Little Moment: Stone in the River
A Companion Piece to Shadows 59's Breaking Point
(A Precursor to S3E1, Ben 10,000)
By Eric "Erico" Lawson
Sahara Desert, Northwestern Chad
Earth Coven "Sirocco" Excavation
January 13th, 2018 C.E.
The world had changed so much, yet still there were parts of it that went unsettled, untraveled, and lost. The alien residents and visitors, like much of the population, didn't care about the evolution of mankind or its storied history, finding current events to be far more interesting. It was still akin to a frontier world in alien eyes, a little speck of dirt on the outer fringe of civilization.
But the Earth Coven had been doing quite a lot of digging. Uncovering the lost secrets of mankind's path through the ages had become one of the ways that they tried to expand their own knowledge of the Art. Because so many ruins had been picked over and their treasures lost, the Coven had hoped to find evidence in places less traveled, and less mentioned. From times before historical records had been kept, and magic had been strong.
There were few places more out of the way and inhospitable to human life than the northwestern corner of Chad. And yet the excavation leader had been quite forceful on the approximate dig site. It irritated most of the mages and the archaeologists present that they had to take orders from someone younger than most of them, and on the part of the Coven, someone who had refused to join their order. But she alone possessed the rare combination of an Ivy League education in history and applied sciences…as well as the largest wellspring of power of any mage. Not to mention her connections with the Galactic Enforcers, and the Hero of Heroes.
Gwendolyn Tennyson was world-famous as the Supreme Sorceress, and she was out in the middle of nowhere, digging in the sand.
Magic was powerful, but Gwen had long ago learned the dangers of overusing it. She had limited herself to only augmenting her sensory awareness, ensuring that any artifacts of early civilization were located without being broken apart. Even that much, combined with the physical exertion and the arid climate of the Sahara, left her exhausted by the time she finally pulled the flap back on her tent and crawled inside. Collapsing on her cot, Gwendolyn had exactly forty seconds of blissful silence out of the unforgiving sun before her phone started to ding insistently. She groaned and forced herself up into a sitting position, then reached for it. She was tired enough that she answered without checking to see who it was. She regretted not doing so as soon as her mother started speaking.
"There you are, Gwen. I was starting to get worried."
"Hey, mom." The Sorceress yawned and slumped back against her cot. "I leave my phone in the tent while I'm digging. And I'm really tired. It's been a long day."
"What, so I can't even call to wish my little girl a happy birthday?" Lili Tennyson asked teasingly. Gwen's eyes had been drooping shut, but as soon as her mother said birthday, they shot back open again.
"…It's my birthday?" Gwen whispered, stunned. And then horrified. She had forgotten another birthday as well.
"You've been out digging in the desert for too long, silly bean." That was her mother, all right. Supportive without any warmth. Proper and controlling, even when she had lost all control. "How do you feel?"
"Embarrassed. Can't believe I forgot. Thanks, mom."
"We ordered you a present, but we shipped it to your home address. It's hard to keep tabs on where you are .Your cousin is worse."
In spite of the pain the reference sent through her, Gwendolyn smiled. "He's always been a handful."
"I have to admit, I'm still a little curious as to why you're out in the middle of Africa. What are you looking for?"
"A couple of different things." Early human civilization, for one, but Gwen was also searching for proof of a hypothesis published 15 years ago that had never been taken seriously; that somehow, magic had hastened the desertification of northern Africa, alongside climate change. Thank God the advent of new alien hybrid technologies included a boom in renewable energy efficiency and atmospheric scrubbers. There was another group looking in earnest for Atlantis, but Gwen thought they were wasting their time. Centuries of searching had turned up nothing; if there had been any structures of note, time had almost undoubtedly crumbled them away. If there was any truth to Plato's famous few words on the topic, she hadn't seen the evidence of it. Her mother paid no attention to her silent ruminations.
"You know, David Masters bumped into your father the other day. He asked about you."
Gwendolyn instantly ran out of patience. "Mother." The formal word and the shift in her tone were unmistakable. "Stop trying to get me dates."
"I don't play matchmaker, Gwen."
"The last three times I came home for dinner, either you or dad had invited some guy to eat with us. And then you either left me alone with them or steered the conversation."
Caught out, all Lili Tennyson could do was sigh and stop denying it. "Gwen, you're 30 years old. You run all over creation, you…use your powers…"
"Magic, mom. It's called magic." Gwen muttered. That was another sore spot between them.
"And I'm beginning to worry. Folks are starting to wonder…" Gwen seethed. Even if it was true, which it wasn't, how was that anybody's business? "Don't you want to settle down? Find a nice man? Raise a family?"
"Yes. When. I'm. Ready." Gwen bit every word off to keep from yelling. It was an all too familiar argument, and the last thing she wanted to hear today, of all days.
"And…I'm sorry, dear. Maybe I've said too much. But your Grandpa Max is getting older. Your father and I are getting older. I know you've got a lot going on. Most of the time, I'm worried sick about you. And you never seem happy. Are you happy?"
"…I'd say I'm happy enough."
"You deserve a family."
"I haven't found the right guy." Gwen rubbed at her eyes. They were getting blurry. "Listen, mom. I need to get some food and some shuteye. Today's wiped me out. Thanks for calling, though."
"All right, dear. You take care of yourself." One last exchange of pleasantries later, Gwendolyn ended the call.
She had lied, Gwendolyn thought, but that was nothing new. She curled up into a ball and squeezed her eyes shut, convincing herself she wasn't crying. That she didn't need to cry.
She was accomplished, she was respected, but she wasn't happy. She just couldn't figure out why.
January 14th, 2018 C.E.
They got their first real lead a little before lunch on the next day. The archaeological dig team started making a lot more noise and dragged her over to where the ground penetrating radar had found something of interest. Gwen got the gist of it in the first five seconds, and then tuned out the rest of the grad student's long-winded explanation. Covered hole in the ground, invisible until they'd reached a certain depth. A cavern with a flat rock over the ceiling entrance, but with traces of what seemed like a primitive sealant around it, something that people had thought impossible until the Egyptians started their mortarworks and their honey-based glues. The Coven members were already gathering when she reached the flag-marked waypoint, and they quickly linked hands, searching below with their magic. With no artifacts in the path of the tunnel they'd need to access the sealed cave, the Coven focused their energies into a more direct application, forcibly lifting up a solid metric ton of soil and gravel as cleanly as a greenskeeper's coring drill, then guiding it over away from the excavation perimeter and dumping it all out. Telekinetic manipulation via magic was still an incredible sight for most, but Gwen didn't give it a second thought. She let go of the hands of the other Coven members, who were all gasping for air and tapped out, and finished the job on her own. Solid rock was cut through as cleanly as the dirt had been with a few murmured syllables and a powerful blue and purple glow that was tinged with golden light.
She felt dizzy for about four seconds after releasing the smaller, solid cored tube of rock on the rest of the debris, but the Stones of Bezel down her sleeve faintly glowed, restoring the small amount of power she'd expended. The rest of the mages looked at her in jealousy, and Gwendolyn didn't give them a moment's thought. The Bezel charms would have overloaded and slain a lesser wielder. Less talented and more covetous mages had proven that disastrous point in the past. She wore them all the time now to dissuade other suicidal thefts.
"Okay, we've got an entrance. Professor Singh, do you have a drone cued up?" She glanced to the Cornell professor in charge of the non-magical team members, the Indian who had taught her the basics of grid excavation grinned and nodded.
"I've got one of my students running a final systems check now. This one can also test for poisonous gas pockets, but I would recommend that anyone going down there use a rebreather mask regardless."
Gwen laughed a little, running a hand through her short crop of red hair. "You did always tell us to put safety first. I'll go down first, just in case."
The older professor rolled his eyes and handed her a rebreather. "Only after the drone clears it, Miss Tennyson. Here; you can borrow mine. I'm too old to go diving down holes anyways."
A hovering six-rotored thing of light metal and plastic dove down into the opening and turned on its lights, sending back a live camera feed of the interior. The dig team crowded around the pilot and the large flatscreen display hooked up to the drone's receiver.
"Relatively simple cave structure. Might have some smaller crevasses connecting to an aquifer, can't tell from these scans." The grad student flying the device said, the bulk of his attention on keeping the thing steady and in the air. "No real airflow to speak of; good for me, not so much for whoever goes down there. It'll be really stale."
Gwendolyn nodded. "That's why we came prepared. Okay, keep clear of the hole, I'm going in." She slipped on the rebreather as she passed by Professor Singh, marched straight for the entrance, and hopped down through the small passage.
When you could fly, a fifteen foot drop meant nothing. She didn't fall so much as float down into the interior of the cavern, touching down softly. Her exhales muted by the filtration mask that scrubbed poisons and microbes out of the air, she raised a hand out to the side and cast a small, simple illumination spell. Faint blue and purple light spread out from the globe around her hand and reached for the cavern walls.
In her ear, the small earbud receiver transmitted Professor Singh's voice.
"What can you see? And don't say 'wondrous things', even if you want to."
Gwendolyn chuckled at the old archaeological reference. "They covered the opening, but…" She squinted and stared up towards the ceiling. She could make out details from this side that the drone had missed. "That's not a natural hole. Even before our bore hole through the covering, this was…I think they used it to let in sunlight. Or starlight, maybe."
"That level of stoneworking should not have been possible for the nomads who lived in this region."
"Not with stone age tools, no." Gwendolyn mused, turning her focus back on the cavern's interior with renewed scrutiny. "But if they used magic?" And her suspicions were proved correct. As she neared the walls of the cave and her potent magics neared the surfaces, previously hidden drawings and henscratched runes seemed to melt through the rock and blazed with hidden golden light. "Professor. Tell me you're recording this."
"Oh my God…Miss Tennyson, whatever you're doing, keep doing it." The drone buzzed to life over her shoulder, and flitted away from her for a clear view of what the ancient mages had inscribed behind a long-lived glamour. "What…what kind of language is that?"
Gwen slowly started to walk around the edge of the cave, illuminating more hidden scrawls and images. It wrapped around the entirety of the dark and empty space. The script seemed like a garbled, psychotic mess, but something picked at the back of her brain as she stared at it. Whatever. The archeologists and the Coven would be translating this mess for days.
At the very back of the cavern, between a pair of thin cracks in the wall too small to squeeze through, the scribbles seemed to intensify and center around a small recess.
"Something was here." Gwendolyn said for the benefit of the team up above. She lowered herself to stare at the makeshift stone shelf, shaking her head. "Couldn't tell you what, but this is important. Whatever was here isn't anymore, though. It's empty."
That prickling sensation she'd felt at the back of her mind turned into a full-blown hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck turn around NOW, and when she whirled around, just on the edge of her vision, she thought she saw a flash of white on a vaguely human-shaped figure. If it was ever there to begin with, though, it had apparated when she whirled about to face it.
"Gwendolyn, are you all right?"
"Did you see that? Feel that?"
Gwendolyn blinked several times and shook her head. "Never mind. Did you get all that footage?"
"Yes, we have it saved to our hard drive. It will take us weeks to work out if this can be translated from images alone, though. The Coven workers up here are saying it might take magic to properly decode this."
"It might." Gwendolyn conceded. She paused as the drone flew past her and went back up the hole, back to camp to recharge. "But there's plenty more to be done down here."
"What the…Look out!" Gwen winced as the loud scream of plasma thrusters rattled over the radio and down the cavern hole. She ducked down and raised a shield over herself in case the vibrations caused a cave-in; a reasonable fear, but thankfully one that didn't come to pass. The roar of rocket engines faded to a dull whine of something landing, something that she immediately recognized.
She didn't immediately fly up, however. In ducking down, she had been surprised to find an engraved stone tablet, cut from obsidian of all things, lying at her feet. Exactly where she thought someone had been watching her. It didn't look ready to explode, and with a scowl, she tucked it away in her satchel and soared up out of the cavern. One problem at a time, and the problems that came with the owners of those thrusters always took precedence.
Up on the surface of the dig site, the gathered archeologists and Coven members were huddled together and warily staring down the clearly alien spaceship that had landed far too close for comfort. A pair of aliens, a female Tetramand and a brain in a jar with hovering octopus legs emerged from the rear hatch and moved towards them. Gwendolyn tried not to notice how every human on the rocky plain turned to her as if praying for deliverance. She tried.
