Sovereign

Learning Days Daze 2-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, after we were done eating that afternoon, Avalon, Koren, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I met with Aylen at the park. The rest of us were sitting on the grass, watching as the part-Reaper girl paced back-and-forth in front of us, looking more frazzled and unsure of herself than I had ever seen her. 

I wasn’t sure why she was so nervous about us meeting her family. Did it have anything to do with the fact that she still chose to hide her true heritage? Most hybrids around here felt safe enough by now to reveal what they were. But Aylen was still posing as a normal Heretic student, despite the fact that she wasn’t actually a Heretic at all. Her power-gain abilities came from the Reaper side of her genetics, much as her crow form came from the other side. But we knew all that, so what would she be nervous about when it came to us meeting her family?

Avalon spoke up carefully. “Aylen, you know that we all have personal issues and traumatic secrets in our families. Whatever it is, no one’s going to hate you.”

I saw a brief smile cross the noble-looking girl’s face, as she raised her gaze to watch Sovereign glide across the top area of the domed environment. “Still, you’ll understand why I’m a bit… apprehensive once I tell you. Which I’ll do, just as soon as they get here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, but the other girl’s timing was pretty perfect, as two figures came into view just then, approaching us.

“Professor Dare?” Vanessa started, “and… umm, Guinevere?”

“Just Gwen is fine,” the woman who had posed as Harper through almost all of last year replied. It was still seriously weird to look at her. She was still Harper, just older, a woman who appeared to be in her twenties rather than a teen girl. The pigtails I had always associated with her were now a pair of tight braids that fell down her back. The hair that had been dyed pink was now almost fully brownish-blonde, with just a little hint of pink in the braids that helped me see more of Harper. 

Dare was looking curiously to Aylen. “Gabriel is a bit busy right now, but he said he will meet us tonight.”

I blinked at that. “Wait, as in Gabriel Prosser? Okay, what’s going on? Now you want Professor Dare, Gwen, and Prosser to come with us to this dinner?”

Tristan’s head bobbed quickly as he rubbed the head of Bobbi-Bobbi, who was draped over his shoulders. “Yeah, what’s with bringing the army along? Are your moms really that terrifying to guests?”

The two women looked just as curious, even if they didn’t say anything. I had the feeling they wanted to know what the deal was as much as the rest of us. Which made me wonder what she’d said to them in the first place about coming to this thing. 

For a moment, Aylen didn’t say anything. She just took in a breath before looking to the adults. “Could we get a privacy bubble, please? I mean a really good one. It’s important.”

Whatever doubts they may or may not have had, Dare and Gwen didn’t hesitate to take her seriously. Both formed layered privacy spells, which I had no doubt would be basically impossible for anyone to eavesdrop through. Between the two of them, that was a hell of a lot of power put to making certain that whatever Aylen was about to say stayed between us. 

Still, she didn’t speak right away. The girl stood there, hands clenching and unclenching a couple times. She stared at the ground, as though working herself up to this. No one moved or tried to rush her. We all wanted to know what was going on, but it had to come out in her own time, even if I couldn’t stop my mind from racing about what she could be about to tell us. I had a lot of wild thoughts. What if one of her mothers was related to Fossor? What if she was a clone of Litonya? What if she knew where Arthur was? What if she was Arthur? 

Now I was just getting silly. But my mind wouldn’t stop racing with various wild thoughts about what this might be about. After the year that we had just been through, this really could have been absolutely anything. 

Finally, Aylen let out a long breath and spoke. “What I’m about to tell you is a really, really big secret. And when I tell you, you’re probably going to freak out a little bit. Or a lot. But I really need you to keep listening, please. I need you to hear all of it before you start losing your minds too much. I just need you to know that my family and I would never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. My grandfather, he’s… different, and you’re going to have to let me explain that.”

Dare took a few steps that way, her voice gentle. “I know you’re nervous, Aylen. But it’s okay, we’re going to listen, I promise.”

As if she was ripping off a particularly stubborn and painful Band-Aid, Aylen looked up to meet Dare’s gaze, the words popping out in a way that seemed to surprise even her. “My grandfather is a Fomorian.”

Well, that bomb went off and physically rocked everyone. I saw Dare actually take a reflexive step back, while everyone else gave soft gasps. Well, most of us anyway. Beside me, Avalon quietly murmured, “That’s what I thought.” Seeing the incredulous looks the rest of us gave her, she offered a one shoulder shrug. “After everything that happened last year and what she already knows, there were only so many possibilities. A connection to the Fomorians was my best guess.”

Rebecca spoke up then. “Wait, wait, wait. I don’t understand. You can’t be… I mean you’re not Fomorian. You’re not. You’re part Reaper and part werecrow. There’s no Fomorian in there. Wha-what?” She sounded like she was pretty close to hyperventilating. Which, given she had grown up knowing about everything those monsters had done, was fair. 

And speaking of people with plenty of reason to freak out, Koren was on her feet. It looked like she didn’t know what she was doing there, whether she wanted to run away or at Aylen. Her voice trembled. “What are you talking about? You can’t be related to them. They’re all evil. I mean, I know what this whole school is about and everything, but still. It’s the Fomorians. Their whole thing is being evil monsters. You can’t have some kind of connection to them. Do you know the things they do? Do you know how many civilizations they’ve completely wiped out? Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of genocides they’re responsible for? They’ve wiped out half the universe!” She was getting louder with each word. 

Tristan spoke then, gesturing between himself and his sister. “And our mom’s species has enslaved the other half, you know. She’s different. Tabbris is different. So is Uncle Apollo, and a bunch of others. If there can be enough good Seosten to be an entire section of their populous, then why not one Fomorian who is different?”

Koren shook her head at him. “You don’t understand.”

The boy slowly stood, head tilting. “I don’t? I spent years with Grandpa Nick, traveling all over the universe on his ship. We saw world after world after world that was hit by the Fomorians. When I was fourteen, I tried to help a little girl with purple skin and these glowing white braids. She was so scared and I told her we were there and she was going to be okay, and do you know what happened? She exploded because of a genetic bomb that the Fomorians planted in her. She exploded when she was hugging me. She blew up and I spent three weeks in the infirmary dealing with the infection that almost killed me. They saved me from the infection, but they couldn’t save me from that memory, and I still have dreams about it.

“So don’t tell me that I don’t understand. Because I do. I know exactly what they’re like. I saw world after world of examples of what they’re like. I know them better than almost anyone here.

“But I also know that the entire point of everything we’re doing here is that not everyone has to be evil just because others like them are. The entire point we’ve been trying to say this entire time is that people should be judged by their actions, not the species they come from. But if we’re just going to say that it’s completely impossible for a Fomorian to be good, before even listening to Aylen? Then we might as well just pack this whole thing up and go back to Crossroads. Because we don’t really believe it.”

Vanessa had moved to stand behind her brother, putting a hand on his back as his voice grew more emotional throughout that. He finally quieted, while Dare cleared her throat, glancing toward Gwen briefly before nodding at Aylen. “I believe he summed it up better than I could,” she said in a soft voice with clear emotion behind it that I was sure only Koren and I had any real inkling of the reasoning behind. “It’s okay. Keep going. We’re listening.”

Aylen did so, biting her lip before pushing on. “Nothing I told you before was a lie. One of my mothers is a werecrow, and the other is a half-Reaper. Her father is the Reaper that Crossroads uses to power the Heretical Edge. But he didn’t raise her. Neither did her mother. We don’t actually know what happened or why she was alone, but she was. She was on her own as a tiny little girl, until Grandfather found her. 

“We all call him Grandfather. I don’t think he has any other name, at least not one that we can pronounce. He’s a very old Fomorian, like… really old. And he’s not like them. He’s not like them at all. He’s the one who stole humans from the rest of his people to begin with. He’s the one who brought human ancestors here to Earth to begin with. He sabotaged their whole project, make sure they couldn’t make any more humans, and set up this whole world to try to keep us safe. I know that’s really hard to believe, but—”

“The traitor!” The words came from both Koren and me. The two of us glanced to each other before I quickly pushed on. “The Hiding Man, the Fomorian who… who killed Koren’s dad. He told us about this guy! He told us about a Fomorian who betrayed his entire species and stole the human project to bring it here. They hate him. They loathe him. He’s like the Benedict Arnold for their entire species.”

Beside me, Avalon murmured a quiet, “Victor Benedict probably wouldn’t like that comparison.” 

Aylen gave a faint smile. “That’s Grandfather alright. He sort of… made me. He took samples of both my moms and put them together. and he did some other stuff too. The point is, I’m both their kid and sort of a combined clone or whatever? With some other bells and whistles that even I don’t know everything about. Grandfather likes to tinker.”

Finally speaking up as she lifted her chin, Gwen asked, “And now he wants to meet, after spending the entirety of human history in the shadows?”

“Stuff is happening,” Aylen replied. “With all this that’s going on, and… other things, Grandfather says that you should meet and talk. He can warn you about some things, and explain some other things.”

Dare’s voice was careful and measured. “What makes him so different? Do you know why he’s not like the rest of his people? What could possibly make him turn against them. Because if this is true, he’s the only one I’ve ever heard of like that.”

Gwen nodded. “Same here. I’m pretty curious too. I mean, I am in for meeting this guy anyway, because… a good Fomorian? This I’ve got to see. But still, what do you know?” Coming from her, it managed to sound less like a demanding interrogation and more open curiosity. 

Finding my way to my feet, I put in, “Yeah, Aylen. I think you’ve got us all convinced enough to at least go through the meeting, even if some of us are going to be pretty freaked out the whole time, but if there’s anything else you could tell us so we could maybe understand a little more?” Rebecca, in particular, still looked really uncertain about this. Koren was more mixed ever since she and I had simultaneously realized that the girl was talking about the Fomorian traitor. She still looked torn, but not exactly like it was completely abhorrent. 

Aylen, in turn, nodded. “I can. It has to do with the place the Seosten call Tartarus.”

Vanessa blurted, “The empty universe with that energy that gave Mom and the other Olympians their powers?”

“Yes,” Aylen confirmed. “A long time before the Seosten ever found it, the Fomorians did. They found a way into it and they sent one of their best scientists inside along with a collection of minions, genetically engineered creatures that were basically like guard dogs. These creatures barely had any intelligence of their own, and the energies in Tartarus messed with them first. It made them stronger, meaner, gave them powers and took them out of the Fomorian’s control.”

She took a breath then, and I had the feeling this was the first time she’d ever told the story herself. But she had clearly heard it plenty. “The mutated guard dogs attacked the Fomorian. They destroyed the thing he was using to tether himself to his own world and left him stranded there. He managed to kill them, but he was really badly injured in the process. One of the minions managed to rip part of his head off. Literally, it took off a big chunk of his skull and brain. And not just that. It went all the way down through a third of his head and into his neck and then out under his shoulder. All of that was just cut off, including his arm. But Fomorians are tough enough that he survived.”

