Month: September 2019

Alliances 6-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh God. Oh no. No, no, no. Please, no. This couldn’t be happening. Hanging there from the ledge, I almost made a sound of disbelief, only to stop at the last second as the sound of footsteps on the roof nearby made me quickly jerk back down under the overhang. I heard the man above, probably one of the armed thugs, stop just over me. From the sound of things, he was leaning over to look down. But the overhang hid me just enough. Still, I used the black paint silencing power on my helmet to make sure I wouldn’t make any sound. Just in case. 

My feet found purchase on the nearby decorative ledge so that I didn’t have to hang the whole time, and I glanced down. The party on the grounds had been interrupted too. I could see soldier-types down there, keeping everyone herded together. There were a lot of cops and Star-Touched there as well, but also a lot of hostages. And they’d probably been told about the children’s hospital too. Even more problems. Even more hostages. All the powers and guns arranged in this place and no one could do anything because if they made a move, all those kids would die. Because Pencil and his people… this wasn’t an idle threat. He would do it. 

What was I supposed to do? What the hell was I supposed to do?! Yeah, they didn’t know that I was here, but I wasn’t exactly John God Damn McClane. Besides, the very second Pencil thought someone might be beating him here, he’d just go ahead and kill all those kids. 

Kids. I had to save the kids, which meant getting over to the hospital. As soon as at least they were out of immediate danger, the people here could fight back. That was… that had to be it. In any case, it was the only thing I could think of. Get to the hospital and save the kids. 

Of course, first I had to get there. Which meant going from where I was, aaaaaaaaaall the way across the street to the hospital without being seen by any of these guys who were probably very much on guard for any hero types that might try to interfere. Which should be… fun. 

Perched there, I listened for sounds coming from above me while watching the ground far below intently. No one was looking up. Their attention was very much centered on the people pointing guns at them, in the case of the hostages, and on the hostages, in the case of the people pointing guns. They were all very thoroughly occupied. So that was a bonus, at least. 

As soon as I heard the guy standing above me turn and walk away, I restored the black paint to my helmet to make sure I was completely covered, before using a bit of blue paint against the ledge my feet were on to fling myself out into open air. Even as I began to plummet, my eyes snapped toward one of the rapidly approaching power lines. My hand extended, shooting off a bit of red paint toward furthest utility pole I could hit. It was further down than I was, pulling me toward the ground even faster. But it was also clear out by the street, beyond the hotel grounds, so I was also yanked forward. By the time I was halfway to the ground, I’d also almost reached the sidewalk. Cancelling the power, I shot another bit of red to a billboard across the street and yanked myself that way before dropping onto it and falling flat. 

I laid there, breathing hard while listening intently, just in case. Behind the mask and helmet, my mouth was moving rapidly as I prayed that I hadn’t been seen. There hadn’t been time to make absolutely sure while I was in mid-leap/fall. Not only was I sort of occupied at the time, but I also knew that I couldn’t be slow about this. I couldn’t be patient and methodical, because if I knew anything about Pencil’s reputation, he was just as likely (if not more so) to kill all the children as soon as he had what he wanted instead of letting them go. If he even waited that long. He was incredibly unpredictable, and fully capable of murdering a bunch of kids. Sometimes he would follow his word, other times… well, he wouldn’t. There was no way to tell what he might do as soon as all those rich people up there gave him what he wanted. 

So, I had to get in that hospital and help those kids. That was all there was to it. 

Finally reasonably certain no one had seen me, I picked myself up a bit and crawled over to the edge of the billboard. Crouching there, I watched the hospital below. There were plenty of cars in the lot, but no one visible. No one, that was, aside from the guy by the doors holding a rifle. He wasn’t looking at me, thank God. His attention was on the hotel across the street. A lookout, no doubt. If anything happened, he’d probably contact the people inside. Then the slaughter would start. A slaughter that I couldn’t let happen. 

But I had no idea if he was in constant contact with people, or what would happen if they called for him and he didn’t answer. So, no taking him down. Not yet, anyway. I had to find out where the kids were and… and… do something. Do what, exactly I didn’t know. But… something. 

Wait, my phone. Quickly, I checked to see if I could call for help. But there was still no signal. Either they were using a jammer of some kind over the whole block or neighborhood or whatever, or they’d done something to the cell towers. Or… I wasn’t sure, exactly. The point was, there was still no way for me to text or call anyone. Which was juuuust fantastic. 

Then something bounced off my shoulder. At first I thought it was hail or something, but that wasn’t it. Blinking down in time to see a small pebble laying there just before another bounced off my helmet, I quickly snapped my gaze around, searching… there. Crouched on top of one of the nearby utility poles was That-A-Way. She waved, then disappeared, reappearing directly behind me. “Hey,” she whispered. “Sorry, didn’t want to pop up behind you without warning.” 

“Uh, probably a good idea,” I whispered back. We probably didn’t need to whisper, given how far away we were from the hospital. But still, it felt right. “How’d you get away?” 

“Oh, you mean from up there?” She gestured back that way, reminding me that as far as she knew, I wasn’t up on that roof. So I should probably stay vague about it. “Yeah, I was sort of… in the bathroom.” She made a face. “I really wanted to tell you about some cool spy shit I did, but that was it. I was using the toilet when they showed up. I– wait.” She frowned then, looking to me. “Are you… uhh, do you know who’s up there? What this is all about?” 

Luckily, I’d spent the past few seconds quickly thinking up an explanation. “I was watching the party from that building over there.” My hand waved in a vague direction. “I saw Pencil show up and then dropped closer in time to hear… umm, what he said about the kids in the hospital.” 

The other girl nodded. “Right, so you’re about as caught up as I am. And anyone else that knows anything about it is over there. Which means this is basically up to you and me.” 

“What about Syndicate?” I pressed. “He could just switch to a different body, right? I mean, make another version of himself solid or… something. Wait, where are all his selves?” 

I could see her flinch. “Yeah, about that… one of him is on the roof, another is in the dining hall, and a third is down on the grounds. One at each of the three parties. The fourth one is at the Minority base. I’m pretty sure he’s rounding people up, but it’ll still take time to get here.”

“Time we might not–scratch that, definitely don’t have,” I murmured. “Fantastic.” 

She nodded. “Yup. Like I said, looks like it’s you and me. Or… me.” Her expression even behind that domino mask turned concerned. “If you don’t want to be… if you don’t want this kind of responsibility, I get it. I wouldn’t want to… I don’t want to make you… I–this is awkward.” 

“I’m in,” I insisted, swallowing back the sudden lump that had formed in my throat at the thought of what we were doing, what I was agreeing to. If we fucked this up, even just a little bit, a lot of innocent people would die. A lot of innocent children would die. This was even worse than Blackjack’s daughter. The only thing that allowed me to push past the paralyzing terror of what would happen if I fucked up was the even greater terror of what would happen if I did nothing at all. 

I actually thought That-A-Way looked relieved when I said that, and realized she was probably just as scared about fucking up this whole thing as I was. Somehow, that made me feel better. 

“Okay,” she murmured. “So we have to get in there, deal with those guys, and free the hostages. Without letting them know what’s going on. We can do that, right?” 

“Uh, between the two of us, you’re the professional hero,” I pointed out quietly after giving her a brief look. “I’m the amateur. You’re the one who’s supposed to reassure me.” 

“Right.” Nodding, That-A-Way gave me a thumbs up. “We’ll be fine. We’ve got this.” Her head turned to look at the hospital once more. “We start on the top floor and make our way down. Quickly, but carefully and methodically to make sure we’re not leaving any problems behind us. We deal with the guys in there if we can, or identify the threats if they’re beyond what we can handle, so the cavalry knows what they’re dealing with and where the problems are. Good?” 

“Good,” I agreed, trying to sound like I wasn’t about to pee myself. “I guess you can teleport over there?” The hospital was north of the billboard where we were crouching. 

She nodded. “I’ll teleport us up to the top floor, far east end over there. That gives me the whole hallway to move west through with my speed to check to make sure we’re clear.” 

That sounded like the best plan we were going to get. And honestly, I was mostly just glad that I wasn’t by myself here. As scary as this whole thing felt like, at least I had an actual official member of the Minority with me. She had a lot more experience than I did. Which might help explain why I felt more comfortable with the blonde girl so quickly, even though this was only the second time I’d ever even talked to her. And the first hadn’t exactly been under calm conditions. It was kind of funny how quickly I felt at ease with her, given all that.

“Hold on,” I started, giving a quick glance down to the guy in front of the hospital doors to make sure he hadn’t noticed us. It was clear, so I focused on my suit. First, I cancelled the black paint so I could work from the base white. Then I started by making black outlines of the images I wanted, like line art, filling in the lines with the colors as I went. 

Over my chest, I made a knight with a raised shield and sword. The knight’s chest armor and helmet were orange, with a purple sword and orange shield. His leg armor down into his boots was green. Meanwhile, the dragon he was facing was mostly black, with purple highlights, eyes, talons, and a burst of orange and yellow fire that came from its mouth. The wings were green. On my back, I painted the image of a pair of angel wings in green. My legs were green with lines of purple, while my shoes were blue. My arms were covered in what looked like really spiffy purple and green mixed flames, ending with red gloves. In all, it took about ten seconds. 

“Please,” the girl beside me started flatly, “tell me you did not just want to look good for this.” 

“My paint can run out until I let it recharge,” I informed her. “But if I set myself up ahead of time, I don’t have to create as much as we go. The images are just to help me remember what I have and which to activate. Orange for protection, purple for strength, green for speed, and so on.” 

Considering that for a second before nodding acceptingly, she replied, “Okay, just to be clear before we go in there, what else can you do? Orange makes a thing tough, purple makes it strong, green makes it fast…” She looked to me expectantly.

“Yellow makes them slow,” I continued for her. “Blue like… repels things, or makes them bounce. White makes a blinding flash, black silences things so they can’t make any sound. Red pulls toward other red. And uhh…” Shifting as a rush of embarrassment came over me, I admitted, “there’s pink too, but I haven’t figured out what it actually does.” How dumb was that? How many Touched just had random powers like that and had no idea what they did? I really needed to figure that out. 

“Pink, huh?” The girl clearly considered before shaking her head. “Probably not the best time to experiment. But good, because you really had me worried there when I thought you were getting ready for the cameras or something.” She winked at me. “All good now?” 

I nodded. “All good.” I even managed to make sure my voice didn’t squeak too much from terror. 

Putting her hand on my shoulder, That-A-Way murmured, “Okay, here we go. Be ready, just in case. We don’t know who we might run into the second we appear.”

Taking her words to heart, and once again silently thanking whatever power might be out there that I wasn’t alone for this, I focused and tried to prepare myself to be teleported. 

I wasn’t ready. It was still disorienting, suddenly finding myself crouching in a brightly lit corridor that smelled of antiseptic and ammonia. Between the sudden shift in location, the much brighter light, and that smell, I jerked backward and dry heaved, barely stopping myself from yacking. 

Thankfully, the bright side of all this was that we didn’t teleport straight into any bad guys. The corridor looked empty. That-A-Way took the time to look at me just long enough to make sure I was okay before disappearing in a rush of motion. I saw the blur as she took off, checking each door in the hall within a couple seconds before stopping at the end. 

Right, she couldn’t super speed back. West was speed. North was teleportation. East, back this way, was either invulnerability or intangibility. I couldn’t remember which, and neither helped her get back here any faster. So, I picked myself up and quietly jogged that way. She’d already checked all the doors and didn’t find anything, apparently, so I didn’t bother looking. 

Reaching the end of the hall where That-A-Way was, I looked to her expectantly. The two of us were now standing by a nurse’s station. There was another hallway to the left (south), and elevators and a door that led to the stairwell to the right. Ahead was a blank wall. 

“Nobody here,” she whispered. “Better check that hall, but I haven’t heard anything and I’m pretty sure they can’t keep a bunch of sick little kids that quiet. Unless–” In mid-sentence, she stopped talking and blanched. I felt my stomach turn over a bit, paling right alongside her. 

“There’s probably nobody there,” I made myself say. “But we’ll check.” 

So we did. Carefully and methodically despite everything in me screaming that we had to hurry, we checked that hall. It was clear. Which meant we had to go to the next floor. Which we did using the stairs rather than the elevator, for obvious reasons. Very quietly, we descended. 

Okay, this was getting unnerving. There was no one on that floor either. We didn’t look in every single closet or anything, of course. There wasn’t time for that. But we did a quick sweep and didn’t find any groups of sick kids being held by armed thugs. Which would have been a good thing in any situation where we didn’t already know they were there. 

Just as we were about to head down another floor, the ding of the elevator arriving made both of us jerk our heads that way for about… an instant. The doors were opening. Then I felt That-A-Way grab my arm, and we were suddenly in one of the other rooms. A room to the north of where we had been standing, apparently. It was a small patient room, and I could see an empty bed with a small pink rabbit lying next to the pillow. It made my heart seize up, just before the sound of voices and footsteps reached us. That-A-Way and I glanced to each other before quickly dropping down behind the bed. The footsteps got closer, as did the voices. 

“–says we’re really taking in the cash tonight. None of those rich fucks wanna be the one who–” The footsteps and voices had continued out of our earshot. But That-A-Way grabbed my arm, pulling me to the nearby wall to follow them. We were apparently going whichever direction it was that let her turn intangible, because we went right through it into the next room, then on through that wall, keeping pace with the Scions of Typhon as they continued. 

“Stop worrying about how much money we’re gonna get,” a new voice snapped. “The mission comes first. And right now, the mission is to set up those bombs.” 

That made both of us look at each other once more, and I saw her mouth, ‘Bombs?’

“What about the kids downstairs?” a third, this time female, voice asked. “Just gonna let ‘em go up with the hospital when it blows?” 

“Hell nah,” the second voice retorted, and I felt a very brief sense of relief before he went on. “Pencil wants to make damn sure those shits are dead. No heroic rescues or saves. He’s sending a message. We set those bombs to blow, then head back down. 

“And right before we leave, we’ll put those sick fuckstains out of everyone’s misery.” 

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Patreon Snippets 10 (Heretical Edge)

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

 

A few thousand years ago

The Phej were a tall, roughly humanoid species, standing just over two and a half meters in height, with dark blue, almost purple skin that grew darker at their heads, feet, and hands. They had four eyes spaced evenly around their face in a square pattern, with two vertical slit mouths parallel to one another in the middle. They smelled through organs within the mouths themselves. One mouth produced half the sounds their people were capable of, while the other, connected to entirely differently shaped vocal chords, produced the other half. The two worked in concert. 

At the moment, six of the Phej were striding purposefully through the corridor of their most powerful command ship. Four wore the uniforms of security personnel, while the remaining two were officers, the equivalent of a lieutenant and admiral (mnent and tauta respectively in their own language). They walked confidently, but quickly. Particularly when the ship shuddered under what was obviously an attack, the lights briefly dimming before returning to their steady blue emergency glow. 

The doors ahead of of the group swooshed open smoothly, admitting the six into a dimly lit, circular chamber that was just large enough for all of them with the control console and holographic display arranged in the middle of it. 

“Mnent,” the ship’s commander (and commander of the fleet itself) spoke, addressing his fellow (though much lower-ranked) officer. “Bring up the sitview.” 

Mnent Faa did so, pressing three quick holographic buttons on the console. In response, a display of the area surrounding their ship appeared. The Phej home planet lay relatively ‘below’ them to the left, with their own ship and a dozen others spread out to face the enemy fleet. Too many enemy ships, not enough Phej. But that was okay. Because they had a secret weapon, one that they had been working on for many decades for just such an occasion. 

“Are you sure it’s ready, Tauta Krin?” Faa asked a bit tensely. “If we take this shot and miss, we won’t get another one.” 

“It’s ready, Faa,” Krin assured the other man. “And if we wait any longer, there won’t be a point to using it. Bring up the targeting data for their ships. All of them.” He waited while the mnent did that, watching as white targeting reticles appeared on each of the twenty-seven enemy vessels. So many of their own ships had been destroyed by that fleet. That ended now. 

The reticles went from white, to green, and finally to the hard blue. With a low snarl through his twin mouths, he began to give the order to fire. 

In that instant, two of the security officers who had accompanied them abruptly drew their sidearms and fired. The shots instantly killed the other two guards. As Faa spun that way, hand groping for his own weapon, a shot took him in the face. 

With a bellowed curse of defiance, Krin dove for the control. But the glowing energy figure emerging from one of the ‘traitor’ guards caught him first, as the blonde Seosten dove into him. His hand stopped right next to the button. 

Head snapping to the side sharply with the distinct sound of a neck breaking, the remaining guard fell, revealing a dark-skinned Seosten woman, who grinned and pumped her fist. “Whoo! How great was that? We were right on top of them and they didn’t have a clue.” Charmiene turned then, spitting on one of the dead. “Think we’re just gonna let you blow up our people, assholes? Think again. We gave you a chance to surrender.” 

Her attention turned back to the possessed leader, pressing, “Come on, Brainiac, you said you knew how to work this system, right? So are we good or what?”

Perusing it briefly, Sariel finally spoke through the man. “Yes. Just a moment.” Her fingers danced over the controls, as she ignored the mixed pleas and threats from her host. “There.” 

On the holographic screen, the reticles over the Seosten fleet disappeared, replaced by more over each and every Phej ship. In addition, several targeting markers appeared on the planet itself. 

“What are those?” Charmiene asked, pointing to the latter. 

“Military bases, supply depots, places this man knew about that would make good targets,” Sariel replied with his voice. “One shot from this weapon of theirs, and we not only take out what’s left of their entire fleet, we cripple any potential resistance on the ground and their entire system of government.” 

Her words were met with a feral grin from the other woman. “So let’s do it and call Puriel to tell him how awesome we are. What are we waiting for?” 

Hand lingering over the button while her host desperately begged her to have mercy, to let them surrender, to spare his people, Sariel watched the holographic battle. 

“Nothing,” she finally replied. 

And then she pushed the button. 

*******

Immediately after the prison escape

 

As the Atherby camp and their allies celebrated their success in retrieving not only Sean Gerardo, but a good number of other prisoners, as well as powerful Crossroads weapons from the depot, and the destruction of several important Crossroads satellite stations, a single pale figure stood far away from all of it. With her back to the proceedings, Larees leaned against a tree and watched the sky while taking a long, lazy pull from her trusty flask. 

“You gonna come talk sometime tonight, kid?” she drawled casually, “or just stand back there and lurk some more?” 

Behind her, Theia slowly emerged from the darkness and approached. She paused while coming parallel with the woman, glanced that way, and then walked on past. Moving to another nearby tree in front of Larees, she positioned herself there before noting, “You are not celebrating.” 

“Ah, correction,” Larees countered while raising her flask to indicate it. “I’m not at the celebration. I am most definitely celebrating. In my way.” 

“Your way of celebrating does not look different from any other day,” Theia pointed out. 

Snorting, Larees replied, “Maybe I’m just celebrating all the time.” Raising the flask to her lips, she gulped a mouthful of the smooth, burning liquid before adding, “You’re not at the party either.” 

There was a moment of silence from Theia before she quietly said, “I make some of them uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that to them all night long.” 

Instead of responding to that right away, Larees just watched her in silence for a few long seconds. When she did speak, it was a quietly muttered, “Your mother was a real piece of shit, you know that?” 

“I did not kill her simply because she forgot my birthday,” Theia pointed out, head tilting. “But what does she have to do with this?” 

