Month: July 2017

Interlude 23 – Bastet

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There were twelve of them. Two six person teams. Each of them a fully-trained Heretic, of the Crossroads variety. The youngest of their number had graduated from that school thirty years earlier, the eldest, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Between them, they possessed over eight hundred years worth of experience in hunting and killing the creatures they called Strangers.

And they were using that experience to terrify children. Which likely seemed fair to them, since they had already used it to kill those children’s parents or caretakers only minutes earlier.

The place was an apartment building in Brooklyn. It was a haven for Alters of many kinds. Not as large or well-known as Wonderland or certain others, but respectable enough. Before the last few minutes of horror, it had held about thirty families. Some were as small as a single adult with no one else to care for, while others were as large as both parents (or three parents in the case of one tri-gendered species) with entire litters of children. They were a small, yet devoted community. They never bothered others, kept to their own group, educated their young amongst themselves, and generally avoided much contact with the outside world. It was the safest way.

Or it had been, before one of their number had been spotted picking up groceries by a Heretic. The Heretic had avoided direct confrontation, following his quarry until he found the apartments and realized how many other Alters were living there. After he had reported back, this combined, two team taskforce had been assigned to ensure none of the ‘infestation’ escaped.

It was amazing, how easy it became to kill people when you thought of them in terms of pests.

They had moved quickly and efficiently. Some of the Alters had managed to put up a pretty decent fight. The apartment building itself was heavily damaged. But in the end, with the doors barred by a couple of the Heretics, and other methods of transportation out of the apartment building blocked due to a combination of powers and magic, it was a foregone conclusion. The Alters were wiped out. All, that was, except for the children. Forty-one of them, from a variety of parents. All had been ushered into the building’s basement where their classes were usually held when the fighting began. They huddled in the corner, listening with growing terror to what was occurring directly above their heads. The screams of their parents, the helplessness they felt as their loved ones, their families, were cut down by those who saw them as monsters, was impossible for some of them to even comprehend. Their lives were destroyed in those moments.

And those same lives would be erased soon, if the Heretics had anything to say about it. Because seeing entire species as evil, soulless abominations didn’t allow one to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, or between children and adults. Seeing another living being as inherently evil from birth didn’t allow for the concept of negotiation or mercy. Generations worth of military leaders had attempted the same sort of disconnect between the people of their own nation and those of others, and that was simply among other humans.

As the door into the basement was blasted open, three of the Heretics, half of one team, descended quickly. They soon found themselves facing the collection of Alter youth, senses clearly alerting them to the true nature of even the most human-looking among them.

“You were right,” a Heretic announced as he drew his weapon, a spear with fire dancing around it. “It’s a nest. Another year or two and they would’ve spread out into the neighborhood.”

It was as far as he got before the eldest of the Alter children, a boy who looked to be about the equivalent of a human fourteen-year-old with dark red skin and scales, charged the Heretics with a scream of mixed rage, terror, and grief. He snatched up one of the nearby metal chairs, flinging it at the Heretic’s head in a desperate bid to at least gain their attention, their notice before they dispassionately snuffed out the life of him and his friends. .

The chair halted in mid-air, before melting into a pool of liquid metal that split apart into four separate floating bubbles which flew straight to each of the boy’s four limbs. The liquid metal bubbles formed themselves into shackles that wrapped around his wrists and ankles, yanking him to the floor where he fell. His bellow of rage and grief morphed to a cry of pain as he landed hard on his back, held there by the metal shackles that somehow fused solid with the cement floor at a casual gesture from the man he had been recklessly charging toward.

The remaining children tried to scatter or run to the aid of the first, but at a gesture from one man, all were caught by an inescapable, directed force of gravity that yanked them inexorably to the ground. They struggled futilely against the pull, unable to break free of the directed gravity.

“Deal with the rest,” the man with the spear ordered his two companions while flipping his weapon around. The fire built up around it before he drove the spear down at the boy’s throat.

An inch from its target, the spear halted in mid-air. Twin wispy tendrils of black smoke had snaked in to wrap around the shaft, holding still against the Heretic’s considerable strength.

“One of the brood!” the Heretic blurted, jerking at his staff with enough force to tear a car door free. It was a futile effort, as the tendrils easily held it still.  “We’ve got an umbrakinetic.” Which was odd, considering none of the Strangers they’d observed should have had any such power.

The other two Heretics picked up the pace, striding toward the children with their own weapons drawn. Before they had even crossed half the distance, however, the first man’s spear was torn out of his grasp by the wispy-looking tendrils. The weapon was flung across the room, passing the two rushing Heretics before a hand reached up to catch it by the shaft, easily snatching the spear out of midair. The hand, and the person it was attached to, stood between the Heretics and their prey, in a spot where they were all quite certain no one had stood an instant earlier.

Her form was shrouded, both in the dark hooded cloak that she wore as well as shadows themselves that seemed to instinctively draw closer to the figure. Twin glowing azure eyes remained her only visible distinctive feature as her black-gloved hand held the stolen spear.

The three men froze briefly, staring at the figure who failed to set off the sense that would tell them she was one of the vile Strangers. And yet, neither did she seem to be one of them.

“Your… intrusion is unnecessary, Gardener,” the man whose spear had been taken from him snapped after giving a quick check to ensure that the Stranger at his feet was still held. “We’re handling this infestation. Unless you want to cause an incident between our people, I suggest–”

“You are a fool.” The voice came sharply from the figure as she turned her head to him, shadows continuing to play over the front of her hooded face to hide it. “And I am no Heretic, Garden or otherwise. In all of my very long life, I have not suffered as many traumatic concussions as it would take to leave my mind damaged enough to believe the nonsense you cling to. The nonsense you use in order to hide from the truth, that you are the true monsters.”

Even as she finished speaking, the woman’s hood seemed to fall back of its own volition, the shadows removing themselves to reveal a face that was far paler than should have been natural, almost bone-white. Her hair as blue as her eyes, fell free and loose once out of the confines of the hood. A sense of power, almost like the gathering energy of an impending lightning strike, swirled around the strange woman as her gaze remained locked on the trio of Heretics.

One of the men, his rifle raised and pointing, gave a confused, uncertain, “Stranger?”

The man whose spear she held shook his head. “Impossible. Nothing non-human could hold a Heretic weapon for that long. The pain would leave them broken and screaming on the floor. She’s one of the Natural Heretics. Maybe one of Prosser’s brood.” To the figure, he snapped, “We aren’t here to play games with your kind. You don’t want to be part of our society, fine. Leave. Let us finish cleaning this place out before they find a way to escape.”

The pale, blue-haired woman straightened a little, her chin slowly rising. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear.” She brought the spear around to grasp with both hands while raising her foot. “The only chance you have of harming these children–” Her foot pressed against the spear for a moment before the weapon literally snapped in half and the pieces were tossed aside. “–is if any happen to be allergic to your blood or the dust of your bones as it fills this room.”

The Heretics’ surprise that the intruder would dare to interrupt and speak to them that way had found its match in their shock at her ability to simply snap one of their weapons as if it was nothing more than a particularly thick stick. For a moment, they simply stood there, as though frozen. Then the three moved, their actions coordinated and honed through decades of practice. Communicating with one another through their shared telepathic link, the three abandoned their attack on the helpless children to focus entirely on the intruder who had interrupted them while also alerting the other nine Heretics that they had arrived at the building with, those still spread throughout. Within seconds, all twelve were aware of the blue-haired woman’s presence.

Good. She wanted them to know. She wanted all of them to be aware of her. For once, it would be their turn to be afraid, to feel the terror of being hunted down and systematically eliminated.

She owed these children that much, for failing to arrive in time to spare their parents the fate that these Heretics had visited upon them. She owed them the certainty that the people who had murdered their families would never harm anyone else. Justice, she owed them justice.

The Heretic with the rifle took a shot at her. His weapon was essentially a fully-automatic machine gun with next-to-no kickback. There were two triggers for the weapon. One fired a single tracer with each shot. The tracer was a small, disc-like object about the size of a pinhead that automatically attached itself to whatever it struck. The tracers served two purposes. First, they sent a detailed scan of any target, biological or otherwise, that they were near back to the gun itself. A readout on the gun would provide a list of everything the scan determined.

The tracers’ other use had to do with the second trigger. When that trigger was pulled, the gun would begin to spray approximately eight hundred bullets per minute, with the Heretic love of magically putting large spaces into small objects allowing the gun to carry enough ammunition to fire for a full ten minutes straight without the need to restock or reload. And those bullets would follow the easiest unobstructed path toward the tracer itself, no matter what kind of cover the person it was attached to tried to hide themselves behind. They would simply go around anything in their way, to the best of their ability, bending around corners, dropping to avoid shields, and so on. It was all-but impossible to hide from the bullets once they had a lock on a tracer that had attached itself to you.

