Pink 12-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I had a dozen texts and three voicemails from Wren once I tore my replacement phone out of its plastic packaging, set it up, and downloaded my old Touched phone data to it. Mostly they were a three-to-one mix of her being terrified of what had happened to me and her wanting to show me the stuff she’d been working on. Apparently she and Fred had already started moving stuff back to the old shop, and she had some spiffy new defenses she wanted me to see. 

So, I called her up to let the girl know I was on the way and that I was fine. Fine enough, at least, that she really didn’t need to know how sore I felt or how much my ribs hurt if I turned too fast or bent over. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make her even more worried. She was a kid, and was still trying to put her own life together. No way was I going to put something like that on her. 

Wren hurriedly informed me that she and Fred were at the old store right then, and I promised I’d be there soon. After that, it was just a matter of getting another ride over to that general area, using a random roof to (somewhat awkwardly) change into my costume (sans the helmet, which was still back with the damn Scions), then heading over to the pawn shop itself. On the way, I kept a sharp lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Yeah, people weren’t after the vials anymore and most knew that attacking a Tech-Touched on their own turf was a bad idea. Not to mention the fact that very few should have any idea a Tech-Touched lived there. But still, the whole idea made me nervous. I really wanted to tell Wren to give it up. Except this was her dad’s store. There was no way she would just walk away from it, no matter what the potential danger was. Getting her to create defenses was the best I could hope for. Well, that and hoping that if things were actually bad, Fred would insist they leave. 

Stepping through the front door, I found the main floor of the shop looking about the same as it had the first time I was there. It was, of course, still an enormous open space about as wide as the school gym, with dozens of shelves scattered around that were filled with all sorts of seemingly random stuff, while the central third of the space was several feet lower than the rest, with various built-in steps leading down into that pit area. 

The same four glass counters formed the same rectangle around the space where the clerk worked. As I entered, both Wren and Fred were there, busy talking about something. The moment the bell dinged, Wren blurted my name (well, Paintball at least), slid off the counter she’d been perched on, and dashed my way. Two steps into it, the wings popped out of her metal backpack thing and she glided the rest of the way before landing right in front of me. Then I was being hugged tightly. Luckily, I saw it coming and popped an orange circle onto my back for defense so I wouldn’t crumple from the force of it. As it was, I had to grit my teeth tightly, managing a weak, “Hey, Wren. Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately, huh?”

Pulling back a bit, the little blonde nine-year-old squinted up at me, very obviously annoyed. “Pretty busy? Pretty busy? You go off and almost get yourself killed and all you have to say about it is that I’ve been busy?!” She gave a loud huff, folding her arms. “You’re in trouble.” Despite her words, it was obvious that it took a lot for her to sound as stern as she did. The kid was trying as hard as she could to be serious and let me know just how upset she was without too much squeeing and hugging. 

Still, I knew she was right, and had to wince at how much I’d obviously upset her. “Sorry. I guess Pack let you know what was going on then?” Obviously, just being scolded by That-A-Way and Pack herself hadn’t been enough. I had to have Wren and her puppy eyes sicced on me too.  

“I was trying to call you and you never answered,” she informed me in a sad voice, head shaking. “So I asked Pack if you were okay and she told me what happened.” Again, the girl squinted at me. “She said you got in trouble cuz you said you had help but you didn’t.” 

“That’s… about the size of it,” I confirmed while cringing a little bit. “I definitely learned my lesson, believe me. I won’t do something like that again. If I say I have help, I’ll have help.” 

“Good.” That was Fred, as the man approached. “Cuz I really don’t wanna have another night of sitting up with the kid until someone actually bothers to let us know that you’re okay.” 

“My phone was broken,” I mumbled helplessly. “And I had my own parents to–I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry, Wren. I’m sorry I made both of you worry. But seriously, I’m okay. And I really want to see what you’ve been doing over here. Are you sure it’s safe to be in this place?” 

“Don’t worry,” Fred informed me, “I told the kid we couldn’t come back here until she had a fool-proof way of getting us out if anything went wrong.” As he said that, the man waved a hand, showing me the watch attached to his wrist. “It’s a teleporter linking this place to the other shop. Something happens, just push the face in and say the command. Then poof, we’re not here.” 

Wren showed me her own watch, nodding eagerly. “And I’m working on one for you! That way if you get caught again, you can just teleport away.” Squinting pointedly, the kid added, “I’ll hurry and make it faster, cuz you get in trouble a lot.” 

She wasn’t wrong, but I still made a huffing noise. I would’ve stuck my tongue out at her, given my lack of a helmet, but that seemed a bit childish at the moment. “Just make sure you guys are safe here first. You can really teleport out as soon as anything happens?”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! And there’s another defense too, you wanna see?” Even as the girl said that, I could see the mix of eagerness and mischievousness in her eyes. Apparently, whatever she wanted to show me was really funny. 

Glancing to Fred briefly, I waited until he gave a subtle nod before agreeing. “Okay, let’s see.” 

With an excited squeaking sound, Wren cleared her throat before loudly declaring, “Intruder defense Alpha-Zero-One engage, ninety percent.” 

As soon as she said that, I heard a weird… humming sound. It filled the room, and I started to look around. But then a blur went rushing past me. It was Wren. She went from standing in front of me, to the door behind me, to the counter, back to one of the other shelves, then back to me, then to a shelf on the far side of the room all in just a brief few seconds. 

The same thing happened with Fred, as he vanished into the elevator leading upstairs, then came back, then checked on something at the register, then came to me with something in his hands all before I could so much as raise my hand. He held it up, and I belatedly realized it was an analog clock. As I stared at it, the second hand spun rapidly. In the brief four seconds or so that I watched, about three minutes passed. 

Finally, I saw Wren open her mouth. The sounds she made came out in a rush so fast they didn’t sound like words. At least at first. But finally, humming sound stopped and I heard the tail end of her saying, “– and restore to default security measures.” 

Things were back to normal. My gaze snapped around quickly, as I blurted, “Wren, are you screwing around with time stuff?! Are we–we’re not–you didn’t–” 

With a giggle, the younger girl shook her head. “No, see, there wasn’t any time travel or anything. I mean, not like you’re thinking. The defense system targets intruders and makes them slower. Everything else was moving at normal speed. You were just moving and thinking really, really slow so everything around you seemed really fast. See, you were in there for fifteen minutes and to you, it was only about thirteen seconds. That way, if anyone comes in who isn’t supposed to be here and we turn on the defense, we have time to do basically anything. Even call for help if we need to.” 

As she finished explaining all that, Wren stared at me eagerly, eyes shining with delight as she blurted, “Isn’t that cool?!” 

I didn’t even have to exaggerate my agreement as my head bobbed. “It’s totally cool, Wren. You outdid yourself with this. Nonlethal and super-effective. How long can it keep going like that?” 

Squirming a little, the girl admitted, “Only about twenty seconds or so of slow-time. But we’re working on getting the time up and cutting the energy use. And that’s almost half an hour real-time, which is plenty for us to do a lot of things while any intruders are basically frozen, you know? Even if it’s just leaving.” 

“You’re right, a lot can happen in half an hour.” I gave her a thumbs up that made her grin happily before asking, “So teleporters to escape and this slow-down effect as soon as intruders get in. Can that be automatic or do you have to actually give the command like you did just now?” 

It was Fred who answered. “Either-or. Kid set it so we can set it off manually, or tie it to an alarm for whenever the shop’s not open. As long as no one else but us is supposed to be here, if anyone does show up, it slows them down and lets us know what’s going on.” 

“And there’s gonna be more!” Wren insisted. She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Which, considering her jetpack wings were still out, actually sent her up above my head, then back to the floor with each bounce. It was enough to make me snicker a bit before containing myself. Meanwhile, she was still explaining. “I’ve got ideas about Flingbeams, they’re–err, wait, I’m not gonna say it yet cuz they might change. Also they’re a surprise. But they’re gonna be cool! No one’s gonna break Dad’s store again. I mean, not without being hurt a lot and stuff.” 

“As long as you’re safe,” I agreed, glancing to Fred before adding, “I don’t think you being here is exactly common knowledge or anything, but you should still be careful. Especially with Braintrust out there and interested. If anything seems fishy, you jump out of here and worry about details later, okay? Call me, call Pack, call whoever you need to for help.” 

“Don’t have to tell me twice to look after our skins,” Fred assured me. The man gave a very slight self-deprecating smile. “Seriously though, what the kid said before, that goes for me too. You’ve done… right by us, even when I didn’t really deserve it. Don’t go getting yourself in hot water like that without help of your own. You uhhh…” He coughed, sounding self-conscious suddenly. “You’re a good one, so don’t be an idiot and get killed.” Belatedly, the man added, “who’d bankroll the kid’s business without you, huh?” He sounded more comfortable then. 

Snorting, I gestured vaguely. “Silly me, I can’t die without making sure Wren’s Nest becomes the best tech shop in the city. Maybe one of you could write a note so I could give it to the next person who tries to stab or shoot me?” 

My reward for that was a poke in the stomach from Wren (luckily she didn’t jab higher or I might’ve yelped), as she countered, “What about a new helmet instead? Pack said yours got lost or something, and you don’t have a replacement yet.” Her hand waved toward my simple mask. “You weren’t gonna go get into another fight without something to protect your head, were you?” There was definite recrimination in her voice at that idea.

Quickly, I raised both hands while shaking my head. “Nope, no, ma’am. I just didn’t wanna make you wait anymore. I was gonna go get a new helmet after this, before I… umm, do the next thing on my list.” After defusing that quickly, I blinked before adding, “Wait, new helmet?” 

“It’s not super, super special like the boots,” she lamented. “I didn’t have time to do that much with all the stuff I was making for the shop. But it’s still something! And I’m totally gonna improve it later, in different versions, I swear.” With that, she turned and launched herself into the air and clear across the room, soaring over a dozen random shelves to reach the far side of the central counter, where she started digging through a few different bags. 

While she was gone, Fred glanced to me. His voice was quiet. “You seen a doctor about those ribs?” When I shot him a quick, surprised glance, he snorted. “You’re good at hiding things from the kid. But I saw how you reacted when she hugged you, and that poke. I’m not gonna scare her, just… you saw someone who could take care of it, right? If not, I think I can–” 

“I saw someone,” I hurriedly assured him. “A doctor, I mean. It’s–it’s a long story, one I can’t get into. But he looked at me and… and it’ll be okay.” Belatedly, I added, “Um, thanks. You know, for caring.” I knew the whole thing sounded awkward. It felt awkward. Still, it was the best I could do. 

Before Fred could respond to that, Wren was back. She had, as promised, a helmet in her hands. It looked almost identical to my last one, with the front part that could be pushed up out of the way while still leaving the secondary visor in place across my eyes. This helmet, however, had what looked like two small headlights built into either side of it, facing forward. It also had a little speaker grill bit built into the front (the part that could be pushed up out of the way when I opened the helmet). 

Wren quickly explained while handing the helmet over. “See the volume thing on the left side? You can push that up to project your voice really loud. You know, if you need to shout over people or call out to someone. It’s like a megaphone. And the lights are for when it’s dark and you don’t want to use the night vision.” 

Raising an eyebrow (which was dumb considering she couldn’t see it anyway), I asked, “Night vision?”  

The kid’s head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might fall off. “Uh huh! Of course there’s night vision, what kinda amateur do you thi–never mind.” Giggling despite herself, she informed me, “there’s night vision and thermal vision, you just have to say ‘night vision engage or night vision disengage’ or ‘thermal vision engage and disengage’ while you’re wearing it. You can whisper it too. Or touch that button there right next to the main visor for three seconds, then let it go for night vision and five seconds then let it go for thermal vision. Then touch it again to go back to normal.” 

Turning the helmet over in both hands, I smiled like an idiot before managing, “Wren, that’s really cool. I didn’t–I mean I don’t–I mean thanks.” 

It was her turn to blush a bit, squirming in the air (she was hovering about a foot off the ground) before hurriedly explaining, “That’s not all. There’s one more thing. Put the helmet on and pull the front down.” 

So, I did as she asked. The helmet fit snugly in place, and I slid the front part down, making it lock in place before giving her a thumbs up. “All good so far.” 

“Okay!” With clear excitement, Wren explained, “Now say, ‘Map me, then give an address or a request, like ‘nearest McDonalds.’” 

Considering that briefly, I settled on, “Map me the Henry Ford Museum.” 

As soon as I said that, a few images appeared on the visor in front of my face. At the bottom, which I could only read by focusing my eyes that way, were the words Henry Ford Museum and an address. In the top right corner of the visor was an arrow pointing me in the right direction, along with a thing telling me how many kilometers away I was. 

Wren pushed on quickly. “The arrow appears on the side you need to turn to, or right at the top if you just need to go forward. You can say ‘dim map’ to make it go away so you can focus, then ‘raise map’ to bring back the same thing without asking directions again. Or you can say ‘end map’ to turn it off completely.” 

“Wren, this is…” Swallowing hard, I leaned over to hug the girl as tightly as I dared. “Thanks. This is awesome. Seriously. Between this and the shoes, you’re really decking me out.” 

With a clearly self-conscious giggle, Wren insisted, “It’s nothing big. I can do better. I will do better. You know, with more time, and… and everything. I’ll make it better.” 

“This is enough for now, I swear.” Smiling, I nudged the girl while releasing her. “Really, take care of your shop and all that. You’re just… you’re awesome. Thanks.” 

After that, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, just hanging out and making sure Wren knew how grateful I was. And, of course, reassuring her that I really was okay. With a promise to check in soon, I excused myself. It was time to go visit the Seraph base and hopefully find out just what the hell was in that file once and for all.

And hey, with this fancy new helmet, at least I wouldn’t get lost. 

Previous Chapter

Eighteen 6-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

As usual, there is a summary of this chapter at the bottom for those who would like to avoid direct Fossor… stuff. 

I ended up spending twenty minutes talking to Miles’s father, Caleb. And it was definitely him. According to the Kejjerfiet man, he had no idea if his wife was still alive or not, given how long they had been separated. Apparently Fossor had her stationed at some other home or base of his or something. Which, I supposed, made it easier to threaten one with death if the other acted up. Is that what would eventually happen to my mother and me if we didn’t find another way to escape? Would he put us in separate homes to make it impossible for us to coordinate? Thinking about it like that, I was almost surprised he hadn’t done so already, to be honest. 

I just managed to tell the man a bit about his son, that he was still alive and with the rebellion after spending a couple years at Crossroads. It was obvious that Caleb would’ve stayed right there for hours just hearing me describe every single second I’d spent with his son. And I definitely would’ve kept talking to him, but we didn’t want to make anything look too suspicious. Mom stood just outside the room, keeping an eye on things and making sure we weren’t interrupted or spied on, but all three of us knew that pushing things right now wasn’t a good idea. So, I promised to talk to him some more, considering I’d obviously be spending time in this place if I was going to be practicing with the… the dead people. Then we excused ourselves, after I made sure that Gavant was out of the way, stored with the other Meregan… bodies. More guilt for me to shove down and try to distance myself from until a better time. I started to leave then, only belatedly remembering to have Kendall follow. She was, after all, supposed to always be with me. 

As Mom and I (and Kendall) were walking out to have lunch, I found my voice once we were a good distance from the ‘stable.’ “Fossor’s not sure about how good I am yet, is he?” Glancing to her, I explained, “He didn’t put me in against any actual… intelligent enemies. I bet all those people in there would’ve loved to fight me. Or my… golems. But he just had me fight some Chamrosh. So he wanted to show off that he had me, without actually putting me in too much… I don’t wanna say danger, because he wasn’t protecting me. He was protecting his investment. He’s not positive I’m good enough to actually beat any of the people who might actually try to win. Because if he goes through all this and I end up losing the first match, he looks like an idiot.” 

Mom’s smile was humorless. “I’m afraid to be proud of you for understanding that,” she replied in a quiet voice that said all it needed to about how horrible this entire situation was for her. 

I, in turn, gave a very short nod. “It’s pretty obvious. I mean, he also had to make sure I was motivated to win by threatening all those kids. He had to make sure I cared about the fight so I wouldn’t embarrass him by losing. He was showing off, either… for the whole group or one in particular.” That thought made me pause briefly. “Do you know which one it might be? Who was there that he might’ve wanted to show off for?” I wasn’t exactly sure if that was important, but it seemed like it might be. Someone Fossor wanted to impress, or even had some kind of semi-friendly rivalry with, was someone I wanted to know more about.

“Good question,” Mom agreed, hand moving to squeeze my shoulder affectionately. Her voice was quiet. “That’s my little reporter. Always asking the important questions. Noticing things. Pushing for answers.” There was a mixture of pride and sadness in those words. It was obvious she was mourning all the years she had lost, the years we could have spent together. Basically my entire childhood and teenage years. She had been missing since I was seven years old. That was a lot to be gone for, a lot to end up losing out on, for both of us. It was years we would never actually be able to get back, no matter what happened at the end of this whole situation. 

