Virginia Dare

Desperate Times 36-06

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We couldn’t explain much to Professor Tangle in the short time that we had, of course. The Seosten troops may have left, but we didn’t want to risk them coming back. I couldn’t very well tell Dare anything about Jophiel and Elisabet or what was going on there, so we had to hurry.

Instead, we promised (or Dare did, rather. Tangle had no real idea of who I was or any reason to trust anything I said) that she’d get answers soon, but that she had to get out of there right then.

First, Dare searched the woman for any tracking spells. She found seven of them, and disabled each. She then used some kind of special scanning spell that Wyatt had created, and that found another one. Only then was she satisfied.

Through it all, Tangle was still recovering. She clearly had questions. And so did I, to be honest. I had so many questions that it was almost impossible to restrain myself from blurting them out. But the woman clearly wasn’t in any condition to answer them yet. She looked dizzy and disoriented still. It would take awhile for her to get over that. So, I just filled a glass in the nearby bathroom with water, letting the woman drink it carefully. That seemed to help a little.

“Virginia,” Tangle pressed, once half of the water in the glass was gone, and the last tracking spell had been removed. “What happened? Why am I in the hospital? How long–”

Holding up a hand, Dare shook her head. “Giselle, I’m sorry. As I said, we have to get you out of here before someone comes back. I’m going to send you somewhere safe, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can, and we’ll explain what’s going on. But for now, I’m sending you to Gabriel’s camp.

“Gabriel?” If anything, Tangle looked even more confused. “Ruthers? Why–”

“No, not Ruthers.” Dare shook her head. “Prosser. I’m sending you to Gabriel Prosser. You’ll be safe there, and I promise, we’ll explain everything. But you need to get out of this room right now.”

With that, Dare used a teleportation spell that Wyatt had set up that would bypass any of the security restrictions about transportation within the hospital, and Tangle was sent directly to the Atherby camp. She would be safe there, safe from Seosten retaliation or recapture. Which meant that Avalon would be safe from being killed until we could actually find her. Only once Tangle was actually gone, only once she was sent safely away from here and we’d received confirmation that she’d arrived rather than her teleport being intercepted to send her somewhere else, did I finally breathe.

Why? Why had Jophiel and Elisabet actually helped right then? They had to be desperate to keep us from actually getting into that blood vault and using the spell that would prevent any Heretics from being possessed by them, didn’t they? Maybe they thought that I would be just as opposed to it, given my relationship with Tabbris? I didn’t know. I had no idea if they were expressing that kind of trust, or if they have some other kind of game going on. It was all very confusing.

“Felicity?” Dare was watching me, a slight frown touching her expression. “Are you alright?” She sounded concerned, raising a hand to touch my shoulder gently. “I know there’s a lot going on, and you’re worried about Avalon. But is there anything else you want to talk about now?”

Swallowing despite myself, I shook my head. “They could be back any minute, we should finish.”

Finish, in this case, meant setting up yet another spell that Wyatt had provided. This was a modified version of something that he himself apparently used sometimes. When the spell (which had been put onto a small plastic ball) was triggered, it created what amounted to a very advanced dummy of another person. In this case, Professor Tangle. The ‘dummy’ looked like her, breathed in and out very slowly as if sleeping, and would fool most casual inspections. It wouldn’t stand up for an extended time, of course. But we didn’t need it to. Apparently, Wyatt used it to ‘draw in attackers’ by making them think that he was helplessly lying in bed, while he waited to ambush them. He’d made the one for Tangle, and asked if I wanted one, just in case. I had politely declined.

But in this case, it was helpful. The Seosten might know that she was gone, but they couldn’t openly do anything about it. The way Gaia had put it, as soon as they exposed that they knew that the thing in the bed wasn’t actually Tangle, they would be revealing themselves.

As soon as that was set up, Dare and I quickly left the room. The professor escorted me back to where the others were in the waiting room, before quietly promising to check in later. Then she left, to go explain to poor Tangle exactly what was going on. And, hopefully, to get some actual new information out of the woman. God, how I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to avoid barking a million demands and questions at her. Which, as wrecked as the woman clearly was, would clearly have been a bad idea. So it was better that Dare be the one to talk to her. And even if she couldn’t remember anything, it was possible that Sariel would be able to help with that.

I just hoped that they hadn’t bothered to use that super-memory spell bullshit on her. Please, God let us get something we could use out of all this. Just keeping her away from the Seosten so that they couldn’t kill Avalon was reason enough to wake her up and get her out of there, of course. But still, some actual information would also be pretty damn useful right then.

“Flick?” Columbus was there, watching me curiously along with the others (except for Sean, who was apparently being examined). “Everything okay? You want a snack?” He held up candy from the vending machine in each hand, a chocolate bar in one hand and fruity licorice in the other.

I took the chocolate, which was the sign that everything had gone okay and that Tangle was safely in the Atherby camp. That was the signal that we had set up ahead of time. If I had taken whatever fruit-based candy the boy had offered, it would mean that there had been a problem.

Everyone who was watching relaxed a little then, and I munched on the candy while starting to explain that Dr. Therasis wanted me to stay there for the night for further examination.

“So,” I finished up, “who wants to play sleepover in the hospital with me?”

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was everybody. My entire team, plus Shiori, wanted to stay in the hospital that night. And, given the situation that was going on, Gaia wasn’t exactly going to object. As for Dr. Therasus, he was surprised, but he didn’t really have any way to object either. Especially not after Gaia signed off on it. So, we were all there in the hospital that night. Shiori, Scout, and I stayed in one room, while Sean, Columbus, Rudolph, and Douglas stayed in the one directly next door. We were all together in one room for a good part of the evening, just talking about everything. We used several privacy spells to keep things safe, and talked through absolutely everything possible. Despite what they either knew or assumed already, Rudolph and Douglas were understandably shocked through a lot of it. Especially when I told them the truth about Fossor, and the whole thing with my mother.

“God damn,” Doug remarked, “you’ve had a busy year.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before returning my attention to the boy. “But what was all that about Whispers? It sounded like there should be a capital W in that.”

So, Douglas explained. He told us everything that had happened back on his colony world. He explained how he and his Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan had accidentally released a bunch of invisible creatures they called Whispers, which were only partially present in this reality. The Whispers had driven many people in their colony crazy and made them do horrible things. A lot of people had died, including most of Douglas’s family. Only his mother and eldest brother had survived. And, of course, Sulan, who had been disgraced and banished from the colony for unleashing those things.

Once he finished explaining all that, the boy showed us the inside of his hat. He seemed reluctant to take it off, but finally did. I saw the symbols that were drawn in it, symbols that, according to Doug, protected his mind from those Whispers. He and Sulan had found them in the same place that they had accidentally released the creatures from, realizing too late that the symbols contained them, trapped them. And now, the ones on his hat prevented the Whispers from getting into his head.

“I know they’re not anywhere near Earth,” the boy muttered, affixing the hat to his head once more. “But it makes me feel better.”

I barely heard his words. My attention was on that hat. Slowly, I reached out to touch the brim of it gently while murmuring, “I wonder…” When the others all looked to me curiously, I hesitantly continued. “I wonder if something that could keep the Whispers out of people’s minds might keep out… other things too.”

“Other things like… Seosten possession?” Columbus was right there too, his own eyes staring intently at the cap. “It couldn’t be that easy, could it? The Seosten would have destroyed anything like that. If there was a simple spell that could keep them out, they’d destroy it.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “But still, there’s umm… there’s one quick way to check.” Even as I said the words, I winced a little, looking to Doug.

“What?” The boy looked confused for a moment before getting it. “Oh. Oh, wait, you got that–you said you had the power to–you want to try and–oh.” Yeah, he got it. He realized that I wanted to try and possess him while he wore the hat, and what it would mean if I did.

“Give me the hat.” That was Scout, holding her hand out while raising an eyebrow pointedly. “She can try to possess me. I don’t care.”

Oh, right. Doug didn’t have to be the one wearing it. I didn’t have to invade his private thoughts. The hat was the thing that mattered, not whoever was wearing it. We just wanted to know if it protected the person who happened to wear the thing from being possessed.

Doug looked a little uncertain and nervous about taking the hat off again. I had the feeling he rarely ever did so. And given what he had told us about those Whispers, I couldn’t blame him.  Finally, however, he pulled the thing off his head and handed it to Scout, who carefully put it on her head and nodded to me.

So, with a glance toward  the others, I reached out and touched the girls arm before focusing on trying to possess her. Instantly, I was there. The hat had not protected her at all. I had possessed her just as simply and easily as anyone else.

Except… maybe not. I was possessing her, that much was true. I could see through her eyes, see the disappointment and resignation in the expressions of the others as they realized that the hat hadn’t stopped me from possessing the girl.

But I couldn’t hear her thoughts. I couldn’t get into her head. I could make her hand move, and did so right then, lifting the hand in front of her face. But I couldn’t hear anything from the girl herself. Her mind was just as closed to me as it had been before I possessed her.

And then her other hand moved. I hadn’t told it to move, but it did. We stood up–she stood up. I hadn’t told her to do that either. I tried turning her head to the left, and it turned that way.

Then it turned to the right, and I hadn’t told it to.

With a gasp, I threw myself out of her, stumbling a little before turning to face Scout. “Did you–were you–?”

She nodded quickly. “You were…” As I nodded back at her, the other girl blinked. “Huh.”

“What?” That was Rudolph, speaking up for the others, who were all just as confused. “What happened? You… possessed her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I possessed her, but I couldn’t read her mind. And she could still control her body. I controlled her body too, but so could she. We were both controlling it at the same time.”

Sean whistled low at that. “It’s not a perfect solution, but… that’s still something.”

I nodded. “And maybe someone who understands magic a lot better could make something else out of it, could use the symbols as a start to make something better, a stronger defense.”

Shiori started to nod at that, her mouth opening. But before the other girl could say anything, Scout put up a hand to stop her. A moment later, the rest of us heard what she had: footsteps approaching, and we all clammed up.

It was Nevada, along with a couple nurses. The latter made noises about how we needed to separate for the night, that the boys were going to go to their own room right then. They sounded almost scandalized by the thought that we had been sitting in the same room even that long.

