Sands

Interlude 34C – Haiden Moon

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“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrggggggggh!!!”

With that earth-shattering (if they had been anywhere near Earth) roar, an ogre’s massive and meaty fist, blood dripping from the knuckles, swung through the air with enough force to pulverize the side of a cement mixer. The impact would have turned almost any normal being into little more than dust, scattered around the ground where the poor fool had been standing.

It was stopped, in turn, by a much smaller hand. Haiden Moon stood with one arm outstretched, his long coat flapping behind him a bit from his own motion in stepping forward to meet the ogre. His hand, dwarfed by his opponent’s, completely stopped it cold. He grunted from the impact, his arm rocking backward just a little bit as if from the force of firing a rifle. But the reaction on the ogre’s side was far more dramatic, as the energy from that punch that had suddenly stopped almost cold had to go somewhere. In that case, it manifested in the form of the ogre’s arm breaking in multiple places. Bits of bone all along the arm tore through muscle to poke visibly out of the skin, like dozens of tiny grayish-red stalagmites popping out of the ground.

In the face of the ogre’s utterly bewildered expression, unable to comprehend the agony of its shattered arm, Haiden gave a humorless smile. “Hi there,” the man announced. “Normally I’d have a great joke right now. But I’m right in the middle of trying to save my wife, and you’re in my way. So–” With his other hand, he flipped his shotgun around and up, putting the barrels against the ogre’s neck before pulling the trigger. “Consider that my punchline.”

Turning away from the falling, decapitated body, the man cast a quick glance around him. He and Larissa had finished with the soldiers in the ship before making their way down into the tower where they had sent the kids. There, they had found Sands, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz (with Gidget, of course) fighting to stop more reinforcements from following Flick and the twins through the tunnel into the lab. But now there were no more soldiers. At least none that were standing and ready to fight. Most of their bodies littered the floor, some of them having been killed by the kids while the rest he and Larissa had finished off.

Satisfied that there were no more threats, the man stored his weapon and strode purposefully to the tunnel. No more delays. He was going to catch up with his kids, and find his wife, right now.

“Mr. Moon,” Sands called while quickly putting herself in front of the man. “Wait!” She had both hands up. “You can’t go through that tunnel yet.” Quickly, the girl explained about the traps that the other soldier had told them about, and about the badges that were needed to get through safely. Once she got her point across, Larissa cast a glance toward the fallen soldiers and flicked her hand. A second later, a handful of the appropriate badges came flying to them.

“Everyone okay?” the woman asked while quickly passing them out. “Jasmine?”

The black girl rubbed her shoulder while taking the offered badge, grimacing a little in pain that she was clearly trying to hide. Blood was visible on her temple, as well as along the front of her shirt from a blow that had put her on the ground for a while before her healing had caught up with it. “I’ll be fine,” she muttered under her breath. “Don’t slow down on my account.”

“We should hurry,” Gordon announced while ducking under the outstretched arm of the large, frozen-solid figure who had made the mistake of grabbing the boy. It looked like a statue, intricately carved from ice down to the smallest detail. It wasn’t simply a block of ice encompassing the figure. It was as though the attacker had been completely turned into ice. Roxa, breathing heavily and liberally soaked through with blood (most of which came from other people) to the point that it looked like she had gone swimming through a pool of it, gave a sharp nod then. “He’s right, we need to go. We’ve gotta catch up with Flick and the others.”

They had a point, there was no time to waste. And the adults didn’t dare leave the kids behind again. There was no telling what other troops might come out of the woodwork. So they had to stay together. With that in mind, Larissa and Haiden quickly made their way through the tunnel and up through the lab itself at a swift jog. They saw the damage that had been done, following it onward while picking off a few more stray soldiers on the way. There was no stopping, or even slowing down. The two adult Heretics mercilessly picked off every figure that made the mistake of trying to stand in their way.

Eventually, they made their way to the observation room above another chamber. They arrived just in time to see Athena and Apollo below, facing off with Kushiel in an otherwise empty room, a moment before another figure, covered in an identity-obscuring cloak, appeared. The new figure caught hold of Kushiel, and the pair vanished. Clearly, the figure had been some kind of stooge that the psycho bitch had employed to extract her from a dangerous situation.

Rather than bothering to waste time taking the nearby stairs, Haiden raised a hand and disabled the power running into the forcefield ‘window’ in front of them. As it flickered out, the man hopped through, his coat billing behind him as he dropped down into the chamber below, landing easily. Behind him, he heard the others following suit, while he focused on the two Olympians. “Where is she?” he demanded. “Where’s my wife and kids? Where are the others?”

Apollo, for his part, looked pained as he quietly explained what had happened. At least the part that he knew about. Apparently, Felicity, Vanessa, and Tristan (with Tabbris, of course), had made their way into the strange transport that had been parked in the now-empty middle of the chamber. A moment later, the doors had closed and the transport had disappeared.

He’d barely finished before Haiden was in his face. The Heretic caught the Seosten by the collar, shoving him back against the nearby wall. “What?!” he demanded, outraged. “What the hell do you mean!? You let them go?! They’re gone! We were this close to finding Sariel, this fucking close, and now you’re telling me that not only do the Seosten still have her, they’ve got my kids too?! And not only that, they’ve also got Flick, which means they’ve got Tabbris! What the hell were you doing?! How could you let that happen?! How the fuck did you let that happen!?” Even as he shouted, a part of Haiden knew and recognized that he was being irrational. After all, what was Apollo supposed to do, not engage with Kushiel? She would have killed them all. He knew that. But in the moment, the thought that he’d lost his entire family just when he’d been so close to actually bringing it back together was too much. And Apollo was a handy target for the emotional rage that spilled up and out right then.

it was Larissa who stopped him, which was probably a good thing, as she was one of the few that he would’ve listened to in that moment. Putting her hand on his shoulder, the woman gave him a tug backward. “Haiden, stop,” she urged. “Wait, we might be able to figure out where they went. We’ve still got all these computers. We can look through them and figure out where that thing was aimed. But we need to hurry, before–”

Dad?

The voice in his head made Haiden jump. Reflexively, he spun around. But of course, there was no one there. Or at least no one that hadn’t been there before.

Then it came again. Dad! Dad, I’m here. I’m–

“Vanessa!” the man abruptly blurted, interrupting the others, who all looked at him. “Vanessa, are you okay?”

Then she appeared in front of him, his beautiful, wonderful, brilliant, amazing little girl. For a second, the man nearly tried to grab her. But he realized quickly that she wasn’t really there. She was visible and audible, yes, but none of his other senses detected her. She was mentally projecting herself to him from where that transport had taken her.

“I’m okay!” the girl’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We’re okay. We–Dad, we’ve got Mom!” The sheer, unbridled and unrestrained joy in the girl’s voice made Haiden want to embrace her even more. To say nothing of what the actual words did for him. “We’ve got her, she’s awake, she’s out, she’s safe! She saved us! Dad, Mom’s awake, she’s out!”

“Oh my God.” Despite all his strength and power, Haiden had to slump back. He grabbed the wall, catching himself as his mind raced. In the background, he saw some of the others cringe, clearly misinterpreting his reaction since they couldn’t hear Vanessa’s side of things.

So he found his voice. “She’s out,” he managed weakly, the shock and tumultuous series of emotions taking their toll. “Sariel, they have her. She’s awake. She helped them. She’s out. She’s… she’s…” Swallowing hard, he shook that off while doing his best to ignore the burst of enthusiastic relief and cheers that came from the others. “Where?” the man quickly asked his daughter. “Where are you? Is Kushiel there? We’ll come get you. We’ll get you right now, I swear.” With each word, his voice grew louder and faster. He had to get to his family. He had to put them back together. It had been too long. No more. They couldn’t wait any longer. Sariel. The thought of having her back in his arms, of being with her after all the time that had passed, it made him physically ache. He needed his wife. He needed his children, his family. And now they were so close. “Tell me where you are, sweetie. We’ll come to you.”

“Um.” Vanessa shifted on one foot, visibly blushing. “You might not believe this, but we’re, uhh… we’re on Earth, Dad.”

Of all the hundreds, or maybe even thousands of locations that Haiden might have guessed that his daughter would give as to where they were, that was pretty much the absolute last one on the list. He stared at her once the words came, mouth opening and shutting before he finally shook his head. “You’re where?” He needed to hear it again, needed to know that he hadn’t misheard somehow.

Sure enough, Vanessa confirmed with a knowing nod. “Earth, Dad. That transport sent us and the rest of the prisoners to Earth. We don’t know why yet. But we’re safe, for now. Mom’s okay. We’re all together, and we’ll figure out how to contact Gaia. What about you? How will you–”

“We’ll get there, baby,” Haiden promised his daughter firmly. “We’ll be there as soon as we can, I promise. We’ll have to find the rest of those shards, or… something. We’ll get there, okay? You stay with your Mom and brother, and your little sister. You hear me? You stay with them and keep each other safe. We will find a way to get back to Earth as soon as possible.”

Earth. How the hell were they on Earth? What had Kushiel been planning? Despite his joy that the Sariel was awake and with their children, Haiden still felt a little apprehension about why that psychopathic bitch had been taking her prisoners to Earth of all places.

His beloved little girl gave a quick nod. “Yes, Dad. I promise. We’ll stay together. Dad, it’s Mom. She’s okay. She’s alive. She’s… she’s…” Tears were streaming down her face, just as the same filled Haiden’s own eyes.

“I know, baby,” he murmured, aching to take his daughter in his arms. But he also didn’t want to. Because that would mean that she had projected herself to him, which would also yank Tristan along with her. And as much as he may have wanted to hug his children, the last thing he wanted to do right then was take them away from their mother.

So no, they would stay there on Earth. And as Haiden had promised, he and the others would make their way to them. His family would be together again. They were so close now. And Sariel… Sariel was there. She was awake and with their twins, and with Tabbris.

“Dad,” Vanessa was talking again. “I’m gonna go back. I don’t want–” She hesitated, clearly feeling guilty about what she had been about to say: that she didn’t want to accidentally project herself physically to where he was and away from her mother.

“It’s okay, Nessabird,” he promised. “You stay with your mom, alright? Keep each other safe. Like I said, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Check in when you can, but you stay there. Mom needs you guys more than I do right now.”

Head bobbing, Vanessa sniffled a little. She clearly didn’t like the idea of leaving her father, even if it was to be with her mother. She wanted the whole family back together as much as Haiden did. “Okay, Dad. Be careful! And hurry, okay? I love you. We love you.”

“I love you guys too,” the man assured her. “And I’ll be there as soon as possible. We’ve got help now. Check in when you can, and take care of your mom.”

He could feel the connection already starting to fade. Vanessa couldn’t hold it for long, especially when she was trying to avoid being physically drawn to him. Resisting the urge to push for her to try and stay longer, he simply repeated, “I love you, Nessabird. Take care of your mom. Be safe!”

She promised once more, repeating her own love for him before the connection broke apart and the image of his brilliant little girl vanished. Once it did, the man slumped a bit. “They’re on Earth,” he muttered under his breath. “They made it to Earth and Sariel’s awake. They’re safe, for now. But…”

Earth?” That was Sands, who was standing there open-mouthed. “How? Why?! What the hell was that crazy cunt planning to do on Earth?!”

“I wouldn’t say was,” Larissa noted quietly. “I doubt this will make her change her mind about it.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. I don’t know what Kushiel wants with Earth, but I guarantee she hasn’t changed her mind just because of this setback. And whatever it is, it won’t be good for humanity. We need to get you back there.”

“But to do that,” Athena put in, “we need the rest of the shards from that banishment orb. Which should be easier to find with the data from the computers here. If Kushiel doesn’t either know where all the shards are or have good leads on them, I’ll eat every sock in the Aelaestiam fleet.”

“Right.” Haiden cleared his throat, focusing on moving forward, rather than dwelling on how close he had been to being with his entire family together. “So we take everything we can from their computers and get the hell out of here.”

“You could go back right now, couldn’t you?” Gordon was the one speaking, his eyes on Apollo. “I’d be shocked,” the eternally calm boy announced, “if you didn’t have a way back to Earth, even without Jazz.”

“I may have a trick or two for that,” the Seosten man confirmed before shaking his head. “But I’m not using them. Not yet. You think I’d leave Sariel’s husband stranded out here? To say nothing of my chosen champion.” His hand gestured toward Jazz with a wink at the girl. “No, I’ll be right here helping you get home.”

“As will I,” Athena added, her brow furrowed in thought. “Whatever purpose Kushiel has in setting up a lab on Earth, it cannot be good. We will look for data about that new project in the computers here, but either way… a field trip may be in order. Once, of course, we have ensured your ability to reach the planet yourselves.”

“We find the shard and put the orb back together,” Apollo promised, “and we can get you back there.”

Haiden’s head gave a sharp nod. “Then let’s get a move on. Whatever Kushiel’s up to, I’ll tell you one thing she’ll be doing: trying to get Sariel back. So I’m not just gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs while she hunts down my family.”

“Of course.” With those words, Athena turned and used her own communicator to call up to the Aelaestiam fleet. In a few brief orders, the woman called for a series of retrieval teams to be sent down in order to strip everything usable out of the facility, and to take as many prisoners as possible. They would take everyone as prisoners to start, working their way through them to see who could be released, who could be recruited, and who would need to remain imprisoned. As tempting as it was to take all of the Seosten’s enslaved troops and free them in one mass release, they had to be a little smarter about it and know who they were dealing with in each instance. That would take time. Beyond that, there could (and likely would) be actual Seosten hiding inside any of the other troops or slaves, which would also take time to sort out.

Once that was underway, a portal was created to take the group back to the Sunstrider, where Jokai and Dries waited. As they arrived, Jazz moved to her Eulsen boyfriend, embracing him tightly while Jokai returned it with a noise of approval and relief at her safety.

Dries, meanwhile, started by shaking his head with a frown. “No new Seosten woman?” he asked before doing a quick doubletake. That frown grew deeper, and he blurted, “Felicity, and the half-Seosten. Where are they? Where are they?” The repeated question was louder, becoming a demand as he took a step forward. For all of his issues and aversion to conflict, the man actually looked ready to hit someone if they didn’t tell him where Felicity and the other two were.

Quickly, Sands and Roxa explained the situation, telling the man that Flick and the others were on Earth, and that they were going to find a way back there as soon as possible. With, of course, the aid of the Aelaestiam. Which would ensure that it wouldn’t take nearly as long to find the remaining pieces as it had taken Haiden and Larissa to find what they had by themselves.

Once they finished, the man slumped back a little. His expression was uncertain. “Earth. They are… they made it home.”

“And so will we,” Larissa assured him. “All of us, okay? You’re going home, Dries. You’ll meet Avalon, I promise. We just need to work a little bit longer.”

The man met her gaze for a moment before giving a little nod. “Yes,” he murmured then, “find the shards, fix the orb, and get home.”

Turning away from that scene, Haiden gazed at the nearby viewscreen, taking in the sight of the damaged and destroyed ships all around them. The rest of the Seosten fleet had fled, but they would be back with reinforcements. Hopefully after the Aelaestiam retrieved what they needed and they all managed to leave.

Either way, the battle, for the moment, was over. Sariel and their children were back on Earth. It may not have been the reunion he had been hoping for, but it was something. He couldn’t be upset about the fact that his wife and children were together, no matter how much he wanted to be there himself.

And he would be. He would find his way back to them. Soon. He would be with his family once more.

No matter how many fucking armies he had to tear to the ground to make that happen.

