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Little Moment: Kiss Me Goodbye

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Little Moment: Kiss Me Goodbye

A Sequel to “Stone in the River”

(Immediately Following S3E1, Ben 10,000 )

 

By Eric “Erico” Lawson

 


 

Sector 01 Control

Omnitrix City, South Dakota

July 26th, 2018 C.E.

4:48 P.M.



The shimmering yellow portal, the final gasps of magic from the potent spell, collapsed and disappeared moments after her cousin’s younger self stepped through, face beaming. Gwendo... Gwen Tennyson kept up her smile and brave facade until the spell ended, and then at last allowed herself to feel the total exhaustion the day’s events had caused. Dizziness. An ache through her entire body. She stumbled a bit, caught herself, then walked sideways in a half-crouch until she was leaning up against the wall.

She could feel the eyes of both her grandfather and Ben on her back. “I’m all right.” She said, though neither of the two seemed to believe her all that much. Gwen shut her eyes, breathed in and out, then opened them back up and smiled as she turned. “Low blood sugar. Pass me a slice of that cake and I’ll be fine.”

“Well, all right, Pumpkin. If you say so.” Grandpa Max conceded.

“I’ve got it.” Ben said softly, already turning back to the cake and picking up the cutter. Bless him.

To be certain, the day had...not gone the way that Gwen had planned. How was she supposed to know that within seconds after pulling the kids into the future, they would be blindsided by another Animo mutate? Or that it was all just a bluff so the madman could gain access to Vilgax’s remains and reanimate that miserable son of an octopus to distract from him going for the Null Void?

The end result, though…

He may be a brat sometimes, but enjoy him while you can.

Gwen hoped it would be enough. It had been the ragged limit of what she could do.

She stared at the Charms of Bezel that ran down the sleeve of her right arm. They were now completely depleted, and it would be generations of human lifetimes before they shone as brightly as they had. Less time than the first misfire had taken more than 10,000 years ago, more than her own lifespan. Her fingers came up to her breastbone, and she felt for the Keystone hidden underneath layers of fabric, closing her eyes to concentrate on its mana.

Just a glimmer of what it had once possessed. Enough that its base abilities would stay active, but nothing else. From this point on, for the rest of her life, she would be on her own for her spellcasting. Every possible means of recharging them was out of her reach, because of her strong sense of morality and also because she had no willing partner for the...other rituals.

But others would be willing to try for mass murder to get the stones working again. So she was still their protector. Her job was just a lot harder now.

 

She felt a nudge against her shoulder, so achingly familiar that she felt her eyes mist up and didn’t try to stop it. She was too tired to try.

At her side, Ben held a slice of cake on a plate with a biodegradable fork out to her, his face a mix of worry and frustration.

“Are you all right?” He asked her softly, so that Grandpa Max wouldn’t overhear them. The relative that they were the closest to was sideways to them, enjoying the cake and humming away, still riding high on the positive mood caused by seeing the younger selves of his two grandchildren.

Gwen froze up until he nudged her shoulder with his own a second time, and then she finally shook her head. “No. I’m not.”

Ben nodded, not exactly sure what to say, if the flinty look in his eyes still meant what she remembered it did. “I don’t remember us traveling to the future and visiting ourselves.”

“We didn’t,” Gwen admitted, her answer coming from the empty ache in her chest.

Ben shuffled on his feet a little. “I wasn’t that big of a jerk, was I?” He asked. For a moment, they were ten again, with him hiding how he felt behind terrible jokes.

“You were.” She said, and the corner of her mouth twitched as if she was going to smile. But she didn’t. She was too tired to play the game. To pretend. To keep lying. “But I didn’t do it for us.”

“Then why?” Ben demanded angrily, hissing it out. “What was it for?”

“I did it for them.” She said.

“For them?” He raised an eyebrow at that, staring at her until she withered and looked away.

“...For her.” She finally confessed, and prayed that Ben wouldn’t dig at it, wouldn’t make her confess what they both already knew. She’d never been able to live up to it before, for her to do it now would have been agony without a point.

He stepped back away from her, swallowed once, and then put on his best fake smile to go talk with Grandpa Max some more.

Gwen ate her slice of cake and focused on the tiny pulse of mana from the Keystone around her neck, willing it to keep beating in place of her heart.

 

***

 

Grandpa Max’s Rustbucket Mark 3

Omnitrix Tower Exterior Helipad

6:20 P.M.

 

Of course, it didn’t take long for the Earth Coven to stick their noses into her business again. She’d just been expecting that it would be tomorrow morning before they figured out what had happened...Her estimate turned out to be too hopeful, because it was at dinnertime that her phone went off in her pocket. Gwen frowned and pulled the sizzling pan of sauteeing mushrooms off of the burner as Grandpa Max sat up a little straighter at the table, where he’d been preparing the crudite.

“Who’s that, Pumpkin? Your mother again?”

“I wish.” Gwen muttered, staring at the number on the screen with distaste. “I’d prefer talking to her instead of this one.” Nonetheless, she sighed and hit the receive button. “Archmage Gimial. You’re interrupting our dinner, but is there something you needed?”

“Miss Tennyson, your dinner will have to wait. A disturbing report reached my office at the end of the day about an incident in Omnitrix City.”

“Oh?” Gwen tried for the innocent approach. “There was a bit of trouble with Animo, yes…”

“You lied to us.” Rene Gimial cut her off, spitting the words out angrily. “The reports said that two children were in a plaza, and that one of them, a boy , had the Omnitrix. The other one was a girl with red hair. There was also a very large burst of mana today as well; two of them. You used time travel.

Gwen pressed her lips together. “And how, exactly, would I have managed that?”

“I do not know how, but we will be investigating the matter very seriously. We will be investigating you very seriously. It is no surprise that this happened so soon after your Sirocco excavation, and I long suspected that you had been hiding something from the Coven. We have let you work independently for a very long time, with others on the council allowing it.”

“Whereas you never did.” Gwen said, turning around and leaning back against the counter. “But my reasons haven’t changed. The last time I trusted an organization, it nearly got everyone killed.”

“That spell was designed to work with the Charms of Bezel. Tell me, Gwendolyn, if we were to send an agent to augur them, would we find that their charge has been exhausted?”

“Rene, you’re digging, and you have no right treating me like a criminal.”

You Fool!” He screamed, and Gwen flinched as she tasted buttery rolls again. Perfect, he was snapping at her in French. A moment later, he reverted back to English and her brain went back to normal. “The Charms of Bezel are a deterrent! Our ultimate deterrent against aliens coming after the Earth again, and you’ve ruined them!”

“Funny.” Gwen narrowed her eyes. “I thought defending the Earth was what my cousin was here for.”

There was silence for several seconds, broken only by Rene’s hard breathing.

“This isn’t over.” He concluded darkly, and the call ended. Gwen pulled the phone away from the side of her head, stared at it in disgust as she turned it off, then shoved it back into her pocket. Over at the table, Grandpa Max gave her a worried look.

“Gwen, are you going to be okay?”

“The Earth Coven figured out what I did.” Gwen explained, turning around and putting the sautee pan back on the burner. The mushrooms would take a bit to warm back up again. “That was Archmage Gimial. Not my biggest fan on a good day.”

“What are they going to do?” He asked her, sounding more like his old warrior self. Like he was spoiling for a fight. Gwen laughed and mustered an airy wave to defuse him. Max was always easier to convince than Ben. Ben would have seen through it, known just how anxious she was.

“What can they do? They’ll figure out I lied to them about the time travel spell being lost in the River of Time, but with the Charms of Bezel rendered inert, they’ll be unable to use it themselves. And the Charms won’t do them any good anyways now, if they had any other plans for them.”

“Could they come after you?”

“For what?” Gwen laughed. “Time travel isn’t a crime . And for what I did with it? What lives did I ruin? What profit was made? What did I change? I changed nothing.” She reached for her spatula and shoved the mushrooms around inside of the pan again, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I changed nothing.

“I don’t trust them, Gwen.”

“Neither do I. And they never trusted me.” She shrugged. “But it doesn’t change my role. I’m the guardian of the Charms of Bezel, and nothing they say will alter that. Nobody is going to take the stones from me so they can go cause another world war.”

Grandpa Max got up out of the booth and came over, carrying the small tray of raw carrots and celery. “If you’re sure you’re not in trouble…”

And Gwen gave her grandpa the biggest, most lying grin she’d ever given him in her life. “Of course not.” She plucked a carrot from the tray and took a bite out of it, chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. “Now, hand me that carton of egg whites so I can finish your omelet. We’re watching your cholesterol, after all.”

 

***

 

11:56 P.M.

 

She couldn’t sleep that night, but that was nothing unusual lately. She’d wandered down to the kitchen and fixed herself a thermos of hot tea, then strolled out onto one of the open pavilions that littered Omnitrix Tower. It was the largest  balcony that faced south, and a whisper-quiet particle barrier kept the worst of the wind and inclement weather out, while letting the light in. It could be disabled, which is exactly what Gwen did, letting the warm summer night pass through so she could look up at an unaffected night sky. This high up, the light pollution wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been.

She’d always thought this pavilion would have been the perfect place to put in a garden. But it wasn’t her home, it was his, and she’d long ago given up any right to offer decoration advice.

There was nothing left for her here. Maybe it was just time to leave, just to get away from Ben. Away from Earth. She remembered talking with him about leaving Earth a long time ago...but they never had. Not together, not separately. Still, if she left Earth, there would be some alien punk who would come after her to get to Ben. And while she might have been able to handle them with the power of the five Bezel charms and the Keystone…

Without them, she knew that she couldn’t. So that left going someplace where she couldn’t be found, and there weren’t many places like that where a human could go.

 

So make a plan. Figure out your options .

 

Gwen took another sip of her earl grey tea, pulled her robe tighter around her body, and then walked back inside. She made her way to the control room and logged in, then activated the communications system. Her first call to Grandpa Max’s old friend Xylene, went to voicemail and she scowled and killed the call. With a sigh, she tried for another line that she knew would respond regardless of the time. He’d been staying closer to Earth for years out of a sense of guilt, after all. A few rings later, Ultimos appeared on the monitor. His brow came up in surprise when he saw who was calling.

“Miss Tennyson? I’m sorry, I…”

“You thought it was Ben calling you.” Gwen cut him off with a small smile. “I got that impression. Listen. I need you to do me a favor.”

The Specimen Prime’s posture sharpened quickly, and he nodded once. “For you, Miss Tennyson, anything.”

And then came the hard part. “I was...thinking of leaving Earth for a while.” Forever. “Is there any chance you’d know how to get in touch with Azmuth?” And she took a moment to recall that, aside from Xylene, nobody else in the Galactic Defender corps knew what Azmuth actually was. So she phrased her followup carefully. “I know he’s pretty secretive, but could you see about dropping him a line, and letting him know that Ben 10,000’s cousin wanted to ask if she could crash at his place?”

Ultimos blinked several times, and she could see the curiosity in his eyes grow. “Has something happened, Gwendolyn?” He wagered carefully.

“Gwen.” She corrected him, and realized too late just how out of character that was for how she’d acted for years. God, she was a mess. And she was tired, but mostly she was just a mess. “I...I just need to get away for a while. From everything. And Azmuth is one of the few people I know out there who can hide away well enough for me to not draw...attention.”

Of course Ultimos understood that. He nodded his head slowly. “Magister Xylene is typically our point of contact with Azmuth, but she’s off on another assignment right now.”

“I tried her first. Now I’m calling you.”

“I will look into it.” Ultimos promised her solemnly. “Where can I reach you?”

 

“I’ll be heading back home tomorrow, but if you leave a message here at the Tower, I’m sure that Ben or his Helpers could forward it on to me. I don’t need to know where he is, that information’s too sensitive to transmit. Just...ask him if it’s possible to put me up for a while.”

“I will do what I can. Good night, Miss Tennyson.” He gave her a sharp salute and the call disconnected.

Gwen unscrewed her thermos lid and poured herself out another cup, then sauntered back out to the landing pad just off of it. The Rustbucket was still parked there, with Grandpa Max inside, fast asleep. She walked past the RV, sat down on the edge of the pad and drank her tea in silence.

Tomorrow, she would be heading back to her apartment. She’d intentionally left her phone off through all of today, and it would be filled with messages when she turned it back on.

The Coven knew what she’d done. Gimial had already called and ranted at her, and that was likely the first step. They might try to force her to join now, or to surrender the Charms of Bezel. As if.

Let them fume. The Charms of Bezel were hers to protect, and she’d made a promise to keep them out of circulation. And with luck, in a few days or a couple of weeks, it would be a moot point.

She was done making decisions that made everyone else happy.

 

***

 

Gwen’s Apartment

Denver, Colorado

July 27th, 2018 C.E.

1:42 P.M.



With the souped-up engines of the Rustbucket 3, which were fully capable of intercontinental flight, the ride between Ben’s home in South Dakota and her own apartment two states away didn’t take all that long at all. Not all that eager to go back, she had asked Grandpa to take them home via the scenic route instead, and they’d had lunch at a crab shack in a small harbor town south of Seattle before finally turning for home. The RV settled onto the reinforced roof of the structure, its engines at a high idle, and Gwendolyn stepped down out of it, moving away to a safe distance before turning and waving back to Grandpa Max. He smiled at her again, then the Rustbucket lifted up and soared off into the sky.