Nevada, meanwhile, moved to me. From the way she moved her hand, I had a feeling she was keeping our conversation private. “Are you doing okay?” the normally bright, bubbly woman asked in a subdued voice. “I know I wasn’t there when you got back, but… I’ll be around tonight. Risa, Virginia, and I, we’ll all be around to make sure you’re alright.”

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “Thanks, Prof–Nevada. Sorry. Thanks. We–we’ll be okay.” I had to swallow back words about how we just wanted to find Avalon, not wanting to make the woman feel even more guilty than she already did. She had been closer to Avalon than to me, given the time the other girl had spent in the Development track in the first semester.

“We’ll find her, Flick.” Nevada’s gaze, and her words, were firm. “We’ll find Avalon, I promise.”

It was all I could do not to blurt a bunch of demands about Tangle. If there was anything to report, she clearly would have told me. It was going to take time for the woman to recover and for anyone to get actual useful information out of her.

So, instead of pushing the issue, I thanked Nevada, and then watched as the boys were escorted out to their own room, right next door. Scout, Shiori and I were left alone, with Nevada promising to check in on us now and then. I almost said that we needed to talk to her, wanting to share the bit about those anti-Whisper symbols. But in the end, I simply told her that I’d want to talk later that night. It would be easier then, without the other nurses right there. I didn’t need much sleep, and there would be nothing to stop me from telling Nevada everything about the symbols, rather than rushing it right then.

“Well,” I started once just Scout, Shiori, and me in that room by ourselves.

“Anyone know a good ghost story?”

*******

Apparently, I really needed sleep. I was reminded yet again that emotional exhaustion was a thing too, because I ended up crashing for just over two and a half hours. Actually, when I woke up, Shiori was the one who was awake. Lifting my head from the bed, I saw the other girl sitting up, using the light coming from the nearby doorway to read a book of some kind.

She saw me sit up, raising a finger to her lips before nodding to where Scout was sound asleep.

Nodding, I silently slipped out of bed and dressed before padding across the room. Shiori had closed the book, and the two of us stepped out into the corridor together. The place was eerily quiet, as we moved away from the room.

“Couldn’t sleep?” I asked quietly, keeping my voice down while we passed the room where the boys were.

She shook her head at that, grimacing. “No. I mean, I did a little bit, but I kept tossing and turning. I… I’m worried about Avalon.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Me too. I hope they get something out of Professor Tangle. If not…” My head shook quickly at that, as I refused to entertain the possibility that that was a dead end too. “We need that pixie to wake up, we need…” Sighing, I finished with a weak, “we need a win.”

“No kidding,” Shiori agreed. “A win would be really nice right now.”

Deciding that changing the subject before I started obsessing again would be a good idea, I instead leaned over as we walked so that I could look at the title of the book that the girl held under one arm. “Is that a medical textbook? You thinking about being a doctor?”

Wiggling her eyebrows at me, Shiori asked, “Maybe I just want to play it.”

We both blushed, embarrassed by our own flirting. And maybe a little guilty. Or a lot guilty. Still, I kissed her. We stood there in the hallway of the hospital, gently kissing for just a moment before pulling away.

“We’ll find her,” the other girl promised me. “We’ll find Avalon. I–” She coughed, lifting that book she had been looking at. “I was just looking up those Mesches things, the ones that Li–err, Theia mentioned. I thought there might be something useful in here about them.”

“Find out anything interesting?” I asked, head tilting curiously while we continued down the hall together.

She shrugged. “I guess so. Their poison aura can be countered by a few things, like the Adarna, the Caladrius, hell, there’s these Tabilten things that are so good at healing that kind of thing, just their smell can chase away poison. Then there’s the–”

“Wait.” I stopped there in the middle of the corridor. “What did you just say?”

The other girl blinked at me. “What? The Tabilten?”

My head nodded quickly. “What did you say about a healing smell?”

“Well,” she corrected, “I mean, it’s not really a smell. It’s just sort of a… an invisible gas or whatever. Heretics use it to–”

She stopped talking then, because I was already sprinting away. With a noise of surprise, the other girl dropped the book with a crash before racing after me. Together, we sprinted. Not back the way we had come, but to the stairs. I was running for the fourth floor.

Words and scenes jumped through my head, screaming their importance to me. Healing. Jophiel and Elisabet’s note had said I should find Avalon and heal. I’d dismissed it at the time, but why would they say that specifically? There would be psychological healing, of course. But still… we were in a hospital. Healing. Hospital.

Then there was the fact that those men had been there to take Tangle right then. Again, something I had dismissed as coincidence at the time. But what if it wasn’t? What if they were there right then because we had shown up? What if…

“Flick, what happened?” Shiori blurted, running alongside me as the two of us made our way down the hall. “Are you okay?” She sounded (understandably) worried about how I was acting.

“I just have to check something, before it’s too late,” I replied shortly while giving a quick look around. No one. There was no one in the hallway. It was late, sure. But shouldn’t there still be people around? It hadn’t bothered me before, while I had been distracted. Now, it did. Why were the halls so empty?

“Where is everyone?” Shiori had clearly noticed the same thing I had, as we reached our destination: the specimen lab. The doors opened right up for me, thanks to Doxer’s power, and we made our way to the Tabilten room that Professor Dare and I had visited earlier, when we were bringing Nurse Redd that present from Gaia.

The place still smelled a bit like lilacs. The six-eyed Cocker Spaniel-sized gecko creatures with feathered tails were still laying in their cages, looking exhausted. I’d noticed that earlier, but hadn’t really noticed it. Not until now.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was soft as she stepped into the room with me. “What’s going on?”

Biting my lip, I raised a finger to my lips before slowly moving to that vent that I had seen earlier, the one that the wind spell had been set up to blow the smell of the cleaning supplies into.

Except, now I knew that wasn’t true. That wasn’t why the wind spell had been set up at all. That spell wasn’t blowing the smell into the other room, it was blowing their healing gas into it. Doctor Therasis had told us about it the very first time we had been to the hospital. He had told us that the Tabilten had cleansing powers that healed toxins. That was what I had been thinking of back on the island when the Mesches had been mentioned.

But if the Tabilten gave off a healing gas, like the Mesches gave off poison gas, why would the hospital be getting rid of it? Why would they be scrubbing the room and blowing the smell into the vent?

Unless they weren’t getting rid of it. Unless they were using it. And unless the reason the orderlies had been cleaning was to get rid of another smell, one that was much worse, and that I would have recognized, so they had quickly worked to get rid of it. Because they knew that I knew that smell, that I would have fucking remembered it. That’s why they were cleaning. And it was why Nurse Redd had ushered us from the room so quickly. Everything, every little hint and clue that I should have picked up on earlier, it was all slamming its way through my head like a pinball bouncing wildly back and forth in a machine.

Crouching there by the vent, I leaned over, peering through it and into the room on the other side. There was another room there, a place similar to this one, with a bunch of cages. Only instead of more Tabilten, these particular cages housed these giant caterpillar-looking things that had what looked like cat heads instead of what you might expect caterpillars to have for faces. It was creepy, to say the least. But at least I knew immediately what they were. I’d never seen them before, but I knew. Mesches. That was what Mesches looked like.

How did I know? Well, the fact that Avalon was chained to the floor directly in the middle of those cages kind of helped me figure it out.

Avalon. My heart leapt the second that I saw the other girl, through that vent. She was there. She was unconscious, but there. She was there! We’d found her. We found her. We… we found her. I found her. I found Avalon. I’d been right there earlier, right on the other side of the wall. Dear God. I had been right there, right there.

My mouth opened to tell Shiori to call for help, to tell everyone they needed to get here now. But before I could say anything, a voice interrupted.

“You needed help.”

I spun that way, toward the door where Shiori was. The girl was still there, but she looked frozen, a blue field surrounding her while Doctor Therasis stood beside her with one hand out, that blue glow projecting from his palm. Stasis. Shiori was frozen in some kind of stasis field.

His other hand had punched through the body of an armored guard, another of the Seosten soldiers and now held the body suspended in the air a bit. Clearly the guard who was supposed to have been watching this room.

“We cannot do more than this,” the man announced. Or rather, the women announced through him. Jophiel and Elisabet.

“Even this is more than we should, more than…” There was a brief pause, before the man’s head shook. “We are not on Earth, will not be there for some time. Casting our power this far, to puppet this man, is an effort. This is all that we can do for you, all that we will do for you. We gave you this opportunity. We gave you this nudge, kept you here for this night so that you would have a chance of discovering, of realizing the truth. This was a favor, but it was also a test. It is a test. And we will extend ourselves no further for it. The rest is up to you.

“Do not disappoint us.”

The man collapsed then, falling to the floor, just as Shiori jerked and stumbled. At the same time, the body of the man that he had killed vanished, apparently to avoid leaving evidence.

“What the–” the girl blurted before blinking down at the unconscious doctor. “Where’d he come fr–”

Then the lights went out, both in this room and the one that Avalon was in. And, I realized, in the hallway behind us. The hospital itself had gone completely dark.

And suddenly, I was pretty sure, unconscious doctor aside… we wouldn’t be alone for long.

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Desperate Times 36-05

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“Don’t be weird.”

My words were punctuated by a soft kick against Rudolph’s shin, making the boy gasp a little under his breath, a soft hiss. He looked to me, blinking as he echoed, “Weird?”

I nodded subtly across the waiting room of the hospital where we (and the rest of the team) were… well, waiting. In the distance, Gaia and Professor Dare were there, talking to Doctor Therasis. They wouldn’t be telling him the real reason that we were here, of course. That was too dangerous. If the Seosten thought we could actually wake up Tangle, they’d be there in force.

Instead, Gaia was asking Therasis to check me for any medical issues that might have arisen thanks to our time away from the school when I was supposedly fighting in that arena. Tristan and Vanessa would be brought in later for the same purpose, but I had been there for a lot longer, and thus could have more problems. Or at least, that’s what Gaia was telling him.

“You’re staring,” I murmured at Rudolph, keeping my voice low despite the privacy coin that was, of course, active. “You’re trying to figure out if he’s possessed. Stop it. There’s no way to check right now without being obvious about it. Not without that choker. And if he is possessed, you staring at him is going to let him know that you know more than you should.”

Not that I didn’t totally understand the boys’ reactions. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. First, the idea that their entire society was that fucked up, and that there were Seosten around secretly possessing and controlling people? And the revelation that Isaac had killed both Paul and Professor Katarin? Yeah, they were actually coping with it better than I would have imagined just through the fact that they weren’t gibbering wrecks.