"You can all relax." She told them, removing her breathing mask. "They're friends of mine." She passed by the dig team and moved straight for the two aliens, mustering a weak smile. "Tini. Synaptak. You're looking good. What's going on?"
Synaptak's digitally created face turned and looked to the four-armed female for a moment before turning back to Gwen. "You have not heard, then."
Gwen dropped the fake smile and sighed. "What now?"
"It's the Incurseans." Tini explained. "Their Empress decided to try for another invasion of Earth. Ben 10,000 is dealing with the main fleet in orbit, but they managed to land a ground team, and are building some kind of a device behind a heavily defended screen out in the middle of nowhere. Ultimos is already on the scene, but he told us to pick you up."
"It's that bad?" Gwendolyn winced. Her feet were moving and taking her up into the ship even before they could confirm it. "You'll have to tell me more on the way."
With the dig team looking on helplessly, Gwendolyn Tennyson and her escorts from the Galactic Enforcers lifted off and shot for the stratosphere.
The Mongolian Steppe
The Incurseans were an interesting species. Vaguely amphibian in their composition, long tongues and all, they were a rigidly warloving civilization. It was easy to find parallels between them and other countries and groups throughout earth's history; it didn't make the task of stopping them any easier. The Huns and the Mongols had never had spaceships and plasma weaponry, after all.
By the time that the other two active members of the GE and Gwendolyn flew into the warzone, it was patently obvious that Ultimos was definitely in trouble. Incursean mobile artillery was lighting up the sky while the blue-skinned Specimen Prime dodged and weaved as well as he could, countering with short bursts of heat vision and blasts of ice breath. There were just too many of them for the leader of the Galactic Enforcers squad to handle on his own.
The guns turned on the GE spacecraft as soon as it penetrated the airspace. Tini gripped the controls of the scoutship tightly, trying to not pay attention to how it shook under the impacts. "There isn't going to be a soft landing here. I'll have to put you two in with a fast drop, and catch up with you after I land this thing!"
"Understood." Synaptek buzzed, flexing his tentacles. Gwendolyn could only nod; it made more sense for Tini to do a low flyby and let them hop out of the back, using their distinct abilities of flight to dive right into the fray and support Ultimos. She moved back to the rear hatch as it opened up, bracing herself as the wind tore around the edges of the door. Synaptek floated beside her as Gwendolyn pulled her cloak and hood up to guard against the battering drafts they'd soon be in the middle of.
Then Tini was shouting at the pair from the front of the ship, and she was leaping out, caught in its wake like a wildly blowing leaf for the two seconds it took for the Keystone of Bezel to kick in and give her supernatural grace and agility. Then the lasers were flying, coming at them instead of at the ship. Gwendolyn reached out with her senses, felt the storm of energy and Incursean rage, and dove into it.
Hero Time. It had been years since she had done it, and she regretted that her skills had atrophied a touch. Too much time on the sidelines, doing administrative work, clerical work, practical magic work with only the time spent in karate practice keeping her edge from dulling entirely. She was still better than most, far more experienced as a battlecaster than any of the Coven mages, and to anybody else observing, she would had looked like a figure out of legend. But she knew.
There were the hastily erected disk shields to deflect lasers she should have been able to dodge. Bubble shields to defend against exploding rounds that she should have caught and thrown back whence they came. And her counterattacks, enormous golden beams of light manifested with the syllables of 'Kemo Char!' that should have dug enormous furrows in the ground and cleaved the mechanized vehicles apart, only concussed the Incurseans unfortunate enough to not dive out of the way and knocked their tanks over. Still effective…but a far cry from the power that she'd once been able to wield. How could she be so much stronger now, and yet, so much weaker?
Still, between her own efforts and Synaptek, the pressure of the attacks on Ultimos were slowly shifting, as the invasion force now had to deal with three flying targets in the place of just one. The additional firepower brought to bear on the Incurseans didn't hurt matters either, and within the space of a minute, the three were able to thin out the horde enough to get in close to one another to actually speak.
"Miss Tennyson!" Ultimos shouted after diving in beside her and Synaptek. Gwen raised a larger shield around them to give them time to talk, though the increased number of plasma impacts on the barrier did leave her with the unpleasant feeling of an ice pick steadily tapping at the back of her head. "I am glad Tini and Synaptek located you."
"What are we looking at, Ultimos?" Gwendolyn demanded, eager to keep the conversation as short as possible.
The blue Specimen Prime's face went dead serious. "The battle in orbit is a feint being led by Empress Attea. The real threat is here; their advance scout team is attempting to activate a space bridge between Incursean space and earth. If they succeed…"
The bridge would link the two worlds, Earth and Incursea. "The entire Incursean army pours out, and Earth gets taken over in a day." Gwen finished with a scowl. How in God's name had they gotten their hands on the tech to pull off a space bridge? Over a decade after it had happened, she still had nightmares of the unearthly blue light filling the night sky, and the swarm of ships that darkened Bellwood seconds later.
"That's a lot of work for a grudge."
"Your cousin did kill her father." Ultimos pointed out diplomatically.
"And she thanked him for it." Gwen snapped. "All right, fine. You have a plan?"
"Under the circumstances, the Galactic Code of Conduct…can be tweaked a little." Ultimos conceded. "Synaptek and I will try to draw their forces out and keep them engaged. You should use the opportunity to sneak past their outer defensive wall and put their space bridge out of commission."
"It is not perfect, but does have the highest probability of success of our tactical options." Synaptek added. "You have indirect methods of attack at your disposal we lack."
"Nonlinear warfare." Gwendolyn mused, correcting his statement. "Okay, close your eyes!" Ultimos did so, while Synaptek momentarily caused the digitized projection of his face, along with his optic sensors, to go dark.
The magic was inside of her, and she called on it with a scream. The shield around them expanded outwards like the wave of an explosion, turning into blinding light. Before it gave out completely, the burst was bright enough to mimic staring directly at the sun. The screams from the Incurseans below let her know that the tactic had worked.
"Go!" Gwendolyn shouted, opening her eyes and diving for the ground. While the Incursean foot soldiers and armored divisions rubbed furiously at their eyes or still screamed in pain from the aftershocks, she leveled off three feet above the ground and soared through the battle lines. Behind her, she could hear the explosions and cries as Ultimos and Synaptek carried out their end of the distraction.
She made it to the wall of the Incursean staging base, swept up the side, and dropped
down behind it with ease. There, dead center and surrounded by one final ring of heavily armed
shock troops, was the space bridge and the few Incursean technicians struggling to bring it
online. It was the first time she'd ever seen one intact. The silver metal ring was huge, and she didn't need her magic or the charms to see the symbols etched on its surface. They were all hard lines and sharp angles, which was the furthest thing from the flowing script that the Incurseans used.
Hard angles marred by the thousands of small cracks that ran through the silver metal of the disk. She knew from the remains she'd seen that those cracks should have been more than surface deep, should have ruined the machinery inside, but the amphibious aliens had somehow managed to find one and repair it. No, two. There had to be another one waiting on Incursea. They'd found them and repaired them. She didn't know how, she couldn't even imagine how, but she knew two things: Azmuth was going to be livid when he found out someone did what he couldn't, and that the technicians looked far closer to activating it than she would have preferred.
She hadn't been there to stop the space bridge that the Highbreed had used. It was probably why she still had nightmares about it. A litany of if-onlys had forever hounded her since.
The troopers let out a croak of alarm and opened fire. Huffing in irritation, Gwen channeled up another shield, then a second, then two more, and kept on going. Her mind screamed at her as nearly three dozen small elliptical disks of luminescent golden light manifested directly in front of her. The Incursean vanguard kept on firing, but tethered to her will, the separate shields layered up enough to block the entire hailstorm of plasmafire.
"My turn." Gwen growled out. In one sudden gesture, she hurled every shield towards a different target. The shields traced a direct line between where they stood and Gwen's own position, deflecting each blast that the soldiers frantically shot off to try and stop them. They hit with the force of a heavy punch from a much more muscular fighter, and the unluckiest ones were caught by the leading edge of the wobbling disks instead of the flat of it. Those soldiers took the hits like they had been smashed by a blunt-edged sword; the difference between a concussion and shattered internal organs.
She felt so tired. It had been forever since Gwen had called up so much power continuously, moving from one spell to another. The Bezel charms were doing what they could to lessen the cost, give back what she had used, but it was like a muscle she hadn't used in forever, strained beyond its capacity. And Gwen could feel it giving out on her.
One of the technicians let out a high croak. "We've got it! We've got it! Hold her off for ten more seconds, the bridge is coming online!"
"No…" Gwendolyn rasped, her head swimming. She started in a run towards the space bridge's controls and the Incursean technicians, but already the less wounded soldiers she'd knocked down were picking themselves back up, shakily aiming their weapons at her. They fired with desperation, not to put her down, but to slow her down. It forced her to pull up another shield around herself, so small and fragile that it started to crack with every new impact. Her shields hadn't cracked in years. All the while, Gwen kept her eyes locked on the space bridge, the light from its circular aperture growing wider and brighter every second in its countdown. She had failed.
And then, a bright, burning object came streaking in from high above. Gwen had a few heartbeats to look up and wonder why she couldn't hear it before she remembered why; if it was a meteorite, it was coming in faster than the speed of sound. Seen before heard. It was small, but full of kinetic energy, and a fiery trail of smoke and sparks swirled behind it. The object came in hard and smashed into the cobbled together Incursean space bridge with a force and fury Gwendolyn could barely crunch the numbers on. She only barely just threw herself to the ground and reinforced her cracked shield before the impact of artificial wormhole, metal, and unfathomable power and force went off all at once.
The roar of it shook clean through her and cracked the ground. The fire from the impact and explosion washed over everything, either vaporizing the unfortunate Incurseans outright or peppering them with burning debris from the shattered space bridge. When the fireball and the shrapnel dissipated, Gwen found herself coughing and blinking against the acrid smoke and fumes. When her shield fell, she waved a hand in a wide arc out in front of her, channeling a gust of wind to clear it all away from her.
The shock and suddenness of the threat's end left her shaken. That hadn't been some random celestial occurrence. No way in hell. And then she saw something rolling out of the still burning heart of the ruined machinery. Someone. No. Him.
Of course it was him. He was the Hero of Heroes for a reason, after all.
The Arburian Pelarota he used to call Cannonbolt had developed a distinct metallic sheen as he had matured. Apparently that extra defense even allowed him to survive a free-fall atmospheric re-entry. Ben 10,000 rolled around in a circle before coming to a stop fifteen feet away from Gwendolyn and unfurled himself. With an indignant shriek, another Incursean that he had kept trapped inside of his rolled up form was released and dropped right on her head.
A flash of green light came, taking Cannonbolt with it, and then it was Fourarms pulling her up on her feet just roughly enough to make his irritation apparent.
"What are you doing here?" The Omnitrix-created Tetramand demanded angrily.
"Galactic Enforcers…brought me here." Gwendolyn got out, trying not to wince too noticeably from the headache caused by magic overuse. He scowled even more; he'd seen it. "Said you were in orbit."
"I was." One of his free arms shot down and grabbed the beaten and bloodied Incursean, keeping her from running off. Gwen's blood went cold when she realized that it was Empress Attea herself he'd captured as Cannonbolt. Even protected by the Pelarota's hard outer shell, it was a miracle she hadn't been liquefied on impact with the space bridge. She looked like death warmed over regardless; her cousin hadn't been gentle on the Incursean dictator. "And after I wiped out all their ships, I decided to drop in and take out the space bridge."
"You were almost too late." She countered. "Looks like you needed my help after all."
He bent down a little and leaned in, almost going nose to nose with her. "I don't need your help! I don't need anyone! Just stay out of it!"
Gwen swallowed back the hurt, suddenly glad that her eyes were still watery from the burning debris. The awkward silence was brought to an end after Ultimos and Synaptek flew into the ruins of the base, both sporting fresh wounds.
"That was one doozy of an entrance there, Ben 10,000." Ultimos complimented him. "Although I would appreciate a warning the next time that you decide to crater an illegally constructed piece of Level 9 technology. The Galactic Code of…"
"Shove it." Fourarms cut the Galactic Enforcer off harshly, earning a disgusted gasp from Synaptek. "My planet. My rules. You want to make yourself useful?" He flung the barely conscious Empress Attea into Ultimos's waiting arms. "Throw her into the Null Void with the rest of the trash."
