Month: January 2019

Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about upper cutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmiene to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempted to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmiene’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because if she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll  go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?”

Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those four who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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Interlude 42B – Radueriel and Abaddon

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“She’s got a better sense of humor now, I’ll give her that much.”

The words, with their grudging admiration, came from Abaddon as the large man stepped through a door and into the parking lot beyond.

Joining him a moment later, Radueriel grunted while nodding his head back toward the building they had just exited. “Personally, I don’t find teleporting us to a human strip club to be that amusing.”

“Gay strip club, man,” Abaddon coaxed with a broad smile as he reached out to ruffle the other man’s hair. “Come on, you’ve gotta see the humor in that. Either she’s being funny or she was making some kind of peace offering. Maybe both.”

For a few seconds, Radueriel held his unamused-leaning-toward-annoyed expression. Finally, he relented, dropping his head with a slow exhale. Then he glanced up again, offering a very faint and wry smile for his lover. “If so, she’s going to have to do better than that. The selection in there wasn’t even that good.”

Pausing briefly, he added, “Not that it matters. You know we still need to kill her at this point. She already escaped custody once. They’re not going to make that mistake again, no matter how special she is. Same goes for the others.”

Abaddon gave an easy, languid shrug. “Well sure, given the chance, we’ll crush her head like a grape. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good joke. I mean come on, it’s Auriel. Who would’ve thought that she’d ever pull something like this back on the ship?”

After accepting that point with a bow of his head, Radueriel pressed, “Ahem. Do you know where we are? That transport knocked out contact with all my little friends.”

Abaddon shook his head. “Probably wasn’t the portal. Whatever knocked out your contact with your toys is probably part of the same group of spells back in the club there that are blocking transport powers. Speaking of which, how far do you think we need to go to get out of range?”

Radueriel started to respond, before pausing. Slowly, the man looked around before letting out a long, low sigh. “You know, I really don’t think it matters right now.” He gestured up. “Look at the sky. We’re still in the human North America, but even counting being on the other side of the continent, it’s still been hours. Hours, in what should have been the three minutes it took us to recover and come out here.”

Abaddon blinked at that, glancing up to confirm for himself before muttering several quick yet creative and colorful curse words. “Time spell on the building. She had us slowed down in there so that time out here went faster. Whatever happened at the vault, it’s over by now. I am both pissed off and impressed. I didn’t know the old girl could get something like that ready to go on short notice.”

“That wasn’t Auriel,” Radueriel murmured under his breath. “It’s the twins. They have to be the ones behind this. It has their stink all over it.”

“That’s funny,” Apollo abruptly spoke up from the other side of the parking lot where he and Sariel were suddenly standing together. “I don’t feel like I stink. Pretty sure I took a good long shower today.” He looked to the woman beside him curiously. “Do you feel like you stink?”

“I don’t think so,” Sariel dryly replied without taking her eyes off the two men across from them. “Maybe they can smell themselves. Have you boys been doing anything dirty?“

As one, Radueriel and Abaddon started to move that way, but Apollo held a hand up to stop them, his voice taking on a warning tone as he used one finger to point to the ground. “Uh uh. You might want to look down before you come any closer.” He was smiling faintly, though there was fire visible in his eyes behind the put-on amusement and casualness. There was a rage that burned deep in him, a rage born of what the men before them had helped do to the woman who was standing at his side.

Taking his warning seriously, considering the look in his eyes, the two men paused in mid-step to look down. Sure enough, all along the pavement in front of them were spell designs that had been etched there. Spells that they quickly were able to piece together the intentions of. There were dozens of them, all interconnected with one another. Some would do direct damage when triggered, while others had more esoteric effects. The gist of the entire set meant that if either of the two men disturbed the spells, either as themselves or while possessing someone, it would be very bad for them.

Radueriel grunted, staring down at the incredibly intricate spellwork. “Let me guess, this is you.” He looked up, meeting Sariel’s gaze. “The time spell inside, that was him.” His head nodded toward Apollo without taking his eyes off the woman. “But this? This is you. You’ve got it all tied together. If the wrong spell is disabled first, it sets off all the others. There must be a dozen spells tied in a knot here. That would take… well, maybe twenty minutes to disable.”

“Twenty-seven spells,” Sariel corrected. “And it will take you just over forty-five minutes.” She spoke with absolute confidence of her assessment. “Unless you mess up.”

“That would be a problem,” Radueriel agreed slyly, “except for…” As he spoke, the man reached into his jacket pocket with his cybernetic arm before stopping. A slight frown crossed his face while he pulled out a simple coin, turning it over in his hand. Then he sighed. “It wasn’t just a time spell in there, was it?”

“There might’ve been another part to it,” Apollo agreed. “A part that disabled every enchanted item you have on you. Think of it as a spell EMP. It also makes your extra-dimensional storage items inaccessible for a little while. You know, for any toys that you have stashed in there.”

Abaddon couldn’t keep a hint of admiration out of his voice. “So you get Auriel to send us through a portal into a trap that speeds up time, keeps us trapped there so we can’t teleport out, cuts us off from any outside contact, and disables all our magic. You must’ve been working on that for awhile.”

Apollo’s smile showed his teeth then. “Let’s just say a good hyperbolic time chamber gives you plenty of opportunity to plan out exactly what to do.”  

Both other men stared at him with utterly blank expressions. “A good what?” Abaddon finally managed. “The hell does hyperbola have to do with–you know what, never mind.”

“I’m sorry,” Apollo casually and unhelpfully replied, “do you prefer hypertonic lion tamer?”

“Now what does a lion have to do–” Radueriel started before catching himself. From the expression on the other man’s face, he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. It was clearly nothing more than an absurd joke that only Apollo found amusing. Instead, he focused on Sariel. “You both went through a lot of trouble to put us in this position.”

“And yet,” Abaddon finished for him, “you’re not going for the kill. Would that be because you’re afraid that you can’t pull it off, little researcher?”

Sariel’s retort to that was flat and emotionless, eyes hard as she stared back. “Ask Manakel.”

“We could fight,” Apollo put in as the two men exchanged brief, yet very telling glances for that bit of information, reaching up to set a hand on his ‘twin sister’s’ shoulder. “And who knows who’d win. It’d be pretty epic, I can tell you that much. But that’s not why we’re here.”

“Manakel,” Sariel repeated the name from a moment earlier. “Charmiene. Kushiel. And so many others now. From Kushiel’s lab, from the Auberge, the main vault… there’s too many dead Seosten, too many of our dead people. You two need to leave.”

“Go back to the front lines,” Apollo continued for her. “Go fight the real monsters. Fight the Fomorians. If our people get too weak, those things will overrun the universe. You’re done here. You two can do a lot more good on the front lines of the actual war than you can by sticking around here terrorizing the humans. We’re giving you a chance to walk away.”

Their words made both men raise their eyebrows, glancing to one another before Abaddon spoke. “Walk away, huh? Well, you seem to have cut us off from contact with anyone on the outside, so we don’t exactly know who won the little battle at the vault. Who has the other book now, our side or your side? Just how pissed off is Metatron going to be?”

Neither Sariel nor Apollo’s expression gave away any answer to his question. The blonde woman simply replied, “We’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about you. Leave this world. Go away and never come back. And if you try to hurt any of my family again, I will make you regret the day you agreed to be part of the Director Aysien’s project to begin with.”

With a broad smile, Abaddon chuckled. “That’s adorable, kid. You’ve come a long way from that scared, quiet little girl, haven’t you? And hey, speaking of family, congratulations on the munchkin. You’ve got no idea how much she’s driven old Cahethal insane. If we weren’t bitter enemies right now, I might just give you what the humans call a high five.”  

“Tabbris, right?” That was Radueriel. “That’s what the Chambers girl called her. Tabbris. You named her after him?” The disbelief in his voice was palpable. “You named your child after the traitor Seraphim who used stolen magic to erase an entire world from the Empire after stashing all of his pets there?”

“Pretty sure they’ve got a different opinion on that subject,” Abaddon informed his partner quietly before focusing on Sariel. “But the point is, you got a kid away from Kushiel back at the lab. Held prisoner and you still managed to get a whole kid out of there without her knowing. Got her out and all the way to Earth somehow. I think I’m almost back to wanting to high five you again. Not that Kushiel had the best track record with kids anyway. I mean, hers went and killed her.” Though his words were fairly light on the surface, there was a slightly buried anger there too. Though Kushiel had not been his favorite person, she was one of his people and had been for a very long time. Between that and the Seosten aversion to killing their own people, there was a deep broiling rage buried just below the surface. But he found that rage unhelpful at the moment, so he kept it locked down.

“Of course,” Radueriel noted, “the Empire knows about your kid now. So she’s probably in a little bit of trouble.” Seeing the rage in the woman’s face, he quickly added, “Whether from us or not, the Empire knows about her. Metatron will be sending people to find the girl. Especially since he okayed the killing of the Chambers girl. He wants your daughter, Sariel. And you know what Metatron wants, he usually gets. No matter how long it takes.”

Apollo spoke up for his sister, who was bristling with rage at the thought of someone trying to take her daughter away. “Like we said, we’re here to tell you to leave this world. But we’re also here about that. We want you to send a message to Metatron, and bring back the answer before you leave. We have an offer for the Seraphim.”