Maybe Avalon preparing them with that whole ‘spare lesser threats to deal with bigger ones’ had helped prepare the way. Not to mention everything else they’d been dealing with all year, all the questions and inconsistencies. Maybe, in a way, it was a relief just to have some answers.

Nearby, Sean nodded. “Just take it easy. Trust me, once you stop wondering if people you know are possessed and just assume everyone could be, it gets easier. And man was that a depressing sentence.”

“They’re not going to possess everybody,” I pointed out. “They’ve got limited numbers everywhere, let alone on Earth. They won’t just possess some random person. Not that your uncle’s just a random person, Sean, but you know what I mean. He’s off the grid, he’s not participating in Heretic stuff, he’s… you know. There’s plenty of things that prove he’s not possessed. He’s not the right kind of target for them.”

“But Grandpa Donald is,” Rudolph put in. He had, at least, looked away from the man to glance my way. “He helps run the whole hospital. All the medical issues that could pop up that those guys don’t want to get out, the Heretics they could say ‘died’ so that they can use them somewhere else, the… there’s plenty of reasons they would possess him.”

I grimaced, unable to refute that. “Yeah, maybe. Plus there’s the fact that the Seosten felt comfortable leaving Tangle here. I… I dunno. Maybe it’s one of the other important doctors. But the point is, we can’t do anything about it right now. So please, stop staring at him. Okay?”

“It’s hard,” Doug murmured with a quick head shake. “Thinking that some alien monster thing is controlling your friends, controlling your family? It’s…” He swallowed a little. “It’s just hard.”

Biting my lip, I glanced to the boy. “Okay, you have definitely got to tell me what that whole ‘Whispers’ thing is that you were talking about earlier, next chance we get. And… you’re right. It is hard. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it shouldn’t be. It’s hard, it’s fucked up, it’s… awful.” My gaze moved back to Rudolph, and my voice softened. “Are you going to be okay?”

His head gave a slight nod. “Yes. I… I’ll be fine. I’ll stop staring. But when they get back with that choker–”

“We’ll check,” I promised him. “I’m sorry we don’t have the choker right now, but… but when it’s back, when they get here, we’ll check anyone you want.”

Just then, the adults turned to face us, and Doctor Therasis spoke up. “Well, okay then. I’m glad to see your team was so willing to come provide moral support, Miss Chambers.”

That was Rudolph’s cue, and he spoke right up just as planned. “It’s more than moral support, Grandpa Donald,” the boy immediately put in. “We umm, we’d like you to check all of us for anything else that the kidnappers might’ve, you know, put in us.”

The man looked a little surprised by that, blinking. “Put in you, Rudolph?”

He nodded once more, playing his role perfectly. “Well, yeah, all that time we spent with the fake Paul and with Isaac, they could’ve planted something to… like, monitor us, teleport us to them, or… or anything. We didn’t think about it before, but since Flick says they’re organized… it couldn’t hurt to check, could it?  Since we’re already here.”

This was our distraction. Instead of just checking me, they were going to be examining each of us in turn. And even if Therasis wasn’t the one that was possessed, we were damn sure that any Seosten agents in the hospital would be watching Gaia like a hawk, and now she had a reason to stick around drawing their attention: her students were being examined.

Before, the role of asking to be checked over would have fallen to Sean. But Rudolph worked even better. After all, how could Therasis deny his own great-something-grandson?

“Of course,” the man replied with a smile. “It shouldn’t take too long. Ahh, who’s first, then?”

“Me,” I replied, walking that way. After all, I needed to get my part done with so that I could get the cure to Tangle while the others kept any Seosten agents occupied.

So, I went through the examination. Gaia came with me, and watched while Doctor Therasis ran me through a litany of tests. This ranged from the kind that I totally understood and that were basically the same as a normal Bystander doctor visit, to the magical kind that seemed completely absurd.

In all, the examination took about twenty minutes. There were a couple of blood tests that apparently would take a few days to examine, but in the end, Therasis announced that he couldn’t see anything immediately wrong with me. Aside from the fact that I was clearly upset about Avalon being kidnapped, and stressed about all of that (he didn’t know the half of it), I was physically healthy. Healthier than he had expected, the man said.

I just mumbled something about the abductors wanting us to be healthy so we could fight for them, and in response, Therasis frowned a little. Pursing his lips thoughtfully, he spoke up. “Your immediate tests seem well enough, as I said. But I would like you to stay here in the hospital for one evening, while we run a few more examinations that may take a bit longer.”

“Stay here?” I echoed, blinking once.

“Yes,” the man confirmed, giving me a soft smile. “I understand your hesitation, and given the sort of things you’ve been through, you may of course have a friend or two stay as well to keep you company. If you would like.”

Thinking of Shiori and the others, I slowly nodded. “Um, okay, if that’s what you think.” It wasn’t part of the plan, of course. But in that moment, I really didn’t want to give him any reason to be suspicious, whether he was part of the Seosten conspiracy or not.

Gaia gave me a brief, reassuring nod. “Don’t worry, Miss Chambers, you will not be alone. Oh, and…” The woman gestured, making a small, wrapped present float across the room and into my hand. “Would you please take that to Professor Dare and ask her to ensure that it gets to Nurse Danielle Redd? She graduated last year and I’ve been meaning to congratulate her on already making it here.”

“Ah, Nurse Redd,” Therasis immediately spoke up, “she would be on the fourth floor, I believe.”

“Oh, uhh,” I managed to make myself look surprised, nodding. “Sure, Headmistress. Whatever you say–I mean, yes, ma’am. And thank you, Doctor.”

With that, I headed out of the room. The others watched expectantly, and I gave them a slight nod and thumbs up before turning right. Dare was there, at the far end of the corridor. On the way there, I heard Therasis asking if Rudolph wanted to be next.

Tuning that out, I went through the whole song and dance with Dare, pretending that I was relaying Gaia’s message. Then the two of us made our way through the hospital together.

We really did deliver the present, since Gaia had been serious about wanting to deliver a congratulations to her former student, who she had apparently been fairly close to.

As promised, we found the nurse on the fourth floor. She was supervising a pair of orderlies who were using some kind of magically enhanced mops and rags to scrub the floor and walls of one of the specimen labs, the Tabilten room that I had seen the last time we came to the hospital. They were carefully cleaning every inch of the cages, leaving the room smelling pleasantly of lilacs. Some kind of magical wind spell had been set up to direct any of the excess fumes to the vent in the wall.

Nurse Redd was surprised at our arrival, and escorted us from the room quickly to avoid disturbing the animals. But she at least seemed happy enough to get the present from Gaia, thanking us profusely, and even promised to check in on me later when she found out that I would be staying the night.

In any case, once we were done, rather than heading back the way we had come, we instead headed for Tangle’s room. Which, thanks to the Blemmye power, I could still find easily.

On the way there, however, Dare spoke up. “Felicity,” she started quietly after assuring me that no one would overhear us, “your recent physical examination aside, how are you doing? How… how are you feeling?”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before answering honestly. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “If they kill Avalon, if th-they… I…” My eyes closed and I gave a little shudder, only to feel Dare’s hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.

“We will get her back, Felicity,” the woman assured me. “They can’t kill her until the spell runs out. And no matter how fast they can make that happen, they definitely won’t kill her after we take Giselle out of here. Okay? I promise you, we are going to find her. We have everything that we pulled out of the places that Theia sent us to, and I’ll be going over them until something comes up. We have the pixie. We’re about to have Giselle, who might be able to give us even more answers. We have leads. And they won’t kill her as long as she’s the only way they have of getting into that vault.”

Swallowing hard at that, I gave a little nod. “I… I know. But I’m still scared. And…” The next admission came in a tiny whisper. “I miss Tabbris. It’s weird not having her in my head. It makes me feel funny, like I’m not totally myself.”

The woman’s expression softened even more at that, and she gave a little nod. “Yes, I suppose that would be a very strange feeling, after becoming accustomed to that… situation.”

I started to say something else to that, but then Dare held a hand up to stop me. Frowning, she looked ahead, through the entrance into the long-term care wing. “Wait,” the woman murmured before drawing her sword from its sheath.

Resisting the urge to stupidly ask what was wrong, I instead focused on manifesting my staff into my hands. Dare, by that point, had triggered something on her sword, waving it around us. I saw her and myself go partially translucent. Invisibility spell. She had put an invisibility spell on us.

Together, we moved closer, only to find the thing that had been bothering her: soldiers. Lots of soldiers. They were dressed up the same way that the guys who had attacked us outside of the transport back to Earth had been, in that armor. Which itself kind of freaked me out for how open the Seosten were being. Where were the nurses that should have been here? Where were the doctors?

I didn’t have time to think about that too much. Because we had more pressing problems. Namely, the fact that these guys were clearly here to retrieve Tangle. Apparently Manakel wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He’d had the same thought we had, and was trying to preemptively deal with the situation.

We had to stop them. If they took Tangle, we’d have no way of stopping them from killing Avalon the second they managed to make that spell run out. Damn it, damn it, damn it! They couldn’t do this! We… we wouldn’t let them do it. Whatever it took, we wouldn’t let them take Tangle.

Eight guys. Eight of them. Well, to be fully accurate, it was five males and three females. Either way, all eight of them were standing between us and the room where Tangle was. And who knew how many were inside the room itself. Even with Dare’s help, this was going to be tricky. Especially if we wanted to actually do it without giving them a chance to just grab Tangle and go.

“Can your timestop help?” I quietly asked, keeping my voice to a whisper despite the professor’s privacy powers. Between the invisibility and everything else she had been doing to keep our conversation private, I knew they wouldn’t hear us. But still.

Her head shook a little then as a very slight grimace crossed her face for a moment. “They’re using some kind of spell to bypass it. I already tried. It didn’t affect them. We’re going to have to do this the direct way.” Her eyes found me, and softened slightly. “Stay right behind me, Felicity,” she advised. “I’ll take the brunt of it, you clean up. We can deal with them together, okay?”

Swallowing, I gripped my staff tighter before giving her a quick nod. “Yes, Profess–” In the middle of answering that, I blinked and looked past the woman. “Err, where did they go?”

