Interlude 14B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Ten years ago, somewhere very far away

As the sun rose above distant snow-capped mountains, its rays cut through low-hanging violet clouds that ran close to the ground. A single massive structure towered high above that purple fog. It appeared to be the statue of a man in full plate armor, holding a sword out ahead of him as though pointed at someone, and a shield at the ready. The statue was taller than most mountains, a colossal figure large enough that the human figures who stood upon it seemed smaller than the tiniest insects. 

The statue was no mere statue. It was a bustling city. Dozens of tunnels had been bored through the main body, running in every direction, from the waist up to the head. Buildings were constructed both within these tunnels and upon the statue’s exterior. Various wooden walkways and railings wrapped around the giant warrior’s body, extending out over his raised arms, and even onto his weapon and shield. A great field of grass, dotted with various fences and livestock, took up most of the statue’s shield arm, while the face and rear of the actual shield had row after row of wooden platforms extending out from the shield itself. Each of those platforms held layers of carefully tended dirt and crops, and were reached via the ladder that ran from the bottom of the shield to the top. Those tending the crops simply climbed to the level they wanted, stepped off, and went about their business watering, feeding, weeding, and gathering. The crop platforms extended far enough out to require carefully maintained support struts. 

It was upon the second-to-bottom platform that a small blonde female figure lay on her stomach in the dirt amongst the carrots. She had pried a small hole into the wire fence that lined the area around the farming platform, and stuck her upper half through just enough to peer over the edge. Laying there, the girl stared down through the violet clouds and pretended she could see the ground below. The ground where the Edeliens dwelled. Though it was almost certainly her imagination, as the girl squinted intently, she thought the shapes in the swirling violet fog almost looked like several of those monstrous creatures staring back up at her. She could imagine the things, despite never having seen one in all of her eleven years of life. In her mind, she saw them crawling on top of one another, snarling and hissing in impotent rage at their inability to penetrate the powerful invisible shield generated by the colossus the city was built upon. That protective field prevented the Edeliens from coming any closer than fifty feet from the base of the statue. They were trapped far below, forced to war with one another or hunt the Roen, those who had once lived upon a colossus (for there were others dotted over the world’s landscape, some even within view of one another from what the girl had heard) and had either willingly left or been banished. She had even heard that here were some Roen who had never lived on a colossus. All of which seemed both insane and oddly intriguing. How did they survive? How did they hide from the monsters? Did they actually fight them? 

If she leaned just a little closer, if she squinted just a bit more, the girl could almost see through the fog. The shapes down there had nearly resolved into forms she could maybe recognize. She could… just… about…

“Setrea!” The annoyed male voice calling from several platforms above jolted the girl a bit. “You’re late for training! What are you doing down there? I don’t hear weeds being pulled!” 

Realizing only then just how long she had been lying there, the blonde girl, Setrea, pushed herself to her feet and dusted herself off as well as she could. “Coming, Papa!”  

With a slight grimace at her own appearance, her white pants and pale green shirt marred by the ground, the girl nonetheless dashed to the ladder and started to climb past other platforms where dozens of people were working the fields. She made it several levels up, past other people working the various crop fields and to the point where her father stood impatiently waiting. He was a slightly heavyset bald man with a thick mustache, who squinted at her while she paused there, still standing on the ladder (which continued up through several more platforms). “You were groundgazing again, weren’t you? By the Warrior, Setrea, how many times must you be reprimanded for wasting the day away with your head in the dirt?” From his pocket, he produced a small, circular pocket sunner, a device with a clock face on the front and a tiny red crystal at the top. The sunner could tell the reader what time of day it was at any point as long as it was calibrated by holding it up toward the sky now and then so the crystal in the top could measure where the sun was. It was her father’s most prized possession, a reward from the military for outstanding service during his mandatory time in the guard.

Setrea, for her part, offered a slightly weak, “I’m sorry, Papa. I’ll try harder not to lose track of time.” 

With a low sigh, Euead Keve reached out to lay one hand gently against the side of her face. It was a tender touch, one showing the man’s deep love for his daughter despite the way she exhausted him. “You have a chance, Setrea. You can be more than a farmer. You can Manifest. Learn your lessons, channel this power, and you will be one of our elite. I know you can do this. Listen to the Tsun, follow his instructions, and you will learn to Manifest better than any the Warrior has ever known.” 

Swallowing hard as she tried her best not to wilt under the terror of disappointing her father, Setrea forced herself to nod instead. Her voice was quiet, “Yes, Papa. I will make you proud.” 

“I am already proud, Moonlight,” the man insisted affectionately before clearing his throat. “But my pride cannot save you from the Tsun’s annoyance for tardiness. Hurry now, before his head puffs up and explodes.” He demonstrated by bulging his own cheeks out with air and crossing his eyes, making a wild face that brought a fit of giggles to his daughter. 

He was right, of course. The Tsun would already be pacing back and forth, ranting to himself and the other students about her being late. With a grimace, the eleven-year-old quickly began climbing once more. In moments, she made it to the top of the shield (the rim was wide enough for a dozen men to lay head to foot from the front to the back), where several crop-bundlers loading supplies into wooden crates and barrels teased her about being late. She shot back her own remarks about focusing on their own work, even while sprinting along the shield to reach a wooden rope bridge that extended out along the livestock-filled arm of the colossus toward its chest. 

For the next several minutes, Setrea ran along the various walkways and rope bridges that crisscrossed along the giant statue. She had to dodge around people, most of whom knew her by sight and name and called out their own mixture of encouragement or chastisement. 

Finally, she crossed a bridge extending out from the giant toward a circular platform about ten feet wide, where a youngish man with a shock of bright red hair and tanned skin stood next to an enormous metal pole in the middle of the platform. At the top of the pole was what appeared to be a simple wooden roof, providing cover from the sky as though this was some sort of pavilion. But it was far more than that. A metal box with several levers and complicated-looking dials was attached to the pole. 

The man, Jek, laughed as she approached. “I had a feeling you’d be on your way! The winds said so!” 

Panting heavily as she skidded to a stop, Setrea took a second before managing, through heaving breaths, “Please… take… me… around?” 

“You got it, kid.” Jek gave her a nod before grabbing hold of a leather strap, one of dozens that were attached to the metal pole. “Hold on,”  he ordered while tossing it to her. As the girl caught and wrapped the strap around one arm, gripping with both hands, Jek pushed up on one of his levers while simultaneously twisting one of the dials. Immediately, a piercing warning whistle filled the air, informing anyone nearby that the airskipper was departing. At the same time, a long, blade-like metal structure rose out of top of the tall central pole. The ‘blade’ split apart into two equal pieces before falling in opposite directions, snapping into position to form one long horizontal blade broken up by the center of the vertical pole. Gradually, the blades began to turn, at first slowly before picking up speed, soon spinning so fast they were a blur. Meanwhile, the locks that attached the platform to the colossus released, and, with a quick spin of a dial and gentle push on one lever, the airskipper pulled away and began flying up and around. 

Gripping the strap tight, Setrea watched the colossus below and in front of them. The lower stomach area was where she and most other people lived and worked. Shops and other businesses were in the chest area. Even then, they were flying past the primary market around where the colossus’s heart would have been (the various shops lay both on constructed platforms that extended out from the statue and within the tunnels that had been bored through it). 

Meanwhile, the neck and head were for the city’s leadership and upper class. She’d never been that high. Nor had she been below the waist. The upper legs were where the poorest people lived, those who barely got by. Below that, in the lower legs, were the main barracks where the city’s defenders trained, lived, and worked. 

But Setrea wasn’t heading for any of those places. Their destination, in this case, was the sword-arm, where the schools and training universities stood. All along the flat surface of the statue’s weapon were half a dozen large facilities, with wide combat and athletics grounds between them. The place she was headed for was at the very end of the sword, essentially on the tip. 

Even as they approached, hovering closer, she could see old Master Tsun, with her classmates Naem, Korden, and Lanileth. Lanileth and Korden were sister and brother respectively. They were human, like Setrea herself. Naem, on the other hand, was a Hive-marked with pronounced red mandibles, matching red chitinous skin, a thick black shell on his back, and six arms. Essentially, Marked were those whom, many, many years ago, were mutated to become something half-creature and half-human, with the changes passing down through their descendants. The type of Marked indicated what sort of mutation they had. Hive-marked like Naem looked like insectoid-humans, though specifics varied. Claw-Marked were those mutated to appear closer to felines, Fang-Marked were canines, Scale-Marked were reptilian, and so on. Some lived here amongst other humans as all shared the same ancestors, but Setrea had heard that there were many more in their own hidden cities. 

In any case, all four were watching intently as the airskipper drew closer. No sense in trying to be subtle, so Setrea thanked Jek before releasing her grip on the leather strap. She took a few running steps before flinging herself off the skipper, landing in a roll on the grassy field that had been planted along this part of the statue’s raised blade. 

“Setrea,” Master Tsun chided once she had popped to her feet, “you are late.” 

Like Naem, Tsun was Marked. Rather than an insectoid Hive-Marked, however, he was Wing-Marked, appearing to be a humanoid bird of prey whose arms doubled as wings.

She stammered her apologies, but Tsun wasn’t interested in them. He simply told her she would be staying late to help clean the restrooms to make up for her lack of appreciation for the time of her instructor and classmates, then moved on. 

Moving on, in this case, meant telling the four students to spread out away from each other while facing him, to give one another space. Once they were in position, the old bird-man continued. “Now then, let us see what you have learned so far, my flocklings. What is the name of the warrior whose frozen form our city is built upon?” 

Lanileth, a dark-haired, dark-skinned girl several inches taller than Setrea, immediately spoke. “Reahandu the belligerent, Master.” 

“Just so,” Tsun confirmed. “Reahandu was a great warrior, a champion against the beasts that plague this world. He was one of sixteen, those we revere today for their feats of cunning, bravery, and power. Sixteen champions who led the fight against the invader Edeliens, those monstrous beasts who threatened apocalyptic destruction against our people when we lived upon the ground hundreds of years ago. What happened?” 

That time, it was Naem who spoke, his voice broken up by the occasional chitter from his mandibles. “Tch-Brave warriors fought the Edeliens–tch. Used ancient magics–tch–to grow tall, to break-tch the Edelien army. But the Edelien leaders-tch had their own magics. Magics that scattered the champions across-tch the world, and turned them to these… statues.” 

“Indeed,” Tsun again agreed. “Hundreds of years ago, our champions grew to the size we know them to be now and nearly eliminated the leadership of the Edeliens. Yet, with what must have been their last gasp of power, the mad monsters turned Reahandu and the other champions to this… metallic state, which they have been stuck as ever since. But we were not overrun, why?” 

Setrea took her turn to answer. “The magic force that gives the Champions their growth power, it still exists, and it gives off a shield that stops any Edelien from getting near.” 

“Thank you, Setrea,” Tsun offered with a nod. “Precisely. Once our ancestors learned that the Edeliens could not come within a certain distance of these frozen champions, we built first camps, then entire cities upon them. Then we began to wait for their awakening. As we have now waited for almost five hundred years.” 

After letting those words settle, their teacher continued. “But protection through physical proximity is not the only way our old Champions offer us aid. There are those of us, like the four of you, who are able to Manifest. Korden, what does it mean to Manifest?” 

The boy, smaller and shyer than his more bold twin sister, hesitantly answered, “Each of the sixteen champions had their own strengths and powers, incredible skills they used in battle. Someone who can Manifest can… umm… summon the spirit of a Champion and use those skills and powers. Some people who can Manifest can only do one or two Champions, others can do more. The very strongest can manifest any of the sixteen. But uhh, never at the same time. You can only Manifest one at a time, no matter how strong you are.”

“A demonstration, if you would?” Tsun requested, gesturing to a large metal ball, about two feet across, with a handle attached to it.

Korden, in turn, sighed a little self-consciously before walking that way. He put both hands on the handle, took a tight grip, and tried lifting. The heavy ball didn’t budge an inch, no matter how much he tried. Then, the boy stopped pulling and focused. Staring at him, Setrea saw the moment he Manifested. A glowing silver figure that briefly appeared around him, the ghost-like outline of an enormous, bare-chested man with more muscles than any human ought to have. Heur, the barbarian. It was only there for a brief couple seconds before the image faded. Apparently only those who were capable of Manifesting could see those ghostly apparitions when others used them. 

With a loud roar that was entirely out of place with his small form, Korden heaved the heavy metal ball up with one hand, swung it around a couple times, then slammed his opposite fist into it and crumpled the whole thing up with ease. Then he dropped it quickly, staggering a bit as the Manifestation faded. It was hard to hold them for long when you were little. Apparently adults could hold them for a long time, even indefinitely in some cases. But Setrea and her classmates could only manage short bursts. 

“Now then,” Master Tsun began, turning her way. “Setrea, if you could–look out!” 

Something behind her. She saw the old bird-man’s eyes widen, heard a trio of screams from the other three students. She heard a roar. Then a light, blinding in its intensity, the roar growing deafeningly loud as the girl froze in terror and confusion. 

A voice screamed unfamiliar, strange words at her. She had no idea what they said, but the words seemed to come from inside blazing lights that had suddenly appeared in Setrea’s vision. An instant later, those lights suddenly cut to the side, as a metal monster went screaming past. It was followed by another, coming up just as quickly with a loud, blaring noise just like its packmate, and more bellowed words she didn’t understand. 

Before the second metal beast could devour her, or the first could spin back to finish the job, the girl hurled herself out of the way, landing on stone-like ground while crying out for Master Tsun. 

He wasn’t there. No, she wasn’t there. She wasn’t on the statue. She was… she was somewhere else. Raising her gaze as she lay on the… stone ground, Setrea swept her gaze around wildly. More fast-moving metal monsters with lights on their faces, roaring at everyone they passed. Humans walking in every direction, ignoring the monsters like they weren’t there. Bright, colorful lights, enormous buildings, far higher than any that could have stood upon the Frozen Champions. People shouting back and forth. 

“Wha… what…?” Speaking in a trembling voice as she sat there on the strange ground, looking at the baffling, terrifying sights around her, Setrea stammered, “Where… where am I? Papa? Papa where are you? Papa!” 

A voice from nearby snapped something, though the words were again unfamiliar. The tone, however, was one of annoyance. When Setrea’s gaze turned that way, she found herself facing two men in some sort of uniforms, like the army her papa had been part of before. The uniforms were blue-black rather than green, and didn’t seem to have any armor. They did have what looked somewhat like deuther sticks, except black instead of white and without the spike on the end. 

The man who had spoken said something again. And again, Setrea didn’t understand him. He was speaking in some… strange language. But she did understand when he stepped closer, raising a hand. She understood he was trying to stop her, trying to grab her. His hand caught her arm, as he said something else, a little more forcefully, as if she had been ignoring him rather than completely incapable of understanding.  

Setrea tried to pull away, snapping for the man to let go. But he seemed just as confused by her words as she was by his, the grip on her arm only tightening. 

In a blind panic, terrified of everything around her, she lashed out. “I said, let go!” Without thinking, she focused on everything Master Tsun had taught. She thought of Alistae, the one member of the sixteen champions she’d already learned to Manifest. Alistae, the man who was as much an entertainer as he was a warrior. He was an acrobat, whose feats of athleticism had been legendary even when he was a child younger than Setrea. But he had also been trained from birth to be an assassin. His powers were geared toward that, as Alistae was always capable of holding an audience’s rapt attention, or pushing it away when he needed to be subtle. 

It was his intangible form, invisible to all but her, that appeared around Setrea for a moment when he was called upon. His lithe figure with that broadly smiling face and cool, observant gaze, his twin teuste daggers held in a reverse grip in both hands. 

The girl felt his power, his skill, his quiet confidence and boundless joy for the world he fought to protect. She felt it as a rush, eyes opening wide with a gasp as she shoved the uniformed man away from her once more. That time, she did so while summoning Alistae’s power to draw attention. In that moment, everyone on the street suddenly snapped their gazes to her, giving Setrea a burst of strength that allowed her to shove the man who was holding her back. Except it did more than shove him back. In her panic, she actually bodily threw him into the other man, both of them crashing to the ground. 

Now they were mad. And everyone on the street, all these strange people, were suddenly shouting at her. They were all mad. They saw her throw the uniformed man, and now they were coming. They were coming after her. 

She reversed the power. Alistae’s attention-drawing ability that boosted his strength for everyone looking at him abruptly became an attention-diverting power, forcing everyone to look away from her and become distracted by literally anything else. It also boosted her speed. 

That speed was what Setrea used, pivoting to flee. She ran away from the people there before the power could slip. She already felt herself losing control of the Manifestation. She’d never been good at holding it for more than a few seconds at a time. Now she just had to get away before the angry people remembered her again. She had to get away, had to… had to figure out where she was, what all these people were, how they could be on the ground with all the Edeliens out there. What language they were speaking. What those big metal monsters that kept roaring at her as they raced past were. How they could have buildings like this. What those awful smells were. It felt like she couldn’t breathe. 

And most of all, how she was going to get home. 

*****

Ten Years Later

With a startled gasp, Setrea woke, jerking up in her bed before looking around and easing herself. She wasn’t back home. She was here on Earth, as she had been for some time. 

She called herself Grandstand now, after a decade of learning the language and customs of the people in this world. Because yes, it was an entirely different world that Setrea had found herself on. She still had no idea how she’d ended up here, or how to get home. But she knew that to do that, to find a way back to her own world, she had to have two things: money and power. 

Working for Cuélebre, being his second-in-command, was how she would get that money and power. She used her ability to Manifest Alistae in order to pretend to be one of these ‘Touched’, which helped explain why she was capable of doing the things she did. 

She’d been trying to learn to Manifest others, but thus far had had no luck. Either because she would only ever have been able to Manifest the one, or because she wasn’t on her own world. Alistae’s power had come to this place with her, that was all Setrea knew. She was sure she wouldn’t find out the truth until she got home, to her real home, where her papa (that was the closest word in English to what she knew him as) was waiting. 