The intruder, however, had no desire to hide. As the tracer shot its way to her, she allowed it to strike home without moving a muscle. However, the instant that the regular bullets began to tear their way out of the gun’s barrel at the staggering rate of around thirteen per second, a simple thought instantly transported the tracer from herself to the pocket of the second Heretic. The man had already drawn his mace and was readying himself to back up his partner after the initial volley. He never saw the shots coming. And as good as the rifle-toting Heretic’s reflexes were, he still held the trigger down for a solid three seconds before realizing something was wrong. Three seconds of thirteen bullets meant that his partner was struck by nearly forty bullets almost directly in the back, when he’d had no idea there was even a threat there.

Tough as the man was, and he had been a Heretic for long enough to be very tough indeed, he couldn’t simply ignore something like that. The bullets punched through his back and out his front, leaving gaping holes in his dark suit while blood and more leaked through. His expression of shocked pain as he collapsed to the floor brought a slight smirk to the pale woman’s face.  

The man with the rifle was screaming at the sight. He vanished from where he had been, appearing in a kneeling position at his partner’s side while hurriedly working to stabilize him.

Meanwhile, the one whose spear she had taken threw himself fully into the offensive. Snatching a knife from his belt, he came at her with the blinding speed of a vampire. In the span of less than a second, he had crossed the room and performed six separate slashes with his blade.

Each and every one missed, whiffing through air while she barely seemed to move. Through little to no exertion on her part, the woman avoided each strike simply by twitching the appropriate part of herself the precise millimeters required to avoid being cut. No more, no less.

He threw more of himself into the attack, producing a second blade before going at her in a violent, half-crazed flurry of slashes and jabs that passed too quickly for the human eye to follow.  Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen separate attacks. And each was avoided with as little effort as possible. She turned and twisted, anticipating not just the next attack, but the next five, positioning herself perfectly with each motion. The man was bellowing and lashing out wildly. The woman… barely seemed to be paying attention.

Eventually, the Heretic conjured a forcefield around her, instantly filling it with a miniature tornado with winds of nearly three hundred miles per hour. The intention was to literally paste the walls of the forcefield with her blood as she was violently blown around within it, rebounding off the walls several times per second from winds powerful enough to pick up a car and hurl it.

She simply teleported outside of the forcefield, appearing directly behind the man. Extending both hands, she summoned the pieces of his broken spear to her before taking a knee in order to drive the broken ends of each spear piece behind herself and through the back of both of the man’s knees.

Releasing the spear pieces as the man screamed and collapsed, she rose in time to see the man with the rifle coming at her. He had turned his entire body into a substance that was harder than steel. Between that, his strength, and the fact that he was moving at near mach speed, the punch that he was bringing to bear as his arm came swinging around was powerful enough to blow through the side of an armored warship as if it was made of particularly thin paper.

His armored fist came to an abrupt halt roughly a foot from the woman’s face. Two of her fingers, index and middle, were pressed against his hand. She had caught his most powerful blow on two fingers. And now she stood there, smiling faintly at his disbelieving stare for a half-second before releasing the kinetic charge she had just absorbed into a blast that sent him flying end over end backwards to slam into the far wall like an insect smacking off the windshield of a car.

By that point, the man whose spear had been broken in half and driven through his knees had yanked the pieces out and was back on his feet. His healing was good enough to bring him up and around, arm morphing into fire that would have been hot enough to melt steel as he drove it at the woman’s back.

A thought allowed her to switch places with the man whose body had been torn apart by bullets. Between his own healing and the help from his companion, he would have survived. Would have. Except that as the woman switched places with him, the fire-engulfed fist of his other companion punched straight through his back and out the front. The empowered, supernaturally heated flames had turned most of the man’s body to ash by the time the first Heretic realized what he had done, a scream of horror passing his lips even as his aura flared up to announce the other man’s death.

She used the rush of unwanted pleasure that the man felt then as his body absorbed the powers from his companion in order to rise to her feet once more from the position she had ended in when she had switched places with the other Heretic. A flick of her hand summoned the two bloody halves of the man’s broken spear before a thought separated them further into a dozen smaller pieces that hovered there in the air between them for a second before the woman simply turned away from him. A dispassionate wave of her hand as she began to walk away sent the shards flying that way. Even as he came out of the pleasure brought on by the death of his friend, the man was pierced up and down his body by a dozen small shards of his own spear. Each only penetrated less than an inch into his body, nothing he couldn’t survive.

And then each of the empowered shards exploded, the collective energy blowing the man apart into chunks that painted the walls with his blood and the dust of his bones. Just as she had promised before the fight (such as it was) began.

Ignoring the rush of being filled with the man’s power and memories, as the golden glow of her own aura rose up, she focused on the surviving Heretic of the trio, the one with the gun who had been hurled back against the far wall. He had just managed to drag himself back to his feet. “H-how, how?” he demanded, his face a mixture of pain and confusion. “Gun… gun won’t… won’t shoot at another Heretic even with tracer. Safeguards.”

Lifting her chin, the pale woman smiled faintly. “Oh, the safeguards that prevent your rifle from shooting at one of your companions, no matter where the tracer ends up? I disabled them before you even saw me. A simple spell… there.” She nodded toward the butt of the rifle.

Despite himself, he looked. Right there, at the very back end of the gun, a small rune had been drawn. Somehow, the woman had walked right up to him and put the spell on his rifle that had allowed her to disable the safety measures that should have protected his companion.

Wait, that wasn’t the only spell that had been drawn on the butt of the–

“Jiwe,” the woman announced flatly, speaking the word that would empower the second spell she had drawn on the rifle. There was a brief flash of light, and when it faded, the man holding the weapon had been turned to stone. His petrified form stood there, encased in rock.

By that time, the remaining Heretics, all of whom had been cut out of their companions’ mental link since the moment the now-dead men had graciously informed them of her presence, had arrived. They came from the stairs, turned to smoke and poured down through the vents, or simply teleported into the room. Before long, all nine stood in a loose circle around the woman, the expressions on their faces showing the horror they felt at what they saw.

Beast!” one of the men bellowed, ripping his sword free of its place. “You’ll pay with yo–”

The woman was standing on the opposite side of the man from where she had been. The man’s own sword was in her hand, dripping blood. The same blood leaked from the man’s neck for a second before his head slid away and dropped to the floor, the rest of his body shortly following.

As her golden aura rose up briefly, there was a collective shout from the rest of the gathered force, all eight of them. One blurted, “Heretic!”

“Oh,” she replied in a low, dangerous voice. “I am as far from a Heretic as you are from humanity. I am Bastet. Come. Show me your vengeance and I will show you mine. We will compare their worth and see who is found wanting.”

Each of the remaining Heretics glanced to one another, readied their weapons and their power… and came at her.

The point had been made, and even together, the Heretics were no threat to her. And yet, Bastet allowed them to last almost twice as long as the three who had come before them. Allowed it so that the children they had so terrorized would at least see the deaths of their families murderers. She let it be dragged out longer than it had to be solely to provide those children with some measure of satisfaction.

But in the end, the outcome was inevitable. Each of the Heretics lay dead on the floor, or broken into too many pieces to rightfully be called a corpse. They were gone, all of them.

Finished, Bastet gave a simple flick of her hand, removing two protective forcefields she had placed over both the larger group of children and the boy who had been separated from the others at the start. Forcefields that had kept them from being harmed in the midst of that battle.

The tears of both gratitude and fear, the pleas for the status of their parents and families, and more had already begun. They were a cacophony that she could do almost nothing for. Nothing that she hadn’t already done. Comforting, encouraging, grieving, the half-Reaper known as Bastet could provide none of it.

But she did know where they could get it. Her hand rose, tossing a small red stone toward the nearest, oldest boy. “Gather the rest around, everyone touching. Hold the rock and say Ile. You’ll be taken somewhere safe. Somewhere away from here. There will be other Heretics coming. Leave.”

With that warning, the woman transported herself away. She didn’t go far, only to the roof of the apartment building. Beside her, the stone statue of the gun-toting Heretic had been brought along. And with a touch, Bastet returned him to normal.

He fell to his knees, collapsing with a cry of both terror and pain. Slowly, he breathed, lifting his head. “Not… not…”

“Dead?” she finished for him. “No. You’re no use to me dead.”

With that, she gestured, and the man was thrown onto his back. A thought made him sink almost fully into the roof as though it was made of water before only his head remained loose.

Before he could recover, she reached down, scrawling a rune on the man’s forehead with a red felt pen. The symbol  seemed to catch fire an instant later before burning itself into his skin as the man gave a scream of agony.

For twenty-four hours, he would be incapable of using any of his powers. Her magic had sealed them away from him. It meant that he would remain trapped where she put him long enough for his rescuers to arrive. Long enough for her point to be made.

