Month: November 2019

Showdown 7-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Coming down on the roof of the next building, I stumbled and almost fell. It was actually Eits, recovering a bit from his surprise, who caught me. “Paintball, why’d you bring me wi–” 

“Sedans!” I blurted. “Red sedans! Take over every red sedan you can find that doesn’t have anyone in it and bring them with us!” Even as I said it, my hand caught his and I started running, painting my legs green while using my other hand to shoot more green at the boy himself to speed both of us up. We ran together, racing to the other side of the roof. “Cuélebre and his people are after a red sedan, send in more to confuse them! Catch up with the right one and mix them up. Shell game, make them lose track of which is the right one! And keep running!”

We hit the edge of that roof, and I used blue paint to launch both of us upward. I could see Cuélebre in the distance. He wasn’t that far away yet. Faster. I had to be faster. We had to be faster. Because if we didn’t stop this, not only would Cuélebre get the vial in that car in addition to the one he already had, he’d also find out where Wren was hiding. 

I had to get his attention. I had to get him focused on me. And I knew just how to do that. But we had to get close enough. As Eits and I landed on the next roof over and kept running, I held my free arm out and shot a line of red paint ahead of us. A second later, I took my other hand from the boy’s, wrapped my arm around his waist, and let the paint yank us forward. 

We repeated that several times, the motions coming so rapidly I could barely think about them. Activating green paint that was already on my costume to keep moving as fast as possible, blue paint for jumps, red paint to yank us forward, repeat. Repeat, repeat. Everything was a blur, as I raced toward Cuélebre. He may have been literally flying, but we might as well have been. For that short time, I don’t think we spent more than a handful of seconds actually on the ground. Errr, roofs. And to his credit, Eits didn’t barf. I was pretty sure that was mostly because the majority of his attention was on sending his mites out to grab various nearby cars as we passed them, but still. 

There, there! Cuélebre was just ahead of us and slightly above. His attention was focused ahead and down, scanning the street as he hovered there for the moment, clearly intent on spotting the car. Any second now, he was going to dive, grab the sedan, and be out of there. No, no, no, I had to do something! 

Too late, his form started to invert as prepared himself to dive. The car was in sight. He was going for it. He was going to have it. We couldn’t stop him. We couldn’t–

Then I saw it. A sudden freezing in his body language. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew there would be a look of confusion. And in the distance, I saw cars. Sedans. Red sedans. They were coming in from every other street. Eits had captured them, was bringing them along and sending the cars in to distract and disorient Cuélebre. Soon, the real car was surrounded by other, similar-looking cars. The whole street was flooded with over a dozen red sedans. 

It was enough to make Cuélebre freeze in confusion for a second. And that was all I needed. “Keep going!” I blurted to Eits, painting him orange for protection before running forward with him. I leapt, dropping Eits down to land sprawled out on the roof of one of his cars. He’d be fine.

As for me, I hurled myself upward, shooting a line of red paint right at the small vial still clutched in Cuélebre’s massive hand. The paint struck the vial, yanking it out of his grip as he made a sound of surprise. It flew into my waiting grasp, while I flew by just underneath the giant demon-man. 

“Yoink!” I shouted at him, my terror mixing with my glee. Clutching the vial, I hit the next roof over, rolling and spinning to come up on one knee and one foot, facing back the way I had come. 

Cuélebre was there, staring at me in flat disbelief mixed with clearly mounting rage. 

“Hey, buddy,” I blurted, “don’t you know it’s rude to take things that don’t belong to you? I think you need a time-out!” With that, I sent a wave of white paint that hit his face before he could react, activating it for a blinding flash of light that left him reeling with a deafening roar of fury that shook the air and left me wishing I could call a timeout to piss my pants. 

Instead, I used the brief moment that gave me to spin away and run. Escape. I had to lead Cuélebre away and escape. Pissed as he was right now, he’d be right on my tail. And I was pretty sure he wouldn’t stop at exchanging a few ugly words. 

I ran, fleeing as fast as I could while activating paint on myself to keep going. All I could think about was the next step, the next jump, the next second of flying wildly through the air. Part of me expected to feel a lightning bolt go through me any instant. But no, he wanted the vial. He needed the vial, and wouldn’t risk destroying it, no matter how angry he was about me taking it from him. 

At least, that’s what I hoped. 

Sure enough, there was another roar, and chancing a quick glance back showed Cuélebre already hurling himself my way. He was closing the distance terrifyingly quickly, and I launched myself off the edge of the roof with a reflexive yelp of fear. 

That time, instead of aiming for the next roof, I saw an open window partway up on an apartment building. There was a man standing there smoking and leaning out. He looked up at the last second, saw me flying toward him, and jerked backward, dropping the cigarette. 

I went right through the open window hands first in a diving position, rolling as I hit the floor. “Stay down, stay down!” I blurted, already back up on my feet and running. Through the kitchen, the living room, a short hallway, I hit the front door, practically crashed through it while taking barely enough time to twist the knob, and found myself in the main hall of the building, apartment doors lining the walls along both sides. Without thinking about it, I spun to the right, toward the tall window at the end of the corridor. My hand snapped down, grabbing hold of a fire extinguisher, and I activated a spot of purple on what remained of my formerly intricate painted image. With a grunt, I hurled the extinguisher at the window, sending it through with a crash. 

Cuélebre would hear it. He would know where I was. But I wanted him to. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for was him tearing his way through these people’s apartments trying to get me. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t in the building anymore. 

Sure enough, even as I threw myself out the broken window and used a shot of red paint to yank myself toward a billboard in the distance, I could hear a rush of motion overhead. Cuélebre. He was diving toward me, so at the last second I cancelled the paint, spinning over on my back in mid-dive. Falling through the open air toward the hard street below, I forced myself to ignore just how very dead I would be if I hit it. Instead, I focused on the giant demon man coming after me. A shot of green, yes green, paint hit him while I activated yellow paint on myself. 

My fall slowed, even as Cuélebre’s descent dramatically sped up. He shot past just barely ahead of me, his grasping hand missing while he blurted a violent curse. An instant later, he crashed into the street, sending up a huge spray of dirt, rocks, and concrete and knocking over a couple lamp posts. 

Meanwhile, I used a new shot of red paint to yank my (now much slower-falling) body over to that billboard from before. Landing on it, I had time to glance down, seeing Cuélebre dragging himself out of the rather substantial crater he’d made in the middle of the street. Water was spraying from a broken hydrant, and I could see people fleeing down the sidewalks. But he wasn’t paying them any mind. Not that he was calm or collected. If anything, he was even more pissed off than before. But he didn’t care about the people running away from him. No, he was looking right up at me, eyes smoldering with hatred and promised retribution. 