The Ministry. They had the power, the resources, to help her. More to the point, they controlled Braintrust, the collection of Tech-Touched who had the best shot at sending her home. But she didn’t trust them. Any of them. 

She didn’t trust Cuélebre either, but she could pose as his loyal second, she could fill the role, just as Alistae had in all of his performances both on and off the battlefield. She would bide her time, until an opportunity came to seize the influence she wanted, influence that would force Braintrust and anyone else she needed to find a way to send her back where she belonged.

At times she almost lost faith. She’d been in this world now very nearly as long as she had lived in her own. Then, she had been only this world’s equivalent of eleven years old. Now, she was twenty-one, a full adult, even to these people. 

But she would not give up. However long it took, Setrea would find a way to get back to her world. She had to. She couldn’t give up on her papa. After all, if he was in this position, he would never give up on her. 

She just wished she knew what the thing behind her back home had been, and how (not to mention why) it had sent her here. But she had figured out one thing at least. On the same night that she had come here, at the exact same second she arrived, three others right here in Detroit had vanished. The other three had all been her age, two girls and a boy. None were related and they had not been anywhere near the same location. But all three had simply vanished into thin air while people were looking at them, and all of the witnesses had reported seeing a ‘giant statue’ in the instant before the children disappeared. 

Somehow, when Setrea was sent here, three kids from Earth were sent to where she had been. But how? Why? 

And, most importantly, what happened to them once they showed up there? 

Previous Chapter

Triumph 10-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

My eyes opened. 

Somehow, I’d passed out. The rush I’d felt after… after killing Fossor… had been so overwhelming I’d actually fallen unconscious. How much of that was from the actual power and how much was from the emotional release of ending the piece of shit who had tortured my family for so long, I wasn’t sure. But the point was, I had been completely out of it. So out of it, apparently, that by the time I opened my eyes, I was lying on some kind of fairly comfortable cot.

We were still in the quarry, so it hadn’t been that long. Though we weren’t in the hole anymore. Wherever the cot had come from (someone had most likely magically summoned it), I was pretty sure only a few minutes had passed since I… since the blade of my staff went through Fossor’s head for the last time. 

My mother was there. As was Tabbris. Both of them were kneeling on either side of the cot, Mom’s hand pressed gently against my face. The expression on her face was one of wonder, the expression of someone who almost didn’t dare believe what was happening around them, despite what their eyes told them, because it was too much. It was too good, after everything she had been through. It was the gaze of a woman who had been through so much pain and loss that she was afraid to actually be happy, waiting for the other shoe to somehow drop. 

Our eyes met. I saw the rush of emotions go through my mother, as her hand pressed tenderly against my cheek. Her mouth opened to say something, only to stop as a lump was clearly caught in her throat. Her eyes closed, and then she opened them again before trying once more, speaking softly. “My baby. My sweet, wonderful little girl. My beautiful, brave one.” There was a slight tightness and physical pain to her voice, and a glance downward showed me that the wound in her stomach was still healing. It wasn’t horrific by that point, having closed up so it wasn’t openly gushing blood or anything. But it wasn’t great either, and clearly still hurt. 

“I love you, Mom.” It was all I could say. It was all I needed to say. Nothing else mattered in that moment. The most important thing, right then, was for me to say those words to my mother, with no terrible darkness surrounding us. That weight was gone. The horrific, oppressive evil that Fossor represented wasn’t here anymore. It had vanished, like the brilliant sun splitting its way through thick clouds and burning them away. My mother was here, and Fossor was gone. 

My mother was here… and Fossor was gone. 

A smile finally found its way to Mom’s face, as if my saying those words had finally given her permission to feel the emotion that had been building up in her. “I love you, my Felicity.” 

With that, I managed to shove myself up, wrapping my arms around her neck and holding on tight. The tears that tried to burst forth from my eyes were stupid. So fucking stupid. Why would I be crying right now? Why now, of all times? I was happy. I was so fucking happy right then, so why would I start sobbing like a little baby? 

I had no idea how long I kept crying like that while holding so tight to my mother. Probably only a few seconds, no matter how it felt. Through it all, Mom held me just as firmly, as if she never wanted to let me go. She pulled me up from the cot, the two of us standing together, locked in that embrace. After everything we had been through, after the horrific events not only of the past weeks but of the past years, we would take as long as we wanted to be here, with each other. 

Finally, I spoke, pulling back a bit to stare at the woman I had hated for so much of my life, the woman who had given everything she had to protect me. “It’s over,” I announced in a voice that shook from raw emotion. “He’s gone, Mom. H-he’s really gone.” Gone. That didn’t say it enough. It didn’t mean enough. Him being gone wasn’t the right word. “Dead,” I managed in a flat voice, speaking the word that actually conveyed the finality of the situation. “He’s dead.” 

“Yes, Lissy.” My mother’s voice held just as much emotion as mine had. She moved her hands to my shoulders, squeezing tightly. I saw the way her body shuddered. She was exhausted after everything, but didn’t care. The raw relief and sense of freedom that came with the death of the man who had imprisoned and enslaved her for so long was much stronger than any fatigue. “He’s dead. He’s dead and gone and he is never coming back.” 

My legs were shaking. Scratch that, all of me was shaking. My entire body shuddered as I stared into my mother’s eyes, repeating her words back to her. “Gone and never coming back.”

Only then, once the two of us had assured one another of that fact, did we both stop to look around. The small, open area we were in was surrounded by a forcefield, about twenty feet wide and glowing dark blue. Too dark to see through. There was one opening, where Gabriel Prosser stood with his back to us. The forcefield was his, as the man kept everyone else out to give my mother and I time to have our actual reunion before being set upon by anyone else. 

Swallowing hard, I reached out to take hold of the small blonde girl who was the only other person in this place. “Mom, this is Tabbris. My little sister.” I had told her about the Seosten girl while we were held prisoner in Fossor’s place, had explained that entire situation. But this was her first time really meeting her. 

A smile touched my mother’s face, as she lowered one hand from my shoulder to rest against the side of the clearly quite nervous younger girl’s face. “Hello, Tabbris. Thank you so much for taking care of my daughter. I hear you are one of the bravest people she knows.” 

Tabbris, in turn, blushed deeply. Her head shook. “Flick knows a lot of brave people,” she insisted. 

“And yet,” I insisted, “it’s still true. Everyone I know, all those people, and you’re still one of the bravest people I’ll ever meet.” 

Yeah, that blush was even worse. Squirming on her feet, Tabbris hesitated before quickly heaving herself my way. Suddenly, she was hugging me tightly, as tight as she could. “I’m sorry,” she all-but sobbed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry I couldn’t help before.” 

Okay, time to nip that in the bud. Shaking my head, I put both hands down on either side of her face to make her look up at me. “I’m glad you weren’t there, Tabbris. I am glad you weren’t there. Do you understand? You helped now, but you couldn’t help then. You being there would have been bad. Believe me.” 

From the look on the other girl’s face, she still wasn’t sure how she felt about that. But she just hugged me tightly once more. The two of us stood there, embracing like that, for a few seconds. 

Glancing up, I saw Mom staring at me with a soft, tender expression. Then I looked past her and nodded that way. Words failed me. I couldn’t speak, not in that moment. 

Following my nod, Mom turned to look behind her. There, she saw two figures standing side-by-side, having been let through by Prosser. Wyatt and Abigail. The two were staring at my–our mother. From here, I couldn’t read the expressions on their faces, but it was still very clear that there was a lot going on, emotionally. The two of them were standing quite close, shoulders touching. They had instinctively grabbed for each other’s hands, seeking the comfort of their twin despite being separated for so many years. 

None of us moved for a few long seconds. Tabbris was silent, pressed up close behind me as she peeked out to watch. I felt her fingers dig into my back and arm while we stood there. 

Finally, Mom snapped out of it. Tentatively, as though afraid moving too quickly would cause the vision in front of her to fall apart like a rock hitting reflections in the water, she stepped that way. One step after another, at first moving so slowly I could barely tell she had even started, before speeding up just a little. But she still walked. She walked, rather than ran, though I could tell a part of her desperately wanted to sprint that way and grab the two. But this was a moment she wanted to savor, a moment she would relive over and over throughout the rest of her life. She wouldn’t rush it. 

One step followed another, before Abigail and Wyatt finally broke out of their own moment of paralyzation and moved to meet her. I heard a choked sob, a noise of the purest possible joy, escape our mother as her arms opened to enfold around both of them. From the outside, it may have looked as though adults embraced right there. But in reality, it was a mother grabbing her young children, the children she had lost decades ago, and pulling them back to her. It was a mother-our mother, stepping through all those horrible years trapped in one prison or another, and reaching the children she had sacrificed those years for. She held them tight, all three locked in an embrace that stretched across the decades that had separated their last touch.

I didn’t go to join them. It wasn’t my place to interrupt, not right then. There would be time for group hugs, for full family hugs, interaction, reunions, all of it. But in that particular moment, it was time for my older siblings to have their chance for a face-to-face with our mother, their chance to see her, touch her, talk to her. No way was I going to take that away from them. 

Ghosts. They were behind me. Sensing them coalesce, I turned to find Ahmose appear first, the tall, purple spirit with red eyes forming slightly ahead of several others (including Jorsher). He was watching me carefully, but with a sense of relief that was palpable. “The abomination has been destroyed. It is no trick, no falsehood. He did not find a way to escape. Fossor is dead.” It sounded as though he’d have to say it out loud another fifteen million times or so to be fully convinced. Or maybe he just really enjoyed saying it. I knew I sure as hell liked thinking it. 

We weren’t the only two either. Behind Ahmose, Jorsher and the other ghosts repeated those three words in what sounded like a mantra. Fossor was dead. He was gone. He wouldn’t be here to enslave and torture them anymore. The monster who had destroyed their lives even more thoroughly than mine was gone for good, leaving these guys, and the rest, free to… well…

“What are you going to do now?” I finally managed, after passing my gaze over them and feeling their relief wash over me to mix with my own. It was kind of a giddy feeling. “All of you, I mean.” There were more than just these few, given how many had escaped back at the estate.

“Now,” came the quiet answer, “most of us will rest.” Ahmose smiled faintly as he clarified. “For good. Our final rest. We will allow ourselves to dissipate and return our energy to the universe. We have been here for far too long, have seen too much… death. Too much suffering. We wish to move on, whatever that may entail. It is time.” 

I started to nod silently to that, wishing I could give them something better than to simply cease existing. Or at least say some words of encouragement that would mean anything at all. But I didn’t even know what kind of afterlife they believed in, particularly considering they were ghosts of various different species. If they believed in any at all. Then I blinked as his exact words struck me, curiously asking, “Most of you?” 

There was a brief pause as Ahmose and the other ghosts behind him looked to one another. They were silently conferring. Then they turned back to me, and their leader started in a voice that sounded apologetic. “It is too much, more than we should ask. But there are those among us, those who have not… who have died recently enough that their families, those they care about, still exist. If there is–if it is not asking for more than you can give, those few would like to perhaps, when there is time, be taken to say goodbye to their loved ones before they move on.”

It took me a second to realize what he was asking. Then my eyes widened a bit. “O-oh, you mean I could take some of you to see your living families before you… umm… yeah. Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down quickly. “After what you did–you brought everyone here. I’d be dead without all of you. So would my mother. Hell, so would everyone I care about, as soon as Fossor finished his spell. The whole universe would be doomed, pretty much. Yeah. Yeah, whatever you want. I mean, it may take awhile, and I’m not… can they keep existing long enough for that? I don’t know if I’m a strong enough Necromancer to hold onto that many,” I admitted. 

Again, there was a brief, silent conversation between them before Ahmose spoke gently. “You have killed the abomination, Lady Chambers. His power is your power. You may not feel all of it for some time, may take many years to fully control it. But his power is yours. You are far stronger than you may believe right now.” 

His power… of course. After that rush I’d felt when Fossor had died, of course I’d absorbed his power. His own necromancy had been added to what I’d taken when Manakel died. No wonder I’d been able to sense them before they finished appearing behind me before. 

Not long ago, the thought of having Fossor’s power would have disgusted me beyond belief. The thought of having any connection at all to him would’ve made me want to throw up. Let alone how unsettled and uncomfortable the concept of having necromantic powers in the first place would’ve made me.

But that was wrong. Fossor’s power wasn’t the evil thing, it was how he used it. I believed–knew that Alters weren’t evil just because they weren’t human, so Fossor’s Necromancy wasn’t evil just because it existed. The things he’d done with it, the atrocities he’d committed, that was what was evil. And as for Necromancy itself, that too depended on what was done with it. 

And yet, despite all those thoughts, I still felt a shudder of revulsion got through me. Fossor. In some ways, I would never be rid of him now. He was connected to me. I’d killed him and now his power was mine. What was I supposed to do about that? 

Use it for good, of course. Use it for better things than he had. Practice with it. Train with it. Prove that it was the man who had been evil, not his power. Like now, the ghosts who were asking me to help give them closure. I could do that. I could help them. 

“Yes,” I finally managed, meeting Ahmose’s gaze. “Anyone who wants to stay and get closure before they, um, move on, I’ll help them get it. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll do it. I’ll take them wherever they want to go, talk to whoever they want to talk to until they’re ready.” 

“Our gratitude to you,” the tall, violet ghost murmured. “For that, and for all that you have done. And our apologies, for all that we were made to do to you and to your mother.” He said the last bit even more quietly, crimson eyes glancing over my shoulder to where Mom and my older siblings were still reuniting. 

“But you’re moving on,” I noted. “You’re not going to stay and say goodbye to anyone.” 

“There is no one left for me to say goodbye to,” he confirmed. “Everyone I could have cared for was… is long gone. I have no connections to this or any other world. It is time for me to leave it.” 

“Now?” I blinked. “Like, right now?” 

A very slight smile touched the ghost’s face. “There is no sense in stalling. Those of us who are ready to go will disappear, and those who wish for your help will give you all the time you need first. Simply… pull at them when you are ready to begin helping. They will feel it and come to you.” 

“Thank you.” After saying that, I quickly amended, “Not just for that. For all of it. For bringing my friends. For coming back and risking being enslaved again. For–for helping. Thank you.” 

“We could do no less to ensure that the abomination was destroyed,” he insisted, with a collective murmur of agreement from the others behind him. “And we thank you, for what you did to give us that opportunity.” 

That was it. With those words, Ahmose literally began to disappear. He offered me a smile, and a wave, before vanishing. As did most of those behind him, save for a few. I felt their essences, the Necromantic energy that bound them together, fade away. They were moving on. The few who were left, including Jorsher, watched me briefly and nodded before fading as well. But their fading was different, less permanent. They were giving me space, but I could still feel them if I tried. They would be there when I was ready to help them get closure. 

And speaking of ghosts who had needed closure, I felt another figure appear nearby. Turning that way, I saw her. “Rahanvael.” 

“He’s gone.” Her voice was very quiet, gaze looking off toward the sky. Toward their own planet? I wasn’t sure. “He’s really gone.” 

“Do…” I hesitated before asking, “Do you want to see the body?” It sounded morbid, but I thought it might give her closure. Not that I knew exactly where the body was right then. 

Her gaze turned to me, head shaking. “No. I don’t need that. I–he is dead. He is gone. The monster has been destroyed. I know when my brother died, and it was not today. It was long ago.” 

That said, she moved closer, sounding a bit more hesitant. “I… should move on as well. It has been far too long for me, and now that my brother can rest, I should do the same. But if…” 

Belatedly, I realized, “You want to go home.” 

“I would like to fade away on my own world, yes,” she confirmed. “I know that it will take some time. But when you are ready, after you have rested and recovered, and done all the other things that will be clamoring for your attention, I would like to take you and those of your choice to my world, to tell those who are there that they are free. I would like to tell them that he is dead and our world can move on, before I let myself disappear.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “We can do that. I mean, I hope so, anyway. We will. Just–time. I’ll find a way to get you there and let your people know they’re free. I’m sorry, it’ll take awhile. But eventually, I promise.” 

“Thank you, Felicity,” she murmured, a genuine, beautiful smile touching her face. “Thank you for everything.” 

Before I could respond to that, my name was called. Turning, I saw Tabbris waiting silently nearby. But it was Mom who had called me. She was there with Abigail and Wyatt. Koren had joined them, as had Deveron. All were looking my way, waiting for me. 

So, I walked that way, reaching out to take my little sister’s hand. But I didn’t stop there. Instead, I pulled her over into a tight hug, squeezing firmly enough to make her squeak. For a few seconds, the two of us clung to each other. Then I smiled at her. One of the first genuinely happy, unstressed smiles I could remember giving for quite some time. “Come on. We’ve got a lot of reunions to get to.

“And I can’t fucking wait.”

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Interlude 14A – Paige’s Mind (Summus Proelium)

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With an explosive gasp, Paige Banners jerked herself awake. In a flash, she went from lying on her back to standing in a crouched, tense position. Her eyes scanned the area around her wildly. Forest. Trees. Dirt, twigs, and rocks under her feet. The moon and stars were bright enough to illuminate the area around her, revealing no one and nothing out of the ordinary. 

Except for all of it. It was all out of the ordinary. Where was she? How was–the last thing she remembered was being in the van. It was telling Cassidy she needed help. So why…

“It’s not real,” she said aloud, her own voice sounding odd to her. “This isn’t real.” 

“Congratulations,” someone else announced from behind her, making the girl spin that way, “you worked that out more quickly than our daddy estimated you would in this scenario.”

For a moment, Paige just stared without responding. The figure who had appeared behind her to speak looked and sounded exactly like her, in every way. They were identical, down to the smallest detail. Which only served to further prove to the girl that… “My mind. This is my mind.”

