Sands

Before The Vault 41-07

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“Excuse me?” I demanded, only remembering at the last instant not to throw my arms out. It might’ve been hard to pass this for a normal conversation from behind at that point. Torn between staring at the man in front of me or turning to glare up at the shapeshifted figure in the distance, I settled for the former as being less obvious. “What do you mean, they’re taking the vault tonight? They can’t take the vault. They can’t get into it.”

Even as I said it, I knew the words were dumb. It wasn’t like Jophiel and Elisabet would tell me this just for the hell of it. They weren’t making it up. But still… still…

They have to be wrong, Tabbris murmured, putting words to my thoughts. They have to. After everything we’ve been doing, they can’t beat us into the vault…

Yeah, that. Exactly that. It wasn’t–at some point I would stop expecting things to be fair. My eyes found the man’s again even as he began to speak in that hollow-echoey voice that apparently came from being remotely controlled.

“Kushiel and her people have apparently been working to find a way into the vault for weeks now. They have been attempting to break through a… back door of sorts that was placed inside of an Alter hotel by Liesje herself, so that she would not always have to go through Crossroads authority to reach her own vault.”

That made a depressing amount of sense, and I sighed. “Please tell me that it’s at least hard to get into. I mean, obviously since they’ve been trying for weeks. But you said they’re almost through?”

“They will be ready to enter the vault within a few hours,” came the response. “Which is why we must not hesitate. There is no time to waste. You need to have a legitimate way to have gained this information. Which means it must come from this man.”

“After I possess him because he tries to kill me,” I finished for them. “Right, this should be… fun.” I was already dealing with the fact that what should have been a relaxing few days was being cut short again. We’d deal with it. The vault was too important to sit and pout.

“Are you ready?” they asked carefully through the man. “We will yank you over the counter and trigger a magical shield to stop the others. You should try to fight. Make it look real. Eventually, we will give you an opening to possess him. Take enough time to have gotten the information and then render him unconscious. After you step out of him, we will teleport the body away. They can believe that there was an emergency retrieval spell.”

“Right,” I muttered. Behind me, Columbus called out, wanting to know if I was ever going to get my ice cream. It was now or never. “Do it.”

They didn’t waste any time. The next thing I knew, the man’s hand had grabbed the front of my shirt while his other hand found my arm, and I was yanked over the counter. I heard a cry go up behind me, along with the hum of the forcefield popping into place. Then my back hit the nearby wall hard, and I caught a glimpse of a knife coming right for my face. At the last instant, I managed to jerk my head out of the way before the blade was driven through the wall.

They really weren’t kidding about making this look real. With a grunt, I drove my knee into the man’s chest, then rolled out of the way as he took a swing with a knife in his other hand. I went up to one knee, staff in my hand as I swing it at the man. Before it could hit him, however, he twitched a finger and the staff went clattering out of the way.

I threw a ball of noxious gel at the man, but he created some kind of bubble in the air in front of him to catch it. I had no idea if that was a real power of his or something that Jophiel and Elisabet did themselves. But either way, it would help explain why I went for possessing him when it hadn’t exactly been my go-to move.

In the background, I could see Dare, Avalon, and the others at the glowing blue forcefield. They were having a bit of trouble trying to take it down. Which made sense, considering they were dealing with a Committee-level power. I just hoped Jophiel and Elisabet were smart enough to not make it quite that strong.

Either they were, or Wyatt was even better than I thought he was. Because he showed up next, while I was throwing myself backward away from the next swipe from my ‘attacker’ and almost immediately had the shield practically down. I saw it weaken considerably from the first thing he did, flickering a bit. It was enough that the man attacking me actually took a second to glance over his shoulder with clear incredulousness.

Right, had to do this now, or our little plan wasn’t going to work. Wyatt was dealing with the forcefield faster than the Seosten-Committee bonded pair expected, to the point that it actually surprised them. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but be proud of my big brother, even if it did rush our plan a little bit.

But hey, that gave me the perfect opening (which come to think of it, might have been at least part of the point of turning in the first place) to make my move. Which I did, scrambling that way. The knife whipped around and I sidestepped before catching the extended wrist. Tabbris and I both focused on my possession power, as we imagined throwing ourself into the man through the grip on his wrist.

It worked. Suddenly I was seeing the space where I had been. And it must have been just in time, too, because there was a pop as the shield broke and then there was the sound of rushing footsteps. I heard Dare call out a warning, just before a glowing energy blade was suddenly thrust through the man’s back and out his front. I could see it sticking a foot or two out in front of ‘my’ chest. Avalon. Avalon had been going after him too fast to react to the fact that I had already possessed him.

I turned off all our connections to his pain and other things, Tabbris hurriedly put in, just as the man’s body fell. We stayed standing, my body glowing for a moment before going back to normal.

Th-thanks, I managed, the shock of possessing the man an instant before he died making it hard to think straight. I hadn’t actually felt him die, thanks to Tabbris’s quick thinking. But still, that was… a lot.

Was it enough time? I quickly put in, even as Avalon took me by the arm to turn me around, demanding to know if I was okay. The others were all right there too, Dare moving to check the body on the ground.

Yes, yes, Tabbris replied, sounding just as shaken as I felt. It was enough time, it’s okay.

Sure enough, I heard the voice of Elisabet in my head. Good enough, we don’t have to teleport him after all. And it explains why you only got a little bit from him. We’ll tell you what to say.

“Flick!” Avalon’s voice finally penetrated, and I focused on her. “What–”

“We need to go.” That was Dare, glancing around the mall. Deveron was nearby, holding his hand up. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it apparently was keeping all the (literal) bystanders from noticing what had just happened, because no one was reacting to it. They were just walking by, or sitting there with their meals.

“There’ll be more,” Dare announced, looking to Wyatt. “Any other traps?”

His head shook, but he seemed just as focused on me as Avalon was. “Not yet, but we should leave, now. Right now. Are you okay?” The last bit was clearly directed my way.

“Wait, wait,” I started. “There’s something–”

But we were gone. Dare reached down to grab the body, then teleported us out of there. The world spun, and we were suddenly standing in a park we’d passed up the street before coming into the mall. The people around us, naturally, didn’t even notice our unnatural arrival. They just sidestepped and kept walking, one of the guys making a comment about not standing in the middle of the path.

“Flick?” That was Shiori. She had joined Avalon right in front of me. “Flick are you okay? You’re not–”

“I’m okay,” I finally managed. “I’m okay, but we’re not. Our plan isn’t. The vault isn’t!” My eyes snapped around as I pointedly spoke those words.

Well, that got everyone’s attention. They were finally focused on me instead of talking about how we’d been attacked. Dare took a step my way, frowning. “What?”

In the background, I saw Doug and Sean exchanging glances, while Columbus met my gaze intently, worry written across his face. He knew as well as anyone what the Seosten were capable of, and had probably been afraid that something would screw up our plan from the start.

“I saw it in his head,” I started while trying not to hate myself for lying. “He works for Kushiel and they’re going through some back way to get into the vault. They’re like three, maybe four hours from being able to get in there as we speak.”

Good, I heard in my head as Jophiel and Elisabet apparently caught up. Tell them that the Alter hotel is called the Auberge.

The others were all speaking at the same time, and it was hard enough to keep up with just what was being said out loud even before the voice in my head that wasn’t Tabbris was added in. But I had a pretty good idea of what the gist of everyone’s ranting was.

“It’s some Alter hotel called the Auberge,” I supplied while trying very hard to push the image of myself as a pop it out of my head. “Liesje set up some kind of back door into the vault so that she wouldn’t have to go through Crossroads. That’s what they’re using. Apparently they’ve been working on it for a couple weeks. Now they’re just a few hours away.”

“I guess that means the vacation’s over, huh?” Doug muttered before giving a shrug. “It was good while it lasted. I just wish I had time to finish with my pen before they decided to get all ambitious.”

Deveron opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Wyatt abruptly put in, “Why attack you? I mean right now. Why attack you right now? If they’re only a few hours from getting into the vault, why draw attention right this second? It sounds like a trap. Maybe they’re nowhere near getting into the vault and they just made that man think they were so that you would read his mind and we’d all go charging off into their clutches.”

Shit. We had a point. I had to convince them that the information was right, without giving too much away. Which was going to be hard enough with Wyatt to begin with. He had a very good reason to be paranoid, and he wasn’t exactly wrong with his instinct that something was off about all that. What was I supposed to do?

Deveron spoke up while Tabbris and I were both thinking. “Wyatt’s got a point. But we can’t ignore it either. I’ve heard of this Auberge. It’s an Alter hotel that specifically promises to keep its paying guests safe from all threats. That includes Heretics. It jumps around like the Pathmaker, sort of.”

Dare nodded. “I’ve heard of it too. If Liesje was going to have a back entrance, that would make a good place for it. They’ve been around basically forever. It’s safe, neutral place that Heretics wouldn’t be able to get into without one hell of a fight.”

Shiori grimaced. “So what do we do? If that’s real, we can’t just sit here and let them get into the vault while we twiddle our thumbs.”

“We need to know if they’re actually at the hotel,” Columbus announced. “You know, like spies that can get inside and find out if that part’s true. And maybe distract them until we have time to go in the front.”

Doug looked to him. “But who’s going to be able to do that, let alone willing? Like they said, no Heretics, and I’m pretty sure they can tell.”

Coughing once, Sean pointed out, “I already kind of hate myself for saying this, but there’s Roxa’s pack. She can’t do it herself, because like you said, Heretic. But the rest of her pack have spent basically every day since she disappeared the first time wanting to have a way to help. I promised I’d let them know if there was anything.”

Sands looked to him. “Sending a pack of werewolves in to stake out the hotel place and let us know if Kushiel and her lackeys are there?”

“We’ve done that kind of thing before,” Deveron quietly put in. “In the old rebellion, I mean. You use what you’ve got, and werewolves don’t set off the Heretic sense. They’ve also got really good senses. If anyone can find that bitch in a confined space, it’s a werewolf.”

Scout spoke up then. “But they’re all werewolves.”

Sands was nodding. “She means if they get cornered, they don’t have extra tricks like Heretics do. If they’re ready to deal with one werewolf, they can deal with all of them. I mean, not a whole horde or anything, but you know what I mean. They could get in trouble really fast.”

Shiori raised her hand. “What if they’re not alone?” As everyone looked to her, the girl went on. “They’ve been visiting the camp lately. Roxa took them. They went so that the Seosten could practice with them.”

I blinked once. “You mean send the werewolves in there with Seosten possessors to be back up.”

She shrugged. “We were planning on doing basically the same thing with the actual trip to the vault, so why not use it now?”

Dare grimaced. “This is all academic. We don’t even know that they will agree to go in there.”

“Trust me,” Sean insisted, “I know them. They’ll agree. In fact, they might just eat me if I don’t give them the chance.”

“And we don’t have time to come up with anything else,” I pointed out. “We only have a few hours to deal with this. Is that even enough time to get them here? Or, you know, there? Wherever the hotel is now. Which is another thing we need to work out.”

Dare nodded. “With Berlin it is. If they agreed to it, we can pair them with Seosten and send them in.”

“Senny too.” That was Shiori, of course. She was looking up from her phone. “She’s with them right now. Her and her little group, I mean. Oh, and uhh, something happened with Theia and Abigail and Miranda and all that, but they said they’ll tell you about it later. The point is, they’re in.”

“As are my people.” The new voice came from Athena, as the woman appeared with Gaia at her side. Dare had obviously been communicating with the latter this whole time. “We can help find Kushiel and hit her from behind while she is focused on getting through to that vault.”

Doug looked a little hesitant to speak up, but finally asked, “What about all the security magic they’ll have in there? Both the hotel and Kushiel, I mean. Can your people break through it if they have to?”

“I can.” Wyatt’s voice was as calm and centered as I had ever heard him. He straightened up as much as he could. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a little as he continued. “I can go in with them and help get through the security magic.”

