Sariel

Before The Vault 41-02

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theia brightened, “So you have met her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Patreon Snippets 4

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

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 39B – Haiden

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Please note that the scenes between Haiden and Sariel depicted later in this chapter are the same scenes as depicted from Sariel’s point of view in Interlude 13A

March 18th, 1986

As Haiden Holt stood at the glass door that was the back entrance into the apartment building that he had been calling home for the past couple of months, he heard a noise behind him. Instantly, the man’s hand found its way into his long coat to touch the handle of his sword. At the same time, he looked into the vague reflection in the door, summoning the power which allowed him to perfectly see and magnify anything that was seen by the glass itself. The power worked for up to thirty feet worth of glass, generally allowing him to view anything that could have been reflected within it.

The form coming up behind him, however, was not any kind of threat after all. Relaxing slightly, Haiden released his grip on the weapon before turning a bit with a smile. “Good evening, Mrs. Wen, you’re out late tonight.”

The tiny, yet ancient looking Asian woman returned his smile, tightly gripping her cane while leaning on it. “Oh yes,” she agreed, “I had to visit my granddaughter for her birthday. Do you know what film we had to go and see? Something called the, umm, High something. Lander, that was it. The Highlander. I couldn’t follow that nonsense at all. Can you believe it? A little girl wanting to go see something like that. Men with swords cutting each other, being immortal or some such.”

Restraining the urge to smile too much, Haiden gave a slight bow of his head. “Yes,” he managed, “it does seem like something of a stretch.”

“And a proper young girl wanting to see it?” The woman huffed a bit, head shaking. “It just seems wrong.” She blinked then, before waving it off with her free hand. ”Oh, but I just rant. I am glad she had a good time. Even if I don’t understand it.”

Agreeing that that was what was important, Haiden used his key to unlock the apartment building door and pushed it open before gesturing for the woman to go ahead. Together, they walked to the elevator and rode it up to the floor that they shared. As they reached her apartment, the woman wished him a pleasant good night and stepped inside, leaving Haiden to head for his own door.

Though he was part of Eden’s Garden, Haiden had been operating on his own in the city for the past few months. He preferred it that way, simply checking in whenever he needed to while chasing his own leads to find monsters before they could do any more harm.

Flipping the light switch on as he entered, the man headed straight for the kitchen. He took down a glass before starting to fill it with water from the sink.

As the water poured, it abruptly stopped filling the glass. Instead, the stream shot over beside him, forming into what looked like a water statue of a human being.

As soon as it started, Haiden jerked backward, pulling his sword from his coat before realizing what was happening. “Dammit, Lucy, what did I say about taking me by surprise?”

Lucy was the only name he had for the strange Heretic who had repeatedly contacted him for the past several years to point Haiden in the right direction. He had no idea why the man called himself Lucy, but he always seemed amused by it. Neither did he know why this ‘Lucy’ almost never appeared in person but almost always through some form of elemental communication spell, such as appearing in a bonfire or, as now, as a figure made of water.

Either way, from what Lucy had said, he wasn’t much of a fighter himself, and didn’t want to get involved in things. But when he knew something, he would appear and point Haiden the right way to stop something bad from happening. Apparently, he had his own contacts that fed him information in turn.

“Sorry, Haiden,” the man apologized through his water-messenger spell before speaking again. “But this one is important. It couldn’t wait. Comes straight from old Nicholas himself.”

Nicholas. Haiden didn’t know a lot about him, except that he was Lucy’s most reliable and yet seldom used contact. Every bit of information that Nicholas had provided before had led to stop incredibly dangerous monsters from an enacting horrific plans. Whoever this Nicholas was, he had provided enough information in the past to stop multiple wholesale slaughters from happening. He didn’t send along information often, but when he did, it was a big deal.

The news that whatever this information was came from him was enough to make Haiden relax slightly. “Okay, what’s happening?”

Running a hand through the water that comprised his hair, Lucy replied, “There’s this girl. Little kid apparently. She’s about to run into these gangsters or something, and there’s going to be a Stranger there. You need to save her.”

Haiden blinked at that. “A little girl needs to be saved from gangsters and some Stranger? If it means saving a kid, I’m on it, no doubt. But are you sure that was the whole message?”

Lucy shrugged. “He just said that she needs you more than anyone has ever needed you, and that when the gun is fired, if you don’t save her, a good person will die.”

Haiden frowned a little. “That’s oddly… specific. But I guess he’s been right too many times before to question it now.” Pausing, he looked to the man. “Don’t suppose you can tell me anymore about him yet?”

“Hey, man,” Lucy objected, “you know my rules for passing info.”

“Anonymous, always anonymous and with all the privacy you want.” Haiden waved a hand. “Right, right. Okay, so give me the location and time.

“I guess I’m saving a little kid from a monster.”

******

 

March 20th, 1986

 

In his hawk form, Haiden glided on the air currents above the forested area that his contact had pointed him toward. Scanning the trees below with a mixture of his hawk vision and other powers, Haiden searched for the right spot.

The sound of gunshots in the distance suddenly caught his attention, and Haiden abruptly wheeled around in the air, heading that way as fast as possible. He continued to scan for his target, asking himself if he was already too late.

There. The gunshots had stopped, and Haiden saw the figure of a young girl who had obviously been shot, stumbling to her knees. A feeling of despair and failure rose up in him just before he saw something else. A fully grown woman, appearing from inside the girl. The woman picked the girl up and started to carry her.

Stranger. It was the Stranger. She was taking the girl. Haiden might’ve been too late to stop her from being shot, but he was still going to save her. He wasn’t going to let some horrific ritual or whatever this stranger had in mind happen.

Something didn’t make sense. Nicholas‘s information had always been very specific and useful. He’d always given Haiden enough time to find his target before. What was different this time? Why had he sent Haiden somewhere without enough time to actually find the girl before she was shot? What happened?

And why wasn’t this woman setting off his Stranger sense? She had to be the Stranger that had been referred to, since he just seen her stop possessing the kid. Yet she didn’t set off his sense. That in and of itself wasn’t completely unheard of, of course. But it just added to all of his confusion.

Either way, Haiden wasn’t about to give up on saving the child. He dove for the woman, cutting her off before reforming into his human shape.

Drawing his sword while feeling a pang of remorse at the sight of the injured girl that was a reminder of his failure, he snapped at the woman, “I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl. But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

Why he even said that much to her, he had no idea. The woman said something in response, but all Haiden could think about was saving that kid and rectifying his failure. He threw himself into an attack, wanting to end this as quickly as possible. He had to be careful to avoid hitting the kid, which slowed him slightly and stopped him from using any of his more dramatic area of effect powers.

Suddenly, the woman stopped dodging and knelt to put the girl on the ground. Why? Was she freeing her hands for something? Trying to make him focus on the kid while she escaped? He’d take that if that was what she was—

“Kill me then. But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.”

At those words, Haiden flipped his sword around while his mind reeled. What the hell was going on? What kind of game was she trying to play with this?

Slowly, he replied, “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

The Stranger interrupted. “It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Suddenly, a pistol appeared in her hand. Even as Haiden moved to react that, she blurted, “Save the girl.”

Then she pointed the gun not at him, and not at the kid. Instead, she pointed at her own head and began to pull the trigger.

Nicholas’s passed-along message was suddenly in Haiden’s mind. When the gun was fired, if he didn’t save her, a good person would die.

He had been sent here too late. He’d never had a chance to get to the girl before she’d been shot. That made no sense. Nicholas‘s information always gave them enough time. There was no way that he could have gotten to that spot before the gun fired. No way that he could have saved her like that. No way to stop it.

Unless that wasn’t the shot that Nicholas had been talking about. Unless the girl wasn’t the person he had been referring to. He’d said that when the gun was fired, if Haiden didn’t stop it, a good person would die. A good person.

The words that he hadn’t really been listening to before filled Haiden‘s mind even as the woman’s finger tightened on the trigger. Save her. She had said that she was trying to save the girl, and he hadn’t listened. Why would he listen to a Stranger rambling excuses?

Save her. Save her. Save the good person.

He moved. Lunging forward at the last possible instant, Haiden lashed out with his sword, interposing it between the gun and the woman’s head so that the bullet ricocheted off of it.

She looked just as surprised as he felt in that moment, staring at him in shock.

“Why would you do that?” As he voiced the question, Haiden had no idea he was talking to the woman… or to himself. Why would he make that choice right then? Why would he stop a Stranger from killing herself? Why had she been trying to kill herself? What was going on? Had Nicholas really sent him to save her instead of the girl?

The woman interrupted his thoughts. “The girl. Please. She’s dying.”

That was enough to stop Haiden‘s other thoughts. He quickly grabbed the woman by the arm, not willing to let her out of his sight until he figured out what was going on. Sheathing his sword, he pulled her over next to the injured girl and knelt to put a hand on her. Focusing on another power, he transported all three of them to the nearest hospital that he knew about.

They appeared in the middle of the entrance of the emergency room, and he quickly passed the girl to the nurses there while letting the Bystander Effect take care of any confusion about their sudden appearance.

As the girl was taken away by the medical professionals, Haiden saw the woman start to take a step after them. Before she could, he put a hand on her shoulder. Something made him speak reassuringly. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

Why? Why had she tried to save the girl to begin with? What happened back there? How on Earth was he supposed to explain this even to himself?

The woman looked to him with what looked like peaceful resignation, speaking hesitantly. “I… Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

Now Haiden was even more confused than before. He had half expected her to use helping to save the girl as a trade for letting her go. Or maybe she would have used the innocents nearby as cover to escape. But she wasn’t. She was just standing there, waiting.

“If that’s my…” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, Haiden grimaced and took a second before coming to a decision. Looking back to the woman, he gestured to summon his teleportation power once more, sending the two of them back into the woods where they had just been. It was as good a place as any for this. He needed answers, and he needed them now.

Taking a few quick steps back from the woman to put space between them, he stared at her while demanding, “You’re not evil. You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

Because that was the most important question of all. Why would a Stranger, a Stranger try to save a human child? It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Not her actions, not his own decisions, and not the original message from Nicholas. What the hell was happening?

The woman was beautiful. He recognized that now that he was allowing himself to see it, now that there was time to process. She was blonde and gorgeous, an ethereal, almost angelic beauty that somehow made his knees feel weak when he looked at her. Where was the revulsion? She was supposed to be a monster, so… where was the monster? Looking into her eyes, he saw no evil. Instead, what he saw… was loneliness. He saw so much loneliness and emptiness that he wanted to embrace her.

It was insane. It went against everything he had ever been taught or known. But he wanted more than anything to put his arms around her and tell her that everything would be okay.

The woman spoke softly then. “It’s a long story. But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

His mind was still reeling from all of this. She didn’t want to hurt the girl? She didn’t want to hurt anyone? But… But she was supposed to be a monster. Even as he looked at her, even as he saw no monster in her, Haiden was still confused, still lost. Why had he been sent to her? What did Nicholas want him to do? Save her. He’d said that saving her would save a good person. Did he really mean her and not the little girl? Did he mean both of them? Everything was so… so confusing.

But right then, he did know one thing. Whatever the full truth, whatever the whole story behind all of this was, this woman was not evil. He couldn’t kill her. He couldn’t hurt her. She was lost, and what she needed right then was someone to be there for her. He didn’t know why he’d been sent, or what would come about this. But he did know that he could be that person right then. Whatever else happened, he could help the loneliness that he saw in her eyes.

“I think we have a lot to talk about,” he announced slowly while extending a hand to her. “What’s your name?”

As confused as he felt by all of this, that was a good place to start, at least. A name. He never really cared about the names of the Strangers he killed before, unless they were terrible enough for him to need to track them down by their identity. But this one? This one was different. No one, Stranger or human had ever made him feel the way he felt when he looked at her.

