Seller

Summer Epilogue 20 – Avalon and Miranda (Heretical Edge)

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Please note, this is the first of TWO chapters that will be released today. Come back in a couple hours to see the next one, which will finish out the regular summer epilogues we’ve been having, leading into the final rescue arc before the next book. 

With a hum of power, a blue energy blade flashed through the air. It was caught against a black metal shield with green gems adorning the front. 

Avalon Sinclaire and Miranda Wallbern stood facing one another in the middle of the forest on the far side of the lake where the Atherby camp was. Both were sweating, and the signs of their exertions were visible in scorch marks, deep gouges in the trees and rocks around them, and trampled bushes. 

It had now been seven weeks since that fateful night back at Crossroads. Things were gradually building up at the camp, as more and more former and brand new Crossroads rebels made their way in. The cabins had expanded all the way around the lake, a few almost visible from where the girls were sparring. For the most part, things were limited to making sure as many rebels found their way to the camp as possible and setting up in new places for them to live. That and training. Lots and lots of training. 

And letting those who were ready to see for themselves meet the camp’s Alters. Not all of those who came were quite that far along. Some only came to the camp because of their friends, or because of what they’d heard the other side do. Or they wanted to believe that not all Strangers were evil, but a lifetime of indoctrination made that more difficult to accept in person and they weren’t quite there yet. Whatever their reasoning, the Atherby people took it slow. The time would come when they would all need to work together, but they couldn’t rush it too much.

Breathing heavily, Miranda grinned at her sparring partner. “Any time you want to call it a tie, we can go get some lunch. Mmmm lunch. Doesn’t that sound good?”

A short distance away, Salten stood watching the pair. At Miranda’s words, the Peryton made a very clear scoffing sound before grabbing a mouth full of leaves. Porthos, standing between Salten’s antlers, chirped a long and rather detailed rant that most likely explained just how he felt about that suggestion. The words may have been indecipherable, but the general point was made. 

Avalon gave her an unimpressed look as well, after letting her eyes flash very briefly toward the animal and her cyberform partner. “If you want to quit, Wallbern, just say so.”

“Me, quit?” Miranda scoffed. “I can do this as long as you can. Or, you know…” Abruptly, the girl threw herself backwards, while leaving a force field where her shield was. In the next instant, a duplicate spawned in front of her, continuing the original’s words. “One of me can.”

Giving a very faint, predatory smile, Avalon ignited her second gauntlet. This one formed a long warhammer shape, which she swung hard at the newly-summoned duplicate while darting in closer. 

The new Miranda blocked the incoming hammer with her shield while making a pulling gesture with her other hand. The small hovering forcefield that Avalon had bypassed suddenly flipped around in the air and flew at the dark-haired girl from behind. At the last possible moment, Avalon shut down her gauntlets and dropped, letting the flying force field go right over her head as she spun into a low leg sweep that caught Miranda Two just as she was still recovering from the hammer blow. 

Even as she fell, however, the black girl managed to catch herself on one hand, using that to spring back up and over to her feet just before Avalon would have put her reignited (though ‘dulled’ for training purposes, of course) energy blade at where her chest would have been if she had landed on her back. 

Their training fight continued in much that vein for several more minutes. Various Miranda duplicates took turns stepping in to keep Avalon occupied, though only one fought at a time. They moved back-and-forth through the stand of trees, neither really pressing that hard to win, as they were simply enjoying the exercise. 

Finally, by silent yet mutual agreement, they stopped. The extra Mirandas disappeared, and the one who was left reached into a bag placed against a nearby tree, taking out two bottles of water before tossing one to Avalon. She twisted the top off her own and took a sip before approaching as she spoke up. “You know, it’s kinda funny.”

Catching the tossed bottle, Avalon took a sip as well before raising an eyebrow. “Funny?” Salten had come forward by then, and she ran a hand along his back before pouring some water out into a large cup that she projected from her gauntlet. The Peryton made a noise of thanks before loudly slurping from the bowl. 

“Well,” the other girl amended, “not that anything about you having to leave Garden under the… circumstances that you did was funny. But still, you left and yet you still ended up taking on a pretty Gardeny name. It’s like you kept up the tradition anyway.”

For a moment, Avalon didn’t respond to that. She simply took a long, silent pull from the bottle while watching Miranda. Finally, she admitted quietly, “I kind of saw it like that too. I was looking forward to changing my name for so long, to taking on the Eden’s Garden identity, it felt like that was ripped away from me along with everything else.”

Porthos made a soft, almost mournful noise before hopping from Salten’s head to Avalon’s shoulder. The small metal lizard reached out a hand to pat the side of her face while giving an encouraging chirp. 

Avalon, for her part, reached up to rub two fingers over the little guy before squinting at Miranda. “I’m not sure if I felt okay telling you that because you’re Chambers’ best friend, or because you had to leave too.”

“I prefer to think it’s because of my trustworthy face,” Miranda primly informed her before shrugging as she sank down to a sitting position against the nearest tree. “You’re kind of right though. We have a bit in common. We both had to leave Garden as traitors, and we’re both close to Flick. Just… in different ways.”

From the look on her face, Avalon was making an effort to restrain the slight smirk at the other girl’s choice of words. “Different ways indeed.” She sat down beside Miranda, breathing out in a long, low sigh while letting Porthos climb down to her lap. “Chambers has a way of getting… into your head.”

“You should’ve seen her as a ten-year-old,” Miranda retorted. “Every bit as determined to expose the truth and right wrongs, without being nearly as tempered by things like common sense and respect for adults.”

With a small smile, Avalon murmured, “I would have liked to know her back then.” 

Miranda shrugged. “Well, I can tell you all the stories you’d ever want to hear. I know lots of embarrassing ones too, and cool ones. Some that are cool and embarrassing. Like, I remember one time—”

She was interrupted in mid-sentence as a portal opened up nearby. Both girls snapped their attention that way, only to see a familiar figure step through. 

“Seller?” Miranda blinked, head tilting as she looked at the emerald-suited man. 

Avalon stepped over that way, embracing him. It wasn’t the first time that he had been at the camp since everything went down, but he had been very busy, and wasn’t around that much. 

After embracing the girl, and then giving Miranda her own hug as well, Seller asked, “You girls keeping yourself busy out here? He glanced around at the signs of their sparring. “Looks like you haven’t gotten too bored, at least.”

Salten bumped up against the man until he obediently rubbed the brilliant animal’s head. 

“We make our own fun,” Avalon replied dryly before squinting at him. “What about Gaia?” There was a slight tremor to her words. Though she had been trying to keep herself busy and distracted from worrying about her adopted mother, Avalon still felt a near constant pit in her stomach at the thought of what Gaia could be going through. The fact that she had absolutely no way to help the woman had not been easily accepted. 

With a wince, Seller’s head shook. “You know about as much as I do on that front. According to Sariel, she’s still being kept in that magical coma or stasis or whatever it is. If the Seosten lady can’t wake her up, then we’re going to have to go in the long way. And that means figuring out where she is being held. Not to mention how to get past all the defenses. And we haven’t even got the first part yet. We don’t have the faintest clue where they’ve got her.” He sighed. “Sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front. I swear, we’re working on it. I’m trying to get more help. Which is… tangentially related to why I’m here.”

The two girls blinked at one another before turning back to him. Miranda raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What, you want our help finding allies to save Gaia? I’m not sure how much good we could do.”

“No,” Seller started before amending, “well, sort of. The thing is…” He stopped, considering for a moment before letting out a breath. “Okay, well, where I just came from… it’s Desoto. I mean, where Desoto used to be.”

Avalon blinked at that. “Why were you in the gulf of Mexico?”

Meeting her curious gaze, he replied, “Because that’s where the tribes who left Eden are. Well, most of them are staying up in the border states, spread out as much as possible to avoid drawing attention. The leadership and some others have been spending a lot of time out on boats in the water.”

Miranda was the first to speak up. “What the hell are they doing down there? And wait, tribes? Like… entire tribes? Who… who left?”

For a moment, Seller didn’t answer. He was watching Avalon‘s reaction. But her expression remained unreadable, and she herself was silent. Finally, he glanced toward Miranda while replying, “Yeah, it’s… well, just under half of the tribes have rebelled. That includes the Victors. Vigilant Sons, Fate’s Shepherds, Dust Striders, and… half of the Reapers. One of their Victors left.” He shrugged then. “Obviously there’s some from all those tribes who stayed behind, and some from other tribes who went with. It’s a mess. But for the most part, that’s where it stands. Three and a half tribes left, four and a half tribe stayed.”

Miranda sighed heavily. “Including the Eternal Eyes.” The news is that her own (former) tribe had been one of those to remain part of the system even after the Gaia and Flick’s revealing spell made her flinch. She’d had a lot of friends back there, people she wished she could talk to again.

Seller nodded. “Yeah, sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front, but, well… sorry. As far as your tribe is concerned, you’re still the enemy. But hey, you’ve got a lot more company now.”

Miranda twirled a finger. “Yaaaaay.” Belatedly, she amended, “Sorry. Having a lot of people who know the truth now, who accept the truth now, it’s a good thing. I know that. It’s just…”

“They’re not your people,” Avalon finished for her. She looked over to the other girl. “Your people have consistently let you down ever since this started, and you were hoping that would change now.”

“It’d sure be nice,” Miranda agreed before looking toward Seller once more. “But whatever. What are the ones who did leave doing around Desoto?”

Taking in a long breath before letting it out again, Seller slowly answered, “They stole some of the fruit-bearing vines from the tree. Apparently, they have some idea from somewhere that the vines will work and grow if planted where Desoto was. They just haven’t quite figured out how they’re supposed to do that when the place doesn’t exist anymore.”

Avalon squinted. “Plant them underwater? That doesn’t really sound right.”

The man nodded. “That’s kind of the problem they’re having too. But they’re convinced that something will turn up. I guess that’s why they’re out there on boats, looking for a good island or something to plant on. They kind of need to get that going if they’re going to stand a chance against the loyalists. As long as the loyal tribes can make more Heretics and the rebels can’t, they feel pretty outmanned.”

“The Crossroads rebels can’t make more of that kind either,” Miranda pointed out. 

Seller nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and that’s kind of even more of the problem. As long as one side can make as many as they want, whenever they want, for the most part, they’ve got the advantage.”

Avalon was quiet briefly before speaking up. “The rebels can make natural Heretics. We have Alters on our side. Maybe it’s not the same as a Bosch Heretic. They don’t gain more powers from killing. But it’s not nothing.”

“You’re right,” Seller agreed. “It’s definitely a long way from nothing. But there is a reason Crossroads and Eden’s Garden became the de facto most powerful Heretic forces in most of the western world pretty fast once they got things going. It’s fast, easy power gain. And the loyalists have the advantage there.”

Avalon gave a very soft smile then. “Maybe we should focus on getting Aylen’s grandpa away from Crossroads. That’d stop their advantage.”

Seller gave a wry smirk at that. “First of all, the idea that that girl is actually related to the Heretical Edge itself? That’s pretty damn mind blowing, even considering the world we live in.” He paused, considering before asking, “What’s going on with meeting her parents and all that, anyway?”

“It’s happening,” Avalon replied, “Aylen’s still setting it up. Apparently her mothers and grandfather had some big thing to deal with and they’ll be back… eventually.” She shrugged helplessly. “All she could tell me is that it’s something important off-world.” 

Seller blinked. “Grandfa— oh, other grandfather. Her… other mother’s father? Or… what about her father? Does he…”

Avalon shrugged. “She says that whole thing is really complicated and that she’ll explain when we meet them.”

“Complicated seems like a pretty common thing anymore,” Seller noted. He shook his head then, putting a hand on Salten’s back before moving on. “Anyway, that’s not the point. And it’s not why I came. I came because, ahhh, they’d like to talk to you.” 

Realizing he was looking at her, Avalon blinked. “What? Why do they want to talk to me? Wait, who? The Victors?” Perched on her shoulder, Porthos made a sound that was suspiciously close to someone blowing a raspberry at the suggestion. 

Seller nodded. “That’s right. They’d like you to come down to where they are and talk to them. They said that you will have a completely free pass to come and go as you like, and that you may bring whoever you like with you. They’ve given their words that you will be safe, as well anyone who accompanies you.”

Avalon was staring at him, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before she managed a weak, “Why the hell do they want to talk to me now?”

Miranda spoke up. “Because you’re Bosch’s heir. They probably don’t know about, well, Dries. So you’re the descendent.”

Avalon‘s head shook. “So what? I don’t—” She sighed. “They don’t know about the Seosten situation. They don’t know the truth about my ancestor and what he really did. They still think he’s this great, amazing guy who created this whole civilization.”

Seller reached out a hand, resting it on her shoulder. “That’s why I brought their offer to talk to you. I know how you feel about this whole situation, about how you’ve been treated. Believe me, I know. But Fu Hao promised that she and the others are ready to hear anything you need to say. They really want to listen. I can’t promise they’ll believe everything, but this might be the best chance we’ve got to get them to hear the truth. if we can get the rebel Victors to understand what’s really going on, it’ll spread from there.”

Avalon swallowed hard. “You want me to get in front of the leadership of the people who… who… treated me like a monster when I needed them most and convince them that their entire civilization is built on even more of a lie than they already thought?”

The man met her gaze evenly, giving a slight nod. “Yes. I know it seems pretty screwed up. But like I said, this is the best chance we’ve got to bring them on board the whole thing. Remember, we’ve only got a year to convince the Seosten leadership to be allies instead of enemies. Seems like we have an easier job of that if half of Eden’s Garden knew what was really going on. Maybe they have ulterior motives in wanting you to come talk, but at least they’ll be a half-willing audience for you. This right here really is our best shot. You are our best shot.”

