Sands

Field Trip 28-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Davis posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, let me get this straight,” Isaac spoke about an hour later. “You’re seeing us through your eyes and through that thing’s eyes?” With one hand, he was pointing at me. And with the other, he was pointing at my newly-created fox as she perched on a rock in the corner of the cave.

From where she was standing, Jazz shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe you know how to cast the theriangelos spell. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to use that? I never really wanted to be a Heretic, but one thing I did want was magic. Especially that spell.”

Sands was nodding (which, considering she was a little bit behind me, I could see through the eyes of my fox, but not my own eyes). “Tell me about it. Scout and me, we used to talk about what kind of animal we thought we could get once we learned the spell. She um.” Sands swallowed hard. “When we were little, Scout really wanted to get a penguin.” A slightly choked laugh escaped the girl then, and my fox could see the dampness in her eyes. “I tried to tell her that wouldn’t be a cool animal for spying or fighting, but she didn’t care. She just likes penguins.”

“I’ll teach it to you guys,” I promised. “It’ll just take a few days. But yeah, you should learn it.” Biting my lip then, I turned to look over my shoulder at the other girl. “And you’ll see her again, Sands. We’re going to survive this long enough for Gaia and the others to find a way to pull us back.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, the girl just looked back at me in silence that dragged on almost uncomfortably before glancing away with a muttered, “Yeah. So let’s survive.”

I don’t think she believes you, Tabbris whispered in my head, confirming what I already knew.

Yeah, I thought back to her, so we’ll just have to prove her wrong. Aloud, I cleared my throat while looking to Isaac. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a little weird, seeing through two different sets of eyes at once. It, uh, takes some getting used to. And it can give you a nasty headache if you do it for too long. I made myself throw up once. So, mostly I like to close my eyes and just see through hers when I’m using her.” To demonstrate, I did just that, letting my eyes close and focusing on the fox. At a thought, she hopped down from the rock and moved to sniff a bit at Isaac’s shoes.

The boy looked a little uncomfortable for some reason as he took a step back while clearing his throat. “Uh, so you use that fox to scout out the area around here, huh? What are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know, besides become world champion thumb twiddlers?”

“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Jazz pointed out, looking at the fox. “You want us to believe all the stuff you’re talking about with these Seosten and all that, we need more details.”

I nodded once without opening my eyes. The fox’s head did the same, and I saw the others give a brief double-take between both of us. “You’ll get them. Trust me. But right now, we need to know what’s around us. We’re gonna need water and food. And we need to know if this area’s safe enough, because Radueriel and his people are definitely going to be searching for us.”

“Come on,” Sands gestured for the others to go with her to the other side of the cave. “Roxa and me can tell you about most of it while Flick scouts things out. Then she can fill in the blanks.”

Gordon straightened a little, giving my fox a brief glance. I saw the boy open his mouth before hesitating. It looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself. It was one of the first times I could ever remember him actually looking hesitant or unsure. Whatever he had been about to say, it seemed like it was something important. In the end, however, he just followed the others to the other side of the cave while giving me a brief glance on his way.

Um. Do you think he’s okay? Tabbris sounded worried, and I wondered how much of my noticing Gordon’s look was myself and how much was the Seosten girl. He, um, he looked like-

Like he wanted to say something, I agreed. I dunno. He’s been taking in a lot. They all have, but the others seem more… shaken by it? Isaac’s just making jokes like he usually does, but I can tell there’s something off about him too. And Jazz is really freaking out. But Gordon… it’s almost like this isn’t that much of a surprise to him. But I can’t tell how much of that is just Gordon being Gordon, and how much of it is him knowing more than we thought he knew. He’s hard to read.

Either way, I was gonna have to worry about it later. For the moment, everything I’d already said was true. We really did need to have food and water, and we did need to find if there were any Seosten search teams anywhere nearby. Everything else was going to have to wait for, for now.

So I focused on my fox. Seeing through her eyes, I sent the little magically conjured animal out of the cave. She easily slipped through the bush covering the opening, back out into the narrow, foliage-covered canyon. There, I made her sit and simply listen for a few long seconds. Animals. I could hear what I thought were animals, and smell them. But other than that, there was silence. If there was a Seosten search team nearby, they weren’t making a lot of noise.

I had to get out of the canyon, to where I could actually see better and get the lay of the land. To that end, I made the fox start looking around, hunting for a quick way to climb up. Meanwhile, I silently asked, I’ve gotta ask you something, Tabbris. You said you’ve been getting rid of any spells that Fossor has been trying to put on me. You did the same thing with the Seosten, right? They weren’t just trying to figure out why I was immune to possession, they also wanted to know why none of their spells were working. That was you. It was all you, the whole time.

I felt her embarrassment, and uncertainty. Um. Uh… uh huh. I was trying to be subtle about it at first, like… make it look like they just messed up the spell or something. But they kept trying, so I thought if I just undid all the spells, they might think someone like Gaia or Mr. Prosser was doing it. Except, uh, I guess Charmiene figured out that there weren’t any Heretics going near you before the spells were broken. So she must’ve decided you were doing it somehow.

Or that it was happening automatically, I agreed, smiling a little to myself. That must’ve confused the hell out of them. But, I added pointedly, how did you do it? You’re… well, you’re awesome. That’s for sure. But how could you possibly just erase the spells that a three thousand year old Seosten and an ancient necromancer put on me like that? It seems really impressive.

Now I really felt her embarrassment. Oh. Um. It’s.. uh, easier to break things than to make them. It’s like how… how it can take a long time and a lot of skill to make a vase, but you can break it really easily? It’s a little tricky to do it to a spell without setting it off, but um, it’s easier to break them than to make them. Mama showed me some tricks, cuz she knew they’d come after you.

Still smiling, I replied, Downplay it all you want, I still get the feeling that you and Wyatt would be an amazing team. You’ve been working with magic and spell-countering since you were tiny. If you two worked together, you could probably figure out a spell to do anything.

There was silence from the other girl for a few long seconds before she tentatively asked, You really think we’ll get back to Earth? The banishment orbs are really powerful. Remember the problems the Meregan had with Tristan? And they’re not even behind the same magic wall that S-Seosten space is. Remember, Uncle Haiden and Aunt Larissa have been out here for years.

We’ll make it back, I promised her. Just like we’re gonna find your mom, and the others. The biggest advantage the Seosten have is people not knowing about them, Tabbris. That’s something else you have in common with your people. Secrecy, that’s their biggest thing. It’s how they’ve gotten away with so much. We’ve got Gaia, Wyatt, Gabriel, and probably a lot more working to get us out of here. Trust them. All we have to do is stay alive and free long enough.

By that point, my fox had found a narrow path against the wall of the canyon to climb up and out. As she clambered onto solid ground, I made her look around slowly, taking everything in.

The forest didn’t look that different than one that we could’ve found back on Earth. The trees were a bit bigger (but not as big as the ones at Eden’s Garden), and the leaves were more of a blueish-purple color while the bark itself was closer to red. And I saw a bunch of roughly waist-high bushes with a mixture of orange, yellow, and red leaves. But overall, it looked like a normal forest. In the distance, I saw an animal standing between two trees, munching on a few of those leaves. It looked kind of like a zebra, except it had a really long neck like a giraffe and it was red and a dull orange instead of black and white, to better blend into the trees and bushes.

There were also a couple birds flying overhead. As I turned the fox’s head to look up, I saw them passing by. They looked like oversized parrots. Seriously, the brightly colored birds were as big as vultures. As I watched, one dove to grab something out of a tree. I couldn’t see what it was, but the thing struggled for a few seconds before going still in the giant parrot’s talons as it was crushed to death. Apparently these things ate a lot more than just nuts, fruit, and insects.

Right, focus, Flick. Pausing then, I thought, Hey, was that me thinking that, or you telling me?

You, Tabbris quickly answered. It was you. Um, and maybe just a little me. I mean, you thought it too. I was mostly thinking about how I hope Marian doesn’t have to fight one of those things.

Marian? I echoed before realizing what she was talking about. Oh, the fox. Why Marian?

Again, I felt her embarrassment. You know, like Maid Marian. In the Disney cartoon Robin Hood.

I barely resisted a chuckle at that. I knew I loved that movie a little too much for just one person. Dad used to say I was almost obsessed with watching it. That was you too, wasn’t it?

That time, her embarrassment turned to what felt more like… almost shame. I’m sorry, she hurriedly apologized. I’m sorry, I was little and I was scared. I was… I w-was still new to everything after I woke up, and when you watched that movie, I felt… a little better. But I–

Tabbris, I interrupted, It’s okay. I get it, trust me. You were a kid, you’re still a kid. But back then, you were barely more than a toddler. You were scared and alone, and the movie made you feel better. You wanted to see it so much that it rubbed off and made me want to see it too.

There was silence for a few seconds then before she replied, Mostly it was after… after Aunt Larissa didn’t show up. Mama’s message said that she’d… she’d visit me once I woke up, that she’d help teach me some things so I wouldn’t… so I wouldn’t be alone all of the time. But…

I winced. But she never showed up. She never showed, and you didn’t know why until we found Scout and Sands. Did you know who they were, who their mother was, when we first met them?

Uh huh, Tabbris answered quickly. Some of the messages Mama left were about Aunt Larissa and her family. I… I didn’t know what happened to her until they told us. Until they told you.

Oh God. So she had been left for years without anyone to talk to, without anyone who even knew that she existed. With Larissa gone and no way to contact, or be contacted by, her mother, Tabbris had had absolutely no one. And she spent years like that, hiding inside me, trying not to control me to the point that she felt guilty because her desire to watch a kid’s movie might’ve influenced me to watch it. Where did we even start with making her feel better about any of it?

Well, first thing’s first. You didn’t do anything wrong, I insisted. It’s okay if you wanted to watch a silly movie. I’m pretty sure little sisters have done a lot more than you did when it comes to forcing people to watch the movie they want to watch, okay? I’m not mad, Tabbris. It’s okay.

I had to keep exploring. We still needed food and water, and everything else. Sending the fox–Marian to the nearest tree, I tilted her head to look up. As far as I knew, foxes didn’t generally climb trees. But this was a special case, and I was particularly motivated.

After judging where the branches were, I turned Marian around and had her run back a few yards before crouching like a runner at a starting gate. Hearing the imaginary pistol, I made her dart forward. I ran straight at the tree, leaping from a few feet out. Crashing against the tree partway up, I dug in with the fox’s hindlegs, scrambling to push off while using the claws in her forepaws to hold on and pull up toward the lowest branch that looked like it could hold her.

It probably looked really awkward for more than one reason, not the least of which was the fact that it was my brain directing the fox. But she made it up, then I had her jump from branch to branch in order to get higher. The whole time, I tried not to think about those big parrot things. If one of them came screeching down out of the sky to grab my fox-self, I might need new pants. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t a mall anywhere nearby to take care of that little problem.

Actually, I realized then, that reminds me of another question. When you popped out of me, you were wearing a blue… what was that, a bodysuit? Where’d that come from? I mean, I kinda doubt you just had it on when you, um, arrived back when you were that little.

To my surprise, Tabbris corrected, Actually, I did. It’s Seosten clothing. It um, it grows with you. It was really little when I was, and when I got bigger… it did too. It’s self-cleaning, and I think it’s supposed to be bulletproof, fireproof, and… some other things. At least, that’s what Mama said.

Oh. I paused then, considering that for a second. That’s really cool. I could use something like that. But I do think we need to get you some other clothes when we get a chance.

I felt the Seosten girl’s curiosity then. She hesitated before slowly asking, Other clothes?

Sure, I confirmed slyly before adding, After all, I’m pretty sure it’d be easy to find a couple of those Robin Hood shirts in the Disney store. And you’d look really snazzy in them.

I felt the girl’s delight at the thought, even as I made myself focus on what Marian was seeing now that the little fox had reached the top of the tree. Peering out, I took in the sight.

The forest stretched on for miles in every direction. I saw a river not too far away, with what looked like fish jumping in it. That solved our water and food problem, for the moment at least.  It was like this whole area, or maybe the planet itself, was some kind of nature preserve. Which might make sense. If it was meant to provide water, even air and other resources for space stations, they might deliberately keep it as undeveloped and natural as possible.

One thing that definitely wasn’t natural, however, was the thing flying over the top of the forest way off in the distance. It was far enough away that I could barely make it out, but it looked like a spaceship of some kind. The thing looked like it was about the size of a C-130 jet, and it was flying very slowly a few hundred feet above the treetops. As I watched through Marian’s eyes, it flew steadily along a straight path for awhile before moving out of sight. A minute or two later, it came back from the other direction and just a little bit closer.

They’re scanning, I realized. That’s why they didn’t send search teams to scour the woods. They’re using that ship to slowly scan the whole area for us. Actually, they’re probably using more than one of the things. They’ll find us that way.

No, they won’t, Tabbris corrected. I know a spell you can put on the cave to hide from their scanners. I can um, I can teach you, and you can just say that Gaia taught it to you?

I found myself nodding a little bit, both my own head and the fox’s. Good idea. Let me bring her in and we’ll get started before that thing gets any closer.

Bringing Marian back into the cave, I opened my eyes to find the others watching. Sands spoke up. “Did you find anything?”

“Food and water,” I replied. “And the ship that’s flying over the forest scanning for us.”

That definitely got everyone’s attention. Eyes widening, Jazz demanded, “A ship that’s scanning for us? What are we supposed to do, keep running? There’s probably more than one.”

I nodded. “That’s what–” I stopped myself from saying we at the last second. “–I thought. But don’t worry, Gaia taught me some other spells, like how to hide from scans like that. I need to put a spell on the cave, so we’ll have to stay inside while they’re going overhead. Once they move on, we’ll deal with the food situation.”

“It’s pretty lucky that Gaia taught you all this,” Gordon observed. “Is she the one who taught you the spell you used to get rid of that cyborg and all his troops?”

“Or was it Gabriel?” Roxa quickly put in with a brief glance toward me. Clearly, she was giving me an out so I didn’t have to reveal Tabbris.  

Her former teammates all looked at her then, Jazz blurted, “Gabriel?”

I nodded. “Gabriel Prosser. And let’s just say that thing we used against Radueriel won’t work a second time. It was a one-shot deal, for emergencies.”

There. I didn’t actually say that Gabriel had been the one to teach me the word. I just confirmed his name and then told the truth about the thing being one-time use. So it wasn’t… technically lying. But I also wasn’t going to tell them about Tabbris. There was way too much that could go wrong if they knew about her.

“Prosser.” Jazz’s voice was awed. “You’ve met Gabriel Prosser? How? Why?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before moving over to the nearby cave wall while reaching for the field-engraver in my pocket. “Let me get this spell started so we’re safe,” I replied. “Then… we’re on another planet.”

“Uh, yeah? What’s your point?” Isaac asked.

“My point,” I replied easily, “is that we’re not within range of the Seosten’s memory spell. Which means I can tell you about my mother. And about the rebellion.”

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Field Trip 28-06

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For a few long, agonizingly slow seconds, no one said or did anything. Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon were all utterly motionless. They stood there, staring open-mouthed at Roxa while the other girl held the choker in one hand and stared right back at them. It wasn’t quite a threatening expression, but it was one that basically seemed to say, ‘yeah, this is me, you got a problem?’

Clearly, the months that Roxa had spent with her pack had basically erased any and all guilt she felt about what she had become. The other wolves had really done wonders for her confidence.

“Oh… oh my God.” That was Jazz, the black girl was the first to find her voice, strangled as it sounded. “You–you’re… you’re…” Standing there, she lifted a hand to point, shaky as it was. “How… what… you’re–Does that mean that you’re–you’re really a–” She stopped, cringing.