After briefly lamenting that, mostly silently, Mom pushed on with answering my question. “I’ve seen a lot of the people in that audience come and go. I’ve put names to a lot of faces, figured out which groups are connected even when they don’t come to the same matches. Some of them are… closer to Fossor than others. I don’t think he has any actual friends, no one who would be upset if he lost. But he does have varying levels of acquaintances. Some would step in to fight for him just assuming they’d be rewarded. Others wouldn’t spit on his corpse if it was on fire.” Her head shook. “There’s plenty of people in that crowd who hate him almost as much as we do. But someone he might be showing off for? Someone specific he wants to impress?” There was doubt in her voice. “Maybe, but I can’t think of who it might be.” 

I tried to think back, picturing that whole scene. Had Fossor been paying particular attention to any group or area of the stands? It probably wouldn’t have been obvious, because that just wasn’t how he did things. But maybe… or maybe I was just inventing things in my head because I wanted to have an answer. I was going to have to play that whole situation back. Maybe I could ask Shyel if there was anything there that I was just overlooking. 

I missed my little sister. That’s who I needed. Tabbris riding copilot with me, keeping track of things, noticing things, reminding me with that perfect Seosten memory. I needed her. 

But I didn’t have her. I was going to have to make do. Heh, right, ‘make do’ with my mother, a mental copy of one of the most powerful and dangerous little girls in existence, and the ghost of Fossor’s sister. Yeah, I could’ve been a lot more alone than I actually was. 

Still, I needed to figure out if there was someone Fossor was working to impress with all this, or if it was just some normal ‘play to the crowd’ thing. Even in the latter case, that could still mean that he was building up to something. The thought that wandered into my head was that Fossor had to be doing all of this for a reason. He had the Hangman Rope, an artifact he’d gone through a lot of work to get. He’d killed a member of the Committee and blamed Gaia for it. He wasn’t doing all of that just for shits and giggles. And given how much work he’d put into grabbing me, into having both my mother and me together like this, teaching me necromancy, having the Hangman Rope, an artifact itself associated with death…

These were all important pieces of a puzzle, but I still wasn’t sure what the picture on the box was. I had no idea what exactly the puzzle was supposed to look like when it was all put together. Only Fossor knew that, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t answer if I straight up asked him what it was supposed to be. Or maybe he would, just for the hell of it. 

I wasn’t going to ask him, of course. I was going to figure this out, put the pieces together and figure out how to scramble his fucking puzzle for good (and hopefully his brains in the process). 

Shoving down the thought of just how good stabbing Fossor repeatedly in the head (and actually having it do something to him) would feel, I instead focused on my mother once more. “I’m surprised he didn’t have you fight at all today.” Was it wrong to think about how I’d almost looked forward to seeing it? Obviously, only if she’d been fighting any of those people in the arena who had been absolutely fine with seeing a bunch of middle schoolers threatened like that. Any of those people in the stands who wanted to challenge Mom? Hell yeah, I wanted to see her in a fight with those people. 

“He doesn’t have me fight on days like this,” Mom informed me. “These are build-up days. He… saves what he calls ‘the main event.’” There was derision, and also a little bit of shame in her voice. She hated what she had become under Fossor’s directive. She had obviously been forced to kill people she didn’t want to. And that was what I was afraid of, what I was really terrified of. Everything that happened in that arena today was bad enough. But what would happen when Fossor pointed me at a living, breathing, thinking target, someone who was sapient, scared, and only fighting because they were ordered to. What would I do if it was me or someone else who was innocent? What would I do if Fossor ordered me to kill someone who didn’t deserve to die? 

That was a question I was afraid of facing. And I knew it would come up. It hadn’t today. Not so far. But it would, eventually. I would have to deal with it when the time came. 

I just hoped it wouldn’t be soon. 

******

It turned out that I still had one more horrible thing to go through that day. Well, at least one. It was still only barely afternoon, after all. But I was going to try to be optimistic about this. Which might have been harder than it sounded, given the fact that the one more horrible thing I had to do was go through Fossor’s Writing Room. Yeah. That place that could make me answer truthfully about anything he asked, assuming he asked the right question in the right way. 

As soon as the ghost (it was the same ghost who had been amused after startling me yesterday, a male humanoid figure with a neatly trimmed goatee and eyes that seemed just slightly too large for his face) showed up and let us know that Mom was supposed to go and visit the gardens while he escorted me to the Writing Room, I felt the slight tension in my mother. She hid it as well as possible, glancing to me before outright saying, “Just remember what I said, Lissy.” She then thanked the ghost (calling him Jorsher) and set off after squeezing my hand tightly one more time. Clearly, she knew anything else she said would be reported. 

Right, I did remember what she’d told me. Fossor had to ask very specific questions, or I could just bullshit him with plenty of random answers. And I could put the answers I gave in any order I wanted. Apparently it took substantial power to run this whole Writing Room thing, so I could run out his patience for using it before he actually got anything too useful out of me. Hopefully.

With a deep breath, I nodded for Jorsher to lead me through the place, with Kendall trailing behind silently. On the way, I hesitated before asking, “Is it crossing any lines for me to ask where you come from, how long you’ve been part of Fossor’s… umm… force, anything like that? For you or for me,” I added belatedly, unsure which of us would actually get in trouble if I wasn’t supposed to get that kind of info. 

There was a brief moment of silence before Jorsher answered, “I’ve served Lord Fossor for two hundred and three years, since the moment he sliced my neck so that I would lead him through the building I was stationed in and aid him in disabling the security spells protecting my people from his incursion. He found my reactions to being forced to end the lives of my family and friends amusing, and kept me on as one of his permanent household retainers.” He spoke all matter-of-factly, as if it wasn’t one of the most horrifying things he could possibly have said. 

“I–” Opening and shutting my mouth, I paused there in the enormous corridor while staring at the ghost. A rush of different emotions ran through me, before I finally managed a weak, “I’m sorry.” It was a harsh reminder that my family wasn’t the only one that had been hurt by the necromancer piece of shit. Some had been destroyed in ways that would never be fixed. And what else was I supposed to say? What else could I say? It had been hundreds of years ago. But still, his family and friends. Fossor forced this poor guy to not only let him in, but also made him kill his whole family and the other people he cared about. Then kept him around on a permanent servant basis just because he found the guy’s reaction to all that amusing. 

For his part, Jorsher just watched me seemingly impassively for a few seconds before speaking up. “If we make Lord Fossor wait too long for you to pull yourself together, he will make his annoyance known.” The way he said it, I wasn’t sure if he meant that Fossor’s annoyance would be targeted at him or at me. Either way, I suddenly didn’t want to be responsible for that. 

“Right, sorry.” Shrugging helplessly, I started to move again as Jorsher continued down the hall. God, this was just one ghost. What about all the others? What kind of stories did they have? Because there was no way that this was some kind of isolated event. Something told me that the ghosts Fossor kept around on a permanent basis were all people he had some kind of horrific backstory with, one that amused him. And anything that amused Fossor was pretty bad.

And then I understood why Mom had genuinely thanked Ahmose earlier, why she had seemed warmer to him than I would’ve been. Because she had been here for so long, she probably knew all of their stories. She knew whatever it was that Ahmose had been through to become Fossor’s favorite ‘torture ghost.’ She knew all the ghosts well enough to feel compassion for them. It was a sobering thought, given how easy it was for me to see the ghosts serving Fossor as my enemies. Especially the one who had inflicted so much pain on me with a simple touch. Obviously, there was more to him. More to all of the ghosts. I was afraid to think about how many atrocities Fossor had visited simply on the people who served him in this home. 

Eventually, we made it to a simple wooden door in the dungeon area, a section of the manor deep underground that looked like the interior of a medieval castle. The door was curved at the top, with two vertical metal pieces in the middle that had runes inscribed on them. The runes were glowing faintly red as we approached. Before either of us said or did anything, the door opened, and I heard Fossor’s voice speak from within. “Enter, my girl. Leave the golem outside.” He said nothing to Jorsher. Nothing aloud, anyway. But the ghost simply turned away from me and faded out. Yeah, because Fossor wasn’t going to waste his time speaking aloud when he could just instill his orders into his ‘minions’ automatically, of course. 

With a sigh, I parked Kendall where she was, then stepped through the door and into the infamous Writing Room. It was, at a glance, an ordinary study or small library. The ceiling was sloped up on one side, there was a blue carpeted floor, a single ‘window’ showing a sunny day and grassy field outside (obviously an illusion of some kind considering we were underground), several comfortable-looking armchairs, and a few tall shelves packed full of books. But despite its outwardly ordinary-looking appearance, there was obviously more to this place. The hum of powerful magic was spread through the room, to the point that it almost made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. 

Sitting there in one of the armchairs, Fossor smiled as I entered. The door closed behind me. “Ahh, there you are, dear.” His voice was warm and inviting, as he picked up a notebook from the arm of the chair beside him, holding it out. “Come, let’s have a little chat. I’m sure your mother’s told you all about this place. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.” His eyes met mine. “I’m quite positive you have both discussed various ways of escape. It’s understandable, really. I want you to know that while I will, of course, prevent this, you won’t be punished for discussing it. I know what kind of people my women are, after all. I’d be shocked if you didn’t try to find a way out of here.” 

Despite myself, I retorted while moving that way, “And yet, I suppose you’re still not just going to let us go.” 

He didn’t dignify that with any response other than a slight smirk. Gesturing to the chair next to him, he waited until I reluctantly sat before putting the notebook in my hands. Then he handed me a pen. “Come now, let’s just be as pleasant as possible about all this. Write your answers down. First, were you genuinely surprised by how soon I… made my move to take you?”  

I felt the urge to write, as the room worked its magic on me. I had to answer, and the longer I took to put the answer on the page, the more uncomfortable and even painful it would be. Hurriedly, I scrawled, ‘yes’ on the page. The pressure eased. 

The questions continued, and grew gradually more complicated. He wanted to know if Mom and I had done anything that would lead directly to our escape. I answered truthfully to that, because neither of us had done anything like that. Then he asked for any plans Mom had shared with me about escaping, any plans either of us had for hurting him, that kind of thing. Those I mostly derailed by (somewhat gleefully) writing down very elaborate ideas I’d had about how I would like to kill him. And as for ‘plans about escaping’, I had dozens ready to go. None would work, of course, but the Writing Room didn’t care about how valid the plan was. 

He tried to head off cheating like that by strictly asking about plans I had ‘thought about that day before entering the room.’ But I was ready for that little trick with one of my own. Specifically, I’d actually spent time genuinely considering all these insane and absurd plans. I’d thought up as many ridiculous scenarios as possible and focused on them long enough for the Writing Room’s magic to allow me to write them down. Just as Mom had said. 

Finally, Fossor stopped me. He seemed torn between being impressed at my preparation and annoyed that I had thought ahead for this. But he also didn’t want me to know that he was in any way annoyed. Because that would mean he wasn’t one hundred percent in control. 

It wasn’t all perfect, of course. He made me share some personal details with him about my reunion with my mother. He made me write down feelings I had, things that Mom and I had said to each other, things I didn’t want to share. Things that made me tremble with anger when he forced me to record it all clinically like that. He made me write down feelings I’d had about my mother during the years I’d grown up without her, hateful and… and awful things I’d thought and said. Things that I couldn’t explain now, because that wasn’t the question. 

He made me write down such awful, personal things. Finally, the man took the notebook from me and smiled. “Good enough for now. Thank you, my dear. We’ll come back to this soon enough.” He looked at the notebook, starting to flip through it before giving a dismissive wave of his hand. “You’ll be escorted to your mother now.” 

So, after a momentary hesitation, I picked myself up, wiped my eyes, and forced myself to walk out of the room. As promised, there was another ghost, one I didn’t recognize, waiting there to glide ahead silently. I moved after him, still working to collect myself. Belatedly, I remembered to summon Kendall to follow.  

On the way through the building this time, I happened to glance out one of the windows and saw an actual line of living people moving toward a glowing portal out on the grounds. It surprised me enough to hesitate, staring that way. “Who are–” I started, before realizing. “Are those the people from the arena? They’re just now leaving?” 

The ghost turned to me, pausing before answering simply, “Lord Fossor is quite particular about how people must come and go from his residence. It takes a certain amount of time to ensure no one brings or takes any objects that could be used to locate this place, and his guests must only use his established transportation magic.” 

Right, of course. It was just like I’d been told earlier, Fossor didn’t like anyone to know where this place was. It had all those protective spells, magic he’d spent centuries perfecting in order to keep people out. There was no possible way I could beat that. No way… I… could…

Wait a minute. 

You there, Rahanvael?

I got a positive response from the ghost girl. She was still right there, had been there the whole time and Fossor, as promised, had no idea. 

Good. Because I figured it out. I know how we’re getting out of here. I know how to beat Fossor. 

But we’re gonna need a lot of bugs. 

 

SUMMARY

 

After speaking with Miles’ father Caleb for awhile and discovering that his wife/Miles’ mother is in some other location, Flick has lunch with her mother and talks about the fact that Fossor was clearly not putting her in actual danger because he isn’t exactly sure what she’s capable of handling just yet. She then has her first visit to the Writing Room. On the way, she asks Jorsher, one of Fossor’s ghosts, about his past. Jorsher explains that he has served Fossor for over two hundred years, ever since the necromancer slit his throat when he was on guard duty and used his raised body to kill the people he was supposed to be protecting, including his family. In the Writing Room, Flick manages to keep the actual critically important secrets through the tricks her mother taught her about giving the room too much information, but still has to write down embarrassing and emotional moments anyway. Upon being escorted out of the room, she notices people from the arena still leaving and is told that very specific and often time-consuming actions have to be taken to ensure that the visitors don’t have any chance of leading anyone to Fossor’s home. Upon hearing that, Flick mentally reaches out to Rahanvael and tells her that she has an escape plan. A plan which apparently requires many bugs. 

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, it was hard to concentrate on the race after that. I mean, it was a good one, for sure. Even Izzy, Jae, and Amber got into it despite not really being ‘racing’ type people. They were still totally hooked. But all I could think about throughout all the excitement was that I needed to get back to the Seraph HQ and see those folders again. Was the right one down in the area I’d been cleaning out? If I got there and looked around, would I actually find it? Would it have the answers I needed? Would the answers actually lead me to Bobby, or to something else important that he’d been trying to leave clues or something to? Would the file be something like-

“Cassie?” The small voice interrupted my racing (hah) thoughts, and I blinked over to find Izzy staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked quietly. “You look… weird. Do your ribs hurt?” 

Before I could respond to that, Amber and Jae both looked away from the race, the former speaking up. “Why would her ribs hurt?” She frowned in confusion, adding, “What happened?”

My mouth opened, but again before I could say anything, Simon answered for me instead while reaching over to ruffle the long side of my hair. “Oh, my sweet, innocent little sister who never does anything wrong totally thought it’d be a good idea to go off on her own to try skateboarding in the middle of nowhere and hurt herself on Friday, didn’t she? Then she had to walk home.” 

Flushing a little, I managed an indignant little shrug while defensively protesting. “I… I wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, I was just at that half-built water park just outside of town.” 

Simon raised an eyebrow, a smirk touching his face as he pressed. “And that place is…?” 

Shifting back and forth in my seat, I folded my arms and muttered, “In the middle of nowhere.” 

“Are you serious?” Amber exchanged a quick glance with Jae before looking back to me with obvious concern. “Are you okay? What–how did you hurt yourself? Did–what happened?” 

This was somehow just as awkward as lying to my parents had been. Maybe even more so, since these two didn’t have anything to do with the Touched stuff and were just concerned about me. I squirmed a little uncomfortably before giving them the same general story I’d told before about how I snuck into the place, skated for awhile, and then broke one of the wheels off my board while dropping into an empty pool. I mentioned that my phone broke and that I’d had to walk several miles back into the city in the middle of the night before getting a ride. 

When I was done, Jae shook her head. Her voice was quiet, yet admonishing. “Not smart.” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know, I know. It was dumb. And I paid for it.” Glancing over my shoulder to where my dad was sitting, I quietly added, “I’m gonna keep paying for it with the lack of driving.” To the confused looks, I admitted what my punishment had been, adding, “So I will absolutely definitely not be skating in the middle of nowhere like that again. All skating in public places for this girl.” And I just had to hope that nothing like what had happened yesterday came up again. Or that I came up with a much better excuse for it.  

“Well,” Amber put in, “at least you’re okay, you know? That umm, that kind of story could end up worse.” Belatedly, the dark-haired girl blanched visibly. “Uh, sorry. That’s probably not helpful.” 

