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matapam
12 December 2018 @ 08:03 pm
They call them Parallel Worlds. Which isn’t really true, as events create splits and worlds with all the possible outcomes drift apart into different futures. Some split a long time ago, some recently. All different.

The ability to make inter-dimensional gates divides the powerful worlds from the weak. Some can form powered gates, temporary and expensive. On the World called Comet Fall, genetic engineering has enabled the manipulation of natural dimensional phenomena, and the formation of permanent gates. Cheap access to worlds of untapped resources, new frontiers.

Which has created an infuriating dependence on a single world’s benevolence.
Twenty-seven children in the Empire of the One, their father a Comet Fall Magician, are beginning to blossom into their powers . . . will they be able to build gates?

What of their rivals, still dependent on the expensive, temporary gates? What of the polities with no gate making at all?

A major shift of power is on the horizon.

 
 
matapam
12 December 2018 @ 11:18 am

Ryol laughed and headed for the tunnel, Jay right behind her. Arno compacted a bit of sunlight, then shrugged and let it go. Too much work. I’ll use gravity if I need more light than what they’ve got already.

He trotted to catch up, slowing as he left the bright sunlight for the dark tunnel. “I never heard . . .” His voice echoed, and he dropped to a near whisper, “just where these risqué pictures were supposed to be.”

“I heard they were right in front of our embassy.” Jay sounded cheerful. “I’m surprised no one’s giving guided tours.”

Jay’s laughter bounced off the stone walls.

I don’t remember the echoes, when I was here with Ebsa. I wonder if they used a sound damping spell? It sounds like there’s dozens of people clomping around.

As his eyes adjusted, it really wasn’t very dark, with the light from the tunnel entrance. He trotted to catch up with the others. “So much for being excused from the morning run. Seven miles to the Plaza, then the tunnel splits.”

“Race you!” Yrno took off. Jay sprinted past him.

“Good grief.” Ryol looked over at him. “Not going to compete?”

“Well, actually, if I alternate a moderate run with walking, I could easily beat both of them.” Arno started out with his usual “going to run the whole lap” pace, and Ryol matched him.

He glanced at his watch, and after ten minutes slowed and walked. Ryol looked back, shrugged and walked with him.

“It’s really weird, thinking about how much we’ve changed in less than half a year. Everyone talks about the magic training they get in high school. Meditation and mental privacy shields. And . . . that’s it. I already do so much more than that, and you can even do corridors. We’re not normal Oners anymore.”

Arno eyed her. “Yeah . . . I hadn’t thought about it like that. If those stupid bank robbers hadn’t locked them selves in the vault, we could of at least pretended to be normal. Well, we just need to . . . survive one year. Then we’ll move to Paris, where no one will know who we are.”

“You hope. Maybe I’ll dye my hair.”

“Mom won’t let you.” Arno pinched a tiny bit of gravity and compacted it until it glowed. Stuck it on his forehead.

They ran again, walked, ran . . . found Jay and Yrno staggering down the tunnel, in the dark, still arguing about where the race had ended and who had won.

Arno swapped a grin with his sister as they ran past them. But they stopped to examine the “art work” a couple of times. “Cool sea serpent. But I’m not sure it’s worth the trip.”

Ryol stuck her nose on the stone. “The scales are mineral crystals, with clear glass over them.”

“Quartz, see the crystal edges?” Arno stepped back and collected heat. It really did make a better light. “And they did all this while they were walking around up there on the surface, creating the whole tunnel.”

Ryol stepped back and added more light. “I guess we’re only a little off Oner normal . . . so far.”

Yrno and Jay joined them, eyeing the whole scene, waves, mermaids, and sea serpent.

“Well, that’s not what everyone was talking about.” Yrno grumbled. “But it’s all right.”

“I like it.” Jay grinned and headed onward, Yrno hustled after him.

“Boys!” Ryol sounded disgusted. “The only one with common sense is my twin.”

Arno snorted. “And we’ve met a bunch of kids from all over. Other Worlds.”

Ryol nodded. “Yeah . . . I’ve been thinking that . . . the Directorate School actually sounds pretty interesting.”

Arno stopped dead and gawped at her. “What? Wow! You’ve been fixated on Princess School for as long as I can remember.”

“Yeah. Duic’s been a real eye-opener. And the other two aren’t far behind. Well, I know they’re Priests, but I asked Aunt Rael and said Duic went to Princess School, and then got Dancer training, just like Aunt Rael. But then she sort of sank into the One.”

“That’s . . . interesting.” Arno shrugged. “Actually it’s enough to make me glad I’m not really a Oner.”

“Arno!”

He waved her protest away. “Oh, I’m a citizen of the Empire. But I don’t have that connection to the One. I’ve thought about asking Master Xen about that patch of skin thing . . . but what if I really don’t like it?”

“It’s not like that! There’s no voices or anything, it’s just . . . like you know you’re with friends.”

Arno blinked. “So long as you don’t voluntarily enter their homes. Then you may be swimming with the sharks.”

She reached out and punched his arm. “I’m not an idiot. C’mon.” She trotted off down the tunnel.

It took more than an hour to get to the junction beneath the corner of the plaza.

Ryol found enough energy to trot ahead. “I win!”

Arno grinned. “I don’t see any naughty pictures. I don’t think we’re at the finish line yet.”

Ryol snorted and headed . . . east? Yes, that way should be east, running under the north side of the Plaza.

Arno gathered more heat . . . and illuminated a long mural, the colors and textures all from the minerals in the rock being concentrated . . . “A giant octopus chasing naked ladies?”

“Eww!” Ryol stepped back. “Look at the ends of the octopus’s arms. They’re shaped like, umm . . .”

Arno snickered. “Oh that’s gross and disgusting.”

“What is?” Yrno panted up and stopped to stare.

Jay wobbled into the light. “Well . . . that’s different.”

“Oh, One. That’s too stupid to even be funny.” Yrno put his fists on his hips and glared at the octopus. “And now we have to walk all the way back.”

They all eyed the wall.

Arno shook his head, and opened his mouth to comment . . . except there were still footsteps echoing around the tunnel. “Huh. I guess we’re not the only people taking the tour.”

