Month: July 2019

Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Interlude 4A – Wren (Summus Proelium)

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“Hey, kid.” A foot nudged Wren Donovan’s leg as the nine-year-old lay on a wheeled creeper board underneath a sedan. With a flashlight in her mouth and tools in both hands, the girl hesitated. She really didn’t like to interrupt her work when she was on a roll. Especially when the person interrupting her was someone she wasn’t exactly super-happy with at the moment. 

The nudge came again. “Come on, kid, I’ve got pizza inside. You’ve gotta eat.” 

That did it. She might’ve been upset with Uncle Fred for giving that bad guy the stuff he needed to hurt that girl, but pizza was pizza. Besides, he didn’t mean for things to go that way. Pushing her feet down, she rolled herself out from under the car and blinked up at the man while spitting out the flashlight. “Pepperoni?”

“Extra pepperoni with more pepperoni on the side just in case they don’t get the message, just the way you like it,” Uncle Fred assured her, reaching down to offer both hands to the girl. She took them with her own grease-covered fingers, and he grimaced a little before pulling her up to her feet. They were standing in the back alley area behind the ‘bookstore’ that served as the entrance to her back-up lab. The rear door into the store itself was standing open, and she could already smell the promised pizza beyond. It was quickly making her mouth water. 

“Uh uh,” Uncle Fred stopped her with a hand. “You go wash your hands first. Soap and water.” 

“Yeaaaah yeah,” Wren grumbled a bit. Not because she actually wanted to taste oil and grease while she was eating, but for the principle of the thing. Heading off quickly, she thoroughly scrubbed her hands in the small restroom attached to the store before going back. Fred had taken the pizza downstairs to the lab by that point, and she followed her nose that way.

Once the girl had filled a plate with food, she made her way to the couch to watch cartoons, switching the channel away from whatever daytime courtroom drama had been playing as she settled in to scarf hungrily at the food. Watching Pearl, Amethyst, and the other Gems was much more interesting than people complaining about someone stealing their dog or breaking their window or whatever. She could see her uncle watching her from nearby, but waited until a commercial before she addressed him. “Are you mad at me, Uncle Fred?” 

“Mad at–” The man sighed, moving around to sit on the nearby chair. “Kid, I was trying to figure out how angry you were at me. I mean, I did sort of really fu–screw things up back there.” 

He was right. He had screwed things up, and a girl was in trouble because of Wren’s inventions. But… she supposed he hadn’t meant to make that happen. Thinking through all that as she silently munched her pizza, Wren finally swallowed and looked back to him. “Yes. I’m mad at you. You were a jerk and you did what I said not to just because you thought you knew better. A girl is really in trouble, Uncle Fred, cuz of my stuff.” 

The man winced. “I… I know. I’m sorry, kid. You’re right. I didn’t think it–I didn’t think. That’s not an excuse. I royally screwed up.” 

Meeting his gaze, Wren slowly nodded. “Everyone messes up sometimes.” Her brow furrowed, and she added pointedly, “But no more selling any of my stuff without telling me, okay? If my stuff gets someone killed, I couldn’t…” She stopped, biting her lip while staring at the food on her plate before finishing with an awkward, “Just tell me. And no means no. You’re the adult, but they’re my inventions.” 

“You got it,” Fred promised, taking a slice of pizza for himself from the nearby table before asking, “You ahh, mind telling me what you’re planning to do with that car out there?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” Wren admitted. “Mostly just trying to get it running again. Then I was thinking about making a Transformer.” She said that just to watch her uncle choke on his food, snickering to herself before amending, “Or maybe I’ll just make it go faster.” 

While Uncle Fred was still trying to react to that, the phone rang. Dropping her plate next to herself on the couch, Wren dove for it, grabbing the receiver before hitting the button. “Mllohn?” 

Right, food. Chewing her pizza hurriedly before swallowing, she tried again. “Hello?” 

There was a brief pause, before she heard a by-now-familiar voice, “Wren, that you?” 

“Hi, Paintball!” Grinning at the sound of the boy’s uncertain words, Wren found herself nodding pointlessly while hurriedly blurting, “Did you find that guy you were looking for? Did he have the things he stole? Oh, oh, did you save that girl? Is she okay? Did her dad say thank you? Is he still a bad guy? Are you gonna–”

A hand touched the back of her head, as Uncle Fred stood behind the couch. “Maybe let the kid answer one of the questions at a time, huh?” he suggested before taking a bite of his pizza. 

“Oh, right.” Turning her attention back to the phone, Wren settled on a simple, “What’s up?”  

She could hear Paintball chuckle just a little. “Hi, Wren. Yeah, um, we sort of–yeah, we have the guy and one of the medicine vials. But I was kind of wondering if we could bring him over there for awhile so we can figure out how to get the location of the rest of the stuff out of him. I know it’s a lot to ask, but your place is hidden and I don’t exactly have much in the way of options.” 

As he finished saying that, another voice spoke up, saying something that Wren couldn’t catch. Then Paintball’s voice came back, “Yeah, I know your boss would take him off my hands. Call me crazy, I don’t really want to be responsible for sending this guy to be tortured and executed.” 

“Uh,” Wren had to put in, “tortured and executed?” From the corner of her eye, she saw Uncle Fred do a double-take while silently echoing her last words. His face looked funny that way, and she had to restrain a giggle. Giggling after saying tortured and executed was probably bad.

“Sorry, sorry,” Paintball quickly replied. “That wasn’t–never mind. The point is, could we bring him over to your place until we figure this out? The um, one of… ahh, one of Blackjack’s people wants to come with to make sure he won’t get away and to see how we might get the truth out of him without her boss taking fingers and toes.” 

The person with Paintball spoke again, and that time Wren clearly heard, “Ehh, mood he’s in, I’m pretty sure he’d start with a full hand and just work his way out from there.” 

“Yeah, sure, bring him.” Wren said those words while giving her uncle a brief glance and an exaggerated thumbs up together with a wide smile to show him that it was all okay. “Wait, can you get him here?” 

“That’s actually the other thing,” Paintball reluctantly replied. “Things could get pretty nuts out here if people see this guy, so I don’t exactly want to go walking down the street with him.” 

Before the boy could continue, Wren brightly put in, “That’s okay, Uncle Fred can come get you.”

“He can?” The exact same words came from both Paintball over the phone and Fred himself from right beside the girl. 

“Uh huh.” Wren covered the receiver and gave her uncle a sharp look. “Dead. Little. Girl.” 

The man sighed, slumping a bit before waving his hand acceptingly. “Just tell me where to go.”

“Hey, Paintball? He’ll be there. Just tell us where you guys are.” Wren grinned. “See? You totally found the bad guy. I knew you would. Did the remote thing help a lot? Where was he? Did he fight you when you found him? Did you hit him really hard? Did he run away? Did you–” 

The phone was plucked from her hand, as Uncle Fred spoke. “Where are you? Huh? Yeah, got it. Bring a what? And–is there room in the car for a cage? A cage of lizards, as in multiple lizards? What kind of–never mind. I’ll be there.” Disconnecting, the man dropped the phone and heaved a sigh while heading for the exit, grumbling, “Car full of lizards, gonna ruin the upholstery. Never gonna get the smell out. Could’ve moved to Florida, but nooo.” 

As he left, Wren helpfully called, “I’m pretty sure they have lizards in Florida too, Uncle Fred!” 

*******

“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about your tech expert being a nine-year-old?” The girl who stood there in the main room of the upstairs bookstore, staring at Wren, wore a black and green leather jacket with a hood that covered her hair, her face hidden by a full black mask that didn’t even have any eye or mouth holes. 

Wren wasn’t offended. She was pretty used to that kind of reaction from anyone who found out that she was the one who built things back at the shop. Instead, she focused on the cage in the girl’s hands, blurting, “Oh wow, you really do have lizards! They’re so cute!” 

Head tilting, the lizard girl paused briefly before nodding. “Yeah, okay, I like her.” Setting the cage down, she extended a hand. “Name’s Pack. So you’re the genius, huh?” 

“I just like building really cool things,” Wren informed her while accepting the hand with both of hers. She shook it excitedly before blurting, “How come you’re a bad guy?” That time, it was both Paintball and Uncle Fred who choked and gave her surprised looks. Which was silly. Why did adults act so weird about actually asking the important questions or just saying what they meant? 

If she was offended or whatever, Pack didn’t act like it. She just shrugged. “Law never really did anything for me, so I don’t see why I should care that much about it. All the authorities have ever done is break up my family, take away my friends, repossess my stuff, throw us out in the street because we couldn’t pay rent, shit–I mean stuff like that. Not like I’m going around getting innocent little girls killed like some people.” With those words, she shot a look toward the handcuffed man nearby. “There’s levels of bad, y’know?” 

Wren blinked twice, thinking that through for a moment. It sounded wrong, but she wasn’t sure how to say it. Instead, the girl simply turned to Paintball with a grin. “You really found him!” 

“Yeah, thanks to your thing,” the boy replied before gesturing to the man in question. “So first up, any idea where we can keep him for the time being?” 

“You dumb shits know this is false imprisonment, right?” the man demanded. “Some heroes.” 

“Some of us don’t claim to be heroes,” Pack pointed out. Her expression was hidden behind that full mask, but her voice was dangerous. “And some of us have a boss that would really rather we take you to him instead of leaving you here. If you’d prefer that, it can be arranged.” 

Wren was pretty sure the guy didn’t want that, considering how quick he stopped talking. She looked back to Paintball, pointing to the stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you! There’s a room. I was setting it up for another lab, a uhh, soundproof one for little explosions and stuff. But it’ll work. Wait, he doesn’t have any powers, does he?” 

“Other than being a giant pain in the ass to track down?” the boy replied before shaking his head. “Nope. Not as far as we know, anyway. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve used them by now if he had anything. We searched him pretty thoroughly. No more weapons or tools. And no phones besides the one I was tracking.” 

“Don’t forget, also no vials,” the man pointed out with a tiny sneer. “And you’re not getting them.” 

Ignoring him, Wren led the group, with Uncle Fred bringing up the rear, down the stairs to the private area, then to a mostly-hidden door in the back. She fumbled in her pockets briefly, managing to bring out a small remote, which she pointed at the door. There was a beep as she pressed a button on it, and the door slid open. 