Her eyes seemed to burn blue fire into the imprisoned man’s own gaze, his body trapped by the bricks of the roof. He was as bereft of thought as he was of words, staring wide-eyed that way.

She left him there without another word, left him to tell the story to the other Heretics when they came to find him. A single living witness, to tell the story, to inform the others that they were not the only hunters out there.

One survivor, to ensure that they knew that this had been done by a single woman. And that she was out there, watching them.

When she returned to the basement, the children were gone. They had used the transportation stone, fleeing to the safety she had promised them.

And yet, the basement wasn’t empty. A single, gray-green figure crouched there, examining some of the blood. Upon Bastet’s arrival, the Fomorian rose to his full height. “Were you… in time?”

“In time to save the children, Grandfather,” Bastet replied. “The rest…” She turned away, gaze dropping. “I felt them die. I can still taste it. But I got here too late.”

Together, the two shared a moment of silence for the dead. Then he stepped closer, his hand finding her shoulder. “You sent the children to him?”

She gave a slight nod. “They’ll be safer there than anywhere else. He’ll know how to care for them, and how to… teach them to cope with their loss. He’s better with… that.”

Grandfather began to respond, before abruptly bending to snatch up a rat that had come from the wall to investigate the scent of death. Holding the squeaking, squirming thing in one hand, the Fomorian examined it with delight. “Ooooh, hello, young man. I believe I knew your ancestor. Does your family hail from Italy, by chance?”

Turning slightly, he smiled absently at his companion. “Dear girl, have I ever told you why the animals of this planet so closely resemble living beings of other worlds? Why the Satyrs resemble goats, why the Rakshasa appear to be anthropomorphic cats, or why the delightful Jekern look quite similar to warthogs?”

“Only seventeen thousand times, Grandfather,” Bastet informed him dryly. But he was already launching into the lecture. A lecture she could recite along with him.

“My people were working on cloning beings of every world. Enormous tanks full of the DNA of every known creature. All the better to study them. Their DNA was broken, of course. They didn’t want to create real, sapient clones. They wanted test subjects, target practice.”

“And when you stole the first humans,” Bastet continued for him, “You took the test-DNA vats as well.”

His head was bobbing quickly, eagerly. “Couldn’t let my humans be lonely. Brought the test vats and fixed them myself, spread them over the world here and there. Let a few out at a time. Let them wander while finishing work on humans. Allowed them to mingle with the creatures that lived here already. Intermarried. Spread the genetics. Now indistinguishable from what was here before and what wasn’t.”

That was why so many Alter species resembled animals that were found on Earth, because the Earth animals themselves were descended from test-tube creatures that had originally been intended to look like those Alters. And the reason that humans gained no benefit from the mixing of their own blood and that of ordinary animals was that aforementioned ‘broken’ DNA. The test-creatures were never meant to be actual clones of the Alters they resembled. They were artificial, and so the human power to latch itself onto the DNA of other species would never manifest.

“Come, come,” Grandfather instructed while striding toward the stairs while tucking the rat into one of his pockets. “We’ll get ice cream and I’ll tell you the truth of where what the humans call were-creatures come from.”

“Oh, goodie,” Bastet muttered, trailing after him. “You’ve only told me that one nine thousand times.”

Of course, the elderly Fomorian wasn’t listening, and had already begun to excitedly repeat the story. And with barely a sigh as she settled her mind in to hear it all once more, Bastet followed. There were, after all, worse ways to spend her time.

And he had promised ice cream.

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Sharkhunt 23-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday (along with a special announcement about commissions and monthly rewards). If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Yeah, okay, we really all should’ve seen that coming, to be honest. Avalon had no reason to hold back anymore. After all, this was the guy who had literally killed her mother and then tried to kill her. He was one of the people directly responsible for destroying her family. Honestly, the fact that she’d waited long enough for him to get all the way through his story and give us the cure for Tangle was more surprising than her eventual (inevitable) attack should have been.

Still, despite all that, somehow I still felt surprised in that moment. As the glowing energy blade sliced straight through the shark-man, literally cutting his top half from the bottom, he let out a bellow of rage that filled the room, echoing off the walls almost painfully loud. His lower half, standing there unsupported, collapsed to the floor with a gross, meaty sound.

Things seemed to happen incredibly quickly at that point. There were three sudden, thunderous roars, each so close together they might as well have been one, accompanied by a loud snap-hiss and a bright, focused light that I only caught the slightest glimpse of as something blew right past me. The sounds were followed by three quick, loud clangs, an explosion of shattering glass, a heavy thud, a low humming that was matched almost immediately by a high-pitched whine similar a squealing tire, and finally a sound like tearing, crumpling metal.

Only belatedly, seeing things after the fact and taking it in, did I realize what had happened in what seemed to be about a quarter of a second. First, the three loud roars had been three different shotguns that had snapped out in three of the room’s corners as soon as Avalon drove her blade into Fahsteth. They had all somehow automatically opened fire on her.  

Meanwhile, the snap-hiss sound was a fourth weapon that had come to life. That one was a turret of some kind that had dropped out of the ceiling to shoot an actual laser at Avalon as well. All four defensive measures had centered on the other girl as their target and started shooting.

The thing that had rushed past me was Gabriel. He had interceded. The three quick, successive clangs had been the shotgun rounds impacting and rebounding off the head of his shovel (which looked just fine), and the exploding glass was the rebounding shotgun rounds taking out a couple of the windows simultaneously. After that, the thud had been Avalon hitting the floor as Gabriel yanked her out of the way of the incoming laser (and probably away from any further counter-attacks too). The humming sound was the small portal he had opened up on the floor where the laser struck, a portal that opened up directly in front of the laser turret itself. That was where the squealing tire-like sound had come from, as the turret literally lasered itself in half.

Finally, the tearing metal sound had been the shotguns being ripped from their housing by an invisible force, which then crumpled them all into little balls as if they were made of paper.

Yeah. In an unbelievably short time span, Gabriel had deflected three different shotgun blasts from three different angles, tossed Avalon out of the way, created a portal that made the laser turret destroy itself, and telekinetically tore the shotgun turrets out of their housing to destroy them. And it was nothing to him. Nothing at all. He had probably expended about as much effort to do all that as I spent on a single swing of my staff. And even that much was debatable.

Oh, and then there was the fact that Fahsteth wasn’t dead. And not only was he not dead, he hadn’t even fallen down. His bottom half had fallen, of course. But his top half hadn’t dropped.  Instead, while Gabriel had been protecting Avalon, a metal tentacle-like coil had already shot from the shark-man’s  innards, catching itself against the ground to support the figure while a plate of some kind extended to cover the rest of his exposed wound so he wouldn’t bleed out.

“S’kelstva!” Fahsteth bellowed a word that was clearly a curse of some kind. Probably an insult. As he spoke, a second metal tentacle extended itself from the plate covering his exposed lower torso, hitting the floor to steady him. “Think I’m that easy to kill?! Wouldn’t’ve lasted this long if some little kiver could take me out like that.” Despite his words, he still looked angry. Even if Avalon’s attack hadn’t killed him, it had hurt the bastard. And it had forced him to reveal that he was a… what, a cyborg? I still didn’t know what the hell that was all about.

Avalon, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what the guy was. She just wanted him dead, regardless. And she was already back on her feet and moving that way, her expression hard.

Maybe she could have beaten him, considering the damage she’d already done. We’d never know, because the one figure everyone had stopped paying attention to during all that suddenly made himself known again. The purple-skinned, red-haired teleporter abruptly appeared directly behind Fahsteth. Grabbing onto the shark-man (or the top half of him anyway), he blurted something that sounded almost like an apology at us. Then he, and the shark-man, vanished from sight with an audible pop of energy that set my hair standing on end once more.

“No!” Avalon was there, right where Fahsteth had been. Her foot kicked the ground where his metal… tentacle… thing had been holding him up even as the blade of her gauntlet cut through the nearby wall. She didn’t say anything else, though I see the litany of curses behind her eyes as she whirled back, looking at us with an expression that showed her frustration. That in itself, the fact that her emotions were that plainly visible, gave me some idea of how upset she was.

Shoving my staff into its slot at my belt, I moved that way. I didn’t exactly run to her because… well, Avalon. But I did go right up to the girl, biting my lip. “Are… you okay, Valley?”

Her mouth opened, and it looked like she was about to reflexively snap something. But she stopped herself, hesitating slightly before taking a visible breath “I’m fine,” she stated flatly, repeating it. “I’m fine. But he–he should be–I had him right–he was–what the hell?”