Right, time to leave. Really, really time to leave. 

Spinning to throw myself off the billboard, I hit the next roof over already running. A new shot of green paint at my feet pushed my speed back up, as I sprinted flat-out for the edge of the building with Cuélebre’s angry bellow filling the air behind me. One step after another, vial clutched tightly in one hand while my ears listened intently to the rushing wind sound of the giant monster flapping his wings and launching himself upward after me with another shouted threat. 

And here we went again. Me being chased through the city by a monster who could easily rip me apart if he managed to get hold of me. Was this getting repetitive yet? Because my heart didn’t think so, considering the way it was beating so hard it felt like it might jump out of my chest and take off without me. 

Cuélebre dove. I leapt off the edge of the building, spiraling into a dive just as he landed right where I had just been. His massive hand lashed out, narrowly missing me as I plummeted toward the ground. Activating a bit of orange paint on my back, I forced myself to keep falling. Cuélebre had hurled himself down after me, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. That was okay, I had a different trick in mind. 

The ground rushed up at me. Every instinct I had said to bail out. But I let myself keep falling, arms extended as if I was diving into water. Above and behind me was Cuélebre, just waiting for me to try to yank myself in any direction. He knew I’d have to, or I’d hit the ground. I had about five seconds from the time I leapt off the roof until… well, until it would be too late. With three seconds left, I pointed with my hand and fired off a spray of red paint. Just as Cuélebre expected. Only I wasn’t pulling myself anywhere. Instead, I shot the paint at a parked car. A thought brought the car off the ground, making the literal car come flying up toward me. Toward my red glove.

Two seconds left. I cut the connection with the car, but it kept coming, its momentum bringing it upward. The car was spinning end over end as it came, and I timed a shot of blue paint to hit the roof. It made one more full revolution just before impact. My outstretched hands hit the blue spot I’d made (the orange paint I’d activated earlier protecting me from breaking every bone in them as well as my arms), and I was instantly rocketed backwards and up. 

Flying backwards, I shot right between Cuélebre’s arms as the man made a noise of surprise. An instant later, the car completed its next revolution and slammed into him. The sound of crunching metal and exploding glass filled the air, as well as an actual yelp of pain from the man. Apparently flying what amounted to face-first into a car didn’t do him any favors. Particularly after having flown face-first into the ground just before that. 

But he wasn’t anywhere near down. A fact he made abundantly clear by lashing his tail up and back at me just as I was passing. I managed to snap my free hand out, catching hold of the tail while activating a spot of purple on my arm. My momentum made me spin around the tail like it was a pole in gymnastics, and I very nearly lost my grip. But I managed to hang on, spinning myself all the way around before releasing the tail to drop onto the flailing man’s back. Bending my knees like I was a surfer riding a very large, very unstable board, I found words blurting their way out of my mouth. “We keep meeting like this. Maybe we should schedule a nice dinner instead. It sounds less painful for you.” 

Recovering from the brief second of being stunned by taking a car to the face, Cuélebre snarled a dark, “I’ll bring you dinner in the hospital, boy.” He said the last word like it was an insult, his tail already lashing in from the side in a clear attempt to knock me off his back (and likely into his waiting hand). But before it could hit, I flipped up and over, shooting a bit of yellow paint down to slow him while speeding myself up once more with green. That way, he didn’t completely leave me behind. His tail had barely cleared the spot just under me as I came down, landing on his back once more. A shot of red paint at the blade of the tail and another toward the man’s own back just as I cancelled the yellow jerked the tail that way and made the man literally stab himself. 

“Chess game in the park, maybe?!” I blurted over the sound of his enraged bellow. While he was still recovering, yanking the blade of his tail free, I shot three more lines of red paint at the ground, and one at the man’s back. Then I hurled myself off him while shouting over my shoulder, “Call me, we’ll set something up!” 

With that, I activated the paint. The man was yanked downward partway before stopping. Landing on the edge of a window balcony, I could see his enormous muscles straining, the man spitting curses and threats. He was managing to keep himself in the air against the pull of the paint, but only just. 

Ten seconds, I had ten seconds where he’d be held or at least slowed down. I had to use them. One more shot of red paint took me to the next roof, and I activated my skates, landing easily on the wheels before pushing off. Green paint, green paint, green paint! I used it, launching myself across that roof as fast as I could go. Cuélebre’s pants-browning scream did a lot to make me forget about how tired I was, as I clutched the vial in my hand and pushed myself to keep moving.

Hitting the edge of the roof, I heard another bellow from Cuélebre. And then the first lightning bolt struck. It came from the sky, slamming into the roof about a dozen feet away from me. The power of it was enough to almost throw me forward, even as the resulting boom deafened me. 

But Cuélebre wasn’t done. A second strike came an instant later, followed by a third. Each one progressively closer. The man couldn’t even see me yet, he was just hurling lightning in the direction he’d seen me go. He had completely lost his goddamn mind

With a yelp, I threw myself off the roof. There wasn’t even time to make any blue paint or anything. I just had to leap, an instant before the next lightning strike hit the spot right where I had just been. It was an almost perfect shot from a guy who couldn’t even see me! 

I was falling through the air, windmilling and screaming. A quick thought, almost entirely reflex, brought my hand up to point across the street. From the corner of my eye, I could see the fire escape in an alley between the two buildings. Red paint, please, please…

It went off, and I was yanked that way. Yanked that way… just as yet another bolt of lightning struck. This one came so close all I saw was a blinding light. Pain engulfed my body, as a scream tore its way out of my throat. At some point, I had instinctively activated every bit of orange left on my costume. But it still hurt. Oh God, did it ever hurt. 

Everything came in a bit of a blurry, dazed rush then. I felt the air rushing past me. I felt myself hit the fire escape, slip off it, fall to land on top of the dumpster below, then roll off it to land on the ground. Barely conscious, I rolled over. It took absolutely everything I had, but the sound of Cuélebre approaching spurred me to move through the pain, through the desperate need to fall unconscious. I pushed myself and rolled under that dumpster. My helmet fell off in the process.

The demon man landed a moment later, hitting the street beyond before a chuckle escaped him. “No more wisecracks, little boy?” he demanded. “Why don’t you come out and invite me to dinner again?” 

He didn’t know where I was. But he did know that I was somewhere in the area, and hurt. It wouldn’t take him long to narrow down the possibilities. I had to do something. I had to… to move… to… think. But my vision kept fading in and out, and the thought of moving made me whimper mostly silently. Everything hurt. 

Then I heard it. Not Cuélebre. Another voice. 

“I think you’ve done enough damage for one night.” 