Radueriel’s head tilted with curiosity at that, as he glanced toward his mate before looking back at Apollo and Sariel. “An offer for the Seraphim? One that’s going to convince them to leave your daughter alone, I take it? Oh, I can’t wait to hear this. It should be a good one.”

“Indeed,” Abaddon agreed slowly, his eyes narrowing. “What could you possibly have to offer that could be worth that, I wonder. I’m sure you know Metatron isn’t going to be easy to convince. After all, the last I heard from him, he’s rather… upset with both of you. And everyone associated with you, of course. He might be taking this whole thing just a little personally.”

“The Summus Proelium Project,” Sariel replied in a voice that made it clear she knew just how much of their attention that would draw.

“You mean the one that was shut down when you and your ‘brother’ there destroyed the entrance to the reality that gave us all of our powers?” Radueriel clarified with narrowed eyes. “What about it? Because I know you’re not about to say what I think you’re-”

Sariel interrupted. “We can reopen it. We can show Metatron how to reopen it. He wants powers, people who can oppose and stand up to the Fomorians? Summus Proelium is the way to do it.”

Disbelief dripped from Abaddon’s words as the big man retorted, “You really expect us to believe that you have a way to create a new entrance to that reality after everyone else has failed to make any progress for thousands of years? After Radueriel couldn’t do it?” He gestured to the man beside him, his faith in his lover’s ability much greater than that for the so-called twins.  

“Why do you think I stayed with the Empire after Apollo left?” Sariel shot back. “Resources. I–we were working on it since the day the entrance was destroyed to begin with. We failed a thousand times. Apollo left, he saw what the Empire did with the Bystander Effect and he was afraid of what they’d do if we opened a new way into that world. But I stayed. I kept working. Off and on for awhile, sometimes more off than on, but I worked. While I was working with the Empire, while I was with my family, while I was imprisoned and could only work the calculations in my head, I worked on it. Eventually, all I needed was one thing: advice from my partner.” She paused slightly, lifting her chin as her hand found Apollo’s. “He filled in the last few gaps, the parts I couldn’t. And now, I know how to do it. I know how to make a new entrance.”

“Which she’ll tell you,” Apollo continued for her. “Or rather, she’ll tell Metatron, in exchange for a deal.”

“What kind of… deal?” Abaddon slowly asked. “Metatron leaves your daughter alone in exchange for the information? That doesn’t sound like something that’s easy to enforce.”

Sariel met his gaze. “That’s why Metatron is going to take a magical vow. He will swear not to order or allow any harm to come to any of my family, and to leave them alone. Me, my husband, all my children, and…” She paused very briefly before clearing her throat. “And my brother.” Radueriel and Abaddon could see her squeeze Apollo’s hand with those words, even as the man himself reacted with a quick double-take.

“So,” Radueriel summarized, “a magical vow to leave you and your family alone. And in exchange, you provide the information we need to open the Summus Proelium project again.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Apollo confirmed. “And it’s why you’re both still alive. That and like she said, enough of us have died already. Take the offer back to Metatron, find out what he says. We’ll meet you in one week. Be at this address at eight in the morning, local time.” He took a bit of paper from his pocket and dropped it on the ground at his feet for the two men to collect later. “When you’re there, you’ll get a message about where to go to meet us. You know, just so you can’t stake the place out ahead of time or prepare anything.”

“Make Metatron understand that you need this deal,” Sariel pressed. “Our people need every edge they can get if we don’t want the Fomorians to win. Leaving my family alone is a small price to pay for that.”

“I can tell you this much,” Abaddon informed them, “he’s not going to feel all that disposed toward you after Kushiel’s death. You know he had a soft spot for her.”

Sariel, in return, simply shot back, “He’ll get over it. If he wants access to all that power, he’ll find a way to move on. He’s lost a few Olympians already by trying to come after us, by trying to hurt my family. Ask him if he wants to keep losing more, or if he’d rather make more.”

“Just pass along the message,” Apollo added, already turning on his heel while pulling the woman with him. “And make sure he knows the terms are non-negotiable. He comes here himself to swear a magical binding oath, or he gets nothing. And remember what we said before. Even if he doesn’t agree, you guys need to leave this world after that meeting. Because if we have to fight again, we’re not holding back.”

The two walked away then, disappearing from sight a moment later. Left standing in that parking lot, Abaddon and Radueriel watched them go before looking to one another.

“I suppose we should get out of here and find out how the rest of the mission went,” Abaddon noted thoughtfully. “Since those two weren’t considerate enough to tell us.”

Nodding, Radueriel took a knee, examining the spells that left them trapped. Sariel hadn’t been exaggerating. It would take the better part of an hour for them to carefully untangle the enchantments, similar to disarming a bomb. Especially with all of his cheating tricks currently unavailable. “It appears that we have to do this the hard way.”

Retrieving a field-engraver from a pocket, he started to reach for one of the spells before looking to his partner. “What do you think? Is Metatron going to go for their deal?”

For a brief moment, Abaddon didn’t answer. He simply looked thoughtfully off into the distance. Then he let out a breath. “I don’t know,” the man admitted. “But I do know one thing.

“I can’t wait to see his face when we give him the message.”

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Mini-Interlude 74 – Historical Figures Part B

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Theodore Roosevelt

“You know I hate it when you people do that.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s voice was rough as the man himself sat nursing a drink in one of the many rooms of the White House. He spoke without bothering to turn toward the man who had just appeared behind him. “It’s creepy as hell. I’d threaten to shoot the next one of you who did it, but I don’t think it’d do much good. The threat or the shooting.”

With an apologetic smile, the handsome man with curly dark hair stepped around the desk and into his sightline. “Sorry. Force of habit. Also, I don’t think your people would much like me coming in the normal way.”

Sitting back in his seat, Roosevelt considered the man for a moment before giving a slight sigh as he leaned forward and slid the bottle across the desk. “Have a seat, Mr. Atherby. And whatever bad news you’ve come to give me, you keep your trap shut about it until we have a drink together. Unless it’s the type of news that won’t keep for a few minutes.”

Just before the bottle would have slid off the edge of the desk, Joshua Atherby raised a hand to catch it with one finger. “It’ll keep,” he allowed before sitting to pour himself a drink, as ordered.

Taking a sip of it, he regarded the other man. “You’ve worn a lot of different hats in your day, Mr. President. Rancher, writer, politician, police commissioner, navy secretary, soldier, governor, then vice president and now president. You’ve done more things with your life than a lot of people I know who, well, let’s just say they’ve had longer to work with.”

“Speaking of which,” Roosevelt put in then, “how many of your Heretic people actually know that I know about them? Just a simple, ordinary, mundane old man.”

Joshua snorted. “First, every single word aside from man is wrong in that sentence. You’re not simple, ordinary, mundane, or old. You’re not even old by normal standards. Aren’t you the youngest guy to ever become president? What are you, forty?”

“Forty-two,” Roosevelt corrected. “And I aim to at least double that digit.”

Regarding him for a moment, Joshua quietly pointed out, “We could do more than double it, you know. People with our abilities tend to live longer if we don’t die tragically. And you don’t seem like the type who would go out easy.”

The other man gave a slow shake of his head. “Am I going to have to tell you no every time we talk, Joshua? It’s just like I said every other time you bring it up. I want to be human. I want to live in the real world, be with the real people.” Belatedly, he corrected himself. “Not that your people aren’t real, but…”

Joshua shook his head. “I understand, you don’t have to explain. You want to be with the regular population. And you’re doing a good job of it so far.” He sighed then. “But I won’t say that I’m not disappointed. You could do good with us too. As for who knows about you, that depends. With my people, there’s a few. It’s kind of gotten around. But with Crossroads or the Garden folks, I’d say just a couple. They don’t exactly want to advertise that we took the Bystander Effect away from the guy who is now President of the United States. Especially when that man doesn’t want anything to do with our society.”

“You,” Roosevelt corrected him. “You took it away. Right there in that Cuban jungle. You woke me up to the things both us and the Spaniards were fighting and dying to instead of each other. You took the blindfold off my damn eyes, and none of this shit has been the same since. You know, I’m pretty sure we’ve got a few of those Alter people right here in Congress. And damned if a couple of them aren’t the ones I like.”

“Don’t let Crossroads hear you say that,” Joshua muttered under his breath.

Roosevelt took another deep gulp from his drink. “The point is, you showed me the monsters. The monsters that are still down there in the jungle. And everywhere else.” He paused briefly before meeting the other man’s gaze. “Speaking of, have your people had a chance to look into… this particular hat I’m wearing right now?”

Clearly having anticipated the question, Joshua gave a single nod. “We did, and there’s nothing there. Your predecessor was killed by Leon Czolgosz, a completely normal human being. He has no ties that we can find to anything to do with our world. Just a man.”

“Well, I wish I could say that makes me feel better,” Roosevelt grunted, “but part of me thinks I would’ve liked it better if there was some kind of conspiracy with your types. Anyway, there’s still plenty of your monsters running around. Like the ones in Desoto. They’ve been there for years now. We’ve got thousands dying there, and every goddamn day I sit around waiting for one of you people to show up and say that you’ve got it under control, that you’ve dealt with them. But something tells me that’s not why you’re here right now. Is it?” The last two words were hard, his tone one of anger born of frustration. He was a man of action, and this was a situation he could take no actual action in.

