Ocean's Seven: Prologue
“We have between us nearly a millennium of knowledge, experience, and magical expertise. We seven have spent an equivalent of 127 years on this particular plan to solve the problem that plagues ourselves and the world around us. And now we agree that we have nothing to show for all of that time and effort? Is that what I am to assume?” Seated around a roughhewn, circular stone table, seven beautiful women each individually looked as if they were on the brink of furious outbursts, exasperated tears, or frustrated resignation. The speaker was a slight woman, pale in complexion but with long, twisted raven locks of hair that tumbled over the shoulders of finely embroidered silk tunic.
Across the table from the initial speaker, another woman, with long red hair and equally pale in skin tone except for the freckles that decorated her fey-like features tapped her fingers on the cool stone slab they were seated around. “Assumptions, as always, are dangerous Yssabella.”
“And yet not a one of us can say that we have succeeded in this endeavor.” Yssabella inhaled deeply, and then turned to her right, addressing the woman closest at hand to her. “Cacey. This was your plan, daughter. Your sight is the most far reaching. What do you see?”
Cacey was a slender woman, slight of shoulder yet with a hard, almost lofty expression that reinforced the look of a warrior that the scar that ran the length of her left eyebrow to her chin, the only mark on her otherwise stunning face. Her green eyes flashed up at Yssabella, and then across to the redheaded woman who had spoken before her. “Aunt Trista is right, Mother. Assumptions are dangerous. I still believe that the plan will work, but I cannot now be certain that the one we assumed to be at its center is the lynchpin we were hoping for.”
Beside Cacey, a dark-haired woman who looked like she was only half-awake sighed, her impressive bust contained in a fur-lined robe nearly spilling free at the inhalation. Trista rolled her eyes at the rote motion she had come to associate with Lili’s laconic-yet-seductive way of trying to influence her peers. Lili’s red eyes flashed in the candle-lit chamber as she spoke. “So, we have, in essence, kidnapped an innocent across the gulf of time and space in the hopes that he might be a cog in the machine of our salvation, only to find that…”
At Yssabella’s left hand, a blonde woman scoffed, her hawk-like features pinched into a scowl that was quite unbecoming of her, though to all assembled it was merely a sign of stress and her stewing frustration. Gwen had, after all, done most of the heavy lifting so far. “Only to find that he is of no use to us whatsoever. We hoped for a mage who could temper our own investigations, to push us towards a solution to the problem of the ferality that plagues our species. What we have done, however, is kidnap a man with not an ounce of magic present in his entire bloodline.” Gwen pushed her thick-rimmed glasses farther up onto the bridge of her nose where they had been sliding down as she fumed. “He denies that magic exists in the world he comes from, in fact.”
“At least he is open minded enough to accept the situation he has been put into. The last time we summoned a stranger to this realm, she went insane from the stress of the reality we plunged her into.” The new speaker, Moya, was a woman of similar size and age to Cacey, and was in fact the youngest woman at this troubled council. Yssabella nearly sneered at the tone that Moya, dark haired and pale skinned, took.
“I will remind you that that bitch, for that is what she was, tried to invade our world long before we shackled her and brought her here for judgement.”
Moya shifted at the venom in Yssabella’s voice. “I don’t need to be reminded. She killed two of us before Kailey’s trap ended her threat.”
The woman referenced shifted on her stone seat, positioned between Lili and Trista. Kailey was seemingly out of sorts among her compatriots, the only tanned, elegantly dressed among them. In fact, the blue-eyed blonde looked as if she had just stepped off of the sand of a beach resort. Whereas the rest of the women assembled looked like they spent their days pouring over tomes and tending cauldrons and lab equipment, Kailey was out of sorts, and her fidgeting on the hard stone seat betrayed her uncomfortableness. “I did what needed to be done to prevent more bloodshed. I only regret that I came up with the solution too late to save our Sisters.” She straightened her sundress and looked around at the assembled women. “But this man is no threat. He is, perhaps, the opposite of one. I for one see no reason to continue to focus our attention on him. He is useless to our needs.”