Dare spun that way, only to see the same thing that I just had: an empty corridor. In the span of however long it had taken me to blink, all eight figures that had been blocking our way had vanished entirely, disappearing as suddenly and completely as if they had never been there.

“No…” the woman murmured, before breaking into a spring. I was right on her heels, as we raced to the hospital room itself, already expecting to find the worst: an empty bed.

But we didn’t. As we reached the doorway, the two of us found Tangle still lying there, just as she had been the last time I’d seen her. And other than the comatose woman, the place was completely empty. There was no sign of the Seosten forces anywhere in the room itself either.

Holding a hand up for me to wait, Professor Dare stepped into the room first. She was carefully scanning, looking over the whole room for any kind of trap. While she was doing that, however, I noticed something for the first time. There was a tiny scrap of paper in the palm of the hand that I wasn’t using to hold my staff. I had no idea how it had gotten there or how long I had been holding it, but there it was. With a confused frown, I glanced down at the paper scrap. The message was short, and to the point: Use the time this buys you to find your girl and heal. – J/E.  

J/E. I knew the answer as soon as I read it. Jophiel and Elisabet. This was them. They had… either recalled or eliminated the Seosten troops who had been in the hall. Either way, however they had done it, they had cleared the troops away from Tangle before they could take her. They had stopped Manakel from retrieving her and gave us the chance to keep Avalon alive by making sure that he didn’t have Tangle to help him get into the vault. As long as we had the woman with us, he would have no choice but to spare Avalon so that they would still have some chance of getting into that vault.

I didn’t know why they did it, exactly. I didn’t know what their precise motivations were. But in that moment, I was grateful. As angry as I had been at the two of them for forcing us into accepting their deal, this, at least, was something they had given in return for it. I had no doubt that it was at least partially selfishly motivated. After all, they wanted me to keep working with them, and they had to know that I would be ‘reluctant’ (to say the least) to do that if they let Avalon die. But still, they’d gone out of their way to help at least a little bit. It was… something.

As soon as I finished reading the note and processed it, the paper itself completely vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tiny poof of smoke that itself dissipated quickly. A moment later, Professor Dare turned back to me with a slight headshake. “Nothing,” she reported. “They’re gone. Why…” Frowning, she slowly looked around the room once more. “Why are they gone?”

“Maybe they all collectively realized that they left the oven on?” I offered a bit weakly, earning a brief, strange look from the woman. Coughing then, I shook my head. “Let’s just take the chance we’ve got before they come back.”

After a brief hesitation to consider that, Professor Dare nodded. She stepped over to watch the doorway, one hand gripping her sword while her other hand gestured for me to go ahead.

So, I did. From my pocket, I tugged out that vial of small blue liquid that Fahsteth had given me back when we’d had our little… discussion. Taking a breath, I stepped over to the bed.

If the shark-mercenary had been lying to us, tricking us, fucking with us, this could just kill Tangle, of course. But Gaia, Wyatt, and Dare had gone over the contents with a fine-toothed comb, and insisted that it wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t trust Fahsteth, but I did trust them.

With that in mind, I popped the top off the vial and whispered a mostly-silent prayer before carefully using my other hand to tilt Tangle’s head up and open her mouth. Without wasting any more time, I put the open vial to her lips and slowly poured it in, making sure to keep her head tilted back so that the liquid went down her throat.

It took almost a minute. Through that time, Tangle twitched and shifted a few times. I saw the movement of her eyes behind the closed lids, and she made a couple deep-throated noises.

Then her eyes opened. For the first time in what had to be almost a year, Professor Tangle opened her eyes, taking in a deep, sudden breath.

“Easy,” I quickly advised. “Take it easy, Professor.”

She blinked blankly at me, her mouth opening. “Jose–no, wait…” That confusion remained as her eyes focused on my face.

“It’s okay, Giselle,” Dare spoke up then. “You’re safe.”

“Virginia?” The dark-skinned woman stared past me for a moment before stammering a confused, “What happened? Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Boy,” I couldn’t help putting in then, my voice drawing her wide-eyed attention back to me.

“Is that ever a complicated question.”

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Desperate Times 36-04

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Before we had crossed the length of the cafeteria to reach the door where Rudolph and Douglas were, I was approached and interrupted once again. This time, however, it wasn’t Zeke. Instead, Aylen Tamaya, the tall Native American girl who always looked like she belonged on a throne somewhere, stepped into view. Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, was perched on her shoulder, its gaze piercing straight through me. “Um,” she started hesitantly, “Flick. Hi.”  

The girl seemed strangely nervous, or unsure of herself, which I wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, I wasn’t accustomed to talking to her at all. Even though she was on a team with both Koren and Shiori, the two of us hadn’t really interacted that much all year.

“Err.” Blinking once at the other girl, I offered an equally hesitant, “Hi?” I had no idea what she wanted, but I also didn’t want to be rude or anything. We may not have talked much, but Aylen had never given me any indication that she was anything like Zeke. Actually, she had basically told him off back when he insulted Shiori when the girl was upset about finding out she wasn’t fully human. So yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to react to her the same way I had Zeke.

“I, um.” She paused, looking down at the floor for a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “I hope Avalon is okay. I don’t know what’s going on or why there’s all these people who have been trying to hurt her for so long, but whatever happens… I hope she comes back.”

“She will,” I blurted quickly, the words coming out a little more firmly than I intended. Taking a breath then, I amended, “Trust me, Gaia’s gonna make sure she does. But–” Hesitantly, I added, “I didn’t know you guys were… um, I didn’t know you two spoke that much.”

The response was another brief, clearly self-conscious pause before she carefully replied, “Avalon helped me with something while you were… um, while you were gone. She promised not to tell anyone about it, and–” Her eyes flicked toward the others behind me before she finished with, “I guess she really didn’t. The point is, I hope she’s okay. And I owe her, so if you… you know, if you need anything, if she needs anything, I… I can help. Just ask.”

With that, she headed off without looking back. Watching her go briefly, I bit my lip before glancing toward Shiori. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what that was all about?”

As expected, the other girl shook her head. “Uh, nope. I think they were working out a little in the mornings, but I didn’t know there was anything more than that going on.” Pausing then, she added thoughtfully, “Avalon’s really subtle and discreet when she wants to be.”

“Not that subtle is the first word that probably springs to mind when people think about her,” I pointed out with a cough. “But yeah, I take your point. She doesn’t go blabbing about things. I guess if she told Aylen she’d keep a secret, she really kept it. I just wish I knew what it was.”

Sean spoke up then. “If whatever Aylen’s deal is was relevant to our problems or something bad that actually needed to be talked about, she probably would have said something before.”

Columbus was already nodding to that, his voice a bit gruff. “To Gaia, at the very least.”

“You’re right,” I agreed once more. “Avalon’s not dumb. She’d have said something, or at least pushed Aylen to. Yeah, I just… I guess I’m not good with other people having secrets. Which is totally the height of hypocrisy, so I’m gonna let it go now. See, this is me letting it go.” Suiting action to words, I turned on my heel and began to walk to the boys in the doorway once more.

Whatever was actually going on with Aylen, I was sure it would come up soon enough. There was no need to rush it. Right now, it wasn’t like we didn’t have enough issues to deal with. Case in point: the person who actually knew what the other girl was even talking about had been abducted by people who were just waiting for the best chance to kill her. So, focusing.

And speaking of focusing, Rudolph and Douglas seemed awfully focused on me as we approached them. The two were staring, both looking like they were just about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, they just waited for me to speak first.

“Hey, guys,” I started before taking a breath. “I guess maybe we should talk.” When they nodded, I gestured. “Not here. Let’s go for a walk.” I could feel the eyes of so many others on us, could hear the whispers. This may have been a school that was known for crazy things happening, but I was clearly surpassing even those levels by this point. People were curious.

I ignored them, at least as much as possible. With any luck, something else would happen soon enough to draw attention away from me. Though I didn’t really want to think about what would have to happen to make my situation (or as much as the public knew about it) less interesting.

One person whose attention I didn’t ignore, however, was Professor Dare. The woman’s eyes found me from where she was sitting with a few other teachers. As she watched me questioningly, I raised my hand to give her a brief thumbs up before turning back to the others.

Together, the seven of us made our way out of the cafeteria, past the rec room, and out of the building proper. I led them across the grounds and all the way down to the beach, where we could have the best chance at privacy. Especially with a little help from one of those secrecy coins. I’d actually gotten out of the habit of using them while in Seosten space. Really, as dangerous as it had been out there, at least I’d been able to talk fairly openly for the most part.

Eventually we seemed to be far enough away and alone. After glancing around, I used one of my spare coins that had still been waiting in the dorm, before glancing to Shiori. “Are we good?”

She nodded, letting me know that the power she’d picked up awhile back that let her know if anyone she didn’t know about was watching her wasn’t picking anything up. Between that, the privacy of the beach, and the secrecy coin, we were about as assured of privacy as we could be.

With all that done, when I finally turned around to face the two boys, Rudolph was actually the first one who spoke, before I could. His voice even, if slightly curious. “Doesn’t seem like whatever you’re about to say is going to be the same story that everyone else is talking about.”

“It’s a little different, yeah,” I replied dryly. “But before we say anything else, we need to check.”

“Check?” That was Douglas. The skinny little blond boy, who was actually about the same height as me, frowned a bit at that while shaking his head. “Check what, exactly?”

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Check you guys, actually. Trust me, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll understand soon enough. And if you do know, well…”  

That was all I had to say. Because by that point, Rudolph and Douglas had realized that Scout, Columbus, Shiori, and Sean had carefully surrounded them. In the case of Scout and Shiori, they had their weapons ready. Vulcan was standing by his master, giving a very low growl.

“What–what the hell–” Douglas started, head jerking around as his hand moved to his pocket.

Quickly, I shook my head. “Stop, stop. There’s nothing wrong. Look, just… we have to be careful, guys. We just have to be careful until we make sure you’re you, that’s all.”

“Make sure we’re us?” Rudolph didn’t look any more happy about the sudden situation than his teammate did. He looked from the quietly growling Vulcan over to me. “What do you mean, m–”

Douglas interrupted him. “Wait.” His eyes were locked onto mine, and he reached up to self-consciously rub at the New York Rangers cap on his head. “Make sure we’re us. You mean…” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times then, and the boy looked a bit indecisive before lifting his chin as he came to a decision. “Are you talking about the Whispers?”  

