Please note that there was a mini-interlude focused on Elisabet posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above.
“It was a very good attempt, I’ll grant you that much,” Charmeine informed me as the driver pulled the cab into a narrow alley that it barely fit within. The Seosten was using Columbus’s face to smile at me. “You almost convinced us it was broken. Hell, if we’d figured it out before you touched your teammate here, we might have been able to string you along a bit more.”
I was struggling, not that that fact was at all obvious from outward appearances. My body was completely paralyzed. No matter what I did, I couldn’t move. I’d even thought about turning into my lion form. But honestly, I had no idea if that would free me from whatever the bitch had done. The most likely outcome of that would be revealing that I had the lion form, while still remaining paralyzed. Yeah, really not a good idea, and I stopped myself from trying it at the last second.
“You do like your little games,” the puppeteer continued, while the car pulled up to the back of some kind of loading dock. “But we have games too. And we’ve been playing them for a lot longer than you have, I promise.” Her smile was creepy. Or rather, she somehow made Columbus’s smile creepy. Maybe it was just knowing that she was forcing him to move against his will, controlling him. How aware of everything was he? Did he know what she made him do?
As the cab stopped, Charmeine leaned over the seat to whisper something in the driver’s ear. Then she winked at me before popping her door open to get out. The driver followed suit, and the two of them moved around to open my door. The next thing I knew, Charmeine had my arms while the driver took my legs, and they carried me up the ramp and into what turned out to be a small furniture warehouse. There was a single aisle between shelves full of various tables, chairs, and other bits that led to a backroom that had probably been the manager’s office.
As I was carried in, we passed three humanoid guards. I didn’t know what they were, but my Stranger sense went off as soon as they came within my view. Because the one thing I clearly needed at that point was an alert that I was in danger.
Two of the men stayed out in the main warehouse, and I saw them step outside. The third followed us into the other room.
Through it all, I continued my vain, helpless struggle against the paralyzation. And as they stepped into that former office, I felt like it was actually starting to wear off. My fingers twitched just a little bit, and I could feel my toes responding too. Just a little more time, just a little more…
Charmeine and the driver stepped into the office, carrying me over to the middle of the room where they dumped me inside of a circle that had been drawn on the carpeted floor in white paint. The same paint had been used to draw a dozen different vaguely creepy and tribalistic symbols surrounding the outside of the circle, each connected to it by a thin line.
Once I was on the floor, Charmeine knelt and started patting her hands along me. She took the container with my staff, both of my phones, and the watch on my wrist that had the silver knife. She even pulled out the field-engraver that Dare had given me. Everything that could possibly have been useful, she took. Then her fingers moved up to my neck, and her smile faded just a little while groping every part of my throat. A frown knit Columbus’s brow, as the Seosten made his head shake. “What… did you honestly not bring it!?” she blurted, sounding annoyed.
The choker. She was looking for the choker, and didn’t know that I’d already given it to Roxa. That was something for our side, at least. At least the Seosten wouldn’t get it back that easily.
Cursing quietly, Charmeine searched me a little bit more in vain before stepping back out of the circle. By that point, I could almost make my foot shake back and forth, and I could even feel my leg responding as I tried to make it lift a little bit. Just a few more seconds, that’s all I needed.
I wouldn’t be getting it. Charmeine knelt once more outside the circle, reaching out to touch one of the symbols before murmuring a couple words. As she did so, it lit up, followed by the ones next to it. Gradually, all twelve symbols began to glow, before the circle itself did the same.
“There we are,” the Seosten announced while tossing the watch with the hidden knife in it up and down a couple times. Reaching out, she touched a bit of wall where some symbols had already been drawn. At a word from her, a portal opened up and she tossed the watch through. “You know the power that your little quiet friend, Scout, got from the cruise ship, the one that lets her mark objects and track them? She’s been doing it to the watch to keep track of you. Now it’ll lead her, and the others, back to the hotel.”
To the driver, she added, “Go. Take the boy and drive there. Wait outside until it’s time to use him. We’re fine here.” Looking to me, she made Columbus smile again. “Aren’t we, Flickster?”
I could move. The paralysis wore off, and I jerked myself to my feet. Rising up into a lunge, I… hit an invisible wall. It was just like hitting an actual wall, and I rebounded off of it with a curse.