“We’re just glad she made it home,” my father insisted. “Cassidy’s safe, and only a little hurt.” Pointedly, he added, “But she’ll be very hurt if she pulls anything like that again.” His eyes were focused on me intently. “And by that, I mean you’ll be punching yourself because you won’t be able to drive until you’re eighteen.” To soften that, Dad winked. “Which is just as much of a punishment for me, because I’ve been waiting to see how good you are at playing chauffeur since you were playing with the toy cars in your diapers, so let’s not have to go that far, hmm?” 

Horrified beyond what I could even hope to articulate, I blurted a sharp, “Dad, don’t talk about diapers!” My face was red, and I was very pointedly trying not to look over at Jae, Amber, and Izzy. I really didn’t want to know how they were reacting to that. 

With a broad smirk that told me just how intentional all of that had been, Dad casually replied, “Just think of the things I can embarrass you with if you give me reason to again.”  

Blanching, I shrank back in my seat and mumbled, “Yes, sir, threat completely received.” 

With that, I turned my attention back to the race. And tried not to let myself get too lost in thoughts of what I would find in the Seraph files. 

Because I was pretty sure it was going to take awhile before I could get over there. 

*****

After the race, we went to dinner as promised. And because it was my dad, dinner was amazing. We brought Amber and Jae with us and went to a steakhouse, and Mom was at the restaurant waiting, since it was family dinner night. Both of my parents made sure everyone ate until we were stuffed beyond all comprehension. Then Mom had desserts packaged up for everyone to take home ‘to eat in a few hours when you can actually enjoy them.’ 

It was dark by the time we dropped those two at Amber’s house. Jae said she’d get a ride home from there. With Simon having taken off with Mom earlier when we left the restaurant for some reason, that just left Izzy and me there with my dad in the back of the car while Jefferson drove us back to the house. I’d never do it, but for just a second I considered what would happen if I asked my father to have me dropped off at the Seraph HQ so I could do some extra work. 

Yeah, bad idea. Just as it would be a bad idea to try to sneak out tonight. I was going to have to wait until tomorrow after school to do anything I needed to do. Which made me really antsy, but what choice did I have? None. I had no choice. All I could do was wait and hope that whatever was actually in that file could wait until I managed to get there and find it. 

Besides, I wasn’t exactly back in top shape yet. That was for sure. The whole outing today had taken a lot out of me. More than I wanted to admit. By the time we got back to the house, my side was complaining and I wanted to lay down for awhile. But no way was I going to admit that I didn’t feel very good. My parents would obviously take any excuse to have me dragged to the hospital for a full range of tests. Or worse, put me on strong painkillers that might leave me loopy enough to say something I really couldn’t afford to say. Not to mention how long my parents might hover over me. No, I was just going to suck it up and get through this, damn it. 

After thanking my dad again for the whole day out, I reassured him that I definitely felt well enough to go to school tomorrow. Because no way was I going to stay home. Not if I was going to successfully sneak out again to get over to the Seraph base. 

Then Izzy and I went upstairs to head for our rooms. She seemed fairly distracted by something, continually glancing out the windows we were passing on the way. Finally, I asked, “You got a hot boyfriend sneaking over to hang out? Cuz you know I would totally cover for you, but we might need to find a way to get him past all the cameras and the rest of the security.”

Poor Izzy did a quick double-take at that, her eyes widening as she stammered, red-faced. “Wha-what? No, I don’t–I’ve never, I wouldn’t have–that’s not, I don’t even li–that’s n–no.” She finally managed, shaking her head back and forth quickly while a sound of protest escaped her.

I couldn’t help it, a small snicker escaped me, as I took her hand. “I’m just teasing, Izzer. It’s okay. No secret boyfriend, got it. But umm, are you okay? You kinda look like you want to be somewhere else. Which I totally get, even a big place like this gets stuffy when you can’t be on your own for so long.” 

“It’s not–” After starting with those two words, Izzy stopped. She considered for a second before exhaling. “I’m sorry. I just… I miss my mom.” Her voice was very quiet, and she seemed somehow ashamed of actually saying that, as if it was the worst thing she could have said.

“Izzy, I–” Stopping myself, I stared at her for a few long seconds. What was I supposed to say to that, given how little I knew about the situation? Especially given what I suspected. Finally, all I could do was offer a hesitant, “Do you want to talk about it?” God, did I ever wish I had someone I could talk to about my own family. But I couldn’t put that on anyone else. 

With a quick headshake, Izzy too declined. “I–thanks, Cassie. Really, you’ve been so cool. But I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry. I–” Swallowing, she looked to me with an expression far more serious than I would have expected to see on a twelve-year-old’s face. “I don’t want to lie to you.”

Wow, she had absolutely no idea how well I could sympathize with that. For a moment, I just stared at her before eventually finding my voice. “It’s okay, Izzy,” I assured her. “Just… talk to me whenever you can, about whatever you can. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re a really cool person. And you’d talk about things if you could. So… whenever you want to talk.” Giving her an encouraging nod, I gestured. “But come on, because in the meantime, there’s a game room up there with our names on it. And I swear, I am gonna kick your butt this time.” 

After a brief hesitation and another quick glance to the window that I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Izzy seemed to nod to herself. She muttered something I didn’t catch, before following after me.  

So, the two of us went the rest of the way up to our area and spent a couple hours in the game room. And I was wrong. Though I did win a few matches, Izzy was very clearly the superior player in most of the various games we played on any given system. I wasn’t even letting it happen, she was just that good. It was kind of amazing that her hand-eye coordination was so great. 

In any case, at least it took my focus off the fact that I couldn’t sneak out tonight. It let me distract myself for awhile from everything else that I really needed to do. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done without Izzy there. It would’ve been much harder to convince myself not to try to get out of there tonight, regardless of the risks, that was for sure. As it was, playing there with the other girl for hours was enough to leave me so tired, I couldn’t even think about getting out of the house. I just mumbled something about definitely beating her next time as the two of us stumbled off to our separate rooms. There, I got ready for bed and collapsed in it. It was only barely ten o’clock at night, but that was absolutely okay by that point. I needed all the sleep I could get. 

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

Hah. Long day. Boy was I right about that. I spent the entire time at school ignoring pain in my side, trying not to react every time I felt it because the absolute last thing I wanted was for my teachers to get too interested in any injuries I had. If that turned into a thing with my parents and all, I could kiss goodbye to ever being left alone long enough to be Paintball. 

Plus there was Tomas. He wanted to know what happened to me the other night, in my own words. Apparently he’d gotten a brief one-sentence answer about it Saturday after spending most of the evening before that being terrified about where I was. He’d been staying up Friday night, waiting to get any kind of word. When my parents finally let his know that I was home safe, he’d fallen asleep. On Saturday, his dad just told him I ‘hurt myself skateboarding’ and he had to wait until today to actually talk to me in person. 

I had apologized for not putting my new phone together and downloading my contacts in time to respond to his texts, but that the weekend had been crazy (to say nothing of the fact that I still needed to put my Touched phone back together). 

We sat together at lunch, along with Amber, Jae, and a few other people who were basically friends (even if I didn’t see them much outside of school) who had heard about me hurting myself from the rumor mill. Everyone wanted to know what kind of dare I’d been trying to complete that time. As if getting myself hurt because I couldn’t back down from a dare to prove how tough I was some kind of–okay yeah I could see why they would think that. 

As school was ending, I stood at my locker putting things away. Down the hall when I glanced that way, I could see Amber talking to Paige near one of the stairwells. The two of them seemed pretty deep in conversation, which was… interesting. Finally, they broke apart and Amber headed my way. So, I closed my locker, adjusted the bag on my shoulder (the uninjured side, which still caused a brief shot of pain to run through me), and waited for the dark-haired girl to reach me. “Hey, what was all that about?” I asked curiously, trying to keep any suspicion out of my voice. Just because I had a whole thing with Paige going on didn’t mean Amber had anything to do with it. She wasn’t connected to any of what was going on. 

Sure enough, Amber blinked at me uncertainly before realizing. “Oh, you mean–no, sorry. Trust me, Paige and me aren’t suddenly friends. I just got partnered up with her for a Physics thing.” Offering me a shrug, she added, “Guess I’m gonna have to work with her for awhile. You know, in the interests of not failing.”

“I can definitely understand that kind of interest,” I agreed, as the two of us walked out of the school together. “Still, good luck dealing with…” My hand waved vaguely. “All of that.” 

With a soft chuckle, Amber nudged me. “Thanks. She doesn’t seem so bad now. Pretty sure she’s just got some kind of huge hate-on for you in particular.” There was a brief pause before she added a curious, “Sure you don’t have any idea why she’s such a bitch to you?” 

A flash of possible answers rushed through my head, none of which I could actually say, given the whole situation. “Nope,” I finally managed. “I guess it’s just one of those things.” 

“Just one of those things,” Amber echoed, not exactly sounding all that convinced. Still, she shook it off and raised a hand. “Anyway, I’ll survive. It’s not me she hates so much. Maybe I’ll–” Whatever she was about to say, the girl stopped herself. “Never mind. I’ll catch you later, Cass.” 

She waved before trotting off over to where Jae was, and I continued strolling across the sidewalk to reach the lot where Jefferson was waiting with the car. Once I was inside, he pulled smoothly away from the curb with a simple, “Your parents will be in meetings for the rest of the day. They wished me to ask how you’re feeling.” As always, his words were crisp and seemingly emotionless, speaking the bare minimum of what he needed to and nothing more. Dad had told me at one point that Jefferson had a mild form of autism. It was hard for him to understand social cues or emotions. That was a big part of why he liked his schedule so much. He was also a very good driver. 

“I’m fine,” I lied, shifting a little in my seat. “Thanks, Jefferson.” Was he a villain too? He had to know the truth about my parents, right? He was too connected to everything not to. He drove both of them all over the place and they trusted him far too much. I wasn’t sure about the entire household staff. But if any of them knew exactly what my family was and what they really did, it was Jefferson. 

For a moment, I considered asking him what he knew, if anything, about Bobby, considering the man was my family’s previous primary driver. But considering that was obviously very connected to my lost memories, bringing him up or being curious about him would probably trip a lot of alarms for my family. Alarms I couldn’t afford to trip if I was going to keep everything I knew secret. So, I kept quiet and sat back to watch the streets as we drove. 

Eventually, Jefferson dropped me off. I went in, talked to Simon and Izzy for a bit, took some meds for the pain, then told one of the servants I was going for a walk to stretch my legs and that I would have my phone with me all the time if my family needed anything. No way could I just sit around doing nothing for another afternoon. There was too much I needed to get done. 

So, that said, I headed out. I still wasn’t quite up to Paintballing my way through the entire city. I was going to have to take things slower and easier than that for a bit. 

Instead, I called for an Uber. My first stop would be getting a new cell phone for Touched work. Then I would visit Wren and see how she was doing. 

And try not to spend the whole time obsessing over how many people in my life were secretly supervillains.

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Eighteen 6-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There is a summary at the bottom of the chapter for those who would prefer to avoid Fossor. 

Powers. I could kill with these golem things and then… and then what, collect the powers/boosts they’d gained with those kills just by touching them afterward? What–how did that even–what? 

Clearly amused by the look on my face, Fossor stepped back and gestured for the audience. “You see?” he started in a sly voice, prompting a few assorted chuckles throughout the stands, “even now, after everything she went through over the past year, my girl can still be surprised. Isn’t that adorable?” 

Yeah, there were definitely a few things I wanted to say to that. But all of them would have gotten me in trouble, and the van with those Chamrosh wasn’t so far away from the school that an annoyed Fossor couldn’t have them turn around and go back. So, with a little bit of effort, I managed to clamp down on the vicious retort that jumped immediately to my lips. Later. There would be a time and place when I could tell Fossor everything I thought about him. Not now. 

Instead, I simply looked back to where my mother was watching intently. She seemed just as uncertain as I was, but gave me a short nod of encouragement. She mouthed something I didn’t quite catch, but I was pretty sure she was telling me to go ahead and ask about what happened. 

Right, I might as well. Fossor clearly already knew I was confused. So I looked to him and flatly spoke up. “What just happened? How did the… how?” That was all I could manage to get out. 

“A fine question, dearest,” Fossor patiently agreed, “but now is hardly the time for such things. My friends here have been quite patient already, waiting through all the training we’ve done simply for one little warm-up match. I believe it’s time for the main event to get started.” He waited through the roars of approval those words were met with, clearly loving the reaction. After a few seconds, he raised one hand and the cheering instantly stopped, the arena going silent as he pointedly raised an eyebrow at me. “So, unless you’d like to continue fighting, I suggest you join your mother over there and simply enjoy the rest of the show for the moment.”

Right, of course all these people wouldn’t be gathered for a bit of training and a single practice fight for me, no matter what the stakes had been. Actually, given who these people were and the fact that they were willingly associating with someone like Fossor, I was pretty sure the ‘stakes’ being the lives of all those innocent young students basically meant nothing to them. And, from glancing around the arena, I could see that they were quite eager to get the real fights underway. My entire thing had essentially been a warm-up act, which made me feel… strange. 

Still, no way did I want to be involved in the fighting anymore. So, I started to turn and walk away before stopping myself. A thought took control of Kendall and I made her walk to the gate. Then I directed my focus over to Gavant and made the enormous man stand up before moving to join Kendall. Once the gate was opened for them, I sent both out. They might’ve been dead already, sure. But I still wasn’t just going to leave their bodies standing in the arena to be torn apart. I was… responsible for them, in a way. I felt bad enough about the fact that Fossor had killed them just to give me what amounted to puppets to work with. Letting their bodies get torn apart in some arena fight that they had nothing to do with felt pretty damn disrespectful. 

After directing the two of them outside of the arena, I followed suit and walked out. Mom was already there, standing in front of Gavant with a solemn look on her face as she reached up to touch the side of his arm. I could see the pain there. She knew the man, and clearly knew how much his people had already suffered. When I got there, her voice was quiet. “I’m sorry, one-of-honor,” she whispered to the dead figure. “You deserved far better than this.” 

Behind us, more people were entering the arena, to the assorted cheers and boos of the crowd depending on who liked which person. No one was paying attention to my mother and me anymore, which was just fine as far as I was concerned. I could definitely deal with being ignored right then.

With her hand still pressed tightly against Gavant’s arm, Mom turned to me. Her voice cracked just a little bit as she quietly announced, “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve this, any of it.” 

“I know,” I agreed, forcing myself to look up into the man’s dead eyes. “I’m sorry, Gavant. I’m sorry you got dragged into all this again. I’m sorry your people were just…” Exhaling, I shook my head while looking away, my voice dropping into a mutter. “I’m sorry about everything.” 

Mom and I both let that sit for a minute, each of us looking toward the arena without actually paying much attention to what was going on in it. People were being divided up into teams or something to fight each other. Whatever. They could all just go ahead and die as far as I was concerned. They willingly worked with Fossor. They willingly participated in his little games, including the one where a bunch of innocent school children would have been killed if I didn’t win my match. At that moment, I didn’t really care if they all just spontaneously combusted. 

Finally, I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder. When I looked that way, she asked, “Who is this?” There was still very obvious pain and grief in her voice, her eyes directed toward the other golem Fossor had forced on me. “I don’t… she’s familiar. I used to know her. Who is she?” Even as she asked that, I could tell that my mother was dreading the answer. “You said Kendall.” 

Reluctantly, I nodded. “Kendall Harver. The… the Harvers, from back home. We were sort of… we didn’t get along.” No way was I going to say that Kendall was my enemy. I’d basically forgotten about her even before going to Crossroads, and now I knew what real enemies were. “I guess Fossor thought that meant more than I did. I…” Fuck, even saying that sounded wrong. Flinching, I managed a weak little, “I didn’t want anything like this to happen to her.” God, was that even inadequate. Of course I didn’t want this to happen, what the hell was I even saying? 

“The Harvers…” Saying that name made Mom cringe, her eyes closing briefly. I felt her grip on my shoulder tighten a bit. “Sasha and Kevin. Those poor…” Cutting herself off, Mom opened her eyes to look straight at me. I could see the grief there still, but also anger, righteous rage. She was furious to a level that I wasn’t sure Fossor fully understood. That anger was going to boil out at some point. My mother was holding it in, keeping track of each and every one of the necromancer’s transgressions. And someday, he would have to pay for them. 

For the moment, however, she pushed it back down, giving a slight headshake at me. Now wasn’t the time. Angry as we both might have been, we had to control it and wait for the right moment. Instead, she simply asked, “The aura flare. Did you actually…?” 

“I think so,” I confirmed. “I mean, it felt just like when I kill something myself, just delayed until I touched her. You don’t know anything about it?” 