Not that that had stopped him during his time down in Cuba, and then in Desoto itself. He and his Rough Riders had done as much damage to those monsters as a bunch of humans armed with rifles that had been secretly magically enhanced by Joshua‘s people could do.

But it was never enough. After he had been hit by some kind of Fomorian plague, the Heretics who helped save his life had insisted that he needed to be away from the battlefield or it would get worse. So he had been forced to go back to New York, where he did his best to avoid going insane by staying busy. Staying busy and, of course, getting regular reports from Joshua Atherby and his people. Regular reports which had blossomed into something of a friendship.

Joshua sighed. “Yes and no. The Fomorians… they’re never going to give up. They’re not the type to surrender, or call something a lost cause. They’re just going to keep throwing things at us until we break. The people you’ve been sending in, they’ve been helpful. And we’ve been trying to get them everything we can. But… but it’s not enough. Gaia, the baroness you met, she’s even started waking them up, letting normal people know the truth so they can get the hell out of the state. Some of them stay and fight anyway. But they still die. There’s so many people dying down there, it’s…” he trailed off, staring at his empty glass for a moment before cursing quietly. “It’s bad.”

“People grow from bad things,” Roosevelt informed him. “They grow from hardship and from hard work. Getting out there, fighting and killing those ugly bastards, it’s pain that brings out the real strength. Pain that brings growth. But you know what, I think we’ve grown just about enough as far as those beasts are concerned.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Joshua replied. “Because this has gone on long enough. We have a solution. But you’re not going to like it. Well, there is one part of it you might like.

“I won’t be popping up behind you anymore.“

 

*********

Jack Kirby

 

“I bet a Bystander-Kin student brought them in and just left them on the shelf.”

The words came from Columbus Porter, who sat in the library across from Tristan Moon. Between them lay an assortment of comic books. An assortment which, upon finding them buried deep on one of the library shelves, had driven both boys through nine different kinds of shock and awe. It was a collection that would have made any collector feel faint. Or possibly driven them to the hospital.

The first seven issues of X-Men, the first three issues of Avengers. Six scattered issues from the first forty of Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth, Forever People number one, several issues of Tales of Suspense and of Tales to Astonish, including the first appearances of Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Original copies all.

An amazing collection to begin with, but each and every issue had also been magically protected against wear and tear, leaving it completely pristine aside from the single signature that decorated each book. The signature belonging to one Jack Kirby.

“Are you kidding?” Tristan demand of them while gesturing to the collection. “First of all, no student, Bystander or otherwise, is going to leave something like this here if it belongs to them. None. It’s not going to happen. Besides, Vanessa says that they clear the shelves every year to watch for any magical tricks or pranks. There’s no way it would’ve been left here this long by accident.”

“No way what would have been left?” Vanessa herself asked as she approached the table and pulled out a seat beside her brother.

“Those,” Tristan announced as he gestured to the comic books.

Vanessa looked that way before nodding. “Oh, yeah. It’s the Jack Kirby collection, of course they have that.”

In unison, both boys threw up their hands while demanding, “What do you mean, of course they have that?!”

Vanessa blinked twice, looking slowly back and forth between the boys before responding, as though it should have been obvious, “You know, because he was an Adjacent.”

Both boys stared at her before Tristan asked, “A what, now?”

“Adjacent,” she repeated. “You know, it’s what they call a human who isn’t really a Heretic, but is either less affected by the Bystander Effect, or isn’t affected at all. You know, for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s because of a magic spell that they get hit with, other times it something on their bloodline, and sometimes there’s no explanation at all. There’s just some people out there who see through some of it for no reason that anyone can find. They get… glimpses through the veil. Some more than others. It drives a lot of them insane.”

Her words were quiet as she looked away for a moment, lost in her perfect, inescapable memories before she looked back again. “Jacob Kurtzberg was an Adjacent.” Belatedly, she started, “That’s—”

“Jack Kirby,” Tristan interrupted, “duh, everyone knows that. But what do you mean, he was an Adjacent? He saw through the Bystander Effect?”

“Some of it,” Vanessa confirmed. “Enough that it helped him… create. He put things that he saw or partially remembered in some of his projects. A lot of it is really distorted, like peeking through your fingers or something you’ll only remember tiny parts of, but it’s there. And he was creative enough to express it. Even if he didn’t know exactly what he was expressing.”

Curiously, Columbus asked, “What does that have to do with his comics being here, and being signed?”

Reaching out to pick up one of the books, Vanessa replied, “Some Heretics back when he was first starting out recognized some of what he was drawing and went to investigate, just in case there was a problem. One of them made friends with him and brought these comics back over the years.”

“They didn’t make him a Heretic, or tell him the truth, or anything?” Tristan asked, clearly fascinated.

Her head shook while she carefully looked through the comic in her hands. It was as pristine as the day it had been released decades earlier. “There was no real need to. The Heretic who made contact and was friends with him didn’t want to do anything to ruin his work. He wasn’t being threatened, no one was going to go after him. He was just drawing things. They just checked in on him once in a while. That’s where the books here kept coming from. Gaia made them part of the school’s collection. They’re spelled to stay here in the library.”

“I wonder why,” Columbus murmured. “I mean, I wonder why Gaia keeps them here in the library.”

It was Tristan who answered. “I think it’s because she wanted people to find them and see that not all Bystanders are completely clueless. Or just see how brilliant his work is. Maybe she wanted to give the school some kind of connection to the regular world. Or she just thought the students here would like them.”

“Probably all of that,” Vanessa agreed. “Leaving these here does a lot of things. Plus, I’m pretty sure Gaia likes the idea of sticking comic books in the library because of how much it pisses off certain people.”

“Hey,” Tristan started, “speaking of which, how come you never told me these were here? That would’ve got me in the library a lot faster.”

“I know,” Vanessa retorted, “I put a few of them near some of the books that I said you should check out. It let me know how much attention you were paying to my recommendations. So, see? If you’d listened to me sooner, you would have found out about these.”

Tristan opened his mouth while raising a hand to retort, then stopped. His hand lowered, and he grudgingly admitted, “Well played. But wait a minute, does that mean that there’s other comics that we haven’t found?”

Pursing her lips thoughtfully, Vanessa regarding the collection on the table before looking up with a smile. “Maybe. I guess you’ll just have to look through the books that I said you should and find out. And maybe some of those books have sticky notes somewhere inside them saying where other comics are.”

“I’m being tricked into learning,” Tristan muttered. “This is unfair.”

Vanessa gave an easy smile. “Now see, if I was tricking you, I would’ve said something to Columbus that would lead him to the first pile of these things, knowing that he’d get you involved and you’d let him get you into the library because you didn’t think it was coming from me.”

Starting to report, Tristan paused, before shrugging. “You know what, that’s fair. One genius bribing me into the library with work from another genius? I’ll take it.”

Columbus nodded, reaching out to put a hand on the nearest comic. Running a finger along the signature, he murmured, “I think you missed the most obvious reason Gaia lets these be here though.

“It’s because this is where all the magic books are supposed to be.”

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Interlude 42A – Aylen

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Several Months Ago, While Flick And The Others Were In Seosten Space

Aylen was hungry.

But not that kind of hungry. Not the kind of hungry that could be satisfied by a trip to the cafeteria or by raiding a box of snacks. This was a very different, yet just as pressing, type of hunger.

When she was a child, she would have said that she was lower stomach hungry. That didn’t actually make sense, as this was not a hunger that had anything to do with a stomach. But it was as good a descriptor as any.

Reapers, like most species in the known universe, had to eat. Unlike most species, they did so in two very different ways. They did so the physical way, and they also did so by absorbing the energies that were given off at the time of death. Often, these two tasks were accomplished together.

Aylen was not a full reaper. She was, essentially, a quarter reaper. Which meant that she only had to absorb death very seldomly, once a week or so on average. And it didn’t even need to be anything big. Being near a few animals when they died was often enough, depending on the size. Hunt nights that came once a month were another good time for it. Those were a feast, really.

The point was, a little less than once a week, the girl would go into the jungle and find an animal to hunt. It allowed her to hone her tracking abilities and test herself while also taking in the energy that she needed.

But she had been stupid. She had put it off for too long this time, busying herself with schoolwork. And then, when it had become clear that she was very hungry indeed, the girl had ended up being trapped in a mandatory school project that she couldn’t get out of without drawing attention. Given Heretic regeneration, playing sick was a lot harder than it would have been. It wasn’t that Heretics couldn’t get sick at all, but it would need to be something that would definitely draw attention. And the last thing she wanted was attention.

So, she had been forced to put it off for even longer. Long enough that, as she flew over the jungle now in the werecrow form that she had inherited from her other mother, the girl felt a little sick. She needed to eat, quickly. Otherwise, she stood a chance of losing control of herself and if that happened, she would stop paying attention to consequences or morality. It wouldn’t be quite the same as becoming what the Heretics called a Hangman. This would be a temporary state that would only last until she was sated. But it was closer than she wanted to be. And if either of her mothers knew she’d let it go that far, they’d both chew her out thoroughly. And possibly take her out of the school entirely.