Grandpa Max, as always, was most content when he had somewhere to go and something to do. Gwen walked down from the rooftop to her balcony, and the reinforced sliding glass doors. Out of habit, she waved a hand over the doors and muttered a low word, cancelling the ward which kept the door secured and monitored. A low pulse answered her after she’d done so; her home had been left alone.

She slipped inside and set her traveling satchel over on the end of her couch. Over on the wall next to the doorway of the kitchen, her answering machine was blinking furiously. Multiple messages. Gwen rolled her eyes and tapped the button to play all of them as she went into the kitchen and pulled out a stoppered carafe of lemon water she’d left there a week and a half ago.

“Miss Tennyson, this is the Alumni Office at Cornell University, and as one of our most illustrious graduates, we were hoping…”

“Delete.” Gwen called out loudly, and the answering machine stopped playback, dumped the message, and moved on to the next one.

“Uh, hi Gwendolyn. It’s Professor Singh. Listen, I got a call from the Earth Coven early this morning, and they seemed pretty angry about something. They asked if you had…”

Gwen finished pouring herself a glass of the cold citrus water and set the carafe down, looking back over her shoulder. Professor Singh had paused. Paused. He never did that. He sounded concerned.

He sounded scared.

“...Gwendolyn, did you find something at the Sirocco Excavation that you hid from us? Please. Call me back as soon as you can.”

Gwen thought of the obsidian stone tablet that had started it all, back in her satchel on her couch. She held her tongue as the answering machine skipped over to the next message, and took a sip of water to try and calm her nerves.

“Gwen, this...sorry, Gwendolyn. It’s Kai. I just got the strangest message from the Galactic Enforcers, apparently you’d reached out to them last night? Anyhow, I’m supposed to tell you that ‘We’re looking for him, but no response yet. And Xylene’s gone off-grid.’ Whatever that means. Why do I get the feeling that they intended to be this cryptic, and they weren’t doing it just to annoy me? Well. Message delivered, I guess. Oh, and we’re getting ready to send out the wedding invitations soon. Do you want me to send it to your apartment, or is there another address that would work better? Call back, let me know. Talk to you later, Gwendolyn!”

“Talk to you never.” Gwen muttered under her breath, and took a longer drink. The answering machine beeped to signal that there were no more messages to deliver…

And then her cell phone started ringing.

 

She groaned and dug it out of her pocket, staring at the screen. Her mother was calling.

Gwen hit the ‘refuse call’ button and tucked it back into her pocket, and then the phone in her apartment went off next.

“Take the hint , mother.” Gwen hissed, and poured the rest of the water out into her kitchen sink. She stormed towards her bedroom, already peeling off her cloak and her outer shirt with the unpowered Bezel Charms..  The phone rang, and rang, and finally went to voicemail. She braced herself for another pointless message about how her mother was worried, and how ‘Gwendolyn, you never come home for a visit’, and she’d bumped into an ‘old friend’ who just happened to have a son that had asked about her, or was back in Bellwood or was close by, and there was some party or potluck or gala coming up and wouldn’t it be fantastic if she could go with them , I mean, since he paid for the tickets already and everything…

“Gwendolyn. Pick up the phone.” Her mother said shakily.

 

Gwen, stripped down to her white tank undershirt and her panties, reappeared at the doorway and stared at the phone on the wall.

“Gwendolyn Rose Tennyson, I swear to God, if you don’t pick up the phone this instant …”

A wave of her hand and a muttered incantation brought the wireless receiver hovering across the room to her grip, and Gwen punched the call button.

“Mother, what’s wrong?” Gwen asked. Already jittery about the call from Professor Singh, a hundred worrisome possibilities were tracking through her mind. Had Archmagus Gimial loosed the hounds on her parents? Were they being threatened? Her mother’s voice was locked in a rictus of tension, which could be anger, or panic. It was hard to tell, because she had always kept it so tightly locked down.

Because ladies didn’t raise their voices.

 

There was the sound of her mother breathing. The knot in Gwen’s stomach worsened.

“Mom. Are you hurt? Are you in trouble? What’s happening?” Gwen pressed on, and pressed her forehead against the door joist. Please say no pleasesayno…

Natalie Isabella Larrson-Tennyson finally spoke. “On the news. They said...they said that you and your cousin were attacked.”

“Oh. That.” Gwen exhaled, then laughed. Just her mother worrying like normal. She pressed her back to the wall and slowly slid down to the floor. “It was just Animo, again . We took care of him.”

“The...the news said...That Vilgax…

“I’m fine.” Gwen cut her off, sighing. God, nobody could worry like her mother. She could be half a world away from where Ben 10,000 was dealing with one crisis or another and she would still get a call. She ran a hand through her hair. “Ben stopped Vilgax, and me and Grandpa stopped Animo.”

She regretted her response the moment she said it, and could hear her mother inhale sharply at the mention of Max Tennyson, former Plumber, geriatric retired hero…

Family outcast.

 

“You know how I feel about that man.” Natalie growled out. “I don’t want you spending time with him. He’s nothing but trouble .”

“To you, maybe.” Gwen growled back. She was tired, and worn out, and in no mood to deal with the bullshit. “But just because you and dad don’t want to think about him, that doesn’t mean that I had to write him out of my life.”

“You’d be better off if you did.”

“Oh, sure.” Gwen snarled. “Because that’s the easiest damn thing in the world to do, writing off your family. Oh, wait. I forgot. In your family, it is.” And in Aunt Sandra’s family, too. It was a low blow, a dig that was meant to hurt. How many times had she bit the remark back? Too many, because ladies didn’t say things like that. Because you didn’t talk back to your mother.

Gwendolyn wouldn’t have said that. But Gwen was too tired, and hurting too much, and…

 

“I...I can’t believe you said that.” Her mother choked out. “My own daughter.”

Damnit. Gwen sniffled, felt her eyes burning. She pressed the heel of her palm against her eyes.

“You can say what you want about me, but don’t you ever, ever , try to tell me who I can’t spend time with. Because I’m not giving Grandpa up. I’ve given up too much already.”

To make other people happy. To live up to their expectations.

Never doing anything for herself. She was done with that.

 

“There...there was another reason I called.” Her mother finally wobbled away from the incendiary topic, and stumbled into another. “There were pictures...it was like there was a younger version of...of your cousin. And you.”

And there it was. If even her mother had heard about it, the secret was good and outed.

The whole world knew what she had done.

“But, but that doesn’t make any sense.” Her mother laughed, a harsh and forced noise full of cognitive dissonance. “I mean, how could there be two of you…”

“Mother.” Gwen gutted the words out. “You track every news story we show up in. You know what I’ve been doing. You know what we found.”

“...I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. It can’t be real.”

“You’ve seen alien invasions, and magic, and the Omnitrix, and the truth of the world. And suddenly you think time travel is impossible.” Gwen laughed. Only her mother. She wiped the tears away, and still felt more coming.

“But...why? Why would you…” And her mother stopped talking again. Gwen could almost hear the woman shaking her head. Forcing it away. “It doesn’t matter. The world didn’t end, so, I guess, it doesn’t matter. Oh, I heard from your cousin’s fiance. They’re getting ready to send out invitations for the wedding. Your father and I were wondering if you had lined up a date for it, because he bumped into an old friend of ours, and his son…”

“No.” Gwen bit the word out. God, it hurt too much, and with the facade cracked clean through, there was no stopping it. Years of bottled up frustration boiled up and over. “No, I am not going to be set up with another one of your friends’ sons, ever . You don’t get it, do you? Stop playing Goddamn matchmaker and leave me alone! I’m not going to that wedding!”

“Gwen, he’s your cousin. He’s family. Why wouldn’t you want to go to their wedding?” Her mother had finally sensed just how unhinged she was, was speaking carefully, but not carefully enough.

The sob escaped Gwen’s lips, and then she screamed out her answer. “Because it was supposed to be mine!

 

The damning sentence hung there, and Gwen sobbed again. She’d finally said it, and to her mother , no less. It didn’t matter now. So she let it out, pressed the phone hard to her ear while she beat her head into her other hand. “He was supposed to be mine.

Gwen could hear her mother’s ragged breathing on the other end. She was probably thinking her daughter had lost it. She was probably thinking of something to say. Gwen could already feel what it was going to be. Either hollowly sympathetic, or full of revulsion, and she could stomach neither sentiment.

Gwen ended the call, trudged into her bathroom. Started the shower, ignored the phone as it rang again, and again.

She ran her hand across her grandmother’s engagement ring and Grandpa Max’s wedding ring, still bound to the small gold chain around her neck, clinking off of the red etched Keystone of Bezel that hung between her breasts. A weight that was hers alone to carry, one she could never take off.

She crumpled to her knees, let the water beat down on her, and cried.

 

***

 

July 28th, 2018 C.E.

3:24 A.M.



Her stomach had trouble holding anything substantial down, and that was what saved her life.

Tea, she could manage well enough. But the toast tasted like metal in her mouth, no matter what kind of preserves she coated them with. There was an entire seasoned chicken breast in her fridge, minus a small cut off of the end, which had the consistency of sawdust to her tongue. When she finally went to bed, her eyes red and dried out and her heart feeling like a pile of glass slivers, a dull ache had carved itself into her stomach which made her sleep fitful.

 

So when her alarm spell thrummed to life far too early in the morning to be coincidence, she came to fully awake, fully aware, not blurry in the slightest. She listened to the silence of her apartment, and felt an unfamiliar presence slip past her front door. She had locked it, with both her key and her magic.

Whoever was stumbling into her living room, they had managed to disable both. The sting of foreign magic was like the sky after a thunderstorm. She whispered the words to a spell of stealth, and the sounds of the world increased as Gwen was surrounded by a dampening field that drew sounds in , like a hospital room with negative air pressure.

Someone was in her apartment. Someone was in her home.

No. There were two of them.

 

They were staying quiet, but they were using pencil flashlights. The two were crowded around her satchel, still lying on the couch.

They were going to find the tablet with the ancient hybrid coven’s time travel spell on it in seconds.

She didn’t have time to utter a spell, or to reach for her blue and black mesh overshirt that held the Bezel Charms. They would be useless anyways. Gwen took in a breath within her bubble of soundproofing, and charged .

They couldn’t hear her, but at least one of them must had had some kind of sensory field up, because they turned, and their pencil lights caught her in the face. She flinched, spun up into a jump kick. The two let out a grunt of surprise, and the one she’d aimed for raised an arm up to block her leg from smashing into the side of his head. Her aim was off because of the light, and all she managed to do was send him flying a few feet away in a wild spin before he hit the ground. The second one was more ready for her, and he whipped out something from behind his back, a collapsible rod that crackled with power and made the air sting like a thunderstorm.

She was dressed in a sleeping shirt and shorts, but Gwen had never felt so ready to hurt someone. She dispelled the sound dampening field around her and willed the burning pink aura of her mana into her hands.

The one on the floor lurched up and scrambled away, and Gwen was forced to ignore him when the second intruder came in, swinging his stun baton. A hastily manifested shield she knew so intimately that it no longer required an incantation sprung up, blocking the shot, and she swept his legs. He went tumbling like cordwood, and she was almost ready to blast him with a punch to his stupid masked face before the lights suddenly came on.

Blinded for all of half of a second, the second guard took advantage of it and snapped the point of his stun baton up into her unguarded midsection. There was a jolt of power, the taste of coconut on her tongue and an ache through her teeth.

Somehow, she stayed conscious, even though she was lying on the floor, trying to move, and found that she couldn’t .

“Damnit.” The first of the intruders stumbled over, cradling one arm tightly against his side. “I think she broke my arm.”

“What, you thought it would be easy fighting her?” The second grunted as he pushed himself back onto his feet and stared down at her, face still hidden behind his damnable mask. “I can’t believe that she felt us coming.”

“Should have known she’d put in an added layer to the lock spell.” The first grumbled. “Come on. Let’s do what we came here for.”

Gwen heard a faint groaning noise, and it took her a bit to realize it was coming from her . She tried to move again, and her hand and a bit of her arm twitched. God, her entire body was screaming at her. Just what kind of a charge had they hit her with? She had to move. She had to move.

The first of the intruders wandered back into her bedroom, came back a few seconds later with her overshirt. The five Charms of Bezel she had long been the guardian of were still attached to the right sleeve. “Found it. Here, take a look.”

The second of the intruders tucked his stun baton away, took the garment from his partner. A faint whisper passed his lips and a trickle of faint yellow light encircled his hand as he ran his fingertips over the stones’ surfaces. And then he scowled as the glow faded.

“Drained. Completely .” The second intruder reached up and pulled his mask off, revealing the face of a man in his early thirties with peppered black hair. His flinty brown eyes had nothing but anger in them. “You actually did it, didn’t you.”

Gwen’s wide green eyes flashed between her shirt, the Charms, and the man. She had to move . She had to stop them. They were going to take the stones. They were…

“Hey! Look at this!” The first man, his face still covered by his mask, reappeared, holding the obsidian tablet that had been in her satchel in his good hand.