***

 
 
matapam
11 December 2018 @ 10:14 am
Edits done
Final formatting
Front and end matter
Cover ready
Remove all snippets . . . Drat, hate this step! If any of you want _Scrambled_ in a word doc, better grab it from Google doc, it'll be gone tomorrow.
 
 
matapam
11 December 2018 @ 07:52 am

***

Arno’s attention drifted a little as he meditated. There was the gravity trough from the Moon to the Earth, more like a rollercoaster, really, a high point up there, and then a straight slide down to Earth, getting steeper the closer to Earth. High point? He looked back at it. An inflection point where it changed to the Moon’s gravity dominating.

The lagrange point. Of course. L1. He pulled back And there’s L4 and L5, like shallow dimples. He pulled back further, until he could see the Earth-Sun gravity trough . . . and somebody shoved a spike of pain through his head.

And a cold bottle into his hands. “Enough for you tonight, Arno. Relax.”

He took a long swig and looked up at the Moon. Nearly overhead? How long was I . . . stargazing, so to speak. Hours, apparently.

He finished off the bottle, listening to Master Xen coaching the others.

No matter how cold or dark a place we’re in, we’ll always have gravity.

Except in orbit? Except that’s a gravity effect, slinging us around the slanted side of the gravity well fast enough to not fall in.

Even in interstellar space there’s the gravity that holds the galaxy together.

Intergalactic . . . I’ll bet it’s getting pretty flat. But not zero. Never zero.

He pondered his natural interests. Chemistry, Physics . . . I’ve always loved the sciences, studied way ahead of my grade. And now this. I can actually see what I’m interested in. And there’s micro manufacturing . . . manipulating thing at a nearly atomic level. I’ll have to try that, see what I can do. See what I can see.

Master Xen was walking around, stirring all the other kids . . . “Gior? How about tossing a small, controlled fireball at that stack of wood?”

“What!”

“Small. Controlled. Walk up and light the fire.”

The unsteady walk might have been the effect of walking on loose sand. Or having sat for hours. But Gior did walk up to the stack of wood and toss a tiny fireball in. The dry wood caught quickly and spread.

“Grab drinks. Grab skewers. We’re having hotdogs for a late dinner, or midnight snack, if you’d rather think of it in those terms.” A quick flash of a grin. “And you’re excused from the morning run.”

So they stayed out on the beach for hours, just talking. About how their families were dealing with the sudden appearance of a biodad. The possibility that their child might be able to make corridors and gates.

Yrno snorted. “My Dad’s already figuring out how he’s going to spend the money I’ll be making. As if I’ll let him get his greasy fingers on it!”

Arno shrugged. “We really will make a lot of money. It might be worth sharing it around, just to keep the peace.”

“Arno!” Ryol poked him. “Not that Mom and Dad need any, but keeping the peace isn’t about money!”

Lala snickered. “The Clan sent a bill to Master Xen, to recompence them for what they had to pay my hideous foster parents. He sent a chit right back. Then the fosters called, trying to kiss up to me. I clicked off on them. I’m never going back.”

Jay nodded. “My mom’s a bit irritated. My stepdad’s cool, but then they’ve only been married for three and a half years, so it’s not like he’s got any ego at risk. Especially with their second kid on the way”

Voyr sighed. “My parents won’t even speak of it . . . Not that Mother gave a fig for Ylro . . . he’s one of the ones they executed.”

Or What grunted. “Councilman Urna. Executed. My mother does this little pretend sob whenever he’s mentioned.”

Lala shrugged. “My mother’s then-husband was killed in the assassination attempt. Fighting on the wrong side, of course.”

“Minister Opri. Executed.” Gior threw her hands up. “Can we talk about something else? Ryol and Arno are the only ones with a happy ending, here.”

Arno started laughing . . . Ryol punched his shoulder. “It’s not funny! We were raised by our biomom’s sister and her husband, with the grandparents near by and, oh . . . the dinner where Master Xen met everyone! Eep! It was not pretty.”

Aunt Rael giggled. “With a few months perspective it is starting to be funny. And we all kissed and made up at the end. Well . . . no one actually punched Xen. The rest of us kissed and made up.”

Master Xen cleared his throat. “I believe all of you will be starting high school next September, er, Qadah? More or less?”

Nods all around. Master Xen turned a bit to look at the Chaperones. “Do you know if the One has any further plans to disrupt the kids’ educations?”

“Not yet.” Ytry shrugged. “But things do seem to come up unexpectedly.”

Xen nodded. “Perhaps you could set future schools on vacation days, sufficiently far ahead that everyone’s families could plan around them? The kids all have the basics. They need to practice them for a few years, get comfortable with them, mature a bit, and then they’ll be ready for more training.”

Mature a bit? Well, yeah, those magic booster stages. Some of us are starting puberty already. Oh, loss of virginity . . . parenthood! Yikes!

He contemplated everything he’d been doing. And I’m not quite fifteen.

What am I, what are we, going to be like when we’re twenty?

***

Arno dragged out of bed midmorning.

The common room was empty, the coffee urn empty.

Breakfast at The Kitchen, or grab some pastries? He flipped a mental coin, and headed for the pastry shop.

And found Yrno, Jay, and Ryol already there.

Ryol shoved a plate of miscellaneous goodies across the table to him. “Master Xen popped in and said he had to go connect pipes, handed over a bunch of tokens and said to not get into any trouble we couldn’t get out of, or would seriously regret later.”

Yrno grinned. “I know what I want to do. I’m going to check out the art in the storm drains.”

Speaking of people who have started puberty . . . And Jay looks like he’s trying to not look interested.

Ryol glowered at them. Looked at Arno.

He shrugged. “All I saw was fish and stuff. And anyway, it’s what, fifteen kilometers. How are we going to get there?”

Yellow brought out cups and a pot and started pouring hot cocoa. “Hasn’t anyone shown you the tram? See the stripped pole down there? Push the button, they’ll show up eventually. We really need a proper bus service though.”

Ryol sniffed. “I refuse to believe there’s anything really nasty down there.”

Arno sipped cocoa, then snagged another donut. “Probably not. Of course Yrno can probably find something suggestive in just random patterns.”

Even Yrno snickered about that.

They polished off the cocoa and munched donuts as they walked down the street to the pole on the corner and poked the big red button.

Arno spotted movement on the opposite corner of the plaza. Red and white stripped awnings over . . . something like an open Ute and a trailer that was just two long benches, back-to-back facing to either side.

The young woman driving it grinned at them. “You must be new here. Heading for the beach?”