Miranda was nodding. “He’s right, Avalon. It sucks that they didn’t listen to your side of the story before. And it sucks that they’re probably mostly only willing to talk now because of some kind of  political thing for who your ancestor was. But whatever the reason, you can talk to them. You can convince them about what’s really going on, about what’s been going on this whole time. If we can get half of Eden’s Garden to know about the Seosten and spread the word from there, that might even bring in more. Hell, it might help drive out the Seosten still hiding there. There’s got to be some in among the rebels, right? So we need to get the truth to them.”

Avalon was still quiet for a few seconds before letting out a breath. “Okay. Let me think about who to take. But fine.

“I’ll go talk to the Victors.”

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Patreon Snippets 6

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The following is the sixth 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. 

Present Day – Seosten Space

“Sir? I–can I get you anything?” Teures, Puriel’s young (an incredibly fresh-faced forty-seven years) Seosten assistant tentatively asked. He stood just in the doorway of a grand, if lonely-looking library. His eyes were on the room’s only occupant, a gray-haired man standing next to a globe. The globe itself was blank at the moment, though at any point it could be set to display any of the millions of planets within the Seosten databanks.

Considering the news he had just passed along, Teures had no idea how the old man was going to react. His wife had been killed, murdered by their own daughter. How would he react to that? How could he react to that?

Teures had just opened his mouth after a few moments of silence to offer to bring the man a drink, when Puriel spoke. “I’d like to be alone, please.” His voice was quiet enough that the young Seosten had to lean closer to hear him properly. “Just… alone.”

Bowing his head, Teures gracefully replied, “Of course, sir. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.” As he backed out of the room and closed the doors behind him, Teures had a moment to wonder why it hadn’t been one of Puriel’s old crewmates to bring him the news. Surely a man as powerful and influential as he deserved to be told of his wife’s death by someone more important than his barely-adult assistant.

In the room, Puriel waited for the doors to close. His hand played over the blank globe as he let out a soft sigh. A few short steps took him to a plush armchair, where he sat and leaned his head back. His eyes closed, and he cast himself… elsewhere.

Well, not elsewhere. The place he went was into his own mind, a mental landscape that worked much like a much more stable dream-world. It was a virtual reality of sorts, created by him and maintained by his… companion, the girl who had been possessing him for years by this point. Sariel’s possession-impaired daughter.

“Spark,” he spoke quietly while ‘appearing’ in the middle of the girl’s workshop. In reality, he was still sitting in that chair in the library, but now all of his attention was directed inward, to this simple-looking room full of tables with various architectural designs and ship blueprints. All of them created and obsessively corrected and updated by the young girl herself. The girl he called Spark, not only because of his own penchant for electricity, but also because it was her presence that had pulled Puriel himself out of what would have been a completely self-destructive cycle of grief and regret.

She was there, standing by a table. For a moment, Puriel looked at her. The truth was, they had no idea what she would look like now, given that it had been years since she had possessed him and, for obvious reasons, she had not left him in all that time. What he saw was the image she chose to present. Which happened to be a small, ten-year old girl with hair fashioned into a tight, elegant braid. One half of the girl’s hair, the left side, was very light blonde, while the right half was pitch-black. The braid itself alternated black and blonde all the way down.

Exactly why she chose to present herself that way, with hair split between light and dark, was something Puriel had wondered for some time without bringing it up. He had a feeling it was an effort on her part to show her split between being Sariel’s daughter and being raised and cared for by him.

Those thoughts and more went through the man’s mind while he watched Spark standing there by one of her tables, intently working on her latest plans for a building. Her interest in architecture, in designing buildings, cities, worlds, and even various spaceships, had started almost as soon as they had first… come together. Now, it was how she spent so much of her time, here in his mind, creating entire worlds and only able to show him.

For now. He would find a way to free the girl, a way to return her to her mother. He would… somehow.

Finally, after a couple minutes of silence (aside from the steady sound of the girl marking the paper for her new design), she looked back to him. “How do you feel?” As ever, her words were economical, saying as much as possible in as few words as she could manage.

He’d had time to anticipate the question. And yet, even then, it took Puriel a few seconds to find the words. “How do I feel? As though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders… only to settle in the pit of my stomach. The woman I once loved beyond all reason has been killed… by our own daughter, who did so to save her own life. Or the life of her host.”

The man looked away then, feeling a slight dampness in his eyes. There was an empty pit that had been hollowed out of his soul by the news of Kushiel’s death. And yet, hadn’t that pit already been there? Because he’d lost the woman that he loved long before this day. Perhaps even before they had set foot on Earth, in many ways. He had lost her gradually over the past several thousand years, and had finally begun noticing that loss… when he had saved Spark from her. When he had recognized that there was something to save the girl from. Allowing himself to accept, in his own mind, that the child had to be taken away from his wife was when he had first truly recognized just how far she had fallen, how much she had changed.

He’d gone silent, but Spark had not done anything to fill that silence. It wasn’t her way. She never filled silences with random small talk, never spoke a single word that wasn’t exactly and only what she needed to speak to make her point. She simply turned back to her work and waited for him to continue. Not because she was intentionally being rude or uncaring, but because she loathed wasting time. Standing there in silence waiting for him to say something, or worse, filling the silence with platitudes, was utterly foreign and distasteful to the girl. When he was ready to speak, she would turn her attention back to him. Until then, she focused on her designs.

Whether it was a habit she had picked up on her own and always would have preferred, or a response to his tendency to drift off into his own memories for minutes at a time, even after these past years, he couldn’t say. He did know that when something was important, she called him back. Most of his people believed that he was much better than he had been. But the truth was that his mind wandered against his will just as often. He would lose track of where and when he was, believing that he was still on the Olympus, or on Earth, or even earlier than those times. He would lose track of who he was talking to, believing them to be someone else.

Spark brought him back in those times. She guided him back to his real memories, reminding him of who he was. And in the times that she could not get him to respond soon enough, she took over his body. They had been together long enough, and he had opened up enough to her, that when he was in one of those states, she was able to take over and, essentially, fake things enough to stop any questions.

Realizing that he was drifting off into another memory hole, even if it was a minor one, Puriel focused on answering.

“I feel… the end of a great loss. As if the life that I once imagined having with the woman whom I loved was a basin of water that has been steadily draining over these years. Her death is not the greatest source of the loss of the life we could have had. It did not empty the basin. It only ensured that the basin would never be filled again.”

For a few long seconds after that, Spark said nothing. Her hands were busily moving along her paper, marking out a few adjustments. She seemed to be thinking quite hard, though he didn’t know if it was about what he’d said, or about her design. When she did finally speak, it was in a slow, careful tone. “I’m sorry for what you lost.”

Extending his hand, Puriel conjured a chair within his mind space and sat down. He genuinely wasn’t sure what difference it made whether he was standing up or sitting down in his own mind, but it felt like the right thing to do. So he sat, and spoke. “It’s okay to be glad that she won’t hurt… anyone else. It’s alright for you to be happy about that.”

Turning away from her table finally, Spark looked at him in silent thought before stepping over. She stood by his chair, shifting on her feet and, for the moment, looking like the little girl that she was. “I am. But I don’t want you to be sad.”

Letting out a breath (another thing he didn’t understand the purpose of), Puriel carefully reached out and picked the girl up. He sat her on his leg with one hand against her back while the other gently touched her face. “Listen, okay? I have done very bad things, very wrong things. You’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve ignored things I never should have. I’ve turned a blind eye to situations that I could have fixed. I’ve let people down, and I have betrayed them.

“You are quite probably the best thing that I have done. You are the very best part of my life. So believe me when I tell you, feel what you need to feel. No one who matters will ever blame you for being happy that someone cannot inflict suffering and torture on anyone else again.”

Sitting there on his leg, Spark hesitated before meeting his gaze. “You loved her.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I did love her. And I allowed that love to blind me to her many faults, to our many faults. Perhaps if I had seen them, acknowledged them, she could’ve been saved a long time ago from becoming the person she was. Perhaps I could have pulled her back from what she turned into if I hadn’t spent so long seeing her as I wished she was.”

His head shook then. “But that is for me to think of. For now, I believe what I could truly use is a distraction. Do you think you could manage that?”

With a silent nod that made her black-blonde braid bounce, Spark slipped off his leg and stood, extending a hand to him. As he took it, she led him to a door on the side of the room.

They could have simply appeared wherever in his mindscape she meant to take him. But the process of using doors felt more natural. And it also made the space seem ‘real’ in a way that was important for her. Trapped as she was within his mind, Puriel felt as though even those small things were incredibly important.

Through the open door, the two emerged into a grassy courtyard. Ahead of them was a fountain that appeared to be split in half, with a statue of an androgynous figure in the middle holding the two halves together. On each side of the fountain was another figure, both of them with with an arm extended, holding the hilt of a sword. The blades of those swords were the water, each striking one side of the statue in the middle that was trying so hard to hold the two halves together while being struck down from either side by the water-swords.

Beyond the fountain was a building shaped like an L on its side, the long part half a dozen stories higher than the short, the top three of which were cut at a slant. On top of the shorter half was another courtyard where Puriel could see tables set for what appeared to be an outdoor restaurant.

It was only his first glimpse of what Spark had been working on lately, and as the girl pulled him by the hand, Puriel knew he’d made the right choice in coming here. Because while he could not be there for his actual daughter after she had killed her mother (the Seraphim would never allow him to go to Earth in his condition, even if he did seem to be improving), this right here was a reminder that there was someone else who depended on him.

And, if Puriel was being honest, he depended on her just as much.

 

******

 

1796 – Boston

 

Two figures stood at the top of a hill overlooking the thriving city of Boston. With a population of almost twenty thousand people, it was the third largest city in the fledgling United States, just after New York and Philadelphia. Large enough that no one paid attention to the two visitors who stood on that hill, watching the busy people rushing back and forth about their daily lives. Two figures, one an adult woman with dark hair and a round face that left her looking eternally cheerful, her smile lines a permanent indent, and the other a young boy with equally dark hair that was a curly mop atop his head. The boy held the woman’s hand tightly while scanning the people in the distance with the intensity of trying to pick out faces despite the fact that they were entirely too far away to even have a chance of doing so without some form of telescopic vision.  

“Mama, are Grandpap and Grandmam tall?”

Blinking down to the boy at her side with some surprise, Edeva Atherby asked, “Why do you want to know if they’re tall, Joshua?”

“Cuz,” he replied simply, “I wanna be tall. But you’re not very tall, and Papa’s not very tall. So I was hoping they were because then maybe I could be.”

With a very faint smile, Edeva answered, “Your grandfather is a little taller than your father. And your grandmother is taller than him. She’s about…” The woman held her hand up to about the six foot mark. “Here.”

“Wow!” Smiling brightly, the curly-haired boy excitedly babbled, “I can’t wait for them to get here, Mama! Do you think they’ll bring me a present? I mean, they don’t have to bring me a present, but I would really like a new whittling knife. Or maybe a kite. Oh, oh, do you think they know it was my birthday last week?”

Smiling a little sadly at her son, Edeva nodded. “Of course they did. They sent those little candies for you, remember? You’re still saving them, right?”

“Only one a day,” Joshua dutifully reported. “Uh huh.” Belatedly, he added in a whisper, “But it’s really hard. Sometimes I wanna have two.”

Rubbing her son’s head, Edeva started to respond to that, only to be interrupted by a crisp, no-nonsense voice that sounded as though it would be right at home belonging to a schoolmarm.

“It pains me that you allow the boy to eat such filth.”

As promised, Remember Humility Bennett stood a full six feet tall, not counting the severe, tight bun her gray hair had been tied into. Her eyes were a deep, dark green, while she wore a black dress, looking as though she were in mourning. Which her countenance did nothing to dissuade.

“Hello, Mother,” Edeva quietly greeted. “I promise you, no one is eating filth. It was very good candy that you and Father provided.” The last bit was added with a pointed glance toward her suddenly shy son hiding behind her leg.

“One should never lie to their children,” Remember primly informed her in a tone that her daughter was all-too familiar with. “It sets a poor example. You’ll note that I never lied to you.”

“Yes,” Edeva readily agreed. “You always spoke the truth and nothing but, no matter how it made me feel.”

“And you are a strong woman because of it,” Remember noted before turning her attention back to Joshua. “Now, to the point of this meeting. Come here boy, I would like to have a look at you.”

At an encouraging nod from his mother, Joshua slowly slipped out from behind her and took a couple steps that way before straightening himself somewhat. “H-hello, Grandmam. I am glad to finally meet you.” His voice had the quality of clearly reciting from memory. “Oh, and thank you for the clothes you send every year.”

Nodding primly, Remember spoke again. “You are welcome. I trust you are making good use of them.”

The boy nodded quickly. “Yes, ma’am. My friend Ossy and me–”

“Ossy and I,” Remember corrected sharply.

“Ossy and I,” Joshua obediently parroted, “we took the clothes and cut up the–” Again he was cut off, this time as his mother pointedly cleared her throat, correcting himself to, “Uh, cut up a tree and I didn’t get any splinters because of the long sleeves.”

Making a noise of both disapproval and pleasure of being proven correct in her own mind, Remember looked to Edeva. “You see? Lying begets lying. If he were in our training program at the tree, he would not dare. And what sort of name is Ossy for a little boy?”

“Ossy’s not a boy,” Joshua piped up, immediately wanting to correct the woman about his friend. “She’s a girl. And she’s not human, she’s–”

“Ahem,” Remember started, looking sharply to her daughter. “I was under the impression that Lyell was in line with our beliefs. Particularly given his… history with the necromancer.”

“Lyell understands that judging trillions of beings by the actions of a few is a level of ignorant that surpasses the heat output of the sun,” Edeva informed her mother, though she did so with a bright, put-on smile and tone that would hopefully stop her son from understanding that there was a dark and dangerous argument brewing. “And that people, including he himself, can change.”

