Wyatt Rendell

Patreon Snippets 16 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following are the Heretical Edge edition of the next requested Patreon Snippets from our $10+ donators. In this case, there are only two snippets, but one is 4500 words long, so… less snippet and more ‘about a chapter and a half.’ Hope you all enjoy them, and thanks for everything!

 

Denuvus and Trice

“How is our new guest settling into his quarters?” Denuvus casually asked her young assistant. The two of them stood in a fairly dark room, with a holographic globe of the Earth hovering in the air to take up most of the space within, serving as the only source of illumination. Her fingers played over part of the globe, turning it idly while she watched a line of energy that drew itself up and away, off into what would be open space.  

“The bogeyman is fed and watered,” Trice retorted. The green-haired young Heretic folded his arms while adding, “You gonna tell Miles and his buddies that we’ve got his dad?” They had used the distraction of the assault on Fossor’s compound to snatch up the man. 

“Not just yet,” came the quiet, distracted answer as Denuvus leaned in close to examine the glowing line. “We’ll keep him safe and taken care of for now. Miles and his friends could still be of some use very soon. When the time comes, we’ll give them a target and allow them to rescue Caleb while taking care of a… situation for me. No sense in throwing away perfectly good weapons before making use of them, after all.”

“That guy finds out you’ve had his father and didn’t tell him, he’s gonna be pissed,” Trice noted. 

Denuvus’s response was a dry, “The quiver of my fear at the prospect of such a thing shall shake the foundations of the Earth. Yet I soldier on through grim determination.”

With that, the dark-haired woman raised a hand to point. “Come here and look at this, see what we’re about to do.” 

Frowning, Trice stepped that way, staring at the line. “What the hell am I looking at?” 

“This,” the woman informed him, “is the trail of the magic that our friend Fossor used to send Miss Chambers away from this world and into the future. But by the nature of time travel magic, it can be… twisted, if one acts quickly enough at the exact moment of its casting.” 

Trice gave her a look. “Is that what you were doing while I had to drag the bogeyman dude out of there? Messing with the time travel spell?” 

“I want Miss Chambers to end up where and when I need her,” came the casual reply. “Not where and when Fossor wants her to be. I simply gave the spell a slight… wait.” The calm, confident reply turned faintly, yet noticeably uncertain that last word. 

“Wait?” Trice echoed, glancing at her. “What?” 

“This,” Denuvus informed him while indicating one flickering part of the line, “is where I interfered to send the Chambers girl where I want her.” Slowly, her finger moved up to a different flickering point further along. “This is someone else.” 

“Someone else?” Trice blinked that way. “What do you mean ‘someone else?’ I thought you said you’d have to interfere with the time travel spell at practically the exact moment it was cast.” 

“Yes,” the woman confirmed, “you would. You would also have to be an incredibly gifted and powerful mage to adjust a time spell that had already been adjusted once.” 

Trice looked to the line, then back to her. “So what does that mean?” 

For once, Denuvus looked slightly annoyed, and not entirely in control of the situation. “It means,” she managed through somewhat gritted teeth, “that someone else took control of the spell to move Miss Chambers beyond where Fossor or myself wanted her.” 

“But who the hell could do that?” Trice demanded. “Who was strong enough and knew to do it at that exact time?” 

“That,” came the slow, deliberate response, “is a very good question.” 

 

***********

 

Tabbris and Lincoln

 

“Are you certain this is something you want to do right now?” Sariel Moon asked quietly as she and Lincoln Chambers watched one another in a dimly lit room, the two of them only barely visible to one another through a couple of faintly flickering candles positioned at opposite ends of the table that sat between the pair. “Unlocking your Chimera gift is something you can’t ever do again. Not like this. If you would rather wait until your older daughter is here…”  

“I need to help.” The man’s voice was rough. He’d been through a lot in a short time. They had been so close to getting both Felicity and Joselyn back, and then that was snatched away. Not to mention his discovery that both of his own parents had disappeared, with no one having any idea where they were. There’d been worry for a time that Crossroads or Eden’s Garden had grabbed them, but neither of those groups had made a peep about it. The entire point of taking them would have been as leverage against Felicity and Joselyn, and yet there was nothing. And none of the whispers that the Atherby clan and rebellion at large had heard from those sympathetic to their cause within the Heretic organizations had heard anything about it. 

Maria and Arthur Chambers had simply vanished. Which, given the kind of things Lincoln now knew were out there, made him very anxious about what had prompted such a disappearance. Between that and the thing with Felicity and Joselyn, he hadn’t been getting much sleep. 

With a low sigh, he continued. “I can’t just sit around. I need to help. Felicity–she has a way of getting in trouble. Between her and Jos, and my parents going missing, I can’t just sit here. I’ve been learning a lot about–” He coughed, forcing the word out, “–magic, and believe me, that’s still a thing I can’t believe I’m talking about seriously. I’ve been learning a lot about that, but it’s not enough. I can’t become a normal Heretic–which is also a phrase I can’t believe I’m using– because of my… whatever, my blood, my mutation. I can’t become a Natural Heretic like any of these other humans. I can’t just pick someone to bond to and naturally grow their… gifts.” 

Sariel nodded once. Lincoln was a Chimera-blood, so any bonding he underwent would be temporary. He’d have their gifts, quicker than a normal Natural Heretic would. Yet unlike a normal Natural Heretic, he would go back to normal in a few hours or days, depending on how much genetic material was used to bond him in the first place. 

“As I said,” she quietly reminded the man, “once you unlock your Chimera gift the first time, you will be able to temporarily form a bond with any Alter whose bodily fluids you come into contact with, even through your own skin. Simply touching the blood or saliva of an Alter will create the temporary bonding.” There was a brief pause before the Seosten woman added, “I’m told that the Atherby clan has their own… traditions around the bonding process. A ritual, of sorts, that they have performed for generations. I believe they would greatly appreciate your participation.”

“These people are Joselyn’s family,” Lincoln murmured quietly, watching one of the flickering candles briefly before turning his attention back to the woman. “And they’ve taken care of Felicity and me for a long time now. There’s no way I’d refuse their traditions. Not after everything they’ve done, everything they’ve risked… everything they are. So yes, I’m up for it.” Again, there was a scratchiness to his voice, emotion lurking just under the surface of his words. The Atherbys had done more for his family and the people he loved than Lincoln himself would ever understand. He knew that. And he would be damned before he refused any invitation to participate in their traditions. They were Joselyn’s people, her family, even if that fact had been stripped out of her memory when he’d known her. They were important to her, so they were important to him. The things they did and cared about were important to him. 

Sariel offered him a faint smile that was barely visible, as the shadows and candlelight dueled with one another across her face. “I’m glad our daughter has you for a father, Lincoln Chambers. Which reminds me… as far as your first bonding goes, Tabbris will be very upset if you don’t choose her.” 

“It was always going to be her,” Lincoln assured the woman. “Like you said, she’s our daughter. The kid slept with me at night before I even knew she existed, and she’s been protecting her sister since… since she came to Earth, since before she could even talk. How could I choose anyone else? 

“Besides, between you and me, pissing that kid off feels like a bad idea.” 

*******

The next evening, shortly before sundown, Gabriel Prosser stood at the edge of the lake with his hand outstretched over the water. His eyes were closed as he murmured a quiet yet long spell. The sense of power that came off of the man, power that seemed to infuse itself into the lake, was intense enough to make the hair on the back of any onlooker’s neck stand up. And there were a lot of onlookers. Every single one of the Atherby camp inhabitants who weren’t very young children, up at the Fusion school, or off on one mission or another had shown up. There were dozens of them, all standing in a group as they watched their leader work a spell that most of them knew by heart, given how important it had always been to their people. Some were even murmuring the words to the spell under their breath along with the man, almost akin to a prayer.

Between Prosser and the other Atherby people stood three figures. Sariel, Lincoln and Tabbris. The latter two wore white robes with gold trim, the hoods raised over their heads. Across the back of the robes, also in gold, was the design of a sword held high in a clenched hand. A sword that many of the clan still recognized as the blade of their original king, Arthur Pendragon. 

At Tabbris’ feet sat what looked like an ordinary, small goldfish bowl with a thin glowing forcefield across the top. It was far more than that, however. The interior of the bowl was as large as a decent sized bedroom, and was full of hundreds of bright, colorful fish of all kinds. There was an entire habitat inside that deceptively small-looking fishbowl, and Tabbris could adjust both the sides and top to look at any part of it at any time. They were her fish, the bowl a gift from her mother and its occupants gifts from… well, everyone. 

If Tabbris couldn’t have Flick here for this moment, she’d damn sure wanted her fish friends to be there. 

As he finished speaking the words of the spell, Gabriel grew silent. The rest of the clan followed suit. For a few precious seconds, the only audible sound was that of the waves gently lapping against the pebble-covered beach. There was stillness, a sort of magical peace. The sun had begun to set by that point, sending its red-orange glow across the water. Still, no one broke the silence. 

Finally, the tall dark-skinned man spoke while still facing the lake, his voice filling the air. “In the times of the king, those who were chosen as his knights, his select warriors, were gifted with a strength beyond their own. They were gifted with augmented strengths and powers, raising them above what they could achieve on their own. Arthur’s Dragon gifts allowed him to make others stronger. The man himself, our founder, did not simply protect his people. He enabled them to protect themselves. Our forebears, the people of Camelot, stood against the tyranny and darkness that have threatened this world for millennia. And their cause has not been forgotten. Their beliefs, their strengths, their ideals have not been forgotten. 

He turned then, facing the others while the lake behind him was lit by the fading sun. “In the absence of Arthur, we lack the ability to pass on the enhancement that he was capable of. Yet we are not without strengths of our own. As is the tradition of our people, those humans who join us are bonded to their Natural partner not only once, but twice.” 

Lincoln, of course, had been told about this ahead of time. As had Tabbris. They wouldn’t have ambushed the pair with such a revelation. Still, hearing it out loud like this made the man blink, his hand reaching down to touch the shoulder of his younger daughter. She leaned into it, and the two returned their attention to the man who was still speaking. 

“Our second-bonding,” Gabriel continued, “must be with the same species as the first, but need not be the same individual. A Natural Heretic who is bonded a second time this way will find their gifts growing faster and stronger than before. It is not the same as Arthur’s Dragon-boost, but it is our method of preserving that same idea. A way of giving our people any advantage we can, against the forces assembled against us.” 

As those words trailed off, the man focused on the trio directly in front of him. A slight smile touched his face. “Here we have Lincoln Chambers, husband of our true and rightful leader, Joselyn.” 

He spoke the name simply. Yet the moment the name of Lincoln’s wife left Gabriel’s mouth, every member of the Atherby clan spoke three words together. “True and free!” The words came instantly, filling the air with the force of thunder. True and free, it was a motto that had existed in one form or another since as long as almost any involved with the clan could remember. Yet that meaning had been greatly expanded, embraced, and exhibited by Joselyn herself in her time as the leader of the rebellion that the Atherby clan had been attached to. True and free. Their lives, their goals, their struggles, could be summed up, in large part, by those words. They fought for the truth and they fought for freedom. Freedom to live. Freedom to exist. 

“True and free,” Gabriel echoed in quiet agreement. It was a motto that had remained dormant for a long time, since the loss of Joselyn and her children. Invoking it now, at the moment when one of her husbands was about to go through the bonding process, felt right. It was hope, despite all the setbacks. More than that, it was a statement of determination, a declaration that Joselyn herself, and her youngest daughter, would both be free. 

Once those words had echoed across the lake, the man continued. “Lincoln is special, not only because of his family, but because he himself is quite the accomplished journalist. He is a man who seeks truth, and delivers it to others. Could any of us who know Joselyn be surprised that she would find a man like him?” He was smiling faintly, head shaking a little before adding, “And Lincoln here is also of the Chimera-blood.” That pronouncement made a few people’s eyes widen in surprise, as Gabriel went on. “The bonding process, first or second, will not be permanent. Yet it will unlock his gift to bond with any Alter much more easily. And Lincoln has agreed to undergo the second bonding as well, in keeping with our traditions. For that, we will now prepare.” 

As soon as those words were spoken, the group of Atherby clanspeople began to move. They passed Lincoln, Sariel, and Tabbris, a few offering quiet words of encouragement and gratitude. Over the next few minutes, the people spread out around the edge of the lake, putting enough distance between themselves that would reach all the way around and come back around the other side. 

“What happens now?” The question came not from any of the trio who stood there waiting, but from Abigail Fellows. Joselyn’s eldest daughter stood beside her twin brother and her father, the three having just been revealed when the rest of the clan moved to position themselves around the lake. They would not have missed this for anything. Not considering how important Lincoln was to Joselyn. 

