Month: December 2018

On The Edge 42-08

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No more holding back. No more playing with a handicap of not using my own weapon. It was all or nothing now. I had my weapon, my powers, my sister, everything. And it was a good thing too, since I was going to need all of it to survive the next few seconds. Because these guys? They weren’t holding back either.

Two of the three Seosten were the first to reach me, their boosted speed turning each into a barely visible blurred form. One went high, the other low, sweeping their energy blades toward my neck and legs respectively. As those deadly, glowing blades swept through the air at me, I threw myself into a twisting sideways flip, passing barely between them. My hand slapped down to pass through the lower blade as I absorbed the energy from it.

Landing on my feet in a crouch, I instantly channeled all that energy into my staff. That glowing green outline surrounded it, protecting the weapon from being cut in half as I brought it around to catch the incoming blade from the third Seosten. Even as our weapons rebounded from one another, Tabbris took control of my left hand, creating a nausea-bubble before throwing it toward the Seosten whose blades we had just flipped between. It missed, but the throw at least forced the pair to recoil for an instant. And right now, every instant counted.

The guy in front of me pressed the attack, feinting a swing at my head before flipping his blade around to go for my leg. I ignored the feint, paying attention to what my item-sense power and instincts were telling me about his movements. My still-glowing staff caught his blade, sliding it out of the way. Twice more, he kept at it, his form a blur of motion as he tried to catch me off guard. For those brief seconds, Tabbris was able to boost us just enough to keep up, our weapons colliding with one another repeatedly as I fought desperately just to stay alive.

Unfortunately, it seemed that none of my new friends were interested in following any kind of ‘taking turns’ rule. Not only were these three Seosten attacking me all at once, the trio of Alters weren’t holding back either. The first, a short, squat figure that looked like a chubby porcupine, sent a shower of likely-poisonous needles flying at me. Apparently he could control them, since they very deliberately went around anyone who wasn’t me.

But I wasn’t alone. Tabbris quickly created a portal, catching the incoming needles to send them at the pair of Seosten behind us. At the same time, I was busy sidestepping the lunge from the third Seosten as he tried to take advantage of what he clearly thought would be my distraction. His blade hummed through the air right where I had been an instant earlier.

Now I was beside him, even as the other two Alters (one a lanky wooden Relukun and the other some kind of slimy mud-like man) brought slugthrower rifles into play.

Trusting Tabbris to deal with that, I focused on the guy that I had just stepped beside, hitting the button that launched my grapple. Since it was on the end of my staff that was pointed down, the thing shot into the man’s leg, literally going through it and out the other side as the Seosten let out a cry of surprise.

The two Alters had already opened fire. But my faith in my sister wasn’t misplaced. She was on the job, already using my item-transportation power to position two of our kevlar-spell enchanted bits of fabric right where the bullets were going. She also used the power that allowed me to shrink or grow items that I spent enough time with to make the cloth bits large enough to cover everything they needed to. I took the hits, which felt like little more than pebbles being lightly tossed at my back.

Meanwhile, the other two Seosten had deftly avoided the poison spines, despite the portal making them appear right in front of their faces. They recovered, reigniting their laser blades before coming for me. They were only two steps away as the bullets from the rifles bounced from my back, my weapon currently occupied with the grapple through the third Seosten’s leg.

Tabbris took that one again, triggering a cloud of sand to erupt from my staff before sending it flying into their faces, driving them back a step and halting their charge.

The third Seosten was recovering. He tried to twist around to swing at me, but I ducked under the blade, then hit the button on my staff to trigger its boost before letting go. The weapon flew out of my hand, yanking my opponent off his feet and sending him flying up toward the ceiling with a cry.

With a combination of my item-sense and werewolf reflexes, I spun at the last second, expertly catching the man’s flailing laser sword to tear it from his grip. Sensing my need, Tabbris created another portal right beside us, the other end positioned right beside the Alters who were shooting at us. With the blade in my hand, I shoved it through the portal.

I was quick, but one of them was quicker. The mud-man managed to dive out of the way, leaving only the Relukun to have both hands cut off by the blade. He dropped the gun, stumbling.

With any luck, they could probably fix that later. I didn’t want to kill the Alters, who were either possessed or controlled by Radueriel. I didn’t want to kill them. I was going to do whatever I could to avoid it. Including literally disarming them like that.

Unfortunately, the ‘sand in the face’ trick wasn’t working anymore. The two Seosten each triggered some kind of spell, which created an aura around them that turned my sand to water, taking it out of my (and Tabbris’) control. Shit, now they were just being lightly rained on. It didn’t even seem like that rain was superheated the way the sand had been.

Having fixed the sand problem, the Seosten pair came at us hard. Tabbris barely had time to blurt a warning and shove us out of the way to avoid being skewered on the end of the actual metal sword one of them had produced. Even then, she couldn’t stop us from taking a punch from the other one. Which, since he was boosting at the time, knocked me to the ground and nearly broke my jaw. I saw dark spots and bits of light for a few seconds, the laser sword dropping from my hand.

The guy with the metal sword brought it down straight for my prone body, and it was only at the last possible instant that I managed to collect myself enough to roll onto my side, letting the blade skim past my back to drive itself into the floor. Quickly, I shoved my back against it, using the item-relocation power to teleport the weapon out of his hand. It reappeared down by my feet, even as I kicked out to send it toward porcupine-man, forcing him to dive away from it.

At the same time, the Seosten who had struck me so hard was already rearing back to kick me in the stomach. But Tabbris had quickly used that time to create a portal to my staff. My hand caught it, retracting the grapple to let the Seosten who was hanging by his leg fall to the floor.

With my staff back in my hand, Tabbris used the item-growth power at the exact same time that I was kicking the stolen sword at the porcupine. The staff elongated, slamming into the face of the Seosten who was trying to kick us. The blow knocked him back a step, even as she triggered the stored kinetic boost on the opposite end, lifting me back to my feet.

The mud-man had created some kind of weird acidic-looking ball in both hands by that point, which he hurled at me. At the same time, the Seosten whose sword I had kicked away threw what looked like a small bit of metal at me as well. Halfway there, it exploded, sending a wave of concussive force that hit me like a giant’s fist. The air was knocked out of me, and I was thrown off my feet. The mud-man’s acid ball struck my arm, instantly burning through the skin and muscle there. It was agony beyond description. I screamed, dropping my weapon while falling into a roll as I cradled my injured arm. It looked burned. Badly burned. Even with my pain tolerance power, it was beyond anything I had felt before. Hell, even Tabbris couldn’t completely suppress the pain. Which kind of told me how bad it would have been without help. This was more than just normal acid. It was like the mud-man’s power let him instill supernatural pain in whatever his acidic-mud ball hit.  

It was bad. And it would have been utterly crippling and fight-ending without the combination of my pain tolerance power and Tabbris. As it was, I could barely see straight. But what I did see was the Seosten whose leg I had impaled recovering enough to aim a pistol at me, while the one who had hit me with that concussive explosion spell prepared another one.

No more. I couldn’t let this go on. Ignoring the blinding pain in my arm, I created a portal by my foot, lashing out in a kick that went through that portal, colliding with the hand of the Seosten who was trying to throw the concussive bomb at me. The kick knocked his throw off course, sending it at the Seosten with the pistol instead to create an explosion that put that guy on the ground.

The pain in my arm was already fading enough that Tabbris could get it under control, which allowed me to focus on the mud-man himself. I did not want to be hit by another of those balls, and he was already winding up for a second throw. Clearly, he expected me to be affected longer, because he was taking his time, building up a large blob of that mud stuff which, if it hit me, would probably take me out of the fight for good. If it didn’t just drive me completely insane from the agony.

So it was time to change the equation when it came to this guy. To that end, I focused through the lingering pain, creating a quick portal that led behind the mud-man while shoving the hand of the arm that wasn’t throbbing through it. The other end of the portal led to the back of the mud-man’s head, and I grabbed him. Sure enough, according to the choker, he was possessed. I could see the Seosten inside him.

Thankfully, I could deal with that too. With a thought, I created an instant copy of the expulsion rune on the man’s neck while he was still reacting to the surprise of my hand grabbing him from behind. There was a cry of pain from the Alter, and the Seosten possessing him stumbled out. He resolidified just in time to be hit straight in the face by the same torture-mud that he had been making his host create. Apparently mud-man wasn’t happy about being enslaved, and let the Seosten know about it by hitting him with enough of the stuff to put his former master on the ground with a scream of pain.

The other Seosten, who had been rushing for me, did a double-take of confusion at that. Which I took full advantage of. Using my staff to boost myself back to my feet, I created two more portals, shoving my hands through those as well. The portals were set up near the remaining pair of possessed Alters, the Relekun and the porcupine.

Unfortunately, I only managed to get my hand on the tree-man, insta-casting the expulsion rune there too. The porcupine, meanwhile, touched something on his arm and blurted a single word right as I was about to touch him. In the next instant, my hand struck some kind of frictionless forcefield that popped up. It didn’t seem that tough or protective, but it stopped my hand from reaching him. The still-possessed porcupine shouted something in Latin that came too fast for me to catch, though Abaddon’s name was in there.

Activate Abaddon’s possession shields, Tabbris quickly translated, even as the remaining guys all did the same as the porcupine. So apparently Abaddon had prepared these guys with those low-level forcefields to prevent me (or others, I supposed) from being able to possess them that easily. And now it was doubling as a way of preventing me from using the expulsion rune.

But hey, at least I’d used it on two of them before they caught on. Which meant that now it suddenly wasn’t six on one anymore. It was six on three, assuming my newest friend wanted a piece of his former enslaver as much as the mud-guy did. Not only did the expulsion rune kick those guys out of their hosts, it also rendered the two Seosten briefly incapable of recalling back to them.

Aaaand then things got bad again. One of the Seosten spoke a single word, and both the newly freed mud-man and Relukun collapsed. They just dropped unconscious, taking them out of the fight entirely. Worse, the guy who had been hit with the torture-mud had used some other spell to recover. Now he was up too.

So it was six on one again, except now five of those were hostless Seosten. All I’d managed to do was take two of their ‘body-suits’ away. And left one of them with a pronounced limp from shooting that grapple through his leg. A pronounced limp which stopped being a problem a second later, as the Seosten who had been possessing the porcupine-man hopped out, and the injured one took over his spot.

Now that really wasn’t fair. Not to mention the fact that all these guys were protected from my possession and the expulsion rune. Hell, even my sand was useless since those ‘turn it into water’ spells were still active.

Who the hell could I submit a balance complaint to for this fight?

The force-fields can’t be that strong, Tabbris quickly put in, even as the six collected themselves and focused on me once more. They’re meant to stop quick possession, but if you hit them hard enough, they should go down.

Hit them hard enough, huh? I sent back. Then I guess we’re doing this the old fashioned way.

As if in agreement with that, the five Seosten all ignited laser swords of their own and came for me while the possessed porcupine sent a cloud of poison spikes flying past them. The hard way it was.

Gripping my staff, I waited just long enough for the flying darts to reach me before sending a concussive blast from the end of the weapon that scattered the spines. Which had the added benefit of slowing several of the rushing Seosten as they avoided the redirected projectiles. Two made it through to where I was, one leaping up and over me while the other went straight for my chest with his blade. The one jumping over my head produced a pistol, aiming down before taking several rapid shots.

They were learning. The gun was a slugthrower, and they were trying to shoot at parts of my body not covered by clothing. Not to mention the guy with the laser sword demanding my attention.

Unfortunately for them, they still hadn’t gotten the memo that there were two of us driving this body, so they’d have to do better than that if they wanted to distract us. Tabbris used the item-transfer and enlargement powers to shove yet another kevlar-cloth over the top of my head to stop the incoming bullets. At the same time, I intercepted the incoming laser sword by extending my staff to twice its usual length so that it could connect with the actual handle, sending the sharp metal blade right through the cylinder that the Seosten held. With a sudden shower of sparks and a cry from the man himself, his weapon fizzled and died in his hand. Also fizzling and dying? His forcefield, which collapsed from the combination of the laser sword essentially exploding right next to it and the impact of my blade.

The Seosten flipping over me and firing landed at my back, while I pivoted sharply. The grapple-end of my spinning staff narrowly missed him, but still forced the man to recoil and duck away from it.

And now the other three were there, with the porcupine right behind them. The trio all went for me at once, even as Tabbris created a quick portal for me to shove a hand through. Their blades sliced through the space where I was. Or rather, where I had been, since my grasping hand caught hold of the Seosten whose shield I had just broken. Instantly, we possessed him, and the three energy-blades cut through empty air.

I was in the Seosten now, and I took quick advantage of the disorientation that caused in the others, by spinning back the other way and dropping to one knee. Tabbris had already scanned his mind for the answer to a question I didn’t even have to vocalize, sending me the information instantly. I knew exactly how many shots from their own weapons these shields of theirs could stand up to.

At a thought, a portal appeared in front of me as I forced my new brief host to kneel. With one of his hands, I yanked the laser pistol up, firing rapidly directly through it.  

The porcupine took three, four, five shots from the other end of the portal, which appeared behind him, stumbling forward with a cry as his shield went down on the last shot. By that point, the others had recovered from their confusion, realizing what had happened. But even as they turned on their possessed comrade, I was already hitting the eject while leaving one last order: for him to fall unconscious.

His body collapsed, while I popped out. Before my body had even finished reforming, I used a blast from my staff to throw myself right at porcupine-boy, who was still staggering from the shots that had hit him in the back only a second earlier. Dropping into a roll, I slapped a hand against his foot, triggering another expulsion rune now that his forcefield was down. The Seosten was kicked out of him, and the blade of my rising staff as I rolled to my feet went right through the neck of the reforming figure while he was still staggering from the forceful ejection.

Two down. One dead, one unconscious. Tabbris muted the rush of pleasure, even as one of the remaining Seosten spoke a word that put the porcupine-Alter on the ground. Now all I had were four hostless Seosten. Four rather pissed off hostless Seosten, to be exact.

Three of those four opened up on me with pistols, two energy and one slug thrower. Which, honestly, wouldn’t they have figured this out by now? I absorbed the former, sending the energy back at them while the bullets were caught on one of my repositioned kevlar-cloths.

The answer was yes. Yes, they had figured that out. It was a distraction. I figured that much out a second later, as the fourth Seosten threw up some kind of coin, activating the spell on it to create a portal of his own before throwing what looked like four rubber bands through.

Flick! Tabbris warned, but I was already moving. I knew this trick too, even before my item-sense warned me. The other end of the portal was behind me, and whatever those rubber bands were, I didn’t want anything to do with them.

I was almost fast enough, with the boost that my sister threw on. Three of the four bands missed me entirely, colliding with the floor. But the fourth hit my left wrist. As soon as it did, the band latched on tight while growing. It wrapped around my arm and yanked it to the small of my back, holding it there.

Magic restraints. Clearly the other three bands had been meant to connect with my other wrist and my ankles or legs, incapacitating me completely. As it was, they’d managed to make me literally fight with one hand behind my back. Whatever material it was made out of, it resisted my immediate effort to transport it off my wrist with my item-relocation power. And trying to shift my arm partway into lion-form to snap it just resulted in a sharp spasm of blinding pain as the magic cuff stayed put. So that didn’t work either.

But if they thought that was enough to stop me, they had another thing coming. With my staff held tightly in my free right hand, I threw myself straight at the Seosten. Which, whatever they’d been expecting me to do right then, it obviously wasn’t that.

I was there, right in the middle of their group, while they were still recovering from the surprise that my reaction to having one of my arms tied behind my back was to charge them. Swinging my staff hard through the air, I drove two of the four to stumble backward, while triggering a concussive blast from the other end, which caught the third in the face.

The fourth reacted faster than the others, lashing out with a swing from his laser sword that cut horizontally through the air toward my shoulders. I ducked under the humming blade, pivoting and rising to put myself on the far side of his extended arm before driving my leg hard into his stomach. At the same time, I triggered another boost from my staff and released it so the weapon would fly into the face of one of the first two Seosten. It ricocheted off his shield, but the impact was still enough to knock his head back with a cry.