“It worked!” Wren blurted despite herself. Oh boy, that was perfect timing. The thing had been sticking for the past–The girl stopped, blinking over her shoulder at the assembled group. “I mean… he can go inside there.” She pointed into the room, which was basically a twenty-foot by twenty-foot square with blank walls, since she hadn’t moved anything in there yet. “We can get a mattress and a blanket or something for him, and some books. Oh, and we have pizza, and–” 

Paintball guided the man past Wren into the room, looking around for himself before pointing. “Just stay put, Ashton. Like she said, we’ll get you some stuff to take care of you. And you know, you could make this whole thing a hell of a lot easier if you just told us where the vials are. Do that, and I think I could probably talk Blackjack into letting you walk away from all this.” He paused, looking over to Wren and the others before turning back to amend, “Or at least give you a head start.” 

Paintball closed the door before giving the man a chance to reply, letting out an audible breath before looking over to Wren. “Thanks for helping take care of that guy. And um, I really hate to impose even more, but–” 

“You want something that can make him tell you where the stuff is, right?” Wren blurted, unable to keep quiet any longer. “I can’t make a telepathy thing. I mean, I’m pretty sure I can’t. I’ve never really tried, but I thought about it for awhile and I couldn’t think of anything. Usually it’s really easy to think of things. So I don’t think I can do mind reading stuff.” 

Setting the cage with her lizards down, Pack asked, “Can you do something to make sure that whatever he says is the truth?” 

“Like a Poliwag?” Wren started before frowning to herself. “Wait, that’s not right. That’s–polygraph!” She blurted that while raising a hand in triumph. “Nailed it! Polygraph. I… maybe can make a polygraph? I think. Wait, hold on. Gimme a second.” She spun on her heel to start away, stopping in mid-step to look back over her shoulder. “I mean, gimme a sec to plan something, not to actually make the thing. I’m not that fast. Okay, just a sec.” 

With that, Wren sprinted over to one of her tables of junk, dumping out a box before frantically moving parts and tools around. “Uncle Fred!” she called, “where’s Linus?” 

The man didn’t need to be told any more than that. He simply stepped over to one of the other tables, dug around in a box until he had a tiny screwdriver with tape over the handle and a happy face drawn on that tape, and handed it to her. 

“Hi, Linus!” Wren held the tool up so she could see the bright smile she had drawn on it. “We’re gonna figure out how to make somethin’, okay?” 

She set to work then, mumbling to herself as she moved parts around, undoing pieces of equipment with the help of Linus, Charlie, and Marcie. The latter two were her favorite wrench and pliers, respectively. 

It took about fifteen minutes. From the corner of her eye, she could see Paintball and Pack sit down to watch the TV, while Uncle Fred went to get that mattress, a blanket, and a few other things. Once that stuff was in the room with the prisoner guy, Paintball stepped in and came out a minute later with the cuffs that had been on him before returning to her seat. 

Through it all, Wren kept working. She didn’t want to tell them she knew what to make until it was definitely clear that she could do it. Grabbing a sheet of blueprint paper and a pencil, she scrawled on it for a few minutes, crossing things out and erasing until she had the right idea. It was a bit of a mess, but she’d clean it up later. 

Finally, she had enough. Checking her calculations one last time, Wren grinned excitedly while pumping her fist. “Gardyloo!” 

“Gardy-what?” Pack, jumping from her seat at the sound, stared at her. 

“Um, gardyloo,” Wren hesitantly explained while blushing a little. “It’s um, it’s something they used to say a long time ago in Scotland when they were throwing the, umm, slop from the windows out to the street. I just think it’s a funny word, so when I figure things out, I say it instead of eureka. Everyone says eureka. Nobody says gardyloo.” 

“Huh.” Shrugging, the lizard girl gave her a thumbs up. “Well gardyloo to you too. You figured out what to do, then?” 

Head bobbing quickly, Wren explained, “Uh huh. I can totally make something that’ll work. See?” She held up the sketch she had made of an armored suit. 

“What am I looking at?” Paintball asked, stepping that way to squint at the drawing of the armor. “You… uhh, you want us to build a suit that can beat the information out of him? Because that’s not exactly the way I was hoping we’d go.” 

In response, Wren grinned at him, tapping the paper. “Nah, silly. The suit is for him.” 

Paintball stared at her. “Okay, um, I think you might’ve been confused on the goal here. The point is to get him to tell us where he hid the vials, not give him a suit of armor.” 

Giggling, Wren glanced toward the snickering Pack before shaking her head. “The suit isn’t about protecting him, it’s about making him move around. See, the helmet there plugs into his neck and his head. If he’s wearing the suit and you make him start thinking about where the vials are, the helmet will translate his thoughts into movement, and make him go that way. All you have to do is follow.” She was grinning brightly. “See, it’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant. He doesn’t have to tell you where the medicine is. Just make him think about where it is and his body’ll go there. He can’t stop it.” 

“Oh. That…” Paintball trailed off. “That’s really cool, Wren. Yeah, you know, I think that just might work. And hey, you made it fit into that whole ‘movement’ theme.” 

Blushing, Wren kicked at the floor and shrugged self-consciously. “It makes things a lot easier to build if I design them around that. But it’ll take me about a week to make it. And I’ll need some special supplies. I’m not sure what yet, but… definitely things I don’t have here.” 

“I’ll take care of anything you need,” Paintball quickly assured her. “And a week… should be okay, right?” He looked over at Pack. 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dunno. I’m gonna have to call the boss and clear all this just to be sure. We’ve got the one vial, so that should keep the kid okay for a month, but he’s not gonna wait that long.” 

“Two weeks,” Paintball replied. “Like I said before, just tell him we need two weeks to get the truth out of Ashton. If Wren can build something to make him talk, we can get the rest of the medicine before she’s ever in danger again.” 

Once more, Pack shrugged. “Like I said, gotta call the boss. He’s the final say on all this.” 

“Use this phone.” Standing beside her, Fred offered the girl one. “It can’t be tracked, so they won’t know where you’re calling from. Just like you don’t know where you are.” 

“Gotcha.” Taking the phone, the girl stepped away, stopping by the cage to take one of her lizards out, setting him on her shoulder. Then she dialed the phone and moved to a corner of the room, murmuring quietly. After a minute of that, she turned and held the phone out to Paintball. “Boss wants to talk to you.” 

As the boy took the phone and had his own conversation, Pack returned to stand by Wren. “A week, huh?” 

“I can do it,” she assured the older girl. 

“If they come to a… an agreement on this,” Pack informed her, “it sounds like the boss is gonna want me to stick around here and keep an eye on that jacka–that guy. You mind if my little friends and me crash in the corner?” 

Brightening, Wren shook her head. “Nope, that sounds fun! It can be like a sleepover. I haven’t had any of those in a long time.” 

“Huh. A sleepover, huh?” Pack considered before shrugging. “Yeah, aight.”

Apparently finished with his call, Paintball disconnected. “Okay,” he announced, “ten days. Blackjack wouldn’t agree to two weeks. He said ten days. We’ve got that long to build this thing and get the rest of the vials out of Ashton. Then we ca–” There was a chime from the boy’s costume, and he dug around inside before coming out with a phone. His face was hidden behind the helmet, but his eyes very clearly widened as he blurted, “Oh shit! I’ve gotta go.” 

“Go?” Pack echoed, the frown evident in her voice. 

“Yeah, I’m gonna be late getting my dr…” Trailing off, Paintball coughed. “Late getting my drums.” 

Dryly, Pack gave him a thumbs up. “Smooth, totally saved it.” 

Looking awkward and fidgety, Paintball cleared his throat. “I–uh, whatever, I’m gonna be late. Call your boss back and tell him to send a car with someone he trusts completely to the public library on Woodward. I’ll give them the vial there. But they better be there quick.” 

With that, he was gone, hurrying up the stairs and leaving the building like his pants were on fire. 

Watching the boy go, Wren asked, “Uncle Fred, could you go to the store and get some marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers? We’re gonna make s’mores! And then we’ll tell ghost stories, and watch silly movies, and play music, and truth or dare, and, and, and–”

Her excited rambling was interrupted once more by Pack. “Y’know, I’ve thought a lot about how my first official mission as part of La Casa would go.

“Gotta say, I did not see this coming.” 

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Summer Epilogue 21 – Avalon and the Victors (Summer Epilogue End)

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A/N – This is the second chapter posted today. If you have not read the previous one, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above to check that one out first. 

Through the light, yet steady drizzle of rain, a red, nondescript SUV pulled into the parking lot of an old motel several blocks from the beach in Panama City, Florida. The vehicle rolled to a stop just inside the driveway, as a tall man in a raincoat emerged from under the nearby stairwell. He crossed to the driver’s side as the window came down. Several words were exchanged back and forth before the man pointed to a spot. It was the only empty parking space on that side of the motel, sandwiched between two heavy-duty vans with delivery service decals. 

The driver’s side window went up once more, and the SUV pulled up to that spot. There was a brief moment of silence as the engine shut off, save for the patter of rain against the vehicles and the roof of the motel. Then the doors all opened at once. Four pairs of feet hit the ground almost as one, as Avalon Sinclaire and Flick Chambers stepped from the back, and Seller and Abigail Fellows emerged from the front. Wyatt Rendell, Miranda Wallbern and Gordon Kuhn emerged from the back a moment later to join the others, and all moved to the rear of the SUV. 

The seven came out to stand directly in the rain, but no rain actually seemed to hit them. Avalon gave a glance toward the water-repellent enchantment badge clipped to her jacket. Wyatt had passed them out to each of them just before they got out of the vehicle. It made the rain divert about an inch around them as they stood watching the big man from before approach.

His name was Croc, one of the Unset. Avalon had seen him around before she was forced to leave Garden a year earlier, though she hadn’t really spoken to him, of course. Flick had had more interaction with the man in her own short visit there than Avalon ever had. 

“Glad you could make it,” the large Native American man rumbled as he stopped in front of them. He hadn’t bothered with any kind of spell to keep the rain off, simply allowing it to run off his short-cut black hair and enormous arms. “Hope the runaround wasn’t too much.” 

Realizing after a second that the others were waiting for her to respond, Avalon cleared her throat, trying to ignore the sudden lump that had formed in it. Being here now, coming to see the leaders of the organization that she had loved so much before they had all turned their backs on her when she needed them the most, it brought up… feelings. Feelings that were best left bashed over the head with a shovel and buried in an unmarked grave. 