Trista snorted. “Try telling that to Lili here. I’m sure she needs a test subject for yet another ensorcelling spell or love potion.”
“True, but I’m afraid I made him a bit… wary of me. Though he has been… cooperative, he sees us as captors, not possible bedmates. I prefer my lovers willing. That is the point of our efforts over the past two centuries, no? To end our own compulsions? I would no sooner force myself upon a man than I would allow another one to attempt to force himself upon me. You all know how the last mage who stumbled upon our little coven ended up.”
Cacey closed her eyes and grimaced. “I’d prefer not to remember, actually, Lili. I’ve gone to great lengths to block that memory from my recollection.”
“My apologies, my dear.”
“We are getting nowhere, Sisters.” Yssabella pounded her fist upon the stone slab. Cacey reached out and placed her hand over her mother’s fist in an attempt to calm her as Trista folded her hands on the table in front of her.
“I suggest that we move on from him. Do unto him as we have in the past with others.”
“You want to dump an untrained man in the wilderness with no way to defend himself, with minimal knowledge of the world in which he now exists, and with no possibility of survival, even if he did somehow stumble upon civilization?”
“No. He is not our enemy. I would not dump the poor bastard in the middle of a Mantis nest like we did with the last nosy bitch who tried to steal our secrets.”
Gwen took off her glasses and polished them with the corner of her purple blouse, clearing her throat to draw attention to herself. When she replaced her glasses on her face, she was pleased to find that the other women had stopped their bickering and were waiting for her to speak, though Yssabella’s glower told her that she should speak quickly and frankly. “He is not entirely helpless. He consumes knowledge at a remarkable rate. He understands our world, in general terms. I would take him on as… a project, if no one objects?”
“What use could you possibly have for him? He has no magical aptitude, and you have made well known that you have no time to coddle those who cannot be turned to your uses.” Gwen could almost see the sarcasm dripping from Kailey’s words as she spoke them.
“I would take him as an agent, not a student. Equip him, provide him with funds and knowledge, and then send him out into the world.”
“So that you might call in some favor somewhere down the road? You’ve said it yourself. He is not of our world. I cannot understand how you see any value in him.”
“We don’t all seek to exclusively fill our little black books with the names of politicians, judges and gym leaders, Kailey.” Condescension was heavy in Gwen’s voice, and more than one of the assembled women shifted uncomfortably. Kailey’s network of people she had pull with or blackmail on was necessary to their work, but it exposed them to great risk, and Gwen had always been her greatest critic. That the elegantly dressed Sorceress preferred to cavort with people of influence even when not actively utilizing them for their resources was another thing entirely. The other members of the coven had always stressed discretion in their dealings, but not Kailey.
“Ladies. Enough.” Yssabella had flipped her hand over, so that she was holding Cacey’s. “My daughter says that this man is of no implicit use to us when it comes to our long-term objectives.” Cacey nodded, and Yssabella continued. “Unless anyone has any specific objections, I see no reason for our Sisterhood to prevent Gwen from getting what use she can out of him.”
Trista shifted in her stone seat. “I have no objections, only an observation.”
Gwen looked up at her questioningly. Trista was known among the group for insights that even Cacey, the oldest Tick-Tock known to be alive and still in control of her mental acuity, sometimes missed.
“He holds grudges. I’ve seen them forming in his mind. Mental barriers made of stone that will prevent him from trusting you. He might accept your aid, yes, because he is smart enough to realize he has no other options in this new world of his. But you may never have his trust.”
“I only need his cooperation, not his trust.”
Cacey’s green eyes flashed in the low light of the room, and every woman turned as one to look at her. The Tick-Tock held her eyes closed tightly for a moment, and then shook her head. “It’s nothing. A premonition only tangentially related to our current discussion.”
Lili’s normally half-lidded eyes propped open, and she arched an eyebrow. “Tangentially related? Well, let’s hear it.”
Cacey shook her head curtly. “It is for Gwen to know, and she only. It has nothing to do with any of us, or our goals.”