“Whispers?” I echoed blankly, completely thrown by the question. “What do you–wait, what?” Of all the things I might have expected these guys to say at this point, that really wasn’t on the list.

The fact that I didn’t seem to know what he was talking about clearly confused Douglas even more than he had been before, and his head shook. “Then–wait, what are you talking about?”

Well, I’d have to hand it to them. If he really was possessed and this was some obfuscation tactic, it deserved some points for originality. Now, I was completely thrown off, and it took a moment to collect myself so I could focus on what mattered. “Err, right. Like I said, sorry about this whole thing.” My hand gestured toward the others, still ready for any kind of fight. “But you’ll understand in a minute. First thing, and I know exactly how bad this is gonna sound, but I need both of you to put your arms out so I can draw a spell on them.”

Douglas stared at me, his voice as flat as ever. “You must think that we’re complete idiots.”

Wincing, I shook my head. “Trust me, I don’t think you’re idiots. It’s just–just trust me, please. You guys want to know what’s really going on? You want to know what happened to Avalon, and where I’ve been, where the rest of your team is? You wanna know the truth about all that? We need to know that we can trust you. And that means using this spell. And if you already know what I’m talking about because you aren’t really you? Well, then we’re as ready as we can be.”

It was Scout who spoke up bluntly then. “Columbus,” she informed them. “Remember the woman who came out of Columbus? That’s what she’s checking for.”  

Briefly, the two exchanged glances. I saw the brief indecision there for a moment before Rudolph extended his arm. Pulling his sleeve up, the boy gave me a slight nod. “Do it.”

With a long, heavy sigh, Douglas followed suit by pulling his own sleeve up. “If that’s what it takes to finally get a straight answer out of someone around here, yeah, just do it.”

“Right.” Stepping that way, I plucked the field-engraver from my pocket. “I hate to tell you guys this after you already agreed, but this is gonna hurt a little bit. Sorry, we had an easier way to do this checking part, but it’s still with Roxa. So we’ve gotta do it the old-fashioned way.” Pausing, I added, “Actually, there’s a non-hurt way that we could do it, but that one involves me butting a lot further into your privacy than I think any of us are comfortable with. So yeah, this is easier.”

“Hurt?” Douglas was squinting at me again. “How much hurt are we talking here?”  

Shiori piped up then. “Don’t worry,” she announced, “you might think you’re in pain, but Vulcan spends a lot of time in agony.”

“Hah.” Despite the situation, I couldn’t help but smile back at the goofily grinning girl. “A-gun-y.”

“Oh, my God, please just write the spell on me.” Douglas was holding his arm out a bit desperately now. “Any amount of pain you’re about to inflict has to be better than more puns.”

So, I did. The boys hissed and grunted through the pain of the spell. But other than that, there was no sign that either of them were possessed. Which, as I’d mentioned earlier, I could have ascertained just by possessing them myself (I wasn’t quite good enough at it by myself to just start to possess them to check if they could be possessed without going all the way), but that would have involved me getting a much closer look at their inner thoughts, memories, and opinions than I actually wanted.

Either way, the point was that they weren’t possessed. So, slowly, I began to explain everything. I told them about the Seosten, about how Crossroads had been created, about where the others and I had been, about why the assholes wanted Avalon–and why they had actually taken her.

It took awhile. And by the end of it, Douglas and Rudolph were both staring at me. They looked, pretty understandably, utterly flummoxed. It was clearly all they had been able to do to stay quiet long enough for me to finish. And now that I had, neither had any idea how to actually start.

“You’re crazy.”

Oh look, Douglas had actually found his voice after all. He took a reflexive step back, shaking his head. “You’re completely batshit,” he blurted again, a little stronger. “This is insane. Do you have any idea how insane this sounds? A whole alien conspiracy, an evil Empire that created Crossroads and uses us to kill their enemies? What the fuck? You’ve lost it. You’ve all lost it.”

“We have all lost a great many things,” a new voice announced then, as Professor Dare stepped into view. “Unfortunately, their minds are not one of them. Miss Chambers is absolutely correct.”

Rudolph and Douglas both jumped. The rest of us didn’t. Mostly because we knew she was there. That thumbs up that I had given her back in the cafeteria had been a signal. Since we all knew that I would eventually need to tell Douglas and Rudolph the truth, Dare and I had set up that sign. It let her know that we were about to have the talk with the boys, so that she could wait nearby and watch to make sure that things didn’t go completely wrong.

I may have had a pretty good idea that the two of them could be talked around, but I wasn’t a complete idiot.

“Wha–Professor?” Douglas jerked around at that, his eyes widening even more. “What are you–wait, you’re not serious. None of this is serious, right? This is some big, long-running joke. It’s a prank. You’re just–it’s a test, right? Just a test. Some fucked up, crazy test.”

“It’s not a test,” Rudolph informed him before any of us could speak. The boy had been watching me through all of that, before he finally shook his head. “They’re serious about all of it.”

“A little too serious,” Sean muttered under his breath before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true. Every last word. Listen, a werewolf saved my life when I was a kid. Saved my life.”

“A Stranger saved me too.” That was Scout, her voice soft as she informed the boys of that much.

“And me,” I put in. “A vampire definitely saved me when I went home for my birthday. And they’ve kept saving me ever since. So yeah, we are absolutely serious about it.”

“Serious?” Douglas clearly couldn’t decide where to look. His gaze kept snapping back and forth between all of us. “You can’t be, okay? You just can’t be. You’re trying to say that our entire civilization was designed by evil aliens that possess anyone they want to and that all of this, killing Strangers, is all some big training exercise so they can send us out to fight their universe-spanning war against the Fomorians. Does that about sum it up?”

Professor Dare started to speak then, but I interrupted. “What’s a bigger stretch, Doug, that a race of aliens that can take over our bodies are using us as fleshy mech suits and to do that they’ve convinced us to kill anything that could give us power, or that of trillions and trillions of members of dozens if not hundreds of intelligent species that we know of, every last one except humans are completely evil? Seriously. Which one of those sounds more likely?”

That got their attention. I saw Douglas openly flinch. His mouth opened and shut before his gaze moved to the others, all of whom nodded, including Professor Dare. Finally, he dropped his head and muttered a dark, “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh… fuck. But we–everything we–all the people that we–it’s our whole… oh… oh.”

That went on for a little bit, as more and more of the ramifications of what we were telling him sank in. I saw a hurricane of emotions cross the boy’s face, while he folded his arms against his stomach and looked physically ill.

Rudolph, meanwhile, didn’t look a lot better. He was keeping it together a little more, his reactions not quite as outwardly readable. But still, it was obviously an almost physical blow. His eyes closed, and he seemed to be absorbing all of it, working through his reaction inwardly and privately.

Finally, Doug lifted his gaze, looking toward Professor Dare. “This is a big secret, isn’t it? Worlds-changing secret.”

She nodded. “We don’t know how many have been possessed or were… compromised in other ways. Or how many would listen even if they weren’t. We’re working on solutions, but right now, there’s a more pressing problem.”

“And… and Jazz, Gordon, and Isaac, they’re trapped out there with these… these Seosten?” Doug was looking to me then. “Who are the ones that killed Paul?”

“Oh.” Cringing, I shook my head. “Umm… sort of. Listen, this is gonna be hard to hear, I know. Maybe even harder than the rest of it, in some ways. But umm… Jazz and Gordon are okay. Isaac… Isaac is….”

Taking a breath, I told them. I told them the truth, about what had happened. I told them that it was Isaac who had killed Paul, and that he had also killed Professor Katarin.

If they had been shocked by the overall truth about the Heretic-Seosten thing, that one left them almost… broken. Rudolph had taken a step back as I went on, before Shiori found him to put a hand on his back a bit reassuringly.

Doug, however, sank to one knee, his hand over his mouth. The boy looked physically sick. “No,” he murmured, his horror written across his face. “No, no. I knew he was… I knew he was a jerk, but not… not–oh God.” His hand covered his mouth, and he made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Katarin? He killed Katarin, and… and Paul. That piece of shit–that–” He was clearly trying for anger, but it broke into far harder emotions, as his words devolved into a weak noise.

Professor Dare moved that way. She took a knee next to the boy, letting him lean into her as the grief, confusion, and feelings of obvious guilt worked their way through him.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling weak and inadequate even as I said it. “He’s imprisoned now, and I don’t think Athena is going to let him go anywhere or hurt anyone again.”

“She should kill the son of a bitch.” That was Doug, his voice hard as he looked up from where he was still kneeling with Professor Dare. “If he did what you said, if he–she shouldn’t take a chance. That’s just stupid. If he’s that kind of monster, then just end it and stop tempting fate. I–wait.” Frowning, he asked, “Who’s Athena?”

“Oh.” I blinked once then. “Right, I guess I haven’t told you everything. Um. Yeah, turns out there’s kind of a lot more we need to talk about, as soon as possible. But uh, that story took awhile to tell. So we’re kind of on the clock. If you guys really wanna help save Avalon, we could use you. Uh.” I nodded to Rudolph then. “You, specifically.”

“Me?” the boy blinked at that, hesitating before asking, “How?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “how do you feel about helping to distract your great-great-grandfather, just in case he’s actually one of those ‘possessed by the evil bodysnatcher aliens’ people, long enough for us to wake up Professor Tangle?”

Douglas abruptly announced, “You know, I should’ve guessed that she was involved in this.

“Because if there was any single person who was absolutely going to play a central role in a plot this tied up in knots, it’s someone named Tangle.”

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Desperate Times 36-02

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“So how do we do this, exactly?” Standing on the beach of the lake next to the large raft that had been summoned for this specific purpose, I looked over to Theia. Somehow, I managed to tamp down the anger that I still felt at the fact that she hadn’t just told us what we needed to know before any of this had happened, before Avalon had been abducted. As true as it was, lamenting that or getting pissed at the girl wouldn’t help or accomplish anything. So I focused.

We had split up into those three groups. I was a part of Professor Dare’s group, at her request. She had also requested Theia. And since Abigail was going wherever Theia went, she was there too. Finally, rounding out our group were Scout and Shiori.

