Vanessa Moon

Day After Day 39-06

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The portal, as it turned out, led to the front porch of a cabin in the middle of the woods. The place looked cozy, almost storybook-like. The porch wrapped all the way around the small building, and there were a couple rocking chairs sitting next to the door. Those chairs were occupied when we arrived, by Vanessa and Tristan.

Both of them jumped up at our appearance, the latter giving a rueful smile. “Hey Flick,” he started, “and Tabs, I assume. Fancy meeting you guys here.”

“Nah,” I replied with a straight face, “he’s still back at the camp.”

Giggling clearly despite herself, Vanessa moved her eyes to look at Elisabet. “So we’re all here, what did you want from us? I mean besides to turn us into your perfect little examples of human-Seosten cooperation.”

“That is the end goal of all of this,” the woman replied simply with a nod. “But at this precise moment, we have brought you here to plan and train for a very important mission later today.”

“Mission,” Tristan echoed, “does that make us your angels?” He snickered at his own words before tilting his head at them. “Which one of you is Charlie and which one is Bosley?”

“Elisabet’s Bosley,” I pointed out then. “Because you never see Charlie, remember?”

Tabbris turned my hair pink before speaking up through me. “You guys are weird.”

Elisabet or Jophiel immediately jumped on that. Coming forward, they looked at me curiously while murmuring, “Very interesting. We assume this is a signal you have worked out already?”

Vanessa answered for us. “When she changes her hair or eyes white or pink, that’s Tabbris talking.”

When I nodded, my hair shifting back to normal, Elisabet smiled. “Very good. That is an excellent plan. We shall do much the same. When I am speaking, my hair shall remain dark. When Jophiel is speaking, it shall turn blonde.”

Sure enough, her hair immediately lightened so that Jophiel could say, “We are very glad to see you working together already.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “we’re just great at the teamwork thing. So why are we here, exactly? You said something about a mission?”

I was tempted to say something more, thoughts of Rudolph’s funeral moving through my head, but managed to hold my tongue. There was no need to get overly antagonistic right now. Besides, part of me did acknowledge that without the two of them helping in the first place, I never would’ve saved Avalon the way I did. In some ways I was being irrational. But at least I was cognizant enough to know that and catch myself somewhat.

In answer, Jophiel (their hair was still light) gestured to make the door of the cabin open before heading that way. “Come,” she instructed, “we shall discuss it inside.”

So, we all followed her into what turned out to be a nice, cozy-looking interior. Basically all I could see was a small living room with a couch and a couple chairs in front of the fireplace, a small television, and an attached kitchenette. There was also a set of stairs leading up to what looked like a bedroom. I had been expecting something huge and elaborate, same old bigger on the inside thing. Instead, the cabin looked much the same inside as it did outside. Which, to be honest, was pretty surprising.

After letting us look around for a few seconds, Elisabet started, “Now, as we said, there is a mission to prepare for. But first, we would like to know if you have any specific questions for us.”

“Actually yeah,” I realized then while turning quickly to them. “Did you two know that Kushiel had little kids in that transport that Sariel was in?”

From the look on the woman’s face, I might as well have just announced that my father was marrying Jon Bon Jovi. Either they were both incredibly good actresses, which wouldn’t have been surprising, or they knew absolutely nothing about what I just said.

“What,” Jophiel demanded, “are you talking about?“

Vanessa answered for me. “Little kids. Toddlers. Seosten toddlers.  There were four of them in one transport pod.” She explained about how we had found them, what their names were, and what else we knew.

“Alatheia’s child, even by proxy,” Jophiel murmured under her breath. “That is a new low, even for Kushiel.”  She shook her head then, focusing on me. “No, we did not know about it. You may choose to believe that or not, as you wish. But as far as we were aware, all viable offspring were immediately shipped elsewhere. None should have stayed with Kushiel for longer than a week, let alone a couple of years. There are very few who are not aware that leaving that woman in charge of young, impressionable children would be a terrible idea. Think what you will of us, but we care for our children.“

Without missing a beat, I stared right back at her. “Unless their possession power is broken. Then you call them a lie and treat them worse than garbage. But yeah, you’re great family role models.”

That must have gotten through, because the woman flinched and walked away for a moment. I thought she might say something in defense of it, but when she straightened once more, the woman’s hair darkened to show that Elisabet was speaking. “We will look into this incident with the children remaining with Kushiel. And we will find out if it is an isolated incident or not. But for the time being, there is still a mission to perform.”

Tristan shrugged. “Okay then, Bosley. What are we doing?”

Elisabet explained. “There is a bus traveling along a back road in the middle of what you call Iowa. It is carrying a crate of special supplies. We would like you to take that crate and bring it here.”

Raising her hand, I shook my head quickly. “Wait, wait, wait. If you think we’re just going to do some dirty work for you and attack some innocent—”

Elisabet gave me a sharp look. “It is a Seosten supply transport, operating under the radar to avoid attention. The crate contains very rare magical supplies that are being delivered to our counterpart in Eden’s Garden.”

“Which means you can’t just grab them yourself,” I noted. “But why do you need the supplies in particular?”

It was Jophiel who answered. “As we said, they are very rare. And, as it happens, some of them are useful for a spell that we wish to help the two of you perform.” She nodded toward me and, I supposed, Tabbris. “It is a spell that you will find very useful, we assure you. But, it is one that requires very specific ingredients. Ingredients which are heavily monitored. We need you to steal them from that bus.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “Are you sure we can deal with the guards on that bus?”

Jophiel looked to her seriously. “If you can’t, we will have chosen our students rather poorly indeed.”

Her hair changed then to show that Elisabet was talking. “If we believed that the defending forces would be too much for you, we would not send you. We have no desire to have you killed in your first mission, I promise you that. And should things go wrong, we will find a way to influence it, even if that is simply to extract you. We will be monitoring the situation. But do not expect us to solve the problem for you. This is very much much a test. One that, should you succeed as we expect, will, as we said, provide the materials for a very useful spell.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by a spell that we would find useful. But it was pretty clear that they weren’t going to tell us anything more about it at the moment. So, I just sighed and looked to the twins. “In that case,” I announced, “I guess we should start planning out how we’re gonna do this.”

******

A few hours later, after going back to school to work with Harper and finish up that project, Tabbris and I were in position with Tristan and Vanessa.

The road was paved, but that was about all you could say about it. It led through what basically looked like an empty field that stretched on in every direction. There were a few houses here and there, but most seemed like they hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and were incredibly far apart. The road itself was cracked and potholed to death, looking as though it hadn’t been maintained in years, if not a decade.

Which probably wasn’t that big of a deal, since I doubted more than a few cars a day passed down this particular road. We were probably lucky that it wasn’t dirt.

The three of us, four with Tabbris counted, were crouched in a small grove of apple trees set just a bit back from the road. From this position, we would be able to see our quarry coming from as far away as possible. We would have plenty of time to prepare ourselves from the moment it appeared on the horizon. And with Vanessa’s telescopic vision, there would be no way to mistake what vehicle it was. Not that I expected to see any others before the bus, but still.

“You guys sure you’re ready for this?” I asked that before looking to the twins, biting my lip. “This is kind of a big deal. We don’t have any back-up or anything. I mean, we do, since I really think they’re telling the truth about not letting us get killed. But still. You know.”

Tristan nodded, glancing to his sister before replying, “We’re ready.” He looked to me then. “Actually, I was just thinking about how many times your mom probably did something like this while she was running the rebellion. You know, a quiet mission to ambush some transport or something along a back road, it seems like something she would’ve done a lot.”

Despite myself, I smiled just a little bit. “Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. I mean, I doubt she was doing it for the same reasons, but there’s… there’s definitely something there.”

Tabbris spoke up through me then. “We’ll get her back. That’s part of why we’re learning all this. We get better and better, and then save your mama.”

Vanessa nodded firmly at me. “She’s right, you helped us get our mom. We’ll help you get yours. Whatever it takes.”

“Damn straight,” Tristan agreed, “We’ve got your back. I’m pretty sure we–what the?” Interrupting himself, the boy abruptly jerked around, looking up into the trees.

“What?” I blurted, looking the same way. There was nothing there. The trees were empty.

“I…” Tristan frowned, looking over the branches. “I swear I thought I saw a… a shadow.”

“A shadow?” Vanessa echoed.

He nodded. “I mean the shadow of a person. I thought I saw a person’s shadow, from right above us. Right there.” He pointed into the tree, at a particularly large branch.

“Right there?” I blinked at that. “Someone that close, who didn’t set off any of our senses and who disappeared that quick? Who would that be? I mean, it wouldn’t be Elisabet and Jophiel. They wouldn’t be hiding.”

“I don’t–” Tristan started, before pointing. “Wait, there’s the bus.”

Sure enough, a shape had appeared at the far end of the road, off in the distance. Vanessa turned that way along with me, clearly focusing her vision for a moment before giving a quick nod. “That’s them, unless there’s some other red bus that fits the exact same description coming along the same road at this exact time.” Looking to rest of us she shrugged. “Hey, it could happen.”

Smiling just a little, I replied, “Let’s operate under the assumption that it’s the right one. You guys ready for your part?”

In answer, Tristan immediately shrank down dramatically. Suddenly, he was only about a foot tall. That was one of the powers he had picked up while we had been fighting to save Sariel back at Kushiel’s lab. He could shrink down to about one foot in height, or grow to a whole ten feet.

Doing so made him shrink out of his clothes, but revealed a previously invisible blue Seosten jumpsuit. Vanessa had one too, gifts from their mother to protect her children’s privacy when they shapeshifted. If anyone back at the school asked, they had been made by Nevada.

At the same time, Vanessa’s form changed as well, shrinking out of her own clothes while her jumpsuit appeared. But she wasn’t simply shrinking, the girl was turning into her raven form.

When she was totally transformed a few seconds later, the girl flapped a few times and flew over to pick up her shrunken brother by the arms. With a soft caw, she took off up into the air, flying low at first to stay away from the side of the road before climbing rapidly. As Tabbris and I watched, the two went high into the air, banking around to head back for the road.

“Okay,” I murmured, “almost our turn.”

As we watched, the bus got closer and closer. I could see a man of some kind crouched on top of the bus holding what looked like a rifle or something. He apparently hadn’t noticed Vanessa and Tristan high above, his attention focused on the road ahead or at the fields around them. It was a mistake that would cost him, and the rest of his group.

