Month: January 2018

A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-03

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The tunnels were a maze, with branches leading off in every possible direction. Seriously, it was like being trapped in a giant anthill. If it was just me, I would’ve wandered around down there for hours, if not days, without actually finding anyone.

But it wasn’t just me. Roxa was there too, and she could follow Isaac’s scent pretty much as well as if there had been flashing neon signs leading her after him. She and Gidget led the way while the rest of us trailed along in her wake. Together, we moved as quickly, yet cautiously, as we dared. I wouldn’t have put it past that asshole to leave traps of some kind.

Strangely, however, there weren’t any. We made our way through those tunnels, following Isaac’s trail without running into any problems. Above, I could occasionally hear the sound of the fighting going on, and all I could do was hope (and reassure Tabbris) that Haiden and Larissa were alright.

Each tunnel was about eight feet wide by eight feet high. I didn’t know exactly what had made them, but the walls were perfectly smooth. As we moved, I ran my hand along one side curiously. Stone. They were made of stone of some kind, as far as I could tell. But what exactly were they for? If it was just for carrying water up, they had pipes for that, and there would be no need for all the extra tunnels leading everywhere. Was it for mining, maybe? But in that case, why was everything perfectly smooth?

Oh well. I had to focus. Dealing with Isaac was the priority, not wondering about this alien civilization’s tunnel-building habits.

Abruptly, Roxa halted just before a T-junction in the tunnel. Snapping her hand up to stop the rest of us, she tilted her head to listen for a second. Then she whispered. “To the left, about two hundred feet in. He’s there, with… a bunch of others, I think. I can hear their hearts beating, and I can hear them breathing. They’re scared. Really scared. And there’s this… clicking sound.”

Gordon had a hand in front of his face, using his own x-ray vision. His voice was soft. “There’s a huge chamber there. Isaac is in the middle of it, and there’s… people along the walls to the left and right. It looks like they’re chained up. I count… maybe a hundred. They’re the ones making the clicking sound. Isaac isn’t close to any of them.”

Breathing out myself, I nodded. “Okay. So we go in fast and hard, and get Isaac up to the ship before he can do anything to those people. Ready?” As the others agreed, I kept a tight hold on my staff, bracing myself before whispering, “Go.”

Together, we threw ourselves around the corner and down that last tunnel. Ahead, just as Gordon had said, the tunnel opened up into a large square chamber. It was about three hundred feet across, at a glance, with a ceiling that was about fifty feet up. Most of the open space in the room was empty, but I could see the asshole himself standing right there in the middle. The figures along the two walls weren’t exactly human. Actually, they mostly looked like humanoid ants. Their bodies were divided into three endoskeleton-covered sections. Rather than being down horizontal like regular ants, however, the abdomen, thorax, and head were stacked vertically, like a snowman. There were four legs coming out the bottom of the abdomen to hold them up, and four arms coming out of the thorax, two at the top and two at the bottom. Their heads were basically just like giant ant-heads, with sharp mandibles that were clattering in terror. That was the clicking sound that Roxa had heard.

But my focus, our focus, was centered on that son of a bitch standing right in the middle of the room. Narrowing my eyes, I pointed my staff back, about to trigger the kinetic charge to launch myself that way when I was suddenly stopped by a hand snatching hold of my arm.

“Stop!” Roxa blurted, bringing everyone to a halt.

Isaac, who had spun around at our approach, made a face of disappointment. “Aww,” he lamented with a shake of his head. “How’d you figure it out?”

While the rest of us just looked confused, Roxa stepped forward. Raising a hand, she extended it slightly until her palm abruptly stopped short. The air shimmered under her palm as she pressed firmly.

A forcefield. There was an invisible forcefield.

“I know you can’t hear or smell it,” the boy continued in a voice that made it sound like we were all just having a casual conversation. “So… new power? Gotta be a new power. That’s cool, I’ve got a few new powers of my–”

“You son of a bitch!” Jazz was suddenly there, going right up to the invisible wall to glower at the boy. “What the hell is wrong with you?! You just… just… k-killed all those people! You… you’ve been helping the Seosten? For how long?! How long have you been a fucking monster?!”

“See, that’s a really funny question,” Isaac remarked. “Cuz the thing is–”

“Lower the fucking forcefield!” Roxa interrupted. She was glowering furiously, her eyes dark as she made a low growling sound, like a wild dog that really wanted you to leave it alone. “Or I swear to God, I will tear it down myself and take you apart.”

“Well, see, you could try to come through that to get me, but–” Isaac started in a voice that dripped with condescension.

Roxa was having none of it. “Oh, you’re damn straight, I’ll come through it!” Rearing back, she threw a hard punch straight at the center of the forcefield. It reverberated, shockwaves running through the field sort of like ripples in a window. For a second, the thing looked like it might falter.

Then it didn’t. The forcefield suddenly returned to normal, going completely invisible once more. And at the same time, one of the Alters in the background slumped, dropping to the floor with a weak groan.

“Wha–” Eyes widening, I hurriedly snapped a hand out to stop Roxa from hitting the thing again. “Wait!”

Isaac was grinning as he wiggled two fingers at the both of us. “You know, there’s a joke here about two blonde bimbos and which one figures out the obvious first. If I had time, or cared, it’d probably be hilarious. But hey, what am I saying, this is hilarious enough all by itself.”

“He’s got them linked to the spell,” I snarled, disgust filling my voice. I was physically shaking. “If we damage the forcefield, we’re damaging them. It drains their life to keep… to keep the wall up.”

Can you undo the spell? I desperately asked my secret companion. Or at least unlink it from those people? I mean, can you take control of me and do something to break it.

Tabbris stammered, I–I thi-think so? But he’d know what you were doing as soon as you did it, and he might just… just kill them anyway if he thought you were about to get to him. He needs to be distracted. But I… I dunno how… She sounded just as sick as I felt.

“See?!” Meanwhile, Isaac had spread both hands, his smile broadening. “I knew you could work it out if you really tried. I think that deserves a smiley face sticker. Go ahead,” the boy gestured grandly. “Give yourself a hearty pat on the back, Miss Investigative Reporter.”

“You know what?” I shot back at him, “When we get in there, I’m gonna–”

“Cry over all the innocent people you had to kill to do it?” the boy interrupted. Waving a hand vaguely over his shoulder in the direction of the imprisoned figures, he added, “There’s about a… what is it… hundred of my friends back there? So yeah, sure. If you want me badly enough to kill a hundred ant-monster things just to get at me, be my guest. But then, wouldn’t you sort of be just as bad as me?”

Oh God, it was hard to resist the urge to smack that fucking forcefield with my staff. I wanted to wipe that stupid smirk off his face so fucking badly. Beside me, Roxa made a low snarling noise. She was clearly having just as much, if not more, trouble restraining herself.

But it was Jazz who took three quick steps forward, shoving her hands against the field firmly. Holding them there, she spat at her former teammate. “What the hell is wrong with you?! When did you become such a fucking psychopath?! You killed all those people, you son of a bitch!”

“Ah, well.” Holding his finger up, Isaac pointed out matter-of-factly, “Technically, I’m the only one in this entire group who’s actually doing our job like we’re supposed to. You know, hunting monsters? You might call that bit back on the ship an atrocity or whatever. But I’m pretty sure the Crossroads Committee would call me a hero. Oooh, maybe they’d even give me a parade.”

“Except for the part where you killed one of your own teachers,” Gordon pointed out from the back. His voice sounded brittle, like even he was close to snapping. When I looked that way, I saw that his hands were clenched into tight fists. “They would probably object to that.”

“Eh.” Isaac shrugged. “He was a traitor. I mean, not every traitor can be like Flicky’s mommy and just get her memory erased. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta…” He drew a finger across his throat, “Nip that shit right in the bud. But still, isn’t that kinda funny? You guys are all pissed off, sure. But when it comes right down to it, I’m actually more loyal to Crossroads than you are.”

“You’re a coward,” I informed him flatly. Glancing to Jazz, I stepped next to the girl to glare at him. “You just killed all those people. You killed Professor Katarin. So you should have all this power. But you’re still hiding behind hostages. Because you’re a coward. You’d rather hide behind all those innocent people than fight. Hell, even when you betrayed everyone, you did it with an entire ship, because you didn’t dare actually fight any of us.”

Pantomiming falling asleep on his feet, Isaac abruptly snorted and straightened up as though jolting himself awake. “What? I’m sorry, was that supposed to bother me? Hell, if I cared about fighting fair and all that, I probably wouldn’t have stabbed Paul in the back. I mean, technically it was the chest that I stabbed him in, not the back. But you know what I mean. No need to get nitpicky about those kind of details.”

“You fucking asshole!” Jazz slammed her fists into the field before jerking back a bit as one of the other Alters slumped to the ground, groaning weakly. We held our breaths, watching until it became clear that Jazz’s aura wasn’t popping up. The Alter was still alive.

Still, the other girl was trembling with rage. Her voice shook. “You sick fucking freak,” she snarled at Isaac. “What happened, did Paul figure out what a goddamn psycho you are?”

Isaac laughed at that, literally tilting his head back as he chuckled. “Figure it out? Nah, he was just sort of there. I was supposed to give my pal Fetch an opening to replace someone on the team and, well, Paul was right there in the van while we were watching Flickster’s house. I mean, you should’ve seen the look on his face. It was hilarious. I swear to God, it was so hard not to laugh when you guys were all talking to Fetch like he was Paul, while the real Paul was shoved into some magical freezer or something. It was just awesome.”

He sighed then. “But then you guys had to go and screw it up! All that work and you still insisted on talking things through with the Flickster instead of just going to the Committee to turn her in like we were supposed to!”

“Fuck you!” Jazz screamed, suddenly yanking her sword free. Flames lit up around the blade as she glowered through the forcefield. “You fucking–you stupid–you psycho piece of–you–”

“Easy,” Isaac taunted, waving his hand. “Use your words, Jasmine.”

“Use my wor–” the other girl reared back like she was going to hit the forcefield, barely catching herself. “You… you…” Shoving the weapon away, she pivoted, moving back the way we’d come at a sprint. “Yeah, let’s see just how brave you are with Haiden and Larissa here, asshole!”

Watching her go, the boy tilted his head, remarking, “Did she seriously just pull a literal ‘I’m gonna tell on you’? I mean, what am I supposed to…” Giving a sharp shake of his head as though putting that out of his mind, he shrugged. “Doesn’t matter anyway. See, I worked out the math, and even those guys can’t get through this shield without killing all my friends here. So I dunno what the hell she thinks she’s doing. But you know, No one ever accused Jazzy of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. And I know a little something about sharp knives.”

“God damn,” I put in then, my mind racing as I tried to think of something that could distract the boy long enough for Tabbris to get the shield down. “You really did hate pretending to be a decent human being, didn’t you? Now you won’t fucking shut up. Just how much do you love the sound of your own voice, anyway? I mean seriously.”

If he was offended by that, Isaac didn’t show it. He just winked at me before continuing what he had been saying before. “So the team totally screws up and doesn’t go to the fucking Committee like they’re supposed to, which meant that Manakel had to come up with this stupid plan, and I end up getting caught in between a rock and a hard place. I mean, I go through all that, play nice for that long and you guys just happen to run into a situation where you’re about to find out who Manakel’s possessing anyway? I couldn’t let that happen, cuz if Manakel goes down, he’d sell me down the fucking river in a heartbeat. So, you see, if you really think about it, all those Strangers died because of you.”

“They died,” Roxa snapped in a voice that made it clear that it was all she could do not to shift into her wolf form and tear into that forcefield, “because you’re a sick fucking monster.”

“No, no, no, see you’ve got it backwards again.” Isaac was grinning, clearly enjoying himself thoroughly. He’d been waiting a long time to actually show us his true colors. “I told you, I hunt monsters. You play Friendship Is Magic with them, and I stab them. I mean, I feel like what I really need right now is a black Impala and a brooding brother who is just like, the physical manifestation of manpain.”

Beside me, the other girl slowly shook her head. “What you really need,” she informed the boy through gritted teeth, “is my hand tearing your heart out of your chest and making you eat it.”

“So violent!” Isaac shook his head. “You sound upset, Roxanne. Maybe you should take a breath, and just meditate for awhile. I hear that too much anger is bad for werewolves. You don’t wanna lose control and go after your friends, do you? I mean, I’d find that hilarious, but you… probably not.”

Sands stepped forward then, gripping her mace so tightly in one hand that her knuckles were white. “You’re going to die, Isaac. Either you die here, or you come with us. Or you become a Seosten meat-puppet. There’s no way out of it. The Seosten, they’re gonna bitch-slap your little safety measure like it’s not even there and then one of them’ll shove his hand right up your ass and control you for the rest of your miserable life. That or they’ll just kill you and be done with it.”