“Five false destinations in two different cities,” she managed after another second of collecting herself. “Not too bad. Wyatt thinks you should’ve gone with at least eight and three to be safe.” 

Wyatt himself gave a short nod. “And one of the spots before this should have seemed to be the right one. You could have had us get out of the vehicle, even go as far as meeting body doubles or illusions just to weed out any possible pursuit or deception.” Though his words were the same as he’d normally say, Avalon noticed the man actually seemed a little more… flushed than normal. He wasn’t really looking directly at Croc, but more toward the man’s abs. 

With a wink, Croc replied, “What makes you think that’s not what this is?” His tone was a bit teasing, making Wyatt flush before he looked back to Avalon. “Ah, do you mind if I ask, is it Avalon you prefer, or Miss Sinclaire? Or ahh, your old name? I’m not quite sure what you–” 

“Avalon,” she quickly put in after giving Flick a brief glance. The blonde girl had smiled reassuringly but silently at her, making Avalon’s own heart flip over before she forced herself to focus on the man in front of her. “Avalon’s fine. That’s my name.” She didn’t mind Hannah, honestly. Hannah Aken was also who she was, as she had so defiantly informed her father in his last few moments alive. That was a part of her that she wouldn’t let others take away. But to keep things relatively simple, Avalon would be fine. Besides, it was as close to a Garden name as she had ever received, and she wanted the Victors to use it. 

Also, it was the name Gaia had given her, and she was damn sure going to hold onto that now.

“Avalon it is, then,” Croc agreed. “And Flick, how’re you doing?” He nodded to the other girl before looking over to the one next to her. “It’s Miranda, isn’t it?” Receiving a nod, the man’s attention moved to the woman at the back. “Abigail,” he greeted her easily, getting a small smile in return.

Finally, the man looked to the remaining member of their entourage. “Sorry, you I don’t know.”  

“This is Gordon,” Avalon informed him, gesturing to the boy. “He’s here to ask the Victors something too. You know, while they’re feeling talkative.” She said the last bit with just a hint of the vast reservoir of resentment and anger that she felt toward that group. It was enough to make Croc raise an eyebrow, his gaze seeming to give her another thorough once over. 

Abigail spoke up then. “We’re all here to see what the Victors have to say. Some of us have questions. Others simply want to judge just how honest and forthright your leaders are ready to be.” Her voice was far more diplomatic than Avalon’s, though hers too had a bit of an edge to it.

Giving a slight nod, Croc turned to walk. “I’ll take you to them. They’re waiting in the dining room around the side.” With that, he led the seven through the rain. On the way, they saw a dozen more people standing around. There were two near a bus stop, a couple walking past with a dog, several more across the street seemingly arguing over a map, and more. Though they appeared to be civilians, Avalon knew better. They were Heretics, Eden’s Garden people who were watching for any kind of attack from their own former friends. Where the rest of what had to be hundreds of people were, she wasn’t certain. Probably still spread out up and down the Florida coastline to avoid drawing attention. And these, the ones they could see, were probably only the tip of the iceberg in the area. The Victors would be heavily protected. 

While she was considering all of that, Croc led them to a door with an unlit open sign. “They’ve cleaned the place out so you can have some privacy, but there’s food waiting.” With a small smile, the big guy opened the door while looking to them with a quietly murmured, “Turns out they really like having a chance to eat at actual Bystander restaurants.” 

Letting out the breath that she hadn’t even noticed she was actually holding, Avalon moved through the doorway first. The restaurant behind was fairly dimly lit, though whether that was for ambiance or just to save a few bucks, she couldn’t say. Behind her, the others came through, and Avalon walked toward the only real source of somewhat brighter light in the room, a series of long tables where seven figures sat, clearly waiting for them to approach. 

It wasn’t Avalon’s first time seeing them, but most of those instances had been either from a distance or very briefly. She’d never been important enough for the Victors to pay attention to until… well, until they had believed Trice and his cronies over her and refused to listen to her explanation. That flash of resentment boiled up once more before she pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time for dwelling on that. Not when there were much more important things. 

Instead, she focused on examining the group while Croc moved around to speak to them in a hushed (clearly kept private through powers or magic) voice. Her gaze moved over the group. In the middle of the table sat the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleo Selene. Their somewhat darker olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes made their relationship to Egypt and their more famous mother even more clear than the name of their tribe. The Dust Striders had gone through several names in the past, but they always in some way related to ancient Egypt or the desert. They were also, to Avalon’s recollection, one of the only tribes whose leadership had not changed the entire time that Garden had been a thing. Most of the others had at least varied it up somewhat over time, but the twin children of Cleopatra had kept a firm command over their tribe since its first inception. 

To the right of Alexander Helios sat the old cowboy, Jack Childs. To his right was his partner, the dark haired, wide-faced man called Lamorak. Both leaders of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe were watching Avalon with expressions she couldn’t read. The two men watched her like that for a moment, before Lamorak leaned over to whisper something in his partner’s ear. They too were obviously using something to prevent anyone from overhearing, because Avalon couldn’t make out any of it. 

The woman who sat next to Jack, at that end of the table, had long red hair, with a single bit at the front that was jet black, which matched the faint black flecks in her otherwise gray eyes. She looked young and beautiful, though Avalon knew she had been alive at least since before the black plague. Her name was Aniyah Keita, and she was one of the leaders of the Reaper tribe. The other Victor, the old Native American called Quevias Quarter, had apparently stayed with the loyalists. Their tribe had been split between their leadership. 

Finally, to the left of Cleo Selene, sat the also young-looking Asian woman known as Fu Hao, and her partner in leading the Vigilant Sons tribe, the small man with dark blue hair (dyed from its natural blond) known as Carseus Elsen. It was to those two that Avalon looked and focused on the most. They were the leaders of the Vigilant Sons, the tribe that she was supposed to belong to. The tribe who should have backed her up against threats both outside of Garden… and within. It was they who she felt the most resentment toward, despite herself. 

They were both staring right back at her, and she felt their gazes sizing her up, likely in more ways than she could possibly comprehend. For a moment, as Croc spoke in magically protected privacy, there was silence from Avalon’s perspective. Through that, she stood still, her gaze locked on the Victors of her old tribe. She would not be the first to look away. Not now. 

Finally, Fu Hao stood. The ancient-yet-young-looking Asian woman silently stepped around the table. All eyes moved to her as she moved smoothly and gracefully to where Avalon stood, stopping in front of her. 

“I am told that you prefer the name of Avalon Sinclaire now, after she who has stood by you.” The voice was loud, filling the room to ensure that all heard it, yet also somehow soft. There was incredible power and strength there, along with a soft reassurance that came from a hundred lifetimes of raising and caring for children, grandchildren, and all who came beyond. It was gentle now, but with a clear sharpness lying just behind that cotton coating. 

“Yes, Victor,” Avalon managed past the lump that had formed in her throat. How she had longed for this voice to reassure her before, the days and nights she had spent wishing that Fu Hao would speak up on her behalf when it had really mattered. She fought to keep her own voice, and her gaze, as steady as possible. She would not show any reaction. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing how they could still affect her. Not that it mattered, given how easily they could read her emotions using any number of their powers. But still, how much she willingly showed was her choice. 

“Avalon Sinclaire,” Fu Hao started then, the sound of her voice dropping to a far more personal level. “We… I… am sorry. I failed you. I failed to stand by one who belonged to my tribe. Not through any fault of yours, but because I did not see one person as being worth antagonizing the leadership of the Lost Scar tribe. Whether you were guilty or not… I did not put the time, effort, or resources into determining that I should have. And I certainly did not give you the aid to gain a fair trial that you deserved. That is my failure, and it was one made not from a lack of capability or by any mistake. It was a deliberate choice, one that I should not have made. I put maintaining relations with Victors Bennett and Dalal over you, because you did not matter to me. You were simply one more recruit. I was wrong. Not because of who your ancestor happens to be, but because if we do not stand up for our own, we have no reason to exist.

“I cannot promise to never make such wrong actions again, but I will, to the best of my ability, remember this. I can offer you nothing better than my deepest, most sincere apologies. I am sorry. I was wrong. I will not insult you by assuming you would desire a return to membership within the tribe, though if that were to be something you would like, it would be yours in a heartbeat. I believe, however, that you have moved on. So I offer you instead a promise that anything you need, should it be within my power to provide, I will do so. 

“You have my apology, my promise to remember this moving forward when it comes to others, and my oath to you that I will provide whatever is within my capability to provide. I was wrong to treat you the way that I did. I was wrong not to care, to see you as a simple number. I do not ask your forgiveness, not now. But I will strive, in the future, to be the sort of person who you deserved to have when you needed her, for others who come after.”  

That… was a lot to digest. As Avalon stood there in silence born more of surprise and uncertainty than the stoicism she had originally been going for, Fu Hao was joined by Carseus Elsen. The short man with his heavily muscled arms stepped around to stand by his partner, also watching Avalon. “She’s right,” he agreed. “We treated you like shit because you didn’t matter, because we didn’t see one person as worth risking conflict with the Lost Scar tribe. She’s also right that we can’t make up for that, and that the timing here, you being spoken to now because of who your ancestor is, that’s just… worse. It doesn’t help anything. So… yeah. I’m sorry too. Not that I expect it to change anything, but I am. Truly and genuinely, I’m sorry. We should have been your tribe leaders, we should have been your tribe, your family. We should have had your back and at least made sure you were given a fair shake. We didn’t. No if’s, and’s or but’s. We failed. I… I’m glad you found someone who you could count on. And I hope she ends up alright at the end of this.” 

“You want to make up for what you did by not being there when I needed you?” Avalon finally managed. “Then promise to help the person who was there for me. Gaia. She took care of me when you didn’t, when you wouldn’t. You want to make up for it? Promise you’ll help free her when we get the chance. They’re going to have more security and protection on her than on anything else. We’ll need really big guns, big guns they might not be expecting, to save her. Be those guns. Help us figure out where she is, and help us get her out when we do. That’s what you can do. That’s how you can make up for it.” 

The two exchanged brief glances and silent communication before Fu Hao bowed slightly to Avalon. “You have our word. Our power and resources will be put to freeing Gaia Sinclaire and returning her to you.” 

