Sands

Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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Exodus 44-02

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“We have another problem.”

The quiet announcement came from Aylen, who was looking off at nothing in particular. Actually her eyes were kind of unfo–oh, she was looking through Sovereign’s eyes. The cyberform hawk was soaring silently high above our heads, while people continued shouting down below. Any second now, a general alarm was going to go off and this was going to get even harder.

“Gaze upon the shock with which I react to that news,” I deadpanned before shaking my head. “What else is wrong?”

“Sovereign can see Scout,” Aylen informed us before adding, “And her dad is with her. I think they’re having some kind of argument.”

“What?!” Sands snapped. “Dad’s out with–we have to go get her.”

“The boys are right there,” I pointed out. “And if we don’t get them soon, they’ll be with the Committee. Then we’ll never get them out of there.”

From his place on Avalon’s shoulder, Porthos stood tall, his tail-sword clutched in one hand as he made a brief chittering speech that was complete gibberish, but kind of sounded as though he was challenging the guards down there to try dragging him off. It was apparently a pretty inspiring speech too, because Jaq and Gus were both up on their hind legs on my own shoulders, acting like they were trying to salute.  

“And if Dad takes Scout to them, we’ll never get her either!” Sands blurted. Her eyes were wide as she stared at me, her hands basically flailing. “Scout, Flick! We can’t let them take Scout!”

As she spoke, my eyes glanced toward the boys and their escorts. They’d stopped for the moment, arguing amongst themselves about what to do since the others couldn’t find us. We had a few seconds to decide what to do. But not much. Any second now, they’d push on. And if we let the guys or Scout end up wherever the Committee was, this whole thing would get worse.

Before I could say anything, Harper spoke up. “You won’t.” Her head nodded that way, even as she instructed us quickly and firmly. “Go. Go stall him. If you show up, it’ll keep him busy for awhile. Try talking him down. I’ll get the guys here and meet you.” Her voice still sounded like Harper, but it had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.

Behind me, Shiori hesitantly asked, “You’re going to go over there all by yourself and rescue Columbus and the other guys from a bunch of the Committee’s hand-picked goons?”

“Why aren’t they teleporting?” I suddenly put in. “I mean, why are they walking across the grounds instead of just instantly teleporting the boys straight to wherever they’re going?”

“Security measures,” Avalon replied while holding her jacket open for Porthos to clamber down inside with one more muttered bit of gibberish that was clearly another threat against the Committee’s goons. “They’re using the school’s security shield to shut down instant-transport powers to stop the rest of us from getting out with them. They don’t get to pick and choose who that affects, if they want it to actually work right.”

Harper nodded. “Which is why we need to get out from under it.” To Shiori, she added, “And yes, I’ll get your brother and the others. The only reason Deveron hasn’t done anything yet is because he doesn’t know where Flick and you guys are, so he’s biding his time. I’ll give him an opening, we’ll get the other boys and then meet up with you.”

She knew about Deveron. Or at least knew enough to plan on him being able to successfully fight back against the Committee’s goons if he wanted to. Which, given everything else she apparently already knew, really shouldn’t have been surprising. But it did raise more questions.

“Okay, wait, wait, wait!” That was Koren, snapping her head back and forth to stare at the rest of us. “Wait just a second. What the hell is going on? What was that about one of the Committee members being dead, and Joselyn being involved, and… and… huh? Who exactly is dead, damn it?!”

Quickly, Harper replied, “Fossor used Joselyn to lure one of the Committee members out. It’s not… clear yet exactly how it happened or which one of them killed him, but he’s dead. And the rest of the Committee think that Gaia did it. How or why, we don’t know. Not yet. Percival didn’t have time to tell me everything.”

“Percival?” I echoed. “You mean Committee Percival? He’s talking to–wait, you said him You said that Fossor killed ‘him’. But not Percival. Which Committee member was it? If it was Ruthers–”

“No, it was Oliver Brockett,” she replied simply. “He’s the one who was killed.”

Oliver. I thought of the rotund Committee member. I barely knew anything about him save for the very few brief words we’d exchanged in those meetings. He was the one who had been amused when I pointed out that I hadn’t asked to inherit Manakel’s necromancer powers, and the one who had brought up the Committee’s theory that I was involved with the people trying to kill Avalon.

Koren was shaking her head still. “So Fossor killed a Committee member, which should be basically impossible, and now they think Gaia did it for some reason. So they’re rounding us up. Or trying to. Well, shit.” She looked to me, biting her lip. “Has… has Wyatt…?”

“Nothing from him yet,” I replied quietly before looking away to distract myself from the worry that admitting that brought on. “Aylen? What’s going on with Scout?”

“Still arguing,” the other girl informed us. “He tried to grab her arm, but she pulled back. I think he’s about to give up on the talking thing and try dragging her back. We’re running out of time.”

Taking in and letting out a breath, I nodded. “Okay. Okay, we go distract him and try to get Scout. Let… let Harper get Deveron and the boys and meet back up with us.” Even as I said the words, I wondered just how easily I was rolling with this whole thing. Maybe later it would actually hit me and I’d have to fall over or something. Right now, there wasn’t time to react.

Harper was already over by the far side of the roof, facing the way that Scout and Liam apparently were. Her hand was raised, and I saw a weird distortion in the air, like a rippling effect. “Jump,” she quickly blurted, nodding to the distortion. “It’ll get you partway there. Then just keep your heads down and stay quiet until you get to them.”  Pausing then, she added, “And for the record, after you get used to it, it’s actually a pretty fun way to travel.”

The rest of us exchanged brief glances. But there wasn’t time to debate. There wasn’t even time to worry any more about where Wyatt was or why he hadn’t responded. We had to go, right now. So without another word, we went for it. Shiori and Avalon helped me up onto the edge of the roof, where I took a breath and put Jaq and Gus away in a pocket together before jumping as instructed into the weird air distortion.

Oh boy, did weird not come close to describing it. In an instant, I was abruptly a lot smaller. Like, smaller than Namythiet. Bee sized, or smaller. The world grew huge around me. At the same time, I was being flung wildly through the air like dandelion fluff on a stiff breeze. The whole world spun around me as I was propelled through the distortion in the air, over the heads of several searchers, who apparently couldn’t see or hear me when I passed by.

I hit the ground a hundred yards from the dorm building, lying flat on my stomach behind a bush as I resumed my normal size while clutching the grass and breathing hard. All around me, the others appeared the same way, whimpering and panting as we adjusted to what had just happened. Jaq and Gus clambered out of my pocket briefly, spinning around like they were dizzy before falling onto their backs. Apparently that had been disorienting for them too.

Slowly lifting my head, I stared out through the darkness. In the distance, we could see people searching all around the dorm buildings. Lights were going on in all the windows as students were either waking up, or the searchers were going room to room. Probably a bit of both.

They were searching everywhere around and inside the buildings. But not here. Harper had successfully gotten us outside of their search perimeter, at least for the moment. We had time to go find Scout and get her away from her father. But we had to hurry. Because I was pretty sure that as soon as the Committee’s people realized that we weren’t in the buildings, they’d expand the search pretty quick. And there wasn’t a lot we could do to hide from the powers they’d use.

That understanding made me push myself up a lot sooner than my stomach was exactly comfortable with. I came up to my knees, watching the people in the distance for another second before turning back the other way. Sands was already up in a crouched position, glancing back to the rest of us before she set off the way that Aylen was pointing.

For a brief second, I glanced to the part-Reaper girl. Part-Reaper. Was she really related to the Heretical Edge itself? Himself? Bob, as Koren called him. Was she really related to… him? It made sense. It explained why she was here, why she didn’t want to leave, what her purpose was. Did she want to free him? Of course she did. Of course. And now we were asking her to abandon that. Because there was no way we could get to the lighthouse with the Committee here. We wouldn’t get anywhere near the place before they would be right on top of us.

Together, Aylen, Avalon, Shiori, Koren, Sands, and I set off across the dark grounds. We kept ourselves low, hunching over as we jogged further away from the dorms. Just like the situation with Wyatt, I was also trying not to think about what was going on with Professor Dare. She was known to be basically Gaia’s right-hand woman and protege. So they would obviously try to contain her as well. Part of me wanted to insist that we go find her. But I knew that was stupid. For the same reasons that we couldn’t risk going to find Gaia, we couldn’t go find Professor Dare. If there was anything she couldn’t handle, we’d just end up being used against her.

Before long, I could hear voices. Scout and Professor Mason were definitely arguing. The two of them were right on the edge of the grounds, near one of the cliffs high above the jungle and the beach. The closer we got, the more we could make out their words.

“No, Dad, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve never understood.” Scout’s voice was raised. “You don’t understand the world or how much you’re being tricked. Just like all those other people. But it’s worse for you. It’s worse because they tried to tell you. They tried to help you, tried to show you the truth. But you wouldn’t open your eyes. Because you don’t want to know the truth. Because if you did, if you let yourself see it, you’d have to accept that you were wrong. You’d have to accept that you made a mistake, that you betrayed your friends and started a war for no reason. And you would rather drag everyone down again than admit that. You betrayed your friends for a lie, Dad. You let innocent people die because you wouldn’t believe Joselyn. And now you’re letting them arrest Gaia because you still won’t admit that you were wrong.”

A moment later, I heard Liam’s voice. “Scout, listen to me, it’s okay. You’re young and naive and I know you want to believe this stuff. You have no idea how much I wanted to believe it too. The idea that there can be good Strangers, that humanity isn’t alone? You think I don’t want that? But it’s wrong. It’s wrong, baby. They want to kill us, all of us. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. The monsters out there, the ones that pretend to be human, that pretend to be good… I’ve seen them. You think I just… that I just decided to turn on Joselyn for no reason? I tried. I…”

He trailed off for a moment before taking an audible breath. By then, we had managed to sneak close enough, ducked low behind some more bushes in a flower garden, to see the two of them. Scout was staying several feet away, her back basically right up against the cliff, while Liam was there with his hands raised placatingly, his back to the rest of us. From his body language, he was openly desperate to make his daughter understand what he was saying.

After taking a breath, the man pushed on. “There were Strangers, baby girl. There were Strangers and I tried to listen to Joselyn. They looked helpless. They looked safe. So I let them go. I let them go and they murdered an entire apartment complex. Do you understand?” His voice was choked. “I let them go because of what Joselyn said, and they massacred over a hundred people. She’s wrong. They’re wrong. We can’t let that happen again.”

