Shiori Porter

Desperate Times 36-06

Previous Chapter

We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used  a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Desperate Times 36-04

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Before we had crossed the length of the cafeteria to reach the door where Rudolph and Douglas were, I was approached and interrupted once again. This time, however, it wasn’t Zeke. Instead, Aylen Tamaya, the tall Native American girl who always looked like she belonged on a throne somewhere, stepped into view. Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, was perched on her shoulder, its gaze piercing straight through me. “Um,” she started hesitantly, “Flick. Hi.”  

The girl seemed strangely nervous, or unsure of herself, which I wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, I wasn’t accustomed to talking to her at all. Even though she was on a team with both Koren and Shiori, the two of us hadn’t really interacted that much all year.

“Err.” Blinking once at the other girl, I offered an equally hesitant, “Hi?” I had no idea what she wanted, but I also didn’t want to be rude or anything. We may not have talked much, but Aylen had never given me any indication that she was anything like Zeke. Actually, she had basically told him off back when he insulted Shiori when the girl was upset about finding out she wasn’t fully human. So yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to react to her the same way I had Zeke.

“I, um.” She paused, looking down at the floor for a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “I hope Avalon is okay. I don’t know what’s going on or why there’s all these people who have been trying to hurt her for so long, but whatever happens… I hope she comes back.”

“She will,” I blurted quickly, the words coming out a little more firmly than I intended. Taking a breath then, I amended, “Trust me, Gaia’s gonna make sure she does. But–” Hesitantly, I added, “I didn’t know you guys were… um, I didn’t know you two spoke that much.”

The response was another brief, clearly self-conscious pause before she carefully replied, “Avalon helped me with something while you were… um, while you were gone. She promised not to tell anyone about it, and–” Her eyes flicked toward the others behind me before she finished with, “I guess she really didn’t. The point is, I hope she’s okay. And I owe her, so if you… you know, if you need anything, if she needs anything, I… I can help. Just ask.”

With that, she headed off without looking back. Watching her go briefly, I bit my lip before glancing toward Shiori. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what that was all about?”

As expected, the other girl shook her head. “Uh, nope. I think they were working out a little in the mornings, but I didn’t know there was anything more than that going on.” Pausing then, she added thoughtfully, “Avalon’s really subtle and discreet when she wants to be.”

“Not that subtle is the first word that probably springs to mind when people think about her,” I pointed out with a cough. “But yeah, I take your point. She doesn’t go blabbing about things. I guess if she told Aylen she’d keep a secret, she really kept it. I just wish I knew what it was.”

Sean spoke up then. “If whatever Aylen’s deal is was relevant to our problems or something bad that actually needed to be talked about, she probably would have said something before.”

Columbus was already nodding to that, his voice a bit gruff. “To Gaia, at the very least.”

“You’re right,” I agreed once more. “Avalon’s not dumb. She’d have said something, or at least pushed Aylen to. Yeah, I just… I guess I’m not good with other people having secrets. Which is totally the height of hypocrisy, so I’m gonna let it go now. See, this is me letting it go.” Suiting action to words, I turned on my heel and began to walk to the boys in the doorway once more.

Whatever was actually going on with Aylen, I was sure it would come up soon enough. There was no need to rush it. Right now, it wasn’t like we didn’t have enough issues to deal with. Case in point: the person who actually knew what the other girl was even talking about had been abducted by people who were just waiting for the best chance to kill her. So, focusing.

And speaking of focusing, Rudolph and Douglas seemed awfully focused on me as we approached them. The two were staring, both looking like they were just about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, they just waited for me to speak first.

“Hey, guys,” I started before taking a breath. “I guess maybe we should talk.” When they nodded, I gestured. “Not here. Let’s go for a walk.” I could feel the eyes of so many others on us, could hear the whispers. This may have been a school that was known for crazy things happening, but I was clearly surpassing even those levels by this point. People were curious.

I ignored them, at least as much as possible. With any luck, something else would happen soon enough to draw attention away from me. Though I didn’t really want to think about what would have to happen to make my situation (or as much as the public knew about it) less interesting.

One person whose attention I didn’t ignore, however, was Professor Dare. The woman’s eyes found me from where she was sitting with a few other teachers. As she watched me questioningly, I raised my hand to give her a brief thumbs up before turning back to the others.

Together, the seven of us made our way out of the cafeteria, past the rec room, and out of the building proper. I led them across the grounds and all the way down to the beach, where we could have the best chance at privacy. Especially with a little help from one of those secrecy coins. I’d actually gotten out of the habit of using them while in Seosten space. Really, as dangerous as it had been out there, at least I’d been able to talk fairly openly for the most part.

Eventually we seemed to be far enough away and alone. After glancing around, I used one of my spare coins that had still been waiting in the dorm, before glancing to Shiori. “Are we good?”

She nodded, letting me know that the power she’d picked up awhile back that let her know if anyone she didn’t know about was watching her wasn’t picking anything up. Between that, the privacy of the beach, and the secrecy coin, we were about as assured of privacy as we could be.

With all that done, when I finally turned around to face the two boys, Rudolph was actually the first one who spoke, before I could. His voice even, if slightly curious. “Doesn’t seem like whatever you’re about to say is going to be the same story that everyone else is talking about.”

“It’s a little different, yeah,” I replied dryly. “But before we say anything else, we need to check.”

“Check?” That was Douglas. The skinny little blond boy, who was actually about the same height as me, frowned a bit at that while shaking his head. “Check what, exactly?”

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Check you guys, actually. Trust me, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand soon enough. And if you do know, well…”  

That was all I had to say. Because by that point, Rudolph and Douglas had realized that Scout, Columbus, Shiori, and Sean had carefully surrounded them. In the case of Scout and Shiori, they had their weapons ready. Vulcan was standing by his master, giving a very low growl.

“What–what the hell–” Douglas started, head jerking around as his hand moved to his pocket.

Quickly, I shook my head. “Stop, stop. There’s nothing wrong. Look, just… we have to be careful, guys. We just have to be careful until we make sure you’re you, that’s all.”

“Make sure we’re us?” Rudolph didn’t look any more happy about the sudden situation than his teammate did. He looked from the quietly growling Vulcan over to me. “What do you mean, m–”

Douglas interrupted him. “Wait.” His eyes were locked onto mine, and he reached up to self-consciously rub at the New York Rangers cap on his head. “Make sure we’re us. You mean…” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times then, and the boy looked a bit indecisive before lifting his chin as he came to a decision. “Are you talking about the Whispers?”  

“Whispers?” I echoed blankly, completely thrown by the question. “What do you–wait, what?” Of all the things I might have expected these guys to say at this point, that really wasn’t on the list.

The fact that I didn’t seem to know what he was talking about clearly confused Douglas even more than he had been before, and his head shook. “Then–wait, what are you talking about?”

Well, I’d have to hand it to them. If he really was possessed and this was some obfuscation tactic, it deserved some points for originality. Now, I was completely thrown off, and it took a moment to collect myself so I could focus on what mattered. “Err, right. Like I said, sorry about this whole thing.” My hand gestured toward the others, still ready for any kind of fight. “But you’ll understand in a minute. First thing, and I know exactly how bad this is gonna sound, but I need both of you to put your arms out so I can draw a spell on them.”

Douglas stared at me, his voice as flat as ever. “You must think that we’re complete idiots.”

Wincing, I shook my head. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re idiots. It’s just–just trust me, please. You guys want to know what’s really going on? You want to know what happened to Avalon, and where I’ve been, where the rest of your team is? You wanna know the truth about all that? We need to know that we can trust you. And that means using this spell. And if you already know what I’m talking about because you aren’t really you? Well, then we’re as ready as we can be.”

It was Scout who spoke up bluntly then. “Columbus,” she informed them. “Remember the woman who came out of Columbus? That’s what she’s checking for.”  

Briefly, the two exchanged glances. I saw the brief indecision there for a moment before Rudolph extended his arm. Pulling his sleeve up, the boy gave me a slight nod. “Do it.”

With a long, heavy sigh, Douglas followed suit by pulling his own sleeve up. “If that’s what it takes to finally get a straight answer out of someone around here, yeah, just do it.”

