“I can’t believe you guys were dealing with this for like, the whole year, and I didn’t know anything about it.“
As she spoke, Rebecca Jameson looked at two of her teammates, Koren and Shiori. All three of them were sitting on the long wooden dock that lead out over the lake at this campsite they had come to. “You must think I’m pretty oblivious, huh?”
Koren snorted, shaking her head. “You’re not oblivious. I mean, we were keeping secrets from full power Heretic adults. If they didn’t figure it out, you shouldn’t feel bad.”
Shiori nodded. “And we had help from Gaia and the others. You didn’t have anybody helping you figure stuff out.”
“Figure stuff out…” Rebecca echoed that quietly. Sitting there with her legs hanging off the edge of the dock, the diminutive girl bit her lip before looking at Shiori. “That’s what happened at the beginning of the year, isn’t it? When you were all quiet and upset. It’s because you found out that you’re… a… vampeel?”
“Dhampyr,” Shiori corrected. “Dhampyr have one human parent and one vampire parent. Vampeel have both vampire parents.” She hesitated before adding, “My sister was a vampeel before she became a full vampire.”
Rebecca‘s head shook quickly, as she clamped her mouth shut tight while trying to come to terms with everything she was hearing. It was all coming too fast. It was too much. She just couldn’t handle everything. The information that had been shoved into her head by that spell, the subsequent realizations that had come to her, the things she was hearing now from her teammates, any of it alone would have been too much for just a couple of days. All of it together was just… insane.
She found her voice then, managing a quiet, “But that’s what you were so upset about before?“
Again, Shiori nodded. “Yeah, it’s not a lot of fun to find out that your mom is one of the so-called monsters that you’re supposed to be training to kill. And that you’re probably one of them too.” The last bit came in a very soft voice that was barely audible. Then she straightened a bit. “But Flick helped me. It’s a long story, and it’s about going to another world to help these giants. And then… yeah, it’s really long. I’ll tell you about it later. But the point is, she helped me figure out that I wasn’t a monster.”
Koren coughed. “Yeah, Aunt Flick’s good at that.”
That made Rebecca blink, looking at the brunette in confusion. “Aunt?” Then her eyes widened as the realization came. “Wait, are you saying that one of those twins from that story, the ones that…”
Koren nodded. “My mom. She’s Flick’s big sister. Joselyn’s oldest daughter. I know, it’s weird. I think they—” She paused, frowning. “Wait, why can I tell you that? The… huh. The spell that stops us from telling people exactly who they are must’ve broken with the Revolution eraser when Flick did that thing, I guess.” Frowning uncertainly, the girl shook that off. “Anyway, yeah, Joselyn. She’s–”
“My middle name is Joselyn,” Rebecca suddenly blurted, unable to contain herself. Her eyes were wide as she pushed on. “My grandma chose it. My grandma who went to school at the same time as that Joselyn. And she even spelled it that way, with an S instead of a C like it usually is.”
Looking to the other two, she hurriedly continued. “I was curious about Grandma‘s life at Crossroads, about what her life is like. So I tried looking it up awhile back. But the records barely mention her. Like she didn’t do much the whole time she was there. And she didn’t have a roommate. Like, through all four years, she never had a roommate. At least, that’s what the records said.”
“Joselyn,” Koren agreed. “She was your grandmother’s roommate. She had to be. And if she made your middle name Joselyn… they were close. That’s probably why they erased most of the things she did. When they erased Joselyn completely, most of what your grandmother did had to disappear too.”
Cringing in on herself, Rebecca looked down at the phone sitting in her lap. “I need to talk to my parents, and to my grandma. But they’re not answering. I’ve tried like twelve times, and they haven’t sent anything back, or answered. What do you think is wrong? Do you think the Crossroads guys went after them already? Do you think—”
Shiori’s hand found her shoulder, squeezing. “Hey, we’ll figure it out. They might just be busy getting out of there, you know? They got hit with some pretty big memories too. Your grandmother is probably still dealing with remembering Joselyn.”