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-06

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Please note two things. First, there was a mini-interlude posted  yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. And we also have a contest running for selecting the best joke tag, along with a prize. For details, see my first/top comment at the bottom of that chapter. 

Running through the wide open shuttle bay doors led the eight of us (counting Gidget) into the smoldering remains of what had once been the defense tower. The defense tower whose anti-teleportation effect we had taken out by crashing on entire freaking ship into it.

Gordon was a hybrid. A hybrid. My mind was racing, going a million miles an hour. Even with all that was already going on, I couldn’t just dismiss that from my thoughts. He was part Alter, like Shiori, or the twins. Why hadn’t he told us? Sure, he’d told us why, to avoid adding to all the drama and all that. But seriously? I wanted to shake him. If this wasn’t literally a life and death situation (actually, many lives and many deaths), I probably would have. Sure, it was totally his choice and up to him to share with us, and I wasn’t really mad at him about it or anything. After all, that was a really personal thing. But… but still.

I was discombobulated about it.

The place, or at least this part of it, was in complete ruins. Fires burned everywhere. I could see a few bodies lying here and there, while holes in the walls and ceiling revealed the sky beyond, which allowed the cold arctic wind to come through. Meanwhile, a sick, warbling alarm that sounded like it had seen much better days droned in and out in the background. Red and white lights flickered here and there, valiantly struggling to illuminate what the fires weren’t.

Partway through, the giant bear that was Vanessa began to rapidly shrink. Reflexively, I started to look away as her appearance grew closer to human, but there was no need. A silver necklace that I hadn’t noticed before (it had apparently grown with her and been hidden under all that fur) began to give off a soft white glow for a second. By the time she was in any shape where embarrassment would have been an issue, her clothes somehow magically appeared right back on her body where they had been before.

“Uncle Apollo,” she muttered by way of explanation when she noticed all of us staring.

“I definitely need one of those,” Roxa announced, giving a firm nod. “Mine just holds clothes, it doesn’t automatically put them on me.”  

“As soon as we get out of here with Mom, I’m pretty sure he’ll make anything you want,” the other girl replied. Face half-cast in shadow, she raised a hand to point. “And he said that the entrance to the tunnel should be that way.” I could tell that she was trying very hard not to think about the sounds of fighting that we could still hear from behind us. The thought of anything happening to her father while she was busy saving her mother had to be weighing heavily on the girl.

The tunnel that she had mentioned was supposed to lead from the defense tower where we were, all the way into the lab itself. It was one of very few actual bits of information that Apollo had been able to conjure up out of whatever prophetic future seeing sources he had access to. I still hadn’t been able to get a straight answer out of the Olympian about all that, but I was pretty sure he just enjoyed being mysterious. Either way, he had been confident about the location and usefulness of the tunnel.

Together, we started to move that way, only for Roxa to suddenly stop while snapping her arm up. Her head tilted a little, and I saw her ears twitch slightly. “Wait,” the girl murmured, “there’s something…”

Abruptly, she began to stride off into the darkness, with Gidget trotting behind her. The rest of us looked at one another in confusion for moment before following after them. Eventually, Roxa led us to a pile of rubble that had fallen from a collapsed ceiling above.

“Hey,” Tristan started a bit tentatively, “we really, really need to get into that lab, like, as soon as possible. So-“

Giving a sharp shake of her head, Roxa gestured at the pile. “There’s someone under there,” she declared. “They’re begging for help, can’t you hear them?”

Gordon had his hand up, peering through his thumb and fingers in a circle like a telescope as he nodded. “She’s right,” the boy announced, “there’s someone trapped under there. It’s one of those soldiers. The pile is basically crushing him.”

“If we were fighting him,” Sands pointed out, “we’d kill him anyway. He’s a soldier, one of Kushiel’s. And we’re kind of busy. Every second we waste here is another second that they might get out of here with Sariel.”

It was Vanessa who spoke up then. “So we have to hurry and get him out.” Her face was set. “Yes, I want to get to my mom. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who could just leave someone here to suffer like this to do it. I could never forget that.”

Right, she could never forget anything at all. And associating the rescue of her mother with abandoning someone else to suffer and die like this… Yeah, I could see why she couldn’t do it. When it came time to save my own mother, I wouldn’t want it to be tainted by something like that either, if I had the choice.

“Besides,” Roxa informed us, “the last thing Apollo said to me before we started all this was to not ignore what I hear. I don’t know where he’s pulling these little prophecy things from or why they have to be so vague and scattershot, but ‘don’t ignore what you hear’ seems pretty straight forward right now, doesn’t it?”

“She’s got a point,” I agreed with a shrug. “Ignoring it sounds like a bad idea. Especially when she puts it like that.”

Jazz was already holding her hands out to create a couple of those gravity balls above the rubble. She grimaced then as the pile shifted just a little. “I can make it lighter,” the girl announced, “but it’s too heavy to pull off him entirely.”

“You make it lighter,” I agreed, before looking to Sands. “If you get on that side and use your mace to start building a little wall under the lip of the rubble there out of the same material that it’s made from, you could start making the wall higher to push it up out of the way. The rest of us can take the other side and pull it up there. Except Gordon. You use your x-ray vision to keep an eye on the guy and be ready. The second the rubble is up far enough, reach in and pull him out. You might do damage to him, but they’ve got healing. All that matters is that he survives.”

Gordon met my gaze for a moment. I could tell he wanted to know what I was thinking about that little revelation, his eyes twitching just a little before he looked away with a little nod, his voice quiet. “Got it.”

The others nodded, and we moved up to do just that. Jazz focused on making the gravity orbs and pushing them up to pull the rubble as much as she could. Meanwhile, Sands put a wall under the one side, while Roxa, Vanessa, Tristan, and I heaved up on the other side. Gordon crouched, one hand in front of his face as he watched through the rubble with his other hand ready to grab the guy.

It took some effort. This chunk of broken ceiling was really heavy, and really big. No wonder we hadn’t been able to hear the guy from under it. Aside from Roxa, anyway.

But eventually, we managed it.  The rubble shifted a little, and Gordon made a noise as he reached in to catch hold of the guy. I heard feet scrambling and then a cry of pain as the boy hauled out the armored, uniformed soldier. He kept pulling until they were a couple feet away from the rubble so that we could let it drop. Which it did, with a loud, almost deafening clang.

The soldier lay there panting and groaning. One of his legs was clearly heavily broken, and I could see where the rubble had been crushing him. But we didn’t have time to worry about that. We’d gotten him out of there, and now we had to go.

“Come on,” I urged the others, “We’ve gotta get to that tunnel. Sariel needs help too.”

“Wait.” It was the injured soldier. He held a hand up, his body trembling a little. “You… ugh, you saved my life,” he pointed out a bit painfully. “I’ve got to tell you, that tunnel is trapped. Kushiel, she knew someone would use it, so she’s got all these spells on it. You walk through there like that, and you’ll be disintegrated before you even get halfway through it.” Shifting a little with another grunt of pain, the man dug in the pocket of his uniform and withdrew three little crystals, which he held out to us. “Take these, anyone holding one can get through the tunnel. But I’ve only got the three. I… I owe you that much.” I couldn’t see the man’s face through the helmet that he wore, but he sounded like he was barely conscious.

“Do we believe him?” Sands asked flatly.

I shrugged at that, while taking the three crystals from the man. “We don’t really have much of a choice. I’d rather not be disintegrated.” And I kind of doubted that the man just happened to be carryng around a handful of crystals like this that would make our situation worse.

After I had taken the crystals from the man, he slumped a little more. I could see his chest rise and fall a bit, but he seemed to be unconscious. Briefly, I hoped that he would be okay. Yeah, he was an enemy, but he had also helped us. Be it out of a sense of obligation or whatever, he’d still done it. So I hoped that he didn’t die.

I hoped that… I wished that none of them had had to die. Even the ones back on the ship. Fighting… in the middle of it, I had killed without much thought. It was kill or be killed. But now, afterward, when the adrenaline had faded just a little bit… They were slaves of the Seosten. Sure, there would be those who were eager to fight and kill, but still… there would also be those who weren’t. There would be those who–

“Only three of them,” Jazz noted then, snapping me out of my distraction. “What do we do with just three?”

“It gets worse,” Gordon quietly put in. The boy was holding his hands up to his face once more, looking off toward one of the walls. “In a few seconds, there’s gonna be more soldiers pouring in here. They’ll be right on top of us.”

“You guys go.” That was Roxa, and she was looking at Tristan, Vanessa, and me. “You go through the tunnel with those crystals, while we hold off the soldiers. We’ll keep them from hitting you from behind.”

Sands nodded. “Like Haiden said, all that matters is getting someone to where Sariel is to call in the big guns. Go, we’ve got this. We’ll see if we can get more of those crystals off these guys and follow you as soon as we can. Be careful, and go save Sariel.”

I wanted to argue with that. I wanted to stay and help them fight these guys.  But the truth was that there just wasn’t time. We had no idea how long it would take Kushiel to find a way to move her prisoners despite the portal blockers that had come in with the fleet. And if we lost this chance, I didn’t know how we’d ever get another one.

So, we went. Now down to Tristan, Vanessa, and myself, the three of us took off toward the tunnel. Each of us held one of those crystals that the rescued soldier had given us. In the background, I heard more fighting start up as the pursuing guards made it into that chamber. Silently, I wished Jazz, Gordon, Roxa, Gidget, and Sands luck. But I didn’t dare look back. If I had, I might not have been able to convince myself to keep going.

Together, the three of us reached the large doorway leading to the ramp, which descended down into the tunnel that would lead to the lab. For a second, we glanced at each other. Vanessa spoke in a slightly trembling voice as she held her crystal in one hand. “Let’s go save Mom.”

My head gave a little nod, Tabbris taking my voice briefly to quietly say, “Save Mama.”

With that, we sprinted together down that ramp and into the tunnel. The crystals in our hands glowed a bit, but at least we didn’t disintegrate. Which was a good thing. The tunnel itself was wide enough for a couple of trucks to drive through, and pretty much completely barren. Our footsteps echoed as we raced along it.

After a minute or so of running like that, Vanessa abruptly caught my arm to yank me out of the way a second before a barrage of shots sailed through the air where I had just been. She’d clearly seen the attack coming with her enhanced vision. “Soldiers,” the girl gasped out while pointing down the long tunnel, far beyond where I could see. “There’s a big cluster of them right by the exit.”

Tristan was grinning. “A big cluster, you say?” He lifted his arm with Bobbi-Bobbi and her cannon form. “Great, let’s see if we can break it up a bit, shall we?”

There was a rapidly rising hum of power, and then the boy shot an enormous laser from his snake-cannon. The beam was a solid two feet across as it tore down that straight tunnel, and Tristan move his arm a bit from side to side and up-and-down to cover as much of the tunnel as possible. After a couple of seconds, he suddenly gave a sharp gasp and shuddered with pleasure as I saw his bronze-colored aura flare up. He’d gotten at least one kill from that. Meanwhile, the beam fizzled and he finally dropped his arm. “That’s it, gotta let her recharge.”

Vanessa was already running again, as she announced, “You killed two of them. The rest hit the ground.”

A few more steps bought us close enough that Tristan and I could see what she meant. There was a pile of soldiers who were just starting to pick themselves up from the floor. But I had been charging my staff this entire time, and I was ready. With another step, I shifted my weapon into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow with all the power that I had stored up. A second later, I loosed the arrow and it soared in to explode right in the middle of the collected soldiers. They were all sent flying into opposite walls, one even hitting the ceiling before crashing back to the ground.

We were there then, the three of us sprinting straight through the crumpled pile of guards before they could collect themselves. Ignoring them entirely, we just kept going. There wasn’t time to stop and handle them. Every second counted, especially now. If we didn’t have to waste time fighting, we weren’t going to.

That put us into what looked like a loading bay of some kind. All around us were these clear tubes of all different shapes and sizes. They were clearly meant to house living beings, with displays on the side to show their vitals and things like that. Some of them were tipped on their side, while others were upright. None of them had anyone in them, which I supposed meant that they were used for transporting.

Or maybe these ones were in maintenance or something, I wasn’t sure. The point was, there was a door ahead of us that lead into what looked like a futuristic hospital. Everything through there seemed pristine and sterile from what little I could see.

“The lab,” Vanessa gasped out with wide eyes. “We’re here. We made it.”

“We might be at the lab,” Tristan corrected flatly, “but we haven’t gotten to Mom yet. Come on. We’re so close. We can’t trip now.”

There were still soldiers in the lab itself, of course. They weren’t going to make it that easy for us, even then. But those soldiers were spread out, trying to cover a large space with too few of them, as most were busy helping Radueriel and Abbadon, or fighting Haiden and Larissa, or even trying to deal with Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz. We may have been gradually spread out throughout this effort, but so had Kushiel’s forces. She only had so many left in the lab itself, and the most dangerous ones were thoroughly occupied.

So, we fought our way through, killing several more of the guards on the way to find Sariel. Nothing was going to stand in our way at that point, after everything we’d gone through to get that far. Especially not these soldiers. Through empty room after empty room, hallway after hallway, we kept fighting. The place, aside from the guard trying to stop us, was practically a ghost town. But it was also clear that the prisoners had been moved in a big hurry. We still had time to get wherever they were being taken, I hoped.

Eventually, our paths led us to what at first looked like an observation room, with a large window all along one wall. But as we went closer, I saw that there wasn’t any kind of operating room or anything below. Instead, the window overlooked a docking bay built into the side of the lab. Below, we could see more of those tubes. These ones, however, had figures in them. Prisoners. And there were soldiers working to load them onto some kind of… I was guessing that it was a spaceship, but it looked more like a long tube with a ramp leading up into it. I couldn’t see where any thrusters or weapons or anything were. Standing right at the base of that ramp, directing them, was a tall, regal-looking woman with dark hair tied into a single, tight braid. The very sight of her made my skin crawl, as a cold lump settled into my stomach. Kushiel. That had to be Kushiel.

But it wasn’t her that the others were focused on. Tabbris suddenly made my eyes snap down a bit, at the tube that sat beside the woman. A tube with a pretty blonde figure frozen within.

“Mama!” my mouth abruptly blurted, even as Tristan and Vanessa made their own sounds to the same effect.  

“We have to get down there,” Tristan blurted then, looking back to me wildly. “We have to get down there before—“

He stopped, as Kushiel looked up right at us through the window. I saw a small, cold smile cross the woman’s face before she said something to the soldier near her. That guy moved to grab the tube holding Sariel, pushing it up the ramp to the ship.

Bellowing out, Tristan suddenly took aim at the window with his cannon and opened fire. Unfortunately, the laser didn’t so much as scorch what turned out to be a force field rather than glass. It just sort of fizzled.  Breaking through it like that was going to take a lot more time than we actually had. That ship would be gone soon, along with any hope of saving Sariel.

Vanessa and I both had our badges in our hands, activating them as fast as we could. The other girl looked to me, her eyes wide. “What if they don’t get here in time? They’re in the middle of a fight. They might not be able to get away.”

She was right, every second counted. Looking around wildly, I pointed to a small door to one side. “There,” I blurted, already moving that way. Sure enough, as we tore the door open, we found a set of stairs leading downward. The stairs took us to a small, empty corridor, at the end of which there was a door that clearly lead into the hangar bay that we had just been looking at.

As we sprinted that way, however, a blue light suddenly sprang to life and passed over us. I felt a tingle, and then heard a gasp as Tabbris stumbled out of me. My hand snapped out to catch the other girl before she could fall. “What the—?”