“Right.” Stepping that way, I plucked the field-engraver from my pocket. “I hate to tell you guys this after you already agreed, but this is gonna hurt a little bit. Sorry, we had an easier way to do this checking part, but it’s still with Roxa. So we’ve gotta do it the old-fashioned way.” Pausing, I added, “Actually, there’s a non-hurt way that we could do it, but that one involves me butting a lot further into your privacy than I think any of us are comfortable with. So yeah, this is easier.”

“Hurt?” Douglas was squinting at me again. “How much hurt are we talking here?”  

Shiori piped up then. “Don’t worry,” she announced, “you might think you’re in pain, but Vulcan spends a lot of time in agony.”

“Hah.” Despite the situation, I couldn’t help but smile back at the goofily grinning girl. “A-gun-y.”

“Oh, my God, please just write the spell on me.” Douglas was holding his arm out a bit desperately now. “Any amount of pain you’re about to inflict has to be better than more puns.”

So, I did. The boys hissed and grunted through the pain of the spell. But other than that, there was no sign that either of them were possessed. Which, as I’d mentioned earlier, I could have ascertained just by possessing them myself (I wasn’t quite good enough at it by myself to just start to possess them to check if they could be possessed without going all the way), but that would have involved me getting a much closer look at their inner thoughts, memories, and opinions than I actually wanted.

Either way, the point was that they weren’t possessed. So, slowly, I began to explain everything. I told them about the Seosten, about how Crossroads had been created, about where the others and I had been, about why the assholes wanted Avalon–and why they had actually taken her.

It took awhile. And by the end of it, Douglas and Rudolph were both staring at me. They looked, pretty understandably, utterly flummoxed. It was clearly all they had been able to do to stay quiet long enough for me to finish. And now that I had, neither had any idea how to actually start.

“You’re crazy.”

Oh look, Douglas had actually found his voice after all. He took a reflexive step back, shaking his head. “You’re completely batshit,” he blurted again, a little stronger. “This is insane. Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? A whole alien conspiracy, an evil Empire that created Crossroads and uses us to kill their enemies? What the fuck? You’ve lost it. You’ve all lost it.”

“We have all lost a great many things,” a new voice announced then, as Professor Dare stepped into view. “Unfortunately, their minds are not one of them. Miss Chambers is absolutely correct.”

Rudolph and Douglas both jumped. The rest of us didn’t. Mostly because we knew she was there. That thumbs up that I had given her back in the cafeteria had been a signal. Since we all knew that I would eventually need to tell Douglas and Rudolph the truth, Dare and I had set up that sign. It let her know that we were about to have the talk with the boys, so that she could wait nearby and watch to make sure that things didn’t go completely wrong.

I may have had a pretty good idea that the two of them could be talked around, but I wasn’t a complete idiot.

“Wha–Professor?” Douglas jerked around at that, his eyes widening even more. “What are you–wait, you’re not serious. None of this is serious, right? This is some big, long-running joke. It’s a prank. You’re just–it’s a test, right? Just a test. Some fucked up, crazy test.”

“It’s not a test,” Rudolph informed him before any of us could speak. The boy had been watching me through all of that, before he finally shook his head. “They’re serious about all of it.”

“A little too serious,” Sean muttered under his breath before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true. Every last word. Listen, a werewolf saved my life when I was a kid. Saved my life.”

“A Stranger saved me too.” That was Scout, her voice soft as she informed the boys of that much.

“And me,” I put in. “A vampire definitely saved me when I went home for my birthday. And they’ve kept saving me ever since. So yeah, we are absolutely serious about it.”

“Serious?” Douglas clearly couldn’t decide where to look. His gaze kept snapping back and forth between all of us. “You can’t be, okay? You just can’t be. You’re trying to say that our entire civilization was designed by evil aliens that possess anyone they want to and that all of this, killing Strangers, is all some big training exercise so they can send us out to fight their universe-spanning war against the Fomorians. Does that about sum it up?”

Professor Dare started to speak then, but I interrupted. “What’s a bigger stretch, Doug, that a race of aliens that can take over our bodies are using us as fleshy mech suits and to do that they’ve convinced us to kill anything that could give us power, or that of trillions and trillions of members of dozens if not hundreds of intelligent species that we know of, every last one except humans are completely evil? Seriously. Which one of those sounds more likely?”

That got their attention. I saw Douglas openly flinch. His mouth opened and shut before his gaze moved to the others, all of whom nodded, including Professor Dare. Finally, he dropped his head and muttered a dark, “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh… fuck. But we–everything we–all the people that we–it’s our whole… oh… oh.”

That went on for a little bit, as more and more of the ramifications of what we were telling him sank in. I saw a hurricane of emotions cross the boy’s face, while he folded his arms against his stomach and looked physically ill.

Rudolph, meanwhile, didn’t look a lot better. He was keeping it together a little more, his reactions not quite as outwardly readable. But still, it was obviously an almost physical blow. His eyes closed, and he seemed to be absorbing all of it, working through his reaction inwardly and privately.

Finally, Doug lifted his gaze, looking toward Professor Dare. “This is a big secret, isn’t it? Worlds-changing secret.”

She nodded. “We don’t know how many have been possessed or were… compromised in other ways. Or how many would listen even if they weren’t. We’re working on solutions, but right now, there’s a more pressing problem.”

“And… and Jazz, Gordon, and Isaac, they’re trapped out there with these… these Seosten?” Doug was looking to me then. “Who are the ones that killed Paul?”

“Oh.” Cringing, I shook my head. “Umm… sort of. Listen, this is gonna be hard to hear, I know. Maybe even harder than the rest of it, in some ways. But umm… Jazz and Gordon are okay. Isaac… Isaac is….”

Taking a breath, I told them. I told them the truth, about what had happened. I told them that it was Isaac who had killed Paul, and that he had also killed Professor Katarin.

If they had been shocked by the overall truth about the Heretic-Seosten thing, that one left them almost… broken. Rudolph had taken a step back as I went on, before Shiori found him to put a hand on his back a bit reassuringly.

Doug, however, sank to one knee, his hand over his mouth. The boy looked physically sick. “No,” he murmured, his horror written across his face. “No, no. I knew he was… I knew he was a jerk, but not… not–oh God.” His hand covered his mouth, and he made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Katarin? He killed Katarin, and… and Paul. That piece of shit–that–” He was clearly trying for anger, but it broke into far harder emotions, as his words devolved into a weak noise.

Professor Dare moved that way. She took a knee next to the boy, letting him lean into her as the grief, confusion, and feelings of obvious guilt worked their way through him.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling weak and inadequate even as I said it. “He’s imprisoned now, and I don’t think Athena is going to let him go anywhere or hurt anyone again.”

“She should kill the son of a bitch.” That was Doug, his voice hard as he looked up from where he was still kneeling with Professor Dare. “If he did what you said, if he–she shouldn’t take a chance. That’s just stupid. If he’s that kind of monster, then just end it and stop tempting fate. I–wait.” Frowning, he asked, “Who’s Athena?”

“Oh.” I blinked once then. “Right, I guess I haven’t told you everything. Um. Yeah, turns out there’s kind of a lot more we need to talk about, as soon as possible. But uh, that story took awhile to tell. So we’re kind of on the clock. If you guys really wanna help save Avalon, we could use you. Uh.” I nodded to Rudolph then. “You, specifically.”

“Me?” the boy blinked at that, hesitating before asking, “How?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “how do you feel about helping to distract your great-great-grandfather, just in case he’s actually one of those ‘possessed by the evil bodysnatcher aliens’ people, long enough for us to wake up Professor Tangle?”

Douglas abruptly announced, “You know, I should’ve guessed that she was involved in this.

“Because if there was any single person who was absolutely going to play a central role in a plot this tied up in knots, it’s someone named Tangle.”

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Desperate Times 36-03

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“I’m so tired of people that care about me getting hurt because of me.”

The soft, quiet admission came as I knelt in the sand of the Crossroads beach some time after our thorough investigation of everything in the secret hideaway places that Theia had exposed for us. I didn’t want to say that we’d found nothing, since there was still plenty to go over later with the PAWS, but… yeah, there was no bright neon sign pointing at where Avalon was. Not that we’d found yet, anyway. And none of the other groups had had much better luck.