As my foot rebounded from colliding with the stomach of the Seosten in front of me, I swung it back hard into the sternum of the second of the first two, the one who hadn’t just taken the staff to his face. A quick portal let me bring my falling weapon back to my free hand, even as I pivoted around Seosten in front of me, the first one that I had kicked. He was still recovering from that blow, even with the forcefield. Which slowed him just enough that my spinning staff collided with the back of his neck, sending him stumbling into the second one that I had kicked.

Those two were briefly caught up with one another. Which left the guy I had blasted in the face at the start of this flurry of fighting and the one who had just been hit, also in the face, with the end of my boosted staff.

Both of them boosted to come after me, and Tabbris boosted us to match them. Which she could only do for a brief time. But brief was all I needed. Letting them come for me, I let the first one swing his energy blade. Another horizontal swing. I backpedaled, then lunged forward and under his second swing.

Now between the two, I let the second guy try his luck. That time, I hit paydirt. Vertical swing. The instant I saw what he was doing, I pivoted on one foot. But I wasn’t dodging. I knew how long the energy blade was. My item sense, even though it couldn’t detect the blade itself, knew where the hilt was. I used that. Turning my back to the man, I ducked forward and raised my back as much as I could.

It worked. The energy blade collided with the magical cuff that had been incapacitating my left arm. Suddenly, it was gone. I was free. And I celebrated my newfound freedom by throwing myself bodily backward to collide with the man who had just cut through my cuff. Both of us went down, though he cushioned my fall while landing hard on his back. The energy blade dropped from his hand from the impact.

Creating another portal down by my feet while lying there, I lashed out with a kick. The other end of the portal appeared right in front of the groin of the second Seosten who had just been swinging his blade at me. From the dulled impact, it was clear that they were smart enough to wear what amounted to magical cups. Still, it made the guy stumble.

Then I disappeared. The remaining three Seosten, including the one I had just kicked, reacted instantly. They turned their weapons on the one I had been lying on top of, flooding the air with what was apparently some kind of stun setting on their guns. The guy was hit by so many of them, he probably wouldn’t wake up for another week.

I almost felt bad for the guy, considering I wasn’t actually possessing him. Yeah, his shield had still been up. Instead, I had simply possessed a tiny wooden coin that I’d dropped next to his body. But it sure looked as though I’d possessed him, and his companions had reacted pretty much as I’d planned.

Three left. While they were still trying to figure out what was going on, I popped out of my little wooden coin, already shifting my weapon to its bow form and loosing a shot. My foot was on the bit of wood, and I instantly transferred it to my hand before throwing it up and over their heads while they were diving away from the exploding energy arrow.

Even as the coin started to leave my hand, right as it was on the tip of my finger, I possessed it. My body vanished into the thing, which flew up through the air. One second I was standing there throwing a bit of wood, and in the next, I was inside the thing as it sailed over them.

With the wooden coin directly above one of the Seosten’s heads, I popped out of it. They were still trying to figure out where I’d disappeared to when I suddenly appeared with my weapon back in its staff form, blade down. Before the guy below me could react, I used a blast from the other end to propel myself at him. The blade collided with the man’s head and kept going, tearing through his shield from the force of the impact to cut straight down through him. The staff basically cut him in half vertically. It was… messy.

Two left. Both of whom were losing their minds right then. They wanted me down now. And they did their best to achieve that by boosting themselves to blinding speed, their forms a blur of motion as they came at me. Tabbris boosted us as much as she could, and the two Seosten were still faster. One slammed his fist into my face, knocking my head to the side with a cry, just before the other kicked me in the stomach with a blow that took the wind out of me while I was thrown backward. My staff fell to the floor with a clatter at their feet.

Too fast, my partner blurted, they’re too fast, I can’t keep up!

It’s okay, I sent back. He can.

He, in this case, was the first Seosten that I had killed in this room. The one whose throat I’d driven the blade of my staff through right after ejecting him from his host. He’d been killed instantly.

But I was a necromancer. And I was pretty God damn motivated right then. At a violent mental shove, the dead Seosten was suddenly back on his feet. He boosted, throwing himself at my two unsuspecting opponents. They turned too late, one of them taking the reignited energy blade through his chest before he even knew what was happening.

The other didn’t stop to question it. His own laser sword cut through the necks of both of his dead companions, taking their heads from their shoulders. A quick expert follow up swing took all four arms from them, and then he was facing me once more, energy blade extended. “Enough of this! You die now!

“You know,” I shot back, “I was with you through the first half of that.” As the man readied himself to come at me once more with a blinding blur that would surely finish me off, I held up both hands as if to show that they were empty.

Then I grabbed the bracelet on my arm, the one that I had gotten from Broker the day before. My finger found the blue button on it, and I spoke a single word.

“Jaq.”

I disappeared. Exactly as advertised, the bracelet transported me instantly to where Jaq was. Which, at that moment, was attached to my staff… directly behind the last Seosten. I appeared in a crouch, my hands already grabbing the two abandoned laser swords from the beheaded (and disarmed) guys. Thumbing them on, even as the guy realized his mistake, I shouted inwardly, Boost!

It wasn’t fast enough to get the guy before he could turn around. But it was enough to get him before he could do anything else. He faced me, mouth open in clear disbelief as I stood there with two borrowed energy blades, one in each hand, driven through his chest.

He fell. And as he did, the weapons fell from my hands as well, even as my arms dropped to my sides as if they weighed a million pounds. I was breathing hard. Everything, going through the hotel, all the possessions, all the fighting, the running, the boosting, the struggling just to survive for another few seconds, all of it for so long, was getting even to me. I had to catch my breath. Six Seosten. Six Seosten and they were down. They were down. Breathe, Flick. Breathe.

And then a sudden, blinding pain in my legs took even that breath away. A strangled scream escaped me, as I fell to the floor. I was bleeding badly. Something–something had cut through both of my legs so deep they were nearly cut off entirely. More than once. Something cut through them more than once. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t think. There was so much blood.

“Well, this was exciting,” Kushiel’s voice spoke, as my bleary eyes snapped over to find a hole in the shield that had been keeping them out. All of them. They were there, the three Olympians. Kushiel, Abaddon, and Radueriel.

“But I think we know how this ends,” the psycho bitch continued while handling the bloody sword that she had used on her own legs while transferring the damage to cripple me. “Not well for you.

“Not well at all.”

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On The Edge 42-07

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Catching the swinging arm of the fur-covered figure who was trying to claw me, I pivoted, keeping one hand on his bicep and using the other to grab the back of his neck. With a grunt, I shoved him hard into the nearest wall, then used his body to brace myself as I popped up into a double-kick into the chest of another figure. I used the force from that kick, planting both feet against him and pushing off as he was knocked to the floor, to push myself into a backward flip over the head of a man who had been coming up behind me. My foot kicked his leg out from under him, and as he collapsed I brought the same foot down hard on his back to make him hit the floor with even more force. With one foot there still, I reached out to catch hold of the shoulder of the man I had first shoved into the wall, yanking him backward while stepping aside so that he tripped over the man I had just knocked down. At the same time, three more guys who were running toward me ended up flat on their faces as a cloud of sand flew under their feet.

Got one? I sent inwardly while all that was going on.

Got it, Tabbris shot back, filling my head with the exact information about what she was doing and what she needed, even as the two men on the floor at my feet ended up in a tumbled heap and the one I had kicked was recovering from staggering backward. In the distance, the trio I had knocked down with sand were trying to extricate themselves, but my partner threw more of the sand into their faces. Which would have been bad enough, but this sand was super-heated, so they had to deal with being burned as well. It was… not going well for them.

As the two guys at my feet got themselves situated and lunged at me, I dove into a forward roll to put myself next to the man I’d kicked. All three were right there, practically on top of me as my hand slapped down against the floor. Tabbris used my instant-image power to inscribe a rune into it, before throwing in some of our combined energy to trigger it.

The reverse and increase gravity spell activated, glowing red just before the three men who were diving for me were caught by it. The trio went flying up, slamming hard into the ceiling an instant before the reverse part of the spell cut off, leaving only the ‘increase’ part. Which, of course, yanked them back down again. They landed hard and didn’t move again, aside from a couple of groans.

It was an effect that had been limited to that very small area, and only for a moment. Still, Tabbris would need to recharge for a few seconds, at least. She would watch for another opportunity to use spells that she had learned from her mother over the past couple weeks and let me know.

In the distance, I saw Asenath and Bobbi. The two of them were working together to try and clear a path to the security panel. Unfortunately, the pair had been waylaid by a few controlled security guards and a single Seosten. And they couldn’t make their efforts to clear the path to the panel too obvious, or Kushiel’s forces would figure out what we were trying to do and just destroy it. Or at least make it even harder to reach, which we really didn’t need.  And I couldn’t exactly just use a portal to reach it. I didn’t know precisely where the slot for the USB thing was, and as soon as our friends here saw me groping for it, they’d… again, know to stop me.

No, I had to get to it. And the others were trying to help that happen.

Elsewhere, I could see Roxa in wolf form leaping on top of someone, carrying them to the ground before she bit into their arm. A second later, she shifted into her human self, twisting over to kick an approaching figure hard in the stomach from her prone position, a blow that sent that person flying backward. At the same time, her arm turned into its tree form, extending into an enormous branch that slammed into four more people to knock them over.

Miranda and Theia were fighting together too, also trying to clear a way for me to get to that panel. The two of them (or three, considering Miranda had split herself several times and two of them were there) were teaming up against an adult Seosten who just would not go down.

Further down the hall, the other werewolves of the pack were also fighting. Or… most of them were. Fezzik was on the ground. The big guy… I didn’t think he was ever going to move again. I hadn’t been there to see what happened, but given the size of the silver blade embedded in his chest and the way his head was… yeah. Yeah, he… damn it. God fucking damn it. The other wolves couldn’t even mourn him just yet or they’d risk losing even more of themselves.

He also wasn’t the only one down. A couple of the Seosten who had come in with us were on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or not, but… I wasn’t optimistic.

Then, of course, I had another problem. One of the young Seosten who wasn’t on our side was coming after me with a laser sword. He kept slashing at me, forcing me to back up or twist from side to side to avoid each humming swipe while I watched for an opening.

Not far away, I caught a brief glimpse of a third iteration of Miranda from the corner of my eye as the other girl used the metal shield on her arm to create three quick identically-sized and shaped round forcefields before making a quick gesture that sent them flying off to collide with the side of a big guy who appeared to be made of hundreds of different coils of rope all put together into one man-shaped figure. He turned at the blows, just as yet another Miranda hopped on his back, creating some kind of burning fist with one hand as she plunged it into his neck. He roared and jerked backward to throw her off, while that first Miranda ran that way at full speed, leaping up and twisting to plant her feet in his rope-coil chest. The impact sent him falling backward while the second Miranda hopped off. Another one appeared right where the rope-man was falling, already swinging that shield. The flat of it collided with the figure’s head and sent him to the ground, dazed.

Throughout all of that (which was only a couple of seconds), I was bobbing and weaving while backpedaling as the figure with the laser sword continued doggedly after me. Watch for the opening, watch for the opening, watch for it, watch for it…

There! As the man switched up his attack to stab at me instead of slashing with that blade, I created a quick portal with one hand right where his blade was heading. The other end appeared just behind the Seosten’s left leg. Which, since he had stabbed forward, made the energy blade go through the portal to stab himself. The man cried out, dropping the sword. I caught it, spinning to slam the hilt into the side of his head while he was collapsing. He went down and stayed down. For the moment, anyway.

That was the problem. While the Kushiel-aligned Seosten and the possessed or controlled Auberge security had no problems killing any of us, we were trying our level best not to use lethal measures with at least the latter. We really didn’t want to kill the guys who didn’t have a choice with what they were doing. But that was costing us. Had already cost us.

The security panel. It was still there, just past a spot where Larees and that Hasty chick were fighting basically back to back. They were right there, the fighting going on all around the panel. But it wasn’t too damaged. Not yet. Plugging in this USB could still bring us some help. But first, I had to get there.

Briefly, I thought of just shouting out for the Seosten woman or the werewolf and telling them what to do while throwing or portaling the USB to them. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. Everyone would hear me, and I was pretty damn sure the bad guys would work out that they needed to destroy the panel pretty quick.

Had to get to it. And since whatever the floors and walls up here were made of, it wasn’t wood, I had to get there the old fashioned way. As I took a step, a figure blurred over to my right side. Theia. She flashed me a dangerous smile. “We’ll cover you. Get to the button to deploy presents for all the good boys and girls.”

Her saying the word ‘present’ instinctively made me tense up despite myself. But another voice spoke from my left. One of the Mirandas. “Yeah, we’ll cover you. Go. Go!”

No time to think about how Theia made me feel. Shaking it off, I went for it. The other two girls were on either side, covering me as we raced down the hallway. Theia’s fire and ice guns were busy. Mostly the latter, freezing people’s legs or other limbs. Meanwhile, Miranda’s energy shields kept us safe from that side. They blocked for me, and together we beelined right for that panel.

Four hefty figures were ahead of us. They looked like gray elephant-skinned orc things, and they clearly weren’t in any mood to move. Nor were they affected by either of Theia’s elemental guns, apparently simply absorbing both fire and ice with the only apparent reaction being that the parts of their bodies touched by either turned red or blue.

Oh, right, there was another effect. Namely, they spat out that fire and ice by opening their mouths to send it right back at us. We had to dive to the floor to avoid it. Then roll to either side (Theia one way and Miranda and I the other) so we wouldn’t be trampled as two of the four rushed to do just that, stampeding right where we had just been.

A quick input from Tabbris and I knew what to do next. Kicking myself up and into a roll, I ended right near the nearest gray elemental-absorbing orc and slapped a hand against the black leather pants that he wore. At that brief touch, my partner made a rune appear, once more using that instant-image power. She shoved more power into it, igniting the spell immediately.

The effect was just as immediate. The orc’s pants, and the rest of his clothes, turned to metal. He was trapped in place, utterly incapable of moving. I heard his shouts of confusion as he struggled, but the transformation extended down to his shoes. And they themselves were fused with the floor. He was stuck, and wouldn’t be a threat for awhile.

Unfortunately, there were still the other three. And while Theia/Pace and Miranda were dealing with two of them, that left one. Which was the one that yanked me up off the floor, throwing me into the ceiling hard enough to daze me. As I fell back down, a wild swing from the gray orc knocked the remaining sense from me, and I was pretty sure I blacked out for a second before the collision with a nearby wall snapped me awake once more.

Ow. Oww. At the last instant, Tabbris took over and threw us out of the way just as that same orc tried to stomp where my head had been. Then I was back in control, snapping my foot up and out of his reaching grasp. A thought sent a cloud of sand into his eyes, and I flipped myself backwards to my feet while he was recovering.

Still pain. Lots of pain. Regeneration was working on it, but this wasn’t fun.

Somewhere along the line of being thrown around, I’d dropped the laser sword that I had picked up. But I could still feel it. I knew where it was. As the gray orc–Deunren, Tabbris informed me. As the Deunren growled and lunged for me once more, I made a quick portal in the air above myself. The other end appeared right where my item-sense told me that laser sword was. It fell through, into my upraised hand. I hit the button to ignite the blade and swept it in front of myself quickly. The blade cut off both of the Deunren’s raised arms, making him stumble while crying out.

“Something something disarming pun,” I managed before slugging him in the face as hard as I could. Unable to put anything up to protect himself, he took the blow full on, crashing to the floor.

Hopping over him, I tried to reach the panel once more. There, I was there. I was right there.

Then I wasn’t. A gust of wind or something struck me. It felt like wind, but it was powerful enough to send me spinning down the hallway, tumbling into a heap.

I had no idea what had hit me, or if it had even been purposeful. There were so many powers and weapons being thrown around, I could’ve been targeted or that could’ve been accidental. But either way, now there were even more people between me and where I needed to get.

