twist from side to side to avoid each humming swipe while I watched for an opening.

Not far away, I caught a brief glimpse of a third iteration of Miranda from the corner of my eye as the other girl used the metal shield on her arm to create three quick identically-sized and shaped round forcefields before making a quick gesture that sent them flying off to collide with the side of a big guy who appeared to be made of hundreds of different coils of rope all put together into one man-shaped figure. He turned at the blows, just as yet another Miranda hopped on his back, creating some kind of burning fist with one hand as she plunged it into his neck. He roared and jerked backward to throw her off, while that first Miranda ran that way at full speed, leaping up and twisting to plant her feet in his rope-coil chest. The impact sent him falling backward while the second Miranda hopped off. Another one appeared right where the rope-man was falling, already swinging that shield. The flat of it collided with the figure’s head and sent him to the ground, dazed.

Throughout all of that (which was only a couple of seconds), I was bobbing and weaving while backpedaling as the figure with the laser sword continued doggedly after me. Watch for the opening, watch for the opening, watch for it, watch for it…

There! As the man switched up his attack to stab at me instead of slashing with that blade, I created a quick portal with one hand right where his blade was heading. The other end appeared just behind the Seosten’s left leg. Which, since he had stabbed forward, made the energy blade go through the portal to stab himself. The man cried out, dropping the sword. I caught it, spinning to slam the hilt into the side of his head while he was collapsing. He went down and stayed down. For the moment, anyway.

That was the problem. While the Kushiel-aligned Seosten and the possessed or controlled Auberge security had no problems killing any of us, we were trying our level best not to use lethal measures with at least the latter. We really didn’t want to kill the guys who didn’t have a choice with what they were doing. But that was costing us. Had already cost us.

The security panel. It was still there, just past a spot where Larees and that Hasty chick were fighting basically back to back. They were right there, the fighting going on all around the panel. But it wasn’t too damaged. Not yet. Plugging in this USB could still bring us some help. But first, I had to get there.

Briefly, I thought of just shouting out for the Seosten woman or the werewolf and telling them what to do while throwing or portaling the USB to them. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. Everyone would hear me, and I was pretty damn sure the bad guys would work out that they needed to destroy the panel pretty quick.

Had to get to it. And since whatever the floors and walls up here were made of, it wasn’t wood, I had to get there the old fashioned way. As I took a step, a figure blurred over to my right side. Theia. She flashed me a dangerous smile. “We’ll cover you. Get to the button to deploy presents for all the good boys and girls.”

Her saying the word ‘present’ instinctively made me tense up despite myself. But another voice spoke from my left. One of the Mirandas. “Yeah, we’ll cover you. Go. Go!”

No time to think about how Theia made me feel. Shaking it off, I went for it. The other two girls were on either side, covering me as we raced down the hallway. Theia’s fire and ice guns were busy. Mostly the latter, freezing people’s legs or other limbs. Meanwhile, Miranda’s energy shields kept us safe from that side. They blocked for me, and together we beelined right for that panel.

Four hefty figures were ahead of us. They looked like gray elephant-skinned orc things, and they clearly weren’t in any mood to move. Nor were they affected by either of Theia’s elemental guns, apparently simply absorbing both fire and ice with the only apparent reaction being that the parts of their bodies touched by either turned red or blue.

Oh, right, there was another effect. Namely, they spat out that fire and ice by opening their mouths to send it right back at us. We had to dive to the floor to avoid it. Then roll to either side (Theia one way and Miranda and I the other) so we wouldn’t be trampled as two of the four rushed to do just that, stampeding right where we had just been.

A quick input from Tabbris and I knew what to do next. Kicking myself up and into a roll, I ended right near the nearest gray elemental-absorbing orc and slapped a hand against the black leather pants that he wore. At that brief touch, my partner made a rune appear, once more using that instant-image power. She shoved more power into it, igniting the spell immediately.

The effect was just as immediate. The orc’s pants, and the rest of his clothes, turned to metal. He was trapped in place, utterly incapable of moving. I heard his shouts of confusion as he struggled, but the transformation extended down to his shoes. And they themselves were fused with the floor. He was stuck, and wouldn’t be a threat for awhile.

Unfortunately, there were still the other three. And while Theia/Pace and Miranda were dealing with two of them, that left one. Which was the one that yanked me up off the floor, throwing me into the ceiling hard enough to daze me. As I fell back down, a wild swing from the gray orc knocked the remaining sense from me, and I was pretty sure I blacked out for a second before the collision with a nearby wall snapped me awake once more.

Ow. Oww. At the last instant, Tabbris took over and threw us out of the way just as that same orc tried to stomp where my head had been. Then I was back in control, snapping my foot up and out of his reaching grasp. A thought sent a cloud of sand into his eyes, and I flipped myself backwards to my feet while he was recovering.

Still pain. Lots of pain. Regeneration was working on it, but this wasn’t fun.

Somewhere along the line of being thrown around, I’d dropped the laser sword that I had picked up. But I could still feel it. I knew where it was. As the gray orc–Deunren, Tabbris informed me. As the Deunren growled and lunged for me once more, I made a quick portal in the air above myself. The other end appeared right where my item-sense told me that laser sword was. It fell through, into my upraised hand. I hit the button to ignite the blade and swept it in front of myself quickly. The blade cut off both of the Deunren’s raised arms, making him stumble while crying out.

“Something something disarming pun,” I managed before slugging him in the face as hard as I could. Unable to put anything up to protect himself, he took the blow full on, crashing to the floor.

Hopping over him, I tried to reach the panel once more. There, I was there. I was right there.

Then I wasn’t. A gust of wind or something struck me. It felt like wind, but it was powerful enough to send me spinning down the hallway, tumbling into a heap.

I had no idea what had hit me, or if it had even been purposeful. There were so many powers and weapons being thrown around, I could’ve been targeted or that could’ve been accidental. But either way, now there were even more people between me and where I needed to get.

This wasn’t working. I couldn’t get there. The others couldn’t get there. Everyone who actually knew what to do at the security panel even if I could get the USB to them was pinned down. Larees was there with Hasty still, but neither of them knew what to do with it. And I couldn’t just shout across the– Wait a second. Duh. Stupid, Flick. There was something I could do for that. Part of which I had been practicing with basically all year long.

Keep them off us for a second, I sent inwardly while scrambling in my pocket. Tabbris took over my feet, making us backpedal as more enemies came for us. Two laser shots struck nearby before one hit my chest, but I absorbed it. By that point, Tabbris had sent up a cloud of sand, superheating it. The burning sand flew in a wild circle, forcing everyone back a few steps and giving us a momentary respite.

The whole time, my hands were moving. From my pocket, I managed to pull out Herbie in one hand. With the other, I produced a privacy coin. Quickly, I used it with myself as the only ‘allowed’ person to hear what I was saying.

Then I went back to fighting. Tabbris took over the other part. With Herbie in one hand, she used my–our ability to instill sound in an object. With my voice, she spoke the quick explanation, to plug the USB into the slot on the panel. The power would only let us use sounds that were a few seconds long. But there was a lot you could say in roughly five seconds if you were really motivated to make it fit.

The whole time she was fixing Herbie, I was avoiding all the guys who wanted me to be a smear on the ground. And there were a lot of them. Kushiel’s forces were everywhere. And they were clearly interested in what I was doing.

What I was doing right then, as it happened, was making a portal. The other end came out near where Larees was, and I quickly shoved a second privacy coin against Herbie, lodging it into the spot where his sword was while activating it to only allow the Seosten woman to hear. Then I chucked Herbie and the USB together through that portal while activating the sound projection on him.

She heard. And thanks to the privacy coin, no one else did. I saw Larees use her firebird to clear a space, shouting something to Hasty, who turned into a wolf and lunged onto the biggest of their opponents to clear a path. Larees went right over them, hitting the nearby panel where only a single enemy waited in her path.

The rest of the Seosten knew then. They made a beeline that way, a half-dozen of them converging on the spot where Larees was. They would get to her before she could deal with the single threat in her way and find the slot.

But a figure appeared in front of them. A very… very small figure. Namythiet. She flew down, hovering between the six enemy Seosten and Larees, with that tiny sword held out toward them. She said something I didn’t catch, but part of it was ‘Mister Seth’. The Seosten looked at each other for an instant, then ignored the tiny pixie to lunge past her.

That, ignoring Namythiet, was a mistake that they paid for immediately. Because that little pixie chose right then to show them (and me) why she had named the tiny sword of hers Cataclysm. The blade, itself about the size of a pin, began to glow bright red. A dozen lines of energy shot out away from it in the same positions as the numbers on a clockface, stretching about three feet in every direction before opening up a small portal at the end of each. And from each of those twelve portals appeared several more lines that created more. Twelve initial portals, each with three additional ones attached. Forty eight of them in all. Each were only about a few inches across. But through each of those portals appeared the barrel of various weapons. I saw cannons, rifles, wide-barreled shotguns, some kind of metal coil with electricity humming around it, even a flamethrower.

The literal arsenal instantly unleashed on the briefly paralyzed Seosten. Most of them managed to hurl themselves away from the worst of it at the last second. But two were caught right in the middle and went down for good, while the rest were at least injured. Not to mention the damage done to the wall behind them, which was quite literally blown to shreds. There wasn’t much of a ‘wall’ left to speak of.

It also gave Larees the chance she needed. The woman managed to deal with the only remaining threat that had been in her way, hopping over the falling body to reach the panel. Her hand slammed the USB into place.

And that was enough. The second the last number left her mouth, a dozen portals appeared all along the ceiling. Portals, not doorways. Which made sense. It meant that the turrets that shot down through those portals could actually be housed anywhere and just pop out where needed.

Either way, the turrets appeared and, as promised, began shooting only Kushiel’s forces with some kind of electrical stun blasts that knocked them out. Our side was completely safe, while theirs immediately began to collapse.

It was working. Between the turrets, which amounted to powerful reinforcements, and our own people, we quickly turned the tide against the mix of Kushiel’s Seosten and the controlled security forces. Getting that security to deploy had done the trick. We could hold them until the others managed to show up. We could hold them.

And then the turrets were ripped out of the ceiling. In a spray of sparks, they were torn down from the portals. The metal guns let out a scream of protest while being ripped open and flattened out. In the next second, while I was still realizing what had happened, pieces of the turrets began flying in every direction. Straight at us. One big piece slammed into my side before I could avoid it, knocking me to the ground. Then the chunk of metal literally wrapped around me, fusing itself to the floor while trapping me beneath it.

The same thing was happening everywhere else, up and down the hallway. Not just the turrets, but parts of the walls themselves, even the doors and decorations. They were all tearing their way free and trapping everyone on our side. The werewolves were being pinned in ways that would make it impossible for them to escape even if they shifted.

The green-skinned elf-like figure standing at the end of the hall with his arms going through motions like a conductor. It was him. He continued to pin everyone down. Then his form shifted once everyone was solidly trapped.

Ares. Abaddon. Whatever. It was him. He took back his normal form, while Radeuriel and Kushiel joined him. The three Olympians stood there, observing the corridor for a moment before starting to walk, calmly as they pleased, toward the door.

Where was Athena? Where was… was… anyone else? Where were they?

Not here. That was the answer, or at least the only one that mattered right then. They weren’t here.

Damn it, damn it. Move. I had to do something, anything!

There, Flick! Tabbris moved my eyes, making me look toward the unconscious figure lying nearby. It was one of the Seosten. I didn’t even know whose side they were on. He was several feet away, but that didn’t matter.

I saw Ares shift into another form as they walked, Kushiel casually telling him, “And make sure they don’t wake up any time soon.”