Intent on changing the subject rather than waste her son’s precious time with his grandparents after he’d pleaded for so long to meet them, Edeva pressed, “Where is Father?”

Primly, Remember replied, “You ask that as if you believe I have any sort of relationship with Bernlak. I assure you, that is not the case. Where he chooses to keep himself is precisely none of my concern.”

“And isn’t that just wonderful for me,” a new voice announced as Edeva’s father, Bernlak, appeared. As always, he wore his trademark green. This time in the form of a waistcoat and breeches, with a black silk shirt and equally dark boots. He also wore glasses with emerald lenses that tended to attract at least a little bit of attention from unawakened humans.

“Hello, Father,” Edeva greeted the man, pulling her son out in front of her once more. “Joshua, this is your grandfather. Father, this is your grandson.”

“Aww, you’re already so big!” Bernlak took a step that way, going down on one knee in front of the boy. “How old are you now, sixteen?”

“I’m eight!” the boy retorted, giggling as his head shook.

“Oh, really?” Bernlak sounded doubtful, looking him up and down. “Well, you’re going to be huge when you get older, I’ll tell you that much.”

Smiling brightly as his earlier hope was seemingly confirmed by his grandfather, Joshua eagerly asked, “Really? You think so, Grandpap?”

Watching the two of them for a moment, Edeva felt a pang. Her father was so effortlessly good with the boy, so charming and able to bond with him. And yet, she knew from experience that it wouldn’t last. Bernlak was incredibly good in the moment. He was great at making promises, but very bad at following through with them afterward. He would bond with Joshua, make all kinds of arrangements, then disappear. As soon as they were out of sight, he would forget about them, sometimes for years at a time. He was unreliable.

Given that, and her mother’s emotional distance, it was no wonder that Edeva herself had been raised almost entirely by Zedekiah Pericles at Crossroads. Her father was always off on one of his jobs as a mercenary, and her mother was… busy and never in any mood to entertain a child. Papa Pericles, as she had called him, had taken up every bit of slack to take care of her. At some point, he had told her that Gaia Sinclaire, the baroness of Desoto, had asked him to keep an eye on her given her own history with Bernlak. But he had grown to see her as his own grandchild, and she adored him as a mixture of a father and grandfather. Zedekiah was her real family, not these two.

Another new arrival yanked Edeva’s thoughts away from that, as she turned to see her husband step into view. Lyell Atherby was, as their son had noted, not a very tall man, standing only five and a half feet. Which was, to be fair, above average for the unawakened who didn’t eat nearly as well as they should. Yet for Heretics, it was on the short side.

Despite his lack of height, Lyell still cut an impressive figure. His straight brown hair reached his shoulders, and he kept a meticulously maintained goatee and thin mustache. His brown eyes were somehow piercing despite their apparent plainness. The man seemed to have the ability to look straight through someone. Which, given his age and experience (he had led the Atherby clan for several hundred years), was understandable.

“Sorry I’m late,” Lyell murmured, stepping over to his wife. “What did I miss?”

Edeva shook her head at that. “Nothing, really. Joshua’s just… getting to know his grandparents.”

With a very slight wince, Lyell put an arm around her and leaned in to whisper, “Do I need to strangle anyone?”

The words made her smile despite herself, and she once more shook her head. “Not yet.”

Her attention returned to her son and father then, as she slipped an arm around her husband. The two were already whispering conspiratorially, while Remember stood in the background, looking stiff and vaguely annoyed that this was eating into her productivity time.

But Joshua had pleaded with his mother for weeks to finally meet his grandparents, and she could not deny him that chance. While she had no faith that her father would follow up any of these promises, or that her mother would lighten up, Edeva did think that perhaps this meeting wouldn’t be so bad. Her son could have at least one decent memory with his grandparents without either of them ruining it.

But if they did, Lyell wouldn’t have a chance to strangle them. Because she might just beat him to it.

*******

Present Day – Atherby Camp

 

Three female figures stood at the head of a cobblestone path leading from the Atherby camp off into the woods. It was a small path, one that was easy to miss if you didn’t know where it was. Particularly as people tended to leave that whole area alone as a form of reverence.

“You know, you don’t… have to do this right now,” Abigail hesitantly informed Theia as she stood on one side of the Seosten girl, with one hand on her shoulder. Ever since Theia had returned separate from Pace earlier that evening, Abigail found it hard to resist the urge to keep touching her. A simple hair stroke, a shoulder squeeze, she just wanted to keep reassuring both herself and Theia that she was indeed in her own body again.

Pace, meanwhile, was also staying close and touching Theia often. And in her case, it likely meant even more that she would willingly touch her after they were finally separated. At the moment, she was standing on the other side of the girl, looking toward Abigail. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, but then she stopped, clearly remembering that the girl was perfectly capable of speaking for herself.

A moment later, Theia seemed to remember that too, straightening to look over at Abigail. “Is it wrong?” she asked tentatively, clearly worried. “Is it… bad?”

“Wha–bad? No. No, sweetie, no.” Quickly shaking her head as she realized just why Theia would have taken it that way, Abigail clarified. “I meant they’re going to have an official memorial service in a couple days, and I’m sure they’d let you add a few names to that. You know, so it can be official.”

Theia’s head shook, and Abigail once again marvelled at just how much the girl looked like a young Kushiel (not that she’d ever seen the monster in person, but there were images and holograms of her). It made her wonder just how others who had known Kushiel would handle seeing the girl now.

“I wish to put them to rest myself,” Theia announced carefully, clearly taking a moment to choose her words. “They do not know them. They have no reason to think of them, or care for them. I don’t… want it to be part of their memorial. It is my memorial. It is my friends’ memorial.”

Slowly nodding, Abigail looked to Pace, then back to Theia. “Would you girls like to do this alone?” Suddenly, after the girl’s words, she felt as though she might be intruding.

“No.” Theia gave a quick headshake, turning slightly to look at her. “Theia–I… mean… I… I want you to be there. Here. You are… You matter… you being here matters to me. Theia wants– I… want… you… to be here and… and… help… me.” The last few words came out through a somewhat trembling voice before the Seosten girl quickly added, “But if you want to leave, if you want to go away, that’s okay. I won’t–”

“Shhh.” Abigail put a hand out to the girl’s face, gently touching her cheek. “Theia, it’s okay. I want to be here.”

“So do I,” Pace announced firmly, her hand squeezing the other girl’s arm as reassuringly as she could. “We both want to be here, okay?”

“Okay,” Theia parroted. “Then we go.” Yet despite her words, she didn’t move. Her feet remained firmly planted, as she stared at the path. Pace and Abigail exchanged brief looks, but neither urged the girl on. This was clearly not something to rush. They stood by, patiently waiting for her to actually be ready.

Almost two full minutes of silence passed like that before Theia started to walk up the path. With Abigail and Pace right with her, she moved through the trees, their way lit by tiny candles that only came to life as they approached, providing just enough illumination to follow the winding cobblestone walkway. They moved slowly, none wanting to disturb the atmosphere by rushing things.

At their pace, it took almost five minutes of quiet walking for the group to reach the end of the path. Eventually, however, they emerged into a pretty clearing, lit by more of those candles as well as glowing lamps that projected a somewhat brighter, yet still soft, illumination. The clearing was almost fifty feet in diameter from side to side, and just as deep. A polished granite monument, semi-circular in shape, ran along every side of the clearing aside from the opening. It stood nine feet high. All along its surface were glowing golden letters, names that had been inscribed in the memorial. Names of people who had died in service to the Atherby Clan or in some way connected to them. Children recorded the names of parents who had been killed by Nocen or Heretics. Or parents recorded the names of children.

There were so many names it was staggering, Abigail almost losing a step. All of these people, so many of them… so many deaths. It brought an involuntary noise of dismay to her throat. Somehow, seeing a tangible representation of it made the whole thing that much more real.

Theia, who had also stopped short, stared at the monument for several long, silent seconds before turning to Pace. Her voice took on an urgent tone. “Is this wrong?”

Of course she would look to Pace for that. The two of them had been together for so long, had been literally in each other’s minds, that Theia’s first instinct was to ask Pace if something was wrong or right, to seek her opinion and thoughts. Thoughts which, up until a few hours earlier, she would have gotten instantly and silently.

“No, Theia,” Pace answered while meeting the girl’s gaze. “It’s not wrong. I promise.” With those words, she held up the special pen that Gabriel had provided when he learned what they wanted to do. “It’s okay.”

Still clearly uncertain, but taking Pace’s word for it, Theia took the pen. She fidgeted then, rolling it between her fingers before looking toward Abigail. Getting a nod from the woman, she hesitantly stepped up to an empty spot on the memorial, placing the pen against it before going still once more. For a minute, the girl simply stood there, silently staring at that blank bit of polished granite while her mind was clearly focused elsewhere.

When she finally spoke, it was in a voice that was clear and firm, though it obviously took some effort to make it that way. “Debba Sleus. I’m sorry–” Her voice caught, hitching a bit before she pushed on. “I’m sorry that I possessed you and… and couldn’t stop. I’m sorry Momma killed you because I–because I f… failed.”

Pace opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of interrupting. She and Abigail both exchanged looks, each wanting to stop Theia from thinking that way, but neither wanted to stop her from what she was doing. There would be time later to convince her that none of that was her fault. Let her say goodbye now, and begin healing after.

Theia, by that point, had carefully written the name. Abigail was almost certain the girl was actually using her boost solely to keep her hand steady enough to be legible. She finished inscribing it, and as she took the pen away, the letters began to glow just like the others.

She moved to the next spot down then, resting the pen there. “Tedora of Deep Rock. I… I’m sorry.” She wrote the name carefully, then moved to the next line.

“Stavin Epks Nuel Rev, I’m sorry.

“Denanine Rache, I’m sorry.”

“Valian Lien Kodian, I’m… sorry.”

It went on… and on… and on. While Pace and Abigail watched and listened, Theia dutifully continued through a list of thirty names. Thirty names. Thirty people whom Kushiel had forced her to possess and then killed when she could not stop possessing them. Thirty people who were murdered in that insane woman’s quest to ‘fix’ her daughter’s disability. She might as well have pointed a gun at the head of an innocent person and ordered a paraplegic to walk.

And then continued to do that twenty-nine more times.

By the last name, Theia finally stopped. Her hand lowered to her side, and the pen fell to the dirt. She forgot about it for the moment, staring at the names she had written. Slowly, the girl looked up, then down once more, taking them all in. Her voice was a whisper. “I’m sorry.”

Slowly, she looked toward Abigail, her mouth opening and shutting a couple times before she found her voice. “There is something wrong.”

Blinking at that, Abigail stepped that way, carefully asking, “Something wrong?”

“I… I can’t… breathe,” Theia explained a bit haltingly. “I–I… it feels like I’ve been running, but I haven’t. It feels like I’ve been running, and I can’t… can’t get enough… breath. I can’t breathe. My… my eyes. My eyes hurt. They hurt, like needles. They hurt like needles but not. Because I don’t mind needles in my eyes, but I mind this. I mind this. It hurts. There’s acid. There’s acid in my eyes. It’s wet. And it stings. And it hurts, and I don’t like it. I want it to stop. Pain is okay. But not this one. It hurts my eyes. It hurts my chest. I can’t breathe. I want it to stop, please. I want it to stop now.”

“Oh, Theia.” Gasping those words quietly, Abigail gave Pace a quick look before stepping that way to embrace the girl. She pulled her in, wrapping both arms around her to hug Theia as tight as she could. “I’m sorry, baby. That’s not how… that’s not how this kind of pain works. You have to feel it. You have to feel it, but it’s okay.”

Standing stiffly for a moment, the Seosten girl gazed up at her with wide eyes that were indeed somewhat wet. Her voice was plaintive. “But it hurts, Miss Abigail. I don’t like it. I’m think I’m broken.”

“Oh God, no. No, sweet girl,” Abigail assured her. “You’re not broken. You are not broken. Listen to me, this is good.”

“G-good?” Theia echoed, her eyes widening a bit as she stared uncertainly at the woman.

Abigail nodded slowly. “Yes. It’s very sad that you’re hurt. I’m sorry that you’re in pain. But I am glad that you still feel it, that you can still…” She trailed off, swallowing hard as she sought the right words. “You’re sad for other people, Theia. You’re sad because someone else died, and that means you’re not broken. You aren’t broken at all. You’re bent. Bent all over. But you’re not broken. You feel. And that’s good. Okay? It is good to feel, because it means you care. You care about all those names, all those people. When you look at them, when you think about them, it hurts? It hurts here?” She leaned back a bit to touch her own chest.

Theia nodded to that, her eyes blinking rapidly. “It hurts there. It hurts here.” She touched near her eyes, swallowing hard before touching her throat, then her stomach. “And here… and here. It hurts and I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”

It was Pace who spoke then, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. “Here.” Carefully, she moved Theia’s fingers to the memorial, touching them against the first name the girl had written. “Say goodbye.”

Eyes snapping to her former host, Theia echoed. “Say goodbye? Say… say…” Slowly, her eyes moved back to the name of Debba Sleus. “Good…” She stopped short, making an almost silent noise in the back of her throat before forcing the word out. “… bye. Goodbye.”

Carefully, Pace lowered the other girl’s fingers to the next name. She remained silent, but Theia knew, quietly whispering, “G-goodbye.”

There was a slight hitch of her breath then, as she moved her own fingers down to the next one, repeating the word. One by one, she said goodbye to each of the names. By the end, she could barely speak, her voice halting repeatedly as she choked out the last of her farewells.

Or perhaps not the last, as Gabriel Prosser took a step into the clearing at the end. His voice was solemn. “They will be remembered, I promise you that.” He paused then, straightening. “I’m sorry. I would never interrupt. But Theia asked me to be here for the end, to make it official.” He looked to her then. “But this isn’t the end, is it? There’s one more.” He was watching Theia, eyes soft as he added, “One more you want to write down.”

