Month: March 2019

Summer Epilogue 2A (Heretical Edge)

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The willowy girl looked as though she could have been blown over by a stiff breeze, as she stood next to a tall pine tree in the middle of a park across from a church in a medium-sized town somewhere in Arizona. The grass was somewhat yellowed from lack of water, and weeds had partially overgrown the nearby playground where a couple of children played under the semi-watchful eye of their babysitter, who sat on a bench.

Marina Dupont heard the kids yelling back and forth about how they wanted to go get ice cream, which brought a little smile to her face. But most of her attention was focused on watching the area around herself, eyes passing over the almost entirely empty park with a slow wariness. She was attentive and ready, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

And in the end, it didn’t matter. She was still taken completely by surprise as a figure appeared beside her. Whether he came by teleporting, or by stepping through the tree, or in some other way, she had no idea. All the girl knew was that a man’s hand was suddenly around her throat, shoving her back against the tree. His hard grip cut off her air entirely, and she found herself staring with wide eyes at a man not much taller than herself, but considerably more well-built.

Dietric Collins. That was his name. He was a heavily tanned guy who wore what looked like a black muscle shirt (but upon closer inspection was actually closer to very fine chainmail) and jeans, his muscles rippling as he gripped her tight. His voice dark. “You think it’s funny to steal other people’s children?”

Marina tried to respond, but he was cutting off her air. She glanced sidelong toward the playground, and the man snarled, “Oh, don’t worry about them. They can’t see a damn thing that’s going on over here. They won’t interrupt us. No one will, until I’m done dealing with you.”

Dietric’s grip loosened just a tiny bit then, enough to allow her to choke words out. “Now, why don’t you tell me exactly why I shouldn’t squeeze your neck until your head pops right off, for taking my kid?” His words were a low, harsh whisper, eyes filled with anger that was barely controlled.

She managed to speak, her voice weak and almost inaudible. “Because you want your son.”

That made the man’s eyes flare with renewed rage, but he narrowly contained himself. “You… tell me where my son is right now, and maybe I will content myself with simply dragging you back to Crossroads to be thrown in the deepest, darkest dungeon we have.”

Again, she managed to push the words out. “Look… to your… right… at the… sign.”

Slowly, the man did so. His head turned a bit to look at a sign about not littering in the park. More specifically, his eyes found the small camera that had been attached to it, facing them.

“It’s… spelled to see through your Bystander illusion,” Marina informed him. “Your son… and the other children, are watching. They’re nowhere near here. But your son can be here in a second.”

The man’s eyes flashed with rage, but Marina pushed on quickly while trying to ignore how terrified she felt. “I didn’t mean to kidnap anyone. I meant to stop them from being kidnapped. They’re children, they don’t deserve to be pawns. You want your son, you can have him. Of course you can have him. He’s your kid, I’m… I’m not a monster, no matter what you think. But I’m not going to let you or anyone else take other children to use against either side in this war. You can have your son. You can leave with your son. But only your son. You can take your son and leave here.”

A very low snarl escaped Dietric. “What makes you think I won’t take Andrew and you?”

Swallowing hard, Marina very slowly and carefully lifted her hand, showing him the stone that she was holding tightly onto. Her voice cracked a little as she explained. “It’s an escape spell. As soon as I let it go, it’ll teleport me somewhere else away from here.”

Dietric glared at her. “I can stop you from letting go of it. I can stop you from teleporting. You really think that’s going to save you?”

Her head shook. “Not by itself, no. But you… you see that restroom over there? The men’s room door?” When the man glanced that way, she continued. “You know we have the field trip key. It lets us transport through any door. That’s the door that Andrew is going to use. They’re watching on that camera. There’s also a camera in the place this stone takes me. The second I disappear from here and reappear there, your son will come through that door. Then they’ll open a door for me in the new place, before you or any of the other Heretics you’ve brought with you can track me down. We’ll be gone. You’ll have your son, but we’ll move to a new place and contact another parent. Like I said, we want to give all children back to their parents. No matter what side they’re on.”

For a moment, Dietric scowled before demanding, “Why should I believe that you’re just going to give him back?”

Despite the fear that she felt, Marina met his gaze. “What would be the point of playing games with this, sir? I’m not asking for anything. I’m not demanding anything. I’m trying to give you your son back. No strings, except that I get to leave and you only take your son. If I didn’t want you to take your son, there wouldn’t have been any point in contacting you to have you come here. This whole situation would be completely pointless. I don’t get anything.”

The man considered that, letting the logic reach past his instinctive rage at his son being taken away from Crossroads. It took a moment, but he brought himself under control. Still, his voice was a snarl that showed just how angry he still was. “You know we’re still going to track you down. And you’ll still be tried for abducting all these children. It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. The rebels are criminals. You are a criminal. And you’ll be tried as one.”

“I’m doing what I think is right,” Marina quietly informed him. “That’s not going to change.” She took a breath to steady herself a bit before adding, “I’m going to drop the stone now. As soon as I do, your son will come out of that door.” She waited to see if the man would say anything else. When he didn’t, she exhaled, then dropped the rock.

Instantly, the world spun around her. She was transported to the back room of a department store across town. Nearby was a closet. As soon as her eyes found it, the closet door opened and a couple of the older kids, nearly thirteen themselves, waved her in.

Two portals opened up nearby, as a couple Heretics emerged. Marina saw them from the corners of her eyes, but managed to jump through the open door just before it was yanked closed after her. They left the pursuing Heretics behind.

They were in the abandoned house that the group had briefly set up in. Eli, the oldest boy and the one she’d left the field trip key with, quickly pressed it into her hand. All the other kids, sans Andrew and a few others who had been given back, were staring at her. Several were crying, while others tried to blurt questions about what was going on now. Marina, meanwhile, took the key, thought of a different destination, shoved the key into the nearby door, and opened it. “Come on guys! Field trip. Keep your buddies. Sara, you’re with Valerie and Tyson now that Andrew’s gone. Let’s go. Everyone wants some lunch, right?”

They went through the door. And then through another, and another, and one more. Then she led them through the streets of a small town to yet another door that they could pass through, then did the same in a larger city. Six or seven times they jumped to new locations, to leave as hard of a trail to follow as possible. Marina also used several spells she had learned about how to keep Strangers from tracking her after a hunt. She did everything she could to throw off the inevitable pursuit, before letting the kids take a break for lunch. They went to the food court of a mall and she let them get whatever they wanted. Of the many problems they had, money wasn’t one of them. She’d learned how to use a spell to take money from Bystander cash machines in the first semester of this (her second) year. They used the spell, among others like it, to allow Heretics to operate in the Bystander world without the need for one of their jobs.

So technically she was a kidnapper and a thief. Among everything else that Marina had done in the past twenty-four hours, getting money to feed the children she was taking care of and give them a place to sleep was at the bottom of what she felt bad about. But it was still a nagging thought.

Andrew wasn’t the first, though this one had gone off with the least hitches and problems as they’d worked out some of the kinks from earlier efforts. They’d now sent several other kids to their closest guardians. But that still left a lot more to send back. A lot more meetings with angry, frightened, possibly vengeful parents.

It was going to be a long couple of days.

******

It had been a very long couple of days. And they weren’t even halfway done. Setting up a new location for a transfer, vetting it as being clear of any problems, getting their escape ready, contacting the parent in question, all of it took time. And with each subsequent parent (from either side) who had taken longer to get their child back, many grew frustrated. Children wanted their parents. They were tired of the field trip. They were scared of what was going on.

Still, Marina pressed on. The older kids were a godsend. Especially Eli and another near-thirteen year old named Laina, both of whom helped keep the younger ones entertained and herded. Without them, all of this would have been impossible. They understood what was happening, for the most part, and kept the others a lot more calm than they would’ve been.

Marina had almost no way of knowing which side any given parent was on. She simply asked each child who their mother, father, or closest adult was and contacted that person to set up an exchange. Some were more understanding than others, and she had actually been struck more than once throughout this. But for the most part, the parents were more interested in getting their children back than in pursuing or punishing her. At least until they had them.

As the exchanges went on, the adults started showing up already knowing what was expected, as word of how Marina was doing it spread. Some came with various efforts to trick her, or end the situation. But Marina and the other kids varied things enough to avoid falling for them, though there were a few very close calls.

Now, most of the youngest kids had been given back. That was where Marina had focused first, on the smallest of her charges. They still had just over half of the children left, and she was trying to think of how to speed this up. She’d been varying times of when the exchanges happened, along with the locations. Sometimes she’d wait only ten minutes between contacting parents, while other times she waited hours while she and the children slept.

Slept. Hah. She’d only actually slept maybe three hours in the past couple of nights. Which, given powers she’d inherited, wasn’t too bad. She usually only slept about four hours per night anyway. But three hours in two days was pushing it a bit.

At the moment, Marina was letting everyone sleep in the several rooms they’d rented out in this out-of-the-way motel along a freeway somewhere in Oregon. Thirty-six kids sharing about five rooms. Most were bunched up together, sleeping on the beds, on the floor, nesting on the chairs and couches, wherever they could find space. Marina just made sure that girls were only rooming with girls, and tried to keep similar age brackets together.

A drink. She was tired and needed caffeine so she could plan the next exchange. So the girl made her way out of the room she was sharing with a handful of her charges. Stepping out to the parking lot, she headed for the brightly lit spot nearby where vending machines were.

Unfortunately, she’d barely reached the machines when the girl heard the scrape of footsteps behind her. She pivoted, hand reaching for the hilt of her hidden sword at her side. But it was too late. A man slammed into her. She was thrown back against the nearest machine with a yelp, while her attacker pointed a hefty one-handed axe in her direction, the blade pushing close to her throat. “Look what we have here.”

“Mr. Rusterfeld?” Blurting the name as her heart hammered its way almost out of her chest, Marina stared. Karl Rusterfield had been the last parent she’d delivered a kid back to that day, his young daughter named Esme. He’d been so grateful to get her back that he’d given her a brief hug.

“Yeah,” the man confirmed as though reading her mind. “And you didn’t even notice the tracker spell I put on you when we had our little moment, did you? Well, guess what. Now we’re going to have a different moment. And when I’m done showing you why you don’t take other people’s kids, you can spend some time in the–”

That was as far as the man got, before he was abruptly yanked from behind. A much smaller figure had caught hold of the man’s arm and hair. He managed a brief grunt of surprise before he was yanked all the way around and hurled face first into the next vending machine over. This one sold snacks, and the glass front shattered under the impact as he was bodily hurled into it.

He stumbled back, dropping his axe just as his attacker kicked the back of his leg out, catching the dazed man before he could recover. He made a noise of surprise, just as the smaller figure put their fist into his face, dropping the man to the ground. One more time, he tried to straighten up, but a foot to the same spot that their fist had hit an instant earlier put him back down. That time, he stayed there.

All of it happened in just a brief couple of seconds. Marina barely had time to yank her sword free and jerk away from the machine she had been shoved against before it was all over. Rusterfield lay on the ground, completely unconscious. And his attacker was straightening from him, turning to face her.

“Roxa?!” The name blurted its way from Marina’s lips instantly, her eyes wide with shock. “You’re here!” Reflexively, she took a step that way to hug the girl who had been one of her mentees for only the first couple of months of the school term before disappearing. The first who had disappeared, actually.

But then Marina stopped. She stared, mouth opening and shutting as she realized just what her Stranger sense was telling her. “You… you’re… you’re a…”

“Werewolf,” Roxa supplied quietly. As she straightened fully, Gidget came forward out of the shadows, making a hopeful sound upon seeing Marina. “Yes. That’s why I couldn’t come back.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Marina managed, her voice cracking. She wanted to hug Roxa so much, after spending months worrying about where the girl was and what had happened to her. But she was a werewolf. And that meant… or rather, didn’t it mean… but those things that the rebellion said…

“I know it’s confusing,” Roxa assured her. “And it’s scary and… a lot of things. But I swear, I don’t want to hurt you. We don’t want to hurt you, or any of your kids.”

“We?” Marina echoed. Then she saw them. Several more figures hanging back in the shadows, spread through the parking lot.

“My pack,” Roxa informed her. “My friends. My family. We came to help, Marina. We knew they’d track you down eventually, so we had… we had other weres through the world letting us know if they saw you. They had your pictures and your scents. It took two days for us to catch up. But I guess it was pretty good timing. We’ve been watching for a couple hours.”

Through all of that, Marina kept staring at the shadowy figures, her eyes jumping from one to the next. It took her a moment to find her voice again. “You came with a pack of werewolves…”

Flinching, Roxa quietly replied, “Listen, I know you can’t trust them–that you can’t trust… us. But–”

“Fuck it.” The two words left Marina before she knew what she was doing. Then she was embracing Roxa tightly. She’d crossed the distance between them almost instantly, hugging the girl. “Fuck it. Whatever, whatever. You’re okay. You’re alive. That’s all I–that’s what matters. Roxa, Roxa, you’re alive!” In that moment, the hard knot that she’d been holding in her own stomach ever since Roxa had disappeared vanished. Werewolf or not, the girl looked healthy, and… and safe. And she certainly didn’t look or sound like an evil monster. Marina still didn’t know how she felt about this whole rebellion thing, but Roxa was right in front of her, and had clearly saved her from Rusterfield. That was worth something.

Flushing slightly, the other girl returned the hug after a moment. “Yeah. And trust me, there’s a lot to talk about as far as that goes. But you have to get out of here.” Her foot gestured to the unconscious man. “We don’t know how many people he told about tracking you, or who might be on their way.”

“The kids,” Marina realized, straightening. “I have to wake up the kids. You’re right, we have to get out of here, we–” She stopped talking then, looking again at the shadowy werewolf figures.

“You can go,” Roxa informed her softly. “We’re not going to stop you, Marina. You can take the kids and keep doing this by yourself, if you want to. We know what you’re trying to do, and we won’t stop you. But… but if you trust me, we can help you.”

“Help me?” Marina echoed, eyes moving back to the younger girl’s.

Roxa nodded. “Yes. We can help protect you. We can watch for any other Heretics. We can warn you about them. We can help get the kids back to their parents, on both sides. I promise, we just want to help. That’s all. We want to help you get these kids back to their parents, where they belong. And we have a safe place for you all to stay while you take the kids one at a time. A place where you guys can’t be tracked down. I promise, they–you all… will be safe there until you can send them home.”

It took Marina another few seconds to find her voice once more. “Roxa, I… I don’t know what to… you’re here. You’re safe. You’re a werewolf, you’re with werewolves, but you’re not… “ She closed her eyes briefly, feeling torn in every possible direction. A huge part of her wanted to tell the girl to take her wolves and leave, that she appreciated the help, but she just couldn’t trust them enough to take that next step. Not with children’s lives at stake.

Those words were on the tip of her tongue. But she stopped. Her eyes opened, dozens of competing thoughts tumbling through her mind. She stared at the girl in front of her. “I… we’ll go with you. If you vouch for them, if you say they’re safe, then I… Roxa, I trust you. Maybe not them. Not yet. Not even with all this new… rebellion stuff. I just can’t trust them yet. But I trust you. Maybe it’s wrong and I’ll regret it and hate myself forever. But… but I’ll trust you.”

“That’s enough,” Roxa agreed quietly. “I promise, I swear, you’ll all be safe. Where we’re going, it might look scary, but no one is going to hurt you or any of the children. On my soul, it’s completely safe for you guys. It’s hidden, and no Heretic tracking spells will find it.”

Swallowing hard as her mind fought back and forth with itself about whether she’d made the right decision or not, Marina asked, “What…  where is this place you want us to go?”

Roxa smiled faintly. “Well… it’s called Wonderland.”

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Becoming 2-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, sometimes using my paint to speed myself up, other times too distracted to remember it. The bruise on my leg hurt, but I ignored it. The scenery around me was a blur. I think there were people, some of them looking my way as I rushed past in my strange clothes and helmet. A few probably said something. But I didn’t pay attention. Their words were buzzing sounds in the back of my head while I ran past. Ran until I was exhausted. Ran until I could run no further and finally fell to my knees in the back of some empty parking lot somewhere, near a building with a dumpster that was surrounded on three sides by a short fence.

