Month: February 2018

Lessons 32-01

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Please note, there were two mini-interludes posted over the weekend, one for Joselyn and one for Lincoln. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Also, there will be an important announcement about donation rewards at the end of this chapter, in my first comment. 

For a moment after the woman said those words, my mind reeled, and I was completely silent.


Correction, my brain was silent, but my mouth spoke anyway. Tabbris, so thoroughly shocked by what the older Seosten had said, actually took over reflexively and made me blurt that single word.

I felt her immediate horror at what she had done suddenly take over then, as she mentally retreated. Her frantic apologies filled my head, the self-disgust and shame that the girl felt at the fact that she had actually taken me over for that single word almost making me feel physically ill.

My hand snapped up to stop the woman from talking for a minute. The action was my choice that time, as I focused inward. Tabbris! Tabbris, listen. It’s okay. It’s okay! Just listen to me, okay?

I’m sorry, the response came. The Seosten girl sounded sick, and weak. I’m sorry. I made you talk. I took over and I didn’t even ask. I’m sorry. She said we could find Mama and… and…

And you did the exact thing I would’ve done in your situation, I pointed out. Hell, Tab, I pretty much am in your situation. If someone told me they knew how to save my mom, I’d freak out too. I would. Do not apologize, okay? You apologize when you do something wrong, and you didn’t. You made me say one word. I don’t mind. I’m not mad. Read my mind. You can do that, remember? Read my mind and find out if I’m mad about it. I’m not. And if I’m not mad, you can’t be mad at yourself. You’re my sister, Tabbris. I love you. I’m not mad at you for making me say a single word just because you were so surprised. After everything you’ve done for me, how could I possibly be mad at you for that? It’s okay, I promise. You and me, we’re partners in all this, remember? Partners don’t get mad at things like that. Partners understand. I understand.

For a moment, there was silence. I felt the Seosten girl’s indecision and shame. She really had issues with taking me over, even by accident. I had no idea how it had been for her to act secretly for so long, taking me over and adjusting my memory when she had to. The thought made me wince a little. God, every time I imagined what Tabbris’s life had been like, spending years where nobody knew she existed and she had no idea what had happened to the one woman who was supposed to show up and help take care of her. She had been completely alone, no help, no way of even knowing if she would ever see her mother or Larissa again. And yet, she had kept doing her job. She had kept protecting me, against all that the Seosten had tried. Was I mad at her for having a single moment where she reflexively controlled me? Hell no.

Finally, Tabbris spoke up a little hesitantly. Flick? I’m really glad that I can talk to you now.

Despite myself, I smiled a little bit at that. I’m glad too, Tab. Now no more freaking out about a little accident, okay? There’s a difference between maliciously controlling someone and what you just did. You’re nothing like those bad Seosten. You’re like your mom, and Athena, or Nimue, or whatever she goes by. And Apollo, apparently. See? There’s plenty of good Seosten. There are bad humans and good humans, bad vampires and good vampires, bad werewolves and good werewolves. And there are bad Seosten and good ones. You, you’re one of the good ones. And you’re my sister.

Feeling her acceptance and relief, I finally turned to focus on the woman in front of me. Though in front of us seemed like the more appropriate phrasing since she knew that Tabbris was there.

“Sorry,” I made myself announce in as dry of a voice as I could manage. “Usually I have a much better poker face than that. I can’t imagine what could’ve happened. I guess I wasn’t myself.”

Yeah, it was a bit of a risk. But honestly, it felt like teasing Tabbris just a little bit about it would help make her feel a little more normal. I didn’t want to treat her like I was walking on eggshells. I wanted her to see that I really didn’t mind, that I really was okay with what happened and with the fact that it might happen again. And that meant teasing her a little. At least, to me it did.

Athena/Nimue seemed to understand what was going on, and what I was doing. She gave a slight smile before speaking simply, in a soft, encouraging voice. “I would very much love to meet Sariel’s child. Particularly one who has frustrated poor Manakel and Paschar so thoroughly.”

Sensing my companion’s reluctant hesitation, I gave her a little inward encouragement. It’s okay, Tab. You saw what she did to all those guys back there. If she says you’re safe here, you are.

After another couple of seconds, the by-now familiar glowing figure stepped forward out of me. The glow faded, leaving that little blonde girl staring a bit fearfully up at the woman in front of us. Honestly, that much I couldn’t blame her for. Even without all the other issues, after what we had seen the woman do back on that planet, being intimidated by her was completely understandable.

“A girl… a daughter…” The soft, gentle words left the woman, and she smiled. “Hello, little one.”

“I… I…” Tabbris swallowed audibly, shivering a little before taking what was obviously a reflexive step back. Her hand went back and down, groping until I caught hold of it and gave her a reassuring squeeze to assure her that I was there. Finally, she managed a weak, “H-hello.”

Sinking down to one knee, the woman  spoke softly, like she was trying not to startle an especially skittish deer. “May I have the name of the girl who has my former allies tearing their hair out?”

I could see the blush on the back of Tabbris’s neck as she squirmed self-consciously. “I-um. M-my name is Tabbris.” Her voice was tiny, her nervousness readily apparent as she answered.

“Tabbris.” I saw a small, knowing smile play over the woman’s face for just a moment, and she nodded. “Yes, I suppose she would choose such an appropriate name for you, wouldn’t she?”

My mouth opened to ask what she meant by that, but Tabbris beat me to it. “Um. Appropriate?”

“Yes. Of course she would have–” She paused then, tilting her head a little thoughtfully before asking in a slightly curious voice, “You are aware of what the name actually means?”

As we both shook our heads, the woman chuckled a little bit before carefully explaining, “Tabbris, as far as humans are concerned, was the angel of self-determination and free will.”

Despite myself, I laughed. “Oh. Free will… that… “ Smiling, I squeezed the younger girl’s hand, tugging her back against me. “That is pretty appropriate, isn’t it? You hear that, Tab? Your mom named you after the angel of free will. I–” Pausing then, I hesitated. “But angel names are Seosten names, right? So what kind of Seosten name is something that means free will? I mean… no offense, but that doesn’t really sound appropriate as far as Seosten go. Generally.”

Wincing a little visibly, the brown-haired woman shook her head with a soft sigh. “You are not wrong there, no. Our kind are generally not well known for such things. But… there are almost always exceptions. Tabbris of Llylewys was one such exception. A rather famous one.”

“Tabbris of Llylewys?” Tabbris and I both echoed simultaneously. And boy was it still really strange hearing the girl’s voice out loud like that instead of in my head. Hearing her say the exact same thing that I was saying, only audible for someone else to hear, was even stranger.

“Yes,” the Seosten answered with an amused chuckle as she glanced between us. “And I will tell you about him shortly, you have my word. But for now, please, I have a few very important questions.”

“Mama.” Tabbris looked up. “Y-you said… we could find… Mama…”

“Indeed.” Nodding in agreement, the woman straightened. “As I said, we have much to discuss. I just…” She paused then, swallowing as she looked to Tabbris. “I am very glad to have finally met you, Tabbris. You are… you remind me of your mother, in many ways. But how long?” Her eyes glanced up to me before returning to the tiny Seosten. “How long have you been working so hard? How long have you been protecting this girl?”

“Years,” I answered for her, squeezing the girl’s hand. “Her mom had her… uh, put in me when she was still basically a baby. She put her in some kind of hibernation and taught her everything she needed to know in, like, a virtual reality situation or something for a few years. She put all kinds of memory implants to teach her about everything, and then when she woke up she started… protecting me actively, I guess. And she’s been doing that for years. She stopped the other Seosten from using spells on me. She’s… she’s saved me a lot. More than she’s actually told me about, I’m pretty sure.”

The woman’s eyebrows had shot up dramatically. “Memory implant spells as teaching tools. We spoke of that possibility, and they have been used in minor cases or to share knowledge with a peer. But to construct an entire, as you say, virtual reality simulation based entirely around implanted memories… that would require…” She whistled, long and low while looking awed.

“See?” I teased my little companion a little, moving my free hand to squeeze her shoulder. The bones had completely mended by that point. “Even she thinks that you and your mom are amazing. And she’s–” I paused slightly, looking to her. “Actually, what do we call you? I mean, Radueriel said you were… that you’re…”

“Athena,” she confirmed. “Call me Athena. Some call me Nimue, yes. But… I would rather not use that name while my Arthur remains…” She paused before giving a sharp shake of her head. “I would rather not use that name. And I have forsaken my Seosten name. So please, I am Athena.”

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy did I ever want to ask a lot of questions right then. But I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t get any answers. She clearly didn’t want to talk about it at the moment. So, I just nodded.

Meanwhile, Athena focused on Tabbris once more. “You are so young. So small.” Her hand slowly moved to touch the girl’s face gently, her voice even softer and filled with the kind of awe that I felt whenever I thought about how much Tabbris had done for me. “So small and yet, so utterly brilliant. Do you realize how much you have driven Manakel and the others into fits of hysteria and confusion? Do you have the slightest idea how much effort they and the others have put toward trying to discover how the infamous Joselyn Atherby’s daughter was rendered immune to Seosten possession?

“And in the end, it was simply… you. A child, thwarting millennia-old Seosten. Amazing.” Her smile grew, as she shook her head in wonder. “You are truly amazing.”

For her part, the girl blushed deeply and squirmed, her hands fidgeting like she didn’t know what to do with them. It was kind of adorable. “I–I didn’t–I mean, I just–I was just trying to help.”

“Believe me when I tell you that you have helped,” Athena assured her sagely. “You have helped more than you can possibly know. The conversations about Lady Felicity’s supposed immunity that I have heard…” She chuckled, shaking her head while running a hand over Tabbris’s head fondly. “I would very much like to see the look on their faces when they discover the truth.”

“That can’t happen,” I blurted, interrupting quickly. “They can’t find out about her.”

“Not for quite some time, no,” the woman agreed with a nod. “Be at ease. Your secret is safe here. As far as anyone else is concerned, you will simply be another Seosten child on this station.”

My mouth opened, but it was Tabbris who piped up, “Another Seosten child?”

Chuckling, Athena nodded once more. “Yes. We have a dozen or so here with us who are within a few years of your age. Would you like to meet them?”

The girl’s head bobbed quickly, before she amended, “But… Mama…”

“And the others,” I put in, before we could get any more offtrack. “I have to let the others know that I’m okay, and how to find us. They’re probably–” I flinched. As thoroughly distracting as all of this had been, thinking about how Sands, Larissa, and the others were no doubt reacting made me focus. “They’re probably freaking out right now.”

Athena addressed me first. “Yes, I have people who will find your friends and get a message to them. But it will take some time. As will preparing to locate your mother,” she added to Tabbris. “But I promise you both, we are working on it. We will bring your friends here, and we will find Sariel.”

She looked to the younger Seosten then, her gaze softening. “As I said, doing so will require your blood, and a fair bit of time. Kushiel has her… lab hidden quite well. But with the blood of Sariel’s daughter, and enough time, we should be able to locate it. I only ask for patience.”

Tabbris squirmed, but gave a little nod. “Can… can we meet the other Seosten? There’s… there’s really kids? And they’re… they’re not… bad?”

Smiling warmly, Athena gestured with one hand. “Yes. And you can meet them, along with the rest of our people. Seosten and non-Seosten alike. We call ourselves the Aelaestiam. And if you like, I will introduce you.”

The two of us exchanged brief looks before we both nodded. “Yes,” I agreed, “Yes, we’d like that a lot.” I had a feeling that, among other things, seeing other Seosten who weren’t total monsters would be incredibly good for Tabbris’s mental state. So I was willing to set aside my own feeling of helpless impatience. Because that was unbelievably important. Tabbris deserved to feel better about herself, about her species.

“Good.” Athena gestured, and some kind of glowing forcefield rose up around the three of us before it began to lift off the ground. It was an elevator of some kind, and it was carrying us up toward the ceiling. “We will go and meet everyone, then.”

As the forcefield elevator rose into the air, I asked, “Where is everyone? I mean, all those houses we passed were empty, and it sure didn’t look like there was anyone in those other species’ environments.”

“They are working, or at school,” the Seosten woman explained. “We put a great deal of emphasis on education here. While you are here, you will be expected to learn. And to train.”

I coughed, smiling despite myself. “Believe me, you’re scary, but not nearly as scary as my girlfriends would be if they ever found out I wasn’t training while I was out here.”

Athena gave me a brief look at that, raising an eyebrow. But before she could say anything, Tabbris piped up. “C-could… um, could you…” She stretched out to the side on one foot, fidgeting as she caught hold of her raised heel absently. Unfortunately, doing so over-extended her balance, and she gave a sudden yelp before pratfalling.

“Ow,” she complained, sitting there on her backside with a tiny, adorable scowl. “I’m used to being taller. And more coordinated. And… and… not so weird.” Making a face, she blew hair out of her eyes before looking up earnestly as she picked herself off the floor. “Could you tell us about Tabbris? The other Tabbris.”

By that point, a space in the metal ceiling above us had opened up, as the forcefield elevator rose into another, much smaller room. It was about forty feet by thirty feet, with room for several more of these elevators to rise up. Ahead were a few sets of doors which, judging from the signs (written in a language I didn’t know) above them that seemed to indicate where they would take the person, probably all went through portals into different areas of the station.

“Yes,” Athena agreed, stepping off the elevator while motioning for us to do the same. She turned to face us once we joined her.

“Tabbris, that Tabbris, was a Seosten who lived over a hundred thousand years ago. Llylewys was his choir.  Kind of like a clan or family,” she added to me briefly before continuing. “Tabbris of Llylewys was an incredibly powerful, incredibly rich young man. And he was also one of the only open advocates of peaceful integration with other worlds that has ever sat as a Seraphim.”

Again, she looked to me, explaining, “The Seraphim are our leadership. Similar to your Committee, only… different in many ways. But the same general idea is there, unsurprisingly.”

Biting my lip, I nodded. “So this original Tabbris was some important senator-type guy, got it. And he was an advocate for, what did you say, peaceful integration with other worlds?”

“Yes,” Athena confirmed simply. “He spent his entire career and most of his considerable power and fortune arguing for more ethical treatment of non-Seostens. His speeches are considered legendary today, though most don’t actually pay attention to what he’s actually saying. He’s seen as little more than a fool by the Seosten leadership. He always was. But he fought for what he believed in, more than once and in more than one way. With his vast money and seemingly inexhaustible resources, he purchased an entire planet and made it a refuge for all non-Seosten to live freely. The planet was surrounded by weapons, shields, and every anti-Seosten defense that Tabbris and his people could dream up. It was a variation of one of Tabbris’s spells that I taught to Arthur and his knights so that they would know if any of their people were possessed and cast the Seosten out of them. The place was perfectly safe.”

“It sounds incredible,” I agreed. “Whatever happened to it? I mean, that was a long time ago.”

The woman’s head shook. “You see, that is actually the most legendary part of all. Because the truth is, nobody knows. After he set the planet up and brought over as many free beings as he could, Tabbris wiped its location and every specific thing about it from the minds of everyone else in the universe. Anyone who knew exactly where it was one day forgot about it the next.”

My mouth fell open at that. All I managed to do was make a brief, protesting squeak as my brain locked up completely. Just in front of me, Tabbris seemed to be coming up with pretty much the same reaction. She was the first to recover enough to actually ask, “Wh-what? He erased it from everyone’s mind? But that would take… th-the power that would–he couldn’t… he couldn’t!”

“Yes,” Athena replied with a little smile of amusement, “that was pretty much everyone else’s reaction at the time, apparently. Except, as it turns out, he didn’t actually do it alone. Technically, the man had the aid of every sitting Seraphim at the time. And likely most of their staffs as well.”

Squinting at the woman, I tried to figure out if she was messing with us. That time, I was the first one to find my voice, as I quickly demanded, “How could he possibly convince all of the Seosten leadership to help him erase an entire planet from everyone’s memory, including theirs?!”

“As absurd as it sounds,” the woman explained, “it actually wasn’t that difficult. He simply had to be patient. Obviously, it took quite some time for the investigation to turn up what actually happened. But, essentially, the original Tabbris spent over a decade preparing for what he ended up doing. You see, the committee within the Seraphim that he was a part of required that he collect what amounted to magical signatures from each and every Seraphim. Those were, essentially, a small bit of their own spellpower that proved that they agreed with whatever the energy was attached to. Since it’s their own personal mana, brought from their own body and tied to the object listing the agreement, it’s much harder for them to claim they didn’t agree with it later on.

“But I don’t understand how–” I started before blinking. “Wait, did he figure out how to… I mean…” I trailed off, uncertain of myself. But as I glanced to Athena, she had gone silent. The woman patiently watched, seemingly just fine with waiting while I worked it out. Biting my lip, I guessed, “Did he figure out how to, like, take a little bit of that energy each time?”

She smiled, lifting her head in a nod while giving me an approving look that made me flush a little bit. “Correct. Somehow, Tabbris managed to place a siphon spell on those same signature objects which took just a little bit of their power every time they signed it. What’s more, it would continue draining them constantly for those ten years. Ah, which would be somewhere around eighteen years by Earth calendar. It was very small amounts, not enough for them to notice. But every time he had them sign another agreement, the siphon was renewed. It would barely amount to a single percent of their power each day. But a single percent of every Seraphim’s energy every day for what amounted to eighteen Earth years amounted to vast reserves of spellpower that Tabbris had managed to steal. And eventually, he used it to pull his disappearing act. He, and all of the people who had chosen to join him, disappeared entirely.”

“You hear that?” I asked my Tabbris with a little nudge. “Your mom named you after the Seosten who basically made the entire group of Seraphim look like idiots, and the first big freedom fighter.”

While the other girl turned beet red and smiled giddily, Athena continued. “I trust that answers your question?”

Once Tabbris nodded, I asked, “I’ve got a lot more though. Like, how did you find us? Where did you come from? How did you know about… about anything that was happening? Is it just from the humans that you freed? Do you know about the Atherby Clan and what they’ve been doing? Do you–”

Athena laughed, shaking her head. “Be at ease, Lady Felicity. I will answer all of your questions that I am able to. But for now, perhaps meeting the others would help. I will explain on the way.”

She moved to one of the nearby doors, pausing to look back to us as they slid open. “Are you ready?”

My hand reached out to take Tabbris’s, and I nodded. “Yes. Let’s go meet the Logs.”

Both Tabbris and Athena blinked over at me, the latter asking, “Logs?”

“Sure!” I grinned. “Legion Of Good Seosten. What, it’s easier to remember than… what did you say?”

“Aelaestiam,” Tabbris supplied helpfully.

“Right, Aelaestiam.” Tilting my head as though considering that for a moment, I finally shook my head. “Nope, sorry. I still prefer Logs.”  

Athena shook her head, gesturing for us to move through the still-open doorway. With a slight gulp, I squeezed Tabbris’s hand, whispering, “Ready, partner?” She nodded, and I returned it. Then the two of us stepped through that doorway.

Time to meet the Seosten rebels.

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Mini-Interlude 55 – Joselyn

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“Moooooooommmmmy! Momma! Mom-mom-mom-momma Mia Mama!”

The chanting voice drew Joselyn from a deep slumber. Eyes opening as her mind oriented itself away from the dream to the real world, she found herself, as most mornings, waking up in an incredibly comfortable, silk sheet-covered bed. The bed itself was located within what had to be one of the most beautiful bedrooms on the face of the planet. Floor to ceiling glass doors led out to a balcony to her right, while a walk-in closet the size of most apartments was to the left. Paintings, mirrors, entire statues, and more signs of absurd opulence filled the rest of the nearly six hundred square foot bedroom, with a ceiling that was fifteen feet up. It was an absurd size.

As her head lifted from the pillow to look straight across from the bottom of the bed to the double doors that stood open, Joselyn found the source of the call. Ammon. The boy stood there, framed in the doorway with a smile on his face as he announced, “I brought you breakfast!”

With that, he snapped his fingers. Four figures moved past the boy, two to either side as they came into the room. Three of them were carrying trays laden with food, while the fourth carried three different pitchers of fresh juices. They moved quickly and efficiently to stand on either side of the bed. None moved a muscle once in position. And without fail, each looked utterly petrified.

Slowly, Joselyn sat up in the bed, pulling the sheet with her so that it continued to cover her form. She was not allowed clothes when sleeping. Not that Fossor spent many evenings in the same room, or even that many in the same house. He was most often elsewhere, carrying out his plans or enacting his various vengeances. But his rules remained in place regardless, and one of them was that Joselyn was not to wear clothes to bed. She was, in fact, not allowed to dress herself until Fossor himself gave permission, even if he had to do so over the phone.

At a certain point, she had been able to make that particular rule almost meaningless, as she only required perhaps a half hour of sleep per day. But Fossor had begun siphoning energy from her for some project, meaning that she now required at least four. She still wasn’t sure how much of that was because he had an actual project that required her energy and how much was simply because he was amused by thwarting any attempt she made at working around his rules.  

Either way, she had to sleep for at least four hours each night depending on how much his secret project took out of her that day, and during that time she was not allowed any clothes. It was, by that point, just another small indignity that continued to amuse the man who had enslaved her. One more thing that he controlled. One more thing that he made her ask for.

“Ammon,” she spoke carefully, choosing her words the best way that she could while shifting the sheet a little so that it covered more. “I don’t recognize these particular servants. Are they new?” It never ended well to be confrontational with the boy. Not anymore. Particularly as she wasn’t allowed to discipline him anyway. She had to be careful in how she spoke to him. Not for her own sake. His ability wouldn’t work on her, and she could quite easily overpower him if need be. But because he would take his frustration out on others, and she was not allowed to stop him.

“I haven’t decided yet,” the boy replied simply, chewing his lip for a moment in thought as he stepped in and walked slowly up to the end of the bed. Gesturing, he explained. “They were mean when I got to the restaurant, so I had to make them see that they were bad. But now I kinda like them. And it’s not like they have any customers to go back to. Or a restaurant.”

Despite herself, Joselyn flinched inwardly a little bit. Right. No wonder these four looked so traumatized. She didn’t know exactly what Ammon had done. But she had the general idea already, and had absolutely no desire to have any specific details spelled out. A quick glance over the gathered quartet revealed little. They were all dressed as servers in nice black slacks and crisp white shirts. Two were female, the other two male, one of each standing on each side. The females were noticeably attractive, which Joselyn prayed was a coincidence. Once Ammon began hitting puberty, with his… abilities and lack of any kind of remorse or even a basic understanding of empathy… bile rose in her throat, and she had to look away for a moment. But only for a moment. If Ammon thought that something had upset her, he would lash out. Not at her, but at these four. He would think that they had done something, somehow. He was never cruel to Joselyn purposefully. He… in his own way, cared for her. At least as much as he was capable of, after what Fossor had done to warp and mangle his psyche. Some part of Ammon still remembered loving his mother, so he repeatedly tried in vain to recapture that feeling. He tried so hard to remember the good emotions that his father had stripped away from him.