“Werewolf?” Roxa finished for her. “Yeah, turns out some of them get a kick out of turning Heretics. That’s what really happened over Thanksgiving, when I disappeared.” Spreading her arms out, she gestured before turning in a circle. “This is me. Roxa the Heretic Werewolf.”

I actually saw tears in Jazz’s eyes. She was acting like Roxa had suddenly revealed a terminal disease or something. Which, I supposed actually made sense considering what the other girl had been raised to believe. Her hand rose as if she was trying to reach out toward Roxa before catching herself. “Roxa,” she lamented. “Roxa, but that means, but that means… that you’re–”

“Evil?” Roxa finished for her, folding her arms with a raised eyebrow. “You mean when I ‘evilly’ helped you guys deal with that Seosten bitch who took over Columbus, or when I ‘evilly’ helped get you out of that space station? Or do you mean when I ‘evilly’ revealed that I’m really a werewolf when I had absolutely no reason to do that other than to back up what Flick said?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated, glancing to the others before speaking up. “Roxa, you didn’t have to–”

“Yeah,” she interrupted without looking away from her former teammates, “I did. I’m not gonna spend this entire trip, or the rest of my damn life, hiding what I am from the people who should trust me. So yeah, I’m a werewolf. If that bothers you people, you’re welcome to go find a non-werewolf person to survive on this alien world with. Or,” she added while narrowing her eyes, “you could try to do something about it. But I’m telling you now, that won’t go well for you.”

I saw the way Jazz flinched. She looked torn up inside, with eyes that were still openly wet. “But… but R-Roxa,” she stammered, clearly grasping for anything, “I don’t… don’t understand.”

Finally, Sands had clearly had enough. “You wanna understand?” she blurted abruptly. “Here’s what you need to understand. Our entire civilization is a fucking lie, alright? Everything they teach us about how everything that isn’t human is evil, that’s straight up bullshit. Those Seosten like the bitch in the hotel and cyborg man, yeah, that whole race of evil cocksuckers created Crossroads and now they teach us to kill everything that’s not human so they can use us as their soldiers, or guard dogs, or whatever. That’s what you need to understand.” To finish, Sands spoke slowly and deliberately. “A lot of those Strangers we kill, they’re not the monsters.

“We are.”  

It was the most emotion I’d seen Sands express about finding out that Strangers weren’t all evil since she’d accepted it. Clearly, she wasn’t happy about the ‘Crossroads entire reason for existing was to act as boogeymen for anyone the Seosten didn’t like’ thing. Hell, from the look on the other girl’s face, there was a lot more that she wanted to say about it. But she cut herself off and settled on simply scowling at the floor with her arms folded tightly, trembling with anger.

Gordon was the one who spoke next, his tone almost as calm as ever, though I could detect a little bit of emotion underlying it. “You… the choker.” His eyes had centered on the thing, which had turned visible once Roxa took it off. “That’s the choker that we heard Flick talking about.”

Jazz gave a start then, as if she’d completely forgotten it until that moment. “The choker,” she echoed, looking at the thing, then looking to me. “You knew–you’ve been helping her… but…”

“It’s like they said,” I confirmed, moving my gaze from her to Isaac and then to Gordon, “Strangers aren’t all evil. No more than all humans are evil. And if we’re gonna have a chance at surviving out here, that’s something you’re all going to have to try to accept. Because we need Roxa. I’m sticking with her. I trust her more than I trust any of you. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.”

Sands gave a little nod at that. “She’s right. I’m sticking with Roxa and Flick. You guys have a problem with that…” She shrugged. “Like the girl said, just go find another cave to hide out in.”

Isaac was the next to speak, raising his hands placatingly. “Hey now, let’s not all get drastic or anything. Let’s just talk about this. You’re right, Roxa, you’ve been doing a lot of not-evil stuff, stuff you didn’t have to do. But some of it could’ve been self-preservation. I mean, getting out of the space station would’ve been harder if you were alone. And you could’ve shown up to fight that, uh, Seosten back there at the hotel even if we weren’t there. It could’ve been personal.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed, her voice shaking as she spoke. “He… he’s right, you’ve helped a lot, but… but it still could’ve been just for show. I mean–except… except showing yourself now, unless you were trying to trick us, or…” Her head shook, and the girl closed her eyes tightly like she just wanted the whole thing to go away. “Damn it,” she muttered before repeating it several times, each one a little louder as she tightened her fists. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Turning, Jazz put her fist against the wall of the cave, then repeated the action twice before whirling back to us. “You guys are crazy! You’re talking complete nonsense! Crossroads was made by evil Strangers so that we’d go kill all the people they didn’t like? What the fuck?! You’re just–just-”

“Lying?” Roxa finished for her. “Trying to trick you? Crazy? Are we crazy? Or is killing every intelligent species on the planet just because they’re not completely human the crazy thing? I’m still me, Jazz. Still Roxa. Same girl, just with new abilities. It’s not that different from becoming a Heretic, is it? You start out as completely human, then something happens to change what-”

“Stop!” Jazz blurted then, head shaking violently. “Just stop, stop it! Stop trying to compare it. It’s not the same, okay? It’s not the same! Strangers are evil! We’re not the monsters, we help people, we have to save humanity. If we weren’t there, the Strangers would, they’d kill everyone. We’ve seen them! We’ve seen Strangers killing humans, torturing humans, eating humans!”

“You’re right,” I agreed, nodding as Jazz’s attention whipped over to me. “There are evil Alt–Strangers, just like there are evil humans. But not all of them. Look at all the monsters in human history. You think having a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer means all other humans are irredeemably evil? I, for one, wouldn’t wanna be judged by the worst examples of humanity.”

“But… but…” Jazz looked like she wanted to flail. Her eyes kept darting back and forth as her fists repeatedly tightened and loosened. She looked even more lost and confused at the idea than the fact that we were all stranded on the far end of space on an alien planet surrounded by monsters. The mere suggestion that being a werewolf didn’t automatically make Roxa evil was pretty much making the other girl lose her mind. “But that can’t… I mean, it’s not the same.”

Gordon, raising his chin curiously, announced, “Maybe we should take this one step at a time. We’re all stuck here together, whether we like it or not. None of us wants to be taken by those.. Seosten. If nothing else, Roxa’s proved that much. So for now, we’re on the same side.”

“It’s not that simple,” Jazz insisted. “You know it’s not that simple. You–” She took a breath, glancing toward Sands for a second as if desperate for someone to back her up. “You should understand. Maybe not Flick, but you know what…” Shuddering, she continued, speaking quickly. “Everything they tell us, everything they teach us, it’s that that,” her hand gestured to the girl in question, “isn’t Roxa anymore! It’s a monster that’s wearing her face, a monster that took her over and is… is… wearing her just like those Seosten you keep talking about. When a human being turns into a Stranger, the human part dies and the monster completely takes over.

“So you’re saying, ‘let’s just work with them for now’? What if you’re wrong. What if you’re all wrong, and that isn’t Roxa anymore?” Jazz was staring at the girl, hands tightened into fists once more. “What if Roxa’s dead and gone and we’re just working with the monster that killed her? What if, instead of getting justice for Roxa like we should be doing, we’re working with the thing that slithered into her body and destroyed her? What if it’s laughing at us because we’re falling for its lies?!” Her voice was rising with each word, until she sounded almost hysterical.

Slowly, Jazz took a step toward the other girl with her hands held low and out, apparently so that we wouldn’t think that she was attacking or something. Her voice cracked as she continued. “You… you think I don’t want you to be Roxa? You think I don’t want our entire society to be wrong so that you can still be Roxa? You were my friend, my–we were supposed to be partners. I’ve been trying to find you for months, months! I want you to be Roxa so, so fucking bad. I want these guys to be right. I never wanted this, I never wanted to even be a Heretic! I didn’t want it! I want you to be you. But… but what if you’re not? What if you’re really a monster, squatting in Roxa’s body and laughing at how naive and stupid we are? What if we’re letting this thing get away with killing Roxa, just because we want her to still be herself? What if it’s using us?”

By that point, Jazz was directly in front of Roxa, the two of them mere inches apart. For her part, the werewolf girl simply stood still, meeting Jazz’s gaze evenly as she listened to her words until the girl was finally finished. Then she slowly lifted her chin, considering for a couple long seconds before speaking as plainly as possible. “If you don’t use what someone does to determine if they’re good or evil…” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “Then what do you use?”

While Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, Roxa continued flatly. “I’m not evil. I’m not a monster. I can’t say it any more plainly than that. And I’m not going to apologize for what– who I am. I’m done feeling embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I’m a werewolf, and I’m a Heretic. You can either judge me by what I do, or by what some evil, manipulative bastards tell you to judge me by. That’s your business. Either way, I’m not changing a goddamn thing about myself. You got a problem, deal with it.”

W-wow, Tabbris ‘whispered’ in my head, sounding like she was in awe. She’s really brave.

I think she’s also sick of being afraid of how people will react to her, I pointed out while watching to see what the others would do. I guess after spending a few months with other wolves, she’s done worrying about it. She’s sort of… ripping off the bandaid and then telling it to piss off.

Jazz, meanwhile, had closed her eyes. Her fists were held tightly against her side, and the black girl was openly shuddering. Her mouth moved a little, but I couldn’t tell what she was whispering at first. Then I got it, she was repeatedly muttering, “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” while tears feel freely down her face. Opening her eyes, she stared at Roxa. “I want it,” she blurted. “I want you to be you. I do. I swear I do, but… but… if we’re wrong, if they’re wrong, and you’re really a monster, then I’m letting you get away with killing my friend! Everyone who teaches us, all the adults, they all say you’re evil! How can we just ignore that? They all say you’re a monster.”

Roxa’s mouth opened, but it was Gordon who actually spoke. “Do they?” he asked simply, drawing everyone’s attention that way. The dark-skinned boy gave a little shrug. “I mean, I know what they say, but… what about what you overheard at Flick’s house, with the headmistress?”

Okay, that got my attention. I’d been trying to stay out of the conversation, but that one I had to jump in on. “I’m sorry, what?” I blurted, staring at the boy. “Who overheard what at my house?” Pausing, I added, “Actually, come to think of it, what the hell were you talking about when you said you heard me talking about the choker? I never talked about it without… safety measures.”

Gordon took a step my way, explaining simply, “We knew that you had something to do with Roxa disappearing, that you knew more about it than anyone else was saying. Douglas’s power, it… allows him to ask a question and get an answer, or directions to an answer, once per day. And every time he asked it anything about why Roxa disappeared, it always directed us to you.”

Well, that explained why they had been so obsessed with me. As I nodded slowly in realization, the boy continued. “We went looking for answers in your dorm room awhile back. You came in while we were there, but Jasmine used her power to turn us all invisible. While you were there, you mentioned the choker. You said that all you had to do was ‘get that choker on Roxa’ and then she could come back to the school. You were on the phone with someone named Asenath, and you said–” Pausing then, he looked like something suddenly made sense, nodding thoughtfully. “Oh. You asked her if werewolves and vampires really have some kind of rivalry.”

That… didn’t sound familiar at all. Especially the part about the choker. Why would I have phrased it like that? ‘Get the choker on Roxa?’ What the hell? But still, maybe–oh. Tabbris? I prompted, realizing that I didn’t have to rely on my own memory. Did that ever happen?

The answer came immediately and emphatically. No! No, you never had that conversation, and you never did… any of that. Not like that. I swear, they’re wrong. It never, ever happened.  

I nodded slowly before meeting Gordon’s gaze. “I hate to tell you guys this, but that never happened.” As all three of their mouths opened, I held a hand up. “Okay, let me rephrase. I didn’t say that. I wasn’t there, and I never had that conversation that you overheard. I’m not saying you didn’t overhear it, I’m saying it wasn’t me. Whoever you saw, it was someone else posing as me.”

And wasn’t that a massive punch in the gut? Someone, the Seosten obviously, had been posing as me just to manipulate these guys. It was probably an attempt to get them to report us to the Committee in a way that Gaia couldn’t cover up.

“Posing as you?” Jazz echoed, her eyes wide as she shook her head quickly at my words. “What the hell does that mean? Why would someone pose as you?”

“We do know that they have a way of posing as other people,” Gordon pointed out mildly. “The shapeshifter that took Paul’s place.”

Biting her lip, Jazz looked sick at the reminder before swallowing hard. “Y-yeah, but… but she did have someone named Asenath living at her house. I saw her. I saw her, and she’s a… a Stranger too.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed, seeing no need to try to lie about that much. “Asenath is a vampire. She’s also my friend. She saved my life, she saved my father’s life, and she’s done nothing but help me since I met her. So yes, she was living at my house. She’s been protecting my father. But we never had that conversation, and I never would’ve phrased it like that. We were trying to get the choker so that Roxa could come back. The choker hides Alters from the Heretic-Sense.”

“Alter,” Jazz repeated, squinting. “You said Alter again. What does that even mean?”

Sands answered for me. “It’s their word for what they are. Non-Humans, I mean. We call them Strangers. They call themselves Alters. As in ‘Alternative to human’.”

“But that’s not–” Jazz started to object before stopping herself. Taking a long, visible breath, the girl considered her words for a moment. Her eyes glanced briefly toward Roxa before she started once more. “They call themselves… Alters?”

As I nodded, Gordon spoke up again. “The point is, Jasmine said that all our teachers say that Strangers… Alters are evil. But she heard Headmistress Sinclaire talking to the vampire when we went to spy on your house.”

Spying on my house. They had been spying on my house. I felt indignant, even if part of me understood. Would I really have done anything different in their situation?

Isaac gave a quick nod. “Hey, yeah. So why would the headmistress be all for teaching about how evil Strangers are if she’s into this hippy ‘everyone just love one another’ shit?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied. “If she started changing what the school taught, the Committee would get rid of her.”

Making a noise that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger, Jazz put both hands over her face. “Just–just stop. Everyone just stop for a minute. Stop it.” She stood there like that, hands covering her face for a long moment. “Isaac,” she started finally, “You said your Edge vision was all about this Asenath chick killing your ancestor and all his people.”

“Uh, yeah.” The other boy gave a little shrug, looking self-conscious. “That’s what I saw.”

When Jazz looked back to me, I replied, “He’s probably missing context. That’s not the point. The point is, we’re all here. So you’ve got a choice, just like Roxa said. You can stay here and work with us so that we can keep everyone alive until we find a way home. Or you can go off on your own. But get this straight. If you can’t work with Roxa, then you might as well leave right now.”

“I didn’t say I–” Jazz stopped herself, biting her lip as she looked over to the girl in question. Her voice was timid. “I don’t want you to be evil. But I can’t just–I… you want us to believe that the headmistress of the school is letting them teach us all about evil Strangers, when it’s not true? You want us to believe that our entire society, that it’s all wrong? How do I–how do we–I…” She sighed. “Can you just give us some time? Let me… think about all this. I can’t just–I can’t just….”  She gave up on trying to explain it, lowering her head and heaving a long sigh.

It wasn’t surprising. Even in this situation, it was going to take time for Jazz, for any of them, to accept what we were saying. We were actually pretty lucky that the three of them had stood there and listened to us for as long as they had. Sure, this was kind of a… unique situation. But still. The fact that they were even entertaining the idea said a lot. I couldn’t help but wonder how much spending the past who knew how long wondering why Gaia had been talking to Asenath had actually helped. It had to have chipped away at their beliefs, at least enough for them to listen now.

I nodded. “Sure. We need to figure out where we are, how safe this place is, and everything else.”

“How are we gonna do that?” Isaac asked, gesturing back out of the cave. “I’m pretty sure we can’t just go blundering around out there without half the Seosten within a thousand miles figuring out where we are. We don’t know where anything is, and–oh yeah, we’re stuck on another fucking planet.”