My eyes were flooded and blinded by tears as I half-lay there on the uneven, broken pavement. I made a noise deep in the back of my throat that some part of me recognized as more animal-like than human. It came again, louder, as I thought about what I had just seen.

My father was pretending to be a hero while sanctioning murder, while working with villains. My father, whom I loved more than I could say, the man I had looked up to my whole life… was a bad guy. More than that, he was pretending to be a hero. And not just any hero, but the one who happened to be my personal favorite. The man in my life whom I had looked up to the most, and the man out of my life whom I had looked up to the most were both the same person. And he was a bad guy. He ordered people to be killed. He… he…

I was on my feet. Lashing out hard, I kicked the nearby dumpster, sending pain through the bruise in my leg. Then I punched the dumpster, hard. It hurt, but it was a physical pain, which was a welcome distraction from what I was feeling. So I punched it again, cursing out loud. I hit the dumpster several times in quick succession, cursing louder with each strike of my fist against it.

I couldn’t breathe. Stumbling back, my hands pushed my helmet up and off, letting it fall to the ground. My face was still covered by the ski mask, and I yanked that up as well. Clutching the mask in one hand, I sucked in air greedily, breathing hard. My foot lashed out to kick the dumpster one more time, while I stared at the ground and heard my father’s voice once again talking about dumping me (not that he knew it was me) in the lake if I wasn’t useful for him. He’d said it with no hesitation, like it was normal for him. It was normal for him. Killing those two guys last night wasn’t a fluke or a one-time thing. It was normal. It was who my father was.

I couldn’t put that together with the man I knew. It was like they were two different people. My father was firm, but he loved me. He protected me. He was the hero in my life, and Silversmith was my favorite actual hero. And now they were both… he… he was both and he was a monster. He was… he ordered… he…

I kicked the dumpster again. As I did so, however, the back door of the building that I’d thought was empty was shoved open. Someone was standing there in the light, his gruff voice demanding, “Who the fuck is out there?! Hey! Hey, get away from that!”

He couldn’t see me very well, I knew that much. He’d just come from a brightly lit room and I was standing in the dark some distance away. At best, he could make out my outline. Quickly, I called, “Sorry!” Then I turned, grabbed my helmet off the ground, and ran. With my luck, he’d insist on trying to call either the cops or my parents if I stuck around, and I couldn’t deal with either right then. Especially not while I was dressed like this. That was a confrontation I wasn’t ready to deal with.

Running across the lot while the man gave a half-hearted yell for me to stay the hell away from his shop, I looked down at myself. I was still holding the helmet and mask, and the jumpsuit coverall things didn’t exactly blend in anyway. Not to mention, I had a long way to go if I was going to get back to where my regular clothes were hidden.

Tonight had been basically as far from a success as you could get, without me actually dying or being captured. I hadn’t actually accomplished anything aside from finding out about my dad being Silversmith.

Except I had. Belatedly, I realized that I still had my phone. Throughout that whole thing, I’d somehow remembered to drop it into the pocket of my coveralls while running for my life. I still had the video, short as it was, of my brother meeting with those Easy Eight guys, while standing with a gun in his hand. The video hadn’t actually recorded him doing anything illegal, but it was something. Maybe I could figure out what to do with it later.

Right now, I just wanted to… actually, I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t know what I wanted, but going home was basically the last possible thing. The idea of going back to that place while knowing everything I did made me want to start cursing and hitting things again.

I needed to clear my head. Walking around felt like a good idea, but I didn’t want to draw attention. So I did something about that. Focusing, I turned the bottom half of the coveralls white, while making the top half blue. I thought about it briefly before leaning over to look at my waist. Would this work? I made a space about one inch wide, all the way around, turn black, like a belt. As an added touch, I put in a bit of red right at the front, where the fake belt’s buckle and clasp would be.

It wasn’t going to fool anyone who got close, but in the dark, from a distance, I might not stand out. Enough to walk down the street, anyway. Especially after I looked around for a few seconds and found a discarded plastic grocery bag to shove my helmet and gloves into.

Okay, it still wasn’t perfect. But again, I could probably take a walk like this. Holding the bag with one hand, I started out. My eyes were down, watching the sidewalk ahead of me as I made my way down the street while cars passed me by. I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going, just that I needed to keep moving away from where I’d been.

My thoughts wandered, but always came back to that one thing. My father was a villain. My father was Silversmith. Silversmith was a villain. He was a bad guy. My whole family were… were..

I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to hit things. I did none of that. I walked. For a long time, actually. It helped clear my head, helped me come to terms, at least as much as I could that quickly, with what I’d found out. I could breathe. It hurt, but I could think about it.

Okay, Dad was a bad guy. My whole family were bad guys. Pretty important ones too, if Dad was able to play at being the leader of the local Conservators. Dad was super-rich, powerful, and influential. He obviously had a hell of a lot of connections in both the Fell and Star-Touched groups. Heroes and villains, he was playing both sides. I didn’t know why or how he pulled it off, but he did.

Then there was that thing he’d said, about how they could maybe ‘use’ me no matter which side I fell on, as long as I didn’t know too much. Dad was confident that whether I, or rather, the boy he thought I was, wanted to be a hero or a villain, they could use me. Which obviously meant that he had even more contacts in both those worlds than I already knew about. Probably other Touched that either worked for him or did favors for him.

I couldn’t go to anyone. I realized that while walking along a dark side street that was only partially lit by a couple valiantly flickering street lamps, the buildings to either side long-since closed for the evening. A steady stream of cars passed, none paying any attention to me or to anything else in this neighborhood.

I couldn’t just go to the cops or flag down a random hero. Dad could have people–no, did have people involved with any or all of them. The second I told my story, if I was talking to the wrong person, or if they talked to the wrong person, things would get really bad, really fast.

So… what was I going to do about it? What could I do about it?

Nothing. Or at least, nothing that immediately came to mind. I had no idea who to trust, only that trusting the wrong person would be the end of this whole thing. For a second, I absurdly thought about, of all things, the game Minesweeper. I’d gotten… fairly good at that game from the semester that I’d been a librarian assistant during lunch back in junior high. It involved a lot of sitting at the desk doing nothing. I’d spent much of it playing games or browsing on my phone. But I’d also played a lot of Minesweeper on the ancient computer that sat there. Enough to know some of the basics, like the fact that it was normally impossible to lose on the first click because if there was a mine under the first tile that you clicked on, it would automatically be moved elsewhere. Your first move on a new board was always completely safe.

Too bad this wasn’t Minesweeper. Clearing this particular set of mines, finding the safe person to talk to about this, didn’t have that kind of safety net. Talking to the wrong person would let my family know exactly what was going on. It would set off all the mines. And I couldn’t chance that. Not yet.

So I couldn’t talk to anyone right now. Not until I knew some more. I was going to have to be very careful. Maybe… maybe I could find out why my parents were part of this. Maybe finding out why would help me figure out who I could trust. But if I did that, if I dug into their history, it… it was going to be dangerous. And I had no idea how or where to start. I couldn’t just wave and say, ‘Hi, Daddy, could you tell me how you became a supervillain pretending to be a superhero?’

All of which meant I was going to have to be subtle. Maybe I could sneak into Dad’s offices, either at home or at his company headquarters downtown (under the pretense of visiting him, of course). That might be a decent place to start, since I could get away with being around home or the offices. Especially if I was careful about it. I could maybe find something to give me a starting point at figuring any of this out.

Either way, right now it was time to go home. I could figure out more… or anything at all later. But I had to get back to where I’d left my clothes first. Looking down at my phone to orient myself, I winced a little. I’d been going completely the wrong way. If I was going to get back home before my parents started to wonder where I was, I’d have to get back there quick. And that meant using my paint and skates to speed things up.

Glancing around, I ducked back behind a fast food place before shifting my suit back to white, disabling the ‘disguise’, for what it had been worth. From the bag, I took the gloves, mask, and helmet, tugging them on one by one. If I was going to use my power to get back to my clothes, doing so without covering my face would probably be a bad idea.

With my identity safely hidden, I moved back out from behind the building and checked my phone once more while rolling back to the sidewalk on my skates. With a little help from my paint, I could take a few shortcuts and make it back to my clothes before–

“Hey! Hey!” A voice called out, making me jerk in surprise as I spun with my hands up defensively.

But it wasn’t one of Simon’s goons. Or any goon, as far as I could tell. Not unless they were employing elderly women carrying shopping bags in one hand and walking a poodle with the other. She even wore a sun hat with flowers on it. The lady was standing there, using the hand with the leash looped around it to point to me. “Hey,” she repeated for a third time, “you’re one of those superhero people, right?”

“Uh,” I managed after a second of staring at her dumbly.

“One of those Minority kids?” she guessed. “You change so much, I can’t keep up. But you, whatever you call yourself. Super-skating-kid. You should call your friends to do something about those guys back there.”

“Those… guys?” I echoed blankly.

My voice must’ve been muffled, or maybe she was hard of hearing, because the woman nodded. “Yes, sonny, the guys back there.” She pointed down the street. “Two of them, they just attacked that poor man. I think they’re mugging him. You should do something about it.”

“Call the cops?” I offered a bit weakly.

The woman laughed bitterly. “Oh sure, sweetie. Call the cops and wait thirty minutes for them to show up. You go right ahead and do that. Daisy and I have to get home. Maybe we’ll have time to bake a nice cake for the officers when they get here.”

Her dog barked at me once before they hurried off, leaving me standing there while the woman muttered something about the state of the city and what it was turning into.

For a few seconds, I just stood there. My eyes were glued to the alley down the street. It was far enough back that I could barely make it out, and in a completely different direction than the way I needed to go. Some guy right now as back there getting mugged and beat up. A guy I didn’t know, who had nothing to do with me. I could call the cops, could even do so anonymously with the Doephone app. But it was like that woman had said, they would take at least half an hour to get out here. That would be too late. The damage would be done. The damage was being done even as I stood there, caught in my own indecision.

I skated that way. Wheels gliding along the pavement, I found myself rushing without consciously realizing what I was doing. Hitting the opposite sidewalk, I turned my skates black and activated the silencing power for the last distance before reaching the alley in question.

Even then, I could hear faint sounds coming from it. Sounds of… bad things. Forcing back the fear that was trying to shove its way up out of my stomach, I coasted to a stop, catching myself against the wall of the building. For a second, I just stood there, asking myself what the hell I thought I was doing.

More sounds came, and this time I was close enough to make them out. First was the sound of a whispered plea, then the shuffling of feet on pavement before that of a fist colliding with someone’s stomach. Then a grunt of pain accompanied by a violent wheeze of air from the person being hit.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I mouthed a silent prayer before peeking around the corner, just in time to see two men. No, three. The third was doubled over from being struck. They were all standing in front of a door at the back of that alley. One of the standing guys was shoving the door open, revealing darkness beyond. The guy who was doubled over said something that sounded like a plea, before the one standing in front of him caught him by the back of the neck, yanked him around, and shoved him through the open doorway. I caught a glimpse of the guy tripping to sprawl out over the floor just beyond. He said something then, another desperate plea that I could barely hear.

The guy who had thrown him in stalked after the guy, rearing back to kick him. Meanwhile, the one who had opened the door suddenly paused before starting to turn to look back up the alley.

I jerked back out of the way, throwing myself against the wall while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest. I stayed there, whispering silent prayers until I heard the heavy metal door close. Once the clang came, I took a breath before chancing a peek around the corner once more.

The alley was empty. They were inside that building, with that guy.

Putting my back to the wall once more, I reached up to shove the front of my helmet up out of the way before pushing my hands against the ski mask that covered my face to muffle the whimper of revulsion and fear that escaped me.

Who was that guy? Who were they? What did they want with him? Why were they just… hitting and kicking him, and what did they plan to do with him in there?

The only thing close to an answer I had was to the last question, and that was ‘nothing good’.  That woman was wrong, this wasn’t just a mugging. If it was a mugging, they wouldn’t have taken him in there. This was something else. The fear I’d heard in the man’s pleas… I couldn’t hear his actual words, but he had obviously been terrified. Whatever was going on, whoever they were… he was afraid they would kill him. I had no doubt about that. He had been begging for his life.

Just like those guys had last night. The two guys in that motel who had been executed right in front of me. I’d heard one of them screaming, begging for his life after the first had been shot in the head. Then he too had been silenced. Mercilessly, coldly executed.

But what could I do? I’d screwed up earlier. All I’d been trying to do was get video proof of what Simon was doing, and that had gone so wrong I’d barely escaped. I had run away. Just like I had last night. I had seen those guys get killed, and the only thing I’d done was run away.

First I had stood there, watching as they were murdered. Then I had run away. And now… now it was the same thing. Now this other guy was going to be killed. I’d stood there, watching him be dragged into that building where he would probably be executed, just like those guys last night.

I would wake up tomorrow  knowing that, whether it was in the news or not, another man had been killed because I did nothing. Three in two nights. Three men killed because I stood there and watched, because I was too afraid to do anything about it. Three men killed while I hid and then ran.

No.

Not three.

Not tonight.

Not this one.

I straightened from the wall, pushing myself off it. My hand found the front of my helmet and shoved it back down into place with a firm click. Turning, I stepped around to stand in front of the alley, facing that door, beyond which I had no idea what I would find. But I did know one thing.

I wasn’t running away this time.

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Summer Epilogue 1C (Heretical Edge)

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“Would you like to take the Tartarus orb to the ship’s secure vault, Seraph?”

The polite question came from one of Metatron’s subordinates, as he and his main honor guard stepped off of the tube connecting the assault shuttle to the command ship that had brought him to this hell hole. The officer was in his early two hundreds and eager to prove himself worthy of such an illustrious position as serving aboard the command vessel for one of the Seraphim.

“No, Decanus,” Metatron replied in a simple, measured tone as he addressed the man by rank. He didn’t want to snap at his own people, particularly just for trying to be useful. Being annoyed at this entire situation was no excuse for snapping at loyal subordinates. “I’ll take the orb to my quarters. I’d rather keep it close, just in case the devil twins added a surprise or two that we haven’t noticed.” He swore that he could feel the orb in the bag at his side, even if that was impossible given that the bag itself was a separate expanded storage space. The orb was technically in another (incredibly small) dimension at the moment. Still, it felt as though the thing was weighing him down.

Giving a few more orders about preparing the ship to leave Rysthael orbit within the next two hours, Metatron made his rounds through the ship. He would have preferred to go straight to his quarters, but it was important for the crew to see him. He took the time to speak to several, greeting them by name, asking how their various mates and families were, and offering advice when it was asked for. That went for Seosten crew members and non-Seosten alike. On board his ship, Metatron didn’t care what species they were, so long as they did the job they were given. Loyalty was what mattered in the end.

It took about one hour for the man to do his rounds. The ship would be jumping within the next hour after that, and he wanted to be on the bridge for it. But first, he needed to clean up and change into fresh clothes. It might have been ridiculous, but he never stood on the bridge before a jump in a dirty, used uniform. It felt like bad luck, a hold-over from his time so long ago serving as a navigator on an explorer ship under Zadkiel. That had been before Zadkiel went through the process that had made him, along with six others including Michael and Raphael, into… what they were now. His own first captain, the man who had been his mentor and friend, had become one of the most powerful beings in the universe.

Not that Zadkiel was around anymore. Not since they had first discovered Tartarus. Not since… well, he wasn’t around. That was enough thinking about that.

And why was he thinking about his old captain? That had been… many millennia ago. He hadn’t consciously thought about the man for a long time, though he supposed his general annoyance with many of the Olympus people probably stemmed from the loss of Zadkiel. After what had happened that made them possible…

Shaking that off, the man walked with two of his aides all the way to his quarters on the ship. Dismissing them at the door, he stepped into the room by himself and let it whoosh closed behind him.

It was either a testament to his distraction, or to… something else, that he made it almost halfway across the large main living room before noticing that while he may have entered the room without his aides, he wasn’t actually alone after all. A figure in a dark coat with the hood up stood with their back to him, facing the screen that showed an image of the planet below.