Deveron straightened to his full height. The fact that he now looked like he was in his twenties rather than his teens still sometimes threw everyone who primarily knew him from his two years of deception at Crossroads, but they were gradually growing accustomed to it. “Now,” he answered in a soft voice, “they take the walk.” 

Wyatt, his eyes heavy and dark given the effort he was going through to find a way of bringing his younger sister back from the future, managed to mutter, “Traditions are a bad idea. People take advantage of traditions. Poison the ritual, invoke obscure rules to their benefit, create an ambush. Traditions are routines. Routines are stupid.” 

Deveron glanced to his son, casually replying, “See those birds out there?” Raising his hand, he pointed to a flock of dark crows that were gliding across the trees in a slow circle around the lake. “A few of our Seosten friends are using them to keep an eye on things. We also have guards in the woods, a few emergency teleports set up just in case, and I put a few whispers out that the Atherbys were doing something special for Lincoln near Laramie Falls, just in case.” 

There was a brief pause from Wyatt, before the gangly man gave a somewhat reluctant nod. “That’ll have to do, I suppose.” He knew himself. He knew he was anxious because of Flick, angry that he hadn’t been able to find her in time and now couldn’t drag her backwards through time to bring her back. He was running himself ragged and barely listened to anyone’s attempts to get him to rest at all. Intellectually, Wyatt knew there were few places on the planet safer for this than the Atherby camp. But that didn’t stop his imagination from running wild with all the possibilities of what could go wrong.

Meanwhile, Gabriel had turned to face Lincoln and the other two now that the rest of the clan had assumed their positions. He offered all three of them a smile, as well as his hand. In it was a small, ornate-looking dagger with a red hilt and intricate runes along the slightly curved blade. 

Seeing the blade, Sariel promptly asked, “Are you sure that’s not too big? It’s–” 

“Mama,” Tabbris interrupted while picking up her fishbowl. She held for her mother to take. “It’s okay. I can do it.” With her pets safely held by her mom, she turned back to Gabriel, her small hand rising to take the offered handle. Holding the dagger tightly, she recited the words she had been taught earlier that day. “Sire of Atherby, I am to share with one.”

“Do you share by your own will and choice?” Gabriel recited. 

Her head gave a short nod as she lowered the dagger to hold at her side. “It is a gift, given of choice.” 

“Who holds your left, and who your right?” The man’s next question came. “Who receives your left and right?” 

In some situations, a donating Alter would be attended by two, such as both parents, or siblings. In this case, only Sariel spoke. “I hold her left. I hold her right.” Tradition, of course, meant that she did not say that she held her left and right, but rather, that she spoke the words exactly as they would have been spoken had there been two people. 

Lincoln took his cue to speak then. “I receive her left and right. I accept and welcome the gift as it is offered, by one I trust with my all.” 

“Begin the walk,” Gabriel intoned, stepping back and raising a hand to indicate that they should move to the left. “And when you complete the circle, know that you will both return to this camp as more than you are now. Your bond will never be broken, however far you may part. Leave as halves, and return as whole.” 

As he finished speaking, Sariel took up the next part. “I wait to receive you both, as one.” 

With those words, Lincoln moved forward while taking Tabbris by the hand. Together, they passed Gabriel, stepping right out onto the water. As they did so, the spell that the Atherby leader had cast took effect, turning the liquid firm, yet slightly springy under their feet. 

Turning left, the two began to walk together. Tabbris’ voice was quiet. “I miss Flick.” 

Eyes closing briefly, Lincoln gave a short nod as he squeezed the young girl’s hand. “Me too, Cookie Bear.” He took a breath, forcing himself to continue. “But you know her. You know how she is, who she is. She’ll be okay and we’ll pull her back here. Or she’ll find someone in the future to… to send her back here. But we have to make sure here is as good as possible. And be ready the next time she needs help. Right?” He managed the last word through a tight throat. Keeping it together for Tabbris’s sake was actually helping Lincoln not fall apart entirely. His parents, his wife, his eldest daughter, all of them missing with no idea where or how they were doing. But he had his younger daughter here, and he would be damned before he lost it in front of her. 

By that point, the two had reached the first of the assembled figures who lined the entire length of the lake. Standing on the beach while Lincoln and Tabbris stayed atop the water, Misty (the young Natural Ogre Heretic) extended a hand with a wooden bowl held in her palm. “What do you give? What do you accept?” 

“I give of myself to this clan,” Tabbris recited, her voice cracking just a little bit as she was obviously still thinking of Flick. “I accept this bond.” 

Lincoln, squeezing the girl’s hand slightly before releasing it, spoke the next words. “I give of myself to this clan. I accept this bond.” 

“I, Misty Proell, accept this bond,” came the response, before she murmured a single word of a spell and offered the bowl forward. The bit of magic she had instilled into it made a few runes on the side of the bowl glow briefly. 

Tabbris, taking a breath, carefully raised the dagger and touched it against her forehead, then to her lips, then raised her free arm. A small opening in white robe revealed the pale skin of her arm beneath, where she touched the edge of the blade and drew a very slight cut. Blood lined the blade, before it glowed briefly and the wound healed. There was no hiss or any other reaction from the Seosten girl, given the way the dagger had been enchanted. It immediately healed any damage it did and caused no pain. Fairly useless as a weapon. But then, it wasn’t meant as one.

With a very slightly shaking hand, Tabbris touched the blade to the offered bowl. Immediately, that very small amount of blood was magically pulled from the dagger. Once she did, the bowl vanished from Misty’s hand, even as she nodded for them to continue. 

Next was Misty’s older brother Duncan, who controlled metal using his Natural Ullmis Heretic gifts. He held the bowl that his sister had held moments earlier, as it passed magically down the line to him. In a grave, serious voice, he spoke the same words she had, and they gave the same responses, and he spoke the one-word spell to add a bit of his own power to the bowl. At the proper time, when the bond was accepted, Tabbris touched the blade to her arm once more, drawing another painless, rapidly-healed cut to take another small bit of blood.

The bowl vanished from Duncan’s hand, and they moved on down the line. One by one, working their way around to the midway point on the far side of the lake from where they had started, Tabbris put more of her blood into the bowl. It was only a small amount each time, a few drops. But it added up gradually, as each member of the clan voiced their acceptance of this bonding.

Finally, they reached that halfway point as the sun finished setting, leaving the lake fairly dark. A woman stood there, clad in blue and black form-fitting armor with the white emblem of a griffin in flight across the chest. Guinevere of Camelot held the bowl, which had been about a quarter filled by that point. Rather than repeating the same thing the others up to that point had, however, she instead intoned, “In the name of the King of Kings, your bond is accepted. Your alliance is your strength, as it is all of Camelot and those who have descended from it, still holding those ideals. Let it bring forth your power, so you in turn may stand against those who would see freedom broken.” With those words, the woman spoke the same empowering spell the others had, followed by another two words. Those words triggered the power in the bowl that had been built up by everyone thus far, sending an electric crackle through the blood before she held it out to Tabbris. 

The young Seosten took the bowl, staring at the empowered blood within it. Blood that had been in her, and was now charged by magic from each of the people along the first half of the lake. Empowered so that it would be far more likely to ‘take’ and create a Natural Heretic on the first try. 

“My blood,” she announced quietly before holding the bowl out with both hands toward Lincoln. “I give it freely.” 

“I accept it freely,” Lincoln confirmed, taking the bowl gently before breathing out. They had assured him that the bowl would enchant the blood so that it tasted like nothing, but it still took some effort to get past the thought of what he was doing. Finally, the man raised the bowl to his lips and drank it down as quickly as possible. Once the bowl was empty, he bowed his head and returned it to Tabbris, who in turn returned it to Guinevere. 

Gwen, in turn, took the bowl and spoke once more. “Your gifts are received. And as you make your way back to where you began, they will be strengthened. Go, and see your bond reach beyond what you imagined.” 

For his part, Lincoln felt… stronger. He felt as though years had lifted from his body. He’d been in decent shape anyway, but his age was getting to him here and there through various dull aches. Yet all those had disappeared so suddenly their absence was immediately obvious. He abruptly felt like he was twenty years old again, though there were no physical changes. He was lighter on his feet, his hearing was better, sharper. His eyesight too, had been improved. Taking on, even temporarily, the Seosten powerset had essentially made him the best possible physical version of himself. And that was just the passive enhancements. Was this what it felt like to be a Seosten all the time? 

Turning, he and Tabbris moved to the next person along the shore of the lake. Vanessa. The blonde half-Seosten smiled at her younger sister as the wooden bowl appeared in her hands. “Your bond is unbroken,” she spoke carefully, “Let it serve those in need. Let it protect you, yours, and those who stand before evil. Let it reach from sea to stars.” With those last words, Vanessa first crouched to touch the bowl to the water, then stood and raised it toward the dark sky, as though offering it to the very stars she had just mentioned. Finally, she lowered it, extending the bowl not toward Tabbris, but to Lincoln while speaking a word of empowering magic. 

He, in turn, took the blade that Tabbris offered him, cutting a bit of his own exposed arm before allowing the blood to drip into the bowl. Then they moved on. There were no words for Tabbris and Lincoln to speak at this point. Their duty was to remain solemn and quiet, hearing the words being spoken to them. 

Tristan was next, followed by Haiden. Each spoke the same words Vanessa had, performing the same actions, touching the bowl to the water, then raising it to the sky before offering the bowl to them as they spoke the word to add their power to the spell on the bowl. Throughout that, Lincoln and Tabbris took turns cutting themselves, each mixing their blood in the bowl until they returned to the spot where they had begun. 

Finally, they stood in front of Gabriel once more. The man himself held the bowl with their mixed blood, offering them a soft smile. “Your journey has begun,” he informed the pair. “You have been bonded once, and will soon be twice. You will never be truly apart, despite any distance between you. You are forever linked through these bonds. Bonds that do not hold you, but instead free you. The clan of Atherby, descendants of Arthur’s Camelot, welcome you to our fold. We are as one.” 

With that, he spoke the words that triggered the bonding spell, sending another electric crackle through the blood before offering it to the man across from him. 

Again, Lincoln drank from the bowl. Not all of it, only about half. Then he lowered the bowl and held it to his younger daughter. “We are as one.” 

Tabbris, in turn, drank from the bowl to finish the contents before quietly echoing, “We are as one.” 

She and Lincoln both turned to face one another then, linking hands together while Gabriel put one hand on each of them (on Lincoln’s back and Tabbris’s head). The Atherby leader spoke out loud, while the rest of the clan approached from their positions, walking across the enchanted lake. “We are as one. You are bonded, linked for all of your days.” 

Together, Gabriel and all of those who had gathered to witness the event spoke seven intricate words. They were Mayan in origin, the spell a gift from those people. As the spell was triggered, the blood that had been in the bowl (and was now in both Lincoln and Tabbris) triggered. Both felt a rush of power, a burst of nearly electric shock that made them jump. The second bonding, meant to strengthen the first and give the Natural Heretic a boost to their gifts, had been successful. 

Several long seconds of silence followed, before Tabbris hesitantly and quietly asked, “Dad… are you okay?” 

Lincoln, in turn, nodded. “Yeah,” he murmured before looking back up. “It feels pretty… Tabbris?” 

“What?” Only belatedly did the young girl realize that the man wasn’t the only one staring at her. So were Gabriel, the other assorted clanspeople, her mother, siblings, everyone. “What? What? I don’t–” In mid-sentence, Tabbris turned to look to the side, only to stop short. A single brightly glowing wing made of solid-light energy was there. A glance to her right revealed the same on that side. A pair of energy wings had sprouted from her back at the moment the second bonding boost had been triggered. 

“Your father…” Sariel managed. 

“He’s one of the archangels.”

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Summer Epilogue 21 – Avalon and the Victors (Summer Epilogue End)

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A/N – This is the second chapter posted today. If you have not read the previous one, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above to check that one out first. 

Through the light, yet steady drizzle of rain, a red, nondescript SUV pulled into the parking lot of an old motel several blocks from the beach in Panama City, Florida. The vehicle rolled to a stop just inside the driveway, as a tall man in a raincoat emerged from under the nearby stairwell. He crossed to the driver’s side as the window came down. Several words were exchanged back and forth before the man pointed to a spot. It was the only empty parking space on that side of the motel, sandwiched between two heavy-duty vans with delivery service decals. 

The driver’s side window went up once more, and the SUV pulled up to that spot. There was a brief moment of silence as the engine shut off, save for the patter of rain against the vehicles and the roof of the motel. Then the doors all opened at once. Four pairs of feet hit the ground almost as one, as Avalon Sinclaire and Flick Chambers stepped from the back, and Seller and Abigail Fellows emerged from the front. Wyatt Rendell, Miranda Wallbern and Gordon Kuhn emerged from the back a moment later to join the others, and all moved to the rear of the SUV. 