The woman answered while accepting his extended hand. “Sariel. What… what’s yours?”

If anything felt more weird than asking a Stranger what her name was, it was giving his own to her. Haiden took a moment, collecting himself as a million thoughts ran through his head.

This felt like his last chance to change his mind. If this was a trick, if it was some kind of strange trap, he would be walking right into it. He could have been damning himself right then to whatever terrible fate awaited those who mistakenly trusted monsters.

And yet, it didn’t feel like a trap. It didn’t feel like anything bad. Looking to the woman, Haiden felt more alive in that moment then he could ever remember feeling. This wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t bad. There was something happening here, something he couldn’t explain. Yet it felt like… it felt like this was quite possibly the single most important moment of his life. More important than becoming a Heretic, more important even than losing his sister during training had been, as terrible as that was. Something was here that would forever change his life. And he felt not fear in that moment, but excitement.

He came to a decision. He would be honest. Looking back up to her, he quietly replied, “Haiden.”

The woman repeated his name, and he repeated hers. Haiden and Sariel. Heretic and Stranger.

Then they started to talk, really talk. For quite awhile, actually. The woman had been right when she had said that it was a long story. It was a very long story, One that went on for quite a while and left him reeling even more than before as it shook the foundations of what he had ever understood about Strangers and about humanity.

And Haiden had been right as well. That moment changed his life forever. And in the future, he would come to realize that when he gave the woman who became his wife a chance, he had not simply been saving her.

He had been saving his own soul as well.

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Bonus Interlude – Sariel and Scout

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Knife into mayo. Mayo onto bread. Swish, swish. Knife into mayo. Mayo onto second slice of bread. Swish, swish. Meat onto one slice. Cheese onto the other. Close sandwich. Set aside onto plate. Repeat for the next sandwich.

Sariel had the rhythm down. Mindless repetition. Several bags of bread, a couple jars of mayonnaise, and packs of lunch meat and cheese were in front of the woman, and she slowly but surely worked her way through them. There were a lot of mouths to feed, especially given how hungry the members of her people who had been brought out of their stasis tubes were.

There were only a few of them at that point. Ten, besides those four children. Ten adults. They had Larees, the six parents, and three more that Gaia and the others had been convinced would be safe to release.

There would be more, of course. More prisoners in that group who could be trusted to stay in the camp and work with this… Gabriel and his people. But they had to take this situation slowly. Every single person that they released had to be carefully researched. Thus far, Kushiel’s data (or the data that someone at the facility had recorded at least) had been accurate as far as they could tell. They released one prisoner at a time and had Gabriel speak with them. That was it. That was their main vetting process beyond what they read in the files. Gabriel had a quiet, simple conversation with the person and then he and Gaia judged whether the person could stay out. Sariel and Larees were involved and could give their ideas, but final judgment came down to Gaia and Gabriel. That was the way it had to be, considering the other two were too close to the situation. These were their people, after all.

Thus far, Gabriel had not yet vetoed any of the people that Sariel and Larees chose to release. Because they were going slowly and only releasing the ones they were quite certain would work out, at least for now. Later they would get into the ones that were harder to decide on.

Actually… it made Sariel wonder why the ones who had been parents to the children that they had found had all been okay to release. By the odds, it would seem that at least one of them should have been untrustworthy, or at least harder to verify. Did it have something to do with Kushiel’s process? It could be as simple as the fact that the people Kushiel was most likely to keep locked up were the kind of people that would work with Sariel and the others.

Still, they would be careful. One at a time. Slowly. As glad as Sariel was to actually see and interact with others of her own people, they couldn’t rush this. Doing so and making a mistake would be… catastrophic.

Even lost in thought as she was, while her hands went through the motions of making one sandwich after another, Sariel was still aware of the presence behind her. Aware of the presence and… the identity of that presence. Yet, she chose not to acknowledge it at first. Part of her wondered if the girl behind her would choose to leave without speaking. Would her anger make her confront Sariel, or would she simply walk away?

Either way, it would be her choice. Sariel would not force the issue. She had failed in so many other respects, particularly when it came to… to this family, she would not take even that choice away from her. Stay or go, talk or walk away, she would let the girl decide.

Two more sandwiches made it to the plate before Sariel heard the girl behind her step more fully into the room. There was the brief sound of her inhaling and exhaling. Then came the quiet voice, a whisper that barely reached her ears, saying only two words. “I remember.”  

Carefully setting the knife on the counter, Sariel took a breath of her own before turning.

“Hello, Sarah,” she started before pausing, a slight frown touching her face. “No. It’s Scout now, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I spent… years thinking of you as Sarah. But they said you prefer Scout.”

For a brief second, the young girl didn’t react. She seemed almost lost, her eyes gazing somehow through Sariel momentarily. Then she straightened, head shaking as she quietly replied, “Sometimes I don’t know who I am. Or who I want to be.”

There was a lot that Sariel wanted to say to that. But she held her tongue. Held it, and looked away briefly as a jolt of painful memories worked their way through her before she could focus. When she finally did speak, her voice cracked just a little. “You… you said that you remember.”

Scout nodded once. After another brief hesitation, she walked closer, passing Sariel to move around to the other side of the counter. Silently, the girl reached out to the unfinished sandwich. Her hands found the meat and cheese, adding them to the prepared bread before closing it to put on the plate. Only once that was done did she speak. “I remember the boat… the Fomorian.”

Sariel’s mouth opened, but she hesitated, not trusting her voice. What could she say? What could she possibly say that would help this girl after everything she had been through.

Scout continued before the woman could find the right words. “I remember it… and I saw it.” She wasn’t looking at Sariel, her attention centered on the counter between them. “When I went through the Edge, I saw it again. The Edge showed me that day on the boat again.” While she spoke, the girl reached out to take two more pieces of bread from the open bag before laying them beside each other.

Moving almost automatically, Sariel spread more mayo on the bread. Her voice, as she spoke, sounded hollow and empty. “You saw… everything again. You saw… I–” Her hand held tightly to the knife, her body trembling slightly as she shook her head. “Scout–Sarah, I…”

Scout was already putting both the meat and the cheese onto the prepared bread, while continuing to not look at the woman. “I just… I just want to say something.”

Numb, Sariel put the sandwich together and set it aside with the rest. “There’s something that I need to tell you–something that I have been trying to figure out how to say for ten years. You’d think that would be enough time, but…” Her throat was dry, and she shook her head silently.

Silently, Scout took two more pieces of bread from the bag, leaving Sariel to put the mayo on them. The two of them worked silently through the next couple more complete sandwiches, neither able to find the words they needed to say.

“I’m sorry.”

Sariel said the words, her hands pressed flat against the counter, feeling the knife under her right palm digging into the skin from the force she was exerting. She said the words, only they sounded… strange to her ears. Was it just her voice, or…

No. No, that wasn’t it. The words sounded odd because she wasn’t the only one who had said them. Scout had spoken as well. She had said the exact same words, made the exact same apology in that exact same moment. And now, as Sariel’s eyes blinked up that way, she found the girl staring back at her, Sariel’s own confusion reflected back at her.

“What,” the young girl started with obvious uncertainty, “w-what are you apologizing for?”

For a moment, Sariel just stared back at her with a slight frown. “Why am I apologizing?” she echoed in disbelief. “Why are you apologizing?”

A look of incredibly intense shame crossed Scout’s face then, and she looked away with a slight shudder. “I…” she started slowly, that single word making her voice crack before she closed her mouth into a tight line. Her face showed her own revulsion at the words as she continued in a tiny voice that sounded more as though it were coming from the child she had been all those years earlier rather than the young woman she now was. “It’s my fault.”

Now Sariel was even more lost. “What—” she stopped, head shaking slowly. “What do you think was your fault?”

In an audibly shaking voice, Scout haltingly explained, “If I wasn’t there, you could have helped Mom. She wouldn’t have had to stall him. You both could’ve focused on him. You could have done something more. She sent you to help me. It’s my fault. If I wasn’t there… If I wasn’t there…”

It was in pure shock that Sariel stared at the girl then. “Lords…” she murmured quietly while the knife fell from her hand. In a couple of steps, she walked around the counter to reach her. “Have you been thinking that this whole time? Do you really think that was your…” She trailed off, seeing the luck in the girl’s eyes. “Oh Scout, no, no.”

Without thinking, she wrapped both arms around the girl and pulled her close into a tight hug. “No, no,” she repeated, “That wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.”

Standing there stiffly for a moment, Scout shook her head. “But I couldn’t help. Mom had to send you to try to protect me. She had to face him by herself. If I wasn’t there, or if I could’ve helped…”

Her words were shaky, the tears right there in her voice as she physically shivered against the woman.

Sariel couldn’t even find her own voice for a moment. The revulsion that she felt at what this girl thought of herself was too complete. It took a few seconds for her thoughts to even become coherent.

Finally, she pulled back, hands firmly on Scout’s shoulders as she stared down at her. “You listen to me. That was not your fault. You were a child. It was our job to protect you. You didn’t do anything wrong. And beyond that, even if you weren’t there, things would not have turned out any better.”

There was obvious disbelief in the younger girl’s eyes at that. “But if I wasn’t there, you could’ve—”

“I probably would’ve done the same thing,” Sariel admitted. ”Yes, given weapons, time, my full power while I’m not projecting all the way across the universe against all be spells that were trying to keep me in place, I probably could have dealt with that creature. But I didn’t have all of that, or any of it. And my not having it had nothing to do with you. If you weren’t there, it wouldn’t have made any difference to how strong I was. If you weren’t there, I still would had only one option, to pull your mother with me to Seosten space.”

She saw the uncertainty there as Scout bit her lip. “You really think that you couldn’t have done better if I wasn’t there? If you didn’t have to hide me…”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,“ Sariel insisted. “If nothing else, taking the time to hide you rather than fighting gave me the chance to think of the only solution I could come up with. And believe me, it’s been years since then, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. There was no other solution. Not with what I had, not with what any of us had. If I had to do it again, the only change I would make would be to only take the Fomorian. If I could have found a way to separate him from your mother and only take him back with me, I would have. I should have.” At the end of that, the woman’s voice cracked, her guilt outweighing her urgent need to convince Scout that nothing there had been the girl’s fault.

Scout, meanwhile, stared up at her searchingly. “But if you couldn’t have done anything better with what you had, why were you apologizing?”

“Because I never should’ve put your mother in that position,” Sariel quietly claimed. “The Fomorian smelled me on her. If I hadn’t come back, if I didn’t spend time with her…”

Scout’s head shook. “If you didn’t spend time with her, you never would have sent Tabbris to Flick. She would have been taken by Kushiel, and Flick would’ve been possessed. And then, well, lots of bad things would’ve happened. You…” Her face screwed up a little with thought before she exhaled. “It’s like I told Professor Dare. You should live in what can still happen, not what could have happened. And–” Stopping, the girl blushed a little. “… I guess it’s kind of hard to take your own advice sometimes.”

Sariel managed a very faint smile at that. “It usually is,” she murmured softly. “But Scout, I am so sorry. I–the last thing I wanted was to take a child’s mother away from her. I didn’t–” Her voice cracked once more, and she closed her eyes briefly, shivering.

Scout embraced her then. Sariel felt the girl’s arms wrap around her tightly. “You were trying to help Flick. You were trying to get back to your children, trying to get your family back together. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just… just… bad luck.”

With a little shudder, Sariel returned the embrace, sinking down to one knee as she held onto the girl. “Very bad luck,” she agreed in a quiet voice. “And intentional or not, I still contributed to taking your mother away. I still–” She stopped, biting her lip hard before her head shook. “I still did plenty of bad things, still made plenty of mistakes.”

Scout’s voice was simple. “So do better next time. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Success is built out of the remains of failure. You try, you fail, you break down the fail into something that you can use to succeed. It’s like practicing. You learn from it. Or you let it pile on top of you. That’s kind of the only two choices, you know? Either you let your failures crush you, or you climb on top of them and use that to reach success.”