It was now or never. Whatever form Ares had shifted into, it would clearly knock everyone out. Quickly and as surreptitiously as possible, I made a tiny portal, just big enough to stick my finger through. With that finger, I touched the fallen Seosten and quickly possessed him.

My temporary host was unconscious, so I couldn’t see what happened. But I could hear some kind of pop in the air. I waited for a brief moment, then quickly stopped possessing him.

I was kneeling on the floor as I emerged from the unconscious man, keeping myself as low as possible. Ahead of me, the trio of Olympians had been joined by what remained of their forces. It wasn’t much, just three actual Seosten and a couple of the controlled security guards. But that was enough, considering everywhere else I looked, our side was knocked out. They’d been pinned beneath metal, then Ares had done… something. Whatever it was, whatever that popping sound had been, everyone was down. Everyone in the hallway that could have helped was unconscious.

Then it got worse. As the Olympians approached the door that led into the vault, there was a click, a chime, and then the door opened. It just opened for them. Just like that. the door was open. All that, everything we’d done, and Kushiel, Radueriel, and Abaddon were right there in front of the open door. They were about to go through it. They were about to go into the vault. Their little miniature honor guard or whatever it was had already gone inside. They were in.

We’re too late, Tabbris lamented, sounding crestfallen and about as broken as I felt then.

No, I shot back despite everything inside me saying she was right. We’re not. Boost.

With those words, I lunged to my feet. Shifting myself back to my normal form, I hurled myself that way. With everything I had, every last bit of strength and speed that I could drag from the pit of my soul, I sprinted down that hallway. The boost kicked in, and I was almost flying. My hands moved, calling my staff into their grip and pointing it behind me before I triggered the boost from that as well. And then I literally was flying. My feet left the ground as I rocketed straight to that group of Olympians.  Abaddon was at the back, then Radueriel, with Kushiel at the front. All of whom could kill me practically with a thought.

I hit them from behind. Only I didn’t hit them. I possessed them… all of them, in a line. One by one, starting with Abaddon, I possessed each one just long enough to avoid physically colliding with them before popping myself back out the front. I didn’t stay long enough to bother with a mental domination fight, because I wasn’t trying to control them. I possessed Abaddon, popped out through his front, immediately possessed Radueriel from behind before going out his front, and finally did the same with Kushiel. One by one, before my body even had time to shift properly from the glowing energy form that it took when exiting someone, I threw myself through all three of them, rocketing out of Kushiel before ending in a dive that took me the rest of the way into the vault itself.

As I passed through the last of them, my hand produced that crystal that Wyatt had given me. I let it go, before flipping over in the air. My staff was already shifting into its bow form as I took aim, drawing back an energy arrow. With a grunt, I released it, shooting the arrow back that way right as I landed in a crouch.

The arrow collided with that crystal, shattering it. I caught a brief glimpse of trio of Olympians there at the doorway, just as the spell on the crystal activated. A thick wall, appearing to be made of a mostly opaque crystal itself, appeared to block that doorway.

I was there. I was in the vault, which itself was mostly an empty circular room. Empty, that was, aside from a single pedestal in the middle of it with a book sitting on top. I was there and, for the moment, the Olympians weren’t.

It wouldn’t keep them out for long. But maybe… just maybe, it would be enough. Every second counted, and I had to hope… I had to believe that help was on its way. Deveron and the others in the panic room, Avalon, Gaia, and everyone else coming in through the other side. Seconds mattered. However long it would take Kushiel and the other two to break through that… whatever it was that Wyatt had given me, it might just be long enough.

Of course, I wasn’t in here alone. There were three non-Olympian Seosten and three other figures in here with me, all of whom looked pretty pissed off right then.

Help was on the way. It had to be. They were coming. But so were Kushiel, Radeuriel, and Abaddon. The first question was who would make it first.

And the second question, which sprang to mind as the guys in the room with me drew weapons of their own, was whether I would survive long enough for that to matter.

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On The Edge 42-04

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Quickly (and as concisely as possible) I explained the situation. I told the man about the Seosten, and about the vault they were trying to break into and why in as few words as I could manage without being too confusing. I told him about Athena fighting Ares, as well as the fact that Radueriel was controlling the security and other staff. I told him about how we’d come in to protect the vault, and why we couldn’t be up front about it, because we didn’t know who to trust.

He listened through all of it as I sped through the explanation, his expression pensive as he clearly stopped himself from speaking up a couple times so that he could hear the whole thing. Once I finished, he let out a long, low sigh before announcing, “This war shouldn’t have come here. The guests are supposed to be safe. We promised them that they were safe.”

Wincing, I nodded. “I’m sorry the Auberge was dragged into this. We had to come stop them. If we didn’t—”

He stopped me with a raised hand. “I know. You… you are your mother’s daughter. The Seosten need to be expelled from this place, now.”

My mouth open, before I caught myself. “Err, before I say anything else, can we get back to the girls I was with? They’re probably losing their minds right about now. I kind of have this habit of disappearing.”

The man looked at me for a moment, then gave a very tiny smile. “Yes,” he murmured, “mother’s daughter. And your friends are–”

That was as far as he got before the nearby door was kicked in. It came off its hinges, and both Larees and Asenath came through like they were bringing the fury of hell with them. Which, given the flames around Larees, might have been an apt comparison.

“Wait!” I blurted, jumping in the way before this could get any worse. “Wait! It’s okay! He’s–Uhh, he’s on our side. Or, you know, on the hotel’s side.”

They exchanged glances, then squinted at me. Asenath flicked her attention to the man in question and seemed… well, not very happy. Which I couldn’t blame her for. But at least they weren’t attacking. Taking advantage of that, I briefly introduced them before realizing I didn’t know the man’s name.

“Francis,” he announced, apparently immediately realizing the same thing. “Francis Gale. And I want these Seosten and their people out of this hotel.”

“Any more contact from anyone else?” I asked the other two, not really expecting any, but I had been surprised before.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times, both shook their heads. Asenath spoke quietly. “We don’t know where anyone is, just that they’re busy fighting. And we are pretty sure no one’s managed to find Kushiel yet. Or Radueriel himself. Just the people his devices are controlling.”

“Which is a distraction,” I put in. “We could fight those guys for hours while the real threats break right into the vault. We need to find the room they’re trying to break into. And get everyone together again.”

Francis shook his head. “No, you don’t. You just need to get to Caela Tombs’ office. She’s the owner. If you get to her and explain what’s going on, she can expel them. Privilege of the owner. They can expel any guest, which sends them out of the Auberge immediately.”

Asenath did a quick double take at that. “You mean we can cut this whole thing off at the pass by kicking them out of the building before they ever get to that vault.” She looked to me then, eyes solemn. “We have to get to the owner.”

Larees was nodding, but her eyes were on Francis. “Yeah, but I have a feeling if it was that simple, he’d be on his way to do it already.”

“Hey, yeah.” I looked back to the man. “You should know where she is, right? Can you just grab her. Hell, you just made that portal, can’t you just portal us to where she is?”

He winced, looking apologetic. “There is a problem with that. They’ve done something with these.” From his pocket, the man produced what looked like a silver ball ornament with some kind of circuitry running over it. “They’ve got these all over the hotel. They’re blocking my power. I’m a hybrid Steward. Basically it means I draw my power from my home and the people in it. But these things cut me off from that power. They must have been planting them for days, at least. They just turned them on, and wherever they are, I can’t use my power until they’re broken. I can’t even leave the safe area or I’ll… well, it won’t be pretty. That’s why I had to wait for you to come into my range, and we only teleported over a couple hallways.”

I exhaled, trying not to make it sound like too much of a sigh. “Right, so if we break those things, you can come with us and help get to that owner lady so that she can expel the Seosten.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Caela and her son will be in the panic room by now. If I can get to it, I can open it. Then I can tell her who to expel. She won’t just kick every guest out without knowing what’s going on. And she doesn’t know that our security has been compromised. So I have to get to her.” He paused then, looking like it was hard for him to add the next part. “But I need your help to do that.”

Larees was taking a long, steady pull from her flask. “Sounds like we need to get everyone focused on breaking those devices from here to the panic room.” She paused, taking another gulp before her eyes found the man once more. “I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough for it to be somewhat close to here.”

Sure enough, he shook his head. Raising a hand, he created an image of a map on the wall. It showed a side view of the hotel. “We’re standing here. The office with the safe room access is here.” The place he demonstrated was a full eight floors from where we were standing and on the opposite side of the building.

Makes sense, Tabbris silently put in. They’d want to trap him as far from being able to help as they could.

Agreeing with that, I passed the point on verbally before adding, “Everyone’s spread out right now, fighting security and the Seosten themselves while they look for that room.”

“Nine twelve.” That was Francis. “The room you’re looking for is nine twelve. And from what you said, it sounds like their leaders were staying in nine thirteen, next door. Here.” He showed us on the map.

I started to say something to that, but the man abruptly held up a hand. “Wait, something’s coming.” He put himself in front of me clearly protectively, which made me blink. My mother really must have made an impression on him. I’d have to ask him about that sometime. And also ask him how he remembered her after everything had been erased. Was it because the Auberge was in a pocket dimension, like how the Meregan has remembered her by being in another universe?

With one hand, Francis produced a long, wicked looking red-bladed sword. All of us watched that open doorway, before a wolf came trotting in. A familiar wolf.

“Wait!” I blurted once more, slipping out from behind the man. “It’s Roxa, she’s on our side.”

A moment later, Gidget entered as well, and Roxa transformed. Belatedly, I realized that she was wearing one of the Seosten bodysuits. Apparently spending some time at that camp had resulted in a little present.

Brief introductions and explanations were passed back and forth, and then the werewolf girl looked over to me. “It’s World War Three out there,” she blurted. “Everyone’s pretty much avoiding this area right here, but beyond that, it’s pure chaos.”

“They’re staying away from where Francis has power,” I realized. “Which means we need to make that area bigger. We need to break those blocker things, and get to the safe room. If we can get the owner to expel them before they get into the vault, we win.”

Roxa held up a prepared bit of wood. “I can use my fossa to get to everyone and pass the message about breaking those things. And about where the vault door is so they can head that way just in case. But I’ll need someone to watch my back.” Her eyes glanced toward her partner before she added, “Someone to help Gidget, that is.”

“I will make certain no one harms you,” Francis promised.

Larees nodded. “I’ll head for the vault access myself, try to stall them as much as possible. And collect people along the way.”

I looked to Asenath then. “I guess you and I are going to fight our way to the safe room and break all those ornament things we can find.“

Her smile was humorless, and I could see the pain of loss in her eyes. “Break things and fight people. You know, I think I’m ready to do that right now.”

Looking toward Roxa, I asked, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“As okay as anyone else in here,” she pointed out, “or anyone trying to get to the vault from the other end. It’s fine. I can use the spell, and I can communicate through it. My fossa’s quick and agile. I can make it to where everyone is and tell them about breaking the things trapping Francis here, and where the room is. I can do that. You guys go get the owner to kick these bastards out.”

Returning her nod, I looked back to Asenath. “Then I guess it’s you and me. Though I am kind of at a disadvantage. The second I pull out my staff, they’re gonna know who I am. Which means they’ll  know what I can do. They’ll know I can possess them. And that’s probably something we should hold back. Knowledge is power, you know.”

“Do you know how to use any other weapon?” Francis asked.

“I’ve got a knife I can use,” I replied. “Not to mention my werelion claws. And I’ve been training with the bow for awhile.” Even saying those words made me think of Rudolph and I flinched inwardly. Focus. Grieve later, for him, for Seth, for everyone we needed to grieve for.

Holding one hand out, Francis produced a silver bow with a golden string. “It’ll produce arrows when you draw it back,” he informed me. “But it’ll only last as long as you’re here in the hotel.” He paused then before adding, “And try not to kill anyone that you don’t have to, okay? The guests here are supposed to be safe.”

