Vanessa Moon

Fusion 1-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Quick note – Some of you were told that today’s chapter would be the next Patreon snippets. I have, however, decided that interrupting the new year/book immediately after it starts like that is not a great idea. Don’t worry though, Patreon Snippets will be coming out tomorrow as an extra, off-schedule release. Thanks! 

Yup, school. As in classes and learning and everything else. Although it really wasn’t anything like what would be considered a normal school, even by Heretic standards. Especially by Heretic standards, come to think of it. There was, well, definitely a lot more to it.

At the moment, it was the morning after our little adventure at the theater. I was awoken, after getting the two hours of sleep I still needed, by a very small figure clambering onto the bed and falling onto me with a gleeful, “Fick!”

“Oof.” Opening my bleary eyes, I squinted at the tiny, grinning figure laying half-on me. “Hi, Savvy,” I murmured, reaching out to affectionately rub the Seosten toddler’s black hair.

“Fick!” She raised one dark-skinned hand to press against my face. “Fick up now. Bakefast.”

Chuckling despite myself, I sat up a bit and pulled the girl into a hug. “Yeah, I’m up now, so we can have breakfast.” Tickling her nose to make her smile, I asked, “Did Uncle Linc send you in here?” At her eager nod, I tickled her stomach, drawing a squeal from the girl. “I figured.”

Uncle Linc, of course, was my dad. Lincoln. Linc was easier for her to say, and Dad liked it.

With a yawn, I got up and moved over to grab some clothes. I had showered the night before, so I dressed quickly before reaching down to pick up the giggling toddler. Holding her, I headed out of my room and into the main part of my father’s cabin. I’d been living there all summer with Dad and (about half the time) Tabbris, though that would be changing somewhat as of this morning.

Tabbris and our father were both sitting at the table, watching as I came in with Savvy. Dad gave the little girl a thumbs up. “See, I knew you could get the sleepyhead up faster than I could.”

“Sleepyhead?” I retorted, “Yeah, right, sure. That’s me, totally sleeping almost three hours sometimes. The horror of such laziness.” Setting Savvy in the booster seat that Dad had put up for all the times she visited, I pulled out another chair beside Tabbris. “And not even that much with all the extra training everyone keeps demanding I do.” Between Avalon, Jophiel, Athena, and… well, more, a huge part of the last month or so of my summer ‘vacation’ (such as it was) had been taken up by near-constant training and exercises. Not that I could blame them, considering things were very unlikely to slow down any time soon. Especially with my birthday rapidly approaching. They wanted me to be as prepared as I possibly could. And so did I.

“So,” I continued while starting to fill a plate with a small pancake and some bits of sausage that I cut up, “did you ask Zadriek to borrow Savvy this morning specifically to get me up, or are you playing babysitter totally by coincidence?” With the food sufficiently cut up, I put some butter and syrup onto it, then set the plate over in front of the tiny girl in question, who squealed happily before immediately grabbing onto the stickiest bit of pancake to shove into her mouth.

Beside me, Tabbris snickered. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She took a bite of her own breakfast before adding, “D’ya think they’re ready for us?” Though she was trying to seem calm and casual, I could hear the excitement in her voice, and her eyes were shining with anticipation.

There was a lot for Tabbris to anticipate. Not just the school thing, but it was also almost time for her and Dad to… bond. Okay, they’d been bonding over the entire summer. That was the point. They spent time together to build up the chance of a strong Bonding with a capital B. Dad was going to become a Natural Seosten Heretic. Or, more specifically, a Natural Tabbris Heretic. They’d spent the summer getting to know each other more fully. The closer their connection, the better chance the Bonding would take correctly.

Grinning, I rubbed her head. “I think between what Athena and Abigail will do if they’re not, they better be. Those two have been spending more time up there than they have in the camp.”

“Hey,” Dad objected. “Let’s not talk about that right now. I still have you girls for at least the rest of breakfast.” He made a show out of sniffing. “You’d think you couldn’t wait to get away from me… again.”

Reaching out with my foot to poke his leg, I pointed out, “Oh, stop, we’re coming back a lot.”

“Staying here every weekend,” he insisted with a nod. “And visiting more than that.”

My head bobbed. “Uh huh, for sure. And… you know… speaking of being close…”

He smiled faintly, glancing toward Tabbris. “Yup, we’re doing it two weeks from now, right, kid?”

As she quickly nodded with a bright smile, I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re gonna do the Heretic thing in two weeks? You think you’re ready?”

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, using his fork to point at me. “Now eat your breakfast. We’ve got about an hour before you’ve gotta head out with the others, and I mean to make the most of it.

“And just so you know, Kaste and Rain promised to show me how to create some really obnoxious nagging spells. Don’t visit every few days, and you’ll pay for it.”

I nudged Tabbris, “See how much things have changed? Dad’s threatening us with magic.”

Her answering smile was dazzling, seeming to light up the room. “Uh huh, things have changed. I get to go to school with you instead of… you know… inside you.”

From the other side of me, Sahveniah piped up a bit hopefully. “I go school?”

Reaching out, I gave the kid a tight hug around her booster seat. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be going to school right here in the camp. I hear Aunt Sariel’s got some kid classes lined up. And before you know it, you’ll be old enough to go to the big school.” I said it with a wink and smile that made her giggle happily, but inwardly I was hoping things would be a lot different by the time Savvy was actually old enough to even think about going to the other school. I really hoped that when she was my age, she’d never have to deal with any of this.

But somehow, I was afraid this whole thing would go on much… much longer than that.

*******

After breakfast and a little time spent with Dad (and Savvy), Tabbris and I grabbed a couple of modified backpacks that we’d already prepared (Herbie, Jaq, and Gus had their little home nestled in the bottom of mine), and left the cabin to join Miranda and Koren. They were waiting on the front porch for us. My not-so-young niece was practicing with one of the powers she had received from killing that old Heretic back during the prison assault. Specifically, she was creating a glowing bubble between her hands. Within the bubble, a small, roughly eight-inch long figure of a crocodile had appeared. It was still forming as Tabbris and I approached, the shape of it becoming more distinct over those couple of seconds.

The power, as I understood it, basically allowed Koren to create small facsimiles of any creature she could think of. They weren’t real or anything, amounting mostly to glorified solid holograms. The longer she took to form the creatures within the bubble before releasing them from it, the more detailed and stronger they could be. Also, the bigger they were, the longer it took to make them. Something like this eight inch crocodile took like fifteen seconds and would last a minute or so. If she wanted something big enough to ride that would last longer than a few seconds, she had to take much longer with them. Still, being able to spend about ten minutes to make a horse that would last about an hour was pretty freaking cool. Plus, she could make more than a horse. The other day, I’d seen her take fifteen minutes to make this giant rabbit with wings.

The tiny crocodile popped out of its bubble and roared like a lion, making me raise an eyebrow. “I uhh, think your little friend there is a bit confused about what he’s supposed to be, Koren.”

In response, she sniffed at me. “He’s more intimidating this way. Besides, you’re just jealous.”

“Jealous of your roaring crocodile?” I considered before grinning a little sheepishly. “Yeah, maybe a little.” As the summoned form vanished with another disconcertingly loud roar, I snickered despite myself. “At least you didn’t make the flying bunny roar like that.”

“No, but that’s an excellent idea,” she retorted before looking to Miranda. “She’s good at that.”

With a broad smile, my long-time best friend gave me a thumbs up. “She always has been. The only real difference now is in how feasible her random thoughts are.” To Tabbris and me, she added, “So, you guys actually ready for this whole new school thing?”

I shrugged, glancing to the girl beside me. “Not sure, but I guess we’ll find out. Have they already started taking people up there?” As I spoke, I was leaning up on my toes to look out toward the lake. Sure enough, there was a crowd of people there, despite the early hour.

Miranda nodded. “Yeah, some of the others already went up. They said they’d meet us there.” With a tiny smirk, the girl added, “I kinda can’t wait to see how some of the Garden people handle it. They’ve got a portal set up over there too. Actually, I think they started an hour ago.”

The Eden’s Garden rebels weren’t making this their official school or anything. But they had sent staff to it, and were allowing students to go if they wanted to. Basically, they knew that if they were going to have any chance of surviving and even winning this civil war (not to mention getting their vines to grow), they needed help, and alliances. Thus working with this school and sending some of their people.

“It’ll be different, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “But a lot of them are already open to this kind of thing, considering they… you know, rebelled against the status quo and all that.”

“Difference between feeling or believing something and actually experiencing it,” Koren pointed out, already turning to head off the porch. “But come on, I promised Mom we wouldn’t take forever. She wants us to get up there and see what they’ve been working on all month.”

We stepped off the porch, just in time to meet up with Columbus and Shiori, who came jogging over. The former had his familiar backpack full of tools and random odds and ends, having basically gone everywhere with it over the past month while he focused almost all of his attention on practicing what he was learning from that Harrison Fredericks guy.

“Hey, Flick!” Shiori chirped before jumping in to hug me tightly. “Guess what.”

With a smile, I returned the embrace, taking a moment to kiss her briefly before leaning back. “Guess what?” I echoed thoughtfully. “Hmmm… Well, shit, I was going to come up with something completely outrageous, but after last year, nothing sounds out of the question.”

Her eyes rolled a bit. “Tell me about it. But seriously, it’s great news. Senny’s gonna be there.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Really? Asenath’s going to be at the school?”

She bobbed her head quickly, grinning. “Uh huh, she just told me last night. She’s gonna be a teacher. Apparently they knew about it all summer, but she wanted to keep it secret.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sounds like her. But that’s great, Shy, you guys can hang out a lot more.”

Her smile made my heart flip over a few times. “Uh huh, and Mom’s gonna visit too. Since, you know, she actually can.” Even as she mentioned her mom visiting, I saw the sudden look of guilt materialize in the girl’s expression, clearly thinking about the fact that my mother was still gone.

But that was silly. And dumb. She shouldn’t feel guilty about being glad that her own mother could spend time with her. So, I quickly hugged her even tighter than before. “That’s great, Shy! Come on, let’s find the others so we can get up there sometime before lunch.”  With that, I pointedly took her hand, nodded to the others, and headed for the lake with them.

On the way, Columbus spoke up. “So is it really… you know, where they say it is?”

Winking at him, I replied, “Let’s just say, it’s gonna be an interesting school year. And uhh… speaking of interesting school year, how’s… um, Sean doing with all this?”

He grimaced a little. “Oh, you know… about as well as can be expected. They tried to say that he’s free to attend classes with us, but he just said he went through eight years of being stuck in homeschooling and he’s not in any hurry to sit in a classroom anytime soon.”

“You know,” I murmured, “that’s totally fair. I just hope he’ll be okay.”

“His uncle and brother are keeping him busy,” Columbus assured me. “And Roxa, of course. Apparently they’re taking the pack to Brazil next. He made me promise to call him tonight to tell him how today goes.”

“I want in on that,” I informed the boy. “Lemme know when you’re gonna call him.”

Despite the crowd that was surrounding the lake, things were actually pretty organized. Due in no small part, I was sure, to the appearance of both Gabriel Prosser and Athena. The two of them were standing by several doors that had been summoned to stand in front of the lake, and had put people into lines based on where they were actually going. There were a few other adults, including Deveron, Nevada, and Professor Kohaku, who were going through the crowd, organizing them into the right lines.

It also wasn’t just former Crossroads students (of all four grades) lining up here. There were Alters too, as well as Natural Heretics from the Atherby camp who wanted to participate in this. The whole thing had originally sprung out of Abigail insisting that there still be school despite the war going on, that our education not completely disappear. She’d had to make a lot of adjustments to her initial idea, but with the help of Athena, Dare, and some others, it came together. And now here we were, heading out for… somehow, a school even more strange and unique than Crossroads had been. This… was definitely going to be interesting.

Avalon, with Salten walking alongside her, joined us. As I released Shiori for the moment and moved to kiss my other girlfriend (I was actually starting to get accustomed to that idea), she returned it with a fond murmur. Then she pulled back, announcing, “Don’t think you’re off the hook on training just because we’re busy this morning. We’ll find time later to make up for it.”