The seven came out to stand directly in the rain, but no rain actually seemed to hit them. Avalon gave a glance toward the water-repellent enchantment badge clipped to her jacket. Wyatt had passed them out to each of them just before they got out of the vehicle. It made the rain divert about an inch around them as they stood watching the big man from before approach.

His name was Croc, one of the Unset. Avalon had seen him around before she was forced to leave Garden a year earlier, though she hadn’t really spoken to him, of course. Flick had had more interaction with the man in her own short visit there than Avalon ever had. 

“Glad you could make it,” the large Native American man rumbled as he stopped in front of them. He hadn’t bothered with any kind of spell to keep the rain off, simply allowing it to run off his short-cut black hair and enormous arms. “Hope the runaround wasn’t too much.” 

Realizing after a second that the others were waiting for her to respond, Avalon cleared her throat, trying to ignore the sudden lump that had formed in it. Being here now, coming to see the leaders of the organization that she had loved so much before they had all turned their backs on her when she needed them the most, it brought up… feelings. Feelings that were best left bashed over the head with a shovel and buried in an unmarked grave. 

“Five false destinations in two different cities,” she managed after another second of collecting herself. “Not too bad. Wyatt thinks you should’ve gone with at least eight and three to be safe.” 

Wyatt himself gave a short nod. “And one of the spots before this should have seemed to be the right one. You could have had us get out of the vehicle, even go as far as meeting body doubles or illusions just to weed out any possible pursuit or deception.” Though his words were the same as he’d normally say, Avalon noticed the man actually seemed a little more… flushed than normal. He wasn’t really looking directly at Croc, but more toward the man’s abs. 

With a wink, Croc replied, “What makes you think that’s not what this is?” His tone was a bit teasing, making Wyatt flush before he looked back to Avalon. “Ah, do you mind if I ask, is it Avalon you prefer, or Miss Sinclaire? Or ahh, your old name? I’m not quite sure what you–” 

“Avalon,” she quickly put in after giving Flick a brief glance. The blonde girl had smiled reassuringly but silently at her, making Avalon’s own heart flip over before she forced herself to focus on the man in front of her. “Avalon’s fine. That’s my name.” She didn’t mind Hannah, honestly. Hannah Aken was also who she was, as she had so defiantly informed her father in his last few moments alive. That was a part of her that she wouldn’t let others take away. But to keep things relatively simple, Avalon would be fine. Besides, it was as close to a Garden name as she had ever received, and she wanted the Victors to use it. 

Also, it was the name Gaia had given her, and she was damn sure going to hold onto that now.

“Avalon it is, then,” Croc agreed. “And Flick, how’re you doing?” He nodded to the other girl before looking over to the one next to her. “It’s Miranda, isn’t it?” Receiving a nod, the man’s attention moved to the woman at the back. “Abigail,” he greeted her easily, getting a small smile in return.

Finally, the man looked to the remaining member of their entourage. “Sorry, you I don’t know.”  

“This is Gordon,” Avalon informed him, gesturing to the boy. “He’s here to ask the Victors something too. You know, while they’re feeling talkative.” She said the last bit with just a hint of the vast reservoir of resentment and anger that she felt toward that group. It was enough to make Croc raise an eyebrow, his gaze seeming to give her another thorough once over. 

Abigail spoke up then. “We’re all here to see what the Victors have to say. Some of us have questions. Others simply want to judge just how honest and forthright your leaders are ready to be.” Her voice was far more diplomatic than Avalon’s, though hers too had a bit of an edge to it.

Giving a slight nod, Croc turned to walk. “I’ll take you to them. They’re waiting in the dining room around the side.” With that, he led the seven through the rain. On the way, they saw a dozen more people standing around. There were two near a bus stop, a couple walking past with a dog, several more across the street seemingly arguing over a map, and more. Though they appeared to be civilians, Avalon knew better. They were Heretics, Eden’s Garden people who were watching for any kind of attack from their own former friends. Where the rest of what had to be hundreds of people were, she wasn’t certain. Probably still spread out up and down the Florida coastline to avoid drawing attention. And these, the ones they could see, were probably only the tip of the iceberg in the area. The Victors would be heavily protected. 

While she was considering all of that, Croc led them to a door with an unlit open sign. “They’ve cleaned the place out so you can have some privacy, but there’s food waiting.” With a small smile, the big guy opened the door while looking to them with a quietly murmured, “Turns out they really like having a chance to eat at actual Bystander restaurants.” 

Letting out the breath that she hadn’t even noticed she was actually holding, Avalon moved through the doorway first. The restaurant behind was fairly dimly lit, though whether that was for ambiance or just to save a few bucks, she couldn’t say. Behind her, the others came through, and Avalon walked toward the only real source of somewhat brighter light in the room, a series of long tables where seven figures sat, clearly waiting for them to approach. 

It wasn’t Avalon’s first time seeing them, but most of those instances had been either from a distance or very briefly. She’d never been important enough for the Victors to pay attention to until… well, until they had believed Trice and his cronies over her and refused to listen to her explanation. That flash of resentment boiled up once more before she pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time for dwelling on that. Not when there were much more important things. 

Instead, she focused on examining the group while Croc moved around to speak to them in a hushed (clearly kept private through powers or magic) voice. Her gaze moved over the group. In the middle of the table sat the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleo Selene. Their somewhat darker olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes made their relationship to Egypt and their more famous mother even more clear than the name of their tribe. The Dust Striders had gone through several names in the past, but they always in some way related to ancient Egypt or the desert. They were also, to Avalon’s recollection, one of the only tribes whose leadership had not changed the entire time that Garden had been a thing. Most of the others had at least varied it up somewhat over time, but the twin children of Cleopatra had kept a firm command over their tribe since its first inception. 

To the right of Alexander Helios sat the old cowboy, Jack Childs. To his right was his partner, the dark haired, wide-faced man called Lamorak. Both leaders of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe were watching Avalon with expressions she couldn’t read. The two men watched her like that for a moment, before Lamorak leaned over to whisper something in his partner’s ear. They too were obviously using something to prevent anyone from overhearing, because Avalon couldn’t make out any of it. 

The woman who sat next to Jack, at that end of the table, had long red hair, with a single bit at the front that was jet black, which matched the faint black flecks in her otherwise gray eyes. She looked young and beautiful, though Avalon knew she had been alive at least since before the black plague. Her name was Aniyah Keita, and she was one of the leaders of the Reaper tribe. The other Victor, the old Native American called Quevias Quarter, had apparently stayed with the loyalists. Their tribe had been split between their leadership. 

Finally, to the left of Cleo Selene, sat the also young-looking Asian woman known as Fu Hao, and her partner in leading the Vigilant Sons tribe, the small man with dark blue hair (dyed from its natural blond) known as Carseus Elsen. It was to those two that Avalon looked and focused on the most. They were the leaders of the Vigilant Sons, the tribe that she was supposed to belong to. The tribe who should have backed her up against threats both outside of Garden… and within. It was they who she felt the most resentment toward, despite herself. 

They were both staring right back at her, and she felt their gazes sizing her up, likely in more ways than she could possibly comprehend. For a moment, as Croc spoke in magically protected privacy, there was silence from Avalon’s perspective. Through that, she stood still, her gaze locked on the Victors of her old tribe. She would not be the first to look away. Not now. 

Finally, Fu Hao stood. The ancient-yet-young-looking Asian woman silently stepped around the table. All eyes moved to her as she moved smoothly and gracefully to where Avalon stood, stopping in front of her. 

“I am told that you prefer the name of Avalon Sinclaire now, after she who has stood by you.” The voice was loud, filling the room to ensure that all heard it, yet also somehow soft. There was incredible power and strength there, along with a soft reassurance that came from a hundred lifetimes of raising and caring for children, grandchildren, and all who came beyond. It was gentle now, but with a clear sharpness lying just behind that cotton coating. 

“Yes, Victor,” Avalon managed past the lump that had formed in her throat. How she had longed for this voice to reassure her before, the days and nights she had spent wishing that Fu Hao would speak up on her behalf when it had really mattered. She fought to keep her own voice, and her gaze, as steady as possible. She would not show any reaction. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing how they could still affect her. Not that it mattered, given how easily they could read her emotions using any number of their powers. But still, how much she willingly showed was her choice. 

“Avalon Sinclaire,” Fu Hao started then, the sound of her voice dropping to a far more personal level. “We… I… am sorry. I failed you. I failed to stand by one who belonged to my tribe. Not through any fault of yours, but because I did not see one person as being worth antagonizing the leadership of the Lost Scar tribe. Whether you were guilty or not… I did not put the time, effort, or resources into determining that I should have. And I certainly did not give you the aid to gain a fair trial that you deserved. That is my failure, and it was one made not from a lack of capability or by any mistake. It was a deliberate choice, one that I should not have made. I put maintaining relations with Victors Bennett and Dalal over you, because you did not matter to me. You were simply one more recruit. I was wrong. Not because of who your ancestor happens to be, but because if we do not stand up for our own, we have no reason to exist.

“I cannot promise to never make such wrong actions again, but I will, to the best of my ability, remember this. I can offer you nothing better than my deepest, most sincere apologies. I am sorry. I was wrong. I will not insult you by assuming you would desire a return to membership within the tribe, though if that were to be something you would like, it would be yours in a heartbeat. I believe, however, that you have moved on. So I offer you instead a promise that anything you need, should it be within my power to provide, I will do so. 

“You have my apology, my promise to remember this moving forward when it comes to others, and my oath to you that I will provide whatever is within my capability to provide. I was wrong to treat you the way that I did. I was wrong not to care, to see you as a simple number. I do not ask your forgiveness, not now. But I will strive, in the future, to be the sort of person who you deserved to have when you needed her, for others who come after.”  

That… was a lot to digest. As Avalon stood there in silence born more of surprise and uncertainty than the stoicism she had originally been going for, Fu Hao was joined by Carseus Elsen. The short man with his heavily muscled arms stepped around to stand by his partner, also watching Avalon. “She’s right,” he agreed. “We treated you like shit because you didn’t matter, because we didn’t see one person as worth risking conflict with the Lost Scar tribe. She’s also right that we can’t make up for that, and that the timing here, you being spoken to now because of who your ancestor is, that’s just… worse. It doesn’t help anything. So… yeah. I’m sorry too. Not that I expect it to change anything, but I am. Truly and genuinely, I’m sorry. We should have been your tribe leaders, we should have been your tribe, your family. We should have had your back and at least made sure you were given a fair shake. We didn’t. No if’s, and’s or but’s. We failed. I… I’m glad you found someone who you could count on. And I hope she ends up alright at the end of this.” 

“You want to make up for what you did by not being there when I needed you?” Avalon finally managed. “Then promise to help the person who was there for me. Gaia. She took care of me when you didn’t, when you wouldn’t. You want to make up for it? Promise you’ll help free her when we get the chance. They’re going to have more security and protection on her than on anything else. We’ll need really big guns, big guns they might not be expecting, to save her. Be those guns. Help us figure out where she is, and help us get her out when we do. That’s what you can do. That’s how you can make up for it.” 

The two exchanged brief glances and silent communication before Fu Hao bowed slightly to Avalon. “You have our word. Our power and resources will be put to freeing Gaia Sinclaire and returning her to you.” 

That done, the two returned to their seats, and Cleo Selene spoke. “Avalon Sinclaire–Avalon. We’re told that you have something quite important that you would like to tell us. Something that will change quite a bit of how we see this entire conflict.” Her eyebrows were raised, as she sat back in her seat and watched the girl. 

For a moment, Avalon was silent. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing both Seller and Flick standing together. They gave her encouraging nods, and she swallowed before turning back to the assembled seven. 

“Yes. Yes, I do. But first, talk to him.” She gestured to Gordon, watching the group’s eyes move to the boy. “He’s got a question for you. Maybe you can answer.” 

With everyone’s attention centered on him, Gordon hesitated before taking a small step forward. His voice was mostly flat, with a very slight tremble of emotion. “Where is my father?” 

That made the group of Victors exchange glances, Jack Childs slowly speaking up. “I’m sorry, we weren’t aware that the father of a Crossroads student was one of our–” 

“Slaves,” Gordon interrupted before the man could finish referring to him as one of their Heretics. “My father is one of your slaves.” 

Cleo Selene stood from her seat, her gaze laser-focused on the boy in front of the tables. “Are you saying that–” 

“I’m a Hybrid,” Gordon interrupted. “Yeah. My dad is a Hrimthur named Sindri Koraug.” More quietly, he added, “If you know their names. If not, I can–”

“He’s not here.” The answer came from Aniya, as she tapped the table a couple times thoughtfully. “I know the Hrimthur you’re speaking of. Now that I think about it, I can see him in you.” 