And to make matters worse, I had no real way of contacting Jophiel and Elisabet. Especially when I didn’t even know if they had gotten back to Earth yet. Hell, I’d even asked for a way to contact them and they had simply said that they would contact us. So that was just great. Which meant no ranting at them about helping Avalon until I could figure out how to initiate that contact. That, of course, had resulted in a lot of internal ranting and cursing that had made me glad that Tabbris wasn’t listening in.

And to make matters even worse than that, Trice was gone. We had no idea how he’d gotten out, only that he was gone. Gaia was apparently looking into it, but I wasn’t sure how much she’d find out.

Avalon was captured and Trice had escaped somehow. That was just… perfect. Just super fucking perfect.

So now I was back at Crossroads. It was late enough (so late that everyone else was in their dorms) that I probably should have been asleep. Especially after the day that I’d had. But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t go there, couldn’t… couldn’t go to that room right then.

I wasn’t alone, in several ways. Shiori was with me, having gotten a special pass from Gaia to stay with me. Her head was on my lap, and she was very gently snoring while one of her hands lay limply against mine, the girl having fallen asleep that way. Not that I minded. The fact that she was right here, safe, and so close to me made me feel… well, a little bit better. With one hand, I gently stroked her hair, listening as she breathed in and out peacefully.

My shark buddies were there too. We’d had a pretty big reunion as soon as I made it out there earlier, with the girl who was now sleeping against me. I wasn’t sure how sharks could actually show emotion, but somehow, my shiver had managed it. They were clearly happy to see me, and we’d gone for a long, thoroughly exhausting swim (part of my desperate attempt to focus on something else and wear myself out a bit to hopefully sleep at some point).

So, I had played with them for an hour or so, letting my sharks carry me around through the water. They were deadly killing machines, of course. But they were also like happy, goofy little puppies who were so glad to see me that they kept swimming in circles and bumping up against me. It was weirdly adorable, and despite the terror in the back of my mind the whole time about what Avalon was going through, it did help a little bit. Not as much as Shiori’s presence did. But still. It helped.

And yet, it was neither Shiori nor my sharks (who were still swimming about as close to the beach as they could manage) who were the focus of the words that I had quietly spoken. No, those had been directed toward the person standing silently behind me, who had clearly come just close enough for me to sense him before waiting for me to actually speak.

Deveron, of course. Now that I had spoken, he came closer, hesitating before moving to sit on the other side of me, opposite from Shiori. His voice was as soft as mine had been. “You know better than that, Felicity,” he quietly reminded me. “Avalon being taken wasn’t your fault.”

My head shook at that, voice catching in my throat briefly before I managed to reply, “You didn’t hear Manakel. The only reason he managed to take Valley is because Gaia was distracted by me. If I hadn’t come back right then, if I hadn’t made Gaia come deal with that situation–”

“Then it would have been something else,” Deveron interrupted. He raised a hand like he was going to touch me before stopping himself. But his eyes were intent. I could feel them on me despite the fact that I was still looking out at the ocean. “There would have been some other distraction, Flick. Something else would have pulled Gaia away long enough for him to make his move. Don’t let him get into your head like that. He wants you to feel guilty about it.”

“Well,” I muttered darkly, “it’s working. I do feel guilty. He took her right when I came back. He used me to hurt her. Just like Fossor used me to hurt Mom. He threatened her, threatened to take me, and she traded herself instead. She traded herself to that psycho monster to save me. Everything she’s been through, everything that happened to her since then, it’s–”

“Fossor’s fault,” Deveron interrupted again, his voice hard. “It is Fossor’s fault, not yours. Just like this is Manakel’s fault, his doing, not yours. It’s the fault of the person who does the action. You know that, Felicity. You tell other people that all the time.”

For a moment, I couldn’t respond to that. I looked down and away, my eyes settling on the peacefully slumbering girl beside me. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, I quietly asked, “What about when the person does something terrible because of the society they were raised in, or bad things happen because of something they did even if they didn’t intend it, and they change later? Are they allowed to be a better person, or does that taint them forever?”

That made it Deveron’s turn to not say anything at first. From the corner of my eye, I saw him flinch just a bit, his gaze turning out to the water before he sighed. “I know she’s not the same person she was,” he said quietly. “And I know she didn’t intend what happened. But–” He went quiet again before his head shook. “But it’s not that simple. My head can know something, but my… damn it.”

“Yeah,” I murmured softly. “Exactly.”

For a couple of minutes, we just sat there, quietly watching the waves as they lapped against the shore. Finally, I started, “I… know why you can’t just forgive her or anything, just like that. I know. I understand. Emotions are more complicated than that, and… and even if she didn’t mean what happened, even if she’s changed, even if so on and so on, that doesn’t fix things. You were still hurt, your family was…” Swallowing hard, I finished with, “I understand.”

A moment later, Deveron’s head dipped into a slight nod. His voice was a bit hoarse. “And I know… I know why you do trust her, why you feel close to her… them. I understand what she did for you, what they’ve done for you. I’m glad that–I’m glad that it helped you. But I just can’t–” He stopped for a second, clearly fighting for words before ending with, “I just can’t. Not yet.”

“I get it,” I assured him, biting my lip before hesitantly asking, “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad at you?” He blinked my way before coughing. “Oh, you mean for back at the camp when–” Stopping, Deveron shook his head. “No, Flick. I’m not mad at you. I’m just…” He sighed. “It’s complicated. Joselyn was always better at the talking to and understanding people part. I–”

He stopped himself from actually saying it, so I said it for him. “I miss my mom.” My voice cracked a little bit at the admission, and I lowered my head, shivering just a little despite the warmth of the night air. “I want her to be here. I… I want my mom.”

Eyes closing, Deveron took a moment, clearly unable to speak. Finally, he managed a very slight nod. “Yeah,” he spoke simply, his voice almost breaking. “I miss her too.”

My head shook a little, as I fought to control myself even just a little bit. “I… what… what about the thing for tomorrow?” Because we did have a slight plan, something that would at least help protect Avalon for the time being. Specifically: Tangle. We had been holding off from actually giving her the cure and waking her up to avoid forcing the Seosten to do something drastic before we were ready. But, well, right now we were the ones that were down to doing something drastic. If we woke up Tangle and took her somewhere safe, the Seosten wouldn’t have their alternate candidate for opening up Liesje’s blood vault. They would have to keep Avalon alive, at least for the time being.

But thanks to hospital rules, we couldn’t just go straight there. The whole situation was going to require some… finesse. More finesse than I’d had in mind when I’d first blurted out that we should just go wake her up, so it was a good thing that Gaia and Dare had more sense.

“Gaia’s arranging it,” Deveron replied easily. “You’ll be going with her, then?”

I gave a quick nod at that. “We’re all going. The rest of the team, I mean. I’m not going back to classes yet. Gaia already set it up so I could have more time to recover from the… from being imprisoned and all that, the stuff the rest of the school is supposed to think happened. And the others are supposed to get the day off to help. And to deal with… with Avalon being kidnapped. So we’re using that.” I grimaced then. “I wasn’t going to leave them behind again. They deserve to be there for this too.” Glancing that way, I added, “So do you, you know.”

He hesitated, but in the end, the man shook his head. “I’ve got some other things I can check out, contacts I can work with. They probably don’t know anything, but… you know, can’t hurt. But speaking of which, when you say you’re going with the whole team…”

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I nodded. “Right, I meant Scout, Columbus, and Sean, mostly. And Shiori, but she’s not…” I glanced to the sleeping girl, gently stroking two fingers down her cheek. “I haven’t even seen Doug or Rudolph yet. They… they’re going to want to know about their friends, about…” My face twisted. “… about Isaac. They–oh God, how much am I supposed to tell them? I don’t know what–I mean, Scout and Tristan said that they know some of it, that Avalon was… prepping them for it. They think that it’s okay to let little threats go to get big threats, but even that’s a big step away from the truth. I… I don’t know what to do.”

That time, Deveron really did put his hand on my shoulder, squeezing firmly. “If you’re anything like your mother, you’ll know when they’re ready to hear it. And you’ll be damn convincing.”