Swallowing hard at that, Theia shrank back, somehow ducking into herself. “It… it’s wrong. It can’t go there. It can’t be there with them.”

“Here.” Extending his hand, Gabriel held a stone out to her, about the size of the girl’s fist. It too looked like polished granite, as if it had been taken from the memorial itself.  

Theia took the stone, then the magic pen as Pace stooped to pick it up for her. She held the pen and the stone in each hand, staring at both for almost a full minute before carefully scrawling the last name. Her mother’s.

Abigail watched as Theia wrote Kushiel’s name on the stone. Then the girl gave one last look at the memorial, to all the names she had recorded. She mouthed one last apology before turning on her heel to begin walking quickly back along the path.

Pace, Abigail, and Gabriel exchanged brief looks before following her. Without a word, Theia continued along the path, walking all the way back into the camp before moving to the lake. She stood there, facing the water with the stone in one hand. Her knuckles were white from how tightly she was holding that stone, and she gave a slight shudder while lifting it to stare at her mother’s name.

“Goodbye, Momma.” Her voice was so soft, Abigail almost didn’t hear her. Then she reared back, hurling the stone all the way to the middle of the lake in one toss. It struck the water and dropped out of sight, falling to the bottom with a single splash.

Theia stood there, staring at the water where the rock had gone. Then she turned to Abigail. Her mouth opened, shut, then opened again. Yet no sound emerged. No sound, that was, aside from the keening sound of grief which may as well have been the opening of a deep, long-buried well of pain.

Abigail was there. Arms opening, she took the girl into them once more. This time, Theia returned the embrace. She held on tight, face dropping against Abigail’s shoulder.

And in that moment, she let go of everything she had taught herself to hold in. She let go of all the pain, all the loss, all the grief. She let it out. For the first time in over twenty years, Theia cried.

It would be a long time before she stopped.

*******

Present Day – Crossroads

 

On the far end of Crossroads Island, beyond the jungle and as far from the school as possible, Guinevere, more currently known as Harper Hayes, stood facing the ocean. Taking a step forward, she skipped a rock across the water, grinning to herself as it popped up and back down four separate times. “Whoo! Four. I mean, without any powers, that’s pretty good.”

“It’s tremendous, my queen,” Karlee, the woman who posed as Harper’s mother, announced from a few feet away. “But…” She took a step herself, arm snapping out to send a stone skipping across the water five times. “Perhaps there are still goals to reach.”

Giving the woman (who appeared to be in her forties with dyed blonde hair to hide the effects of early aging) a brief smirk, Gwen retorted, “And how long have you been practicing to show me up, hmm?”

A small smile played at Karlee’s mouth. “Would it be better if I said a very long time, or a very short time?”

Huffing, Gwen raised herself up with put-upon self-importance. “Never mind, I’ve decided I don’t care to know.”

Giving a genuine chuckle, Karlee looked out at the water once more while asking, “If you don’t mind my asking, your majesty, why did you want me to meet you here? It’s… rather dangerous, isn’t it?”

“I’ll make sure no one sees you,” Gwen promised. “But I needed someone to talk to, someone to… bounce off of.”

“About Joselyn Atherby’s daughter, and her friends?” Karlee asked. “Are you afraid that they don’t understand the danger they’re in?”

“Joselyn Chambers,” Gwen corrected absently before nodding. “And yes, them. But no, just the opposite. I’m afraid that, with everything that’s going on, all the… danger and problems they’ve gotten into, they’ll forget how to enjoy themselves. And with this… Jophiel situation, that could easily blow up in Flick’s face. They’re being forced to lie to their friends and… and that never turns out well.”

“And you’ve thought of telling them that you know, and helping,” Karlee realized.

Again, Gwen nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I just… right now, I think it’s better to wait. But I don’t know how much longer I can. What’s better, to talk to them, or wait and watch? I can’t do both. The moment I show myself, all my… anonymity is gone. But if they don’t know that they have someone else who can help them…”

Karlee hesitated then before quietly asking, “And the pieces? What of them?”

A long, heavy sigh escaped Gwen, her eyes looking away before she murmured, “Three. In the time we’ve had this year, I’ve found three of the six that we were missing. Three pieces of Arthur’s skeleton, buried or hidden somewhere here on Crossroads Island. They could be under the school, somewhere in one of the walls, even out in the middle of the jungle.”

“What about the Merlin Key?” the woman hesitantly asked. “Have you worked out which one of the students they are?”

“Not yet,” Gwen admitted. “One of the assassins who was sent after the Leven boy last month knew something, but he killed himself before I could get it out of him. He worked with Fahsteth, so I guarantee the shark-man knows. Right now, I need the pieces, then we can figure out who the Key is.”

“You’ll find them, your majesty,” Karlee assured her. “I know you will. It’s just a matter of time.”

Gwen turned a slight smile to her. “Thank you, Karlee. It’s just that time… well, that’s the one thing I’m not sure we have. Something big is going down, very soon. And when it does, I’m not sure it’ll be possible for me to stay at Crossroads anymore.”

As Karlee opened her mouth to respond to that, Gwen abruptly snapped her head around to look at the jungle. Her hand came up in a fist to stop the woman, before pointing with two fingers to her.

Karlee took that as the sign and used the teleportation stone she carried with her to vanish, disappearing from the beach an instant later.

Gwen, meanwhile, focused on the approaching presence she had sensed. Her eyes narrowed as the figure came closer and closer before eventually emerging from the bushes.

For a moment, Gwen and the new arrival stared at one another silently. Neither spoke. Neither moved more than their eyes for several long seconds.

Finally, the man spoke. “I have to say, all my powers, all our experience together, and I had no idea it was you. But Nimue? She and Apollo worked it out in a few minutes after going through all the files and recordings together.”

“Percival,” Gwen greeted the man calmly, even as she continued scanning him and the area around him for any other surprises. “You’ve changed.”

“You’ve… shrunk,” Percival casually replied, winking at her. “I remember you being taller.”

“I remember you being not allied with the enemy,” she retorted, though her voice was more appraising and calculating than accusatory.

The man lifted his chin. “I’m where Arthur told me to be. I–it’s a long story and we don’t have time. Gwen, I…” His face fell a bit and he let out a breath before looking back up to her. “There’s so much to say, but we don’t have time.”

“What’s happening?” she asked carefully, still watching him closely, though her suspicion had somewhat lessened.

The man sighed. “Let’s just say you need to get Felicity Chambers and her friends off this island, right now.

“Before they’re arrested with Gaia.”

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Interim Incursion 43-09 (Avalon Part B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you? We’ll be there.”

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Mini-Interlude 70 – Pace, Theia, and Miranda

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The following takes place after Interlude 32B, in which Pace-Lies was found by Seller, Miranda, and Abigail and they agreed to work together to free Pace from Lies in exchange for information on Manakel. It is also after Lies took up the name of Theia.

“Are you girls sure you’re going to be okay here by yourselves?” The clear worry in Abigail’s voice was evident even to Theia, as the woman stood by the door of the hotel room.

Seller, who was standing next to her, laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine, Abigail. Trust me, we lost any pursuers and there’s enough spells up over the room right now, as long as they stay in here, there’s no way anyone could find them. And even if they do, there’s warning spells for that too. We have spells up to let them and us know if anything goes wrong.”

“And we have the phone too,” Miranda pointed out from where she was sitting on one of two king-size beds in the room. “It’ll be fine. Trust us. We’ve got the emergency teleports, the phone to call you, and we can protect ourselves too. Not to mention… well, me.”

Another Miranda poked her head back in the room from where she’d been watching the hall. “Exactly. If all else fails, that me will give a tug so that I-me absorbs her again. Then I’ll know everything that’s going on. See, redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy. It’s cool.”

“It’s as ‘cool’ as we can make it,” Seller confirmed. “We can’t take Pace back to Garden with us, and we need to check in. The others need to see us around. If nothing else, it’ll throw the scent off about Pace being with us. Trust me. Trust them. They’ll be okay here for a couple days.”

“Right,” Abigail muttered unhappily, “I know. We need to look around Garden and see if there’s anything there that could help separate Pace from Theia. And they can’t come with.”

Not that anyone expected there to be some specific ‘separate Lie from host’ spell, since even the Seosten didn’t have anything like that. But the hope was that there might be something that could be appropriated and adjusted that way, with both Pace and Theia being willing subjects. Maybe there would be a way to make a second body for them, like Miranda’s duplication power, only permanent, and then shift each of their minds into one of them. Or… something. They weren’t sure yet. But looking around the archives couldn’t hurt, considering they didn’t have a lot of other options.

Theia, who had laying on her back, half-hanging off the bottom of the other bed with her head near the floor as she watched the group by the door from her upside-down position, nodded. “Can’t go back to Garden without the hidey-choker. Or Heretics get cutty-stabby-shooty. Not very nice.”

Inside her own head, Pace silently muttered, That or they’ll just enslave us. Remember, Crossroads is the kill on sight one. Eden’s Garden likes to make people like us useful for awhile first if they can. They might kill us, or they might just throw us in a cage to see if we could make decent cannon-fodder later. Depends on the tribe.

“Oh, don’t get me started on them being ‘not very nice’,” Abigail all-but growled before heaving a sigh as she looked to them once more. “Okay, fine. But remember, no leaving the room unless it’s an absolute emergency, right? You stay in here, have food delivered. That’s why we came to a place with room service and a good pizza place nearby. Stay in the room where it’s… safe-ish.”

Theia gave a thumbs up at that, before belatedly realizing that in her current position, it looked like a thumbs down. So she awkwardly turned her hand over a bit to correct it. “Stay in the room. It’ll be like a slumber party-oooh! Can we have a pillow fight? And play truth or dare? Or spin the bottle?”

Before the Miranda on the other bed could respond to that, Abigail quickly put in, “Just don’t do anything to attract attention, okay? Keep things nice and quiet and calm. Watch TV, talk, whatever you need to do. But stay in the room and stay… calm. The last thing we need is for someone to get uppity about why there’s a couple teenage girls alone in a hotel room together.”

“Dear Penthouse,” Theia began to recite with a wicked grin.

Stop that! the horribly embarrassed Pace blurted, even as Miranda’s foot kicked her in the leg from the other bed. Both of their reactions made Theia cackle out loud.

“Again,” Abigail reiterated. “Be nice, be quiet, and don’t get in trouble. And don’t–”

“–attract attention to ourselves,” both Mirandas finished for her in chorus. “We know. We all know.”

The Miranda by the door pulled Abigail by the arm. “Come on, the sooner we look through everything we can find back at Garden, the sooner we can get back here, right? So let’s go.”

Abigail couldn’t argue with that, and so the three of them headed out. As the door closed behind them, the Miranda on the bed and Theia-Pace were left in the room, looking at one another.

“So,” Theia started easily, “was that a no to truth-or-dare?”

******

“So what do you want to have for–Theia, what… what the hell are you doing?”

The question came from Miranda, as the girl stood in the open doorway of the bathroom, staring in confusion.

Theia, meanwhile, was once more laying on her back, this time in the bathtub. The tub itself was void of any water, which was a good thing since she still wore all of her clothes. Her head was under the faucet of the tub, as she stared curiously up into it.

See? Pace pointedly informed her, I told you this was weird.

Aloud, Theia replied, “We wanted to see how the faucet worked, and Pace-I said that taking it apart was a bad idea. So we’re trying to see.”

“She’s right, it would be a bad idea,” Miranda agreed instantly. “But how are you going to–”

While the other girl was in mid-sentence, Theia reached up and turned one of the handles, sending a spray of cold water down into her already open and waiting mouth. She swallowed rapidly, gulping the water while squinting up. After a few seconds of that, she turned the handle off once more.

“It didn’t work,” Theia lamented mournfully, “we still can’t see how the water comes out.”

“You should Google it,” Miranda advised before coming into the room. Carefully putting the lid of the toilet down, she sat there. “That or ask a plumber. They could probably explain it. Actually, you come from a super-advanced spacefaring civilization, and you don’t know how plumbing works?”

“Don’t have to know how it works to use it,” Theia recited, tilting her head a little to look at the other girl. “Never had to learn. Besides, space-plumbing is different.”

“How is space-plumb–you know what, never mind.” Miranda’s head shook. “I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation with you.”

“You still don’t like Theia-me very much,” the girl murmured, hand playing idly over the faucet as if trying to feel out its secrets.

“You tried to kill my best friend,” Miranda snapped. “You’ve been helping the people who have been making her life hell all year and who, oh yeah, are responsible for a hell of a lot more bad things than that. Like, for example, the entire Heretic situation. Your people have been fucking with humans since you got here however long ago you showed up. Yeah, maybe you’ve had problems too, but you still tried to kill Flick. You still hurt her. You still hurt a lot of other people.”

We did, Pace silently confirmed. We did a lot of bad things. It’s… kind of a miracle that they even want to help us at all, you know. Abigail is pretty much a saint.

There was a moment of silence from the girl in the tub, before Theia corrected aloud, “You did not do bad things. Theia-I did.”

“What?” Miranda blinked. “I know–”

“Not you, Pace-me,” Theia informed her before sitting up. “Theia-I know that I did very bad things. Very evil, very nasty, icky, terrible things. That is not what Theia-I was confused about. I was confused about… why are you here now? Because of Pace-me?”