I smiled, taking it. “I will, thanks.” Looking to the others, I nodded. “Right, let’s do this then.”

*******

A tall, thin figure with purple skin and gray hair who wore a security uniform caught the arrow that had been shooting toward his leg. In a single motion, he flipped the arrow around and threw it back at me. I barely managed to snap my head out of the way.

Yeah, I was really missing my own weapon right about then. This one produced real arrows that didn’t even explode. I was back in the form of red-headed Gabrielle, hoping that Athena‘s suggestion that I keep my presence and identity secret for as long as possible would pay off.

Just as the arrow passed my head, Asenath was there to catch it. Then she was a practically invisible blur, suddenly arriving behind the security guy who had appeared in our path. The arrow lashed out to cut the man’s leg, and then she gave him a shot of against the wall as he fell. Looking to me, she beckoned. I gave the man one last look while he was trying to pick himself up before running past him. On the way, I reached out and brush the hand across his flailing arm, giving him a quick look to make sure there wasn’t a Seosten there.

Roxa had been right, the area beyond the place where Francis had his powers was total and complete chaos. There were bodies lying here and there, screams coming from every direction, and we kept being attacked from all sides. People were popping out of rooms to attack us. Some thought they were defending themselves, while others were being controlled. Even that latter wasn’t always the same. Some were controlled by actual Seosten, while others were simply taken over by Radueriel’s toys. It was a total madhouse. And I was pretty sure there was a bad fire somewhere nearby.

Complicating things even further was the fact that we were looking for those little blocker things that were keeping Francis trapped. Apparently the Seosten hadn’t been nice enough to have only one thing per area. There were dozens overlapping the same spot, and they weren’t exactly easy to find. We needed help.

Reaching the bank of elevators for that floor, we were just in time to see a large gorilla pick up one of the uniformed security and truck him against the nearest wall, where he slumped. A Seosten popped out of him with a laser sword, only to be met with a fist to the face from another Seosten who popped out of the gorilla before catching the falling energy blade by the handle and used it to backhand his surprised opponent.

A second later, a figure moving even faster than Asenath suddenly appeared. That Bobbi girl, in some kind of armored costume thing. She skidded to a halt, throwing out on arm before an arc of electricity shot from her fingers to connect with a man who had been moving behind what was obviously Twister and her Seosten partner.

Then there was Namythiet. And Clubber. The latter came racing down the hallway from the opposite direction we had approached from. Right behind the green sabertooth tiger cub came a huge troll of some kind. He was almost too big to fit in the hallway, his pounding footsteps thundering as he charged after the little animal with a roar.

I quickly moved to intervene, but it wasn’t necessary. Right before the tiger would have been covered, the even tinier figure of Namythiet shot down from the ceiling where she had been hiding. The pixie landed on the troll’s head and stuck something to his face. There was a flash of energy and then the troll suddenly collapsed, snoring heavily after his body hit the ground.

“Nighty night!” Namythiet crowed, waiting down at the unconscious figure as she hovered in the air before noticing us. “Hiya!”

Zipping closer, she hovered in front of our faces while Twister and Bobbi also approached. “Everyone went crazy, but we haven’t found the vault door thingy yet. Is Mr. Seth with Athena still?”

Oh God, what was I supposed to say to that? She looked so expectant, looking back and forth between us without the slightest clue of what we had to tell her. Seth was her teacher, her friend. He took her seriously when so many others dismissed her as a useless, tiny pest. This would hurt her so much.

“Who?” That was Twister, clearly instantly reading our silent expressions.

“Who what?” Bobbi asked, blinking between us. Then she got it too. I couldn’t see her face through the helmet, but her body language changed completely, slumping. “Oh no.”

“What?” Namythiet looked confused. Or maybe she just wanted to be confused, clinging to that uncertainty for the precious last second or two that she could before reality settled in fully.

It was Asenath who answered. “Ares. It was Ares. I’m sorry. None of us could do anything. It was over before—”

“Don’t.” Namythiet shook her head quickly. She was so small I couldn’t see her eyes very well. But I could hear the emotion in her voice, could tell that she was barely clinging on. “We don’t talk about it right now, okay? We don’t talk about it. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.” Her voice kept rising with each word, becoming more desperate as she suddenly blurted out loud, “Don’t tell me!”

So we changed the subject. Quickly, I explained what we were doing, giving a very brief summary. When I got to the part about the spell ball things that were blocking Francis’s power, Bobbi abruptly held one up.

“You mean these things? I drained a couple of them for power back there. I didn’t know what they were, but they tasted good.”

My eyes widened at that. “Can you do that with more of them? Say, all the ones you can find?”

She nodded easily. “Sure. But the finding them part might be a little tricky.”

“I can do that.” Namythiet’s voice was firm, determined. “I can program one of them to find the others. Then you can drain them. At least, I think I can…” Despite her determination, she suddenly sounded a little doubtful. Losing Seth had rocked her that badly.

“You can.” The voice came from Clubber. Or from the Seosten who stepped up from him, carefully holding the emerald kitten in both arms. She was shorter than my natural body was, with red hair that was almost pink and worn long. “I know what these are. I can help you make something to locate them. With a Hephaesetical pixie, it shouldn’t be hard.”

The Seosten who had been in Twister cleared his throat. “The rest of us–Seosten that is, can head for the vault. We’ll do what we can to help the others stop the malefica from getting into that room.”

“And I’ll play muscle down here with these guys,” Twister announced. “We’ll get it done.”

“You’ll have help,” I put in then. “Roxa’s getting the word out to the others. But if you can get a jump on things while we get to that office…”

“Go,” Twister urged. “We’ve got this.”

I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to the pixie some more and make sure she would be okay. I wanted to do a lot of things, but there wasn’t time. There was never time. So, with one last look back, Asenath and I rushed on. The elevators were completely locked down, so we had to use the stairs, and there were plenty more problems in our way. We fought our way through said problems, trying to do as little damage as possible while still getting past the people trying to kill us.

It was slow going, but eventually, we reached the area right before the office where the panic room was. There was only one real problem still in our way. Or rather, a lot of problems.

“That is many, many guards,” Asenath noted in a whisper. The two of us were peeking through a side door in at a large foyer which was full of about a dozen Seosten soldiers. They wore the same cadet bodysuit that had been pointed out to me before. So they weren’t that old, but still. A dozen was too many. Especially given that they were ready and waiting, clearly guarding the office.

“We could try it,” Senny whispered, “but I don’t like our odds. That’s a lot of bad guys, and we don’t happen to have an Olympian with us to help right now.”

My mouth open to respond, then I stopped. My head tilted.

Yes, my little partner put in. Yes, we can do it.

“I have an idea,” I announced aloud. “But I need to know how much you trust me.”

Asenath blinked. “Of course I trust you. But is this a good idea, or a completely fucking insane idea?”

I smiled.

“Yes.”

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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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Interlude 41A – Pace, Theia, Miranda, and Abigail

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“Oooh, can we get a Two-Face suit?”

The question from Theia came as she (with Pace, of course) stood in the middle of a clothing store holding a black leather jacket in one hand and a red leather jacket with the other. The store itself was a relatively small, corner-located business that specialized in second-hand clothing.

Abigail blinked once at the question, looking over to the girl(s) from where she stood at another of several nearby clothing racks. “A… two-face suit?” She had brought the girls here thanks to a conversation they’d been having earlier. Abigail had asked when Theia’s birthday was, which was something the girl herself didn’t know. Appalled by that, Abigail had said they would make today her birthday. So now they were out shopping for presents. Presents which, among other things, included getting Theia and Pace some actual personal clothes that they could enjoy.

The whole birthday thing was also helping to take Abigail’s mind off the memory of being abducted and nearly killed by her own much younger half-brother, who himself ended up dead in the process.

It had been a very long school year.

“She means like this.” Moving by Theia, Miranda reached out to take the jackets before arranging them next to each other so that the left half of one and the right half of the other were hidden, leaving the two jackets looking like one with different colors on each side. “Two-Face. You know, Batman.”

“We would make a very good Batman,” Theia noted. “Except for killing people. And being a girl. And not a detective. Or rich. Or broody. But we do enjoy beating people up. And scaring people by magically appearing behind them. Which is worth at least a passing grade at Batmanning.”

“So which is it?” Miranda asked, “Do you want to be Two-Face or Batman?”

Theia’s mouth opened, before the girl paused, a sudden gasp of realization escaping her. “We have a brilliant idea. Where is the nearest Batman writer? We can–”

“You can’t turn Two-Face into Batman,” Miranda interrupted, catching the other girl by the arm. “I’m pretty sure something like that already happened with Spider-Man anyway.”

“Besides,” Pace put in then as she briefly took over, “we’re here for new clothes. And if we went with a Two-Face suit, we’d probably stand out just a little bit. Or a batsuit,” she added belatedly before completely changing the subject, as she was wont to do. “You have a codename now too.”

“It’s not a codename,” the other girl corrected, “it’s a Garden name. It’s supposed to signify your rebirth or loyalty to the tribe, or to the Tree, or… whatever.”

Abigail sighed, looking to her. “The name is an insult. You know why they chose it, what they mean by it.”

Meeting her gaze, Miranda shrugged. “Stray? Yeah, I know why they offered the name Stray. Because I’m straying from the tribe, supposedly. Because I’m just a stray in general, just a nobody orphan that sniffs around until someone takes me in. And I know they expected me to object and drag it out. They expected me to make a big fuss about it, expected me to refuse and go with a different name. But I don’t need a different name. The name doesn’t make me, I make the name. And I’ll make this one what I want it to be.”

Theia, watching her carefully, offered an uncharacteristically somber, “Names are powerful. Like a wild bull. If you control it, you’re strong. But sometimes people throw you onto one, because they want it to throw you off and trample you. They throw you onto a bad name, because they want to hurt you.”

“I can ride this bull,” Miranda replied simply. “They don’t get to win.”

Running a hand over the girl’s hair, Abigail looked like she was going to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she settled on reaching out to pick a handful of clothes. “Here, why don’t you three go ahead and head into the back to try these on. See if you like any of them, then we can go from there.” The woman smiled a little. “And while you do that, I’ll see if there’s a Batman costume hiding somewhere in the corner over there.”

The girls headed into the changing rooms at the back. Theia and Pace stepped into the nearest booth, taking some of the clothes in with them. Unfortunately, they had only just positioned themselves in front of the mirror with a pair of pants held up in front of Pace’s body when both abruptly stopped their ongoing inner dialogue about what color was better. Pace’s head turned, but it was hard to say which of them turned it. Both were in sync, both with that and with the slow, careful sniff that came next.

“Heretics,” Theia muttered aloud.

“Strange Heretics,” Pace added.

“What?” That last one was Miranda, poking her head under the partition to stare up at them. “What do you mean strange Heretics?”

Theia opened the door, whispering, “We smell Garden things. Fresh Garden things. And it’s not the Selling man. Four…” She sniffed again. “Five of them. On Theia-My’s birthday too. Rude.”

She started for the front, but Miranda stopped her with a hand on Pace’s arm. “Wait. They can’t see you like this, remember? Let me go check what’s going on. Just… wait here.”  She gave them a brief look of warning before quietly moving that way to glance around the corner.

Unfortunately, she did so just in time to be grabbed by the arm and neck and yanked fully out into the front area. The large man gripping her was covered in some kind of red metal that coated his skin, and he was incredibly strong. In one motion, he hauled Miranda into sight and gave her a firm shove, tossing the girl into the middle of the room. She landed next to Abigail.

“Hey!” Abigail herself reached down to help Miranda up, glaring at the man. “Watch what you’re doing, she’s a student!”