Ultimos sucked on the inside of his cheek like he'd bitten into a lemon. "Very well, then. We'll fast track Attea's sentencing."
"Do that." The Tetramand once called Fourarms grunted. Another green flash of light made all of them flinch, and then it was an adult Kineceleran, his reliable 'XLR8' form, that stood in their midst. Smaller, less overwhelming, no less deadly. Ben 10,000 gestured to Gwendolyn. "And take her home. She doesn't belong out here."
Then he was gone in a rush of wind, running so fast he didn't even leave a blur in his wake.
Gwen stood there, too stunned to move, her head hurting too much to care about how poleaxed she looked. Ultimos saw it and took pity on her, which somehow hurt worse.
"I'll have Synaptak and Tini round up the survivors for processing, Miss Tennyson, don't worry. We're used to taking flak from him, but…I can't believe he'd act like that to his family."
"Really?" Gwendolyn mused. She tried for a smile, but it came out wrong. Twisted, like her heart. "At least he talks to you."
Leaving the Galactic Enforcers to clean up the aftermath of the battle on the Steppe, Gwendolyn trudged back out of the ruins of the Incursean staging base. She passed by Tini on the way to the ship, who waved and said something that she didn't respond to. Flying would have been easier.
She walked instead.
One of the benefits of living on the top floor of a high-rise condominium was easy access for shuttles and alien craft. The reinforced rooftop of her penthouse was capable of taking on the weight of the atmospheric-capable GE ship, and after retrieving her satchel, Gwendolyn stepped out of the back hatch and made her way to the stairs. She waved one last farewell to Tini in the pilot's chair as the craft's plasma thrusters dialed up, and then the ship left, rattling her neighborhood from its wake.
Exhausted, Gwen moved to the sliding glass doors that led into her living room and waved a hand over them, uttering the password that deactivated the digital alarm while she hit the magical lock as well. There was a distinctly heavier click than a normal person might have expected, and then she stepped inside.
She should have asked them to take her back to the dig site in Africa, but Gwendolyn didn't feel like her heart was in it. Sleeping in her own bed for a change might make her feel up to it tomorrow. As it was, she was hurting all over. She hadn't fought like that in years.
Of course Ben had yelled at her. If he hadn't shown up when he had, the bridge would have finished powering up, and she'd be dead where she stood. She had been retired from hero work, her parents had begged her to give it up.
She had never been as brave as Ben. He hadn't stopped when his parents had begged him. By that point, he couldn't. But he'd made sure she could. And now she had given in, gone with the GE. Ben was probably just as scared for her as he was angry at her. But maybe she was just fooling herself. She'd gotten very good at doing that. She'd almost believed she could still be a hero.
"The hell with it." She sighed, dropping her satchel on her coffee table on her way to her bedroom. She froze when she heard a very unfamiliar clicking of something hard against the glass surface. What was in her bag anyway...
She turned around and sifted through it, coming up with the mysterious object. A stone tablet.
The stone tablet. The one she'd found lying out of place on the floor of the dig site's hidden chamber. It had been sitting in her satchel all afternoon and evening. She'd slipped it in and forgotten all about it after Tini and Synaptek had shown up to ask for her help. In the face of another alien invasion, it had gone unnoticed.
She turned it over, fingering the edges of the obsidian slate as she examined it for clues. The obsidian itself was a curious detail; the volcanic glass acted as a superconductor for magic, infused with channels that mimicked the leylines underneath the volcanoes that birthed them. The script was the issue. She'd have to spend a lot of time breaking that down, if the chicken scratch could even be translated.
And she had left her phone back at the dig site too. "Nice job, Gwen. Way to keep your head in the game." She berated herself, and sighed again.
Tomorrow. She'd call the dig team tomorrow.
Tonight, tea and toast. That, she'd at least be able to keep down in her stomach.
January 16th, 2018 C.E.
Sector 01 Control (Ben 10,000's Headquarters)
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
The collapse of the Plumbers as Earth's defenders had left the bulk of their real estate up for grabs. Those who knew what Mount Rushmore actually hid hadn't complained when Ben 10,000 moved into it. The aged facilities were repurposed, but the main facility had been built from scratch; an enormous spire topped off by the symbol of the Omnitrix. There had been some protests early on, but the Hero of Heroes' continued successes in ordinary crises and the larger ones had silenced them quickly enough. The royalties he pulled down from "Super Alien Hero Buddies" had helped defray a lot of the expenses as well. Some wondered why he built a tower with no clear defenses, instead of relying on an underground bunker to work and live in.
Gwen had her suspicions, of course, but she never voiced them. On the rare occasions that she came out to either visit or deal with some magic matter her cousin didn't want the Earth Coven sticking their noses in, she just enjoyed how relaxing it was.
She enjoyed it for the same reason she lived on the top floor of her own building.
Ben wasn't around when she showed up, but that was nothing new. Anymore, he only popped back to review case files or to sleep, and he'd been doing less of the second. She used the time to use the base communications to get in touch with the Sirocco excavation team. The only things that they had been able to confirm so far was that the henscratch on the walls only responded to illuminating magic, and that it was most definitely a language. But whether the symbols meant sounds, or ideas like pictographs or hieroglyphs was something they were still working on. The script resisted translation spells. Thus, while the dig continued, cataloguing the findings, the few cryptanalysts and linguistic experts on the expedition were hard at work inside of their tent, with no definite estimate on when they'd crack it. Just like Gwendolyn had, they also had suspected it had some link with Atlantean texts, but Atlantean was phonetic, and every time they tried to sound out the few symbols that resembled that dead language of the mages, it came out as gibberish. Gwen was reminded of how much trouble Egyptian hieroglyphs had been to translate; Without the Rosetta Stone, it might have taken 50 years longer to manage. She only hoped that with modern techniques and a wider knowledge base, the crypto team would be able to manage.
The obsidian tablet she'd picked up right before the Galactic Enforcers had shown up went unmentioned.
Gwendolyn was just about ready to go make an unnecessary check of the Null Void projector in the basement when a rush of blue and the resulting blast of wind passed her by. She blinked to clear the dust out of her eyes and turned around, a little disappointed to find him already at the main computer terminal and scanning for problems worldwide. Like usual, he was in his XLR8 guise; nearly his default when combat wasn't required.
"Good morning to you too." She greeted him, using just a touch of disapproval.
"What do you want, Gwendolyn?" He asked.
"I wanted to talk."
"That's what you're doing." His claws tapped a furious pace against the keyboard.
"Not like this." She tried not to get angry, but it wasn't easy. They'd always been able to get under the other's skin, even when they…She closed her eyes and quashed the memory down. "Face to face. With you actually being you for a change."
"No time. I have an entire world to protect, and…"
"And I know just as well as you there aren't any 'Trouble Alerts' to bother with." That finally got him to turn around and glare at her through his Kineceleran eyes, and she shrugged. "I used your computer to make a call. Checked things out after. You don't want me looking, you shouldn't have given me a password for it."
"I should void out your password." He complained.
"Well?" Gwen demanded, raising an eyebrow. "Can you slow down enough to have a cup of coffee with your cousin, Hero of Heroes?"
Ben 10,000 let out a long-suffering sigh and stepped away from the console. Another flash of green light later, the real him the human him, walked past her and made a beeline for the galley. He'd grown a beard since the last time she saw human him. It actually made him look more serious than ever.
"I ran out of sugar. Haven't had time to pick any up."
"Oh, that's fine." Gwendolyn countered, falling in step behind him. "Brought my own."
Ben drank his coffee like grandpa always did; black and percolated from grounds that came out of a tin can. Gwendolyn had learned to value freshly ground, more exotic blends, so the stuff he drank usually tasted off. Hence the sugar. And the non-dairy creamer.
She ran a swizzle stick through the mixture in her mug and looked up from the table. Ben was leaning against the counter, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. He never seemed to relax. He didn't smile either.
Gwendolyn hadn't seen him smile in years.
"So. How've you been?" She started out. It was a weak opener, and she knew it.
"Fine." Ben said, taking a pull from his mug.
"How did the cleanup go after…?"
"Orbital Defense got taken out before I could reach them." He answered, picking up the topic. "They've got crews cleaning up the debris; The Incursean shipwrecks are being repurposed for a stronger setup, and there's talk that the UNSDF is going to add some assets out at the L1 point as well as upgrading the L2 station. Make sure that never happens again."
"Good." Gwendolyn nodded. "Good. And Attea? The survivors?"
"Sentenced and chucked into the Null Void. She'll be eligible for parole in seventy two years. I doubt that she'll have an empire to go home back to, though."
"Power vacuum?" She guessed.
"Like you wouldn't believe." He snorted, taking another drink. "My GE contacts said that it's looking to be a combination of a civil war with a revived resistance movement in their territory. Too big for them to stop; they're going to try and keep it all contained so it doesn't affect the established worlds." Ben looked at her. "You shouldn't have been there. You're not a hero, you damn near got yourself killed." There wasn't worry or concern on his face, but there was a trace, and only just a trace in his voice that she could still pick up on. It almost took the sting out of her failure and his criticism. "I thought you were on a dig somewhere anyways. Some expedition for Harvard or something."
"Ben, you know perfectly well it's Cornell University. Same place I graduated from."
"They're all the same to me." He rolled his eyes. "Where are you digging, anyways? And for what?"
"Africa. We're looking for evidence of ancient magic civilizations before the Sumerians."
"Huh. Any luck?"
"Sort of. We did find a cave with a lot of writing in it, but no relics or anything."
"Probably for the best." Ben shrugged. "We don't need any more magical Doomsday devices getting loose." It was all business, and they both knew it. He could talk about the job. It was everything else that got iffy. Gwen bit her lip after another awkward silence and decided to push on.
"I…forgot about our birthday." She explained. Ben raised an eyebrow at her. "I'm sorry. It's important, and I…"
"Why would it be important?" Ben shut her down. "We're another year older. Big deal. Not like either of us takes the time anymore to celebrate it."
"We used to." She said softly. "I'm sure grandpa would love to…"
"Pretty sure I'll be busy." There was anger starting to burn in his eyes. He was daring her to keep pressing the matter.
She sidestepped instead, changing topics. "So…How's things with your helpers?"
Ben blinked a couple of times, defusing himself. "As good as can be expected. They're not perfect, but long as there isn't any fighting, they manage. Kai keeps them in line."
Gwendolyn tried not to make a face at the name. Kai Green. The daughter of grandpa Max's old Plumber buddy Wes, she supervised the facilities in the old Mount Rushmore base under Ben's authority. She wasn't a bad fighter herself, but even retired, Gwendolyn still knew she could take the Navajo girl down a peg or four. She'd been annoying when they were kids, but now…
"Next you'll be telling me she keeps you in line." Gwendolyn teased him, taking another sip.
Ben shifted his feet and looked away. "She tries. A couple of days ago, she said she might have more luck if I married her."
Caught with a mouth full of coffee, Gwendolyn went wide-eyed and only just avoided an embarrassing spit take, swallowing it down and coughing. "Uh, sorry. Wrong pipe." She mustered a weak laugh. "Wow, that must have been something to hear."
"Yeah, it was." Ben still wasn't looking at her. And he was quiet, way more than usual. It scared her, looking at him. "She got me thinking though. Maybe I should."
"…should what?" Gwendolyn asked, immediately regretting the words after she said them.
Ben stood up away from the counter and set his mug down. "Maybe I should marry her."
Until that moment, Gwendolyn had been fine. And Ben had been fine. And everything, even though she got angry, and frustrated, and sad without ever knowing why, everything had been fine.
But she'd been plucking at a string wrapped around her heart for years, a string that kept it all tied together. She'd never known about that string, but now she felt it and knew it had been there all along.
Maybe I should marry her.
Just like that, the string finally snapped, and masked by the silent roar in her head and the lump in her throat, Gwen felt her heart collapse into the tiny pieces it had been for years. All the tiny pieces that had been chipped off every time she'd done something because it was what people expected. What was proper. What was normal.
Years of compromises, of shoving down her real feelings, until it finally cracked clean through.