Oh God, they’d found it all.

 

The unmasked intruder glanced at it, at the script across its surface, and scowled. “So. Guess those ruins weren’t so empty, after all.” He nodded to the first man. “Put it back in the satchel. We’ll take it with us, too.”

“And her? ” The first intruder asked, careful to keep his distance from Gwen. She was twitching wildly, but without any control at all.

The unmasked agent looked down at her and frowned. “Orders are a little unspecific.” He drew out a knife from his belt, and Gwen screamed inside of her head. “But I don’t believe in leaving loose ends. We make this look like a robbery gone bad, nothing can point back to the Coven.”

He knelt down to the floor next to her head, and Gwen let out a muffled scream, shaking her head.

Move, damn you! MOVE! Fight back!

 

“Shh, shh sh.” The older Earth Coven assassin tried to console her, stroking her hair back away from her face. Like she was his daughter. Like he cared. “It’s all right, it’ll be over soon. I’ll make it quick. Just a little pinch, and...you’ll just go to sleep.” He brought the naked dagger down towards her neck and stroked the blunt edge of the blade against the side of her neck.

And then he froze as the blade hit the fine gold link chain that went around it. “What do we have here, Miss Tennyson?” He murmured.

 

The screaming in her head became a howl. No.

NO.

The point of the knife dragged across her skin, went under the chain. Slowly pulled it up. The weight of the Keystone and the two rings that went with it slid across her chest.

And then it was out in the open, for all to see. What little charge was left in it sparked against her skin.

Just enough to heal the paralysis of her nervous system. Just enough to give her a chance.

The assassin didn’t see any of that. He was too stunned by the sight of the red stone with its black lines. Too similar to the other Bezel Charms to be anything else.

“What in God’s name…” He started to say. But then Gwen’s hand was full of violet fire so black that it ate the light , and her hand was shoved up into his face…

And fire engulfed the man’s entire head, giving him only a second to scream before it incinerated his skull completely.

The second man yelped in panic, reached with his one remaining good arm towards her, started to shakily chant a spell as his aura flared red.

Not strong enough. Not quick enough.

Gwen loosed a black-violet firebolt towards him and blew out a hole in his chest big enough to push her entire fist through. The spotless walls of her apartment were coated in blood and spatter, and the carpet was ruined.

Gasping for air, Gwen pulled herself to her feet. She tucked the Keystone back underneath her shirt, letting it come to rest above the place her heart should have been, and tried to ignore the pounding in her head.

The headless agent was a lost cause, but the second one, arm broken, chest impaled, wheezed as he slumped against the floor, bleeding out far too fast to be saved.

Gwen tore the mask from his head and stared down at a boy , no more than seventeen or eighteen years old. A boy with dimples, and freckles, and tousled blond hair.

“The Coven sent you.” Gwen said. His face streaked with tears, the boy nodded once. His breathing was in short gasps now, what was left of his respiratory system trying desperately to hang on. “To take the Charms back. To eliminate me .”

It had all gone so wrong. She wanted to laugh at the idiocy of it all, but found she couldn’t. The Earth Coven had declared war on her, the Supreme Sorceress. Guardian of the Charms of Bezel.

“Y-you won’t…” The boy rasped. “Won’t escape. More. Coming.”

She stared into his eyes, and saw the fear there. The fear that the Coven had always had of her.

“All you had to do was leave me alone.” Gwen told him. Resolved, but still sad. Angry at Archmagus Gimial and the rest of the council, who were still making the oldest mistakes in the newest ways.

The boy choked up what might have been a laugh if bright, frothy blood hadn’t coated his lips. “Everyone will know now. What you are.”

His eyes slipped shut. “ Witch.” He managed, and then breathed his last.

 

Gwen sniffled. Wiped the tears out of her eyes. Took ten seconds to lament it all, the suffering, the death, the loss of that last shred of her innocence.

Then she scooped up her shirt and the Charms, grabbed the obsidian tablet and her satchel, and raced to her bedroom.

Nothing left to do now but run.

 

***

 

Carr, Colorado

July 29th

8:12 A.M.



When they had been ten years old, Grandpa Max had taken Gwen and her cousin on a summer vacation road trip. After the Omnitrix fell out of the sky and latched onto his wrist, the trip had changed. Things that were simple, like sightseeing and camping and learning how to gut and clean a fish were folded in with other lessons. How to wear a Plumber suit. How not to use a portal generator. How to make a laser pistol overload. How to palm objects with sleight of hand.

How to lie.

They hadn’t learned how to drive from their parents. It was Grandpa that showed them how to. If he hadn’t, Gwen doubted she would have ever learned to drive a stick.

By the time that Grandpa went missing, they had both received a master class in a dozen subjects that normal kids would have had no business learning. Deception. Combat. Technology manipulation. She had no doubt that Ben still used those lessons, but Gwen’s life had not been nearly so demanding. The skills went unused.

But now, on the run, her life at risk? It all came flooding back to her. Don’t use credit cards. Cash only. Her phone could be traced; she destroyed it completely. Stay covered, avoid cameras. Dress to not attract attention; make people look away from you. So she’d skipped her usual outfit, aside from the outer shirt with the Bezel charms running down the sleeve, and even that was hidden beneath another long-sleeved shirt and a black hoodie. Gone were the blues of her usual choice; it would have been enough to get people to do a double take.

It was funny; with her hair glamered black, she could have passed as a Goth.

If the Earth Coven had a net closing in around her apartment in Denver, she slipped out of it before they were any the wiser. But that wouldn’t last forever. There were two dead bodies in her place and she was missing. The Coven had come after her in secret, the consequences of that would be public, and likely faster than she thought. What was she going to do, call into the police and tell them that two magical assassins had tried to kill her? Self-defense was a viable legal tactic, but all that would do would alert the Coven even faster of their initial failure. And they’d know where to find her. She doubted that Gimial (It had to be him, the bastard) and whatever agents working for him would allow a second failure. With the Charms of Bezel on the line, they would kill anyone in their way of retrieving them. And collateral damage was something she couldn’t live with. Never could.

It was one of the reasons that Gwen eventually realized she would have made a horrible Plumber. Their definition of acceptable losses, and the Coven’s, were too steep.

She’d hot-wired a car in Denver and drove it to Fort Collins, abandoning it at an old truck stop with no security cameras outside that was closed in the dead hours of the morning. From there, she’d hoofed it to the airport, made her way to the long-term parking lot for cars placed there for a month or more and repeated the process. Less chance of the car theft being reported. More of a chance for her trail to go cold.

So now she found herself walking into a rundown old diner, the kind that only the forgotten stretches of rural America still had. The waitress was even wearing that goofy pink dress with the apron that old television movies liked to feature. There was the looming sting of tobacco smoke in the air, and the small TV above the counter was playing the news.

Big magic was out of the question, but disguising her appearance so her hair was stained black was an easy enough cantrip. For all that the Earth Coven mages knew her signature, she doubted that they would be able to detect such a minor working in a place that they weren’t actively searching for her in.

There were only a few patrons in, two old farmers and some middle-aged fellow in a white shirt and black tie with his suit jacket lying beside him. They didn’t give her more than a passing glance before going back to their coffee and eggs and sausage.

The waitress nodded, and Gwen nodded back at her. “Take a seat anywhere, hon.”

“Could I get some hot tea to start with?” Gwen asked. “And do you have a phone I could use?”

The waitress blinked twice, as if wondering why anyone would need a phone, even out in the middle of nowhere. She nodded once and gestured towards the restrooms. “In the back. Tea’ll be out in a minute.”

Gwen had enough experience with dives like these not to expect anything too fancy; a tiny pot for hot water, a single tea bag. If she was lucky, there would be a slice of lemon, but usually, she had to make do with sugar packets left on the tables.

In the back, she found a relic of a bygone age in the digital world; a payphone that the phone companies had never bothered to tear out. Or maybe the diner just decided to hang on to it.

One of her Grandpa Max’s old life lessons kicked in as she sat down in the tiny booth the phone sat at, off of the restrooms, and she considered the payphone for just a few seconds before heading into the ladies’ room. It took a bit of digging, but she eventually found what she was after; a foil gum wrapper, untainted by somebody’s gum wad, and smelling faintly of cinnamon oil.

One of the old movies she’d watched with Ben as a kid had a boy using an old soda can pop top and a little bit of destructive ingenuity to short out the circuit to make a free phone call. She and Ben had gotten a good laugh out of that, until Grandpa Max told them that it actually worked. Or showed them, actually. But for what she needed to do…

She dropped a few coins in the slot to get a dial tone, then set the receiver down on the bench and carefully folded up the wrapper until she got it into the right shape. Bringing it to her lips, she blew on it carefully, producing a sharp, high noise more akin to a digital beep...or a dial-up modem. When she lifted the receiver to her ear, the dial tone had been replaced with a series of thrumming taps.

She’d cracked into the phone network by faking a computer connection.

Remember the sequence? Of course I do. It’s just numbers.

Her fingers flew across the numbered touchpad in a blur, typing out seemingly random number sequences. In truth, she was forwarding her phone call from one local operating hub to another, bouncing the signal all across the country so thoroughly that it would be next to impossible to trace. Grandpa Max’s rule of thumb was six redirects. Gwen gave it twelve.

Only after all of that did she hit the pound key twice, followed by the star. That set up the call forwarding sequence...and the dial tone came back. Free long distance activated.

 

She called Grandpa Max. It rang about four times, while the pit in her stomach grew. They’d come after her. They wouldn’t dare move on her cousin, Omnitrix Tower was a stronghold, and nobody wanted to mess with Ben 10,000 who didn’t have to. But Grandpa? Or her parents? They’d already moved on Professor Singh. She remembered his worrying phone message from last night.

On the fifth ring, he picked up. “Who is this?” He asked warily. Gwen slumped in palpable relief. He didn’t sound haggard, or on the run. Just on edge because of an unknown number.

“It’s me, Grandpa.”

“Pumpkin!” He exclaimed, and the worry in his voice doubled. “Pumpkin, where are you? The police are at your apartment, they found…”

“They sent a couple of hitmen after me. They tried to take the Stones.” Gwen growled.

“Are you all right?”

“...No. But I’m not anywhere they’d be looking for me. I’m making my way northeast. If I can reach Omnitrix City, I’ll be all right.”

“You’re not on an open line?”

“I re-routed the call, Grandpa. Just like you showed us.”

“That’s my girl.” He said, and the pride in his voice shone through. “Just tell me where you are. I’ll come pick you up.”

And Gwen almost told him. But something made her hesitate. Something picked at the back of her brain, and she couldn’t place it. “I can’t. I can’t get you involved.” She told him softly, sparing a glance back towards the rest of the diner. Nobody was paying any attention to her. “But...Try and get a hold of Xylene for me. I was planning on leaving Earth. This just means I have to do it sooner.”

“Why would you need Xyl…” He started, and she almost heard his teeth snap as the hamster wheel in his mind, still sharp as ever, finally caught and he realized why she needed Xylene specifically. Because of who she knew. “I’ll do my best, Pumpkin.”

“I know you will.” Gwen smiled and wiped at her eyes. Damn. When had she started crying? “I’ll try and call you again tonight. You’re probably being watched, so don’t do anything different or unusual.”

“Gwen, honey, I taught you how to do all this stuff.” Grandpa Max reminded her patiently.

“I know. Just be careful.”

“You too, Pumpkin. I love you.”

 

Gwen ended the call, pulled out the loose change that dropped, and went into the restroom to wash her hands. She took note of the small frosted glass window six feet off of the ground, letting in natural light, then went back out into the diner again. Just like she’d thought, a small metal pot of hot water, a coffee cup, and a single black teabag were waiting for her. But there was also a plate of scrambled eggs and a few pieces of toast there as well.

“Um, excuse me?” Gwen said, turning to look at the waitress behind the main counter. The lady looked up from pouring another cup of coffee to one of the patrons. “I didn’t order this.”

“Nah, looked like you needed it though. If you want anything else, hon, just let me know.” The waitress drawled. The only thing she was missing was a large wad of gum to chew on while she worked. Gwen mustered a smile, gave her a grateful nod, and sat down to start in on her breakfast.

Even disguised, she wondered why she wasn’t drawing more attention from the yokel locals. Then she chanced a look up at the television, and for once, was glad that there were old folks in the diner. They always insisted on turning the TV up too damn loud, so that you couldn’t hold a decent conversation. It meant that she could pair words to the fuzzy...and worrisome...images there.

“...her status is unknown, but police are looking for her as a person of interest. Beyond that, we have no news, as it remains an ongoing investigation.” And then her picture, back from when she was at Cornell, flashed on the screen. “Again, if you have any information regarding the whereabouts of…”

Gwen ducked her head away from the screen and focused on her breakfast. Her mother would have never approved, but she found herself shoveling scrambled eggs onto her toast and eating it like an open-faced sandwich. The sting of familiarity as she remembered Ben doing the exact same thing (Because when could he be bothered

with table manners when they were in a hurry to get going?) passed quickly. The eggs were quite good, after all; fluffy and with just a hint of sugar along with the salt. It even made up for the lack of a lemon wedge with her tea.