Rolling his eyes at that, Isaac extended both arms to either side. “I think you underestimate my negotiating capability, Sandy-witch. I’ve got all this–”

In mid-sentence, I saw a hint of movement behind the boy. He seemed to sense it too, because his eyes widened and he suddenly started to turn. But it was too late. With a sudden flash of metal and roar of fire, a flaming sword whistled through the air. There was a dull, wet thump then, as Isaac’s dismembered hand hit the ground, accompanied by a shocked scream of agony as the boy stumbled backward, hitting the nearby wall.

And Jazz, standing there with her flaming falchion raised, snarled, “Oops. Was that the hand with your suicide spell on it? My bad.”

With another scream, this one of rage, the boy threw his hand out. Jazz was caught by an invisible force and thrown backward into the far wall hard enough that it made me flinch. A second later, the rocks expanded into a band that wrapped around her waist and arms.

“How?!” Isaac demanded then, his voice raised into something approaching a squeal. “You–you–” He clutched his already cauterized wrist as he stared that way, “How?! You can’t–that’s not–that’s–”

“I turn things intangible, remember, idiot?” the girl replied while she was pinned to the wall. “Things like that rock wall over there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the rear wall of the little room.

“I checked it!” he screamed, sounding like a little kid having a tantrum that someone wasn’t playing fair. “There’s fifty feet of rock between that and the nearest tunnel! You couldn’t get through it that quick!”

“Eh.” Lifting her chin, Jazz replied, “True. It would’ve taken me an hour to make enough of that rock intangible to walk through it. But you know what? It turns out–” Abruptly, her body shifted until she was a nearly-invisible fog as she used her mist-shifting power. Slipping right out of the band of rock that had held her trapped there, the girl reformed next to it. “I can still do that. Which means I really only need a space about that big-” She held up her index finger and thumb in a close circle a few centimeters apart. “-to get through. Small enough that you didn’t even notice it. Mist-form, turning walls intangible, making myself invisible, combining powers is awesome. Maybe if you weren’t an idiot, you could’ve figured that out.”

Isaac was shaking as he held his stump tight. I could see it already regenerating, the skin, muscle, and bones starting to reform quickly. After a second, I realized his shaking was laughter. “And yet, you still just fucking stand there. You think I can’t kill you with one hand? All that power I got, I could–” His undamaged hand flicked out, and a glowing forcefield, different from the ones that were blocking us, appeared around the girl. “You think you’re so smart?” he demanded wildly. “I could just shrink this forcefield to the size of a pea. Think your mist form could handle that? How about if I shrink it and then incinerate it? How about if I just fill the whole thing with acid? I could fucking kill you in two seconds.”

He was on a roll with his ranting by that point. “The Seosten chose me, you stupid bitch! You think you could beat me?  You weren’t even supposed to be a Heretic. You weren’t trained for this. You weren’t meant for it. You weren’t a second choice, or a third choice, or even a fucking tenth choice! You were the last choice! You’re here because you were the last one left! You’re a mistake. You’re a painfully average, lost little girl who’s only here because the bad guys didn’t care about her enough to bother killing her. You’re a fucking loser, a stupid fucking loser! You are a fucking moron! You don’t matter. You have never fucking mattered. Your own people wrote you off and only used you when they had no other choice. So you tell me, how exactly could you ever, ever beat me?”

Trapped by the forcefield as she was, Jazz slowly lifted her chin as much as she could while staring intently at the boy. “Well,” she drawled casually, “Maybe it’s just the painfully average loser in me talking, but if I was you, I would’ve figured out that I was just being distracted.”

“Just being dist–” With that, Isaac whipped back around, spinning back toward us.

But it was too late. Because the instant that the boy’s attention had been on the other girl, Tabbris had taken over, making me dart forward and down while yanking the field-engraver from my pocket before hurriedly scrawling some kind of spell in the floor. She didn’t bother to explain what she was doing, and I didn’t mind. I wanted her to focus.

And focus she did, rapidly drawing out an incredibly complicated series of runes that I couldn’t even begin to keep track of. Just as Isaac spun back, my hand finished scrawling the spell, and my mouth moved, blurting out several words I didn’t understand. As the last word left my mouth, I felt a rush of power leave me, like blowing out a long, heavy breath.

Isaac’s eyes were on us. He saw the field-engraver in my hand, saw the rune on the ground, heard the spell leave my mouth.

And then the forcefield that had been blocking us from him shattered. It broke apart like glass being hit with a brick before dropping entirely. Meanwhile, all those hostages… stayed upright. They were fine. They were fine! Tabbris had managed to disconnect them from feeding their life forces to the shield.

There was no more conversation. No pithy comments. Isaac was there. We were there. Nothing was standing between us except for open space.

Together, we went for him.

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Mini-Interlude 52 – What Are Dragons

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Millions of years ago

The planet would come to be known by dozens of names over the course of millennia worth of millennia. For this moment, it was called Tseniya. At one time, it had been a lush, beautiful world of expansive jungles, with trees growing far into the heavens. Their branches had stretched to cover most of what lay below, like the protective arms of a concerned mother. Teeming with life of all kinds, Tseniya was a sanctuary, a garden where no technology had been allowed. It was a place for spiritual reflection.

It was almost fitting, in a way, that this was where a race whose population had once stretched across every star in the visible heavens would make their very last stand. This world had been a garden of life, a preserved refuge against all of the problems and dangers of the universe. Now, it would be the place where the only survivors of that once great, star-spanning Empire made one final play against total extinction.

That once lush and green world would not last much longer. Already, a black, obsidian-like substance encased more than three quarters of the planet. It covered every living thing. Trees, flowers, vines, and every creature that flew, walked, crawled, slithered, or swam. None were spared. None were immune. None could fight. There was no fighting that which had caused this. There was only retreat, only running. And now, at this moment, there were no more places to go, no more planets to flee to. Tseniya was their last hope, their last stand.

“It’s coming.”

Those simple words, spoken in a voice that had been long-resigned to saying them, nonetheless carried the weight of a man announcing the extinction of his species and the eradication of civilization itself.

Two figures stood atop a hovering spaceship, as it floated hundreds of feet above the ground. The ship itself was a thousand feet long, eight hundred feet wide, and shaped roughly like the shell of a turtle. Its heavily armored surface looked silver, with golden lines that glowed with power. Far below, it and others like it had used their remarkable mounted weapons to carve out a flat valley through the jungle so that the survivors, the refugees, that they carried could be disembarked. Those who were left, those who had not yet been lost, had needed the open space in order to try one last, final solution, a desperate play to avoid total extinction.

The pair of figures who stood at its edge, staring off into the distance, were two of only ten thousand. Ten thousand was all that remained of what had, not so long ago, been a civilization numbering in the hundreds of trillions.

They called themselves the Suelesk. Originating from a planet called Elesk, with Su meaning ‘Of’. They were ‘Of Elesk’. The Suelesk stood between six and eight feet in height. They were a reptilian-based species, their skin covered in tiny, incredibly tough scales. Technically, they were four-legged, though they stood upright like any bipedal species. Their main pair of legs were much larger than the second set, shaped somewhat like what would eventually be known as a kangaroo. These heavily muscled limbs allowed the Suelesk to jump extraordinary distances.

Meanwhile, the second pair of legs, much thinner than the first, emerged from the Suelesk’s stomach-area and were mainly used for balancing. When standing at rest, they would lean slightly forward, allowing all four legs to take their considerable weight.

The weight was considerable due to the heavy, reinforced shell that each Suelesk carried on their back. Similar in shape to their ships themselves, the Suelesk shell stretched from near their knees, all the way up over their snapping turtle-like heads. Finally, each possessed two stout, muscular arms that could withdraw almost entirely into their shell, or extend as far as five feet in length. Mostly, they kept their arms at a comfortable two feet for general, minute-to-minute actions, with more than half of their length withdrawn and resting.

The one who had made that terrible, two-word announcement looked toward his companion. “The Last will be here soon.”

The Last. That was what they called one of four beings who would be responsible for the annihilation of their civilization. Only four. Where they had come from, what they wanted, what they called themselves, whether they even had any concept of such things was completely unknown. They didn’t communicate, they didn’t make demands. They simply… destroyed.

Four of them. The Suelesk called them The First, The Next, The Other, and The Last, in order of when they had appeared over the past thirty years. Each was different from the other three in every way save for their destructive capability and the total lack of any response to every attempt to communicate with them. No weapons could kill the entities, or even do enough damage to be noticed. They seemed to only grow stronger when magic was used against them. Nothing had worked. Nothing ever worked.

This one, The Last, was the largest of the quartet. At most estimates, the creature’s main body was almost nine hundred feet in length, and six hundred feet wide. It was nearly impossible to get a decent measurement, however, because the monster spent most of its time with three-quarters of its main body buried underground. Dozens of tentacles that ranged in length from only a couple hundred feet all the way up to twenty miles emerged from both ends of the creature’s roughly pear-shaped body.

Those dozens of tentacles constantly produced a steady cloud of dark red gas. It was contact with that gas which turned every living thing into the hardened shell that now covered so much of this once lush planet (and the entirety of so many planets before this one). The Last was always engulfed in that gas, a fog of total destruction that filled the air for several miles around the creature. Wherever it went, living things were turned to that hardened, obsidian-like state. None survived even the briefest contact with the deadly fog.

“Will they be done before it gets here?” the second of the two Suelesk asked, turning away from the sight of the steadily approaching dark crimson cloud to look toward the figures below. The last of their species, desperately rushing to finish their final attempt at survival.

“They have to be,” the first replied in a quiet, subdued voice. There was no other choice. If the ones below didn’t finish their work, then their civilization, their species, would cease to exist.

A couple of minutes later, The Last had crossed almost half of the remaining distance. Its furthest tentacles were almost close enough to begin affecting the outer edges of their manufactured valley.

“They are ready,” a third Suelesk announced, stepping out onto the top of the ship with the first two. “It is time to begin the departure.”

The first turned to look toward the newcomer, giving a slight nod. “Begin,” he ordered simply. There was nothing else left to say. Nothing to debate. This was their last chance to save their species.

Speaking the same word into his communicator, the third Suelesk stepped over to join the other two. Together, the trio looked down to the group far below. The last of their species, aside from the few hundred on the ship they were standing atop, all devoting everything they had to this final effort.

As the command to begin was sent down, all ten thousand figures on the ground linked their arms, and their voices, in calling upon the single spell that they had been working on for so long. Ten thousand Suelesk, each of them having poured hundreds of hours into this single bit of magic.

And with a rush of power that all could feel as wind upon their faces, an enormous portal opened up ahead of the ship. Extending from the ground itself all the way to the clouds, and thousands of feet wide, the portal seemed to explode into existence.

“They did it,” the first Suelesk murmured, awed by the sight. Not just by the size of the portal, impressive as it was, but by the knowledge of where it led. Because this was no ordinary portal. There were no remaining planets in the known universe to flee to. The four entities had overrun everything.

So, the Suelesk would not flee to a known planet. They would leave the universe entirely. They would step beyond where any being had ever gone, leaving this universe behind. They would abandon everything they had ever known, and move through this portal toward an uncertain universe, an unknown reality. Because an unknown reality was far better than a certain extinction.

Standing there, atop the ship, the trio watched as the last of their species were transported onto the remaining four ships, the last of what had been a great, universe-spanning fleet. Once the passengers were aboard, those ships began to pass through the giant portal. Each carried supplies, weapons, everything that they would need on the other side. Where they would come out was unknown, save for the fact that it was a world vaguely similar to the one they were leaving. Beyond that… well, there was a reason that this was a last ditch effort.

“They’re going to make it,” the second Suelesk announced, watching for another moment before turning back to her companions. “We need to go, before it gets here.”

She was right. Now that the other ships were almost through the portal and on to whatever awaited the rest of their species on the other side, they needed to do their part. Because in the hold of this ship waited the other half of their two-pronged plan to both survive and defeat these monsters. In the hold were fifteen of what would appear to be enormous boulders, forty feet high by thirty feet in width. But they weren’t boulders at all. Instead, each was an egg. Created by a mixture of science and magic, the eggs held potential. Potential which wouldn’t be realized for a very long time.

During their increasingly desperate attempts to find a way of combating the four entities, the Suelesk had experimented upon broken off pieces of the entities themselves. Through those efforts, they had discovered that they could use those pieces as genetic building blocks in order to create an entirely new species. A species which could, theoretically, serve as guardians against what had been their original bodies. Essentially, they were taking what amounted to broken fingernails and discarded hairs and creating whole new lifeforms.