“Can you tell us more about these Seosten?” Gordon asked. “How did we get here? How did they… as you said, ‘create Crossroads’? What do they want? Let’s say you’re right, just for now. What else can you tell us about everything, because we’re lost.”

Jazz abruptly lifted her head, nodding. “And Paul. Tell us what happened to Paul, what that thing was that took him over. What happened? How could he just–”

I held up my hands to hold off more questions. “We’ll get to all that, I promise. Right now, Isaac’s right. We need to figure out where we are, what’s around us, how far civilization is,  and all the rest of that stuff without blundering around. So I need a piece of wood. Shouldn’t be too hard to find one out there.”

“A piece of wood?” Gordon echoed, head tilting. “Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “It’s a spell. I… guess I could teach it to you. If you guys think you can work with me for long enough.”

Isaac spoke up then, his own smile wide and open. “Learning a spell sounds cool. And I guess we might as well try to get along, for now anyway.

“After all, we’re all friends here.”

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Field Trip 28-05

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F-Flick? What should I do? 

For a second, I froze. I didn’t know. Roxa seemed… under control at least. She hadn’t instantly outed Tabbris. Instead, she’d waited until we had some privacy. She’d noticed the help that the littlest angel had given, yet she still wanted answers. And she was making sure that those answers came from me by ordering my stowaway to get out. I had no doubt that, even though the help that Tabbris had been thus far was stopping Roxa from outright exposing her in front of the others, she wouldn’t hesitate to change her mind if the Seosten didn’t show herself and let me explain things.

Eject, I finally answered, while watching Roxa’s expression harden slightly at my hesitation. It’s okay. She’s seen what you’ve done so far. Or some of it anyway. She kept quiet this long. Go ahead. Just stay out of sight of that opening so no one else sees you. 

I could feel the young Seosten’s hesitation and trepidation. Which meant that she was feeling a lot of it. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her for that. As far as I knew, she’d only shown herself to one person in the past seven years: me. She didn’t know how Roxa was going to react. But the fact was, we didn’t have any other choices. If she didn’t see the figure that was possessing me get out within the next couple of seconds, Roxa was going to do something a lot more rash.

Tabbris, I thought to the other girl gently. It’s okay. Trust me. I won’t let her hurt you. I promise. 

After another half second of hesitation, I felt her brief agreement. Then she was pulling herself out of me, a white, translucent figure that quickly solidified into the now-familiar little girl.

Roxa was pulling back from me, her attention flicking up toward the girl reflexively. Gidget did the same, turning to focus that way. As they both started to move, I quickly sat up to put myself between them and Tabbris. Moving to one knee, I held both hands up. “Roxa, Roxa, it’s okay!” I hissed the words reflexively, despite the other girl’s words about her cone of silence. “It’s alright, I promise. I’m fine.” Even as I spoke, I felt Tabbris put herself directly behind me. She was half-cowering, hiding there while peeking out.

“Flick?” Roxa hissed, eyes darting from the Seosten girl to me and back again. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?” After a pause, she added, “And you should probably do it fast.”

Right, if this took too long, the others would wonder what was going on. They didn’t know how long it would take us to change back, but still. They might get curious. And I really didn’t want to have to go through this with Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon. Time to give her the short version.

“Roxa,” I started quickly, “This is Tabbris. We don’t have time to get into it, but I swear she’s on our side. She was–her mom is Vanessa and Tristan’s mom. She sent Tabbris to me so that I’d be immune to other Seosten possessing me, because of who my mother is. I didn’t know she existed until Charmeine captured me. She had to reveal herself to get me out of there. She’s been protecting and helping me this whole time, I just didn’t know about it until a few hours ago.”

A few hours. Had it really only been that long? It felt like a lifetime. How had so much happened in such a short time? Honestly, even I was getting tired at this point, after all the fighting and running that we had been going through. The others must be almost dead on their feet.

“Tabbris?” Roxa echoed the name, squinting briefly. “I know she was helping. That’s why I didn’t say anything until now. I just didn’t know if she was being helpful to get close to us or something. But…” She looked back to me, frowning before reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. Obviously, she was checking to see if I was still possessed. “And you’re sure you’re okay?”

I nodded quickly. “Like I said, she saved me. She saved all of us. Without her, we’d all be captured. She was the one who came up with that trick to get rid of Radueriel. Right, Tabbris?”

Behind me, pressed close up against my back, the Seosten girl gave a quick nod. Her voice was quiet. “I w-was trying to help. I just… I just wanted to help. Mama said I should be quiet, hide. But I had to help. I promise, I wasn’t trying to hurt anything. I just… I had to help.” She repeated her words softly, and I could feel her trembling a bit. Tabbris was even more afraid of explaining things to Roxa than she had been of explaining them to me. Which made sense. She knew me and how I would react a hell of a lot better than either of us knew about Roxa and her reaction.

For a couple of seconds, Roxa was silent. She bit her lip, clearly feeling indecisive before she finally reached out an open hand. “Hey,” the girl murmured. “Tabbris, was it?” When the other girl hesitantly nodded while staring fearfully at the hand, Roxa managed a slight smile. “Hi, Tabbris. I guess you saved us back there. You saved Flick, and then you saved us… a couple times, I think.” She paused, then extended her hand a little further. “C’mere a sec, would you?”

The younger girl looked to me first, and I gave her an encouraging nod, whispering, “It’s okay.”

Still, she hesitated before very slowly stepping out from behind me. Her small hand hesitantly reached up, stalling in the air as she looked at Roxa for a few seconds. Then she reached the rest of the way to tentatively put her hand against the other girl’s. I could see her trepidation.

Once the little girl’s hand was gently, nervously brushing against her own, Roxa reached out a little bit further. She took Tabbris’s hand and gave her a slight tug before going down on one knee. I heard the Seosten girl give a soft gasp of surprise then, just as Roxa embraced her.

“Thanks, kid,” Roxa murmured as she hugged Tabbris. “I’m sorry I scared you. I had to make sure Flick was really okay. You seemed like you were helping, but I couldn’t take the chance.”

Tabbris seemed completely taken aback by the gesture. She made a noise of confusion, remaining stiff as she was embraced. It was obvious that the girl had absolutely no idea of how to react, either to the hug or what Roxa was actually saying. She just stood there, motionless.

“Hey!” A voice calling from the other cave made all three of us jump. It was Jazz. Thankfully, she wasn’t actually looking in, but was just shouting from where they were. “You guys changed yet?”

Coughing, I called back, “Working on it! We’ll be right out, just… hold on, we’re not decent.”

Right. Not decent. The reminder that neither Roxa or I had any clothes on made me blush deeply. We’d been thoroughly distracted, but still… I averted my eyes, moving to grab my clothes from where Gidget had helpfully dropped them. In the middle of the pile, Jaq and Gus were huddled next to my weapon canister. Yeah, as it turned out, I couldn’t send the two back into my staff. The portals on my staff, the ones that connected to the box back in my room that my little mice lived in, weren’t working. Which made sense, considering everything we knew. Still, it had been a bit of a disappointment when I’d thought of the portal and tried to activate it, only for nothing to happen. So, Jaq and Gus were stuck out here with us. They’d spent the whole time that I’d been a lion riding inside of Gidget with all our clothes and equipment.

“Hey guys,” I murmured, putting my hands down for them to climb in. “You good?” They nuzzled me a little bit, and I smiled before setting them on my shoulder so I could grab my clothes.

I started to pull them on, then paused as I remembered what my tiny, helpful Seosten bodyguard had said. Curious, I touched my underwear and bra and sort of… thought about them being on me. It took a couple seconds of holding my hand in place, but then they were both… wrapped around my arms.

Clearly, I needed to be more specific. Rolling my eyes, I focused once more, picturing myself actually wearing them the right way.

It worked, and a few seconds later, my pants and shirt joined them. Well, this was going to make getting dressed in the mornings a hell of a lot easier, that was for sure.

While checking to make sure my clothes were on the right way, I glanced over to where Tabbris was finally returning Roxa’s hug. The little girl was still clearly hesitant about the whole thing, but had latched onto Roxa as if she was a life preserver in the middle of a dark ocean. It made me think about how lost, scared, and alone she must’ve been through the years. Hell, she’d gone as far as going to my father in the middle of the night while he was delirious from sleep, just to get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t meant for her. This, a hug coming from someone she barely knew, who was fully aware of what she was? It had to be completely overwhelming. And I really, really hated to interrupt it, no matter how necessary it was. Given the choice, I would’ve let them keep hugging for hours. Hell, given the choice, I would’ve made sure everyone else in our little group knew who she was and just how much she had done to make sure that we got out of there with our lives intact. But I didn’t have that luxury. There was already too much to explain, and I still didn’t know how much we could trust the other three. Not to mention how dangerous it would be in general if any of the Seosten found out about her. No, for the time being, we had to keep Tabbris a secret from everyone else.

Stepping that way, I put a hand on the Seosten girl’s shoulder. “Hey,” I whispered. As she turned from Roxa, I took my own chance for a hug, embracing my little stowaway tightly. “Thank you, for everything. Seriously, without you, we’d all be dead, or enslaved. You saved us, partner.”

I knew there wasn’t time to waste. I knew that. But I also knew that Tabbris really needed to hear it. After everything she’d done, after the years she had spent hiding and secretly trying to help… hell, over the past year, she’d spent a good portion of it hearing about how evil and terrible pretty much her entire species was. All the thoughts that I’d had about how much I hated the Seosten and everything else… yeah, the least I could do was give her an actual hug right then.

Roxa quickly got herself dressed while I was embracing Tabbris. Sliding her shirt on, the girl gave me a brief look before murmuring, “We’ve gotta talk more about this later, you know.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Later. But the others need to get the Cliff’s Notes about everything else first.” Turning my attention down to the younger girl, I gave her a little smile. “Ready to jump back in?”

She nodded, putting her hand on mine. A second later, she was back inside me. I felt her presence once more, settling in like a… like a favorite blanket. I couldn’t really describe it better than that. It felt right when she was there. Even though I’d only been consciously aware of her for such a short time, having her out of me was still almost like a part of me was missing. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I felt more me with her.

Roxa was watching that happen as she buttoned up her pants. “That still looks freaky,” she pointed out before pausing. “Wait a second…” she murmured with a frown as she stared at me.

Feeling self-conscious (which was probably partly me and partly Tabbris), I shook my head. “What? What’s wrong?” Was she changing her mind about this? Was she about to call for help?

Instead, the other girl just blurted, “Why didn’t Pace say anything? Lies, I mean.” As I stared at her in confusion, she explained, “She touched you. She touched you, right? With this on.” Gesturing to the invisible choker around her neck, Roxa shook her head. “So she should’ve known you were possessed. Why didn’t she say anything about it? Because she obviously hasn’t, since Charmeine apparently had no idea. Why? Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

For a couple seconds after that question landed, all I could do was stare back at Roxa, open-mouthed. “Uhh…” I made a dull, confused sound while my mind raced wildly.

Why didn’t she say anything? I quickly asked Tabbris. She definitely touched me. And her eyes were open. Is it possible that she just didn’t notice you or something? I mean, we were fighting at the time and all that, so… Even as I asked, my head was already shaking. I didn’t believe it.

I don’t think so, the other girl confirmed my own doubts, sounding as confused as I felt. I think she noticed, but I… don’t know why she didn’t say anything. Unless she’s saving it, maybe? 

“Saving it?” I muttered out loud, looking back to Roxa. “Tabbris thinks maybe she’s saving it.”

The blonde girl squinted at me. “Oh, fantastic. You mean she’s saving it to pull out later. So we basically have no idea how long it’ll be before all the Seosten know about your little friend in there. Lies could blurt it out at any time. Hell, come to think of it, she’ll probably use it to try to get something out of you later. And what are you gonna do when she does? What are you going to do when she says, ‘do X for me, or everyone finds out that you’ve got a hitchhiker in there’?”

I shook my head at that, answering honestly, “I dunno. Right now, I’m more worried about how we’re going to explain everything else that’s been going on to your old teammates in there.”

Roxa gave a slow nod, sighing as she looked over her shoulder to the opening into the cave where the others were waiting for us. “Yeah, I guess they’re kind of getting dropped into the deep end, huh? But then again,” she added thoughtfully while shrugging, “So was I, kind of.”

“Good point,” I agreed. “But this is still gonna be a bit much for them to actually take in.” Taking a breath, I looked to her. “Thanks, for keeping quiet about Tabbris until you had a chance to find out exactly what was going on. Seriously, I don’t know if very many people would’ve had that kind of control. Most probably would’ve blurted it out as soon as they saw her. Or pretty soon.”

“Hey,” Roxa replied with a little shrug, “I’ve had to keep secrets. I know what it’s like. And you had kind of just killed Charmeine when I saw her. I figured if nothing else, that much meant I owed the kid the benefit of the doubt for as long as it took to get you alone. But like I said, we-”

“–Still need to have a conversation about it,” I interrupted, nodding. “We will. Soon. But now, we’ve got another audience to deal with.” Clearing my throat, I nodded to the opening while reaching up to take Jaq and Gus, slipping them into one of my pockets. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied, putting her hand down to rest on Gidget’s head. “Let’s go.”

Together, the two of us… three counting Gidget and four counting my passenger, moved into the other cave. Sands, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon were all standing on the other side, talking in hushed voices. When we emerged, every eye moved to us, and they abruptly stopped talking.

Jazz was the first to clamber to her feet. “Okay, Sands said we had to wait for you. Now you’re here, you’re changed, and no one is currently, actively trying to kill us. We’ve waited long enough. What the hell is going on?! Who was that woman back there, who was the guy that was impersonating P-Paul–” Her voice caught briefly there before she pressed on, “who are all these people, where are we, how did we get here, why–just… just… all of it. Every question possible. All of them. Every question in the world, pretend I said them, okay? What the fuck?”

I coughed at that, giving a little nod. “Right, you guys deserve a pretty big explanation. And trust me, it’s a doozy. So, just… go with me a little bit.” Glancing toward Sands briefly, I continued. “First of all, like I said before, that woman back there and the guy with the cyborg limbs, they’re both called Seosten. Seosten. That’s where we are, in their space. They’re sort of a… an intergalactic empire of super-advanced aliens who look pretty much exactly like us.” Now really wasn’t the time to get into exactly why humans and Seosten looked alike. These guys already had enough to take in as it was without me talking about the Fomorians and everything else.

“They don’t set off the Heretic-sight,” Gordon observed quietly from where he was standing.

“Right,” I nodded. “There’s kind of a long story behind that. But right now, I…” Biting my lip, I tried to figure out how to explain as much as I needed to get them to understand. “Okay, so, long story short, the Seosten are the bad guys. Their big thing is that they can possess people. You saw what she did with Columbus. And what I could do after I killed her. They possess you, which means they control everything you say and do, all of that. It’s…” I sighed. “It’s slavery. They enslave you and control you. They use it to infiltrate places. And… we’ve been trying to figure out who they are, because they’ve been trying to kill Avalon all year long. Hell, even longer than that. That whole thing back at the hotel was them trying to kill or capture the rest of us so that they could blame Avalon for what happened and isolate her from everyone else. They want to kill her because her ancestor was Hieronymus Bosch. Well, specifically his daughter. And-”

“Wait, wait,” Jazz interrupted. “Hold on a second. What? Are you serious?” Her eyes were wide. “Avalon, that Avalon, is Bosch’s descendant? Really?”

I squinted at her, trying not to be offended on Avalon’s behalf. “Yeah, really. Why?”

She flushed a little. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just… it’s surprising, that’s all. I would’ve said the same thing if you said anyone was Bosch’s descendant. It’s like saying, ‘hey, that guy’s great-uncle is Santa Claus’ or something. I dunno. Just… wait, why do they want to kill her?”