Swallowing hard, Sariel shook her head in wonder. “You are a very wise girl, Scout Mason.”

“I just have a lot of time to think,” the girl demurred with a small shrug. “Too much, sometimes.”

The two finally released one another, and Sariel leaned back to look at the girl while staying down on one knee. “You have to let go of that guilt, okay? What happened back on the boat was not your fault. You did nothing wrong.”

Softly, Scout replied, “Only if you let go of your guilt. Because you didn’t do anything wrong either. You saved Mom and me, even though you were… um, handicapped at the time. You did everything you could.”

Flushing guiltily, Sariel hesitated before offering, “I guess we both have to let go of that guilt for each other. Either way, that was still a very bad day.”

“It was,” Scout agreed. “But sometimes bad days just happen. It’s not because you screwed up, or because you’re evil, or because of anything you did. It just happens. It’s not fair, and it’s not fun, but it happens. And you just have to pick up and keep going. Push on. Or lay there and cry about it. It’s your choice.”

“You’re mostly right,” Sariel confirmed with a small smile. “Except sometimes we can stop and help up other people who have been knocked down. Or try to. No one can do all of this by themselves all the time. We all need someone sometimes. Maybe to offer hand, or to smack us when we’re being stupid. Believe me, everyone has ‘smack upside the head because you’re being dumb’ moments.”

Her words, intended lightly, still made Scout flinch noticeably. The girl glanced away, arms folding across her stomach tightly. “You’d have to be pretty strong to smack my dad hard enough to make him wake up.”

Wincing at that, Sariel hesitated before speaking quietly. “Your father… he tries, Scout. He makes plenty of mistakes, and he is… stubborn beyond belief. He’s wrong. But he does care about you, and your sister, and your mother. He even cared about Joselyn and the others that he… that he betrayed. He thought he was doing the right thing. Just like now, he still thinks he knows what’s best. And in his own way, he’s trying to take care of you. He just… he doesn’t understand. Or won’t understand. Maybe he never will, I don’t know. But he loves you. I know that much beyond any doubt. He may be a raging jackass sometimes. But he loves his family.”

Scout’s response came after a few seconds of silence, her voice cracking. “I love him. I love my dad. He’s my dad. I’ll always love him. I just… don’t like him very much.”

Feeling the girl’s pain like her own, Sariel embraced her once more. “I do hope he listens, that he learns, Scout. But even if he doesn’t, even if he never changes, you have to know that he loves you. Everything he does is because he thinks he’s doing the right thing. And sometimes you just have to accept that it’s not as simple as the good guys always being right and the bad guys always being wrong. Your father is a good man. He’s wrong. He’s done some very bad things, but not out of malice. He’s misled and often foolish. But he is trying. And he loves you very much. Never doubt that.”

After a few more long seconds like that, the two separated and Scout whispered hoarsely, “I just… I just can’t talk to him right now. I know he wants to. I know he wants me to just… listen to him and agree with him. I know he wants a lot of things that I can’t give him. But I don’t want to see him right now. I can’t trust him. I love him, and yeah, I know he loves me. But I don’t trust him.”

Sariel stood up slowly. “I wish I could tell you that he’ll learn his lesson and that everything will be alright. But I can’t. All I can say is that… you’re not alone. You are never alone in this, Scout. Your mother and your sister will make it back here. They’ll make it here as soon as they can. But even before then, you have your friends. You have your team, Gaia, everyone who will help you.”

“And you,” Scout put in, staring up at the woman.

Sariel felt a thick lump in her throat, swallowing hard to clear it. “And me,” she confirmed. “I’ll be there for you, if you want me to be around. I… I just thought that you would be angry with me.”

“And I thought you’d be angry with me,” Scout pointed out. “Because my being there screwed up your chance to save Mom. I–” She stopped then, flushing visibly. “We were both being dumb about it.”

“Maybe a little dumb, yeah,” Sariel agreed, managing a weak smile. “But hey, we can move forward, right? That thing you said about climbing on top of mistakes and failure to reach success? We can still do that with misunderstandings. And uhh, speaking of success, do you want to keep helping me make these sandwiches? I’m afraid if we don’t get food out to my people pretty soon, they might just start eating the cabins.”

Giggling just a little, Scout obediently moved to the counter to take two more pieces of bread. “Okay,” she murmured. “And umm… maybe you could… umm…” She hesitated, clearly feeling self-conscious.

Sariel took the knife, spreading mayonnaise on the bread once more. “What is it?” she asked as gently as possible. “What can I do for you, Scout?”

The girl’s voice was faint, her hands shaking a little while she put meat and cheese on the bread. “Could you… tell me a bit about my mom when she was a kid? I never… I wasn’t old enough to know anything about her before… before all that happened. I feel like I don’t know her at all. I just–” Her voice choked itself off.  

“Oh, Scout.” Sariel felt her own heart crack a little before she nodded once. “Yes. Yes, I’ll tell you everything I know about your mother.

“Starting with the fact that she has terrible taste in favorite Green Lanterns.”

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Convalescence 38-08

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Eventually, Shiori (who had very quickly been protected by the dibs spell, of course) and I managed to extricate ourselves and Sahveniah from the room so that Avalon could get some sleep. She put on a brave face and was, of course, incredibly stubborn about it. But I could tell that even just sitting there eating food with us had taken a lot out of her. It was going to take some time for her to recover. Which was made abundantly clear by the fact that she didn’t really argue that much about it.

The three of us stepped outside of the cabin in time to see that the others had apparently already met the remaining kids. The three Seosten toddlers, Tabbris, and Theia were all there with Columbus, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Koren.

Of course, my very first thought was that if one of these guys got possessed, even accidentally, by one of the toddlers, it could be pretty bad. But even as my mouth opened to call out to them, Tabbris saw me and waved to show that everything was okay. She mimed writing a spell, and I realized she had apparently copied the dibs protection onto these guys as well.  

I should’ve known that my little sister wouldn’t make that kind of mistake. Hell, I’d done the same thing with Shiori back in the room, just to make sure little Savvy didn’t end up… well, just to make sure very bad things didn’t happen. And now that my reflexive worry was dealt with, I could actually focus on what the others were doing.

Because I apparently had not yet had my fill of weaponized adorableness, Grisiniel, the brown-haired boy, was currently hanging from Sean’s outstretched arm, making squealing sound as the boy raised and lowered it. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the red-haired Penemue was doing pretty much the same thing with Scout and Koren as they kept raising and lowering him by his hands, bouncing him up in the air and then down again.

And to put the cherry on top of the cute sundae, the other girl, Kemetiel, was sitting on Vulcan’s back. She was actually riding him around in a circle as if he was a horse.

I almost would have believed that this entire thing had been some big elaborate plot to kill me, because I seriously almost died just standing there watching that for a couple of seconds.

It was made even worse (read: better) a second later, as Savvy squirmed out of my arms and to the ground. With a happy squeal, the girl ran off to her friends, joining Kemetiel on Vulcan’s back. For his part, the cyberform dog proudly held his head high while trotting around in a circle with both of his riders.

I could see some of the camp inhabitants watching with curiosity. I had wondered if they would be afraid of the Seosten children. But while most did seem to at least be cautiously keeping their distance for the time being, I couldn’t see any outright hostility. Which made sense, considering they hadn’t been outright hostile to me, and the Alters on this world likely had more experience being hunted down and killed by Heretics rather than Seosten.

Besides, I couldn’t see how anyone could look at these kids for longer than three seconds and think that they were some kind of monsters.

As if in agreement with that, Columbus, who had been standing up away from the others, moved next to his sister. Lifting his chin, the boy murmured, “Well, they sure don’t look evil.”

“Right?” Looking over to the boy with that, I asked, “Did you get any sleep at all? We didn’t leave you that long ago.”

The boy’s response was a grunt before he shook his head. “I’ll sleep later. Right now, every time I close my eyes, I just see…”

He trailed off, but I knew. “Rudolph.” Saying the boy’s name, I sighed and lowered my head. “Yeah. I keep thinking about things we could have done differently, other choices that we could have made.”

“I should’ve been there.” Columbus’s voice was a bit hollow, showing me how much he had been dwelling on it. “I should have been the one who stayed behind to hold the zombies off. I could have done it without Sean, and if Manakel had still shown up, there would’ve been just me to put in that tube. He wouldn’t have had an extra to kill. Then all of us would still be alive right now.”

Shiori spoke up before I could say anything. “Or he just would have killed you anyway. We don’t know. Besides, Sean or I would’ve insisted on staying with you. Then one of us would’ve died.“

“I–” Columbus started before stopping. He sighed, lowering his head just look at the ground while murmuring, “I just didn’t want anyone to die.”

Before either Shiori or I could find anything to say to that, as if there was anything we could say that would matter, Theia approached along with Doug. Tabbris waved again and looked uncertain for a moment, but once I returned it and let her know I was fine, she stayed over with Scout, Sean, and Koren to keep entertaining the little ones.

“Good,” Theia started, “you’re here. Pace-I thought we should wait for you to test these Whisper spells.”

“Yeah,” the boy with her drawled, “and Doug-I agreed that waiting was a good idea.”

Briefly, I wondered how much of that was him wanting the rest of us have to see how well it worked, and how much with him being afraid that if it did work, Theia would run off with his favorite hat if he didn’t have someone around to stop her.

Either way, they were here now, and I nodded. “Well, I guess the easiest way to do it is just to put the hat on her head and see what happens?”

Making a face as if he couldn’t believe he was bringing it up, Columbus asked, “You don’t think it’ll just erase her or something, do you? I mean, we don’t know exactly how would the whole Lie thing works. If it shuts her out, but she can’t leave the body…”

Grimacing at that, I hesitated before shaking my head. “It didn’t do that to me when I possessed Scout before. It just let both of us control her body at the same time. Like one of those cars with steering wheel and pedals on both sides.”

“Yeah.” Columbus coughed. “In retrospect, we probably should’ve been a little more scientific and careful about that one to begin with.”

In the end, we left it up to Theia, and she chose to try it. So, Doug handed her his hat, though he looked a bit reluctant to let go of it. “If it works,” he started firmly, “we’re making you a different one. You don’t get to keep it.” He only let go of the hat once the girl nodded.

Still, she didn’t put it on yet. Instead, she stood there staring down at it and her hands before her head shook. “Not yet,” she announced firmly. “We want to wait for Miss Abigail. She should be here.”

Without turning around, I gestured behind myself. “Well, you’re in luck, because here she comes. With…” Turning to make sure, I nodded. “With Scott.”

Yeah, Scott and Abigail were approaching. The two had clearly been deep in conversation, but they stopped once they were close enough.

“I didn’t know there were children in that prison transport,” Abigail announced, nodding past us to where the kids were.

“None of us did,” I assured her. “Trust me, it was a surprise to everyone. Gaia and the others are working out which adults they can let out of the pods so we can try to get some answers about it.”

“They’re children.” I could hear the horror and revulsion in Abigail’s voice. “What could that… creature have meant to do with them at her lab here? What could she possibly–” She stopped herself then, unable or unwilling to continue that thought.

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath, “Kushiel being a monster isn’t exactly front-page news at this point.”

In what was obviously an effort to tear her thoughts away from that dark pit of despair, Abigail looked to Theia. “What’s this?”

So we explained, giving the quickest rundown we could. And once Abigail had some idea of what might be about to happen… Theia put the hat on.

For a second, I thought nothing had happened. The girl’s head simply tilted a little, and then she looked down at her hand. She stared at the hand for a moment before her mouth opened.

“I… I can… talk. My… hand. My my my my hah-hah-handuh. My hand. My mouth. Talk. Talk!”