Unwilling to focus on the television, now that she knew the police were after her as part of a murder investigation , Gwen kept looking out of the window beside her table.

A little less than 20 minutes after she’d made her phone call to Grandpa, Gwen’s blood went cold as a pair of black SUV’s pulled up outside of the diner. She’d kept her own mana reserves muted, but she could feel the power from the people inside of them as clearly as if somebody had rang a bell. That was the thing about magic; intent tended to radiate very clearly, if your control faltered even a little.

She could feel the fear and trepidation from the mages in those cars, which forced out their killing intent. Another hit squad, and this time, one better prepared.

When they arrived inside and questioned the patrons, they found no sign of Gwendolyn Tennyson. Just a table with an empty plate, a mug of tea with two sips left in it, and a $20 bill tucked under the saucer.

And back in the bathroom, an opened window.

 

***

 

Glendo State Park

Wyoming

8:42 P.M.



Whoever had been in that Coven hit squad didn’t want the civilian authorities getting involved. Gwen had a fairly reasonable guess why; calling in them would mean that Ben 10,000 would have caught wind of her location, and so would Grandpa. Still, they’d somehow managed to trace her call. They wouldn’t have been able to pick up on her voice alone...she didn’t think...No, it was more likely that they had flagged Grandpa Max’s number, and then backtraced it to her from there. But that itself was impressive. There had to be a Technomage working in their group.

Damn them. Why couldn’t they have been stupid bad guys for once? Hitch-hiking was easy enough, she had gas money and knew how to target sympathetic faces...and which people to avoid. Just because she could nut any grabby would-be molester didn’t mean she wanted the headache of dealing with it. It got her up I-25, past Cheyenne, but she was exhausted, and needed shut-eye. Sleeping in a vehicle with other people was out of the question, as was bunking in a city. If the Coven could hack phone calls, they’d be able to hack places of interest along her routes. And she needed somewhere where there would be enough life, enough living mana, to throw off their Sensors. Gwen had always thought the mages who focused in tracking magic users were a bit heavy-handed. She had no intention of giving the Coven’s sniffer dogs an easy location fix. She could mute her signal when she was awake, but when she was asleep, her control, and her hair-disguising cantrip, relaxed.

So, Glendo State Park it was. Easy enough to swipe a sleeping bag from some unwary campers and make her way into the thickest part of the forest, where nobody would follow. That got her several precious hours of sleep, even if she woke up hungry. A few granola bars were all that she had to go on, graciously donated by her last ride, a family on a summer vacation of their own that was headed for Devil’s Tower. The sun was mercifully down, and she made her way to a creek, channeling a minute bit of mana through her hands as she dipped them into the water. The low-grade spell purified the liquid as she cupped it and brought it up to her lips, removing parasites, bacteria, and anything else that was hazardous to her health. The result was pure, clean water...worth the small expenditure of power the cantrip required.

Gwen was close now. By tomorrow, she’d make it to Omnitrix City. By tomorrow, she’d be at Hero’s Tower, Sector 01, and beyond the reach of the coven.

In a week, she hoped, she would be off-world. Riding into the stars either with Azmuth, or on her way to him.

Her hands dropped after her next swallow as the thought stung at her eyes.

 

She would be leaving Earth. And she would never be able to come back.

She would never see her family again.

She would never see Grandpa Max again.

She would never see B…

 

She shut her eyes and tried to fight down the ache and the hurt. The magic swirled in her veins in response to the pain, but she let it dwindle and fade. The last time she had lost herself in that much hurt, she’d burned down a forest around her. She let out a small laugh at the memory as it flashed up another. That was the first thing Ben had done after getting the Omnitrix as well.

“There’s no going back.” She told herself. When she got to Hero’s Tower, she could compose a message for her parents, at least. Make preparations to leave, break her apartment lease. Wish Professor Singh the best.

All of it, meaningless, really. But she was out of time, out of options, and with five inert Bezel Charms, out of power. Only the Keystone was still active, and even then, only at its most basic level.

Put it away. Stuff it down. Cry about it all later.

Grandpa’s survival wisdom. Compartmentalize. Survive first.

 

The refocusing didn’t come a moment too soon, because her sixth sense suddenly screamed at her. Get up. Get UP!

Reflex and instinct made her roll to the side, and something heavy sailed past where her head had been. She came up into a fighting pose, pink globes of light around her hands. She saw the second boulder, the size of her head, hurtling towards her. An orange aura burned faintly around it, and she reeled clear of the stone.

They’d found her. She didn’t know how, she’d been so careful, but they’d found her . Now she could make out three figures running at her from the treeline, clearly upset that she had anticipated the attack and avoided it. One aura was red, another yellow, and on the right, the one with orange around one hand indicated very clearly who had thought it was a good idea to throw a rock.

Low-powered, but a three-on-one fight was never good. Especially if they were packing other options, like…

There it is. A flash of movement from the mage with the red aura alerted her to a firearm, and she threw up a hasty shield. It was a low-grade laser pistol, dangerous though not as difficult to acquire as plasma weapons. The beam struck the pink shield, not putting a dent in it, and she used the surprise to race towards him.

They were all dressed in black with their hoods drawn up, but under the glow of her pink shield, she could make out the surprise on the lower portion of the man’s stubbled face right before she dropped the shield in perfect combination with a spinning kick that cracked his jaw and dropped him to the ground. She spun around with the momentum of the attack, whirling up another shield as the other two mages, having more power than the first one she’d dropped, fired off a beam of yellow mana and bolts of orange respectively. The back of her brain pinched at the impacts, but she threw her shield at them. The one with the orange magic tried to break it apart before it reached him and took a direct hit that knocked him unconscious, but the mage whose hands burned yellow had enough sense to jump out of the way. He came up with a sword of pure yellow light in his hand, going right for her. It chilled her blood for a moment, because while the rock had been flimsy and useless save for a surprise attack, what was on display now was something else entirely. Something much more menacing. He was an honest to God trained combat mage , and that was something that she rarely had the chance to go up against.  Manifested or not, it was a weapon against her talents in karate and warcasting.

Still, in a battle of sword versus shield, she was far from helpless. Ignoring the promise of a bubble shield, Gwen instead reached for a pair of extended gauntlets, a shimmering weave around the whole of her forearms and hands that made the darkness of night retreat a little. With those in place, deflecting the sword became a lot less hazardous.

Wax on, wax off... She heard Ben’s voice from when they were 11 years old natter away in the back of her skull. The sword of pure magic lunged towards her center, she caught it along the back of her forearm and swept it away before closing in a straight punch full of power. The mage took the impact but rolled away with it, preventing her from smashing his solar plexus in entirely. He curved the sword around, aiming for her legs, she leapt up and snapped him in the face with a perfectly executed bicycle kick.

Thank God for the Keystone’s natural balance enhancement…

The mage stumbled backwards, reeling from the hit to his jaw, and looked ready to close in on her after a few shakes of his head. She didn’t give him the chance.

“Kemo char! ” She snarled out, snapping her wrists together and splaying her fingers outwards. It was a gesture that was far too reminiscent of the hokey martial arts cartoons Ben liked when he was younger, but there was a grain of truth to it. It did make channeling a vast amount of mana easier, using both arms and then concentrating it between her hands.

The beam of brilliant pink light smashed into his chest like a cannon, lifted him up off of the ground, and threw him back twenty feet before he came to a stop with smoke rising from his clothes and groaning in obvious pain.

Gwen hissed and whirled around in a wide circle, searching for more targets. The element of stealth ruined after a battle that would have lit up like Chicago for any other Sensors in the area, she muttered the incantation for aura sight, blinked twice…

And cringed.

A full dozen mages of varying strength were closing in around her from the south, west, and north, and they weren’t being cautious about hiding their power. They were moving as fast as they could.

Gwen groaned and looked east, the only direction that they weren’t moving in from. It led deeper into the forest on the east side of the lake. Tough to pass through. Tougher to fight in. She didn’t have a choice, so she picked up her satchel with the obsidian tablet’s time travel spell, and ran.

How? HOW? Backtracing her call to Grandpa would have gotten them to that diner, fine, but finding her here? She’d gotten rid of her cell phone long before. She’d muted her aura, and without the Charms of Bezel active, that was actually possible. Trying to do it before had been like fitting an inflated tire into a tissue box.

Had they predicted her move? Was she really that obvious?

If she had been paying more attention to where she was running, she might have seen it. She should have anticipated it. The mages had been closing in from three sides, not four , and they had intentionally left one passage open for her. They hadn’t been closing in to capture her, not immediately, they had been driving her .

Towards the traps.

A snare noose, hidden under pine needles and composting wet leaves, one of several more than likely, and she drove her left foot right down into it. Triggered, the noose closed around her ankle, snapped her up with a hard jerk, and dislocated her foot.

Her scream shattered the tranquility of the night as she was whipped up, dangling feet off of the ground with her leg howling at her in pain. Dizzy, she sobbed through it, manifested a sharp edge of a shield platform with another underneath her, and cut herself down.

The disc she’d flopped onto wavered and brought her down to the ground before it gave out entirely. The pain made it nearly impossible to focus, but she managed that much. She was Tennyson tough. She examined the foot, found it was already swelling up. The barest bit of pressure made it scream all over again. She wouldn’t be running on it. Wouldn’t be walking on it.

Limping, maybe.

 

Then they were around her, this time on all sides, and one of them stepped forward. “You should be grateful, witch .” The grating voice of Archmagus Rene Gimial snapped bitterly, lowering his hood down. “After what you did to my agents yesterday, I almost allowed our hunters to use bear traps.”

“You sent assassins in the middle of the night to kill me, and you’re angry that I defended myself?” Gwen rasped back at him. No, she didn’t have time to deal with being dizzy, or having her head swirl. Push it down. She needed her magic. She needed all of it. “You’re a thug, Gimial. You’ve always been a thug.”

“And you are a child, playing God with a power not meant for you.”

“Oh, it’s meant for you then?”

“I serve the Coven!” Rene screamed at her, and she tasted buttery croissants again. “The Charms of Bezel should have been ours all along. The others on the Council…”

“The other Council members would have never allowed you to do this.” Gwen hissed, her green eyes flashing with a backdrop of faint, pinkish violet. “Sending in a two man death squad? Even now, you’re just trying to cover your own ass. And what about the rest of them?” Even slumped on her one good leg with the bad one stretched out beside her, she still was enough of a threat as her eyes moved around the circle to see that the others shuffled nervously. “Do they know that they’re serving a demagogue? Or did you lie to them too, to get what you wanted?”

Rene should have been sweating bullets. She didn’t doubt that he had sympathizers, there were always those willing to take more radical action for the pretense of ‘safety’, or ‘peace’. She’d learned that bitter lesson before she had turned 13 years old, when an old man had sold out children willing to stand up to evil and made a devil’s bargain for the ‘safety’ of Earth. And when it all collapsed around him and the Plumbers had fallen regardless, he’d put a gun in his mouth and eaten a bullet. He should have been worried that her accusations would expose him.

He wasn’t. Instead, the old Frenchman just smiled . “There has been a change in leadership, witch. Your actions, the draining of the Charms of Bezel, required more direct intervention. A stronger hand at the helm.”

Gwen stared at him. A power play. He’d made a Goddamned power play , used fear and panic in the aftermath of her greatest spell-working to force the resignations of the more moderate members of the council. The ones who had been willing to leave her alone, to be the guardian of the Charms and take on the responsibility for them.

She swallowed. “Did you kill them, too?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We do not kill our own, witch. Only our enemies.” Rene snorted. “Still. Mistress Chao and Shaman Halee were quite distraught. They took their own lives not long after resigning. An unfortunate mess, caused by your wild actions. The rest of the Council that survived made me the Grandmagus of the Earth Coven. I do not act on my own, Miss Tennyson. I carry the full weight and authority of the Coven, and now, you will be judged.”

Gwen tried to swallow. Tried to cry. It was happening all over again, the same, sick tragedy. A dictator rising to power on fear and worry. One of her favorite old movies, about a trial in the 1920’s regarding the teaching of evolution, danced in the back of her mind. The line given by the lawyer for the defense, a crusty and tired old man who had spent his life fighting bigotry and intolerance. About buying safety with blind loyalty, blind mob rule.

He had either killed them himself or had others do it for him, but Rene Gimial had at last found the power he had so long coveted. Because of her. And the ones who would stand in the way of his insanity had been cut down.

Power, angry dark pink bordering on violet gathered around her hands, and instantly, every mage in the circle around her glowed violently in their colors. Oranges, and yellows, and greens and blues, and only Gimial carried a pink-hued aura to his magic.

“Give up, Witch Tennyson.” Grandmagus Gimial drawled, a satisfied and triumphant cruel grin across his face. “You are outnumbered. You are outmatched. Surrender, or we will destroy you.”

She was crying. She was hurting. She ached. But Gwen looked at him, and saw the face of a madman who would try to take over the world through the shadows, rule it as a puppetmaster through fear and paranoia. Someone who would do anything to maintain his control.

Ben would try to stop him. But magic…

She always held back. Always, always . The only times she hadn’t, there had been fear from those around her, and horrible guilt. Gimial would not carry that guilt, feel that responsibility. He would take the Charms, re-power them...And Ben would…

No.