“I had no doubt,” I murmured with a quiet giggle, deliberately not thinking about the fact that she had been training us so hard to avoid thinking about the still-imprisoned Gaia. “After all, if you didn’t push training, I’d figure you were a doppelganger. Or a shapeshifter, or–huh. We have very strange lives, you know?”

The others agreed, just as Deveron approached. Boy, it was still odd to see him as an adult after the past year. Which just really fed into what I’d just said about the whole ‘strange lives’ thing.

“Hey guys, lookie there, I don’t have to go drag you out of bed after all,” he teased. “Without Avalon to browbeat you into sunrise training, I thought we might have some issues.”

“I still had a Savvy-shaped alarm clock,” I informed him primly. “And weren’t you the one sleeping in a lot this summer? I swear I remember something about you missing a couple training times because of that.”

“I earned it,” he insisted, winking before turning to gesture. “Okay, you guys want this line over here. No pushing, no shoving, and definitely no flinging powers around to get ahead. I know what troublemakers you people are.”

“Only when you’re the mentor,” Columbus retorted. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“Terrible, or amazing?” Deveron shot right back before giving me a brief embrace. “Head on up.”

We went to join the line there, standing just behind Rebecca, Tristan, and Vanessa. They were standing with a couple obvious Alter teenagers (one a tree-like Relukun boy and the other a white and gray female cat-girl who both set my Stranger-sense off), and a Natural Prevenkuat (the two-headed Hyena-type people who were really fast) Heretic boy whose name I thought was either Dai or Denji.

“You’re Flick, right?” Maybe-Dai-or-Denji, a dark-haired Asian boy with close-cut hair and a scar across his right cheek asked. He extended a hand to me. “I’m Jason.”

Wow. Boy, was I ever off. Where the hell did I get Dai or Denji from? Blushing a little, I took his hand. “Jason?”

He winked. “You were expecting maybe something like Haruto?” With a shrug, the boy explained, “My dad still lives in Japan. He calls me Danuja, and so do a few people around here. But I’ve lived in San Francisco my whole life… errr… or I did, before… stuff happened and I ended up here. Anyway, I’ve gone by Jason here in the states forever. Either works though. Jason, Danuja, hey you. It’s all good.”

“Then yeah, I’m definitely Flick,” I confirmed before looking to the other two unfamiliar figures alongside Tristan and Vanessa. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

The cat-girl, a white and brown-furred figure with suspicious eyes, hesitantly replied, “Triss.”

“And Kersel,” the male Relukun flatly informed me. He and Triss both watched me, and the others, carefully.

Tristan spoke up brightly then, putting one arm around Triss’s shoulders. “Now isn’t this great? We all know each other.”

Despite her suspicion about me, the cat-girl (seriously, I needed to figure out what Alter she was, because referring to her as cat-girl was probably really bad) seemed more at ease with Tristan. Maybe it was the whole hybrid thing, because she wasn’t directing any kind of look toward Shiori or Vanessa either.

“Triss and Kersel, cool.” I gave them both a thumbs up. “Good to meet you guys. I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time together up there, huh?”

The two exchanged glances, a silent bit of conversation clearly passing between them before Kersel nodded. “Yes, it seems that way. We just… hope that things run smoothly.”

“We all do,” I assured him. “But even if they don’t, we’ll deal with it. We’re all in this together.”

Vanessa, who had been whispering something to Tabbris when the other girl went to greet her older siblings, spoke up. “Flick’s right. Whatever problems come up, we’ll deal with them.”

Behind us, Salten made a huff of agreement, the Peryton stepping up to my side before using a wing to nudge me until I reached out to scratch his neck. Again, the two Alters looked at each other. I had the feeling they’d been through a lot to get to this point. Between them and the stuff that Jason had hinted at about his own life, there was clearly plenty of history here I didn’t know.

But hey, there was a whole school year ahead of us. It would come up.

Together, we reached the waiting door by the beach a couple minutes later. Staring at it, I shook my head. “You know, I can’t believe I’m starting another school year by going through a magic door attached to nothing.”

“Of course, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare announced while stepping up behind me, “perhaps this time you can go through without sending a rock in first.”

“And deny Herbie the chance to have a brother?” I gasped as though scandalized, putting a protective hand against the pocket of my backpack where the rock and my cyberform mice’s house was before snickering at the look on her face. “Okay, okay. We’ll just go.”

Rebecca poked me. “It’s not really… you know… is it?”

Just like I had with Columbus, I winked. “What do you think?” With that, added. “Come on, let’s do this.” Cracking my neck, I waved to Professor Dare for the moment, then moved up to the door.

The door, which would take me to the place that would be our temporary home and school while we weren’t here at the camp or out on missions to help the rebellion. Because we were still doing that. Abigail had basically made a deal to set up a school for us to spend about half our weekdays at, so we were still getting an education. The other half of our days would be spent helping to save Alters, building and training an army to stop Crossroads and Eden’s Garden from killing everyone, and… well, plenty of other things, I was sure. We were still students, but we were also more than that. We had to be.

Taking a breath, I stepped through the door… and onto the Aelaestiam space station, the base that belonged to Athena, which Tabbris and I had spent several weeks on back in Seosten space. It had made it to Earth, apparently thanks in no small part to Chayyiel, who had been busy doing a lot more while she was here than just piloting me through the biggest fight of my life. In any case, the station was now located within Earth’s sun, and had been prepared over the past month or so to take on a lot more students than they’d had before. Students from Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, Natural Heretics, and Alters, with teachers from all three of those groups as well.

Yeah, this was definitely going to be an interesting school year.

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Summer Epilogue 16 – Vanessa (Heretical Edge)

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A hand caught Vanessa’s arm, squeezing tight before she was flung up and around to be slammed hard into the wall of the cabin she had just stepped into. The impact against the girl’s back almost knocked the wind out of her, and she barely managed to blink blearily through the pain to see who her attacker was. “Jo… phiel?” It was her, the beautiful Seosten who had, for so many years, posed as the literal goddess of love. Now, however, she seemed more like the embodiment of vengeance. 

“Where is she?!” The words came in a shout, as the woman held Vanessa tight against the wall with one hand. Her eyes blazed with outrage, a righteous fury that seemed all-but ready to set the entire cabin ablaze from the sheer force of her anger.

This… wasn’t supposed to be how today went. The cabin Vanessa had just walked into wasn’t part of the Atherby camp. It was the one that Jophiel and Elisabet had taken the teenagers to before, one of their private little homes. They’d left an enchanted bit of rope for Vanessa, Tristan, and Tabbris, and Flick to use for the next bit of training. Which was supposed to be today. Was… was this a test? Vanessa couldn’t figure out the point of it. Was–what was–

“Jo, let her go.” The words, calm though with an edge of danger, came from the doorway, where Sariel stood. A metal bow, the humming energy string drawn to create the arrow, was held in her hands, and pointed at the woman. Just behind her, visible through the doorway, were Tristan, Flick, and Tabbris. All three looked anxious and just as confused as Vanessa felt. 

“You.” Jophiel snarled the word, releasing Vanessa as she turned toward her ex-crewmate. “Is this one of your plans, huntress? We trusted your children, we trusted your children enough to let them tell you our secrets. And what happens? What happens the moment we trust them?” 

Without lowering or moving the bow in any way, Sariel quietly replied, “I don’t know, what happens?” Her eyes remained locked on the clearly crazed woman. “Where is Elisabet?” 

For a moment, Jophiel remained still. She glanced over her shoulder toward Vanessa, who had pressed against the wall and was staring at her with wide eyes. There was a tenseness to her, a fury that was barely held in restraint with the ever-present threat of boiling over. “Do not lie to me,” she began in a tone that shook slightly, anger and fear coming together in a volatile mixture that could explode at any second. “If you know where she is, if you have done something and I learn that you are lying now, I… I…” 

“Jo.” The single word from Sariel came with far more sympathy than the previous warnings had. She lowered the bow, dismissing energy string and arrow in the process. The weapon itself folded up into something roughly the size of a flashlight, which she clipped onto her belt while stepping forward. “I swear to you, if Elisabet has disappeared, we had nothing to do with it.” 

“She’s telling the truth,” Vanessa put in, slowly pushing herself up from the wall. “We didn’t know anything was wrong. Why would we come here for training if we did something to Elisabet?” 

“For training…” From the way Jophiel echoed those words, it was clear that she had entirely forgotten about that. She had simply seen them come to the secret home for herself and her beloved, and reacted, as her outrage and terror about Elisabet completely took over. 

Flick slowly stepped into the cabin as well, easing her way around Sariel as she stared at Jophiel the way one might a dangerous, hungry tiger. “How could something happen to Elisabet? I mean, she’s… she’s part of the Committee, and you’re always–” 

“I was not there.” Jophiel’s retort was half-angry and half-distraught, her voice cracking just a little as her eyes snapped to Flick. Vanessa could see the way her friend took a reflexive step back, Tabbris moving in behind her leg. But Jophiel clearly wasn’t angry at her, or at any of them. Not now that she had been assured they had nothing to do with whatever happened. 

“I wasn’t there,” the woman continued. “I had to… there were things I had to do, discussions to have with Cahethal. I left Elisabet back in our private offices, as I have many times before. While I was gone, our connection cut out. I could not reach her. When I returned to the offices, there was no sign of her. And… as far as I can tell, her connection to the Committee has been broken. I do not know how, but she was taken and her links to both myself and the Committee have been blocked, suppressed, or…” She saw the look on their faces, snapping, “She is alive. I would know if she were dead. But I cannot find her.” 

“She’s your host,” Vanessa carefully pointed out. “But you still can’t–” 

“I cannot recall to her, no.” Jophiel’s voice wasn’t quite a snapped retort. She was frightened, in a way Vanessa had never thought she would see the woman. “Something is blocking me. Which, I shouldn’t have to tell any of you, is all but impossible. But then, suppressing the link to the Crossroads Committee and holding one of them against their will is something that should also be impossible. Someone has managed it. And given your… let’s just say extensive history of the impossible…” She said the last bit with a look toward Sariel.  

Vanessa watched then, as her mother stepped that way before embracing Jophiel. “I’m sorry,” she murmured quietly while hugging her. “We didn’t do anything to Elisabet, and neither did anyone that we know of. You have my word and I will give you a binding oath.” She leaned back then, meeting Jophiel’s gaze. “We’ll help you find out what happened, and where she is. Whatever is going on, whoever took her, we will find out the truth and save her.” 

There was slight twitch to Jophiel’s expression, her shoulders hunched up a bit before she straightened. “You would do that?” Her voice was brittle. “You would expend the effort to find Elisabet when–” Stopping, she exhaled. “I suppose questioning such things at this point would be an insult to all you have already made a point of doing. I just… never believed that I would… be someone for whom you–” 

“You were like family once,” Vanessa’s mother reminded the woman in a firm, yet somehow still gentle tone. Her hands found their way to Jophiel’s shoulders. “All of us–most of us on the Olympus were family. That’s why I stayed for so long, because I wanted our family to be… well, better. That includes you. I do not respect all the decisions you’ve made. But by that same line, I do not respect all the decisions I have made. You care about Elisabet, and she is in danger. That is what matters now, and that is what we will deal with. Other things… they can wait.”  

Tabbris spoke up then, stepping more into view. “But what could hurt Elisabet? She’s part of the Committee, and like… a really powerful Heretic all by herself. What could actually do that?” 

Tristan, who had moved in and slipped around the room to stand next to Vanessa, spoke up. “If they had something to block her connection to the Committee and to Jophiel, how powerful she is probably didn’t come into play. Maybe it also blocks Heretic powers completely?” 

“Something that could do that…” A grimace touched Jophiel’s face briefly at the thought. Vanessa could see how pale the woman was. She looked physically ill with worry. 

“Something that could do that at all, let alone without giving Elisabet time to warn you,” Sariel announced, “is one of the gravest threats I can imagine. To simply cut the connection to the Committee and prevent you from reaching her…” She frowned then, head tilting.

“Why?” Vanessa quickly put in, realizing what her mother was thinking about. “Why would they block you from her? I mean, how would they know to do that to begin with?” 