The bus was just about to pass the grove where I was crouched. It was close enough by then that I could see through the windshield to the driver. It looked like an Orc of some kind, complete with tasks. His big green hand was on the steering wheel as he bellowed something I couldn’t hear. Maybe he was singing.

Either way, he was about to have a very bad day. First I focused on creating a portal. One end appeared just in front of me, while the other appeared right in front of the man’s face. With that, I reared back. My hand immediately secreted a thick, gooey liquid that would make whoever it touched nauseous. Like Tristan‘s size changing, it was a power I’d gained back at the lab. Tabbris told me about it in the hospital, and I had practiced a little bit since that night.

Then I used another power I had gained to turn the liquid into a soft orb, before pitching it forward through that portal. The Orc barely had time to see the portal appear, before he was suddenly splashed in the face by a semi-solid ball that exploded into liquid which immediately made him violently nauseous.

The reaction was instantaneous, the bus careening off the road and into the field while the Orc hurled his lunch and dropped the wheel.

At the same time, the Vanessa raven dove toward the bus. She shot through an open window at the back, before shooting out the other side. I could no longer see Tristan in her talons. She’d dropped him off inside the bus.

Lunging  to my feet, I bought my staff to my hands and used it to launch myself forward and up. That made me a perfect target for the guy on the roof, who snapped his rifle my way. But before he could actually pull the trigger, Vanessa was there. She had flown up and around, to put herself back on top of the bus. Her talons raked the guys face, and he jerked backward before shooting his rifle off into the distance.

Landing on the hood of the bus in a crouch, I saw inside to where a now back-to-normal-size Tristan was busy ruining the day of the guys at the back. They were just starting to turn on him, reacting to the threat. Well, except for the driver, who was still on his knees puking his guts out. That nausea inducing stuff was apparently pretty strong.

I couldn’t leave Tristan alone in there, so I lashed out with my staff, triggering a short explosive burst that shattered the windshield. I was through immediately, hopping over the poor driver to put myself right at the front of the bus, and behind the guys who had been moving for Tristan.

Above, on top of the bus, I could hear a roar just before the roof caved in part way. Vanessa had turned into her bear and was dealing with the guy there. I almost felt sorry for him.

The guards on the bus froze at the sound as the roof crumpled slightly. Their eyes snapped from that, back to Tristan, and then to me.

“Sorry, guys,” I apologized while lifting my staff. “We kind of need this cargo more than you do.”

Apparently they disagreed, because the guards suddenly threw themselves into a desperate attack.

Well, no one said this little trip was supposed to be easy. Grimacing, I brought my staff up and met their charge.

******

“You allowed some to escape,” Jophiel noted a short while later. We were back at that cabin once more, with the crate that they had wanted.

“Everyone who tried to,” I confirmed. “If we could knock them out, we did. If they tried to escape, we let them go. Believe it or not, we don’t exactly want to kill everybody that you point out. Is that going to be a problem?”

There was a brief pause then as the two obviously conferred before shaking their head. Elisabet answered, “Unless it prevents you from completing the mission that we assign you, no. We were simply making an observation.”

Jophiel spoke then. “You actually did quite well. We were impressed by the plan you devised and your execution of it. You are all already quite beyond the normal skill of your age group.”

Tristan shrugged. “Just call us overachievers,” he murmured before using his foot to lightly nudge the crate. “So what’s in this thing that’s so important. What was that spell you were talking about?”

Vanessa nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s got some kind of magical super lock on it. Are you sure you can get into it?”

With a slight smile, Jophiel replied, ”Yes, we are quite certain we will be able to open it. As for what is inside, they are very rare ingredients, as we said. A few of them are quite necessary for a spell that we will teach you.” She looked to me at the end of that.

“Yeah,” I replied, “you said it would be a very useful spell for us to learn. How useful?”

Elisabet smiled even more then. “It is a spell that we performed many centuries ago for ourselves. It will allow Tabbris to access any of your powers even while she is not possessing you.”

My eyes widened at that, both from my own reaction and my partner’s. “Use the powers even apart from me?” I blurted in surprise.

“Yes,” Jophiel confirmed. “So long as you are not actively using them yourself, she will be able to use them as well. This will allow you to act even more as partners. But as we said, it is a complicated spell with very rare ingredients. We will need to have you practice it for quite a while before you were ready to use the actual components. We wouldn’t want you to… ahh, mess up, after all.”

“Holy shit, Flick,” Tristan muttered, “that sounds amazing.”

All I could do was nod silently, taking in the implications of just such an ability. They were right, if Tabbris could actually use my powers separate from me, that would make us even more effective. Not to mention how much it would allow the other girl to protect herself. I had no idea how or if we’d be able to explain such a thing later if we needed to, but still…

In some ways, maybe learning from these two wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially if they managed to get me more prepared to deal with Fossor when the time came.

******

“Hey, Flick!” the cheerful, peppy voice called a short time later, as I was walking across the school grounds.

“Oh, hey, Harper.” Waving to her as she approached, I asked, “What’s up?”

Grinning at me, the pink-haired hyperactive girl replied, “I just thought I’d let you know that I showed what we did to Professor Vandel, and he says it’s an A project.” She gave me a thumbs up. “So we did good.”

Her smile was infectious, and I couldn’t help but return it, even if my school grades were kind of the least of my concerns right then. “Oh, right, cool. Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Sure you could!” Harper insisted. “I think you can do a lot of things if you put your mind to them.  But we do deserve a reward, so…” She produced something in one hand, tossing it to me. “Reward apple!”

Catching it, I blinked. Sure enough, it was an apple. “This looks fresh.”

Her head bobbed. “It is! My mom sends me a care package from our backyard orchard sometimes. I use most of the fruit for baking, but uhh, something told me you might like that one by itself. I’ve got other fruit too if you want that instead.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Thanks.” Shrugging, I took a bite of the apple. She was right, it was good. And definitely fresh.

It was funny. Not so long ago, I had been hiding in a grove of apple trees while waiting for that bus to appear. And now, I was eating an apple.

“Sure you’re not a serpent?” I asked then, while taking another bite.

She blinked at that. “A serpent?”

“Sure,” I replied while gesturing. “You know. Apple. Serpent?”

Getting it, she giggled. “Wouldn’t we need to be at Eden’s Garden then?”

“Good point,” I agreed. “I guess you’re not a serpent then.”

“Nope,” she chirped easily, “definitely not a serpent.

“Just plain old Harper.”

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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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Tristan and Vanessa

“See, Nessa, the real question isn’t ‘Can I name every Roman Emperor in order and list their birth and death dates as well as the year that they took power.’ The real question is, ‘Why would anyone in the world ever need to do that?’ And making the answer be ‘for a trivia contest’ is cheating.”

As he finished speaking, Tristan grinned across the long, hollow log that he and his sister were sitting on opposite ends of. The log itself sat a short distance into the jungle from the beach, and was large enough that he almost could have laid across the width of it. Not nearly as big as the trees at Eden’s Garden, of course. But still respectable.

Squinting at him, Vanessa sniffed the words, “For Heretics, that kind of information actually could be useful, Tristan. What if you run into a magical trap that says something like, ‘I was the first Roman Emperor to use the cognomen Germanicus instead of Caesar, move these floor tiles into the correct spelling of my name to turn off that poison gas’? What would you do then?”

“Well,” the boy replied dryly, “first, I’d congratulate Spielberg and Lucas for making their Indiana Jones movies a far more accurate depiction of ancient booby traps than I thought they were.” Pausing then, he stared off into the distance, smiling to himself while his mouth twitched.

Vanessa sighed. “You’re trying not to laugh because you said booby, aren’t you?”

“Technically,” Tristan answered easily, “now I’m trying not to laugh because you said booby.”

A tiny, reluctant smile played at the girl’s mouth even as her face pinked a little bit. “Come on,” she pressed, “we’re supposed to be testing your memory. And I thought you’d like the historical stuff more than the math stuff. Plus, you never know when any kind of information might be useful. It’s not like you’ve got limited storage space in that brain, you know.”

“Hey, if you knew how many baseball stats, X-Men comics, and movie quotes I’ve got locked up in here,” her brother retorted, “you might change your mind about that ‘unlimited storage space’ thing. Ooh, and Guitar Hero songs. Do you have any idea how easy that game is when you can watch a song once and then play it perfectly without even looking at the screen the entire time?”

In response to that, Vanessa stuck her tongue out at her brother before offering, “Make you a deal?”

Tristan was intrigued, raising an eyebrow. “A deal, the devil says?”

“Don’t call me the devil,” she shot back. “I’m the devil’s niece. Get it right. Anyway, yes, a deal. You take my thing seriously and memorize this stuff, and then you can teach me the stuff that you’re interested in. You know, the X-Men and baseball stuff.”

Blinking, the boy quickly asked, “You’re serious? You really wanna know that stuff?”

Vanessa nodded without any hesitation. “Of course I do. I mean, you’re interested in it, and I want to have more things that we can talk about. If it gets you to pay attention to the stuff you’re not really interested in, that’s just a second bird for the stone.”

Tristan grinned then, head shaking. “You know, Nessa, it’s a good thing I’ve got this perfect memory now.

“Maybe it’ll help me stop forgetting how great it is to have a sister like you.”

 

————–

Tabbris

 

A handful of fish scattered in various directions as the water was suddenly and violently disturbed by a small head covered in blonde hair abruptly shoving its way through the lake surface and into the space where they had just been swimming. Bright green eyes popped open then, as Tabbris, from her upside down position, tried to apologize for disturbing the fleeing creatures.

Of course, since her head was currently in the lake and she had not used any kind of spell to compensate, what came out of her mouth was water-muffled gurgling. Which was a mistake that the girl realized quickly, lifting her head out of the lake long enough to fumble at the pockets of her jumpsuit (Seosten technology meant that even skin-tight jumpsuits could have pockets of considerable size) until she found what appeared to be a keychain with a large number of small wooden discs, about the size of quarters, all of varying colors. There were some red ones, some blue ones, white ones, green ones, and so on.

Shifting straight to the blue ones, the young girl quickly flipped through them until she found the one she wanted. A quick tug yanked it from the keychain, and she whispered the activation word for the spell attached to it. Within another second, a faint glowing bubble-like forcefield appeared around the girl’s head. It wouldn’t actually stop anything that hit it with any force. But it would act as… well, an air bubble.