This wasn’t working. I couldn’t get there. The others couldn’t get there. Everyone who actually knew what to do at the security panel even if I could get the USB to them was pinned down. Larees was there with Hasty still, but neither of them knew what to do with it. And I couldn’t just shout across the– Wait a second. Duh. Stupid, Flick. There was something I could do for that. Part of which I had been practicing with basically all year long.

Keep them off us for a second, I sent inwardly while scrambling in my pocket. Tabbris took over my feet, making us backpedal as more enemies came for us. Two laser shots struck nearby before one hit my chest, but I absorbed it. By that point, Tabbris had sent up a cloud of sand, superheating it. The burning sand flew in a wild circle, forcing everyone back a few steps and giving us a momentary respite.

The whole time, my hands were moving. From my pocket, I managed to pull out Herbie in one hand. With the other, I produced a privacy coin. Quickly, I used it with myself as the only ‘allowed’ person to hear what I was saying.

Then I went back to fighting. Tabbris took over the other part. With Herbie in one hand, she used my–our ability to instill sound in an object. With my voice, she spoke the quick explanation, to plug the USB into the slot on the panel. The power would only let us use sounds that were a few seconds long. But there was a lot you could say in roughly five seconds if you were really motivated to make it fit.

The whole time she was fixing Herbie, I was avoiding all the guys who wanted me to be a smear on the ground. And there were a lot of them. Kushiel’s forces were everywhere. And they were clearly interested in what I was doing.

What I was doing right then, as it happened, was making a portal. The other end came out near where Larees was, and I quickly shoved a second privacy coin against Herbie, lodging it into the spot where his sword was while activating it to only allow the Seosten woman to hear. Then I chucked Herbie and the USB together through that portal while activating the sound projection on him.

She heard. And thanks to the privacy coin, no one else did. I saw Larees use her firebird to clear a space, shouting something to Hasty, who turned into a wolf and lunged onto the biggest of their opponents to clear a path. Larees went right over them, hitting the nearby panel where only a single enemy waited in her path.

The rest of the Seosten knew then. They made a beeline that way, a half-dozen of them converging on the spot where Larees was. They would get to her before she could deal with the single threat in her way and find the slot.

But a figure appeared in front of them. A very… very small figure. Namythiet. She flew down, hovering between the six enemy Seosten and Larees, with that tiny sword held out toward them. She said something I didn’t catch, but part of it was ‘Mister Seth’. The Seosten looked at each other for an instant, then ignored the tiny pixie to lunge past her.

That, ignoring Namythiet, was a mistake that they paid for immediately. Because that little pixie chose right then to show them (and me) why she had named the tiny sword of hers Cataclysm. The blade, itself about the size of a pin, began to glow bright red. A dozen lines of energy shot out away from it in the same positions as the numbers on a clockface, stretching about three feet in every direction before opening up a small portal at the end of each. And from each of those twelve portals appeared several more lines that created more. Twelve initial portals, each with three additional ones attached. Forty eight of them in all. Each were only about a few inches across. But through each of those portals appeared the barrel of various weapons. I saw cannons, rifles, wide-barreled shotguns, some kind of metal coil with electricity humming around it, even a flamethrower.

The literal arsenal instantly unleashed on the briefly paralyzed Seosten. Most of them managed to hurl themselves away from the worst of it at the last second. But two were caught right in the middle and went down for good, while the rest were at least injured. Not to mention the damage done to the wall behind them, which was quite literally blown to shreds. There wasn’t much of a ‘wall’ left to speak of.

It also gave Larees the chance she needed. The woman managed to deal with the only remaining threat that had been in her way, hopping over the falling body to reach the panel. Her hand slammed the USB into place.

And that was enough. The second the last number left her mouth, a dozen portals appeared all along the ceiling. Portals, not doorways. Which made sense. It meant that the turrets that shot down through those portals could actually be housed anywhere and just pop out where needed.

Either way, the turrets appeared and, as promised, began shooting only Kushiel’s forces with some kind of electrical stun blasts that knocked them out. Our side was completely safe, while theirs immediately began to collapse.

It was working. Between the turrets, which amounted to powerful reinforcements, and our own people, we quickly turned the tide against the mix of Kushiel’s Seosten and the controlled security forces. Getting that security to deploy had done the trick. We could hold them until the others managed to show up. We could hold them.

And then the turrets were ripped out of the ceiling. In a spray of sparks, they were torn down from the portals. The metal guns let out a scream of protest while being ripped open and flattened out. In the next second, while I was still realizing what had happened, pieces of the turrets began flying in every direction. Straight at us. One big piece slammed into my side before I could avoid it, knocking me to the ground. Then the chunk of metal literally wrapped around me, fusing itself to the floor while trapping me beneath it.

The same thing was happening everywhere else, up and down the hallway. Not just the turrets, but parts of the walls themselves, even the doors and decorations. They were all tearing their way free and trapping everyone on our side. The werewolves were being pinned in ways that would make it impossible for them to escape even if they shifted.

The green-skinned elf-like figure standing at the end of the hall with his arms going through motions like a conductor. It was him. He continued to pin everyone down. Then his form shifted once everyone was solidly trapped.

Ares. Abaddon. Whatever. It was him. He took back his normal form, while Radeuriel and Kushiel joined him. The three Olympians stood there, observing the corridor for a moment before starting to walk, calmly as they pleased, toward the door.

Where was Athena? Where was… was… anyone else? Where were they?

Not here. That was the answer, or at least the only one that mattered right then. They weren’t here.

Damn it, damn it. Move. I had to do something, anything!

There, Flick! Tabbris moved my eyes, making me look toward the unconscious figure lying nearby. It was one of the Seosten. I didn’t even know whose side they were on. He was several feet away, but that didn’t matter.

I saw Ares shift into another form as they walked, Kushiel casually telling him, “And make sure they don’t wake up any time soon.”

It was now or never. Whatever form Ares had shifted into, it would clearly knock everyone out. Quickly and as surreptitiously as possible, I made a tiny portal, just big enough to stick my finger through. With that finger, I touched the fallen Seosten and quickly possessed him.

My temporary host was unconscious, so I couldn’t see what happened. But I could hear some kind of pop in the air. I waited for a brief moment, then quickly stopped possessing him.

I was kneeling on the floor as I emerged from the unconscious man, keeping myself as low as possible. Ahead of me, the trio of Olympians had been joined by what remained of their forces. It wasn’t much, just three actual Seosten and a couple of the controlled security guards. But that was enough, considering everywhere else I looked, our side was knocked out. They’d been pinned beneath metal, then Ares had done… something. Whatever it was, whatever that popping sound had been, everyone was down. Everyone in the hallway that could have helped was unconscious.

Then it got worse. As the Olympians approached the door that led into the vault, there was a click, a chime, and then the door opened. It just opened for them. Just like that. the door was open. All that, everything we’d done, and Kushiel, Radueriel, and Abaddon were right there in front of the open door. They were about to go through it. They were about to go into the vault. Their little miniature honor guard or whatever it was had already gone inside. They were in.

We’re too late, Tabbris lamented, sounding crestfallen and about as broken as I felt then.

No, I shot back despite everything inside me saying she was right. We’re not. Boost.

With those words, I lunged to my feet. Shifting myself back to my normal form, I hurled myself that way. With everything I had, every last bit of strength and speed that I could drag from the pit of my soul, I sprinted down that hallway. The boost kicked in, and I was almost flying. My hands moved, calling my staff into their grip and pointing it behind me before I triggered the boost from that as well. And then I literally was flying. My feet left the ground as I rocketed straight to that group of Olympians.  Abaddon was at the back, then Radueriel, with Kushiel at the front. All of whom could kill me practically with a thought.

I hit them from behind. Only I didn’t hit them. I possessed them… all of them, in a line. One by one, starting with Abaddon, I possessed each one just long enough to avoid physically colliding with them before popping myself back out the front. I didn’t stay long enough to bother with a mental domination fight, because I wasn’t trying to control them. I possessed Abaddon, popped out through his front, immediately possessed Radueriel from behind before going out his front, and finally did the same with Kushiel. One by one, before my body even had time to shift properly from the glowing energy form that it took when exiting someone, I threw myself through all three of them, rocketing out of Kushiel before ending in a dive that took me the rest of the way into the vault itself.

As I passed through the last of them, my hand produced that crystal that Wyatt had given me. I let it go, before flipping over in the air. My staff was already shifting into its bow form as I took aim, drawing back an energy arrow. With a grunt, I released it, shooting the arrow back that way right as I landed in a crouch.

The arrow collided with that crystal, shattering it. I caught a brief glimpse of trio of Olympians there at the doorway, just as the spell on the crystal activated. A thick wall, appearing to be made of a mostly opaque crystal itself, appeared to block that doorway.

I was there. I was in the vault, which itself was mostly an empty circular room. Empty, that was, aside from a single pedestal in the middle of it with a book sitting on top. I was there and, for the moment, the Olympians weren’t.

It wouldn’t keep them out for long. But maybe… just maybe, it would be enough. Every second counted, and I had to hope… I had to believe that help was on its way. Deveron and the others in the panic room, Avalon, Gaia, and everyone else coming in through the other side. Seconds mattered. However long it would take Kushiel and the other two to break through that… whatever it was that Wyatt had given me, it might just be long enough.

Of course, I wasn’t in here alone. There were three non-Olympian Seosten and three other figures in here with me, all of whom looked pretty pissed off right then.

Help was on the way. It had to be. They were coming. But so were Kushiel, Radeuriel, and Abaddon. The first question was who would make it first.

And the second question, which sprang to mind as the guys in the room with me drew weapons of their own, was whether I would survive long enough for that to matter.

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Patreon Snippets 5

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The following is the fifth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Sariel’s Eldest Missing Child – Several Years Ago

“Come, Nihil.”

Kushiel entered the pristine medical room at a crisp walk, beckoning with her fingers for the child at her heels to keep up. The young girl herself looked to be about five in Earth human years, which would have made her roughly three as far as the Seosten home planet of Elohim was concerned. Her light blonde hair was worn short, almost into a buzz cut, and she wore a simple silver hospital gown, with flashes of a blue Seosten bodysuit visible beneath it as she moved.

The room the two of them entered was taken up almost exclusively by various medical and scanning equipment that lined every wall. In the middle was a single bed, its occupant sitting up and watching them. He was an older man, his long hair gray and his face lined from many millennia of life. Though he was looking their way, he showed no change of expression at their entrance aside from a single blink. Beyond that, his face was empty.

Gazing up at the man, the young girl asked, “This is your husband, Mistress?”

Rather than answer, Kushiel pointed to a single chair that sat in the corner. “Sit, Nihil. Be silent.” She waited until the girl obediently did so before turning to the man. “Puriel,” she announced, stepping that way to take his limp hand. “Puriel, look at me.”

He did so, eyes moving to meet hers and focusing slightly better than they had been. “Kushiel,” he started in a voice that was rough, a testament to how seldom he used it lately. “Are they alive?”

Sighing with obvious annoyance, Kushiel shook her head. “Just like the last time you asked, and the time before that, and every time stretching back to the first, no.” She pulled his hand up to put both of hers around it. “Husband. Love. You have to stop this. It was years ago. The orphanage chose to take you in. They chose to care for your wounds after your transport through the banishment orb. They cared for you when you didn’t know who you were. And yes, you were in no shape to protect them when the Fomorians came. They died, my husband. But you survived. You survived, and now you remember who you are. You have to move on. Your people need you.”

His gaze had gone empty again, as he stared off at nothing. Stared at his memories. Kushiel sighed, dropping his hand as she turned to the nearby counter where various instruments lay. “This is Sariel’s newest spawn.” Her hand waved vaguely to where Nihil sat. “I’ve told you about her. I brought her here because she’s ready for the first experiment.”

Puriel’s eyes focused once more, looking at her. “Experiment,” he repeated the word as though it was entirely foreign to him. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given how much of his mind had been damaged first by the loss (and subsequent return) of his memories about himself through the banishment orb, and then the trauma of every person, adult and child alike, in the orphanage that had taken him in being violently murdered by the Fomorians.

“Yes,” Kushiel snapped a little impatiently. “Experiment. Our daughter, Puriel. We have to fix her. Sariel’s spawn there is a Lie as well.” She smirked. “Even the great Artemis produced a Lie. How shamed must she be?”

“Artemis,” Puriel echoed, head tilting once more. “Sariel.”

“Yes, yes, the one who helped do this to you.” Angrily, Kushiel waved at the man with the laser scalpel she had picked up. “So what justice will it be to make her spawn to whatever experiments it takes to finally find a cure for our daughter? I have… ideas. Ideas I would not put our child through. But that?” She waved to the obediently seated child. “That I will feel no guilt over.”

She turned back to the table then, picking up a vial of red liquid to examine before setting it aside for a glowing green vial instead. Behind her, Puriel spoke again. “Experiment… you will… hurt the girl.”

Sighing long and low, Kushiel kept her attention on the various tools and vials. “To fix our child so that she is not a failure, I will hurt many, yes. You don’t have to concern yourself with it. I have several ideas… such as this.” Holding up what looked like a thin metal rod about three inches long with tiny red glowing spellforms drawn along it, she explained, “Inserting one of these into the spine of two different Seosten should make the first follow the actions of the second while they’re active. Including possessing and then not possessing. If a Lie can’t stop possessing on their own, perhaps they will if they’re remotely controlled by a non-Lie.”

Puriel’s voice came back then. “You can’t hurt the girl.”

Annoyed, Kushiel set the tools down. “For the last time, husband, you must let go of this absurd guilt. Nothing that happened to those–wait.” In mid-sentence, the woman sensed something wrong. She turned, only to find the bed empty. Instead, Puriel was standing next to the chair where the child she had dubbed Nihil was. He had taken the girl’s hand.

“No!” Kushiel blurted, spinning around so fast she knocked over the tray full of vials and tools to crash along the floor. “Get away from–”

It was too late. The girl vanished, reflexively possessing her husband in fear from the loud crash of everything Kushiel had knocked over. With a loud, violent curse, the woman lunged that way to grab her husband by the arms. “What were you doing?! What–Puriel?”

His eyes focused, and the man nodded. “I am here. I… am here. What happened?”

“You just–” Kushiel paused, then sighed once more. “You had one of your fugue states. It… never mind.” Her anger was evident through the way she clenched her fist so tightly, speaking through gritted teeth. “I will just have to find another specimen, since you had to destroy that one.”

She moved to pick up the fallen equipment then, grumbling to herself. Meanwhile, Puriel stared off into the distance, as a small voice spoke in his head.

Where… where am I?

In me, the man thought back. You are a part of me.

But I can’t leave, the child hesitantly informed him. I’m not supposed to touch people. It’s bad. Touching is bad. You… you made me. Why?

Sariel’s child, came the simple response. Her children are Lies. Her…  I remember… children are Lies. I won’t let you be hurt. Not… not this time. Not this one.

I don’t understand, Mister.

Neither do I. But you are safe. I won’t crush you. I won’t… hurt you. I will raise you. I will… show you what I know.

I will keep you… safe.

******

Norbit Drish – Last Month

 

“Yo man, chu know I ain’t like saying bad things ‘bout my homeys. It ain’t fly.”

“Mr. Drish,” Klassin Roe addressed the nineteen-year-old, pale and skinny boy across the desk from him. “No one is asking you to say bad things about your friends. I only asked if you still feel as though he is… different than he was last year.”

For a moment, Norbit (not that anyone was allowed to call him by that hated name) rocked back and forth in his seat, considering the words. “Yeah, man, I mean… sure, it ain’t as bad as it was before, but he still ain’t really here, right? He ain’t like– It’s like, he didn’t give a shit about nothing at first. That was bad. Like–lazy or something. Like he gave up. Then all of a sudden it’s like he do care, but he only care ‘bout that Freshman team, right? Like, like, all his effort going that way and the rest of us, we’re just like… not even there for him, you know? I mean, we there, but we ain’t there. Like he don’t really– like he like us, but not like us like them, you know?”