 

“You call me a witch.” She declared, and there was a hitch in her breathing. “You’re a madman. You want to rule the world using the Charms. Atlantis and Logos, all over again.”

“We will restore strength and order to Earth.” Gimial said. “Instead of relying on a loose cannon with an alien artifact, and an alien police force.”

Her chest thundered, and the magic she held deepened. The pink vanished entirely for a burning purple, and around her, the fearful mutters increased.

“My Ben is a hero .” She hissed. “And he is so much better than you will ever be.”

“If he tries to stop us…”

“He won’t.” Gwen lurched up to her right foot, and one of the more nervous mages with the green light around her yelled out and fired a snapshot ray. Gwen’s bubble shield formed around her with a thought and blunted it away, the magic swirled into her, through her, and a wild wind began to wail, splintering the copse of trees and knocking them down into a debris-filled clearing. With a grunt and a push, she was hovering a few inches above the ground, her injured left leg still hurting, but forgotten. “Because he won’t get the chance. I’m going to kill you here .”

 

***

 

The Earth Coven had been formed after the Highbreed Invasion, a last, desperate play by the scattered mages to establish some semblance of unity and independence from government oversight. With the world running terrified and every nation scrambling to hold on to autonomy in the face of Ben 10,000 and the Galactic Enforcers, the few humans who could use magic had no other choice but to join together to keep themselves from being enslaved. Gwen had been 14 when they had asked her to join, and she had been one of the strongest mages on the planet by then. She had told them no, and that wish had been respected, especially after she came into the possession of the Charms of Bezel. By that point, nobody could make her do anything she didn’t want to do.

Their independence bred paranoia, though. The hunters, the Sensors. Gwen had never looked too closely into the group, because it always unnerved her. The mages had learned to fight to defend themselves, but they never moved to work with Ben 10,000. They rarely worked with the United Nations. The Coven was always led by old men, old women, who had lived for too long in the shadows and didn’t know how to exist outside of them. People were still terrified of magic.

And the Coven, clearly, was still terrified of Gwendolyn Tennyson. Charms or not.

They all opened up on her at the same time, a dozen mages of varying power and experience blasting away with raw fury. Her bubble shield still up, she flew up like a shot to evade the first blasts, lucking out as their shots smashed into each other around the circle. Two of the mages and their orange auras flickered out, taken down by the more powerful blasts of blue magic that they had been unprepared to block.

The rest who had either deflected or dodged now aimed up at her, and she barreled down at a green mage with a howl, her good leg outstretched into a flying kick. He screamed and forced up a shield. She bared her teeth and reinforced her leg, cracking through his barrier like an axe through dry kindling. Her heel drove into the space between his shoulder and his neck, and she heard the bones crack as he was smashed into the ground. He’d probably live, but that shoulder and arm would never work right without extensive surgery.  

Nine left.

 

More powerful blasts ate away at her shields, and she flinched with every hit, feeling the surface beginning to crack already. She conjured up a second shield in front of her to ease the strain, dropped her primary shield, and then went running. Swords and weapons were drawn, and by the look on his face, Rene Gimial was absolutely livid.

“Damn you all, stop her!” He shouted, once again reverting to French, as he usually did when he was upset. The next mage closest to Gwen came at her with a sword of pure blue mana, and she fell back on her forearm shields, blunting the blade to the side before stepping into his guard, grabbing hold of his arm at the elbow with one arm, and then driving an open-palmed thrust into his shoulder joint. The man screamed, lost his concentration, and the blade dissipated away. She grabbed a hold of his arms and used him as a living shield as she flew towards the next pair of mages in line, both of them charging up spells with yellow magic glowing in their hands. The man screamed as a blast struck him from behind, and Gwen winced a little, but less at his pain and more at the callousness of the others. They didn’t care that they were killing him. They only cared about killing her, regardless of the cost.

She hurled him at the first of the yellow mages, and the woman yelped before rolling clear. She came up and fired off her spell, a half-cocked telekinesis that snapped a bubble of force out towards Gwen to trap her and put her under the other woman’s control.

Gwen felt it wrap around her body, grunted once, and snapped it with a burst of her own strength. The woman collapsed from the strain of having her spell broken, reminding Gwen of the near constant headaches she’d had early on when she was young. Back before she knew just how serious the strain of a shattered shield of a misfired spell actually was.

Seven left.

 

The other yellow mage got off his own spell, and she widened when she realized that he was firing an explosive burst. If it went off, she could block it with a little bit of effort, but…

Instinct, more than anything else, guided her. The globe of light screamed towards her, the other mages yelled out and ducked for cover, and Gwen stood her ground, hovering as it came in. She pushed power into her hands, more than before, until they burned a darker purple than the rest of her aura, and caught it, enveloping it with her own power and straining before she launched it into the sky with a yell. It flew up hundreds of feet and exploded like a firework, easily three times as loud as a normal crackler, and more akin to the flash-BANG of the duds. For a moment, the entire sky lit up with yellow light, distracting them all. Gwen moved first, racing to the mage who’d lobbed off the shot and giving him a hard chop to the neck that dropped him like a stone.

And then there were six.

 

She felt a sharp tug against her body as someone managed to get close enough to lay a hand on the satchel, and she blanked out for a bit. When she came to again, there was a terrible pain in her thigh, her head ached, her magic was nearly exhausted, and four more bodies lay around her, some clearly broken or suffering from mana burns.

The blast hit her from behind, burned through her clothes, and buried her into the ground.

 

Gwen groaned and tried to pick herself back up, but another beam, solid and unceasing and burning , bored into her, and she screamed into the grass.

“Witch. You terrible witch, you ruined everything!” Rene snarled, and the beam finally cut off. He was panting, and when she managed to turn her head to look up at him, he was absolutely seething. He reached down for the satchel, and she made a little noise, trying to struggle against it. The newly promoted Grandmagus smashed his boot down against her left arm, and she howled as the bones broke. The satchel was torn away, and then he knelt down with a hand full of fire, and burned the sleeve of her shirt away, tearing free the inert Bezel stones in a tug that scraped a line of fingerprint burns down the side of her right arm.

She had never felt so much pain before.

 

The only other standing mage, favoring one leg, limped over beside Gimial. The Grandmagus shoved the Stones and satchel both into his waiting arms, then pushed him away.

Gimial’s hands filled with pink light. “You are too dangerous to let live. But your death will serve a purpose. When your cousin hears of your passing, he will be blinded by fury. He will come for us, and I will drain him dry. And his death will fuel the Charms of Bezel for 100 years.”

Her back was on fire. It didn’t matter.

Her left arm was broken, her right was burned. It didn’t matter.

Her ankle was dislocated, she couldn’t walk, she had been stabbed in one leg, her head was throbbing, her strength was failing.

None. Of. It. Mattered.

 

He unleashed hellflames down towards her with both of his hands, and Gwen brought up her bubble shield, feeling the heat passing around her, smelled the grass burning.

“You’re tired. You’ve been on the run. You have nothing left!” Gimial goaded her. “You will die as a withered corpse, and then the Coven will rise to protect this world!”

Her strength was failing her. The pink shield around her was already cracking. In a few more seconds, it would flicker, and then...pain. Fire. Death.

 

She dug her fingers of her burned arm into the ground, clenched them around a clump of grass. She thought of Grandpa Max, of her parents, Professor Singh…

She thought of Ben, most of all.

 

I have to save them. I have to protect them. I can’t...I can’t do it alone, I need help, please PleasepleasePLEASE…

 

Life bred mana. Magic was born from it, reveled in it. It sorrowed in its loss, exulted in its creation. Magic could be twisted, life could be suborned and stolen away. Dark, angry rituals of sacrifice, unwilling theft had long been a part of magic’s history, frowned on, dissuaded. Every source in every old book had argued against it, save for the ones written by those too far gone to care.

All of them had gotten it wrong, save for one author, in one old, faded journal that had never been reprinted, never publicly studied. A journal that Gwen had been given when she was a girl, a journal full of ideas, hopes, fears, and dreams.

It was wrong to steal life. But mana, brought on by life, fueled by it, could be asked for. It could be given.

And the forest, responding to that pure strain of need, saw in Gwendolyn Tennyson the Sorceress that the Earth had been waiting for for over a thousand years. Three thousand. Ten thousand.

The forest gave up its life, and she could feel it. She felt the trees wither. She felt the fish go still, the insects go rigid and plummet to the ground. It flowed under the lake, under the ground, under her, and up her arm, which burned with a dark ultraviolet incandescence. Her shield’s cracks faded, the shield changed color, life flowed into her and she gasped, crying.

Too much, too much I didn’t want this I didn’t want…

 

But the gift being given, could not be taken back. Glendo State Park was left as a husk, the few people inside of it sickened, but alive by virtue of their own greater stores than the other creatures, the trees, the grasses that had all given their full measure.

The power of an entire forest burned in her chest, and unable to hold it, Gwen forced it into the one vessel that she knew could.

That glimmering rush of life flowed into the Keystone of Bezel, and it jerked awake, glowing brightly beneath her clothes. It burned away the fabric in front of it, alive and angry and unwilling to be hidden.

She screamed as the magic flowed back out of it, raced through her body, healing the minor pains, taking away enough of it to give her the will to fight.

Gwen gathered her shield into her mind and thrust it out at Rene Gimial, knocking him flat on his ass and quenching his flames.

He came up again, gaping, as her ultraviolet aura burned around her like a supernova, and she rose into the air. “You...but...HOW?!”

She sucked in a breath, and heard how her voice doubled over itself, felt the air vibrate with even a glimmer of her strength. “You would play God, ruling over a world that you never deserved.” She saw his eyes go down to her chest, where bare skin and her necklace and the Keystone lay bare for the world to see. He swallowed, seeing the glyph that burned even brighter than her aura, and she could see him working out the truth. Of the Seventh Rune in the cipher that had translated the Sirocco dig’s ruins.

Gwen saw him look around, with uncovered eyes, and realize the full scope of what had flowed into her.

“Witch.” Rene whispered hoarsely, standing before her like she was a force of nature. “What have you done?”

“I asked, and the forest answered.” Gwen snarled at him, and the air resonated with the truth of it. “Have you ever listened to the world, REALLY listened to it?! Trying to rule the world? Like every other insane tyrant? That’s not what the Charms were made for! It’s not what MAGIC exists for!”

He pointed at the Keystone. “All along...you had that all along?!”

She must have looked a sight, but she didn’t care. “It’s over, Rene.”

There was fear in his eyes, but the greed, the hunger, the need to subsume her and rule was too great. He howled and ran for her, his arms shooting pink fire even as he reached for the Keystone.

A wave of her hand and an uttered word caused a hemisphere of a shield bubble to flash in the air in front of him, and when he crashed into it, the destructive inversion of a shield spell she had used when she was 12 snapped the second hemisphere around him and trapped him inside. Gimial shrieked, and raged, and burned away his mana, kept burning at it even as the drain exhausted his flesh, withered it. He didn’t care about the cost, about how wrong it was. Nothing mattered to him but power and control.

Gwen shut her eyes and squeezed her hand, and heard the screaming from within the ultraviolet shield bubble stop suddenly with a loud crunch.

The power faded away, drawn back into the Keystone or lost on the wind, and she slumped to the ground with another cry of pain. She lay in a heap, wondering why she still hurt so badly.

Then, footsteps. The last Coven mage. With a groan, she forced herself up, pushing against the ground with her burned arm. The mage stood in front of her, his hood up, the satchel and Charms in one arm, and the other glowing in orange light with his hand pointed down at her.

Then his arm fell, and the glow faded. The mage was trembling, and he reached for his hood to pull it down.

 

She knew his face.

 

“Jasper.” She wheezed. The technomage who had been on Project Sirocco , the very dig where she’d found the tablet. He stood there, terrified of her. But he didn’t attack her. It fit. “It was you.”

He nodded stiffly. “I tracked your phone call, yeah. But the forest...wild guess. One of the others found you. A Sensor. The Arch...Grandmagus...He was…” Jasper shut his eyes. “He was crazy . I always felt he was off, but I didn’t...about the others…”

Jasper rocked on his heels a little, and Gwen watched him wearily and warily. “Why did you do it?” He finally asked. “Why did you lie about the spell? Why did you use it? There was so much good we could have done with it, we could have warned the world about the Highbreed, or…”

“Most things, Jasper, you can’t change.” Gwen interrupted him sadly. “And you know why I lied about it.”

Jasper sucked in air, and stared at the crumpled mess of blood, bone, and flesh that used to be Rene Gimial. “I do now.” He looked back at her, sickened at the sight. “What will you do now?”

“Leave.” Gwen told him, because something in his eyes demanded honesty. “Leave, and go somewhere that nobody can find me.”

“You could have ruled the world.”

“I never wanted the world.” Gwen grimaced, and Jasper dove down, helping her up. “Nobody deserves it.”

“You’ll take the stones?” Jasper asked, and she winced as he hung the satchel, with the Charms and the tablet both jammed into it, over her neck. “Take them away?”

“I have to. The world...it’s not ready for them. It might never be ready.”

“But what if we need them?”