Rebecca managed a weak, “He survived having a third of his head, part of his neck, and his arm ripped off in one big wound?”

“Like I said,” Aylen replied, “Fomorians are tough. Plus he had a little help. That energy in Tartarus started regenerating them. Both of them.”

I blinked. “Both? Wait, you mean the three quarters of his body that was still intact and the one-quarter that was on the ground?”

She nodded. “Exactly. The part that was standing up realized that his other part was regenerating too. He freaked out and tried to stop it, but the one on the ground, that was mostly just an arm and part of his head, fought back. It was regenerating the whole time, so there was this little barely forming body while they were fighting. They fought and they got separated. Geographically, I mean. The other Fomorians found the one that was rebuilt from just part of the head and the arm. His body had completely re-grown by then, so they didn’t know the difference. They went in to find out what he discovered, and he escaped.”

“The one you call Grandfather,” Dare murmured, sounding completely taken aback by all of this. 

“Yeah.” Aylen hesitated then, before continuing. “When he regenerated, something changed. He doesn’t know if it was just because he only had a third of his brain left or what, but he didn’t think the way they did anymore. He felt things like remorse, and pity, and… and love. He loves his creations. Us, I mean. Humans. His original self was one of the lead scientists on that project and suddenly, this version of him actually cared about what happened to us. 

“First, he knew that Tartarus was dangerous, so he destroyed everything they knew about how to reach it. He wiped it all out so they could never get there again. I don’t know exactly what he did, but he’s pretty confident they can never open the portal to get there. Then he stole all the samples for humans and all the other regular animals here on Earth.”

“Wait,” I put in, “all the other animals?”

“Well, a lot of them.” She looked to me. “That’s why there’s so many Alters all over the universe who kind of or really look like animals here on Earth. They started out as Fomorian experiments based on those species. It’s also why humans don’t Heretic bond with Earth-native animals, because they’re Fomorian experiments. Or they started that way. They were the ancient ancestors of the animals we know now. Grandfather mixed them in with the animals that were already here. And from that point, they’ve intermixed so much over the millennia that the genetic lines are indistinguishable. There’s so much of the Fomorian-creations in them that humans can’t bond with them, just like they can’t bond with Fomorians themselves.”

“But we can still get powers from most of their creations,” Dare pointed out. “Not from the the Fomorians themselves, but from the things they send after us. Trust me on that one.”

“Yeah,” Aylen confirmed. “It’s the specific creatures from that lab. Humans were designed to be incompatible with them from the start, and the Fomorians can’t make new creatures that are incompatible with humans because Grandfather destroyed all their human research and samples. He also sabotaged any attempt they could ever make at resuming the process.”

My mouth was opening and shutting. It was all I could do to keep this straight. “So he destroyed their experiments, stole all the samples, and came here? And now he’s been here on Earth just watching us this whole time? That’s… that’s…”

Avalon spoke up. “He’s hiding for a reason, isn’t he? His other self.”

With an audible swallow, Aylen confirmed, “His other self got out at some point. We don’t know what happened or how long he’s been around. But he’s been trying to find Grandfather because he wants to re-combine with him. Believe me, that can never happen. It would be apocalyptic bad. Grandfather basically has all the cheat codes for the human genetic line. If his other half manages to join with him and take over, he could basically control all humanity. All of it. Everyone with even part human blood would be under his control. Everyone in the universe.”

To the side, Gwen quietly remarked, “Well, as long as it’s nothing too serious. Here I thought learning about the only good Fomorian would be cupcakes and rainbows.”

Aylen’s voice was somber. “Grandfather said that if it would save his creations and the universe, he’d destroy himself to make sure that never happened. But he and his other half have matching Tartarus Energy in them. He says that if he dies, everything in his brain will go to his other half. So destroying himself isn’t an option. Because that would just give the other him everything it wants anyway.

“But now he’s afraid that things have happened, that the other him is making moves. So he wants to meet you guys, because there might be a time in the future when he has to ask for help.” 

Clearly finished, Aylen shrugged. “I… know this is a lot. Really. A lot lot. So… I’m just going to step away and let you guys talk for a minute. You probably have things to discuss. Just let me know when you’re ready to go.” With that, she stepped out of the privacy bubble, leaving the rest of us to look at each other. 

Which was the exact moment I felt a sudden familiar presence in my mind. Hi! Tabbris blurted happily. 

What’d I miss? 

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Learning Days Daze 2-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next morning, just as the simulated sun came up (if it was the real sun poking through, we’d all be dead), I was out jogging around the neighborhood. There were others who were up and moving around already, some of them waving to me or talking a bit. But mostly, I was left with my own thoughts. Which was how I wanted it. We were going to be busy in classes soon enough. For this short time, I really needed to clear my head somewhat so I could focus. Running helped with that. I could mindlessly jog along the sidewalk, letting my mind wander.

The night before, Tabbris and I had tried again to summon or contact Rahanvael’s ghost. But it hadn’t amounted to anything. We put the call out and she didn’t answer. I’d try again until she did, but I had to admit that it was a little disheartening to get absolutely no response for so long. 

It didn’t matter. I’d keep trying until we pulled her in again. If she was for real, and judging by everything the best magic-inclined people I could find could determine, she was, then she was the biggest chance I had to find out something useful about Fossor before the time limit was up. 

I was going to look for more necromancy books, and ask Brom where I might find some that were useful as far as calling to ghosts from other worlds and possibly anchoring them here on Earth went. It was yet another project to work on, but a really important one.  

Pretty soon, it would be time to head to breakfast with the others. So, I started looping back around to head for home. As I plucked the bottle of water from my belt and took a sip, a nearby whistle caught my attention. Turning while slipping the cap back on the bottle, I saw a tall, caucasian boy with long, bright red (clearly unnaturally dyed or magically colored) hair. He was leaning against a tree. Nearby on that same tree, a cyberform owl perched, head turned toward me. The boy waved, making it clear I was the one he was trying to get the attention of. 

As soon as I took a step that way, he started with, “Holy shit, I am so sorry. That was stupid. Whistling, I wasn’t… I mean, I wasn’t trying to… you know, whistle like that. I was trying to get your attention, but not with the–you were running and all and it wasn’t–shit. Yeah. Sorry.” 

Blinking at that, I shook my head. “It’s okay, I can kinda tell the difference between ‘hey, you’ whistles and… that kind of whistle. Don’t worry about it. Um. I don’t think we’ve met, though.” 

“We haven’t,” he confirmed. “My name’s Gambol. Well, that’s my Garden name anyway. Not sure if we’re still supposed to use them or… whatever, it’s better than my real name, trust me.”  

“Gamble?” I echoed curiously. “Where’d that come from, are you really into cards or Vegas or something? Or are you from Vegas? Cuz I have a lot of questions about that place.” 

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No, not that kind of gamble. Gambol, b-o-l. And… why do I always correct people on that? The version they assume is so much cooler.” With a sigh, he informed me, “Gambol, it means to… eeeehhhh… frolic around. You know, skip and play.” 

Covering my mouth, I coughed while giving him a look. “Your Garden name is basically ‘frolic’, and you actually correct people who think it’s the betting money version?” 

He raised his arms, spreading them out helplessly. “I know, right? You’d think I’d learn at some point.” Sighing once more, the boy rolled his eyes exaggeratedly before adding, “Anyway, now that you know my cool warrior name is all about dancing around in a field of flowers, possibly with a crown of daisies on my head, you’re Chambers, right? The girl that ahhh, Flick, was it?” 

“The girl that Flick, yup,” I confirmed. “That’s me. Why, what’s up?” I added the last bit curiously. 

“Well, first of all,” he started after a brief hesitation, “you totally helped erase that damn spell that made everyone forget genocide might be a bad thing. So thanks for that. It’s actually… kinda nice to know that there’s good people out there besides humans. Cuz the other way is ummm, pretty lonely if you think about it for a second. Size of the universe and everything else is evil?”

“There’s plenty of evil things,” I murmured before nodding. “But yeah, everyone besides humans being monsters who want to kill us all does seem like a pretty lonely way of thinking. But really, it was Gaia who did most of the work. She had the idea, she set up the spell and everything. All I did was follow her instructions. Hell, I didn’t even remember doing it at the time. She took it out of my memory so I wouldn’t think about what I was doing and give it away.” 

“She uhh, she’s still a prisoner, right?” He sounded hesitant. “The old Crossroads Headmistress? That’s what people keep saying anyway. Some people said she died back during that escape, but mostly they say your Committee is keeping her locked up somewhere.”  

“Unfortunately,” I replied with a slight nod. “They’re working on it, but… the Committee’s got her locked down pretty tight. Obviously. Especially after that attack we made on the prison a couple months ago. I mean, she wasn’t there to begin with, but after that they really went hardcore in keeping her secure. Last I heard, they had her prison off-planet and it keeps moving around.”

“Shit, they really don’t want anyone getting her out,” the boy muttered before shaking himself. “Err, yeah, sorry. Probably none of my business. Hope you get her back though. And not just because she’d be really useful.” Again, he hesitated, looking awkward for a moment before heaving a sigh. “Right, the real reason I wanted to talk was to umm, to apologize for my sister.”  

Well, that was unexpected. Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry? Who’s your sister and why are you apologizing for her?” I was trying to think of any girl Garden student I had a problem with. The only one who came to mind immediately was Pace, and that was before we knew she was possessed (and we’d even settled things with Theia). Plus, she was Latina and he was white.

“Oh, right, you haven’t… I mean I don’t think you…” Wincing, Gambol gave a vague gesture. “It’s actually your friends… or… whatever they are who met her. Miranda and Karen?” 

“Koren,” I corrected. “So your sister did something to Miranda and Koren? I don’t–wait…” Something was tickling my memory when he mentioned that, something I tried to repress.

“Yeeaaaah,” he drawled reluctantly. “But trust me, you’re the one who deserves the apology. My sister’s name is Josie. She and her boyfriend and his other girlfriend Kumiko were sort of…” 

“Oh my God.” My face was red by that point. “They’re the ones that–I mean she was the one that– Oh God.” Right, I knew who Josie was now. Koren and Miranda had mentioned that there was some trio at Garden, the jackass named Weston (whose Uncle had nearly killed Pace before Roxa finished him off) and his two girlfriends. Two girlfriends who happened to be very deliberately fashioning themselves to look like parody versions of Shiori and me for… reasons that made me seriously want to saw open my head and fill my brain with bleach for thinking of.

Wincing when he saw that I’d realized what he was talking about, Gambol offered, “Yeah, like I said, sorry. She used to be a pretty good person, I swear. Then she fell in with that Weston creep and keeps getting worse. I don’t know how he convinces her to do half the shit he does, it’s just… it’s dumb and I’ve tried to talk to her but she won’t listen. Which… I know people have to make their own choices, but she’s sort of my twin and I feel responsible for the shit she does.”