The words made me flush deeply. “But no pressure or anything.” Coughing then, I looked away, letting the silence carry on for a few seconds before hesitantly asking, “Could… um. Could you tell me a story about her? Just… anything. I wanna hear about my mom.”

Deveron’s hand on my shoulder squeezed just a little once more, before he nodded. “Sure, kid.

“Let me tell you a story about Jos.”

******

It was breakfast the next morning. Monday, April 23rd. Not that it mattered since, again, we weren’t going to class. Which was probably a good thing, since I was absolutely not in the right state for it. I’d gotten just under an hour of sleep, so I was… well, pretty rested considering my Amarok-stamina, but not exactly perfect after that long and incredibly stressful day.

Shiori had slept with me, in my bed. It was the only way that I could stand to be in that room while thinking about what kind of situation Avalon must have been in.

Now, we were sitting together to eat breakfast, with Sean, Columbus and Scout. Vanessa and Tristan were over regaling (mostly in the latter’s case) their own team with the (adjusted) stories of our exploits. And as for Douglas and Rudolph, they… seemed to be staying back for the time being. The two of them had seen me, but either they didn’t know what to say just yet, or they were deliberately holding back to give the rest of my team time to actually catch up with me.

Either way, I was sitting there, staring at the food on my plate even as a much bigger rock than Herbie seemed to have settled into the pit of my stomach. “… I’m not hungry.”

Columbus was the one who spoke first. His voice was quiet, yet firm as he looked to me. “I know how that feels. But you need to eat. It’s hard, I know. It might taste pretty much like dirt. But you need the food. So, try to choke it down? It’s easier when it’s warm than if you let it get cold.”

I still wasn’t sure where Columbus and I stood. I knew he felt uncertain (at best) about the whole Tabbris thing, and Seosten in general. That was understandable. I also knew that he cared about me, that his hesitation on the Tabbris thing was him being protective. But still, I wasn’t sure how things were going to proceed. We were… awkward.

For a moment, the two of us locked eyes. I hesitated before giving a slight nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “I know, I can’t just not eat. It’s just… I keep thinking about Avalon and whether they’re feeding her or…” Stopping short, my eyes closed and I gave my head a sharp shake.

He was right though, so I shoved my fork into the food and began to eat mechanically. It probably tasted good. Chef Escalan’s food usually did. But I didn’t really notice. I just pushed the food into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. I also tried not to think about Avalon too much, not that it really helped.

Beside me, Shiori gave me a little nudge, clearly trying to distract me. “Do you know what time we’re supposed to leave?”

“Gaia said about nine o’clock,” I replied. “So not for a couple hours.” Taking another bite, I found myself looking across the room. There were people staring at me, people who had just started to hear some of the stories from Vanessa and Tristan. Word of what had (supposedly) happened to us and the others was spreading. Which meant that some of those stories would soon get to Rudolph and Douglas, who were currently among those staring at me as they stood in the cafeteria entrance.

Right. I needed to talk to them. Before they heard about Isaac and… and all of that from anyone else. I didn’t think that Tristan was talking too much about that part of the story just yet, but still. They needed to hear it from me, not third or fourth hand through rumors.

Unfortunately, I had just decided that when someone else approached the table. I sensed them getting near, but wasn’t sure who it was before he spoke up.

“So,” Zeke announced, “Pretty funny how you disappear for two months, and two minutes after you show up again, Avalon vanishes.”

Shiori started to say something then, but I nudged her while shaking my head at Sean, who had also opened his mouth. Instead, I tightly replied to the boy standing behind me, “The only funny part is that you’ve managed to survive for all this time and still think this is a good time to start your juvenile macho bullshit. Besides,” I added, “Didn’t you spend the whole past year thinking that Avalon’s a Garden spy or plant or something?”

The boy’s response was a shrug. “Maybe I just think that the rest of these guys should be careful,” he drawled lazily, adding a gesture to the others. “Getting close to you seems pretty dangerous right n–”

I was on my feet, the squeak of the chair being shoved across the floor from the force of me standing and turning so quickly barely reaching my ears as I put myself face to face with him. “Do you have something to say, Zeke?” Behind and around me, I heard the others stand up as well. And there were even more people watching us.

Zeke met my gaze, looking briefly uncertain before finding his voice. “Yeah, just that maybe since you didn’t bother to bring Sands back with you, maybe someone else should take care of her sister. Which means getting her away from–”

Wham.

It wasn’t me. As Zeke doubled over with a cry from the fist that had been firmly planted in his stomach, I belatedly realized that I wasn’t the one who had hit him. Instead, it was Scout. The other girl was there, having stepped between us to punch the boy.

“Nobody takes care of me,” she informed Zeke, even as he clutched his stomach and took a step back, still doubled over. “I’m quiet, not an invalid.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Reid Rucker, the second-in-command of the security team behind Professor Kohaku, called out as he approached quickly. “Something wrong here?”

By that point, Zeke had mostly recovered. He opened his mouth like he was going to say one thing, but hesitated while thinking better of it. In the end, the boy just muttered, “Isn’t there always?” Then he pivoted and stalked off.

“You guys okay?” Rucker asked, looking to Scout first, then to me, before turning his attention to the others. “We don’t have a problem or anything, right?”

“No,” I answered. “No problems here. No more than usual.”

He took a moment to get the same general answer from the others before nodding. “Right, no problems then. Although, if that problem were to come wandering back over running his mouth again, it may behoove you not to hit said problem in front of so many witnesses. Even if that problem does so richly deserve it.” Leaning a bit closer to Scout, he lowered his voice. “I got enough work to do around here. I don’t need the paperwork, you know?”

Scout nodded, and the security man stepped away, moving to talk to another table. The tension lowered a bit, and Sean spoke up. “You girls really okay? Zeke’s just a carechimba who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. “But he’s not wrong about Sands and the others still being out there. And…” Slowly, I looked over toward where Rudolph and Douglas were while taking a deep breath. “… their teammates deserve to know what’s going on.”

“You want some help?” That was Columbus, standing beside his sister.

“I…” Considering that for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, maybe you guys better come. I’ll talk to them. I’ll tell them the truth, but maybe you should be there.”

“When you say tell them the truth,” Sean started hesitantly, “how much of it do you mean?”

For a few seconds, I didn’t answer. My eyes dropped to the floor, as I considered before lifting my gaze once more. “All of it,” I replied.

“They deserve to know all of it.”

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Desperate Times 36-02

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“So how do we do this, exactly?” Standing on the beach of the lake next to the large raft that had been summoned for this specific purpose, I looked over to Theia. Somehow, I managed to tamp down the anger that I still felt at the fact that she hadn’t just told us what we needed to know before any of this had happened, before Avalon had been abducted. As true as it was, lamenting that or getting pissed at the girl wouldn’t help or accomplish anything. So I focused.

We had split up into those three groups. I was a part of Professor Dare’s group, at her request. She had also requested Theia. And since Abigail was going wherever Theia went, she was there too. Finally, rounding out our group were Scout and Shiori.

Tabbris wasn’t with me right now. I had assured my partner that I would be okay and that she should stay with her mother and siblings. And with my dad. Yeah, he was going to help look around, just in case his super bullshit perception and analytical ability that should have been classified as a superpower actually noticed anything.

That was Gabriel’s group: Sariel, her three children, and my dad. And as worried as I was about the idea of Tabbris and my father going somewhere without me, them being with both Gabriel and Sariel was pretty much the very best case scenario, as far as that option went. Prosser wouldn’t let anything happen to them. And with Sariel’s help, they were about as safe as they could be.

Finally, there was Deveron’s group, which consisted of himself, Columbus, Sean (with Vulcan of course), and Koren when they had left. Plus, they were planning on meeting up with Seller (whom I still hadn’t seen since getting back) and Miranda before they got too far. Again, with Seller and Deveron together, I had to trust that they’d be as okay as they could possibly be.

Koren had considered going with our group to be with her mother. But in the end, she’d hugged the woman, saying that our group was large enough and that she thought she could help ‘Grandpa Dev’ even more if she went with them. Yeah, I didn’t think Koren was ever going to get tired of teasing Deveron by calling him grandpa whenever she could get away with it.  

So, that was our three groups. And now, our group was standing next to this raft on the lake.