But everything was okay. She just needed to spot an animal that she could kill and feed off the death of. The jungle was a wonderful resource for that. And in her crow form, it wouldn’t be hard to find a decent candidate.

In fact, there was a strong candidate directly below, a small deer. She could fly down there, kill it, and after absorbing that energy, she would be able to think straight again. Things would be fine.

Dropping on top of the deer from above while transforming into her humanoid self to drive her dagger into its neck was a simple matter. Unfortunately, the not-simple part was the thing she had missed by being so intent on the deer. Namely, the Alter-snake that had been about to bite it from the underbrush. A snake that still lashed out as the deer was brought to the ground. Except instead of hitting the animal, its fangs found their way into Aylen’s ankle.

She felt it, the sharp pain that made her blood run cold, and turned it to see the snake disappearing. But by then, it was too late. The paralyzation had set in, and the girl collapsed to the ground with a strangled cry. Stupid, how could she be so stupid? The venom wouldn’t kill her, of course. But it would leave her paralyzed. Worse, the magic paralyzation poison forced her to revert to her reaper form. Now, she lay in the middle of the jungle, completely paralyzed and unable to move or revert to her more human coloring. Her hair was distinctly blue, as were her eyes.

And because things couldn’t possibly stop getting worse that day, she had barely been laying there for a few minutes waiting for the paralyzation to wear off before the girl heard voices. Multiple voices, speaking English. Students. There were students walking through the jungle in her direction.

Having different colored hair and eyes was really nothing new when it came to students around Crossroads. At most, it would result in a raised eyebrow given she had never changed her hair like that before. But the real problem was that she was paralyzed. As soon as they noticed that, teachers would be brought in. And teachers were a problem. They would pay too much attention.

Aylen was in trouble. Big trouble. If she screwed this up and had to get out of Crossroads without freeing her other grandfather, just because she had been an idiot, she’d never forgive herself.

Move, damn it! She tried forcing it, tried shifting into her crow form, at least. Nothing happened. The paralyzation was total. Which was kind of the point. But she had to keep trying. There was nothing else to do. She had to move. She couldn’t let other students see her like this. There would be too much to explain, too many problems. If the teachers got involved and had to investigate her…

Then she heard something else, something coming from the other side of the clearing, opposite from where the sounds of the students were. It was the sound of someone who was much closer than the others, clearly not a part of that group. From the corner of her eye, Aylen saw a figure come into view, but couldn’t quite make it out.

The figure seemed to freeze for a second, then came closer. As she stepped more into Aylen’s sightline, the girl finally recognized her. Avalon Sinclaire. The headmistress’s adopted daughter. She was the one standing there.

For a moment, both girls simply stared at one another. Avalon looked Aylen up and down, taking in what she was seeing. Her eyes moved up toward the sound of the approaching students.

Then Avalon moved. She was suddenly kneeling next to the other girl, scooping her up in her arms. And with a quick blur of motion they disappeared into the deeper jungle just before the other students would have seen them.

Still paralyzed, Aylen could do nothing to voice any of the myriad of questions that swam through her mind at that point. She was forced to play silent in Avalon’s arms until the girl put her down in a patch of grass well away from the path of the other group.

Her regeneration had kicked in by that point, and even as Avalon moved to gently inspect her, Aylen quickly sat up, shifting back against the nearby tree.

“I guess I don’t have to ask how long the paralyzation will last,” Avalon noted dryly. “I wasn’t sure how much it would affect a… hybrid. That’s what you are, right? Half human and half… half something else.”

Aylen finally found her voice. “How do— why aren’t— what…”

“I wish Flick was here,” Avalon muttered. “I mean, I’ve said that a lot lately, but especially now.” She let out a long breath before focusing once more. “First, it’s okay. You’re not in danger. I’m not about to turn you in or… or whatever else you were just thinking about. I don’t know what your exact situation is, why you’re here, how much you know, or anything else. But you are not in danger from me, okay?”

Before Aylen could respond to that, a wave of hunger washed over her and she groaned, clutching her stomach. It was getting even worse now. She had to eat or she would lose what little control she still had. Aylen was keeping a very tight leash on herself, but if she lost it…

“What’s wrong?” Avalon started, frowning. “Are you okay?”

It was Sovereign who responded then, by diving out of the canopy with a sharp cry as he opened his talents to drop something into Aylen’s lap. It was a rabbit, a squirming, kicking rabbit that she barely caught onto before the terrified thing could escape.

There was no time to explain. It would barely qualify as a snack, but it would keep her going and stop her from losing control. Gripping the thing’s neck, Aylen snapped it in one motion. The rabbit died completely painlessly, going still in her hands.

Death. The energy from it, small as it was, flooded her senses. She slumped back with a deep breath, taking it in. There. It wasn’t a lot, but enough. She could think now. She could focus.

“That…” Avalon slowly started, “that is… definitely something. Are you umm… do you feel better?”

Flushing, Aylen paused a moment. Then she nodded. “I’m okay. Are you freaking out right now?”

Avalon shrugged. “ A little. But that’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen this year. You weren’t cruel to it or anything. You just… you were hungry, right? You just sort of fed from it dying?” Rather than sounding disgusted or horrified, the other girl seemed fascinated in a way that made Aylen blush.

“I, um, I shouldn’t have waited that long. It was dumb. It… are you sure you’re not freaking out right now?”

Again, Avalon shrugged. “Like I said, seen worse. I’m just glad I got to you in time and that you’re okay.”

“Okay,” Aylen echoed the word slowly before looking up once more “What do you mean, ‘got to me in time’? That sounds like it wasn’t an accident. How did you find me?”

Avalon shrugged. “Tiss. She said she bit a student that tasted weird. She didn’t mean to, you scared her.”

“Tiss,” Aylen echoed. “The snake.”

“Yeah,” Avalon confirmed. “We’ve talked a little bit. Ever since I figured out that I could talk to snakes now. The point is, she found me and let me know where you were. She said you might be hurt, and that there was something weird about you. She said you tasted strange. I guess we know why.”

Aylen was shaking her head. “I don’t understand. You know about… about hybrids and all that?”

“It’s a long story,” Avalon replied. “I guess yours is too.”

Aylen nodded. “Yeah. You could say that. But I’ll tell you one thing, I definitely owe you.

“And someday, I’ll pay it back.”

******

Present Day

 

Aylen had no idea what she was doing.

Something… something she couldn’t explain had driven her to abandon her tour group as they made their way through the city, giving an excuse before slipping away. They obviously objected that she would miss the best part of the tour, but she promised to listen to them tell her about it later.

From there, she had wandered for a little bit, feeling somehow drawn by a touch that was so light it was very easy to lose it. If she focused on the pull, it would disappear. The only way was to wander aimlessly and allow herself to be subconsciously drawn where it wanted her to go.

It took over an hour before she was relatively certain that she was in the right place. In confusion, the girl looked around. She was in the middle of a parking lot near a grocery store that very clearly hadn’t been open for quite a while.

Here? Why would she need to be here? She didn’t understand. But this was definitely the spot.

It was the Reaper part of her. She knew that much. Mother had told her about this kind of thing. Sometimes, not often or even enough to be dependable, but sometimes, they were drawn toward locations where either a lot of death or a very important death would soon happen.

But what kind of death would happen here in this parking lot? It either had to be one that would involve a lot of people, or one that involved someone personal to the girl herself.

But there were no other Reapers here. And she refused to believe that there weren’t any near Washington DC. That would just be absurd. As weak as she was, if there was some huge tragedy about to happen here with lots of dead people, another Reaper would have been drawn to the spot. Which meant that it had to be someone personal.

There was one way to find out for certain, but she had never actually done it by herself before. Still, if it was someone important, she had to try.

Nodding over to Sovereign as the metal bird landed on a nearby lamppost, Aylen murmured. “Wish me luck.” The cyberform bird in turn gave a soft squawk.

Taking a moment to make sure that no one was anywhere nearby, the girl used a small knife from her pocket to cut part of her hand. Squeezing it tight, she let blood pour out onto the ground to form a small puddle. Then she crouched and used her finger to carefully and intently draw a rune in the blood. Her mother had taught her this spell. Aylen just hoped she was doing it right.

She wasn’t. It took her three tries to remember the exact spell, and she was about to give up and call her mother when the blood rune finally reacted. It sizzled, the blood boiling away before her eyes.

“Okay,” Aylen murmured under her breath, “here goes.” Placing both hands on the spot where the blood had been, she focused all the power that she could into it. But not all at once. It had to be a slow, steady charge. This wasn’t the kind of magic that could be done in a minute or two. She would have to sit here charging it for most of an hour. Others could do it more quickly, Reapers who had more experience and power. But she needed time to do it right. Time that she hoped she actually had, since the feeling that had led her here didn’t seem to be overwhelmingly urgent.

Forty minutes later, it was finally done. A wave of exhaustion washed over the girl before she blinked blearily at the ground. The blood was back. Actually, it was a lot more blood than she had initially dropped. It boiled up out of the ground, forming a large puddle that she had to scramble away from on her hands and knees, staring at it.

