Center Of Attention 26-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Giving Murphy and Roald a second to catch their breath, Paige and I turned to Sierra. She offered a shrug. “They did pretty well, all things considered. Kept a couple of those guys off my back.”

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked tensely while looking around at the fallen figures. Before they could recover too much and cause more problems, I started red-painting their weapons, radios, and equipment belts over to where we were, making a small pile. “Please tell me they have stuff under control by now.” 

Paige shook her head. “We have no idea. Most of the cameras have been destroyed already. The only ones left are outside and a couple in this stairwell here. So we can tell you if anyone’s coming, but that’s about it.”

The answer made me grimace and curse a few times under my breath. Now, what were we supposed to do? Should we just sit tight like we’d been told? What if they sent more people down here to find out what had happened to their friends? Would it be better to wait here and meet them? Well, obviously, yes. We could prepare this area. Better than if we went looking for them. But on the other hand, what if there were people up there being hurt right now? What if people died while we were sitting around down here doing nothing? 

Sierra moved over to the nearest guy, and began to drag him by his ankle while he was still groaning in pain. “Oh shush, you big baby. I didn’t hit you that hard. Just be glad I didn’t get to bring my new taser cane. Then you’d really have something to whine about.” With that, she unceremoniously kicked open the door into the room across from where we had left Banneret with Peyton and Wren, shoving him inside.

Page and I quickly started to help, and soon we had all of them shoved into that room. Sierra shut the door and locked it, leaving those guys in there. It wasn’t perfect, obviously. But it would hold them for a minute. And hopefully we’d hear if they started trying to break out.

“Okay,” I started, “so now we have a whole pile of weapons here, and we’ll know if they start coming down the stairs. But we have no idea what’s going on up there in the rest of the courthouse. We’ve gotta find some way to check on things.” 

“I can help!” That was Wren, coming out of the other room. She bounced up and down a little while, reaching into her pocket before producing a tiny thing that I had to lean closer to see. It looked like a bumblebee made of metal, like some sort of tiny ornament, or something. 

“It’s a drone!” the girl announced proudly, as we all stared. “See?” She touched the top of its head, and the thing floated up in the air. Then she turned her phone around to show us the screen, where we could see our own faces from the view of the drone itself. “It can fly around and show us what’s going on! I was building it to help with security at the shop. Cuz Uncle Fred said we needed more cameras and the ones that just sit there and don’t do anything are boring.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra agreed. “Bee cam is much more interesting than boring old do-nothing cameras. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to send one of those upstairs to snoop around.”

Nodding slowly, I painted a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “Good job, Trev. Why don’t you send your little buddy up there and we’ll see if the good guys have this under control yet.” 

She did just that, while Peyton stood in the doorway of the other room so she could watch while also keeping an eye on the still-cursing Banneret. Together, we all stared at Wren’s phone while she controlled the bee with it, sending the thing up the stairs. 

“Why isn’t there an elevator to come down here, anyway?” Peyton demanded with her arms folded. “Isn’t that like, the law or something? You’d think a courthouse of all places would have to be accessible to the handicapped.”

“There is an elevator,” Paige informed her. “It’s just hidden over by the western wall that way, near the stairs. You can sort of see the seam where the doors are. I guess they only let certain people use it, or only open it when someone comes in who needs it.” 

“But why is it hidden in the first place?” I pointed out. “What’s the point of hiding an elevator?” 

“Dude, this whole underground place isn’t supposed to be here at all,” Sierra reminded me. “The lawyers who get brought down here have to be blindfolded first so they don’t know where it is, and the entrance is labeled as a supply closet.” 

Right, no wonder Banneret and her people had thought they found a secret exit when they started coming down those stairs. And, actually, they had. I kind of doubted that big metal security door would have stopped them forever. So if we hadn’t been here, they eventually could have gone all the way down the tunnel to that house, where we still had no idea what was going on with Officer Metts and the others. Part of me wanted to pink-paint my way through the vault door and run down that way to check on them, but there wasn’t time. They were probably fine and just locked down this place to stop anyone from escaping that way. Which I would obviously mess up by doing just that. 

Either way, by that point, the bee drone had flown all the way to the top of the stairs, where it found the aforementioned empty ‘supply closet.’ Wren carefully sent it through the open doorway, peeking first one direction, then the next. It was in a very large open corridor somewhere on the ground floor of the courthouse. To the right was the front rotunda with the welcome desk (where no one was sitting at the moment), while the corridor went on to the left past an assortment of doors into various offices. It looked like there was another corridor past the rotunda leading to even more doors, with a sign above the entrance to it listing various courtroom locations. From here, we couldn’t see any signs of people, aside from the fact that several doors had clearly been kicked in, and there were random bits of debris lying around. 

Wait, scratch that, there was a sign of people. Namely, the gunfire. It came from the rotunda area abruptly, making me jump. The sound was followed by a view of three armed guys backing up into frame from where they had apparently been right by the front windows of the building. They were pointing their guns outward, one of them shouting, “Yeah, you want your precious legal eagles to stay alive, keep the fuck back!” 

Okay great, so now we knew they had hostages, and they were using them. No wonder the authorities hadn’t stormed this place yet. But that made our whole situation even more complicated. What were we supposed to do now? Obviously, rushing up there when they could kill innocent people was a bad idea, to say the least. But should we just sit tight and wait like the people outside were apparently doing? I really wished we still had all the cameras so we really knew what was going on everywhere in the building, but at least there was Wren’s little bee drone. We just had to be patient and watch.

Wren asked where she should send the thing next, and I thought about it for a moment while the others looked at me expectantly. Finally, I gestured. “Send it higher up so we can get a better view of everything going on. Then I guess we should check out the court rooms on the far side of the front area. They probably put everyone in one place so it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and one of those places is probably the best for that.”

Murphy sighed. “Why don’t they just make a run for it? They’ve gotta know the longer this goes on, the more screwed they are, you know? It’s not like they’ll actually be able to negotiate their way out of this. What’re they gonna do, demand a fleet of helicopters?”

“That’s what our friends down here were dealing with,” I replied. “They were looking for a secret way out. I’m not sure if they actually knew where the tunnel went or that the cops probably know about it, or even how they had any idea it could be here. But that’s definitely what they were doing.”

Paige nodded. “And they’re probably not the only ones. Believe me, this isn’t the only tunnel this place has, and there’s plenty of rumors about them and where they might be. Some more secret than others.”

By that time, the drone had reached the ceiling and gave us a good view of what turned out to be seven guys spread out in the rotunda. They were staying mostly behind cover and keeping a close eye on whoever was outside. I had no doubt that they had more guys at the other entrances, but this was the main one. All of the men were armed, and clearly had radios on so they could warn everyone else in their little gang. I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, but there was no doubt they were somewhere around here. I didn’t believe Banneret would be the only one to come on this rescue mission of theirs. And knowing those guys were around somewhere, but not exactly where they were or what they were up to made me nervous.

Shaking that thought off for the moment, I continued to stare at the screen while the drone flew over all those guys’ heads. Their focus was centered on the front windows, so none of them even thought of looking up, even if that would have helped. Given the size of the drone, they might not have noticed it even then. 

The doors leading into the various court rooms were all closed, aside from one. A man with some sort of automatic rifle slung over his shoulder was standing there playing lookout. So, that was obviously where Wren sent the drone. 

We had to be more careful with this. The man was actually watching the hallway at least part of the time, though he turned to glance inside at what I presumed were the hostages now and then. Considering he didn’t have his eyes on them all the time, I doubted he was the only guard. Not to mention the fact that he occasionally seemed to mumble something under his breath as though talking to somebody nearby. We had to get the drone low enough to make it into the room without actually letting him see it, and without flying directly into the view of whoever he was talking to on the other side.

To that end, Wren carefully made the drone land on top of the doorjamb just over the guy’s head.  From that position, we could see his balding spot, and finally hear what he was saying. Basically, he was annoyed that the others hadn’t checked in yet, and wanted to know how long they were supposed to stand around and wait. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure whether he trusted their new Fell-Touched yet. Apparently Mister Harmful had said something to him that was rude or whatever and he didn’t appreciate it.

After that, we heard another voice, female this time, say that she didn’t care how rude any of them were, because moving to this city was the best thing she’d done. She had some sort of excellent sign-up bonus for agreeing to come here with ‘Gregory,’ whom I was taking to be her son through context. Apparently she’d even been set up with a decent cover job. 

Working extremely carefully, Wren moved the drone to the corner of the doorway and made it peek down. Thankfully, we didn’t have the extremely horrible luck of the woman staring right at the thing. Her back was to the other man as she watched what was very clearly a large group of hostages. The woman had blonde hair that was mostly buzzed. Aside from a ponytail-sized bit on one side that was long enough to fall to her shoulders. She also had a tattoo of something on the back of her neck that I couldn’t really make out but looked like a flower with something in it. Like her partner, she had a gun slung over her shoulder.

As for the hostages, it looked like there were a couple hundred of them, a mix of court employees, disarmed police officers, lawyers, even defendants. They were all sitting down in the audience area of the courtroom.  We couldn’t see the whole area, and everything was upside down from this point of view, making us tilt our heads around to try to make sense of it. Paige and I even managed to slightly bang our heads together in the process, making the other girl flush as she murmured an apology. 

Wren made the bug slip fully into the room, inverted itself, and fly up toward the ceiling once more. Now we could make everything out better, and see that there were a couple more armed thugs spread throughout the room. And perched up in the judge’s seat was Fogwalker. He was probably there so that if any of the hostages tried to make a run for it, he could fill the place in his power and make it impossible for anyone aside from their own people to see what was going on. Which would probably also work if any authorities tried to break in. Before they could actually handle everything, the place would be dark, and any number of the hostages could be killed. Come to think of it, the cops and Stars outside probably knew that. I was pretty sure these guys had made that much clear to them. It made sense that they would want those people to know what a bad idea it was to try to break in here and stop this by force.

Or maybe I was just overthinking it. Either way, we knew where at least these hostages and one of the Fell-Touched were. Now we just had to figure out what to do about that, if anything. We had already dealt with one group that came down here. Was it a good idea to just sit tight now or not?

While I was still trying to decide the best move, a voice came over the radios on both of their hips. I hadn’t heard it much, but still recognized it as Theory. “Has anyone heard from Banneret? She’s not picking up on our channel.”

The rest of us exchanged quick looks before Sierra pivoted and grabbed one of the radios from the pile of equipment on the floor. Holding it up, she spoke in a perfect imitation of Banneret’s voice. “Yeah, well, maybe you should try being on the right channel. It was supposed to be one zero four nine.”

There was a brief pause before the man’s voice came back with a sigh. “No, it was one three one five. How the hell did you get the wrong one?” 

“Whatever, why’re you bothering me right now?” Sierra replied as Banneret once more. “Don’t we all have jobs to do?” 

“Yeah,” came the response, “and I’ve gotta make sure you’re actually doing yours. So, what the hell’s going on down there? Did you find that tunnel or what? Part A of the plan is pointless if we don’t get enough attention with Part B. For that, we need the tunnel. Or we won’t have time for part C.” 

Injecting annoyance into her voice, Sierra retorted, “Yeah, we found it. And the chupapollas blocked it off. They sealed the tunnel with some sorta vault door. We’re working on it.” 

I had no idea what that word she’d said meant, or why she was saying it right now while trying to pose as Banneret. But I also couldn’t ask. Paige, clearly interpreting my body language, put a hand on my shoulder and nodded reassuringly. 

And boy, how much had my life changed when Paige Banners could do anything that reassured me? 

Fortunately, Theory didn’t seem to object or question that particular phrasing. He simply replied, “Hold there, I’ll send a couple down with one of the laser cutters we brought for Part C. They’ll get through it. Looks like the Stars are still regrouping outside, but you know how their type is. They’ll decide to breach sooner or later. I’d rather be onto the next phase by the time that happens.”

I tensed up a bit, but Sierra only hesitated for a second before replying, “Yeah whatever. Give my guys enough time and they’d find a way through this. But sure, if you’re worried about a few Stars, go ahead and send your little toy down here. Or maybe I’ll grab one of those hostages and try using their head as a battering ram.” 

The response was a little chuckle before the man signed off. Meanwhile, on the screen, the two guards in the courtroom were bantering with each other about which lawyer or judge they might send downstairs as a living battering ram if it came down to it. 

“What’s a chupapolla?” Peyton asked. “And how’d you know to say that?” 

“Let’s just say it’s a bad word,” Paige put in. “And we heard her use it twice while we were listening over the security cameras, so it was a safe call. But now they’re sending a couple guys with a big laser down, so what do we do?” 

“We let them bring it, then we take it from them,” I replied slowly, looking toward the stairs once more. “I think we can–” 

“Uh, Paintball!” That was Trevithick, blurting the words out fearfully as she pointed at the screen where the bee drone was still monitoring the courtroom. “Look!” 

We all did, just in time to see one of the hostages, a red-haired guy in a fancy suit, lying on the ground with one of the other Prev bad guys standing over him. The thug was breathing hard, a slight bruise forming under his eye, while the hostage’s nose looked like it was broken. Something had just happened. 

“You think you’re tough, huh?!” The Prev gang member snapped, aiming his gun at the man on the floor. “Cheap-shotting piece of shit, let’s see how tough you are with–” 

“No.” That was Fogwalker, jumping down from the judge’s stand to perch on the nearby railing. “You shoot him, he doesn’t learn anything. Neither does anyone else who wants to be a hero.” He looked around the room, a small smirk seeming to cross his feline face. “No, if you wanna really teach them a lesson, you hurt the ones they care about.” 

With that, he nodded to the blonde woman from before, who reached down and tugged a wallet out of the fallen man’s pocket. Opening it up, she held it out for the TONI to see while flipping through it. Fogwalker almost purred. “Nice pictures? These your kids? Oooh and a wife too. Excellent.” 

The man started to respond, but the blonde woman put a foot on his throat while taking out her radio. Tuning to some other channel, she held the radio out for her boss. The lynx immediately began to speak again. “Amos, Terrence, you guys still cruising out there? Need you to make a quick stop.” His head turned once more to look at the license his subordinate was holding up for him, reading off the address for Amos and Terrence. 

“Head over there right now and kill everyone you find in that house. Then burn it down.”

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The Storm 21-19 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

A/N – There was a commissioned interlude about several more historical/mythological figures posted yesterday! You can read that, if you haven’t yet, by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Right, so now we had a whole swarm of Revenants, who were incredibly pissed off about being yanked away from their fun time, and we were their new targets. Every last one of those thousand monsters were coming back here and they all wanted to destroy us. It was like we’d wished on a monkey’s paw to stop those things from killing everyone. 

And there was even a monkey around here somewhere who might have magical wish granting paws with a dark sense of humor for all I knew. 

Even before Shiori finished saying her previous words, I was grabbing her hand and pulling her as I started to run. Barely a few steps into it, with the deafening sound of those shrieking monsters filling the air, I transformed into my lion form, giving the other girl time to clamber on top of me before taking off at a full sprint.

What followed was chaotic, to say the least. We couldn’t go in a straight line, or anything close to that. These creatures were everywhere. I’d had no idea they could even turn intangible when they were in bodies, but here we were. They kept coming through the walls and ceiling before solidifying into their much more dangerous form. They blocked our escape route over and over again. There was no way we could take the time to fight any of them. Even if we managed to win, it would slow us down so much the rest would pile on, and rip us to pieces. None of us had the sort of power it would take to kill these things instantly, not now that Tabbris had used her wings. It would take too much time for those to regenerate. Time we very much didn’t have. 

So, instead of fighting, we kept running. With Shiori clinging tightly to my neck, I darted through every bit of open space I could find. They were closing in all around us as I leapt twelve feet in the air to pass through a five foot wide space between a cluster of the creatures, bounced right off one behind them,  and then slid almost ten feet just on my own momentum to pass directly under the next set who were floating down from the ceiling.

Unfortunately, from there, a larger group of already solid creatures was waiting, so I had to dart to the left, instead of continuing forward. Then I had to double back again to evade a semi circle of the monsters who were trying to close in from that side. But Shiori had noticed an opening, and she shouted it out while pointing, so I twisted back that way and ran.

It was like we were trying to run the winning touchdown for the Super Bowl, and had to evade not just the other team, but every single one of their fans too. Everywhere I turned, there was barely any space to move. The Revenants were cutting off every avenue. They were tightening the noose, making it impossible to get anywhere.

And just then, right when I was starting to think there was nowhere else to go, one of the monsters blocking our path suddenly lit up with flames as a familiar sword was driven through its back. The fire spread over the monster, while an identical set of flames appeared off in the distance. As it screamed, the creature was teleported from one side of flames to the other, revealing my mother standing there with her hand out. “Let’s go!”

I darted that way, and Mom grabbed me by my fur and Shiori by the arm, while activating some sort of power. Instantly, we vanished before reappearing outside the chamber. There was a glowing forcefield open over the portal inside the sarcophagus and everyone else was already there. Most of them were lying around, panting, heavily or nursing various wounds. Some of them pretty bad ones from the look of it. Four of Miles’ teammates were being tended to by Med-Robin. 

But we were out. We’d made it. We were safe, even if I could still sense those Revenants as clear as day. They had been all around me, hundreds of them closing in from all sides. It was like a…. stench that permeated every single one of my senses. We needed to get away from here to some fresh air so I could stop feeling them. 

As I was still taking that in, Trice moved to stand in front of that forcefield to look in at the monsters. What had once been an opaque portal was clear enough now to show the other room. “Yeah, they don’t look too happy,” he muttered before turning back with a smirk. “Well fuck them.” Now that I looked at him from the front, I could see a bloody wound in his side. He winced just a little, putting his hand over it, while another, quieter curse escaped him. 

Denuvus shook her head, as though still flummoxed as to why he had gone in after us. “Yes, and now we can all celebrate this wonderful victory. Preferably by calling that ship back so we can all leave.” Her words were pointed. “Unless you great and powerful saviors would like to tempt fate yet again.”

Ignoring her, I transformed back to my human self, in one of the Seosten bodysuits. A thought while I touched the pouch that had my clothes stored in it brought them out and clad me in them once more. Then I looked to my mother and Nevada.. “It really worked? They’re all in there?”

God, there had been so many of those damn things in there. But at least they were on the other side of that forcefield now. And really pissed off about that fact. Glancing that way, I could see some of them slamming up against it. They desperately wanted out. It made me shudder. How long was it going to be before I stopped sensing their power and malevolence? Right now it was so strong and overwhelming that the sensation made me want to vomit. 

Mom took a moment, breathing in and out a couple times before nodding. “So it would seem. Med, how are they doing?” She asked that while looking over to where the android was helping Chas, Jason, Emily, and Kaleigh. 

Without looking away from his work, Med replied, “We need to get them some help. They’ve been poisoned with something that’s too strong for me to do anything about. Whatever some of those creatures had on their claws, it’s pretty nasty, and like nothing I’ve seen before.”

Visibly rolling her eyes, Denuvus walked that way while reaching into her pocket. “Oh, please, as though I wouldn’t be prepared to handle a simple poisoning.” She took some sort of vial out and popped the cork before crouching next to them. The thing was filled with a thick purple fluid. She held it in front of Chas. “Drink this.”

His response was to turn his head away and snap a litany of curses and suggestions about what she could do with herself. Kaleigh and the others subsequently reacted, basically the same way. None of them trusted the woman to actually cure their poisoning, even though I could see the pain in their pale faces.

Sighing, Denuvus started, “My name—”

That was as far as she got before Miles suddenly had his bee weapon, shaped into a sword, pointed at her throat. Not that he probably would’ve been able to actually hurt her like that, but his point was made. Especially as the boy snarled, “Don’t.”

Looking up at him, her expression making it clear how little she cared about the blade at her throat, Denuvus tersely replied, “Well, if you truly don’t wish me to save your friends’ lives, so be it. I must say, however, I did not expect you to be so cold.”

The glare he shot her was matched by Royce, the other member of the team who was still standing. He had his own weapon pointed at her as well, a pair of what looked like sawed-off shotguns in one form that combined into a single full-length, quad-barreled gun with enormous stopping power. The combined form was what the boy was using right then as he spoke in a tight voice. “You don’t have to enslave people with your power just to get them to take some medicine.”

With that, he and Miles both lowered their weapons and moved to crouch in front of their injured teammates to have a quick, whispered conversation. Not wanting to eavesdrop on that given how personal it obviously was, I squeezed Shiori’s hand before pulling her into an embrace. “You did it,” I managed, my voice shaking a little from the high of what we had just been through. It simultaneously felt as though I could run a marathon and fall over at the same time. I just wanted this day to be over by now. But something told me we weren’t done with everything just yet. Unless that was just a product of me still being able to sense all those Revenants right on the other side of that forcefield. I wouldn’t be able to relax until we were safely away from this spot. 