Yrno shook his head. “We want to see the storm drains.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “Hop in . . . I usually charge a tok a head for the round trip, but since there’s no way for you to call me for a pick up, how about two toks for the four of you. Or, of course,” She pointed at the manhole up against the curb. “You could start there.”

They stared at the heavy metal disk. Ryol forked over two toks. “This way we can pretend it’s the catacombs or something.”

The driver laughed. “Next stop, the catacombs!”

Of course with a top speed of probably thirty kilometers per hours there was time to finish off the pastries, and realize that there were no bird sounds either from the grasslands or the groves of trees they passed . . .

“Wait! There’s a bird!” Ryol pointed. “Well, one is better than none, right?”

The driver called back, “They accidentally fly through a gate, and then they can’t get back. So there’s more and more animals all the time. We ignore most of them, and they run off, away from all the people. But Xen did hunt down the tiger that came through one day.”

“Bet that was a surprise!” Yrno was sitting as close to the front as possible. Right. Cheerful blue-eyed blonde with freckles. Of course he’s attracted.

“Oh yeah! Fortunately the first person who saw it was a Oner and could shield and yell for help. Xen tracked it and caught up with it about the time it spotted the horse herd.”

“Whoa!”

“Yeah, Disco’s real protective of their horses. And they don’t even let small predators loose on purpose.”

Yrno squished himself against the bench arm. “I’m Yrno Withione Peking.”

“Ah, I figured you were all Oners. I’m Pepi Malder, from Comet Fall.”

“That’s not a witch type name . . .”

“Nah. I’m a girl wizard. And here you go. Have fun!” She waved as they unloaded and walked down the steps to the first ledge.

“Oh look! There’s enough water for the horse statue to have wings!” Ryol hopped down two ledges to get a good look . . . from the up-wind side. Not that there was much of a breeze. And of course the water was completely purified. Except when someone crawled up a side pipe . . .

Arno stayed further back and said nothing.

Jay walked up to the tunnel. “You know . . . lights might have been a good idea.”

“Ha!” Yrno snatched a handful of sunlight. “Let’s go.”

 
 
matapam
10 December 2018 @ 01:06 am

Prologue

Unvu was of the One, but at the moment, had pulled away, to present an argument. "Endi Dewulfe, AKA Xen Wolfson, fathered twenty-seven children. The earliest were born in Safar of 1397, the last in Rajab. It is time we studied these children. The youngest has turned fourteen, and there have been many early assumptions of power."

"There could be new Warriors." One of the aggressive priests nodded. Izmo, need to keep an eye on him.

An ambitious female priest, snorted. "There could be more ways to influence Xen Wolfson, and through him, Wolfgang. Perhaps all of the Comet Fall gods."

Unvu nodded to her. Ambitious, and vicious. She’ll be useful.

Diuc smiled hungrily. "Ways to undermine Disco."

A rival for power, but still a weak woman, prey to her hormones.

"Ways to take over Disco." Izmo smiled.

Ytry cleared his throat. "Learn how to make gates. Corridors."

And the clever man.

A whispering rush through multiple mouths.

A woman who had spoken before nodded. "We need to assess the potential."

"Channel and use that potential." This woman also spoke with a single voice.

The one always had outliers. Princesses and, more rarely, priests who never integrated fully. They were useful windows on the world, and made better Watchers, living out in the world and reporting back. Leading the dwindling worshipers, teaching, recruiting. The One approved the project and decided to send these six out, to watch.



 
 
 
matapam
09 December 2018 @ 01:40 pm
So. What is a good pen name for Romances?

I swear, I'm going to do a romance cover, new title and a pen name and republish the Black Goats as a romance.
 
 
matapam
09 December 2018 @ 07:43 am

Chapter


Unvu threw his hands in the air. “Children! Mere fourteen-year-olds! Being trained in advanced Magic techniques! And now this!”

“Calm down.” The old man pushed himself out of his comfortable chair and stretched.

"Calm down? We wanted Wolfson to evaluate the children. Maybe give them some extra meditation exercises. And now . . . fireballs! Massive telekinesis! Telepathy over twenty kilometers!"

The Prophet Emre sighed. "Did you expect Wolfgang Oldham's grandchildren to be ordinary? I didn’t. Especially not the two that are also my great grandchildren."

Duic nodded sharply. "They will give us back our supremacy over the Multiverse."

Emre shook his gray head.

Unvu tried, and failed, to suppress the thought that if the Prophet had gone ahead and died like he was supposed to, Unvu would be running the One, not babysitting terrifying children.

Now Emre looked like a Oner in his early second century. "Stop it. There is no need to rule anything. It will be nice to be able to open our own gates and corridors. But it won't get any cheaper. Private dimensional companies will probably charge an arm and a leg. Well, no doubt the government bureaucracy will come up with regulations and permits and piles of paperwork."

He glanced at his desk. "Dammit.”

Unvu glowered. “But right now we have a problem.”

“Just . . . send those seven kids back to Wolf’s boy and ask him to instill some control." The old Prophet waved them off.

Duic and Unvu bowed themselves out.

They exchanged glances, as their shields tightened even further. Unvu kept his voice quiet. "Of course, for the One to be supreme, Wolfson will have to die."

Duic smiled thinly. “My pleasure.”

Unvu smiled back and didn’t think at all about anyone else who needed to be gotten out of the way.

***

“So, the One is hugely impressed with your progress.”

Arno eyed Unvu. The Priest was looking almost manic.

:: So who scared him? :: He mentally poked Jay.

:: They’ve twice gotten us locals together for testing. Three days ago Gior and Voyr got into a cat fight over some boy they both know. They started throwing fireballs. ::

:: At each other? ::

:: Yeah. Bounced off shields, of course. Or What and I snuffed all the fires. ::

:: Damn, I missed all the fun! :: Yrno, of course.

The Priest kept talking. “Just coming up on your fifteenth birthdays, and you seven have already shown strong magical talent, and dimensional abilities, with one of you already able to make corridors. Well, at the suggestion of Captain Wolfson, we gave you time to do a little more maturing, and consolidate what you have already learned.

“Wolfson has worked a little more with the other children, but they seem to do well on a more standard program. Highly accelerated, but still . . .” Unvu cleared his throat and got back on track.

“So, having had two months off, we’re sending you back to Embassy for another week of training.”

:: Before we really burn something down. :: Arno glanced at Ryol, to see if she was listening in. The way she was glowering at Gior and Voyr, he suspected they were having a chat of their own.