My head shook. “Don’t worry about it. Yeah, it’s pretty freaking gross. But I seriously have a lot bigger things to focus on. So… whatever. I’m gonna guess that she didn’t come with you?”  

“Hell no,” he confirmed. “Believe me, we had a whole fight about it and everything. I tried to drag her away, which… in retrospect, was pretty stupid. She’d never have stayed, and they probably would have sent her back anyway as soon as they realized they couldn’t trust her. But still.” His voice trailed off at the end, as he looked to the ground with a sigh. 

“She’s your sister and you wanted to get her out of there,” I finished for him. “Not to mention getting her away from Weston. I get it. Maybe you’ll be able to talk her into it later.” 

“Here’s hoping,” he agreed before waving a hand. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that. You know, before anyone else happened to bring it up. So yeah, I hope you can get Gaia out of prison.” 

“And I hope you can talk your sister back to her senses,” I replied. “Not only because her cosplay bullshit makes me feel super, incredibly, unbelievably gross, but also because she’s your sister. So good luck.”

“Thanks.” Giving a little wave, he stepped back. “I’ll let you get back to your run. And ahh, probably see you in class at some point, I guess.” 

With a wave, I headed off once more, moving a little faster than before. Yeah, I needed to shower before breakfast. 

And not just from the run. 

******

After cleaning up and having breakfast with some of the others in the kitchen, I headed out with Tabbris. The two of us got to the elevator before I squeezed her hand. “You ready for this, partner?” Even though I’d known it was coming, the idea of separating to go to different classes only really struck me just then. This was more than just doing separate things for awhile like we’d done during the summer. This would be the first time since I was a kid that I would regularly be going to school without someone riding shotgun in my head. Even if I hadn’t actually known about her for most of that time, there was still something big about that. 

It wasn’t just me, either. Tabbris looked my way as we stood by the elevator and gave a hesitant nod, gulping. “I umm… I think so?” she offered weakly, clutching my hand tightly. “I kept thinking it was a long time away, y-you know? Even yesterday. I was thinking it’d never get here. This morning, it felt like… it felt like it’d never really happen. But it did. We’re here, and… and…” 

“Don’t worry, sis,” I assured her. “You’ll be great. And then we’ll have stories to share.” Offering my fist for her to bump, I added pointedly, “Besides, it’s not fair for me to hog all your awesome for myself. Hell, I’m pretty sure it’s not even physically possible, you know? That’d be like trying to hold all the heat of a volcano. And, well, it’s not like you’ll be alone up there.” 

Her head bobbed a bit. “I know. There’s the other kids up there. Like Richton and Meley.” 

“Well, them for sure,” I agreed before reaching into my pocket. “But you’ll also have someone else to help make sure everyone’s safe.” Producing Herbie, I held the rock out for her.  

Eyes widening, Tabs shook her head quickly. “What? I can’t take him. You–he’s yours.” 

“He’s ours,” I insisted. “And he can take turns keeping us safe. This is your first time going to class by yourself. If I can’t be there with you, he can. Trust me, he’ll make sure everything’s okay. You carry him this week, I’ll carry him next week.” Smiling, I pressed him into her hand. 

Hand closing around our incredible, handsome, daring and brilliant bodyguard, Tabbris gave me a solemn nod. Her voice was a very quiet, somewhat shaky whisper. “Thanks, Flick.” 

In response, I embraced her. “I love you, little sister. We’ll meet at lunch, okay?” 

Returning the hug as tightly as she could, Tabbris nodded against my shoulder. “Uh huh,” she murmured before adding a quiet. “I love you too, Flick.” 

We separated, just in time for the elevator we were waiting on to arrive. And it wasn’t empty. The forcefield lowered, revealing two people whose ears were probably burning right then. It was Richton and Meley. Plus, Kisea and Demeas were with them. The four young Seosten blurted both our names, before Meley sprang over to embrace Tabbris with a happy meep. 

“That’s funny,” I teased the others, “I didn’t know you guys had your classes down here.” 

Demeas, who somehow looked even more like a miniature viking than he had before (despite being too young to have a beard) by apparently putting on a little more muscle over the past few months, shook his head quickly while retorting, “We came to bring Tabbris to class!” 

“And what class is that?” I asked while giving the boy a look up and down, “How to train a dragon?” 

The red-haired boy’s eyes widened dramatically as he blurted, “You know how to train dragons?!” That, of course, got the attention of the others, as well as some people passing by to use the elevators. 

Feeling a slight flush touch my face before using my power to shift it away self-consciously, I corrected, “No, no, it was just a joke. I was referencing a–never mind. We’ll show you the movies later. Shouldn’t be that hard now that we’re on Earth. Or, well, close enough.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “You all set then, Tabs?” 

She gave me a brief, hesitant look before nodding. “See you at lunch?” Her voice was hopeful. 

“Definitely at lunch, partner.” Giving her a thumbs up, I waved them off. “Go on, have some fun, learn things, do whatever you’re supposed to. I’ll muddle through school all by myself.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Jaq and Gus to each crawl up out of my backpack. They perched on either of my shoulders, shooting me betrayed looks. 

“Ah, hey boys.” Reaching up carefully with either hand to rub their heads, I pointed out, “I know you’re here, but you can’t cheat and give me the test answers inside my head.” 

Indignantly, Tabbris blurted, “I never did that!” 

“And see where we are now?” I primly retorted before winking. “Go on. We’ll be fine. You and Herbie go show everyone else how awesome you are.” 

With a still-hesitant but somewhat better wave, Tabbris set off back up the elevator with the others. I stood there, waving up at them for a few long seconds before pausing with my arm up. Head tilting, I squinted after the departing elevator. “Wait, shit, I’ve gotta use the elevator too. What the hell am I doing?” 

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice called, “why are you waving at the elevator?” 

Turning, I looked over as she, Doug, Aylen, and that Ruckus guy (the Alter who looked like several metal slinkies all stuck together, with eyes that were glowing red orbs poking out of the head slinky) approached. “Oh, sure,” I sniffed, “I’m Flick when we’re being all friendly and stuff, but Chambers when I look ridiculous.” 

“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” she replied coolly, though she was unable to stop the slight smile that quirked her lips upward for a moment while trying to keep her voice flat.

One who didn’t make the slightest attempt to keep his voice flat was Ruckus, who basically launched himself my way. He didn’t literally crash into me, thankfully. He just bounced forward, practically flying into the air from his slinky-like feet and legs (which apparently acted like springs), traveling the fifteen feet or so that separated us in an instant before landing in front of me. The metal coils that were his arms popped up, some kind of metal fingers that amounted to smaller, tightly wound springs extending to take my hand with both of his. He was shaking it up and down rapidly. When he spoke, it all came out in a rush. It was like every sentence came as one word, with breath pauses only between those sentences. “Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh! It’ssogoodtomeetyou! Iknowhoyouare! You’reJoselynAtherby’sdaughteroroneofthem! That’sawesomemydadusedtobepartoftherebellion! NowheisagainIguessandIgettocomehere!” 

Stepping up beside him, Doug put a hand on the coil-boy’s shoulder. Or what there was of one. “Easy, Ruckus. Remember what we said? Slow it down a little bit.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured them, looking back to Ruckus. “Your dad was part of the old rebellion?” 

His head bobbed up and down very fast, creating the sound of metal coils rapidly clanking against each other before he added a quick, “Heremembersyourmomnowandwantedmetosayhehopesyoufindher.” 

Swallowing, I offered him a little nod. “I hope we find her too. Tell your dad thanks, and I’m glad he made it back. Does that mean Alters are remembering the rebellion too?” The spell from Gaia hadn’t specifically targeted them. Targeting Heretics through the Edge had been hard enough. 

It was Aylen who answered. “When the Rebellion eraser spell was broken for the Heretics, it damaged it enough for everyone else that it’s been fading for months.” 

“I guess that makes sense,” I murmured. “Asenath and Twister started remembering things right after they interacted with me. So it must’ve been kind of flimsy that way.” 

The elevator arrived, and we stepped on to head up for breakfast. On the way, Sovereign, from his spot on Aylen’s shoulder, made a soft, pointed noise. 

“Oh yeah,” the half-Reaper girl started, “I got word from my mothers. They’re finally on their way back from whatever they were doing. They should be home in a couple days. So if you guys are ready to meet them…” 

“Ready?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow toward her. “Of course we’re ready to meet your family.” 

She met my gaze while the elevator reached the top of its ascent. “No, you’re really not,” the girl informed me. 

“But it should be fun anyway.” 

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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Summer Epilogue 12 (Heretical Edge)

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“So that’s why I wanted to tell you about it alone,” Flick announced to Virginia Dare, just after explaining the entire situation with Jophiel and Elisabet, as well as the more recent revelations, as the two of them stood out in the forest a bit away from the camp. “Now that the spells stopping us from talking about it are gone, I wanted to… to tell you myself. So we can talk about it without talking around all the other stuff that no one’s allowed to know.”

With a faint smile while her eyes remained contemplative, Dare replied, “You mean the fact that I’m your grandmother, so I might feel especially outraged at what those two want to use you for.”

Biting her lip, the younger girl nodded. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” She hesitated then, looking to the woman directly. “Sorry we couldn’t tell you about it before. But, I kind of figured that if anyone was going to understand magic stopping us from talking about something, it would be you.” She ended that with a kind of sheepish half-smile, trying to break the potential tension.

Raising an eyebrow at that, Dare was quiet for a moment before heaving a long, low sigh. “A part of me wants to confront them, yes. For whatever little good that would do. But, on the other hand, as you said, they could have done much worse. And their intentions are… if not totally pure, at least along similar lines as our own. We don’t always get to pick our allies, and it sounds as though their goals and ours are at least within similar… ahhh, zip codes, as it were.” Lifting her hand, she laid it on Flick’s shoulder and squeezed. “If this Jophiel has already taken a few steps from ‘only Seosten are worthy’ to ‘Seosten and humans are worthy’, it feels like a better idea to keep pulling her toward ‘all species are worthy’ rather than shoving her off the bridge entirely just because she’s not quite to the end of it yet.”

“That’s a… a good point,” Flick agreed, looking over to the woman while reaching up to put a hand over the one on her shoulder. “I also thought you’d be mad that they weren’t doing more to get Gaia out of the Crossroads prison. I mean, part of me is kind of mad about that.”

“Yes, well…” Dare hesitated before murmuring, “there is a bit of that. But on the other hand, I highly doubt even a full Committee member could simply release Gaia, given everything that’s happened. If they were to push too far, they would blow their cover with both the Committee and their own people. As much as I want Gaia back, I can’t blame them for being more cautious.”

She looked to Flick pointedly. “They have already helped you in aiding Sean, after all.”