“Safety measure,” Vanessa instantly deduced. “They must use it to make sure there aren’t any Seosten prisoners hitching a ride to get out of here.”

Flinching a little, I nodded. “Right, come on and—”

“Now this,” a new, yet vaguely familiar voice suddenly interrupted, “is quite interesting.”

A woman was there, blocking our path to the door. She stepped forward, and I recognized her. It made no sense to me for a second, but it was definitely her, one of the members of the Crossroads Committee. Elisabet. Elisabet was there, staring at Tabbris, then at me while realization and full comprehension dawned across her expression at a speed that was matched only by the horrified sinking feeling that had fallen into my own stomach like a crater.

“Quite interesting indeed.”

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-05

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Flames, metal, lasers, and more suddenly filled the air with the fury and force of a hurricane as the Seosten forces opened fire without any further preamble. In the same instant, a glowing forcefield dome appeared directly around all of us as Larissa held both hands out to her sides. Her face contorted a little from the effort as more shots rebounded off of the shield, and she shook her head. “Can’t hold it for long,” she announced with a grunt of effort.

Even as she said that, Haiden reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. I saw the forcefield grow stronger and stop flickering quite as much as he somehow helped take some of the strain off of her. It still wouldn’t last for long under all this firepower, but between the two of them, at least it wouldn’t immediately collapse.

“Category three,” Athena immediately announced while drawing Excalibur from its sheath once more. The incredible dragon-tooth sword seemed to hum with power as she held it in front of her.

We had come in here with several different plans of what to do as things progressed. Category one, of course, was that we could go straight to the cells, free Sariel and the others, and leave. Athena had considered that the least likely possibility, and I had to agree with her.

On the other hand, category three was the idea that there would be some large enough threat that Athena and Apollo would have to split off from us to slow down or stop, while the rest of us pushed onward without our most powerful escorts. At least at first. We were each carrying something similar to the communication badges. In this case, however, the badges were specifically set to allow Apollo and Athena to teleport straight to us the moment we found the cells, or Sariel in particular, in the case that we were separated.

Haiden was already nodding as he reached into his pocket to withdraw what looked like a small, circular metal band. At the same time, I saw a brief second of deeper concentration passed over Larissa’s face, and the partially translucent forcefield around us turned completely opaque, stopping the people outside from seeing what we were doing. More than that, the forcefield wouldn’t let any powers see or hear through it either. We were, at least for those few seconds, completely cut off from them. They would have no idea what was going on in here.

I could still hear the shots pouring into it, however. And the field itself was still occasionally flickering under the strain. We had to make this quick.

“Wait,” Tristan quickly protested. “You mean you want us to just abandon you guys here with all of these assholes?”

Apollo gave him a quick look. “Kid,” he announced, “you need to save your mom, got it? You forget these guys. We’ll deal with them. You get to your mom so we can get her out of whatever torture chamber she’s been strapped into. She’s been waiting long enough. You do your part, we’ll do ours.”

“Be careful,” Vanessa urged. She put a hand up against her uncle’s arm. Her expression was pensive, and I thought about how awful it must’ve been for her to see her family ripped away from her as a child. While not remotely the same now, this whole situation had to be bringing back those memories. Memories that, in her case, were absolutely crystal clear and perfect.

Apollo winked at her and gave the girl a thumbs up, just as Haiden threw the metal band to the ground. Instantly, a glowing portal erupted out of it.

This was another one of Dries’ tricks, essentially a quick escape spell. The other end of the portal would seek out the nearest area that was at least a few hundred yards away, and didn’t seem to have any immediate threat within it. Basically, it would jump the person out of an immediate conflict. Like, for example, this one.

Part of me wanted to tell Apollo and Athena they should just go through the escape portal with us, but I knew why they weren’t. They had to stay behind and distract these guys. We had been expecting for them to have to deal with Kushiel. Now… well, I just hoped that they wouldn’t be too busy back here with Abbadon and Radueriel when that particular threat showed her face.

Haiden went through the escape portal first, weapon raised in its gun form. An instant later, he was followed by Roxa and Gidget, then Jazz and Gordon together, with Sands heading right after. The twins jumped through then, with one last look back at Apollo.

Go for it, I urged my partner, knowing what she really wanted to do.

My feet moved without my control, as Tabbris moved us over to the blond man. My hands went up to clutch his arm, and my voice pleaded, “Be careful, Uncle Apollo. Mama wants to see you too.”

Apollo‘s broad smile grew even wider at that, and he reached out to ruffle my hair. “You keep each other safe,” the man urged. “All of you. Now go find your mom. We’ll meet you there.”

Back under my own control then, I moved to the portal quickly. Larissa was there waiting for me, and the two of us went through pretty much simultaneously. I could hear the forcefield fall as we passed through, and the sound of fighting suddenly erupted just before the portal closed behind us. Apollo and Athena were on their own. Silently, I wished them luck.

And us. I wished us luck too.

The others were all waiting for us. Looking around, I saw that we had emerged into some kind of military cafeteria. Or at least it had been before the place had been destroyed by the crash. The tables, once drab and uniform with simple benches, had all been broken and tossed around, their remains scattered around the room. Against one wall was a window where the crew of the ship had gotten their food from the kitchen that I could see beyond. In that kitchen, I could see the remains of several fires, and destruction that made it look like a tornado had hit the place.

There were three sets of doors in the room. One clearly led back into that same kitchen that was visible through the window, while the others led out into the rest of the facility. I could see a single body on the floor of the kitchen entrance, with Sands, Roxa, and Gidget standing over it. Meanwhile, Haiden stood by one of the other entrances, with Vanessa and Tristan standing by the other. Jazz and Gordon were in the middle of the room.

“Time to go,” Haiden announced as soon as Larissa and I appeared together. He peeked out into the corridor beyond the doors before beckoning. “Hurry, we are not going to give them time to move her.”

As we moved to the doorway, Jazz glanced to me. “Looks like you made even more enemies than we thought. Those guys back there looked pretty pissed at you.”

Grimacing a little at that, I nodded. “Who knew that Charmiene actually had friends?”

“Well so do you,” Sands pointed out. Her fist bumped my shoulder. “And we’re not gonna let anything happen to you, no matter how many of those assholes come looking.”

Together, we all moved into the hallway. It hadn’t fared much better in the crash. I could see places where the metal walls were bent and broken, big jagged holes revealing other parts of the ship, or just the wiring and pipes. Everything was a mess.

To our left there was a flame-scorched wall, through which we could hear the distant sound of fighting. Apollo and Athena were busy. Meanwhile, the hallway stretched on to the right, gradually curving, with several doors and other corridors leading off in various directions.

Haiden picked up the pace, jogging quickly. “The way the ship came down,” he announced, “the best exit to put us in the tower is this way.”

So we followed him. Larissa brought up the rear, while the rest of us teenagers jogged along behind the man as he lead us through the maze of the broken ship’s interior.

We were ready for a fight, but no one stopped us at first. There was no one to stop us. Everyone on the ship had either been teleported off, or had been brought on with Ares and Radueriel and were busy dealing with Athena and Apollo. Our path, for the moment, was clear.

Was being the operative term. Because just as we emerged into a larger chamber that I belatedly recognized as some kind of shuttle bay with wide open doors leading outside, that stopped being the case. Ahead of us, coming through those same enormous shuttlebay doors that would take us out of the ship, were a couple dozen soldiers of various species. They were accompanied by several enormous mechanized things that look like twelve-foot tall metal rhinos with a bunch of weapons attached to them. Tanks, or at least one of the Seosten versions.

As if that wasn’t enough, noise behind us drew our attention back to where several more of the Seosten, likely the ones who had the biggest problem with me, had apparently abandoned the fight with Athena and Apollo and had caught up with us. Once again, we were surrounded. And this time, we were actually going to have to fight our way through them to get out of the ship and into the lab.

There was no time to discuss things, no time to make another plan or have any kind of conversation. These guys weren’t in the mood to negotiate or even make any wisecracks. The soldiers on both sides saw us, and instantly attacked.

Chaos ensued, complete and utter chaos. Shots, fire, and more filled the air, even as those big rhino-tank things began to pound their way forward, the cannons on their backs and sides opening up.

Without hesitation, Haiden went forward, intercepting the tanks as well as all the soldiers who were on that side. He was a whirling dervish with his long weapon that kept rapidly switching between its sword-form and the shotgun. A shotgun which, apparently, was powerful enough to stagger one of those tanks when he shot it point-blank.

Vanessa and Tristan moved to help their dad, backing him up while he did the bulk of the work. The twins were right there, able to fight alongside their father for the first real time. It was almost beautiful to watch, and I wished for a second that I could afford to pay more attention to it.

I did, however, get to see Vanessa snap her whip out, catching it around the leg of one of the men before yanking him up and forward into the air just as a blast from Tristan’s arm-cannon tore through him like the two of them were skeet shooting.

Larissa, meanwhile, disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear between us and the small group of Seosten who had apparently been coming after me specifically. The handful of shots that had been on target were intercepted in mid-air, held motionless before being tossed aside. At the same time, a large burst of fire that had been coming from one man’s outstretched hand was frozen solid before shattering into a dozen pieces.

She went to work then, throwing herself at that group and taking the attention of most of them. Which was a pretty good thing, since if these guys were even remotely close to the level that Charmiene had been on, I seriously doubted that even Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Tabbris, and I could take them all on together. Six of them and six of us? Five if you counted Tabbris and me as one. I had a pretty bad feeling that we would have been slaughtered.

As it was, two of them broke free and kept going for their main target: me. Which left Larissa fighting four of them, a serious enough threat that the woman actually produced the weapon that she and Athena had been working on.

Essentially, Larissa’s new weapon was a hunk of very clear crystal. Or at least, something that looked like crystal. The thing seemed like it would shatter if you stared at it too hard. But it was apparently strong enough to withstand almost anything. And more than that, the thing could change shape. It basically had some kind of unconscious mental connection to the wielder. At a thought, it would reshape from a sword, to a spear, to a shield, and so on.

Plus, any kind of energy that hit it, like fire, electricity, sound, several kinds of magic, or even simple kinetic force (often by smacking the thing against the wall a few times), were absorbed and contained. The thing could contain those energies pretty much indefinitely. Then, at any time, they could be fired back out of it, often by making the thing take the shape of a gun.

The point was, the weapon was still very new, and they hadn’t worked out everything about it yet. So, seeing her draw it now showed just how serious the situation was. And it meant that even facing two of these guys was going to be a pretty big problem for the six of us.

Even as the two Seosten came at me, with their weapons drawn, Roxa and the others withdrew. I found myself standing there alone while they dropped back. But the thought that they had abandoned me never entered my head. I knew what they were doing: pulling back so that the two Seosten would come straight at me and could be attacked from the side or behind. They were leaving me standing there as bait. And quite frankly, I completely understood that. We needed every advantage we could get in this fight, and using their own rage about the loss of their friend (the thought of which was still a little weird) against them was an advantage.

I just had to survive the initial assault.

Tab, I thought then with that in mind, get ready to boost. Yes, she could only do so for a brief time, but she was getting better at it constantly. And now felt like the best time to actually use it. I had to survive the next few seconds so that the others could help.

The two Seosten were in sync. Just before they would have reached me, one dropped to a knee, producing a pistol of some kind. He fired at me rapidly, filling the air with shots. Meanwhile, his partner leapt, producing another one of those laser-blades in one hand, which he swung down at my head while spinning in the air as he passed over me. They were basically trying to force me to choose between diving into the incoming shots, or jumping into the blade. Even I wasn’t fast enough to deal with all of this at once.

Or at least, I wasn’t before. But in that instant, Tabbris hit the boost, and everything seemed to slow down dramatically. It was like one of those video games where you can hit a button and make everything go into slow-motion, while you move fairly normally. I was suddenly stronger, faster, and everything else seemed like it was moving through some kind of very thick liquid.

I used it. Raising my hands quickly, I set two small portals right in the path of a few of the incoming shots. At the same time, I could feel that laser sword inching closer and closer to my exposed neck as the other Seosten’s leaping spin carried him over my head. But with everything appearing to move as slowly as it did, I was able to turn my head and shoulders just enough that the energy blade passed right near me, even as those bullets were intercepted by the portals.

With a grimace, I stabbed the bladed end of my staff upward, straight at the man who was passing over my head. He was right there, exposed above me in mid-leap. I could end at least his part of this.

Or at least, I could have. But in that same instance, the Seosten was suddenly moving as fast as I was. His slowed motion turned normal as he snapped his hand down to catch hold of my weapon just before it could have pierced his chest, stopping it. Then he landed, still holding my staff as his strength nearly tore it from my grasp.

In the background, I also saw the other guy neatly and smoothly avoid the shots that I had sent back through those portals at him, moving like they were going in slow motion.

Right, great, these guys could boost too. And they were clearly doing so. The first man tried again to yank my stuff out of my hands, and he would have managed it if I hadn’t been boosting as well. My foot lashed out to kick at him, but the man easily twisted aside before stepping in to backhand me. I took the blow on the side of my head, seeing stars as I staggered. In the background, I could feel the other guy running closer with some kind of blade of his own.

Worse, even as I managed to yank my staff back away from the grip of the man holding it, I felt the last of the boost give way. I was back to normal, or at least, what was normal to me. In the background of my mind I could feel Tabbris’s exhaustion from the effort of making me as fast and strong as possible for as long as she could. She had been getting so much better, but she was still a kid, and could only make it happen for a few seconds at a time. Still, she had absolutely saved my life in that moment. Throw it onto the pile of all the other times she had saved me.

But now she was exhausted, and I was standing there with two murderous Seosten coming at me from either side.

But like Sands had said, I had friends too. And they suddenly made themselves known. Behind me, as my head turned slightly at a sound, I caught a glimpse of the guys there being ambushed by Jazz and Gordon. His weapons were yanked away from him by a focused gravity ball, just before one of Gordon’s new light blue concussive energy blasts struck the Seosten himself. It didn’t do that much, barely staggering the man. But I knew that each consecutive hit would do more damage. Plus, every time he hit the guy, Gordon would be better able to predict his actions.

Gidget was there too, backing the other two up by pinning the guy down with a rapid series of shots from her hoverboard/weapons platform mode, before she switched back to her normal cougar/form and lunged at him.

Meanwhile, a shadow slid across the floor between me and the other Seosten, before Sands popped up, reforming with her hands raised.

“Hey,” she blurted, “why don’t you pick on someone your own size?!”

The man obliged, rearing back with his foot to kick at her with blinding speed, and enough force to have put a hole in a brick wall. But, as strong as he might have been, Sands was standing still, which meant that her invulnerability and immobility power had kicked in. The man’s foot landed right in the middle of the girl’s chest, and I heard a couple snaps as bones in his foot and ankle snapped from the force of it. Meanwhile, Sands herself stood completely motionless and unbothered.

As he recoiled with a grunt of pain, favoring that foot, I saw Roxa. The blonde girl was coming up from behind the man with her claws extended. He had no idea that she was there, since her own power rendered her completely undetectable by anything other than direct line of sight.

He did, however, know that Sands was there. And he was pretty ticked off at her. With a growl, the man snapped that laser sword out. And while she may have been pretty much invulnerable to physical impact while standing still, I wasn’t sure that extended to something like that laser sword.