“Sorry,” Larees muttered, head shaking as she pushed away thoughts of the children she had been forced to bear before they were taken from her, one by one. “It’s nothing. I was just…fuck. Never mind. You want a drink?” She held the flask up, nodding to it. 

Eyes centering on the offering, Theia pointed out, “Most of our people would never be comfortable sharing that with a Lie.” 

“You’re right,” the older Seosten agreed, glancing to the flask briefly as she considered. Then she tossed it that way. “Careful, it kicks pretty hard. Take it slow.” 

Catching it with one hand, Theia stared briefly at the woman, before gradually putting it to her lips. She took a sip, then another, before coughing loudly and repeatedly. 

A laugh escaped Larees. “Told you. It kicks.” 

Theia forced herself to take another drink just to prove she could, before clearing her throat. She glanced to her, hesitating before offering, “Do… you believe you’ll ever find your children? The ones that…” She trailed off, watching the woman’s face. “Is this one of those things I shouldn’t have said?” 

Larees opened her mouth, then hesitated before swallowing hard. She stepped over, took the flask back, and had a long drink from it before answering. “No, it’s–no, I don’t think I will. It’s a big universe and… and they could be anywhere. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see them. If any of them are even alive.” 

Theia’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about what my mother did to you.” 

For a moment, Larees didn’t respond. Then she held the flask back out once more for the girl to take again. “I’m sorry about what your mother did to you.” 

Trying the harsh drink once more, Theia still coughed, though she was more prepared that time. Her gaze found the other woman’s. “She was a… real… piece of shit?” 

“Yeah, kid,” Larees agreed. “But you know what, she did do at least one good thing in her miserable life.” 

Uncertain, the younger Seosten tilted her head. “What?” 

“Simple, kid,” her companion replied, taking the flask back for a long pull. 

“She made you.” 

******

Shortly Under A Year Ago

 

“Dude, you’re like… a king or something.” The words came in an awed voice as the young boy named Tristan Moon stared at the man in front of him. The two of them were alone in a side room, where Tristan had been ushered in order to meet his ancestor. “My great-whatever grandpa’s a king! That’s ffffffuuuuureaking awesome.” 

Nicholas Petan, a dark-haired, handsome man with just enough gray to be distinguished offered the boy a slight chuckle while shaking his head. “Not hardly a king, I’m afraid.” He paused then before offering a wink. “Maybe a baron.” 

A stunningly bright smile leapt to the boy’s face. “But you’re like this badass knight commander guy! That’s so cool! I bet you–wait, but… but your guys hurt my friends.” He frowned at that thought, clearly at a loss about whether he could still be excited or not. 

With a low sigh, Nicholas stepped over and took a knee in front of his descendant. “That… whole thing was a very tragic and… unexpected oversight. A mistake. I made a mistake when I passed orders to my subordinates. My phrasing when I asked them to retrieve you could have been better.” He glanced to the side, features briefly marred by a frown before a glance back to the charming blond-haired boy in front of him made it melt away. “But we will deal with that later, I promise. I’ll show you what we do to maintain the loyalty of our troops. Both magically and otherwise. You don’t want to rely entirely on magic. But I will teach you all of that on our way.” 

“You mean…” Tristan hesitated before asking, “You mean I can go with you? Wait, where are we going?”  

“Go with me?” Nicholas put a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Greats-grandson, we are going many places. Most importantly, we are going to find your family. I have some… leads on that front.” 

That disarmingly brilliant smile returned for a moment, then Tristan hesitated. “I… what about the spell that keeps bouncing me back here? And… and… my new friends?” 

“The Heretics you will see again,” Nicholas assured him. “They have their own things to do, but your paths will cross soon enough. As for the Meregan, I’ve spoken a bit to their leader and… while a few will stay here, we will be working together. Some will come with us.” 

He exhaled then. “And the banishment spell, I have some ideas about that. It’s weaker than it should be, so we should be able to stop it from booting you back here unless you actually go back to Earth. That’s what it’s banishing you from. I can keep you with me, and we’ll work on finding a way to disable the spell entirely.” 

“And find my family?” the boy asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Nicholas assured him, “and find your family. Most certainly that. That is… if you are… okay with the idea of living aboard a starfaring vessel traveling the universe searching out danger. If you– Tristan?” He blinked, waving a hand in front of the boy’s face as his descendant stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers, mouth open. 

Gradually, a sound similar to a tea kettle’s whistle emerged from Tristan, before he literally threw himself at Nicholas with a joyful shout, clinging to him while babbling something about someone named Picard. 

“I… ahhh… shall take that as agreement.” 

*******

Sometime over the summer

 

Feet pounding against the ground, Tabbris raced through the forest, chancing a glance now and then over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster with each desperate step, her breath hard and ragged. She fled blindly, dodging around one tree before leaping over a raised section of roots. Coming down, the young Seosten nearly lost her footing and sprawled, but caught herself at the last instant before pushing off once more. Behind her, she heard her pursuer getting closer with each step, the sound of their feet snapping twigs and branches growing louder by the second. 

She had nearly reached the next large tree, eyes focused ahead with the desperate certainty that at any second, a hand would grab her shoulder, when a figure emerged from that very tree. Her pursuer jumped into view, arms outstretched. She came within a bare instant of being caught, but triggered her boost just in time. The world slowed, and Tabbris dropped into a slide through the dirt that carried her under those open, anticipatory arms. 

Her pursuer spun, reaching down to grab for the back of her shirt. But she managed to throw herself forward from her slide, rolling to her feet before springing up. She didn’t want to waste her boost, but kept it going a moment longer. Just enough to let her leap from a standing position to the lowest branch in the tree. 

It was risky. The one chasing her could travel through the tree, like Flick did. Every step Tabbris took was another step where they could catch her. But she had to try. Running along the outstretched branch, she heard the figure jump into the tree. They would reach her any second… any…

She leapt from the branch just barely ahead of the arm that extended from the branch to grab for her. Tabbris flew from the tree, arms and legs windmilling wildly as she let out a loud squeal just before landing on her backside at the very edge of a steep slope that the edge of the branch had been hanging over. Aimed perfectly as she was, the girl slid on her back down the slope, half-falling all the way to the bottom before rolling to a stop. She lay there on her back, panting hard. 

“Hey!” A voice called from up above, prompting the girl to open her eyes. She saw her pursuer, a male Relukun (or wood-person) maybe a year older than she was. “No fair, you used your boost!” 

Staying on her back, Tabbris stuck her tongue out at him. Then she wondered if he could actually see it from up there. “You used your tree-walking power, Pickle!” she shot back. “Fair’s fair! You didn’t tag me, and I can still make it to base!” 

His name wasn’t really pickle, but the boy liked them so much, that’s what he became known as. Now, the tree-boy shook a wooden fist at her. “You’ll never make it, vile beast!” 

“Wanna bet?!” Tabbris retorted. She watched as he started to scramble down the hill after her, before laughing while scrambling back to her feet. A head start. She could make it to the boulder they’d picked out as home base, especially now that she’d had a chance to lay down for a few seconds and breathe. 

Then it would be her turn to chase Pickle, and she already had a plan. 

******

Shortly after the prison attack

 

Standing in the Committee headquarters, directly in front of the door leading into Counselor Litonya’s office, Liam Mason raised his hand to knock. Before he’d even gone halfway through the motion, the door opened and a voice within beckoned, “Come.” 

Thank God, he’d been losing his mind out here. After the day that had just happened, and everything he’d heard about how the traitors had attacked them, Liam needed to hear that things would be okay. More importantly, he needed to hear, from someone who had been there, how his family was doing. And who better to look to for reassurance on both fronts than one of the Crossroads Committee? 

The man stepped over the threshold, hearing the door click closed behind him. He was in a sparse room that looked quite similar to a Japanese dojo. The walls were lined with weapons, with a couple small tables of various food, drink, and other objects, while the floor was some kind of training mat. It was empty, save for a single figure who sat cross-legged in the middle. A figure who stood when he arrived, turning to face him. 

For a brief moment, Liam couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. Counselor Litonya stood in front of him, but not… not all of her. She stood there with one entire arm missing, along with her other hand. It was… it couldn’t… that wasn’t…

“You requested this meeting for a reason other than gawking, I hope,” Litonya reminded him in the voice of a stern old school marm. As she spoke, the woman stepped over to a nearby table. A glowing blue semi-translucent image of an arm and hand appeared as she reached for the pot of tea, manifesting a similar hand on her other side to move a cup closer. 

“I–” Part of Liam wanted to ask if she was okay. But that was absurd. It was like asking a star if it was okay. The star was–it was a star. Barring age, of course it was okay.  It was–you didn’t ask a Committee member if they were–

But one had been killed earlier that year. They could be killed, he knew that. It had happened before. Hell, another of the Committee was currently missing. Yet somehow… somehow being killed or out of contact didn’t strike him as… as vulnerable as seeing one of the Committee members… maimed. Maimed. The very word was ridiculous. They were–if they–

“Mr. Mason,” Litonya urged him while looking that way as she took a sip. “Speak, or leave.” 

Swallowing, he forced himself to speak. “I just–I was… told that you saw one of my daughters earlier.” 

“I did,” she confirmed. “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to speak much.” Her smile was thin. “She did call me an evil bitch, if you were curious.” 

Making a sound of shocked disbelief, Liam shook his head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I–it’s… it’s that girl. She’s–and Larissa is… that Felicity girl. She’s… they’re twisting everything around. It’s still–they’re still dancing to Gaia’s tune, Gods damn it! I don’t care that she’s locked up, she planned all of this, all of it, and she’s been manipulating them and they don’t know where to–” 

“Liam,” Litonya spoke sharply. “We are all well aware of how the creatures Sinclaire allied herself with have manipulated our people. Rambling accomplishes nothing.” 

“Who… who did… what happened to you?” He tried to stop himself from asking, but it came out anyway. “Why don’t you just… heal?” 

There was a low chuckle, like the sound of dry leaves being crushed. “Miss Chambers herself. Or rather, the creature she allowed to possess her.” Reading his wide eyes and open mouth, she interrupted his question. “It is a question I don’t wish to get into. Suffice to say, they possess the sword of the old King, and the wounds it causes take a very long time to heal.” 

“A… I don’t–” How could someone actually hurt you, even if it was with Arthur’s sword?! “What about… prosthetics?” 

“Believe it or not,” the woman’s sharp tone retorted, “you are not the first to suggest such a thing. Unfortunately, the reason the wounds take so long to heal is that the sword leaves lingering minor magical energy which slowly disintegrates anything it touches. Anything that comes into contact with… the wounds is gradually destroyed or at least damaged to the point of being structurally compromised. This–” She indicated her summoned solid-energy limbs. “–will have to do. Now, is there anything else? As you might imagine, I am rather occupied.” 

Hesitating briefly, Liam swallowed before asking, “That other thing that I asked about before. The one about the Chambers girl claiming her mother was taken by Fossor. Have you–” 

“She is with the necromancer,” Litonya confirmed. “That much we know. It was unfortunately rather brutally confirmed by the scouts who were sent to confirm Joselyn’s presence in a mall earlier today. Yet another part of the traitors’ plans, no doubt, meant to divide and conquer.” 

“Jos, she’s… she’s working with Fossor, willingly?” Liam murmured, shock touching his features almost as much as seeing Litonya’s injuries had. 

“That appears to be the case,” the woman informed him. “She has now taken to luring our people into traps in order to gain power by ambushing and murdering them. Now, if you will excuse me, I have pressing matters elsewhere. The Committee must choose three new members to count among our number.” 

“Wha–three? You’re choosing three new Counselors?” he blurted with surprise. That didn’t happen. 

“Pressing times call for pressing measures,” Litonya replied simply. “Our enemy has outmaneuvered us for far too long, has taken far too many of our people and assets. Don’t worry, Mr. Mason. We have just the people in mind for these positions. 

“And when confrontation comes again, it is the traitors who will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

*****

Sometime over the summer. 

 

It was a short, very stocky man who stood in front of an unlabeled heavy metal door somewhere in Pittsburgh. He wore an olive green overcoat and a heavy beard. An old mangy cat of no possible discernible breed sat at his feet and licked his paws while the man reached up with one gloved hand to bang on the door. 

A moment later, a slot in the door slid open, allowing three eyes to peer out. “Whatayawant?”

In response, the man held up a leather bag, shaking it a bit to create a jingling sound. “Entrant’s fee,” he muttered in a deep, gravelly voice. 

The eyes disappeared, replaced by a single thin hand with too many fingers. The man put the bag in the palm, and it was withdrawn. There was another pause, before several locks were disengaged and the door was pulled open. The three-eyed man with too many fingers on his hands stood there watching him with a shotgun. “Name.”

Bowing his head a bit, the man in the olive coat replied, “Dark. John Dark.”

For a moment, the two stared at one another, the three-eyed man clearly sizing him up before finally offering him a broad smile as he stepped back and raised his arm to indicate past himself. “Well, John Dark, you just bought yourself into the auction. Congratulations, and don’t go blowing all your coin on the first decent beast you see.”

Returning the man’s smile with a nod of appreciation, Dark walked past him through the narrow corridor. The cat followed at his heels, offering a quiet meow. 

The corridor lead to a large circular room, big enough to be a concert hall. Throughout the room were dozens of beings of all shapes and sizes. And cages. Cages that were staggered randomly throughout the room, holding even more wildly varied beings. They were prisoners, slaves to be auctioned off for those who bought them, the people who were now examining their potential merchandise. 

The din of conversation continued for another few minutes before a new figure in a garish bright red coat and top hat swept his way into the middle of the room with a raised hand. Under the top hat, he had dark blue skin and hair like a mythical gorgons, full of living snakes. 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called loudly to draw all attention to him. “Welcome to our humble auction! We’ll get things started right away, but first—“

“One silver.”

John Dark spoke up loudly, interrupting the auctioneer with that single word. It drew everyone’s attention to him, and the snake-haired man frowned, his serpents hissing. “I am afraid we haven’t started the auction yet, good sir. And when we do, you shall have to pay a lot more than one silver if you wish to take any of our fine, quality merchandise home.”

John Dark spoke again, before the man could redirect everyone’s attention. “You’re wrong about two things there. First, I wasn’t offering one silver for one of your slaves. I offered one silver for all of them. One silver on top of whatever you value your lives at. I assume, quite a lot. You can claim that reward by leaving this place now, and never looking back.”

Dozens of weapons were drawn at his words, along with magic and other powers being readied. Around the room, security guards appeared, levying their own weapons at this simple-looking stranger. 

If he was put off by the display of force, the man gave no indication. He simply continued. “As for the second thing you were wrong about… I am no sir.”

With that, the ‘man’ swept off the coat to reveal a lithe, feminine figure beneath. Also hidden beneath the coat had been a heavy shield and spear, mounted to her back. 

Pulling both to her hands, the woman held the shield up as every non-slave in the room unleashed on her. Bullets, lasers, fire, wild attacks of every kind erupted through the room, centered on the spot where she stood. A spot where a glowing gold light had flared up. 

After almost thirty full seconds of non-stop attack, the slavers and their customers finally relented. They had poured enough fire power into that spot to kill nearly anything. 

Nearly. 

The woman still stood. Her false beard was gone, revealing a face that many could, and had, called beautiful, with a distinct resemblance to the classic actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her shield glowed brightly, almost blindingly so, extending its energy in a field that encased and surrounded her body like a second skin. 

“My name,” she began through the baffled silence, “is Jeanne d’Arc. And you are wretched, evil beasts. You enslave and sell the innocent as your chattel. You are a plague upon this land, and your judgment has come due.”

With those words, the woman known more commonly as Joan of Arc raised her spear. It began to glow with the same energy as her shield. It was the energy gifted to her through ritual by the angel… the Seosten… Michael. Only a small portion of his gift, yet enough to keep her alive all these years after he had saved her from the fire. A sliver of his energy which healed her wounds, ceased her aging, and allowed her to channel it through her shield to create an impenetrable barrier around herself or others, and through her spear to allow it to cut through near anything in existence. 

Many had wondered over the years what sort of Heretic Jeanne was. In truth, she was no Heretic at all, merely a human gifted incredible power through ritual magic. 

Incredible power which she put to use now, as the slavers opened fire once more. Joan went to work. 

Before long, it was over. The slavers and their customers were dead, and the prisoners were being escorted to safety by several people Jeanne had let into the building after dealing with the three-eyed man at the front. As she stood out of the way, a small, green-furred figure approached tentatively. “Err… what… what is this?” he asked with obvious confusion. “Are you with that… that new Heretic rebellion?”

A taller, gray-skinned figure spoke up then. “H-hey, yeah, that rebellion’s going again. I heard that… that Atherby woman came back.” His own voice was hopeful, wide eyes staring at their rescuer. “Are–do you know her? Is she really back? Is she–” 

“I’m sorry,” Jeanne gently interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the man in a soft voice. “I am with Wonderland, not the Rebellion, though we are connected. And I’m afraid that Chevalière Atherby is not… she has not returned.” For a moment, she thought of what she knew of the woman’s daughter, the girl who had brought back the rebellion. Jeane knew enough of her, both thanks to friends within the Atherby camp and Crossroads itself, and thanks to her own curiosity in the past. Not to mention the words of her off-and-on lover, the vampire Seth. His death had brought Jeanne to Wonderland to pay her respects, where she had agreed to take his place as their Tiebreaker for the time being. 

She and Seth had had their ups and downs, but they had loved one another for most of their time together. Even if that love turned to heated arguments now and then. She had mourned his loss, cursed the fact that she had not been anywhere near to aid him, and vowed to find the creature who had murdered him. This Seosten, the one called Abaddon. She would find and kill every body he manifested until she reached the last one. This she had sworn upon Seth’s grave. 

In any case, Seth knew Felicity. Or Flick, as she preferred to go by. He’d initially been curious about her when he found out she was dating the girl who was… essentially his step-sister, in a lot of ways. He’d asked Jeanne look into her, to see what kind of person she was beyond simply being her mother’s daughter. She, in turn, had told him that she didn’t need to look into the girl then, because she already had rather thoroughly in the past, and that he had nothing to worry about. Over time, Seth had actually gotten to know the girl a bit more for himself, and confirmed her assessment. It was no surprise to Jeanne whatsoever that the girl had brought back her mother’s rebellion. Not after being her teacher for most of a semester back in junior high.  

Seeing the look of disappointment on the two men’s faces after telling them that she wasn’t with that particular group, Jeanne assured them, “Her children are part of that rebellion. Her youngest daughter brought it back.” 

“Her youngest daughter?” one of the men breathed. “Who is she, do you know her? Did you know her mother?” 

A fond smile touched the woman’s face. “Joselyn… yes, you might say our paths have crossed. As for her daughter, she does not know it, but we have met. And eventually, we will meet again.” She offered them a slight shrug then. “As I said, Wonderland may not technically be part of them, but we have contact. Do you… have friends there?” 

“I don’t know,” the short, furry man lamented. “Maybe. Everything was so… so confusing in the escape from those tunnels, my people said they knew where to go to find them, but I don’t know if they did.” 

“Come then,” she urged, turning to gesture ahead. “Let us go see if your people are there. And if they are not, I will help you find them. 

The taller, gray man blinked. “You… you’d do that? But you don’t even know us.” 

Meeting his gaze, Jeanne replied simply, “My hands have no eyes, no ears. They need not know a man to bring him up, to offer him food, shelter, or aid. My oath is to help those who need it, not only those whom I have called friend. Now come, we will find your family and friends.” 