Kailey scoffed, and placed her hands flat upon the stone surface of the table. “Be that way, then. If we are concluded?” She looked to Yssabella questioningly.
The raven-haired woman nodded at Kailey’s inquiry. “We are concluded. I suggest we reconvene in a fortnight to discuss a path forward from this setback.”
The assembled women murmured their agreement, and then one by one, either stood and stepped into the shadows, or otherwise winked out of existence as they teleported away from the meeting chamber. Soon only Cacey, Trista and Gwen remained.
“What is this premonition you’ve had about me, Sister-Daughter?” Gwen gingerly sat on the edge of the stone slab, smoothing her black leather pencil skirt across her thighs. Cacey shot a look at Trista, and Gwen waved her hand dismissively. “I trust your Aunt. More than I do your mother, at least.”
Cacey nodded. “You will have his trust, and more eventually. More than that I cannot say, for it might ruin the surprise.”
Gwen looked moderately surprised. “You’re insinuating that I’ll take our little dimensional traveler to bed with me?”
Cacey had the good grace to at least try not to smile. “More that he’ll take you to bed. As I said though, that’s a surprise.”
Behind them, Trista was hiding her smile behind her palm. “Won’t that be the day? Gwen settling down, raising little Archmages of her own for once. Or will they be Dominatrixes? You never know with Splices.”
“I’m not fertile, I’ll have you remember. Besides, both of your daughters were Sprites, were they not? And Cacey didn’t say anything about children, right?” Gwen wasn’t angry, though she let her trademark scowl creep across her features almost unconsciously. It was like a shield during social situations she found uncomfortable.
“Oh, yes. Both of them. Though I was already pregnant when I was spliced with my Archmage half. I nearly lost my daughters in the ensuing magical catastrophe that wracked my body.”
Cacey shook her head. “I don’t see children. Of course, I never do. They’re always full grown in my dreams, even when I know logically that they are still children during the premonition’s timeframe.”
“So you’re saying there’s a chance…” Gwen looked mollified at Trista’s teasing, but Cacey shook her head.
“There were other women present in the room with you and our… abductee, but I don’t know who they were. They could be Gwen’s children, or they could be other pokegirls that have nothing to do with any of us. They could be full blooded humans for all we know.”
“Now there’s a thought. I’m surprised your mother didn’t jump at the chance to add his DNA to the breeding pool of pure-strain-humans she’s attempting to build.” The redhead flicked her long hair back over her shoulder as she settled down beside Gwen.
Cacey flinched at Trista’s words. “No one is supposed to know about that, I think.”
“Relax, child. Everyone already assumes that your mother is attempting a more scientific method of curing ferality. It’s in her nature to pursue every avenue of inquiry when attempting to solve a problem.” Gwen folded her hands on her thighs and looked down at her feet. “I would ask if you see any complications with my attempting to sway our abductee to our cause.”
Cacey looked at Gwen for a long moment, their green eyes meeting. The white-haired Tick-Tock inhaled deeply, and then her eyes flashed with that brilliant emerald light again, slowly fading as she let out the excess air from her lungs. “He will attempt to match wits with you every step of the way. We won’t get off easy for doing what we have done to him, but he will not ultimately blame you for seeking help for the situation this world finds itself in. My mother, he will never agree with. Kailey, he will disdain, much as you do.” The Tick-Tock trailed off for a moment, lost in thought. Gwen and Trista waited patiently, until Cacey spoke again. “I believe… I hope, that he will become the brother I never had.”
Trista’s eyebrows rose, and Gwen hummed in surprise, filing away that bit of information in case it became useful later.
But Cacey wasn’t done. “You, Aunt Trista, will be as welcome in his circle of confidants as Gwen will be, eventually. Though I don’t believe he will risk Gwen’s displeasure by trying to take you to bed.”