“Uh,” Columbus started, “What about that whole ‘them noticing that you’re a Heretic’ problem?”

Wyatt scoffed at him. “As if one of the first things I did wasn’t finding a way to disable that obvious weakness. If I don’t want them to know that I’m a Heretic, they won’t. And if I don’t want them to recognize me, they won’t do that either.”

It was my turn to speak up then. Which Gaia seemed to be expecting, considering the fact that she was already looking at me. “He’s not the only one who can say that.”

That made both Avalon and Shiori round on me, each blurting, “No!”

Wincing, I held up both hands. “Guys, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Look at everything I’ve gotten this year. I don’t ping as a Heretic unless I use my powers. I can shapeshift my face and hair, so they won’t recognize me. Jaq and Gus, even Marian, can all spy on places I can’t get to. I can turn into a lion and keep up with the actual weres. It’s a building, do you have any idea how fast I can travel through the wood in it? I can hit hard, and they won’t know who or what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.”

I looked toward Shiori, then Deveron. “I can help Asenath, and Wyatt.”

Finally, I looked to Avalon. “ I can help you. We can hit them from behind and distract them enough for you guys to get in through the front.”

“And she won’t be alone,” Deveron put in. “I can hide what I am too.” Pausing, he added. “And I’m not letting my son and step-daughter go in that place without me.”

“Magic?” That was Sean, wincing. “You might be able to shapeshift, but they probably have spells to check for that sort of thing. I mean, if they’re supposed to be this competent.”

Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder. “They have magic to detect it. I have better magic to hide it.”

“See guys?” I looked to my girls apologetically. “This is the best play. I can do more good behind the lines, at the back door in the hotel, than at the front door vault with you. All these powers, being able to hide being a Heretic, shapeshifting, having a brother who can beat their security? This is the right thing for me to be doing right now. It’s where I should be.”

Avalon looked like she was still going to argue, but Gaia spoke up first. “She is right. The Auberge is where she can help the most. They will need her. They will need everything they can get. Just as we will need to hurry if we are going to be ready in time to get into the vault several days ahead of schedule.”

Avalon cringed, stepping over to take me into a tight hug. Her voice was soft. “I don’t care how much sense it makes, I hate this.”

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

I hugged them both, making them promise to stay together and watch each other’s backs. They spoke directly to Tabbris, making both of us promise to stay as safe as possible and not to do anything too stupid.

The real problem was, there wasn’t time to argue. There wasn’t time to come up with a better plan, or even two really appreciate how dangerous this is going to be. We all had to keep moving, no matter how much we hated the idea of splitting up. This was the best that we had, the best we could do.

It was all coming down to this. We’d expected to have a few more days, but honestly, the Seosten screwing that up with their own plans pretty much went exactly with the rest of the year, didn’t it?

Either way, this was it. Everything that had been going on with Avalon this whole year, even her entire life and stretching back beyond that, came down to these next few hours. Either we would get into that vault and win.

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor, since  “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon before stopping the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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Before The Vault 41-05

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Please note, there was a special bonus chapter posted yesterday focusing on Joselyn’s two Edge visions. If you haven’t read that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

After getting settled in, we were released in our teams and allowed to explore the underground tunnel that made up J Street. We couldn’t go up into the main city just yet (well, the older students could, the first years like us were the only ones who couldn’t), but we could walk around down here and sightsee a little bit before the special dinner that Gaia had apparently arranged.

Freshmen like us were the only ones staying at Mrs. Brickswell’s inn. The older grades had other arrangements. Still, even though there were only about a hundred of us there instead of three or four times that number, the lobby was pretty crowded as Columbus, Scout, Sands, Avalon, Doug, Sean, and I made our way out.

The seven of us were one too many for a regular team, but it was close enough. Gordon and Jazz were staying at the Atherby camp for the time being, neither wanting to advertise their return for Crossroads just yet (if ever, I still wasn’t sure how that was going to go). And Roxa had refused to use the choker to hide who she was so that she could come back to Crossroads, choosing instead to stick with her pack. Which I couldn’t honestly blame her for.

Which left the seven of us to be a team finishing out the year. I hoped it stayed seven by the end. And that was a thought that I’d immediately wanted to drive a stake into my brain (a weirdly violent thought in and of itself) for having. You’d think I’d learn at some point.

Stepping out of that deceptively small-looking building was like emerging into another world. The street was even busier now, with people rushing back and forth in every direction. And not just walking either. I saw some floating or flying, and others who were literally running through the crowd, apparently using intangibility powers. Or others who were shrinking down to get through it. I even saw one guy using a flying hoverboard like Gidget’s alternate form to go over people, and another who surrounded herself with some kind of blue bubble, sank into the ground, then popped back up on the far side of a particularly crowded spot before dismissing the bubble.

“Claustrophobic, Miss?” The voice caught my attention, and I blinked over before looking down as my eyes finally found a young boy. He looked to be about nine or so, with brown hair and these big eyes. In his hands, the kid was holding a box full of what looked like sunglasses.

“If any of you are claustrophobic,” the boy continued, “my mom’s glasses can help! Only six enners each, an’ she makes them herself! Go ahead, try one!”

He was so enthusiastic about it, I kind of wanted to see what he was talking about. Still, I looked to the others first. What do you think, partner?

Sands, Scout, and Sean all gave me encouraging nods, so I picked up one of the sunglasses. There was a design on the rims, and I squinted at it.

I think it’s safe, Tabbris hesitantly assured me. It’s just a vision spell, um, as far as I can tell. And look, there’s other people wearing them.

So, I shrugged before slipping the sunglasses on. As I did so, the boy advised, “Activation word’s Trolley.”

“Okay, uh, trolley?” I started. As I said the word, nothing happened.

Sands laughed. “No, Flick. Put your hand on the glasses and say the word while you give it a little oomph. Like any other enchanted item. Most of the spell’s been done already, you just need to turn it on.”

That made a lot more sense, and I blushed a little while following her instructions. With my finger against the rim of the glasses, I spoke the word again while pushing a little energy into it.

The second I did so, the tunnel suddenly looked different. Actually, it didn’t look like a tunnel. The rock walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving open sky above. There were even birds up there. And as for the walls, they were replaced with what looked like an entire cityscape. Buildings rose in every direction. Everything looked so open.

Gasping, I took the glasses off. Back to a rock tunnel. Then I put them on again. Entire city.

“Oh, that’s cool. Makes it look like we’re above ground.” Handing them off to the others to try, I looked to the boy. “Your mom makes those?”

“Like I said,” the kid confirmed, “it’s for the claustrophobic ones. Mom’s really good with the vision spells like that. She sells other ones, but these are for the tourists. Six enners, an’ if you need a recharge after they’re out, it’s just one per.”

“Well, see, I don’t exactly know what–” I started to say that I didn’t know what an enner was, but Sands stepped past me. “I’ve got it,” she promised. “I don’t think we need them, but they still might be a cool toy.”

I had a lot of questions, including what she was giving him. But even as my mouth opened to ask, something else caught my eye. Just across the street there was a man with several cyberforms around him. One was a monkey sitting on his left shoulder with its metal tail curled around his arm, while his other shoulder was occupied by another that was some kind of cat. At his feet were three more cyberforms: a Saint Bernard, a raccoon, and a lizard that was skittering around the other two.

“He’s got a lot of little friends,” I pointed out while reaching into my pocket to take out Jaq and Gus so they could see. “What do you think, guys, builder or collector?”

Avalon, who had stepped up beside me to see what I was looking at, remarked, “Builder. Definitely a builder. Or someone he knows is. Either way, he’s probably selling them.”

My mouth opened to ask something else, but the man had spotted us watching him. Pointing, he came closer while giving us a broad smile. As he approached, I took a second to examine him more than all his distracting metallic animals. The guy was just under six feet tall, with long clearly dyed red hair that had been tied into a bunch of braids. His skin was very dark, and he wore a gray trench coat over a black shirt and cargo pants. His eyes, I noticed, were very bright, almost neon blue. Clearly unnatural, but I didn’t know if it was a power, a spell, or just contacts.

“I knew it,” the man announced as he neared us. “I knew it, knew it, knew it. I always recognize my own work. Doesn’t matter if it’s two inches away or a mile, I can always spot my stuff.” Looking up to me then, he added, “Name’s Broker. Least that’s what they call me. See it’s funny, cuz I make things not broke. And then I sell them.”

Jaq and Gus were chittering, dancing around on my hand and arm. They didn’t seem upset or worried, though. Instead, the pair were clearly excited.

“Err, you built these guys?” I asked curiously, my eyes shifting toward the other cyberforms. The monkey on the man’s shoulder was watching me closely, its intelligent eyes almost unnerving. On the other hand, after what happened with my mother, I kind of had a thing for trusting monkeys.

“Built them?” the man echoed, shaking his head. “Nope, sorry. I just fixed them up. Found them after a battle all smashed to pieces, so I put them back together again. Took a good long while and we really got to know each other. Didn’t we, Bill?” As he spoke, the guy put a hand out close to Jaq so that the little mouse could sniff it.

“Bill?” Belatedly, I understood. “Let me guess, that one was Ted.”

With a grin, Broker nodded. “Righteo. You probably call them something else. But then… you weren’t the one I sold them to. Least not unless you went all in on a shapeshifting power.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “Nope, that–err, here.” Extending my hand, I urged my little mice friends, “Go ahead and see him, guys.” As they hopped over and ran up Broker’s arm to chitter at him, I went on. “The guy you sold them to, was his name Doxxer?”

“Doxxer? Nah.” Broker shook his head while offering the mice a few small bits of metal that they happily gobbled up. “But that sounds like a Garden name, and I did sell them to one of their guys. Them and a few others.”

By that point, Sean and Vulcan had come closer, the latter moving to sniff the Saint Bernard, which sniffed him back. The two cyberform canines circled each other curiously, before each gave a happy bark. Vulcan lowered his head and the lizard scrambled up onto him. Then he snapped his head up again, sending the lizard flying to land on the other dog’s back. The lizard moved up to the Saint Bernard’s head then, which lowered itself down a bit before snapping up to send it flying back over to Vulcan. They continued in that vein.

“So, what do you call them?” Broker asked idly while scratching under their noses.

“This is Jaq,” I started, “and that’s Gus.”

“Ooh, went with Cinderella, huh?” He grinned at me, showing a full mouth of glittering golden teeth. “Nice choice, they’re even actual mice.”

Impressed by the fact that he actually gotten that reference, as well as the one about Bill and Ted that he made earlier, I remarked, “Were you actually born into the Heretics? Because you seemed pretty pop culture savvy.”

“You should see my Spongebob collection,” Broker teased with a wink. “But no, I was born and raised a Heretic. I just happen to really like keeping my head in the Bystander world. But not so much that I don’t need to make a living in the Heretic way. So, what do you say I give you a little upgrade for these guys? Since you’re so nice to them, I’ll even throw in a discount. Won’t cost you nearly as many enners as it would if you took them into a shop.”

My mouth open to questions that term again, but Columbus beat me to the punch. “The kid over there said that word too, what’s an enner?”

Sands, who had returned from buying the glasses, answered that one. “Enner. Short for energy. It’s how Heretics out in the real world barter for goods or services. We needed a currency that actually mattered to us, you know? So they made up enners. Basically, they are these blank cards that you put your energy into for spells. It’s not a spell by itself, but you put the power into it and the card holds it. When someone else takes the card they can use that energy to power their own spells. It’s effort and energy from yourself that you put into a card. That’s why they have value, because people like to use them for magic that they don’t want to spend the effort on themselves. Or for things that require ongoing power or recharging.”

Okay, that made sense. Still, I had to shake my head. “Sorry, as you could probably guessed from that, I’ve never even heard of these things before. So I definitely don’t have any.”