Rebecca pushed herself to her feet, the tiny girl shoving her phone in her pocket as she straightened. “We have to find them. We have to find my parents and my grandma. We can’t just sit here doing nothing. If Grandma Lillian was so important to Joselyn, Crossroads is going to go after her, right? I mean, they know the rebellion is coming back and all that, so they’ll see her as like… an obvious target. They’ll take her, and throw her in a dungeon like they did Joselyn, and they might—”
The single word interruption came from further back on the dock. Rebecca turned that way quickly, seeing the girl standing there. The second she did, her Stranger sense started screaming at her, and she reflexively grabbed for her backpack, the one that transformed into a cannon. Then she stopped short. “Wait… you’re…”
Shiori stepped past her quickly, gesturing to the other girl as she came forward out of the shadows. “Rebecca, this is my big sister, Asenath. Asenath, this is my teammate, Rebecca. She’s still trying to get used to this.”
Asenath nodded, taking a step closer with both of her hands open and out, palms showing. “It’s okay, Rebecca. I wouldn’t have interrupted, but I was checking on Shiori, and I heard what you were saying. You’re right, your grandmother was close with Joselyn. They were best friends.” She pointed to her own head. “I was part of the rebellion before, and I’ve been remembering things all year. Things that were erased. And I remember Lillian. She and Joselyn were best friends, and they’d do anything for each other. I mean, they were close enough that your grandmother chose Joselyn for your middle name even though she was erased. That’s how much she meant to her. They couldn’t erase that entirely.”
It wasn’t exactly news that made Rebecca want to jump for joy. Her fear just redoubled. “So they will go after her. If she was that important, they’ll definitely try to grab her.”
It was pretty terrifying, how quickly she’d gone from loving Crossroads and everything that being a part of it meant, to fearing what they would do to her family. And it gave her some idea of what people like Shiori had gone through.
Asenath’s head shook. “I’m not going to let that happen, Rebecca. Trust me, I have plenty of experience in finding people. As long as there’s a chance, I will find your family. I owe Lillian a lot. I’ll get out there, figure out where she is, where they are, and bring them back here. I’ll let them know where you are.”
Shiori did a quick double take, stepping that way. “But it’s going to be dangerous. If Crossroads is really after her, they’ll have Heretics looking. Full Heretics. It’ll be too dangerous to go by yourself.”
“She won’t be by herself.” That announcement came as Deveron stepped into view on the dock. He moved beside Asenath. “I remember Lillian too, and I am not about to let those assholes hurt her, or her family.”
Rebecca stared at the boy, mouth opening and shutting. “You remember… What?”
With an incorrigible grin, the boy held a hand out to her. “Hi, nice to meet you. Joselyn is my wife. The twins are our kids. I’ve been posing as a teenager to keep an eye on my family and find a way to get close to that piece of shit Ruthers, which I did by having my memories erased for awhile last year. But I got them back for this year. And all my powers from most of a century of fighting in Jos’s rebellion.”
“Oh.” Speaking that single, soft word, Rebecca slowly sank back down. “I think I need to sit for a minute.”
Deveron pressed on. “Asenath’s right. We won’t let your grandma be taken by those bastards. The two of us, we’ll track her down, and the rest of your family. We’ll get her back here, okay? Lillian was my friend and my teammate. She’s my wife’s best friend in the world. I’m not going to let a damn thing happened to her.”
Swallowing hard, Rebecca looked up at him, her voice quivering a little. “You promise? I mean, I know you can’t really promise that nothing will happen. You can’t control the world. But you promise you’ll try to get them? You promise you’ll help?”
Crouching down there in front of her, Deveron met Rebecca’s gaze. his voice was solemn. “Rebecca, I give you my word, I will do absolutely everything in my power to bring your family back here. And I won’t rest until they are safe with you. Okay?” He extended a hand to her.
Rebecca took his hand and shook it, murmuring a soft, “Okay.”
Then she stood, stepping past the man to stand in front of Asenath. Her voice was quiet. “You’re a vampire.”
The woman gave a single nod, watching her. “Yes.”
Almost ten full seconds of silence passed then as the two stared at one another, Rebecca‘s mind spinning a dozen different ways. Everything she wanted to say, all the fears and doubts that she had, everything tumbled back-and-forth in her head through that long silence. Finally, there was only one thing she could say.
“Please bring my family back.”
Sariel was floating. A vast, unending ocean surrounded her on all sides as she lay spread eagle, her gaze directed toward what would have been the surface if there had been an actual end to the water. But there was nothing to see, no light, no land, nothing but dark emptiness that stretched on forever. Her world was empty, a void that went on into infinity, leaving the woman questioning whether there had ever actually been anything else.
