Vanessa Moon

Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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Before The Vault 41-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theia brightened. “So you have met her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be an interesting conversation.

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Interlude 40A – A Funeral

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The light of the moon shone brilliantly across the dark waters of the ocean, the ripples across the surface seeming to glow at the height of each soft wave before fading to black as they sank once more. A gentle wind rustled the leaves of the nearby jungle, while its inhabitants made their presence known through their calls of food, of danger, and of the hunt.

“Thanks for coming, you guys,” I spoke softly. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you didn’t.”

The people with me as I stood on the beach, damp sand from the waves under my feet, were my team, and others. Sean, Columbus, Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were there. So were Wyatt, Koren… and Abigail and Miranda. Yeah. The latter two were here on the Crossroads beach, thanks to Gaia. It wouldn’t be a long visit, but they wanted to be here for this. They needed to be here for this. And since the Committee along with basically everyone else was busy trying to find out what the hell had happened even a day after it went down… well, it gave us this opening.

Tabbris was there too, possessing me for the time being so that she could be here for this.

In the background, a short distance away from where we were, Dare and Gaia stood together. They were staying out of the way, while also making sure nothing went wrong or interrupted.

Vulcan moved to nudge up against me, making a soft whining sound. Sean, meanwhile, nodded. “He’s right. We know why you need to do this, Flick. It’s important.”

The others murmured agreement, and I took a breath before slowly lowering my gaze to look at the object at the edge of the beach in front of us, right next to the water. It was a canoe. And in that canoe lay a small body wrapped in sheets.

He looks kind of sad like that, Tabbris’ voice in my head whispered. But he was still an evil, murderous jackdonkey.

Jackdonkey? I sent back. That’s a new one. And yeah… he does look kind of sad, just a bundle like that. I… I wish someone could have helped him. Undone what Fossor did to him, I mean.

Ammon. The body in the boat was Ammon, his head wrapped in with it. Even though I couldn’t actually see it, just looking at the sheet covering his dead form was enough to bring bile to my throat. This shouldn’t have happened. None of it should have happened. The whole situation was… it was horrific. I couldn’t even begin to think about what Dare was going through. Especially since she didn’t have nearly the amount of people to talk through it with as Koren and I did. She had the two of us and Gaia. That was it. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that Koren and I were any good at making her feel better. Ammon was her grandson, and she’d killed him. She’d had no choice, and he was, as Tabbris said, ‘a murderous jackdonkey.’ But still, she had killed him. That had to weigh on her.

Not that she was any stranger to things weighing on her. Sacrificing not only her husband, but her entire history with both him and his people… that was clearly worse than I could imagine. She’d had to let her husband, the man she loved, die. And afterward, rather than being able to grieve with their family, with the people who knew him the most… she’d been alone. None of them had remembered her. She lost the man she loved, and at the same time, had been erased from the minds of everyone whom she should have been able to grieve with.

And she had done it all, willingly, to save the world from the Fomorians. I didn’t even have the capacity to fully comprehend that kind of sacrifice. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t only lost them once. It wasn’t like they died. They were still there. All those people, aside from her husband, were still there. She had to pretend she didn’t know them. She had to stay away from them, had to stay away from her own daughter. The child that she had made with her husband, the truest and most pure symbol of their love and union… and Virginia Dare had to stay away from her. Every single day, every hour in the decades that followed, she had to choose to put the world over her own wants and happiness. The world was free of Fomorian invasion purely and only because of Virginia Dare’s sacrifice, in every meaning of the word.

My mother was a hero whom I would probably never live up to. But my grandmother… she was a legend that the entire world, and likely far more beyond that, could never repay.

Shaking those thoughts off (at least as much as I could, anyway), I let out a soft sigh. “You’re right, it’s important.” My eyes closed briefly as I gathered myself before speaking again, a little bit louder. “You guys know that… we’re not here to mourn the monster that was killed yesterday. We’re not here to grieve for the person who murdered or tortured so many people. That was a creature created by Fossor.”

“We’re here,” a new voice spoke from the direction of Gaia and Dare, “to mourn the boy he used to be.”

It was Asenath, along with Deveron. I’d hoped she would come, and Gaia had said she would try to bring her. Apparently that was where Deveron had been. All he’d said was that he had to do something first and that he’d meet us here.

However Asenath had gotten here, it was nice to see the girl, and I stepped that way to embrace her tightly. “You made it.”

She returned it, smiling a little. “I did. It’s been awhile since we’ve been face to face, Flick.”

I nodded at that. “Too long. I… I guess that job of yours is finished now. The one who killed Denise is dead.” Denise, whose death at the gas station Ammon had visited had first spurred Asenath toward my life to begin with when the girl’s mother called for her help.

Asenath, however, shook her head. “Ammon’s dead, but the one responsible for Denise’s death is still out there. I’m not stopping just because the weapon is gone. I want the one who made that weapon and put it in that situation.”

I thought briefly before raising an eyebrow. “Fossor?”

“Fossor,” she confirmed, face set with a hard look. “He’s the one responsible for Denise’s death. And more others than we can count, but still. Denise was murdered, and I’m going to make sure the person ultimately responsible for that pays, any way that I can. Even if it means all I get to do is contribute a fraction of a percent to what finally brings him down. That fraction of a percent belongs to Denise, and I’m going to make damn sure she gets it.”

Clearing my throat then, I gestured to the others. “Uh, guys, this is Asenath. She’s–”

“My sister,” Shiori put in, moving to get her own hug from the girl.

Brief introductions went around then, Doug actually seeming a bit… smitten, honestly. It was almost funny to watch, aside from the actual situation. The boy was clearly nervous about meeting a vampire like that, but got over it pretty quick before moving on to clearly wanting to know everything about her. He kept asking questions, until Asenath promised to talk to him some more after all of this was over.

Tristan and Vanessa took a moment with her as well, the Seosten-hybrids seeming to be pretty curious about Asenath, though for different reasons. Tristan had met her once before, on the Meregan world (which to him had been several years ago, when he was still a kid) but they hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. Now, he wanted to hear about the adventures she’d had through the years. Meanwhile, Vanessa wanted to hear about the people she’d met. Asenath promised to talk to them some more later as well.

“If I’d known I’d be this popular on the Crossroads beach,” she announced, “I might’ve come sooner.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Probably a bad idea. Gaia can’t stand ten feet away and shield us all the time, after all.”

Abigail and Miranda were there then, the former introducing herself to Asenath and thanking her for everything she’d done.

“Good to see you again,” Randi put in when it was her turn. “Guess things have changed a lot.”

“You’re not wrong,” Asenath confirmed with a cough. “But things have a way of doing that. Especially if you live long enough.”

Randi smirked back at her. “Here’s hoping the rest of us get a chance to experience that firsthand.”  

That, of course, brought everyone’s attention to the boat, and the bundle inside of it. Realizing what she had said, Miranda grimaced. “Shit. I…”

It was Abigail who spoke. “We know what you mean. It’s… it’s okay. Ammon…” She sighed softly. “We can be glad that Fossor won’t be able to use him anymore, that…  that he’s not suffering, and that he won’t be able to inflict suffering on anyone else.”

It was hard for her. I knew that. Everything she’d been through, and even knowing what she knew about Ammon, it was still hard to accept that killing him had been the right choice. I was pretty sure she’d never fully accept it. And that was okay, because we all had at least a little doubt, a… wish that things had gone differently and that we could have found a way to save him. It was possible to be sad that it happened, while also being relieved that it happened, as contradictory as that might have seemed.

With that in mind, it was probably time to get on with it. Everyone was looking at the boat again anyway.

“Okay, umm,” I started slowly, “before we do this, I think we should talk about Ammon. He was a…” I took a breath. “Fossor turned him into a monster. He destroyed an innocent little boy just to play his sick games. I know it… it can be hard to see it, hard to accept it, but Ammon was just as much a victim as any of the people he hurt. He wasn’t born a psychopath, Fossor deliberately made him into one. So like I said before, this isn’t about mourning Ammon the monster. It’s about mourning Ammon the little boy. My little–” I had to stop, something catching in my throat until I swallowed hard and pushed on. “My little brother. He deserved better than he got.”