Those new lifeforms would have similar resistance to magic and other damage as the entities had. Yet they would also be given intelligence, compassion, and loyalty to their makers. They would be similar to the creatures they were born from, but far different. They would be guardians, protectors, and warriors. As individuals, they wouldn’t be as strong as that which they had sprung from. But together, and with the aid of the Suelesk themselves, they would defeat their progenitors.

Or they would have. Unfortunately, after the initial exciting news and plans of what could be done with those discarded pieces of the entities, the reality had set in. It would take over one million years of constant energy being pumped into each egg before they would even be close to hatching. The side effect of a being having so much power was that it took a lot of power before it could actually be born.

So, that thought had been cast aside, and other efforts had been pursued. Until now. Until all other efforts had utterly failed. Now, these eggs and the potential they held within was all that remained of any chance there was of actually defeating The First, Next, Other, and Last.

What they needed was time. And so, time was what this was all about. This ship would transport the eggs to the only places within the universe where they could both continually absorb enough energy to eventually hatch and remain safe from the entities who would destroy them: within the hearts of fifteen different stars. In those stars, the eggs would rest for a million years, taking on the power that they needed.

Meanwhile, the Suelesk aboard would take the ship to the deepest recesses of the universe, where they would set their systems to broadcast educational communications that only the eggs, and eventually the guardians themselves, would be able to pick up. The broadcast would teach the guardians of their purpose in the universe, their creators, and the threats which faced them. Then the Suelesk would seal themselves in cryogenic chambers, and sleep away the millennia.

In time, once all fifteen guardians had hatched and gained all the power they needed, the ship would communicate exactly how they could find it, and awaken the crew within. Once they were awakened, the Suelesk crew would work with their empowered guardians to create the same portal that existed here now. At that point, when the new portal was created, the rest of the Suelesk would return. Or rather, their descendants would, having had a million years to replenish themselves and to prepare for that moment.

They would return, and alongside their guardians, the Suelesk would destroy the entities who had so devastated their civilization. With one million years to prepare, and fifteen creatures who, while weaker than the entities themselves, were at least similar in capability, they would have their revenge, their justice.

******

Hundreds of years ago

“Well? What happened next? Did all of their flying ships make it through the portal? What of the one that was supposed to transport the eggs and then wait? Is it still waiting?”

Arthur Pendragon smiled slightly at the woman beside him as she pressed him for answers. Holding up a hand to forestall more questions, the tall, bearded man winked. “A true bard would make you wait until tomorrow evening to hear how the story ends, Guinevere.”

The blonde woman gave him a long, disgusted scowl. “You are no bard, Arthur. You are my husband, and a terrible tease. You promised to tell me what Nimue explained about the origin of these dragons.”

Nimue, the woman from the stars who had come in her own sky-boat and taught Arthur and the rest of them so much. It was her stories, her instructions, which had led to the formation of Arthur’s knights, his most loyal and steadfast friends.

Now, the king rested a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly as his smile broadened. “I did promise, didn’t I?” Taking a moment to tug his wife up against him fondly, he continued. “As I understand it, these are stories that were passed down for many generations before reaching Nimue herself. But according to those tales, the sky-boat managed to deposit each egg before being damaged by something. The specifics are… unclear. What matters is that the ship never ended up broadcasting its instructions. The guardians, what we call dragons, spent a million years as eggs before hatching within the heat of their individual stars… with no idea what their purpose was. They wandered like that. Spread out as they were, it was thousands of years before any even ran into another of their kind. Some fought, some procreated and deposited their own eggs within other stars. But mostly, they kept to themselves, on their own journeys through the universe to seek their purpose, their reason for existing.”

“If the dragons have been searching for their purpose for so long,” Guinevere started, “then how does Nimue know it?”

“As I understand it,” Arthur replied, “her people discovered the remains of the sky-boat crashed on their own world. It was from those remains that they were able to create their own sky-boats, like the one that brought her here to our world. They were able to search its records, and discovered as much as I’ve just told you.”

“But what of these entities?” the woman pushed, looking to her beloved urgently. “If they are still out there–”

“There has been no sign of them since the time of those Suelesk,” Arthur assured her. “Whether they too moved on to another universe, died off when there was nothing more to kill, or were killed by some other force, we don’t know. No one does. But they aren’t here.”

Guinevere’s eyes lowered to look at the blade on her husband’s hip. Excalibur, created from the tooth of the same dragon whose blood had empowered him into the man he had become. “Not now,” she murmured softly.

“But I know a few bard tricks as well. And if I were the one telling this story, it wouldn’t be a matter of if they returned.

“It would be a matter of when.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-01

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Please note, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Pace posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So you guys… invented a whole new spell on the fly?” Jazz asked a short while later, as we all stood in one of the side rooms, waiting to learn this so-called ‘dibs spell’. We would have done this bit in the main cargo hold, but honestly… we all felt like it was a good idea to let the Alters (those who had survived) have some more time to themselves without us intruding. They would learn the spell too, of course. Haiden and Larissa had promised to teach it to them once they had the hang of Gabriel Prosser’s simpler ‘Seosten ejection spell’. But for now, it felt best to give them privacy, after everything that had happened. They were deep in mourning.

All of them, that was, except for Karees. The old tree-man was up here with us, though he was standing out of the way. He was here to learn the spell, so that he could teach it to his people on their own time. As sad as he was, he wanted to help the others learn to protect themselves from Seosten possession even more. So he stood there, silently observing.

“Not exactly,” Haiden replied, his voice a little distracted. I knew why, of course. Vanessa still hadn’t been back in contact, and he was worried. And, well, he also needed to pass along the news about Isaac. Apparently Vanessa had told him that it might be awhile before she could manage to project herself to him again after that first time. But he was obviously still anxious.

After giving her long-time partner a brief look, Larissa explained for us. “We didn’t invent a spell. We modified and combined a couple of existing ones, and threw on a few bells and whistles.”

Haiden finally nodded, turning his attention back to us then. “We told you about Sariel.”

“She’s come up before,” Gordon confirmed simply. “She’s your… wife?”

“Miss uh, Mason said that… that this Sariel woman made the dibs effect work the first time, when she explained what it was,” Jazz put in, her voice catching a little bit as she spoke.

“That’s the one,” Haiden replied with a short nod. He was trying to sound light and casual, but there was a hitch in his voice that told me just how much he missed his wife. “But there’s something else that you should probably know before we go any further. You see, Sariel… she-”

“She’s a Seosten,” Jazz finished for him, blinking as everyone else did a double-take. “What? Was that really supposed to be a surprise? We figured it out like, two seconds after you guys first mentioned her. I mean, come on, Sariel? It’s not like these guys have a super-varied naming structure to begin with. Ends with -el. She’s either Seosten or Kryptonian, and we’re not nearly lucky enough for it to be that second one. So, she’s one of the angels. Only, like, a good guy, errr, girl. Point is, she wasn’t loyal to these slave-driving dickshits anymore.”

While the rest of us stared, the black girl went on. “Which, you know, was probably because you guys had some epic first encounter that made her change sides. Then you fell in love and ran off together, had a couple kids and everything was hunky dory until her Seosten bosses showed up again. Bad things happened and they used one of those banishment orbs to take her, you, and one of your kids out here into Seosten space while the other one was left back on Earth.”

It took Haiden a few seconds to find his voice after Jazz had finished saying all of that, as he stared incredulously at the girl along with the rest of us (aside from Gordon, who just nodded along with his teammate). Finally, the man coughed before asking, “Uh, how exactly did you…”  

“Seriously?” Jazz gave a little shrug. “You’re out here in Seosten space, so you were obviously banished here. We already knew that this Sariel was your wife from context, and they called you Mr. Moon before. Haiden Moon. I mean, it’s not a super-rare name, but there’s already Vanessa and Tristan Moon back at Crossroads, so that’s sort of a no-brainer. Plus, Vanessa supposedly had no family at all until Tristan just randomly showed up at the school partway through the year. The story was that their family was attacked by some Strangers, who set up a portal and it took the three besides Vanessa away and scattered them across the universe.

“The point is,” she finished with another shrug, “it’s not exactly a huge leap. He’s Haiden Moon, Vanessa and Tristan are Moons, they were missing their family, there’s clearly something super-special about them, and the name Sariel isn’t hard to jump to being a Seosten.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I finally shrugged. “Yeah, okay, good point.”

Haiden nodded. “I suppose it goes without saying that this is another one of those things that-”

“–we can’t talk about to anyone else once we get back,” Gordon finished for him. “We know.”

“Trust us,” Jazz confirmed, “we’ll keep your secrets, we promise. Especially after… after everything that’s happened.” She stiffened a little bit at the memory, face cringing before she clearly pushed herself to continue. “We’re not gonna expose your family, Mr. Moon. We swear.”

“Like that matters,” Sands blurted before quickly correcting herself. “I mean, sorry, it does matter that we can trust you. It does. I just meant that with Isaac out there… he’s probably run all the way back to his Seosten masters by now.”

“Actually…” Haiden smiled a little. “According to Dries, it’s not that simple.” As we all looked to him, he continued. “Turns out, he was a little bit more paranoid than we were. He set up a bunch of spells to damage the ship if it was ever stolen or used against us. The kid managed to disable some of them, but not all. From what Dries managed to trigger, the Liberty Bell won’t make it all the way into civilized space. Our little friend is gonna have to find a rim world to set down on, and call for help. And since there’s not exactly a full portal network set up on most of these places, odds are that they’ll have to fly out to meet him the long way. Which gives us a chance.”

“Then it’s a chance we should take advantage of,” I put in. “We get to Isaac. But first, we learn this spell, and keep the Seosten out of our heads.” Except the ones we happen to like, I added inwardly, smiling.

Larissa returned my smile a bit knowingly, winking once before continuing. “Right. Well, the point is, Sariel created the effect and we’re not even sure exactly how she did it. But it works.”

“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “No idea what she did, but Sariel somehow threw up a big ‘no vacancy’ sign on Larissa here, which is what stops any Seosten from possessing her. It’s convenient.”  

The woman continued then, explaining, “The spells we combined and altered essentially copy the existing effect while throwing on a few extra bits that are essentially just smoke and mirrors so that if anyone uses an identify spell or something like that to try and figure out how we do it, they end up getting a bunch of extra spell parts that don’t actually do anything. That way, it should make it harder for them to actually identify how the protective part of the spell is done.”

I snorted at that despite myself. “So what you’re saying is, only a little part of the spell is actually necessary. The rest is all bells and whistles to make it look more complicated than it is.”

She nodded. “Exactly. So, let’s get started, shall we? It’s not that hard to learn how to copy the effect, but it’s still easy to mess up if you don’t do it right. So we’ll take it slow and make sure everyone understands. First up, take the object you’re going to use to trigger the spell…”

*****

“You’re… you’re really, really, really sure that you’re okay with this, guys?” I asked a little while after we had finished practicing the spell for the day. There was only so much of that we could do. At the moment, I was with Roxa, Sands, Gordon, and Jazz in one of the other rooms.

Jazz coughed at that. “You mean, are we okay with you possessing us so you can tell us what powers we ended up getting from all the killing we’ve been doing on this trip? Yeah. Might as well use every advantage we’ve got, right? If you can just scan through and tell us what we’ve got instead of going through a bunch of trial and error, that’d be great.”

It wouldn’t really be me doing it, of course. Tabbris was the one who actually knew how to scan through a person that we possessed to find out what powers they had. But, well, Jazz and Gordon didn’t need to know that right now.

My helpful little partner had already informed me of everything I had received during our trip so far. From the two soldiers that I had killed on Radueriel’s station, I’d gotten a very minor strength boost and slightly less minor boost to my balance. From the Pantler back on the other planet, I’d gotten the power to see through certain kinds of camouflage and other stealth abilities. That was how I’d spotted Jokai before. Meanwhile, I’d also killed four of the slave camp guards. From them, I’d gained a slight boost to my regeneration, that power to embed sound in an object, a resistance to being hurt by electricity, and what amounted to a slightly larger pool of energy that I used for magic, so I didn’t tire out quite as quickly. Then there was the boost to my dexterity from the young Seosten that I had killed, while of the three humanoid guards on the ship, I’d gained a boost to my pain resistance (thank God), the ability to detect poisons by smell, and I could also go without breathing for up to ten minutes if need be.

So it was useful knowledge. And now the others wanted me to share that with them, ever since Sands had brought up the idea that it was possible. So, biting my lip, I looked over to Gordon, who had been quiet throughout this little discussion. “What about you?”

“No,” he replied quickly before hesitating. “I mean… “ Pausing, the boy exhaled. “I know how that sounds. But… I just don’t… I’m not ready for that. Not yet.” For a moment, it looked like he wanted to say something else, but stopped himself. “Just… not now.”