“Because she can open the blood vault that leads to something they really want to get for themselves,” I replied, “the one that belonged to Liesje Aken.”

Isaac spoke up then. “What’s… what’s in there that’s so important?”

Glancing to the boy briefly, I echoed, “What’s so important? Apparently Liesje came up with a way to make people immune to Seosten possession. That’s why Avalon’s immune. Liesje used it on her bloodline. Then it got locked away in that vault. The Seosten want to get in there and get rid of it before it spreads and ruins their whole plot.”

“Ruins what, exactly?” Gordon’s voice was quiet, his tone making me think that he already had some idea.

Right. This was the big one. This was the one that was going to go too far for them. “… Heretics,” I replied, “Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, all of it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jazz demanded, staring openly at me. “What do the Seosten have to do with Crossroads?”

“Everything,” I replied flatly. “They have everything to do with it. They created it.”

The denials came so fast and furious that for a moment I thought Vin Diesel was behind me. Mostly they came from Jazz and Isaac, both of whom demanded to know what the hell I was talking about, just how insane I was, if I’d hit my head too hard, and so on and so forth.

“Guys–guys!” Roxa stepped in. “Just listen to her, okay?”

“Seriously?” Jazz demanded, “you’re totally serious right now? What the fuck? These Seosten created Crossroads? Do you know how fucking insane you sound?”

“I’ve got some idea,” I confirmed dryly. “Just listen. The Seosten created Crossroads and the Bystander Effect to–”

“Oh, now they created the Bystander Effect too?” Isaac retorted sarcastically. “These are some pretty powerful magic boogeymen.”

I sighed. “Listen, I know how it sounds. I do. But like I said, just go with me a little bit, okay? Yes, it sounds fucking insane. Trust me, I get that. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect in order to control humanity, in order to control Heretics. They wanted us to think that all Alters are evil, beca–”

That was as far as I got before Jazz abruptly cut in once more. “What?” Her voice was even more incredulous. “What did you say? They want us to think that all what are evil?”

“Alters,” I replied, sighing. “I mean Strangers, sorry. They want us to think that–”

“They are,” the other girl stated flatly. “What the hell do you mean, they want us to think that Strangers are evil? The hell–”

“Would you just shut the fuck up?” That was Sands, who finally couldn’t contain herself. “You keep interrupting every two seconds. Shut up and let her talk for the love of gods.”

“But she’s talking about Strangers like they’re… like they’re n-not evil,” Jazz pointed out, stammering a little bit. “How can you–”

That time, it was her turn to be interrupted as Roxa spoke up. “Flick’s right. Strangers, Alters, whatever, they’re not all evil. And you wanna know how I know?”

As everyone’s eyes turned that way, mine included, the blonde girl reached up to her neck. She unfastened the invisible choker there, pulling it away.

“Because I am one.”

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Field Trip 28-04

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Please note, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Geta, from the Crossroads Committee, posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

In all those shows and movies about people breaking out of prison, it almost always showed a quick-cut montage of them running. The scene would keep jumping back and forth between alarms blaring, cops loading their guns and waving flashlights around, and the feet of the prisoners as they pounded across the ground, leaping over fallen trees, splashing into puddles, or crashing through small piles of leaves. And breathing. If the sound wasn’t taken over by the sound of alarms and sirens, it would be the escaping prisoners panting breaths as they fled.

We had none of that. No sound of feet pounding, no panting, nothing. Our escape from that portal was relatively, and kind of disturbingly, quiet compared to those movies.

But then again, the people in them didn’t tend to have the ability to shapeshift into a lion or a wolf that both instinctively knew how to run through the forest at top speed while remaining almost silent. Nor did they have a mechanical cougar that could transform into a hoverboard and fly in some kind of stealth mode just above the ground without the slightest noise.

But I had to say, any prison escape movie that did have something like that would be amazing.

I had no idea how long we ran like that, again with Sands and Jazz on my back while the boys rode Gidget. There was no way to keep track of the time. All I knew was that we had to keep going. Radueriel wasn’t just gonna give up on finding us because we happened to get through the portal. He was gonna send an army out after us. And not just a small one like he’d had back on the station. They were going to be tearing everything apart looking for us. We needed distance. We needed to get as far from that place as we could before going to ground.

Luckily, we had a good way of doing that. And in this case, I was part of the transportation instead of a passenger. Lions were fast, of course, but usually only in short bursts. Like most big cats (as far as I knew), they were ambush predators. Which meant that they were really quick for brief periods. But I wasn’t just a normal lion. I still had my incredible stamina. So I got the speed of the lion (somewhere around fifty miles an hour), with the actual stamina to keep going at that top speed for a lot longer than normal lions could. I could haul ass, for long stretches.

Gidget could also obviously carry her passengers for a long time, and I was pretty sure that Roxa must have some kind of stamina boost too, because she was keeping up just fine. Then again, wolves were a lot better suited for long-distance running than the lion was.

As we ran, I let the lion instincts mostly take over, simply ‘steering’ to keep heading away from where we had been, away from signs of pursuit or civilization. And while the lion kept running, I focused my own thoughts inward, toward a conversation that had been a long time coming. This just happened to be the perfect time for it, since I couldn’t exactly talk to anyone else anyway.

So let me make sure I’ve got this right. Your mother is also Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. She had you after she was banished from Earth. Somehow, she was… friends with Sands’ and Scout’s mother, and she was able to visit her even after being banished. Good so far?

The answer came immediately. Yes. They were–uh, well, um, Mama was sort of… possessing Aunt Larissa when she was a little kid. Bu-but she didn’t control her or anything, except when she had to, I mean. She was sort of, um, just… hiding, kind of like me. She was waiting for Aunt Larissa to be taken to Crossroads so that she could find out what, um, what Gaia was up to and how much she was helping the rebellion. You know, sort of like a, um, like a mole, kind of.

I paused (Well, mentally at least. Physically, I was still racing through this alien forest), thinking about that for a moment. But she stopped doing that, and went to have a family with a Heretic?

Uncle Haiden was part of the Eden’s Garden group, came the response. He found Mama after she and Aunt Larissa had a, um, after they saw these bad guys and they had a fight.

Then she told me what had happened back then, that the young Larissa had accidentally stumbled across those men just as they had executed that guy, and how they had tried to kill Larissa to silence her. Sariel had revealed herself and taken care of the men, but not before one of the men had managed to critically injure Larissa. While Sariel had been trying to get her to a hospital, Haiden had shown up and tried to stop her. Somehow, she had convinced him that she was trying to save the little girl. They dropped Larissa off, warned the Heretics to stop the Seosten from risking possessing her again, and then the two of them had just… left. They abandoned Heretics and Seosten alike and tried to live real, normal lives of their own.

They’d managed it, even having twin children, Vanessa and Tristan. But then Sariel’s old boss, Puriel, had shown up. During the altercation, the banishment orb was broken and all of them except for Vanessa were thrown to various ends of the universe.

Sariel had ended up in some kind of bondage, her only escape being the ability to project herself to her most recent host. And since she had completely stopped possessing people for years, that host was Larissa. So she projected herself to the now-adult Heretic, convinced her that she wasn’t a threat, and the two of them had been trying to find both a way to bring Sariel back for good, and for her lost family. Specifically, Vanessa. Except Sariel couldn’t remember them. Her memory had been wiped of all the specific details, just like Tristan’s had been.

Wait, I asked then as something occurred to me. If Sariel can’t remember who her husband and kids are, why can you remember it? I–oh. Then I had it. You figured it out as we’ve been going through this, didn’t you? Your memory wasn’t specifically erased, so you could piece it together.

Again, I had the impression of a nod or general agreement. Uh huh. I wish I could tell Mama everything. But… I don’t even know where she is, or if she’s okay, or… She trailed off, and I sensed a sudden sharp rise in worry and fear as the girl started contemplating the worst.

Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’ll find your mom, I promise. You, Vanessa, Tristan, you’re all getting your mom back. I needed to change the subject so that she didn’t start dwelling too much. How does your mother and Larissa meeting again and trying to find a way to bring her back end up with you secretly possessing me for… for… years, right? How long have you been with me?

A little over seven years, was the response. I was re-really, really little before. Mama and Aunt Larissa put um, safety things, safety spells on me so that I wouldn’t talk or accidentally pop out of you until I… until I knew what was going on, until I, um, understood. It was kind of like sleeping for awhile. Or, um, virtual reality, sort of? It was like living another life. I was dreaming about Mama and all the stories she told me, until I was old enough to… control myself.

I thought about that, dodging around a large tree abruptly enough that Sands had to grab tight onto my fur to avoid being thrown off. How long has it been since you were… awake, as you put it? How long have you been in full control, paying attention to what’s going on with me?

Again, there a slight hesitation before she answered. Um, about five years? I’ve been t-trying to give you privacy whenever it was, um, you know, something really, really private? Like I said, I can stop paying attention and go to sleep whenever I want to. B-but not all the time. I needed to watch and see wh-what was happening in case the bad Seosten did anything, or, or–

It’s okay, I interrupted. Trust me, I get it. You say you stopped watching when it was something private, and I believe you. I don’t hate you, Tabbris. You’re the only reason I’m not a Seosten slave. How could I possibly hate you after that? Let alone everything you’ve done since you showed yourself. The others are alive because of you. I’m not being dissected by Radueriel right now because of you. The Seosten plan to frame Avalon for all that stuff failed because of you.

Now I sensed embarrassment. And something that felt like fidgeting. I was just trying to help.

You did, I assured her. You still are. Hell, we would’ve been captured again if it wasn’t for you coming up with that word to get rid of Radueriel, even if it was temporary. You’re basically our MVP right now, even if nobody else knows about you. I can’t even start to thank you for everything you’ve done, Tabbris.

If I could see her right then, I had a feeling that the girl’s face would be burning pink. Then she gave a little gasp. Oh! Oh, I can help with something. I can.

You’ve helped with a lot already, I pointed out, but what now?

That time, I actually felt excitement from the girl, as if she was delighted that she didn’t have to hold back for once. Back there in the water plant thingy, when you killed that um, that guy. I can tell you what you got from killing him!

What? My reflexive wince at the thought that this little girl had seen me smash that guy’s head into paste vanished at her words. What do you–wait, you know already? Seosten know what–

Uh huh, she interrupted excitedly. It’s neat too! Okay, her excitement was rubbing off on me. You can take any non-living material that’s touching one part of your body and move it to anywhere else instantly.

Okay, that was gonna take me a second to understand. I… what?

The Seosten girl explained hurriedly, clearly beside herself that she actually could. Like, say you’re holding a hat in your hand. You can make it move to your head. Or you touch a pair of pants and make them appear on you the way they should be. Or instantly move your staff from one hand to the other hand.

Or move a pair of handcuffs from my wrist to… next to my chest or something, I finished. Yup, her excitement was definitely contagious.

Yup! The girl chirped the agreement happily. See? It’s really, really, um… cool?

Cool, I agreed. See? You’re even more helpful than I thought. 

Again, I sensed a sudden realization from the girl as she blurted, Oh! I f-forgot, there’s something else. The Satyr!

Confused, I echoed, Satyr?

Uh huh! Remember when you and Shiori fought Nicholas Petan’s guys with the Meregan? You killed a Satyr, and you never found out what you got from it.

It took me a second, but then I remembered. Oh. Oh, wait, yeah, I remember. There was so much going on, I didn’t even think about it. What was–

Dexterity boost, she explained. That’s why you got better with your staff right after that. You got a dexterity boost.

I smiled to myself, which might have looked odd on the lion’s face. Thanks, partner. You’re pretty amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without you, at this point. But, I paused, then asked, what I really wanna know is, why me? Why would Sariel and Larissa send you to protect me, when I didn’t even know them? Was it all because of who my mother is, and what she’s done?

Uh huh. They knew that the Seosten would come after you because of who your mom was, because she hurt them so much. Because people like Gabriel Prosser and the ones who follow him, they’d come for you. They’d try to help you, because of who your mother was. Mama knew that the Seosten would try to possess you, turn you against what your mother stood for.

I was silent for a minute after that, running through the forest with the other two girls perched atop me. I could hear them murmuring, having some kind of discussion, but I didn’t know about what. I couldn’t actually focus on it. All I could think about was how different things would have been if Sariel hadn’t sent Tabbris to protect me. Hell, for that matter, I had to think about how different things would have been if Sariel hadn’t turned against the other Seosten in the first place. If she had followed through on her mission to infiltrate Gaia’s trust by staying with Larissa throughout her childhood and into adulthood, how different would things be right now?

For one thing, the Seosten probably would’ve had what they needed to get Gaia kicked out of her position. They would’ve installed their own puppet. Hell, everything would have been different. The world itself was different because one Seosten switched sides. Wow. Just… wow.

Finally, I made myself focus, asking, So for the past five years, I mean, since you had control, you’ve just been hiding inside me? You seemed to be okay at walking around and stuff when I saw you at Gabriel’s camp on the lake. I–wait, why didn’t he or any of those kids notice that you didn’t belong there? That place is small, they should’ve noticed that they didn’t recognize you.

They didn’t see me, Tabbris answered simply. Only you saw me. I, um, I wanted to meet you, even if you couldn’t know who I was yet. So I, um, after I gave you the urge to go to the bathroom so I could, y-you know… hide, I projected an image of myself to you. Just to you.

I thought about that for a second. Now that she mentioned it, I didn’t recall her actually interacting with any of those kids. She had been standing there (or at least, I had thought that she was standing there), but nobody else had ever actually acknowledged her presence.

For a couple minutes, I just let the lion run. I was half-paying attention to where we were going, just enough to keep us away from any pursuit. Then I asked, This year, since all this stuff started going on, have you–I mean, what kind of stuff have you done? I… I just assume you’ve helped. I was trying to carefully phrase it in a way that she wouldn’t think was an accusation.

Still, she hesitated a little before responding. Sometimes, I… I tried to help sometimes. But I promise, I didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to do. I mean, except stuff like that bathroom thing when I had to get out. Every decision you made about um, Alters and all that, you made it yourself, I swear. I just… helped. Like, um, like when that swarm of peridles attacked. You were panicking, and I um, I just sort of calmed you down a little bit, so you could focus. Or when the… the Fomorian was there in Koren’s house, I kind of… talked to you.

I felt my own surprise build at that. You talked to me? I–Pausing, I thought about it. When I told myself to stall him by asking questions. That wasn’t me talking to myself, was it? It was you.

Again, there was a feeling of confirmation. Uh huh. I was scared, and I actually talked to you. I was trying to make it sound like your own thoughts and… uh, I guess I did it?

You definitely did, I confirmed, going silent again as I kept running. So many thoughts were running through my head, so many things that I wanted to ask her about and so little time.

Was that the first time you came out? I had to ask. The time at the lake, I mean. Or did you, um, you know, unpossess me before? Because you seemed pretty okay with the whole moving around by yourself thing.

The impression of a head shake reached me. I h-had to come out a few times t-to undo some of the spells that the Seosten or… or Fossor tried to put on you. I couldn’t do all of it from insi–

Wait, I interrupted, my heart leaping into my throat. What do you mean, spells that Fossor tried to put on me?

Oh. I sensed her embarrassment that she’d forgotten I didn’t know about that. Uh, y-yeah, he tried to put spells on you sometimes. M-mostly just tracking and monitoring spells. I got rid of them though, I promise. I tried to make it, um, you know, look like someone powerful was protecting you. I… I thought if he thought that there was some powerful Heretic or something l-looking after you, he’d… um, back off a little bit.