Suddenly, she sprang over to wrap both arms around Doug, hugging the younger boy tightly while he gave a strangled yelp.

“Well,” I started with a little smile, “I guess that makes you Pace. The real Pace, I mean.”

Apparently my speaking up then meant that it was my turn for a hug, since Pace threw herself at me next. That was followed by a hug for Shiori and Columbus as well. The latter even managed to avoid pushing her away, though he did stiffen a bit.

Then it was Abigail’s turn. She received the longest, tightest hug of all. I saw Pace’s (and this time, it really was Pace) shoulders shake visibly as she clung to the woman who clearly meant so much to both Pace and the Seosten possessing her.

Giving a broad smile as she finally leaned back, the Hispanic girl announced, “It’s me.”

Immediately, her face shifted just a tiny bit. It was almost entirely unnoticeable unless you were really looking for it. “And Theia-me. We are both here. Share and share alike.”

“Oh…” Gasping in clear awe, Abigial put both hands on the side of Pace-Theia’s face. “My God. You can talk. You can… you can… it’s really you. Both of you.”

Shiori was staring. “Wow. Well, it’s good to finally meet you? This is kind of weird.”

“You’re telling me!” Pace blurted. “I haven’t been been able to talk, or raise my hand, or sneeze, or—wait.”

In mid-sentence, the girl turned away from us. She took a breath, then move three quick stops over before her hand snapped up to hold onto the hat. With that, she proceeded to do a quick, perfect one-handed cartwheel, followed by a side-flip. Finally, Pace simply jumped up and down, releasing the hat so that she could pump her arms in the air while squealing. She clearly didn’t care about attracting attention or looking ridiculous. Which… yeah, at that point, I wouldn’t have either. She’d been unable to control herself for so long, who cared if people were staring?

That was apparently the cue for the four Seosten toddlers, who all scrambled over to start jumping up and down together with Pace, even though they had no idea what was going on. That didn’t seem to affect their excitement one bit, as they continued jumping up and down while pumping their arms just like she was. To say it was adorable would have been beating a dead horse by that point, but still. It was.

Reaching down to pick up Kemetiel as she finally stopped jumping, Pace grinned. “You have no idea how good this feels right now. It’s amazing. It’s like being locked up for year and just now being able to stretch my legs. I can move, I can talk, I can turn my head because I want to turn my head! I can blink! See? Blink, blink, blink.”

Nearby, Columbus murmured, “I can imagine.” He paused then as if deciding how to broach the subject before asking, “Does this mean that you and… Theia are actually…”

“Working together now, yeah.” The girl confirmed it with a nod before her face shifted a little.

“We are partners,” Theia put in, before clearly relinquishing control back to Pace again.

Koren approached with the others, her eyebrow raised. “We leave you alone for five minutes, and you show up again with a herd of chibi Seosten?”

Scott spoke up then. “You think that’s bad, you should’ve seen what she got into when she was six and I left her alone in the bathroom for three minutes. There was–”

My hand snapped down, covering his mouth as I growled, “Not another word, you.”

There was confusion written across Koren’s face (and she wasn’t the only one) at that. But before we could explain anything, I blinked around with realization. The rest of the camp, the ones who had been watching carefully, had withdrawn a bit more. There were less faces, like they were even more nervous than they had been a minute earlier. It couldn’t have been the Seosten toddlers. They weren’t doing anything wrong. So what–

And then I realize the truth. The people weren’t keeping their distance from the kids. They were staying back from the portal nearby where Gaia, Sariel, Larees, and Gabriel had all just shown up, flanked by a half dozen adult Seosten. There were four males and two females. All seemed a bit dazed and taken aback by everything. They wore the same clingy jumpsuit thing that the toddlers and Tabbris wore, and were looking around in a vague state of confusion and uncertainty while they were led through the camp, toward where we were.

The tallest of the men, standing about three inches over six feet, looked like a more handsome version of Schwarzenegger as of the first Terminator movie. His body looked like it had been sculpted from steel, with incredibly defined muscles that were visible through that bodysuit. His short, dark-blonde hair and chiseled face were capped by these piercing blue eyes.

Yeah, Seosten were unbelievably gorgeous. That wasn’t exactly news. But still, this guy was something else.

Not that the others with him were exactly slouches. The other three men were less overtly muscular (two were more handsome in that boy band, androgynous sort of way), but still eye-catchingly attractive. As were the two females. One of the pair was my height, with short brown hair shaped into a crew cut, while the other was slightly taller than Avalon with very long blonde hair that was tied into a very tight braid that made me want to call her Rapunzel in my head.

The kids stopped laughing and jumping around when they saw the adults approaching. For a second, all four of them stayed completely still, just staring that way as they clustered together. I saw uncertainty written across their faces in that moment, as if they weren’t sure what was going on.

“It’s okay,” I heard Sariel announce to the other Seosten adults. “You can pick them up. You have my word, the spell will protect you from accidental possession. They’re your children.”

The reassurance was apparently all they needed. The Seosten moved to the toddlers. That big guy reached down, picking up Kemetiel with a look of wonder written across his face while she regarded him curiously. Beside him, the taller woman stepped up, raising a hand that shook nervously before she laid it against the girl’s hair.

Nearby, Penemue, the red-haired boy, was picked up by one of the other males who (of course) also had red hair. Next to him, the smaller woman had picked up Grisiniel, while one of the other males, who had the same sandy-brown hair as that boy, reached out to touch his shoulder and back in obvious disbelief that all of this was real.

Sahveniah, meanwhile, was approached and picked up to be held tightly by the remaining man. He was the shortest of all the males, though he still stood just a tiny bit under six feet. His skin and hair were as dark as hers, and he trembled a little before pulling her to himself.

Sariel had stopped near the rest of us, watching that reunion. Quietly, she nodded to the big guy and the taller woman. “Micah and Disetiel. Kemetiel is their daughter, though they’ve never met. None of them have ever actually met, actually, aside from perhaps passing in the hallway between cells and… well…”

She shook her head, moving on by looking toward the red-haired man with Penemu. “Forsenti. And the woman with Grisiniel is Xenaphiel. She is the mother of both boys there.”

“I take it the guy there with Sahveniah is her father,” I started with a nod that way. “But where’s her mother?”

“His name is Zadriek. And as to her mother…” Sariel paused before continuing. “If the records that we were able to dig up are to be believed, her mother is complicated.”

“Complicated?” Shiori echoed before I could say anything. “What kind of complicated?”

“The kind of complicated,” the woman answered, “where she was technically carried and birthed by an unidentified woman in Kushiel’s lab. But she was a surrogate. The actual mother, from whom the egg came… was Aletheia.”

Well, that made everyone’s eyes snap around. Especially Pace-Theia’s. She… or possibly they, as I could see both agreeing with that particular action, blurted, “What?”

“Not you,” Sariel started, “the original Aletheia. Somehow, Kushiel was able to obtain at least one of her… eggs, fertilized it, and placed it inside of the unidentified woman. Sahveniah, for all intents and purposes, is the original Aletheia’s daughter.”

“Wow…” I murmured the word under my breath, trailing off as I stared that way. “Wow.”

That same sentiment was basically shared by everyone, as we stood there, staring at the Seosten children and adults being reunited. Or, I supposed, just plain ‘united’, since they had never actually met before.

The dibs spell. This was because of the dibs spell. It was thanks to Sariel right here that these parents and kids could even be with each other like this. As far as I knew, most Seosten parents never had this kind of relationship with their children. They were shipped off to be raised by other dedicated schools, orphanages essentially, to avoid any kind of accidental possession problems. But now they could be with their kids. Because of that spell.

Wow. Just… wow. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

My mouth opened to say something else, when I noticed Scout. The girl was staring not at the kids, but at Sariel. She was staring in what looked like open wonder, while Sariel herself looked away with an expression of barely held regret and shame.

And then I remembered. Sariel was the one who had saved Scout from that Fomorian as a child, back on the boat. She had saved Scout. But in so doing, she had also taken Scout’s mother out of there. And, well, just how much the Fomorian being there in the first place was probably up to debate between everyone who felt guilty about it.

Complicated. That whole thing was complicated, and judging from the looks between both Scout and Sariel, they were going to need some privacy to talk it through.

But it wasn’t my business, so I looked to Gaia nearby. “What about the rest of the prisoners?”

The headmistress answered. “It will take time to go through them. But many will be able to be released, hopefully to stay here in the camp. Having so many Seosten to help bolster defenses and knowledge of the Empire itself will be invaluable in countless ways.”

She was right, of course. The kind of help that adding a bunch of loyal Seosten to the Atherby clan and having them actually work together would be incredible. But as Gaia had said, it would have to be done slowly and carefully. Because it was also something that could go wrong very easily.

“I see that you’ve tested it, then?” My attention was pulled away from those thoughts then, toward where Sariel was nodding toward the hat that Theia-Pace was still wearing. “And it…”

“Works,” they confirmed with a quick nod, before giving a broad smile. Pace, because it was clearly her, added, “I can talk. I can move. We have to share, but I can move. I can…” She shivered noticeably, before Theia took over.

“We must give it back. We will have our own as soon as possible. But we promised to give it back.”

“Uhhh…” Doug hesitated, looking torn before his head shook. “I can’t–damn it, you know what? Why don’t you keep it for now. Just for now. You uhh, you need it more than I do. Just until Grandpa Sulan gets here for the–” He stopped, clearly not wanting to finish that sentence. “Just until he gets here. Then he can help make something else, something just for you, okay? I can make them, but they’re temporary, not like… not like the hat. He’ll make you something you can have. And then I’ll want the hat back.”

For their part, Theia-Pace stared at the boy for a moment before giving a smile that was, again, clearly from both of them.

“Thank you, Douglas,” the two said in a voice that was singular, yet also somehow plural.

“I–” The boy flushed, shaking his head as he looked away. “Just don’t lose it.”

Everyone looked back to the rest of the Seosten then. By that point, some of the camp inhabitants had started to emerge, bolstered both by the sight of the parents with their children, and by the fact that Gabriel was there. They came closer, and I heard a few start to ask questions.

“You really don’t hold back, do you?” That was Scott, staring at me with those too-old eyes. “Look at all this. You’re just like your mom. Changing the world.”

My mouth opened, and then I paused. I thought about everything that was happening, everything that would happen.

I had no doubt that the Seosten would continue their efforts to either break into the vault themselves or use Avalon to do it. But this was the Atherby camp. She would be safe here, so that she could recover. The Seosten wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in this place.

She had time to rest. Time in which, with any luck, Larissa and the others would manage to make their way back to Earth. Because Dries would be with them, and if anyone could change the spell that his wife had stored in that vault, it was him. Especially with all the help he would have. With Dries and Avalon, we would get into the vault and find Liesje’s spell.

“Change the world?” I echoed, giving Scott a wink.

“We’re going to change the universe.”

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Convalescence 38-07

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Children.” The single, breathed word came from Sariel, as the woman stood there along with the rest of us as we stared down into that now-open pod. “Kushiel did have children in this group. There is no overt mention of them in the files that I skimmed through. They were… they were kept quiet somehow.” She sounded awed, unable to stop smiling as she looked at them.

In the background, I heard Larees muttering extensive Latin curses under her breath.

“I don’t know why,” I murmured under my breath, “but I never really put a lot of thought into that crazy bitch having access to little kids until this exact moment. And now I’m pretty horrified.”

“Trust me, puella,” Larees muttered somewhere behind me, “you don’t know the half of it. And you don’t want to.”

Gaia seemed just has taken aback as the rest of us. She stared for a moment before quietly announcing, “I do not care to imagine what that creature may have had in mind for these children, but I count myself relieved beyond measure that she will not have that opportunity.”

She would, and had, of course, have access to other children. But at least she didn’t have these ones. I was taking that as a win, and trying very hard not to dwell at all on the other part.