Forcing herself to smile, because to do otherwise would bring tears, and Ammon’s anger at the people around them, Joselyn extended a hand. “Do you want to come up and help me eat this feast?” she asked, trying hard not to let her hand tremble from the rage that she felt at Fossor.

Ammon’s own childish smile was bright, and not put-on at all. He clambered up into the bed, crawling up quickly and settled in next to her before imperiously ordering, “Dessert first!”

Swallowing hard, Joselyn put a hand on the boy’s head. She leaned down, smelling his hair for a moment. God. Oh God. She remembered how he had been. She remembered the boy before… before all this. She remembered his sweetness, his curiosity about everything. Her son. Her beautiful, amazing, wonderful baby boy. And now she had to wonder every time she saw him, how many people he had murdered, how many lives he had destroyed.

He’d asked her enough pointed questions that she knew he knew about Koren. The new Koren, her granddaughter. How much else he knew, she wasn’t certain. But she did know that he hadn’t told his father. Why, she wasn’t exactly sure. But he hadn’t. Not yet, anyway. For whatever reason, the boy was keeping that particular information to himself.

She wished so much that she could believe it was for a good reason. But she knew better. Whatever was driving her son to keep Koren Fellows a secret from his father wasn’t anything good. And the thought of what he might be up to, what his twisted, broken mind might conjure up…

Out of sight of Ammon, with her face against the top of his head, Joselyn allowed a single, solitary tear to fall as the captive restaurant staff prepared to serve their meal.


The roar of flames filled the air as the male fire elemental flew straight toward Joselyn a couple hours later. As he approached, his heat scouring the floor it was flying over top of, she dove to the side, rolling before popping up to her feet. The second she was upright, the elemental was already pointing that way, a geyser of flame erupting from his outstretched hand. It came so quickly that all Joselyn could do was jerk her entire body backward as far as she could, allowing the fire to roast the air right above her nose. The heat was so intense that it would have melted her eyes in their sockets if she hadn’t already possessed enough resistance powers.

The room that they were in lay deep in the subbasement of the mansion.It was, essentially, a fighting arena, complete with stands for an audience of at least a hundred people. The arena itself was circular and about a hundred feet in diameter, with a forcefield that contained both the violence and any stray powers. Set right next to what would be considered the ‘owners box’ in the middle of the stands was a screen showing a time that was currently ticking down from ten seconds in yellow numbers.

That had to do with another of Fossor’s rules. He arranged these tournaments, forced her to fight these Alters that he had… acquired. He would throw them into this pit and have them attack her. Sometimes only one, sometimes many. The clock showed how long Joselyn had to survive before she was allowed to use any active powers. Technically, there were two countdowns. When the numbers were red, it meant that she wasn’t allowed to fight back at all, only evade and stay away from her attacker(s). When the numbers were yellow as they were right then, she could fight, but was not allowed to use any active powers. And when the countdown hit the single green zero, she could go all out.

Fossor, for all his arrogance, didn’t want her to become a mindless murder-addict. He wanted her to work for him, wanted her to serve him. But she would be less effective at that if she was addicted to killing, which would happen to any Reaper-based Heretic who killed too easily too often. Kills had to be earned. If he just had her walk from cage to cage killing one Alter after another, it wouldn’t be long before she completely lost her mind and became little more than a beast. He could get one of those from anywhere. But he only had one of her. Hence these tournaments, these actual fights and all his rules about making her earn each victory, each kill.

The stands themselves were about a quarter full. The twenty-odd people who were watching were a mixture of Ammon’s… pets (four of which were the restaurant servers he had just abducted that morning) and a few of the living beings that Fossor himself kept around to serve him. The vast majority of the beings on the grounds were dead, zombies given specific instructions and tasks to perform by their necromancer master. But there were about a dozen of the living variety, those whose tasks were too much to entrust to mindless zombies. The ghosts weren’t mindless, but interacting with the physical world was taxing. So there were the living servants, though they were just as enslaved to Fossor as their deceased companions.

Three quick fireballs were shot through the air at her. She pivoted around one before leaping to twist her body so that the other two would fly past either side of her. In mid-air, the clock hit that green zero, and she inverted. Her fist lashed out, turning blue as a curtain of ice enveloped the wave of flames that the fire elemental had been pushing toward her. The elemental quickly rose high into the air, above the ice wall so that he could fire (literally) down at her.

But Joselyn wasn’t there. Appearing on top of the wall of ice that she had created, almost directly behind the elemental, she extended her hand. As he spun, a wave of cold from her fingers enveloped the figure. His flames were instantly doused, and his red-orange body turned pale white as he was frozen solid.

A quick kick from her shattered his body into a thousand pieces, which rained down over the arena while Joselyn’s golden aura flared up.

There. It was done. Not all of her training for the day, but at least the last one that she had to kill. Joselyn dropped to the floor, looking to the stands as the gathered witnesses began to move away. All save for one of the restaurant employees, a young woman who sat in the stand by herself, staring at Joselyn while looking terribly alone and lost.

With a soft sigh, she approached the girl. The forcefield had lowered as everyone else made their way out to go about the rest of their duties (or find some other entertainment). “My son didn’t give you any instructions?”

The girl had a slight deer-in-headlights look, swallowing audibly while staring up at Joselyn. She was pretty, with short raven-black hair that was cut just past her ears and an innocent, naive face. Joselyn thought that she looked a fair bit like Phoebe Cates in those Gremlin films.

“J-just to stay in the building,” she answered quietly, her voice shaking a little.

“What’s your name?” Joselyn asked, her voice as gentle as she could make it.

The girl answered, whimpering just a little as she did so. “J-Jenna. It’s Jenna.”

“Jenna,” Joselyn repeated, nodding. “Why don’t you come with me? I have a little solo training to get through, then I was planning on visiting the library. Neither of us can leave the building, so we might as well stay together.”

Blinking rapidly in an obvious attempt to avoid tears, Jenna nodded while stammering, “Okay. But… but y-y-your son, he’s… he’s a…”

“I know,” Joselyn spoke simply, her voice softer than ever.

“Believe me, I know.”


“Well, my dear, how was your day?” Fossor’s voice was sweet, no different from any other husband and father as he took his seat at the obscenely long dinner table. Beside him, one of his reanimated automatons poured a glass of wine for its master.

“Three,” Joselyn answered flatly, not yet moving to touch her own plate even as Fossor immediately began to dig into his steak. “I killed three of them today.”

Beside her, Jenna moved to copy the actions of her dead counterpart beside Fossor. Joselyn had managed to convince the man and Ammon both to let her keep the girl with her for the time being. She had no idea how long it would last, but she would do everything she could.

The bottle shook a little in the terrified girl’s grip. It would have spilled, which itself would have drawn the ire of the monster at the end of the table, and Jenna would have been killed. But Joselyn carefully and subtly extended just a little of her power, taking control of the liquid as it fell and guiding it to land smoothly in the glass regardless of where the actual bottle was, or how much it was shaking.

“Well, it sounds as though you kept yourself occupied, at least.” Fossor nodded once before launching into his actual point. “I had quite the busy day myself, of course. So many small fires to put out and larger fires to create. Exhausting, really. But…” He paused with his fork in midair, a chunk of meat held in the tines. “The more interesting part is that it seems our girl is making quite the name for herself out in Seosten space.”

Felicity in Seosten space. When she’d first heard that, Joselyn hadn’t been able to contain her panic and terror. The things that those creatures could do, the things they would do in order to get the information they wanted.

Information, apparently, that had to do with why Felicity was immune to them. When that little tidbit had initially made its way back to Fossor, he had taken her straight to his Writing Room and made her answer questions for over an hour trying to find out how that had happened. But the simple truth was that Joselyn had no idea. She hadn’t had to try to hide anything from him about it, because she didn’t know. She had some vague idea that it might have been Gabriel’s doing, of course, but no hard facts. Not that that had stopped Fossor from putting her through the wringer until he was satisfied. And even then, he hadn’t been very happy about it. About not knowing, that was. He found the fact that she was immune hilarious and useful, but not knowing why ticked him off something fierce.

Pausing then, she looked up to meet the man’s gaze as he stared at her knowingly. “You heard something else from Crossroads?” She chose her words carefully, because whether he was getting information from his spy in the school or from somewhere actually within the Seosten Empire was important.

Chuckling, making it clear that he understood exactly what she was asking, Fossor ate three more bites of his steak. He moved slowly and deliberately, obviously enjoying dragging out the conversation now that she was interested. She was always interested in hearing about her daughter, even if it had to come from him. And he knew that.

Finally, the necromancer spoke. “It seems that our little girl has managed to create quite the ruckus. She’s freed a group of slaves from their prison camp. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite good enough to stop that Isaac fellow from subsequently murdering a good number of them. Also, that bothersome… Catsarein man?”

“Katarin,” Joselyn murmured, remembering the man well.

“Of course.” Fossor spoke the words in a way that made it clear that he didn’t consider the name important and had already dismissed it. “He was murdered by that delightful Isaac child. If he survives his trip out there, it might be fun to invite him over for a playdate with our boy.”

Our boy. Our girl. His. Fossor always made a point of claiming ownership over things that he had decided were his.

And now Ulysses Katarin was dead. Murdered by the psychopath that the Seosten had been nurturing and cultivating. The thought of that… thing traveling with any of the others, let alone her daughter, made Joselyn furious. But it also terrified her. Hearing that he had killed Ulysses, that just… It was another loss. Another in a very long line of them that showed no signs of stopping.

She sent a silent apology to the man’s spirit, wherever it may have been, that she had been able to do nothing to help him. The pain… she set it aside, put it into that special lock box deep in her soul where it would wait for her to have time to actually grieve. Not in front of Fossor. She refused to show that kind of emotion in front of him.

So she still had no idea where he was getting his information from. The necromancer played most of that close to his vest, despite his enjoyment of showing off how much he knew about Felicity’s life. Joselyn was reliant on him for almost every scrap of information about her own daughter, and he delighted in that fact.

He was not, however, privy to the information about Koren, either the new one or the woman who was now Abigail. Nor did he know about Wyatt. So whatever his source was, it wasn’t as informed as it could be. And he had not yet managed to ask the right question in their Writing Room sessions for Joselyn to give that information up. Either that or he did know but was deliberately not bringing it up in order to give her false hope. Joselyn had long since stopped trying to guess when he was playing those sorts of games.

But as far as she knew, he didn’t know about those three. For the time being, they were safe from him, though she was sure that wouldn’t last. And the thought of what he would do when he found out about Abigail and Koren in particular… it brought bile to her throat and rage into her heart. If he touched them, if he even threatened to touch them…

“My dear,” Fossor interrupted, nodding toward where she had inadvertently melted half of the fork in her hand, “if the meal is that unpleasant for you, I will have the chef returned to his grave immediately and a new one… selected.”

In other words, he would kill someone else to serve as their chef. Quickly, Joselyn shook her head. “No, the meal is fine. But Felicity, if those Seosten take her…”

“Never fear, my dear,” the man spoke calmly and with a soft smile that one might have taken as fatherly if they didn’t know better, “The Seosten will not be keeping our girl. You can be quite certain of that. There are… plans in motion as far as that is concerned. So rest your little mind about it. Enjoy the dinner. Unless, of course, you do want a new chef?”

Swallowing her initial reaction, Joselyn set the mangled and melted remains of the fork down before touching a finger against it. Summoning the power of an ùruisg, she focused on repairing the damaged utensil. Within a few seconds, the fork was as good as new, and she took a bite of her meal to appease the man.

“You see, it’s good, isn’t it?” Fossor prompted, clearly enjoying just how much he could control her.

“Delightful,” was her single word reply.


“Now, you stand right here all night.” Ammon was instructing Jenna late in the evening.

They were back in Joselyn’s room. She had managed to make it clear to her son that she preferred having the girl around, without making it seem like she was giving orders. So now he had agreed to let the girl stay.

“You stand here,” the boy continued, “and get my mom anything she needs. Anything she tells you to, right? You understand?”

From where she was standing, Joselyn offered a careful, “Perhaps if she sits, she can be quicker about moving around if she needs to get something for me.”

Ammon did a quick double take, looking between her and the girl before nodding. “Oh, uh, okay. There.” He pointed to a plush recliner. “My name is Ammon. Sit there and don’t move unless my mom asks you to get her something. Then follow her orders and go back to the chair when you’re done.”

Obediently, the young woman pivoted to walk that way. She seated herself, clearly still confused about why she couldn’t stop obeying the boy’s instructions.

Once she was seated, Ammon looked to Joselyn. “Do you need anything else, Mom?” His smile was bright, his pride at ‘helping’ obvious.

She swallowed a little, shaking her head. “No. Thank you, my little soldier.” Her little soldier. Gods. She had called him that almost from the moment he was born, because of the way he kept putting his hand up near his face in what she thought looked like a salute. Her soldier. Her trooper. Her fighter. Her boy. Her baby boy.

What had Fossor done to him?

Smile widening, Ammon chirped, “Okay! I’m gonna go play in the garden.”

Play in the garden. She had the feeling that was far less innocent than it sounded. But before Joselyn could say anything, the boy was gone, racing through the door before clomping down the stairs loudly. For a moment, she watched him go, then gestured to make the doors close.

“What… what is he?” The shaky, horrified voice came from the chair, and Joselyn glanced that way to find Jenna sitting with her hands tight against the armrests. “Wh-why can’t I… why can’t I get up? How is he–he… he killed them. He killed all of them. All those people.” Her voice was starting to grow hysterical, which meant that Joselyn needed to get her to calm down.

“It’s– It’s okay.” It wasn’t, but if the girl didn’t get herself under control, it would be a whole lot worse. “I know you’re scared. I know you’re confused. But listen to me. I’ll try to keep you safe, as much as I can,” she promised the young woman. “I know this is all terrifying. And I’m sorry about what happened, what… Ammon did. But I’m afraid that there isn’t a lot that I can explain. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.”

The girl gave her a shy smile. “I’m pretty sure that all of this would be pretty hard to forget. And I really want to know. He–the things he did, the things he makes us do. How can he–how?”

Swallowing, Joselyn shook her head. “As I said, you wouldn’t remember even if I told you. And for the time that you did remember, you would just be even more frightened than you are now.”

The little smile remained, but it was… different somehow. The girl shifted, lifting her chin while slowly replied, “I’m afraid that I’m going to have to insist that you tell me everything you know about Fossor, about the boy, about all of it. Everything.”

Joselyn blinked, eyes widening a little as she looked up quickly. Fossor had never introduced himself. She knew that for a fact. He didn’t consider it worth his time to introduce himself to Ammon’s playthings or any of the other servants if he could help it. “How do you know his na–”

The girl slowly stood up from the chair. Stood, despite Ammon’s order. Because she had never truly been under the control of Ammon’s power at all. Because she was the source of that power. 

“My name is Denuvus,” the manipulator announced, her voice filling the room.

“Tell me everything I want to know.”

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Mini-Interlude 54 – Lincoln

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Thirty unheard messages. Voice mailbox full. Please listen to or delete messages to receive new ones.

Lincoln Chambers stared down at the cell phone in his hand as he lay on his side in bed. The phone wasn’t his, of course. Not his original phone, anyway. That had been tossed away much earlier so that he couldn’t be tracked quite as easily. No, this was a random, prepaid phone that one of the Atherby clan had picked up for him. He’d used it to call his old phone’s mailbox so that he could check the messages that had been left for him. Or, at least, that had been his intention days ago.

He had checked several of the messages at the time. Most were either from his work, wanting more answers than his original, terse ‘going underground for a story, back eventually’ call had given them. The others were from his parents, who wanted… well, any answers at all, really.

When he had asked for the phone, Lincoln’s intention had been to keep up with any questions the people in his life had. He’d intended to keep giving them updates on his supposed investigation while also fishing for hints about which of them wanted to know too much. There had been some vague idea there of working out who the Seosten had possessed to get to him.

Except he couldn’t do it. After listening to a few of his messages from the people he cared about, from his parents and friends, Lincoln had stopped. The idea that any of them could have been possessed, that they had been enslaved by those goddamn alien body snatchers, had been too much. He couldn’t make himself listen to their messages while having no idea if the person speaking was really themselves, or if they were being puppeted by an evil alien overlord.

It was even worse knowing that his daughter, his daughter was out there in their space. He had no idea how Felicity was doing, if she was okay, or anything. He was even more helpless and incapable of helping than he had been before. Which, honestly, was really saying something.

He wanted to pull them in, his parents at least. But if they were possessed, getting to them and testing them for possession without giving anything away or endangering anyone else was going to be hard. He needed to be ready for something like that, not just run off halfcocked.

Sighing and giving up on his latest attempt to psych himself up into actually listening to those messages, Lincoln clicked the phone back into sleep mode before sitting up in bed. The room that he had been sleeping in was sparse, decorated only with the bed itself and a single dresser where the few clothes that he’d been able to get were tossed. On top of the dresser was a cheap lamp, and a single photograph in a gold frame. It was one of only three rooms in the small cabin he’d been assigned to live in while he was staying here at the Atherby camp.

Other than this room, there was just a tiny bathroom and a combination living room/kitchen. There was very little to it. But honestly, he didn’t mind. The place reminded him of camping trips that he had gone on with his father back in the day. They were good memories. Safe memories.

Stepping out of bed, Lincoln squeezed himself into the small bathroom and took a long, almost scalding shower to wake himself up. That was one good thing about this place. There seemed to be an utterly unending amount of hot water. If that was a spell, he really wanted to find out how to use it before he left this place. If he left this place, which itself was really up in the air.

Just in time, as he finished dressing after enjoying the shower, there was a knock at the door. Lincoln gave his hair one last brush through with the comb before eying himself in the mirror. Satisfied after a moment, the man turned on his heel and moved through the main room of the cabin, taking in the early morning light coming in through the windows before tugging the door open. “If I didn’t know better,” he announced in the process, “I’d say that one of your powers was perfect timing.”

“How do you know it’s not?” The woman who stood there looked like she was in her early to mid-thirties, with dark blonde, almost brown hair that was layered in waves and fell to her shoulders. She was tall, a full six feet in height and almost distressingly thin to the point that Lincoln had more than once had the rather absurd urge to make her eat a sandwich despite the fact that he had seen her put away even more food than he did.

Her name was Kaste, or at least that’s what she called herself. Which was a pretty appropriate name, since ‘casting’ was her whole thing. The woman used magic a lot, which took energy. Hence how much she ate, all while never gaining a pound and remaining stick-thin. She was also an Alter of some description, though he’d yet to find the right way to ask what kind.

For a second, he squinted at the woman. “You used magic to know when I’d be ready.”

Rather than confirm or deny that, she just winked. “Does that mean you are ready now?”

“Need to throw some breakfast together,” Lincoln replied before stepping back and gesturing. “But uh, yeah, why don’t you go ahead and come in. You hungry? I’m not much of a cook, but I can pour cereal with the best of them. Behind my back and blindfolded, even.”  

Stepping into the cabin and closing the door after her with a soft click, Kaste raised an eyebrow at him. “And you do all of that without spilling anything? That is most impressive, indeed.”

He grinned. “Never said I did it without spilling. Just that I could do it.” With that, the man moved to the nearby cupboard and took down a couple of bowls before filling them (not behind his back) with cereal from the nearby box. Adding a couple of spoons and milk, he set the bowls down at the table while asking, “Something to drink? I’d suggest coffee, but uhh, still not sure where the Starbucks is around here, and the machine broke last night.” He waved a hand to indicate the object in question, which lay on its side on the nearby counter.

Glancing that way, the woman smiled faintly before shaking her head as she tugged a pair of what looked like coasters from her pocket. “I’ve got this one,” she announced. Dropping the coasters on the table next to one another, she waved her hand over them while speaking a word. A second later, a pair of mugs appeared on the coasters, each filled with steaming coffee.

Lincoln’s eyebrow almost popped off his face. Curious, he reached out to pick one up, trying it. “Now that,” he announced after taking a sip, “is a spell that you really have to teach me.”

That was what the woman was here for, why she came to visit every morning. Kaste had been teaching him beginner’s magic. While he wasn’t a Heretic or anything, he could now use spells since the Bystander Effect had been broken. He wasn’t exactly fantastic at the stuff yet, but he had at least managed a few small effects, mostly thanks to Kaste’s teaching. She was patient with him, and seemed just as delighted with any small success that he had as he was.

Winking then, the woman promised, “We’ll get there. But now you see what you can look forward to, once you learn enough.”

He took another sip of the coffee before nodding. “You sure know how to inspire your students, I’ll tell you that much.” With a smile, he took a bite of his cereal even as a slight pang made him wince inwardly. Flick. Felicity. Was she okay? How could he be enjoying himself when his daughter was out there. Even knowing, thanks to the message that had been delivered from the Moon twins, Vanessa and Tristan, that Felicity was not under some Seosten operating table but had actually been rescued by Larissa Mason and Haiden Moon wasn’t enough to alleviate his fear. He wanted her back on Earth, back where he could see her, not off running around in some alien empire while the Seosten tried their damnedest to snatch her away for their experiments.

Kaste, clearly recognizing his train of thought, spoke up then. “She’s strong, you know. I haven’t spoken to her very much, only met her the one time. But she’s definitely strong. She’d have to be, considering she’s descended from one of Arthur’s Knights.” She winked at him. “He didn’t choose them just because they looked good in a suit of armor, you know. They were all incredibly powerful. Your daughter and her mother are both descended along that line.”

Coughing at that, Lincoln shook his head. “Yeah, and don’t think that doesn’t still freak me out. My wife and kid are descended from one of the Knights of the Round Table? My daughter’s related to someone who ran around with King Arthur? The King Arthur? How do you ground someone like that? Not that that’s been an issue for a long time, but seriously. She’s my kid, and now I know that she’s… how do I talk to her now? How do I look at her knowing that she’s got that kind of blood, that she’s…” He trailed off, unable to find the right words. Logically, he knew it was silly. But whenever he thought about it, about the fact that Felicity was descended from a legend like that, it made him feel utterly inadequate.

Kaste put a hand on his, shaking her head. “You do what you’ve been doing, Lincoln. Felicity Chambers is who she is because of you, not because of any blood she has. Her power, the resources she could end up with, the way others treat her, that is because of her bloodline. But the person she is, that’s because of you. Don’t change that just because of what you know now.”

“You sound like you have a lot of experience raising kids like that,” Lincoln observed.

The woman looked away briefly, her voice quiet. “My sister and I have experience being that kind of kid. Our parents didn’t exactly take it that well, so Rain and I eventually ended up on our own. Trust me, you don’t want that for your daughter. She’s still Felicity, no matter who her ancestor was.”

Smiling, Lincoln nodded. “Of course she is. Still,” he added then, “it is a little hard to get used to the idea that I used to change her diapers. I always knew she had potential, but this?” He whistled, shaking his head before taking another bite of cereal. “It’s intimidating.”