But it does sound like stuff that you’d be really good at making, I pointed out inwardly, sensing Tabbris’s embarrassment.

Sands shrugged. “Mom was showing Scout and me how to make them while we were on our trip, so I’ve got a few still, but probably not enough to get cyberform upgrades.”

“I’ll take care of it.” The announcement came from behind us, as Deveron approached. He gave me a wink. “Consider it an end-of-year mentor gift. So what kind of upgrade are we talking about here?”

Broker gave Deveron a broad, literally golden smile. “Oh, I think I have something perfect in mind. I see you’ve already had someone do some work on them,” he added to me. “Looks like Nevada’s work, right? I heard they brought her on to take up Zedekiah’s old job.”

Expression sobering then, he quietly lamented, “Too bad about him. He was a good guy. Taught me a lot. I uhh–” He swallowed hard, seeming to get lost in memories for a moment before shaking himself. “Err, right. Improvements. I imagine you don’t want to lose them for even a few days?”

Biting my lip, I nodded. “I kinda need my little buddies. And considering how often things seem to blow up, not having them for a few days out here is… probably a bad idea.”

“Ah,” Broker replied dryly, “you’re one of the busy students, huh? Yeah, that tracks. I do have something though. It’s more of a programming update and a new toy for you. See this–ahh, where the hell did I…” Patting down his pockets, the man paused before snapping his fingers as he looked toward where the monkey had joined Vulcan and the others. “CG, run back and fetch the case, would you?”

Briefly saluting with his tail, the mechanical monkey launched himself up straight from the ground to Broker’s arm before leaping from there to a passing man’s shoulder, making his way over and through the crowd quickly.

While waiting for him to get back, I looked over to the others. Doug had picked up the lizard, which ran all the way up his arm before leaping over to where Avalon was. For her part, the girl reacted by picking him off her arm by his tail. She held him up close enough for me to get a good look. I wasn’t an expert in lizards or anything, but he basically looked like a silver gecko.

And then his tail broke off. As Avalon was holding him up by it, the tail abruptly snapped right off, letting the rest of the little lizard fall to land on her other arm.

No, it didn’t break, see?

Tabbris was right, I realized. The tail, like a normal gecko’s, had popped off by design. In this case, however, it was slightly different. Mainly because as the lizard landed on Avalon’s arm, he popped up onto his two back legs before snatching his tail from her hand. The tail itself had flattened in that time, sharp metal edges appearing along the sides.

The way the lizard held his suddenly sharpened tail, it was like–

“It’s a sword!” That was Doug, blurting out loud. “His tail pops off and turns into a sword?”

As if to confirm that, the lizard danced back and forth on Avalon’s arm, swiping his tail-blade like a swashbuckler while making a challenging noise.

“Yup,” Broker confirmed, “Porthos is a bit of a show-off. Here, I’ll put him away.” He started to reach for the lizard.

“I’ll take him!” Avalon’s words came in a blurted rush, apparently before she even knew she was going to say it. She reflexively drew back from the man’s reaching arm, already flushing a bit. “I mean… what do you want for him?”

“Oh, kid, uh…” The man looked a little uncertain. “Full Cyberforms are pretty expensive, even little ones. I’d give you the best deal I can, but I couldn’t let him go for less than a thousand. Even that’s just a little over covering time spent fixing him up.” He genuinely looked regretful that he couldn’t just give her the cyberform, which I understood completely. Granted, she was my girlfriend, but still. Seeing the way she was actually interested in the little guy made me want to buy him for her myself, and I still didn’t have any of the so-called ‘enner’ that they used.

I saw the other girl warring with herself a bit, but even as her mouth opened, Deveron spoke up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that one too. Still your mentor too, right?”

“I don’t want you buying things for me,” Avalon reflexively snapped, though she seemed torn.

Deveron, for his part, clearly understood. “You’re not. You know what the money is. Make some, save them up, pay me back when you can. But it’s stupid to wait until you have it, then try to track him down again and hope he’s still got this specific one. I’ll put down the money now, you work it out when you can.”

She still looked conflicted, but let it go as she stared at the lizard on her arm. Porthos, as he was apparently called, had reattached his tail and fallen back onto all fours to look back and forth between Avalon and Broker while making a soft noise that sounded like a curious chirp.

“Pretty loaded for a student yourself there, Mr….?” Broker prompted curiously.

“Adams,” came the response. “Deveron Adams. And let’s just say I know how to do favors for people.”

“Hey, works for me.” Shrugging, the cyberform salesman and repair guy looked to Avalon. “I’ll take you through the bonding process and show you how to convert him to his handgun form. If you want to change his name, we can do that too. And for you…” His eyes moved to me then. “Here.”

Reaching down to the case that the monkey had brought back by that point, Broker produced some kind of metal bracelet. “Here’s the deal. I install a programming update to your little friends there. Then you put this thing on. See how it’s got a red button on this side and a blue button on the other? You press the red button while saying one or both of their names, and it’ll take them from wherever they are and instantly transport them to your hand. Which is kind of neat, but kind of a parlor trick. The real treat is the other half of it. That blue button, you press that and say one of their names and it’ll transport you to where they are. You know, provided it’s within about a mile. Sorry, the range is a bit limited that way.”

My eyes had widened by that point. “You mean… I could send them into a place I couldn’t get through, then transport myself to them?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Broker confirmed. “Actually, that’s the other part. You hold both buttons down together and say one of their names and you’ll be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. You know, so you know what you’re getting into. You can give them orders that way too.”

“Wow, that’s… wow.” My mouth opened and shut. “Yeah, that does sound useful.”

“I thought it might,” the man replied with a wink. “Okay, so that’s one update for you, and Porthos here for you. Anyone else? Should we see how much of a dent we can throw into Mr. Adams’ wallet if he’s so accommodating?”

Douglas and Columbus both raised their hands, the former speaking first. “I don’t–uhh, I don’t think I need Deveron’s help. Not buying a cyberform or anything. Actually, I was going to ask if you’d help me with an idea I had for my construct-pen. I had a few ideas, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I could pay you for your time.”

“Hey, you got it, kid.” Broker gave him a thumbs up. “We’ll see what we can do. And you?”

“I’m not actually… buying anything either,” Columbus replied carefully. “I was… you know Harrison Fredericks, right? I was wondering if you could… introduce me. I just… I’d kind of like to talk to him sometime. On his schedule. If–if there’s anything you could do.”

“Huh.” Broker looked hesitant. “Let’s… tell you what, I’ll go ahead and pass the message along. Fredericks and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together anymore, but I can talk to him. I’ll see if he’s got any time to meet with you while you’re here and let you know.”

I had no idea why Columbus wanted to talk to Harrison Fredericks. Still, I wasn’t going to question him about it right there. I could tell, however, that the others were just as curious.

“Right, if that’s all settled,” Broker gestured. “Why don’t we step back over here to my shop and we’ll get you sorted out. I’ll fix up the lovely ladies with their new toys, and then we’ll see what we can do for… ahh…”

“Doug,” the first boy in question supplied for him. “My name’s Doug.”

“And Columbus,” the other added.  

“Doug! Doug and Columbus.” Broker snapped his fingers, blinking over at Vulcan. “And this one?” Looking to Sean, he added, “Are we sure we don’t want any kind of update? Eh, come on, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’ve got a few options, I’ll show you around the shop and you can decide. Some of the big ones might take a bit, but they’ll be worth it.”

Sean looked uncertain, resting his hand on his dog’s head. But in the end, he shrugged and joined us as we followed the man.

“You know,” I started with a glance toward Avalon and her new little lizard friend, who was riding on her shoulder. “If you’re gonna rename him, you should really go with Ahhh!”

“Ahhh?” she echoed, frowning before a look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, no.”

“Because then,” I continued with a grin, “when I introduce both my girlfriends’ pets–”

“Don’t say it,” she warned.

“People’ll think they need to bless me–” I pressed on.

“I’m warning you.”

“Because I’ll say–”

“One more word–”

“Ahhh-choo!”

“…. God damn it, Chambers.”

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Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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Interlude 40A – A Funeral

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The light of the moon shone brilliantly across the dark waters of the ocean, the ripples across the surface seeming to glow at the height of each soft wave before fading to black as they sank once more. A gentle wind rustled the leaves of the nearby jungle, while its inhabitants made their presence known through their calls of food, of danger, and of the hunt.

“Thanks for coming, you guys,” I spoke softly. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you didn’t.”

The people with me as I stood on the beach, damp sand from the waves under my feet, were my team, and others. Sean, Columbus, Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were there. So were Wyatt, Koren… and Abigail and Miranda. Yeah. The latter two were here on the Crossroads beach, thanks to Gaia. It wouldn’t be a long visit, but they wanted to be here for this. They needed to be here for this. And since the Committee along with basically everyone else was busy trying to find out what the hell had happened even a day after it went down… well, it gave us this opening.

Tabbris was there too, possessing me for the time being so that she could be here for this.

In the background, a short distance away from where we were, Dare and Gaia stood together. They were staying out of the way, while also making sure nothing went wrong or interrupted.

Vulcan moved to nudge up against me, making a soft whining sound. Sean, meanwhile, nodded. “He’s right. We know why you need to do this, Flick. It’s important.”

The others murmured agreement, and I took a breath before slowly lowering my gaze to look at the object at the edge of the beach in front of us, right next to the water. It was a canoe. And in that canoe lay a small body wrapped in sheets.

He looks kind of sad like that, Tabbris’ voice in my head whispered. But he was still an evil, murderous jackdonkey.

Jackdonkey? I sent back. That’s a new one. And yeah… he does look kind of sad, just a bundle like that. I… I wish someone could have helped him. Undone what Fossor did to him, I mean.

Ammon. The body in the boat was Ammon, his head wrapped in with it. Even though I couldn’t actually see it, just looking at the sheet covering his dead form was enough to bring bile to my throat. This shouldn’t have happened. None of it should have happened. The whole situation was… it was horrific. I couldn’t even begin to think about what Dare was going through. Especially since she didn’t have nearly the amount of people to talk through it with as Koren and I did. She had the two of us and Gaia. That was it. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that Koren and I were any good at making her feel better. Ammon was her grandson, and she’d killed him. She’d had no choice, and he was, as Tabbris said, ‘a murderous jackdonkey.’ But still, she had killed him. That had to weigh on her.

Not that she was any stranger to things weighing on her. Sacrificing not only her husband, but her entire history with both him and his people… that was clearly worse than I could imagine. She’d had to let her husband, the man she loved, die. And afterward, rather than being able to grieve with their family, with the people who knew him the most… she’d been alone. None of them had remembered her. She lost the man she loved, and at the same time, had been erased from the minds of everyone whom she should have been able to grieve with.

And she had done it all, willingly, to save the world from the Fomorians. I didn’t even have the capacity to fully comprehend that kind of sacrifice. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t only lost them once. It wasn’t like they died. They were still there. All those people, aside from her husband, were still there. She had to pretend she didn’t know them. She had to stay away from them, had to stay away from her own daughter. The child that she had made with her husband, the truest and most pure symbol of their love and union… and Virginia Dare had to stay away from her. Every single day, every hour in the decades that followed, she had to choose to put the world over her own wants and happiness. The world was free of Fomorian invasion purely and only because of Virginia Dare’s sacrifice, in every meaning of the word.

My mother was a hero whom I would probably never live up to. But my grandmother… she was a legend that the entire world, and likely far more beyond that, could never repay.

Shaking those thoughts off (at least as much as I could, anyway), I let out a soft sigh. “You’re right, it’s important.” My eyes closed briefly as I gathered myself before speaking again, a little bit louder. “You guys know that… we’re not here to mourn the monster that was killed yesterday. We’re not here to grieve for the person who murdered or tortured so many people. That was a creature created by Fossor.”

“We’re here,” a new voice spoke from the direction of Gaia and Dare, “to mourn the boy he used to be.”