“If they’re not with the rebellion,” the green-furred man lamented, “they may have fallen in with other evil men, like these.” His small hand indicated the bodies around them. 

“If that is the case,” Jeanne informed him, “and your people have been taken by more evil men, 

“Then more evil men will die.”

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Fusion 1-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Quick note – Some of you were told that today’s chapter would be the next Patreon snippets. I have, however, decided that interrupting the new year/book immediately after it starts like that is not a great idea. Don’t worry though, Patreon Snippets will be coming out tomorrow as an extra, off-schedule release. Thanks! 

Yup, school. As in classes and learning and everything else. Although it really wasn’t anything like what would be considered a normal school, even by Heretic standards. Especially by Heretic standards, come to think of it. There was, well, definitely a lot more to it.

At the moment, it was the morning after our little adventure at the theater. I was awoken, after getting the two hours of sleep I still needed, by a very small figure clambering onto the bed and falling onto me with a gleeful, “Fick!”

“Oof.” Opening my bleary eyes, I squinted at the tiny, grinning figure laying half-on me. “Hi, Savvy,” I murmured, reaching out to affectionately rub the Seosten toddler’s black hair.

“Fick!” She raised one dark-skinned hand to press against my face. “Fick up now. Bakefast.”

Chuckling despite myself, I sat up a bit and pulled the girl into a hug. “Yeah, I’m up now, so we can have breakfast.” Tickling her nose to make her smile, I asked, “Did Uncle Linc send you in here?” At her eager nod, I tickled her stomach, drawing a squeal from the girl. “I figured.”

Uncle Linc, of course, was my dad. Lincoln. Linc was easier for her to say, and Dad liked it.

With a yawn, I got up and moved over to grab some clothes. I had showered the night before, so I dressed quickly before reaching down to pick up the giggling toddler. Holding her, I headed out of my room and into the main part of my father’s cabin. I’d been living there all summer with Dad and (about half the time) Tabbris, though that would be changing somewhat as of this morning.

Tabbris and our father were both sitting at the table, watching as I came in with Savvy. Dad gave the little girl a thumbs up. “See, I knew you could get the sleepyhead up faster than I could.”

“Sleepyhead?” I retorted, “Yeah, right, sure. That’s me, totally sleeping almost three hours sometimes. The horror of such laziness.” Setting Savvy in the booster seat that Dad had put up for all the times she visited, I pulled out another chair beside Tabbris. “And not even that much with all the extra training everyone keeps demanding I do.” Between Avalon, Jophiel, Athena, and… well, more, a huge part of the last month or so of my summer ‘vacation’ (such as it was) had been taken up by near-constant training and exercises. Not that I could blame them, considering things were very unlikely to slow down any time soon. Especially with my birthday rapidly approaching. They wanted me to be as prepared as I possibly could. And so did I.

“So,” I continued while starting to fill a plate with a small pancake and some bits of sausage that I cut up, “did you ask Zadriek to borrow Savvy this morning specifically to get me up, or are you playing babysitter totally by coincidence?” With the food sufficiently cut up, I put some butter and syrup onto it, then set the plate over in front of the tiny girl in question, who squealed happily before immediately grabbing onto the stickiest bit of pancake to shove into her mouth.

Beside me, Tabbris snickered. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She took a bite of her own breakfast before adding, “D’ya think they’re ready for us?” Though she was trying to seem calm and casual, I could hear the excitement in her voice, and her eyes were shining with anticipation.

There was a lot for Tabbris to anticipate. Not just the school thing, but it was also almost time for her and Dad to… bond. Okay, they’d been bonding over the entire summer. That was the point. They spent time together to build up the chance of a strong Bonding with a capital B. Dad was going to become a Natural Seosten Heretic. Or, more specifically, a Natural Tabbris Heretic. They’d spent the summer getting to know each other more fully. The closer their connection, the better chance the Bonding would take correctly.

Grinning, I rubbed her head. “I think between what Athena and Abigail will do if they’re not, they better be. Those two have been spending more time up there than they have in the camp.”

“Hey,” Dad objected. “Let’s not talk about that right now. I still have you girls for at least the rest of breakfast.” He made a show out of sniffing. “You’d think you couldn’t wait to get away from me… again.”

Reaching out with my foot to poke his leg, I pointed out, “Oh, stop, we’re coming back a lot.”

“Staying here every weekend,” he insisted with a nod. “And visiting more than that.”

My head bobbed. “Uh huh, for sure. And… you know… speaking of being close…”

He smiled faintly, glancing toward Tabbris. “Yup, we’re doing it two weeks from now, right, kid?”

As she quickly nodded with a bright smile, I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re gonna do the Heretic thing in two weeks? You think you’re ready?”

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, using his fork to point at me. “Now eat your breakfast. We’ve got about an hour before you’ve gotta head out with the others, and I mean to make the most of it.

“And just so you know, Kaste and Rain promised to show me how to create some really obnoxious nagging spells. Don’t visit every few days, and you’ll pay for it.”

I nudged Tabbris, “See how much things have changed? Dad’s threatening us with magic.”

Her answering smile was dazzling, seeming to light up the room. “Uh huh, things have changed. I get to go to school with you instead of… you know… inside you.”

From the other side of me, Sahveniah piped up a bit hopefully. “I go school?”

Reaching out, I gave the kid a tight hug around her booster seat. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be going to school right here in the camp. I hear Aunt Sariel’s got some kid classes lined up. And before you know it, you’ll be old enough to go to the big school.” I said it with a wink and smile that made her giggle happily, but inwardly I was hoping things would be a lot different by the time Savvy was actually old enough to even think about going to the other school. I really hoped that when she was my age, she’d never have to deal with any of this.

But somehow, I was afraid this whole thing would go on much… much longer than that.

*******

After breakfast and a little time spent with Dad (and Savvy), Tabbris and I grabbed a couple of modified backpacks that we’d already prepared (Herbie, Jaq, and Gus had their little home nestled in the bottom of mine), and left the cabin to join Miranda and Koren. They were waiting on the front porch for us. My not-so-young niece was practicing with one of the powers she had received from killing that old Heretic back during the prison assault. Specifically, she was creating a glowing bubble between her hands. Within the bubble, a small, roughly eight-inch long figure of a crocodile had appeared. It was still forming as Tabbris and I approached, the shape of it becoming more distinct over those couple of seconds.

The power, as I understood it, basically allowed Koren to create small facsimiles of any creature she could think of. They weren’t real or anything, amounting mostly to glorified solid holograms. The longer she took to form the creatures within the bubble before releasing them from it, the more detailed and stronger they could be. Also, the bigger they were, the longer it took to make them. Something like this eight inch crocodile took like fifteen seconds and would last a minute or so. If she wanted something big enough to ride that would last longer than a few seconds, she had to take much longer with them. Still, being able to spend about ten minutes to make a horse that would last about an hour was pretty freaking cool. Plus, she could make more than a horse. The other day, I’d seen her take fifteen minutes to make this giant rabbit with wings.

The tiny crocodile popped out of its bubble and roared like a lion, making me raise an eyebrow. “I uhh, think your little friend there is a bit confused about what he’s supposed to be, Koren.”

In response, she sniffed at me. “He’s more intimidating this way. Besides, you’re just jealous.”

“Jealous of your roaring crocodile?” I considered before grinning a little sheepishly. “Yeah, maybe a little.” As the summoned form vanished with another disconcertingly loud roar, I snickered despite myself. “At least you didn’t make the flying bunny roar like that.”

“No, but that’s an excellent idea,” she retorted before looking to Miranda. “She’s good at that.”

With a broad smile, my long-time best friend gave me a thumbs up. “She always has been. The only real difference now is in how feasible her random thoughts are.” To Tabbris and me, she added, “So, you guys actually ready for this whole new school thing?”

I shrugged, glancing to the girl beside me. “Not sure, but I guess we’ll find out. Have they already started taking people up there?” As I spoke, I was leaning up on my toes to look out toward the lake. Sure enough, there was a crowd of people there, despite the early hour.

Miranda nodded. “Yeah, some of the others already went up. They said they’d meet us there.” With a tiny smirk, the girl added, “I kinda can’t wait to see how some of the Garden people handle it. They’ve got a portal set up over there too. Actually, I think they started an hour ago.”

The Eden’s Garden rebels weren’t making this their official school or anything. But they had sent staff to it, and were allowing students to go if they wanted to. Basically, they knew that if they were going to have any chance of surviving and even winning this civil war (not to mention getting their vines to grow), they needed help, and alliances. Thus working with this school and sending some of their people.

“It’ll be different, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “But a lot of them are already open to this kind of thing, considering they… you know, rebelled against the status quo and all that.”

“Difference between feeling or believing something and actually experiencing it,” Koren pointed out, already turning to head off the porch. “But come on, I promised Mom we wouldn’t take forever. She wants us to get up there and see what they’ve been working on all month.”

We stepped off the porch, just in time to meet up with Columbus and Shiori, who came jogging over. The former had his familiar backpack full of tools and random odds and ends, having basically gone everywhere with it over the past month while he focused almost all of his attention on practicing what he was learning from that Harrison Fredericks guy.

“Hey, Flick!” Shiori chirped before jumping in to hug me tightly. “Guess what.”

With a smile, I returned the embrace, taking a moment to kiss her briefly before leaning back. “Guess what?” I echoed thoughtfully. “Hmmm… Well, shit, I was going to come up with something completely outrageous, but after last year, nothing sounds out of the question.”

Her eyes rolled a bit. “Tell me about it. But seriously, it’s great news. Senny’s gonna be there.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Really? Asenath’s going to be at the school?”

She bobbed her head quickly, grinning. “Uh huh, she just told me last night. She’s gonna be a teacher. Apparently they knew about it all summer, but she wanted to keep it secret.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sounds like her. But that’s great, Shy, you guys can hang out a lot more.”

Her smile made my heart flip over a few times. “Uh huh, and Mom’s gonna visit too. Since, you know, she actually can.” Even as she mentioned her mom visiting, I saw the sudden look of guilt materialize in the girl’s expression, clearly thinking about the fact that my mother was still gone.

But that was silly. And dumb. She shouldn’t feel guilty about being glad that her own mother could spend time with her. So, I quickly hugged her even tighter than before. “That’s great, Shy! Come on, let’s find the others so we can get up there sometime before lunch.”  With that, I pointedly took her hand, nodded to the others, and headed for the lake with them.

On the way, Columbus spoke up. “So is it really… you know, where they say it is?”

Winking at him, I replied, “Let’s just say, it’s gonna be an interesting school year. And uhh… speaking of interesting school year, how’s… um, Sean doing with all this?”

He grimaced a little. “Oh, you know… about as well as can be expected. They tried to say that he’s free to attend classes with us, but he just said he went through eight years of being stuck in homeschooling and he’s not in any hurry to sit in a classroom anytime soon.”

“You know,” I murmured, “that’s totally fair. I just hope he’ll be okay.”

“His uncle and brother are keeping him busy,” Columbus assured me. “And Roxa, of course. Apparently they’re taking the pack to Brazil next. He made me promise to call him tonight to tell him how today goes.”

“I want in on that,” I informed the boy. “Lemme know when you’re gonna call him.”

Despite the crowd that was surrounding the lake, things were actually pretty organized. Due in no small part, I was sure, to the appearance of both Gabriel Prosser and Athena. The two of them were standing by several doors that had been summoned to stand in front of the lake, and had put people into lines based on where they were actually going. There were a few other adults, including Deveron, Nevada, and Professor Kohaku, who were going through the crowd, organizing them into the right lines.

It also wasn’t just former Crossroads students (of all four grades) lining up here. There were Alters too, as well as Natural Heretics from the Atherby camp who wanted to participate in this. The whole thing had originally sprung out of Abigail insisting that there still be school despite the war going on, that our education not completely disappear. She’d had to make a lot of adjustments to her initial idea, but with the help of Athena, Dare, and some others, it came together. And now here we were, heading out for… somehow, a school even more strange and unique than Crossroads had been. This… was definitely going to be interesting.

Avalon, with Salten walking alongside her, joined us. As I released Shiori for the moment and moved to kiss my other girlfriend (I was actually starting to get accustomed to that idea), she returned it with a fond murmur. Then she pulled back, announcing, “Don’t think you’re off the hook on training just because we’re busy this morning. We’ll find time later to make up for it.”

“I had no doubt,” I murmured with a quiet giggle, deliberately not thinking about the fact that she had been training us so hard to avoid thinking about the still-imprisoned Gaia. “After all, if you didn’t push training, I’d figure you were a doppelganger. Or a shapeshifter, or–huh. We have very strange lives, you know?”

The others agreed, just as Deveron approached. Boy, it was still odd to see him as an adult after the past year. Which just really fed into what I’d just said about the whole ‘strange lives’ thing.

“Hey guys, lookie there, I don’t have to go drag you out of bed after all,” he teased. “Without Avalon to browbeat you into sunrise training, I thought we might have some issues.”

“I still had a Savvy-shaped alarm clock,” I informed him primly. “And weren’t you the one sleeping in a lot this summer? I swear I remember something about you missing a couple training times because of that.”

“I earned it,” he insisted, winking before turning to gesture. “Okay, you guys want this line over here. No pushing, no shoving, and definitely no flinging powers around to get ahead. I know what troublemakers you people are.”

“Only when you’re the mentor,” Columbus retorted. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“Terrible, or amazing?” Deveron shot right back before giving me a brief embrace. “Head on up.”

We went to join the line there, standing just behind Rebecca, Tristan, and Vanessa. They were standing with a couple obvious Alter teenagers (one a tree-like Relukun boy and the other a white and gray female cat-girl who both set my Stranger-sense off), and a Natural Prevenkuat (the two-headed Hyena-type people who were really fast) Heretic boy whose name I thought was either Dai or Denji.

“You’re Flick, right?” Maybe-Dai-or-Denji, a dark-haired Asian boy with close-cut hair and a scar across his right cheek asked. He extended a hand to me. “I’m Jason.”

Wow. Boy, was I ever off. Where the hell did I get Dai or Denji from? Blushing a little, I took his hand. “Jason?”

He winked. “You were expecting maybe something like Haruto?” With a shrug, the boy explained, “My dad still lives in Japan. He calls me Danuja, and so do a few people around here. But I’ve lived in San Francisco my whole life… errr… or I did, before… stuff happened and I ended up here. Anyway, I’ve gone by Jason here in the states forever. Either works though. Jason, Danuja, hey you. It’s all good.”

“Then yeah, I’m definitely Flick,” I confirmed before looking to the other two unfamiliar figures alongside Tristan and Vanessa. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

The cat-girl, a white and brown-furred figure with suspicious eyes, hesitantly replied, “Triss.”

“And Kersel,” the male Relukun flatly informed me. He and Triss both watched me, and the others, carefully.

Tristan spoke up brightly then, putting one arm around Triss’s shoulders. “Now isn’t this great? We all know each other.”

Despite her suspicion about me, the cat-girl (seriously, I needed to figure out what Alter she was, because referring to her as cat-girl was probably really bad) seemed more at ease with Tristan. Maybe it was the whole hybrid thing, because she wasn’t directing any kind of look toward Shiori or Vanessa either.

“Triss and Kersel, cool.” I gave them both a thumbs up. “Good to meet you guys. I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time together up there, huh?”

The two exchanged glances, a silent bit of conversation clearly passing between them before Kersel nodded. “Yes, it seems that way. We just… hope that things run smoothly.”

“We all do,” I assured him. “But even if they don’t, we’ll deal with it. We’re all in this together.”

Vanessa, who had been whispering something to Tabbris when the other girl went to greet her older siblings, spoke up. “Flick’s right. Whatever problems come up, we’ll deal with them.”

Behind us, Salten made a huff of agreement, the Peryton stepping up to my side before using a wing to nudge me until I reached out to scratch his neck. Again, the two Alters looked at each other. I had the feeling they’d been through a lot to get to this point. Between them and the stuff that Jason had hinted at about his own life, there was clearly plenty of history here I didn’t know.

But hey, there was a whole school year ahead of us. It would come up.

Together, we reached the waiting door by the beach a couple minutes later. Staring at it, I shook my head. “You know, I can’t believe I’m starting another school year by going through a magic door attached to nothing.”

“Of course, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare announced while stepping up behind me, “perhaps this time you can go through without sending a rock in first.”

“And deny Herbie the chance to have a brother?” I gasped as though scandalized, putting a protective hand against the pocket of my backpack where the rock and my cyberform mice’s house was before snickering at the look on her face. “Okay, okay. We’ll just go.”

Rebecca poked me. “It’s not really… you know… is it?”

Just like I had with Columbus, I winked. “What do you think?” With that, added. “Come on, let’s do this.” Cracking my neck, I waved to Professor Dare for the moment, then moved up to the door.

The door, which would take me to the place that would be our temporary home and school while we weren’t here at the camp or out on missions to help the rebellion. Because we were still doing that. Abigail had basically made a deal to set up a school for us to spend about half our weekdays at, so we were still getting an education. The other half of our days would be spent helping to save Alters, building and training an army to stop Crossroads and Eden’s Garden from killing everyone, and… well, plenty of other things, I was sure. We were still students, but we were also more than that. We had to be.

Taking a breath, I stepped through the door… and onto the Aelaestiam space station, the base that belonged to Athena, which Tabbris and I had spent several weeks on back in Seosten space. It had made it to Earth, apparently thanks in no small part to Chayyiel, who had been busy doing a lot more while she was here than just piloting me through the biggest fight of my life. In any case, the station was now located within Earth’s sun, and had been prepared over the past month or so to take on a lot more students than they’d had before. Students from Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, Natural Heretics, and Alters, with teachers from all three of those groups as well.

Yeah, this was definitely going to be an interesting school year.

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Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the  balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

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Fusion 1-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

This is the first chapter of Year Two of Heretical Edge. If you need to see the first year’s table of contents, check right here. To start with chapter one of the Year One, go here

The bruised, battered, yet still handsome man smiled through the blood that coated his rugged face. His voice was worn and haggard. “That’s the thing. See, a gun’s like a politician. There’s good ones, bad ones, they should all be kept away from children, and… just when you think they’re completely empty…”  Abruptly, his hand snapped up with the pistol, slamming it into his attacker’s face hard enough to knock several teeth out. “They still make an impression.” 

The thug fell backward, while Lou Devereux caught the pistol that fell from his hand, spinning with this actually loaded weapon to begin firing at the men surrounding him before they could react. At the same time, he was hurling himself up and over the nearby counter, taking cover even as those who were left frantically began to shoot back. The music, which had quieted for the long-time action hero to give his line, suddenly launched into a pounding, frantic rock song for the scene. 

It was really too bad there was no one in the theater who was in any condition to enjoy it. I’m sure it was a really great action scene. But we were… sort of stuck in the middle of our own. 

“Flick!” Sands shouted from one side of the theater near the entrance. Even as she called out, the brunette girl was hurling a rock up and over the seats, down toward the screen. 

“I got it!” I shot back, using a very small burst from my staff to launch myself up on top of the seats from where I was. Landing with one foot on the back of one seat and the other foot on another, I threw myself that way, leaping from seat to seat to catch up with the thrown rock as it arced lazily up and over. It descended, too far away from me still. But my staff lashed out, and I extended the length of it to about twice normal, hitting the rock like it was a ball to send it the rest of the way toward a figure running for the emergency exit. The rock passed just over their shoulder, crashing into the door before the spell on it triggered, expanding the rock into a full, huge boulder blocking the exit just in time.