Klassin stared at him for a moment, then turned his head to cough once. “I think I have the general idea, yes. Do you still see him as a good teammate, as a friend?”

“Hey, he’s a solid guy.” Drish shot back, using two fingers to point emphatically. “Deveron’s always got my back. You know, when he’s there. But he ain’t wanna like… he ain’t wanna hang out. He does work. He aces the tests, he’s all over that shit. But he never wants to–ya know, shoot the shit without actually shooting. He never wants to chill.”

Leaning back in his seat, Klassin nodded. “He’s good to have around, he does all the work. But he’s not really much of a friend to you. He doesn’t play games with you, doesn’t hang out.”

“Right, right, yeah.” Drish’s head bobbed up and down as he pointed at the man. “Like that. Like, if you need him, he’s right there. Always count on him in a fight. But like… if you don’t need him, can‘t ever find him. We used to be buds. We was tight last year. So tight, like this.” He crossed his fingers. “Now he just always running off on his own. Doing his own shit, or shit with those Freshmen. I mean, that’s cool and all, he’s working on the next gen and shiz, whatever. But throw a dog a bone, you know?”

Klassin considered the boy thoughtfully for a moment. “He was one of your best friends last year, and now he never hangs out. I understand. People change, and it can be hard sometimes.”

“Psshhh.” Waving his hand unconvincingly, Drish sat back. “Ain’t no big. I gots plenty of homeys to hang with. Don’t really need another one crowding me out. Ain’t gonna cry about it. Nice to have space. Space to stretch, you hear?”

With a nod, Klassin replied, “I do hear, thanks. But tell me one thing. What do you think of Deveron this year?”

“Man…” Starting to dismissively wave that off once more, Drish then hesitated. “It’s like… he’s a great fighter, great Heretic, good at all that shit. But I miss just like…doing nothing, you know? I miss hanging with him. Sitting on the beach just chilling. He never wants to do nothing. Always gots something to stay busy with. It’s exhausting just watching him.” Seeming to realize that he’d opened up too much for his own liking, the boy finally made a dismissive noise. “But whatevs, just chill with some babes. His loss.”

“Indeed,” Klassin agreed with the boy. “But let’s talk about something else. You went home for your birthday last week, right? Why don’t you tell me how that went?”

 

******

 

Remember Bennett – Present Day

 

Remember Humility Bennett. Many years earlier, she had been one of the original founding members of Eden’s Garden, before soon becoming one of the Victors of an entire tribe. It went through several names throughout the course of its history, the most recent one being Lost Scar.

She was also the mother of the late Edeva, who had in turn married Lyell Atherby and been mother to Joshua Atherby.

Remember’s great-granddaughter was Joselyn Atherby. Her great-great-granddaughter was Felicity Chambers.

“Victor Bennett?” A soft, hesitant voice interrupted the woman, as a demure young woman appeared in the doorway of her office. “I–I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am. You said you wanted to be informed if there was any news of the missing tribe students.”

Turning from the names that had been scrawled on the wall, Remember focused on her young assistant. “Yes, Aconitum. Did they find Trice?”

“Err…” The girl shook her head. “No, ma’am. It’s about Pace. The… men who were sent to give the warning to the Fellows woman–errr, that is… your… I mean–”

“My great-great-granddaughter, yes,” Remember dismissively finished for her with a wave of her hand. “I am well aware of the nuisance she’s made of herself and the situation surrounding her. Go on.”

Aconitum told her the story, at least as much as they knew, about what had happened back at the Bystander clothing shop. Men were dead, while Abigail, the newly dubbed Stray, and Pace were on the run.

“A werewolf…” Remember murmured under her breath. “No wonder she vanished for so long.” Clearing her throat, she ordered, “Take whoever is needed and find them. Find her. Pace is the priority. I want her brought back here. There may be a lot to learn from the girl if she has been taken into a wild pack.”

Her assistant hesitated before slowly asking, “And your, err… descendent, Victor? Shall we send a request to Crossroads to have her daughter brought in for questioning? They may be amenable to that in exchange for some favors.”

“Yes,” Remember agreed. “Send the request and see what they want in return. Go.”

Waiting until the girl had bowed and left, the old woman turned back to look at the name on the wall once more. Felicity Chambers. No wonder her primitive precognitive power had been pushing her to write the girl’s name. Though Aconitum wasn’t aware of Chambers’ relation to Abigail (or who their mother was), Remember was fully aware of it.

Chambers. The girl had such potential, that much was clear. It was too bad that Remember had failed to follow her first instinct to insist that she be recruited by Garden. Having the potential of that girl under her supervision, before she could be corrupted by Gaia Sinclaire, would have led to great things.

It was a shame, because it was clear that Felicity Chambers had the same great potential as her mother. And just as clear that she had already at least begun to be swayed to the wrong side in this war.

Losing more of her descendants would be a waste. Perhaps there was still time to right the course of things? That may be what her precognition was trying to tell her by making her write the girl’s name so often. A replacement for the loss of Doxer, perhaps? She had been the one to kill the boy, after all. Sinclaire would object, but if she could convince Ruthers that the girl would be better off outside of that woman’s influence…

Hmm. Her descendant… brought back to line as a member of her tribe. It was something to think about. A long shot, of course, and yet… as much as the girl had grown in such a short time, she could be an asset.

It was worth considering, at least. And if she could not be convinced to turn away from the same foolishness that had caused her mother to create such a rift in the Heretical world, then… she would need to be silenced, before she ended up making things worse.

And who better to ensure that happened than her own great-great-grandmother?  

******

 

Fossor – Present Day

 

It was known as Hidden Hills, a gated off community several minutes drive from the edge of a small town in Idaho. It was set up against a range of hills and reachable only via a partially paved road. To the outside world, it was either a retirement community or a cult, no one was quite sure which.

The truth was quite different. Hidden Hills was actually a collection of barracks and training grounds established by a man who called himself Sheol. A self-styled warlord who had broken and forcibly recruited numerous small bands of previously warring Alter groups, Sheol hammered fear of his displeasure into his troops, tempered against the great rewards they received for obedience. Hidden Hills was only one of his training centers, though possibly the largest. What he intended to do with his rapidly growing army was unknown to any but him.

Unknown, but… in at least one man’s opinion, not worth waiting around to find out. That particular man stood in the middle of the road, facing the gate that led into the community. His unassuming, vaguely husky figure appeared less a threat and more a simple tourist who had managed to get himself turned around on these confusing backroads.

Those who knew him, however, would never believe that the two dozen figures who appeared at the gate with firearms and other weapons raised and trained on the man was an overreaction. Indeed, their questions would more fall along the lines of why those men believed two dozen would be enough. Or perhaps why they wasted time with that when they could have been fleeing.

“Well,” Fossor remarked quietly as his eyes passed over the weapons trained on him. “I suppose this leaves out the possibility of asking to see your real estate listings.”

“Leave, necromancer.” The leader of their band, a jackal-headed figure with a wide shotgun-type weapon, demanded. “The grounds here are warded against your magic. You can raise no zombies, summon no ghosts, manipulate no skeletons. You have no power within two miles of these gates.” Even as the man spoke, another couple dozen armed figures joined them, doubling their initial numbers.

If those words (and the reinforcements) were a revelation, or particularly worrisome, Fossor gave no indication of it. He simply gave the man and his companions what might have been mistaken for a kind smile if one didn’t see the empty coldness in his eyes. “Is that right? Well, in that case… I suppose there’s nothing else to be done.” With an idle shrug, he turned to start casually strolling away. With each step, a cloud of dark ashes emerged from the canteen that had appeared in one hand. The ashes flew down to lead the man’s path so that he only stepped on them, creating a black path along the road.

After a few steps, however, he stopped. With those weapons trained on him, the man slowly tilted his head as though considering something. “Unless,” he murmured while raising one finger thoughtfully, “… there were youth in your stronghold back there.”

Slowly turning back that way, Fossor began to continue, only to be interrupted at the sound of a gunshot. That was followed by three more, as a collection of holes appeared in his chest. A final shot put a hole in the center of his forehead.

The gunfire faded at a shout, leaving the gathered troops staring at the necromancer… who appeared none the worse for wear. Indeed, the holes that had appeared in his body vanished almost instantly as his connection to his homeworld shifted the damage to one of the billions of enslaved life forms who dwelled there. His people were connected to him at all times, and any damage done to him was immediately shunted to them. So long as his connection to that world remained active, they would literally have to kill billions of what amounted to hostages before any damage could be done to the necromancer himself.

When the only evidence of the sudden attack that remained were the holes in his white shirt, Fossor raised a hand, touching a finger against the fabric there before uttering a single word. The holes patched themselves, erasing even that sign.

Then, without seeming to acknowledge the assault in any other way, he simply continued speaking. “If there were youth in there, teenagers… well, they might be a bit rebellious. They might… say… sneak out of your complex now and then, to visit town and… express themselves.”

Slowly, casually strolling back the way he had just come, the man went on. “And these… hypothetical rebellious youths could find themselves over the course of… mmm… a couple weeks being talked into receiving tattoos as a sign of the… I don’t know, unity of their little gang. Tattoos of… let’s just say a particular magical spell which, upon their death, causes them to rise once more to attack and brutally murder everyone they see without that tattoo… well, that’s the kind of spell that wouldn’t be affected by your necromancy blockers. Since they brought it in themselves.”

Regarding the increasingly nervous and skittish soldiers, Fossor gave a thoughtful hum. “Of course, the real question would be how to ensure those deaths all happened at a useful time. One can’t simply depend on even the most morose of teenagers to do something useful like a group suicide, after all.” His finger rose illustratively. “But… if, say… the ink in those magical tattoos happened to be of a particular incredibly lethal poison set to activate at a certain time… such as… say…”

Slowly, deliberately, the man raised his arm to look at his watch. As he did so, the sound of screaming and gunfire filled the air. It came not from the troops assembled before the necromancer, but from the stronghold behind them. Smoke rose from several buildings, as the screams of horror and rapidly rising stench of death grew with each passing second.

“Thirty seconds ago,” Fossor finished, giving an apologetic smile. “Oops.”

Some of the men opened fire, to no avail. Most immediately gave up that endeavor and raced back into the stronghold, to put out fires, to put down their risen children, to save their friends. None of those efforts would prove any more fruitful.

As for Fossor, he calmly adjusted his shirt and gave his thumb a slight lick before using that to polish a smudge off of his watch. A cloud of ashes rose from his canteen to create a path to the open gate, and he slowly, casually strolled that way to enter the compound.

Within the hour, there would be nothing left save empty buildings.

 

*******

 

Lies/Theia – Last Year

 

A portal opened into a field of grass set beside a wooden cabin. Nearby stretched the crystal clear water of a lake, with a couple of kayaks and other boats tied to a dock.

Through that portal stepped a single, pale figure with brown hair and matching eyes. Appearing to be about fifteen by human standards, the girl set foot on the grass before looking around curiously. Her head tilted back, and she spread her arms to both sides while looking at the sky with her mouth open to taste the air.

The Lie daughter of Kushiel and Puriel had never set foot on Earth before. Nor had she been outside on any planet more than a handful of times. This was… in many ways, a new experience.

She had only stood there for a few seconds like that before the sound of approaching footsteps drew her attention. Lowering her gaze from the sky, she was just in time to spot a small figure running not along the ground, but over the roof of the nearby cabin.

“Hiya!” The call came with a wave, before the figure turned into a blur of motion, going all the way across the roof to hope from one tree to another, then to a third like a some kind of turbocharged squirrel. Leaping from the third tree in the span of less than two seconds since her movement had begun, the small figure rocketed across the remaining distance between them before snapping to an almost vibrating stop directly in front of the newly arrived girl.

The so-called Lie tilted her head, taking in the figure in front of her. She was clearly much younger, appearing to be only nine or ten years old at most. Which, given the fact that Seosten aging didn’t slow for several years after that, meant that Lies was actually over a decade older than her.

The younger girl had dark hair, her eyes so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants, and a white hoody that seemed almost too big for her diminutive figure. And she gave Lies barely a second to take her in before launching into a spiel that came so fast and free of any particular pauses that it was almost impossible to follow.

“Hiyayou’rethenewgirlrightyeahthat’srightwhyelsewouldyoubeheremyname’sDecemberwhat’syours?”

“Breathe, December.” The voice came from the cabin behind them, as a six-foot tall blonde woman emerged. She wore a glittering red gown that made it appear as though she had just stepped from the dance floor of a dinner party for some royal wedding. “Remember what we talked about, leave some space between your words.”

She was joined a moment later by a dark skinned woman who appeared to be in her twenties who wore a very ruffled tan trench coat over a white shirt, and an enormous Hispanic man with heavily patched and fraying clothes.

“Hello,” the blonde woman politely greeted Lies. “We were told you would be coming to pay us a visit while your… group settles in, until a new body can be found for your mission. I am January. You’ve met December already. These are July and September.”

“Julie,” the black woman corrected. “It’s Julie.”

The large man gave a nod. “And you can call me Tember.” He showed a toothy smile. “Like timber.”

Confused, the new arrival tilted her head. “Why are you giving me names? We are all Lies, aren’t we? Lies don’t have names.”

“Hey!” The sharp retort came from a different girl. This one, arriving from around the side of the cabin, appeared to be what the humans would call Asian in her late teens. She wore simple army fatigues with her hair cut short. “We don’t use that word around here!” Clearly bristling with anger, she stormed that way before yet another figure caught her arm.

“May’s right,” that one, a thin man with dirty-blond hair who wore a flannel shirt tucked into his jeans, announced. “We don’t use the L word. Like I said, she’s May. I’m November.”

“We,” announced a black man in a white suit whose dark hair fell to his shoulders as he stepped into view, “are the Calendar. And we do not allow others to define our worth with their contemptuous slurs.” To the new arrival, he added, “February. Though I have been known to answer simply to Feb.”

“Only because I won a bet that made him answer to it.” The correction came from what appeared to be a teenage girl around fourteen or fifteen, with long red hair. She wore clothes that were the spitting image of the uniform worn by the Heretical Crossroads students, and introduced herself as April.

Before long, they were joined by the remaining four members of the so-called Calendar. There was the incredibly quiet and apparently very introverted March, who stood as tall as Tember and had green hair fashioned into a crewcut; a Caucasian man in his mid-thirties who wore a lab coat over a Hawaiian shirt and went by October or Otto, another man around twenty or so with close-cropped dark hair in dark clothes and a white jacket who was June; and a much older man called August whose gray hair went well with his perfectly tailored suit.

Looking around at the gathered dozen, Lies blinked twice. “You wear different clothes,” she noted. “You call yourselves different names. You refuse to answer to the name Lie. Why?”

It was August who spoke, his voice a smooth timbre. “We are the Calendar. We serve Cahethal, and in exchange, we maintain our individuality as we please.”

“Hemeanswedoagoodjobandshelikeswhenwedoagoodjobsosheletsusdowhatwewantwhenwe’renotonajobsowedon’thavetogobackt–”

As December warp-sped her way through her version of the explanation, April took a step forward to cover the younger girl’s mouth. “Sorry, I’d say she’s just excited to meet you, but she’s pretty much always like this.”

“It’s true,” January confirmed. “She is not one to sit still. Which is why she is never assigned to simple, long-term quiet surveillance. The last time we tried that, the humans were treated to the sight of a raccoon repeatedly performing backflips and cartwheels out of a tree before giving them an intricate dance routine set to music from a nearby stereo.”

“I got bored,” was December’s only defense.  

“You possess animals,” Lies put in then, “not people.”

“Animals are easier to dispose of so that we may emerge without drawing attention to missing people,” Otto explained while polishing his glasses on the end of that incredibly loud shirt. “We keep a veritable zoo beneath our feet here.” He tapped the ground demonstrably. “Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to show it to you before your leader calls for your return.”

“Indeed, perhaps we will,” January agreed. “But for now, come. It’s time for lunch.”

