“You know,” Sands remarked in a voice that was somewhat muffled as she lay flat on her face, “this really shouldn’t be this gross.” Lifting her head finally, she turned to look at me before making a bleh face. “I mean, come on. If Athena’s gonna make me spend so much of my time eating the mat, the least she could do is make it taste like chocolate or something.”
It had been about three days since we reunited with the others. The ship hadn’t arrived yet, but we were keeping ourselves busy. At the moment, Athena had the others (Jazz, Sands, Gordon, and Roxa) all try to attack her at once. I was pretty sure she was mostly giving them an idea of just how screwed we’d be if we had to face an Olympian in head-to-head combat, even together.
Snickering despite myself, I started, “Now you kn–” In mid-sentence, I was interrupted by a yelp as Roxa went tumbling end over end past the two of us, cursing right before she hit the wall.
Clearing my throat, I reached down to help Sands to her feet once more while finishing my sentence. “Now you know why I said that the past three weeks weren’t really a vacation.”
Together, the two of us moved to help Roxa up before turning back. Gordon was on one knee, shaking his head as he caught his breath. And Jazz was flat on her back with Athena’s foot just touching her throat as demonstration. For a second, everyone seemed frozen like that. Then the older Seosten smiled, taking her foot away as she reached down to haul Jazz to her feet. “Good,” she announced easily. “Very good. You have clearly been practicing.” As she spoke, the woman helped Gordon back up as well, before looking over to the rest of us. “I am impressed.”
“Impressed?” Sands shook her head. “You threw us around like we were basically toddlers.”
Athena chuckled slightly at that. “I am also a four-thousand-year-old genetically modified super soldier from a race of magically and technologically advanced universe dominators. You, on the other hand, have essentially been training for a few months, even if you were… thrown into the deep end, as they say. So yes, you are all quite strong and skilled for your age and experience.”
“She’s right,” I put in. “To her, we are basically toddlers. I mean, if you think we’d have the slightest chance against the woman who was both Athena and Nimue in mythology, you–”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I was interrupted by Sands, who put both hands up while staring at me. “Against the woman who was Athena and who?”
“Err.” I blinked at that. “Didn’t we talk about that?”
The other four exchanged looks before Roxa shook her head. “Gotta tell you, Flick, the name Nimue has definitely not come up before.”
Sighing, I muttered, “I’ve really gotta keep a list or something and check things off when we talk about them. Maybe get everyone a different sticker and put it next to the topics that have been covered so that I know who knows what.”
“If you make them scratch and sniff,” Jazz put in. “I prefer peach. Now what about Nimue?”
So, I explained. Athena helped, putting in where appropriate until the whole story was out. By that time, the others were openly staring at us. Roxa in particular was standing there with her mouth open, working it a few times before managing, “I have so many questions.”
“And someday,” Athena replied quietly, “I will answer them. For now, we have training.”
Clearing my throat, I nodded. “Yeah, the point was, we wouldn’t stand a chance against her if it was a real fight. We really would be toddlers to her. Same as we’d be to Kushiel if we actually tried to fight her directly.” My gaze turned toward Tabbris then, who was sitting against the wall on the far side of the room with her nose buried in a Judy Blume book that one of the Earth Club members had produced from their supply of random things. “We wouldn’t win that.”
Rubbing her shoulder, Jazz made a face while her head shook. “Yeah, and here I thought we were doing pretty good with the new powers we picked up while we were out looking for you.”
They had already had a pretty decent idea of what abilities they had absorbed both from that big fight on the Kenkean home planet, and subsequently by the time we met up again. But just in case, Tabbris and I had briefly possessed each of them (except Gordon) just to make sure they knew what they had. And Jazz was right, it was actually pretty impressive, as far as all that went.
In order, Jazz herself had picked up the ability to shift certain physical properties from one thing that she was touching to another thing that she was touching. In other words, if she was touching a piece of steel with one hand and a wooden fence with the other, she could make the fence as hard as steel. Or vice versa. She could also make, say, water into poison by touching one of each, or take a very sharp blade and make it dull by touching a rock.
Other than that, she was pretty strong and agile, having gotten a couple boosts in that regard. It was to the point where she could lift roughly as much as I could, about a thousand pounds. And she also had this thing where if she could meet an animal’s eyes and speak commands, the animal would follow her orders as long as it was capable of doing so.