“Close,” came the response. “But I think you mean our mind. Well, my mind soon enough.” With a smile that Paige barely recognized in herself, the doppelganger slyly added, “After all, you went and fucked up Daddy’s plan. Which means it’s time for the contingency to take over.” Her voice lowered a bit conspiratorially. “That’s me. I’m the contingency, and I’m taking over. Just consider me a patch. Dad already had the factory working on me for awhile. Soon as he figured out what you were doing here, he had my code loaded up into the same bullets he uses as failsafes against any of the biolems going haywire. Bullet goes in, nanomachine inside jumps into the bloodstream, finds its way to the core, and here we are.” 

“Dad…” Muttering that word under her breath with as much venom as she could while squinting at the ground, Paige abruptly snapped her gaze up to glare at the other-her. “Got news for you, you’re not taking over anything. I don’t know what you think is gonna happen here, but–” 

“What I think,” Other-Paige retorted, “is that our father made sure there was a second, better version of our mind waiting in case the first one fucked up and got off-mission. That’s me. And now that I’ve been activated, I’m going to make sure that I’m the one who wakes up, not you. I’ll deal with you, then take over our body. My body. And then I’ll finish the job you wouldn’t.” 

Snarling audibly, Paige strode that way. “You’re not hurting Cassidy,” she snapped sharply, throwing a hard, vicious punch at the girl who could have been her identical twin. 

Other-Paige caught the punch at her wrist, before stepping in to drive the side of her arm into Paige’s face, knocking her stumbling backward. She followed up with a quick snap-kick toward her stomach, but Paige blocked the foot with both hands before shoving Other-Paige off-balance as she stepped in to throw two more quick punches, one at her chest and the second at her face. The first connected, making the other her give a grunt of pain. But the second missed as Other-Paige snapped her head backward, making the fist whiff just ahead of her nose. 

Before Paige could recover from that missed punch, the other-her caught her extended wrist and quickly stepped around her, pivoting to pull her arm up behind her back. As she did so, her voice snapped, “Hurting? I’ll do more than hurt her. I’ll do what you were supposed to do. I’ll kill her.” 

But just as Other-Paige started to get her arm locked up against her back, Paige caught her own wrist with her other hand, stopping the doppelganger from pushing it any tighter. Keeping her arm locked in place while the other her struggled for a brief moment, Paige stomped down hard on her duplicate’s foot. It was enough to both loosen the other girl’s grip a little bit and make her lift the injured foot, putting the girl off balance. And the moment she did that, Paige shoved herself backward, carrying the other her with and slamming her backward into the nearby tree. 

The impact made her copy release her, and Paige pivoted immediately to lash out with a kick. But the other-her was already shoving herself away, forcing Paige’s foot to hit the tree with a loud crack. 

Other-Paige snapped her own foot out, kicking Paige’s extended leg with a blow that knocked the girl stumbling to one side before following up with an overhead, two-handed hammer blow toward her exposed back as she was doubled over and stumbling. But Paige recovered enough to drop into a quick roll, carrying her away from the follow-up attack. 

She came back to her feet, pivoting back to her duplicate in time to see the punch that was coming for her face. Her head snapped to the side to let the fist sail just past her ear, as she used one hand to shove at the other figure’s extended arm. At the same time, her other fist lashing out to slam into her duplicate’s nose. But an instant later, before she could feel any satisfaction from the blow, Other-Paige’s extended fist managed to slip free of her grip and snap into a backhand that clocked her upside the head and sent her reeling backward. 

“Not… hurting… Cassidy,” Paige snarled as the two stumbled away from one another. Each had their guards up, staring intently at their opponent. “My mind. My body. You’re not taking it.” 

“I’ll take it,” the other her insisted. “We’re in our head. You and me, we’re locked in here together. And trust me, I’m gonna win in the long run. You can’t keep this up forever. I’ll win, I’ll take over. And I’ll do the job we were supposed to do from the start. No matter how long it takes.” 

“Cassidy will wake me up first,” Paige snapped at her evil duplicate. “She’ll find someone who can fix me.” 

“Someone who can fix Dad’s work?” Other-Paige let disbelief and scorn fill her voice. “Oh please. Who’s gonna be able to do everything he can do? It’s not like that kind of Techy grows on trees, babe. Believe me, Cassie would need weeks to find anyone and get them up to speed, at best.” 

“Then I’ll stop you for weeks,” Paige informed her, voice flat. “Whatever it takes. You’re not me. You’re not going to be me. I’m me, and it’s staying that way. You’re not taking Cassie.”

A nasty smirk touched the face of her doppelganger. “You really think you can hold out that long? Dad gave us a job. You’re too inferior to get it done. You’ve let emotions make you weak. Don’t you care about Anthony? Don’t you care about what happened to him and his family?” 

“Yeah, I do,” Paige shot back. “But Cassidy wasn’t responsible for that. What the hell kind of backwards victim-blaming logic is that? Dad doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge. The bad guy, the one responsible for the Tates’ deaths, is already dead. He’s gone. Sterling killed him. What Dad wants is wrong. It’s evil. He wants to kill Cassidy just to hurt the Evans. He doesn’t care about her. He doesn’t care that she was affected by Anthony’s death too. He just wants her parents to suffer by taking her away from them. She’s not a real person to him.”  

There was a brief pause then, before Paige continued in a softer voice. “Maybe that’s what we have in common. He doesn’t see me as a real person either. He doesn’t even see me the way he saw the original Paige, his real daughter. Not since he did… this to us.”

“He saved us!” the other Paige snapped. “He saved our lives. He made us better, made us stronger, made us everything! All he wants in return is a little loyalty. And you couldn’t even give him that. Everything he could do for the world, everything he could give it. He could make everyone super. He could make everyone strong, powerful, practically immortal.” 

“And all beholden to him,” Paige retorted. “A man who is so amoral, he’s fine with killing off an innocent girl just to make her parents suffer. That kind of person can’t be trusted with the power you’re talking about. Making everyone like me, like us? I wouldn’t trust him with a school-sized population of people like us, let alone a whole city, or the whole country, or the whole world. Our father is a megalomaniac. Maybe he had good intentions once, but now? Now he’s just crazy.” 

Her duplicate’s retort was a snarl as she started pacing predatorily, like a jungle cat. “Crazy? He’s a genius. He’s going to make the world a better place, as soon as people like you stop standing in his way. Which will be as soon as I take over. And,” she added pointedly, “you’re wrong about something else.” 

Watching her copy move, readying herself for the next attack, Paige warily murmured, “And what’s that?” 

“Paige,” came the response. “You called the original us Paige. That wasn’t her name. It’s not my name. You’re Paige. You’re the inferior copy. Me? I get to be the real one. I get to be his real daughter again, with her real name.” 

The words made Paige squint. She knew the doppelganger was trying to throw her off, but there was also an element of truth to that. She’d suspected for years that Paige wasn’t her original name, the one she’d had before all of this. Her father had done a lot to wipe out all mention of the original her, the person she’d been as a baby before he did all of this, before he shoved her mind into this orb and then into this body. It was a body that was essentially identical to her original one, aside from all the upgrades. It looked the way her original self would have at this age. It was just… physically better in every way. 

Despite all those improvements, despite everything, in the end her father had clearly seen her as not the same as his original daughter. She obviously hadn’t deserved her name, so he’d given her a new one. Paige. 

But she was his actual daughter. He literally transferred her mind, her personality, her entire self out of her original body and into this one. She was barely a toddler when he’d done that. She was the original Paige. Or whatever her name had really been.

In that moment of hesitation, of uncertainty as she thought back to those mostly-lost memories of the past and tried once again to think of the name their father had called her, the doppelganger struck. She lashed out suddenly, a kick snapping out toward Paige’s stomach. 

But Paige wasn’t an idiot. She’d known that was coming, and quickly turned aside from it. The two sprung toward one another, trading a rapid series of blows and counters that went almost too quickly for normal eyes to follow. Moving in a circle together, their movements accelerated with every attack. Some hit, most didn’t. All took their toll as the pair of utterly evenly matched opponents put one another through their paces. A fist collided with Paige’s face, snapping her head to the side just before her own knee was driven into her duplicate’s side, the impact shoving the other girl away from her far enough for Paige to pivot into a full kick at her stomach. But her foot was smacked out of the way, and her duplicate followed up by trying to catch her ankle so she could drive her elbow into the girl’s knee. Fortunately, Paige caught her descending wrist, twisting just enough to make her yelp, releasing Paige’s ankle. 

Another flurry of blows followed, before the pair stumbled away from one another. Both were panting, glaring at each other as they simultaneously separated to catch their breath. Though needing breath at all was strange, given this was simply an artificial construct, a facsimile of the real world within their mind. Her mind. Her mind. This other… thing wasn’t her. It would never be her. 

With that thought, Paige focused. The forest around them dissolved, transforming over the next few seconds into the main foyer of her favorite mall. Escalators, stores, bright neon signs, and the entrance to an ice skating rink surrounded them. The only difference between that and her own true memories of the place she’d spent so much time at while pretending to live a normal life with the Banners was the lack of people. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. 

“You see?” she all-but growled. “My mind. My body. My place. This is mine, not yours.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” the intruder, the fake, the interloper retorted after glancing around briefly. “Our father made sure I was ready to take over if… when you failed. When you let yourself get too attached. You can’t beat me. Not for good. Maybe you can hold out. But like I said before, Cassie’ll need weeks to find someone who can put you back together. And before she does, I’ll beat you. I’ll break you and take your place. You can’t hold out for that long.” 

Paige’s response was an almost feral, toothy smile. “Watch me.” 

They rushed one another again, trading blows while gradually making their way to the nearby escalator. Together, the pair moved up to the second floor, attacking and defending the whole way. Still evenly matched, still locked in a struggle neither could truly win at that point. They hurt one another, but before long, any damage that was actually done simply faded away. None of it was real. Except that it was, in one important point. Whichever of them won, whichever could exhaust the other and come out victorious by the time their body was fixed and reawakened, would be in control. And if Paige let it be her other self, the duplicate would fulfill their father’s orders. She would kill Cassidy, a Cassidy who would never see it coming after everything that had happened before. She would have no way of knowing there was any threat at all.  

The thought sent her into a renewed rush, snapping her head aside from a punch before catching hold of her other self’s extended wrist and arm. In one smooth motion, she pivoted and yanked, heaving the doppelganger up and over before hurling her through a nearby store window. Glass shattered, spraying everywhere. “Not Cassidy!” she bellowed. 

Within seconds, other-her was back on her feet. She picked her way through the shattered glass, smirking dangerously. “Speaking of whom, won’t Dad be oh-so-interested in what we found out? Paintball and Cassidy are the same person. I think we can have some fun with that.” 

Paige knew what the imposter was doing, because it was the same thing she would have done in that situation. She was trying to goad her into making a mistake, into lunging blindly to attack by pissing her off. Instead, she cracked her neck to one side, then to the other. “You won’t be telling him anything,” she vowed pointedly. “You won’t be telling anyone anything. Because you’re not coming out of this. When Cassidy wakes me up, I’ll be here and you’ll fade away. I’ll bury you so deep, you’ll never see daylight again, real or this sort of construct. I’m Paige. You’re a cheap imitation.” 

“Am I?” came the snapped retort. “But you’re right, I’m not Paige. I told you, Dad gave me her name, the first version of us, the one whose name he never trusted to you. I’m your improvement. He made me better than you. And when I take over, it won’t be as you. It won’t be as Paige. It’ll be as her. His real daughter.”

“If you’re trying to make me jealous,” Paige informed her flatly, “try harder. Or better yet, stop wasting our time and get something through your thick skull. I don’t care who he sees as his ‘real daughter.’ I know who I am. I know who and what I want to be. I know who I care about. And it’s not him. Why should I care about what he thinks of me? I made my choice. I don’t care about him. Or about you. I care–” In mid-sentence and with no warning, she abruptly sprang forward, easily evading the duplicate’s hasty attempt to lash out at her before driving a fist into her stomach. As the other her briefly doubled over, Paige stepped around her, catching the back of her neck with one hand and her arm with the other. With a grunt, she spun the girl around and used the grip on the back of her head to slam her face as hard as possible into the nearby wall. “–about Cassidy!” she finished. “I–” She yanked the doppelganger back and then slammed her forward into the wall again. “Care–” Again, yank back and slam forward. “About–” One more time, as hard as she could. “Cassidy!” 

All that done, while the other her was still dazed, Paige quickly stepped down out of the shattered store window, dragging the girl with her. She pivoted, grabbing the seat of her doppelganger’s pants before yanking up. The other girl had time to yelp before Paige heaved her over the railing from their place on the second floor of the mall, dropping her all the way down to the first. 

And yet, when she stepped closer to peer down, the duplicate was standing. She was on her feet, staring right up at Paige while looking none the worse for wear. “Say you don’t care all you want!” she called upward. “But the fact is, Dad trusts me more than you. He perfected me, not you. You were a trial. Me? I’m the real deal. That’s why I get her name, our name. You don’t even get to have his last name. He sold you to them. You’ll always be Paige Banners, daughter of a couple useless rich assholes. 

“But me? I’m real. I get to use the name of dear old Daddy Benjamin’s real daughter, the one you look exactly like she would have if she’d ever grown up, but will never measure up to. 

“Roxanne Pittman.”

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Interlude 9B – Dakota (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fire. Swords swinging, shattering against the dragon’s hide. The blinding pain of an arm being horrifically burned. The determination to keep going, to serve the king as a good thane would. Anger and bitter disgust at the cowardice of those who also should have stood at their sides, but had instead fled. Resolve to stand and face the beast even at the cost of death. Terror pushed down by faith in the man ahead, and faith in the fact that such a death would be as glorious as fleeing would be shameful. Standing and fighting on against all odds and against all pain. 

With a strangled, almost gurgling cry, Dakota Coalbright suddenly snapped awake. She would have jerked upright, had she not been restrained by something pressed tight against her chest. Against her entire body, really. A series of ropes bound her to the bed, drawing a renewed panicky scream as her thoughts instantly jumped from the strange dream of another life, to genuine memories of the mental institution that she had spent so much time trapped inside of. 

“Dakota!” a voice called out from nearby. “Dakota, it’s okay, it’s you! Dakota, look!” 

Still thrashing in panic even as those words penetrated, the girl opened her eyes and looked around wildly. The vision finally settled. She wasn’t back in the asylum. She wasn’t strapped down by sturdy leather and buckles being poked and prodded by the dispassionate doctors. She was in a motel room, in a regular bed. And the things holding her down were vines. The room was filled with plants of all shapes and sizes. The foliage was so thick that the person at the door, who had called out to pull her from her panic, couldn’t easily push their way through. 

They were right. She was doing this. Somehow, Dakota had been so frightened in her dream that she had subconsciously summoned these plants, which had formed a defensive shield around her. They were trying to protect her as well as they could, reacting to that overwhelming fear by practically wrapping her into a cocoon as they blocked all access to the room itself. 

It was more plants than Dakota had ever consciously controlled. Far more. Something about the animalistic terror of her strange nightmare had made the power she’d… she’d gained from Kwur do so much more than she’d managed to intentionally make it do in the days since she had stopped actively trying to suppress and ignore it. 

Or maybe she hadn’t really totally stopped trying to suppress it, regardless of what she’d said to Miranda and Avalon. Much as she wanted to help them, wanted to help Eden’s Garden in general, she was still afraid of what this power was capable of. And horrified by the monster it had come from. Kwur made her family kill each other. She had killed… she had murdered… 

Snapping out of that with some effort, Dakota closed her eyes. The panic kept trying to take over again, making it hard to concentrate. But, with some effort, she focused on the vines, thinking about making them relax. Then she shifted that thought from making them relax to simply reassuring them, imagining herself gently petting and praising them for the help. Slowly, the tense, tight grip of the vines relented, and she was finally able to sit up in the bed.

It took more effort and a minute of concentration, but the rest of the plants blocking Dakota from the doorway eventually shifted away. Quickly, the girl scrambled from the bed, leaving the manipulated plants behind as she raced across the now-open space. 

The person at the door stepped back, giving Dakota space to escape the room and reach the open air of the parking lot beyond the door. “Are you okay?” he asked gently, voice uncertain. 

Now that she was in the parking lot, out of that room full of plants that had been trying (in their own way) to protect her, Dakota could breathe. She finally looked up, focusing on the person who had snapped her out of that blinding panic. 

His name was Noyade, a seventeen-year-old heavily tanned boy with long black hair, originally from California before being recruited by Eden’s Garden years earlier. He’d been working alongside Dakota earlier that day as the two of them tried to work on one of the special apple vines that the rebels had brought with them from their giant tree. He had several powers revolving around controlling water, which gave Dakota a chance to get down to the ocean floor and try to coax the vine they’d been given to work with into growing.

So far, it hadn’t worked, and Dakota had needed to sleep. Which led to… this. 

Hurriedly, her head bobbed. “Sorry, sorry.” A wave of confused shame had washed over her. “I just–I had a bad dream. I didn’t mean to wake you up, or–” 

Noyade shook his head. “Dude, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I was already awake, just trying to take a walk over by the pool and practice a bit. I think it–are you sure you’re okay?” 

For a moment, Dakota hesitated. It had been so realistic. She had felt like she was there, fighting a dragon, being burned by that dragon. She had been so furious with the other thanes for refusing to keep to their word, for being cowards. It was all she could do to– 

“It was just a dream,” she quickly blurted, forcing the thoughts down. If she said it outloud, maybe it would be easier to believe. Shifting uncomfortably, she rubbed her shoulder. “Do you think I woke anyone else up?” 

“Doubt it,” Noyade pointed out easily. “Everyone’s using magic to silence outside sounds that aren’t a threat. Pretty sure you could scream at the top of your lungs without them hearing. And the ones that aren’t asleep are either out patrolling or… or working.” 