Charmeine laughed, shaking Columbus’s head with a wry smirk. “Well, thank you for proving what I’m about to say. You’re not going anywhere right now. Later, sure, we’ll be be taking you on a little trip. But for now, you can stay right here while we take care of a few things.” As she spoke, the Seosten tossed my weapon aside, into a corner. Then she dropped both phones and raised Columbus’s foot to stomp down on them several times, shattering the phones beyond repair.
Picking myself up off of the floor a little more slowly, I squinted that way while reaching out. My hand pressed up against the invisible barrier. It shimmered a little bit where I was touching.
With my hand pressed there, I stared silently at the figure on the other side of the shield. The driver had already left the warehouse, and I heard the sound of the cab starting up in the distance as the driver started to take Rudolph to the hotel to wait for everything to go down.
“What?” Charmeine interrupted my thoughts with a smirk, “no ranting? You’re not going to start with the whole ‘oh, you’ll never get away with this, you vile fiend’ or anything? Disappointing. I like that part.”
Ignoring that (at least outwardly), I lifted my chin before speaking. “Columbus, it’s okay. It’ll be alright. We’ll get her out of you, I promise. Just don’t give up, okay? Hang on a little bit longer.”
Charmeine laughed lightly, head shaking. “Oh, never mind. That was even better. Delicious.” Smiling, she paced around the circle. “But let me tell you what’s going to happen, hmm?”
“Sure,” I replied easily, “why not? Just because I try to break all those tired, cliche tropes whenever possible doesn’t mean you have to. By all means,” I gestured, “monologue away.”
From the squint that she gave me at that, I didn’t think she appreciated my phrasing. Too bad. Still, she continued. Apparently rubbing it in was too much to resist, even after I taunted her about it. “One of your mistakes, little Flick, is in assuming that we only have other Seosten to assist in our endeavors. We have an entire intergalactic empire, child. We are more than accustomed to making deals with lesser species. Including ones found here on this planet.”
Which meant that the choker wouldn’t have picked them up, I realized abruptly as my eyes darted briefly to the man who had been waiting in the warehouse. He was standing in the corner, silently watching.
I could’ve checked every last person in school more than once and still not found everyone who was working with the Seosten, because they weren’t all Seosten.
Smirking at my reaction, Charmeine stopped pacing and turned to face me. “So, what we were going to do, is have one of our little friends get the rest of their team to confront you about their missing friend. That’s been driving them completely nuts, by the way. They’re so worried about that girl, and whenever Dougie uses his lovely intuition power to get answers about what happened to her, all it does is point him toward you. It’s kind of made them a little bit obsessed.”
Their helper, it was someone on Roxa’s old team. I’d already used the past several weeks to touch each of them, so I knew they weren’t Seosten. But apparently, that didn’t mean anything.
I said nothing, letting her talk as much as she wanted to. And she did. “But now they’ve got it in their heads to actually talk things out with you. Which we couldn’t have. So, we decided to make them useful in another way. They’d confront you, and our friend would use one of these.” From Columbus’s pocket, she produced a small orb, rolling it over in her palm. “Do you know what it is?”
I didn’t answer. Why would I give her information she didn’t already have? Then again, I wasn’t a super-Seosten genius, so clearly I was missing the true tactical genius of gloating and babbling about all of my plans. I guess that was something I was just going to have to live with.
“This,” she helpfully continued despite my silence, “will transport its target into our space when it’s activated, and will banish them from this world. Your blonde twin friends have experience with them. They were going to be used to transport you and Roxanne’s old team away from here. The assumption would be that you turned them to your mother’s side and have disappeared with them to meet her. And that… well, that would have looked very bad for Gaia, wouldn’t it? Bad enough that it wouldn’t be hard at all to have her removed from her position.”
That’s what this whole thing was about, I realized. Well, this part of it anyway. If they discredited Gaia and got someone else in there, it would help… pretty much all of their plans. Especially when it came to killing Avalon. Taking Gaia out of her position of Headmistress and putting one of their own puppets in, it would… it would be bad. Really, really, unbelievably bad.
“But then you had to go and keep the choker,” Charmeine continued, sounding a little annoyed. “Which obviously blew my cover. I’m sure Gaia knows all about Columbus now. So the plan had to change. Oh, our friend will still help their team try to confront you, of course. But since you’re here, they’ll be confronting your team instead. And with both teams in one place and tensions high, what better time than that to drop something a good bit more dangerous into their laps.”