He paused then before speaking in a softer tone. “The rest of you can come out now. I know you’re back there.” Turning slightly, the man watched as we collectively stood up.

“Dad,” Sands spoke sharply while holding her mace in one hand. “Get away from Scout.”

I saw the man’s mouth open, then shut as he looked at the mace, then back to the girl herself. “Sandoval, I know what you’re thinking. And why you’re thinking it. But Gaia is wrong. Joselyn was wrong. All of this is wrong. You need to stand down right now. All of you. No one wants to hurt you. We know you’ve been misled, okay? We know you’ve been listening to Gaia and her people and no one blames you for being idealistic. But put the weapons down, and sit until someone comes to collect you. We’ll handle all of this without violence.”

I saw a very brief smirk cross Sands’ face before she shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong, Dad. Very wrong. Because you’re making a mistake, and you’re trying to drag the rest of us down with you. You’re trying to force the rest of us to believe the same lie you’re desperately clinging to.”

Scout spoke then. “Gaia didn’t kill Counselor Brockett. She couldn’t have.”

“She didn’t,” I confirmed, my voice drawing both her attention and Professor Mason’s. As they stared at me, I went on, trying to get the man to see reason. “Fossor did. He’s manipulating you all just like he manipulated the Heretics back before Crossroads, Professor Mason.”

The man blinked at me, then shook his head. “Fossor? What does he have to do with–” Cutting himself off, he shook his head. “No, you’re the ones who don’t understand. Brockett’s been collecting evidence that Gaia has been sneaking non-human students into the school. She’s been doing it for years. He found out, he confronted her with the evidence and gave her a chance to turn herself in. And she killed him for it.”

My mind was reeling. They knew about Hybrid students? That was bad, really bad. Earth-shatteringly bad. How–what–why did– There were so many questions spinning through my thoughts in those seconds that I couldn’t even order them properly. Fossor had found out what Gaia was doing and used that to frame her, or… or… something. What the hell?

From the corner of my eye, I could see Shiori and Aylen exchange brief glances. Yet Liam seemed to be paying very little attention to them. That seemed to mean that he didn’t know who the Hybrid students were. Only that they existed. But even that by itself was too much. Crossroads would root out anything like that. There was no way they’d rest until they found all of them. This was really bad. Even if–when we got away from here, how many students would that leave in danger here? Hell, how many graduated Heretics would be in danger? What was Crossroads going to do when word got out that some of their own people were half-Alter? What the hell would that mean?

Once again, Fossor had managed to completely fuck over everyone. And he’d probably been laughing to himself the whole time he did it, because of course the Committee (especially Ruthers) would play right into it. Damn it!

Clearly reading our reactions (or at least some of them), Liam gave a slow nod. “That’s right, we know a lot more than you think. And we also know that you kids were being manipulated. It’s not your fault. But you need to sit down right now. If I have to disarm you, I will. Either way, I’m taking you in to see the Committee, where we’ll get to the bottom of all this.”

“You’re wrong.” That was Sands, straightening up as she faced her father. “You’re wrong about all of this. You’re wrong about everything, Dad. Get away from Scout. We’re not staying with you.”

With a soft sigh, Liam let his gaze sweep over us. His tone was regretful. “Then I suppose you leave me no choice. I’ll have to make you.”

“No,” a new voice interrupted. “You won’t.”

Larissa came into view then, emerging from the trees. She stepped past us, putting herself in front of Liam. In one hand was her crystal weapon, currently shaped as a sword. Slowly, she raised it, pointing the end toward her husband. “You want to take these kids, Liam? Ours or any others?

“You’ll go through me to do it.”

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Exodus 44-01

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Something really fucked up was going on.

That sentence basically could have opened almost any story from my life this past year. But this time it was particularly apt. Harper Hayes was in my dorm room where I had been sleeping with Avalon and Shiori, and she had just apparently knocked out another intruder with some kind of electrified knife before informing us that we had to go because Fossor just killed one of the Committee members and got Gaia arrested for it.

So yeah, with extreme emphasis, something really fucked up was going on.

Avalon was already on her feet, Harper’s words (if it was really Harper at all) bringing her up quickly. She grabbed the girl’s arm, giving her a quick shove up against the wall while hissing, “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?”

“Valley,” I quickly blurted, tossing a pen to the girl. “Check her.” She caught it with her free hand while still holding Harper against the wall with her other.

Harper, for her part, gave a very soft sigh before extending her arm to the side, using her other hand to tug the sleeve down, exposing her skin. “Fine, do it. But quick, they’re already sending more to take your friends.”

Even as Valley scrawled the anti-possession rune on the girl, I was grabbing two things. First, a small coin that Wyatt had given me. My thumb brushed over it as I quickly activated the thing to let him know something was wrong. With my other hand, I grabbed my phone and pressed the button that would let Tabbris know that I needed her to check in. Wyatt and Tabbris, they were first.

Once the messages were sent, I pushed myself to my feet, trying not to wince. My legs still hurt. They weren’t crippled or anything, but they were definitely sore. Just putting my own weight on them after laying down for hours made a short, sharp pain shoot through me. Ow. Seriously ow. I wasn’t going to be jumping around anytime soon. Just the thought of launching myself with my staff and landing on them made me shudder.

One night. Could we not have one single night where we got to win without things going wrong?

In the meantime, Shiori had moved to check the guy on the floor. Glancing that way finally showed me who it was. October Atrean, one of the guys who had been sent by the Committee to keep an eye on things. Checking him, Shiori looked to me, whispering, “He’s breathing.”

Avalon finished with the rune then, stepping back a bit while we all stared. But nothing happened. There was no Seosten possessing her. Which meant… what, exactly? One of Fossor’s zombies? The thought of the chipper, perky girl I’d gotten to know a bit over that year being a zombie filled me with dread.

But no. I could tell she wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t possessed, so…?

“What are you?” Avalon snapped. “Who are you? What–shapeshifter, magic, what?”

“There’s a lot to tell you,” Harper agreed. “But now isn’t the time. Like I said, they’re coming for you. They already arrested Gaia. And by they, I mean more Committee members. They weren’t taking a chance with her, not after–” She stopped herself then, head shaking. “Explanations later. Right now, you want to get out of here without everyone you care about being thrown in Crossroads prison? Then we need to get off this island right now.

“Why should we trust you?” I demanded. “You could be working for… or with, any of like a dozen different people that want to get us out from Gaia’s protection. We have no reason to believe that you–”

Harper spoke then. Not words. Numbers. At first I thought she was listing temperatures, then time limits or something. Then I realized the truth.

“Latitude and longitude?” Shiori blurted. “What’s that supposed–”

“The baseball stadium,” I interrupted, staring at Harper. “That’s the coordinates for the baseball stadium that we fought Ammon at. You… you’re the one who sent that telepathic whisper to Professor Dare, the one who told her we were in trouble and where to find us.”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” Harper spoke quietly, yet urgently. “And I really want to answer them. But there’s not time. We have to leave, now.”

Avalon spun on her heel, starting to the door. “If Gaia’s in trouble, I–”

Shiori and I were both there, grabbing either of her arms. I spoke quickly. “Valley, stop. If she’s right–I don’t know who she is or what’s going on with her, but if she’s right, we don’t stand a chance. It’s the Committee, and if they have Gaia–if it’s something Gaia can’t handle…”

I felt Tabbris’ presence then. Not fully. She hadn’t recalled to me completely. Rather, she projected herself mentally, checking to see what was going on. I silently filled her in, letting her take in everything from my mind while urging her to stay at the Atherby camp to tell them. For a brief second, I felt a little more relief despite the insanity of the situation, just knowing that Tabbris was getting help.

“What do you want me to do, Chambers?!” Avalon snapped meanwhile, looking to me sharply. “Just abandon her? I can’t do that. I can’t just let her–if they’re going to–” She half-flailed helplessly, her eyes wide.

“Leave now,” Harper put in before I could respond. “Get off the island, regroup with others, and go from there. You won’t accomplish anything by getting yourself arrested. Nothing except turning yourself into leverage that can be used against her.”

Tabbris had everything by then. She was just as confused as I was, clearly. But she promised to tell everyone at the camp, and to get help. Then I felt her presence withdraw.

Spinning back to Harper in that time, Avalon started to blurt, “And who the hell–” Stopping herself as I quickly put a hand on her shoulder, she took a breath before staring intently at Harper. “We’re going to have a really long discussion after this.”

“Yes,” the other girl agreed. “We are.” She lifted her chin a bit. “But for now–” Suddenly and without warning, she threw her hand out. An invisible force caught Shiori, Avalon, and me, throwing all three of us out of the way. I fell over my bed with a yelp, while the other two hit a nearby wall.

An instant later, a new figure literally dropped in from the ceiling, phasing through just like October had. I immediately recognized him as the other man’s partner, Patrick. His fists were glowing with a violet energy, and the second he landed, the man was already swinging at Harper. In the span of about a second, as long as it would have taken me to blink, he’d already lashed out three times, twice with his right fist and once with his left. It was so fast, so ridiculously fast, that none of us had a prayer of reacting in time.

None of us, that was, aside from Harper herself. She ducked once to avoid the first swing, turned slightly to let the second go past her face, then rocked herself backwards just a hair so that the third would miss as well. Then her hand snapped up, as she slapped two fingers, just two fingers, against the side of the man’s neck.

He dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, collapsing to the floor where he lay unconscious. It was that simple, that quick. Harper had barely moved. Now, she looked to the three of us, just as we finished picking ourselves up.

“They’ll send more. We need to go, right now.”

“We–” Forcing myself to focus despite the several thousand fucking questions I had, I snapped, “We have to get the others. Sands, Scout, Doug, Columbus, Sean, Koren…” My mind was going a million miles an hour. Vanessa and Tristan weren’t here, spending the evening at the Atherby camp with their parents. But the others, we had to get to the others.

“And Aylen,” Avalon put in sharply. “She’s Koren’s roommate, so it’s not out of the way. And even if it was, we’re not leaving her behind, not after what she did for us. If things are going wrong…”

“Yes,” Harper agreed. “You were the first targets because you were seen as the most… important to contain. But they’re already sending others for your friends.”

Everything the girl said and did made me want to call a time-out and interrogate her for several hours. But there wasn’t time. As much as I wanted to get actual answers from her (especially about how the living hell she had suddenly become such a badass), we had to get moving.