Gordon’s eyes focused on the woman, as he swallowed hard. “You–you know him? He’s your–”

Her head shook. “Not mine. He was never part of the Reapers. He’s one of the Lost Scar’s… slaves. But I have seen him. We needed a group of cold-acclimated workers for the world known as T9T2 a year or so ago, and he was there. As far as I know, he’s still part of their workforce.” 

“How is it,”  Alexander Helios began, “that Crossroads has come to have Hybrid students? And how long has–”

“I’m quite certain those questions can wait,” Fu Hao murmured pointedly before looking to Gordon. “We will seek information about your father’s current whereabouts and condition. Anything we find out will be passed to you.” She waited for him to nod before returning her attention to Avalon. “Is that acceptable enough for you to deliver this important news?” 

Avalon hesitated, then inclined her head. “Yeah. And.. yes, I do have news. News that a lot of you and your people probably aren’t going to like. I want to tell you about people known as the Seosten. The people who caused all this. I want to tell you about the people who created this entire situation, who made the Bystander Effect, who use us as their meat puppets in their war against the Fomorians. I want to tell you about them, and… and about my ancestor. I want to tell you the truth about the man you see as a savior, the truth about Hieronymus Bosch and how he was used as much as anyone else.”

“Now hold on just a second,” Jack Childs interrupted. “Just what exactly are you going on about? What’s all this about Sausten?” 

“Seosten,” Avalon corrected. “Say-oh-stun. They’re the alien empire that rules half the universe, created the Bystander Effect so they could make us kill everything not-human we could find in order to make us strong so we’d be good soldiers for them to possess and take against the Fomorians, who control the other half of the universe.” 

“Yeah,” Flick finally put in, “the race of Imperialistic bodysnatchers who manipulate our entire society from behind the scenes and manipulate us into murder-machines are technically the de facto good guys in this situation. I mean, in comparison to the ones who just want to genocide the entire universe.” 

Alexander Helios looked from Flick to Avalon and back again. His mouth opened, but his sister leaned forward to whisper something in his ear, and he remained silent. 

When it was clear that neither he, nor any of the others, were going to say anything, Avalon pushed on. “It’s a lot, I know. The Seosten have been setting up Crossroads from the beginning. They have the ability to possess people, to control them completely, change their memories, all of it. We already know that there is at least one possessing one of the Eden’s Garden Victors. We don’t think it’s one of you, but…” This was going to be even harder. “… but we had to be sure.” 

“Excuse me?” Fu Hao started with a frown. 

Instead of responding, Avalon looked toward Croc. The man gave her a nod, tossing something her way while speaking up. “They’re all clear.” 

Catching it, Avalon showed them the choker in her hand. “This… used to be the ring of Anuk-Ite. It’s one of the only things that can identify when someone is possessed by a Seosten. Croc just checked each of you in the past few minutes while we were talking. You’re clear. Which means the Victor being possessed is one of the loyalists.” 

For a moment, the Victors all turned narrow eyes toward Croc, examining him carefully as they worked through whether they were offended by the duplicity or not. In the end, they chose to let it go, turning back to Avalon as she continued. “So you’re clear. Which means we can move on. And… and for the record, I know none of this is going to be easy for you to hear. No one likes to be told about how they’ve been manipulated at all, let alone for so long. But you need to hear it right now. Because most of all, I want to tell you about how we’re going to change things. About how we have one year to fix this whole situation. We have one year to pull ourselves together.” 

With a frown, Jack Childs spoke up. “Okay, wait. What are you talking about now? First you’re going on about these body snatchers and now you’re trying to–no. No, I think we need to go back to the start. Because with all due respect, this sounds like paranoia born of–”

“Quiet, Jack.”  The words came from Aniyah, the lone Reaper Victor, as she kept a hand on the arm of Lamorak. “The girl’s right about the Seosten.” 

“Yes,” Lamorak himself agreed, rising to his feet. “She is. Aniyah and I have been keeping stuff from all of you until it was time. Now it’s time.” He looked to Avalon, his eternally-surprised expression at odds with the knowing look in his eyes. “I guess if I was waiting for a sign to start talking about Camelot and who our true enemy was, having someone named Avalon show up is a pretty big kick in the pants.” 

“Lamorak?” Alexander Helios started slowly. “You have something to say?” 

“Yeah,” he confirmed, glancing to Avalon once again. “From the sound of it, we have a whole lot to talk about to get everyone caught up and on the same page. 

“So maybe we should go ahead and fill our plates before we get too far into it. Because this is gonna be a long night.”

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Summer Epilogue 14 – Lillian Meets Joselyn’s Children

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“Can I just say, I never thought I’d actually think, ‘I’m glad I don’t have Aylen’s responsibilities?’”

As she said those words, Flick shifted the fishing pole in her hands while glancing over her left shoulder to where Abigail was sitting. Wyatt was to her right, the adult twins’ younger sister sitting between them. All three held poles with the lines out in the water, perched as they were on the end of the dock.

Abigail made a face. “Telling that girl she’s supposed to be the one who awakens…” She took a breath and let it out again, looking as if she couldn’t believe she was actually saying the words. “… King Arthur. She is supposed to bring him back to life, or wake him up, or whatever she’s supposed to do? Shoving that kind of responsibility onto a teenager… telling her that she’s the only one who can do that?”

“Something tells me Aylen can handle it,” Flick pointed out. “I mean, for one thing, she was never just an average person. She’s part Reaper. She came to the school to rescue her grandfather in the first place. Her grandfather who, by the way, just happens to be the thing that gives all Bosch Heretics their power. So, that’s a thing.”

“I knew there was something off about her,” Wyatt grumbled. “I told the headmistress when she showed up that that girl knew more than she ought to, that she wasn’t surprised by enough, but did she listen? Nope. She dismissed it right out of hand. I should’ve looked deeper. I should’ve checked into her backstory even more.”

With a little smile, Flick nudged him with her elbow. “For all we know, Gaia already knew this stuff. I mean, she did have a lot of secrets.” She looked up to him then. “Besides, if you’d found out more about her, things might’ve been a lot worse. If the Seosten thought Joselyn Atherby’s son was getting too close to the Merlin Key… they might’ve reacted badly.”

While Wyatt grumbled his agreement with that, Abigail spoke up once more. “Actually, it is kind of funny that one of the biggest, most important mythical legends in European history, the one and only King Arthur of Camelot, is supposed to be awakened by a Native American.” She paused then, considering while tilting her head. “Is that cultural appropriation? I’m not sure.”

“I think it’s kind of a gray area,” Flick replied dryly.

They sat in silence for a minute, considering that. Then Wyatt nodded out into the water. “Your sharks are still watching us.”

“Yup,” Flick confirmed. “I promised them we go swimming later. And they’re still confused about why I’m bothering with this,” she hefted the pole, “instead of just letting them bring all the fish we could want. I explained it, but I’m pretty sure they still think I’m crazy.”

Coughing, Abigail replied, “So, your pet sharks think you’re crazy because you explained fishing to them? Yeah, I can’t see anything wrong with that.” Letting out a long, low breath, she muttered, “This is such a strange world.”

“It’s a lot more than that, Mom.” With those words, Koren joined the trio at the end of the dock, dropping down beside her mother. “Remember, there’s lots of worlds out there. It’s a strange universe.”

With a groan at the reminder, Abigail passed her fishing pole to her daughter. “Make yourself useful and reel in something tasty.”

Koren glanced to Flick. “Your sharks are right, by the way. You should’ve just had them bring some fish for you. That would’ve made this whole thing take like two minutes, tops. Much more efficient.”

The other girl scoffed at that, “And let them have all the fun? No way. Then we’d miss out on this.”

Squinting disbelievingly, Koren muttered, “Yeah, right. Wouldn’t want to miss out on all this excitement.” Turning back to look at the tranquil lake, she added in a low monotone, “Whooooo.”

Flick shook her head at that. “No, see, it’s not exciting. It’s calming. And that’s a good thing. Especially if you know who actually makes it today. Cuz that’s gonna be exciting enough on its own.”

Wyatt nodded quickly. “Lillian. Our mother’s old roommate.” His voice held a mixture of anticipation and worry for how that might go.

“And best friend,” Abigail added. “I wonder what she’s like. Did anyone talk to her at that family day thing before it was all…” she swallowed hard. “Before it was interrupted?”

Flick’s head shook. “I didn’t really get much of a chance. I just saw her from a distance.”

“I talked to her a little bit,” Koren put in. “You know, before…” She trailed off, making a face at the unwanted memories that crapped in despite all efforts to suppress them. “Before Ammon.” Sighing as they all thought about how that had gone in silence for a moment, she then pushed on pointedly. “She seemed nice, and funny. She was teasing Rebecca a little bit about having this crush on…” She hesitated, before shaking her head. “… on somebody. She never actually said who. Some boy in our class. Rebecca was throwing things at her to make her shut up.”

“Good,” her mother primly informed her. “It’s none of our business who Rebecca has a crush on.” She paused before but slyly adding, “Although, I wonder if it’s that boy who was…” In mid-sentence, she stopped talking, looking thoughtful.

“Who?” Koren prompted. Getting nothing but a little smile from her mother, the girl groaned and pushed her arm. “Oh come on! You can’t do that!”

Before Abigail could respond to that, Flick cleared her throat and turned to look over her shoulder. As the others did the same, they saw two figures walking toward the dock. As diminutive as both were, it wasn’t hard to know their identities at a glance, even before they saw their faces in the dim, early morning light.

“Hey, Rebecca!” Flick called, pushing herself to her feet while leaving her pole sitting right beside her. Unfortunately, the very second she let it go, something on the other end of the line bit down and the pole was yanked off the dock to disappear into the water. Spinning that way to see it go, the blonde girl exhaled long and hard. “Yeah, that figures.”

Rebecca and her grandmother had reached the dock by then, the latter stopping short as she let her wide-eyed gaze move over all four of the people there. “Oh Gods,” she murmured, “It is you. The twins. You’re alive… You’re…” Tears had already sprung to the woman’s face as she hurriedly strode that way, grabbing Abigail in a tight hug as the woman stood to meet her. “Baby girl! Oh sweet baby girl!“

Shipping on her feet, Abigail slowly return the hug while coughing. “Not gonna lie, it’s been a long time since anyone called me that.”

“Sweet little pudding cup,” Lillian managed in a teary voice as she leaned back to look up at the taller woman. “I remember holding you when you were so tiny. When they took you, when we thought you could be…” Her eyes blinked rapidly, tears streaming down her face as she looked over to Wyatt.

The man instantly froze with a deer-in-headlights look, hands up. “There’s no need for hugging,” he put in a bit stiffly. “Our introductions, or reintroductions, can proceed just fine without…” He trailed off then, as Lillian had stepped over in front of him.

“Young man,” she began, “I am not in the habit of forcing the people I care about to do anything that makes them so uncomfortable.” Clearing her throat, she raised a hand and extended it to him. “I will hug you when and if you ask, no sooner.”

Wyatt, for his part, looked a bit uncertain, but raised his hand to shake hers. He hesitated, before asking, “You really knew us as children?”

“Hardly more than infants,” the woman corrected before nodding. “But yes. You were both so clingy to each other. You couldn’t do anything unless the other one was either in your line of sight or touching you. The scene you must have made when they separated you…” She grimaced, her fist having tightened so much the whites of her knuckles were visible.

Flick and Koren exchanged glances, before the latter spoke up. “Ruthers is a real piece of work, huh?”

Squeezing Wyatt’s hand once more with a warm smile of assurance, Lillian turned to the younger girl. “And you. Somehow, I knew that you were more familiar than you should have been. I couldn’t understand it then, but now…” She took a step that way, embracing her. “I can’t believe your mother remembered the name Koren.”

Abigail nodded vigorously. “Neither can I, honestly. If I was an infant the last time I heard it, how would I remember it? The only thing I can think is that someone used the name where I could hear them when I was older, after they already adopted me out. Maybe one of the Heretics came to check in or something?”

With a slight nod of agreement, Lillian murmured, “Yes, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if that bastard sent people to check in on you through your whole life.”

Rebecca, who had been quiet throughout the encounter so far, finally spoke up. “Abigail isn’t the only one who remembered her name, though. Grandma remembered the name Joselyn, and Flick’s mom remembered the name Lillian.”

Flick glanced to the girl before returning her gaze to Lillian. “She’s got a point. And those names were magically erased.” She paused before quietly adding, “I guess that’s just how much you and Mom meant to each other, huh?”