It was Gabriel who spoke up. “Fahsteth is dangerous all on his own. But he’s much more dangerous because of the people he’s worked for. He doesn’t just take money for jobs, he takes enhancements, things that make him stronger or better. Unique weapons in some cases, or special magic, or, well… you saw the result of one of his jobs. Cybernetic enhancements that keep him alive long enough for his regeneration to kick in. I’m pretty sure he’s lost more body parts than the entire Star Wars saga put together by this point. Took a couple off him myself.”

Avalon’s voice was hard, her emotions clearly getting to her. “So he’s going to survive that.”

“Unfortunately,” Gabriel confirmed with a slight nod. “Which means you need to be careful. Because now he’ll know not to underestimate you. And you’ve hurt him, which he tends to take a bit personally.” Gaze softening, he added, “The point is, be careful out there. He’ll be back.”

“Next time I’ll finish the job,” the other girl promised, only belatedly blushing a little from getting the direct attention and focus of her childhood hero. She glanced away, looking back to the floor.

Biting my lip, I stepped over to examine the remains of one of the shotgun-turrets that had been ripped out of the wall and crushed. I didn’t know anything about what I was looking at, of course. But it gave me something to do other than grabbing onto Avalon, a display I knew she wouldn’t appreciate right then. Instead, I picked up the metal remains before looking back at Gabriel. “I guess he had these things set to interfere if he was attacked? But why didn’t they shoot at me?”

“You mean when you came in the room?” Gabriel shrugged. “My guess is that he had them set to react to direct aggression or an attack against him. Did you actually hit him directly?”

I thought about it before shaking my head. “I blasted that purple guy away from him… then Fahsteth came after me. I dove away from him… and held the purple guy hostage.”

“That could be it,” the man mused. “Or he might have disabled them from targeting you because of what he said about Fossor’s claim. It doesn’t sound like he was willing to risk annoying the man. Either way, they only popped on when Avalon became a direct threat.”

“I’ll show him a ‘direct threat’,” the other girl muttered darkly, arms folded over her stomach.

Belatedly, I remembered the much more important subject, suddenly spinning back that way as my eyes widened. “Oh my God! The cure, the one for Tangle! Do we–do you still have–”

“Right here.” Avalon’s hand came up with the vial of blue liquid. “Funny how he just happened to have it on him, ready to go.” Frowning, she squinted at it. “I’d say it was fake, but that stone…”

“He couldn’t have lied with the stone in his hand,” Gabriel confirmed. “Which means that really is a cure for what he did to your teacher.”

“Right, and for the record,” I informed the man, “that truth stone is probably my second favorite rock in the world right now.” Magic truth-revealing powers were great and useful, but they’d never beat Herbie.

Smiling faintly, Gabriel continued. “My guess is that he had it ready to go for a situation like the one he was just in, a bargaining chip to get himself out of trouble if need be. He’s a survivor.”

Avalon muttered something about not surviving the next time before looking back to me. “We’ve got more than the cure. We also know she’s innocent. And so was–” Stopping her face fell a bit.

“… Torv,” I finished for her, flinching. “Valley, I’m so sorry about your friend. I’m sorry you–”

“They’ll pay for it,” she interrupted, voice hard. “They’ll all pay for it. Every last one of them.”  

Straightening, I swallowed before murmuring, “At least we know a lot more than we did before all this.” Looking over to the other girl, I went on. “Not just that Torv and Tangle were innocent, but we also know why the Seosten want into that vault so bad. A spell to make every Heretic immune to them? That’d screw up their entire… everything. It’d completely fuck them over.”

“We also know the names of the other three Seosten besides Manakel,” she pointed out. “Charmeine, Paschar, and Lies. Charmeine must be the one that you saw at the beach.”

I nodded then. “Sounds right. Four of them. It could be worse. But then, I guess they can still do plenty of damage even with only a couple at each school, when we don’t know who they are.”

“And there are definitely more of them around,” Gabriel pointed out mildly. “These four will just be the ones involved in this particular mission. They’ll be the ones that are connected to each other, so if you attack one of them before you know where and who the other three are…”

“The others will know about it,” I finished, grimacing. “We either have to get all of them at once, or be prepared for some kind of retaliation if we can only get one of them. But if we can get that collar off of Pace, we’ll know–wait, wait a second.” I paused, frowning to myself thoughtfully.

Avalon looked at me then, squinting a little as I continued to remain silent. “What is it?”

Slowly, I looked up again. “The choker that Pace is using, we already know it can identify Seosten. What do you think the odds are of them allowing something like that to be used by someone that isn’t already under their control? Even if they were really allies. And as… uhh, let’s call it unstable as Pace has been, does she really seem like the kind of person the Seosten would leave with something that could identify them that easily? Hell, when they found out that we were trying to set up a meeting with one of their allies, they went straight to trying to kill him, a guy they’d been working with for like… at least twenty years, off and on. Knowing all that, do you really think they’d let Pace have that choker if she wasn’t already–”

“Already possessed,” Avalon finished for me, lifting her head with a thoughtful look. “I suppose that would make sense. But why does she act like–uh, why doesn’t she blend in more?”

“Has she always been erratic?” I asked then. “Or is this new behavior?”

The other girl shrugged helplessly. “She was older than me and not in my tribe, so I didn’t really know her until all this started happening. Torv mentioned her a couple times. I think he had a crush. That was before…” She hesitated, face falling a bit as her shoulders slumped. “Before.”

Flinching, I reached out to put a hand on her arm. “They’ll pay for what they did, what they’ve been doing.  I promise. They’re already panicking because of what we know. We’ll get there.”

Taking a breath and letting it out, I added, “The point is, Pace is probably one of the possessed people. It just makes too much sense for her not to be. That’s the only reason they’d let her keep something that could identify them. Plus, you know, they went to all the trouble of stealing it out of Litonya’s vault. The only reason I could see for doing that would be to let–hold on…”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow, looking at me curiously. “Something just occurred to you?”

I nodded. “If the Seosten went through all the trouble of stealing something like that out of the vault just to make sure the Committee didn’t have it, that would be one thing. But they stole it specifically for Pace to use. Why? I was thinking that they gave it to her so that she could keep being a host body for them after she was turned into a werewolf. But that only makes sense if-”

Avalon interrupted once more. “If the Seosten that’s possessing her can’t let her go, because she’s the one that’s crippled, Lies. The one that Fahsteth said couldn’t stop possessing someone until they died. But she’s also a werewolf, so they stole the choker because it was the easiest way to keep their host without killing her and let Lies continue to be in on things. Plus, having Pace right there with Trice and Doxer must’ve made it a lot easier to manipulate them. Only… now we have Trice, and Doxer’s dead. So what good is the Pace body to them?”

My head shook. “I’m not sure. We’re probably missing something. Either way, I think all that fits. Pace must be possessed, and she’s probably possessed by the one that can’t let her go. But we still don’t know who any of the others are yet. And–” Abruptly, I coughed. “Wait, wait, wait. Shiori and Seth. We should really check on Shiori and Seth.”

“They’re fine,” Gabriel informed me. “Already finished dealing with the Alters that were brought over by the teleport-misfire and are waiting for us in the parking lot, if you’re ready to join them.”

I nodded, half-expecting the legendary Heretic to teleport us straight to the lot or something. Instead, he simply turned and walked to the circular hole that had been made in the metal wall. A flick of his hand literally erased enough of the metal to leave a doorway-shaped hole in it, which he moved through while continuing out to walk to the stairs. Which I really should’ve seen coming, considering everything I’d witnessed already.

Before following after the man, I reached out to catch Avalon’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to kill the bastard yet,” I murmured while watching her expression.

She bit her lip, hesitating a little before looking at me. “You’re not upset that I went after him even though we promised not to hurt him? It wasn’t  very… heroic. I just wanted him dead.”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Trust me, Valley, I get it. I do. If I had a chance to take a free swing at Fossor, I… I’d probably do the same thing. And it’s not like you could’ve warned us ahead of time. You took the shot you had right in front of you. Now he’s pissed off, but… but we’ll deal with that, okay? All of us. We still got a lot out of him. We’ve just gotta use it right.”

“Use it right…” Avalon echoed my words before giving a slight nod. “Yeah, we will.” Her gaze went back to me then. “Now let’s go check up on your other girlfriend.”

“Wha–that’s not–I didn’t–I mean she–that–” My face was pink, which only got worse as I saw the smirk on her face. “You did that on purpose.”

“What, made you blush just to make myself feel better because of how cute it makes you look?” Valley breezily replied before brushing it off with a calculated flick of her hair. “Nah.”

She started out then, forcing me to sputter a few more times before I hurried to catch up.

******

“Wait, so we can just wake up Tangle?” Shiori asked a few minutes later, once we had joined her and Seth. “You think she’ll know who the other Seosten is–oh. Right, even if she does remember, he’s probably switched bodies by now.”