“That is why I suspected–wanted to suspect you,” Jophiel flatly replied while stepping over to pick up a mug, which she slowly drank from before continuing. “You children were allowed to tell our secret, and in such a short time afterward, Elisabet was taken by someone who knew enough to cut off my return to her. It seemed to be too much of a coincidence.” 

“Maybe someone already knew,” Tristan pointed out after giving Vanessa a brief glance. “I mean, maybe they knew and were waiting for a chance to do something like this. They found out you let us tell, so they took advantage because they figured you’d blame us. Maybe they even thought you wouldn’t stop to listen to reason and you’d do something… bad and Mom or someone else would have to fight you.” He shrugged, finishing with a quiet, “They were probably counting on you being too upset about what happened to be at all reasonable.” 

“Elisabet said that you are smarter than you are given credit for,” Jophiel noted after watching the boy through his input. “I’m quite glad to see that her belief in that was well-placed.” The woman’s voice was decidedly more controlled now. She was still clearly reeling from the situation, but her emotions were held in check, only the slight clenching of her jaw and the way she looked around a lot more making it clear to Vanessa that she was still extremely upset. 

“Wait.” Flick raised a hand, looking apologetic. “I mean, sorry to drive this home, but does that, um, does that mean you don’t have access to the Committee powers right now either?” 

“Your apologies are not necessary,” Jophiel informed the girl curtly, yet without hostility. She extended a hand toward a nearby chair, paused, then sighed before stepping over to sink down into it. “Yes. I find myself cut off from the Committee entirely. Cut off from all of Elisabet’s powers, actually. Even the ones that were solely hers. Whatever is blocking our connection also blocks the spell we use to share such gifts. Which, upsetting as that is, is unfortunately logical.” 

Vanessa swallowed hard, thinking about how the woman must be feeling right now. She had been basically inseparable from Elisabet for… for longer than the United States had been a thing. And now she had no idea what was going on with the person she loved so much. She didn’t know where Elisabet was, what kind of condition she was in, who had taken her, or… or anything. Spending those years not knowing what was happening to her family had been bad enough. This? This had to be torture. 

Almost as if she had read her mind, Jophiel looked toward Vanessa. There was a moment of silent communication before the beautiful-yet-ancient Seosten spoke quietly. “You…” Then her eyes widened fractionally. She looked to Sariel, then to the children. Vanessa could see the realization there. She understood. With Elisabet gone and herself desperate to find her, Jophiel actually finally fully understood just how the children felt about getting their mother back. 

Nothing was said, because nothing needed to be said. Jophiel understood. She straightened a bit, turning her attention fully to Sariel. “I do not believe that it was the Imperium. They would not leave me if they knew anything about our arrangement or situation. This is someone else. I would say Fomorian, but we would know if the Fomorians had returned.” 

“Could be a solo one,” Flick hesitantly pointed out. “Like the one that attacked that boat with Larissa and Scout.” She gave a brief sideways glance toward Sariel before continuing. “Or the one that… that killed Koren’s father at Thanksgiving. There’s probably still a couple like that floating around. Maybe one of them did some… genetic tampering thing to make those blocks.”

Despite herself, Vanessa cringed at the thought of Elisabet being taken by a Fomorian, or anyone else who was powerful enough to completely shut her down like that. She still remembered the woman as Mrs. Reibach, the social worker who had been so nice to her when everyone else treated her like she was crazy. The thought that a Fomorian might have its hands on her made thick, choking bile rise up briefly in her throat. She didn’t want to think about it.

From the look on Jophiel’s face, she didn’t want to consider that either. But she gave a slight nod. “That is one possibility,” the woman acknowledged quietly. “Whoever they are, they are very powerful, very knowledgeable, and they were able to either get to Elisabet in our office, or lure her out in a way that made her not send a message to let me know what was happening.”  

“We’ll find her,” Sariel promised, reaching out to take her former crewmate’s hand as she sat down in the chair next to her. “There has to be a trail, or clues. There’s a person or two in the Committee we can at least talk to, and…” She paused, before asking, “Does this mean the Committee think she’s dead?” 

“No.” Jophiel’s head shook. “They believe that your group managed to capture her. The rebellion, I mean. They think it’s payback for their imprisonment of Gaia.” 

“Wow,” Flick muttered, “they think a lot about our capabilities, don’t they?” 

“We do have Gabriel Prosser,” Tristan pointed out. “And Lancelot. With that and everything else, especially the fact that they probably still think your mom is involved in all this somehow, it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility that the rebellion might be able to grab a Committee member like that. Even she kind of believed it for a second.” His hand waved at Jophiel.  

As Flick gave a nod of acknowledgment to that, Vanessa looked back to Jophiel. “How do you know what the Committee thinks? I mean, they don’t exactly talk to you without Elisabet, right?” 

“Yes and no,” the woman murmured while reaching out to pick up a mug. She took a drink from it absently before continuing. “Let’s just say I possessed a few of their staff and aides in order to go through the building and look at the, shall we say, ‘scene of the crime’ for myself, and listened in on certain conversations they were privy to. Then I simply erased their memories.” 

“Wait,” Vanessa blinked, looking to the woman with a frown. “How–I mean, wouldn’t possessing others take away your… I mean…” 

Jophiel gave her a brief glance. “Over the centuries, Elisabet and I developed a ritual involving her blood which allows me to make her my host from any distance. We have… tried it with others, but the spell seems limited to a particularly close bond.” 

Moving up to stand by her mother, Tabbris quietly announced, “The Crossroads people’ll probably want to come after the rebellion even harder now if they think we can hold one of their own Committee members prisoner. Especially after Oliver was killed. They’ll want to hit something really hard so their own people don’t get, um, you know, discouraged or whatever. They’ve gotta prove they’re not weak.” Pausing, she added in an even softer voice, “And just make themselves feel better.”

“Your daughter is very bright, Sariel,” Jophiel murmured, eyes flicking from Tabbris to Vanessa and Tristan. “All your children are quite impressive. Yes, there are already voices within the Committee pushing for an immediate, powerful counterattack. Your allies in the group are doing their best to keep things from going too far. But I’m afraid that without Elisabet to temper the situation, things are… escalating. Litonya, Ruthers, Jue, Geta, Sigmund, and Davis wish to put an end to this rebellion before it starts, to deal a decisive blow. Sophronia, Calafia, Teach, and Percival are trying to calm things down somewhat, but they are outnumbered. If… if Elisabet was there, she might have manipulated a couple of the others such as Sigmund and Davis to hold back, with or without changing her own vote. But in this case… I’m afraid that very bad things may be coming in retaliation. The Crossroads loyalists are angry.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Vanessa couldn’t help but ask. “They don’t know where the camp is, but we can’t stop every bad thing they might try. There’s still a lot of sympathetic Heretics out there who haven’t made it to the camp, or who don’t want to come in. They could find one of those groups, or hit a place like Wonderland just to draw out the rebellion. They could–” 

“They could do a lot of things,” her mother interrupted while reaching up to lay a comforting hand on Vanessa’s arm. The girl herself hadn’t even realized that she had been subconsciously moving closer throughout all of that. “There are many very terrible options they could go through, none of which I have any interest in seeing. It would be impossible to precisely predict what the target of their anger might be.” 

Her eyes raised toward Jophiel then. “That’s why a better move would be to dismantle the source of that anger. If we can find Elisabet and return her to the Committee, get her to tell them who really took her… it may dilute some of their rage.” Her hand gestured that way. “Not to mention, bringing her back is the right thing to do. Either way, we have to find her.”

“I am so glad we are in agreement about the necessity of that,” Jophiel dryly replied, managing to keep her voice relatively flat. “If you would truly like to… assist me in finding her, I would be appreciative.” Though the words themselves were fairly simple, there was definite emotion there. 

Vanessa felt her brother step next to her then, as he spoke up. “I don’t mean to put it this way, but are you going to be okay? I mean are you going to be able to help with this if you don’t have your link to use all those Committee and Heretic powers?” 

Jophiel gave the boy a brief squint, before pushing herself up. “Young man,” she informed him. “I am older than your city of Jerusalem. I have been practicing magic and combat against the Fomorian scourge since before your bronze age. I have used my Tartarus-given gifts of manipulation since before the birth of your Olmecs. Do you understand?” 

“I… I… think so,” Tristan slowly started, “But did you–” 

Before Vanessa could say anything, their mother spoke up. “She said Olmec, Tristan, not the OMACs from Batman.” 

“Oh,” Tristan gave a weak smile. “Then I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Olmecs,” Vanessa informed him. “As in the first major human civilization in Mesoamerica.”  

Eyes flashing back and forth between them, Jophiel spoke sharply once more. “The point is yes, my abilities are far more limited right now than I have grown accustomed to. But do not for an instant mistake that for weakness. If need be, I will destroy anything, and anyone, who stands between me and the woman I love.” 

“Good,” Sariel replied simply. “Because violence will probably need to happen at some point. But for now, we need to investigate the scene.

“Jo, you and I need to get back into the Committee’s offices.” 

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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“Oh damn it, I liked you as a teacher!”

The outburst came from Tristan, as the boy put the heels of both hands against his forehead, fingers pressed against his scalp. “Seriously, dude, you’re possessed too?”

Wyatt, meanwhile, had a hand against his own forehead as well. In his case, however, the man was repeatedly slapping himself. “No! No, should’ve known. I did it wrong. I knew I did it wrong. Had to test. I had to test and it was supposed to work. What did I do wrong?”

There was a brief pause as the man in the doorway blinked at her, before stepping fully inside. “First, Mr. Moon,” he began simply, “I promise, the man you enjoyed having as an instructor is basically the exact same guy you always knew. My, ahhh… influence runs pretty much the same way as Sariel there. You know, I act as subtly as possible, and only taking direct control when I absolutely have to. For the most part, all the teaching you experienced was from Benji himself.”

Flick was pointing at him. “You–that–we tested you! I tested you! I swear, I used the choker thing and you didn’t show up as Seosten. And Wyatt! He’s right! Wyatt used the ejection rune thing on everyone who came in here. Why wouldn’t it work on you? Why didn’t you show up as Seosten before? What?”

Holding up both hands for peace, the Seosten-possessed-man carefully replied, “There’s a reason for both of those not working. My old friends here, they already know.”

“Amitiel,” Sariel herself announced neutrally, already having moved to step in front of the man.  

“He prefers Mercury,” Apollo reminded her as he put himself beside his pseudo-sibling. “Right?”

The man wearing Benji Carfried gave a very slight swallow before his head bowed. “Yup. That’s right. Mercury’s my name. Just like Apollo is yours. Do you want to explain why their tests didn’t work?”

“It’s Mercury’s Olympian power,” Apollo murmured, glancing to the others. “It allows him to extend, delay, or quicken the effects of any magic that’s used on him. When you tested him with the choker, or the expulsion rune, he just delayed the effect long enough to convince you it didn’t work, then got out of sight before letting it happen.”

Wyatt, cursing rapidly under his breath, yanked a well-worn notebook from his pocket once more and set about rapidly scrawling in it. He tore three pages out, looked around briefly as though looking for somewhere to throw them, then simply shoved the paper into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before setting out to scribble even faster.

“Errr, right,” Mercury murmured at that before shaking his head. “But before we get too far with this, I ahh, I’d kind of like to speak to you guys directly. Without my host, I mean. Do you have a place for him to rest for the time being? He and I… we need to have a conversation about where we’re going from here, if he’s up for it. But that can wait. This seemed more pressing.”

“So you’re not going to try to possess him against his will again?” Flick put in, staring intently at the man. She too had enjoyed Carfried as a teacher and didn’t know what all this meant for that, despite Mercury’s words. “You’re not just gonna make some deal about jumping back in?”

The man offered her a brief, genuine smile. “You know, I’m pretty sure the days of that are almost gone as it is,” he pointed out. “After all, Liesje’s spell must be pretty close to being ready to go. So I would’ve revealed myself eventually regardless.”