That done, the two returned to their seats, and Cleo Selene spoke. “Avalon Sinclaire–Avalon. We’re told that you have something quite important that you would like to tell us. Something that will change quite a bit of how we see this entire conflict.” Her eyebrows were raised, as she sat back in her seat and watched the girl. 

For a moment, Avalon was silent. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing both Seller and Flick standing together. They gave her encouraging nods, and she swallowed before turning back to the assembled seven. 

“Yes. Yes, I do. But first, talk to him.” She gestured to Gordon, watching the group’s eyes move to the boy. “He’s got a question for you. Maybe you can answer.” 

With everyone’s attention centered on him, Gordon hesitated before taking a small step forward. His voice was mostly flat, with a very slight tremble of emotion. “Where is my father?” 

That made the group of Victors exchange glances, Jack Childs slowly speaking up. “I’m sorry, we weren’t aware that the father of a Crossroads student was one of our–” 

“Slaves,” Gordon interrupted before the man could finish referring to him as one of their Heretics. “My father is one of your slaves.” 

Cleo Selene stood from her seat, her gaze laser-focused on the boy in front of the tables. “Are you saying that–” 

“I’m a Hybrid,” Gordon interrupted. “Yeah. My dad is a Hrimthur named Sindri Koraug.” More quietly, he added, “If you know their names. If not, I can–”

“He’s not here.” The answer came from Aniya, as she tapped the table a couple times thoughtfully. “I know the Hrimthur you’re speaking of. Now that I think about it, I can see him in you.” 

Gordon’s eyes focused on the woman, as he swallowed hard. “You–you know him? He’s your–”

Her head shook. “Not mine. He was never part of the Reapers. He’s one of the Lost Scar’s… slaves. But I have seen him. We needed a group of cold-acclimated workers for the world known as T9T2 a year or so ago, and he was there. As far as I know, he’s still part of their workforce.” 

“How is it,”  Alexander Helios began, “that Crossroads has come to have Hybrid students? And how long has–”

“I’m quite certain those questions can wait,” Fu Hao murmured pointedly before looking to Gordon. “We will seek information about your father’s current whereabouts and condition. Anything we find out will be passed to you.” She waited for him to nod before returning her attention to Avalon. “Is that acceptable enough for you to deliver this important news?” 

Avalon hesitated, then inclined her head. “Yeah. And.. yes, I do have news. News that a lot of you and your people probably aren’t going to like. I want to tell you about people known as the Seosten. The people who caused all this. I want to tell you about the people who created this entire situation, who made the Bystander Effect, who use us as their meat puppets in their war against the Fomorians. I want to tell you about them, and… and about my ancestor. I want to tell you the truth about the man you see as a savior, the truth about Hieronymus Bosch and how he was used as much as anyone else.”

“Now hold on just a second,” Jack Childs interrupted. “Just what exactly are you going on about? What’s all this about Sausten?” 

“Seosten,” Avalon corrected. “Say-oh-stun. They’re the alien empire that rules half the universe, created the Bystander Effect so they could make us kill everything not-human we could find in order to make us strong so we’d be good soldiers for them to possess and take against the Fomorians, who control the other half of the universe.” 

“Yeah,” Flick finally put in, “the race of Imperialistic bodysnatchers who manipulate our entire society from behind the scenes and manipulate us into murder-machines are technically the de facto good guys in this situation. I mean, in comparison to the ones who just want to genocide the entire universe.” 

Alexander Helios looked from Flick to Avalon and back again. His mouth opened, but his sister leaned forward to whisper something in his ear, and he remained silent. 

When it was clear that neither he, nor any of the others, were going to say anything, Avalon pushed on. “It’s a lot, I know. The Seosten have been setting up Crossroads from the beginning. They have the ability to possess people, to control them completely, change their memories, all of it. We already know that there is at least one possessing one of the Eden’s Garden Victors. We don’t think it’s one of you, but…” This was going to be even harder. “… but we had to be sure.” 

“Excuse me?” Fu Hao started with a frown. 

Instead of responding, Avalon looked toward Croc. The man gave her a nod, tossing something her way while speaking up. “They’re all clear.” 

Catching it, Avalon showed them the choker in her hand. “This… used to be the ring of Anuk-Ite. It’s one of the only things that can identify when someone is possessed by a Seosten. Croc just checked each of you in the past few minutes while we were talking. You’re clear. Which means the Victor being possessed is one of the loyalists.” 

For a moment, the Victors all turned narrow eyes toward Croc, examining him carefully as they worked through whether they were offended by the duplicity or not. In the end, they chose to let it go, turning back to Avalon as she continued. “So you’re clear. Which means we can move on. And… and for the record, I know none of this is going to be easy for you to hear. No one likes to be told about how they’ve been manipulated at all, let alone for so long. But you need to hear it right now. Because most of all, I want to tell you about how we’re going to change things. About how we have one year to fix this whole situation. We have one year to pull ourselves together.” 

With a frown, Jack Childs spoke up. “Okay, wait. What are you talking about now? First you’re going on about these body snatchers and now you’re trying to–no. No, I think we need to go back to the start. Because with all due respect, this sounds like paranoia born of–”

“Quiet, Jack.”  The words came from Aniyah, the lone Reaper Victor, as she kept a hand on the arm of Lamorak. “The girl’s right about the Seosten.” 

“Yes,” Lamorak himself agreed, rising to his feet. “She is. Aniyah and I have been keeping stuff from all of you until it was time. Now it’s time.” He looked to Avalon, his eternally-surprised expression at odds with the knowing look in his eyes. “I guess if I was waiting for a sign to start talking about Camelot and who our true enemy was, having someone named Avalon show up is a pretty big kick in the pants.” 

“Lamorak?” Alexander Helios started slowly. “You have something to say?” 

“Yeah,” he confirmed, glancing to Avalon once again. “From the sound of it, we have a whole lot to talk about to get everyone caught up and on the same page. 

“So maybe we should go ahead and fill our plates before we get too far into it. Because this is gonna be a long night.”

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Summer Epilogue 20 – Avalon and Miranda (Heretical Edge)

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Please note, this is the first of TWO chapters that will be released today. Come back in a couple hours to see the next one, which will finish out the regular summer epilogues we’ve been having, leading into the final rescue arc before the next book. 

With a hum of power, a blue energy blade flashed through the air. It was caught against a black metal shield with green gems adorning the front. 

Avalon Sinclaire and Miranda Wallbern stood facing one another in the middle of the forest on the far side of the lake where the Atherby camp was. Both were sweating, and the signs of their exertions were visible in scorch marks, deep gouges in the trees and rocks around them, and trampled bushes. 

It had now been seven weeks since that fateful night back at Crossroads. Things were gradually building up at the camp, as more and more former and brand new Crossroads rebels made their way in. The cabins had expanded all the way around the lake, a few almost visible from where the girls were sparring. For the most part, things were limited to making sure as many rebels found their way to the camp as possible and setting up in new places for them to live. That and training. Lots and lots of training. 

And letting those who were ready to see for themselves meet the camp’s Alters. Not all of those who came were quite that far along. Some only came to the camp because of their friends, or because of what they’d heard the other side do. Or they wanted to believe that not all Strangers were evil, but a lifetime of indoctrination made that more difficult to accept in person and they weren’t quite there yet. Whatever their reasoning, the Atherby people took it slow. The time would come when they would all need to work together, but they couldn’t rush it too much.

Breathing heavily, Miranda grinned at her sparring partner. “Any time you want to call it a tie, we can go get some lunch. Mmmm lunch. Doesn’t that sound good?”

A short distance away, Salten stood watching the pair. At Miranda’s words, the Peryton made a very clear scoffing sound before grabbing a mouth full of leaves. Porthos, standing between Salten’s antlers, chirped a long and rather detailed rant that most likely explained just how he felt about that suggestion. The words may have been indecipherable, but the general point was made. 

Avalon gave her an unimpressed look as well, after letting her eyes flash very briefly toward the animal and her cyberform partner. “If you want to quit, Wallbern, just say so.”

“Me, quit?” Miranda scoffed. “I can do this as long as you can. Or, you know…” Abruptly, the girl threw herself backwards, while leaving a force field where her shield was. In the next instant, a duplicate spawned in front of her, continuing the original’s words. “One of me can.”

Giving a very faint, predatory smile, Avalon ignited her second gauntlet. This one formed a long warhammer shape, which she swung hard at the newly-summoned duplicate while darting in closer. 

The new Miranda blocked the incoming hammer with her shield while making a pulling gesture with her other hand. The small hovering forcefield that Avalon had bypassed suddenly flipped around in the air and flew at the dark-haired girl from behind. At the last possible moment, Avalon shut down her gauntlets and dropped, letting the flying force field go right over her head as she spun into a low leg sweep that caught Miranda Two just as she was still recovering from the hammer blow. 

Even as she fell, however, the black girl managed to catch herself on one hand, using that to spring back up and over to her feet just before Avalon would have put her reignited (though ‘dulled’ for training purposes, of course) energy blade at where her chest would have been if she had landed on her back. 

Their training fight continued in much that vein for several more minutes. Various Miranda duplicates took turns stepping in to keep Avalon occupied, though only one fought at a time. They moved back-and-forth through the stand of trees, neither really pressing that hard to win, as they were simply enjoying the exercise. 

Finally, by silent yet mutual agreement, they stopped. The extra Mirandas disappeared, and the one who was left reached into a bag placed against a nearby tree, taking out two bottles of water before tossing one to Avalon. She twisted the top off her own and took a sip before approaching as she spoke up. “You know, it’s kinda funny.”

Catching the tossed bottle, Avalon took a sip as well before raising an eyebrow. “Funny?” Salten had come forward by then, and she ran a hand along his back before pouring some water out into a large cup that she projected from her gauntlet. The Peryton made a noise of thanks before loudly slurping from the bowl. 

“Well,” the other girl amended, “not that anything about you having to leave Garden under the… circumstances that you did was funny. But still, you left and yet you still ended up taking on a pretty Gardeny name. It’s like you kept up the tradition anyway.”

For a moment, Avalon didn’t respond to that. She simply took a long, silent pull from the bottle while watching Miranda. Finally, she admitted quietly, “I kind of saw it like that too. I was looking forward to changing my name for so long, to taking on the Eden’s Garden identity, it felt like that was ripped away from me along with everything else.”