“And that’s a big ‘if’,” I replied. “Considering their love of memory spells, I wouldn’t count on it. But still, she might remember something we can use. And we do know that whoever Manakel’s been possessing, it’s an adult at Crossroads. That’s something.”

“What about that Grandfather guy?” Shiori asked. “The one that taught Bosch’s daughter how to make the immunity spell to begin with. Who is he? Where’d he come from? Where is he now? How does he know how to do all that? Is he a rogue Seosten like Vanessa and Tristan’s mom?”

Avalon shrugged. “We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. That’s all Fahsteth told us. She called him Grandfather and he was the one who helped her make her family immune to Seosten possession. That’s it, that’s all we know about him.”

“For now,” I added. “Maybe he’ll come up again. But the point is, we can wake up Tangle. We… should talk to Gaia about it, find out the best way to do it… you know, secretly. Because if the Seosten think that we can wake up Tangle and talk to her, they’ll kill her. We have to do it the right way.”

Seth cleared his throat. “Right, if Nancy, Bess, and George are all gonna keep kicking at the tires of this case, I’m gonna take off. Got my own stuff to do. Just got the entire series of both The Munsters and The Addams Family on DVD and I’m gonna alternate off every episode just to decide once and for all which one’s better. So, like I said, you got your stuff, I got mine.”

“I don’t have the rest of the money on me,” I informed him. “Gaia’ll have to get the thirty grand to you.”

“I’m sure she’s good for it,” he replied lazily, spinning on a heel. “Catch you later, Zipper and friends.” The vampire strode off then, humming the theme song from The Addams Family without an apparent care in the world.

Shaking that off after a second, I coughed. “Okay, well… besides waking up Tangle, I think we know what we’re doing. First we get that choker, we use it to find out who they’re possessing and kick them out, then when we’re sure there’s no other problems, we’ll get into that vault.”

Shiori hesitantly spoke up then. “Do you think we should go for the vault straight off? I mean, if there’s really a way to stop the Seosten from possessing Heretics in there…”

Before I could respond, Avalon shook her head. “Not until we have a way to identify the ones that we’re already dealing with. We have to make sure everyone we take near the vault, everyone who has anything to do with opening it, are clear. And if we go there, the Committee’s gonna know about it. Which means we’ll only get one shot. If we open it up and the Seosten find out too soon… they’ll be there in force, probably Committee-level force.”

I nodded .”She’s right. We get the small-scale stuff, find the choker and use it and the anti-possession spell to get the spy out of our friends. Once it’s clear, then we’ll worry about the vault.”

“It sounds like you have a plan,” Gabriel put in then. I had a feeling that he’d been deliberately staying out of the conversation as much as possible to let us handle it. “I’ll keep teaching you the spell until it’s time to use it, but you should also practice on your own. Just make sure none of the others see you doing it. They’ll definitely recognize the spell for what it is.”

“We’ll be careful,” I promised, before my head fell back. “I guess that means we’re done here. Which means we’ve gotta get back before those Committee representatives tear the whole school apart looking for me.”

Yeah, I was going to have to talk to those guys and pretend to be surprised and terrified about my dad disappearing. I was going to have to sell it to them until they were satisfied. And after that, I had to talk to Dad himself and find out just what the hell had actually happened, how he had found out everything. I had… well, a lot of stuff to talk to him about.

Staying up all night, learning a spell from a literal living legend, fighting our way up to have a confrontation with an ancient mercenary shark-man, being interrogated by some investigators from the Committee, and then talking to my dad about all the secrets I’d been keeping all year? One thing was for sure…

If I hadn’t inherited the stamina boost from that Amarok, I would’ve died of exhaustion weeks ago.

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Mini-Interlude 30 – Seth and Shiori

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Seth and Shiori during the events of the current chapters, while Flick, Avalon, and Gabriel are upstairs dealing with Fahsteth. 

Also, please note that there is an important message about donations, the Patreon, and bonus chapters in general in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter. Please take a moment to check that comment if you have any interest in such things. Thank you. 

The thing looked like it was made of bones and a few patches of rotting skin and exposed muscles. Its front half was shaped roughly similar to a crocodile (or at least the skeleton of one), while the back half was more like a kangaroo. It was that back half where most of the muscles were, muscles that allowed the thing to leap tremendous distances before snapping its impressive jaws (where the remaining muscles were) shut on its prey.

That prey, in this particular case, was Shiori Porter. The young hybrid dhampyr-Heretic was just spinning away from her most recent opponent to see the collection of bones and rotting flesh lunge at her when Seth’s hand caught the thing by the neck bone just behind its head. Those powerful jaws slammed shut a few inches from the girl’s face before he yanked the thing back. Pivoting, the three hundred-year-old vampire slammed the captured skeleton-croc into the nearby wall with enough force to punch its body through the wall before yanking it back out. Briefly stunned as it was, the thing didn’t move as Seth dropped it on the ground, bringing his foot down hard enough on the point where its head connected to its body to almost separate the two.

It lay there, paralyzed from the damage to its spine, feebly snapping its jaws a few times while Seth turned to the girl with a gesture. “Finish it,” he instructed while glancing toward the other creatures visible through the glass door in the motel lot. Whatever those kids had been doing up with Fahsteth, it had apparently resulted in summoning a handful of Alter-animals from other worlds. But since the creatures weren’t being controlled or directed at all, they were mostly just fighting one another (or, in the current case, circling and snarling at each other while clearly utterly confused about where they were and how they’d ended up there). They were, in the end, just animals that had been yanked away from their homes and dumped into a strange land.

Shiori, meanwhile, just blinked at him. “Uh, wait, why do you want me to–”

Keeping his foot on the thing’s neck, Seth replied simply, “Because the only thing I get from killing these creepy things is a sense of personal satisfaction, kid. But you actually get stronger from doing it. So finish it off and we’ll go deal with the rest of those things before they spread out and start attacking people.”   

She gave him a brief look at that, while he simply glanced away to keep an eye on the things in the lot. So far, they were too busy having a collective pissing match with each other to worry about moving out into the streets and eventual houses beyond the motel. But that wouldn’t last forever.

Thankfully, the kid didn’t take long to snap out of her surprise. From the corner of his eye, he saw her take one of her spinning disks. Charging it up with enough electricity to take down a decent sized bull moose, she waited for him to lift his foot off the thing’s neck before shoving the disc right up to its head. There was a brief screech from the skeleton-croc before it went still for good.

Meanwhile, Shiori herself seized up a bit, giving a familiar gasp of pleasure that brought to mind other, far less pleasant encounters with Heretics. Seth had had plenty over the centuries, and far too many of them ended with him taking advantage of one of the Heretic-fucks being briefly indisposed as they reacted to the sudden wave of pleasure they got from killing one of his friends. Or at least one of his acquaintances or allies. Either way, the memories weren’t fun.

Thankfully, a distraction came in the form of one of the Alters that had wandered away from the others far enough to spot the two of them. It was a Cù-Sith, a massive, wolf-like hound the size of a bull. Seth had only seen a couple before, and they were always a pain in the ass because of the–

The thing gave an astoundingly loud bark that shattered the glass of the doors as well as a couple of the nearby windows. It was a focused sound, like the sort used by the banshees. But more than that, the bark had a debilitating mental effect that was magnified with each subsequent iteration that came in short succession. By the time of the third such bark, most normal humans who were subjected to it were left dead on the floor, bleeding from their ears and eyes as their brains were literally liquified.

For those with enhanced hearing like a vampire, it only took two to put them on the ground. It wouldn’t kill them (they were a lot harder to kill than that), but it would take a long time to recover. Too long. And frankly, he didn’t feel like dealing with that again.

To that end, as the giant wolf-dog geared up for another devastating bark, Seth blurred his way through the now-empty doorway where the glass had been.

Vampiric speed was far more like a cheetah than a horse. Vampires were sprinters, not marathon runners. They could run at incredible, blinding speed, but only for a relatively short distance before they needed to take a breath and recover. In this case, however, he only had to travel about eight feet, from the doorway of the motel to the front of the parking lot. There, his foot found one of the concrete bumpers set at the front of each parking spot. The resulting kick sent the heavy concrete block spinning up through the air to smack into the face of the hound an instant before it would have barked. Instead of making that terrible, devastating noise, the thing reared back with a yelp.

The concrete block was rebounding off after smacking the dog in the snout. Before it could finish falling, however, Seth had already recovered enough to blur his way forward once more. He caught the end of it, then used both its momentum and his own to spin in a quick circle before slamming the block into the side of the Cù-Sith’s head.

It collapsed, giving a pitiful little moan before starting to pick itself up. Or at least, it did before he took the time to break both of its front legs with a couple of well-placed kicks.

“Got another one,” he informed Shiori then, since she was focused once more. “Take it.”