He heaved a slow sigh. “No, I’ve no intention of forcing control of Benji again, after this. I’d… ahhh, kind of like it if somebody else would sorta… talk to him and explain the situation. Tell him that, if he wants, we can have a face-to-face conversation any way he wants. Or I can leave him alone. His choice. Either way, it’d  be best if he hears it from someone other than me, at first.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “You really don’t take much control of your vict–host?” She was squinting suspiciously at him.

Clearing Carfried’s throat, Mercury quietly pointed out, “Yeah, I get your doubts, trust me. All I can say is that you’ll see for yourself when you talk to him enough after I’m gone. You’ll know it’s him. He’s your teacher and he always was. I took control only when I had to for my mission. Or to protect some other Seosten secret. For the vast majority of my time with Benji, I was a passive observer.”

“He definitely sounds different,” Flick pointed out. “I can’t explain it, but he’s not really talking like Carfried does. If I didn’t know about Seosten or anything, I’d almost say they were twins.”

From the corner where she was still standing, Gwen agreed, “She’s right. This guy may look like Benji Carfried, but you can tell the difference. He’s not trying to blend in. I can’t say if that means that he wasn’t acting different before, or that it proves what he’s claiming about not taking control. But he is different now.” As she spoke, the woman continued to look the man up and down with a hard, yet thoughtful expression, still deciding exactly what she thought of him.

“I’m sorry,” Abigail suddenly put in, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole ‘Flick, Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris have been co-opted by Aphrodite to convince an intergalactic evil empire to completely change everything about itself in order to win a war against another intergalactic evil empire full of even worse monsters, and they have a year to do it’… thing. Now this guy’s another Seosten?” She paused, taking a breath before exhaling long and hard while muttering, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss law school.”

“Don’t worry,” Flick assured her sister with a hand on her shoulder, “we’ll let you learn Seosten law so you can help convince the Seraphs not to kill all of us.” As Abigail lifted her head to squint at her, the girl raised her hand to give a thumbs up. “You got this.”

Lincoln finally spoke, standing up. “Well, Mr… ahh, Mercury. Whatever’s going on, I guess you can put your… host over in the bedroom here.” He waved for the man to follow while heading that way. “He can sleep on the bed, and we’ll explain things to him later.” Pausing, he added, “I should probably make sure there’s alcohol nearby at the time.”

While the two went to do that, Gwen took a breath before quietly asking, “Are you sure we can trust him to tell us the truth about the Merlin Key?” Her eyes were on Sariel and Apollo.

The ‘twins’ exchanged glances before Sariel spoke. “He has no real reason to lie right now. It’s in the best interest of everyone who stays on Earth that Arthur be awake before the year is up. The Seraphim are much more likely to listen to alliance suggestions if we make them from a position of strength.”

Apollo nodded. “Kinda hard to get any stronger than a natural Dragon-Heretic. If you guys say that Jophiel sent him, I don’t see why he’d lie about anything here. He has to know that that would be a bad idea for the trust they’re trying to foster.”

“And,” Sariel added, “he’s the one who first convinced us to… to save Chayyiel. He begged us to find a way to get her out of Tartarus. He was willing to risk everything, willing to do anything, to save her.” She paused briefly, before finishing with, “I’d say we can trust him for that, if nothing else. Besides, as we said, he has no tactical reason to lie right now.”

Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s arm, asked, “Does he really possess people like you did?”

“As far as we know, he does,” Apollo confirmed. “Mercury was always getting in trouble for not taking more control, for not having a… firm hold on his hosts. If he says he’s barely been doing anything with Carfried, I’d believe him.”

“Thanks.” That voice, unknown to most of them until now, came from the doorway where Lincoln stood with the actual Mercury. He was shorter than the man beside him, yet taller than his host, standing just over six feet. His hair, dark red to the point of nearly being black, was worn long, with a tight ponytail, and his skin was very tanned, with firm, lean muscles. He looked like a lightweight boxer, with eyes that were bright green.

“I’d like to say it’s nice to meet all of you face to face,” the Seosten observed. “Honestly, I would’ve preferred to do it without all this tension, but I suppose that was pretty inevitable.” Taking a breath, he stepped forward and extended a hand toward them. “Let’s start this again. You can call me Mercury.”

Haiden was the first to step that way, taking the man’s hand firmly as he looked him straight in the eyes. “I hope my wife and brother-in-law are right about trusting you with this.”

“Yes,” a new voice announced from the entrance into the cabin. Athena stood there, watching the other Seosten as she let the door close after her. “So do I.” Glancing to Flick and the others, she added, “Guinevere has brought me up to date about what happened. I…” She paused to consider, then finished with, “I’m sorry you were put in that kind of position.”

Vanessa offered her a weak shrug. “We’ve been in worse. I mean, Jophiel isn’t that bad.”

With a small smile, Athena agreed, “Yes, there were certainly worse people who could have discovered Tabbris at the lab that day.”

She and Gwen exchanged brief looks and a silent conversation passed between the two before Athena turned back to the others, her gaze finding Mercury once more. “As tense as it may be for some of us, for this alliance to ever work, we are going to have to trust each other.”

“In the… interest of that,” Mercury began slowly, “there’s something that Chayyiel was trying to convince me to do a long time ago. I resisted. But it’s probably time, if it’ll help with trust.” While the rest of the room looked uncertain, he focused on Flick. “The Anuk-Ite choker, do you have access to it?”

Of all the things he could have said right then, that was probably one of the most surprising. Blinking at him, Flick hesitated before looking over toward Athena. Only when the woman nodded to her, did she hold her hand out. “Tabs?” Tabbris, in turn, produced the necklace and passed it over.

“Go ahead,” Mercury urged gently while putting his hand out, palm down. “Test me.”

“But you’re–” Stopping herself, Flick put the choker on, adjusting it. Giving one last look to the others, she shrugged before putting her hand on his. Her eyes had just begun to squint that way when she jumped, stumbling backward a step. “What–the–but you’re–”

“SPS,” Abigail murmured. “You’re an SPS-Seosten, like Theia, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure what that stands for,” Mercury replied, “but I am what my people call a Lie, yes.”

Sariel was staring at him. “You… you’ve been like this the whole time. Back in the lab, you were supposed to have disappeared, run off with some supplies or something. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“And that’s why Chayyiel trusted you,” Apollo added. “Why you were so intent on saving her. And why you prefer the name Mercury instead of Amitiel. Because you’re not really Amitiel.”

“She kept my secret,” Mercury confirmed, swallowing visibly. “She… she was my friend, in the lab. The original Amitiel saw me in her room when I went to visit her, and jumped to conclusions. We fought. He was gonna…” He grimaced, looking away. “He was going to kill me and tell them that I was doing things to Chayyiel. She was my friend. I would never–” Cutting himself off, he sighed. “I possessed him. We… struggled. I won. I was going to turn myself in, but Chayyiel convinced me not to. So it’s been a secret. Our secret. Until now.”

Flick, who had been staring at the man that whole time, swallowed hard. “That… you’ve been keeping that kind of secret for that long?”

“Yeah,” the man murmured, “saying it out loud like this is pretty… pretty hard.”

It was Tabbris who moved to him then. Stepping in front of Flick, the young girl squinted before speaking softly. “It must’ve been really scary to hide for so long, around so many people that would’ve hated you.”

Meeting her eyes, Mercury slowly sank to one knee. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kinda got used to it. Mostly, anyway. But I never forgot that I didn’t belong there.”

After a very brief hesitation, Tabbris reached out to embrace the man. “It’s okay,” she informed him. “You can belong here, if you want to.”

Flick glanced to her younger sister and partner before nodding. “Yeah,” she murmured, “she’s right. If you’re open about things now. Which means telling us everything about this… Merlin Key.”  

Taking that as her opening, Gwen stepped forward with a nod. “Yes. Everything.”

Glancing up to her, Mercury offered a slight smile. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad to have good news for you, your majesty. And not just because I’d rather not have to face you when you’re angry.”

He straightened then, standing up to face the woman. “I should probably explain first. You see, Chayyiel… she wants to bring back Arthur too. She had me track down and keep an eye on the Merlin Key, to make sure they’re safe.” Pausing, he amended, “Well, technically my official orders from Metatron were to make sure the Merlin Key didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that no one found them.”

Raising his hand, Tristan asked, “Not that I’m objecting, but they didn’t tell you to just… kill this Merlin Key?”

The man shook his head. “No one exactly knows how the Key is supposed to wake up Arthur. They’re worried that if the person is put in too much danger, that could be what wakes him up. The rules were to keep an eye on them and keep anyone else from interfering or doing anything that might set things off. Chayyiel wanted me to watch for the right moment and… help things along.” His gaze moved to Gwen. “When I saw you, as you, that’s when I figured it must be about time. At least… time to tell you all the truth about it.”

“Yeah,” Abigail put in, “I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been really careful to not even give away the gender of this Merlin Key while you’re talking. It’s all ‘they’ and other such words.”

With a slight chuckle, Mercury bowed his head to acknowledge that. “True. I ahh, sorry, product of spending a long time keeping secrets. I’m a little too accustomed to being careful.”

“Okay,” Haiden acknowledged. “So who is this Merlin Key? Are they here at the camp?”

Holding up a hand, the Seosten man murmured, “First, yes, they are here at the camp. But before we get into the who, we need to make something clear.” His eyes moved over everyone in the room slowly, his voice firm. “This is the one chance to bring Arthur back. One. If we fuck this up, he’s gone forever. And here’s the thing, even the Imperium doesn’t actually know what might make him return. We know who is supposed to bring him back, but not how. Putting that person in danger might be the thing that triggers it. Or that might stop it. No one knows. But we do know that if Metatron and the other Seraphim find out that you know who it is, let alone that you’re trying to make it happen, they might just panic. The last thing we need is panicking hostile Seraphim in the middle of a truce. So everything we talk about here, everything, has to stay secret. I mean it cannot leave this room. At all. I don’t care how much you trust someone else, things have a way of getting out there.”

Abigail’s mouth opened to respond to that, but Athena spoke first. “He’s right. We won’t get another chance to bring Arthur back. If this goes wrong, that’s it. So we have to make it perfect. Which means not letting the information out of this room. If anyone here isn’t okay with that, you’re free to leave.”

Apollo nodded, arms folding across his chest. “Believe us, if the Seosten Empire can stop Arthur from returning, they will. Too many of them will always see him as too much of a threat to their power, instead of as the ally against the Fomorians that he could be. So we’re gonna have to play this perfectly. Which is gonna mean keeping secrets. For now.”

“We can do that.” That was Vanessa, her voice soft and reflective. “If it’s a chance to bring Arthur back to life, I think you’re probably right about keeping it secret.”

“But if the Imperium already knows who it is,” Flick put in, “what if they get jumpy and order something done about them?”

“I’ll be the one they ask,” Mercury pointed out. “And I’ll give you the heads up. That’s another reason for why we have to keep it secret. If they find out I’m talking to you, this whole thing blows up.”  

Slowly, and with various degrees of reluctance, everyone in the room agreed to keep the identity of the Merlin Key secret, until the time was right. Once they had all done so, Tristan offered, “You know, this might be a bad time to ask, but are we keeping the whole Merlin Key thing secret from… well, them? The person themselves, I mean. Cuz that could be a pretty big conversation all by itself.”

“It’s okay,” Mercury informed him simply, “that’s not a conversation you have to have. Mostly because I already had it. I’ve revealed myself to the Merlin Key and I’ve been talking them through it for the past few days. It felt like something they should know ahead of time. I’ve been helping them deal with it.”

“You have?” Tristan blurted, snapping his fingers. “Oh. Well, I was kind of thinking it’d be Avalon. You know, the name Avalon and all. It seemed appropriate.” He frowned then. “Except they were trying pretty hard to kill her before… huh. Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s no one in this room,” Mercury assured him with a slight smile. “Though I have asked them to come here. Now that we’ve talked it out this far, they should be–”

Once again, the people in the cabin were interrupted by a knock at the door. As everyone else looked that way, Lincoln stepped over, glanced to the others, and then opened it.

Everyone watched then as the person destined to bring back the Once and Future King stepped hesitantly into the room, the door closing behind them.