Porthos made a soft, almost mournful noise before hopping from Salten’s head to Avalon’s shoulder. The small metal lizard reached out a hand to pat the side of her face while giving an encouraging chirp. 

Avalon, for her part, reached up to rub two fingers over the little guy before squinting at Miranda. “I’m not sure if I felt okay telling you that because you’re Chambers’ best friend, or because you had to leave too.”

“I prefer to think it’s because of my trustworthy face,” Miranda primly informed her before shrugging as she sank down to a sitting position against the nearest tree. “You’re kind of right though. We have a bit in common. We both had to leave Garden as traitors, and we’re both close to Flick. Just… in different ways.”

From the look on her face, Avalon was making an effort to restrain the slight smirk at the other girl’s choice of words. “Different ways indeed.” She sat down beside Miranda, breathing out in a long, low sigh while letting Porthos climb down to her lap. “Chambers has a way of getting… into your head.”

“You should’ve seen her as a ten-year-old,” Miranda retorted. “Every bit as determined to expose the truth and right wrongs, without being nearly as tempered by things like common sense and respect for adults.”

With a small smile, Avalon murmured, “I would have liked to know her back then.” 

Miranda shrugged. “Well, I can tell you all the stories you’d ever want to hear. I know lots of embarrassing ones too, and cool ones. Some that are cool and embarrassing. Like, I remember one time—”

She was interrupted in mid-sentence as a portal opened up nearby. Both girls snapped their attention that way, only to see a familiar figure step through. 

“Seller?” Miranda blinked, head tilting as she looked at the emerald-suited man. 

Avalon stepped over that way, embracing him. It wasn’t the first time that he had been at the camp since everything went down, but he had been very busy, and wasn’t around that much. 

After embracing the girl, and then giving Miranda her own hug as well, Seller asked, “You girls keeping yourself busy out here? He glanced around at the signs of their sparring. “Looks like you haven’t gotten too bored, at least.”

Salten bumped up against the man until he obediently rubbed the brilliant animal’s head. 

“We make our own fun,” Avalon replied dryly before squinting at him. “What about Gaia?” There was a slight tremor to her words. Though she had been trying to keep herself busy and distracted from worrying about her adopted mother, Avalon still felt a near constant pit in her stomach at the thought of what Gaia could be going through. The fact that she had absolutely no way to help the woman had not been easily accepted. 

With a wince, Seller’s head shook. “You know about as much as I do on that front. According to Sariel, she’s still being kept in that magical coma or stasis or whatever it is. If the Seosten lady can’t wake her up, then we’re going to have to go in the long way. And that means figuring out where she is being held. Not to mention how to get past all the defenses. And we haven’t even got the first part yet. We don’t have the faintest clue where they’ve got her.” He sighed. “Sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front. I swear, we’re working on it. I’m trying to get more help. Which is… tangentially related to why I’m here.”

The two girls blinked at one another before turning back to him. Miranda raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What, you want our help finding allies to save Gaia? I’m not sure how much good we could do.”

“No,” Seller started before amending, “well, sort of. The thing is…” He stopped, considering for a moment before letting out a breath. “Okay, well, where I just came from… it’s Desoto. I mean, where Desoto used to be.”

Avalon blinked at that. “Why were you in the gulf of Mexico?”

Meeting her curious gaze, he replied, “Because that’s where the tribes who left Eden are. Well, most of them are staying up in the border states, spread out as much as possible to avoid drawing attention. The leadership and some others have been spending a lot of time out on boats in the water.”

Miranda was the first to speak up. “What the hell are they doing down there? And wait, tribes? Like… entire tribes? Who… who left?”

For a moment, Seller didn’t answer. He was watching Avalon‘s reaction. But her expression remained unreadable, and she herself was silent. Finally, he glanced toward Miranda while replying, “Yeah, it’s… well, just under half of the tribes have rebelled. That includes the Victors. Vigilant Sons, Fate’s Shepherds, Dust Striders, and… half of the Reapers. One of their Victors left.” He shrugged then. “Obviously there’s some from all those tribes who stayed behind, and some from other tribes who went with. It’s a mess. But for the most part, that’s where it stands. Three and a half tribes left, four and a half tribe stayed.”

Miranda sighed heavily. “Including the Eternal Eyes.” The news is that her own (former) tribe had been one of those to remain part of the system even after the Gaia and Flick’s revealing spell made her flinch. She’d had a lot of friends back there, people she wished she could talk to again.

Seller nodded. “Yeah, sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front, but, well… sorry. As far as your tribe is concerned, you’re still the enemy. But hey, you’ve got a lot more company now.”

Miranda twirled a finger. “Yaaaaay.” Belatedly, she amended, “Sorry. Having a lot of people who know the truth now, who accept the truth now, it’s a good thing. I know that. It’s just…”

“They’re not your people,” Avalon finished for her. She looked over to the other girl. “Your people have consistently let you down ever since this started, and you were hoping that would change now.”

“It’d sure be nice,” Miranda agreed before looking toward Seller once more. “But whatever. What are the ones who did leave doing around Desoto?”

Taking in a long breath before letting it out again, Seller slowly answered, “They stole some of the fruit-bearing vines from the tree. Apparently, they have some idea from somewhere that the vines will work and grow if planted where Desoto was. They just haven’t quite figured out how they’re supposed to do that when the place doesn’t exist anymore.”

Avalon squinted. “Plant them underwater? That doesn’t really sound right.”

The man nodded. “That’s kind of the problem they’re having too. But they’re convinced that something will turn up. I guess that’s why they’re out there on boats, looking for a good island or something to plant on. They kind of need to get that going if they’re going to stand a chance against the loyalists. As long as the loyal tribes can make more Heretics and the rebels can’t, they feel pretty outmanned.”

“The Crossroads rebels can’t make more of that kind either,” Miranda pointed out. 

Seller nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and that’s kind of even more of the problem. As long as one side can make as many as they want, whenever they want, for the most part, they’ve got the advantage.”

Avalon was quiet briefly before speaking up. “The rebels can make natural Heretics. We have Alters on our side. Maybe it’s not the same as a Bosch Heretic. They don’t gain more powers from killing. But it’s not nothing.”

“You’re right,” Seller agreed. “It’s definitely a long way from nothing. But there is a reason Crossroads and Eden’s Garden became the de facto most powerful Heretic forces in most of the western world pretty fast once they got things going. It’s fast, easy power gain. And the loyalists have the advantage there.”

Avalon gave a very soft smile then. “Maybe we should focus on getting Aylen’s grandpa away from Crossroads. That’d stop their advantage.”

Seller gave a wry smirk at that. “First of all, the idea that that girl is actually related to the Heretical Edge itself? That’s pretty damn mind blowing, even considering the world we live in.” He paused, considering before asking, “What’s going on with meeting her parents and all that, anyway?”

“It’s happening,” Avalon replied, “Aylen’s still setting it up. Apparently her mothers and grandfather had some big thing to deal with and they’ll be back… eventually.” She shrugged helplessly. “All she could tell me is that it’s something important off-world.” 

Seller blinked. “Grandfa— oh, other grandfather. Her… other mother’s father? Or… what about her father? Does he…”

Avalon shrugged. “She says that whole thing is really complicated and that she’ll explain when we meet them.”

“Complicated seems like a pretty common thing anymore,” Seller noted. He shook his head then, putting a hand on Salten’s back before moving on. “Anyway, that’s not the point. And it’s not why I came. I came because, ahhh, they’d like to talk to you.” 

Realizing he was looking at her, Avalon blinked. “What? Why do they want to talk to me? Wait, who? The Victors?” Perched on her shoulder, Porthos made a sound that was suspiciously close to someone blowing a raspberry at the suggestion. 

Seller nodded. “That’s right. They’d like you to come down to where they are and talk to them. They said that you will have a completely free pass to come and go as you like, and that you may bring whoever you like with you. They’ve given their words that you will be safe, as well anyone who accompanies you.”

Avalon was staring at him, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before she managed a weak, “Why the hell do they want to talk to me now?”

Miranda spoke up. “Because you’re Bosch’s heir. They probably don’t know about, well, Dries. So you’re the descendent.”

Avalon‘s head shook. “So what? I don’t—” She sighed. “They don’t know about the Seosten situation. They don’t know the truth about my ancestor and what he really did. They still think he’s this great, amazing guy who created this whole civilization.”

Seller reached out a hand, resting it on her shoulder. “That’s why I brought their offer to talk to you. I know how you feel about this whole situation, about how you’ve been treated. Believe me, I know. But Fu Hao promised that she and the others are ready to hear anything you need to say. They really want to listen. I can’t promise they’ll believe everything, but this might be the best chance we’ve got to get them to hear the truth. if we can get the rebel Victors to understand what’s really going on, it’ll spread from there.”

Avalon swallowed hard. “You want me to get in front of the leadership of the people who… who… treated me like a monster when I needed them most and convince them that their entire civilization is built on even more of a lie than they already thought?”

The man met her gaze evenly, giving a slight nod. “Yes. I know it seems pretty screwed up. But like I said, this is the best chance we’ve got to bring them on board the whole thing. Remember, we’ve only got a year to convince the Seosten leadership to be allies instead of enemies. Seems like we have an easier job of that if half of Eden’s Garden knew what was really going on. Maybe they have ulterior motives in wanting you to come talk, but at least they’ll be a half-willing audience for you. This right here really is our best shot. You are our best shot.”

Miranda was nodding. “He’s right, Avalon. It sucks that they didn’t listen to your side of the story before. And it sucks that they’re probably mostly only willing to talk now because of some kind of  political thing for who your ancestor was. But whatever the reason, you can talk to them. You can convince them about what’s really going on, about what’s been going on this whole time. If we can get half of Eden’s Garden to know about the Seosten and spread the word from there, that might even bring in more. Hell, it might help drive out the Seosten still hiding there. There’s got to be some in among the rebels, right? So we need to get the truth to them.”

Avalon was still quiet for a few seconds before letting out a breath. “Okay. Let me think about who to take. But fine.

“I’ll go talk to the Victors.”

Pursuit 4-07 (Summus Proelium)

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My orange paint could stand up to a good bit of damage. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t stand up to eight guys all shooting me at the same time. That seemed slightly out of its range. And I for sure didn’t want to chance it right now. 