It was Asenath, along with Deveron. I’d hoped she would come, and Gaia had said she would try to bring her. Apparently that was where Deveron had been. All he’d said was that he had to do something first and that he’d meet us here.

However Asenath had gotten here, it was nice to see the girl, and I stepped that way to embrace her tightly. “You made it.”

She returned it, smiling a little. “I did. It’s been awhile since we’ve been face to face, Flick.”

I nodded at that. “Too long. I… I guess that job of yours is finished now. The one who killed Denise is dead.” Denise, whose death at the gas station Ammon had visited had first spurred Asenath toward my life to begin with when the girl’s mother called for her help.

Asenath, however, shook her head. “Ammon’s dead, but the one responsible for Denise’s death is still out there. I’m not stopping just because the weapon is gone. I want the one who made that weapon and put it in that situation.”

I thought briefly before raising an eyebrow. “Fossor?”

“Fossor,” she confirmed, face set with a hard look. “He’s the one responsible for Denise’s death. And more others than we can count, but still. Denise was murdered, and I’m going to make sure the person ultimately responsible for that pays, any way that I can. Even if it means all I get to do is contribute a fraction of a percent to what finally brings him down. That fraction of a percent belongs to Denise, and I’m going to make damn sure she gets it.”

Clearing my throat then, I gestured to the others. “Uh, guys, this is Asenath. She’s–”

“My sister,” Shiori put in, moving to get her own hug from the girl.

Brief introductions went around then, Doug actually seeming a bit… smitten, honestly. It was almost funny to watch, aside from the actual situation. The boy was clearly nervous about meeting a vampire like that, but got over it pretty quick before moving on to clearly wanting to know everything about her. He kept asking questions, until Asenath promised to talk to him some more after all of this was over.

Tristan and Vanessa took a moment with her as well, the Seosten-hybrids seeming to be pretty curious about Asenath, though for different reasons. Tristan had met her once before, on the Meregan world (which to him had been several years ago, when he was still a kid) but they hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. Now, he wanted to hear about the adventures she’d had through the years. Meanwhile, Vanessa wanted to hear about the people she’d met. Asenath promised to talk to them some more later as well.

“If I’d known I’d be this popular on the Crossroads beach,” she announced, “I might’ve come sooner.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Probably a bad idea. Gaia can’t stand ten feet away and shield us all the time, after all.”

Abigail and Miranda were there then, the former introducing herself to Asenath and thanking her for everything she’d done.

“Good to see you again,” Randi put in when it was her turn. “Guess things have changed a lot.”

“You’re not wrong,” Asenath confirmed with a cough. “But things have a way of doing that. Especially if you live long enough.”

Randi smirked back at her. “Here’s hoping the rest of us get a chance to experience that firsthand.”  

That, of course, brought everyone’s attention to the boat, and the bundle inside of it. Realizing what she had said, Miranda grimaced. “Shit. I…”

It was Abigail who spoke. “We know what you mean. It’s… it’s okay. Ammon…” She sighed softly. “We can be glad that Fossor won’t be able to use him anymore, that…  that he’s not suffering, and that he won’t be able to inflict suffering on anyone else.”

It was hard for her. I knew that. Everything she’d been through, and even knowing what she knew about Ammon, it was still hard to accept that killing him had been the right choice. I was pretty sure she’d never fully accept it. And that was okay, because we all had at least a little doubt, a… wish that things had gone differently and that we could have found a way to save him. It was possible to be sad that it happened, while also being relieved that it happened, as contradictory as that might have seemed.

With that in mind, it was probably time to get on with it. Everyone was looking at the boat again anyway.

“Okay, umm,” I started slowly, “before we do this, I think we should talk about Ammon. He was a…” I took a breath. “Fossor turned him into a monster. He destroyed an innocent little boy just to play his sick games. I know it… it can be hard to see it, hard to accept it, but Ammon was just as much a victim as any of the people he hurt. He wasn’t born a psychopath, Fossor deliberately made him into one. So like I said before, this isn’t about mourning Ammon the monster. It’s about mourning Ammon the little boy. My little–” I had to stop, something catching in my throat until I swallowed hard and pushed on. “My little brother. He deserved better than he got.”

“All of Fossor’s victims deserve better than they get.” That was Avalon, her voice dark as she stood near me, looking out over the water. “And whatever Ammon might’ve been, or whatever he was before Fossor got to him, he was a monster and had to be put down. Yes, it’s sad that it was done to him. But it’s not sad that he was stopped before he could kill any more people. Don’t lose sight of that in your hurry to grieve for the person you wish he still was. You never met that person.”

I nodded to that. “You’re right, I know. Like I said, we’re not mourning Ammon the monster. We’re…” Pausing, I thought of the best way of putting it. “We’re mourning the little boy that he was before the monster. Think of this as a funeral taking place years after the Ammon we’re actually mourning was killed by whatever Fossor made take his place.”

My voice cracked a little then. “I probably wouldn’t have been that different from him if Mom hadn’t taken my place when Fossor tried to grab me in the first place. This–all of it, it’s Fossor’s doing. He’s a piece of shit, and he’s the one who needs to be stopped.”

Sands spoke up. “He will be. He’s got a lot of people gunning for him.” Her eyes shifted over to me before she added, “And he’s been picking fights that he’ll end up regretting.”

Moving to the boat, Abigail knelt, putting her hand on the side of it. “I wish I could have known the real Ammon, before Fossor destroyed him. I wish he’d had a chance to…  I wish he’d had a chance.”

Wyatt moved next to her then, giving me a brief look before he somewhat awkwardly knelt beside his long-lost twin. It was easy to see the resemblance when they were right next to each other like that, and I felt another pang at the reminder that they’d barely spent any time together, thanks to Ruthers.

For a moment, I wondered if Liam ever felt bad about the fact that his betrayal had helped tear twins apart from both each other and their own parents. Did he ever think about that when looking at his own twins? Did he think about it when Larissa had disappeared? Did it sink in then at all?

At least no one here had to be confused about what Wyatt and Abigail had to do with the situation. Thanks to a little help from Sariel and her command of memory magic, everyone was on the same page about that whole situation. Though it might’ve been at least a little interesting to see how the spell that had erased their identities dealt with something like this.

Slowly, I moved over to the opposite side of the canoe, taking a knee there while Koren joined me. The four of us, two on each side, all stared at the sheet-wrapped bundle within. I almost wanted to reach out and touch it, but stopped myself.

“Whatever the closest place to actual hell is,” Koren muttered under her breath in a voice that sounded as though she could barely speak, “Fossor belongs there.”

It was a sentiment we all agreed with, though none of us spoke. Neither did the others. They stood back, watching while the four of us knelt there. It was… paying our respects, basically. Not praying, exactly. Just… taking a quiet moment to kneel beside Ammon’s body. He deserved that much, deserved to have his family there with him before the end. Or most of his family, anyway.

How was Mom doing? What did Fossor tell her about it? How much did he even know? Dare had apparently made sure there were no observation spells that could have transmitted the events, so all he could know was that Ammon was dead. But I doubted that would stop him from embellishing if he felt like it. Or ranting.

Did he care about Ammon’s death? I genuinely didn’t know. Probably only as far as it affected his plans, but still. I… kind of didn’t want to follow my thoughts down that snake hole.

We’ll tell her what happened, Tabbris promised me. You know, as soon as we find her.

Smiling just a little inwardly, I tried to ignore the flash of pain. Because she was wrong. I couldn’t tell Mom about what had really happened, just like I couldn’t tell Tabbris herself. Every thought I had about that, including keeping it secret, was hidden from her. All she knew was that Dare had arrived and supposedly killed Ammon before he could control her. That was what everyone aside from Koren, Gaia, and I believed. It was what they had to believe.

Yeah, I sent back to my little partner, we’ll make sure she knows what happened.

With that in mind, I glanced back to the others, toward Professor Dare. Even now, she couldn’t show how much this affected her. Looking close, I could see Gaia holding her hand. Which was something, at least. But she couldn’t be here by the boat with us. She couldn’t let any of the others know that she hadn’t just killed a little boy, she had killed her own grandson.

Yeah, it was a good thing the spell took care of keeping thoughts like that away from Tabbris, or I would’ve blown the secret within about three seconds of her possessing me.

Deveron joined us after that first quiet moment. Taking a knee at the back of the canoe, he spoke softly. “He was Fossor’s monster. But he was also Joselyn’s son. I know her. She might not be here, but… but she knows we’re doing this. She’s ready for it. Even if she can’t see it, she… wherever she is, she’s thinking about this.”

He was right, I knew. Mom was about as close to here as she could possibly be. She knew we’d be doing this, she knew where, and she knew when. I could almost feel her, could almost imagine that she was standing right behind me.

Closing my eyes tightly for just a moment, I nodded. “She knows. And she’s waiting, so let’s do it.”

Slowly, the five of us lifted the canoe. I could have lifted it by myself, of course. As could several of the others. But that wasn’t the point. We lifted it together before taking a few steps out into the water. As it rose to my knees, we set the boat down. I gave the bundle inside one last look, before we all gave it a push, sending the canoe out onto the ocean.

Normally, the waves would have just pushed it back. But at the moment that we let it go, a small rune on the side of the boat glowed, an activated spell which slowly propelled it further away.

Once the boat was far enough away, a second spell activated on it and flames began to spread. They started small, but soon the entire canoe was engulfed, a floating bonfire there on the ocean.

We watched it together in silence as the boat, and Ammon’s body, burned. It was symbolic, of course. But it was also practical. Fossor was a freaking necromancer. Of course we were burning the body. We (or rather, Dare and Gaia) had also set up several spells on said body that would prevent his ghost from being pulled back.

More thoughts than I could articulate ran through my mind in those minutes. But the one that stood out above the others was that we all deserved better than this. Everyone deserved better than this.

We stood there the whole time, until there was no more boat that could burn. The flames themselves had been magical, capable of completely destroying the body while leaving nothing behind. It was over. Ammon was officially laid to rest, and wouldn’t bother anyone else again.

And yet, all I could think in that moment was that I wished I could say the same thing about Fossor. The fact that he was alive and had actually succeeded in his plot to take that rope made me sick to my stomach. God, I wanted that monster to die more than basically anything. But his time would come.

I just hoped that it would come before he had a chance to do whatever he wanted the rope for.

“Goodbye, Ammon,” I whispered, my voice barely carrying to the others around me. “I know it makes me a horrible person to say it, but I’m glad… I’m glad you’re gone. I’m glad you can never hurt or kill anyone again. I…” My eyes squeezed shut, a hard stone of guilt settling in my chest. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save you, but I’m glad you’ll never be able to hurt another person.”

The lump stayed, and I made myself open my eyes, staring once more at where the burning boat had been. “I’m sorry that I never got a chance to actually know you. I’m sorry for what Fossor did, and that we couldn’t help you. I’m sorry for everything you went through. I’m sorry for that part of you that was trying so hard to understand why it was wrong. For everything you went through, for everything that Fossor put you through, for what he turned you into, and… most importantly, for all of your victims that we couldn’t save…

“I’m sorry.”

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Patreon Snippets 4

The following is the fourth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

With a loud shriek, the goblin creature took two running steps forward before leaping, his makeshift spear raised with both hands as he lunged toward the thirteen-year-old girl in front of him. The girl herself was only slightly taller than the goblin, her feet automatically shifting apart in the dirt as she set herself for the creature’s leap.

Nearby stood the ancient Seosten who had, throughout his history on this planet, referred to himself as both Quirinus and Romulus. Now, however, in the wake of abandoning his people to live free on this world, he went by his true name of Michael.

Michael. In the Seosten language, it was pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El’. But he had, in recent years, found himself answering more to the pronunciation of simply ‘Mike-el’ due to his adopted human daughter’s inability to pronounce the name properly as a young child.