It was her turn to be hugged then, as Lillian stepped over and pulled her into a tight embrace. “You look so much like your mother,” the woman breath while holding her tight. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I didn’t immediately see it the second I saw you. And everything you’ve done, she would be… She is so proud of you.” She leaned back them to look at the rest. “She is so proud of all of you. I know she is. You’re together. You’re helping each other. You’re…” Her head shook and she had to take a moment to collect herself. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” Pausing then, she looked over Flick’s shoulder to the water and cleared her throat. “And you’ve made some interesting friends, I see.”

Turning with the others, Flick looked that way to see one of her sharks poking her head up from the water with the missing fishing pole in her mouth. Immediately beaming, she made a small portal with one hand and stuck her hand through to reach the shark’s head, which she patted fondly. “Good girl, Simpson! See? Even if they think I’m crazy for this whole fishing pole thing, they’re still willing to help. Now let’s see…” Pulling the pole through the portal, she began reeling in the still somewhat weakly struggling fish. In the end, it came through the portal and into her hand, and she held it up, beaming. “I caught a fish!”

Koren sniffed airily. “I think your shark gets like three quarters of the credit for that one.”

“It totally counts,” Flick insisted, briefly sticking her tongue out at the other girl before admiring her catch. “See, I told you I could catch one.” Pausing, her head tilted. “Now what do we do with it?”

Lillian answered, “Gut it and clean it.”

Blanching, Flick looked at the fish in her hand, then promptly turned to throw it to the waiting shark. “You’re right,” she informed Koren. “Simpson deserves most of the credit. I shouldn’t be greedy.”

While the other is all exchanged doubtful looks, the blonde girl clapped her hands once. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but fishing and meeting people makes me hungry.

“How about we go get some breakfast?”

******

“So, you were really my mom‘s best friend?” Flick asked a couple hours later as she and Lillian walked together along the side of the lake. They had eaten breakfast with the others before the woman took a little time with just the adult twins. Now it was Flick’s turn to be alone with her.

“Am,” Lillian corrected. “I am Joselyn’s best friend. At least as far as I’m concerned. Anyone who wants to take that title away from me is going to have to fight me for it. And I bite.” She winked before looking more seriously at the younger woman. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been there at all.”

Flinching at that, Flick quickly shook her head. “It is so far beyond not your fault, it’s not even funny. You didn’t have a choice. You didn’t remember any of it.”

Lillian stopped walking then, turning to put a hand on her shoulder. “That doesn’t stop me from being sorry that I wasn’t there. Your mother was always there for me. She helped me with so much, taught me so much. She made me laugh, she made me…” She sighed and murmured, “I should have been there. And I will be from now on.”

Hesitating, Flick asked, “What about your daughter? Rebecca’s mom, I mean.”

“I don’t know where she stands just yet,” Lillian admitted. “She or her husband. I haven’t heard from either of them. But I’m going to find out. And I’m going to make sure they understand. I’m going to bring them into this, if… if I can. I just hope they’re okay. If Ruthers’ people have done anything to them…”

“I’m sure we’ll find them,” Flick quickly put in. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel even more worried than you already are. Gabriel’s people will probably find them. Or maybe one of the other runaway Heretic groups will know something. Like your group, I mean.”

With a small smile, Lillian nodded. “Thank you, Felicity.”

Hearing that name made Flick hesitate before she quietly asked, “If you’re my mom‘s best friend, could you tell me where she got that name from? I kind of have the impression it’s something important.”

“Oh, it is,” Lillian confirmed. “I mean, first, you know what it means, right? Felicity means happiness.” When the younger girl nodded, she went on. “But of course, it’s more than that.”

“I figured it was,” Flick murmured. “Where did she get it from? Why does the name Felicity mean so much to her?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the woman replied before glancing back to the girl as she started to walk once more. “It’s because that’s where I was born.”

Blinking twice before quickly following, Flick blurted, “Wait, what? Where you grew up?”

Lillian nodded, stopping to grab a rock from the ground, which she tossed out to skip over the water as she continued to walk. “Yep, Felicity, Ohio. That’s where I was born, and where I grew up before Crossroads. It’s a tiny town. I mean, even now, let alone then. I think it’s got like a thousand people there today. It’s barely a blip on the map. Not even on lots of them. But it’s there, and it was home for a long time.” She was smiling faintly at fond memories that obviously came with those words.

Walking beside her, Flick hesitantly asked, “So, my mom named me after your hometown?”

“It was better than calling you Ohio,” Lillian teased with a wink. “But yes. It was when we were still at school. We were telling stories in our room a long time after we were supposed to be asleep. I told her a story about going camping with my brother and what it was like out there, and she said, ‘Lillian, you’re my best friend. I am going to name my daughter after you.’ But I said she couldn’t do that because then her daughter and I wouldn’t know which Lillian she loved more.”

She fell silent for a few long seconds, her eyes adopting a far-off look as she remembered those much simpler and more innocent times. Despite her silence however, Flick knew better than to interrupt or prod the woman. She remained quiet as well, walking slowly alongside her.

Finally, Lillian exhaled a little sadly before speaking once more. “Anyway, Joselyn said, ‘Fine, then I’ll name her after your hometown. I’ll call her Felicity. Because Felicity means happy, and you make me happy.’ She… she used to say that Felicity was the source of her happiness.” Pausing, she reiterated. “Felicity was the source of her happiness, because that was where I came from, and I made her happy.” There were tears in the woman’s eyes then, and it took her a moment to somewhat shakily finish with, “Because that’s where I came from. Felicity, Ohio.”

She stopped walking then, hanging her head a little. “She’s my best friend, and I haven’t been there for her at all through any of this.”

Flick didn’t hesitate. She stepped around in front of the woman and embraced her tightly. “You’re here now. You remember now. That’s what matters. I’m just glad you’re okay, and she will be too.”

Lillian returned the hug just as tightly. “Yes,” she promised. “I’m here and I’m staying. And we are going to find her, do you hear me? We are going to find that piece of shit necroasshole and get her away from him.”

Meeting her gaze for a moment, Flick slowly and seriously nodded. “Yes, we are.”

Reading her expression easily, Lillian lifted an eyebrow. “And when that fucker tries something on your birthday, we’ll be ready for him.”

Flick swallowed at that. “Right. Yeah, we’ll… be ready.” Taking another breath, she tried to make things better by asking, “Could you maybe tell me a story about you and my mom in school?”

Calming herself for the girl’s sake, Lillian managed a soft smile. “Felicity, I have more stories than I could tell you in a whole year.

“Why don’t we start with the one about the Codell Tornadoes?”

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Exodus 44-03

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The look on Liam Mason’s face as he stared at his wife, who held her weapon pointed toward him was basically heart breaking. He looked like a man who was being tortured, his soul ripped from his body. “Larissa,” he managed in a broken voice. “Larissa, what are you doing? We just got you back. Baby, don’t do this. Please. Don’t do this.”

Larissa, in turn, simply gave a slight shake of her head. “The only person forcing this is you,” she replied softly. “I don’t want to do this, but I won’t let you take our children to them. Walk away, Liam.” Her voice was urgent, more firm than his, yet clearly just as broken up about what was happening. “Walk away right now.”

“Walk away?” Liam’s voice was incredulous. He took a single step that way, staring at his wife as though she had suggested that they burn their children alive. “You think I’m going to walk away and just let you drag our kids into this… this fantasy world? You’re endangering them. You’re going to get them killed, or you’re going to teach them to let others be killed. You’re teaching them to listen to monsters!” His voice rose at the end, as if he thought that shouting (and flailing his arms) like that would make his point any better. “You’re not listening to reason, Larissa!”

Koren looked like she was going to say something to that, but stopped herself. Her arms folded tight across her own stomach, and she glanced to me. I returned the look, shaking my head. This wasn’t our argument. It wasn’t our place to speak up, as much as I really wanted to.

“Dad!” That was Scout, who had used the distraction to run over to join us. She now stood next to her sister. Both of them were staring at their parents. “You’re the one who’s not listening. You never listen! You just make up your mind and don’t care what anyone else says!“

Beside her, Sands nodded. “Dad, you think that some stupid monsters killing people proves that Flick’s mom is wrong? It doesn’t! It doesn’t prove anything except that monsters exist!”

Scout put a hand on her sister’s arm, her gaze centered on their father still. “You had a bad experience with some assholes, Dad. Well boo hoo. Guess who else had a bad experience. The people you killed! Does that mean all humans are monsters?”

“You know what you do when you have a bad experience with assholes?” Sands put in.

Both twins blurted together, “You go find people who aren’t assholes!”

Scout continued, a little quieter. “You don’t just assume that everyone is an asshole.”

Liam sighed, looking at Sands and Scout together. “I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry, but you just don’t understand. You’re young, and you’re–”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Larissa snapped at him in mid-sentence. “Don’t you dare tell our girls they’re too young to decide that someone shouldn’t be killed, but old enough to kill them just because some old guys say they’re evil. Don’t you be that god damn stupid, Liam.”

Eyes widening a bit at the force with which his wife snapped at him, Liam’s mouth opened and shut. “I–that’s not how it… Larissa, I’m trying to stop our girls and you from making a mistake that you can never come back from. Right now, the Committee is ready and willing to listen. They know that Gaia’s been misleading you. They know she’s got these… these… secret Strangers that she’s shoved enough human DNA into to let them pass the Edge and she’s turning them into some kind of freak army to–”

Again, he was interrupted by Larissa. That time, her hand lashed out, shifting into water in mid-swing and extending to a long tentacle that she used to slap across his face from where she stood. “You need to shut your mouth, right now, Liam,” she snapped firmly, her eyes burning. “No one’s taking our girls to the Committee. Not you, not anyone. Walk away.”

Liam rocked backward on his heels, his hand on his face. No one moved, no one spoke.  For a long moment, the man stared at his wife. I realized that I was holding my breath. Actually, from a quick glance around, it seemed like everyone else was too. It really could have gone either way. All he had to do was make one good decision. He didn’t even have to choose to believe Larissa and his kids. He just had to choose not to start a fight over it, choose to step back for now. All he had to do was choose, for now to let things go and try to talk later. He just had to choose his family over Crossroads itself.

This time… as last time, he didn’t. Or couldn’t. His face set, and Liam Mason gave a slight head shake. “I can’t do that. I can’t let you take our children out of here, Larissa. I won’t let you ruin their lives and turn them into criminals.”

If she was affected by his words, Larissa didn’t show it. She had been through too much over all those years spent in Seosten space. Instead, she simply shifted her crystal sword into a staff shape and spoke quietly without taking her eyes off the man. “Girls, you need to go now.”  

“But Mom–” Sands started, before Scout pulled her back by the arm. She fell silent then.

“Don’t do this, Larissa.” Liam was pleading. He produced a weapon of his own, a scythe with a curved blade at one end and a straight one at the other. “Don’t make me hurt you to stop you from doing something stupid.”  

Instead of responding to him, Larissa addressed us. “They’re coming this way, girls. I’ll be right behind you. Get out of here, go that way along the cliff and into the trees. We’ll come find you.”

“Don’t move,” Liam snapped, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to. “Don’t–”

Then Larissa was on him. The man’s scythe snapped up to defend himself, as husband and wife clashed. The rest of us were already running. Avalon and Shiori each had Sands and Scout by an arm, pulling the twins with us while they half-struggled to stay with their parents. Koren was helping me keep up, while I used my staff to balance.

I knew why the twins didn’t want to leave. I understood. But they couldn’t stay. At best they were a distraction. And if the Committee people showed up, they’d be in even worse shape. We all would. We had to get out of there.

They were fighting. Larissa and Liam were fighting. This whole thing had blown so far out of control so damn quickly. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Not right now. What the hell? They almost knew about hybrids, even if they were mistaken about how they came about. Strangers given human DNA? Was that how they had to justify it to themselves? Liam had even called them freaks. Would he feel the same way if he knew that he was talking about Shiori and Aylen? And so many others? Probably. He was so far down the rabbit hole, he hadn’t listened to his friends a hundred years ago, and he wasn’t going to listen to his wife and children now. This whole thing was just so fucking wrong.

“This is fucked up,” Sands muttered, clearly agreeing with my silent thoughts as she stumbled along with the rest of us. Her voice was shaking, cracking with each word. “Why is this happening right now?”

My head shook. “Because it’s a bad time for it, and Fossor thinks that’s funny. We were all so focused on the Seosten problem, even after what happened at Parents Day. Hell, for all we know, he used that time to plant evidence or… or something. I don’t know.” Looking over to Aylen while running along the edge of the cliff toward the trees in the distance, I asked, “Is there anyone behind us?”

She paused briefly, eyes closing for just a second before answering. “No. Not yet. They’re heading for Professor Mason and… and his wife, but they’re not coming for us. They’ve got cyberforms too. They’re starting to search with them. I’m pulling Sovereign back before they see him.”  