Tabbris turned then, looking around at the other pods. “Are their Mamas and Daddas in here?”

Gabriel was the first to respond, slowly nodding. “If the children were included in the transport as part of some kind of project, it would make sense to have the parents along as well.”

“Well,” I started then, “if they are, we should probably find out who they are, right?”  As I spoke, one of the kids, a boy with sandy brown hair, shifted a little. His mouth opened, and he made a soft sound that was half-yawn and half-squeak before his arm moved over one of the others. Seeing it made my heart flip over and it was all I could do not to instantly start cooing.

“They’ll wake up soon,” Theia observed quietly, clearly having seen the same thing I did. “And when they do, they might be scared. Confused. Lost.” There was something in her voice as she spoke, a sort of… tenderness that seemed alien compared to what I’d seen from her before. Seeing her like that, I kind of understood why Abigail was so protective of her.

Shaking that off, I looked over to the adults. “She’s right, you know. They’re about to wake up and have no idea where they are. We don’t even know what Kushiel told them, or… or how she treated them.” Even saying it, just bringing that up, made me feel sick to my stomach.

With a slightly shaking hand, Sariel reached out. Her fingers brushed through the hair of one of the sleeping kids, and she gave a faint nod. “Yes,” the woman murmured quietly while giving an absent smile. “They might be afraid and confused. But they will also be safe.”

“Safe.” Gaia echoed the word, giving a slight nod. “Yes. Yes, they will absolutely be safe. But we need to speak with the adults without the children first. We need to sort through everyone here, find out who can be let out and who should stay.”

Larees folded her arms against her stomach, looking a little sick as she agreed, “They shouldn’t be in here anyway. This whole place looks… screwed up.” She cast a glance around at the other pods then. “It’ll scare the shit out of them if you make them sit around watching while you open these things.”

Gaia nodded slowly, her eyes moving to me then. “I had intended for you to be a part of that opening process, Felicity. But perhaps, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Kid-wrangling?” I shrugged. “Sure, I can do that. I mean, we can.” I nodded toward Tabbris. “What do you say? You wanna help babysit some Seosten munchkins for awhile?”

She was already nodding even as Theia spoke up. “We will help with the children too,” she announced firmly with a single finger pointed to herself. She paused then, considering that before adding a second finger, still pointing at herself. Or rather, herself and the real Pace. “We.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how I should feel about someone of Theia’s… proclivities being around kids. But then again, she seemed different around kids. And I was reminded about the fact that she hadn’t given away Tabbris, even though she easily could have. She kept Tabbris secret, even though she could have used that bit of knowledge to help herself with Manakel. So yeah, maybe her being around kids wasn’t a bad idea after all. Besides, if I was judged just by the worst things that I did or only by the people I fought, they probably wouldn’t want me around children either. So maybe I should just put away the judgy for a little while.

From the silent looks the adults were exchanging, they seemed to be going through much the same process amongst themselves before coming to the same conclusion. Sariel nodded, still gently stroking the little girl’s pitch-black hair. “Yes, Theia. I think that’s a good idea.”

Larees seemed to want to stay away from the kids. For what reason, I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling it had something to do with her own being taken away. She moved over to the holographic terminal, busying herself reading through it.

The kids were squirming a little more by that point. The girl whose hair Sariel was stroking gave a wide yawn before leaning into the touch as her eyes blinked open sleepily. Beside her, the boy who had yawn-squeaked earlier shifted his backside a bit, bumping up against the other boy, one with curly reddish hair. That made the second boy sit up a bit, blinking around. A moment later, those three were all sitting up, which left only one, the smallest girl (whose skin and hair were both dark), still asleep. I could see the confusion written across all three of their faces as they took in their new surroundings and all the strangers that were around them.

Sariel took a knee, speaking quietly, in a gentle voice. It was a single word. “Salve.” Which, I knew from my lessons with both Tabbris and Athena, wasn’t her offering them some kind of medical treatment or something. Salve meant hello, basically.

The three kids shrank back a bit, before that sandy-haired boy offered a somewhat shaky, “S-salve.” Even as he spoke, the boy (who couldn’t have been older than three), squirmed around to put himself in front of the others. He said something else then, a series of words that came too fast and too shakily for me to follow all of. His vocabulary clearly wasn’t huge, but it was better than mine. I followed about every third or fourth word. From what I could tell, he was asking if they were in ‘the new place.’ And there was something about Mistress Kushiel in there. Which… eeesh. Even just the confirmation that these kids had been around Kushiel enough to know her name was enough to make my skin crawl horribly. I wanted a shower just from that.

Sariel responded, apparently assuring the boy and the others that they were safe. I, again, couldn’t catch all of it. Or even most of it. But it sounded like she was telling them that the mean lady was gone, promising all of them that they wouldn’t see her again.

And that was apparently all it took. The three were clambering out of the pod before any of us realized what they were doing. The boy managed to get himself up on the side, falling forward into Sariel’s arms with a loud laugh of delight. Meanwhile, the red-haired boy and the girl (whose hair was about the same as the first boy’s, that sandy-brown color), slipped over and out, dropping to the floor before giving a pair of loud squeals as they ran straight to where Gabriel was. Together, the two suddenly stopped short, blinking up at the tall man before making identical sounds of awe as they clasped hands together, their tiny figures dwarfed by him.

All three were making so much noise, babbling excitedly, that I couldn’t follow what they were saying at all. And I barely noticed that the fourth kid, the little black girl, had finally woken up. That was, I didn’t notice until I heard both Tabbris and Theia’s voices, and blinked that way to find the two of them crouched in front of the pod, holding a conversation with the girl in question.

Stepping that way, I moved beside my sister with a little smile as my hand found her shoulder. “And how’s this little one doing?” I asked as gently as I could, trying not to startle her. Still, her eyes darted to me, and she shrank back a little bit before blurting what sounded like a question.

Theia was the one who answered her, a short burst of words that sounded like she was reassuring the girl, promising that no one was going to hurt her. There was more to it, but that’s as much as I could keep up with. And Tabbris didn’t seem put off by what she said, so it couldn’t have been anything bad. As she heard it, the little girl seemed to calm down a bit. Her look of fear turned to one of curiosity, and she said something else, part of which sounded like ‘name’.

“This is Sahveniah,” Tabbris informed me before looking back to the girl while saying something else that sounded like an introduction, ending with ‘Flick’. She pointed to me, repeating, “Flick.”

The girl, Sahveniah, apparently, looked at me solemnly for a moment before her mouth widened into a gap-toothed smile that made my heart melt. “Fick!” she blurted, pointing to me. “Fick!”

Tabbris tried to correct her that it was Flick with an L, but the girl just kept giggling while repeating, “Fick, Fick!” She had gotten over her fear by then, squirming over to the edge of the pod to see what the other three were doing. Upon spotting them, she held both hands up. “Fick!”

“Up?” I asked with a tiny smile, making a gesture as though I was picking her off the pod. “Up?”

She blinked at me, then nodded. “Fick! Up! Up Fick! Up? Up?” She was dancing a bit eagerly back and forth, holding onto the edge of the pod for balance while giggling. “Up Fick. Quaeso?”

I knew that word. Please. So, I smiled. But before accepting her, I paused long enough to activate the dibs protection spell once more, just in case. There was no sense in having any accidents, after all. I didn’t know how good these kids were at controlling their powers yet.

Once I was suitably protected from any problems, I reached out and picked the little girl up from the pod. She clung to me as I held her, wrapping her arms around my neck as she gave me another gap-toothed smile. “Salve, Fick! Gratias, Fick.”

“You’re welcome,” I started, before considering. “Umm, it was… Nihil est?” I’d learned that one after a few days with Athena. It basically meant ‘it’s nothing’ and was the closest I knew.

She babbled something else that I didn’t follow, but quickly seemed to actually realize that I didn’t understand. Instead of continuing, the girl tilted her head thoughtfully. Her eyes examined me before she started again, a bit slower. That time, I understood a few words.

“Where are we?” I guessed, giving a quick look toward Theia and Tabbris. Getting a confirming nod from both of them, I looked back to Sahveniah. “Earth,” I started (though I didn’t know for certain that’s where this cave was, it still felt like the right answer). “Err, wait, it was… Rysthael?”

The dark-skinned girl made a noise of surprise, mouth falling open. God, it was adorable. Then again, by that point I was starting to think that this kid could’ve stood there reading the want ads from the paper and it would’ve been the single cutest thing ever.

After staring at me like that for a couple of seconds, Sahveniah repeated, “Rysthael?” When I nodded, she said it louder. “Rysthael!” She was bouncing up and down in my arms, chanting it.

Then the others started up. The boy in Sariel’s arms chanted it along with Sahveniah. And he was quickly followed by the other two. Both of them had clambered up Gabriel. The red-haired boy hung from the man’s arm, while the girl had climbed up onto his opposite shoulder and half-hung from it while tugging lightly at his ear with a look of curiosity. Both took up the chant.

Okay, apparently they knew what Rysthael was. I wondered how, or why. And why they seemed so excited by the prospect of being here. It was like having a bunch of kids in the car and telling them they were going to Disney World.

Gabriel, who seemed to be taking kids climbing all over him very much in stride, gestured with the arm that the boy was hanging off of. A portal appeared, shimmering in the air. “Ah, why don’t you and the others go ahead and take the little ones back to the camp, Felicity? They’ll be safe there, while we sort out the adults and decide what’s going on.”

Shifting Sahveniah in my arms, I nodded to the portal and asked, “Rysthael?”

“Rysthael!” she and the other three blurted.

That was enough for us. Sariel passed the sandy-haired boy to Theia, who took him solemnly. The other two were set down, each taking one of Tabbris’s hands. Then we went through the portal together, after getting a promise from Gaia and the others that they’d let us know what was going on once they had a better idea themselves. Together, we took our four charges back to the Atherby camp. I saw Larees glancing away from the terminal to look at us for a moment right as we passed through the portal. Then she turned back to what she was doing, a slight look of pain disappearing, replaced by anger in the second before we were gone.

******

As it turned out, the red-haired boy was the one named Penemue. The other boy was Grisiniel, and the second girl was Kemetiel. We’d managed to get that much out of them on the way through the camp, while the four kids looked around in absolute wonder. Every little thing they saw, they pointed at and babbled questions for. Questions that Theia and Tabbris answered as best as they could.

It was obvious that these kids hadn’t been outside of that horrible lab basically at all. Before we’d walked very far through the camp, all four of them wanted to get down, squirming and babbling. We let them, and they immediately dropped down to the dirt. As we watched, the kids ran their hands through it, scooping some up. Penemue tasted a bit, then made a face before tasting more.

“Oh, no, no.” Taking a knee there, I gently took the boy’s hands while shaking my head. “Uhh, non. Non.” Making a face as he looked at me, I mimed spitting out the dirt, shuddering. He giggled, so I played it up even more. That got all four of them laughing, and made them forget the dirt.

They didn’t forget everything else, however. As we walked through the camp, they had to pick up every little rock, every stick, every bit of grass. They were fascinated by everything, and carried on a continuous stream of comments that Tabbris and Theia responded to.

And then they saw the first of the camp inhabitants. At that particular moment, there weren’t many out. It was still early in the morning, right around the point where most of the people who were up at night had gone to bed or were on their way there, and before most of those who were awake during the day had gotten up.

But there were a few. And as soon as our little entourage saw them, they stopped short. Grisinel, the sandy-brown-haired boy, pointed toward one of the bird-like Lavinsi standing beside one of those enormous, incredibly corpulent beings that I had seen back on the Meregan world and subsequently learned was called a Guhlben.

As the boy stammered his way through a question about the two, he was just as quickly distracted by the sight of a centaur out for a morning jog. And then by something else. All of them were totally overwhelmed, heads whipping this way and that as they blurted questions excitedly, unable to contain themselves.