It was that same adopted child, whom he had raised from before she could properly walk, who stood facing down the lunge of that goblin. And in that moment, Michael had to force himself not to instantly incinerate the creature to ash for daring to threaten the girl who meant so much to him. No. He had to stop himself. Had to let her fight. He had promised to let her fight this battle.

And yet… it was hard. When he looked at her in that instant, the goblin throwing itself at her slender, tiny form, Michael couldn’t help but think of the time not so long ago when she had been even smaller…

Guinevere. His little Gwen. She was small enough to fit in a bag that he carried across his back. As he ran through the woods, she laughed and squealed, hands reaching up from the bag to hug his neck as she cheered for him to go faster, faster, faster. Her laughter alerting the birds to their approach, driving them to flee from their trees even as the man raced onward, the delight of his newfound child driving him to greater heights and speeds than any previous experience.

Another flash of memory. Years after that moment, in woods similar to but quite far from the ones they had been in then. Michael stood in a clearing next to a small cabin, working his way through his own personal training regimen. His sword cut through the air in an intricate ballet of steel as he shuffled and danced back and forth through the dirt, facing invisible opponents from all sides. The whistle of his blade was audible as it flicked through complicated motions.

From the corner of his eye, he could see his Gwen. Now old enough to stand on her own, the little girl toddled her way from the porch of the cabin where she had been playing with a doll he’d made for her. The doll was still clutched in one hand, even as the girl bent to pick up a small stick from the ground. Experimentally, she flicked the stick back and forth a few times, before giving a slight yelp as it found its way up to smack her own lip.

She tried to throw the offending stick away from herself, only for Michael to catch it. He was there, taking a knee beside the girl. As she whimpered and held her injured lip, the man gave her a gentle smile and put the stick back in her trembling hand. With one hand on her back and the other on her wrist, he slowly began to guide her through the first motion of swinging it. One swipe, then another, he showed the tiny girl how to use the stick without hurting herself.

More flashes of memory came in a rush. The girl swinging the stick on her own, clumsily at first but gaining skill and confidence each time. The crack of a larger stick as the girl, several years older than she had been then, struck it against a tree. The crack of sticks against one another as, even older than that, she tested herself against Michael for a few swings before ending up flat on her back as he tripped her.

The clack of wood on wood turned to the clang of steel on steel as Gwen, not too much younger than she was now, parried a playful thrust from Michael himself, each armed with a real sword. He moved to trip her again, but she sidestepped the move and snapped her blade up to his chest, only to have it smacked aside by Michael’s counter. Father and daughter grinned at one another.

Memories faded then, turning back to reality as the goblin lashed out with that sword. Gwen saw it coming, having set herself for the leap. At the last instant, she pivoted, catching the extended spear with one hand to yank the goblin forward even as her small blade flicked out. There was a shriek and a spray of blood before the creature fell to its back, bleeding from the cut in its throat.

Sword in one hand and makeshift spear in the other, Gwen finished the goblin off by driving its own weapon down through its throat. Standing there with the spear embedded deep in the now-dead creature, she grinned lopsidedly at her adopted father.

“See, Papa? I told you I could do it.”

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

“So, do you think we can help her, Grandmother?” The boy who spoke while walking alongside the brunette woman he referred to as ‘Grandmother’ was tall and handsome, his toned and tanned form a common source of excitement for the girls around him. In most cases, he was casual and laid back almost to a fault. But here, in this situation, he was careful to keep his tone as respectful and proper as possible.

The shorter, dark-haired woman he was addressing as ‘Grandmother’ despite the fact that she only appeared to be in her late thirties, offered her grandson a thin smile. To others, she was known as Ikita, the Hausan (mostly spoken by people from Nigeria) word for doctor. This, because of a very early experience during the formation of Garden itself wherein she had been responsible for saving the lives of several Nigerian explorers. The name had stuck.

“Noble. Are you asking me to extend the power of our tribe to protect this… Abigail from any inter-Garden conflict?”

“Uhh…” The boy thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Yup. She’s close to Miranda, Grandmother. I don’t want to see Randi get hurt, which means we need to make people know that Abigail is with us.”

The two of them stopped outside of a room within the giant skyscraper-sized tree of  Eden’s Garden. Ikita offered her grandson a slight nod. “As you wish. I will see what can be done to… urge others to leave the woman alone.”

The boy thanked her and ran off, Ikita watching him for a moment before turning to enter her chambers. As she did so, the smile vanished from her face, her identity as ‘Ikita’ fading away to the back of her mind.

Because ‘Ikita’ was actually, truthfully known as Cahethal. Earlier in her time on this planet, she had also been called Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. For centuries now, she had possessed this single woman (then a young girl when she had first taken her). It was she, while possessing this girl, who had saved those Nigerians and earned the name of Ikita. The true Ikita, whose real name of Lydia Smallwood had been almost completely forgotten to history, had spent most of the past few hundred years barely interacting with the outside world. Cahethal allowed her time with herself when they were alone, or even time within a constructed memory-magic virtual reality so that she could live a facsimile of a real life of her own.

She didn’t do these things solely out of some affection for her host (though there was at least some of that). Mostly she did so because it was the easiest way to maintain easy control without distraction. So long as her host was rewarded with these things for keeping herself quiet, Cahethal could continue her work uninterrupted. And after more than two centuries, the two had an easy rhythm. There was no need for Cahethal to punish or discipline her host when that host was lost in a virtual reality world which kept her quite thoroughly occupied in a ‘life’ of her own.

It did mean that she had spent many years with… what basically amounted to peace with her host. Peace of sorts, anyway. She’d even grown somewhat fond of her ‘family’, like Noble. Fond enough, at least, that she took the care to block any attempt to have them taken to Seosten space to fight on the Fomorian front. She told herself it was only to keep her host happy, but a part of Cahethal knew it was more than that. She didn’t… love the humans. That would have been ridiculous. But they were… something more than worthless. Favored pets, perhaps? Either way, she didn’t necessarily want to see them thrown away in that endless conflict.

In the room, she walked to where her scientific equipment had been set up. Flicking a hand to activate the spell that would make it impossible to be eavesdropped on through any means, she only then let her gaze move to the nearby window. A bluebird (sialia currucoides) perched there on the sill, watching her.

“Are you ready to report?” she asked the bird, waiting until it trilled a soft song before nodding. “Come here then.”

The bird flew in, landing on her palm. Cahethal reached up, gently petting its beak while cooing gently to it. Then her fingers wrapped around the bird’s neck and she gave a sharp twist, breaking it in a single motion.

As the bird’s body collapsed, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the woman. It resolved into the form of a small, thin man, whose long dirty-blonde hair fell all the way past his shoulders. He stretched, cracking his own neck a couple times before fixing his gaze on her. “I want a cat next next time. I like cats.”

“Report, November,” Cahethal reminded him. November. He was a Lie, of course. One of twelve she had in her employ at the moment, each of them named after a different month in the Gregorian calendar. She found it both easier to tell her Lie informants apart when they were given some other identifier like that, and also that it made them feel better inclined toward her for giving them such a name.

She’d also found that it was easier to allow them to engage in their very useful spying activities by having them possess small animals that could go unnoticed than for them to possess actual people, thus locking them into that form unless the person were to die, which often raised questions. Possessing animals meant that her spies could come and go as they pleased.

“Right, right.” Stretching a bit more and shaking himself off, November carefully began to recite everything he’d heard while spying on Abigail Fellows. He told her about the woman bonding with both Miranda and with the Lie that had run away from that idiot, Manakel. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to hear full details in their private conversations, but he had learned enough to know that Abigail had taken this other Lie under her protection (though given her inexperience, it was far more likely the other way around) and guidance.

“Keep watching them,” she instructed. “Bring in July and April. They need new jobs, and it will spread the work around. Let me know how things proceed. Beyond that, make no move against them. I want to… see how this goes.”

Because this entire situation was interesting. Seeing how Joselyn’s eldest daughter acted with this other Lie, seeing how that entire situation unfolded and how the woman herself shook things up here at Garden, it was… worth allowing to proceed, at least for the time being.

She dismissed him, allowing the man to go into the backroom where dozens of animal cages were kept so that he could pick out his next host. While he was busy with that, the woman turned her mind toward Felicity Chambers, the girl who was supposed to have been Cahethal’s new host as of several years earlier. But when she had gone to the girl’s room, she had found herself incapable of possessing her. Incapable of possessing what should have been an ordinary human child.

It should have angered her. And in a way, it had. But far more than that, it had intrigued Cahethal. She wanted to know the truth. She wanted to know what could possibly have caused that. So she had backed off. She had waited and pitched her request that Felicity be brought to Eden’s Garden so that a closer eye could be kept on her. That request, unfortunately, had been denied. Felicity was slated to go to Crossroads instead, thanks to effort put forth by Gaia Sinclaire. Effort which Cahethal couldn’t push too much against without drawing attention to herself.

That, far more than her inability to possess the girl, had annoyed Cahethal. She wanted to research the girl, wanted to dig into her and really find out what was so special that allowed her to resist possession. That being denied upset her more than the initial failure itself. The failure was interesting. It merited research, investigation, maybe even direct contact to determine the cause. The opportunity for that being declined was what had truly set her off.

And now look at the girl. She had somehow killed Manakel. Had killed Manakel, a being many thousands of years older and more powerful than she, simply because he had underestimating her. Worse, thanks to that, all the Seosten were being told to leave the girl alone, to back off entirely.

Which denied Cahethal the opportunity to investigate and examine the interesting girl even more.

Idiot Manakel. She was glad his mistake had cost him his life.

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

“So I’m… I’m really sorry, but I… I guess you made a mistake.” Each word that came from Marina’s mouth felt as though she was pushing it past a slump of steel that had solidified in her throat. Her eyes were wet, the overwhelming sense of failure and despair a crushing weight on her shoulders. But she didn’t look away. She didn’t lower her gaze. She stood straight, facing the woman she had failed, no matter how much shame she felt. Gaia deserved that much.

The headmistress herself sat behind a desk in her beautiful, spacious office. She watched the girl silently for a few long seconds before speaking quietly. “I’m afraid I may be a bit lost, Marina. What mistake have I made?”

Incredulously, Marina forgot the lump in her throat to blurt, “Everyone I’m supposed to take care of disappears or dies! Paul’s dead, Rudolph’s dead, Roxa left a long time ago and probably isn’t coming back, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon disappeared. Doug is the only, the only one of my original group that hasn’t had something horrible happen to him–oh wait, he has because those were all his friends! I’m not a good mentor. I’m–” Now her tears were back, her voice choking itself off to the point of barely being understandable. “I wanted to be, but I’m not. I’m not.”

She took a breath then, forcing herself to calm down enough to speak. “They don’t trust me. Chambers, your daughter, Scout, even Doug now. I know they don’t trust me. They’ll be talking and then stop whenever I get close to them. They– I don’t blame them. I’m supposed to protect them and I didn’t. I haven’t. Deveron–he screwed up at the start of the year, but they trust him. They’ll talk to him. And–and the fact is, they don’t need two mentors. They need one that they can trust, and… and it’s him. They don’t need me. They don’t trust me.”

Gaia’s expression was unreadable in that moment. She sat there, watching Marina in silence before pushing herself to her feet. Only when she had stepped around the desk so that it was no longer between them did the woman finally speak. “Before you… retire your badge of mentor, would you mind coming with me?”

“Um. I…” This was not how Marina expected this to go. Biting her lip, she gave a hesitant nod. “O-of course, Headmistress.”

As the two of them walked from the office together, Gaia quietly asked, “Do you remember what you said to me last year, when I asked you if you were certain about being a mentor?”

The lump was back. It took Marina a few seconds to find her voice, and even then it cracked. “I said that… that I wanted it more than anything in the world. I thought I could do it. I thought I was ready.”