Hopefully that meant we could get out of sight before they came close enough to track us. The trees were getting closer with each step, and it was dark enough for us to disappear pretty thoroughly even on the school grounds. They were going to have to involve a lot more people to find us now that we were out of the confinement of the dorm area.

I just hoped Harper managed to get Deveron and the other boys away from them too. Whatever was going on with that girl, whoever or whatever she actually was, I gave a silent prayer that it would mean she was strong enough to extricate them with Deveron’s help.

“Are they still fighting?” Scout pressed Aylen, her voice shaking just a little with the question. “Mom and Dad, are they…” She trailed off, unable to say anything else.

“They’re… struggling,” Aylen confirmed softly, not looking at the other girl. Her own voice was gentle. She clearly knew, just as the rest of us did, what this meant. “I think they’re both holding back a lot. But… yeah, the last thing Sovereign saw, they were fighting.”

The twins each glanced to one another. Their faces were stricken from emotion, and it was obvious that both wanted almost more than anything else to run back there. Their father may have been wrong, may have been acting like an ass, but in his mind he was trying to protect them. And he was still their father.

It sucked. And the worst part was that with everything that was now coming out, I had a feeling that though this may have been the first instance of family turning on family in this new situation, it wouldn’t be the last.

Just as we reached the forested area right in the corner of the school grounds furthest from the buildings (and basically in the opposite end from where we normally entered the beach), my eyes were drawn to a light nearby. It was Wyatt! He was standing there, just on the other side of the very faint haze that I recognized as being the edge of the environmental shield.

“Wyatt!” I blurted, everyone else looking that way too as I took a step that way.

But he held up both hands quickly, head shaking and I immediately came up short. “What?” I asked, confused for a moment.

His hands moved quickly, going through a few quick gestures that left me even more uncertain. But Koren spoke up. “He says not to touch the shield.” When we looked at her, she flushed a little. “He’s been teaching me sign language all year. You know, just in case. I guess this qualifies.” She looked to his moving hands again before adding, “He says the shield is solid, and soundproof. And uhh, he says that if you touch it, they’ll know who and where you are. So, you know, stay away from it.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch the shield.” No wonder Wyatt hadn’t come to find us. He’d been caught on the outside of the shield when the security went up.  

“Now what are we supposed to do?” Shiori asked, her eyes wide. “We have to–Flick, we have to warn the others. We have to warn Nevada. They know about the hybrid students. We have to tell her so she can send the signal, the warning. There’s a signal to get out if things go wrong, but Nevada has to send it.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Koren spoke up first. “Wyatt says Nevada’s out there.” She glanced our way, adding, “He can read your lips. He says she’s out in the jungle. She’s coming, but… but she can’t get in here either.”

Running my hands back through my hair, I was about to say something to that when a new distraction came in the form of Harper. She was coming through the trees, with Vulcan, Columbus, Deveron, and Doug.

“What–where’s Sean?” I demanded, looking past them. Vulcan was there, head down and whining. But there was no sign of his human partner.

It was Deveron who spoke, his voice dark. “One of the guys grabbed him and… we couldn’t get to him. Not in time. Not with the reinforcements they had coming.”

“They left him.” Columbus spoke just as darkly, not looking at any of the others. “They–” He stopped himself, adjusting. “We left him there.”

“There wasn’t a choice,” Deveron said quietly. “If we stayed, we all would have gone down.”

Harper sighed, straightening before giving a slight nod. “They’re right. There was no way to get Sean out of there without losing them too.”

My heart sank, and I rocked back like I’d been physically hit. My eyes looked to Vulcan, who was staying near Columbus. Both looked like they’d left their best friend, which… yeah.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Wyatt gesturing at Harper, while Koren signed something to him. I wasn’t sure what she was telling him, but he was clearly still suspicious. Which… yeah, fair enough. I was still at least a little suspicious, even if she had been the one to send Dare to us. How could she have known where we were, or how to… right, there were still a lot of questions there. Questions that we didn’t have time to get into.

“We’ll find Sean, later,” Avalon said quietly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Right now we have to find a way out of here. And a way to warn the other hybrid students.” As she spoke, Porthos hopped down onto Vulcan, patting his head while making what sounded like a reassuring speech in his own chittering nonsense language.

By that point, Nevada had joined Wyatt. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had been doing out in the jungle, but she was holding her chainsaw sword in one hand. When she saw us, the woman quickly tossed her bracelet, transforming it into the metal crate which she stowed her weapon into. Then she withdrew a pad computer, typing quickly before holding it up for us to see.

She’d written, You have to trigger the alert in my office. Code 22199251 on door.

“Wyatt says we can take down the shield,” Koren reported. “He has a backdoor into the main reactor for the security system in his room, and another one to the back-up generator. But… but if we hit one, they’ll have all the security on the second one. We have to break both of them at the same time and get out of there. It’s the only way we’re getting past this shield.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” The voice took all of us by surprise, and we whipped around to see… Liam. He approached before pausing. “Sorry.” A moment later, his unconscious form dropped to the ground, leaving Larissa standing there as she stopped possessing him. She moved to hug both of her girls tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she assured them. “He’ll wake up in awhile. I used him to send the guards the other way. Which should buy us a little time.”

Deveron actually moved straight to me, I embraced him tight, feeling a wave of physical relief that he wasn’t being taken away for something Fossor had done. That would’ve made this whole thing so much worse. I swallowed, muttering, “It’s–”

“I know,” he replied flatly. “Fossor. He’s playing games again. And they’re falling for it.”

Nearby, the twins were clinging tightly to their mother. “Mom, Mom, are you… is… is he… are you guys…” Sands kept starting and stopping, tears in her eyes as she and Scout both struggled to keep it together.

“We’ll figure it out,” Larissa quietly promised. “Right now, we need to get out.”

She started to say something else, before noticing Harper. “Err…”

“Yeah, we don’t know either,” I informed her. “But she’s the one that warned us they were coming. And she’s a lot tougher than she was pretending.”

For her part, Harper just smiled. “But I do still make kickass muffins.”

“There is so much we need to talk about,” I muttered. “But, as usual, there’s no time.”

Shiori, who was hugging Columbus, spoke up then. “We need to get to Nevada’s office and set off the alert to warn the other hybrids.”

“And we need to shut down the forcefield,” Avalon added. “Which means hitting the generator and the back-up generator at the same time.”

Koren nodded. “Wyatt says we can reach both of them from his room. But we still have to physically go there.”

“So we need three groups,” I murmured. “Two to go to Wyatt’s room and split up to use his entrances into the generator and backup generator for the shield so we can get out. And another group to go to Nevada’s office in the main building to set off the alert to tell the Hybrids to get out.”

I saw Larissa, Deveron, and Harper exchange brief glances. They seemed to communicate silently for a moment before Deveron spoke up. “Koren is obviously going into Wyatt’s room. I…” He looked to me then. “You’re going with Shiori, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “We have to warn the other hybrids. You guys can handle the shield.”

He looked pained, but nodded. “They probably aren’t paying as much attention to teacher’s offices right now anyway. It’ll be more dangerous at the generators.”

“I’m staying with Flick,” Avalon announced. “And Shiori.”

“And I’m staying with my sister,” Columbus informed us.

We quickly agreed on how to split up. Larissa, the twins, and Doug would be going with Deveron and Koren to Wyatt’s room. Then they’d split up, with Larissa, Sands, and Scout going for the back-up generator while Deveron, Koren, and Doug went for the main one.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Aylen, and I would go with Harper to Nevada’s office to set off the Hybrid alert. We couldn’t just leave without letting them know that they needed to get out before Crossroads started interrogating everyone.

“Once everything’s done, meet back here,” Larissa finished, gesturing to where Wyatt and Nevada were. Both of them looked anxious. “Or, if there’s too much security here, meet at the opposite side of the grounds.” She pointed that way, off into the distance. “Straight across from here in the other corner.”

“Mrs. Mason–” I started before catching myself. “I mean… Larissa, I mean…” Taking a breath and letting it out, I asked, “Professor Dare, do you know–”

“I haven’t seen her,” the woman quietly, gently informed me. “I”m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with her, or with anyone else. Gaia managed to get a message to me through Sariel.”

“Sariel?” Shiori piped up.

Larissa nodded. “I don’t know what else is going on or what they’re doing. She wanted me to know that Liam was after the girls and… and I needed to stop him.” Her voice cracked a little bit then, as she looked away.

“Okay, we’ve got this,” I quickly put in. “Generator, back-up generator, hybrid alert. We do this, then we get out of here.

“And for the record, this is the worst possible way we could have avoided finals.”

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On The Edge 42-06

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Everyone was talking at once, clearly frantically trying to find something, anything we could do. Meanwhile, I was pressing my hands against my head while trying not to attack myself. How could I let this happen? How could I be so stupid to walk into this place and not have a way out? I should’ve thought of it. I should have realized just how easily it could be a trap. I should have acted immediately to stop whoever was possessed in here even before we knew who it was. I should’ve–

Flick! Tabbris interrupted my rambling, desperate thoughts. Stop it and listen! But rather than just take the time to explain what she was thinking, my sister basically shoved all of it into my head at once. As she did so, my eyes widened.

“I’m not trapped.”

I said those words even as Tabbris’s explanation solidified itself in my head, making the others all look to me at once. Deveron looked a little confused before his eyes widened as he realized, “Possession.”

“Possession?” Koren looked to me, frowning before she too got it. Or at least part of it. “How will that help–wait, recall? Who did you last–”

“It doesn’t matter,” I interrupted, pointing to Miranda. “Randi! You’re in here and out there. You’re a duplicate. If I possess you right here, then stop and you go back to your original self out there–”

It was the other girl’s turn to interrupt, “Then you can recall to her–to me, to the other me. You can recall to get out of this room.”

I nodded, gesturing to the screen that showed the area just outside the office where Miranda, Theia, and Asenath’s group were. “Exactly. I’m just going to guess that the teleportation protections here don’t count against recall. I can get out there and tell them what’s going on. We can tell them what’s going on. Then we can try to find a way to open the doors, or help the others. Or something. Anything. But I need to go, now.”

Abigail was already shaking her head. “No, I don’t like it. That’s–that’s wrong. That can’t be the only thing to do. You’re a child, you–”

“We don’t have time to argue about this, Abigail!” I quickly blurted. “Look at them. They’re fighting out there. They–err… they were fighting.” I blinked at the screen. “Now they’re just sort of… standing there.”

“That’s me,” Francis announced. “This seems like an important conversation, so… let’s just say time in this room is going by much faster than time out there. So everyone can calm down and stop talking past each other. Panicking, yelling, losing your minds won’t accomplish anything. Take a breath, think, talk.”

We all exchanged glances, and Abigail took a breath before looking to me. “Can’t you possess him and try to wake him up?” She indicated the unconscious man on the floor. “Maybe he’ll know a way to get past Radueriel’s control? His mother is the owner, he might know something that could countermand it. Or–or something.”

Francis shook his head. “I love the boy, but no. He won’t be able to. But he might know more, so… I will, ahhh… possess him and wake the boy to find out what he knows about our intruders. If he was controlled by them for awhile, they might have let something important slip.”

“Uh, can you possess people?” Koren asked.

The man gave a very slight nod. “If she can, so I can.” He looked to me. “You are a guest of the Auberge, which means I can use any power you have. Unfortunately, I can’t just take your place and be the one who transports out there to head up to that vault, because–”

“Because there’s still all those blocker things in the way,” I realized. “Right, that still sounds pretty useful. So we don’t have to decide between the two. He can stay here and wake up Mennin, while I recall out and help the others upstairs.”

Wincing at the look I could see on Abigail’s face, I gently reminded her, “I’m sorry, we’re wasting time that we don’t have. I know you’re worried about me, but someone has to get out there and get the others to go up and help keep the bad guys away from that room. We just–we don’t have a choice. If the Seosten get into that vault and take Liesje’s spell–”

“But what could you possibly do to help against all that?” Abigail lamented, sounding desperate. She clearly loathed the idea of me going out there without them. Which… yeah, I could understand that. It made me think of what my father would say. Hell, I could see his worry in her eyes as she weakly continued. “If something happens to you while we’re stuck in here, if you get hurt, or–”

“Abby,” I interrupted, stepping over to hug the woman tightly. “I know. Believe me, I know. I don’t want to leave you guys here either. I don’t. But I can do this. I can go out there, grab the others, and do… whatever we can to stop them. We just have to last until Gaia and the others get in. Then it’ll be over. They have to be close. They have to be. We just have to buy them as much time as we can. Roxa’s pack, Larees, the other Seosten, they’re all up there fighting. How can I refuse to go help now just because it’s dangerous? You feel bad about letting me go? I feel bad about just letting them do all the fighting up there. They’re going to die without help. I can’t let that happen.”