“Uhhh… hi. I umm, I guess back when Arthur was still… right before his village was attacked, right before he… before he became a Dragon-Heretic, my grandfather was the Reaper who met him.

“Which I guess means,” Aylen Tamaya continued, “I’m the one who has to wake him up.”

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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“Well, guys… you’ve assembled quite a little group here.” As he spoke, Haiden Moon glanced around at the other occupants of this small cabin. Sariel was there beside him, as were Apollo, Lincoln, Abigail, and Wyatt. They were arranged around a table, their eyes on the other side of the room where Vanessa and Tristan stood with Flick and Tabbris. Guinevere stood in the corner of the room, watching the proceedings.

“Yeah, you have,” Abigail agreed. Her gaze was focused intently on the quartet who had asked all of them to come. “I was even planning on going with Koren and the others on that hike that Klassin’s running until you asked to meet up here.”

“Don’t worry,” Tristan assured her, “there’ll be other hikes. But this is a lot bigger.”

“Why?” Abigail pressed. “What’s going on? Did… something else happen?”

Apollo, who had been watching them closely, spoke up. “I’m pretty sure something happened a couple weeks ago. Something that let them know what was going on with Sean.”

Instead of answering immediately, Flick and the other three exchanged glances. Finally, Vanessa was the first to speak. “Something did happen. But it happened awhile ago. We… umm, we couldn’t… exactly talk about it before…” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable while shifting from foot to foot.

“Hey, Nessabird,” Haiden started while frowning a little at his daughter’s nervousness. “It’s okay. You know you guys can tell us anything. No one here is gonna get mad at you, whatever it is.”

Lincoln nodded slowly, his own gaze centered on Flick and Tabbris. “Girls? Something’s been off with you lately. Especially today. But if something’s wrong, something that’s got you this… out of it, even after everything else that’s happened…”

Apollo, whose gaze had been more on Gwen than the children, spoke quietly. “Oh yeah, something’s definitely been off. But for longer than that. It’s been off since around–”

“We don’t like lying to you,” Flick abruptly blurted. “We hate it. We… hated it. But we had to.”

Raising an eyebrow, Sariel echoed in a slow, soft voice, “You… had to lie?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, only curious, as her eyes moved from Flick to her own children. She said nothing else to prompt or push them, content even now to let the story come in their own time.

Tabbris, who was half-hiding behind Flick while clinging to the girl’s waist, nodded. “We had to. Magic ‘had to.’ It was part of the deal.”

Before Sariel or any of the others could question that, Tristan spoke up. “We should really start from the beginning instead of skipping around so much. It’d be a lot less confusing. So um, it started back on that prison lab, the one… the one Kushiel was running, when we were…” He hesitated, glancing toward Sariel. “When we were saving Mom.”

Haiden leaned forward, glancing to his wife before turning his attention back to the group that had called them all here. “That’s right, you four were off on your own at the end of that, weren’t you? You made it to the room just before Apollo showed up to help.”

“We made it a little sooner than that,” Tristan muttered. “We made it in time to hit that security field that knocked Tabs out of Flick.”

Eyes widening just a bit, Abigail blurted, “I’m sorry, what? There was some kind of anti-possession field and you walked into it with Tabbris?”

Wincing a little, Flick nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t know about that until it was too late. We walked into the room just outside the place where that transport ship thing was and suddenly she was… outside me.”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Tabbris added, “Uh huh. It felt funny. And then Miss Jophiel showed up.”

For as simply as she stated those words, the girl might as well have thrown a bomb into the middle of the room. Two different chairs hit the floor as both Sariel and Lincoln jolted to their feet. Several people spoke at once, all talking over each other.

Finally, Apollo cleared his throat. “Ahem. Maybe it’d be easier to get the answers you’re all looking for if you let them keep talking.”

His words made Sariel flush a little, but she remained standing, her gaze fixed on her children. “What… do you mean, Jophiel was there?” Her voice was careful and deliberate, but it was very clearly a shell covering her true fear at the revelation that the other Seosten had seen Tabbris.

It was apparently Vanessa’s turn to speak, drawing her mother’s (and everyone else’s) attention with, “She came in her host.” A brief pause, then, “Elisabet, from the Committee.”

Again, there was a flurry of reactions. Lincoln was staring at Flick. While most of the others were talking, he met her gaze and silently mouthed, ‘Are you okay?’ Getting a quick nod from the girl, he relaxed just a little. It helped.

Wyatt, meanwhile, was on his feet, though he said nothing. For once, he wasn’t blurting out conspiracy theories or accusations. Instead, the man drew a notebook from his pants and proceeded to scribble in it quickly. He crossed out several entries, added a few words to others, and even seemed to draw a picture. Meanwhile, everyone else kept talking, until Sariel stepped around the table and moved to where the children were. “She… did she…”

“They didn’t hurt us,” Tabbris promised her mother, hesitating slightly before moving to embrace her tightly. “We’re sorry, Mama. We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, but we couldn’t.”

“Magic.” Of all people, it was Abigail who realized that first. “They used magic to make sure you couldn’t tell anyone about them seeing you, didn’t they?”

“That figures,” Apollo muttered, adding a few words in Latin that was clearly a curse of some kind.

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “But it’s–it’s not like they wanted to hurt us or anything. They weren’t setting up a trap or… you know, they could’ve told the Empire about Tabbris way back then. They could’ve captured us. They–right, gotta tell it in order.” He looked to his sister for help explaining.

“We freaked out,” Vanessa supplied dryly. “Especially when Jophiel, umm… revealed herself. It was scary. I mean, they knew about Tabbris, and we couldn’t exactly… fight her. We couldn’t fight either of them. But it’s like Tristan said, they didn’t want to hurt us or anything.”

“You keep saying ‘they,’” Haiden observed, trying to keep his mind from spinning out. “But it sounds like it was just Jophiel and her host. Are you saying that…”

“They’re a couple,” Flick confirmed, clearly watching everyone’s reaction to that. “Jophiel and Elisabet. I mean, even when she’s not possessed, Elisabet is head over heels for Jophiel. Still.”

Apollo coughed. “I don’t know how much I’d trust that. Jophiel’s got ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Supernatural ways.”

“Yeah, she checked that.” Flick gestured to the corner of the room where Gwen stood, the woman nodding once in acknowledgment. “She used something to block Jophiel’s Olympian power and it didn’t change how Elisabet felt. They’re in love. They’ve been in love for a long time. But that’s not the point. I mean, it really is a huge part of the point, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Vanessa nodded in agreement. “Yeah, totally getting ahead of ourselves. Jophiel and Elisabet showed up, but they didn’t want to turn us in. They… they wanted our help.”

“Your help?” Apollo echoed, glancing toward Sariel as the woman held Tabbris close. “Help with what, exactly?”

Tristan took that one. “They don’t want to dominate humans anymore. I mean they didn’t want to, even before we got the spell from that vault.”

“Jophiel’s in love with Elisabet,” Flick added. “So she wants humans and Seosten to work together. You know, sort of… combine forces.”

Vanessa quickly pushed on while everyone stared. “They said the best way to make an alliance with the humans is to prove to the Seraphim that humans and Seosten working together willingly is better than their other system. The umm, constant enslavement and manipulation of our entire society, I mean. And the way to do that–”

Lincoln realized what she was going to say first, supplying, “–was to show them human-Seosten hybrids and a human-Seosten possession pairing worked together willingly instead of with slavery. They wanted Flick and Tabbris to show their leaders how effective a willing, cooperative partnership could be.” Pausing then, he added with a frown, “Because apparently those same leaders haven’t heard it enough times from Athena’s rebels, or that Chayyiel girl’s people. Or basic common sense. Remind me, how did they get to be your people’s leaders again?”

“Trust me, it takes a lot to convince the Seraphim of anything,” Apollo informed him in a flat voice. “It kind of needs to be hammered home a lot. And sometimes I’d really like to do that with an actual hammer.”

Looking a bit troubled, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, Flick put in, “Anyway, they’ve kind of adjusted a lot of the plan now, especially the timeframe, considering the whole ‘one year to prove they shouldn’t invade’ thing. But the deal we made back then was that they would teach us what they knew, that they’d… you know, train us to impress the Seraphim so we could convince them that an alliance is better than slavery.”

“And God forbid they use themselves as the example,” Abigail muttered darkly, “instead of using children. After magically forcing them to keep it a secret from their families.”

“Wait, just… wait.” Flick’s head shook. “That’s not really fair. I mean, yes, they strong-armed us into keeping it secret, but they were just protecting themselves. It’s a really big secret. Like Vanessa and Tristan said, they could have completely destroyed us if they wanted to. They could have taken us in, exposed Tabbris, kept Sariel imprisoned… they didn’t. And their plan, the one about teaching us to be an example for the Seraphim, that… like it or not, it’s a better plan than anything else we’ve got. The Seosten leaders obviously aren’t going to listen to people they see as rebels or traitors. Jophiel staying in power long enough to train us and then using us as the example might sound crazy or like they’re taking advantage of us, but they’re kind of just working with the hand they were dealt. Maybe they’re not perfect, like with the whole… being okay with enslaving other races just because they think it’s the best way to beat the Fomorians thing. But they’re not that bad.”

Vanessa was nodding. “Yeah, and really… they would be putting themselves at risk. As they pointed out already, the Seraphim aren’t stupid. They’d figure out that Elisabet and Jophiel weren’t exactly a normal Seosten-slave host relationship pretty quick once they started talking up the benefits of being partners. Like Flick said, maybe they’ve done some shady stuff, but they’ve also got the best chance of actually convincing the Seraphim of changing things. Bright wishes and hopes just aren’t going to do it. Maybe their plan can.”

“Still,” Abigail insisted, “They just had to terrorize a handful of minors into doing what they… what they…” She trailed off then, her eyes widening as something occurred to her. “Those… God… damn…” Abruptly, the woman jerked upright, staring at Flick. “They made rescuing Sariel a condition, didn’t they? They made rescuing their mother a condition.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan while her voice cracked audibly. “If you guys wanted to free her, you had to agree to their plan.”

Hearing that was enough to make Sariel drop to one knee, wrapping both arms around Tabbris tightly. “You–oh. You’re right. They–she would… Jophiel would do that.” She sounded stricken upon the realization that her own imprisonment and subsequent freedom had been used to essentially blackmail her children into obeying Jophiel and Elisabet.

Swallowing hard, Flick managed, “Yes. But we would’ve agreed to a lot more than that. All they wanted was for us to meet with them for training any time they wanted so they could use us to prove their point to the Seraphim, and to keep the truth about their own relationship secret. I mean, we had to keep all of it secret. They used magic to make sure we couldn’t talk about it.”

“I knew it!” That was Wyatt, suddenly blurting out loud as he pointed at Flick. “I knew you had a different spell on you! I could smell it. I could taste it. But I couldn’t see it. They hid it really well. But I knew. Iiiii knew it. Thought I was being paranoid, huh? No! You were spelled. I tried to find the spell, but I couldn’t. I thought it was Gaia’s spell, the one she broke to let you bring back the rebellion. That was a secret spell too. So I thought the secret spell I sensed on you was that one. But it wasn’t! I mean, it wasn’t just that. You had that one and this one, and–”

He paused then, frowning at Flick. “Has it occurred to you that you get a lot of secret magic put on you?”

With a tiny smile, the blonde girl nodded to him. “It, uhhh, crossed my mind a few times, yeah.”

Haiden had moved by then to take a knee by the twins, holding one of each of their hands. “They said you had to take this secrecy spell thing to save your mom, and you went for it?”

Blinking away tears rapidly, Vanessa stammered, “W-we had to. It was Mom. It was our chance to get her back. They said that… they said they’d give us the passcode to unlock her stasis chamber.”

“That’s how you had that,” Sariel breathed, rising to step that way while pulling Tabbris with her. She embraced all three of her children, and her husband, together. “I thought there was… something about it that you weren’t telling. But I didn’t know it was anything like this.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Flick carefully explained. “They really do seem like they want humans and Seosten to work together.”