In the next instant, still recovering from that swing as I balanced on the back of two seats, my head jerked backward to avoid the wild swing of a massive glaive. My attacker, springing up from where he had been crouched, snarled and spat angrily. He, like the figure I had just blocked from leaving, were Glerhns, which looked like a cross between a wolf, a pig, and a man. Shiori said these guys looked like furry Gamorreans, something from Star Wars. 

Whatever they looked like, this one was really pissed. He snarled something in his own native language and stabbed at me with his enormous glaive, trying to run me through. Or, more likely, trying to make me dodge backward right into the path of the second glaive already being very quietly swung at me by his buddy behind me. Even his snarled threat or curse or whatever was clearly intended to cover the sound of the other guy so I wouldn’t know he was there. 

But I did, thanks to the power that allowed me to sense items within my range. I sensed the weapon, the figure’s clothes and armor, all of it. I knew he was there. 

So, instead of dodging the way they wanted, I jerked my staff up and back with one hand, shrinking it back to normal size to intercept the glaive coming at me from behind. At the same time, my other hand snapped forward, conjuring a portal in front of myself. The glaive from the first Glerhn went through the portal and out the other end… right behind me. He stabbed his buddy right in the chest, both figures giving grunts of surprise (one with far more pain and blood involved). 

With one hand, I used my staff to smack the glaive out of the second Glerhn’s faltering grip after catching its swing. At the same, my finger found the button on the staff to send a cloud of sand out, which I directed straight into the first figure’s face. And not just any sand, this was suddenly superheated. Thousands of tiny grains of sand hot enough to burn through wood were hurled into his face, and the wolf-pig man lost any and all interest in attacking me for the moment. 

While he squealed and fell backward, I was already spinning around the other way. In mid-motion, I hopped backward off the top of the seat and landed smoothly on the sticky floor. My staff was already lashing out, the bladed end (thanks to Jaq, one of my cyberform mice) cutting straight through the stumbling figure’s throat to finish him off entirely. My gold aura flared up, but thanks to my Seosten partner and adopted little sister riding shotgun, I wasn’t fatally distracted by a rush of pleasure. 

At the same time, just as the blade end cut through that Glerhn, I triggered the grappling hook (also known as Gus) at the opposite end of the staff. The hook shot out, attached to an energy cable as it was driven through the chest of the stumbling first Glerhn, who was still screaming from the burning sand attacking his face. The hook went through him before retracting to yank the figure back toward me, Scorpion-style. As he stumbled and half-fell, my hand caught his arm and I was suddenly possessing him. 

He was panicked, terrified from the grapple sticking through his chest. Yet I also sensed everything he and his friends here had intended to do to the innocent Bystanders. They’d intended to do far worse than simply kill the humans they found here, so my sympathy for him was somewhat muted. Still, I shut him down, shoving the figure into unconsciousness while Tabbris scanned his mind for what we needed. He might’ve deserved to die for the things he did, but there was no need to be evil about it. He could just go to sleep and not wake up again. 

Hopping out of the figure a moment later, I finished him off for good with a quick slash of my empty hand as my fingernails grew as hard as steel to tear through his throat. He fell and wouldn’t get up again, bleeding out quickly from his throat just like his partner as my gold aura flared once more.

Then I sensed him, the last Glerhn lunging up from the seats behind me. Already, he was in mid-lunge with his glaive coming down in an overhead swing, moving too fast for me to turn or raise my weapon. 

So, I didn’t move at all. Instead, I focused on the first dead figure on the floor, sending a single command of defend! In response, the deceased Glerhn lunged back to his feet while lashing out with his own weapon. The sudden attack from his dead friend took the living figure completely by surprise. He’d been focused on lunging at me right up until the glaive went through his chest. He collapsed to the floor, and I released my necromantic control over the other body, allowing him to fall as well. 

Hey, you’re getting pretty good at that, Tabbris informed me excitedly. Mr. Bones is gonna be happy. Oh, and uhh, you got really, really minor strength boosts from those first two guys. Nothing too big. And that third guy made it so you can uhh, call back anything to your hand no matter how far away it is as long as you were holding it in the past… like, two or three seconds. 

Thanks, I sent back. I’m pretty sure that’ll end up being really useful at some point. 

My guys taken care of, I looked around quickly, just in case. But things seemed to be under control. The Glerhn who had been blocked from fleeing out the emergency exit by the magic boulder had tried to run for the exit on the opposite side of the room. Unfortunately for him, he’d been met by Avalon, who put him down, along with two others who had been waiting there for fleeing Bystanders back when they’d set up this death trap for innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, Sands was standing over another body near the entrance, and from the corner of my eye, I could see Doug at the opposite entrance, panting as he pulled the sword conjured from his pen out of the back of yet another Glerhn, who collapsed to the floor in a heap while the boy’s light turquoise aura flared to life. Finally, a glance up toward the projector room showed me Columbus giving a thumbs up to show that he’d dealt with the guys up there. 

“We’re good,” Avalon announced as she approached, pausing to touch her communication badge just to make absolutely sure of what she had just said. “Gerardo, we’re good?”   

There was a very brief pause, during which I held my breath. Then Sean’s voice came back (still sounding oddly old even after all the time that had passed since we rescued him from the Crossroads prison). “We’re good,” he confirmed. “All civilians are safe and accounted for.” 

His reply made me breathe out in relief. It had worked. This theater had been set up as a trap to let the Glerhn capture and… do very bad things to innocent civilians. We’d had to fight them, but we also didn’t want to get a bunch of civilians caught in the crossfire. So, I’d used the fact that I didn’t register as a Heretic until I used my powers to safely enter the theater without being noticed. I’d pretended to be looking for someone, making my way through the half-full theater while depositing dozens of coins that had been enchanted by Sean. On activation, they had transported everyone with a coin out of the room, sending them to a nearby park where head been waiting to make sure they arrived safely and without any unwanted visitors. Thanks to the Bystander Effect, their confusion would be quickly forgotten. I wasn’t sure what it would tell them, but hopefully they would eventually get to see the movie they’d come for.

Either way, they were safe and the Glerhn were down. So it was a win. And a bigger win than that, considering–

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted my thoughts as she, Sands, and Doug approached. “You get it?” 

Smiling a little, I stowed my staff away with a nod. “Yup, we got it. Right, partner?” 

My hair turned pink briefly as Tabbris spoke through me. “Uh huh! We know exactly where these guys took the people they kidnapped last week. And they’re still alive. Um… most of them anyway.” At the last bit, my borrowed voice grew slightly less happy. 

“Hey,” Sands put in, “most is better than it could have been. Good thing these guys wanted money for selling their prisoners more than they wanted them for food or whatever.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, gesturing to me. “You should call it in.” 

I nodded, my hair returning to its natural dirty blonde as I touched my own communication badge. “Dare? We’ve got the address for you.” Once the older woman (and my secret grandmother, though I was one of only four people including her who knew that) acknowledged, I carefully recited the location that Tabbris and I had taken from the Glerhn. 

“Good job,” Profe–errr Miss–err… Dare sent back. “We’ll send a team there right now.” 

“You guys need any help with that?” Columbus asked over his own badge, having descended from the projectionist’s room to join the rest of us in the theater. “We could join up.” 

Dare, however, declined. “You’ve done enough for today, guys. Between you and Scout’s team dealing with their transport truck, I’d say these guys are dealt with. Take a break. Come on home and relax for awhile. Don’t forget, tomorrow’s a big day. Thanks. And again, good job.”

Between the four of us, we started gathering up the bodies. I’d wondered about what happened to the bodies of Alters killed out in the regular world like this, and about just how hard the Bystander Effect had to work during potential autopsies. When I posed the question to Dare, she had informed me that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden both tended to have people whose sole job was to collect the bodies put down in these kind of attacks. The Bystander Effect could take care of the whole identifying monsters thing, but it was easier just to take them and avoid any issues. To say nothing of the fact that Bystanders could contract diseases from poking around dead bodies of species they weren’t prepared to defend against. Which was an issue I honestly hadn’t actually thought about up until Dare mentioned it. 

Anyway, that was the normal situation. But now, with us… not exactly part of Crossroads, we had to collect the bodies and place prepared teleportation buttons on them that would take the corpses to a special building that had been set up for them to be safely disposed of. We were kind of stretched too thin to have a group dedicated to retrieving the bodies manually. 

As we sent the last of the bodies away and started to leave before anything else could happen, I took a second to look at the screen. The movie was still playing, currently in the middle of a car chase scene as vehicles screamed their way through the streets of Los Angeles.

“Hey.” Standing nearby, Avalon watched me. “Are you okay?”  She was clearly torn between concern for me and trying to be professional while we were on an official mission. 

Looking away from the screen, I offered her a faint but genuine smile. “Yeah, I’m good. Sorry, it’s just…” My hand waved toward the screen. “The previous Lou Devereux movie was playing in the theater I was working in right before I ended up going to Crossroads. It was kind of the last movie I saw while I was working that night. It… I… wow. Yeah, I guess it has been a year, huh?” 

Sands nodded. “Well, I mean, it’s what… Sunday? Yeah, so it’s September ninth.”

“Just over a year,” I confirmed. “I met you guys a year ago. Where does the time go?” I muttered the last bit just to see the incredulous looks I received from everyone present. 

You’re mean, Tabbris informed me, though she sounded just as amused by the reactions. 

I make my own entertainment, I retorted before gesturing to the others. “Come on then, before we have to explain to some poor usher what happened to all the guests.” Thankfully, we’d timed the fight to take place during one of the loudest parts of the movie, so no one had come to investigate. Not yet, anyway. Leaving was probably still for the best. 

So, we did. Together, we made our way out of the theater emergency exit, without setting off the alarm thanks to the minor and very weak control over technology power Doug had picked up a couple weeks ago. Once in the parking lot, we headed toward a van that was waiting. On the way, Valley caught my hand and our fingers interlaced. I smiled over at her, winking. “Not a bad night.” 

“Getting better every second,” she replied before squeezing my hand pointedly. Then she glanced to the side and nodded that way. “Oh, ah, you should probably take care of that.” 

I looked that way, seeing the small, furry figure poking his head around the side of a sedan. “Right, I’ve got it. Be right there.” Squeezing her hand one more time, I let go before heading that way. 

The figure by the car seemed to reflexively shrink back a bit as I approached. He was about three feet tall, and looked kind of like a teddy bear crossed with a fox, with three tails. He wore a shirt, pants, and jacket meant for a little kid, with bright cartoon characters. Apparently he was known as a Feursel, though this one’s name was Karf. 

“Hey, Karf,” I started as gently as possible. Though I’d interacted with the Feursel before, with Kohaku, the little guy was still pretty skittish. For good reason, of course. “You okay?” 

It took him a second to answer, fearful as he was. But the little guy finally gave a quick nod before hesitantly asking, “Th-the people?” 

I smiled a little. “They’re safe. They’re okay. You did good, Karf. All those people in there are alive, and we sent a lead about where the others that were taken are to our friends.” Karf had been the one to find out what the Glerhn were up to and, despite clearly being terrified, had taken the information to some friends of his who knew about the rebellion. Through those contacts, he’d eventually come to talk to Kohaku and me, and we set this whole thing up. I didn’t care how skittish he looked now, Karf was one brave little dude. 

When I reached into my pocket, he quickly jerked backward reflexively. But I held my other hand up placatingly. “It’s okay. It’s alright, I promise. Here, Ms. Kohaku wanted you to have this.” Extending my hand slowly and carefully, I opened it to show him a couple golden rings and a few gemstones, all of which were apparently fairly valuable. 

Eyes slowly widening, the small Feursel whispered almost reverently, “Shinies.” 

I nodded. “They’re for you, go ahead. You can trade them for things, right?” His head bobbed up and down, but he still hesitated for a few seconds while I held the rings and gems out before finally taking them with a quick swipe of his hand. His eyes snapped up to me as though afraid I’d do something very bad to him for taking what I’d offered. When I didn’t, he smiled before looking down at the things in his paw, speaking very fondly and happily. “Shiny.” 

“There’s this too.” From my other pocket, I produced a necklace with a pearl at the end of it. “But don’t sell this one. Keep it secret. See the pearl? You hold that and say ‘Help me Risa.’ That’s it. Say ‘Help me Risa’ while you’re holding the pearl and she’ll know you’re in trouble and where you are. She’ll come to help you, or someone will. Just keep that safe. It’ll also trigger automatically if someone takes it from you by force.” 

Staring at the necklace, he slowly took it while hesitantly whispering, “Heretics save the Karf?” 

“Kind of surprising, huh?” I smiled and nodded to him. “We’re trying to change things, Karf. Just be careful out there, okay?” 

He met my gaze with a solemn, “You are to be careful also, the Flick. You are to be careful too.”

Promising that I would, and that I hoped to see him again, I headed back to the others. They were waiting by the van. 

“Everything good?” Doug asked, after looking up from his phone. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Little dude’s just fine. Now let’s get out of here. Dare’s right, tomorrow is a pretty big day.

“After all the time she’s spent putting it together, Abigail would definitely kill me if I missed her first day as headmistress of our new school.” 

Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 82 – Avalon’s Explanation (Heretical Edge)

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The following takes place immediately after Interlude 33D – Avalon, Scout, And The Team, when Avalon began to explain what she found out about Flick being possessed (while Flick was lost in Seosten space) from Theia. 

It was late, long after the most recent hunt for the students of Crossroads. The sky above had turned cloudy, leaving only a sliver of moonlight. Which was somehow appropriate for the group standing on the roof of the girl’s dorm. Scout, Sean (with Vulcan at his side), Columbus, and Shiori stood facing Avalon Sinclaire, each of them confused about why she had asked to meet. There was an obvious tenseness to the girl, had been all day long. But it was more than being tense. She had been tense the whole time Felicity and the others had been missing. This was something else, something more. And apparently it had to do with Flick, though all she had said so far was for them to ‘not start freaking out’ until she finished explaining. 

Looking up to the dark, cloudy sky for a moment as though collecting her thoughts after initially telling them all to let her say what she needed to, Avalon finally took a breath, lowered her gaze to the others, and announced, “Flick’s possessed by a Seosten child. She has been for a long time, maybe the whole time we’ve known her, we’re not sure. She’s possessed by the… the child, but the kid isn’t actually controlling her. Or she wasn’t, anyway. At least, we don’t–” 

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Despite her request that they let her explain everything, Columbus couldn’t help himself. “What do you mean?” he demanded, eyes wide as he stared at her in confusion. “How the hell could Flick be possessed, she can’t be possessed! We–wait…” 

Avalon gave a short nod. “Yeah, exactly. That’s why she couldn’t be possessed, because she–” 

“No, no.” Shiori was shaking her head frantically, hair flying. “No, she’s–you’re–no, she’s not!” Her voice rose sharply. “Why would you say that?! She’s not even here, you can’t know. You–” 

“Theia,” Avalon informed them, watching the other girl’s wide, frantic eyes. She tried to keep her voice calm, tamping down on her own emotions about the whole situation considering she’d had a bit more time to process all of it.  “The… the Seosten girl possessing Pace. She said that–”  

It was apparently the night of interruptions, because Sean blurted, “Her? You’re taking her word that Flick’s possessed?” His head shook slowly as he put his hand on Vulcan’s head, who was whining. “How would she–well, okay, the choker thing. Wait, she told you she saw some Seosten possessing Flick back when she had the choker thing? How do you know… you know…” 

“How do you know she’s not making it up?” Columbus bluntly asked. “It’s not like it’d be out of the question for her to just be fucking with you, you know? What makes you think she’s telling the truth? I mean, I get that she’s… uhh, I know you said you talked to her and that she’s staying with Koren’s mom and Seller or… something, but seriously? I met that girl. I mean, I met her while I… while I was possessed. She’s not exactly the most stable person on the planet. Even if it’s not part of some evil plot, I wouldn’t put it past her to just be fucking with you.”

“With us,” Sean pointed out. “She had to know that you’d tell us. Columbus is right, this whole story could be her having some big laugh, freaking all of us out. Or even sowing distrust.” 

Shiori’s head was bobbing quickly, wide and almost frantic eyes darting from the two boys back to Avalon. “Y-yeah, that’s probably it. Why would she tell us the truth about that? What does she get out of it if she’s not just… just trying to make us think we can’t trust Flick? That’s all… it doesn’t make sense. She must’ve been trying to make you, I mean… make us freak out.” 

Avalon opened her mouth to try to cut in before that went further, but it was Scout who spoke in a quiet, yet completely certain voice. “She’s not lying.” When they all looked to her, she pointed out, “If she was messing with us, she wouldn’t say that the Seosten wasn’t controlling her.” 

“She knew we wouldn’t believe that Flick was being controlled by one of them,” Columbus objected. “She couldn’t very well know everything that happened all the way up to Flick killing that bitch and think we’d actually believe that was all just a long con by a really devoted spy.” 

Shiori’s head bobbed once more at that, an almost violent motion. “Y-yeah. So maybe she thought if she made up some story about some other Seosten, like… like, they don’t all communicate, right? There’s gotta be like… rivalries and stuff. That Charmiene woman had enemies. She had to have. So she convinces us that it’s some rival Seosten controlling Flick.” 

“A child?” Avalon pointed out as gently as she could. Her instinct was to snap at them, given everything she’d been feeling and worrying about these past couple days. But she forced that down. “Why would she make up that whole story and then tell us the Seosten is a child?” 

“Because she– I mean, if she thought we…” Shiori looked desperately to her brother, then back again when all he could offer was a hesitant shrug. “But it doesn’t make sense! Flick is Flick. We know Flick. She can’t be some Seosten kid, that doesn’t–I’m not… she’s just–I–I–” 

Flick wasn’t here. Whatever her actual condition, she wasn’t here. So, Avalon did what she would have in that moment, what someone had to. She stepped over, taking Shiori in an embrace. Holding onto the other girl while trying not to feel too uncomfortable about the whole situation (and drastically overthinking all of it), Avalon murmured, “She is Flick. It’s like I said, the Seosten wasn’t controlling her, as far as Theia saw. She was just there, possessing her.” 

“But why?” Shiori managed, her voice small and vulnerable. “Why would she… I–why would there be a Seosten kid possessing Flick all this time and just not doing anything? Where did she come from? Why’s she there? What–what’s going on?” 

“That, we…” Avalon sighed helplessly. “That, we don’t know. All Theia knew was that there was a Seosten girl possessing her, but she wasn’t controlling anything she did. She was just sort of… there.” She offered a shrug, looking around at the rest of the group once more while stepping away from Shiori. Thankfully, Columbus took her place, pulling his sister close. 

“So there’s some Seosten kid just sort of hanging out inside Flick.” Sean considered the words he had just said before rolling his eyes. “You know, just when you think you’ve got a general handle on the weirdness of this whole year, something else pops up that throws off everything else. Seriously, what the hell? Does–does anyone even know where to start with this?” 

“Does Gaia know about her?” Scout asked, watching Avalon carefully. Her expression made it clear there were a lot more thoughts and questions going on behind those deeply expressive brown eyes. She had simply settled on the most immediately relevant one for the moment. 

Avalon nodded. “Yes. She knows. So do Deveron, Koren, Miranda, Wyatt, Seller, and Abigail. And now you guys. That’s it, as far as I know. Maybe Gaia told Dare.” 

“Well, she’s out in Seosten space,” Sean pointed out. “Maybe that’s what the kid possessing her wanted. You know, a ride back home or something. Maybe she’ll hop out of her out there.” 