“She’s right, Mom,” Koren put in. “Every little bit helps. Besides, things may blow up wherever Flick goes, but they usually end up being helpful explosions in the end. Mostly.” She hesitated, like she was going to amend herself again, then thought better of it, clearly realizing that it wasn’t helping.

It looked like Abigail was about to say something else to that, but Francis spoke first. “Actually, maybe you can do something that will help release us and stop them.” His voice was thoughtful, like he had just realized something important.

That got everyone’s attention, as the man continued. “That… creature may have locked out the hotel’s automated security. But I can give you an override that will manually activate them in one hallway.” From his pocket, he produced what looked like a small USB drive, handing it to me. “There’s a silver panel in the hallway. It extends down to the floor. You just have to find the slot on the right hand side and plug this thing in. That will manually release the security turrets. They’re set for non lethal measures, for guest safety. They’ll knock people out, incapacitate them, at least for a little bit. It should help, anyway.”

“I can see how that will help with the situation at the door, sure” Deveron agreed while looking over to the man with a frown, “but how will it help the rest of us get out of here?”  

“And how do we stop it from targeting the people we don’t want it to target?” Koren added. “I mean, if it knocks out everyone on our side too, it might do more harm than good, you know? Especially if they just bring in more reinforcements or whatever.”  

Francis answered her first, gesturing to the USB drive in my hand. “Technopath powers. I already fixed its IFF parameters. Once she plugs it in, the security system should do the rest.”

“You are a very handy guy to have around,” I remarked, giving the drive a brief smile. It may not have been much, but it would help. And as I’d said, every bit of help was important now. Because yeah, Gaia, Avalon, and the others couldn’t be too far away from getting in there, right?

I prayed that really was right, while Francis looked to Deveron to explain, “And I’ve removed the safety protocol for how much power it can take while directing it to drain from this room. So as the system attacks, it’ll take power from here. And as it takes power from here–”

Wyatt finished for him, giving a wide grin, “The security measures here will eventually turn off, including the anti-teleportation shielding.”

“And then we can all leave, yes,” Francis confirmed before looking to me. “You just have to get up there, plug it in, and let the turrets take over. They’ll do their job and drain the power from this place so the rest of us can escape.”

I nodded, holding the thumb drive tightly. “I can do that. I just hope it’s enough to delay them.” Because that’s all this was: a delaying game. Delaying until these guys could come help, delaying until Avalon got into that vault from the other side, delaying, delaying, delaying.

It was Wyatt’s turn to speak up. “This should help.” He produced a small green crystal, hesitating before holding it out to me. “You, uhh, you break this in front of the door up there. It will make a wall that should help slow them down.” Shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, he explained, “I… I’ve been channeling power into it for a few years, as an… emergency, if anything really bad happened and I needed to escape.”

I bit my lip, realizing that this was clearly a very big deal. It was Wyatt’s last ditch security measure, his… ticket to safety that he’d been putting power into for years just to make it as strong as possible. I had a feeling it was more than just a few years old. “You don’t have to–”

“Yes, I do,” the man insisted. His face twisted a bit, expression turning even more awkward. “Take it. Maybe it’ll only hold for a few seconds against them. But it’s something. It’s… it’s something. I can do something.” He sounded almost desperate, like he didn’t know how to express himself at all. He was scared. He wanted to tell me not to go. But all he could do was offer this little bit of help.

“It’ll hold for longer than that,” Deveron announced abruptly. “Here…” Gently taking it from his son, he focused for a moment before visibly staggering. “There… more power. Not years’ worth, but… as much as I can give you.”

As I stared, everyone else followed his lead. They all, including Francis, shoved more power into Wyatt’s crystal. Abigail had even practiced enough to be able to channel her energy into the thing. Wyatt had spent so much time making it perfect that all they had to do was shove their power into it to beef the thing up. In the end, they all looked much more tired than they had. But hey, at least they’d have a chance to catch their breath in here. Especially if Francis kept time going faster in here than it did out there. It would give them time to recover.

“Might not be able to go with you yet,” Koren muttered, handing me the crystal as she was the last one to use it. “But to hell if we don’t get to help somehow.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, holding the crystal and the USB drive. “Thanks, guys. I’ll get you out of here. And block that door. They’re not getting in there. Not if I–and you–” I added the last while waving the crystal they had helped empower, “have anything to say about it.”  

As I nodded, Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “I, uhh, I’m sorry I called you a slacker when you first got here,” he hesitantly informed me. “You are definitely not a slacker.”

Squeezing the crystal and the USB drive, I smiled faintly. “Trust me, I could do with a little more slacking now and then. But you guys better not,” I added while pointing to them. “You be ready to get the hell out of this room and come after us as soon as that power goes down enough. You got it?”

They agreed, and for a moment, I just stared at the screen depicting the struggle over the vault entrance. The fighting was still going on just as furiously as ever. There were people getting hurt up there, probably even dying. I had to go help. Swallowing, I turned toward Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail.

“Go,” my older sister urged. “Just… just be careful. I know you have to go. But don’t get yourself killed, okay? Just don’t.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but ended up just mouthing a silent, ‘both of you.’

Right. She didn’t want to give Tabbris’s existence away to Francis. Which… it almost certainly would have been fine, but still. Keeping that quiet was basically second nature at this point.

Deveron put a hand on her arm. “She’s right,” he agreed in a voice that cracked a little bit. “We’ll be right behind you, as soon as that power drops. You get out there and help them. But like she said, don’t get yourself killed.”

Despite the situation, I smiled. “I’m pretty good at getting hurt and kidnapped, but so far, I’ve been pretty bad at getting killed. Let’s hope that holds up.” I was trying to sound flippant to make them feel better, but couldn’t keep all the fear out of my voice. We were all afraid and trying very hard not to lose it in front of each other.

“Just save some for us, huh?” Koren put in, trying to break up the tension. “You’re not the only one who still wants to hit the bad guys.”

The retort came before I could help it, “Well, if you insist, I guess we’ll take it easy on them until you show up. Just don’t take forever, I don’t know how long I can hold myself back.”

After that, there was really nothing else to say. I looked to Miranda, offering her a smile. “I guess I kind of forgot to ask if you’re okay with me possessing you. That’d kind of put a stop to this real quick.”

She smiled right back at me, snorting. “Right, I’m really gonna say no at this point.” Biting her lip, she offered me her hand. “Let’s do this.”

I did so, quickly possessing the other girl before just as quickly stepping out of her. I only stayed long enough to make her my recall point. Then she waved while clearly sending the mental signal to her original self that she was ready to be disabled. A moment later, she faded from existence.

Then it was my turn. With a wave of my own toward the others, I used the recall. Tabbris took over, making sure that instead of actually possessing the original Miranda, we ended up appearing directly beside her.

The original Miranda clearly hadn’t had time to absorb all the memories of her duplicate (probably related to how much faster time was going inside the room thanks to Francis), because everyone, including her, jumped at my sudden arrival. Asenath even went as far as pivoting to lash out with a fist before catching herself.

“Maybe she would be a good Batman,” Theia noted thoughtfully, which seemed like part of a conversation that didn’t involve me. Or, knowing Theia, maybe it really was just that random.

Quickly, Miranda and I explained the situation to the rest, that the others were trapped inside that panic room, and how we could get them out.

“So we use this USB drive to call down some of the automatic security. And there’s the rest of us here. We have to go up there and help. We have to slow them down until the others can get up there with us. I–it won’t be easy. Or fun. I saw the fight up there on the monitors. If we don’t get there, the guys won’t last much longer.”

Miranda produced her shield. “She’s right. Other me saw it too. They need help, so what are we just standing here for? Let’s go help them.”

Flashing a lopsided smile, Theia announced, “Pace-I still likes her… personality.” Putting a hand against the side of her mouth, she stage-whispered, “And her b—” Before she could finish that sentence, the same hand covered her own mouth.

“You good, Pace?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. She replied with a thumbs up using her other hand.

“What are we waiting for?!” Namythiet was hovering in the air in front of me, showing her teeth. She had that tiny sword of hers clutched incredibly tightly in one hand. “No more sitting around. They–” Her voice caught briefly before she pushed on. “Mister Seth would want us to hurt them. I… I want to hurt them. Right, Clubber?”

On the floor at our feet, the emerald tiger cub made a wary growling sound for just a moment, which switched to a concerned whine as he stared up at the pixie. I didn’t know exactly what he was thinking (as much as he could ‘think’, which I still wasn’t clear on), but I had a feeling I would’ve agreed. He was clearly worried about how angry Namythiet was. Worried that his partner, owner, friend was going to lose herself to grief and do something dumb. Quite frankly, I was worried about that too.

“Hey,” I spoke up. “Mister Seth also wouldn’t want you to get hurt, okay? Be angry, but don’t lose control.” Hesitating briefly, I reached out with one finger. “We work together. Fight smart, right? Seth cared about you, Namythiet.”

“She’s right.” That was Asenath, clearly speaking past a lump in her throat. “We’ll make them pay, Namy. We absolutely will. But you’re not allowed to go crazy and get yourself killed. You hear me?” Her voice turned harder, more firm then. “You be sad later. We’ll all be sad later. But you do not get to lose it and die too.”

The pixie hovered there for another moment, looking back and forth between us before reaching out with both of her hands to shake my finger. “Right,” the pixie slowly answered in a voice that still sounded a bit hollow. “Fight smart. Don’t die. I get it. Yeah. Mister Seth would say that.”

I wanted to say more. Hell, I wanted to do more. But there was nothing else to be said or done. Not in that moment. Instead, I looked to the other young girl of the group. “Right, um, Bobbi… like I said, it’s bad up there.”

“I can help.” The girl’s voice was firm as she drew herself up. “Mister Seth was–I wanna help. You’re not leaving me behind.” She stared at me, face hidden behind the helmet of her costume. But I had a feeling that she was scowling challengingly, just waiting for me to try to insist.

Yet again, there was a lot I wanted to say to that. And yes, I did want to leave her behind. I wanted to leave both her and Namythiet behind. But I couldn’t, because it would’ve been incredibly hypocritical. So, I simply turned to walk. “Right then, like Miranda said, let’s go help them.

“And hope that the people who are supposed to be helping us aren’t too far behind. Because quite frankly, I’m not sure how long we’re gonna be able to keep this going.”

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On The Edge 42-05

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A dozen weapons snapped up into position as Asenath stepped into view. But she didn’t attack. Instead, the vampire girl took a couple steps out with her hands up and slowly cast her gaze over them. Her voice was simple. “I am going to give all of you a chance to walk away.”

Well, that made the group blink. They glanced to one another before their apparent leader advanced a few steps. He had his sword in one hand, the energy blade ignited as he stared at her. “And why would we walk away?”

Asenath smiled faintly. “Because I will let you. My quarrel is with Kushiel. I have no desire to kill so many of my own people.”

That definitely got their attention. I could see the confusion written across their faces, as they tried to parse that. Which meant that it was showtime.

A glowing figure appeared in front of Asenath. My figure. I wasn’t possessing the girl herself, of course. She was a hybrid (daughter of a human vampire and an Akharu), and I didn’t happen to have an Excalibur on me to compensate (useful as that would have been). Instead, I had been possessing a tiny piece of wood Asenath was holding.

Before that, however, I had taken the time to enchant my clothes with a simple glowing light spell, cranking it up to maximum. As a result, as I emerged, my form looked like it was glowing identical to how a Seosten stepping out of their host looked. Then I simply dismissed the light spells after a second.

Now the collective Seosten soldiers could see me. Only they weren’t seeing me. Nor were they seeing the red-haired girl whose appearance I’d been using up to that point.

They were seeing Sariel. I had copied her form as exactly as I could, down to the most minute detail. Which was helped by Tabbris. These other Seosten would perfectly remember any picture, hologram, or whatever they had ever seen of the woman. But my little sister had the same memory, and she knew her mother a lot better than they did. We were as close to an exact copy of Sariel as possible.

I also held a bow in one hand, which added to the illusion. For a long second or two I let my eyes sweep over the group, who looked as though they had no idea what to do. My mouth opened and I tried to copy Sariel’s voice and speaking patterns.

“My quarrel, as I said, is with Kushiel. You are my people, as… estranged as we may be. I do not wish to kill you. But I think we know that I will if you force me to.” With those words, I put my fingers to the string of the bow to make an arrow appear, drawing it back. I didn’t aim at anyone just yet, simply pointing the bow at the floor, but the threat was implicit.