Sands apparently felt the same way, because she suddenly moved with blinding speed of her own, boosting with the power she had taken from the Seosten that she had killed. Pivoting away from the incoming blade, she caught hold of the man’s extended arm with a grip that I knew was stronger than mine even at normal times, let alone now that she was boosting.

Unfortunately, holding the Seosten like that was apparently the wrong move. Because the moment that she did, his entire arm transformed into what looked like a literal tree branch, an instant before two smaller branches stabbed out of the side of that branch, piercing straight through Sands’ hands. The blood-covered, pointed ends immediately widened too much for Sands to yank free, even as the girl cried out. She had been moving, so she wasn’t invulnerable.

Worse, a larger branch, also pointed at the end, grew from the bottom of that arm-branch before stabbing upward toward the other girl’s chest.

But I was there. Or rather, Tabbris was. My partner had apparently recovered from her exhaustion enough to kick in the boost once more, and I was suddenly a blur of motion as my staff snapped out to cut that spear-like wooden ‘branch’ with the bladed end an instant before it would have stabbed through Sands. A second later, she managed to rip her injured hands free with a violently blurted curse.

Taking back control then, I snapped the bladed end of my staff up at the man’s face. I whiffed entirely of course, the man entirely too fast for a blow like that. His head jerked back instantly away from the blade, while a cocky smile grew across his face.

It was a smile that vanished an instant later, as Roxa got to him. My deliberate swing had put the man right in her path. With his head back like that, his neck was exposed. And Roxa grabbed onto that exposed neck with both of her hands. I saw her claws dig deep into the meat of his throat, tearing into his jugular and spraying blood everywhere. I could literally see the inside of the man’s throat as it was torn open like… like a banana having the peel torn off of it. A very bloody banana.

At the same time, Roxa opened her mouth to reveal enormous fangs as she bit into the back of his neck to do even more horrific damage. Her mouth tore through the man’s spinal cord in his neck, the bones shattering under her teeth while she used the claws buried into his torn open throat to push it back further into her mouth. A vicious, animal-like snarl rose from the girl, while her teeth tightened enough to finish completely breaking through the Seosten’s spine. Between her teeth buried in the back of the man’s neck and her claws embedded in the front of it, Roxa tore his head completely off.

The man died like that, and Roxa’s glowing aura popped up as she staggered with a sudden gasp of pleasure. Blood, bits of bone, and flesh coated her mouth and face, falling from her open mouth as she coughed and gave a little shudder.

A second later, I heard a scream of rage, and then a cry of pain. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see the other Seosten shove Jazz to the floor with a clearly broken arm. His eyes, full of rage and fury, were on Roxa and me.

He took a step our way, but Gordon was suddenly there, catching hold of the Seosten’s arm tightly. For his part, the enraged man blinked down, then snarled, “No possession defense?” His other hand snapped out to catch hold of Gordon before the boy could pull back. “That was a mistake.”

Wait, why wouldn’t Gordon have the possession defense o– My thoughts disappeared an instant later, along with the shouted warning that had been materializing on my lips. Because the Seosten briefly disappeared as he began to possess the boy… only to almost immediately reappear. But he reappeared wrong. Totally and completely wrong. I could see organs where there was supposed to be skin. His head was down near where his foot should have been, while teeth and shattered bones were scattered over his entire body, haphazardly sticking out of various bits of flesh. His pulsing heart was where his head had been, with one eye stuck in the middle of it, while his other eye was down around the middle of the body. One of his lungs was up atop a lump of flesh shaped into a hump on his back.

It got worse everywhere I looked. What had been a Seosten man was now just a disjointed monster with bits stuck here and there, his entire body turned inside out and swapped around randomly. And the worst part was, he was still alive, at least for a few seconds. I could see the mouth near the bottom of his contorted right leg open and clearly screaming silently for a few seconds before the entire miserable figure completely collapsed and lay still.

As Gordon’s forest-green aura glowed brightly, the rest of us stared at him open-mouthed in complete silence and shock for a moment. The realization of what had just happened, and why the boy had always refused to allow me to possess him, sank in then.

“You… you…” That was Sands, her eyes wide. “Dude. You’re… why didn’t you tell us you were a… a…”

“A hybrid?” the boy’s voice was flat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… want you to treat me any differently. I didn’t want to add to everything else going on, everything else you’re dealing with. I didn’t want to be another project.”

Before I could say anything to that, Haiden was suddenly there, along with the twins. They (mostly Haiden) had destroyed both of those tanks, and taken out several of the soldiers. But there are more (both soldiers and tanks) coming through several of the other open shuttlebay doors and making their way to us.

“We’ll talk about that later,” the man announced while helping Jazz to her feet. “Right now, there’s too many of these guys to deal with,” he announced. “They’re slowing us down too much. You need to get out of here. We’ll slow them down. You find the lab. Get into it anyway you can. When you get to the lab, use those badges that Athena gave you. Use those, and we’ll be able to teleport right to you.”

“But Dad,” Tristan started. Before he could continue however, Haiden caught his son and yanked him out of the way of an incoming shot from one of the newly arrived tank things. The shot obliterated part of the far wall, where I caught a glimpse of Larissa fighting the other Seosten.

“Go!” Haiden ordered. “Find your mother. I have to help Larissa, and you need to get out of here. Now go.” He punctuated that with a little push, nodding to both of his children. “Find your mom,” he repeated tersely. “You can do it, just get to her and summon the rest of us.”

The rest of us looked at one another for a brief second. I could see the fear and hesitation in Sands’ eyes. She wanted to stay and help her mother as much as the twins wanted to stay and help their father. And I could also see hesitation in Gordon’s eyes. Not because he didn’t want to help, but because he was afraid that we would treat him differently now that we knew the truth. And honestly, even though I had no plans to treat him differently, of course, I did want answers. I wanted to know how long he had known that he was a hybrid. I wanted to know who his parents were. I wanted…. I wanted to know a lot. 

But we also knew that Haiden was right. There wasn’t time for any of that. We had to get to Sariel. So, as one, we turned and ran past the remains of the tanks and soldiers, on our way through the open doors.

One of those rhino-tanks appeared in our path, blocking the way out. As its weapons began to come to life, I started to dive out of the way.

But there was no need. Without breaking stride, Vanessa lunged that way. In mid-leap, the girl transformed. Her body grew, expanding into a massive, fur-covered figure. The werebear. She was in her werebear form. With a pants-wetting roar, the normally quiet and studious girl smacked the tank out of the way, sending it tumbling end over end like a normal person hitting a crumpled up piece of paper. Then she just kept going like that, running on all fours without even glancing back.

With that, we were through the doors. And for the moment, we had left the last of our adult escorts behind. 

Leaving the ship and entering the tower that would lead us to Kushiel’s lab, we were officially… on our own.

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Hoc Est Bellum 34-02

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As the intense display of firepower erupted on the screen in front of us, no one spoke for a few seconds. It was Tristan who finally found his voice, sounding as awed as a little kid seeing fireworks for the first time. “Oh, my God. I mean, I saw some big fights with Granddad Nick, but nothing like… like this.”

On either side of the boy, I saw Vanessa and Tabbris each take one of his hands. The latter looked back toward me, her nervousness showing before I gave her a reassuring thumbs up. I’d noticed, as much as she had gotten better about spending time on her own, Tabbris still liked to know where I was at any given time. She clearly loved her older siblings (and they loved her), but I was a safe retreat for her when things were overwhelming, and I’d felt her fear that I might disappear somehow. Any time she possessed anyone else in training, she always went right back to possessing me again before we did anything else, because she wanted to have that safety net so that she could jump back into my body whenever she needed to.

Athena gave a nod of satisfaction then, dragging my attention back to the situation at hand. “The fleets will remain occupied for the time being.”

“You’re not worried about not being in control and giving orders yourself?” I asked. “I mean, those are your people out there.”

Her eyes met mine. “Yes,” she confirmed. “And I have trained them for this kind of action for many years. Praetor Kulls was handpicked for this command, and the men and women under him all know their duty. Interjecting myself now would show a lack of faith in them that would hurt far more than it helped. If the time comes that they require my aid, I will be there for them. But for now, my faith and trust is in their ability.”

It was easy to see what she meant. As I watched through the viewscreen, the battle unfolding right in front of us was indescribably chaotic. The largest of the capital ships were spacing themselves out, exchanging staggering firepower in a nasty slugging match, while the moderately sized ships engaged in more maneuvers around one another, both sides working to create an opening for their fighters and shuttle-sized craft to hit the weak points of the giant ships.

That was, at a glance and after several conversations with Athena, my best estimate of how these kind of battles went. There were the one or two person fighters, the ‘medium’ ships that could hold anywhere between a fifty to a few thousand crew members, and the capital ships that held tens to even hundreds of thousands of crew.

Very broadly and generally speaking, it kind of worked almost like a paper, rock, scissors situation. The fighters were effective against the much larger ships (in enough numbers) specifically because it was hard to target them and they could swarm over weak points. But fighters failed against the medium sized ships because they had enough armor to withstand hits while also being quick enough to target and shoot down the smaller ships more effectively than their larger, slower brethren. Meanwhile, the medium ships may have had the armor to protect themselves from the little fighters, but the capital ships could blow them away easily, and they didn’t have the fighters’ maneuverability. So little ship beat big ship, medium ship beat little ship, and big ship beat medium ship. And they all essentially tied against each other in equal numbers. There were obviously exceptions to all of this, but that was a general understanding of it.

And, of course, there were more than just regular old lasers and that kind of weaponry involved. Even as I watched for those few seconds, I saw portals opening up here and there, bits of ships being partially torn away by some kind of metal-manipulation or telekinetic power before being repaired by the same from the opposite side, random forcefields that popped up, giant spears of ice or stone forming and being thrown back and forth, figures made of fire flying through space, and more. So much more. Everywhere I looked, there was a scene that would have required millions of dollars in special effects shots to pull off in a movie. It was completely batshit insane just to look at, let alone to try to make any sense of.

Beside me, Roxa seemed to have the same impression. The werewolf-Heretic gave a low whistle, head shaking. “Fuck, I wouldn’t wanna be the guy who has to try to make some kind of sense out of all of that chaos. I mean, keeping track of a battle on this scale is bad enough, but add in magic?”

Apollo nodded. “Something this scale, they probably have thousands of mages on both sides, purely focused on working to counter the other side’s spells. What you’re seeing is just the bits that slip through, the… leaks in the dam. If either side slipped too much, you’d see entire ships go down in seconds. Magic,” he added quietly, “can be pretty scary.”

Gordon spoke for all of us then as he flatly and quietly noted, “Then I hope our side doesn’t slip.”

“They will not,” Athena assured us. “As I said, they have been trained for this, and have all of the experience necessary. They will do their duty. We must simply do ours. And to do that, we need an appropriate… there.”  

Lifting a hand, she pointed at the screen, toward one of the enemy ships. It looked almost like a giant tuning fork, honestly. There was one somewhat shorter (I estimated it at about four hundred meters) boxy end that was like the handle. I saw a bulge near the top that looked like the bridge, with four separate heavy cannons surrounding it. Splitting off from the front of that long, boxy part were two sections that were the ‘tines’ of the tuning fork. They were about twice as long as the first section, and along the outside, bottom, and top of each were more guns than I had ever laid eyes on at one time. Seriously, there were cannons packed into what amounted to every square inch of space along those extended ‘tines’ of the ship, facing in every direction.

Meanwhile, there were no cannons in the middle, between the tines. But that space wasn’t empty, by any means. Instead, I saw what looked like a bunch of radar dishes, all facing slightly outward, toward the end of the tines. There were about eighteen of them, nine on each side.

As we watched, each of those ‘radar dishes’ began to glow. The ones on the left gave off a blue light, while the ones on the right were red. That glowing energy grew brighter and more distinct, out of the radar dishes to meet in the middle into a column of destructive purple light, which grew stronger and stronger before finally erupting from the end of the ‘tines’, tearing its way through space, and literally blew through one of the Aelaestiam ships like it wasn’t even there.

I staggered a bit, my eyes widening. Around me, the others did much of the same. The thought that… that there had been people on that ship, people who had come solely to help us save Sariel and the other prisoners, and that they were now… dead, was a lot to suddenly be hit with.

Athena’s expression was stoic, though there was a certain tightness to her eyes that told me she would be expressing her emotions later, likely in private when there wasn’t a mission on the line. “That’s the one. That will be our target. If it can be taken out, the fleet will be in much better shape.”

“You want us to get closer to that thing?” Sands asked, her eyes wide as she stared at it through the screen. “Not to insult the goddess of tactics and strategy or whatever, but do you, um, really think that’s a good idea?”

“It will be alright,” the Seosten woman assured her (and the rest of us). “Lefeunsiek ships are capable of doing extraodinary damage, as you have seen. But they require time to build that energy back up.”

Apollo nodded. “She’s right. That big gun it’s got can only fire once every few minutes. That’s why it’s got all those smaller weapons around it. Which are, you know, still dangerous.”

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “Dangerous indeed. But not to this ship. The shields and armor of this ship will protect it through a single pass. And that pass will be enough. Provided, of course,” she added then, “that Lord Dries has completed his work.”

“I have.” The voice came from the doorway, as Dries stepped into view. He was quite pointedly not looking toward Athena or Apollo. Actually, he wasn’t really looking at anyone, his attention remaining on the floor as he carefully came in. His hands kept squeezing and then loosening repeatedly as he moved against the wall and made his way to the left side of the bridge, staying as far away from Athena and Tabbris as he could. Finally, the man knelt down and placed a couple of metal objects he had already prepared with spells on the floor. At a touch and a word from him as he glanced toward the ship on the screen, the two objects projected a single portal into the air between them. He had prepared the spell on our way here, using what Athena had told him (or rather, what I had told him that Athena had said to me, since the man really didn’t want to talk to her directly) about the Seosten security spells and monitoring systems.

“There.” Dries moved to the nearest console to where he had set up the portal. His hands moved over the controls, and a moment later, a glowing red circle appeared in the middle of empty space a relatively short distance in front of the Sunstrider.

That was the other end of the portal that he had just set up. According to Athena, Kushiel’s people would be ready for the kind of portals that Yup used. Their security would block anything like that. But this one was something special. During his centuries-long imprisonment, Dries had worked on many different escape plans. He’d cobbled together various spells, both those that he’d learned himself and those that had somehow appeared in his head after he’d killed Hieronymus, likely through that man’s own connection to the original Crossroads Reaper.

Either way, he had taken his own expertise and an understanding of magic that came through his connection to the Reaper and used it to put together some new spells of his own. None of them had freed him (though one in particular had ended up doing much the same, as it summoned the shard of the banishment orb that had led Haiden and the others to him, eventually leading to his rescue in the long run).

And this portal was the result of that extensive, single-minded research and planning combined with the Reaper-knowledge. It was a portal that was mobile. Specifically, when the portal on our end moved, the portal on the opposite end would move to stay exactly the same distance and relative position away from it. Beyond that, that end of the portal was invisible, to avoid giving away its presence. Plus, it would bypass most defenses against teleportation, even if it was limited to a relatively short distance.

Once that was up, Athena moved to a different console, hitting a few buttons there. Immediately, the image on the main screen was split in two. Half was taken up by the view of the space in front of the ship like before. The other half, meanwhile, showed what looked like a blueprint of the tuning-fork ship (Lefeunsiek ship, apparently), along with some of the space around it. At the far corner, there was a red dot.

“The dot,” Athena explained, “is the portal.” She touched another part of the console, and several areas of the ship blueprints turned blue. “These areas are where there should be very minimal crew presence during a battle like this. Position the portal anywhere within those areas, and we should be safe to make the jump over without attracting much attention.”