“What you need,” Kaste informed him then, “is a lot more experience with magic. Then you’ll feel better. Practice. Lots and lots of practice.”

He returned her smile. “Well, in that case, you’ve got me for the rest of the morning.

“Let’s see what you can teach me today.”


Hours later, Lincoln was standing on the edge of the lake, while some other figures played in the water about thirty yards away. He had just finished the sandwich that he had prepared for lunch after spending the entire morning learning magic from Kaste.

For a moment, the man watched the kids in the water. They were all teenagers, or close to it. Most of them didn’t look any older than thirteen or fourteen. There were ordinary humans mixed with Alters, though some of those Alters were so human-like that he couldn’t tell the difference from where he was even without the so-called Bystander Effect clouding his senses. Others were clearly not human.

As far as Lincoln had been able to find out, there were about a hundred regular, full time residents of the camp. Of those, about two dozen or so were combat capable adults. The rest were a mixture of civilians, children, and teenagers. The population seemed about evenly split between non-humans–Alters, he remembered to think of them as- and humans, or so-called ‘Natural Heretics’. Beyond that, there were almost as many ‘temporary residents’, people who would only be staying for anywhere from a few days to a month, depending on how long it took to find them another safe place to go.

He’d asked once, and learned that there were smaller enclaves or safehouses spread across not just this country but several others as well. Places that were under the Atherby Clan protection. It was some kind of combination of an underground railroad and a witness relocation program, keeping hunted Alters safe from the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics. All told, Gabriel Prosser had estimated the Atherby Clan’s total official membership at close to a few thousand. Not terribly large, and very spread out with the only real connection for a lot of them being Prosser himself. Yet still larger than Lincoln had expected. And it had apparently been much larger in years past. But the combination of the long war with the Heretics and not having an official Atherby to lead them over most of the past half century had made their numbers dwindle a bit.

Now, he watched a blue-skinned figure with visible fins and gills splashing several of the others. She was directing a large wave over them with a simple gesture, laughing the whole time. They all were. The rest of the young teens ganged up on the blue-skinned figure, trying to get the jump on her while she kept holding them off from all sides with various directed waves.

“Helena is getting stronger every day,” a voice behind Lincoln announced, and he turned to find the two-headed hyena-like humanoid standing a few feet away from him. One of the two heads was male, while the other was female. It was the male head that had spoken just then.

Jones. That was his–her–their name, Lincoln remembered. He lifted his chin, nodding back over his shoulder at the laughing teenagers. “Helena, that’s the uhh, water girl out there?”

The female head nodded, speaking up then. “She is a Melusine. It’s good to see her laugh again. Her parents were…” She trailed off, baring her teeth briefly before looking away.

“Murdered,” the male Jones finished for his female half. “Her parents were murdered by Heretics. They tried to kill Helena as well, and would have if Duncan and Misty hadn’t gotten to them first.” As he spoke, they waved a hand back across the camp to a spot where the siblings in question were apparently teaching another group how to fight using wooden swords.

Lincoln stared that way for a few seconds, his eyes taking in the group as their training weapons cracked against one another. “They’re children,” he announced quietly. None in the group appeared to be older than nine or ten, and all of them looked entirely too serious while they listened to the instructions that Duncan and Misty were giving them. “They’re just innocent kids.”

“Can’t be innocent kids for long with the Heretics running around.” The bitter announcement came from the female Jones, who was staring that way as well. “All those kids are here at the camp because they don’t have anywhere else to go. They’ve already had at least one encounter with the Heretics. Most of them lost someone in the process. Maybe more than one someone.”

Jones’ male head nodded. “Some of ‘em will move on once there’s a good enough safe house to send them to. Others’ll stay here. Gabriel doesn’t force anyone to do what they’re not comfortable with. If they want to stay at the camp instead of going back out there, they can.”

Swallowing hard at the thought of what those kids had gone through, and would continue to go through, Lincoln took a moment to find his voice. “You’ve got quite a set-up here. Seems like you help a lot of people who need it.”

“Not as many as we’d like to,” the male Jones replied. “Sometimes we fail. Like…” His voice turned hoarse as he clearly spoke through a thick lump in his throat. “Like with the twins.”

“You mean Joselyn’s other kids?” Lincoln guessed. “Abigail and Wyatt.”

“When we knew them,” the female Jones announced, “they were Koren and Zedekiah. The poor kids.” Her head shook sadly, tears forming in her eyes. “We cared for them so much. They were only babies. Babies, and that monster stole them. Stole them and used them to force our Joselyn to surrender. Who would do that? What kind of coward abducts a mother’s tiny babies to use as hostages? Whatever moral ground Gabriel Ruthers once held, he surrendered it the moment he threatened the lives of innocent children to achieve his goal. He is a monster.”  

“Believe me,” Lincoln replied, “the more I hear about this Ruthers son-of-a-bitch, the more I want to put my fist through his face.”

Clearly changing the subject quickly, the male Jones asked, “Must be strange for someone like you, raised human I mean, to get used to the idea that your wife has adult children out there. Children who are technically older than you are, even.”

“Oh, God.” Lincoln rocked back on his heels, head shaking. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I have stepchildren. Hell, I have a step-grandchild. It’s–God, it’s a lot to take in.”

“You met them, right?” the female Jones asked, her tone curious. “How did that go?”

Nodding, Lincoln answered, “Yeah, we met, once. They came with… with Deveron, Joselyn’s old–I mean her young–I mean…”

“We know him,” the male Jones assured him. “He is a good man, if a bit impulsive. But still, good.”

“Yeah, I got that impression too.” Lincoln sighed. “I mean, that’s good. It’s real good. They all seem great. A bit confusing sometimes, but great. Jos has great taste. I can see why she was–why she was involved with that… with Deveron. It’s just really awkward, looking at this kid, this guy that looks that young and thinking about how he knows Joselyn so much better than I do. She’s my wife. But she’s also his wife. And they were together for a long time. When I look at him, I think… I think about how he knows the real Joselyn, the full Joselyn. Me, I know the Joselyn after they wiped her memory, after they turned her into a normal human. I love her. God, I love her so much. But I think he knows her better than I do. He grew up with her. He went to war with her. He’s fought–the man has fought for decades to save her, to find her.”

“And yet,” the female Jones remarked, “you still feel a little bit like he’s stealing your wife.”

Lincoln put his hands up to his face, letting out a long, pained sigh. “I shouldn’t. I don’t want to. He deserves–he’s a good man. It’s just… complicated. It is incredibly complicated.”

“What about the others, your step-kids and step-granddaughter?” the male Jones asked.

That made Lincoln smile a little despite himself. “Wyatt might be a bit eccentric, but I like him. He’s loyal, and he’s brilliant. Thinking about what happened to him, to all of them, it still pisses me off. But he’s great guy. And Abigail seems like a brilliant lawyer. I feel sorry for anyone that tries to argue with that woman. Apparently she’s been devouring every book, scroll, and notepad they’ve got in that place that’s got anything to do with procedure or rules. Keeps quoting their own laws at them to get what she wants. That uh, that Seller guy, he thinks it’s hilarious.”

He sobered a little bit then. “They’re looking for that… Pace or Lies or whoever she is. Them and Miranda.” The reminder that his daughter’s childhood friend was also a Heretic was still enough to make the man shake his head. “Apparently Koren, Abigail’s daughter Koren, not Abigail herself, and Miranda are convinced that they can find a way to help the real Pace. They think that if they can get that handicapped Seosten out of the girl, she might be able to tell them everything she found out while she was possessed.”

“But,” the female Jones pointed out, “the only way to remove a Seosten Lie from a host is to kill the host.”

The two (or three depending on how one was counting) of them stood there in silence for a moment, darkly contemplating that.

“Oy, you lot!” The call came from nearby, and Lincoln turned while automatically looking down. The voice was distinctive enough that it could only come from one person.

Sure enough, the well-named Fancy stood there. The snazzily-dressed Kobold with his top hat, miniature suit, and monocle pointed his gold-tipped cane. He spoke in an affected accent that made it sound like he was channeling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. “Wot’s wif all the ruddy broodiness over here, eh? Why, Oi just look to the beautiful sky an’ there’s a roight bloody rain cloud glooming its way over this spot roight here. Gonna mess up the kids’ lovely day out, you lot is.”

“You’re right,” Lincoln admitted. “No sense in dwelling. Not when there’s work to do.”

Both of Jones’ heads nodded, the male speaking. “Kaste left with Rain, so that must mean that she’s done teaching you for the day.”

“Yeah,” Lincoln confirmed. “She said they had plans. So uh, you guys think you’ve got time for another of our lessons before the kids are ready for me?” Not only had Lincoln been taking magic lessons from Kaste, but he had also been both learning everything he could about various Alters and their history so that he could catch up on as much as possible, and teaching as many mundane subjects to the kids around here as he could. He was no actual teacher, but they had books, and he could do a decent job of faking it up to a point. The kids and early teens needed to learn, and he wanted to give something back to these people. Thus, he would spend  a few hours each day with as many of the elementary and middle school-aged kids as he could in order to teach them basic math, english, history, and more.

“O’course!” Fancy chirped, gesturing grandly. “Come wif us, Sir Lincoln. We’ve got a roight good lesson plan today, we do.”

With a nod of her head, the female Jones confirmed, “Yes, we thought we’d walk around the camp and have a pop quiz. See how many types of Alters you can match to the people they are.”

Lincoln whistled. “Bringing out the hard stuff, huh? Alright, let’s do it. But I warn you, I have an excellent memory.”

The male Jones smiled. “No doubt born of all your experience as a reporter, Mr. Chambers.”

“Call me Lincoln,” he replied. “And actually, it was uhh, born of a few years of college spent with entirely too many last second desperate cram sessions the morning of a test after being out too late. But don’t tell my daughter that. She’s under the impression that I was a perfect student who never even saw a drink until I was thirty, and I don’t wanna crush that part of her naivety just yet.”

Both of the Jones heads smiled, speaking together. “Don’t worry, Lincoln. Your secret is safe with us.”


A knock to the door of his cabin late that night brought brought Lincoln over to open it. He found the man himself, Gabriel Prosser, standing there with his coffee maker.

“I present,” the man started dramatically while holding out the machine, “Busy’s greatest triumph. Apparently it doesn’t just make coffee, you can program it to make it exactly like any of the top thirty coffee shops on the planet make theirs.”

“Heh.” Lincoln took the machine, joking, “Sure, but can it make it like Ricardo’s diner on thirty-fifth in LA? Because that’s the one that I–”

“Number three on the preset,” Prosser informed him, adding, “Busy says he looked into your preferences.”

Both men stared at each other for a moment then, Lincoln admitting, “That Kitsune scares me sometimes.”

“He is very thorough,” Prosser agreed, chuckling a little. “I hear that your lessons are going well, though. Both with Kaste and the others.”

“I’m doing my best.” Lincoln shrugged while giving the man a brief look. Gabriel Prosser. Lincoln had done a history report on the man (or the regular human understanding of him) back in his Freshman year of high school. Talking with him now, it was… disconcerting.

The man was a living legend. Literally. He was important history even to ‘Bystanders’. And clearly to Heretics, from what he had heard, Gabriel Prosser was an outright hero, a literal legend among legends. These were people who could knock down buildings, fly, teleport, even move mountains in some cases. And they were in awe of the man in front of him.

“You wanna come in for a minute?” he finally asked, moving to put the coffee maker down. “I’d say ‘get out of the cold’, but I doubt it bothers you.”

Prosser gave a slight smile at that, stepping in before turning to close the door. “Sure. Actually, I wanted to ask if you gave any thought to what I told you before.”

Lincoln took in a breath at that before letting it out. “About becoming a natural Heretic of one of your people?”

With a nod, the other man replied, “Any single one of the people here would be honored to be bound to you, Lincoln. They have all asked me repeatedly if they could possibly be the one to share their blood with you. And becoming a Natural Heretic would protect you a lot more than simply being a human who knows some magic. Especially with the kind of threats that are going to be coming after you if they get half a chance, both from the Edge Heretics and from Fossor.”

The man had a point, Lincoln knew. He bit his lip, slowly nodding. “I know, I know. I just–it’s a hard decision to make. Like you said, they all want to help. But I can only make that choice once. What can I…. who can I bond to that would actually do the most good for me and my family?”

“You’re right,” Gabriel agreed then. “That is a very difficult decision to make.”

“I’ll tell you what I do want to do,” Lincoln announced pointedly. “If your people will agree to it, I want to write their stories. Anyone who will talk to me, I think… I think this stuff needs to be written down. It needs to be shared. Some people need to see it to understand just how bad these things are, for a human context, if you forgive the phrase. I’m not sure what else to… call it. Anyway, some people need these personal stories to have context. And other people… they need to read the stories to understand that they’re not alone. That can… it can help. Their stories, their histories, their lives deserve to be recorded. Their struggles deserve to be shared.”

Gabriel watched him briefly, seeming to look through the man for a few seconds before his chin inclined. “I see that Abigail is not the only one who will be putting her lifetime of accumulated skills to good use.” A small smile touched his face. “I will speak to the others. Some will agree. But I am sure that I don’t have to tell you to only record the stories of those who agree.”

Lincoln nodded, and for a few minutes, the men kept talking. They discussed the possibilities of different Alters that he could be bonded to, before Lincoln promised that he would think more about it. It wasn’t a decision that he would make on a whim.

After bidding the other man good night and seeing him out, Lincoln locked up (a matter of habit more than anything else, really) and made his way to the bedroom, turning out lights as he went.

Who would he ask to become bonded to? Who could he become a Natural Heretic of? What kind of Alter would give him the best chance of actually helping his wife and daughter, of helping his family with everything that was coming after them?

It was going to take a lot to try to decide, a lot of thinking and a lot of research. As he lay in bed, all Lincoln could do was hope that he would eventually make the right choice. Because there was a lot riding on it.

His eyes were open as he lay there, staring at the photograph on the nearby dresser. The picture was of himself, Joselyn, and little Felicity. It had been taken only a month or so before Joselyn’s disappearance, and was the last family picture that they’d taken together.

Blinking back tears, the man reached out to touch his fingers against the photograph, brushing over the images of his wife and his daughter. “My girls,” he whispered, his voice sounding rough to his own ears. “How can I help you? What can I do?”

There was no response, of course. Slowly, Lincoln lowered his hand from the picture, before raising it enough to turn out the light. Then he lay back on the bed in the resulting darkness.

Before long, he was asleep.

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Interlude 31C – Avalon

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“Um, your dad is a Stranger?” Rudolph asked, his voice fairly emotionless considering his words. The boy already had his bow out, an arrow nocked in it as he took aim at Reggie. He and the rest of the group were spreading out a bit, as Katarin and Hisao’s words about not clumping together in a group in a situation like this clearly rang through their minds.

“He’s a vampire,” Avalon replied flatly, not taking her narrowed eyes off of the man in question. She had barely even blinked since first laying eyes on him after he had revealed himself.

“A vampire?” Douglas echoed. His pen was in his hand already, and the boy clicked it twice to create a shield in one hand and some kind of small crossbow in the other. A third click created a short spiked wall all the way around the boy and a few feet in each direction. It was just barely taller than the boy himself, and left a couple slight openings for his crossbow. Protection from being directly attacked. He had actually created a small, personal bunker of sorts for himself using his pen to store the design. “There’s six of us,” he continued then. “We can take a single vampire.”  

“You wanna tell them, sweetheart?” Reggie prompted while cracking his neck. “Or should I?”

Still not taking her eyes off the man, Avalon explained quietly. “He’s not just a normal vampire. Someone… upgraded him. He can take powers, like we do. Only he does it by drinking blood. He drinks someone’s blood, he gets some of their power.” Her voice was dark, as memories rose. “That’s how he’s still alive even though he’s practically a newborn by vampire standards.”

“I’m sorry, what?!” Douglas was staring at her, mouth open. “He can–he gains–motherfucker.”  

Sean cursed as well, holding Vulcan in his massive gun-form. He apparently had the pixie stored inside the cyberform already. “That’s less than helpful. But we can still-”

A few feet away from the boy, Columbus abruptly spun, lunging that way before grabbing his roommate in mid-sentence to yank him out of the way an instant before a blurred form went right through the space where Sean had been standing. The blur stopped suddenly, revealing a man who was a stranger in both the capital and lower s sense of the word. Another vampire.

Avalon had just started to react as Columbus pivoted, his hand lashing out while some kind of metal armor appeared over it. There was a brief spray of blood, as the boy’s metal-armored fist punched through the vampire’s back and out his front, holding the man’s heart in his hand. An instant later, as if just to be absolutely sure, his other metal-covered hand reshaped itself into a blade before a quick snap of his wrist took the vampire’s head clean off of his shoulders.

For a brief moment, no one spoke, and barely even moved. Columbus stood there, slowly pulling his arm out of the dead vampire’s body while his pure white kill-aura flared up briefly. Avalon had known that he was more powerful than before, thanks to Charmeine feeding him Alters so that her chosen host would be stronger. But she hadn’t had much of a chance to see it.

“Well shit, son,” Reggie remarked with a low whistle. “That sucks. I kinda liked that guy. Luckily,” he added then, his tone still casual, “I brought a few more of my… uhh, drinking buddies.”

At those words, more figures appeared all around the group, emerging from the deep shadows of the same trees whose extensive canopy ensured that the sun wasn’t actually burning them. Within a few seconds, there was almost twenty of the figures surrounding the group  all vampires from the quick glance that Avalon gave. Twenty vampires, even normal ones, were entirely too many for the six of them to deal with. Especially with her father standing right there.

With a low chuckle as he watched all of them take in the sight of the new arrivals, Reggie remarked, “Doing the math on that, huh, sweetheart? How many seconds do you think your friends can hold out before my pack here eat them? Three, four maybe? I bet the quiet girl tastes utterly delicious.” As he spoke, his chin inclined toward where Scout had been slowly pivoting with her rifle raised, tracking the barrel over each of the vampires one after another.

“Or,” the man continued, his tone turning contemplative. “Maybe I let them go. Maybe I tell my boys to back off, and we let them walk right on out of here. No harm, no foul. And no blood. But the pixie stays. I mean, come on, she’s almost dead as it is, so it barely matters.” His eyes narrowed then. “And you stay too. They go. You and the pixie stay right here. That’s fair.”

“Not that we don’t appreciate being talked about like we’re not standing right here,” Sean put in while copying Scout’s move of slowly turning to keep pointing Vulcan’s barrels at one snarling vampire after another, “but we’re not going anywhere without Avalon and the pixie. So forget it.”

Avalon genuinely wasn’t sure if the boy was talking to Reggie, or to her. She gave him a brief look before lifting her chin to her father. “You’re not nearly as important as you think you are,” she informed him. “We’re taking the pixie, even if we have to go through you and your fodder.”

Even as she spoke, the girl was trying to calculate the best path out of there, her eyes scanning the figures surrounding them to determine the weakest point. Vampires were fast, and her father was even faster than most. They might have been outclassed in a long fight by a lot of things, but in the short term, they had a distinct advantage over most. Vampire were essentially ambush predators. Their speed-blitz tendencies left them able to kill quickly before their targets knew that they were there or that they were a threat. By having them stand around and act menacing, her father was giving up one of their biggest advantages. Especially since between Scout’s rifle, Sean’s minigun, Columbus’s goggles, Rudolph’s bow, and now Douglas’s crossbow, there were no less than five different ranged weapons sighting in on them. It was tactically idiotic. Unless…

“You’re stalling,” Avalon abruptly realized. Her eyes shot back to her father then, widening a bit. “You don’t want this fight to start yet. You’re holding out for something, trying to waste time.” It could have been about letting the pixie die. But if it was just that, there would be no reason for them not to attack. No, it was something else, some reason that the vampires were holding off.

“Heh,” her father gave a chuckle. “Never could put one past you, could I?” His smile widened, showing his fangs. “‘Cept with those beer bottles. You got pretty good at ducking those.”

Douglas had switched to two crossbows by that point, aimed through his personal bunker in different directions. “You know,” he remarked, “it’s pretty subtle, but I’m getting the very slight impression that your dad’s kind of a piece of work. And that we should really get out of here.”

He was right. Whatever her father was actually up to, and why he was stalling, she had no idea. But it wouldn’t be anything good. They needed to get the pixie out of there, before she died.

Her father took a step forward then, yanking her attention back to him instantly. “You think one of your little guardian angels is about to show up and save you?” he mocked, clearly trying to get a rise out of her. “Got news for you, we’re using a little blocker spell. As far as all those protective doodads you’ve got on are concerned, you are absolutely fine. Might not be enough to let us kill you, sure. But right now, your legion of protectors have no idea that you’re even in trouble.”

Barely had the words left his mouth before there was a brief flash of silver light as a different voice announced, “Oh, I dunno.” Deveron stepped into view, accompanied by Wyatt as he continued casually, his aura fading. “Maybe the guy who designed those security spells is just flat out better at it than your people are at breaking them.” Even as he spoke, the two of them entered the space that had been occupied by one of those vampires just a second earlier. A vampire whose absence pretty much explained why Deveron’s aura had been flaring up.

“The weird security guy and one of our second year sort-of joint mentors?” Douglas blurted in complete disbelief before his tone turned completely flat. “Oh, hallelujah, we’re saved.”

“Well, shit.” Reggie quickly hid his expression of incredulity at the two’s sudden appearance. “Guess we’ve gotta have a little fun anyway, don’t we, boys?” With that, he gave a sharp whistle, and the small horde of vampires suddenly made their move, each turning into a blur of motion as they rushed forward, falling in on the assembled group of Heretics.

It was pure chaos. The sound of Vulcan’s rotating gun barrels were deafening as Sean sprayed in the direction of anything that was coming toward him. Rudolph and Douglas notched and fired arrow after arrow and bolt after bolt so quickly that their own motions were almost a blur as well. Beams of concussive force erupted from Columbus’s goggles repeatedly, before one of the vampires actually got close enough to reach for him. It was stopped abruptly, however, as the boy’s hand snapped up and the vampire reacted as though it had hit some kind of invisible forcefield, flattening against it. A second later, another blast from Columbus’s goggles took the vampire in the chest and sent it rocketing backward off into the trees with a surprised cry.

Honestly, they weren’t actually killing that many of them, given the relative lack of auras appearing. But they were at least keeping the vampires back a bit, and somewhat injuring them.

And then there were the exceptions to that ‘not killing them’ thing. Deveron already had two of the vampires on the ground, his aura popping up once again before he turned, hand snapping up to catch one of them in some kind of telekinetic grip. With a grunt, he flung the vampire high into the air. It cleared the canopy, before its screams announced that it had reached sunlight.