“All of Fossor’s victims deserve better than they get.” That was Avalon, her voice dark as she stood near me, looking out over the water. “And whatever Ammon might’ve been, or whatever he was before Fossor got to him, he was a monster and had to be put down. Yes, it’s sad that it was done to him. But it’s not sad that he was stopped before he could kill any more people. Don’t lose sight of that in your hurry to grieve for the person you wish he still was. You never met that person.”

I nodded to that. “You’re right, I know. Like I said, we’re not mourning Ammon the monster. We’re…” Pausing, I thought of the best way of putting it. “We’re mourning the little boy that he was before the monster. Think of this as a funeral taking place years after the Ammon we’re actually mourning was killed by whatever Fossor made take his place.”

My voice cracked a little then. “I probably wouldn’t have been that different from him if Mom hadn’t taken my place when Fossor tried to grab me in the first place. This–all of it, it’s Fossor’s doing. He’s a piece of shit, and he’s the one who needs to be stopped.”

Sands spoke up. “He will be. He’s got a lot of people gunning for him.” Her eyes shifted over to me before she added, “And he’s been picking fights that he’ll end up regretting.”

Moving to the boat, Abigail knelt, putting her hand on the side of it. “I wish I could have known the real Ammon, before Fossor destroyed him. I wish he’d had a chance to…  I wish he’d had a chance.”

Wyatt moved next to her then, giving me a brief look before he somewhat awkwardly knelt beside his long-lost twin. It was easy to see the resemblance when they were right next to each other like that, and I felt another pang at the reminder that they’d barely spent any time together, thanks to Ruthers.

For a moment, I wondered if Liam ever felt bad about the fact that his betrayal had helped tear twins apart from both each other and their own parents. Did he ever think about that when looking at his own twins? Did he think about it when Larissa had disappeared? Did it sink in then at all?

At least no one here had to be confused about what Wyatt and Abigail had to do with the situation. Thanks to a little help from Sariel and her command of memory magic, everyone was on the same page about that whole situation. Though it might’ve been at least a little interesting to see how the spell that had erased their identities dealt with something like this.

Slowly, I moved over to the opposite side of the canoe, taking a knee there while Koren joined me. The four of us, two on each side, all stared at the sheet-wrapped bundle within. I almost wanted to reach out and touch it, but stopped myself.

“Whatever the closest place to actual hell is,” Koren muttered under her breath in a voice that sounded as though she could barely speak, “Fossor belongs there.”

It was a sentiment we all agreed with, though none of us spoke. Neither did the others. They stood back, watching while the four of us knelt there. It was… paying our respects, basically. Not praying, exactly. Just… taking a quiet moment to kneel beside Ammon’s body. He deserved that much, deserved to have his family there with him before the end. Or most of his family, anyway.

How was Mom doing? What did Fossor tell her about it? How much did he even know? Dare had apparently made sure there were no observation spells that could have transmitted the events, so all he could know was that Ammon was dead. But I doubted that would stop him from embellishing if he felt like it. Or ranting.

Did he care about Ammon’s death? I genuinely didn’t know. Probably only as far as it affected his plans, but still. I… kind of didn’t want to follow my thoughts down that snake hole.

We’ll tell her what happened, Tabbris promised me. You know, as soon as we find her.

Smiling just a little inwardly, I tried to ignore the flash of pain. Because she was wrong. I couldn’t tell Mom about what had really happened, just like I couldn’t tell Tabbris herself. Every thought I had about that, including keeping it secret, was hidden from her. All she knew was that Dare had arrived and supposedly killed Ammon before he could control her. That was what everyone aside from Koren, Gaia, and I believed. It was what they had to believe.

Yeah, I sent back to my little partner, we’ll make sure she knows what happened.

With that in mind, I glanced back to the others, toward Professor Dare. Even now, she couldn’t show how much this affected her. Looking close, I could see Gaia holding her hand. Which was something, at least. But she couldn’t be here by the boat with us. She couldn’t let any of the others know that she hadn’t just killed a little boy, she had killed her own grandson.

Yeah, it was a good thing the spell took care of keeping thoughts like that away from Tabbris, or I would’ve blown the secret within about three seconds of her possessing me.

Deveron joined us after that first quiet moment. Taking a knee at the back of the canoe, he spoke softly. “He was Fossor’s monster. But he was also Joselyn’s son. I know her. She might not be here, but… but she knows we’re doing this. She’s ready for it. Even if she can’t see it, she… wherever she is, she’s thinking about this.”

He was right, I knew. Mom was about as close to here as she could possibly be. She knew we’d be doing this, she knew where, and she knew when. I could almost feel her, could almost imagine that she was standing right behind me.

Closing my eyes tightly for just a moment, I nodded. “She knows. And she’s waiting, so let’s do it.”

Slowly, the five of us lifted the canoe. I could have lifted it by myself, of course. As could several of the others. But that wasn’t the point. We lifted it together before taking a few steps out into the water. As it rose to my knees, we set the boat down. I gave the bundle inside one last look, before we all gave it a push, sending the canoe out onto the ocean.

Normally, the waves would have just pushed it back. But at the moment that we let it go, a small rune on the side of the boat glowed, an activated spell which slowly propelled it further away.

Once the boat was far enough away, a second spell activated on it and flames began to spread. They started small, but soon the entire canoe was engulfed, a floating bonfire there on the ocean.

We watched it together in silence as the boat, and Ammon’s body, burned. It was symbolic, of course. But it was also practical. Fossor was a freaking necromancer. Of course we were burning the body. We (or rather, Dare and Gaia) had also set up several spells on said body that would prevent his ghost from being pulled back.

More thoughts than I could articulate ran through my mind in those minutes. But the one that stood out above the others was that we all deserved better than this. Everyone deserved better than this.

We stood there the whole time, until there was no more boat that could burn. The flames themselves had been magical, capable of completely destroying the body while leaving nothing behind. It was over. Ammon was officially laid to rest, and wouldn’t bother anyone else again.

And yet, all I could think in that moment was that I wished I could say the same thing about Fossor. The fact that he was alive and had actually succeeded in his plot to take that rope made me sick to my stomach. God, I wanted that monster to die more than basically anything. But his time would come.

I just hoped that it would come before he had a chance to do whatever he wanted the rope for.

“Goodbye, Ammon,” I whispered, my voice barely carrying to the others around me. “I know it makes me a horrible person to say it, but I’m glad… I’m glad you’re gone. I’m glad you can never hurt or kill anyone again. I…” My eyes squeezed shut, a hard stone of guilt settling in my chest. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save you, but I’m glad you’ll never be able to hurt another person.”

The lump stayed, and I made myself open my eyes, staring once more at where the burning boat had been. “I’m sorry that I never got a chance to actually know you. I’m sorry for what Fossor did, and that we couldn’t help you. I’m sorry for everything you went through. I’m sorry for that part of you that was trying so hard to understand why it was wrong. For everything you went through, for everything that Fossor put you through, for what he turned you into, and… most importantly, for all of your victims that we couldn’t save…

“I’m sorry.”

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Patreon Snippets 4

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

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Michael and Gwen many years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

 

Cahethal

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

 

******

 

Marina Dupont

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for everything.”

 

******

Scout

 

Sarah Mason.

Sarah Mason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it anywhere but on a boat.”

 

******

 

Seosten Holiday At The Atherby Camp

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Family Day 40-06

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I didn’t realize that I’d spoken aloud until Koren repeated the word, looking to me then over to Professor Dare. Her mouth was open, the girl gaping pretty much like how I assumed I was.

For her part, Professor Dare was staring down at the body that lay at her feet. She was silent and motionless. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine the expression on it.

My mind was reeling. Explanations for so much that had happened over the year and even before that were flooding into my brain.

Mom… her parents had sacrificed themselves, each in different ways. Her father, my grandfather, had sacrificed his life. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sacrificed her identity, everyone’s memories of her. Everyone had forgotten who she was, her life erased in a way that was very different than her husband, yet still just as potent.

Dare knew Prosser. She’d said things about him that couldn’t come from just a casual acquaintance.

She’d even said that she missed my mother. She said she missed her as a student. But, as the realization thundered its way into my head right then, she hadn’t been a teacher when Mom was a student. Gaia had brought her in as a teacher after she became headmistress, which happened after Mom already left the school. How could Dare possibly miss her as a student?

She had been the one to come and pick me up at the start of the school year. She had showed over and over again that she cared about me. The things she had been so close to saying, but had repeatedly stopped herself from. I had thought that she was simply trying to maintain a teacher-student distance, but it was more than that. So much more.