She didn’t tell me exactly what that dangerous thing was, but I had a feeling that it was more than they’d be able to handle. “Whoever survives, well, they’ll be transferred to the Seosten Empire. We have a few Heretics running around causing problems, and it would be nice to have a few of our own to counter them. Or at least, a few of their bodies, anyway.”
Stepping right up to the edge of the circle then, Charmeine made Columbus smile. “Having a few student bodies lying around will make everyone very, very emotional, very angry. And that anger, well, it can be pointed at the two people who planned such a terrible thing: you and Miss Avalon Sinclaire. Or Hannah Owens, if you prefer. You, of course, will be going on a trip. But Hannah, well, she can stay here and face the music. She’ll be arrested. Our people are already waiting for the excuse. And when blame for all of this falls on her, it won’t be hard to keep her separated and secluded long enough for those protection spells to wear off. We may not be able to erase them ourselves, but all magic has a time limit before it has to be recharged. We keep Hannah alone and segregated long enough, and they’ll wear off. Then she can be… removed.”
They wanted to kill a bunch of people on both my team and Roxa’s. Then they’d send whoever survived, except for Avalon, off to Seosten space. That probably included Columbus himself. After that, I’d be sent away too and Avalon would be arrested for all of it. And why wouldn’t they believe that she did it after she already had a history of murder back at Eden’s Garden?
Charmeine was still making Columbus smile. “And just to make everything nice and perfect, I’ll be abandoning this body to die in the attack. I think Rudolph will make a good enough host to change to, don’t you?”
That’s why they wanted Rudolph. They were going to make him be the only survivor. With Charmeine pulling his strings, they would make him tell some story that corroborated everything that the Seosten wanted the Committee to think had happened.
“Now, I was going to send you back right now,” the Seosten mused, tossing the transport orb up and down in her palm a couple times before shaking her head. “But I think I’d rather let you watch first.” Turning, she gestured up at a television that was mounted in the corner of the room. With her other hand, she produced a remote, using it to click the TV on. The screen showed the hotel room that I shared with Avalon. “Roxanne’s team will show up to confront you, and your team–well, they’ll be tracking that watch of yours back to the room as well. You can sit here, watch the ambush and see your friends either die or end up in Seosten space to work as our puppets. I think watching it happen is a suitable punishment for being as annoying as you’ve been, don’t you?”
She gave me a wink then before adding, “In any case, after you watch your friends lose everything, you’ll be transferred as well. We’ll take you to our space, where our best scientists will take you apart, piece by piece, until they figure out why you’re immune to our possession. Each little part of you, cut open, pulled out, and examined until we know all of your secrets, everything that makes you… tick. Whether it was the necromancer who somehow gave you that immunity to protect his prize, something your mother did, or anything else, we’ll figure it out.”
Oh. Shit, I hadn’t even really considered that reasoning for my immunity. Could it have been Fossor? I knew he had sort-of claimed me for himself (which still made me want to throw up), but was making people immune to possession even something he was actually capable of?
“Oh.” Snapping Columbus’s fingers, the Seosten winked at me. “And I bet you’re wondering about Dare and how she’ll pop up to save your friends. Yeah, she’s going to be busy for awhile. There’s a few old friends who want to have a chat. I promise, she won’t be getting involved.”
Professor Dare. On top of everything else, this psycho cunt had found some people (probably Nocen Alters) with a grudge against Dare and were using them to attack her. It had probably started right after we left, before she could send any kind of message.
I hoped she made it hurt when she put the bastards down.
“So watch the screen,” Charmeine continued, her amusement obvious in Columbus’s voice. “Or you can try to leave the circle, if you’d like. But the spell is set for you, specifically. Until it either runs out or the spell is broken out here… well, you’re not going anywhere. And, as it turns out, that particular spell will run out sometime…” Mockingly checking the watch on Columbus’s wrist, she finished with, “oh, next week or so? But hey, maybe you’ll come up with some magic way of making it run out in fifteen minutes instead. You never know. Keep a positive attitude.” She had made Columbus’s voice unnaturally chipper and bright, her amusement at the whole situation spilling over into a belittling laugh at the end, complete with one of those exaggerated encouraging fist pumps. That in and of itself was almost enough to make me want to stab her.
She looked to the man in the corner then. “Keep an eye on things. She can’t get out, but we’ve thought she couldn’t do things before. Anything happens, deal with it.”
“And hey,” she added in my direction while spinning on her heel to walk toward the door. “When I start gutting your friends, I’ll try to remember to give a little wave to the camera so we can all say hi.” Giving a little wiggle of Columbus’s fingers to demonstrate, she laughed once more before striding out.