:: Great. Like things weren’t frosty enough at school already. Now I’m missing another week. And the teachers are pissed. ::

Or What snorted. :: Yeah. My mother has managed to dodge public notoriety, so no one knows what I am. That was brilliant, by-the-way, that “Wolfson’s Withione Bastard Monster, get the insult right.” I laughed my ass off about it. ::

Jay nodded. :: It’s a good line for all of us to follow. And we need to push the idea about how now us Oners will be able to do our own corridors and gates. ::

Unvu was still nattering along. “. . . learn more dimensional techniques and control.”

Arno tried to keep a straight face. :: Yeah and what some of us need to learn is to control their tempers. ::

Glares from Gior and Voyr. Ryol just looked attentively at One Unvu.

She’s been working to subdue the outbursts about “the situation” for so long the nasty sister emoting has almost disappeared. Either that or, like grandmother said, cyclic. Menses. Ick. And they don’t let the girls turn off their periods for two years. Ick.

I just hope that when she turns it off, she stops on the nice part of the cycle!

“So, the cars are here. Let’s go.”

***

The school was starting to look like home. Well . . . a familiar vacation spot.

The only difference was Master Xen’s reception.

Ryol hung back and circled away as he stared down at Gior and Voyr.

“A fight with fireballs. Neither of you have a clue what you were risking, do you?”

Silence. Gior swallowed.

“Come with me. The rest of you settle in. When I get back we’ll pop down to the beach for a bit of practice and watch the sun set.”

He walked away, Gior and Voyr trotting to keep up with his longer stride.

Ryol sidled over to Lala. “What’s he going to do?”

“I don’t know. He was really upset after he talked to Unvu on the comm.”

“Yikes.” Ryol grabbed her suitcase and hauled it down to her usual room. Changed into beach clothes. It’s too late to swim, the sun’s going to set soon.

They were back in less than an hour, both girls pale and shaky as Master Xen herded them back in.

Diuc scowled at Master Xen. “And what did you just do?”

“They observed while I checked the vital signs on a couple of very bad burn cases that came in yesterday. I believe Gior and Voyr have a better idea now of what they were trying to do to each other. And how lucky they are to not be occupying beds in a burn unit themselves.”

Voyr managed to get even paler, slapped a hand over her mouth and bolted for the bathroom under the stairs. Gior smiled shakily, edging the same direction, turning and running for it.

Ryol thought about a couple of horror movies that had featured bad burns, and shuddered. I do not ever want to see the real thing!

“So, any of the rest of you need a large dose of shock treatment?”

Arno gulped and shook his head.

“Right. Grab the ice chests and let’s hit the beach. Diuc? Would you wait here and bring the girls out when they’re feeling a little better?”

The Priest, or whatever she was, gave a chilly nod.

Arno spotted the ice chests, big things, and hefted one end. Put it back down and looked for a bubble. Caught it, opened it, and slipped it over the chest. Slap attached it to his shoulder.

“Show off,” Yrno grumbled, as he reached carefully for another. Grinned as it didn’t pop, and whipped it over the second chest. Yelped in dismay as it drifted off.

Xen gestured and it floated back and let Yrno grab it and attach it to his own shoulder.

“Good. The rest of you go collect driftwood and we’ll have a fire and cook out on the beach Hopefully not setting Gior and Voyr off again.” He shook his head. “Let’s go.”

It was warm on the beach, the sun low. Gior and Voyr showed up . . . gulped and helped drag driftwood into a huge pile.

The sun set, and the full moon rose, gold reflections off the water turning into silver.

“Right. Everyone line up.” Master Xen faced them in the dim moon light. “You all have three power genes, that pull power from different sources. The wizard gene, the mage gene, and the One gene all pull from different but overlapping frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. The Witch gene pulls from gravity.

“All of you have used either the Mage or the Oner gene to collect light and heat. Now I’m going to teach you to pull from just the ambient heat around you. No nice warm sunshine. So,” He spread his arms and hands. “Feel that warm air? Imagine that heat soaking into your skin, filling you with power. Excellent Ryol.” A nod and shoulder squeeze for Lala. He looked down at Gior and Voyr. “Don’t be afraid of the power. Be afraid of your tempers, of losing control.”

He touched them gently, hands to lightly brush their faces. They jumped at the zing. “You are my daughters. You are already powerful, and will become more powerful as you get older. If you cannot control yourself, you will not be able to control the power, and that will be disastrous for everyone around you.

“If I’d had any lesser burn victims, I’d have used them.” He sighed. “I’m sorry. But that is the kind of injury you would have inflicted on another person, had you lost your temper and thrown a fireball at someone who couldn’t shield. And most of your agemates are lucky to shield mentally. They haven’t even begun to shield physically, haven’t a clue how to shield from energy.”

“So mind your temper. Now, feel the warmth of the night, and pull it in.”

He stepped away, and nodded at Or What. A squeeze of his shoulder, a zing. “Good job.”

Yrno was glowing. “Let it seep away now. If it won’t float out into the air, send it into the sand.

“Jay, looks good.” He hesitated, held out a hand.

Jay shook his head, and the hand was withdrawn.

“Arno? Not too much, please. Umm, use it to move some sand, we could use some heaps to sit around the fire, in a little while.”

Master Xen paced back to Gior and Voyr. “That’s better. If you are ever in a place with no light, you will still be powerful.”

“Ryol? Don’t compete with your brother for over doing. Let it go.”

She let it evaporate back out of her skin. Looked at the man. She’d never touched her biofather. “You were careful to not touch us.”

“That first zing establishes a tiny connection. It will fade with time, or become stronger. If you prefer to not even start, you have that right.”

She blinked back tears. Shook her head. You are not my dad.

He nodded, and stepped back to look at all of them. “Right. Next up, gravity. Face east and sit down, we’ll start with a bit of meditation, while we study the Moon.”

***

 
 
matapam
08 December 2018 @ 08:33 am

***

After breakfast the kids were packed off to school, and Xen walked on the beach with Rael.

“You have to understand, I was in a coma. Mother and Father had unlimited power of attorney. They had every legal right, especially in view of the doctors’ recommendations, to end my pregnancy. And every legal right to give the embryos to my sister.”

Xen eyed her cautiously. Her glow was quiet, hurt underneath but not as sharp as the day before. “So . . . it’s in not telling you that they erred?”