“You showed me a journal,” Gaia reminded her while leading the way down the hall. “An entire notebook full of ideas, plans, thoughts, all focused on the things you would do for the younger students. You showed me the games you wanted to play, the tests you wanted to do. You wanted to teach them. You showed me an entire book of ideas you wrote down because you wanted to teach them.” She glanced sidelong at the girl while stopping in front of a door. “Has that changed?”

“W-well… no, I mean…  I mean, I’m not any good at it,” Marina protested weakly. “I thought I was–I thought I could do it. But I can’t. All I wanted to do was show them how… how wonderful and amazing this world can be, how we can help people. I wanted… I wanted to show them that our world is about more than just killing things. Because our people forget that sometimes. They make it about power and about how many monsters they’ve killed. But there’s magic out there. Magic and… and a whole universe of… of wonder. I just… I just wanted to help one little group see that. I just wanted to help a few people see some of the amazing things in this world besides all of the killing.

“And  instead, the only thing I’ve managed to do is get them killed.”

In the wake of Marina’s words, Gaia slowly reached out a hand to rest on her shoulder. “My girl… if there is one thing above everything else, one truth above all others that you must, must understand, it’s that you have done nothing wrong. There are times in all of our lives, when bad things will happen. They will happen no matter how hard to try to prevent them. And they don’t happen because we failed. They happen despite our successes, despite everything we do right. That is the nature of life. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.”

Before Marina could respond to that, Gaia opened the door and gestured for her to go through. “Come.”

The girl took a step that way before blinking up in confusion. Her gaze turned to take in exactly where they were “Err, wait, was this door here before? I don’t remember it.”

With a smile, Gaia ushered her gently, yet firmly through with a hand on her back. “Many do not. It’s not a door that exists for everyone.”

That brought many questions to Marina’s mind. But they all vanished as soon as she moved through the doorway. She felt a slight tingling sensation, before finding herself somewhere else, somewhere that, like the door they had just come through, she had never seen before.

“What the…” Blinking a couple times, the girl slowly looked around. They were in another hallway. Straight ahead of them was another door, with an attached window. Through that window, Marina could see what looked like a classroom. It was filled with desks facing a chalkboard, except it wasn’t part of the school, because the students in those desks were only about ten years old. They were all laughing, clearly engaged in whatever the teacher, a young woman the girl didn’t recognize, was saying while she read from some book.

There were more doors up and down the hall, Marina realized quickly. Through each was another group of children, none of them older than twelve or thirteen, and many as young as three or four. They were learning, playing, or just napping.

“I… I don’t understand.” Turning to Gaia, she asked, “What is this place?”

The headmistress gave her a somewhat sad smile. “This… this is part school, part daycare, part… orphanage. It is a place for all those who are too young to be on their own, yet have no place to go. It is for those whose parents are on a long mission, a long recovery, or… or who will never come back. It is for those whose only guardians have died, while they have no one else.”

Covering her mouth briefly, Marina made a noise of distress before looking up and down at all the rooms she could see. “All these kids… their parents are gone? I mean–dead?”

“Many–most, yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “You see… Marina, I believe you. I believe in you. It may be difficult for you to believe in yourself, but I do. I believe that you wish to teach, that you want to show people the beauty in this world. And more than that, I believe that what you need is not to give up, but to have someone who needs you. These children, they need you. They need people who will come here and spend time with them, people who will take the time to teach them, to prepare them for when they are eventually old enough to join the school proper.

“I know that it is a lot to ask of you, given everything that you have already been through. But can you be that person? Instead of surrendering your mentorship entirely, would you come here and help these children? I’m afraid that it is not a glamorous job. You will not be taking them on grand hunts, or–”

“Yes,” Marina blurted. The word came before she even knew what she was going to say, even as her eyes blurred from the tears. “Yes. Yes. I–I–” Eyes closing, she took three quick steps forward and threw her arms around the much older woman. Clinging tightly to the headmistress, she felt her own shoulders shake violently as the tears came. “Yes. I will. I will. I’ll–I won’t mess up. I won’t mess up, I promise. I’ll help them. I’ll teach them. I’ll–I’ll be there for them. I swear, I swear.”

Gaia returned the embrace tenderly, moving one hand up to brush through her hair. “I know, Marina. I know, sweet girl.”

Tightening her grip despite herself, the embarrassment at her presumption not quite able to surpass her intense gratitude, the girl murmured the only words that she could think in that moment. “Thank you, Miss Sinclaire.

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

For years, Scout had hated that name, because of the memories it brought, memories of her mother’s voice desperately calling for her. Not her true mother, but the monster using her voice to torment her, to torture her into revealing herself. The sound of her mother’s desperate pleading, asking why Sarah wouldn’t come to her, why she didn’t love her anymore, why she was abandoning her… it was enough that the name itself became a symbol of that horrific day.

And yet, all of that vanished in a single instant, the vile memories the name brought up fading into nothingness like so much vapor. Faded because of the same thing that had brought them on in the first place: her mother’s voice.

Her true mother. There. Not only there, but holding her. Scout’s arms clung to the woman as tightly as she could, while her mother held on just as tight. She was whispering Scout’s name–Sarah’s name, kissing her head and nuzzling her as she tightened her grip. “Sarah, my Sarah. My sweet Sarah. My beautiful, brave, incredible little girl.”

“Mommy. Mommy.” Tears fell freely from Sarah’s face as she desperately held onto the woman as though she might never let go. “Mommy, I love you. I love you, Mommy.”

She didn’t care who else was there. She didn’t care who saw or who heard. Her mother was there. Her mother was there, right there, right here. She was back, she was alive. The entire school could have been burning down in that moment and Sarah would not have given the slightest thought to it.

Because her mother was there, and everything would be okay.

Feeling Sands slip in close to them, Sarah opened her arm. Then they were all embracing, the three of them. For the first time in… in many years, they were together. And Sarah felt the kind of… hope and joy that she had almost forgotten. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Not her confusion and anger with her father, not the many, many other things that needed to be done. Not all the enemies that wanted to hurt or kill them. Just this moment right here with her mother and sister. Everything else could wait.

Leaning back a bit after a moment, Larissa gazed down at Sarah and Sands. “My girls. Oh, my brave, beautiful girls. I missed you both for so long. Sarah. My Sarah.” Moving a trembling hand to cup the side of the girl’s face, she whispered. “I missed you. I love you.”

“Mommy. Mommy. I love you. I love you.” The words choked their way out of Sarah’s mouth as she dove right back into hugging the woman, unable to stand letting go for even a second longer.

With a soft smile, Larissa held both of her daughters. “We have a lot to talk about. We’ll do it in private, later, okay?”

Both girls murmured their agreement, before Sarah abruptly looked up. “But one thing? If… if we’re going to talk in private…

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

“You know,” Lincoln Chambers started conversationally, “we have a holiday that’s all about painting eggs too. But uh, they’re not usually this… big.” In demonstration, he reached out to lay his hand against the object in question, which was a solid three feet in height.

On the opposite side of the egg, Sariel raised an eyebrow, a smile twitching at her lips. “Maybe you just didn’t have big enough eggs to pull it off.”

She was clearly teasing, as the egg between them wasn’t actually real. Lincoln wasn’t entirely sure what it was made of, but it seemed to be some kind of plastic. It certainly looked real though, and even felt pretty real when he put his hand against it.

The two of them were standing near the lake with their enormous fake egg. And they weren’t the only ones. More of the freed Seosten were with other eggs. Four in particular had been set up with one of the young toddlers at each, with their actual parents guiding them through the decoration. But even beyond those four, there were other children. All of the kids in the camp, of any number of species, were painting eggs. All those children, gleefully laughing as they dipped  their hands into paint buckets that had been set up and rubbing them over the eggs to color them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the adults, including the Seosten, were carefully painting their own, using brushes of all sizes to create some truly wondrous effects in some cases. Their own results might have looked more professional than the results of toddler finger (and hand… and in some cases toe) painting, but Lincoln could see the beauty in both. And there was just something fun about seeing the kids squealing with delight as they spread their colorful designs over their own giant eggs.

“I’m just going to guess this isn’t actually the Seosten Easter?” he put in then after giving the giant eggs another curious once-over.

Chuckling a little, Sariel shook her head. “There might be some similarities in the whole egg thing and other parts, but no, not really. It’s… I’ll explain more as we go, but it’s basically our ‘winter-end festival.’ It’s a celebration… a holiday that comes from the very, very old days, back when we still lived in huts or stone houses, long before… before everything. Before Cronus. Back when we were basically primitive humans. The winters on Elohim were particularly dangerous. Well, what you would call winter. Elohim has six seasons. Our year is six hundred and fifty-five days long.”

“What about your days?” Lincoln thought to ask. “How long are they?”

“Roughly equivalent, actually,” Sariel replied. “We’re not sure if that’s a coincidence or something about humans learning to function in Seosten society by being put on a planet with similar day lengths. But either, there’s not an appreciable difference. Anyway, six hundred and fifty-five days split into six seasons. High Sun lasts for sixty of those days and is when the land is the hottest. We reach what you would call triple digits fahrenheit on those days. The middle, at the hottest time of the year, is when our calendar marks the new year. High Sun is followed by Low Sun, which is still warm, but more around what you would call the… seventies. That lasts for about a hundred and fifty days. Then we have Fallen Sun, which is our… well, fall or autumn. Things begin to die, it gets a bit cold. That’s another hundred and fifty days. But then the weather warms up again. Back up to Low Sun temperatures for about sixty more days in a time that we call Last Sun. After that, it gets cold. Very cold. We call it No Sun, and it lasts for a hundred and twenty days. At the worst of No Sun, things get… or used to get, unbelievably cold. Before we had all the technology and command of magic that we had now, many people used to die during No Sun. Everything would freeze.

“But that led into our final season, ‘New Sun’. That’s our equivalent of spring, and it lasts for the remaining one hundred and fifteen days. And at the height of it, as we can see the new plants and new life growing out of the old, we celebrate with what you would basically call… ahh… Light Day, I suppose. Or maybe Warmth Day. It’s kind of the same thing. Light and warmth. That’s what this celebration is about. It’s about surviving the coldest days… and remembering those who didn’t.”

A moment later, they were joined by Haiden and Tabbris, as the two hurried up while carrying more paint buckets. Haiden held a handful of cans atop a metal sheet that floated along beside him like a tray, while Tabbris lugged one by herself with both hands, clearly having insisted on helping. Finally, they reached the others and set the color-filled buckets down.

“Mama,” Tabbris chirped while quickly opening her arms, “they’re making the clearing really pretty!”

Smiling openly, Sariel knelt and embraced her daughter tightly. “Are they? You just had to sneak a peek, huh?” she teased the girl with a wink

Blushing, Tabbris squirmed there on her feet, returning the hug before leaning back. “I had to ask Vanessa and Tristan what colors they like, so I can put them on the egg! They’re helping Mister Gabriel and the others set up. You should see all the lights they’ve got! It’s almost like Christmas!”

After giving her daughter another tight hug, Sariel straightened up. “I take it you know how you’d like to paint your egg then?” When the girl gave a quick nod, she gestured. “Alright then, it’s all yours.”

Despite her words, Tabbris immediately asked Lincoln for help getting the paint right. He agreed, and the two of them opened a couple of the buckets, found brushes, and set to work on their chosen design.

For a moment, Sariel simply looked around the area at all the colorful eggs, delighted children, and focused (but still quite happy) adults. Her gaze found her husband, and she reached out to take his hand. His hand. After all their time apart, she could finally hold his hand. That very fact by itself was almost enough to leave her knees weak.

“The kids are okay then?” she asked softly, barely able to speak.

Tugging her to him to gently kiss her, Haiden nodded. “Mmmm. They’re fine. Vanessa’s lecturing Tristan on the history of egg painting at Easter, while he’s trapped on the ladder tying the streamers in the trees.”

Sariel chuckled. “At least she knows how to take advantage of a captive audience.”