As though in response to that thought, Judas spoke up. “I know we all want to celebrate right now, and that’s fine, but I still have a question. If we pulled all those monsters back, where’s that monkey guy? Something tells me he would already be here if there was no one left to fight. He doesn’t exactly seem slow, and he’d probably be complaining that we interrupted his fun. So, why isn’t he here?”

He had a point, of course. Monkey, or Sun, or whatever he wanted to be called, was far too fast for me to think it would take him this long to get here once the Revenants started leaving. And he obviously wouldn’t have any trouble finding us. Now that it had been pointed out, the fact that he wasn’t here already was starting to make me worry all over again. Between that and the lingering full-sense stench of the Revenants, I couldn’t–

Before consciously thinking about what I was doing, my body spun. It wasn’t Tabbris. It was me. But I was moving without actual thought. There was no time for that. This was all instinct, the second the truth occurred to me. My hand snapped out, throwing my power as hard as I could while my staff came up and around in my other hand. 

The power caught two of them. Two of the four Revenants who were possessing the ‘poisoned’ teammates, even as they were in mid-lunge toward Royce and Miles. My staff slammed off the third one with just enough force to stall it slightly. The fourth, however, was unhindered as it threw itself toward Royce with a scream.

At least, unhindered by me. But Persephone was there. She appeared in a flash of motion, catching the creature possessing the girl who had once been Emily Perry by the shoulders before throwing her backwards. Her other hand caught Chas’s body as well as the Revenant possessing him bounced off my staff and tried to attack again. 

That was the moment Rahanvael appeared. The ghost girl appeared in front of me, speaking quickly. “Flick, wait. One of the other ghosts saw— oh.”

“Yeah,” I managed, “let me guess. They saw these guys get… taken.” 

All four of the dead, Revenant-possessed teenage Heretics were giving those familiar and terrifying screams. They hadn’t been poisoned after all, at least not the way we thought. They were dead and possessed by Revenants. How that was possible, why we hadn’t noticed that they were dead and not just poisoned, I had no idea. And there wasn’t time to even think about it. Nor was there time to mourn. There were four very pissed off Revenants right in front of us.

On the other hand, now that I knew why I was sensing these things so strongly, I could do something about it. In the midst of their screaming, I gathered myself once more and shoved it outward. That time, all four stopped short. Maybe they were weaker somehow? Or maybe that was just how pissed off I was at that moment. Either way, all four Revenants froze just as the others were gearing up for a big fight.

Asenath looked back at me, the first to realize. “Flick?” 

“I can hold them,” I assured her, though my hands were shaking somewhat from the effort as they thrashed against my control.

Denuvus, who actually looked a little bit shaken, spoke up. “We have to kill them before she loses her grip.”

“No!” That was Royce, the boy throwing himself in front of her while his head shook. “There has to be a way to get those things out of them!”

Stasia shook her head, speaking softly. “It is too late. They must have died inside that chamber, and no one saw. Those creatures hitched a ride within them, and tried to wait for their moment.”

Med, looking and sounding stricken, nodded. “I am so sorry, but she’s right. Your friends were already killed. They must have been… creating false life signs, forcing the heart to beat. If they were alive, these monsters couldn’t access them.”

Miles put himself next to his only surviving teammate, his voice stammering. “B-but we can do something about it. Even if they were taken by these monsters, we can still help them! Persephone, she’s a Revenant, but she has control of herself! Why can’t they?”

Persephone, for her part, spoke very gently. “I do not know why I am the way I am, and I have found no others like me. But whatever the source of my difference, I am still a Revenant. I am not the Seosten I am possessing. And even if by some miracle you made these four be just like me, they would also simply be Revenants, not your friends.”

The other two tried to argue with that, but it was obvious that they knew she was right. They were just desperate to find a miracle. A miracle that wasn’t coming.

What did come, however, was Monkey. He crashed down through the ceiling, making everyone jump before landing smoothly and dusting himself off. “Well, that was fun, and I even got a pretty good scrap in before you had to go and take them away.” Looking up then, he suddenly smiled at the sight of the four frozen figures. “But you kept some for me?! You shouldn’t have.” With that, the man started to move that way while cracking his knuckles. “Hope you’re ready to let them go so we can have a sporting–” 

“No!” I jumped that way, putting my hands up. In the background, I could feel the Revenants try to take advantage of my sudden distraction. But Tabbris was still possessing me and she took over keeping them under control. “Stop, just–just wait! Those are their friends, they just–they…” I looked over my shoulder toward the stricken Miles and Royce, having no idea what to say. How was I supposed to say what… what had to happen? Fuck, how would I feel if it was… if it was my team, my friends? What if it was Columbus, Sean, Sands, and Sarah right there? Would I be able to stand by and let someone… someone kill them? Would it matter that they were already dead? How would I be handling that? 

Obviously, I couldn’t have stopped the man if he just kept going. But to my relief, he paused and tilted his head before a look of understanding crossed his face. “Ah, I see.” That was all he said, but at least he didn’t march through me to get to them. 

Mom, seeing that he had at least stopped for the moment, turned back to focus on Miles and Royce. Her voice was soft. “Boys, I… am so very sorry. You should walk away, go down the tunnel a little bit while we…. while we take care of this. Then you can come back and see them when they aren’t… when they aren’t possessed.” 

“While you take care of it?” Miles shot back, his voice rising almost hysterically. 

Before he could say anything else, however, Royce put a hand on his arm. “It’s not her fault.” He turned then, his eyes narrowing into a glare straight at Denuvus. “It’s hers. She brought us here. And then she refused to go in there and help.” His voice had turned cold and dangerous, making it clear just how much he wanted to take this whole thing out on the woman who had used her power to drag all of them to this planet in the first place. 

I had no idea what I could possibly do to help the situation, but I did know that I didn’t want these two to be here when the others had to do something about the Revenants inside those bodies. The fact that I had to be here in order to keep them motionless was bad enough.

All it took was a look toward Shiori before she got the message and stepped that way. She, Asenath, and Twister carefully guided those two down the tunnel. Nevada looked like she was torn between helping and keeping her attention on Denuvus. But in the end, she went after them to help Royce and Miles. 

Which left the rest of us standing there with these four already dead classmates. I had really thought that we had gotten out of that whole fight without losing anyone, and now look. These four, who shouldn’t even have been here at all, who had chosen to go in and tried to help just to save the people of this world, were dead. Just like that, three quarters of their group had been wiped out. 

“I can handle it quickly and cleanly if you want.” That was Monkey, his voice, oddly soft, given everything I’ve seen of him so far. There was a deep understanding in his eyes. “And in a way that keeps their bodies intact so you can bury them, or burn them, or whatever you all do now.” There was another pause before he added, “If they were your friends, none of you should have to do that.” 

I had no idea what to say, or what to do. My mouth opened and shut a couple times, while no sound came out. But my mother knew. She stepped over toward me, putting her hands on my shoulders before turning me away. She must have gestured or something to Monkey, because he silently walked past. I stared at the distant wall with my mother’s arms around my shoulders until it was over. Finally, I felt the strain against my power cease completely. They were gone. And I wasn’t looking at the wall anymore. I couldn’t see it through the tears streaming down my face. 

Was that weird? I didn’t even know these guys aside from having talked to them a couple times here or there. But still… still, they didn’t deserve to die. They had gone in when they didn’t have to, had fought to save this world. And now they were dead. 

Finally, I found my voice, whispering softly. “Okay…” I wasn’t looking back at the… bodies. I couldn’t, not yet. 

“Now what?” 

Previous Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 21 – Historical Figures Part D (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Cassandra 

“Are you certain this is going to work?” The short, somewhat voluptuous woman with reddish-blonde hair asked the question a bit pensively. She wore a forest green tunic with a dark red belt and a black cloak with its hood down. At that particular moment, she was kneeling in the middle of a small cottage room, surrounded by spellwork runes that had been drawn all along the floor and walls. Four metal statues of humanoid figures, slightly taller than she would have been while standing, were arranged around her in each of the cardinal compass directions. The statues stood facing her with their cupped hands out, each holding a small crystal ball which glowed a different color. Red, blue, purple, and yellow. 

The room’s only other occupant, the handsome blond man known as Apollo, offered her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, Cassandra. I’ve been checking out this spell of theirs for months now. They might think it’s unbreakable, but trust me, I can play it like a peunte.” After pausing, he added, “That’s an instrument that’s easy to learn.”  

The woman swallowed a little nervously. “Of course I trust you. I’m alive because of you, after all these years.” 

“You’re alive because you bonded with my blood,” Apollo corrected with a soft chuckle. “And now you shall stay alive for as long as you wish because of it. Through as many more centuries as you like.” 

“If those centuries are spent with you,” Cassandra replied, her gaze meeting his adoringly, “then they will seem to be only moments.” She closed her eyes briefly and took a breath before opening them again. “And when this spell is done, I’ll be able to fix it for anyone I want?”

He nodded once. “Exactly. I’m turning you into a back door to their spell. Whoever’s targeted by it, you’ll be able to give their memories back. Void, you’ll be able to turn the spell off entirely for anyone you want so they stop forgetting everything magical they see.” Leaning down and reaching out, he gently brushed two fingers along her face. “You’ll have total command of it. Are you ready?” 

Leaning into his touch, the woman shook her head. “Almost. Just one more thing.” With that, she pushed herself up a bit, touching her own fingers against his chin before gently kissing him. Her voice was a soft murmur, “I love you, Pollo.” 

Her kiss made the Seosten man smile broadly. “I love you, my Cassandra.” He ran his fingers one more time along her face and through her hair before straightening up. “Let’s get this over with then. I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces. Puriel might just have a stroke when he finds out what happened to their precious spell.” Chuckling with amusement at the thought, he took a step back before touching the rune nearest the doorway. His eyes were watching the love of his life, a human woman he had met through sheer chance, with a sort of feeling part of him had never believed he would be able to have, let alone see returned in kind. “See you on the other side of this.” 

And with that, he exhaled before speaking the command word that would trigger the elaborate spell he had spent so much time putting together. It would take some time, almost half the night they had left, but when it was over, Cassandra would be tied to the spell that would eventually become known as the Bystander Effect. After spending so long arguing against his people creating the spell to begin with, he had decided to deal with the problem his way. His intention was for her to be able to control the spell, to turn it off in whoever she wanted. 

Unfortunately, intentions and results didn’t always go hand in hand. 

*******

Several Hundred Years Later

Sitting in the back of a tavern, Cassandra, once daughter of King Priam of Troy so many centuries earlier, put her cup down and looked over toward her waiting host, who stood with his hand out. “I still owe you for all the drinks I’ve had.” She spoke the words matter-of-factly, though she made no move to reach for any coin purse.

There was a brief pause before the man lowered his hand and barked a hard laugh. “You’ve drunk too much, lady. You paid for everything already. I’ll not have your drunk arse losing more of your coin and then complaining to the guards about getting cheated. Now, we’re closing up, so you better head out.” He gestured around to indicate the rest of the empty bar. “I’ll need to be getting some sleep myself before long. Early day tomorrow.” 

Rising and drawing her black cloak around her figure, Cassandra flipped the hood up and began making her way out. Just as she crossed the entrance to the street beyond, the woman caught a glimpse of four heavyset men waiting for her to one side, partially hidden within the shadows of the nearby building. Drunk and armed with clubs, their intentions were clear. Particularly considering how long they had been staring at her within the bar while drinking only an hour earlier. Part of her had hoped they would content themselves with simply looking, but since when did men of that type ever believe that was enough? 

With a heavy sigh, she turned to look their way as they stalked toward her. Her voice was calm, yet tinged with annoyance. “You find me incredibly attractive and desirable, and would like to initiate physical intercourse.”

The result was immediate. All the men stop short, looks of revulsion crossing their faces as they looked her up and down. One turned a little green and turned to spit on the ground. They murmured to one another about how disgusting the pig was before continuing to make their way down the street, leaving her alone. Their words turned toward mocking one another for ever thinking such an ugly creature could be suited for their beds.  

“That wouldn’t work so easily if they weren’t affected by the Seosten memory spell.” A voice behind her, near the space between the tavern and its neighboring building, spoke up. “Would you have been ready for that if it came down to it?” 

Cassandra gave a low, humorless chuckle. After a moment, she turned to face the man who stood in the shadows. When she spoke, her own voice gave no doubt as to the razor-sharp anger she felt. “Why don’t you come closer and see if I am prepared to defend myself from the most worthless dregs of society, Apollo?”  

He took a step, not coming near her but at least emerging into the light where she could see him better. “It took a long time to find you, Cass.” While there was hate in her words, his were filled with remorse, sorrow, and loss. 

“And I told you to stop trying,” she snapped testily. “Your arrogance already ruined my life once, do you truly wish to do so again? Because of your spell, the one you were so confident of, no one believes anything I tell them. No matter what I say, they think I’m wrong. Or worse, intentionally lying. Do you have any idea how hard it is to accomplish anything in this world, to be known for anything, to build a life when almost everyone you talk to always thinks you’re wrong or lying? I have found various tricks in getting through this life, as you just saw. But that can’t work for any true relationship. I can have no friends, nothing real and lasting. Even when I manage to use this curse properly, always saying the opposite of what I mean, they still see me as untrustworthy. That spell of yours makes people hate me. It makes them see me as a liar. You made me an outcast from every possible family and friend I could ever have had.” 

Wincing, Apollo nodded. “I know. I… I’ll never be able to tell you how sorry–” 

“I don’t need your apologies,” she retorted. “They are as worthless as ever.” She paused before giving a dismissive snort. “Did you know, I’m so connected to this Bystander Effect from your people, that it gives me visions. It’s connected to every human being, so it sees everything going on in this world, collects all that information, and makes me dream about things that have not happened yet.” 

“It’s analyzing data and predicting probable outcomes based on that information,” Apollo replied slowly. “Because you’re connected to it, you see its predictions as dreams.” 

Her eyes narrowed into a glare. “Yes, well, no one believes what I say about those predictions either. Not even those who aren’t affected by the spell to begin with. Every human believes I’m lying about everything I say, and every nonhuman believes I’m a fool. I tried to warn a village full of otherworlders about a plague that was coming. They laughed at my words, and I was forced to watch a hundred children suffer and die. Then they believed I was responsible and tried to burn me. More than a dozen times that and things like it have happened. I’ve watched so many suffer and fall who could have been saved if they listened to me. But because of your curse, because of your arrogance, they never do. They never will. I will see tens of thousands of deaths or more, and I will never be able to warn them.” 

“It’s protecting itself,” Apollo noted with a grimace. “Anything you try to say about what the spell shows you would be wrapped up within the spell itself, the effect much stronger. That’s why it even works on nonhumans.” 

Cassandra’s tone was mocking, though even that was tinged with despair. She felt so lost and alone, but would never accept help or comfort from the man she saw as responsible for her situation. No matter how close they had been at one time. “Thank you, I hadn’t realized that for myself over the past centuries. I’m so glad you’ve been able to track me down and save me from my ignorance.” 

Apollo swallowed before starting again, even though he knew how useless it was. “Cassandra, I–” 

“No,” she interrupted. “I told you before and I’ll say it again, I want nothing to do with you. Not after what you’ve done. You told me you knew what you were doing. You promised you could help. Instead, you made certain no one will ever trust me, or believe a word I say. You made me an outcast from everyone I could ever love, from any life I ever could have had. You made me see tragedies throughout this world that I can do nothing to prevent. You made everyone I could ever have loved see me as a lying fool. Leave me alone, Apollo. Next time, I really will show you how dangerous I’ve become.” 

With that, she turned, adjusting her hood, before stalking off into the night. 

***********

Medea 

As the sound of a soft chime filled the elaborately decorated office of the Olympus’s chief logistics officer, Kushiel looked up from her desk and smiled faintly. Her voice rose while she touched a button to make the doors woosh open with smooth efficiency. “Come in, Medea.” 

The figure who came through the entrance was slender and quite young by Seosten standards. She had been barely fifty years of age when this journey of theirs started, essentially still a child in so many respects. Now closer to one hundred, she still appeared to be what the humans would consider her very late teens or early twenties, as she always would thanks to their Tartarus-gifts. Her hair was dark brown, almost black, and worn in a long braid. Her eyes, almost too large for her face, gave her an innocent, naive sort of appearance. She wore a dark green Seosten bodysuit rather than any more elaborate clothing, and had a pair of enchanted goggles set on her forehead. Those were often pulled down over her eyes, making them look even larger and earning her various teasing nicknames throughout the ship, often involving animals with very large, bulbous eyes. 

“Y-you know my name?” the young Seosten officer managed, before blanching. “I m-mean, reporting as ordered, ma’am.” 

“Come, sit.” Kushiel gestured to the chair in front of her desk, waiting until the girl did so. “I’m told that you requested leave to spend some time on the planet, away from regular duty.” 

“Oh, not exactly, ma’am.” Blanching immediately as soon as she realized that she had just corrected the woman in front of her, Medea stammered. “I m-mean, I still want to do my job. I wo-work in botany, you see. I just wanted to take some time on-planet to document some of the rarer species of plants that I’ve been getting some glimpses of. It’ll take months to catalog everything I want to properly, but it’ll be worth it, I promise. S-some of the plant species on this planet are incredible. If I can build a proper database and connect the records we already have of the plants we’ve been growing on our greenhouse deck, I might be able to crossbreed them with the Rysthael plants to create… unbelievable hybrids. Plants that could cure more diseases than we ever thought they could, or feed entire populations with every bit of nourishment they need in one little bit of fruit.” As she went on with that, the girl forgot her own nerves, sounding more excited by the prospect and her own ideas by the second. 

Chuckling softly, Kushiel leaned back in her seat. “Yes, well, I’m inclined to allow this extended leave. But only on one condition. You see, there is a human on this planet, by the name of Jason. He–well, let’s just say he aided me when he did not have to. Now he’s been on a bit of a quest to collect an enchanted bit of cloth. The details are unimportant. Suffice to say, I want you to aid him. Help the human find his bit of magical cloth, and protect him from those who would cause him harm. Keep an eye on the man for me. While you’re doing that, you may catalog any plants you wish.” 

Taking that in, Medea rocked backwards, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “Oh. I mean, I’m not really much of a soldier or anything, ma’am. But… but okay. Anything I can do to help the mission. I’ll protect this human, and help him find the magic cloth he’s looking for. May I ask one thing though? 

“What is this… Jason like?” 

*******

Ten Years Later 

“You are a bastard, Jason.” As she said those words, Medea crouched in the dirt behind the home she had shared with the man in question for some time. Their two young children lay cradled in her arms, unmoving and pallid. 

Jason himself, a human who stood just under six feet, with long, dark blond hair that fell in curls to his shoulders, shook his head while staring that way. “You would call me a bastard when you are the one who murdered my children?” Despite his words, there was little in the way of actual grief in his voice.

“You never saw them as yours in their lives,” Medea retorted. “You’ll fool no one by calling them such after their deaths. And did you truly believe that I would simply sit around and allow you to use me for your own ends?”

Jason made a scoffing sound. “Use you? You nearly ruined me yourself. Yes, you aided my quest for the fleece, but you also murdered the king who requested it, the man I intended to impress with it. You destroyed my chance to be recognized by him. The entire point of getting the fleece in the first place was to gain his favor, and you murdered him.” 

“To save your life,” Medea retorted, still cradling her children’s bodies. “Pelias wished you dead, and would have ordered it the morning after his demise. But yes, you are correct. I killed for you then, as well as before and since. I have killed for you many times, and now you sought to throw me aside in order to marry this princess.” 

“I would have kept you and the children safe,” Jason shot back. “Glauce would not have objected to your presence as a concubine.” 

“A concubine?” Medea’s voice was high with disbelief. “You truly believed I would sit around as your sex toy just so you could have the political power you’ve always craved? I loved you, Jason. I truly did. I have done everything I could to protect you. But it was never enough.”

“When Hera sent you, I thought you had power,” Jason insisted. “I thought you were one of the Olympus’s leaders, like Artemis. But you were almost… nothing. You were a lowly crew member, who barely rated a mention on their ship manifest. Do they even think of you now? Has Hera summoned you back at any point in the past decade? Or has she forgotten you entirely? Even your gift isn’t that impressive, when put next to the feats of your betters.”   

“My gift…” Medea echoed, raising her gaze to stare at the man for a moment. 