In that moment, in that one casually uttered sentence by her cousin, her best friend, her…
Her Ben. Not Kai's.
Maybe I should marry her.
The lump in her throat got bigger, her eyes slammed shut. She couldn't look at him. If she did…if she did…
The first broken piece of her heart, she had chipped off herself when they were twelve, maybe thirteen. With her eyes closed, she finally saw it for the festering, self-inflicted wound it was.
Everything was not fine. Everything was wrong.
Somehow, she swallowed down the lump stuck in her throat. "Do…Do you love her?" She tried to sound normal, but couldn't. The words came out hollow and raspy, betraying the ache.
Without looking, she knew Ben hadn't turned around to face her. Neither of them could look the other in the eye. Not now. Not here.
Maybe not ever again.
"Maybe." He conceded, sounding far more miserable than somebody who had a girlfriend willing to give up her last name for him ever had. "But it's what's right, isn't it?"
She opened her eyes when the burning sensation finally got to be too strong to handle. She rubbed at them. No, it wasn't right. It was wrong. So, so wrong.
That battered inner voice of hers, drowned under obligations and expectations, screamed under the water. Tell him. Tell him! Gwen felt it whimper and die off, and mourned all over again.
She was a hypocrite. He would never listen to her now. It was too late. It was all too late.
"Yeah. I guess so." Gwendolyn heard herself say, and felt the pain blossom all over again. She took it as her punishment.
"Yeah." Ben said, sounding even worse. "Okay then." Gwendolyn snapped her head up and she opened her mouth. Her voice froze in her throat, but her eyes, she knew, her eyes…if he saw her eyes, he would know…
He still had his back to her. He couldn't see her.
Ben rocked back and forth on his heels for a bit, then seemed to come a decision. "I need to go. But thanks. For helping me figure it out." One familiar green flash later, he was XLR8 again, and then he was gone.
Nothing would ever be fine ever again.
Things continued to be not fine. She traveled back out to Africa, forgetting the obsidian tablet back in her apartment in Colorado. Shaken and hurting, she forget to mention finding it to her teammates. Or maybe she wanted to keep it for herself for some reason she couldn't put into words.
Things continued to be wrong as they photographed and sonar mapped the cavern. The part they had found was merely the topmost layer. Behind the crevices too small to fit through, they found longer tunnels leading to what could have qualified as an impressive underground complex. There was evidence those passages had been sealed off by magical manipulation. Gwendolyn let the more ambitious spelunkers see to that; she had no desire to travel into the dark and cramped underground if she could help it.
People had lived here, and the 'Upper Room' as the Sirocco team took to calling their first discovery, had been a workspace. They found traces of human DNA and organic and inorganic matter decomposed in the lower levels.
All the while, Gwendolyn and the crypto team continued to bash their minds and their permutations against the odd script, failing in one attempt after another. Tempers began to flare, anger and frustration took hold. It had started from the top down, and more and more, Gwendolyn caught the other Coven members sneaking glances at her, evaluating her. Doubting her. Even as it made her angrier, she couldn't entirely fault them for their incorrect assessments.
Everything was wrong, after all.
Still, the work and the job went on. So long as Professor Singh and the Coven had to work together, she was still the project leader. And nobody would take that away from her, so help her. She couldn't lose that.
She'd lost too much already.
Unknown to her, there were a few sympathetic members on the Sirocco dig team who were able to figure out something was eating away at her and reached out. Gwen found herself talking to her mother, then her father, and then both of them at the same time in consecutive calls on consecutive nights begging her to come home and take a break. They thought it was stress brought on from working too hard, or maybe PTSD from her childhood summers, revived by the recent foiled Incursean invasion.
Things were not fine, and the yelling, the arguing only made things worse.
Then Grandpa Max finally showed up, flying in on his converted Rust Bucket III. The exhausted and exasperated camp was given the day off (Not on her orders) and coolers full of alcohol and foods were unloaded from the back of the innocent seeming RV and passed out to help the Sirocco excavation team unwind (Again, not her idea). And while everyone else took some (according to them) much needed time off from their successful (relatively) expedition, he took her aside and offered his explanation for visiting.
"We ought to go fishing."
Gwendolyn blinked. "What, now?"
"Yes, now." He'd grown a beard too in his second retirement, and his replacement bionic arm looked indistinguishable from its pair to casual inspection. "I know this great little lake in Germany, and it's perfect fishing weather up there right now. You could use a break, and I felt like visiting my favorite granddaughter."
"Uh huh." Gwendolyn wasn't buying it, and she got more irritated with the party as one of the grad students got some music cranked up. "Tell you what, grandpa. How about we go fishing after we finish this expedition?"
Just like that, the smile dropped off his face, like he'd caught her wasting all the water in the Rust Bucket's storage tanks. "Gwen. Get in the RV. I want to go fishing, and they need a break from you."
Gwendolyn blinked at the deadpan delivery. "Did my mother send you to handle me?"
"She called, doesn't mean I'm handling you." Grandpa Max explained calmly. "You want your expedition to succeed, right? Well, give your people a break. They needed one, and here's the qualifier; without you around. You can't go biting their heads off like Wildmutt if you want to be the next Howard Carter."
"Belzoni had more fun." Gwendolyn laughed.
He smirked in return. "So?"
Gwendolyn sighed and rolled her eyes. "You brought the fishing gear?"
"Including Derothi concussion mines if they don't bite."
Gwendolyn turned around and took another long look at her team, all of them actually smiling and cracking jokes for the first time since she had come back.
Maybe she'd feel better if she left for a while.
"Just for the day." She resolved. "I'll go grab my stuff."
"I'll warm up the engines." Grandpa Max smiled.
Mecklenburg-Vorpommen District, Northeastern Germany
There had been nibbles on the lines, but after a few hours, the only thing that Gwendolyn and Grandpa Max had landed were several cans of beer, now empty and littered around their feet. Of course, given that they were in northern Germany, in January, and were sitting in a hut on ski runners that had been dragged out onto the ice, the beer was probably the better thing to catch. And there were no mosquitos. A bonus.
Their lines each descended down into the darkness of the lake via separate holes. A larger hole in the ice at the back end of the exposed ice cabin's floor had a more substantial rope passing through it, tied to one of the rafters of their hut. Between their parkas and the ice hut's heater, they barely noticed the howling winds outside coming off of the Baltic Sea.
Grandpa Max sat back and sighed in contentment. "What did I tell you?"
"When you said it was perfect fishing weather…" Gwendolyn observed, getting another laugh out of him. She rolled her eyes and tucked her gloved hands into the pockets of her coat. "It's a lot different than the lake we went to in California as kids. I just hope you brought something edible for dinner, because at the rate we're going, I don't think we'll be catching our dinner."
"Oh, don't you fret none. You never went hungry on our summer vacations after all."
"Unless it was by choice." She muttered under her breath.
"Hm? You say something, Gwendolyn?"
"Yeah, could I get another one?"
"Coming right up." He stood up from the cushioned bench they were sitting on and strolled to the other end, pulling up the rope. A mesh bag emerged from the water, and he fished inside of it to grab a perfectly chilled followup. "Another great thing about Germany; terrific beers. Here you go, pumpkin." He underhanded it to her, then slipped the beer bag back into the freezing water.
It was her third one, and the pleasant warmth it generated was starting to also be accompanied by the floaty, swirly feeling she usually equated with dizziness. "Okay, I'll admit it." She said after washing back another swallow of the suds. "This was a good idea, grandpa. I guess I just needed to cool off." He gave her a look at he sat back down, and she stuck her tongue out at him. "Come on, that was funny."
"If you say so." Max deadpanned. "Feeling better, I take it?"
"You know, you haven't told me yet what's been eating at you. And considering you tell me more than you tell your parents, that's saying something."
She stiffened for a bit, sifting through everything. What could she tell him? What did she dare to give a voice to? She couldn't tell him that. She could dance around everything else.
"That mess with the Incurseans…I guess it got to me worse than I thought." Gwendolyn explained. "I'm more powerful than I ever was back when I went heroing, but…He was right. I'm out of practice. I could have died out there. I should have told the Galactic Enforcers to drive on and leave me out of it, but…"
"But you couldn't." Max finished. "Because people were in trouble. And when people are in trouble, Tennysons don't run away from the danger, Gwendolyn. We run towards it."
She bent her head a little. "I miss Aunt Vera. She would know exactly what to tell me."
"Unvarnished." He snorted, his voice a little rougher. "She never wasted time on niceties when it mattered. I miss her too. I may be a poor substitute for her, but I do know how to listen."
"I feel like I'm suffocating in my own skin most days." She took another drink, rolling the weight of that sentence around in her head. "Everybody always looking to me for the answers. Everybody putting me up there on a pedestal beside Ben, when I'm not…" Her throat closed up. Grandpa Max just sat there watching her, waiting for her to go on.
It was all coming up, everything she'd slammed the door down on for days. It was probably the alcohol. Gwen could still remember her first drink. That stupid first drink. That New Year's. With him. It tore her open all over again, and she felt her eyes starting to burn. She'd gone from hating alcohol to tossing it back without a care.
"That's all I get to be. The perfect daughter. The sensible one. Everyone heaps up their expectations on me, and it gets heavier and heavier. Like I'm supposed to have all the answers, like I can never make a mistake. I can't be a hero, but I can't be just human anymore either, they won't let me." She downed the rest of the can and then threw it angrily away, watching it bounce off of the wall of the fishing hut and roll until it hit the hole in the ice, floating on the water.
"Vera and I talked about this once." Max said heavily, after he was sure she was done venting. "I said I should have kept you out of all this craziness. And Vera had told me that keeping you around kept you from becoming lonelier, that you were happier. At the time, she was right, but now, I see you like this and…"
"I don't regret it." Gwendolyn stopped him, meeting his wet eyes with hers. "Those summers with you and Ben. I don't regret them. I would never have learned about magic. I wouldn't have learned how cool my grandpa was, or that my doofus cousin could be anything but a brat. No. Don't wear that guilt, grandpa. I don't regret it."
He mustered a weak smile and an even weaker chuckle. "So what do you regret?"
Oh. Oh, the words were right there. Gwendolyn looked at grandpa. He could see something there too. If she had the courage enough to say it…
But she didn't. Even tipsy, even when she was with the one person who hadn't judged her years ago and wouldn't judge her now, she couldn't say it. She wasn't brave enough. She never had been, not where it counted.
She dropped her eyes and stood up. "I regret that there isn't a bathroom out here. I'll be back."
"Okay." Grandpa Max said. He sounded disappointed. He wasn't the only one.
The walk to shore was easy enough, with the ice as thick as it was, and the lights over the parking and campgrounds were bright enough to be seen at a distance and used as beacons. There was just the matter of the cold and the howling wind, but she was bundled up enough not to worry and too soused to care. She reached the cold outhouses parked underneath spindly, leafless trees and took care of her business as quickly as possible.
When she stepped back outside, the exterior lights all went off. Gwendolyn scowled and lifted up a hand, creating a glowing purple light to guide her way. "Stupid weather. Stupid cold. Stupid power grid." The glowing purple light from her hand was decent enough, but it lacked the overall illumination the campground lights had provided, and between the dark and her own alcohol-induced dizziness, Gwendolyn somehow managed to make a wrong turn and get lost. She got turned away from the campground and stumbled into a copse of frozen trees, coated in frozen snow. She saw the edge of the lake and started towards it, knowing she'd eventually find the hut when she wasn't closed in by hibernating fauna.
Unseen under the white blanket, her toe caught hold of an exposed tree root. She heard herself yelp and the world spun as she fell forward in a loping, unbalanced hop. Then she crashed against a tree trunk, disturbing the snow on the entire majestic oak, burying herself.
Gwendolyn emerged out of the self-inflicted snowdrift half frozen and cursing up a storm. Rubbing at her head with one hand, she created another bubble light and turned to glare at the tree that had injured her.
She froze entirely after that. There in the light of her spell, was a crudely carved heart with two sets of initials right in the side of it. A forest full of trees right beside a lake, and she stumbled into a tree engraved by a pair of lovers. She remembered.
Another tree, with Max and Verdona's initials in it. Their second kiss. How everything had suddenly felt right.
Just promise me you'll be careful.
If we do this…it won't be a game anymore, will it?