I was stunned, almost stumbling as I ran through the forest in lion-form. I thought that time on my birthday was the first time he came…

Her hesitation to respond to that dragged on for a few seconds before Tabbris slowly, weakly answered, I… um, I could give you a memory, but it’s probably better if I just… um, tell you about it. You won’t like it. One time, he umm… he ummm… he posed as your dentist.

My dentist? I echoed in confusion.

Her revulsion and fear was palpable. Y-yes. I mean, not your dentist, but as your… replacement. Remember when… when those people at your dentist’s office were… were killed?

My throat was dry. I already felt sick. They died a few days after my last appointment with them.

No… her answer came weakly, and I could feel how badly she didn’t want to tell me about it. No, Fossor killed them so he could pose as your, um, as your replacement dentist. He wanted to see you and… and take… um, pictures for your mom. And–

Oh God. I actually did stumble that time, coming to a stop as I stared at the ground. But I wasn’t seeing the ground. I was seeing that old dentist, the one who had pulled my teeth back on that day. I saw his face… and I saw Fossor’s face.

Oh. When he first showed up, back on my birthday… I thought he looked like a dentist. I had thought that he looked like a dentist! It was my brain. It had been my subconscious telling me that I’d seen him before.

Um. My whirlwind of thoughts was interrupted by Tabbris. That was… me, actually. I couldn’t help it. I was thinking about how he posed as a dentist before and you kind of… um, heard it.

I started to respond, only for Sands to lean over from her place on my back. “Flick?” she prompted with a concerned tone. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need to stop?”

Stop? No. No, we couldn’t stop. Even if I did feel like turning back into my human shape so I could throw up a few dozen times and then curl into a ball and shiver for a couple hours.

Instead, I gave my head a sharp shake before bounding off once more to catch up with the others. Okay, probably shouldn’t talk about that anymore. But I do want to hear more later.

That time, I could feel the shame radiating off of the other girl. I’m sorry, F-Flick, she all but whimpered. I wanted to do s-something. I wanted to stop him, but I was… I was… s-scared. 

No, Tabbris, I insisted. You did the right thing. You did the right thing, okay? You absolutely should not have confronted him. I didn’t even want to think about what Fossor would have done to Tabbris several years ago if he’d found out that she was there. The thought itself made me feel sick.

So I changed the subject. I… did you only come out for stuff like that? Tell me you actually came out for yourself sometimes.

I could sense her embarrassment then. F-for myself? I um, I guess so, sometimes. Just when you were sleeping and I kn-knew you were safe. I didn’t go very far, I just… wanted to walk around. I wanted to… to move by myself. I just wanted to be myself, just a little bit. And a couple times, I–

She stopped, going silent. I sensed her total embarrassment as her nerves spiked. Tabbris? I pressed, curious about what could possibly embarrass her so much. What happened?

Her answer came a little reluctantly. Sometimes, just… just a couple times, I… I went in while you were asleep and laid down with um, with your dad. He was mostly asleep, and he just thought that I was you. But he… he put his arm around me and he held me. I… I’m sorry. I–

She was inside my body, incorporeal or whatever. But still, it felt like she was crying, or near to it. And I could picture it. This tiny girl who had been given such a God damn enormous job to do, feeling so incredibly lonely and lost that she indulged just a little bit by curling up with my half-asleep father. She had let herself feel loved and wanted, protected, for just a little while. And now she felt guilty about that ‘indulgence’. She felt like I was going to be angry that she’d, what, tricked my father into hugging her? She thought that I was gonna be mad at her for that?

No. No, I definitely wasn’t angry about it. Not in the least. Honestly, what I wanted to do most right at that moment was give this poor girl as many hugs as she wanted, for as long as she could stand them. God, how was I even supposed to respond to a tearful confession that she had slipped out of my body for just a few minutes so that she could get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t really directed at her? What could I possibly say to something like that?

Finally, I settled on simply saying, Tabbris, believe me, I don’t blame you for that. And if I know anything about my dad, he won’t either. If he knew you were there and what you were doing, he would’ve treated you like a daughter. He’d– I took a second, collecting my thoughts. He’d protect you, just like you protected me. Just like we protect each other now, right?

Protect each other? Tabbris echoed the words slowly, clearly feeling them out.

Yeah. Now that I know about you, you think I’m gonna let anything happen to you? Fat chance. It’s like I said, we’re partners. You help me, I help you. We’ll get your mom back, we’ll introduce you to your brother and sister, we… we’ll introduce you to my dad. We–hey, that reminds me. You said who your mom is, but… what about your dad? I mean, I’m not positive about exactly how the Seosten reproduce, but I’m fairly sure it’s similar to humans since your mom and Haiden managed to have kids. So the whole plumbing issue and all that has gotta be simil–look, I’m just asking who your dad is. You haven’t mentioned him at all.

For a few seconds, there was nothing but silence. Then her voice came back slowly, and a bit weak. I don’t… really have a father. Not like that anyway.

I was confused. What do you mean, you don’t have a father? I mean, I know I used to say that I didn’t have a mother, because I thought she abandoned me. Is that what you–

No, she interrupted. I don’t–I… Seosten, they… I mean we don’t really have a… it’s hard to, um, have kids.

So she told me about how the Seosten problem, how the vast majority of their pregnancies ended up failing because the still-growing fetus would accidentally ‘possess’ the mother and disappear forever before they were grown enough to have an actual mind or personality. Almost ninety percent of all Seosten pregnancies would eventually fail. That was the whole reason they’d upgraded themselves to live for so long, so that their race wouldn’t completely die out.

Even as much as I hated what the Seosten as a whole had been doing and what they were responsible for, I still recognized the sheer awfulness of that situation. I… but, I don’t understand. What does that have to do with you not having a father?

Again, there was a long moment of silence before Tabbris finally answered. Kushiel. When… when they were on Earth the first time, she was… she was Hera. Now she’s in charge of a new project, about… about solving the child problem.

Why do I get the feeling that I’m not gonna like how she’s going about ‘solving’ it? I asked, already feeling a little queasy.

Tabbris sounded sick herself. Mama, and other prisoners, traitors. Kushiel is um… she’s using the um, um, the stuff from men who have had a successful… who had babies that survived, and she’s uh, putting it, I mean she’s–

Artificially inseminating the mothers? I finished for her, my disgust and horror rapidly rising.

Once more, silence reigned before that soft voice confirmed, Uh huh. But… but it’s more than that. She monitors them, and if the baby is lost, she does it again. And again. And again. Over and over, she keeps doing it until they have a successful pregnancy. Then she takes the baby and does it again.

Okay, everything that I had been expecting fell away then. My revulsion was so complete that I very nearly shifted back into my human shape just so that I could throw up properly. What are you–you–you mean they–she… she breeds them, like animals? She inseminates them, waits for them to have a… a miscarriage, and then does it again? She makes them go through…  a ten percent success rate. That means they go through nine miscarriages for every one successful birth. Average.

Tabbris’s voice was small and alone. Uh huh. That’s what they’re doing to my mama. That’s why I’m here.

Oh Tabby… Tabbris… What could I say to that? What could I say that would make that even the least bit better? Tabbris, you–listen to me, your mother loves you, okay? It doesn’t matter how you came about, she did everything she could to protect you. She sent you here. And we’re going to save her, alright? You, me, your brother, and your sister. We’re gonna get your mom back. We will save her.

There was sadness, but also relief in her voice as she replied, Thank you, Flick.

Like I said, partners. And I was wrong about something before.

She sounded hesitant, confused. You were wrong?

Yeah. I called Vanessa your sister. That was wrong. I should’ve called her your other sister. Before she could question that, I elaborated. You’ve been living with me for seven years, Tabbris. You’ve grown up with me, even if I didn’t know about it. Now I do. So Vanessa isn’t your only sister. You’re my sister too. Partners and sisters. You got it?

You… Flick…you didn’t have to–I mean… The tears in her voice were almost audible despite it all being in my head.

Hey, don’t cry, I tried to sound serious, but I was getting a little choked up too. If you cry, I’m pretty sure I have to tease you. Isn’t that some kind of sibling law?

Before she could respond, Roxa abruptly cut in front of me. We had been running down a narrow canyon with dense foliage overhead. She squeezed through the space between me and the nearby wall and darted right into my path before stopping short. As I skidded to a halt with the girls yelping on my back, Roxa moved to a nearby bush. Sniffing the base of it, she looked back to me, made a noise low in her throat, and then moved through the bush.

A cave. There was a cave on the other side of it. The entrance was just big enough for me to barely squeeze through once Sands and Jazz got off my back. They followed, with Isaac, Gordon, and a transformed Gidget bringing up the rear.

The cave wasn’t huge, but it was just barely tall enough for all of us to stand upright in once we got past the entrance. It was probably about the size of my room back home in Wyoming. Or what had been my home, anyway.

In any case, it was out of sight, the entrance hidden in a very narrow canyon, behind a thick bush. I couldn’t see anyone finding us here very easily. At least not for awhile. We had time to catch our breaths.

“Hey, uh, guys.” Sands was standing over by the back of the cave. “Or, rather, girls. There’s another spot through here. It’s smaller, but you guys can… you know, change. So that you don’t have to change in front of–out here.”

“Aww.” Isaac, of course. “They can change out here if they want to. I won’t complain.”

We chose to change in the other part of the cave. Roxa and I slipped through to the back, with Gidget following so that the cyberform cougar could cough up our clothes and stuff.

Moving to the other side of the much smaller cave (it was basically the size of a walk-in closet rather than a whole room), I focused on shifting back into my much smaller human form. It was kind of a relief, shedding the fur and shrinking back to my regular self. I focused on getting my body back to normal, watching as my paws became hands with nicely wiggling fingers.

Finally, I was changed. Breathing out a sigh of relief, I started to turn to see if I could get my stuff from Gidget. “Ro–”

That was as far as I managed to get, before something hit me hard enough to knock me onto my back. I landed hard, grunting as a figure perched on top of me. Roxa. She was on my stomach, one hand against my throat.

“Don’t move,” the also-naked girl hissed. “Don’t even think about moving. No one can hear us out there, not with the cone of silence I put up. So don’t try to shout and confuse everyone.”

“Roxa, what are you–”

“Gidget,” she interrupted without looking that way.

Hearing her name, the cyberform cougar moved up and squatted next to my head before reaching out to lay her paw against it. She held me down like that.

“Okay.” Roxa focused on me once more. Not that she’d ever really stopped focusing. If anything, her hand on my throat had tightened. “You have one chance. One chance, and that’s it. I’m only giving you that, because I saw how much you helped deal with Charmeine, and how you got us out of all that. I wasn’t going to be stupid and blow everything right in front of everyone. I don’t know what the hell is going on, or why you were helping us. But you need to get the hell out of Flick right now, and let me talk to her without you there.”

“Get out of Fl–” I stopped short. Touching me. She was touching me, and she had the Seosten-detection choker on. I’d completely forgotten about that. Roxa had touched me before, back when she caught me in the air after I killed Charmeine, right before we were transported. She’d touched me. She knew. She knew I was possessed.

She knew about Tabbris.  

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Field Trip 28-03

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I was under absolutely no delusions. We didn’t stand a chance against Radueriel. If he was one of the Seosten who apparently posed as the original Olympian gods, that made him something like over three thousand years old. We didn’t have a prayer. We’d gotten our asses kicked by Charmeine. She would have basically taken us apart completely and for good if she hadn’t purposefully dragged it out so that she could show off. If it hadn’t been for Columbus nailing her with that hit because she’d completely dismissed him and her dragging things out, she would have easily won. And I sincerely doubted that Radueriel was going to make the same mistake.

No, there was no question. He could put us down in seconds. It might have sounded arrogant or unfair, but the simple fact was that if Avalon and Rudolph weren’t enough to help Roxa and me deal with Charmeine, then Jazz, Gordon, Sands, and Isaac weren’t going to be enough to deal with Radueriel. And that was if he’d been by himself, let alone with the rest of his soldiers.

The Seosten spoke, but I didn’t understand the words. It sounded kind of like some of the spells that we’d learned that year, but I didn’t think he was casting anything. When none of us responded, Radueriel paused, then spoke again. That time, he tried English. “Ah, correct, humans don’t speak Old Seosten anymore, do they? This language then? You understand the trade language?” His voice held far more curiosity than anger as his gaze passed over all of us.

Some part of me wondered what the man was thinking as he looked at us. We had to look like a strange group, even to him. We had two human girls; Jazz and Sands; a couple human boys, Gordon and Isaac; a mechanical cougar, Gidget; a werewolf, Roxa; and a werelion; me. I had no idea what exactly this guy had been expecting Charmeine to send to him (besides me in a far more captured state), but this definitely wasn’t it. I wondered how much he knew about what had happened. The Seosten were supposed to be connected to each other ‘if they were on the same mission’, but was Radueriel considered to be on the same mission as Charmeine? Did it even work over that much distance? Or was he completely clueless as to why and how things had gone wrong?

When it became obvious that the man was waiting for an answer (and lacking much in the way of other options), Sands was the one who took a step forward since neither Roxa or I could actually talk in these forms. She had her mace in one hand. “We understand you just fine.”

The man’s eyes lit up, and he smiled. “Ausgezeichnet. Oh, no, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? Fremragende? Excellent? That one then. Excellent. We can have a proper conversation then.”

Did you catch any of that? I asked my ride-along partner.

There was no response. I paused, then thought, Tabbris? Hey, you okay? I know it’s scary, but… Tabbris? Tabby? Still, there was no response. She wasn’t responding. Tabbris wasn’t responding. She wasn’t–where was she? What–that was stupid, she was still in me, right? She was– she had to be. She couldn’t just disappear, she wouldn’t just leave me like this. She–

While I was busy panicking inwardly, the Seosten man continued. “Right. Let’s try these introductions again, shall we? My name is Radueriel, of the Faustian Choir. You are all here because you were selected to be subjects of a series of tests that I am… currently engaged in.

“Of course you’ve caused a bit of a, what was your word for it… ruckus since your arrival, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for such attempts. What was your goal here?” He gestured to the park area behind him with the stream just in sight. “Were you going to sneak through our water portal to escape the station? Clever. And ambitious. Yes, I don’t fault you for that. But you should put those thoughts far from your mind, because it will absolutely not be happening.”

Tabbris! I was all but ignoring Radueriel then, focused totally on the silence within my own head. Still, I got no response, no indication that there was anyone in my thoughts other than myself.

Clearing his throat, the Seosten stepped forward. His mechanical leg whirred audibly with the motion. “No, I don’t blame you for trying to escape. You wouldn’t be very good test subjects if you simply laid down and accepted that fate. But I assure you, your options now are limited. You can either surrender, in which case you will be taken to your assigned quarters to wait until I happen to be ready to work on you. Or you can attempt some kind of resistance. In that case, I’m afraid you’ll be damaged enough that you’ll need to be put back together in our medical facility. It will be an entirely unpleasant experience, I can promise you that. And afterward, once you are pieced together, you will still be taken to your quarters to await your turn in my lab.”

His gaze fell on me then. Even in my lion form, I had the feeling that he knew exactly who I was. Not that it would’ve been hard. Even with no other information, he had a fifty/fifty shot between Roxa and me. His smile grew. “And you, yes, you must be the one who killed the charming Charmeine. Or did you know her as Nemesis? Did you know her at all?” He shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. You stole her possession ability, didn’t you? Yes. But you won’t be using that again. Not here, not now.” As he spoke, Radueriel held his clockwork mechanical arm up. At a touch from his other hand, part of the metal forearm flipped around, revealing a small keyboard. He tapped a few of the buttons, and there was a brief, high-pitched whistle. As it faded, I saw every guard in this enclosed wilderness area abruptly snap to attention, straightening noticeably.