Jason’s head bobbed. “Yes, what was it you called it? The ability to think? Assuming it exists at all and isn’t something you simply made up. After all, it’s not exactly something that we can see for ourselves. You say you can freeze time, but it’s not as though you can move while it’s frozen. You can accomplish nothing, other than ‘think.’ You say it gives you unlimited time to consider what you’re going to do or come up with the answer to a question, but you can’t actually do anything until you stop using the power, so what good is it?” 

Medea was silent for a couple seconds, before speaking flatly. “You would be surprised how useful the ability to take as long as one needs to consider their actions can be. For example, I considered killing you for ten minutes just now. I decided against it.” 

Jason took a step that way. “You think you can threaten me now? You’ve already poisoned the king and princess I was to wed. They’re dead, as are the children you were so proud of. And the rest of the court are coming soon, to put you to trial. There will be no escape for you now, no matter how long you can think about it.” 

Rising with the bodies of her children on either arm, Medea retorted, “That’s what you think.” As she said that, lights appeared behind the woman, revealing a small shuttlecraft, one of the Olympus’s many craft meant to ferry small groups or even individuals across the planet. The silvery-blue craft was teardrop shaped, standing twelve feet tall, twenty feet wide at the base, and thirty feet long. As Jason gaped, the side opened, extending a ramp, which Medea strode toward, still carrying those young, limp bodies. 

“Where do you think you’re going?” Jason snapped. 

Pausing on the ramp, Medea replied, “I am going to bury my children somewhere they will be respected. Don’t expect to see me again.” With that, she allowed the ramp to close behind her and moved past the double row of seats, placing one child in each before vocally ordering the ship to depart. The console lit up, and the shuttle began to rise. As it did, allowing them to leave Jason and the approaching angry mob behind, she produced a handful of leaves from several different plants from her pocket, crumbling them together between her fingers, before putting the mixture in her children’s mouth. 

After a moment of no response, they began to chew and opened their eyes, color returning to their faces. “Mama?” one of them asked, “what’s going on? Where are we going?”

The woman touched each of their foreheads. “You are hybrids, part-human and part-Seosten. My people would kill you if they knew about you. We’re leaving this place. We’ll find somewhere new to stay. I believe there is a whole new continent out there, begging to be explored.” 

And thus, Medea and her children set out, preparing to settle in what would, in some far distant time, be known as Australia. 

*********

Jack o’ Kent

“Come on man, get those bags full. Quit stalling! Ain’t nobody coming to help you!” The shouted words came from a man in a dark ski mask, who held a pistol aimed toward another man in a security services uniform. That latter figure was carrying heavy bags away from the armored van that had been forced to pull into the dark alley they were in now, driven off the road by the Mercedes that now sat with its trunk open. In most cases, of course, an armored truck versus a luxury car wouldn’t have ended with the latter’s triumph. But this particular car had been magically reinforced, making it more than strong enough to force the van into this corner. 

The driver of the van, a furry Rakshasa (cat-like Alter) was currently kneeling on the ground with his hands behind his head while the second thief (who also wore a ski mask but whose body was at least seven and a half feet tall and seemed to be made of rock) held a heavy-duty shotgun close to him. The rock-covered thief snarled, “And don’t you think about being a hero neither. You start shit, this buddy of yours’ll be the first to go.”

“I’m doing it, I’ve got it,” the driver’s partner held up two of the bags he had just taken from the back of the van. He was a plain-looking man in almost all respects, his straight dark hair cut to medium length, just past his ears. He appeared human or at least human-passing, standing several inches under six feet, with a wiry build. “Don’t worry, neither of us are being paid enough to fuck with you guys on this. See?” He walked around the back of the open Mercedes and tossed the bags into the trunk before jogging back to pick up the next couple bags under the watchful eye of the first thief. “I don’t even know what this stuff is. Too heavy to be cash. You guys stealing jewels?” 

“Here’s an idea,” the humanoid masked figure snapped, “how about you stop asking stupid questions and just put the shit in the car before we blow your partner’s head off and then start taking turns having some fun with you?” 

Meekly apologizing, the other man hurriedly continued carrying bags from the van to the car while the two thieves anxiously waited to leave with their loot. Finally, the last of the goods had been dropped into the trunk. Standing back there with his hands raised obediently over his head, the security man half-stammered, “Ok-kay, you’ve got what you want, now it’s time for you to leave, right?”

The rock-man with the enormous shotgun chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah, totally time to leave. Thanks so much for your business.” With that, he lashed out with the gun, smacking the Rakshasa driver in the back of the head to knock him out. 

Immediately, as his partner fell limply to the ground, the man by the car lowered his hands. “Well, I’d say this was a productive outing.” His voice had lost all nervousness, adopting a completely casual tone. Likewise, his body language betrayed no worry about the guns the other two held. 

“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” the humanoid thief retorted. “Are you sure you got all the good shit? Be a pretty damn bad waste to spend all those months getting you embedded in that company just to walk away with garbage.” 

The man by the car in the security uniform gave a brief nod. “Oh yes, I’m sure. There’s just one little problem.” 

“Huh? What problem?” The rock-man snarled, turning that way expectantly. “We just pulled off the heist of the fucking decade, don’t start talking about problems now.” 

Their partner, the supposed armored truck escort, shrugged helplessly. “Well, you see, it turns out I was never that good at sharing.” With that, he hopped up on the bumper of the car, gave a cheeky wave, and then jumped into the trunk itself feet first, vanishing from sight. 

Both of the armed thieves looked at each other for a brief second before sprinting to the car. They arrived, standing in front of the open trunk, just in time to see a glowing portal in the bottom. A portal through which they could see what looked like an old furniture store somewhere far, far away. Their view was from the ceiling, looking down on the room. Their bags of loot were lying there, with their ‘partner’ crouched next to them where he had landed. Turning back that way, he saluted while calling, “Thanks for the help!” 

“Hey, hey!” the humanoid thief started to scramble into the trunk, even as the portal began to close right in his face. “We’re partners, you son of a bitch! You can’t do this!” The portal was already too small to fit through, but he stuck his gun into it, only to have the barrel sheared off as the opening closed around it. “You fucker! You can’t do this, Jack! Jack!

“Jack!!!”

*****

Chuckling to himself, the man called Jack crouched to look through the bags of loot that he and his now-former partners had managed to liberate. Just as he dipped his fingers into one of them, however, his head tilted, and he spoke simply. “You know, it’s been a while since you tried to spy on me. I thought you were done with that.” 

“Spy?” the man lounging in an old recliner on the far side of the open furniture show area replied. “I think you mean testing you.” With those words, Apollo straightened up and walked that way. He wore a crisp white suit over a red silk shirt, along with dark sunglasses. “After all, I have to make sure you haven’t been slacking off. Wouldn’t want one of my own Natural Bonded to get a bad reputation.” He paused, seeming to consider that before a flash of painful memories of Cassandra passed through him. “I mean, an incompetent reputation. Pretty sure you already have a bad one with plenty of people. Including those friends you just left behind.”

“Don’t worry, I know how to handle my own reputation,” Jack retorted smoothly, rising to his feet to face the other man. “Without making it boring.” 

Apollo’s head shook. “Heavens forbid. Death before boredom.” A fond smile came as happier memories crossed his mind at the thought of days long past. “You always did enjoy being a handful.” 

With an easy grin that seemed to light up his otherwise relatively unremarkable and plain face, Jack shot back, “Well after you saved my life, I felt like I needed to make the most of it.” 

“I’d say you did that pretty well,” Apollo agreed. “Immortalized yourself in nursery rhymes and stories. Who knew you’d be able to turn your near-death experience falling down a hill after fetching water into something children would chant centuries later? How is Jill, anyway?” 

The other man shrugged a bit at that. “Why don’t you ask her yourself? She’s still pretty shy, but she does like you.” 

With that, his head tilted, turning one way, then another. Finally, his gaze found Apollo once more with a softer smile, body language changing to become visibly more uncertain and awkward. “Hello, Apollo.”

“Hey there, Jill,” Apollo greeted her fondly. “Keeping your brother out of trouble?” 

“The worst of it, I think,” the female-presenting facet confirmed. “He does like finding it, though.” She added that bit with a tiny frown.

Apollo chuckled. “Oh, I know he does, believe me. When he’s not cheating to win bets with me about bridges or crop harvests, he’s using my power to make some magic dealers accept an old cow in exchange for enchanted beans so he can climb through a portal to steal a bunch of gold from a giant. Whom he then tricks into jumping off a cliff.” 

Blushing a little, Jill offered a shrug. “He keeps himself busy, I guess. Did uhh, did you come find us for a reason? You’ve been gone for awhile.” Her tone on the last bit was curious. 

“I figured you didn’t really need me that much anymore,” Apollo replied. “Besides, it seems like every time I come back around, your brother has a new wager he wants to make.” 

“A new wager I want to win, you mean,” Jack, taking over for his head-sister, replied simply. His body language immediately became more confident and outgoing. “And is it my fault you didn’t think about the fact things like dogs and other animals would cross that bridge too, not just people? Or that some crops are harvested from the top and some from the bottom? Really, you were basically asking to lose those bets.” After a brief pause, he added, “Though it was Jill who wrote down the stories about them. She writes down all the stories, and keeps spreading them.” 

“She’s always been proud of you,” Apollo agreed with an easy chuckle. “After all, you tricked the devil, more than once.” 

Jack’s reply was casual, yet still somewhat pointed. “And something tells me you want more of that trickery aimed at someone else this time. You didn’t just track us down and show up for a simple social call, did you?”

“I really do want to catch up with everything you’ve both been up to,” Apollo insisted before giving a soft sigh. “But yes, I did have something else in mind too. Something important.”

“Whatever it is, we’re in,” Jack informed him. “We owe you that much. Though I can’t promise we won’t make a profit off it too.” 

Apollo nodded. “I wouldn’t expect anything less. And believe me, there should be plenty of opportunity for profit with this. Not to mention bragging rights.

“See, you’re the best thief I know. So I want you to help us steal the former Headmistress of Crossroads away from the prison they’re keeping her in.” 

*******

Nellie Bly

“Hard to believe this used to be the headquarters of one of the biggest newspapers in the country, huh?” As he said that, Arthur Chambers stood in the middle of an old, dust-covered room. The whole place was full of desks and typewriters that hadn’t been used in many years, leaving the clear impression of what had once been a bustling main floor crowded with people shouting back and forth about stories and deadlines. Now the overhead lights barely worked, flickering, repeatedly, and sending shadows dancing through the room. Thankfully, he held a flashlight in one hand to take up the slack.

Maria, standing next to him, shook her head at her husband while holding a rock that magically glowed with its own flashlight-like beam. “Harder for me to believe that this place hasn’t been refurbished or just completely torn down for a new building. You’d think they would have put something else here by now. When did the paper close down, again?”

“Nineteen twenty-three.” The answer came not from Arthur himself, but from the headless man standing near the doorway. Well, not quite headless in the sense that he didn’t have one at all. He actually held said head tucked under his left arm. Still, it was a sight that might have been startling not so long ago, if Arthur and Maria hadn’t known him quite well. In fact, they had come here with Brom Bones after having a lovely brunch with the man at a place just down the street. He had quite rightly enthused at length about the hotcakes there and insisted they stop on their way to this place. What the Bystander Effect made the people in that place believe they were seeing as the head on the table called out orders to his body about what to select from the buffet was anyone’s guess. 

Walking fully into the room, Brom continued. “It closed just over a year after her death, actually. Not that she still worked here. Hadn’t worked here in decades, actually. Not since they stopped letting her do the work she came to the paper for to begin with.” 

“Well, that’s what I was hired for, wasn’t it?” The other new voice came from a nearby desk, where a glowing, semi-translucent figure perched on a chair that had been pulled out. She had been a handsome woman in life, with short brown hair and gray-green eyes. Looking down at herself, the woman frowned slightly at the blue dress she wore, waving a hand to transform it into suit and tie. Smiling then, she straightened up before looking straight at the head-carrying man. “You’re a necromancer. You’ve been feeding me power and calling for me since you came into this place.”

“We’re sorry to disturb you, Miss…” Maria paused. “I’m sorry, do you prefer Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Cockran? Or Elizabeth Seaman?” She ran through the famous woman’s penname, birth name, and married name in quick succession. 

“Oh Nellie’s quite fine,” came the easy response. “After all, that is the name that people know me by. I’d say that’s the part of me that stayed behind in this place when I passed. It’s like your friend there said, I stopped working here in eighteen-eighty-seven. Do you know why I started in the first place, how I was hired?” 

Arthur chuckled. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, our granddaughter, Felicity, wrote a school project about you when she was in junior high. You’re a bit of a hero to her, actually. If I recall correctly, it was eighteen-eighty-five when you took offense at an article you read about how women were meant to stay home cleaning house and making babies. And instead of just stewing about it, you wrote your own response back to them.” 

“I did, indeed, Mister…” The ghost woman trailed off. “I’m sorry, you seem to have me at a disadvantage.” 

“Arthur,” he informed her. “Arthur Chambers. And this is my wife.” 

“Maria,” the woman in question put in with a smile. “Our friend over there is Brom Bones. He agreed to help us out with this when we heard you might be haunting this place.” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “Is haunt a bad term?” 

“Seems fairly accurate from where I’m standing,” Nellie replied. “As I was saying, I’m still not exactly certain why my ghost chose to appear and be locked to this place, when I only spent a couple years here. I suppose it was quite formative for my future. I wrote that letter and the editor enjoyed it so much he put out a message, asking me to identify myself. I had written under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl.’ But his response convinced me to reveal myself, and he hired me. I wrote a few more articles for them. It worked well for a while, then they got complaints because I wrote about women working in factories. The paper leadership decided to move me over to start writing the sort of thing women were supposed to write about. You know, fashion and society sort of things. The proper place for a woman writer, if you will. In their minds, anyway.” 

“If I remember Felicity’s report properly, you didn’t exactly take that lying down,” Maria noted. “That was when you went to Mexico, wasn’t it?” 

Nellie gave a short nod of confirmation, beaming at the thought that their granddaughter knew so much about her. “I spent about six months there, as it happens. Then I had to leave. The Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, didn’t seem to like my writing either. Probably because I didn’t like him imprisoning another journalist for criticizing him. But his anger was a bit more directly dangerous than that of a few disgruntled factory owners, so I came back to Pittsburg.” She gave a soft sigh of regret then. “Not that that lasted long, of course. They put me right onto those same boring old stories again. So I moved to New York. Had a devil of a time getting a job there, until I agreed to go undercover in a lunatic asylum.” 

“That one I knew about,” Maria quickly put in. “Even before Felicity did her report, I mean. You spent ten days in one of the worst mental asylums in the country and put out a whole report exposing them. It actually forced them to reform the system somewhat. You led a whole new field of women into showing that they could contribute to journalism by going undercover like that. Stunt girls, they called them. Now that was glorious.” 

“Please, you’re going to make me use up all the energy poor Mr. Bones over there provided just by blushing,” Nellie objected. “I only did what felt right and just at the time. If others saw fit to follow that as an example, I am quite proud and far more humbled. I said it before and I shall say it again. Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything. Any of the women who came before or after me could have done the same. Many likely better than I managed. There’s nothing special about me aside from the fact that I did rather than simply think.” 

“You say there’s nothing special about you,” Arthur objected, “but not only did you pioneer the entire field of investigative journalism, for women and men, you actually set a world record for traveling around the world.” 

Chuckling a bit self-consciously at that, Nellie bowed her head in acknowledgment. “A record which only stood for four months before it was broken, as it happens. I was simply inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Around The World In Eighty Days.’ I wanted to prove it was possible, and the paper I was working for accommodated me. In the end, it took only seventy-two. And now I’ve heard that such feats are possible in mere hours for some. Less if you’re of the… magically inclined, though that seems to be a fair bit of cheating, by my thinking.”

“Revolutionized investigative reporting, showed that women could be real reporters, pissed off a dictator, went around the world in seventy-two days, and if I recall Felicity’s report correctly, even invented the fifty-five gallon steel oil drum we still use today after taking over the company your husband owned.” Arthur sounded awed. “That’s what I call making the most of your life.” 

“You say that like I was perfect,” Nellie murmured a bit self-consciously. “Believe me, I was far from that. I did my best with Robert’s company, but I didn’t know enough to notice when certain people were stealing from it. The whole thing went under because I couldn’t stop their embezzling.” 

“And then you went right back to being a reporter,” Maria pointed out. “You switched careers to run a manufacturing company, did what you could, then returned to your calling in time to report on World War One from the frontline. You were the first woman to go right into the war zone like that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “All of which is to say, we would be incredibly appreciative if you might allow our friend Brom here to bring you with us on a trip. Our granddaughter’s away right now, but she would absolutely love to meet you.” 

“Oh.” Nellie Bly’s ghost blinked before looking back and forth between them for a moment. Finally, she offered a faint smile. “Well, I have been stuck in this building for quite some time. 

“And I always did love an adventure.” 

*******

Odin 

The ship appeared to be damaged beyond all conceivable repair. It tumbled through deep space, far from any inhabited planet or sign of civilization. At one point, the thing had been quite impressive, shaped like a massive crescent moon the size of an actual moon. From one end of the ship to the other, counting the curved structure, was almost two hundred miles. Unfortunately, roughly fourteen miles of that along the inside curve had been blown apart, revealing the broken interior, where anything that had once been inside that portion of the ship had long-since been lost to the ravages of space. The rest of the structure had been locked away through sealed blast doors, but the damage was done. This was not a ship that would fly under its own power any time soon. Particularly not with the loss of its actual crew almost ten thousand years earlier.  

And yet, that ten thousand year journey of drifting aimlessly through empty space came to an abrupt halt, as a second ship, this one undamaged, appeared in its path. This new ship was shaped like three arrows, stacked with two underneath the third. Where the individual pointed arrowheads would be on actual arrows was a single larger blade-shape attached to all three ‘shafts,’ and at the opposite end where the feathers would have been was a single large orb structure, also encompassing all three. The blade at the front was twelve miles across from one side to the other, three miles tall, and sixteen miles long from the sharp tip to the point where it connected to the rest of the ship. Each of the three connected ‘arrow shafts’ were three and a half miles across, and thirty miles long to reach the big orb at the back. Finally, the orb itself was fifteen miles in diameter.  

The new, totally functional ship came to a halt once it was in position directly in the path of the drifting, broken one. They were still several thousand miles apart from one another, though that was practically eye to eye as far as distances in space went. The broken ship would be right on top of them within a relatively short time. 

Or it would have been, had the functional ship not promptly projected a massive, colorful beam that way, sent from the tip of the suddenly-glowing blade-like structure. At first glance, the beam might have been mistaken for a laser, aside from the fact that it was colored like a rainbow. In fact, that was precisely what the beam looked like: a four-mile-wide, three-thousand-mile-long rainbow. As soon as the beam struck the other ship, near the undamaged end, its forward momentum came to a complete halt. It ceased its millennia-long drifting and froze there. 

Meanwhile, inside the broken ship, at the point where the rainbow beam had struck it, was a pitch-black chamber. At least, it was pitch-black, until a bright glowing portal appeared on the wall directly connected to where the rainbow beam was hitting the opposite side. The portal, rapidly growing to become ten feet across and twelve feet high, illuminated what turned out to be some sort of cafeteria area, though the seats and tables were clearly designed for a species twice as large as humans, with six legs. 

First to arrive in the alien cafeteria through the portal was a human of incredible size for his species. He stood seven feet tall, with a heavyset body that was equal-parts bulk and muscle. He looked not like a chiseled bodybuilder, but like a man who competed in actual weight-lifting competitions. His red hair was worn long past his shoulders, with a matching thick beard. In one hand he carried a hefty-looking hammer with glowing runic symbols along both the handle and the metal head. He wore what appeared to be black and red chainmail armor, though it was clearly constructed from much more advanced materials than any found during the medieval times of Earth. 

Right behind that man’s arrival, appearing through the portal as he peered suspiciously around the room, were a couple dozen small ravens. They might have been mistaken for cyberforms at first glance, but they weren’t entirely constructed of metal. Their wings and talons were, and their eyes were cybernetic as well, but they had started life as organic beings. They were cyborg-ravens gliding through the room (or in some cases outright stopping to impossibly hover in midair) while scanning every inch of it for danger. 

“The least you could have done,” announced a voice as another man came through the portal, “was wait until the ravens ensured the place was safe.” The newcomer wasn’t quite as tall as the first man, though he still stood several inches over six feet. His own hair was brown, and he too wore it long with an equally impressive beard. His own futuristic chainmail was brown and amber, and he carried a long broadsword with its own glowing runes in his left hand. His right hand was made of metal, clearly robotic in nature.

“Bah!” the first man retorted, “where’s the fun in waiting around till they tell us we’re allowed to come through? We can’t let them have all the excitement.” 