Instantly, Metatron activated several alarm spells on his person, along with a couple focused on protection, and one that would open a communication line to the bridge and the security office. A pistol materialized in his hand as he faced the intruder. “If this is some idea of a prank—”

“Your spells won’t work in here.” The voice was not threatening, but more matter of fact, as though it were simply pointing out a simple truth. It was also a familiar voice.

“Did you wonder why you were thinking about me?” With those words, the figure turned around to face him. And Metatron saw the man he had thought he would never see again. A man with long black hair, eyes a mix of brown with blue flecks, and a face that was lined more by hard work than by age. He looked exactly as he had the last time Metatron had seen him, thousands of years earlier.

“Zadkiel.” The name left his lips and a hushed whisper.

“Hi there, Navigator.” Zadkiel greeted him with a faint smile. “It’s been a while.”

Metatron stared, more than half convinced he was simply dreaming this. Or maybe it was a trick set up by those damned twins. Or maybe—

Zadkiel interrupted. “It is not a trick. I am here.”

That is impossible,” Metatron declared. “You were lost. You were the first to go into Tartarus, and you never came back. They lost you in there. You cannot be here on this ship, and certainly not in my room, because you never came out of there. You were lost. You are dead.”

With a faint smile, Zadkiel replied. “You’re right, I did get lost in there.” He stopped talking for a moment, eyes adopting a faraway look as though remembering before he shook himself. “I got lost in there for a long time. But not forever. And not nearly as long as we did.”

Blinking, Metatron found himself echoing, “We?”

His old captain met his gaze, chuckling a little before waving a hand. “Don’t worry about that yet. The point is, I am here.” He turned casually to look back at the planet then, quietly noting, “It’s weird being up here looking down on the world after all this time.”

“I don’t… what?” Metatron was completely lost, still holding the gun on his mentor almost absently. He couldn’t follow this at all. Slowly, he looked toward the planet as well. “Are you saying you were down there?” His eyes widened and he took a step that way. “You’ve been on this world? How? Why? What have you been doing? How did you get out of Tartarus?”

“We—” Zadkiel started before stopping, his head cocked to the side. “Wait. Me. Just let me talk. Let me tell him, just me. I can handle it. It will be better that way.”

That settled it. Whatever was going on, Metatron was going to make sure it was handled properly and securely. With that in mind, he thumbed the pistol over to its highest stun setting and let his finger tighten on the trigger. This was no ordinary sidearm. It was one that had been modified to be his personal weapon, packing a punch that would put down almost anyone. Especially from this range and straight on.

Then he stopped. Or rather, his finger stopped. He chose to stun the man in front of him, but his finger wouldn’t follow through. No matter how hard he tried, his hand was frozen.

A sigh escaped Zadkiel. “We truly wish you hadn’t done that. It was a bad idea. You shouldn’t have tried it. Why didn’t you just listen?” The man’s voice cracked with his own words, his body twitching a little as though he was barely holding himself together. Actual ripples ran through the man’s body, as though there were things crawling just beneath the skin.

Now, Metatron found that he couldn’t move his own body at all. He stood there, completely frozen while the man in front of him twitched and spasmed a bit before seeming to get himself under control.

“Yes,” Zadkiel muttered while taking a deep breath. “We knew this would be hard. But we tried it anyway. We’ll do what we need to do.” He focused on Metatron then, his expression seemingly a mix between pity and anger. “You should have just listened quietly. You had to go and force our hand. That was… a bad idea.”

Finding himself able to talk even as the rest of him remained frozen, Metatron demanded, “What did you do to me? Why can’t I move? Who are you and why did you take that form?”

“We told you,” the intruder snapped, “we are him. He is us. Me. Part of me. Part of us. We are him and he is a part of us.” His head twitched, eyes seeming to roll all the way around in his skull before focusing the right way forward once more.

“Are… are you… possessed?” Metatron asked. His eyes would have widened if he could move any part of himself beyond his mouth.

The intruder laughed. “That is a very difficult question to answer. Are we possessed? Or are we possessing? Which side of it are we on?” He laughed again, the sound trilling up into a high, almost shrill note before abruptly cutting off, his tone instantly sobering, his tone measured and firm. “We were lost. We were both lost in there. We were lost in that place, that horrible, horrible place. We were lost and then we found each other.”

“Who did you find, Zadkiel?” Metatron managed. “Who could you possibly have found in there? You were the only one that went in there. There was no one else. Just the Olympians, and they all came out.”

He was met by a smile, the other man’s words almost sickly sweet. “Not one of yours. Not one of ours. He was lost in there for so much longer. Lost and broken, in fact. That part of me, that part of us, was snapped off of the other. He went in there himself, whole and complete. But that place broke him. It snapped him in half. Half staying in while the other half left. Physically the same, but not. That part of me, the part of him, left. He left himself behind. He left me behind. He left me in there. Left part of himself in there. Until I found him. Until we found each other.”

Throughout that entire spiel, the man’s emotions seemed to jump through a dozen different levels at random. He shouted, whispered, laughed, and cried, sometimes all in the same sentence.

Metatron was so lost in that moment he felt like screaming. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Zadkiel seemed to take a breath, getting himself under control. “ A demonstration, perhaps. Maybe you are a visual learner.” He pointed to the screen and spoke a single word, transforming it into a blank white slate.

“Zadkiel is a circle.” Sure enough, a blue circle appeared on the screen. “His mind is a dot.” A matching blue dot appeared in the middle of the circle.

“He was sent into Tartarus to explore it, to prove that it could be used and tamed to empower the Seosten people. But he was lost in that place. He wandered for a long time by himself. By myself.” On the screen, the circle bounced around randomly.

“The Other… he was in there long before.” Another circle appeared, this one red, with a red dot in the middle of it to illustrate his mind. “That place does things to you. It gives you powers, gifts. And it does… more. For the Other, it split him in half. Two identical bodies, with slightly different copies of his mind going into each.”

On the screen, the red circle split in half, with a red dot as the brain remaining with each half.

“One half left that place.” One of the half-circles and dots disappeared. “But the other half stayed. He was there for a long time. Until Zadkiel found him. We should have fought. But we were both alone for so long. We talked. And we touched. It had been so long since we touched anyone. We had to. We had to make it real. Don’t you understand? We had to make it real!”

As Metatron was forced to watch, the half-circle of the ‘other’ and the full circle of Zadkiel bounced off each other, circling and touching.

“And then Tartarus made it real. Tartarus made it real forever. It put us together. It combined us. He was only half. So he was shoved into me. We are one now.”

The red half-circle and the blue full circle combined then. The dots that were their minds, and the half circle where both of their ‘bodies’ were overlapped turned purple.

“Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that just perfect? After everything that happened between our people, we are one now.”

“Between… our people?” Metatron’s blood went cold. “Who are you talking about? What happened in there? Who were you combined with?”

In answer, Zadkiel straightened. And then he grew another foot or so. His skin paled, turning a bit gray while his actual face remained recognizably himself, though with a few alterations. His eyes grew larger and wider.

His wings emerged. But they were more than just energy constructs. They looked demonic, like massive physical bat wings. The structures of them, the parts where the bones would be, were actually solid, while the middle part that was responsible for catching the air in a normal wing was still made of energy. Half biological monstrosity and half energy construct.

Metatron knew what he was looking at, even as every hope he had otherwise broke into shards and collapsed to dust. His fears were correct. The other being that Zadkiel had been combined with in that place… was a Fomorian.

“No,” he managed a bit brokenly, his heart crumbling as he stared at the figure that he had once looked up to so much. “You should have died. You should have died rather than come out of there with one of them attached to you. You should have killed it, or died trying. You never should’ve come out of there like this.”

Zadkiel, or whatever the two combined figures called themselves, gave a soft chuckle, stretching their wings out to their full, impressive extension. “We are far more together than we ever were apart. We are more with each other than you could ever possibly understand. We’ve brought the best of our peoples into one. And we came here to finish that job.”

“You came here… why?” Metatron managed, while the discussed and horror that he felt rose with each second that he had to spend staring at this abomination.

Rather than answer immediately, the monster turned to look at the planet on the screen. “We have been here for a long time. Longer than even you have been here. We’ve done things here. Nudged things where we needed to. We heard about prophecies. Some we wanted. Others we didn’t. Like the one about the woman who works for Morgana the witch queen.”

Metatron’s head shook. “That woman has many protégés. I don’t—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. He frowned uncertainly. Morgana the witch queen? The woman had been missing, presumed dead, for centuries. The Seosten didn’t know where she was, and yet he had just been speaking as though he knew her. As if she was… the… Sinclaire woman. How could he possibly have known that? He didn’t know that. And yet the information had simply appeared in his mind, as if he had somehow known the whole time. And if that information was in his mind, what else did he…

“You should pay more attention,” the monster snapped, and it was almost like being reprimanded by his old captain again. “Virginia Dare. We heard of many prophecies surrounding her bloodline. So we sent people to find her as a child. They disappointed us. But then, that was inevitable. We didn’t particularly care if the girl was brought to us or driven away. All that mattered was that she not live a normal life. And that was accomplished quite thoroughly.”

Still confused, Metatron asked, “Why are you meddling in that? Or in anything on this world? What is it you want?”

The sick, twisted abomination smiled at him. “We came here to find him. And we will do so. We will find him and be one.”

Metatron was silent for a moment before letting out a breath. “The other half of the Fomorian who was in Tartarus. The one who left. You think he’s here on this world?”

“We know he is,” was the response. “He’s been here since the beginning. Through all of their history. He has always been here. Playing nice with them. Being the pleasant old man. He even calls himself Grandfather, of all things.”

“Why can’t I move?” Metatron repeated his earlier question, still straining against whatever had frozen him. He had to tell others. He had to make sure this was known. “What did you do to me? And why have you shown yourself now? Your Fomorian isn’t here on the ship.” He tried to ignore the fact that he had said that while looking at what was at least half of a Fomorian. Half of a Fomorian… and his old captain. It was a thought that brought bile to his throat.

“No,” the monstrosity before him replied, his twisted Fomorian-Seosten visage tearing Metatron’s very soul every second that he had to look at it. “He is not. But you are. And you have brought back what we need to reintegrate with him. Just as you were supposed to.”

“The Tartarus Orb,” Metatron realized, a sudden chill running through him. “If you want that, you’ll have to go get it out of the ship vault.”

In what appeared at first to be a non sequitur, the figure in front of him mused, “We are many things. Survivors. Abandoned. Torn asunder. Joined. Allied. Left, yet found. We were lost, yet we came upon one another. Though not fully whole, we have reached beyond what we were capable of alone. We are so very many things…

“But we are not stupid.”

With that final declaration, Metatron felt his own hand suddenly jerk, seemingly of its own volition. It hurt, as though the bone in his body was moving and dragging the rest of the arm with it. He reached, against his will, into the bag at his side where the orb was kept and plucked the thing out before offering it forward. All the while, he struggled uselessly. “What… what… do you want with this…?”

One of those horrific wings of mixed flesh and glowing energy reached forward, a clawed  talon-like extension on the end snatching the orb before bringing it back to the monster’s actual hands, where he cradled it. His voice was quiet. “We are the inevitable conclusion of our species’ endless war, a true peace and alliance. Look at us. Look at us. To end this war, we are what is needed. No Fomorians. No Seosten. Only together.

“But we are not yet whole. We are not yet truly two-in-one. One of us is a half of himself.”

Metatron understood. “The Fomorian down on that world. You want to unite with him.”

“He is our remaining part,” the figure confirmed while turning the orb over in his hands. “He is needed, if we are to complete our purpose. We will end the Fomorian-Seosten war, by ending the Fomorian and the Seosten as separate people. All will be brought together as we have been. And peace will be restored. We will end this conflict for all time by truly uniting our peoples. But we cannot do that without our final part. He is needed. We need him to be a part of us, to make us whole.”

Holding the orb up, he continued. “We can only unite with our lost part through Tartarus. We need to be there, with him, to be made whole. This will be the key.”

That took a moment to process before Metatron snapped, “Here. You want to open Tartarus here on this world.”

That horrible visage stared at him for a moment before the figure chuckled. “Open it? No. We will bring it here to this world. We will make this world a part of Tartarus.”

“Our people will stop that from happening,” Metatron informed him. “They will stop everything you’re trying to do. Do you really think they’ll just allow you to do all of this?”

“Perhaps they would try,” the abomination agreed. “But they won’t know anything until it’s too late.”

“You have the orb,” Metatron reminded him. “They’ll come for it.”

That earned him a thoughtful nod. “Yes, they would. But we do not need the whole orb. Only…” One of his wings tucked in, the talon on the end plunging into the orb with a wet squelching sound. There was a pulsing in the wing, as it sucked Tartarus energy from the orb like a straw. Slowly, the golden energy in the wings turned a dark purple-black color, and the abomination sighed in satisfaction. “Ahhh… there. We only required a portion of the orb. That will serve as a seed, which will grow, in time, to what we need it to be.”

He, or they, or whatever it was, tossed the orb back toward Metatron. One of the wings came down to catch it before placing the thing into the frozen man’s outstretched hand. “You may take the orb back to the Seosten to play their games. It will make no difference in the end.”

Metatron opened his mouth, then paused. “And you’re going to try to erase my memory of this entire thing so I don’t warn them.”

The monster stepped forward, standing face to face with him, their eyes meeting. “Erase your memory? No. You will remember all of this. But you still won’t say a word to anyone. Just as you aren’t moving to stop us now.”

“You may be powerful,” Metatron half-snarled. “But even you can’t control my body from across the universe.”

That earned him a merry laugh. “You believe we are controlling you? That is what you think is happening here? Old friend… why are we standing eye to eye?”

It was a question that made the man blink. Eye to eye. They were standing… at even levels. As he processed that, the monster murmured, “Look down.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Metatron did so. His eyes focused on his outstretched hand, and he saw… pallid gray. Fingers that were too many, and too long.

His eyes rose, and he saw that the screen on the wall had changed. It was a mirror. He saw the reflection of the creature standing in front of him, the monstrosity that had been his old captain, that twisted combination of Zadkiel and his Fomorian half.

And he saw himself. He saw his skin turned gray, his height raised to match his intruder’s. He saw his too-large eyes, the bulbous head with his own familiar face superimposed onto it.

“You see?” His own mouth spoke the words, while Metatron himself screamed somewhere in the void of his lost soul.  

“We have already begun our evolution.”

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Interlude 1 – The Minority (Summus Proelium)

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“Would someone here mind telling me who would be stupid enough to try robbing a bank that belongs to La Casa?”

The man asking the question was Lieutenant Harold Dabber, of the Detroit police department. He was a short, somewhat heavyset man with a gray walrus mustache, long stringy hair, and the face of someone who had been in a lot of fist fights. He looked more like a bum off the street than a thirty-year veteran of the police force, particularly with his beat-up brown raincoat and checkered shirt. The people he was addressing were the roughly thirty-odd officers who were helping to secure the main entrance of the bank in question.

The bank, named Prime International Enterprise, didn’t advertise that it was owned by what amounted to a Touched version of the mafia, of course. But it was understood. Blackjack, the leader of La Casa, controlled several banks in the city, even if the authorities lacked the ability to prove that fact. It was an open secret.

The point was that trying to rob the place was tantamount to suicide. And yet, that was apparently what had just happened. There was a group that had gone into the bank to actually steal from La Casa. Which had led to the bank’s own security, backed up by at least one of the La Casa Fell-Touched, attempting to deal with the situation on their own, to send a message. The first group had fought back just effectively enough to gain a foothold on one side of the bank’s massive lobby. Now there were hostages on both sides, caught between the rival gangs.

One of the uniformed officers responded, ”Witnesses said it looked like a few of the Ninety-Niners, sir. No sign of any Touched on their side. Just rank and file troops. Might be new guys trying to make a name for themselves and move up.”

Dabber grunted, muttering a curse. “They’re gonna make a grave for themselves. Which I might not even complain about too much if they’re that fucking stupid, except that they’re going to drag a lot more people into those graves with them.”

“Don’t worry Lieutenant,” a new voice announced, “we won’t let that happen.”

Turning, the man saw exactly who he knew it would be. Standing before him and the other cops was a group of teenagers. Touched teenagers, in full costume.