“It’s not that I–” Miranda paused before nodding. “Partly that, yeah. I want to help Pace. But…” She paused then, considering her words. “I don’t know if I like you or not, okay? You’ve done evil stuff, but you had reasons. You’ve suffered too, I get that. You’re kind of… it’s hard to…”

Again, she sighed. “It’s hard to explain. Even to myself, okay? I… want to like you. I think you could be smart, and funny, and all that. But every time I start to relax around you, I remember the other stuff you’ve done. You’re playing nice now, but what if you change your mind again and start hurting people I care about? What if your old bosses say ‘hey, all is forgiven if you kill that Abigail person’, and you–”

“I would never kill Miss Abigail!” The sudden and almost violently forceful interruption made Miranda reflexively jerk back, even as Theia found her way to her feet. She continued, the lack of prefacing her ‘I’ with Theia showing just how out of sorts she was by the suggestion.  “I would never hurt Miss Abigail! I will die before I hurt Miss Abigail. I will gouge my own eyes out and tear apart my spleen before I hurt Miss Abigail!”

Our spleen, our eyes, Pace reminded her. And I agree. Never hurt Abigail. Never hurt Miranda. Never hurt Seller. They’re our friends. We get that. But calm down, Theia. Don’t scare her. Don’t freak her out.

Listening to her host’s words gave Theia pause enough for Miranda herself, who had also stood up by then, to speak up. “Okay, okay. I get it. You care about Abigail. Probably because she was the first person to really…” She paused, grimacing. “I get it. No hurting Abigail.”

“Never,” Theia reiterated firmly and pointedly.

Fists, Theia, Pace silently.

Realizing belatedly that she had balled their hands into fists, Theia relaxed them as best as she could, wincing visibly. “We… we are both sorry. Theia-I and Pace-I. We did not mean to… scare you.”

“It’s umm…” Miranda paused before clearing her throat. “It’s okay. I get it. I shouldn’t have said that you might hurt or kill Abigail if they told you to. But… but do you see why I’m still afraid of–why I still don’t know how much we can trust you? You worked for them for a really long time. They have to mean something to you. They’re your people.”

The other girl’s voice was soft. “Theia-I was never one of them. They would not allow it.”

Miranda was quiet for a second, before she gave a single nod. “You’re right. You’re not one of them. You’re better. You can be better. Just… make sure you remember that, okay? Remember that you’re better than they want you to be. Whatever happens, this whole… cure or… separation thing? However that goes down, it doesn’t matter. You’re still better than them. You’re better than your psycho piece of shit mother. All those people that hate you just because of how you were born? Fuck them. Worry about the people who actually care about you think.”

Like me, Pace reminded the Seosten girl who was sharing her body. Believe it or not, I do care about what happens to you, Theia. I’ve seen your past, remember. Parts of it anyway. And she’s right. Those people, they don’t matter. Fuck them. Abigail, Miranda, and Seller. They matter. Maybe it’ll take awhile to prove ourselves to Miranda and Seller. But we’ll do it. You worked your whole life to convince your own people to give you a chance, and they never cared. They just used you. But these people are giving you a chance.

Theia was quiet once more, listening to what both of the others were saying, before she lifted her chin. “Yes,” she said simply. “Miss Abigail matters. Mr. Seller matters. You matter, Miranda-person. Even if you do not like Theia-me very much because of the bad things that I did.”

“I…” Miranda paused, then simply replied, “I came in here to find out what you want for dinner.”

After a brief consultation with her host, Theia piped up, “Cheeseburgers? One with only ketchup and mayo, and one with everything. And extra onions.”

Miranda shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat. Err, boats. Now come on, let’s order it.”

Obligingly, Theia stepped out of the tub to follow the other girl out of the bathroom. “And maybe we can call a plumber so they can tell us how the water comes out.”

Heading for the phone on the nearby desk, Miranda shook her head. “We’ll just Google it, Theia. Google knows everything.”

Standing there, Theia considered that. She thought about what they were trying to do, the whole reason they were working together. “Hey… do you think…”

Miranda replied without looking back, “–that Google might know how to separate a Seosten with SPS from their host?”

Clearly confused by that, Theia echoed blankly, “SPS?”

“Sticky-Possession Syndrome,” Miranda informed her. “It’s better than calling you or… or people like you Lies. And no, I promise that Google doesn’t know how to fix it.

“…. because I already checked.”

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Interlude 33B – Avalon, Theia, and Company

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Three figures hurried along the sidewalk near a mall in the middle of a mid-sized town somewhere in the western United States. Two female teenagers trailed behind a thin, older man, who bustled along in front of them, urging them onward.

“Come along, Veronica,” he prompted with a gesture toward one of the girls. “Let’s pick up the slack. We’re already running late. Wouldn’t want to be late for your meeting.”

Avalon paused in mid-step, looking toward the man in front of her. She glanced to Koren beside her before coolly pointing out, “We still have four and a half hours before the meeting, you know. And my name isn’t Veronica, it’s—”

That was as far as she got before the man was suddenly facing her, his hand covering her mouth. He made a loud, long shushing noise while putting his other hand to his lips, his eyes darting around wildly. He stared suspiciously at a car that was passing by, waiting in silence, even though there was no possible way that the inhabitants could have heard them. Silence, that was, aside from the uninterrupted, “Shhhhhhhhh…”

“I would’ve done that,” Koren idly remarked from where she was standing, “but I figured I’d probably end up on the ground with a broken arm if I tried it.”

“No real names,” Wyatt urged, his hand still covering Avalon’s mouth. “You don’t know what kind of traps might be set up to trigger if it hears your name. Or who else might be listening. We use codenames and stay subtle. That’s how we survive. You understand? Subtle.”

Avalon could have pointed out that none of the people who had stopped to look at the quirky-looking man with his hand over a teenage girl’s mouth as they stood beside a busy street thought he was being all that subtle. But that probably would have caused more problems than it solved. She wouldn’t put it past the man to try to interrogate every person who had stopped to rubberneck at the sight. And even though they did have plenty of time, she didn’t want to sit through that. What they had come for was much, much more important than that.

So, she just gave a slight nod until the man removed his hand from her mouth. There was no sense in arguing about it. As eccentric as he might have been (and she had a feeling that he played that up to some extent so people would underestimate him), Wyatt was still the very best security guard that Crossroads had. He was the reason she was still alive, that much she was certain of. And, beyond all that, he was a good man. He was a good person. And he was Flick’s brother. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. She just had to listen to him, quirks and all.

“Fine, I’m Veronica,” she replied simply. Waiting until her response made the man relax a little bit, she added, “But we still have four and a half hours before we’re supposed to meet them.”

Them, in this case, was Koren’s mother (Wyatt and Flick’s sister), Abigail,  Flick’s ancestor and Avalon’s first real father figure, Seller, and Flick’s old best friend, Miranda. They had asked Wyatt to come see them, because they needed his help with something that they didn’t want to talk about except in person. It was some big secret that they wouldn’t even tell Gaia.

Koren had come to see her mother, and Avalon had convinced Wyatt and her adopted mother to let her come as well to get away from the school for awhile. And, because if the trio from Eden’s Garden had something that important to talk about, it clearly either had something to do with Flick, or with the people who were trying to kill Avalon herself. Either way, she was involved.

Besides, she wanted to see Seller. It had been awhile.

If any part of Avalon had expected the news of how long they had to calm the man down, she was sorely mistaken. “Only four and a half?!” he blurted, head shaking as he spun around. “No, no, no, it’ll take at least that long to set up even a rudimentary perimeter. Come, hurry, hurry. We have to get this done before they show up. No time to waste.” Then he was moving even faster than before, rushing remarkably quickly along the sidewalk while leaving Koren and Avalon to shrug at each other before jogging after him.  

Together, the three made their way down into the parking lot. But they didn’t go into the mall itself. Instead, the trio moved to one of the buildings in the far corner of the lot. At one point, it had been a seafood restaurant. But that had been closed down for several months, with barely any interest paid to the for sale sign in the window.

By the time they reached the back door, Wyatt had already taken a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the door, ushering the two girls in before turning to the nearby keypad as the alarm steadily beeped its warning at him. His finger danced over the pad, inputting a seven digit code from memory before the beeping finally stopped. Rather than relax, however, Wyatt immediately input a second seven digit code before there was an audible chime.

As the man finally turned away from the keypad, Avalon stared at him. “There was a second alarm? How did you know that? How did you get the keys? That wasn’t a magic spell or anything, you had the actual keys to get in here.”

“Of course there’s more than one alarm!” Wyatt informed her incredulously. “Do you think I’d only have one alarm on one of my buildings?” Belatedly, he amended, “Technically, there’s six, but I disabled the first four on our way here. Those last two have to be done in the building itself. Even I can’t do it remotely. Remember, your security is only as good as you make it be.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Avalon’s head was shaking. “Your building? I thought you just picked a random place that was closed down so we could meet the others in private.”

From the way that the man was staring at her for that, she might as well have suggested that the three of them abandon the whole Heretic thing, form an interpretive dance troupe, and take their act to Vegas. He sputtered for a moment before managing, “Picked a random place? Picked a random place? As if I would do something like that. As if I would relegate something this important to chance? That’s–that’s just- I would never even–”

As the man continued in that vein, Koren spoke up. “Wyatt owns about thirty or forty different places like this all over the country, under different names. Restaurants, laundromats, motels, pawn shops, little businesses that no one really pays attention to. He’s constantly making sure there’s a few that are closed down. You know, either they’re out of business, or they’re under renovations, pest removal, whatever. The point is, he always has a few to choose from that he knows are safe for private meetings, to fall back to in case Crossroads is attacked, or anything like that.”

Wyatt’s head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, naturally. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that. It’s common sense. Why would you meet in a random place that you have no control over? That’s preposterous.”

“Okay, sure.” Avalon found herself nodding. “But on the way down here, you were acting like four hours wouldn’t be enough to make this place secure. If it’s your place, then–”

Wyatt interrupted. “Of course! If this was some random place, we’d need days to secure it, not hours. Now come, we’re wasting time. Abigail was very specific. Whatever they need to talk about, it’s important and we need absolute privacy and secrecy. Take this.” Extending his hand, the man offered the two girls a notepad before nodding to Koren. “You know what to do.”

The other girl nodded, taking the notepad before gesturing for Avalon. “Come on. He’s got instructions for spells written in this thing. We’re supposed to use them on the parking lot while he gets things done in here. And,” she added while stepping outside, “we have to follow the instructions exactly. He’ll be double-checking and triple-checking everything we do, trust me.”

Trailing after the other girl, Avalon quietly remarked, “Sounds like you’re learning a lot from your uncle.”

Koren coughed at that. “Oh, trust me, you have no idea. He takes this whole mentor thing really seriously. You should’ve seen the written test he made me take last week. It was like an inch thick. I felt like I was taking the SAT’s or something.”

As the two reached the parking lot and started to look at the pad of instructions that Wyatt had given them to work from, Avalon asked, “What do you think Seller and your mom want to talk about?”

Koren shrugged. “I’m not sure. But from what Mom said, it’s really important. They need Wyatt’s magic expertise for something. Believe me, I tried to get more details, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They’re being really cagey about it.

“But whatever it is, I get the feeling that the Seosten would be pretty pissed if they knew about it.”

*******

Hours later, as Koren and Avalon sat at one of the booths in the restaurant while Wyatt went over his last minute security measures one more time, the man abruptly stopped. “They’re here,” he announced, moving toward the nearby door. He was there before any knock came, opening it to reveal Abigail and Seller standing there.

“Mom!” Koren darted that way as her mother stepped in, embracing the woman tightly.

While those two reunited, Avalon exchanged a brief embrace with Seller. She felt a lump in her throat. After what had happened with her birth father, seeing the man who had been her real father figure for so long affected her more than she had expected it to.

“You okay, kid?” the man asked, clearly noticing her reaction as much as she tried to hide it.

She forced herself to nod. “Yeah, I… I’m fine. Better since that piece of shit is gone.”

Seller grinned at that. “You did real good there. That cockroach had too many chances.” Expression softening then, he added, “But I’m sorry you had to be the one to do it.”

“I’m not,” Avalon replied flatly. “If anyone was going to put that bastard in the ground, it was me. If anyone else did it, I don’t know if I’d believe it was real. I almost still don’t.”

Coughing, Seller nodded to her. “Listen, there’s a lot we need to talk about. That and other things. But right now, there’s something really important to get through.”

“The other one,” Wyatt suddenly announced, “you said the other one would be here. Miranda. Where is she?”

“She’s beyond the security spells,” Seller replied, “waiting with our…” He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. “…our guest. We told them to wait until you were ready.”

“He means until we warned you,” Abigail quietly put in.

“Warned us?” Koren blinked, she and Avalon exchanging confused looks before the girl added, “Warned us about what? What kind of guest did you bring? It’s not like you’ve got some kind of Seosten informant or anyth–wait a minute.”

That was all she needed to hear. Avalon was already through the door and moving across the lot while Seller tried to say something else. Her eyes darted around wildly until she spotted two figures standing in the shadows near the edge of the lot. Three more steps carried her closer, until she finally recognized the person standing next to Miranda.

Lies. Pace. Whatever she was going by. The Seosten-possessed girl stood there, staring through Avalon. It was obvious that she didn’t even see her. The intricately layered privacy spells that Wyatt had made them lay down ensured that all Miranda and Lies could see or hear was an empty parking lot. They had no idea that anyone was approaching.

“You,” Avalon blurted then, even as her hands moved to the bracelets that she wore on either wrist. One at a time, she slapped the bracelets with her opposite hand. There was a confirmation beep, and the bracelets expanded into her familiar gauntlets, before a solid-light energy blade emerged from the ends of both while she stalked that direction, moving for the unsuspecting crazy Seosten murderer while raising one of those blades..

“Stop.” It was Seller. The man appeared behind Avalon, catching her by the shoulders to bring her up short. “It’s okay. She’s with us.”

“With you? With you?” Avalon stared at the man incredulously, her mouth open. “Are you serious right now? Is she still possessed? Because I’m pretty sure there’s no way she couldn’t be. How is she with you? Do you know what she-”

“I know.” The man shook his head. “Trust me, Ha–Avalon, I know. Yes, she is still possessed, but it’s more complicated than that. Just… let us explain.”