The second man started to reply, before a third appeared through the portal. This one stood shorter than both of them, not quite reaching six feet. He was not built as heavily or as muscular as either of them, appearing to be relatively thin. His hair was gray-white, with his own long beard. He wore no armor and carried no weapons, clad in what looked like a blueish-gray tunic and pants that would not have been out of place strolling through an Earth village a thousand years earlier. Another of the cyborg-ravens perched on his shoulder. One of his eyes was biological, the other replaced with a cybernetic implant similar to those of his ravens. 

“There’ll be plenty of excitement, Thor,” Odin announced. “Heimdall already gave it another scan. We’ve got a small army of surviving Fomorian creatures and whatever they managed to turn the crew of this ship into. They were scattered throughout the whole place, but it sounds like they know we’re here, because they’re starting to congregate this way. Sif and Freyr took a second group through another Bifrost beam to come at them from behind. But we get the direct assault.” 

Sniffing a little, Thor touched a finger to his eye. “I knew you loved me, Father.” Gripping his hammer tight, he cast a sidelong look toward the other man. “Ready to have some fun, Tyr?”  

Grunting with a mix of acknowledgment and amusement, Tyr cracked his neck. “I suppose I must always be, if I am to stay at your side.” 

“Remember, war is our tool, not our goal,” Odin advised. “We rid this vessel of the Fomorian infestation, then we search it from top to bottom for anything that could aid our actual quest.” As he said that, the man gestured with one hand. The actual lights of the ship immediately came to life, not just in the room itself, but everywhere within the massive, two-hundred-miles-long vessel. With that simple wave of his hand, he not only took control of the giant ship, but supplied enough power to run its vast energy needs. 

Back on Earth, the Heretic known as Gaia possessed one-half of the powers of the Djehuti. The technopathy side. The Heretic known as Seller, on the other hand, possessed the biological-manipulation side. Odin, on the other hand, possessed both sides. And not the powers of the Djehuti, who were imperfect clones of Ymir, last survivor of his world in the previous universe. No, Odin was a Natural Heretic of Ymir himself. He possessed the full strength powers of both sides, and could build and control anything, be it biological or technological. And he was all-but unmatched in combining both aspects. 

Along with the return of the lights, the doors at the far end of the room came to life as well and wooshed open. Thor and Tyr immediately began to stalk that way, with the cyborg ravens flying ahead. Watching them go, Odin trailed behind, his cybernetic eye scanning the structure of the ship, analyzing its make, the materials, design, everything it could. 

It would continue to take quite some time, more than it already had. But even if it required another ten thousand years or more, Odin and his people, the Aesir, would find what they were searching for. Namely, a way to combine every bit of technology and magic they were able to scavenge together from millennia spent scouring every inch of a dozen galaxies in order to finally destroy the four universe-ending monsters who had emerged from Tartarus millions of years earlier. 

Nearly every life in the previous universe had been wiped away by those four creatures, leaving a bare handful of survivors. Odin’s benefactor, Ymir, was one. And he had sworn an oath to never forget the threat that those beasts presented. 

One way or another, Odin would put the proper pieces together, and destroy them. 

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Center Of Attention 26-07 (Summus Proelium)

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According to Sierra and Paige, we had a dozen members of the Trendscendents coming our way. Fortunately, almost all of them were the ordinary Prev-type soldiers. There were eleven of those, though heavily-armed and ready for trouble, and only one of the Touched. That was the good news, such as it was. The bad news was that the single Touched who was coming was Banneret, and she had already taken the time to put some boosts on her people. So even though they might not have had any powers of their own, they were still enhanced by hers. Which was just great.

But hey, if she could boost her friends, I could boost mine. Over the next few seconds, I quickly put plenty of paint on everyone as we got ready for what was about to happen.

The other bit of good news was that it didn’t sound like these guys actually knew what they were about to walk into. They were just checking every corner of the building and had found this basement. So they were exploring it. Paige said it seemed like they thought this might be a secret escape tunnel they could use to get out of here without running into any cops or Stars.

Boy were they in for a surprise. 

To get ready for their arrival, I silenced the door just in case before letting Paige go ahead and force it open. That would undoubtedly set off alarms, but I didn’t think anyone cared by that point. We were able to see out through the open doorway toward a room across from us that was probably identical to this one, aside from the fact that that door was already open. 

Oh, and there was one very important thing that hadn’t been here before. Covering the entire width of the corridor just past these rooms, was a heavy steel vault-like door. It was blocking the way down the tunnel toward the safe house we had come in through. 

“Security measure,” Paige noted quietly. “The authorities don’t want anyone getting out that way. Or starting a fight with the people in the house.”

Right, of course they’d have something like that. But could the good guys come in that way? I pondered that before shaking it off for the moment. The point was that there was no one in that other room across the hall from us. At least, there wasn’t anyone in it, until Calvin, Hobbes, and Style darted that way. The three of them crouched down behind the door on that side of the hall. 

What the hell was I doing? Murphy and Roald didn’t even have their Wren-tech guns with them. Fuck, why didn’t I put them in my special bag before we came in here? What was I thinking? That this place was safe and we wouldn’t need them? How stupid was I? And now I was actually going to let them try to fight these guys without those Touched-Tech weapons? This was stupid. Not to mention Wren. She was here too, and involving her seemed practically inexcusable.

And yet, what other choice did we have? There was no way in hell these people would listen if we just told them we weren’t fighting today. We had absolutely already pissed them off plenty at the park when we interrupted their mission. When they saw us here, and they would definitely check the rooms, there would be trouble. We just had to be as ready for that as we could.

But still, I could keep Wren as far out of the fight as possible. Which I did by telling her to stay in the corner of the room out of the way until her moment came. She kept trying to apologize for not having one thing or another ready yet, including more of the bags like I had or some system she was working on to instantly transport weapons and equipment around. Obviously, we all told her not to worry about it. She was already doing more than enough as it was, and she would still have a part to play in this situation. But I was pretty sure she still felt guilty. 

Boy, good thing I didn’t know anything about what that felt like.

After giving Trevithick one last glance to make sure she was safely out of the way and ready to do her thing when the time came, I left Poise and Alloy crouched by the first door and stepped out into the hall. It was about twelve feet wide, with a fifteen foot ceiling. The tunnel we’d come through to get here was fifty feet to my right, past more doors, and the open doorway leading to the stairs the gang members were already stampeding down was thirty feet to the left. 

Judging from the sound of those footsteps and voices, the bad guys were almost here. They would be within view any second. So, I activated black paint to silence myself while running that direction. On the way, I leaned down and trailed my finger along the floor, leaving large blue lettering with yellow outlines, feeding the latter into the former. 

Once I was three-quarters of the way there, I straightened up and used red paint to yank myself up to the ceiling right above the entrance from the stairwell. Thanks to my special boots, I was able to crouch against the wall there indefinitely. Just as our soon-to-be guests were coming around the final turn in the stairs, I covered the floor under me with more blue and yellow paint, making a semicircle shape that time, as though it was an intentional design on the floor. Then I glanced back at the letters I had drawn along the floor on my way. From here, they read ‘Proceed With Caution’ one letter at a time, with the P starting right at the edge of the semicircle I had just made, and the N just in front of the doors where the rest of my team were waiting. 

Then I waited. From here, I couldn’t see the others, just the doors that were slightly open with the darkened rooms beyond to make it look like there was no one down here. For a second, I glanced at the big steel vault door and wondered what was going on with Officer Metts and the others over there. 

Then I didn’t have time to wonder anymore. Because the bad guys were here. The first couple Prev troops came through carefully, weapons raised as they looked around them. But they didn’t look up. Nor did they seem to wonder about the blue and yellow tiles they were walking on. Really, they had this whole thing coming. 

I didn’t hit them right away though. I let them keep coming. One of them called over his shoulder while continuing through, “More office shit! Probably stick the peons down here to do research or something for the judges.” Belatedly, he added, “But there’s a vault door here too! Think we found that tunnel!” That set off a chorus of cheers amongst the others in the group, and I heard a few mutters about winning some sort of bet with some other group as more of them continued on through the doorway and began to move down that hall toward the door to check it out. 

Through all that, I waited as patiently as possible. I couldn’t make a move yet. The last thing I wanted to do was go too soon and end up with half these guys still in the stairwell where they could use the doorway for cover and start shooting. I had to wait until they all came through, even if it was incredibly nerve racking to just crouch here and hope no one thought to look up. 

Nine people were through, ten, a few had moved to the sides, off the area I had painted to check the corners of the room. Hell, they were so close to seeing me out of the corner of their eyes, but their focus was on the walls themselves, searching for, I supposed, any cops hiding within the completely open and clearly empty space there. 

Okay, to be fair, that wasn’t completely impossible with Touched-Tech and stuff. But still, you’d think they would–

“Oh shit!” 

Ah, there it was. One of the men who stepped over toward the corner of the hall had turned back to say something to his buddies, which gave him a clear view of me, crouched above them. His hand was already rising to point, which was better than if he had lifted the gun in his other hand. But either way, the time for waiting was over. 

By that point, all eleven of the Prev troops had come fully into the hall, with four of them already off the paint I had put down. The other seven were still at least partway on one of the letters or the semicircle. Including Banneret, who had just stepped through. Her head snapped straight up to look at me, following the line of sight of her minion. 

“Hi!” I called cheerfully, waving that way even as all those guns immediately started to swing up toward me. In that instant, I activated the paint. Instantly, those seven guys plus Banneret were launched off the floor. Only, of course, they were launched slowly. It kept them in the air longer while also slowing their movements down to about half speed right as they were trying to bring their weapons in line with me.  

Unfortunately, that left a couple problems. First, the guys who weren’t on the paint obviously weren’t affected at all. And second, there was Banneret. Oh sure, she was slowly rising through the air, right toward me, actually. But she also had about a dozen guns floating around her, and those were all suddenly pointed my way just as they opened fire. 

Or at least, they were pointed where I had been a second earlier. I’d already activated green paint on my shoes, catapulting myself off the wall and away from the incoming bullets. On the way, I managed to blurt, “Lemme guess, you’re having trouble with this escape room too!” 

While still flying down the corridor thanks to that paint, I pointed back the way I’d come with both hands, sending a shot of red from one and a shot of purple from the other. Both hit Banneret. Flipping over, I landed on the floor near the vault door, skidding backwards a bit on the tile from my momentum. At the same time, I held my hand up, revealing the purple-red combination paint on my glove as I activated both that and the same mix I’d hit Banneret with. She had still been floating, but now she was immediately yanked toward me. The purple boosted the strength of the red’s pull, yanking her straight toward me until I canceled both that and the yellow-blue effect, allowing her to drop just a few feet away from me. 

She probably would’ve liked to lunge at me right then. But the second her feet touched the floor, two things happened. Or rather, two doors opened, the ones on either side of her, where the others were. Alloy and Poise came out of the left door, facing the still-recovering Banneret. Meanwhile, Calvin, Hobbes, and Style came through the other door. But they didn’t turn our way. Instead, they immediately pivoted to head back down the corridor toward where I had left the rest of those guys. The second I laid eyes on those three, I activated the orange, purple, and green paints I had given them. 

As soon as they had taken just a couple steps that way, Alloy made her white, gold, and black marbles combine together into a literal wall. It wasn’t very thick, but it covered the entire space from floor to ceiling and out to either wall. The silver marble transformed into a large hammer and hovered there in front of her, while she continued to use the purple and bronze marbles as her suit (it made her look like a ninja, with purple as the base and bronze padding). 

Poise, right beside her, had produced two knives from somewhere and had one held out the normal way while the other was backwards. Both were raised and ready for any move the Fell-Touched woman made. 

And just like that, we had cut her off from basically all of her resources and aid. The guns she had put under her control and her minions were both back on the other side of the wall, where she couldn’t see to direct them, and they couldn’t get through to help her. That was the whole point of this plan: ambush them before they knew what was happening, then drag the main threat and force multiplier down here, separating her from everyone she had empowered and the weapons she was controlling.

This was the major reason I felt so guilty about the Murphy and Roald situation. They barely had any training and no special guns, and I was sending them into the other side of the hall with a bunch of armed and pissed off bad guys, who were going to be rather intent on going through them and finding a way past this wall. The biggest advantage they had was Style, who was almost certainly enough of a badass to handle ordinary guys. But those weren’t ordinary guys, they had been boosted by Banneret and we didn’t know if she needed line of sight to keep those boosts active once they were placed. 

I just had to hope that between Style and the boosts I had given my people, the trio could deal with those guys for a bit. Banneret was the one we really had to deal with, and right now while she was cut off like this was our best (possibly only) chance. 

All of that, and my associated doubts had been playing through my mind ever since we came up with the plan. But now we were in the thick of it, and I shoved them down hard while addressing the woman right in front of me. “Yeah see, like I said, we’ve been trying to beat this escape room for practically the full hour now, but the puzzles are ridiculous. I swear, you practically need a law degree to figure this place out.” My voice adopted an even more cheerful tone. “You wanna team up?” 

Apparently, the answer was no, because the woman extended her arms to either side, pointing toward Paige and Peyton with one and me with the other. A very slight humming sound was the only other warning we had before a pair of concussive blasts, like the ones from the bracelets and guns that Theory and Praxis used, shot out. 

Thankfully, we didn’t need much of a warning. Honestly, at this point, if an obvious bad guy like that pointed at you, it was probably a good idea to hit the dirt just in case. Who knew what sort of power or tech they had? 

In my case, I used renewed blue paint on my shoes to launch myself upward toward the ceiling so the blast could pass by underneath me. Paige and Peyton, meanwhile, dove to either side and let it go between them. It hit the marble wall, which held, fortunately. But we couldn’t let her do too much of that or we’d risk losing the biggest advantage we’d been able to set up with this ambush. 

Even as I bounced off the ceiling, I was sending two shots of paint toward the woman. One was red, which I used to pull myself toward her, while the other was yellow to slow her down so she couldn’t easily grab me and use her power to make me slower or weaker or whatever. There was an advantage to being able to debuff from a range. Inverting in the air, I managed to slam both feet into her shoulders, knocking the woman over to land hard on her back. Going down with her, I rolled over Banneret’s head. Her hands grasped for me, but the yellow paint slowed her down just enough that I was able to get out of her reach. 

Meanwhile, Poise took advantage of the woman’s extended hands as she tried to grab me, throwing those two knives with expert precision. Each cut through something on Banneret’s armored wrists, sending a spray of sparks out. The weapons she had just used to send those concussive blasts at us. She wouldn’t be doing that again any time soon. 

While she was still reacting to that (which involved sputtered cursing), Alloy sent her remaining marble, the silver one, flying that way in its hammer form. The woman flinched just slightly, but Peyton wasn’t hitting her with it. Instead, the marble transformed into a pair of shackles, attaching themselves to Banneret’s wrists while her arms were still extended over her head as she lay on her back from me knocking her over. 

As soon as her wrists were secured, the marble-shackles hoisted her up. At the same time, Poise grabbed her feet. Then she and the marble worked together to quickly carry the struggling, cursing, wildly threatening woman straight through the open doorway into the room where we had been having our whole meeting not so long ago. 

Trevithick was there waiting. The second the other two got Banneret into the room, she ran up with her flightpack held in both hands. The marble-shackles hoisted the woman upright while Poise released her legs. But before she could get her feet under herself and react properly, Wren stuck the pack up against her back. It latched on immediately, the wings extending to fly her up halfway to the ceiling. 

And now she was stuck like that. The flightpack kept her off the floor so she couldn’t get any leverage or go anywhere because it would only listen to Wren’s orders. And the silver marble in its shackles form kept the woman’s hands extended outward so she couldn’t reach around to touch the flightpack and control it. 

We’d done it. The crazy plan worked. We had separated Banneret from her troops and put her in a position where she couldn’t use her power on anything. Now we just had to hope the others had–

Oh shit, the others! All of us had the same thought, exchanging glances. “Watch her!” I shouted toward Wren and Alloy. Sure, we believed she was safe now, but we weren’t taking stupid chances. They would keep an eye on the woman. Meanwhile, Poise and I sprinted out of the room and raced for the marble wall, which split apart so we could pass through as Alloy poked her head out to watch us go. 

The two of us made it to the other end of the hall just in time to see Style hurl what appeared to be the last of the Prev troops into the wall hard enough to make him bounce off it and fall to the floor with a groan of pain. Nor was he the only one making that sound. All eleven of them were lying in various states of ‘I have no desire to do anything aside from lay here and contemplate my life choices.’ 

Calvin and Hobbes were down too, but not in pain. They both just seemed exhausted, lying side by side on their backs where they had apparently slumped down to breathe hard. When they saw us arrive, both looked up, Murphy speaking through several long, deep breaths. “So… are… we winning?

“And if so… can we call for a five minute timeout?” 

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The Storm 21-18 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story (also a little bit of a crossover with Summus Proelium) was posted a couple days ago and is available for everyone right here!

There were five Revenants, three of which I had stopped with my power. Which left two still coming slowly toward me. No, not at me. They wanted Shiori. She was the one who was messing with that crystal. If I gave them even a second with her, they would tear the other girl apart. I couldn’t let that happen. I wouldn’t let it happen. Everyone else was still busy with the others, struggling to stop even more from coming after us. Somehow, someway, I had to stop all five of these monsters. No matter what it took, I had to keep them off of Shiori.

Taking a breath, I held my staff out to one side, and spoke inwardly as the things approached, even my silent voice shaking slightly. Get ready. Wait till I give you the signal. 

That was all I had time for. The two still-moving Revenants, which had been taking their time approaching, as though they knew just how fucked I was and wanted to rub it in, suddenly began to give those awful shrieks while rushing straight at me. All while their eyes weren’t even on me. They were on that crystal. All their rage was purely focused on the fact that Shiori was trying to stop their companions, and they were intent on tearing her apart for it. I wasn’t even worth looking at. 

Well I was sure as hell gonna make them regret that. Even as they came at me like a pair of buses while I was a fly on the freeway, I triggered a very short burst of energy from the end of my staff. It sent me forward and sideways toward the monster on the left. I saw its eyes easily track my movement as it lashed out with one hand to grab my hair. But at the last instant, I used the power I’d taken from that Fomorian giant ape-croc thing to increase the resistance my clothes had to being moved. I slowed suddenly, making the Revenant’s hand flail through the air where it thought I was going to be. 

Before it could recover, six of my ghosts appeared around it. They were all holding the thing, three grasping that outstretched arm together, while the other three clung to its shoulders and waist. Even with all six, and despite the fact I had shoved power into them so they could be solid, they still couldn’t hold this monster for longer than a second or two.

Fortunately, that was all the time I needed. Canceling the slow-movement effect on my clothes as I landed on both feet in front of this thing, I drove the blade of my staff toward its throat. In that same motion, I activated both the kinetic-boost on the staff itself, and used my rocket burst power on the end of it to shove the thing even faster, even harder. It collided with the monster’s throat with so much force, it felt like I could have torn through solid steel like it was butter. 

And yet, even with all of that, the thing was barely affected. My blade couldn’t cut through its skin, not even managing to leave a scrape on it. The Revenant, meanwhile, staggered back one step. One single step. But one step was all I needed. Even as it screamed and ripped itself free from the grasp of my ghosts, I was already using my rocket burst under my feet to launch myself into the air, through both of my speed-enhancing rings that were waiting right there above me. I went flying upward at near blinding speed, away from the Revenant I had just knocked backward that single step. 

But I wasn’t alone. In the course of that brief interaction, as I had stabbed the blade of my staff toward the monster in front of me, I had also triggered the grapple on the other end. It shot out toward the Revenant who had gone right past on its way to Shiori. Which normally wouldn’t have meant anything. If the blade of my staff wasn’t going to penetrate these Revenants even when I had it boosted that much, the grapple sure as hell wouldn’t make it through them. 

That’s what the other ghosts were for. Seth and Grover had both appeared right where the grapple was going. Before the Revenant there knew what was happening, they quickly wrapped the thing around its neck and hooked it securely back on itself. Then they vanished before the monster could retaliate.

And that was when I had launched myself upward with that rocket burst boosted by the rings. I was sent flying toward the ceiling, and the speed was enough to rip the unaware monster off its feet and drag it away from Shiori right as it was reaching out toward her. 

If I thought these things were screaming before, it was nothing compared to the unholy noise the bastard let out as I dragged it into the air. The good part was that it couldn’t fly, and it didn’t actually weigh any more than it should have. Once I got it off the ground, where it didn’t have anything to grab onto, or any other way to use its incredible strength and durability, the thing was almost helpless. At least, for the moment.