It made sense. It made sense in a way that I should have figured out before. Was I just blind to it, or had the memory spell been making it hard to put those pieces together until it was made patently obvious?

My mouth opened, and the ground suddenly shook beneath me. It was an earthquake, yet somehow more than that. I felt the rough shaking, and I also felt something else. It was like magic itself was protesting violently. There was a dizziness in my head that made me stumble. Beside me, Koren fell to her knees with a yelp. Bright colors appeared in the sky above us, and a stickiness on my face made me realize that my nose was bleeding. So were the others.

There were clouds in the sky, only they weren’t normal clouds. They were thicker, more full and solid. They looked almost like gigantic, misshapen… body organs. They looked like a twisted, demented versions of a heart, or lungs, pulsating right there in the air above us, beating as though they were alive. Yellowish orange lightning streaked across the sky, cutting through the odd colors while the ground continued to shake. There were fires between the clouds, but it was more than fire, the flames seeming to burn the sky itself away to reveal visions beyond that my brain refused to acknowledge. Horrors lurked through those wounds in the sky, horrors that would have brought tears to the eyes of even the bravest amongst us had they been forced to see them for more than a few seconds. Living terror peeked through those cuts. Peeked through… and saw us. It met our gaze, its hunger… its amusement… its power swelling.  

And then it stopped. The sky faded back to its regular color. The ground went still once more. The lightning stopped, and those weird organ clouds disappeared. Everything was still and quiet once more.

“It didn’t break.” There was relief in Dare’s voice, and I saw her slump just a little bit. “It didn’t break. The spell held. They’re not coming back.”

The Fomorians. That was what all of that was. It was the spell that had banished them from the world reacting to us finding out the truth about her. It had been damaged, it had nearly shaken itself apart, nearly failed. But not permanently. It held, though by what strand I had no idea. There was no way of knowing just how close we had just come to the Fomorians having a new open invitation to invade the planet.

No way of knowing just how close we had come to complete destruction, except too close. Entirely too close. If that was the spell’s reaction to just Koren and me learning the truth, I had no questions about why Dare had kept it secret for so long. If the Fomorians made it back here, if they managed to invade again… it would basically end society as we knew it.

And then I realized exactly what the position Dare had been in right then. She could either press the button to kill innocent people as well as Vanessa, Avalon, and one of her own grandchildren, or risk the spell breaking and thus condemn a lot more people to death. No wonder she had sounded so tortured, so broken when she made her decision.

But it was even more than that. Not only did she risk the spell breaking, to do so, she had to kill another one of her grandchildren. Ammon may have been a psychotic creep, but he was still her grandson. And the way he had been was forced on him by Fossor. That was why I had been so hesitant to just straight up kill him. For everything he’d done, he was still a kid that could maybe have been fixed if we could just stop him long enough. But now… now…

“I had no choice.” Dare’s voice still sounded empty, hollow. “He had so much protection, so many other ways to escape. And it was the only way to be sure it would end his orders to the people in the stadium. If he survived and figured out the truth…”

Koren spoke up then. “It would be three people figuring out the truth of who you were. Four, if he got back to Fossor.”

Dare nodded silently before looking up to us. There were tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

My head shook quickly. “No, don’t apologize. You don’t have anything to apologize for. We get it.” Glancing to the girl beside me for confirmation, I waited until she nodded and then repeated, “We get it. We both get it. If that’s how the spell reacted to adjust to that… You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Koren nodded. “Do… do you need to erase our memories? To protect the spell.”

Dare looked taken aback, her mouth opening and shutting briefly. “You… you would both…” Then she took a few quick steps, her arms moving out to grab onto Koren and me, pulling us into a tight embrace. I was pretty sure that she had been waiting to do that for a very, very long time.

We hugged her back, while the woman whispered both of our names. Then she shook her head. “No. The damage to the spell has been done now, and it held. There’s no reason to be erase it from your memories.” Pausing, she looked to us seriously. “But—”

“We can’t tell anyone, or it’ll damage the spell even more.” Even as I said those words, my eyes widened. “Wait, what about Tabbris? The next time she possesses me…”

Dare shook her head. “She will not know. She won’t be able to read your thoughts on the subject. Or it will just replace those… specific ones. That’s the way the spell works. The information can’t be involuntarily pulled from your head like that. Not even through possession.”

I really couldn’t tell Tabbris, or anyone, I realized. If the spell had reacted that badly to the two of us finding out, the risk of anyone else knowing, even my little sister were… no. I couldn’t endanger everything like that. When the time came, if it came and Tabbris or any of the others found out that I had kept that secret, I had to believe that they would forgive me for it. They would understand. In this particular case, lying really was the best thing to do. As much as I might’ve loathed doing so to Tabbris, my father, or any of the other people I cared about… I had to.

Koren swallowed hard before speaking my own thoughts aloud. “Then we’ll keep it secret. We won’t tell anyone. We’re not going to risk…” She trailed off then, going silent as her eyes moved to the body on the ground. “Oh my God. That means that… that he was…”

My eyes followed hers. Ammon. Ammon was dead. The shock of realizing who Professor Dare really was had completely overshadowed that fact. But it was true. The threat who had been lurking in the background of my thoughts for so long was… was dead. Just like that. My own half-brother, raised by a monster who in turn had made the boy into one as well. He was… he was dead. It didn’t seem real. But it was. His body was there. His body was… was… there.

Staring down at him for a second, I felt bile rise up in my throat. Mom… Mom, what was I going to tell her? What would Fossor tell her? Oh God. His body was… was practically dismembered. He looked almost like a… victim that way, like… the little kid he was supposed to be. A little kid whose head had been… had been…

I turned, falling to my knees to throw up there on the ground. It felt like I was heaving my entire stomach out, as tears stung my eyes. Nearby, I could hear Koren in basically the same position.

Dare moved to kneel between us, putting a hand on each of our backs, repeating herself from earlier. “I couldn’t… risk him realizing the truth. If he did, and he told Fossor…” Her fingers tightened against my back almost painfully, and I heard her make a noise that sounded like a barely restrained, choked sob. As hard as it was for me to see that, she was the one who’d had to actually do it. She’d been the one to make that awful, impossible choice to kill her own grandson. Evil or not, psychotic or not, he was still her grandson. And a part of me would always wonder if he could have been saved.

Just as, I was sure, she herself would wonder the same thing.

We knelt there like that, the three of us turned away from the terrible, disgusting sight behind us. I was just trying to get myself under control when Koren abruptly jerked upward, blurting, “Mom!”

Oh God, oh fuck. Right, the distraction of everything we had just learned vanished in an instant. Both of us scrambled to our feet, while Dare quietly informed us, “The fighting inside is over. Ammon’s control disappeared the moment he–the crowd stopped fighting. The others are alive, but… confused. We should go to them.” She paused then, picking herself up before looking to us. “I know you have a lot of questions. Now that… that you know, I can answer them. But it will have to be later, okay? We need to get out of here. And you can’t… you can’t act differently in front of others.”

The two of us nodded. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to say. But at the moment, making sure that Avalon, Vanessa, and Abigail were okay was all I could really focus on, all I wanted to focus on. So we promised to keep acting as normal as possible (given the situation), before Dare gestured to create a portal that would take us back to the baseball field.

On the way to the portal, I hesitantly asked, “What about everyone else? Fossor, he was—“

“Controlling Escalan,” Dare finished for me. “Yeah. And we didn’t know you weren’t part of any group until I went around and checked them.”

Pausing at the portal, I asked, “How did you find us to begin with? I know he had this whole place blocked off from communication and monitoring spells.”

It was her turn to be quiet for a moment before shaking her head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just heard a whisper by my ear that told me your latitude and longitude and that you were in danger. I don’t know who it was, or how they knew where you were. It sounded like a girl’s voice, and… familiar. But other than that…”

Great, more mysteries. Then again, if they had sent Dare to save us, maybe they weren’t so bad. Or maybe it was Jophiel? I could see that.

Either way, we passed through the portal and I immediately saw Avalon, Abigail, and Vanessa. The other two girls had just finished helping my sister out of the contraption holding her down. When we appeared, they spun toward us. Avalon and Vanessa had their weapons up before stopping short. Disabling her gauntlets, Avalon rushed to me, arms going around me tightly as she basically lifted me off the ground. She didn’t say anything, but then again, she didn’t need to.