The blood puddle kept growing. Then it began to rise up, forming the shape of the body that would eventually lie in that spot, the spot that she had been drawn to. Though it remained simply blood, enough details began to form to make out the image of pants, a shirt, fingers, and a distinct head. There were even waves of blood that formed hair. It gradually became an intricate statue that appear to be made out of red Jello.

The face filled in last, of course, sketching itself in slowly while she stared impatiently. Once it was finally done, Aylen had to stare open-mouthed for a moment.

Chambers. Flick Chambers. That was who the blood formed into. That was who was going to die soon in that spot, and Aylen suddenly knew why she had been drawn here by her death sense. If Flick died, Avalon would…

No. Aylen couldn’t let that happen. Not after Avalon had saved her and kept her secret. Whatever was going on, she refused to let Avalon‘s girlfriend just die like that.

Quickly fumbling in her pockets, Aylen scrambled to get her phone out. She scrolled through the contacts until she found the right one and hit the button to call. Nothing. There was no answer.

She called back again and got the same result. Leaving a quick voicemail to call her back, she bolted from her seat on the pavement and turned in a circle before heading for the nearest street to see where she was. On the way, she sent a text with multiple 911’s and exclamation marks. Then she called back a third time, disconnecting just before the voicemail picked up and called yet again.

On the fifth attempt, the phone was finally picked up. “Aylen,” Avalon started flatly, “it’s not a good time.”

Pausing only briefly as she heard what sounded like fighting and shouting in the background, Aylen blurted, “Don’t hang up. It’s about Flick! Is she there?!”

There was a very slight hesitation, then the sound of a humming energy blade going through someone, followed by a cry of pain that was abruptly cut off. Avalon gave a soft gasp before responding, “Flick? No, she’s not here. She’s… what about her? Wait, she’s not with you…”

“No,” Aylen replied. “No, but if you don’t listen and come here as soon as you can, she’s…”

“She’s what?” Avalon quickly snapped before the sound of gunfire cut through their connection for a moment.

“She’s going to die,” Aylen informed her simply. “I’m at a grocery store parking lot. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know she’s going to die right here fairly soon. Maybe another hour? I’m not sure. But it’ll happen. I can give you the address.”

Avalon was silent for a few seconds. Then she spoke quietly. “Are you positive?”

“Yes,” Aylen assured her. “Trust me. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, what you guys are doing right now, or anything. But I know that if you don’t help me stop it, she’s going to die here tonight.”

That time, there was no pause at all. Avalon immediately replied, “Where are you?

“We’ll be there.”

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On The Edge 42-10

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A hand caught the back of my neck. Abaddon. He was there, lifting me up by the neck while his other hand produced what had to be a field engraver, or his version of it. He scrawled something quickly on my arm before I could react, his form blurring so much I’d barely realized what was happening before it was over. As he activated the spell, I felt a sharp but not quite agonizing burning sensation on my arm for just a moment.

Wh-what was that? I quickly blurted inwardly.

I… I dunno, Tabbris sent back. We didn’t see it. What did he do? What’s going on?

Dangling there from the big guy’s firm grip on my neck, I could do nothing while he bellowed, “Aletheia!” His voice echoed throughout the room like thunder, almost painfully loud. But hey, he was using her name. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but it meant something.

Radueriel, who had blurred his own form to rush over to where Kushiel’s body had fallen, looked up that way. His gaze met Abaddon’s and I saw him give a slight head shake. Gone. She was gone, and there was nothing they could do to fix that.

Theia and Pace (separate now) both took a bit longer to react to the voice, each of their gazes remaining focused on Kushiel’s body for another moment. When the Seosten girl finally did look up, I saw confusion there. She looked… more lost than proud. Like she wasn’t sure what had just happened, as if killing her mother hadn’t actually set in yet. Which I couldn’t blame her for, since it hadn’t set in for me either and I had a much smaller personal stake in it. She made a noise of confusion, even as Pace slowly moved up to put a hand on her arm, stumbling slightly on the way.  

Kushiel was dead. That’s what hadn’t set in, what would take much longer to feel real. A woman who had to be close to ten thousand years old was just… dead. Just like that. Just like Manakel. And Charmiene. All these ancient people, alive for millennia, all dying within a few months of each other. No wonder their leadership was so pissed off at us.

Well, if they’d leave us alone, they wouldn’t have that problem, Tabbris primly informed me.

Abaddon continued, his gaze focused on the dark-haired girl. “That’s what you call yourself, right? Aletheia?” His tone was darkly curious. “Huh. Can’t say it’s what I would’ve gone with, but I can appreciate the whole parental rebellion thing. Though uh, you may have taken it a bit far.” As he spoke, the man used my whole body, dangling from his grip, to gesture at Kushiel’s fallen figure. Though he kept his tone fairly light, I could hear the anger only partially hidden deep under his voice. The man was keeping things incredibly professional, but it was quite clear that he was putting forth some effort to control himself.

This was a man who had spent thousands of years losing people he got close to. But Kushiel had been there for a long time, and I had the feeling that while he might not have always seen eye to eye with her, she was part of ‘his group’. And now she was dead, killed by her own daughter. A daughter who happened to be what his people called a Lie.

“She’s dead.” The words that came from Theia then sounded hollow, like they were from a foreign language that she didn’t actually understand the meaning of. “Mama’s dead.”

“That’s right.” Abaddon’s voice cracked just a little, belying the professionalism he was trying to portray. “You killed her. Congratulations, I’m sure it’s a big moment for you. But look here.” He gave my body a hard shake, making me yelp a bit despite myself. My legs still hurt. “You care about this one, right? Don’t wanna see her dead?”

Before Theia could answer that, there was another blur of motion. Radueriel. He suddenly went from crouching by Kushiel’s body, to standing just a few feet away from Abaddon. And he had Pace, his real arm wrapped around her throat while his cybernetic one produced an engraver from one finger, which he used to draw a quick spell on. Given her brief gasp, it was probably the same spell that Abaddon had drawn on me a minute earlier.

Some part of me thought I should try to free myself, but… it just wasn’t going to happen. The pain that I’d felt in my legs just from standing up before, even with the help of my staff and leaning against the wall, it was too much. I had that pain-reduction power and I could still feel it, which made me a little worried about just how badly my legs were damaged.

Theia started to move then, but Abaddon spoke quickly. “Uh uh! Stop. Look here, kid. You weren’t there when your mother’s power started up, but it used to need a bit of a cooldown after a couple times. I’m betting yours does right now too. Gonna be awhile before you can… what do they call it?”

“Spam,” Radueriel informed him simply.

“Really?” Abaddon blinked that way. “The hell does that–never mind. Gonna be awhile before you can spam it, kid. But just in case, you see those spells we just put on these two? They’re harm-bound to us. Know what that means?”

Apparently she did, because Theia answered immediately. “You get hurt. They get hurt. You die. They die.” Her eyes were narrowed at Radueriel, and I had the feeling she was a bit more concerned about Pace than me. Which, yeah, that was fair.

“That’s right, kid,” Abaddon confirmed. “Damage duplication. We get hurt, they get hurt. We die, they die. So let’s all just calm down here. You killed your mother, which…” He made a noise under his breath that sounded like a growl. “But I owe your father and… well, let’s just say that’s why you aren’t a smear on the ground right now. So instead of killing you like I probably should, you’ll come with us.”

Radueriel clarified then. “He means all four of you.” He released Pace, giving the girl a little shove away from him while looking my way. “You walk with us. First one to put up a fight… well, let’s just say that neither I nor my partner here need much of an excuse to put one of you down.”

Abaddon nodded, letting go of my neck without warning. I fell, yelping as the pain in my legs when I landed flared up dramatically, making me collapse to my hands and knees. The Seosten man looked down at me, frowning briefly. “Right, Kushiel’s blade. Afraid it won’t get better any time soon. She keeps–ahhh, kept that thing enchanted to do a hell of a lot more damage than it should. Damage that lingers. Gets into the muscles and bones and… well, it won’t heal very quick, let’s put it that way.”

While I was digesting that, he continued. “Anyway, what my partner said. No more games. One of you pulls something, someone else dies. And to be straight with you, I’m not super-particular which one right now.” His voice was hard, making it completely clear just how close the man was to losing his tenuous grasp on his anger. I had a feeling that it was only the importance of their mission that was keeping that in check even this much.

“Are we all clear?” Abaddon demanded then. “We’re walking out of here together, and none of you are going to do anything else that makes this whole situation worse. Because you give either of us an excuse, and one of you will die for it. Don’t talk back. Don’t argue. Don’t be cute. Get all those thoughts out of your pretty little heads. Walk to the door and stand there. Now.”

The others have to be coming, right? Tabbris quickly put in, even as I tried to force myself to stand up. It hurt. God, it hurt. Pain reduction or not, I could barely make myself stagger, wincing with each motion.

I hope so, I silently replied, because I think I’m basically out of tricks right now. We can’t beat two Olympians, Tabs. Not on our best day, and definitely not right now. I’m wiped. And I’m pretty sure if I tried to so much as skip, I’d break something.

As if in agreement with that, I stumbled on the next step. Nearly falling, I found myself caught by Pace, who moved quickly to support me on one side, whispering, “Are you okay?”

“Been better,” I whispered back. Not that there was much point. I was pretty sure Abaddon and Radueriel could both hear us just fine. “But hey, you’re… uh, you again. Congratulations.”