Scout, meanwhile, had her own aura flaring more than once. She was simply firing shot after shot from her rifle… off into nowhere. Her bullets were disappearing through one of the gun’s manifested portals, then reappearing elsewhere. The bullet would fly a certain distance, hit another portal, and then jump again. Scout had been doing more than simply panning her gun over the vampires earlier. She had actually been setting up an extensive series of portals all around them. And now, every time she fired into that first portal, it shot the resulting bullet all the way around the circle through those portals, constantly changing direction, angle, height, and everything else to the point that the vampires might as well have been getting shot from all sides. They had no idea where the next bullets would come from, and several were cut down in rapid succession before they even had the idea of what was actually going on.

And through it all, through all of that violence, Avalon stayed completely still. Her eyes never left her father, while his never left her. Neither of them moved to attack. They knew each other. They had fought so many times over the years, once she finally started fighting back. They had grown in power together, even as each tried in vain to kill the other repeatedly, to the point that they knew each other’s moves as well as they knew their own. She knew her father, and he knew her. They could fight an entire battle simply by watching each other, waiting for openings that never came. The two of them were in a world of their own while the rest fought all around them.

Then there was Wyatt. Even as several of the vampires managed to actually get past the extensive covering fire laid down by everyone else, the security man raised his hand to throw a pyramid-shaped object about eight inches across straight up into the air. At its apex, the pyramid inverted so that the tip was facing down. It floated there in the air, while each of its sides opened up. From the flat bottom (now facing upward), a small portal appeared, leading off somewhere that clearly had bright sunlight, given the glimpse through what was visible.

That portal led the sunlight from wherever the other end of the portal was into the pyramid itself, before it was magnified and projected in every direction through each now-open side. The entire clearing was abruptly bathed in so much sunlight that it looked as though they were standing in the middle of an open field at midday.

Everyone else had been fighting the vampires. Wyatt exterminated them in a single move. Over a dozen died almost instantly, burning up to ashes within seconds. A couple more were incinerated before they could reach the edges of the light, while the few that remained took off, fleeing. While it happened, Wyatt staggered, his own silver kill-aura to match his father’s flaring up dramatically.

And yet, through it all, her father stood completely still and unmoved. The light that filled the clearing seemed to bend around him, leaving the vampire still shrouded in slight darkness. As everyone’s attention turned that way once he was the final vampire left in sight, the man chuckled. “Well, that was dramatic, wasn’t it? Good thing the first power I sucked up was this good old cloak of darkness.” He indicated the shadows that remained wrapped around him. “Keeps me nice and shady even on those Tijuana beaches.”

“Too bad you didn’t wrap that shade around all your little friends,” Deveron pointed out in a dark voice. “Or they might not be ashes right now.”

“Sure,” the vampire agreed. “Still won’t help you that much though. See, this jungle? It’s completely full of my little drinking buddies. And the word from on high is that the bosses just shut down every portal in and out of this jungle. You want out, you gotta go the long way. Which means going through all that jungle just chock full of vampires just waiting to rip your head off. Or, you could wait here until that pixie dies. Doesn’t really make much difference to me in the long run.”

Deveron took a step that way, unsheathing his pistol. “Maybe we start by going through you.”

“No!” Avalon quickly interceded, catching the man’s arm. “Don’t. Let me.”

“Avalon,” Deveron started, looking back to her.

“It’s okay,” she insisted while meeting his gaze. Her voice was calm, her eyes steady and unblinking. “The pixie is the key. You have to get her out of here. You have to save her life, Deveron. If you save her, she can help find Chambers and the others. But she’s about to die. She needs help, now.

She turned away from him then, and from the others. Her gaze was centered on the dark-shrouded figure across the clearing. “I can handle my father.”

There were protests from the others, but Deveron and Wyatt called them in line, making them focus on the issue at hand: getting the pixie to safety. They said something to Columbus, Sean, Scout, Rudolph, and Douglas that had to do with getting through the jungle, but Avalon wasn’t listening. All of her focus was on her father.

“Avalon.” Deveron’s hand was on her shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“I can do this,” she replied, her voice completely even. As she spoke, Avalon let her hands slip behind her back while cracking her neck. “I’m ready. I am ready for this.” She was speaking both to him, and to Gaia, who was no doubt listening in.

He paused, looking down for a moment. Then he squeezed her shoulder while nodding. “We’ll see you on the other side.”

Then they were moving. The group took off into the jungle, heading for the beach where they would be safe, where the pixie would be safe. Avalon didn’t know how hard their trek through that vampire-infested jungle would be, but she did know that they would make it.

Just as she knew that this would be the last time that she faced the monster of her childhood. It was time to move on. It was time to put him behind her. And this was the only way that she could do that. This wasn’t for the Heretic that she had become. 

It was for the scared little girl that she had been.

“Alright then, little princess,” her father intoned a bit mockingly while readying himself. In one hand, he produced a massive, wickedly curved dagger, while the other held some kind of electrified baton that he clearly intended to put her on the ground with before cutting her. “Let’s do this.”

With that, the man was a sudden blur of motion that swept toward her, crossing two-thirds of the hundred feet that stood between them in an instant. Flames roared up along one side of him, while lightning crackled violently on the other. He would be on top of her, literally, before she could do more than blink. As he rushed at Avalon, the man’s baton swept up to the ready while lightning and fire bounded along at his sides like loyal hounds. 

And then, as suddenly as his charge had begun, the man hit the ground on his knees with a cry. His weapons fell to either side in the dirt while he put his hands against his head and groaned out a pained, “What… the… fuuuuuck….”

Slowly, Avalon pulled her hand out from behind her back. Nestled in her palm, she held a small tennis ball-shaped metal orb. The same orb that she had secretly shown Deveron before he would agree to leave her. It was silver, with a series of small rectangular blue lights along the bottom, and two slightly larger triangular red lights on the top half, each pointed inward so that the tips of the triangles pointed toward the very top of the orb, where the north pole would have been if it was a globe.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” she asked rhetorically before explaining, “It’s an ultrasonic frequency that only people with hearing as advanced as a vampire’s can pick up. I mean, me, I can only barely sort of hear this low buzzing sound. But you, it probably feels like your brain is melting. Screws up your sense of balance, makes up seem like down, pretty sure it even gets into your short term memory and screws with it. So you probably have no idea how long this has been going on. It’s all just noise. Noise right in your brain. You don’t just hear it. You see it, you smell it. You can feel it digging into your head. Can’t focus on fighting. Can’t focus on using any powers. Can’t even focus on escaping. Just that sound, that horrible, inescapable sound driving through your brain, pounding and pounding over and over. Relentless. Unending. A drill made entirely of noise, boring straight through your skull.

“You’re a vampire and you’ve been trying to either make my life miserable or kill me literally my whole life. I took an entire semester of the Development Track. Did you really think I wouldn’t come up with anti-vampire weapons that were specifically tailored to you? I’ve been waiting for you to attack me all year, you fucking imbecile. The Seosten didn’t just tell you to stay away because of the spell that I’ve got on me. They told you to stay away because they knew that the one single thing that I would be one hundred percent prepared for was a fucking vampire, you stupid piece of shit.

The man was thrashing by that point, head shaking back and forth violently while he dug his fingers into his head deep enough to draw blood. His mouth opened, and a scream escaped him that echoed off into the jungle. More blood poured from his eyes and nose, and he gave a slight convulsion.

Standing a few feet away from the man, Avalon looked down at him while he shuddered. “Sorry,” she added without meaning it, “did you think this was going to be some grand, epic fight in the middle of the jungle? Did you think it was going to be a cinematic duel to the death full of awesome powers and amazing stunts? It’s not. Because quite frankly, you’re not worth that kind of effort.”

Her father reached for her then, one hand stretching out while hate filled his eyes. Avalon simply stepped back, letting him pointlessly reach. “You think you’re some grand villain, some great big bad, my nemesis? You’re not. You’re a pathetic, drunk piece of shit, who was too stupid to understand that the people using him to attack his daughter are the ones who actually murdered his wife.

“I lost my mom when I was born. I didn’t have to lose my dad too. You did that. You let them do that. You helped them. You helped Mom’s killers because you are a worthless, stupid, angry fucking failure. I just wanted a dad. I was a little kid and all I wanted was my daddy. I wanted someone to be there for me, someone to tell me it was alright. I wanted someone to chase away the monsters, not become one. A child should be afraid of what’s in their closet, not what’s in their parents’ bed. No little kid should ever feel like their mommy or their daddy hates them. No child should ever, ever see their parents look at them the way you looked at me. You were grieving? Fuck you. I was a child. I was a little girl. Even if Mom’s death had been because of my birth, that wouldn’t be my fault. It wouldn’t be anybody’s fault! But it was. It was the Seosten’s fault, and you fucking helped them, you miserable piece of shit.

“So no. We’re not going to have an epic duel to the death. No powers. No fight in the jungle. You are going to die here like a rat, and then I am going to move on to things that actually matter. I am going to make those bastards pay for what they did to my mother, for what they’ve done to this entire world. And I’ll do it as Avalon Sinclaire. But I will also do it as Hannah Aken, descendant of Liesje and Dries Aken, daughter of Alicia Aken. Because Hannah was the name my mother chose. And I am not going to let you take one more goddamn thing away from us. Because I’ve moved on from you. I’m not afraid of you anymore. You were the monster of my childhood. But I have a lot worse monsters now. And if I’m going to deal with them, I have to deal with you first.”

Reggie, by that point, was lying on his side, blood still leaking from his head as he stared at her, glassy-eyed and barely comprehending. Avalon waited for his eyes to find hers, then clicked off the sonic device so that the only thing, the last thing that he would hear were her next words.

“You… are… irrelevant.”

Her announcement was matched by the hum of the long energy blade emerging from her gauntlet, even as her hand swept out and up. One more final spray of blood, a gurgle, and her father’s head fell to the ground several feet from his body.  

The rush of pleasure that she felt then was only partially from the Heretic kill sensation. But perhaps it was fitting that the only thing her father ever did that brought the girl who was both Avalon Sinclaire and Hannah Aken any happiness in her life… was die.

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Interlude 31B – Avalon

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Tink, tink, tink.

The repeated sound of something tapping against glass drew Avalon’s attention from the textbook she had been studying to the corner of her dorm room, where a small pig-like animal sat next to the window. Even as she looked that way, he leaned forward to tap his nose against the glass once more.

“Choo.” Speaking the small Jekern’s name flatly, Avalon stood up, abandoning her book as she took a step that way to look down at him. “Let me guess, you want to go outside.”

Choo’s response was to hop down from the windowsill and sit on his haunches, looking hopefully up at her as he wagged his hind end back-and-forth a little. The animal was no longer as tiny as he had been, having reached the size of a small dog. But he was still nowhere near as big as he would eventually become.

He was also capable of being here in the room without setting off the Stranger alarm, thanks to Gaia. Avalon‘s adopted mother had created shields on both this room and Shiori’s, which prevented the alarm spells from noticing him. Plus, there was a second enchantment which made him invisible to anyone looking into the room from beyond (either with some kind of vision power/spell or through the window). Again, thanks to Gaia. That kind of spell was far beyond anything that Avalon or anyone else in her age group were capable of.

With all that done, they still had to carry Choo around the grounds in the extradimensional pouch that had been made for him, but at least he could wander around the rooms safely. It was a lot better than leaving him all by himself out in the jungle. Between all the other predators out there, and the Heretic students, who knew what might have happened?

He spent most of his time in this room, rather than Shiori’s, since the girl’s roommate wasn’t exactly in on things. It was too dangerous. The only time he spent over there with Shiori was when they knew that Rebecca wouldn’t be around for a while.

Nodding in response to the animal’s hopeful look, Avalon reached out to pick up what looked like a simple leather pouch that was sitting on the nearby dresser. Opening it up, she held it down in front of the animal, ordering, “Well, get in.”

Choo huffed a little bit at having to go into the bag, but obediently trotted inside. Once he was in, Avalon closed the bag, making it small enough to fit in her pocket. Choo himself was in a tiny pocket dimension that was about the same size as this room. There was grass and dirt, and a small tree in there for him. When he was bigger, they would have to upgrade his area, but right now, that was enough. He had a nest of blankets in there, along with a big bowl of food and one for water. Both of them technically hold enough for a month, but were enchanted to only release a little bit each day. He could stay in there for quite a while if he needed to. But the little guy liked being out around people too much. He loved company, and attention. Honestly, he was too damn trusting and friendly for his own good. All he wanted to do was snuggle everyone he met.

Shoving the bag into her pocket, Avalon stepped out of the room, closing the door after her as she headed for the exit. Her footsteps echoed through the hallway, and a couple girls who were standing in front of another room glanced up at her approach. Summer, a dark-skinned girl was in the Investigation track, was standing near Freya, a distractingly beautiful red-haired girl who was taller than Avalon. Both of them glanced over while Summer continued, “It’s for Christmas! Come on, it’s funny, you’ve just gotta stop being so squeamish. So the talking poo is like–”

“Please, stop,” Freya begged before looking to Avalon. “She’s trying to explain Bystander humor to me. Which is weird,” she added pointedly, “since she’s not a Bystander either. Plus, I don’t think I want to understand. And I definitely don’t want to hear any more about this North Park.”

“It’s–oh never mind.” Waving that off, Summer turned back to Avalon as well. “Did Douglas ever find you?” she asked before adding, “He was looking for you about an hour ago. Even got us to go knock on your door for him so the statues wouldn’t dropkick him for coming into the dorm.”

“We did, but you weren’t there,” Freya added. “So he wandered off again. Seemed like it might be important, though. Something about needing to find you for his answer or something.”

For his–oh, great. Apparently Douglas had asked his oracle-power a question, and its answer had been to point him to Avalon. And she had no idea what he’d asked. Sometimes her temporary new teammate’s little vague question-and-answer gift could be very… unhelpful.

Betraying none of that to the two girls, she just shrugged once while replying flatly, “Haven’t seen him.” Without another word, she started to pass them, heading for the door once more.

“Hey, wait.” Summer called, raising a hand. When Avalon looked back, the other girl started with, “Sorry about, um, Flick and the others. I hope they find them soon. And that, you know.”

Her first impulse was to snap at the girl, but Avalon restrained herself. Growing up in Eden’s Garden, there was a good chance that anyone who said that would have been fishing for some kind of weakness. It wasn’t that every peer there was a rival or threat. That would have made things too easy. It was that there was no way of knowing who would be a threat, and a lot of Garden students weren’t exactly discouraged from stabbing each other in the back. Especially if the other person was from a different tribe. It was a way of getting ahead, of proving yourself stronger. There were plenty of students there who would’ve jumped on the opportunity to push themselves ahead of Avalon in the only vaguely secret (in that the staff didn’t openly acknowledge them) class ranking by messing with her head or making her focus on Flick.

Crossroads was different. It had its own problems, to be sure. But at least it didn’t have that kind of environment for students. After giving herself a second to remind her impulses that they weren’t back there anymore, Avalon managed a slight, curt nod. “They will,” she replied simply before turning to walk once more. She would take Choo out to the jungle and let him out to walk and stretch his legs for a bit first, then go and see what Douglas actually wanted.

On the way, she heard Freya start to whisper something about the odds of Flick and the others being alive if they had been taken by Strangers, only for Summer to stop her with a hissed word about waiting. Waiting, obviously, for Avalon to be further away so that she didn’t overhear their theories about how Flick, Sands, Isaac, Roxa, Gordon, and Jazz were probably already dead.

At least Avalon was as certain as she could be that that much wasn’t true. Vanessa hadn’t been able to contact her father again after the first time, but she had gotten the message through. And with both him and Scout’s mother out there helping them, Avalon had to believe that they were alive. Safe might be pushing it considering where they were, but alive at the very least.

Lost in thought (some might have called it brooding), she made her way across the grounds and down to the beach. However, before the girl could go much further than that, a loud bark caught her attention. Snapping her gaze up and to the side, she saw Vulcan galloping toward her. The big metal dog was accompanied by his owner, along with the other members of her team, both temporary and permanent. Sean, Scout, Columbus, Douglas, and Rudolph were approaching.

“Avalon!” Douglas called, as if she hadn’t seen him already. “Jeez, you are one hard girl to find sometimes, you know? We must’ve hiked all over the campus.”

“I must have just missed you at the dorm,” she replied, keeping her voice even. “What do you need, Frey? Banning and Sullivan just said you wanted to talk about something.” As she spoke, Avalon opened her hand to let Vulcan nuzzle up against it and sniff a little. The cyberform canine probably wanted to play with Choo, but they would have to send Douglas and Rudolph on their way first.

“I, uh–” Douglas paused, frowning a bit as he glanced around a little expectantly.

Tensing reflexively at that, Avalon belatedly realized that the boy wasn’t waiting to set off a trap or something. His power had obviously directed him toward Avalon as a means of answering whatever question he had asked, and now he was waiting to see what actually happened.

“You’re a stunning conversationalist as always,” she informed him dryly before looking to Scout. “You still want to train in the morning?”

The other girl gave a single, small nod at first. Then she seemed to gather herself, straightening a little before softly saying, “Yes.” Another slight pause then before, “I’ll be ready.”

That was it, there was only those four words. But even that was downright talkative for Scout, who had clearly been making an effort to speak up a bit more ever since her twin had disappeared.

“Good,” Avalon replied. “I’ll wait for you then.” With that, she looked back to Douglas, hoping that whatever he was waiting for would have had time to happen by that point. “Were you all just walking around together because you were lonely, or…”

Douglas’s mouth opened, before the boy paused briefly. He seemed to consider something before finally giving a little shrug. “I’ve been asking my power how we can help find Jazz and the others every day since… since that happened, but there’s been nothing. It wouldn’t tell me anything. Then, today, I asked how we could track down the guys who took them instead. Just a little different, but that time I got an actual answer. Sort of.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Avalon realized, “It directed you to me.”

The boy nodded, but it was Sean who replied, “He came to Columbus and me once he couldn’t find you. We looked for a bit, but couldn’t find you. Then Columbus had the bright idea to find Scout, since she’s got that magic tracking power.”

Right, Scout had the ability to mark any object and find it later. She’d obviously used it on all of her teammates. Avalon gave the quiet girl a brief nod before speaking to Columbus himself. “Uh, good idea.” It felt awkward and strange to compliment someone for something that simple. But the boy had been… very out of it and down on himself since being freed from Charmeine. The things that he had been forced to do while puppeted, the… threats that the Seosten woman had made about what she would make him do, had all obviously taken its toll. According to Sean, the boy was barely sleeping. And when he did sleep, he tended to wake up with nightmares. So she was trying to be better about encouraging him, as well as the others. It was what Flick would do if she was there.

The boy didn’t respond to her words at first, continuing to stare blankly for a few long seconds before he suddenly started as the realization that he could actually control his body clearly came. “I–”  Shifting a little, he flatly intoned, “Thanks. I just didn’t want to keep wandering around aimlessly.”

It was obviously meant as a joke of sorts, but his emotionless voice and the way that his face held no particular expression made it hard to tell until he belatedly gave a weak smile.

Columbus Porter was not in the best of shape, emotionally. But he needed to be out there, needed to be shown that he could keep helping and that he was in charge of his own body now. He was seeing the school therapist every afternoon, and Klassin Roe had made it clear that he would take Porter off the team the moment that he thought it was doing more harm than good. But for the time being, it was for the best that he be treated as normally as possible.

“Well,” Avalon informed them then. “I don’t want to say that you all wasted your time. But I assure you, if I knew anything about where to find the people responsible for taking Chambers and the others, I wouldn’t be standing here.”

Shaking his head, Douglas gave a long, low sigh. “Look, I know you’re keeping stuff from us. We know that. You know stuff you don’t wanna talk about and… ehh, I don’t wanna say that’s fine, cuz it’s not. But we get it. Rudolph and me, we get it. We’re not in your top secret club. Headmistress Sinclaire might call us part of the team, but we’re just slot-fillers for the moment. Whatever. But we do want to find our friends, okay? Whatever it takes. I can’t…” He swallowed hard, looking briefly haunted before his hand absently checked to make sure his hat was still there. “I can’t just sit around doing nothing.”  

Avalon studied the boy for a moment, considering her words before finally speaking. “If I knew anything that could find them, I would be doing it. I would tell you. Anything I know, it’s not useful right now.”

Rudolph, who had been quiet up to that point, spoke up. “Maybe it’s not something that you consciously know. Maybe it’s something that’s going to happ–”

That was as far as the boy got before, as if on cue, the phone in Avalon’s pocket rang. She blinked, giving him a brief look before taking the thing out to look at the screen. The call was from the number that Asenath had been using to contact them, so she clicked it on while taking a few steps away. “Yes?”

“Avalon,” the vampire started, “You’re still at Crossroads, right?”

Pausing, Avalon looked back to the group, who were all watching expectantly, before answering with that same single word as before. “Yes.”

“Good, uh, listen.” Pausing briefly, Asenath seemed to be considering her words. “Namythiet, our little pixie friend, she was contacted by another one of her species. It’s some kind of magic connection spell or something. I’m not sure about the details. But the point is, there’s a pixie out there in the jungle, the Crossroads jungle. And she’s um… hurt.”

“Hurt?” Avalon echoed, glancing toward the trees.

“Yeah. Apparently she’s exhausted. It was all she could do to send that message. But she’s in the jungle and she’s trapped there. But here’s the thing. Whatever happened, it has something to do with the Seosten. We don’t know what, but it sounds like she escaped from them or something. She’s been running for days, trying to contact anyone who would listen and try to get her out of there. She knows something important, and they’ve been chasing her. They’ve blocked every other exit, so she’s trapped on the island, and they’ve been hunting her. She’s got nothing left.”

That was enough to make Avalon start a bit. Eyes widening slightly, she tersely asked, “Where is she?”

“Hang on,” Asenath replied, “I’m texting you the map that Namythiet made. Can you get to her? She’s… she doesn’t have long, Avalon. From what Namy said, that last message took everything she had, just getting her location out. If she doesn’t die of exhaustion, the people hunting her will finish the job. We’re talking minutes, not hours and definitely not days. Minutes.”

“I’ll get to her,” Avalon assured her firmly. She took a moment to look at the map that came in. “I’m going now.”

She had just disconnected the call when the realization that the others were all still standing there struck her. As she looked up, Douglas demanded, “What? Who? Who were you talking to, who are you going to? Who’s hurt? What’s going on?”

For a few seconds that were entirely too long, Avalon was silent. A hundred different thoughts warred for prominence in her mind. Telling the boys was too dangerous. But they wouldn’t just leave. And every second that they wasted was another in which this mysterious pixie who had information about the Seosten might die. What could she say?

An idea started to form, but they had already been waiting too long. She couldn’t let that pixie die. Turning on her heel, Avalon started to jog while snapping, “If you want to save your friends, shut up and follow me.”

Scout was right behind her, followed immediately by Sean and Columbus, with Vulcan trotting alongside them. Further back, Rudolph and Douglas looked at one another for a moment before following suit.