Stretching up on her toes, the Seosten girl looked toward Dare. “You made the coin like Theia-I said?” she asked while carefully and pointedly cracking her knuckles with a loud pop.

In response, Professor Dare held up a single golden coin between her thumb and index finger. “Just like you said,” she replied before flipping it to her. “Tell me if I missed anything.” She had been the one to enchant it rather than Theia herself because Dare was quicker with magic and we didn’t have time to waste.

Giving the coin a once over, Theia nodded. “Yes,” she announced easily, with a toothy smile, “it’s ready. This is the key. Except it’s a coin. Coin key.” Pausing as if considering her words, she finally nodded before gesturing onto the boat. “All aboard that’s going aboard.”

Shiori took my hand, and I squeezed it while stepping onto the raft with her. The magicked-up creation was sturdy enough, rocking only a little on the water as our weight settled on it. The others followed suit, and soon the six of us were all there on the raft. Still holding that coin, Theia waited until we were all set. Then she tossed the little metal desk to the floor of the raft, and we all watched as it melted into the wood, disappearing.

Then the raft started moving, seemingly by itself. The boat slowly began to work its way across the water towards the middle of the lake, as if driven by invisible oars. As it moved, Shiori squeezed my hand a little tighter while leaning up to whisper quietly into my ear, “We’ll find her.”

I was still afraid. God, was I ever afraid. I was utterly terrified about what they might be doing to Avalon, to my girl. But having my other girl here with me helped a bit.

Ugh. That was still a weird way to think of it. My girls. I was proud of them, ecstatic that the two of them even wanted anything to do with me in… well, in that way. But it still felt awkward to try and refer to them as… as my girls. But they were. Shiori and Avalon. My girls. And I was their girl. Weird as it might have felt to try and describe or define, that’s what we were.

Either way, the point was that the anxiety, anger and everything else I felt at the thought of what Avalon could have been going through then was tempered just a little by the presence of Shiori. She grounded me, made me feel more human and more… capable at the same time. Feeling her hand in mine, hearing her voice, knowing she was there, it made an awful, horrific situation just a tiny bit better. It let me breathe a little more, let me focus on what we needed to do.

Abigail was looking at me from where she had carefully sat down to avoid the rocking of the raft as it moved. Her voice was quiet, cleary concerned. “Felicity,” she started, “are you sure you’re okay? You’ve been through a lot today, you must be exhausted.”

My head shook slightly at that. “I’m okay,” I replied. “The Amarok power, it uhh, it’s working overtime. But I’ll be fine. It’s Vanessa and Tristan I’m worried about. They’ve been going for a long time too. And… they’ve been through a lot of emotional stuff.” To say the least.

The other woman gave a slight nod. “I’m glad they’re with their mother, and with Mr. Prosser.”

“He doesn’t like being called Mr. Prosser,” Dare informed us absently, her gaze on the water in front of us. “He prefers Gabriel. Even Prosser is something he’s… accepted over time but doesn’t exactly love. It was the name of his… owner during his days as a slave. He’s mostly taken the name as his own, and understands why people use it, but just Gabriel is best. And definitely not Mr. Prosser if you can help it.”

Wincing, Abigail quickly acknowledged, “I’ll remember that. I… think I called him Mr. Prosser about a dozen times, but he never said anything about it.”

“He’s not the type to,” Dare replied quietly, before straightening. “We’re here.”

Wait, what? Blinking, I looked around. Whoa. She was right. I hadn’t noticed anything happening, my eyes and brain had never actually consciously acknowledged the moment when we had magically moved from the lake to some other water. But it had happened. At some point, maybe when I had blinked, we had disappeared from the lake by the Atherby camp and reappeared on a much larger body of water. Ahead of us was an island with a large, fairly spacious-looking cabin set up against a small grove of trees. It looked peaceful… and empty.

Sure enough, after closing her eyes briefly with a look of concentration, Dare shook her head. “No one,” she announced quietly. “The island is empty.”

That wasn’t even the least bit surprising, of course. But I still let out a low sigh. It would’ve been completely beyond shocking if we had just happened to come straight to where Manakel was holding Avalon. But still, the fact that it didn’t happen made my stomach twist up into even more of a knot regardless. No matter how unlikely finding her that easily had been, I’d apparently been holding onto at least a tiny bit of hope for it.

Scout, who had been far more characteristically quiet this entire time, finally spoke up as the raft reached the simple wooden dock that extended from the beach. “Is there any way to know when they were last here? Or when anyone was here?”

Shaking her head, Dare stepped carefully up onto the dock, pausing for a moment to make sure things seemed safe enough before she gestured for us to come as well. “Normally,” she replied, “yes, there would be ways. But now I wouldn’t trust them. Not with people like the Seosten. They know how to cover their tracks too well.”

The thought that the Seosten were good at covering their tracks didn’t bode well for our chances of finding something here we could use to track down Manakel and Avalon. But it wasn’t like we had a lot of other options at this point. We had to give it a shot, unlikely as it may have been.

The rest of us joined Professor Dare on the dock, before the woman held up a hand to stop us from going any further. Her eyes were squinting ahead suspiciously. “Traps,” she murmured.

“Oh yes,” Theia brightly confirmed. “Manakel does enjoy his traps. And zombies. Those too.”

My eyes rolled at that, even as I snarled, “One way or another, I’m going to have one less asshole necromancer fucking with my life soon.”

So, Abigail, Scout, and I stood back a bit while Dare and Theia worked their way through the apparently numerous magical alarms and traps that had been set to catch anyone who happened to invade this particular Seosten sanctuary. I felt even more anxious and worried with every second that passed, and had to physically stop myself from pressing them to hurry.

Was this how Avalon had felt, sitting around having to wait while I was stuck out in Seosten space? Or was that somehow even worse than this, since she hadn’t been able to do anything to help me? At least I had this search to keep myself busy, to stay occupied. Right now, I couldn’t imagine being in the position that Valley had been. It must’ve driven her crazy.

And now, now right as I had finally gotten back, right before we would have been reunited, Manakel had abducted her. God… damn… fucking Manakel. I hated that son of a bitch.

And I wasn’t feeling too fond of Jophiel and Elisabet in that moment either. If they had known anything about this, if they could have stopped it or at least warned me… would they? Fuck, would they even care? After the way they had introduced themselves, I wasn’t sure.

One thing was certain, however. We were going to have words. I couldn’t do anything right now, of course. My disappearing to go talk to those two would have caused a lot more problems. There was no way that anyone would believe that I wouldn’t be right in the middle of this search.

But the first chance I got… yeah, I was going to talk to those two. And whatever it took, I was going to push them to actually do something about Avalon. Either help Valley, or… or… something. I didn’t know what. Damn it, I didn’t know. But I wouldn’t rest until they did something to help. They had already barely lifted a finger to help us save Sariel. If they wanted us to keep working with them now, they were going to do something in return, goddammit.

Abigail was looking at me, a slight frown of concern touching her face. “Flick,” she started hesitantly, “are you sure you’re okay to be here right now? I–” She winced then. “I know, you won’t sit out, not with Avalon involved. But if you need to sit down or something until we’re ready…”

My head shook at that. “Thanks,” I murmured, not wanting to snap at the people who cared about me no matter how anxious and upset I felt. “But I’m… I’ll be okay. I can’t rest right now.”

Abigail looked like she wanted to say something else to that. But before she could, Professor Dare spoke up. “We’re through. It’s safe now. They’ll know we were here, but there’s no avoiding that anyway. Just be quick, but thorough.”

From her pocket, the woman produced a familiar silver and violet orb that fit in the palm of her hand.

“What’s that?” Abigail asked, lifting her chin as she watched the golf ball-sized orb curiously.

“Panoptic Analysis Window System,” I replied, remembering the Heretic device I’d learned about much earlier in my Investigation classes with Dare. “PAWS. It takes a full holographic recording of an area. It’ll even record things that aren’t in the open, like stuff in closets or drawers.”

Nodding, Scout added, “Then you can plug it into one of the display rooms back at Crossroads to and look through the whole area at your leisure. It’s really useful for Heretics to go through a whole crime scene even when Bystander authorities lock everything down.”