If it had been almost anyone else, Avalon probably wouldn’t have listened. But for Seller, she sighed, retracting the energy blades from her gauntlets without actually dismissing the gauntlets entirely. “Fine,” she muttered. “But you do something for me first.”

Knowing what she wanted, Seller extended his arm, pulling his sleeve up. He waited patiently then, while Avalon used her field-engraver to carefully draw the Seosten-expulsion rune. Not that she expected it to actually do anything, but just to be on the safe side.

Sure enough, though Seller grunted a bit from the pain of the spell being used, he definitely wasn’t possessed.

By that point, Wyatt had joined them. He started to berate Avalon for storming out of the room where the majority of the security spells were concentrated, before stopping when his eyes found Lies standing there.

“That,” he announced flatly, “is one of the bad guys.”

Sighing, Seller nodded. “As I said, it’s complicated. Right now, she’s willing to help us. But she needs something in return. And her people are trying everything they can to kill her before that happens. Which means we need you to let her through the security spell so that she can get under cover before they find her again. Believe me, they’ve been… tenacious on that front.”

It took another few seconds of convincing that they weren’t being manipulated or coerced into this before Wyatt finally took the time to add Lies into the security exceptions. Once it was done and he had lowered the spell enough to let them in, Miranda and the Seosten suddenly jumped as the group clearly appeared right in front of their eyes.

“Oooh,” Lies started with a wide smile, “good trick. But do it again, this time with more flair. There was no showmanship behind it, no panache.”

“Take it easy, Theia,” Seller cautioned. “Things are complicated right now.”

“Theia?” Avalon blinked, looking between the man and the Seosten girl. “Who the hell–what?”

Clearing her throat, Miranda spoke up. “It’s a long story. Can we talk about it inside? My other selves think we’re still clear for the time being, but being out here like this makes me nervous.”

Wyatt was bobbing his head suddenly. “Yes, yes, inside. Everyone inside. There are spells out here, but many more covering the building. Quickly now.” He gestured for them to go, before adding in Lies’ direction, “And don’t think that you’re off the hook just because I’ve let you inside. You try anything, and you won’t live long enough to regret it, Missy.”

“Aww,” Lies’ smile just grew wider as she addressed Seller. “You said this was going to be complicated, but he’s already flirting with Theia-me.”

While everyone else sputtered at that, she started to walk to the building with a low whistle, leaving Avalon and the others to follow behind.

Koren was waiting there with her mother as they stepped into the restaurant, looking incredulous. Avalon had the feeling that Abigail had told her daughter at least some of what was going on while they were alone. But clearly not enough to stop her from still being confused.

“Okay,” Avalon started once they were all back in the building and the door had been closed once more. “What is going on? Why is Lies here?”

“Hey!” Abigail suddenly barked, “don’t call her that. It’s not her name.” She stepped that way, with Koren beside her as she put a hand on the Seosten’s shoulder. “Her name is Theia, and she’s going to help us. She’s going to tell us who Manakel is possessing.”

“Her name is Pace,” Avalon pointed out in a sharp tone. “Lies, Theia whatever you call her, she’s the one enslaving the girl you’ve got your hand on. And why would she help us?”

“Because she wants to stop enslaving her,” Abigail shot back, her own voice just as sharp as Avalon’s. “Theia wants us to help her get out of Pace without killing her. That’s why we need Wyatt.” She looked to her brother then. “We already tried the spell that Felicity brought back from Gabriel’s people. It didn’t work, but some other spell might, and you were the best idea we had about who could try and come up with something.”

“That’s the trade, isn’t it?” Koren put in then. “She wants to get out of Pace, in exchange for telling us about Manakel.”

Miranda nodded. “Yup. We help ‘fix’ her little problem, and she tells us everything she knows. Not just about Manakel, but all of it. Manakel especially. She says… she says that’s something we’ll want to know.”

“Yeah?” Avalon demanded, “And how are we supposed to believe that this is for real? What if she’s just setting all this up? What makes you think that we can trust her?”

“Trust?” Theia interrupted before any of the others could speak. “Theia-I am very trustworthy. We could have done a lot worse than we did. Why, Theia-I never even told Manakel about Present’s little secret.”

That was enough to drive Avalon across the few feet that separated them. Her hands caught the other girl by the shoulders as she shoved her back against the nearby wall. “Flick,” she spat. “Her name is Flick. Call her Present again, and I don’t care what kind of deal you’ve got. I will end it. And you.”

Holding up both hands placatingly, the Seosten nodded. “Right. Force of habit. Flick. Flicky. Yes. But for the record, Pace-I would really like you to do that again, harder next time. And maybe with mud and bikinis invol–oh. Would you pretend we didn’t say that?” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Pace-she’s telling Theia-me to say, and what was just a subconscious thought.”

Clearing her throat, Abigail reached out to pull Avalon’s arms back from the other girl. “Theia speaks for both herself and Pace. She uses the names to differentiate. Pace-I or Theia-I.”

Opening and shutting her mouth at that for a few seconds, Avalon finally shook her head. She felt tense, like she desperately wanted to hit something or someone. “What… what did you mean? What secret of Flick’s did you not tell Manakel?”

“The big one,” Theia replied, her tone knowing. “You know, the reason she can’t be possessed? Believe me, they all want to know that. But we didn’t tell them. We kept it nice and secret.”

Blinking blankly at that, Avalon glanced to the others before shaking her head. “Are you saying that you actually know why Flick can’t be possessed?”

“Of course we–” Theia suddenly stopped, head tilting. “Wait, wait.” She laughed suddenly. “You don’t? You really don’t know? Oh. Oh… wow. That’s funny. That’s really funny. We thought it was a trick. We thought you were keeping it secret.”

Avalon grabbed the girl again. This time, instead of pushing her against the wall, she pulled her closer, hands locked around her shirt. “What? What do you know? What the hell is it?”

“Theia.” That was Miranda. The girl looked just as taken aback as Avalon felt. “Please. What happened to Flick? Why can’t she be possessed?”

“Well,” the Seosten replied simply, “that’s easy. She can be. In fact, she already is.”

The words made no sense. They were gibberish. Avalon gave a sharp, confused shake of her head. “Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Possessed,” Theia elaborated. “She’s already possessed. She’s been possessed the whole time. Obviously since before you knew her, since the Seosten tried to possess her a long time ago and couldn’t do it. She’s been possessed for years.”

That time, Avalon did shove the girl, hard against the wall. “Shut up!” she blurted. “No, she’s not! I know Flick! I know her. She’s not really one of your fucking people. She’s not being puppeted by one of you. She’s not one of your slaves!”

Bouncing off the wall, Theia shook her head. “Theia-I didn’t say that. We said she was possessed, not that she’s being puppeted.”

Miranda was there too, cursing as she demanded, “What the hell are you talking about?! Flick isn’t possessed.”

“But she is,” Theia insisted. “Remember the choker all of you stole from us? Our special choker? Theia-I saw the Flicky with it, while we still had it. We touched her. We saw her. We saw the Seosten inside her.”

Avalon felt numb, confused, lost, and empty for a few seconds. In the background, she saw Wyatt slumping down, muttering to himself about how he could have missed it. He looked shellshocked.

Abigail, meanwhile, was already pushing past her. She took hold of Theia, her own voice rising. “You said that the Seosten is in her, but not puppeting her. What does that mean?”

“Wait.” Theia shook her head. “Pace-I will explain. She is better at it. She understands more, doesn’t make the same assumptions. Theia-I will just… say the words that she thinks.”

Taking a long, deep breath, she continued. “We saw a small Seosten child with Flick. She was young, and small. Not an infiltrator. Not a spy. Not enslaving Flick. She was not controlling her. She was just there. Just possessing her. Waiting. We… thought that she was part of Gaia’s plan. Or maybe part of Gabriel Prosser’s plan, a rogue Seosten child that they used to protect Felicity Chambers from being possessed.”

Avalon rocked backward, taking all that in. Around her, she could see the others looking similarly shocked by the explanation. “Gaia… Gaia doesn’t know anything about that,” she muttered. “She would’ve told me, would have told us. And Gabriel… no, it wasn’t him.”

“Flick’s possessed?!” Miranda blurted. “But-but how? How? Why? Who would–some Seosten kid? A kid?! She–I don’t… That– that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”

Seller’s voice was dull. “Neither do I. I… knew there had to be some reason she was immune. But I never thought—I didn’t.. Oh God. Gaia’s going to want to know about this.”

Theia spoke carefully again, clearly relaying only what Pace was telling her to say. “As far as we could tell, the Seosten child was not controlling her. She never made her do anything.”

“Flick didn’t know.” That was Miranda, speaking quietly, yet confidently. “Flick didn’t know she was possessed. Trust me, she didn’t know.”

Koren shook her head, speaking up for all of them then. “But if it’s not one of Gaia or Gabriel’s plans, then who’s the Seosten that’s possessing Flick? Where did she come from? And what does she want? If she’s not controlling her, then… then… what the hell is going on?”

The only response that came to that was silence, as everyone in the room exchanged helpless, confused stares. None of them knew the answer. None of them knew anything about the Seosten who was apparently possessing Flick, who had been possessing Flick the entire time she had been at the school, and long before.

“I’m calling Vanessa,” Koren suddenly blurted. She looked to Avalon while yanking the phone from her pocket. “I’m calling her before she jumps to her dad’s head again. I’ll tell them to meet us out on the beach, so we can tell them about this. If we can tell her before she jumps to her dad’s head again, she can pass on the message, it’ll–”

She stopped then, as the phone was clearly answered at the other end. “Hello? Vanessa–wait, Headmistress?”

That made everyone’s heads snap that way, as Koren blurted, “Why do you have Vanessa’s–oh. I… yes, ma’am.” Silently, she handed the phone to Seller, who took it and stepped away for a moment. Wyatt joined the other man immediately, both of them having a conversation with Gaia over the phone. 

“They’re gone,” Koren spoke quietly, her voice dull. “Vanessa and Tristan, they disappeared. They… they think the Seosten took them.”

“Pffffft, no way.” That was Theia, shaking her head. “She’d never allow it. Manakel tried to make her let him take them before. She wouldn’t agree to it, and he wouldn’t dare go behind her back.”

“What?” Avalon’s head snapped around at that. “Who? Wouldn’t let Manakel take them?”

“Uh uh.” Theia wagged a finger at her reproachfully. “First, you have to help us, before we tell you more of those yummy secrets. We already gave you a freebie about the little Seosten possessing the Chambers girl. See, we’ve been downright charitable.”

The others tried fruitlessly to press the Seosten girl to tell them more, while Avalon just took a step away. The reminder made bile rise in her throat, as she turned to face the nearby window. In the background, she could hear Seller talking to Gaia. But she didn’t listen. All she could focus on was her rapidly mounting fear and confusion.

Felicity was possessed. Why or how that had happened, or what the apparent child Seosten wanted, she had no idea. But if they were in Seosten space, would the child remain silent? Was she still leaving her host alone, still content to just possess the girl without making her do anything? Or had things progressed past that point? Was she playing the long game? Now that they were in Seosten space, was it only a matter of time before the girl made her move and took over?

“Flick,” Avalon whispered, her cracked, hoarse voice barely audible as she stared up at the stars dotting the night sky. “Flick, please be okay. I don’t know what’s going on. But please… please be safe. I need you to be safe. I need you to be okay. I need you to… to be here. I need… I need…

“I need you.”

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Mini-Interlude 58 – Abigail

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At one point, the small, rundown building had been home to a popular package delivery service. But they had outgrown the location, moving to a new, much larger place down the street and leaving their old office without a tenant for quite some time. Now, it was the temporary refuge of four (or five, depending on how one was counting) very different people. One of whom was making an awful amount of noise, her mixture of cries and moans filling the small space.

“I can’t do this.” Abigail set down the field-engraver that she had been using to draw on Pace’s arm with before holding up her hands. “I can’t do the spell like that.” With every little stroke of the engraver against the girl’s arm, Pace (or the Seosten possessing her) had been crying out in sheer agony, writhing helplessly while dutifully holding her arm up in place for more.

The two of them were seated on folding chairs facing one another in the middle of the front lobby, where customers had come to drop off their packages. Near the front door, one Miranda stood keeping an eye out for anyone who might come to investigate. There were two more duplicates of the girl out back, doing the same thing. Finally, Seller himself leaned against the nearby wall, watching what was going on from behind his emerald-tinted sunglasses.

The idea had been that Abigail would use the Seosten-expulsion spell that Felicity had passed along through Miranda, just to see if that would work in getting the handicapped Seosten out of Pace. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution for the future, but it would at least be something.

Stopping her cry abruptly the moment the engraver was removed from her arm, the Seosten girl made Pace’s head tilt. “What?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Why’d you stop?”

“Are you kidding?” That was Miranda, the one by the front door. She had turned to look back that way. “After all that noise you were making, it sounded like the spell was killing you. I mean, I know it was pretty painful when I had to go through it, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“Bad?” If anything, the Seosten seemed even more confused. “It wasn’t bad. See?” In one smooth motion, she plucked the engraver from Abigail’s hand and proceeded to finish the spell on her own arm, giving no indication that she even felt anything aside from the occasional twitch.

“What th–” Abigail blinked, looking closely at the rune. Sure enough, the Seosten was drawing it properly. The thing looked just like it was supposed to. Yet she wasn’t even reacting to the pain that it had to be causing. Hell, the pain wasn’t even enough to make her hand shake as she carefully drew it out with a look of intent concentration.

Seeing that, the older woman shook her head slowly. “But if it didn’t hurt, why were you making those… those awful sounds? I thought it was killing you.”

Blinking up at that with a look that Abigail wouldn’t quite classify as innocent, but was at least in the same general neighborhood, the girl replied simply, “When Lies-I stopped crying from pain, old-Mama thought it wasn’t working. She needed the crying or she would keep making it harder on Lies-me.”