“And other species?” Abigail prompted pointedly. “How do they feel about stopping all enslavement?” Seeing the expression on her younger sister’s face, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I don’t see them speaking up to stop the mistreatment of SPS Seosten either.”

Finally speaking up for the first time, Gwen asked from her spot in the corner, “SPS?”  

“Sticky-Possession-Syndrome,” Flick supplied. “Miranda made it up. It’s better than calling them Lies.”

“Huh,” Gwen murmured thoughtfully. “Yes, I imagine it is.” She went quiet once more, allowing the group to continue their story.

Tristan was shaking his head at Abigail. “Yeah, they’re not exactly all-in on ‘everyone is equal’ yet. It’s more of a human and Seosten thing. But hey, it’s a start. It’s probably easier to go from ‘humans and Seosten should totally be allies’ to ‘all the non-assholes band together against the assholes’ than to get there from ‘everyone who isn’t Seosten is worthless.’”

Muttering something under her breath about how that should be self-evident, Abigail continued to bristle for a moment before sighing audibly. “Fine, it’s a start. But they made you lie to everyone.”

Tabbris’ head bobbed up and down while she clung to her mother. Her voice was quiet. “W-we’re sorry. We had to take the spells so we could save Mama.”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Lincoln assured her. He exchanged a brief look with Sariel before reaching out to pick the young girl up, holding her to him. “No one’s mad at you.”

“I can think of a few choice words I have for those two, though,” Haiden put in, his eyes cloudy as he stared at the nearby wall as though imagining having a chance to confront the pair.

Looking over to Sariel, Lincoln asked, “What do you know about this… Jophiel?”

There was a brief pause from the Seosten woman before her head shook. “It’s been a long time since I had much to do with her. If she’s really in love with a human… then she’s changed a lot.”

“She is,” Gwen put in. “I put them both through enough tests to be sure of it. Elisabet’s feelings for her are real. And as far as I can tell, so are Jophiel’s toward Elisabet. It makes sense given what they’ve done. Jophiel wants to prove humans are okay to ally with so that she can be open about her relationship with Elisabet. But they want to use these kids to prove it. Which means getting them ready.”

“So they’ve been… training you?” Sariel asked carefully, her voice bristling with what was clearly tightly controlled anger.

The group exchanged glances before Vanessa nodded. “Teaching us how to use our Seosten gifts, how to fight, and… everything else they could think of that could be impressive. And they were teaching Flick and Tabbris how to work together.”

“Basically like what Athena started,” Flick put in, “but more intensive. Plus, they’ve worked together for so long, they have a lot of tips.”

“That’s just fantastic,” Haiden dryly remarked, “but how about they do it the right way, instead of sneaking around behind all our backs and magically forcing our kids to lie to us for months?” His words were followed by a collection of tight nods, as the adults tried not to let their kids see just how upset they were with the whole situation.

“What changed?” That was Wyatt, who spoke up while the others were all silent as they took in everything that the group had told them. “They had magic spells to keep you quiet. Why can you tell us now?”

Straightening a bit while still holding Tabbris, Lincoln looked toward Gwen. “That’s a good question. And I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with you.”

Flick nodded. “Yup. She umm, sort of accidentally found out part of the truth while she was posing as Harper, and I guess she followed us to find out more. She’s been keeping an eye on us.”

“And when all this went down,” the woman herself added, “there was no point to keeping my involvement secret. So we arranged a meeting a couple weeks ago and… made an arrangement for the secrecy spells to be removed. There’s little point to them. We have a year to prove to the Seraphim that invading this planet is a bad idea. Which they have their way of doing, and I have mine.”

That drew Sariel’s attention. The woman looked to her, blinked once, then realized. “Arthur. You want to bring Arthur back.”

“Having him would tend to push the Seosten toward cooperation, yes,” Gwen confirmed. “Not that I don’t like the idea of happy alliances against the bigger threat, but with people like the Seosten, it’s a good idea to extend one open hand while holding a really big gun with the other.” Pausing, she added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Apollo and Sariel both replied simultaneously. The two exchanged looks of their own that said just how much was going through their minds, before Apollo added by himself, “We need to talk to Jophiel. About this and a lot of other things.”

“She said you’d say that,” Tristan informed them. “And they said they’ll meet with you later, once they can get away. Plus, we have this other meeting first.”

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

Gwen took over once more. “To bring Arthur back, we need to identify the Merlin Key, the prophesied figure who will wake him up. That person is supposed to be one of the students at Crossroads.”

“And Jophiel knows who?” Apollo quickly asked, his eyes widening. “I couldn’t get that much, even with what was, let me tell you, an awful lot of work.”

“She knows someone who probably knows who,” Flick informed them, biting her lip then before adding a quiet, “Mercury.”

That made the two Seosten look at each other once more, their eyes meeting before Sariel snapped, “Mercury is here too?”

The teens started to respond to that, only to stop as there was a knock at the door. Gwen, standing next to it, glanced to the door, looked it up and down before whistling softly as she reached out to tug it open, revealing a figure standing there.

“Good evening,” the man who appeared to be Benji Carfried announced. “May I come in?

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Summer Epilogue 5B (Heretical Edge)

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Neither Jophiel nor Elisabet responded outwardly to Gwen’s words at first. Instead, they simply glanced to one another for a brief moment, communicating silently. After a few seconds of that, the Seosten woman plucked her glass up daintily, taking a slow sip from it as though savoring the taste. Only then, once she had thoroughly enjoyed that single sip and set the glass back down, did she finally speak.

“You believe that something needs to be changed about our arrangement with the children, Queen Knight of Camelot?” Her tone was a mix of vague challenge and more curiosity.

Meeting her gaze, Gwen replied evenly, “I believe that you took advantage of your position of power over these children, and their desperation, to make an arrangement that suits you far more than it does them. More to the point, I believe you are forcing them to repeatedly and consistently lie to the people they care about, which is an odd thing to do for someone who is supposedly trying to advocate trust and alliance amongst humans and Seosten.”

It was Elisabet’s turn to speak then. “You’re right, it’s not ideal. But it’s for our safety. If word of our intentions with Miss Chambers or Sariel’s children were to get out, we would be expelled from our position and likely hunted down by Jophiel’s own people.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I would be hunted by my own people. Our position is rather tenuous.”

Tabbris abruptly put in. “Oh boy, a secret that could really hurt someone if it got out. Yeah, you better use magic to keep us quiet, cuz we’ve never had anything to do with something like that.”

Clearing her throat, Jophiel gave the young girl a brief squint before speaking again. “Experienced or not, we were and are not willing to put our lives in the hands of children. Look at what happened with Manakel possessing Miss Kohaku. Gaia Sinclaire had no clue. Even if we did wish to tell you which people we know are possessed currently or recently, we are not aware of all of them, particularly those who move often. The odds of our secrets getting out rise exponentially with every person who knows them. Given the amount of friends and family close to these four… that is an unacceptable risk.”

Tristan shook his head with a blurted, “That’s bullshit.” As everyone looked to him, the boy flushed a little but pushed on. “Yeah, sure, it’s a risk. But everything we do is a risk. Besides, we know how to check for possession now. We know how to guard against it. There’s about to be a spell that makes it impossible for any Heretic to be possessed without permission! We’re taking care of things on our end. And you’re still making us lie to everyone we care about. Like Tabs said, we’ve had secrets to keep all year long. It’s not just yours.”

With a little nod, Flick agreed, “I don’t like lying to my friends, or my dad. Actually, I hate it. You want to teach us how to have an alliance with your people, how to trust your people and work with them? But you’re not willing to take a risk yourselves. You might be a lot more powerful than we are, but you’re both so paranoid about someone you know finding out who and what you really are that you might as well be helpless. You’d rather we risk destroying our relationships with the people we care about, than you risk other Seosten finding out you love each other. Yeah, that wasn’t hard to figure out, for the record. You want to prove Seosten and humans can work together? Then stop making us lie to the people we’re supposed to trust.”

“Like I said,” Gwen announced, “we’re going to renegotiate this little agreement from a more equitable point of view. Yes, being cautious is understandable. You are taking a risk. But so are these kids. And there’s plenty of ways to make sure the people they’re talking to aren’t possessed. But first thing first, they couldn’t exactly tell me the whole story. So why don’t you two tell me instead? I want to hear the entire arrangement and plan, not just what I’ve inferred or gotten through eavesdropping. All of it. Then we can talk about how to make it more fair for everyone.”

Again, Jophiel and Elisabet exchanged glances. The latter opened her mouth to speak, but Gwen held a hand up to interrupt. “Wait. Actually, you put this on first.” With a flick of her wrist, she produced a bracelet, tossing it to the Seosten woman. “You know what it is?”

Catching the bracelet, Jophiel frowned at the small reddish-gold gemstone in the middle. “… Jaresh stone.” Her eyes snapped up to stare at Gwen. “You want to block my Tartarus power.”

“Tartarus power?” Flick echoed, blinking back and forth between the women. “You mean the other-dimension Olympian thing? That stone can do that?”

“Yes, it can,” Gwen confirmed. “As you might imagine, it’s very rare. And the power of the gem is drained relatively quickly.” Her eyes moved back to Jophiel. “Yes, I want you to put it on before Elisabet speaks. You know, just to make sure this entire… relationship you both have is actually her choice and not your little ‘shift the emotions someone feels about someone else to me’ power. If you two really trust each other, if your feelings are genuine, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Mmm,” Jophiel murmured, “of course not. And yet, you are asking me to put myself at a disadvantage. Should you have ill intentions–”

“I’m sure you’ll be just fine,” Gwen interrupted. “After all, if Elisabet’s feelings for you are real, she’ll protect you. So you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Let’s just call this practice, for you actually risking yourself a little bit instead of risking everyone else.”  

Pausing for a moment before heaving a slow, soft sigh, Jophiel nodded. “Fair enough,” she muttered before slipping the bracelet on. The stone flared brightly for a second before fading once more to a dim glow. “There,” she announced while holding her wrist out for inspection. “I cannot use my Olympian power. Everything my Sianame feels is her true, real feelings.”

Gwen took a moment, looking the bracelet over to make sure Jophiel hadn’t pulled a fast one somehow. Nodding in satisfaction, she looked to Elisabet. “First, why don’t you tell us how you feel about Jophiel here?”

The answer came immediately. “She is my Sianame, my partner. I love her more than anyone in the universe. I would do anything for her, and she’d do anything for me. That’s why we wouldn’t let the children tell anyone about our arrangement, because we won’t risk each other. We…” She paused, swallowing. “We want to fix things between our species, but we didn’t know how. But with Vanessa and Tristan there, our species can produce viable offspring together. That has to mean something. We have to convince the Seosten to work with humanity. The only way we knew of how to do that was to train them, so they could show the Seraphim how much better things could be with an alliance.”

“I seem to recall another of your members suggesting an alliance with my husband,” Gwen pointed out. “In fact, she convinced him enough to bring him to a vulnerable location for a ‘chat’. That turned out to be a trap. Why should we believe that this is anything different?”

It was Jophiel who spoke. “That was Chayyiel. And she did not betray Arthur. Puriel betrayed her by attacking their meeting point against her request. A betrayal which Chayyiel did not take kindly to, considering her promise to kill Puriel should he ever attempt to give her one more order.”

Showing no outward reaction to that, Gwen watched the Seosten woman for a moment before speaking again. “As I understand it, she has already negotiated your leadership into a potential alliance with humanity, in response to the impending Liesje spell.”

“An alliance,” Jophiel confirmed, “or invasion. They have not decided which. We have one year to prove that an alliance would be preferable to full enslavement. Which is why we must step up our training endeavors.”

“Does she know about what we’re doing here?” Vanessa put in. “Chayyiel, I mean.”

Jophiel started to respond that before pausing. “I… would say no, but it is Chayyiel. Who knows what that girl is aware of. She learned from the Apocalypse Twins, and has only improved on their teachings in many ways. That said, I do not believe so.”

From there, Elisabet and Jophiel explained the full original agreement to Gwen, who waited through all of it with only a few questions and clarifications. Finally, the former (and many would say current) queen of Camelot announced, “Yes, we’re changing that deal. You’ll get everything you wanted. The children can still agree to train with you. But you are going to remove the requirement that they not tell anyone about it. Yes, it puts you in danger. Just as they are in danger every time they interact with you. Just as they have been in danger for so long. If you want some measure of trust to be extended to you, then you will extend some as well.”