“You saved her,” I murmured while returning the hug as tightly as I could. “You saved my sister.”

Looking around, I saw a lot of unconscious and injured civilians, along with others who were awake and incredibly confused. I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would convince them had happened, but it was probably going to be a doozy of a story.

Seeing all those people and thinking about what Ammon had said, I had no doubt that it had taken everything Vanessa and Avalon had to save Abigail without killing any of them. If they hadn’t been there… My body shuddered fully at the thought and I hugged Avalon even tighter. Then I hugged Vanessa and thanked her as well before moving to look to Abigail. Koren was still hugging her and didn’t look like she was going to let go anytime soon.

So I simply met her gaze and nodded to her with a very slight, kind of sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay.” Boy was that ever an understatement.

Dare’s head was tilted, as if she was listening to something. Then she straightened a little and nodded. “We’re going back to the school. They’re sending people in to deal with the bombs here and to get the civilians home. They’ll be okay.”

She paused then before adding, “Gaia has someone collecting the body.”

So she created another portal, and we passed through it together. Avalon and Vanessa were both giving me and Koren confused looks about what had happened, but it wasn’t until we were back on what turned out to be the school grounds outside of the main building that they finally spoke.

“Where’s Ammon?” Vanessa asked. “What happened? What bombs? What body?”

Answering the last question first, I swallowed before looking toward Abigail as I quietly explained, “Ammon, he… he’s dead.” Even saying it out loud didn’t make it seem real. I felt hollow inside. The idea that the psychotic little boy who had been my little brother and a threat lurking in the background of my mind for so much of the year was just dead now didn’t really compute.

All three of the others look taken aback by that, eyes widening as their mouths fell open. It was Abigail who found her voice first. “What? Dead? But he was… he was just… it wasn’t…”

“There was no choice.” That was Dare. There was guilt, resignation, and sadness in her voice, all for reasons beyond what Abigail could possibly have understood in that moment. I had far more of the story and even I wasn’t sure I actually comprehended the things that the woman was feeling right then.  

She continued, telling them about how Koren and I had been fighting to stop him from detonating those bombs and that she had shown up right at the end. She told them that there had been no other choice when he had started to order her to detonate the bombs. We wouldn’t have been able to stop her, and she’d had no idea exactly what would knock him unconscious or not with all his powers. The only choice she’d had was to kill him to save them and everyone in that stadium.

Glancing around while listening to that, I could see pockets of people here and there already popping in all over the grounds, appearing either through portals or coming out of the Pathmaker. More and more kept arriving, bloodied, injured Heretics trying to understand what they had just been through. It was pretty much total confusion. From what snippets of conversation I could pick up here in there as people moved past, no one knew exactly what happened. And it didn’t seem like anyone was looking our way.

Abigail looked torn, her face ashen as she shook her head back and forth. “There was supposed to be a way to save him, to change him. He was just a little boy. Just–”

“A boy whose soul Fossor destroyed,” I pointed out softly, wincing at the look on Dare’s face. Yeah, I definitely couldn’t imagine the guilt she was going through. “I have to think that the boy Ammon could have been would have rather died than let you and all those other people die in his place. Maybe that’s childish and naïve, but it’s the best I’ve got right now. It’s the best any of us have got.”

Before any of us could say anything else, the others all started to arrive. The rest of the team, Deveron, Tristan, Haiden (with Sariel still possessing him), Larissa, even Gaia. The latter looked harried, but just as relieved as everyone else when she saw us (especially Avalon in her case) with her own eyes.

As we all took turns exchanging embraces and greetings, Sands blurted, “What the hell happened? Are you guys okay? What was that? What—”

Gaia interrupted. “Perhaps it would be best to have this conversation somewhere more private and comfortable.

“I have a feeling it will be a long one.”

******

“Does Gaia know?”

It was hours later, as I sat out on the beach watching the ocean. Next to me was Professor Dare.

For once, I actually wasn’t the center of the Committee’s focus. They apparently had no idea, as a group, what had happened. They didn’t know Fossor was the one behind it, just as they didn’t know that I hadn’t been transported along with everyone else. I wasn’t a suspect, and I was kind of glad about that. After everything that had happened, I couldn’t have dealt with another Committee interrogation right then. As far as they were concerned I had just been part of another group that was transported somewhere and had to be rescued. Which, to be fair, was kind of the truth in some ways.

They did know that the rope had been stolen, and several Heretics killed in the process. But they didn’t know who was responsible for it, since no one who had seen anything had survived to give an explanation. All they knew was that all of this had been a huge distraction so that whoever was behind it could steal that rope.

I’d heard a few people trying to blame Eden’s Garden for it, which I really hope it was a theory that wouldn’t gain too much traction. All we needed right now was war with them. Fossor would probably find it hilarious.

Fossor. The thought of him made me think of my mother. How was she doing with the news about Ammon? Yet again, I desperately wanted to talk to her. I wanted to be there with her. Not there, come to think of it. I wanted her to be here with me. I wanted us to be somewhere safe. I wanted to be able to hug her. How was she dealing with Ammon’s death?

Dare had been quiet for a moment after my question about Gaia. Finally, she spoke up. “Does she know that I am Joselyn’s mother? Yes. She learned it shortly before she brought me to the school. She’s the only one. Her, and now you two.” She looked to me then, face softening. “I know this must be very confusing.”

“Actually, it answers a lot of questions,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Err, except one really. You were Grandma Atherby, so you should’ve known about the Seosten. And if Gaia knew about you… why…”

Dare winced. “Simple answer? I forgot.”

I stared at her. “You… forgot…? Wait, you mean it was a–”

“Memory spell, yes.” She nodded. “Or rather, part of the same memory spell that erased my identity. The… Seosten who helped us with it didn’t want someone who was going to be completely erased from all of their memories to be running around with all that information about them. So part of the deal for their help with it was that I would allow all knowledge about them to be erased from my mind. And it was, until we found out about the Seosten without any help from me. After that, it started coming back. And I told Gaia what I could.”

That made sense, I supposed. And it also confirmed that the Seosten were definitely helping during the Fomorian invasion, though I did wonder what kind of nerve they had to be setting terms when they’d wanted the Fomorians gone as much as everyone else did.

There was a lot I wanted to get to on that subject. But another one came to mind right then. “The prophecy that said your blood would destroy the world or whatever it was. Could they have been talking about Mom and her revolution? That’s kind of destroying the world if you think about it.“

Dare nodded slowly. “Trust me, I’ve thought about that a lot. It could be. I don’t know, but it might be that. Or it could be something that Fossor does.”

Biting my lip, I admitted, “I don’t really want to think about that right now. Could you… Could you maybe tell me a little about you? And about my grandfather… and my mother when she was little.” By the end of that, my voice was a whisper.

Dare gave me a soft smile. “Yes,” she murmured, “It has been quite a while since I was able to talk about it with anyone other than Gaia. But I think I would like that very much.”

She started to talk then, and I tried to shut out all of the other thoughts that were swirling in my head. Ammon was dead. But Fossor had still gotten his hands on the Hangman’s rope. What was he planning to do with it? Something that powerful, that important, it had to be pretty bad. Especially given the lengths to which he’d gone to get it. And I had the feeling we were going to find out just how bad at the worst possible time.

But there was nothing I could do about it right then. Nothing I could change immediately.

Later, there would be time to deal with everything else. But for that moment, I simply listened to Dare telling stories. Honestly, I had the feeling that she needed it as much as I did.

I couldn’t help my mother yet. I couldn’t go to her, I couldn’t be there for her when she needed me.

But for the first time… I could be there for my grandmother. Not answer anything, not solve anything, but just be there.

And sometimes… being there was enough.

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Family Day 40-04

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All the people and powers that we had protecting us. People who could face down literal armies. And once again, we were on our own. Fossor had managed to occupy the entire Crossroads Heretic force, and cut off our communications. Given time, we could have restored them. We could have found someone to help us. Somehow. But that was time we didn’t have, and he knew it. He knew that I had to choose to either find my mother, or save Abigail and Koren, and that I wouldn’t be able to wait for help, no matter how fast they dealt with that situation. I had to do something right then.