She saw his smile. She saw him unfold the knife that Grandpa Max had given them, and start to mark it with a second heart right below the first.
A memory Gwen had tried so hard to forget about, marginalize, dismiss. But she was alone, in the woods, and there was nobody to put a mask on for, and the alcohol had done its work, destroying what little shredded self-control she had left.
Maybe I should marry her.
Things were no longer right, but wrong. And it was her fault.
Her stuttering denials. One after the other to every teasing remark and offhanded comment thrown their way. Each one of them had been a dagger, stabbing Ben over and over and over. He hadn't been afraid. He hadn't wanted to hide it. The look on his face. How his smile got smaller every time. By the time the Plumbers sold them out, and they found grandpa missing his right arm, and the Highbreed crisis was over, he had stopped smiling entirely.
It hurt to breathe. Her chest hurt, and her head hurt, and there was nowhere left to hide, nothing to take it away. Everything she had ever hidden behind collapsed, and the well of pain she had been sitting on for more than a decade finally, finally escaped. The broken pieces of her heart were smashed to dust.
She had been too scared to fight for him. Too scared to stop him when he had finally given her what he thought she had wanted; to be alone. But he hadn't stopped loving her. It was why she could always find him wherever he was with a spell that didn't work for anyone else. It was why his headquarters was a tower, so she would never feel trapped underground again. It was why he fought alone, and didn't recruit allies; because she was the only one he had ever trusted completely, and she had broken him. It was why every time her mother brought up finding a good man and raising a family, she had shut it down. Because there had only been one man.
It was why he had talked to her about Kai when she visited him. Even now, years later…one last opening. And she had been too scared. The string holding her heart together had been him, and she…
She came back to herself. Someone was shaking her shoulder. Grandpa Max. He'd come out to find her. How long…how long had she been out here? She wasn't cold at all.
Gwendolyn opened her raw, red eyes and looked around. No wonder she wasn't cold. The snow and the ice were gone, melted. The tops of the trees were burning, and the ground was soggy and wet beneath her. She had done this.
But Grandpa Max didn't care about any of that. He turned her around and squared her shoulders so he could look right at her. There was fear in his eyes. He wasn't afraid of her, though. He was afraid for her.
She let out a whimper, too tired to do more. She had been crying, screaming, and hadn't even known it. She had nothing left in her to give. No more tears, no more magic; nothing but a dull, empty ache that would never, ever go away or be covered up again.
He pulled her into a hug, one that felt so tight it squeezed her ribs.
"Tell me what's wrong." He begged, his breath blowing by her ear. "Please, Gwen. Please, just tell me."
Gwen let herself be hugged to death, her face muffled in his shoulder. The answer bubbled up, and finally, she didn't bother hiding it. She let it out, and no longer cared about appearances.
"I wasn't careful."
Somehow, Grandpa knew exactly what she was talking about. How his hug tightened after said as much. He picked her up and walked them out of the smoldering forest, his bionic arm strong enough to lift her even as old as he was.
He got her into the Rust Bucket III, took off her coat, helped her into the bottom cot, and for once, she actually slept. There was enough alcohol in her to leave her numb enough for it.
She thought only of Ben. And how she would never be whole again.
January 23rd, 2018 C.E.
Nobody on the Sirocco dig had minded when Grandpa Max called in and told them she was sick with a bug and would be gone for a few days. Gwendolyn had wearily passed acting authority over the expedition to Professor Singh, and let grandpa take her back to her apartment.
It wasn't home, but it was the closest thing she had anymore.
Afterwards, she had nothing but time on her hands. She slept. She grieved. She drank tea by the kettle, and with no interest in television beyond catching up on the news, she buried herself in the only bit of work she had left to her.
The obsidian tablet she'd smuggled out from the Sirocco dig.
Even though she was temporarily 'not in charge', the crypto team still sent her daily progress reports. To her frustration, their efforts continued to be stymied. Everything about the script continued to scream Atlantean, but every encryption process they knew of, from mirroring to numerical scrambling, continued to produce gibberish; a hodgepodge that gave, at best, a few stumbling syllables before hitting chaos again.
"Don't you give me that." She scowled at the tablet. "You mean something, don't try to convince me otherwise, you miserable lump of…" After that, she descended into a feral roar, short and powerful, and pushed away from her kitchen table.
Gwendolyn paced around her living room for a bit, suddenly feeling warm. She threw off her outer layer of clothing, draping the cloak, cape, and her longsleeved nanomesh shirt over the back of her chair. Her tank top undershirt was much less restrictive, and she rubbed at her bare arms before storming outside.
The wind moaned as she stood on the roof of the high-rise, and she took a moment to stare down at the rest of Denver sprawled out below her. For a moment, a vision of her as a Queen in her castle appeared, then it was replaced by that of a Princess in a tower, waiting for some dashing hero…
Shut up. She closed her eyes and quelled the sudden jolt of pain that caused. Stupid, stupid fairytales don't happen. You can't wave a magic wand and fix everything.
She couldn't fix herself. She couldn't fix Ben, fix them.
She couldn't even figure out how to translate the scribbles on this stupid obsidian slate.
"Useless." Gwendolyn muttered, shivering as she finally got chilly from the outside air and moved back inside.
The Charms of Bezel caught her eye when her vision readjusted to the interior lighting. The five stones, each granting a higher level of control and mastery over their particular affiliation. And the sixth…recovered and intentionally lost, thrown overboard to sink to the bottom of Challenger Deep, masked by an illusion spell to make it resemble a harmless rock. All of them powerful alone, but far more devastating when they were linked together through the Keystone of Bezel.
She still wore the Keystone around her neck on its golden chain. Hadn't taken it off, hadn't wanted to. It was all she had left of him now, and had been for years.
They were artifacts without a known origin. When she was younger, Hex and Charmcaster had been obsessed with them, convinced that the stones were the key not only to tremendous power, but also to carrying out all their plans. Gwen, who knew more about magic and magical artifacts than any other Earth Coven mage, had never bothered writing most of it down. Fear, on her part, that the information might get out and start a new arms race. Especially with the Bezel stones. Before she made them all a permanent fixture of her attire, there had been nutjobs and wannabe evil wizards coming after them. If they knew the truth of just how powerful they really were, it would be a thousand times worse.
Maybe they were a relic of Legerdomain. She'd toyed with the hypothesis before; Hex and Charmcaster knew what they were, how important they were, what they were capable of long before she ever had. To her, the Keystone had just been a trinket in aLas Vegas 'Magic Convention' that was anything but. A bit of jewelry on a leather bracelet that only stood out from the plastic wands and cheap top hats because it looked kind of pretty. Each symbol, meaningless to the casual eye. Perhaps a language, or a crude pictographic facsimile of their abilities.
Gwendolyn blinked, realized she had been staring at them. A thought tickled at the back of her mind.
"Okay, new perspective." She said. Turn it into a thought exercise. Modern cryptography was useless in deciphering both her tablet and the walls of the Sirocco dig.
Say you were an ancient mage. For the sake of argument, an ancient Atlantean mage, the civilization that supposedly served as the basis for all magic that filtered through the world afterwards. You're working on something, and you presumably want to keep it hidden. But you leave your notes, or a record, or something scrawled over the walls. An instruction guide.
You are so worried about the secrecy of it, you're willing to craft an entirely new means of encryption. No tattooing messages into people's heads, letting their hair grow back, sending them off to someone else. No magical missives. Nothing that gets understood and added to years later, decades, centuries…millennia. You use something so esoteric and unplanned for that whatever you're trying to hide is not only kept out of their hands, but gets forgotten about, period.
Atlanteans used a phonetic script system, like we do. Their symbols mean sounds. And even though this seems like Atlantean script, it isn't. Not exactly. Something's missing.
Gwen blinked several times. "Wait."
She, and the rest of the team, had been going off of the idea that somehow the script was scrambled in some way. Reversed, maybe. Numbers and letters. Substitution and transposition ciphers. None of those had panned out. But what if it was more? If it was missing a piece…
"A Primer." Gwen kept blinking, and her eyes went between the Bezel charms on the sleeve of her discarded shirt and the mockingly obtuse obsidian tablet on the table. "No. That's…it couldn't be."
You scramble the text. But you don't change the order; orders can be corrected for. Enough monkeys in a room can write Shakespeare. Enough angry Poles can crack German Enigma machines. You take something out of it instead, make it illegible. And you do it in a way so confusing and unexpected that every translation spell can't manage it. Because no matter how many permutations, no matter how many computations you run…it's always going to be missing the whole picture.
The Bezel Charms weren't Atlantean. Gwendolyn had deduced that much after dealing with Hex and Charmcaster and listening to their monologues. They were based on a wholly different framework.
"It couldn't be." She marched over to the kitchen table and sat down with the tablet. She grabbed her pen and the yellow legal pad she'd been scribbling all over with failed tries, tore it open to a fresh page.
It seemed like a shot in the dark, she wanted to laugh at the utter ridiculousness of it. One by one, she inscribed the seven symbols of Bezel onto the page, with the symbol of the Keystone as the seventh and last. The Keystone, which the Earth Coven, like the Plumbers before them, thought had been lost, or sequestered away by Hex before his passing. She had never bothered to correct them as they searched for it; it was safest right next to her heart.
The seven symbols of Bezel now on the top margin of the new page, she uttered a short incantation, bringing the scrambled script of the tablet onto the empty space below. The page glowed gold and responded, ink draining out of her pen's inkwell from the sympathetic magic spell to effect the change.
Another almost silent whisper of a spell raised a glowing duplicate of the seven symbols of Bezel off of the page, a glowing translucent bit of holographic script that danced to her whims. With a gesture of her head, they settled in over the first seven symbols on the page.
Gwen's eyes narrowed. The fourth…God, that one actually made sense. It was Atlantean script, plain as day! Surrounded by the outer edges of the 4th symbol of Bezel, an Atlantean syllable appeared, a mixture of black ink and golden light. It still looked messy, but to a trained eye versed in magical script, you could see the tree for the forest.
But none of the others made sense at all.
"Damnit." You're close. Oh, you're so damned close…
Gwendolyn thought about it again…and reversed the symbols. This time, the symbol of the Keystone was laid down first. Golden light blurred over black ink, and…
Oh. Oh, my God.
Now, it made sense. Gwendolyn quickly tore off the encrypted script page, set it aside, and started scribbling the translation on the second. Atlantean phonetic syllables, rendered clear as day. Seven at a time. Then she moved her Primer, the seven symbols of Bezel in reverse with the Keystone standing at their head as the most important, and the symbols kept coming.
It took her five minutes to decode the encryption.
It took her another ten after that, with her heart thundering and her hands shaking, to transcribe ancient Atlantean, the basis for all her spells, into equivalent English. Rough, but serviceable. She read it as she went along, it was impossible not to, but the weight of what was actually written on the tablet was never clearer until she held the third page of English up in the air, the ceiling light gleaming through the page behind the inked letters.
The River flows unbroken/unchanged
Hands cannot/fail change/divert the turns and dives
Forever it goes Impervious/Immune
But One regrets and mourns the riverbed lie
I am a stone sailing/drifting on the current
I cannot/is beyond power change the river
But I seek power/potential to change a stone
For one stone can move on a riverbed
The River flows unbroken/unchanged
"Not a poem." Gwendolyn whispered to herself, reading the confusing script over and over. Atlantean was like that. The literal and the figurative were a jumbled mess; they were a people who could change reality with a word and a gesture, and their might was something modern magic only had in comic books and movies.
What the hell was The River?
She would have time to figure that out. Later. Right now…
Her notes, the tablet, she tucked out of sight, keeping only a new blank page with the reversed Primer of the Bezel symbols next to her. And then she made her call to the Sirocco Expedition's base camp. After exchanging pleasantries, Professor Singh appeared on the vidfeed.
"Gwendolyn Tennyson. Feeling better, my former student?"
"Much." Gwendolyn said, trying not to bubble over with excitement. "Has the Crypto team come up with anything yet?"
"…No. No, they haven't." The Indian professor admitted soberly. "I am sorry I do not have good news for you."
"I've got some for you." Gwen held up the legal pad and the seven symbols in the correct sequence. "I think I've got it. Tell them to use this sequence as a translation Primer, overlaying it on the wall script. Seven for seven and repeat."