As we flew toward the cavern ceiling, I suddenly used the same power I’d activated a moment earlier to slow my clothes. At the same time, my rings appeared in front of me, using the slow-side that time. My momentum basically completely stopped. Even more so a second later as I used the five second pause power on my shoes. Then I was literally standing in midair. The Revenant I had dragged up as well was right behind me, flailing and screaming in rage. But even as its grasping, claw-like fingers grabbed for me, I canceled all the powers keeping me motionless in midair and let myself fall backwards away from the thing. 

In the same motion, I retracted the grapple, leaving the Revenant to continue its flight upward rather than pulling it down with me. My rings flipped into place over the monster with the fast side facing it. As fast as it had been going before, that speed was doubled by the first ring and then doubled again by the second. Just like that, the monster was sent like a fucking bullet into the ceiling of the cavern. It left a hole where it punched through. Obviously not enough to kill it, but I didn’t need these things dead, helpful as that would have been. I just needed them slowed down enough for Shiori to finish her part.

Speaking of which, the other Revenant was already launching toward the other girl as I dropped back toward the ground. It had recovered from that slight stumble, and was intent on its target once more. Especially now that it thought I was out of the way.

Well, I was just going to have to disappoint this thing. As it reached for Shiori, I created a small portal in front of it, with the other end next to me. Its grasping hand and arm went through the portal, and I caught hold of the thing while falling. The monster was so strong that it actually held me in midair, leaving me dangling like that with its arm through the portal. Which held the thing back that single, crucial step away from reaching Shiori. 

Of course, that wouldn’t last long. The monster was already starting to rip its arm out of my grip and back through the portal. Any attempt I made to actually resist would have been like a child trying to hold onto a truck that was driving away. There was absolutely no way I could manage it. 

So it was a good thing that wasn’t my plan. Even as the Revenant began to pull its arm back, I canceled the portal and let go. The arm was severed, leaving me falling with it. Meanwhile, the Revenant staggered from the force it had been using to yank its arm back just as it was cut off. 

Quite a long time back, I had picked up the power to instantly transfer any small, non-living item anywhere on my body through touch. I typically used that to bring weapons and spell objects from my pocket to my hands, or to change clothes. But it wasn’t limited to that. While I had been holding the Revenant’s arm, I had used that power to transport an enchanted coin from my pocket over to the monster’s own face, since ‘anywhere on my body’ had applied to his while we were touching. Now, while dropping through the air, I activated the spell on the coin before it could fall away from him. 

It was a freeze-bomb spell, like the one Carfried had been teaching us basically right after Christmas last year. Fortunately, I had gotten much better with the spell since then. This one exploded in the Revenant’s face, completely freezing its head and the top-third of its body. No, it wouldn’t last long, of course. Even as the monster fell backwards with ice encompassing so much of its body, it was already starting to crack. In another second, the ice shattered as the Revenant tore its way free.

But by that point, I had already shifted my staff into its bow form while falling. I took aim, sending a concussive-energy arrow that way. Except not that way. The arrow hit a portal I summoned in front of myself, passing through that and out the other end, directly in front of the monster just as it was sitting up. The force of the arrow would have blown most beings through the air and sent them tumbling end over end. But in this case, it barely made the thing’s head snap back a bit. 

Fortunately, that gave the Revenant a really good view of my staff coming down to slam into its face as I reached the ground behind it, slowing myself just enough to land without ending up crippled. Even then, with the speed of my fall added into the force of the blow, it wasn’t enough to break the skin. It did manage to knock the Revenant fully onto its back, at least. Not to mention piss it off pretty good, judging from the way it was screaming at me. Not that it had ever stopped. 

And speaking of being pissed off, the Revenant I had sent through the ceiling was back. It clawed its way down through the hole and was falling toward us with a screech that matched the one I had ever-so-briefly knocked down. At least this one looked a little damaged, even somewhat bloodied. But it wasn’t done, not by a long shot. 

It really felt as though I had been doing this for hours, even though it had only been a very brief time. Part of that, of course, was the energy I was expanding in keeping the other three Revenants frozen. That was what Tabbris was focused on. Basically her entire job throughout all this was to use my Necromancy to stop those guys from moving and making this whole situation go from hard to completely impossible. 

But I still had these two to deal with, and this could only go on for so long. I was going to make a mistake at some point, was going to react too slowly or miss something. Especially considering how much of my energy was put toward that Necromancy. The only real question was which would come first, my mistake or Shiori finishing with the crystal. 

No, it didn’t matter how hard this was, or how tired I might have been. None of that mattered. I was there to protect my girl, and that was sure as hell what I was going to do. Whether it was for thirty more seconds or thirty more minutes, these fucks weren’t going to touch her. 

To that end, with the first Revenant dropping rapidly and the second starting to shove itself back up while reaching for me, I was already reacting. First, I used my slow objects power on the falling creature’s torn clothes to keep it out of the way a bit longer. At the same time, my foot lashed out to kick the one in front of me as hard as I could right in the face. Which really seemed to do as much damage to myself as to it, if not more. But it still managed to make it slump back down in the midst of getting up, buying me another second. A second which I used by focusing my rock-animation power on the ground where his remaining arm was. With a thought, I made the rock there pull aside to reveal a hole, then encased his fist in that. Just as the rock sealed around his arm, I spat a wad of quick-hardening resin over it just to make it even harder to pull himself free. 

It didn’t matter. The rock and resin together might as well have been made of tissue paper. The Revenant easily ripped away free and lashed out at me. I managed to twist most of the way aside, catching only a glancing blow in my leg. But even that was enough to knock me to the ground as pain screamed its way through my bones. It felt like something had broken, or at least cracked, just from that very slight blow. I would not survive a direct hit. No way in hell. 

Just managing to throw myself into a roll before the thing could follow up that blow by grabbing me, I used a short burst from my staff to get back to my feet. My leg was still crying out in protest, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t completely broken. I could still stand up, barely. And it was healing by the second.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one healing. Not even the fastest. The Revenant in front of me, clambering back to its feet, had already regained the arm that I portal-cut off. It just grew back that quickly. So not only were these things almost impossible to actually damage, they regenerated entire missing limbs within seconds. No wonder everyone saw them as such a pain in the ass to fight. 

Okay Tabs, ready? I sent inwardly, getting an immediate confirmation. Beyond simply holding the other three Revenants in place, she’d been waiting for this. We’d just had to wait until the right moment. If the mental clock in my head was anywhere near right, Shiori had to be almost done. If I was going to actually deal with these guys, it was now or never.  

In a blindingly bright burst of light, my sister’s angelic wings emerged from my back and flared outward. But they didn’t fire. It would’ve been too hard to hit everything I needed to with one shot. Instead, even as they flared out, the wings vanished. But their power wasn’t gone. Tabbris used the energy from her wings to enhance her own boost, and shoved all of that into me. It would only last for a few seconds, but I was suddenly faster and stronger than I had ever been. Even the previous times we have tried it weren’t like this. She had gotten even stronger, had been able to pull more energy, had become more efficient at utilizing it. All of the above, and it translated into an absurd boost. 

The entire world seemed to completely stop in that instant. The Revenant in front of me, who had been a blur of motion hurtling itself toward me just a second earlier, was practically frozen. It came forward ever-so-slowly, like one of those videos of the hummingbird made so you could see the individual wing flaps. I could see its mouth twisting, those rotted teeth exposed as the thing shrieked at me, its dirty hands extended my way while it tried to get close enough to claw my throat out. A thing it might actually have managed if I hadn’t been boosted by Tabbris right then. 

But I was boosted. Which I used, taking a quick step forward before snapping my foot out in as fucking hard of a kick as I could manage. And right then, I could manage quite a bit. My foot collided with that fucker’s face so hard he was literally flung backward off his feet and into the air. And yes, after all the times I had hit these things to basically no effect, that was quite therapeutic. I actually caught a glimpse of what looked like an expression of surprise cross the thing’s face as it was flung away from me. While it was still in the air, I threw myself after it. My rings appeared in front of me, and all that speed I already had was doubled, then doubled again as I passed through them. 

Landing hard on the Revenant’s chest as it flew backwards from that kick, I drove the blade of my staff down through its throat. That time it penetrated the fucking thing. I felt the monster’s formerly impervious skin give away. 

But I didn’t have the luxury of time to wait and see how that turned out. My super boost would be over in another couple seconds, and then I’d really be fucked. I had to use this while I had it. With that in mind, I triggered the grapple, sending it flying up toward the still-falling other Revenant.

While the grapple was still unraveling and flying up that way in this incredibly slowed-down world I was living in for the moment, I released my staff, using my pause power to freeze it in place. It stayed upright like that, with the blade sticking partway through the other monster’s throat. Then I used my rocket burst to throw myself upward. Between that and the incredible strength I had right then, I practically flew straight at the slowly-falling Revenant. On the way, my hand snapped out to catch hold of the grapple, dragging it up with me much faster than it had been moving before. 

Just before I reached the monster, I reared back and hurled the grapple at it as hard as I could manage. Both rings appeared in front of it, boosting its speed even more. That time, it tore through the thing’s chest an instant before I collided with it as well. The force of my arrival sent the thing back upward, slamming it into the ceiling of the cavern once more. 

Kicking off the thing, I flipped over in the air while yanking its arms to throw the Revenant under me with the grapple still stuck in its chest. Then I opened a portal between myself and my staff, sticking a hand through to hit the button to make the grapple start retracting. 

As the monster was pulled downward, I landed on its back with my hands on both shoulders. Instantly, I used my rocket burst on my back to hurl both of us straight down as fast and as hard as I could. The ground, with the other Revenant still pinned against it by my upright and frozen staff, came rushing up blindingly quickly. 

At the last possible instant, I kicked off the bastard I was perched on. My rings appeared just as I threw myself away from him, slowing my descent drastically. 

But the Revenant didn’t slow down. He slammed into his companion with all the force of a small meteor. The grapple had finished retracting, leaving the staff itself to pierce all the way up into his chest until half of it was sticking through his back. And the force of that impact came just as I canceled the pause, meaning the other half of the staff was driven down clear through the throat of the monster who was already lying on the ground. 

And I still wasn’t quite done yet. With a thought, I summoned the staff back to my grasp. Then I flipped it around, while still dropping. Holding the thing in both hands with the blade pointed downward, I used the pause power on my shoes to stop my fall. With a loud, probably horrifying scream, I hurled the staff back down toward those two fallen figures. In the same moment, I focused on two things. First, my heat objects power. The staff, blade included, suddenly became white-hot. And the second thing I focused on was the size-increase power. Usually I used that simply to make the staff somewhat longer. But now I made it wider as well. I turned it from a quarterstaff into what amounted to a lamppost. On the way down, my speed-rings flew into its path. So it was the size of a post, hot enough to melt through almost anything that touched it, and going faster than a bullet. 

The staff fucking annihilated the Revenants as it collided with them. Pieces of their bodies went flying in every direction, even as I disabled the pause on my shoes and fell the rest of the way down. I landed in a crouch, right as the super-boost wore off. And boy did I feel it. All that extra energy rushed out of me, leaving me drained enough I could have collapsed. 

And then I really did collapse. Because the rush of pleasure that suddenly filled me in that second was the strongest I’d felt since… well, since I’d killed Fossor. Falling onto my side, I felt that burst of blinding joy that told me I’d accomplished my goal. The two Revenants were dead. They were gone. They… they were…

“Flick!” It was Shiori, she was right in front of me as my eyes blinked open. Only a couple seconds had passed, even if it felt like hours. Her hand grabbed my arm, yanking me up. “We’ve gotta go!” 

“Wha–did you–” My eyes snapped toward the crystal. It was blue now, and humming loudly. 

“I got it!” Shiori confirmed, while pointing upward. I could see… more Revenants. Dozens of them. No, hundreds. They were all coming down through the ceiling. And they looked absolutely furious. 

“The crystal called them back!” Shiori blurted, still tugging my arm. “But they’re pretty pissed off about it!

“And if we don’t get the hell out of here, they’re gonna show us just how pissed they are.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story (sort of, it’s a pretty big crossover with the setting of Heretical Edge) posted a few days ago right here

When we got to the neighborhood near the courthouse, I showed the others where the right building was. According to Paige, several of the other nearby houses and buildings were either empty, or used as anonymous safe houses, homes for people with the authority to know about this place, that sort of thing. And they had cops whose job it was to ensure no one was lurking around for too long. As well as a few other measures, all of which was meant to make it even harder for anyone to notice the Touched who went in and out of the place. 

I was pretty sure that also meant the small camera above the door was unnecessary, given how many other people we undoubtedly had watching us the entire time we were in the neighborhood. But it was probably mostly for show. Or to give the person at the door somewhere to look when whoever was inside spoke to them over the intercom if they didn’t open it immediately. 

Either way, I showed everyone how to get to the building, then reached out and knocked. “Okay everybody, wave and try not to look like Fell-Touched impersonators.” I informed them before raising my hand to do just that for the camera. I even painted a big smiley face on my helmet. There was a slight pause before the door opened, revealing my old friend, Officer Metts, the guy I’d met the first time I came here to drop off the detainment paperwork for that whole Ashton situation. Upon seeing me, the man raised an eyebrow. “My, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?” 

“Yeah well,” I replied, “I figured out there’s less work to do when I have more people to help.”

“Not to mention more targets for the enemies to shoot at,” Style put in. She casually evaded my attempt to step on her foot while adding, “I’m surprised he doesn’t make us wear bullseye costumes, really.” 

Trevithick, wearing that costume consisting of the black bodysuit, bright pink armored panels over the chest, arms, and legs, and a matching black helmet with pink visor, bounced up and down excitedly. “I could make matching costumes like that!” Her voice made it decidedly unclear if she was kidding or not.

Flushing a bit behind the helmet and mask, I shook my head, “Uh, thanks, I think we’ll find another way to show team unity.” To Style, I added, “And sure, because I definitely don’t make a big enough target of myself as it is. That’s me, always keeping my head down and avoiding any trouble.”

Snorting at us, Officer Metts gestured. “Okay, I still need your leader here to demonstrate his power so we can prove it’s really him. Then he takes responsibility for the rest of you being who you say you are. It’s faster than making all of you demonstrate, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t all Touched anyway.” He added that last bit slyly, clearly curious if we’d confirm or deny anything. 

Of course, we did nothing of the sort. I demonstrated my power, and Alloy showed off her transforming marbles as well just to add to the evidence. The officer accepted that and stepped aside so we could go in. Soon, we were led through the building and down the stairs to the tunnel. Officer Metts waved and then headed back upstairs while we went through the tunnel to meet the guy at the other end, who let us into the basement of the courthouse.

From there, we sat in a few different rooms, being moved around into different combinations as well as sitting by ourselves now and then, all while giving depositions about everything that had happened throughout the past little while. We had already planned out exactly how to talk about that stuff, as well as what we weren’t going to talk about. I knew it was incredibly unlikely that they would suddenly start asking about the Ministry or the Breakwater situation. The idea that my parents would ambush us with something like that wasn’t completely impossible, however, so we had practiced what to do if anything like that happened. The only person I was maybe a little worried about was Wren, just because she was so young. I’d already told her what to do if they pushed her too hard while she was by herself. She was just supposed to shut down and tell them that she wanted Poise or me to be with her. She had that right. Technically we all had the right to leave or refuse to answer whenever we wanted. But as an obvious child, they were on even stricter rules with her. As a Touched involved in this sort of thing, she could voluntarily come in and discuss these things. But the moment she said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, or that she wanted one of her older teammates to be there, they had to acquiesce. 

But nothing like that happened. The whole thing went pretty smoothly, aside from a couple defense lawyers who pressed us on a few different points. They didn’t really seem to get anywhere, however, and it was all done before long. I had the impression that most of the people involved were just going through the motions and wanted to get done with it as soon as possible. They also kept checking their phones as well as whispering to one another in the hallways. I heard Flea and Trivial’s names come up a couple times, so it was obvious what they were distracted by. There didn’t seem to be any news yet. They, like the rest of us, were simply hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happened. 

Everything seemed completely fine to me, even somewhat boring, really. Until we started to leave the main conference room. After the last bit of testimony, there was a sudden, sharp, chiming sound that made me jump. The armed bailiff guy held up a hand and asked us to wait a minute, adding that something was going on in the courthouse. Then he escorted the two lawyers, stenographer, and judge out into the hall. The door shut behind them, and we all looked at one another as the alarm went quiet. Obviously, I had the sudden, somewhat paranoid thought that this was some sort of trick. Maybe my parents really were trying something after all. This did seem a little bit obvious, but honestly, it wouldn’t be that hard. The only people we knew had heard that alarm besides ourselves were two lawyers and a few court people. It wouldn’t have been hard for the Ministry to have those few people in their pockets.

Still, I didn’t actually think it was them. It didn’t seem right. But I didn’t say anything. At least not until Paige and Sierra both turned back to us and nodded. “We’re good,” Paige announced. “The security system here is just going to think we’re standing around talking about what that alarm could be.” 

“It’s not the cheapest system in the world,” Sierra added idly. “I mean, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through it on my own with the primitive-ass hardware my new orb is made of.” 

Rolling her eyes, Paige put in, “Oh stop complaining. It’s not that far behind. You’re more advanced than any of Dad’s other work. It’s pretty obvious that body was one of the last things he put together. Besides, I’m sure Trevithick could–” 

“Nuh uh.” That was Wren, head shaking rapidly. “I’m not gonna mess with those things until you guys find an intact one, or like, several so I can mess around with them without, uh, you know…” She shifted uncomfortably. “Without breaking you. I want some orbs I can play with and take apart so I can see how they work.” 

“Thanks, kid,” Sierra replied while giving her a thumbs up. “Glad to hear you don’t wanna break me. If we can find some more of dear old Dad’s toys for you to tinker with, maybe we’ll see if you can make any improvements.” 

Wincing a bit, I raised a hand. “I know you guys say it’s safe and all that, but can we just not talk about any of that stuff while we’re in this place, please? Now what’s going on out there?” 

Murphy, standing near the door, offered a shrug. “I can’t hear a damn thing out there. Pretty sure they made this place soundproof on purpose. Probably every room down here, just so they can gossip in the hall and not let the rest of us hear any of it. Assholes.” 

Paige shook her head, focusing on me as she explained, “It looks like there’s some sort of attack going on in the courthouse. Some of those guys you helped catch at the park the other day, they’re here for arraignments and their gang showed up to rescue them.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean like, Janus and the rest of that group? Wait, what the hell does that gang call themselves anyway? I forgot to ask when we were all punching each other in the face.” 

“Trendscendents.” That was Roald, actually. He shrugged when we looked that way. “You know, like transcendence and trend put together. I was, um, you know, curious after all that. They were called the Trendscendents in their old city and I guess they kept the name after moving here.” 

“That is a stupid fucking name,” Sierra noted. “But fine, whatever. The Trendscendents are attacking the courthouse to save the rest of their people. And yeah, that means the Touched people too, if you’re that eager for round two.” 

“I don’t think it matters how eager I am,” I pointed out while gesturing to the door. “Something tells me that thing isn’t exactly gonna be easy to open if we tried. And if the court house is under attack, they probably wouldn’t react that well to us breaking out of here, even if we’re trying to help.” 

Peyton started to say something, but Paige interrupted. “That bailiff is coming back, maybe he’ll ask for help.” 

Sure enough, after another second or two, the door opened and the uniformed guy stepped in. “Ah, apologies, we’re having a bit of a situation in the courthouse.” 

“We–” Catching myself before I would have given too much away, I amended what I had been about to say. “We can help get people out if there’s a fire or something.” 

Wren caught on immediately and piped up, “Yeah, we’re really good at saving people like that! I mean, theoretically, you know? Fires, floods, gas leaks, or if there’s some old guy who won’t shut up and thinks everyone wants to hear his opinion about something that doesn’t actually affect him. Those guys are the worst.”

As I was giving the younger girl a look for that odd, seemingly rehearsed statement, Murphy and Sierra both snickered a little behind me. Oh, of course it was them. When had they planned that

The man paused briefly before shaking his head. “I don’t wanna just leave you in the dark. It’s not a fire, or a flood, or… anything like that. There’s some people attacking the courthouse. And yeah, I’m sure you’d love to help. But it’s against protocol. Y’all need to stay here and wait. We’ve got plenty of help already as it is, with more on the way. There’s just… security measures to keep in mind.” He visibly grimaced. “Might not be what you wanna hear, but it’s the rules. You stay in this place and wait for the all-clear. I’ll come back and check on ya soon enough.” 

Before any of us could say anything, he offered another apology and stepped out, pushing the door closed behind him. It wasn’t surprising, obviously, but still. The idea that there were bad guys right upstairs in the rest of the courthouse and we were just supposed to sit here and wait was… uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially when those bad guys were the very people we had all just helped fight a few days earlier. 