They were called The Minority, the official team throughout the country for Star-Touched who were under eighteen. Teens who were training to be heroes. Some would be taken on by the Conservators, while others would be picked up by groups like Ten Towers or the Spartans. Once they were old enough, each group who was interested would extend an offer of membership and benefits.

The boy who was talking was called Syndicate. He was their current leader, who had held that position for under six months at this point. Syndicate was a tall black boy, fairly thin in a wiry way. The lower three quarters of his face, aside from his temple and hair, was covered by a hard shell red mask of some kind. It look like a full head-covering helmet that the top had been cut off of. His black hair stuck up through the opening in random spikes. Most of the base of his costume was red as well, with gold accents and armor pieces. It seemed to tread a middle ground between protection and sleekness.

To his left was a muscular boy in what looked like an army camo suit save for the fact that it was black and brown, with a ski mask and heavy gauntlets, and a much smaller girl who looked as though she was barely twelve, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels and a white cloak, the hood up over her head. Her identity was concealed by a mirrored faceplate that reflected her surroundings.

Whamline and Raindrop, respectively.

The other three members of the teenaged team were to Syndicate’s right. There was a Caucasian girl in a dark purple bodysuit with white arrows drawn randomly all over it that pointed in every direction, and a domino mask, her blonde hair fashioned into a ponytail. There was also another girl whose ethnicity was impossible to determine, as she wore a jester’s mask and full robes and hood that completely covered her. All were made in a gold, silver, and purple color scheme. And there was another boy, this one the tallest of all. Actually, he was even taller than any of the police officers, standing at over six and a half feet. His suit made him look like a medieval knight, though the armor and helmet were emerald green.

The two girls were That-A-Way and Carousel, and the armored boy was called Wobble.

Syndicate, Whamline, Raindrop, That-A-Way, Carousel, and Wobble. The Detroit team of the Minority.

“No offense, kid,” Dabber replied after taking in the side of the group. “But I was kind of hoping we’d get one of the varsity teams out here for this.”

There had been a time, not so very long ago, when he would have objected to teenagers having any involvement in this whatsoever. This was a hostile situation. Any time before the previous decade or so, he would have raised holy hell. He had done so, in fact. But in these recent years, he had seen teenagers with powers be thrown into far more dangerous situations than this one. And he had also seen what happened when those teenagers weren’t properly experienced. This may have been something that would have been utterly unthinkable more than twenty years earlier. But things had changed in those past couple of decades. The threats in the world required solutions that he didn’t have. People with powers had to be stopped by people with powers. Especially when an Abyssal got going. And the only way they were going to get the training they needed to face those threats was by facing smaller ones. Real field experience, like this situation.

Still, as he’d said, he really would have preferred having one of the adult groups here, with the teens running cleanup.

Syndicate shook his head. “Sorry, there’s a brawl going on uptown between Oscuro and Braintrust. It’s all hands on deck right now. They’re going to be busy for a while. But don’t worry, we can get the hostages out of there and calm this whole thing down.”

Beside him, Carousel gave a quick nod that sent the bells on her jester’s mask ringing. “That’s a fact. We’ll make it a pact, to set things right, and call it a night.”

Yeah, Dabber had no idea why the girl made everything rhyme all the time. It was just kind of her schtick, along with the whole jokester motif.  

After a brief back-and-forth to establish the situation, the team of teens focused on the occupied bank. Syndicate turned to the side, where three blue-gray ghostly and transparent duplicates of himself stood. Two of those ghost-copies ran off to either corner of the building. Then the main boy looked to the youngest member of their team. “Raindrop, there’s a skylight in the roof. If the rest of us play distraction, can you get the hostages up and out that way?”

There was a brief hesitation, as the little girl seemed afraid to answer. Finally, however, her head bobbed up-and-down in a quick nod as she set herself. “Uh huh. I um, I’ll do it.” She sounded nervous, but determined.

With that, Raindrop pointed above her head, creating a small cloud that poured water over top of herself. Once she had been soaked down (her cloak acting like a raincoat), the girl quickly floated up off the ground, heading for the roof. She was more than simply a powerful hydrokinetic. The kid could also manipulate how gravity affected anything that was wet.

Syndicate pointed then. “That-A-Way, Wobble,  take the far left window there, where that me is. That should put you right by the loan offices where the Ninety-Niners are holed up. Carousel, Whamline, you guys are with the me on that other side, where the La Casa and security guys are based. As soon as I go in the front door and draw attention of everyone in there, the groups on both sides go in and hit them from behind. While they’re distracted, Raindrop pulls the hostages out through the ceiling. Any questions? You got that, Drop?” For the last bit, the boy’s head turned a bit as though he was listening to something in his ear before nodding and satisfaction. “Good, let’s do it then.” He looked to Dabber. “Sir, if you’d like to send your men over and have them wait at either side, as soon as the hostages are clear, they can head in and mop things up. We’d sure appreciate it.”

Dabber agreed, sending several officers with both groups, along with orders to wait until the hostages were out of danger before moving in. Then he took his own pistol from its holster and looked to the leader of the Minority. “I’m going in with you.”

Syndicate nodded, before he, his remaining ghost-duplicate, and Dabber himself headed carefully up toward the front entrance. There was a man there with a rifle. He wore the uniform of bank security and gave them a hard glare, shaking his head to warn them off. This was a situation that the bank wanted to deal with themselves.

The main Syndicate stopped right alongside Dabber. But his ghost kept moving, walking straight through the locked door. As the man reacted to that, the Syndicate on the inside suddenly turned solid, while the one standing beside Dabber became insubstantial. That was the boy’s power. He existed in four places at once, four separate bodies. But only one of those bodies could be solid at a time, while the remaining three were basically ghosts. They switched which of them was solid at any point.

The newly solid Syndicate took the man by the door down in short order before unlocking the door to let his other self and Dabber inside.

As soon as they were through, a voice called out from behind one of the desks. “Lieutenant, Touched kid, you’re gonna want to leave. This doesn’t concern you. It’s an internal matter, and the bank won’t be pressing charges.”

Dabber looked that way, catching sight of a man in a dark chauffeur’s uniform and a white facemask. Spades, one of the La Casa Touched. His power made him quicker, faster, and stronger than any normal person. It also gave him a nearly unmatched reaction speed, and the ability to heal quickly.

“Sorry,” Dabber called back. “I’m gonna need you and everyone else in here to stand down. And while we’re at it, why don’t you stick around and answer a few questions about some other problems you’ve been involved with?”

His answer came in the form of a gunshot from the direction of the loan offices, where the Ninety-Niner thugs were holed up. The shot was either fired by someone who had no intention of hitting him, or an intentional warning. Either way, it hit one of the nearby pillars, before a voice from that direction shouted, “You heard him, get the fuck out, pig! This ain’t your business!”

Syndicate’s two nearby selves looked to one another before the one who was solid spoke up loudly. “Okay, guys. If you’re not going to surrender quietly, we’ll just have to now.”

Though the boy seemed to interrupt himself with that single last word while not changing his tone at all, it was clearly a signal. Because a lot started happening all at once. The solid boy grabbed Dabber by the arm and yanked him to the floor, while several more gunshots rang out from both sides.

At the same time, That-A-Way and Wobble appeared by the offices, the former teleporting the two of them right into the middle of the group that had set up there. The men spun to fire, but achieved little. Wobble sent a wave of vibrations through the air that knocked several of them into the ground, while others were simply left dazed and nauseous from the effect. A couple more shot at That-A-Way, but the girl had switched from moving north to moving east, which meant that her power had changed from teleportation to being invulnerable and unstoppable, allowing her to simply run straight at the men without being affected, crashing into them and knocking them to the ground.

One of the other thugs managed to roll over and aim his gun at the girl’s teammate. But he was now to the west of her, which allowed That-A-Way to use her superspeed to reach the man, taking the gun out of his hand before he could fire. He swung at her wildly. Unfortunately for him, his new position made it so that he was to the south of her. Which meant that taking a simple step toward him made the girl intangible so that his fist went through her.

It was weird. Dabber had no idea why someone’s powers would be dependent on the compass direction they were moving. But that was how hers apparently worked. She had superspeed, teleportation, invulnerability, or intangibility based entirely around whether she was moving west, north, east, or south, respectively.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Whamline had smashed a hole through the wall using his own power, which allowed him to create and mentally manipulate energy rope/tentacle things that were incredibly strong and could explode in a burst of kinetic force.

Several of the boy’s floating energy ropes quickly moved to wrap around Spades, trying to catch the quick man, who was having none of it, somehow managing to dart between all of them before one exploded close enough to knock him down.

At the same time, Carousel was focusing on the rest of the men there. A couple tried to shoot at her. But their bullets were caught by her power, which pulled them in to spin in orbit around her. And it was more than just the bullets. The nearby chair and desk, a picture, a few chunks of random debris, and a fire extinguisher were all yanked into orbit around the girl. What’s more, every object that was pulled in by her power immediately shrank down to about the size of a matchbook. Shrank, that was, until the girl sent the object flying away from her. Then, it regained its full size the instant that it left her orbit. Such as the desk that she sent flying into three of the men.

While all that was going on and the teen Touched were dealing with the bad guys from each side, Dabber looked toward the center of the lobby, where a dozen bank employees and customers were huddled. They were all looking up as water fell on them. Water from a cloud that had appeared near the ceiling. Raindrop was up there, her small figure barely visible floating near the now open skylight. As soon as all of the hostages were thoroughly soaked, they suddenly floated up off the floor, some yelping. But there was nothing that either gang  could do about it even if they had noticed, busy as they were with the other Minority members.

The instant that the hostages were being floated up through the open skylight, Dabber hit his radio and sent the order for the rest of the troops to come in. There were no more civilians in the way, so it was time to end this.

*******

“Dude, how cool were we? No, seriously, how fucking cool was all that? We went in there all, ‘bam, we gonna rock you!’ And they were like ‘what’, and we were like, ‘yeah, what do you think of this?’” That-A-Way bounced ahead of the rest of the group of teen Touched as the six of them walked (or skipped in her case) through the alley between the police station downtown and the attached parking garage where the cruisers and other vehicles were kept.

“Jeez, calm down, Amber,” Whamline replied. “How many energy drinks did you guzzle before we got there?”

Nudging the boy firmly in the side, Syndicate reminded him, “We’re in costume and outside. Don’t use real names.” Even as he said the words, the currently solid version of the boy sent a thought to his other three selves in their ghost-forms. Everything okay?

All good, Armadillo, Puma reported from the corner of the police lot. No one followed us.

Rabbit and Colt reported the same. Armadillo, Puma, Rabbit, and Colt. When the four had been trying to decide how to differentiate themselves amongst each other, since they were far more than just duplicates, they had settled on using animal names. Or rather, Armadillo, Puma, and Rabbit had. For the first six months or so of doing this, since he’d become a Touched, there had been only three of him. He’d called himself Trilogy. Then a fourth one had appeared, and Trilogy no longer made sense. He’d thought about Quad, but if a fifth version of himself showed up, he’d have to change again, and it would get old. So he’d gone with Syndicate.

That had been a year and a half earlier, and no other versions of himself had appeared. Two years of this, four months as leader of the team. He was seventeen, about ready to graduate high school. And then he’d have to see what adult teams were interested in recruiting him.

Meanwhile, That-A-Way/Amber was spinning in a circle while replying to Whamline breezily, “I’m just happy. I can be happy, right? Because we got all those hostages out, and caught all those bad guys. With help from the cops, o’course.” In mid-spin, the girl gave a bow toward the police station. She even tipped an imaginary hat before spinning back to the others. “Oh! And there were cameras there. So we’re probably going to be on the news. I hope they got my good side.” She held up for the second before clapping her hands once and laughing out loud. “Isn’t this awesome!?”

“You’ve gotta admit,” Carousel put in, “her cheering’s infectious. Given time, they’ll even respect us.”

“Barely counted as a rhyme,” Wobble informed her. “I give it a four out of ten.”

Whamline’s head shook. “No way, man. You’ve got to factor in difficulty, and she just rhymed something with infectious. That’s gotta bump it up to at least six or seven.”

By that point, the group had reached a blue metal door at the far end of the alley. It looked utterly unremarkable, save for the fact that there was no handle on it, and only a single stenciled word reading utility. Pausing with his hand halfway to the door, Syndicate looked back at the others with a soft sigh. “You guys know we’re trying to get her to stop rhyming all the time, right? You scoring her work doesn’t really help with that.”

“I don’t mind the score,” Carousel replied, “but you should open the door. I could verbally soar, yet it becomes a chore and I find I can never ignore a call for encore, so please I’ve got rhymes here galore but I must ever implore, if we go to war, let’s keep our rapport as we stand in the gore to show them what for, til peace we restore.”

A solid four or five seconds of silence followed that, before Wobble looked at Syndicate. “Just open the damn door before she starts in again.”

Pressing his hand it to the seemingly blank brick wall beside the door, Syndicate activated the button there that made a hidden pinhole camera scan his eyes. A moment later, there was a click, and the door slid open. He gestured. “After you guys.”

They stepped through the door, into a small, featureless room that was just large enough to hold them and maybe a few more people (including the three ghost-like Syndicates who had followed the others in). The door closed, and the group waited together. As they stood there, That-A-Way reached up to her domino mask, unlatching the secure hook in the back before pulling the thing off. Instantly, her supposedly blonde hair turned to its real shade of black, and there was a very faint, subtle shifting of her cheekbones and nose. Just enough to make her look sufficiently different with her eyes uncovered. The mask was the work of a Star-Touched from Texas named Facade, whose invention-based powers focused around disguises and illusions. He sold his work to Touched throughout the country to help them maintain their secrets.

Without the mask, That-A-Way’s real name was Amber O’Connell.

Whamline took off his own ski mask before tucking it into his black-and-brown camo suit, revealing a freckle-faced boy with curly, dark red hair. Next to him, the enormous Wobble cracked open his emerald helmet, pulling it off to expose a clearly Samoan ethnicity, his skin darkly tanned and handsome. Just past the six and a half foot mark despite being only sixteen years old, the boy was often mistaken for an adult.

As civilians, Whamline and Wobble were Jerry Meuster and Laki Sefo, respectively.

All four Syndicates reached up to unlatch their helmets and pull it off, though only the solid one really needed to. Beyond the animal names that the four versions of himself referred to each other as, their shared real name was Damarko Myers. Each thought of themselves as the ‘real’ Damarko, and they took turns living the normal part of his life while the others either ‘slept’ (during which time they would fade entirely away until they woke up) or wandered around doing what they could as a ghost. They could appear in that blue-gray ghost form, or become almost entirely invisible aside from a distortion in the air when they moved. They were also able to communicate mentally with one another, and whoever was solid could summon any or all of the other three to themselves.

Holding his helmet under one arm, the black boy rubbed a hand over his cheek while looking over to Raindrop.

She had pulled down her own hood, and was taking off the mirrored mask. Beneath it was Isabel/Izzy Amor, a small Hispanic girl with wide eyes and a trembling lip, who always looked as though everyone around her was one mistake away from kicking her down a flight of stairs. She was jumpy and constantly apologizing for the smallest thing. But she also tried hard, and was wickedly powerful. Her issue was self-esteem.

Then there was the last member of their group. Carousel stood still for a moment before reaching up, tugging her hood down, then pulled off the jester mask. Doing so revealed the reason her own identity was so thoroughly covered. She was, for one thing, albino. Which would have stood out anyway, with her very pale skin, pink eyes, and almost white hair. But she was also Asian. An Asian albino in Detroit. Covering her entire face, head, and hair was important if she was going to maintain anything resembling a secret identity. Her jester mask even contained dark lenses.

Her real name was Jae Baek, and the moment her mask was off, the girl’s entire posture and demeanor changed. She seemed to shrink in on herself, holding the mask against her chest while looking at the floor. As Carousel, she was loud, outgoing, and constantly rhymed everything thanks to an incredible vocabulary. As Jae, she was quiet, shy, barely spoke (and didn’t do so in rhymes), and rarely initiated eye contact.

It was… probably a bit worrying just how different she acted as Jae and as Carousel, like they were two entirely separate people. She even tended to talk about each side of herself as if she were a different person.