“No.” Mom’s head shook once more, eyes narrowed thoughtfully at the arena where the fighting had started between two groups of three (much to the excitement of the crowd). “But he was obviously expecting it.” 

She was right. Me gaining powers from Kendall like that had clearly not exactly been a surprise to Fossor. And that made me wonder if that wasn’t the whole point of the exercise to begin with. Had he actually been testing to see if it would happen that way and hiding the test behind all that extra bullshit just so he wouldn’t look bad if he was wrong? Frowning thoughtfully at that consideration, I turned my head to look up toward the man himself. 

Fossor was looking at me from that throne of his. Ignoring the fight that was going on, he was instead staring directly into my eyes when I looked up. A slight smile curved at his lips, and he gave me one single nod. 

Shuddering despite myself, I turned away from him, folding my arms over my stomach uncomfortably. Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I forced myself to pay attention to the ongoing fight. 

I might not have been interested in how it went, but I was pretty sure I would have to fight at least some of these people at one point or another. Either in the arena or otherwise. So I might as well watch to be ready for when that inevitably happened. 

******

Hours later, the fighting was finally over. A team consisting of a weresnake, a troll, and a little pixie-creature that used electricity magic or powers had won in the end. Fossor presented them with some kind of heavy wooden chest with a complicated set of runes on it which, to my limited understanding, were spells that would do very terrible things to anyone who opened it without the counterspell. Whatever was in that chest, the trio acted really happy about getting it while the teams who had lost (those who were still alive) looked pretty disappointed and annoyed. 

After handing over a parchment that was apparently the spell to unlock the chest, and informing them that they should do so somewhere safely away from where others might grab their treasure, Fossor dismissed the rest of the crowd. He played it up like a true showman in front of them, informing the crowd that they could come back for another round of fights soon enough, and that by that time his ‘new girl’ would be practiced enough to give them a real show. 

While the group filed out, Mom and I just stood there with the Kendall and Gavant bodies nearby. A few of the people passing offered congratulations to me, others offered jeers and insults. I ignored all of them, focused on watching Fossor in the middle of the arena. He wasn’t looking at us. Instead, he seemed to be deep in conversation with that ghost who had seemed so amused when he’d startled me yesterday by popping up to inform us that it was time to bathe. I was really curious about what those two were talking about, considering Fossor appeared to be pretty distracted by it (and maybe even a little annoyed). Anything that annoyed that psycho fuck was something I wanted to know more about. And possibly write a ballad about.

Beside me, my mother murmured, “He’s using magic to prevent eavesdropping. Whatever is happening, he doesn’t want either of us to know anything about it.” After saying that, she looked to me, her hand finding its way to my shoulder to squeeze reassuringly. “I’d take that as a good thing.” Despite her words, however, I could see the pain in Mom’s face. The Meregan. She was barely holding it together after seeing what had happened to all those Meregan people. The Meregan, who were already so close to being entirely wiped out. Now their world had apparently been taken over by Fomorians and this group was just… dead. After living through so much, after surviving so much, they came for help and… and Fossor had just…

Yeah, no wonder Mom wasn’t doing very well at holding back her emotions. She was barely keeping it together enough not to throw herself (utterly uselessly) in a screaming, frothing rage at the arrogant piece of shit standing right there. She knew as well as I did that it wouldn’t accomplish anything, and yet… and yet I really couldn’t blame her for being one inch from doing it anyway. I was pretty sure that only the fact that I was standing there held her in check. Just like I didn’t want Fossor to take anything I did out on her, she didn’t want me to end up hurt because of something she did. Fossor had each of us very well in hand just by threatening the other. 

Finally, Fossor’s clearly intense conversation with the ghost ended, and he waved a hand to send the transparent figure away. Then the man pivoted, looking straight to us. I had the briefest glimpse of a troubled, not-very-happy expression before it vanished and was replaced with a smile. Casually, he raised one hand and beckoned for both of us to come with two fingers. 

Resisting the urge to reply with one finger, I sighed and started out that way with my mother right behind me. Belatedly, I reached out with my necromancy power to urge the bodies of Kendall and Gavant to follow behind us.

Reaching the man himself (or rather, as close as I was going to get), I stopped and folded my arms. My voice was brittle as I made myself meet his gaze. “Are you going to tell me what happened back there with Kendall and the… the Heretic thing?” I didn’t want to learn about that from him any more than I’d wanted to learn about using my necromancy power in the first place from him. But Mom clearly had no idea what was going on there, and he did. He was my only choice. 

And, of course, he was amused by the fact that I had to ask him despite clearly not wanting to. Adopting the look of a kind professor (which just made me feel even worse about the whole thing), Fossor gave a short nod. “Yes, of course. I would love to explain it to you, my brilliant girl.” 

I didn’t know how Mom reacted to that because she was behind me, but it must have been something, because I saw the way his eyes flashed briefly to her. His smile was infuriating, and I was kind of surprised that she stopped herself from hurling something (like a fireball) at him. In the end, she did manage to restrain herself and Fossor continued. “You remember the term I used for the magic power you have… weaved around the bodies of the golems?” 

Squinting that way, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, of course I do. Web. You called it a web of power.” It wasn’t a bad term, obviously. I pulled at strands of the web to make them do things. According to Fossor, eventually I would get good enough to simply give the slightest poke at one bit of web to cause more complicated actions to happen. He’d said that it was like learning an instrument. Right now I was a novice, but if I kept at it, a real ‘artist’ (as he put it) could produce an entire symphony by plucking at various strings. He’d sounded super-excited by that possibility, which just made the whole thing even worse for me to consider. 

“That web,” Fossor was already explaining in his professor-voice, “seems to hold the death energy from the things they kill. When you touch the golem, it transfers that energy into you. I had heard of certain Reapers using golems to feed themselves, and yet this… I was afraid to hope this would work as well as it seems to have.” 

Mom blurted, “So you’re saying she can just continue gaining powers from things her golems kill?” 

“Well,” the Necromancer infuriatingly patiently corrected, “if it’s anything like how the Reapers work, the death energy will fade relatively soon when not in active combat. And it will fade incredibly quickly as soon as our brilliant girl takes her attention off of it. In layman’s terms, within a very brief time of Felicity turning her attention to something else, either her own fight or controlling a different golem, the death energy will fade. But yes, so long as she focuses on controlling a singular golem and touches that golem very soon after its fight, she will gain powers from it.” His smile was broad. “Isn’t that delightful?” 

A few words immediately leapt to mind that I really wanted to spit at him, but none of them were any synonym for delightful. So I kept them to myself, with a little effort. Instead, I simply demanded, “What happens to Kendall and the rest of the Meregan now?” 

“Well, you will be responsible for them, of course,” Fossor informed me in the same tone of voice a father would tell a child that they would need to take care of the family pet. “There’s a stable one floor down from the rooms you and your beautiful mother are staying in. That’s where the rest of the Meregan are. I believe Joselyn can show you the way. Take this Meregan there to join his people. As for the human girl, I expect you to keep her with you. Consider her an extra set of hands. Get accustomed to having her around. Keep her clean, clothed, and anything else she needs. I don’t want to ever find you somewhere without your little golem near enough to help out. Understand?” 

Waiting until I murmured an acknowledgment, the man then gestured. “Good. Joselyn dear, show our girl where to take the Meregan, then the two of you can have some lunch. I’m sure she’s worked up a big appetite.”

With that, Mom and I left, with my two…. golems following. My voice trembled a little once we were out of the arena area. “I hate him,” I whispered. “I hate him so much.” 

“I know, baby,” Mom murmured, taking my hand to interlock our fingers. “I know.” 

Together, we made our way through the palatial mansion, where the halls were so large Gavant didn’t even need to duck. Eventually, we reached an enormous set of double-doors that Mom said led into the ‘stables’, which were apparently just open-air rooms where Fossor kept various groups of his dead troops. 

As promised, the rest of that group of Meregan were here. I recognized some, a fact that made me feel even worse about the whole thing. But there were also others who weren’t Meregan, other dead bodies standing around waiting to be controlled. One in particular drew my attention, a tall, fur-covered man who kind of looked like a Wookie. Or like Bigfoot with very long arms. His back was to me, and with dread in my stomach, I stepped that way. My voice was a whisper, “Oh God, Caleb…” 

He turned around, looking at me with a startled expression. I was just as taken aback, blurting, “You’re alive! I–what–” 

“Yes,” the fur-covered man confirmed. “I… take care of the dead here. That’s my job, it’s why I get to live.” His voice was flat, but still tinged with a mixture of sadness and bitterness.  

“You–is… is your wife alive?” I reflexively asked, my eyes widening. 

The man looked confused, his brow knitting together. “How do you know my wife?” 

“I don’t.” My head shook. “I’ve never met you or your wife, sir.

“I know your son, Miles. And I know that he’s been looking for you for a long time.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick asks Fossor what just happened with the Heretic kill-absorption activating after she touched Kendall. However, he declines to answer the question immediately, instead telling Flick to leave the arena so that the full tournament can start. Flick takes Kendall and Gavant out of the arena, where Joselyn reacts to Gavant’s death and then asks about who Kendall is. Joselyn recognizes Kendall’s last name of Harver from living in Laramie Falls, and is sad for the girl’s parents. They then watch the day’s tournament battles for a few hours, before the guests are dismissed to leave. Fossor has a brief interaction with one of his ghosts, using privacy spells to ensure that Flick and Joselyn can’t hear what’s going on. He then informs Flick that the ‘web of energy’ she uses to control the golems is what absorbs the death energy and allows her to later gain the powers/boosts by touching them as long as she does so relatively soon and without being too distracted from her control. Finally, Joselyn and Flick take Gavant to the ‘stable’ room for dead things to stay in, where Flick finds the (living) caretaker of the dead… Miles’s father.

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Patreon Snippets 15 (Heretical Edge 2)

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$10+ Donators on my Patreon get 500 words per month to put toward any ideas they would like to see, to add to any ideas someone else has, or to save up for later. Here is the next edition of the Heretical Edge requests for those snippets. 

Asmodaeus

 

Thousands of years ago, before the Olympus came to Earth

The main cafeteria-lounge aboard the Seosten ship known as the Olympus was busy through this early evening hour. The room was three-quarters full, with conversation among the crew and officers steadily humming along with the clink of utensils against plates and glasses. One of the things that made the Olympus fairly unique among the Seosten fleet was the fact that nearly every figure aboard it, with the exception of relatively few maintenance workers, cooks, and such, were all Seosten themselves. On most modern ships, there would be a smaller complement of Seosten who were supported by many more lower-class (slave) species. But on this explorer ship, set to search and discover new methods of combating the Fomorian plague, over ninety percent of the occupants were Seosten. 

That, of course, was in large part because of the fact that the crew of the Olympus was almost entirely composed of those who had been through the Summus Proelium project, and that power never would have been given to any non-Seosten to begin with. Still, regardless of reasons, it meant that there was a much larger percentage of their own people to speak to at times like these. 

It was through that crowd that Sariel, dedicated magical researcher and budding explorer, found herself hurriedly moving. Her gaze swept rapidly back and forth, searching intently. Where… where… There. Between two other figures, she saw her target. On the far end of the room, Kushiel stood near one of the ‘windows’ (actually a screen projecting a holographic image), speaking to a couple other officers. In one hand, she held a glass of cerulean liquid. Her head was bobbing up and down, as she responded to something one of the others had said, before lifting the glass. 

There. The glass. Sariel saw it. She saw it and knew. A rush of thoughts went through the young Seosten’s mind. She saw the glass. She saw Kushiel. She saw Lucifer, her best friend, her brother, in the medical bed she had just left him in after yet another of the impossible, suicidal missions that woman right there had sent the two of them on had ended up getting him hurt and almost killed. She saw the glass rising to Kushiel’s lips, knew that no one knew what she knew, that no one had any idea what was about to happen. 

Sariel’s hand snapped down, catching hold of a random metal plate from the nearby table. With a snap of her wrist, she sent the plate spinning through the air. It sliced neatly between two figures in mid-conversation, barely skimmed past the raised arm of a man gesturing wildly, and passed directly between three staggered wine glasses being carried past on a tray without disturbing any of them. Finally, the plate struck its target, shattering the glass in Kushiel’s hand an instant before she would have drunk from it. 

All conversation stopped. The crowd parted like twin waves in either direction, leaving Sariel facing Kushiel from across the room. The older Seosten, staring at the broken remnants of glass on the floor, raised her gaze to Sariel. Her mouth twisted angrily, before she began to snarl, “Now you’ve gone too far. If you think I’ll let you weasel your way out of this after a challenge like–” 

“Kushiel, look.” One of the other Seosten officers touched the woman’s arm, pointing to the liquid on the floor. The liquid from the shattered glass she had been about to drink. It was currently sizzling and burning its way through the floor. The glass had been enchanted to contain the liquid safely. But now, the image at Kushiel’s feet showed what would have happened if she’d actually consumed it. Everyone saw what would have happened, and what Sariel had saved her from. 

“Someone tried to kill you,” the other officer murmured, squeezing Kushiel’s arm. “Someone just tried to assassinate you.” He said it again, as though it was just so impossible to believe. “Heh. They would’ve managed it too, if it wasn’t for the kid over there. Guess you owe her your life.” 

One of the other nearby Seosten called out congratulations, prompting a line of applause from the still-baffled onlookers. They cheered for Sariel stopping the assassination attempt. 

“And here you thought she was such a waste,” another officer reminded Kushiel, patting her back with a chuckle. “Looks like you’d be dead without her now. All that shit from before and it turns out you needed her around after all. Isn’t that funny?” 

No, Sariel thought, as she saw the way Kushiel stared at her. There was no amusement. No gratitude. There was nothing but pure, unadulterated hatred. Kushiel was not grateful for being saved. She was livid. She had been made to look vulnerable, and she saw Sariel as the reason for that vulnerability. 

Sariel had saved her life, and Kushiel would never forgive her for that. 

——-

Some time later, Sariel stepped into the hospital room where Lucifer was resting. Another figure was already there, a man who stood facing the window beside the bed, his back to the door. 

“Asmodaeus,” Sariel started, eyes glancing toward the bed, then back again. Lucifer was fine, still sleeping. “What–” 

“Why?” The single word came before the man turned to face her. Far into the future and far away on the world that would eventually be known as Earth (or Rysthael to the Seosten), he would have been referred to as looking Asian, with somewhat darker skin, long reddish-black hair that fell to his shoulders, and piercing brown-black eyes. He stood two inches over six feet, with arms that were tightly corded muscle. Now, his gaze was focused on her intently. “Why did you save her?” 

Sariel was quiet for a moment, before lifting her chin. “I know why you tried to kill her. Kushiel sent Taynier on that mission. The one he never came back from.” 

Asmodaeus pointed at her, his finger shaking somewhat. “She killed him. I loved him. I loved Taynier. We were… we were happy, and she killed him. She sent him on a mission he didn’t need to be on. She got him killed. She might as well have murdered him herself. Just like Lucifer.” His hand moved to gesture toward the bed. “Next time, it might be him who doesn’t come back from that psychotic cunt’s missions. You think she cares? She doesn’t. She’ll keep sending both of you out on those missions until you die. 

“So why the void did you save her life?” 

“Yeah, Sar,” Lucifer, apparently awake, spoke up. “Why would you do something crazy like that?” 

Looking back and forth between the two, Sariel hesitated before shaking her head. “I don’t–because it was the right thing to do. I just–look, I was just trying to keep myself busy while you were out of it. So I started looking into those missing supplies. I realized they were being used to make that magic poison, checked the logs, figured out who took them and what happened to your lover. I realized who you were targeting,” she informed Asmodaeus. “And I just… reacted. It’s wrong to kill our own people. We don’t do that. Seosten don’t kill Seosten. We have to be better than her, not stoop to her level.”

Seeing the looks both of them were giving her, she sighed. “I just… I couldn’t let it happen when I knew about it.” 

“So what now?” Asmodaeus asked, staring intently at her. “I don’t… I don’t want to hurt anyone else. Not you. None of our people. But I will find a way to kill her.” 

“No,” Sariel replied, her head shaking. “You saw how everyone reacted. As soon as the danger was over, they laughed. They laughed because they thought it was one of the non-Seosten, and they thought a non-Seosten would never risk openly attacking one of us. As soon as the assassination attempt failed, they decided it was safe to mock it. Now they’re working their way through the non-Seosten crew, searching for the person responsible. But it won’t take them long to figure out the truth. And as soon as they realize it was one of us, they’ll track it to you.” 

“Then you better turn me in,” Asmodaeus retorted darkly, his arms folding across his chest. “Because if they track me far enough, they’ll figure out we were in here talking.” 

“We’re not turning you in.” That was Lucifer, sitting up a little in the bed with a groan. 