Quickly nodding, Flick confirmed, “Yeah, they were the ones who helped get Apollo in so he could start helping Sean stay… you know, sane.” She hesitated then, before adding. “I… I could go in with him, you know. I could possess Apollo and let him pull me in to talk to Sean.”

“You could,” Dare agreed, glancing to the girl curiously. “Are you going to?”

“Yes.” Flick spoke instantly before pausing with a wince. “Soon. I just… want to have something to tell him about how we’re going to get him out of there. I don’t want to tell him that we don’t have any ideas. I feel like that would make things worse, somehow, you know?”

“Felicity,” Dare started, then hesitated. Her voice turned softer. “Sometimes it’s good just to know someone is thinking about you, even if they don’t have all the answers. If you want my suggestion, go with Apollo. Visit Sean. Just the fact that you’re there, that you take the time to visit him, could make a world of difference in his… psyche. Having Apollo to talk to will help, of course. But one of his friends showing up? That’s even better. Even if you can’t get him out.”

“Good point,” the girl agreed softly before kicking at the dirt. “I guess I also feel bad. I mean, we can’t help him except for this. We have no idea how to get him out. And I feel like… we escaped and he didn’t. I don’t know how to look him in the eyes with that. I can’t tell him that we can get him out, only that we’re trying. And we’re not even doing that twenty-four seven. I’m… I’m having fun with Avalon, Shiori, and the others. He’s in prison constantly, and I’m just… every time I think about him and remember that we don’t know how to get him out, I feel like a… a traitor because I’m not burning down the world to try to get him out. I feel helpless. And then sometimes I don’t feel helpless because I stop thinking about it, and that makes it worse when I do think about it.” She was half-flailing by the end before folding her arms tight against her stomach. “I feel like a shit. I should have found a way to get him out of there by now.”

“I wish I had a better answer for you.” Dare’s voice was quiet, as she stepped around in front of Flick, adding a second hand to her opposite shoulder and squeezing with both. “I wish I knew how to get him out of there, just as I wish I knew how to save Gaia. But we don’t have those answers yet. You, however, have the ability to let your friend know that you’re still thinking of him, that you’re trying. Do that. Be there. Let him see and hear you. I think you’re truly underestimating just how much that can help when he feels alone and lost.”

With a tiny smile, the girl nodded. Then she embraced the woman. “I know. I… you’re right. See?” She leaned back and winked at her. “You’re already giving good grandmother advice.”

“I think that falls more along teacher advice,” Dare mused, “but I’ll take it.”

The woman turned then, starting to walk through the trees, with Flick following. “For now, I’m less interested in impotently ranting about what I’d like to do to Jophiel and Elisabet if they hurt or manipulate you, and more interested in hearing about what you’ve learned from them so far.” She glanced sidelong to the girl, adding, “Or what they plan on teaching you. After all, if they want to be helpful, even if it is for their own purposes, there’s no reason not to take advantage. Learn everything you can from them. If it helps convince the Seosten leadership to ally with humanity, great. If it doesn’t… well… you won’t be alone out there, I can promise you that. But even if you were, I’m pretty sure those Seosten would end up being pretty surprised about what you pull off.”

Another brief smile came to Flick’s face, and she walked faster to move alongside the woman. “Speaking of surprises, you should’ve seen Harp–I mean, Gwen’s face when Aylen turned out to be the person she’s been looking for all this time.”

“I can imagine,” Dare murmured thoughtfully. “What about Aylen’s… mothers? Do they know anything about this connection with Arthur?”

“We don’t think so,” Flick replied, walking literally through a tree and out the other side using her wood-traveling power. “But I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks, since we’re supposed to meet them, and her other grandfather.

“I just wish I knew why she keeps snickering whenever someone asks if her grandfather thinks it’s weird having a Reaper in the family.”

*******

“Okay, Chambers, new rule. You have to deal with at least six of the gigantic conspiracies that you’ve tripped into before you’re allowed to find any more of them.”

The words came from Avalon, as she stared intently at the girl in question. The two of them, along with Shiori, were sitting on a small sailboat out in the middle of the lake. Flick had brought her girlfriends out here to talk about everything, and was sitting across from them, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s not my fault things keep jumping into my lap!” Flick protested, face flushed. “Besides, most of these are things that have been going on for a long time, I just stumble across part of them.”

Shiori used her foot to poke Flick in the leg. “Are you okay, though? I mean, if Elisabet and this… Jophiel put all those spells on you, did they really get rid of all of them?”

“Wyatt, Athena, Sariel, and Gwen went over us,” Flick replied with a quick nod. “They said we’re clear of any unknown magic as far as they could see. And trust me, they were thorough. Especially Wyatt.”

“Good,” Avalon replied shortly, head tilting a little as she watched the blonde girl.

“Are you… upset?” Flick asked hesitantly, biting her lip as she watched her reaction.

With a long, quiet sigh, Avalon shook her head. “No, Chambers… Felicity. I’m not upset or angry. I’m a little… disappointed that I didn’t realize something else was going on. And I kind of want to yell at them for not saving Gaia, but… but logically I get it. And for the record, I would’ve understood even if it took you a lot longer to tell us the truth. You’re allowed to have important secrets. Especially ones like that. Because… because I know if I was in their situation, I’d want to make sure you were safe, above everything else. That’s what they were doing by putting those spells on you. They were protecting each other. I get that. And you were making sure you could rescue Sariel. I get that too. I’m not going to be mad at you just because you were in an impossible situation, and I’m not going to be mad at them for doing something I could see myself doing if it meant protecting you from a potential enemy.”

Her words were perhaps slightly undercut in seriousness by the fact that Porthos climbed from the girl’s pocket to her head and made chittering noises of agreement. The little metal lizard ended by jumping from Avalon’s head to Flick’s quickly raised hand, landing in her palm before dashing along to her cheek so he could reach up and pat her cheek.  

Shrugging, Shiori gestured toward Avalon. “She said it better than I could, but yeah, that. We get it. And she’s right, those two might have really different ideas about the whole… enslaving other species for the good of the universe thing and all that, but in this case, they’re protecting the person they love. I can get mad at them for a lot of things, but not that.”

With a tiny smile, Flick stepped over and embraced Avalon first so that Porthos could jump back to his partner’s shoulder. The two girls exchanged a brief kiss before Flick did the same with Shiori, quietly murmuring, “You guys are pretty awesome, you know that?”

Grinning despite herself, the Asian girl drawled an easy, “You ever wonder why awesome is good and awful is bad? Wouldn’t it be better to be full of awe instead of just some of it?”

“Okay, fine,” Flick replied deadpan, “you’re awful.”

With a snicker, Shiori blurted, “Yay!”

“You’re both awful,” Avalon informed them both, rolling her eyes before settling into a slight frown. “But I do want to know what Jophiel and Elisabet can do about Gaia. I… understand that they can’t get her out. But they have to be able to do something. Tell us what kind of spell they’re using to keep her asleep, let us know who is in charge of her, any ideas about where they have her, anything. They have to know something. And they have to know that getting Gaia back is the best chance we have of being strong enough to actually make the Seraphim listen to any alliance ideas.”

Flick and Shiori exchanged brief glances, the former nodding. “I mean, you’re not wrong. There’s others that are stronger, but Gaia’s got her whole ‘I puppet your technology’ thing that might make them think twice about bringing their ships here.”

“Not to mention,” Shiori added, “there’s lots of Heretics that will listen to her because of everything she’s done for them. And she’s the one who knows the most about who and where all the hybrids that are probably still pretending to be loyal are.”

Slowly nodding in agreement, Avalon murmured, “So, they have to know something, anything that might help. Even if it’s not useful right this very second. I want to eventually succeed at saving Gaia, not just make myself feel better by trying something immediately that fails.”

“We will, Valley,” Flick promised while putting a hand on her arm. “We’ll get her back.

“I just hope we can do it before whatever Fossor wanted her out of the way for happens.”

******

“Knock knock.”

As she said those words, Avalon rapped her knuckles against the side of a tree in the forest while looking up into it. Her other hand was taken up by the plastic bag that she carried.

In one of the branches above her head, Aylen leaned over, face appearing as she blinked a couple times, clearly having just woken up. “Oh… uh, hi.”

“Do you mind if I come up?” Avalon asked, lifting the bag. “I brought food.” She felt awkward. This kind of outreach was usually more Flick’s thing. But she’d gotten to know Aylen a lot better than the other girl had while Flick was gone, especially after finding out her secret.

Nodding quickly, Aylen started to ask if Avalon needed a hand. But the girl was already on her way, taking a few steps back before running up and jumping to plant her foot against the tree, using that to reach a lower branch. From there, she made her way rapidly and smoothly up before settling in beside her.

“I guess you’re fine then,” Aylen noted dryly, shifting over on the branch a little to give Avalon more room before returning her attention to looking out over the cabins and lake in the distance. As she did so, Sovereign landed further out on the tree, giving a soft scree that drew Porthos out of Avalon’s jacket. The two exchanged a flurry of sounds, before the little lizard looked to Avalon for permission.

“Go on then,” the girl motioned with one hand. “Have fun.”

With a chirp, Porthos darted that way, clambering up onto Sovereign’s back before the flying cyberform took off into the air.

The two girls sat there in comfortable silence for a minute or so, neither needing to talk. They just watched as Sovereign flew with Porthos riding. Finally, Avalon spoke up with a soft, “How’re your mothers doing with all this?”

“I don’t know,” Aylen admitted. “They’re still off on their… uhh, mission. I’m not really sure exactly what they’re doing, but they said it’d be another few weeks. It was an emergency.” She glanced over to the girl beside her, adding, “If this was an emergency, I could get them here right now. They’d drop everything. But I don’t think it is, so I don’t want to take them away from what they’re doing. I mean… Arthur’s been… gone for this long, and we don’t even have all the bones or anything, so–”

“Bones?” Avalon echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, yeah.” Aylen gestured over toward the cabins. “I talked to Ha.. I mean, Gwen. She said we need to find all of Arthur’s bones before we can do… uhh, whatever it is I’m supposed to do. She’s got most of them, but apparently there’s still some out there.”

“Do you think they used some of his bones to help make the Heretical Edge?” Avalon suggested. “If he’s so powerful, maybe his bones are powerful. And if you were going to try to free your… your grandfather from that, maybe freeing him is what releases Arthur’s bones. That could be how you’re supposed to bring Arthur back.”

Aylen blinked at that, head tilting a little. “I… huh. Maybe, I didn’t think of that. But Gwen and that… um, Mercury guy said the Seosten didn’t want to just kill me because they were afraid that might be what wakes up Arthur.”

“They probably don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Avalon pointed out. “They’re erring on the side of caution because they have no idea what could happen to make him come back.”

“Point,” Aylen conceded before letting out a long breath as she tilted her head up to the sky above, visible through the tree canopy. “Maybe that is it. I dunno. It’s strange though, right?”