“Okay, Jokai,” Larissa urged. “You heard her. Take us in.”

That was all the chameleon-man needed to hear. His hands moved to the controls once more, and we were on our way. The Sunstrider slipped past other warring ships, shielded by a squadron of fighters that came up on our side to ensure that we made it.

It wasn’t a smooth approach by any means. There were more of those invisible turrets, more fighters, and even a very persistent enemy ship that was essentially a mobile missile platform. But with our fighter escort, as well as a little help from Larissa and Haiden exercising a couple of their more impressive powers (including creating a forcefield directly over the launching ports for that aforementioned ship’s missile launchers that made them blow up inside the ship they were launching from), we finally made it close to our target ship while sending just enough shots at the thing to make them think that this was a legitimate attack run so that they wouldn’t start wondering why we were getting that close.

“One of minutes,” the man announced as the ship approached. “Can only… keep within area for ten seconds. You… must be through in that time. Fifty of seconds.”

Right, in fifty seconds, we’d have ten seconds to go through the portal. We, in this case, was Athena, Apollo, Larissa, and myself (with Tabbris, of course). We had a specific job to do over there that had to happen before any of us would have a chance of getting into the actual base.

Larissa nodded to me, and I started toward the portal, while Jokai counted down. Tabbris met me partway, her hand catching mine.

Her expression was scared, yet determined. Squeezing her hand, I asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” she replied, and a second later, she was inside me once more, settling into her spot. I felt the familiar comfort of her presence. Whatever happened, we would do this together.

I extended my staff, holding it down for Jaq and Gus to come running up and climb on. Then I moved to the portal. Before I got there, however, another hand caught my arm. That time, it was Dries. The man had come faster than I had ever seen him move, catching me. His eyes were on mine, actually meeting my gaze as he spoke in a quick, beseeching tone. “Be careful,” the man pleaded. “You must come back. You–you must come back to my descendant with me. To Hannah. To Avalon. You must come back.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave the man a short nod. “I’ll be back. I’ll come back. We’re gonna save Sariel, and get out of here.”

Dries kept hold of my arm for another second, before finally releasing me as he stepped back. He looked nervous, or even ashamed of his interjection, like he thought he’d done the wrong thing or wasn’t sure of himself anymore. “Yes,” he said quietly, “save and get out. Save and come back.”

I wanted to say something to him. I wanted to reassure the man, wanted to… do a lot of things. But I had no idea what to say. He desperately wanted to meet Avalon, and he wanted me to be there with him when he did. He wanted to have some kind of relationship with his descendant. I wanted to tell him that everything would be alright, that we would get back to Earth and see Valley together. But I didn’t want to risk anything by saying the words aloud. So, I just started, “Hey, Dries?” When he looked at me, I continued, “Be ready when we get back. Because I’m gonna make you teach me some of that magic you’re so good with.”

“Mom, Flick!” Sands looked visibly distraught that she wasn’t coming over with us. “Be… be careful, guys.”

The same sentiment was echoed by the others. Haiden had his kids pulled right up against him as they all watched. Everyone looked pretty upset that they weren’t coming on this part. But the fact was, aside from Haiden, none of them could have. Because the others didn’t have the ability to possess people.

I did, as did Athena, Apollo, and Larissa. Haiden had the same ability, but it had been universally decided that one of the two should stay with the others, and Larissa had won their game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Why did we need only people who could possess others? That was the whole plan. We would take the portal over there and possess the people in charge. In mine and Larissa’s cases, we could actually possess Seosten, which as I had seen back on the slave planet, they were absolutely not accustomed to dealing with.

We would work our way quietly through the ship, eventually making our way to more important people. Once we did… well, once we did, it would be time for the next step. Those steps would lead directly toward our being able to create a portal that led past all of Kushiel’s security and into that facility, a portal that the others could use to join us down there.  

So the others weren’t being left out completely, not in the least. Their turn would come soon enough. We just had to do our part first.

“Hey, don’t act like we’re leaving you out of all the danger, guys.” Giving them all a nod and salute as I reminded them of that fact, I added, “Remember, this is just phase one. You’ll be there for the rest of the phases.”

“Ten,” Jokai got down to then. “Nine… eight…”

Looking to Athena and Apollo together on one side of me and Larissa on the other, I offered, “So, uh, I guess this is it.”

Larissa put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. “It’s alright,” she promised, “we’ll take care of–”

“Go!” the call came from Jokai, interrupting her. “One… two… three….”

Right, right, ten seconds. Time for reassurance later. Or not, since we’d be right in the middle of things. I took a breath, watching as Athena went through the portal, followed by Apollo, and then Larissa. The adults went through first, with me bringing up the rear.

Alright, partner, I thought to Tabbris, let’s go get your mom.

A second later, I was through the portal, emerging into a room that looked like some kind of maintenance bay, full of broken down tank-like vehicles, a couple of those hovercycle things (V-Carrus, I remembered), and more that I didn’t recognize. There were two huge floor to ceiling (which was about twenty feet up) doors straight ahead of us that were probably used to let the tanks and hovercycles either leave the ship or go into a larger bay where the rest of the vehicles were, as well as a few smaller ones dotted around the room that clearly led elsewhere inside the ship itself.

There were also a handful of already-broken and smoldering robots, as well a couple of apparently unconscious figures lying here and there throughout the room. Clearly, the adults had been busy in the couple of seconds before Tabbris and I arrived.

“We must move quickly,” Athena started the second I appeared, “The defenders were dispatched before they could set off any alarm, and the ongoing battle will mean that the crew is thoroughly distracted. But the longer we dally, the higher our chances of being discovered. And,” she added pointedly, her voice flat, “the higher our casualties in the battle.”

“Right.” Larissa was already moving to one of the unconscious bodies on the floor. Reaching down, she caught hold of him before disappearing.

I did the same, heading for another of the bodies. This one was a short, squat figure that looked like Mike from Monsters Inc, only covered in fine, silky smooth white fur instead of green skin. Alright, partner, I sent to Tabbris, Let’s see if I can do this one myself.

It took longer than if I had let the other girl do it for me. I had much less experience than she did. But I had to get better at it, and we’d been practicing over the time that we’d spent with Athena and the Aelaestiam. So, after a brief delay where I had to try a couple times, I finally managed to possess him.

Err. Right, I realized, I guess I got that part, but  I think you’re gonna have to poke him awake.

Okay! Tabbris chirped. Then I felt her carefully working the man’s adrenaline (or whatever his species’ equivalent was), coaxing him out of unconsciousness. He snapped awake, big eye opening, and I felt his overwhelming fear.

It’s okay! I sent to him quickly. Listen, just hold on. Look–hey, I know how this looks, but I’m not a Seosten, okay? I–oh man, believe me, this is too hard to get into right now. But I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. We’re not here to hurt you. I just need to borrow your body for a little bit. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but it’s literally life and death. Lots of lives and deaths, actually. So… just sit back and I promise I’ll try to get us all through this.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure that actually worked. He was still afraid, terrified really. And I didn’t have time to actually convince him that I wasn’t there to hurt him. We had to keep moving.

Taking control of his hands, I pushed us up, managing a grunt. “Ugh.” My voice sounded rough, like I was gargling concrete. “I really don’t like this part of Seosten powers.”

By that point, the others had all possessed bodies of their own, and the four of us moved to the nearest door. Athena, possessing a tall, pitch-black figure with a flat, gorilla-like face put his hand against the panel there, then ushered us through as the door slid open.

We went. Apollo first, possessing a matty-furred Rakshasa. I followed after him, with Larissa in the body of a frog-like Menmeran right behind me. Athena came after us. Together, the four of us, possessing other bodies, began to make our way through the Seosten warship in the middle of the most intense battle I had ever seen.

Phase one had officially begun.

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Hoc Est Bellum – 34-01

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“Okay, seriously, now that we have time, you’ve gotta tell me what the deal with Arthur is.”

About three days into our little trip toward what was probably going to be the closest thing to hell that I could possibly imagine, I was standing in the small kitchen area, watching Athena bake a cake. No, seriously, she had an apron and everything. It was incredibly surreal. I’d asked her about the point of the apron and she had said that demonstrating proper safety and etiquette measures was important as a teacher, even if she personally didn’t really need them.

I saw the slight smile cross the woman’s face as she remained quiet for a few seconds, sliding a pan into the oven before straightening up to look back at me curiously. “The ‘deal’ with Arthur?”

“You know what I mean.” Folding my arms across my stomach, I pressed, “Where is he? You said you trained him to help break the Bystander Effect, but he was ambushed and his power was broken. That’s what you said. You didn’t say he was killed, you didn’t say he was dead. You said his power was broken ‘for the time being’. What does that mean? And where is he now?”

I had tried to bring this up before, but it was always the wrong time, or we would get interrupted. Now, we were on the ship and I couldn’t think of a better time to get some actual answers.

For a moment, Athena regarded me in contemplative silence, like she was deciding exactly how much she should tell me. Then the woman gave a faint nod. “I have told you of Chayyiel.”

“The Olympian who was a kid when the experiments happened,” I remembered from the discussion that had happened on the station. “She was Hestia on Earth. The one who still looks like a kid even though it was like a million years ago because it froze your aging processes.”

“Precisely,” Athena confirmed. “As I said before, Chayyiel was the daughter of the program’s director. There is much more to that, but that can come later. For the moment, all you really need to know for this story is that she has a highly developed sense of honor and fair play.”

Blinking, I shook my head. “She’s still on the Seosten’s side and she has a sense of honor?”

“She also has a highly developed sense of loyalty,” the woman informed me. “Chayyiel does not always, or even often, agree with a lot of the measures that are taken. But she believes in the Seosten society in the long run. She believes that any changes must be made from within, and that the Seosten are still the preferable winners over the Fomorians. When she encounters open abuse or anything she deems too dishonorable, she puts a stop to it. Those under her direct employ are some of the most well-treated subjects within the Seosten Empire. But she cannot change everything overnight, and despite her power and the respect she commands, particularly since becoming a member of the Seraphim, there is only so much she can do.”

“A member of the Seraphim,” I echoed, “which is part of the ruling caste, your senate or whatever.”

Athena’s head dipped once in confirmation then. “Just so. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You wished to know what happened to Arthur. Chayyiel is a large part of that.”

“Her… power, she could have all his skill and see any weaknesses he had,” I murmured quietly.

“Which,” Athena pointed out, “were not many. But they fought several times, always to an essential stand-still. Neither could entirely best the other, and Chayyiel’s sense of honor meant that she refused to have others brought in to assist her. Arthur was one of her strongest challengers, and if she was going to win, she wanted to do so herself. That, and I also believe that she was considering…” She trailed off then, biting her lip in brief silence.

“She was considering what?” I asked, even more curious now.

“She was considering,” a voice that definitely wasn’t Athena’s spoke up from the nearby doorway, “making him her new primary host.”

Spinning a bit at that, since I hadn’t sensed anyone coming (not even my item sense had gone off, despite the fact that the intruder was definitely close enough to have triggered it), I found myself staring at a man standing there who looked like Westley from The Princess Bride.

Aside from that apt comparison, the guy wasn’t familiar at all. Which, considering we were on a spaceship in mid-transit, was clearly a problem. But the much bigger problem? He was holding Tabbris in both arms.

Earlier, my little partner had shown me how she had used the power to move items around my body to affect individual objects within something else that was touching me, like a bag. Or, in this case, the container for my staff. Now, a thought instantly transferred it into my hand at the sight of the intruder holding Tabbris, and I started to blurt a threat.

“Stop.” Athena’s hand found my shoulder, bringing me up short. That was all she said at first, that single word while she held me back from the man. When I glanced that way in confusion, she was staring at him. Her gaze was utterly unreadable, as she remained silent.

“Thanks.” The man gave a roguish smile, winking at us while he set Tabbris on the floor. “Wouldn’t wanna have to fend off your protege, Auriel. She seems fierce.”

“It’s Athena, Lucifer,” she informed him in a flat voice. “I don’t go by Auriel anymore.”

Well, that was something. My head snapped around, whipping back and forth between the two as I sputtered a bit in total incomprehension, even as Tabbris darted over to me. She caught my hand, holding tight even as I returned the squeeze before pulling the girl up against myself protectively.

“Funny,” the man replied, “I don’t go by Lucifer anymore either. The name’s lost something of its appeal.”

More silence then, and more stillness. That stretched on for another handful of seconds before Athena abruptly moved. Her hand left my shoulder, and she was past me before I knew what was happening. In a blur of motion, the Seosten woman was suddenly right in front of the intruder.

And then she embraced him. Her arms went around the man, and the two were hugging incredibly tightly. It wasn’t a romantic hug, as far as I could tell. They weren’t lost lovers or anything. It was the embrace of long, long-lost friends, of family. I could see some kind of tension fade out of both of their postures as they all-but collapsed into one another. Each held the other up, their own strength entirely devoted to keeping each other on their feet. And each clearly trusted the other enough not to let them fall in the process.

It was one of the first times I had ever seen her get emotional, or seem… well, for lack of a better word, human. Seeing this guy, it clearly deeply affected her.

“I am sorry.” That was the first thing that Athena said, the first words that finally came from her mouth after a long few moments like that. “Lucifer, I am so very sorry about what happened to you, about what they have done.”

“They’ve done just as much to you,” the man… Apollo… reminded her. “You’ve lost plenty, Athena. And I told you, it’s not Lucifer.”

Leaning back a bit, the Seosten woman regarded him without letting go. “Apologies. I… refused to stop using that name, because I did not want to allow them to destroy it entirely. Lucifer is not what they have turned your name into. You are my… you are my friend. You have been my friend for so very long, and they… Puriel and his…” Her face twisted in anger, and she shook her head. “You are not that.”

“I dunno,” the man replied with a shrug, “they got a few things right. I do like apples and snakes.”

“Umm.” I couldn’t stop myself from speaking up then. “Hi? What–how did you…”

“Sorry.” The voice came just as several people came within range of my item-sense. Apollo and Athena stepped in opposite directions, allowing Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan, to come in. Haiden was the one talking. “He insisted on surprising you. Something about wanting to see your faces.”

“Her face, mostly,” Apollo corrected, jerking a thumb toward Athena. “It’s been awhile, I really wanted to see what she’d do.”

“That,” Athena replied flatly, “is why he does most things. To see how people react.”

Vanessa spoke up then, as she and Tristan moved beside Tabbris and me. “Uncle Apollo came to help get Mom out of Kushiel’s lab. He came to help us save her.”

Bewildered, I asked, “But how did you get here? You were back on Earth, right? How did you get all the way out here? Not that I should really be surprised by this point, honestly. But still.”

“Eh,” the man replied, “it wasn’t too hard. I have a connection to every member of my organization. It wasn’t enough to project myself through the magical shield that they’ve been using to block Earth. But between that and the spell I put on the twins here so that I could get to them if they were in trouble, it did the trick. Let’s just say I needed all three of them to be in the same general area to make it work.”

Jolting beside me, Vanessa suddenly put in, “That’s right, you said that you had a connection to someone out here, one of the… the other students?”

“Oh my God,” I blurted, “Torchbearers.”

The others all blinked at me, while Apollo himself gave me a broad smile. “The reports were right,” he remarked, “she is a bright one. Wish she was one of mine.”

“Jazz’s people, the Torchbearers,” I repeated, my gaze meeting his. “You’re the one that created them, aren’t you? I mean, Lucifer, lightbringer, Torchbearer.”