Silversmith. It was Silversmith. My dad. His voice was different from how I knew him, of course. But it was him. Turning my head a little, I could see the silver-armored man appear right in front of the giant demon, facing him down. 

A month earlier, I would have been elated. That was Silversmith, my favorite hero in the whole world. And he was, knowingly or not, saving my life. Saving me. It would have been one of the most amazing moments in my life. 

Now… now I knew the truth. I knew Silversmith was my father, and that he killed people. So mostly… mostly I was just confused about how I was supposed to feel right now. Confused, tired, sore, and trying very hard to stay conscious. 

“I am not in the mood, Hero-Man,” Cuélebre growled in a dismissive voice. Even as he said it, I saw the slight spark on his tail appear. Then a bolt of lightning, aimed straight at my father, tore down from the sky. 

It was intercepted by a large silver shield that appeared in the air. A similar (though smaller) shield appeared on my dad’s arm, along with a sword in his other hand as he calmly informed the Oscuro leader, “You’re about to be in a worse one.”

Cuélebre struck, lunging forward to swipe at my father. But just as he moved (thus negating his own invulnerability power that kicked in when he stood still), something slammed into him from behind. It was a truck. No, it was one of Silversmith’s constructs made to look like a truck. Either way, the shiny metal thing crashed into Cuélebre, just as Dad ducked and turned in one smooth motion. The giant demon man bellowed as he was hurled over Silversmith’s head and sent flying down the street and out of my line of sight. 

The form of the truck broke apart an instant after impact, turning back into its default liquid metal form. Like a big ball of floating mercury, or the T1000 Terminator.  

Silversmith, my dad, was already throwing himself up and backward. He crashed into his own liquid metal ball before stopping there as the stuff hardened and shaped itself around him. Soon, it didn’t look like a floating ball of liquid or a truck anymore. It had turned into what amounted to a battlesuit, armor as large as Cuélebre was. Silversmith was inside it. 

Another bolt of lightning came, but the large shield that had blocked it the first time had already spun through the air to catch against Dad’s new armor’s arm, and he caught the bolt easily. Then he pushed off, disappearing from sight as he chased after his giant opponent. 

They were gone. They were both gone. I was… I was safe? Safe, right. Sure. Safe here in my hiding place.  

I was hiding again. Just as I had on that first night, back when I had found out about my brother, about my family. After everything that had happened, there I was, lying under a dumpster and hiding again. 

It was too much. With the immediate danger gone, all I could do was lay there listening to the fighting between Cuélebre and my father as it faded into the distance. My eyes blinked a few times, straining to keep myself awake. I had to keep going, I had to… to use this chance to get out of here before something happened. Stay awake… Stay awake, damn it, stay…

I passed out.

****** 

“Paintball!” 

The voice dragged me back to consciousness. As my eyes blinked blearily open, I felt every muscle in my body protest even that movement. Groaning, I turned my head, reaching down to pull the helmet up with one hand before shoving it onto my head. Unfortunately, the view was… distorted, cracked. 

The visor of the helmet. It was shattered in a couple places. As I pushed myself out from under the dumpster with another groan, my hand moved to push the helmet off once more. Something was in my other hand. I looked down. The vial. It was still there, still intact by some miracle. I’d held onto it through all of that. 

“Paintball!” It was Eits, frantically calling my name as he came around the corner. When he saw me, he made a noise of relief. “Oh God, there you are! Are you okay? I was following in one of the cars. I saw you go down somewhere over here but I couldn’t get close until Silversmith chased the big guy off. He–he’s gone now. They’re gone. But you… are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I muttered, shaking off the lingering daze as much as I could. It hurt, everything hurt. And my ears were still ringing. But I was alive. “I’m okay, and I’ve got the vial. It’s–” Blinking up at the boy to find him staring at me in what looked like total shock, I hesitated. “What… what’s wrong? I–” 

Wait. Wait. What was wrong with my voice? It was– wait. My free hand found my phone. It was heavily damaged, the screen partially crushed, with random lines and colors across the cracked screen. Which meant my voice changer was gone. Which meant–

“Oh my God,” Eits stammered. 

“You’re a girl!”

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Learning Days Daze 2-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The silence following that particular announcement seemed to last for days. We all just stared at the kindly old Fomorian like he was… well, a kindly old Fomorian. There wasn’t really a more absurd example that sprang to mind. Yet, somehow, he had managed to make the situation even more insane. Which took some doing. 

“Grandfather,” Sonoma chided, “we said we were going to ease them into that whole thing. Gently, remember?”

An expression of confusion crossed his alien features, as he looked back and forth between our shocked looks and the Native American woman. “I did, didn’t I? I said we’ll talk about it later. How could—oh! Oh, oh yes.” 

Suddenly becoming completely distracted and clearly forgetting what he had just been talking about, the old Fomorian took a step toward Dare before catching himself. “Ah, pardon me. Not to startle you into any violent reactions, Miss Dare. But would you mind if I approach?”

Dare paused. For good reason, I knew. Not only did she have a lot of bad experiences with his people, but there was a lot riding on people not realizing exactly who she was. But, either she decided there wasn’t that much of a risk, or that refusing would be even more of a potential problem. Either way, she gave a slight nod while watching him carefully.

With a broad, disarming smile, the Fomorian quickly moved forward. I had the impression he could have moved even faster, but had deliberately slowed himself to avoid upsetting people. He was right there in front of Dare, gingerly taking hold of her wrist between two of his long fingers before staring at her arm. More specifically, at the bare part of skin between her wrist and the sleeve of her shirt. He made several curious hmmm noises while turning her arm this way and that before laughing with delight. “Yes, yes, I knew it! I knew this line was important when I saw it before. Didn’t I, little buddy? Yes, you. Who’s adorable? You’re adorable! Yes, that’s a good little trooper.” 

“Um.” Beside me, Rebecca asked quietly, “is he talking to her arm like it’s a puppy?”

My head shook. “I think he’s talking to her DNA like it’s a puppy.” Which was even weirder, but still.

After making another couple cooing noises of pride and delight, the Fomorian abruptly snapped his head around. It turned a full one-eighty to look straight at me. Which didn’t do anything to make me feel less freaked out. “Oh, but of course, of course. You have been forced to stay apart for such a long time, haven’t you?”

Wait, did… did he know… my eyes glanced up toward Dare, who looked almost physically stricken, mouth opening though it was clear that she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. But she had to say something, before this guy blurted out the wrong thing and—

“Yes, you certainly have,” the Fomorian concluded with a sage nod as he released Dare, his gaze still on me. “You’ve been separated from your mother for years now.” He stepped closer, going down on one knee again in front of me. His voice, while still cheerful, had taken on a note of somberness. “I’m sorry to hear of your family’s ills and trials. They’ve been through quite a lot. And have sacrificed much.” 