Suitably prepared then, she poked her head back down and looked for the fish she had frightened. “Sorry!” the girl called, hoping that some of them might hear. And even if they didn’t (not that they’d understand if they did), apologizing when you scared or hurt someone was just the right thing to do.

She heard footsteps behind her, slowly approaching along the wooden dock that she was hanging off of. The footsteps stopped, and the girl lifted her head from the water to find the very old-looking, knightly man in literal chainmail. “Miss Tabbris,” the man politely spoke, “are you alright?”

“Oh! Um, yeah. Hi, Mr… uh, Enguerrand,” Tabbris quickly replied while shaking her wet hair out a bit. She was blushing. “I’m okay. I–oh.” Reaching up, she poked the bubble while dismissing the spell, making it pop. “I just wanted to look at the fish for a minute.”

The man smiled a little at that. “Am I to take it that you like fish, Miss Tabbris?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh! I like fish a lot. I wasn’t sure before because I–I didn’t want to accidentally make Flick like something she didn’t, so I was trying not to think about things that I like very much, except when I couldn’t help it. But I think I really like fish.”

That kind smile broadened a little, and the elderly man (who had been around long enough to have diapered and babysat Flick’s mother’s father) slowly sank down to sit on the edge of the dock beside her. “Well, my dear, at the risk of straying from my chivalrous stereotype into one more befitting a far more modern gangster, would you like to, ahh, swim with the fish?”

“Uh huh!” Again, Tabbris nodded as fast as possible, her wet, blonde hair shaking with each motion. Then she stopped. “Oh. But um. I can’t swim.”  

“That’s quite alright,” Enguerrand assured her. “We’ll simply start there, and teach you to swim.”

“You–you’d do that?” the girl asked in an awed voice. “You’re not too busy or… or anything?”

The man shook his head. “Miss Tabbris, I assure you… as someone who has witnessed the birth, growth, and loss of so many people whom I called my friends and family, these are the moments that are remembered. Not the training or the battles. These moments right here. I try to make those memories whenever possible. So please, do believe my sincerity when I say that I would very much love to teach you how to swim.”

Finally smiling back at him, Tabbris chirped, “Okay, Mr. Enguerrand.

“Where do we start?”

 

—————

 

Apollo and Kushiel

 

Deep in the heart of Kushiel’s prison facility, two figures stood facing one another. One was held locked in rigid stasis that was enforced by the yellow light surrounding her. A yellow light which was projected from a ring worn by the other figure, who held his hand up that way. Bodies of those who had tried to interrupt the pair lay scattered along the floor around them.

“You know,” Apollo remarked in a tone of faux-casualness underlied by extreme tension and effort, “if I had it to do over again, I’d probably make the light green instead of yellow. Much rather be Hal than Sinestro, you know?”

Straining to free herself, the Seosten woman snarled an annoyed, “You are prattling nonsense, as you always have. One would think that you would have matured some small amount in the millennia proceeding your banishment. But then, perhaps that is hopeless optimism.”

Despite the fact that this was a struggle that was far more centered around magical strength than physical, sweat still poured from both Apollo and Kushiel from the effort of holding or breaking the paralysis respectively. Each was calling upon vast reserves of energy and stamina, their duel essentially stalemated. Kushiel could not free herself from the power of the ring, but Apollo couldn’t manage anything that would actually end the problem. The slightest slip at that point would have allowed her to move and therefore escape. Or worse.

Grimacing a little before turning that into a small, tight smile, the man retorted, “I see you’re still creatively reinterpreting my telling you all to go fuck yourselves. I’ve got news for you, sweetheart. When the guy packs his stuff, moves to a new country, changes his name, and files a restraining order, you didn’t break up with him.

“Ah,” Kushiel spat with a dark smirk, “but you didn’t choose to go by yourself, now did you? No, no, you wouldn’t have. You were counting on the one that you thought you could trust. You were expecting dear, dear, would-be sister to go with you. How much did it hurt when she refused? How hard did you take that betrayal, hmm? Everything we did to your name, every action we took to destroy that reputation and turn you into humanity’s worst villain, and none of it was as bad as what she did. You asked for her help, for her to join you, and she stabbed you in the back.” Near the end of that, the magically paralyzed woman was chuckling.

Shaking his head a little at that, Apollo quietly replied, “Betrayed? Kushy, does Sevesensiel ring a bell? Little code that those kids used to fuck with Radueriel? I gave it to Sariel when I left, just in case she ever needed it. Did she ever tell any of you about it in the.. Oh… two thousand years she had? Did she ever tell you about any of my plans? Did she even tell you that she knew I was leaving? Not much of a betrayal, then. Hell, she even told her kids about it, and it looks like they were smart enough to tell their friends.”

That wasn’t how Felicity had ended up with the code, of course. But there was no need to give Kushiel any reason to think otherwise.

“Sure, I was disappointed that she didn’t come with me,” he continued then. “But betrayed? Don’t be so dramatic. I know my sister. I knew she’d get there eventually. But she had her own path to take, and it wasn’t my place to force it. I wanted her company, I wanted to spare her some of the guilt that I knew she’d end up feeling. I wanted her to come with me. But even when she didn’t, I knew she would eventually. I just had to give her time. And if there’s one thing people like us have a lot of, it’s time.”

Straining even more against the spell that held her rigid, Kushiel gave a low snarl. “It’s too bad then, that you will have to wait even longer for that reunion that you have wanted for so long. Or did it escape you that the transport holding all of those prisoners, including the other traitor you care for so much, has disappeared? And with her twin children aboard as well. What an added treat that will be.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Apollo informed her, his expression unchanging. “But you know what? I noticed something else too. You were pissed off. When that thing disappeared, you weren’t giddy. You weren’t happy about it. You were mad, which tells me that it’s not gonna be that simple for you to go after them. So we’ve got time. And until we find them, I’ve got a good feeling that those kids can handle themselves. Besides, if you think Sariel is going to be a prisoner for much longer, then you’ve actually gotten dumber than I thought. And let me tell you, ‘torture everyone that hates me into having more babies’ was already pretty dumb.”

The anger and frustration in Kushiel’s voice was audible as she snarled, “I am going to make you cry, Lucifer. I will make you plead and beg for me to just kill you to end your pain. I will take away everything that you care about, make you watch your loved ones suffer and burn in your stead.”

“Even your threats are growing old, Kushiel.”

The retort came not from Apollo, but from Athena. The brunette Olympian had entered the room, moving to stand beside Apollo himself, while holding Excalibur loosely in one hand. “You’ve had over a thousand years to find something more creative,” she informed the other woman flatly, “and you’re still relying on the same old tired cliches.”

“You,” Kushiel growled the word, straining even harder against the paralysis.

“Me,” Athena confirmed. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Radueriel and Abaddon will show up whenever they finish licking their wounds. In the meantime, it may not be very chivalrous or knightly to kill a helpless opponent. But in this case…” That sword rose. “I think we can make an exception.”

Unfortunately, in the next instant, a figure in a dark cloak that obscured their identity, magical darkness of some kind enveloping the face under that hood, appeared between them. A gesture from the cloaked figure dispelled the yellow light around Kushiel, freeing her from that paralysis.

Apollo and Athena both moved, but the other figure was faster. Their hand snapped out, catching hold of Kushiel. Then they were gone, leaving the other two to explain to the just-arriving Haiden where his wife and children were.

 

————-

 

Harper/Guinevere/Lancelot

Boston, on the far side of midnight yet still hours from dawn. A dark alley, barely illuminated by a struggling streetlight on the corner whose flickering glow did little more than cast imposing shadows for half a dozen figures who needed no such help.

Six of them. Each a were of a different kind. Two wolves, one bear, a single coyote, a raven, and a snake. All were in their mostly-human phase, their forms just changed enough to grant them monstrous features as they loomed over their target: a slim, gray-haired man in a business suit whose wire-rim glasses had just been snatched from his face by one of the two wolf-men.

“P-pl-please, please, I have money,” the man stammered. “I have money. You don’t have to hurt me. Please.” His lip quivered.

“Hurt you, old man?” The mangy-haired werewolf gave a chuckle that was more growl. “Oh, the boys and I have been aching for a real hunt. But I suppose you’ll have to do for an… appetizer. Now the cops that show up to investigate once we make you scream…” He crushed the glasses in his hand, mangling them. “… maybe they’ll be more fun.”

“Father.”

The voice came from further down the alley, toward what should have been a dead-end. Yet a girl stood there, a girl whose bubblegum-pink hair and pigtails were at odds with the serious expression on her face.

To those at Crossroads, she was known as Harper Hayes. Yet to others, she had a different name.

“Gwen?” The old man, his once quivering voice turned to curiosity, tilted his head. “What are you doing here?”  

“Father? Oh. Oh this is rich.” The werewolf who was clearly in charge of his ragtag pack laughed, joined by the others (the coyote’s laugh was more of a high pitched yip that carried on far too long). “Never mind that bit about the cops. I think our evening’s entertainment just arrived,” the man noted while smiling broadly at the girl who was seemingly surrounded by the pack of weres. He stopped short of literally licking his lips, but it was a near thing.

“Father,” Guinevere quietly and firmly spoke, ignoring the supposed threats. “Stop playing with the children, please. I need to speak with you.”

“Okay,” the wolf-man cut in, sounding annoyed as he lifted the hand with their first ‘victim’s’ broken glasses still clutched in it. “I’m feeling a touch ignored and belittled here, and I–”

Night turned to day as light flooded the alley as fully as if the sun itself had risen to its noon position in that intervening second. The pack of weres spun as one, expecting to see the floodlights from several trucks centered on them.

Instead, they saw the same man they had just been terrorizing. He stood on the opposite side of them from where he had been an instant earlier. And from his back extended the source of that unnatural light. Wings, beautiful, ethereal, and seemingly consisting of pure, blazing light. They unfurled, expanding to fill the width of the alley while glowing even brighter, to the point of being nearly too much to look at. The collection of weres were left staggering backward, hands raised to block some of the light.

“Very well,” the winged-man announced easily. “I suppose we can cut to the good part.”

The weres ran. Or tried to. Spinning, each scattered, trying to flee toward the dead end, toward the girl, toward anywhere but that spot. One fled in the opposite direction, skidding right past the glowing figure on his way to the street.

It did them no good. Staying where he was, the man lashed out with both of those brightly-glowing wings. The energy-constructs extended, stretching to cut between the fleeing figures before abruptly slamming outward.  Of the five weres who fled further into the alley, three were caught by the left wing, while the other two were caught by the right wing.