I didn’t blame him, honestly, even if a part of me was reflexively suspicious because of what happened with Isaac. Having someone in your head, reading your every thought and able to control you, it was pretty… huge.

I’m just lucky I ended up with you, I directed inwardly to my own secret sister. Sister. Talk about a weird, extended family. Between me considering Tabbris a sister, her own connection to Vanessa and Tristan through their shared mother, Larissa being a sort-of second mother to her and thus Sands and Scout–Tabbris had a lot of people who thought of her as family. 

And that family thing included Haiden, I was pretty sure. Tabbris had actually come out of me the night before, so that she could talk with her mother’s husband. I wasn’t sure what the two of them had actually said, because I gave them privacy. But from the look on Tabbris’s face when she had returned to me, it had been a good conversation.

Shaking off those wandering thoughts, I nodded. “Okay, don’t worry. Just keep the dibs spell active then. And…”  I turned back to the others. “I guess if the rest of you are into it, I’ll see what we can find out.”

“Yeah,” Sands confirmed, extending a hand to me. “Let’s do it.”

******

Standing on the bridge of the ship the next day, I stared out at a field of asteroids that surrounded us. Straight ahead, one of the larger ones (even bigger than the ship itself) had some kind of hole cut in the side of it, covered by heavy metal doors and a visible forcefield.

As promised, I had let Jazz, Sands, and Roxa know what powers they’d ended up with. For Jazz, that was a decent strength and minor durability boost, and the ability to create these small, solid orbs that she could use to manipulate gravity within a fifteen foot radius. Each ball would last for ten minutes unless dismissed early, and she could have three of them active at any given time.

Meanwhile, Sands had gained a slight boost to her agility, a resistance to being hurt by fire, the ability to instinctively understand how to use any handheld weapon as soon as she touched it, a big boost to her strength like the one that I had gotten from killing Valentine the werewolf, as well as a boost to her reflexes, a slight increase to her energy pool for spells, and that powerful boosting ability that she had gained from killing the Seosten who had cornered me. Oh, and she could actually turn into this two-dimensional shadow-form that was cool, but she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of. 

Finally, Roxa’s kills had gained her increased strength (that was a pretty common power, as it turned out), an almost imperceptible boost to her regeneration, the ability to turn into an elastic/rubber-like form that could stretch out to twice her normal size, armored scales that she could cover her body with for even more protection, underwater breathing, ultraviolet vision, and the power to create and mentally manipulate up to several gallons-worth of this dark, oil-like liquid, which she could cause to solidify with a thought. Not to mention, she had also gained the power to touch any figure and create a stone copy of that person that would do whatever she said. The stone duplicate couldn’t use any of the original’s powers of anything, but they were pretty strong in their own right.

The point was, being able to just tell them what their powers happened to be was really useful. We’d been able to practice a little bit with them instead of waiting for the powers to just come out on their own through stress or trial and error, or whatever else made our minds suddenly realize we could use them. Sometimes it seemed completely random whether we’d somehow know what our new powers were, or have to figure them out randomly.

“So what is this place, exactly?” I asked curiously, shaking that thought off as I nodded to the view of the asteroid station on the screen. “And how did you guys find it?”

Haiden, standing beside me, explained, “We’re pretty sure it was some kind of mining facility first. Then pirates took it over. We cleared them out a couple years ago, and we’ve been storing stuff here whenever we need to since then. Haven’t had any problems yet. It’s isolated, private, and we’ve fixed up the defenses enough that it should discourage anyone that gets close enough to check it out, at least long enough for us to get the alert and come back here.”

Larissa looked over toward Karees, who stood at the back of the room, staring at the image on the screen. “Between what’s already on the station and what you’re taking from this ship, there’s enough supplies for all your people to hold out for at least a couple months if you’re smart about rationing. We’ll be back here long before then. And if we’re not, there’s a couple emergency portals to get down to the nearest habitable planet. It won’t be as safe as this is, but it’s something. And we’ll work out a more permanent solution as soon as possible, I promise.”

The ancient Relukun audibly swallowed. I saw his eyes dampen as he spoke simply. “It… it is freedom,” he announced carefully, taking a moment to choose each word. “It is everything.”

Smiling, Haiden put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed a little while nodding to Karees. “Right. Let’s get on down to the cargo bay and have your people set up the portals to get over there so they can look around their brand new home, then.”  

So, we did. It wasn’t hard for the Alters who were capable of it to set up the portals, since they could actually see where they were going this time. They had a couple of them established within about ten minutes to make the hop over to the asteroid station, and the rest of the group had collected all the supplies that they were going to take over with them.

The… bodies and pieces of the bodies were gone. All of them except for Professor Katarin had been given burials at space by the rest of their people, each receiving their own small funeral.

As for Katarin, we were keeping what was left of his body in storage, because we… well, we were hoping that there would be a way to bring him with us. He deserved to be buried on Earth, with and by the people who cared about him and whose lives he had touched. They deserved to have the chance to say goodbye. It was the least we could do. It was literally all we could do.

Jazz, who was standing near Jokai, looked to him. “You’ll be safe here. Well, at least as safe as you can be. You and your people, Isaac won’t be able to hurt you again. Not anymore.”

But instead of agreeing, Jokai shook his head at that. “I go,” the chameleon-Alter announced with a determined look. He pointed back to the door that led up to the bridge, before forming his hands into the same bird-like motion he had made the other day. “Fly.”

“Oh, but… Jokai,” Larissa started with a quick headshake. “We’re going somewhere dangerous. We–” She paused before switching into Latin, telling him that we were going after Isaac.

“Vērō!” Jokai agreed emphatically before switching back to his slow, uncertain English. I was pretty sure that he wanted the rest of us to understand. And he wanted to practice, even if it was hard. “I-” He pointed to himself, then made a few other accompanying gestures to make his words clearer. “-go and… flying to help… to take all to I-zack. To fight I-zack. I… not fight. I not strong. Not good. But fly good. Fly… take to I-zack. Taking to others… all fight. They fight. I fly. I take. Take to I-zack, stay fly so all fight. I fly. They fight. I help. Not strong. Not fight. Fly. Help.”

“You’re wrong.” That was Jazz. “You’re wrong about not being strong. You weren’t trained to fight. You were trained to be a slave. But you escaped. You got away, and instead of staying out of it, instead of staying safe, you want to play taxi for us, for all these guys, just to go after Isaac for what he did. He could kill you and–” She looked away, biting her lip before finishing with a soft, “You are strong, Jokai. You’re strong in a way that Isaac will never, ever understand.”

I saw Larissa smile just a little then, before the woman cleared her throat, “Jokai, if you’re sure about coming along, we’d love to have your help. You’ve definitely earned the right to be here.”

He seemed to get the basic idea of what she was saying, but Larissa translated that for him anyway, just to make sure. Once she did, he gave a firm nod. “I fly,” he repeated. “I help.”

“In that case,” Jazz hurriedly put in, “I think he deserves to wear actual clothes instead of that loin cloth.”

Larissa nodded in agreement, along with the rest of us. “Of course,” the woman answered. “There’s some utility jumpsuits in one of these rooms around here. We’ll find something that fits. And whatever doesn’t can go over with the rest of them so they can divvy them up.”  

“Well,” Haiden started then. “Now that that’s decided, let’s help the rest of these guys get settled into their new place for the time being. And then it’ll be time for us to go psycho-hunting.”

“You’re really gonna have to be more specific than that,” I pointed out dryly. “Because with the year I’ve had, saying we’re looking for a psycho only narrows it down to like, a dozen people.”

The man snorted. “Believe it or not, I know what you mean. Heretics have a way of racking up enemies, somehow. Couldn’t be all the holier than thou genocide, or anything.” He glanced sidelong at me then. “Though you do seem to be going above and beyond, in a lot of ways.”

“I like to overachieve,” I replied. “Can’t be lazy when it comes to collecting mortal enemies.”

Shaking his head, Haiden offered, “Don’t worry, we’re about to wipe one of those off your list. Isaac’s biggest advantage was that we didn’t know he was a threat. Now that we do… he’s thrown that away. So when we find him, we’ll take him down, and we’ll make him talk.”

The sentiment was shared by everyone else, and we made our way back to the bridge once Karees and the others had transferred over to the station. I really wanted to stay with them longer, help them get settled in and just… spend time with the people and get to know them. But there wasn’t time. We had no idea how long it would take Isaac to get a hold of someone and negotiate to tell them what he knew. Or if they would just possess him and take it.  

Either way, we didn’t have time to sit around with Karees and his people, no matter how much I desperately wanted to. Hell, what I really wanted to do was go home and see my dad, and Avalon, and Shiori, and Wyatt, and Koren, and… well, everyone. But I couldn’t do that either.

Seriously, fuck Isaac and fuck the Seosten Empire. Also, fuck the Fomorians while I was at it. Not because they were responsible for any of this specifically, but generally speaking it felt like a good idea to add them into a list like that just on principle.

Once Jokai had taken his place at the pilot’s seat on the bridge, I asked, “How long is it going to take to get to where Isaac had to land the Bell?”

“Thirty-two hours,” Larissa replied without needing to look at anything. “But the planet he made it to isn’t on any trading network, and it’s about a week from the nearest Seosten base that we know of. So we might still make it there before anyone he could get a message to.”

Sands’ head shook at that as she looked to her mother. “Somehow,” she replied, “I don’t think we’re actually that lucky.”

I had a feeling that she was going to be proven right. Still, as the ship set out on course, I couldn’t help but cross my fingers and offer a silent wish that it would end up being that easy.

“So we’ve got about a day and a half,” Haiden announced then. Turning away from the front viewscreen to look at us, the man continued, “Sounds like enough time to get some training in.”

Part of me felt a sharp pang at that. Training. It’s what Katarin would have wanted us to do, what he would have made us do. Still, I forced that feeling down and nodded. “Sure, let’s train.”

Roxa folded her arms. “Might as well, though to tell you guys the truth…

“The only train I’m really interested in right now is the one I want to run over Isaac with.”

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Mini-Interlude 51 – Pace

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About Eight Years Ago

“Abuelita, what’re you doing out here? You’re gonna freeze.”

Stepping out onto the snow-covered deck that overlooked the bustling city below, eleven-year-old Gia Perez hurried to the side of the elderly woman who sat in a wheelchair.

Turning slightly, Romina Perez’s wrinkled face brightened, her mouth spreading into a smile. “Mi nieta,” she greeted her granddaughter fondly before continuing in English with her thick accent from most of a life spent in a small town near Mexico city. “It is not so cold. And I have a blanket.” She tugged at the well-worn quilt that lay across her legs before giving a nod toward the busy streets. “I enjoy watching the people down there, and waving to those who bother to look up. Sometimes,” the woman added with another bright smile, “they even wave back.”

“It’s still cold,” Gia pointed out, worried about her grandmother. “You’ve got snow in your hair.”

The woman made a slight scoffing sound while running her hand back through her tightly-wound bun. “You fret like your father,” she teased while poking the girl. “Always trying to tell me that it is too dangerous to go out. I am his mother, I will go out when and where I please, thank you.”

“Papa just wants you to be comfortable, Abuelita,” Gia assured the woman before adding helpfully, “I can make some soup if you want? There’s a bunch of cans in the cupboard.”

“Pah.” Romina took the girl’s hand and squeezed it firmly. “Cans.” She mimed spitting in disgust before winking at her granddaughter. “I will teach you real cooking. Real soup. Fresh Sopa de Fideo. You will learn to make it, and then you will see how terrible these cans really are.”

Suiting action to words, the woman moved a finger to the control on the end of her right armrest, turning the wheelchair to head off the deck and back inside the warm, cozy little apartment. “Come, I have to take a batch to the children soon anyway. You can help make and carry it.”

“The children?” Gia echoed before following. She closed the sliding door, twisting the lock as she looked to her grandmother. “Wait, you mean the families that Papa says you like to visit?”

“Si,” Romina rolled into the small kitchen, taking her grabber tool from its spot beside her in the chair before reaching up with it to open the cupboard. Poking around with the grabber, she carefully brought down a large bowl, followed by a bottle of olive oil and a package of pasta. “Go to fridge,” she instructed then. “Bring onion, tomatoes, and the chicken broth from pantry.”

“But chicken broth comes from a can,” Gia teased her with a grin. “I thought you hated cans.”  

“Sabelotodo,” her grandmother shot back, using the grabber to jab at her as she called the girl a know-it-all. “Get them, before I wither and die in this chair. At my funeral, they will say, ‘but the beautiful and remarkable Romina was always so very healthy. What did her in?’ and the answer will be, ‘her slow granddaughter preferred being smart-ass to being helpful.’ Do you want that?”