“Definitely strange,” Avalon agreed before adding, “Though strange is normal anymore. Here.” She lifted the bag, offering it to the other girl. “Here. I thought you could use it.”

Aylen took the bag, blinking once before reaching in to retrieve a small glass box with holes in it. A rat was there, breathing slowly as it was clearly alive, but sedated. “What–you… brought me…”

“I knew it was getting about that time,” Avalon murmured, feeling a little uncomfortable. “And I didn’t think you’d been out lately. If that crossed a line or something–”

“No,” Aylen quickly interrupted, shaking her head. “No, it’s okay. I just meant… thank you. Most people would not be bringing me something to kill just like that.”

“You kill to eat,” Avalon replied flatly. “How is that different from any non-vegan or vegetarian out there? If you eat meat, something died to feed you. This isn’t different, you’re just… not exactly eating it.”

With a tiny smile, Aylen retrieved the rat from the box. Taking a breath, she hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re sure you’re okay with this? I can wait until later.”

Shrugging, Avalon assured her, “Don’t worry about me.” She reached into the pocket of her jacket, retrieving a wrapped sandwich, which she began to pull the plastic off of. “I brought my own.”

The simple words and actions, completely dismissing any thought that there was something wrong or strange with what she was doing, made Aylen’s smile grow a little. She glanced down at the tranquilized rat before smoothly breaking its neck. A rush of energy flooded the girl, put off by the animal’s death. She gave a soft gasp and slumped slightly from the rush. She could… feel the creature’s life, could… see a flash of memories from its life, short as it had been. It was tiny and incredibly quick, but it was still a wave that washed over her.

Avalon’s hand was on her shoulder, keeping the other girl steady on the branch. “You okay?”

“Um… yeah.” Aylen blushed, sitting up a bit more. “I’m good. And thanks.

“I guess if I’m supposed to wake up Arthur, being close to Avalon isn’t a bad start.”

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Exodus 44-08 (End Of Year One)

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Eventually, we arrived in the lake, the one by the Atherby camp. It actually took a couple jumps. First we were in one of the Earth oceans, then another lake, and another, before we finally made it to the right one. It took a lot of juice to move something this size with this many people on it, so Nevada had to send it through a few hops before getting to our destination.

Through it all, hundreds of questions were being hurled in every direction. No one knew what was going on. All the people we had picked up were caught between realizing just what they had just done, and all the newfound knowledge about the rebellion that was still fresh in their minds. It was a lot to cope with, and the ones who weren’t blurting questions were sitting down wherever they could, staring off into the distance. The latter was mostly the older people, the ones who had probably been a part of the rebellion before and were now coming to terms with everything that had happened, everything they’d done, over the past couple of decades.

Dare, Kohaku, and a couple others were fielding as many questions as they could, telling people where we were going and that we would figure out what to do once we were there. Gabriel spoke up at one point, promising that there would be a meeting with everyone to get people on the same page, if they would just be a little patient right now. It helped, but there were still a lot of questions being thrown out. Especially from the students who had left without their parents.

It was going to take a long time to get people situated, to say the least. I tried to tune most of it out, looking toward the Atherby camp once we arrived in the middle of the lake and started heading closer to shore. There were already people there waiting, and I was pretty sure one of them was my dad.

He’s there, Tabbris assured me. Everyone else has been telling him what just happened.

Speaking of which, I thought back to her. You knew the whole time what I was using that notebook for, didn’t you? You knew what was going on and you kept quiet about it.

There was a brief pause before she hesitantly confirmed, Uh huh. I… you agreed to having it umm… erased, so I didn’t think I should un-erase it. Miss Gaia, when we… when she talked to me about it, she said that it was okay and that you would understand.

She was right, I assured her quickly. You did well, Tabs. You did really well.

I was distracted then, as the yacht got close to shore, by Avalon. She looked over, meeting my gaze before raising an eyebrow. “You really did it now, Chambers.” Her voice was soft.

Wincing, I started to reply before blinking slightly to the left. From his place on her shoulder, Porthos was busy staring over at the new Harper while making twitterpated sighing sounds as he pressed both hands where his heart would be. He was practically fluttering into the air.

“Err…” Shaking myself, I focused. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I… I guess I agreed to keep that secret from everyone, even you. It was a really big deal and I didn’t even say anything to you about it before agreeing to keep it secret. So–”

“It’s okay,” Avalon interrupted. She started to say something else before stopping herself to swallow hard. “It’s… it was about your mom. It was your secret to agree to. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “the more people who knew about it, like me, the harder it would’ve been to erase it. I get it. I’m just…” The next bit was clearly hard for her to admit, the vulnerability too much.

“You’re worried about Gaia,” I supplied, waiting until she nodded before hugging her. “We’ll get her back, Valley. They’re not going to do anything that bad to her. We’ll find her. We’ve got a lot more people on our side now, people who know what’s going on and can help.”

“Your mother is okay.” That was Sariel, who had stepped over to join us while speaking quietly. She looked to Avalon, continuing with, “I just checked in on her. She’s… unconscious. Too far down for me to reach. The spell she did took a lot out of her. She was prepared for it, but it’s still going to take a long time for her to wake up.” A brief pause then before, “Maybe weeks. Or even months. I’m not sure, exactly. Not yet. But we were ready. She knew it’d drain her, so I helped set it up.”

“You helped with that?” Tristan blurted from nearby. “But you never said anything to us!”

Shaking her head at that, Sariel reached out to pull her son over by the arm. “Yes,” she confirmed while mussing his hair a little bit, “because it was a secret.”

Turning away from the railing she had been leaning on, Scout nodded to me. “A big secret.”

“I’m sorry your dad didn’t listen, guys,” I told her and Sands. “I guess I was kinda hoping he’d change his mind and… and join us if you and your mom were…” Trailing off, I sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Larissa appeared nearby, putting her hand on my arm briefly. “Liam made his choice, more than once. Maybe he’ll change his mind, but…” She hesitated before exhaling. “I’m not basing my happiness on what he does.” The woman moved beside her daughters then, putting an arm around both of them with an added, “We will… figure it out.”

“Yeah, Flick,” Sands put in while leaning against her mother. “We’ll work with our own family. Pretty sure you’ve got enough to deal with right now anyway.” After a brief pause, she added, “But for the record, that was really cool. Especially seeing the looks on their faces.”

The two of us exchanged brief grins before Nevada called out for everyone to head off. She had done something to summon the energy bridge once more, attaching it to the end of the dock at the dock. People were already heading off, chattering with a mixture of confusion, worry, and awe as they started across the bridge. Some, of course, were more eager than others. A few stayed back, staring apprehensively at either me, one of the other adults, or the camp.

“Uh.” An awkward voice drew my attention, and I blinked over to see that boy from before, the hybrid who had spoken up and brought his whole team with him. Miles. That’s what the red-haired girl had called him when she’d called the Committee dickheads.

“Oh, uhh, hi?” I gave a little wave, feeling somewhat awkward. “Miles, right?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “It’s Miles Cleary. You’re–” He looked like he was going to say one thing, before settling on another. “That thing about the necromancer, about… Fossor. He really has your mom?” When I nodded, he breathed out. “Right, I–later. I need to talk to you later. It can wait until after the rest of this gets… figured out.” His hand waved around vaguely. With another brief apology, he moved back to where his team was waiting and started off the ship.

“What do you think that was all about?” Vanessa asked from nearby, watching the boy leave.

I shook my head. “I’m not sure, but we’ll find out before long.” Shaking off the uncertainty, I gestured to the others. “Come on, we better head into the camp before Dad charges in here to find me.”

Joining the crowd heading off the boat, we made our way over the bridge. I could see Dad in the distance, watching until he saw us. Abigail was next to him, along with Savvy, who was sitting on Choo. Miranda and Theia were behind the electric-pig and his Seosten toddler rider.

Seeing them, particularly my dad, made me walk faster. I moved across the bridge, hopping off once we were close enough that the water only came up to my knees. Landing hurt a good bit, but I didn’t care. Dad was already coming around the side, and I rushed the last few steps to hug him tightly. Tears that I hadn’t known were coming sprang into my eyes.

“I told them about her, Dad. I told them about Mom. They know. Everyone knows who she is.

“They can’t erase her anymore.”

*******

“I’m sorry we had to leave without your grandfather.”

My words were directed to Aylen, as the two of us stood together near one of the campfires.

It was awhile later. Late enough that the sun would be coming up soon. Everything was still getting organized, as people were assigned at least temporary cabins. The Kitsune, Busy, was… well… busy setting up brand new cabins (apparently he had dozens of them in storage that could be put up with less trouble or effort than most people put up a tent) for them. Gabriel had made it clear that no one had to stay. But they would be welcome for as long as they wanted to. Plus, there would be more coming. People who now remembered the rebellion, or who were learning about it for the first time. They would be looking for a place to stay.

It was a good thing Busy had a lot of those collapsible cabins, because I was pretty sure we would need them.

Also importantly, Wyatt had brought my sharks with us. Apparently he’d taken the time to carefully implant an emergency teleport beacon into each of them, triggering it as we left. Now they were safely swimming around in their new home, the lake. Which normally would have been a problem, being that it was a freshwater lake. But Wyatt had taken care of that too. Something about injecting them with a concoction he and Koren had put together once every few days until their bodies adjusted.

In any case, they were here in the lake. Which meant that, uhh, yeah, we were probably going to have to make sure there was a bigger supply of fish for them, pronto.

Aylen, for her part, was staring down into the fire. She smiled faintly without looking at me. “It’s okay, he’s not going anywhere.” Glancing up then, the girl added, “They need him too much.”

“Still,” I replied with a shrug, “I know you were looking forward to getting him out of there.”

“I am,” she confirmed, making a point of stressing the present tense. “And I will.”

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “We will. Mom–my mom… she had a bond with him too. She’d want us to get him out of there.”

That earned me a new little smile. “You know, I think I need to introduce you to my own mothers soon.” She paused slightly before adding, with an emphasis I didn’t understand, “And my other grandfather. He’s gonna love you so much.”

Her eyes unfocused then, a sign I had quickly figured out meant she was seeing through Sovereign’s eyes. At the moment, her cyberform hawk was perched on the roof of a nearby cabin.

“Professor,” she greeted without needing to turn around. “I’m glad you escaped.”

Dare, freshly changed into new clothes (a pair of khakis and a dark blue button up shirt), nodded to her with a brief smile. “Thank you, Aylen. I’m glad you made it too. Especially after what you did for Miss Chambers here.”

Flushing just a little, Aylen shook her head. “It was just–I couldn’t let her die. You…” She looked up then, hesitating before offering a slight shrug. “I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed, adding a wink, “but I’ve been told I have a habit of throwing myself into danger a few times. I’m glad you called for help instead of trying to handle it on your own.”