Tabbris wasn’t with me right now. I had assured my partner that I would be okay and that she should stay with her mother and siblings. And with my dad. Yeah, he was going to help look around, just in case his super bullshit perception and analytical ability that should have been classified as a superpower actually noticed anything.

That was Gabriel’s group: Sariel, her three children, and my dad. And as worried as I was about the idea of Tabbris and my father going somewhere without me, them being with both Gabriel and Sariel was pretty much the very best case scenario, as far as that option went. Prosser wouldn’t let anything happen to them. And with Sariel’s help, they were about as safe as they could be.

Finally, there was Deveron’s group, which consisted of himself, Columbus, Sean (with Vulcan of course), and Koren when they had left. Plus, they were planning on meeting up with Seller (whom I still hadn’t seen since getting back) and Miranda before they got too far. Again, with Seller and Deveron together, I had to trust that they’d be as okay as they could possibly be.

Koren had considered going with our group to be with her mother. But in the end, she’d hugged the woman, saying that our group was large enough and that she thought she could help ‘Grandpa Dev’ even more if she went with them. Yeah, I didn’t think Koren was ever going to get tired of teasing Deveron by calling him grandpa whenever she could get away with it.  

So, that was our three groups. And now, our group was standing next to this raft on the lake.

Stretching up on her toes, the Seosten girl looked toward Dare. “You made the coin like Theia-I said?” she asked while carefully and pointedly cracking her knuckles with a loud pop.

In response, Professor Dare held up a single golden coin between her thumb and index finger. “Just like you said,” she replied before flipping it to her. “Tell me if I missed anything.” She had been the one to enchant it rather than Theia herself because Dare was quicker with magic and we didn’t have time to waste.

Giving the coin a once over, Theia nodded. “Yes,” she announced easily, with a toothy smile, “it’s ready. This is the key. Except it’s a coin. Coin key.” Pausing as if considering her words, she finally nodded before gesturing onto the boat. “All aboard that’s going aboard.”

Shiori took my hand, and I squeezed it while stepping onto the raft with her. The magicked-up creation was sturdy enough, rocking only a little on the water as our weight settled on it. The others followed suit, and soon the six of us were all there on the raft. Still holding that coin, Theia waited until we were all set. Then she tossed the little metal desk to the floor of the raft, and we all watched as it melted into the wood, disappearing.

Then the raft started moving, seemingly by itself. The boat slowly began to work its way across the water towards the middle of the lake, as if driven by invisible oars. As it moved, Shiori squeezed my hand a little tighter while leaning up to whisper quietly into my ear, “We’ll find her.”

I was still afraid. God, was I ever afraid. I was utterly terrified about what they might be doing to Avalon, to my girl. But having my other girl here with me helped a bit.

Ugh. That was still a weird way to think of it. My girls. I was proud of them, ecstatic that the two of them even wanted anything to do with me in… well, in that way. But it still felt awkward to try and refer to them as… as my girls. But they were. Shiori and Avalon. My girls. And I was their girl. Weird as it might have felt to try and describe or define, that’s what we were.

Either way, the point was that the anxiety, anger and everything else I felt at the thought of what Avalon could have been going through then was tempered just a little by the presence of Shiori. She grounded me, made me feel more human and more… capable at the same time. Feeling her hand in mine, hearing her voice, knowing she was there, it made an awful, horrific situation just a tiny bit better. It let me breathe a little more, let me focus on what we needed to do.

Abigail was looking at me from where she had carefully sat down to avoid the rocking of the raft as it moved. Her voice was quiet, cleary concerned. “Felicity,” she started, “are you sure you’re okay? You’ve been through a lot today, you must be exhausted.”

My head shook slightly at that. “I’m okay,” I replied. “The Amarok power, it uhh, it’s working overtime. But I’ll be fine. It’s Vanessa and Tristan I’m worried about. They’ve been going for a long time too. And… they’ve been through a lot of emotional stuff.” To say the least.

The other woman gave a slight nod. “I’m glad they’re with their mother, and with Mr. Prosser.”

“He doesn’t like being called Mr. Prosser,” Dare informed us absently, her gaze on the water in front of us. “He prefers Gabriel. Even Prosser is something he’s… accepted over time but doesn’t exactly love. It was the name of his… owner during his days as a slave. He’s mostly taken the name as his own, and understands why people use it, but just Gabriel is best. And definitely not Mr. Prosser if you can help it.”

Wincing, Abigail quickly acknowledged, “I’ll remember that. I… think I called him Mr. Prosser about a dozen times, but he never said anything about it.”

“He’s not the type to,” Dare replied quietly, before straightening. “We’re here.”

Wait, what? Blinking, I looked around. Whoa. She was right. I hadn’t noticed anything happening, my eyes and brain had never actually consciously acknowledged the moment when we had magically moved from the lake to some other water. But it had happened. At some point, maybe when I had blinked, we had disappeared from the lake by the Atherby camp and reappeared on a much larger body of water. Ahead of us was an island with a large, fairly spacious-looking cabin set up against a small grove of trees. It looked peaceful… and empty.

Sure enough, after closing her eyes briefly with a look of concentration, Dare shook her head. “No one,” she announced quietly. “The island is empty.”

That wasn’t even the least bit surprising, of course. But I still let out a low sigh. It would’ve been completely beyond shocking if we had just happened to come straight to where Manakel was holding Avalon. But still, the fact that it didn’t happen made my stomach twist up into even more of a knot regardless. No matter how unlikely finding her that easily had been, I’d apparently been holding onto at least a tiny bit of hope for it.

Scout, who had been far more characteristically quiet this entire time, finally spoke up as the raft reached the simple wooden dock that extended from the beach. “Is there any way to know when they were last here? Or when anyone was here?”

Shaking her head, Dare stepped carefully up onto the dock, pausing for a moment to make sure things seemed safe enough before she gestured for us to come as well. “Normally,” she replied, “yes, there would be ways. But now I wouldn’t trust them. Not with people like the Seosten. They know how to cover their tracks too well.”

The thought that the Seosten were good at covering their tracks didn’t bode well for our chances of finding something here we could use to track down Manakel and Avalon. But it wasn’t like we had a lot of other options at this point. We had to give it a shot, unlikely as it may have been.

The rest of us joined Professor Dare on the dock, before the woman held up a hand to stop us from going any further. Her eyes were squinting ahead suspiciously. “Traps,” she murmured.

“Oh yes,” Theia brightly confirmed. “Manakel does enjoy his traps. And zombies. Those too.”

My eyes rolled at that, even as I snarled, “One way or another, I’m going to have one less asshole necromancer fucking with my life soon.”

So, Abigail, Scout, and I stood back a bit while Dare and Theia worked their way through the apparently numerous magical alarms and traps that had been set to catch anyone who happened to invade this particular Seosten sanctuary. I felt even more anxious and worried with every second that passed, and had to physically stop myself from pressing them to hurry.

Was this how Avalon had felt, sitting around having to wait while I was stuck out in Seosten space? Or was that somehow even worse than this, since she hadn’t been able to do anything to help me? At least I had this search to keep myself busy, to stay occupied. Right now, I couldn’t imagine being in the position that Valley had been. It must’ve driven her crazy.

And now, now right as I had finally gotten back, right before we would have been reunited, Manakel had abducted her. God… damn… fucking Manakel. I hated that son of a bitch.

And I wasn’t feeling too fond of Jophiel and Elisabet in that moment either. If they had known anything about this, if they could have stopped it or at least warned me… would they? Fuck, would they even care? After the way they had introduced themselves, I wasn’t sure.

One thing was certain, however. We were going to have words. I couldn’t do anything right now, of course. My disappearing to go talk to those two would have caused a lot more problems. There was no way that anyone would believe that I wouldn’t be right in the middle of this search.

But the first chance I got… yeah, I was going to talk to those two. And whatever it took, I was going to push them to actually do something about Avalon. Either help Valley, or… or… something. I didn’t know what. Damn it, I didn’t know. But I wouldn’t rest until they did something to help. They had already barely lifted a finger to help us save Sariel. If they wanted us to keep working with them now, they were going to do something in return, goddammit.

Abigail was looking at me, a slight frown of concern touching her face. “Flick,” she started hesitantly, “are you sure you’re okay to be here right now? I–” She winced then. “I know, you won’t sit out, not with Avalon involved. But if you need to sit down or something until we’re ready…”

My head shook at that. “Thanks,” I murmured, not wanting to snap at the people who cared about me no matter how anxious and upset I felt. “But I’m… I’ll be okay. I can’t rest right now.”

Abigail looked like she wanted to say something else to that. But before she could, Professor Dare spoke up. “We’re through. It’s safe now. They’ll know we were here, but there’s no avoiding that anyway. Just be quick, but thorough.”

From her pocket, the woman produced a familiar silver and violet orb that fit in the palm of her hand.

“What’s that?” Abigail asked, lifting her chin as she watched the golf ball-sized orb curiously.

“Panoptic Analysis Window System,” I replied, remembering the Heretic device I’d learned about much earlier in my Investigation classes with Dare. “PAWS. It takes a full holographic recording of an area. It’ll even record things that aren’t in the open, like stuff in closets or drawers.”

Nodding, Scout added, “Then you can plug it into one of the display rooms back at Crossroads to and look through the whole area at your leisure. It’s really useful for Heretics to go through a whole crime scene even when Bystander authorities lock everything down.”

Abigail was staring at us with an expression of awe. “Do you have any idea how useful that would be for normal law enforcement to have?” she demanded, sounded pretty openly offended that it wasn’t something that Heretics shared with normal humans. “Do you know how many murders and other horrific crimes could be solved if they had access to something that preserved the crime scene that well? That would completely revolutionize the–” Cutting herself off, the woman devolved into making a few annoyed grumbling sounds about Heretic secrets.

Soon enough, we made our way down the dock and up to the cabin itself. Dare made one last check that everything was clear, then told us to go ahead and look around while she made sure that the PAWS was scanning everything correctly for later.

So, Scout, Shiori and I slowly began making our way through the cabin together, while Abigail and Theia did the same on their own. The place was pretty spacious and luxurious for a cabin. There were three floors in the place, and about a dozen different rooms. Which included a truly impressive dining hall. Manakel had some expensive tastes as far as hideouts went.

All of which meant that there was a lot of ground to cover, so I was really glad that Professor Dare had thought to bring the PAWS. That would be beyond useful so that we could scour every last millimeter of this place, even after we had to leave.