Giggling despite herself, Gia then quickly moved to do as her grandmother instructed, collecting the ingredients. “Thanks for teaching me. Can I really go with you to visit your friends after?”

Romina nodded, easily replying, “Claro. If you are a good girl and try no more silly things as saying that it is too cold for me to do as I wish. The children would be glad to see you in person.”

Gia started to nod at that before blinking. “Glad to see me in pers–Abuelita, have you been showing them pictures?!” The preteen girl’s embarrassment was written plainly across her face.

“You are my beautiful and brilliant granddaughter,” Romina pointed out with a sniff, raising her chin. “Of course, I am sharing pictures. Bragging is what pictures and granddaughters are for.

“Now come,” she continued, rolling her chair down to the end of the counter. “We have much to do to make this soup properly, and the children will be very hungry.”

*****

A couple hours later, Gia accompanied her grandmother into what turned out to be a neighborhood youth center a few blocks away. Both carried large tupperwares full of soup, Gia holding hers in both hands while Romina held another in her lap. As they entered the gym, a dozen kids ranging in age from about five up to around Gia’s age abandoned their games and came running over to greet them. Or specifically, to greet Romina. They called her grandmother too, and Gia realized quickly that the woman actually meant as much to them as she did to her.

“Okay, okay!” One of the men who had been sitting in the bleachers talking with a few other obvious parents stepped down and approached. He had long, curly blond hair that reminded Gia of a lion’s mane, and his arms were heavily corded with muscle. “I’m pretty sure Grandma Romi came for more than having you guys all mob her. Let’s let her breathe a little bit, okay?” To the younger girl herself, he added while extending his hands, “And you must be little Gia. I’m Hansel. Let me take that, we’ll get it right into the kitchen and dish it out before it gets too cold.”

“Hansel?” Gia brightened quickly at that, letting the man take the tupperware. “Like the story?”

Chuckling, the man winked at her. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t tell you where any giant gingerbread houses are, but I might be able to point you to a nice stash of M&M’s if you keep it secret.”

M&M’s?!” The youngest boy there, barely five years old at a guess, jumped up from where he had been sitting down to meticulously tie his shoe. “Can we have some?!” He was clearly beside himself with excitement at the thought of being given candy. “Please, please, Uncle Hansel?”

“Treats after soup,” Romina insisted in a voice that brooked no arguing or other nonsense. “Eat now.”

“You heard the lady, Reed,” Hansel informed the small boy. “Soup first, then treats.”

******

They took the soup into the kitchen then, serving it up into the bowls that were there before handing it out to the clearly hungry kids. Through their interaction, Gia found that the people there were homeless and actually lived in the youth center. Some were with their families, while the others didn’t actually have any living relatives at all, and were simply there with friends. Or with no one at all. The few adults watched over all of the kids, like they were one big family.

For the rest of her Christmas vacation, Gia went with her grandmother to visit the center every day. She helped make food, played with the other kids, and listened to the silly stories that Hansel and the other adults liked to tell. Yet, throughout her time there, the girl couldn’t shake the idea that there was something else going on there. Whenever she and her grandmother came, there were always people watching the front and back doors, like they were guards or lookouts. She was even pretty sure that there was usually someone up on the roof. What were they watching out for, police? Was staying in this place like they were illegal or something?  

She had no idea. And before long, Gia put the entire thing out of her mind, because something happened that changed the girl’s life forever. Months later, during her spring break off from school, she was approached by a woman who called herself Mistral. She told Gia about monsters, about the creatures who killed and ate humans, and about the Bystander Effect that stopped ordinary people from being able to protect themselves. And she told her about a place called Eden’s Garden, where humans became Heretics, and were trained to defend humanity. The woman even had her drink some kind of potion that would allow her to retain the knowledge of what she was learning instead of forgetting about it thanks to that Bystander Effect.

Over that vacation, Gia was recruited into Eden’s Garden, and taught about what to expect when she eventually joined the place when the next school year started. Her parents and grandmother were told that she was being brought into some kind of exclusive private boarding school, and by the last couple weeks of summer, the girl was introduced to the people who would be her classmates and teammates. Then, she was given the apple that would turn her from an ordinary person into what she was bound and determined to call a superhero.

That first semester was amazing. Gia learned even more than she ever expected to. It was all so exciting and new. She wanted to learn everything, wanted to experience everything. Before long, everyone knew her as the girl who almost never shut up or settled down.

Unfortunately, the experience was marred by the news, around Christmas, that her grandmother had actually passed away. She went home for the funeral, profoundly and horribly devastated by the loss. She and both of her parents grieved in that little apartment together for over a week. Abuelita Romina had been so important in their lives. It felt somehow wrong, or even impossible, for them to simply go on living without the feisty, yet incredibly loving old woman.

And yet, go on living was exactly what they had to do. So Gia did. She threw herself into her training back at Eden’s Garden, gaining a reputation for being incredibly motivated and excitable over the next few years. She even managed to acquire a potent enhanced speed power early on, and her regular use of it meant that no one was very surprised when it came time for the girl to be given her Heretic name. Pace. In some ways it referred to her speed, while in other ways it was a joke about the girl’s inability to pace herself, as she constantly took on more and more.

It was that Thanksgiving, right after earning her name, that the girl now known as Pace to everyone but her parents found herself back on that balcony. She stared at the spot where her grandmother loved to sit in her wheelchair and watch the world go by, a lump in her throat even after all the years that had passed. She missed the old woman, desperately sometimes.

Movement from below caught her eye then, her perception trained from years spent being taught to watch for Strangers. As the girl’s gaze snapped that way, she saw the youth center in the distance. It had been closed and boarded up for a long time by that point, but she caught a brief glimpse of someone slipping through the backdoor, which had been pried open somehow.

A flash of anger rushed through her then. Vandals? Thieves? Whatever, they were breaking into a place that had been important to her grandmother. And thus it was important to Pace. So, without thinking, she glanced back inside to make sure her parents were thoroughly occupied, before hopping over the edge of the railing. She dropped part of the distance before landing on the edge of the fire escape, bouncing from that to the nearby wall, then to another railing, down to the top of the dumpster, then to the ground. After landing, the girl narrowed her eyes to stare at the building in the distance. Yes. She could see the faint glimmer of a flashlight playing off the windows inside. Someone was there, probably ransacking or vandalizing the place. The thought made her growl, and Pace was suddenly sprinting that way. For her, sprinting meant that she was traveling at a good sixty miles per hour, which meant that she reached the open back door within seconds.

Turning her head to listen for a moment, the girl slowly stepped inside. She could hear movement ahead, in the kitchen. Slowly and deliberately, she walked that way. One of the powers she had acquired over the years let her move completely silently. It wasn’t one that she ended up exercising that much (Pace usually wanted people to know exactly where she was), but in this case, it was useful. She wanted to take these stupid trespassing dicks by surprise.

However silent she was, however, before she was halfway down the hall, the noise of the person moving around in the kitchen suddenly stopped for a couple of seconds. She then heard the distinct sound of a drawer slowly being pushed closed, before the click of the flashlight.

Darkness. Why would the person turn off their light, unless they knew she was there? But she was completely silent, and nowhere near that room anyway. How the hell could they have–

An enormous figure was suddenly rushing toward her, barely visible in the darkness of the corridor. Pace had excellent night vision by that point, and even then she could hardly see. Only her incredible speed saved the girl from being immediately trampled, as she quickly spun aside.

There was the briefest impression of fur and claws, before the huge figure was past her. As Pace continued her pivot, she reached into her pocket and produced a single coin. With a single word to trigger the enchantment, the girl tossed the coin onto the floor just as it lit up. The hallway was suddenly as bright as day, leaving the creature that had attacked her reeling.

Fur and muscles had been the right impression. The thing standing there, shielding its eyes from the sudden light, was incredibly muscular, and covered with thick, golden brown fur. Its hands were as big around as frying pans, with claws that were a solid four inches in length. A Stranger. The thing that had broken into the place that meant so much to her grandmother was a Stranger.

Anger erupted inside Pace right alongside the Heretic predatory sense that identified the figure for the monster that he was, and she immediately snatched a pair of knives from her belt. The knives themselves were special, just like all Heretic weapons. In her case, the blades of the knives could be altered to match any material that was placed inside the handle. Additionally, they would return to her hands instantly after being thrown or knocked away. And, with the touch of a button on the hilt, each could produce different gels either along the blade or squirted out the end in a spray. Some of the gels were acidic, others would explode after a few seconds, while still more were a healing salve. The knives could produce over a dozen gels of various effects.

She had often joked that with her healing salve, she could technically stab someone into being healthy, since the power of the healing would quickly outweigh the damage done by the blade itself. But in this case, Pace had no interest into making her target healthy. With a snarl, she flipped the blade in her right hand around, and moved to drive it into the intruder’s chest.

“Gia?!”

The sound of her own name, her birth name, coming from the Stranger’s lips as he stared at her brought Pace up short. She blinked, staring again into that twisted, fur-covered face until the familiarity struck her. Eyes widening, the girl stammered, “Wh–Hansel?”

It was him. The big man who had helped Pace and her grandmother during that wonderful Christmas vacation all those years earlier. The man who had made her laugh, who told her stories and shared M&M’s with her. That man.

“Y-you’re a… you’re a… th-they turned you into a monster,” she half-babbled, feeling tears threatening to flood her eyes. Hansel had been a good memory, one of the last really good memories that she had of time spent with her grandmother. The thought that he had been turned by monsters into this made her sick.

But the man himself slowly shook his head. The fangs, claws, and fur retreated until he looked the way she remembered. “Turned? Gia, I haven’t turned into anything. I’ve been like this since I was a little kid. Aww, man, kid, what did they do to you?”

Kill him. It’s a trick. Put him down before he attacks again. Those thoughts and more all filled Pace’s head, as she watched for an opening. With her speed, it wouldn’t take much.

And yet, she didn’t move to attack. With her knives up defensively, she shook her head. “Wh-what are you–no. No, no. You were n-nice. You were good. Abuelita Romina, she was–and we were–you were around all those kids! Did you–did you eat th-

“Uncle Hansel!” A voice from behind the big, furry man called. “Did yo–Heretic!”

A boy was suddenly trying to dart past Hansel to lunge at her, but the big man grabbed his arm to stop him. “Reed, no!”

Reed. Reed was the name of one of that boy from before, one of the youngest children that Pace remembered from her time helping her grandmother at this place. Now, he was around the same age that she had been back then. And he too was setting off her Heretic sense. As she stared at the kid, Pace felt the familiar predatory sense, the rush of almost-hunger, the quickened heartbeat, the thrill of the hunt.

For several long, silent seconds, all three figures stared at one another. Pace felt her heart trying to shatter apart. The best memory that she had of time with her grandmother, and it was… it was with…

“You’re monsters,” she managed finally, voice cracking.

Carefully holding an arm in front of the boy protectively, Hansel slowly shook his head while watching her. “That’s not true, Gia. Nothing’s changed here except you. Both of us are the same now as we were back then.” He lifted his chin, eyes narrowing. “You wanna know the truth? You wanna know what happened to your grandmother, and to this place?”

Before she could respond, Reed himself immediately blurted, “It was their fault, the Heretics!”

“Reed, stop.” Hansel ordered. His eyes softened, and he looked to Pace before nodding.

Then he explained. According to the man, Romina had been at the youth center when Heretics attacked, ambushing the people inside, who had all been Strangers. Or, as he put it, Alters. Alternative from human. Romina, as a human, wasn’t directly attacked. But the shock of seeing all these people that she cared about, including children, being slaughtered was too much. That was what actually caused the woman’s fateful heart attack.

By the time Hansel finished speaking, Pace had crumpled to the floor with her back to the wall. The knives had fallen from her hands, and she simply sat there, staring at nothing. Her voice was shaken. “I… I d-don’t believe you.”

But her words were unconvincing, a last, pathetic grasp for the certainty that she’d had before, the knowledge that she and her fellow Heretics were good and that the monsters were bad.

“Some of us like to come back here sometimes,” Hansel quietly informed her, his voice gentle. “Mostly for the memories. This was a good time, while it lasted. Your grandmother was an amazing woman, even if she didn’t know what we were.” He paused for a moment then, watching the girl in silence before carefully asking, “Are you okay?”

“Am I–” Pace barked a humorless laugh at that. “Am I okay? Am I…” She shook her head. “No, I’m a long way from okay. I’m–” She stopped, giving a violent shudder. How many had she killed? How many had she–

She turned suddenly, throwing up right there on the floor as a sense of horrified revulsion washed over her. Everything. Everything she had done. How much of it was to innocent creatures, innocent people, just like Hansel and Reed?

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her words meant not for the two standing in front of her, but for those long-dead figures. “I’m so sorry. God. Oh, God. A la verga.”