“What are you doing?” Miranda put in then, even as she set herself in front of Abigail. The other woman may have been older, but she was far less experienced if this came down to a fight. And Miranda knew too much about Eden’s Garden to think that this guy and his friends were here just to talk. “You–” She started to look for the proprietor of the shop, only to see the man lying unconscious near the checkout counter. One of the other Heretics was standing nearby. Another was by the door, scribbling a spell onto it that would convince any Bystanders who approached to go somewhere else. That was three, while the other two remained out of sight.

“You attacked that poor man,” Abigail finished Miranda’s sentence, pointing that way. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Who are we?” the red-armored guy who had thrown Miranda to the ground echoed with a smirk. The armor went away, revealing a man who appeared to be a Pacific Islander, and a well-built one at that. “We’re the heroes, duh.”

Abigail’s voice was flat. “Yes, I’m sure the Greeks would have been proud to write stories about what heroes you are, pushing around little girls and attacking innocent old men.”

“He’ll be fine.” The words came from one of the larger coat racks, as a man stepped into view. He wasn’t that tall, standing a couple inches under six feet, with a thin goatee and slicked back dark hair. “He’s just sleeping. We spend enough time risking our lives to protect these Bystanders, the least they can do is take a nap when we want to have a private conversation.”

“I know you,” Miranda announced, staring at the man while still standing protectively in front of Abigail. “Lovac. Your name is Lovac. You’re Weston Marrero’s uncle.” The boy and his arm-candy girlfriends Josie and Kumiko (who were suspiciously similar in appearance with Flick and Shiori) had clearly been holding a grudge against Miranda ever since she and Koren had their confrontation with them much earlier. The confrontation which had led to finding the video of Pace first being possessed.

“Yeah,” Lovac agreed, “so maybe I’m enjoying this a little more than I would.”

“Enjoying what?” Abigail demanded, setting a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. “What is it you want? You have to have a point to all this. A point other than posturing, I mean.”

The large man who had been armored a moment earlier started to speak, but Lovac interrupted him. “A point? Yeah, there’s a point. But for the record, if you’re waiting for Seller to show up, you’re going to be waiting for awhile. Let’s just say the Victors have a job for him that should keep him out of the way long enough to do what we need to do.”

Squeezing Miranda’s shoulder before the girl could retort, Abigail spoke first, keeping her voice as calm and level as possible to avoid setting off this powder keg. “And what is it you think you need to do?”

A slight smirk touched the man’s face as he casually replied, “You think you’re hot shit. Old Bystander lawyer, stomping in and waving the rule book around. You think most of us care what some dusty old paper says? We’re the ones doing the work. We’re the ones protecting humans, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty. You think you can just come in here, wag your finger, and change everything? You’ve got another thing coming. Mostly pain. Now, we’re not gonna kill you. After all, you’re one of us. But when we’re done, both of you are going to think twice before you try to throw your weight around again. You’ll shut up and do what you’re told.” He smiled thinly then. “Or we’ll just come back and give you the lesson until it sticks.”

The man who had put the spell on the door spoke up. “Stray there needs to be reminded that her loyalty is to Garden, not to some stupid little friend from Bystander school. And you need to figure out that you ain’t a lawyer here. You’re a bitch who can’t even fight. Maybe taking a little beating will make that sink i–”

That was as far as he got, before there was an abrupt and terrifying crash as something… or someone was hurled through the front window of the store. All eyes jerked that way in time to see another Garden Heretic, bound, gagged, and unconscious, crash to the floor amidst the shattered glass.

An instant later, the door was kicked open, as Theia appeared. She caught hold of the man there by the head, slamming him sideways with enough force to put a hole in the nearby wall from the impact. At the same time, she kicked his feet out from under him. Then she snapped his dazed form back the other way to drive his head into the counter before letting his unconscious form drop to the floor.

“You will not touch Miss Abigail or Miranda-Stray,” she informed the men. There was no humor in her voice, no mockery or sense of mischievous fun. She was bristling with anger.

Weapons were yanked free as the men all focused on the intruder, before Lovac put a hand up to stop them. He was staring, a bit wide-eyed at the figure. “… Pace? That… you’re… you’re a…” Slowly, he looked her up and down, a gradual smile touching his face. “Oh, this is beautiful. This is even better than I could’ve imagined. They’ve been harboring you? And you’re a monster. Werewolf, right? That’s my guess. Werewolf. Were something anyway. They’ve been hiding a fucking werewolf and lying about it? Oh, that is… thank you. Thank you all so much. Now we don’t have to stop at just beating the shit out of them. We can have them imprisoned. Probably even wiped and banished. This is just like… I’m so happy right now.” Belatedly, he added toward Theia, “And you can be dealt with properly of course. Locked up until you’re useful, or put down to make room for something that is. Like any other abomination.” Even as he spoke, the man was gently rubbing his thumb along the shaft of the long, metallic spear he had produced.  

Righteous fury filled Abigail’s voice then, as she snapped, “She’s not an abomination! Listen to yourself, what makes you think she’s any different than she was before? She has different powers now because she’s a werewolf? That doesn’t make her a monster! You have to judge people by their actions! She even knocked out your friends there instead of killing them! Would a mindless monster do that? Think for yourselves! Think! What has she actually done to make you call her a monster?!”

“Well,” Lovac replied casually while shifting his spear from one hand to the other. “She killed the poor, innocent Bystander that owns this store, for one.”

“What?” Miranda blurted, head shaking. “No, she didn’t! He’s fine! He’s right there!”

“Huh.” Lovac shrugged. Then, without any further preamble, unceremoniously drove his spear down through the unconscious shop owner’s chest. “That’s funny, he looks pretty dead to me.”

Miranda and Abigail both shouted in horror and disbelief, the latter throwing herself that way. She went to her knees by the impaled man. “What–what are you doing?! He–he was an innocent old man! What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Wrong?” Lovac echoed. “Wrong with me? Nothing. What’s wrong is you not understanding something important. That guy was weak. We’re strong. The Strangers we kill or put to work, they’re weak. We’re strong. You are weak. We are strong. You think we don’t know that there’s Strangers out there just… living their dull lives, playing house, not attacking anyone? Of course we know. But we don’t care. We kill them, we get power. Because we’re stronger. We’re better. We are the superior breed. How are you not doing the math on this? Do I have to simplify it down to the point that your pathetic Bystander-bred mind can comprehend the–”

In mid-sentence, the man was cut off, his voice turning to the squeal of air escaping a balloon while he doubled over. Abigail’s foot was planted firmly between his legs.

“Funny,” the woman snapped, “the superior breed still has an off-switch.”

Chaos erupted then. The man who had been standing by Miranda armored up once more, spinning to grab the girl only to miss as she dove out of the way. Across the room, the other man brought his shotgun up, firing a shot at the front area where Pace and Theia stood.

With a roar of anger the man lashed out with his spear, only to have it caught by a suddenly-moving Theia, who had blurred forward away from the other man’s shotgun blast. She snatched hold of the spear to stop it, glowering. “I told you, you’re not touching Miss Abigail.”

Lovac’s response was a bellow, as a ball of concussive force erupted from his hand, slamming into the girl to send her flying backwards. She crashed through into the back area where the changing rooms were.

“Deal with them!” he snapped to his companions, already sprinting that way. “I’ll handle this one.” With those words, his body blurred as he too activated his own enhanced speed, reaching the back in an instant.

A broken off chunk of concrete from the back wall flew like a bullet at the man’s head as he stepped into the back room. But he twisted aside at the last instant, letting the projectile pass by, missing him by centimeters. In the process, he dropped his spear, leaving it to clatter along the floor.

Then a red blast of energy took the man in the face, burning his skin and singing that thin goatee even as his head jerked back with a gasp. Theia was there, her kusarigamas raised in their gun forms. Her finger pulled the trigger of the second weapon, sending a white freezing blast his way.

He recovered fast, conjuring a forcefield in front of himself that caught both incoming beams. A quick gesture with one hand collapsed part of the ceiling above the girl, forcing her to dive out of the way. With that opening, the man kicked his speed in once more, rushing that way. Before the girl could recover, he caught her by the throat while using his other hand to knock both weapons from her grasp. With a shout of fury, Lovac slammed her into the wall. Then he did it again, harder.

“Think I’ll get all your Heretic powers and there werewolf ones when I kill you, cunt?” he demanded while making a fist with the hand that wasn’t closed tightly around her throat. “Let’s find out.”

His fist slammed forward, only to collide with the bone-armor that had suddenly appeared around Pace’s body, including her face. Before he could recover from that, the girl shot a collection of bone darts into his foot, making him stumble just a little. That was enough for Theia to jerk free of his grip on her throat, catching his shoulders to hold herself up long enough to slam her armored head into his face.

Landing on her feet, Theia made a blade of bone pop from her armored wrist, snapping, “We are killing him.” With those words, she lashed out.

“We?” the man echoed, catching the blade before snapping it off. He kicked the girl back against the wall before driving the broken bone-blade for the slots in her bone-helmet. “It’s just you and me back here, bitch.”

Pace jerked their head out of the way an instant before the blade would have struck home. I’ll keep us alive, she privately informed her Seosten partner. You focus on putting him down.

Lovac was already following up his first bone-blade swipe with another, but Pace instantly ducked down and under his extended arm, Theia taking the opportunity to drive their fist into his gut. She extended another bone-blade in the process, but it snapped off against his skin.

What followed was a tornado of madness and violence that utterly demolished the back rooms. Acid, bone-darts, fire, and more were thrown in every direction. The two figures slammed each other through the walls of the changing areas, kicked benches into one another, used the shattered mirrors to fling glass into each other’s eyes, and thoroughly destroyed every scrap of furniture in the process. And considering their enhanced speed, all of it took less than a minute.

Lovac should have won handily, given his age, experience, and greater powers. But the man was too angry to take a step back and use his better abilities. And beyond that, he also wasn’t fighting only one person. Pace being able to focus solely on keeping them alive while Theia took any possible opening for attack was an advantage that allowed them to mostly keep up with him. Even then, he was still vastly superior, but their werewolf regeneration helped pick up some of the slack.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough. In the end, Theia and Pace ended up on the ground. They were just starting to roll over, as Lovac drove his spear that he had managed to collect at some point through their left leg. The pain drew a howl from them. Which was worse as the sharp point at the end of the spear extended outward like a grappling hook, individual blades snapping into place to hold the spear in position so that it would be almost impossible to yank back out again.

“You like that?!” The man’s voice was high from the rush of violence, his breathing haggard. “Huh, you little bitch?! Tell me! You like it? You like losing?! You like knowing you’re about to die? You like knowing that?! You lose! All that, all that was worthless! You’re gonna die! What do you think of that?! What the fuck do you think of that?” He was so angry in that moment that it had taken him so much to actually put the girl on the ground that he wasn’t thinking clearly. His eyes were wild and crazed.

Lying there, Theia and Pace both looked up at the man. They stared for a moment. Then, together and yet with the same voice, they chuckled softly until it became a full on laugh.

Lovac, looking worn and bruised, stood there, spear impaled through Pace’s leg as he glared down at her. Spitting blood, the man demanded, “The hell do you think is so funny?”

From her position on the floor, Theia gave him a simple smile that was barely visible through the intense bruising already adorning Pace’s face. “We… are just… wondering how you are going to like being killed by a werewolf who is also a Heretic.”

With a sneer, Lovac twisted the spear in her leg to drive even more pain through Pace’s body. “Kill me? You’re as delusional as you are stupid. You aren’t killing anyone. You can’t even stand up. You’re just as pathetic as–”

In mid-sentence, a hand covered the man’s mouth. An instant later, the hand and the arm it was attached to turned into a tree branch. Part of that tree branch extended into the man’s open mouth, driving its way down his throat while he gave a muffled scream.