He knew. I was certain of that just from his words as I stared into his eyes. He knew exactly what the relationship between Dare and me was, and why it was so important that no one else find out. Had he known the whole time, or did he figure it out just by looking at us? If he had figured it out just by looking at us, had that hurt the spell? I found myself looking upward, almost anticipating some kind of cataclysmic sign of Fomorian ships like had happened back when Koren and I found out. 

But there was nothing like that, and the figure in front of me seemed to follow my gaze upward before assuring me in a casual tone, “It’s alright. I have great trust in the abilities of all of you.” 

He stood back up then, his infectiously cheerful voice continuing. “You’ve all done such amazing things. Removing that nasty memory spell. Building the Hoover dam. Bringing down that woolly mammoth in Broken Fang canyon. Defending your dens from the coyote pack near Moon Crescent Lake.” Pausing belatedly, his head tilted before he amended, “Wait, I was thinking of ancient tigers and modern beavers for those last two. But still!”

Of all of us, it was actually Vanessa who suddenly blurted, “What were you saying about my mom making a new universe?!” Her arms were raised in total bafflement as she stared at the figure. “What was all that about?“

Tabbris’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Mom can’t make universes! I mean—” she cut herself off, shooting a quick, apologetic look to Sariel as though feeling guilty about saying there was anything her mom couldn’t do. “I mean, she didn’t make a new universe.”

Clearly chuckling despite herself, Sariel ruffled both of her daughters’ hair before nodding. “What they said.”

Grandfather looked to her, seeming to consider for a moment before he responded. “You’re right, of course. You didn’t create a new universe. Not at all. No, your work with Tartarus did that.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if that should explain everything. Which… well, given what we knew of that place, it probably did help at least a little bit. But still… not really. 

Bastet exhaled, gesturing. “Everyone sit down. We’ll explain the full situation, I promise. It does involve your work to reopen a way to the Tartarus universe, but there’s a lot more to the whole thing. A… lot.” 

“She’s not kidding,” Sonoma assured us. “That’s where we’ve been for the past few months. Though it wasn’t that long for us. It’s– complicated. Really complicated. So let’s all sit down, get comfortable, and we’ll try to get through all of it.” 

Somehow, we arranged ourselves at the tables. Though it was clear that the only thing anyone was interested in was hearing this story. I sat between Avalon and Rebecca, the three of us exchanging glances. Tabbris was by her mother and brother. Everyone was looking toward Grandfather. As for the Fomorian himself, he seemed to be considering his words carefully before straightening up, cracking his knuckles. Despite everything, I saw every single adult we had brought with us stiffen reflexively for a moment.

But Grandfather simply started to talk. “Right then.” He looked to Sariel. “You created an orb to re-open a path into the Tartarus universe. To do so, you summoned latent energy from that universe and brought it here to Earth from all over this universe, yes?” When she simply nodded, he continued. “When you brought that energy to this world, it… I suppose the best word is absorbed. It absorbed information about the Earth. All of the information about this world was imprinted upon it. Like pushing silly putty against a newspaper. That’s fun! Have you ever—”

Stopping himself, the figure shook his head and pushed on. “Ahem, in any case, the energy from Tartarus is not stable in time. It fluctuates, often very dramatically. So when it was absorbing information, it didn’t only take that data from the moment the energy was here, it did so across the planet’s entire history from conception to… well, to the moment it was drawn to. One single bit of that energy bounced back in time all the way to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet and absorbed all of the information about them. Every last detail about every dinosaur imprinted all of it into a that little spark. And the same thing happened throughout all of this planet’s history. Isn’t it glorious?” 

Tristan frowned. “I don’t get it. This weird energy stuff was making records of the world?”

Grandfather’s head bobbed quickly, eagerly. “Yes, yes! But not just normal records. No, that’s not what it was doing. It was copying entire living beings, you see? All that data about how many legs and arms something something is supposed to have, how many heads, how many teeth, or eyes, or how long their intestines should be. It was copying all of it. Physical data and mental data. Historical record and a sort of… what’s the word?”

“Photograph,” Bastet supplied. She was looking to the rest of us. “The energy was brought here to this world. It carried itself across space and time, recording all the information it could about Earth. But even for something as absurd as Tartarus energy, it can only record so much. So as far as keeping physical records, it focused on what it saw as native inhabitants. Animals native to this world, including humans.”

Gwen spoke then. “So if I have this right, this energy was called here and experienced all of human history. Somehow, for some reason, it was recording all of this. Not just the basic information but… like… physical structures of what it considered to be native animals. And plants, I assume. It was, what, taking pictures of people?”

“Oh, more than that,” Grandfather insisted, “so much more than that. It wasn’t just making pictures, it was making copies. Copies of every flora and fauna it saw as native to this world, across its entire history.”

“That’s impossible,” Vanessa blurted. “That’s over a hundred billion humans alone, let alone all the plants and animals and… do you have any idea how many different animals and people that is? Do you have any idea how many plants that is?”

Grandfather nodded excitedly. “Yes, it’s rather amazing, isn’t it? All that information locked into those tiny sparks of energy and then put in the sphere that Mrs. Moon here and her adopted brother created.”

Sariel sank back in her seat. “We sent the orb back to our people. What did we do…?”

“Very good things!” Grandfather insisted. “You remember the siphon?”

“You haven’t told them that part yet,” Sonoma gently noted. 

Finally unable to help myself, I quickly put in. “This is about the place Harrison Fredericks went, isn’t it? Columbus was telling us about that. Fredericks said he showed up in a world that was like ours, only they had… like… superheroes. Normal people with superpowers and costumes and everything. Superpowers they got from some orb that said Summus Proelium in their heads or something.”

Sariel gave a slight nod. “The orb ended up in an alternate Earth somehow. We knew that.”

Grandfather, however, shook his head quickly. “Not just an alternate Earth. One created by the orb itself. When your people activated it and sent it through to Tartarus, the safeguards that you put on the orb against danger activated. Tartarus is nothing but danger. So the orb attempted to escape. Your protection magic made it try to get out of Tartarus, out of its own home. It did so the only way that it could, by creating a new universe and popping itself out into it.”

Avalon’s voice was dull with disbelief. “The orb created an entire universe?”

It was Bastet who answered. “Not by itself. The orb was smart. Well, smart in a way, thanks to the magic put on it. It absorbed all the Tartarus energy it could and used that to both break out of there, and to create this new universe. Not a full copy, of course. It had records of where all the planets and stars and everything else were supposed to be, for the most part. But the only information about living beings it had was what it recorded on Earth.”