By the time all of them had taken their masks and helmets off, there was a soft ding. The door they had just come through a moment earlier opened. This time, however, it revealed a much larger room rather than the alley they had just come through. Their base, clubhouse, training quarters, whatever else it could be called. The room they had entered was one of about a dozen spread over the city. A dozen they knew about, anyway. They were designed and built by one of the Ten Towers Touched, another technology-based superhero called Switchshift, whose gifts revolved around creations that could transform, change position, or in the case of these rooms, switch places. It allowed people to enter a room in one location and instantly appear somewhere else as the room changed places with its counterpart elsewhere.

A man was standing there, waiting just inside the lobby of their base as the group filed out. Silversmith, the leader of the Detroit branch of Conservators. His face, as always, was hidden behind his helmet. As far as any of the teens were aware, no one knew who Silversmith really was. He kept his identity secret even from his own team. Not that he was the only one. There were other Star-Touched who did the same, though none on this Minority team.

“Heard you did well at the bank,” Silversmith announced, his tone proud and impressed. “Good job. Come on, I’m sure you’re hungry, so I had pizza sent over. You can eat, and tell me everything from your point of view.”

“Are you going to eat, sir?” Amber asked, a not-very-subtle attempt to see something of the man’s face, even if it was only enough to tell his ethnicity. It would still be more than was publicly known.

For a moment, Silversmith didn’t say anything. His head cocked a little, giving the impression despite the featureless helmet that he was smiling at them. “Maybe another time,” he finally replied, his tone lightly amused. “For now, I’ll let you guys have the pizza to yourselves.

“Because if I spoil my appetite, my wife will kill me.”

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Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

Standing in the middle of the forest, several hundred yards away from the Atherby camp, Guinevere watched the stars with her head tilted back. She had been there, motionless, for several minutes, her attention seemingly focused far away. Then, her voice cut through the silence. “You know, I’m told that technology has improved so much lately, you could take a picture and stare at that forever if you’d like. It’s pretty nifty.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Theia came forward out of the trees. “Theia-I knew you would notice… me. But w—I did not want to force you to acknowledge it. It… we… I can go.” She seemed nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot while her hand reached out to hold a nearby tree as though for balance and support.

Gwen blinked once at the girl, head tilting slightly. “Go? Why would I want you to go?“

Theia answered promptly. “Because you are thinking about your husband, the one who has been gone for so long.” Pausing, she added with a faint tone of uncertainty, “Aren’t you?”

With a slight smile, Gwen nodded. “Yes, but I don’t need to be alone to do that. Part of me is always thinking about him.” She beckoned with her hand then. “Hey, why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you what I was looking at.” She offered the girl a smile. “It’s okay, really.”

After another brief hesitation, Theia did so. She shuffled her way closer, stopping in front of the woman while staring at her with somewhat widened eyes and a look of almost puppy-like adoration.

Gwen started to raise her hand to point, before stopping to look at the girl curiously. “Are you okay?”

Theia’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded rapidly. “Uh huh, uh huh! Yes, yes. It’s just that… you… you’re good. You’re very good. You’re amazing, I have read about you. I heard about you. I took memory-spheres about your fighting as Lancelot. You–you are…” She stumbled over her own words, face flushed as she stammered.

Giggling despite herself, Gwen shook her head. “Hey, it’s okay. Pace yourself.” The last bit was said with a wink.

“You–” Theia stopped, head tilting. “Pace myself. You did that on purpose.” When her words were met with a silent smile, the girl started to return it, before stopping as her face fell a bit. “Pace is good. You… you are good. You are good, and Theia-I… I… am not good. I have done bad things.”  

Giving a soft sigh, Gwen reached out to carefully take the girl’s hand, using that to turn her to face the same direction before pointing up to the sky. Finally, she spoke. “You say you’ve done bad things? How do you know they were bad?”

Theia was quiet briefly before she answered. “Pace. Pace and Miss Abigail and Miranda. They showed me. They helped me. I don’t want to hurt them. They are my fr-friends.” Her voice cracked at that word, as though just saying it made her terrified that her deceased mother would somehow come back and take those friends away.

“They are more than friends. They are my…” And then she stopped talking. Because if saying friends was difficult for the girl to get out, the word that had sprung to her mind just then was impossible. Because they could not possibly be that word, because that word had always rejected her. That word had sent her away, had tortured her, had destroyed her in so many ways.

If she used it here, if she tried to claim these people as… as… that and it was rejected, she might never recover. A fear of that rejection deep in her heart stopped her from using the word even now, away from them.

Gwen spoke softly. “They helped you see right from wrong, good from bad. They help you see that you’ve done bad things. And now that you know that, you regret those things? You feel bad about them?“

Theia nodded, and Gwen smiled. “Good. Remember that feeling. Use it to be a better person. Because you are better, Theia. Don’t let your mother or your father or your people or even your condition dictate what kind of person you are. Don’t let anyone turn you into something you don’t want to be. You feel bad about the things that you did? Good, make up for them. Do good things. But do them because you want to. Do them because you want to be a better person.”

After the two stood there in silence for a few seconds, Theia murmured a soft, “I thought you would want to kill me, for being one of them. A bad one.”

Head shaking, Gwen replied, “I don’t need to kill the girl who did those things, Theia. It sounds to me like your friends already did that.”

They stood there like that in silence for a few seconds before Gwen lifted her hand. “Now look right up here, I’ll show you the constellation that Arthur made up.

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

 

“And of course we have extensive contacts in over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada,” the man who had introduced himself as Tyson Larrington announced to the slender, diminutive Native American woman and her daughter, both of whom sat on the couch opposite the chair he had been invited to use. All three were in a pleasantly and warmly decorated living room, pictures on the nearby television and mantle showing times throughout the young girl’s life from being a baby to her current age of sixteen. Some of the pictures also showed the woman who sat beside her, while others had a different woman, with pale skin and hair that was so light it was almost white.

It was that woman who entered the room then. And from the looks of her, she very well might have come through a time warp. The pale woman wore an old green house dress and an apron, looking as though she was coming straight from the 1950s. She even carried a tray of delicious-smelling cookies.

“Well now,” Bastet replied to the man pleasantly while holding that tray of cookies, “that does sound very interesting, Mr. Larrington. This… ahhh… dear me, I’m just being as forgetful as an old rooster on Easter. What did you say the name of this school that you want to take our Aylen to was?”

“Crossroads Academy,” the Heretic promptly answered. “And I assure you, should you allow your daughter to come to our school, she will be in the best of hands. Our faculty and equipment are top of the line.”

Head bobbing easily, Bastet replied, “Oh, I’m sure everything there is cutting edge. Cookie?” she offered with a bright, winsome smile that could have come from a catalogue during the Eisenhower administration. 

“Thank you, ahhh, Mrs. Tamaya.” Larrington took the offered treat from the tray, turned it over in his hands, and then took a bite. That he managed to swallow the whole thing without betraying a reaction when, contrary to its amazing scent, the thing tasted almost exactly like dirty tree bark was quite a testament to his poker face.

Bastet smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s just Bess, Mr. Larrington. Sonoma here, she’s Mrs. Tamaya. I took her name when we… ah, broke Adam‘s covenant to be together instead of with a man.” She spoke the last bit in a stage-whisper, as though it was positively scandalous.

Sonoma cleared her throat, speaking up for the first time in the past few minutes. “Sorry, Bess has these little sayings and… ahem… whatnot because she grew up in a small, isolated religious…”

“Cult,” Bastet supplied cheerfully. “Yes, it was an extremist doomsday cult. Very dark. So much gloom and ranting. Boy, I could tell you stories about those people. And I don’t mean just the normal Bible thumping. They went all the way, yessir. It was just scary, you know what I mean? They were right off the deep end. Believed everyone who wasn’t exactly like them was evil and had to be killed. That’s right, killed. If you didn’t look and think exactly like them…” She drew a line across her throat with a finger and made a dramatic cutting sound. “You didn’t deserve to live. Crazy racist psychopaths.”

Letting that sit for a brief moment, she plastered another broad smile on her face. “Oh, but do tell us more about this wonderful school of yours. It sounds just delightful.” Her hands lifted the tray toward him. “Another cookie?”

Quickly demurring as politely as possible, Larrington cleared his throat. “Aylen, we like to get an idea of how the prospective student feels before bringing them in. I know this is a lot to ask, to be away from your mothers for so long when you seem so close. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?”

Shifting on the couch next to Sonoma, Aylen nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. From everything you said before, and today, I think Crossroads sounds great. I’d really like to go there.” She and the Heretic exchanged brief knowing looks, the two women clearly entirely clueless as to what their daughter could possibly be referring to.

Bastet spoke up then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, but your teachers, they’re open minded, yes?” She gestured back and forth between herself and her wife. “As you might have guessed, we are kind of accustomed to a bit of ahhh, unpleasantness from certain sects. And not just my own family either. If she goes to your school, we want to be sure they’re not going to teach her to be hateful and prejudiced. I mean, these are teenagers, with such moldable minds. Can you imagine if the wrong people got a hold of them and started teaching them such awful, violent things?” She gave a visible shudder then, shaking her head. “No, I’m afraid we will definitely need assurances that your school is open minded about all life choices.”

If he made any connection between the truth of what his school was and her words, the man gave no indication. He simply smiled and nodded. “I promise you, Miss— ahh, Bess, Crossroads accepts students from all lifestyles, and does not discriminate based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort.”

Clearing her throat, Sonoma glanced to her wife. “Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Bastet agreed amicably. “Almost too good to be true. But then, we were talking about finding a good private school…” She appeared to consider it for a moment, before glancing toward Aylen. “You’ll e-mail every day, and call as much as you can. And pick up when we call you?” Her words were firm, brooking no argument.

Giving a quick nod at that, the girl replied, “Yes, Mother. Every day.”

Sonoma smiled, putting a hand on her daughter’s before squeezing it slightly. “You better, we don’t want Bess to have to come up there if you get busy and stop talking to us.”

“Oh, I’d make a huge mess of things there,” Bastet agreed with an easy laugh. “I’d take three steps into that school and before you’d know it, the whole place would be on fire or something.”

Chuckling as well, Larrington offered them a nod. “Well, we’ll just have to be sure that your daughter stays in contact. We wouldn’t want to have to rebuild the school. I’m actually part of the second year faculty, but I can promise you that my colleagues on the year one staff will be right on top of things. I’ll make sure you have the numbers for several of them before I leave here, in case you have any more questions at any point. But ahh, I don’t want to push you too much today. Would you like me to come back later in the week to discuss this further?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Bastet assured him, winking. “We’d be foolish as a lead kite if we let you walk out of here without making sure our girl’s got her seat in that school.”

Looking just a little surprised, the man blinked once before recovering. “Ahh, yes, of course. I can grab the paperwork from my bag if you’re certain you don’t need to talk about it more. We don’t want to rush you into an important decision like this.”

“Oh, we’re not rushing at all, Mr. Larrington,” Bastet informed the man.

“We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a long time.”  

**********

 

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

 

They had prepared for this. Virginia knew that. For years, they had prepared for… well, something like this, at least. Gaia had warned her that things would probably happen to take her out of commission, either for a time or…

For a time. In this case, it was for a time. She would be back. Maybe it would take awhile to recover from the drain that casting that spell had put on her and to get out of whatever deep, dark hole the Committee goons threw her into. But she would be back. In the meantime, Virginia had to help hold things together. She couldn’t think about what would happen if Gaia didn’t wake up, or if…

She couldn’t think about that. Any of it. People were counting on her to hold it together, to hold herself together. Gaia most of all. And Virginia had no intention of letting them, or her, down.

“And this is the inner ward line,” Misty, the young (relatively) Ogre Heretic announced while gesturing to a spot of seemingly empty dirt and weeds. “See that tree over there with the gnarled roots coming up? That’s one of the signs of it if you get lost. Of course, there’s six other ward lines. This is the closest one to the camp, like I said. By the time anything gets through all seven, it’ll basically be an all hands on deck situation. Kaste and Rain redo the spells once every few days just to be sure. They’ve got some kind of system for it that everyone pays energy into. So, you know, if all you guys are staying, either everyone’ll pay a lot less or the wards are gonna be a lot stronger. Probably the second one, since there’s even more to protect.”

Misty went on to explain more about the wards, and Virginia listened with half an ear. She heard everything the girl said. But she didn’t need to. Because while specifics had changed and updated with the times, the general idea of how security for the camp worked had been the same since… since she was a part of it.

The camp had moved several times since those days. But there were only so many safe locations. And it was easier to move to a spot that they knew well enough to ward properly. So, while the camp didn’t always stay in the same place, there were about six or seven possible locations that they cycled through at random, using whichever seemed best at the time of the current move. After the location was freshly vetted, of course.

But Virginia knew this location for more than just that. She knew the location because she was the one who had given it to Joshua, and through him to his father Lyell, all those years ago. Because this… this lake, was where her family had lived, where the missing Roanoke colonists had eventually settled after leaving their original landing spot. And where they had all died when the Great Evil that so desperately wanted Virginia, the first English child born on the continent. This valley, where this lake and forest lay, had been the first home that Virginia ever knew. Until that home was destroyed, her family murdered, and she herself was made an Amarok Heretic.

It was also the place where Joshua had, centuries later, proposed to her. So maybe being here now was for the best. Maybe… it was somehow right that everything that had happened would lead to her being in this place once more. Especially as it had brought most of her surviving family with it.

Her family… her beautiful, brilliant, incredibly brave daughter. Her Joselyn. Her baby girl was still locked up by that monster. But the others… her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter were here at the camp. Even if only Felicity and Koren knew who she was, they were here. They were in the place where Virginia had grown up. And, after they’d had a bit of time to adjust to the situation and take it in, she could actually tell at least the two of them about that fact. And that knowledge, the realization that she could actually talk to Felicity and Koren about this place, had stunned her beyond understanding.

Of course, thinking about the three grandchildren she had here at the camp reminded Virginia of the one who was not there. The one who would never be there, because she had…

No choice. She’d had no choice. Except that was a lie, because she did have a choice. She could have allowed Ammon to fulfill his plan. She could have sacrificed her oldest granddaughter, as well as Avalon, Vanessa Moon, and the other people in the stadium in order to ensure that no one found out she was related to him. That would have been the coldest thing to do. But it also would have been the thing that best protected the world at large from Fomorian invasion. It was what some would have chosen. Risking that again by allowing Felicity and Koren to learn her identity had been… selfish in some ways. She couldn’t actually say that her actions weren’t at least somewhat motivated by wanting someone in her family to know her. And the idea of letting Abigail and the others die to keep that secret had felt impossible.

It was a choice she stood by, and would have made again. But it had been so dangerous. And now they were here at the camp. At the village of her childhood, her first real home. How dangerous was that, and for how many reasons?

But Virginia had experience in keeping such things to herself. Her eyes, her expression, revealed none of those thoughts. Just as they betrayed none of her familiarity as Misty led her onward through the tour of a place that she had known like the back of her hand a hundred years before the girl’s great-grandparents had likely even been born. She feigned cluelessness as she was led through the camp, passing so many landmarks from her past. Some good. Many bad. All evoking thoughts and emotions that stayed deeply buried.

Much had happened in such a short time. Gaia was imprisoned. The revolution was back on. People were remembering many things they had been forced to forget. The war would soon be in full swing once more. But through it all, something else had also happened.

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

 

Standing just outside his room at Crossroads Academy, Sean Gerardo closed his eyes and put a hand on the head of his constant companion. Vulcan made a soft noise in the back of his throat that was half-whine and half-question.

“I know, buddy,” Sean murmured. But he didn’t move. How could he do this? How could he just… just sleep in the same room as Columbus when he knew that that Seosten bitch was puppeting him? The thought of it, the thought that his friend was being toyed with, was being enslaved by that… that…

Calm down. He had to calm down. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that by himself. Reaching into a pocket, the boy retrieved a small silver coin. With a whispered word, he pressed the coin to his own arm to activate the spell that had been inscribed into it.