“She meant the other one, jackass,” Roxa Pittman informed him, before extending the branch that had been sent down through the man’s throat out in every direction. Sharp wood was driven through his heart, stomach, lungs, and more. Every internal organ in the man’s torso was torn apart in an instant.

Shifting her arm back to normal, Roxa let the body fall then, while her glowing bronze aura filled the demolished room. The pleasure made her stagger, almost falling as a loud gasp escaped the girl.

“Either the Heretic killgasm has become contagious,” Theia noted thoughtfully, “or we are just very glad that man is dead.” Pace took over then, expression clearing despite the pain as she quickly asked, “Miranda and Abigail?”

Roxa took a knee, nodding. “They’re fine. Mateo and the rest already helped Miranda finish dealing with the guys out there. Here.” Getting the girls to lift their leg a bit, she checked the spear before hitting the button that made the blades close back up into the shaft. Then she took hold of it and gave them a three count before tearing the weapon out. “Seller sent a message, said they were keeping him busy and that you might need help. You okay?”

It was Pace who replied. “Werewolf healing, can’t beat it.”

“You can if you use Heretic powers to stack a lot more healing on top of it,” Roxa pointed out with a wry smirk. With the bloodied spear in one hand, she extended the other to help them up. “Come on. We may have dealt with the initial problem, but there’ll be more. One of those guys got some kind of message out. Besides, I’m pretty sure Mateo wants to make you, Abigail, and Miranda an offer.”

Theia’s head tilted as she moved their hand to take Roxa’s, painfully straightening up even as their leg began to heal with the spear no longer embedded in it. “An offer?”

“Well,” Roxa pointed out, “you guys can’t exactly go back to Eden’s Garden like that. Not after what happened here. You’re kind of off on your own, and you’re gonna have a lot of pissed off Heretics who want to kill you. So it kind of sounds to us like what you guys need is a pack.”

It was Pace’s turn to blink at that, taking over the body to speak. “Miranda and Abigail aren’t wolves,” she pointed out. “Is that even allowed? I mean, traditionally a werewolf pack is for… you know, werewolves.”

“Sure, usually,” Roxa admitted with a shrug. “But what can I say?

“I’ve never really been much for tradition.”

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Before The Vault 41-02

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Please note, if you missed it, that the first chapter of this arc was posted on Wednesday. In the event that you have not read it yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above to avoid any confusion. 

“So,” I asked Avalon a bit later, “you anxious to meet your ancestor or what?”

We were standing in the middle of Gaia’s beautiful crystal cavern place. The prototype transport was nearby, but our focus was on the empty area in front of us, where the others would soon be arriving from their entirely too long sojourn in deep Seosten space.

The place was actually pretty crowded right then. Avalon and I were there, along with Dare (I was absolutely not going to allow myself to think of her too much as Grandma because that would be a good way of screwing up out loud), Gaia, Doug, Sean, Roxa, Sariel, Tabbris, Haiden, Vanessa, Tristan, and, of all people, Theia. She had asked to come and I’d seen no reason to say no, so I’d passed the request to Gaia.

Theia had apparently been pretty pissed off to find out that Abigail had been abducted. Before we managed to make it back and let her know that everything was okay, she had pretty much gone into some kind of berserker rage. Meanwhile, Fossor had apparently sent a group of his minions to kill Miranda at the motel room that the two of them had been staying in.

From what we’ve gotten out of the single survivor later, Fossor had wanted Miranda dead not only because she had been becoming close with both Abigail and Koren, but also because she was my best friend. He probably considered it a two birds with one stone sort of thing.

Unfortunately for him and all the men he had sent, no one had anticipated a quite thoroughly pissed-off Theia. That single survivor? He was one of the twenty who had been sent.

So yeah, she had saved Miranda’s life. I had no problem with her being here.

In response to my question, Avalon gave a slight shrug. “Leaning closer to what,” she admitted. “I don’t do well with actual family. I haven’t exactly had a good record with them so far.”

Wincing at the reminder, I reached out to put a hand on the girl’s back. “Trust me, Dries is different. Uh, very different, in a lot of ways. But he cares about you, even if he doesn’t actually know you. He wants to. He asked a lot about you while I was out there. He’s… definitely a unique guy. A unique guy who has been through a lot. And one of the few times that I actually saw him look happy and hopeful was when we were talking about you. So trust me, he is nothing like your father.”

Even though we were standing a bit away from the others and whispering, Gaia still glanced our way and gave me a brief smile and nod of encouragement. She had heard all of that. Actually, they had probably pretty much all heard it, even if they were being polite about it. The acoustics in this place were pretty good even before you added in super powers.

There were a few people missing from our little group, obviously. First of all, we were missing a couple members of our team. A couple twin members, to be exact. Sands and Scout weren’t even at the school at the moment. Larissa had announced that she was taking them on a brief holiday to celebrate her return from the dead. The three of them were off on some adventure.

Yeah, three of them. I still didn’t know exactly what happened during Larissa’s reunion with her husband, but I did know that he didn’t go with them. And the twins had been staying with her in a different apartment than his, even before they left on this little trip. I kind of felt bad for Liam, wherever he was, but… kind of not. It was his fault, after all, that the first rebellion had been exposed and forced into full scale war in the first place. Even if he did think he was doing the right thing.

And yet, these were his daughters and his wife. As angry as I felt at what he had done, I still… yeah, still kind of felt bad about it. Not to mention the fact that if he hadn’t done what he did, there was a fair chance that I wouldn’t even exist. Things still could have turned out similarly once they did eventually get out into the open, yes, but… even that much could have changed everything. Hell, if he hadn’t done what he did, Abigail and Wyatt might not exist. Butterflies.

The point was, it was complicated. I had no idea how to feel about Liam, aside from a whole mess of emotions and thoughts that often outright contradicted one another.

All of those thoughts swirled their way through my very confused mind before a sudden light caught my attention. Looking that way quickly right along with the others, we all saw a glowing white portal appear, almost like a movie theater screen right in the middle of the cave. A moment later, Jazz and Gordon appeared, hopping through to land in front of us.

“You made it!” I blurted, moving to embrace Jazz first. After all, knowing why Gordon didn’t like to be touched didn’t make it okay to just ignore that and grab him. In fact, it would’ve made it pretty damn stupid, given his reasons.

“Yup.” Smirking a little, Jazz returned the hug before stepping back. “Sorry it took awhile, we didn’t get to take a shortcut like you guys.” She nodded toward Tristan and Vanessa before Roxa found her way to the girl for her own hug.

Gordon, meanwhile, actually embraced Doug. The two of them hugged tightly for just a moment before releasing one another, each taking a couple steps back while looking embarrassed. Somehow, I managed to avoid rolling my eyes at them. Boys.  

“Mr. Kuhn, Miss Rhodes,” Gaia started with a fond smile. “It’s a relief to see that you are safe.”

“Oh, uhh,” Jazz hesitated before giving the woman a quick nod. “Yeah, it’s good to see you too, Headmistress.” She seemed a little awkward, and I realized that for all that Jazz had been through, she had never really interacted with Gaia as anything more than the head of the school. It probably made her feel a little weird, especially since, unlike me, she had actually grown up knowing about Gaia Sinclaire.

There would have been a lot more talking right then, but it was cut off by the arrival of someone else. Jokai. The chameleon-like Alter stepped through the portal, gaining a lot of attention from pretty much everyone. Including Jazz, who stepped over to him quickly, putting herself next to the man before speaking up. “Uh, guys, this is Jokai. Jokai, this is…” She trailed off then, and I realized she was looking at Theia with obvious confusion. Right, she knew everyone else.

It was Tristan who moved first. “Right,” he started, stepping that way. “Jokai, that’s Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire, Professor Dare, Sean, Doug, and err, Sariel. Vanessa’s and my mother. And our little sister, Tabbris.” He looked to the girl in question then. “And uhh, this is Theia. And Pace.”  

A wide smile spread itself across the Hispanic girl’s face then, as she waved. “Hello! It’s been a long time since I saw a Eulsen.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, the smile somehow looking different, slightly more normal and polite. Her voice too, was a little more subdued. “And I’ve never met one.”

The latter was Pace, of course. The girl was speaking for herself thanks to the ring that she wore on one hand. The ring was like Doug’s hat, allowing both of them to control the body in turns. From what I understood, Theia still did most of the day to day interaction because it was somewhat tiring for Pace to control her own body through the ring. But she could interact now, which was pretty damn amazing given the whole situation. We hadn’t yet fulfilled the promise to find a way to separate them, but this was at least a good step along the way.

Jokai and Jazz both looked appropriately confused, and I would have started to explain. But before I could do more than open my mouth, a glowing figure stepped out of Jazz. Which gave me a very brief heart attack, until I saw who it was, and felt simultaneously relieved and dumb.

Athena. It was Athena. As the glow faded to reveal the woman, she focused first on Theia/Pace. “The–” It looked like she was about to say Lie, but stopped herself, instead finishing with, “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter, if the messages we’ve received are right?”

Theia, for her part, looked a little anxious before collecting herself. “Yes, yes, they are Theia-my parents. But don’t tell bad-Mummy that. She gets needle-stabby annoyed.” The girl demonstrated by pantomiming poking things with her fingers. “Does not like being called that.”

“Your mother is an evil psychopath with no morals or empathy for any creature other than herself, who deserves to be thrown into the deepest pits of the darkest hell that exists in this universe,” Athena stated flatly.

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

Athena started to nod, then stopped. Her gaze had moved past Theia, to focus on one single figure who clearly stood out from the others. Sariel. For a moment, I almost felt like every other person in the cavern (including myself) had disappeared, and that it was only the two Seosten women standing there alone, as they met each other’s gaze.

It was Athena who found her voice first, taking a single step that way. “Sariel. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’ve been released. Or… or how sorry I am that it lasted for so long. I…” She hesitated then, swallowing audibly. “If we could have found you sooner, if we–”

“No.” That was Sariel, shaking her head a little as she too took a step toward the other woman, both still stopping well away from each other. “No, you don’t have to apologize. No. After everything you did for… for my family, for my children and my husband… you of all people have nothing to apologize for, Auri–Athena. You prefer Athena now.”

The woman nodded once. “I do. I am Athena, not Auriel. Auriel was… Auriel was unhappy. Athena is who I want to be, someone to live up to. And still, I am sorry, for everything you–”

“Stop,” Sariel blurted, her voice cracking noticeably. “Stop, just–just stop. Stop apologizing. You–you were in prison out there too, and I didn’t save you. You were in prison and then you came back. You came back here and you tried to change things with Arthur.”

“You didn’t know that,” Athena quietly reminded her. “You didn’t know that I was Nimue.”

Swallowing hard, Sariel shook her head a little. “That doesn’t make things any better. I was on the wrong side. I helped the wrong side. I thought I was doing the right thing, that I could make things better from within the–” She stopped herself, eyes closing. “No excuses.”

“No excuses,” Athena agreed, “and no apologies. We both did wrong things. We both stuck around far longer than we should have. We made mistakes. We move on.”

They stared at one another for another moment before Sariel gave a tiny nod of agreement. “We move on,” she murmured under her breath. “Move forward.”

There was another very brief pause, the silence carrying on before Sariel took the last couple of steps that way. Then the two of them embraced, and I let out a soft sigh before sneaking a look toward Tabbris. The little girl was standing next to Tristan and Vanessa, all of them beaming.

“Shouldn’t there be more?” That was Theia, who stared at the portal uncertainly. “There’s still people missing.”

Athena glanced to her. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Apollo is helping Dries at the moment. The two of them are… having a short discussion.”