"…What? Gwendolyn, what am I looking at?"
"I'll explain later. I'm coming out to you now. Do you have the sequence photographed?"
"Do. You. Have it?"
"Yes! Yes, I took a snapshot of it just now."
"Get it to them. I'll see you tomorrow." She hung up before he could pepper her with more redundant questions and quickly swept up her things, slipping her long shirt, cloak, and hood back on. The necklace to the Keystone of Bezel was once again hidden behind clothing most thought she wore only to dress conservatively. She paused for a moment to consider the obsidian tablet.
She should take it with her.
She left it hidden under her pillow instead.
Out through the patio doors and onto the roof, she dialed a different number on her phone.
"Grandpa Max? Yeah. I'm okay now. Can you give me a ride?"
Grandpa Max had been thrilled to hear from her. Yes, he could give her a ride. No, it wasn't an inconvenience, he was happy to get any time to spend with his favorite granddaughter. When he pulled up and landed on the building's rooftop helipad, he'd had a smile and a hug waiting for her. But he was a little less sedate than usual, talked more than she could recall him doing in the past, and with an edge of nervousness.
He didn't bring up the—quite literal—meltdown that she had had during their fishing trip in Germany, and neither did she. By unspoken agreement, it was the one topic that was off limits. They talked about old memories instead, with Gwen finding fresh perspective and new laughs over some of the old tourist traps that grandpa had taken her and Ben to. Back when Max was still trying to treat the Omnitrix like a coincidental phenomenon. Back when he was trying to keep them out of it.
The world's biggest ball of yarn didn't seem so bad in comparison to some of the things that they'd gone up against.
The RV handled the intercontinental journey with ease, flying through the air faster than a jet liner, and if Gwen had to be honest, with much more in the way of service and creature comforts. It was cozy too, and she got in some napping while it was available. So did grandpa, keeping the Rust Bucket III on autopilot during the Atlantic crossing. The trip over Africa was done while the both of them downed cheap coffee, and Gwendolyn passed up the offer of ant hush puppies for granola bars and apple slices.
He asked if he could stick around after they landed at the dig site, and tired of being alone, Gwendolyn had agreed. The rest of the Coven and archaeologists had been thrilled to see the old man again, even if he hadn't brought another picnic's worth of goodies with him.
Mostly, the camp was buzzing with renewed energy. The rumors got to Gwendolyn long before Professor Singh climbed up out of the ruins' bore hole. The cipher had been an unqualified success, and the crypto team was down in the Upper Room. Plus, they wanted to see her when she got the chance. Grandpa Max had waved her off, saying his 'days of diving into bunkers were done.'
Gwendolyn floated down through the smooth opening, seeing the entire crypto team hard at work with several holographic emitters set up around the cavern. The mages present all had light spells burning full blast to keep the writing on the cave walls glowing brightly, while the others either managed the emitters to keep the Primer matched up with the script or were busily transcribing the message.
"Is the Primer working?"
"Like a dream." Dr. Montswell answered, walking over and shaking his head. "It's still just scribbles to me, but as soon as the Coven members on our team saw what your sequence of seven symbols did to the garbled letters, they about blew a gasket. They've been writing down this…Atlantean script…all night. The transcription is apparently taking a little bit longer." He bit his lip. "Unbelievable. Atlantis was real?"
"As real as Rome was. But we'll never find it. Apparently they went out with something of a bang; nothing left but trace references, and their phonetic runes. It's the basis of most spellcasting in the world." Gwendolyn explained.
"Unbelievable." Dr. Montswell repeated.
"Miss Tennyson?" One of the younger Coven mages called out worriedly. "Can you take a look at this?" Gwendolyn gave the cryptographer an apologetic smile and scooted past him to get to the mage, who was squinting at his tablet computer with utter confusion.
"What's wrong, Jasper?"
"I've been trying to find the proper translation to English for this passage, but the Atlantean, it's…"
"Remember. Atlantean script tends to mix the figurative and the literal." Gwendolyn peered over his shoulder and frowned. This should have been easy work. She tapped on the screen with a finger, fixing his mistakes. "You can't just stare at a word and derive the right descriptive pronoun or adjective. You need to use the entire sentence, look for the guideposts. Try and remember your Classical Magic coursework."
"Um. I never had…that class." Jasper said, looking away as he blushed a little in embarrassment. "My parents focused more on the modern stuff."
"Ah." Gwendolyn thought that over for a bit. "Technomage?"
"Yeah, kind of. Guess that's why they stuck me with the tablet." Jasper joked. Gwendolyn smiled back.
"I knew a kid a lot like you once. He was more of a Technopath; manipulated technology and built things just by thinking about it hard enough."
"Really?!" Jasper exclaimed. "Could I meet with him?"
Her smile strained. "Well…I didn't stay in touch with him. I'm sorry."
Jasper's exuberance died off quickly after that. "Ah, well. I'll manage; I came this far."
"Welcome back, Sorceress." Another, older man said, coming up from the lower levels of the caves. Archmagus Rene Gimial. Unlike the crypto team's mages, the Frenchman was wearing a bit of a scowl. He was also not a member of the Sirocco team; The Earth Coven had sent their third most powerful mage to look in on things. That fact immediately put Gwendolyn on edge. "I must congratulate you on your brilliant stroke of insight. This 'Primer' of yours has cracked the cipher. It seems somewhat familiar on closer inspection, but it isn't Atlantean…"
Gwendolyn stared back at the older fellow, then turned slightly so he could better take in the Charms of Bezel running down her arm. He looked, blinked several times, and nodded.
He wasn't surprised; he was just fishing for an answer.
"So. The Charms of Bezel were the key. But you only have five there. The Keystone was lost…and where did that other symbol come from? I had thought there were only six Charms of Bezel."
"There are. Or, were." Gwendolyn replied coolly. "Just five now."
"So 'ow did you know it required seven symbols?" He dug a little deeper, not caring how suspicious he sounded.
"I have a brain." Gwendolyn shot back. "I tried using six symbols, including the one that was on the missing Keystone. It wasn't enough; the translation was close, but still not perfect. So I took another look at them, and realized that just because there were only six charms, that didn't mean that whatever language they were based on only had six letters or symbols; that there could be seven or nine or twelve. All of them are much more vital numbers in magic, being leyline-aligned primes." She was lying through her teeth, and in a display that would have made Grandpa Max proud that she'd listened to his training, she showed no signs of deception. She delivered the fallacy as clearly as if she'd been telling him tomorrow's weather forecast. "So I looked at the symbols and extrapolated what a possible seventh symbol might look like. I tried it out…and here we are."
"Very good." Archmagus Gimial drawled, and Gwendolyn felt a tickle in the back of her brain. For a moment, she tasted buttery rolls; He'd been speaking French. She remembered that language taste quite well, although it was tainted with regret. There were few parts of her life that weren't. "So, then. The Bezel Charms, I did not think they were Atlantean."
"They aren't." She said, taking the bait. "And that makes this place very interesting. Don't worry. The Coven was invited to take part in this expedition, you and the rest of the council will get a copy of our final report."
"I am certain we will. However, as exciting as things are, I would like to stay and observe for a while."
"I'm afraid that will be quite impossible." Gwendolyn shut him down instantly. "You are not a participating member of this expedition, and don't have the clearance to be here. For the time being, I am going to have to ask you to leave."
"It is my understanding that your grandfather came by a few days ago, and even before that, your alien friends did as well." Gimial pointed out. His eyes were narrowing in veiled anger. Like he was daring her to challenge him on the point.
He shouldn't have tempted her.
"None of them were allowed inside the perimeter of the excavation. You don't invite tourists into sensitive sites when there's preservation work to be done. Besides, my grandfather brought drinks and food for everyone." She added, getting a chuckle out of everyone in the Upper Room. "As for the aliens…be grateful they did show up. We might not be alive today if they hadn't. That invasion and all."
For the second time, and nonverbally this go around, she indicated that the nosy Archmagus needed to depart. Outplayed and insulted, the red-faced Frenchman managed a cursory statement of farewell utterly devoid in warmth and left in stiff, heavy steps, going back up the rope ladder set up for use.
Jasper whistled. "Man. I've never seen anyone take the Archmagus down a peg. Why wouldn't you want him around, anyways?"
"Easy." Gwendolyn said, searching the room for faces who might have been upset at her for her treatment of him. Remarkably, there were only two. The rest were either smiling or nodding in approval. "Rene Gimial has a bad habit of focusing on what's best for the Coven... and just assuming that means its automatically good for everyone else, too."
She'd been burned by that sort of opinion once before, she recalled darkly.
Funny that the Plumbers started her on the path of being a cynic.
January 24th, 2018
Gwendolyn and Grandpa Max sat at adjacent corners of their campfire, close to the Rust Bucket without being right next to one another. The old man, bless him, actually had chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows tucked away. He'd turned an otherwise frustrating expedition into a camping trip. He'd brought back a little piece of home with him, and she clung to it with both hands.
"So. A good day then?" He asked, twirling the metallic poker with its double marshmallow bounty over the embers. The setting sun gave his red Hawaiian shirt glowing undertones of gold and maroon.
Gwendolyn laid out the rest of the fixings for two s'mores in front of her, smiling in open satisfaction. "Yeah. I guess it was. The crypto team should have the first draft of the translations ready any time now. They had to go back and give it another try; they forgot about Atlantean syntax. I had to give them a refresher course."
"Honey, there are about 30 people in the world who would know what you're talking about." Max laughed. "You'll have to give them a little time to catch up to you. I'm amazed that they haven't asked you to become the leader of the Coven."
"They did." He looked at her in surprise and she waved him off. "Like I needed more responsibility stacked on top of everything? Besides. Most of them are afraid of me. Hardly a good foundation for leadership."
"Yeah, I suppose that's true." Max checked the marshmallows one more time, nodded in satisfaction, and then held the finished puffs of sugar towards her. "There you go. Two, ready to fly."
Gwendolyn slipped them off of the poker and finished building the sandwiches, handing one over to her grandpa. He shivered a little as he took the treat, and took a bite with a grunt of satisfaction.
The two ate in silence, and the s'mores disappeared faster than either anticipated. She really was that hungry.
"Want another?" Gwendolyn asked him.
Grandpa Max tried on another of his 'letting you down easy' smiles and shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Any more and I'll have trouble sleeping." He looked over shoulder. "Besides. I think it's time for me to tuck in anyways. Looks like your people have something."
Gwendolyn turned around to see Jasper coming up to her, looking particularly nervous as he fingered the edges of his tablet. She glanced back to say goodnight to her grandfather, only to see Max Tennyson step up into the Rust Bucket III and close the side door behind him.
She sighed. "Jasper. How did the translation work out this time?"
"Um." He opened and shut his mouth a few times, failing to voice it. The kid finally handed the device over with a shake of his head. "You tell me."
He was shocked by something, and Gwendolyn fought down the tickling danger sense. This would either be really bad, or really unbelievable. With some trepidation, she turned the tablet over and punched it on. And started reading.
God, the English translation was still horrible. "Ugh. Maybe the Coven needs to make translating Atlantean a mandatory course."
"Um, Miss Tennyson, I hate to say it but the most any of us ever see Atlantean script is in spellcasting. It's a little different than whatever…this is." Jasper defended himself.
She sighed. The kid was right. "Yeah. Sorry, I forgot that." Her eyes shot up to him. "You have a copy of the original Atlantean we got from using the Primer on this thing?"
He blinked. Nodded. She closed the first translation file, searched around, and found the one she was after.
"You're going to…read Atlantean? Without a translation matrix?"
"If you want it to be accurate, you have to." Gwendolyn replied, already scanning the text and building a reference in her head. "The translation programs and books we have on file are crap. They'll manage well enough for spellcasting, that's more precise in its wording, but if this is their notes, or a journal or record, then they won't be good enough."
"Uh, if I could ask, how is it you aren't working on making the books and programs better if you know so much more than the rest of us? For that matter, why do you even need us here?" Jasper demanded irritably.