Wyatt hadn’t done anything yet. Or even responded. The thought of what could be keeping him made me cringe inwardly, but I forced myself to say, “We get the girls first, then grab the boys.. And after that…”

“After that,” Harper put in while moving to the door, “we get off the school grounds. I have a way off the island, but we need to be out from under their security system first. For now, get dressed.” She stopped at the door, seeming to listen for a moment before adding, “And grab anything you don’t want to leave behind.”  

Filing that right along with the list of all the other baffling things about the girl, I gave the other two a brief glance before running to my dresser. Hurriedly, I started to dress, shoving a few special things into my pockets and an extra-dimensional bag I’d been given earlier.

“Let’s go, guys,” I announced, kneeling by the box where Jaq and Gus were resting with their new roommate, Porthos. The two mice and the lizard all looked up at me as I extended my hands down, before the three of them hurriedly crawled up to my shoulders.

“Chambers,” Avalon started, and I glanced up to see the other girl by the windowsill where Herbie had been sitting (I’d gotten him back from Larees earlier). She tossed him to me, and I quickly put the little guy in my pocket before returning the favor by tossing Porthos to her.

Finally, I grabbed my notebook. Giving it a quick glance to make sure everything was in order, I shoved it away inside my bag before straightening. “Shiori?”

“Choo’s still with Savvy and the other kids,” she replied, having already slid into the same clothes she’d been wearing the night before. “I didn’t want to wake the little guy up when we got back. Guess that’s a good thing now. I’m good. Well, not good, but you know.”

We were ready. Which was a good thing, because as I looked to the doorway, I saw that Harper had disappeared.

The three of us quickly moved that way, Avalon going first. She hesitated, then slowly turned the knob and opened the door to poke her head out. I heard her make a noise of disbelief before opening it the rest of the way to step through.

Shiori and I glanced to one another, then slipped out as well. There, we found three Crossroads security people on the floor, soundly unconscious. Harper was there as well, just straightening from lowering a fourth to the floor next to Sands and Scout’s room. “Hurry,” she said quickly. “They’ll be coming in force now.”

The three of us exchanged quick looks. I pointed. “Valley, get Koren and Aylen, I’ve got the twins.” Then I started to the door Harper was next to, leaving Avalon to go the other way. I tried to sprint, but my legs protested too much, so I just sort of quick-hobbled my way there like some kind of old woman with hip and knee problems.

As a group, we had long-since passed each other copies of the keys that let us access each other’s rooms. Since I had the one for the twins’ dorm in my pocket, the door opened as soon as I turned the knob. Letting myself in, I fumbled for the light switch briefly before flicking it on.

The good news was that Sands was there, already sitting up and staring at me in confusion while her hand grabbed for her mace reflexively.

The bad news, because of course we needed more of that, was that the other bed was empty.

“Where’s Scout?” I blurted. “We have to go!” As if for emphasis, Jaq and Gus both chittered at her from either shoulder.

She stared at me in confusion, already picking herself off the bed. “Go? Where are we–”

“No time! Get dressed, grab anything you need. I–” Hesitating, I looked to her. “Fossor. It’s Fossor. He… he killed one of the Committee members, somehow.” While Sands gaped at me, I continued. “He killed one of them and blamed it on Gaia. They’re taking her in now, and coming after us. We have to go. Where’s Scout?”

To her credit, Sands had started getting dressed before I was even halfway through that. She hurriedly pulled on clothes, shrugging into her jacket before grabbing a backpack. “She probably went for a walk,” she informed me. “She does that sometimes, out on the far end of the grounds, near the edge of the shield where the jungle starts.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed a second backpack and tossed it to me, adding, “We, uhh, prepped for something like this.”

Catching what was obviously Scout’s bag, I blinked twice before nodding. “We’ll get her, come on, guys first.”

The two of us moved back to the hall, where Sands stopped short upon seeing the unconscious guards and Harper. “Wha–”

“It’s a long story,” I informed her. “And we’ve only heard like… five percent of it. She’s on our side, she’s helping us get out of here. The rest can wait.”

“Wait for what?” That was Koren, coming out of the other room with Avalon and Aylen right behind her. The latter had Sovereign perched on one arm, who looked as confused as his partner. Which was impressive for a hawk to begin with, let alone a mechanical one.

Both Aylen and Koren stopped short at the sight of Harper, looking just as confused as… well, everyone else except Harper herself. But before they could say anything, Shiori, who was standing by the door at the end of the hall, turned back to us and came sprinting. “They’re coming,” she hissed. “Four more security guys, plus Peterson Neal!”

“That guy is seriously annoying,” Harper muttered, sounding for a moment like the simple teen girl she was supposed to be. Then she waved us to the stairs. “Move, go. We’ll go up to the roof. Go, go, go.”

No one else questioned it. We all turned, rushing for the stairs. Sovereign hopped off Aylen’s arm to fly ahead, smart enough not to call out. Glancing back, I saw Harper touch something to the floor to activate a spell before she followed us, waving the group on. “Hurry,” she snapped, just as some kind of black cloud started to fill the hallway behind us. “It’ll take them a minute to get through that, but you need to move, now.”

Even as she said that, we were already moving up the stairs as fast as we could go. Shiori had moved to help me, putting one arm around my back so I could lean on her. Flashing the girl a grateful smile, I caught the railing with my other hand and kept heaving myself up that way. Sands, meanwhile, activated one of the privacy coins, as did Avalon, just to be on the safe side.

Around and up we went, running up those stairs while the sound of the door opening below reached us. They were right behind us. If Harper was right, the dark cloud would slow them down. But not for long. We had to get the others and get the hell out of here.

The speed with which Crossroads had gone from a place of safety to one of intense danger was kind of terrifying. I’d seen this place as… well, not completely safe, of course. That would have been blindingly naive, after everything that had happened. But now it was so much worse. The news that Gaia had been… had been arrested (was that even possible?!) and that they were all after us had turned everything on its end. The Committee had lost one of their own, and they were sending their goons to take us in.

Goons who, I had to remind myself, probably mostly thought they were doing the right thing. This wasn’t like fighting the Seosten. The vast majority of the people who were being sent to collect us were almost definitely good guys, at least in their own minds. They didn’t know what was really going on. How would they? Everything was set up for them not to know, and Fossor had taken advantage of that. Just like he’d taken advantage of the fact that everyone was exhausted after everything that had happened before making his move.

How he knew what happened, how he knew anything about it, I didn’t know. Escalan’s… body was long gone, and Gaia had done a thorough sweep of every other faculty member to make sure they were… well, alive. But somehow, Fossor knew enough to make his move right then, and I was positive that wasn’t a coincidence.

Passing every other floor (and a few confused older students who were milling around the halls looking around to see what was going on), we reached the top, where a ladder at the end of the hall led upward. Quickly, the seven of us climbed up, emerging on the roof, where we stayed low as the sound of voices outside calling back and forth reached us.

A sound caught my attention, and we all spun back to see one of the security guys floating up to land on the roof. He saw us at the same time, his mouth opening to shout something.

Then Harper was behind him. Her arm covered his mouth, as she did something with her other hand that made the man’s eyes roll back in his head. She let him fall gently, lowering him down before looking back to us. “Now,” she said sharply, “we have to go.”

“Go?” Aylen started. “Where are we going?”

“We have to get off the island,” I informed her. “It’s too dangerous here right now. If they’re taking Gaia… we have no idea how much they know, or what they’ll find out.”

“What?” the other girl snapped suddenly, eyes widening. “No, no, I’m not going–I’m not leaving the island. I can’t.”

“Aylen,” I started, “if they’re taking Gaia away, we don’t know if… if it’ll be safe for people like you and Shiori. Hybrids. We don’t–”

“We’ll come back for him,” Avalon cut in, watching Aylen. “You can’t free him right now, Aylen. Not with the Committee’s people all over the place.”

Realizing just what they were talking about, my eyes widened as I looked over toward the lighthouse. Aylen was part-Reaper. Actually, she’d said that she was a Reaper’s granddaughter. Did that mean that… Holy shit.

“But I–” Looking distressed, Aylen squirmed on her feet before swallowing. “Okay…” She didn’t look happy about it, but she wasn’t arguing. From the spot where he had perched nearby, Sovereign looked just as upset.

“Right,” Shiori started, “so we grab the boys and… uh oh.”

Looking the way she was, I muttered a curse. Because down below, the boys were right there. Right there being escorted out the back door of the dorm by several armed figures who weren’t dressed as Crossroads security.

“Committee lackeys,” Sands muttered, staring that way alongside us. “How do we get them and get to Scout?”

“Carefully,” I replied, just as a shout went up from below that ‘the girls’ weren’t in their rooms and to spread out to look for us.

“Very goddamn carefully.”

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Interim Incursion 43-09 (Avalon Part B)

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Exactly how Avalon knew that the woman in front of her was Liesje, she couldn’t say. She had never seen a picture of her. Despite that, she knew with utter certainty that this was indeed her ancestor, the woman who had started all of this. Or an image of her… or a ghost. And somehow, someway, she had drawn Avalon and Paschar to this grassy field overlooking the ocean. Unless…

“We’re not really here,” she realized, looking around for a second. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”

A smile broke across the ghostly woman’s face, and she gave a single nod. “Very good, Hannah. No, you haven’t gone anywhere. Everyone in that room is exactly where they were, including you. It’s frozen for the moment while we talk right here in your head. And his.” Her eyes turned slightly toward Paschar then, softening with regret.

“You…” For his part, the Seosten man had been stunned into silence for those few seconds. Now he spoke in a voice that shook from the intense emotion he was feeling, while taking a slow, hesitant step that way. “I–you are… you are dead. You are not here.”

Liesje smiled sadly. “You’re right,” she agreed, “I’m not here. This is no more than a memory, a ghost of sorts. This is a magical copy of my mind at the time it was made, when I left my spell in this vault. It’s as close as I could get to being here when my eventual descendant returned to finish my spell.” She seemed to swallow hard before adding, “And when you came, Paschar.”

Despite the simplicity of her words, the man flinched as if she had physically struck him. “I never wanted t–” He stopped himself then, falling silent for a moment before audibly sighing. “You are not here. It hardly matters to speak of it. And yet, I wish to tell you that I am… sorry. I–I am sorry, and I am… so very angry.” He lifted his gaze finally, staring past Avalon at Liesje’s ghost. “You and Dries were supposed to leave. You were supposed to run away. I told you to protect you. I wanted to save you. I wanted you both to walk away and live. I would have gone with you.”