As she ran, Avalon quickly sent a text to Gaia, letting her know what was going on and that she might have to erase an hour or so of the boys’ memories if this went wrong. Then she started to speak, even as they left the sand and started into the jungle itself.

“You know all those rumors about Eden’s Garden using Strangers instead of just killing them?”

“You mean the breeding experiments and that stuff?” Rudolph asked before ducking under a branch. “Yeah, my… my granddad, he said something about it.”

Avalon took another second, finding the right words. “Sometimes they use them the way that Bystander police use smaller, less important criminals.” She checked the map on her phone, considered where they were, then kept running. “You know, send them out to get information on the bigger targets. No point in expending effort on the little fish when the little fish can lead you to the big fish.”

There was another pause behind her as the boys seemed to absorb that, before Douglas asked, “We’re going after one of those little fish?”

“A little fish who knows how to get to the big fish,” Avalon confirmed. “But the big fish are trying to kill it before it can talk, so we have to get there first. Can you handle that?”

“We’re gonna have to hear a lot more about all this,” Douglas informed her, grunting as he slid down a slight incline before catching himself. “But if it can really help us find the others, then fuck it, let’s get this fish. I’m not gonna be the guy who fucks everything up because he demands to know everything when we should be moving. I’ll be that guy later.”

Right. That settled that, for the next few minutes anyway. Now the boys knew that they would be finding a Stranger, and wouldn’t immediately kill her. Eventually they’d either need to know more, or Gaia would just erase it from their memory. Either way, good enough for the moment.

Run, run. Get to the pixie. Get to that damn pixie before they lost this lead. If it meant a chance of finding Flick, Avalon would have run across the entire island a thousand times.

Finally, she stopped. Looking at the map, Avalon judged that they had run about to the right spot. She could see a couple landmarks included in the map that looked right, including a fairly massive rock in the vague shape of a dog’s head that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. But there was no pixie.

“She’s got to be around here,” the girl muttered under her breath, turning in a circle as she looked around desperately. “Pixie, we’re looking for a pixie.”

“A pixie?” Rudolph echoed, a bit of doubt in his voice as he too started to look around. “In a place like this? We could look for hours. They’re not exactly easy to spot if they’re not right in front of your face.”

“We don’t have hours,” Avalon snapped. “We have minutes, maybe. We have to find her. You wanna find your friends, we need the pixie. We don’t find the pixie, we don’t find the others.”

Douglas put both hands up to adjust his baseball cap while his head shook. “I don’t–if I still had my question for the day, I could just ask, but I don’t. I don’t know how else we’re supposed to find this… this pixie. These are the only directions you’ve got? It’s not here, so now what?”

“There.” The word came from Columbus. The boy had his goggles on, and was pointing off in a seemingly random direction. “Fifty feet that way, right in the hollow of the tree. She’s kind of covered by a log. I think she pulled it over to block the view.”

Avalon didn’t question it. Instead, she ran that way, muttering a quick thanks to the boy before dropping to her knees in front of the tree in question. Using one hand to pull the log away, the girl stared at the tiny figure nestled within the hollowed out portion of the trunk.

It was definitely the missing pixie. And she didn’t look good. Avalon had no idea what had happened to her or what she had been through, but the little thing was clearly utterly exhausted. She barely reacted to the log being moved, opening her eyes briefly before letting out a weak whimper of protest as they closed once more. Her wings were limp rather than vibrant. From all appearances, she was about an inch from death anyway.

And yet, Douglas still caught Avalon by the shoulder, pulling her back a bit. “Don’t get too close,” he warned her. “It could be faking.”

Turning that way, she almost snapped at him, almost bit his head off. But she caught herself at the last instant, instead retorting, “We need her alive. I don’t care how you feel about Strangers or their uses. If this one dies, we might never see Chambers or the others again. Do you understand? This one survives if you want to see your friends. It’s our only lead. Our only lead. You get it?”

Rudolph spoke up then. “We get it. The pixie lives. But what do we do with her?”

Sean had stepped up to join them. “Vulcan’s storage space for his ammo,” he announced. “We can put her in there until we get out of this jungle and back somewhere a little safer. After that… we’ll see what we can do.”

“Pixies heal themselves.” That was Scout, actually speaking up. When they all looked at her, the brunette shrugged. “Magic. She… she should be… healing herself. But she’s weak. Maybe if we… feed her magic, she’ll heal.”

“Right,” Avalon announced. “But we do it closer to the beach. Right now we need to get out of here, before–”

“Stay away from the school, they said,” a voice spoke up from the shadows of the trees that surrounded them. “Don’t even think about going there, they said. Don’t go near her, she’s surrounded and protected.”

A figure stepped into view, even as Avalon quickly stood up and turned that way. He was, at first glance, a fairly ordinary looking man, if somewhat tall at a few inches over six feet. Most of his head was bald, save for the back and along both sides, where a bit of brown hair could be found. He wore a simple flannel shirt and jeans, neither of which were anywhere near new. Though not exactly ‘fat’, he was somewhat hefty, particularly for his height. He looked like a man who would be most often be seen watching a football game with a beer in one hand and the remote in another, after getting home from his job in a factory or as some kind of middle management. Not particularly handsome, but not hideous. Not in the best of shape, but not obese. Average in almost every way, save possibly for the slightly unnatural paleness of his skin.

And when she saw him, Avalon took a reflexive step back, even as her Stranger sense alerted her to the entirely unnecessary revelation of his non-human status.

“But you know,” the man continued, “all I was doing was following orders. Find the pixie, they told me. Deal with it. That’s what I was doing. So I don’t see how they can blame me when, well, you sorta walk right into my lap, can you?”

The others started to speak, but Avalon didn’t hear them. Their words all blended together and fell away. Her attention was centered on the man, on the vampire in front of them. Her voice was soft, flat and emotionless.  

“Hello… Dad.”

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Interlude 31A – Lies

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Please note, there was a full bonus chapter posted on Wednesday to finish off the regular arc. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

Present Day

The cold, bitter rain came down in sheets as the hour-long torrential downpour continued inexorably onward. The top floor of the parking garage, only a quarter full of scattered vehicles, was almost as much miniature lake as it was asphalt. It was easier to count the small, wet islands than it was to count the puddles, which ranged from just deep enough to soak the bottom of a shoe, all the way up to the nearly knee-deep corner opposite from the ramp.

Through the downpour, six figures stood on the roof of that parking garage, five of them surrounding the last. The five were large, heavily muscled figures of dark green skin and prodigious teeth. They wore enough leather and chains to be seen by humans as a biker gang, though those immune to the so-called Bystander Effect knew them as orcs.

That name by itself was an oversimplification since there were at least a half-dozen different species that were generally thrown into the pool of ‘orc’. All came from different planets, had wildly different original civilizations, religions, cultures, and more, and most hated the simple term ‘orc’. But due to their similar appearances to the untrained eye, most species lumped them all in together under the name of the first that had been encountered, meaning that those who had come after, with the misfortune of looking too similar to the first, had no opportunity to differentiate themselves. They were all seen as orcs, regardless of how varied they were.

The figure these so-called ‘orcs’ were surrounding, meanwhile, was much smaller. The untrained human eye would have seen her as human. But she was far more than that, in many ways. And just as the outside observer would have been mistaken in believing that they were witnessing five human bikers surround a human girl, they would have been equally mistaken in believing that the bikers were the most dangerous figures on that rooftop.

There was no discussion, no debate, threats, or offers of any kind. As the five orcs surrounded the girl, they exchanged glances with one another to assure themselves that they were all ready for what was about to happen. Or at least, that they believed they were. Then they attacked. The one directly in front of the girl drew back his meaty fist before driving it straight for her face, even as the one directly behind whipped his chain up and moved to drop it around her neck. The two to either side moved to grab her arms to immobilize her, and the final one, slightly to the left of the one at her left arm, threw his own punch toward her exposed side.


Twenty-One Years Ago

An orange-skinned man with a scraggly white beard trembled and quivered. His arms were raised above his head and attached to chains that hung from the ceiling. “M-Momma,” he begged in a broken voice. “Momma, I can’t. Please, Momma. Please, I can’t do it. Please.”

His whimpers were met with the sharp thrust of a stun prod, and the man arched his back, his entire body spasming as his words were replaced with agonized screams. A dozen burns scattered over his exposed upper torso made it clear that this had been going on for some time.

“Step out of the man, now.” The woman holding the electrified prod was the very definition of regal. She stood just a hair under six feet tall, with long black hair that fell to the middle of her back and was done in a single, tight braid. She wore dark red pants and a black silk shirt, both of which were enchanted to repel blood and other stains for quite obvious reasons. Around her neck was a golden choker, and she also wore an ornate, beautiful diadem with several red and violet gemstones. The diadem, choker, and other objects she wore were all heavily enchanted.

“Momma,” the man begged, his voice cracking pathetically as he hung limply from the chains. “Momma, please. I tried. I s-swear, Momma. I tried. I can’t do it.” Tears flooded his eyes as he gave a violent shudder. “Please, Momma, no hurting. Please, I’ll be g-good, Momma, ple-”

Once again, the desperate pleas turned to horrific screams as the prod was jammed into the man’s stomach. The woman raised her voice just enough to be heard over the cries. “You have not earned the right to call me that any more than you have earned a name. Step out of the man now. You want this to stop? You wish to earn my forgiveness? Then do as all true Seosten can and step out of him. Step out and there will be no more pain. Prove you are my child. Do it.”

She waited for a moment then, stepping back and watching as though she believed that either her words or the threat of more pain would actually be enough encouragement to make the impossible happen. Eyes narrowed and prod held loosely in one hand, she watched expectantly.

For a moment, the man went completely still and silent. His eyes drifted closed, his brow furrowed, and there was a somewhat childish display of concentration as the tip of his tongue poked slightly out of his mouth. The frown deepened over the next minute of silence, and new sweat appeared. His trembles and shudders turned violent from the incredible effort that was being put forth, until the man finally jerked upright, gasping for breath while shaking his head frantically. His words were pathetic, shamed sobs. “I can’t! I’m sorry, Momma, I’m so–”

With the click of a button, a blade appeared at the end of the stun prod, and the woman slit the man’s throat with a single, blindingly quick swipe. As blood poured freely down his throat and his head jerked backward, a second figure appeared directly in front of him. This one was much, much smaller. A child. A female child, barely six or possibly seven years old, with light brown hair and brown eyes. She stood there, shivering heavily as tears continued to stream down her face as she babbled apologies. “Momma. Momma, please. I’m sorry, Momma. Please.” With a weak, pathetic hope that had not yet been fully dashed, she raised her arms, desperate for just a little affection from the woman who had birthed her. “I t-tried, I rea-really tried!”

But there was no affection to be had. The woman stood, watching dispassionately before turning on her heel to walk away. “You are no child of mine,” she announced flatly. “I will not be mother to a Lie. Learn to control your power. Stop possessing your host. We’ll try again tomorrow. I have more ideas of what might properly motivate you beyond this handicap. For now, you will stay with the body until the morning.” She tugged open the heavy metal door then. “Perhaps seeing the result of your failure will convince you to make an actual effort next time.”

Standing there, the seven-year old child stared after the woman longingly. “Momma,” she called. “Momma, I love you. I love you, Momma.”

Kushiel, the Seosten once known as Hera on Earth, didn’t bother looking back before she stepped through to the next room and closed the door on her daughter with heavy clang.


Present Day

As the orc’s fist swung for her face, and the rest of his companions launched their own attacks, the Seosten Lie smiled. That smile carried through to her current host, the werewolf-Heretic called Pace.

She pivoted to the right abruptly, moving so quickly that her figure was barely visible. Her right hand snapped up to catch the wrist of the orc whose fist had been swinging for her face. With her other hand, the girl caught hold of the chain from the one who had been behind her. A quick yank and twist put that chain around the other orc’s wrist before either realized what happened.

The two orcs who had been on either side of her managed to grab empty air where the girl’s arms had been an instant earlier, while the final figure’s punch toward her side whiffed as well. None realized what had happened for the next second, only that they had missed.

Holding the chain tight around the first orc’s wrist, Lies gave a sharp, vicious yank at both sides of it. The chain was no ordinary metal. It was enchanted, meant to hold against almost anything. Which meant that, strong as her host was (and she was incredibly strong), she couldn’t break it.

Unfortunately for the orc whose wrist it was wrapped around, his bones were not so enchanted. With a howl of pain, his bone was crushed as the chain suddenly tightened dramatically.

The orc who was holding the chain realized what had happened, while the other three simultaneously noticed where their supposed prey had moved to. The first tried to yank back the chain to free it from his companion, while the remaining trio turned to her with identical bellows.

Lies easily yanked the chain from the orc’s grip, stepping behind the one who had it wrapped around his now shattered wrist. With that step, she gave a sharp yank to force his arm behind his back, the motion forcing a pained, gargled scream from the orc’s mouth as his demolished wrist was heavily jostled and wrenched horribly.

Once she was behind him, using the orc’s body to block the others from getting to her, Lies caught his other hand and yanked it back. With a grunt, she wrapped the other part of the unbreakable chain around that wrist as well, before grabbing hold of the middle part that hung between his now-linked hands. One more solid twist and yank crushed the new wrist while simultaneously doing unbelievable damage to the already badly broken one. She yanked both of his hands together that way, wrapped the chain around them a few more times to secure it, then gave him a solid kick in the back that sent him crashing into the arms of the orc that the chain had originally belonged to.

While those two were disentangling themselves, the other three continued to come for her. And Lies welcomed them by reaching behind her back with both hands to grab for the weapons attached to her belt. At first glance, as the girl brought her hands back out in front of herself, she appeared to be holding a pair of metal tonfas or short batons. But a quick push of a button on each proved how wrong that assumption was. From the top of each metal cylinder emerged a long blade. Once fully extended, the blades snapped downward ninety degrees, forming a sickle. Meanwhile, from the bottom of each of the ‘batons’, a long metal chain dropped into view. At the end of the chain was a small, yet heavy metal ball.

Kusarigama. The original Pace, her current host, had used the much less dangerous (and thus less fun) weapon of a couple knives that were capable of copying the physical properties of any material added to them, as well as creating various gels that could accomplish different effects. Some were explosive or acidic, while others could actually heal those they were used on.

Stabbing someone to heal them was inherently hilarious, of course. But Lies had wanted something with a bit more bang, something a bit more fun than ‘knives’. Thus, these kusarigama.

With a quick, practiced flick, the girl sent the chains out. Each wrapped around one of the wrists of two of the incoming trio of orcs, the weighted balls at the end allowing them to lock tight. Her thumbs brushed over the indented button in each handle, even as she brought both of her arms together, criss crossed over one another so that the two men were yanked together by their trapped arms, subsequently blocking the third man who had been coming up the middle.

At the simple, light button-touch, a wave of incredible cold ran down the chain of one of the weapons, freezing the trapped arm of that orc solid. At the same time, a wave of intense heat ran down the chain of the other to set that orc’s arm ablaze. The frozen arm was instantly shattered, before the heat from the flames turned it and the rain that continued to fall into a wave of steam that blinded all three of the orcs.


Twenty Years Ago

“Mama, don’t make me. Please, Mama. Please, I’ll do good. I’ll try harder. I promise. Please, Mama. Please.” Tears blinded the now-eight-year old Seosten child as she held tightly to her mother’s arm, pleading desperately. “Please, Mama. She was nice to me. She was my friend. She’s my friend, Mama. Please. Please, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mama, I’ll be good. I’ll try harder!”

Staring unmoved at her daughter, Kushiel gave a slight headshake before pointing to a red-skinned female child only a couple years older than the other girl. The older girl was unconscious. “You will possess her, Lie, and then you will be motivated to stop possessing her. If she is truly your friend. Because you know what will happen if you do not.”

“Mama!” A new wave of tears sprang forth as the unnamed handicapped Seosten grabbed hold of the red-skinned girl’s hand. “Please! Please, Mama! Please, please. She played with me! She was nice to me. I don’t wanna hurt her, Mama. Please, please.” By the end, her words were almost indecipherable as she sobbed uncontrollably.

“Yes,” Kushiel agreed. “And why do you think I allowed her to spend this past year with you, hmm? She is close to you because I allowed it. I allowed you to have this past year together so that you would be properly motivated now. I gave you a year with this dear friend. Now you will pay me back by proving that you are not a complete failure. You will not humiliate our name.”

“I wo-won’t do it!” the child declared, head shaking frantically. “I w-won’t, I won’t possess her! I won’t hurt her. Sh-she-she’s my friend! Please, Mama, don’t make me hurt her. Please, please, please! I’m s-sorry. I’m sorry, I’m really trying! I swear! I’m trying, but don’t make me hurt her, p-please, Mama. Please.”

Straightening to her full height, Kushiel glared down at the child. “You will possess her,” she ordered, “or I will have her eaten alive by the Tiyanak. Do you understand? I am giving you the chance to save her life. Don’t you want to save her life? If you don’t, I can simply have her taken to the Tiyanak now.

“If you care about your friend, you should try to save her.”


As the trio of orcs reeled and screamed, Lies threw herself that way. Three quick, vicious strikes from the bladed scythe end of her weapons opened their throats and left them lying on the ground, slowly dying and incapable of fighting back anymore.

By that point, the remaining two had finished pulling away from each other. They both turned, just in time for Lies to catch her weapons by the end of the chain and swing them outward. The chains snapped taut just as the scythe blades each embedded themselves in the middle of the orc duo’s foreheads. Their eyes crossed and then they collapsed to the ground.

As her blades came free, Lies yanked them back before triggering the change that shifted her kusarigama into their pistol forms. Extending them toward two of the three dying orcs whose throats had been cut, she fired. One of their heads froze solid before popping, while the other was melted into a bubbling pile of flesh.

The final orc, lying there choking on his own blood, twitched and gurgled a little bit as Lies moved to stand over him, pointing both pistols down at his face.

“Hi!” she announced cheerfully before dropping to one knee beside him. “Could you do me a favor?”

The orc started to gurgle a pained, desperate response before the girl suddenly dropped her pistol and drove her hand down against his chest. Her fingernails had elongated into werewolf claws, puncturing his body as the orc gave a choked scream.

“Don’t interrupt,” Lies chastised. “It’s rude. Now, I need you to do me a favor. You go back to Manakel and tell him to leave me alone. I’m not bothering him, I’m not interfering with his shit. I just want to be left alone. Maybe he doesn’t want my help anymore, but if he keeps sending fuckups like you after me, he and I are gonna have a problem. So you tell him that.”

Rising to her feet, she started to turn away before abruptly stopping. Her shoulders shook a little, and she giggled audibly. “Oh,” the girl announced, openly snickering. “I forgot. He’s got that whole necromancer thing going on, doesn’t he? Lord of the Underworld and all that. So, technically, he doesn’t need you to be alive to give him the message.”

The orc’s gurgling suddenly turned frantic and desperate, before it was silenced completely by a single shot from the girl’s heat-based pistol.

Whistling the tune from The Flintstones, Lies started to walk away through the downpouring rain.

He’s not going to listen. He’s going to keep sending more and more powerful people after you. After us. He can’t have you out here. You’re a loose end. He’s already been sending more and more of these guys. He wants you dead.

Pausing on her way off the roof of the parking garage, Lies slowly tilted her head. Or rather, Pace’s head. “Hmm? Is that my little Jiminy Cricket trying to offer advice? No sulking and crying over the poor dead orcs?”

They were trying to kill us, came the response. You defended yourself. But Manakel is going to keep sending people after you. We can’t beat all of them.

“Oh, but we can make them work for it, can’t we? Make them earn their pay, yes. We don’t have to be easy for them. Don’t have to roll over and play dead like good little puppies.” Lies snickered aloud at her own imagery. “I can kill them over and over again. Make him waste as much as possible. It’ll be fun to play that game until it’s over.”

We can do more than that, Pace insisted. We can actually accomplish something.

The girl was completely silent for a few seconds. Slowly, Lies made her host’s head turn to look back to the sky, closing her eyes and letting the rain fall over her face before opening her mouth to catch some of it. Finally, her eyes opened, and she gave a little smile.



Twenty Years Ago

The body of the red-skinned girl lay on the floor, broken and empty, sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling. A jeweled knife had been embedded deep in her chest.

Beside her knelt the eight-year old Seosten child. Her hands were soaked in the blood that covered the nearby ground, and her shoulders shook. “I’m sorry,” she cried, shuddering heavily as she stared at the dead girl that had been her friend for the past year. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I tried. I tried to st-stop. I tried. I promise. Please. Please. I’m sorry.”

“Perhaps this will serve as a reminder for next time,” Kushiel coldly informed her daughter. “Think of this as motivation.” She paused then, frowning. “Clean yourself up, then come downstairs. It’s time to meet your new friend.”

With that, she pivoted on one heel before striding to the door, passing through and closing it without another word.

For a minute afterward, the Seosten girl just knelt there, staring at her dead friend, the girl who had spent the past year being nice to her. She thought of the games they had played, the stories they had told, the secrets they had shared. She thought of how desperately she had tried to stop possessing the girl, how much her friend had pleaded with her to try. And, at the end, how the girl had forgiven her. She thought of the feel of the knife plunging into her friend’s chest. She thought of her failure. Her total and complete failure.

And she thought of her next friend. The next one that she would spend time with before being forced to possess them. The next one that she would fail to save.

And the one after that.

And the one after that.

She cried for them. Cried for her friend, and for the ones she had yet to meet. Her tears fell freely as her shoulders shook with desperate, terrible loneliness. Staring down at the dead body, the eight-year old child sobbed. And as she sobbed, alone in every possible way, something within the girl broke. Something within her snapped.

“Heh…. heh… “ She went completely still, utterly unmoving to the point of being unnatural. “Heh…”

Slowly, the girl’s shoulders began to shake once more. But not from tears. Neither were the sounds she made those of a crying child any longer. Kneeling there in the blood of her friend, the lost, broken child did the only thing she could. She giggled. And then she laughed. Soon, her laughter echoed off the walls of the room.

She laughed because she could not cry any longer. She laughed because there was no alternative. She laughed because she was alone. Because no one cared about the lost, broken Seosten child.

She laughed because when all was said and done, laughter and tears were often not very different at all. Because tears were for those who had hope that their lives would be better, hope that their pain was temporary.

And laughter was for those who had none.

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-08

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Tabbris, if you can take control of my bodily functions, please make sure I don’t pee myself.

After sending my (extremely) close companion that urgent private message, I managed a weak gulp while staring openly at the beautiful brown-haired woman. “Ah-uh-uh… y-you know my name.” Dumb, probably, but it was the only thing I could think to say in that particular moment.

To my surprise, the woman chuckled. Her voice was soft. “Yes,” she agreed. “I suppose I do. As to how, that will come soon. But for now, we must leave. Radueriel will have reinforcements on the way. He did not come with enough to handle me. When he returns, that will be different.”