Looking back and forth between us, Aylen coughed. “I think I’m going to see if I’ve got a cabin yet. I… I’ll talk to you later, Flick.” She waved and headed off, leaving me alone with Dare.

“How many?” I asked, watching Sovereign fly down to join his partner.

“Eighty-four students came with us, beyond your group,” Dare answered. “It’s about half and half between Bystander-kin and Heretic-born. Which means a bigger percentage of the Bystander-kin came, considering they’re a smaller part of the school overall. But still. And there will be others, those who change their mind after sleeping on it, or who couldn’t get away at first. Or even those who slept through it.”

“And there might be those here who change their minds and want to go back to Crossroads,” I pointed out.

She nodded. “Yes, there may well be. We’ll have to deal with that. Beyond the students, we also have eleven teachers. There’s me, Risa, Nevada, and Benji Carfried from your year, as well as two from the second year, three from the third year, and one from the fourth year. And Hisao, of course.”

Grinning at her despite myself, I couldn’t help but tease, “I’m glad Hisao got out too.”

I was rewarded with a slight blush. “Yes,” Dare murmured, “well, without him, it would have been a lot more complicated for me to get out of there.”

There was a brief moment of silence then before I offered, “I know I never knew him, but… I think Grandpa Joshua would be… glad that you found someone else who makes you happy.”

That earned a smile, as Dare looked to me. Her gaze was a bit longing, but also happy. Happy to be here with me. Happy to share at least this little bit of herself with someone. “I think he would too.”

We stood there quietly together for a few seconds, each contemplating that until I looked over and cleared my throat. “I… I saw some of the security members fighting each other, and a few of the Committee’s people,” I mused. “They came with?”

“Some of them,” she confirmed. “That’s another eight adults, with more that couldn’t get away. Plus Larissa and Haiden, who should count for a few adults separately.”

“And whoever else comes in eventually,” I mused quietly, shaking my head in wonder. “We really blew up Crossroads, huh? Err, metaphorically speaking.”

She chuckled lightly. “Yes, metaphorically speaking, you blew the hell out of Crossroads.”

“It’s funny,” I murmured quietly, “Ruthers didn’t want me there because he thought I’d destroy your society. I guess he was closer to being right than anyone thought.”

Dare shook her head. “You didn’t destroy anything, Felicity. You helped bring things back to where they should be. This was a war that needed to start again. We need to make things right.”

“We need to find Mom,” I stressed. “And find out why Fossor wanted to kill a Committee member. Not to mention how he did it.”  

“There’s a lot to work out,” Dare confirmed. “Which we will. And we’ll find Joselyn.”

“Mom and Gaia,” I added. “And Sean. And… anyone else that we need to.” I coughed, shaking my head. “It’s gonna be a busy summer.”

She gave me a brief smile. “Yes. But at least we’ll have help. Including Lancelot, of all people.” A slight grimace came then. “I can’t believe we had no idea who she was.”

“To be fair,” I put in, “she did a really good job of pretending to b–” I stopped talking then.

“Felicity?” Dare blinked at me. “Are you okay?”

“I… yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I was just thinking about how I really have to thank her for everything she did tonight. Everything she’s been doing… for awhile, apparently.”

******

“You weren’t frozen.”

I’d found Harper, in her adult form, standing near the woods. It was like she was waiting for me, watching the busy campgrounds with everyone running around, trying to get things set up for the new arrivals. When I approached, she simply stood there, waiting for me to start.

“At the library, when… when they came. You weren’t frozen.”

The woman watched me with a hint of a smile, and I had a good chance to look at her face finally. She looked… well, enough like Harper that I could see the resemblance, though there were differences. Besides obviously being older, her own face was slightly thinner where Harper’s had been more rounded. Not in an unhealthy or anorexic way, just… thin. It made her cheekbones more pronounced. Her eyes, like Harper’s, seemed almost too big for her face. It made them incredibly expressive. Especially now, as her amusement at my announcement was obvious. “No,” she finally replied, “I was not. And by now, your… other teachers have realized that as well. They will be contacting you as soon as they can get away.”

“You… you’ve known–you were there!” I blurted out loud. “You were there that day, when we ambushed that bus. You were in the trees. Tristan almost saw you.”

Coughing, she waved a hand. “Yes, well, he is very perceptive. More so than he will admit, in some cases.” Sobering then, she watched me. “You are wondering the same thing they will be, whether I will tell anyone what I heard. Before I answer that, I would like to speak to your boyfriend.”

Well. Of all the things she could have said right then, that was one that I never would have expected. I blinked a couple times. “Errr, my what?”

Harper chuckled. “It’s alright. I… I know you’ve been possessed by a Seosten for a long time, and that he kind of… fell for you. I’d like to have a discussion between the three of us. You, me, and this Tabbris.”

For a moment, all I could do was stare. My mouth opened, shut, then opened again. There was essentially static playing inside my head. When I finally found my voice, it cracked. “Y-you… you… you think that… you… oh… oh my… God…”

Then I laughed. A lot. Doubling over, I clutched my stomach and laughed until I almost peed. It was all I could do to catch myself. “Oh, my God. You think that I have a–that Tabbris is a–is my–” Then I had to stop talking, I was laughing too much. It probably wasn’t that funny, but after everything that had happened, my emotions were pretty high-strung and I needed it.

Finally getting hold of myself while Harper just stared in confusion, I took my phone and texted Tabbris to recall to me as soon as she had a chance. “Okay, um, I’m sorry, but there’s a little thing you’re mistaken about.”

What’s going on? The girl herself appeared in me a moment later, reading my thoughts briefly before she too started to laugh inwardly. In between making disgusted noises. Gross, gross! Yuck! Eww!

“Ah, something I’m mistaken about?” Harper prompted, frowning in clear confusion. “Are you saying he’s not your boyfriend?”

“Umm, well…” I drawled before gesturing. “Come on out, Tabs.”

She did so, appearing in front of me with a grand, “Ta da!”

That lasted for about three seconds before she suddenly blurted, “Oh gosh, you are so freaking cool! That thing you did with the swords and the blocking and the ‘yah, you’re dumb, Ruthers, hiiii yah!’ Parry, parry, fire, block, your timestop does nothing to me, parry!  And then you said you were Darkwing Duck, and he was like, ‘buh?’ and you were like, ‘fwoosh, I’m behind you, dummy who doesn’t know like the best cartoons, have at you!’ Kwoosh, skewer, aaaaaahh! Wiff, punch, haha, and you smell bad too. Kick!”

All of this was accompanied by dramatic hand gestures or full on physical reenactments as Tabbris bounced around, spinning in circles, kicking empty air, and pantomiming a sword duel. At the end, as she spun back, the girl nearly fell over before my hands quickly caught her shoulders. She was panting, and gave a final, exhilarated, “Can I have your autograph?”

If this had been a cartoon, Harper’s mouth would have been on the ground. It was wide open already, as she pointed and gaped, making weak noises of confusion.

“Harper, Lancelot, whatever… this is Tabbris,” I gestured to her. “My… Seosten little sister.” Briefly, I explained what had happened, and where she came from.

“Of course… I… that… makes sense.” Shaking that off, the woman took a knee in front of Tabbris. “You know, I’ve met a lot of brave people in my life. But you might just be one of the bravest.”

Blushing deeply, Tabbris hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re really Lancelot?”

“Let you in on a little secret?” the woman asked. When Tabbris gave an eager nod, she made a point of looking around before quietly informing us, “I’m also Guinevere.” As both Tabbris and I made noises of surprise, she added, “You can call me Gwen.”

That raised a lot of questions. I was going to have to get the full story about that eventually. Later, once there was more time. For the moment, I just said, “You know I… can’t really tell you the whole story about… about what you saw.” It was impossible. Jophiel and Elisabet had made sure of that. “None of us can.”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on getting it from you,” the woman assured me. “I’ll get it from them. For now, I’ll keep quiet. Until I find out the whole story, at least. And when I do, we’re going to be making a few adjustments to whatever deal you made with them. Starting with you not being forced to lie to your friends and family. There’s been enough of that.

“But we can work out the rest of that later. Right now, you just… let me know when they contact you, okay? You can do that without violating the spell?”

I paused before nodding. “I mean, I guess so. I can’t tell you about our deal, or anything about… them. But I don’t see why I can’t let you know when they make contact.”

“Good,” Harper–errr, Gwen smiled. “Do that. All of us need to have a nice long conversation, so we can get on the same page.”

She sighed then. “In the meantime, I better go talk to Shiloh and Eiji. See how much of this I can explain.” Taking a step, the woman paused before looking at me. “Are you going to be okay?”

I took a breath before answering, letting the question float in my head for a moment before looking to my little sister. “Yeah,” I confirmed while laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine.”

******

Walking toward the lake a few minute later with Tabbris at my side, I saw a small group waiting for me. Seller was there, with Miranda, Theia, Pace, and Roxa.

As we approached, Randi greeted me by walking forward and giving me a high five. “You know,” she started, “Principal Bonnelly used to tell me you were going to drag me into trouble.”

Blinking as she brought up that name from so long ago, I asked, “What did you tell her?”

She grinned, catching my hand to push it into a fist before bumping her own against it. “That you don’t drag me anywhere. We run into trouble together. Same thing here. Even if you are a bit ahead in the, ahhh, field of trouble.”

“I guess I did run off without you a bit,” I admitted before meeting her gaze. “Sorry for starting all the fun without you.”

“Eh, I’ll catch up.” With a wink, Randi gestured. “At least we already left Garden before you blew the whole civil war wide open again. I can’t imagine what’s going on back there.”

“Theia-I–” Theia started before catching herself. “I… mean… I can. My imagination needs more popcorn though. And a soda.” Despite her light words, something about the Seosten girl looked… emotional, and ragged. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and didn’t want to pry. But it was obvious that she was still working her way through things. She had technically killed her own mother less than twelve hours earlier.

God damn, when things got busy around here, they got really busy.

Pace spoke up then. “Things are probably pretty bad back there. But you know what… you’re fucking awesome, Flick.” She gave me a thumbs up. “What you did, what you and Headmistress Sinclaire did… it–you’re… holy shit.”

“Yeah…” I coughed. “I think holy shit sums it up. I really didn’t think it’d be that dramatic back when we were talking about it. I wasn’t picturing… well, that.”

“Things rarely go the way we picture,” Seller put in. “I, for example, never pictured my descendant starting a Heretic civil war… and my next descendant continuing it.”

Turning to the man, I tilted my head curiously. “What do you think about that?”

He met my gaze, deadpanning, “I think I’ve got a couple of hilariously overachieving nutjobs for descendants… who are going to need a lot of help. And I’m glad I get the chance to be there for them.” He paused then before adding, “And that taking care of Hannah taught me how to be there for them for once in my life.”

Smiling a little at that, I looked toward Roxa before swallowing, my expression falling a bit. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get Sean out.”