They were just so… curious about everything. And that did mean everything. The kids seemed equally interested in and fascinated by the trees, rocks, and nearby lake as they were by the people they saw. Their attention jumped back and forth.

“Hey guys,” I finally interrupted with a little smile, “I think maybe some food would be good? Food, umm…”

“Cibus,” Theia supplied, which Tabbris immediately nodded to.

“Cibus,” I repeated, getting the kids’ attention. “Cibus? Food?”

Well, they were excited about that. Immediately, the four toddlers started jumping up and down, repeating the word before launching into a long series that sounded like pleading about how hungry they were.

“Well,” I murmured, “I guess that answers that. Come on then. Let’s go see what we can find.” I started to step that way, only for Sahveniah to raise her arms in front of me. “Fick!” She blurted with that adorable smile. “Up, Fick?”

“Ohhh, what do you say?” I prompted, realizing that she didn’t understand me, but still playing it up. “Up? Can you say please? Umm, what was the… quaeso? Please? Quaeso?”

“Quaeso!” The girl eagerly repeated, head bobbing. “Up, Fick, Quaeso? Fick… Pease? Pease Quaeso Up? Pease Fick?”

Unable to help the laugh of delight that came then, I reached down to pick the girl up. She cheered, latching onto me tightly. And together, we walked to the large cabin that served as a mess hall.

The second we got inside to where the long, wide tables and benches were, the kids immediately reacted to the food they could smell. I heard Sahveniah’s stomach growl, and the others seemed just as hungry. I’d guessed right, apparently.

We got the four of them settled onto the bench at one of the tables, and I went to get food from the kitchen while the other two entertained them. We didn’t know what they’d like, but I figured the best idea would be to get a wide assortment of things and let them try a bit of everything.

And honestly, I kind of couldn’t wait to see how they reacted to pancakes.

******

The answer, as it turned out, was that they loved them. Pancakes, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast, juice, milk, and so on. Everything we put in front of the kids, they pretty much devoured. And they shared everything. It was adorable, the way they would pass food back and forth, chattering to each other about it. I couldn’t follow much of what they were saying, but it was obvious that the four (along with Theia and Tabbris) were carrying on a very intricate conversation about the food.

Oh, and Tabbris was pretty much the most popular girl ever. The younger kids kept bombarding her with questions throughout the meal, which she did her best to answer. I couldn’t follow everything they were talking about, but it was pretty obvious that they wanted to know all about her.

Eventually, once things had settled down a bit, I fixed up a plate for Avalon. She would probably be waking up soon, if she hadn’t already. Excusing myself for a moment after making sure that Tabbris and Theia would be okay with the kids, I headed for the door.

I didn’t get far, however, before feeling a tug on my leg. Sahveniah was there, gazing up at me with puppy eyes. “Fick?”

“Aww.” Smiling, I put my hand out. “You wanna come?” She took my hand eagerly, and we walked out together. More people were up by that point, and the girl kept chattering away, asking me questions that I barely followed part of. She did seem to know that I couldn’t really understand her, however, and when she really wanted to know something, she took the time to ask in very simple words, or just pointed and gestured until I understood.

Reaching Avalon’s cabin, we stepped inside to find the girl herself, sure enough, sitting up. She blinked at me, then at the girl holding my hand, then back to me.

“Chambers,” she started slowly, “if you tell me that it turns out you had another Seosten kid hanging out inside of you somehow…”

Coughing, I shook my head. “Uh, no, turns out there were a few little ones mixed into the batch of prisoners that we took from the transport. The other three are finishing up breakfast, so we thought we’d bring you some. This,” I nodded to the girl at my side, “is Sahveniah.”

“Savvy!” the girl herself chirped, pointing to herself, then at me. “Fick! Savvy. Fick.”

Avalon started to introduce herself, then paused and settled for, “Valley.” She repeated it, pointing to herself a little shakily. It was obvious that she wasn’t anywhere near full strength. Her face was still pale, and she was moving slowly.

“Vah-vah-lee. Valley,” Sahveniah, or Savvy apparently, repeated before giving a bright smile. “Voh-lee. Vah-Lee. Valley!” She moved closer, letting go of my hand before stopping at the side of Avalon’s bed. For a second, the girl started to go into a long bit neither of us understood, before stopping. Her head tilted as she considered her words very carefully, before pointing to Avalon and saying a word that kind of sounded like ‘ouch’.

“Ouch?” I echoed, moving next to her. “Valley hurt? Ouch?”

“Ouchuh,” she over-enunciated, her face solemn as she carefully asked. “Ouch?”

With a tiny, faint smile, Avalon shifted over on the bed. “I’m okay. Uggnn…”

Trying not to overreact, I carefully handed her the plate, then picked up Savvy and set her next to the older girl. “Well, I think someone wants to help you with your breakfast.”

“Bakefast!” Sahveniah chirped, before starting to point to things on the plate. “Toast. Toast. Egg. Puncake.”

“Pancake. Not puncake, pancake,” I corrected with a little smile. “Though I think you may have accidentally invented Shiori’s new favorite food.”  

Avalon took a bite, then looked to Savvy as the girl opened her mouth like a baby bird until the other girl put a forkful of pancake (or puncake) into it.

Sitting on the other side of the bed, I laughed at the sounds of delight that Sahveniah made while chewing the puncake. She looked up then, pointing at me. “Fick. Fick bakefast.”

“Oh, her too? Okay.” Avalon smirked a little, then took a forkful of food, offering it to me until I took it. For some reason, that made Savvy laugh, and she said something that I took as ‘do it again.’

So we did. I took another bite. We sat there, the three of us, sharing Avalon’s breakfast. We went through a few bites like that before my sense told me about someone approaching the door. From the items they had, I was pretty confident of who it was.

Sure enough, after knocking on the door and opening it when we called out for them to do so, Shiori was the one who stood on the other side. She stepped in, pausing briefly at the sight in front of her.

“Um. Did I miss something?” she asked curiously.

The three of us looked at each other, then I turned back that way while shaking my head. “Nope, you’re actually just in time for puncakes.”

Shiori pulled up a chair beside the bed. She introduced herself to Sahveniah, learning the other girl’s name in return. Together, we ate from Avalon’s plate (it was a good thing I’d had the foresight to put a lot on there), while listening to the little Seosten girl chatter away as she asked questions about… basically everything. She was so incredibly curious, wanting to know the words for every bit of food and everything else she could see.

I didn’t mind. And from what I could tell, neither did Shiori or Avalon. We answered the girl as well as we could, keeping her entertained through all of that. Honestly, as bad as things had been (especially with Rudolph’s death) and as bad as they still were in many ways… this? This wasn’t terrible.

Actually, it was pretty damn good.

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Convalescence 38-06

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“Yes, Theia, I am one hundred percent positive that Doug doesn’t want to be woken up at dawn after the night we all just had.” As I spoke those words, I was staring intently at the girl in question. “Believe me. The last thing he wants right now is for one of us to shake him awake demanding to borrow his hat and asking him questions about the magic spells on it.”

I had just given the girl a brief rundown about the runes on Doug’s hat, and how they had reacted when I possessed Scout while she was wearing it. After giving her the ten second explanation of where they’d come from, she had very nearly turned back the way we’d come to make a beeline straight for the boy in question before I’d quickly stopped her.

“You don’t know what kind of dreams he has for his fun time,” Theia informed me primly while folding her arms across her stomach. “Maybe that would tick off a few of his boxes.”

I started to retort, then caught myself. “I–okay gross. And let me put it this way, we can’t wake him up right now. I know you wanna see how that spell works with you and Pace, and I don’t blame you. Not one bit. But we can’t do it right now. I swear, as soon as it gets a bit later, we will. Okay? Cross my heart, I’m not going to forget our deal. That’s why I told you about it.”

Tabbris, who was still being careful to keep me between herself and Theia, piped up then. “I can show you what the symbols look like. But I dunno what order they’re drawn in or anything else, so we can’t use that to cast them. Only Doug knows how to do that.”

“Only Doug knows how to do what?” The voice came from Sariel, as the woman approached us. In the distance at the very end of the lake, I could see Gaia and Gabriel still standing there, having some kind of private conversation. Probably about those Seosten prisoners.

“Mama!” Tabbris bounded that way, leaping up to her mother’s arms before clinging as Sariel lifted her up into a tight hug. I could see a brief flash of euphoria cross the woman’s face as she held her daughter tight, nuzzling her hair briefly while murmuring something to her quietly.

That look, seeing mother and daughter embracing like that, just made me feel even worse about what had happened inside the hospital. I felt a brief flash of shame run through me again, as a hard lump formed in my throat. I couldn’t find my voice. How could I possibly say anything?

Forcing myself to look away, I ended up glancing toward Theia. She was staring at Sariel and Tabbris, an unreadable expression on her face. I had no idea what she was thinking, exactly, but it was obvious that she had some pretty strong feelings about what she was looking at.

“Felicity?” Sariel was looking at me, her expression curious while she held her daughter up, with Tabbris’s legs wrapped around her waist. “You were saying something about Doug?”

That brought me back around, and I coughed before nodding. “Right, Doug’s hat.” Briefly, I explained everything to her, telling the woman what he’d told us about where those symbols came from, as well as what had happened when we used them. It was basically the same thing I’d just told Theia a minute earlier, but with maybe a couple more details.

When I was done, Sariel continued to stare at me for a few long seconds as she wrapped her mind around it. “Whispers,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Beings trapped between universes that control people by talking to them… And those spells that Douglas Frey and his great-great-grandfather found allow them to be both seen, and stops their whispering.”

“And probably other things too,” I confirmed with a shrug. “Doug can tell you more about it, I just know the bullet points. But like I was telling Theia over there, we can’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Or, you know, I won’t just drag him out of bed to talk about it. Not after everything that just happened. Not after Rudolph–” Stopping myself then, I winced before finishing with a lame, “Doug’s earned a rest. I’m not disturbing him right now when it’s not an emergency.”

Sariel gave a slight nod at that. “Of course not,” she agreed readily. “We can wait for that. Let the boy sleep. Still, I am… curious about these so-called Whispers. And about these spells.”

“Do you think they could be other Seosten?” I asked, curiously. “I mean, Seosten from another universe. Or some kind of evolutionary split. Or… huh, there’s kind of a lot of options.”

Tabbris’s head bobbed quickly as she slipped down to stand beside her mother. “Uh huh,” she put in. “Um, maybe Cronus made them? Before he did… whatever he did with the Fomorians.”   

Right, we’d learned about the ancient pre-possession ability Seosten who had experimented on making a clone for his dying son and ended up creating Cronus. After that, things just got worse.

“Felicity is correct,” Sariel murmured softly, her voice sounding absent, as if her mind was mostly elsewhere. “These so-called Whispers could be many different things. They could come from Cronus, or something else… Perhaps they were–” She cut herself off abruptly, head giving a firm shake. “But we can think about that later. There are other things to focus on now.”  

The woman started to say something else, before blinking at Theia. She paused, visibly scanning the girl up and down before speaking quietly. “Well, hello, there. You’re… Theia, yes? Things were very busy before. We didn’t have much of a chance to actually meet.”

For Theia’s part, she was busy chewing on her fist so hard I could actually see blood. It was almost like she was trying to cram it into her mouth. The fist itself was clenched tight enough that the knuckles had turned white, and her arm visibly shook before she got it under control. Her voice, when she spoke, cracked just a little bit. “Yes, Theia-I am…” She paused briefly, as if just realizing that her speech-pattern had made answering the question redundant. “… Yes.”

“Theia.” Saying that name, Sariel paused before lifting her chin as she watched the girl’s reaction to her next words closely. “Abigail said that name was actually short for another.”

Theia nodded once. “Yes, Miss Abigail thought that the name Aletheia would be good. We thought it was too long, and would stand out as Seosten. Theia is shorter. And less obvious.”