All twelve young Seosten took a step back, collectively. They looked even more uncertain. No one wanted to be the one to start a fight with an Olympian, let alone one with Sariel’s reputation. They knew they should fight, since the bounty or whatever on the woman’s head was probably astronomical. But having her (apparently) right here in front of them made all that a different story. It was one thing to brag and dream about how you could beat someone and claim a reward in the safety of hypotheticals. But it was quite another to have the opportunity thrust in front of you.

Still, the guy in charge was clearly more afraid of an eventual retaliation by Kushiel. Which was fair. Steeling himself, he raised his chin. “We can take you. You’re rusty.” He was obviously trying to convince himself, and the others, of that.

“Am I?” I asked simply, keeping my voice calm despite the fact of how nervous I was. This was the real test. If this didn’t work, they’d never believe that I was who I appeared to be. It was time to see if our plan and preparations meant anything.

“Maybe you’re right,” I allowed, slowly lowering the bow. Holding it in one hand, I put my other hand behind my head as though scratching my neck. Using one finger, I pointed down to the spot on the floor right behind my feet, which were pressed together. With that gesture, I created a tiny portal there. The other end led to a spot past all the men.

Asenath, her actions hidden by my body, produced an arrow of her own, one that I had used the bow to create earlier. Silently, she positioned it over the portal and gave it a sharp toss, so that it dropped through and embedded itself in the floor behind the Seosten at an angle.

Right as the arrow struck the floor, I spoke up loudly to cover the sound. “Or maybe…”

Without another word, I snapped the bow back into position, drawing the arrow back once more while keeping my eyes on the man who had been speaking. Without looking, I aimed the bow somewhere to the side of him and let the arrow fly.

Several things happened all at once in the next instant, all of them incredibly important for this to work. First, I thumbed over the control on the bow that turned off the arrow, erasing it in mid-flight.

At the same time, I focused on the rifles that three of the men in the vague path of where I had fired were holding. More specifically, I focused on the sand that I had spent the past several minutes before we revealed ourselves carefully floating through the air to position against the sides and bottoms of those rifles, as well as inside the barrels themselves (I’d actually done the same with all the guns, but those were the only three within the right area). With a thought, I suddenly shoved hard against all of that sand, the unexpected force jerking the weapons from the men’s hands. Quickly, I used the flying sand to direct the guns passed all the men, dropping them right over the arrow that had been embedded in the floor, so that they all fell with the arrow through their trigger guards, stacked like that.

The Seosten all whipped around. From their point of view, I had simply fired an arrow, three different rifles from different people had all been knocked out of their hands, and as they managed to turn all the way around to look behind them, those rifles were on the floor with an arrow through them. It was completely absurd, yet well within Sariel’s ability.

More importantly, it was not within the ability of any random person. Or it shouldn’t have been.

For a moment, the Seosten simply stood there, mouths agape as they stared at the arrow with the guns attached. None of them said anything, none of them moved. So I decided to hurry their reaction along.

“As I said,” I announced to draw their attention back to me while notching another arrow, “My quarrel is with Kushiel. But I am getting impatient.”

Your turn, partner.

Tabbris took over my mouth, using my voice to issue a long, complicated diatribe in Latin about how they needed to leave so that I (or Sariel) could issue a formal challenge against Kushiel, and that any of them who got in the way would be collateral damage. She made my voice hard and uncompromising, while I lifted the bow to make the point further, slowly panning it over each of the soldiers, as though daring each of them to be the one who tried something.

Shockingly, none of them wanted to be that person. They all looked at one another once more, looking extremely reluctant. Then one of them asked, “Sir, where’s the other one?”

“Other one?” the one who had been speaking to me directly distractedly replied.

“Other one,” the first confirmed. “Twins, sir. The twins. There’s one. Where’s the… the other one? There’s one, where’s the other one?

Now they were really looking around, turning as though Apollo might be standing directly behind them. Murmurs grew louder, and when they looked to me, I simply smiled.

It was enough. I wasn’t sure which one was first, but within a moment they were all racing for various doorways, abandoning their post in a rush.

Asenath coughed behind me while straightening up. “Huh, it doesn’t look like Kushiel inspires much in the way of loyalty.”

Smirking despite myself at that, I started to respond. Before I could, however, the sound of running footsteps at one of the other side doors drew our attention that way. But I recognized the objects and clothes that I could detect, and settled.

Sure enough, the new arrivals were Deveron, Wyatt, Koren, Abigail, Miranda, and Theia. They had apparently all met up at some point, and came skidding into the room. Seeing me there, looking the way that I did, all of them froze with clear confusion.

“Hi, guys,” I announced before shifting back to the red-haired form. “You might say, Sariel was here in spirit.”

Theia was the first to react, laughing almost immediately. With a cackle, she insisted, “We want to hear that story when this is over.”

“We came to help,” Deveron noted. “But it doesn’t look like you need it.”

Quickly, we exchanged the most important information. They knew basically what was going on, thanks to Roxa. Apparently Twister, Bobbi, and Namythiet’s efforts were paying off, allowing Francis to advance closer and closer. Every area he was able to enter, he cleared out the threats within very quickly. It would only be a matter of time before he got here.

“Still too long,” I insisted. “We have to get into that office, through to the panic room, and get that owner lady to expel these guys.”

Miranda nodded. “Before they get into the vault. The werewolves are already at the door with Larees and one of my other selves. They’re–we’re–whatever, they’re trying to stall them.”

“We need that Francis guy,” Asenath announced quietly. “He can get through the panic room door. But he can’t get here until all those spell things are destroyed.”

Deveron nodded. “Twister and the others are doing their best. There’s just… so damn many of them all over the place. We broke a few on the way down here, as many as we could find. But the Seosten were ready for something like this. They’ve got dozens of redundant devices overlapping everywhere. In a delaying game, they’ve got an advantage.”

“Do you know how they’re doing up by the door?” I asked quickly.

Deveron paused at that, turning his head as though focusing on something else for a moment before he looked back to me and answered solemnly, “Not well. They’re keeping them busy for now, but… we need to finish this.”

My attention turned to Wyatt. “Can you get through into the panic room? Or find a way to disable all those things at once?”

I saw his adam’s apple bob up and down a couple times as he swallowed hard before shaking his head. “Oh, oh yeah. With weeks. Days maybe. Not hours. Not minutes. Definitely not minutes. Stupid. Stupid. Should have been ready for this. Should have practiced. Should have anticipated that. Should’ve. Good for one thing: breaking spells. Good for one thing. Spells. Making spells. Breaking spells. Good for that. Have to do that. Have to be ready to do that. Hah, but I can’t do that now? Why can’t I do that now? Why, why, why?”

His hand moved to smack himself on the head, but Abigail caught his wrist. “Stop it. You’re not only good for one thing. Do you have any idea how much you contribute to…” She swallowed hard before shaking her head, not letting his wrist go. “You are very important.”

“Your sister’s right, Wyatt,” Deveron agreed softly. “You are pretty much the most amazing mage I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and I’ve known a lot. Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve made of yourself…” He trailed off, looking toward Abigail and Koren. “Everything you’ve made of yourselves… is amazing. You earned it. Your mother would— is proud of you. I know she is.”

“I only had the pleasure of meeting her three times,” Francis Gale announced while entering the foyer with Twister, Bobbi, Clubber, and Namythiet. “And I don’t know any of the rest of you at all. But I would agree. She definitely wanted children, and she would absolutely be proud of each and every one of you.”

That said, the man slowly looked around the room. “Now… how many of you are her children?”

Immediately, he shook off that point. “Never mind. Later.”

He did, however, let his eyes linger on Deveron even as he addressed everyone. “She’s in really bad trouble, isn’t she?”

We all, even Miranda and Theia, confirmed that, and the man nodded. “Then I’ll help. She helped me, more than once. I’ll be there, whatever she needs. Whatever her family needs. It’s like Caela’s mother said a long time ago, Joselyn Atherby and her family will always be welcome here. But let’s kick this infestation out of my home first.”

With that, the man moved to the door at the far end of the foyer, the only one that hadn’t been used yet. As he approached, the door silently opened, and I saw an elegant office beyond. “The panic room is through here.”

“Go,” Asenath told us. “We’ll wait out here, just in case our friends come wandering back again.”

Twister, Namythiet, and Bobbi agreed, before Theia shrugged. “If danger comes, we want to be here for it.”

Finally, Miranda stayed with them as well, sending a duplicate with the rest of us.

Leaving them behind, we headed into the office. I looked over across the sparsely, yet beautifully decorated room to where Francis was pressing his hand against what looked like a blank wall. He murmured something under his breath, then drew a rune with his other hand. That went on for a few long seconds before the man finally stepped back. As he did so, the room around us suddenly changed. Apparently we were transported directly into the safe room. I didn’t know if that was an automatic thing, or his doing. Either way, there we were.

There, in this case, was some kind of command center. There were screens all over the walls showing various parts of the hotel, both inside and outside on the street. I could see Larees and the other good Seosten on one of the screens, fighting alongside the werewolves and one of Miranda’s duplicates. Roxa had joined them. On another screen, Athena and Abaddon were tearing their way through pretty much a whole floor of the hotel. So at least she was keeping him busy.

There were also weapons on racks lining every spot of wall that didn’t have a screen on it, and an open door in the back led to what looked like a pantry with months, if not years, worth of food in it, judging by what little I could see.

Two figures stood by the monitors, a tall woman with sleek, dark hair and aristocratic features who wore a crisp suit, and a younger man who looked as though he would be quite handsome if his ears and nose weren’t too big for his face.

“Francis,” the woman started immediately, sounding relieved that he was there before she suddenly noticed the rest of us. “Who are these people? What is going on?”

“They—” Francis started. But before he could get more than that single word out, a glowing red force field suddenly appeared around the woman and what was obviously her son.

The man with too-big ears sighed, straightening a bit. “I knew this was going to happen,” he lamented. “All the effort to keep this quiet, and yet I knew that somehow, all of you would find your way in here. It’s quite impressive, really. Quite impressive indeed. I would offer to shake your hands, but… well, forcefield.”

“Radueriel,” I realized immediately.

“How long do you think you can hide in there?” Deveron demanded. Even as he spoke, the man was charging up some kind of power on his fist. Francis, who had pretty much instantly figured things out as well, was doing the same.

“What?” Caela turned at that, snapping a pistol from her jacket and pointing it at him. “What have you done to my son?”

Radueriel used the man’s mouth to smile. “Don’t worry, ‘mother’. They’re right, the force field won’t last long. But then, it doesn’t have to.”

My mouth open to shout a warning, and I wasn’t the only one. But we were all too late. Radueriel boosted his host. Suddenly, he was standing beside her, with her gun in his hand. His other arm was around her throat. When he spoke, it clearly wasn’t to us. “When our… relationship began, I made certain promises as to the safety of your loved ones. As you have behaved, I find myself willing to go to certain lengths to maintain those promises. Remember that.”

With those words, the man abruptly dropped the pistol, producing some kind of badge instead, which he slapped against Caela’s arm before pressing it. In a flash of light, she disappeared.

An instant after that, Deveron and Francis both hit the shield so hard that it too vanished. Francis crossed the room in a blur, slamming into the possessed man before hauling him off the ground to shove against the wall. “Where is she?!” he demanded in a thunderous voice.

Radueriel, through his host, simply smiled. “I made promises, as I said. I promised that she could not be killed. But we can hardly give you access to her. She’s gone now, and it will take quite some time for her to be collected. Too long to do you any good. My apologies for the inconvenience.”

With a low growl, Francis leaned in close. “Let… the boy… go.”

Again, that simple smile. “Certainly.”

Then he was there. In a brief flash of light, Radueriel was suddenly standing a few feet away. As we all rounded on him (save for his now-former host, who collapsed to the floor), he held up a hand. In it was clasped some kind of detonator. “Uh uh. Trust me, none of you want to test me right now. I’m teetering right on the edge between appreciation for your effort and ingenuity, and annoyance at your persistence. Though, in this case, I suppose it hardly matters. You were nice enough to walk right into the trap, after all. Thank you for that.”

“What tra–” Koren started before abruptly slapping her own head. “The panic room!”  

His smile found her, and the cyborg man confirmed it with a nod. “During my stay here, I took the liberty of installing my own control over this room. As of now, no one may exit. So I strongly suggest that you sit back, watch the monitors, and observe while we handle this long-festering vault problem. Have very pleasant lives, all of you. No hard feelings.”

With that, Radueriel touched a spell inscribed into his mechanical arm. Instantly, he disappeared, leaving the rest of us trapped in that panic room with no way out, no way to help the others, or to stop Kushiel from getting to the vault and claiming Liesje’s spell before Avalon and the others could get to it. No way to do anything at all. But hey, at least the room was named properly.

Because I was definitely panicking.  

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On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go along way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Deveron extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched they man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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