“Or maybe she’ll take control,” Columbus countered, his voice rising just a little bit. “Maybe she’s one of those that sits patiently until the right time, then grabs the reins and takes over.” 

“She said it was a Seosten child,” Avalon reminded him with a look. “Not a Seosten special forces operative. Child, as in someone who was probably stranded here or something.” 

“But how did a Seosten kid end up stranded here on Earth?” Sean asked pointedly. “Or, more importantly, how did that stranded Seosten kid end up in Flick? I mean, it sounded like the Seosten have been trying to figure out why they couldn’t possess Flicker for a long time, right? Like, since she was a kid. Which means…” He frowned, trying to work his way through that.  “I guess we don’t know that it’s been the same Seosten possessing her the whole time.” 

“What,” Avalon retorted, “like Flick’s had a whole conga line of stranded Seosten possessing her while they wait to go home or something?” She was less frustrated by the conversation than she was by the entire situation. She knew that, but it was still hard to keep herself in check. She was worried about Flick. She wanted to talk to her, wanted to… to be with her. And a glance toward Shiori reminded her that, at the very least, the two of them shared that much. 

Sean’s head shook quickly. “No, I–sorry, I’m just trying to spitball here and work it out. Okay, so the same Seosten. But a kid? Why would a kid be possessing Flick all this time? It doesn’t–” 

“Ohhhh shit!” Columbus suddenly blurted sharply. His eyes had widened, mouth working a few times as he muttered something under his breath while looking off into the distance. Memories came to him, and he briefly forgot where he was or that he was even around anyone else. 

The others all watched him for a minute of quiet muttering, before Avalon finally grew too impatient. Clearing her throat, she prodded, “Are you going to share what you’re thinking about with the rest of the class sometime today so we can all contribute, or would you rather make us start throwing out guesses?” Again, she tried to restrain most of her helplessness-fueled annoyance. It wasn’t Columbus’s fault Flick wasn’t here so they could figure this out with her. 

Looking surprised at her voice, as he was dragged out of his memories by it, Columbus blinked a couple times to orient himself. It was clear that he was still having issues remembering to actually control his own body and pay attention after spending months being possessed. Finally, he shook his head, trying to find the right words before settling on. “I just–Chayyiel.”     

The rest of the group exchanged brief looks, a collective shrug going up before Sean spoke for all of them. “Okay, we give up. What’s a shy heel? Some kind of code phrase or something?”

“Not shy heel,” Columbus corrected tensely. “Chayyiel. She’s–Charmiene talked about her a bit, okay? She’s some kid–but not a kid. She’s–damn it.” Tripping over his words, he took a breath to collect himself. “She was a kid, but then a bunch of them got their powers or whatever, the whole Olympian thing. Charmiene wasn’t exactly big on explaining, it was mostly taunting or whatever. They all got powers. When Chayyiel got them, she was a kid, and it froze her age where she was. So she’s actually really old, but she looks like she’s just a child.” 

Eyes widening at that, Avalon blurted, “Wait a second, you think she’s the one inside of Flick?” Oh God, that would change everything. She’d been relatively certain that whatever was going on, Flick would be okay if it was just a little kid possessing her. But if it was some ancient Seosten who just looked like a kid, that was a whole other beast. The worry that had been simmering low in her stomach was suddenly ratcheted up to full blast, as she stared at the boy. 

“Wait, wait,” Shiori put in quickly, her own voice shaking. “Now it is dangerous?” Her eyes focused on her brother as she turned to face him. “Columbus, who’s this Chayyiel?” 

“I don’t know that much about her,” the boy admitted helplessly while his arms flailed a bit. “Mostly just what I could pull out of Charmiene’s ranting and taunting. She looks like a little kid but she’s actually old, and she’s strong. Like, maybe one of the strongest Seosten in the universe. I–she said something about… something about her knowing how to kill things.” 

“Knowing how to kill things?” Sean echoed with obvious confusion, frowning at his roommate. “What does that mean, exactly? A lot of people know how to kill things. We know how to kill things. It’s kind of what this whole school is about. We all learn how to kill things, that’s not exactly a great superpower.” At his feet, Vulcan gave a soft woof of agreement. 

With a snort, Avalon gave the boy a brief, pointed look. “I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than that. You really think knowing how to kill things isn’t a big superpower? Look at all the thousands of different species in the universe. Look at all the different powers a lot of them have, all the different defenses. Look at Gaia. Look at any of the adult Heretics, the Committee members. Look at all of them. Imagine someone whose power is knowing how to kill any of them.” She looked back to Columbus. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why she’s so dangerous. Knowing how to kill things, it doesn’t mean ‘she’s got training’, it means she literally knows how to kill things.” 

Swallowing hard at the thoughts that ran through his own head, Columbus made himself nod. His throat felt dry, like sandpaper. All he could think about was Flick being controlled by some hyper-violent, crazy Seosten like the one who had taken him over. Only worse, one who knew how to sit quietly and wait. If she’d been hiding inside Flick all this time, maybe only subtly nudging her here and there, then… then… God. It could be really bad. “I… yeah. That’s it.” 

“But wait, wait, no, hold on.” Shiori was shaking her head quickly, though she seemed a bit more in control of herself after her initial reaction. “Look, it’s–she’s dangerous, right? This Chayyiel.” 

“Yeah,” Columbus confirmed. “Like I said, from what Charmiene said, she’s basically one of the biggest weapons the Seosten have got. Which means, if she’s inside Flick, we’re all fucked.” 

“But she’s not,” his sister insisted firmly, drawing everyone’s attention to her. “It doesn’t make sense. Okay, right, she’s super dangerous and powerful and everything, and she’s just… sitting inside Flick for years? And Charmiene doesn’t know about it? I mean, okay compartmentalized and all, but she’d have to know that this… Chayyiel would have to have been off the grid for awhile, right? Charmiene was bragging about how strong this girl–woman–whatever is, and it never came up that Chayyiel has been gone on some secret mission or whatever for a decade or so? Why?” 

Scout was nodding slowly, a slight frown of uncertainty creasing her forehead. “She couldn’t.” 

“Yeah,” Avalon murmured. “No way someone like that disappears for that long and it doesn’t come up. Space is huge, but she has to be important. She has to have responsibilities.” Her gaze moved back to Columbus for confirmation. “Someone like that, she’d be high up.”

“She’s some kind of senator or general or something,” the boy agreed, his heart starting to slow down a bit as the flaws in the assumption were pointed out. “So yeah, pretty important.” 

“Oh man,” Sean groaned. “I hate to be the buzzing fly just when we all stopped losing our shit, but what about that whole recall thing? Couldn’t she only be possessing Flick sometimes? What if there’s a… I don’t know, a spell on her or something to let her know if someone’s about to possess her, and that’s when she pops on back to make sure it doesn’t happen?” 

“It… still wouldn’t make sense for Charmiene not to know about her, or for Manakel not to,” Avalon reminded him. “Seriously, from what Columbus said, they’ve been tearing their hair out trying to to understand why they can’t possess Flick. So why would they be so confused about that if it’s just this Chayyiel? Sure, they probably all keep secrets and have their own little mission cells and all. But they had to be communicating with their leader or higher up or whatever about not being able to possess Flick. At some point, it would’ve come up that they were trying to possess someone who was another Seosten’s host, right?” 

Scout quickly put in, “And she would have said something to them.” 

“Hey, that’s right,” Shiori realized. “That’s kind of the obvious thing, isn’t it? If Chayyiel was possessing Flick, she would’ve said something to all the Seosten who kept trying to possess her themselves. You know, take over for a second, explain the situation, then wipe her mind.” 

“Yeah…” Columbus frowned at the roof before nodding as he looked up. “I guess it doesn’t really fit. I mean, the kid thing does, but nothing else. On the other hand, the whole ‘why didn’t the Seosten kid explain what she was doing when the other Seosten showed up to possess Flick’ is a hard thing to figure out no matter who she is, Chayyiel or not.” 

“Fair.” Avalon frowned as well, squinting off into the distance. “If this isn’t that Chayyiel chick on some secret undercover mission, then… who is it? A real Seosten kid? But why? How? What’s she doing here? And why the hell didn’t she ever say anything to the others?” 

“Maybe she’s a runaway,” Shiori put in. “The Seosten have to have those, right? She could be a runaway, hiding from the Seosten. Maybe she’s some lost princess or the daughter of a war criminal, if they even have those, or something.” 

“We’re speculating wildly,” Avalon pointed out. “The point is, we don’t know. We have no idea why she’s hiding in Flick or what her… her business is, and no way to find out until Flick gets back here.” 

Which would be soon, right? Avalon asked herself that very question while reflexively glancing up toward the sky. The clouds meant there was no way to see the stars. But she knew they were there, just as she knew her girlfriend was. And just as the clouds would eventually move to reveal the stars, Flick would come back to Earth. She would come back to them, and they could figure all of this out together. 

Right?

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Alliances 6-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was still coming to terms with how I felt about that conversation with my father a couple minutes later when the phone I used for Touched stuff buzzed in my pocket. Blinking down, I plucked it out and gazed over the city from the roof of the building I was on while answering. “Hello?”

“Paintball?” A vaguely familiar voice spoke, and I belatedly realized who it was just as he introduced himself. “It’s Eits. You know, we… uhhh… yeah. We did that thing.”

Immediately put on guard, I asked, “What’s wrong? Did something happen to the computers at—”

He interrupted quickly. “No, no. That’s all fine. The computers are good. We’re great, with that, anyway. Sorry, I just… I didn’t know who to… um.” There was a brief, distinctly awkward pause before he managed a weak, “I know it’s weird, but I kinda need some help.”

Taking my phone away from my ear, I stared at it for a moment before moving it back. “Help? What could I possibly help you with? And don’t you have basically a whole army of people already behind you? I might not be an expert at this whole team thing, but I am pretty sure that’s the entire point of having one. You know, to get help from.”

I could hear the wince in his voice. He hesitated before slowly replying, “This really isn’t something I want to involve them in or even have them know about at all. I swear, I’m not asking you to do anything illegal or whatever. Not… really, anyway. I just… need a little help. I’m stuck.”

That made me blink. “You’re stuck? Not like Winnie the Pooh in Piglet’s backdoor, right?”

“It was Rabbit’s,” he corrected me. “And no, more like stuck on top of the roof of a building. I’m up here and the door is really heavy and deadbolted. I think there might be some kind of bar on the other side too. Anyway, I don’t have any way to get down.”

Tilting my head, I asked, “You and your friends didn’t happen to get really drunk for a bachelor party, did you? Do you see a tiger anywhere?”

There was a snort from the other end of the line. “They were drugged with Rohypnol in the movie, not just drunk. And no, definitely no tiger and no drugs. Just me sitting up here alone on the roof waiting for someone to call the cops. Or for a wonderful, friendly, oh-so-helpful and incredibly understanding—”

“Okay, okay, stop.” Taking in a breath and letting it out, I asked, “You’re sure that I’m not helping you get away with something really bad? Because I am going to be really ticked off if it turns out you just stole like a million dollar computer chip or something and I’m helping you escape. I don’t think we could be phone buddies after that.” 

“I swear,” came the reply. “I didn’t break in here to steal things. I mean, technically, I did. But it’s personal, not like… I mean…” he trailed off, very clearly trying to decide how much to tell me. “Like I said, it’s personal. I did break in here. I was trespassing. Am trespassing, technically. I did break in here to steal something. But it’s personal family heirloom type thing. It belongs to me. And it’s not some huge expensive computer stuff. It’s just… mine. It was left for me and taken away from me. I had to get it back. If you don’t want to help with that, I… I get it. I’ll just call one of the others and try to—”

Sighing inwardly, I shook my head. “Give me the address. I’ll get you off the roof. But like I said, if it turns out that you’re playing me right now…”

“I’m not,” he assured me. “Cross my heart and fall in rye.”

“Err, fall in rye?”

Now he really sounded embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s an inside family thing. I… anyway, here’s the address.

“And Paintball… thanks.”

******

The building that Eits was stuck on top of was a twelve story high office place. So I really couldn’t blame the poor guy for not being able to get down. Whether I ended up being able to blame him for getting stuck in the first place was not yet decided. 

I saw him sitting on one of those metal boxes on top of the roof as I yanked myself over from the place next-door. His feet were kicking idly back-and-forth while he looked at his phone. When I landed, he jerked in surprise, nearly falling off the box. Quickly, I shot a thing of red paint that way and yanked him toward me before he could fall, letting the paint fade before catching him by the arms. 

“Whoa,” I teased, “I know you’re glad to see me, but I’m pretty sure a simple thank you suffices between dudes.”

He looked embarrassed, the exposed parts of his face flushing a little while the boy waved a hand. “Uh, thanks. Seriously, I didn’t know what I was going to do until I realized I could try calling you. I was this close to having to suffer the embarrassment of asking one of La Casa for help.”

“Yeah.” I replied dryly, “imagine having to ask for help from your own teammates. That would be horrific.”

He coughed. “Like I said, this isn’t any of their business. And it’s not really their kind of thing anyway. I just had to get something.”

“And you promised this thing isn’t a million dollar computer chip,” I reminded him pointedly. 

In response, the boy reached into his pocket to produce what turned out to be a baseball. There was a signature scrawled across it, which he held up for me to see. 

“Warner Towling?” I read aloud. “Sorry, I’m not much of a baseball guy. Doesn’t sound familiar.”

Eits shook his head. “It probably wouldn’t anyway. He never got out of the minors. He was uhh…” There was a brief pause then as he realized how much he would have to say if he wanted to explain. “Fuck it. He was my grandpa. And yeah, you could probably find out a lot from that, but please don’t. That’s all I can really say. He was my grandfather and he was basically the only guy in my entire family who accepted my situation.”

The words made me tilt my head. “That you’re a super villain?”

He coughed. “No, that I… uhhh, shit.” Again, the boy paused, somehow looking even more nervous and uncomfortable than before. Even though I couldn’t see all of his face, he definitely seemed… afraid? “Grandpa Warner was the only guy in my family who accepted that I wasn’t… comfortable the way I was born. He’s the guy who said it would be okay if I… if I transitioned, and that he’d still be there for me.” His voice cracked a little with the words, speaking the last few quickly while looking away from me. 

“If you transi—” I stopped suddenly as it occurred to me. “Oh. Oh. So you’re… I mean…”

He nodded once. “Let’s just say I was born Molly. But that’s not who I am. That’s not who I ever was, not inside. But my parents could never accept that. This ball was mine. It was the last ball Grandpa Warner ever used in the minors. He signed it and he gave it to me. He… he s-said that he wanted me to have it so I’d know that no matter what happened, he was on my side. And that when I transitioned, maybe I could play on his… his old team someday.” His voice was cracking a little as the boy fought against strong emotions while rolling the ball between his hands. He could barely say the words. 

“But my dad took it when they kicked me out. That’s why I had to get it back, when I found out he was keeping it in his office. It’s not really worth anything. But… it’s worth everything. Everything.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I get it. Kind of. I’m glad you got your ball back. But… your parents really didn’t… they don’t accept you? Even with Baldur out there?” 

Baldur, the world’s most powerful superhero. They were part of the world-wide hero team known as Armistice. Basically, the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, the UK, Brazil, Australia, and France all contributed their most powerful Star-Touched to the team. The one from the US was a woman called Radiant. Baldur was Germany’s, and they were absolutely the strongest Star-Touched in the world. Mostly because they had the power to change their power. No one I knew of was sure how it worked, just that Baldur switched bodies with… other versions of themselves or something. Each version had different powers that they could use. Some of those bodies were male, some were female. Baldur considered themselves genderfluid. The fact that the biggest superhero in the world switched seemingly randomly between being male and female had really put a bright light on that whole thing, and changed some people’s minds about it. 

“No,” Eits replied. “I guess for some people, Baldur’s more of a target for hate than an inspiration. Funny how having one example doesn’t magically erase their disgust, huh?” 

Wincing, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry, I guess that…” My head shook. “How did you get stuck out here in the first place?”

He sighed. “I managed to get all the way up through the building, into Dad’s office, and got the ball. Then when I was leaving, this big security guy started on his patrols. I had to hide, so I came out here and left the door open a tiny crack. He noticed, aaaand closed and locked it. So here we are.”

Chuckling a bit despite myself, I looked to him. “So the big bad super villain gets his uhh… wait, is umm… he and his… is that what you…” He nodded quickly, and I pushed on. “So the big bad super villain gets his ass kicked by a locked door. What would the grand league of evil say?”

“If there was a grand league of evil,” Eits informed me, “they’d tell me, ‘That will be two sugars and one cream. And while you’re at it, fetch me the newspaper and my slippers.’” 

My head tilted. “That accent, while you were turning yourself into some kind of dog fetching slippers, did you also make your hypothetical master supervillain British?”

He coughed. “Maybe. I blame Star Wars, and basically every other movie that made the bad guys British.” 

“Hey,” I pointed out, “you didn’t have him ask for tea, so you didn’t go totally stereotypical.”

“Good point.” Eits chuckled under his breath. ”Hey, maybe to completely avoid stereotype, and confuse people, he should keep the accent but be named something like Billy Bob or Jimbo.”

I snickered a little. “Jim-Bob the maniacal and despotic leader of the Grand League of Evil, with a British accent and a fondness for slippers and coffee.”

“Evil Villains International League,” he corrected me solemnly. “That’s the name they’ve got to go with.”

Checking the acronym on that, I laughed. “EVIL, that’s great. Jim-Bob the grand inquisitor of EVIL. I like it.”

The two of us smiled for a moment before I thought about the thing I had just walked away from, and cringed a bit. What was wrong with me?

Frowning a bit, the boy asked, “Something wrong?”

“No, I… it’s just… Pencil.”

That got his attention, the boy quickly demanding, “What? Did you see him? Are you okay? What were—”

“I didn’t see him,” I interrupted. “Don’t worry, it’s just…” Hesitantly, I informed him of what I’d seen back at the convenience store. “And they were just carrying out all those body bags while people wanted to know why we let stuff like that happen.”

He winced. “And then we were just making jokes about… sorry. But seriously, stay away from that guy. He’s super bad news and I don’t want to think about you being anywhere near him or his freaks.”

“Neither do I,”  I assured him. “At least he’s not the one who caught me earlier. That would’ve ended up a hell of a lot worse.”

He gave me a sharp look at that. “Caught you?”

“It’s a long story, your boss knows the important bit.”  I paused then before hesitantly offering, “But I’ve still got a couple sandwiches from earlier If you want to go somewhere and be bribed with food so I can talk about it. You know, unless you’re busy with more roofs to get trapped on top of. I heard there’s some really good ones over on the northeast side, with a great view of that police station with all those pillars out in front. And when you get tired of being stuck, you could wave to the cops down there to see if they’ll let you down.”

“Nah, I think this was the last one on my schedule.” Eits smiled a little. “Sandwich sounds great. You get pretty hungry being stuck up on roofs like this. They don’t exactly have a McDonalds.”

“You mean Dominos doesn’t deliver here?” I gave a scandalized gasp before nodding. “Sure, we can eat. Just let me get you down from here first. We’ll find some other place to sit and I’ll tell you what happened earlier. 

“Then, when I’m done, maybe you can tell me more about Grandpa Warner the baseball player. Because he sounds like a pretty great guy.”