A litany of retorts came to Avalon’s mind right then, making it all the way to her tongue as her mouth opened. But before she could say them, Liesje quietly spoke for herself. “He was my father, Paschar. I could never abandon him without trying to save him from the slavery that you told us about. You showed us what he was going through, and thought that I could walk away?” Her head shook slowly. “It wasn’t in me. I didn’t… I didn’t believe that it was in you.”

“I heard this part,” Avalon finally put in, needing to speak up. “You–the three of you were… you were together?” Her eyes snapped toward Paschar, feeling a rush of hatred and disgust. This was a man who had been responsible for so many terrible, evil things in her life and in the lives of her family for so long. He was the one who had hurt them, who had killed them, who had… who had done so much. It was all him, and he had been a lover of Liesje and Dries? She had been left reeling and stunned for a bit, but now she wanted to curse. And rant. And throw things.

“Yes.” Liesje turned to face Avalon, putting her back to Paschar. “We were together. We were happy, or I believed we were. We loved each other, all three of us, together. Dries and I believed that Paschar was a natural Heretic of some creature. He didn’t show us his possession capability until… until the end, until he finally revealed the whole truth. Before that, we just… we hunted together. We trained together. We explored, learned, played, and lived together. Paschar was…” She looked away from Avalon then, eyes closing briefly as a single tear made its way along her cheek. “He was everything to us.” Eyes opening then, she added, “We didn’t know that we were a job for him, that he was… assigned to watch us while my father was forced to do his work.”

“You were more than a job,” Paschar abruptly spoke up, starting to step that way. “You were both everything to me. I was willing to throw my people away and escape with you!” His voice rose at the end, turning sharp before choking itself off as he stopped, head shaking silently.

Rather than acknowledge his words, Liesje focused on Avalon. Her hand rose to touch the girl’s face, and Avalon actually felt it. Or her mind was deceived into thinking that she felt it. Either way, it was as close to real as it could be, and she found herself somehow instinctively leaning into the touch.

“We thought we had a spell that would eject the Seosten enslaving my father,” Liesje quietly explained. “But it failed. It failed and the Seosten knew what we had tried. He… attacked me. He would have killed me, but…”

“Dries intervened,” Avalon finished for her, having heard that part from the man himself before. “He saved you, but he killed Hieronymus to do it. And that still left the Seosten. Radueriel.”

“I was too injured to do anything then,” Liesje informed her, looking over her shoulder at the silent and motionless Paschar briefly before turning back to Avalon. “But Dries sacrificed his freedom, his chance of escape, to send me away. Thanks to him, I escaped and survived. But Dries was taken away. And I was hunted for the rest of my life. One of my beloveds had become the prisoner of an invincible empire on the other side of that sea of stars in the sky. And the other… the other became my hunter, tracking everywhere I went, never more than a step or two behind.”

“I had no choice!” Paschar suddenly interrupted, the turmoil he had carried with him all that time boiling to the surface. “You never understood that! You refused to understand it! I loved you! I–I still love you. But I can’t–” His face twisted from emotion, and he gave a violent shake of his head. “I can’t betray my people! I can’t betray the universe! You would create a spell that would end our ability to do what we must do to defeat the Fomorians! You would destroy our entire society, our–our civilization! I love you, but I could not allow that!” His voice cracked sharply. “I cannot… cannot allow it.”

“I don’t understand,” Avalon found herself saying. “How could you come here and make this vault if the Seosten were already after you by the time you knew to make it in the first place? How could you put this spell here at all, if they were looking for you? Because before they were looking for you, you couldn’t have known to make it. And afterward, you shouldn’t have been able to… to even get in here without them grabbing you.”

Some part of Avalon, a quite large part, thought that even having this conversation with everything that was going on was completely insane. Hell, not throwing herself at Paschar in a clearly vain and impossible attempt to kill the bastard felt just as wrong. But when would she ever have a chance to talk to Liesje Aken, or even a memory-ghost of her, again? Everything in this year, everything had been fucked up and crazy in some way. So why not this moment too?

Liesje herself was already replying to her actual spoken question. “The Heretic world wasn’t as… united in those days. The group who created the bank that you’re standing in were separate from what became this… Crossroads. The Seosten eventually swallowed them up and made most of the separate groups part of this single organization. It was easier to control them that way. But at the time, this place was run by people completely unconnected to… to the people who took my father and started all of this. It was enough to let me create this vault and ready it to hold the spell. And to put… myself here, of course.”

“How did you create it at all?” Avalon demanded, staring at the ghostly woman. “All these people, all these ancient people and you managed to create a spell that can totally fuck over their entire civilization? How? Are you–I mean were you just…”

“Just that brilliant?” Liesje finished for her, before shaking her head. “No. I mean, I like to think I get by, but no. I had a lot of help from Grandfather and Bastet.”

Blinking a couple times at that, Avalon started dully, “Who?” She could see Paschar voicing the same question, clearly equally confused.

The woman smiled faintly. “That is a much longer story than we have time for. But you’ll find it in the book. I recorded more than just the spell there. Some of it may not present itself to you immediately, but I wrote quite a bit, and it will be there for you when the time is right.”

“Why?” That was Paschar, moving closer to step right behind Liesje. “Why tell her that much? She can’t take the book, Leesh. I–I can’t let her take it. They can leave. They can all leave, even Dries. I can let them go.” His tone turned pleading, almost desperate. “I can let them go. But I can’t let them take the book. I can’t let them take the spell. It has to end here. Don’t you understand that? Please. It has to end here. No one else has to die.”

“No one else?” Avalon retorted, her voice rising as she took a quick step that way, toward the Seosten. “No one besides my mother, you mean? No one besides everyone else you’ve hunted down and killed for this spell, including her?!” She pointed to the ghostly figure of her ancestor, hand shaking violently. “You wanna talk about love? You’re a fucking monster!”  

Paschar snarled at her. “You think I wanted any of this? Do you think this is my ch–” He cut himself off then, head shaking silently before he managed to speak through gritted teeth. “As I said, we can end this entire thing right here, right now. You walk away, I take the spell and destroy it. Then it’s over. It’s done. I can convince my people to leave you and yours alone.”

“You mean give up,” Avalon snapped despite herself. “You mean give up and just let your people keep enslaving everyone against their will. Let you pieces of shit keep using us.”

“Would you prefer the alternative?” Paschar demanded. “If we were not here, the Fomorians would be. And believe me when I tell you that that is an enslavement far worse than the one that we offer. You have a gilded cage under our touch. Under theirs, it would be a living hell.”

“Option C,” Avalon retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Everyone who isn’t an enslaving, murdering, torturing piece of shit teams up against the rest of you and puts you all where you belong.”

Paschar looked as though he was going to violently snap something before stopping himself. He took a long, deep breath before focusing on her once more. “You need to listen to me. None of this has to go on. Please. Stop this now. We destroy the spell and then it’s over. Your friends, you, the people you care about, they can all leave.”

“My mother can’t,” Avalon reminded him in a soft, yet firm tone. “Because you helped kill her.”

The Seosten man physically recoiled as if she’d actually struck him, eyes dropping as he made a noise that was half-denial, half-grief. “I did–I didn’t…” Taking in another breath, he looked up to her, clearly shaken. “No one else has to die for this. If you use that spell, billions will. Trillions. Do you understand that? Do you understand the scope of what you’re doing? Millions of worlds rely on our armies to protect them. If you take away or… or weaken our ability to provide Heretic troops, you are condemning them to die.” He was pleading again, desperately trying to make her understand this from his point of view.

“This isn’t about abandoning those worlds,” Avalon informed him tersely. “It’s about not being slaves. We’re not going to be your tools anymore. You want Earth to help you, you need to be our partners.”

The man’s eyes narrowed uncertainly at that. “What is that supposed to–”

She interrupted. “Sands was telling the truth. It’s like she said, we’re using the spell, but we’re changing it. You want to possess a Heretic, you need permission. Permission from them. No permission, they can kick your Seosten ass right out. No more slavery. Like I said, partners. Allies. We’ll find the ones who will work with us, and we’ll put an end to the monsters, Fomorians or otherwise.”

Paschar stared at her open-mouthed for a moment before collecting himself. His head shook. “That won’t work. In the time it would take to explain everything, to reconfigure our training, to convince humans of how important it is… the Fomorians will take more worlds. Maybe enough to completely turn the tide. And who’s to say that you humans will even want to keep helping? Your world is safe. Even if enough of you can be talked into it, that’s even more time. And those who won’t help–that’s… the war is hanging by a thread as it is. If we lose our Heretic supply…”

“You fought this war without us before,” Avalon informed him. “For a pretty long time, in fact. And you have plenty of humans off world already. You’ll tell your people to come and negotiate in good faith, to come and work with us. Because enslaving? That’s not going to work anymore.”

“Or they’ll come in force,” he pointed out. “If they can’t keep this going quietly, they might just bring enough strength to take the world openly.”

Avalon didn’t blink. “Sure. And if they do, it’s gonna be awfully hard to convince all those humans to work with them willingly, isn’t it?”

“Look, I…” Paschar seemed to look past Avalon for a moment, toward Liesje’s ghost before turning back to her. “I understand. I understand your… your goal here, and your feelings. It’s admirable. I even understand your hatred of me. I–I would feel the same way. But you can’t do this. I… I cannot let it happen. I won’t endanger the universe like that, not for you. I wouldn’t do it for Leesh and Dries. I won’t–I can’t let you put everything at risk. Millions of worlds rely on this. It’s too much. It’s too important. I won’t let you take it.” His voice was hoarse from emotion.

“Won’t let us?” Avalon echoed, staring him down. “Who said we needed your permission?”

“Your people are spread out across the bank,” he quietly reminded her. “I have far too many soldiers for you to win this, even with Dries. This will end badly for all of you. Please. It’s your last chance. Walk away from this. If you don’t, I can’t save you. Please don’t make me hurt you and Dries again. Please. Don’t force me to kill you. I don’t want to. But I will if it comes to it, if you force me to. And you don’t have the power or the numbers to stop me.”

Before Avalon could respond to that, Liesje spoke quietly. “You mean they didn’t.” As both Avalon and Paschar blinked that way, she continued. “You see, this… here, what we’re doing? It wasn’t only meant to let me talk to my descendant and you for sentimental reasons. It was also because I knew that you would outnumber them. I went to a seer, and they saw it. They saw that my descendant would have help coming, but that it would be too late. Only by a matter of minutes, but too late is too late. You would win, again, simply because of a few minutes.”