No more. Not again. Never again. She would fix this. She would do something about it. Whatever it took, whatever she had to do, Pace would fix it. She would expose the truth, find a way to make everyone understand what they were doing.

But one thing was for sure, no matter what happened, Pace made a single vow to herself, a vow to her grandmother’s memory, a promise to the woman she had loved so much.  

Whatever happened, whatever they did to her, she would never kill another innocent creature.

Interlude 30B – Avalon

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Hours after Flick and the others were banished to Seosten space. 

A scream, raw and primal, filled the air as a table was upended, books, papers, and random writing implements scattering in every direction along the floor with a terrifying crash.

“I told you!” the beautiful, dark-haired girl blurted in a rush as she stared at the nearby woman, the only other occupant of this small, out-of-the-way office where she’d managed to escape interrogation by the Committee stooges. “I told you I shouldn’t have a roommate! I told you!”  

Gaia Sinclaire gave a slight nod, her voice quiet and even. “You did indeed tell me that, yes.”  

Avalon turned her head sharply, avoiding her adoptive mother’s patient, caring look. She didn’t want to feel better. She didn’t want to feel safe and protected. She wanted… she wanted… With a frustrated growl, the girl lashed out once more. Her fist hit the nearby wall hard enough to leave a crack in it, an impressive feat for one without any kind of supernaturally enhanced strength. It also hurt, but she welcomed the pain. Physical pain was better than this anguish.

“But you didn’t listen. You didn’t listen.” Her voice cracked, breaking a little as her head shook violently back and forth. “And now look. What happened, just because you wouldn’t listen?”

After waiting a moment to ensure that she was actually expected to answer the question, Gaia inclined her head while replying, “You found someone to open up to, someone you care about.”

“Yeah,” Avalon spoke in a flat, dull voice while her head dropped so that she could stare intently at the floor. “And now look at what that got her. She’s gone. They took her. They… took… her.”

Snapping her head up to glare at the woman with anger that was never truly meant for Gaia herself, the girl demanded, “If you hadn’t made us roommates, they wouldn’t have her now!”

It was ridiculous, absurd. She knew that even as the words left her mouth. Before they left her mouth, even. Both she and Gaia were fully aware of just how wrong what she’d said was. But she still had to say them. Saying something was as close as she could get to doing something.

“My dear Valley.” Gaia’s voice was soft, and came from directly behind Avalon as the woman’s hands settled on her shoulders gently. “I didn’t put the two of you together because I thought that you would never experience any pain or loss because of it. I didn’t introduce you thinking that you would somehow avoid ever knowing the true anguish of the other being in danger.”

“Then why?” Avalon’s voice was plaintive, as she turned to face the older woman directly. “Why would you put us together like that when you knew that it would put Felicity in danger, after she was already in danger? Why would you make things even worse for her, even harder?”

Gaia slowly lowered her hands, resting them on Avalon’s shoulders once more as she spoke clearly. “Avalon, loss and fear of loss is a part of life. Some people say that you have two choices, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with people that you care about, or closing yourself off completely so you never have to risk losing anything. But what they don’t understand is that by closing themselves off, they’ve already lost. In their fear of what they could potentially lose, they’ve actually lost every possible bit of love and friendship they could have had.

“You want to know why I put you two together even though it put you in danger from Felicity’s enemies and her in danger from yours? It’s because the two of you make each other stronger.  You have taught her more this year about protecting herself than she ever would have learned without you. And she has taught you as well. She’s taught you to open up, to trust others. And where Felicity is right now, she is going to survive because of what you taught her. She is strong, and she has that strength, in part, because of you. The two of you make each other better people. You need each other, and she is going to need you when she gets back here.”

Avalon lowered her gaze while shaking her head for a moment. Her shoulders were hunched, and it took time for the girl to find her voice, shaky as it was. “You… really think she’ll be back?” She didn’t sound like herself, even to her own ears. She sounded like a little girl. “They have her. They took her. They’re probably–” She cut herself off, unwilling to continue that thought.

Slowly, Gaia reached out. Her finger found Avalon’s chin, tilting her head up so that the girl had to look into her eyes. “Of all the many powers that I possess, none allow me to see the future with that kind of clarity. But I can tell you this much with the same certainty that I use when saying that the sun will rise in the morning. Felicity Chambers will make those people regret taking her. She will bring them pain and misery, and for many of them, underestimating her will be the last thing that they ever do. Will she make it back here? I believe so. And we will do everything, everything we can to make that happen. You have my word. But never, ever let yourself believe that things would have been easier if you had not opened up to that girl. Life is for living, Avalon. You are meant for much greater things than simply locking yourself away.”

By that point, Avalon’s eyes had closed. Hot, wet tears stung as they escaped to fall freely along her face, leaving her make-up runny and splotched. “But it hurts,” she protested weakly, shaking a little as she clenched her fists tightly. For a moment, she stood like that. “It hurts so much.”

“I know.” Gaia’s voice had softened even more, and she carefully, gently gathered her adopted daughter into her arms, pulling her close as she whispered, “I know it does, my dear, sweet girl.”

The two stood like that for a few minutes before Gaia’s head turned just as there was a simple, quiet knock at the nearby door. She gave Avalon another brief squeeze, then turned and spoke without raising her voice above the gentle whisper she had been using. “Yes, Counselor?”

The door opened then, and Calafia took a single step inside. “Certain members of the Committee have been insisting that we speak to Avalon. But,” she added after giving the girl in question a brief glance, “I believe they would settle for speaking with her mother instead.”

“They will have to settle for that.” Gaia’s voice was firm, brooking no argument. “And they will have to wait until I’ve finished here. Give me another few minutes and then I’ll join you.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment and agreement to that, Calafia paused. Her eyes found Avalon, and she spoke carefully. “For what it’s worth, I hope we find her. And the rest of them.”

Once she had stepped back out of the room, and Gaia indicated it was safe to talk again, Avalon immediately asked, “Have you said anything to her yet? About… about her showing up at Felicity’s house, about helping her father beat the Bystander Effect, about any of it?”

“Not yet,” Gaia answered softly. “That is a conversation that must happen when she is ready to have it. Pushing the issue too soon would be unhelpful.” She looked to the girl then, her voice even more gentle. “Will you be alright for a few minutes while I speak with the Committee?” She raised a hand, snapping her fingers to create a portal nearby. “You may wait in my office.”

“You know I won’t be okay until we get Felicity back,” Avalon replied in a dull voice, already turning to walk that way as she continued. “But yeah, I’ll wait there. Might as well.”

Then she stepped through the portal and into Gaia’s large office with its two-tiered structure, holographic globe in the domed ceiling full of various green, yellow, and red flares marking possible Stranger sightings, and the set of ‘windows’ that the headmistress used to watch over various parts of the world. Specifically, her eyes found the window that had overlooked Felicity’s house while her father had still been living there. It was different now, a view of some random, closed-down video rental store in some random city. Why it was important, Avalon had no idea.  

Sighing, she took a seat at the headmistress’s desk, resting her arms and head on the smooth, polished surface. For a few minutes, the girl did nothing but sit there, eyes closed as she fought against the despair that threatened to overwhelm her despite Gaia’s words. Felicity. Why did they have to take Felicity? Why couldn’t she have stopped them? Why didn’t she… why didn’t…

The girl sighed once more, cursing out loud as she sat up abruptly, trying to knock her own thoughts out of the jumbled mess they had become. She wanted to do something, wanted to accomplish something. But what? Charmiene was dead, and they had no idea who her partner was. What could she possibly do besides sit here at the desk and accomplish absolutely noth–

Standing up so fast that the chair she had been sitting in tipped over and hit the floor, Avalon pivoted and started to move. Crossing the room at something approaching a sprint, she went straight for one of the nearby bookshelves. Whispering a prayer that the thing she was looking for was still there, she started taking books out and flipping through them. The books were spelled so that most people couldn’t even take them without setting off an alarm. Hell, the entire office was spelled that way. But Avalon was one of the very, very few people who were allowed.

It didn’t take long to find it. Halfway through the third book, there was a small metal box inserted in a cutout section. Opening that quickly, the girl took out a small, simple-looking metal key.

“Got you,” she snarled under her breath, not referring to the object itself. Straightening, the girl strode to the nearby door. Grasping the knob, she shoved the key into the lock, taking a breath before quickly shoving it open, stepping through, and letting the door close behind herself.

She wasn’t in the hallway. Or any hallway. Instead, Avalon found herself standing in a dimly lit room, facing a very familiar prison cell with an even more familiar figure standing on the other side of the bars, as if he had somehow been waiting for her to arrive.

“Hannah.” Trice somehow made her birth name sound like the world’s most vile curse. His hands moved to grasp the bars in front of him, making it immediately clear that he wished they were around her throat instead. “What happened? They end up killing that little girlfriend of y-”

Her foot lashed out, kicking the cell door hard enough that it rattled violently, making Trice take a reflexive step back before he caught himself. “Oh,” he announced then, seeing the look on her face. “I guess something bad did happen, huh?” His smile dropped. “Good. I hope it hurts.”

That was all it took. In truth, it would have taken even less. As soon as the boy finished speaking, Avalon was already moving. Her arm snapped up, as her gauntlet created a glowing energy construct in the shape of a blunt pole. It slammed into the boy’s chest, forcing him backwards as she moved forward until he hit the far wall. She held him there, unlocking the cell door with the key while the boy grunted. She tossed the key over her shoulder and to the floor, far enough away from the cell that she would have to use an energy construct to get it back.

Then she was inside the cell, shutting the door behind herself with a definitive clang. With that, she’d locked herself in the same small space as the boy who had been trying to kill her all year.

Trice was staring at her as she kept him pinned against the wall. Meeting his gaze, Avalon announced flatly, “No powers. They don’t work in here. And nobody else. No lackeys, no friends, no bodyguards, no spies. Just the two of us.” Her chin rose. “You’ve been trying to kill me all year.”

With that, she deactivated her gauntlet, freeing the boy as she snarled darkly, “So bring it.”

She didn’t have to tell him twice. The second the energy pole holding him back disappeared, Trice was already moving, and he was still incredibly fast. Despite the time he had spent locked up in the room, the boy’s reflexes and speed hadn’t dulled much, if any. He was suddenly right in front of her, fist swinging for her face while he snarled furiously, “That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch!”

Avalon pivoted, snapping her arm up to deflect the incoming punch. Even that, with her gauntlet blunting most of what was left of the impact, felt like her arm had been hit with a hammer. Pain exploded in her. Good pain. Physical pain. Pain she could understand.

She embraced it.

With a grunt, the girl caught hold of Trice’s outstretched arm, slamming it down into her rising knee as she drove her leg upward. She heard the snap as the bone cracked, and Trice gave a slight inhale of restrained pain. Then his other fist connected with her face, and her head was rocked backward like she’d been hit by a truck.

He hit her again, twice more. Once again in the face, and then in the stomach while letting out a primal bellow of anger. Then he went for a full backhanded blow with the back of his fist. As it came around, Avalon ducked at the last second before pivoting as she popped back up. Catching his arm with one hand and shoulder with the other, she gave the boy a shove against the nearby wall, slamming his face into the concrete there. Then she yanked him back by the hair before slamming his face even harder into the wall.

His flailing elbow caught her in the gut, and Avalon stumbled backward, releasing him. Instantly, the boy spun with a kick that took her in the chest. Pain. More pain. She staggered, while Trice drove the heel of his hand toward her face, hitting her nose hard enough to break it and send blood spraying.

With a violent, crazed scream, the boy grabbed her hair with the hand connected to his cracked arm. Yanking it up so that she had to look at him, he reared back before driving his fist toward her face once more.

Her arms snapped up and together, trapping Trice’s own arm between them just before his fist could reach her. Then her foot lashed out, kicking him in the knee as hard as she could. As he grunted and stumbled, Avalon smacked his other hand away from her hair before ducking and stepping out to put herself on the outside of his outstretched arm. Her hand caught his wrist then, shoving it against the wall to hold his hand there before she brought her other arm down on the exact same spot she had hit before.

That time, the bone didn’t just crack. It broke. And she was rewarded with a cry of pain, even as Trice spun to grab for her with his other hand.

She stepped into it, but before his fingers could do more than grasp for her, she put her own fist into his nose, rocking the boy’s head backward and dazing him for a brief instant.

“Torv was my friend!” Avalon’s voice, shaky and broken filled the air before she even realized that she was going to say anything. And yet, the words came as quickly and easily as if a faucet had been turned. And like a faucet, they came with water as tears sprang to her eyes.

“He was my friend!” Her fist hit the boy in the face, rocking backward before doing so a third time, all before he could recover.

“He was my only friend!