They were killed instantly. The wings burned straight through them, cutting through every defense, every bit of strength or power they had. Their bodies were literally disintegrated, as surely as if they had been tissue carelessly tossed into a crematorium.

The remaining were, the snake, had just reached the street as the man turned his way. Rather than give chase, he simply angled his wing. A beam of light, as deadly as any ship-mounted laser, shot from the wing to envelop the fleeing figure. In a moment, all that remained was dark ash floating through the air.

“Now then.” The wings vanished, returning the alley to its previous darkened stated, as the man turned to face Guinevere.

“What can I do for you, Duckling?”

*******

“And now she’s gone.”

Some time later, as Guinevere sat on a bench in a nearby park with the man who had adopted her as a child and raised her as his own, she finished relaying the story of what had happened to Avalon Sinclaire.

“I promised myself that I would protect her. But I couldn’t be on top of her every moment. I thought she would be safe enough. I told myself she would be safe enough while I searched for the pieces for Arthur. But the Seosten took her. I let my guard down and they… they took her.”

She turned slightly, squinting at the man beside her. “Your people are very persistent.”

Not truly his people, of course. The man who had adopted her had left his own race far behind long before he’d ever met her, long before he had taken the scraggly, orphaned child under his (literal) wing and taught her everything she needed to know to one day become both the queen of Camelot and Lancelot, one of its staunchest defenders.

Once, he had been known to his own people and to the humans he first presented himself to as Quirinus. Later, the humans had known him as Romulus, a founder and first king of Rome. Later still, he had taken the name he was most known for in the modern age, a name he still used to the present day, millennia after abandoning his own people.

Michael. Michael the archangel, whose glowing wings were a result of his own genetic enhancements from a different experiment than the one that had created the Olympians. Those same wings, despite being present only within very, very few like Michael himself, had somehow become synonymous with all Seosten. Or angels, as they were known to the humans. Several more Seosten had taken to using magic to create wings that carried on that symbolism, simulating the power that belonged to Michael and that handful of others who were like him. But their magical wings were nothing even close to the real thing, a simple parlor trick.

“My people,” Michael replied then, “have been fighting this war for a very long time, and tend to react poorly to anything that might challenge their supposed superiority.” His head turned a little then. “But tell me more of the others, these children who oppose them. Tell me more of Joselyn Chambers’ daughter, and her friends. I have heard some from Gabriel already. But what do you make of them?”

Guinevere was silent for a few seconds, several thoughts working their way through her mind before she began. “Felicity is very intelligent and talented, particularly for her age. She is insightful, learns quickly, and adapts even faster than that. But she is still young, and very much in over her head. I believe that she could grow to be just influential and important as her mother, if not more so.

“But if she loses Avalon Sinclaire at this early stage, if the girl is ripped away from her like this… it will do more damage. She lost her mother, and spent a good part of her life thus far hating her for that supposed abandonment. To lose Avalon now would be… very bad for her development.”

“That was a very clinical and likely accurate assessment,” Michael announced then, nodding before his eyes met hers. “Now how do you feel about her, Duckling?”

Flushing a little, Guinevere glanced away a bit guiltily. She had been keeping her assessment as detached as possible. Now, she sighed. “I like her. She reminds me of myself at her age, except possibly not as hot-headed and impulsive. She could do a lot of good for this world, Father, and for more beyond it. But not if she loses herself here. That is why I want to help her, why I will help her. So much has been taken from that girl as it is. I’m afraid that a loss like this, if Avalon Sinclaire is truly killed, the grief of it may destroy what fire Felicity has. Or awaken it too early, into a flash-burn that exhausts itself and fades to nothing. A flame like hers must be carefully nurtured.”

“Speaking of those who are nurturing the Chambers girl,” Michael carefully asked then. “The headmistress.. What do you think of her now?”

There was no answer for a moment. No answer until Guinevere slowly lifted her gaze from the ground to look at him. “She seems to have changed. Perhaps she has. I believe she is trying, after all she has done in these past few centuries to make up for those dark times. I would be a fool to discount her efforts in that regard. But I will not extend more trust to her than I must. Not yet.

“It will take more to convince me that Morgan le Fay has truly redeemed herself.”

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Desperate Times 36-01

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“Who is he?!”

The sound of my own hard, furious, frankly wild voice was punctuated by the loud crack of the large tree reacting to the body being violently shoved up against it. I had Theia by the arms, having literally lifted the other girl off the ground before slamming her against the tree in my anger. I heard someone calling my name, but I wasn’t sure who. And quite frankly, I didn’t care. My only focus was on the girl in front of me, the girl who knew exactly what I needed to know.

“No more games!” I blurted while still holding her like that. “No more playing around, no more deals, no more tricks! Who is he?! He has Avalon, damn it! He has Avalon, so tell me who he is. Tell us who he’s possessing, so we can get to him before he kills her! God damn it, who is–”

A hand fell on my shoulder then, squeezing gently as Professor Dare spoke quietly from beside me. “Let her go, Felicity,” she urged while giving me a firm tug backward. “I know how you feel. Believe me, I do. But she can’t say anything if you keep slamming her against the tree.”

She’s right, Flick. Tabbris, back in my head after recalling to me basically the second after I had last screamed Manakel’s name, urged. She can’t tell us anything if we keep hurting her.

Dare could have made me stop very easily, of course. Probably about a hundred different ways, actually. To say nothing of what Tabbris could have done from inside my head. But neither of them did anything that drastic. In Professor Dare’s case, she simply pulled me by the shoulder while speaking softly, and I let the other girl go. Stepping back, I gave a quick glance around while Theia collected herself. We had company besides just Dare here at the edge of the Atherby camp. Abigail was there, along with Koren, Deveron, Gabriel, and a couple of his people. Sariel and my dad were together with Vanessa and Tristan, a bit off to the opposite side, while Columbus, Scout, Shiori, and Sean stood in a small group somewhere in the middle. I could even see others watching from off in the distance, their curiosity clearly piqued.

Gaia and Wyatt were back at Crossroads, in the exact spot where Avalon–or rather, the temporary duplicate of Avalon, had disappeared. Apparently Professor Kohaku was there too, as the head of Security. The three of them were looking for any hints or clues, any magical trace that might lead to Manakel. But I doubted they’d find anything. Our best lead was right here, where Gaia had taken the others and me an instant after she had shown up, which itself had been barely a second after the rest of my friends had come running up.

I had briefly, tearfully, explained what happened to the others. Then I had seen her: Theia. A red haze had settled over my vision, and the next thing I’d known, she had been against the tree with my hands clutching onto her arms while I shouted the demand for information into her face.

So they were all watching as I took a slow step back, tightening my hands into fast while I stared at the girl in front of me. “Who is he?” I demanded, my voice as hard as I could make it. “Who is he possessing? Tell us now. If you actually give a shit at all, if you’re not just faking all of this, tell us now. He has Avalon, goddammit. He has her. He’s going to kill her as soon as he can, as soon as the spell protecting her runs out. So tell us who he is.Tell us so we can save her!”

She has to t-tell us, right? I could hear the fear and worry in Tabbris’s mental-voice. She won’t really make us wait until we figure out how to fix her? That could take… that could take too long.

Swallowing hard, I breathed in and out, trying to collect myself. We won’t let it happen, I promised my partner, my sister. We’ll find her. I swear. We will find her. I don’t care what we have to do. We will get her away from that evil piece of shit. Somehow.

Tabbris was good enough not to point out the doubt and fear that had taken over my mind. Doubt and fear that she wouldn’t even have had to be in my head to hear in my words.

Shiori moved up inside me, joined quickly by her brother, Scout, and Sean. Even Vulcan came closer. All of them were watching Theia as well, though it was the Asian girl who spoke. “I know we already made a deal with you,” she pleaded with the Seosten. “But this is different. Avalon is going to die. She is going to die if you don’t help us. Please, you have to tell us something.”

Abigail was there then. She stepped almost directly between Theia and me, her expression pained. “Theia,” she started slowly while looking toward the girl in question, “they’re right. Avalon is in very deep trouble. If there’s anything, anything at all that you can–”

“Stop.” The Seosten was shaking her head. “Stop, you don’t have to say it. All of you are saying words that Pace-I am already saying. It’s distracting, it hurts. It hurts different from being hit. It still hurts. Theia-I know pain, but it’s different. Theia-I don’t like it. Please stop saying it.”

It was Scout who realized what she meant first. From beside me, the girl announced, “Guilt.” She straightened, brushing a bit of hair from her face as she continued. “You feel guilty.”

“Guilt,” Theia echoed. “Guilty. Pain. Pain in here.” Her hand found her stomach (Pace’s stomach, whatever) while she shook her head. “Theia-I don’t like it. Really don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” That was Columbus. The boy’s voice was hard, and it looked like he was about to say something else, but caught himself just in time. Whatever he had been about to say, it probably wouldn’t have helped the situation. And I knew exactly how that felt, because I was really tempted to say, or scream, a few things that wouldn’t have helped at all either.

Sean was there, moving beside his roommate and friend to put a hand on his arm. He leaned in to whisper something to him that I didn’t catch. Hopefully it would help the other boy somehow.

Professor Dare was the one who found her voice next. “Theia,” she started slowly, “I… understand a bit of what you’ve been through. I know what kind of life you’ve had, even if I don’t know the specifics. I know that you have no reason to trust what anyone says. But I promise you, we will not go back on our promise just because you give us what we need right now. Tell us what we need to know to save Avalon, please. We will still do absolutely everything possible to help separate you from Pace safely. I give you my word, Theia. Please, help us.”

Through all of that, Theia just stood there with her hand against her stomach. Her head was down, as she slowly shook it back and forth while visibly trembling. Whatever else I might have thought about the girl in my anger at the whole situation, I could believe that she did indeed feel guilty. She might not have understood what it meant or how to handle it, but she definitely felt it.

I’m sorry, Flick. Speaking guilt and pain, there was a lot of it in Tabbris’ voice. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have–

Stop, I quickly interrupted. You couldn’t have done anything, Tabs. Believe me, it was too late even before I got there. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t you dare put that on yourself. Put it where it belongs: on Manakel. He is the piece of shit that we need to stop.

“Okay.” The voice was small, and quiet to the point of barely being audible. Theia had slumped a little in front of us, her shoulders and head down. “Okay,” she repeated, “We will tell you what we can.”