Sonoma took over for a moment. “The orb created an empty universe. Empty except for Earth. On that Earth, it bounced across billions of years, creating every living being in its memory. It literally created copies of every person, animal, plant, everything. It copied everything including the history. It made everything exactly the same. Only it didn’t copy Alters. Or Heretics. Because the energy saw Heretics as not being native to Earth. It copied their basic information, but not enough to create physical bodies.”

Grandfather spoke again. “This wonderful, loyal orb was trying to get home. Home to, well, its mother. But it was confused. A very brave and smart little magic orb, but not exactly perfect in its reasoning. It’s like a child, you see. It thought it could create home. So it made that Earth with everything being completely identical. It created new physical bodies of every human being it had recorded, filled them with their own memories and personalities, faked things where it needed to in order to force the history to go the way it was supposed to even without Alter influence, and generally tried its best to make what was supposed to be home.”

Avalon slowly exhaled. “You’re saying it made the history of this alternate world exactly the same as ours, even when Heretics and Alters didn’t exist, just by… forcing things to happen?” 

Again, Grandfather’s head bobbed. “Precisely! Brilliant, isn’t it? In its own way, at least. It thought it could create the perfect situation to make the world it was creating be the home that it left.” 

“But it couldn’t.” That was Bastet. “It couldn’t really make that place the way it wanted, because something was missing. It was still trying to find its mother.” She looked to Sariel. “Think of the orb as an AI. It’s been trying to find its creator and get back to you. When making this whole new world didn’t work, it had to try something else. So it created another world. It bounced back into Tartarus, absorbed more energy, then popped out again and created another Earth just like the first one it made. This time it changed a few things here and there. But you still weren’t there. So it did it again, and again, and again. It was trying to find the iteration of the world where you existed.”

It was Grandfather’s turn again, while all of us sat there stunned into silence. “The poor, loyal orb couldn’t find you anywhere, no matter how many different Earths it made. So it tried something else. I suppose it thought maybe the humans it made could find you, or become you, or help it understand what it did wrong. Maybe all of the above. The point is, it began taking Tartarus energy and using it the way it remembered from you.”

“Powers,” I realized aloud. “It started using the energy to give people powers. That’s what Fredericks saw. The orb created all these Earths and then just started turning the humans into superheroes because it was trying to find Sariel?”

“Superheroes on some worlds,” Sonoma confirmed. “Different things on others. One Earth became more of a… fantasy world of magic and monsters as the orb delivered specific Tartarus gifts unlocking the ability to use magic in the previously non-magical humans, while transforming others into approximations of what it remembered of various Alters from human memories. Other Earths it left completely alone with no interference. We believe it sees those worlds as a control group.” 

“And what was that you said about a siphon?” Koren put in, sounding just as stunned as I felt. 

“Oh yes!” Grandfather explained with infectious childlike eagerness. “Tartarus is fast and incredibly powerful. But it is not entirely without limits. This wonderful, wonderful little orb had been creating entire galaxies over and over again, and filling them with people. That takes a lot of power. Power it was draining from Tartarus, you see? It was a part of Tartarus itself, so the place couldn’t expel or stop it. But it was different, thanks to the magic placed on it. In trying to get home or create home, in trying to find its creator, it drained more and more energy from Tartarus. It’s still draining power from Tartarus. That wonderful orb is acting as a siphon, drawing power and weakening it so it can’t wake them up.”

Gabriel, who had been silent up to this point, asked, “Wake who up?”

It was Sariel who answered. “The monsters who nearly destroyed the universe before. My people developed our space flight based on technology we got from a crashed ship belonging to a race known as the Suelesk. Their entire civilization and most of the universe at the time were almost entirely wiped out by these giant monsters. Four of them. They were from Tartarus, weren’t they?”

Bastet nodded. “And it has been trying to wake them up, or find them, or retrieve them, or something. We’re not sure. Either way, it’s been using energy to try to bring them back. And it seemed like it might have been getting close. But that little orb you made keeps taking all the excess energy and stealing it. Stealing energy for its own little project, and Tartarus itself is incapable of doing anything about it.”

Vanessa spoke up quickly. “It’s like the orb infected Tartarus. Like… Tartarus knows something’s wrong, but it can’t detect the orb as an intruder because it’s all made up of its own energy.”

With clear delight on his widely smiling face, Grandfather pointed to her. “Yes! Yes, exactly! Brilliant girl. I knew your line was destined for something special the moment they used mud as a cooling agent.  Brilliant.”

Tristan patted his sister on the back. “Yeah, that’s our Nessa, always cooling off with mud.”

While Sariel sat there looking completely stunned into silence, Dare cleared her throat. “So, let’s sum up what you’re saying. The orb that was made to give the Seosten access to Tartarus again has managed to gain some vague form of pseudo-sapience. Now it’s looking for its mother, only it’s confused and thinks it can just make a new world and she’ll be on it. So it keeps making different variations of Earth based on all the information it absorbed about this place. Only on those Earths, humans are the only species who exist? Does that mean that if your people find these other universes they could have all the humans they could ever want?”

Bastet answered. “That’s part of the reason we went over there to check. No. The orb copied the physical form of humans, but it either didn’t or couldn’t replicate their bonding ability. They’re identical to humans from this Earth in almost every other respect aside from that. Even their history is basically the same all the way up to around the year two thousand. Anytime great historical events were influenced by supernatural forces on this world, the orb just faked it to try and make things as similar as possible.”

Sonoma added, “It’s been trying to throw in different variations to figure out why it can’t find its creator. So, as we said, in some worlds it introduces powers earlier than others, sometimes it introduces them in a different way or changes things, and in some it doesn’t introduce them at all.”

Remembering what Columbus had said once more, I asked, “What about the voice? It says Summus Proelium in a female voice.”

“Mrs. Moon’s voice,” Grandfather informed us. “The orb is trying to find its maker, so it uses those words to embed her voice into their minds. If they hear her voice, it will know and come to them.”

Sariel finally spoke up. “If this— If the orb is trying so hard to find me, I should go to it. It’s been creating entire universes trying to find me.” She sounded understandably dazed by the whole prospect. “It… I need to talk to it.”

Bastet replied, “The orb is bouncing wildly through time and universes. Sometimes more than one iteration of itself show up right next to each other. It seems to ignore most known rules of time travel, probably because it’s the one that created these universes. Either way, if you go there, you will probably end up drawing a lot of different iterations of it to you at the same time. It could end up causing more problems than it solves. Better to stay here and use magic to lock onto a specific version of it, pull that version to you and work things out from there.”