Abigail was staring at us with an expression of awe. “Do you have any idea how useful that would be for normal law enforcement to have?” she demanded, sounded pretty openly offended that it wasn’t something that Heretics shared with normal humans. “Do you know how many murders and other horrific crimes could be solved if they had access to something that preserved the crime scene that well? That would completely revolutionize the–” Cutting herself off, the woman devolved into making a few annoyed grumbling sounds about Heretic secrets.

Soon enough, we made our way down the dock and up to the cabin itself. Dare made one last check that everything was clear, then told us to go ahead and look around while she made sure that the PAWS was scanning everything correctly for later.

So, Scout, Shiori and I slowly began making our way through the cabin together, while Abigail and Theia did the same on their own. The place was pretty spacious and luxurious for a cabin. There were three floors in the place, and about a dozen different rooms. Which included a truly impressive dining hall. Manakel had some expensive tastes as far as hideouts went.

All of which meant that there was a lot of ground to cover, so I was really glad that Professor Dare had thought to bring the PAWS. That would be beyond useful so that we could scour every last millimeter of this place, even after we had to leave.

Still, we could look through the live thing right now. So that’s what we did. I even set Jaq and Gus on the floor and had them look around through some of the smaller areas just in case there were any hidden areas that would be too small for us to quickly spot.

Unfortunately (and as expected), there really didn’t seem to be that much to find. There were food supplies, some books that we’d have to look through more thoroughly later, a few interesting-looking weapons, and other odds and ends that might have been interesting, but had nothing to do with actually finding Avalon. There was no letter sitting out with ‘Dear minions, meet me at this specific address when you get a chance. Thanks! – Manakel’ written on it.

Not that I’d been expecting anything like that, of course. But again, it would have been nice.

Eventually, however, we did find one somewhat important-looking door. It was made of some kind of very heavy metal, probably reinforced by magic. Even with my strength, I couldn’t make it budge. But there was a tiny keyhole, and when crouching there, I could peek inside at a roomful of empty metal cages or kennels, like the kind that you’d keep a dog in at the pound. They were each about three feet across by three feet high, and stacked on top of each other in piles of three all along the left and right walls. At the far end of the room there was what looked like a table with some notes piled on top of it.

“We need to get in there,” I announced then, straightening up while looking to Shiori. “You up for a quick sand trip through the hole?”

Scout, however, shook her head. “I can do it.” As both of us looked that way, the other girl held her hand out. A small glowing orb appeared in her palm, before shrinking and reshaping itself into the form of a key. Scout put the key in the lock, then clearly adjusted it a few times, making the thing fit into the lock precisely before she turned it. With a click, the door opened.

“Wow,” I murmured, “now that seems useful.”

In reply, Scout winked at me, her voice soft. “You’re not the only one who got some new tricks while you were gone.”

Together, the three of us stepped into the room. Immediately, I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, God, what is that smell?”

Cringing beside me, clearly affected by her own enhanced senses, Shiori shook her head. “It’s… kind of like… tangy, but also rotten? Like a bunch of lemons that went bad. And also just a bit of, umm… chlorine. Heavy chlorine.”

I felt the approach of a figure who I recognized as Theia. The girl’s approach still made me tense up, looking back that way as she stepped closer. “Mesches,” the Seosten announced. “It smells like Mesches.”

In response to our collective baffled looks, she added, “Mesches block magic sight or tracking. It’s their… their gift? Yes, their gift. If you have a bunch of them in an area, they can make that place impossible for any spell to follow. And also make ongoing spell effects run out faster.”

“Any spell,” I murmured, “including the ones that Avalon has on that are supposed to let us find her. That’s how Manakel’s keeping Avalon hidden and speeding up the clock on those spells. He has a bunch of these Mesches.”

Theia was frowning. “Yes,” she murmured, “but Mesches aren’t that easy to use. They make powerful poisons. Their smell isn’t just awful, they make a poison cloud in the air that does very bad things. Keeping someone near enough to them for the beneficial effect and avoiding any poison problems would be… hard.”

Honestly, the fact that she was actually being this helpful, not making any cracks, and seemed serious about the situation made me believe even more that Theia genuinely felt bad about what had happened. She wanted to make up for it, in whatever way that she could.

Still, she did kind of creep me out a little. It hadn’t been that long since she’d been trying to kill us, after all. It was going to take a little more time for me to totally move past that.

Did that make me a bad person, or a hypocrite? I… I wasn’t sure. I was trying to control my reaction to her. But again… time. It would take time.

Then there was what she had said. Poison. Poisoned air. Somehow, that was important. It was tickling something in the back of my head. But what was it? What…

Shaking it off, I moved through the room to the table at the back end. The cages were all empty, as Manakel had clearly moved his herd or… pack or whatever they’d be referred to as to his new hiding place. The papers were all mostly just confirming what Theia had already said, that the creatures were useful for blocking magic trackers and for speeding up magical effects. He’d been planning this for awhile.

With an inward sigh, I looked up from the papers to glance slowly around the room. Nothing. I had a feeling that there was something important about all this, something that would tell me a lot more, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

What could it be? What was so important about this room, or the animals that had been here, or… or… whatever it was that was bothering me? What was it?  

“Flick?” Shiori was looking at me. “What’s wrong? What are you thinking about?”

Slowly, I shook my head. “I’m not sure. There’s just something… it feels like this should be telling me something, but I can’t… I can’t quite reach it. This is a clue, an important one. I’m just… not sure how it fits.”

With a sigh, I quickly finished gathering up the rest of the papers, tucking them under an arm. “Let’s go see what the others found. And hope that they’ve had more luck than we have. Because judging from the number of cages in here, I’d say that Manakel has a lot of those Mesches things he can use to speed up those protection spells. Which means Avalon is running out of time.”

“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid.”

The voice came from nearby, and I turned to find Seller there. Blinking, I asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be with the others?”

The man with the emerald shades gave a slight nod. “Yes, but there’s been another complication that you should all know about.”

Looking like the last thing she wanted was another complication, Professor Dare ground out, “What happened?”

“It’s the boy, Trice,” Seller replied slowly and reluctantly.

“Someone found a way to break into Gaia’s private dimension and freed him. He’s gone.”

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Interlude 27B – Shiori and Columbus

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter focusing on Dare posted yesterday. If you missed it (congratulations, you get to read the actual edited version without a million typos), you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The room should have been cozy. Small, with a nice leather couch, plush carpeting, and pleasant pictures on the wall along with a wide screen television on the wall (the remote sat on the arm of the couch, waiting to be used), it should have been a perfectly place to sit and wait.

For Shiori Porter, it felt like a prison. The walls felt like they were closing in on her, getting closer with each slowly passing minute. The slightly cool air was somehow stifling, and she could have sworn that there were cameras in the room watching absolutely every move that she made.

She had been sitting there for the past… what felt like forever, but according to her phone, was more like six hours. Not constantly, no. Every once in awhile, those Committee guys, October and Patrick, would pull her into another room to run through the same line of questioning for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time. Did she notice anything off about Columbus, when did she think he’d been possessed by the Stranger who had somehow bypassed all the school’s defenses, did she think there were more of them, and so on and so on and so on. It would end, they would put her back in this room to wait, and then twenty, thirty, or fifty minutes later they’d pull her out again to go through the exact same thing. No matter what she told them, they just wanted to hear more.

Not that she was telling the exact truth. Before they’d pulled her into this interrogation, the headmistress had given her a neat little watch that let her bypass their lie-detecting powers. But Shiori was pretty sure that the Committee goons still didn’t believe what she was telling them.

It was as close to the truth as she could possibly get without ruining… everything. She told them that she didn’t know what the species that had possessed her brother was, only that he had been acting ‘off’ recently and she’d gotten his team to help her investigate. Somehow, the Stranger that was possessing Columbus had found out that they knew, and had launched an ambush that eventually resulted in Columbus being freed of the Stranger’s influence, even as several other students, including a couple of his teammates, were abducted.

That was pretty close. All they really left out was the specific stuff about the Seosten. As far as October and Patrick were concerned, this was some random, unknown Stranger with a possession power. The fact that it had gotten that far, taking over a student and posing as him for months, had obviously sent up a lot of alarm bells.