“Can you see what’s going on up there?” I quickly asked Paige as soon as she gave the signal that they had once again stopped the security system from observing and recording us. “How bad is it?” I was really hoping that this whole thing was already all-but over and that the bad guys would be handled without anyone else getting hurt. I didn’t actually believe that was possible, but I still hoped. 

Unsurprisingly, however, Paige shook her head. “We don’t have the full picture. They keep destroying the cameras up there or just blocking them. But from what I can see, it’s nowhere near being under control yet.” 

“That’s for sure,” Sierra added. “I mean don’t get me wrong, looks like they’ve got some solid Touched-Tech defenses up there, but things are still pretty wild. If you were seeing what we’re seeing, uhh, well you’d probably want to find a way out of this room to get up there even more than you already do.” 

“They had to know this was a possibility, right?” That was Peyton. “I mean, the courthouse has to be one of the biggest targets every day, let alone when they’ve got a bunch of gang members here who just got picked up a couple days ago. You’d think they’d have extra security. Like, some big guns just to make sure everything went smoothly. Unless they–wait this is the Ministry again, isn’t it?”

Everyone looked at me, and I grimaced behind my costume. I still didn’t want to talk about this stuff here. But Paige insisted it was safe. They couldn’t overhear us on the security system. Which, to be fair, if she had been wrong about that, we all would’ve been fucked back when she and Amber took me down into that special room in the school’s basement to train. If Paige said she had control of the system and no one could use it to spy on us, I had to take her word for it. Even if it did make me incredibly uncomfortable. And I still wasn’t going to say anything that could potentially give away my identity. 

All of that ran through my head before I nodded. “You’re probably right. I mean, they did make a deal with this gang to help them with that Inessa situation. Setting up a scenario where they could break out the ones who got captured doing that is… probably fair, as far as they’re concerned.”

Even as I said that, I was straining to listen, trying to hear some evidence of what was apparently an intense fight going on. But Murphy was right, we couldn’t pick up anything beyond the door. They had gone through a lot of trouble to make this place soundproof. Honestly, a big part of that was probably for the opposite reason. They didn’t want people in the hall to be able to hear depositions being given by people with secret identities. Then again, there were multiple rooms like this, so maybe it was just as much about making sure people in one of them couldn’t overhear what was being said in one of the others. 

Whatever the reasoning, it did its job, and we were stuck here waiting in silence. Well, most of us were. Paige and Sierra could keep track of what was going on, and for a moment I envied them. Then I thought about the father they had to deal with and decided I didn’t envy them anymore. My own family situation was weird and complicated enough, but at least I knew my parents loved me. 

None of that mattered right now, however. What mattered was dealing with what was happening upstairs. According to our resident two Biolems, every Touched member of that gang (the… Trendscendents) was here. They were all fighting up there while we just sat here. Damn it, why couldn’t that bailiff just let us out so we could help? Protocol or not, damn that, and damn the rules, we could be in there, helping to make sure those guys didn’t escape. After all, we were a big part of the reason they had been arrested in the first place. Yes, yes, we weren’t cleared through their security measures and could end up being targeted by them too. Logically, I knew all that. But it didn’t help me feel any less anxious and annoyed about this whole thing.

Pushing all that out of my mind, with some effort, I focused on what we could affect right now. Namely, planning what to do if that fight made it all the way down here. Rules or not, if those guys came to this room and picked a fight, we were going to show them one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide if I actually wanted that to happen so I’d have an excuse to get involved or not. 

So, we talked quickly about what the Touched on their side were capable of, how their Prev troops seemed to act the other day at the park, and how we could possibly counter them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to say on that point. We hadn’t had time to create any big new strategies or countermeasures. Give Wren equipment, tools, and time, and I was sure she could come up with something good. But it had only been a couple days since we first found out half these people existed. We needed more time to put something real together. At the very least, however, we could talk it out a bit. Besides, it gave us something to focus on besides just waiting for Paige and Sierra to tell us whether the situation was resolved or if we had trouble coming our way. 

In the midst of that, however, Sierra cocked her head to the side. “Well that’s odd,” she murmured. “Isn’t it?” 

Paige frowned. “Yeah, definitely weird.” 

“What?” Murphy blurted. “What’s so weird? Is Janus wearing a tutu? Please tell me Janus is wearing a tutu. Are wearing? I’m not sure what the right word would be. But tell me a tutu is involved.” 

“Please stop saying tutu,” I pleaded before focusing on the Biolem girls. “But she’s right, what’s happening?” 

The two of them glanced at one another before Paige answered. “The Trendscendents aren’t the only Fell-Touched here right now. We only caught a glimpse of them before they broke the camera, but it looks like Pack and Broadway are here too, with a couple others I didn’t recognize. Just kids in ski masks. Whatever they’re doing here, they were headed for one of the archive rooms, with the paper files.” 

That news made me blink in confusion. “Wait, what’re they doing–” 

As I was in the midst of questioning that, the lights in the room went out. We were plunged into darkness. Just as Sierra put in, “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but we’ve got bad guys coming our way after all. 

“Things are about to get pretty violent.” 

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The Storm 21-17 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Hey the non-canon chapter for Summus Proelium (actually more of a crossover with Heretical Edge) is out for everyone to read right here

Fights always happened quickly, of course. I had grown accustomed to that over the past year and a half or so. But the next few seconds, playing out as we stopped short to take in the full extent of what we were facing, were even more of a blur than usual. 

With blinding speed, a Revenant-possessed corpse put his fist through one of the glowing stalagmite formations, shattering it into a thousand pieces. His intended target, my mother’s head, had just barely managed to snap out of the way with the obvious help of Mercury’s boost. Before he could pull his arm back, she brought Mordred’s sword up to cut through it. Yet even that blade, as powerful as it was, couldn’t get all the way through his arm in one swipe. It cut a deep gouge in it, and the monster reared back with one of those horrifying screams before starting to lunge again. But Mom brought her free hand up in a sharp gesture, summoning some sort of wind blast that appeared under the monster and sent it flying up into the ceiling with enough force to leave a hole several feet deep (or high, depending on how you looked at it). 

In that instant, another of the monsters was coming at her from the side. But Brawl-Robin was there, catching the Revenant by the shoulders before ripping it away from her so they could throw the thing to the ground and stomp down toward its face. The monster acted quickly enough to put its hands in the way, catching the descending foot. It couldn’t hold on for long, however, the sheer force behind Brawl’s leg forcing the Revenant’s arms down until the sound of bones cracking filled the air. Still, even as the Mevari’s foot gradually reached the monster’s head and began to push down, two more of the monsters grabbed onto them from either side. They were strong enough together to start dragging Robin off their companion. 

At that exact same time, Nevada, Twister, Asenath, and Stasia were all fighting one more of the things. They were all strong, of course. But this monster was almost a match for them together. No matter how hard they hit it, the damn thing just would not stay down. It tanked everything they could throw, even when Nevada started pulling out more exotic weapons. She shouted for them to keep it busy while charging some sort of bracelet, and the other three did the best they could. Both vampires turned into twin blurs of motion as they rushed to grab the monster’s arms. But even as they caught hold, the Revenant easily hoisted them off the ground and slammed the two of them into one another hard enough to break several bones at the very least. 

Twister was an elephant, charging over to slam into the Revenant in an attempt to knock it off its feet as it released the other two. Even that much force, however, barely made the thing stagger. Its own hand lashed out, slapping Twister hard enough to send her tumbling across the ground. In mid-roll, she transformed into some sort of small ferret, getting her feet back under her before launching herself back toward the monster. Just as her tiny furry feet left the ground, she turned into a hummingbird and flew that way. At the last moment, her form shifted once more, growing into a huge rhino. She slammed into the Revenant like that, finally hitting the thing with enough force to knock it down as the rhino body continued on past the thing and went tumbling to the side.

The thing didn’t stay on the ground long. Or at least, it didn’t intend to. It was already clambering back up as the rhino was rolling. But before it could fully get its feet under it, Nevada pointed her hand with the now-charged bracelet. With a single word, she sent a blast of energy that way, which wrapped around the monster and held it in a tight cocoon. The Revenant was fighting against it, but couldn’t manage to escape. For now, at least, it was contained. 

Judas, meanwhile, had been nowhere in sight at first. Then I saw him emerge from Twister, whom he had apparently been possessing. Three quick steps carried him right in front of another Revenant, who had been reaching down toward the still-fallen Asenath and Stasia. Distracted by Judas, the monster lunged after him. But Judas managed to pivot out of the way, barely fast enough to avoid those grasping hands. An instant later, his fist slammed into the side of the Revenant’s head hard enough to knock it down. 

That was Charmeine’s Olympian power. The more she hated the thing she was fighting against, or the more she loved the person she was protecting, the stronger and faster she was. In this case, Judas was protecting Stasia, and that power made him both fast enough to avoid the Revenant’s grasp when it had taken my mother being boosted by Mercury to do that before, and strong enough to level the monster with one punch when it had taken a flying rhino a moment earlier. Not that the single punch was enough to make the Revenant stay down forever, but still.

Then there was Persephone. My rapidly-scanning gaze finally spotted her, past everyone else. The Revenant–our Revenant– stood completely still as one of the other creatures put his fist through her stomach with a terrifyingly-powerful blow, sending a spray of blood and other bits flying. At the same time, he lunged toward her throat with an open mouth, intent on ripping that apart as well. But Persephone caught hold of his arm, the one sticking halfway into her torso, and gripped tight before literally headbutting him right in that lunging mouth. Most of his teeth were knocked out just like that, before the woman shoved his arm out of herself, caught the other one he was swinging around toward her face, and then hoisted him off the ground so she could spin in a circle to fling him as hard as she could into the distant wall. He collided with enough force to make the room shake a bit. Which left Persephone standing there with an awful hole in her stomach. At least for a brief moment, before she used Kore’s Olympian power (the one that allowed her to restore anything to any condition she herself had created, good or bad) and made herself perfectly healthy once more.

All of that played out in front of our eyes in those couple of seconds as our feet were still skidding to a stop so we could take all this in and reevaluate exactly how this was going to go.

Distract the monsters and survive long enough for someone to reach the crystal and go through all the time it would take to turn it on so we could call the rest of the damn things back. It sounded simple in concept, yet now that we were face to face with not just a few Revenants but eighteen of them, it suddenly became a hell of a lot more complicated. 

Blast?! Tabbris quickly asked while we were still taking in the whole scene. Several of the Revenants were already peeling off from the main group to come after us. Any hope we’d had that Mom and the others would be able to hold their attention by themselves had basically faded when we realized how many there were. We’d already known this wasn’t going to be simple, but this was even worse than expected. 

No, I sent back immediately. Save it for an emergency. Sure, this seemed pretty emergency-adjacent, but I was hoping we’d be able to get a large group of them together and hit the things all at once in order to really turn the tables. Once Tabs used her wings, we wouldn’t be able to do it again for a few minutes. And I was pretty sure ‘a few minutes’ would be the entirety of this fight, for better or for worse. We were going to have one shot with that, and we needed to make it a good one. 

To that end, I raised both hands and focused intently. Of the four Revenants walking our way, three stopped short. They were struggling to move, just like the ones back in the other chamber had. I could feel them thrashing and fighting against my control. I was strong enough to stop them like this, and could probably even force them to move. I definitely didn’t have fine enough control to make all of them fight. But on the other hand… I released my control on one of them and redirected that effort toward controlling the other two into attacking him. Soon, all three were doing their level best to tear one another apart. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t relax my grip on those two as they fought the third, and the fourth was still coming our way. In the background, I could see Mom and the rest of that group fighting the majority of these things. We just had to deal with these ones. And find a way to get to that crystal. Boy would it have been nice if one of my ghosts could activate it while we kept these monsters busy, but of course it apparently required a living person to use the thing. Because they had to make this as complicated and difficult as possible. 

Beside me, Shiori took a step forward before unleashing a blast of lightning from her mouth straight into the nearest of the approaching Revenants as it strode our way. That was immediately joined by a second blast of lightning coming from Kaleigh’s (the red-haired girl’s) outstretched fingers, a beam of what seemed to be cold/freezing energy from Royce’s (the blonde guy’s) eyes, and a sustained line of gunfire from some sort of pistol the black girl, Emily, was holding up. Two blasts of lightning, a beam of cold, and like a dozen or so bullets struck that monster in that moment. And none of it seemed to accomplish anything. The Revenant didn’t even slow down. It acted as though the attacks crashing into it was a summer breeze, if that much. It just kept casually walking our way. Even when Miles began making some sort of solid crystal shapes appear in front of the monster to block it, the thing just forced its way through them. It was slowed, marginally, but was still coming. 

Quickly, I started to shift my control away from one of the other two Revenants who were still fighting the third, but in that exact moment, the thing stopped walking. Suddenly, it became a blur of motion, crossing the distance between us instantly. Before I could shift focus, the thing’s hands were on my neck and Shiori’s. I could feel it starting to tighten down, clearly intending to snap our necks immediately, without any fanfare or hesitation. But at the last possible instant, I managed to make it stop. The thing was lifting both of us off the ground, its grip still tight enough to cut off our air as we flailed. But I caught its body in my own invisible grip, freezing it before the Revenant could finish closing its hands.

At that moment, the others were there. Jason and Chas, two more of Miles’ teammates, grabbed the Revenant by its arms and yanked it away from us. I was still keeping it frozen, so their strength was enough to pull it free, leaving Shiori and I to drop to the ground and start breathing again. 

The good news was that the two Revenants I had sicced on their companion had actually managed to do enough damage as they ripped it apart to kill the thing. The bad news was that I was no longer controlling them, and they were fast enough to launch themselves into the middle of our group before I could catch my breath and adjust. Chas and Jason both went down as one of the things crashed into them, while Emily shouted their names. She and Kaleigh both lunged after them to help. 

Meanwhile, Miles was on the ground with the other Revenant already on top of him, snapping his head to the side to avoid the fist that it tried to put through his face. Unfortunately, that just put his head in the perfect position for the Revenant’s other descending fist. But Miles suddenly wasn’t there. Instead, some sort of stone statue version of him lay in his place, while the boy was clambering out of a ‘him-shaped’ hole in the ground a few feet away. Apparently he had some sort of power to exchange himself for an equivalent-sized and shaped piece of inanimate material. 

At the same time, Kaleigh and Emily had both been hurled sidelong into one of the nearby stalagmites by a casual shove, while their own Revenant caught Jason by the head, yanked him back, and started to slam it forward into Chas’s. With its strength, both of their heads would basically disintegrate under that force. 

But I couldn’t let that happen. Extending both hands, I threw all my power behind making it stop. The Revenant halted abruptly, still holding Jason by the head. God, I could feel it straining against my invisible grip. This thing was unbelievably strong, and old. It was ancient, one of the first of the old Seosten creations–wait no, older than that. This wasn’t a Seosten Revenant. It was one of the first, one of those created by the Reapers back when they wanted to destroy everything. It was one of their weapons, one of the original Revenants who were used as templates for the ones the Seosten created. For millennia, it had been locked up in here, this ancient being of untold power. And it was not happy about me stopping it from carrying out the murderous desires that had built up throughout that time. It railed violently against my control, even as Chas and Jason managed to extricate themselves and roll away to either side. But no matter how old the thing was, or how angry it might have been, it couldn’t escape. I was able to keep it frozen there, aside from the awful wailing sound it filled the air with. 

On the other hand, if this thing really wanted to fight and rip something apart, I’d give it a target. With a grunt of effort, I sent it after the other Revenant, the one Miles had just escaped from. Even as that thing was gathering itself to lunge after the boy, this one crashed into it. They screamed at one another, flailing and tearing violently as they rolled across the ground. But I had to keep my focus on the one, forcing it to keep fighting the other. 

At the same time, Tabbris took control of my hand to reach into one of my pockets so she could pull out a stone we had prepared earlier. My mouth blurted the activation word as I chucked the thing back over my shoulder in the direction of another Revenant that had been rushing toward us. The spell on the rock activated as soon as it hit the ground, creating a ten-feet wide, twenty-feet deep pit right under the Revenant’s feet for it to crash down into. A second later, Tabbris made my mouth spit out the deactivation word, turning it back into solid ground. It wouldn’t stop the Revenant for more than a couple seconds, if that. But right now, literally every second counted. 

The others were all fighting around us, as it took everything we had to stay ahead of these things. For the moment, we had it under control. But that wouldn’t last forever, and we still had to get to the crystal. Or someone did.

“Go!” I shouted toward Shiori. “You’ve gotta get to that thing and activate it!” She could do it. Her half-vampire enhancements coupled with the powers she’d picked up as a Heretic, she could make it. Especially with an escort. Which I arranged immediately, summoning Rahanvael, Seth, Grover, and over a dozen other ghosts. “They’ll cover you, just get to that crystal! We’ll be right behind you!” Even as those words were coming out, I had to force down the wave of revulsion that washed over me at the thought of sending Shiori off like that. If more of these monsters caught up with her, if–no. The ghosts would cover her. And the rest of us would keep them busy. 

For Shiori’s part, the girl hesitated for a brief second. Then her eyes darted around to take in the whole situation. Realizing we didn’t have time to discuss it, and that she was the best choice, considering all my focus had to go toward controlling and stopping these monsters, she gave me a very quick nod. Then she leaned in to touch her lips to mine before pivoting to start running. The ghosts spread out to play blockers for her. They wouldn’t be able to do much to any Revenants, but they might be able to slow them down a little bit. 

As she started running, one of the other Revenants immediately chased after her. But I quickly grabbed it with my power, halting the thing in mid-step just before it could launch itself after the girl. Which freed the one I was forcing to fight its companion, but as it was trying to scramble up, Miles and the rest of his entire team unleashed everything they could on both of them. Despite all that, however, one of the monsters managed to stand. Even under sustained attacks from six different (admittedly young) Heretics, the Revenant pushed itself up. It continued inexorably standing, its hands reaching out toward Royce. At least until a seventh Heretic came in out of nowhere, caught the thing by the arm and back of its neck, and sent it flying into the other monster with so much force they both went down. 

“Guess I can’t really turn down a fight after all,” Trice muttered, before unleashing a sustained blast of some sort of purple flames from both hands on the two Revenants.

For the next minute, the rest of us struggled to keep these monsters busy. We couldn’t kill them. They were just too strong, too impervious to everything we could throw at the damn things. Even with my ability to control them, there were just too many. They kept coming, kept breaking through our defenses. It was all we could do to slow these things down. 

“Fuck’s sake!” Trice shouted while recoiling from a backhanded blow, “Is someone gonna activate that crystal or not?!” 

Even as he asked that, I felt a tug from Seth. Focusing on seeing through his eyes, I found that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that Shiori had reached the crystal. Or she was close to it, anyway. The bad news was that she was on the ground, with several more Revenants closing in. My ghosts were doing the best they could to hold them back, but Shiori had apparently crashed pretty hard. It was taking her a moment to get back up, and one of the monsters went right through Seth, reaching for her. 

Oh fuck no. Instantly, I threw all the power I could into the ghost-vampire, even as he spun back around after the Revenant. I managed to give him enough strength to catch the thing by the arm, yank it back, and throw the screeching monster to the ground. 

But that wouldn’t last long. Summoning one of my other ghosts, I produced another stone, shoving it into him while blurting, “Mar’ah!” It transformed him from being partially-translucent to being reflective, like a mirror. “Shiori’s there, I’ve gotta help her!” With those snapped words toward the others, I used my walk through reflections power, passing into that ghost, and out through Rahanvael, who had already shifted herself into a mirror-like surface at my silent request. 

I came out right next to the fallen Revenant, who was already starting to pick himself up. Before he could, I drove my staff down into his back. Or tried to. The blade literally bounced off him. But the force of the blow still managed to knock him back down for a second. 

More Revenants were coming. I reached out, grabbing Shiori’s hand to haul her up. “Go, I’ve got you!” Giving her a little push toward the crystal, I pivoted back to face the incoming monsters. There were five of them. Three halted as I threw my power at them. The other two were slowed by what was left of my ghosts, the ones who hadn’t been torn through and temporarily dissipated already. 

Shiori was already at the crystal. The thing was about three feet tall and a foot or so wide, hovering in the air just off the ground. It was reddish-orange, and seemed to hum with power. The hum got louder as the other girl put both hands on it and began to activate the thing exactly the way the elderly primitive Seosten had instructed. 

She was on it. She had the crystal and it was responding. But now she had to stay completely focused on that for a solid minute or so. A minute during which these Revenants would be doing everything they could to rip her apart. 