“You don’t.” Gwen said, meeting his eyes. “You really don’t.”

“...The Coven’s going to be a mess.” Jasper whispered. “There’s only Archmagus Wladiszlaw and Chief Thunder Arms left now. What do I tell them?”

“Whatever you need to.” Gwen hissed as he guided her away from the battlefield, through the brittle and lifeless landscape of what had once been a bustling, living landscape.

“I’m not going to lie.” Jasper protested. “The Grandmagus lied. He said you were crazy, that you wanted to...to take over everything. But you don’t. He did. And...he probably did kill the other Council members. You should stay. We need you. Now, more than ever. You’re not like Rene. Like any of us. You’re better than us.”

“Are you still scared of me?”

“Terrified.”

She managed a bitter laugh, and the world started to swirl around her. But Jasper had a hold of her.

“I’ll get them out of here. I’ll tell them you headed west. That you’re running for your family. They’ll believe that.” He told her urgently.

“I’m...I’m not…” She slurred.

“Be safe.” He uttered softly, through the washing machine rolling in her ears. And it all went dark.

 

When she came to again, she found herself tucked in between a pile of rocks, sheltered from the winds, the sun just rising above her, a first aid kit with plenty of splinting and bandaging supplies at her feet.

On her chest were all of the Charms of Bezel, her satchel, and the obsidian tablet, with a bottle of water and two protein bars. All around her was nothing but the silence of a dead forest, having given its last for the Sorceress. Silence, and the wind.

But not the wind, a part of her realized. And in the distance, she heard the heavy thrumming of helicopter rotors.

The whoosh rushed past her, died, then doubled back in a blue blur that made her eyes mist up. In a flash of green light, Ben was kneeling down over her, his face twisted by worry and rage. It made her cry all the more. When his hand came up to her cheek, her eyes fluttered shut.

“You’re...I thought...I saw the bodies, and…” He stammered.

He never stammered, not like this. He was never not in control, even when he was taking a beating. Something in her chest twisted, and Gwen let out a sob, because she suddenly felt her crumbled heart beat again.

“Who am I killing?” He growled out.

“Nobody. I’ve killed enough for both of us, Ben.” She cried softly. She looked a mess. Her body was burning, her head was swimming, and she knew she was sick on top of being injured. And she didn’t dare look at him. She didn’t want to see the disappointment on his face. Or the fear.

He paused, then his other hand came up and he cupped her face entirely. His thumbs traced over her eyelids, and the shock of the intimate sweep made her snap her eyes open.

There was no fear there. Just worry, worry and a longing she thought she would never see from him again.

“Are you all right?” He asked, needing to hear her voice.

“No.” She slurred, and then exhaustion and the darkness took her again.

 

***

 

Location Unknown

July 30th, 2018 C.E.



When she came to again, the combination of the smells and the vibrations running through the bed nearly lulled her back to sleep. She opened her eyes even as she reached up above her head and touched the top foldout bunk of the Rustbucket III , and knew in an instant that she was safe.

Safe, but still hurting. Her dislocated ankle was...it no longer felt dislocated, but it was wrapped tightly in bandages. The skin of her right upper arm was just as mummified, and the smell of burn salve permeated it thoroughly. Her left arm was bundled in a familiar sling, old Plumber tech. It both stabilized and sped up the healing process. Days, instead of two months.

It didn’t do a thing for how beat up and worn out she felt in general, though.

 

“Ben?” She tried to say, but her voice came out as a strangled little thing that didn’t clear the ambient noise of the RV in transit.

“He left, Pumpkin.” Grandpa Max’s voice carried from the kitchenette, and then Gwen smelled his coffee. It almost made up for how much it hurt to hear that Ben had left her behind. Again. “He got a hold of me after he found you, dropped you off, then went back to...keep searching.”

Gwen tried to get up, but her grandfather was there in a flash, pushing her back down by her shoulders. “Gwendolyn, no, you shouldn’t...please. Do you have any idea how hurt you were when he found you?”

“Yeah, I do.” Gwen put up with his mothering with just a bit of grumbling. “I lived through it. And the bastards who did it to me...didn’t.” She rested her burned arm over her stomach and tried not to think about it. Which meant she did nothing but think about it when her eyes closed, and she could feel the snare snapping her ankle, a boot snapping her ulna and radius, the burning over her back, the knife at her neck…

“The Charms. Where are they?” She asked, trying to block out the ache.

“Here. Along with the stone.” Grandpa reached under her bunk and pulled out her satchel. “Do you want them?”

“Just keep them close.” Gwen ordered him.

“The forest. Gwendolyn, what...what happened?” Grandpa Max asked, and she could suddenly hear the thin vein of shaking fear he tried to keep hidden. Tried. She knew him too well; he could lie to anyone that wasn’t her, or Ben. Or Aunt Vera, when she’d been alive.

She didn’t say anything, and he pressed on. “The CDC is sending quarantine teams, and the DNR is running scans from the helicopter. FBI’s not far behind. The news thinks that there was some kind of bioweapon that got set off.”

Gwen cracked her eyes open and stared at him, waiting for the shoe to fall. Max swallowed, and he looked so haunted . “But they’re not going to find anything, are they? The Coven did something. They drained the forest dry to power something big.”

There was a blanket over her, but Gwen could feel that she was still in the same clothes as before, with a hole burned through her shirt that exposed the Keystone. She pressed her palm over it, and felt the gentle pulse of stored mana from within, felt the two rings that rested against it.

She wondered if Grandpa had seen them. If he was mad about it. Right now, he was still in crisis mode.

“Are they going to keep coming after you?” Grandpa kept on.

“I don’t think that there’s enough of the Coven left to try.” She admitted hollowly. “Gimial...cleaned house before he came after me.” She didn’t have to elaborate. She knew Grandpa Max would catch on. Given his lack of a reaction, she’d been right. “Did...Did the Galactic Enforcers call back?”

Grandpa Max looked away and worked his jaw, almost grinding his teeth. “He’s coming. A few days, Xylene said. But you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to leave.”

“Yes, I do.” Gwen closed her eyes, and saw the faces of every person she had killed over the past three days. People who had come for her, come for the stones, come to start a magical arms race. They would find those bodies. Chances were good they would find evidence linking her to there. A strand of hair. Blood. They would come for her, come hunting for the witch who had gone wild.

“We can protect you.”

“No, you can’t.”

“You think I can’t protect my only granddaughter?”

“You shouldn’t.” Gwendolyn swallowed, and let the guilt burn away at her. “Because they didn’t kill that forest.”

There was no mistaking the sharp inhalation of air that caused. “What are you saying, Gwendolyn?”

She rolled over, as much as she could with her injuries, and faced the wall of the RV. “I asked for its help. It killed itself to save me.”

 

***

 

Devil’s Tower

Wyoming

June 30th, 2018 C.E.

8:41 P.M.

 

Devil’s Tower made for a navigable enough landmark to use for a pickup zone for Xylene or Azmuth in a few days, and Gwen couldn’t have asked for a better time for it. It was the evening of the last day of June, and the climbers’ moratorium that the Parks service requested for the Native American ceremonies throughout the month was still in effect.

Grandpa Max had been deadset on waiting with her, as banged up as she was. He’d begged with her, even pleaded to leave a message for her family. She’d dismissed that notion out of hand. ‘What am I going to tell them, exactly? I’m heartbroken because the man I love is getting married to someone else, oh and by the way I ended up killing over a dozen people in self defense and created an ecological disaster by sucking an entire forest’s worth of life energy to save myself, and they really shouldn’t listen to anything anyone else will say about me, because I’m still their good little girl?’   In the end, he gave up and listened to her.

Left her there, alone, still banged up and hurting and sick, and kept on flying. Because Gwendolyn Tennyson was a witch, a renegade. A murderer. And the authorities would have likely already found the bodies of the Earth Coven mages in Gimial’s attack force in the ruins of those woods.

They would have found her blood, or her hair. Combined with her already being missing and a person of interest to the two moldering corpses in her Denver apartment? And the tight-lipped Earth Coven’s membership suddenly annihilated?

She had to leave. Gwen hoped she would live long enough to get the chance. Grandpa had left her as many things as he could; his old tent, a sleeping bag, a heavy blanket. Camp rations. It wasn’t what he had wanted to do, but it got added to the list of things Gwen forced him to do. It had to last. How many days would it be before Azmuth got here? A few, Grandpa Max had said. She just had to hold out a few days, and then she would be able to leave Earth. Get away.

Save Ben from her mistakes.

She still felt feverish, but she’d taken all the medications she could. Somehow, she found a comfortable way to lie down. All she had to do was wait. Stay alive and wait.

Gwen closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep. Tried was the less than optimal word, because her mind kept racing away. Especially when she gripped the Keystone that hung above her breastbone.

Bezel had been a man. A master artificer of the Logosian people. His creations had been stolen away, hidden by a coven of mages from Logos and Atlantis who were hellbent on not fighting in the war. When they had exhausted each other and collapsed, the broken mages of Atlantis had scattered, the mages of Logos fled the earth, and the unity coven who established the Sirocco ruins had tried to fix it all, and failed.

The Atlanteans had passed on scraps, just scraps of their knowledge through the ages. It was the basis of spellworking. But the Bezel Charms...As Logosian artifacts, they had been forged on entirely separate principles. They worked with her spellcasting, but she had had practice.

It reminded her of Hex and Charmcaster, people she hadn’t thought about in years. Hex had gone missing after their first summer, probably killed off after the Fountain of Youth debacle. Charmcaster? Another inmate of the Null Void, and good riddance to her. Gwen still had nightmares about the body swap that silver-haired trollop had used on her when she was 10.

Hex...his mastery of the Charms of Bezel had been effortless . He’d even known about the Keystone’s ability to regenerate the broken charms. On reflection, the answer was obvious...Hex had been Logosian. Or a descendant of them. Nothing in the Earth Coven archives came close to the knowledge that he’d had. When she’d been building the modern version of the time travel spell, she had wondered what he would think if he knew that the Keystone hadn’t been rendered inert after all. Had Hex come to Earth? Had he been on Earth all along? They were questions she didn’t have an answer for, and Charmcaster’s old notes, left in her hands before she burned them away, had only given the barest hints of a place called Legerdomain, with no details.

She still preferred to think about that instead of the alternatives that threatened to buzz through her mind. Sleep came at a snail’s pace, but it did finally slow her brain to a crawl. Exhaustion, more than real serenity, was the key.

Just a few more days.

 

***

 

July 1st, 2018 C.E.

11:48 A.M.



Even exhausted and beaten up, the old survival habits didn’t stop working. The sounds of voices and activity nearby snapped her awake in a flash, and she rolled up to a sitting position faster than she should have. The spasm of pain through her battered body made her hiss and swear under her breath, but at least, she didn’t black out.

She listened more carefully, conjuring up a globe of magic around her good hand and trying to ignore the sting of the burned skin beneath the bandages.

“...Man, and here I thought we’d be the first ones up here!” Came the groan of a man.

“We’re the first legit climbers up here.” A second man, a bit younger than the first, grumbled. “The scrub in that tent made the climb during the moratorium.”

“It’s not like it’s mandatory.”

“Well, it oughta be!”

 

Gwen’s breathing stayed hard, though she shoved the magic back down, let it fade away. They were just mountain climbers. Out for kicks. She wasn’t being chased.  They weren’t cops, they weren’t Coven Seekers.

They were coming closer, though. With their heavy climbing boots, they were making no effort at being subtle, stomping over towards her tent.

“Hey, Gary, maybe we oughta give them some space, you know? They could still be sleeping!” The first, older voice called out reasonably.

“Forget that! This bozo thought it was cool to climb up in June? I’m going to give them a piece of my mind!”

Her heart started pounding even faster, and it took everything she had to keep the magic calm. Don’t bother me, just go away, please go away…

Gary, clearly the hothead of the pair, didn’t. The shadow of him fell over the tent, and a hand came down and jostled the frame. “Hey! Jackass! Rise and shine already, you and I need to have a talk!”

“Can it wait?” Gwen demanded, shouting back through the waterproofed lining.

 

The sound of her voice stopped Gary’s tirade midstream. “Woah. Uh. Sorry. I didn’t…” He stammered out a bit and took a few steps back from the tent. “Anyhow. Sorry for scaring you there. It’s just, me and Reggie had planned on being the first ones up the Tower here in July. Finding out you climbed it during the June moratorium? It’s not cool, you know.”

But I didn’t climb it. Grandpa Max landed his RV, and I got off.

“It was the last day of the month. I didn’t think anyone would mind much.” She said, offering up a feeble excuse.

Gary snorted. “Yeah, whatever. Well, we’re here now, and when I post up my photo, I’m making sure your tent’s not in it. Me and Reggie are the first legit climbers up Devil’s Tower. Got it?”

“Fine.” Gwen said wearily. “I don’t care.”

The other man came by, and his shadow blended with Gary’s. “See? No problem. Now come on, you’re being a dick. Let’s get lunch started, okay?”