Right. Now that Radueriel knew she was here, he’d come back with a hell of a lot more firepower. I didn’t want to think about how much it would take to deal with someone who could do what I had just seen this woman do. But I did know that if we were still in the area, I’d probably end up like a bug against a windshield. Not being here was a very good idea.

“S-so, um, can you teleport us up to my friends?” I started hesitantly. “They’re on a ship with-”

“I am quite aware they are, Lady Felicity,” she interrupted, holding a hand up to stop me. “Unfortunately, we have no way of getting to them right now. They had to pull back to avoid losing the ship to Radueriel’s armada.” As she spoke, the woman produced a small, fairly odd-looking dagger. The blade was about five inches long, and made of what looked like some kind of yellow glass. Its handle looked like a simple piece of wood with red cord wrapped tightly around it almost to the bottom. Right at the end, the wooden handle had a tiny humanoid skull carved into it in intricate detail.

“I can break through the shield that Radueriel has up,” the woman continued while turning to the nearby wall. “But only to locations that I’ve prepared ahead of time. That ship, unfortunately, is not one of them.” She drove the strange amber blade into the wall with a quick thrust, adding, “But I promise, you will see them again. Right now, our priority is simply in leaving this place.”

With that, the woman twisted the handle of the knife that was stuck into the wall. There was a brief grinding noise before a doorway-sized and shaped section of the wall suddenly began to glow yellow, just like the the blade itself. Pulling the knife back out, she gestured. “Go through, my lady.”

For a second, I hesitated. Opening my mouth before shutting it, I inwardly asked, Tabbris?

Mom liked her, she sent back. She went rogue a long time ago, but Mom didn’t know much about it. Or she didn’t tell me, I dunno. I… I never heard anything about the Nimue stuff.

From the way the woman was scanning the room behind me, and her posture, I knew that she was anxious to get out of there. But she didn’t rush me, didn’t insist that I hurry. She was willing, even in that moment, to give me a few seconds to think. Which, I supposed made sense. One generally didn’t become the embodiment of wisdom by being against thinking things through.

Still, I didn’t want to push that any further than I had to. The woman had come in and put down all of Radueriel’s men right when he had me dead to rights. She was obviously no fan of his. Even if this took me further away from the rest of Sands, Larissa, and the others for the moment, there wasn’t really a choice. It was get out of here with Auriel, or stay and wait for Raduriel to show up again so that he could strap me down in a lab and find out about Tabbris.

With that thought, I immediately moved. Walking quickly up to the glowing amber doorway that the woman had created, I put a hand up to it. My fingers went right through, giving a tingling sensation that continued all the way up my arm to my shoulder. It made me shiver, and I took a breath before stepping through the obvious portal. That funny tingle extended through my whole body while my vision went briefly yellow, and I felt a brief spinning sensation in my stomach.

When the light faded and I could see again, there was gravel under my feet. Blinking around, I found myself standing… in the middle of a driveway in what looked like an ordinary suburb. There was a small peach-colored house behind me, with a chain link fence around it and a wraparound wooden porch. A simple wooden swing hanging from a tree in the yard creaked in the light breeze. More houses, each equally mundane-looking, filled the street in both directions.

“Wh–” Spinning in a circle as my eyes widened with shock, I blurted, “We’re back on Earth?!” I felt like flailing wildly, and it was all I could do to hold myself back from just completely losing it.

Appearing beside me, the Seosten woman spoke simply, her voice vaguely amused. “Look up.”

So, I did. Tilting my head back, I stared toward the sky… that wasn’t a sky. There was a simple metal ceiling a few hundred feet up. “That–that’s not a… we…” I cut myself off, frowning slightly.

“Please, take your time,” the woman advised patiently. She stood, hands held loosely behind her back as she watched me with a curious expression. If she was in any kind of rush, she didn’t show it at all. It was like she was getting to know me just by observing when I was deep in thought. She could have just told me everything, but she chose to wait and watch me work it out.

“I–we’re on some kind of ship or something with a recreation of suburban Earth in the middle of it?” Opening my mouth and then shutting it, I considered. “Probably for people… people you’ve got here who would be more comfortable in that situation instead of a blank spaceship because they have to be here for a long time, and you don’t want them to be scared or… or whatever.”

I saw a faint, yet recognizable smile play at the woman’s mouth briefly. “Very good,” she replied, “and very close, save for a few particular details. For one, we are on a station, not a spaceship. An understandable mistake, which you only could have guessed properly through luck, really.”

Her eyes focused on me then, as she added in a slightly curious tone, “In any case, I imagine that you probably have more than a few questions now that we are actually relatively safe, Lady Felicity?”

I was staring at her as she finished, barely hearing her actual words. All I could think about was the way I’d seen her move when fighting–no, when slaughtering all of Radueriel’s men back there. It had been as amazing to watch as it was terrifying to think of just how deadly this woman actually was and what she could do. For a moment, all I could do was stand there with my mouth opening and shutting as I searched for the right thing, or anything at all, to say.

Finally, all I could settle on was a weak, “Y-you’re… I mean you’re really–but he called you… does… does that mean that you were actually…? He–Arthur and all that and you were really-”

“Yes.” Her answer came softly, and I could actually hear a bit of regret and sadness behind her words. It was obvious that there was a lot of pain associated with her memories of that time.

She continued, chin lifting just a little. “I was born with the name of Auriel, though I have also been called Uriel at times. On Earth, I was known as Athena. And also, for a time, as Nimue.”

It was true, then. She was both Athena and Nimue, the so-called ‘Lady of the Lake.’ “But… but does that mean you gave Excalibur to Arthur and all that? You’re Nimue? But why would you have– I don’t understand.” That was all I could say, because I really didn’t understand, at all.

“Come,” she urged, turning to start walking down the ordinary-looking sidewalk. “I will explain as much as I can at the moment. Suffice to say, it is a very long story. And there is some that is not mine to tell.” She glanced sidelong at me then, waiting until I had started to walk beside her.

Together, we moved while the woman spoke. “I disagreed with the creation of the Bystander Effect. I disagreed with… a great many things, though that was the last dust in the neulik pile. Or-” She looked to see my bewildered expression, chuckling slightly. “I suppose someone like you would say that it was… ah, the straw that broke the camel’s back? The last event before I decided that changing things from within, through compromise and discussion, would not work.”

Stopping at what looked like a small park at the corner of the street, the woman stared at a tall tree that was growing there. She laid a hand against it, her voice softening. “When we first came to your planet, I loathed your species. I saw you as… as mockeries of the Seosten, and as weapons for your creators.” Pausing then, she added with a brief look, “You are aware that–”

“I know about the Fomorians,” I assured her quickly. “I know that they–I know all of that.”

“You are very well informed,” she noted with a raised eyebrow before continuing. “But yes, I hated you. I believed that you were nothing more than weapons that would be used by the Fomorians to destroy us, and that anything we did to turn you against them, to use you, was acceptable. I was very angry, very… lost. The Fomorians murdered my family, my husband, my… my son. He was an infant at the time, and it is so very hard to…” She trailed off, looking away. Her shoulders stiffened, and it took the Seosten woman a second to collect herself.  

“Suffice to say,” she finally continued, “I was very angry. And anything even remotely associated with those creatures, I saw as just as monstrous as they were. So I didn’t care about manipulating you. I didn’t care about any of that. I wanted justice. I wanted revenge. And turning the Fomorians’ own creations against them, that was… that felt like very good revenge.”

Swallowing hard at that, I hesitated before speaking up. “But you changed your mind?”

Turning away from the tree, the woman started to walk again. She led me up a steep hill at the end of the neighborhood, her voice quiet. “The ancient world that you read about in your human history books, and the world that I knew at that time were very different. Before the Bystander Effect, humans and what you call Alters often lived together knowingly. There were wars, yes, and humans were often killed in those wars. The world was much more like the myths than your history. Up until the creation of the Bystander Effect, some humans were hunted by monsters while others worked and lived right alongside them. Magic was commonly used. Your species, your entire civilization was built around it, in many ways.

“But we were more powerful. You had magic, but we had stronger magic and technology that you couldn’t possibly keep up with or hope to understand. We forced your obedience by taking the roles of gods. As strong as you were, we were stronger. And we knew how to manipulate enough of you you into worshipping us. Until…” She paused there, standing near the top of the hill while looking toward me. “Until it was decided that you were growing too quickly. It was thought that you would be able to challenge us sooner than we had expected. And the thought of having to fight humans instead of having you as our… tools was too much for many to bear. There was even talk of simply destroying your planet and being done with it entirely.”

Swallowing hard at that as the woman paused to look at me, I offered a weak, “I, uh, I guess I’m really glad you guys didn’t go with that one after all. Given the choice between the two, I mean.”

“Yes.” She frowned a little, looking away from me as she continued in a soft voice. “There was a city that was named for me, a city that took its name from my Greek identity, that is.”

“Athens,” I confirmed with a quick nod. “I remember. You and Poseidon were supposed to have like… competed over it or something, before it was named? You gave them the first olive tree and he gave them their first horses. Uh, no offense, but I’m not sure why olives won over horses. Don’t get me wrong, olives are fine and all, but horses seem a lot more useful.”

That time, she did smile. “The myths have become slightly… different from what actually happened. As part of proving our power, we were supposed to show off a little bit. Sachael, the one you know as Poseidon, and I did have a competition to this effect. But it wasn’t olive trees and horses that we brought to them. Sachael brought them an alliance with a herd of centaurs to protect their city. The horses came with, but the centaurs were a larger part of his offering. He forced the centaurs to obey, then gave them to the then-unnamed city for protection and aid.

“And in my case, I did give them the olive tree, in a way. But it’s how I gave it to them that is important. I taught the people of the city a spell that would cause their crops to grow fresh and healthy even in weak soil. I taught them magic to ensure fine harvests. It was simply that the example that I used during the demonstration was on an olive tree.”  

“That makes sense,” I agreed before biting my lip. “But I don’t understand what all that has to do with what you were saying before, about how you guys had to decide between creating the Bystander Effect and destroying the entire world like a kid who doesn’t want to play the game anymore because they’re not winning, so they just flip the whole damn table over.”

She gave me a brief look then, seeming to smile a little despite herself. “An apt comparison in some ways. As for its relevance… I did not care about the city of Athens at first. For quite some time, actually. I made my appearances as needed to continue our deception and played my part. But it was simply a… a job. I saw humans as… as less than us. I saw every race as less than us. When the time came for the Bystander Effect to come into play, I barely thought about what it would mean.”

I found myself frowning a little at how she had phrased that. “What it would mean?”

“The consequences,” she spoke simply, her voice sounding a little rough before she pushed on. “The initial spell was centered there, on my city. It was a test, to make sure it worked. We… we cast it there, and…” She didn’t continue for a few seconds. When I looked to the woman, her eyes were closed. She breathed in and out, then went on. “I saw what happened when they forgot, when the Bystander Effect removed their memories and their knowledge of magic. The entire city was built around using magic. Humans and other species all lived together. But when the Bystander Effect was cast, they had no warning. Families, friends, they were all suddenly torn apart. Humans and nonhumans didn’t remember each other. And worse, the humans didn’t understand what they were looking at when they did see magic and… and non-humans.

“The Bystander Effect wasn’t perfect at first. It erased their memories of magic and non-humans, but it didn’t erase their ability to see it. We had to take a lot more time to… refine it further. But that first casting, it was… bad. Athens was nearly destroyed overnight. One day the city was full of perfectly happy, normal families, and the next… the entire city was at war. Thousands died, on both sides. The non-humans were just… confused, and terrified. Say there were two brothers and one was a werewolf while the other was human, the human would completely forget his brother, and when he saw the man in his wolf form, it… it made him attack. Picture that, but all over the city. The Bystander Effect erased memories, erased magic, and erased entire families.”

I stared at the woman. “And… you said the city was built on magic. They used it all the time, so if they didn’t know how to use it later…”

Her head bowed a little. “Yes. Many more died from the lack of magic, and they didn’t understand what was happening. A part of them knew something was missing, but it was as if…” She paused. “Imagine the people of present day New York waking up one morning to find that electricity no longer worked. And more than that, they didn’t remember anything about it, didn’t know how to use it, or that it even existed. Athens was a bloodbath until the non-humans either figured out how to hide, or simply left the city. And after that, things got even worse because of the lack of magic in a city that had depended on it so much.

“I saw families ripped apart. I saw every non-human fight for survival against those who should have been their friends, their relatives. Husbands completely forgot about their wives, and vice versa. Children died who didn’t have to simply because they didn’t know how to use magic anymore. Or they were forgotten by their entirely human parents. Or… any number of things. I was there for a month, to report on how the test went. In that month, I saw more than three quarters of the city’s population either die, or flee.”

“And you cared,” I spoke softly, staring at the woman. “We mattered to you.”

“It took that much,” she replied, her voice cracking slightly. “I didn’t think that I did, but seeing that, watching it… I realized that you were… Athens… Athens was mine. Athens was my city. They were my people. They were my people and I let that happen to them. I never cared about them, not really. Not until it was too late. I volunteered them for the test. I let that happen. I brought it upon them. I did that to them. I was responsible for what happened to them. They needed me. They needed me and I let that happen. I allowed them to–” She stopped talking for a moment, jaw clenching as she looked away, shame washing over her features for a moment.

“After that, I… I tried to convince my people not to go through with the full implementation. They said I had gone native, like Apollo. He had just… recently turned rogue. So when they saw me saying some of the same things, they didn’t react well. I was taken back here to Seosten space to be… evaluated and put on enforced vacation, of sorts. That lasted for a few hundred Earth years before I managed to escape.”

“You were basically imprisoned for a few hundred years?” I gasped out loud, working my mouth.

“They didn’t call it prison,” she replied with a little shrug. “They called it retirement. But… essentially, yes. I was given all kinds of honors, but I couldn’t leave. Until I did. And once I did, I returned to Earth. I found that the Bystander Effect still wasn’t perfect. They were still working on it. Which gave me time to find a way to break it, before the Effect solidified. But I needed someone powerful. I couldn’t do it by myself. Academically, I knew it could be done. But without either someone of unimaginable power, or an entire army, it was impossible, even then.”

“That’s where Arthur comes in?” I asked, a little hesitantly.

“In a way,” she confirmed. “There are certain… powerful and rare spells that can… if not predict the future, at least… provide a hint. They provide a direction in where to go for what you seek. I spent most of a decade preparing to cast it. I wanted it to be as clear as possible. When I did, the spell directed me to a village, in what would eventually be known as England. There, I found a human boy who had just been… bonded to the dragon that destroyed his village. Dragons are… beyond any measure of power. Why this one spent time destroying that particular village, I have no idea. But the boy was bonded to it. He had the potential to be… like a god, by far the most powerful of what you call Heretics.

“He could, in time, have broken the Bystander Effect. So I trained him. I taught him under the guise of Nimue. The name means teacher in one of the Seosten dialects. I taught Arthur, helped him raise his Knights of the Round Table. In time, they would have worked together to erase the Bystander Effect entirely. Until…  until Arthur was ambushed, and his power was broken, at least for the time being.”

“Broken?” I shook my head quickly at that. “I don’t understand, what–”

“Later,” she promised. “We will discuss more of it later. You have my word, Lady Felicity. Right now, there is more you should see.” She beckoned for me to follow her up the last few steps of the hill.

Following, I asked, “Um, how come you keep calling me Lady Felicity?”

A small smile played at the woman’s face. “Apologies. I have spoken with humans who were more from your time, humans we freed from captivity and brought here. They are the ones who designed the… Earth neighborhood you see below. So yes, I am aware of how much has changed. But I am still… drawn to the older customs. I am old, and at times adapting with such changes can be difficult. We try, as best as we are able, to make our allies… comfortable.”

To demonstrate that fact, the woman gestured outward, and I looked the way she was pointing. The hill we were on was like the center of a wheel, with half a dozen more ‘neighborhoods’ spaced out around it like the spokes of that wheel. Except each of them was very different. The modern Earth one was behind us. Next to it, hidden by raised ground to either side, were areas for what was clearly very different species. The area to the left of the modern Earth one was mostly cliff-dwellings, with a lot of strange gooey stuff all over the place, and a pool of what looked like snot in the middle of their space. I saw giant insects that looked like mosquitos with human faces flying around, as well as several other bug-type Alters.

Meanwhile, the area to the right was volcanic, full of lava and ash, with dark red canine-humanoids wandering around. And more beyond that, every section was catered toward a different set of Alters. I could even see a couple that looked like Earth in different time periods, clearly designed so that humans who had originated in those times would feel at home rather than forcing them to live in only the modern version.

“You gave them areas they could feel comfortable in?” I asked after taking all that in.

“We’ve tried to do that, yes,” she confirmed. “As I said, there is a lot that we need to talk about. But before we go on, you should know that you are perfectly safe here.”

“After what you did to Radueriel’s men and all that?” I gave a quick nod. “I believe you.”

She watched me for a brief second, bowing her head. “I am glad for that… but you were not the one I was speaking to.”

“Uh.” I stiffened reflexively, squinting at the woman despite myself. “What do you mean? I’m the only one here.”

For a moment, the woman said nothing. She watched me in silence that stretched on before finally starting with, “You cannot be possessed. You somehow were able to defeat magic placed on you before ever becoming a Heretic. Both of these things should be impossible. Manakel and the others believe that your mother taught you some impressive magic, that she somehow used her power to ensure that you could use spells before being a Heretic. They’re wrong, of course. They’re looking for an incredibly complicated answer, while completely ignoring the simple one. The reason that you cannot be possessed, and why you are able to cast such powerful magic… is that you are already possessed, and you are not the one casting it.”

Despite how completely pathetic the action was, given what I’d already seen, I took an immediate step back while snapping my staff up defensively. “S-stay back,” I blurted. “I won’t let you hurt her.”

“Hurt her?” I saw the way the woman’s face softened. “No. Oh no, never. Lady Felicity, I told you, you are safe here. You are both safe here, I promise you. I did not… mean to frighten you, either of you. But it is very important that I speak with her directly. Because if I am right, then she is not just any Seosten. She is Sariel’s child.”

“Why… why is that important?” I asked, feeling Tabbris’s own confusion and uncertainty mixing with my own.

“Because,” she replied simply, “if she is Sariel’s child, it means that she carries her mother’s blood. Which means that then we can do what I have been trying to do for these past ten years.

“We can find Sariel, and save her. Along with every other person that Kushiel has locked up in her torture lab.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-07

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Nimue?! Athena? What–what–

Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the stammering came from Tabbris or myself. Maybe both. I could feel the other girl’s surprise. She had known that the woman we were looking at was Athena/Auriel, but apparently the Nimue part of it was a surprise even to her. Either it was something that Sariel hadn’t known, or she just hadn’t passed that info on to her daughter.

But I had to say this much. I had completely forgotten about the pain in my gradually healing hand.

“Leave, Duriel,” the woman spoke flatly, her eyes never leaving the other Seosten even as even more soldiers flooded into the room and began to spread out, bringing their weapons up. “Now.”

Head tilting a bit at that, Radueriel gave a slight, humorless smile. I could see the danger behind his calculating eyes. “What’s wrong, old friend? Are you still looking for another decent protege after… wait.” His chin lifted slightly. “Remind me of what happened to the old one, again?”

Even as the man finished speaking, clearly aiming to strike a nerve, his swarm of nanobots finished a long arc around and dove right for the brown-haired woman from above and slightly behind. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, but she was already raising one hand. I saw a small remote clutched in her fingers, and as her thumb pressed the button, a shimmering blue energy field appeared around her. The field expanded outward in every direction, and as it struck the incoming nanobots, they all dropped like flies that had been electrocuted in one of those bug zappers. In seconds, the entire swarm had been destroyed.

Dropping the remote carelessly to the floor, the woman announced flatly, her voice utterly unimpressed. “Your toys grow as tiresome as your plays at civility.”

“Hm. Maybe,” the other Seosten allowed with the slightest incline of his chin. “You are aware, however, that the pinpoint cannons of my ship are capable of–”

“Very little,” she interrupted, “considering it will take even your people at least another hour to undo the damage that I did to them before coming down here.” She arched an eyebrow then. “Did you believe that I took the body of one of your soldiers simply because I enjoyed the uniform?” Her voice turned a little bit darker then. “Do you truly think that I would not have prepared for this? You insult me, Duriel, and yourself. I am taking the girl out of here. If you stand in my way, you will regret it… briefly.”

“That would be an impressive threat, Thena,” Radueriel returned, “if I was standing against you… alone.”

The shock and confusion that I felt about this situation froze then, along with every other thought I had, at what I witnessed next. As Radueriel gave a sharp whistle, his assortment of troops suddenly straightened unnaturally for a brief second. They all shifted simultaneously, making it clear that his implants had taken them over, just like up on the station. This wasn’t a group of random, disparate mooks anymore. Now, it was dozens of bodies all being controlled by one mind, a mind with millennia of experience and apparently a frankly bullshit ability to multitask.

“Miss Felicity,” the woman spoke, making my eyes widen as she extended a hand back toward me. “Possess me.”

“Err, wh-what?” I blurted, staring at her.

“There is no time to debate or discuss,” she replied sharply. “I must know that you are safe. The easiest way for me to be certain of that is if you possess me. I know that you are capable of it.”

My mouth opened and shut. Then I looked to the soldiers who were starting to move. With a quick nod and a blurted curse, I grabbed the woman’s offered hand. Tabbris!

Then I was seeing through the Seosten woman’s eyes. I felt… nothing. She had everything closed off. There was absolutely no chance of me taking over, or even getting to a single thought that she didn’t want me to get to. She was entirely too strong. It would be like me trying to redirect the course of an ocean liner by blowing on it. 

Hold on, I heard her voice warn me. We will speak after.

By that point, that unnaturally unified horde of armed and armored soldiers was falling in on the woman (Auriel? Athena? Nimue?) like a tidal wave. And she moved to meet it, giving Tabbris and me front row seats. 

There were, at a glance, around thirty soldiers. About half of them raced to attack the woman directly, while the other half stayed back, snapping rifles up into place as they took aim. Without a second of hesitation, they started firing lasers right into the thick of the melee. As a group, they were so unified that the ones who were fighting at range could shoot as much as they wanted to and never worry about actually hitting one of the others any more than the average person worried about smacking their own arms against each other when picking up a plate.  

Fifteen lasers coming in from almost every direction, and fifteen more closing to melee. All of them armed with weapons and powers, and so perfectly coordinated that they behaved more like a single body. No one could hope to stand in a fight against something like that, could they?

A hulking, muscular lizard-man about eight feet tall reached her/us first. He had a thick, spiked club tail that he swung up and around like a mace while simultaneously slamming down an almost absurdly enormous sword that was shaped a bit like a meat cleaver, only with a blade part on both sides instead of just one. The double-bladed cleaver was practically the size of a motorcycle, and whistled as it was brought overhead before swinging toward the ground. Clearly the idea there was that his heavy tail knocked his opponents into the path of the blade.