Even as my own eyes widened at that, Abigail snapped her gaze that way, blurting, “You will?”

The girl was nodding slowly. “Yes,” she answered softly. “Pace-I says… says that it is the right thing to do. Theia-I am… am scared. Theia-I do not believe that you will help us if you are not properly motivated, if we do not have anything to offer. But…. but Avalon is in danger. Manakel will kill her, and Pace-I…” She paused briefly before correcting herself. “We do not want that to happen. So y-yes. We will tell you what we know. We will tell you who Manakel is possessing.”

Oh God. It was going to happen. After everything that had happened that year, everything that we had been through, we would finally find out exactly who Manakel was. He had gone too far that time. He took Avalon, and that had finally pushed Pace into convincing Theia to talk.

“Who?” I pressed, my voice jumping an octave despite myself. “Who is that son of a bitch?”

And then Theia said the words that made my heart instantly drop into my stomach. The worst words she probably could have said in that very moment.

“I just told you.”

There was no confusion, no uncertainty. Only heart-wrenching anger and frustration. Because I immediately knew what that meant. “No,” I murmured, my head shaking back and forth in pointless denial. “No, no, no. You can’t–they can’t–no! No, damn it! You can’t have the memory spell on you! Wasn’t that the whole point of them trying to kill you to make sure you didn’t talk?! What–what–no, say it! Say it again!”

She tried. For ten minutes, the Seosten girl tried to tell us what she knew. She tried to write it down, she tried to hint about it, she tried everything. Everything. But it didn’t help. She couldn’t say or do anything that would lead us to know who Manakel was possessing.

Even Sariel tried. Putting her hand against the girl’s head, she focused for awhile before sighing. “Normally,” she informed me, “You would be correct. It takes very powerful magic to enact this kind of spell on an unwilling target that is not even present. But it seems that Manakel has managed to convince his superior… probably Metatron, to grant him the resources necessary for that. I may be able to break it, but it will take time. Weeks, probably.”

“That’s too long,” I blurted, my voice rising dramatically despite every attempt I made to control it. “That’s too fucking long. It’s–” Turning, I lashed out with a punch that put my first all the way through the same nearby tree that I had shoved Theia into before. “–too fucking long!”

Spinning back the other way then, the words came from my mouth before I could stop them. “If you just hadn’t played games before, this wouldn’t have happened!” I shouted at Theia. “If you had just told us what you knew! If you’d just helped us before they had a chance to put this on you, we’d be done with this already! Avalon might die because you had to hold back instead of telling us!” My loud, panicked voice was growing more hysterical. “Avalon might die because–”

Hands grabbed me, turning me around away from the Seosten girl then. It was my dad. He wrapped both of his arms around me, holding tight as he shook his head. “Easy, easy,” he urged while pulling me close to him.

I quickly grabbed on tight rather than following my first instinct to pull away. Burying my face against his chest, I felt my shoulders shake as tears flooded my eyes. If Avalon died. If Valley was–was killed after everything we’d been through, just because Theia hadn’t told us about who Manakel was while she’d had the chance… The anger, fear, terror, grief, and helplessness all warred around with each other inside me, and I simply held onto my father even more tightly.

“Daddy,” I whispered, my voice soft and fearful as I pleaded, “I can’t let her die. Please, please, I can’t lose Valley. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t let her die. We have to do something. We have to do something.”

I had no idea what kind of fear and helplessness my father was feeling in that moment as he held onto me, but it had to be something similar to what I felt at the thought that I could do nothing to actually save Avalon. I was helpless. Theia had been our best shot, except–

“The pixie,” I blurted, pulling back a bit while turning to the others. “The pixie that Tristan told us about. She was supposed to know something, right? Could she–would she…”

“She might be able to say something, considering they would know much less about her than they know about Theia,” Sariel confirmed hesitantly. “Any protective spell would be far less effective in that case.”

“She’s not awake yet,” Dare informed us with a visible wince. “She is still healing, recovering from her escape. Staying away from Avalon’s father and the other vampires while they were chasing her took a lot out of her. Too much. It’ll be… awhile before she can talk to us.”

“Damn it!” Putting both hands to my forehead, I cursed again before lamenting, “It’s always something. There’s always something stopping us from finding out the truth. One thing after another.”

Jophiel, I announced inwardly. Maybe we can get what we need from her, from them. They want our help, our cooperation? Well they’re not gonna get it if Avalon dies. Fuck them. Fuck them. They want us to work with them? They can’t let Avalon die. Damn it, damn it!

I felt Tabbris’ agreement. Y-yeah, we won’t cooperate unless they help with Avalon. Th-they have to help, right? They helped us save Mama, even if… even if they made us make a deal with them first. We… they-they’ll have to help find her… won’t they?

Before I could respond to that, Theia spoke up once more. “Wait,” she murmured. “Maybe we can help and be useful. Maybe we can still tell other things. Not direct identity things.”

I looked that way, my mouth opening. But it was Koren who spoke first. “You mean, you might be able to tell us things that eventually lead to Manakel, in a roundabout way. Clues.”

Theia was nodding. “Clues, yes. Like… where his secret hidey holes are and how to get to them. He might have left clues there about who his dancing puppet is, or other things.”

So, she did. With surprising speed and conciseness, the girl told us how to find three separate ‘islands’ that were apparently secretly connected to Crossroads, yet only accessible through specific spells. There were apparently even more than that, but those were the three that she knew about. Apparently, Manakel had supplies in all of them. And probably troops too. They would likely be guarded.

With a hell of a lot of luck, he would be holding Avalon in one of them too. But I wasn’t nearly naive enough to think that he would be that stupid. Not now. He knew that we might be able to get information out of Theia (or Lies, as he still obviously thought of her as), so keeping Valley in one of the hidden locations that the Seosten girl actually knew about would have been beyond idiotic.

But still, I could hope that there would be some hint or clue in one of those places that we could check out, which would actually lead to Avalon. Please. Please, whatever deity might be out there. Please let it lead us to Avalon.

“Three places,” Professor Dare was murmuring. “If there is anything to find, he’ll get rid of it the second he finds out that we’re looking in them.”

“So we need to check all of them at once.” That was Deveron. He had come forward, pointedly staying away from Sariel and keeping his gaze off her. “That means splitting up.”

Dare nodded in agreement with that. “Three groups to check three areas. I’ll take one group.”

Deveron immediately announced, “I’ll take another.”

Finally, Sariel opened her mouth. But she was interrupted by Gabriel Prosser, who stepped up. “And I,” he put in, “will take the third.” Casting a glance toward the woman he had interrupted, Gabriel added, “If you would be kind enough to accompany me, I would very much appreciate your help.”

“Right,” I spoke then. “So we go in three groups, tear these places apart, and look for anything that might hint at where Manakel is, who he’s possessing, or anything else that could be helpful.”

It was a good thing that I had that Amarok-stamina. Because it had been a very long fucking day. Just when I had thought that everything had settled down and I was back at Crossroads for the time being (or at least for the night), this had happened. Now we were going out to search these places, and I still hadn’t had any actual sleep.

Yeah, I was, yet again, grateful for that enhanced stamina. Not that it would have mattered. I couldn’t have slept at this point even without it. The thought of Avalon being out there, being… I shoved the thought of the other girl being hurt, or worse, out of my mind. Or tried to. Right now, I had to focus on what we could do. And that meant searching these secret islands for any information that had been forgotten and left behind.

Hold on, Valley, I thought desperately, trying not to let my worry and fear totally overwhelm me. We’re coming, I promise.

We are coming for you. I swear to God. We are coming for you. We’ll be there. We’ll find you. Somehow, we’ll find you.

Just hold on.

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Homecoming 35-07

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It was Gaia’s office that we emerged into after passing through the portal. A nice, private area to have our reunion in.

And there they were, standing in front of the portal while clearly waiting for us. My team, my friends, my niece. Columbus, Scout, Sean, and Koren. Even Vulcan gave a happy bark when he saw the three of us. And in the second after that, I found myself nearly knocked backward through the portal once more as a lithe, dark-haired girl threw her arms around me and held on tight with a noise that sounded like it was a cross between a shout of joy and a sob.

“Oof.” Taking a quick step back, I caught myself on my back foot before returning the embrace, just as tightly. “Hi, Shiori.” My voice was soft, its tenderness hopefully portraying what I felt as I held onto the other girl.

God, holding onto her felt so good. It felt so right. For everything that had made the trip to Seosten space interesting and useful, I had missed my girls more than I could express. It all came back to me in a rush as I held onto one of them now. Feeling her arms around me and her body against mine, it was all I could do not to burst into tears myself. I was home. I was really, truly home.

Her hug grew almost painful as she squeezed me even tighter. Her voice was plaintive. “Don’t do that!” she snarled at me. “Don’t do that again! Don’t disappear like that. You can’t just disappear like that. You could’ve died and… and…”

In the background, I half-heard Vanessa and Tristan greeting the others, and I had a brief thought that it wasn’t fair that the rest of their team had to be kept out of it. I knew why, of course. But it still sucked.

But then my thoughts on that, as well as every other conceivable subject, disappeared as Shiori kissed me. Her mouth found mine, and I almost collapsed at the electric feeling. My hands gripped her back even tighter, and I pulled her up against me. I could have sworn that there was uplifting, beautiful music somewhere.

Wait a second, there was music. Pulling back a bit, I turned to find Tristan standing there with Bobbi-Bobbi in her full snake body. The cyberform’s mouth was open, and that song was coming out.

The boy grinned at me, adding a thumbs up. “Don’t let us interrupt,” he announced, “just thought you might like some mood music.”

Flushing a little bit, I turned back to give Shiori one more quick kiss. “I’m okay,” I promised while holding onto her. With a smile, I added, “Hey, where’s the girl that goes on this arm?” I waved my left limb a little teasingly. “It’s lonely.”

Winking, Shiori replied, “She’s waiting for you down on the beach. You know, for a private reunion. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think she could restrain herself when you showed up, and you know how she hates it when people see her being affectionate and… well… human.” She made a face at her own phrasing before shaking it off. Then she kissed me again, and I lost myself for another moment.

After a few seconds of that, I pulled back and smiled. “Seriously. I’m right here and I’m just fine.”

“Are you really, though?” That came from Columbus. He was staring at me through his goggles. And his posture remained a bit standoffish. “Are you really okay?”