“Dries is nervous,” I realized aloud, “isn’t he?”

It was Gordon who spoke. “Yeah. He’s been having a little bit of an issue with coming here. To Earth, I mean. He wants to, but he’s got this…” He trailed off, sighing. “After everything the Seosten did to him, he’s still kind of messed up. He’s afraid that something bad is going to happen. Even though he knows it won’t, even though he knows it’s just something that the Seosten did to him… it doesn’t really help.”

“Apollo is helping,” Athena put in firmly. “They just need a little time without an audience.”

Glancing toward Avalon beside me, I whispered, “The Seosten did things to him, they made him afraid of… of a lot of things. His head is kind of messed up, but he’s trying to get past it. And he really does want to meet you. Trust me, meeting you is one of his favorite things to talk about. Not that he talks that much to begin with, but… yeah.”

For her part, Avalon just took a breath and let it out again, her voice soft, yet dark. “Just another thing the Seosten have done to my family.”

Before I could say anything to that, the portal hummed once more as someone else came through. Sure enough, glancing that way revealed Dries himself. The man had filled out a little bit in the intervening time, so he wasn’t quite as bone-thin as he’d been before. But not that much. And he still wasn’t a very imposing figure, being only a couple inches taller than me. He’d trimmed his beard a bit and his dirty blonde hair with its gray-and-brown flecks had been cut a few inches so that it only fell to just above his shoulders, currently tied into a ponytail.

He also almost looked like he was hyperventilating. His arms were crossed tightly against his chest as he sort-of shuffle stepped through the portal. It was like he half-expected the thing to actually send him back to some Seosten prison, or worse. Clearly while his pep talk with Apollo had been enough to get him through, he still wasn’t exactly happy or enthusiastic about it.

But he did make it through. And once he had, the man let out a low breath, clearly shuddering a little before he looked up. His eyes scanned the cave with obvious nervousness, all the people in sight apparently not doing wonders for his issues, before finally settling on me. There was a flicker of recognition, a hesitant smile playing at his lips, before he looked to the girl beside me.

Then he froze, aside from his eyes widening fractionally as he stared. There was no doubt in my mind. He knew. He knew who Avalon was, probably from the descriptions that I’d given. Or maybe through magic. Or… well, any number of reasons. The point was, he knew her.

Sariel and Athena had stepped over to the former’s family, that little group having a quiet conversation of their own. But for the most part, the cave was quiet enough that everyone heard when Dries murmured a quiet, “Liesje.” His voice cracked a little, a single tear appearing before he blinked it away. “You… you look like Liesje. Taller. Darker hair. But I…” He opened and shut his mouth a few times, unable to push out the words. “… I see her in you.”

Avalon didn’t look like she had any idea of what to say to that. She hesitated, looking a little taken aback and maybe even nervous before giving a little shrug. “I’ve never seen any pictures,” the girl muttered, “so I wouldn’t know.” She looked back up then, focusing on him. “You’re my… something great-grandfather, huh? I haven’t been very clear on how many generations are between us.”

“I don’t know either,” Dries admitted before shaking his head. “But you do l-” In mid-sentence, he stopped, twitching a bit before collecting himself. “You do look like her. You–you definitely do.” Clearly feeling awkward, the man shoved his hands into his pants, then took them out again, fidgeting while his mouth opened and shut. It was like he wanted to talk, but didn’t know what to say. And I was pretty sure all the rest of us being around wasn’t helping either.

“Mr. Aken,” Gaia spoke up, drawing his clearly nervous and twitchy attention. “It is truly an honor to meet you. If you and Avalon would like some private space to talk, that can be arranged.”

“No,” Avalon said quickly. I saw Dries recoil a bit, flinching from the apparent rejection before the girl went on. “I mean…  not alone. I…” She glanced to me, biting her lip like she wasn’t sure how to say it.

“I can go with them,” I offered quickly. I knew Valley was more comfortable with me around, and I already had history with Dries. Maybe I could help make their first interaction not quite as awkward, then sort of… back off a little once they were actually talking.

Both Avalon and Dries looked a little relieved by that, and Gaia nodded. “Of course.” Raising a hand, she gestured toward the nearest wall, making a doorway appear. “The three of you can have all the time you need.”

We started that way, but partway there I noticed that the portal had shut down. Blinking at that, I stopped and looked back. “What about Apollo? He’s not here yet. I mean, is he still…”

“He’ll be here,” Athena confirmed. “Only a few beings could use the transport even with its new charge. That’s why I possessed Jasmine here to make the trip. Apollo will be using his connection to Jasmine to transport himself, but that takes a little time.” Her eyes shifted toward Sariel then before she quietly added, “If there are no other issues, he should be able to make the jump in roughly one hour.”

I saw a lot of emotions cross Sariel’s face then. She was clearly feeling a lot about the prospect of coming face to face with Apollo again. Conflicted feelings that I couldn’t even begin to understand. When the man did arrive, I had the feeling he and Sariel were going to need their own private room, probably for awhile.

But for now, it was time to focus on Avalon and Dries. The two of them were waiting by the doorway that Gaia had created, standing awkwardly a bit away from each other. Looking that way, I could see the similarities between them. They both wanted to have a relationship with each other, but neither really trusted… well, anything really. They were alike in a lot of ways, despite all their differences.

And I needed to be the one who helped them interact. So, with a little smile of encouragement, I walked that way to join them. Then we moved through the doorway together, the three of us heading into the private area. And as we arrived in what turned out to be a smaller chamber similar to the place we had just been, I knew one thing for sure.

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Bonus Interlude – Team Stranded

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“All the planets in the universe,” Sands Mason announced, “and it turns out that the last piece of the banishment orb thing that we need to fix what was done to Mr. Moon happens to be on the first real alien world that my team went to?”

It was true. She, along with Jazz, Roxa, Gordon, Haiden, and Larissa, were standing on one of the many sandy dunes across the Meregan homeworld.

“It’s not too surprising,” Haiden pointed out. “Tristan was brought here, after all. So of course one of the bits of the broken orb is here too.”

Larissa nodded. “And we’ve got all the others. This is the last one. Once we get it… we can go home.”

Their search had been immeasurably hastened with the aid of Athena. With the woman and her people, they had very quickly tracked down all the other remaining pieces, a process which, without that aid, very likely could have taken at least another year. With Athena and the Aelaestiam, it had taken only a couple of weeks.

Most of that time, honestly, had been spent getting back to the Aelaestiam base. And once they were there, they had gotten the somewhat disturbing news that there had been a visit from Chayyiel, who had simply walked into the top secret base with what was apparently the sole purpose of killing Isaac.

Isaac was dead. Just like that. It was still a strange thought for the students to get used to. As big of a piece of shit as he had turned out to be, it was still… still hard to think that he was just dead like that. Not hard from grief, really. More hard from… disbelief was one word for it. It didn’t seem real.

Beyond just freaking out about Chayyiel (though mostly before that had happened), Athena’s people had been working to find the rest of the shards, to the point that they’d either had direct portals set up to the area the shards were in, or actually had the shards themselves. All except for a couple, of which this was the last one.

Athena herself was busy with a certain other matter at that moment, along with Apollo. But they had both promised to meet them as soon as possible. And Dries had chosen to stay on the ship with Jokai. Which left the rest of the small group to find this final piece.

Roxa spoke up then. “So, we’re in a giant sandbox, and we’ve got to find a little shard about the size of my pinky finger. Not to mention the magic radiation crap Fossor left all over the place we need to search. Good thing we’ve got ways of cheating or this might be kind of hard.”

Haiden started walking then. “We’ll go to the… affected area, as close as we can get to where the scans narrowed it down to. Then we’ll send our little friends out from there.”

No one was surprised by the man’s eagerness to get started. After all, his entire family was back on Earth waiting for him to finally get there. He’d been waiting long enough.

As they all moved that way, Gordon looked to Sands, quietly asking, “So the Meregan, they all left with Nicholas Petan after you guys woke them up and settled the misunderstanding?”

“The ones who were left from the scouting ship after Fossor got done with the rest of their population,” the girl confirmed. “Most of them did anyway. I asked Tristan about it before, and he said there was a group who stayed here to try and rebuild something. But I’m not sure where they are right now. The odds that we’d happen to run into them with this entire planet to work with are… not huge.”

Roxa shook her head. “That’s still confusing. Tristan was frozen for a few years so he was still a little kid when you guys first met him. Then he went off and spent years with his great-whatever grandpa Nick to get up to the age we all are before being sent back in time to meet Flick and the others.” She paused, then shook her head. “Time travel always overcomplicates things. It’s annoying.”

Larissa smiled faintly. “Just be glad that there aren’t clones involved yet.”

They walked for another few minutes. Now they weren’t simply moving through featureless rolling sand dunes. There were ruins around them, the skeletal remains of structures that had been long-since destroyed. They could see single walls here or there, or even large, partly-intact pieces of buildings. It was an entire city that had been utterly destroyed many, many years earlier.

Haiden held up his hand. He held a sheet of paper in the other, his brow furrowed as he watched it. “That‘s it,” the man announced. “Dries’ spell says that we’re right at the edge. The shard is somewhere ahead of us, in that area about one square mile across.”

Jazz spoke up then. “So all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack the length of seventeen football fields. No big deal.”

Reaching out, Roxa patted the other girl on the back. “That’s why we’ve got our little helpers, remember?” Pausing, she amended, “Not so little in some of our cases.”

“Yeah,” Sands muttered, “and the fact that whatever Fossor did to this place before means it’s still poisoned even now.”

That, more than anything, was why they were not going to be able to go inside of that area with their human bodies. The magical radiation-like poison covering the land would have killed them entirely too quickly, powers be damned. Still, they had other options.

“Everyone get comfortable,” Larissa instructed. She had already produced a couple of blankets and laid them out for the group to sit on. “It shouldn’t take too long to find the shard, but still. We’ve got water and food. Keep your strength up and don’t try to act tough about it. If you need a break, take it.”

They all sat, arranging themselves before each took out a bit of wood that had already been prepared with the theriangelos spell.

It was the same spell that Flick used to summon her fox. Athena, Larissa, and Haiden had taught it to the kids over the past couple of weeks. Taught it to them, that was, with a bit of an upgrade. With the addition to the spell, the animals that were summoned would be able to track the first object they touched, or things related to it. In this case, they had brought along a piece of the broken orb with them. When the animals touched that piece, they would be able to sense the other piece if they were close enough.

Larissa finished first, a testament to how experienced she was in using this particular spell. At that moment, as she tossed it in the air, the enchanted bit of wood transformed into a small hummingbird. Its belly, bits around its eyes, and its beak were pink, the same aura color as her daughters. Meanwhile, the rest of its body was the standard red that existed on all of these summoned animals.

Haiden was the next to finish. His own stick grew much larger and shifted before becoming a red and bronze jaguar.

Almost directly after that, Gordon finished his own casting. His stick, like Larissa‘s, grew into a bird. His, however, was a great horned owl with a green body, while the underside of its wings, as well as its talons and beak, were red.  

Sands was next. Where the others had only grown a bit, with Haiden’s jaguar being the largest, hers exploded in size. It suddenly become an enormous rhinoceros, with a red main body and pink horn, face, and underside.

Jazz’s own animal grew large as well. Not as much as the rhino, but still big. Hers was a horse, its main body the white of her aura, while its hooves, mane, and tail were red.

Finally, there was Roxa. Her animal was… unique. At first glance, it appeared to be a wild cat, similar to Haiden’s jaguar though much smaller at only about twenty pounds. It was larger than a housecat, yet much smaller than a leopard or a cheetah. Upon closer inspection, it seemed to be an odd combination between a cat and a weasel of some kind, along with a long tail similar to a monkey. The tail itself was about as long as the rest of the animal.