Sariel raised an eyebrow at that. “Stand out as Seosten… does that mean that you don’t know who the original Aletheia was? When Abigail told me about your reaction to the name, I assumed that you rejected the full version out of some… loyalty to your mother.”

In that moment, Theia looked just as confused and curious as Tabbris and I did. All three of us were just staring at the woman. “Loyalty?” the girl in question echoed. “What would Kushiel have to do with this Aletheia? Theia-I have never heard of her. Miss Abigail said only that Apollo’s stories say she is the daughter of Zeus, devoted to truth. Theia-I was called a Lie. Miss Abigail thought the name of another daughter of Zeus, a name that meant truth, was… better.”

Kushiel, I noticed. She’d called the woman Kushiel, not ‘Mother’ or any derivative. That was interesting. I wondered briefly how long she’d been doing that, even just in her head.

She also wasn’t laughing and carrying on nearly as much as I was accustomed to. It was like being around Sariel had completely sobered her, as if she was in… awe or something. Or maybe it was seeing the way the woman interacted with her daughter. Either way, she was very clearly affected by it. And by the attention that Sariel was devoting to her right then. Although, to be fair, she had also seemed different from the moment that I’d seen her after she’d been taken in by Abigail. But still, this was something even more obvious than that.

For her part, Sariel took that in before slowly shaking her head with a darkly muttered, “Of course she wouldn’t tell you anything about that. She wouldn’t want you to know.”

“Wouldn’t want her to know what, Mama?” Tabbris was just as curious as Theia and I clearly were. Her eyes darted back and forth between the other girl and her mother.

Pausing briefly to collect her thoughts, Sariel began with, “Aletheia was a real person, a crew member on the Olympus.” A beat passed, before, “And she was Puriel’s lover.”

Okay, if I had been drinking anything just then, I would’ve spit it out. “His lover? His–what–but she’s his daughter in the myths. And yeah, I know ancient Greeks and Romans could be pretty screwed up. But–but–what? That doesn’t even–why would they–what?”

In response to that utterly incoherent rambling, Theia pointed to me. “What she said.”

Before responding, Sariel glanced back as if to see if Gaia and Gabriel were ready. Satisfied that we weren’t making them wait, she explained, “First, yes, she was a real person. And in her case, Aletheia was her real name, not one adopted solely for our time on Earth. She was written to be Puriel–or Zeus’s daughter at Kushiel’s rather firm insistence.”

I whistled low. “You know these are the same myths that don’t exactly show Hera or Zeus in a very good light? I mean, the things they show Zeus getting up to… sexually… uhh, if Kushiel didn’t step in then, but did step in to make sure this Aletheia person was depicted as his daughter? That’s just–I mean–wow. She really must’ve hated her. But I thought that–I mean I assumed that–I mean… I didn’t think that Seosten really went all for total monogamy. Which is kind of a weird assumption I guess, since I don’t have any examples otherwise. But plenty of Heretics don’t, and I guess I assumed it came from the Seosten.”

“Some do, some don’t, just like Heretics,” Sariel informed me. “But in any case, that was not the source of Kushiel’s hatred of Aletheia. She did not rightly care who or how many beings Puriel might have had intercourse with. No, in her eyes, Aletheia’s far greater sin was in the fact that Puriel listened to her. He heeded her words, her advice. And that was something that Kushiel could not abide.”

“Kushiel didn’t hate Aletheia because the woman had sex with her husband,” I started slowly. “That part was fine. She hated her because Puriel took her advice and listened to her?” My mouth opened and shut twice, three times, as no sound emerged. Finally, I managed, “Wow.”  

“That,” Sariel confirmed, “is the gist of it. Puriel listened to Aletheia. I believe he may even have loved her. He certainly respected her opinion. Kushiel loathed that fact. It was actually the source of a lot of their arguments. She tried to have… well, let’s just say Aletheia probably would have been in much worse shape if Puriel hadn’t put his foot down. The fights they had about her…” Slowly shaking her head, the woman seemed lost in her memories for a moment before focusing. “In any case, Kushiel insisted that Aletheia be depicted as Zeus’s daughter.”

“And he turned around and made her represent truth,” I murmured, shaking my head in wonder at Apollo’s audacity even back then. “That must’ve pissed Kushiel off pretty bad too.”

“Oh, it did,” Sariel confirmed. “But it also fit. Aletheia was very good at her job. She worked as Puriel’s assistant, and she was one of the most organized and bureaucratically-capable people I have ever met. Even for a Seosten, her memory and quick recall was extraordinary. She was obsessed with working within the system, with following rules and keeping everything clean. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. As Puriel’s assistant, Aletheia worked twenty hours a day for awhile just to run all of the behind-the-scenes things on the ship. She held a lot of influence, both through paperwork and through contacts that she had. Not only with Puriel, but with every department on the ship. And off the ship. She was the one who most of our station resuppliers talked to if they weren’t dealing with Kushiel herself.”

“They talked to Kushiel about supplying the ship?” I couldn’t help but put in. “Those poor guys.”

The woman nodded. “Kushiel’s position on the ship was to track supplies, fuel, ammunition, and so forth. She was our logistics expert. Which means that she should have worked closely with Aletheia. But… well, she found ways around that. And when she couldn’t, things tended to get… bad. Puriel learned not to let them work together, putting them on different projects. He had to stop Aletheia from doing everything she wanted to do to help the ship because Kushiel refused to work with her.”

“I wish I could say her being that petty surprised me,” I muttered, “but it really doesn’t. Actually, the only surprising part about that story is that Puriel stood up for this Aletheia.”

Theia herself, who had been quiet for a bit with a thoughtful look, finally spoke up. “Theia-I was…given a name that Kushiel would hate, wasn’t I?”

“Oh lords yes,” Sariel confirmed emphatically. “If and when she discovers that you have taken up that name, Kushiel will be indescribably furious. She may literally discover the power to spontaneously combust. She will be…” Trailing off, the woman considered her words. “She will be angrier, perhaps, than we have ever seen her.”

For a moment, Theia was quiet. She seemed to be chewing that over in her mind (maybe with Pace’s help), before looking up once more. Her eyes met Sariel’s, and she gave a firm nod.

“Good.”

****

“So do you know where she is now? Or what happened to her?”

It was a few minutes later, and I was walking through the ridiculously photogenic crystal cave that Gaia had apparently sent the Seosten prototype transport to back when the Committee had shown up at the desert. So much had happened between then and now that it felt like weeks had passed since then, rather than only a couple of days. Sariel, Gaia, Theia, Gabriel, and Tabbris were there with me, though it was the first one I had directed that question to.

Sariel paused, looking to me. “The original Aletheia? The last that I knew for certain when I was still… loyal, she had been banished by Kushiel to a remote, backwater colony on the edge of known space. Though I did hear… rumors from other prisoners in the past few years that she was taken from there and recruited by Chayyiel to run her day-to-day dealings.”

“Chayyiel,” I murmured under my breath. “She’s the ‘oh fuck run it’s not really an innocent little kid’ Seosten, right?”

A tiny smile crossed the woman’s face then, before her head dipped in a slight nod. “That… sums things up fairly well, yes. Though running would–never mind. Yes. Aletheia may be working for Chayyiel, if those rumors are true. I never saw it for myself, but then, the people who said it were very insistent that she had made it into the promised Choir.”

That made me blink. “The promised Choir?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Gaia also paying attention, her gaze moving to Sariel as she interrupted her ongoing silent conversation with Gabriel.

“The Libero Choir, it has been called in more recent days,” Sariel replied. “A Choir where all are treated equally, Seosten or not. A Choir where merit is found in actions and work, not in birth. From the rumors that were spread through the prison, the Libero Choir, Chayyiel’s Choir, is one where Seosten must treat their hosts with dignity, where they work together.”

We’d reached the transport itself by then, but I stopped walking, staring at her. “But– but if that was true, why would–”

I had to stop myself there, because I’d almost asked why Jophiel and Elisabet would be working to prove humans and Seosten could be partners if Chayyiel had a whole Choir acting that way. Luckily, I had a way of covering that worked just as well.

“Why would Athena need to have a whole underground rebel group devoted to that kind of thing if there’s already an actual Choir that does it?”

It was actually Gabriel who spoke up then, his voice contemplative. “It seems to me that the Seosten Empire is quite expansive.”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “Think of Chayyiel’s Choir as… a single city here on Earth, compared to every city in the world. Not even a leading one like New York or London or  Shanghai. A smaller city. Something closer to Akron, Ohio. Population of roughly two-hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand people out of a total world population of  seven and a half billion. Two hundred thousand are not going to be able to influence very much, no matter how free they are. Chayyiel’s Choir is much the same. Athena is attempting to change everything, not simply one Choir. And no matter how useful she is, if Chayyiel was seen to be consorting with her group, she would be removed from her position and her Choir would be… put back to the way it was.”

That made sense. And it also helped explain why Jophiel couldn’t work with her, conveniently enough.

The ramp of the tube-shaped transport slid open, and I again saw all those cryogenic pods inside. Sariel led the way up, with the rest of us following along behind. Theia was last, slowly trailing after the rest of us. When I glanced that way, I could see a look of hesitation, like she wasn’t sure she wanted to be here.

I had to imagine that being around a bunch of people that her mother had systematically tortured and repeatedly impregnated on what amounted to a rape farm had to be pretty uncomfortable. Especially given what little I knew about how said mother had treated her.

Still, she came. And she was quiet, still clearly working to behave herself. I wondered how much of that was Theia, and how much was Pace coaching her.

We reached the back of the transport, where Sariel brought up the computer with the listing of all prisoners. “We were looking at this one earlier…” As she spoke, a light came on over one particular stasis pod. “Larees, of the Tleken Choir.”

She explained how this particular Seosten had been arrested fifteen years earlier after she had assaulted a superior officer who ordered her to have an entire city razed after it had fallen into the hands of local rebels. Apparently this Larees had spent seven years in a military brig before being transferred to Kushiel’s custody, where she had been impregnated fifty-seven times in the past eight years, six of which had been carried all the way to delivery.

It was pretty fucked up, but that was just par for the course by that point.

In any case, this Larees was Sariel’s first choice to release and talk to, and I couldn’t blame her for that. The woman had been imprisoned for fifteen years because she refused to wholescale massacre a bunch of innocent people just to stop a rebellion. And more than that, she hadn’t just refused, she had assaulted her superior officers over it. If she didn’t deserve to be pulled out of stasis and hopefully freed, no one in this group did.

So, with a gesture, Gaia made the pod start its unlocking and opening sequence. While that was happening, she observed, “The security for these pods is quite extensive. It’s lucky that you and the Moon children were able to find a way to open Sariel’s so easily.”

Oh boy. I’d been expecting this question. I had no idea when it would come, but I’d known it would eventually. And… well, quite frankly, lying right now made me feel like shit. Worse than shit. But… what else could I do? We were incapable of telling the truth about our deal with Jophiel and Elisabet, and there wasn’t any way of explaining it without mentioning them.

So, I just shrugged and kept my attention on the opening pod. “Yeah,” I replied, “good thing that woman back in the lab had the codes for us to get out of her.”

There. That was… about as close to the truth as we could get. There was no reason for me to get specific about it unless they pressed, at which point I would say that I’d possessed her to find out what the codes were. But at this point, all I had said was that we’d gotten the codes out of a woman in the lab. That was the absolute truth.

It felt like someone might have asked something else about it, but by that point, the pod had finished opening, and I saw a female figure inside. But before I could make out any details, the figure abruptly moved. And by moved, I mean she was suddenly on her feet, out of the pod, and had her fist flying at the nearest figure.

Unfortunately for her, that figure happened to be Sariel. I saw the blonde woman’s head jerk back before she caught the extended arm, turning to guide the other figure around in a quick circle that took her momentum away before stopping short, still holding her arm.