My eyes passed from him to the others. They seemed just as withdrawn, watching to see what I did, how I acted, who I really was. Seeing that, I let out a long, low sigh. “Guys,” I announced, “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s me. It’s always been me.”

Koren cut straight to the point, as was her wont. “You’re possessed,” she announced flatly.

“Err…” I coughed once, then shook my head. “Technically, not right now I’m not. I mean, yes I have been for most of my life, but no, I’m not possessed right this second. She’s back at the Atherby camp.”

“She?” Sean pressed, sounding curious.

Before I could say anything to that, Scout quickly piped up. “Sands? And… Mom…?” She had clearly been restraining herself as much as possible, wanting to give me a chance to actually greet the others and all that  before she burst in with all of the many important questions that she had. But she hadn’t been able to hold back any longer, and I couldn’t blame her for that.

“They’re okay,” I quickly assured her. “We,” I gestured toward Vanessa and Tristan, “were sort of transported here through a shortcut. The others are still out there. But your mom and sister are safe. They’re just going to have to take the long way to get back. But trust me, they’ve got plenty of help. They’ll make it.”

“And by we, you mean the three of you… and your passenger.” Columbus, again making it clear through his words and tone that he wasn’t very happy about that idea. And honestly, who could blame him given what he had been through?

And then it really struck me. How long had it been since I actually spoke to the real Columbus as himself? I hadn’t had a chance to really talk to him since that fight.

My expression of softened, and I stepped that way. My arms went around him, and I felt him stiffen for just a moment before he hesitantly returned the hug. I could sense his worry and apprehension through it.

“I’m sorry,” I announced quietly while holding onto him. “I am so sorry we didn’t figure it out sooner, Columbus. I’m sorry you had to go through all that with that… that… psycho bitch.”

Grimacing a little, the boy met my gaze. His own eyes were partially shielded by those goggles. “What about yours?” he asked simply. “Pretty sure she wasn’t on the Seosten payroll.”

Quickly, I shook my head, replying firmly, “Definitely not.”  Then I took a breath before starting to explain everything once again. The others, especially Shiori and Columbus, listened intently as I went through everything that had happened. I told them all of it, from the moment that I had been left in that forcefield prison and Tabbris had exposed herself to save me, all the way up through getting back to Earth. I told them about Athena and the Aelaestiam, about Lord Yup, about Jokai and Jazz becoming an item.

And I told them about Katarin. And, of course… Isaac.

As they had before, Vanessa and Tristan spoke up now and then to help out. Especially when we got to the parts that they were there for. But mostly it was me, doing a lot of talking.

Through it all, the others stared at me, most of them open-mouthed. Occasionally, someone would ask a question for clarification. But for the most part, they were silent.

Scout slumped once I was done. There were tears in her eyes, and she folded her arms across her stomach while looking sick. “Professor Katarin was nice,” she murmured in a voice that sounded broken. “He was nice to me when…” Blinking away those tears as best as she could, the girl sat down on a nearby armchair and dropped her head into her arms. Her shoulders shook a little bit.

I took a step that way, but it was Tristan got there first. The boy went down on his knees in front of the chair, taking Scout’s hands and squeezing them a little. I heard him murmur something quietly, but turned my attention away rather than eavesdrop. Scout needed someone to comfort her right then, and Tristan was the one who was doing it.

Instead, I focused on Koren, who asked, “Isaac, he’s still at that space station?”

Nodding quickly, I confirmed, “Yeah, and trust me, Athena isn’t going to let him out. Actually, I’d be really surprised if they don’t just find a way to rip those secrets out of his head. I bet Apollo could do it with that gift of his.”

Columbus’s voice was pointed. “You sound awfully chummy with them.”

I looked back to the boy, nodding once. “Yeah,” I replied easily, “because they’re not all one hundred percent evil anymore than any other species is. I just told you, Athena and her allies are working with other species trying to fight and change things. Yeah, they’ve got an uphill battle to do it, but they’re trying. “Besides,” I added while gesturing to the twins. “Look at Vanessa and Tristan. More to the point, look at their mother. It’s not the species that’s evil, Columbus. It’s the individuals. It’s the society they were raised in. That’s what has to change. It’s not that different from all the Heretics here. Mom was trying to change that. We’re trying to change that. And Athena and her people are trying to change their side. You can’t condemn an entire species because some of them do awful, terrible things. You change the society that brought them up to be like that.”

From the expression on his face, I wasn’t sure that I had gotten completely through to him. But he looked away and didn’t say anything else for the moment. I hoped he was at least thinking about it. Though I knew that it would take time, especially after what he had been through. And it was time that I was willing to give him. He deserved that kind of patience.

It was Koren who spoke next. “This girl, this… Tabbris, you said? You really trust her that much? You trust her enough to be in your head like that?”

“She’s my sister,” I repeated simply. Then I gestured back to the twins, to where Vanessa stood by helping Tristan with Scout. “She’s our sister. She was in my head for years and she never did anything wrong. Believe me, we can trust her. Dad and her mom are with her right now, but I want you guys to meet her. You know, the next chance we get. I want you to talk to her outside of my body. I want you to get to know her as herself before you make any real judgments.

“But think about it this way, if it wasn’t for her revealing herself and saving me from that trap, I wouldn’t have shown up at that hotel. Which means that Charmiene would have succeeded with everything she was trying to do right then. All of us would either be dead or Seosten slaves. Tabbris didn’t just save me that day. She saved all of us. And she did it by risking herself in every way. She’s a kid, and she’s the bravest kid I know.”

“Well, then I guess we need to meet her,” Sean replied before stepping forward. He embraced me then. “Glad you made it back, Flicker.”

Koren took her turn then, as did Scout after rising from the chair. Despite her grief about the man that she had known for a lot longer than I had, and her disappointment about her sister and mother not being with us, the girl found a tiny smile. “Avalon’s waiting.”

“And you’re talking,” I shot right back, grinning. “I think Herbie’s gonna win your next quiet contest, at this rate.”

She perked up a bit at that. “You have him?”

Grinning at her, I nodded. “Of course I do.” From my pocket, I produced Herbie. “Here, rockstar, say hello to your adoring fans.”

Boy, it was weird… strange… funny not getting Scout’s input filtered through Sands. I wasn’t accustomed to hearing so much of her voice or for her to be quite so open about things. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d had a lot going on in that time. Scout had grown too. They all had.

I wanted to hear everything. And I wanted to talk to them all a lot more. Especially Columbus. I had a feeling that it was going to take quite a lot to talk him around on not every Seosten being evil, after what he’d been through.

I would do it. I would take as long as I had to. But right now, there was someone I really wanted to see. So, after a little more interaction with the others, I excused myself. Then Shiori and I left the room. The others would stay with Vanessa and Tristan so that the twins could fill in any gaps I’d left in the story, or answer questions.

Together, the two of us made our way out of the office and through the school. On the way, we were stopped no less than a dozen times by a mixture of teachers and students. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, if I was officially back, where I had been, where the others were, and so on. Apparently as accustomed as Crossroads was to crazy things happening, a half-dozen students disappearing for two months was pushing it.

I just kept promising that they’d get answers later, that I was okay, that Gaia was working on saving the others, and so on. All of which meant that it took much longer to reach the beach than it normally would have.

Finally, we made it. Shiori pointed, telling me, “Just keep going that way, you’ll find her. I’ll meet you guys in a few. Choo needs walkies anyway. And I–”

Abruptly, she kissed me again. That time, I tasted tears that had fallen to her lips, and pulled back after a moment to stare at her. Clearly realizing what happened, she sniffled a little. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “I was just… I thought I might never see you again.”

“Oh, Shiori.” Smiling despite myself, I brushed those tears away gently with the back of my finger. “I’m here. And you, you’re amazing. You know the only reason I can even think about walking away from you right now is because Avalon’s waiting, and she’ll kill both of us if she doesn’t get a turn.”

Arching an eyebrow, the other girl dryly replied, “You know how lucky you are, right?”

“Ohhh yeah, the thought has occurred to me a few thousand times,” I promised. Together, we giggled just a little. Then we embraced once more and Shiori promised again to meet up with us so that we could all walk back and rejoin the rest of the group to go over everything again. Once the initial reunions were over, we could talk a lot more about specifics. And I was sure that everyone would have a million questions for me, even after the quick summary that I’d given them along with the twins.

But for now, I needed a break. I needed to see Valley. So I made my way down that beach, eventually jogging. I had to see her. The prospect made me giddy. Even after everything that had happened, the idea of seeing Avalon after two months made me so… happy that I could almost laugh out loud.

I bet you think I’m cra–

Oh. Right. Tabbris wasn’t there. Tabbris wasn’t… in me… she wasn’t…

Well. Now I felt… empty. I hadn’t noticed that much before. But now that the thought had come, it was all I could focus on. Or at least, it was all I could focus on until I rounded another corner and saw… my girl.

There she was, standing on the edge of the beach with her gaze out toward the ocean as if she was waiting for me. The setting sun framed against the beautiful Avalon took my breath away for a moment. It was all I could do just to remain standing, as a lump formed in my throat. I tried to speak, but nothing came for a few seconds. It was almost enough to simply stand here, watching her. After all the time that we had been apart, seeing her like this, it was… powerful.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to touch her, feel her, be with her. I needed to hear her voice. So I shook off my brief moment of stunned silence and called out, “Valley!” Hearing the joy in my own voice, I couldn’t help but giggle a little before throwing myself into a sprint. My feet kicked up sand as I ran that way. If my moment with Shiori had been what finally convinced me that I was home, this was icing on the cake. My other girl. My girl. Avalon. I was home. Finally.

Hearing my voice, Avalon turned. I saw her eyes meet mine, and I knew that little smile was coming. The one that was reserved just for me. The put-on reluctance, the acceptance, the happiness that I knew she felt. The happiness that I felt whenever I saw her.

She didn’t smile.

Instead, she spoke… in a voice that was not her own. “Miss Chambers. So glad that you made it home.”

The strange voice that wasn’t at all like Avalon, the fact that she didn’t smile, or move other than to look at me, all of it combined to bring me up short. A frown found its way past the joyful smile that had been on my face. “What…?”

“I do mean that sincerely,” Not-Avalon informed me. “Though you may doubt it. I am very glad that you escaped your banishment and returned. After all, this would not have been possible without the distraction that your arrival created. Gaia leaving the island completely for an extended time, leaving her daughter alone? It was an opportunity that I couldn’t possibly resist. Staying here until you arrived, however, that was a bit of an unnecessary indulgence. But, well, we all have our vices. And in my defense, you have been quite an annoyance this past year. So, I believe I have earned this moment.”