At the same time, a smaller figure with oily black, smooth skin, about six feet tall and very thin, leapt toward the woman from her right-hand side while thrusting out with some kind of laser-spear where the bladed tip was made of glowing blue energy. And from her left-hand side came an armored and masked figure with a stun-baton of some kind that crackled with electricity.

Swinging spiked club tail coming in from the right, with the black figure leaping over that tail, spear outstretched. Massive giant’s cleaver coming down from above. Stun baton clearly powerful enough to put most beings on the ground with a single touch coming from the left. Not to mention the steady stream of incoming lasers. And all of this with no portal, no doorway, no exit. There was nowhere to go. There was no way to retreat.

Athena didn’t even hesitate. Nor did she reach for her weapon. That dragon-hilted sword remained firmly sheathed while she leapt forward. As the spiked club tail passed directly beneath her leaping figure, the woman’s right foot kicked out in mid-air, finding the passing tail just long enough to push off. The motion simultaneously knocked the tail back the other way while she turned in the air right near the big lizard’s face. His massive cleaver slammed into the ground, its sheer size forcing the masked figure with the stun baton to pull back a half step.

Meanwhile, the sleek, black soldier was thrusting that spear through the space that Athena had been in an instant earlier, before she had spun. Still in both mid-air and mid-turn, she smoothly stripped the spear from the man’s grasp as it was thrust right past her face.

With the exact same motion, as her hands snapped up to take that spear, the woman tilted her arm just slightly. An instant later, once the spear was in her hands, there was a distinct shink sound as a blade slid into place from her elbow, pointed outward. The woman’s continued spin then sent the extended elbow-blade right through the big lizard’s throat in a single, smooth slice.

He started to fall backward, collapsing even as Athena’s spin carried her back around to face the figure with the baton. He had only taken a single step back to avoid that descending cleaver. It was barely a second worth of hesitation, if that. But it was enough. The woman’s hand released the spear that she had stolen an instant earlier, sending it through his eye all the way up to the last couple inches of the shaft before that figure started to drop as well.

By that point, the black figure who had lost his spear had stopped, barely avoiding the heavy, double-bladed cleaver, one side of which had literally been driven partway into the floor. He skidded to a halt, his face barely an inch from the upraised part of the weapon.

And then the still-swinging club-tail from the falling lizard-man collided with him, and the soldier was instantly knocked forward to impale himself on the cleaver.

One, two, three, all killed in less time than it took to actually count the numbers aloud. Hell, it was only because of my enhanced reflexes that I could even start to process what was happening. It was beyond insane.


It took me a second to realize that both Tabbris and I had been chanting/ranting those three words over and over again throughout that entire sequence. I resolved to calm down, pay attention, and stop freaking out.

Lasers were incoming that entire time. But if the woman cared, she didn’t show it. She always seemed to just know where to be to avoid every last one of them. As the firepower concentrated on where she landed once the first three figures were dead, Athena dropped into a roll. It carried her under a dozen criss-crossing laser beams before she popped back up next to the stun-baton. Her foot kicked out then, launching the weapon end over end before it collided with the face of one of the soldiers who was shooting. With a cry, the man recoiled, gun swinging wildly just as he pulled the trigger reflexively. Three quick shots came, one of which missed everything. But the other two took out two more of the shooting guards before the effect of taking the stun baton to the face made the man start to collapse limply to the ground.

Three more down, just like that. All she had done was kick an electrified stick, basically, and it had taken out another trio of soldiers. Six of the thirty were down and it seemed like I’d barely had a chance to breathe. Hell, it seemed like I’d barely had time to have blinked. 


Whelp, so much for not freaking out.

How?! Tabbris squeaked inside my head. How, how, how?!

I don’t know! I shot back. I’m pretty sure she’s playing with cheat codes, though!

More of the soldiers reached the woman then. The nearest grabbed for her from behind, trying to snatch hold of her arm, while the next one swung a laser-axe from her left side. Athena, meanwhile, smoothly stepped back closer to the man who was trying to grab her while simultaneously turning. Her hand caught his extended wrist, and she yanked him forward while that elbow-blade of hers was driven into his stomach. At the same time, that laser-axe cut clean through the man’s arm, severing it cleanly a few inches down from the shoulder.

Pivoting to let the literally disarmed and disemboweled soldier drop to the floor, Athena swung that severed arm, smacking the axe-wielding guard across the front of his helmet with the stump-end. Blood was smeared across the faceplate, briefly obscuring the man’s vision.

Two more laser shots came in, and Athena’s left arm snapped up even as the armor on it shifted to some kind of mirrored plate. The lasers struck it, rebounding off. One hit the ceiling harmlessly, while the other was ricocheted right back into the face of the soldier who had fired it, pitching him over backward with a quarter-sized hole in the middle of his forehead. An instant later, the woman spun, her other arm lashing out to catch another incoming laser. That one cut through the throat of yet another guard who had been rushing toward her, dropping him.

As he collapsed, his sword fell from his grasp, only to be very briefly caught by Athena. She gave the weapon a casual-looking underhand flick backward without even looking. The sword flew straight into the chest of the man whose helmet had been obscured by blood.

Disemboweled guard, reflected laser to the head, another to the throat, sword to the chest. Four more soldiers were dead. Seven, eight, nine, ten. Maybe that many seconds had passed.

Goddess of War, my ass, I informed Tabbris then. More like Goddess Of Five Hundred Guys Just Shit Themselves Because She Walked Into The Room.

Tabbris disagreed with a half-hysterical, I don’t think they’d have time to

If possible, Athena moved even faster then. Another laser shot was reflected back into its owner’s eye. As he fell, she caught the arm of a man who was swinging a sword at her before pivoting to drive his weapon into the stomach of another guard who was coming at her from the opposite direction. Then she stepped aside, catching the now-impaled soldier by the back of his helmet before shoving it forward to slam hard into the face of the man who had accidentally skewered him. As that man reeled, she snatched a pistol sidearm from the belt of the impaled man, shooting him through the top of the head before turning it onto the man who was reeling.

Then she pivoted once more, hurling that sidearm an instant before her foot lashed out to kick the handle of the sword that had impaled the previous man. The thrown pistol flew into the helmet of another shooter so hard that the faceplate cracked. He recoiled, gun dropping from his hand. Even as the rifle started to fall, however, the sword that Athena had kicked went through the trigger guard an instant before spearing its way through the man himself. The rifle was caught on the blade, hanging there while the guard started to pitch over backward. As he was started to fall, the Seosten woman leapt that way. Her hand found the rifle that was trapped against his chest by the sword that was impaling him, and she pulled the trigger several times. Three more soldiers, two of them with guns and the other wielding a big hammer, went down.

Guards eleven through eighteen were dealt with, leaving six melee guards and six ranged.

Those six ranged guards had all opened up on the woman, but she was still holding the impaled guard up by the gun that had been trapped against his chest. The incoming lasers were all hitting him instead, as she rotated to use his body as a shield against each shot. Finally, completing her three hundred and sixty degree turn, Athena gave her human (or whatever Alter he was, rather) shield a heave to crash face-first into the next nearest soldier who had been shooting at her. He collapsed backward, crashing to the floor from the force of the body hitting him.

Even as he fell, however, Athena was suddenly there, sidestepping another pair of shots from other troops while her hand caught the falling man’s rifle. She pulled the trigger before it was even fully in her hands, nailing a swordsman who had been running up at her from behind. Then, once the rifle was actually in her grasp, she flipped it around to shoot its owner in the face a second after he finished falling to the floor from having the other body thrown at him.

Ten soldiers left, five of each. And by that point, Tabbris and I were reduced to simply watching what was happening in stunned silence.

One of those who remained was coming at the woman with this massive halberd. Even as he went to thrust it at her, however, Athena sidestepped and spun. The rifle flipped around in her hand until she was holding it by the barrel. A second later, the butt of the rifle slammed into the man’s throat hard enough to collapse it. She held it there, hitting the trigger with a quick snap of her hand to send a shot into the face of another gunman.

As the halberd-wielding soldier fell from the blow to his trachea, the Seosten woman  gave his long weapon a kick that sent it through one of the ranged soldiers. The halberd struck the man so hard that he was literally lifted off the floor and sent back a solid twenty feet before being impaled against the wall.

Seven left. Three shooters, four melee.

Two swordsmen came at her together, one from each side. They attacked the woman in perfect unison. But it wasn’t perfect enough. Athena’s arm snapped up, smacking one of the blades aside before she caught the arm of the second man. I heard the snap of his bone breaking as the woman forced his arm to bend the wrong way around. The sword fell from his limp grasp, only to find itself embedded in the second soldier’s eye socket from a quick, contemptuously casual toss from the woman.

As he was collapsing with the sword sticking through his eye and out the back of his head, Athena kept hold of the first man’s now-broken arm. She kept pivoting, avoiding several more shots from the few gunmen that were left before abruptly catching the man whose arm she was holding by the back of his neck. With a slight grunt, she gave him a heave downward… straight toward the man who had the sword through his chest trapping the gun there, the one she had previously thrown at the other man. Now, the sword-impaled man was lying on his stomach, with the sword sticking almost straight up in the air.

With that simple shove, Athena forced the soldier whose arm she had broken down, impaling his throat on that blade that was sticking up. He was stuck there, like a head on a pike with the body still attached.

The three remaining gunmen were all spreading out, sending a continuous stream of laserfire at the woman while the two melee soldiers (one armed with a pair of electrified axes while the other had a shield and sword) tried to hit her from both sides.

It didn’t work. As the swordsman swung, the Seosten woman darted forward, ducking under his blade before popping up inside his guard. She pivoted, catching his other arm while putting her back to his chest. With a simple yank, she forced the man’s shield into position just as two more lasers nailed it. The shots ricocheted off, striking the guy with the axes.

As that man fell, she shoved the swordsman away from her while giving a quick spin-kick that sent one of the falling man’s axes right into the forehead of one of the gunmen. In the same motion, she stripped the shield from the other man’s arm, continuing her spin before nailing him in the throat with the sharp edge of his own shield. Blood sprayed, and the man fell.

Just two gunmen left. Both of them opened fire from either side, but Athena dove into a roll while hurling that shield. As it was flying, she came up to one knee, having stripped another sidearm from one of the fallen guards that she had rolled past. She took aim and fired at the shield itself. The shot rebounded off of it, striking one of the two gunmen in the face an instant before the flung shield severed the head of the other one.

Thirty. Thirty soldiers were dead in the span of I doubted even that many seconds. And from the look of her as she straightened up, Athena hadn’t even broken a sweat doing it.

She hadn’t even drawn her sword.

The woman turned toward Radueriel then, who was standing near the entrance. For a moment, the two of them just stared at one another. No one moved. No one spoke.

And then Athena’s hand moved to her sword. She had just touched it, just barely put her hand on the hilt, when Radueriel hit something on his cybernetic arm. An instant later, he was engulfed by a portal of some kind and disappeared, leaving the two of us alone with the bodies of all those soldiers.

Once it seemed safe, I sent myself out of the woman. Stumbling a little, I spun around to stare at the woman’s back. While I was silent, my shock seemed somehow deafening. Even Tabbris remained quiet, neither of us saying a word.

Slowly, Athena turned. She looked to me. “Felicity Chambers,” she announced.

“We need to talk.”

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-06

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Okay, so this shouldn’t be too hard. All we had to do was hold off an entire army of Alters with a handful of partially trained Heretic students (one of whom was a werewolf), a mechanical cougar, and two mechanical mice. Yes sir, this was going to be a walk in the park.

As we ran down the corridor together, Jazz spoke up. “You guys know what we’re doing right? I mean, you know what this is? We are basically going out there to stop an army that two adult Heretics, badass ones, I might add, decided was too much for them to deal with.”

Roxa shook her head. “We don’t have to deal with them. We just have to slow them down long enough for Haiden and Sands’ mom to get everyone out of there. We set up, and we make them fight for every inch they get. They can only send so many troops at us at once in these tunnels. So we set up and keep falling back whenever we need to. But make them earn it.”

Nodding, I looked over to Sands as we kept moving. “I know you don’t like being relegated to support, but-“

“Like I give a shit about that right now,” she interrupted. “Walls. You need walls, right?”

“Yep,” I confirmed. “Like the girl said, we gotta make them fight for every inch they get. That means you and I set up walls and mines all the way down the tunnel. We wall and mine the hell out of it. Make them take it slow. Plus, that way I can cover you from any strays that slip around. So you can focus on walling everything up.”

“Which puts the four of us on the front lines,” Roxa announced, coming to a stop as she looked toward Gidget and her two former teammates. Though could they really be called former right now?

Stopping as well, I looked toward Jazz. “Your gravity balls. They have a range and target limit, right?”

“Fifteen feet,” she confirmed, shifting from foot to foot anxiously.. “And anytime I try to target more than one person inside that fifteen feet, they fizzle pretty quickly. I can probably affect to three or four, but only for a short burst. Three orbs at once, ten minute duration, unless, like I said, I try to affect more than one person at a time. Seems like for every extra person I try to affect at the same time, the duration goes down about fifty percent.”

“Still useful,” I informed her with a little smile. “Just pick your moments. Don’t wear yourself out too quick. I know what happened back there with Isaac was pretty bad. And I know that this didn’t have to be our fight.”

“You’re right,” the black girl replied. “This wasn’t our fight. We didn’t choose it. Isaac chose it. And those Seosten bastards chose it. Not us. But you know who also didn’t choose it? The Kenkeans. They didn’t choose it, but they’re still going to get wiped out if we don’t do something. I may have been my people’s last choice to be their Heretic, but I can still choose what kind of Heretic I am. And I choose not to be the kind that could walk away from that.”

I was spared from having to try to respond to that, by Roxa gesturing to Jazz and Gordon. “Come on, guys. We need to get up there. They’re getting closer.”

Tilting my head a little, and focusing, I could hear them. It sounded like they were on fire. A lot of fire. Good, I thought a little maliciously. The more it hurt, the more it would slow them down.

Gordon had shifted his sword and shield back into their tommy gun form. He stood there, gazing down the corridor. “Good luck with those defenses,”  he noted, in a voice that sounded like he was asking us to pick up some chips. “We’ll hold them as long as possible.”

Nodding, I added, “We’ll start the walls back here and work our way to you. Be careful, you guys. Just… please be careful.”

“Actually, speaking of being careful.” Roxa extended a hand to both me and Sands. “Do you mind? It’s probably best to have as many friends as we can get.”

Realizing what she wanted, we both nodded. Roxa immediately put her hands on each of us, and created a pair of stone duplicates. She could only make one duplicate per person, so the more people she had to work with, the more rock soldiers she could make.

By then, there was no more time to say any of the million things I wanted to say. We had to do this. To that end, the other four ran off, moving to head off the incoming troops. Meanwhile, I turned on my heel to look at Sands. “Let’s wall it up.”

Sands promptly reached out with her mace to smack it against the nearby wall and store that material as what it would make the walls from. “Ready.”

The two of us worked quickly. Sands made a wall from one side of the tunnel to the other, leaving a small opening for the others to slip through that could be sealed off as soon as they were through. Meanwhile, I carefully set mines all along it, on both sides. Anyone who tried to smash their way through, or slip through another way, was going to run into a surprise.

It was hard to focus, especially when I heard Gordon‘s gun and Gidget’s lasers start up off in the distance. All I wanted to do was run out there and help. It basically killed me not to be there on the front line. But no, we had our own job to do. Hard as it was, we had to make sure that the walls were up. We had to make this work. If Roxa and the others didn’t have any defenses to fall back behind so they could catch their breaths, this was all going to go very bad, very quickly.

Sands hesitated too, glancing toward me for a second before both of us pointedly turned back to focus on our work. “Funnel?” The other girl asked while moving forward a bit.

Realizing what she meant, I nodded and the two of us got to work. That time, rather than make a straight wall across, Sands created two walls, each taking up about half the width of the tunnel. They were angled inward to create a sort of triangle shape without a bottom. Or, as Sands had said, a funnel. The two diagonal walls didn’t quite meet. We left a small opening, again, for the others to get through. This way, the enemies would be pushed forward through the tunnel, straight to where Gordon could stand in that small opening and fire at them like they were in a shooting gallery. They would just keep getting packed closer together, so that he would barely have to aim. And any that tried to cheat by going through our walls, well, they run into my mines. It was simple, but effective. And to top things off, Sands added rows of spikes all along the angled walls. If too many of the troops tried to push forward, they’d end up impaling their companions. And if Gordon was shooting them from the spot we had set up, they were going to try to push forward to get at him. That, or they’d retreat. Either was good for me.

Glancing over my shoulder as Sands was finishing up with the last bit of wall, I caught a glimpse of the fighting going on. The others were barely visible at the far end of the tunnel, and I couldn’t really make out anything specific. But from the look of things, it was intense, to say the least. Gordon’s gun was shooting continually, and I could see what looked like Roxa’s rock statues essentially running straight into the line of fire coming from the intruders. In some cases, that ‘fire’ was literal. There was clearly at least one soldier there with some kind of flame control, who kept lobbing in fireballs. Thankfully, however, it looked like Jazz’s sword allowed her to control that fire as well. The burning orbs kept reversing course, flying back the way they had come.

Whatever was going on, the details were hard to make out. But it looked like they were slowly, yet steadily being pushed back. Which made sense. Better that they keep pulling backward than end up getting cut off from us. They were doing as much damage as they could while retreating. Twice, I saw Roxa’s aura flare up, and then caught a brief glimpse of Jazz and Gordon’s as well.

Sands and I moved on then, getting closer to the others. For the next fifty feet or so, the other girl made alternating diagonal walls going back and forth, with small openings between each that were only wide enough for someone barely Gordon’s size to slip through. Someone coming from the other direction would have to head diagonally through one tiny, tight space, get to the end, turn around completely and head back the other way. That, or they’d have to take their time smashing through wall after wall after wall. And once we fell back here and I set up some mines to cover our retreat, that in itself would still be dangerous.

Sands even set up a few spiked poles at various spots and at different heights. That way, anyone trying to run through who didn’t know where they were would risk, again, impaling themselves. Whatever it took to force them to go slow and take their time.

A flash of movement caught my eye then. Snapping my head that way, I saw something on the ceiling, rushing past Roxa and the others. One of the Seosten troops. The thing looked like a man-sized gecko with purple skin and bright red compound eyes. It crawled as fast along the ceiling as most people could run on the ground, crossing half the distance between us by the time I even had a chance to realize what was going on.

Somehow, I had my staff switched into its bow form before consciously noticing what I was doing. Reflex born of hours and hours of practice. With a blurted warning to Sands, I snapped the bow up into position, drawing back the energy arrow before launching it with barely a second to aim. Shooting, just like shifting the staff to the bow in the first place, was totally automatic.

And yet, even then, the gecko-Alter avoided the arrow completely. He dropped to the floor an instant before it struck the spot where he had been. The concussive force from the arrow’s impact was enough to knock him forward a step, but nothing more than that. And even as I quickly drew back another arrow, he was already raising his hands.

I threw myself to the side, but there was no incoming attack. No, it was worse. As the gecko spread his hands apart, a portal began to appear. Through it, I could see hordes of troops on the other side. This guy wasn’t attacking us, he was just getting past the others to send another part of their not-so-little army into the open space. If he managed it, Roxa, Gordon, Jazz, and Gidget would be cut off from us entirely. Plus, Sands and I would have a hell of a lot of company.

I couldn’t let that happen. A burst from my staff sent me flying that way while the portal was still growing. The gecko-man stood there as I landed within a few feet of him, but before I could get any closer, a hail of lasers erupted from the portal itself as several of the soldiers on the other side opened fire, forcing me to dive out of the way. As I hit the floor, however, the grapple line from my staff was already launching to wrap around the man’s legs so that he was yanked over to land hard on his back.

The portal, almost as large as the man himself by that point, was still connected to the man’s hands. So it went horizontal rather than vertical, hovering there in the air just above him. One of the other soldiers suddenly appeared there, his upper half poking out of the portal as he leaned through with his rifle raised.

He aimed for me, but just before the man could actually shoot, I triggered the boost from my staff before releasing it so that the weapon went flying down the tunnel back toward Sands. The grapple was still connected to the gecko-man’s legs, so he was hauled along the floor, which threw the other man’s aim off as the portal he was leaning through was suddenly moving. Lasers ate up the wall beside and around me while I rolled back to my feet.

By the time the guard leaning through the portal had twisted back toward me and brought his gun into line, I was up. And as his finger tightened on the trigger, my hand lashed out, launching a small, metal object. Jaq. I had liberated him from the staff before launching it down the tunnel.

And now, I threw the little mouse-cyberform like a baseball. In mid-flight, he changed shape, going from animal to a sharp, deadly blade an instant before he was embedded deep in the gecko-man’s head. .

He died instantly. Which meant that his portal vanished with the other figure still halfway out, slicing him in half and sending my aura flaring up as I was filled with the pleasure from both soldiers’ deaths.

Sands, by that point, had finished with the next set of walls. She jogged up, snatching my staff off the ground from near the bodies before tossing it to me as I joined her.

“Thanks,” I muttered, extending the empty end of the staff down toward the blade that was stuck in the gecko-man’s head. Jaq shifted once more before returning to his spot on the weapon.

Sands opened her mouth before suddenly shoving me aside, just before some kind of electrified grappling hook thing with a manacle on the end shot through the space where I had just been. A quick glance over my shoulder showed some kind of bug-like Alter in silver armor flying above us. He started to retract the grapple back into his extended gauntlet.

Before it could disappear entirely, however, I grabbed on and let it carry me up toward the man. Halfway up, the bug-figure stopped retracting the grapple. But it was too late. I used a quick burst from my staff to propel myself the rest of the way, even as he recoiled.

Then I was inside him. Not in the ‘splatter him to pieces’ kind of way. I was possessing him. Pivoting in the air, I threw the electrified grapple gun down toward Sands. It could be useful. Then I blurted inwardly, Tabbris!

She knew. The bug man fell unconscious, and I sprang free of him, landing in a crouch next to the other girl.

By that point, as the two of us turned the other way, Roxa and the others were on their way. They’d been fighting a slow retreat the whole time, and now they were close enough for us to actually see what was going on. Roxa shouted something before Gidget flew up in her hoverboard form to fire a dazzling display of lasers at the incoming swarm of soldiers. Using that as cover, the others broke and turned to sprint back to us.

“You good?” I asked as they reached us, Roxa and Gidget landing an instant behind the other two.

“Peachy!” Jazz shouted back. She was bleeding heavily from one arm, and her face was bruised. But she looked more alive than I had seen her in quite some time. Maybe ever.

Together, we made our way back slowly through the defenses that Sands and I had erected. Between all of us, we must have taken out twenty or more of the damn guys. But it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming. Mine after mine, wall after wall, they were an inexorable tide. But we were slowing them down.