“Larees!” Sariel blurted. “Conquieso.” She immediately released the woman while taking a step back, hands raised as she said more in Latin, clearly trying to calm her down.

I got my first good look at the other Seosten then. She was short. Shorter than me, actually. I estimated her height around Sands and Scout’s, which meant she was a flat five feet. Her hair was cut short and spiky, and was mostly black with dark blue tips, both of which contrasted with her pale skin. But what stood out the most about her was that she had a tattoo of what looked like a blue-green phoenix taking up half her face. Or at least the head and part of the body of one. It was the side profile of the bird’s head, taking up basically all of the left side of her face. The head was positioned and angled just right so that the woman’s left eye appeared to be the bird’s eye. Its beak went down just under her other eye.

It was distracting, to say the least. I had to tear my attention away from it as the woman launched into a long bit of Latin that I didn’t have a prayer of following. She was staring at Sariel, briefly glancing to the rest of us now and then, but mostly focusing on the woman in front of her. I heard ‘Sariel’ a few times in there, along with a tone of disbelief and confusion that I could make out very well despite not understanding her actual words.

“Well,” Theia announced nearby, “someone’s a potty mouth.”

Finally, Sariel managed to get more than a couple words in edgewise. She kept her hands raised, speaking just as quickly as the other woman. Again, I couldn’t follow along. At least until she switched to English. “See? It’s okay. You are okay, Larees of Tleken.”

“You expect me to believe that you are truly the Sariel and that this is not some trick?” Apparently Sariel had either asked her to switch to English as well, or the woman had taken her doing it as a guide. Either way, I could understand her now. And she didn’t seem very happy. Not very happy at all.

“Your tricks are wearing thin, Kushiel bitch. Futue te ipsum, obscenus scortum.”

“Told you she had a potty mouth,” Theia calmly observed.  

“Hey!” That was Tabbris, lunging into view to take her mother’s arm. “Don’t talk to my mama like that!”

I was pretty sure there was nothing in existence that could have derailed this Larees woman’s tirade more effectively than that. She blinked at Tabbris, eyes widening in shock before she stammered a confused, “Child. A… you are… what?” Her eyes returned to Sariel, to find the woman holding a field-engraver out to her.

“Go ahead,” Sariel announced softly. “Test.”

For a moment, Larees didn’t move at all. She just stared, before slowly reaching out to take the field-engraver. As Sariel offered her arm, the woman hesitated, then moved to draw a quick spell there. Gaia and Gabriel both looked interested, but neither moved to stop this.

“What…?” I started, glancing to Theia in confusion.

“Signature spell,” the girl replied without looking at me. “Every person ever has a unique signature aura, part of their magic, see? Three parts. Two parts their parents. One for mother, one for father. Third part them. New, unique, only theirs. Impossible to fake, impossible to change. Proves who their parents are and who they are. Makes things safe from imposters, shapeshifters… Fomorian creations…”

Sure enough, as we watched, three holographic shapes appeared in the air just above Sariel’s arm. The first looked like a backwards C with an equals sign through the middle of it, a diagonal curved line above it, and a sideways number two just underneath. The second symbol was a teepee (or an A without the line in the middle) and then another one on its side just a bit to the right, with an oval in the space between them. And the third symbol looked like a circle broken in half, with each side pulled a bit away from each other. In the space between them was an infinity symbol, and there was a thick line across the top of the whole thing, from one end of the broken circle half to the other end.

It was enough, apparently. Larees stared at the holographic symbols, mouthing a word under her breath before her gaze snapped to the woman herself. “You are… but you…” Her head dropped then, as she stammered, “Ap-apologies, Lady Sariel. I was–” She stopped then, slowly looking up once more. Her eyes looked to the rest of us, then at the pods around her before she focused on Sariel once more. “… I don’t understand.”

So, Sariel explained, with some help from Gaia and Gabriel. She told the woman that we were on Earth, that she had been rescued and we were working on letting out as many of the Seosten prisoners as we could. She explained that we had to start with people who could be trusted, and that that was why she’d gone with Larees first. It was a long explanation, and she barely touched the surface. Through it all, the other woman just stood there and stared.

Finally, Sariel finished (at least that very minor, surface-level explanation), ending with, “Understand that Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser here, human Heretics, are both able to tell if you are untruthful. Do you wish to help us? It will mean hurting our own people, fighting our own people. They–”

Larees held up a hand to stop her. Grunting something under her breath, she turned back to the pod she had been kept in, using the field-engraver to start scrawling something. Sariel leaned over, taking a quick glance before giving the rest of us a shake of her head to show that it was okay. Once the spell was done, the woman reached out to it, and her hand disappeared into thin air.

“Pocket vault spell,” Theia informed me. “Make the spell, put something in it, then take it out later.”  

Well, that sounded useful. And interesting. But what was the woman reaching for, a weapon, something that could protect her, information to use against Kushiel?

Alcohol. She was reaching for alcohol. Her hand came back out with a clear bottle full of bright, neon green liquid, which she popped the top of of with a practiced flick of her finger before downing three-quarters of the bottle in one long pull.

Sighing with relief, Larees cracked her neck and gave a slow smile. “You have no idea how long I’ve needed that.” She finished the bottle with another quick pull before tossing it casually over her shoulder. It disappeared back through the invisible portal and into her pocket vault. “You want to know if I want to fight our own people, our whole civilization?”

Sariel met her gaze. “Not all of them. There are other groups–”

“The Aelaestiam,” Larees finished for her. “Yeah. Heard about them in prison. Auriel’s people. She… we talked about joining up with her for awhile. Made an attempt to get out. That’s what got me transferred to Kushiel’s tender fucking mercies.”

Something flickered behind the woman’s gaze, and she reached back through her portal without looking, taking a fresh bottle. Opening it with the same finger-flick, she took a smaller drink that time, savoring it more. With a sigh, she continued. “Our people locked me in regular prison for seven years, then sent me to be experimented on and repeatedly impregnated like some kind of feusten for another eight. I have six children out there that I will probably never see again. And why?” She took another drink, a longer one that time before answering her own question. “Because I thought slaughtering two hundred and seventeen thousand living beings who made the mistake of not wanting to be enslaved might have been going a little too far.” With each subsequent word, the woman’s voice turned darker, before she took yet another drink.

“So you want to know if I want to change things, if I’m willing to fight our own people? I say fuck yes, I’m ready. Something has to change. If that means working with these… these humans? Whatever. We need as much help as we can get anyway. And I guarantee you, a lot of the people here are going to feel the same way. Not all of them, but a lot.

“I am on Team Fuck The Establishment. Any person, group, or Cronus-damned species who wants to climb aboard that train?” Her fist suddenly lashed out, punching the pod she had been kept in. “The more the fucking merrier.”

That all said, she pointed with the bottle toward Tabbris. “She was born in there, wasn’t she? You got her out. You found a way to get her out.”

“That… yes, it is a long story,” Sariel informed her. “I will tell you about it. But first, introductions. As I said, this is one of my daughters, Tabbris. That is Gaia Sinclaire and Gabriel Prosser.”

“Heard of you both, actually,” Larees informed them idly. “More the former than the latter, but yeah. Names are familiar. You’re supposed to be bad news. So uhh, good to meet you.”

“This,” Sariel continued with a gesture toward me, “is Felicity Chambers, a… student, a young Heretic. She was part of the group who rescued us, along with my two hybrid children. My–”

“What?” Larees’s gaze had snapped that way, eyes widening. “Did you say… are you saying that you had… that you’ve… procreated with… with…”

“She’s married!” The defiant announcement came from Tabbris, as the girl stared hard up at the woman. “Mama married Mr. Moon.”

“Haiden,” Sariel explained. “And yes, he is human. He’s… trapped in our space right now, with others. We’ve had two children, Tristan and Vanessa. They’re Felicity’s age.”

“And they’re actually–I mean they actually… nothing went…” It looked like Larees couldn’t decide how to finish that sentence, before she finally gave up and took another pull of her drink. Heaving a sigh, she muttered, “That’s supposed to be impossible.”

“I assure you,” Sariel replied, “they are quite real. And Haiden is my husband.”

It looked like both her and Tabbris were ready for the woman to question or insult that. But Larees just stood there, staring down at her half-empty bottle for a few seconds before giving a languid shrug. “You know what, fuck it. If it works, it works. Now what about this one?” She used that bottle to point toward Theia.

“This…” Sariel paused before stepping that way. “This is Pace. She’s being possessed by Aletheia.”

“Aletheia?” Larees immediately blurted, “As in–”

“Not that Aletheia,” Sariel corrected. “She is…” She looked to the girl in question, waiting for her to nod before continuing. “She is Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter.”

That made Larees spit up the bit of her drink she’d just taken. “I’m sorry, what?” she blurted out loud. “Puriel and Kushiel’s daughter? That–what–well fuck I can see why anyone spawned from that bitch would turn against her, but they don’t have a daughter last time I checked.”

“They did, they do.” Sariel glanced to Theia once more. “They’re just ashamed of her.”

“Ashamed–why would–” Larees stopped then, her eyes moving back to Theia as well. “… a Lie. They had a Lie. The great Kushiel and Puriel… gave birth to a Lie. Their own child is a Lie, a–”

“Stop that!” It was Tabbris. The girl had put herself in front of Theia, eyes blazing. “Stop saying it like that! Stop calling her that! She didn’t do anything wrong–I mean, for that. How’d you like it if everyone hated you because of how you were born? What if every other Seosten had brown eyes and they all hated you because your eyes aren’t brown? What if they all called you a freak and a monster because of what color your eyes were?”

“Eyes that aren’t brown wouldn’t be one step closer to Cronus,” Larees informed her in a flat voice before taking another sip of her drink. “But… yeah. Yeah, maybe.” She looked a little troubled by that, frowning to herself before shaking her head as she looked toward Sariel. “Your daughter’s pretty fierce.”

“Yes…” Sariel agreed with a little smile. “She is.”

More introductions went around then. Larees didn’t call Theia a Lie again, but I could tell that she didn’t trust her very much, if at all. She spoke with Gaia and Gabriel together, a brief conversation happening between them before Sariel drew everyone’s focus back to the pods.

“We need to go over some of these names,” she announced, “I’d like to know who you recognize.”

With that, Sariel brought up the list in question once more. “I looked through it before,” she started slowly, “and there is one pod that confuses me.” She sent the holographic display skimming until she found the right one, then brought it up to show us. Floating there in the air were the words, ‘Kemetiel, Sahveniah, Penemue, Grisiniel.’ That was followed by what looked like weird symbols that might have been numbers.

“Roughly fifty-four kilograms,” Sariel translated, “or one hundred and twenty pounds. So it must be a single person. But all these names, I thought they may be aliases. And unlike the other entries, there is no other information.”

“Sounds like a secret prisoner,” Larees put in with a shrug. “Multiple aliases, maybe? Or a code for a project.”

“But why would they go by multiple names?” Tabbris piped up then. “Wouldn’t that make them stand out more?”

“It is not multiple names.” That was Theia. She was already standing over by the pod in question. “It is multiple people.”

“But that’s impossible,” I pointed out while shaking my head. “Four names? That’s four people. Four Seosten who only weigh a hundred and twenty pounds all together and fit in tha-oh.”

“Indeed,” Gaia murmured, clearly having realized before I did. “Oh.” She reached out a hand toward the pod,and it came to life. The door slid open with a hiss and a few quiet beeps. And then we could see what we already knew was there. The reason there were four names, yet  only enough weight for one adult.

It was because there wasn’t one adult in that pod. Instead, strapped in there together were four much smaller, much younger figures. I would have guessed their ages at around two or three, maybe. We didn’t just have a bunch of Seosten prisoners of war or whatever.

We also had Seosten toddlers.

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