She glanced away briefly before turning back to me with a nod. “Yeah, I know you tried. They all tried. He… we’ll find him. Whatever hole they try to bury him in, we’ll get him out.”

“We will,” I agreed. “We’ll get them all out of there. Him, Gaia, and everyone else they try to lock up.”

We talked a little bit more then. Tabbris and Theia were deep in some conversation when I glanced over and saw Deveron, Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt a short distance off. Looking back to Seller and the others, I excused myself before starting that way.

“Felicity, you…” Abigail started before just taking a few steps over. Her arms were suddenly around me, squeezing tight. “I can’t believe you did that. I can’t–you really just… you…”

“Pretty much ruined Ruthers’ reputation, for one,” Koren put in, grinning. “That was awesome.”

“I didn’t include anything about who you guys are now,” I quickly pointed out toward my siblings, even though they definitely would already know that. “I didn’t think it would be right to expose you like that, not without you getting a say.”

Deveron took his turn for a hug then, squeezing me tight as he whispered, “Joselyn is proud of you. She knows everything you did too, you know.”

I swallowed at that, glancing away before turning back to meet his gaze. “They erased everything she did, everything she stood for. I couldn’t let that stand.”

Wyatt actually grinned at that, a goofy, buck-toothed smile that was still so endearing. “No one saw it coming. It was a fantastic sneak attack, right where they didn’t expect it.” He sobered then, straightening. “Now they know. They know about what that man did to end the war.”

“They know,” I agreed, reaching out to take his hand before squeezing it. My other hand found Abigail’s. “They know he burned down a nursery just to cause a distraction so he could abduct infants and use them as hostages. And we are not going to let them forget how far he went. How far they let him go. They’re going to deal with the truth, even if we have to beat them unconscious with it and then shove it down their throats until they choke.”

Koren piped up, “You know, that’s like the best newspaper slogan.”

*****

My team was standing on the edge of the lake, feet in the water. They were all there as I made my way to them a few minutes later. Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Columbus watched me approach. All of them, of course, aside from Sean. Seeing that made me sigh, and I walked that way before rubbing Vulcan’s head when he trotted up to meet me.

“Shouldn’t you guys go back to bed by now?” I teased despite myself. “I mean, you didn’t kill an Amarok on our first hunt and end up almost never needing to sleep.”

“And you’ve been using your extra hours to get into about five times as much trouble as you should,” Avalon retorted.

Doug coughed at that, shaking his head. “You know a lot of things are about to change now. Once they put the immediate fires out and everyone has a chance to breathe.”

“They should change,” I replied easily. “The longer we just let bad things happen because it’s easier than challenging the status quo, the more innocent people die. We needed this. They needed this. Gaia knows that. It’s why she wanted to undo the spell.”

“You’re right,” the boy replied. “They uhh, they’re already talking about what to do about the families of Bystander-kin who came with us and don’t know what’s going on. It’s pretty chaotic though.”

“It will be for a long time,” Sands pointed out before looking to me. “You did good, Flickster.”

Beside her, Scout nodded in agreement, grinning my way. “You destroyed the memory spell!”

“Gaia did, mostly,” I pointed out. “I was pretty much just the right tool to do it.” Glancing toward Columbus, I added, “You know Sean would’ve jumped on that tool comment if he was here.”

“I’ll tell him about it as soon as we get him out of there,” he informed me, managing a tiny smile. “I mean, if you can help destroy the entire revolution eraser and bring back the Heretic Civil War, freeing Sean should be no big deal.”

“Damn it, why’d you have to say that?” I demanded. “Now it’s going to take most of the next year and like…thirteen and a half time-travel or alternate dimension trips. We may even end up in a reality where we’re all cartoons.”

“Pfffft,” Columbus retorted. “If it’s anything like this year… bring it on.”

Before anyone else could speak up, Asenath and Shiori approached. The former walked right up to embrace me tightly. “I had no idea we were getting the spell stuff for you.”

Flushing, I returned the hug. “Trust me, I didn’t know either, for most of it. But you pulled it off. All that stuff Gaia said she needed and you found it. That’s insane, Senny.”

“Hey,” she retorted, “when I take a job, I finish it. I…” She winced then, glancing away. I knew she was thinking about Seth, even if she didn’t say anything about him. Instead, she cleared her throat before looking back at me. “Twister wants to take you out to a dinner, by the way. A big dinner. And by take you out, I mean to her house so she can cook for you.”

Trying not to drool, I managed a weak, “We’ll have to do that sometime.”

Gradually, Asenath, Doug, the twins, and Columbus wandered away. I could tell it was a deliberate thing, but kept quiet until I was left alone with Shiori and Avalon.

“I think we’ve been abandoned,” I finally pointed out quietly before turning to face the lake. The sun was just starting to come up over the distant mountains, its light cutting through the shadows surrounding the camp.  

Shiori moved to one side of me, her hand taking mine to squeeze lightly. “That’s okay, I could stand to be abandoned with you for awhile.”

Nodding in agreement, Avalon took my other hand. Together, we stood there, letting the water reach our ankles. When she finally spoke, Valley’s voice cracked just a little. “It’s been a long year.”

God, had it ever. I thought about that for a minute. Everything I’d learned over the course of the past school year, everything I’d been a part of. I thought of Professor Pericles, of Seth, of… of poor Rudolph. I thought of Ammon, of Professor Katarin, of all the people I’d met, all the people I’d hurt, and all the people I wanted to hurt. I thought of all the people that had been lost over the past year, and those who had been helped.

I’d helped bring a lot of people together again, had put together families. Like my own. Or the Moons. Even Sands and Scout had their mother back. Families had been put together and healed.

But families had also been torn apart, just this very night. The civil war was back. Siblings, lovers, parents and children, husbands and wives, they were dealing with that right now. Dealing with those new memories, that new understanding of just what was going on, of what had happened to them. And a lot of them, I knew, wouldn’t take it well, hadn’t taken it well.

I’d helped put a few families back together, sure. But I’d also helped rip a lot more apart with my last actions at Crossroads. I still believed it was worth it, but I didn’t think it was easy. And it was going to get harder. Now Ruthers and the Committee were definitely our enemies. They wouldn’t be playing nice anymore, even if I did have a few allies in their group. A couple they didn’t even know about.

Yeah, things were definitely going to get even more interesting very soon. The fires were just getting started. And they were going to burn long and hot.

Glancing over at me, Shiori asked, “So what’s next on the agenda, Miss Chambers?”

I thought about it, staring at the water, at the light from the rising sun reflected off of it.

“You know… for now, ‘next’ is this, right here. It’s taking a little break with you guys, and the others. After everything that just happened, after the whole Seosten thing and getting that spell, after… the whole damn year, I need some time to process. And have a little fun. It’s time for a vacation. But after that…well, people keep saying this world isn’t what I want it to be, that I’m naive and it’s full of evil that I’ll never understand. So let’s make it better. Let’s change it.

“Let’s change the world.”

End of book one. Stay tuned for Summer Epilogues.

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Exodus 44-04

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“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Shiori muttered a minute later as we made our way across the dark grounds with Avalon, Aylen, Columbus (with Vulcan), and Harper. We had to take a long, meandering route to stay away from the search patterns of the security guards, rather than heading straight for the main building. Luckily, their searches seemed to be mostly centered either around the dorms or off in the direction that Larissa had sent the ones who came to where Liam was.

Glancing that way while leaning just for a second on my staff, I asked, “Nevada really set some kind of evacuation order up with all you guys together?”

She hesitated briefly before offering me a shrug. “It’s not like we have meetings or anything like that. I’ve never actually met all of the other hybrids. She just talked to us individually and told us what to do if the alert goes out. Mostly it amounts to running and scattering. There’s some teleport escape hatch things in different parts of the jungle and beach.”

Avalon held up a hand up to stop us from moving, her eyes focused on the spotlight being cast by some kind of cyberform owl flying in the distance. Her voice was curious. “What kind of alert?”

For some reason, despite the situation, Shiori actually gave a tiny smile. “It’s sort of a song. Trust me, none of the hybrids will mistake it for anything else. Not around here.”

Well that definitely had Avalon and me even more curious. Even Aylen was clearly unsure, which made sense, considering Gaia and Nevada apparently hadn’t known that she was a hybrid. From the brief look on his face, Columbus already knew. But he seemed mostly distracted by his guilt about Sean not being with us. Because if there was one thing Columbus needed more of, it was definitely guilt.

Harper, who had been a few feet ahead as she watched the patrols, turned back to us. “Okey dokey, there’s a door around the side. It’s unlabeled and they don’t use it very much. We can go in there. It’s connected to the teachers’ lounge.”

Raising an eyebrow at her, I decided to try, “And you know that how? I am pretty sure they didn’t just let you wander through to check the place out.”

I wasn’t really expecting much of an answer, and she rewarded that by grinning. “You’d be surprised how far baked goods and a bright smile can get you in this world. Cookies open more doors than you’d think.”

That sounded like a pretty good advice, actually. But I still stuck my tongue out at her for being evasive. Then we were moving again, as I used my staff as a walking stick to keep up.

Flick? Tabbris’s mental voice came down. Are you guys okay? We have reinforcements, but they can’t get through the shield yet. They’re on the other side of the island.

Quickly, I let my little sister know what was going on, and what we were doing. I gave her a brief summary while letting her pick out details from my mind on her own.

So things are about to pretty much blow up around here. We are taking down the shield and letting the hybrid students know they need to GTFO. Which means that if you guys have reinforcements ready to come in and take some of the heat off when we do, that would be pretty damn peachy.

We exchanged mental hugs then as she urged me to be careful and said that she would keep the others updated. I promised not to do anything too stupid and felt her presence withdraw once more.

By that point, we had begun making a long, circular route around the main building.  At one point, we had to stop and crouch down as a lone security guy made his way around the building in the opposite direction. Harper did something. I wasn’t sure what, but she made us touch her shoulders and when the guy glanced in our direction, he didn’t show any reaction even though we were definitely close enough for him to see. He simply paused briefly before continuing his patrol. Still, I didn’t breathe again until he was out of sight.

“Clear,” Columbus announced after staring in that direction with his goggles faintly illuminated. “He’s still walking.”

Harper nodded toward what looked like just another bit of wall. “Faculty lounge door is right there. All we need is teachers credentials to make it open.” She looked to me then. “Sorry, but they’ve got it blocked against things like your security-breaking power. Too many students get stuff like that and try to go snooping.”

Avalon exchanged a brief look with Aylen before staring at Harper. “I don’t know if you’ve eaten too many cupcakes or something, but we don’t have teacher credentials.”

Aylen nodded. “Yeah, how are we supposed to deal with that?” Sovereign had landed on her shoulders earlier before attaching himself like some kind of backpack. His head came up over her shoulder to squint curiously at Harper as well.