The collection of Lies-who-didn’t-call-themselves-Lies began to walk back to the cabin, leaving Kushiel’s daughter to stare after them. They were… odd. Very odd. What kind of Lie refused to answer to that word?

She couldn’t even imagine it.

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On The Edge 42-06

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Everyone was talking at once, clearly frantically trying to find something, anything we could do. Meanwhile, I was pressing my hands against my head while trying not to attack myself. How could I let this happen? How could I be so stupid to walk into this place and not have a way out? I should’ve thought of it. I should have realized just how easily it could be a trap. I should have acted immediately to stop whoever was possessed in here even before we knew who it was. I should’ve–

Flick! Tabbris interrupted my rambling, desperate thoughts. Stop it and listen! But rather than just take the time to explain what she was thinking, my sister basically shoved all of it into my head at once. As she did so, my eyes widened.

“I’m not trapped.”

I said those words even as Tabbris’s explanation solidified itself in my head, making the others all look to me at once. Deveron looked a little confused before his eyes widened as he realized, “Possession.”

“Possession?” Koren looked to me, frowning before she too got it. Or at least part of it. “How will that help–wait, recall? Who did you last–”

“It doesn’t matter,” I interrupted, pointing to Miranda. “Randi! You’re in here and out there. You’re a duplicate. If I possess you right here, then stop and you go back to your original self out there–”

It was the other girl’s turn to interrupt, “Then you can recall to her–to me, to the other me. You can recall to get out of this room.”

I nodded, gesturing to the screen that showed the area just outside the office where Miranda, Theia, and Asenath’s group were. “Exactly. I’m just going to guess that the teleportation protections here don’t count against recall. I can get out there and tell them what’s going on. We can tell them what’s going on. Then we can try to find a way to open the doors, or help the others. Or something. Anything. But I need to go, now.”

Abigail was already shaking her head. “No, I don’t like it. That’s–that’s wrong. That can’t be the only thing to do. You’re a child, you–”

“We don’t have time to argue about this, Abigail!” I quickly blurted. “Look at them. They’re fighting out there. They–err… they were fighting.” I blinked at the screen. “Now they’re just sort of… standing there.”

“That’s me,” Francis announced. “This seems like an important conversation, so… let’s just say time in this room is going by much faster than time out there. So everyone can calm down and stop talking past each other. Panicking, yelling, losing your minds won’t accomplish anything. Take a breath, think, talk.”

We all exchanged glances, and Abigail took a breath before looking to me. “Can’t you possess him and try to wake him up?” She indicated the unconscious man on the floor. “Maybe he’ll know a way to get past Radueriel’s control? His mother is the owner, he might know something that could countermand it. Or–or something.”

Francis shook his head. “I love the boy, but no. He won’t be able to. But he might know more, so… I will, ahhh… possess him and wake the boy to find out what he knows about our intruders. If he was controlled by them for awhile, they might have let something important slip.”

“Uh, can you possess people?” Koren asked.

The man gave a very slight nod. “If she can, so I can.” He looked to me. “You are a guest of the Auberge, which means I can use any power you have. Unfortunately, I can’t just take your place and be the one who transports out there to head up to that vault, because–”

“Because there’s still all those blocker things in the way,” I realized. “Right, that still sounds pretty useful. So we don’t have to decide between the two. He can stay here and wake up Mennin, while I recall out and help the others upstairs.”

Wincing at the look I could see on Abigail’s face, I gently reminded her, “I’m sorry, we’re wasting time that we don’t have. I know you’re worried about me, but someone has to get out there and get the others to go up and help keep the bad guys away from that room. We just–we don’t have a choice. If the Seosten get into that vault and take Liesje’s spell–”

“But what could you possibly do to help against all that?” Abigail lamented, sounding desperate. She clearly loathed the idea of me going out there without them. Which… yeah, I could understand that. It made me think of what my father would say. Hell, I could see his worry in her eyes as she weakly continued. “If something happens to you while we’re stuck in here, if you get hurt, or–”

“Abby,” I interrupted, stepping over to hug the woman tightly. “I know. Believe me, I know. I don’t want to leave you guys here either. I don’t. But I can do this. I can go out there, grab the others, and do… whatever we can to stop them. We just have to last until Gaia and the others get in. Then it’ll be over. They have to be close. They have to be. We just have to buy them as much time as we can. Roxa’s pack, Larees, the other Seosten, they’re all up there fighting. How can I refuse to go help now just because it’s dangerous? You feel bad about letting me go? I feel bad about just letting them do all the fighting up there. They’re going to die without help. I can’t let that happen.”

“She’s right, Mom,” Koren put in. “Every little bit helps. Besides, things may blow up wherever Flick goes, but they usually end up being helpful explosions in the end. Mostly.” She hesitated, like she was going to amend herself again, then thought better of it, clearly realizing that it wasn’t helping.

It looked like Abigail was about to say something else to that, but Francis spoke first. “Actually, maybe you can do something that will help release us and stop them.” His voice was thoughtful, like he had just realized something important.

That got everyone’s attention, as the man continued. “That… creature may have locked out the hotel’s automated security. But I can give you an override that will manually activate them in one hallway.” From his pocket, he produced what looked like a small USB drive, handing it to me. “There’s a silver panel in the hallway. It extends down to the floor. You just have to find the slot on the right hand side and plug this thing in. That will manually release the security turrets. They’re set for non lethal measures, for guest safety. They’ll knock people out, incapacitate them, at least for a little bit. It should help, anyway.”

“I can see how that will help with the situation at the door, sure” Deveron agreed while looking over to the man with a frown, “but how will it help the rest of us get out of here?”  

“And how do we stop it from targeting the people we don’t want it to target?” Koren added. “I mean, if it knocks out everyone on our side too, it might do more harm than good, you know? Especially if they just bring in more reinforcements or whatever.”  

Francis answered her first, gesturing to the USB drive in my hand. “Technopath powers. I already fixed its IFF parameters. Once she plugs it in, the security system should do the rest.”

“You are a very handy guy to have around,” I remarked, giving the drive a brief smile. It may not have been much, but it would help. And as I’d said, every bit of help was important now. Because yeah, Gaia, Avalon, and the others couldn’t be too far away from getting in there, right?

I prayed that really was right, while Francis looked to Deveron to explain, “And I’ve removed the safety protocol for how much power it can take while directing it to drain from this room. So as the system attacks, it’ll take power from here. And as it takes power from here–”

Wyatt finished for him, giving a wide grin, “The security measures here will eventually turn off, including the anti-teleportation shielding.”

“And then we can all leave, yes,” Francis confirmed before looking to me. “You just have to get up there, plug it in, and let the turrets take over. They’ll do their job and drain the power from this place so the rest of us can escape.”

I nodded, holding the thumb drive tightly. “I can do that. I just hope it’s enough to delay them.” Because that’s all this was: a delaying game. Delaying until these guys could come help, delaying until Avalon got into that vault from the other side, delaying, delaying, delaying.

It was Wyatt’s turn to speak up. “This should help.” He produced a small green crystal, hesitating before holding it out to me. “You, uhh, you break this in front of the door up there. It will make a wall that should help slow them down.” Shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, he explained, “I… I’ve been channeling power into it for a few years, as an… emergency, if anything really bad happened and I needed to escape.”

I bit my lip, realizing that this was clearly a very big deal. It was Wyatt’s last ditch security measure, his… ticket to safety that he’d been putting power into for years just to make it as strong as possible. I had a feeling it was more than just a few years old. “You don’t have to–”

“Yes, I do,” the man insisted. His face twisted a bit, expression turning even more awkward. “Take it. Maybe it’ll only hold for a few seconds against them. But it’s something. It’s… it’s something. I can do something.” He sounded almost desperate, like he didn’t know how to express himself at all. He was scared. He wanted to tell me not to go. But all he could do was offer this little bit of help.

“It’ll hold for longer than that,” Deveron announced abruptly. “Here…” Gently taking it from his son, he focused for a moment before visibly staggering. “There… more power. Not years’ worth, but… as much as I can give you.”

As I stared, everyone else followed his lead. They all, including Francis, shoved more power into Wyatt’s crystal. Abigail had even practiced enough to be able to channel her energy into the thing. Wyatt had spent so much time making it perfect that all they had to do was shove their power into it to beef the thing up. In the end, they all looked much more tired than they had. But hey, at least they’d have a chance to catch their breath in here. Especially if Francis kept time going faster in here than it did out there. It would give them time to recover.

“Might not be able to go with you yet,” Koren muttered, handing me the crystal as she was the last one to use it. “But to hell if we don’t get to help somehow.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, holding the crystal and the USB drive. “Thanks, guys. I’ll get you out of here. And block that door. They’re not getting in there. Not if I–and you–” I added the last while waving the crystal they had helped empower, “have anything to say about it.”  

As I nodded, Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “I, uhh, I’m sorry I called you a slacker when you first got here,” he hesitantly informed me. “You are definitely not a slacker.”

Squeezing the crystal and the USB drive, I smiled faintly. “Trust me, I could do with a little more slacking now and then. But you guys better not,” I added while pointing to them. “You be ready to get the hell out of this room and come after us as soon as that power goes down enough. You got it?”

They agreed, and for a moment, I just stared at the screen depicting the struggle over the vault entrance. The fighting was still going on just as furiously as ever. There were people getting hurt up there, probably even dying. I had to go help. Swallowing, I turned toward Deveron, Wyatt, and Abigail.

“Go,” my older sister urged. “Just… just be careful. I know you have to go. But don’t get yourself killed, okay? Just don’t.” She looked like she was going to say something else, but ended up just mouthing a silent, ‘both of you.’

Right. She didn’t want to give Tabbris’s existence away to Francis. Which… it almost certainly would have been fine, but still. Keeping that quiet was basically second nature at this point.

Deveron put a hand on her arm. “She’s right,” he agreed in a voice that cracked a little bit. “We’ll be right behind you, as soon as that power drops. You get out there and help them. But like she said, don’t get yourself killed.”

Despite the situation, I smiled. “I’m pretty good at getting hurt and kidnapped, but so far, I’ve been pretty bad at getting killed. Let’s hope that holds up.” I was trying to sound flippant to make them feel better, but couldn’t keep all the fear out of my voice. We were all afraid and trying very hard not to lose it in front of each other.

“Just save some for us, huh?” Koren put in, trying to break up the tension. “You’re not the only one who still wants to hit the bad guys.”

The retort came before I could help it, “Well, if you insist, I guess we’ll take it easy on them until you show up. Just don’t take forever, I don’t know how long I can hold myself back.”

After that, there was really nothing else to say. I looked to Miranda, offering her a smile. “I guess I kind of forgot to ask if you’re okay with me possessing you. That’d kind of put a stop to this real quick.”

She smiled right back at me, snorting. “Right, I’m really gonna say no at this point.” Biting her lip, she offered me her hand. “Let’s do this.”

I did so, quickly possessing the other girl before just as quickly stepping out of her. I only stayed long enough to make her my recall point. Then she waved while clearly sending the mental signal to her original self that she was ready to be disabled. A moment later, she faded from existence.

Then it was my turn. With a wave of my own toward the others, I used the recall. Tabbris took over, making sure that instead of actually possessing the original Miranda, we ended up appearing directly beside her.

The original Miranda clearly hadn’t had time to absorb all the memories of her duplicate (probably related to how much faster time was going inside the room thanks to Francis), because everyone, including her, jumped at my sudden arrival. Asenath even went as far as pivoting to lash out with a fist before catching herself.

“Maybe she would be a good Batman,” Theia noted thoughtfully, which seemed like part of a conversation that didn’t involve me. Or, knowing Theia, maybe it really was just that random.

Quickly, Miranda and I explained the situation to the rest, that the others were trapped inside that panic room, and how we could get them out.

“So we use this USB drive to call down some of the automatic security. And there’s the rest of us here. We have to go up there and help. We have to slow them down until the others can get up there with us. I–it won’t be easy. Or fun. I saw the fight up there on the monitors. If we don’t get there, the guys won’t last much longer.”

Miranda produced her shield. “She’s right. Other me saw it too. They need help, so what are we just standing here for? Let’s go help them.”

Flashing a lopsided smile, Theia announced, “Pace-I still likes her… personality.” Putting a hand against the side of her mouth, she stage-whispered, “And her b—” Before she could finish that sentence, the same hand covered her own mouth.

“You good, Pace?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. She replied with a thumbs up using her other hand.

“What are we waiting for?!” Namythiet was hovering in the air in front of me, showing her teeth. She had that tiny sword of hers clutched incredibly tightly in one hand. “No more sitting around. They–” Her voice caught briefly before she pushed on. “Mister Seth would want us to hurt them. I… I want to hurt them. Right, Clubber?”

On the floor at our feet, the emerald tiger cub made a wary growling sound for just a moment, which switched to a concerned whine as he stared up at the pixie. I didn’t know exactly what he was thinking (as much as he could ‘think’, which I still wasn’t clear on), but I had a feeling I would’ve agreed. He was clearly worried about how angry Namythiet was. Worried that his partner, owner, friend was going to lose herself to grief and do something dumb. Quite frankly, I was worried about that too.

“Hey,” I spoke up. “Mister Seth also wouldn’t want you to get hurt, okay? Be angry, but don’t lose control.” Hesitating briefly, I reached out with one finger. “We work together. Fight smart, right? Seth cared about you, Namythiet.”

“She’s right.” That was Asenath, clearly speaking past a lump in her throat. “We’ll make them pay, Namy. We absolutely will. But you’re not allowed to go crazy and get yourself killed. You hear me?” Her voice turned harder, more firm then. “You be sad later. We’ll all be sad later. But you do not get to lose it and die too.”

The pixie hovered there for another moment, looking back and forth between us before reaching out with both of her hands to shake my finger. “Right,” the pixie slowly answered in a voice that still sounded a bit hollow. “Fight smart. Don’t die. I get it. Yeah. Mister Seth would say that.”

I wanted to say more. Hell, I wanted to do more. But there was nothing else to be said or done. Not in that moment. Instead, I looked to the other young girl of the group. “Right, um, Bobbi… like I said, it’s bad up there.”

“I can help.” The girl’s voice was firm as she drew herself up. “Mister Seth was–I wanna help. You’re not leaving me behind.” She stared at me, face hidden behind the helmet of her costume. But I had a feeling that she was scowling challengingly, just waiting for me to try to insist.

Yet again, there was a lot I wanted to say to that. And yes, I did want to leave her behind. I wanted to leave both her and Namythiet behind. But I couldn’t, because it would’ve been incredibly hypocritical. So, I simply turned to walk. “Right then, like Miranda said, let’s go help them.

“And hope that the people who are supposed to be helping us aren’t too far behind. Because quite frankly, I’m not sure how long we’re gonna be able to keep this going.”

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On The Edge 42-05

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A dozen weapons snapped up into position as Asenath stepped into view. But she didn’t attack. Instead, the vampire girl took a couple steps out with her hands up and slowly cast her gaze over them. Her voice was simple. “I am going to give all of you a chance to walk away.”

Well, that made the group blink. They glanced to one another before their apparent leader advanced a few steps. He had his sword in one hand, the energy blade ignited as he stared at her. “And why would we walk away?”

Asenath smiled faintly. “Because I will let you. My quarrel is with Kushiel. I have no desire to kill so many of my own people.”

That definitely got their attention. I could see the confusion written across their faces, as they tried to parse that. Which meant that it was showtime.

A glowing figure appeared in front of Asenath. My figure. I wasn’t possessing the girl herself, of course. She was a hybrid (daughter of a human vampire and an Akharu), and I didn’t happen to have an Excalibur on me to compensate (useful as that would have been). Instead, I had been possessing a tiny piece of wood Asenath was holding.

Before that, however, I had taken the time to enchant my clothes with a simple glowing light spell, cranking it up to maximum. As a result, as I emerged, my form looked like it was glowing identical to how a Seosten stepping out of their host looked. Then I simply dismissed the light spells after a second.