Paschar realized what she meant after a brief second of shaking his head in confusion. “Wh–the time stop. You’ve stopped time here in the vault to talk to us like this, but it’s still going everywhere else. You still–”

He was interrupted by Liesje, who moved to touch his face. “I loved you,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry it came to this. I’m sorry that everything between the three of us… went so wrong.”

The Seosten opened his mouth, but abruptly, he disappeared, cast out of the… vision or… whatever it was. Then Liesje turned to Avalon. “Hannah,” she spoke gently, her expression softening even more. “Dear Hannah, everything you’ve been through, everything… I am so sorry. I’m sorry that we couldn’t handle this a long time ago. I’m sorry for what happened to you, everything I’ve seen in your memories, it’s… you have had a hard life. But you have friends too. You have a family. You have a mother. Take the book. It is only one of two you need for the spell. The other is in the Auberge, where your friends went. You need both books to complete the spell. Take them. Do what you need to do. And tell Dries… tell Dries that I love him, and that I am proud of him.”

“Wait!” Avalon blurted. “I–I have… I have so much I… I want to say, so much I want to ask.”

“I know,” Liesje quietly, sadly replied. She met her gaze, speaking only two more words. “Good luck.”

With that, Avalon was suddenly moving once more. Moving, that was, just as Paschar slammed into her. The two of them went to the floor, tumbling end over end right in front of the podium with the book on it. The Seosten man crashed down on top of her, and even as Avalon tried to bring her arm up to cut with her energy blade, he caught hold of her. The force of his grip nearly broke her arm, while he hissed a quiet, “I am sorry.”

Then he jerked to the side, his head snapping away just as a blade was shoved through the air where it had just been. Just as quickly, the Seosten spun, ducking to avoid the follow-through from his attacker.

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” Seller announced while lashing out with a kick. That one connected, sending Paschar off of Avalon with a grunt.

The Seosten clearly boosted, suddenly back on his feet with some kind of bow made of solid energy in his hands, the string drawn back with four arrows. He loosed all of them simultaneously, each heading for the green-suited Heretic faster than a bullet. All of it happened so quickly that the only reason Avalon could follow any of it was the vampire speed she’d picked up.

Seller, in turn, moved just as quickly. His hand snapped out, throwing what looked like five red marbles. Four of those marbles went for each arrow, transforming in midair into a small bird which then grabbed the shaft of the arrow to pull it off course. The fifth, meanwhile, turned into a tiny worm or… caterpillar or something. Whatever it was, the thing went straight through Paschar’s open mouth.

The Seosten went to fire another quartet of arrows, but Seller held up a hand to stop him. “Nuh uh. You don’t wanna do that.”

“I won’t let you take the book,” Paschar snarled, adding a fifth arrow in that time. “It–it–” Blinking a couple of times, he made a face and staggered. “What…”

“Yeah, that’s the little friend of mine you just swallowed,” Seller informed him. “My daughter Edeva, she used to call them boom-bugs. That one’s gonna burrow its way to your heart and then… well, it’s right there in the name. So you can stand here and fight until your heart literally explodes after a worm crawls into it, or you can go get some help. Your choice, but I’d be quick about it.”

“I–I won’t–I won’t…” Trying to say the words, Paschar staggered again. He lifted his bow with somewhat shaking hands, until another figure moved next to Avalon. Dries.

That was what it took. Being faced with his heart exploding wasn’t enough. But seeing Dries there, that pushed Paschar over the edge. He made a noise of despair before abruptly disappearing. Recall. Whoever his last host had been, he’d used the recall to them to escape.

“Hey, kid,” Seller spoke simply while turning to extend a hand to her then, “hope you didn’t actually think I’d miss this whole thing.”

“Seller!” Avalon blurted before taking his offered hand. “You–”

“Not that I’m objecting to the help,” Sands abruptly announced while skidding to a stop, with Shiori right beside her. “But what are those things?”

The question made Avalon’s gaze snap over toward the sound of fighting on the other side of the room. Paschar’s troops were still there, but they were… occupied. There were a dozen reddish-brown golem-like creatures of various shapes and sizes fighting and tearing into the Seosten’s troops.

“You… you’re using your bio-powers,” Avalon breathed. Seller and Gaia shared an origin, she knew that. They had both gained powers from the same creature, gifts so potent that even a Natural Heretic could only take one aspect of them. While Gaia had received the gifts of technology control and understanding, Seller had taken the nature and biology-based gifts. Among those was a potent bio-tech skill, such as making those golems, the birds-from-marbles, the boom-bug… and more.

Unfortunately, after the war with the Fomorians, he didn’t tend to use that aspect very much, for its… connotations and the reactions they provoked in anyone who had been through those battles.

Seller gave a very faint smile to her words, and winked at the confused Sands. “Well, I figured if this wasn’t the time for it, nothing ever would have been. Now go on, grab that book so we can get out of here. My guys can hold the line, but we’ve still gotta leave. Get the book and let’s get the hell out of this place.”

She went. Mind racing from everything she had just learned, and what it meant, Avalon raced those last couple of steps to the podium. Her hand snapped out… and she caught hold of the book.  

She had it. She had the book. After everything that had happened, after… after… She had it. That was the point. She had it, and she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone take it from her. Keeping it clutched to her chest, Avalon looked quickly to the fighting. Paschar may have been gone, but there were still plenty of problems between them and the way out of the vault.

While shoving the book into a special pouch inside her jacket, Avalon abruptly felt her phone buzz deep in another pocket. Just as it did, she heard Shiori shout a warning. More of the Seosten troops had arrived, overwhelming the line of golems to attack. Seller and the others were already fighting, and one of the soldiers (a blue-skinned lizard with compound eyes) was almost on top of her, flying on bug-like wings that beat blindingly quickly).

She threw herself backward, avoiding the pike that the lizard-bug was trying to impale her on. Just as quickly, she had to duck under a spray of spit that he followed up with. It wasn’t normal spit either, considering the little bit that caught her gauntlet before instantly hardening into some incredibly durable resin.

Her phone was still buzzing throughout that, including adding a pair of chimes to let her know that a voicemail and then text message had both been received.

The bug-lizard made a loud chittering cry and charged through the air, flying straight for her. Avalon let him come, then focused on her own ability to temporarily borrow other people’s abilities. One in particular: his resin spit.

She felt it in her mouth, and just before he would have reached her, she spat into his face and twisted aside. The spit went right into the creature’s eyes and instantly hardened, forming a blindfold of sorts while he squealed and flailed.

It was enough of a distraction for Avalon to take his head off with a sweep of her energy blade, all while her phone buzzed yet again.

Cursing, she checked the phone finally. Aylen, having some kind of breakdown. Taking a quick look at the scene in front of her, she answered it quickly, just to avoid being distracted. “Aylen, it’s not a good time.”

She started to hit the disconnect, only to hear the other girl shout, “Don’t hang up. It’s about Flick! Is she there?!”

Flick. It was about Flick? Avalon froze, looking to where the others were fighting just in time to see a reddish-rock creature come barreling for her. Quickly, she moved to intercept, forgetting the phone in her hand for an instant as she cut through the rock-man’s arm, drawing a cry of pain just before she followed up by putting her blade through his chest.

“Flick?” Avalon snapped through the gasp of pleasure. “No, she’s not here. She’s… what about her?” A sudden thought came then. “Wait, she’s not with you…”

Aylen’s reply came tersely. “No. No, but if you don’t listen and come here as soon as you can, she’s…”

Fear clutched her, as Avalon snapped, “She’s what?” In mid-sentence, she saw two of the Alter troops produced some kind of automatic rifles as they took aim at her. Quickly, she dropped to one knee and put her gauntlet up, turning the blades from one of her gauntlets into a shield that intercepted the bullets. By that point, Seller was there, dealing with the two of them swiftly.

Aylen’s voice came back then, with an announcement that made every other thing instantly disappear. “She’s going to die.”

As those words settled like a lead weight in the pit of Avalon’s stomach, the girl continued. “I’m at a grocery store parking lot. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know she’s going to die right here fairly soon. Maybe another hour? I’m not sure. But it’ll happen. I can give you the address.”

Shiori was there, hand on Avalon’s arm. Her eyes were wide with confusion and terror. She’d heard. Through the fighting that continued in the background, the two of them stared at each other.

“Are you positive?” Even as the words came from Avalon, she knew they were absurd. Of course the girl was positive.

Sure enough, the answer came. “Yes. Trust me. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, what you guys are doing right now, or anything. But I know that if you don’t help me stop it, she’s going to die here tonight.”

There was no hesitation. Avalon didn’t care what else was going on, how many soldiers they had to go through, or what was standing in their way. She didn’t even care that she already had the book they’d come for, or that there was already a fight going on right then and there. One thing and one thing only was on her mind. Saving Flick. Everything else, even the thoughts of the real history between Paschar and her ancestors was just… noise.

“Where are you? We’ll be there.”

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Interim Incursion 43-08 (Avalon Part A)

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Through the maze of corridors in the Crossroads blood vault bank, Avalon Sinclaire sprinted with Sands Mason, Shiori Porter, and her own great-something grandfather. The sound of their racing footsteps echoed up and down the halls as the quartet followed their memorized directions toward the goal that so many had been working toward for literally generations.

“How small do you think the odds are that we’ve actually got a clear path to the vault now?” Shiori asked as they went straight through the second-to-last intersection. They’d already followed Doug’s pen marks to get back to the actual path without encountering any problems.

Without looking at the other girl, Avalon snapped, “About as small as me being able to throw a stick and hit the sun. Keep your eyes open, watch for spells or traps.”

Sure enough, barely a few seconds later, Dries called a sharp halt. The man, who had been content to stay behind them up to that point, moved past the girls. He stepped a couple feet forward before raising a hand and extending it slowly, with a look of intense concentration. “There,” he murmured, while tiny sparks of what looked like electricity danced over his fingers.

Biting her lip, Avalon glanced to the others before hesitantly asking, “What is it?” She still felt awkward, talking to a man who was actually related to her without wanting to stab him repeatedly. It was a really new experience that she just… really didn’t know how to react to.

It also didn’t help that Flick wasn’t here. Of all the times throughout this year that Avalon had imagined what would happen at this point, how all of this would go down, Flick had always been there. Her presence in those imagined scenarios, no matter how bad they went, was always a comfort. But now… now she wasn’t. She was off helping with another part of the mission which… while important, wasn’t here.