Working, right. Working on their own attempt at making the vines work. Because the Garden rebels weren’t putting all their eggs in the ‘have Dakota fix it’ basket. They had a bunch of different tests and trials going on. In fact, Dakota was pretty sure most of the rebel Victors didn’t exactly buy into the idea that she’d end up being the one to make the vines grow. They were humoring Avalon and Miranda and giving her a chance to try with one of the plants. 

Noyade seemed to think that she would be upset at the idea that no one thought she could do it, so he kept apologizing or sounding awkward whenever the fact that others were trying their own thing came up. But Dakota was really hoping, almost praying, that they would manage it. Then she wouldn’t feel so much pressure. 

Instead, nothing anyone was doing seemed to work. And Dakota felt more and more like she had to do something about it. Like it actually would be up to her. Because something was blocking the plants from growing. Something was preventing the vines from taking root the way they were supposed to, the way they had been enchanted to. They should grow, they wanted to grow. But something was stopping them, and she couldn’t figure out what. 

After a brief pause, Noyade nodded over his shoulder. “You wanna take a walk down to the beach and see how our friend’s doing? You know, just in case?”

The vine. He wanted to check on the vine, since they were both awake. With a quick nod as she pushed down her own doubts and insecurities, Dakota agreed, “Sure, okay.” Maybe the fact that she’d subconsciously summoned all those plants to the room was a sign or something? 

Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, she was completely awake now and wouldn’t be sleeping again anytime soon. So they might as well go check on their vine. 

As she left the motel parking lot and walked across the street with the older boy, on the way down toward the beach, Dakota used the phone she’d been given to send a text to Avalon and Miranda. Not that she expected them to respond. Apparently there had been some huge fight involving a really nasty necromancer and that Flick girl who had been lost for awhile. From what Dakota had heard, the good guys won, and everyone was celebrating. She was invited, but didn’t feel like she was really a part of that. Besides, being around lots of loud people was hard. She was too… twitchy. It wasn’t safe. Too many people, too many loud noises, too many… things. 

Still, she sent a message saying where they were going, just in case. Then Dakota and Noyade jogged through the parking lot connected to the beach before reaching the sand itself. This three hundred yard space had been magically cordoned off. No Bystanders could get there, or even notice that only this small group seemed to be using it. The Eden’s Garden rebels wanted their vine tests to be as undisturbed and safe as possible. 

There was, however, someone there on the beach as the two of them came into view. Which, at first didn’t seem too odd. After all, Dakota knew there were other people working on their own vine experiments. 

But something made her stop short at the sight of the person standing in the water. Something made her hand snap out to catch Noyade’s arm, bringing him to a halt. Together, the two watched as the figure in the water emerged… and kept emerging. 

The moon and the lamps that had been set up along the beach helped to illuminate the figure, though he was still in heavy shadows. He was riding a horse. It was a tall man riding a horse up out of the waves. A horse that had been under the water? That was possible, but why? Why would he be riding a horse under the water? And what… what was wrong with him? The figure looked wrong. It almost–it almost looked like he was attached to the–

A hand quickly grabbed her arm, squeezing tight. Noyade’s voice was a hoarse whisper, one marked by a sort of primal, animalistic fear. “Dakota, run. Use your alarm spell, call for help.” 

She didn’t hesitate. She didn’t question it. Going through what Dakota had, seeing the things she had seen, the time when she would have dumbly stood in place asking what that thing was, or what the boy was talking about had long-since passed. The instant he told her to run and sound the alarm, Dakota was already pivoting. She began to run back the way they had come, digging in her pocket for the small bell-shaped piece of metal that had been given to her. Palming it, the girl stammered the command word, only for nothing to happen. Because of the stammering. Forcing back the fear, she tried again, snapping the word out. That time, the piece of metal grew warm in her palm, and she knew it was sending the alert out to all the Heretics here. They would get up, they would be here any second, and whatever that thing was–

Something caught hold of her ankle in mid-sprint, yanking backward to make the girl faceplant against the ground even as a scream escaped her. It felt like wet seaweed, only stronger. So strong she felt it almost crush the bone. An instant later, she was yanked upside down into the air and held aloft. She could see back toward the beach. A supernaturally long, reddish-black arm, almost like a tentacle, had stretched a good hundred feet up in order to grab her. And now that thing had hold of her, the arm was pulling back, hauling the screaming, struggling Dakota with it.

That screaming only got worse, as she was hauled back to the beach and saw Noyade. Or rather, his body. The boy’s headless corpse had been impaled against one of the fence posts, and now lay limp there, spread-eagle as if in supplication. 

Still suspended upside down, Dakota was hauled up to be face-to-face with the creature that had killed Noyade so quickly and effortlessly. It was the man riding the horse. Except it wasn’t a man or a horse, she realized. It was both. It was a horse, one somewhat larger than normal, more like one of those Clydesdale horses, or even very slightly bigger than that. The ‘man’ who sat atop it was actually just a torso growing out of its back. Almost like a centaur, except instead of a horse body with a man from the waist up where the head should be, it was a fully-formed horse with the top half of a man where a normal rider would go. 

The horse part of the creature was bad enough on its own. It seemed to have no skin, only muscle and bone. Instead of two eyes, it had a single, oversized one in the middle of its face. Its mouth was large even for its enormous body, and its teeth were closer to a shark than an actual horse. Row after row of jagged, deadly fangs that were thoroughly revealed, as the thing’s mouth was open. Because she wasn’t being held by an arm or a hand as she’d thought. It was a tongue. A tongue that had shot out of the horse’s mouth, and now held her aloft in the air by the ankle while the horse seemed to cackle, its shoulders heaving with a sound akin to the screeching of an old woman, or a screech owl.  

As for the humanoid half of the monster, things didn’t get any better there. It, like the horse, was skinless, its bare muscle visible to the open air. The head had no face, no eyes, no mouth. There was a second mouth beyond the one belonging to the horse part, but it was on the humanoid torso, and much larger than it should have been. Large enough that, as that second mouth opened, the entire top half of the torso moved with it, tilting backward. Within that oversized mouth was a smaller, whitish object that it kept rolling between its teeth and tongue. 

Held aloft that way, Dakota belatedly realized that the creature was showing her the object in its second mouth. Only then, as she hung petrified in terror, did the girl realize what she was being shown. 

It was Noyade’s head. Or rather, his skull, with the skin and all the… the juicy bits slurped free to leave mostly just the bone part. 

Once it knew that she had seen and understood, the torso-mouth spat the head out, sending it out into the sand where it rolled to a stop against an old piece of driftwood, about fifteen feet from the body it had belonged to. 

For a moment, Dakota had been too terrified to shout. Now, her fear had worked its way all the way around once more, as a shrill scream filled the air. Not that the monster cared. Now that it had shown her the head, the creature simply opened its torso-mouth wide, angling to drop her in. Now that it had finished the snack, it would take Dakota as the main course. 

An instant before it would have released Dakota, aloud, echoing gunshot rang out. The bullet, blazing with light from some unknown power, cut through the tongue just above Dakota’s ankle. She dropped with a scream toward that mouth, but only fell a few inches before something else caught hold of her. It was a coat, or part of one. The coat caught the falling girl, wrapping itself tightly around Dakota before yanking her away from the monster. 

The man who stood there looked like a cowboy. A very old one, with a heavily lined face and a wide-brimmed hat that sat low, close to his steely eyes. It was his revolver which had taken the single shot that blew the monster’s tongue away. The long, leather duster he wore had extended itself out at a thought from the man, catching hold of Dakota and safely pulling her away from the thing that had been trying to eat her.

His name was Jack Childs, and he was one of the Victors of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe. The moment that Dakota was safely deposited on the sand, he aimed that revolver her way, pulling the trigger before she could so much as scream once more. 

He wasn’t killing her. The shot that he had fired sent a magic bullet that exploded halfway to the girl, creating a glowing forcefield around her huddled form. 

“The mistake you made,” Childs informed the horse-man creature, “was killing someone I’d grown more than a mite fond of. See, you was always gonna die here. But Noyade? Noyade makes it personal.” 

The creature let out that terrible scream once more, rearing back on its hindlegs before it started galloping toward them, arms flailing. But in that moment, something happened. From Dakota’s perspective, the revolver in Childs’ hand turned into a machine gun, firing hundreds of shots in the span of a bare handful of seconds. His hands were a blur of motion, as the girl belatedly realized that he was pulling the trigger six times, popping the revolver open, producing a new speed loader from nowhere, feeding it into the weapon, clicking it shut, and continuing to fire all faster than her eyes could process. He did it with so much speed that the bullets came just as quickly as they would from an automatic weapon. 

And they weren’t just normal bullets either. Each shot caused a small, yet powerful explosion. So powerful that, despite the fact that Dakota was a good fifty feet away and each was only about an inch across, she still felt the heat from every single one. She still felt force from each tiny explosion through the forcefield that was protecting her. Not a lot. Just enough to be a firm shove against her, enough to knock the girl down if she hadn’t already been lying on the ground. Enough heat to almost be painful. 

She felt all of that through the Victor-created forcefield and from fifty feet away. Each shot was like that, each tiny explosion creating enough of a shockwave that she could still feel it. And this thing was being hit by hundreds of them.

The monster was halted in mid-charge and sent staggering backward. Yet, it didn’t die. Despite taking hundreds of shots from a weapon wielded by someone as powerful as a Victor, themselves roughly equivalent to a Crossroads Counselor, the creature barely seemed wounded. The shots were keeping it busy, making it stagger and reel away, but they weren’t killing it. 

Yet, despite the fact that the thing obviously wasn’t dead, Childs finally stopped firing. The revolver spun on his finger before being coolly deposited back into its holster at his hip. 

The monster, upon realizing it wasn’t being shot anymore, rallied immediately. Both its torso and horse mouths opened to scream at them, bracing itself to lunge. 

And, in the next instant, Childs snapped his fingers while simultaneously stepping in front of the forcefield that surrounded Dakota. As he did so, duster sweeping up to block her view and save her from being totally blinded, night suddenly turned into day. There was a flash that seemed to sweep clear through the entire city, bright as the sun itself. That flash lasted for a solid three or four seconds before fading. 

The forcefield dropped, as Childs stepped aside. And Dakota saw the space where the monster had been. It was a crater, with sand blasted up and outward in every direction. Sand that had been frozen in mid-air, like dropping a rock into it and then stopping the sand that flew up before it could settle back on the ground. Like throwing a stone into water and freezing the splash. 

Glass, Dakota realized. The sand that had been blasted away from the center of the explosion had turned into a glass-like structure. A sculpture of sorts. And in the middle of that sculpture lay the scattered bits and pieces of the monster itself, blown apart from the inside. 

Facing her, Childs extended a hand. His voice was grim. “Are you okay? Sorry, took a bit to get a couple bullets through that thing’s hide so I could trigger them from the inside.”

Dakota, in turn, stared at him. “Tha-that explosion was from a couple bullets?” 

The man arched an eyebrow. “Five or six. I use really strong bullets.”  

Her mouth opened to respond, only to spot the human half of the shattered horse monster. It was hauling itself up over the sand-turned-glass, dozens of wiggling, bleeding tentacles where a human’s legs would have been serving to hurl it into the air toward them. 

She never had a chance to scream. Childs had already turned, gun back in his hand and extended. That time, however, he didn’t fire a bullet. Instead, a literal bolt of lightning leapt from the barrel, tearing through the lunging monster before arcing off into the sky with a deafening clap of thunder. 

The humanoid torso splattered like a watermelon, the smell of burnt flesh filling the air to mix with the scent of ozone from the lightning. 

Once more, Childs stowed his gun and turned back to her. That time, he gently took her hand in his own calloused grip, helping the girl to her feet. “Sorry,” he said quietly, “but I guess we know what’s been messing with our vines now.”

Dakota, for her part, clung tightly to the man. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry. She would not cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she babbled helplessly, shoulders shaking. Noyade. He was dead. He was dead just like her family. She got close to people, she liked people, and then they died. They died. They always died. 

“Wha-what was that thing? It-it’s dead now, right? It’s gone. We’re safe? What–what about the vines? Will they–will they grow now?” 

For a moment, Childs was quiet as he held the girl close to him. “That thing,” he answered finally, “is called a Nuckelavee. Yes, it’s dead. But… but the Nuckelavee, they’re just minions. Thugs.” 

Swallowing hard, Dakota asked, in a quiet, tentative voice, “Wh-what… what are they minions of?” 

In response, Childs turned, keeping his hand firmly on the girl’s shoulder. He looked out into the water, voice very quiet. “Something a hell of a lot worse. A creature powerful enough to take this planet apart if it ever gets free of its cage in the lowest, darkest depths of the ocean. But it can reach out of that cage. 

“And now we have its attention.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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Interlude 9A – Ehn (Heretical Edge 2)

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Screams and fire filled the dark, smoke-laden air. Flames crackled forth as lightning cast from the maw of a terrible, half-hidden beast. A sword shattered as glass against the creature, as cowards fled and hid from its fury. The monster rose, towering above all. Its image blotted out the sky, its roar threatening to sunder the heavens above while its claws tore the world beneath. Soon, all that would exist, all that would be, was the creature, standing alone amidst the destruction of all that had ever been. The beginning and the end. The teeth and the fire. 

The man’s eyes opened. Above the bed he lay on was no dragon, no flames, no flying shards of metal from a shattered sword. Instead, his eyes beheld what at first appeared to be a partially clouded sky, with birds frozen in mid-flight and a horizon of distant mountains. A second thought, however, proved that the birds were not frozen, but that the entire ‘sky’ and nearby walls were but an incredibly detailed and lifelike painting.

Those same walls and ceiling had been blank metal at the start, but the man had long-since tired of such a view. Or lack thereof. Thus, he endeavored to learn painting, a skill he had lacked at the start of his imprisonment. An imprisonment that had begun thousands of years before his own physical birth, chronologically. Technically, he had now been alive for several times longer than the length of time that had passed back on Earth since he was born. 

Time travel. Even he found it annoying. Much as it had aided him in avoiding the problems of his contemporary Dragon-Bonded, the king known as Arthur. 

In any case, for the thousands of years since those first few decades, his prison cell had been painted with a new view every so often. Every landscape he painted was drawn from the man’s own memory, a perfect image from the days of his freedom.

Watching those still, motionless birds, the man contemplated for what seemed to be a few seconds. Soon, however, he realized that over an hour had passed. Such a thing hardly mattered, of course. In a place like this, with a life as long as he’d had, hours and seconds were hardly differentiated. For several thousand years, he had been locked in this place, imprisoned by the group who called themselves Gehenna. His capture and confinement was not simply part of their job, but the entire purpose of their existence. He was the reason they had been formed in the first place. Though they kept other prisoners, most were taken solely so that those who wanted them imprisoned would contribute resources toward funding and empowering Gehenna so they could continue to pay the incredible cost of keeping this man contained for so long. 

He was their first prisoner, the reason they existed. He was the first. He was One. In their language, he was Ehn. 

Tearing his gaze from the painted birds, the man known to the guards of this place as Ehn rose from his bed. His cell was quite large for what it was, essentially consisting of a metal room thirty feet long by twenty feet wide. In the countless years that had passed, the place could quite easily have become filled with rich, ornate furniture and trinkets, as had the cells of those he counted as his allies in this place. And, indeed, other rooms that Ehn considered his held countless measures of comfort and entertainment, ways of passing the time. But in his personal cell, this single room where he slept, nothing of the sort existed. The room was empty, save for his simple bed and a wardrobe that held his clothes. Part of the blank metal wall beside the wardrobe was reflective, a mirror he could use to examine himself after dressing. 

He wanted no material distractions within his own room, nothing that would take focus away from his meditations and planning. Sitting in the middle of the room for hours at a time, contemplating existence itself with nothing but his own landscape painting to gaze upon, kept the man focused and clear-headed, able to look toward a future only he could see. 

It was a future outside of this place. A future of conquest, achievement, and a legacy that would live on for eons. A future he had sought since the days of his first steps beyond the blood of the dragon that had transformed him. The dragon whose screams he could still hear, whose terrible claws and fire were still felt upon his skin whenever his eyes closed. 

Moving from the simple bed to the wardrobe, the naked man drew out simple clothes of gray, cloth pants and a white, featureless shirt. He dressed in silence, feet remaining bare, before looking to himself in the mirror. He was not an especially tall man by what Earth-bound humans would think of as modern estimates. He stood only five foot, nine inches, though all of that was quite well muscled over so many lifetimes of battles and training. His skin had been pale during his life of freedom and had become even more so over the past millennia of imprisonment. Once, his hair and beard, both the color of brownish-rust, had once been fairly long and intricately braided. Over these years, he had taken to cutting both. Now, the hair of his head fell to just above his shoulders, while his beard was neatly trimmed and would not have seemed out of place on the streets of modern-day Earth. His eyes, a muddy brownish-green color, betrayed no real sense of the incredible power he held. 

For a few moments, the man called Ehn took in the sight of himself in silence. He raised a hand to touch the part of his cheek that had once been heavily scarred. It was a wound that, like so many others, had faded after his growth into a full Dragon-Bonded. Healing was but one of the gifts of the creature that had wrought so much destruction upon the land. Gifts that he had gained after the death of…

Pushing the thought aside, the man turned from the mirror and strode away. This was not the time to dwell on memories of events long-since faded into oblivion. His eyes should not be locked to the past, but should remain fully set toward the future, to the eventual universe he had put so much of his blood and sweat toward. A universe of humanity, strong and victorious, standing as guardians and stewards for all living things. He saw humanity not as weapons to be used and directed, as the Seosten did, but as the warriors that would destroy the Fomorians, break the chains of slavery, and usher the universe into a new age. 

Unfortunately, many people would die in the process of creating such a future. It was tragic, yet inevitable. For things to improve, for humanity to truly rise to the position he knew they were capable of, there would be much more suffering. His people, and the universe at large, would have to go through the crucible and have their imperfections, their flaws, burned away. 