Sands, meanwhile, had gained the ability to render herself entirely immobile (there were some obvious exceptions, she wouldn’t plant herself and then end up in outer space because the planet kept rotating without her). Seriously, magic, strength, powers, nothing would make her move as long as she stayed in one place and focused on it. Yup had tried teleporting her, to no avail. We had all tried to push and pull her, but nothing happened. While she was like that, it was even much harder to actually hurt the girl. In testing, I had struck her as hard as I could with my staff and all of my enhanced strength while Sands set her feet. The result had basically been like hitting a wall with a bat before I had any powers at all. The staff had rebounded painfully out of my hands.
The second she moved at all, she was just as vulnerable as anyone else. But still, it was pretty damn impressive when it worked.
She was also stronger than before, stronger than I was, even. We’d measured her at being able to bench press roughly four thousand pounds. And there was this thing she could do where she touched someone, and from that moment on, she could hear everything they heard until she disabled it. The implications of that ability had made both of us pretty giddy as far as identifying Manakel’s host back on Earth went, until Athena pointed out that Seosten on assignment like that would have spells set up to identify and remove any such ability from tracking them.
Then there was Roxa. The werewolf girl had somehow continued her record of picking up powers that would make her increasingly impossible to actually kill. In this case, she had gained a danger sense that would warn her if she was about to be attacked, as well as the ability to render herself untrackable by any sense aside from direct line of sight. That meant that, when she was using it, not only could no one track her by smell or sound, but magical tracking didn’t work either. Haiden had tried a handful of spells, all to no avail. And I had tried the blood tracking ability that I had picked up from those harpies. Hell, I’d even tried tracking her clothes with my object-detection power while the girl moved behind me, and that hadn’t worked either. The power apparently extended around things she wore or carried, to some certain extent.
So she could make herself invisible to anything but direct visual sight, and had a danger sense. That was combined, as usual, with a couple other minor physical improvements. Because clearly Roxa hadn’t already been dangerous enough as it was.
And finally, Gordon. As before, he didn’t want me to possess him, preferring to figure out his powers on his own. And what he had figured out was pretty… interesting. The eternally-calm and centered boy had gotten one of the least appropriate powers I could imagine. He could create what were essentially ‘chaos fields’, circular areas roughly four feet across and eight feet in height where chaos reigned. It was hard to describe. Basically, anything that could go wrong in that area would go wrong. It could range from pens full of ink exploding inside your pants, to those pants just falling down, to armor breaking apart, to energy weapons either bursting or exploding, to electronic devices going completely haywire, to things made of glass just spontaneously shattering, and so on. Basically, it was a concentrated zone of unbelievable bad luck to the point of utter absurdity. Someone wandering into one of those areas could trip over their suddenly untied shoelaces and drop their gun, which would then simultaneously explode and fire, hitting one of their teammates and crippling the person who dropped it. Or they might just end up with ink in their pockets from a burst pen. It was impossible to predict what would happen, though the effect seemed to get worse with both the longer that the field was active and the longer one stood in it.
Gordon had been trying to experiment with and control the effects, but the only thing he’d really managed to nail down for it was that it would not affect him no matter what. He could stand in the middle of the field at its highest power and be just fine. Other than that, he couldn’t control what it would do, who it would affect (everyone inside its area) or anything like that.
But hey, at least a power that he could control pretty well was his new ability to project a small, light blue energy beam from his hand. The beam served two functions. First, it was concussive, though the damage that it did was fairly minimal to start with. However, every subsequent hit on the same target without an intervening target was somewhat stronger. And its second purpose was that every time it hit a target, Gordon could more accurately anticipate their next move. After landing four or five solid hits, the boy could basically predict what his opponent was going to do almost as accurately as Athena did. The way he described it was as a sort of whispering in his head that was telling him what they were about to do, which got louder and ‘clearer’ with each subsequent strike from that beam.
The point was, they had all gotten a few interesting powers while we were separated. But none of them had actually helped the group do that well against Athena. And they probably wouldn’t help that much against Kushiel if it came right down to it either.
“Actually,” Roxa started while rubbing the back of her neck, “I was wondering. You told us about that whole genetic experiment thing that gave you your immortality and powers. But you said you guys all got powers to some extent or another. What about Kushiel? What did she end up with? And please say it’s something like, ‘she makes bunnies fluffier and cuddlier the longer she holds them.’”
There was a faint smile on the Seosten woman’s face as she shook her head. “I’m afraid not.” She glanced to me, gesturing as if to say that I should go ahead.