I was alone, save for my guard, who didn’t seem to be the type to help me. My fist hit the invisible wall once, then again. I punched it as hard as my enhanced strength allowed, but it wasn’t enough. Of course it wasn’t enough. They would’ve planned for that. Still, I kicked it anyway, letting out the scream of frustration, fear, and anger that I’d been holding in for so long. Then I hit it and screamed again.
Pointless. Fuck. Fuck. Think, Flick. Desperately, I moved to the wall and whistled. “Guys!” I called toward the container that held staff. “Time to fight! Guys!”
“Hey,” the guard snapped, stepping closer. “Knock it off. You’re not getting out of there.”
It was useless anyway. My staff was stored in the pocket dimension. They couldn’t hear me from in there. My phones were broken. The field-engraver was sitting near the weapons. And even if I did have it, I didn’t know how much use it would be. The only thing I could’ve used it for that would help might be to make my fox, but I didn’t have any wood to carve it into. Hell, she’d even taken the handful of privacy coins that I’d brought with me.
What was I supposed to do? What could I do? The panic was setting in. When the Seosten bitch had been in front of me, it had been easier to focus on what she was saying. Now that she was gone, all I could do was stare at the screen where my friends were going to be, and wait for the massacre.
“No, no, no!” I shouted, moving to kick the invisible wall again. “Let me out! Let me out! Damn it! No! Let me out!” My scream grew loud enough to be a shriek, and I spun in a wild circle. Out. Had to get out.
“Okay, that’s it.” The guy watching over me pointed something at the shield. I saw him press what looked like a button on a remote, and electricity suddenly flooded into me. Pain. I saw blackness, a scream tearing its way out of me as I collapsed.
“See?” the man snapped. “Knock it the fuck off.”
I didn’t. Instead, after standing up again, I experimentally raised my foot and kicked down as hard as I could.
Nothing. The floor didn’t even react. I was pretty sure I wasn’t even hitting it, actually. It seemed like that invisible field extended over the floor too. Which was just… fucking… great. So even if the floor had been wood, I couldn’t use my power to escape through it. And if my strength wasn’t enough to break down the shield, I doubted my lion-self could do it. I couldn’t get to my weapon. I had no more phones. I didn’t know any spell that could help get me out of this.
“Hey!” The man was standing in front of the shield then. He triggered the electricity, and again, pain tore its way through my body, leaving me crying out on the floor as I spasmed.
Still, I stood back up, hauling myself to my feet to glare at the man, before my gaze drifted to the monitor. The monitor that showed the room where my friends were going to be killed and enslaved.
“No, no, no, no, no!” With each word, I punched the invisible wall harder. My eyes were locked on the screen. “Please, please I can’t do this. I can’t lose them. Please, God, please. I have to get out of here. Please. Please.”
Tears were streaming down my face by that point. I couldn’t help it. My head shook rapidly, and I could barely see. Blinking rapidly, I struggled to stop sobbing and focus. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t stop this. My friends were going to die because I wasn’t strong enough. Avalon was going to die because I wasn’t strong enough. I couldn’t do anything! I was alone. I… was… alone.
No, you’re not.
The voice was in my head. It felt almost like when Deveron spoke to me that way, yet different somehow. I had just jerked a bit in surprise when, through my tears, the semi-transparent, ghost-like outline of a small figure literally pulled itself out of me. I was too shocked to move, too shocked to even think.
And if I was shocked, the man guarding me was completely dumbfounded. He stood there, gaping for a moment before the tiny figure disappeared into him. His body went completely still briefly before collapsing like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
The ghost-figure appeared again, stepping out of the fallen man before turning. It grew more solid and distinct then, until a recognizable figure stood there.
“Tabby?!” I stared at the little blonde girl that I had met at the Atherby camp… the girl I had met right… after I had to visit the restroom before they checked me for possession.
“T-Tabbris,” she corrected with a slight stammer. “I’m sorry I lied. My mommy said I had to keep it secret. She said I had to hide, a-and that I could protect you by hiding. A-and I was scared before. B-b-but I can get you out. I can get you out right now. Please don’t be mad at me. Please,” she pleaded, “don’t hate me.”
That’s why I couldn’t be taken over and puppeted. The secret that the Seosten had been trying to figure out for so long, the reason they couldn’t possess me.
It’s because I already was.