Yes. Yes, there was more than this. There was her family. She knew they existed. They were real, tangible, living beings. They weren’t figments of her imagination. Most of them weren’t, anyway. She was pretty sure that she had made up a few in her head, and had imagined entire long lives with them during these times of loneliness.
These times? This time? Was there more than one? She had the feeling that there had been interruptions. Interruptions by that woman whose face came swimming into her mind. A face that was always the same, with its hateful, glaring eyes. Was she real? Were faces real at all? If they were real, were they… right? Did she remember where eyes and noses and mouths went? Did food really go in the mouth? Was skin really that color? Were there really multiple colors? Which one was right? What color was she? How many fingers did she have? Fingers. Hands. Toes. She knew those words. She knew where they went, how many there were. At least, she thought she did. Everything was… fuzzy.
How many dreams had she made up through all of this? How many of those dreams were real memories? How long had she been lying in this void, her mind forced into this nothingness, this sanity-killing emptiness by her captor?
Kushiel. That was the name of her enemy, the name of the woman who had so thoroughly imprisoned her. The name and face came and went with her sanity. Sanity that faded more rapidly every time she was shut in this void and left for her mind to wander.
It was a spell. She knew that much. Kushiel messed with her mind by shutting her in this void, leaving her mind trapped floating in this empty ocean with nowhere to go, nothing to see, nothing to focus on. And because that wasn’t enough, that spell also altered her perception of time. It could make her think that one minute had passed when it was actually a month, or stretch what was actually a single hour out into years. Years spent floating in this place, making up stories in her head. Stories that fought with her true memories until she had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. Decades passed in her mind, while only minutes or hours passed in the real world. Or days. Days and decades, did she have that right? Was it the other way around? Which word meant what? It all jumbled together. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t talk to anyone. Years would pass in her head with no one to talk to, nothing to save her from the soul-crushing emptiness and solitude.
And yet, she would prefer this punishment over others that the woman had invented. Being lost in this void was nothing compared to other things Kushiel had done. She had pushed virtual reality scenarios into Sariel. Scenarios which forced her to see her family being killed in so many different ways. She had witnessed the torture and death of her husband and children more than a dozen different ways. She had screamed herself hoarse until she tore something in her throat. She had lost and failed over and over again to save them, never succeeding, always seeing them die. Then she had woken up, and realized that it was only another forced dream brought on by the monster for her own petty amusement. For revenge.
Or was it? Some days Kushiel told her that they were fake memories, that her family was out there and had forgotten her. Other times the woman told her that they had been killed, that one of the memories she was implanted with was the truth, but she would have to figure out which one. Other times she was told they were still prisoners and that Kushiel was putting them through the same thing. And still other times, Kushiel made her believe that her children were being taught to hunt and kill everyone she ever cared about. She changed her story all the time. Purposefully, of course. That made it harder for Sariel to keep her own thoughts straight. It tormented her more.
She didn’t know what was true. She didn’t even know for certain which children were real and which ones she had made up in an attempt to cling to her sanity. Sometimes she almost thought that nothing was real. Her mind would have given up entirely, collapsing under the weight of these attacks on its psyche, if it wasn’t for one thing. One thing that Kushiel couldn’t touch.
Tabbris. Tabbris was real. That was one of the only touching stones that Sariel had. Tabbris was the only thing keeping her from losing herself completely. She was a single light in the vast darkness. Because Kushiel didn’t know about her, she couldn’t mess with Sariel’s memories about her. That memory, the memory of her tiny, innocent little girl, was enough to stop Sariel from going completely insane after being subjected to all of this. Tabbris was her lighthouse, her beacon.
Tabbris was her savior, in so many ways. Her existence was something that Kushiel didn’t erase or throw doubt on, because she didn’t know she should erase it.
And yet, was she even still alive? Sariel didn’t know. Not for certain, anyway. Her only true source of hope in that regard was the fact that Kushiel had not taunted her about the girl. Sariel had no doubt that if that vile, evil woman ever actually knew about Tabbris, she would not hesitate to use that information to torture her. She used everything else she knew about Sariel to cause as much pain as possible. Whether they caught the girl or not, simply knowing about her would make Kushiel torment Sariel with stories about her imprisonment or death. The fact that the woman remained completely silent about her proved that she knew nothing as far as Tabbris was concerned. And that little bit, the knowledge that Tabbris existed and was out there, was enough for Sariel to hold onto her hope. Hope that kept her somewhat sane through all of this. That alone provided a focus for her to cling to in the storm of this emotional torture.