God, that felt selfish to think. Avalon knew that. Consciously, she knew it was wrong, and tried to shove the feeling away. But it just wouldn’t completely disappear. She wanted Flick to be with her. Especially now. They were so close to reaching the spell that Liesje had left, so close to finally ending this whole thing after all this time. Flick should be here with her. With them. With Avalon and Shiori. The two of them having to do this part without her was wrong.

Dries was answering. “En–en–trapment spell.” He hesitated, shifting on his feet before explaining, “If you trigger-ahh-ahh trigger it, your brain is trapped in a simulation. You’d think you were going t-t-to the vault but you’d really just be standing there.”

It took a moment, but he disabled the spell. Avalon made sure to watch what he was doing, paying close attention. Not that she had any expectation of being able to do it herself any time soon, but she wanted to learn. If the situation hadn’t been so urgent, she would have insisted that he talk the whole process through. But in this case, that felt like something that could wait.

It certainly wasn’t her last chance to observe him. Over the next few minutes, it seemed like they hit another protection spell every other step. And they started getting much nastier very quick. Dries muttered about just how dangerous the spells were as he disabled them, carefully untangling various effects with an expert touch. But even he couldn’t do it alone through simple lack of enough hands. In those cases, he would call Avalon or even the other two girls forward and tell them exactly what to do, placing a hand in one spot, pushing power here or there, saying a word, anything that he couldn’t do by himself because he was focused on another point. It was slow-going, but still a hell of a lot faster than it would have been if they’d just walked right into the spells.

And yet, even knowing that, the time it took still made Avalon squirm and twitch a little despite herself. Which, combined with the way Dries constantly squirmed and twitched, made the two of them look more alike than they ever had.

Finally, it was there. The vault in question was right in front of them, only a few steps away. As Dries disabled the last spell, however, the floor around them suddenly shook.

“Wha-what was…” Shiori started, stumbling a little as her gaze whipped around.

“Not here,” Dries assured her. “Definitely not here. That is… that is something else.”

“What do we do?” Sands asked, looking to Avalon. “That could be something bad.”

Slowly nodding, Avalon agreed, “It could. But we can’t do anything about it. We have to trust the others to deal with… whatever it is. We’re here. Come on.”

With those words, she stepped up to the vault. The doors looked like any of the others they had passed, two simple metal structures that had apparently been enough to stop the entire Seosten Empire from getting into the room beyond.

Well, that and the fact that the vault itself was actually located in a pocket dimension unreachable by any other means. But still.

As she neared them, the doors actually changed color. Instead of being that simple white-silver, they shifted to a faint red with a two much darker spots in the shape of handprints, one on either door.

Following Dries’ instructions, Avalon reached up to place one hand against either of the prints. She held them there, even as a slight tingling sensation ran through her. The spot where her hands were grew warm almost to the point of being uncomfortable, but she left them there anyway. It took almost five full seconds before there was a very soft, almost inaudible chime. The handprints disappeared as the doors turned blue then, sliding out of the way to reveal the room beyond.

It was open. After all this time, after everything that had happened throughout her life, the oh-so-important vault was open. Swallowing, Avalon glanced to the others. They were waiting for her.

She stepped inside. With the others right behind her, Avalon stepped into the vault. It was circular, with a single podium in the middle where a book sat. The spell. Liesje’s spell. It was right there.

Unfortunately, the four of them had barely taken a few steps inside before they were interrupted.

“Did you really think it would be that easy?”

The voice came from behind them, at the doorway into the vault. As Avalon and the others turned, they found themselves looking at a man. He looked… well, he looked like an elf. Or at least the Tolkien version. He was tall, with long blond hair and an eternally youthful, innocent face. His eyes were a bright, bright green that reminded Avalon of the forest, his figure almost feminine in its androgynous shape. A long, thin sword hung from his hip, while he held a bow made of solid energy. Arrayed around the man there just inside the vault were more than a dozen other figures of various Alter species, all of them heavily armed. Worse, more were quickly filing in by the second, until over twenty troops were there.

The elfen man spoke once more, as they all stared at him. “I’m afraid we cannot allow you to leave with that book. Though perhaps, if we reach a deal, you can leave with your lives. Would that be enough for you, now that you and I have finally come face to face after all this time?”

“Honestly?” Avalon snapped at the man, “I have no idea who the fuck you are. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t care even if I did. You’re just–”

“Paschar.” That was Dries, the man trembling with only barely constrained rage as he took a step in front of Avalon, literally blocking her from the other man. “He is Paschar.”

“Dries?” The man, Paschar apparently, sounded taken aback, his eyes widening as Avalon’s ancestor stepped into view from behind the others. “Is… is… that you? It… I… my… friend.”

Somewhere behind Avalon, she heard Shiori quietly whisper a confused, “Friend?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Dries took two steps that way, apparently heedless of the weapons being pointed at him. “We are not friends!” he snapped angrily, fury burning through his voice. “You betrayed us. You betrayed Liesje.”

“I… I betrayed my own people first,” Paschar quietly, yet firmly replied after his voice caught briefly. That bow continued to aim steadily at Dries, though he didn’t release the arrow. “I made a mistake. I betrayed them for Liesje, for you. I told you what they were–what we were doing. I told you the truth, and you almost destroyed us. You murdered Liesje’s own father.”

Avalon’s eyes snapped back to Dries as the man retorted, “Radueriel would have killed Liesje! I did what I had to do to protect her. I killed her father because I had no choice, because Radueriel gave me no choice! And I would do it again, all day, every day, to protect her.”

“I loved you!” Paschar shot back, all of the forced calm in his voice vanishing. “You and Liesje both! I loved you both. I told you the truth, I gave you the–” He stopped, taking a moment to collect himself emotionally before blurting, “You were supposed to leave! You were both supposed to run away! We were–we were supposed to…”

For a moment, the man stopped again, dropping his gaze to the floor before taking a long, deep breath. His voice shook. “We were supposed to escape… together. We were supposed to build something new, the three of us. You weren’t supposed to confront them. You weren’t supposed to kill him. You weren’t supposed to be taken away, or become the new holder of–” He sighed, closing his eyes. “I loved you. I gave you a chance. That was a mistake. One that I have spent generations rectifying.”

“Um.” Sands slowly held up a hand. “Am I the only one who is just totally lost right now?”

“Liesje and I were in love with him,” Dries quietly spoke, his eyes never leaving Paschar. “We thought he was human. We… we spent a lot of time together. Then he told us the truth. That’s how we found out that her father was possessed, that he hadn’t really made the Heretical Edge at all.”

“And you were supposed to run away,” Paschar snapped. “I told you everything to show you how far it went, to convince you that staying was idiotic and pointless. You let her go to her father. You might as well have doomed everyone yourself. I trusted you to get her out of sight, to run away. I would have run away with you. I wanted to run away with you.” With those words, the man’s voice actually shook a bit, as the admission, or maybe the memory itself, tore something from him emotionally.

“Liesje wanted to save her father,” Dries retorted, his voice cracking as well as he kept tightening and loosening his fists. “If you’d actually known anything about her, you would have understood that. You would have known. But you didn’t. Y-you just wanted to–”

“I wanted her to live!” the Seosten man all-but shouted. “I wanted Liesje to live. I wanted you to live. I wanted all of us to live! I wanted us to escape! I gave you both a chance! Do you know what that cost me? Do you have any idea what my–what I had to–what…” He trailed off, the obvious rush of emotions twisting his expression to something far uglier for a moment before he reigned them in.

In love? Liesje and Dries had been… had been in love with this… this Paschar? Some part of the back of Avalon’s mind found a twisted bit of humor in that, given that he had played Eros/Cupid while the Seosten were pretending to be gods here on Earth. But still, it left her reeling. Her mother… her family… they had been… this man right here had been the one… he…

She finally found her voice then, as her confusion and anger mounted. “Wh–you’re the one who helped chase our whole family down! You’re the one who killed my mother, who helped make my father hate me, who used a love potion on Tangle! You turned Torv against me, you destroyed my best friend! You made me kill him!”

The Seosten man’s expression softened then, as he glanced away with a visible wince. “Yes,” he murmured. “Yes, I did. I’m not proud of it, any of it. I never wanted to hurt Liesje’s family. That’s why I… why I took such a hands off, slow, careful approach. I didn’t want to do it myself. I never wanted any of this to happen.” By that point, his voice had dropped to barely a whisper.

“Never wanted it to happen?!” Avalon grabbed Dries by the arm, using it to yank herself in front of him while her eyes glowered to the point of nearly reducing the man to cinders if she’d had that particular power. “Never wanted to spend hundreds of years systematically hunting down the woman you claim you cared about and her every descendent?! You destroyed our lives! You! You chose to do that! You are a piece of shit!” Even as she spoke, Avalon instinctively triggered her gauntlets to produce a pair of humming energy blades.

She started to take another step that way, but Shiori was there on her right side, putting a hand on her arm to stop her from going any closer.

Paschar raised his eyes to stare at her, not looking away. “I didn’t want to. Liesje wasn’t thinking straight. The thing she wanted to do, the spell she wanted to make, it–” He cut himself off, grimacing as he fought for the right words before forcing them out. “It would have destroyed the universe. She wanted to block Seosten from possessing any Heretics, ever. Without Heretics, do you have any idea what would happen on the front lines of the war with the Fomorians? The front lines would become Elohim. They would overrun everything. You’ve heard about what happened the last time the Fomorians were here on Earth. Without us, without my people, you would have been overrun. Earth would be a Fomorian world and your people would be their slaves, forever.”

Avalon’s head shook once. “It wasn’t the Seosten who kicked the Fomorians offworld and put up a spell that blocks them from ever coming back.” Even as she spat the words, the girl was trying to think of a way to get over to the podium where the spellbook was seated without making what had turned into two dozen troops arrayed around Paschar reduce her to cinders. She was kind of surprised they hadn’t already opened fire. An opening. She just needed an opening, and if Paschar wanted to talk until she saw one, all the more power to him.

Besides, right now she really wanted to know what the hell had happened between him and her ancestors.

The elfen-looking man nodded. “Yes, but it was my people who helped yours last long enough for that to even be an option. Earth lasted for years before getting to that point. Do you think they could have done that without Seosten help? The Fomorians would have destroyed your civilization and turned you all into their tools to annihilate the rest of the universe.”