“He’s right,” Sariel agreed quietly. “We’re not turning you in. We’re not going to let them take you at all. 

“We’re going to fake your death, and get you the hell off this ship.” 

 

Present Day

“And that’s exactly what they did,” a much older (though still visually identical thanks to his Olympian-frozen aging) Asmodaeus concluded. He was sitting at a table in the main cafeteria of the so-called Fusion School. Across from him sat Vanessa and Tristan, both staring at him with wide eyes. 

“But why would Mom help you escape after stopping you from killing Kushiel?” Vanessa demanded, clearly confused. “Whose side was she on?” 

“Sometimes it’s more complicated than just being on one person’s side,” Asmodaeus replied, offering them a small shrug. “It wasn’t just about saving Kushiel. Sariel knew other things. She knew that Puriel loved her, that losing her like that would hurt him as much as losing my beloved hurt me. And she knew that the non-Seosten would be blamed for it before they knew the truth. If Kushiel was dead, a lot of the non-Seosten on the ship would have suffered and died just to root out the killer. When it was an attempted assassination, they were angry, but… also mocked it. Because it failed. But if I’d actually managed to kill the wife of the ship’s captain? They wouldn’t wait for proof about who did it. They’d kill those non-Seosten just for being around when ‘one of their own’ murdered one of their masters. Can’t have that getting out.” 

Tristan made a face. “I’m starting to think Mom’s people are screwed up. And where did you go after they got you off the ship? Where’ve you been?”

“Took up some other identities for a long time,” came the response. “Some Seosten, some others. Learned to make deals with the people I possessed, so we could work together. Figured out it was a hell of a lot easier to get around in the universe when you and the person you’re possessing actually work together. Eventually, Chayyiel found me. This was… over a thousand of your years later. She found me after she told Puriel where to shove it and left Earth when he pulled that shit with Arthur. She said she needed my help, that Sariel needed my help. She was still here on Earth and Chayyiel needed a way to pass messages back and forth. I already had a lot of experience pretending to be different Seosten, possessing others, using magic to change what I look like, all of that. I already knew how to work through the system, cuz I spent a thousand years doing it. So… I helped. I became their go-between. Did that until Sariel took off with your dad. Then I ahhh… kept a bit of an eye on her anyway, for Chayyiel. Just in case. But I stopped before all that went down with you guys. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I thought you were all okay by then. I didn’t… I didn’t know what happened until it was too late to do anything about it.”

That much said, the man pressed, “Now it’s your turn. I told you my story. Who do I have to talk to so I can buy a good memory off them of seeing Kushiel finally fucking die?” 

The twins exchanged glances, before turning back to him. Tristan spoke up. “Dude, you need to meet one of our friends. 

“Her name’s Theia, and boy do you guys have a lot you could talk about.” 

******

Marina Dupont

Flick was missing. No, worse. She had been abducted by the necromancer who had been targeting her for so long. The same necromancer who had taken the girl’s mother and was responsible for the Black Death. After a year of preparation, Felicity Chambers had still been taken and was now that psychopath’s prisoner. All that time, and she was still gone. 

Those words repeatedly rebounded through Marina Dupont’s head as she sat on a bench on the outside of the long-closed museum that was the current home of Wonderland. On her lap sat the tiny Lavinsi (bird-like humanoid) girl named Baiden, who was intently reading aloud the story she’d written for class about the time she’d met Captain Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, the giant along the same lines as Paul Bunyan, who was a sailor rather than a lumberjack. Stormalong was known even by Bystanders, particularly early American Bystander sailors. 

Baiden’s story was written the same way the girl tended to talk. In other words, with rapid changes of topic, run-on sentences, and a lot of gushing about how awesome everything was. Especially Stormalong himself, whom Baiden had been incredibly impressed by, and demonstrated that by going on and on about the man, including details of some of the tall tales that had been spread about his exploits.

Technically speaking, there was a lot wrong with the writing. But it was Baiden’s words, and she was a kid. She was so excited about having met one of her heroes that she took the time to write it down. Which, for a girl of her attention span, meant a lot. She put effort into this. In no way was Marina ever going to discourage that. So she sat with the bird-like girl on her lap, laughing and smiling through the story as she knew the others in Baiden’s class would.  

And yet, even while she listened to the story, Marina continued to think about Flick. It was she who (with help from Gaia) had restarted the whole war, her actions that had led Marina to make the choice that she did, the choice to take those children out of Crossroads and give them back to their parents. 

That was what had led Marina to where she was now. Here, Wonderland. Where she had never in her life felt more like she belonged. This place was her home. This was the place she wanted to stay, with the people she wanted to help. Wonderland was everything she wanted, and Marina would defend it with everything she had. 

For that, for waking her up to the way the world was and helping her, even coincidentally, to find her way home, Marina would do anything to help Felicity Chambers. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything she could do. No one knew where Fossor’s home was, or if it was even on Earth. From everything she had heard from people like Roxa and Shiori, they were stuck. So pledging to help Flick didn’t really mean much. But if there was anything… if anything came up… Marina would be there. She would help. Because she owed Flick that much. 

They all did. 

**********

Joselyn and Flick 

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn demanded while she and her youngest daughter sat out on the patio overlooking the grounds of Fossor’s estate, “Deveron treated you like what?” 

From her seat, Flick snickered a little, shaking her head. “It’s okay, Mom. He was acting like a dick intentionally. You know, to umm, to throw off anyone who might have started to suspect he was trying to help us, or something. He was trying to stay undercover and act like he didn’t care.” 

For a moment, Joselyn just stared at her. Slowly, she raised a hand to rub her temple as if to ward off a mounting headache, while exhaling long and low. “That man,” she murmured under her breath, “if I had a dollar for all of his impulsive plans like that, I could’ve fought that revolution with Bruce Wayne-level resources.” 

Flick’s hand covered her mouth with a snort as she barely managed to contain herself. “You–hey, he umm, he was trying at least. And he dropped the act. He’s…” She squirmed a little in her seat, hesitantly offering, “He’s a good guy, even if he’s not…” 

“Even if he’s not your dad.” Joselyn finished, smiling a little as she reached out to take her daughter’s hand, squeezing it. “It’s okay, Felicity. I love both of them for everything they are.” 

“I know something about loving multiple people,” Flick admitted, meeting her mother’s gaze. “Really, I’m… I’m okay with him. I like him. He’s not Dad, but he obviously cares about you, about me, about all of us. He… he’s missed you a lot, and for longer than we have. He loves you, Mom. That’s what matters.” 

Swallowing hard, Joselyn moved her free hand to touch her daughter’s face, brushing a hand through her hair. “I love you, baby. I love all of you.” 

There was a moment of hesitation before Flick glanced up, whispering, “Are we safe?” 

Joselyn took a bit of prepared cloth from her pocket, channeling the spell to check for any spies. Then she nodded. “Yes.” 

“What about Koren and Abigail?” her daughter hurriedly asked. “I mean, I know you named Abigail Koren first, but she named her daughter Koren and it’s weird that she remembered the name and all but what about them? Does Fossor–is he going to–does he have plans about that?” 

There was a brief pause as Joselyn sat back, folding her arms in her lap while quietly answering, “I don’t know. He’s… kept things to himself. I want to believe that he’ll leave them alone, that he couldn’t have planned to the point of taking them after taking you, but… I don’t know.” 

Seeing her mother that uncertain, that vulnerable, made Flick reach out to her. She took the woman’s hands in either of hers, squeezing them. “We’ll deal with that if it happens, Mom. Come on, let’s talk about something more fun. We don’t have to dwell on… on all that.” 

A small smile reached the girl’s face, as she slyly pushed on. “How about I tell you about the time Wyatt made up for all those birthdays and holidays he missed by giving Koren and me eighteen years worth of presents?” 

The words made Joselyn blink up, staring at her daughter. “He…” A small smile appeared, as she coughed. “He did what now?” 

Giggling a bit at the memory, Flick nodded. “Not just eighteen years of presents suitable for an eighteen year old either. They were like… presents suitable for each age. Even as a toddler. I still have them, errr… I mean, some of them. Others got left behind when we had to escape Crossroads.

“My point is, just imagine how many presents you’re gonna end up with when we get home.” 

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Pink 12-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: There was an extra commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it and read that story, you might want to click here after reading this chapter

We didn’t go straight to the track or either of the museums. Instead, Dad led the three of us across the lot to a restaurant near the track. Technically, it was all owned by the same company, a company my father had a large stake in. The track, the museums, the restaurant, all of it was partially owned by my family. And that was just on the surface. Part of me wondered how much of the city my parents owned through the whole Ministry thing. Actually, come to think of it, I probably didn’t want to know right then. It would just be depressing to think about how much power they had when I was supposed to be trying to relax and show Izzy a good time. 

The restaurant was basically a hamburger place, but not exactly a McDonalds. The burgers were really thick and came named after various cars or drivers. They even did a thing where the top of the buns would have an image of a race car lightly burned into them. And the fries were the really long shoestring versions with Parmesan and truffle oil. They were amazing. I really didn’t have to fake that much enthusiasm for coming here, given how hungry I was. 

Apparently, Izzy had never been there before. Or to the track itself. As we walked in the front door of the restaurant, she gasped at the centerpiece of the foyer. It was a full-sized, actually working race car. Specifically, it was a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, beautifully red with a white number 11 on the side. The Mark IV was the only model of the GT40 line that had been built here in the US, since the first three versions were built in England. It was also the only car that had been designed and built entirely here in the US to win at Le Mans in France. 

I told the other girl all of that while the two of us walked a circle around the car. Izzy nodded appreciatively at the right places, but I had the funniest feeling that she really didn’t care all that much. She was one of those people who just thought a car was a car, and that as long as it got you where you wanted to go, there really wasn’t much of a difference between them. Heathen. 

The restaurant manager was talking to Dad and Simon while I was explaining the car’s history to the younger girl. By the time I got that far, it was time to go. My father beckoned, and we followed as the manager (a really friendly man named Kevin whom I had met a few different times since he was always here ready to direct us to a table when we came in) led us to the back of the restaurant. We passed through a couple doors to reach a private dining area with huge floor to ceiling windows that provided a good look at the track off in the distance across the lot, where we could see some of the cars taking practice laps. 

Izzy and I sat on that side of the long table, so we could turn our chairs a bit to look out at the track. Menus were passed out and the manager promised he would be taking care of everything personally. He took our drink requests, assured my father that our food would be out in plenty of time for us to eat before catching the first actual race, and hurried off. Our drinks were brought in and put on the table almost before he’d actually made it out of the room. Yeah, I’d never really paid that much attention before, but I supposed my father was something of a big deal. 

Simon was tuned out again, lost in his phone. But Dad stood up, moving over to stand next to Izzy and me as he gazed out at the cars doing their practice laps. There was a fondness in his voice as he told us about the first time he’d snuck into the track to watch cars pass by. It made him sound… human and simple, just a kid who couldn’t afford a ticket to see something he loved. I glanced over to see his face, and my father looked nostalgic, lost in his memories. It made me want to ask him how so much had changed. Not only in how much money and power he now had, but where his innocence had gone. I wanted to ask him if he was happier this way, if he had any idea how much misery he brought to other people through this Ministry bullshit. 

Instead, I simply listened quietly while he told us about that first race he’d watched, and about how he’d had to run from security before it was over. His run from the security officers had been a race in and of itself, one that more than a few spectators had actually put money on, apparently. 

“Did you get away?” Izzy asked, apparently enraptured by the story. She was sitting there, arms on the back of the chair that she had turned around in and chin in her hands as she stared at my father with a wide gaze. “They didn’t catch you, did they? Otherwise you would’ve been banned from that track.” 

In response, Dad chuckled. “Well, first, you’ll find that many ‘lifetime bans’ disappear when your name shows up on a lot of the checks that pay the salaries of the people who banned you.” With a wink, he added, “But no, I wasn’t caught. Actually, I owe that to my wife. That was the day…”

Then he trailed off. A slight frown touched his face before he shook his head. “Never mind, probably not the best time. Suffice to say, Elena and I had an interesting first meeting.” Turning from the window then, as he had been staring out at the track through all that, Dad smiled broadly. “And now we’re here. See how things work out in the end when you keep at it?”  

Huh. There was something there. Actually, now that he had talked about it being his first meeting with my mother, I really wanted to hear more of that story. But I knew pushing wouldn’t work, not right now. I was going to keep that in mind and maybe ask Mom about it later. Or I’d find a way to ask Dad when we were alone. 

Either way, that was for later. Right now, I was going to focus on our little outing, and on making sure Izzy had a good time. There would be time to handle all of that other stuff. Instead, I looked at the girl beside me and nudged her before pointing. “See that car over there? The driver’s name is Pranav. He’s really cool, and he’s from Hyderabad. He’s got a lot of stories about India. When the race is over, maybe we can talk to him for a few minutes. I bet he’ll let you sit in his car.” 

“Really? Cool.” From the look on her face, I was guessing that while Izzy did think that was cool, it wasn’t nearly the kind of ecstatic feeling I’d had when I got to sit in Pranav’s car years earlier. It had been like Christmas morning for me, to the point that I’d barely been able to sit still. She thought the idea of sitting in a race car was just… cool. But at least she wasn’t against it. 

We ate our food as soon as it came, while Dad and I told Izzy stories about car races and various drivers. Simon piped up now and then, but he was mostly interested in his phone throughout all of that. Every once in awhile, he’d look at Dad when he thought I wasn’t looking and mouth something, but I could never really catch much of what it was. My best guess from what I did catch was that he was reporting numbers. Numbers of what, I had no idea. I didn’t know if it was weight, times, amounts, all of the above, something else, or anything. All I was sure of was that it had to do with Ministry stuff. And it was important enough that our father didn’t make him put his phone away during the meal. 

The food was, of course, amazing. Kevin made sure we had dessert, and then we left to head over to the track. On the way, I told Izzy about the time I’d been so excited to get to the race that I’d grabbed the hand of a stranger thinking it was my dad and dragged him toward the door. 

“It was funny,” I started, “because when I–” Then I stopped. The memory that had flashed into my head was that I’d told someone about that the day after and they–he… told me about something he did that was like that.. He told me… He… he was… he was…

A rush of pain flooded my head. I stumbled just a little before catching myself. Dad’s gaze snapped to me, hand rising. “Cassidy? Are–” 

“Sorry, sorry,” I blurted, shaking my head while doing my best to ignore the nausea-inducing pain that was still pulsing there. “I got distracted and tripped over my own feet. It’s fine, I’m fine. I just–I need to use the restroom.” 

“Take Izzy,” my father murmured. “Are you sure–” 

“Dad,” I insisted, meeting his gaze, “I’m good. Trust me, we’ll be right back.” It took everything I had not to double over and clutch my head right then. I really wished one of my paints erased pain like this. 

With that, I took Izzy’s hand and walked with her. Restroom. I knew where the restroom was. I just had to go that way, get in a stall, and sit down for a minute. Then I could get through this. The memory that kept trying to shove its way into my head was painful enough that it had nearly made me fall over back there. I had to get a handle on it, quick. Before my dad started getting more… worried about my reaction. I’d gotten lucky with the whole doctor thing yesterday, the last thing I needed now was for my parents to insist on a hospital visit. 

Izzy was watching me as we walked, her own expression pensive. I could tell she wanted to ask something about all that, which she finally did with a hesitant, “Are you okay? I mean, I know you don’t want your parents to be all worried and stuff, but if you really have a head injury…” 

“It’s totally fine,” I quickly insisted. “I mean, probably not totally fine. I’ve got bruises and all. But I don’t need any kind of doctor or anything. I’m just, you know, I need to get some water.” 

“Maybe you can use these too?” Izzy offered while holding up a bottle of Ibuprofen. When I glanced that way, she added, “I asked Mr. Jefferson if we could stop to pick up pain relief and he gave this to me when I told him it was for you. Did you know he has a whole medical kit in the car? Not just a normal emergency first aid kit, it’s like a whole ambulance supply shelf.” 

Taking the bottle, I swallowed a couple of the pills before nodding. “Thanks, and yeah, Jefferson’s really big on being prepared for anything. I…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “You asked him for headache medicine for me before I had a headache?” 

She managed a little smile, shrugging. “You got hurt just like… a day ago and now we’re out in bright daylight around a bunch of loud cars. Of course you’re gonna need something for pain. I just… wanted to help.”

I could hear the guilt in her voice. She still felt bad about everything that had happened. And I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Unless… if I was right about one or both of her parents being supervillains, of course she would feel guilty. Of course she would. Duh. How did I feel? How easy was it for me to feel that guilt overwhelm me? Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Again, everything fit. 