But hope or not, she was still trapped here. Trapped in this emptiness with no one to speak to, no one to tell her what was right or wrong about her memories. She couldn’t help the family like this, could not save the people she cared about from the monsters that were out there. She could do nothing like this. Nothing but float here in the ocean with her thoughts, her doubts, and her fears. Fears that threatened to suffocate her soul the way this ocean would have suffocated her body if it had been real. She was alone. And at this point, there was a not-insignificant part of her who wondered if she had ever truly not been alone. Was any of her old life real? Or was she always like this. Was she always floating here, alone and empty? Was there anything else in the world? Was this the universe?
Tabbris. Tabbris was real. She had to hold onto that. It kept fading, as she almost slipped from the single buoy that was her daughter’s existence. She had to cling to that single bit of certainty. Because if Tabbris was real, then the rest of it was also real. She had to be. It had to be. She had to hold on to her sanity. She had to hold on. Even as the ocean threatened to tear her mind apart with it’s eternal emptiness. Hold on to Tabbris. Hold on to her little girl. Nothing could tear that away from her. She would hold onto it, hold onto… onto… her.
Oh Void, she wanted to. She wanted to hold her little girl. She wanted to hold her children so badly. It was a physical ache deep in her heart. Please. They were real. They had to be real. They were alive. She couldn’t live in this world or any other if they weren’t alive. She would gladly spend an eternity in this void if she could just know that they were okay, if she could just hold them one more time. Please, let her hold them once more. Let her touch their hair and smell their soft skin. That was all she really wanted. Her children… her husband. Her family. She needed her family more than she needed her next breath. Please, please…
At first, she thought that she had thought the word herself. Yes, she was a mother. She was a mother of such beautiful, wonderful children. Wasn’t she? That was real, right? She didn’t make that up. She couldn’t have. This ocean was so empty, so quiet, she was—
Sariel’s eyes opened under the water. But there was nothing to see. Nothing but vast ocean in every direction. There was nothing for her to see, and nothing for her to have heard. Her mind was playing tricks on her again. Or maybe the tricks were coming from Kushiel. Either way, it wasn’t real. She was as alone now as she had ever—
Something appeared in front of her then. No, someone. His form was hard to make out in the darkness as he caught hold of her arms, shaking her.
Mom, wake up! Snap out of it! You’re okay, you’re alive! Mom!
Her drifting, dreary mind focused. Her eyes narrowed and she truly saw the boy in front of her. Truly saw him, and truly knew him.
Tristan. It came to her mind that easily, that swiftly. She knew the boy in front of her even though she had not seen him for a decade. Even though she had last known him when he was a small child. She knew him, knew her son.
But that was wrong. He couldn’t be here. The realization crushed that tiny budding bit of hope that had only briefly appeared. This was simply Kushiel trying to destroy her once more with yet another glimpse of hope that would be snatched back and destroyed in the worst possible way.
She saw pain flash across the boy’s face then, his mouth opening and shutting in front of her before he whispered, It’s real, Mom. I’m here. I promise. Just… just hold on. I’m gonna get you out of this. I’ll get you out. Trust me, Mom. Just… just trust me.
He reached out to her then, his hand touching his mother’s face gently. A myriad of emotions passed through his eyes then. If she had believed he was real, the look in those eyes would have made her cling to him. But he wasn’t… He wasn’t real. She wouldn’t fall for that again. Not this time.
The boy moved. His arms wrapped around her. He was holding her tight, and Sariel’s mouth opened under that water in a sharp gasp.
Memories. They rushed from the boy into her. He shoved his thoughts into her head. Thoughts that were real. They were too complete to be fake. She saw everything. She saw what he had been through. She saw how far he had gone, and how he had found his way back to Earth. She saw his reunion with his sister, the friends he had made, the things he had done. She saw how he had come to Seosten space, how they had found the facility where she was being kept. She saw where they were, what had happened, and the danger they were in. She saw all of it.