Now the collective Seosten soldiers could see me. Only they weren’t seeing me. Nor were they seeing the red-haired girl whose appearance I’d been using up to that point.

They were seeing Sariel. I had copied her form as exactly as I could, down to the most minute detail. Which was helped by Tabbris. These other Seosten would perfectly remember any picture, hologram, or whatever they had ever seen of the woman. But my little sister had the same memory, and she knew her mother a lot better than they did. We were as close to an exact copy of Sariel as possible.

I also held a bow in one hand, which added to the illusion. For a long second or two I let my eyes sweep over the group, who looked as though they had no idea what to do. My mouth opened and I tried to copy Sariel’s voice and speaking patterns.

“My quarrel, as I said, is with Kushiel. You are my people, as… estranged as we may be. I do not wish to kill you. But I think we know that I will if you force me to.” With those words, I put my fingers to the string of the bow to make an arrow appear, drawing it back. I didn’t aim at anyone just yet, simply pointing the bow at the floor, but the threat was implicit.

All twelve young Seosten took a step back, collectively. They looked even more uncertain. No one wanted to be the one to start a fight with an Olympian, let alone one with Sariel’s reputation. They knew they should fight, since the bounty or whatever on the woman’s head was probably astronomical. But having her (apparently) right here in front of them made all that a different story. It was one thing to brag and dream about how you could beat someone and claim a reward in the safety of hypotheticals. But it was quite another to have the opportunity thrust in front of you.

Still, the guy in charge was clearly more afraid of an eventual retaliation by Kushiel. Which was fair. Steeling himself, he raised his chin. “We can take you. You’re rusty.” He was obviously trying to convince himself, and the others, of that.

“Am I?” I asked simply, keeping my voice calm despite the fact of how nervous I was. This was the real test. If this didn’t work, they’d never believe that I was who I appeared to be. It was time to see if our plan and preparations meant anything.

“Maybe you’re right,” I allowed, slowly lowering the bow. Holding it in one hand, I put my other hand behind my head as though scratching my neck. Using one finger, I pointed down to the spot on the floor right behind my feet, which were pressed together. With that gesture, I created a tiny portal there. The other end led to a spot past all the men.

Asenath, her actions hidden by my body, produced an arrow of her own, one that I had used the bow to create earlier. Silently, she positioned it over the portal and gave it a sharp toss, so that it dropped through and embedded itself in the floor behind the Seosten at an angle.

Right as the arrow struck the floor, I spoke up loudly to cover the sound. “Or maybe…”

Without another word, I snapped the bow back into position, drawing the arrow back once more while keeping my eyes on the man who had been speaking. Without looking, I aimed the bow somewhere to the side of him and let the arrow fly.

Several things happened all at once in the next instant, all of them incredibly important for this to work. First, I thumbed over the control on the bow that turned off the arrow, erasing it in mid-flight.

At the same time, I focused on the rifles that three of the men in the vague path of where I had fired were holding. More specifically, I focused on the sand that I had spent the past several minutes before we revealed ourselves carefully floating through the air to position against the sides and bottoms of those rifles, as well as inside the barrels themselves (I’d actually done the same with all the guns, but those were the only three within the right area). With a thought, I suddenly shoved hard against all of that sand, the unexpected force jerking the weapons from the men’s hands. Quickly, I used the flying sand to direct the guns passed all the men, dropping them right over the arrow that had been embedded in the floor, so that they all fell with the arrow through their trigger guards, stacked like that.

The Seosten all whipped around. From their point of view, I had simply fired an arrow, three different rifles from different people had all been knocked out of their hands, and as they managed to turn all the way around to look behind them, those rifles were on the floor with an arrow through them. It was completely absurd, yet well within Sariel’s ability.

More importantly, it was not within the ability of any random person. Or it shouldn’t have been.

For a moment, the Seosten simply stood there, mouths agape as they stared at the arrow with the guns attached. None of them said anything, none of them moved. So I decided to hurry their reaction along.

“As I said,” I announced to draw their attention back to me while notching another arrow, “My quarrel is with Kushiel. But I am getting impatient.”

Your turn, partner.

Tabbris took over my mouth, using my voice to issue a long, complicated diatribe in Latin about how they needed to leave so that I (or Sariel) could issue a formal challenge against Kushiel, and that any of them who got in the way would be collateral damage. She made my voice hard and uncompromising, while I lifted the bow to make the point further, slowly panning it over each of the soldiers, as though daring each of them to be the one who tried something.

Shockingly, none of them wanted to be that person. They all looked at one another once more, looking extremely reluctant. Then one of them asked, “Sir, where’s the other one?”

“Other one?” the one who had been speaking to me directly distractedly replied.

“Other one,” the first confirmed. “Twins, sir. The twins. There’s one. Where’s the… the other one? There’s one, where’s the other one?

Now they were really looking around, turning as though Apollo might be standing directly behind them. Murmurs grew louder, and when they looked to me, I simply smiled.

It was enough. I wasn’t sure which one was first, but within a moment they were all racing for various doorways, abandoning their post in a rush.

Asenath coughed behind me while straightening up. “Huh, it doesn’t look like Kushiel inspires much in the way of loyalty.”

Smirking despite myself at that, I started to respond. Before I could, however, the sound of running footsteps at one of the other side doors drew our attention that way. But I recognized the objects and clothes that I could detect, and settled.

Sure enough, the new arrivals were Deveron, Wyatt, Koren, Abigail, Miranda, and Theia. They had apparently all met up at some point, and came skidding into the room. Seeing me there, looking the way that I did, all of them froze with clear confusion.

“Hi, guys,” I announced before shifting back to the red-haired form. “You might say, Sariel was here in spirit.”

Theia was the first to react, laughing almost immediately. With a cackle, she insisted, “We want to hear that story when this is over.”

“We came to help,” Deveron noted. “But it doesn’t look like you need it.”

Quickly, we exchanged the most important information. They knew basically what was going on, thanks to Roxa. Apparently Twister, Bobbi, and Namythiet’s efforts were paying off, allowing Francis to advance closer and closer. Every area he was able to enter, he cleared out the threats within very quickly. It would only be a matter of time before he got here.

“Still too long,” I insisted. “We have to get into that office, through to the panic room, and get that owner lady to expel these guys.”

Miranda nodded. “Before they get into the vault. The werewolves are already at the door with Larees and one of my other selves. They’re–we’re–whatever, they’re trying to stall them.”

“We need that Francis guy,” Asenath announced quietly. “He can get through the panic room door. But he can’t get here until all those spell things are destroyed.”

Deveron nodded. “Twister and the others are doing their best. There’s just… so damn many of them all over the place. We broke a few on the way down here, as many as we could find. But the Seosten were ready for something like this. They’ve got dozens of redundant devices overlapping everywhere. In a delaying game, they’ve got an advantage.”

“Do you know how they’re doing up by the door?” I asked quickly.

Deveron paused at that, turning his head as though focusing on something else for a moment before he looked back to me and answered solemnly, “Not well. They’re keeping them busy for now, but… we need to finish this.”

My attention turned to Wyatt. “Can you get through into the panic room? Or find a way to disable all those things at once?”

I saw his adam’s apple bob up and down a couple times as he swallowed hard before shaking his head. “Oh, oh yeah. With weeks. Days maybe. Not hours. Not minutes. Definitely not minutes. Stupid. Stupid. Should have been ready for this. Should have practiced. Should have anticipated that. Should’ve. Good for one thing: breaking spells. Good for one thing. Spells. Making spells. Breaking spells. Good for that. Have to do that. Have to be ready to do that. Hah, but I can’t do that now? Why can’t I do that now? Why, why, why?”

His hand moved to smack himself on the head, but Abigail caught his wrist. “Stop it. You’re not only good for one thing. Do you have any idea how much you contribute to…” She swallowed hard before shaking her head, not letting his wrist go. “You are very important.”

“Your sister’s right, Wyatt,” Deveron agreed softly. “You are pretty much the most amazing mage I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and I’ve known a lot. Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve made of yourself…” He trailed off, looking toward Abigail and Koren. “Everything you’ve made of yourselves… is amazing. You earned it. Your mother would— is proud of you. I know she is.”

“I only had the pleasure of meeting her three times,” Francis Gale announced while entering the foyer with Twister, Bobbi, Clubber, and Namythiet. “And I don’t know any of the rest of you at all. But I would agree. She definitely wanted children, and she would absolutely be proud of each and every one of you.”

That said, the man slowly looked around the room. “Now… how many of you are her children?”

Immediately, he shook off that point. “Never mind. Later.”

He did, however, let his eyes linger on Deveron even as he addressed everyone. “She’s in really bad trouble, isn’t she?”

We all, even Miranda and Theia, confirmed that, and the man nodded. “Then I’ll help. She helped me, more than once. I’ll be there, whatever she needs. Whatever her family needs. It’s like Caela’s mother said a long time ago, Joselyn Atherby and her family will always be welcome here. But let’s kick this infestation out of my home first.”

With that, the man moved to the door at the far end of the foyer, the only one that hadn’t been used yet. As he approached, the door silently opened, and I saw an elegant office beyond. “The panic room is through here.”

“Go,” Asenath told us. “We’ll wait out here, just in case our friends come wandering back again.”

Twister, Namythiet, and Bobbi agreed, before Theia shrugged. “If danger comes, we want to be here for it.”

Finally, Miranda stayed with them as well, sending a duplicate with the rest of us.

Leaving them behind, we headed into the office. I looked over across the sparsely, yet beautifully decorated room to where Francis was pressing his hand against what looked like a blank wall. He murmured something under his breath, then drew a rune with his other hand. That went on for a few long seconds before the man finally stepped back. As he did so, the room around us suddenly changed. Apparently we were transported directly into the safe room. I didn’t know if that was an automatic thing, or his doing. Either way, there we were.

There, in this case, was some kind of command center. There were screens all over the walls showing various parts of the hotel, both inside and outside on the street. I could see Larees and the other good Seosten on one of the screens, fighting alongside the werewolves and one of Miranda’s duplicates. Roxa had joined them. On another screen, Athena and Abaddon were tearing their way through pretty much a whole floor of the hotel. So at least she was keeping him busy.

There were also weapons on racks lining every spot of wall that didn’t have a screen on it, and an open door in the back led to what looked like a pantry with months, if not years, worth of food in it, judging by what little I could see.

Two figures stood by the monitors, a tall woman with sleek, dark hair and aristocratic features who wore a crisp suit, and a younger man who looked as though he would be quite handsome if his ears and nose weren’t too big for his face.

“Francis,” the woman started immediately, sounding relieved that he was there before she suddenly noticed the rest of us. “Who are these people? What is going on?”

“They—” Francis started. But before he could get more than that single word out, a glowing red force field suddenly appeared around the woman and what was obviously her son.

The man with too-big ears sighed, straightening a bit. “I knew this was going to happen,” he lamented. “All the effort to keep this quiet, and yet I knew that somehow, all of you would find your way in here. It’s quite impressive, really. Quite impressive indeed. I would offer to shake your hands, but… well, forcefield.”

“Radueriel,” I realized immediately.

“How long do you think you can hide in there?” Deveron demanded. Even as he spoke, the man was charging up some kind of power on his fist. Francis, who had pretty much instantly figured things out as well, was doing the same.

“What?” Caela turned at that, snapping a pistol from her jacket and pointing it at him. “What have you done to my son?”

Radueriel used the man’s mouth to smile. “Don’t worry, ‘mother’. They’re right, the force field won’t last long. But then, it doesn’t have to.”

My mouth open to shout a warning, and I wasn’t the only one. But we were all too late. Radueriel boosted his host. Suddenly, he was standing beside her, with her gun in his hand. His other arm was around her throat. When he spoke, it clearly wasn’t to us. “When our… relationship began, I made certain promises as to the safety of your loved ones. As you have behaved, I find myself willing to go to certain lengths to maintain those promises. Remember that.”

With those words, the man abruptly dropped the pistol, producing some kind of badge instead, which he slapped against Caela’s arm before pressing it. In a flash of light, she disappeared.

An instant after that, Deveron and Francis both hit the shield so hard that it too vanished. Francis crossed the room in a blur, slamming into the possessed man before hauling him off the ground to shove against the wall. “Where is she?!” he demanded in a thunderous voice.

Radueriel, through his host, simply smiled. “I made promises, as I said. I promised that she could not be killed. But we can hardly give you access to her. She’s gone now, and it will take quite some time for her to be collected. Too long to do you any good. My apologies for the inconvenience.”

With a low growl, Francis leaned in close. “Let… the boy… go.”

Again, that simple smile. “Certainly.”

Then he was there. In a brief flash of light, Radueriel was suddenly standing a few feet away. As we all rounded on him (save for his now-former host, who collapsed to the floor), he held up a hand. In it was clasped some kind of detonator. “Uh uh. Trust me, none of you want to test me right now. I’m teetering right on the edge between appreciation for your effort and ingenuity, and annoyance at your persistence. Though, in this case, I suppose it hardly matters. You were nice enough to walk right into the trap, after all. Thank you for that.”

“What tra–” Koren started before abruptly slapping her own head. “The panic room!”  

His smile found her, and the cyborg man confirmed it with a nod. “During my stay here, I took the liberty of installing my own control over this room. As of now, no one may exit. So I strongly suggest that you sit back, watch the monitors, and observe while we handle this long-festering vault problem. Have very pleasant lives, all of you. No hard feelings.”

With that, Radueriel touched a spell inscribed into his mechanical arm. Instantly, he disappeared, leaving the rest of us trapped in that panic room with no way out, no way to help the others, or to stop Kushiel from getting to the vault and claiming Liesje’s spell before Avalon and the others could get to it. No way to do anything at all. But hey, at least the room was named properly.

Because I was definitely panicking.  

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Mini-Interlude 73 – Historical Figures Part A

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Heracles – California – Present Day

“You’re getting a little too obsessed with those toys of yours, Arthur,” an elderly woman with face that was heavily lined with age, yet still retained endless beauty, announced primly. She eyed the man beside her as they strolled together down the store aisle, the subject of her remark pushing a heavily-laden cart. “Honestly, computers in glasses. Who needs that?”

Arthur Chambers turned his head to regard his wife of so many years, winking at her from behind the high tech lenses that he wore. “Oh, don’t be such a fuddy duddy, Maria. These things are useful as hell! Look, I can scan the barcode here…” As he spoke, the man leaned over to stare intently down at a bag full of mulch in the cart. “And check the prices elsewhere. See, it’s three twenty-five at Home Depot.”

Maria Chambers eyed the man with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “I’m so glad that your thousand dollar glasses have managed to save us fifty cents if we drive another two miles, you economical genius, you. At that rate, they’ll pay for themselves in a few short centuries.”

“Hmmph,” Arthur huffed while lifting his chin. “Al likes them, don’t you, Al?”

Both turned to look behind them, toward the fairly enormous figure who had been silently following them throughout their discussion. Arthur Chambers himself was a tall man himself, standing a full six and a half feet in height, with a physique that made him look as though he could wrestle bears. But the man behind him was almost five inches taller than that, and if Arthur could wrestle bears, this man could have drop kicked them. Despite the lines on his face and his grayish-white hair, he still moved with all the sprightliness of a much younger man (much, much younger than Arthur and Maria knew).

“Don’t look at me,” he easily replied, “I don’t exactly keep up with all the new technology.” He left out, of course, the fact that things such as batteries, steam engines, the printing press, and the mechanical clock had all been ‘new’ at some point within his lifetime. Or, for that matter, glasses themselves.

Maria smiled, gesturing with her hand. “Well, that’s only because you’re so tall that it takes awhile for you to see what all us mere mortals down here are doing, Mister Caeus.”

Caeus. Albert Caeus. It was the name he used now, and so very close to the name he had been born with, all those many… many years ago. Alcaeus, son of Alcmene and Amphitryon. One of two sons, actually. Twins, the other being named Iphicles.