Grabbing a couple water bottles after feeding ten dollars into the nearest vending machine, I passed one to Izzy before gulping down about half of mine. For her part, Izzy stared at the bottle, her face twisting. “Five dollars for a bottle of water? It’s water! How do you make people pay five dollars for twenty ounces of something that’s seventy percent of the world?! There’s over three hundred million trillion gallons of it! Are we on Mars? Did we go to Mars after all and nobody told me?!” 

Snickering a little despite everything, I shook my head. “It’s just marked up for being in a venue like this. You should see how much a hot dog costs.” Pausing, I added, “I mean, I assume it’s supposed to be a lot. Everyone else says it’s a lot.” 

Izzy was staring at me. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, almost pleading as though hoping I could make some logical sense of it for her, “It’s water.”  

“Very expensive water, apparently,” I replied while patting her shoulder. “So you should drink it. But first, let’s do our business.” By that point we were at the restroom, which I gestured toward before heading in. 

I took my time, sitting in the stall with my head in my hands. My mind was racing, now that I’d given it the chance. The day after that whole thing at the race track years ago. I’d told… someone about it. I knew I did. I told someone the story and they told me a story about… about…

Uuuuuggggghhnnnnnn. The pain was almost too much. I had to quickly bite down hard on my knuckle to avoid giving an audible reaction. My vision swam for a second, and it was a good thing that I was already sitting down. Damn it, damn it! 

Anthony. It had to be Anthony, right? He was my age, he’d been erased from my memory. I’d told someone about taking the hand of a person I thought was my father and walking off with a stranger at the racetrack. Yes. Yes, that was right. It was clear in my head. I told that person about it, kind of laughing but also kind of scared by the memory. I told them, and she–

Wait.

She? No. No, that was wrong. That was wrong. No, the person that had been erased from my memory was Anthony. And Anthony was definitely a he. So… why did I think ‘she’? What memory had I lost that had to do with a she? That didn’t even make sense. Why would there be some other friend who was… no, no I was wrong. It had to be Anthony. This was just my erased memories playing a trick on my brain. That was the only explanation for it. The person I’d told that story to the day after was that Anthony kid, not some weird girl I couldn’t remember. 

Shaking off those feelings, I cleaned up at the sink, splashed water on my face, then met up with Izzy to leave the restroom. The two of us walked out together before I turned in a circle to orient myself about where we were going. Right, we needed–

“Cassidy?” A voice from nearby called, and I blinked that way to see a familiar guy wearing a race uniform with Ten Towers logos over it. 

“Adrian?” I blurted. It was him, the guy who had been abducted and roughed up by Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful just because he happened to drive Ashton’s brother Josh out of the city. The guy who had driven me home that first night, the night that I… the night I found out about my family.

“You know him?” Izzy piped up, blinking back and forth between us with a curious frown. 

“Sort of,” I replied. “Oh, uhh, Adrian, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, this is Adrian. He was an Uber driver, and also a janitor at school. But then–I mean, something… happened? I don’t–” 

“It’s a long story,” he assured us. “And probably not one we should get into. But yeah, I guess I’m not really either of those things anymore.” 

I gestured to his uniform. “Yeah, I guess not. Looks like you upgraded.” 

Chuckling self-consciously, Adrian rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah well, I’m not exactly a race driver. Not yet, anyway. Gotta earn that. But they let me drive the pace car, and I get to put the Ten Towers rides through their paces. Mostly I’m a mechanic though. But hey, it’s a living. A pretty good one. Plus, it means my brothers get to live on campus.” 

I smiled a little at that. “Cool. That’s really cool. I’m glad everything–I mean, I’m glad you’re okay. You disappeared from school, and no one really knew what happened exactly.” 

“Thanks, kid–I mean Cassidy,” the guy quickly corrected. “You have a good day and all. And hey, try not to be out so late all the time. Things get pretty dangerous out there. Good to meet you too, Izzy. You guys enjoy the race.” 

Giving him a thumbs up, I headed off with the other girl, lost in thought. So, Adrian was doing okay. He was safe with Ten Towers, especially now that the whole search for the vials was over. At least there was that. I could think of a lot of worse ways closer over that whole thing could have gone. 

“Hey, Cassidy!” Once again, I was dragged out of my thoughts as Izzy and I approached Dad and Simon. Those two were there, but there were a couple others as well. 

“Amber? Jae?” I spoke up, blinking back and forth between the two girls. 

“Your dad told us you were coming here,” Amber explained, after Jae murmured a quiet greeting. “He said we could join up with you to watch the race.” Belatedly, she added, “Hey, Izzy. What’s up?” 

While they greeted each other, I looked toward my father. He raised an eyebrow, mouthing, ‘Sorry, is that okay?’ while nodding toward my two classmates. In turn, I offered him a quick smile and nod. It was fine. Today was about relaxing and not having any problems. I needed a break from… all of that. Having a couple totally normal friends around like Amber and Jae was just what the doctor ordered. 

“Well, guys?” I pushed as soon as the greetings were over. 

“Come on, let’s go see this race.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – Maria and Arthur Chambers (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is a commissioned chapter. Many thanks should go to the commissioner.

One Day After Maria and Arthur Chambers and Alcaeus Arrived In Seosten Space. 

On a small corner of the island that held Puriel’s private residence, a simple rectangular metal table had been magicked into existence, complete with chairs that looked as stiff and hard as the table itself, but were actually quite comfortable and soft to sit in. In those chairs were three men, who sat facing the water of the strange, alien (to two of the men at least) ocean. 

The sole ordinary human among the trio, Arthur Chambers, spoke up in a gruff, yet also somewhat dazed voice. “Let me go ahead and see if I’ve got this all straight in my head between everything you people’ve said since we got here. Feel like I’ve been getting the recap of that…” He paused before turning a bit to glance down the beach a bit, where his wife of over fifty years was staring intently at the ocean water. “Maria! What’s that show you like with the man who has that thing with his eye and the limping sailor? You know, the silly soap opera you watch right after lunch that puts me to sleep.”

“You only pretend to sleep, dear,” his wife primly retorted without turning away from her intense examination of the water. It was as though she was trying to spot some difference, only by eye, between the water of this world and that of Earth. “And it’s called Crescent Falls. Which you know darn well if you weren’t trying to save face about enjoying a soap opera in front of Hercules and the alien wizard. Which is quite frankly silly.” 

Clearing his throat, Arthur waved that latter part off. “Ahem, as I was saying, feels like I’ve been getting a recap of about thirty years worth of plots in that Crescent Falls spaced into about ten minutes. Only while my wonderful, beautiful wife is giving me that summary in one ear, my granddaughter’s in my other ear telling me the plot of every single comic book movie in existence in chronological, not release, order. And while all that’s going on, I’m trying to watch a history documentary.” He paused to consider how he had phrased that. “Yup, soap opera in one ear, superheroes in the other, trying to watch history.” 

“That… is not a bad comparison,” came Al’s (Alcaeus, apparently) thoughtful response. In the time since they had arrived here, the nearly seven-foot-tall man had wiped away the mixture of magic and make-up that made it look as though he had actually aged at least somewhat in the decades that they had known him. His hair was now deep black without any gray or white to it, and his face lacked even the hint of wrinkles. He had used trickery to appear to age so that he could spend more time with his friends before he would inevitably have to disappear from their lives. Or… would have had to, before all this happened. Before he had chosen to tell his friends the truth about the situation they were in, only to be interrupted by a quick burst of events that had led to them being here, on the Seosten homeworld, about as far from Earth as possible.

Arthur continued after giving Al a brief glance. “So, if I’ve got all this right, you lot…” He gestured vaguely with one hand toward the seated and silent Puriel, “have been at this space war for about three hundred thousand years now, give or take. A space war with a bunch of genocidal monsters created by some medical experiment gone wrong. Wait, pardon me, the medical experiment ran away after accidentally giving all your people the power to bodysnatchers anyone you want to. He made his own damn species of monsters, then you all went to war. You’ve been fighting it for all this time and ‘for the Greater Good’, you’ve been enslaving every God damn species you come across to use as foot soldiers cuz you are fucking outnumbered as shit. And somehow every time someone thought to bring up the thought that playing nicely with people to stop the big bad monsters might be a good idea, they… I dunno, mumbled?” 

“We tried to make allies at first.” As he said that, Puriel’s gaze flickered over to watch the water himself. “At least, that’s what the histories tell us. In those days, we didn’t live nearly as long as our people do now. Longer than humans, but not the ten thousand Earth-year lifespan of a… ahhh, modern Seosten. And we still had the same problem with birthing live children that we’ve had since the moment we gained the ability to possess people. Shorter lifespan, less children, of course we tried to partner up with other worlds, other species against this threat. The Fomorians want to wipe out everything in every universe that isn’t them or their creations. Obviously, we would do everything possible, including ally with others. But… it didn’t work out.” 

His voice turned quieter then. “Our people were betrayed. Three different species we allied with, three species we tried to stand with as friends against the Fomorians. All three betrayed us, led our people into an ambush by the Fomorians. It turned out they had made a deal to be spared if we were destroyed. The Fomorians convinced them that all they wanted was us. So they threw us away. Three hundred and thirty-seven thousand Seosten were killed in three hours.” 

After letting that sit for a few silent moments, Puriel finally went on. “Our military was devastated. In more ways than one. With those forces gone, we would have been wiped out. It was the opportunity the Fomorians needed. They would have washed over us. So… our ancestors did the only thing they could do at the time. They infiltrated the fleets and political leadership of those three species who betrayed us and forced them to come to our aid. It was a desperate move of a people who were on the very brink of being wiped from all existence.” 

By that point, Maria had abandoned her ocean vigil and moved to stand next to her husband. Laying a hand on his shoulder, she watched Puriel for a moment. “That sounds quite horrible for your people, sir. Quite horrible indeed. I know humans have never been through anything… exactly like that. But we’ve had our moments in history, our betrayals and wars. That kind of thing can set the tone between two peoples for… well, forever.” 

“Indeed,” the former captain of the Olympus agreed, watching the woman with renewed interest. “And so it set the course of my own people up to this day. Our ancestors realized… or believed that they could never rely on anyone other than ourselves. Between the initial ambush and the subsequent attacks, our military was heavily damaged. It took over a generation to fully recover to the levels it was at before. In the meantime, we relied on taking over our neighbor species and forcing them to work together. More than once, our infiltrators discovered plans for truces with the Fomorians. These other species did not understand that they were being fooled, that the monsters would never truly leave them alone. Once we were destroyed, they would turn their attention to our betrayers and wipe them out as well, no matter what ‘deals’ they had.” 

It was Arthur who found his voice next. “Sounds like a real tough time for your people.” Where some would have had no small amount of sarcasm in that sentence, he was genuine. He thought of how a place like America would have reacted to something even vaguely like that in the Cold War. If the Soviets were trying to wipe them out entirely, literally trying to kill all of them, and kept making deals with all of America’s allies to betray them? Or worse, World War 2. What if, during D-Day, the American soldiers storming Normandy had been led into a trap by their supposed allies that nearly crippled the military entirely? How would America then react to outsiders? How easy was it to see the United States, given the same ability to possess their neighbors and finding even more potential betrayal, to entirely give up on any idea of cooperation-by-choice? Look at what the country did after terrorist attacks decades in the past. Arthur Chambers had been alive for a long time, enough to see a lot of changes throughout the world and his home. He could see, all too easily, what would happen if anything remotely similar to what had gone on with the Seosten  were to happen there. 

“It was quite some time ago,” Puriel noted quietly. “But yes. As I said, it set the course for my people. It convinced us that no one could be trusted, that we were alone in this war. And yet, we could not be alone, because we would be destroyed. Our only choice, they believed, was to force all non-Fomorians in the universe to follow our commands. There were, I believe, some noble intentions to release them once the war was over. But… no one expected it to go on this long. How could they? This system has been in place for hundreds of thousands of years, and the war has no particular end in sight. We have been at what amounts to a brittle stalemate for longer than human civilization has existed. I truly do not know what a galactic society without my people in control would even look like. I can’t imagine it, much as I have recently tried.” 

“And you,” Arthur pushed on, “or your people in general, you came to Earth and you… you took human’s ability to, what was it you said…. bond? You took humanity’s ability to bond with other creatures and created a whole school out of turning kids into soldiers for your war.” 

There was a brief pause before Puriel gave a slight nod. “It took some time to get to that point, but yes. There is… perhaps some context you should hear to understand everything that has happened.” 

Maria took a seat by her husband. “By all means, let’s hear the context for everything that has happened to humanity since the Seosten arrived. 

“But something tells me you better have alcohol somewhere on this island.” 

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

“Avia?” The small, hesitant voice spoke up in the fancy Seosten kitchen. It was accompanied by the sight of a very small, very young face trying to peer up over the far side of the metal counter that filled the middle of the room. All that was visible, however, was a mop of brownish-red hair and a pair of inquisitive green eyes. The boy who was speaking was not quite three years old, small enough that he’d had to climb onto a chair just to see partway over the countertop. 

Maria Chambers looked up from the mixing bowl she had been busily stirring the contents of. A smile touched the elderly woman’s face as she saw the child peering at her. “Why, hello there, Stavin,” she greeted him while dipping the wooden spoon into the cookie batter. “Would you like to help me over here?” When the boy gave a quick nod, she set the bowl down before walking around the counter to put herself beside the chair he was perched on. “Touch okay?” 

Eagerly, Stavin bobbed his head while staring at the nearby mixing bowl. “Touch okay.” 

Only then did Maria reach down to pick the boy up and set him up on the counter. Because it was important that these Seosten children understand that they had the right to choose when and how they were touched just as much as others had the right to choose when and how the Seosten children themselves touched them. Yes, it was proper that children (or people in general) with their conditions ensure that they had permission to touch people before doing so. But it was just as proper that they themselves be given the same courtesy. 

The idea that so many within the Seosten society were treated as outcasts, as… as less than slaves, appalled Maria to an extent that she hadn’t known she was capable of being appalled. ‘Lies?’ She refused to think of them that way, let alone call them that. Nor Mendacia, considering that was only the Seosten (or Latin) way of saying the same thing. It was positive poppycock. 

After some thought on the subject, Maria had settled on referring to them as Gummies (for gum, because they were hard to get out of things if you weren’t careful). The children seemed to like the term, especially when Maria explained both what gum and gummy candy was. They were fascinated by the concept of each.

“Thank you, Avia!” the tiny boy crowed while sitting cross-legged on the table. Avia, which apparently meant grandmother, was a term the children had taken to calling Maria over these past two weeks. Arthur, meanwhile, was Avus. 

With his gaze laser-focused on the large bowl, Stavin asked, “I can help?” Belatedly, he added, “What’s poppycock?” 

Right, she’d been thinking that word when she picked him up, Maria realized after a moment of brief confusion. Because like his fellow… test subjects from the prison lab, Stavin wasn’t exactly normal even by Gummy standards. Instead of being stuck in bodies he possessed, the boy was incapable of possessing people. Rather, he would immediately hear the thoughts and feelings of anyone he touched. If he touched them long enough, he could project his own thoughts and feelings into them, making the person believe those thoughts were their own. The belief was that he would eventually be able to essentially hypnotize people this way. 

With a slight chuckle, Maria explained, “Oh, it just means nonsense, dear. And yes, you certainly can. Here.” She held the spoon out to him, waiting for the boy to take it. “Now you stir everything in that bowl up real good, okay? Then we’ll scoop them out onto the pan.” 

Tongue sticking out one side of his mouth, the tiny boy set to work stirring with both hands. The bowl moved against his efforts, until Maria reached out to hold one side so it would stay in place. With a chimed, “Thank you!” Stavis began stirring once more. 

While he was doing that, the doorway into the kitchen opened, as four more figures entered, one notably taller than the other three. The larger figure was still fairly small for being an adult, a dark-skinned woman only an inch or two over five feet, who wore a dark red Seosten bodysuit with black piping. The other three figures were more of the Seosten children. First, the tiny six-year-old (also black) Zahd, a Gummy girl who was permanently stuck in her ‘boosted’ state without Puriel’s help in draining her excess energy. Then there was the brown-haired young boy called Omni together with his sister, Spark, a girl with hair that was half blonde on one side and half black on the other. 

Maria wasn’t… fully aware of exactly what the situation with Spark was, though she had the basic idea. She was a full Gummy, not a medical experiment like the other children, and she had possessed Puriel himself so that he could hide her from the rest of the Seosten who would have hurt her. Now she was… magic. That was about as much of it as Maria understood. The girl was magic, a hologram like in those space movies. She was still physically possessing Puriel, but his own powers were enough to allow the girl to create this hologram around the house and island. A hologram that was also somehow solid. 

“Hello, Avia,” Spark politely greeted her, standing up straight with both hands interlocked behind her back. She gave a single nod. “Zahd, my brother, and I wished to offer our assistance.” 