The Seosten had taken to referring to herself as ‘Lies-I’ or ‘Lies-me’ and to her host as ‘Pace-I’ and ‘Pace-me’ whenever the subject came up. Between that and the horrific subject matter, it took a moment for Abigail to process what the girl was saying. But when she did, her eyes widened in outrage. “Are you telling us that your own mother hurt you, and when you stopped crying about the pain, she made it hurt even worse?”

“Only way she could know it was working,” the girl replied sagely. “When Lies-I made noise, she knew it worked. And she could keep trying. Lies-I wanted to make old-Mama proud of Lies-me, wanted her to…” She trailed off then, looking a little hesitant before continuing without finishing that sentence. “So Lies-I took things she used for the pain, to try and drive Lies-me out and did it to myself while she was sleeping. Had to get used to it.”

It was Miranda’s turn to speak up, her voice full of horror. “You tortured yourself just so you could get used to the pain when your mother did it to you?”

Pace’s head bobbed up and down quickly, as the Seosten possessing her replied, “Lies-I thought it would make old-Mama proud if Lies-I didn’t make sounds when she was working on making Lies-me leave my host. But old-Mama wasn’t happy at all. She was angry. She thought it wasn’t working, so Lies-I made sounds anyway. That made old-Mama happy. Doesn’t it make you happy?” She sounded honestly confused.

“No!” Abigail blurted. “You being in pain wouldn’t make us happy.”

“But Lies-I hurt people you care about,” the other girl pointed out simply. “Even killed people. Lies-I could have killed you. Even thought about it before.”

“You thought about killing me?” the words came automatically before Abigail could stop them.

“Yes,” the girl replied. “But you shouldn’t take it personally.” She gave a predatory smile. “Lies-I think about killing many people. Most people.” She shrugged then, continuing her previous point. “You don’t like Lies-me. So being hurt should make you happy. Lies-I thought that’s why you wanted to try this spell to make Lies-me get out of Pace-me.” She gestured to the rune still drawn on her arm. “Because it would hurt.”

Seller spoke up then, his voice a bit rough. “We tried that first because we thought it had a chance of working, not because we wanted to vindictively hurt you.”

Abigail nodded at that. “Exactly! It wouldn’t have been a perfect solution, but if you could endure a little pain in order to eject from your host instead of waiting for them to die, it would have been something.”

From where she was standing, Miranda pointed out, “Well, we really should’ve known that it wouldn’t be that easy. I mean, of course the Seosten would’ve tried it.”

Seller shrugged slightly. “After how much she’s told us about how batshit crazy that mother of hers is, I thought she might have dismissed it as an option just because it wouldn’t fix the underlying problem. She clearly wanted her daughter to stop being a Lie, not just use a spell to bypass it.”

Sighing, Abigail looked over to the Seosten. “Which was obviously a faulty assumption, since you clearly knew the spell well enough to finish drawing it. So I guess you learned it a long time ago.”

The girl smiled proudly. “Not from Old-Mama. From Manakel. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t work on Lies-me to fool people like you who might use it to expose Seosten. Just in case. So he tried it.” She tapped the side of Pace’s head then. “Seosten memory. Angel memory. Always remember the spells even after only seeing them once. It’s useful.”

“I imagine it is,” Abigail muttered under her breath before sighing. “And that’s the same Manakel whose host you won’t tell us until we figure out how to get you out of Pace without either of you dying.”

“Yup!” the girl chirped easily. “You help us, we help you. That’s the deal. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth the reward that we’re offering, you know. We have what you want to know, and you’re smart, motivated, and have resources. Help us separate, fix Lies-me, and you get to know everything we know about Manakel, his host, his plans, and the rest of the juicy, juicy gossip.”

“Okay, well,” Abigail started, “we’re trying. But that spell obviously isn’t working. So–” In mid-sentence, the woman stopped, squinting at the girl’s arm. It was twitching a little bit. “Wait… that doesn’t still hurt, does it?”

“It hasn’t expelled Lies-me yet,” the girl replied simply, turning her own head to look at it. “So it keeps hurting. Pace-me is upset about that, but Lies-I thought you were waiting to see if it would work.”

“Damn it, here.” Abigail quickly used the flip side of the engraver to wipe the spell away after grabbing the girl’s arm. “You should’ve said something. It obviously wasn’t going to work. Hell, you could have told us that it wouldn’t work before we tried it.”

Honestly, when she thought about what this girl had been put through by her own mother, it made her want to… do things that she had never thought herself capable of entertaining at all. That… creature was a monster in every possible way, and she deserved to be brought to justice.

There were those who assumed that, because Abigail was a (very successful) defense lawyer, that she automatically despised police and authorities. That, put simply, was absolutely untrue. She loathed crooked authorities, and those who used that authority or power to abuse others. And she very, very strongly believed that even the worst criminal in the world deserved a competent defense. That didn’t mean cheating, or attacking the characters of others. It meant providing a competent defense that would help prevent an innocent person from being convicted. Because the American system of justice had been created with the idea that it would be better to release a hundred guilty people, than to imprison one who was innocent.  

Those who were clearly guilty deserved their just punishment, as those who were innocent deserved to be acquitted. And in this case, the Seosten known as Kushiel was very, very guilty.

Once the spell was wiped away, she heaved a sigh. “Okay, now that Plan A has been a complete failure, what’s next? And for the record,” the woman added in the direction of the Seosten girl, “if any of our plans physically hurt you, say something about it.”

“Yes.” That was Seller. The man pushed off the wall, moving over to stand next to them as he looked down at the girl. “We’re not here to get our jollies by hurting you. We’re here to actually accomplish something. We find a way to separate you and Pace, so that you can tell us everything you know. That’s the deal. And the best way for us to accomplish that is for you to let us know when something isn’t going to work. Right?”

The Seosten made Pace shrug in response. “If you say so,” she replied in a slightly sing-song tone. “But I still say you’re missing a fantastic chance to get some revenge.”

“Revenge isn’t what–” Stopping herself in mid-sentence, Abigail just shook her head. “Anyway, Plan B is…?”

“I have an idea.” That was Seller. The man continued, “There are Strangers–sorry, Alters, who are immune to various forms of possession. If we can find one of them and that immunity works against the Seosten–”

“We’re not murdering someone else just to get what we want,” Abigail cut in.

The man held up a hand to forestall her. “I will look into it. If we can find one that is actually evil and deserves to be taken down, maybe we can do that. We let Pace here get the actual kill. Maybe if she becomes immune to possession, it’ll make the two of you separate.”

“Lies-I like that plan,” the Seosten agreed in a helpful tone. “Mostly because it involves killing.”

Sighing a little, Abigail gestured. “Okay, fine. Mostly because I don’t have a better idea at the moment. But like you said, only if they’re an actual–what were the evil Alters called?”

“Nocen,” the Seosten supplied helpfully. “They call them Nocen.”

Abigail nodded. “Right. Nocen. Evil ones, Seller. I mean it, make sure they’re actually bad.”

The man held his hand up, as though swearing an oath. “Only the most evil possession-immune monsters. It’ll probably take awhile to come up with anything useable, but I’ll see what comes through the usual sources. You can help me sort through all of it until we find something useable. In the meantime,” he added pointedly, looking toward Miranda, “I want you to stay here with her. I’ll tell anyone who asks that I’m running you through an extended field test. If anyone insists on seeing you for some reason, I’ll bring in one of your duplicates. But for the most part, I want you to be here, keeping an eye out. I’ve got enough ‘go away’ spells around the building that it should stop anyone from coming near this place. But just in case…”

“Yeah,” Miranda replied, “Just in case anything happens. I’ll be here, and we’ll take care of it.” She looked to the Seosten then. “Well, Lies, I guess that means you and I are–”

“Stop.” Abigail made a face, her head shaking. “Don’t call her that. Just–don’t.” Sighing, she shook her head at Seosten in question. “Are you sure your parents never called you anything else? They never had any other name for you?”

Head tilting curiously, the girl asked, “Why should I be called anything else? It is what and who I am. I am a Lie. I am Lies. I am the shame of the Seosten and my parents. I am a Lie.”

“Stop that!” Abigail had stood up by that point. “You are not a lie. You are a person. You don’t stop being a person just because you’re different. You don’t stop mattering just because you have a handicap. A man doesn’t stop being a man because he loses an arm. A blind person is still a person. Deaf, paraplegic, quadriplegic, autistic, Down syndrome, epilepsy, scoliosis, whatever, they are still people. And you are a person. A person who deserves a name. A real name..”

The Seosten’s response was as quiet as it was poignant. “A Lie is all I have ever been.”

Taking a breath to control herself, Abigail announced, “Not anymore. I refuse to use that… word. You are more than that. You are capable of more than that. And you deserve a real–” In mid-sentence, the woman stopped talking. Slowly, a smile crept over her face.

“You have an idea?” Seller observed, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Yes.” Abigail looked to the girl once more. “The Seosten, your people, they were all about posing as the Greek and Roman gods, right? Like your mother playing Hera and your father playing Zeus.” Receiving a simple nod, she continued. “Okay then. As it happens, the Zeus of mythology had a daughter named Aletheia. And do you know what she was the goddess of?”

It was Miranda who answered, her voice quiet. “Truth.”

Smiling slightly, Abigail gave a single nod, not taking her eyes off of the girl in question. “They want to call you a lie? Well, I say that you’re the truth. But it’s up to you. It’s your choice. What do you think?”

For a moment, the Seosten possessing Pace did nothing. She simply sat there, staring not really at Abigail, but closer to through her. There was something in her expression, emotions that she clearly didn’t understand how to express. She twitched a little bit, before pushing herself to her feet as she spoke.

“Lies-I think–” She cut herself off abruptly, her eyes suddenly going visibly damp as she made a somewhat choked sound. “I… think that I will not be a Lie. I will not be a Lie. But we think that is a little long. Perhaps… Theia would be good, as a… nickname?”

“Theia,” Abigail confirmed. “I think we can work with that.”

“Then we… I will be Theia,” the Seosten once-known-as-Lies announced. “I am Theia.” Slowly, she met the woman’s eyes. “We like it.

“And we are very glad that I did not kill you.”

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Interlude 32B – Miranda, Abigail, and Seller.

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“She was attacked here, and barely survived.”

The announcement came in the middle of a motel room that looked as though an entire world war had taken place inside of it. Both chairs in the room were overturned and broken into splinters, and the bed had been broken in half with bits scattered everywhere. Blood of various colors lined the walls, along with other viscera. The bathroom door had been ripped off its hinges and lay broken in half. And dozens of various sized holes dotted every wall as well as the floor and ceiling. Also, the television was on its side with one body stuck halfway into it, through the broken screen.

Seller, the man who had spoken, looked back to his two female companions, Miranda and Abigail. “Whatever attacked Lies in here, there were a lot more than one of them. My guess is that they teleported in right on top of her.”

“Them,” Miranda corrected faintly while walking forward to look at the body in the television. “Remember, there’s two of them, even if they’re sharing the same body. Lies and Pace.” She looked over to the man. “We have to save Pace.”

Abigail slowly stepped into the room as well, her head shaking. “From what little we know,” the woman announced slowly, “it doesn’t sound like these…” her face twisted with disgust, “… handicapped Seosten have any real chance in their lives.” The woman refused to use the term Lie. She found it barbaric and horrible, and flat out refused to be a part of it. “That video that you showed me of the girl, that is not a healthy individual making their own choices. And from what else we’ve found… she’s damaged. She’s as much a victim in this whole situation as anyone.”

Seller cleared his throat. “The point is,” he began flatly, “we need to find both of them. We can’t save Pace without Lies. And right now, we don’t even know if either of them are still alive.” Pointedly, he gestured around the destroyed room. “Give me a minute to look at this place over and try to put it together.”

Leaving the man to examine the place, Miranda and Abigail stepped out of the room and back into the motel parking lot. It was late at night, almost to the point of technically being morning. The place looked pretty much completely abandoned, without any lights on in any of the other rooms, and the office had the blinds pulled tightly shut. The two women glanced to one another before Miranda asked, “Do you really think that we can get through to Lies?”

“What I think,” the woman replied, “is that every single person in that girl’s life has probably used, abused, and abandoned her. She doesn’t even have a real name. So, I am not going to make any judgments about what she might be capable of if someone did give her a chance. I’m not saying that she’s some perfectly innocent, fluffy little lamb, but she could be more than they’ve made her, if someone gave her a chance.”

“Pace is innocent too,” Miranda pointed out quietly. She went silent for another few seconds before kicking hard at the ground in front of her with a harshly muttered, “Fuck the Seosten.”

“That does seem to sum it up,” the older woman agreed. Her voice softened then, as she reached out to squeeze the younger girl’s shoulder. “They will bring Felicity back, and the others.”

Flinching a bit notably, Miranda let out a long, low side before admitting quietly, “I’m scared. I know that being scared doesn’t help anything, but what if something happens to her out there? She’s my friend. I abandoned her once, because the Heretics said that it was better than getting her involved with the monsters. That was a lie. It was all a lie. They knew that she was already involved. They knew. They just didn’t want me to be a part of her life. And now, she’s all the way out there, and I can’t do anything about it at all. I feel so… so fucking helpless.”

“If it helps at all,” Abigail put in then, “I would bet that the people who actively recruited you didn’t know much about the situation with Felicity and her—I mean our mother.”

Miranda resisted the urge to cough at those words. That had been a bit of a surprise. She had known that Flick cared about what happened to Abigail, but had thought that it was because the woman was Koren’s mother. Seller, however, had taken the two of them far away from Earth, to some other planet in order to tell her the truth back when they had started this whole search. Abigail and he wanted Miranda to understand just how connected the woman was to the situation.

And finding out that Flick technically had a fifty-something-year-old sister (and brother) had taken some getting used to. Let alone the revelation that Koren was actually her niece. That was… something.