“Every being within this facility has been… upgraded,” the Seosten announced. “You will find them to be much stronger, faster, and more resistant than those outside my control. In addition, they have also been upgraded in other ways, such as their implanted teleportation devices, which allow me to either transport any of them to any of the others, or even transport myself to any of them. Instant transportation to anywhere that any of my people are located. You may start by facing one man, only for that one to become dozens within seconds. That,” he boasted, “is how you find yourself facing this many now, instead of the few that I posted at this entrance upon your initial disappearance. You could have emerged anywhere, and met this same force, including myself. Anywhere you run to, if one of my men finds you, I will be there.”

He was still smiling at his own genius before shaking his head. “But that is not the upgrade that need concern you now. No, you see, when needed, such as now, my people also obey my thoughts. I direct them. And you’ll find that your possession ability is very useless when the mind of your subject has nothing to do with the actions their body performs. After all,” he remarked while tapping the side of his head a couple times, “you never know when you might need to defend against the very gift that defines your entire race. It pays to be prepared. You’ve fought my people once. You did well. I congratulate you on that. But now, you will fight me. All of me.” At his words, the man lifted one arm. Simultaneously, every single one of the guards did the same.

The announcement horrified me. Somehow, Radueriel had implanted devices in all of his people that allowed him to take direct command of them at any point. Not by possessing them, but with a thought. Now he could, what, direct them just by sitting back and watching the fight? That meant… that meant that they’d all fight with his skill, his knowledge. The brief thought passed through my mind that he couldn’t divide his attention that much, but really, he probably could. I sincerely doubted that someone like him would forget something that basic. Honestly, even after all the different things I had seen this year, multitasking like that still seemed like cheating. But yeah, he’d probably managed to upgrade himself that much.

And… and where was Tabbris? Despite only being aware of her presence for… what… how long had it been? Maybe an hour? Less than two. Despite that, I already felt like a huge part of me was missing when she didn’t respond. Her silence was one of the most terrifying things I had ever experienced, and it was all I could do not to physically freak out right in front of everyone.

Tabbris! Tabbris, wake up! What’s wrong with–Tabbris? I was still trying to get her attention. What was going on?

Radueriel paused then, letting that sink in briefly before finishing with a simple, “Any of you who wish to surrender now may do so. You will be allowed to go to your quarters and await your turn in my lab. It will not be a fun time. But I promise, you will enjoy our medical facilities far less.”

“Um. Flick?” Sands’ voice was quiet, her eyes darting to me. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t fight this many guys, not if they’re all like… like…” She stared at the assembled army.

“I’ll tell you one thing.” That was Jazz, the dark-skinned girl standing there between her two teammates with her falchion raised. “We don’t surrender to this assface. He wants us to walk in there willingly, without even a fight? Fuck that. I don’t care if we take out one of his guys or fifty. I don’t care if we cost him an inch or a mile. But we’re gonna cost this son of a bitch something.”

Beside her, Isaac’s mouth opened. “Now, hold on. I think if we–”

Whatever the boy had been about to say, he was interrupted by Radueriel. The Seosten had been patiently waiting there, watching us for a moment. But now, he shook his head (the assembled guards did not do the same. Apparently that was an order he didn’t send them) and lamented, “Well, I did try. Remember that, children, as your limbs are being reattached later.”

Oh! Oh, Flick?

The sudden voice in my head made me jerk. The timing probably made it look like I was recoiling from Radueriel’s words. But I didn’t care. Tabbris?! Are you okay? What happened?! I felt kind of like a mother whose kid had wandered off in the grocery store or something.

U-um, Mama, the reply came quickly. It was another memory, a-and I kind of… got lost. There was a pause, and I could sense her embarrassment at the admission. B-but it’s okay, we’re okay. We can get out of here!

The soldiers were already coming for us, while Sands and the others set themselves to meet them. They were saying something to me, but I didn’t hear it. All I could focus on was the voice in my head. What? Uh, maybe you tuned out for too long, but we’re kind of screwed right now.

No! She blurted. We’re not screwed, I p-promise. We can get out. We really can. You just have to say, ‘Sevesensiel’. Out–umm, outloud, I mean. And then make everyone run. I’ll explain later, I promise. You’ve just gotta say it!

The fight was already happening. Though it wasn’t much of a fight. With every one of the guards following Radueriel’s mental direction, it was basically turning into a slaughter. The ‘fight’, such as it was, would be over in a few more seconds, if it even lasted that long.  

Sands shouted something at me, clearly wondering why I wasn’t helping, why I was just standing there completely frozen. Still, I hesitated. I can’t change right now. You know how fast those guys would be on top of me? Even as I spoke, my point was proven as three of the soldiers bypassed the others to come right for me. I bounded forward, lunging up and over them to land near the others.

I couldn’t take the time to shift, and I couldn’t talk in this form. One word (at least I assumed it was one word) and I couldn’t say it. I was a fucking lion. What was I supposed to do, roar?

F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice was panicked, and I felt her take control for a moment, making me lunge sideways away from the guard who had been coming after me during my brief moment of distraction. If you can’t talk, possess someone who c-can! You can possess one of the others!

Oh. Right. Maybe I should have hesitated. Maybe I should’ve found a way to ask permission. But there wasn’t time. At this point, as the unified, Radueriel-controlled soldiers easily swatted aside any defense that the others tried to put up as if we were all children, seconds counted. Milliseconds counted. There was no time for anything except the only action that I had left.

Spinning on my paws, I lunged directly toward Sands. While leaping, I blurted, Do the thing!

The brunette barely had time to glance my way, seeing my positively massive lion-form coming at her, before I was there. And to my immense relief, Tabbris interpreted what ‘do the thing’ meant. It probably helped that she was in my head. Either way, as we leapt that way, rather than colliding with Sands, I was suddenly seeing through the other girl’s eyes. I felt her panic as she jerked backward from what had been a gigantic lion leaping straight at her, stumbling and barely stopping herself from landing on her backside.

Sands! I sent as ‘loudly’ as I could, basically screaming in my own head while trying to direct it at the other girl. I didn’t want to take her over. I refused to take her over, even right now. I wouldn’t do that, unless I had to. Sands, say Sevesensiel! Say Sevesensiel right now! Say it!

“Sevesensiel!” Sands abruptly blurted, clearly having no idea what she was saying or why.

On the heels of that word, there was a flash of light that seemed to come from the Seosten in the back. And just like that… the wilderness around us was empty. All of the soldiers were gone. Radueriel was gone. We were all alone.

What the fuck was that?!” The demand came from Sands, Isaac, and myself all at once.

“Flick, Flick, are you in my head?!” Sands demanded out loud. “What are–”

Run! Tabbris interrupted her, though it was obvious that only I could hear her. Make them run, he’ll be back! Go, go, now, now, you only have about ninety seconds! Hurry, go!

Jazz and Isaac were both demanding to know what the hell was going on. Roxa was growling from where she stood in her wolf-form, clearly not sure if she should change back. And Sands was still asking me if I was in her, if I could read her mind, and so on.

Run! That time, it was me shouting it. Ninety seconds, they’ll be back in ninety seconds! Go! Get to the portal, we’ll figure it out from there. Just go, damn it, go! Run, run, run!

I was about to ask Tabbris to get us out of her, but she was already one step ahead of me. I was suddenly back in my own (well, my lion) body, stumbling a little. My gaze snapped across the room, and I focused on the stream ahead. Then I ran toward it, making a noise that was something like a half-roar to get everyone’s attention.

To her credit, Sands didn’t wait around questioning what I’d said. “Go!” she shouted to the others. “They’ll be back in a minute, just go! Questions later, running now!” Even as she spoke, the other girl was already running after me. And the others, thankfully, were right behind her as we hit the stream and turned to follow it to the portal.

Sixty seconds. Tabbris’s voice was nervous. I couldn’t blame her. Hurry, Flick. Hurry.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. Err, three times. I saw the portal up ahead and kept running, pushing myself hard while the others scrambled to keep up. The portal glimmered a little as we approached, and I splashed my way through the water before going right through. There was a sudden tingling, disorienting sensation as the world went weird around me (they apparently didn’t build safeties into portals that were just meant to carry water).

Then I was through, emerging into some kind of metal building with the river running through the middle of it. There were consoles and several technicians standing around, along with a few more armed guards. This place was clearly some kind of filtration plant or something. And from the look of things, there were several more separated streams of water running through it to different portals. Probably all running to more space stations.

Leaping out of the ditch, I crashed into the nearest armed guard. He was shouting something, but I didn’t care. His hand was grabbing for the pistol on his belt as my frying pan-sized paw slammed into his head so hard it left pretty much nothing but mush behind.

A brief rush of pleasure rushed through me, my aura flaring up even as the others spread out through the rest of the room. The technicians were making a break for it, and there were only a few guards for Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Isaac, Gordon, and Gidget to make short work of.

Tabbris, I managed, using the moment of kill-pleasure as cover to stay still for a second. What was that? What the hell was that word?

The console, over there to the right! She urged me that way. Destroy it, so the portal shuts down before Radueriel recovers!

As I moved that way, bounding up a short flight of stairs that led to an overlook area where the console in question was, she hurriedly explained. Mama’s old partner, Apollo. He quit the Seosten a long time ago and um, he disappeared. Like, a really long time ago. But he and Mama were friends. He told her a… about something he set up the last time he had, um, the last time he had to deal with Radueriel. It was supposed to be a get-out-of-jail free card in case he ever got caught, and he told Mama so she could escape if she needed to, if she ever changed her mind about leaving. Because he trusted her. She didn’t report it back then because it would’ve… umm, given them a big excuse to come after Apollo a lot more than they were. He quit, and that was bad enough. But if they knew he had ways to stop or, um, or stall them, they would’ve sent a lot more people after him.

That word thing? I guessed, using my lion paws to utterly demolish the console. As I did, the portals shut down, winking out of existence so that the water in the little metal gutters throughout the room just started quickly filling it up. It was time to leave. And wait, that makes Apollo almost like your uncle if they were… partners, wait a second, does that mean your mother was–

Uh huh, she confirmed. Mama was Artemis. And it was a, um, a magic hack thing that Apollo installed into R-Radueriel’s equipment. When it was triggered, it took over all his stuff and transported him and everyone he was controlling to a random location, then shut down all his upgrades and other stuff he installed in himself for ninety seconds.

I absorbed that for a second while the others shouted at me to hurry up. They were already by the nearest doors. So I’m guessing that won’t work again. One shot thing, teleports him and everything he’s controlling somewhere else and EMP’s his stuff, then it’s gone?

Um. Y-yes, just that one time. Which… I guess we’re lucky no one else ever used it, huh?

Really lucky, I agreed. But wouldn’t he have upgraded his equipment at some point in all this time and noticed it?

It wasn’t just scribbled on his mechanical arm or anything, Tabbris explained. Apollo put it on one of the bits of equipment that was going inside Radueriel, part of his reinforced metal skeleton. It makes him a lot tougher than normal Seosten, and there’s no reason for him to take it out. Weapons and stuff, yeah. But the reinforced skeleton, that’s kind of permanent, you know? Like… like putting a spell on the foundation of a house instead of on the furniture. Furniture gets moved around and changed. Foundation stays the same. That’s why Apollo chose that one, cuz he knew it’d be a long time before someone used it. Then Radueriel got transferred out here instead of spending his time on Earth, so… I guess Apollo never ran into him again.  

I nodded a little at that, thinking about how much I really wanted to hug this Apollo guy while leaping off the raised platform to land by the others. They’d gotten the door open by that point, revealing a forest beyond that didn’t look too different from the artificial one we had just left. But this one was at least on a planet instead of an enclosed station.

There was a lot more I wanted to ask Tabbris. There was even more that the others probably wanted to ask me. There was a lot to talk about in general. But right now, only one thing mattered. Only one thing was going to keep us away from Radueriel and the other Seosten long enough to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do now.

And only one thing was going to spare me from thinking about what everyone back on Earth was doing right now.

We had to keep running.

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Field Trip 28-02

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Two of the soldiers with the blank faceplates stood guard in front of a door. Ahead of them and opposite the door was a blank wall, while the corridor continued on in both directions to the left and right. Both held their weapons at loose readiness, clearly on alert and ready for anything.

Anything, that was, except for a small, shimmering liquid-like spot to appear on that wall directly across from them. For a second, both of the guards simply leaning forward slightly as though squinting at it. Then they turned to look at each other, each about to say something.

Whatever they had been about to say was interrupted as an energy-arrow shot through that small liquid-like spot on the wall that they had been staring at. It hit the floor between the guards before exploding into a burst of concussive force that knocked them both to the floor.

“They’re down, let’s go!” I called while lowering my staff in its bow form. Turning away from where I had been looking between Gordon’s raised hands in order to see through the wall, I looked toward Jazz. The other girl was already moving up to the wall to run her hands along it. Like with the floor in the room where we had arrived, everywhere she touched, the wall turned that liquidy-shape. In this case, whatever material the wall was made out of must’ve been less dense than the room where we had first shown up, because it turned a lot faster than that floor had.

Within a few seconds, she’d made it just large enough to dive through. I did so, throwing myself through the almost-hole before rolling to my feet on the other side. The first of the two guards was starting to pick himself up, until my weapon, collapsed back into its staff form, collided solidly with the back of his helmet. He dropped once more, hitting the floor with a dazed grunt.

By that point, the second guard was up to my right. Before he could do anything, Roxa was suddenly there. She caught hold of the man’s arm with one hand and his neck with the other, before bodily heaving him hard into the opposite wall. He slammed into it like Wile E. Coyote running smack into a painted-on tunnel, rebounding off it before collapsing to the floor.

Gidget, who had come through with Roxa, padded over and leaned down to sniff at the second guard. When he stayed unmoving on the floor, she made a happy purring sound before plopping down right there with one big metal paw resting on his back, just waiting like that. The guy was gonna have a pretty bad day if he woke up and tried to move at all.

The others joined us a moment later, moving through the opening that Jazz had created. Finally, all six of us were standing there in front of the door. We had been running for the past fifteen minutes. Most of the others were winded. Roxa and I were the only ones that weren’t panting. Hence why we had been elected to go through and deal with the soldiers that were in our way.

Looking up and down the corridor for a moment, Sands asked, “Okay, so now what? We have no idea where we are, where we’re going, which way is safe, if safe even exists anymore, and everyone around here wants to kill or capture us. Oh and, by the way, apparently ‘capture’ is the worst of the two options, considering the reason they want to catch us is so that they can let one of those wannabe angel fuck take over our bodies and turn us into their personal meat-suits.”

“Um, I’m sorry, wannabe angel?” Isaac raised a hand. “As in big glowy wings and halos?”

Sands shook her head at him. “It’s an unbelievably long story. Seriously, you have no idea. Just wait until we can actually talk.” She gestured to me then, repeating, “What do we do?”

“We keep going,” I replied. “We’ll find an exit, get out of this building, and regroup from there. And–” I added while looking to Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon. “I know you guys have questions. We’ll answer them. But first, we have to get the hell out of this place. Then you’ll get your answers.”

The three of them looked between Roxa and me, and it was clear that they still at least kind of wanted to push the issue. But they stopped themselves. Gordon was the one who spoke up, taking the pragmatic approach. “How do we find the exit when we have no idea where we are?”

It was a good question. Our initial flight from the room we had arrived in had just been a result of ‘let’s get as far away from this particular location as we can, as fast as possible’. But now, we’d been running for this long and there was still no sign of an exit. The whole place was a maze, a maze that we would have been lost in for good, and probably even trapped and captured, a lot earlier if it hadn’t been for Gordon’s x-ray vision and Jazz’s ability to let us go through walls.