Apollo gave a brief bow. “You see? Very bright. Yes, they were a group that I created and had a bit of a hand in through their history. As I said, I have a connection to all of them. It was enough to let me know exactly where she was, but not enough to teleport to her. Not until the twins were out here too.”

Tristan nudged me. “See, now we’ve got two full Seosten on our side. This is gonna be a great rescue.”

I felt like telling him not to jinx it, but pointing that out probably would have made it worse. So, I just shook my head while focusing on Apollo himself. “Where’s Jazz? Does she know you’re here? Does she know anything about you?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Not yet. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a little chat with her myself. There’s a few things that she and I need to talk about.”

I wanted to ask more about that, but that felt like prying. So I quashed my curiosity for the moment.

Athena was the one who spoke next. Her voice was almost as calm as ever, but I did detect a bit of emotion in it. Which gave a slight hint of just how much emotion she was actually feeling. “I’m glad you’re here. You should be here. It’s time to get Sariel away from them.”

There was no joviality in Apollo‘s voice as he replied, “Oh, it is long past time to get her away from them. They’ll pay for everything they did to my sister.

“They wanna cast me as the devil? I’ll show them just how hot my hell burns.”

*******

It was about four days later, and a week since we had set off from the Aelaestiam base. A week of travel to get to Kushiel’s secret lab. During that time, Vanessa and Tristan had spent most of it with their dad, while the rest of us made sure we were as ready as possible (physically and mentally) for what was about to happen. Not that the twins were spared any of Athena’s training in that time. She made sure to put all of us through our paces too. As did Apollo. They both worked us to the bone to make sure we were as ready as we could possibly be.

Also, there were the stories. Apollo had so many stories. And he loved to tell them. Some involved him directly, while a lot actually didn’t. They were just stories he’d picked up over the millennia. He’d been making a point of telling us a few of the funny ones, clearly trying to take our minds off what was about to happen. One of those more recent stories was about some guy named Lars, who had become a Natural Heretic bonded with something called an Eki, which were protective guardian figures who gained power from the sun and had a lot to do with fire and heat powers.

This Lars guy had no idea what was going on in the world. No one ever explained the whole Bystander/Alter/Heretic thing to him, so he had to figure out as much as he could on his own, including the fact that everyone he knew would always forget anything supernatural that he did. But he still wanted to help, so the guy did what came natural. He dressed up as a superhero and went out to fight bad guys. Yeah, that sometimes happened with Natural Heretics, apparently. As far as the Bystanders were concerned, they were just those kooky people who dress up in costumes, call themselves superheroes, and go around stopping petty crime. They never remembered the crazy things he accomplished. But he kept right doing them, even if no one remembered and everyone thought he was silly, at best. Which was pretty admirable, really. So-Lars was a real hero.

Yeah. Lars’ the solar-powered superhero’s name was So-Lars. Whenever I managed to tell Shiori about that, she might end up with a new favorite superhero, all other qualifications be damned.

The point was, everyone liked listening to Apollo’s stories. Well, everyone except Dries, that was. Yeah, with Apollo and Athena, we had two adult Seosten on the ship with us the whole time. Which meant that Dries wasn’t all that happy. He understood, but he wasn’t very happy. I had talked to him a bit, and he told me that he appreciated and accepted that they (and Tabbris) weren’t the same as the Seosten who had imprisoned and tortured him. But knowing something and feeling it were two different things. Their presence made him uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable than he normally was around people. It sucked, but I understood where he was coming from. So, the man spent most of his time locked up in his room, avoiding everyone as much as he could.

Now, the rest of us were on the bridge. In this case, ‘the rest of us’ meant Larissa, Haiden, Athena, Apollo, Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Vanessa, Tristan, Jokai, Tabbris, and me. And our cyberforms, of course. The metal animals were off to the side, seemingly deep in conversation.

“One last jump. Is everyone ready?”

Larissa was the one who had spoken, looking our way as she stood beside the pilot’s seat. “Once Jokai pulls that lever, it’ll only take a few seconds to get there.”

Athena nodded. “Once this ship arrives, we can activate the beacon, and the rest of the Aelaestiam fleet will jump in. We have our own disruption ships that will block any portals into or out of the facility, so they won’t be able to take the prisoners and run. But they will know that we’re there, and they will have their own fleet to act in defense. Not to mention the ships that will come very quickly as soon as they receive the alert. Ships which drastically outnumber ours.”

“Which means we have to be fast,” Haiden put in. “Athena’s fleet can do some damage and stop them from getting away for awhile. But we’ll be on the clock the entire time. We jump in, get their attention on us, and follow the plan. You all know it backwards and forwards by now. If all goes the way it’s supposed to, we should end up down in the facility.”

“Which,” Apollo put in, “is a bit like having step one of your master plan involve finding a way to break into hell to kick the devil in the shin.”

Turning promptly at that, I put my foot out to tap against his leg before giving a shrug. “Eh. Not as thrilling as you might think.”

“Well, you’re a cheeky one, ain’t ya?” the man retorted, grinning back at me the whole time.

Larissa took over then. “From there, we free all the prisoners that we can, while the fleet does its job. Then we get back here with the prisoners, and jump away again. Hopefully before Seosten reinforcements show up. But we have to be quick. In and out as fast as possible.”

From the pilot’s seat, Jokai made a noise of approval. “We have… the teeth now.”

By teeth, he meant weapons. While the Sunstrider had been completely defenseless before, aside from its heavy armor and shields, Athena’s people had taken care of that little problem. Some of those ‘special supplies’ that she and the others had been working on were the parts for weapons. Weapons for the ship itself. And during the week we’d been on our way, some of her people had been hard at work installing them on the ship itself, and wiring the controls up into the bridge.

Which meant that the ship could finally fight back. Or, as Jokai had put it… we had teeth now. And the ship’s already heavy armor and shields combined with having actual weapons meant that it was pretty damn tough for what had amounted to a mining ship so recently. It still wasn’t quite as battle-ready as an actual combat ship, since, among other things, it didn’t have near the crew that one of those had. Whatever damage it took would be a lot harder to deal with than it would have been with a full crew complement, and it just couldn’t pack the kind of punch that those ships could. But still, we had weapons, and Jokai was pretty happy about that.

“Yes,” Larissa agreed with a little smile, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We most certainly have teeth. And Kushiel is going to find out just how hard we can bite.”

Athena nodded. “She will. But she will learn it from Apollo and myself.” Pointedly, she added, “The rest of you will focus on retrieving Sariel and the other prisoners, as many as possible. Leave Kushiel to us.”

“Scary angel lady and scary angel uncle versus scary angel lady?” Tristan’s head bobbed up and down. “Sounds like a good match to me.”

“Everyone got it?” Larissa asked. “No one has any questions?”

Gordon spoke up then, his voice even. “Let you guys do your thing until you open the way down to the station. Once we’re there, free the prisoners, get back to the ship. Avoid Kushiel. Understood.” He gave what I swore was almost a smile. “And when everything goes wrong… improvise.”

“Exactly.” Haiden gave him a thumbs up. “And most importantly, stick together. Everyone stick together. No one goes off on their own. Got that? Right. Let’s do it.”

He nodded to Jokai, who reached out to the nearby lever, his hand grasping it briefly before yanking the thing down. The stars jumped around us, as the ship launched forward.

As promised, that last trip only took a few seconds before we were suddenly there.  The view on the screen at the front of the bridge resolved into the image of an orange gas giant with one rocky moon about a third the size of Earth floating nearby, and a second, ice-covered moon a short distance away from it. From what we had been told, the two moons revolved around one another while also revolving around the planet itself. The gas giant, designated Novem-Tres-Tres-Zeta-Kappa-Duo (the planet had never been important enough to be given more than a alphanumeric designation) had been surveyed and deemed unworthy of being mined. And that had been the end of it. The universe was big enough that one gas giant wasn’t worth paying much attention to.

That, apparently, had been the point. We weren’t sure exactly when Kushiel had set up her lab there. But I had a feeling that she had been behind it being written off in the first place. She had probably started getting her secret torture prison/lab and defenses installed almost immediately.

And she had apparently done a very thorough job, at least on the defenses part. Because the ship came under immediate fire the very second that we arrived. Barely an instant had passed as the view resolved in front of us before a handful of enormous, bright green lasers shot straight at us from what looked like seemingly empty space. The ship rocked under the first couple shots before Jokai snapped us to the side, letting the remaining few pass under the ship.

“Ghost turrets,” Athena announced flatly. “Invisible and intangible automated weapons platforms that become solid just long enough to fire once, then return to their intangible state while teleporting somewhere else within their line of sight to fire again. They are only vulnerable within the split second while they are firing.” To Jokai, she added, “They will attempt to surround the ship to catch it within an inescapable crossfire, as they do not have to worry about hitting one another. Their systems will coordinate their teleportation to never end up in each other’s line of fire.”  

“Etiam,” Jokai muttered, hands dancing over the controls. The Sunstrider spun into a quick barrel roll as two more shots came. One missed, while the other glanced off the shields.

More shots came in rapidly, starting to fill the screen from all sides. Just as Athena had said, the ghost turrets were starting to encircle us, firing repeatedly. But through it all, as the ship rocked, Jokai didn’t move again. He had stopped actively dodging the incoming fire. His eyes watched the screen, mouth moving soundlessly as he seemed to mutter to himself. The ship shook twice, then three times. The shields were holding so far, but it wouldn’t take much longer before they would completely fail. And yet, Jokai still remained motionless save for his eyes and mouth.  

“Jokai,” Haiden started quietly, his voice breaking the silence (aside from the sound of the ship shuddering under being shot by those turrets repeatedly). “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, dude,” Tristan put in, “are we gonna shoot back, or wh–”

“Sileo!” Jokai’s retort was sharp, sharper than I had heard him before. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the screen, which was showing various incoming shots from all sides. “Sileo,” he repeated then, quieter and more thoughtful. His hands stayed where they were, motionless as he watched through two more full barrages, still without any attempt to move or avoid them.

Then it happened. Just as I honestly started to get a little worried at that point, Jokai abruptly snapped into action. His hands jumped back to the controls, and the ship suddenly spun out of the way as more lasers went past. Even as he avoided those shots, Jokai’s hand caught hold of the targeting control for one of the new turrets that Athena’s people had installed near the front of the ship. He gave it a quick adjustment before hitting the trigger to send a pair of our own blue lasers out into what looked like the middle of empty space. Without wasting another second, he adjusted his aim three more times, shooting more of those lasers from a couple other turrets in rapid succession, all seemingly aimed at absolutely nothing.

Then there was a sudden, incredibly bright explosion. Followed by a second one, and a third, and then a fourth that all came one right after the other. Each of Jokai’s supposedly blind shots had struck one of the invisible turrets in the instant that it became tangible right before firing.  

“What–how–wha?” Sands blurted out what we were probably all thinking in that moment.

Apollo was the one who spoke up, smiling a little. “It’s the pattern,” he explained. “A lot of Eulson people have an innate understanding of seemingly random patterns. It’s reflexive. He watched the platforms for a few seconds to understand their size, speed, and other factors in relation to their target, us, and then worked out the next part of their movement pattern to know where they’d go.”  

Unable to hold back her grin, Jazz quickly put in then, “That’s how he escaped from the prison camp in the first place. And why they made him a pilot before. Because he’s really good at recognizing patterns and using them.” I could hear the (understandable) pride in her voice.

Smiling a little, Larissa nodded. “Very good, Jokai. But we’ve still got problems.” She raised her hand to point to the screen, where lights had appeared on both the rocky and ice-covered moons. Lights that quickly resolved into small ships, fighter-sized, launching toward us. At the same time, several much, much larger ships, of the capital variety, emerged from behind the gas giant. Jokai may have destroyed the initial defenses, but the Seosten fleet had woken up.

“Those are not automated,” Athena announced, before adding, “Fortunately, neither are ours.”

With that, the Seosten woman pressed something in her hand. A second later, a new ship appeared on screen, directly to our left. Or port, I supposed. It was joined by two more, then another two our right, one below us, and so on. The Aelaestiam fleet had arrived, summoned by the beacon that Athena had just activated.

“Hoc est bellum,” Apollo murmured as the lasers and missiles began to fly from both sides, the space in front of us lighting up like the Fourth of July.

“This is war.”

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Gathering Force 33-06

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter posted on Wednesday (33-05), which may leave you slightly confused if you read this one before that one. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I still can’t believe you’re here. You guys actually made it.” Larissa’s voice was completely awed as she stared at Vanessa and Tristan.  

We weren’t in the cafeteria anymore. Rather than continue tying up that place with our emotional reunions and explanations while other people wanted to eat, the rest of us had gone to meet Larissa and the others down in the city area, at the house. We were all in the backyard, where Haiden was cooking burgers on an actual barbecue that had been salvaged from somewhere. Athena had offered to have food brought down, but the man had said something about how he was going to barbecue for his kids, damn it.

That was what we were doing while Athena used the blood that she had collected from Vanessa and Tristan to add into that locator spell to search for Kushiel’s base.

Vanessa was standing over by her dad, helping him cook alongside Tabbris, while Tristan bore the brunt of the questioning from everyone else.

“Hey, I’m still surprised that you’re here,” the boy pointed out in response to Larissa. “I mean, I know we already knew that, but still! You and Sands both coming back together when this is over, her mom and her sister? Scout’s gonna be so stoked.” As he spoke, the boy rubbed the top of Bobbi-Bobbi’s head. He had taken off the necklace that his cyberform snake transformed into so that she could stretch her… well, scales, I supposed.

And I was still curious about how that thing’s size-changing thing worked, how she could go from the size of a simple chain that fit around Tristan’s neck, to a giant snake that could turn into a cannon on his arm. But then again, there was that boy Eiji back at Crossroads whose backpack could turn into both a full-sized rhino and a motorcycle, so I supposed it wasn’t that crazy.

Sands, who had been standing by her mother, quickly blurted, “How is she? How…. how’s Scout doing?” She looked anxious, and I realized yet again just how much she had missed, and was missing, her twin. Being reunited with her mother had done a lot to alleviate that, but still. She and Scout had never been separated like this.

“Oh, she’s, um…” Tristan coughed before giving her a smile. “She’ll be okay. She’s really tough, you know? She’s been stepping up a lot through all this. There was this–” He stopped, considering for a moment. “Eh, should probably let her tell you the story. It’s a good one, and I wouldn’t wanna spoil it for her. But trust me, it was great. She’s great. Just, just great.”

At the end of that, even Bobbi-Bobbi was shaking her head while giving him a pitying look.

“Great?” Sands smiled a little at that before narrowing her eyes a little suspiciously at him. “She’s great, huh?”

“Yes,” Larissa added, having clearly picked up on the same thing. “She’s… great?”

Tristan actually blushed at that, shifting as he cleared his throat. “Err, yeah. You know, everyone thinks so. Just–like, everyone. Cuz she’s great, and everyone notices, like–”

Jazz stepped forward from where she had been standing with Gordon and Roxa then, quickly speaking up to save him. “Speaking of great people, how’re Doug and Rudolph?”

Giving the other girl a quick, grateful look, the boy replied, “Oh, yeah, they’re doing okay. I mean, they don’t know much about what’s going on, but they know a little bit. Especially after what happened with-” In mid-sentence, the boy stopped before looking at me.

“Oh, right,” he started. “Speaking of which, I should probably tell you what happened with Avalon and her dad, huh?”  