And I had to make sure that didn’t happen. 

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Center Of Attention 26-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Over the next couple of days, people got louder and more insistent about wanting to see Flea and Trivial come back from Breakwater. Not just people in Detroit, but all over. The story about two Touched going onto that island to save a missing woman had worldwide attention. Not only did the mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan put out public statements urging their safe and timely return, but the president of the whole United States did too. That congressional inquiry was proceeding along, with several representatives on multiple sides of the political spectrum giving soundbites about it. So did my father, both as himself and as Silversmith. It was a whole thing. Flea and Trivial were both made out to be a couple of the biggest heroes around. The news played various clips from across both of their careers, including Flea as one of the first Minority members way back when the whole Touched situation was just getting off the ground.

Needless to say, the more this went on and the bigger it became, the more nervous I was about it potentially blowing up in our faces. We had known it would be a big deal. That was the whole point after all, we had to make it loud and public enough that the people behind Breakwater couldn’t just sweep it under the rug and ignore it. But this was even more than I had expected. If anyone found out we were the ones responsible for it, I didn’t know what would happen. 

Breakwater, of course, had already officially acknowledged that the two were there and that they had safely recovered the missing civilian woman (who would remain ‘anonymous’) from the island. According to those people, the three were simply being examined to make certain they were safe. As public voices grew louder about wanting to see them back where they belonged, Breakwater put out another statement basically saying they would be on the next available plane and would touch down here in Detroit on Friday afternoon. Then they would be able to answer questions and show everyone they were safe.

At the moment, it was Thursday, two full days after Peyton and I had done that whole thing with the homeless camp. The past couple days had been spent mostly helping to keep Paige and Sierra from totally losing their minds while we all waited. There had been a couple more calls from their dad, but we ignored them. None of us wanted to deal with him right now. 

A lot of the job of distracting them came down to training. Not just with my new paint combinations, but all of us doing more to learn how to protect ourselves. The two of them really threw themselves into that whole thing, making us spend hours every day getting our butts kicked and stretching our muscles both in virtual reality and in real life. They insisted that it was more important to train and to be ready than it was to be out on the street right at that moment. Sierra in particular took great pleasure in describing all the ways she could think of that we could end up hurt or crippled. Paige, on the other hand, took the tack of explaining just how bad we would feel if we went out to help people and ended up making things worse. So, for those couple days, we mostly stayed inside and worked on that whole training thing. Though we did keep an eye on local social media in case something big happened. But, for the most part, the city was quiet through those days. It was like all the gangs were collectively taking a breath and evaluating their next moves. 

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, we had something other than training planned. It was time for me to take my whole team in to do the court deposition things. I had called ahead to set up an appointment for that, so they knew we were coming. Obviously, I was nervous about how that would go. Not that I expected anything bad to happen, and yet. We would all be in the underground court place giving our depositions and talking to the lawyers for all the people we had fought against. I had no idea how that was going to go. Especially considering I had only done it myself once before. If the lawyers pushed Murphy or Sierra too much about one thing or another, I had no idea how they would react. Murphy in particular was still getting through her emotions about her brother’s death, and I really could not imagine how she would react if any lawyer for one of Luciano’s thugs pressured her on what had happened with them. It probably wouldn’t be pretty, that was for sure. I had warned her that the subject might come up, but still.

But all of that would be settled later. At the moment, I was still in school. It was right before my last class of the day, and I was exchanging books from my bag to the locker. As I grabbed the last book I needed from the shelf, a voice spoke up behind me. “Cassidy Evans?” 

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a familiar Asian face, though one I hadn’t expected to see around this place. “Maki?” Turning fully, I blinked that way and closed my locker with one foot. “What’re you doing here? I mean, not that you’re not allowed to be here, I just–I thought you were homeschooled or whatever.” Okay, I really had to stop talking right then, or I might just accidentally blurt out something about them changing sexes randomly and that would be hard to explain knowing about. Even if I was incredibly curious about how that worked. 

Maki, for their part, offered an easy smile. “Oh, I am. My parents rather insist on it, particularly given how much we move around. But there are certain subjects even they are not as versed in as they wish to be, so I tend to come to one school or another for extra tutoring during a teacher’s free hour. They are compensated quite well for it. Which I would normally say the teachers compensate for their criminally low regular pay, but from what Tomas says, this school is an exception to that rule.” 

Coughing slightly, I nodded. “Yeah, we’re a private academy so the teachers are pretty, ahhhh, well-compensated already, I guess.” I ignored the fact that my parents were one of the biggest reasons for that, along with my own question of how many of the staff around here were spying for them in one way or another. It was a bad idea to get into that line of thought around anyone, let alone a near-stranger whom I knew had some sort of Touched powers that I didn’t understand. 

Granted, it was unlikely that ‘shapeshifting sex and maybe possibly making things taste really good’ would translate into being able to magically know what I was thinking about, but I was pretty sure weirder things had happened. And I still had no idea how those two things worked together. 

Yeah, this whole situation and things like it would sure be a hell of a lot easier if I could just come out and ask people what I wanted to know. Come to think of it, that would solve a lot of my issues. Granted, it would almost certainly create even more, but it was still somewhat tempting. 

If they noticed anything weird about my expression, Maki didn’t comment on it. Instead, they replied, “They do seem happier here than in other schools I have seen.” They give me a curious look then. “Do you mind if I ask you a rather personal question? You are free to simply tell me that it’s none of my business if you don’t wish to answer.” 

“I uhh, sure, go ahead.” Shrugging, I added, “I’ll do my best, but no promises that any answer I give will actually be worth anything. You know, even if I do feel comfortable with it.”

Giving a nod of acceptance of that, they asked, “I know that the only reason you and Tomas broke up was his move back to England. But do you still have feelings for him? I mean, feelings you wish to pursue, if I was not in the picture.” 

Ohhhh boy. Couldn’t they just ask me if I knew anything about this big criminal organization known as the Ministry, or if I had ever seen these biological robot things around, or something easier to get into like that? This was so much harder to think about than those things. 

Blanching when they saw the expression on my face, Maki quickly held up a hand. “Don’t worry, forget about it. You don’t have to answer. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or cause any problems. Pretend I didn’t say anything, it’s–” 

“No, it’s okay,” I interrupted before glancing around. Not for the first time, I was glad my school wasn’t exactly super-crowded. Even though we were between classes right now, there weren’t too many people near enough to overhear this whole personal conversation. “Believe me, I get why you were asking. I do. I’d probably wonder about it too if I was in your situation. I just–” Taking a deep breath, I pushed on. “If he hadn’t moved, I think we’d still be together. I like him a lot. He’s fun and talented, and all those things you already know. But he did move. And because he was gone, we broke up. Now he’s with you. And I know he likes you. You two are together, that’s what matters. Not what it is. He’s with you, and I’m happy for both of you. Trust me, I just…” A sigh escaped me. “I don’t really have time for that sort of thing right now anyway.” 

“You don’t?” Maki blinked. “Your friend, ah, San Francisco, he made me believe that you were actively looking for someone to go out with.” 

“He did wh–” Catching myself, I felt my face flush a bit. “Yeah well, San tends to read into things that aren’t there. And he has a bit of a one track mind sometimes. Trust me, I’ve got plenty of stuff to keep me busy. You know, schoolwork and… just trying to stay on top of things.” It was a lame response, I knew immediately. But what was I supposed to do, tell them most of my free time went into either being a Star-Touched or training to become a better one? 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I forced myself to continue. “And I’m definitely not looking to get back with Tomas, I swear. You guys are cool together.” 

Maki started to say something else, but the bell rang. They looked up before turning their attention back to me. “Thank you, Miss–I mean Cassidy. I am very sorry for putting you on the spot. I just thought it was best to be open about these things.” 

“Oh no, sure, yeah, no problem.” Realizing I was babbling, I flushed a bit before stepping away from the locker. “I get it. And hey, good luck with your whole tutoring thing. I’m sure you’ll be perfect at it.” 

I turned to head to my own class then, but not before seeing the weird way Maki’s head snapped around to stare at me in what looked like disbelief and uncertainty. 

Was it something I said? 

******

“This is bullshit!” Those words were accompanied by a loud bang as Sierra punched the wall upstairs in Wren’s lab. She was dressed in a pair of long black slacks and a purple silk shirt with a black tie, her dyed blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Even then, and with her having sunglasses on as well, I could still see the deep similarities between us. But I had no idea if that was just because I already knew we were physically identical. Nor did I know if that was really what I looked like when I was exasperated and angry. 

“Friday?” she continued. “If they already got them off that stupid island, why would it really take them until Friday to send them back here? It doesn’t take that long to get a plane over there. especially not with the sort of pressure they’re under. Official, government-level pressure.” Her expression tightened, as she took the sunglasses off and tucked them into the front pocket of the shirt. “They’re up to something, I just know it.” Her voice was dangerous, making it clear just how much she wanted to show her displeasure about the delay to the people responsible for it. 

Before responding to that, I glanced around. The others were all up here too, as we got ready to go deal with that court thing. Everyone was standing around, looking anxious. Understandable, really. Even if we didn’t have the depositions to do, there was the obvious Breakwater situation. Everyone else might not be as open about their feelings on the subject as Sierra was, but we were all feeling the pressure from the delay. Still, I was trying to remain optimistic. If nothing else, the others really needed me to. 

So, I took a breath before starting with, “Yeah, it’s possible they’re up to something. I wouldn’t really put it past them to be doing everything they can to cover their butts. But honestly, they already acknowledged that Flea and Trivial were there, and they claimed that they got them off the island. If those two disappear now, it’ll be a lot worse for Breakwater’s people. They already have all the attention on them. In the long run, it’s best if those two just show up back here in Detroit following the same story we gave them. That’s probably what they’re spending these couple days on, making sure they’re on the same page and that they’ll stick to the story. I mean, besides the whole medical evaluation thing, which they probably really are doing too. I mean, that’s an exotic island full of super villains who could be doing anything. It’s not really surprising that they’d need to go through a whole evaluation period.” 

Paige spoke up with clearly forced calmness, though I could hear the tension behind her voice too. “They’re probably also scouring the info we sent in, trying to figure out if it was someone in their own ranks who exposed the situation.”

Oh right, that made sense. I hadn’t even really thought about it that way, but yeah. Of course Breakwater would think it was one of their own people who had sent that information out, rather than it actually having come from here in Detroit. After all, their own people would be the ones who knew that Flea and Trivial were on the island. They probably thought that whoever it was had a soft heart or something and had simply made it look like the information came from here. It did make more sense from their perspective for it to be one of their own people. It was a thought that made me wince a little bit at the idea of what the employees there were probably going through as their bosses struggled to identify the leaker. 

“That’s probably part of the reason for the delay too,” Roald put in while raising his hand. “Maybe they want to see if they can figure out who was responsible for exposing the situation before they actually send them home.”  

Murphy snorted. “In that case, it’s gonna be a pretty long time before we see them.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the girl visibly blanched and focused on Paige and Sierra. “I mean, shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean… sorry.” 

Wren quickly piped up from where she was busy using her wrench on some big metal box-like thing she had been working on. “They’ll be home soon, I know they will. And they’ll bring your sister with! But uhh…” She looked up, pulling the goggles off her face to stare at Sierra in particular. “What’re you gonna tell her about… you?” 

“Hey, that’s a good question,” Peyton agreed. She popped up next to Wren, holding the box of tools the other girl kept asking for items from. “How are you gonna introduce yourself to her? Or explain any of–you know.” She gestured back and forth between the other girl and me. 

Sierra hesitated before shaking her head. “I’m not. I mean, I’m not gonna introduce myself. How could I? I’d have to get into that whole thing, all of it.“

“Would that be a bad thing?” I pointed out. “Seriously, she’s probably our best chance at getting an adult involved in this. We can be pretty damn sure she’s not involved in the Ministry herself by this point, and she’ll trust Paige.” 

“Will she?” Paige put in, shaking her head. “I’m the reason she ended up on Breakwater to begin with. Whatever she’s been through over there, whatever–” She stopped, giving a heavy sigh before pushing on. “Maybe she’ll want nothing to do with me. I just want to know she’s safe, and… and I don’t know. But if she wants me to leave her alone forever after all that, I’d completely understand.” Even as she said that, the girl glanced in my direction. I knew what she was thinking. She’d expected me to not want anything to do with her after years of being forced to treat me like shit. But that was the key point, she was forced to do that. Even if I still had some lingering uncertainty and emotional… issues with the whole thing, logically I knew it wasn’t her fault. 

“We’ll handle it,” I managed after taking a second to collect myself. “When she gets here, we’ll figure out how she’s feeling and… and all the rest of it. Then we’ll go from there. But for now–” As I said that, the alarm on my phone chimed, and I looked down to check. “Uh, right, for now, it’s time to go to court. You guys ready to head out?”

Raising his hand, Roald asked, “Is it too late to call in sick? Because I think I might ralph.” 

“Oh don’t worry,” I assured him, “I’m pretty sure that’s a normal feeling. But if it happens, do us all a favor and please don’t aim for the lawyers.  

“No matter how tempting it is.” 

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The Storm 21-16 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, so there was a way to stop the army of Revenants from rampaging all over the planet. Unfortunately, to get to the off switch, we were going to have to fight our way through other Revenants who were guarding it. And our ridiculous secret weapon, Sun Wukong, was off delaying the main body of the things so they wouldn’t do as much damage. Which was too important to pull him away from. Besides, I didn’t even know how to do that if I wanted to. Which meant it was absolutely up to the rest of us to actually go through the Revenants who were left and get to that switch. Or the crystal, as the old man had called it. 

We all would’ve liked to get a lot more information out of these people, but there wasn’t time. Sure, Wukong was out there and had already proven himself more than a match for these Revenants, but I didn’t think even he could be everywhere at once to stop all of them. At least not before they managed to kill a lot of civilians. 

But we also couldn’t just leave all the villagers. There was no telling what they might do behind our backs while we were gone. Fortunately, Judas’s pocket greenhouse was more than big enough to hold them. Denuvus ordered them inside, before the man closed it up. We’d deal with that whole thing once the bigger situation was dealt with. Assuming we were all still alive. And yes, the thought of what would happen to those guys in the garden if we weren’t around to get them out again did make me blanch a little. Even if they were celebrating the fact that they had unleashed a horde of monsters to genocide an entire world, I was pretty sure they didn’t really know any better. Their entire culture and history revolved around this. 

Still, they were a problem right now. So they could just stay in time-out until we were ready to do something about them. Otherwise they would almost certainly end up making the situation worse. 

Once they were out of the way, we were running again. This time, Persephone and the others led us back in the direction of where the Revenants had been locked up. They’d managed to find their way back to familiar territory near that village area, and now they knew exactly where we were going. 

The rest of us trailed behind them, even as they in turn kept shooting glances toward Denuvus. As did the rest of Miles’ team. We’d given them the quick explanation about why she was working with us, but I was pretty sure they were still convinced she’d find a way to fuck us over. Which was fair, considering the not-insubstantial part of me that felt the same way. 

Then there was Trice. He was only around to stay close to Denuvus, which… was he actually loyal to her? She hadn’t been using her power on him in all the time since we’d run into her, but did she have some longer term method of control? Or was this all by his choice? 

Maybe he just knew we were his best chance to get off this world in the long run. 

Soon enough (even if it felt like an eternity), I didn’t have time to wonder about his motivations, or anything else aside from what was right in front of us and what we were going to have to pull off to fix this situation. With every step as we ran along the tunnels and caverns, the terror I felt about what was going on out across the rest of this world got worse. As absurdly powerful as Wukong apparently was, there were too many of them. They were too fast, too strong, too… dangerous. Even if he was fine, even if he could survive and triumph over the entire swarm, all they had to do was spread out. Even with duplication, he certainly couldn’t stop them all, and even a single one could utterly devastate an entire village on its own incredibly quickly. The longer this took, the more innocent people were going to die. And it had already taken entirely too long. I kept imagining that every time my foot hit the ground, another person was dead. Another ten people, another fifty. How many would it be in the end, by the time this was over? How much death and tragedy had these people unleashed on a world that had already been through more than its fair share? 

On the way there, we talked about what we would find. Apparently, the way to the chamber where the Revenants had been imprisoned wasn’t just an ordinary door. According to Judas and the others, there had been what looked like a large sarcophagus mounted to the wall. When they got there with the tribals, the eyes lit up and it scanned Persephone before opening to reveal a dark void beyond. Unfortunately, they never got further than that. As soon as it was opened, the tribals who were with them had shouted something triumphantly, just before that swarm of Revenants had all flown out and taken off through the walls. When they realized what was happening, Robin, Persephone, Judas, and Stasia had tried to do something about it. But the leader of the tribals had teleported them off to the trap room we’d found them in. 

Percy, for her part, visibly flinched at the reminder that the rest of the Revenants had been released when she stood in front of the sarcophagus thing. She started to offer another apology, but I reached out to squeeze her arm. “It’s okay,” I assured her while we continued to run. “You didn’t know!” 

And yet, even as I said that, I couldn’t help the shot of guilt that rushed through my own system. I hadn’t known what would happen either, but still. I had brought her here. Everything would’ve been fine, generally speaking, if we stayed on that station. The only reason these monsters were even a threat right now was because I brought Persephone here. Little things such as the fact that we were coming to this world anyway and she would’ve ended up here even if it was after the Denuvus situation was resolved didn’t stop my stomach from churning. Yes, we would have come to this world, and yes, it was likely that we would have checked this place out, considering the whole Fossor thing. But still… yeah, but still. 

As for Persephone, she still looked torn and disgusted with herself, but gave me a very slight nod. “Whatever it takes, I will make this right, Felicity Chambers. I will help you stop my people. But be careful. They are very strong. I… I do not want any of you to die now.”

Mom spoke up before I could respond to that, even as we rounded a corner at a full sprint and started descending through a slightly more narrow tunnel. “No one’s dying. We just have to lure them away from the crystal. I doubt we can get them out of the chamber, but we should be able to present a pretty good distraction.” 

Mercury gave a short nod. “Of course. Remember, we don’t have to win any sort of fight with them, just distract them enough for one person to get to the crystal and activate it. You all remember what our elderly friend said about how to do that.” His voice caught a little on ‘elderly friend.’ I was pretty sure he was still trying to cope with the idea that these tribal people were all descended from ancient, pre-modification Seosten. Even Tabbris was clearly reeling from that whole thing, and she hadn’t actually grown up within their civilization the way he had. 

Asenath, clearly doing her best to roll with the revelation that the man who had screwed up her father’s memories was already dead (killed by the man responsible for so many of my own family’s problems, even), found her voice. “Sure, just get everyone to play ‘neener neener can’t catch me’ with the Revenants until one of us can get to the crystal and call the whole thing off. We know how to do that.”

Despite my fear and revulsion about how long it was taking and how many people would have been killed in that time, we reached the spot in question in what had to be record time. ‘The spot,’ in this case, was an ovular chamber, just barely large enough for our rather numerous group to fit within. There, just in front of us, was the sarcophagus, just like they’d said. It was open, revealing the promised black void beyond. A black void through which we would apparently be able to reach the room with the crystal, where we could put a stop to this whole thing. 

As soon as we stopped, I peered into that darkness ahead of us. I felt… something. It was dangerous and powerful, enough to make me shudder a little as sweat dotted itself across my forehead. “Right, so the room’s right through that doorway?” 

“It’s not just a doorway,” Mom announced. She paused, squinting closer at it before adding, “It’s a portal of some sort. Wherever the actual chamber on the other side is, it’s not right there. Probably much deeper underground.” 

Oh, right. Yeah, of course. If this thing was just a normal door leading to the Revenants those guys wanted to unleash, they probably could have found a way through at some point in all these years. It being a portal that had to be activated made a lot more sense. 

“Sure, magical portal somewhere else, great.” Muttering that, I added, “No wonder we can’t see anything. But I’m pretty sure I can still sense the Revenants through that portal. They’re uhh…they’re in there, and they’re staying on the far side of the room, probably near the crystal. At least, as far as I can tell. It’s hard to make out specifics.” I swallowed. “And for the record, they’re not a cheerful bunch.”

“My people never are,” Persephone noted a bit sadly. “These ones are no exception.” 

Stepping right next to her, Mercury put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “They are not your people, Persephone. We are.” With those firm words, he added, “Everyone knows what to do now, how to start the crystal if you’re the one who gets to it?” 

“Yeah,” Trice was muttering, “and we know it takes at least a full minute of focus. A full minute where the person doing it can’t react to anything or defend themselves. I don’t know about any of you, but that screams suicide to me.” 