His people would rise, when the time came. And when it did, he would be there to lead them against a universe that would not understand their goals. Until then, he waited. He planned. He prepared. When the coming war came, when it was time for the ascension of humanity to its true place, as leaders and protectors of all who lived in the universe, he would be ready. 

A nearly invisible door lay at the opposite end of the room, and it was there that Ehn strode toward. It opened at his approach, revealing a single gleaming silver figure, a robot who served as Ehn’s combination servant and guard. The guard he interacted with the most, anyway. This prison had been built to contain him, after all. There were more troops here, both of the living and artificial variety, than most could comprehend. Not that they were there to stop him directly. They would have failed at that anyway. No, the armies quartered here were intended to stop anyone from freeing him, or breaking the spells that kept him contained. 

It was those spells that Gehenna relied on to keep him trapped here. Layer after layer of magic that prevented him from leaving this place. There wasn’t one single spell that accomplished the job, but many various overlapping effects. Some limited his power, some would cause bad things to happen if he tried to leave, others served as tethers to yank him back if he did leave, and still more would target any location he left to with more destruction than an entire city could hope to survive. Not that such an assault would be enough to end him for good, but it was thought that it may break him down to a level where he could be contained once more. But, of course, the strongest of the spells was the one which targeted his own magical immunity, allowing the rest to work in the first place. It was that spell which took the most power, forcing Gehenna to use the equivalent energy of several major planets to maintain it. 

They took no chances when it came to keeping their first prisoner, the reason for their creation and continued existence, where he belonged. The level of power it took to maintain the spells that trapped him would have bankrupted entire planets were it not spread between many of them. They were Gehenna. Their purpose was to keep Ehn trapped in this place.

“Good morning, Weregeld,” Ehn quietly greeted the artificial construct with the name he had given him when the being had declined to provide one. He spoke in the language of his youth. Not that it truly mattered, as Weregeld would understand any of the three dozen languages the man could have spoken in. Many millennia before Gehenna had put him to work as guard in this place, Weregeld and the others of his kind, known as the Mevari, had been created by a now-almost extinct race called the Tseuckaviel. The Mevari were incredibly powerful cybernetic lifeforms, a single one capable of going toe-to-toe with multiple true Fomorians and their armies. That Gehenna would put one to work this way was unsurprising. A single Mevari could, after all, safely take multiple shots from a capital ship-grade laser cannon, was as strong as the mightiest of trolls, immune to any biological agents given their mechanical nature, never tired or grew hungry, was capable of reaching two hundred miles per hour at a sprint, had a metal body that resisted the effects of anything like acid or electricity, and a central power core that could run unaided for over ten thousand years while generating a constant null-magic field up to a few inches around them. 

He was, in a way, both the perfect companion and perfect guard for Ehn. Or at least, the best that Gehenna could manage in a single being. 

“Good morning, Prisoner One,” the Mevari spoke crisply. “Would you prefer to begin with daily news, breakfast, physical exercise, mental exercise, maintenance, or other business?” 

Ehn considered that briefly. This was one way that he had invented to make the days, years, decades, and centuries not bleed into one another quite as much. He never began two days in a row the same way. His schedule for each day had to be different, just to avoid letting his mind stagnate. He kept similar meals separated by at least a month, as well as other measures that were intended to ensure he never lapsed into complacency. 

“Which mental exercises are we up to?” the man asked, already slipping past the robot guard and into the larger hallway beyond. It was shaped like a U, with his cell at the bottom of said U while the corridor bent in either direction away from him. 

“The effect of magic on universal physics as taught in modern Seosten academies, a history of the Jewish religion on Earth, the life of Rakshasan king Tulmien the fourteenth and how his death shaped their society for several centuries, and an examination of the racial tension between gray-striped Neunliens and their unstriped kin before the arrival and subsequent take-over of their society by the Seosten,” came the simple response. “And you wished to be reminded that your test on the two hundred and thirty-seven types of flora found within the Ophloin Depths on Catryol is in three days.” 

“Later for that,” the man decided. He needed breakfast first before getting into such things. “We’ll do food first. No, news. Tell me the news on the way to the kitchen.” With that decided, he started along the U-shaped hall toward the left, passing several other doors on the way. There was no one else here, of course. Very few people ever visited him, unless there was a situation, or he sent for them. For the most part, Ehn could go years without speaking to another person beyond Weregeld. 

Keeping pace with him, the silver humanoid construct briskly informed him of several important events within the universe. Some more important than others. But through it all, Ehn could tell the robot was keeping something back. He let that go on through reaching the kitchen and beginning to make his own food, knowing that the robot would eventually get to the point. 

Only when he had asked the appropriate questions for the events that were already presented, and taken his seat with the prepared meal some twenty minutes later, did Weregeld finally pause in a pointed way. Though some would say that a robot couldn’t possibly be ‘nervous’, that was the distinct impression that was given. 

“What is it?” Ehn asked calmly, cutting into his spiced meat without looking up. He knew what he would see, the silver-figure gazing at him intently, trying to gauge how he would react to what was about to be said. 

“Ah, it’s one of your… projects, sir,” came the eventual response. “The necromancer who has been making his place on Earth for some time.” 

“Merakeul? The one who calls himself Fah-Seur. Fossor.” Taking a bite and chewing thoughtfully, Ehn waited before prompting, “What about him?” 

Again, there was a brief pause. If Ehn didn’t know better, he’d think the robot was afraid of being destroyed for giving bad news. Which was preposterous of course. He never killed the messenger. “It’s–he’s dead, sir. He was killed just yesterday, according to the reports we’ve received. I made certain to confirm it before bringing the news to you, and it is definitive. The one called Fossor has suffered true and final death.” 

For a moment, Ehn didn’t react at all. He cut himself another piece of meat, chewing on that thoughtfully as he digested the news. Finally, the man spoke a single word, “Who?” 

“Ah, the ahh, human girl,” Weregeld hurriedly explained. “The daughter of the Heretic he abducted, the one who helped return the memories of her mother’s rebellion against Crossroads. She–” 

“Chambers?” The man turned slightly, his gaze taking in the silver figure directly as he spoke very carefully, making it clear that he expected no misinterpretations. “Felicity Chambers killed Merakeul?” 

Again, there was a very brief pause, before the robot slowly confirmed, “That is correct.” 

“Ah.” Turning back to his plate, Ehn resumed eating with a simple, “Good to know.” 

When he said nothing else beyond that, Weregeld hesitantly asked, “This doesn’t upset you?” It was clear that he’d expected at least some kind of outward reaction. A very angry and potentially incredibly destructive outward reaction. 

“Should it?” Ehn asked flatly, curious as to what his companion’s response would be. He knew what the robot, and by extension other members of Gehenna believed. But he was curious as to how much would be openly acknowledged. The guards here knew that their primary prisoner had far more power and influence than one should in his position, even if most didn’t actually understand the hows and whys of it. Which was intentional, of course. They couldn’t do their jobs if they were distracted by such information. 

“It’s just–” Again the construct hesitated, seeming to consider its words. Or maybe it was getting orders from elsewhere. “You put a lot of work and energy into building Fossor as a potential weapon or ally in the future. It was, after all, upon your insistence and considerable calling of favors that Merakeul was imprisoned by Gehenna in the first place. You wanted him imprisoned and then allowed to escape for a reason. And now, after several thousand years of allowing him to run like that, he is… dead. All that effort and energy has been wasted.” 

Ehn didn’t respond to that for the moment. Instead, he continued to eat, silently clearing his plate before straightening. As he took the dishes to the sink, the man casually spoke. “By that measure, I suppose one would think that this… Felicity Chambers has eliminated one enemy, only to gain another.” He washed the plate, glass, and utensils before turning to his companion/guard. “Is that what you’re asking, Weregeld? If I want to extend my influence to see the Chambers girl eliminated for such a transgression?” 

“The thought had occurred, yes,” came the response. “All that energy and effort to ensure that the necromancer would be a tool for future use, wiped away by one young child. A certain measure of annoyance and retaliation would be understandable.” 

Rather than speak to that right away, Ehn simply turned and began to walk out of the room, returning to the corridor. Together, the pair had strode almost all the way back to where his cell was before he finally responded. “You’re right, of course. I did put quite a lot of effort into putting Fossor into the previous Gehenna prison, and in ensuring his escape was not interrupted. The favors, the strength that had to be shown to ensure his growth into what he became, was not insignificant. For that to be wiped away, erased thousands of years later by a single, random girl? For my plans to be destroyed that easily, that would be quite the problem. I see why you would anticipate fury and retaliation.” 

By that point, they had stopped in front of the door leading to what Ehn thought of as his classroom. Weregeld slowly asked, “But you are not reacting that way. Which would imply that none of that actually happened. Your efforts were not, in fact, wiped away. It would imply that you are not angry about your plans being hurt, because they weren’t hurt at all. Because–” 

Ehn offered him a very faint smile, as the construct finally reached the proper conclusion. “Because I never intended for Merakeul to live forever. He served his purpose. He spent thousands of years gaining power, stretching his gift beyond what he ever could have reached without a little prodding. And now that he made his power as strong as possible, the man himself wasn’t needed. A vile, untamed beast like that is like a rabid wolf. You put such a thing down, you don’t try to use it.” 

“You always intended for him to be killed by a human who could inherit his gift,” Weregeld realized. “Was it always that girl in particular, or…” 

“There were several options,” came the simple response. “The older Chambers woman, for one. But I can work with the child as well, when the time comes. For the moment, let’s just say that if Felicity Chambers believes her life will become less complicated with the death of the necromancer, she is very much mistaken.” 

Thousands of years earlier, by his own reckoning, the man had been the only person to stand at his cousin’s side and face the dragon head-on. While all others ran, the two of them had taken the monster alone. As his shield was burned to ashes and the other man’s sword shattered against that beast’s hide, the one who would become known as Ehn had driven his own sword into the wound. It was an act that had left his hand both horribly burned, and covered in the dragon’s blood that would make its mark on his future. And it opened the way for the beast to be killed by his far-stronger companion. 

His champion and mentor had died that day. But, thinking back to that moment brought no tears or regrets, for Ehn knew that the other man would not have chosen any other way to end his life but to have killed a dragon in the process. For that was truly a death befitting the strongest of warriors.

And now, thinking of what was to come, the man formerly known as Wiglaf, cousin of Beowulf, smiled with quiet anticipation.

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Project Owl 14-08 (Summus Proelium)

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There was so much I wanted to ask Paige about, so many questions I had and things I wanted to say about what had happened over the past few years between us. Being given just ten minutes to hold the other girl down and demand answers to all that would have made me happy. But we didn’t have ten minutes to spare, or even five. We didn’t have any time at all. If we didn’t get out of this place right now, Paige’s father was going to blow us up with the building. 

“He’d do that?” I blurted, probably stupidly given everything I knew. “He’d kill you just like that?” 

Yeah, the look the other girl gave me pretty much confirmed the whole ‘stupid question’ thing. “He can collect the–my… think of it as a black box from an airplane,” she informed me quickly. “It’s in my orb, where all my memories and… and brain are stored. He’ll just collect that and rebuild me, only with different–he’ll make me more in line with what he wants. He’ll erase me and make another. Now come on!” With that, she grabbed my arm, yanking me with her toward the steel door that had slammed down to lock us in this L-shaped hallway. “Do your pink thing!” 

She had a point. There wasn’t time for any of this. Quickly, I pointed my hand at part of the steel door, spraying out a circle of pink. Together, the two of us started tearing through it. But it was slow-going. Too slow. This door had to be like two feet thick, at least. “How long do we have?!” I blurted hurriedly while ripping another handful of pink-painted steel stuff out of the way. 

“Seven minutes now,” she replied curtly before driving her fist hard into the pink steel, punching all the way through that time to reveal the room on the far side once she drew her hand back. Hurriedly, we both started ripping more out of the pink stuff to create a large enough hole for us to crawl through. “And lots of big heavy doors between us and not blowing up!” 

Instead of replying to that, I painted some green over myself, then grabbed her arm and did the same to her. But I didn’t activate it yet. First, I dove forward through the hole, turning to help Paige through. Then I activated the paint, speeding the two of us up as we raced through the room of computer servers. I could’ve used more green for more speed, but I had a feeling I was going to need to save as much of my paint for pink as I could. Seven minutes. Probably six by now. Fuck, fuck, fuck, time to get the hell out of here! I had decided that I really didn’t like this place.

“What about saying fuck hallways and just going through the outside walls?!” I blurted on the way. 

“We’re in the middle of the building, this is the fastest way to an outside wall,” she informed me a bit tersely. 

Unfortunately, there were apparently still biolems in the building. Biolems who (of course) didn’t seem to care at all about escaping and were instead focused on making sure we didn’t escape either. Two of those obstacles presented themselves just as we reached the end of the server room, stepping away from the steel door before bringing their guns to bear on us. 

Paige shoved me to one side, taking a shot right in the shoulder before she lunged at the two. By the time I rolled to my feet, it was over. The two guys (sort of) were dead on the ground and Paige had both of their guns. She was also bleeding from that wound, but didn’t seem to care. 

“Get us through!” she shouted when I glanced at the injury. “It’ll keep, I’ll be fine! Five minutes!” 

Five minutes before the building would blow up, whether we were still here or not. Could we get all the way through this place and out in five minutes, with all these doors blocking our way? Time to find out. 

I was already working on this particular steel door, spraying just wide enough of a pink circle for us to squirm through. I had to save as much of my paint as I could, had to be careful with it. If I ran out and we had to wait around for it to refill… yeah, that would be pretty bad. 

Together, Paige and I made our way through the building as fast as we could. More doors, more biolems, more everything was in our way. Anything her evil fucking psychopath of a father could throw at us, apparently. He couldn’t be there himself, and couldn’t shut off the self-destruct, but he could do everything in his goddamn power to make sure it killed Paige and me in the process. It seemed like every step we took, more of those biolems showed up. Thankfully, these ones were… worse than the others. Dumber. According to a blurted word from Paige, they weren’t ‘finished.’ Her father was scraping the bottom of the barrel, sending what amounted to uncompleted, barely functional bodies after us. The others hadn’t exactly been talkative and creative or anything, but these were barely capable of putting themselves in our way, pointing guns, and pulling the trigger. They were like zombies. Armed zombies, but still zombies. 

Come to think of it, zombies armed with guns could be pretty terrifying. 

Either way, the two of us tore through them, and the doors that were blocking our path, as quickly as possible. Nothing mattered except getting the hell out of this place before it was too late. We got closer and closer to escaping, following the path Paige was giving me, while she counted off the minutes as they passed. Four left before the whole place would blow up. Then three, then two. 

Two minutes. Two minutes before I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents’ evil plans, or about the gang war that was going on, or Wren, or what was happening with Izzy, or anything. I wouldn’t be worrying, or thinking, about anything at all. 

“This one, this one!” Paige suddenly blurted, grabbing my arm to stop me from running onward to the next door. Instead, she turned me toward the nearby wall. “This way, it leads out!” 

I definitely wasn’t going to take the time to argue with her. Instead, I pointed my hands, spraying what I was pretty sure would be the last of my paint for awhile. As the pink circle appeared, the two of us threw ourselves at it, punching and grabbing to pull chunks of the wall away. Bit by bit, we managed it, until I felt the cool evening air and saw light from a distant streetlamp. We were through. We were through! It was a small hole at first, but we made it wider quickly. 

“One minute!” Paige announced, just as we managed to get the hole big enough to get through. 

“One minute!” I echoed, my voice sounding somewhat delirious even to my own ears. “We can work with one minute, we’re out! Go!” Giving the other girl a quick push that way, I glanced around hurriedly just in case there was anyone left to stop us, any more of those nasty biolems. Nothing. No one. There wasn’t a threat in sight. We were out of here, we’d made it with time to spare. Not much time, sure, but time! We were about to get the hell out of here! 

Which, of course, was the cue for Paige to abruptly announce, “We can’t get out.” Her voice was flat, sounding empty as she stared through the hole. 

“What–” Looking that way quickly while counting down from a minute in my head, I stared. Her hand was flat against the air. Or rather, flat against a shimmering, glowing spot of energy. 

“Forcefield,” she informed me quietly. “My father’s using a forcefield to keep us in. Thirty seconds.” 

Thirty seconds?! We had thirty seconds to find another way out of here?! How the hell were we supposed to find another way to get out of this place, or break through some insane forcefield in thirty seconds?! This wasn’t fair! We did everything right, we made it, we were out, we were supposed to be free and safe now! I couldn’t–we couldn’t do anything in thirty seconds. There wasn’t time for–for anything. There wasn’t time! No, no, please, no, we had to run, we had to–

“Hey!” a voice shouted from outside, carrying through the hole. “You two okay?!” 

That-A-Way. It was That-A-Way. She was there. She’d made it. She got my message and showed up. 

“Bomb!” I shouted back at her, smacking my hand off the forcefield to illustrate. “Fifteen seconds!” 

“Ten!” Paige corrected immediately. “Nine, eight!” 

That was enough. That was all it took. Instantly, That-A-Way vanished from where she was, reappearing in the room. She didn’t ask any more questions, instead snapping both hands out to grab hold of us. “Grab on!” 

The second we did so, she teleported again, taking the two of us with her. We appeared on the far side of the parking lot, stumbling a bit. Paige was shouting, “Down, get down!” Her hands caught That-A-Way and me both at the back, shoving both of us and herself down to the asphalt. 

And then it happened. With a terrifying, cacophonous booooooooooom that sent a shockwave through the air strong enough to hit the back of my head and smack my face (thankfully protected by the helmet) down into the pavement, the building behind us exploded. 

There was a distinct ringing in my ears as I lifted my head, looking around an unknown amount of time later. The remains of the warehouse were on fire. It looked like half the building had gone up with that single explosion, and the rest would be gone very soon. There wouldn’t be enough of the place left to pull anything useful out of it. Which, I supposed was a good thing. 