“Oh, they probably thought I’d be happier not knowing.” She kick a pebble, then bent to pick it up and pitch it into the ocean. “It’s funny . . . I understand Raod. When I was in the hospital, they visited all the time. Raod was so happy, so glowing. One! The baby clothes she bought and brought to show me! And ‘Look one of them is kicking’ and I’d tease her about sibling rivalry starting already. She . . . she bonded to the twins before they were born . . . they were hers and she’d use everything, anything, every dirty trick . . . or silence . . . to keep her children. I understand that.”

“My parents . . . Arno and Ryol are their grandchildren no matter who raised them, no matter where they were raised.” She huffed out a breath. “I was in the hospital for more than a year, in a coma or paralyzed for half of it. More than half. Even after they released me, and I came home . . . I had to stop and rest halfway up a flight of stairs. I didn’t dare hold one of the babies unless I was sitting down.”

They walked on in silence for a dozen steps.

“I couldn’t have raised them, myself. I would have had to live with my parents, and even with a nanny, they probably would have had to help me. A lot. I’m pretty sure I would have left them with Raod.” There were tears on her face. “But I would have visited more often. Loved them a little more. Differently.”

She leaned into his shoulder, and he stopped and put his arms around her.

“Sorry. I thought I got past this last night.”

“Oh, Spikey. It’s a kind of grief. It’s probably going to be ambushing you for a couple of years.” He tightened his hold on her. “I’ve been watching those kids. They hang around you, follow you, talk about you. Fight over who gets to sit next to you. You’re their fantastic magical famous aunt . . . and now they know you’re their mother. Theirs.

“Even with the social unacceptable biofather, they seem to think they’re coming out way ahead.” He shrugged. “Oh, Ryol did some emoting, but she got over it awfully fast.”

Rael snorted. “I know. She called me. I was shocked that Ox actually called you.”

“Heh. Did you notice Urfa checking him out? I’ll bet he steals him from Izzo. So you just need to have a good enough relationship with Raod that they live close to you when they move to Paris.”

Rael’s eyebrows rose. “I’d forgotten about that. Before all this blew up, yes, a permanent position with Internal Relations has been offered. I was telling Raod she should live in my house and get familiar with the city before they bought a house or apartment.”

“Ah, good plan. The closer together you all live, the easier the sharing of children. Hmm, your house would be packed. Need me to come finish the back rooms in the basement?”

Rael shook her head, smiling. “Actually they’re about to lose their nanny—she says that once the youngest child is in school, it’s time for her to move on to the next job. And Raod really can cook herself. She said she missed it. But they don’t want to sell their house, so it’ll probably be a bit of a financial strain to maintain two homes.”

He looked down at her and bit his lip. “Umm . . . Did you know I paid double the standard lump sum child support for twenty-five kids? Bet I can really piss off your sister by offering the same to her. Or you.”

Rael frowned. “How rich are you, actually? I mean, I know you own a whole World but that’s not the same as having spendable money.”

“Umm, very? Between gold mining and whatever my Dad has put in my account . . . heh you weren’t there when I talked with Orde and Urfa about the Wolf Company.”

“The one that’s handling all the monetary exchanges here? Is your father the Wolf of the company name?”

“Yes. He’s the sole owner, and probably the richest man on Comet Fall.” Xen shrugged. “And anytime I’m feeling independent, I can go gold mining. We pretty much fall into the category of ‘money is a useful tool’ but we vaguely remember way back when it was a hard scramble to get the minimum needed for things that had to be purchased.”

Rael nodded, quick thoughts flashing behind mental shields. “There are some really good private prep schools in Paris. Very expensive.”

Xen grinned at her. “So why don’t I send you what the other mothers got, and you can pay to put the kids in one—or two—of these pricey prep schools?”

That finally got a giggle. “And one-up my sister.”



Chapter

Girls and Boys

Xen eyed his eleven other Oner daughters. Ytry had accepted his request for a split session. Because girls learn differently, quite apart from nineteen students all at once would be difficult. Dangerous, in fact.

“Excellent. Your mental shields are solid and steady. So, let’s think about energy shields. The basic shield is just a single mirror, but it needs to stand out about an arms-length from you and reach from the floor to over your head.”

He raised an illusion as he spoke, a shiny bullet shape that hid him completely.

“Reflecting outward, of course. And reflecting electromagnetic energy, not thoughts. So,” he banished the illusion. “Let’s start with a small shield and work on the twist that makes it reflect energy on a small part of the spectrum.”

He gathered light, in a tiny bit of the spectrum and concentrated it. Held up the bright red light. “Imagine a mirror that reflects red light.”

They aren’t less strong than the other kids, but they can only mine heat for power. I wonder if I can borrow a beach for physical shield lessons? Or a day trip to Embassy? I sympathize with the teachers, wanting to not make targets of them.

And making sure they stay Oners.

I think I need to stick to teaching . . . more subtle magic. Charms and spell construction. Things that will be of value to them here.

He walked among the kids, the techniques of reflecting energy projecting softly past his own mental shields, as he helped each of them feel what this sort of shield felt like.

And of course, with lessons in Paris . . .

Rael was traveling with the President the first two days, but he stayed at her house and weeded the garden, worked over the basement . . . added a bathroom, enclosed the laundry equipment, installed windows in the two possible bedrooms, with corridors so the outside of the windows were above ground, attached to the back of the garage.

Flooring . . . He eyed the bare room. What does Rael need? Or her sister’s family if they stay here? Rael’s got a little screen upstairs that she claims to rarely watch.

All the kids I know want huge screens, gaming systems, good speakers for music . . .

Or I could wait for Rael to get back, because she’ll probably have something to say about what I’ve done so far . . .

And then next week, I have the training session with the boys.

Then I suppose I’ll have to go back to work.


 
 
matapam
07 December 2018 @ 09:32 am

***

Xen stretched out on the warm sands above the high tide line, across the road from the kids’ home.

Raod and Ox were bright points, pretty much as bright as Oners could be, and the younger kids were clearly on their way up.

Ryol, Arno, and Rael outshown them. Ryol and Arno with that tint that dimensional abilities added to glow. Rael . . . the hurt was fading, and a few little bright sparks popped out now and then. He heaved a sigh of relief, tossed a spell of unnoticeable over himself and settled down for a nap.

Three in the morning, by the stars, when he woke, feeling her searching mentally for him.