That time, the kid didn’t argue or hesitate that much. She put the big hound out of its misery before giving another little gasp, eyes fluttering as that Heretic death-pleasure worked its way through her.

“You good, Zipper?” he asked flatly once she had recovered.

“Flick and Avalon–” the girl started with a worried look behind them, back to the stairs.

“–are just fine,” he finished for her. “Believe me. Gabriel went in there. They’ll be good. But we gotta get out there.” He nodded to the animals in the lot. “Because those things out there aren’t gonna keep each other busy for long.”

That at least convinced Shiori to start with him the lot, toward the other animals. But she hesitated partway there, her voice quiet. “I’m-umm–”

“Surprised I care if the things go slaughter a few humans?” Seth finished for her, a slight smirk on his face.

She flinched at that. “I didn’t mean it that way. But umm… I mean, the way Senny talks–”

“Senny and I have different priorities,” he confirmed. “She’d go out there and risk her life to fight those things just because she saw it as the right thing to do. For me, it’s pragmatic. First, if those humans were killed, it’d make you feel bad. And while I could give a toss if a couple humans bite it, cuz fuck knows there’s enough of them, I do care about how you feel.

“And second, if those things get out and start doing enough damage, it’ll attract Heretic attention. Get enough Heretics out here and they might find something to draw them to you. I don’t want that.”

For a moment, Shiori said nothing. She just looked at him, mouth open. “You–but–you don’t even know me.”

In response, Seth winked, his voice as casual as ever. “Don’t have to. Like I said before, Zippy, you’re family. Tiras was like a dad to me for a long time. Or a brother. Whatever. It all kinda blends together after awhile. He was my sire, my teacher, my world. It was him and me for a couple years, then Jiao. About twelve years after that, your big sis came along. Family.”

“I thought you were just messing with us,” the girl admitted quietly, biting her lip as she stared at him. “I mean, about seeing me as a sister or a niece or whatever.”

“Fair,” he admitted. “I mess with a lot of people. It’s a lot more fun than piloting through the rivers of this long fucking life by using the stick up your ass like a rudder.”

He paused then before reaching out, using two fingers to brush the much younger girl’s hair up away from her eyes. “Zipper, you got a lot of choices in this life. I ain’t gonna tell you what to do about your morality, what hills you choose to live and die on. That’s up to you. I got my morality, my choices, my things I care about. I ain’t gonna apologize for any of it, and neither should you. But what I will tell you, is that this shit can get awfully lonely. Seeing people live and die, live and die, live and die, it gets old right along with you. So if you find people, anybody that you think you could get along with… you hold onto ‘em. Even if you almost never see ‘em… even if they don’t see you the way you see them… you do what you can to keep them safe, to keep them alive. Because people you care about can be like lighthouses in the dark, stormy gods damned ocean of this severely fucked up world. They keep you honest, and they keep your ship off those rocks. They can give you direction, even if they never really see you.

“So you ask, do I really give a shit about you? Yeah, Zip, I do. That ain’t a joke. You can feel about me and my choices however you want. I’ll keep paddling along in the dark. But you shine enough, and I’ll stay off the rocks.”

For a moment, Shiori said nothing. Finally, she managed, “You’re different than Asenath said.”

He smiled faintly at that. “I suspect I am. But that’s family for you.” He nodded to the lot then. “So you wanna play hero and see what kind of powers we can rack up for you, or what?”

She bit her lip then, glancing that way. “I feel bad about it. They didn’t ask to come here.”

“True,” he replied. “But you let ‘em wander around out there and they’ll do a lot more damage. Think of it as like when those animal services people put down a bear that starts wandering into people’s homes. It’s for the best.”

He didn’t add that if he had his way, the girl would kill every last Alter she needed to in order to be able to survive the kind of shit she was getting herself into. It probably wouldn’t go over well. Let her focus on the poetic shit.

Finally, Shiori nodded. “Okay. Okay. But can I ask you one question? Why do you call me Zipper?”

The question made him grin. “Wondered how long it’d take you to ask. Why? Simple, Zip. I was born in the seventeen hundreds. Zippers, well they didn’t really get to be a big thing until the 1920’s. Just something I never thought about, but now… well, I can’t imagine being without ‘em. Little, tiny thing that doesn’t seem like it should be important, like, at all. But it makes life a lot better than it was. That’s why you’re Zipper, kid.

“Now let’s go kill this shit, cuz I need a drink.”  

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Sharkhunt 23-06

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I was under absolutely no delusions. As much as I had improved over the past few months, there were plenty of people who were completely out of my league when it came to a straight fight. And from everything I had ever heard, the shark-toothed man in front of me was solidly in that camp. If we were to fight seriously, he’d probably kill me inside of a few seconds flat.

No, fighting Fahsteth was a bad, bad idea. And from the look on the man’s face, he was just as aware of it as I was. His humorless, toothy smile had grown as he sized me up for a moment.

Holding the staff out in front of me, I breathed out. The power that allowed me to sense objects near me was able to reach as far as the wall that I had come through, and through it I could tell just how much of the metal had been turned to wood. The answer was… not nearly enough. It was going to take Avalon longer to convert enough of it to break through than it would take this guy to take me apart and use a piece of one of my bones as a toothpick. I had to stall.

“Look,” I started, keeping my staff up between us just in case. “We’re not here to fight you. We want information, that’s all. Information you should be okay with giving us since the people we want you to tell us about are the reason you’re trying to get the hell off the planet right now.”

Annoyed as he obviously was, Fahsteth still gave a dark chuckle at that. “Ain’t here to fight, huh? Doubt your friend feels the same. Speaking of–” In mid-sentence, the man produced a knife from seemingly nowhere. I tensed, readying myself. But instead of attacking, he gave a casual swipe toward the wall where Avalon was working on coming through. I could see a line of wood starting to appear in the outline of a larger circle. Once it was done, she’d be able to just pop that bit of wood out and make the larger metal circle inside fall in to make a hole.

Or she would have. Except that with a wave of that knife, a brand new, slightly thicker metal wall appeared over top of the one that was already there. The knife was like Sands’s construction mace, summoning walls and other shapes out of nowhere. Now it was going to take Avalon even longer to get through. If he didn’t just keep summoning new walls every time she got close.

Yeah, having that used against us really sucked.

Fahsteth pointed that knife at me, smirking. “There we go. Now… you’re brave, kid. I’ll give you that much. But brave ain’t gonna stop me from making you wish you never stepped into this room. The big, bad necromancer might have staked his claim on you, but I ain’t gotta kill ya to teach you a lesson you ain’t never gonna forget. That healing you got–” He smiled once more, cracking his neck audibly. “That’ll get you up and moving again after a lot of damage.”  

Fossor? Fossor had staked a claim on me? I bristled reflexively. It wasn’t really surprising, but still. The thought that he had put out the word not to kill me because he wanted me was… ugh.

On the plus side, if we did get this guy to talk, maybe he could tell me something about Fossor himself. Since they were apparently at least close enough to have conversations about how Fahsteth wasn’t allowed to kill me, there might be something else there. Long shot, but still.

And speaking of long shots, I had one chance to get what we needed out of this guy without letting him tear me into as many pieces as he thought could survive the experience. But I needed him to make the first move. I had to make him come after me, and then pray a bit.

To that end, I lowered the staff just a little bit. It was fractional, and I tried to make it look like an accidental opening, as if I was just a little more amateurish than he already thought I was.

If Fahsteth had been in slightly less of a hurry, or had just a little more time to think about it, I doubt it would have worked. But as it was, he had the Seosten to worry about, along with not just Avalon on the other side of the wall, but Seth and Gabriel as well. So he took the bait.

Without the inherited werewolf reflexes, I wouldn’t have had time to blink, let alone actually react as the shark-man crossed the distance between us. He was so fast, so unbelievably quick despite his large form. It was like he had been fired straight out of a cannon, going from standing still to nearly on top of me in the blink of an eye. Both of his hands lashed out, one clearly intent on snatching my staff out of my grasp while the other grabbed for my arm.

Yeah, fighting this guy was out of the question. Completely out of the question. If I’d had any doubt about that before, seeing how fast he was right then knocked the last of it away. I had to be smart, not strong. To that end, I threw myself into a desperate roll to the side and down while simultaneously releasing what small amount of charge my staff had managed to build up. The blast wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me just enough of a boost that I barely avoided Fahsteth’s grasping hands. I could literally feel his fingers brushing over my clothes as I dove.

Hitting the floor of the room, I rolled forward. Behind me, I could hear the shark-man recovering. He was twisting around, clearly about to be right on my heels (if he didn’t just go ahead and rip my heels right off), a grunt of annoyance filling the room. He was right there. I wouldn’t be able to dodge again. Going under his reach like that had been a one-time thing, almost a miracle.