The effect was instantaneous, and Sean felt himself calming. His emotions settled a bit. According to Nevada, who had enchanted it, the spell would help settle him, dulling his emotions somewhat. And beyond simply dulling them, it would also help to mask the emotions he was giving off for anyone who was sensitive to that kind of thing. That way, there was less chance of the Seosten inside of Columbus noticing that something was wrong.

Even then, the boy had to take a few more deep breaths to prepare himself before setting his shoulders. Cracking his neck, he strode that way with Vulcan at his side and pushed the door open to step into the room he shared with his best friend.

And with the monster who had taken over his body and was enslaving him, apparently.

Columbus was in the room already, sitting at his desk doing some kind of homework. Or rather, the monster that was–

He had to stop thinking about that, it was just going to make him angry again, spell or no spell.

“Hey, dude,” Columbus idly waved with a pencil while focusing on the paper in front of him. “Sup?”

Speaking past the thick lump in his throat, Sean forced out, “Nada.” Jerking a thumb to his own bed, he added, “Gonna crash. You wanna hit the gym first thing?”

“Yeah, sure, wake me up,” Not-Columbus replied with what sounded like vague disinterest, ‘his’ attention already mostly focused on his paper once more.

Good enough. Turning back to his bed, Sean walked that way, patting the side of it until Vulcan hopped up to take his place at the foot. With one last glance toward his enslaved friend, Sean hit the button to plunge his side of the room into darkness as the privacy shield rose around him. Only then did he slump, falling onto the bed before muffling a scream against the pillow. Not that it would have mattered. With the privacy shield up, he could bellow at the top of his lungs and Columbus wouldn’t hear him.

He lay there on his bed, staring at the ceiling, for a few minutes. Sleep. He was supposed to sleep now. Even with his emotions dulled and masked, how could he do that? And for how long? How long was he supposed to sleep in the same room with… with that thing in his best friend in this place?

He had to. He had to keep the ruse going, for as long as it took. If he didn’t, if he changed rooms, if he did anything to let on that he knew, it could ruin everything. And then he might never get Columbus back at all.

Honestly, Sean was really starting to hate the Seosten Empire.

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

 

As his enormous hand closed around the face of the screaming, cursing man who had come charging into the center of the tree, the Unset known as Croc heaved the man up and backward with barely a thought and less of an effort. The intruder, a Heretic from the Remnant Guardians tribe, continued his violent swearing until the back of his head collided with the wall. Then he slumped, his unconscious body dropping as Croc let it go.

“Whose side was he on?” The question came from another of the Unset. Counting Croc himself, there were eleven of the tribeless ones here, guarding the way up to where the Victors lived. All held their assortment of weapons or readied powers. And most looked as though they didn’t know whether to point those weapons to any potential intruders… or to each other. Glares of suspicion, dislike, and open hostility had replaced the camaraderie and trust that had been there only an hour earlier.

An hour earlier… before the spell that had revealed the truth to everyone.

“It doesn’t matter whose side he was on,” Croc replied flatly, his eyes snapping from one group of five to the second group of five. Was it fate that he had ended up with groups of equal size right here, right now? Five who had been part of the rebellion or at least agreed and sympathized with it in the case of the two who were too young to have been involved, and five who had and did not agree with it. Equal groups, both separated to either side of the stairway they were all supposed to be guarding.

“Doesn’t it?” That was Sabie, one of the loyalist group. The muscular dark-skinned woman squinted at Croc. “You were one of the traitors back in the day.”

Threefold, the short Asian man who appeared to speak for those on the other side, snapped, “You mean he wasn’t a fascist piece of shit who wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t human. And who–oh, by the way, supported a group that wanted to use a blood curse to enslave everyone who didn’t agree with them.”

Stop.” It was a simple word, but Croc put power into it. Literally, in this case. Power that knocked both groups back a step. His eyes moved from one set of five to the other before he spoke again. “All of you listen to me. It’s chaos out there. We can all hear it. We can see it. We can sense it. Everyone is fighting. It’s a war over the whole tree. Tribes are fighting tribes, fighting themselves, fighting… brother against brother. Families, friends, people who have lived together for decades are at each other’s throats. And everyone is caught in this.”

“What’s your point?” Sabie demanded. “It’s just your people causing shit again when they should have left well enough alone.”

One of the other group behind Threefold tried to snap a retort, but Croc spoke first. “The point is that both sides have things to lose. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what side you’re on. Do you want this war to happen right now, right here? Do you want it to happen in the tree, with all the civilians and students around? Agree with them or not, they are your family, your friends, your fellow people. Stop throwing punches and insults and look at each other. You know each other. Whatever decisions were made back then, they weren’t made by us. We have worked with each other for decades. You’ve trusted each other. You’ve trusted me. And I trust you. All of you. But I swear to the roots, if any of you raise a hand to each other until after we deal with this situation, I will throw you off the goddamn tree. Is that understood?”

There was a brief pause before Threefold asked, “… Until we deal with it?”

Croc gave a slight nod. “Yes. Because that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to work together. We are going to get the other Unset, and we are going to calm things down. The Victors can take care of themselves. We are going to protect the tree, and everyone on it, by putting a stop to the fighting. We will make our way from branch to branch. We will separate everyone, and those who choose to leave will be allowed to do so uncontested. Later, both groups can debate, argue, fight, whatever they want. Both groups can kick each other’s asses to their hearts content… later. But they will not do it now, and they will not do it here. We will drag them apart and let the ones who want to leave do just that.

“We do not pick sides. If you want to choose a side after today, you can feel free. But right now, we are Unset. We protect the tree and everyone on it. No matter their side, no matter their choices, no matter what they have done in the past or may do in the future. We protect them. We drag them off each other, stop the fighting, and let them leave if they choose to. Now does anyone have a problem with that?

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

 

“They’re gone, man,” Stephen muttered while sitting on his bed in the room that he shared with his teammate. The only teammate he had left in fact, the only one who hadn’t left. He and Gavin, along with the rest of the student body, had been ordered to stay in their rooms until told otherwise. He was pretty sure there were extra locks on the door, and spells to keep them there.

Gavin nodded. The tall boy, his height and relative thinness at odds with Stephen’s own short stockiness, ran his hands back through his hair while muttering several curses. “I know, man. They all left. They all left. What the hell?”

Grabbing his nearby pillow before throwing it angrily against the nearest wall, Stephen blurted, “You really think Shiori’s one of them? A… a monster?”

Gavin open his mouth to retort before stopping. He made a noise deep in his throat before shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s all so screwed up. I mean, she’s not, right? I mean she’s not a monster. It’s just Shiori. She can’t be a monster.”

“She’s got a human parent, right?” Stephen offered. “Maybe that makes it so she’s not evil? That could work, could not? Being half human. If having a monster parent could make someone evil, then having a human parent could make them good just as easily. Isn’t that how it should work?”

Once more, Gavin groaned. “I don’t know. What about this whole rebellion thing? It’s like… they’re trying to protect monsters? They’re trying to work with them? I don’t get it. Why would they work with things that eat people?”

Putting his head in his hands, Stephen was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just Shiori. Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca left too. They’re gone. Did they join the bad guys? Are we the bad guys? We’re not the bad guys, right?” His tone was pleading as he walked toward his roommate and friend.

Gavin’s voice was soft. “They wanted to make a blood plague to enslave everyone on the other side. I’m pretty sure whatever side we’re on, it’s not the one with the angels on it. But I mean, the other side can’t be exactly right either, right? Working with things that eat people. How do they know that those things can just stop doing that? How do they know…” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”

Stephen sighed before straightening. “Okay, how about this. We know our team, right? We know them. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. And we know Shiori’s not a monster. Whatever else is going on, we know she’s not evil. So we try to talk to them. We get them to understand that this whole rebellion thing isn’t going to work. We can change things here. Maybe there’s people like Shiori who shouldn’t be lumped in with the evil ones. I don’t know. But this rebellion thing, that’s just going to screw everything up. So we talk to them. We get them to understand that.”

“What about the people on this side who wanted to use a blood curse?” Gavin asked. “That sounds pretty unequivocally evil to me.”

Stephen nodded. “Yeah, and that’s why we have to change things here. You have to get into the leadership. You have to work in the structure. Everyone who isn’t hardcore kill everything just pissing off to go join the rebellion only leaves the people who are. And then both sides are just going to fight until they kill each other.”

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

Stephen met his gaze. “I dunno. I… fuck, I don’t know.

“But I’m pretty sure, whatever we do, a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

 

Erin was hurt. Physically and emotionally, in fact. Emotionally because she had woken up from a deep sleep only to be bombarded by a tsunami of information magically shoved into her head that completely turned her entire worldview upside down. And the people who had shoved that information in there, the people who were responsible for changing everything she thought she knew about the world, were already gone.

She had left her room upon taking in all that life-changing information, only to find that anyone she could have talk to about it had left. Vanessa, her roommate, was gone. They left her here asleep.

That was another reason for her emotional pain, being left behind like that. And as for her physical pain, that came from the fact that she had punched the wall hard enough to put a hole in it after being basically shoved back into her room by a passing teacher and told her to stay there. Like a prisoner. They were treating everyone who was left like prisoners.

The fact that she was alone in this room only reminded the girl that she had been left behind. It reminded her that she had been roommates with Vanessa for almost an entire year and had never been talked to about any of this. No one had trusted her, had even thought about her, enough to broach the subject at all.

That wasn’t fair. She knew that. It would’ve been dangerous to do something like that. But knowing things logically didn’t get rid of her feelings. Especially when she had nobody to talk to.

What was she supposed to do now? With everything that had been shoved into her head, did she really believe what she’d been taught her whole life? And even if she didn’t, what could she do about it? She didn’t know where Vanessa, Professor Dare, and all those other people had gone. She wouldn’t have the first clue of how to find them.

Her dad. She needed to talk to her dad. He had been around when that rebellion from Flick’s mother was going on. Had he been a part of it? Had he been opposed to it? And how would she feel either way? Whatever, it hardly mattered now. She had tried to call him, as well as Vanessa. Neither call went anywhere. They were being jammed, communications with the outside world blocked.

If her father was part of the rebellion, was he again now that his memories were back? Wait, what were the Crossroads people going to do about students whose families were suddenly part of the rebellion again? What if her dad was part of the rebellion and now they wouldn’t let him come get her?

She was trapped here, trapped in this room where she had no chance to talk to anyone, or to understand anything. No one would say anything to her. They just shoved her in here, locked the door, and let her pace around punching walls while wondering what she was supposed to believe now.

She would have gone with them. Erin knew that. Whatever she believed, she would have gone with Vanessa and the others if she had been there. But she wasn’t. She was asleep. And now she was trapped here.

Gripping her short blue hair with both hands, Erin groaned while nearly ripping it out in frustration. She had to get out of here. She had to find the others, talk to her dad, and figure out what was going on. But most of all, she couldn’t stay here anymore. Not with what she had learned, with the information that had been shoved into her head. She couldn’t stay here. She didn’t believe in Crossroads anymore.

And what was going to happen when the people here figured that out?

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

 

“Excuse me?” An elderly woman, speaking hesitantly as she stepped out of the small, almost cottage-like house set on the corner of a small, unassuming street in a town somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia, stared at the figure who had been standing in front of her house for the past thirty minutes.

If the figure had been a man, she might have called the police. She was still thinking about it. But looking out her window to see this woman in what appeared to be her early twenties staring at her house for so long without moving had made her more curious than frightened.

The woman had deeply tanned skin, as if she spent most of her time outside in the sun. Her hair was black and cut mostly short with one longer part on the left side that formed a braid. Her eyes were dark blue, to the point of almost being black, and a single jagged scar across her left cheek from her jawline up just under her eye and across her nose marred an otherwise stunningly beautiful face.

After hesitating just a moment upon getting a good look at that scar in the streetlight, the older woman approach. She walked carefully down her front sidewalk, her voice gentle. “Sweetie, do you need something? Would you like me to call somebody? Are you okay?” The lost, broken look in the woman’s eyes had raised every maternal instinct that Bethany Sweetwalker had.

Finally meeting her gaze, the scarred woman quickly shook her head. Though she tried to keep her voice light, it was obvious that she was barely holding it together. “No, no, I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry. My name is Jessica Trent. I… I used to live here.”

Blinking at that, Bethany replied, “Well, you must have been quite young at the time. You don’t look a day over twenty-one, and I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

Jessica gave her a soft, genuine smile that the scar did nothing to diminish. “I am older than I look,” she replied simply. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was just hoping that, if it’s not too much of an imposition, I might look around for a minute? I could pay you for the trouble.”

Bethany’s head shook. “Oh nonsense. If you’d like to see your old childhood home, who am I to stand in the way? You come right on inside, and take all the time you need. I warn you, it’s a little bit of a mess. I don’t get visitors very much since the grandchildren moved to Idaho.”

Jessica followed the woman inside, stepping into the small living room. The second she did so, more of the memories that had already been flooding her mind for hours came rushing in.

She saw him, the man with incredibly fine blue and white tiger-striped fur, and large eyes as green as the forest. She saw him, and knew his name.

Xhan. The man she loved. The man she had devoted her life to for over thirty years. The man whose child she had eventually borne.

Moving through the living room and into the nearby kitchen, before glancing through the two small bedrooms and single bathroom, Jessica remembered all the years spent here in this house with her husband and their son, Sergei. Everywhere she looked, in every corner of every room, another memory of their life here together made itself known. They had been happy here, a tiny family living together in this small house. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them. It was all they needed.

And then it had been taken away, in a way none of them could have protected themselves from. The spell that erased Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion had erased all of Jessica‘s memories of her family. Her husband and son were ripped from her mind entirely. For decades, she had been back at Crossroads, helping to fight and kill people like her husband and child because her mind had been violated.

For the Crossroads Committee, it had not been enough to make her stop fighting them. They had ripped her choices away, had ripped her family away and completely erased them. They had turned her into a murderer against her will. They erased her choices and destroyed everything she had built.

She had no idea where Xhan and Sergei were, or if they were even alive. And they would not remember her any more than she had remembered them until this moment, until the spell came that restored all of it to her. The spell had only restored her own memories, not theirs. They had no reason to come find her, because they had no idea who she was. If they were alive, she had no idea where to find them, or even how to look. They could be anywhere in the world, or on any world. It was a search that could very well be utterly doomed on the face of it. They had decades worth of a head start, and no reason to know she was looking.

They were gone, and she had no idea how to find them.

She stood there, fists clenched as tears fell freely down her face. Eventually, Bethany quietly asked, “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to call somebody?”

“No,” Jessica replied in a flat voice. Her eyes opened and she looked to the kind, elderly woman who was actually probably several decades younger than her. “Thank you, but this was a mistake. There’s nothing here for me. I’ll leave you alone.”

After a brief hesitation, Bethany reached out to touch her arm. “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” Jessica agreed. “But I’m afraid it might be gone forever.”

“Oh dear,” Bethany urged, “You have to keep hope. If you don’t have hope, what’s left?”

Jessica answered without looking at the woman. Her gaze was focused on the corner of the living room where she could see her husband and son comparing their height marks on the wall. Her response was a single, definitive word that filled her body and soul. It was an answer, but also a promise, a solemn vow.

“Revenge.”

******

 

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

 

“Marina, would you go get the Bluejay group and bring them to the main room?”

For a moment, Marina Dupont stared at the woman who was speaking. The older Heretic, a woman named Kelly, was the only adult besides Marina (herself only technically an adult by being nineteen) who was still here in what was called the Nest. That was the word used for the daycare/school/orphanage where all the young children from toddlers all the way up to twelve years old stayed while their parents were busy… or gone permanently.

“The Bluejays?” Marina echoed. That was the nickname of the six year olds. Every age group had bird names, up to the twelve-year-olds, who were called Owls. “You want me to go get the kids? What about everything that just happened? What about everything that just popped into our heads? You know what it means?”

A rebellion. There had been a full-scale rebellion against Crossroads, against the idea of killing all beings who weren’t human. People believed that there were good Strangers. They actually believed that. They believed it to the point of going to war about it, until that rebellion had been erased.