He hadn’t known that I would have Avalon and Vanessa with me, but even with them, it didn’t change what had to happen. Ammon had to be stopped. Koren and Abigail had to be saved. We couldn’t wait for help. Not now. Not with something like this. I knew what Ammon was capable of. This… we had to deal with it. Now.

Emerging through the portal, the three of us immediately found ourselves standing in an enormous, utterly empty parking lot. There were no cars anywhere. Straight ahead of us was some kind of baseball stadium. Minor league, I was guessing from the size of this place. The area looked abandoned. The sign where the team name was supposed to be was cracked and broken, with graffiti on it. In the distance, I could make out the scoreboard at the far end of the actual field and it was clearly broken as well. This place obviously hadn’t hosted an actual game in quite awhile.

There was someone behind us, and I spun that way, only to find a man I didn’t recognize. He looked homeless, beard grizzled and gray and clothes just this side of falling apart. He was holding something in one hand, and there were lights blinking on his vest.

Vest. Bomb. My eyes and my item sense both agreed with that instantly. The man was wearing a bomb vest, and the thing in his hand was one of those deadman switches that would trigger if he let go of it.

Well, this just managed to get even worse than it already had been. Which was kind of impressive.

“S-stop!” The man blurted the word, looking and sounding completely terrified. “D-d-don’t come any closer. Don’t try to stop me. He said I have to let it go if you try to stop me! Please! I have to do what he says. I can’t stop it!”

Quickly holding up my hands to stop the other two, I shook my head at the man. “It’s okay. We’re not coming toward you. The boy, little boy about this high, blonde hair, he’s the one that told you?”

The man’s head bobbed up and down, his eyes wide with fear. “He made me put it on. He said to wait here and escort you to him. If you do anything else, I have to… to…”

“It’s all right,” I promised, “we’re not going to…” Trailing off, I glanced to the others before looking back at the man. “What exactly did he say to you? Be specific.”

The guy was almost hyperventilating as he whimpered, “He said to stand here, right here, and that a blonde girl would appear. And that when she did, I had to take her to him and if she tried to stop me or take the bomb away or anything I had to let go of the detonator.”

“Right.” Clearing my throat, I held my hands out to show they were empty while carefully enunciating, “I’m not coming near you. I am not going to take the detonator away. I am not going to stop you. I’m going to do everything you tell me to. I am going to do everything he wants.”

The others understood immediately. Vanessa took a few cautious steps that way, moving slowly up to the man while his gaze snapped back and forth between us. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “What’s she doing?!”

I raised my voice to keep his attention. “Hey, see, I’m not coming near you. He said that I couldn’t come near you. He said that I couldn’t take the detonator way. So I’m not. I’m going to do everything you tell me to and I am not trying to stop you.”

Sure enough, Ammon’s orders had been so specific that Vanessa was able to go right up to him and very carefully take the detonator from his grasp. She got her own finger over the button and pulled it out of his shaking hand. Then Avalon moved up to him and began to work on the vest itself. It took her about ten seconds to find the right wires to cut with a small energy blade from her gauntlet, then she simply cut the vest free of him and pulled it away. “It’s safe.”

The man let out a sigh of relief, collapsing to his knees while hugging himself as he rocked back-and-forth a bit. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”

Crouching in front of him, I gently put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Where were you supposed to take me?”

He shuddered, looking like he wanted to throw up before answering shakily. “The stadium, the field. He wanted me to take you out to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Okay,” I murmured, “then you should—”

“Down!” That was Avalon. The girl was suddenly right in front of us, snapping her arm up as a shield was projected from her gauntlet. Just as the shield shimmered into view, there was a loud crack of a gunshot, and a bullet ricocheted off of it.

My eyes snapped that way in time to see the sniper laying on the roof of the distant ticket booth. He racked another round and fired at the shield again.

Shifting my staff into its bow form, I notched an energy arrow, took a breath, and then aimed high over the shield before letting loose. The arrow arced up and over before landing close enough to the man that the burst of kinetic energy it released made him roll out of the way with a cry.

“Vanessa!” I blurted while loosing another arrow that way. The poor civilian guy was covering his head and openly sobbing. Which, honestly, was pretty understandable given the situation. Apparently Ammon had thought to have a back-up plan after all. How annoying was that?

“On it!” the other girl replied. She was already shrinking down out of her clothes and into the jumpsuit before that in turn faded into the feathers of her raven form. As a bird, she looked at me and waited for cover.

I provided it. While Avalon focused on keeping her shield up as two more shots ricocheted off of it, I launched a couple quick arrows in rapid succession. They forced the sniper to pull back a bit and gave Vanessa an opening to fly straight up into the air. She shot up quickly, gaining as much height as possible before the man could recover.

From high above and ahead of the man, the Vanessa raven dove toward him, picking up speed as she went. He barely had time to notice her approach before she was passing by directly above him. In that instant, the girl shifted back into her human form, already lashing out with her whip. It wrapped around him, and her momentum carried her past the man while he was yanked off his feet and onto his back.

I couldn’t see what exactly happened next, but a second later Vanessa was standing on the edge of the roof holding the man’s gun, which she tossed aside before waving to us.

Avalon and I both looked around cautiously for a second. Finding no threats, the other girl lowered her shield and looked to the cowering man. “Go,” she ordered with a firm gesture off into the distance towards the road. “Get the hell out of here and keep running.”

Avalon might not have had Ammon’s power to control people, but she might as well have in that moment, because the man instantly shot to his feet and sprinted away like his pants were on fire. Which, I guessed I really couldn’t blame him for.

Vanessa joined us, and I grimaced. “Well, Ammon knows we’re here now. And he knows his plan A didn’t go right. And he probably also knows his sniper didn’t finish the job either.”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “I possessed him to knock him out,” she informed us. “And I read his mind. He doesn’t know anything except what Ammon told him to do. He’s just a SWAT sniper that Ammon grabbed and put there.”

Gesturing to herself, Avalon muttered, “Observe my super-surprised face that Ammon doesn’t have a bunch of loyal friends to recruit for this shit.” Looking to me, she asked, “Did you check your phone?”

“Check my– Oh, right.” Digging it out of my pocket, I replied, “I would die of shock if Fossor didn’t cover his–yeah, it’s not working. What about you?” I looked to Vanessa. “Whoever you were possessing before, with that whole practice thing, could they help?” Belatedly I added, “Though I guess it’s a moot point since you possessed the sniper.” 

“It was Doug anyway,” she informed me, wincing. “We were testing out that whole anti-Whisper spell thing to see if it affected hybrid Seosten. And I’m pretty sure they have their own problems right now, even if I could have still used it.”

“Point,” I agreed, biting my lip. The last person I’d possessed who was still alive was Scout. But she was in the same position as Doug. Not useful in this case. And I didn’t trust myself to project just enough to talk to them without teleporting there, which would totally screw this whole thing up.  “So that’s out, and so are the phones. We could try getting out of range of whatever jammer he’s using, but…

“We don’t know how far that is, or how long they have,” Avalon finished for me. She sighed before starting to move to the stadium. “Right, then we need to get inside and on the offensive before that little puke starts up plan C.”

As three of us jogged for the entrance, I noted, “He’s had all the time he wanted to turn this place into one giant trap. We’re on his turf.”

“On that note,” Vanessa put in while holding a hand out to stop us from passing through the open ticket gate. She knelt, looking at the turnstile before gesturing. “Spells. Lots of them. I think I see one to knock people unconscious if they aren’t a specific person, and this other one over here inflicts pain until a password is said. There’s more, probably on all of these.”

Charging my staff in one hand, I noted, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to make sure those spells can’t work anymore.” With that, I shoved my staff up against the nearest turnstile and triggered a blast that blew the metal off and sent the whole thing careening away from us. “There.”

At the same time, Avalon used the energy blades from her gauntlets to cut another turnstyle open before turning one of the blades into a grapple claw thing that picked up the metal and tossed it away.

Our way sufficiently opened then, the three of us cautiously passed through while keeping our eyes open. Straight ahead of us was the main walkway entrance that led to the field and bleachers. To either side was the gift shop and a couple of food places advertising horrifically overpriced snacks.

“He wants me out on the field,” I murmured. “That’s where our friend back there was supposed to escort me, right to the pitcher’s mound.”

“Which probably means that’s where he has a bunch of traps,” Vanessa pointed out. “He might even have some spell to take you somewhere completely different, or knock you out, or anything.”

Avalon nodded. “We’re not going near that field. Playing into his grubby little hands would just be stupid.”