On the other hand, I also couldn’t let these guys take Ashton. If I did, it would basically be handing a death sentence to Blackjack’s daughter and probably him as well. Or giving the Ninety-Niners the ability to force La Casa to do anything they said in order to save her life. Either one was unacceptable. 

To buy myself time to think, I did the only thing that came to mind. I snarked. 

“Hey, guys! Good job following the scavenger hunt so far. But, you know, I kinda already claimed this ‘guy named Ashton’ so you’re kind of going to have to go find your own. I’m pretty sure there’s a country club like five blocks that way, and there should be like five of them there.”

The guy who had spoken before raised his pistol a bit to point at my head, making me gulp slightly. “I’ve got a better idea, how about you bounce on out of here and we take our prize?” 

So much for buying time to think. I had to do something, and I had to do it right now. But what? How was I supposed to—

Without warning, two of the guys were suddenly yanked off the ground. They yelped, as a figure became partially visible behind them, holding both up by their necks. The thing holding them wasn’t easy to make out. It seemed to blend in pretty well with the area around it, like some kind of super camouflage. But from what I could see, it didn’t look human. 

With a roar that pretty well cemented the not human bit, the strange figure hurled the two men in opposite directions to collide with either wall of the alley. They fell and didn’t get up again.

Meanwhile, the other six guys all rounded toward the almost invisible figure, their weapons going up. Before they could shoot, however, something dove out of the sky with a loud, terrifying screech. I barely caught a glimpse of the thing as it crashed into one of the men and yanked his gun away. It looked like some kind of lizard with feathered wings. 

Then something rushed past me, I just had time to jerk aside reflexively, my eyes snapping down to see another terrifying shape. This one stood about three feet tall at the shoulder, and looked like a sort of hairless, scaled cat. Or, more to the point, like a tiger with scales instead of fur. 

The men were still reacting to the sudden appearance of the half invisible tall figure and the bird. So they were taken completely by surprise as the hairless cat thing leapt at them from behind, knocking the leader to the ground with a petrifying roar. 

Then it all stopped. The six men who were still conscious were all clumped up in a circle, while the lizard-cat and the half-invisible thing still at on either side of them. The ‘bird’ was perched up on the end of a fire escape, giving a sharp screech while the thugs all looked in every direction in a panic, clearly unsure if they should start shooting or not. 

“You know,” a voice drawled, as a figure (this one actually human) stepped into view from around the corner, “I think they want you to drop your weapons.” She stopped then, giving me a good look at the newcomer. She wore a leather jacket that was black at the bottom, gradually shifting into green toward the top. The jacket had a hood attached to it, which was up, covering her hair, while her face was hidden behind some kind of black full mask that left no apparent holes for her eyes or mouth, making me wonder how well she could see through it. The effect almost made it look like there was nothing but a black void within the hood. The sleeves of the jacket were almost entirely black with a tiny bit of green at the ends to go with the green gloves she wore. Beyond that, she wore black cargo pants and combat boots. A sawed-off shotgun was in her hands. 

“I suggest you do what they want,” the masked and hooded girl informed the group while pointing that sawed-off at the men. “Before they get mad.” 

As if to add emphasis to her words, a much larger figure suddenly loomed up behind her. It looked like… well, like a goddamn enormous grizzly bear. Only, just like the other creatures, it scales instead of fur, and a sort-of… mohawk. Like an iguana, I realized. It looked like a bear crossed with an iguana. A Bearguana. 

If the men hadn’t already been freaked out, seeing the enormous fuck-off grizzly lizard (Grizzlizard?) rising into view from behind the girl with the shotgun did the trick. There was a sudden clattering of weapons as they quickly put them down, hands rising into the air. 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the new girl noted. I couldn’t see her expression through the dark void that was her blank black mask, but I could hear the smirk in her voice. “Tell you what, you start running and don’t stop until you’ve gone ten blocks, and my friends here won’t eat you. Riddles, keep ‘em honest.” 

In response to her words, the bird-lizard thing leapt from its perch with a loud screech. That was echoed by a roar from the bear-lizard, which sent the men scrambling in a blind panic to pick up their unconscious companions before they fled out of the alley and down the street. In a second, they were out of sight, while the bird-lizard flew after them. 

Slowly, I turned my gaze (and my own thankfully hidden open mouth) to the girl. She stood there, watching me before giving a wave as my eyes found her. “Hiya. Name’s Pack. That the guy?” She nodded past me, to where Ashton was still thankfully trapped by the stay-down cuffs.

Shit. Quickly, I moved to stand between the girl and the prone man. As I stepped that way, the bear-lizard growled. It was joined by another bipedal creature that seemed to come out of nowhere. Belatedly, I realized it was the thing that had been semi-cloaked before. This new creature looked more like a gorilla. One which, as with all the others, had been crossed with a lizard. 

“I–I–thanks,” I somehow managed to stammer past all my confusion. “Thanks for chasing them off. But you still can’t take this guy. I…” Thinking quickly, I offered, “There’s a reward for him. I’ll let you have it if you help me get the stuff he stole back t–” 

“To Blackjack?” Pack cut me off. “Dude, he’s my boss. I work for him.” 

Of all the things she could have said right then (and given how utterly random and strange her sudden appearance had been to begin with, my bar was set pretty high), that was probably the most surprising. I stopped short, head tilting. “You… do? But Pack isn’t– err… wait, you mean Pack as in–”

“As in pack of cards,” she confirmed. “Or pack of animals. See how it works both ways? Seriously, do you? Because it was really hard to come up with a name that actually fit La Casa’s whole gambling term shtick, and I seriously hope it wasn’t too much of a stretch.” 

“Hey, bitch,” Ashton called from where he was trapped, “anyone ever tell you your boss is a murdering bag of jizz?!” 

Rather than respond to the man directly, Pack looked to me. “So yes, that is him.” 

“How… how did you… I mean…” I was trying to come up with the right way to ask the most important question that sprang to mind. 

“Find you?” she finished for me. “I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle. We’ve been searching the city, and Blackjack said that if you looked like you were onto something, we should give you a hand. I saw you, ahh, jump over my head, so I tried to catch up. You’re really fast, you know.”

She nodded past me, to Ashton once more. “If that’s him, we need to get the guy to Blackjack.” 

Unthinkingly, I blurted, “No!” Which was enough to make the tiger-lizard take a step toward me before Pack put a hand up to stop it. “Wait, Holiday.” To me, she spoke more carefully. “Excuse me? Hey, look, if this is about not sharing the reward–” 

It was my turn to interrupt her. “It’s not about that,” I put in quickly. “It’s about…” Sighing, I lowered my voice a bit. “If Blackjack gets him, he’s going to kill him for endangering his daughter. I can’t do that. I can’t just sentence a man to death. Not even that guy. He’s trying to avenge his dead friend.” As she made a noise as though to object, I pushed on quickly. “I’m not saying Blackjack won’t get the medicine. But that’s all he’s getting. I told him that when we… when we spoke. He’ll get the medicine, but not the man.” 

As the girl quietly considered that, another lizard poked his head out from where it had apparently been hiding inside her jacket. This one was a regular-looking gecko, head tilting curiously at me before scrambling up onto her shoulder with a quiet little chirp. 

“You’re right, Tuesday,” Pack murmured before focusing on me. “You get the vials out of that cocksucker and you can mail him to Siberia for all we care. Not like the boss couldn’t get to him wherever he gets sent anyway.” 

“That’s basically what he said,” I muttered under my breath before turning on my heel. Walking over, I picked up the first vial from where it had fallen. Turning the thing over in my hand to make sure it was intact, I stepped over to Ashton and checked through his pockets carefully. Nothing. Well, no vials. He had money, a wallet, a few keys, and some other assorted odds and ends. No more vials. 

“Right,” I started, “you heard the nice lady. Where’s the rest of them? You know, if you want to go to the nice comfy jail cell instead of being taken by the guy whose daughter you put in danger.” 

With a snarl, the guy retorted, “You mean the guy who’s gonna kill me anyway? Him or one of his lackeys. Her maybe, or one of the others. Nah, I’m not important enough to waste a Touched on. He’ll just tell one of his normal old thugs to put a bullet in me, just like they put a bullet in Carlos. That’s what’ll happen, and I’ll be just as dead as he is.”

“Dude,” I snapped, “I’m sorry about your friend. Seriously. But you can’t just let an innocent little girl die because you’re grieving. She didn’t do anything to you. You know what’s going to happen if you let her die? You’ll hurt Blackjack, yeah. But then he’ll take it out on the city, and a hell of a lot more people will die. Do you really want that? Come on. What happened to Carlos was a tragedy. It was. It’s horrible. Don’t make a bunch of other people die in some doomed attempt to settle some kind of vendetta. It won’t help. You won’t feel better. And all the people that die in the war you start will be worse.” 

After saying all that, I crouched there by the man. “So come on. Let’s just be done with all this. You don’t want to let all those people die. You’re better than that. I’m sure Carlos would want you to be better than that. He wouldn’t want you to do this, Ashton. Let’s stop this war before it starts and before a lot of people die. What do you say?” 

Swallowing visibly, the man met my gaze, softly echoing, “What do I say?” For a moment, he was quiet, before lifting his chin, gaze hardening. 

“I say fuck ‘em.” 

His words made my mouth fall open, as I stared at him. “What… you can’t–” 

“Holiday,” Pack started, “why don’t you bite his leg off. See what he thinks then.” 

Immediately, the large lizard-cat thing stalked toward the man while giving a low growl. As it came, Ashton’s gaze shot back to me. “You see? That’s the kind of people he works with.” 

“Dude,” I snapped, “you just said ‘fuck ‘em’ about both a little girl and an entire city full of innocent people. The moral high ground is pretty much Mount Everest to you right now.” 

I did, however, hold up my hand to the nearby girl. “But wait, just wait a second, please.” 

Her face was still entirely hidden, of course. There was nothing visible under that hood save for that black void. But she finally exhaled and spoke a single word of, “Wait.” At that, the lizard-cat stopped just a foot or so from the man, letting out a low, dangerous growl. 

“We have one vial,” I started, once it was clear that Ashton wasn’t about to have his leg gnawed on just yet. “How many are left?” 

“Five,” Pack replied. “There were six in that box. The girl needs all of them.” 

“How long can she last with one of these?” I asked then while holding up the vial. 