“We will have a party soon.” That was Theia, stepping over to join us on the way to the door. She supported my other side, making it a bit easier to move. “With cake and ice cream. When we get away.”

Instead of focusing on that last bit, I looked the Seosten girl up and down. It was my first real chance to get a look at her. She was, like all Seosten, incredibly pretty. Actually, I could definitely see how she was related to Kushiel. There was a distinct family resemblance, and not just when it came to the power.  

You okay?” I asked the girl quietly, after giving Abaddon and Radueriel a brief glance. They weren’t objecting to us talking just yet. Nor were they apparently ready to leave. The two of them were standing a few feet away, having a quiet (probably magically protected) conversation. But I had no doubt that if we tried to make a break for it, we wouldn’t get very far.

“We–” Theia started before stopping herself. “I… killed Mama. I killed Mama.” Again, her voice sounded almost empty. She didn’t sound happy about it. But nor did she sound sad. “Mama’s dead and… and I… I don’t know.”

Standing there while trying to think of what to say to that, I noticed the door. It was closed. But it was also lying in pieces on the floor nearby. The same door, closed in front of us yet broken on the floor. What the…

Theia noticed my confused glances back and forth, explaining, “Radueriel’s glamor spell. Makes the door look like it’s there, when it’s really there.” She gestured between the intact door in front of us and the shattered one on the floor.

Abaddon chose that moment to step over to us. “That’s right, it keeps any interruptions out. Now, we’re leaving. All of us. I’m not going to reiterate the previous threats, because I don’t believe any of your memories are that terrible. But keep them in mind.”

As he spoke, I could see Radueriel in the background, attaching some kind of badge-like device to each of the bodies. Including Kushiel’s. Once they were all attached, the man pressed a button on his cybernetic arm. A square metal block about the size of a Rubik’s cube appeared, floating to the middle of the room. As soon as it was in place, all of the bodies, unconscious and dead alike, all disappeared in various beams of light that shot into the cube. Transferred. He… transferred them into the cube.

F-Flick, Tabbris worriedly put in. I… I don’t know what to do now. I’m… I’m…

I’m scared too, I assured her without making the girl say it. But we can’t push them right now. I’ve got nothing left, partner. No tricks, no… if we tried something, I’m pretty sure they would kill one of us. We just have to… to wait and hope something happens. Trust the others. They’ll be there.

Radueriel took the cube as it floated back into his hand, nodding to his partner. In turn, Abaddon held some kind of rock above our heads, crushing it into dust, which swirled through the air. Instead of falling completely to the ground, the dust seemed to form a cloud around us and then just… stayed there. Then we stepped through the illusion of the door, moving to the hallway beyond.

Immediately, my heart jumped. Because the others were right there. Deveron, Koren, Wyatt, that Francis guy, everyone from the room. They were there, standing right in front of the door that we had just come through.

My mouth opened to blurt a warning that Pace and I were both spelled to take any damage the two Olympians took. But before I could say a word, Deveron spoke. “How do we get it open?”

Get it open? Wait–they still saw the intact door, of course. But why weren’t they reacting to–

“Scream if you want,” Radueriel informed us in the middle of my confusion. “Rant, yell for help, whatever you wish. But they won’t hear you. Nor will they see you. The dust renders us undetectable.”

“And if we grab them?” I demanded despite myself, annoyed by his smug voice. In the background, Deveron and the others were still talking as if we weren’t even there. Which, to them, we weren’t.

“Then we will be forced to kill one of you,” Abaddon put in mildly. “I’d sort of appreciate if you didn’t make us do that. Come.” He pointed with a small metal cylinder, hitting a button to create a portal. Through it, I could see a parking lot. “Time to meet with the others and see how their side of the mission went.”

Radueriel shrugged. “Either way, Sariel’s kid has the book and we have Sariel’s kid.” He gave me, or rather, Tabbris, a hard look. “So either the others took their book and we have the whole spell. Or they didn’t, but we still have ours so the humans can’t do anything with their half.”

He was right. If the spell had been split in half, them even just having half of it would prevent it from actually being useful, even if Gaia, Avalon, and the others had successfully retrieved theirs. Somehow, that thought made me feel even worse. If we’d been just a little bit faster, just a little bit… better, or smarter, or…

Kushiel’s dead, Tabbris reminded me. That wouldn’t have happened any other way, you know.

Before I could say anything to that, Radueriel gave me a firm shove toward the portal. “Have your private conversation while walking. Whatever you happen to be planning, just know that the Li–Aletheia’s former host will be the one who pays the price first.”

Pace. They would kill Pace first. She was the most immediately expendable. And they probably figured that if Tabbris and I pulled something that got Pace killed, it would turn Theia against us. Swallowing hard, I glanced back to Deveron and the others one last time. They were setting up some kind of spell to blast the door open, even though it was already open. The illusion was still affecting them. As was the dust that stopped us from being noticed.

Nothing. There was nothing else I could do. Risking Pace’s life was a non-starter. Even if I did want to risk it, there was nothing to say that I could get everyone’s attention and make them understand before they just killed all of us. They could kill me and take Tabbris.

No. No, I couldn’t–couldn’t do that. I had to hope a new opportunity to escape would actually present itself. Or that one of the others would figure something out and come after us. Francis, he’d know when we left the building entirely, right? Or Jophiel. There was also Jophiel.

Under the hard and uncompromising glares of Radueriel and Abaddon, the four of us slowly (but not slowly enough for my liking)  walked to the portal. Nothing. I couldn’t do anything. Hell, at that point, I could barely walk. Scratch that, I couldn’t walk without help from Pace and Theia supporting me on either side. Fighting would be out of the question for awhile. Every time I even took a step, even with help, shooting pain went up through each of my legs. I had to move gingerly. Every motion hurt.

We reached the portal and I still hadn’t thought of anything. We had to go. We had to move through the portal. I couldn’t endanger the others by making any kind of last ditch attack or attempt to escape. I wouldn’t stand a chance and it would only end up with at least one of us dying. I couldn’t risk that. After everything that happened, I couldn’t give them an excuse to kill Pace.

I had to let myself be taken. Swallowing hard, I took a breath and moved through that portal. Abaddon was right behind us, actually putting a heavy hand on my shoulder tightly even as I was supported by the others. Apparently he didn’t trust me not to have something ready to go to escape. Or maybe it was Tabbris he was worried about. Either way, he maintained that grip all the way through the portal and out to the unfamiliar parking lot.

I had no idea where we were, I realized almost immediately. This wasn’t the lot right outside the hotel. It was… it was… somewhere else entirely. Oh God. As the portal disappeared behind us, I finally understood that we were far from where we should have been. We were far from where anyone, anyone would expect to find us. Basically, we were screwed.

The parking lot was along the side of what looked like a grocery store that had been closed for a long time. There were a couple cars parked ahead us and a few spaces apart, dark vans that gave me child abductor vibes. On a street lamp nearby, a dark bird perched and gave a soft caw.

As all of us looked around, Radueriel spoke. “They’re not here yet, do we wait?”

Abaddon didn’t answer for a second, and I had a feeling that it was because he was instinctively waiting for Kushiel. When he realized his mistake after a couple seconds of silence, the big man started a bit. I felt him squeeze my shoulder so tightly it hurt, nearly drawing a yelp from me. Another sign, as if I needed one, of just how tenuous his grasp on his temper was.

“This is the rendezvous,”  he finally announced through gritted teeth. “We give them another few minutes to show up. It–” He stopped talking then, head turning as though listening to something. From the pause, I had the feeling there was an extensive mental conversation going on.

Finally, the big guy straightened. His eyes found me, and he coughed. “Sorry, kid, I spoke for you.”

“What?” I managed, just before his hand collided with my face. He moved so fast I didn’t even have a chance to think. It was like a truck slamming into the side of my head. I fell, sprawling out on the ground. Nearby, I heard Pace shout something, and Theia made some kind of threat. But Radueriel was restraining them.

Abaddon stood over me. “Told you, it ain’t personal. But orders from above say put you down and take the kid in. I tried to tell ‘em you could be useful. They ahh, they don’t want to play any more games. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t like it.”

Tabbris was saying something, frantically begging me to get away. My hand produced my staff, and I swung it up to… I didn’t even know at that point. Part of me was trying to hit Abaddon with it while another part thought to use the boost on it to throw myself away from them. But where I would go with legs that didn’t work right was anyone’s guess.

It didn’t matter anyway. Abaddon caught the staff, tearing it from my hand with less effort than it took to remove a toy from an infant. He tossed it aside, producing an enormous sword with his other hand. My mouth opened, but his foot lashed out, kicking me in the face so that I sprawled on the ground once more.

Tabbris was screaming. Pace was screaming. Theia was threatening. My body was screaming. I grabbed the ground, trying to push myself up even as Abaddon stood over me, his foot coming down hard on my chest. Possess him!

Couldn’t. He had a forcefield up. Couldn’t possess him. No wood. No weapon. No– nothing. Nothing. I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight. I could barely understand the words that Tabbris was screaming at me, even as she took control of the body. But she couldn’t do anything either. We were trapped. As Abaddon lifted his sword and judged his aim briefly, as everyone screamed, as the bird on the nearby lamppost gave a loud cry, we were trapped. Helpless. Broken. Lost. Lost as the sword started its downward plunge.