“We’re not gonna go blabbing it everywhere,” Tabbris piped up. “But making us always lie about it is wrong. How’re you gonna convince Mama and the others that you really want to be friends if you’re making us lie to them all the time? I mean… you do know that you’d eventually have to explain all this to them? If your plan works, I mean. If it works, and Seosten become allies with humans, you’d have to explain to Mama what you did.”

Vanessa stepped forward, hesitating slightly before putting herself in front of Elisabet. “When you guys pretended to be Mrs. Reibach while I was in the foster system, you were nice to me. You took me out for ice cream and helped me. You helped me feel like I wasn’t just crazy. I thought you were the only person there who cared about me.”

Swallowing, the Spanish woman lowered her head briefly before raising her gaze once more to meet Vanessa’s. “I did care about you, Vanessa. I do. We do. We care about you very much. We had… several discussions about possibly taking you in ourselves. But that would have been too dangerous. Not only for us, but for you as well. The best we could do was ensure that Kushiel did not take you.”

“You protected me,” Vanessa murmured. “I’m… I was free because you and Jophiel made sure the other Seosten didn’t take me in. Kushiel… she… she would’ve done bad things. You guys stopped her. You protected me. I never really had a chance to thank you for that.” Lifting her chin, she stared into the woman’s eyes. “I wouldn’t betray you. I won’t go telling everyone about you and Jophiel. I know it has to be a secret. We all know that. Please. Don’t make us hurt our families anymore. Don’t make us lie to them just to protect yourselves.”

On the heels of those words, Flick quietly added, “Just think about how you two would feel if you were put under a magic spell to lie to each other all the time, about anything, let alone something this important. This isn’t just something like lying about who ate the last cookie. We are working with the Seosten possessing one of the Crossroads Committee members, and we can’t tell anyone. You’re making us lie to the people we love, because you don’t want to put the person you love at risk. Isn’t that fucked up for people who want to make an alliance?”

Tristan nodded. “Seriously. Come on, let’s work together by working together. Like Nessa said, we’re not about to go blabbing everything all over the place. We’re smarter than that. You wanna be allies, let’s be allies by trusting each other. I mean, from what you said, we’ve only got a year to work all this out. We’re never gonna get there if you’re making us lie all the time. Yeah, it’s a risk. Everything’s a risk.”

Finally, Flick finished with, “What it comes down to is a choice, I guess. If you want to be perfectly safe, you guys could ignore us. Hell, you’re strong enough, I bet you could go off by yourselves and be just fine. If all you care about is each other, you could probably be just fine without anyone’s help. I’m pretty sure no one could track you down if you put your mind to disappearing. So you could do that.

“But I don’t think you want that. I think you want to make this alliance work. I think you really want humans and Seosten to work together. And the only way we’re gonna do that in one year is with some risks, and some trust. From both sides.”

In the end, it was Jophiel who sighed and looked to Elisabet. “I suppose they have a point.”

“But it’s still a risk,” the other woman pointed out quietly. She looked to Gwen and the others. “Give us a moment?” Receiving a nod, she and Jophiel stepped over to the other side of the clearing, using a spell or ability to mask their conversation as they spoke quietly and intently.

“Thanks for coming,” Vanessa softly said toward Gwen. “Even though everything we said would be true without you, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as quick to listen.”

Gwen, in turn, smiled easily. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I don’t mind playing muscle sometimes. Besides, like you said, it’s all true. It’s not fair that you have to lie to everyone you care about. That’s not how you foster an alliance. And they took advantage of your desperation to save your mother to make you agree to it. Whether their overall intentions are noble or not, that’s what they did. And it’s wrong. If they want a true alliance, they’ll do it from closer to even ground.”  

“You’re all correct.” That was Jophiel, who had moved back to them with Elisabet at her side. She still wore the faintly glowing bracelet. “We have discussed it, and in the interest of ensuring a lasting, true alliance between our people, we will agree to remove the prohibition against discussing it with anyone.” Even as she said those words, the woman’s voice seemed to tremble just a little. It was obvious that she was truly afraid of what might happen.

“However,” Elisabet added, “we would request time first. Before you begin discussing our arrangement with anyone, we would ask for two weeks. We’re not saying you are incapable of keeping secrets. But the Seosten are incredibly good at ferreting those secrets out at the worst possible time, regardless of your intentions or how careful you are. We would like to use those two weeks to prepare potential countermeasures and… escape plans in case things go wrong. We have things we can do to prepare for being exposed and to provide some advance warning should worse come to worst.”

“We know this is a lot to ask,” Jophiel informed them. “Particularly after you have made such compelling points about not lying to your loved ones. But we hope you will understand our own precaution. The Imperium is not forgiving. Should word of our relationship escape and we not know about it, there is a chance that… that they will take her from me.” She swallowed hard then, looking from Gwen to Flick and meeting the girl’s gaze. “Please. We will undo the spell and allow you to tell your loved ones, if you give us two weeks to prepare.”

Felicity and the rest all looked to one another before Vanessa spoke up. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. It’s an alliance, right? That means compromise. We can keep quiet for two more weeks while you get ready in case something goes wrong.”

“Yeah,” Flick agreed, “we’re not gonna be assholes about it. Deal, we’ll wait a couple weeks for you to set up your countermeasures and escape plan or whatever.”

Clearing her throat, Gwen gave a very faint smile. “It seems that you have come to an agreement. So let me make my own promise. Should either of you prove untrustworthy or should I believe for a second that you are putting these children at greater risk, I will end the arrangement as… thoroughly and permanently as needed.”

She stared intently at Jophiel. “I don’t know if I trust you. But I do know that the Fomorians are worse than anything your people might do to this world and everyone on it. So you’re right, we need an alliance. We need to work together. Just don’t give me a reason to think you’re playing us, or that either of you are a threat to these guys.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment of that, Jophiel watched the woman carefully. Her tone was soft. “If I might ask, your purpose at Crossroads, was it to seek the Merlin Key or something else?”

“We are far from any point in our relationship where I might answer that question with anything truthful,” Gwen pointed out in a flat voice. “Suffice to say, I am not done at Crossroads. Not by a long shot.”

“Merlin Key?” Tabbris piped up. “What’s–”

“The Key of Merlin,” Elisabet informed them, “is a person who will help to wake Arthur from… who will bring him back to life. It was a prophecy given by fifteen different seers across the world at the exact second of his… pseudo-death. Fifteen seers that we know of, anyway. At the exact second of his fall, these fifteen unrelated, unconnected seers announced that a child known as the Key of Merlin would awaken Arthur.”

Staring at her, Flick managed, “And you guys think that it’s someone at Crossroads?”

“I know they are,” Gwen confirmed. “But I do not know who, exactly. I was making progress, until… well, until all of this happened. Perhaps they are still at the school, or perhaps they fled. Unless…” She looked to Jophiel and Elisabet.

“We do not know either,” Elisabet replied. “You may believe that or not, but it is the truth. However, we may know someone who does.”

Eyes snapping to the woman then, Gwen spoke in a sharp tone. “Do not toy with me.”

“Arthur was amenable to an alliance with Chayyiel,” Jophiel pointed out. “We would not exactly be against his return, in that regard. Again, give us two weeks to prepare, and we will tell you what we know.”

For a moment, it looked as though Gwen might argue with that. Her desperation to finally be reunited with her husband was so great that it took a physical effort for the woman to contain herself. She took in a long, deep breath before letting it out, her voice soft. “Very well. You can have two weeks to prepare for everything going wrong. After that, you will break the secrecy spell to allow these guys to tell the truth to their loved ones. And you will tell me everything you know about bringing back mine.”

“We can agree to that,” Elisabet murmured thoughtfully, nodding. “And as a show of good faith, there is something you should be aware of, concerning your… friend who was taken.”

Blinking once, Flick asked, “You mean Sean? What about him? I mean… wait, he’s okay, right? Dare said they wouldn’t really hurt him, just lock him up. But if they–”

“He is physically well,” Elisabet assured her. “But their methods of changing his mind, of… of breaking him of this loyalty to you are barbaric. And risk destroying his mind if something is not done.”

She explained what was happening then, that Sean had been put in a cell that accelerated time. For every day that passed in the outside world, weeks and months would pass in there. Weeks and months where he was left alone, with only the occasional visit from Crossroads loyalists to wear him down.

“Oh my God, Sean…” Putting a hand against her mouth, Flick gasped before cursing. “Ruthers. It’s Ruthers. It’s his plan, isn’t it? He’s the one who–”

“Litonya, actually,” Jophiel interrupted. “This is her doing. She is the one pulling the strings of this particular endeavor.”

“Then get him out!” That was Vanessa, her eyes wide. “We thought we could get ready and get him out of there in like a month or two. But–but two months? That’s years in there! He can’t stay in there that long. He’ll be–they’ll make him–they… get him out!”

“As I said,” Jophiel replied shortly, “The prison is being run by Litonya. We have no authority there. Or at least none that would not be run by her first. We cannot extract him without exposing ourselves. If we are exposed to Crossroads, we will be exposed to all of our people. That will be the end of any authority we might have. We understand your loyalty to your friend. But this is not something we can risk.”

Tristan started to open his mouth to argue, but Flick held up a hand. “What if there was something you could do? Not taking him out of there, but a way you could help him without completely exposing yourselves?”

Meeting her gaze, Jophiel asked, “What do you have in mind?”

“You might not be able to break him out without Litonya and everyone else finding out,” Flick replied, “But you’d know what kind of security measures are on him. I mean, maybe you can’t march in there and order him released, but you know what they’ve got to stop that from happening.”

Elisabet glanced to her partner before squinting at the blonde girl. “If you think you have a way of taking that boy out of that cell just because we give you the security details–”

“No.” Flick’s head shook. “I don’t know how to get him out, not yet. But I think I know how to help him.

“Or rather, who can help him.”

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Summer Epilogue 5 (Heretical Edge)

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“Let me guess,” Felicity Chambers announced while staring a wall packed full of dozens of various mounted animal heads and other such trophies, “this cabin belongs to a devout vegetarian.”

Behind her, three more figures stood, also staring at the trophies. They were Vanessa and Tristan Moon, and the younger sister of all three of them, Tabbris. All four were here in this hunting cabin together, far from the Atherby camp. The smallest of the group was standing between her two half-siblings, her eyes wide as she stared almost face-to-face with an enormous boar head. “I hope whoever lives here never meets Choo!” she squeaked out.

“Pfft,” Tristan retorted, “Trust me, li’l dipper, that lightning pig would wipe the floor with whoever set all this up.” He glanced toward the majestic-looking elk head that served as the display’s centerpiece, grimacing a little at the look of the thing. “And let’s not let Salten into this place any time soon. I’m pretty sure he’d tear the whole place down pretty damn quick.”

“Cornelius there put up a wonderful fight,” a voice from the nearby cabin doorway. As the four turned that way, they found themselves looking at a man with dark hair cut short along both sides and artfully tousled on top. He wore dark green army camo pants and a black turtleneck, with sunglasses. On one hip was a pistol, while a knife was attached to his opposite leg. He also wore heavy boots on his feet, as well as an easy smile that was somehow charming and disarming despite how on edge the group obviously was.

“Hi there,” the man announced. “Sorry if I startled you guys. I’d say it was unintentional, but I did kind of want to see if I could still get away with it. But it was probably rude. I’m sorry for it.”

“I didn’t sense you at all,” Flick murmured, her eyes watching the man intently. “Who are you?”

“And what are you doing here?” That was Vanessa, as she leaned up on her toes as though to look past him, searching for the person the four of them were actually waiting at this cabin for.

“Shit, sorry. Yeah, you’re probably confused and a bit lost right now,” the man realized. “Okay, introductions. First of all, Jophiel sent me. I’m supposed to make sure things are copacetic here. I guess you could call me the acceptable loss if there’s a problem. But that’s okay, I’m pretty used to being in that position.” He extended a hand to them. “The name’s Orion.”