My mouth opened and shut, and then I felt my stomach drop as my knees went weak. The horror of my growing realization became a dark cloud that seemed to blot out all light. “M… Manakel? No. No, that’s impossible. You can’t–she can’t be possessed! That’s impossible!” Even as I spoke my denial, the words sounded hollow and empty to my own ears, like I was a terrible actress, reading them from a script that I had only just then picked up.

“Correct,” the horrible, fake Avalon in front of me confirmed. “Miss Sinclaire cannot be possessed. You are absolutely right about that. However, given… well, shall we say, most of a year to prepare, and multiple false attacks in which it was possible to… ahh, secretly gather samples of the girl’s DNA… it was very possible to create a spell which would… well, to put it simply, make a temporary duplicate of her. A duplicate which included every possible thing that could be used to identify or track her. Including, of course, all of those lovely, and dare I say, incredibly advanced protective spells.

“You didn’t think that I was sitting on my hands all this time, did you? All those failed attacks? They weren’t failures. Not really. Each one allowed me to gain a little more knowledge, a little more understanding of those spells, a little more of what I needed to create this temporary duplicate, complete with copies those same protective spells.Of course, I couldn’t use it just any time. After all, Gaia and whoever else she has monitoring those spells on the young Miss Sinclaire would notice if there happened to be two different versions of their charge at the same time. However quick I might have been, if Gaia were here on the island, she would have noticed. But when I learned that she had gone to collect you, well that presented a unique opportunity.

“You’ve seen that film… ahh, Indiana Jones? I refer to the part in which the great Indy must ahh, switch the artifact from the bag of sand, hoping to do so quickly enough that the device it was sitting on wouldn’t notice the switch? Well, I dare say that my endeavor was more successful than his. Taking Miss Sinclaire to a safe location, and leaving this duplicate behind to speak through, it was quite… challenging to time that perfectly. But I think even you can admit if you look at things objectively, it worked out rather better for me than it did him. I mean, hah, I don’t see a large boulder crashing this way, do you?”

Horror and disbelief clashed within me, their war becoming the awful pounding that filled my head even as he continued speaking through the simulacrum of Avalon. “And now, well, all that’s left is to hold onto Miss Sinclaire in a safe location far away and shielded from any tracking devices or spells, where we may wait until that nasty protection spell has run out. Thankfully, I have access to a great many resources that can speed that up a bit. And once the spell has run out without being renewed or refreshed… heh, well, then it will be time to eliminate Miss Sinclaire, complete my duty here on this world, and move on to bigger, better things.”

“No!” The shout tore its way out of my throat, filling the air. “No! No! You can’t have her! You can’t take her!

Not-Avalon smiled slowly. “But Miss Chambers… I already have.”

A wordless scream of fury and loss escaped me as I threw myself that way. My empty hands rose, only to tear straight through the fake body, as Not-Avalon dissolved into a cloud of sand and dust that simply drifted away on the wind. I was left standing there alone on the beach as my broken voice tore up to the sky.

“Manakel! You can’t have her! Manakel!”

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Homecoming 35-06

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For a few long, agonizing seconds, no one said anything. I was pretty sure most of us weren’t even breathing. A pin could have dropped and I was pretty sure that even those of us without enhanced hearing would have noticed.

It was Deveron who finally made the first move. But he still didn’t say anything. Instead, he straightened up a bit, opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but stopped. His face twisted, and I saw anger there. I saw rage. The kind of rage that had been building for half a century. His hands closed into fists, and I saw that pitch black obsidian armor extend over them. It didn’t cover his face, however. His face continued to show that anger.

He took one step. One step forward. I wasn’t sure what he was planning to do. He probably wasn’t planning anything. But he took the step. Then I was there. I put myself in his way. I saw his mouth open, then he stopped. For almost ten full, long seconds, the two of us stood in silence.

Or at least, we stood in outward silence. There was a hell of a lot of silent communication going on between us. He was angry, and he had every right to be. But he couldn’t take that anger out on Sariel, no matter how at fault she had been. She had already paid enough for her sins.

Through those long seconds, neither of us spoke. And neither did anyone else. Heavy silence prevailed as he stared at me, and I stared right back at him.

And then he walked away. Literally, turning on his heel, Deveron walked away. I could tell that each step was an effort for him. His children had been taken from him. That had led to his wife being taken from him. Even if Sariel hadn’t meant for it to happen, that probably didn’t matter so much to him right in that particular second.

But it mattered enough for him to walk away. That was probably the only reason that he walked away. That was the only thing that stopped him from literally flying into a blind rage and throwing himself at the woman, whether I was there or not. And even then, I was pretty sure that it took everything he had, all of his willpower, just to keep walking.

Abigail and Wyatt hesitated. The two of them glanced to one another, and then looked back to Sariel. Lots of emotions crossed both of their faces, mostly Wyatt’s. Sariel, accidentally or not, had been at least partially responsible for the way he had been raised. The things that he had gone through, the pain of his childhood and all that had led to his incredible level of paranoia was partially the fault of the woman in front of him.

Abigail, meanwhile, had led a more normal and less terrible life. She had at least been given to a nice family in the regular, Bystander world. But even then, it meant that she had never known her real parents. The person she might have been, the family that she might’ve had, was taken away. And again, it had been, to at least some small extent, the fault of Sariel Moon.

Then, also without speaking, the two of them turned and moved to follow their father. They walked away, just like he had.

Theia looked torn, as if she almost kept saying something and then stopping. I somehow had the feeling that Pace was actually talking her out of speaking up. Strangely enough, it was actually that moment, the realization that she was actually listening at least somewhat to the girl that she had possessed, that convinced me she was being truthful about her claims.

Having moved beside me once more at some point in all of that, Miranda slowly breathed out. Her hand squeezed my arm, and I felt her tension. Or maybe it was just my own, since I had a lot of it to go around.

Throughout those tense few moments, Sariel had simply stood there as if she was ready to accept any retaliation that they chose. She made no move to protect herself or flinch away. Once the three of them had finally settled on simply walking away, her shoulders slumped a little, and her eyes closed. I saw her mouth the words, I’m sorry, though no sound emerged.

It was Gaia who finally spoke, though I hadn’t even seen her arrive. “Our actions,” the headmistress began in a quiet voice, “very often have unpredicted consequences.”

“I should have predicted that,” Sariel insisted. Her voice was flat, though I could see the pain in her eyes as she opened them to look that way. “I should have predicted what would happen, what he’d do. I should have known. I was blind. Because I would never have put such young children in that kind of situation, I didn’t entertain the idea that he would. For me, it was a mistake. For them…” Her eyes moved to where Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail had been, and she visibly cringed once more. “For them, it destroyed everything.”

God, what could I say to that? What could anyone say to that? The whole situation was just so terrible. She clearly hadn’t meant what happened. Ruthers had taken her whispers in his ear completely the wrong way, far beyond what she intended. At least, and this was an awful thought in and of itself, but at least with Deveron, she had been targeting a combatant. Not children. But that didn’t make it any better for the people that her suggestion had affected. Hell, it could have been argued that her suggestion had led to the capture of my mother, which itself led to the continuation of the Heretic efforts to genocide every Alter species on Earth. What could possibly be said to make that any better, for anyone involved?

Nothing. The truth was that anything I could possibly have said would have sounded like meaningless prattle. Empty words with empty sentiment. There was no easy answer to this, no simple good guy or bad guy. Sariel hadn’t intended what happened, and she had more than paid for any unintended consequences. And yet, Deveron and the others had every right to be angry. They had every right to not forgive her. Fuck. This was… complicated.

Vanessa and Tristan had moved to stand next to their mother, as did Tabbris. My dad stepped up behind me, putting one hand on my shoulder and one hand on Miranda’s. From a glance toward his face, it didn’t look like he had any idea what to say about this either. I didn’t even know exactly how much he understood about the situation. But given what I knew of my father and how long he had been here, I was willing to bet that he had a pretty firm grasp of it.

“Sometimes,” Gabriel, who had appeared with Gaia, started, “the only thing that you can do, is give people time. And they might never forgive even unintended consequences. That’s their right.”

Sariel’s voice was barely audible. “I know,” she whispered, before kneeling. Wrapping both arms around all three of her children, she pulled them close, hugging them tightly. I saw her whisper something to them, but couldn’t make it out. I didn’t really want to. Whatever she was saying, it was meant for them, not for me. And the brief glimpse I had of the confusion on all three of their faces made it clear that… well, they needed to hear something from their mother.

Partway through that, Gaia and Gabriel moved to speak with them. Which meant that they were probably going to be busy for a few minutes, at least. Swallowing hard, I looked over to Miranda. The other girl was staring at me, biting her lip. When our gazes met, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I started, before shaking my head. “No.” I sighed then. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.” Glancing to my father, I asked, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?”

“To be honest,” he replied simply, “I don’t know. Sorry, kid. It’s just… sometimes there is no villain. Just a bunch of heroes running headlong into each other on their way to opposite goals.”

I started to say something to that, but movement caught my eye. Theia was approaching me of all people. Or, wait, maybe she was approaching Miranda, since she’d actually apparently spent time with her. Yeah, that made more sense.

For a moment, she didn’t say anything, though it looked like she wanted to. Instead, the girl seemed to be having some kind of internal debate with her host that carried on for almost a minute before she carefully asked, “Pace-I would like to know… if the Roxanne girl is alive.”

“Alive?” I nodded. “Yeah, she’s alive. She’s doing–uh, pretty well, actually. I swear, if she stacks one more survivability power, she–wait, why are you asking?” For a second, I’d forgotten who I was talking to, and now I squinted at her a bit uncertainly.

Her response was a small shrug. “We have been talking, and after Pace-I’s words, Theia-I feels… responsible for what was done. It was… maybe not very… Pace-I says it was bad. Abigail said it was bad.” She smiled then, that feral, dangerous and unhinged smile. “Abigail is smart. She knows many things. Right and wrong things.”  

For a moment, I just stared at her, unsure of what to say to that. Pace and Abigail had told her it was bad? I–it was like she was a little kid who didn’t know a thing about actual morals or ethics or anything, and was learning all of them from scratch. Learning, apparently through a combination of actually listening to what her host said, and from my older sister.