Still, we could look through the live thing right now. So that’s what we did. I even set Jaq and Gus on the floor and had them look around through some of the smaller areas just in case there were any hidden areas that would be too small for us to quickly spot.

Unfortunately (and as expected), there really didn’t seem to be that much to find. There were food supplies, some books that we’d have to look through more thoroughly later, a few interesting-looking weapons, and other odds and ends that might have been interesting, but had nothing to do with actually finding Avalon. There was no letter sitting out with ‘Dear minions, meet me at this specific address when you get a chance. Thanks! – Manakel’ written on it.

Not that I’d been expecting anything like that, of course. But again, it would have been nice.

Eventually, however, we did find one somewhat important-looking door. It was made of some kind of very heavy metal, probably reinforced by magic. Even with my strength, I couldn’t make it budge. But there was a tiny keyhole, and when crouching there, I could peek inside at a roomful of empty metal cages or kennels, like the kind that you’d keep a dog in at the pound. They were each about three feet across by three feet high, and stacked on top of each other in piles of three all along the left and right walls. At the far end of the room there was what looked like a table with some notes piled on top of it.

“We need to get in there,” I announced then, straightening up while looking to Shiori. “You up for a quick sand trip through the hole?”

Scout, however, shook her head. “I can do it.” As both of us looked that way, the other girl held her hand out. A small glowing orb appeared in her palm, before shrinking and reshaping itself into the form of a key. Scout put the key in the lock, then clearly adjusted it a few times, making the thing fit into the lock precisely before she turned it. With a click, the door opened.

“Wow,” I murmured, “now that seems useful.”

In reply, Scout winked at me, her voice soft. “You’re not the only one who got some new tricks while you were gone.”

Together, the three of us stepped into the room. Immediately, I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, God, what is that smell?”

Cringing beside me, clearly affected by her own enhanced senses, Shiori shook her head. “It’s… kind of like… tangy, but also rotten? Like a bunch of lemons that went bad. And also just a bit of, umm… chlorine. Heavy chlorine.”

I felt the approach of a figure who I recognized as Theia. The girl’s approach still made me tense up, looking back that way as she stepped closer. “Mesches,” the Seosten announced. “It smells like Mesches.”

In response to our collective baffled looks, she added, “Mesches block magic sight or tracking. It’s their… their gift? Yes, their gift. If you have a bunch of them in an area, they can make that place impossible for any spell to follow. And also make ongoing spell effects run out faster.”

“Any spell,” I murmured, “including the ones that Avalon has on that are supposed to let us find her. That’s how Manakel’s keeping Avalon hidden and speeding up the clock on those spells. He has a bunch of these Mesches.”

Theia was frowning. “Yes,” she murmured, “but Mesches aren’t that easy to use. They make powerful poisons. Their smell isn’t just awful, they make a poison cloud in the air that does very bad things. Keeping someone near enough to them for the beneficial effect and avoiding any poison problems would be… hard.”

Honestly, the fact that she was actually being this helpful, not making any cracks, and seemed serious about the situation made me believe even more that Theia genuinely felt bad about what had happened. She wanted to make up for it, in whatever way that she could.

Still, she did kind of creep me out a little. It hadn’t been that long since she’d been trying to kill us, after all. It was going to take a little more time for me to totally move past that.

Did that make me a bad person, or a hypocrite? I… I wasn’t sure. I was trying to control my reaction to her. But again… time. It would take time.

Then there was what she had said. Poison. Poisoned air. Somehow, that was important. It was tickling something in the back of my head. But what was it? What…

Shaking it off, I moved through the room to the table at the back end. The cages were all empty, as Manakel had clearly moved his herd or… pack or whatever they’d be referred to as to his new hiding place. The papers were all mostly just confirming what Theia had already said, that the creatures were useful for blocking magic trackers and for speeding up magical effects. He’d been planning this for awhile.

With an inward sigh, I looked up from the papers to glance slowly around the room. Nothing. I had a feeling that there was something important about all this, something that would tell me a lot more, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

What could it be? What was so important about this room, or the animals that had been here, or… or… whatever it was that was bothering me? What was it?  

“Flick?” Shiori was looking at me. “What’s wrong? What are you thinking about?”

Slowly, I shook my head. “I’m not sure. There’s just something… it feels like this should be telling me something, but I can’t… I can’t quite reach it. This is a clue, an important one. I’m just… not sure how it fits.”

With a sigh, I quickly finished gathering up the rest of the papers, tucking them under an arm. “Let’s go see what the others found. And hope that they’ve had more luck than we have. Because judging from the number of cages in here, I’d say that Manakel has a lot of those Mesches things he can use to speed up those protection spells. Which means Avalon is running out of time.”

“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid.”

The voice came from nearby, and I turned to find Seller there. Blinking, I asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be with the others?”

The man with the emerald shades gave a slight nod. “Yes, but there’s been another complication that you should all know about.”

Looking like the last thing she wanted was another complication, Professor Dare ground out, “What happened?”

“It’s the boy, Trice,” Seller replied slowly and reluctantly.

“Someone found a way to break into Gaia’s private dimension and freed him. He’s gone.”

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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 35-06

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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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Homecoming 35-05

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“Felicity!”

It was a minute after my little conversation with Tabbris about sharing my body. The two of us had just joined back up with the others, and the voice came from Abigail as she came straight through the portal that had been created to bring her in. My older sister swooped in, arms covering me as she pulled me into an embrace.

Grinning through the hug, I tried to joke, “Boy, I should disappear for a little bit more often if this is the kind of—ow!”

Dad, who had just jammed his finger into my back, gave me a sharp headshake. “Don’t you even tease about that,” he warned. “We’ve got enough problems with you disappearing without making a game out of it.”

Pulling back a bit, Abigail gave me just as stern of a look. “Your father is right,” she agreed. “No more disappearing for you for at least a… a…  as long of a time as it is realistically likely.”

Tristan, arms linked behind his head, joked, “We’ve been back for like, what, an hour? I’m pretty sure we passed Flick’s safe zone for not disappearing again like fifteen minutes ago.”

“Jerks,” I informed them, “you’re all jerks.”

Abigail embraced me again, just as tightly as before. “Where were you? What happened? Where are the others? Are you okay? Wait, never mind the first question. I know where you were. But what happened? How did you get back?” Looking to Vanessa and Tristan, she added, “And what about you two?”

Even as she spoke, the woman was giving a significant look toward my dad and the others with him. It was clear that she was trying to silently ask them certain questions without being obvious.

“I know I was possessed,” I quickly put in. “It’s okay. We already talked about it, and… well…” Turning a bit, I gestured for Tabbris to come out. She stepped into view, holding tight to her mother’s hand while giving a nervous, shy little wave. Even then however, the girl couldn’t keep the broad, giddy smile off her face that had been plastered there ever since what my father had said.

There were a lot of reactions that I could have expected from Abigail. What I absolutely did not expect, was to see a girl step into view from the shadows, move right beside Abigail, and announce, “Yep, that is definitely the kid we saw before.”

“Lies!” I blurted, not out of disagreement with what was being said, but because I knew that the girl standing there wasn’t really Pace. My staff was in my hand, and I almost lunged that way before two things happened. First Deveron’s hand caught my arm to stop me. And second, Abigail stepped in front of the possessed girl.

“Flick, no!” My sister’s voice was sharp as she held up both hands. “It’s OK, it’s not what you think. And,” she added even more sharply, “do not call her that.”

Beside me, Deveron sighed while still holding my arm. “I thought you said you were going to keep her out of sight until Flick understood what was going on. You asked for a chance to explain it yourself.”

Biting her lip, Abigail glanced back to where Lies was before turning to me. “Yes,” she replied, “I told her to stay on the edge of camp and wait until I called her.”

Lies was grinning. “Theia-I’m a bad puppy,” she announced.

“What-what-what?” I was a broken record. Even more than I had already felt like after telling the same story a couple different times. “What the hell are you doing? She’s one of the bad guys.” I pointed at Lies, feeling like I had suddenly gone crazy. Or maybe everyone else had.

Abigail shake her head. “It’s more complicated than that, Felicity. Just calm down. First of all, she’s the only reason that the Seosten didn’t didn’t already know about you being possessed. Because she saw you with that choker. She knew that you were possessed. But she never told her bosses about it.”

Lies confirmed that with a little sing-song, “They were being mean. And besides, us girls have to have secrets, don’t we?“

My mouth open and shut a couple of times then, before I threw both of my hands out and blurted, “She calls me Present! Present! As in she wanted to present me as a gift to Doxer!”

The other girl’s reply to that was simple and matter-of-fact. “Doxer was Theia-my friend. Theia-I wanted to get him a really good present. And you’re a really good person. So you would make a good present.  You’re smart and cute and funny and really good with your stick. The best present!” She finished with a completely innocent-sounding, “It was a compliment.”

“A… a…” I stared at her, then to the others, then back to her before finally demanding, “What the hell is going on?”

So, they started to explain. Mostly Abigail. She told me how they had tracked down Lies–now apparently named Theia, and how they had come to an arrangement. They would look for a way to free Pace from her, a way of fixing her condition. And in exchange, once that was done, she would tell us everything that she knew about Manakel and the other Seosten. And they also told us about her mother. Kushiel. Kushiel was her mother. Which… Gah. It did explain a lot, but still.  

“What about Pace?” I asked flatly after they’d finished. “And where are Seller and Miranda? Weren’t they coming?”

“They’ll be here soon,” Abigail assured me. “They just had something else to deal with. That’s why Wyatt’s not here right now. He stepped out to help them, so they could get here sooner.”

Nodding a little bit, I focused on Li–Theia. “If you’re really trying to be good, why don’t you tell us everything you know right now? That might be a bit more convincing.”

Smiling cunningly at me, the other girl shook her head. “Can’t give away something for nothing. That’s a terrible strategy. Especially if we want to keep living. We know things. We tell you when we get help. That’s the deal.”

“How about Roxa?” I snapped despite myself. “Did she get help when you helped turn her into a werewolf and left her in the woods to die from it?”

“She’s not dead,” the easy response came once more. “She’s even stronger now, right?”

“That’s not the–” Stopping myself from pointlessly arguing with her, I shook my head. “The point is that if you really wanted to help, you could tell us almost everything we need to know right here, right now.”