"Because I thought it might be a good idea to foster a little cooperation for a change." Gwendolyn answered, looking up from the digitized text and frowning. "Most people are afraid of mages to begin with, it'd be a good thing if the Coven got a little more goodwill and understanding headed towards it. Working with the Cornell expedition team is a good way of doing that. Not to mention, I would prefer it if the Coven was a little less afraid of me." Her eyes narrowed as Jasper flinched. "Yeah. That. That, right there, is why I never joined your little club. Now. How about you knock off for the night. Tell the rest of the crypto team to do the same. I'll glance over this and give you my recommendations tomorrow morning first thing, okay?"
"Okay." Jasper agreed meekly. He turned around and headed back to deliver the message. Now alone, Gwendolyn sighed and got back to the business of reading. Without interruptions.
She read, translating in her head as she went along. And blinked, pulling back from it.
"…No." Horror filled her eyes.
She kept on reading, taking a full 20 minutes to get through it all; hundreds upon hundreds of pages of text.
With the campfire burning low, she pulled out a legal pad and translated it all a second time, putting it to paper in English afterwards. That took her another 30 minutes. She hadn't wanted to believe it the first time through.
Woodenly, Gwendolyn Tennyson, keeper of the Charms of Bezel stood up and moved to the Rust Bucket. Grandpa had left the side door unlocked and she slipped inside, hitting a hidden switch above the doorframe he'd shown her years before. A slight hum buzzed and then faded to nothing, cloaking the interior and putting up a false image through the exterior windows in its place. It would also mask any noise coming from inside; she threw up a magical jamming field as well to keep anyone from farsensing the RV's interior. She couldn't take any chances.
Grandpa Max was in his bedroom, the lights off as he snored like a log. It triggered another memory from long ago that stirred up the dust of her powdered heart, and her eyes misted up as she went in and sat on the edge of the bed. He snapped awake instantly, and Gwen lit up a purple globe of magical light to let him know exactly who was there.
"Gwendolyn?" He said, after taking a few seconds to get his bearings. "What's wrong, honey?"
Biting her lip, Gwendolyn looked the former plumber straight in the face. "I need you to do something for me, without asking me why."
He looked at her for a few moments. Nodded.
"I need you to leave. Tonight. Right after I step out. I need you to go to my apartment, go into my bedroom, and look underneath my pillow. There's an obsidian slate there with writing on it. Take it, and then make yourself and that tablet scarce until I call you."
She could see the questions burning inside of him, but the old man didn't voice them.
"It'll be all right." She leaned over and kissed his forehead, then pulled out her patio door key and pressed it into his palm. She let some of her magic flow into the key as she uttered the deactivation phrase. "That will get you inside from the roof and past my wards."
"Be careful, Gwendolyn." He warned her.
"Always." She smiled, and then left.
The Rust Bucket III took off two minutes later, and one of the expedition members who had been outside came up to her as the roar of the RV's powerful thrusters faded into the distance.
"Where's your grandpa taking off to in such a hurry?"
"He's retired. Decided he wanted another try at those fish. You get used to it." Gwendolyn lied. She yawned and patted the woman on the shoulder on her way back to her tent. "See you in the morning."
January 25th, 2018
"This little dig of ours has turned out to be quite the eye opener." Gwendolyn started off the next morning. While the rest of the team looked on with bleary eyes over their coffee and stale rations, Gwendolyn looked fully awake, even with the bags under her eyes. "I made a translation of the Atlantean text on my own last night after taking a look at what the crypto team came up with. This is, by far, the most expansive section of Atlantean writing that anyone has ever come across. The people living here in this underground cave system were experimenting, but here's the thing; they were only part Atlantean. They were part Logosian, as well. We ended up getting two golden eggs out of this, team; finally, written proof of human civilization prior to the Sumerians…and evidence that they were trying to crack time travel."
That woke everyone up. She waited for the noises of surprise and disbelief to settle down before moving on.
"The first part is the history lesson. We all knew about Atlantis, even if we could never find it. It got wiped out. There were two civilizations; Atlantis and Logos. As the wall text suggests, there was something akin to a Cold War between them; a parity. Then the Logosian High Magus, who apparently was something of an artificer genius, came up with a set of artifacts that tilted everything over sideways. His name…Was Bezel." Again, another ripple of shock, especially from the Earth Coven.
Gwen kept on going. "Open war before the dawn of accepted human civilization, and the Charms of Bezel were right in the thick of it. Then they went missing, and the Logosians started losing. Eventually, they fled. Based on my own personal experiences around the Bezel charms…the Logosian's descendants were the citizens of Legerdomain. By the time the bulk of the Logosians left, Atlantis had expended way too much blood and treasure, and worse, they'd exhausted much of their power. Magic got weaker. And then something happened. They didn't know what. All they offer, translated the best I could, is this; The Atlantis we knew disappeared within a day and a night after the war. The only survivors were scattered around the earth, with only a few trinkets of that age surviving to today."
"And now the catch; the people living here were the few Atlanteans and Logosians who had never wanted the war, and never got the friction. They had an entire community here, in secret. According to the record left behind, they stole or collected the Bezel charms in secret to prevent them from being used or fought over. It wasn't enough, and when the dust settled, they saw a world without any hope left in it. And they resolved to change it. They decided to go back in time and stop it all from happening."
"Time travel is real?" Professor Singh eked out.
"Yes…and no." Gwendolyn went on. "The Bezel Charms gave them a suitable power source, but they only had one working copy of their spell. When they tried to go back and prevent the war…Disaster. They lost the traveler, and the spell, in the River of time. Apparently there's some truth to what science fiction writers have been spouting off for the last 70 years. Paradox…prevented them from averting the catastrophe. Afterwards, the Bezel charms went dormant. And they died out. The text ends with them saying even if they had managed a second attempt, The River resists the change. To them, Time was a River, and Paradox was…"
Gwendolyn paused for a moment, realizing a missing detail. The flash of white, right before she found the tablet. Something out of the corner of her eye; a person that never seemed to quite be there.
"Paradox was Time's guardian."
"This is unbelievable." One of the Earth Coven mages finally said.
"I know. We're going to have to rewrite the history books. Again." Professor Singh said, earning some much needed laughs from the crew. "I trust your work, Gwendolyn. But we need to get other scholars to examine your conclusions. Something this ground-breaking…"
"We want to be careful, and we want to get it right. I know." She quickly agreed. "It's going to cause an uproar, there's going to be a lot of flak from the keepers of the status quo."
"The Coven is going to go nuts. I mean, aside from rewriting history, this means that…That the Bezel charms have the power to fundamentally rewrite…"
"I know what you're saying." Gwendolyn cut off the mage who'd been making the point. Her eyes darkened. "And the threat the Bezel charms pose is no less today than it was thousands of years ago. I am not going to hand them over to start up a new arms race. The Bezel charms stay with me, where they can't be used to hurt anyone. You're excited about lost magic. Don't forget the hard lessons that go with it."
Everything was quiet again after that. The scholars saw the long road ahead of them. The Coven mages, though, shared glances. Gwendolyn already knew what they were thinking. That once again, Gwendolyn Tennyson, the high and mighty Sorceress who refused to fall in line with Coven authority, was acting with unilateral authority and stepping on toes.
She hardened her eyes. "And I'll have Ben 10,000 toss them into the sun before I let the Bezel charms get used for that. Be sure you tell Rene Gimial that when you write up your report to the Coven."
"How do you know that their copy of the spell was lost to time?" Jasper asked. She evaluated him; honest curiosity. The kid didn't have the same sense of gamesmanship some of the other Coven members on the dig displayed. "Aside from what they wrote down, what if they hid it?"
"They said it was lost in the River, which I took to mean time." Gwendolyn shrugged. "But if you want to go dredging up the Nile for it, be my guest."
"Are you certain you found nothing when you first saw the Upper Room?" A more politically savvy Coven member inquired cagily.
Again, Gwen found herself thanking Grandpa Max for all the skills she'd picked up in lying. She looked him straight in the face and nodded once. "Just writing on the wall, and a recess where they might have kept something, a long time ago."
The fellow just stared at her, and Gwendolyn rolled her eyes.
"Right. Crypto team." She slid over a tablet. "Here's the scans of my translations. Run another translation, double check me and make sure it matches up. Atlantean syntax is a bear. Professor Singh, we can't have anyone coming in here and messing this place up. You've had the paperwork going to get this place recognized as an archaeological site; Fast-track it to being a UN sponsored World Heritage Site. The bureaucrats give you any flak, you tell them to call me…and then let them know that I will be calling Ben 10,000. This is one time I don't mind putting my foot down. The rest of you, keep cataloguing, mapping, and photographing this place."
"Shouldn't it be you contacting the UN?" Professor Singh asked curiously. "It would carry more authority, since you are the expedition leader."
"As of tomorrow, you are." Gwendolyn quickly dismissed the idea. "I'm the keeper of the Charms of Bezel. I'm too close to this. Here on out, if the Sirocco dig is to avoid even a hint of scandal or favoritism from both the academic and magical circles, I have to be off the project. Just rest assured that I'll be doing everything I can to make sure that what happened to Atlantis and Logos doesn't come to pass a second time."
Professor Singh went slack-jawed at that, and the others muttered for a bit, but eventually they all accepted the decision. Gwendolyn gave them all one last bittersweet smile before she stood up and walked out of the tent.
The truth hurt, but she had other things to do with her time. She couldn't be a hero anymore. She might be able to pull off being a guardian.
She had another project to get started on.
Sector 01 Control
March 14th, 2018 C.E.
As much as it hurt to be back in her cousin's territory, she needed peace and quiet without the Earth Coven peering over her shoulder or trying to make a move on the Bezel charms. Hero's Tower afforded the best protection and solitude required for the task at hand. Even though he knew she was there, Ben never said more than the most basic of pleasantries on the rare occasion he drifted back in to sleep, eat, or check the scanners for other incidents. She was grateful. It hurt enough seeing him.
Fearful of what the hidden ancient hybrid coven had said happened to their only working copy of the spell when they tried to go back and prevent the war, she had spent a full month poring over the tablet and the spell enchanted into it. There had been so many versions of time travel theorized in sci-fi over the decades; that when you went back and changed something, you erased the old timeline, or split off into a new one, a bifurcation. That you couldn't go back to someplace you had been because interacting with yourself would blow up the universe. That when you went back somewhere you'd been before, only your mind and your memories went back. The spell's matrix indicated a full body transference. Their records indicated limitations to the process they hadn't originally accounted for.
It hadn't taken her long to realize why they failed; they'd been so rushed as the magic in the world dwindled that they never bothered installing a failsafe. Their first attempt had been their dry fire, and it had exhausted the Bezel charms completely.
The second month had been spent crafting a failsafe spell to work in tandem with the hybrid Atlantean/Logosian time portal. It had been tricky to make, but it was easy to cast. It acted as a buffer, an interrupt for the original spell that compiled the variables and determined viability. If the spell wouldn't work, if the parameters weren't right, the failsafe triggered and disrupted the sequence before it could tap into the full reservoir of power offered by the Bezel charms. Before the spell went amok and ruined everything.
Now, in her third month of work, came the testing. One trial after another. Gwendolyn had identified over a dozen points in their past where she might be able to change the course of Ben's history. Her history. To her surprise, and then slowly growing horror and rage…None of them were viable.
The construction of Hero's Tower. The rise and final fall of the Forever Knights. The collapse of the Plumbers. The Highbreed Invasion. All those moments in time, when everything had gone to hell. Time, 'The River' resisted. She went back further. Working with the other Plumber's kids. When they went out to the lake and the forest to mourn Grandpa Max's loss. When she had lost Michelle as a friend, that November day everything went wrong and he put the Omnitrix back on. The month before it, the day grandpa had dragged them both out and shown them the tree, when they had…
After that misfire, she'd had to take the rest of the day off, going out for another drink with grandpa. He must have known what was bothering her. He never said a word, though.
Magic required three things; Power, a Conduit, and the will to direct it. Or desire. She had power. She had the conduit, in the spell. And she had the desire. It still wasn't enough.
Delays and failures bred desperation.
She could not go back to when they went to Azmuth the second time, the day the little gray scientist had removed the Omnitrix. The horrible night that they had almost lost each other, and he had killed Vilgax because he thought she had died…
All those moments, inaccessible. All the times that hindsight had told her she needed to be stronger, she needed to be more honest, she needed to stop lying to herself and to him, one by one they were closed off to her, and took her hope with them.