Gwen gave them another 10 minutes to get settled before she finally listened to her bladder and crawled out of the tent. Their backs were turned to her, and she used the opportunity to zip the tent shut again before diving off the side of the mountain, down towards the nearby pine forest with her satchel over her shoulder. The magic of her flight spell caught her effortlessly, and she drifted down towards it. There were no other visitors that she could see, courtesy of the cloudy skies overhead most likely, and she started to relax as she finished up and soared back up the side of the mesa.

That feeling lasted up until she shot up over the edge and flew low along the ground behind her tent, only to freeze up and lose control of her flight spell when a very high-pitched scream from one of the climbers broke her concentration.

Falling on solid rock, even from just a foot up in the air, hurt. Especially with one broken arm, the other still recovering from severe burns, a foot in a Plumbers cast, and the other hip sporting a covered stab wound.

God, why are you still able to move? She thought, while she groaned loudly and struggled to pick herself up.

“Jesus Christ! Lady, are you all right?” The man’s voice was a mixture of fear and concern.

“Tripped.” Gwen lied, and rolled over onto her back. She lay there and stared up at the cloudy sky, thick with moisture. She placed the voice as the man came over and looked down at her. “Reggie, right? The smart one?”

“Ouch.” The mountain climber winced for effect before chuckling. “I suppose my dumbass of a brother deserved that. Here, let me…” He started to reach a hand down towards her, and she caught the look of shock blossoming on his face while he sucked in air. “Oh, my God. You’re...you’ve got an arm and a foot in casts!”

“Wasn’t a perfect climb.” Gwen threw out another baldfaced lie, doing her best to disguise the rapid beating of her heart. At least she was wearing clothes that weren’t torn to pieces now.

“I guess. Geez. You gotta be one tough gal, making it up here solo and then bandaging yourself up like that.” He finished extending his arm. “Come on. Let me help you up.”

“Thanks.” Gwen took the offered hand and lurched up to her one good foot, stumbling a bit before the Keystone kicked in and she recovered her balance.

“Yeah, no problem. Hey, you want to come eat with me and my baby brother? We’ve been working on some chili and skillet cornbread.”

“That depends. Is he going to behave himself?”

“Ouch. Also, I think he was just pissed off that someone else beat us up here.”

“It’s a mountain. You climb it for yourself, it doesn’t matter who else goes up before you or after.” She argued.

“Yeah. You try telling Gary that, see how well it takes.” The man, who Gwen pegged as being in his late 20’s, said with a raised eyebrow. “But I can promise he’ll behave, or I’ll punch him in the back of the head myself.”

Gwen couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “You’d beat up your own brother?”

“For free.” Reggie grinned. His smile faded as he looked behind her, and shook his head. “Strange. You know, for a minute, I could’ve sworn that you were…”

Gwen’s smile faded, and she stared at him. Reggie’s eyes weren’t on her, though. They were looking beyond her to the edge of the mountaintop, and then he shook it off and held out an elbow. “Ah, nevermind. Need an escort?”

“I wouldn’t turn one down.”

 

Reggie and Gary made for passable company; they asked for a name, she gave them Rose, which was true; it was just her middle name. After the Titanic jokes settled out, which did get Gary punched, the two explained that they were from Salt Lake City on a wilderness retreat, and had already taken on Mount Rainier and Mount McKinley. The chili was...canned, with an off-taste that Gwen couldn’t quite place. It took her a while to realize that she had gotten so used to Grandpa’s cooking that anything less than completely homemade, even with the extra ingredients, just tasted a little off. The cornbread was good, though; they apparently had mixed up a bunch of dry batches before starting their climbing adventure around the western U.S.

“So what about you, Rose?” Reggie asked, when the cookstove had been shut off, the last of the chili was congealing in a pot to be washed out later, and the last piece of cornbread had been scooped up in his hand. He leaned back on his collapsible camping chair and paused to finish speaking before taking a bite. “What brings you all the way out to the ass-end of Wyoming to climb a mountain, bang yourself up badly enough in the process to wreck an arm and a leg, and then fix it yourself instead of calling for a medevac like a sane person?”

“I’ve been told from reliable sources that I am Crazy.” Gwen replied, trying her best to ignore the pinch of regret that came with the memory of a girl who had been her best friend before the world fell apart. ‘And you wonder why I call you Crazy, Crazy Girl.’

Gary couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Well, can’t argue with that. I suppose me and my big brother here are a little bit crazy ourselves.”

Reggie swallowed his bite of cornbread and leaned his head to look up at the sky. He sighed. “Seems like the world’s gone crazy, you ask me. What with that big hullaballoo about an invasion earlier this year? And then that announcement about Atlantis being real ?”

“Yeah, and then there’s that forest. Can’t be more than, what, 250 miles from here?” Gary added with a shiver. “Damndest thing. It’s swarming with Feds now. They’re calling it some freak bioterrorist attack. Only the people who were in the park survived, everything else is flat out dead . And the people being sick?”

“Well, aside from the bodies they found.” Reggie added. “And they got a suspect now. I caught that news bulletin this morning on my phone before we started up.”

“No shit? Some freak alien?”

“Naw. A human. Magic user.”

“What, like a witch?” Gary vocalized, and Gwen shivered at the title.

“Yeah. And get this, it’s the cousin of Ben Ten Thou…” Reggie started.

Started, while looking at Gwen. Then stopped.

 

Gwen felt her heart thunder in her chest. She reached for her water bottle, raised it up and took a long swallow. Don’t. Don’t put it together. It’s not me.

“Hey, you okay, Reg?” Gary asked, frowning a little.

Reggie didn’t answer, he just reached for his phone.

 

“Something wrong?” Gwen asked, and the pulse of danger, danger brought the magic up into her chest.

“N-no, nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all.” Reggie quickly dismissed her question, his thumb dancing as he stared at the screen, then to her, then back at the screen. Gwen’s eyes flickered over to Gary, who by now was frowning even more and easing back. Like something was wrong.

Gwen tried to stay calm. “Something’s got you wound up.”

Reggie wasn’t even subtle after that. He looked to Gary, fear in his eyes. His eyes flickered once to Gwen, while he (Trying to be subtle) reached for the pan handle of the cast iron skillet that only had cornbread crumbs in it.

Gwen shut her eyes and let out a whuff of air. “Are you going to attack me?” She asked, in a soft timbre with the thin threat of violence underneath.

“...You gonna hurt us?”

She was careful not to lift her arms up. Reggie looked skittish enough to do something stupid with any sudden movement.“I never wanted to hurt anyone.”

“Reg, what the hell are…”

“It’s her, little brother. The witch. The one the Feds are after.”

 

Gwen cracked her eyes back open. “Sorceress. There’s a difference.”

“Shit.” Gary was panicking now.

“...You really were flying.” Reggie whispered.

Gwen cracked a defeated smile. “Guess you and your brother were the first ones to climb the mountain after all, Reg.” And then the smile dropped. “I don’t suppose that we could all just forget that you saw me here?”

Reg, swallowing, slowly shook his head left and right.

Gwen tried not to cry. A single sob escaped her. You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

“I’m calling it in.” Reggie said, his voice hoarse. “But you...you don’t have to be here when they get here.”

It was an out. A small opening. She would still be running, but Reggie was offering her a headstart. A chance for escape...In exchange for their safety.

Gwen let the pink glow of her aura intensify and suffuse her body, whispered the words of her flight spell again. Reggie and Gary both froze as she rose into the air, the strap of her satchel around her neck on the opposite side of where it hung off of her waist.

There was nothing left to say to them. She flew to her tent, packed it up. Soared down the side of the mountain, and dove into the woods.

And then she turned west.

 

Half an hour later, she heard the road of the jet-powered Federal craft screaming towards Devil’s Tower.

Don’t cry. Don’t stop. Just keep running.

 

A rush of wind blew off in the distance, so achingly familiar that she almost cried out to him. But something held her back. She couldn’t. She had hurt him enough.

A blue and black blur screamed past her, 300 yards off. Five seconds later, it doubled back, 400 yards on her right this time. And eight seconds after that…

The familiar form of XLR8 came to rest 20 yards away from her. She pulled up short.

 

They stared at one another, a thin wind blowing between them and ruffling her short hair.

“Let me go, Ben.” She called out, with barely a tremor at all.

He didn’t move. Didn’t speak. Beneath his mask, he was a statue balancing on the rollerballs of his feet.

“The Earth Coven tried to kill me, and take the Bezel Charms and the tablet. All of them. They were going to kill me, then use you as a battery to recharge them and take over the world.” Eyes misting up, she choked back the panic. “I didn’t mean to do that to the forest. I didn’t think it would give me that much just because I asked. But I had to do it. I had to keep you safe .”

He still didn’t speak, but now he walked towards her. Walked , as XLR8, when she had only ever seen him run as a blur.

Out of fear, she hovered back a few paces. “Don’t!” She warned him. XLR8 stopped moving. “Please, Ben. Just...I just need a few days. In a few days, Azmuth…”

“Won’t be here.” The Kineceleran rasped. “The FBI is in touch with the UNSDF. All flights are being put on standby with full passenger manifest checks.”

She slumped at the news. Her last lifeline, threatened. “He could still get through.”

“He won’t. After the Incursean invasion...they put up a better watch.”

 

Gwen shut her eyes. Accepted it. “I just wanted to leave. I was going to leave. They came after me , tried to kill me. Now, they call me a witch.”

“You’re not.”

“It doesn’t matter. Not to them.” She laughed and cried at the same time. “And they even sent you to capture me.”

A flash of green light took the alien away, and Ben 10,000 stood in XLR8’s place.

His face was a rictus of torn agony. “Why didn’t you come to me?”

“I tried.” Gwen squeaked. “But then...Then it was too late. The Earth needed its hero. I’m a liability.”

“No, you’re not!” He stepped closer, and she flinched, almost bouncing away again. Only the look of hurt stopped her. She had hurt him.

She had only ever hurt him. But she wouldn’t be used as a weapon against him.

“Just let me go. If I can’t leave, I’ll immolate myself. I’ll take the stones and the tablet and destroy them.”

Panic, and pain, engulfed him. He closed the gap and pulled her into a hug he made as tight as he possibly dared with her broken arm.

Her flight spell stuttered out and failed, and she collapsed into his arms.

“Stupid.” He whispered tearfully. “You’re so stupid . I don’t care about the rest of the world.”

She was crying after that. She was crying, and it didn’t matter.

“You have to let me go. You can’t save me . Not from this .”

“I can try.”

“I’m not worth it, Ben.” She whispered.

He pulled back, holding her against him with one arm, and lifted the other to her chin, tilting her head up towards his. “There’s over seven billion of them. There’s only one you.”

She buried her head into his chest and cried until she couldn’t anymore.

 

***

 

15 miles outside of Weston, Wyoming

4:14 P.M.



Ben had picked Gwen up with an ease that spoke of just how strong he had become, transformed back into XLR8, and sped off while she buried her face into his chest and neck. They had gone all of maybe ten miles before the pain of the wind scoring across her damaged, scarred back made her finally cry out. He’d slowed down after that, staying beneath 200 miles an hour. Fast, but tolerable after she reinforced her clothes. He’d kept his silence until they got to the next major copse of forested wilderness, then set her down and demanded with frosty green eyes to see the damage.

“I’m going to kill them all.” He growled, his rage palpable but restrained as he rewrapped the bandages around the ointment-slick mana burns over the small of her back.

“You will not .” She countermanded him in a weary voice, difficult given that she was lying on her stomach and using her shirt and satchel as a pillow.. “Everyone directly responsible is dead already. What’s left of the Earth Coven...they’re going to have to pick up the pieces.” His rough fingers traced over her midsection, and she shivered a bit, closing her eyes as a spark of heat ran along her spine. “And there’s at least one kid who knows the truth.”

“One lived?”

“Jasper.” Gwen mumbled into her shirt. “Gave me my stuff back. Hid me.”

He rumbled a little at her admission. “I may punch him anyways. I was going crazy, trying to find you before the Feds rolled in.”

“How did you know I’d even be there?” Gwen asked, shivering again as he kept rolling the bandage, and his finger dipped into her navel. He froze for a few moments after her shiver, and she could feel his hand, warm against her bare stomach. She didn’t breathe until his hand started moving, and she didn’t dare look up at his face. She was afraid of what she’d see there.

Of what she wanted to see there.

What she didn’t deserve.

He huffed a little and kept going. “You’ve always liked breaking things. Of course you’d be there.”

“No, you liked breaking things. I just tried to keep the property damage to a minimum.”

“I think you might have me beat now.” He teased her, and then they both flinched. “Sorry. God, I’m...I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know.” Gwen mumbled. Of course she knew. “Doofus.” She opened her eyes back up and stared into the distance of the forest. “Are you done yet?”

“Almost.” It felt like it, his hands were nearly to her waist now, and he nudged her hips a little to get her to raise them. Clinical as the touch was, she still inhaled sharply before doing as he asked. “Fine. So I won’t kill them. But if you think I’m just going to let them cover it up…”

“Jasper won’t let them.”

“Yeah, you’ll forgive me if I don’t trust the creep who was a part of the death squad sent to kill you.” He finished the bandaging, patted it back down. “Done. Need a hand up?”

She didn’t, could have just hovered back onto her good leg, but he was here , and she wanted to keep him close for as long as she could. So she braced her knees against the ground, pushed herself up into a ragged kneel, and held out her hand towards him.