The ringing didn’t stop. Instead, it morphed into loud sirens. Cops. Firetrucks. They were coming. By the time that realization came, That-A-Way was already on her feet. She turned back to Paige and me, saying something that I only caught the last half of. “–they see you!” Clearly realizing I hadn’t heard her as my head cocked to the side, she repeated, “They’re gonna have a lot of questions if they see you!” Her hand gestured to Paige. “Is this–is she?” 

Right, I realized what she was asking. “It’s Paige Banners,” I managed. “She’s connected to the Ministry.” 

As I said that last word, Paige’s head snapped up. She stared at That-A-Way, then at me. “You… you know–she knows about…” 

“Get out of here.” That-A-Way quickly blurted. “If the Ministry’s as connected as you say, they’ll jump on the chance to shut her up. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s not time, just go. Go!” She grabbed my arm, hauling me to my feet before doing the same with Paige. 

“What’s going on?” That was Pack, who had just come jogging up with several of her lizards spread out around her in full battle formation. “What the hell happened here? Those sirens–” 

“Go, go! Get them out of here!” That-A-Way was saying, giving Paige and me a push toward Pack. “Too many questions, too many problems. Just go, I’ll cover here, I’ll say I showed up and found the warehouse like this. Just get them out.” 

She had a point. And it was really quick thinking, considering the circumstances. That-A-Way had next to no idea what was actually going on, yet had picked up on what a bad idea us being found here would be. If we stuck around, my parents’ organization would absolutely take the chance to put Paige in custody so they could pick her brain. Which… yeah. Grimacing behind the helmet, I quickly started moving. “Right, come on, hurry.” Everything hurt. I felt so sore and tired. All I wanted to do was lay down and take a little nap. Wait, scratch that. I wanted a nice hot bath first. Urgh, what I wouldn’t give for a hot bath and my bed. 

But I couldn’t have that. Not yet. We had to get the hell out of here first. And the sound of approaching sirens were getting closer. Not to mention other Star-Touched. They’d be here any second too. We had to go. We had to get out of here right fucking now. 

Paige was stumbling. It seemed like being thrown down by that explosion had taken a lot out of her. She limped, and in some ways still seemed dazed. But there wasn’t time to worry about that. There wasn’t time for anything other than leaving. 

Thankfully, Pack had a van nearby. It looked nondescript, just an old gray and black minivan that didn’t stand out at all. Which, I assumed, was the point. Quickly, she yanked the sliding door open, before she and I both helped Paige up and into a seat. Mars Bar, Holiday, and Twinkletoes shrank down back to their normal forms to join the other lizards in their cage, before she quickly gestured for me to get in the front seat while shutting the door. “Come on then, I really don’t feel like having a chat with a bunch of goodie-two-supershoes about why I’m fleeing the scene of a fucking unscheduled building demolition!” 

Jumping in the passenger seat, I slammed the door shut just as Pack started the car. With a quick squeal of tires, we pulled out of the lot and took off down a side road. She slowed down pretty quickly, as soon as we were out of the immediate sight of the warehouse. A couple cop cars went screaming past us, followed by a firetruck. All of their sirens were piercingly loud, the flashing lights making me jump as they basically flew by. But they didn’t slow down or seem to pay any attention to the van, focused as they were on getting to the scene of the explosion. 

My father would be there. I had no doubt of that. Of course Silversmith would head to the scene of a massive explosion like that. Especially considering I was pretty sure the Ministry didn’t know anything about what that place was actually used for. My parents would be clueless about what was going on or what caused the explosion, so Dad would be right on the front lines trying to figure it out. Which was another reason to get Paige out of there before she was seen. 

Speaking of Paige, I turned a bit in the seat to look that way. “Are you okay back there?” 

No, she wasn’t. She didn’t respond at first, slumped a bit in the seat. Finally, just as I was getting even more worried than I already was, the girl murmured, “Pull over. Pull the car over.” She sounded out of it, like she was barely conscious and struggling to remain even that much. 

Pack didn’t. Not at first anyway. Insisting that we had to get further away, she drove another couple blocks before pulling into a car wash parking lot. “What’s going on with her? Also, who the hell is she? And why are you wearing such a shit costume? It looks like ten dollar cosplay. And–”

“Later,” I replied flatly. “Just… just later for the rest of that. And for what’s wrong… I don’t know.” Shaking my head, I opened the door and hopped out before shoving the sliding door open. “Paige? What’s going on? Are you alright? What–” 

“Virus,” she informed me, hand snapping out to catch my arm. “Some kind of failsafe. Last little surprise from Daddy-dearest. Trying to shut me down until he can find and reprogram me.” 

In the front seat, I heard Pack echoing those words with a note of utter bafflement. But I ignored that, focusing on the girl in front of me. “What do we do? How do we stop it?” 

“Don’t… just… need…” Paige’s responses were slow. It was clearly taking a huge effort for her to focus and try to answer. I had no idea what was going on in there, but it was pretty bad. Her hand suddenly fumbled for mine, squeezing tightly once she managed to find it. “Help. Need tech. Good with computers. Good with machines. Trust. Only trust. Must trust. Please.” Her head turned to look at me, and I saw… fear. I saw the fear in her eyes, the panic. She couldn’t control herself. Something was happening to her and she couldn’t change it, couldn’t fix it. She was afraid, because she knew she had to trust me to help her, had to trust me to find someone who could fix her. 

“Can… slow down… can shut it down,” her voice murmured. “But have to shut me down. Have to shut it all down until it’s fixed. Find someone. Find tech. Find fixer. Trust. Must trust. Only trust. Fix it. Please. Please fix… me. Please. Need fixed. Need fixer.” 

“I will, I will, I’ll find someone,” I promised. “Someone we can trust, I swear. I’ll get someone, okay?” There was no response. Paige’s eyes fixed on me, and I saw the fear again. I saw the clear and abject terror in her gaze. She was shutting down. Her mouth opened as though to say something, but no words came out, at least not yet. She shuddered, and then her eyes drifted shut. She couldn’t keep them open anymore. 

Only once her eyes were closed and her body had slumped a bit did she whisper, sounding as though it was taking literally everything she had to even say that much, “Trust… you.” 

Then she was still and silent. Whatever her father had done, whatever last second measure he’d taken, Paige had shut her entire body down trying to deal with it, to stop it from getting even worse. And now she was trusting me to find someone who could help her, a tech who could handle something as sophisticated as her. Wren? Could Wren do that? 

“Okay…” Pack was saying, having gotten out of the van to move around behind me. 

“Exactly what the fuck is going on?”

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Kairos 9-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fossor was in front of me. Just like that, he moved so fast, he was suddenly right there. I had just enough time for the flash of a thought about how many of his army here in the quarry he’d sacrificed for that speed before his hand smacked my staff away, sending it clattering along the ground before the same hand closed around my throat. It was an iron grip, ripping me off my feet and hoisting me in the air as I felt my windpipe constricting. Even with all the enhancements to my overall toughness, he was crushing my throat. Not playing, not taunting, he intended to snap my neck, crush it in his grip just like that. 

In the same moment, his other hand was lashing out, fist slamming into the side of my mother’s face to send her flying away from me. He knew what he was doing. He would kill me now, then use my mother’s resulting horror and grief against her, blinding her with emotion in order to end her too. I was the weak link in this whole thing. He could kill me easily, then move on to her. 

Well fuck that. Even as my throat started to collapse in on itself under the pressure of the man’s grip, I shifted my face and hair. Within a second, my head didn’t look like me anymore. I didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met before. I looked like someone Rahanvael had painstakingly described to me, helping me work out every detail of her face and hair over the past few weeks. 

I looked like their mother, like Fossor’s mother, staring right back at him. It wouldn’t really fool the man, of course. That wasn’t the point. The point was to startle him briefly, and it accomplished that. For just a second, I saw the monster’s eyes widen slightly, saw his mouth part in the slightest gasp. More importantly, I felt his grip on my throat slacken just the tiniest bit. 

Instantly, I boosted myself, feeling Tabbris adding whatever she could to the boost as well as my foot lashed out to slam into the man’s stomach. It was a bit like hitting a stone wall as a normal person. But in this case, the stone gave a little bit. Fossor took a single step back before catching himself, while his grip on my throat faded entirely. I dropped, staff summoned right back to my hand before I triggered the smallest kinetic boost from the end of it to send myself a couple feet sideways, out of range from Fossor’s flailing grasp. 

My face was back to normal then as the man turned ever so slightly, reflexively coming after my ‘retreating’ form. Anger and hatred marred his features as he lashed out, a basketball-sized orb of green-blue fire erupting from his hand before it came flying at me. This was no ordinary fire, not something my own energy absorption could deal with. The flaming orb was filled with his Necromantic power. 

At the same time, even as that magical death fire came flying at me, I reared back to hurl my staff at him, bladed end first. Just before it left my hand, I threw myself into the small wood part in the middle of my staff, vanishing right before his fireball would’ve hit me as the staff flew just to the side of it. 

Fossor was ready for the staff coming at him, but before we got that far, I used my temporary pause power to freeze it in mid-air with me still inside. Fossor’s hand lashed out to grab where he thought the staff was going to be, only for it not to be there. 

Only then did the man realize his mistake. He’d been focused on me. I had made him see his mother’s face. I’d put myself a bit to the side, making him turn my way. I threw the staff at him, making him brace to grab it. 

All while my mother recovered herself. She was back on her feet, coming at the Necromancer from behind with one of her conjured energy blades while he was distracted. 

He realized this at the last second, of course, pivoting back that way just in time to snap his hand up. A glowing fog-like substance surrounded that hand, apparently protecting it as he grabbed the incoming energy blade. Yet, I could see blood coming from his hand as well. It didn’t protect him perfectly. 

Meanwhile, the instant he pivoted that way, I cut the five-second pause early. My staff resumed its flight at the man, just before I popped out of it. Landing in a sprint, I caught my staff, triggering another boost from it to drive the blade at the back of his head. 

The blade hit the back of his head and cut straight into him, through his skull and brain. I felt the rush of having actually hit him, just before my staff was shoved out of his head as he passed the damage off to any of his remaining undead creatures still fighting above us. 

Before I could recover from being off-balance when my staff was shoved out of his head, the man’s foot collided with my side. The air rushed out of me. But Mom was there, catching my arm as I stumbled and flinging me up and around in a kick of my own that slammed into the side of Fossor’s face. Between my strength and Mom’s as she swung me into him, the bastard’s nose was shattered, blood spraying off to the side. 

Mom released me, letting me drop back to my feet as we took up positions together in front of him. His head was fine, as if I hadn’t just recently stabbed all the way through it. Yet, the broken nose and the cut on his hand, minor as it was, remained. 

He couldn’t pass off everything we were doing, I realized. Finally, finally, after everything we’d done throughout this entire long battle, he was starting to run low on things he could pass damage off to. I had destroyed his connection to his own world, reducing him to what he had here on Earth. All those people, all our friends and allies (and some who weren’t either) were above, tearing through those same forces with a speed that Fossor himself couldn’t match with reinforcements. This was it. This was all he had. He’d been reduced to only protecting himself from lethal damage. The broken nose, the cut on his hand, he had to live with that. We had hurt him. We were able to hurt him. 

But it was even worse than that, for him. Belatedly, I realized why he wasn’t summoning more ghosts or zombies to fight us. Because he couldn’t afford to. The people above us had crested that metaphorical hill in the fight, the point where he needed all of his forces to be there. If he summoned more creatures here to attack us, he’d be taking them away from the fight above. And apparently, that fight had reached the point where taking away the amount it would require to deal with Mom and me would make the rest of his forces collapse entirely.  

This was the moment. This was our chance. If Fossor didn’t kill us right now so he could escape, he’d run out of creatures entirely. And if that happened, if we could keep him here long enough for the others to kill the last of his undead army… then we could kill him

Mom clearly realized the same thing. The two of us exchanged glances while Fossor glared at us. Our eyes met, and I felt… tranquil. This was right. This was exactly where I was supposed to be. I was with my mother. After everything that happened, all that this monster had put us through, we were facing him together. Nothing else was in our way. All of his tricks, all his power, all of his legions, and in the end, it came down to this. Mom and me, fighting him head-on. The two of us together, finishing this once and for all. 

Simultaneously, my mother and I both nodded. Then our focus turned back to Fossor himself, even as the man summoned a new pair of fireballs. But these were much larger, each almost the size of my entire body. He may have been basically running on what was fumes for someone of his power. But even fumes in his case was enough to do a hell of a lot of damage. 

One of those fireballs came flying our way, as Mom caught my arm and teleported us around behind Fossor. But he’d anticipated that and sent the other ball that way. It was about to hit us, before I used the power that allowed me to move objects around on my body to summon a small coin to my hand, and chucked it at the incoming flaming orb. Just before the tiny coin would’ve been entirely swallowed up by the flames, I focused on making it bigger. In an instant, the small bit of metal suddenly grew up to the size of a manhole cover. It took the brunt of the fireball, sending the blue-green flames to either side of where Mom and I stood, the terrible, magical heat scorching our skin and hair a bit. 

Even before the flames had faded, I used a burst from my staff to launch myself into a kick at Fossor. Despite the cover of the fire, he still caught my ankle and thigh in an iron grip, spinning to hurl me as hard as he could into the wall of the pit. Through the rush of colliding violently with the dirt and stone, I half-sensed and half-saw my mother shove her energy blade through his stomach. Again, he passed off the damage, making the weapon slide out of him as what should have been a mortal wound healed instantly. At the same time, the man put his fist into my mother’s face with so much force, it would’ve shattered solid concrete. 

That blow was enough to make Mom’s head snap back, and Fossor tried to follow up with another shot at her briefly exposed throat. But I had collected myself by then and focused on the man’s shirt. Using the ape-croc’s power, I forced the shirt to suddenly become much harder to move, requiring more force than the man was accustomed to. I’d been told (and found out through subsequent testing) that affecting things people were actively wearing wasn’t exactly easy, because of how connected the clothes were to living things (which I couldn’t affect at all with this power). Clothes that were actively being worn required a lot more focus than those that weren’t, and I wasn’t that great at affecting them on the fly. 

In this case, however, I had a lot of motivation. In mid-swing, Fossor’s hand suddenly slowed as it became much harder to move his shirt sleeve. It didn’t stop entirely, but it did suddenly lose a lot of speed and power. Enough that Mom was able to recover, catching the incoming punch with one hand before delivering one of her own into his face that staggered him. Then she hit him again, even harder. Unfortunately, he jerked aside from the third punch and back-handed her so hard I heard the crack from where I was still scrambling back to my feet. She hit the ground, bleeding from the side of her head but still conscious. 

Fossor’s foot rose so he could stomp down on my mother. But I was there first, screaming as I lashed out with the blade of my staff to cut through his throat. Again, the killing blow was reduced to nothing. But it forced the Necromancer to stumble backward, cursing me in some other language. Probably his own. 

He swung at me, a blade made of what looked like sharpened bone appearing in his hand. My staff spun around, catching and smacking the weapon to the side with the main body while the bladed end simultaneously cut across Fossor’s cheek in the same motion. Not a lethal blow. He didn’t bother to heal it. He couldn’t bother to heal it. 

The fist that wasn’t holding that bone-blade came at me while my staff was busy deflecting that weapon. In mid-punch, a second blade, this one somehow attached to his wrist, snapped into place. I only saw it from the corner of my eye at the last second. If my reactions were any slower, the blade would have punched straight into my stomach. As it was, I barely managed to twist just enough that it cut partway through my side. It hurt like hell, and it was all I could do to drop into a roll carrying me under Fossor’s quick follow-up slash with his actual sword. Pain. Fuck, fuck, pain. 

Fuck pain. Fuck everything that could distract me. Fuck everything aside from killing this piece of shit! 

He was right behind me as I rolled to my knees, his bone-sword coming down toward my head. But I ignored the pain in my bleeding side, snapping the staff up to catch the incoming blade. At the same time, I sent a cloud of sand out and into his face with a click of the button. Sand that was heated to the point that his eyes immediately began to blister and pop, turning red as he staggered backward and actually screamed. It was just for a moment before he passed that damage off too, but the scream, brief as it was, was everything I needed right then. It was enough to make me shove my own pain of that already-healing cut off into its own little compartment, pushing myself up and spinning to face Fossor just as he stopped his own stumbling. His eyes were still bright red, clearly injured from the burning sand, but he’d summoned blood to catch the sand, weighing it down and throwing it to the side. 

“I… am going to enjoy making your mother see your body torn to pieces,” he snapped at me. In one motion, he brought up the hand that wasn’t holding his sword. That bone-blade attached to his wrist suddenly became a projectile, shooting right at me. An instant later, it split apart into a dozen small, equally deadly pieces, all spread out so that some would hit me no matter where I moved. Alone, there was no way I could dodge, block, catch, or otherwise stop myself from being hit by at least some of them. Not in the time I had. 

But once again, I wasn’t alone. The incoming shards of bone suddenly stopped in midair, frozen by my mother, whose hand was outstretched. A second later, they flew up into the ceiling. 

Fossor, in turn, bellowed out his rage, stabbing his sword into the ground. As he did so, duplicate bone blades rose like spears throughout the pit, coming from the floor and walls. One stabbed partway through my foot while another clipped my shoulder. But those weren’t important. The one that was coming out of the wall nearby, directly for my back was important. And that was the one I stopped, spinning that way to lash out. My arm collided with the incoming bone spear with enough force to break the thing off and send it flying away right before it would have stabbed into my chest. Meanwhile, to one side, my mother suddenly appeared and shattered three more that were coming from that direction. 

Fossor was there, stabbing his sword where she should have been in that instant. But Mom had already vanished, teleporting behind him. Her energy blade was shoved through his back and out the front of his chest. It healed, pushing the blade aside before he spun, catching my mother in a devastatingly powerful backhand once more that staggered her. 