Thankfully, once was all I needed. Because fighting him was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I continued my roll until I had my feet under me again. As soon as they were down, I shoved myself up and forward into a second dive. That one carried me to the far wall, where I came up onto one knee while spinning around. Fahsteth had already crossed half the distance between us once more, a snarl on his lips that showed even more of those impressive teeth of his.

An instant before the merciless mercenary would have been on me, with no chance of me managing to escape again, I brought my staff down while blurting loudly, “Stop!”

Yeah, in almost any other case, my telling a guy like Fahsteth to stop would’ve accomplished about as much as standing in front of an oncoming train. But in this particular case, the man skidded to a halt. Not because of what I’d said, but because of where my staff was: directly against the throat of the unconscious, purple-skinned figure that my earlier blast had knocked against the wall.The blade of the transformed staff was barely a centimeter from his throat.

“Yeah,” I managed while holding the blade right where it was. “You move, you lose your ride off-planet. And call me crazy, but I get the impression you don’t wanna wait to find another one.”

“Kid,” the shark-man snarled, “if you don’t step away from him right this second, I’m gonna forget about what Fossor said. And trust me, just cuz I kill ya doesn’t mean I can’t make it hurt.”

My mouth opened to say something then, but in the background, there was a clang of metal. I had successfully distracted Fahsteth enough that he hadn’t noticed how close Avalon was to breaking through. Now, she kicked in the circle of metal that she had cut out, and it crashed to the floor loudly even as Avalon herself dove into the room. She came up, arms raised defensively only to stop short at the sight. “Chambers,” she spoke through gritted teeth. “Okay?”

“Oh yeah,” I replied a bit tersely, not letting the blade move a millimeter from where it was. “We’re fine. Fahsteth and me were just having a nice, polite conversation here, aren’t we?”

Inclining his head a little, the shark-mercenary made a noise that sounded like a growl deep in his throat. “You kill my ride, little girl, and I’ll make sure both of you kids die screaming.”  

“Answer our questions and you can leave,” I retorted. “Just tell us what we wanna know and we’ll back out of here. You can take your lift off-world and everything’ll be hunky dory. I would suggest you hurry though, since your former employers seem pretty eager to shut you up.”

Keeping her guard up, Avalon glared at the shark-man. I could tell that she really wanted to go after him. Actually, I wondered briefly if the difference in how our Heretic senses worked would affect that. I’d heard from both her and Miranda that while the Crossroads sense was  a warning of danger, for Eden’s Garden-created Heretics, the feeling was closer to a thrill of the hunt.

“Chambers is right,” she said through gritted teeth. “Seems like they want you really dead.”

Inclining his head a little, Fahsteth gave the other girl a look. “Not as dead as they want you, Princess. Maybe if you end up face down in the gutter, they’ll just let bygones be bygones.”

“You could try,” I quickly put in. “But I don’t think you will. One, like you said, they want her dead and I doubt you really want to make them happy right when they’re trying to kill you. And second, you’re trying to disappear right now. You know as well as we do that if you kill Avalon, you’re gonna trigger the spell that’ll mark you. Kinda hard to disappear if you’ve got a big, bright beacon that Gaia can follow straight to you. Cuz believe me, you kill Avalon and Gaia will never let you go. You say you’ll make us scream? I’m pretty sure she can do a hell of a lot worse.”

He knew I was telling the truth. That was the whole reason they hadn’t been able to just kill Avalon and be done with it, after all. Anyone that directly killed her would set off Wyatt’s spell. According to the man himself, it would even mark a Seosten possessing someone to do it. So they couldn’t just jump into a random person, kill her, then jump out again. The tracking spell would follow them no matter where they went, and no matter who they jumped in and out of.

Still, the question was whether he was stubborn enough to ignore that fact. His eyes darted back to Avalon, then to me. He was obviously frustrated at the position that we had put him in, and I had no doubt that given any excuse, he really would have killed us both without blinking.

But in the end, the man just let out a soft, annoyed sigh. “Right, fine. I’ll answer a couple of your questions. That’s it. And when it’s done, you let me get the hell off this planet, you got it?”

“That sounds agreeable to me, yes.”

The voice came not from Avalon or me, but from the corner of the room where Gabriel was abruptly standing. The head of his shovel was stained with blood, as were the front of his clothes. Other than that, he gave pretty much no sign that he had been in any kind of fight.

“How did you–” I started before my head shook. “I thought this place was warded.”

“It is,” the man confirmed as he started across the room to me. To my amusement in spite of myself, Fahsteth took a step back as Gabriel simply walked past him. He reached out to me, fingers dipping deftly into my jacket pocket before he pulled out a small colored marble. “But you didn’t really think I’d send you in here without having a way to keep tabs on you, did you?”

Oh. Well, apparently he’d stuck something on me that let him keep track of what was going on around me despite the scrying wards and teleport straight to me. That seemed… well, useful. Still, I had to ask, “Are Seth and Shiori–”

“They’re all right,” the man confirmed. “Your little friend there,” he gestured to the unconscious teleporter at my feet, “was summoning an awful lot of power. When you knocked him out, it expended itself by summoning a few nasties out there. Nothing too terrible. They’re just wiping it up and then keeping an eye out for any more… interruptions.” He looked toward Fahsteth then. “Which will be coming, so we should finish up here. And it sounded to me like you were just agreeing to tell the girls what they want to know.”

“Yeah,” the shark-man grunted. “Long as they’re quick about it, and–” He paused, giving Gabriel a hard look. “If you think you can just kill me to take what I know, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Nodding affably, Gabriel replied, “Oh, I know. I already told the girls that the same thing you and, well, people like you use to block your thoughts from being read by someone with telepathic abilities also stops someone like me from absorbing your memories upon your death. Believe me, I appreciate the effort. The last thing I want are the thoughts and memories of someone like you swimming around in my head. Still,” he added, “we do need to be sure that you’re telling the truth. So…”  Gabriel dipped his other hand into his pocket and came out with a small red-hued stone before holding it out to the other man. “Why don’t you hold onto this while we’re all talking here.” Glancing over his shoulder at Avalon and me, he explained, “Truth-stone. As long as the person holding it is telling the truth, it stays cool. But if he lies, it burns and glows. Not a very fun experience.” To Fahsteth, he added, “Just to keep you honest.”

If possible, the mercenary looked even more annoyed. His hand snatched the stone and he held it up while squinting at us. “Ask your damn questions, and be quick about it or the deal’s off.”  

Before I could say anything, Avalon quickly put in, “My mother. Were you the one responsible for killing her?”

His smirk only grew. “Wasn’t my idea, but sure. I was the one that… let’s say I did the deed. Pretty nice work if I do say so myself. Always been good at poisoning people, but making it look like an accident in childbirth? That was something special.” He gave a lamenting sigh then. “Too bad you survived the experience, or it would’ve been the perfect job.”

Avalon started to take a step at him then, muscles tensed until I quickly put a hand out to catch her arm. The other hand I used to keep the blade close to the unconscious teleporter’s neck, just in case. “Fine,” I put in. “Let’s go with the big one then. Who killed Zedekiah Pericles?”

Fahsteth chuckled at the question. “Can tell you who was responsible for it, not who did it.” Before I could question that, he continued. “The one responsible for it was a Seosten called Manakel. But you know, all that possession shit, I dunno who he’s riding around in over there.”

Fuck. He couldn’t tell us who the Seosten was possessing. And we already knew the name Manakel from before. “There’s more than one Seosten behind this. How many are there and what are their names?”

The mercenary shook his head, eyes rolling. “Best I can tell you is that I know of four. Two of ‘em at your little school, two of ‘em at the other place. Names, already told you Manakel. The other one at your place is called Charmeine. Then there’s Paschar at Eden’s Garden, and Lies.”

“Lies?” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Wait, the Seosten are named Manakel, Charmeine, Paschar, and… Lies? That doesn’t really fit the theme.”

“Cuz it ain’t her name,” he retorted. “Just the closest thing to a name she’s got. She’s a crippled Seosten. Means once she possesses someone, she can’t get the fuck out of ‘em unless they die. Plus she gets a little too close, if you know what I mean. Most Seosten, they can shut out anything their host feels. Like playing one of those video games you kids like so much. You don’t actually feel what the guy you’re playing as does. But Lies, she does. She feels it. She’s locked in there.” Shrugging, he added, “Or so I hear. Never actually spoke to her myself.”

Four Seosten. Three normal ones, and one that couldn’t leave whoever her host was unless the host died. Thinking about that for a moment, I frowned before asking, “What does all this have to do with Professor Tangle and her mystery lover at Eden’s Garden?”