And it was Flick’s group who restored those memories, or instilled them in those who were too young, like Marina herself. Everything that had happened over the year, all the students whom Marina was supposed to mentor that had disappeared or died, this had something to do with that. She knew it. She didn’t know how, but it had to be related in some way. All those secrets they had been keeping, it was about this. They believed that Strangers weren’t all evil, and they were afraid of how she would react to that idea. That was why they were so secretive around her. They didn’t hate her. They were just being careful. For good reason.

Kelly, a woman who would have appeared to be in her late forties as a Bystander, interrupted Marina’s thoughts. “Yes, I know what it means. It means that we are going to have a lot of parents coming to grab their children. We need to get everyone into the meeting room so we can work out which ones are safe to release.”

Blinking in confusion, Marina asked, “What do you mean, safe to release? If their parents come to get them, shouldn’t we just let them go? I mean, they’re their parents.”

Kelly’s head shook. “Only once they’ve been cleared by the Committee as not being traitors. Listen to me, we are not going to send impressionable, innocent children home with parents or other family members who are traitors. Besides, having their children means they’ll come and talk. It might head off a big part of any violence if they can be told to surrender for their kids, okay?” When Marina slowly nodded in understanding, the woman gave her a smile. “Good, now go get the Bluejays, I’m going to make sure—”

In mid-sentence as she turned to look down the hall, the woman was suddenly cut off by the feel of Marina’s hand against her neck, a coin clutched between her fingers. She tried to react, but Marina spoke the incantation first, sending a powerful sleep spell into Kelly that dropped her to the floor.

She wouldn’t be out long, maybe ten minutes. That was the best that Marina could hope for. Quickly, the girl went down to one knee and searched through the woman’s pocket until she found a large blue key. The field trip key, as people here in the Nest called it. It worked on a single door that would transport them to any of several dozen locations across the world.

Clutching the key in one hand, Marina jumped up and ran to the Bluejay hall.  Over the next minute or so, she gathered each of the ten children who fell into that category and ushered them with her to the main room where everyone else was already waiting. There were over sixty kids in there, most of them sitting around chattering about the coolness of being up in the middle of the night, or sleeping on the floor or in chairs. A few looked confused or even scared. All of them looked up as she entered with the other group, some blurting some variation of, “Miss Marina! What’s going on?”

Taking a breath, Marina held up the key. “Everyone get your buddy. We’re going on a trip.”

Danny, a young boy just over nine, raised his hand. “A trip? But we’re supposed to be sleeping. Where’s Miss Kelly? What’s going on?”

Forcing a smile on to her face, Marina put a finger to her lips. “Shh. It’s a surprise. Come on guys, you’ll like it, I promise. We’re going to have an adventure.”

She turned then, leading them to the field trip door. She had no idea where she was going to take them. But she knew one thing, she was not going to let either side of this war use children against each other. Every child’s parent, no matter what side they were on, would be able to come pick them up from wherever she took them. She was not going to be party to that kind of evil. Rebel or loyalist, they could all claim their offspring, siblings, or whatever.

There would be consequences, of course. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she made the decision to knock Kelly out. She would probably be labeled a traitor herself for doing that. But Marina didn’t care. She didn’t care how anyone saw her, or what they did to her for it. All she cared about was stopping these kids from being turned into pawns for this war.

No one was going to use children as hostages. Not this time.

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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Discovery 1-06 (Summus Proelium)

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In that moment, I acted faster than I ever had in my life. Apparently fear was one hell of a motivator. Even as Simon started to say something, my hands moved. One I pointed above my head and behind me at the two Easy Eight thugs. The other I pointed down and forward past my stomach toward the two guys who stood with my brother. Red paint shot from both of my hands to cover the guns that they all held. An instant later, the guns were torn from all four of their grasps as I activated the power in the paint.

The guns flew to meet each other in the middle, right where Two-Step was standing. He had to jerk and duck out of the way as they collided in the air right above me before starting to fall. They would have fallen on top of me, but I snapped my hand out to the side, shot another bit of red paint out to hit a car nearby, and made my glove red as well. The power yanked me off the ground and sent me flying to the car. I collided with it hand first hard enough to send a shock through me. Ow. I should have used orange paint too. Dammit.

Apparently I also should have used green paint to speed myself up. Because before I could get my bearings, Two-Step was already there. One of his hands caught my neck and shoved me down over the car hood while the other found its way to the middle of my back to keep me there.

He started to say something, but I quickly shifted my whole costume to blue and activated it. The paint sent the man flying backward away from me with a cry of surprise.

Unfortunately, at the same time, the car I was leaning over slid away as well, leaving me to fall onto my hands and knees with a grunt. Shit, I should have just made my back blue, which would have used less paint too.

The guys were recovering, and Simon was spinning toward me. Lastword had also appeared and was moving to involve himself. Shit, shit, shit. I had to get out of there. I had to get the hell out. Shoving myself over to face the guys coming after me, I threw my arms out into a wide wave, sending a bunch of yellow paint flying. Most of it struck randomly everywhere, but a bit got on almost everyone, slowing them down considerably. Almost everyone, that was, aside from Lastword, who created some kind of force field in front of himself that the paint got stuck on.

I was already running, using that time to scramble back to my feet and take off. Unfortunately, Simon and all those guys were between me and the exit. I had to run deeper into the car lot, toward the auto shop garage. I could get out the other side, I just had to run all the way through.

Then something invisible struck me hard in the back, and I went sprawling. What a grunt of pain, I rolled over just in time to see Lastword creating another force field with one hand, which he sent flying at me with a quick push. That was what had struck me. He could do more than just make force fields, he could also send them flying around. Great.

Was it wrong that if I had just been watching, I would have thought this whole thing was really cool? I was being attacked by superpowers. I was using superpowers! This whole thing should have been awesome.

It was terrifying.

Shifting the front of my costume to orange, I threw my hands up in front of my face just as the forcefield struck home. It did almost nothing, dissipating against me. I felt the impact, of course, but it was akin to a light shove.

Then I was on my feet. As my costume shifted back to its base white, I made a little bit of green paint appear on my chest. It was shaped like a hand with an upraised middle finger, pointed right at Lastword.

Juvenile? Yeah. Worth it? Definitely.

Besides, it served a purpose. At that point, it was probably all the paint I could manage, and I used it to speed myself up, spinning around to run away again with Lastword, Two-Step, Simon, and the rest of the bad guys right on my heels. They were taller than me, and had longer legs. But I ran track, and had my ten second speed boost for a head start.

It was going to be close. I had to do something to give myself more of an edge. Then I remembered what I was wearing. Glancing down, I smacked my heels together to bring the wheels out on my pace-skates.

A gun shot rang out. Then another. They were shooting at me! The shots weren’t coming anywhere close, but they were still shooting at me! And I didn’t know if I could make any more paint for the moment. Go! I had to go!

More importantly, I had to get out of sight before they actually hit me. Adjusting my course as I skated across the lot, I ducked low, rolling under the partially open door of the auto shop. I could hear a couple more shots pinging off the wall, and a sob of terror escaped me before I could stop it.

I fell forward onto my hands once in the garage, before shoving myself back up. They were still coming, but I wasn’t trapped in here. There were doors at either end. My hand snapped out to hit the button that closed the door behind me, and I skated to the other side.

Thankfully, this side was open too. Behind me, I heard shouting to go around, even as something heavy and powerful slammed into the door I had closed, denting it inward. It hit the door again, almost taking it right off the frame. Lastword. He was either hitting the door with his forcefield thing, or using some other power. Either way, in about one more hit, it was going to be down.

I kept skating, throwing myself out through the open garage door and across the lot toward the far side of the lot. Behind me, I heard the pounding footsteps of guys coming around the side of the garage, as well as the loud clanging of the door being knocked in. They were all coming.

I skated faster. It felt as though ten minutes had passed since I last used my paint, but it was probably more like ten seconds. I had to wait. I had to keep moving. I had to get the hell out of there!

What the hell was I thinking? I should just tell Simon who I was. He wouldn’t kill me, or let them do so. Right?

It was a mixture of my own fear and my revulsion at the thought of looking Simon in the face while knowing everything I did that drove me onward. I heard shouting behind me as they all met up on the side of the garage and kept after me. They weren’t just going to let me escape. Especially now that they knew I had powers. Thankfully, I was pretty sure they didn’t know exactly how they worked, or how low I was running.

Nearing the fence, I skated between two vehicles and prayed to God that I’d waited long enough to use more paint. My hands stretched out, shooting a puddle of beautiful, beautiful blue right in front of myself. It worked! It fucking worked! With a loud, half-crazed whoop that probably accidentally sounded more taunting than relieved, I hit the paint and sent myself flying up and over the fence.

Awkwardly, I sprawled across the ground on the other side, remembering at the last instant to make a little bit of orange so I didn’t sprain or even break anything. Still, it was anything but graceful. But I was over the fence, and I could hear angry shouting even as I push myself up to keep going.

Behind me, Two-Step hit the fence with that red bat of his, instantly knocking a hole in it somehow. I could hear the metal sizzling.

Oh, right. This wasn’t a game. There was no rule that said they had to stop at the fence. I had to keep going, had to fling myself across the empty street while they kept chasing me.

God, oh God, I had to get the hell out of there. I had to get away before they caught up again. Before they started shooting again. I looked frantically for something to do, a way to escape. There was nothing. Just an empty street and silent, imposingly tall buildings. I was trapped. They’d catch up with me and then… and then…

My eyes snaps to the building directly in front of me, and I swallowed the sudden fear that I felt at the thought that came. Forcing that down, I ran for the building, retracting my skates on the way. Behind me, the guys were catching up. I heard Simon blurt not to kill me. They needed to know who I was and what the hell I was doing. And how much I knew.

That was something, at least. But I wasn’t planning on being killed or captured. Reaching the building, I created a quick blue puddle in front of myself and jumped on it. The paint shot me upward a good ten or twelve feet, and I snapped my hands out, my gloves turning red while I made more red marks on the wall itself.

It worked. My hands caught against the wall and I stayed there, kicking my feet inward while making the boots red too. Red paint shot from my feet as well, giving them something to cling to. For about ten seconds, I would be able to cling there without falling. Of course, after about ten seconds, I would be screwed. Because Simon and the others were right there. Lastword was already getting ready to do something, and Simon shouted something at me about coming down.

Instead, I pushed up with my feet, throwing myself further up the wall just like in rock climbing class at gym. But instead of having to find places to stand, I made my own, creating more red marks on the wall for my gloves and boots to stick to. Just like that, I scrambled up the wall, partly climbing, partly jumping, and partly crawling. It was disorienting and confusing, but I kept going even as they shouted behind me. I heard guns being readied, and quickly made an orange frowny face appear on my back.

They fired, and I felt a bullet hit my leg. I felt a bullet hit my leg. Thanks to the orange paint, it didn’t actually penetrate, but it still hurt. It was like being hit with a paintball, and I would have fallen if staying against that wall wasn’t an automatic thing. As it was, I nearly stayed there too long. Just as the power in the paint faded, I jumped again, while Simon shouted below me for them to get me down already.

Two-Step was coming after me. He was using his ghost somehow to keep boosting himself up, making pushing motions with his hands as he went up the wall that his ghost duplicated behind him to keep him climbing against the smooth surface. He was catching up quickly. I had to go.

Just like earlier, the terror was an excellent motivator, and I scrambled my way up the rest of the building like that, making spots of red paint to climb that faded behind me until I finally reached the top and scrambled over onto the roof. My leg hurt. I was limping, even as I tried to ignore the pain. I didn’t have time to think about it, aside from being glad I was only hit once and with my paint active.

Two-Step was just a little bit behind me, and I caught a glimpse of Lastword rising off the ground, having apparently worked his way into a flight power of some kind.

But for the moment, I was out of sight. And I used that, racing toward the roof access door that would lead into the building. There, I tried the door knob. It was locked. With a grunt, I turned my arm purple, quickly using the strength that it provided to punch the door open. It slammed inward, revealing a stairwell beyond.

I ran in, but didn’t go down the stairs. That would have just led to more chasing. Instead, I quickly turned, using the lingering strength that my purple paint provided to throw myself up into the space just above the door. Turning one of my arms and one of my feet red, I shoved both arms and feet against the walls to hold myself there. I was basically bunched up into the corner above the doorway, my arms bracing myself against one side while my feet braced against the other to stay in place. With the help of my red paint, of course. Sitting like this, I could wait until the paint almost ran out, then shift to making the opposite foot and arm red to keep myself there, alternating back and forth a time or two.

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long before my two pursuers were there. They came charging through the doorway at a sprint, never even looking up as they passed me and began racing down the stairs, Two-Step blurting something about the others cutting me off at the bottom.

I let them go, listening to their footsteps descending the stairs before I dropped from my perch, making a bit of black paint on my feet to silence my landing. Dropping to a crouch, I carefully leaned over to peer down at their descending forms. My throat was dry, and it felt like I needed to throw up.

They were gone, but I had to get out of there in case they doubled back when they found out I wasn’t at the bottom. Quickly, I scrambled back to my feet, still silent, and ran back out to the roof.

I needed a way out of here. Moving to the edge of the roof nearest the other building, I leaned over and looked down. It was a long drop, and I didn’t know if my orange paint could take it. Instead, I looked over to the next roof. I could make that jump, with a little help.

Moving back a few steps, I put out my hands to make another blue puddle. Then I took a breath, psyching myself up for a couple seconds before running forward. As my feet hit the blue paint, I jumped, launching myself through the air while barely repressing the urge to let out a cry that would have been half-terror and half-excitement. Remembering to make my legs orange just before landing on the other side, I still sprawled out across that next roof before rolling onto my back. I barely had the wherewithal to pull myself behind the nearest air-conditioning unit on that roof so that I couldn’t be seen from the first one. Then I just stared at the sky and tried not to whimper. I was safe. I made it out out there. I could breathe again.

I had to stop breathing then, as I heard my brother’s voice from the first roof. He was speaking loudly. “Yeah, like I said, he’s not here! He fucking disappeared!”

Quickly painting myself completely black and using the silencing power, I waited a second before chancing a peek around the air conditioning unit. There. I could see my brother’s back as he spoke to someone out of sight. He looked nervous somehow, even from behind. It definitely didn’t seem like he was giving orders like he had been earlier and last night.

“I told you,” Simon was saying, “I don’t think he saw you last night. He didn’t go that far in.”

The person he was speaking to came forward, moving beside Simon. It was our dad. The sight of him made me want to disappear even more. He gave my brother a dark look, his voice firm. “Then why did he play dress-up and come here tonight? How did he even know about this?”

Simon’s head shook. “Hell if I know.”

Dad’s hand snapped out, catching hold of Simon’s collar to pull him close. His voice was dangerous. “Find out.” Then he gave him a slight push back, his tone softening. “Come on, son. You can do this. You’re ready for the responsibility. Track this kid down and find out what he knows. Bring him in, and we’ll talk. If he doesn’t know anything damaging, we’ll find a use for him, whichever side he leans toward. If he does know too much… well,  there’s more room in Lake St. Clair than there is in the city for new Touched. Okay? I trust you. Prove me right. Show me that I can hand some of this off to you.”

Simon muttered some kind of agreement, and Dad nodded before starting to look around. I ducked back, but he wasn’t looking in my direction. He was scanning the sky. I frowned, tilting my head up to look as well before returning my attention to him, confused. What was he looking for?

A moment later, all of my thoughts about what my father could have been looking for vanished, along with every other thought I had or possibly would ever have. Because in that moment, he stepped up on the edge of the roof while a featureless metal helmet expanded and grew up and over his head. It matched the sleek silvery armor that he wore. Then he simply floated off the roof and turned to look at Simon before saying something I didn’t catch. In the next second, he was flying away. My father was flying away. He was flying. He was a Touched.

And not just any Touched. Because as I crouched there, hidden behind the air conditioner, I knew who he was. There was no mistaking it. The suit was very distinctive. And I had a lot of history in looking at pictures of him.

Silversmith. He was Silversmith, the leader of the local Conservators. My favorite hero, by some twisted sense of irony. I’d always love to follow his stories. I’d looked up to him for years. And now…

My father wasn’t a villain working for villains. He was a villain… leading heroes.