Sonoma added, “Besides, as they said, the orb is drawing energy that Tartarus would use to wake up universe-destroying abominations.”

Shifting up in my seat, I slowly spoke. “Sariel and Apollo accidentally created a sapient magic orb that’s saving the universe by draining power from the dimension of ultimate evil and destruction to create lots of different Earths so it can try to find its mother. Yup, that makes perfect sense to me.”

Raising her hand, Rebecca spoke up weakly. “You know, Grandma has been telling me some really crazy stories about when she and Mrs. Chambers were young. 

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win the next storytime.”

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As far as walking into potentially dangerous situations went, it couldn’t get much better than doing so with Sariel, Gabriel Prosser, Gwen, and Professor Dare surrounding us. That assortment of incredibly powerful, skilled people went a long way toward making the idea of walking into dinner with a Fomorian somewhat less terrifying. Aylen’s assurances that ‘Grandfather’ would never hurt us and her explanation of why that was so helped a lot too, but still. I’m not sure I would’ve felt great about going to this whole thing without all the protection. I probably still would’ve done it thanks to everything she said, but I would’ve been a lot more nervous. 

The point was, with all four adults, the rest of us felt better about the whole thing. I wasn’t sure how they felt about it given they had actually fought the Fomorians for a lot longer than we had (a lot longer in Sariel’s case), but still. They were staying quiet as we walked through what turned out to be a wide open grassy field with a cottage sitting next to a small lake. There were several long tables set up behind the cottage, covered in tablecloths and stacks of dishes.

Aylen was out front, by her own insistence. Avalon, Koren, Tabbris, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I were walking together, with the four adults spread out around us. Gabriel brought up the rear, Dare walked to the left, Sariel to the right, and Gwen was right up front, just behind Aylen. As a group, we made our way across the field, approaching that pleasant-looking little cottage. 

A figure appeared there, between two of the tables as we got closer. One second there was nothing there, then there was. It wasn’t the Fomorian, probably purposefully. Intead, the figure was a woman. She stood there in a dark blue cloak that drifted loosely in the soft breeze, the hood leaving most of her face cast in shadows save for the soft azure glow from her eyes.  

If any of the adults were taken aback by the woman’s sudden appearance ahead of us, they didn’t show it at all. The four simply stopped walking, followed belatedly by the rest of us. 

“Mother,” Aylen chided while continuing on that way. “Stop trying to intimidate my friends.” 

The voice that came from the woman was quiet, yet reached all of us easily.  “I wasn’t trying to intimidate them. I was making it clear that we would not be intimidated. There is a difference.” 

“Sorry!” That voice came from the doorway of the cottage, as another female figure came rushing out. She was Native American, a fairly small and fragile-looking woman with long dark hair framing a soft, welcoming face. She was carrying a tray full of various crackers, meats, and cheeses, hurrying over to one of the tables to put it down before brushing off her simple jeans and red flannel shirt. “I told her to be nice.” To the first woman, she reiterated, “I said be nice.” 

“I was being nice,” the cloaked figure murmured. “I didn’t say anything wrong.” Her gaze turned to us then. Or me, specifically. The two of us locked eyes, as I stared into those softly glowing blue orbs. There was an incredible amount of power and knowledge there. As well as something deeper. Pain, loss, a very real sense of… worry. Somehow, looking at her, I knew she was… afraid of how this would go. She was as nervous as any of the rest of us, afraid this whole thing would go wrong and that Aylen would have to leave us. She was afraid that this would ruin her daughter’s relationship with us, with her friends. And despite all the reassurances Aylen had given her about how we could be trusted, she was still wary of potentially having to defend herself, her wife, and the Fomorian who had cared for her for so long when no others would. 

Wait. With a jolt, I blinked rapidly and broke the connection. How… how had I gotten all that just by looking in her eyes? What the hell? I didn’t have any kind of empathic powers as far as I knew. I couldn’t read people’s emotions like that. And it had never happened that way in the past in any case. So how had I just looked into this woman’s eyes and suddenly understood all that? Was she projecting her feelings to me? But that didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for her to do that, and I had the impression that she wouldn’t have wanted me to know that much about her own personal feelings and worries anyway. So what the living hell? 

The conversation between the adults who had come with us and Aylen’s other mother had continued, as she stepped over and extended a hand toward Gwen with a voice that was clearly pushing for cheerfulness to cover the tension and uncertainty that everyone very obviously felt. “Hi, good evening. My name is Sonoma.” 

Apparently Gwen was the right person on our side to break the tension, because she immediately shook the offered hand, her smile bright and genuine. “Well hiya! I’ve gotta say, meeting you and… well, hearing about your little family has done a hell of a lot to answer some questions I’ve had for a long time.” Her words were cheerful, as she shook the hand enthusiastically. This was real, I knew. She wasn’t putting on an act or anything. It was the Harper part of her, the part of Harper that had been the real Gwen. She was open, enthusiastic, cheerful, kind of goofy… that was Guinevere, wife of King Arthur and secretly the real Lancelot. She was a bit of a dork (like me, honestly) and absolutely the right person to speak first. 

Clearly taken a bit by surprise, Sonoma smiled reflexively while returning the handshake. “Oh. Well, yeah, I suppose we probably have left a few mysteries lying around over the years.” 

“Speaking of mysteries we’ve left lying around,” the hooded woman put in, “apparently you’ve picked up my wife’s ring, though it’s a choker now.” 

While I was blinking in surprise at that, Gabriel spoke up. “The Ring of Anuk-Ite.” His gaze was on Sonoma. “You were the old chief’s daughter, the one who searched out a shaman to help… ahhh, cure his child when she was turned into an Alter.” 

“Wait, yeah, I remember this,” Rebecca blurted. “You guys were telling us about it over the summer. Old shaman couldn’t turn her human again, but she enchanted a ring for the girl that would hide her from the Heretic sense, right? But… the legends said another creature killed her and took the ring.” 

“Took the ring,” Sonoma confirmed. “Not so much with the death thing. And that much wasn’t so bad. It’s how I ended up meeting Bastet again.” Her gaze turned slightly to the hooded figure with the same kind of smile that I often found myself giving Shiori and Avalon. “She and Grandfather were the ones who made the ring in the first place. My father and I found them. Or they found us. When the ring was taken, Bastet… helped me. We’ve been together ever since.” 

Bastet. Wait a second, Bastet and Grandfather. Why did that sound so familiar when put that wa–

“Bastet and Grandfather!” That was Avalon, not me. She blurted it out loud, eyes widening. “I know you. I mean, my–Liesje Aken, my ancestor, she knew you. When I saw her–I mean when she… she recorded a memory, a ghost, sort of. Her memory-ghost told me that Grandfather and Bastet helped her create the anti-possession spell that’s been protecting her descendants. The same one that Dries, Sariel, and the others have been fixing to protect everyone back at the school.” 