With a small smile, Denuvus agreed, “Which is why I am certainly not going inside.” When everyone looked at her, she shrugged. “I am a survivor. You don’t become a survivor by intentionally putting yourself into enclosed spaces with creatures who could kill you. If you all succeed at this little endeavor, I shall applaud you. If not, I shall find some other method of leaving this world and achieving my goals. There are always options. Oh, and good luck to you.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” Trice stepped over closer to where the woman was standing. “Good luck, have fun, try not to die.” His eyes found mine as he added in a flat voice, “I’d hate to have to give your other girlfriend that news.” 

Ignoring him, because he was irrelevant and we didn’t have time, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and looked back to the opening. “Right, well everything else about those two aside, I think it’s fair that anyone who doesn’t want to go in there with those Revenants doesn’t have to.” 

“Felicity’s absolutely correct,” Mom agreed. “The creatures in that chamber are some of the most dangerous in the universe. If they have bodies right now, as we suspect they do, they could be nearly unstoppable in a pack like that. Anyone who doesn’t want to go in there, you don’t have to. No one is going to look down on you for it.” 

We all looked at one another then. I was going in. So was my mother, and Mercury. Shiori, Asenath, and Twister would be there too. Nevada had already begun pulling new weapons out of her bracelet-box thing. Robin’s eyes had switched over to red for Brawl, with Judas and Stasia on either side of him. They were going in too. 

The only real question, in the end, was Miles and his team. They had been talking amongst themselves the whole time we came up here, and even more before then. I kept hearing him apologize for his part in getting them caught up in the whole Denuvus situation, and they continually told him to knock it off because it wasn’t his fault. That, of course, had been accompanied with lingering, dark looks toward the woman whose fault it actually was. Not that Denuvus paid any attention to them, or seemed to care in any way what they thought of her. 

After a quick few words exchanged among themselves, Miles turned back and gave a slightly shaky nod, his voice cracking. “Not really time for any grand speeches or promises, but we’re going in.” His eyes shifted toward Denuvus once more as he added a bit pointedly, “It might not be our fault that this happened, but we were still involved. So we’re gonna help fix it.” 

“Yeah,” the Caucasian boy with light brown hair whom I thought was named Jason (was it me, or were there a lot of those?) agreed. “People are dying out there, and a lot more are gonna be right behind them. We can’t just let that happen. Besides, isn’t saving innocents from monsters the whole Heretic thing?” 

“Okay.” I could tell that even saying that single word hurt my mother. The last thing she wanted to do was let us go in there. Not just me, but everyone else too, especially those of us who were still students. Unfortunately, there was nobody else. There weren’t enough adults here to distract the Revenants and use the crystal. Especially not with Trice and Denuvus both backing out. 

This was what my mother had done for a long time, back in the first rebellion. She knew that some of the people she sent on various missions would not come back. She knew she couldn’t be everywhere at once and couldn’t do everything that needed to be done. Even during the time that she’d had Committee level powers, she was only one person. Being the leader of the Rebellion had meant sending people to die. And knowing her, she remembered all of them. Hell, it hadn’t been that long since we lost Tribald Kine, one of her oldest friends. 

I just hoped we could get through this without my mother being forced to put any more of those tallies on her board.

With everything settled as it was going to be, we lined up, and I took a look at this group that was about to try to take on a small army of Revenants long enough to shut this whole thing down. I wished Avalon and the rest of my team were here. I wished Vanessa and Tristan were here. I wished–well, wishing wouldn’t really do anything. Besides, as much as I wished they were here, I was also glad they weren’t. If this went wrong at all, it was going to go very wrong.

Ready, partner? I asked Tabbris, feeling her reassuring presence within me as I pushed those thoughts out of my head. 

Um, as ready as ever, she managed. I could feel her uncertainty. Are we sure this whole thing isn’t just an elaborate trick Denuvus set up just in case? You know, make this whole thing as a trick in case things start going wrong for her so she can send us through that portal to some prison she’s set up or whatever. 

Wincing a bit inwardly, I replied, Trust me, I thought about that too. But I don’t think even she’s that good. She hasn’t had time to set that up, and there’s a few too many pieces involved. Plus, we saw those other Revenants. 

Yeah, I know, she agreed hesitantly. I just needed to hear someone else say it. 

It was time. With Denuvus and Trice standing out of the way and watching us like they thought we were idiots, the rest of us took a deep breath. Metaphorically in Robin’s case. Then they and Persephone lunged through the hole.

The portal through the sarcophagus was only wide enough for a couple people at a time. Those two went through first, with my mother and Nevada right behind them. Mercury was possessing Mom to make her stronger and faster. After those four were in, Stasia and Asenath jumped through, with Judas and Twister right behind them. 

Only once all of them were through the portal did the rest of us go. They would be attracting the first reaction and initial attack from the creatures inside. I didn’t like my mom being in that position, to say nothing of everyone else. But someone had to. 

Tabbris and I were next through the portal, with Shiori at my side. Going into the opening felt like stepping through some sort of oil bath. It felt sticky and cold. My stomach twisted, no I had no idea if that was just an effect of the transportation magic or simply a psychological reaction to the idea that we were about to be face-to-face with a group of creatures who could tear me apart in an instant. 

Either way, the cold, oily feeling faded immediately. The second we were through, Shiori and I both darted to the side so the others could follow us. Then we looked around, quickly taking things in. Which was when the surprise hit. We weren’t just standing in a normal room. It was a cavern with dirt under our feet, dotted with glowing stalactites and stalagmites that were giving off enough light for us to see. All of which was fine. But then there was the size. This place was enormous. It was a truly massive chamber. The width by itself was at least three football fields. And the length? I literally couldn’t see the other end of this place. Far, far in the distance, I caught a glimpse of something bright blue. The crystal, presumably. Too bad it was apparently like a mile away, instead of what we thought when the guy said ‘the other side of the room.’ 

Then there were the Revenants. My mother and the others were already engaged with them. All eighteen of the things. Not a few, eighteen. And yes, they already had corpse bodies, meaning they were at full strength. Three more than had been in our way before, and this time I didn’t have a pocket Wukong to jump in. 

“Oh,” I managed while the others came through behind us and took in what we were seeing. 

“Fuck.”  

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Center Of Attention 26-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Sierra wasn’t kidding. When Paige showed up, after a quick run-through of everything that had happened with my parents (if it was really them), she insisted we find a place to start testing my paint combination powers. We couldn’t really go back to the secret room in the school without drawing attention, so we went down to the store’s unfinished basement. Half of it was taken up by stacks of boxes that Wren swore she still needed to go through at some point, but the other half was basically an open room with cement floor and walls. It would work for some testing. 

Before getting into that, however, I focused on Paige. Sierra was down here too, along with Wren and Peyton. Fred was upstairs to deal with any customers who came in, though he made us promise to tell him what we found out, and show him anything ‘neat.’ Of course I told him that would take a while since everything I did was neat. 

Now, facing Paige, I asked, “Do you think my parents believed everything you were saying?”

She, in turn, shrugged. “Probably not all of it. At the very least they knew I was holding some things back and not telling them the whole story. The real question is whether they believed enough of it. And yeah, I think they did. At the very least, they don’t think I’m an immediate threat. I actually think they believe I could be useful.” 

That made me blink. “Useful? Because you could lead them to this mysterious group who contacted you for this whole thing?” 

She nodded. “That and because they want to recruit me.” 

Needless to say, that made me choke a little, while Sierra snickered in the background at my reaction. Finally, I stared at Paige. “You think my parents want to recruit you into the Ministry?” 

“Well they don’t want to recruit me to plan your birthday party next January,” she informed me with a tiny smile. “But yeah, they know I can lie to them. They know I’ve got some skill in manipulation and infiltration, since I stole those documents and managed to get away from them. You know, with Paintball’s help. They don’t know everything, not even a quarter of it. They definitely don’t know what I really am. But they know enough to think I could possibly make a decent early recruit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach out soon enough and try to make an offer. After waiting what they deem an appropriate amount of time from when they tried to kill me.” 

That was… yeah, that was a lot to take in. She had a point, of course. Naturally my parents would be looking for anyone they could recruit with the skills they needed. And even if they didn’t know anywhere close to the real story, Paige had demonstrated that sort of skill and she already knew about the Ministry. From what she’d told me about how she’d handled that whole situation, they probably also believed she was still malleable enough to be guided and trained the way they might want. 

So yeah, it made sense. But it still left me uncertain about exactly how I felt about that. I was worried about what would happen if my family paid too much attention to Paige (not that it was easy to avoid that given the whole Irelyn thing, to say nothing of them already knowing about her having Ministry information), and about everything that could come crashing down because of that if one of us said the wrong thing. And beyond that, I knew my family was aware that I didn’t really get along with Paige, to say the least. What would they do about that? Try to get us to work through our issues? That was an image that made me blanch. My family, trying to counsel Paige and me on how to get along so we could work together within their criminal enterprise.

Well we had been trying to figure out how we could get away with Paige and me hanging out without attracting suspicion. Wouldn’t it be convenient if my parents worked toward explaining that completely on their own? 

Yeah, that was going to be a whole thing, if it came up. Which would probably also mean that they would at least move closer to telling me what was going on. And boy oh boy was I looking forward to that just ever so much. I couldn’t wait to go through that and try to figure out how to react. If I said the wrong thing once they did reveal the Ministry to me, would they just erase my memory of the whole situation again? Would I know if they did? I still had no idea how to tell when that happened, or if there was any way to defend against it if you weren’t a Biolem like Paige. That Kent guy hadn’t seemed completely and utterly shocked beyond all belief by the fact that his power hadn’t worked on her, so maybe there was a way to resist? I wasn’t sure, nor did I know how we could go about testing it.

Shaking all that off for the moment, I focused on the issue at hand. “Well, if they do try to recruit you, make sure to hold out for a decent salary and benefits. You know my family can afford it.” 

Paige, who actually seemed a little nervous about how I would react to that, offered me a quick smile. “Yeah, for sure. I know what I’m worth, can’t take any lowball offers.” 

“I’d take a lowball offer,” Peyton put in while raising her hand. “But only because I’m pretty sure you guys have no real concept about what anything costs, so their idea of a lowball offer might just pay my entire way through university.” 

We all snickered at that, even Wren. It helped ease the mood a little, which was nice. Then we got into the actual testing. I had already shown them what I could do when it came to the paint combinations I used at the park, but now it was time to get into seeing what else I could do, and how exactly the combinations worked.

Clearly, whatever effect the main paint possessed remained the center of any combination, and was simply twisted or adjusted by the color I fed into it. When I’d added green to white, it sped up the effect and made the entire ten seconds worth of light go off in an instant, creating a blinding flash grenade. And when I had added green to red, it made the whole pulling thing happen much faster. I had been hauled incredibly quickly toward Uncle Friendly when I did that before. We tested it with a couple empty boxes down in the basement now, just to see for sure. Paige used a stopwatch app on her phone, and made me experiment with adding different amounts of red and green. In the end, it turned out that the more green I added into it, the faster the pulling happened. But the more red I used, the heavier the object that could be moved. And beyond that, the more green I added, the less time the red would pull and hold for. Adding too much green would move things very quickly, yet also detracted from the normal ten seconds that the pull should have lasted for normally, similar to the whole green with white thing. It was a balancing act. Beyond that, I also couldn’t feed more paint into something than the original color had. Any image I made had to be made of at least fifty-one percent of the base color and only up to forty-nine percent of whatever was fed into it. Which made sense, given it was supposed to be the base color, so if there was more of the other, it wouldn’t really make sense.

Anyway, it seemed like that same ‘speed up’ principle applied to green being added to other colors. Like when I had fed green paint into that blue circle to launch Fogwalker away from me at incredibly high speed. The green made the effect faster and stronger, but at the cost of lasting for less time. But how would that translate into powers that weren’t so easily ‘sped up?’ 

Under Paige’s direction, we tried orange with that. But of course, we needed a baseline for how much orange protected on its own. We used cardboard boxes, which Paige and Sierra took turns hitting, because they could be certain to use the exact same amount of force every time, and at regular intervals. Or they could simply apply a steady amount of pressure to the box the entire time the paint was active, so we knew exactly when the defense wore off. All of which meant we could get useful data. And the way Paige said ‘useful data’ was a little weird. Like me when I was talking about an awesome ramp. 

Between that system and a bit of ‘how much do you feel this poke, how about this one’ we were able to figure out that, by itself, the orange paint protected against something like ninety percent of the damage that would have been done, even at the smallest, most basic amount of paint. As long as it was a notable amount to begin with (more than just a speck of paint, it had to be something real), roughly ninety percent of the damage done would be negated. That increased by one percent for every added ten percent of the item in question that I covered with orange, up to a max of ninety-eight percent. Whatever I did, two percent of the damage would always get through. 

Once we had that baseline, we tried green mixed into orange, because we were all curious about what that would do. How would speeding up ‘being invulnerable’ actually help at all? 

As it turned out, the answer was closer to the white paint. Adding green into the orange made the invulnerability stronger for a shorter time. After a bit of testing, it seemed like for roughly every ten percent of a total image that was taken up with green instead of orange, the amount of time the defense lasted for was dropped by two seconds, but the amount of protection it provided was raised by two percent. 

Due to the limit of only making up to about forty-nine percent of an image green instead of orange, that meant I could, at most, raise the total protection ten percent. And doing so would decrease the orange defensive time from ten seconds down to essentially nothing, just a brief one second at most burst of protection. But that was where it got interesting. Because unlike orange paint by itself, which could only get up to ninety-eight percent protection no matter how much I added, with the maximum amount of green mixed in, that level of protection could get up to one hundred percent. Sure, it only lasted for an instant, but it would completely protect me or anyone else from all damage if I timed it right. 

Again, there was a balance to be struck with how much of the base paint I used versus how much of the other color I added into it. It wouldn’t be useful or practical all the time, but in a few specific cases… yeah, I could do something with that. 

Once we did that, Peyton brought up the question of what purple added to orange would do. If green already made the paint stronger at the cost of making it last for a shorter amount of time, what would the paint that was meant for increasing strength do?

The answer ended up being that it still raised the amount of defense, and without shortening the amount of time the orange paint lasted. But it only raised it by one percent for every ten percent of purple that was added to the orange, so it reached a max of ninety-five percent protection. That, of course, was something I could reach with just orange by itself. So maybe not every single paint combination was useful. I just had to find the ones that worked the best. Which was exactly what we were doing here. Paige wanted me to be prepared for whatever happened. 

Well, that and she was really anxious about what was going on with Irelyn and needed to distract herself. 

To that end, I looked toward Peyton. “You wanna see what happens with black and green?”

She gave me a look at that. “You mean do I want to be your guinea pig so you can hit me with that combination and see if anything weird happens?”

Grinning at her I gave a thumbs up. “See, you’re already on top of things. That’s the best partner slash lab rat.”

She rolled her eyes, but acquiesced. We had her start reading aloud from a random book that was in one of the boxes down here, while I put black paint across her back along with a strip of green and fed the latter into the former. Then we all watched while I activated it. 

“Andwhenwewalkedupthehilltherewereelevensoldiersin—“ The words all came out of the other girl in a nearly completely indecipherable rush that sounded like one of the cartoon Chipmunks talking very quickly. She stopped short after that, eyes widening as she looked back at us. Then she took a breath and tried again. But again, the words came out all together and high-pitched like that. She was visibly trying to slow her voice down, but it wouldn’t work. Not until the paint had worn off. 

Bouncing up and down, which in her case involved using her wing pack to reach the ceiling, Wren blurted, ”Ooh, I wanna try, I wanna try! Please can I try?!”

Of course I let her. We tried that a couple more times to the same result. It didn’t make the person physically faster, it just forced them to speak very quickly and somewhat squeakily. Anything that was affected by the paint would produce any sound much faster than it normally would have. I wasn’t exactly sure when or how that would be useful, but at least we knew what it did.

Then there was green with yellow, which brought anyone who was affected by it to a complete halt, expending the yellow’s entire charge, but only for that instant. It would stop someone, then immediately wear off. I could definitely see where that would be useful, and filed it away.

Green with purple was the same idea. It wore off immediately, but gave a very momentary incredible burst of strength. 

Then there was pink. If that one did anything, we couldn’t figure it out. Then again, it was hard to say what making something affected by pink faster could even look like. Suffice to say, it wasn’t terribly interesting at the moment. 

While we were at it, we also checked what would happen when I added purple paint to a couple other colors. It made red paint able to pull larger, heavier things and do more damage if they collided. It also made the glow from the white paint notably brighter. And it made both green and yellow stronger with their respective powers. Not as dramatic of an increase as green gave yellow, or purple for that matter, but it also didn’t wear off immediately. It was simply a boost.  

After the green with black incident, we naturally checked purple with black. How would it make muting things stronger? 

As it turned out, adding purple to black made the muting affect extend outward a bit from the thing that was painted. For every ten percent of a picture that I made purple, the effect extended in a two feet diameter circle. Again, only up to just under half of a picture could be the second color. So at most, I could make a circle that was ten feet in diameter where no sound could emerge. Now that would be very useful. 

We knew from my whole artificial stilts and whip-arms trick at the park that adding purple into pink made the stretchy bits stronger. But if going the other way around and adding pink to purple did anything, we couldn’t figure it out right then.

That was about as far as we got before I called a halt to the testing. It was already starting to get late, and I wanted to take a lap around the city to stretch my legs and check in on things. After all, we were supposed to be helping people, not just playing with my paint combinations.

Paige and Sierra stayed to help Wren get some other work done, but promised to join us if we found anything big. Meanwhile, Peyton and I took to the streets. We didn’t exactly find a big fight, but as we were making our way across the rooftops, I spotted what I initially thought was some sort of gang gathering in a field near a freeway overpass. It turned out to be a bunch of homeless people all camping out. As we watched them from a nearby building, I felt my stomach twist itself over. This, this was how we should have been helping the city. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Similar to that time when I had been by myself, the two of us went to a nearby store and bought a couple carts full of supplies. Which was going to attract attention, but it wasn’t like I could go there without my costume. If this situation got out and my parents checked the cameras of the store to see me buying a bunch of stuff that Paintball eventually gave the people out there, they might just be able to do the math.

And yes, there were still people in the store. It was barely before curfew, which had been extended to ten pm. Again, not out of any real connection to how dangerous it was, but because people couldn’t stand to be locked in that early. 

In any case, we attracted attention, and the two of us tried to play it off and joke around with the crowd as best as we could.

I bought every premade sandwich the store had, along with a dozen loaves of bread and peanut butter with honey. Then I bought various boxes of cookies, crackers, cans with easy pull-tops that had fruit or meat inside, anything I could find while we went through the store with a couple different grocery carts.

Needless to say, people wanted to know what we were doing. One even jokingly asked if we had turned to a life of crime and we’re going to steal all this stuff. So we just told them that we’d gotten anonymous donations so we were going to provide food for the homeless. A few people scoffed at that, but others actually donated money of their own, which I really wanted to tell them not to bother with, but had no idea how to do so. I couldn’t exactly tell them I was actually paying for all this myself without risking my identity.

By the time we left the store, we didn’t just have money donations. There were also a dozen other people with their own carts full of not just food, but other supplies. They went to the back of the store and got sleeping bags and blankets, as well as flashlights and lanterns. Seeing that, I bought a bunch of clothing that could be passed around as well. 

Together, our small army made our way back to that freeway overpass a couple blocks over. Peyton and I helped distribute everything, and hung out with the people there for a while. It was… interesting, considering how many wild stories the people had. Not that it was all fun and games. They definitely needed every bit of help they could get, but they were doing their best. And hopefully this stuff would help. 

When I asked one of the guys there if they were worried about the cops making them disperse or chasing them off, he informed me that the land they were on was owned by ‘those Evans people’ and that they… my family… had designated it and about half a dozen other places throughout the city as a safe place for them to set up homeless camps. They also had a few shelters and a couple apartment buildings set up to be temporary homes for people who were trying to get work and needed a place to get back on their feet while they waited for a solid paycheck. So they did help put roofs over peoples’ heads, but also had these bits of land where anyone could sleep without being harassed by the police. Apparently this was one of the newest places like that. Others had port-a-potties and a few other needed amenities. 

So my family did… all that. Yeah, I had a lot of thinking to do. Not that that was anything new. 

Eventually, the two of us slipped away and left together. We were back on that first building where we had seen them before, as I spoke in a low voice. “Sorry we didn’t get into any cool, dramatic superpowered showdowns.” 

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “Meh. This was fine. In fact, it kind of feels like we should make this a regular thing, you know?”

Watching the people in the distance, I smiled to myself behind the mask and helmet. “You know what? I think you’re right. 

“This should definitely be a regular thing.”

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