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Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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In the end, the group (consisting of Dare, Kohaku, Gabriel Prosser, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Larees, Haiden, Larissa, Theia, Metatron, Raphael, Chayyiel, Jophiel, and Cahethal) traveled through six different portals before finally reaching their destination. While the lab was located on Earth and would have been ordinarily reachable through a single portal, it was protected in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was a particular spell which functioned as a combination lock of sorts. If the person entering did not first go through each of the previous five locations just before entering the lab, all of the contents within it would disappear.

Once they were finally there, the group as a whole looked around. They had arrived in a perfectly white room just large enough to hold them. Every surface was pristine, without a single smudge or fleck of dust. The immaculate white walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to pulse a bit with power for a few seconds after their arrival.

Cahethal spoke for the first time as the pulsing glow faded. “A sterilization spell, to remove any exterior contaminants that might be brought in. And unless I miss my guess…”

Sariel confirmed, “A version of the expulsion magic, to ensure that no one enters carrying one of our people unknowingly.”

Metatron gave a dark look at that. “That spell technology is not allowed anywhere near this world. It is heavily regulated. You should not even have been taught how to use it.”

Apollo cheerily replied, “She wasn’t. She reversed engineered it after spending so much time in old Kushiel’s place.” Though his words were light, there was an underlying hardness to his tone as he stared intently at the old man while bringing up what his adopted sister had gone through.

Cahethal gave the woman a curious look at that, several different thoughts clearly playing out in her mind while she remained silent.

Metatron, however, wasn’t nearly so reserved. He gave both of the ‘twins’ a disbelieving look. “Even if that were true, which I have many reservations about, allowing power like that to be here on this planet, even in a controlled environment, is absurdly risky. If it were to accidentally find its way to anyone else—”

Apollo interrupted. “Oh, it’s finding its way to other people. Like Gabriel here. You can be damn sure that his people are going to have these things set up around their homes. So if you or any of your colleagues might have been thinking about any infiltration, they should reconsider.”

Giving them another incredulous look, Metatron snapped, “You would provide such dangerous magic to another species? Do you have any idea what you risk with such insanity?”

It was Chayyiel who spoke. “For someone who has ranted at such lengths on what sort of traitors Lucifer and Sariel are, you seem oddly surprised that they do not consider themselves loyal to our side.”

Her words were met by a brief look from the man, and a simple, vaguely disbelieving, “Our side?”

Before anyone else could respond to that, Raphael spoke up while cracking his neck. “As much fun as this banter is, it’s somewhat crowded in here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. When that happens, my wings tend to come out. Which, in a place like this, could be dangerous for everyone else. What do you say we move on?”

Haiden nodded. “I’m with David Lee Roth over there. We’re not going to get along, so let’s just get this over with.”

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed quietly. “Some of us have other matters to attend to once this business is finished.”

From where she was standing, Larissa observed, “Like getting ready to leave the host you’ve been enslaving for so long once Liesje’s spell is fixed?”

Jophiel offered her a smile. “Fortunately, that is not a problem I have to contend with. The Committee’s connection to one another should be enough to dilute your little spell. At least enough for me to retain control. So I do hope that any of your future plans did not rely solely on us losing influence over Crossroads.”

While the others exchanged glances, Sariel and Apollo moved to the nearest wall and began to run through several unlocking spells together to open the way forward. it took over a minute of rapid incantation before a single doorway appeared nearby. It was a simple arch, revealing a much larger room beyond.

As a group, they moved one by one through the archway and into the lab itself. The place was as wide as a basketball court and as long as two of them. Dozens of tables were set up all around the room, with bits of equipment, half-formed spell runes, notebooks, computers, and more all over the place. In the very center of the room was a pedestal with a softly glowing blue orb slightly larger than a softball sitting on it. Patterns of white runic symbols danced across the surface of the orb, the spell that kept its contents contained, among other things. Stacks of paper as tall as a person surrounded the pedestal, while another had been knocked over so that its contents were spread all around the foot of it. There were notes sprawled on the floor, as well as on the pedestal itself. Notes which seemed to flip back and forth between Latin and English seemingly at random, as though the person taking them was absently flipping back and forth themselves.

Cahethal observed, “I see neither of you have yet mastered the art of a clean and organized workspace that I spent so long trying to instill in you. It is good to know that some things will never change.”

With a grin, Apollo agreed, “Yeah, like the way we’re still finishing the work you couldn’t get done.”

Raising a finger to point at the man, Cahethal started to retort before pausing. Then she lowered her hand and carefully replied, “The time will come, Lucifer, when we are no longer in a truce. You would do well to remember that.”

Before he could respond, Larees spoke up. “So hey, I’ve gotta ask…” She took a quick sip from her flask before continuing. “Exactly how many days or weeks do you think you devoted to trying to figure out why you couldn’t possess that Chambers girl? Is there a ream of notes with all your hypotheses about it? Ooh, or holo recordings. Because I would pay good–”

“Stop it,” Sariel snapped before adding a simple, “It’s easy to overlook the obvious answer to a problem. She’s the one who helped teach us that.”

With those words, the woman moved to the pedestal. “Come on. We’ll show you how to do this and then you can leave Earth.”

“Finally,” Metatron announced while they followed her, “you say something that I can fully and completely agree with. Being away from this planet and rid of responsibility for it, even if only for one of its years before your experiment inevitably fails, sounds quite pleasant right now.”

“If everyone is finished sniping at one another, maybe we should get on with it,” Chayyiel announced.

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed in a doubtful tone, “show us what you have done that is so different than what hundreds of our best scientists have been able to do with thousands of years of work.”

Apollo began to explain while Sariel did something with the orb. “See, your problem was that you’ve all been trying to open a new portal into Tartarus.”

A disbelieving came over Cahethal. “Yes, that is our entire purpose here. Have you misunderstood this completely?”

Sariel spoke then while rising from where she had been making one last adjustment to the pedestal. “He doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want a portal to exist. He means it’s wrong for us to try to open it. We can’t.”

Before any more exasperated demands could be made, she continued while picking up the orb. “This can. You see, thousands of years ago, long before we came anywhere near that spot of space, something came out of it. Something made that hole from Tartarus to our universe. Whatever it was punched a hole between realities. When it did, it left behind a trail of the same energy from that reality that we use to empower ourselves. Think of it as stepping out of a lake and walking on dry ground while leaving puddles behind you. It carried that energy with it when it came here. Energy which, I will remind you, can never be completely destroyed.”

“That’s what you have in that orb,” Jophiel observed.

Sariel nodded. “Yes. Over all those years, the energy trail drifted apart through the entire universe. We—” She indicated herself and Apollo. “— have been using magic to pull bits of it here for a long time. And this orb is what we have.”

Apollo clarified, “What she means is that we set it up to pull in that energy thousands of years ago and she’s been quietly working on it off and on all this time. She just needed a little help right at the end to get it fully contained and sealed up in that nice little package for you.”

Metatron raised an eyebrow. “So what you are saying is that you have worked thousands of years and have managed to collect just enough energy to empower perhaps one person. Somehow this is not the solution I believe the rest of the Seraphim were hoping for. And it is certainly not what you promised.”

Apollo just shook his head. “What you do with the orb when we give it to you is up to you. You can use it to empower one person. Or, you can be smart with it.”

Cahethal spoke then, understanding. “We can use it to get back into Tartarus. If we flood it with enough power to jumpstart it while those specific spells on that orb are active, the residual Tartarus energy will attempt to return home. We don’t have to make another portal. They will leave a hole when they pass through. A hole which we can catch before it closes and stabilize.”

Raphael gave a low whistle. “That simple, hmm?”

Chayyiel shook her head. “There’s nothing simple about it. But, yes. It should work exactly the way they say. We will be able to open the way to Tartarus once more. Or, as he said, empower a single individual.”

“I suggest you go with the first option,” Apollo put in with a smirk. “But, you know, you do you.”

“I would point out here,” Metatron noted, “that this entire situation has grown beyond your initial demand. First, you say that it is to create a deal where we will leave your family alone. And now, it is tied into the truce agreement with this planet.”

Sariel nodded. “Let’s just say our changing situation necessitated a more thorough agreement. Not that it changes anything. The Seraphim have already voted to give Earth one year to prove ourselves. And you already know that you’re agreeing to leave my family alone. We’re just putting the bow on both deals together.”

It was Raphael who agreed. “She’s right, it doesn’t change the agreement. If anything, it gives us an out. Because if this orb doesn’t do what they say it well, that provides you an excuse to break the entire deal. Or at least bring it up for review with the rest of the Seraphim. And I can pretty much guarantee that if this promise is broken, there will be enough votes to nullify the truce.”

The man let that hang for a moment before snapping his gaze to Apollo and the others. “So, I really hope that it works the way you’re saying it will. Because I kinda like this place and I’d really prefer not to go all full scale invasion and war on it. It’s a great planet to come vacation once in a while. You know, when you just need to get away from everything. It would just rip me apart to have to come here and… rip it apart.”

“It will work.” That was Kohaku. “You all sign the magical agreement to leave her family alone for good, and to uphold the truce agreement here for one year, to enact no substantial efforts against this world for that time. Then you can take that orb back to your space and play all the super soldier games you want. Go bowling with it for all we care. But take it and go.”

Raphael observed her briefly, his tone curious. “You were the one Manakel took as a host, right? I, um… I’m sorry you didn’t know him before. He used to be a lot more fun than he ended up becoming.” After a brief pause, the man took in a breath and then let it out in a sigh. “I know it means basically nothing. But I do wish you could have known him then. He would have been appalled and destroyed by what he became. And the Manakel I knew would have wanted you to have this.” Extending his hand, the man held out a simple necklace of sorts. It was a small clear crystal dangling from a leather cord.

“It’s okay. You can have all your magic experts look over it as much as you want. It’s not a trap.”

Rather than take it, Kohaku simply stared. “What the hell is it?”

It was Theia who spoke up. “Dead seer.”

Raphael nodded to her. “Exactly. See, back when Manakel was still new to his gift and exploring the art of necromancy, he created this. It doesn’t summon any ghosts or zombies or anything. Instead, when a person looks deep into the crystal, they will see an image from the life of someone they’ve lost. It’s sort of a window into the past. You can’t interact with them, you can’t bring them back, you can’t do anything except look. It’s like one of your human video tapes. Just look into it and think about who you want to see. Anyone you knew who passed away.”

Kohaku’s hand moved to close around the cord, but she didn’t take it. Her eyes bore into the ancient, powerful figure’s. “You expect me to believe that you’re just handing this over with no strings attached and no tricks. Forgive me, but I’m not exactly inclined to think the best of your people.”

Chayyiel spoke. “Manakel was his descendent, his great-great grandson, and his protégé of sorts. Raphael helped raise and protect him.”

The man himself gave a short nod. “As I said, I knew him a long time ago, and I know what he would want. He didn’t always make the right choice. And he got a lot worse over time. But he’d want you to have that. If you want to throw it away, that’s up to you. Take it, and do what you’d like with it.”

As the woman silently accepted it with a conflicted look, Metatron cleared his throat. His expression was annoyed. “If we are quite finished playing nursemaids to the humans and the traitors, perhaps we can complete this arrangement. We still need proof that the orb will work as described before we sign any deal.”

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed. “Unfortunately, we cannot risk breaching that orb to test the energy within without releasing all of it. Which would tend to defeat the purpose of taking it back with us.”

Sariel reached behind the pedestal to remove a much smaller orb, this one about the size of a marble. “That’s why we have this.” She tossed it to the woman, sending the marble perfectly into her palm. “It’s the same stuff from the orb. You can take it to the containment area there.” She pointed to where a series of protection spells had been drawn around a circle in the corner. “Do whatever tests you want until you’re satisfied.”

Apollo then added, “Though I would like to point out that it’s not exactly hard for you people to come back here if you get out to your space and find out we lied. That would be breaking the agreement. And, you know, it would also be pretty damn stupid. I mean, what are we gonna do, move the whole planet?”

After he finished that bit, it was Chayyiel who looked to him. “Our space?”

The man shrugged. “Something tells me that it doesn’t matter what kind of truce or peace agreement we set up, I am never actually going to be welcome out there. Call me crazy.”

Metatron snapped, “No one forced any of you to betray your people.” He gave Sariel, then Athena each a dark look in turn. “Or to lay with creatures far beneath us. Or tutor a man whose power could have threatened our entire civilization as a whole. You all chose that, and you will receive no pity for the repercussions.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cahethal muttered in an uncaring and distracted voice, “Yes yes, they are such terrible people, of course. Now come here. I need your help to verify this.” Marble in hand, she moved to the containment area, with Metatron following after giving them all one more disgusted look.

As the two of them moved away, Jophiel turned her attention to Athena. “Speaking of your misguided efforts all those centuries ago, you must have been quite relieved during the… situation at Crossroads to see that your protégé’s top knight has somehow managed to survive all these years. Although, from the memories that I’ve seen, she looks more like his consort than his knight. Isn’t that funny? Because, as far as I knew, the two were secret lovers, not twins.”

From where she was standing, Theia offered, “I can go rent a backhoe if you’d like to keep digging.”

Offering the younger girl a brief smile at that, Athena nodded simply to Jophiel. “Yes, it was quite a relief to be reunited with… her. We had much to talk about.”

For a moment, it looked as though Jophiel might question what exactly they had talked about. But in the end, she simply looked away.

After a minute of silence, Raphael looked over toward Larissa and Haiden. “You know, if we’re speaking freely at the moment, I will say that I was fairly impressed by your antics in our space. Not that it would have stopped me from killing you, but still, given how isolated you were, you actually did fairly well.”

Haiden met his gaze. “Yeah, well, let’s just say you gave us plenty of incentive to get creative. Hell, if you’d just left my family alone to begin with, we never would have been out there.”

Sariel spoke up. “That doesn’t matter right now. We make this deal and our family does get left alone.”

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

Raphael shrugged. “Well, most of us do. I’ll be sticking around for a little bit.” At the quick looks from the group he held up a hand. “Not to worry, I have no intention of violating the truce, I promise. My interest lies in reconnecting with an old friend, as I said.”

Before he could be asked for any information about that ‘old friend’, Cahethal stepped out of the containment area. A wisp of blue-black smoke was drifting around inside of it. “It’s real,” she reported. “They’ve contained the energy, and from what I can tell, it will work the way they claim. There should be enough in that orb to open the way to Tartarus once more.”

“Thank the Void,” Metatron muttered. “Then we sign the agreement and leave. I, for one, I am looking forward to not thinking about this dirt ball until the apes who live here have torn each other apart.”

“Aww,” Haiden put in, “we love you too.” He accepted the offered flask from Larees and took a swig. “Believe me, speaking for the apes, we’ll be just as glad to see you go.”

For the next two hours, the agreement was drawn up and several dozen spells were attached to it to bind all parties to the terms. If any knowingly violated those terms, there would be harsh consequences. Not only politically and monetarily, but also physically and magically. They would quite literally be putting their power and lives on the line to knowingly violate the contract.

Then it was done. All present signed the contract. Earth would be left relatively alone for one year. And Sariel and Apollo’s family would not be purposefully hunted or harmed so long as they did not initiate first attack.

Chayyiel, glancing back and forth between both groups once it was done, announced, “Good. Now those of us who wish to leave may do so. And those of us who have a little more business to take care of first can focus on that.”

Metatron gave her a look. “You have been quite thoroughly informed that your place is not here on this world,” he reminded her. “It is not your territory. An exception may have been made for this, but as I have told you many times,  I will not have you wandering this planet so long as it is under my control,.”

Chayyiel smiled slightly. “You’re right. But as you have repeatedly expressed with much gratitude and pleasure, this world is none of our responsibility after this agreement. During the truce period you are no longer responsible for it. Which means your permission for visitation to the world is not required during that time.”

As the man stared at her, barely able to keep his mouth from falling open as the trap was revealed, she continued. “Many, many years ago, you informed me that I lacked any subtlety or patience. You said that you would see through any childish plans I set toward ever coming back here. And you said that so long as this world was in your hands, I would not set foot on it.”

She let that hang in the air for a moment before taking a single step forward. In that motion, she stepped out of her shoe, placing one bare foot pointedly on the floor in front of it. Her voice was soft.

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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