Pausing for a second, I thought inwardly, I don’t suppose you have any ideas, Tabbris?

There was a slight hesitation before the response came. I… I’m sorry, I don’t know. This wasn’t part of the memories that Mama left me, I don’t think. Um. Maybe it was built after she left, or she was never here, or… I had the feeling of a shrug. I’m r-really sorry, I wish I knew more.

It’s okay, I thought back to her. You don’t have to have all the answers. Just speak up if you think of something. Or if one of those extra memories your mom left happens to kick in.

Focusing on the others once more, I shook my head. “Sorry, guys. I wish I had a better answer than just ‘keep looking’. Eventually, we’re either gonna find our way out, or those guys are gonna find us. Let’s hope for the former. Because seriously, you don’t wanna let them take you.”

Roxa squinted at me for a second before turning back to look at the guards on the floor. “Too bad we can’t just ask these guys,” she started before her head tilted. “Unless we can.” Slowly, she looked to me. “You killed Charmeine. And back there, in that room, I swear I saw you…”

I nodded. “Right. I possessed the guy. But these ones are unconscious. As we saw back in the hotel with Charmeine, there’s not much an unconscious body can do, even if it is possessed.”

Jazz’s mouth opened at that, but I saw her hesitate before stopping herself. It was obvious that she had a ton of questions. Which I didn’t blame her for. But she kept quiet. Clearly, the other girl was smart enough to realize that every second we took dealing with their questions was another second that we weren’t escaping. And another second for the bad guys to find us.

Roxa just raised an eyebrow at me, asking dryly, “Does he have to be conscious to read his mind?” After a brief pause, she amended, “That sounded really snarky, but I’m seriously asking.”

“Oh…” I felt like slapping my own forehead, but now that there were two of us in here, it felt wrong. “Right, I guess I could give that a shot.” I took a step that way, while thinking, Little more help? I’m still not sure I understand exactly what you did before. Could you show me again?

Oh, oh, um, yes. I felt Tabbris’s own embarrassment, like she was ashamed that she hadn’t thought of this solution herself. She hesitated again before asking, Can I, um, does that mean–

Go ahead, I replied while moving to kneel next to one of the fallen guards. Do what you need to.

Once again, I didn’t actually feel control of my own body slip away. My hand simply moved by its own, reaching out to touch the fallen guard on the arm. Just as before, it felt disorienting.

The next thing I knew, there was… darkness. Right, he was unconscious, so his eyes were closed. And, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. Or dreaming, if his race dreamed. I assumed they did. But in this case, there was just… nothing.

How do I, uh, get what I need? I was trying hard not to think about how weird it was to possess anyone, let alone someone that was unconscious. There was a part of me that thought I should have been cheering about the fact that I could now use the Seosten’s own trick against them. But mostly I just felt really awkward about invading someone’s privacy like this. Taking over his body, even if he was an enemy, felt really… icky. There was no other way for me to describe it.

Still, I forced myself past that. I was going to have to use every trick there was to make sure we all got out of this alive and unpossessed. Or, at least, unpossessed by bad guys. And now, I wasn’t just fighting to keep myself and my classmates safe. I had to worry about Tabbris too. She’d been hiding inside me this whole time, obviously secretly helping where she could. I owed her as much as I’d ever owed anyone. She saved me from enslavement. I wouldn’t forget that.

Shaking off those thoughts (which I was pretty sure she could hear), I focused on what was going on. Okay, so how do I–uh, you know, read the thoughts of someone who’s asleep?

The um, the same way you did b-before, the answer came. Just um, you know, uh, focus on what you wanna know. Think about it really hard, and it’ll move his thoughts that way.

So I did. Sitting there in the darkness and relative quiet (I could kind of hear the others whispering in the background, but it sounded like it was coming from a long way off for some reason), I focused on thinking about the layout of this base, or building, or whatever it was.

It was that thought that dragged up the single word answer to that particular question from the man’s mind. An answer that almost made me bail out reflexively as I blurted that single word.

Space station?! We’re on a fucking space station?!

That was the first thought that I’d pulled out of the man’s mind. As soon as I’d wondered about where we actually were, his slumbering brain had offered up the image of a massive complex floating somewhere in the middle of space. According to his memory, the place was fucking huge. The place looked like an enormous, roughly pill-shaped oval with two giant pyramids attached to it at their bases. The pyramids each constantly revolved around the main pill shape of the structure, moving very slowly so that, over the span of what I was guessing was their equivalent of a day, each pyramid would face the nearby star for their daytime, then rotate away from it and behind the main structure for their night, then back again for the next day.

The top half of the pyramids themselves were clear, with parks and trees and farms and stuff inside, and places where they were raising animals. There were even a couple streams and waterfalls in there. Water itself was brought through a couple portals at the head each stream from some other planet, which then terminated at the end of the stream in a few hidden reservoir-like tanks to store more water. When those tanks happened to be full, extra portals sent the water back where it came from. In the meantime, the water that flowed through the streams could be used by the animals that they had wandering through their artificial wilderness.

They weren’t just small wildernesses either. At its base, each of the pyramids’ upper halves, which contained the farms, ranches, forests, streams, and more (even some low hills), were about eighty miles across from one side to the other, and about half that tall to get to the top.

The lower half of the pyramids, meanwhile, were where all the housing and other more private things were. And the big oval-shaped base in the middle that each pyramid revolved around, that’s where we were. And it was where all the military stuff happened, where the science labs (like the room we appeared in), the docking bay, and the bridge were.

Okay, uh, hey, partner, I thought toward my companion, I’m gonna need your help again. You’ve got that perfect memory. Can you, like, pull up every memory about this whole place that we can manage and just remember all of it? I don’t know how it works, but if we can just grab every bit of information possible out of this guy’s head before we go, I’m pretty sure we’ll need it eventually.

I had the impression of the girl nodding. O-oh, yes! Just… umm, just a second. It’s like… um, flipping through a book. Speed reading. It’s like speed reading.

Over the next brief minute, dozens of images zipped through my mind. It was like watching a movie on extreme fast forward, all I could focus on were the occasional high points. The man had the equivalent of what we would call a husband, his mother had passed away a few years earlier, he really wanted to be a pilot but didn’t have the test scores necessary for it… and more and more facts just careened through my thoughts too quickly to keep track of.

Finally, just as I was starting to get a headache, Tabbris was done. She had everything she could get in the brief window that we had. Neither of us dared take any longer.

That time, the moment I had the urge to escape the man’s body, I could suddenly see again. I was back in my own body, blinking at the bright lights. To my right, I caught a glimpse of Sands jumping a bit as I abruptly appeared out of nowhere.

“Well?” Isaac prompted, standing beside his two teammates. “Did you, uh, get what we need?”

“Jesus, Isaac,” Jazz chastised, “give the girl a second, would you?” She seemed to remember only belatedly that they weren’t sure they could even trust me, and flushed a little bit before muttering under her breath, “It’s a new power and she just possessed someone. Ease up.”

“Hey, sure, no problem,” the boy retorted sarcastically. “Not like we’re in a hurry or anything. Should I get the picnic basket and a few lawn chairs so we can spread out right here and have a nice, relaxing meal while we wait for all the bad guys to dogpile us?”

“Enough.” That was Gordon, the somber boy speaking that single word without taking his eyes off of me. He watched silently after that, clearly waiting for me to explain what I’d found out.

Still, I hesitated briefly before turning. “I’ll explain on the way, we need to keep moving. Isaac’s right, if we stay here much longer, they’ll be right on top of us. Trust me, we don’t want that.”

So we kept running. And as we ran, I quickly explained what I had found out from the guard.

“Wait, wait.” Jazz slowed, looking over at me with wide eyes. “We’re on a space station?! As in, there’s nowhere to escape to? It’s either stay here until they find us, or go die in the vacuum?”

Before I could answer, Sands spoke up. “No, there is a way off, remember? She said there was a docking bay. That means there’s spaceships, right?”

“Do you know how to fly a spaceship?” Isaac demanded. “Cuz I can’t even drive a stick shift. Plus, I seem to have left my ‘Piloting A Sowstin Spaceship For Dummies’ book in my other pants.” The boy was lagging back a little, running behind us. He sounded a bit out of breath.

“First of all,”  I interrupted before the two could argue any more,  “it’s Seosten.” I carefully sounded it out a second time. “Say-oh-stun. And secondly, we’re not going to the hangar bay. We might be able to work out the whole ship thing, but honestly, there’s a better way. The portals in the pyramids, the ones that bring in the water from that planet. They’re guarded, but we can deal with that. We go through the portals, deal with anything on the other side, and get out onto the planet. Then we’ll go from there.”

Roxa, jogging by her cougar, asked, “So we just break into their little park thing and head straight for the river?”

While I nodded, Gordon spoke up, his voice as calm as ever. “How far do we need to go? You said the station was almost a hundred miles across. So how far are we from getting into this park area? And how do we know that we’re not about to run straight into a guard barracks or something like that?”

“Yeah,” Isaac chipped in. “Can we take an elevator or something to get there? They’ve gotta have quicker ways to get around than just walking everywhere, don’t they? In all those space shows, they’ve always got elevators or teleportation systems or something like that.”

“Yes,” I replied to the second boy first, “they’ve got elevators. But we can’t use them. These back tunnels aren’t under constant observation, but the elevators are. So are the transport portals and every other thing they use to move quickly. Our only chance of getting there without being spotted are these tunnels. They’re basically maintenance shafts. Those guys are gonna be looking for us in them, but there’s hundreds of miles of these corridors wrapping all the way around the station on every level, and they’ve only got so many guards to send. Plus, they don’t want to split up too much, because they know we’ll plow right through any group that’s too small. They’ll stick together in big enough groups to slow us down long enough for the rest to jump in.”

Isaac heaved a long, heavy sigh. “So basically you’re saying we have to walk there.”

“No, idiot,” Jazz retorted, “she’s saying we have to run there. So save your breath and keep moving.”

Roxa shook her head. “Too bad you guys don’t all have werewolf powers, that’d help a lot.”

From where she was jogging, Jazz gave the other girl a thumbs. “Oh, right, saw you go all part wolfy back there in the big room. How many of the furry guys did you have to kill to get the full werewolf shifting?”

Somehow containing most of her reaction, Roxa replied flatly, “You’d be surprised.”

“And is that where you’ve been, hunting werewolves?” Jazz pressed. “And what does that have to do with Chambers over there? What–”

“Later,” Roxa managed to interject with a slightly pained expression. I knew she wanted to tell them more, but she simply shook her head. “No time now. I…” For a moment, I thought she was going to say something else about it. In the end, however, the girl just changed the subject. “I wish you could all ride Gidget, but the board’s only so big.”

“Hold on.” I stumbled a bit to a stop. “Roxa, can Gidget carry two people in her board form that aren’t you if you ask her to?”

“Uh.” The girl looked at the cougar, then back to me and shrugged. “Sure, if I ask her to. Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “If you go full wolf, you can run a lot longer and a lot faster. Then two of these guys can ride Gidget.”

“That still leaves three of us,” Gordon pointed out. “You and two more. What are you planning to do about that?”

Slowly, my smile widened.

*******

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Sands cried out.

“Oh my God, we’re gonna die, we are going to die, we are going to diiiiiiieee!” Jazz chimed in.

Big babies. You’d think they’d never ridden bareback on a five foot tall (at the head) lioness that was running about forty miles an hour down an alien corridor before.

It must have made a rather eclectic sight. One massive lioness carrying two teenage girls, one armed with a mace and the other a falchion, a wolf, and a hoverboard with two teenage boys riding it, one of them holding a flail while the other had what looked like a black powder tommy gun. All of which were careening through the corridors, basically running over and through anything that got in the way.

I knew the route from the man’s mind, and going the way that we were, it wasn’t too long before one of the entrances to the ‘park’ (or whatever they called it) loomed ahead of us. From the memories that I had taken from the guard back there, I knew that it was actually a hidden maintenance entrance built behind a large tree, with a boulder blocking the other side from view.

Then we were there. A security panel sat beside the heavy metal door, but it clicked green as we approached, and there was a hiss of escaping air as the hatch began to slide open. That had to be my security-breaking power kicking in. Super useful, that was.

Slowing down as the door opened, I let Jazz and Sands slip off my back. I wanted to take the time to change back, but… we didn’t have it. We had to get the hell out of here. As the boys stepped down off of the hoverboard to let Gidget shift back into her cougar form, we slowly crept forward. I went first, stepping through the doorway.

It was like going outside into an actual park. There was even a slight breeze as we moved out of the maintenance corridor and into the wilderness area. Dirt, grass, trees, rocks, and more surrounded us. We could hear birds chirping. It was a freaking park right in the middle of a space station.

“Okay,” Sands whispered once we were all through the door. “Flick said we just have to follow this treeline about a hundred yards, then take a right to hit the stream. Then we can find the portal and get the hell out of here.”

I was about to make a growl of affirmation, when the door behind us suddenly whooshed shut and gave a definitive click. My head jerked that way, before snapping back to the front at the sound of a lot of energy weapons powering up.

Guards. Soldiers. A lot of them. Too many. Thirty, at least, and that was just at first count. All of them with their weapons raised and pointed at us. And right in the middle of them stood the one figure I really didn’t want to see: Radueriel.

They’d known where we were going. They’d beaten us there. He was ready for us. He had been waiting for us to show up.

We were so fucking dead.

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Field Trip 28-01

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Jazz’s voice was high-pitched, almost shrill. “I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Where are we? What happened to Paul?! What was that thing that took his place?! And who the fuck was that woman that popped out of Columbus?!” By the end, she was waving her arms wildly while practically hyperventilating.

“And most importantly,” the dark-skinned girl demanded finally while spinning toward Roxa, “are you okay?!” Punctuating the question with a lunge that way, Jazz embraced her old roommate.

While Roxa grunted in surprise at the sudden hug and staggered back a step, Sands suddenly spoke up, interrupting as she raised her hand to point. “Uh, guys? I really hate to interrupt the happy reunion and all the really, really good questions, but we’ve kinda got company.”

She was right, I realized. The enormous, brightly lit room that we were standing in suddenly wasn’t nearly as empty as it had been just a few seconds earlier. There were a dozen figures in there with us. Most of them wore some kind of black body armor with a face-obscuring helmet. They also carried weapons, half of them some kind of electrified pike thing, while the other half carried futuristic rifles that hummed with energy as much as the pikes did.  

The soldiers, or whatever they happened to be, were accompanied by two other figures in what looked a lot like scientist lab coats. They stood a bit behind the others, one of them holding some kind of flat screen computer pad in one hand. All of them stopped short almost as soon as they appeared. Clearly, whatever they had been expecting to see in here, we weren’t it. Most likely because they weren’t expecting us to be upright, conscious, armed, and ready for a fight.

Tabbris, I thought inwardly, we are where I think we are, aren’t we? If there was the slightest chance that I was wrong and we weren’t as completely screwed as I thought we were, I wanted to know about it.  

I th-think so, came the response. I d-don’t know, I’ve never been here before. Or I was too little. Th-those are Seosten people though. I mean, the scientists are. The troops are probably something else. They use, um, other races for their grunt troops. She sounded about as nervous as I felt, probably because she knew that we were both in deep trouble if these guys caught us.

The guns had already snapped up up to point in our direction, while one of the scientist-figures (the one without the computer), called out, “Human-children, put your weapons on the ground and you will not be harmed! Do so immediately, or face the consequences of your disobedience.”

Gordon, who had been silent up until that point, lifted his chin. “I assume,” he started, clearly addressing me even if his attention was on those guys, “that surrendering is a bad idea.”

“Very bad,” I confirmed flatly. “You know that bitch that came out of Columbus? She was possessing him. She’s been puppeting him for months, enslaving him, making him work against us. And that’s what these guys want to do to us. They want to turn us all into their puppets.”