Despite its apparent similarity to a cat, the animal was not a feline. It was more closely related to a mongoose. The thing was quick and agile, able to rush through the trees and keep its balance with its semi retractable claws and that long tail.

Then there was its name, the name which had convinced all of the kids that Haiden and Larissa were messing with them somehow and had made Roxa spit out the water she had been drinking when they’d said it.

Fossa. The animal was called a fossa. Which was a name that was so close to a certain other name that everyone had misheard them the first time and thought they were saying that Roxa’s animal was somehow related to a psychotic necromancer. It was, however, apparently an animal native only to Madagascar. How that ended up being her animal Roxa would probably never understand.

The fossa was a rich mixture of bronze and red, her aura matching both Haiden and Tristan. When she and Tristan had first discovered their auras were identical, Tristan had joked that maybe he had another long lost relative. Roxa had snickered at the time, but now she was seriously leaning toward demanding a DNA test, given everything else that seemed to be happening.

That was their rather eclectic collection of animals, the menagerie they would use to search this area of desert. They had a jaguar, a hummingbird, an owl, a horse, a rhino, and a fossa.

It was still extremely disconcerting to experience the world through two different sets of senses in two different locations, so they all shut their human eyes and tried to ignore that side of themselves as much as possible. Instead, they focused their attention through their animals and began to spread out from there. They would work in pairs, in case one of them missed something. Haiden’s jaguar would search with Larissa’s hummingbird, Sands’ rhino with Jazz’s horse, and Roxa’s fossa with Gordon’s owl.

The other upgrade that they had received to the spell and worked into it, thanks to Athena in that case, was the ability to communicate through their animals. Each of the summoned and controlled creatures was capable of silent, essentially telepathic communication. Not that it was specifically needed when their human selves were sitting right next to one another, but it was still a nice thing to have. And having the communication be at the site of the animals instead of their human bodies would make it easier to avoid confusion about who was talking to who.

Did you talk to Jokai? As Sands’ rhino lumbered along through the sand, she addressed the horse beside her. About the um, the plan.

There was a moment of silence from the other girl briefly before she confirmed, He’s coming back to Earth with us. We’re going to help with whatever we can and all that. She paused once more before finishing with, And then when Athena leaves to come back out here, we’re coming with her. There was a firm note of finality to her words. I am not staying on Earth and I’m not going back to Crossroads.

Feeling a pang deep in her stomach (which was an odd sensation for it happening so far away from where they were having the actual discussion), Sands replied, I understand. I think we’ll all understand. But we’ll still miss you, you know.

Having her horse bump up against the other animal affectionately, Jazz injected a bit of brightness into her silent voice. Don’t worry so much. If Athena‘s plan about fixing up that prototype ship works, we’ll be able to go back and forth and visit whenever we want. So it’s not like it’ll be the last time we see each other or anything.

Sighing then, she added, I just can’t stay there, you know? I can’t go back to Crossroads and deal with all their lies. I can’t be a part of hunting Strangers when I’m in love with one of them. I love Jokai. I’m not going to pretend or hide that part of myself anymore than I absolutely have to. I’m just not going to.

It was Sands’ turn to make her rhino bump up against the horse. Like I said, we understand. Believe me, we get it. No one blames you, and I’m pretty sure everyone basically saw it coming.

Still, we’re going to have to throw a huge party before you leave again.

Meanwhile, Roxa and Gordon’s animals were moving through the ruined desert city faster than their heavier, larger counterparts. Leaping from the sand up to a half broken wall, Roxa’s fossa turned its head to look up as the boy’s owl glided by overhead. You should talk to Flick’s friend Miranda, you know. Or even to that Seller guy. If anyone can help you find out where your dad is or what’s going on with him, it’s people who live at Eden’s Garden.

Alighting on top of the jagged remains of a pillar, Gordon replied, You know, I was about to deny having any idea what you were talking about? I suppose I might have been keeping it secret for a bit too long. It’s reflex. He paused briefly then before agreeing, And yeah, I guess there are people I can ask for help.

Believe me, Roxa assured him, it’s a pretty new sensation for me too. But hey, when we get back, I’ll find out if any of the wolves my pack is friends with know anything about Garden’s prisoners. Sure, it’s a longshot. But every little bit could help. And before you say anything, I’ll keep your name out of it.

Gordon flew ahead a bit while she trailed along beneath him, nimbly jumping from wall to wall. After a minute of that, he asked, So you’re not going back to Crossroads either, huh? Like Jazz. I mean, technically you have the choker. It’s your choice.

Roxa’s answer was firm. My pack was loyal to me and accepted me even when they knew I was a Heretic. I like Gaia and my friends at the school, but I’m not going to live in a place that would kill me if they knew the truth. I’m not abandoning my pack. Not for people like that.

So yes, I guess Jazz and I are both leaving Crossroads for good.

In the third search area, the bronze and red jaguar trotted through a ruined building while the hummingbird flitted back and forth seemingly wildly in the air above.

We are getting pretty close to going home, you know, Haiden noted. I am pretty sure the others are already talking about what they’re going to do. But what about you?

There was a brief moment of silence before Larissa let him hear her sigh a little bit. I’ve been working for so long, trying to get back to my girls… I’ve put off thinking about what to do about Liam. There was pain and regret in her voice. Part of me still loves him, still wants him. But it’s been so long and everything he did is still in my head. It would be one thing if he seemed guilty about it, but I don’t think he does. I think he still believes he did the right thing. Which means I can’t trust him. What would he do to me or our girls in the name of toeing the Crossroads line, if he turn on his friends like that? Maybe nothing. I want to say nothing. But what if? And that what if is going to destroy our marriage.

Haiden started to respond that he and his family would be there for her and her girls no matter what happened. Before he could say more than a couple words, however, a voice back at their bodies spoke up.

“Hey,” Sands announced, “Jazz and me, we’ve got something. It’s either the shard or this tracking spell is screwing up. We think it’s in this building here.”

The other animals converged on the building that the horse and rhino were waiting outside of. Sure enough, as they got closer, each of the summoned creatures felt a tug toward the building. The shard they were looking for was definitely inside.

So, they searched. Jazz had her horse trot around the outside of the building to narrow down where the sense was the strongest. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino knocked down walls and cleared rubble inside as the rest did the actual searching.

Roxa found it, in the end, though she had Larissa’s hummingbird pick it up in her tiny beak and fly it to their bodies. Eventually, they were all back to themselves, their creatures dismissed as they stood and stretched.

“This is it,” Larissa announced while staring down at the tiny sliver in her hand. “That’s the last one. We can undo the banishment now.”

“Good to know.” The reply came from Apollo, as he and Athena appeared and approached. The man grinned. “And pretty good timing too, since we’ve got a way to send everyone back to Earth.”

Eyes widening, Jazz blurted, “You do? Even without waiting for enough communication from Vanessa to talk Gaia through fixing the prototype thing?”

Athena gave a slight nod. “The Meregan still on this planet, we…” She paused, looking to her fellow Seosten. “We offered them aid in their rebuilding efforts. In exchange, they are going to allow us to use their transport device.”

She looked toward Sands then. “It is an earlier, less refined and advanced version of what you experienced before. As such, it will only allow a few transports at a time before it must recharge for several days. So we will not all be able to go through at once.“

“Hey, that’s okay,” Sands replied. “It’s still sooner than we thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed quietly.

“And I’m pretty sure we all know who should go first.”

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Family Day 40-02

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The sound that emerged from Scout in that moment was as loud as I had ever heard the other girl be. She instantly threw herself that way. There was no hesitation at all before she was embracing her sister tightly. The twins clung to each other, making me realize once more just how much they had missed one another. That went on for a couple of seconds before I saw Scout’s head turn a little. Her eyes settled on Larissa, and she froze. Still clinging to her sister, her mouth open and shut a couple of times before she managed a weak, barely audible, “Mommy…”

The trembling hand that she was pressing against her own mouth did nothing to hide the broad, glorious smile on Larissa’s face. In a shaky voice, she replied, “Hello, Sarah.”

Then Scout was there. With a noise of joy and relief that was almost a sob, she lunged at her mother and grabbed on tight. Scout hugged her tightly, clinging for dear life while openly crying.

Feeling like I was intruding, I moved my wet eyes to look around the rest of the office. Gaia was there, along with Roxa. But I didn’t see the others. Biting my lip, I stepped that way and embraced the other girl. “You made it back.”

Roxa nodded, returning my hug. “Yep. Some of us anyway. Haiden’s at that Atherby camp having a reunion with his wife and kids as we speak.”

“And the others?” I asked quickly.

“They’re okay,” she assured me. “We used the Meregan transport thing, and apparently it was an earlier version of the one that you guys used before. A prototype. So it has to recharge after every few transports. Jazz and Gordon stayed with Dries, Jokai, Athena, and Apollo so we could come back. They’ll probably show up tomorrow. I was going to stay too, but they insisted I should come with. Especially after we found out… you know, about Rudolph.”

Her voice had gone quiet by the end, and she glanced past me. That was the reminder I needed that the rest of the team was here too, including Doug.

Turning that way, I saw the boy himself standing there staring with his mouth open. His voice was a whisper. “You’re alive. I mean, I knew you were alive. But still… you’re alive.”

Roxa’s face softened a bit and she stepped that way to embrace him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. So are Jazz and Gordon. We… we should’ve been here to help. We wanted to help with all of it.”

Doug’s head shook. “You guys had your own problems, your own… things to deal with.”

Sean took his turn for a hug with the girl then, while Gidget and Vulcan greeted each other by rubbing their heads together affectionately. And once more, I felt like I was intruding on something. When I glanced toward the twins and their mother, I saw that they were deep in conversation about something. Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to interrupt any of that. Instead, I looked toward Columbus, Avalon, and Doug. “Boy, when they advertised this as a day for family reunions, they weren’t exaggerating, were they?”

Honestly, and maybe a little strangely, I couldn’t even feel bad about the fact that I wouldn’t see my own mother that day. It felt too good to see Scout and Sands with theirs and to think about Vanessa and Tristan being reunited with both of their parents. Even seeing Sean and Doug with Roxa felt really good. As far as I was concerned, this was already a pretty great day.

We’ll get your mom back too, Tabbris assured me quickly. This just means we’ve got more help to do it.

Smiling inwardly, I agreed, Right, and we’ll definitely need the help. I guess all of this works pretty well as a recruitment drive, huh?

Avalon moved next to her adopted mother then, speaking a bit suspiciously. “Are you sure you didn’t find a way to deliberately time it like this? Because them showing up today of all days is pretty coincidental.”

Gaia chuckled low, shaking her head a little. “I assure you, I had nothing to do with the timing. And I sincerely doubt they would have waited just for this. Sometimes a coincidence is simply a coincidence. You will see a lot more of them as you get older.”

Roxa stepped back over to me then, her expression curious. “Do you still have, um, you know, your little friend?”

My hair turned pink then as Tabbris made my head nod, piping up, “I’m here. I’m glad you made it back!”

“Just a little signal we worked out,” I informed Roxa then while gesturing to my hair. “White or pink and it’s her talking. Same for my eyes. Better than trying to find a private place for her to pop out every time she wants to speak for herself.”

Rubbing my head then, I added out loud but to my partner, “That said, I know we planned on you staying here for the day, but if Haiden’s back and they’re all having some big reunion at the camp…”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, also speaking out loud by using my own mouth. “I’ll let them have some time, you know? I’ll go back later to see Mama and Papa Haiden.”

Papa Haiden, I noticed immediately. I had wondered what the other girl would refer to him as once they got back, given that she saw our father as, well, father.

That made another thought pop into my head, and I abruptly pointed to the nearby woman, blurting, “Larissa.”