There was a brief pause before the girl slowly answered, “A month.” She was clearly looking straight at me. “You’re going to suggest we take the vial and use the month to convince Cheerful here to give up the other five.” Before I could say anything to that, she pointed out, “You know Blackjack could get it out of him a lot faster than you or the cops could.” 

My head shook. “Could he, though? He hates your boss enough that knowing how much it hurts him, he could probably stand a lot.” And I don’t want to think about just what Blackjack would put him through in the process, I thought to myself silently, with a little shudder. 

Flatly, Pack asked, “Do you have a better idea?” She was very clearly staring intently at me, even from behind that featureless mask. Not only that, but all her lizard-creature things were staring at me too, including Riddle, who had returned after making sure the other guys kept running. 

Heaving a long sigh, I looked at the prone, captured man for a moment. “We have the first vial. That… that buys time. What we need is…” I paused before smiling. “What we need is something that can make him tell the truth.” 

I could practically hear her raised eyebrow. “Do you have something like that?” 

“No,” I replied, “but I know a certain inventor that might be able to whip something up, given a little time. And… I’m also pretty sure they can help me keep him contained for awhile.” 

“You mean away from Blackjack,” the girl pointed out. 

I sighed. “And away from the cops.” There was no choice. Not only did I have serious concerns about the actual state of the authorities themselves with my father posing as one of the biggest heroes in the city, but even if they weren’t compromised, I couldn’t see them just handing over that medicine to Blackjack without trying to get something out of him. Like, say, his surrender. As much as I hated to think it, I didn’t trust them not to play games with the girl’s life. Even if they thought it was for the greater good. 

Shaking that off, I continued. “Like I said, he can have the first vial. I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him to give me two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of this guy. Two weeks. That’s half the time this single vial buys us.” Looking over to Pack, I added, “I found the guy in just a couple days, and one of the vials. Your boss can give me two weeks with him to get the rest of them.” 

She didn’t offer an opinion on that. Instead, the girl held a hand out. “I’ll take it to him.” 

I started to hand it over, then stopped. “You know, I don’t actually have any proof that you really work for Blackjack, do I? Not to call you a liar or anything, but you’ve gotta admit, it would be pretty dumb of me to hand this over when I’ve never seen you do anything with La Casa. I’ve never even heard of you before.” 

She coughed, offering a shrug and a muttered, “I’m pretty new.” 

“All the same,” I replied, “I think I’ll give the vial to Blackjack myself, after we get this guy somewhere safe and out of the way.” 

“Fine.” Pack took a step toward me, while both the big bear-lizard and gorilla-lizard things flanked her. With those two on either side of the girl and the predatory cat-thing in front of her, I really didn’t want to piss her off. She stopped there, looking my way while repeating, “Fine. But I’m going with you. I want to see this inventor so I can tell my boss myself that they can pull off this whole ‘getting the truth out of him’ thing. That’s the deal. I go with you, we see this inventor, and then we take that vial to Blackjack. Then I can tell my boss that I did my… you know, due diligence, or… whatever.” 

I couldn’t really argue with that too much, so I instead offered a shrug. “They might have something to say about all that, but let’s find out.” 

Wren had told me before I left her earlier that she wanted to do anything she could to help save that little girl, and that I should call the number she gave me if I needed anything. Praying that she really meant all that (while wondering just how bad this whole ‘illegal imprisonment’ thing was going to look if it got out), I took the phone from my pocket and hit the contact number on it. As it rang, I glanced over to Pack. “Oh, and uhhh… just for the record…

“It’s your turn to wear a bag over your head.”

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Summer Epilogue 19 (Heretical Edge)

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As it turned out, Harrison Fredericks was in the so-called dragon room. As Galahad in his humanoid robot body led Columbus and Shiori, along with Vulcan, through a set of vault-like doors in a corner of the main room, the four entered what looked like a dark cave. The floor became dirt and stone, with crystalline rock walls around them. The entrance was a tunnel that sloped downward, gradually opening into a cavern even larger than the room they had just left. Straight ahead was a giant lake with a trio of underground streams feeding into it from various tunnels, one of which dropped from above in a cascading waterfall. 

Right in front of the lake stood a dragon. Well, a clearly mechanical one, anyway. It was dark green with gold patterns weaved throughout. Sitting up on its haunches, the thing was tall enough that its head just crossed the fifty-foot mark. It had a long tail wrapped around its body with what looked like four massive mini-guns mounted to the end of it, one on each side of the tail. All along the dragon-bot’s back leading clear to its head was an ungodly enormous starship-grade cannon. 

“Holy Fin Fang Foom,” Shiori breathed out, eyes wide. She’d come to a stop and stood there, staring open-mouthed at the giant cyberform. “That’s a big gun. That’s a really big gun.”

As if reacting to the sound of her voice, the cyberform dragon’s head turned a little, focusing on them. Vulcan, meanwhile, took a step forward and lowered his ears, making a soft whining sound before barking once to show that he definitely wasn’t afraid, no sir, and that if the fifty-foot tall dragon robot wanted to hurt Columbus and Shiori, he’d have to go through Vulcan to do it.

The dragon’s mouth opened, but just as Columbus was about to grab Shiori’s arm and teleport them the hell out of the way, a man appeared there… in the dragon’s open mouth. Apparently there was space inside the giant cyberform, and the mouth was a hatch of some kind. From that distance, the two now-former Crossroads students thought there was something odd about the man who stood framed in the open mouth, but couldn’t tell what it was, exactly. 

The answer to that became obvious a moment later, as the man stepped off the edge of the mouth and dropped toward them before landing easily on the ground. 

He was short. That was what the siblings had noticed from the distance. The man stood only an inch over four feet, with dark red hair cut short, and a neatly trimmed goatee. His eyes were an unnaturally bright green, and one of his arms was very clearly cybernetic.  

For a brief moment, the man stood there, squinting at two teenagers and their robotic dog. His eyes scanned them curiously and intently, as though reading everything in their lives in those couple of seconds. Just as Columbus and Shiori were starting to get uncomfortable with his attention, he straightened and abruptly announced, “What, our guests are here already? You sure are eager to get started early this morning, aren’t you?” 

“It’s mid-afternoon, sir,” Galahad politely corrected. “You were working all day again.” 

“Was I really?” The short man looked surprised by the information, blinking that way before looking back toward the teens. “Well, in that case, you’re late. What, am I not important enough to spend more time with? Tearing you away from your computers and your Playstations?” 

With a wince, Columbus started to stammer a response, only for the man to laugh and shake his head. “I’m just messing with you, kid.” With that, he thrust his flesh and blood hand out to them. “Name’s Harrison Fredericks. You knew that, but you can call me Harry. That’s what I prefer.” 

Shiori was the first to react, introducing herself while shaking the man’s hand quickly. “And for the record,” she added while waving her phone his way, “I can play plenty of games even while we’re–holy crap!” The girl blurted the last bit after glancing to her phone screen. “Did you know you’ve got a shiny Mareep in here?!” With that, the girl stepped away, eyes focused on her phone. “Uhh, just a second.” 

Snorting at his sister, Columbus started to focus on their host once more “Hi. Sorry, she gets into that stu–uhh…” 

He trailed off upon realizing that Harrison had also yanked a phone from his pocket and was furiously tapping at the screen while blurting, “There is?! I knew it, I knew they wouldn’t let me down.” 

Columbus and Galahad glanced to one another, each offering a shrug before the latter murmured, “He’ll ahhh, be right with you, I’m sure. Sometimes Harry’s priorities are just a little skewed.” 

“Tell me about it,” the boy murmured, glancing to his sister before returning his attention to the dragon-robot nearby. Only then did he actually notice that it wasn’t the only one here in the cavern. There were several others spread out throughout the wide open space. One was clinging to the ceiling, shaped more like a traditional serpent. Another was under the water, its distorted form barely visible. A few more smaller ones were up against the cavern walls, mostly blending in through a semi-chameleon quality to their exterior. Taking all those in, the boy was sure there were more he couldn’t see. “Shit,” he murmured under his breath, “no wonder people don’t try to take this place over.”

“They have before.” That was Harry, his full attention once more on his guests. “Independents, Crossroads or Garden people that just think the rules don’t apply to them, and more. Took me adding penalties where I won’t sell to any group connected to the ones that piss me off for awhile before they wised up and started policing each other. But they seem to have gotten the message now. They leave me alone, and they get to buy my little friends.” As he finished, the man shook Columbus’s hand, adding, “Don’t look so worried. I’m not about to freak out and throw you to the wolves just because you mention what side you’re on or bring up your opinion. Some of these people just need a really firm line drawn or they’ll keep pushing.” 

“I uhh,” Columbus started before hesitating. “I can see why you’d be pretty sought after.” He nodded up to the nearest, most obvious dragon. “With things like that, it seems like the ones you sell people are toys.” 

“They basically are,” the man confirmed with a wink. “I’d be an idiot if I gave out my best work. The only reason I’m not chained up in some lab somewhere, making personal versions of Tigger over there for whatever Heretic group grabbed me first is keeping the strongest guys here. You people get the small versions because that’s the way I stay independent.” 

That said, Harry took a knee in front of Vulcan, meeting the cyberform’s gaze. “Anyway, how’re you doing, buddy? These two treating you alright?” 

He reached up, rubbing Vulcan’s head and murmuring softly for a moment before glancing to Columbus. “You’re not the one he’s bonded to, are you? Neither of you are.” 

“Not… exactly,” Columbus confirmed before hesitating. “Okay, so, what I’m about to say is totally not supposed to be breaking your rules about trying to convince you to join one side or the other. It’s just… you know, the facts. Just wanted to get that out of the way.” 

With that said, he carefully gave a quick summary of what had happened to lead Vulcan to being with him instead of Sean, and where the other boy was. He tried to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible, but couldn’t keep all the anger and frustration out of his voice. Which was not helped by the way Vulcan himself gave a soft, weak little whine whenever Sean and his current imprisonment was mentioned. Hearing that just made Columbus angrier. 

Thankfully, Shiori helped partway through, taking turns explaining the rest after sliding the phone away, back into her pocket. She stood there on Vulcan’s other side, hand rubbing the cyberform canine’s back while finishing with, “So now we’re trying to figure out how to get him out.” 