Pivoting once more, the girl brought her foot up as she spun, kicking Trice hard in the gut to double him over as she continued through the tears. “They turned him! They used magic to fuck with his head! They destroyed him! They–they made my only–” She backhanded the boy before he could straighten up. “–only friend try to fucking–” Stepping in, Avalon caught the boy’s other arm as he swung at her taking the pain on her hand without even truly noticing it as she forced it back to snap his wrist. “–rape me!”

Her knee hit the boy’s gut then, and she barely remembered moving that close to him. “You think I wanted to kill him?! You think I wanted to kill my friend?!

“It was them! It was the same fucking people that you’ve been helping, you stupid, pathetic, arrogant son of a bitch!”

Trice slumped a little, and she drove her knee up into his gut again before turning to throw him to the floor. Then she was on top of him. She couldn’t see anymore, the tears fully blinding the girl while she drew her fist back and lashed out, feeling the boy’s face under her blow before she did so again, and again. Then she simply grabbed his shoulders, shaking him.

“We could have helped each other! We could have made them pay for it, for your brother! We could have avenged him, could have made them pay for what happened to Torv! But you are so fucking stupid that you let them manipulate you! You’ve been helping the people who were actually responsible for your brother’s death, you stupid piece of shit!”

Her sobbing had taken over. She couldn’t see, couldn’t think, couldn’t even breathe properly, let alone hit the boy anymore. All she could do was sit there atop him, head down as her tears fell freely. Yet still, the words came, in a voice that was weak and broken. .

“Torv was my friend. They took him away. And you helped them.

“You helped them.”

The sound of the cell door opening should have drawn her attention, but she didn’t move. Arms went around her, gently lifting Avalon from her place on top of the boy she had beaten in more than one way.

“My brave girl.” Gaia whispered, hoisting her up before turning to carry her from the cell, before the door closed behind her to leave Trice where he was.

“You knew.” Avalon whispered, her voice cracked and dry. “You knew I’d go in there.”

They were back in Gaia’s office then, as the woman quietly replied, “I knew what you had to do. I know you.”

“How did you know… that I wouldn’t kill him? Or that he wouldn’t kill me?”

Gaia carefully set her down in a bed that had appeared from nowhere. Her hand gently touched Avalon’s face. “As I said, my daughter.

“I know you.”

******

It had been a long day. A long day of trying to keep herself together, of trying to be the best she could without… without Felicity. Yet, as the sun set, Avalon found herself out on the beach. Instead of looking to the ocean, however, she turned and walked into the jungle.

For over an hour, the girl strode through the darkness, ignoring the sounds and cries of the animals as they moved all around her. She walked away from the beach, away from the school, away from everything, until there was nothing but wild plants and beasts in every direction.

Until she was completely alone.

Except she wasn’t. She would never be alone. They wouldn’t let her. They would always be there, watching and waiting for their chance to take something else from her.

“Well?!” she finally demanded in a shout while turning in a circle with her arms raised into an expectant shrug. “You wanted me so bad, where the hell are you now?! I’m right here!” Continuing her slow pivot, the girl scanned the darkness, openly shaking with uncontained emotion.

“You hunted down my mother!” she called, anger twisting a knot into her stomach. “You killed her! You turned my abusive fucking father into a vampire just so he could keep trying to hurt me over, and over, and over again! You used magic so that my best friend tried to rape me, and made me kill him! You made me kill my best friend, the first kid who was nice to me! You drove me away from the only place I felt safe! You made all these other people try to kill me, you enslaved my teammate, you murdered another classmate, you tried to kill or enslave everyone else on my team, and now you’ve taken away my–” She choked. “Now you’ve taken Felicity!”  

She was still turning in that slow, deliberate circle, eyes scanning the darkness fruitlessly. “So where are you?! I’m right fucking here, you fucking cowards! Do something! If you’re so powerful, if you’re so god damn terrifying, then fucking do something, you fucking cowards!

Silence. Her words, her demand, was met with nothing but total and complete silence, save for the sounds of the surrounding jungle as the rest of the animals went about their business.

Nothing. No one came. As she stood there, waiting for another long minute, Avalon trembled with unconstrained emotion. Fear, anger, remorse, grief for the life she had never been allowed to have, for the mother she would never know, all filled her.

“Yeah,” she finally spoke, her voice slightly quieter. “That’s what I thought. For all your fucking power, for all your fucking armies and your entire gods damned empire, you are nothing but a bunch of fucking cowards.”

Once more, her words were met with silence that dragged on for over a minute before the sound of crunching leaves made Avalon’s gaze snap that way. She had just raised her hands, shifting into a defensive position, when a familiar figure came into view.

“… Hayes?” Avalon stared. Sure enough, Harper Hayes, the weirdly chipper and bubbly girl with more scratch and sniff stickers than anyone in the world actually needed, was stepping into view.

“Hi, Avalon!” Harper chirped, waving a hand, which sent the assortment of bracelets she was wearing spinning and jangling. With her other hand, she held up the camera that was hung around her neck. “I was just getting some really good shots when you shouting. Couldn’t tell what you were saying, but it sounded like you were in trouble. Um. Were you in trouble?”

Was she a threat? Was this a trick? Avalon didn’t let her guard down, watching the girl intently. Sure, from all appearances, Harper Hayes was just an ordinary, innocent little… well, Mini-Nevada. But still…

Finally, the girl shook that off. “I’m fine,” she replied flatly. “Just working out stress.”

“Oh, yeah!” Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Sure, cuz of your… I mean, cuz you know who is still missing and–Uh, do you think they’re okay?”

Somehow, the awkwardness of the response lowered Avalon’s guard a little more. “I don’t know,” she answered with flat truthfulness. “But they better be.”

Coughing, the pink-haired girl gave an awkward nod. “Oh, well, yeah, I bet you’ll kick their asses anyway. You and your mom and all the…” She trailed off then, kicking at the dirt before looking up. “Listen, I know I’m not… like, part of your little group or anything. You don’t know me, and you probably don’t care what I think. But… but I’ve seen Flick fight, and… and wherever she and those other guys are, it’ll… it’ll take a lot to hurt her. I mean–” She stopped herself, taking a breath. “I think they’ll be okay. I hope they are.”

For a moment, Avalon just stared at the girl. A dozen possible responses filled her mind, some of them not very nice. Finally, she just lowered her head and gave a slight nod while muttering, “Thanks.”

“Sure!” Harper grinned. “Us Gauntlet-sisters gotta stick together, right?” She held her own up demonstrably. Unlike Avalon’s, the other girl’s generated various kinds of bombs, like fire, water, deafening, and so on.

“Right.” With that flat, unconvincing response, Avalon turned on her heel to walk back the way she had come. The Seosten wouldn’t try anything with Harper there. If they had even been nearby in the first place.

But she’d moved barely thirty feet before something caught her eye. Blood. There wasn’t much of it, just a small spot on a nearby tree. For a moment, Avalon paused, staring at the little splotch. It could have come from anything. The jungle wasn’t a very nice place. And yet…

“Hey!” Harper popped up behind her, blinking. “What’re we looking at? Oooh, is it one of those kakapo? You know there’s only supposed to be like a hundred of them in New Zealand, but some guy moved a few of them out here, just in case they go extinct in the Bystander world. I think that’s really cool, and–”

“It’s not a bird, Hayes,” Avalon interrupted, nodding to the spot. “Just blood.”

“Blood?” the girl blinked that way before drooping. “Aww, do you think one of the kakapo died?”

The emotional reflex to snap at that popped up before Avalon clamped down on it. “It’s not the– I mean, never mind.” Sighing, she reached out. Conjuring the smallest blade through her gauntlet that she could, the girl cut out that part of the tree, carefully taking the bit of wood with the blood on it before dropping the piece into her pocket.

“Wow!” Harper cluelessly blurted, “you collect weird things too? I’ve got this necklace made out of teeth, and each of them is from a different–”

“Hayes,” Avalon interrupted, already turning to keep walking. “You’ll have more things to take pictures of if you’re quiet.”  

Quickly pantomiming zipping her own lips, the other girl walked alongside her. Or rather, skipped alongside her. How she managed to skip through the jungle without tripping, slipping, or crashing into anything, Avalon had no idea. It had to be some kind of superpower.

The blood was probably nothing. Just an animal or something that had gotten snatched by a predator. But just in case, she would get it tested. If, by some random miracle, it turned out to be important, then… well, at least they would have something.

Leaving Harper once they reached the school grounds, Avalon made her way to the dorms. Some people spoke to her, offered encouragement or what they thought of as advice. But she barely acknowledged it, barely even heard it. She just had to get away. She had to get out of sight, had to get to where she could be left alone.

Finally, she made it to her room. Their room. Stepping inside before closing the door behind herself, Avalon took a breath. Slowly, her eyes moved to the other side of the room, to Felicity’s side.

“Please,” she whispered, her voice a strained, weak little plea that made her flinch inwardly. Still, she stepped over that way, sitting on the edge of the girl’s bed before putting her hand on Felicity’s pillow.

“Please be okay. I didn’t… I don’t tell you this enough. I don’t know how to tell you. I don’t know how to express it. But I–I need you to be okay. I’m just–I’m drowning here. I can’t do this without you. I can’t… I can’t lose you. They can’t take you away too. They can’t have you. They can’t have you. So you have to be okay. You hear me? I need you. I need you. Be okay, or I’ll…”

Trailing off, the girl just sat there. Her mouth worked a couple times, before she slowly laid down there on Felicity’s bed. Curling up, Avalon wrapped both arms around the pillow, holding it close while her eyes closed.

All these things that she had done, having a heart-to-heart with her adopted mother, having it out with Trice and finally saying everything she wanted to say while also beating the stupid son of a bitch, screaming in the jungle for the Seosten to just stop being cowards and do something directly, all of it was supposed to make her feel better. It should have made her feel better. But it didn’t. None of it did. Instead, Avalon just felt… tired. Tired and alone.

“I miss you,” she whispered in a voice that was almost inaudible.

“I really miss you.”

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Interlude 30 – Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, and Twister

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“Now ain’t this just great? The daring duo, back together again for a reunion tour.”

On the tail of his pronouncement, Seth turned on his heels to walk backward down the damp sidewalk, long brown coat flapping a bit in the breeze as he passed in and out of the illumination cast by the flickering streetlights. Smirking, he added, “With a few additions, of course.”

It was, for certain, an eclectic group. Beyond Seth, they consisted of Asenath, the daughter of his sire and the girl he considered a sister; Namythiet, his tiny yet fierce apprentice who happened to be a pixie; her animal guardian Clubber the green sabertooth tiger cub; and Asenath’s frequent partner, the mercenary Pooka named Twister. Senny and Twister walked alongside one another, while Namythiet rode on the back of her emerald-furred companion.

In response to Seth’s words, Asenath simply gave the old vampire a brief eye roll. “First, we were never a duo. Ever. You’d have to actually care about someone besides yourself before we could be an actual duo.”

Maybe it was unfair. But the vampire girl had seen Seth walk away from people who needed help too often for her to forgive him just because he tended to be charismatic about it. If something didn’t directly affect him, he had no problem with just letting bad things happen.

Still walking backwards, Seth put a hand over his heart while adopting a look of mock pain. “Ouch. You wound me, little sister. Come on. We’re here, aren’t we? All fighting the good fight.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “because Gaia Sinclaire paid you an obscene amount of money to be here.”

The man huffed indignantly at that before his head shook as he turned back the other way. “Now, I take offense at that. As if I would’ve spent this much time on this hunk of rock and still needed cash. The lovely headmistress paid me in a couple of unique, rare artifacts, not money.”

Though it had been raining all day long in the city of Baltimore where they were walking, the storm had, for the moment at least, let up somewhat. Still, the street was relatively empty, save for the occasional passerby or two hurrying to get home before the rain started once more.

“I’m the one she paid in cash,” Twister put in, raising a hand as they passed one of those small  groups rushing for cover. “I like cash. It’s fun to roll around in. Especially if you’re naked.”

Sighing as the three random humans they had just passed did a quick double-take and immediately started whispering, Asenath lowered her voice. “Twist, seriously? Please don’t talk about rolling around naked when we’re near humans. You still look like you’re twelve at best.”

“Oh, right, sorry.” Turning that way then, Twister called to the group in the distance. “It’s okay, I’m actually almost a hundred and eight! Or three, depending on which way you count!”

Turning back, she found Senny stopped, arms outstretched in an exasperated shrug. “Why?” the vampire demanded. 

“Oh, chill,” the Pooka replied with an incorrigible grin. “Who are they gonna tell? Besides, we’ll be in and out of here before they even get home. How much further is this place, anyway?”