Blinking once, she nodded. “Yes, that is my name.” She stepped over then to embrace me briefly. “I’m glad you made it back, Flick. Thank you for helping Sariel.”

I shrugged at that. “Trust me, she’s helped us just as much.” Then I added, “But you’re here. I mean you’re here, so does that mean you’re going to actually be here?” Realizing how confusing that might sound, I clarified, “I mean, are you going to officially be back?”

The woman grimaced a little before confirming, “Yes, I will officially be back from the dead. Which actually happens more than you might think around here. But still, Sands and I are going to have to go talk to the Committee. Gaia and Vanessa have already told us the story that’s going around, so we will make ours match that. I suppose I’ll be the Heretic who was stolen years ago so they could find a way to make their infiltration work. The guinea pig, if you will.”

She paused then, letting out a slow breath. “And then I will have to speak with Liam.” Her eyes got distant for a second as she gazed out at nothing before shaking herself. “Let’s just say it’s going to be a very eventful Family Day. But we will most certainly be back in time for the feast later.”

I wondered what was going to happen with her husband, and whether she would stay with him, or what. It was obvious that there were a lot of complicated feelings there, most of which were none of my business, despite my curiosity.

She was definitely right about one thing, however. This was absolutely going to be a long and interesting day.

*******

Most of that, of course, happened far away from me. I spent the day with Avalon, Columbus, Sean, and Doug as we went through what turned out to be a pretty fun event. There were parents and siblings everywhere, all over the school no matter where you looked. My fellow students were showing off things they made or had learned, taking their family members to various classrooms or to meet different teachers. Or, in many cases, to reunite with those teachers, given that some of them had taught not only their parents, but their parents’ parents and so on.

I ended up getting more than my share of long looks from those family members too, though I didn’t know how much of that was because they knew my actual history and how much was just from things they had heard this year. To be honest, there was plenty of ammunition for them to be curious about me just from the latter.

Either way, it was still a very fun day. We presented some projects, and even did a little bit of exhibition fighting to prepare for the main tournament that night.

I felt a little bad that my father couldn’t be there, of course. But Abigail showed up and found time to talk with me. She was, obviously, a subject of a lot of interest herself. I could see Ruthers’ stooge, Peterson Neal, lurking in the background to watch her now and then. I wondered just how much he knew about the situation, or if he was just blindly reporting back to Ruthers.

A little bit after lunch, I was taking a break with the others, sitting against a tree on the grounds while watching the crowds all over the place. “Well,” I remarked, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I kind of like Family Day. It’s fun.” While speaking, I reached out to rub Vulcan’s head. “I wonder how Roxa’s doing.”

The other girl had been spending the time reuniting with her own ‘family’, her pack. They had apparently missed Roxa a lot, since I had heard that they were having some huge party to celebrate her return. It was going to be going on all day and night, and we had been invited to drop by later after things were done here.

Sean chuckled at that, holding up his phone. “Well, if her texts are anything to go by, they’re basically throwing the party of the century. They’ve got a whole bunch of other weres and they’re throwing the bash in some old airplane hanger in the middle of nowhere. Makes it so they don’t have to worry about offending any neighbors and can really cut loose.”

With a very slight smile, Columbus remarked, “You sure we should go over there later? All those weres might object to a few Heretics showing up to ruin their fun. I’d hate to turn a party into a fight just out of some misunderstandings.”

“Mateo and Roxa said they’ve got things under control on that front,” Sean assured us.

“Hey,” I started, “speaking of which, what about your family?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

Sean shrugged. “Uncle Sebastian should be back soon. He just wanted to go help Mateo get their thing started. As for Mom and Dad, or Ian, ahhh, let’s just say if they showed up here I would suggest we put them through all the possession tests we’ve got.”

I winced inwardly, but couldn’t think of what to say to that. Sean rarely, if ever talked about his parents or brother. I didn’t know what their deal was, or why they tended to completely ignore him to the point of not even showing up to this thing. But I did kind of want to go find them and shake all three as hard as I could. Sean deserved better than that.

Avalon nudged me with her foot, a thoughtful frown knitting her brow. “How do you think things are going with the Masons?”

Biting my lip, I shrugged. “I wish I knew,” I admitted. “Do you think Larissa will stay with Liam, or not?”

“Boy,” Sean muttered, “class is gonna be really awkward if she doesn’t.” Belatedly, he added a quick, “Not that she should, or anything. I’m just saying. It’s… you know what, never mind. I’m just going to sit over here and enjoy the taste of sneaker.”

Snickering, I use two fingers to poke the boy in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all really familiar with the taste. And we get what you mean.”

Deveron strolled up then, grunting as he took a seat on the grass. “Well,” he started, “this whole thing hasn’t changed much since I was here the first time.”

“Really?” I teased, “In that case, it must’ve been really confusing to see so many cell phones back in 1918.”

He made a face at me before chuckling. “Okay, okay, maybe some things have changed.” His expression sobered then. “But not enough of the right things.”

“Gaia’s working on it,” I reminded him. “Actually, we’re all kind of working on it. Just a little at a time.”

Deveron looked like he was going to say something else to that, but thought better of it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod. “Yeah, we’re working it.

“But just for the record, conservative estimate, there’s about twenty people here that I really want to punch in the face.”

******

Later that evening, we were all sitting outside at one of the tables that had been set up. With all the families here, it would’ve been entirely too crowded in the cafeteria. So everybody was out here, with tables that were stretched across the whole grounds.

I could see so many people. Zeke was there with his mom, of course. I saw Erin with a man who was apparently her father, Doug over at a table with Sulan, Sean with his uncle, or even some students who had both parents and siblings there. Nearby, I saw Shiori’s roommate Rebecca with both of her parents and a small, brown-haired woman named Lillian Patters, who was apparently her grandmother.

She was also someone that I desperately wanted to talk to. Because as soon as she had shown up, Deveron took me aside and told me that Lillian Patters had been on the same team back in school as him and Mom. More, she had been Mom’s best friend in school and her roommate. Which explained why Lillian was my middle name. Felicity Lillian Chambers. Somehow, in the same way that Abigail had retained enough of her birth name of Koren to give it to her own daughter, Mom had remembered the name of her best friend and gave it to me.

But Lillian didn’t remember. I saw it in her eyes when she glanced our way, lingering only for a brief moment before moving on. She was curious about me, but clearly only from what she’d heard. They’d wiped her memory just like so many others. Another thing that they had erased and thrown away in their zeal to end the rebellion against their genocidal campaign.

That was a problem for later though. Right now, it was all about families. Even Sands and Scout were at a table with their mom, which… boy howdy had that ever brought a lot of questions from basically everybody. Their table was almost completely surrounded by people who wanted to know what was going on, and where Larissa had been.

Liam wasn’t there. I actually hadn’t seen him all day. Which made me all kinds of curious, but I didn’t have a prayer of getting near them to ask what was going on. I was just going to have to wait until later for answers.

And speaking of those who were attracting attention, the other twins, Vanessa and Tristan, were there with their dad. Haiden had apparently given an explanation similar to Larissa’s about how he was taken years back. He was still considered an Eden’s Garden Heretic, but was there as Gaia’s guest for his kids. And Sariel was there too, possessing her husband. That was an idea that had been given to them by Tabbris before the girl had gone back to the Atherby camp.

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t here at the moment. I’d told her that she should stay with our dad that night. I’d have her with me all day, and I knew he felt bad about not being able to come to this. So I asked her to stick around at the camp and keep him company. It has felt like the least I could do.

In all, it had been a very busy and complicated day. But still fun. And it was pretty appropriate that all these reunions were happening on this particular day. Even if a lot of it was happening away from me, which was murder on my curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on with the Masons.

But, eh, I was just going to have to wait. Maybe I’d get a chance to talk with them and catch up while the big tournament was going on.

Professor Dare also wasn’t there. She’d decided to spend the evening with Tangle and Kohaku somewhere else. Tangle wasn’t ready to face people yet, and Kohaku didn’t want to be around the school either. So Dare was keeping them company.

People who had family members were eating in one area while those of us who didn’t sat together with our teams. Which basically left me sitting with Columbus and Avalon, though Shiori had joined us and was sitting between Columbus and me. We were all enjoying dinner. Or rather… everyone else was.

Making a face, I announced, “I think Chef Escalan might be a little overwhelmed right now.”

Avalon looked to me, raising an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?” She asked the question while pointedly ignoring all the people who were staring at her, both other students and adults. If anything, having all these people around who had never met the girl had only increased the number of stares she was getting. I had thought that people might be too busy and distracted once the day got underway, but well, apparently not.

“Well,” I started before turning my plate around to show her, “mostly because my chicken looks raw. I don’t think it even made it to the stove.”

Shiori made a face, poking the raw chicken with her napkin. “Remind me not to share with you tonight. It looks like that chicken forgot it was fry-day.”

“Oh lord,” Avalon groaned. “You gave her an excuse to make chicken puns.”

Grinning, the other girl solemnly replied, “You should tell one of the teachers about it. After all, I’m sure you’re feeling pretty peckish.”

Throwing a napkin at her for that one, I picked myself up. “That was bad. It’s okay. I’ll just go trade it in. I’m sure it was a mistake. I mean look at all these people, he’s got to be overworked right now.”

Columbus shrugged then. “Maybe his age is just catching up with him, you know? From what Scout was saying before, his food was even better when they were little.”

“If his food used to be even better than it is now,” I pointed out, “I almost wish I came here years ago.”

Giving first Shiori, then Avalon each a quick kiss, I promised to be right back and headed in with my plate.

As loud and busy as the outside was, the actual cafeteria was pretty quiet. The tables still had some supplies on them from reports and exhibitions that been going on earlier, but for the most part, the place was emptier than I usually saw it during the day.

Holding my plate in one hand, I hesitantly stepped through the open doorway into the kitchen, giving a short knock against the door jam. “Hey,” I spoke up. “Um, Chef, sir? I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to complain, but my food is kind of… not cooked?”

I had been in the kitchen a couple of times that year, but only very rarely, as it really felt like an off-limits place. Even more so than some of the places that really should have been off-limits, really. Chef Escalan guarded his domain like a king protecting his treasury.

The place was pretty big, like a restaurant kitchen. I knew that Escalan had assistants, though I’d rarely seen them. And none of them were there now. Which was weird, considering how much work this dinner was supposed to be. A few steps in, and I stopped to blink around the empty, mostly stainless steel interior. Everything was super clean, with cooking implements laid out over the counters, and ingredients ready to go. But nobody was there. The place was quiet.

“Ah, there you are.”

The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the chef himself standing there by the door that I had just come through. He had his apron tucked under his arm. “I was almost afraid that you might have been silly enough to try to eat that raw chicken anyway. And wouldn’t that be egg on my face?” His words were light, but there was something about the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, that made me take a reflexive step back as a strange chill ran through me. Wait… I might not have spoken to the chef directly that much, but I knew he had an accent. A heavy accent.

“You mean you didn’t cook it on purpose?” Even as I spoke, my hand was dipping into my pocket to hit the emergency alert on my phone that would call Tabbris, as well as let everyone know that something was wrong.

Escalan gave me a brief look as if I had insulted him. “Please. Your communications were blocked the moment you came in here. And yes, I did what I could to ensure that you did not eat any of the food.”

He gave me a slight smile then, a smile that renewed the chill that had run down my spine. “Because we can’t have you eating any of that very special feast. After all, I did promise that I would cause no harm to come to you.”

And then I knew the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do for Chef Escalan. There with nothing I could do for him, because he was already dead, and likely had been for quite a while. He was dead, and someone else was controlling him, speaking through him. The dread and horror that I felt then was audible in my voice as I spoke a single word.

“Fossor.”

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