And yet, she still wouldn’t tell us who Manakel was possessing. She wouldn’t tell us what we really needed to know. Instead, she was holding that back until she got what she wanted. Which, I supposed, made sense in her mind. Given what I knew about Kushiel, being her daughter, particularly as a Lie, had probably been really hard. I kind of doubted that Theia had had any actual role model or anything while growing up. Having something important that someone else really needed and holding onto it until she got something she really needed in return clearly made perfect sense to her. Manakel’s identity was her bargaining chip, and she would obviously cling to that with her dying breath until she got what she wanted.

This whole situation was just plain screwed up, to be honest. Totally screwed up. I couldn’t follow my half-siblings and their father because I had no idea what to say to them. I couldn’t go to comfort my new adopted sister, her mother, and her half-siblings because I had no idea what to say to them. And now I had a more-than-half crazy Seosten girl who was cooperating with her own host (whom she happened to be trapped inside of) trying to talk to me, and I had no idea what to say to her either.

Finally, I just settled on, “Whenever she gets back here, you two should talk.”

Behind me, Dad cleared his throat. “I take it,” he started slowly, “you’re one of the… people who have been trying to kill my daughter and one of her girlfriends all year long.”

“Yup!” Showing utterly no shame, Theia beamed at my father instead, giving him two thumbs up. “Your daughter’s pretty resilient. You should be proud. Theia-I am very good at killing people.”

Dad seemed completely disarmed and confused by that response, clearly having no idea what to say to it. His mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out.

“I know.” Miranda was nodding at both of us. “That’s my reaction to a lot of what she does too. But she’s serious about helping. I mean, she won’t tell us what she knows about Manakel and all that, but she’s still be useful to have around. And, you know, better to be with us than against us.”

Theia was nodding right along with that, brightly chiming in, “That’s true, we are a very annoying enemy to have. We wouldn’t want to fight us.” Her eyes crossed briefly as if she was trying to follow the logic in her own head before she gave a slight nod of satisfaction. “Definitely not.”

Giving up on knowing what to say to her, or them, or whatever, I instead turned to Miranda. “What was going on that made it take so long for you to get here? And why didn’t Seller come with you? Abigail said you guys were dealing with something, and that Wyatt left to help you handle it so you could finish up sooner.”

Grimacing, Randi shook her head. “Just a little enchantment problem that was faster with Wyatt’s help. We’ve been looking for solutions to Theia and Pace’s situation, which sort of… requires breaking into a few places that we’re not supposed to be anywhere near. Secure locations that are magically locked. We sorta… tripped a security measure in this guy’s vault and needed Wyatt to help deal with the situation. Seller’s finishing up with that. Plus I don’t think he feels all that comfortable coming here for some reason.”

Blinking at that, I tilted my head to squint at the other girl. “Are you saying you have adventures and a whole life when I’m not there to see it? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Randi stuck her tongue out at me. “Oh, so sorry. You’re totally right. We’ll make sure not to let anything important happen unless you’re there next time.”

Giving her a firm nod, I replied, “Good. Make sure you remember that.” Then I just hugged her tight. Because as complicated and hard to deal with as things might have been, she was still my friend, and interacting with Randi had a way of making everything better.

As we separated, Theia looked between both of us, then asked conversationally, “Are you going to kiss?”

“What?!” The high-pitched squeak burst from me, while I heard it in stereo from the girl beside me. Giving Miranda a brief glance, I turned back to the strange Seosten. “What the hell–why do you–why would we–what?”

“You are sexually attracted to females, like Pace-I am,” Theia innocently replied. “And apparently males, though we have seen little evidence of that. You already have more than one female that you are romantically involved with, and you are very close to Miranda.” After summing that much up, her head tilted. “What part of the question was confusing?”

My mouth opened and shut at that, as a noise escaped me. Luckily, I was saved from having to respond by my father, who cleared his throat. “Relationships don’t really work like that. Miranda and Felicity are friends. Yes, they’re close, but that doesn’t mean they’re–” He paused, seeming to consider his words for a moment before just settling on a simple, “They’re just friends.”

I barely had a chance to mumble a thank you to him before Gaia approached. “On the other hand,” she began, “Miss Chambers does have friends and girlfriends who are very eagerly waiting to see her back at Crossroads. And I’m afraid that I can only justify delaying so long before taking our wayward students there, lest our Committee representatives and the ears that they whisper into start to wonder too much about what we could have been doing.”

Grimacing a little at that, I gave a slight nod before glancing toward Tabbris and the others. “Um, give me just a minute?” With that, I slowly walked that way. They had already stood up and were waiting with Gabriel, who had a hand on Sariel’s shoulder. The woman herself looked shaken, and a bit lost. Yeah, it was… going to take a lot to get her through that.

Actually, I was kind of surprised that Gabriel hadn’t reacted worse to the whole thing. Though, come to think of it, as controlled as he was, maybe I shouldn’t have been. But still, Sariel’s actions had affected him a lot too, and the rest of the Atherby camp.

Then again, I supposed they were accustomed to accepting people that had done or at least been partially responsible for terrible things in their past.

“Time to go back?” That was Tristan, giving me a faint smile as he stood between and slightly behind both of his sisters. “Does that mean our vacation is over?”

Snorting, I retorted, “Some vacation. I wanna fire my travel agent.”

Then I sobered a bit, looking to Tabbris. “You gonna be okay here with Dad and your mom for a little bit?”

She looked scared at that prospect, quickly lunging forward to wrap her arms around me. “What if you need me?” the girl protested. “And we made up that whole system about communicating.”

“Hey,” I replied while hugging her back, “we’ll still use the system, don’t you worry. Trust me, we’ll have plenty of time together. But you need to get to know your mom, and let both your mom and our dad get to know you. I’ve got the dibs spell still, so I’ll be safe from anyone trying to trespass on your turf.”

“And,” Gabriel put in, “you’ve already been promised a bit of an education on how to protect your charge.”

It took Sariel a moment to respond to that little prompting. She was looking away, a slight frown on her face while clearly lost in thought. Finally, the woman seemed to realize what had been said, and gave a quick nod. Her lost, vacant look was replaced by a smile that was meant to reassure her daughter that everything was alright. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I will teach you how to place your own possession claim upon Felicity, so that she will be protected even if you aren’t right there. It will… take a few days.” Her voice was soft, cracking just a little with restrained emotion that she was clearly holding back to avoid upsetting her children with.

Sariel Moon needed a therapist. Like… really badly. Thankfully, I was pretty sure that plenty of other people had already noticed that fact. Like my dad, and Gaia, and Gabriel. They would do something about it. Especially since she and Gaia had clearly shared a conversation while Sariel possessed the headmistress.

Actually, that brought up a point. “Hey, I thought Larissa was protected because her body thought you were possessing her even though you weren’t,” I put in. “Did possessing Gaia screw that up?”

The woman shook her head. “No,” she replied quietly. “It is not… “ She coughed then. “I will explain how it works when the time comes. Suffice to say, though there is a… time-based limit to how many could be protected the way that I have protected Larissa, it does not require me to never possess anyone else.”

Well, that was confusing. Now I really had no idea how that whole thing worked. I really hoped that I could get some clarification on that soon, because as it was, I had a lot of questions.

Vanessa was hugging her mother then. “I can’t believe we have to walk away from you already,” the other girl lamented. “It took so long to find you, and now we’re already leaving?”

“You can come back.” That was Gaia, standing nearby once more. “We’ll set up a system to allow you to travel back and forth safely so that you can visit. And, thankfully, we already know that Crossroads is… uniquely and specifically prevented from noticing or tracking the presence of Seosten on the island. So your mother will be able to visit there as well.”

It was better than nothing, but I could still tell that they were reluctant to separate. The whole family embraced once more.

No. Not the whole family. Just the ones who were there. They were still missing Haiden. Even after everything that had happened, not everyone had made it back to Earth yet. Like Sands and Larissa. I was going to have to talk to Scout about how her sister and mother weren’t here.

Clearly, I still had a lot of emotional conversations ahead of me.

Speaking of which, I looked back to Gaia. “Are Deveron and the others going to be okay?”

“They will be,” the woman assured me simply. “Give them time. I will come back to check on them after taking the three of you back to Crossroads.” She nodded toward the twins and me. “Then Sariel and I will go over the Seosten prisoners and see what can be done about them.”

With a nod, I started, “What about Professor… umm… Professor…” Slowly, I turned, realizing that Dare hadn’t actually been around for a bit. Actually, when was the last time I’d seen her?

There she was. The blonde woman was standing a bit away from everyone, looking at a tall, reddish tree on the edge of the camp. Frowning, I stepped that way. “Professor?”

“Hello, Felicity,” she answered without looking back. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I think we are. I mean…” Pausing, I asked, “Are you okay?”

Turning back to me finally, the woman smiled just a little. “Yes. Sorry, I was just… thinking. And answering Scout.” Holding up her phone, she explained, “She called for help getting back to the school awhile ago, so I sent Nevada to get her. She’s with the others, and apparently very eager to talk to you.”

Wincing at that, I sighed. “She probably wants to know why I made it back, but Sands and Larissa didn’t.”

“Hey.” Dare stepped over, putting both hands on my shoulders. “They will make it back. Give them time.” With a wink, she added, “Now you’re stuck in the same position we were while you were gone: waiting.”

“Yeah, it sucks,” I retorted. “But,  you know, speaking of waiting, I guess we’ve made them do it long enough.”

So, I did the rounds one more time, hugging my dad and Tabbris, and thanked Gabriel for letting them stay. I thought about walking after Deveron, Abigail, and Wyatt. But in the end, I decided they still needed a little space and privacy together. I could always talk to them in a little bit.

Finally, it was time. Gaia opened a portal, gesturing. “Your friends are waiting.”

Friends. Sean, Scout, Columbus, even Koren… and more than friends. Shiori and Avalon. I would finally, after two months, get to see them all again. I felt nervous. And excited. And a little sick, sort of. Finally. Finally, I was going to be reunited with the others. I could explain everything that had happened. Maybe Tabbris not possessing me at the time would even help me convince them that I wasn’t being manipulated by her into accepting the possession.

Either way, it was a conversation that had to happen, and a reunion that was long-past due. So, with a deep breath, I moved to the portal along with Tristan and Vanessa.

Then the three of us passed through it, and, for the first time since late February, set foot on Crossroads island.

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