Trista snorted, giggling. “I…sorry.” She patted Gwen’s thigh, looking directly into her fellow Archmage Splice’s eyes. “I know our tastes in men have very few convergence points, Gwen. I just find the idea that he might magically become appealing to me someday rather funny. After helping you shoulder the burden of learning his mind, who he is and whether he would be useful to us, I just can’t see myself ever considering him as a potential mate, much less a passing dalliance.” Trista blinked. “Not that I’m insinuating that you do. Right now, I mean. Obviously Cacey says there will be something between the two of you, eventually. Like some sort of twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome.” Trista tried to make her face placid, but the corners of her lips kept twisting into a grin. The thought of Gwen and herself sharing a taste in bed partners was hilarious to the feisty redheaded mage.
Gwen rolled her eyes at Trista’s display, and turned back to Cacey. “Is there anything else that I should be aware of?”
Cacey started to shake her head, and then her eyes flashed again, and she reached out for the stone table for support as her legs buckled beneath her. Instantly Gwen and Trista were on their feet, flanking each of Cacey’s sides as they helped her into a chair. “Cacey, sweetheart… Cacey, can you hear me?” Trista was waving her fingers in front of the Tick-Tock’s face, the slender young woman’s eyes still burning with green light so intense that it illuminated the edge of the table in front of them. Cacey gulped, and then coughed, and then, just as Gwen had begun to twist her fingers in the beginnings of a summoning spell to bring Yssabella back to aid with her daughter’s sudden collapse, the light faded.
Cacey’s hand snapped out and grabbed Gwen’s wrist. “No, do not involve my mother.”
Trista’s concern had turned to apprehension. “Cacey… what did you see?”
“He… he might be worth our attention after all. Eventually. But only if he is allowed to develop independently. Independent from outside influence. We three…” Cacey looked at her aunt. “He has no magic, yet I saw you teaching him to cast spells.” She turned to Gwen. “You will sit at his bedside, mourning him, though he will not be dying.” The Tick-Tock blinked slowly and then let out a groan of what Gwen could only describe as sadness. “He’s going to shatter my favorite sword. The one that Father gave me before he died.”
Trista blinked. “The one forged from the meteorite that landed outside of Darwin in 231?” Cacey nodded forlornly. “The one your mother enchanted for him?” Again, another nod, and then Cacey shook her head. “I’ll deal with that loss when it comes.” If there was one thing that any Tick-Tock learned to deal with at an early age, it was not to worry about things that hadn’t yet come to pass, or wouldn’t for some time yet.
“Does what you just saw change the outlook of your previous visions? Does it put him back at the center of the plan? Does it make the plan viable in any way?” Gwen’s questions were quick and terse. She had put more into the planning and implementation of their scheme than any other member of the coven except perhaps Cacey herself.
“No. No, things haven’t changed. At least, not yet. But you know how that is. I won’t know of a definite change until it’s about to happen. The only real long-term thing I’m absolutely sure of now is that the disease of ferality will be cured with the help of an off-worlder.”
“Perhaps your mother’s supposition that this off-worlder being a mage was wrong after all?” Trista’s voice was quiet. Yssabella wasn’t the end-all-be-all of the coven’s lives and livelihoods, but as their eldest member, questioning her judgement and leadership was done with more than a modicum of care.
“Gwen, you’ve spent a month with him. Does he strike you as a mage powerful and cunning enough to hide his abilities from us for that long? If he had that kind of power, why not simply escape and return from the world from whence he came?”
The pale blonde woman shook her head. “No. He’s a normal human man. Completely typical of his kind. Or at least as typical as they come from his world.”
Cacey’s eyes flashed emerald again, and Gwen and Trista both snapped their attention back to her. “Again? Cacey?”
Before the glow had even faded from her eyes, Cacey had grabbed Gwen’s hand. “Go! Now, my mother is attempting to steal him out from under you, and she will ruin whatever good future I have seen for him. Go!”
Gwen stood up, startled and Trista immediately motioned her hands at the Archmage/Dominatrix splice, shooing her away. Gwen turned on her heel and then teleported, coming out a few dozen paces in front of the secluded house that had served as the holding cell for the Coven’s latest project. She found the wards on the front door deactivated, and she rushed inside to find the main area empty.