“That memory spell…” At first, Miranda thought that Abigail was referring to the same one that she had just been thinking about. Only belatedly did she realize that the woman was actually talking about the one centered on erasing Joselyn. As she spoke the words, the Abigail’s face twisted with anger, “Thanks to that, I doubt the people low enough to be recruiting you as a student knew the whole story. They probably knew that Crossroads had a claim on her, and that’s why they didn’t want you being involved with Felicity. But I doubt they actually knew about the rest of it.”

Miranda’s mouth opened and shut once or twice before she finally replied, “I’m still pissed off about it.”

“So am I,” Abigail confirmed. “So am I.”

Before either of them could say anything else, Seller stepped out of the room to join them. “Okay,” he announced while adjusting his emerald green suit, “as far as I can put it together, our little friend won her fight in there. Most of the blood is from other species. I can put together a rough estimate of how the fight went. She took some pretty bad hits, but with the werewolf regeneration and anything else she’s got, I’d say she was the one who walked out of there.” Looking around as he stood there on the sidewalk, the man raised a hand to point off in the distance. “That way,” he continued. “She went that way.”

“How can you tell?” Abigail asked curiously.

In response, the man winked. “I can smell her,” he replied easily, “and I can see the path she took through the lot.” He indicated various spots on the pavement. “I can see the disturbances where her feet came down. Trust me, with the right kind of powers, it’s not hard to notice. And besides,” he held up a finger with a bit of red on it. “Not all of the blood in there was from other people. I’ve got enough blood tracking power to get a pretty good bead on the girl.  So trust me, she’s that way.”

The three of them thought out that way, while Miranda asked, “Do you really think it’s the other Seosten who’re trying to kill her?”

“It makes the most sense,” Abigail replied. “Think about it. She’s clearly been out on her own for awhile now. We’ve picked that much up just from tracking her. And we know that the Seosten somehow knew that Felicity and the others were onto them. That’s why they sprang that trap. The only real way for them to know that would be if they knew the choker wasn’t destroyed. And if they knew that, they probably blamed Lies for losing it in the first place.”

“So they’re pissed at her and she’s on the run.” Miranda sighed. “And we’re playing rescue party for the crazy–” She stopped at a warning look from Abigail, biting her lip hard. “I mean, she’s probably not gonna be that happy to see us either, you know.”

It was Seller who responded. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes. Right now, we focus on finding and subduing her.” He gave a quick glance to Abigail, adding, “Victim or not, that girl is dangerous. We make sure she’s not going to kill any of us before trying any of this negotiating.”

For a moment, Abigail looked as though she was going to say something to that. In the end, however, the woman simply gave a tight-lipped nod.

The three of them walked on for a bit longer, and they reached what looked like an ordinary, sleepy suburban street with small, one and two story houses lining both sides before Abigail finally did speak up, looking to the man while asking, “Does your blood tracker say how far away she might be?”

“Yeah, she’s–” Seller started before falling silent abruptly. His mirrored sunglasses didn’t hide his frown. “That’s funny, she was about three blocks that way, but it just disappeared. It’s like she–”

A blur of motion filled Abigail’s vision before the woman was suddenly grabbed and yanked around. She found herself facing Miranda and Seller, while an arm was held tightly against her throat and another hand was pressed against her face. She could feel the razor-sharp claws as they lightly, yet pointedly brushed over her skin.

“Like they knew you were tracking them and waited until you were right where they wanted you to be, then blocked it?” The by-then familiar voice tickled Abigail’s ears before the girl giggled. “That was what you were about to say, right? We love winning these games.”

“Lies!” Miranda blurted. The girl already had her shield in one hand as she stood there beside Seller, facing the one who had taken Abigail hostage. “Stop, don’t hurt her! We’re not here to attack you.”

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed. The man made no move to attack, draw any weapon, or make any threatening motion. He simply stood at ease. “We didn’t come to fight.”

The girl’s response was a sharp, lilting laugh before she leaned in close to Abigail’s ear, stage-whispering, “Is that right? Are the little birds telling the truth with their chirp, chirp, chirps? Or are they mean, nasty old beavers in crocodile clothing?” As if anticipating confusion, she added in a thoughtful tone, “Beavers are mean. Territorial. Nasty. Angry. Chomp, chomp, chomp. We weren’t even trying to steal your den, we just wanted to look inside because we were curious, jerk.”

“But why would you say in crocodile clothing?” The question clearly came before Miranda could stop it, even though she felt ridiculous even as the words tumbled from her mouth. “They’re pretty bad too.”

“What?” Lies sounded honestly flabbergasted by that. “No, they’re not. They’re adorable and cuddly. Name one animal with a better smile. If people would stop being so mean to them, maybe they could all get along.”

“Um.” Trying not to shift with the girl’s claws against her face, Abigail quietly spoke up. “I think we might have drifted somewhat off-topic.”

“Let her go, Lies.” Seller’s voice was firm. “Like we already said, we didn’t come here to hurt you.”

“Funny,” the Seosten girl retorted. “We didn’t come to hurt you either. We came to hurt the bad, bad, mean guys chasing us. Set a whole trap for them and everything. Left blood for them to track, had a whole thing set up. It would’ve been spiffy. But it was you, not them. You’re chasing, but not those chasers. You’re not them. You messed it up. We should punish you for that–what? No, I didn’t. We didn’t–we–yes, but if one of them dies, that still leaves two. That’s fair, isn’t it? But they really messed up our trap and it’s not fair. We worked hard on that trap. It’s not fair.”

Miranda’s head shook at that. “No one needs to be punished, Lies. We just want to talk.”

“Oooh, nobody needs to be punished?” Lies echoed the words, her smile appearing quite similar to that of the crocodiles that she had so recently extolled the virtues of. “Maybe you pretty thing could stick around and tell the mean old Manakel that, hmm? Maybe he’d change his mind then.”

“Manakel?” Seller jumped on that. “He’s sending all those guys after you, isn’t he? That’s why we’re here. You come with us and we’ll protect you. We can help each other. All you have to do is tell us what you know. Help us deal with them and Manakel won’t be able to hurt you.”

Again, the girl giggled. “You hear that? They came to protect us. Our knights in shining armor.”

“You’re in danger,” Abigail, standing as still as possible, reminded the girl. “The other Seosten obviously want you dead. We’ve already seen some of the results of that, and they’re obviously not going to stop. You can keep going by yourself, or you can make an alliance with us. None of us have to like each other, but we can help each other. We can all get what we want, what we need.”

“But if you hurt her,” Seller added in a voice that brooked no argument, “I promise that Manakel will be the least of your worries. We can work together. But you need to let her go. Show of trust. Let her go and we’ll work all of this out. Just take it easy.”

Miranda tensed, watching the other girl intently. Yet, she had a feeling that it would be okay. As violent as Lies was, and even though she was holding Abigail hostage, there was something innately different about her than there had been before. She seemed a little more in control of herself, a little less… crazed. Still not exactly reasonable or calm, but Miranda just had a feeling that she wasn’t going to kill Abigail, or even really hurt her, despite the implicit (and explicit) threat. Being hunted by Manakel’s people, it was obvious that she’d had a long few days, or weeks, or whatever it had been. She clearly knew that Miranda and the others were her best chance at survival. The question was whether she could control her psychological problems and violent impulses long enough to let that sink in. But thus far, the fact that she had stopped to talk to them, that she had shown herself at all and was still just standing there, it was actually a good sign.

“Take it easy?” Echoing Seller’s words in a tone that was somehow simultaneously mocking and curious, Lies shook her head. “None of this will be easy. They don’t understand, do they? No. Not easy at all. But helpful?” Leaning closer to Abigail’s ear, she stage-whispered once more. “They might, maybe, possibly prove how helpful they are now.”

Abigail spoke quietly. “Like I said, we want to help you. Tell us what we can do.”

Giving a long, curious sniff, Lies nonchalantly replied, “Maybe they can kill those ones.”

“Kill what o–” Miranda abruptly cut off her own question as a series of shuffling and creaking sounds caught all of their attention.

Spinning, she and the others took in the sight of figures emerging from all around them. They came from the shadows, pushing their way through the gates of fences that encircled nearby yards, pushing up out of a manhole in the middle of the street, kicking open the doors of a few parked cars to fall out before picking themselves up. Dozens of the creatures.

“Zombies,” Seller muttered, his voice flat as he scanned the area around them. They were surrounded, more and more of the things appearing with each passing second.

“Told you,” Lies primly reminded them. “You broke our trap.”

Shaking his head, the old Heretic announced, “We don’t have to deal with this.” He held a hand out, pausing briefly before sighing. “Or maybe we do. Something’s blocking teleportation.”

“Uh huh.” Lies sounded not the least bit surprised. If anything, she clearly thought that it was all very amusing. “Manakel doesn’t like it when you run away from his surprises. Oh, and FYI, not really zombies. Super-zombies. Manakel zombies. Hades. Stronger, faster, and smell worse. And more bad things. Like skills, powers, abilities. They keep them, not like normal boring zombies.”

“We can still fight them,” Miranda insisted. She took aim at one of the creatures as the army gradually surrounded the group, encircling them and moving forward, closer with each step.

“No.” Seller put a hand out, stopping the girl. “I’ll deal with these guys. The rest of you get out of here.

“Uh.” Miranda’s head shook. “In case it escaped your attention, we kinda can’t get out of here. They’re in the way.”

In response, the man extended a hand, making a quick motion. Part of the pavement about eight feet wide beneath the feet of the shuffling zombies abruptly raised upward, knocking them aside while forming into the shape of a tunnel, creating an opening right through the middle of the horde and continuing on for what looked like several blocks, straight down the road. Meanwhile, the man raised his other hand and made a sharp pushing motion. Immediately, the air near the ‘tunnel’ blurred and turned a bit hazy.   

“What did you–” Miranda started, before Seller’s hand caught her shoulder. He gave her a solid shove right into the mouth of the tunnel. As soon as she was there, the girl felt some kind of gravity-wind-force catch hold of her, and she was rapidly hurled down the length of the several-block long raised pavement tunnel. Her body tumbled end over end in mid-air, as though she was falling sideways. A startled yelp had just managed to escape her before she was gradually slowed to a gentle stop at the far end of it. For a second, the girl continued to float there a foot or so off the ground, before even that disappeared and she dropped lightly to her feet.

“Wheeeeeeeeee!” Behind her, Lies came soaring through the tunnel like Supergirl, hands outstretched in front of her as she flew right to the end. Once the ‘ride’ stopped, she pouted. “Aww, we wanted to keep going. Can we do it again?”

“Where–” Miranda’s question was cut off as Abigail came flying through as well, the woman crying out right as she reached the end to be dropped to the ground.

Once the three of them had collected themselves, Miranda stared down the street. She could barely make out the fight that was going on, and a part of her wanted to create a duplicate that could run back to help Seller.

But to be honest, she wouldn’t really be helping. The man could handle some zombies, even the ‘improved versions’ that Manakel apparently created, whatever that meant. At best, she would be a distraction. And if more bad guys came after them while Seller was busy, she would need all her powers to deal with that, rather than splitting them between duplicates.

“We have to get out of here,” she announced. “Seller will find us, and…” She paused, looking to Lies, who had walked around behind her. “What are you doing?”

“Hmm?” Glancing up, Lies gave them an innocent look. “Oh, nothing. Other-Me just thinks you have a cute butt, so we were getting a better look.” She paused briefly while Miranda made a choking, stammering noise before adding, “I wasn’t supposed to say that. So we’d like it if you just pretended we didn’t. We never said that.” As she spoke the last line deliberately, the girl waved a hand as if she was trying to be a Jedi.  

“I–we–what?” Head shaking, Miranda started, “Why do you keep saying we–wait.”

Abigail understood already. “Pace? Is we you and Pace?” the woman carefully asked.

“Well,” the girl retorted with a sniff, “there’s hardly anyone else in here with us.”

“I’m confused.” Miranda frowned, watching her closely. “Are you trying to say that you two are… working together or something? Why do you keep saying we, and talking about what Pace wants or… or likes?”

“Me, other-me, we, Pace, all of us.” Lies gave a languid shrug. “Pacey Pace already said if we don’t work together, we’ll die. So we do. We work together. We compromise. We are together. We are we.” She gave a little giggle then. “Still working out the kinks. And speaking of kinks, could you turn around again? Other-me really does like your butt. If-” She paused, coughing. “Oh. Other-me didn’t want us to say that again. This is very hard to know what we are supposed to say or not supposed to say. Trying to be nice and let her speak, but some things she thinks we’re not supposed to say. So complicated. So many rules.”

Stepping in quickly while Miranda mentally and vocally flailed, Abigail spoke up. “So you’re already working together. You can work with us. We can all help each other.”

Finally catching herself, Miranda nodded. “We get out of here, we meet up with Seller, and you can tell us what we need to know. You can tell us about Manakel, about the rest of the Seosten, and in exchange, we can protect you.”

“Ohhh, not that easy.” Lies shook her head slowly. “Not nearly so easy. We can tell you a lot. We can tell you oh-so-much. But it’s not protection we want. No. Not protection. We need more. We know so much, we can help so much.” Her hand tapped the side of her head. “So very much indeed. But if you want it, you have to earn it. Yes. You have to give us what we really want.”

Abigail gave a slow nod, shooting a warning glance to Miranda. “Okay, what do you want?”

A slow, still-manic smile spread across the face of the Lies-possessed Pace. “Do what Mama could never do. Fix us. Help us separate. I-We-She don’t want Pacey to die. Help me-me get out of other-me. Teach me, help me, fix me. Make me whole. Make me complete. Make me a full Seosten. Fix me so I can do what I’m supposed to do. Help me let Pacey Pace go without killing her.

“Do that. Fix me… and we will tell you everything you want to know.”    

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