:: So I did hear you telling Ox you’d stick around. Where are you? ::

:: On the beach. Nice warm sand, this time of year. ::

:: Tsk! They really try to discourage people from sleeping on the beach. ::

:: I’m such a scofflaw. :: Xen stretched and relaxed. Even at a distance he could detect a happy glow. A much lowered level of hurt beneath it.

It’ll take more than one hug to heal this, but it’s heading the right way. I doubt she’ll ever wholeheartedly trust her parents or sister again.

:: Love you, Spikey. ::

:: I love you, Master of the Multiverse. :: A mental impression of a yawn. :: I’m going back to sleep. ::

He sent her a mental hug, and settled back to sleep more, himself.

/// Breakfast ///

And was invited to breakfast.

Which involved—for his part—a quick shower in his dimensional stable/apartment—and another change into clean clothes, casual, this time.

Rael met him at the door for a long hard hug. “Thank you.”

Xen closed his eyes and bathed in all the happy sparks she was throwing out. “Oh bah, couldn’t have you and Raod plotting to kill each other.”

She snickered. “We agreed to share and play nicely. I get the kids for a big chunk of next summer, and will visit much more frequently.”

“Excellent.” Xen relaxed his grip. A little. “And I suspect Urfa will send you along if the One wants another session. I need to work more with the One Power kids, too.”

A snicker from Rael. “Your other nineteen kids. I’ll call Ytry and see what’s happening with them.”

“I’d appreciate that. I . . . know I ought not play favorites, but all but one have parents and they don’t need me. And then there’s your pair. Our pair. Oh, Rael. They’re incredible. And any . . . possessiveness I show will make a difficult situation worse.”

“Yeah.” Arno’s voice.

Oops!

Xen opened his eyes and studied the two kids sitting on the stairs, watching them. “That’ll teach me to show kids how to shield.”

“It’s not that we don’t like you, Master Xen . . .” Ryol, bless her, was trying to not hurt his feelings.

“I know. I’m aspiring to become a respected and liked teacher. I haven’t earned anything more. Yet.”

The sound of galloping feet and the other two kids skidded around the corner and down two stairs to sit with their siblings. The girl was about nine and frowned at him. “Who are you?”

“I’m Rael’s boyfriend. Xen Wolfson.”

The boy, seven or eight years old, eyed him. “Are you going to be our Uncle Xen? Gramma said something about that.”

Razz giggled. “It wasn’t very polite.”

Rael buried her face in her hands, laughing.

Xen grinned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, right now. They might say those not-polite things to my face.”

“You’d better believe it!”Ardo’s voice from upstairs.

Xen paused . . . “Excellent! No enthusiastic endorsements. I may have made some progress.”

Rael snorted and pulled him toward the stairs. “Let’s go eat.”

A nice buffet spread. The brief Christian style prayer before hand surprised him a bit. Rael rolled her eyes, so it probably wasn’t something the family did very often.

Ardo, of course, eyed him suspiciously. “I didn’t think Christianity—or any of the old religions survived on Comet Fall.”

“They didn’t. On Arrival, on the other hand, one of the Protestant religions has a strong presence. That’s Exile Four. Since we discovered it, we’ve had regular trade and contact. My mother formed some solid friendships there, and we visited regularly when I was a kid. So I was a regular church goer for quite a while.”

“I thought they were a recent discovery?”

“Thirteen seventy-five. Seventy-seven for you. I was six years old. It was where one of the experimental gates opened, as my mother worked to perfect the techniques.”

“Perfected . . . so she was an early gate maker?”

“Actually she invented them. The first gates were placed so people could evacuate before the comet hit. Not that most people did. We had the biggest cities shielded, and if we hadn’t diverted the comet, we most likely would have had to evacuate the cities, after.”

Ox thought that over. “So when you advised us about evacuating if Helios was going to hit us, it was from experience?”

“Yes. And hopefully your government would have been more successful at moving people. On Comet Fall, three small communities moved altogether. One of them had everyone come return. One of them closed off the gate and told us to stay away, and the last one just treated their new world like an extension of the town. They still do.”

Ardo snorted. “Rather like the cross-dimensional suburbs we’re getting. You’re doing interesting things to our world.”

“And our own. Good things, by and large. Just as contact with the Empire and the Earth has boosted our tech.”

Arno was sitting next to him, and piped up. “I spotted a lot of photovoltaic panels on roofs in Karista.”

His mother twitched.

Xen nodded. “We took the kids on a quick tour. We don’t have the infrastructure—generators, power lines, transformers and so forth—so solar power is cost effective. They’ve about finished a hydroelectric project up in the hills south of the city that will let the factories switch from steam to electric motors.”

Ox eyed him. “Does using our tech make you feel inferior?”

Xen shrugged. “Not really. Sort of like corridors just irritate you because you can’t make them. Or gates, because we can do them better than you can.” He nodded at the kids. “The trick now is going to be getting people to see these kids as ‘Oners can make them too’ rather than it still being Comet Fall, at one remove.”

Ox sat back and pondered that. “Which lowers our dependence on you for dimensional work, makes you seem more like us, and less threatening.”

“Yep. Mind you, it is a risk. The next President could really make me regret training the kid’s dimensional talents. And if not the One, then some other polity.”

Ryol giggled. “They sure were recruiting! Although the British Empire didn’t want us, they wanted a teacher for the ten year old children of some Comet Fall people named, umm . . .”

“Fidel Iron and Ajay of Gendo?” Xen shrugged. “They got the usual warnings. Live honestly, and no one will come for you. Although Iron did get an additional ‘and don’t even think about coming back to Comet Fall, ever’ on top of the usual.”

Arno frowned. “I don’t get that. Why not arrest them?”

“The dimensional criminals have proven extremely difficult to keep imprisoned. But several have settled down to make an honest living, so we encourage that.” He caught the boy’s eye then glanced at Ryol. “If I find those two you discovered in the Maze, I’ll give them the same pep talk.”

“Wow.” Arno looked thoughtful. Didn’t say a thing about his very interesting experience of being a goat. “I guess I can see that. Just having them settle down and run a trading post does beat chasing them all over the multiverse, possibly committing more crimes as they go.”

Ox hid his face in his hand. Raod frowned. “And just where did you meet whom?”

“The Maze. It’s a bunch of worlds all linked together with gates. Really fun to explore. We were making a map. We met a lot of people in there—the reporters that cover Embassy Stuff? They camp in whatever world has the nicest weather that day, and spend a lot of time fishing.”