The trouble was, Shiori wasn’t sure how many of those alarms were because of free Heretics being horrified that one of their own students had been taken over, and how many were Seosten being annoyed that one of them had actually been discovered and exposed. And, well, killed.  

Six hours. She had been sitting here, in and out of interrogations, for six hours. No one would tell her anything except that Flick and several of the others had been… had been… taken. Flick.

Sitting forward suddenly, Shiori caught her hands against her mouth as bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t cry anymore. The fear, the terror of what was happening to Flick, Sands, and the others right then had left her a quivering ball in the corner of the room for the first hour of her time there. She hadn’t even been able to move or answer any questions until Professor Dare stopped in to talk to her for a minute. She’d told her that Flick hadn’t been knocked out or anything. She’d just killed that Charmeine bitch when she and Roxa were taken by one of those orbs. So there was a good chance that they and the others had been ready for a fight when they had arrived. Flick especially, considering she had just taken the power from one of the Seosten.

Which kind of helped, but… not really. It staved off the worst of the panic for a little while. But the thought of even a combat-ready Flick being stuck out there in Seosten space, it… it…

No. She wasn’t going to think about that. She wasn’t going to be a baby about it. Flick and the others, they’d… they’d be okay. They had to be okay. It wasn’t the first time that Flick had been off on an alien planet with a bunch of things that wanted to kill her. And this time, she had a lot more help. Sands was there, and so was Roxa. Roxa, the werewolf who had killed Lemuel.

Plus, there were several members of Roxa’s old team there. Shiori wasn’t sure how much they could be trusted, but surely they would all stick by Flick at least until everyone got back home.

And they would be coming home. Banishment be damned, Shiori believed that between Gaia, Wyatt, Professor Dare, and even that Gabriel Prosser guy, they would find a way to bring Flick and the others back. It was just a matter of time, just a matter of trusting them to get it done.

Or so she kept telling herself. It was the only way she could resist the urge to scream about Seosten in October and Patrick’s faces. And that… well, that would’ve made things even worse.

As worried as she was about Flick and the others, Shiori was even more worried about Columbus. All Dare had been able to tell her in the short time they’d had was that he wasn’t possessed anymore. But she didn’t know what condition he was in, if they were going to let him go, or anything. She’d been here the whole time, desperately hoping that her brother was okay.

Finally, the door opened yet again. But this time, instead of seeing either of the Committee’s stooges, or anyone else that would’ve made her want to scream, it was Gaia who stepped inside. The woman looked worn and ragged, dark circles having formed under her eyes. Honestly, it was that sight that terrified Shiori the most, out of everything she’d heard that day.

“H-headmistress?” she blurted while hurriedly jumping off the couch to her feet, eyes widening.

“I’m sorry, Shiori,” the woman spoke quietly. Her voice was a little strained. “I owe you every apology. I was… occupied with trying to help Avalon and handling several other situations, and I allowed you to sit here, being interrogated over and over again. I am truly sorry. But you’ve been through enough now. Come, that’s enough of all this. It’s time to meet with your brother.”

“It’s… it’s okay,” Shiori mumbled, feeling awkward as she took a quick step that way. Her gaze snapped up at the mention of Columbus. “He.. he’s okay then? Columbus is alright?”

The question actually made Gaia give a slight, soft smile. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “The short answer is that Columbus is no longer possessed and seems to be well, at least physically. Mentally… that may take some time. He will need help, and… you. He will need his sister and friends to help him understand and accept that what happened was not his fault. Be patient.”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly at that. “Y-yeah, of course. And… and umm…” Biting her lip, she hesitated before asking in a worried, soft voice, “What about the others? What about Flick, and Sands, and… and the rest? What–do you know anything else? Please. Please?”

The woman paused, seeming to take a moment to collect herself before shaking her head slowly. “I will be honest with you, Shiori, we don’t know much more. Wyatt has assured us that some of the spells he cast on Felicity are working, even across the vast distance they must cover. He can’t tell us exactly where they are, or communicate with them in any way. But he does know that she is in relatively healthy condition. That is basically all he knows for certain. She is alive, and she is healthy. Beyond that…” she trailed off for a moment, looking away before finishing with a simple, “we are looking for options right now. But I promise you,” the woman spoke more firmly while returning her gaze to Shiori’s, “we will bring them back here.”

Gaia led her out of the room then, walking with Shiori through the hallway of the main school building. As they walked, the girl hesitated before asking, “Um. Did Flick really… did she kill–”

Now the headmistress really did smile. There was obvious pride there. “Yes,” she answered with a slight nod. “The Seosten who possessed Columbus is dead, Shiori. From everything that I have managed to hear, your brother managed the initial blow, before Felicity… finished her.”

“Good.” Shiori looked at the floor for a moment, digesting that before repeating, “Good. It doesn’t make everything better, but… it’s something. I’m glad she’s dead. She–” Anything else that the girl might have said was choked off by the lump in her throat. Finally, she just shook her head, unable to find the words for how much she hated that creature for what she had done.

And yet, even in death, Charmeine still hadn’t fully lost. She’d managed to send Flick and the others off to Seosten space. Even if they were actually upright and ready for a fight, it was still… bad. Bad enough that the queasy, terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach wouldn’t go away.

“What about the… body?” she asked then, as the thought occurred to her. “The Seosten body, I mean. It would be… you know, proof. Proof of everything we know about them. Proof they exist. Proof of all of it. They–” She winced, realizing. “They took it, didn’t they? They took the body.”

Yet, Gaia simply smiled once more. “Well,” she replied casually, “sadly, it seems that whatever creature happened to possess Columbus had the foresight to include some sort of defensive measure to prevent their bodies from being recovered. It disintegrated shortly after Virginia reached it. There was nothing she could do to stop it in time. More’s the loss.”

For a moment, Shiori just stared, confused by the way Gaia’s smile conflicted with her words. Then she understood, her eyes widening at the realization. The body hadn’t actually disintegrated. Dare had made it disappear specifically so that the Seosten infiltrators couldn’t claim it. Now, they had the body and could examine it at their leisure. It might come in handy. It could be proof of everything they were saying later, at a better, more convenient time. Dare spiriting the body away first meant that the Seosten couldn’t make it disappear themselves. And they couldn’t exactly accuse Dare of lying about that, at least not openly. It would mean exposing themselves. Hell, that might have been another reason that the woman had done it, to try and coax any other Seosten infiltrators into giving themselves away by objecting too much.

In other words, the Seosten who were possessing those Crossroads Heretics knew that Gaia and Dare were lying. But they couldn’t exactly call them out on it without revealing themselves. Hell, the Seosten were probably ready and waiting for Gaia to try to call out their existence specifically so that they could discredit her. But the headmistress was too smart to take the bait.

Before they reached the room where Columbus was, Shiori bit her lip and looked toward the woman, starting hesitantly, “I… I’m sorry about what happened to Mr. Carfried. Is… is Professor Carfried okay? I mean, they were related and I don’t know how how close they were, but…”  

Flinching just a little bit (but the fact that it was noticeable at all spoke volumes), Gaia gave a slight head shake before answering. “It will take Benjii some time to cope with all of this. He and his great-great-grandfather were close enough that it was Josiah who recommended Benji to fill the position of first-year magic instructor this year.” She sighed then, lamenting, “I am afraid that the man somehow blames himself for not being there to help when Josiah needed him.”  

Shiori’s head shook quickly at that. “What? Why would he–” She frowned. “He couldn’t have stopped them, even if he was there. I mean, if Professor Dare was there and couldn’t stop it, then… then there’s no way that he could have. I mean, they were ready for almost everything. They took everyone by surprise. Professor Carfried couldn’t have stopped them.”

Gaia smiled faintly, giving a slight nod at that. “No,” she agreed, “he could not have.”

Shiori was just starting to get the suspicion that this wasn’t entirely about Professor Carfried when the headmistress stopped in front of a door. She gestured to it. “Take your time, Shiori. When you are both ready to come and face the world again, there will be time to sort everything else out. For now… go and see your brother. We will take care of the rest in time, I promise.”

Shiori didn’t need another invitation. She immediately moved to push the door open, stepping into what turned out to be a small, private library of some kind. There were several rows of bookshelves, a fireplace, and a leather chair next to a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the grounds. It looked like a place for a teacher, maybe Gaia herself, to relax and read in peace.