Right, right, that was how I knew the name. Avalon had told me all about that. Why hadn’t the name ‘Grandfather’ tickled anything in our memories before now? Maybe it was just that generic. But still. 

Bastet had finally reached up to take the hood down, revealing a Reaper-pale face and long azure hair that matched her eyes. Her voice was slightly warmer. “I remember Liesje. I liked her. She found us without any real nudges, essentially on her own. That was… impressive.”

“Liesje found you and this Grandfather guy all on her own?” I blinked, looking over at Avalon. “Damn, your ancestor was a badass.” 

“Like we didn’t know that already,” she retorted dryly before blinking. “The story. Right. The story said that the Ring of Anuk-Ite was made by a being who lived on Earth since the first wind touched the first dust.” 

“Grandfather,” Aylen supplied. “And he hasn’t been on Earth that long, but poetic license. Like I told you, he brought ancient humans here, so he’s been around since we’ve existed, basically.”

This was all making a lot more sense. Holes in what I understood were being filled in really quickly over these past few hours. 

Another long-standing mystery was filled in a moment later as something clicked in my head. “Wait a second.” My eyes snapped over to Bastet, who was watching me with a curious expression. “You. Your aura’s gold, isn’t it? Because your father is the–the reaper back at Crossroads. He’s your father and his aura is gold, like Gaia’s and mine. And my Mom’s. We’re connected to the Reaper in the lighthouse and he’s your father so your aura is probably gold.” When the woman slowly nodded, I snapped my fingers. “You were the one who killed those eleven Heretics awhile back! The one who jumped in to stop them from massacring those Alters and killed eleven of the twelve Heretics who were there. The Committee thought it was my mother, but it was you.” 

Her head gave a slight bow. “You picked up on that quite easily. Yes, Grandfather and I have spent generation after generation working in the shadows. Sometimes I choose to be… a little more open about things. It was not my intention to cast the blame to your mother. Apparently the Heretic I left alive did a terrible job of providing a description of her attacker.” 

“Or they just weren’t listening after she said ‘gold aura’ and my mother’s name popped into all their heads,” I pointed out with a shrug. “Still, that explains it. I’ve seriously been wondering about that for months.” 

Looking back over to me, Gwen pointed out, “Now multiply that by a thousand years or so with little mysteries piling up. Yeah, this whole thing answers a lot.” She glanced to Sonoma and Bastet then while adding, “We really need to sit down at some point and talk all that out. But it can wait until after we’re all a little more comfortable with each other.” Her expression brightened. “Which, hey, is what this whole dinner is about, right?” 

Tabbris, who had been sticking pretty close to her mother as well as Tristan and Vanessa through this, spoke up. “Do we get to meet this Grandfather guy now?” 

Her mother laid a hand on the girl’s head with a nod. “Yes, I believe we are all quite interested in that prospect. Even if we are also nervous about it.” That admission came with a small smile, obviously attempting to make light of what was probably a very tense situation for someone like her. The Seosten had been fighting the Fomorians for hundreds of thousands of years and had apparently never encountered a single good version. Maybe that was because only the bad ones went out conquering galaxies, but still. The fact that she had spent so long like that meant that being willing to accept that there could be a good one even through Tartarus shenanigans was pretty big. 

There was a brief pause as Sonoma and Bastet looked at one another, exchanging some kind of silent communication before the latter turned back to us with a slight nod. “Yes. Before we eat, it’s best if you all meet him.” Her eyes narrowed, however, as she slowly looked over our entire assembled group. “But let me make something clear. I understand–we understand– that this will be a tense situation and that you have never met anyone like him. With that in mind, if anyone makes a hostile move toward any of us, including Grandfather, you will not like how this meeting proceeds.” 

“Bastet,” Sonoma spoke carefully, taking a step that way before looking to us. “You have to understand, we aren’t exactly accustomed to reaching out like this… at all. Grandfather keeps himself secret for a reason. Not only because of how people could react, but also to stay away from his other half. Opening up like this is dangerous. But we… we thought it was the right time, after everything you’ve done. Everything that’s happening, it’s… time for us to open up a little bit.” 

It was Gabriel who responded to that first. “I believe we all completely understand why you would be hesitant to trust in your situation. Just as I believe you can understand why the idea of someone like this Grandfather is very… odd. But you’re right, given how things are progressing, we need to work together. Which means trusting one another at least enough to actually meet.” 

“Great,” Koren blurted, sounding maybe just a little hysterical. “Now that we all totally understand each other, can we get on with it?”  

“You, I like,” Bastet informed her before nodding. “Yes, now that we’re on the same page.” She turned, speaking in just as normal a voice as ever without raising it at all. “Grandfather, it’s safe.”

And with that, a figure emerged from the cottage. Everyone stood there, very much trying to remind ourselves not to freak out. It was the Fomorian alright. He was tall, with the same angular features, gray skin, and big eyes as the one we’d met at Thanksgiving. He looked kind of like one of those stereotypical ‘gray aliens’ from so many sci fi and alien abduction stories. Which made sense, given how ingrained these guys (and this one in particular) had to be in the human consciousness. Seeing him raised the hair on the back of my neck, even though I had been repeatedly assured about how safe and good he actually was. 

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected this ‘good Fomorian’ to be like, honestly. I didn’t know how I thought he would act or talk. But whatever I had expected, it was obviously way off. Because the first thing this Fomorian did, as soon as we had a chance to see him, was clap his hands. His voice was bright and cheerful, totally at odds with his appearance. 

Also at odds with his appearance? His appearance. Specifically, the apron he wore. Yeah. Despite my private assertion earlier, the Fomorian was wearing an apron. It was white, with words on the front, a mixture of handwritten and carefully printed. In printed letters at the top, it read ‘We–’ followed by the word ‘Grandfather’ in neat handwriting and ‘Aylen’ in the sloppy print of a child. Next to each was a handprint, the many-fingered Fomorian to the left of ‘Grandfather’ and a small human child’s print to the right of ‘Aylen’. 

Underneath their names and handprints were the neatly printed words, ‘Cooking Buddies! Together, we can make–’ And under that was what had at one point been a lot of blank space. But almost all of that blank space was taken up by scrawled words clearly written by the young Aylen, a list of the dozens and dozens of things she’d cooked with Grandfather over the years. Just glancing at it, I could see her handwriting getting better as the list went on and she grew older. That and the things they made grew more complicated.  