Once they finished with that, Harry looked back and forth between the two for a moment, clearly lost in thought. “I see,” he murmured, “I hope your friend ends up alright. Neutral, mind you, but still. I hope he comes out all intact. And hey, if he does and this little visit today ends up alright, maybe you can bring him over. I’d like to see Vulcan here with his partner. I don’t… ahh, get that many visitors.” He looked briefly regretful about that before turning away to walk toward the nearby dragon. “Well, in any case, come on, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on lately. Then we can talk about the reason you really wanted to come here.” 

After exchanging brief glances, the two siblings shrugged at one another and followed the man. It was very clear that he was intent on not saying more about the situation than he already had. Whatever his personal opinion on the matter, he wasn’t saying. And pushing would be bad. 

On the way over to the giant cyberform, Shiori spoke up. “Ah, Mr–I mean Harry, did you say this one’s name is Tigger? As in–” 

“The one above our heads is Winnie,” the man confirmed. “The one in the water is Piglet.” He smiled over his shoulder at them briefly. “I find it helps my creative process to have a theme.”

With that, he snapped raised his mechanical hand and snapped the metal fingers, calling, “Tigger, entrance!” 

At those words, the massive cyberform abruptly took a step back, partway entering the water before it lay down on its stomach. The mouth opened wide, and Harry led the two students, Vulcan, and Galahad around to it. There was a door there, barely visible with the mouth opened the way it was. The door was round, with a slight indent for a handle. Beside it was a red half-globe about the size of a softball that had been cut in two. It glowed as they approached. 

“Don’t get any closer,” Harry warned the pair of teenagers and their cyberform companion. “Not until I let him know you’re alright. We wouldn’t want any… accidents.” 

With that bit of warning ringing in their ears (and a pair of vivid imaginations about just what kind of ‘accident’ there could be, Columbus and Shiori stayed very, very still. After assuring himself that they had taken heed, Harry stepped up into the mouth, then froze as the red orb projected some kind of light over him. The light scanned the man up and down twice before it, and the half-globe itself, turned green. 

“Full body scanner,” Harry informed them. “DNA through the hair and skin, retinal, fingerprints, bone structure, check for active hologram or magical shapeshifting, and more. Also scans the voice for distress.” Clearing his throat, he spoke clearly, “Everything’s fine, Tigger. These two humans and their cyberform companion are friends. State your names.” 

“Oh, uh, Columbus,” the boy quickly put in. “Columbus Porter.” He went still then, as the green light turned yellow while scanning over him from head to toe. As with Harry, it repeated twice before shifting back to green. 

It then did the same with Shiori after she gave her name. In her case, however, it stopped and began to blink yellow after the first pass. A soft warning tone chimed a few times, which brought Harry’s head around sharply. “Miss,” he began with a frown. “Is there something you haven’t–” 

“My mother’s a Vampire!” Shiori quickly blurted. “I mean, I… I’m… half-Vampire. Dhampyr. I wasn’t trying to hide it or anything, I just didn’t think it was relevant, and–” 

“Stop, stop.” Harry’s head shook. “Wait, Dhampyr-Heretic? Is that even po–” He stopped himself. “No, you’re right. It’s not all that relevant. Tigger was just anxious because I introduced you as human and you’re not… not exactly. Apologies. Tigger, it’s okay. She is a Dhampyr-Heretic.. apparently. It’s safe. She’s clear.” He gave her a strange look then, but kept quiet. 

The light turned green then, before moving to quickly scan Vulcan. Finally, it was done, and the half-globe turned light purple before giving a triumphant chime. As it did, Harry reached out, caught hold of the handle of the circular hatch, and pulled it open. “Come on then,” he urged, “you’ll be the first people besides Galahad there to see this new project from an… inside perspective.” He actually giggled after saying those words, clearly amusing himself before stepping through. 

The others followed, finding themselves in what looked like the entrance of a submarine. The corridor was narrow and made entirely of metal, with a few hatchways along both walls and one at the end. That was the way Harry strode, pounding a fist against each door that they passed while explaining what was beyond. “Laundry’s through here. Kitchen and dining in this area. This here on the left is a rec room to keep up spirits. The whole thing’s bigger on the inside, but you should be used to that stuff by now.” 

“Are we in a pocket dimension or something?” Columbus asked as they reached the hatch at the end of the corridor, revealing what was obviously the bridge. It was a half-circle space with a raised platform and seat in the middle for the captain, a hologram projector screen in front that seemed to show a view of the cavern they had just left, and various control panels and comfortable chairs scattered throughout. A couple more hatches leading elsewhere in the dragon interior were against the back and far walls. 

“Hey, yeah,” Shiori realized, “are we? Because otherwise, what happens when the dragon stands up?” 

“Sort of,” Harry confirmed. “The space we’re in is stable. It’s always upright, and the body of the dragon moves around it. There’s more to it, but hey, trade secrets.” He winked before gesturing around the bridge with a bright, contagious smile. “Pretty cool though, huh?” 

It occurred to both teens at the same time that this was a man who ached to show off his toys. He genuinely wanted to share what he could make with people, but the fact that anyone he let in would almost inevitably try to take advantage of that necessitated his almost hermit-like lifestyle. They were, Columbus and Shiori realized, probably seen as ‘safe’ for him to open up to just because they presented absolutely no threat of being able to imprison Harrison or take his creations away. Because people clearly had. It made them both wonder just what had happened to make him learn that lesson and both institute and strictly enforce his neutral position. 

Shaking that thought away, Shiori smiled. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. But um, what is it? I mean… you’ve got seven seats in here, counting the… captain’s? Who’s piloting this thing? I thought you didn’t send the big ones anywhere.” 

“I don’t,” Harry replied, looking away to squint at one of the nearby consoles before offering a small shrug. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t build things that could take a group. I uhh… I like to stretch my hands and my brain like that.” Tenderly, the man ran his hand over the hologram projector, his voice wistful, “It’s just too bad that Tigger’ll never have a crew.” 

Galahad stepped past the others then, resting a metal hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey,” he started, “why don’t we take this thing for a spin before getting down to the important stuff?” 

A broad smile broke across Harry’s face, and he nodded before stepping up to plop himself into the captain’s seat. “Right, you two, pick somewhere to sit and we’ll get underway.” 

Shiori and Columbus moved to do just that, picking a couple of the crew positions. On the screens in front of them were a couple words floating back and forth, which they barely paid attention to… at first. Columbus, however, gave a short double-take after seeing them from the corner of his gaze, eyes widening dramatically as he absorbed the words on the screen. 

Not noticing the boy’s reaction, Harry started, “Okay then, let’s talk about where we’re going on our little joy–” 

“Excuse me,” Columbus found himself interrupting, unable to look away from the screen. He pointed with a shaking hand. “What… what is that?” 

“What’s what?” Harry asked, squinting that way while leaning up off his seat. 

“This.” Columbus leaned back, letting the man see the screen. “Why does the screen… why are those words there?” 

“Those words?” Harry looked even more confused by his reaction, which was furthered by Shiori’s own gasp as she finally focused on them herself. “It’s just Latin. It means–” 

“Summus Proelium,” Shiori read out loud. “Why did you write Summus Proelium on the computers?” 

Clearly lost about why the two were reacting that way, the short man stood and moved over. He squinted at the screen before shrugging once more. “It’s just the words from the world where I… where I took my power.” The two turned baffled looks toward him, and he explained, “It was an alternate Earth. One like ours, but different. Actually, it was the future on that world at the time. I went decades back, but it was like… two-thousand something there. Dimensional travel is weird. Anyway, my group and I went there, got separated, and I ended up fighting and… and killing one of their super-powered people.” 

“But where did you hear Summus Proelium?” Columbus pressed, trying not to grab the man. That definitely wouldn’t end well. 

 “It’s how they get their powers over there,” Harrison slowly replied. “These little orbs appear, announce… well, those words, and then transport the people into some pocket dimension where they’re empowered before being sent back. Why?” 

“The orbs… say Summus Proelium?” Columbus opened and shut his mouth, making a noise in the back of his throat. “And they transport these people to some other place to give them powers? I… that… oh.” 

“What’s going on?” Galahad spoke up sharply. “How do you two know those words?” 

“Umm…” Columbus exchanged a look with his sister before slowly replying, “I know you said you never met Arthur, so I guess you never met Nimue either. But–” 

“She’s a Seosten, I know that much,” Galahad confirmed with a brief glance toward Harrison. “He knows about them too. Part of why we’re so strictly neutral. Dunno what side’s still safe from them. But what do they have to do with this other world?” 

Hesitantly, the two siblings explained where they had heard the phrase before, and about the Seosten super-soldier project that had created the Olympians to begin with. 

“So, uhh,” Shiori finished, “the odds of little orbs that say those exact words before transporting the people from that other Earth somewhere else to give them powers not being related somehow to this are umm… small.” 

“Small indeed,” Harrison muttered under his breath before straightening to his full (still not exactly impressive) height. “Well. Maybe you should bring this Nimue or Athena or whatever she’s going by here next time, so we can figure out exactly what this means.” 

“Next time?” Columbus echoed, a note of both eagerness and caution in his voice. 

The man glanced to him. “Well yes, that’s what you were going to ask, wasn’t it? If I would teach you how to work with cyberforms and perhaps even start to build them.” As the boy fidgeted and stumbled for an answer that wouldn’t be rude, Harrison chuckled. “It’s okay to be eager, kid. I’ve been looking into your history, your school records both out of Crossroads and in, ever since Broker said you were interested in coming. Yeah. Yeah, as long as you don’t do anything stupid, I’ll… ahh, I’ll give you some pointers and we’ll see how it goes. But it means coming here four days a week for the entire summer. You got that? I’m gonna work you ragged if you wanna learn from me.” 

Quickly, Columbus nodded. “Four days a week, got it. I’ll be here. Whatever it takes. I want to learn.” 

“Oh, you’ll learn alright,” Harrison agreed. “And you’ll work. But like I said, bring this Nimue with you next time. And–” he glanced toward Galahad. “And bring that Lancelot too. They need to catch up.” Belatedly, the man amended, “That is, as long as you get through this test flight here without proving to be a completely incompetent ninny. Think you can do that?” 

“I… ahh, I’ll do my best, sir,” Columbus weakly promised, swallowing hard. 

“You do that.” Turning on his heel to move back to the captain’s seat, Harrison finished with, “Now, enough talk of Seosten, Olympians, wars, and everything else. 

“Let’s focus on seeing what this puppy can really do.” 

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