That made everyone in the group do a sudden double-take. Tabbris was the first to blurt, “Orion?! Like… like… Mama’s Orion? But–but… but…”

With an easy smile, the man, Orion apparently, nodded to her. “Yup, that Orion. And yeah, Sariel and I were… friends. Pretty good friends, actually. At least for a little while. I liked her. Still do, from what I’ve heard. She’s a good woman. Strong woman. And it looks like she had some really good kids.”

Biting her lip with a glance toward her siblings and friend, Vanessa then looked back to the man. “You said… friends. So you guys–I mean, the myths said… and Uncle Apollo…”

Orion’s head shook. “Nope, we weren’t like that. Just friends. Maybe with a few–ahh, never mind. It’s personal. But the point is, Sariel and I were good friends for awhile. What happened between us at the end of that was… kind of personal. You should ask your mom if you want to know about it, it’s probably not my story to tell. Not without her permission, anyway.”

“But why are you here?” Tristan finally managed. “I mean, why are you working with Jophiel?”

“Now that’s a good question,” Orion confirmed. “I’m not… really working with her so much as working for her. See, I’m kind of a mercenary. Jophiel hired me because she thought my history with Sariel and Apollo would make this whole thing a little bit easier. Like I said, Sariel was my friend. I still consider her one. Her and Apollo both, even if we haven’t really… even if we haven’t exactly been close for a long time. Jophiel hired me because she knew I’d never do anything to hurt Sariel’s kids, or even be a part of anything that did. That’s why I’m here.”

“And yet,” Vanessa murmured, “you’re still okay with working for Jophiel.”

The man met her gaze. “I’ve worked for a lot worse than her, believe me. Don’t get me wrong, I have my lines I won’t cross. No children, no innocent civilians, that kind of thing. But there’s a hell of a lot of gray area between that and being a paladin of righteousness. And Jophiel’s closer to the light side of that line than you might think. Closer than plenty of others, anyway. So yeah, I’m working for her. Because her money’s good. And because I want to make sure whatever meeting you guys have goes smoothly, for Sariel and Apollo.”

“Sounds like she didn’t tell you much,” Flick noted thoughtfully, looking the man up and down.

“I didn’t ask her much,” Orion corrected. “Because I don’t need to know. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure this meeting goes smoothly, and that it’s not a trap.”

Looking over her shoulder at the elk trophy, Vanessa curiously asked, “You called that thing Cornelius. Does that mean this is your cabin? She just sent us that whistle and told us to blow it while we were all touching to come here.”

He nodded. “This is one of my places, yeah. And for the record, I put up trophies of my hunts that were the strongest, the smartest, the most impressive. I honor the creatures who have earned a place on that wall, or any of my walls. Because I want them to be remembered. Cornelius… I hunted him seventeen times. He kept getting away. That last time, I… I had him. I had him and I almost let him go. I almost let him escape again. But that would have been an insult. It would have tarnished his memory. His place of honor there, in the center, is because I respected him. His meat went to feed a hungry family. He did not die in vain, or for simple glory. But his glory will be remembered nonetheless. I will not forget him.”

The man let that settle for a few seconds before he spoke again. “And in any case, I was told to come here and meet with five people, not four. Actually, the fifth one is the reason this meeting is happening. I’m assuming you would’ve already told me if there was that big of a change, so they must be–”

It was his turn to be taken by surprise, as Gwen spoke from behind the man. “They were also making sure this wasn’t a trap.” She waited for him to turn to face her before raising an eyebrow. “It’s been a long time, Orion.“

“You guys know each other?” Flick put in before amending, “I mean, that’s not really all that surprising, I guess. But still, you know each other?”

A small smirk touched Gwen’s face. “You could say that. Arthur and his knights fought with and against him a few times. Depending on who was paying his salary at the time.” Her chin rose then. “Arthur always said that he respected you in a lot of ways. Even if there were times that he didn’t really like you. He knew you were a man of principle.”

“That’s funny,” Orion remarked with a curious look. “She said I was meeting with a woman who claimed to be the mysterious and always masked Lancelot. But here before me I see a woman who looks very much like the good king’s lovely wife, Guinevere. It does raise a few questions.”

“Questions are fun things to have,” Gwen replied easily. “But right now, all you need to know is that you can call me Lancelot. My friends may call me other things. And you can also tell us where Jophiel is. This meeting was to be with her, not someone she hired to stand in the way.”

Orion nodded at that. “I’m supposed to take you to her, just as soon as I’m convinced that you’re not a threat. Not that she’s afraid of you, per se, but… well, let’s just say everyone wants to avoid any misunderstandings.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed, “misunderstandings suck. So would screwing all this up. So just… what do we need to do? We brought her like Jophiel agreed to, and we’re all here. Bring her in and we’ll talk this whole thing out, huh?”

“Actually,” Orion corrected, “I’m going to be taking you guys to another place, where she’ll meet us. Or more to the point, we’re going for a walk and she’ll join in whenever she feels comfortable. So, ahhh…” Turning a bit, he gestured to the door that Gwen/Lancelot was standing in front of. “Shall we go? Up to you how you’d like to do this… Sir Lancelot.”

Giving a slight bow before stepping back through the doorway, Gwen replied simply, “After you.”

With a soft chuckle, the man stepped past her. The rest of the group followed then, as he led them out of the cabin, down the short flight of steps, and to a nearby path. The cabin was surrounded by a mountain on one side and trees on every other, aside from that single, narrow path. It was only wide enough to travel single-file, which they did with Flick first after Orion, then Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan, with Gwen at the back of the group. They walked quietly through the dark, thick forest for a few minutes, each left with only their own thoughts. Their way was lit only by the moon and stars, and even that was only what made it through the thick canopy of leaves and branches that hung above their heads. The sounds of animals making their way through the night filled the air, though none strayed close to their path.

Finally, Flick broke the silence. “So, Orion, are you actually a… you know…”

“Am I Seosten?” the man finished for her without breaking stride or looking back to the girl. “No. I’m not. I… well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say there are a lot of very powerful, dangerous things out there that you kids don’t really have any experience with yet. Primordial things that ancient people thought of as gods. The kind of gods that were sacrificed for. A few of which would terrify even the strongest of you Heretics now. Monsters in every meaning of the word. I was an ordinary man until one of those primordial things possessed me. It made me do some pretty terrible things. Sariel and Apollo helped save me from that. I lost most of the power that being connected to it gave, but kept enough. I’m stronger, faster, I heal from almost anything, and have a few other bells and whistles. I’m not connected to a god anymore, but just the bare shadow remnants of the power it left in me is more than enough to keep me going all this time.”

He paused briefly then before adding in a somewhat softer voice, “And a bit of the hunting instinct. It’s why I have those trophies, why I’m always looking for something bigger and better to track. Because hunting, winning, that keeps the remnants of that thing content. It helps keep me… me. More me than I ever was since it possessed me, anyway.”

“Possessed you?” Tabbris piped up. “Like a Seosten?”

“Nope,” he replied. “More like… you guys read comic books? It was more like–”

“Venom,” Tristan finished for him. “It was more like Venom, wasn’t it? The Symbiote thing.”

The man nodded to that, again without looking back to them. “Gooey stuff that climbed my arm and poured itself down my throat, yeah. Fun times, let me tell you.”

“Wow, do I ever really want to hear more about that,” Flick noted with a little grimace. “You know, at some point. But now, what I’m really interested in is…” She paused, looking around expectantly for a moment before coughing. “Ah. I uhh, kind of expected Jophiel to interrupt me right there.”

“That does seem to have been a thing today,” Orion agreed casually. “But no, not yet.” Still walking, he turned his head to look over his shoulder at them. “I don’t know what kind of deal you guys have set up here, but a word of advice to the children of a woman I consider a friend… be careful. Jophiel is better than a lot of the snakes out there, but even the kindest snake is still a snake. They have instincts, and if they feel trapped… just watch yourself.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Gwen informed the man from the back of their line. “Jophiel has an arrangement with them. I’m just going to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.”

“And I’m sure they couldn’t ask for a better mediator on their behalf,” Orion replied. “Or a guardian, if it comes down to it. I heard about your little tussle with Gabriel Ruthers. It sounds like you gave him a bit of a wake-up call about the invulnerability of the Committee.” There was a slight smile on the man’s face then, barely visible through the deep shadows they were walking in as he glanced back once more. “Reminds me of that time with the Rougarou in Paris. What year was that?”

“Seven oh three,” the woman replied. “And trust me, the look on Ruthers’ face was even better than the one that was on Albinet’s.”

Raising his hand, Tristan announced, “I hope you guys know that I have a perfect memory now, so I am not going to forget to demand that someone tell us the whole story about all this stuff you’re talking about.”

They kept walking after that, continuing on in relative silence for another five minutes before a series of flickering purple candles appeared along either side of the path, leading off into the distance.

“That’s the signal,” Orion informed them. “If I turn the candles one color, it means she should stay away. If I turn them a different color, it means the meeting is safe.” He paused then, looking straight at Gwen. “I have a professional reputation to uphold.”

“I have no intention of harming that woman,” Gwen assured him in a flat tone. “Unless she gives me a reason to believe she intends harm to these children. We’re here to negotiate.”

Considering that briefly, Orion finally nodded and leaned down to touch one of the candles. He spoke a word under his breath, and the color of the flame changed from purple to blue. A second later, its opposite on the other side of the path changed color as well, followed by the two ahead of them, and on down the line. Soon, the path was lit by blue candles.

At a wave from the man, they started walking again. Gwen took a moment to look at one of the candles herself, murmuring a soft spell to enchant a bit of glass she was holding in front of one eye. Whatever she saw assured the woman enough to let Flick and the others keep walking.

The path curved gradually, a faint blue fog filling the air to ensure that everyone present knew that it was not a natural event. Their destination appeared in front of them in the form of a clearing with a series of plush, comfortable chairs arranged in a circle, and a beautiful Seosten woman who sat at one of those chairs, sipping wine from a crystal wine glass while she watched them approach.

“Thank you for your service, Orion,” Jophiel began as soon as they had all filed into the clearing. It was lit by several glowing white balls that hung in the air, making the place as bright as a lit stadium field. “I assume there were no complications.” When the man nodded, she snapped her fingers, causing a bag of what sounded like jingling coins to appear in the hand that wasn’t holding a wine glass. A simple toss sent it into Orion’s waiting hand, before the woman spoke again. “You can leave now.”

“Here, kid.” The man passed a piece of paper to Vanessa. “You can reach me at that phone number. You know, if you ever want to talk.” With a nod to the others, he turned and walked back the way they had come. Gradually, Orion disappeared from sight.

Once he was gone, Gwen spoke up. “Hello, Jophiel.”

“Hello, Guinevere,” came the reply. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet with you, but that remains to be seen. Let’s revisit that at the end of this little tête-à-tête, shall we?” As she spoke, the woman stood, taking another brief sip from her glass.

“Of course,” Gwen agreed, her eyes watching the other woman like a hawk. “But first, why don’t we all come to this meeting? After all, you’re only one half of your party. And I’d like to speak with both of you.”

It was Jophiel’s turn to squint very slightly, clearly undecided about how all of this was going to go. The two women stared at one another in silence while Flick and the others simply stood and waited, almost forgotten. Whatever would happen next had much to do with them, but they could do little to affect it.

Finally, Jophiel relented. Setting the wine glass down on a glass table that appeared from nowhere, she gave a single nod. “Yes, we should all speak.” Turning her head, she added in the direction of the trees at the edge of the clearing, “It’s okay.”

At her words, Elisabet appeared, stepping through the trees to enter the clearing. The Spanish woman looked first to Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris, taking in the three of them before her eyes moved briefly to Flick. Once she saw that the four were there, she moved to Jophiel’s side. “Guinevere. We never had the pleasure of meeting.”

“Yes, we did,” Gwen replied simply. “You just didn’t know it.” With those words, she looked back to Jophiel. “Okay. We’re all here. And we all know the deal that you made with these kids.

“Now let’s talk about how we’re going to change it.”

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