“It’s done!” The words finally came from Sands, as she held that red ball in one hand. “They’ve got them all through! We’ve gotta go!”

It was just in time, too. We were at our last layer of defenses, the first wall that Sands had made. And now it was our turn.

But as our hands collectively found each of our badges and we blurted, ‘Dorothy’ together, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Glancing to the others, I tried again. We all did. Still, nothing.

Then something did happen. But it was nothing good. The sound of a steady, violent droning, like an angry swarm of insects, filled the air. Together, we turned back the other way, just in time to see the wall completely disintegrate. And not just the wall, but my mines as well. They just… fizzled, absorbed by what appeared to be a massive swarm of tiny bits of buzzing metal. The same buzzing metal that had just devoured Sands’ wall.

“Hello, children,” Radueriel spoke calmly, standing there with his troops arrayed behind him. Dozens of rifles and other weapons were leveled at us, ready to put us down the second we so much as breathed wrong. “I’d like you to meet my own offspring. Or as close as I will ever get.” He raised a hand, as the swarm buzzed down and around him. “My nanites are glorious creatures. So very helpful. Particularly in matters such as… jamming those teleportation spells you happen to be wearing.”

He looked like he was going to say something else then, before pausing to consider. Then he just offered us a little shrug, speaking simply. “Take th–”

As the man was in mid-sentence, one of the soldiers, clearly overly eager, lunged for us. In his haste, however, the man slipped and hit the floor hard. That, in turn, tripped up a couple other soldiers, while more of them blinked back to see what was going on, thereby taking their weapons off of us. It was an opening. A brief one, but an opening nonetheless.

We took it. Spinning back, the six of us hauled ass toward the other room. The soldiers were already reacting, firing a few shots after us. But it was too late. Sands erected a quick wall to block the shots for those precious handful of seconds while we ran. Go. Go. We had to move.

“They’re holding the portal!” Sands called as we scrambled. “We can get out that way!”

Together, we sprinted back into that chamber with Radueriel, his soldiers, and his swarm of nanobots or whatever they were hot on our heels. My endurance was, as always, amazing. Yet I could feel the drain creeping up on me, after that fight with Isaac. And if I was starting to feel it a bit, the others had to be dying. But we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t even slow down. My lungs were screaming, my legs hurt, and I really wanted a drink of water. It was those seemingly little things that I didn’t really think about when imagining how something like this would go. The thirst from a long fight, the cramp in my side, the fact that I kinda needed to pee, it all seemed inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yet it added up.

The glowing red portal was right there, leading up to the ship. I saw Haiden and Larissa on either side of it, waving us through. Sands hit it first, disappearing the second she passed through. Gordon, two steps behind her, was next, followed by Roxa and Gidget. Only Jazz and I were left.

The droning of the swarm had grown deafeningly loud by that point. The nanites were on top of us. But instead of attacking, they flew around and over the two of us, straight toward where Haiden and Larissa were.

Between the two of them, the adult Heretics killed what was likely millions of the tiny machines within a handful of seconds. Anything that got near them was incinerated. While our powers weren’t enough to take a decent number of the little bastards down, theirs were.

But the nanites weren’t actually attacking them. Not exactly. No, they went for the portal. Larissa and Haiden got rid of most of them, but I saw a few reach the portal. They didn’t go through it, as I feared they might. Instead, they started to explode around it. They looked like tiny fireworks. And as the nanites exploded, the portal suddenly expanded. It grew dramatically, doubling in size in an instant, as if the exploding nanites had suddenly filled it with energy.

Haiden and Larissa were both engulfed by the portal, disappearing. It was a move I didn’t understand, until the portal began to shrink just as suddenly as it had grown. The nanites had overloaded it and now, after briefly growing, the portal was collapsing. It would be gone in seconds. And we were too far away to get to it in time. Seeing that, I slowed.  

“Flick!” Jazz shouted from beside me, noticing the instant that I fell behind. She turned toward me, even as I snapped my staff up into position. “Wh–”

I triggered the kinetic charge on my staff. Not behind myself, but in front. The burst slammed into Jazz, picking the other girl up and hurling her forward. With a cry of surprise, she went flying through the portal an instant before it finished collapsing.

I’d done it without thinking. Without even considering any of my actions. My only impulse had been to get Jazz to safety. Now that she was, I spun back the other way as the sound of footsteps reached me. My fist swung wildly.

Radueriel caught it easily. His hand stopped mine, and there was a sudden blinding pain as he simply squeezed, snapping pretty much every bone in my fingers, and cracking a few more in my hand. I hit the floor with a cry, dropping to my knees while the ancient Olympian Seosten simply stood there with my fist caught in his grip.

Flick! Tabbris blurted inside my head, sounding panicked.

Whatever happens, I shot back to her, do not reveal yourself. You hear me, Tab? Do not reveal yourself, no matter what.

“Interesting,” Raduriel remarked calmly, the casualness of his tone at odds with the force with which he was gripping my hand. “I do hope that you weren’t expecting them to come back for you. I’m afraid that the shield against such intrusions is now fully in place. There will be no interruptions.

“Still,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m certain that we can find… appropriate accommodations for you, Miss–”

“Let the girl go.” The new voice came from beside me, and both Radueriel and I turned slightly. It was the soldier from before, the one who had tripped. He stood there, staring intently at the man who was holding my fist in his unrelentingly crushing grip.

“Let her go,” the soldier repeated flatly.

Raduriel stared at him for a brief second. His mouth opened. “You–”

That was as far as he got before the soldier abruptly lashed out. His fist was a blur that I could barely process before it slammed into Raduriel’s chest. The powerful Seosten was hurtled away from me, finally releasing my hand as he flew backward to crash into several of his soldiers.

The guard who had intervened, meanwhile, collapsed. He fell to the floor in a heap, while a second figure, the one who had been possessing him, stood there in his place.

She wasn’t tall, standing an inch shorter than I was. Her brown hair was cut in a short, layered crop that barely reached her neck. Her eyes were slate gray, and she had the same high cheekbone, aristocratic look that I had come to expect from the Seosten. For clothes, she wore a pair of black leggings with what looked like intricate golden flame patterns running down to her boots, which themselves were almost entirely gold. Sheathed at her waist was a sword, whose hilt was shaped like a dragon. Set where it was, the head of the dragon appeared to be the source of the decorative flames that were running down her legs.

She wore a chainmail-like top, that was black with a golden design etched into the chest. It was the outline of a bird in flight. An owl, I realized a bit belatedly.

Oh, my God, Tabbris suddenly blurted in my head. It’s–

“You.” Raduriel had picked himself up, his eyes narrowed. Surrounded by dozens of his men, he still looked a little off-balance, a little nervous. “Involving yourself personally in this situation? That seems odd for you, Auriel. Or do you prefer Athena now? Or does your preference lie in another identity entirely? Such as, for example…


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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-05

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Please note, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on the origin of King Arthur posted Saturday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

You did it! Tabbris enthused, sounding almost giddy. Yogu got that piece of–I mean, um… him.

Chuckling a little to myself at that, I tried to push myself up before stopping with a groan. It was just too hard to be upright just then. Given the situation, I sent back to her, I think calling him a piece of shit is allowed.

I sat there like that, breathing hard for a moment while Roxa and Jazz moved slowly over, both of them limping a little. The other two helped me up, just as Sands and Gordon joined us. They were panting just as hard as the rest of us, and looked pretty disheveled. Sands had a pretty nasty looking burn all along the side of her neck and left cheek that was very slowly healing. 

“Son of a bitch,” she spat. “When he upgraded those drones, he really upgraded them. How much tech help did the Seosten fucking give him? Those things are nasty.” At her words, the other girl waved a hand back over her shoulder toward the remains of one of the drones.  

“We’ll be sure to ask,” I informed her, grimacing in pain. Ow. “Or just have someone take the things apart to figure out exactly what he did to them. Maybe they’ll come in handy somehow.”

Gordon, standing nearby with his arms folded, quietly observed, “You have a thing for taking what you liberate from your enemies and turning it against them, don’t you?” To make his point further, the boy nodded toward Jaq and Gus, who were both in their mice forms as they sniffed around the nearby Gidget. From the look of things, the two of them were making sure that their big friend was okay after she had been thrown around by Isaac’s metal manipulation power.

“What can I say?” I shrugged. “Gotta use what’s available, and there’s no sense in letting good resources go to waste. There’s too many overpowered bad guys out there for that. Besides, look at those little guys. There’s no way they deserved to have an asshole like Doxer for a partner.”

At the sound of their former owner’s name, both mice abruptly twisted around toward me. They looked almost guilty, like they were afraid that the boy himself was somehow there and they were in trouble. Wincing at the sight of their faces, I shook my head. “It’s okay, go ahead.”

Jazz spoke up then, shifting a little uncomfortably. “What about these guys?” she asked quietly, gesturing toward the ant-like Alters who were still chained along all of the walls. None of them had actually called out for help or anything. Actually, they had done nothing to attract our attention. It was like they were as afraid of us as they had been of Isaac himself. Which, I supposed, made sense. They were probably accustomed to only seeing Heretics who were being possessed and puppeted by Seosten. Plus, after the display they had just seen through that nasty fight… yeah, it was no wonder they were trying not to attract attention to themselves.

“Sands?” I looked to her. “Could you send a message to your mom, let her know what we’re doing and that Isaac’s where he belongs? Oh, and see if she can confirm with the ship that he is there. Just to, you know, make sure.” I knew Larissa had given her daughter something that was supposed to allow them to communicate, though I wasn’t really sure how it worked. I just assumed it was similar to the communication pins that we had used back at Crossroads.

She nodded, taking a small red ball from her pocket before stepping out of the way. Meanwhile, I gestured to the imprisoned Alters. “Come on, let’s free these guys. But uh, let’s try to make sure that they know we don’t mean them any harm first. It could get bad if they all panic.”

The others nodded, and together we moved over to the nearest ant-figure. He, and the others, were all watching us fearfully. They were each chained about three feet apart, with fifty on both walls. From the look of things, some of them had been beaten badly before being chained up. It was a sight that made me wish I’d hit Isaac more than I had before sending him up to the ship.

“Um.” Glancing to the others briefly as I stopped in front of the chained figure, I held a hand up to stop them before looking back to the figure in question. Clearing my throat a little, I hesitantly continued. “Excuse me, do you speak Engl–I mean, the Trade language? Do you understand?”

For a few seconds, neither the one I was talking to or any of the nearby figures actually responded at all. I was about to ask Tabbris to translate into Latin, when the figure to the right of the one I was standing in front of actually spoke up. “We’k in understanding the’k Master.”

Weak in understanding? I was confused for a moment about what that could possibly mean.

Fortunately, Tabbris quickly settled my confusion by putting in, I think he said ‘we in understanding the Master’. I don’t think the k sound is intentional. Or it’s just a… um, an accent or something.

“Right.” Biting my lip, I looked to the one who had spoken. “You understand. And you think–” Inwardly, I flinched at the realization before shaking my head. “No, listen. We’re not Seosten. We’re not possessed, and neither was… neither was that guy. We’re not the Masters.”

God, how confused must these guys be? They had been abducted by what they thought was one of their Seosten masters, dragged down here into the tunnels and used to fuel a shield spell against what appeared to be more of their Seosten masters. No wonder they were freaked out.

They were all staring at us, clearly even more confused and frightened. I could hear some of them whispering down the line as the uncertainty about what we were doing or what we intended grew. By that point, I was pretty sure most of them were resigned to death.

“We’re not here to hurt you!” That was Jazz, stepping up beside me. Starting to raise her hands before clearly thinking better of it, she reiterated slowly, but firmly.  “We’re not going to hurt you.”

I nodded. “She’s right. We are not going to hurt you. We’re going to unchain you, okay? We’re going to let you out. Just… don’t run away or anything. There are bad guys out there. The Seosten. They’re out there.” I pointed back the way we had come. “So don’t run off or whatever. We’re just going to let all of you out. I promise, we are not going to hurt you.” Yes, I was just repeating myself by that point. But I figured it bore emphasis, considering how scared they were.  

“We’k good for Masters,” one of the others tried to insist. “Never go’k running from Masters.”

Right. No wonder Isaac had been able to herd them down here so easily. They probably hadn’t even tried to resist, since they thought that he was one of the Seosten. They’d just obediently followed him down here. Hell, they probably even showed him where to go when he demanded a hiding place. The ones who had been hurt… Isaac had probably just been enjoying himself.

“No, I said we’re not–” Stopping myself, I let out a breath before giving up. Better to show rather than tell, in this case. Stepping closer slowly, I examined the chain for a second. It led from the wall to some kind of metal belt that was locked around the man’s waist. Eventually, I found the seam. It looked like Isaac had taken a bunch of scrap metal bars or something and bent them into circles around these guys with the same power that he’d used to throw Gidget around.

Carefully getting my fingers under the metal band on either side of where both ends met, I tried to give the ant-figure as reassuring of a look as I could before heaving at it. The band resisted stubbornly for a few seconds, before slowly prying apart with the groan of protesting metal.

Finally, I was able to pull the partially unbent metal bar away from the formerly trapped figure, tossing it aside to dangle by the chain. As promised, the Alter didn’t run. He stood there, openly trembling. If anything, he seemed even more afraid now than he had before. It was like he was convinced that he was now going to be made an example of because I had singled him out.

“Guys,” I looked back to others. “Could you help the rest of these guys get free?” I figured that between all the powers that they had, it wouldn’t be too hard to get everyone unchained.

They moved to do just that then, while I turned back to the one I had freed, trying to keep my voice as calm and reassuring as possible. “Can you tell me what your name is? And what your people are called, your species?” Maybe if I showed an interest in who they were as people, it might help a little bit. All I knew was that we really needed to calm these people down if we were going to get any information out of them about what was going on, and where the rest of the town was.

The ant-figure shifted back and forth, looking nervous as he made a weak noise before finally speaking. “We’k are the’k Kenkean, Master. This one is called Ruedu’k. It is ready for serve.”  

“Kenkeans.” I repeated the name of the race, which sounded like Ken-kay-un. It was good to have something to think of them as beyond ‘ant-people’. “And you’re Ruedu.” That one sounded basically like saying ‘rude you’, which was ironic considering how he had been acting so far. 

I was also starting to recognize when the k sound was intentional and when it was just their mandibles clicking together whenever they ended a word on a vowel.

When the Kenkean gave a quick nod, I extended a hand reflexively. “Good to meet you, Ruedu, I-” Belatedly, I realized my mistake as Ruedu recoiled, looking with wide, terrified eyes at my hand. Oops. Right, when people like me could have any power imaginable, extending a hand to someone who was already afraid of us was probably a bad idea. Jazz had realized that earlier.

“Sorry, I… I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. I swear. Um. Umm…” I thought quickly, trying to remember the word that Jokai had used back when we first met him and had promised to save his people. “Sacramentum. Sacramentum, we swear. We are not going to hurt you. We… You know the Seosten, the Masters. We are not Seosten. We are… They use us too. They enslave us. They possess us. But we’re not possessed. We are… human. We’re here to help you.”

Pointedly, I gestured to where the others were working on freeing the other Kenkeans. “The boy, the one who abducted you, he was… we came to stop him. I’m sorry that you were… that he hurt your people. He was bad. He’s gone now. He won’t hurt you anymore.”

Ruedu lifted his head a little, watching me carefully. “Not… Masters? Not Seosten?” He said the name very hesitantly, like he was afraid that just saying it outloud would make them appear.

“No. We’re not Seosten,” I assured him. “We fight the Seosten. Can you…” I swallowed, dreading the answer. “Can you tell me where the rest of your people are? Where are the rest of the Kenkeans?” Quickly, I added, “We just want to know that they’re okay. That’s all. The boy that brought you in here, did he… did he hurt anyone else? Did he–” The words choked their way out of my throat. “Did he kill anyone?”

“Three’k,” Ruedu answered, crushing my hopes. “Boy’k killed three’k for making sure he’k was obeyed.”

“No,” I replied flatly. “He did it because he wanted to.” Swallowing hard, I shuddered a littled before looking back to him. “I’m sorry, Ruedu. I’m really, really sorry.”

For a few long seconds, he stared as if seeing me for the first time. His mandibles clicked together a couple times, but produced almost no sound. Then he lowered himself slightly, in something that kind of almost looked like a bow. “Other Kenkean below’k.” One of his hands pointed at the floor. “Deep tunnels. When boy’k ship crash, most flee’k to’k bottom. Only’k we’k remain above to’k aid Masters. Boy’k…. Master?”

My head shook again. “No, he’s just an asshole.” Belatedly, I amended, “He’s just a bad person. Evil.”  

Okay, so there were a lot more Kenkean below, apparently. Good. For just a second, I had been terrified that Isaac had killed a lot more than three. Hell, even that many was tragic, but it could have been so much worse.  

Shaking off that horrible thought, I focused on Ruedu. “My name is Flick. Like I said, we’re human.” My mouth almost formed the word Heretic, but I stopped it at the last second. Human. Human sounded better, somehow.

“Flick?” Ruedu repeated my name, overly stressing the kuh sound at the end. “Flick.”

By that point, most of the others had been freed, and were gathering in a group. As the Kenkean looked back to his people, there was a brief flash from the corner of the room. My head snapped that way, hand darting to my weapon.

It was Larissa and Haiden. They walked quickly over, the former stopping to embrace her daughter while Haiden himself stepped over to us.

The Kenkeans, including Ruedu, had all collapsed to the floor, hands outstretched toward the arriving adults as they frantically supplicated themselves.

“No, no!” I quickly shook my head, catching their attention. “Guys, Kenkeans! It’s okay. It’s okay, they’re with us. They’re not Seosten. They’re humans. Not Seosten.”

“Having fun, I see,” Haiden announced as he stepped over. Roxa and the others moved to join us.

“Loads,” I replied flatly. “Isaac?”

“Secure,” he assured me. “Dries says he’s out like a light. Good job.”

Nodding once, I looked back the other way. “Ruedu, this is Haiden. Haiden. He’s a friend. Good. He is good. Haiden, this is Ruedu. He’s one of the Kenkeans. These guys.”

“Not true’k.” Ruedu raised a hand, looking a little terrified to be speaking up, like he was confident that I was about to rip his head off for speaking. “All close. Close to’k true’k. But not he’k Ruedu’k. She’k Ruedu’k.”

I blinked twice, then realized my mistake. “She Rued–oh! Oh. You’re a she, not a he. Female Kenkean.” When she nodded, I coughed. “Sorry. I’m sorry. This is Ruedu, she is one of the Kenkeans. Isaac was…”

As I trailed off, Haiden shook his head. “We know. Sands let us know what was going on.”

“Yes, she did.” That was Larissa, stepping over to join us. “And now it’s time for us to go. Haiden and I did enough damage and left enough traps to slow them down, but they’re still coming. We’ve got Isaac, it’s time to get out of here.”

My mouth opened and then shut, as the realization came. “We can’t go,” I announced slowly.

That made everyone’s heads whip around as they stared at me. Larissa was the first to speak. “What? Flick, listen to me, there is an army out there and they’ll be down here any minute.”

“Yeah.” I nodded before lifting my staff to indicate Ruedu and the rest of the Kenkeans. “And them, and the rest of their people below, what do you think the Seosten will do to them when they can’t find us? You think they’ll just say, ‘hey, oh well’ and go about their day? Cuz I’m pretty sure they’re not the type to care that these guys weren’t involved with us. Best case scenario, they’re all enslaved and thrown into a work camp just like the one we just saved Jokai and the others from. Worst case, they just kill them all to make a point.”

“She’s right.” That was Jazz. She rubbed her arm gingerly, panting. “They’ll kill them. Or enslave them. We can’t just walk away. We can’t abandon them just because we have what we wanted.”

Haiden and Larissa exchanged brief glances and a moment of silent communication passed between them. The man smiled before looking back to me. “You really are a lot like your mom.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, walking over to us. “I want to get them out of here too. But you don’t have the power to make the kind of portal that we’d need to get all these people up to the ship. None of us do. Not in time before Radueriel’s troops get past those traps and find us here.”

Sands looked to her mother pointedly. “Then we’ll hold them off. You just said, we can’t make the portal. But you guys can. You did it before to get us down here. You make the portal to get all these guys out of here, and we’ll hold off the Seosten goons long enough for you to do it.”

“What?” Larissa’s eyes widened at that, and she quickly took hold of her daughter’s shoulders. “No, Sandoval. You can’t fight them. I told you, there’s an army out there.”

“Yeah,” the other girl replied, “a whole army out there. But the tunnels are only so wide. They can’t send everything at us at once. We don’t have to fight all of them at the same time, just the ones that can reach us. We can use that to hold them off long enough for you guys to work.”

Still, Larissa looked distraught, head shaking. “Sweet girl, it would take us hours to put together enough energy to send a portal all the way to where the ship is. You can’t hold out for that long.”

Sands opened her mouth to say something, when Gordon abruptly spoke up. “What if the ship was closer?” As everyone looked to him, he asked, “Would that help make the portal faster?”  

Haiden slowly whistled at that. “Bring the ship closer, and we don’t have to portal out as far…”

“There is an armada up there!” Larissa blurted, pulling Sands close to her chest and hugging onto her as she looked at Haiden incredulously. “And you really think that the best idea right now is to bring that ship out where they can blow it out of the sky and strand us all here?”

“No,” I quickly put in. “It’s not the best idea. But it might be the only idea. Larissa,” I pressed then, meeting her gaze, “we can’t abandon these people. Sure, we could tell them to hide in their tunnels, to run away. But you know the Seosten would find them eventually. We can’t just leave them here. I’m not saying it’s not dangerous. I’m saying it’s worth it. Because those people are only in danger because of Isaac. And he’s our responsibility. We have to protect them.”

For a second, the woman just stared at me. Then she reached a hand out, touching my face briefly. “You are… a beautiful girl,” she murmured before straightening with a sigh. “Call them.” She was looking toward Haiden. “Call the ship. They’ll have to be really close and really fast. We’re gonna have to time this perfectly. We have to know exactly how close they can get and exactly when they’ll get there. They get the ship as close as they can, we open the portal the second they’re in position and send all these people through.” Her eyes snapped to the rest of us. “And you use those badges the second we get them through the portal. You understand?”

“They’re coming.” That was Roxa. She had stepped over nearer to the chamber entrance, her head cocked to the side as she listened. “It won’t take them much longer to get here. If we’re gonna keep them far enough away for you guys to focus on the portal, we need to go now.”

“Be careful.” Larissa reached out, taking my arm with one hand and Sands’ with the other. “Just… just don’t take risks that you don’t have to. The tunnels are narrow. Use that. Don’t let them lure you out. Hold them off, make them keep coming to you. Be…” She swallowed. “Be safe. Be smart.” Looking up to Roxa, Jazz, and Gordon, she added, “That goes for all of you.”

“We will,” I promised before looking to the others. “Come on, guys.

“Let’s go hold off an army.”

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