Well, that was enough to make me choke as my eyes shot open so wide I thought they might pop out of my skull. “What?!” I blurted, eyes widening as I shot a look to the boy. “Avalon and her dad?” I took a reflexive step that way. “What the hell?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in, “what she said. What the hell?!”

“Sorry, sorry.” Tristan looked abashed. “I probably should’ve started with, ‘she’s fine’. Or, you know, at least included that in the first part before making you panic. She’s okay, I swear.”

Beside the boy, Bobbi-Bobbi rose up to bat the side of her head against his while giving a reprimanding hiss, head shaking like a disapproving parent.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tristan scoffed at her. “Don’t start with me, or you can go right back to being a necklace for awhile.”

Bobbi-Bobbi darted back, clearly playing up her ‘fear’ of that as she wound her way around me, pretending to hide before poking her big head up around my shoulder and hissing.

“Don’t worry,” I assured the metal snake. “We won’t let the mean boy hurt you. Right, guys?” At that, Jaq and Gus both came clambering up my other shoulder, crawled around my back, and then put themselves on Bobbi-Bobbi, pointedly chattering threateningly at Tristan.

“See?” I nodded that way. “Snake and mice working together. You better listen to them. They can get nasty if they want to. Now tell me what happened to Avalon and… and her dad.”

The boy complied, explaining, “He came after her and the rest of the team–oh, uh, they sorta combined both your old teams to make one new one.” He was nodding to Roxa and me at that point. “So they were out in the woods to save this pixie that was supposed to know something about Manakel–”

“Tristan,” I interrupted. “This isn’t Memento. Tell the story in chronological order, for God’s sake.”

The boy actually blushed a little, head shaking. “Okay, okay. So from what they said, Avalon got a call from Asenath about this pixie that was on the run and injured because she knew something about Manakel and all that. She talked the others into helping her find the pixie, but when they got out there, a bunch of vampires with Avalon’s dad showed up. They got some help from Deveron and Wyatt, but Avalon mostly faced her dad by herself. She won. He’s dead.”

“Avalon killed her dad.” Saying the words flatly, I slumped a bit, nearly falling over before Roxa practically materialized beside me to put a hand on my back. My voice was hollow. “I should’ve been there. I should have been there with her, for her. I…” Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “I’m missing so much.”

Sands looked to me, her voice soft as she gave me a smile. “We’ll get back there,” she promised. “And then you guys can compare stories about who did the most insane thing while you were apart. And since she killed her psycho dad, I’m pretty sure you’ve got some catching up to do–oh, look, we’re about to go raid the crazy Seosten lady’s secret torture prison as soon as we get an address.”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Okay, you’re right. I just–yeah, we all miss the guys back there. Got it. No more moping. Acting. I mean action. Whatever. Moving forward.”

“Moving forward can happen after lunch.” That was Haiden. The man was holding up his spatula. “For now, we have burgers. Come and get it!”

So we did. Everyone filled their plate. The food was all as artificial as everything else (no store-bought buns or anything, since Wal-Mart hadn’t progressed quite that far in their domination of the universe yet), and yet I couldn’t detect a difference now any better than I’d been able to at any other meal in this place. The burgers tasted just like any regular backyard barbecue. And we had even had french fries too, thanks to a quick delivery from Chef Gisby’s kitchen. Everything was incredibly authentic.

Vanessa apparently thought so too, since she was inhaling french fries. That girl and potatoes, I swore. I had never seen anyone who liked potatoes of every type as much as she did.

It was great, but I still noticed when Larissa leaned over to whisper something to Sands, and the expressions they both had sometimes, when they thought no one was looking. They really didn’t want to bring the mood down, but it was obvious that they missed Scout.

Tristan noticed too, because he cleared his throat. “Uh, hey, Sands and uh, Mrs. Mason, sorry. I swear, if we’d known that Nessa would be able to jump us out here this easily, or thought about it first, we would’ve tried to see who could come with us. We would’ve asked your sister.” He gave a deep, long sigh then. “It’s my fault. If it was Vanessa by herself, she would’ve been more careful. I just… I thought she’d be able to check and then stop herself or something, I dunno.”

Larissa quickly shook her head at that. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Tristan. Just the fact that you both made it out here is amazing.”

He jerked a thumb toward his sister at that. “Hey, she gets the credit for that.”

Vanessa squirmed under the attention, fidgeting from foot to foot as her face pinked. “It was an accident,” she murmured helplessly. “If I thought it would actually work, I would’ve told Headmistress Sinclaire first. And the others. We could have brought a lot of people if they just touched Tristan.” She flinched, looking to the grass. “I should’ve thought about it first.”

“Like I said, that’s my fault.” Tristan immediately defended his sister against her own self-recrimination. “I said you should try it. I didn’t think about what would happen either.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Athena spoke up from where she had just appeared. “Now that is very familiar.” She smiled a little, coming closer. “The girl who is usually so careful and thoughtful being led into impulsive decisions by the boy. And both standing up for each other. They may not have not truly been related, but you remind me very much of Lucifer and Sariel. It is almost uncanny.”

Right, right. Lucifer was Apollo. I had learned that over the time since we had been here, but it was still a little confusing to hear him called that.

“Uncle Apollo,” Vanessa murmured. “He’s going to be worried about us.”

Her brother nudged her. “Trust me, Nessa, he’ll be okay once we bring back Mom.”

“Indeed,” Athena agreed, her voice drawing everyone’s attention to her. “That,” the Seosten woman announced, “is actually why I’ve interrupted your lunch. It seems that your blood is even more potent than I had hoped for. Your growth for your age is… extraordinary.”

“Wait, more potent?” Larissa started. “Does that mean…?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed, “the spell has succeeded.”

Eyes widening a little, I blurted excitedly, “The spell? It worked? It’s done?”

As Athena nodded at that. “Yes. We now know the exact location of Kushiel’s lab and prison. We know where Sariel is being kept.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I demanded.

“Let’s go get her.”

******

Two hours later, Tristan, Roxa, Sands, and I were hauling enormous, heavy crates through one of the long, winding corridors of the station. Even Gidget and Bobbi-Bobbi were helping, dragging a pair of crates by chains in their mouths. Larissa had put some kind of spell on the crates so that they floated a couple inches off the floor rather than just letting them scrape and slide the whole way as Roxa and Tristan’s cyberforms pulled them.   

And speaking of Tristan, the blond boy had clearly gotten some kind of strength boost himself at some point, because he could carry just as much as I could without any trouble.

The crates were full of supplies for the trip. Plus weapons and a bunch of other stuff that Athena thought could be useful. We were taking them to the portal in one of the cargo bays that Yup had set up. Jokai and Dries were only about a day out from finally arriving at the station itself, but we couldn’t wait that long. So we were going to portal out to it with the supplies and tell them the new destination, the coordinates of Kushiel’s base. I had them written down.

Normally, Yup would just come to us and make his portal. But apparently, hitting a moving ship like that, even with the beacon that he had left on it, was a little tricky. So he preferred doing it from the cargo bay, where he had multiple spells set up to enhance and help direct his own natural ability. In his words, it helped avoid any ‘accidents’.

Plus, we had been told that carrying the crates down there ourselves would be exercise, which was good for us.

Meanwhile, Athena was having Larissa, Haiden, and the others collect a few more things that she thought we’d need, and giving instructions to the rest of her people. Tabbris was with them, since she had wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to the other Seosten kids before we left. She and the rest would meet us on the ship. And once everyone was on board (both literally and figuratively), we would head for the location of the secret lab as fast as possible.

“Are you guys sure we’re not totally lost?” Sands asked as we turned another corner of the near-maze, only to find ourselves facing a three-way fork. “Cuz I’ve gotta tell you, all of this stuff looks the same to me.” She gestured to the trio of corridors before us. “Which way now?”  

“That way,” both Tristan and I announced together, pointing to the left-most fork immediately.

“Okay,” I started, “I’ve been here long enough to know where I’m going. How do you know?”

The boy gave me an incorrigible grin. “Hey, I basically grew up on Granddad Nick’s ship. I know how to read these signs.” He gestured to the words along the wall. “That one says that Cargo Bay A is that way. That’s where we’re going, right? Athena said that Yup guy would be there.”

Shaking my head, I nodded. “Right, right, yeah. Sorry, sometimes I forget how long you spent out there. Or is that out here…?” I paused, frowning a little. “Wait, we’re not about to risk you blowing up or whatever by getting too close to your past self out here, are we? Cuz that’s bad.”

“Nah.” The boy shrugged at that. “We were mostly out on the fringe of Seosten expansion. Different universe, basically. Never came in this deep. We should be fine.”  

“Right,” Sands replied while squinting at him. “Should be. We should be fine. That makes me feel better.” Visibly shaking that off, she hefted the crate in her hands. “Come on, let’s go then.”

We were approaching the cargo bay then, with the doors right ahead of us. They slid aside, revealing one of many massive cargo bays that I’d seen throughout my stay here. This one was almost half empty, aside from the glowing portal that Yup was standing in front of.

“There you are!” the small, purple-skinned figure called. “I thought you got lost.”

“No, you didn’t,” I retorted. “You can see through my eyes. You knew exactly where we were.”

Grinning, the little guy wiggled his quartet of ears at me. “Busted. Yes, I knew you were almost here. Didn’t even set up the portal until you were close.” Stepping our way, he extended a hand toward Tristan. “Name’s Yup. Close enough anyway. And you would be?”

Blinking, Tristan lowered his crate before shaking the bright violet man’s hand. “Uh, Tristan. Tristan Moon. Good to meet you, Yup. You’re…” His eyes widened then, as realization came. “Holy shit, you’re a Tseuckaviel, aren’t you? I mean, a living one. I saw pictures and stuff when I was with Granddad Nick, but never one that was alive. He thought you guys were all… gone.”

“Most of us are,” Yup replied while I cringed inwardly (and probably outwardly). “Between the Seosten and the Fomorians, it doesn’t pay to be a race with something they really want to use.”

“That’s what Granddad Nick said…” Tristan’s voice had sobered, the boy swallowing a little before he met Yup’s enormous, compound eyes. “I’m sorry. I could’ve phrased that better. It was just–he told me stories about your people, about what you could do. We met one of the robots that you guys built, your umm, your servants or whatever they were?”

Brightening at that, Yup chirped, “You mean one of the Mevari? You actually met one? I thought they’d all been destroyed or lost for good by now.”

Tristan’s eyes were wide. “Destroyed? It’s possible to destroy them? We–I mean, the one we met calls herself Quattor. We went to this colony world and she was the only one there. I guess these Fomorians attacked and she was the only survivor. And by that, I mean she killed the Fomorians. Plural. Like, two actual Fomorians and all these pet monsters they had. Quattor killed them all. She said that she was… gone when they massacred the colony, but when she got back she made them pay for it.”

Yup was smiling, clearly proud. “We built the Mevari to serve as friends and bodyguards for our people. They are… quite dangerous when provoked. And since they are all mechanical, they are incapable of being possessed and Fomorian bio-weapons are fairly useless.” His face fell a little bit then. “We thought it would be enough to help us. But it only encouraged our enemies to get… creative. Still,” he added while visibly making himself perk up. “I am glad to hear that at least one is still out there. It gives me hope. And that is sometimes in very short supply.”   

“So, they’re like… robots?” Sands asked tentatively, clearly interested. “Your people built robot companions, like the cyberforms that Heretics use?” She gestured toward Gidget, Bobbi-Bobbi, and the two mice, who were all collectively investigating the portal curiously.

“More advanced,” Yup corrected her. “The Mevari are basically just like any other person, except they’re artificial. They’re made of–okay, it’s too complicated to get into. Yes, they’re like robots. Only robots that can think, feel, and make their own decisions.”

“Cyberforms think and feel too,” I pointed out. “But I get what you mean. They were more like people than animals.” Taking a breath, I added, “Maybe you’ll get a chance to meet this… Quattor someday? It sounds like it’d be good for you guys to spend some time together.”

Nodding, Yup gestured to Tristan. “Yes, someday… and I would like to hear more stories of her, young man.”

“You got it.” Giving him a thumbs up, the boy replied, “Trust me, I’ve got plenty of ‘em. Quattor’s cool. And she would definitely like to know that you’re alive. She was… sad about your people.”

There was another moment of quiet contemplation, before Yup ordered us to stop wasting time and hurry up. He was right, so we quickly made our way through the portal and onto the ship. So, basically we just went from the station’s cargo bay to the ship’s cargo bay.

“Nice place,” Tristan announced while slowly looking around. “What’d you say the ship’s name was?”

My head shook. “I don’t think it actually has a name. I mean, unless the Seosten called it something.”

Clearing her throat, Roxa spoke up while exchanging a brief look with Sands. “Actually, we sort of gave it a name while you were gone. Or, Jokai did, anyway.”

“Really?” I blinked that way. “What did he call it?”

The answer came from Jokai himself, as the chameleon-man came into the room. “Sunstrider. It is… reference? Reference to song from your world, of walking on the sun shine.” Face actually turning a little red then, he admitted, “It is… first song Jazzy and me were… dancing to. It is… good song, and I wanted to… give ship name that gives… happy thoughts.”

Smiling broadly to that, I repeated, “Awww, you named the ship after yours and Jazz’s first song. Sunstrider, walking on sunshine. I like it.”

Still blushing, Jokai asked, “Why… are you here? Why have you… brought boxes? And…” He gestured toward Tristan. “You… are new.”

“This is Tristan,” Sands explained. “Tristan, this is Jokai, our pilot and… well, a lot more than that. And Jokai, I hope you guys weren’t dead set on getting to Athena’s space station anytime soon.

“Cuz we’ve got a new destination.”

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Gathering Force 33-04

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Thud.

“You know,” Sands remarked in a voice that was somewhat muffled as she lay flat on her face, “this really shouldn’t be this gross.” Lifting her head finally, she turned to look at me before making a bleh face. “I mean, come on. If Athena’s gonna make me spend so much of my time eating the mat, the least she could do is make it taste like chocolate or something.”

It had been about three days since we reunited with the others. The ship hadn’t arrived yet, but we were keeping ourselves busy. At the moment, Athena had the others (Jazz, Sands, Gordon, and Roxa) all try to attack her at once. I was pretty sure she was mostly giving them an idea of just how screwed we’d be if we had to face an Olympian in head-to-head combat, even together.

Snickering despite myself, I started, “Now you kn–” In mid-sentence, I was interrupted by a yelp as Roxa went tumbling end over end past the two of us, cursing right before she hit the wall.

Clearing my throat, I reached down to help Sands to her feet once more while finishing my sentence. “Now you know why I said that the past three weeks weren’t really a vacation.”

Together, the two of us moved to help Roxa up before turning back. Gordon was on one knee, shaking his head as he caught his breath. And Jazz was flat on her back with Athena’s foot just touching her throat as demonstration. For a second, everyone seemed frozen like that. Then the older Seosten smiled, taking her foot away as she reached down to haul Jazz to her feet. “Good,” she announced easily. “Very good. You have clearly been practicing.” As she spoke, the woman helped Gordon back up as well, before looking over to the rest of us. “I am impressed.”

“Impressed?” Sands shook her head. “You threw us around like we were basically toddlers.”

Athena chuckled slightly at that. “I am also a four-thousand-year-old genetically modified super soldier from a race of magically and technologically advanced universe dominators. You, on the other hand, have essentially been training for a few months, even if you were… thrown into the deep end, as they say. So yes, you are all quite strong and skilled for your age and experience.”