Zahd bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh! And not just to eat gams, even though they’re really good and stuff. But also buhcuz helping is good too and it’s good to be good.” It was very clear that she was reciting a speech she’d been told. Or at least, reciting the general gist of it. And from the way the girl looked toward Spark for approval, it was also fairly clear who the source of the speech was. 

It didn’t take long for Maria to hand out two more mixing bowls, one for Zahd and the other for Spark and Omni to use together. Which would be a lot of dough, but at least that meant plenty of cookies could be made, enough to feed almost ten hungry children. While they stirred, Omni himself piped up. The boy, as always, had dozens of questions. He was curious about every little thing, positively famished for information. The things he asked often followed no particular order or category, simply being whatever popped into his head at any given time. Maria loved that, she loved his enthusiasm for learning. 

She loved all these children, and could not fathom how their own people could abuse and mistreat them so much. 

While the kids were working on stirring up the dough, she focused on the woman who had accompanied them. “I’m sorry, it’s Aletheia, right?” Maria extended a hand to the woman after brushing it off on the apron she’d asked Puriel’s housekeeper, Olan, for. 

Accepting the offered hand, the other woman nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry I’ve been away. It’s been… difficult to prepare a way for Puriel to bring these children to Earth. Things have been very tense at the border between those who wish to leave the humans alone for good, those who wish to ally with you, and those who wish to openly invade the very moment the truce is over.”

Maria winced at that. “Yes, Puriel was explaining that. Apparently my granddaughter had something to do with the situation.” She didn’t bother keeping the proud smile from her face. Everything she’d heard from that man about what Felicity had been up to, even if, by his own admission, he only had a very small part of the story, made her love her granddaughter even more. 

The smile faded as she thought of the other things he had told her. The things about Joselyn, the truth about why that dear woman had truly disappeared. Thoughts of what she had to have been through, of what… of just what she had repeatedly sacrificed, still felt like a hand clutching Maria’s own heart. 

She owed that poor woman an apology for everything she’d thought about her. And the things she had said to her husband, even if said in error and in private, they were still wrong. And awful. 

“She was indeed,” Aletheia confirmed. “Your family has a habit of being involved in dangerous situations.”

“Why do you think I like them?” That was Alcaeus, the enormous man chuckling as he came into the room. “And that was before I even knew who the rest of the family was.” 

“Doesn’t that detract from your point?” Maria pointed out, giving him a raised eyebrow. “You never knew we were related to that Joselyn or that our granddaughter was going to this… Crossroads until recently.” 

“Semantics,” he insisted with a wink before focusing on the Seosten woman. “Puriel said you had news.” 

“Yes,” Aletheia replied. “Although it is less news and more of an… ally. An ally Chayyiel has spent quite some time procuring.” 

“You say that so dramatically,” a new voice teased as another figure entered the room. “Makes me feel like I should be a lot more help than I’m gonna be. After all, I’m not part of the Committee anymore.” 

With those words, the elderly, yet still-spry Native American man straightened to look at Maria. “Morning, Mrs. Chambers. Believe me, it is such a pleasure to meet another native Earther out here. I hear you’d like to know more about Joselyn Atherby.” 

“The name’s Kutattca, and despite my sister Litonya’s best efforts, I can tell you plenty.” 

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Eighteen 6-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There is a summary at the bottom of the chapter for those who would rather avoid any direct contact with Fossor. Flick envies you. 

 

Sixteen chamrosh versus a school full of preteens. Ordinary human preteens. It would be a slaughter in every sense of the word. It would be a massacre the likes of which I couldn’t comprehend. Each and every one of those kids would be dead. All of them. And the teachers. And… and…

No. I couldn’t let that happen. The fact that Fossor had chosen one of the first monsters I’d ever fought to threaten a bunch of innocent children with, in my hometown, did not escape my notice. And it definitely wasn’t a coincidence. He was doing that intentionally, and probably amusing himself to no end. 

But it worked. He’d wanted a way to ensure that I would take this fight seriously and genuinely try to win, and he’d found it. I couldn’t just half-ass this, not with the lives of those innocent kids at stake. Which I knew meant that he’d just keep doing this same thing any time he needed to. He didn’t have to threaten my mother or my own life to make me cooperate, he could threaten anyone he wanted to and keep me playing nice with him that way. And we both knew it. 

Worse, I couldn’t even fight my normal way. I was supposed to win this thing by controlling Kendall, by puppeting some other body. And not even in the possessing way that I was (somewhat) accustomed to. No, I was supposed to remote control pilot the body from over here, which… yeah. This was going to be complicated. And if I lost, all those kids would die. Because I knew it wasn’t an idle bluff. Fossor meant what he said. This wasn’t some ‘oh you tried as hard as you could, so that’s good enough’ sort of deal. If I lost this fight, all those kids would be murdered. 

But sure, it wasn’t like there was any pressure or anything.

In a practiced, casual voice, Fossor warned the crowd that any interference to help or hinder me would be a foul. And the way he said it made it clear that he had very specific ideas about what would happen to someone who committed such a foul that did not include simply putting them in time-out or ejecting them from the arena. Not to mention the fact that the ‘help’ part was clearly directed to my mother. She was going to have to sit this out as well. This one was all up to me. 

I was pointed to a raised platform area just outside the arena where I could look down and see the whole thing from an elevated position. The four Chamrosh who were actually here were still spread out, crouched low as they glared at Kendall, feathers and fur bristling. It was obvious that they were right on the edge of lunging to tear her apart, waiting only for the word to go. Four Chamrosh versus one zombie girl whom I had learned to pilot five minutes ago. Just fantastic.

Fossor, to his infinitesimal credit, did seem to at least be trying to make this ‘fair,’ to an extent. He waited until I was on the platform and settled, then gestured to a tall (almost ten feet) figure covered in gray-green fur nearby. The big guy picked up a large bucket full of swords, axes, daggers, hammers, and assorted other weaponry, tossing it over the wall of the arena. It shattered, sending all those weapons sliding along the ground behind the Chamrosh. Which meant they were all on the opposite side of the arena from where Kendall was, of course. 

Once the weapons were in place, Fossor looked my way. “Are you quite ready, dear?” 

Ready? Was I ready? A lot of words sprang to mind just then. Words that I wanted to scream at him, preferably while driving a dagger repeatedly through his ear and into his brain. Instead, I exhaled long and low, clearing my mind as much as I could. I looked down at Kendall. I felt the ‘net’ of power over her body, testing it from here to make her raise both arms, kick out once with each leg, and turn in a circle. No, I really wasn’t ready. But from Fossor’s point of view, I knew the answer to the question. So, I made her give a thumbs up while I simply said, “Whatever.” 

“Very well,” Fossor announced, his gaze moving over the arena as though silently warning everyone once more against interfering with this event. Then he added, casually as ever, “Go.” 

As calm as the actual word and voice speaking it were, the response from the Chamrosh was anything but. All four of them instantly leapt into action, lunging toward Kendall with a cacophony of shrieks and screams clearly intended to shock their victim into freezing up. 

I didn’t freeze up. But still, thinking about reacting and then directing that thought toward the dead and puppeted body down in the arena had an inherent delay. Especially given how unused to this whole sort of thing I was. So I barely managed to make Kendall twist aside before the Mastiff with the hawk head would have impaled her on his beak. As it was, the thing still managed to cut along her side. But, I supposed, at least she couldn’t feel pain anymore. 

Yeah…somehow that didn’t actually make me feel any better. But I had to shove that down. 

The Mastiff-hawk was already spinning back toward her, while the wolf-owl came right up from behind her with a loud, terrifying screech. The border collie-vulture and terrier-woodpecker leapt up and over the girl, landing on the far side before spinning back. Surrounded. Not even ten seconds into this whole thing and she was already surrounded, with no actual weapon to fight back because they were still all on the far side of the arena. This was just fucking fantastic. 

Focus. I had to focus on this. Kendall was already dead, I couldn’t do anything for her. But those other kids back in Laramie Falls weren’t. It was four Chamrosh, I could do this. I had to do this. 

I had the training for this. I had the instincts for this. I just had to stop overthinking it and put my actions into Kendall. I had to make her body an extension of my own. Stop thinking and act

I acted. Kendall’s fist lashed out to slam into the side of the Mastiff-hawk’s beak just before it would have torn into her arm. Given the power I had pumped into her, she was a fair bit stronger than she would have been as a living person, and the fact that she obviously didn’t really care about any pain meant I could make her hit even harder against the thick beak. The impact was enough to knock it off-course, even making the animal stagger sideways a little bit. 

At the same time, Kendall’s foot snapped backward to kick the wolf-owl in mid-lunge, sending it sliding to the side while only getting a bit of a nip into her ankle. Okay, that nip was enough to draw worrying amounts of blood, but still. Zombie. Or Golem. Whatever, she could take it. 

Unfortunately, there were four of these things. The collie-vulture leapt, slamming into her chest to knock her to the ground through the sheer force of its lunge. Meanwhile, the terrier-woodpecker was already waiting where her head had fallen, lunging to gouge that long, wicked-looking beak straight at her throat with a trilling shriek of its own that almost sounded like a laugh. An evil, nasty, horrible laugh. 

But I wasn’t done yet. Or Kendall wasn’t done yet. Whatever. Her hand snapped down, catching hold of the collie-vulture by the scruff of its neck. Or feathers, or–the back of its neck. The instant she had a good grip there, I made her yank the thing up over her own face, using the body of the monster as a shield from the incoming terrier-woodpecker. From my own point of view while Kendall’s face was covered, I saw the woodpecker beak tear into the side of the collie-vulture, making the latter screech. 

The fact that I was here and not there also meant that I could see the wolf-owl trying to sneak up from the side, going for one of Kendall’s knees. I let it come within range, then abruptly had the dead girl yank the collie-vulture off her face (it had left a ton of claw marks along the skin there and bloodied her nose), to slam as hard as possible into the incoming monster. There was a scream (mostly of anger, I was pretty sure) from both of them. 

But it also meant that I had something of an opening. Throwing Kendall into a sideways roll to avoid the woodpecker beak just in time, I made her wait there in that brief crouch while the Mastiff-hawk came charging up from behind. I knew it was there. That was one definite advantage of being in this position. Difficult as it was to be removed from the fight, it still meant that I could see things that even my item-sense power couldn’t have told me. So I knew exactly how long to wait until the Mastiff-hawk had committed to a lunge before launching Kendall into a backflip up and over the thing so it would plow into the others and buy me a few more seconds. 

Immediately, I used those seconds by making Kendall sprint backward toward the nearest weapon from the pile that had been scattered across that end of the arena. I didn’t bother taking the moment it would require to turn her around, because there was no point. She didn’t need to see where she was going because I could see where she was going. I was controlling her body, directing her into a backward sprint while the Chamrosh disentangled themselves. The smallest, the terrier-woodpecker, was the first to manage it. With a sudden shriek, the thing launched itself across half the length of the arena like a furry, feathery missile aimed at Kendall’s throat. It was so fast in that moment that a normal person would’ve been taken completely by surprise at how fast and far it managed to hurl itself off of a single jump. 

But I saw it coming. I saw the thing gathering to lunge, and though it was really fast, I had pretty good reaction times (thanks, werewolf in Wonderland), and managed to throw Kendall into another sideways roll an instant before the thing would have put its beak straight through her jugular. In the roll, I made the girl’s hand snap out to grab the nearby weapon. It was a mace, a weapon I wasn’t really familiar with (it did make me miss Sands even more, for sure), but that would have to do. I had time to make Kendall grab the mace while the terrier was pivoting and orienting for another lunge. With a grunt (from both of us, as I reflexively pushed that action into Kendall as well), I made the mace come swinging up and around as hard as I could. I shoved power into the power webbing that enveloped her form to push her strength as high as possible in the instant before the head of the mace slammed into the bird’s side. 

The result was instantaneous. There was a visible explosion of feathers, fur, and blood, accompanied by a horrifying, bloodcurdling squawk that was cut off right at its height, as if someone had just pressed mute. The limp remains of the thing’s body went flying a good ten feet before bouncing along the ground. At least, the parts that weren’t either smeared across the mace or drifting through the air. Or splattered over Kendall’s face, I realized, as I turned her back to face me. 

There was a mixture of cheering and boos. Obviously, some of the audience thought the fight itself was awesome, while others wanted to see me lose. Whether that was because they hated my family, hated Heretics, or just wanted to see a bunch of innocent kids get murdered was up for debate. Actually, probably a mixture of all of the above depending on the person. 

Okay, one down (yeah, it was the smallest, easiest one, but still). Three left, and I had a mace. Not the best weapon, but it was something. And I could maybe use that to work my way to something I was more familiar with, like that spear I could see in the distance. I just had to get close enough to grab it, then I’d have a weapon with a little reach to it, which would go a long way to helping me get more control over this fight. 

Unfortunately, those three Chamrosh that were left weren’t exactly leaping to help me do that. Actually, they were leaping to stop me from doing that. The wolf-owl threw itself to that side, eyes glaring my way as though daring me to try to get past it to any of the weapons there. The mastiff-hawk was on the other side (Kendall’s left and nearer to where I was physically standing), while the collie-vulture came stalking straight forward. Gradually, the three moved closer, one slow step at a time, shrinking the area I had to work with. They were operating as a pack, keeping Kendall penned in. I could tell from the way they were half-crouched that each was ready to leap if I tried to make her jump over them. This was going to be tricky. 

Okay, okay, I could do this. I just had to focus and not let myself (or Kendall) get overwhelmed. To that end, I made her abruptly pivot on one foot to face the opposite way and sent her running toward the wall at that end of the arena. Unlike the first time, I actually did make her turn her back on the monsters, because I wanted them to think she was vulnerable, triggering their instincts to chase after fleeing prey. 

They took the bait. All three immediately lunged to pursue, hurling themselves after Kendall in a wild rush, an assortment of shrieks, trills, and snarls filling the air from their excitement. They were going to run down the prey who had been so rude as to kill one of their packmates. If they caught Kendall, they were going to tear her apart and feast on everything inside. 

Except she wasn’t actually running scared. I sent her straight to the wall, watching intently as the Chamrosh gave chase. I was checking to see who the closest one would be… there! It was the wolf-owl. The thing was almost right on top of her. In another instant, with Kendall two steps from the wall, it would lunge. From the way it had positioned itself, I knew what the thing’s tactics were. It was going to throw its body at Kendall to knock her sideways into the mastiff-hawk coming from the other wide. The two would bodycheck her between them, trap the girl, and rip into her. That would be the end of this fight. 

Fortunately, I was ready for all of that. At the very last instant, just as the wolf-owl committed itself to the lunge, I made Kendall throw herself toward it. At the same time, her hand lashed out backward to hurl the mace into the face of the also-lunging mastiff. It wasn’t nearly enough to put the thing down, but it did make it stumble briefly. Meanwhile, Kendall’s other hand caught the leaping wolf by the throat. Its head snapped down to slam that wickedly sharp beak into her wrist. But she didn’t react at all, of course. The Chamrosh’s instinct to cause pain to make her grip loosen accomplished nothing. Nor did its scrambling feet raking across her chest and stomach do anything more than cut deep rips through the shirt and into the skin.

Pivoting while still running sideways along the length of the wall, I made Kendall hurl the scrambling, flailing wolf-body into the face of the collie-vulture. They were both caught up with each other while Kendall’s foot kicked a sword up into her hand. Before they could recover, she hurled it as hard as I could manage, with another boost-like burst of strength sent into the control webbing. 

The sword struck home. It went straight through the wolf-owl’s side and through the collie-vulture, impaling them both like some kind of kebab. They squealed and writhed, doing even more damage to themselves in trying to separate. They weren’t quite dead yet, but they weren’t in fighting shape either, and it wouldn’t take long. 

One left on its feet, and obviously it was the most dangerous one. The mastiff-hawk had managed to shake off being momentarily stunned by the mace it had taken into the side of its head, and was reorienting to come after Kendall once more. 

But there was distance between them, and Kendall was close to the spear I’d seen. Shoving everything I could into her speed, I made the now-dead girl throw herself that way, fingers outstretched to snatch the spear off the ground just before turning it into a roll. The remaining Chamrosh was right on her heels, so close that when the head snapped down, it actually tore into her ankle a bit. The same one that had been injured before, actually. It was enough that I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to stand on it normally. 

Damaged or not, she had the spear. And I used that immediately by making Kendall twist around, offering her arm that way while skidding to a stop on her knees.  

Once more, the bait worked. The Chamrosh snatched hold of it, tearing into the arm with a vicious bite that went all the way down to the bone. It snarled, jerking its head back and forth to do as much damage as possible. 