“Doesn’t that mean that it’s perfect for you?”

The familiar voice came from a nearby PA speaker, one of the things that let people hear the game announcements while they weren’t actually watching the field. It made me jump a bit, before I glared at it. “Ammon,” I spat.

His voice carried on then, addressing the other two as if I hadn’t said anything. “You’re not supposed to be here. This is a family thing. Didn’t you pay attention to the calendar? It’s family day. Family day. You’re not family. You’re cheating. Go away!”

“They’re a lot more family than you are,” I snapped. “Ammon, let Koren and Abigail go. This isn’t going to end well for you. Just let them go and walk away. Fossor is just using you as a distraction. You have to know that. You’re a spoiled kid, but you’re not that stupid. He doesn’t care what happens to you here as long as he gets what he wants.”

There was the ever so brief moment of silence where I was silly enough to think that he might have listened. Then the boy’s voice came back.

“My name is Ammon. Pound your heads against the wall until you pass out.”

This was the moment, the real test. I tried not to visibly react too much, wanting to look confident for however Ammon was watching us, be it cameras, a spell, a power, or whatever. I wanted him to think that I had no reason to think his words might work. Biting the inside of my cheek, I counted to three, then looked to the others. “So, how about it? You guys have any desire to beat your heads against the wall?”

There, now they knew what Ammon had ordered them to do, since the plugs in their ears would have cut off their hearing. I didn’t want him to figure out that they couldn’t hear his words, since that might give him some idea of how to get past it. Giving Ammon as little information as possible while getting him to give up his own info, that was the way to get through this.

Also, beating him into a coma with my stick. That was a good way to get through it too.

“Hey!” Ammon sounded taken aback. “I said, my name is Ammon, beat your heads against the wall until you fall unconscious!”

Okay we couldn’t sit here all day and let him keep trying. But I also didn’t want him to know that there was a limit, so I forced myself to shrug languidly up at the speaker. “You know, we could just wander over and check out that gift shop over there if you’re busy.”

The rage in the boy’s voice was almost worth it. “You’re cheating!” He blurted through that loudspeaker. “You’re not supposed to cheat! It’s a game and we’re playing by the rules! It was supposed to be you and me and my things, not these stupid girls. You’re cheating and that’s not fair. How would you like if I cheated too?”

“Pretty sure I’d die of shock the day that you don’t cheat,” I muttered under my breath before offering a smile. “You sound upset. Maybe you need a hug. Let me come find you and give you one.”

“Announcer’s box,” Avalon said flatly. “That’s where he’s got to be. It gives a full view of the field where he wanted you to go, and control of that PA system.”

I had a feeling that she was right, and the three of us quickly started running further into the stadium to reach it. But before we went too far, Vanessa suddenly struck a hand out to stop us. Her gaze was past the stands, all the way down into the field. “Look!”

I looked, and my day went from bad to worse. The field wasn’t empty, not by a long shot. There were dozens, if not hundreds of figures all around the baseline and back toward the stands. In the middle of the field, right by the pitcher’s mound, there was what looked like an actual guillotine. Yeah, a guillotine. And strapped into it was Abigail.

There was some kind of contraption beside the guillotine that had ten lights on it. Seven of the lights were red and three were green. There was a big red button at the bottom.

Koren was there too, and she seemed to be fighting off two of the crowd that had run out there. But they didn’t seem that interested in fighting her. Instead, they were dead set on reaching that button, and she was equally determined to stop them.

“See,” Ammon’s voice snidely announced from another speaker, “she knows the rules. Every time they hit the button, a light turns green. When all 10 lights are green, fwooshsniiict! Off goes Mommy’s head!”

His voice turned a bit conversational then. “I didn’t really want to throw away a sister like that, but Father says she’s useless anyway. And I guess having a niece to play with is just as fun.”

Then his anger audibly returned. “But you had to start cheating. So maybe I’ll cheat too. We were all playing by the rules until you showed up and ruined it. Now how about we don’t have just two or three at a time? How about…”

His voice suddenly filled the whole stadium and the field below, pouring from every loudspeaker as he vindictively announced, “Stupid sister is a big, fat cheater! So now… my name is Ammon, everybody go push that button!”

The crowd immediately started to surge that way, and I knew there was absolutely nothing that Koren would be able to do to stop them for more than a couple of seconds. Not against that many. I let out a cry of alarm, taking a step that way before a hand caught my shoulder.

“Felicity,” Avalon quickly spoke while pulling me back. “Go. Get to Ammon. We’ll stop them.” She was already moving, sprinting down the steps of the stands to reach the field. Her figure was a blur of motion as she sped to reach the spot in time, slamming right into one of the group who had been trying to get past Koren.

Vanessa gave me a quick nod while following after. “We’ll keep them away from the button, just get to Ammon!” She glanced back for a brief second, meeting my gaze. “I promise,” the other girl informed me solemnly. “We’ll stop them.”

Then she was gone, she and Avalon throwing themselves into the middle of that crazed and mind controlled crowd to help Koren keep them away from the button.

Which left me. I had to trust them in that moment. I had to let Avalon and Vanessa save Koren and Abigail. I had to let them fight out there while I dealt with the actual source of the problem.

Turning, I looked at the sign on the nearby wall that indicated the way to the announcers box. Gritting my teeth, I held tight to my staff and muttered under my breath, ”Okay, you little psycho asshole. Let’s finish this.”

Then I started to run.

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Family Day 40-03

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Fossor. He had been here all this time, right under our noses. I had no doubt in that second that he’d been here for months, at least. Maybe even from the beginning of the school year. Or even earlier. Sands and Scout said the food tasted better when they were kids? How long had he been here? And how much had he stepped it up since I arrived? After all, he probably wanted to keep an eye on me once I was brought to the school, and who better to do it through then the school chef? No one ever paid attention to the cook. He just stayed in his kitchen and did his job.

And listened. And watched.

Casually, Escalan touched two fingers against the door behind him, and I saw a couple of red spell sigils appear briefly. Only then did he step away from the door and speak, “It’s good to see you in the flesh again, dear.” He paused, then looked down at the body he was currently puppeting. “So to speak, at least. Unfortunately, I believe my physical presence there would cause more problems than I’m currently prepared to deal with. But then, this wouldn’t be your first dealings with an absent parental figure.”

“Shut up!” I suddenly blurted despite myself. I couldn’t think. My heart was beating a million miles an hour and I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I had to believe that he’d been telling the truth about me being cut off from contact. If my cell phone wasn’t working, maybe Wyatt’s protective spells would let them know what was going on.

Something in my face must have given that thought away, because Fossor, through Escalan, chuckled. “Oh, dear Felicity, your spells are still broadcasting just as they should, and will betray no surprises or trouble. For the moment, at least. Besides, as you well know, I mean you no harm right now.” He winked, the words somehow mocking. “I am utterly incapable of harming you, after all.”

We both knew what he meant by that, and how much he could get around it. My eyes snapped around quickly, looking for anything that could give me an idea what to do. But there was nothing. I couldn’t even get a message to Tabbris back with Dad. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Why didn’t I possess someone at the camp? Then I could’ve recalled to them.

Finally, all I could do was snap my gaze back to the nearby man and blurt, “What are you doing here?! What do you want?! What are you— wait. Wait, the food. The food, what did you do to the food?!”

The horror of the possibilities had me already moving. Forgetting myself, I ran for the man, or rather, for the door behind him. I had to warn them.

To my surprise, Fossor didn’t try to stop me. In fact, he had Escalan’s body step out of the way. I knew that should have been a hint, but all I can think about was warning my friends. I got to the door… and suddenly the world swam and I was back on the other side of the room.

It was some kind of teleport spell, short range. When I got near the door, it simply reset me back over here.

My staff was in my hands then, as I went for the man, swinging it hard while demanding, “What did you do?!”

The blow struck home, not that it actually did anything, of course. Escalan’s head simply snapped a bit to the side, before Fossor made him sigh softly, like he was disappointed.

“You are entirely too old for temper tantrums, young lady. But because I understand this is an emotional time, I will indulge you.”

Using two fingers, he gestured, and I felt all of my strength suddenly leave me. It was all I could do to stand up, staggering a bit against the nearby counter before using it to brace myself.

He continued then. “To answer your question, I have been using this time as your chef productively, carefully preparing a very specific poison.”