But I never got to save my moth–

A sudden eruption of sound stopped Abaddon’s descending blade. One of the vans–no, both of the vans were blaring their horns. The obnoxious, loud and cacophonous noise filled the air, drawing everyone’s attention, while Abaddon stood with the blade hanging right near my face.

The door of the nearest van opened, and two bodies came tumbling out of it to land on the pavement with a solid thunk. Abaddon and Radueriel recoiled with collective curses, as another figure, this one standing, hopped out to stand between the two dead bodies.

“That’s my girlfriend,” Avalon announced while straightening to her feet. She looked bloodied, bruised, her clothing heavily torn… and more beautiful in that moment that I ever remembered. “Get the fuck away from her.”

“What she said.” The new voice came from Shiori, exiting the side of the second van, on the opposite side from where all of us were standing. Two more bodies fell to the ground at her feet as she stood there. We, including Radueriel and Abaddon, were between them.

The two Olympians looked to one another and then started to chuckle. Abaddon spoke calmly. “Congratulations on somehow finding the rendezvous, children. But I am afraid that you’ve made a grave error if you think you pose a threat by yourselves.”

I started to blurt a warning, but Avalon was already stepping forward. “The only error is with you people not getting it through your thick skulls to leave me and the people I care about alone.” As she spoke, the dark-haired girl ignited both of the energy blades from her gauntlets.

“Heh,” Abaddon snorted. “That’s cute. Okay then, bring it on.”

Avalon threw herself that way. Behind them, Shiori did the same. Both girls sprinted, their forms moving almost fast enough to blur like the vampires and Seosten did. Together, they went right for Abaddon, even as I screamed for them to stop.

Then Avalon did. She suddenly pivoted and dropped to the ground while pulling something from her jacket, driving it into the pavement.

At the exact same time, Shiori stopped too. But the glowing figure that leapt from her kept going. Athena. Her fist collided with Abaddon’s jaw. Instantly, I felt a horrible pain in my own face as I was knocked to the ground.

While he was reeling from the punch, Athena reared back to kick Abaddon. Once more, I felt that pain, this time in my chest. A rib or two cracked. But Abaddon had it worse. Because that kick sent him stumbling back two steps. And that put him right where Avalon had just used Athena’s magic portal dagger to make a hole leading who knew where.

Abaddon fell through. And an instant later, Athena caught Radueriel by the arm and hurled him through as well, before he knew what was happening. Both men fell through the portal in the ground just before it disappeared.

“Have a nice trip,” Shiori called from where she had skidded to a stop to let Athena jump from her. “See ya next fall.”

“Wh-what?!” The terror of nearly dying, coupled with the sudden rush of being saved by my girlfriends, and everything else that had just happened, made me feel light headed. “How–wha–what–huh?” Behind me, Pace and Theia were equally lost.

Avalon took a knee by me, her face paling a bit. “Are you alright?”

“I… I… I don’t know. What the hell happened?”

Shiori joined us. “With the vault, or right now? Because the former’s a long story. And the latter…” She turned, looking over past Athena, to the lamppost where the dark bird was still perched.

It flew down to us. Once the bird neared the ground, I saw that it was a crow. Was a crow, because it suddenly changed, shifting form until a familiar girl stood there.

Aylen. Aylen was there, except… except her hair and eyes were blue and there was… there was something alien about her.

A reaper. Aylen looked like a reaper. Like the ones I’d seen in class this year.

“Well,” Shiori finished, “the latter’s a long story too.”

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On The Edge 42-09

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Lying there, basically crippled on the floor as my injured legs refused to cooperate, I could do nothing as Abaddon approached. Not that I would have been able to do much to him even at my peak, but still. This was worse. He took his time, meandering casually across the room before stopping in front of me to look down with a slight shake of his head, almost looking regretful.

Tabs, I started inwardly.

I’m not leaving you alone here, she quickly shot back. So shut up.

Before I could retort to that and plead with her not to stay here, the Olympian spoke in a voice that made it sound like we were just having a chat. “Pretty good job back there, kid. I took a second to watch through, ah, let’s just say someone else’s eyes and I gotta say, impressive.”

From where she was standing by the pedestal that held that book, Kushiel distractedly snapped, “Stop toying with the monkey-child and kill it before something else happens to make that impossible.” She wasn’t looking our way, her attention solely focused on her goal. Yet she also wasn’t reaching for it. Instead, the woman seemed to be taking the time to disable what had to be a lot of security spells that had been placed around that pedestal.

Abaddon, however, glanced that way while musing aloud, “Kill her?” He seemed to consider that before looking back to me, his voice contemplative. “Eh, I don’t know.”

For a moment, Kushiel apparently forgot her current objective (which said something considering how obsessed the Seosten were with it), turning to face the man. Her voice was dark. “Excuse me?” she asked with icy brittleness. “You seemed very much in line with the goal of ending that monkey’s life before, so pray tell, what don’t you know now?”

The big guy shrugged one shoulder, watching me intently rather than looking to the woman. “Saw her fight,” he replied simply, “she’s pretty good. Got good instincts, good drive. Kind of be a damn shame to waste all that just because she’s on the wrong side right now.”  

“Wrong side?” I put in despite myself, a mixture of sarcasm and anger filling my voice as I shifted my weight, grimacing from the pain that hit me then. “Yeah, because I’m so sure that the people who are enslaving every other species in the universe are totally the good guys.”

A slight smile crossed his face. “Didn’t say we were the good guys. Said we were the right guys. There’s a difference.” For a moment, the man looked serious. “We do some awful shit, that’s for sure. But believe you me, it’d be worse without us. Fomorians are the real monsters out there.”

For a moment, I just stared at him in disbelief from my prone position. “I’m sorry,” I put in once I’d managed to find my (incredulous) voice, “are you actually trying to recruit me right now?”

Kushiel, who had turned back to her work of disabling the spells around the pedestal, spoke without looking. “I must agree with the monkey-child, which I will tell you right now annoys me to no end. What precisely do you think you’re doing?”

It was Radueriel who answered, from where he was standing over by the doorway. “Now, Kushiel, there’s no reason to be rude or ungracious in victory. The child did her best for her own side. Given what she faced, falling short in the end was to be expected. Still, she did quite well.” Looking to me, he added, “And in case you’re trying to stall until that headmistress of yours gets here, there’s, ahh, really no point. They won’t be showing up.”

Before I could demand to know what he meant by that, Kushiel actually elaborated for him. “Indeed. It seems that Liesje was slightly more… clever than we gave her credit for. This vault has been shifted into two connected pocket universes. The book itself was also split. One must have both halves, or it is useless. What we believed was the ‘back door’ into this vault was actually the door into the second vault. But it is no matter. We have… other forces gathering the book from the first vault as we speak.”

“The point is,” Radueriel explained, “they’re not coming, because you can’t get from one vault to the other without going through the right door, you see? That door to get to this one.” He gestured to the one we had come through. “And the ahhh, ‘front’ door to get to the other one. Two vaults. Two books. They might as well be a billion light years apart.”

“Look, kid,” Abaddon announced in a voice that rumbled like thunder while I was mentally reeling from that, “it’s like we said, you did pretty good. You even killed Manakel. Still not sure how you pulled that off, but hey, he was trying to kill you at the time, so I get it. Don’t like it, but I get it. None of this was personal.”

“Not… personal?” I managed, staring at him. “You killed Seth. You killed Seth like… less than an hour ago, and you don’t think this was personal? You don’t think it’s personal?” My voice rose at the end, almost turning to a shriek despite myself as I shoved myself up a bit against the pain.

He gave an easy nod at that. “Yeah, I did. He was a threat, so I finished it. Just like Manakel was a threat to you.” Reaching up, he pointed at me with two fingers. “Both of you. Yeah. The old man managed to let us know that you’ve got a little friend in there. Still doesn’t make sense. A kid wouldn’t be able to even pose the slightest threat to old Manakel. So what’d you do?”

They knew about Tabbris, I realized. Which made sense, considering how much time Manakel had had to send that message along while he was trying to escape the hospital. Still, I kept my face as expressionless as possible. “Maybe your old war buddy wasn’t as tough as he thought.”

If I hit a nerve, Abaddon didn’t show it. He just gave a small shrug. “Maybe. But like I said, none of this was personal. We’ve got a job to do, a war to win. I think you’d do pretty well if you just let go of all these other… distractions and worked with us instead of against us. You think we go too far? Eh, maybe. But what do you want, a universe with some jackasses like us keeping things in line, or one with the Fomorians killing everyone to remake them in their image? Sometimes you don’t get to pick the good guys, kid. Sometimes you just have to pick the less evil ones. And if it’s down to us or the Fomorians, well, I don’t think it’s much of a question, do you?”

“I think you’re all evil pieces of shit,” I snapped, “and we can do better.”

The whole time, my mind was racing. As was Tabbris’. What the hell were we supposed to do?! Where… where was everyone? Where was anyone? The Seosten were about to take Liesje’s spell, and there was no one here to help! I couldn’t stall anymore, I couldn’t fight anymore. I had no chance, none, against three Olympians at once even if I hadn’t been injured. They were going to take the spell and there was nothing I could do about it. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to try? I had nothing. Nothing that would help. I’d thrown everything I had at delaying them this long and it wasn’t enough. It just… wasn’t enough.