Then the troll had come. The troll who had killed the infant twins’ father in an attack which had resulted in its blood spilling in the crib of the infant Alcaeus, gifting the child with its incredible strength and regenerative power. Strength which had grown as the boy aged, drawing the attention of the being known as Zeus. That so-called god had taken an interest in the boy, beginning to train him. Which had angered his wife, Hera, who sent the boy on many errands designed to kill him.

Yet Alcaeus had persisted, had continued to grow in strength and power despite Hera’s attempts to kill him. So he had taken on a new name, one meaning ‘Glory of Hera’, to show that it was his trials brought by the goddess that would make him famous.

Glory of Hera. Or, in a word, Heracles.

For quite some time, Heracles had proven himself against all comers and challenges. His desire to win Zeus’ approval and best Hera despite everything she threw at him quickly became an obsession. He did many good things throughout his quests. Yet also many bad things, things that he could take no pride in now. Yet at the time, all that had mattered were the victories, which continued to pile up. He was the grandest champion in all the lands, in every land.

Then the Bystander Effect had happened. And when it had, Heracles had seen what the people he had spent so much time trying to prove himself to, so much of his life working for, had been capable of. He had seen the unprecedented deaths that happened due to them erasing humanity’s memory and understanding of magic and of other intelligent species. He’d seen entire cities fall, had seen families turning on one another. He’d seen death to a scale he had never before imagined.

It had been too much, and the man called Heracles (or Hercules depending on the land he traveled through) had simply… disappeared. He left, disappearing into the mists of history and then myth. As far as almost all were concerned, he was dead.

For Heracles himself, it was a retirement. And a rebirth. Taking up the name of his birth once more, Alcaeus had kept to himself. He spent centuries simply traveling the world, moving often and sometimes spending entire decades living entirely alone and isolated in lands beyond true civilization. All that time had been spent coming to terms with his own anger, with the deeds he had done, both good and bad. The fury and obsession with proving himself against all odds had, in time, faded from a raging inferno to a spark held deep in his soul.

He had needed time to come to terms with who he was as a person. And who he was, was a very angry man who could quite easily lose himself in violence, and in drink. So he had sworn off both, had spent many years as a pacifist who did not raise a hand to others.

That too, had been going too far, only in the other direction. It had taken centuries beyond that for Alcaeus to find the concept of balance in his life. Balance which he was still striving for, but was at least closer to.

It was during one of those attempts at balance that he had met a then-young Arthur Chambers in a bar, and had become quite friendly with the man. After all, how could Alcaeus not make time to spend with a man after witnessing him, while a completely normal Bystander human in every respect, actually come out on top of a fist fight with a werewolf?

Seeing that remarkable event, he had bought Arthur a drink. Then another. And from that point on, the two had been friends. Even to the point of now, many years after that event, when Arthur and his wife had taken ‘Old Al’ with them to shop for new supplies for their garden.

It had been a long time, from their point of view. Long enough that, despite the fact that Alcaeus had been taking care to make himself look older over time, they had actually commented on his seeming agelessness.

He would have to leave soon, would have to fake a death just as he had with so many other Bystanders he had grown close to. It was a time he was not looking forward to.

“Well,” Maria Chambers insisted, “you are coming to dinner, anyway. And don’t give me any of that lip about not wanting to be an imposition. You’re coming and that’s final.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Al quietly acquiesced with a small smile. “Though I should probably find something to bring with, so I don’t feel like too much of a bother. I’ll meet the two of you up front.”

They made some noise about him not needing to worry himself about it, but headed off. Al watched them go, smiling softly. Slowly, he turned to look at the nearby shelf full of more mulch bags and other planting supplies. After eying the shelf briefly, he glanced up and down the aisle. Empty. Quiet. Not many people in the gardening section.

Without warning, his fist abruptly lashed out. He punched straight through the shelf and out to the other side. His groping hand caught hold of a startled figure there, clutching the fabric of his shirt before giving a hard yank forward. There was a hard thud as their head struck the shelf, and Al released them to collapse to the floor.

Whistling softly, he casually strolled around to the other aisle, where the figure in a dark trenchcoat was just starting to pick himself up.

“No,” Al calmly announced while putting his foot on the back of the figure’s head to keep him down on the floor. “Stay.” When the unknown man tried to grab his foot, he added, just as calmly, “If you try to possess me, I will crush your mind more thoroughly than I could crush your head by stepping down right now.”

The figure froze, and Al went on. “I told the last one of you who came sniffing around here, the Chambers are off limits. What part of that didn’t you understand?”

“Hey, hey, it’s not them, it’s not personal,” the hurried response came. “It’s their grandkid. She’s a Heretic, a Crossroads Heretic. But she knows about Seosten, and we think her dad knows, cuz he disappeared. So we’ve been trying to find him. But that means getting to his parents, her grandparents. He’s gone, we thought he’d contact them sometime. That’s all I know, I swear. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. I know what they tell me, and that’s to take one of those two and find out what they know about what their son and granddaughter are doing.”

“Lincoln Chambers is on a special investigation,” Al murmured, though that much obviously wasn’t true. “And Arthur’s granddaughter is–aww hell.” He muttered under his breath, stepping down a little more firmly. “You listen up. If I see, hear, or even smell you, or any of your kind, around my friends again, I will send you back to your masters taking up a third of the space your body ought to, with all the same parts still attached. And I do have ways of checking that they stay clean and unpossessed. You understand?”

He felt the quick nod beneath his foot, then moved it. “Go.”

The Seosten scrambled up, giving a brief glance back before starting to hurry off. Al watched him go, sighing to himself. Maybe he would poke around a bit, see what else he could find out about this whole situation while keeping an eye on Arthur and Maria to make sure they weren’t dragged into it. The Seosten, after all, weren’t known for giving up quite that easily. In any case, it sounded like his latest retirement was about to come to an end.

But hey, it had been nice while it lasted.

******

 

Saint Nicholas – Turkey – March 15th, 2018

 

It was a quiet, lonely grave, set in an unknown grove far from any sign of civilization. The simple headstone, itself having been replaced and updated several times since the original burial, was marked by words carved in Latin reading, when translated: Father Nicholas – Immortal In Deeds And In Love.

Any who found the grave would not believe it contained the man that it truly did. Yet Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who had inspired the legend that would become Santa Claus, did indeed lay entombed here, far from County Kilkenny, Ireland, where Bystanders believed his tomb to be.

Here, in this quiet grove, a dozen figures stood in solemn, reverent vigil around the grave. Each stood no higher than a foot, though otherwise appeared to be adult humans. Seven males and five females, varying in apparent age. Each wore a patchwork outfit of various brightly-colored bits of fabric, including phrygian caps. Caps which, at the moment, were held against their hearts.

Their ancestors had come to this planet in a ship, though due to an accident in the cryo-freezing of those ancestors, none remembered precisely where that ship had originated from, nor what their race was called. The ship itself had been badly damaged in the crash that had awoken them, leaving only a portion of its name visible. Three letters: LVS. In time, they had taken that as a name for themselves. Lvs, or simply… elves.

While the current surviving elves had never truly met the man to whom they were paying homage, their respect and adoration for him could not have been greater. It had been the great Saint Nicholas, after all, who had taken in their ancestors and protected them from the Heretics who had come to kill them. It had been he who, through his incredible generosity and understanding, had given them a home and a place to work. He had taught them to make gifts for the children, before passing them out himself.

He had been a shining beacon of love and grace, changing the lives of those early elves roughly sixteen hundred years earlier. And after his death, they had grieved for him as if he was one of their own.

But they had done more than grieve. They, and in time, their descendants, had worked to ensure that the legend of Saint Nicholas’ generosity and love of children lived on. They furthered the legend of what became known as Santa Claus, so that every Bystander child might, for at least a time, believe in magic.

And every March fifteenth, they gathered here at his grave to honor the man who had given so much. He had been a human, an ordinary human in almost every respect aside from his gift to see through the then-much weaker Bystander Effect. That itself was something no one could explain. Nor did they want to try. That was simply who he was.

“Our sorrow is a hole which lies ahead of us,” one of the elves, a man known as Tuelen, quietly intoned.

Around him, the others all spoke as one, “Our joy will fill it.”

“Our grief is a pit which stretches before us,” Tuelen spoke next.

Again, the others spoke their part of the ritual as one. “Our deeds will fill it.”

“Our loss is a tomb which stands in front of us,” Tuelen finally declared.

“It is filled,” came the revenant chorus.

“It is filled,” Tuelen softly agreed. His eyes closed, and he thought of the stories that his own grandparents had shared with him, of the stories their grandparents had told them, of the man himself. A man he was entirely too many generations removed from knowing. Yet despite never coming close to meeting Saint Nicholas, he and the other remaining descendants of those original elves would continue the tradition. They would keep his memory alive.

They would defy the Bystander Effect and those who created it, by putting an old, ordinary Bystander human into the minds of as many as they could. Their ancestors had promised the old man that he would not be forgotten. Saint Nicholas would always be remembered.

One by one, the twelve small figures turned away from the grave and walked away. Tuelen was the last to move, staring at the marker for a few long moments after the others had departed. He thought not only of Nicholas himself, but of his dear, beloved family. They had all been lost over the years, some to age, others to more violent ends. Yet through it all, they had maintained the work. As would he.

Touching his fingers to his lips, then to the name on the gravestone, he finally turned to walk away. The others were waiting for him as he reached the road beyond the grove several minutes later.

“To the workshop?” Frodey, the youngest of their group while still being an adult spoke up. She was a tiny female only nine inches in height, barely above a child, with a shock of bright purple hair that stuck out in every direction.

“To the workshop,” he agreed. It was only March, giving them around nine months before the next Christmas. But given what day it was, none would have been happy or comfortable doing anything but working. Working on the toys and gifts that they would give children, to commemorate Saint Nicholas.

They couldn’t really go to every house in the world, of course. Not even enough to actually make a dent in things. And in those places they did go, the Bystander Effect made the parents within dismiss the idea of a ‘real Santa Claus’ when they saw gifts whose sender seemed unclear. No, the so-called elves could only make relatively few children happy each year. But those few mattered to them. Because they would have mattered to Father Nicholas.

And really… was that true? Yes, they were only able to directly help relatively few on that holiday. But so many others came together to do even more work for one another. In a way, the spirit of Saint Nicholas was helping so many more than those few whom the elves could directly affect. Just as their ancestors had hoped for. Just as they had worked so long to ensure.

The elves worked through the year. Not only for the single night of Christmas, though that was their main show. They also worked for other nights, giving toys and other bits of help here and there wherever they could. They worked, they laughed, they played… And they remembered. They remembered the man who had saved the lives of their ancestors and given them so much to live for, all those many years ago.

They remembered the man called Saint Nick. And ensured that he would, in turn, be remembered by far more than they.

 

******

Vlad Tepes – Visegrád – 1475

 

The emaciated figure hung from chains in the dark dungeon. Dried blood decorated his otherwise naked, near-skeletal body. Scars ran freely over that nude form, while his dark hair fell long enough to obscure his face with his head held down. Several sharp hooks where various torture elements hung protruded from the wall just behind him. His toes were held an inch or so from the cold stone floor, where more blood had fallen to stain the area around a small drain. A curious rat sniffed one of his toes, preparing to take a bite until the dangling man brought his foot back and kicked it to send the rat scurrying away with an annoyed squeal.

“Ah, so you are alive.” The voice, speaking quietly from the nearby nearly pitch-black doorway, sounded vaguely amused. The man who entered was dressed in finery, his skin flawlessly smooth and perfumed. Clearly well-fed, the blond man slowly descended the steps into the dungeon, carefully stepping over another rat before stopping in front of the prisoner. “Aww, come now,” he cajoled the man, whose head remained down, “you know how I enjoy these chats. They have been ever so informative this past decade.”

Snapping his fingers then, he spoke brightly, “Ah, I know the problem. You wish to be referred to by name, yes? What is it the people call you? Impaler? Yes, Vlad the Impaler. Or… do you prefer simply ‘The Impaler’? Sir The Impaler, perhaps?” His taunting tone turned sharp as he smacked a hand through the dangling man’s hair to strike his face. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Slowly, the man in question raised his head. His face was just as scarred and broken as the rest of his body, though his eyes were sharp, with cunning that shone through even in his condition. “Impaler,” he spoke in a deep voice that rumbled through the dark, damp room. “It’s a bit… on the nose.” A small smile crossed his face. “I’d hate to see what they would have called me if I had followed my first instinct to have them fed to the pigs. Pigfeeder? How would you terrify a populace with a name like that?”

“Terrify?” His tormentor echoed before chuckling. “Oh, you’ll never be terrifying anyone again, Impaler. Except perhaps the children when your body is strung up in the square. My father has tired of keeping you here. You don’t even squeal the way you used to. You’ve become too boring to torture. Weak as you are, I give it another… few days before we put you out of our misery. Though if you beg very nicely, I may be persuaded to–”

“I like your clothes.” The interruption came from the hanging man, as he swept his gaze all the way down, then up again. “It has been awhile since I wore such finery. But the perfume? That has to go. Far too many enemies with sharp noses. And it’s a little bit… poncy, don’t you think?”    

“You…” Taken aback briefly, the finely-dressed man opened and shut his mouth before getting himself under control. “You clearly don’t understand your position here yet. Which is funny, because one would think that after so many years, even the least of–”

In mid-sentence, he stopped short as the prisoner abruptly moved. His body jerked as he twisted his wrists around the chains holding him before grabbing on tight to haul himself up. But even as his tormentor abruptly jumped back, the prisoner simply pulled up on those chains. With a grunt, he hauled his body up higher. A brief, wicked smile was flashed to the other man, before he abruptly swung his head back as hard as he could.

With a sickening thunk, the back of Vlad Tepes’ head was impaled on one of those sharp protrusions that held various torture instruments. His body went slack immediately, blood pouring freely down the already stained wall as his intelligent eyes faded.

And in the wake of that, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the now-dead prisoner. The light faded, revealing a pale man with dirty blond hair that fell to his shoulders. His face looked as though it had been carved from marble, his eyes a pair of twinkling aquamarine gems. He wore a dark red form-fitting jumpsuit of material far as far beyond the comprehension of the man before him as his sudden appearance was.

“Wha-wha–” the finely dressed man stumbled back, eyes wide with terror as his gaze snapped from the dead prisoner to the figure who had abruptly appeared in that flash of light. “Sorcery,” he blurted before starting to raise his voice to a shout, “Sorcer–

His words were cut off then, as the newly arrived man abruptly moved, turning into a blur that slammed into him. He was brought off the floor and pushed hard against the opposite wall with a hand over his mouth.

“Shhh, shhh…” the new arrival whispered. “We don’t want to be interrupted, do we?” Holding his hand over the other man’s mouth, he smiled. “I thought you wanted to meet the Impaler, after all.”

Watching the other’s eyes instinctively move past him to look at the now-dead figure hanging against the wall, the pale man chuckled softly. “Him? Oh no, no, no, no. Vlad. Vlad isn’t the Impaler. He was simply a boy. Simply a silly boy held hostage by the Turks almost thirty years ago. He wanted power, wanted a way to kill his enemies. I gave it to him. I believe… in the end… he found the cost too high. But I must say, all these years here in your dungeon have given me a new appreciation for the torment a human body can withstand. Your people, they are artists. I will most enjoy turning them to a better use of their talents.”

He slowly moved his hand from the other man’s mouth, to hear the whispered, “Wh-what… what are you?”

A new smile crossed his face then. “What am I? My people call me a Lie. But I am far more than that.” Leaning in very close then, he whispered almost seductively in the other man’s ear. “Let me show you.”

The finely-dressed man opened his mouth to scream, but it was too late. The figure holding him vanished, but the man remained pinned against that wall, trapped by a force far greater than he had been previously. His eyes slammed shut, and his body jerked once, then again.

Then his eyes opened, and the Lie looked out through new eyes. He surveyed his previous body, hanging there from the ceiling. A slight smile touched his new face, even as he straightened up. Glancing down at new hands, he turned them over a couple of times while ignoring the screaming, distant voice of his new body. It would fade away eventually.