Ben, however, was pointedly looking away from her. “Um.” He cleared his throat. “Maybe...maybe you should....shirt.” And his left arm, Omnitrix and all, vaguely gestured in her direction.

He was embarrassed, still, but Gwen just laughed, thrilling in it. How, suddenly, they were back to being twelve years old again. “I’m wearing a bra, you know.”

“Yeah. Doesn’t help.” He grunted out, trying to make it sound like he found it disgusting.

Gwen sighed, enjoyed the flutter in her stomach as she reached for her T-Shirt and pulled it on one-handed, working her broken arm and cast through it first. “There.” She said, finishing up until just a sliver of the bandages over her torso were exposed between her pants and the shirt. “Happy?”

“Loads.” Ben sighed and pulled her back up to her feet--well, foot and a cast, fine--and then put on his serious face. “So, I’ve thought about where we could put you. There’s a few safe houses that Grandpa told me about, and…”

“I’m not staying.”

“Well, none of them are long term , but we just need to buy enough time for the heat to die down, right? For the truth of this whole fricking mess to come out, implicate those bastards who are now six feet under…”

Gwen pressed her palm against his chest. “Ben.” She cut him off, and he went still. Years later, he’d gotten better at not flinching when she used his name, but all she had to do was use the right tone and he stopped cold. “You know I can’t stay.”

And he scowled at that. “I’m not letting you…”

“No, Ben. I’m not letting you throw away everything for me.” She said, turning it back on him. “I stopped the Coven yesterday. Tomorrow? Next week? Next month ? Or years from now? The government wants me now. But there’ll be others. And I can’t...The Charms are powerless now. I’m still their guardian. I have to take them someplace that nobody will ever be able to get to them. And that means, I’m leaving Earth. You can’t protect me and the world at the same time. I’m not going to make you make that choice.”

He took a step back, swallowed down air. “I don’t give a damn about the world.” He bit the words out.

Gwen smiled sadly. “Liar.”

Ben looked away. “I just…”

“I know.” Gwen ran her hand through her hair. “And you know how much I wish things were different, too.”

“...You tried to change the past.”

“I tried to fix a mistake.” She wiped at her eyes. Damnit, when did she start crying again? “All those years ago, I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t brave enough.”

“You’ve always been brave.” He protested. She shook her head, because she really wasn’t. Not where it counted.

“I go missing long enough, they’re going to ask you to hunt me down.” She stared at him. “You know that, right?”

The pain on his face at that...it almost made her scream.

He did. Ben stomped off ten feet, breathing hard with his hands clenched into fists, and howled up into the trees. And then he punched one. Hard.

“You do not get to make the sacrifice play.” He rasped, as Gwen floated up behind him and rested a hand on his back. He fairly slumped against the tree he’d smashed the bark off of.

“You don’t either.” Gwen reminded him. “Not for this. You’ve taken on enough burdens, you’ve been fighting for years . This is a problem I made.”

“I don’t…”

“You’re not losing me, Ben.” Gwen said, and he turned to look at her. She knew she looked like a mess. But she didn’t care, he never had. “I lost you years ago. Because, I wasn’t…”

 

“No.” Ben was panicking, his eyes were going everywhere. “You didn’t...I…”

She floated into him and gave him the tightest one-armed hug she could. “We screwed up, didn’t we?” She croaked out. She threw him the lifeline, and he held onto it tight, held onto her tight.

“Yeah.” He sniffled a bit, pulling her head against the side of his neck and face. “I don’t suppose I can change your mind?”

She swallowed hard. He wanted her to stay.

But it was too late for that. Too late for them.

 

“Earth needs its hero.” She finally said, no longer feeling like the words sunk into her stomach like lead. There wasn’t enough left of her heart to hurt. “I don’t like it, either. But it’s how it has to be.”

He squeezed her tighter at that. “Do you think that...that they will be different?”

Ben meant their younger selves. The kids. A boy and a girl who had seen a future that might be. That would be, in the broad strokes. But…

He may be a brat sometimes, but enjoy him while you can.

“I hope so.” She sniffled. “I did what I could.”

“You didn’t give them a warning.” Ben’s nose was right by her ear.

“I couldn’t. The spell wouldn’t let me. All I could do was...just leave a hint. If she’s smart, if she’s strong enough to listen to what her heart’s telling her instead of all the doubts and fears…” She choked on the words. Would it be enough? The pain, the exhaustion, it ate at her confidence.

What if she had tried and the spell, the trip, the warning , did nothing?

She was crying so hard that she didn’t notice that Ben had pulled back just enough to press his forehead against hers, brace her as she shook.

“She’s going to lose him too! Like I did! It’s all going to...it’s…”

Gwen’s panic attack was cut off when Ben’s lips fell on hers, muffling her whimpers. It did the trick.

She stopped thinking, and just held onto him, for as long as she could. Let him kiss her like she didn’t deserve. It was hungry, and desperate, and she needed it as much as he did. She took the pain and the goodbye that was implied in an embrace 15 years overdue, and wrapped the dust of her heart around it.

 

***

 

6:16 P.M.



He hadn’t wanted to leave her. She made him. He didn’t want to use a Portal Gun. She insisted on it. They hadn’t made love, as much as she wanted to. She wouldn’t do that to him. Not when he was going to marry Kai Green.

Fucking Kai.

He fingered the device, taken from Ultimos back at Omnitrix Tower. Nobody else would be here for this. Nobody else would understand.

He hesitated, and Gwen’s hand slipped into his. Squeezed.

“What do I tell them?” He asked her, lost. Miserable. Hurting.

“You tell them that you threw your own cousin into the Null Void for the crime of eating a forest. It’s what will keep them from coming after you. It’s what will make them all think twice about messing with you.” She smiled up at him. She had to be brave. She couldn’t break again. Not here. Not now. “You won’t even be lying.”

“But you’re not going to the Null Void.”

“No. I’m not.” She shook her head. “Once the portal’s open...the Keystone can show me the way. The Logosians left Earth, went someplace else. Those notes you got from Charmcaster years ago...she called it Legerdomain. She didn’t know anything about it. But I can go there. Hide there. I’ll be safe there.”

“I hate this plan of yours.”

“So do I. But...My original plan can’t happen now.” She shrugged at that. “It doesn’t mean that Xylene and Azmuth couldn’t try and find me later, though.”

“It could take them years.” He protested. “Or they could never find you.”

“You need to be more optimistic.”

“Your parents will never forgive me.”

“Like I give a damn about them anymore.”

Grandpa will never forgive me.” He added, and that made her sway a little.

“So tell him the truth.”

“That his grandson faked sending his granddaughter into extradimensional space prison so she could go hide somewhere that nobody could ever find her?” His snort was a little bit watery.

“He’ll understand.”

“He’ll never see you again.” Ben paused. “He’ll never talk to me again.”

“Yes, he will.” Gwen squeezed his hand harder. “Because he loves both of us. And he’ll have to hug you twice as hard since I won’t be around for him to pick on.”

He didn’t look any less lost than before, Gwen realized. He would never not be lost after this, some part of her mind frizzed, and the hurt was strong enough that it felt like the truth.

Ben just stared at her. “You find a way to come back to me.” She started to talk, but her throat closed off. Because she couldn’t make that promise. And he saw it, and wilted a little more. “You find a way to talk to me.”

“Interdimensional phone call?” She joked. He just nodded. She swallowed, and reached for the small golden chain around her neck, pulled it up until the red Keystone of Bezel lay flat against the outside of her T-Shirt. Her eyes and his both focused on it when the soft clink of metal against the stone revealed Grandma Verdona’s engagement ring and Grandpa Max’s plain gold wedding band against its surface. Right where they had put them, almost 20 years ago.

His eyes were wide open pools of black, ringed by a thin locus of green.

“You...you kept them …” He hadn’t noticed them before when he pulled her out of the dead park, must have been so sick with grief to miss it completely. With his stare came the unspoken question. Why?

Gwen just breathed. “You put it on. You have to take it off. And you’re going to, right now.” She turned around, lifted her hair up out of the way.

She still shivered when his fingers reached to her neck, fumbled with the clasp. She cupped her hand underneath the Keystone as the clasp opened and the chain fell like water around it, into her palm, as warm as her skin had been.

Gwen could feel Ben watching her, could feel a hundred different questions, but he never said any of them. He just stood there as she turned around, looked into his face, then looked back at the Keystone and gently lifted the two rings in her magic. They rubbed against the golden chain the entire way, and when they finally pulled free, there was something sorrowful in how the chain slumped back to rest.

She placed the Keystone and the chain in his hand, then turned around and waited. When he placed it back on, she had a brief flash of memory to the Christmas right before they had turned 12. He had been so nervous then. It had taken her another week to realize why.

He wasn’t nervous now, and his hands weren’t shaking. But he was slow, deliberate. Like he was memorizing the feel of her neck, of the chain, of how warm her skin was. He was remembering this, because he knew, like she did, that this was the last time they would ever do this.

The clasp sealed shut, the weight of the chain pulled around her neck again.

“It’s done.” He whispered, and she turned back around again.

Gwen pressed the rings into his palm. “They’re yours now.”

Ben swallowed. “What am I supposed to do with these?”

It hurt to say the words, but Gwen did anyways. “They’re for...for your wedding.” She looked down at the ground. “Grandpa’s ring, anyhow. I mean, Kai already has an engagement ring...you could give Grandma’s back to Grandpa. He’d...he’d love to have it back, and…”

“Stop talking.” Ben rasped. “Please.”

Gwen did, choking on the pain. Then she felt him lift her left hand up, cast and all, felt him slide one of the rings onto her ring finger. In shock, she stared down at her grandmother’s engagement ring, no longer on a chain, now on her hand.

His forehead pressed against hers, and her eyes shot up to see him with his eyes squinted shut. “It’s yours. It’s always been yours.” He was crying, and she knew that he didn’t mean the ring .

He cried even more when he dropped grandpa’s wedding ring in her hand and waited. Waited for her to choose. After exactly ten seconds of deliberation, she tapped the back of his right hand.

The left hand, the arm that held the Omnitrix, held the Hero’s Burden, held his responsibilities and the world’s expectations and would hold Kai’s wedding ring

That she left for them. But on his right hand, on the ring finger there, she placed her mark. Her vow. In the band that had belonged to their grandfather, had been worn by him until his wife had died, she poured all the unspoken things, the broken promises, the shattered dreams they had once reached for.

She kissed him first after that, under his eyes to take away his tears. He refused to let the kiss go unanswered. Just in case she had missed the silent vow he’d made by putting Grandma Verdona’s ring on her hand. She hadn’t, but some things, she needed to be told more than once.

 

And then they had said what they needed to. Gwen stepped away from him, laughed a little, wiped at her eyes. “Well? How do I look?” She asked, pulling her satchel with the Bezel Charms and the obsidian tablet and her other supplies tight to her side.

Ben mustered his own tight smile. “Ready for anything.” She grinned back to hide her thoughts. Except this. I was never ready for this.

He hefted the Portal Gun, pointed it off to the side, and pulled the trigger. A flash of light, and a yellow disc leading to the Null Void flashed to life.

Gwen held the Keystone in her hand, closed her eyes, and felt for the energy of the artifact. She pushed it out, a thin pencil-wide beam of energy that poured into the gateway between dimensions, encircled it...piggybacked off of it.

Through all of the cosmos, through all of reality, it searched for the resonance that matched it. She didn’t have enough power to open a portal on her own, and wouldn’t have wanted to try. But, she could use an existing portal to find Legerdomain.

She could change its course, redirect the doorway. It took her minutes to manage it, but at last, there came the faintest echo, like a magical radar return to her senses, and the Keystone responded.

An uttered incantation she knew, but had never found reason to try, and the portal changed from yellow to a deep and haunting combination of purple and red. An image of a civilization on a rock hovering in the void appeared, ancient buildings of stone, with mana seeped into the bedrock.

“Legerdomain.” She whispered, and looked to Ben. He was just barely holding himself together, she knew, just staying strong long enough so she wouldn’t lose her own resolve.

Because it would be so easy to not walk through that gateway. It would be so easy to stay, to stay with him, to face the world beside him. It would be so easy to let Ben 10,000 and the title of Hero of Heroes be ruined by the storm she would weather alone when she left and took all the blame for the crimes and jealousy and greed of a panicky, paranoid world full of wicked old men. He would let it happen. He would let himself become a Conqueror if it meant he could keep her.

But that wasn’t how the story went, Gwen knew. Guinivere didn’t stay. Guinivere never stayed. She always left. And was Ben Arthur, or Lancelot? It didn’t matter, she knew at some level. Because leaving would save Camelot.

The same story, but different. Only the broken hearts were the same.

 

“I’ll come back.” She promised him. She had to give him something to hold onto. A promise.

She had broken all of the others. But this one, she would keep.

Ben nodded, like he could barely move his neck. “If you don’t...I’ll come for you.”

The weight of the world’s sins on her shoulders, Gwendolyn Tennyson turned to the interdimensional vortex, steeled her spine, hovered up into the air…

Away from Ben, and down the River.