******

The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. Except, of course, for the fact that I didn’t sleep very well. I kept having nightmares about being trapped with Janus, so I ended up sleeping three or four hours in the afternoon and three or four hours in the middle of the night. Which was probably good for the whole superhero thing, but it really wasn’t the way I wanted to get onto that kind of schedule. 

I spent my days at school, helping with the history project, or seeing what I could do for Wren’s work. The answer to the latter one was not much. I fetched things, held things, basically did whatever grunt work she needed that Fred and Pack weren’t already doing. 

The point was, the days basically flew by, while nights (or anytime I was trying to sleep) dragged as I kept waking up in a cold sweat. I was glad there was a lot of space between my rooms and Simon’s, because I cried out a few times and that really wasn’t something I wanted to try to explain. Although the thought of the look on his face if I did tell him exactly what was wrong was almost amusing. Almost. 

But finally, it was Saturday, the day of the Reformation Ball. It was a huge deal. I’d always known that to some extent, but actually needing to be a part of it made me realize just how big it was. Mom had me go to a stylist basically the second she and Dad had returned the day before, and checked on me about thirty times that morning to make sure everything was fine. I was pretty sure she was afraid I would find a puddle of mud or something to splash around in while she wasn’t looking. 

At the moment, I was eating lunch in the smaller dining room, carefully cutting away a bite sized piece of roast duck when my father entered and put a hand on my shoulder. It took everything I had not to tense up. 

“There’s my girl. I thought you would’ve found a hole to hide in by now to get away from your mother’s last minute adjustments and checks.”

It was so tempting to respond to that by asking what hole he and Mom had been hiding in when they were pretending to have left the city. I could even follow that up by asking if he’d had any luck tracking down Pencil after that horrific scene at the shop. But I was pretty sure that wouldn’t really go over very well. Just like with Simon though, it might’ve been nice for a few seconds just to see his reaction.

Instead, I shook my head. Swallowing the bit of duck, I replied, “It’s not so bad. We’re only on visit thirty-two.”

Smiling, Dad took a seat at the table across from me and turned to press an intercom nearby, informing the cook in the kitchen what he would like for lunch. Then he looked to me. “Wait until this afternoon, it’ll probably get up into the hundreds. But don’t take it personally, she still has to check on me all the time too. Can’t go around embarrassing the family.”

He really was setting me up for all those things I really shouldn’t say or ask. I had to shove a bite of caramelized parsnips into my mouth to buy time to collect myself. Finally, I managed a smile, looking over at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s why she checks on you so much. She just loves me.”

Making an affronted face and noise at the teasing, Dad retaliated by reaching across to steal a bit of my duck. “Mmmm, now that is good stuff. I hope you said thank you.”

My head bobbed obediently. “Of course, who would get food this good delivered straight to their table and not say thank you?”

Dad gave me a look before reaching over to ruffle the left (short) side of my hair before moving over to the right (long) side. “You might be surprised. But I really shouldn’t be by now. You’re a good kid.”

Setting my fork down, I squinted at him. “Ahem, a good teenager. That is, a good teenager who is very close to passing driver’s ed. And you know what that means.”

He gave me a blank look while replying in a monotone voice, “That it’s time to raise the driving age to twenty-three?”

I gave him a light kick under the table. “Simon isn’t even twenty-three yet.”

He made a show of brightening. “You’re right, it’s an even better idea than I thought. I’ll have the lawyers get right on that.”

That earned him a raspberry. “Fine, no more duck for you,” I retorted while using my arm to shield the plate. “You’re cut off.”

He gave a low laugh at that, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m cut off, is that right?”

His words made me shrink a little bit in my seat, playing it up a bit as I kept one hand over my plate. “That’s gonna backfire on me, isn’t it?” I asked in a small voice. 

His response was simply a slow, patient smile while he remained otherwise silent and motionless and kept staring at me pointedly. 

Yeah, I couldn’t take much of that. After a couple seconds of it, I shivered and moved my hand so he could take another bit of meat. “Fine fine, go wild. Have all the duck you want, just stop looking at me like that. Turn that look onto someone else, geez.”

He grinned, promptly taking another bite before informing me, “You know, in a normal family, it would be the daughter who gets the Dad to give her anything she wants with a look.”

His words made me nod slowly, staring at my plate for a moment before managing a smile that I really wish it was genuine as I looked up to him once more. “Sure, Dad, but we’re not exactly a normal family. 

“We’re not normal at all.”

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Denouement 12 – Life And Death (Heretical Edge)

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“You… you saw her?” Flick’s tentative, quiet voice quivered just a little as she stared at Sariel while Tabbris stood a bit out of the way. The three of them were otherwise alone in one of the Atherby cabins at this point, almost immediately after the escape from the Crossroads prison. The girl had been immediately pulled aside by Mercury and taken to where Sariel waited while everyone else was still sorting themselves out. 

With a single nod, the Seosten woman carefully replied, “Yes. She’s okay, Felicity. Or she was when I… when we left.” Her face fell a bit as she added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her out. There was no way to do it, not with the spell Fossor had on her. If I possessed her, or took her away from there, it… there wouldn’t have been time to save her. There just wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to play that kind of game with her life. I didn’t want to take that risk.” 

Flick was quiet for a few long seconds, mind lost in considering everything that could have been. So close and yet so far from being reunited with her mother. “And if you did bring her, we don’t know how much it would have helped,” she murmured quietly, clearly trying to convince herself. “She’s still under his control, still sworn to follow his commands. He probably has her under orders to come back to him the instant she’s taken away. There’s not–we don’t know what would’ve happened.” Despite her words, it was clear that Flick desperately wished that a miracle had happened. 

In the end, it was Tabbris who came forward and put a hand gently on her sister’s arm. “Flick?” she began slowly. “A… a lot of good things happened today too. We pulled off a lot of really hard things.” 

With a small smile, Flick took the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re right. A lot of really hard things happened today. A… a lot of really hard things happened this whole year. Impossible things. Starting the rebellion up again, escaping Crossroads, meeting Guinevere, getting the Seosten to back off for a year, everything that…” She swallowed. “Everything that happened with us being out in space. Finding out about you…” Her free hand fondly brushed Tabbris’s hair back. “I can’t believe it hasn’t even been a year since that day on the bus. I haven’t known about all this stuff for even a year yet. I’ve said it before, but it… it feels like a lot longer. A hell of a lot longer.” 

Gazing off into the distance for a few seconds, Flick finally shook that off before focusing on Sariel. “If you think I’m going to blame you for not getting my mother out of there, you’re wrong. You did the best you could. You… you got her friends, her old teammates out. That should’ve been impossible. I know what Fossor does, how he… how he likes to be in control. I don’t know exactly what you did, but I know that if you got both of those hostages away from him, it must’ve been one of the most amazing things in a world full of amazing things. I know you must have risked a lot to save them. You could have left. You could have recalled out of there. You had to fight my mom with Fossor right there, and you stayed? You stayed and you got my mom’s friends out. You saved them. If your guilt complex thinks I’m going to be mad at you because didn’t manage to throw the game-winning touchdown through a neighboring basketball hoop to pull out that game at the same time, you’re crazy. Yeah, I wish my mom was here. I really wish we could’ve added her to the list of rescued parents this year like that. But I’m not mad because it didn’t happen. This whole thing isn’t over yet. Nowhere near it. You didn’t fail to bring her back, you succeeded at stopping him from using my mother’s friends to torture her even more. You took them away from him.” 

Through the resulting long silence as Flick finished talking, she and Sariel stared at one another. Finally, Tabbris leaned that way and stage-whispered. “See, Mama? I told you Flick’s great.” 

The words made both of the others laugh a bit despite themselves, before the girl in question cleared her throat a bit awkwardly. “Um, you said you brought Roger and Seamus out of there?” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “But they are… well, they’re still being tended to. We’re having them checked thoroughly for any traps or tricks. You can see them as soon as we’re absolutely certain nothing… bad will happen. I don’t believe Fossor intended them to be rescued, but we’ve already found several trap spells on the two that he clearly left just in case. We’re making sure those were the only ones before letting them anywhere near you or any of Joselyn’s family.” 

“That makes sense,” Flick muttered darkly. “I’m pretty sure Fossor doesn’t like his toys being taken away. Of course he’d have contingency measures for even ones like them. And… and my mother… he’s had her a lot longer.” Her voice shook, eyes widening with thoughts of what kind of measures the necromancer might have taken to ensure her mother would be with him forever as she clutched a hand against her suddenly queasy stomach. 

Sariel stepped that way to embrace Felicity. “I will promise you every day until it happens, we will get your mother away from that monster. Whatever we have to do, he is not going to keep her.” 

Flick, a bit surprised by the hug but going with it, swallowed hard. “I… I know. It just feels like we’ve had to ignore him for so long this year. We’ve ignored him and look what he’s done. He killed one of the Committee members and blamed Gaia for it. He stole the Hangman rope for… for whatever horrible thing he’s planning to use that for. When I met him, I had one year before he came for me. Now I have a few months. That’s it. A few months, then whatever plan he’s got for me, whatever he’s been working on this whole time, it’ll be time for it.” 

“Whatever it is,” Sariel firmly assured her. “I can’t promise we’ll be ready for it. But I can promise that we will do everything possible to make sure you’re not alone.” She released the girl, stepping back to look at her. “As long as you don’t go off on your own. You understand? I know you want to save your mother. And he will probably promise any number of things. He might tell you that if you come to him, he’ll take you instead and release her. He might even magically swear to it. Do not listen to him, Felicity. I don’t care what he promises, what he threatens. If you go to him, he will win. Your mother–” 

“Mom would kill herself before she let me trade myself for her,” Flick murmured, glancing away. It was clear the thought had occurred to her before. Particularly with the way she and Tabbris exchanged very brief glances before the older girl’s gaze found the floor. “Or she’d just kill herself trying to get me away from him. I wouldn’t be saving her, I’d be condemning her to die one way or another. Either from doing something stupid to get me out of there, or just… or just being killed by him when he didn’t need her anymore. Or because he sacrifices her for whatever plan he has. I know. I know all that. I get it. I’ve thought about it for months now, all the time.” 

“You thought about offering to trade yourself for her already,” Sariel gently noted, watching her. 

A slow nod came. “I thought about it. I even worked out how it might go, how I could maybe make sure he had to follow through.” Then she shrugged, her voice hollow. “It wouldn’t work. It would be dumb, and… I’d be betraying everyone here. My friends, my dad, the rest of my family… you guys. I’d be hurting everyone just to feel for a second like I was being proactive. It would make me feel less useless for a second or two, that’s it.” 

Smiling very faintly, Sariel noted, “The fact that you recognize that puts you quite a bit ahead of many others I could mention.” Her voice softened a little more, as she added, “You are like your mother in many ways, Felicity Chambers. Almost supernaturally surprising at times.” 

Finally glancing up, Flick met her gaze, voice hard. “Whatever happens when my birthday comes, let’s just hope that necromantic bastard gets to be surprised too. I really want him to realize he’s made a huge fucking mistake about two seconds before his head comes off and we get to play soccer with it.” 

Raising a hand, Tabbris offered, “Maybe Chayyiel could possess you again. I’m pretty sure Litonya was really freaking surprised by that.” 

The words made Sariel begin to chuckle. “Yes, I’m sure that would–” She stopped then, blinking at her daughter, then to Flick, then back again while her mouth opened and shut. “Wait…

“Chayyiel did what?!” 

*******

From the dark cabin where several of the strongest mages the combined Atherby, rebel Seosten, and former Crossroads groups could field had gone over him with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there were no spells or other magical tricks, Sean Gerardo emerged. He stepped out, feet making the porch creak heavily as he moved down onto the grass. Down into the sunlight. 

He stood there, eyes closed for a moment while he slowly tilted his head up toward the sky. There, he stayed motionless, simply breathing in the new, non-recycled air. The real, true outside. Freedom. He breathed in freedom after eight years of imprisonment. He breathed it in. 

And he cried. Hands clenched at his sides, face upturned toward the sun in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy at his own freedom, Sean cried. Tears fell freely as he let go of everything he’d been holding in for so long. The unfairness, the unjust treatment, the insanity of his parents agreeing to it. He let all of it free, allowing it to fall right along with his tears. He was lost, adrift on his own chaotic maelstrom of fears, joys, loss, and triumph. 

He was free. Yet how much had he lost? Eight years. He had been there for eight years. Eight times longer than he had even known Flick. Those people had completely lost their minds. They were insane. His parents and the rest of them, they… they had to be stopped. He understood that more than he ever had before this. He understood just how far they would go to maintain their delusions, just how obsessed they were and how willing they were to break everything to avoid admitting they were wrong. This wasn’t a case of simply misinformed people. They truly, fanatically believed that if the entirety of humanity would be erased if they didn’t do what they were doing. They believed that every single species in the universe would gleefully eradicate every human being if given half a chance, that they were the lone defending force against total human extinction. And against that kind of pressure, against the extermination of all humanity, there were no measures that were off limits, nothing some of them wouldn’t do. 

This was going to be a war, in every sense of the word. More than anything else, he had learned that over his time imprisoned. The levels they were willing to go to… This wouldn’t be some simple matter of just telling them the truth. Many would never accept it. And those… he knew what would have to be done. He didn’t like it. But it was coming. To change society, to really change it… they would have to do harsh things. 

“Hey.” 

The word caught his attention, and Sean turned a bit to see his brother there. Ian stood a few yards away, just as bloodied and dirty as he’d been back on that battlefield. It looked like he’d gone through hell. 

“Gross, dude,” Sean murmured after looking him up and down. “Ever heard of a shower?” 

A snort escaped the other man before Ian crossed the distance between them. His hand moved to take his brother’s before stopping himself. “I–sorry. That… I guess you’re probably not used to people touching you, huh?” 

Glancing away, Sean squeezed Ian’s hand a bit testingly. “It’s kind of a new experience, especially doing it for real instead of in my head.” Exhaling, he turned his gaze back to the other man’s. “And that sounded really creepy.” 

“I’m sorry, man.” Ian’s voice was quiet, his hand still holding his little–now not so little–brother’s. “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. Not just through this… this prison shit. Ever. I’m sorry I’ve been a shit brother for so long even before that.” 

Sean shook his head. “Part of me feels like I should make a crack about how you’re just sad that you can’t give me noogies anymore. But… but maybe that’s just because this whole thing is really awkward.” He focused once more, meeting Ian’s gaze. “Everyone keeps saying they’re sorry, as if this is their fault. But I know whose fault it is. And they’ll get theirs.” 

“Our family’s kind of fucked up, isn’t it?” Ian muttered the words under his breath before muttering several curses in Colombian Spanish. “You’re right, they’ll get theirs. Mom… Dad… and all the rest of them.” 

Before Sean could say anything to that, Sebastian came into view from the side of the cabin. “It’s not going to be easy, you know,” the man announced. “Physically or emotionally. It’s not just your parents. It’s your old classmates, your friends. It’s other people’s family, people they care about. All these people here in this camp? All the Heretics who came here, they’ve all got people they love or want to protect who stayed at Crossroads. This whole thing is going to be one big joda.” He gestured then. “Now, you two gonna hug so I can get my own out of my favorite nephew, or what?” 

“Oh, he’s your favorite nephew now?” Ian started before Sean gave him a little yank by the hand. The two embraced briefly, hands clapping each other’s backs before they stepped aside.

“Now?” Sebastian retorted while taking his turn to embrace Sean tightly. “He was always my favorite.” He leaned back then, looking up at the boy… man in question. “Even if he did get too damn tall like the rest of you.” 

With a dry chuckle, Sean replied, “Not our fault you stopped growing at sixteen, Tío Sebastian.” It was such an easy thing to say, springing straight to his lips. Then he thought about the fact that, from their point of view, he hadn’t been that much older than sixteen very recently. It was enough to cast a dark cloud over their reunion, but he pushed on anyway. Just because you couldn’t stop dark clouds from showing up didn’t mean you had to lay down in the puddles they made. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you retired.” 

Giving him a long, thorough tongue lashing in Spanish at the very suggestion that he would sit on the sidelines while his nephew was in trouble, Sebastian settled with, “And I’m not sitting out any more. Not this. Not now. This war is going to take everyone. Especially if we’re going to get anywhere with it before this whole Seosten time limit thing is up next year.” 

“That and you don’t want Mateo running off by himself,” Ian noted mildly. 

“Mateo would never be off by himself,” Sebastian informed him. “He’s got his pack. And… speaking of which.” With a brief glance over Sean’s shoulder, he took Ian by the arm. “Come on then, let’s not monopolize the boy.” He met his just-freed nephew’s gaze pointedly. “Whatever happens with your parents, Sean, you’ve still got family. Don’t you forget that.” 

Ian started to say something else, before he too looked past Sean. Raising an eyebrow, he murmured, “Muy bueno, hermano.” Then he allowed himself to be pulled away. 

With a very small smile as he shook his head, Sean spoke up. “Hey, Roxa.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl’s voice flatly asked, “Did your brother just call me ‘very good?’” 

Snorting, Sean turned to face the girl. When he saw her, bloodied, covered in mud and dirt, clothes torn, he made a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh… God. He wasn’t wrong. You… look…” Stopping himself, he winced while shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Shit. I know we had this whole thing going on and to you it was like… a couple months ago. So you really didn’t sign up for… for this. I spent eight years building you up in my head. Eight years thinking about what you looked like, making this perfect picture of you in my own imagination, some… crazy version idealized of you that couldn’t hope to match up to reality. I spent eight years building the perfect image of you in my head. 

“So how in the hell is the real you even more beautiful than I ever imagined?” 

In a rush of motion, Roxa was in front of him. Her arms went around his neck, and she hopped, legs wrapping around his waist as her mouth sought and found his. 

He kissed her. He held her. His arms clutched the now-much younger girl tight against himself, and he didn’t let go. Not for a very long time. 

His girl. 

His wolf. 

*******

“You know, if you were really that tired of being identical, there were easier ways to take care of it.” 

The words came from Sands, as she stood in the camp medical center with her hands on her hips, staring at her twin sister. Scout was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Or rather, most of her was. Her left arm had been removed entirely, all the way up to the shoulder. In its place was a thin rounded metal cylinder about eight inches long and three inches thick. 

In response to her sister’s worried teasing, Scout poked her in the stomach with her remaining hand, offering her a smile before simply saying, “Upgrade.” 

“Yes, yes, upgrade.” Instead of Sands, it was a short, red-skinned man with a bright shock of wild white hair who spoke then. He stood barely an inch taller than the twins, approaching with a couple fancy-looking tools in two of his four hands (he only had two arms, each splitting around the elbow into two forearms) as he offered them both a smile. “It is an upgrade. But as I said, if you would prefer to take the time to let the arm regenerate more… naturally, even with magical assistance, that is an option. With your kind of power and what was done to your arm, it will take a month or so, but it’s there.” 

“Are you sure about this, Scout?”  Larissa asked from where she was sitting, tensely watching her girls. “You don’t have to go with the tech replacement if you don’t want to.” 

Head shaking at that, Scout softly replied, “Advantages are good.” 

“Alright,” the doctor, an Alter by the name of Bhenquiet (he went by Dr. Ben) announced while using his tools to make a couple last minute adjustments to the implanted metal cylinder. “Remember, anytime you want to take it out and allow the arm to grow normally, let me know. Do not try to do it yourself. I don’t want you hurting yourself or my work. Here.” He stepped back, gesturing for Sands to do the same. “Let’s see it. Just like I told you.” 