He tried to follow up, but I pushed off the wall, driving my own blade toward the back of his neck. He felt it coming, twisting to catch my weapon. Except that had been a feint. Even before the man had started to turn, I had already created a small portal in front of the blade. The other end came out right near his leg so that the blade of my staff cut into his calf. 

Not a lethal blow. But damaging. Hard for him to justify healing, yet it would slow him down. He could heal it and waste what precious resources he still had, or deal with the pain. 

Yeah, he wasn’t happy, to say the least. His hand caught the middle of my staff, nearly jerking it out of my grip as he yanked me closer and off balance to stab me with his sword. But Mom had recovered from that blow, her own blade snapping up with a hum of power to cut into his shoulder, giving me time to summon another silver knife back to my hand from its storage place before throwing it as hard as I could into his foot, the opposite one from the leg I’d damaged. It was, again, not that bad of an injury. Yet one that would slow him down. Pain. Bit by bit, we were wearing at him, even as the people above were wearing through his already much-diminished army. 

Still, he kept his grip on my staff enough to yank me around, trying to make me collide with Mom. But she vanished, teleporting just a foot to the side, into the space I’d already been flung through. The instant she reappeared, Mom lashed out with another punch that collided with Fossor’s jaw. She hit him so hard that time, it left his chin looking strangely off-center and broke several teeth. 

It was enough to make him let me go, and even as I stumbled, I forced myself to spin back that way with a violent slash of my staff that put the blade through the side of his throat. Again, an injury that he healed off like it was nothing. 

No. 

Wait.

Not like it was nothing. The injury healed somewhat. It stopped gushing blood, but the cut was still partially there. I could see it there, the mark where my blade cut through him. He made it better, but not perfect. 

Even as I noticed that, Mom’s fist collided with his face again. Then again. Then again. She punched him so hard, his face looked disfigured. Each blow hard enough to pulverize stone. She broke through his skin, broke the bones in his head with each blow. Each punch drove him backward, making him stumble. She drove him right to the wall. She brought her energy blade up with her other hand, shoving it right toward his chest. 

And then he twisted just enough that the blade barely missed anything vital, stabbing through his shoulder as the man bellowed in pain and anger. His hand caught her extended wrist, and he broke her arm with a hard snap that made my mother release her grip on the weapon. 

I lunged, but he was already spinning back to me, already twisting Mom around and getting his arm around her throat. His other hand smacked something, some kind of enchanted stone or something, against her arm. It left behind some kind of glowing black and red rune.

“Do it!” he bellowed at me, face almost unrecognizable through the blood and bruises. Not to mention the broken jaw, broken nose, burned eye sockets, and more. Between Mom and me, we had literally rearranged his face for him. “Move! Move again, and she dies, she dies! Believe me, little girl, she won’t teleport away. No more teleporting for awhile, not with that little spell.” 

The thing he’d hit her with, that glowing red and black rune on Mom’s shoulder. It was stopping her from teleporting, trapping her right there with him. 

“You think I don’t have any more allies?” the monster was ranting at me. “What if I turn your mother into one, you insignificant child?! What if I turn her into a true ally? It wouldn’t be hard.” He was panting, snarling his words while keeping Mom held tight, his arm twisting her neck almost to the snapping point. 

“Will you consider it a win?” he snarled at me, almost animalistically. “Will you cheer my death if it costs your mother her life? Do you have what it takes to make that sacrifice, hmmm? You can kill me, little girl. You can do what no one else could ever manage. You could end this now, once and for all. All you have to do is let your mother die. Can you do that? Can you sacrifice your dear, precious mother just to finish me? Think of everyone I’ve killed. Think of everyone else I will kill if you don’t end this now. Do it. Kill me. Kill your mother. Make that sacrifice.” 

For a moment, I stood there, frozen. Terror, the certainty that I was about to lose my mom after just getting her back, left me half-blinded by tears. Fossor. I couldn’t let him get away. We had him. Millennia of his atrocities, billions of people dead because of him. I couldn’t let that go. I couldn’t–I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. 

But my mom. My mother. It wasn’t fair. 

It just wasn’t fair. She deserved to live. After everything she’d been through, after everything our entire family had been through…

Everything our family had been through…

“You still don’t get it,” I finally spoke, my own voice shaking so much it was almost impossible to understand. “Chambers… Atherbys… Heretics… we all have something in common.” As I spoke, my eyes met my mother’s. She couldn’t nod, not in that position. But I saw the understanding in her eyes. She knew. She was ready. 

“What?” Fossor demanded, not quite there yet. 

“We can survive a hell of a lot,” I said flatly, before dropping to the floor. In mid-motion, I released my staff. A thought left it frozen for a moment. It hovered there at an upward diagonal angle while I hurled myself forward, straight at them.

Then Fossor understood. The man started to react, but Mom’s own hands snapped up, grabbing hold of his arms to keep him there with her, and stop him from breaking her neck. 

That might not have been enough, weakened as she was against the strength that Fossor had given himself. But my lunge carried me close enough for my grasping fingers to find her arm, and the moment I did, I was inside. I was possessing my mother.

Instantly, I boosted her with everything I had, throwing every last bit of strength I could manage into the boost. Tabbris was doing the same, both of us shoving everything we had into boosting my mother.

Even that might not have been enough. But we had one more edge, one more thing to tip the scales. Because Rahanvael was there too. She appeared behind Fossor, turning solid just long enough to catch hold of her brother’s arms from behind. Between Tabbris and me boosting Mom, and Rahanvael holding the bastard from behind, he was trapped. We stopped him from escaping. 

And then? Then my mother used all that strength, hers and ours, to lunge forward, dragging Fossor with her. She hurled herself and her tormenter toward my still-frozen staff, impaling herself through the stomach on it. I felt the shock of pain as the staff went through her body. But the angle it was at meant that while the staff went through Mom’s stomach and mid-back, it went through Fossor’s chest, and out his upper back. 

In the next heart-beat, I stopped possessing my mother, shoving myself out of her before pivoting that way, spinning on my heel. Every nanosecond was an eternity, my vision of the world slowed to a crawl. 

The man was limp. His arms fell to his sides as Mom and Rahanvael’s grips released him. The blade of the staff hadn’t just cut through his back, it had severed his spinal cord. Mom had perfectly angled her lunge to literally paralyze the man who had been holding her from behind. 

My pivot carried me the rest of the way around to face them as the staff disappeared from where it was, reappearing back in my hand. Its absence left Fossor and my mother to fall to the ground, the latter managing to weakly push herself out from under him.

“Can’t… ca-ca… can’t… die…” Blood poured from Fossor’s mouth with each choked word as he lay face-down in the dirt, head turned to the side. He was completely helpless. His body was paralyzed from the neck down. He’d run out of minions to sacrifice. He’d run out of tricks. He’d run out of everything. “Ca… can’t…” 

“Yes,” I informed him while driving the blade of my staff down into the back of that fucker’s head, “you can.” 

And with that, I welcomed a rush of pleasure that eclipsed my entire reality.

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Project Owl 14-07 (Summus Proelium)

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One job. I had one job. Keep Paige safe from the army of guys–well, sort of guys– who were about to come through that vault door. Simple to say, maybe not so simple to actually do. Paige was frozen behind me, unable to move and apparently blind and deaf to what was going on out here. If anyone actually got to her, she would be utterly defenseless. A stray shot, anyone who happened to get past me even for a moment, anything like that could leave her hurt or dead. 

I couldn’t let that happen. So, maybe the trick was not to let these guys even make it into the vault at all. With that thought, I used green paint for speed, sprinting at the door even as it was opening. Right when there was enough space for the biolem in the lead to start to step in, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, crashing into him with enough force to send him half-flailing backwards into two of his companions. All three hit the nearby wall, while I stumbled for a step or two before catching myself. With no one pushing it, the vault door stayed where it was, partly open with a hole in the middle where Paige and I had used pink paint to break our way in. 

“Sorry guys,” I blurted quickly while reaching back, grabbing the handle of the door, and yanking it firmly shut behind me, “bank’s closed for the day. You’ll just have to come back during regular business hours. And you might wanna come early. Otherwise the old ladies’ll be here, and trust me, you do not want to get caught behind one of them counting out pennies and nickels so they can get to the store for that new milk sale everyone’s all hyped about.” 

Yeah, apparently they didn’t think that was funny. Nor did the four guys who were just coming around the corner of that L-shaped hall to join them, guns raised. Seven nearly identical guys (they were dressed the same and had slightly different face and hair features, but it all blended together), all of them apparently these unthinking, unfeeling biolems whose only purpose was to follow orders. And those orders, in that moment, were to get into that vault and stop Paige.  

The only obstacle standing between them and fulfilling those orders was me. And their way of removing that obstacle was to point their guns and immediately open fire. No negotiation. No demands or arguments. Nothing like that. Once they saw that I was in the way, all seven of them simply snapped their weapons up and started shooting without even looking at each other. 

But I was ready. They might not have thought my joke was funny, but talking had still served its actual purpose of giving me time to make sure my paint was all filled up. Before the biolems had even started to raise their weapons, I was already activating the orange hand with middle finger raised that I had painted onto my chest, while the blue paint on the bottom of my shoes launched me up toward the ceiling. Shots rebounded off me, hard enough to sting. Whatever actual weapons these guys were using, they were really strong. And the guys were really good shots. Even with my quick launch upward, I was still hit half a dozen times before I even managed to invert myself. The shots hurt, but I didn’t care. Once I managed to flip myself over, my feet hit the ceiling and the blue paint on my shoes kicked in once more, launching me down and forward to crash bodily into the biolem who had been running for the hole I’d left in the door.

I collided hard enough with the guy to slam him into the ground and nearly knock the wind out of myself. I would’ve pancaked if it wasn’t for the still-active orange paint. The guy himself was knocked flat on his back, the gun sliding away. Not that the loss of his gun or the impact of me colliding with him and of his back colliding with the ground actually affected the biolem that much. His hands suddenly grabbed my throat, holding tight as he stared at me impassively. Meanwhile, two of the guys ran past on either side toward the door, while the remaining four took aim at me with those guns that stung me even through my orange paint from further away.

Just before the four guys surrounding me opened fire, I painted my entire back, including the rear of the helmet, pink and then immediately dismissed the effect. In the next instant, the bullets from the guns hit… and ricocheted off. I was using that trick where cancelling my pink paint early left the affected object super-bouncy. Between that and the last couple seconds of my orange paint, I was left unharmed (Well, relatively. It still stung pretty bad and I would have welts), while my makeshift costume repelled the bullets away from me. 

Yeah, it was a trick I wouldn’t use in most situations, because I had no way of stopping the bullets from hitting and killing someone. But as had been thoroughly demonstrated to me, these biolems weren’t thinking, feeling beings. They were basically robots without any free will or personality. They were as close to mindless as you could get while still following orders. 

And yet, even then, I still felt guilty about hearing the bullets rebound off me to hit them. But I’d promised Paige I would keep them off her, and I was damn sure going to keep that promise. 

To that end, I painted my gloves purple and grabbed hold of the hands that were currently trying to choke me, prying his grip off my throat before, with what was probably literally the last second of orange paint left, slamming my helmeted head down into his face. Biological robot or not, that was enough to make him go limp briefly, and I quickly launched myself into a backward roll to get away from him. 

Three of the other four guys around me weren’t down yet. They were bleeding from various holes, and one guy was on the ground, unmoving. But they weren’t down. My attention, however, was on the two other biolems who were almost to the vault door. Quickly, even as I rolled, my hand snapped out to fire a spray of red that caught them both. Activating it made the two slam into one another, slowing them down briefly while I was still coming back to my feet.

“Clearly,” I blurted out loud as the three still-standing figures pivoted toward me to fire again, “we all need a lesson on what–” The three men opened fire, while I painted a pair of orange star-shapes on either arm and flung myself at the nearest guy. With shots rebounding off me (adding to the horrible bruises I was going to have when this was over, if I wasn’t just dead), I caught hold of the guy’s extended arm. The strength boost from the purple paint was still there, allowing me to shove the arm around so that his next shot hit one of the guys by the door in the back while he was still picking himself up. A second later, I extended the purple paint over my entire torso, raising my strength enough to easily hurl the guy over my shoulder to crash into the other biolem by the door. 

In the next instant, two more shots hit my back with so much force despite my protective paint they still made me stumble forward with a yelp. Oww, oww! Fuck, oww! 

No. Don’t stop. Don’t think about the pain. I couldn’t afford to. If I stopped, if I slowed down, they would get through the door. And if they got to Paige, if I failed Paige after promising I would protect her…

I wouldn’t fail. 

“A lesson on what closed means!” I quickly shouted at them. “That’s what you need!” 

Pivoting, I let the two men behind see that I’d actually stripped their buddy’s gun out of his hand before I threw him. I had a gun. A gun. What the fuck kind of superhero used a gun? Especially when I was trying to be better than my parents. Especially when–

It didn’t matter. They weren’t real people. With the gun in my hand, I pointed it at the nearest of the two guys and pulled the trigger. 

I missed by about a mile. Oh, and I wasn’t ready for the kickback of the gun, so it leapt out of my hand and clattered across the floor away from me. Fantastic. 

It did, however, make the two standing biolems, and the one who was picking himself off the ground, pause for just a moment. Which was totally my intention, yup. 

Fuck it, stick with what worked. Pointing my free hands, I hit the two standing guys with red paint, then pivoted and shot more red at two of the guys by the vault. Activating the paint, I brought the ones over there flying backward, yanking them off their feet to come crashing into their companions. 

Which left one guy by the door, the one I had made the other biolem shoot. He was picking himself up, heedless of the bullet wound in his side as he moved for the hole in the vault. God damn it, these things had one-track minds. 

A spray of yellow slowed the guy down, while green sped me up. Just as I reached him, the purple paint was about to wear off. But it stuck around long enough for me to catch hold of the guy by his arm and waist, lifting him off his feet and driving him toward the door he was so interested in. 

Put them down hard, Paige had said. The only way to stop them was to end them. They weren’t alive. They weren’t really alive. They weren’t people. They weren’t–

I pulled back, just a little. It was reflex. My intention had been to slam the biolem’s head into the door hard enough to make the skull split open like a melon. But at the last second, I pulled back slightly. It still hit hard, but not as much as I intended. Even being told that these things weren’t real, even being told that they weren’t actual people with feelings, that they were little more than mindless machines, I still just… reflexively held back. 

Still, the thing’s head collided with the door hard enough to put him on the ground, bleeding profusely. I had to hope that was enough for now. Had to, because the others had already picked themselves up and were rushing my way. 

Paige was right. I had to put them down, had to put aside my squeamishness and make sure they stayed down. It was the only way. Otherwise, they would just keep coming no matter what, would just keep trying to get past or through me to… to stop her.

A quick spray of blue paint along the floor launched all five incoming figures straight up into the ceiling before they could shoot again. Before they hit the ground, I was there. With renewed purple arms and orange legs, I caught hold of one guy by the back of his head, slamming his face hard down into my rising knee. Then I grabbed the waistband of his pants, leaving a red handprint there as I hurled the guy as hard I could against the far wall. He slammed into that wall while I used a quick spray of red that hit three more of these guys and sent them flying after him. 

One more guy was on the floor at my feet, starting to pick himself up. Before he could, however, I slammed my foot, still empowered by my purple paint, down as hard as I could manage into the man’s back. He was knocked prone before I kicked him, just as hard, in the side, sending him flying wildly into the nearby wall. 

The guy I’d run headfirst into the vault door was starting to pick himself up. God damn it, Paige was right. They wouldn’t stay down. Whatever I did, they wouldn’t stay down. I had to kill– destroy them. It was the only way, but… but…

Not real. They weren’t real. Grimacing behind the helmet, I used the last of my purple strength to catch the guy by the back of his neck, yanking him away from the hole before slamming my fist into his stomach. The impact knocked him down. But he got right back up. The guys I’d sent flying to the far wall were picking themselves back up. Everyone was getting up. They would keep getting back up as long as I didn’t just finish them. Break them. Put them down. 

So why was it so hard? Intellectually, I knew they weren’t real people. They didn’t feel things, didn’t think things. They were machines who followed the orders of a psychopath who wanted me and my whole family dead. Finishing them wasn’t like killing a person, it was like… breaking a machine. Right? 

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself–

Then I saw it, motion from the corner of my eye. The biolem I had kicked into the wall had managed to crawl around behind me. He was leaning up at the hole, gun in hand as he pointed it that way. Pointed it at Paige. 

He was going to shoot Paige. 

The scream tore its way out of my throat, even as I flung myself that way. In mid-lunge, my costume changed color entirely. The legs, torso, helmet, and arms turned purple, with green highlights, shoes, and gloves. An orange bolt of lightning appeared on my chest, with a matching one over my back. Before I’d even reached the man in my lunge, I’d covered my entire makeshift costume with those colors, and activated all at once. 

An instant before the biolem would have fired, one of my hands caught the arm holding the gun while the other caught the back of his neck. In the same motion, I ripped the hand sideways, making his shot into the room go wide, while also shoving forward on the back of his neck to slam his head into the side of the vault door. 

His arm snapped. I felt it snap. With purple covering as much of my body as it was, I nearly ripped his entire arm off. It definitely broke. And not just in one place. I could feel the arm rip out of its socket with several loud cracks. Meanwhile, his forehead basically caved in from being slammed so hard into the solid steel vault door. If he was human, the man almost certainly would’ve been killed by that. Or at least left pretty braindead. 

But I wasn’t thinking about that. All I was thinking was that I had to stop these guys, had to put them down for good. Just like I’d promised Paige. My dithering about, my hesitation and reluctance, had nearly gotten her killed, even after everything I’d said. 

No more hesitation. With the suddenly limp body of the figure I had just attacked in my hands, I pivoted and hurled him at the others even as they tried to cross the space between us. While his body was still flying sideways through the air at them, I chased after it, running straight at them with the green paint still boosting my speed. Only a couple seconds had passed since I activated all of it. 