Dries spat from behind her, his voice full of fury that left him barely capable of coherent words. “None of that matters! What matters is you! You! You chose to hunt down our family! You chose to destroy their lives, for hundreds of years! You—you’re the reason Liesje is dead! You’re the reason any of this is–that any of that–that–We loved you!” The last three words tore their way from him in a violent outburst, a scream which seemed to make the entire room shake.  

He shoved Avalon back then, suddenly crossing the room in a blur of motion to throw himself at the other man. Before he was halfway there, the surrounding troops threw up their weapons and fired.

But their shots hit a forcefield… created by Paschar. The Seosten held his fist up, a glowing stone held tight in it that was clearly producing the shield.

Whether he’d created the shield to stop his men from shooting Dries, or to stop Dries himself from reaching him, Avalon had no idea. And to be honest, she kind of doubted anyone in the room, including Paschar in that moment, knew either.

“I loved you too,” the Seosten quietly murmured, staring at the other man through the glowing shield. “I loved both of you.” His voice cracked a little bit. “I still do. Whether you believe it or not, I do love you, Dries. But I cannot endanger the universe because of my feelings for you, just as I could not endanger it because of my feelings for Liesje. I never wanted to hurt either of you, but I will not allow the Fomorians to destroy all life because of it.”

Dries looked like he was going to say something else, but Sands interrupted. “You don’t have to!” The girl took a quick step over by Avalon’s left side, opposite Shiori. She edged in front of the other two a little bit while everyone looked at her. “We can work together. We don’t have to fight right now. We’re not… we’re not trying to use the spell to ban Seosten from ever possessing humans. We’re going to change it, we’re going to make it so that Seosten can only possess Heretics with permission. If your people work with us, if they talk to us and explain the whole situation with the Fomorians, we can be allies! We won’t be slaves, but we can be your allies. We can work together.”

The surrounding Alter soldiers looked at each other, while Paschar just stared past Dries at Sands. Slowly, his head shook. “That is a fine, noble sentiment, girl. But it is… naive. Do you think that the Fomorians will quietly wait for us to sort out that kind of thing? Do you think they’ll hold back their attacks until we have reorganized our entire society? Your people have often had a thing called a draft, in times of desperate military action and war. This is your draft. It may seem unfair, and… and it is. It truly is. But the alternative is complete universal devastation. The Fomorians will not negotiate. They will not stop. They will not spare man, woman, or child. They will destroy this universe and all life within it. And we cannot afford to give them one more centimeter. I’m sorry. I truly am. But it won’t happen.”

He paused then before adding, “But I have come to offer a deal. Walk away. Leave this vault now without the spell, and neither I nor any of my people here will stop or harm you or any of yours. You can leave. You can walk away. Then we take this spell, and your family will be safe. With the spell gone, we’ll have no reason to come after you. You can leave.” His expression actually turned pleading then. “Please. Just walk away. I don’t want to hurt any more of you.”

“You know what, dude?” Sands spoke up for all of them. “Fuck you.”

With those words, the girl swung up hard with her mace, bringing a wall between them before blurting, “Go, go!”

Avalon and Shiori were already going. Pivoting on their heels, they sprinted toward the podium. Behind them, Sands worked to cover them with rapidly generated walls while backpedaling. There was other fighting going on in the background, with Dries. Avalon tried not to think about it. The book. She just had to get to the book.

“Go!” Shiori blurted, just as a sleek, eel-like Alter slipped past the wall and lunged at them. She intercepted him, diving into his path in a collision that took both to the floor.

Avalon kept going. The podium was right in front of her. She felt a tingle around her as she neared it, hand extending.

“No!” The voice came from surprisingly close. Paschar. He’d used his boost to reach Avalon, slamming into the girl. Both of them went to the floor, as she tried her best to roll with the impact. They hit the ground, skidding and tumbling over one another.

Then… then she was rolling on grass. Avalon felt that and dirt under her as she scrambled to her knees, gaze snapping around wildly. The podium was gone. The vault was gone. Everything was gone. She was sitting in a grassy field, in the middle of nowhere. Nearby was a cliff overlooking the ocean. “Wha–”

“Where are we?” Paschar demanded. He was there, about ten feet from her and already picking himself up. “What happened?”

Avalon scrambled to her feet as well, igniting her blades once more while glaring that way. Her mouth opened to say something, only to find herself interrupted by another voice.

“Hello, Paschar.” The beautiful, tall brunette who suddenly stood between them announced before turning to Avalon. Her form was partially-translucent, like a ghost. “Hello, Hannah.

“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time,” Liesje Aken informed them.

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Interim Incursion 43-04 (Doug)

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As the elevator descended toward the lower vaults, Doug glanced around at the others. Professor Kohaku, Dries Aken, Shiori, Avalon, Sands, Vanessa, and himself. They were the ones who were left to make the run for the vault. Everyone else was occupied, keeping most of the bad guys busy. Gaia, Gabriel Prosser, Professor Dare, so many powerful people who were solely focused, at that moment, on keeping the way to the vault as clear as possible. Even Grandpa Sulan was with Prosser’s group, along with Jazz and Gordon. If Doug couldn’t be with his (former?) teammates, he was glad that his great-great-grandfather could.

And who was he here with? The man who killed Hieronymous Bosch. The greatest traitor and murderer in Crossroads history, in Heretic history. One of the most infamous people who had ever lived, as far as Heretics were concerned. There was no single human being regarded more hatefully or as more of a monster by Heretics than the man who had murdered Bosch. Even now, knowing everything he actually knew, Doug could still feel that instinctive anger that came from so many years of hearing the stories about Dries Aken. Instead of trying to suppress it, he redirected it. He used that anger and pointed it toward all the lies that he’d been told throughout his life, all the lies that his entire family going back generations had been told.

That made it easier to not be so fucking scared right in that moment. Using the anger he felt about all of that and pointing it to this situation. The anger helped cover the terror.

Dries seemed to notice him staring, because the man’s head abruptly whipped around to face him as the elevator descended. His eyes were wild, and he demanded, “Are we enemies?”

“Err, wh-what?” Doug stammered, taken aback by that. “Uh, no? No, it’s just… I’ve heard a lot of lies about you and all that, so it’s kind of a big deal to meet you. I mean, I know it’s not true, but still, seeing you like this… I…” He tried to think of how to explain the whole ‘transferring anger to cover up his own fear’ thing, but it suddenly sounded stupid, so he clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s okay, Douglas,” Professor Kohaku calmly and knowingly informed him. “Everyone is afraid of what might happen next. Just remember, you are not alone. Stay with the others. The goal is the vault. Let me handle the worst of what we run into while you focus on getting to the vault.” Raising her voice a bit then to address everyone, she added, “You all remember the way?”

“Straight, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, straight, straight, right.” Avalon was the one who spoke, but Doug ran the whole thing through silently in his head as well. Gaia had made sure they all memorized the exact route through what apparently was a labyrinth to get to the right vault. Doug had spent more time repeating the directions back than he had spent on actual schoolwork in the past couple months.

It would be just great, to pull all this off and then end up getting held back a year because his grades had suffered. Absurd as the thought was, considering how involved the actual headmistress was in all of this, it still made the boy swallow a bit at the thought. Another distraction, another thing to focus on instead of worrying about what was going to happen once the elevator reached the bottom of this apparently long descent.

Abruptly, a different distraction presented itself in the form of a clanking noise. It was faint, and came from the top of the elevator. For a moment, Doug almost thought that he might have imagined it, until he saw that the others had all looked up as well. They glanced toward the faint sound just as it came again, event fainter that time.

What wasn’t quiet, however, was Kohaku’s reaction. Her hand snapped up, and a pale green forcefield suddenly appeared over their heads. An instant later and with no further warning, something horrific dove through the roof of the elevator. A ghost of some kind. The thing was terrifying, its semi-translucent face looking equal parts rotted and melted. Holes in its throat revealed the inside, flaps of skin in its face showed muscles and gums, and one of its eyes was melted shut like a wax candle. Worse, the thing dove through with no warning other than those two very faint clanking sounds, rebounding off the shield that Kohaku had put up.

At a quick, sharp gesture from Kohaku, the part of the forcefield that the ghost had rebounded off of suddenly elongated into a blade, stabbing into the creature. With a terrifying shriek that half-deafened Doug and the others, the ghost exploded into what looked like blue-gray slime that splattered all over the ceiling of the elevator.

“More coming,” Kohaku snapped sharply. With one hand, she held out a bag. “You know what to do.”

Because of course Gaia and the others wouldn’t send them in unprepared for this kind of thing. Doug produced his pen, clicking it once to create a spear. As the weapon appeared in his hand, he reached into the bag that Kohaku was offering, taking out a bit of cloth before pushing it against the tip of the spear. On the cloth was a spell rune made up of a triangle surrounding a circle, while nine curly lines emerged from the triangle, three on each side. Between each of those lines was a diagonal equals sign, each pointing up and to the right of the whole thing, toward a second symbol that looked like an infinity symbol drawn around the handle of an upside down pitchfork.  

The spell, once activated, would allow the target object to actually affect ghosts and other intangible creatures for the following fifteen minutes. It was one of several bits of preparation that Gaia and the other adults that made sure to have ready since there was no way for them to know exactly what the Seosten would throw at them as they neared the vault. Aside, of course, from ‘every fucking thing they possibly could.’

The others around him were doing the same, aside from Avalon, as her gauntlet’s energy constructs could already affect things like ghosts. Kohaku, meanwhile, produced what looked like two batons. Each was only a little over a foot long. Rather than hold them by one end, however, the woman held each in the middle. At a button press, a sharp metal blade appeared from both ends of both batons. Four blades in total, each with various runes inscribed along them. And at a touch from Kohaku, each gave off a soft glow.

Dries, meanwhile, hadn’t been sitting on his hands. The man took a small lens, like one from a telescope, and brushed his thumb over it while murmuring something. Then he threw the lens at the ground, shattering it. As he did so, the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lift abruptly became just as partially translucent as the ghosts themselves were. Doug could see the shaft they were dropping through. Not that there was that much to see, aside from a few other lifts (where they went, he wasn’t sure and was kind of confused by) and the blank metal walls of the shaft.

Oh, and the ghosts. Lots of ghosts. The creatures were flying all around them. Above, below, to the sides, the whole shaft was flooded with the creatures.