“She’s right,” I put in. “To her, we are basically toddlers. I mean, if you think we’d have the slightest chance against the woman who was both Athena and Nimue in mythology, you–”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I was interrupted by Sands, who put both hands up while staring at me. “Against the woman who was Athena and who?”

“Err.” I blinked at that. “Didn’t we talk about that?”

The other four exchanged looks before Roxa shook her head. “Gotta tell you, Flick, the name Nimue has definitely not come up before.”

Sighing, I muttered, “I’ve really gotta keep a list or something and check things off when we talk about them. Maybe get everyone a different sticker and put it next to the topics that have been covered so that I know who knows what.”

“If you make them scratch and sniff,” Jazz put in. “I prefer peach. Now what about Nimue?”

So, I explained. Athena helped, putting in where appropriate until the whole story was out. By that time, the others were openly staring at us. Roxa in particular was standing there with her mouth open, working it a few times before managing, “I have so many questions.”

“And someday,” Athena replied quietly, “I will answer them. For now, we have training.”

Clearing my throat, I nodded. “Yeah, the point was, we wouldn’t stand a chance against her if it was a real fight. We really would be toddlers to her. Same as we’d be to Kushiel if we actually tried to fight her directly.” My gaze turned toward Tabbris then, who was sitting against the wall on the far side of the room with her nose buried in a Judy Blume book that one of the Earth Club members had produced from their supply of random things. “We wouldn’t win that.”

Rubbing her shoulder, Jazz made a face while her head shook. “Yeah, and here I thought we were doing pretty good with the new powers we picked up while we were out looking for you.”

They had already had a pretty decent idea of what abilities they had absorbed both from that big fight on the Kenkean home planet, and subsequently by the time we met up again. But just in case, Tabbris and I had briefly possessed each of them (except Gordon)  just to make sure they knew what they had. And Jazz was right, it was actually pretty impressive, as far as all that went.

In order, Jazz herself had picked up the ability to shift certain physical properties from one thing that she was touching to another thing that she was touching. In other words, if she was touching a piece of steel with one hand and a wooden fence with the other, she could make the fence as hard as steel. Or vice versa. She could also make, say, water into poison by touching one of each, or take a very sharp blade and make it dull by touching a rock.

Other than that, she was pretty strong and agile, having gotten a couple boosts in that regard. It was to the point where she could lift roughly as much as I could, about a thousand pounds. And she also had this thing where if she could meet an animal’s eyes and speak commands, the animal would follow her orders as long as it was capable of doing so.

Sands, meanwhile, had gained the ability to render herself entirely immobile (there were some obvious exceptions, she wouldn’t plant herself and then end up in outer space because the planet kept rotating without her). Seriously, magic, strength, powers, nothing would make her move as long as she stayed in one place and focused on it. Yup had tried teleporting her, to no avail. We had all tried to push and pull her, but nothing happened. While she was like that, it was even much harder to actually hurt the girl. In testing, I had struck her as hard as I could with my staff and all of my enhanced strength while Sands set her feet. The result had basically been like hitting a wall with a bat before I had any powers at all. The staff had rebounded painfully out of my hands.

The power took a moment to focus on to start working, and the second she moved at all, she was just as vulnerable as anyone else. But still, it was pretty damn impressive when it worked.

She was also stronger than before, stronger than I was, even. We’d measured her at being able to bench press roughly four thousand pounds. And there was this thing she could do where she touched someone, and from that moment on, she could hear everything they heard until she disabled it. The implications of that ability had made both of us pretty giddy as far as identifying Manakel’s host back on Earth went, until Athena pointed out that Seosten on assignment like that would have spells set up to identify and remove any such ability from tracking them.

Then there was Roxa. The werewolf girl had somehow continued her record of picking up powers that would make her increasingly impossible to actually kill. In this case, she had gained a danger sense that would warn her if she was about to be attacked, as well as the ability to render herself untrackable by any sense aside from direct line of sight. That meant that, when she was using it, not only could no one track her by smell or sound, but magical tracking didn’t work either. Haiden had tried a handful of spells, all to no avail. And I had tried the blood tracking ability that I had picked up from those harpies. Hell, I’d even tried tracking her clothes with my object-detection power while the girl moved behind me, and that hadn’t worked either. The power apparently extended around things she wore or carried, to some certain extent.

So she could make herself invisible to anything but direct visual sight, and had a danger sense. That was combined, as usual, with a couple other minor physical improvements. Because clearly Roxa hadn’t already been dangerous enough as it was.

And finally, Gordon. As before, he didn’t want me to possess him, preferring to figure out his powers on his own. And what he had figured out was pretty… interesting. The eternally-calm and centered boy had gotten one of the least appropriate powers I could imagine. He could create what were essentially ‘chaos fields’, circular areas roughly four feet across and eight feet in height where chaos reigned. It was hard to describe. Basically, anything that could go wrong in that area would go wrong. It could range from pens full of ink exploding inside your pants, to those pants just falling down, to armor breaking apart, to energy weapons either bursting or exploding, to electronic devices going completely haywire, to things made of glass just spontaneously shattering, and so on. Basically, it was a concentrated zone of unbelievable bad luck to the point of utter absurdity. Someone wandering into one of those areas could trip over their suddenly untied shoelaces and drop their gun, which would then simultaneously explode and fire, hitting one of their teammates and crippling the person who dropped it. Or they might just end up with ink in their pockets from a burst pen. It was impossible to predict what would happen, though the effect seemed to get worse with both the longer that the field was active and the longer one stood in it.  

Gordon had been trying to experiment with and control the effects, but the only thing he’d really managed to nail down for it was that it would not affect him no matter what. He could stand in the middle of the field at its highest power and be just fine. Other than that, he couldn’t control what it would do, who it would affect (everyone inside its area) or anything like that.

But hey, at least a power that he could control pretty well was his new ability to project a small, light blue energy beam from his hand. The beam served two functions. First, it was concussive, though the damage that it did was fairly minimal to start with. However, every subsequent hit on the same target without an intervening target was somewhat stronger. And its second purpose was that every time it hit a target, Gordon could more accurately anticipate their next move. After landing a four or five solid hits, the boy could basically predict what his opponent was going to do almost as accurately as Athena did. The way he described it was as a sort of whispering in his head that was telling him what they were about to do, which got louder and ‘clearer’ with each subsequent strike from that beam.

The point was, they had all gotten a few interesting powers while we were separated. But none of them had actually helped the group do that well against Athena. And they probably wouldn’t help that much against Kushiel if it came right down to it either.

“Actually,” Roxa started while rubbing the back of her neck, “I was wondering. You told us about that whole genetic experiment thing that gave you your immortality and powers. But you said you guys all got powers to some extent or another. What about Kushiel? What did she end up with? And please say it’s something like, ‘she makes bunnies fluffier and cuddlier the longer she holds them.’”

There was a faint smile on the Seosten woman’s face as she shook her head. “I’m afraid not.” She glanced to me, gesturing as if to say that I should go ahead.

“Yeah,” I started. “I asked her the same thing awhile ago. Basically, anytime anyone does any damage to her, she can deal that same damage to any number of people within her line of sight over the next few seconds. And she can set it preemptively. In other words, if she knows she’s about to be hurt within the next… what did you say?” I asked Athena.

“Roughly thirty seconds or so,” she quietly answered.

“Roughly thirty seconds, then.” I nodded. “If she knows she’s about to be hurt within the next thirty seconds or so, she can preemptively set that damage to be added to as many people as she wants to look at in that thirty seconds.”

“Which she tends to use at the start of any confrontation,” Athena informed us flatly. “So that any damage a person does is reflected back to them. Thus forcing any opponent she faces to injure or even kill themselves in the act of fighting her.”

“Well,” Gordon announced dryly and simply, “that’s a pain in the ass.”

Nodding, I gestured to the boy. “That’s basically what I said when she told us before.”

“Except with a lot more swearing and stuff,” Tabbris put in then, choosing to look up from her book at that point. “Didn’t you say that whoever’s idea it was to give her that power could just-”

“I don’t think we need to get that specific,” I interrupted, flushing a little bit. “The point is, it’s bad. The only way I can see to deal with her is to hit her once without her having any idea that she’s in any danger at all.”

Sands rolled her eyes at that, muttering, “Right, so nothing hard or complicated at all. Got it.”

Athena nodded once. “It will not be simple or easy, that is true. That is why you must train more. So come, that has been enough of a break.”

With that, the Seosten woman produced a small handheld remote. As she pressed the button on it, holographic images of Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz appeared in the same positions they had been in when the sparring match had begun.

“We will take this step by step,” Athena informed all of us. “I will show you where your mistakes were made, and how you might have improved. Then we will run it again.”

“What’re we gonna do,” Sands asked, “keep running it until we actually manage to hurt you?”

Athena gave her a smile. “I am sorry, but no. We will not be waiting until you manage to win.

“After all, I may be immortal, but not even I have that kind of time.”  

*******

“I miss Scout so much,” Sands murmured as the two of us stood on the back porch of what had become our collective group house. It was a couple days after that sparring match. Jokai and Dries had yet to arrive, though we were in fairly regular contact with them, and it would only take a few more days for them to show up. Which was good, because (among other obvious reasons), Jazz was getting antsy about Jokai being out there instead of safe inside here. Once the ship was actually close enough, they would be able to teleport it the rest of the way into a sort of garage/hangar area that had been set up for all of the Aelaestiam ships, which was protected the same way that the rest of the station was.

Wincing at the other girl’s words, I nodded slowly before taking a bite of the fruit in my hand. It was from one of the trees in the station’s expansive orchard. It was shaped and mostly tasted like a peach crossed with a watermelon.

“I miss everyone back on Earth,” I murmured after swallowing the bite. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, to be separated from your twin for so long. I mean, you guys haven’t really been apart like this since… forever right?”

Sands nodded. “Basically, yeah. I mean… finding our mom, that’s pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened. I just wish Scout was here too. I wish she was here and…” There was a brief hesitation, and the other girl looked guilty.

“And you miss your dad,” I supplied simply, glancing over to her. “It’s okay, you know. You don’t have to feel guilty about that. He might’ve done some shitty things, but he’s still your dad.”

Looking torn, Sands shook her head. “But everything he did… the whole rebellion might have actually succeeded if it wasn’t for him. At least, it would’ve stayed underground for a lot longer, and been able to pick up more steam before it was outed. A lot more people might be alive.”

“You might be right,” I agreed. “But then again, if things hadn’t happened exactly the way that they did, I probably wouldn’t exist. Hell, you might not exist. Everything would be different.” Shrugging, I offered a soft, “There’s good and bad things from basically every action, if you go far enough. And again, no matter what he did, he’s still your father. He was basically your only parent for the longest time, while you thought your mom was dead. Missing him now, after all that… it makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“I wanna punch him,” she declared. “And then hug him. Then punch him again. Basically, I want to keep alternating between punching and hugging him, and I can’t decide which one to end with.”

Smiling despite myself, I put an arm around the other girl, giving her a little side hug. “Well, we’ll just have to make sure you get the chance.”

I saw her blush as she looked away, her voice a quiet murmur, “I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Same back to you,” I replied. “Now let’s just hope we can get Sariel away from Kushiel, so she can be safe too. Then we can all go back to Earth and deal with Manakel.”

Pausing, she looked over to me. “You think Avalon and Shiori are okay?”

The question made me grimace a bit. “I hope so. Shiori… I think she’ll be putting her focus on Columbus. At least, I hope she is. He’s probably in a pretty bad spot, after being enslaved by Charmiene. I can’t…” Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I finished, “I can’t imagine being in his position. I just… if Tabbris hadn’t been a part of me for so long, I would have been a Seosten slave.”

Sands glanced over to me then, before looking past me and through the sliding glass door that led inside. I looked that way as well, toward the living room where Tabbris lay curled up in an armchair, sound asleep with the rapidly changing light from the television illuminating her form.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the other girl started, “but how much do you think she’s actually affected your thinking?” Before I could say anything to that, she quickly added, “I don’t mean purposefully or maliciously or anything. No. I mean… subconsciously, just from being in your head for so long. Even if she tried to avoid it as much as she could, there has to have been some bleedover, right? I mean, how different would your personality be if she wasn’t there?”

The question made me wince, biting my lip. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But this is who I am. It’s like asking how different someone would be if their dad didn’t die when they were little, or if they never started reading their favorite author, which got them interested in writing, or if a policeman never saved their life, making them want to be a cop themselves when they grew up. Maybe she influenced me. But either way, this is who I am. And I wouldn’t change it.”

Smiling a little at that, Sands gave me a squeeze. “Yeah,” she agreed, “I guess I like you the way you are too.”

“So,” I started, giving her a look, “try to stop worrying about how your father’s actions might’ve changed things? Focus on the future, not the past. Getting mired down in the past and what people should have done or didn’t do, that won’t actually accomplish a thing.”

She nodded slowly. “I’ll try. I mean hell, if things hadn’t played out exactly the way they did, I might not have ever seen my mom again.

“And I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.”

******

“So you were like, a dealer in Vegas?”

It was three days after my conversation with Sands, and just over a week since we had met up with everyone. At the moment, Roxa, Haiden, and I were sitting in one of several cafeterias on the station, just after lunch. The place was pretty cool. It was set up to look like a patio area overlooking some kind of super high tech alien city, with hovercars and a lot of these blue figures with jetpacks everywhere. The architecture was decidedly un-earthlike, with buildings that were very egg-shaped. And cones. There were a lot of cones.

Everyone else had gone to see some kind of show that was being put on in one of the theaters. Except Tabbris. My partner was possessing me once more, since she had needed a break from all the stimulus. She was a lot better about being out on her own than she had been back when Athena first brought us here. But she still needed a break now and then, and she was just plain more comfortable while possessing me.

Leaning back in his seat, Haiden nodded in response to Roxa’s question. “Yup. It was while Sariel and I were… well, we called it our honeymoon phase, but I don’t think that ever really ended. It was before the twins came along.”

“But that place is like… super anti-Heretic,” the other girl pointed out. She glanced to me. “The place is all run by Alters. Three families: one of witches and sorcerers, one of vampires, and one of Oni. They keep the place under their control, and that means no Heretics.”

Haiden nodded once more. “Pretty much. But uh, let’s just say I’ve got a special relationship with one of the witch families there.” He paused then, taking a sip of his drink, some kind of alcohol that Athena had introduced him to. “There was a little girl, back before I met Sariel. I… “ He swallowed, and it had nothing to do with the drink. “It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that she was a witch, and I let her go. I couldn’t kill a kid. The family came to me, said they owed me a favor. So, when we needed a place where there wouldn’t be any Heretics, Vegas seemed like the natural place.”

“So why did you guys ever leave?” I asked, curious about what could have happened.

The question made him grimace. “That,” the man started, “is a long story. But what it comes down to is–” Abruptly, he stopped, frowning.

“Haiden?” I started. “Mr. Moon? What’s wrong?”

The man slowly stood up, shaking his head. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “I feel… strange. I think there’s a—” He stopped once more, doubling over that time. As he did so, some kind of weird energy blob appeared nearby, quickly resolving itself into a humanoid figure.

My weapon was in my hand, even as Gidget, who had been resting nearby, hopped to her feet and moved near Roxa. I took a quick step forward, then stopped abruptly, my mouth falling open in shock when a second figure appeared even as the first finished resolving itself into a recognizable form.

Actually, they were both very recognizable forms.

“Hey!” Vanessa and Tristan announced together as one.

“It worked!”

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