As hard and fast as I had hurled that biolem, it caught two of the five guys straight on, hitting them with enough force that the pair were knocked down. The other three were already shooting at me, but I wasn’t paying attention to the sting of the bullets. Not right then. My boosted speed put me right in front of them, as I caught one of their extended wrists and snapped it hard to the side. Snap being the appropriate word, as the wrist broke like a twig. 

In the same motion, I lashed out with a foot, kicking the biolem beside this one with so much force, he was hurled several feet back and into the air, crashing into the wall once more. Pivoting while maintaining my grip on the broken wrist of the one I had caught hold of, I yanked him off his feet and violently slammed his head into the face of the last still-standing guy. It was like a headbutt, only using someone else’s head. Which seemed a lot safer all around. 

While that last guy stumbled, blood spurting from his nose and mouth, I kept my grip on the one I was holding. He was starting to struggle, but my foot abruptly connected with the side of his knee so hard, his leg almost snapped in half. Before he could fall, however, I grabbed the back of his neck and slammed his head again into the face of the one that was still reeling from the first time I’d done that. Then I released him, but before either could recover, I kicked the guy I’d been holding in the back with everything I could manage. The force launched him and the other guy into the concrete wall, noticeably cracking it before they both fell motionless to the floor. 

Quickly, I turned back toward the one I’d kicked into the opposite wall a second earlier. He’d recovered, of course. So had the two who had been hit by their flying companion. Those ones were picking themselves up, but I had a moment. A moment I used by shooting a quick bit of red into the face of the guy who had just peeled himself off the wall, matching it with red on my glove. Activating that yanked the biolem straight to me, as my fist collided with his face hard enough to cave that in. Seriously, there was blood and… and pieces of shattered bone or something all over my glove. I wasn’t just strong like this, I was really god damn strong. 

The guy whose face I had just caved in with a single punch (well, sort of a punch) hit the ground, and I kicked him hard, sending his body sliding across the floor to trip up one of the two guys who had picked themselves up just then as he started to run toward the hole. He fell flat on his back, while I launched myself to collide with the other guy. 

Paint was running out. It had to be. Everything I’d done in just the short ten seconds I had for all this power. But I could finish this. I had to finish it. My momentum carried me into the standing guy, taking him to the ground with me on top of him. Before he could recover, I clasped my fists together and slammed them down into his face once, twice, three times. 

Ow. Ow, that last one hurt. My paint was gone. The power ran out. I was perched on top of a motionless body. 

But I wasn’t done. That last guy, the one I had tripped up by kicking that body at him. He was back on his feet, heading for the hole. Quickly, I snapped my hand up to shoot red paint at him. 

Nothing. I was out of paint. I was out. I was out! And he was about to get to the hole. 

Without thinking, my hand grabbed one of the guns off the floor. I snapped it up. Do or die time. 

No, do or Paige died. 

Gripping the gun with both hands and bracing myself for the kickback this time, I fired. Not once, not even twice. I emptied the magazine into the man, firing over and over again into his back. I barely noticed as the man fell, barely noticed the sound of the semi-silenced bangs becoming simple clicks as ammo ran out. I just kept pulling the trigger several more times after that. 

Then the gun fell from my grip as I sat there, half-slumped over the body of one biolem, with the body of another lying about a foot from the hole with maybe a half dozen bullets in his back. 

Silence filled the air. Silence, that was, aside from my ragged, panting breaths. I felt like I was going to die. Felt like I almost wanted to, after those few seconds of hell. After what I… after what I…

No, I didn’t kill anyone. They weren’t real. They were basically machines. Biological machines, but machines. They were… they weren’t…

“Paintball.” It was Paige. She was back. Somehow, she’d extricated herself from the hole and was crouched in front of me before I’d even noticed. Fuck, how out of it was I? 

“We need to go, right now.” With that, she offered me her hand, pulling me to my feet.

“Did you do it?” I quickly asked. “Did you shut down the brain thing?” 

She gave a quick nod, already pulling me by the hand while starting to run back the way we’d come. “The self-destruct is on. This whole place is going up. We’ve gotta go, now.” 

Unfortunately, her saying that was apparently the cue for a steel door to suddenly slam down out of the ceiling right in front of us before we could get out of the cement corridor. It was accompanied by the echoing sound of more steel doors slamming shut all through the building. 

“My dad,” Paige managed, voice sounding hollow. “He can’t shut down the self-destruct from where he is, but he can put the building on lockdown. He’s shutting us in. 

“If he can’t stop the building from blowing up, he’s going to make sure we go down with it.”

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Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I had thought that the fight in this quarry was insane and chaotic before. But all of that had been nothing compared to this. Hundreds of thousands of undead creatures, all rushing in every possible direction, even up into the air, to escape. Any of them could have been Fossor in disguise, so all of them had to be stopped. They all had to be either destroyed or exposed as the Necromancer himself. We couldn’t let even a single one get out of this quarry. 

“Mom!” I blurted, even as a skeletal deer-like thing tried to sprint past me. My staff snapped that way, shoving through the bones of the thing’s neck just before I triggered a kinetic blast that blew the head into splinters and sent the rest of the bones tumbling to the ground before they broke apart into dust. “What do we do?! How’re we supposed to find the right one?!” 

My mother, for her part, had just finished catching five zombies and a ghost inside some kind of gelatinous cube thing that instantly incinerated itself and them once they were all caught inside it. “Rahanvael,” she said quickly while pointing her hand to send a single, tight-beam laser that caught three more fleeing zombies who had been making a break for it through a small opening. 

I didn’t have to voice the question. Rahanvael was already there, appearing in front of me while shaking her head quickly. “I–I don’t know! His power is everywhere, he’s obfuscating himself somehow! He knows I can find him by tracking his power, so he–he’s spread it everywhere! I can’t focus–I need… I need…” It was obvious that she was going to say she needed time. Time we didn’t have, because of all this chaos. Even in that moment, I was shifting my staff into its bow form and firing a single energy arrow that made a huge Meregan zombie stumble so that Roxa in werewolf form could leap onto its back. She was followed by several more of her wolf pack, who all took the Meregan to the ground together, tearing the already-dead body apart.  

“Time, I know!” I quickly put in, spinning back to hock a wad of that amber-like spit toward a skeleton that was trying to rush past Shiori while her back was turned as she caught one of her spinning discs. It caught the thing’s feet and the ground, pinning it there so she could finish it off. 

“You need time?” That was Avalon. She pivoted to face me from a few yards away while the gauntlet of her extended arm projected a blade that cut the head from another zombie. “We’ll cover you.” Despite everything going on around her, despite her own heavy panting as she continued killing these things, Avalon’s voice was still calm and collected. “Do what you need.” 

“Damn straight!” That was Columbus, appearing to one side. He had Amethyst, his porcupine cyberform, in her shield form with the quills pointed out. Two of those quills flew off, and when they hit this huge, winged-zombie creature in mid-flight, the ice spells on them activated, freezing the thing solid just long enough to bring it crashing back to the ground with a heavy thud as dust flew everywhere. “Focus on finding the chief asshole, we’ve got these ones!” 

Shiori, Koren, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were right there too. All of them spread out around me, focused on keeping the fleeing undead away from me. Away from us. 

Quickly, I looked to Rahanvael. “One chance,” I said quickly. “We have to hurry, or–”

“I know.” Rahanvael said simply. There was no need for me to continue. We both knew. If we didn’t identify exactly where Fossor was before he managed to escape, this whole thing would’ve been for nothing and he would just try all this again. She looked at me intently. “I need to… to possess you, basically. I need your power, your connection to the undead to weed all the extra out.” 

I didn’t even hesitate. With all the insanity around us, as practically everyone I knew who could fight did so against hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s forces, I extended a hand to her. “Do it.”

It wasn’t the same as Seosten possession, of course. If nothing else, I already had one of those with my sister. This was ghost possession, and as Rahanvael’s hand touched mine, I could tell the difference. This was… cold, for lack of a better term. I felt a chill that seemed to run through my actual soul, as this ghost merged fully with me. I could feel her thoughts, her terror that the creature her brother had turned into would actually escape again. I could feel her determination that he not do so, that he be stopped for good here and now. I could feel everything, just as she could undoubtedly feel all of my own thoughts and feelings. 

I have to put everything into finding him, Rahanvael’s voice informed both Tabbris and me. Everything. 

She wasn’t exaggerating. The whole world went dark then. I couldn’t see or hear anything around us. I couldn’t even sense anything with my powers. It was one huge black void. All my senses were turned off, aside from… wait. Energy. I could… feel energy. Life energy–no, not life. Death. I could feel death energy around us. Literally everywhere around us. It was a hurricane of Necromantic energy. No wonder it was so impossible for Rahanvael to differentiate anything. Fossor really was hiding himself in a giant storm of power. The only chance we had was that he was cautious. He wouldn’t make the first run for an escape. He’d wait to see where an opening appeared. But he also wouldn’t wait too long, because he only had so many forces to keep our people busy with. Wherever that piece of shit was, he would make his move soon. 

We had to find him before that. It was the only choice, the only chance we had. Find him. Stop him. 

This was terrifying. I knew there was violence going on around me. I could feel the undead through their energy. But I couldn’t feel my friends. I had no idea how they were doing. I just… I just had to trust that they were safe, that they were still right there protecting Tabbris and me. I had no idea how the fight was going, if they were hurt or… or worse. My only choice was to stand here, blind and deaf, and trust that my friends could take care of themselves. 

Fuck, this was hard. 

I could feel Rahanvael taking control of my Necromancy power, could sense how she was using it to direct the death energy around us. I wasn’t yet powerful enough, even with her help, to take control of more than a few of these things at a time. But she wasn’t trying to take control of them. She was infecting them with my power, letting that power spread quickly through the army, sort of like a virus. I couldn’t actually make them do anything with that tiny amount of power, but I could see where it went, the way it mixed with Fossor’s own power. Through what felt like hours, my power spread through the undead within the quarry, just a dot of it here or there. Not enough to actually do anything with them, but enough to mark all of them. 

All of them, that was, except for one. One spot where my power couldn’t infect Fossor’s. One spot. One being who was immune to being touched by my own Necromancy. 

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

My eyes opened as Rahanvael separated herself from me, and I saw the carnage around us. It was clear that Fossor had left his horde instructions not only to escape, but also to kill me if they could manage it. All around us were dozens upon dozens of dead (or redead) things, or just the dust and ectoplasm from skeletons and ghosts. My friends, my teammates, had been joined by others. My mother, Deveron, the rest of her own team, Asenath, Bobbi, Vanessa and Tristan, and more. It had clearly taken all of them to keep these things off me through the time that I had been indisposed. 

There wasn’t time to thank them. There wasn’t time for anything. Not when I knew where Fossor was. I could still feel him, could still sense the way his own power was so different from mine. Now that it had been so thoroughly pointed out to me, it was a difference I could never forget. The man himself was like a bright shining beacon, so different from the rest of the creatures around him now that they had all been marked by my power. 

And he was making his move. Even as I focused on my ability to sense him, I could feel the Necromancer bolting for an open spot. The fighting had spread out too far. Our forces were thin on the edges. He had the opening he wanted, the opening he needed to escape. 

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

“Got him!” I blurted, spinning toward the direction I could still feel the bastard in. Unfortunately, that just put me face to face with a veritable wall of both enemies and friends. The battle raged on ahead of me, not only on the ground but in the air too. There was no way I could get through all that in time to reach Fossor before he managed to escape. He was already making his move!

At least, there was no way I could do that alone. But I wasn’t alone. The moment they realized where I was trying to go, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Asenath, and all the others launched themselves that way. The wall of enemies in the way collapsed inward as my people, my friends, barrelled headlong into it. A hole, they were making a hole for me to get through. 

I took advantage without thought. I would thank them later, I would say… everything that needed to be said later. Right now, only one thing mattered, getting to Fossor and stopping him once and for all. 

It wasn’t as easy as just going through a single opening and then having a free run to where the evil piece of shit was, of course. The entire quarry was filled with these creatures, all of them in my way. Or at least, they tried to be in my way. But Avalon and the others stayed just ahead of me, tearing their way through the enemies. Here, Sands made a wall to block off one section to create an opening. There, Gordon encased himself in enormous ice armor and used one long arm to swat a group of zombies away. There, Sean and Vulcan worked with Sarah and her own gun to put down a group of fliers that were trying to swoop in from above. 

Koren and Miranda worked together to deal with a massive skeleton giant to the left. To the right, Vanessa and Tristan were stopping a cloud of angry ghosts from reaching us. Bobbi and Asenath raced ahead, each grabbing a rotting zombie barbarian creature, tearing the pair apart from each other and out of the way. 

Deveron and Lillian were there, the latter using a summoned wind storm to hurl a dozen undead into the air before the former incinerated them with a blast of white-blue fire from his pistol. The Dornans and Tribald Kine were stopping a literal giant (the thing towered at least twenty feet tall, twice the size of a Meregan) from stomping down on the spot just ahead of me. 

Everyone, everyone was helping. They were clearing the path. I was taking advantage, racing through the holes they created. I didn’t have time to slow down, didn’t have time to help. Getting to Fossor was all that mattered. They had this. I had him. 

Or rather, we had him. Because my mother was right beside me. The two of us sprinted onward, Mom right at my side. The others could barely keep up with clearing the path, not even worrying about killing everything in the way. They were purely focused on simply moving the enemies. Even then, it was only the fact that we had so many on our side, so many friends and allies right there with us, that allowed Mom and I to keep running without slowing down to engage with the minions ourselves. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us needed to. We were together right here, at this last moment. That was all that mattered, the two of us being together, side-by-side, as we made one final run to either stop Fossor from escaping, or die trying. 

A blast from Columbus’s goggles slammed into a huge, twelve-foot tall troll zombie that had been looming up in front of us, the concussive force putting the thing on its back long enough for my mother and I to leap over it. I had to boost to make the full jump, while my mother used some kind of gravity manipulation power to keep herself in the air long enough to make it from the troll’s feet all the way past its head. It was starting to recover, starting to grab for us, but we were already gone. Behind us, I heard a howl as Dare, in giant wolf form, landed on top of the thing to make sure it would never be a threat again.

I could feel him. I could still feel Fossor. He was… he was there. He was just ahead of us. But, close as he was to us, he was also close to the edge of the quarry, and thus close to escaping the spell that was keeping him trapped here. The moment he made it over that line, the very second that monster managed to edge a foot out of the magic that stopped him from teleporting, he would be gone. He would escape. He would leave and go back to being a threat for everyone in the world, a threat that would hurt and kill everyone I cared about. 

Fuck. That. 

Tabbris! I shouted inwardly, even as Mom intercepted some kind of spinning ghost armed with glowing blades that came in out of nowhere. That wing blast thing, can you do it again? I had no idea what all that was about, and there wasn’t time for details. All that mattered was whether she had another one in her or not. I’d had the impression that she couldn’t do that constantly, that it needed time to recharge. But had it been enough time yet? 

There was a brief hesitation, even as I pivoted to stab the blade of my staff through a zombie that came lunging at us from that side. He was with a horde of others, but our friends had managed to intercept the rest. I could feel Tabbris’s doubt, but it was quickly replaced by firm determination. Yes, she insisted. I can do it again. 

Good, ready? I let her take in exactly what I wanted to do, what I was planning. 

Ready! I could feel that she was afraid, afraid of her own power, afraid of this whole situation, of messing up and letting Fossor escape. She was terrified. But she was here. She was here with me, and determined to make this work. Whatever it took. 

“Mom!” I blurted out loud. “On three, hit me with the strongest energy blast you can and get us into the air. One… two… three!”

As I said that, my hands gripped my staff, triggering the boost to start my launch upward. At the same time, I felt my mother’s hands grab my shoulders as she used her gravity power to send us flying even higher than my staff could manage. On the way, her hands glowed and I felt her pouring energy into me. Energy that I focused on absorbing. 

We were in the air. More enemies came in from all sides, but between Mom and our friends below, they were dealt with. 

Most importantly, I could see him. I could see the single ‘zombie’ making a flat run for the line. Fossor had abandoned blending in by that point. No one was around him, they were all engaged with other threats and too far away. No one could stop him. 

Or so he thought. The second I saw that clear path to the monster, I blurted both inwardly and aloud, “Do it now!” 

It was like before, when we had used a powered up blast to destroy the creatures blocking me from reaching Fossor the first time. But now, we weren’t shooting an army. Nor were we shooting Fossor himself. Tabbris and I both knew the man would just shove the effect off onto any of his creatures who were still here. Then he’d keep going and escape. 

No, we didn’t shoot Fossor. We shot the ground. Those bright light wings appeared from my back and a blinding blast of power, a ten-foot-wide eruption of energy hurtled itself down out of the sky, tearing into the Earth with a deafening blast that sent dirt, dust, and rocks in every direction. 

Through that blinding, choking cloud, Mom and I fell. We landed together, and my mother used a quick gust of wind to send the dust away. 

We were in a hole. A twenty-foot-wide, twelve-foot-deep hole. About as wide as a boxing ring without the ropes. A boxing ring with a single opponent who stood facing us, hatred and disbelief twisting his features. 

“Leaving so soon?” I demanded, taking a quick step away from my mother so we wouldn’t be caught in the same attack. “And without us? I thought we were supposed to be a family and all that.” 

“Yes, brother,” Rahanvael agreed, appearing beside me. “We are family.” 

“We are family,” Mom corrected pointedly, straightening up as she focused on Fossor. “Not him.” Her hand snapped out, throwing some kind of enchanted marble into the air. As it hit the top of the hole we were all in, a glowing energy shield appeared, creating a forcefield ceiling to keep all of us, Fossor included, right here in the hole. 

This was it. No other tricks. No escapes. No new allies or friends. They were all busy, all occupied. My mother and I (with Rahanvael and Tabbris), facing the man who had done so much to tear our family apart. Just us. Just him. For the last time. 

One way or another, this was the end.

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