Some time later, the now fully decorated eggs had been moved to the equally decorated clearing on the other side of the camp. The clearing itself was filled with colorful streamers and Christmas-like lights, which came on as the sun began to go down. The lights, some of them solid while others blinked on and off in patterns, covered the trees as well as the ground. Their glow illuminated the painted eggs that had been arranged throughout the clearing.

A series of benches had been set up against the trees as well, surrounding the open space. Seosten and non-Seosten alike filled those benches, chatting loudly and excitedly with one another. From where Lincoln was sitting in one of the center rows, he could hear plenty of discussion about what was going on, how this whole celebration worked, and what it meant.

Turning to his left, he focused on Sariel, who sat there with Haiden on the other side of her. Vanessa and Tristan were just beyond the other man. “Okay, I’m sort of half-hearing explanations about what all this means, but you think you could start at the beginning? I know it’s Light or Warmth Day, but what about the eggs?”

It was Vanessa who quickly answered, turning and leaning over to see him. “The eggs symbolize animals giving birth after the long winter. They’re supposed to be about new life, about new beginnings and chances. They’re about survival.”

“Okay,” Lincoln murmured curiously before pointing off to the side of the clearing. “So why is Gabriel wearing a Santa hat?”

Both of the twins laughed, snickering to themselves while Sariel coughed. “It’s not a–okay, yes, it is a Santa hat, basically. But it’s also a hat that belongs to what we call Father Time. He’s our Warmth Day figure. Father Time comes and chases away winter with his flying chariot made of fire and pulled by flaming horses. Then he goes around and touches all of the eggs to wake them up so they hatch.”

Haiden was smiling. “They asked Gabriel if he’d play the role for the festival. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

“He would’ve done it anyway,” Tristan informed them confidently. “Look at him. He loves it.”

“Well, the rest of the Seosten certainly seem to be enjoying this whole thing,” Lincoln noted. “And so do the rest of the Atherby people.”

Some of the adults were taking pictures of the eggs that had been set up in the clearing. Each of those eggs was brightly colored, seeming to alternate between the more professionally painted ones from the adults, and the gloriously crazy results of the children’s finger painting efforts. Between those colors and the bright lights, the results were almost psychedelic. Lincoln had to take a few pictures of as well with his phone.

His attention was drawn to his other side then, as Felicity found her way up the benches and took a seat beside him with a quick hug. “Hey, I didn’t miss anything important, did I?”

Lincoln was just starting to shake his head when the main spotlights that had been set up went out. The audience area was left mostly dark, while the clearing was lit even more by those sparkling holiday lights. It made the psychedelic effect even stronger.

A few Seosten off to the edge of the clearing began to play some kind of song with borrowed instruments, while others started to sing. Lincoln had no chance of understanding the words that were being said, but it was beautiful. Sitting there, he watched as more of the people moved between the eggs, performing a wonderful little dance routine that they had clearly been working hard on. They all wore clothes that were adjusted and fashioned to make them look somewhat like various animals that he also didn’t recognize. Yet even not following all of what was going on, what was being sung, or what animals they were portraying, he could appreciate how beautiful it looked and sounded.

On his other side, Sariel nudged him a little. “You might want to get your phone ready again,” she whispered. “It’s almost time for the kids.”  

Promptly doing so, Lincoln held his phone up in recording mode, just as the song seemed to be winding down. The costume-clad performers slipped out of the clearing, while Gabriel in his Santa–err, Father Time hat moved in. The man seemed to have been thoroughly versed in what to do, because he immediately moved to the nearest large egg and ran a hand over it. As he did so, lights at the base of the egg suddenly lit up, casting even more colors into the sky. The man moved from egg to egg, touching each to make them light up.

As the last egg was lit, the small band began to play once more. But this was a much more… lively and upbeat tune, something closer to a children’s song than the almost-religious hymn that had been played before. Yet again, he couldn’t follow the words that were being sung (both by the Seosten chorus and some of those in the audience), but it sounded fun and lively.

The moment the new song started, the now-lit up eggs began to shake back and forth. Here and there, a hole appeared as the children, who were inside the eggs that they had decorated, began to break their way out.

Lincoln had asked about the potential problem with leaving little kids within a very enclosed space, only to find out that each egg was, for most of the time, bigger on the inside. It was only when the lights came on at the end that they shrank to what they should be (and each parent made sure their child was going to be okay in that space first). And more than that, the youngest, including the Seosten toddlers, were each in with an older child who could help.

Tabbris, for example, was in her egg with Sahveniah. The little Seosten toddler had painted her own egg, but had wanted to actually be in one with Tabbris.

One by one, the kids (including Tabbris and Savvy) broke out of their own personal eggs. Seosten and other species alike, all of the children of the camp who wanted to participate broke through the egg, scrambling out in their own little animal costumes.

Freed of their eggs, as the jaunty song continued, each of the children scrambled to where Gabriel stood at the head of the clearing. They formed a line, bouncing and chattering with each other even as the sound-magnification spell set near the Atherby leader himself picked up his voice when he recited something in Latin to the first child in line. The child responded with something else, speaking quickly.

“He’s asking what good they bring to the year,” Sariel whispered. “Father Time asks each newly ‘born’ creature what they bring. The children are supposed to answer with something good they did in the past year. Usually it’s something silly or mundane, like helping with chores or doing all their homework. Then they get… well, see?” She gestured to the sight of Gabriel handing the first child a wrapped present. The little kid gave a loud, gleeful cheer before moving out of the way for the next one.

On and on it went. Each child took their turn with ‘Father Time’, saying something good or nice they had done that year, and received a present in return.

Felicity, who had cheered loudly when Tabbris and Savvy got their presents, asked, “There’s more games and stuff after this, isn’t there?”

Nodding, Sariel replied, “There are many more games and songs, yes. The celebration continues until midnight.”

“Good,” the blonde girl remarked with a broad smile. “I’m tired of all the bad Seosten things. It’s about time we focused on something good for awhile, like this.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sariel nodded. “Yes,” she agreed softly. “My… my people have a lot to make up for. We have a lot of work to do. But sometimes it’s good just to remember that we are about more than slavery and war. That’s why we wanted to do this now, to celebrate our rebirth, and think about where we come from, where we truly come from. Then the true work will begin.”

Haiden took her hand once more, squeezing tightly. “Work that you won’t have to do alone. You have your family, and your people.”

Squeezing back, Sariel failed to stop the tears that came then. Though they came not of sadness or despair, but from something far better. Happiness. Seeing her family here. Seeing her children, her people celebrating this important holiday, and doing so right alongside people of other species, it was… it was more than she could have hoped for not so long ago.

“Yes,” she whispered under her breath. “Not alone. I am not alone.”

And that, quite honestly, was the best Warmth Day gift she could ever have imagined.

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Family Day 40-06

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I didn’t realize that I’d spoken aloud until Koren repeated the word, looking to me then over to Professor Dare. Her mouth was open, the girl gaping pretty much like how I assumed I was.

For her part, Professor Dare was staring down at the body that lay at her feet. She was silent and motionless. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the expression on it.

My mind was reeling. Explanations for so much that had happened over the year and even before that were flooding into my brain.

Mom… her parents had sacrificed themselves, each in different ways. Her father, my grandfather, had sacrificed his life. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sacrificed her identity, everyone’s memories of her. Everyone had forgotten who she was, her life erased in a way that was very different than her husband, yet still just as potent.

Dare knew Prosser. She’d said things about him that couldn’t come from just a casual acquaintance.

She’d even said that she missed my mother. She said she missed her as a student. But, as the realization thundered its way into my head right then, she hadn’t been a teacher when Mom was a student. Gaia had brought her in as a teacher after she became headmistress, which happened after Mom already left the school. How could Dare possibly miss her as a student?

She had been the one to come and pick me up at the start of the school year. She had showed over and over again that she cared about me. The things she had been so close to saying, but had repeatedly stopped herself from. I had thought that she was simply trying to maintain a teacher-student distance, but it was more than that. So much more.

It made sense. It made sense in a way that I should have figured out before. Was I just blind to it, or had the memory spell been making it hard to put those pieces together until it was made patently obvious?

My mouth opened, and the ground suddenly shook beneath me. It was an earthquake, yet somehow more than that. I felt the rough shaking, and I also felt something else. It was like magic itself was protesting violently. There was a dizziness in my head that made me stumble. Beside me, Koren fell to her knees with a yelp. Bright colors appeared in the sky above us, and a stickiness on my face made me realize that my nose was bleeding. So were the others.

There were clouds in the sky, only they weren’t normal clouds. They were thicker, more full and solid. They looked almost like gigantic, misshapen… body organs. They looked like a twisted, demented versions of a heart, or lungs, pulsating right there in the air above us, beating as though they were alive. Yellowish orange lightning streaked across the sky, cutting through the odd colors while the ground continued to shake. There were fires between the clouds, but it was more than fire, the flames seeming to burn the sky itself away to reveal visions beyond that my brain refused to acknowledge. Horrors lurked through those wounds in the sky, horrors that would have brought tears to the eyes of even the bravest amongst us had they been forced to see them for more than a few seconds. Living terror peeked through those cuts. Peeked through… and saw us. It met our gaze, its hunger… its amusement… its power swelling.  

And then it stopped. The sky faded back to its regular color. The ground went still once more. The lightning stopped, and those weird organ clouds disappeared. Everything was still and quiet once more.

“It didn’t break.” There was relief in Dare’s voice, and I saw her slump just a little bit. “It didn’t break. The spell held. They’re not coming back.”

The Fomorians. That was what all of that was. It was the spell that had banished them from the world reacting to us finding out the truth about her. It had been damaged, it had nearly shaken itself apart, nearly failed. But not permanently. It held, though by what strand I had no idea. There was no way of knowing just how close we had just come to the Fomorians having a new open invitation to invade the planet.

No way of knowing just how close we had come to complete destruction, except too close. Entirely too close. If that was the spell’s reaction to just Koren and me learning the truth, I had no questions about why Dare had kept it secret for so long. If the Fomorians made it back here, if they managed to invade again… it would basically end society as we knew it.

And then I realized exactly what the position Dare had been in right then. She could either press the button to kill innocent people as well as Vanessa, Avalon, and one of her own grandchildren, or risk the spell breaking and thus condemn a lot more people to death. No wonder she had sounded so tortured, so broken when she made her decision.

But it was even more than that. Not only did she risk the spell breaking, to do so, she had to kill another one of her grandchildren. Ammon may have been a psychotic creep, but he was still her grandson. And the way he had been was forced on him by Fossor. That was why I had been so hesitant to just straight up kill him. For everything he’d done, he was still a kid that could maybe have been fixed if we could just stop him long enough. But now… now…

“I had no choice.” Dare’s voice still sounded empty, hollow. “He had so much protection, so many other ways to escape. And it was the only way to be sure it would end his orders to the people in the stadium. If he survived and figured out the truth…”

Koren spoke up then. “It would be three people figuring out the truth of who you were. Four, if he got back to Fossor.”

Dare nodded silently before looking up to us. There were tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

My head shook quickly. “No, don’t apologize. You don’t have anything to apologize for. We get it.” Glancing to the girl beside me for confirmation, I waited until she nodded and then repeated, “We get it. We both get it. If that’s how the spell reacted to adjust to that… You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Koren nodded. “Do… do you need to erase our memories? To protect the spell.”

Dare looked taken aback, her mouth opening and shutting briefly. “You… you would both…” Then she took a few quick steps, her arms moving out to grab onto Koren and me, pulling us into a tight embrace. I was pretty sure that she had been waiting to do that for a very, very long time.