Everything, in that moment, became real in a way that it had not been for so long. Her sense of self, of purpose, of sanity, came roaring back thanks to her son. She knew where she was, she knew who she was, and everything that was happening. Her son was here, right here with her. He was real. He was alive. And he was here.
Her arms moved. She put them around him, holding onto her son tightly in that… dream world. Her mind. They were in her mind. She understood that now, in a way that had been more vague and uncertain only moments earlier. He was there with her. He had… he had recalled to her. He was there. Right there. She could feel his presence, as it dragged her out of the drifting, vague void that she had been lost in. If the thought of Tabbris had been an anchor that kept her from floating out to be lost forever, Tristan’s presence pulled her completely out of the water entirely.
Out of the water. It was gone. The ocean had disappeared, and Sariel was no longer floating. She was standing, she and her son together. The vast emptiness had been replaced by a room… their living room, she realized. It was the room of their home, back before… everything. It was the last room they had stood in before Puriel had arrived.
Perhaps that was a room that should have held bad memories, given everything that had gone wrong. But it didn’t. Being here, even if it was a facsimile, felt right. It felt safe. She felt truly at home here, in a way that cleared more cobwebs from her mind.
“Mom.” Tristan spoke out loud, his voice cracking just a little. “Mom, we found you.”
A little shudder ran through Sariel at the sound of her grown son’s voice. She made a soft noise of amazement, hugging him tighter while giving his hair a slight sniff. “My son,” the woman whispered. “My son. You’re alive. You’re okay.”
“Mom.” Leaning back, Tristan stared at her. “Mom, I’m gonna get you out of this tube, okay? I’m gonna wake you up and get you out. Just hold on for a second.”
They embraced once more, and then he disappeared, withdrawing from her mind. For a moment, the rush of fear threatened to come back, like a tidal wave that was barely held back by a swiftly crumbling dam. The fear of being alone again, of this being yet another trick by Kushiel to destroy her hope, crept into her mind despite her own firm assurances to herself that he was real. Yet every small second that passed allowed another crack to appear, and more of that cold, dark water began to fill the room while the furniture began to fade away along with the light itself to leave everything cold and dark once more.
“No.” Opening her eyes, Sariel looked to the cracks along the wall of the room where water had begun flooding in. She focused, and the water vanished, along with the cracks. The light, which had been gradually fading, returned. The living room was restored to the way it had been.
“You will not win, Kushiel. My son is here. My family is here. I am not lost.”
As she spoke those words, Sariel felt a rush of air on her skin. A sudden, almost blinding light came from above, as if the roof of the room was being taken aside. And as she looked that way, head tilting back to stare up at that light, the woman woke…
She was in a tube. The same tube that Kushiel had sealed her into, leaving that hateful woman’s face as the last thing she had seen, with the promise that it would be the first thing she saw when they arrived at their destination.
But Kushiel had been wrong. Because it was Tristan who was staring down at Sariel as her eyes opened. His beautiful, amazing, wonderfully living face wore an expression of worry and also hope as he spoke quickly. “Mom? Mom, please, you have to help Nessa and Flick. Please–”
She sat up. Breathing out, Sariel pulled herself out of the tube. Her arm extended before slamming back to crash into the tube, shattering the glass in it. Taking one piece of broken glass in each hand, she nodded to her son. “Go. I’m right behind you.”
She wanted to hug him and never let go. She wanted to cling to him, weep and plead with him to be real and to stay with her. But there wasn’t time for that. Vanessa needed her. Tabbris needed her. Felicity needed her. They all needed her right then. And she would be there for them. Finally, after everything that had happened, after everything she had been forced to sit aside for, she would be there.
She would save her children.
Flashing a quick, relieved smile, the same smile that she knew from so long ago on a now-grown face, Tristan pivoted and sprinted toward the open hatch of the ship. As Sariel followed, leaving the broken tube behind, she thought of the void, of floating alone and lost in that empty place. She thought of being taken away and cut off from everyone she had ever cared about.
And then she thought about just how furious Kushiel was going to be that she had escaped, that her children had saved her. And that thought actually made Sariel feel better. Good enough, in fact, to smile just a little as she followed her son, her pace growing more assured with each step.
Kushiel wasn’t here. But her soldiers were. Her soldiers were here, trying to hurt those children, Sariel’s children, and the child of a woman she deeply respected.
They were hurting children. And they were about to learn just how much of a mistake that was.