Closing her eyes, Scout focused. It took a few long seconds before there was a flicker of an image from the cylinder. It flashed in and out a couple times, then reappeared and solidified. It was her arm. Or rather, a solid holographic projection of her arm that looked identical to the real thing.

“It’ll be stronger than your old arm was, though not as strong as you could get it to be through… powers,” Dr. Ben informed her with only a slight bit of awkwardness around the idea of her killing others to make her real arm stronger. “Right now I’ve got it programmed for the arm, a sword, a shield, and a few other basic things. You can go through them and add more. I’ll show you how, or you can get a programmer to do it. There’s some other details, about what kind of magic you can use with it, that kind of thing. Oh, and don’t forget, you can’t activate magic that requires touch with this hand. It’s not real. If you’ve gotta touch a spell to activate it, you’ve gotta use your real hand. Understand?” 

Scout nodded, before asking, “Doug and Jazz?” 

“The girl’s just fine, just a little beat up.” The answer came not from Dr. Ben, but from Donald Therasis, Rudolph’s many-greats grandfather. The older man came into the medical cabin carrying a clipboard in one hand and a leather bag in the other. He set both down on the nearby table before adding, “Douglas chose to have his own eye replaced similar to Scout’s arm, though I’ll let him share the specifics with you. I wouldn’t dream of taking that kind of surprise away from him.” 

With that, he embraced Larissa. “I’m glad you all made it out. It sounds like things were… intense.” There was a certain sadness behind the old man’s eyes. Long as he had lived, he still felt great pain at the loss of those he cared about, and he had truly cared for Rudolph.  

But he did, at least, now understand what had happened to the boy. He had the whole story, and had made the choice to come here to the Atherby camp to help in any way that he could. 

With a small smile, Larissa squeezed the man tightly. “We’re all glad you’re here, Donald. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep you, Dr. Ben here, and a lot of other people pretty busy this year.” 

“Not too busy,” Donald replied easily, “I’ve still got a tennis game to keep up on. And speaking of tennis, how’s the girl’s new arm working out?” 

With a thought, Scout made the holographic projection of her arm turn to a sword, then back again. “Good.” 

“So she says,” her mother murmured, stepping over to put a hand on it. “Feels pretty close to the real thing, at least.” She smiled then, though it was a worried smile. “My brave girls. My Sandoval. My Scout.” 

“No,” the girl corrected, head shaking. “Not Scout. Sarah. 

“Just Sarah.” 

*******

“Joselyn should be here.” 

It was late that night, the celebrations (punctuated by careful tests for any kind of trickery or traps) having gone on throughout the day and evening. There was still a lot to do, even just counting dealing with the prisoners they had pulled out of the Crossroads prison and figuring out who could be trusted. There was more work to be done than anyone could name. But for now, for this moment, they were celebrating. 

This particular celebration, somber as it might have been, revolved around the seven figures who sat around a small campfire on the edge of the lake. Five had been former teammates. Deveron, Lillian, Seamus, Roger, and Tribald. The other two were Felicity Chambers and her father, Lincoln. As the flames crackled, the group listened to the music, shouting, laughter, and general merriment coming from the rest of the camp. 

Roger, who had just spoken, continued. “She should be here. Not… not with that psycho.” 

“She started this,” Tribald murmured quietly, the incredibly tall, disconcertingly lanky man’s knees drawn up almost awkwardly as he poked at the fire with a stick. “She should be here now that it’s back.” 

Deveron cleared his throat a little, glancing toward Lincoln and Flick. “We just have to bring her back. Even… especially if it means prying her out of that necromancer fuck’s cold dead hands.”

“I like that plan,” Lincoln put in before laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I mean, I didn’t grow up with Joselyn the way you all did. I don’t know her as well. But–” 

“Yes, you do.” That was Deveron, his voice quiet, yet firm. “You might not know the Heretic, Lincoln. But you know the woman. You know Joselyn. Everything important, everything that’s her, you know.” 

The two men met each other’s gazes for a moment, a deep understanding passing between them before Lillian spoke up. “Dev’s right. You know who Joselyn is, the kind of person she’s always been. For details… we can provide those. Until she’s here to do it herself.” 

“Speaking of details,” Seamus began, reaching over with his foot to bump Deveron’s, “are you planning on looking like that for the rest of your life, or would you like to join the rest of the adults?” 

Giving him a wry smirk, Deveron gestured. “Okay, okay. I guess part of me was just waiting for the best time. But this is as good as any.” His hand reached up, producing a knife from nowhere. Drawing a thin cut across his arm, he held it out over the fire. As the blood dripped into the flame, the man murmured a spell under his breath. He grimaced then, while the blood continued to drip until a small onyx marble appeared, drawn out of his arm. The marble fell into the fire as well, breaking apart into a cloud of black smoke. 

Over the next few seconds, Deveron’s appearance changed. He grew older, appearing much like himself, but in his late twenties. While the others watched, he stretched out a bit, cracking his neck and then his knuckles. “Ahhh… there. Good to be me again.”

“Pffft.” Dismissively waving a hand, Flick informed him, “Sean already beat you to the whole ‘suddenly appearing older than he was’ trick. Now it just looks like you’re copying him.” 

“Oh good,” Lincoln muttered in the wake of that, “now I can stop feeling quite as awkward about my wife having children with a guy who looks too young to vote.” 

“Gross,” Flick informed them both before pushing herself up. As Lincoln made as though to stand up as well, she waved him off. “Stay. You guys… talk. I just need to stretch my legs. I’ll be right back.” 

With that, she looked around the fire at the group of her mother’s old friends before stepping away. Silently, the blonde girl walked away from the camp a short distance. She climbed the nearby hill, thoughts kept only to herself, as Tabbris was with her own mother and other siblings.  

At the top of the hill, Flick stood there and looked out at the camp. She watched all the people. Some were Atherby regulars. Some were Crossroads rebels. Still others were Seosten former prisoners, freed from the hell created and maintained by Kushiel. 

Finally, she raised her gaze to the sky. “Well, Mom, we’re doing it. We’re gonna keep this whole rebellion thing going. You know, until you can be here yourself to show us all how to do it right. Then you can tell us all about how bad we are at it and fix everything.” 

Smiling a little to herself, Flick repeated those words more quietly. “Fix everything. I guess that’s gonna be a lot harder than I ever thought, huh?” She sighed, long and low. “There’s so much going on, so many bad… evil… horrible people. Sometimes it feels like it’s too much. I suppose… when it comes down to it, no matter how many things you have to do, no matter how… overwhelming it feels, all you can do is take one step at a time. It might be a lot of steps. But I’ve seen the video of you teaching me how to walk. I started… running almost before I even had walking down. Okay, it was a goofy run and I nearly killed myself a few times, but still. I’ve been crossing steps faster than I was supposed to basically my whole life. Old habits die hard.  

“I love you, Mom. We’re coming for you. No matter what happens, I swear, we’re coming for you. We are. I just…” She sighed, long and heavy. “I wish… I keep wishing we had something, anything that… that was an advantage. Something to… something to hold over him, or to trick him with, or… I don’t know. It just feels like he’s always ahead. Sariel got one over on him today, but I don’t think something like that’ll work again. And I just… wish we had… anything that could–”

“Hello.” 

The greeting, coming from behind Flick, cut her off. She turned, expecting to see one of the camp people, or maybe one of the new Crossroads rebels. Instead, she found herself facing a blueish-green figure, partially transparent. The figure was a teenage girl, pretty even in that state, with short hair and a mischievous look. 

“What–who… you…” Flick stared in confusion. “You’re a… a ghost, right? You’re a ghost. Did… I call you or something? I’m not very good at this necromancer thing yet. It’s kind of a whole issue.” 

“Yes, I am a ghost,” the impish girl confirmed. “And I’m here because of your power. But also because I want to help you.” 

“Help?” Flick echoed. “How–I don’t understand. What can you help with? Who are you?” 

There was a brief silence as the ghost girl hesitated. Then she met Flick’s gaze. “My name is Rahanvael. My brother is the one you know as Fossor. 

“And I can help you beat him.” 

TO BE CONTINUED IN YEAR 2. 

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Alliances 6-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, on the plus side, I now knew where one of the missing vials was. And to get it, all I had to do was promise a favor to one of the biggest supervillains in the city. 

Well, that’s what I had to do. There was also the matter of the favors from Wren and Blackjack. The former had agreed basically as soon as she learned what the deal was. She wanted to help anyway she could, after her stuff had been used to steal the vials in the first place. I had caught the guilty look on Fred’s face at that point. Good, he should feel guilty, even if he didn’t know how badly this whole thing would go. 

As far as people who didn’t feel guilty went, I had a thought briefly about informing Ashton that the vial he’d left in the shop had been found and accounted for, but decided against it. There was a chance that, for whatever reason, holding that information back might pay off in the long run. And telling him wouldn’t accomplish anything aside from letting me feel smug for a few seconds. So, just in case, I said nothing about it to him and asked the others to do the same. He was probably counting on us not being able to get the vial away from Cuélebre, and I preferred he just go on thinking that. 

Blackjack, for his part, had barely paused when the offer was brought to his attention. He agreed basically immediately, simply saying that he would rather negotiate with Deicide than Cuélebre, which… yeah. I was basically totally with him on that. She seemed infinitely more reasonable than the demon-dragon guy who had almost killed me. Even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about her. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was sure that she was at least a better person to have this kind of deal with than Cuélebre, as far as incredibly powerful and dangerous super villains went. 

And geez, how many of those was I going to come face-to-face with in a short time anyway? I was basically working my way through the list of the who’s who of the Detroit Fell-Touched underworld. 

In any case, after everything that had happened, once I finished letting Wren and Blackjack know what was going on, I was beat. It had been a very long couple of hours, and the ‘rest’ I’d gotten while knocked unconscious hadn’t exactly been all that restful. So, even though it was still fairly early in the evening, I had gone home to crash, basically passing out immediately.

That lasted for all of about four hours. Then I was wide-awake in what amounted to the middle of the night. Seriously, this whole hero thing wasn’t going to kill me through violence, it was going to do it through fucking with my sleep cycle. 

After the scare I’d had with getting captured and very nearly tortured, maybe I should have stayed home. Hell, that was the main reason I couldn’t go back to sleep. Tired as I had been, I’d jolted awake from some nightmare that vanished the second my eyes opened. But I knew if I closed them again, it would be back. I’d tried to watch a movie for a while, but I couldn’t focus on it. I just ended up looking around my enormous room with all my stuff and thinking about how it had come to be. That made me feel guilty. There were people out there on the streets who needed help. Who was I to sit here in my gigantic bed watching my enormous television? Was being scared because I’d gotten knocked out and almost really hurt that much of an excuse? No.

So, I’d gotten up and snuck out of the house. Now, I was back in costume, working my way through the city. There wasn’t actually much real crime going on that I could see. But I found another way to help. Or at least assuage my guilt a little bit, depending on how cynical one wanted to be. 

Basically, I took a couple hundred dollars or so into an all-night grocery store and bought a bunch of sandwiches, chips, and other things. Boy had that been an interesting time, seeing the few people in there staring at me in costume as I made my way through the aisles.  To say nothing of the look on the clerk’s face when I checked out. He kept asking if I was going to some kind of party or cosplay thing. I tried to keep things vague while still being polite, and he seemed to understand. Though I could tell he still had a lot of questions. 

Taking the supplies in a few large bags, I made my way through the streets, handing them out to the homeless people I saw. Everyone got a sandwich, a bag of chips, a bottle of water, some basic toiletries like soap, toothpaste/brush, deodorant, and disposable razors. That kind of thing. 

It wasn’t much. I wasn’t going to solve homelessness in an evening with a couple hundred dollars. I knew that. But it might help a few people, or at least make them feel a little better about themselves for a bit. Maybe I could do more later. Maybe I’d think of something else that wouldn’t attract too much attention. For now, this was all I could think of, and it kept me busy.

Not everyone was all that openly appreciative, of course. I did receive plenty of gratitude, probably more than I deserved. But there were also others who simply snatched what I gave to them and cursed me for looking down on them. A couple even refused, one man spitting at me. It wasn’t that many, and far from any kind of representative sample. But they existed, and I didn’t really hold it against them too much. Being cursed out even as my gifts were being accepted wasn’t that bad. I had no real idea about the kind of things these people went through, so I wasn’t going to judge them for being a bit nasty.

No, the ones who really bothered me were those who were very clearly not able to take care of themselves. The ones who were not all there in the head, who needed to be in some kind of care facility. Those were the ones who messed me up. I wanted to do more for them. I wanted to take them into a hospital, or something. I wanted to scream at passersby that these people were their fellow human beings who needed help, and why the hell were they just walking past the guy laying in the gutter muttering to himself? 

But I couldn’t do any of that. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I just gave them what I could, told myself I would find a way to do more, and kept going.

Blankets. Coats. That’s what I needed to get. Blankets and coats. Jackets. Pillows. Things that could make them a little more comfortable. 

Then I saw it, police cars and crime scene tape all around some convenience store. There were people watching from the sidelines as a lot of body bags started to be carried out to waiting vans. From the looks of it, there were over a dozen bodies. Through the glass windows of the store, I could see a couple uniformed cops standing by Dynamic and RePete, of the Conservators. Dynamic was a speedster who could temporarily drain superpowers from people she ran near and use the energy she gained from that to form lasers, shields, or weapons. As for RePete, people thought he was some kind of short-term precog for awhile. But apparently, his actual power had something to do with going back in time just a couple of seconds. There were some kind of limitations to it, but they weren’t exactly open about advertising exactly how it worked. All I knew was that from an outside point of view, he seemed to simply know when something was going to happen right before it did. 

From the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a jogging suit step over to me. He was frowning, head shaking as he gestured toward the building. “Hey, when the fuck are you Star-Touched types gonna do something about this shit, huh?”

“What happened?“ I asked quietly, afraid of what kind of answer I’d get considering how many bodies were being taken out. 

“The Scions,” another man answered. “Mostly Pencil, but somebody said there might have been a couple others around.”

Pencil. Of all the Fell-Touched in the city, he was the one who freaked people out the most. Others might have been more out right powerful or able to do more widespread damage, but Pencil was just… wrong. As far as anyone could tell, his only motivation, and by extension, the motivation of his Scions, was to worship the Abyssal named Typhon, and cause as much chaos and misery as possible. Sometimes they stole things from their crime scenes, while other times stuff that was incredibly valuable and just sitting there would be left alone. Sometimes they targeted big events full of rich people and other times they would attack a single house or even some random person on the street for no apparent reason. Sometimes they would go weeks or even a month or so without doing anything, and other times their attacks would come several times in the same day. Their creed apparently was to make everyone know that anyone could be a victim. They spread chaos, that was it. 

They were all monsters, and Pencil was the worst. I had no trouble believing he was responsible for all the dead bodies in that store. He wasn’t the worst or most dangerous Fell-Touched in the world. The ‘honor’ of both those titles went to a woman called Casura. 

But still, Casura wasn’t here in Detroit. Pencil was (when he wasn’t somewhere else in the general area). And he had to be stopped, these guys were right about that. But the problem was, nobody knew how to do that. The guy had been shot dozens if not hundreds of times, set on fire, hit with God only knew how many different kinds of Touched attacks, stabbed, left in an exploding building, dropped off several other tall buildings, and more I was definitely forgetting about. Nothing stuck. The guy was invincible, or something.  He been captured a couple times and restrained, but that never got very far before his minions set upon the person who caught them. They were always there in the background, pretending to be part of the crowd. Any time you dealt with Pencil, you had to assume that some of the people in the crowd of onlookers that he was playing up to would actually be members of the Scions. 

Realizing that the men who had approached me were still waiting for an answer, I hesitated before shaking my head. “I… I’m sorry. I wish I knew how we could stop him. He can’t just keep getting away with this.”

“Yeah,” the guy in the jogging suit snapped, “he can’t. So I say again, what are you people going to do about it? Stand here with your thumbs up your ass not doing a damn thing while that guy goes around and—”

“I’m very sorry that we got here too late.”

The words came from behind me, and all three of us turned. I was pretty sure we all had matching looks of astonishment, though for very different reasons. 

It was my dad. Well, it was Silversmith, all gleaming metal as he continued. “Let’s not blame the kid here for not being able to magically do the thing we adults should have been able to take care of. I understand your frustration, sir, I truly do. I promise you, we are not going to let this or any of his other crimes stand. We will bring him in and he will face justice. True justice. ”

Neither of the men who had approached me seemed to want to argue with him. I could see the frustration on their faces, but they said nothing while backing off. As they moved away, my father’s head turned until he was looking right at me. “You okay?”

In my short career as a superhero, I had already had a few chances to be glad that I wore a helmet. Never more so than right then. It meant that he couldn’t see my expression at all. Not even the little bit he might’ve been able to make out with just the normal mask. He couldn’t see anything. 

Staring at him for a moment, my mind remained totally blank. Luckily, I was pretty sure he was accustomed to that kind of reaction from people who first met him. It would definitely make sense that I seemed starstruck, right? 

A sudden thought occurred to me, and I made a motion up toward my helmet. I was trying to make it look as though I was reflexively moving to adjust glasses on my face before the helmet got in the way.  Hopefully, my father would add the idea that the person under the helmet wore glasses to his mental image of them. Of me. Making it look as casual as possible, I stopped when my fingers hit the visor before giving a quick, nervous nod. That part I didn’t have to fake.

“Y-yes, sir.” Oh God, I very nearly called him Dad. Seriously, it was right on the tip of my tongue. How bad would that have been? Even with my voice changer, that probably would have given the game away. How stupid did I have to be to—

“Don’t let them bother you,” Dad advised, with a nod toward the guys who had backed off. “They’re just… afraid and frustrated. They want all this to stop. They think we should be able to take this guy down, and frankly, they’re right. We should have brought him in by now. Everyone he kills is…” His voice cracked a little there, before he seemed to realize where he was, letting out a breath. “Sorry, it gets to everyone sometimes, so you don’t have to feel like there’s something wrong with you or anything.”

He extended a hand to me. “Anyway, I’ve heard a lot about you, but it’s nice to finally formally meet. Pretty sure you know the name’s Silversmith, but a lot of people just call me Smith, and that’s fine. Ahh…”

He trailed off, and I realized what he was waiting for. He was still holding his hand out. With a start, I took it and squeezed. I was shaking my father’s hand. Would he somehow suddenly realize the truth? Did he know me well enough to know what my hand felt like even through a glove? Some paranoid part of me thought he did. I was expecting him to suddenly say my name, expecting him to figure it out any second. 

“Paintball,” I abruptly blurted, as if to introduce myself. Part of it was me wanting to shove that name into his head instead of my real name, just in case some psychic part of him was building up. 

“Paintball,” my father echoed as though testing the name. He released my hand with a nod. “Like I said, I’ve already heard a lot of good things about you. You’re making a name for yourself pretty quick. It’s impressive. Especially that showing against Cuélebre. You even saved those civilian onlookers. Nice job.”

My throat went dry, and I had to swallow hard. “I’m just trying to help people.” And figure out exactly how your criminal empire operates in the process, so I can do something about it

“Well,” Dad replied, “You’re certainly doing that. But nobody can fix everything, especially by themselves.” With those words, he looked over toward the convenience store all the bodies had been brought out of. “Everyone needs help, even if they are some kind of prodigy.”

Seriously, when he said that, despite everything, I felt a sudden, strong rush of pride. My father was a supervillain, but he was still my father, and he called me a prodigy.

How fucked up were my priorities?