Underneath the past three weeks of trial and error after error, a hypothesis she'd been afraid to put into words slowly began to form; That Ben 10,000 was inevitable.
She pressed on, trying for the very start of that last summer together. When that failed, she aimed for one of the countless Friday nights that they'd hung out together. And after everything else failed…
New Year's Eve. Please. Please, please…
The charms along her arm, the Keystone against her chest glowed warm on her skin. The time travel spell started up, the outline of a portal into the past started to take shape.
Then it vanished. The obsidian slate, floating in front of her, went dormant and fell to the carpeted floor with a dull thud. She collapsed on her knees.
Useless. Ben 10,000 was inevitable. The River had spoken.
She screamed to mourn. She screamed in frustration. She screamed because nothing else mattered now except this one thing, and she couldn't make it work. "Why?! Why give me this if I can't change a blasted thing?!"
As silent as ever, the obsidian tablet refused to provide an answer. She grabbed it and held it above her head as if to smash it into pieces. She found she couldn't. Shaking like a leaf, her arms drooped, and she hugged the tablet to her chest and wept silently.
No. She couldn't destroy it. There had to be something she was missing. Something that the ancients had missed the first time as well. If she gave up now, then she gave up on hope as well. But she needed to take a break. To step back away from it. So she tucked the stone away and walked for the kitchen to brew some tea. God, she really was turning into Aunt Vera.
Heartbreak and all.
Gwendolyn was on her second cup of tea and feeling almost composed when a visitor came strolling in, catching her off guard. At least Kai Green was equally surprised to see her.
"Gwen?" Kai blinked several times.
"Gwendolyn." The red-haired Tennyson corrected the dark-haired Navajo. "I go by Gwendolyn."
"Right, sorry." Kai said, easily brushing past it. "What are you doing here?"
"At the moment, drinking tea. In general, working on something. How about you? I thought access to Sector 01 Control was restricted."
"Of course it is." Kai chuckled. "Why wouldn't I have access? I don't only help to keep this place running, I'm his fiancée."
That word burned when she heard it, and her eyes shot up and homed in on a ring with a small diamond on Kai's left ring finger. The leaden weight in the pit of her stomach grew three times heavier in a heartbeat.
Her throat dry, Gwendolyn took the opportunity to down the rest of her second cup of lukewarm tea all at once. "I hadn't heard…congratulations."
"Thank you. Although I'm surprised it took him this long to ask me." Kai examined the ring for a bit, then blinked. "Anyhow, I suppose I should do what I came up here to do." She stepped around Gwendolyn and moved to the refrigerator, examining the small whiteboard stuck on the front of it with magnets. "Hm. Not a whole lot needed here…Sugar and tea. Ben doesn't drink tea, does he?"
"That would be me." Gwendolyn worked out stiffly. Kai smiled and nodded at her.
"All right then, no problem. Do you have a particular kind you like?"
"Think you could get your hands on some green tea?"
"Loose or bags?"
"No problem." Kai readily agreed. "You know, now that Ben and I are engaged, I suppose that makes us almost like sisters. You two always did seem more like siblings than cousins, after all."
Gwendolyn set her teacup down and stood up. "I need to get back to work."
"Say no more. Magic. It's complicated. Just be sure you take some time for yourself every now and then. Easy to lose sight of yourself if you're focused on the bigger picture all the time. At least that's what I tell Ben, even if he never listens."
Gwendolyn wanted to hate Kai. But even for all her own bitter feelings, even if it was tough to be around her, she found it hard to. It wasn't Kai's fault. She just fell in love, there was no helping that. Not when Gwendolyn had failed to do the same when it mattered.
Gwendolyn stood up and placed her saucer and teacup in the sink for later.
"Oh, good grief." Kai muttered.
"It's this whiteboard." Kai explained irritably. "I've told him a hundred times, you need to spray it after you erase it. Otherwise, you get ghost words and letters from all the times you've used it before, and it gets confusing when new writing gets put over the top of it. Hand me a wet paper towel, would you?"
Gwendolyn didn't. She stood there by the sink, dumbfounded, looking between Kai and the whiteboard.
"Uh, Gwen? Sorry, Gwendolyn. You okay? You're spacing out."
"…Sorry." Gwendolyn tore off a paper towel, got it wet, and handed it over to Kai.
By the time the Navajo woman had turned back around from cleaning the whiteboard, Gwendolyn was already gone.
Residual writing. Overwriting old text. When Gwendolyn had put the tablet under scrutiny, she hadn't checked for previous writing. It was a tablet, she had reasoned. Words etched into stone, especially magic sensitive stone, couldn't be rewritten.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, girl. She had forgotten one of the fundamental rules of magic; There was very little it couldn't do, so long as you were powerful enough and focused enough.
With haste, she pulled the obsidian slate out of the drawer she'd stashed it in and stared at it again. Now glowing under the semi-permanent gleam of the Primer composed of Bezel's seven symbols, she read it all once again.
The River flows unbroken/unchanged
Hands cannot/fail change/divert the turns and dives
Forever it goes Impervious/Immune
But One regrets and mourns the riverbed lie
I am a stone sailing/drifting on the current
I cannot/is beyond power change the river
But I seek power/potential to change a stone
For one stone can move on a riverbed
The River flows unbroken/unchanged
"But…" She whispered, waving a hand over the surface of it. A few syllables were spoken, a simple spell meant to reveal what writing lay underneath new layers. She had developed it to get around all the black-bar redactions in the Plumber files years ago.
It worked here too. The upper layer of writing, what she had seen as the only layer for months now, turned translucent. Underneath, an older, fainter script encrypted in the same fashion rose up, and the Primer, already present, allowed her to decode it and translate from Atlantean with ease.
The River flows
Constant and cruel
Forever/Eternal it goes Indifferent
But one regrets its course
I am the boat sailing/traveling the River
The power to change/alter the River is mine
I command/order the River to change
The bed of stones will shift
The River flows anew
"Holy hell." Gwendolyn blinked at it. That…that was the original spell? The spirit of it was so different. When had they changed it? If they had used the first version of it…
She blinked again.
No. They had used the first version of it. Their records indicated they tried to stop the war, and the spell caused enormous backlash, causing the tablet and its user to be lost. The writing on the stone, the version that spoke of the River being unable to change…
God. It had to be changed afterwards.
After that catastrophic failure, by the unlucky mage who had realized too late the limits of what their spell, what magic itself, could do. Lost in time, the mage had changed the writing on the tablet so that whoever took it afterwards would at least have a warning.
She couldn't change Ben 10,000. She couldn't change the River.
I am a stone. I am a stone in the River of time. And maybe I can't change Ben…but I can change myself.
That was the missing piece. A stone on the riverbed could move without bothering its flow. And if a stone could be moved…
Perhaps the immovable rocks in the current could change. Not in their purpose or presence…But in their appearance.
Omnitrix City, South Dakota
July 26th, 2018 C.E.
Gwendolyn Tennyson had waited for four more months.
The Sirocco Expedition had concluded, their findings had been published. Just as Gwendolyn had thought, there had been a lot of blowback to what they found; evidence of not one, but two world-spanning magic civilizations, and the terrible war they had waged. Academics and conspiracy theorists alike had taken to screaming and dismissing the other, and all the findings were called into question. Had she still been leading the project, the fallout would have been so much worse. Leaving had forced the others to knuckle down and make damn sure they could support her conclusions. Their final conclusions also carried more weight, being authored by Professor Singh, and approved by Rene Gimial and the Earth Coven.
The spell was finally ready, but in spite of her failsafe registering it was clear, Gwendolyn wasn't sure of her chances. The closest she could get was in their very first summer together, when they had been just 10 years old. It had been Grandpa's birthday, and Ben had forgotten to buy the cake for the party Gwen had planned. She had been so mad at him, even if grandpa had just shrugged it off with a laugh, saying that having his two favorite grandkids to spend the day with was present enough.
It was long before either one of them had ever acknowledged that they had feelings for each other. Back when the names doofus and dweeb weren't just their pet names for one another. Long before they stopped using the pet names at all. And the conditions were so specific; she could only go back for about six seconds herself.
But she could bring herself forward for an entire day. And if she grabbed herself, Ben would come along to rescue her. That would be time enough for a tour. To show them the future that might not, but would probably come to pass.
But she couldn't tell her younger self, or Ben's younger self, specific details. One step towards 'Don't make these mistakes' and either the spell would backfire on her, or worse, they wouldn't believe her. God. 10 year old her had been so stupid. If she'd been told she'd fall in love with her cousin, that there would never be another she'd ever love as much, as deeply as her doofus cousin? She wouldn't believe it, and would probably take steps to make sure she never did.
Ben 10,000 was set in stone, and more and more Gwendolyn began to wonder if she was as well.
The spell had been ready to cast back in June, but she had held off. She would only get one chance at it, after all; The Bezel charms would be exhausted after this, and the Earth Coven would never give her another chance. Moving between staying at the "Hero's Tower", her own apartment, and crashing with grandpa whenever she hurt too much to be around Kai, Gwendolyn had tried to piece together if the spell was worth it at all to cast. If she had any chance of changing anything.
She stood beneath the statue of Ben 10,000 erected in downtown Omnitrix City, which had risen out of the almost empty Black Hills around Mount Rushmore in just the last few years, and was already a cross-cultural Mecca of sorts due to its rapidly built infrastructure, low cost housing for out-of-towners, the expansive spaceport that had taken advantage of the terrain, and most importantly, proximity to Ben 10,000's headquarters.
Here would be the perfect place for the two kids to get their first good look at the future. It was also grandpa's birthday today; the resonance between that day 16 years ago and now had helped to give the spell additional stability.
"Why are you doing this, Gwendolyn?" She remembered grandpa asking her just last week. Always there. Always reliable. And on that particular day, worried.
"To fix Ben." She whispered, repeating the answer she had given him. Grandpa had surely known she was lying, but he hadn't argued about it. He knew the truth as well as she did, that this one wild try into the impossible was for her sake. Not his. He would always be Ben 10,000. The Plumbers would always lose, he would always become Earth's defender. He was a boulder in the river, his position firmly fixed in the River of time.
Gwen. I used to like being called Gwen.
She was a stone, and a stone did not bother the River. That was what the unfortunate mage caught in the timestream had been trying to say when they wrote the new spell inscription into the tablet. Too late to help their friends back in the hidden hybrid coven in Africa, they could only keep anyone in the future from making the same mistake.
She had agonized over what to say, what words might be able to change the course of her life…make her 10 year old self realize, when those most important moments came, what she had to say, what she had to do, in order to keep Ben in her life. Because really, what could you say to a kid that they would remember years later when puberty, a global crisis, and your own withering doubts were tearing you apart? It was almost like being a parent, but worse, because this would be her she would be talking to. No room for excuses in misunderstandings.
That was what had taken the longest; deciding what message to give. She still didn't know, but Gwendo…Gwen had run out of time.
Now or never.
"She doesn't know how lucky she is. How lucky I was." Gwen whispered, rubbing at the corner of her eye. She took in a few deep breaths to center herself, and then reached to the hidden Keystone, to the other charms of Bezel she wore visibly on her sleeve. Their power rose up, the engraved lines glowing first blue, then purple, then gold as she drew on their deepest reservoir, and spoke the words of her spell. Updated. Time Travel 3.0.
"The River of Time flows eternal
My hands cannot redirect its way
Set by fate, it will not change
But I regret where I am today.
I am a stone, small and steady
I lack the strength to rewrite time
But a stone can be drawn from the river and thrown
And I ask fate to let me move mine."
The Atlanteans and Logosians wrote in threes. Gwen had made the spell into eight verses, made it symmetrical. It didn't have to rhyme, but she wanted it to. And so it did.
On her arm, the Bezel charms burned a brilliant gold, and a portal opened up in front of her eyes, just big enough to fly through.
One chance to rewrite fate by the smallest degree. One chance to alter a lifetime's worth of mistakes and sorrow.
"What will you tell them? Tell her?" She heard Grandpa Max asking her, as he had a week before.
She would tell them how wrong things were. How wrong Ben had turned out.
How lucky she was to still have him back then, because…
"He may be a brat sometimes…but enjoy him while you can." Gwen Tennyson said, shivering as the truth in that simple sentence shuddered through her.
She reached for the door into the past, and cast her stone.