Xen subdued his amusement. “When we discovered how to make gates . . . it was years before we figured out how to take them down. So when we located the One World, we didn’t build a gate straight to it. We built a maze of gates and corridors—corridors can be taken down quickly—to lose any pursuit in, if our infiltration was discovered.

“Now, it’s been discovered and used by several groups, some criminals. The people the kids tripped over were Arrow, one of the older teens with the Black Island Gang, who was released on parole, her criminal career having been brief and non-violent. She was in the Maze to hide from her mother—an excellent idea—who will be released much too soon for my comfort. And an Earther associated with the mess on Granite Peak who may or may not have been mentally influenced by the Oner Traitors, and may or may not have embezzled his company’s retirement funds.”

Xen shrugged. “Everyone decided they were much better off left alone to run their trading post.”

“Hmm.” Ox scratched his chin. “Someday, someone is going to do something bad enough to warrant arrest and extradition.”

“We pretty much saw that with the, umm, Black Island Gang. We sent the kids to relatives, the adult offenders to Earth Bogota Nuke. The ones we caught. Now, I wish we’d raised the age limit and sent Arrow to Ash as well. The rest of them are reaching the end of their sentences, and I’m not looking forward to their being on the loose again.”

Ryol squirmed. “What about all those weird animals?”

“They were from Granite Peak. The people Q hit with a morph spell in the fight, who escaped. They’re back to human. Most of the Oners accepted exile to Agony—I can’t believe they named it that—just a few are trying out the court system. The Earthers went home. I have no idea what is happening to them.”

Rael was glowering at him. :: No mention of the kids being transformed into goats? ::

:: Nope. The kids thought it was a lark . . . but since there were no injuries or other unpleasantness, it’s not something the group as a whole wanted to explain, I’m not mentioning it. ::

Her eyes narrowed. :: And if I hadn’t been there, would you have told me? ::

:: I’m not sure. I respect the kids’ decision. ::

:: They are only fourteen. ::

:: Three-fourths of the way to adulthood. Old enough to be accorded the respect any sapient being ought to receive. ::

:: My mind agrees with you. My heart is horrified! ::

:: It’s tough being a parent. And uncomfortable at times. I could trust you not to leak it any further. And not work to make them feel traumatized. I don’t know your sister well enough to trust her to not emote all over. :: Xen stabbed sausage and looked across at Rael’s sister.

“So, you’re a freelance software engineer?”

She blinked. “That’s . . . a little too grand a term . . .”

“Really? I think your auto redirect is a huge step forward for civilization. I can always tell how pissed at me Rael is by how horrible a music station her phone sends me to when I call.”

Ardo actually smiled at that. “Keeps you jumping, does she?”

“I have a nasty suspicion it’s right there on her job description.” Xen grinned at Rael’s giggle.

 
 
matapam
06 December 2018 @ 08:16 am

Chapter

Dinner with the Family

Kyol and Ardo’s house was about a mile and a half south, a large house, rather than a small mansion, a block back from the ocean.

Urfa eyed the setup, so different from a Paris home.

Like their older daughter’s mansion, the garage, kitchen, and servants quarters were on the ground floor, with the dining and living room above, to catch the view.

The stairs were on the outside of the building, leading up to the entry, and the huge living room. The view was more restricted, the golden sunshine of the southern summer evening reflecting off the waves as they looked between the beachfront houses. Looking the other way, the large windows of the dining room showed a panorama of the enclave, buildings climbing the low slope, lights coming on all over as the sun sank between two tall buildings.

Glittery crystal and silver. White linen napkins on polished wood. Two bottles of wine on ice.

Good servants, laying out a fancy spread on half an hour’s notice.

“Director, please, sit beside me.” Ardo eyed Xen. “And perhaps Captain Wolfson would take the foot of the table? Rael, sit beside your boss . . .”

Urfa kept his face straight at the faint caution on both Rael’s and Xen’s faces.

The most powerful woman in the Empire, suddenly in the role of the daughter bringing home an unsatisfactory boyfriend.

Pity I’m not sitting where I can see her face.

Poor Rael, you were not meant to have a peaceful quiet life, but I really wish you’d have a lot longer stretches between crises.

The kids sat beyond Rael, and Madam Kyol across from him. Then Ox (Izzo’s right about him. Solid, honest and smart.) Madam Raod sat stiffly, with her husband on one side and Xen around the corner.

She definitely looks worried. She’s probably not legally in trouble, but she’s lost in the swamp of family disasters and knows it. She must be able to feel Rael’s anger, even as hard as Rael’s keeping it in. And Xen . . . has a polite social glow, emitting not a spec of information or emotion. I haven’t a clue what’s behind it, although I can guess. Madam Raod doesn’t know him, and she’s leaking “frightened and fierce.”

I’d better stop thinking it’s amusing.

A little rumble and two young women servants swooped over to open a cabinet . . . a dumbwaiter, of course. How British.

Soup, and then salads. Putting on a good show for the Parisians, or hoping to intimidate Xen?

Ardo reached for the wine and poured it himself. A nice crisp white.

Ardo set his down, interlaced his fingers and stared down the table at Xen. “So, Captain Wolfson. You’ve been dating my daughter for several years. Are your intentions honorable?”

Urfa clamped down on a multitude of emotions. And a laugh. But also shock, trepidation . . . the amusement faded as Xen’s eyes darkened, his polite smile fading. Rael suddenly closed her shields up so tight she disappeared from his magical sight.

“No.”

Dead silence for a moment.

“Rael and I are both agents of our respective governments. We are both loyal and dedicated. Neither of us can give our lives, our futures, whole-heartedly to each other. A marriage would damage both our security clearances, and ultimately end in tears. Or arrests.”

He broke his stare down with Ardo to look at Rael. “We cannot commit to each other . . . however much we both might so desire.” He looked back at Ardo. “I regret this very much.”

Ardo clicked his fork lightly on his plate a few times.

Thinking? Irritated? Both?

“I see.” He turned toward Urfa. “So, I’ve been reading the preliminary suggestions from the Corridors Project. Do you think the Dock Workers Union will sign off on it?”

“With the greatest of reluctance. A slow down in the emplacement of corridors is the best they can hope for. It’s the airlines that are the major stumbling block. And car rental agencies. They both just hate the idea of people just driving anywhere in the world, in their own vehicles.” Urfa sat back, and for the first time in a long time, was relieved to talk politics.