Her gaze met mine. Or rather, her host’s gaze did. “And give away the only reason we’re still alive? Sorry. Theia-I am just not that trusting. We need help. Pace-I needs help. Help us separate. Help fix Theia-me.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sariel stepped forward. Her voice was quiet. “Do you know who I am?”

Theia seemed to really focus on her for the first time, and as she did so, Pace’s eyes widened. “Wh–you,” she actually stammered a little. “The Hunter. You’re–but… Mother…”

Sariel gave a slight nod to that. “My children and their friends are very resourceful. But the point is, you know who I am. And you know where I was. So please. Look at me, and tell me that you are being genuine. Is this a game? Are you leading everyone on, Theia? Or are you really willing to help if you get help in return? Can you help us?”

A moment of silent near-communication passed between the two of them briefly before Theia dropped her head in a tiny nod of her own. “Theia-I can help. Will… will help. But not until you fix us. Not until you separate Pace. It’s all we have.”

“I will.” Sariel’s voice was quiet, yet firm. “I will find a way to help you, Theia. I promise. And when we do, when we help you, then you have to be ready to keep your side of it.”

“Cross our heart and hope to die,” Theia promptly replied, before amending, “Well, maybe not die. But Theia-I’ve taken a needle in my eye. Does that count?”

God, no wonder that girl was so screwed up. Even just the simple hints that we’d gotten throughout her story about how her mother had treated her was just… Kushiel. She was Kushiel’s daughter, which explained so fucking much. And as much as I wanted to be furious with her for holding back, along with everything else she had done, I kind of understood the situation she had been in along with the type of person that she had been raised to be.

Actually, the fact that she hadn’t told Manakel about Tabbris was basically enough for me to forgive everything else, now that I’d had a chance to calm down and think about it.

“Um.” Abigail raised a hand. “Maybe she knows who you are,” she informed Sariel. “But I’m still a little fuzzy on it.”

So, it was our turn. I felt a little uncomfortable talking in front of Pace/Theia, still. But they were right. I would have been even more screwed if she had told Manakel about Tabbris. She had already kept that secret. If she was playing us, we were already pretty screwed. And Abigail trusted her. So, once more, I explained about what had happened out in Seosten space. For the third time in a short span, I went through everything. Actually, I was getting pretty good at summarizing by that point.

“You poor girl.” Abigail was addressing Tabbris. She had taken a knee as soon as things settled enough, and opened her arms for my little partner to rush into them for yet another hug. Throughout the explanation, she had been holding the girl and stroking her hair. “You were practically a baby. I can’t believe you had to do all that.“

Sariel, who had never looked more guilty than in that moment, cringed. “There was no other choice,” she spoke quietly, giving a brief glance toward Theia before she continued. “They had to protect each other. And it was better than what they would have done with her.”

Abigail looked a little hesitant at that, but gave a slight nod. “Well,” she announced, “at least that’s over now. You don’t have to be in danger anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Tabbris looked confused. “Flick’s still going back to Crossroads, right?”

Abigail looked just as confused. “Well, of course,” she replied. “But you don’t have to. I mean, Flick can be protected from possession in other ways now, like that Dibs spell you were talking about. There is no need for you to be in that kind of danger anymore. You can stay-“

Tabbris pulled away from her. “If she’s going back,” she announced firmly, “I’m going back. We’re partners. She needs me.” As she spoke, the girl’s lip was poked out a little stubbornly.

In the background, I heard Tristan whisper, “Told you it was gonna be a thing,” to Vanessa.

Dad was nodding. His eyes were on Tabbris. “Honey,” he started, “Abigail’s right. You don’t have to be in danger like that. You’ve done an amazing job. But—”

It was the wrong thing to say. Tabbris suddenly disappeared from where she had been standing, only to reappear right beside and partly behind me with both of her arms around my waist. She had used her recall to put herself with me, though not completely inside. Not yet, anyway. Her head shook. “No! You can’t make me leave Flick! She needs me! I–I need… I need Flick. We’re partners.”

Her voice turned plaintive and desperate then, gaze turning up to me as she repeated the same thing. Only that time, it was a question. “We’re partners?”

I didn’t hesitate for a second. “We’re partners,” I confirmed, before looking up to the others. Abigail looked confused. Dad looked pained. And Sariel looked… tortured. Like there was so much that she wanted to say, but didn’t know how. And so much pain locked in her memories.

“You can’t make her do anything,” I informed them. My gaze turned slightly to Sariel. “I know you didn’t have a choice. I know that you did the only thing you could do to keep her safe, and to keep me safe. It wasn’t a fair situation. But it happened. She grew up with me. She was never a little kid. She saved me more times than I think she’ll ever actually tell anyone about. She should have had a chance to be a little kid, yes. But she didn’t get that chance. And forcing her to leave me now, taking her agency away from her and making her do what you think is right for her, that’s wrong. After everything she’s done, after everything she’s been through, she’s earned the right to make the choice herself. I’m not saying it’s a good situation. But you can’t take the choice away from her. Not after everything she’s done.”

Turning slightly then, I looked down to the girl at my side. “That said…” When she looked  up at me with those wide eyes, I touched her face. “I’m not gonna make you do anything either. You’re right. We’re partners. And I couldn’t have gotten this far without you. I’d be lost if I didn’t have my little sister when I need her. But… it’s okay… not to be together all the time.”

Lip quivering a little, Tabbris whimpered. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean,” I explained, “you deserve a chance to spend some time with your mom, Tabbris. You and me, we’re partners for life. I’ll be there for you any time you need me. And I know that you’ll be there for me. But your mom needs you too. And so does our dad. They deserve a chance to see you, to know you like I do. I’ll always be there for you to jump to. We’re connected. You can hop back to me any time you want to. And I’m not going to make you do anything. You deserve the choice. But I think you should spend a little time here, with Dad and your mother.

“I will always need my partner, my sister. But they need you too. And you need them. Why don’t you give it a little chance. I’ll be okay. And if I’m not, if I need you, you know I’ll find a way to let you know.”

“I… I can help with that.” It was Sariel, glancing toward Theia briefly before she spoke up. “I can show you what I did, to make sure that no one would ever be able to possess Larissa, as long as I’m alive. I can show you how to mark her so that it looks like you’re possessing her, even when you’re not. Even when you possess someone else. So you’ll be able to communicate with her any time you want to, no matter what happens. They won’t be able to possess her, as long as you’re alive. And I can teach you a spell so that you’ll be able to transport between her and here any time that you want to, at will. So you can visit here as long as you’d like to, pop over to where she is for a little bit, then come back, whenever you like.”

“Y-you can teach me that?” Tabbris stammered, staring up at her mother while still clinging tightly to me.

Sariel nodded a bit then, giving her daughter a tiny smile. “If you’ll let me, there are a lot of things that I can teach you.” Her voice sounded a little hopeful.

Head bobbing quickly then, Tabbris agreed. “O-okay. Okay. Um, w-we can do that, Mama.” Her gaze turned to me then, as she added earnestly, “Are you sure you don’t need me for a little while?”

My own head shook. “Partner, I’m pretty sure I’ll always need you. But I can get along for awhile without you. Consider it a vacation. I mean, you’ve been on the job your whole life. Literally. Take a break to be with your mom and dad for a little bit. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Especially your mom. If I need you, I’ll let you know.

“And besides,” I added then, “from the sound of things, your mom’s gonna be able to teach you a lot more stuff so we can be even more dangerous together. Right?” Shifting a bit, I held my hand up for her.

“Right.” Quickly, Tabbris slapped my hand, giving me five. “Okay, Mama. I’ll… I’ll st-stay for awhile.” She gave a tentative smile then, the crisis averted.

Nodding, Sariel looked toward Theia. “And I’ll help you too. I don’t know if I have an answer for your situation. But I will help, any way that I can. Between all of us, who knows, we may figure something out. Our people haven’t, but… well, they refuse to listen to any outside aid or suggestions. Maybe humans will see something that our scientists haven’t.”

“Flick!” It was Miranda. She and Wyatt had just arrived, apparently. My old best friend tore across the grass as she ran to me, throwing herself my way with a laugh. “You really made it!”

Grinning, I returned the tight embrace. “Randi! Took you long enough.”

Her eyes rolled, as she leaned back to stare at me. “Took me long enough? You were the one that took a two month vacation.”

“Oh, trust me,” I retorted, “I’ll tell you all about that ‘vacation’ in a minute. But maybe I should start with–” My hand started to gesture toward the nearby Tabbris, who had just barely stepped out of the way.

“It’s okay,” Randi informed me. “We heard most of it. Abigail’s been wearing a… uh, phone-spell, basically. It let us hear what you guys were saying. You don’t have to explain it again.”

Blinking once at that, I recovered quickly. “Oh, thank God,” I blurted. “I’m beginning to think that I need to write it all down and just hand out copies to everyone.” Smiling then, I hugged her again. “You look good.”

“Eh, lots of exercise,” the other girl replied with a wink before stepping back, her gaze moving to Sariel. “So… Artemis?”

“She’s my mama!” Tabbris, sounding incredibly tickled and proud about that fact, announced while hopping over to wrap both of her arms around one of her mother’s. “And she’s brilliant and perfect.”

“I am not perfect,” Sariel quietly protested.

“She’s modest,” Abigail put in then, smiling as she stood beside Wyatt. “She’s a very good person.”

“No.” There was torture, pain, agony in Sariel’s denial that time, as she stared at the two of them. “No, I’m not. I’m not a good person. It’s my fault. It was my fault.”

“What?” I blinked at that, confused as to what she was talking about and where it was coming from. “What do you mean? What’s your faul–”

“It was me,” she interrupted, her pained gaze locked onto Wyatt and Abigail. “I didn’t know how he’d take it, but it was me. I… I told Ruthers, back then… I told him that if he wanted to beat Joselyn, he had to take someone that she loved and make her stop to protect them.”

Her gaze flicked toward Deveron then. “I meant you. Not you-you, because we didn’t know who you were then. Her lover. I meant Joselyn’s lover, her husband. Not her children. I didn’t mean her children. But that’s how he took it. He took my words and he… that’s what made him think of taking her children. So it’s my fault. It’s my fault you were abducted. So I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.

“Because everything that happened to you, it’s my fault.”

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