My eyes widened at that, and I gathered what strength I had to throw myself at him once more with another swing. It meant nothing, as he just sighed and stepped backwards, letting me fall on my face.

“As I was saying, this very special poison required months of very careful testing and work. After all, if it was going to do what I needed to do, there could be no mistakes, no second chances. Fortunately, that meant that I had a ready excuse to stay here and see how you were doing. I must admit, though I don’t know the whole story, I am very impressed by your work this year. You are quite the overachiever. Your mother is proud. I promised her I’d tell you that.”

Using the end of my staff to push myself up a bit, I glared at him. “You’re a monster,” I spat. “What poison? What are you trying to do? You can’t possibly think that you can just poison all these Heretics to death. There’s no fucking way.”

“Well, no,” he agreed. “Unfortunately, Heretics are entirely too resilient for that. Particularly the stronger ones. Fortunately, killing them was not my goal at this particular moment. Merely… distraction. And that is something that this particular poison is a very good at creating. You see, it’s not just a poison to make them sick. It’s also an… anchor to a specific spot. When it kicks in, the person who eats it is yanked to that specific spot and, until the poison is purged, they can’t leave. But yes, it also it makes them sick. Or rather, weak. It makes them quite tired. Similar to what you’re feeling now, actually. Which isn’t direct harm, helpfully enough. It’s an ingenious hunting method devised by the Kakaseun people. They would leave food out as bait, and when the bait was taken, their prey would be teleported to the spot they designated, and, conveniently enough, would also be quite tired. Dinner delivered directly to where the Kakaseun wanted them, and left too weak to fight back.

“And even better, every single body that is affected will give off a… let’s call it an aura, which infects those around them. That way, even those who weren’t directly planned for will be, well, dealt with.”

I stared at him. “Nothing that affects all those students without killing them is going to do a thing to Gaia, or the Committee members, or–”

“Of course not,” the man interrupted. “But as I said, a distraction. You see, each of the Heretics who are affected will be sent to one of a dozen different possible traps. Each of those traps is full of… let’s say very dangerous things. Your teachers and such may not be sick, but they will be quite thoroughly occupied with keeping their students alive for the time being.”

He winked then. “All in all, let’s just say no one will be in any shape to interrupt your mother anytime soon.”

“Mom?!” I blurted, eyes widening once more, “What are you talking about? Where’s my mom?! What are you making her do?!”

His response was a slow smile. “What I’ve been planning for this whole year, of course. Actually, for quite a bit longer. But I wanted it to be this year because you were here and, well, call me sentimental. I kind of wanted you to be here for it.

“Your mother is retrieving something very important for me. The rope of the creature who provides all of these people their power.”

“Wh- the rope?” Now I was really lost. “You mean the rope that hanging near Bosch’s place? What does that even… I mean… what?”

That smile, the one that I recognized as Fossor even on another man’s face, came back. “That’s right, you did get a chance to see it, didn’t you? Yes, the Heretics keep it under a very close watch, despite how it may have seemed at the time. It is very… protected, let’s say. And there are always plenty of lapdogs ready to come and defend it. But in this case, well, they will be rather distracted.”

The poisoned food, I realized. He was going to distract all of Crossroads by infecting everyone here with that… teleportation plus sickness food, and then have Mom attack that place and steal the rope while they were busy. My mouth opened and shut a few times before I blurted, “What do you even want the rope for?! This is a lot of work to go through just for a souvenir.” I knew it was for far more than that, of course. But I was hoping that dismissing it like that would make the man explain more than he intended to about his overall plan.

Unfortunately, given the look of that the man gave me, he knew exactly what I was trying to do. And he didn’t even indulge me. Instead, he wagged one finger at me a couple times. “Now now, I may be inclined to indulge your curiosity to a certain extent, given our close relationship, but there are limits even to that. After all, we can’t have all the surprises spoiled, can we?” He winked at me.

Damn it, what was I supposed to do?! What could I do? Delaying things clearly only worked in his favor. He was speaking to me through this zombie proxy, so whatever he was really doing, my talking wasn’t stopping it. Besides, he had Mom to do the dirty work. But I couldn’t get past him. I couldn’t get out of the room, and I couldn’t contact anybody. I couldn’t do anything!

Or maybe… maybe I could do something. Refocusing on Escalan, I thought about what I had been learning from Brom. Zombie. Zombie. Escalan was a zombie. So maybe I could control him to let me out of here. Biting my lip, I pushed as hard as I could at making his arm move.

His arm rose, and I felt a brief moment of elation. Which lasted just long enough for me to realize that it was the wrong arm. I’d been focusing on the right one, and the left had risen.

Seeing my expression, Fossor made Escalan laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was this one, wasn’t it?” Raising his right hand, the man chuckled low. “A fine effort. Really, I’m rather impressed. Yes, dear girl, you are developing very nicely. When we’re all a nice, happy family, I’ll teach you.”

“We’re not a family!” I shouted then, unable to help myself. “I’m never going to be some stupid devoted daughter for you, you sick fuck!”

“Daughter?” Fossor had the nerve to make Escalan look sickened and offended by that. “I should hope not. That would make our future engagements quite… creepy indeed.”

The blood drained from my face, and I forced myself back to my feet. It was so hard. I felt more tired than I had pretty much all year, or at least since I’d gotten the Amarok boost. Whatever Fossor had done to me, it took all I had just to stand up, even leaning on my staff. “You… you sick piece of shit. I don’t know why you want that rope, or what the hell you think you’re doing. But you’re going to fail. We’re going to find my mother, and we’re going to kill you.”

Of course, in that moment it was an impotent promise. And Fossor treated it as such, simply inclining Escalan’s head before offering a casual, “I eagerly anticipate your attempts. But in the meantime, perhaps you should be focusing on rescuing a different family member.”

That threw me more than almost anything else he could have said right then. “I don’t–what?”

His expression turned wistful. “I have to admit, I’m rather impressed that Ammon managed to keep her a secret for so long. Months, really. But in the end, the truth always emerges. Whether it’s heard from your lips or has to be read off of your extracted intestines, that part is up to you.”

Before I could say anything to that, he elaborated. “Her name is Karen, isn’t it? No, Koren. That was it. Just like her mother should have been. Very…” He breathed in, then out, smiling. “Very touching.”

My blood had run cold as soon as he said the name, and the man continued while I was still trying to find my voice. “Yes, I must admit, of all the things I expected his little secret to be about, that was not one of them. But it was a pleasant surprise. Our family is even bigger than expected. It must have been quite nice for you, hmm? A living niece and a half-sister. For the time being, at least.”

“What–what do you mean, for the time being?” I demanded, finding enough strength to straighten a bit more. I felt almost numb, my emotions incapable of keeping up the level of horror and disgust that this entire conversation was forcing onto me. The helplessness was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to avoid throwing up.

“Well,” he replied, “you see, that’s the thing. I have no need for a woman who reached menopause before ever becoming a Heretic. What on Earth would I ever need such a useless creature for? Fortunately, she had the foresight to bear a child ahead of time. Quite convenient, that. And now, she will provide sufficient entertainment for your little brother, while her death will motivate your niece to wonderful heights of emotion that will be very useful.”

Oh. Apparently my horror could reach new levels. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Ammon’s with–no! No, they’re with the other–” I stopped. “That–that teleportation sickness thing. You… you made it send them somewhere else. Not with the others.”

Adopting a tone as though he was talking to a small child, Fossor-through-Escalan nodded slowly. “Yes, very good. Very good. Koren and Abigail are spending a little quality time with Ammon, so they can all have some fun.” He smiled then. “He really is a rambunctious boy.”

That was enough. More than enough. The rage and helplessness that I had felt building within me every second since realizing just who I was talking to had reached a crescendo. Whatever it took, whatever I had to do, it was time to get past him and stop this. Somehow.

And then Fossor made Escalan simply step aside, gesturing to the door to make the glowing runes disappear. “Well, that should be long enough to get things going.”

Unable to believe it, I stared at him for just a second. “What–now you’re just letting me go?”

That smile returned, as the zombified man replied, “Of course. You have an issue with Ammon, and I prefer to allow my family to work out their own issues amongst themselves. And I do mean amongst themselves. You’ll find it quite impossible to contact anyone else for the time being. After all, this spat is between you and your little brother, not the old king’s remnants. Yes, this will be up to you. It will be interesting, however, to see what you choose.”