All through tender steaks and mushrooms sautéed in butter and some local custard and caramel thing. Red wine displaced the white, then a sweet dessert wine, and finally coffee.

Rael was still closed tight. Her entire dinner conversation had been a single “Yes, Mother” and two “No Mothers.” Ox had commented knowledgeably a few times, Xen twice.

Madam Raod and the two kids had not spoken at all.

As live action soap opera, this was distinctly uncomfortable. And I have no idea how to rescue my top agent, my good friend, from this mess. I guess it’s time for as graceful an exit as I can manage.

“Madam Kyol, you have a superb cook.”

She smiled, relieved by small talk.

Or recognizing that I’m going to take my leave and she can . . . well, they apparently aren’t the dish flinging sorts, so maybe go have a good cry.

“Thank you. I have to fight off social rivals trying to hire her away from me regularly.” She rose, everyone else leaped to the their feet in relief.

Urfa looked at his watch. “Umm, that’s the main problem with Corridors. Instant jet lag. Madam Kyol, Senior Administrator Ardo, thank you for your hospitality.”

The man managed a wry smile. “I appreciate your . . . good manners in the face of a family . . . quandary, and apologize for inviting you.”

Urfa shook his head as he followed him to the front door. “I hope you didn’t imagine I’d enthusiastically encourage my top agent to commit career suicide?”

“Apparently I didn’t think it through at all. I had thought there might be a security issue. And since you were here, you could tell her it was no big deal.”

“For me it wouldn’t be. But in three years there’s going to be a new President, and a new Presidential Director. And the possibility of great personal unpleasantness for agents suddenly seen as compromised.”

Past Ardo’s shoulder he could see Rael and Xen, the tender curve of his hand on her cheek, falling away.

One help them both if the War Party gets back into power.

Urfa headed down the stairs, Scar, who’d been making himself unnoticeable all through the meal was ahead of him and paused when Urfa paused at the foot of the stairs. Ox escorted his wife down. She was pale in the lights, wiping at a damp trickle down her face she walked off into the darkness toward their car . . . she stalled out and turned back.

Xen trotted down the stairs, stopping at the bottom to look back as Rael started down bracketed by the kids. The boy was looking up at her, clearly worried.

“. . . good thing about not knowing was that we didn’t blame you for not being here, we just really enjoyed it when you came.”

“Yeah.” Ryol chimed in. “And we never felt abandoned or hurt when you went back to Paris. And, and, you never hurt. Because you’d just had a fun time with your niece and nephew.”

“But things like that are supposed to hurt.” Rael’s voice was wobbly. She sank down and sat on the stairs, halfway down.

Crying.

“I hate my sister.”

“No you don’t.” Xen slipped up and sat at her feet. “I know you’re are angry, and feel betrayed. But all of you still love each other, which is why it’s so painful.”

“She stole my children.”

“She saved their lives. That, first and foremost, you need to remember. Please Rael, let go of the hurt. Stay angry if you want to. But go hug your sister and thank her for saving the kids.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I know. But do it anyway.”

She reached out a foot a gave him a halfhearted kick. Swiped tears off her cheeks and stood up, walked down the stairs and across to where her sister stood.

Xen held up a finger, and the kids paused.

Rael paused. “ . . . I love you, Sis. Even when I want to strangle you . . . Thank you for saving their lives.” Her voice went high, and she took the last step and reached out.

Raod stepped into the hug and hugged her back. “I’m sorry. I was so stupid, and so afraid, and . . . I didn’t know it would hurt you so badly.”

Xen looked at the kids and jerked his head. “Now go make it a group hug.”

They flew down the stairs and threw themselves on the two women.

Xen got up and stepped back down the stairs. “All things considered, screaming and throwing plates would have been faster and less painful.”

Urfa nodded.

Ox sighed, and eyed Xen. “You’re out in the cold.”

Xen shook his head. “Low priority, at the moment. Not a problem.” He looked around as Ardo and Kyol joined them.

“I apologize for . . .”

Xen was shaking his head. “Bad timing. She was too fraught about the kids. If you’d tried that three months ago she’d have laughed so hard at the very idea of her giving up being a Presidential agent . . . Now that would have been worth seeing . . . Maybe.”

“But you aren’t worried about your security rating?”

“I doubt I’ll ever be the King’s Agent again. And Disco? A marriage wouldn’t bring any more accusations of favoritism than the already known infatuation does. And politically, on Comet Fall, it might actually be seen as a political marriage that might cool down the hot spots in our relationship with the Empire. Until they figured out that ‘Princess’ doesn’t mean the same thing as it does on Comet Fall.”

Ardo frowned, and crossed his arms.

Xen nodded. “The real reason I won’t marry Rael is a bit difficult to explain. You here, have your collective subconscious tangled up with that hive mind. Ours doesn’t depend on a single focus like that, but has created multiple archetypes.”

“We have archetypes.”

“Yes, but ours are the foci of the collective subconscious. Created by it and controlled by it. So tell me, Ardo. What is the archetypical characteristics of the Super Spy?”

Ardo shrugged. “Judging by the movies? He’s a womanizing, hard fighting, deadly. Horrible driver, wrecking cars right and left?”

Xen nodded. “Always gets the girl, never finds true love—unless, of course, she gets murdered so the Super Spy will go on a personal vendetta.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. As long as Rael’s my femme fatale, and tries to worm secrets out of me and—hopefully unsuccessfully—tries to kill me occasionally, the collective won’t try to kill her.”

“That’s . . .” Ardo boggled.

“Yeah. Utterly ridiculous. And there’s only one way to test it, and I just can’t. Won’t.”

Urfa sighed. “That’s . . . Right. So I can’t possibly approve of this emotional entanglement. I’ll have to find something nefarious for her to do to you regularly.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

Ardo looked disturbed.

Xen shrugged. “That’s life with the most magical on Comet Fall. We can’t fight the collective, we can only try to understand it, and weave and dodge. And keep it entertained.”

Urfa looked over at the little knot of sisters and kids. “Well, I think I’ll leave Rael here tonight, and however long it will be helpful.”

Ox nodded. “Thank you. The family’s very much in need of this. Xen . . .”

“You’ve got my number. I’ll stay close for a few hours, in case of backsliding, but that,” he nodded at the sisters and kids, “is what she needs right now. What they all need.”

Urfa nodded, and headed for his car. Ox started chivvying his family toward theirs, and when he looked around, there was no sign of Xen.

***