“I’ve heard,” Dad pressed on, “that you’re not interested in joining the Minority. I… I do wish you might reconsider that. As well as you’ve been doing, it’s like I said, everyone needs help sometimes. You could really get in trouble out there without backup, without a team. And I’d hate to see anything happen to you, kid. With monsters like Pencil out there…” He sighed low and regretfully, shaking his head. “Just give it a little more thought, okay? I know the team would love to have you around. Especially That-A-Way. She thinks you’d really fit in.”

What was I supposed to say to that? It would look super suspicious if I just flat out denied him again. He might start looking into why I didn’t want to be part of their team. So, I forced myself to give a very short nod. “I’ll think about it, sir. I just… need to do this on my own for now.”

He seemed to watch me for a few long seconds then, before giving a short nod. “I can respect that, just so long as you think about it. Anytime you change your mind, or just want some advice, you know where to go. You’ve got that number, right?” When I nodded, he gestured. “I’ve got to head back in there and see if there’s anything else we can do. You should probably head on out of here. The bad guy’s gone, for now anyway.”

“I… yeah.” Trying not to let myself sound as freaked out as I actually was about being so close to my father while he was about to go back into a scene like the one that had to be in that store, I waved vaguely. “I’ll ummm, I’ll get out of your way.”

Stepping back, I watched for another moment as my dad turned and headed back into the shop. Glancing around, I closed my eyes and slumped a little, trembling despite myself before forcing my feet to turn and carry me away from that place, away from all of that death and misery. 

I had made it. I’d gotten through my first face-to-face, of sorts, meeting with my father in costume. And, as far as I could tell, he didn’t suspect anything like the truth. That was a good thing, right? My supervillain father didn’t know that I knew who he was. That was absolutely, definitely a good thing. 

So why did I feel so bad?

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Denouement 11 – Polemical Kin (Heretical Edge)

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The fighting, even over a relatively short time, had been unbelievably fierce. The battlefield around the fake town concealing the Crossroads prison was covered in the effects of various supernatural and magical abilities, as well as ordinary old mundane damage. Bits of ground, metal, various elements, and deep pits leading through portals were scattered throughout the area. Several variously-sized orbs containing effects such as gravity and spatial manipulations hovered here or there to disrupt opponents, along with random clouds depositing acid rain and other harmful effects. 

Many unconscious, injured, or even dead bodies littered the ground as well, though almost all belonged to the loyalist factions. Not because the rebels never fell, but because they had been magically prepped ahead of time to be teleported out if they fell or became too injured to continue. Scout was one of those who was teleported away due to her missing arm, along with Jazz when she took a spear deep into her stomach and had to be pulled out before it got even worse. Doug had lost an eye and ended up with three quarters of his face deeply burned before being evacuated as well. 

That was how it was going. The rebels had the surprise and momentum, but with every passing minute, more loyalists showed up and kept pushing the rebels back. It wouldn’t be long before they were routed completely. Fortunately, they didn’t have to hold on forever, only long enough. 

But everyone involved hoped that the people inside would be done soon. Because this was a situation that could fall apart any second. 

Virginia Dare, in the form of a giant wolf, caught hold of one of the opposing Heretics and, with a vicious jerk of her massive head, threw him into the air. She leapt, shifting back into her human form in mid-air before driving her sword through the flailing man’s arm. In the same motion, she triggered one of the spells stored in the hilt. Immediately, the man screamed and disappeared. 

As Dare landed once more, she was met by two young-looking Heretic loyalists, clearly newer soldiers who had come in response to the emergency. Both raised their weapons, but an instant before they could do anything, an invisible force slammed into them. The pair were picked up from the ground and sent flying across the battlefield. 

Gaze snapping toward the source of the blast, Dare found herself looking at Koren. The brunette girl, bloodied and bruised, stared at her open-mouthed. “Did you just disintegrate that guy a second ago?”

Smiling very faintly at her secret great-granddaughter, Dare gave a quick shake of her head. “No, I used a spell that triggered his panic response and made him teleport away. It only works when they suffer an injury, making them believe that it’s potentially fatal. It didn’t really do all that much damage, but right now, he is convinced that he’s dying. And that… what you just did, you couldn’t do that before.”

“That… that’s pretty cool,“ Koren announced in a voice that made it clear she was purposefully avoiding the part about what she had done to the two men, “can you teach me that?”

“Yes,” Dare easily replied, “someday. Right now, let’s just try to get through all this.” Her hand reached out to gently touch the girl’s hair. “Are you okay?” Unlike so many shows of affection she wish to give her lost family, this one would be completely understandable. Koren was one of her students, someone she had reason to care about, and she was in a dangerous situation. 

The girl hesitated, like there was something she wanted to say. But in the end, she just shook her head. “Maybe later. We’re kind of busy right now, if you hadn’t noticed.” The last bit was said with a very faint smile, trying to slightly (and mostly failing) make light of the situation. 

“Indeed,” Dare agreed. “We should get back to that.” 

Koren nodded, before the two of them, secretly great-grandmother and great-granddaughter, threw themselves back into the fight, side by side. 

*****

Two of the Atherby-allied Alters were hurled to the ground by an explosion of force. They scrambled to escape, clawing at the dirt while vines popped out of the ground to hold them down. A second later, their attacker appeared between the two, a dark-skinned man holding a sword while fire crackle around him. 

“You know what I hate more than finding your filth out in the world?” he demanded. “Finding it right in my own backyard.” With those words, he brought the sword up to drive it down into the nearest of their backs. 

In mid-plunge, his blade hit a distortion field that made it much shorter than it should’ve been so that it never came close to its target. 

“Aww,” a voice from nearby giggled, “are you having performance issues?” Nevada stepped into view, holding her chainsaw-sword with one hand, while her other arm was covered by some kind of combination shield and cannon. “I’m pretty sure the Bystanders have pills for that these days. Maybe you should look into it.”

The man spun to her, sword extended her way as he demanded, “How can you side with these monsters? How could you turn against your own kind, your own people, to wallow with the likes of these creatures?” 

Nevada gave the man a humorless smile. “You know, you probably couldn’t have given me a better opening for this if you tried.” In response to his blank stare, she added, “You have no idea who I really am, do you? You have no idea what you tried to do to me. But I do. I remember that day perfectly, Jackson, because that was the day everything changed for me. That day in the mall, when you chased me from the arcade where I was doing nothing but minding my own business. The day you tried to kill me in the hallway before I was rescued.” 

Through that, the man’s eyes slowly widened and he shook his head, face red. “No. No, you were a monster, not one of us. You can’t— you’re not… No!” He spat the last word.

“Yes,” Nevada retorted simply. “But you know what? You’re not chasing a helpless, scared little girl this time.” She lifted her blade, eyes narrowing. “So bring it on.”

He did so, lunging toward the woman with a furious snarl as his sword lashed up and around. At the same time, his other hand summoned lightning to send straight at her. 

Nevada caught the lightning on her shield, absorbing the power into it while blocked his blade with her own. He was strong, almost strong enough to knock the sword from her hands. But she was strong now too. And Nevada deflected his weapon off to the side before twisting away from the violent kick that he lashed out with. With the same motion, the man launched several metal spikes up from the ground, but she leapt, flipping over in the air above his head to land behind the man while blasting him with his own lightning, launched from her shield-cannon. 

He staggered a bit, yet stayed upright. There was a sudden explosion of kinetic force that caught the blonde woman and sent her to the ground in a sprawl. Her sword went sliding across the ground. Before she could recover, he was there, his foot lashing out to kick her in the face. Then he grabbed her shoulder and yanked her up right before slamming his fist into her stomach. 

Catching the back of her head while she was doubled over, the man tried to throw her face-first into the ground. But with a thought, the woman summoned a portal in front of herself. She was thrown through the portal rather than to the ground, reappearing directly above the man before crashing into him from behind. 

With a grunt as he stumbled, Jackson covered himself with fire. The flames burned with blinding intensity, yet did nothing to the woman. 

“Yeah,” Nevada hissed in his ear, “immunity to fire was one of the first things I worked to pick up. Thanks for that phobia, Jacksass.”

“Abomination!” Jackson screamed, hand reaching back to grab her by the neck. He yanked, throwing the woman over his shoulder into the ground. His sword came down, but she summoned her own back to her hand, turning just in time to knock his blade aside before it could decapitate her. 

Nevada regained her feet, and the two fought, swords clashing loudly across the busy battlefield as they remained solely focused on one another. Jackson was intent on turning the woman into a bloody smear on the ground, his hatred and disgust at what he saw as an appalling, unthinkably disgusting abomination blinding him to everything else. Every time Nevada blocked or evaded his increasingly destructive attacks that were now leaving deep gouges in the ground, he grew more violent and unhinged. “Just die, you evil bitch! You can’t beat me. No matter what you’ve done to steal those gifts, no matter what unholy, satanic magic you’ve performed here, you will never be as strong as a true Heretic. You are going to die!

“Someday,” Nevada agreed. “But not now. Because I have a question. Do you really think the only thing I did while I was on your back was whisper to you?”

The man blinked once, then his eyes widened as he jerked his hand up. But it was too late, as Nevada spoke the command word for the spell she had quickly scrawled on his back. It detonated, launching the man forward with a cry. 

Nevada was ready, already in mid-spin as she brought her chain-sword up and around, cleaving all the way through the flailing man’s neck. His body fell to the ground at her feet while his head bounced away. 

Nevada dropped as well, falling to her knees with a gasp as her aura flared up. After all this time, after decades of nightmares that reawakened every time she happened to see the man who had tried to kill her, it was over. Jackson was dead. The man, the true monster, who had chased her through the mall over thirty years earlier and started all this, was gone forever. 

Nevada had won. 

******

Koren and Dare were still side-by-side, covering one another as they stood over several fallen forms. 

“I really hope Flick and the others hurry,” Koren announced. “Cuz I’m not—”

“Virginia!” The voice that interrupted was accompanied by seven bolts of powerful energy that shot toward the pair. Her danger sense had already warned her, so the blonde woman snapped her arm up, conjuring a forcefield that easily caught the blasts. She and Koren both spun to face their attacker. 

“Elias,” Dare greeted Sean’s father. “This would all be over much sooner if you just hand over your son. In case you’re having trouble remembering, he’s the one you’ve been torturing for the past couple months. Or, how many years is it from his point of view right now?”

“How in the hell do you—” Elias stopped himself with an audible growl, shaking his head. “That’s immaterial. You need to leave here, now. Actually, what you need to do is surrender, but I doubt you’re bright enough to do that. You’re not taking my son, and you’re not—”

And then it was his turn to be interrupted, as a gust of wind shot through the air before transforming into his other son. Ian Gerardo slammed into his father with force far exceeding what he should’ve had. One of his powers allowed him to move a fairly short distance (anywhere between a few inches and about twenty feet) at incredible, blinding speed. During that movement, he would become all but invulnerable and, upon arrival, inflict damage far exceeding his momentum. He had simply shifted from his air elemental form back to himself and crossed the foot or so distance between himself and his father in an instant, crashing into the man like a cannonball. 

Both men went tumbling end over end, Elias ending up on top, holding his son down by the shoulder while driving his fist toward his face. “Ian, that’s enough!”

His fist went through air and struck the ground, leaving a hole there as his eldest boy shifted to his elemental form. Ian flowed around his father, re-forming into a standing position while driving his foot down to kick the back of the man’s head. Once again, he drastically magnified the force of his kick, sending his father tumbling head over heels along the ground.

Elias recovered instantly, as a metal arm and fist abruptly emerged from his back, crossing the ten foot distance between them to slam up into his son’s stomach, doubling the younger man over. A moment later, a twelve foot tall tree erupted from the ground right behind them, vines from the tree lashing out to wrap around Ian before seeming to pulse with energy. Immediately, the younger Gerardo felt his energy and will to fight begin to fade very quickly. He was tired, it was hopeless, why was he bothering to do any of this? He might as well just stay right here and stop moving. Nothing else would accomplish much. 

Koren, by that point, had already started to move. But Dare put a hand on her shoulder, looking off to the side. 

Koren followed her gaze, just in time to see a tiny object fly through the air. It was a pencil, which struck the summoned tree. An instant later, the spell on the pencil activated, and the tree was reduced to ash, releasing Ian. 

All four of them looked that way, in time to see Sean Gerardo, so much older than he should’ve been, approach. His eyes were on his father. “Hi, Dad,” he greeted in a voice that was somewhat choked with restrained emotion. “Thanks for the hospitality, but they say you’re supposed to stop living with your parents in your twenties.”

“Sean!” Elias snapped, trembling with anger and frustration. “You need to stop this now. This is for your own good, you have to understand that. I’d rather have a son who lost a few years of his life, his very long life, than one who was a traitor. You don’t know what you’re doing. You and your brother are both blinded by this.” 

“That’s rich,” Sebastian Gerardo informed his brother as he approached from the edge of the chaos. Moving to stand in between his two nephews, the man continued. “Talking about other people being blind, Eli, given what you’ve been doing to your own son. Que te paso, hermano?” 

“You…” Elias snarled the word, glaring at his sibling. “How can you drag them into this? How can you… how can you get in bed with these monsters?” 

Barking a short, sharp laugh, Sebastian retorted, “Interesting phrasing. Little brother, you’ve gone off the reservation. You, Andrea, and the others. This is too much. You tortured your own son for nothing.” 

Nothing?!” Elias’s voice was a roar, his face red. “We were trying to save his soul! What is a few years against a lifetime that could stretch for centuries, or longer?! Do you think it didn’t kill us to do this?! It was all we could think of to stop him from consorting with demons, as you seem intent on doing.” 

Ian’s mouth opened to snap something, but Sebastian spoke first. “Consorting? Brother, I’ve been having unbelievable sex with what you’d call a demon for decades. And when this is over, we’re gonna go have brunch.” In response to the other man’s open mouth, he added, “But for the record, Mateo’s a werewolf, not a demon. Oh and… he also saved Sean’s life when he was a kid, so… I’m pretty sure that puts him at least a step or two above ‘imprisoning him for years in solitary confinement’ on the scale of who the real evil piece of shit is.”

Face contorting with a mixture of rage and disbelief, Elias was left briefly speechless. In the end, he could find no words for his sibling. Instead, the man snapped his gaze to his two children, as though shoving Sebastian from his mind entirely. “Ian, Sean, you need to stop now, before both of you end up regretting this for the rest of your lives.”

“I regret a lot of things, Papá,” Sean murmured, “but turning against a murderous, psychotic cult who are so convinced literally every other intelligent being in the universe is evil that they want to kill every… single… one of them? Pretty sure I’m not going to regret that. You want to murder—no, genocide literally every other species in the universe. I know that word is thrown around a lot, but in this case, it couldn’t be more literally true. You want to kill… every… last… being out there that isn’t human. You know, because they’re evil.”

Elias slowly shook his head. “I don’t care how much time you spent in there, you are still behaving like a child.” The man took a moment to glance around at the fierce fighting going on on all sides of them, though some had stopped to look at what was happening. His gaze passed over Sebastian and kept going. “You and your brother, neither of you were leaving here. We’re going to put an end to this right now.”

“Sorry, Eli,” Sebastian replied, “but I think you just proved that this isn’t ending anytime soon. The war, at least. As for this battle, I do think it’s about time we left.”

With a dark growl, the man snarled, “You’re not going anywhere. None of you are. Leaving here, I think you’ll find it rather impossible.”

“Wanna bet?” The words came from Felicity Chambers, as the girl came jogging up, accompanied by Sands and Avalon. The trio had gotten briefly occupied in dealing with another threat (as well as handling the departure of Chayyiel, who had… other matters to attend to now that they were safely out of the prison). “Because we’ve been doing a lot of impossible things lately, and I’m feeling lucky.”

Seeing the blonde girl made Elias spit a dark curse word as he lunged that way, only to be intercepted by his brother, as Sebastian caught him by the arm, spinning to throw him to the ground. 

“The other prisoners?” Dare asked. 

“Athena’s handling them,” the girl replied. 

You.” The hatred and disgust in Elias’s voice was palpable as he glowered at Flick from where his brother had thrown him. Fire coiled around his body from the force of his rage when he looked at the girl. “You and your mother, your names… your names are going to be remembered. Oh, you’ll be remembered alright. Remembered as two of the worst, most evil traitors in human history. Your names will be spoken as the most vile curses, right beside the Devil himself.”

“Hey, someone call me?” It was Apollo, popping up nearby before flashing a smile at the man. “Sorry, I think we’ve left a pretty big mess for you to clean up. Maybe you should get on that while we get out of your hair.”

“Like I said,” Elias snapped sharply while an invisible force lifted him back to a standing position, “none of you are going anywhere. Do you think we weren’t prepared for something like this? Do you honestly think we wouldn’t have a way of containing any intrusion team? You must be stupid. There are four satellites in orbit right now, and as of this moment, all of them are projecting an anti-teleportation field over an entire twenty mile radius around this facility, along with a forcefield strong enough to keep you here for hours. Satellites, as in up in space. There’s nothing you can do about it. You all walked right into a trap. Sean being out here doesn’t matter, because every last one of you is going right back inside. You haven’t escaped the prison, all you’ve done is get a little yard time. All of this is the prison.” 

Sure enough, all around them, none of the escape spells were working anymore. The injured and unconscious were falling and staying where they were, unable to be taken to safety. 

“Oh dear,” Dare replied in a voice that was far more casual than Elias liked. “I think we’ve been outplayed. Unless… let’s see, phase one was the attack on the weapons depot. Phase two was this assault right here. Phase three was the prison infiltration. Was… was there a phase four?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Flick promptly replied, “I’m pretty sure there was.”

While Elias’s gaze snapped around, trying to figure out what the hell they were talking about, Dare touched the communication badge on her shoulder. “Phase four,” she announced simply. 

A few long, tense seconds passed before a hologram of a new Heretic appeared in front of Elias, looking frantic, “One of our satellites just went down!”

“What?!” Elias snapped in disbelief. 

“Sorry,” Apollo murmured, “Did I forget to mention that my Torchbearers — yeah, they’re my people — were going up with a friendly vampire and a few others to hit your satellites and destroy them? Because I could’ve sworn I brought that up.”

“They’re down, they’re down!” The hologram’s voice was even more frantic, as he snapped his gaze over to the other man. “Satellites are down, we need reinforcements right now! Now!” 

It was too late. All around them, the rebel army was disappearing. One by one or in groups, they teleported away, leaving their loyalist opponents looking confused and lost. 

“No!” Eyes wide as the rug was yanked out from under him once again, Elias lunged toward Sean. “You’re not leaving!” 

His lunge was met by a single piece of paper, with a spell drawn on it. The spell activated, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man’s face that blew him backward and down. He landed on one knee, only for Ian to slam into him using his own cannonball power that put the man on the ground in a deep crater. He tried to pick himself up, only for Sebastian to appear over him. “Take a vacation, little brother,” he snapped while using one hand to cover the man from his feet to his neck in a metal cocoon that would momentarily resist his efforts to teleport out. “You need it.” 

Sean and Ian were there, standing on either side of their uncle, hands on his shoulders. Together, three Gerardos stared at the fourth. Unspoken emotions passed between them, as both sides of the family division stood on either side of their line… and none budged. 

“Well, I had a bigger speech planned for this,” Sean informed his father. “But you know what, I think this suffices.”

Raising a hand, he flipped off the man on the ground. And a moment later, he, his brother, and the rest of their group vanished. 

They were free.

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