We hugged her back, while the woman whispered both of our names. Then she shook her head. “No. The damage to the spell has been done now, and it held. There’s no reason to be erase it from your memories.” Pausing, she looked to us seriously. “But—”

“We can’t tell anyone, or it’ll damage the spell even more.” Even as I said those words, my eyes widened. “Wait, what about Tabbris? The next time she possesses me…”

Dare shook her head. “She will not know. She won’t be able to read your thoughts on the subject. Or it will just replace those… specific ones. That’s the way the spell works. The information can’t be involuntarily pulled from your head like that. Not even through possession.”

I really couldn’t tell Tabbris, or anyone, I realized. If the spell had reacted that badly to the two of us finding out, the risk of anyone else knowing, even my little sister were… no. I couldn’t endanger everything like that. When the time came, if it came and Tabbris or any of the others found out that I had kept that secret, I had to believe that they would forgive me for it. They would understand. In this particular case, lying really was the best thing to do. As much as I might’ve loathed doing so to Tabbris, my father, or any of the other people I cared about… I had to.

Koren swallowed hard before speaking my own thoughts aloud. “Then we’ll keep it secret. We won’t tell anyone. We’re not going to risk…” She trailed off then, going silent as her eyes moved to the body on the ground. “Oh my God. That means that… that he was…”

My eyes followed hers. Ammon. Ammon was dead. The shock of realizing who Professor Dare really was had completely overshadowed that fact. But it was true. The threat who had been lurking in the background of my thoughts for so long was… was dead. Just like that. My own half-brother, raised by a monster who in turn had made the boy into one as well. He was… he was dead. It didn’t seem real. But it was. His body was there. His body was… was… there.

Staring down at him for a second, I felt bile rise up in my throat. Mom… Mom, what was I going to tell her? What would Fossor tell her? Oh God. His body was… was practically dismembered. He looked almost like a… victim that way, like… the little kid he was supposed to be. A little kid whose head had been… had been…

I turned, falling to my knees to throw up there on the ground. It felt like I was heaving my entire stomach out, as tears stung my eyes. Nearby, I could hear Koren in basically the same position.

Dare moved to kneel between us, putting a hand on each of our backs, repeating herself from earlier. “I couldn’t… risk him realizing the truth. If he did, and he told Fossor…” Her fingers tightened against my back almost painfully, and I heard her make a noise that sounded like a barely restrained, choked sob. As hard as it was for me to see that, she was the one who’d had to actually do it. She’d been the one to make that awful, impossible choice to kill her own grandson. Evil or not, psychotic or not, he was still her grandson. And a part of me would always wonder if he could have been saved.

Just as, I was sure, she herself would wonder the same thing.

We knelt there like that, the three of us turned away from the terrible, disgusting sight behind us. I was just trying to get myself under control when Koren abruptly jerked upward, blurting, “Mom!”

Oh God, oh fuck. Right, the distraction of everything we had just learned vanished in an instant. Both of us scrambled to our feet, while Dare quietly informed us, “The fighting inside is over. Ammon’s control disappeared the moment he–the crowd stopped fighting. The others are alive, but… confused. We should go to them.” She paused then, picking herself up before looking to us. “I know you have a lot of questions. Now that… that you know, I can answer them. But it will have to be later, okay? We need to get out of here. And you can’t… you can’t act differently in front of others.”

The two of us nodded. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to say. But at the moment, making sure that Avalon, Vanessa, and Abigail were okay was all I could really focus on, all I wanted to focus on. So we promised to keep acting as normal as possible (given the situation), before Dare gestured to create a portal that would take us back to the baseball field.

On the way to the portal, I hesitantly asked, “What about everyone else? Fossor, he was—“

“Controlling Escalan,” Dare finished for me. “Yeah. And we didn’t know you weren’t part of any group until I went around and checked them.”

Pausing at the portal, I asked, “How did you find us to begin with? I know he had this whole place blocked off from communication and monitoring spells.”

It was her turn to be quiet for a moment before shaking her head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just heard a whisper by my ear that told me your latitude and longitude and that you were in danger. I don’t know who it was, or how they knew where you were. It sounded like a girl’s voice, and… familiar. But other than that…”

Great, more mysteries. Then again, if they had sent Dare to save us, maybe they weren’t so bad. Or maybe it was Jophiel? I could see that.

Either way, we passed through the portal and I immediately saw Avalon, Abigail, and Vanessa. The other two girls had just finished helping my sister out of the contraption holding her down. When we appeared, they spun toward us. Avalon and Vanessa had their weapons up before stopping short. Disabling her gauntlets, Avalon rushed to me, arms going around me tightly as she basically lifted me off the ground. She didn’t say anything, but then again, she didn’t need to.

“You saved her,” I murmured while returning the hug as tightly as I could. “You saved my sister.”

Looking around, I saw a lot of unconscious and injured civilians, along with others who were awake and incredibly confused. I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would convince them had happened, but it was probably going to be a doozy of a story.

Seeing all those people and thinking about what Ammon had said, I had no doubt that it had taken everything Vanessa and Avalon had to save Abigail without killing any of them. If they hadn’t been there… My body shuddered fully at the thought and I hugged Avalon even tighter. Then I hugged Vanessa and thanked her as well before moving to look to Abigail. Koren was still hugging her and didn’t look like she was going to let go anytime soon.

So I simply met her gaze and nodded to her with a very slight, kind of sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.” Boy was that ever an understatement.

Dare’s head was tilted, as if she was listening to something. Then she straightened a little and nodded. “We’re going back to the school. They’re sending people in to deal with the bombs here and to get the civilians home. They’ll be okay.”

She paused then before adding, “Gaia has someone collecting the body.”

So she created another portal, and we passed through it together. Avalon and Vanessa were both giving me and Koren confused looks about what had happened, but it wasn’t until we were back on what turned out to be the school grounds outside of the main building that they finally spoke.

“Where’s Ammon?” Vanessa asked. “What happened? What bombs? What body?”

Answering the last question first, I swallowed before looking toward Abigail as I quietly explained, “Ammon, he… he’s dead.” Even saying it out loud didn’t make it seem real. I felt hollow inside. The idea that the psychotic little boy who had been my little brother and a threat lurking in the background of my mind for so much of the year was just dead now didn’t really compute.

All three of the others look taken aback by that, eyes widening as their mouths fell open. It was Abigail who found her voice first. “What? Dead? But he was… he was just… it wasn’t…”

“There was no choice.” That was Dare. There was guilt, resignation, and sadness in her voice, all for reasons beyond what Abigail could possibly have understood in that moment. I had far more of the story and even I wasn’t sure I actually comprehended the things that the woman was feeling right then.  

She continued, telling them about how Koren and I had been fighting to stop him from detonating those bombs and that she had shown up right at the end. She told them that there had been no other choice when he had started to order her to detonate the bombs. We wouldn’t have been able to stop her, and she’d had no idea exactly what would knock him unconscious or not with all his powers. The only choice she’d had was to kill him to save them and everyone in that stadium.

Glancing around while listening to that, I could see pockets of people here and there already popping in all over the grounds, appearing either through portals or coming out of the Pathmaker. More and more kept arriving, bloodied, injured Heretics trying to understand what they had just been through. It was pretty much total confusion. From what snippets of conversation I could pick up here in there as people moved past, no one knew exactly what happened. And it didn’t seem like anyone was looking our way.

Abigail looked torn, her face ashen as she shook her head back and forth. “There was supposed to be a way to save him, to change him. He was just a little boy. Just–”

“A boy whose soul Fossor destroyed,” I pointed out softly, wincing at the look on Dare’s face. Yeah, I definitely couldn’t imagine the guilt she was going through. “I have to think that the boy Ammon could have been would have rather died than let you and all those other people die in his place. Maybe that’s childish and naïve, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. It’s the best any of us have got.”

Before any of us could say anything else, the others all started to arrive. The rest of the team, Deveron, Tristan, Haiden (with Sariel still possessing him), Larissa, even Gaia. The latter looked harried, but just as relieved as everyone else when she saw us (especially Avalon in her case) with her own eyes.

As we all took turns exchanging embraces and greetings, Sands blurted, “What the hell happened? Are you guys okay? What was that? What—”

Gaia interrupted. “Perhaps it would be best to have this conversation somewhere more private and comfortable.

“I have a feeling it will be a long one.”

******

“Does Gaia know?”

It was hours later, as I sat out on the beach watching the ocean. Next to me was Professor Dare.

For once, I actually wasn’t the center of the Committee’s focus. They apparently had no idea, as a group, what had happened. They didn’t know Fossor was the one behind it, just as they didn’t know that I hadn’t been transported along with everyone else. I wasn’t a suspect, and I was kind of glad about that. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t have dealt with another Committee interrogation right then. As far as they were concerned I had just been part of another group that was transported somewhere and had to be rescued. Which, to be fair, was kind of the truth in some ways.

They did know that the rope had been stolen, and several Heretics killed in the process. But they didn’t know who was responsible for it, since no one who had seen anything had survived to give an explanation. All they knew was that all of this had been a huge distraction so that whoever was behind it could steal that rope.

I’d heard a few people trying to blame Eden’s Garden for it, which I really hope it was a theory that wouldn’t gain too much traction. All we needed right now was war with them. Fossor would probably find it hilarious.

Fossor. The thought of him made me think of my mother. How was she doing with the news about Ammon? Yet again, I desperately wanted to talk to her. I wanted to be there with her. Not there, come to think of it. I wanted her to be here with me. I wanted us to be somewhere safe. I wanted to be able to hug her. How was she dealing with Ammon’s death?

Dare had been quiet for a moment after my question about Gaia. Finally, she spoke up. “Does she know that I am Joselyn’s mother? Yes. She learned it shortly before she brought me to the school. She’s the only one. Her, and now you two.” She looked to me then, face softening. “I know this must be very confusing.”

“Actually, it answers a lot of questions,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Err, except one really. You were Grandma Atherby, so you should’ve known about the Seosten. And if Gaia knew about you… why…”

Dare winced. “Simple answer? I forgot.”

I stared at her. “You… forgot…? Wait, you mean it was a–”

“Memory spell, yes.” She nodded. “Or rather, part of the same memory spell that erased my identity. The… Seosten who helped us with it didn’t want someone who was going to be completely erased from all of their memories to be running around with all that information about them. So part of the deal for their help with it was that I would allow all knowledge about them to be erased from my mind. And it was, until we found out about the Seosten without any help from me. After that, it started coming back. And I told Gaia what I could.”

That made sense, I supposed. And it also confirmed that the Seosten were definitely helping during the Fomorian invasion, though I did wonder what kind of nerve they had to be setting terms when they’d wanted the Fomorians gone as much as everyone else did.

There was a lot I wanted to get to on that subject. But another one came to mind right then. “The prophecy that said your blood would destroy the world or whatever it was. Could they have been talking about Mom and her revolution? That’s kind of destroying the world if you think about it.“

Dare nodded slowly. “Trust me, I’ve thought about that a lot. It could be. I don’t know, but it might be that. Or it could be something that Fossor does.”

Biting my lip, I admitted, “I don’t really want to think about that right now. Could you… Could you maybe tell me a little about you? And about my grandfather… and my mother when she was little.” By the end of that, my voice was a whisper.

Dare gave me a soft smile. “Yes,” she murmured, “It has been quite a while since I was able to talk about it with anyone other than Gaia. But I think I would like that very much.”

She started to talk then, and I tried to shut out all of the other thoughts that were swirling in my head. Ammon was dead. But Fossor had still gotten his hands on the Hangman’s rope. What was he planning to do with it? Something that powerful, that important, it had to be pretty bad. Especially given the lengths to which he’d gone to get it. And I had the feeling we were going to find out just how bad at the worst possible time.

But there was nothing I could do about it right then. Nothing I could change immediately.

Later, there would be time to deal with everything else. But for that moment, I simply listened to Dare telling stories. Honestly, I had the feeling that she needed it as much as I did.

I couldn’t help my mother yet. I couldn’t go to her, I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me.

But for the first time… I could be there for my grandmother. Not answer anything, not solve anything, but just be there.

And sometimes… being there was enough.

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