And then it stopped, because Kendall had driven the spear up through its flailing body. I saw the thing’s eyes widen, while the spear was twisted and shoved from side to side. Then the blade came out the thing’s back, and it went limp, falling to the ground with a whimper. 

Pushing Kendall to her feet (I could barely make her stand somewhat properly on that damaged ankle), I ignored the traumatic damage that had been done to her arm. Instead, I made her stab the spear down through the skull of the dying Chamrosh to finish it off. 

After that, with the crowd mostly quiet save for a few scattered mutters, Kendall limped over to the still-impaled pair of ‘surviving’ Chamrosh and killed each of them with two more quick thrusts. 

They were dead. The four Chamrosh were dead. As soon as that was clear, I jumped off the platform, landing in the arena while the crowd gave a fairly evenly mixed assortment of cheers and boos. My eyes were on Fossor as I raised my voice. “Deal’s a deal, send the van away!” 

There was a brief pause before the necromancer nodded once. “You’re right, a deal is a deal.” His hand waved, and I watched the monitor as the van started up before driving out of the lot. Only once it was out of there did I breathe again. 

“An excellent showing, dearest,” Fossor all-but purred, making my entire body simultaneously tense up and also dry heave. “But you should touch your soldier there.” His eyes shone with amusement. “Take her hand and hold it high for the crowd.” 

I had no idea what game he was playing, but did so anyway. With a sigh, I reached out to take the less-damaged hand of the… the… dead girl gingerly, intending to raise it above her head. 

I didn’t get that far. The moment we made skin-to-skin contact, there was a flash of golden light, and I felt a sudden rush of pleasure that made me stumble a bit.  

It was the Heretic killgasm. I was experiencing it at that moment for all four Chamrosh that Kendall had killed. I felt the rush of pleasure and power from the four deaths, even though they’d happened much earlier. Somehow, the… result of their death, the energy or whatever, had stayed in Kendall until I touched her. Then it reached me. 

The crowd was roaring with a mixture of cheers and laughter at my reaction. And through it, I heard Fossor’s voice. “Well, that’s one hypothesis proven. 

“This could become quite interesting indeed.” 

 

SUMMARY

Flick fights the four Chamrosh using Kendall and, through a difficult battle, manages to kill them all thanks to her own skill, the benefit of standing above it so she can see everything that’s going on, and the fact that injuries and pain don’t slow Golem-Kendall down. After the fight, Flick takes Kendall’s hand at Fossor’s suggestion, and immediately gains the boosts from killing the four Chamrosh, revealing that she will gain powers from what her golems kill once she physically touches them.

 

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Pink 12-01 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next day was Saturday, because there was no way I was going to be able to go to school. I was completely out of it, dead to the world (metaphorically rather than literally thanks to Pack and the others) until almost noon. Even then, it felt as though only a few minutes had passed from the time I closed my eyes to the time I woke up staring blearily at the outline of bright, middle-of-the-day sunlight coming in through my closed blinds. 

For another couple minutes, I just lay there, staring at the hints of light while trying to get my mind around everything that had happened the day before. After being abducted and nearly killed by the Scions, rescued by Pack, That-A-Way, Broadway, and Skip working together, having to lie to my parents by making up a story about where I’d been all night (and subsequently being examined by a doctor), being punished by having the time it would take me to get an actual car extended, and what else…? Oh right, telling Pack and That-A-Way about the secret organization running both the good and bad guys in the city without actually mentioning that the people at the head of that organization were my own freaking parents

Yeah. It was a lot. I’d had a busy day. No wonder I’d slept so long. It was a wonder I wasn’t some gibbering wreck in the corner, to be honest. And I still hadn’t been able to find Bobby, even though that had been the entire point of that endeavor. Though I did have that code off the toys that I’d found in the cabin. A code for something I didn’t know anything about. Oh, and of course, Eits was still hurt. Eits had been hurt because I asked him to look into that for me. 

That thought, of Eits lying there in that bed, made my eyes close. I shuddered a little, terrified just at the memory of seeing him like that. Knowing that he was there because of me was just… too much. I couldn’t stand it. And I couldn’t lay there anymore. I had to distract myself from that. 

A sudden weight shift on the bed made me jump. Izzy was there, picking herself up from the bottom of my bed, where she had apparently laid down. “Sorry,” she managed, blushing a little. “I was waiting for you to wake up but I guess I… fell asleep.”

Even as she said it, the girl was yawning. Which made me realize, “Wait, you were… you were up for a long time waiting for me, weren’t you?” Saying that, I felt a renewed rush of guilt go through me. The thought of Izzy sitting up, worried for so long without any way of knowing where I was or what had happened, somehow it made me feel even worse than I had about making my parents worry. Izzy hadn’t asked to be involved with any of this, she was innocent. 

A slight flinch crossed the younger girl’s face before she admitted hesitantly, “I tried to cover for you, but it umm… it didn’t work.” Looking guilty, she stared at me with wide eyes. “I’m sorry.” 

“You’re…” I had to do a double-take at that, staring right back at her. “You’re sorry? What–Izzy, no.” Quickly, I scooted down to that end of the bed to sit next to the other girl. “You don’t have to be sorry about anything. It was my fault.” Technically it was the Scions’ fault, but I’d never say that to her. “I’m the one who made a mistake. I’m the one who–never mind. It’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty just because you couldn’t stop my parents from realizing I never came home. I promise, it’s okay.” With that, I put a hand on her shoulder. “So knock it off, alright?”

Izzy hesitated, looking at me with a surprisingly intense stare for someone who wasn’t even quite yet a teenager. Finally, she gave a short nod. “But you’re not in too much trouble?” 

I made myself shrug. “Yeah, I sorta have to wait longer before I finally get to drive once I pass my test and all that. I’ve been looking forward to it basically since I was old enough to know what a car was, and now it’s further away.” It wasn’t all that hard to make it sound like the punishment was as bad as it was supposed to be, because driving really had been incredibly important to me up until recently. I still wanted to, of course. I just… had bigger things to worry about. Much bigger things. But I could still make that sound pretty convincing. 

“I’m sorry,” Izzy quietly said once more, this time adding, “I hope your parents weren’t super mad.” 

“We worked it out,” I assured her. “But I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to go anywhere today. So, you wanna play some more of that game from before?” 

There was a moment of hesitation before she nodded. “Uhh, okay.”

“Great. But breakfast first,” I insisted. 

“I don’t like to get my butt kicked on an empty stomach.” 

******

So, I basically played games and watched movies with her all day. It was pretty much all I could stand to do with the pain in my side and how exhausted I felt. Not to mention how much my parents kept either checking up on us or having one of the staff do so. They also had me take several special pills that were supposed to help my body heal faster. It wasn’t like an instant cure or anything, but still. It also made me a little woozy and sleepy, another thing stopping me from going out or doing much. 

But that was okay, I needed the break. I would get back to everything else soon enough. For that one day, I just spent time with Izzy. That was good enough. 

Then it was Sunday, and I felt a little more like myself. After getting up, showering, and dressing, I emerged from the bathroom to find my dad there. He enthusiastically told me that he was taking Simon, Izzy, and me out to visit the racetrack just outside the city, and that we would make a day of it. We were going to get lunch, see some cars and races, tour the track, then get dinner. It was going to be a whole thing. And, of course, it would allow him to keep an eye on me to make sure I didn’t have any kind of lingering effects from that whole head injury thing. He didn’t actually say that part, but I picked up on it pretty easily. 

I also couldn’t really argue. Of course the old me would be ecstatic about going to see the cars at the track with my dad. If I tried to demur or wasn’t into it, he’d know something was wrong. He’d be even more suspicious. Hell, he might try to find out if I was some kind of shapeshifter  Touched who had stolen his real daughter, given the circumstances. So I had to do this, and make it seem like everything was just hunky-dory. No matter how much I really didn’t want to. 

Besides, Izzy was going, and there was no way I’d abandon her like that. I wasn’t going to leave her to go out with my father. Especially not when I still didn’t know what that whole situation was. If something happened to that girl while she was out with Dad and I wasn’t there, I… I’d feel even worse than I did about Eits getting hurt. 

So, I was going. I made a point of thanking my father, hugging him, promising that I would never do anything as stupid as skating alone in a construction zone again, then hurried into my bedroom. As soon as I was out of sight with the door closed, I turned off the excited act, the bright smile melting from my face as I turned to look in the mirror. Yeah, I was going to have to keep that up all day, wasn’t I? That was just great. 

“Cassidy?” The sound of Izzy’s voice from over by my window, where the other girl had been standing, made me jolt with surprise. That was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that she’d startled me. When my gaze jerked that way, her face was scrunched up uncertainly. “Are you really okay? You…” Again, there was a brief hesitation, as if she wasn’t sure she should actually say anything. “You looked sad.”

Quickly, I bobbed my head. “Yeah, sorry, I was just thinking about… stupid things. No big deal. Seriously, how could I be sad when we’re going on this awesome little daytrip, right? You–wait, do you even like cars?” It only occured to me at that moment that this whole thing might not actually be much of a fun event for her if she wasn’t actually into this stuff the way I was. 

Sure enough, the other girl offered me a helpless shrug, looking self-conscious. “They’re okay,” she offered weakly. “I mean, your parents have a lot of really pretty cars, but I don’t know what the big deal is about engines and models and all that. It goes vroom and takes people places.” 

“Goes vroom and–” Adopting a scandalized look, I poked her. “Yeah, trust me, there’s a lot more to it than that. Good thing we’ve got today to get you into it.” Winking then, I added, “It’s okay if you’re really not though. Maybe it’ll still be nice to get out of the house and walk around? Plus, they have some pretty good snacks at those places. Suuuuper buttery popcorn. And the places my dad’s gonna take us to for lunch and dinner… oh believe me, you don’t wanna miss that.”

“Okay, okay,” Izzy retorted with a little snicker, clearly realizing how much I was trying to play it up for her. “You’re right, I do want to get out of this place. I want–” She stopped abruptly, though it had been clear that she’d been about to say something important. But then something flashed across her face. It was a weird expression, like… sad and lost, but also furious. Then it went away just as quickly as it had appeared. 

“Izzy?” I pressed just a little bit, not even thinking about my own things in that moment. Not after the brief flash of whatever that was that I’d seen in her eyes at that moment. Izzy was really upset about something. Not an immediate thing, but… but something. Even though I’d only known her for a very short time, seeing her look like that made me want to find whoever made her feel that way and… and do bad things. “Are you okay?” Now I felt like our positions had flipped. It was me asking her if she was alright after I’d seen an expression on her face. 

Wait, did that mean that whatever she was going through was similar to what I was going through? Did… was one of Izzy’s parents or another family member a supervillain? Maybe Izzy had found out and that was why she was here, being kept safe from Touched on either side and the authorities. Could that explain the vulnerable, yet angry look I’d seen, and everything else? 

It could. It really could. I couldn’t really think of any part that it didn’t cover. Izzy finding out that someone really close to her, my guess was one or both parents, was a supervillain and then being ‘protected’/hidden away… it would make sense. It gelled with everything I’d seen and answered a lot of questions. Especially about why she seemed so open sometimes, but also guarded. And why she would be especially sensitive to any relationship I had with my own parents. That made a disturbing amount of sense. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure that was it. But who? Who was Izzy’s supervillain parent or parents? That was all I could think about as the two of us left my bedroom and headed downstairs to where Dad and Simon were already waiting in the main foyer by the front door. I was distracted from those thoughts as both of them loudly and (clearly intentionally) obnoxiously complained about how long it had taken for us to finally join them, making a whole production out of it. 

“See?” I started conversationally while looking at the younger girl beside me. “This is why going to someplace with a lot of noise like a racetrack is a good idea. Because it’s so loud you can’t hear the boys whining all the time.” Saying that, I winked, pointedly ignoring the wounded sounds and looks while Izzy snickered.

“Okay, okay,” Dad began with a shake of his head. “Let’s get this show on the road. Jefferson’s bringing Big Sal around, and you know how much of a bad idea it is to make that man wait.” 

Yeah, apparently even my own father didn’t like to take our time-obsessed driver off his schedule. Obviously most of that was just playing with us around, but still. Jefferson was not a man who enjoyed surprises or things that made him late once his day was planned. 

We moved out of the house to the front drive, where Big Sal (our imposing black SUV with heavily tinted windows) pulled up just in time for Jefferson to step out, walk around to briefly open and walk away from the back door for the rest of us who didn’t literally sign his paycheck, then open the front passenger door and hold it for my father to get in. 

Izzy and I climbed in the back, while Simon took the middle seat and immediately shoved his earbuds in before losing himself in music. Once Dad was in his seat, Jefferson closed that door, closed our door, then walked around to the driver’s side. A moment later, we pulled out. 

We were driving away from the house in Big Sal. I’d asked my dad about the SUV before, and he’d told me that this thing had enough armored plating and reinforced glass to take multiple tank rounds while barely showing a scratch. It was rated to keep presidents and royalty safe. 

I wondered if he had any reason for us to travel in this today other than just wanting to have enough seats for Izzy. We had plenty of cars. Was there another reason for having this particular one? Was it just that we were taking her away from home and Dad wanted to be safe, or something else? Was there more to this whole trip today? Or was I just being paranoid? 

Either way, I would keep my eyes open. And just hope that nothing crazy happened while we were out on this little trip. I could really use a break, after everything that happened the day before yesterday. And I also needed to sneak away at some point and buy a new phone so I could contact Pack to find out how Eits was doing. Not to mention checking in with Wren, actually meeting with Pack and That-A-Way to figure out how the three of us were going to sneak into that secret base under the mall, piece together what the code on those toys was for, find Bobby, piece together my missing memories, find out what Paige’s whole deal was and how she was connected to that Anthony kid who had apparently been my friend, and, and…

I had a lot to do. Too much. But I needed a break right now. Besides, if I bailed on this trip, Dad really would be suspicious. So I was stuck here, cooling my heels, metaphorically speaking. I had to act like I didn’t have anything important to do, no matter how much stuff was piling up waiting for me to get on with it. I had to reassure my father that everything was just fine first. 

On the way, I thought about my whole theory about Izzy’s family member being Fell-Touched. It still all fit as far as I could tell. She was Latina. Did that mean that one of her parents was a member of Oscuro? It basically had to, right? The odds were really high that way, in any case. If Izzy had a family member who was part of Oscuro, that would explain why my parents were keeping her secreted away. Despite my (totally understandable, damn it) paranoia, I was increasingly certain that they really did care about Izzy and were protecting her. They might have been horrible people in many ways, who did a lot of horrible things, but in this case, I was fairly certain they weren’t the bad guys. So they had to be protecting her from someone else who was dangerous, and Cuélebre was pretty high up that list. 

Except did they really have to protect her? Everything else I knew about their organization, this ‘Ministry’, said that all they’d have to do was tell Cuélebre to leave her alone. So what else was I missing? There was some really obvious thing that would immediately fill in all the blanks here, but I was just missing it. 

I was distracted then, as Dad passed something back to Simon, and he passed it to me. It was a new phone, just like the old one. At least, on the surface. I was going to go over it with a fine tooth comb to make sure it wasn’t reporting anything back to my parents after the scare I’d given them. Not that I’d done Touched stuff on my normal phone in the first place, but I didn’t want it telling them where I was all the time. Any more than normal phones did, anyway. The point was, I was going to make sure this phone hadn’t been tampered with before I took it with me anywhere sensitive. Actually, it was probably safest to just leave that phone wherever I left my clothes from now on. I could easily set up a thing to forward calls from that to my Touched-business phone. Yeah. If Pencil hadn’t destroyed my phone’s ability to connect to the towers and my parents had checked where I was? That would have been really bad. 

Well, it also might’ve been good, if it had helped Dad dump a whole bunch of troops on top of the Scions. But bad in other ways. 

Eventually, we reached the racetrack. It was an enormous facility, the arena itself enclosed behind heavy walls with a retractable ceiling for bad weather, a giant garage along the side opposite the entrance where extra work could be done, and two whole car museums attached to either end. The western museum was dedicated to ‘normal’ vehicles throughout history, while the eastern museum was dedicated to showcasing vehicles created, inspired, and/or used by Touched. There was a lot of Tech-Touched stuff in the eastern museum, special stuff developed throughout the past twenty years. I’d spent a lot of time in both museums ever since I was a little kid. Not to mention all the time I’d spent in the stands, watching the eclectic assortment of souped up vehicles speeding past. Tech-Touched liked to bring their vehicles here from all over the world during open-powers races to show off what they could do. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I was excited to see another one now despite my own reservations about everything else. 

Jefferson parked, and we got out. Dad made a broad gesture. “Alright, come on then. Let’s show Izzy how we like to have a good time.” 

And at that moment, I was so into this whole thing that I managed to resist the urge to ask how many teenagers we’d have to kill before Dad and Simon would start enjoying themselves.

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