As if to make that realization even worse, there was a sound of satisfaction from Kushiel just then. The woman straightened, cracking her neck with a visible smile as she glanced my way. “That’s it. The last of the Aken woman’s spells. Do you feel accomplished for delaying us from our goal for this long, monkey-child? Do you feel as though you’ve achieved something? Because you have not. You’ve done nothing, accomplished nothing. The spell,” she declared while reaching out to grab the book, “is ours. And it will be destroyed. So all this wasted effort, do you still think it was worth it?”

“Every second where you’re still a loser is most definitely worth it,” I shot back. “Hey look, there’s another one. And another, and another. Yup, still a loser.”

Her eyes narrowed, while her hand tightened around the book. “And yet, you are the one who has lost.”

“Have I?” I asked flatly. Then I moved. My hands came off the floor, creating two quick portals in front of myself. One led right in front of Kushiel, while the other led to my staff. Tabbris hit the boost, just as I grabbed the weapon and the book. Even as Kushiel started to yank the book away, I triggered the blast on my staff, sending myself flying backwards and tearing the book from the psycho bitch’s hands. My back hit the far wall, and I slammed the staff down to shove myself to my feet with the book under one arm.

All three Olympians gave me equally unimpressed looks, though Kushiel’s was mixed with obvious annoyance. “Is that all,” she demanded while taking a step my way. “You are not leaving with that book. You have no way out of here, no way to escape. What is the point of this?”

“Well, like I said,” I put in as casually as I could manage while my legs were screaming in pain from putting weight on them, “every second you’re still a loser, yada yada. You know the drill.”

“You ignorant child!” Kushiel snapped, clearly losing it then while the other two Olympians simply stayed out of the way. “You are the one who has lost! You will not leave this vault. You will die. No one is coming to save you. You will die here, right now.” As she spoke, the woman’s hand produced a gold-handled blade, which she brought to her own chest. “Even if I must do it myself.”

“Last chance, kid,” Abaddon casually remarked from where he stood with his arms folded. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d like to see what you could do for our side. But you’ve gotta give me a reason to speak up for you.”

“She wants me dead,” I replied while keeping my eyes on Kushiel as the woman held that knife against her own chest. With a single push, she could kill me. With a single push, she could end all of this. But I kept talking anyway. “But not because of this. She wants me dead because she knows. She wants to kill me because she knows, but she wants to make sure. She wants to see her.”

“What are you rambling about?” Kushiel snapped. I had a feeling that she might have just stabbed herself and been done with me for good, but Abaddon put out a hand to catch her arm. He was clearly curious himself, and maybe even serious about wanting to recruit me. Either way, it was a chance, small as it might have been.

I took it, pressing on. “You want me dead, because you know. Or maybe you’re just afraid that you know.” Raising the hand that wasn’t clutching the book, I pointed to my own chest. “You know who’s in here. That little girl that Abaddon mentioned and you just keep conveniently ignoring. You know what she is. And you know what her being with me means. That’s why I keep calling you a loser. Not this book. Her. You know where she came from. That’s why you want me dead, so you can look at her and know once and for all. Because it’s been eating you up this whole time, hasn’t it? Ever since you heard from Manakel what he saw, it’s been right there. You’ve known. You figured it out, even if you didn’t want to. So you want to look at her.”

“Pardon me.” Radueriel spoke up then, raising his cybernetic hand. “Would you mind filling in the rest of the class, or is this rambling distraction going to go on much longer?”

“Sariel,” I announced flatly, after a brief consultation with my partner. “You had her locked up. You tortured her for years. You tried to destroy her. You took everything she had, and she still beat you.”

“Sariel beat nothing!” Kushiel snapped, her voice nearly a shriek. She shoved Abaddon off of her, moving to drive the knife into her own chest to end me.

“Mother!” The shout came from the doorway where Radueriel was. But he wasn’t the one who spoke. It was Theia, of course. She was standing there, staring directly at Kushiel with narrowed eyes. “You will not harm her. You will not harm any of my friends again.”  

Radueriel himself had moved to stop her, but when she did nothing but stand there to talk, he slowed, glancing curiously to the woman in charge.

The anger that Kushiel had shown me was nothing compared to what appeared in her eyes then. Slowly, she turned to look at her own daughter (or her own daughter’s host, anyway) with a look of utter contempt and hatred. It was the kind of look that no mother should ever give their child. “You,” she snarled, that single word pouring forth centuries worth of scorn and malice. “You should not have shown yourself. It was bad enough when you were merely a failure. But a traitor? A traitor? You are not my child. You are an abomination. You are a–”  

“Tabbris!” I shouted out loud, interrupting before the head she-bitch could keep going on her rant. At the word, all of them snapped their gazes my way, even as my partner, my sister, stepped out of me. Her hands took hold of the book with Liesje’s spell, and she gave the trio of Olympians, as well as Theia and Pace, a quick wave. “Mama says hi.”

Then she recalled back to me, with the book. Both disappeared from sight.

Kushiel’s eyes went wild with fury as she lunged at me. “If you think we won’t tear Sariel’s spawn from your corpse to take her and the book, you are sadly mistaken, you–” Her voice devolved to a wordless cry of rage as she closed a hand around my neck. I was hauled off the ground and shoved hard against the wall, flailing a bit as she choked me.

“Mother!” Blurting the word again, Theia crossed half the distance between us. “Let her go! We told you, you will not harm any more of our friends. You will not kill any more of my friends.” Her voice cracked with each word, the overwhelming fear evident. In spite of it, she stood straight, staring hard at the woman who had birthed her.

In turn, I saw that blinding rage in Kushiel’s face redirected that way. She slowly turned her head to glare that way while holding me off the floor with one hand. “You…” The word came in a snarl, before she pulled me off the wall and then shoved me hard against it once more, slamming me in a blow that sent a shock of pain through my back. “I told you never to call me that. That word is not for you to use, you pathetic, filthy abomination of a Lie!” The last word came in a shout that sent spittle flying from her mouth.

The shout from Theia, however, was just as angry. Scared, trembling, but angry. “I am your daughter! Hate it, hate me, but you are my mother! You spent thousands of years wishing for a child. Then you had one. You had one! I am your child. Your flesh is my flesh, your blood is my blood!”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Radueriel start to take a step that way. But Abaddon held a hand out to stop him, giving a slight shake of his head when the man looked to him.

“Blood?” Kushiel echoed in disbelief. “Flesh? You… you are a humiliation. I should not have allowed you to take one breath more than the breath you took in the moment I learned you were a Lie!” She was shouting, her rage filling the room. “I was a fool! I believed that my child, my child could learn, that you could beat the handicap that you were born with, that you could be cured. I was wrong. You were a failure at birth and you will remain a failure to your death. Now leave that host so that I may see that that death.”

With those words, Kushiel gave me a hard throw to the side. I hit the ground, sprawling out painfully. But my focus was on the woman herself, who had produced a gleaming silver dagger. Without another word, she hurled that blade across the room. Before I could even think of focusing on a portal, the dagger embedded itself into Pace’s chest, even as both of us (all four, if we counted Theia and Tabbris) screamed.

A girl stood there, form glowing briefly before fading. Pale skin. Dark hair. Theia. The real Theia. She straightened, taking in what had to be the first breath of her own in over a year.

And then she stepped forward, revealing another girl behind her. Pace. Alive. Standing with the bloody dagger in one hand. The wound in her chest… almost nonexistent.

“Your power.” The words that came from Theia just then sounded as though they were occuring to her the moment that she said them. She realized the truth and spoke it in wonder. “It’s your power, Mother.”

As she spoke those words, Kushiel slumped to her knees. Blood thoroughly coated the front of her shirt, while she held both hands against the traumatic wound in her chest, mouth gaping like a fish.

“You killed her,” Theia continued softly, her voice dull with shock. “You killed her. But I am… I am your daughter. I have your power. I… I moved it. I moved the damage. You killed her, just long enough. But I moved it. And you can’t… reflect what’s already been reflected.”

That was it. Theia had inherited her mother’s power to transfer damage. But because Pace had taken lethal damage, even if only for a bare instant before it was transferred, that had allowed Theia to stop possessing her.

Distantly, I noticed Radueriel and Abaddon. Both seemed frozen in confusion and disbelief, incapable of driving themselves to move against what they were witnessing.

From her knees, blood soaking the floor beneath her, Kushiel held her hands tight against the wound in her chest. She lifted her head, speaking a single, trembling word in a voice still full of hate and disgust. “… L… Lie…”

“My name,” her daughter informed her while plucking the dagger from Pace’s hand, “is not Lie.

“It is Aletheia.”

Recognition for that name and what it meant abruptly dawned in Kushiel’s hateful eyes, her mouth opening to spit a denial. But Theia moved first, driving the dagger into her own throat.

Once more, the damage was reflected. And once more, Kushiel was faced with her own power being used against her, as she had used it against so many others over so many centuries. Once more she was faced with a daughter who could hurt her the way that she had hurt her and everyone else for so long.

Once more… and for the last time.

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