And standing with his back to her right there in the middle of the room, staring through that window with his goggles held loosely in one hand, was Columbus. He clearly heard the door open, but didn’t move. He was focused solely on that window, his gaze slightly bowed.

“Columbus!” Shiori blurted from where she stood. For a moment, her feet felt like they were caught in cement. She couldn’t move. Seeing the boy there, knowing that it was really him and not some stupid Seosten bitch looking out through his eyes, it was completely overwhelming.

Slowly, the boy turned around. He was looking at the floor before his gaze slowly raised to take her in. She saw him gulp, hand briefly tightening on the strap to his goggles before he dropped them entirely. “Shy-guy,” he breathed out, starting to take a step before stopping himself. He looked awkward, uncertain, even afraid of her response. He looked completely and totally lost.

He was frozen, so she forced her own feet to move. Crossing the short distance between them, Shiori immediately grabbed onto her brother, hugging him tightly. Her arms slipped around the boy and she clung to him with a weak little sob that blurted its way out of the girl. “Columbus.”

She felt the boy stiffen under her embrace before he relaxed just a bit. An unfamiliar noise escaped him, and he breathed out. Making no move to actually return the hug, he spoke in a hoarse, quiet voice. “Shiori,  you’re…” He trailed off, clearly unable to say what he wanted to.

Swallowing hard, the girl slowly raised her own gaze while leaning back to see his face. “Columbus, I–” Shiori flinched as the thought came. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I’m so, so sorry.”

The surprise on the boy’s face could not have been any more complete. His mouth literally fell open. “I–what?” he managed to croak out a bit weakly. “What are you–why are you… huh?”

She met his gaze earnestly, staring up at the boy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it wasn’t you until… until Flick told me. I had no idea. I should’ve. I should’ve known. I’m sorry, Columbus. I’m so, so sorry. You must’ve felt like–you must feel like I betrayed you, or… or like I didn’t know you.”

He stared down at her in flat astonishment at that. “Shy–you… you’re not…” His head shook then, and Columbus immediately caught onto her hands. “Shiori, I’m not mad at–you should be mad at me!” he blurted the words loudly. “I’m the one who couldn’t fight her, couldn’t stop her! She could have–she–she threatened to–and I couldn’t… I never… I could never–” His voice cut off, and the boy shook his head even more, snapping it back and forth violently. “I’m sorry.”

“You were possessed, you big idiot!” Shiori blurted, before snapping her hand against her own mouth with a horrified look. Blanching, she stammered muffledly through her own hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I–” Lowering her hand, she managed a weak, “you were possessed. It’s not your fault. It’s not even close to your fault. It was… it was her.” The last word came as a growl.

“She’s… she’s dead.” Columbus’s voice made it sound as though he was still trying to convince himself of the truth of that. “Charmeine. She’s dead now. Dead for good. Gone.” He kept repeating it, like he needed to hear the words over and over in order to make them real.

Shiori gave a single, firm nod. “She’s dead, Columbus. She’s gone. You and Flick, you made–” Her voice caught a bit, and she had to swallow hard before forcing out the words, “You made sure of that.”

For a moment, both siblings simply stood there, staring at each other. Both felt awkward, uncertain, and confused about what they were supposed to say, what they could say.

Finally, Shiori shook off her own confusion and uncertainty about the situation. She didn’t matter right then. Columbus mattered. He needed her. He needed reassurance. After everything he’d been through… everything that bitch had made him do…

“Columbus.” That time, her voice was firm. When he looked back to her eyes, Shiori spoke simply. “I love you. You’re my brother. You’re always gonna be my brother. None of what happened, none of it’s your fault, okay? None of it. You… you’re the best brother in the world. You accepted me when you found out the truth about my… about my mom. You accepted me immediately, you big dork. You’re…” She choked up a little then. Flick would’ve known what to say. Flick could’ve made him feel better. All Shiori could do was stammer and babble a little.

But at least she could say the most important thing. And she’d keep saying it for as long as it took.

“I love you, Columbus. I love you. You’re my brother. You’re my family.”

For a moment, the boy said nothing. He just stared down at her, a series of tumultuous emotions playing across his face. Finally, he lowered his head, tears springing to his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to do any of that. I didn’t–I couldn’t–I… they’re dead. She made me kill them, kill him… she made me–she would have… I couldn’t–” Anything else that he might have said was cut off then as his throat closed up.

Shiori took him by the hands, squeezing tightly before guiding the boy over to sit on the oversized stuffed armchair. It was big enough for the two of them to squeeze in next to each other, which reminded her of all the Saturday mornings spent in the recliner at home when they were kids, first watching cartoons and then playing video games. Simpler times.

“We know,” she finally replied in a soft voice, still squeezing the boy’s hands. “We know, Columbus. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault.” She reached up then, tugging him down. And, despite their difference in size, Columbus fairly collapsed against her. His head fell against her shoulder, and Shiori hugged onto him. She held the boy against her, swallowing a little roughly. What did she say? What could she say that would magically make it better after everything that had happened? What words even existed that could help? Maybe… maybe two words.

“I’m here. I’m here, Columbus.”

It was almost ten minutes before either of them spoke again. Sitting there in that chair, thinking about easier times, younger times, it left them both silent until Columbus finally spoke. “… I did try. I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to–I didn’t want to do any of it.”

“I know.” Shiori’s voice was soft. She leaned back, watching her brother for a moment. “Columbus, you were–how… how long?”

He flinched at the question, hesitating before giving a soft, weak answer. “Since the airport at Thanksgiving, while I was waiting for you guys.”

Shiori’s eyes widened, and she made a horrified sound in the back of her throat. “Th-that long? You–you–oh. Oh my God. Columbus, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Biting his lip, Columbus rubbed the back of his head. “Can… we just put a moratorium on apologies for now? Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we’ll be in here all week.”

Flushing a little, Shiori gave a tiny nod before pausing. The thought of all that Columbus had ‘missed’, or rather, what Charmeine had been puppeting him through, it was… staggering.

“I… umm… I don’t suppose you know who the other Seosten are?”  she asked, trying to change the subject.

His head shook. “No. Trust me, that was the first thing Gaia and Dare asked me. Charmeine always either knocked me out or wiped my memory when she had to meet with anyone else. Her boss, that Manakel guy, he insisted on it, just in case.”

“Stupid competent evil jerk,” Shiori muttered darkly. Then she looked up to him again. “What about… Mr. Carfried? If Gaia and Professor Dare made the Seosten body disappear, are… are the Heretics gonna try to… to come after you for what happened to him?”

Columbus shook his head once more. “The headmistress said that they have eyewitness testimony from Scout, Rudolph, Douglas, Avalon, and Sean that I was possessed and that they saw the Stranger who was possessing me leave my body. They can’t prove ‘giant Seosten conspiracy from the very beginning of Crossroads’, but they can prove that there was one Stranger possessing me to make me… to make me do that….” He swallowed hard. “.. that stuff.”

Putting her hand on top of his, Shiori asked hesitantly, “Do… do you know anything about where they sent Flick and the others? Or… or…”

He finished for her. “How to get them back? I’m sorry, Shee. I don’t know. I wish I did. I…. Charmeine wasn’t much for technical explanations. She didn’t share that kind of stuff. She bragged a lot, threatened even more. But telling me details like that? She didn’t really go for that.”

Inwardly, the girl flinched. But she tried to hide it. Columbus already felt bad enough about everything. And he had been there for her, so damn it, she would be there for him.

“I know you’re probably tired of talking about… about all of that,” she noted quietly, “but would you mind answering one more question for me? Then, I promise, we can just sit here and not talk about it for as long as you want.”

“One question?” The boy blinked at that before nodding. “Sure… what is it?”

Shifting in the seat to be closer to her brother, Shiori straightened and looked straight at him before asking her question.

“How good did it feel to blast that fucking bitch straight out the window?”

The question made Columbus blink again. Then he gave a brief, almost choking laugh. It wasn’t a lot. But it was something. His arms wrapped around her, hugging his sister to him.

“I love you, Shiori.”

“I love you too, Columbus.”

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