Harper just smiled at them while holding up a golden card. “Don’t worry, I took Mason’s card off his unconscious body back there.”

Shiori sputtered. “When?! I swear, you didn’t even go near him.”

Winking, Harper started to the wall. “That would be a terrible thing to swear to. Besides, it’s not like this is the only faculty card I have.”

That time, all of us exchanged looks behind her back before following the girl. By then, she waved the card in front of the blank wall and part of it immediately slid aside in the shape of a doorway.

We stepped through quickly, and found ourselves, sure enough, in one of the faculty lounges. It basically looked a lot like the student lounge, except bigger, with more individual spaces for private working, and a library area attached to it. There were still pool tables, televisions, even video games. Which was pretty cool. Actually, now I really wanted to see one of my several hundred-year-old instructors playing Mario Sunshine. Or Pokémon!

Shiori glanced to me, whispering, “Nevada said that when she went here, she thought she was the best Pac-Man player on the island until Professor Pericles totally schooled her. A couple years ago they had a Mario Kart tournament that got really big and Pericles stomped everyone.”

I grinned reflexively before my face fell just as quickly. “I really wish I’d gotten to know him.”

Her hand found mine and squeezed as the two of us followed the others across the room at a brisk jog. Or at least as much of a jog as I felt comfortable with. Shiori helped with that too.

Stopping by the door, Harper spoke in a low, soft voice. “Nevada’s office is two floors up. We shouldn’t run into too much trouble, since everyone is either outside searching, asleep, or guarding Gaia or one of her people. But we need to be quick and quiet. Stay close.”

Once again, her voice had taken on the tone of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed.  It wasn’t quite rude or demanding, just… authoritative. It made me want to do what she said without even thinking about it.

Together, we slipped out into the dimly lit hallway and began to make our way through the eerie school corridors. Harper was right about the place being mostly deserted. There were a couple of patrols that we had to avoid, mostly with her making us invisible or whatever she was doing. But for the most part, we were able to move unimpeded.

On the other hand, I had the feeling that we would have been caught in a few seconds without her help. Then again, we also would have been caught instantly at the beginning of all this if she hadn’t shown up before Patrick and October.

Was Fossor counting on that? Did he plan on me being taken by Crossroads security? Did he have something else in mind? I had no idea what that psycho was thinking. But I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have counted on Harper. Maybe he thought another of Gaia’s people would get me out. Whatever he was up to, it was obvious that he knew a lot more about what was going on here then we’d even suspected after knowing he was controlling Escalan.

The man was a piece of shit, but an annoyingly competent one.

Reaching the stairwell, we made our way up two flights to the third floor. Just as we reached it, Harper stopped us again. Columbus’s hand was raised right after her. We knelt there in the stairwell, listening as voices grew louder.  From the sound of them, it was just two of the security guards asking each other what exactly was going on. All they seem to know was that the headmistress was in deep trouble and the Committee had stepped in. There were rumors flying around about Gaia killing one of the Committee members, about her trying for a coup, about one of them killing her instead, it was all a complete mess. And it was clear that they weren’t being told much yet. Just that they had to keep an eye out for all of us.

Columbus nudged me, his eyes on the door as he whispered, “They’re not looking at each other. They’re facing either direction. About ten feet that way.”

Knowing what he was implying, I nodded. “I’ve got one of them.”

Harper gave me a thumbs up. “Then I’ll handle the other one.“

Without another word, I reached out to touch the door, sending myself into the wood before moving through it and into the wall beyond. Sure enough, there were two guys there, each facing a different way. One of them was looking at the door I had just come through, his expression one of a mixture of boredom and slight apprehension. It was clear that he knew something big was going on and that he and his partner were mostly being left out of it. Probably because the Committee didn’t know how much they could trust Gaia’s own security team.

Sliding myself along that wall, I parked right near the guy and waited for a moment. He kept shifting his weight back and forth before eventually taking a step over to lean against the wall. Unfortunately, it was the opposite wall from the one where I was. And neither the floor nor the ceiling were made out of wood. So, I had to send myself all the way back around again, through the door and to the other wall. Figured.

Eventually, however, I made it back to where he was still leaning. Taking a breath, or at least as much as I could do that while possessing wood, I put a hand out, caught his arm, and possessed the man all in one motion.

Only then did it occur to me how much worse this could’ve gone if the guy was actually already possessed. Or worse, a hybrid himself. Thankfully, he wasn’t, and I was right inside of him.

He also clearly wasn’t very happy about it, as I instantly made his body freeze, his voice dying in his throat before he could cry out. I threw everything into keeping him still and silent, even as the man himself tried to jerk and shout in surprise.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I quickly blurted to him. I know this sucks, and it’s not fair, and I promise not to pry into your thoughts or make you do anything bad. We just need to get through here and we don’t want to hurt you guys. Or be hurt, come to think of it. I promise, we’re not going to do anything, I’m not going to go prying through your head, or anything like that. You just need to go to sleep. After we call your partner over here. But I promise, we’re not going to hurt him either.

Some part of me wondered if I should just use his body to fight and move around. But no. No, I wasn’t going to be that person. Not right now. Not here. This was already bad enough without me possessing a guy and forcing him to fight and be injured by his own friends. Or worse, killed. I didn’t know how far they were willing to go. If I took this guy into combat and things went wrong, I would never forgive myself.

From the serious rant this guy launched into, my words did little, if anything, to reassure him. But at least I tried. Turning my attention to his partner, I made the guy speak up. “Hey, did you see that?”

He looked to me, blinking. “See what?”

Holding a finger up to my host’s lips, I made a shushing noise while staring intently at one of the office doors. Slowly, I made him walk that way while he continued to silently tell me just how much trouble I was in. As if I didn’t already know that.

The other guy fell for it, coming in close, his attention on the empty office. We got close to it, heads bent as though to listen. The guy leaned in, squinting out the door before shaking his head. “I don’t see anyth—”

That was as far as he got before collapsing unconscious to the ground with Harper standing directly behind him. I interrupted my own host’s ranting and frantic questions with another brief apology before letting him fall unconscious as well. Stepping out of the body, I cracked my neck before taking a painful step. Yeah, while Seosten were apparently supposed to be basically completely healed whenever they possessed someone, I either hadn’t fully picked that trick up yet, or the poison that Kushiel used bypassed that. Either way, my legs still hurt. We’d already tried it back at the camp to no avail, so it wasn’t surprising now.

The others joined us, and we stowed the unconscious guards in that empty office before heading down the corridor.

“Don’t worry, boy,” I whispered to Vulcan, who was looking lost. “We’ll get Sean back, I promise.”

Porthos, who was still riding on Vulcan’s back, made a chittering noise of agreement. He was joined a second later by a soft chiming sound from VJ, attached just behind him, as well as squeaks from Jaq and Gus, poking their heads out of my pocket. The menagerie was in agreement. We were going to save Sean. Somehow.

Eventually, we made our way to the door into Nevada’s office. Avalon input the code the woman had given us, and the door clicked. After a quick glance up and down the hall, we slipped inside.

“We don’t know how long it’s supposed to be before someone checks on those guys,” Valley announced. “We should set off this alert and then get the hell out of here. If they know where it came from, they’ll be right on top of us.”

“You said it’s a song?” I asked Shiori. “How do we make everyone hear a song?”

She responded with a quick thumbs up before jogging across the room, toward Nevada’s cluttered desk in a corner. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this one.”

The rest of us watched curiously as she dug through the desk before coming out with a Rubik’s Cube and a silver hammer. She set the cube on the desk, raised the hammer, and brought it down hard on the thing. It shattered apart into a bunch of  pieces that went flying everywhere.

Instantly, a song blared to life from the speakers in the room. It was also coming from the hallway beyond, and, apparently, from every other speaker as well. I could even hear it blasting across the school grounds. It was everywhere. I had no doubt that it was playing in all the dorms as well. Every single speaker on the school grounds was blaring this song.

Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. That’s the song that was playing. That’s what was blaring out over every speaker on the school grounds. That’s what hundreds of students woke up to, what they heard exploding to life all around them.

I looked to Shiori, who grinned and pointed to the window. I moved that way, looking out. The school had come to life. Mostly by the dorms, I saw students swarming out of every doorway, through the windows, off the roof. A few security guards and Committee agents alike were trying to stop them, but were almost immediately overwhelmed just through sheer numbers. Over a dozen students went right over them. They were taken completely by surprise.

Behind that first wave of students, I saw more emerging with obvious confusion. These were the ones who weren’t hybrids and didn’t know what was going on. They looked around, rubbing sleep out of their eyes while staring as their class and teammates slammed right through the guards who had been searching for… well, us.

Mostly it was older students that did the brunt of the damage, students who were third or fourth years. There were about a half dozen of them, and they basically hit those security guards so fast and so hard that the guys were on the ground before they knew what hit them. Others from the younger classes followed, while their teammates called out confused questions about what the hell was going on. Two of the Committee agents tried to form a dome wall of energy to contain everyone, but were hit by about six different powers at once that put them on the ground. I saw one student shapeshift into a bee, fly straight at one of them, then turn into a rhino just in time to slam into him. Another used a series of vines from the ground to entangle them.

Then something happened. The hybrid students had started to split up, but suddenly all of them hit the ground. It was like some kind of invisible hand had reached up to smack them down, pinning them against the grass. There was a single figure still standing, his hands raised.

“Wait,” I started, “is that–”

I was interrupted by glass exploding in my face. Belatedly, I realized that I was being ripped through the window by an invisible force. The same force, in fact, that had pinned all the hybrid students. I was hauled through the air, slammed through the window as everyone behind me shouted my name, and then found myself dropped unceremoniously to the ground right at the feet of the one responsible for all this.

“You,” Gabriel Ruthers snapped, “are behind this.”

Blinking twice as I oriented myself, I started to say something. “Ruthers, you don’t–”

I was interrupted as the man caught hold of my hair, twisting it a little. “Stop,” he snapped. “You have been turning the students since you arrived, on your mother’s orders. Your mother and Gaia, working together.”

“That’s not wh–” I started, interrupted once again by a sharp pain in my head as he twisted my hair.

“Silence,” he ordered. “You will do nothing else. You and the Strangers that Gaia and Joselyn have brought in will be put through trial. And I can assure you, we will ensure that you are made an example o–”

It was his turn to be interrupted then, as a figure abruptly landed on the grass just in front of us, amongst all the still-pinned hybrid students. Harper. She had flown out, literally flown, before landing hard on the grass, sending up a spray of dirt from the shockwave.

Slowly, the girl I knew as Harper Hayes straightened from where she had landed. As Ruthers gripped my hair and stared, she met his gaze. Her voice, as she spoke, was as cool as ice. The kind of ice that would take your finger at a touch.

“You’re going to want to let her go now, Gabriel.

“You’re going to want to let all of them go.”

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Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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