“What I choose?” I felt my strength returning. Whatever he had done to me was wearing off. Or maybe he was dismissing it. Either way, it was getting easier to stand up straight.

“Of course.” Fossor’s amusement was plain to both see and hear. “After all, you know precisely where your mother is and what she is doing. You could go to her. How long has it been since you spoke to her in person, since you touched her? Perhaps you could bring her back to you, even save her. Or, you could go and see about Ammon and that entire… situation.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I suppose it depends on what matters more to you right now, hmm?”

“You’re a piece of shit,” I snapped at him, my voice cracking. “And a coward.”

My insults might as well have been water sliding off a duck’s back, for all the attention he paid to them. “You’ll find two portals on the beach. The one on the left will lead you to the same area that your mother is going to. The one on the right will lead you to Ammon’s little game.” He chuckled to himself, his voice turning introspective. “Yes, it will be quite interesting to see what you choose to do. Quite interesting indeed.”

With that, the man stopped talking. Escalan’s body abruptly fell to the floor and lay completely still like the… the corpse that it was. I felt a brief moment of sorrow and loss for the man I’d probably never actually known, before springing into motion. I raced for the door, bracing myself just in case.

There was no teleportation spell. I hit the door and burst through, still moving at a sprint through the empty cafeteria. Portals. Portals on the beach. Could I even trust that? It was stupid. But then again, Fossor’s binding magical agreement with my mother made it so that he couldn’t directly hurt me. So I knew the portals couldn’t actually be that dangerous. But still… still…

This was wrong. It was all wrong. Fossor controlling a body at Crossroads. Why didn’t they detect him? Was he that powerful that he could hide the fact that Escalan was dead and a zombie from… from… all of them, from everyone? I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.

And now, now apparently all the Heretics that should have been able to help me were busy being teleported to some other place and wouldn’t be able to get back here until they actually fixed the poison and dealt with all the ambushes that Fossor had arranged. Which was just great.

I didn’t know how much power it took Fossor to make the magical poison… things that he’d used to send that many Heretics away and keep them occupied. It felt like it should have been impossible. But that was kind of the point of magic. Given enough time and effort, it could do a lot. And time was something Fossor had had plenty of in this case.

Magic wasn’t fast, as Professor Carfried was so fond of saying. But it was thorough. The psycho necromancer had had all year to plan for this. All year–hell, more than that, according to him. Years, maybe even decades, he’d spent preparing for this exact moment. He’d just chosen this particular year to do it because I happened to be here.

Boy, didn’t I just feel special.

Sure enough, as I hit the exit and emerged onto the grounds, I found the place empty. Where there had been hundreds of people just minutes earlier, there was now just… no one. Fossor had successfully teleported every last Heretic away from Crossroads. It was perfect timing on his part. Everyone was attending this thing. Everyone at the school, anyway. And a lot of others besides.

Fumbling my phone out of my pocket, I tried using it again. Nothing. Fossor had been telling the truth. I couldn’t contact anyone. Maybe once I went through the portal, but even then I was pretty damn sure that communications would be blocked on that side too. Which was just great.

I had to focus. They were okay. Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, the other teachers, they were all a lot more powerful and capable than I was and they were with my team, with my friends, with… with my girls. They’d be able to deal with wherever Fossor had sent everyone. Dare wasn’t there, of course. She was still with Kohaku and Tangle at wherever they were staying, keeping the pair company through this. Even without her, however, there were plenty of powerful Heretics that could deal with whatever was out there. Not to mention the Committee members who were there and–yeah, they’d be fine.

But there were others who wouldn’t be. And I had to–

“Felicity!”

Whirling at the sound of the voice, I was just in time to be swept into a tight hug by Avalon. With a gasp, I grabbed on tight. “What–Valley?! How–what?”

She was there. And Vanessa was with her. Avalon and Vanessa were both standing there.

“Mom,” Avalon started shortly, after letting go. “When everything started happening and everyone was disappearing, she said a strange word and then she put this symbol on my arm.”

She showed me her bicep then, where a magical rune glowed. “It burned, but when everyone disappeared, I stayed.”

“Same,” Vanessa confirmed. “Only it was my dad. Err, maybe my mom. I’m not sure who was driving the body right then. It’s some kind of counterspell to whatever… whatever pulled them away.” She looked to me then, frowning. “What pulled them away?”

Oh thank God. Thank whoever. Thank whatever. Avalon was safe. She was here, she hadn’t been sucked away. Well, consciously I knew she would’ve been just as safe with Gaia, if not more so, but still. She was here. She was right here with me. It felt as though a little bit of the weight had lifted from my shoulders. And if Gaia and Haiden or Sariel had the counterspell that readily, maybe they’d be back here sooner than that evil jackass expected.

But still not soon enough.

“Come on,” I blurted, already heading for the beach. “It’s Fossor, I’ll explain on the way.”

So, I did. Running across the table and chair-strewn grounds to reach the beach, I blurted an explanation for everything that Fossor had said about what he was doing and what had happened to the others. “And now Mom’s stealing that rope for Fossor while Ammon has Abigail and Koren. He’s going to kill Abigail just to torture Koren, just to–to break her.”

“We can’t let that happen.” That was Vanessa, as we all skidded to a stop in front of both portals. “But… but your mother.”

“She’ll still be there later,” I announced without hesitation. I’d thought about it the entire time we’d been running. Ever since Fossor had brought it up, really. I’d thought about it, and while there was a bit of… of guilt and disappointment, I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t even a choice, really. Which showed just how little Fossor actually understood about families and loved ones if he thought it would be. I loved my mother. I missed her. But she would survive this. I wouldn’t throw away Abigail’s life and Koren’s… soul just to get a few minutes face to face with my mother. Fossor… he had no idea how actual people worked.

“But you guys can’t come,” I realized then, my gaze snapping to them. “Ammon’s there. You’re–you’re not immune to his power. If he gets near you–” I stopped myself then, not trusting my voice.

“Chambers,” Avalon announced, “we’re not idiots. Show her, Vanessa.”

Blinking that way, I saw the other girl produce something from her pockets. They were… earplugs? They looked sort of like earplugs. Really tiny ones that would be almost entirely invisible inside of the ear.

“We’ve been working on them ever since you explained what Ammon could do,” Avalon informed me. “She did the research for the spells, I worked on them in the lab. Less so after I switched to Security, but I still tinkered with them. We’ve been finishing them up at the camp while I was recovering.”

“They’ve got six charges,” Vanessa informed me. “Every time they hear ‘My name is’ after they’re activated, it triggers one of the charges. The first five make you deaf for a few seconds. So you don’t hear the rest of it, or the order. The last charge knocks you out for a few minutes. We’ve been working on adding more charges to them, but that’s all we managed so far.”

“So, you can hear Ammon try to use his power six times,” I murmured, “and then it just knocks you out.”

The two of them were already putting the little earbud things in place, both of them nodding to me. Avalon lifted her chin. “So no, you’re not doing this by yourself, Chambers.”

“Your mom?” I asked her before looking to Vanessa. “Your… your entire family. You have a thing with people being teleported away.”

“They’ll be okay,” the blonde girl replied. “They’re together. And they’ve got plenty of others with them. They’re not the ones that need help right now. You are. Koren is. Tristan would say we should stay and help you, if he was here. If we hadn’t already erased his anchor spell thing. And I could go straight to Dad if I hadn’t been practicing with my possession power today.”

She sighed then. “I didn’t think I’d need to hold onto that connection with him because they were home. Great timing, huh? But hey, work with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is a chance to save Koren and her mom.”  

I looked back and forth between the two of them briefly, as Avalon nodded in agreement. “Okay then,” I murmured, looking back to the portal in question. “I think we should all go through together, since it’ll probably disappear as soon as one of us goes.”

The three of us held hands then. I took a breath, murmured a quiet prayer, then took three quick steps forward with the others. This was what Fossor wanted me to do, run off to find Ammon so we could get into a fight. But I had to believe that he didn’t expect me to have help. So maybe that would screw up whatever plans he had. Either way, I didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t time to debate anything, and there wasn’t time to wait for the others to get back. There wasn’t time… period. We had to do this, and do it right now.

Together, Avalon, Vanessa, and I passed through the portal, to find Koren and Abigail…

And to deal with Ammon.

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