“Yeah,” I started. “I asked her the same thing awhile ago. Basically, anytime anyone does any damage to her, she can deal that same damage to any number of people within her line of sight over the next few seconds. And she can set it preemptively. In other words, if she knows she’s about to be hurt within the next… what did you say?” I asked Athena.
“Roughly thirty seconds or so,” she quietly answered.
“Roughly thirty seconds, then.” I nodded. “If she knows she’s about to be hurt within the next thirty seconds or so, she can preemptively set that damage to be added to as many people as she wants to look at in that thirty seconds.”
“Which she tends to use at the start of any confrontation,” Athena informed us flatly. “So that any damage a person does is reflected back to them. Thus forcing any opponent she faces to injure or even kill themselves in the act of fighting her.”
“Well,” Gordon announced dryly and simply, “that’s a pain in the ass.”
Nodding, I gestured to the boy. “That’s basically what I said when she told us before.”
“Except with a lot more swearing and stuff,” Tabbris put in then, choosing to look up from her book at that point. “Didn’t you say that whoever’s idea it was to give her that power could just-”
“I don’t think we need to get that specific,” I interrupted, flushing a little bit. “The point is, it’s bad. The only way I can see to deal with her is to hit her once without her having any idea that she’s in any danger at all.”
Sands rolled her eyes at that, muttering, “Right, so nothing hard or complicated at all. Got it.”
Athena nodded once. “It will not be simple or easy, that is true. That is why you must train more. So come, that has been enough of a break.”
With that, the Seosten woman produced a small handheld remote. As she pressed the button on it, holographic images of Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz appeared in the same positions they had been in when the sparring match had begun.
“We will take this step by step,” Athena informed all of us. “I will show you where your mistakes were made, and how you might have improved. Then we will run it again.”
“What’re we gonna do,” Sands asked, “keep running it until we actually manage to hurt you?”
Athena gave her a smile. “I am sorry, but no. We will not be waiting until you manage to win.
“After all, I may be immortal, but not even I have that kind of time.”
“I miss Scout so much,” Sands murmured as the two of us stood on the back porch of what had become our collective group house. It was a couple days after that sparring match. Jokai and Dries had yet to arrive, though we were in fairly regular contact with them, and it would only take a few more days for them to show up. Which was good, because (among other obvious reasons), Jazz was getting antsy about Jokai being out there instead of safe inside here. Once the ship was actually close enough, they would be able to teleport it the rest of the way into a sort of garage/hangar area that had been set up for all of the Aelaestiam ships, which was protected the same way that the rest of the station was.
Wincing at the other girl’s words, I nodded slowly before taking a bite of the fruit in my hand. It was from one of the trees in the station’s expansive orchard. It was shaped and mostly tasted like a peach crossed with a watermelon.
“I miss everyone back on Earth,” I murmured after swallowing the bite. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, to be separated from your twin for so long. I mean, you guys haven’t really been apart like this since… forever right?”
Sands nodded. “Basically, yeah. I mean… finding our mom, that’s pretty much the best thing that’s ever happened. I just wish Scout was here too. I wish she was here and…” There was a brief hesitation, and the other girl looked guilty.
“And you miss your dad,” I supplied simply, glancing over to her. “It’s okay, you know. You don’t have to feel guilty about that. He might’ve done some shitty things, but he’s still your dad.”
Looking torn, Sands shook her head. “But everything he did… the whole rebellion might have actually succeeded if it wasn’t for him. At least, it would’ve stayed underground for a lot longer, and been able to pick up more steam before it was outed. A lot more people might be alive.”
“You might be right,” I agreed. “But then again, if things hadn’t happened exactly the way that they did, I probably wouldn’t exist. Hell, you might not exist. Everything would be different.” Shrugging, I offered a soft, “There’s good and bad things from basically every action, if you go far enough. And again, no matter what he did, he’s still your father. He was basically your only parent for the longest time, while you thought your mom was dead. Missing him now, after all that… it makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I wanna punch him,” she declared. “And then hug him. Then punch him again. Basically, I want to keep alternating between punching and hugging him, and I can’t decide which one to end with.”
Smiling despite myself, I put an arm around the other girl, giving her a little side hug. “Well, we’ll just have to make sure you get the chance.”
I saw her blush as she looked away, her voice a quiet murmur, “I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Same back to you,” I replied. “Now let’s just hope we can get Sariel away from Kushiel, so she can be safe too. Then we can all go back to Earth and deal with Manakel.”