“Yes,” he announced in his new voice, “no more perfume. And the hair… hmm.” With a thoughtful look, he stepped over to his old body. His hand reached past to touch the wall where the wet blood still dripped. Carefully, he dipped his finger in that blood, before drawing a simple rune on his own arm. After the spell was drawn, he touched it gently while murmuring the activation words.

His new body began to glow then, hair lengthening and darkening while his face reshaped itself. A moment later, it had transformed to look identical to the dead man, save for appearing much healthier and stronger, as he had in the time before his capture. He appeared to be Vlad Tepes, miraculously recovered from twelve years of torture and starvation and dressed in fine clothes.

“Better,” he announced then with a nod of satisfaction. “After all, what’s the point of cultivating a reputation if you just have to start over again every time you change bodies?”

Turning on his heel, he began to walk from the dungeon, only to pause at the foot of the steps. Head cocked to the side, he listened briefly to a pleading voice that only he could hear. “No, I am not Vlad Tepes. Though I have enjoyed being the son of Vlad Dracul.”

His voice was decisive, as he began his way up the steps. “Yes, I like the sound of that. That is a name that I will hold onto, a name that I will make my own. Son of Dracul.

“Dracula.”  

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On The Edge 42-04

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Quickly (and as concisely as possible) I explained the situation. I told the man about the Seosten, and about the vault they were trying to break into and why in as few words as I could manage without being too confusing. I told him about Athena fighting Ares, as well as the fact that Radueriel was controlling the security and other staff. I told him about how we’d come in to protect the vault, and why we couldn’t be up front about it, because we didn’t know who to trust.

He listened through all of it as I sped through the explanation, his expression pensive as he clearly stopped himself from speaking up a couple times so that he could hear the whole thing. Once I finished, he let out a long, low sigh before announcing, “This war shouldn’t have come here. The guests are supposed to be safe. We promised them that they were safe.”

Wincing, I nodded. “I’m sorry the Auberge was dragged into this. We had to come stop them. If we didn’t—”

He stopped me with a raised hand. “I know. You… you are your mother’s daughter. The Seosten need to be expelled from this place, now.”

My mouth open, before I caught myself. “Err, before I say anything else, can we get back to the girls I was with? They’re probably losing their minds right about now. I kind of have this habit of disappearing.”

The man looked at me for a moment, then gave a very tiny smile. “Yes,” he murmured, “mother’s daughter. And your friends are–”

That was as far as he got before the nearby door was kicked in. It came off its hinges, and both Larees and Asenath came through like they were bringing the fury of hell with them. Which, given the flames around Larees, might have been an apt comparison.

“Wait!” I blurted, jumping in the way before this could get any worse. “Wait! It’s okay! He’s–Uhh, he’s on our side. Or, you know, on the hotel’s side.”

They exchanged glances, then squinted at me. Asenath flicked her attention to the man in question and seemed… well, not very happy. Which I couldn’t blame her for. But at least they weren’t attacking. Taking advantage of that, I briefly introduced them before realizing I didn’t know the man’s name.

“Francis,” he announced, apparently immediately realizing the same thing. “Francis Gale. And I want these Seosten and their people out of this hotel.”

“Any more contact from anyone else?” I asked the other two, not really expecting any, but I had been surprised before.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times, both shook their heads. Asenath spoke quietly. “We don’t know where anyone is, just that they’re busy fighting. And we are pretty sure no one’s managed to find Kushiel yet. Or Radueriel himself. Just the people his devices are controlling.”

“Which is a distraction,” I put in. “We could fight those guys for hours while the real threats break right into the vault. We need to find the room they’re trying to break into. And get everyone together again.”

Francis shook his head. “No, you don’t. You just need to get to Caela Tombs’ office. She’s the owner. If you get to her and explain what’s going on, she can expel them. Privilege of the owner. They can expel any guest, which sends them out of the Auberge immediately.”

Asenath did a quick double take at that. “You mean we can cut this whole thing off at the pass by kicking them out of the building before they ever get to that vault.” She looked to me then, eyes solemn. “We have to get to the owner.”

Larees was nodding, but her eyes were on Francis. “Yeah, but I have a feeling if it was that simple, he’d be on his way to do it already.”

“Hey, yeah.” I looked back to the man. “You should know where she is, right? Can you just grab her. Hell, you just made that portal, can’t you just portal us to where she is?”

He winced, looking apologetic. “There is a problem with that. They’ve done something with these.” From his pocket, the man produced what looked like a silver ball ornament with some kind of circuitry running over it. “They’ve got these all over the hotel. They’re blocking my power. I’m a hybrid Steward. Basically it means I draw my power from my home and the people in it. But these things cut me off from that power. They must have been planting them for days, at least. They just turned them on, and wherever they are, I can’t use my power until they’re broken. I can’t even leave the safe area or I’ll… well, it won’t be pretty. That’s why I had to wait for you to come into my range, and we only teleported over a couple hallways.”

I exhaled, trying not to make it sound like too much of a sigh. “Right, so if we break those things, you can come with us and help get to that owner lady so that she can expel the Seosten.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Caela and her son will be in the panic room by now. If I can get to it, I can open it. Then I can tell her who to expel. She won’t just kick every guest out without knowing what’s going on. And she doesn’t know that our security has been compromised. So I have to get to her.” He paused then, looking like it was hard for him to add the next part. “But I need your help to do that.”

Larees was taking a long, steady pull from her flask. “Sounds like we need to get everyone focused on breaking those devices from here to the panic room.” She paused, taking another gulp before her eyes found the man once more. “I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough for it to be somewhat close to here.”

Sure enough, he shook his head. Raising a hand, he created an image of a map on the wall. It showed a side view of the hotel. “We’re standing here. The office with the safe room access is here.” The place he demonstrated was a full eight floors from where we were standing and on the opposite side of the building.

Makes sense, Tabbris silently put in. They’d want to trap him as far from being able to help as they could.

Agreeing with that, I passed the point on verbally before adding, “Everyone’s spread out right now, fighting security and the Seosten themselves while they look for that room.”

“Nine twelve.” That was Francis. “The room you’re looking for is nine twelve. And from what you said, it sounds like their leaders were staying in nine thirteen, next door. Here.” He showed us on the map.

I started to say something to that, but the man abruptly held up a hand. “Wait, something’s coming.” He put himself in front of me clearly protectively, which made me blink. My mother really must have made an impression on him. I’d have to ask him about that sometime. And also ask him how he remembered her after everything had been erased. Was it because the Auberge was in a pocket dimension, like how the Meregan has remembered her by being in another universe?

With one hand, Francis produced a long, wicked looking red-bladed sword. All of us watched that open doorway, before a wolf came trotting in. A familiar wolf.

“Wait!” I blurted once more, slipping out from behind the man. “It’s Roxa, she’s on our side.”

A moment later, Gidget entered as well, and Roxa transformed. Belatedly, I realized that she was wearing one of the Seosten bodysuits. Apparently spending some time at that camp had resulted in a little present.

Brief introductions and explanations were passed back and forth, and then the werewolf girl looked over to me. “It’s World War Three out there,” she blurted. “Everyone’s pretty much avoiding this area right here, but beyond that, it’s pure chaos.”

“They’re staying away from where Francis has power,” I realized. “Which means we need to make that area bigger. We need to break those blocker things, and get to the safe room. If we can get the owner to expel them before they get into the vault, we win.”

Roxa held up a prepared bit of wood. “I can use my fossa to get to everyone and pass the message about breaking those things. And about where the vault door is so they can head that way just in case. But I’ll need someone to watch my back.” Her eyes glanced toward her partner before she added, “Someone to help Gidget, that is.”

“I will make certain no one harms you,” Francis promised.

Larees nodded. “I’ll head for the vault access myself, try to stall them as much as possible. And collect people along the way.”

I looked to Asenath then. “I guess you and I are going to fight our way to the safe room and break all those ornament things we can find.“

Her smile was humorless, and I could see the pain of loss in her eyes. “Break things and fight people. You know, I think I’m ready to do that right now.”

Looking toward Roxa, I asked, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“As okay as anyone else in here,” she pointed out, “or anyone trying to get to the vault from the other end. It’s fine. I can use the spell, and I can communicate through it. My fossa’s quick and agile. I can make it to where everyone is and tell them about breaking the things trapping Francis here, and where the room is. I can do that. You guys go get the owner to kick these bastards out.”

Returning her nod, I looked back to Asenath. “Then I guess it’s you and me. Though I am kind of at a disadvantage. The second I pull out my staff, they’re gonna know who I am. Which means they’ll  know what I can do. They’ll know I can possess them. And that’s probably something we should hold back. Knowledge is power, you know.”

“Do you know how to use any other weapon?” Francis asked.

“I’ve got a knife I can use,” I replied. “Not to mention my werelion claws. And I’ve been training with the bow for awhile.” Even saying those words made me think of Rudolph and I flinched inwardly. Focus. Grieve later, for him, for Seth, for everyone we needed to grieve for.

Holding one hand out, Francis produced a silver bow with a golden string. “It’ll produce arrows when you draw it back,” he informed me. “But it’ll only last as long as you’re here in the hotel.” He paused then before adding, “And try not to kill anyone that you don’t have to, okay? The guests here are supposed to be safe.”

I smiled, taking it. “I will, thanks.” Looking to the others, I nodded. “Right, let’s do this then.”

*******

A tall, thin figure with purple skin and gray hair who wore a security uniform caught the arrow that had been shooting toward his leg. In a single motion, he flipped the arrow around and threw it back at me. I barely managed to snap my head out of the way.

Yeah, I was really missing my own weapon right about then. This one produced real arrows that didn’t even explode. I was back in the form of red-headed Gabrielle, hoping that Athena‘s suggestion that I keep my presence and identity secret for as long as possible would pay off.

Just as the arrow passed my head, Asenath was there to catch it. Then she was a practically invisible blur, suddenly arriving behind the security guy who had appeared in our path. The arrow lashed out to cut the man’s leg, and then she gave him a shot of against the wall as he fell. Looking to me, she beckoned. I gave the man one last look while he was trying to pick himself up before running past him. On the way, I reached out and brush the hand across his flailing arm, giving him a quick look to make sure there wasn’t a Seosten there.

Roxa had been right, the area beyond the place where Francis had his powers was total and complete chaos. There were bodies lying here and there, screams coming from every direction, and we kept being attacked from all sides. People were popping out of rooms to attack us. Some thought they were defending themselves, while others were being controlled. Even that latter wasn’t always the same. Some were controlled by actual Seosten, while others were simply taken over by Radueriel’s toys. It was a total madhouse. And I was pretty sure there was a bad fire somewhere nearby.

Complicating things even further was the fact that we were looking for those little blocker things that were keeping Francis trapped. Apparently the Seosten hadn’t been nice enough to have only one thing per area. There were dozens overlapping the same spot, and they weren’t exactly easy to find. We needed help.

Reaching the bank of elevators for that floor, we were just in time to see a large gorilla pick up one of the uniformed security and truck him against the nearest wall, where he slumped. A Seosten popped out of him with a laser sword, only to be met with a fist to the face from another Seosten who popped out of the gorilla before catching the falling energy blade by the handle and used it to backhand his surprised opponent.

A second later, a figure moving even faster than Asenath suddenly appeared. That Bobbi girl, in some kind of armored costume thing. She skidded to a halt, throwing out on arm before an arc of electricity shot from her fingers to connect with a man who had been moving behind what was obviously Twister and her Seosten partner.

Then there was Namythiet. And Clubber. The latter came racing down the hallway from the opposite direction we had approached from. Right behind the green sabertooth tiger cub came a huge troll of some kind. He was almost too big to fit in the hallway, his pounding footsteps thundering as he charged after the little animal with a roar.

I quickly moved to intervene, but it wasn’t necessary. Right before the tiger would have been covered, the even tinier figure of Namythiet shot down from the ceiling where she had been hiding. The pixie landed on the troll’s head and stuck something to his face. There was a flash of energy and then the troll suddenly collapsed, snoring heavily after his body hit the ground.

“Nighty night!” Namythiet crowed, waiting down at the unconscious figure as she hovered in the air before noticing us. “Hiya!”

Zipping closer, she hovered in front of our faces while Twister and Bobbi also approached. “Everyone went crazy, but we haven’t found the vault door thingy yet. Is Mr. Seth with Athena still?”

Oh God, what was I supposed to say to that? She looked so expectant, looking back and forth between us without the slightest clue of what we had to tell her. Seth was her teacher, her friend. He took her seriously when so many others dismissed her as a useless, tiny pest. This would hurt her so much.

“Who?” That was Twister, clearly instantly reading our silent expressions.

“Who what?” Bobbi asked, blinking between us. Then she got it too. I couldn’t see her face through the helmet, but her body language changed completely, slumping. “Oh no.”

“What?” Namythiet looked confused. Or maybe she just wanted to be confused, clinging to that uncertainty for the precious last second or two that she could before reality settled in fully.

It was Asenath who answered. “Ares. It was Ares. I’m sorry. None of us could do anything. It was over before—”

“Don’t.” Namythiet shook her head quickly. She was so small I couldn’t see her eyes very well. But I could hear the emotion in her voice, could tell that she was barely clinging on. “We don’t talk about it right now, okay? We don’t talk about it. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.” Her voice kept rising with each word, becoming more desperate as she suddenly blurted out loud, “Don’t tell me!”

So we changed the subject. Quickly, I explained what we were doing, giving a very brief summary. When I got to the part about the spell ball things that were blocking Francis’s power, Bobbi abruptly held one up.

“You mean these things? I drained a couple of them for power back there. I didn’t know what they were, but they tasted good.”

My eyes widened at that. “Can you do that with more of them? Say, all the ones you can find?”

She nodded easily. “Sure. But the finding them part might be a little tricky.”

“I can do that.” Namythiet’s voice was firm, determined. “I can program one of them to find the others. Then you can drain them. At least, I think I can…” Despite her determination, she suddenly sounded a little doubtful. Losing Seth had rocked her that badly.

“You can.” The voice came from Clubber. Or from the Seosten who stepped up from him, carefully holding the emerald kitten in both arms. She was shorter than my natural body was, with red hair that was almost pink and worn long. “I know what these are. I can help you make something to locate them. With a Hephaesetical pixie, it shouldn’t be hard.”

The Seosten who had been in Twister cleared his throat. “The rest of us–Seosten that is, can head for the vault. We’ll do what we can to help the others stop the malefica from getting into that room.”

“And I’ll play muscle down here with these guys,” Twister announced. “We’ll get it done.”

“You’ll have help,” I put in then. “Roxa’s getting the word out to the others. But if you can get a jump on things while we get to that office…”

“Go,” Twister urged. “We’ve got this.”

I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to the pixie some more and make sure she would be okay. I wanted to do a lot of things, but there wasn’t time. There was never time. So, with one last look back, Asenath and I rushed on. The elevators were completely locked down, so we had to use the stairs, and there were plenty more problems in our way. We fought our way through said problems, trying to do as little damage as possible while still getting past the people trying to kill us.

It was slow going, but eventually, we reached the area right before the office where the panic room was. There was only one real problem still in our way. Or rather, a lot of problems.

“That is many, many guards,” Asenath noted in a whisper. The two of us were peeking through a side door in at a large foyer which was full of about a dozen Seosten soldiers. They wore the same cadet bodysuit that had been pointed out to me before. So they weren’t that old, but still. A dozen was too many. Especially given that they were ready and waiting, clearly guarding the office.

“We could try it,” Senny whispered, “but I don’t like our odds. That’s a lot of bad guys, and we don’t happen to have an Olympian with us to help right now.”

My mouth open to respond, then I stopped. My head tilted.

Yes, my little partner put in. Yes, we can do it.

“I have an idea,” I announced aloud. “But I need to know how much you trust me.”

Asenath blinked. “Of course I trust you. But is this a good idea, or a completely fucking insane idea?”

I smiled.

“Yes.”

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