Fahsteth openly laughed at that for a moment, his shoulders shaking. “Oh, right,” he muttered with amusement, “that.” Still smirking, he continued. “That was what you call a love potion. See, before Manakel and Charmeine showed up, Paschar was the one that was supposed to get into that blood vault.” He started to smile. “Yeah, there’s a blood vault, you know, one that can only be opened by the descendant of–”

“Hieronymus Bosch, we know.” Avalon cut in, frowning at the man. “What do you mean, love potion?”

He explained. “Fine. See, a little under twenty years ago, Paschar found two living relatives, blood connections to Bosch. One of ‘em was your mother.” He nodded toward Avalon. “That was the direct connection, the strong one. The other one was a lot weaker, more distant, but still. It was–”

“Tangle,” I put in quickly. “Tangle’s the one with the weaker relation, the other connection to Bosch.”

“Ding, ding.” The shark-man pointed at me, his humorless smile wide to show all those teeth. “Yeah, Tangle was the other one. So that’s two ways to get into the vault. But see, Tangle didn’t actually know about her connection to Bosch, or any of that.” He nodded to Avalon again. “Her Mommy did. She knew a lot of it. Stories passed down from her mother, you see. So she knew how to protect herself from anything the Seosten might try to get control of her. They already couldn’t possess the bitch–”

“Why?” Avalon cut in. “Why couldn’t they possess her?”

“Same reason they can’t possess you,” he retorted. “Bosch’s daughter, Liesje Aken, figured out her dear old Daddy was being manipulated to start all this shit, so she took precautions. By the time Hieronymus died, she found a way to make herself and anyone in her family, anyone with her blood, immune to Seosten possession.”

“How’d she do that?” I asked slowly. “I mean, I doubt there’s a book out there about how to make your entire bloodline immune to fake angel-possession.”

“No fucking clue,” the shark-man snapped. “If I knew, trust me, I’d never need to work a job again. I’d just make a billion lifetimes worth of fortunes by selling that shit. All I know is that she had some help from someone she called Grandfather.”

“Grandfather?” I blinked. “I take it that doesn’t mean her actual grandfather.”

“Genius detective, you are.” He smirked at me before waving the hand with the stone in it. “Point is, if you quit fucking interrupting, she made her bloodline immune to possession. So if Paschar wanted to use either of her descendants to get into that vault, he had to use other means. Tangle was easier, cuz like I said, she didn’t know anything about her connection to Bosch. So she wasn’t watching for the… you know, harp-players.”

“So he wanted to use Tangle, but he couldn’t,” I put in. “Because the vault would only take the closest blood relative. Which, at that point, was Avalon’s mother.”

He nodded. “Right. That’s when I got brought in. Kill the mother and her spawn while she’s pregnant. But make it look like she dies in childbirth. The last thing angel-fuck wanted was some Heretic to hear about the bitch being murdered by something suspicious. So I made it look like a childbirth thing. Unfortunately, her little brat survived.”

Avalon’s voice was hard then. “And you didn’t finish the job because…”

Fahsteth shrugged. “Couldn’t get close to you again. Somehow the Heretics found out you had potential to be one of their students, so they were watching you. Paschar didn’t want to run the risk of them finding out what was really going on. So he went for something more subtle, manipulating ol’ Reggie into hating his kid so much that he’d kill her. Domestic abuse and all that. But you know, turns out that took too long. That headmistress of yours found out enough to come find the brat. Paschar couldn’t let that happen, so he sent me in to make sure little Hannah died. Did my best to make it look like I just stumbled across her, victim of circumstance and all that. But you’re just too fucking stubborn to die like you’re supposed to.”

“And she went to Eden’s Garden,” I realized. “So it was even harder to get to her without making everyone realize what was going on. So they used Reggie instead.”

“Had an… ally of theirs turn him into a vampire and sent him after her,” the shark-man confirmed. “Seemed less likely to be suspicious, since he already hated her. But the son of a bitch kept failing. Then it was too late. They were about to start teaching the kid magic.”

“Which would’ve revealed her connection to Bosch,” I murmured. “Right, so… wait, what about Tangle?”

Smirking, Fahsteth explained. “Two birds with one stone. Paschar was already manipulating Tangle from his place at Eden’s Garden where he was keeping an eye on the situation. Like I said, love potion. Whoever he was possessing, he used what you’d call a love potion to make Tangle be obsessed with him. Had her wrapped around his little finger. She was right on board with killing not-so-little Hannah so she and her snuggle muffin could get into that vault. Still, he didn’t want to be… what you call obvious about it. So…”

“They made sure I was kicked out,” Avalon stated flatly. “You–” Her eyes widened then. “Love potion… wait, obsession. Obsession. They used–”

“Oh and we have a winner,” the man grinned darkly, his amusement obvious. “Yeah, they used the same kind of obsession magic they used on Tangle on that kid. Torv? Yeah, they had him drugged up for weeks. Just got him all sorts of obsessed with you until… well, you know what happened.”

“But now Tangle’s in the hospital with–” I paused, frowning. “Probably your poison in her. So what the hell?”

The shark-man coughed, raising his shoulders in a shrug. “What happened? Well, turns out ol’ Tangle’s got a soft spot for students. Finding out that Torv kid died, it uhh, started taking its toll. Took awhile, but she started snapping out of the love spell. Not a lot at first, but… enough to cause problems. She was starting to figure out something was wrong with her. So she was about to go to that damn headmistress.”

“So you poisoned her,” I realized. “But they didn’t want to kill her, because they still needed her to get in the vault. That’s why you just put her in a coma.”

“Pretty much,” he confirmed. “And sometime in there, those new Seosten showed up and started taking over. Apparently they didn’t like how long it was taking Paschar to get the job done. But like I said, no idea who any of them are possessing–wait, no. One idea. That Manakel guy, he’s possessing some adult out at that school. That’s all I know, an adult. So, we done here?”

My mouth opened, but then I paused, shaking my head. “What about Professor Katarin? Where is he, and why did he disappear? You guys had to have something to do with that.”

“Sure did,” he confirmed without any shame. “I mean, I didn’t. But they did. Apparently the big guy stumbled across Manakel’s host while he was out of it. The host was unconscious, one of those Seosten-enforced comas. Manakel got back, Katarin spotted him and figured out what was going on. So they had a little fight. Best Manakel could do was banish the guy with one of those–”

It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “The Seosten banishment orbs. They sent him into Seosten space?”

“Kept him away from Earth and out of their hair, that’s for sure.” Fahsteth chuckled once more. “So, that it? Cuz I really need to be going.”

“Not yet.” I shook my head while staring at him. “What the hell is in that vault that they want to get so badly?”

Fahsteth’s smirk grew. “Oh, that you don’t know? Heh, figures. Yeah, they were cagey about it, but I worked it out over the years. You know how Bosch’s daughter made her bloodline immune to possession? Turns out she was working on a way of spreading that immunity to every Heretic. Died before she could put it into play, but all her notes and everything about what she did it is in that vault.”

“That’s why they want it so bad,” I murmured. “Because if someone else gets it and manages to make every Heretic immune to–oh. Oh. That really fucks them over.”

“Yup,” Fahsteth confirmed. “So I told you what I know. Now, your turn to repay the favor. Lemme get the hell off this planet.”

“Yeah, we will.” I nodded. “But first, tell us how to cure Tangle.”

“Cure? Right.” Giving me a look, he slowly reached into his jacket before coming out with a vial of blue liquid. “See this? You let me go, and it’s yours. It’ll cure Tangle, put her right as rain. But that’s it. You gotta swear to let me go after I give this to you. Got it?”

Biting my lip, I glanced to Gabriel before nodding. “I swear, I won’t do anything to stop you from leaving after you give us that cure.”

Beside me, Avalon nodded. “I won’t lay a hand on you.”

Gabriel nodded as well. “Neither will I. Just hand over the cure and you can leave.”  

The shark-man held it out, along with the stone while nodding toward my staff. “You mind?”

Slowly, I took the blade away from the teleporter’s throat. The man himself had woken up at some point, and was giving me a fearful look as he scrambled to his feet.

Avalon stepped around me then, palm up as she held it out for the cure. “You helped make my life miserable,” she informed him, her lips tight. “You killed my mother and helped turn my father against me. You were part of manipulating my friend into attacking me so that I had to kill him. You helped make sure his brother kept coming after me too.”

Fahsteth shrugged, dropping the cure and the truth stone in her hand. “Yeah, sorry, kid. No hard feelings though. It was just business, you understand? Besides, not like we can do anything about it right now. You all swore to let me leave. Remember? Can’t lay a hand on me.”

Avalon lifted her chin then, catching the items in her palm before closing her hand. “It’s funny,” she replied flatly… just as a glowing blue energy blade erupted from the gauntlet of her extended hand, cutting straight through the shark-man’s chest, neatly bisecting him even as his eyes went wide with shock.

“… how much you can do without laying a hand on someone.” 

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