Pausing, she looked over to me. “You think Avalon and Shiori are okay?”
The question made me grimace a bit. “I hope so. Shiori… I think she’ll be putting her focus on Columbus. At least, I hope she is. He’s probably in a pretty bad spot, after being enslaved by Charmeine. I can’t…” Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I finished, “I can’t imagine being in his position. I just… if Tabbris hadn’t been a part of me for so long, I would have been a Seosten slave.”
Sands glanced over to me then, before looking past me and through the sliding glass door that led inside. I looked that way as well, toward the living room where Tabbris lay curled up in an armchair, sound asleep with the rapidly changing light from the television illuminating her form.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the other girl started, “but how much do you think she’s actually affected your thinking?” Before I could say anything to that, she quickly added, “I don’t mean purposefully or maliciously or anything. No. I mean… subconsciously, just from being in your head for so long. Even if she tried to avoid it as much as she could, there has to have been some bleedover, right? I mean, how different would your personality be if she wasn’t there?”
The question made me wince, biting my lip. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But this is who I am. It’s like asking how different someone would be if their dad didn’t die when they were little, or if they never started reading their favorite author, which got them interested in writing, or if a policeman never saved their life, making them want to be a cop themselves when they grew up. Maybe she influenced me. But either way, this is who I am. And I wouldn’t change it.”
Smiling a little at that, Sands gave me a squeeze. “Yeah,” she agreed, “I guess I like you the way you are too.”
“So,” I started, giving her a look, “try to stop worrying about how your father’s actions might’ve changed things? Focus on the future, not the past. Getting mired down in the past and what people should have done or didn’t do, that won’t actually accomplish a thing.”
She nodded slowly. “I’ll try. I mean hell, if things hadn’t played out exactly the way they did, I might not have ever seen my mom again.
“And I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.”
“So you were like, a dealer in Vegas?”
It was three days after my conversation with Sands, and just over a week since we had met up with everyone. At the moment, Roxa, Haiden, and I were sitting in one of several cafeterias on the station, just after lunch. The place was pretty cool. It was set up to look like a patio area overlooking some kind of super high tech alien city, with hovercars and a lot of these blue figures with jetpacks everywhere. The architecture was decidedly un-earthlike, with buildings that were very egg-shaped. And cones. There were a lot of cones.
Everyone else had gone to see some kind of show that was being put on in one of the theaters. Except Tabbris. My partner was possessing me once more, since she had needed a break from all the stimulus. She was a lot better about being out on her own than she had been back when Athena first brought us here. But she still needed a break now and then, and she was just plain more comfortable while possessing me.
Leaning back in his seat, Haiden nodded in response to Roxa’s question. “Yup. It was while Sariel and I were… well, we called it our honeymoon phase, but I don’t think that ever really ended. It was before the twins came along.”
“But that place is like… super anti-Heretic,” the other girl pointed out. She glanced to me. “The place is all run by Alters. Three families: one of witches and sorcerers, one of vampires, and one of Oni. They keep the place under their control, and that means no Heretics.”
Haiden nodded once more. “Pretty much. But uh, let’s just say I’ve got a special relationship with one of the witch families there.” He paused then, taking a sip of his drink, some kind of alcohol that Athena had introduced him to. “There was a little girl, back before I met Sariel. I… “ He swallowed, and it had nothing to do with the drink. “It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that she was a witch, and I let her go. I couldn’t kill a kid. The family came to me, said they owed me a favor. So, when we needed a place where there wouldn’t be any Heretics, Vegas seemed like the natural place.”
“So why did you guys ever leave?” I asked, curious about what could have happened.
The question made him grimace. “That,” the man started, “is a long story. But what it comes down to is–” Abruptly, he stopped, frowning.
“Haiden?” I started. “Mr. Moon? What’s wrong?”
The man slowly stood up, shaking his head. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “I feel… strange. I think there’s a—” He stopped once more, doubling over that time. As he did so, some kind of weird energy blob appeared nearby, quickly resolving itself into a humanoid figure.
My weapon was in my hand, even as Gidget, who had been resting nearby, hopped to her feet and moved near Roxa. I took a quick step forward, then stopped abruptly, my mouth falling open in shock when a second figure appeared even as the first finished resolving itself into a recognizable form.
Actually, they were both very recognizable forms.
“Hey!” Vanessa and Tristan announced together as one.