“This is your last warning,” the scientist announced, while the guards that were armed with the pikes raised them threateningly. All ten of the soldiers looked like they were about half a second away from opening up on us right then and there. Clearly, coming in expecting to pick up a bunch of helpless bodies and running into us instead had thrown them off. I had no doubt that they were already calling in for help. It might be just ten now, but it would be a lot more soon.

“Well, I for one,” Isaac put in then, “don’t feel like letting a bunch of weird freaks jam their hands up my ass and wiggle their fingers. Especially when they haven’t even bought me a drink yet.”

“Shut up, Isaac.” Jazz’s retort seemed automatic, like she wasn’t even thinking about it. Then she looked over to me pointedly. “When we get out of this, you owe us answers. A lot of them.”

Before I could do more than give the briefest nod, the soldiers made their move. From each of the five rifles, a wide blue beam emerged, shooting across the room toward us. All five of the beams collided with the stone wall that Sands created with her mace, though they didn’t seem to do any actual damage to it. Probably something meant to knock us out, a stun beam.

The brown-haired girl reinforced the wall quickly, adding an angled roof overhead before her head shook. “It’ll hold against those stun beams, but not against everything they throw at it.”

Holding both of his hands up in front of his eyes like he was looking through invisible binoculars, Gordon took a second before grimacing. “There’s more of them already. They’re coming.”

“And they’re going to keep coming,” I replied. “This is their home turf, we need to go. If we stand here and fight, they’ll take us down eventually. And trust me, we do not want to be taken down.”

The black boy gave a single nod at that before looking down, still keeping his hands cupped around his eyes to use his x-ray vision power. “Jasmine,” he started simply, “it’s clear below us. Can you–”

“Yeah, I can get us out of here!” Jazz snapped while ducking under a shot that was angled up over the wall, “But it’ll take a bit, and I can’t do it if they’re shooting at me! It’s–” She swallowed. “It’s harder under stress. And I don’t know what this floor is made out of, but…” Pointedly, she waved her hand over it, and I saw a little bit start to shimmer before it faded. That continued, the bit of floor going back and forth from normal to shimmery and back again before Jazz muttered with obvious annoyance, “It’s resisting my power. I need a minute.”

“Sands, can you cover Jazz while the rest of us keep these guys busy for as long as it takes?” I asked, even as a wince escaped me at the sound of a lot more feet pounding into the room.

She gave a quick nod. “Yeah, I got it.” Pausing, she looked to me seriously. “Be careful, Flick.”  

“Why would I start now?” I asked with a shrug before turning to the others. “Okay, let them make the exit. The rest of us… these guys are playing for keeps, okay? It’s not a game, and we don’t have Gaia, Professor Dare, or anyone else watching our backs to make sure it’s not too dangerous. This is real. Absolutely, completely real. I know asking if you’re ready is stupid at this point, but…”

Roxa straightened, lifting her chin. “We can do this. Right, Gidget?” As the mechanical cougar gave a growl of agreement, she winked at me. “Just another fun day around Felicity Chambers.”

“You sure?” I pressed, gesturing to her injured arm. “Your…”

“I’m fine,” the other girl insisted, touching the spot where she had torn a bit of her shirt to create a makeshift bandage to tie around the wound. “Heretic regeneration.”

Right, the werewolf healing might not do much to the silver, but that wasn’t the only healing ability that Roxa had. Plus, she had those redundant organs from the Jekern. When it came down to it, Roxa Pittman was now incredibly difficult to kill.

“Little help?” Gordon, who was still using his tommy gun to spray down covering fire over the top of the wall while using his other hand to watch through it, prompted in his simple, unexcited voice. He sprayed again, grimacing. “Too close.”

Roxa gave a quick nod at that. “Right, let’s do this. Remember, what doesn’t kill us… we kill first so we can Highlander its soul.”  

That might as well have been our battle cry, because it was the last thing that any of us said before we were suddenly in the thick of things. I spun around the left side of the wall that Sands had created just in time to practically come face to face with one of the pike-wielding soldiers. His helmet had a flat black visor covering his face that made his expression impossible to read, though from his body language, he seemed surprised to see me. Abruptly, that pike of his snapped up, and I barely had the chance to spin out of the way, letting it jab past me. My arm dropped to hook around the shaft of the weapon, catching it as I continued to pivot. I felt him try to keep his grip on the thing, but I was stronger. The pike was torn from his grip, and I released the thing to let it clatter to the floor. At the same time, I turned my spin into a leap, kicking the man across his helmet in a blow that knocked him stumbling sideways, now weaponless.

There was another guy right behind that one. He had his gun raised, but I took a quick hop step forward while kicking out. My toes barely caught the shaft of the fallen pike, launching the thing up into the man’s helmet just hard enough that he reflexively jerked backward. His stun shot went wide. Then I was there. Pivoting, I caught the rebounding pike with my left hand while turning in a full circle. My own staff, held tight in my right hand, collided with the gunman’s chest before I triggered the kinetic blast that I’d been charging up. He was sent flying across the room.

At the same time, as I pivoted, my other hand reared back and released the pike that I’d caught. The electrified blade part took the first man in the back before he could finish recovering from that kick. There was a sudden crack of energy, and the man screamed before collapsing to the floor like a sack of bricks. Clearly, the pikes could knock us out as easily as those stun lasers, or whatever they were. Either way, we definitely didn’t want to get hit by them. It would be… bad.

Across the way, I could see Gordon. The boy had split his gun apart into its sword and shield mode, catching an incoming pike-swing from one of the soldiers with the blade while simultaneously using the shield to deflect a couple of stun-blasts. A second later, he spun and dropped to one knee while swinging his shield-arm to the left and back, driving the edge of the shield into the stomach of the man whose blade he had deflected. The blow made the soldier double over, and Gordon pirouetted back to his feet while giving a quick slice with his sword that took the man’s head off, sending it bouncing along the floor as the boy’s green aura flared up.

Meanwhile, a little bit past him, Isaac had somehow gotten hold of one of the enemy’s stun rifles and was using it to take potshots at them while the three spiked balls from his flail all hovered around him in their separate, floating drone forms. The drones were taking shots here and there as well, but mostly they acted as shields. Any time a shot came near the boy, one of his drones darted into its path to intercept, creating a shimmering blue forcefield around itself for an instant.

Hey, partner, I thought inwardly while using a short burst from my staff to knock myself away from a couple of stun shots. They were still trying to knock us out, even now. These guys were trying really hard not to kill us. I could only imagine what their Seosten masters would do to them if they ruined a set of perfectly good Heretic bodies that could have been possessed.

As I landed, Tabbris responded, clearly waiting until I had my feet under me and wasn’t under immediate attack. Yes, she answered without wasting the time to make me voice what she already knew I was going to ask by reading my thoughts, I can, um, tell you what you got from killing that stu–um, Charmeine. You can, um possess people. Like Seosten do. Like I do.

Now see? I sent back, even as I darted forward to catch the pike from one of the soldiers and knocked it aside. I knew you’d be really useful to have around, now that you’re talking to me. But– I went silent briefly, focusing on spinning my staff around to parry the next thrust from the man. As his pike was knocked aside once more, I finished, think you can take over for a second and make it happen? I’m not sure what I’m doing.

My eyes were on the quite frankly alarmingly number of soldiers coming through what I could now see was a door at the other end of the room. These guys may not have been expecting us to be ready to fight, but they were adjusting quickly. We’d had a bit of early success at fending them off, but sooner or later, they’d overwhelm us. Unless, of course, we could get out of here before they brought in too many guys for us to deal with. Time was decidedly not on our side.

The surprise in Tabbris’s voice was obvious. Y-you want me to… to control you? But I–I mean, you trust…

I grimaced, taking a quick step back as the man swung that pike at me again. You could have taken over any time you wanted to, I pointed out simply. The fact that you haven’t, and after everything you’ve done… yeah, I’d say I can trust you. C’mon, partner, take this guy over.

By that point, the soldier had gotten tired of me evading all of his attacks. I heard a dark growl of frustration escape him, and he swung the pike up and around violently. I was pretty sure that he didn’t care if he hurt me more than he was supposed to. He wanted me on the ground already.

My instinct was to dodge away from the swing. But abruptly, my body didn’t respond to my thoughts. It was incredibly disorienting. The closest thing I could compare it to was when you’re climbing stairs and you expect there to be one more step than there actually is, so you raise your foot really high and then come awkwardly. It was kind of a mental version of that.

My body wasn’t responding to me, but it was moving. My arm lashed out and down, parrying the pike out of the way with my staff. Then my other hand snapped up while my feet moved to carry me forward. I caught hold of the soldier’s armored faceplate, pressing my fingers against it.

And then… well, then my view suddenly snapped around so that I was looking at the spot where I had just been standing. It was a disorienting vision switch that kind of felt like going around a sharp curve in a roller coaster. My stomach was doing flip flops. Or maybe his stomach was, and I was just feeling it. Or maybe–never mind, it was entirely too complicated by that point.

Not only was I seeing through the man’s eyes, I could also feel his muscles. I could feel his… wow, I could feel his exhaustion and his fear. Not of us, I realized belatedly, but of failing. The man was thinking about what would happen if he failed to contain us, of what the Seosten would do. And–okay, the images that filled his mind would not make it easier for me to sleep at night.

The man’s name, he was… he was called Riolu Ylet. He had been alive for what his planet called fourteen ossils, which I was pretty sure translated to years. And since he’d never been to Earth, there was no way of knowing how long that actually was. My best guess was that he would’ve been considered roughly twenty-eight. A young guy, as far as all that went. And he–

Flick, Tabbris’s voice prompted in my head, you can move him, just like moving yourself.

Oh. Oh. Right, stop reading into the man’s entire life story, Flick. His thoughts, memories, and feelings had just started flooding into my mind as soon as I had the slightest inkling of curiosity. In the background of my mind, I felt him shouting at me, demanding that I leave his body.

Sorry, I thought at him, I just need to borrow this for a second. To be fair, you were gonna help your masters enslave all my friends and play Operation on me. So I think we’re pretty even.

Moving felt awkward. My body was all wrong. Or rather, his was, in relation to what I was accustomed to. He was taller than I was, he moved a little slower than I did, his arms were longer, it was all different. I turned, and as I took in the sight of the rest of the room, something else happened. Wherever the other soldiers and the scientists were, there was a faint green outline. And wherever Roxa and the others were, there was a faint red outline. The helmets had Identify Friend/Foe capability. Probably among other things that I didn’t have time to focus on in that moment.

Instead, I focused on the one thing that I actually did need to know right then, dragging the memory up out of Riolu’s thoughts while he tried to keep it hidden from me. Then I had it.

“Desedene!” I made the man’s lips shout, screaming it as loud as he could while running away from the group. His arms flailed, and I made him shout again, “Desedene!”

Hearing that word, all of the soldiers and the scientists dove to the floor. They covered their heads and hugged the ground.

Bomb. I had taken the word for the most dangerous (yet still believable) bomb that Riolu could think of, the worst bomb that we could possibly have smuggled in on our little trip. It was enough to make them dive for the floor, buying us a little time.

Eject! I blurted inwardly. Tabbris, hit the eject!

My body was back. Or I was back in my body. Whichever, the point was, I was back behind the man that I had taken possession of. And as a bonus, he was already collapsing to the floor. Tabbris had knocked him out rather than give him a chance to say that everything was safe.

Spinning on my heel then, I shouted for the others. “Go, go, go!” All the while, I was already running back toward the wall that Sands had created.

Sliding my way around it, I blurted, “Tell me you’re ready, cuz there are way too many guys out there for us to deal with anymore.” Around me, the others came stumbling into view, most of them looking pretty ragged. It was time to go.

Jazz, kneeling on the floor with Sands standing over her (and a couple downed soldiers littering the floor around them), gave a short nod. “Got it, got it! I don’t know how long it’ll hold, but got it! Go, go, get through right now!” The floor in front of the girl was shimmering like water.

Looking back around the wall, I saw the soldiers just starting to pick themselves up. Since the bomb had never materialized, they were rising once more. Luckily, the fact that we had so much firepower on our side seemed to have given them pause. And I was sure they were confused about the guy who had yelled about the bomb. But still, there was no more time to waste. They were going to get over their hesitation really quick.

“Roxa, go!” I gestured, and the blonde girl hopped through the shimmering part of the floor. She was followed immediately by Isaac. Then Gordon went through. I nodded toward Sands, and she followed after him.

A quick glance around the wall revealed that all of the remaining soldiers were back on their feet by that point. Worse, there was another figure standing in the doorway of the room, just beyond them. He was a short man, standing only slightly taller than I was, with tousled, curly brown hair. He wore a dark green cloak over one shoulder that covered the right half of his body, leaving his right arm hidden. One of his legs was clearly mechanical, a bronze and red metallic limb with what looked like clockwork parts whirring and spinning as he lifted it to take a step.

Radueriel, Tabbris’s voice whispered in my head. When the Seosten were all playing gods on Earth, he was Hephaestus. M-Mama said his experiments are almost as b-brutal as the Fomorians. He’s the one who really made the Heretical Edge.

Okay, there was a lot of information to digest there, especially the part about all the Seosten playing gods and the fact that this guy had made the Heretical Edge, not Bosch. Which probably meant that he had been the one possessing Bosch, though I wasn’t positive on that.

The man stopped when he saw me peeking out at him, and I saw a small smile play over his face. When he lifted the arm that had been hidden beneath the cloak, I saw that it had the same clockwork cybernetics as well. He pointed the arm at us, and I saw the mechanical fingers retract before the hand reshaped itself into a cannon. He smiled again, and I jerked backward behind the wall just in time for a spinning ball of what looked like purple plasma or something go flying past where my head had just been.

Okay, okay, time to go. Past time to go. “Jazz,” I started, but the girl shook her head.

“I go through and it closes. Get through. But hey!” Her hand grabbed my arm, squeezing tight as the girl stared intently at me. “Don’t screw us over, Chambers. Got it?”

There was a lot that I could’ve said to that. But none of it would have been productive. Especially not with the sound of running footsteps approaching. Instead, I just replied, “We’re on the same side.”

Then I dropped through the shimmering part of the floor. It didn’t just look like water, it felt like it for that moment. Well, very thick water. It was like moving through somewhat thin jello.

Once my body was through the floor, I dropped the rest of the way. A couple hands caught me as I fell, steadying me for a moment. Isaac and Sands. The two of them released me once I had my balance.

I stepped quickly out of the way then, just before Jazz dropped through. The floor above returned to the way it had been, and we had a second to look around. We were in what looked like a utility tunnel beneath that room. It was fairly narrow, just wide enough for two of us two walk abreast, with dull gray walls and a single glowing white line along one of the walls that seemed to function as a light. And possibly a guide of some kind, I wasn’t sure.

“We have to move.” That was Gordon. The boy was looking up, cupping his hands to see through the ceiling above us. “They’re right there. They’ll figure out what we did in a minute. They’ll know where we are.”

“Who was that guy?” Jazz demanded. “The one with the steampunk robot limbs. What–”

My head shook. “We don’t have time. We have to get the hell out of here.”

“What do we do now?” Sands blurted. Her head was shaking. “We’re in Seosten space, aren’t we? We’re–they–those banishment things, like–”

“There isn’t time,” I repeated. “We can’t think about that now, we can’t talk about it. We have to get the hell out of here. There’s an entire army above us, and we’re stuck halfway across the universe, behind enemy lines, surrounded by monsters that want to turn us into their personal marionettes. There is no one else that’s gonna help us at the moment. We are on our own. So you wanna know what we do right now?

“We run.”

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