“Columbus was right,” Doug found himself muttering, “we should’ve brought our necromancer.”

“I don’t think she’s ready for ghosts yet,” Shiori pointed out while holding one of her frisbee-disc things in either hand. Her eyes were snapping around, watching for the first of the horde of clearly malevolent (or at least malevolently targeted, since it probably wasn’t fair to blame them for whatever the being directing them had ordered) spirits to make a move.

“Douglas, watch the floor,” Kohaku started. “Avalon, that wall. Sands, that wall. Vanessa, behind us. Shiori, straight ahead. I’ll watch the ceiling. Mr. Aken, try to back up anyone who needs it. Thirty seconds before we reach the bottom, so they’ll be–now!”

Sure enough, the ghosts were coming. Doug’s attention snapped quickly to the floor, just in time to see two of the creatures flying straight up toward them. He readied his spear, muttering a quick series of curses under his breath. Then the first ghost was there, shoving itself up through the floor while grabbing for his ankle. Instantly, Doug stabbed his spear down into the thing’s head. It shrieked and withdrew, but there wasn’t time to celebrate, because the second ghost had already grabbed onto Vanessa’s leg and was trying to yank her down before Doug stabbed it as well. It took two more quick jabs before the thing exploded into foul-smelling goo.

All around him, more ghosts were attacking from every side. He felt one snatch hold of his elbow from the side just before Sands slammed her mace through the thing. Nearby, Shiori was yanked backward with one ghost’s arm around her neck, until Avalon killed it with a quick swipe of her humming energy blade.

Thirty seconds. They just had to keep doing this for thirty seconds. Well, thirty seconds until they were let out of the elevator. There was no reason to think that the ghosts would leave them alone after that. But there would be more room to maneuver, at least.

More ghosts. More stabbing. Doug couldn’t focus on any other spot, couldn’t think about what anyone else was doing. He was too busy keeping dozens of ghosts away from the floor of the elevator. They just kept coming. No matter how fast he stabbed with his spear, more appeared. Some of the ones he struck howled and withdrew, while others exploded. Before that thirty seconds was half-over, the entire floor was covered in their ectoplasm.

All around him, the others were in the same position. He was jostled back and forth, elbowed in the side, and even had Sands’ arm smack against the side of his head accidentally as she swung for another ghost. There wasn’t enough room here, and the ghosts were flooding the elevator from all sides. There had to be hundreds of the things.

At least they weren’t the strong kind. There were several types of ghosts, and the stronger versions would have completely overrun them in these kinds of numbers. The fact that these ones were so relatively easy to kill and didn’t set off any kind of Heretic pleasure sense when they were killed meant they were the lowest tier of ghost. Barely capable of following instructions. Which, in this case, seemed to be ‘attack everyone in that elevator’.

Still, it was only thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds in all of existence that hadn’t literally been magically extended, but only thirty seconds. They made it, finally, the doors opening to let them out into a octagonal-shaped room, with different hallways along each ‘side’ of the octagon aside from the one where their elevator was.

The fight spilled out into that open room, until Dries stepped forward and put a rock he had been scribbling a rune onto against the elevator. He spoke a single word, and the stone crumbled to dust. At the same time, what looked like a massive burst of electricity shot up along the walls of the elevator, disappearing through the shaft with an echoing boom.

Silence came then. The ghosts had stopped. Doug doubled over a bit, catching his breath while staring warily at the elevator. “What–what was–”

“No more.” Dries was tapping the side of his head. “G-gone. Gone. They’re gone, and they’re not… they’re not… they won’t be here.” He nodded rapidly, his attention shifting to the floor while he shuffled back and forth on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with everyone staring at him.

“Thanks, man,” Doug finally managed, not wanting to stress the poor guy out even more, but not wanting to say nothing either. “That was cool.”

“Indeed,” Kohaku agreed. “Very cool.”

That said, the woman immediately turned away from the elevator. “We need to keep moving. Is everyone good?” She gave the group a quick once over, taking a moment to check a bit of blood on Vanessa’s arm that ended up being a deep cut. It would heal, however, and Kohaku placed a quick bandage on it to stop the bleeding. “Okay, let’s go.”

Their notes said to go straight, so the group took the hallway directly across from the elevator doors. The floor was some kind of white polished stone with little purple swirls in them, while the walls were more violet. As they entered that first corridor (which was wide enough for Kohaku, Avalon, and Shiori to jog side by side in the lead), Doug could see white double-doors set on either side, each several feet apart. There were labels above each door with either a family name or, in some cases, an alphanumeric code.

The first junction came up, with a corridor cutting across their path. Again, they went straight, before making a right a few seconds later at the next one. Then a left. Unfortunately, just as Doug made the mistake of thinking that they might have a clear shot at the vault after all, trouble found them again. Or rather, they found it, in the form of a figure standing in their path at the next junction, where they were supposed to go straight.

He was a Seosten. That much was clear, from the bodysuit that he wore, to his darkly handsome features, to the arrogant look in his gaze as he stared them down. Along his throat and apparently up over the back of his neck was a long tattoo of a coiling snake. The man’s head was bald, though not bare, as the head of that snake tattoo was visible there, with its eyes facing them from his forehead.

“Oh,” Sands muttered as they came to a brief stop. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”

The Seosten held that glare for a moment, before his expression abruptly shifted into a broad smile. “Hey there, good job getting this far. I mean seriously, I’m pretty sure no one thought you’d make it, which is why they don’t have an Olympian down here. Hell, you even cut through my ghosts, you’re keeping my zombies busy, and you blocked me from contacting anyone on the outside. Bravo. No, really, congratulations. But you see, I can’t let you go any further. I just… it’s my boss, you know? He can be a real pain in the ass and if you get by me…” He whistled low, shaking his head. “I’ll be in… I think you call it deep shit? Deep shit.”

His hand waved dismissively then, as the man informed them, “But I’ll tell you what. If you turn around and go back the way you came, we’ll just let bygones be bygones. No hard feelings, you gave it your best shot. Just walk away.”

Kohaku’s voice was quiet as she watched the man. “I’ll handle him. The rest of you go on to the vault.” With those words, she started to walk that way deliberately, spinning the two-bladed baton-daggers in each hand.

In response, the Seosten man cracked his neck before tapping each arm of his bodysuit in turn. At his touch, a pair of gauntlets appeared. Along the outside of each gauntlet was a long, sharp blade that ran the length of his forearm from fist to elbow. Meanwhile, a pair of electrified whips extended from the end of the gauntlets, crackling with energy.

“Well,” he announced, “if you insist on doing it the hard way.”

“Go!” Kohaku ordered while sprinting to meet the man. She dodged around one of his whips as it was sent toward her, leaving behind some kind of shadow-clone that lasted just long enough to kick the whip out of the way before falling into ashes.

Doug and the others didn’t need to be told twice. Even as Kohaku reached her target, blades colliding with his, they were already running. Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Vanessa, Dries, and Doug sprinted down that hall.

Unfortunately, the Seosten wasn’t just going to let them go. Ducking away from a swing from Kohaku, he extended his hand after them. “Sic ‘em, boy.”

At those words, as Doug looked over his shoulder that way, he saw the man’s snake tattoo come to life. Springing off the man’s head while solidifying, the blue-green snake rushed after them.

“Heh,” Sands started, “it’s a snake, are we really supposed to b–”

Before she could finish that sentence, the snake abruptly grew. Not a little bit, a lot. In a blink, the snake was suddenly large enough that it barely fit in the corridor. And it was coming very quickly. Worse, there was some kind of green smoke coming from its mouth that seemed to melt through the walls around it.

Cursing violently, Sands whipped back around. “I changed my mind, go, go, go!”

“He’s like Larees!” Vanessa blurted, even as they ran, keeping straight once more at the next intersection.

“Not enough like Larees!” Doug pointed out, already snatching his pen once more as they ran past the next section. They were supposed to turn right there, but there wasn’t time. The snake was right behind them. Right behind them. Doug could feel its acidic breath practically melting his shoes, could hear its hissing. “Avalon, don’t you talk to snakes now? Can you–”

“Not working!” the girl blurted back at him. “Probably because it’s not a real snake! It’s magic!”

Cursing, Sands waved her mace, creating a wall behind them. It lasted only a couple seconds before the snake’s acid breath melted through it enough for the creature to burst through. If anything, it seemed even bigger somehow. And angrier.

They kept running, until Sands finally made a dozen quick walls in a row at another intersection. Then she tapped her mace against the actual corridor wall before moving to make another wall over the right-hand corridor. The new constructed wall was made of the same material as the rest of the hall, so it blended in well enough to hide that there was a corridor there at all.

“Quick,” Sands blurted even as they heard the snake coming through the walls she’d thrown in its path. “Over here.” She waved to the left-hand corridor. “We hide behind another wall on that side, let our new friend keep going down the hall, then–” She made another three walls in rapid succession to keep the snake busy. “Then we go back the way we came and find the vault.”

“It’ll notice too fast,” Doug pointed out. “Then we’ll be in the same position. Someone needs to lure it away. I’ll–”

“Someones,” Vanessa corrected him. She looked to the others. “Doug and I can do this. You guys hide. Wait for the snake to chase us, then get to that vault.”

“I… yeah.” Doug tried not to look too relieved that he wouldn’t be by himself, though he still flashed the girl a brief grateful look. Then his hand gestured to the nearby wall, where a faint pen mark was visible. “I drew a line the whole way up here, since we passed that last turn. If you follow it back to where it starts, then turn left at that spot, you’ll be on for straight, straight, right.”

Sands, who had been remaking walls over and over again as fast as she could while backpedaling as the snake kept breaking through them, blurted, “Running out of room here, guys!”

There was no more time to discuss it. Avalon, Dries, and Shiori moved quickly to the other corridor. Sands joined them, blurting, “Good luck.” Then she made another wall, blocking them off and leaving Vanessa and Doug standing in the corridor alone.

“Ready to run some more?” Doug asked the girl beside him.

“We better be,” she replied, already starting to back pedal at the sound of the last constructed walls crumbling. The final one melted under the acidic breath, before the snake’s massive head slammed through. “Because here it comes!”

The snake hissed in a mixture of fury and triumph at having found them, lunging just as Vanessa and Doug both leapt back. The two turned, sprinting away with the snake right on their heels. They left the others behind, hopefully so that they would reach the vault.

But at the moment, Doug and his companion had other things to worry about.

Like not being eaten by a massive snake. That sounded like a good place to start.

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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