“We’re here!” Namythiet piped up excitedly then, flying up from her mount to hover in the air between them with a pocket notebook as tall as she was clutched in both hands. “I mean, according to Miss Gaia’s messages, it’s right over there.” She used the notebook to point toward an old, long-since closed down and boarded up video rental store across the street from them.

“Right.” Glad for the distraction, Senny stared at the building appraisingly for a moment. “We get inside, get the thing for Gaia, and get out again. Then we move on to the next one on the list.”  

The list was an extensive one. The Crossroads Headmistress was paying incredibly well for them to acquire a number of incredibly rare materials, some one-of-a-kind. Neither Senny nor any of the others knew exactly why the woman wanted them, only that she was working with someone else they hadn’t actually met on some kind of secret project that required the components. Gaia had sought them out, Twister and Asenath through Gabriel Prosser and the other two through Wonderland (the woman showing up there had caused a bit of a scene, though the fact that she had effortlessly killed the Nocen who were attacking the place at the time had helped).

“So,” Seth started while folding his arms against his chest, “same plan we talked about?”

Asenath nodded. “Go. We’ll wait for you and Namythiet to do your thing. And Seth?” She paused before sighing. “Just be careful. Gaia wouldn’t send all of us if it wasn’t dangerous.”  

“Aww.” The man gave her a sly grin at that. “See, I knew you cared about me after all.”

Opening her mouth to retort, Asenath paused before giving her head a shake. “Just go.”

Regardless of how often they disagreed, Seth had been like a brother or an uncle to her for basically the girl’s entire extensive life. And he was one of the only connections she had left to her father. She didn’t want him to die. She just wanted him to not be such an asshole so often.

“Don’t worry, Miss Senny!” Namythiet put in cheerfully as she buzzed over in front of her face. The pixie had dropped her big notebook in the pouch that Clubber was wearing like a backpack. Now, she held up what looked like an old-school classic Gameboy that had been heavily modified, with several new seemingly random components tacked onto it, including a pair of antennas sticking out of the top left and right corners, and what looked like a string of Christmas lights leading down to something inside of Clubber’s pack that kept blinking on and off. “We’ll do our part lickity-split, and then we can all go in and kick those monsters’ butts!”

With that declaration, Namythiet and Clubber set off, with Seth following behind after giving Asenath a brief, casual salute. As they left, Twister looked to her friend. “Man, you are upset.”

“Of course, I’m upset,” the vampire girl replied while looking away. “Flick and the others are on the other side of the universe, Shiori’s losing her mind, and I can’t do anything about it. If Felicity dies out there, do you have any idea what it’ll do to Shiori? What it’ll do to…” She swallowed.

“What it’ll do to you,” Twister finished for her. “I know. She’s your friend, Senny. She’s a Heretic who actually listened to you. I mean, before we remembered that there used to be a whole revolution full of ‘em. It’s a big deal. I–shit, I’m sorry we’re still stuck here. But at least we’re doing something, right? I mean, if it’s for Sinclaire, it’s gotta be important. Even if she won’t tell us what it is.” Pausing then, she looked to Asenath pointedly. “She really didn’t tell you, huh?”

“Nope.” Senny shook her head, leaning against the nearby streetlight as she gave a small sigh. “All I know is that the things she wants us to get are important, and she can’t do it herself because of the eyes on her. Plus, if they figured out what she was going after, things might get bad. That’s why she’s got some things on the list she doesn’t actually need. Just to throw off anyone who finds out what we’re collecting and tries to figure out how it all goes together.”

“Wait.” Squinting at her then, Twister quickly demanded, “So some of this shit that we’re going to be busting our asses to get is completely useless? And we don’t even know which ones?”

“Not useless,” Asenath corrected. “Just not used for the same thing. Everything she wants us to get is useful, it’s just that they don’t all go together.” She eyed the Pooka. “Wanna back out?”

Twister elbowed her. “Of course not. I’m with you, fam, you know that. Besides…” She sighed. “I’m kinda antsy too, I guess. Might as well do something useful if we can’t get to Flick.”

With that said, she looked over to Asenath curiously. “How’s Abe doing? You check in on him?”

“Of course,” Senny replied with a cough. “I promised Flick I’d keep an eye on her dad. Just because he’s with Prosser doesn’t change that. And you know Lincoln is just his first name.”

“Sure,” the dusky-skinned girl replied, grinning at her companion. “But I like calling him Abe. It’s like our thing, you know? Especially since I can actually talk to him now, instead of barking or meowing or making whatever other animal noise happened to be appropriate at the time.”

“Or even inappropriate,” Senny pointed out with a wry look then. “He told me about the time you actually barked at him as a cat and he thought he was going crazy or something.”

Snickering a bit at the reminder, Twister gave her a thumbs up. “That was awesome. You should’ve seen his face when this sweet little stray kitty comes up and then barks at him like a Doberman. Totally worth it. Hell, I was kinda thinking about seeing how he felt about a squirrel that could roar like a lion, or a bird that mooed before he went and broke the BS effect.”

Before Asenath could respond to that, the phone in her pocket buzzed. She tugged it out and glanced that way before nodding. “Seth says the spell barrier’s down. Time to do our part.”  

“Great.” With a broad smile, Twister cracked her knuckles, then popped her neck before starting to stride that way. “I’ve been waiting to break some shit. Let’s go have some fun.”

Crossing the street, she was already starting to grow… a lot. By the time the Pooka reached the other side, she didn’t look like a little girl at all. No, she was something much, much less subtle.

Trumpeting triumphantly, the twelve-foot tall, thirteen thousand pound African elephant charged across the parking lot, slamming into and through the front entrance of the boarded up store. With an explosion of debris and the protesting shriek of shattering wood, brick, and metal, the doors (and a good portion of the entire wall) were torn through like they weren’t even there.

“Well,” Asenath muttered to herself, “if that didn’t manage to draw their attention, nothing will.”

With that, she took a breath before launching herself that way. Her figure was an indistinct blur as she fairly flew through the opening that Twister had made and into the ‘store’ proper.  

For a place that had looked as rundown from the outside as it had, the inside of the place was much better kept. And it didn’t look at all like a store, for that matter. There were heavy duty safes all along most of the walls, protected by a mixture of advanced technology and spells.

According to Gaia, this was a place where people of very… unsavory reputations kept some of their more important artifacts or valuables. They were protected by a third party, who specialized in being discreet and in keeping their client’s belongings both private and safe from thieves.

Well, they were about to get a bit of a ding against their reputation. As she sprinted into the room, Senny saw about a dozen men in the midst of jerking up from the table in the middle of the room where they had been playing some kind of card game. The majority were at least mostly humanoid-looking at first glance, though the one at the end looked like an anthropomorphic rhino in a rhinestone-covered sweatsuit and gold chains. Several of the others, meanwhile, had different colored skin, too many or too few eyes, or other small reminders that they weren’t actually human. And all of them were packing weapons of one kind or another.  

Two of the men in particular, both of them with enhanced speed and reflexes that almost rivaled Asenath’s, already had some kind of advanced, deadly-looking rifles raised and pointed at the elephant, their fingers starting to pull the triggers as they sighted in on the obvious threat.    

Shooting across the room in another blur of motion, Senny caught one of the rifles by the barrel, shoving it aside before lashing out with a kick at the table itself. The gun in her hand went off with a blinding flash, sending a red laser through one of the other rising men and the nearby wall. Meanwhile, the table itself was flung up and back to slam into the other gunman, knocking him aside just as he pulled the trigger so that his shot went up through the ceiling.

From the corner of her eye, Senny saw one of the other men disappear into the floor, clearly running to call for help. Another turned into a gaseous cloud, while a third grew a foot and a half in an instant, sprouting four new hairy arms and disgusting mandibles. Great. A were-spider. Those were always fun to deal with.

Twister had grabbed one of the men in her trunk, literally throwing him out of the building and across the street with a panicked scream before he hit the wall of the distant apartment building.

The rhino-man batted the overturned table out of his way before lunging toward the big target that Twister represented. Unfortunately for him, that target abruptly wasn’t so big. Twister instantly shifted from elephant down to a tiny chipmunk, and rhino-man stumbled in confusion.

With a cocky chittering sound, the little chipmunk raced up the man’s leg, over his back, and perched right on top of his head.

Then she turned into an elephant again, her mass filling the room and knocking several aside just as they had started to move through that space, and squished the rhino beneath herself.

Chaos filled the relatively small room. Senny and Twister had the element of surprise, since these guys had been relying heavily on their magical warning system that Seth and Namythiet had taken down (the former with his special knife, while the pixie used her technological prowess to make sure that the people inside hadn’t been sent any kind of alert about it). But they still weren’t exactly helpless. And there would be reinforcements coming any minute. If Asenath and the others were going to get away with what they needed, they had to be quick.

To that end, Asenath yanked the rifle out of the first man’s hands, tucking it against one shoulder and pulled the trigger while taking aim at the next threat. Nothing happened, save for a rebukeful buzz. Which meant that the person in charge of these goons was clearly smart enough to make sure that only they could use their weapons, rather than an outsider. Terrific.

Oh well, it could still be used as a club. Flipping the gun around, she hurled it into the next man’s face instead, before twisting aside as one of the other guards swung a sword at her. As the blade cut through the air an inch from her face, Senny stepped in and pivoted to catch the man’s outstretched arm. She heaved, throwing him over her shoulder while stripping the weapon from his grasp. They might not be able to utilize the guns, but a sword she could use.

Or not, as the sword immediately shocked her as she grasped the hilt, open electricity playing over it. She was forced to drop the thing quickly, grimacing. Yeah, whoever was behind these guys had a real thing about stopping intruders from using their own people’s weapons against them. Smart. Annoying, but smart.

The gas-figure flowed around and in front of her, turning solid just as he grabbed her arms to yank them out of the way. Holding her wrists tightly, the exceedingly pale red-haired man sneered at her. “I know you,” he hissed. “You’re the human-loving vampire. You’ve got no–”

She slammed her forehead into his face. As the man recoiled and reflexively turned to smoke once more, Asenath’s foot found the sword from earlier, kicking it up into her hand. She grabbed it, thrusting the weapon forward and through the smoke-figure, ending all the way up to her wrists in the man-shaped cloud.

He started to laugh, then saw the vampire girl’s face. She was smiling at him, baring her teeth just as the sword’s safety measure kicked in. Electricity shot out over the hilt of the sword. Senny jerked and spasmed a bit as the shock flooded into her hands. But that same electricity also went through the smoke-figure, which was enough to shock him back into his physical form. A physical form that happened to have the sword and Asenath’s still-twitching hands buried right in the middle of it.

Releasing the sword with a cry, she let the dead man collapse to the ground while seeking the next threat. Twister had taken a cue from her earlier opponent, turning into an enormous rhino while dealing with the werespider, who kept trying to poison her, spitting acid while backing up.

But they still had trouble. Only about half of the original guards were down, and Senny could hear a handful of trucks tearing down the street toward them. The reinforcements.

“It’s blown, it’s blown!” she called to the other girl, taking the time to grab the table and throw it at the remaining men before pivoting to book it back out through the same hole that they had come in.

Twister was right on her heels, shifting form into a horse in time for Senny to grab on and haul herself up in one smooth motion. Then they were tearing across the parking lot, shots from the surprised guards coming entirely too close for comfort. Distantly as they crossed the street, Senny heard the trucks screeching around the last corner before the men who were already there shouted instructions.

They kept running. Senny clung to Twister’s neck as the horse raced through alleys and along side-streets before abruptly shapeshifting once more. Now, instead of riding a horse, Senny was clutching onto an enormous gorilla as it leapt at the nearest building, climbing rapidly.

They reached the roof, and Asenath hopped off, brushing her hands off as she exhaled.  

“Well,” Seth announced as he emerged from the nearby access door into the building, “you cut that one pretty close. We barely had time to get into the basement and deal with the punks down there.”

Ignoring his complaint, Senny asked, “You got it, though?”

“We got it!” Namythiet confirmed triumphantly. She was hovering above Clubber, as the green saber-tooth trotted forward happily with a leather bag dangling from his mouth.

Seth winked, gesturing in agreement. “Course we got it. Thanks for keeping all the boys upstairs busy. Could’ve been messy if they figured out someone was going after the real good stuff in the cellar.” Nodding with his chin then, he added, “Why do you suppose Sinclaire needs it? And who the hell is she working with on this?”  

Reaching down to take the bag from Clubber before giving him an affectionate rub, Senny straightened with a shake of her head. “I don’t know,” she replied simply while shaking the contents out into her palm. For a moment, she just stared at the small, off-white object in her hand. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” the girl murmured thoughtfully, “if this bit of dragon bone is just the first ingredient for whatever her plan is…

“It’s gonna be a doozy.”

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