While we were taking all that in, the Fomorian known as Grandfather blurted a delighted, “Yes! Yes, excellent! You’re all here! Oooh, you’re all here, wonderful! Ohhh you all look so amazing! So much hair, so much color! Your eyes! Your little fingers! Ohhh my, oh my, oh my! Beautiful, and so handsome. So very handsome. We must get pictures. Yes, yes we must have pictures for the album. Our album is so very lacking in people other than us. And one with dark skin! Wonderful, so wonderful! I think I met your original progenitor once, dear boy. I have a picture somewhere. You have his eyes. Gabriel, yes? Yes, such a wonderful name. Such wonderful people! Children, children everywhere!” He was practically crying with happiness, arms extended wide as if to literally hug all of us. At the same time, he was bouncing back and forth from foot to foot, obviously far too excited to stand still. 

Yeah, this… this was not at all what I had expected. In the background, I could see Aylen watching us all with an expression that was clearly a mixture of nervous and amused. Amused to see how we would react, and also nervous about how we would react. 

Dare was stiff, but motionless. I could see the intense emotions playing out behind her eyes. Of course, considering she’d literally sacrificed her entire identity and her husband to kick the Fomorians off Earth, this would affect her. She kept it under control, eyes flicking towards me before giving a subtle nod. She would be okay. Gwen and Gabriel were taking it in stride, the former looking more curious than anything, while Sariel… Sariel looked… relieved? Not in a ‘oh good it wasn’t a trap’ way, but more… it was deeper than that. I had a strange feeling that some part of the Seosten woman had almost been desperate for this to be real, for a living ‘good Fomorian’ to exist. 

Meanwhile, beside me, Koren made a sound deep in her throat. Quickly looking that way, I saw her eyes widen, tears starting to leak from them. She wasn’t even looking at his disarming apron. She wasn’t ready. She was back there, back almost a year ago at Thanksgiving, in the house where her real father had been murdered and the Hiding Man had forced her to stick her hands inside her mother to keep her heart pumping. 

Grandfather’s bright, cheerful expression dropped a bit when he looked at Koren. Immediately, he went down to one knee. His voice, when he spoke, was much different than I expected. He sounded… well, like a grandfather, really. He sounded old and kind and knowledgeable. He sounded wise. 

“Dearest far-child,” he said quietly, his voice much more serious and gentle than his previous loud and cheerful words. “Excited as I am to see how much you have grown from your ancestors… I remember your progenitor too. I remember the look in the eyes of your ancient ancestor, the first of your line to look upon the sky. I remember watching him take up his first rock, hold it in his hand, and scrape his name upon the wall of the cave. I was so proud of him, so proud of all of them, all of you. You are all my most tremendous, remarkable creations, who have so far exceeded any of my dreams. 

“But in my excitement, I do sometimes forget that my appearance carries its own burdens. I am so very sorry for the losses you have experienced. It was not my intention to cause you grief or fear. I care for all of you. I would never wish to bring misery or harm to you. You are all the greatest achievement I shall ever experience.” He seemed to hesitate then before softly adding, “I would… ask that you please not be afraid of me. But should my presence inspire too much ache, I will step away and not intrude again, you need only give the word.” 

With a deep gulp, Koren glanced to me before very slowly stepping closer. “You’re… you’re not like the others.” 

“No,” he promised, giving a slight shake of his head. “I’m very glad to say that I’m not.” 

There was another brief pause, before Koren exhaled, her voice quivering just a little. “I think it’s okay if you stay.” 

The smile came back, a smile that somehow seemed to light up the whole area despite the fact that we were standing in daylight. Grandfather straightened slowly, clearly making a point not to move too quickly in front of us. “Thank you, far-child,” he murmured before turning to look toward Sariel. “And you,” he asked simply. “Honorable Seosten… and your children. Are you quite alright?” 

Sariel gave a single nod. “Yes, I believe I am.” 

“Excellent, excellent, very good.” That childlike enthusiasm and happiness was back, as he clapped his hands once. “In that case, shall we eat? I’m quite eager to share all this food we’ve been making!

“And then, perhaps I can tell you about the alternate universe that your experiments into what you call Tartarus has created.” 

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from outfront. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, a Fomorian. We were about to go to dinner with a Fomorian. After everything I’d learned (and actually seen) about those monsters last year, the very idea of actually sitting down to a meal with one of them felt more like a threat of torture than anything else. Despite everything Aylen had said, along with everything we’d all been saying about how every species could be good, it was still pretty hard to just stop being nervous about it.  

That, more than anything else had in the past, gave me a bit of insight into how hard it was for other people who had grown up under the Bosch way of thinking to accept that their entire society had been wrong for so long. This wasn’t even my entire world view being challenged and changed. This was just accepting that, through extraordinary circumstances, one single member of an otherwise totally evil race was good. And I was still somewhat suspicious. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t quite as hard to imagine why people would stick to what they had been taught for so long. 

I shoved it down, knowing it was wrong, but that didn’t stop the hair on the back of my neck from standing up at the very thought of going to this dinner. At the very least, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to relax anytime soon. 

Lost in thought after explaining everything to a just-recalled Tabbris, I barely noticed as she turned my hair pink and looked over toward Professor Dare. We were still in the park area, aside from Aylen, who was still gone to give us all a chance to talk about what she’d said. 

“I want Mama to come,” my mouth said, before Tabbris stepped out of me. She drew herself up, looking at Dare and Gwen. “I think Aylen’s right, and telling the truth and everything, but I still want Mama to come.”

Vanessa and Tristan both nodded together, the former speaking up. “Yeah, our mom should come. She knows a lot about Fomorians. And about magical science. Which, for the record, is still a term that makes me twitch when I say it. Either way, Mom should be there.”

Dare paused before nodding. “That’s not a bad idea. If this…” She breathed in and then out, clearly having issues with the concept. “If this Fomorian is on the level, he won’t object to us having as much reinforcement as possible, within reason. And your mother is definitely within reason. But we need to keep this close and quiet. There are a lot of people who would never understand having any kind of discussion with a Fomorian, all explanations be damned. And this entire alliance is on shaky ground as it is. Until we find out more, don’t go telling anybody else about it, okay?”

Koren raised a hand. “What about my mom?”

Dare nodded to that. “You and I can go talk to her before any of this happens. Obviously, there are exceptions. I just mean in general, keep it quiet. I know this is a new year and a new school and everything. But let’s not push our luck for how much people will accept very quickly.”

She was right, and we all agreed to keep it as quiet as possible, at least until after this dinner when we would have a better idea of how on the level the whole thing was. 

We separated for the time being, Tabbris and I walking with Avalon. On the way out of the park, I looked over at the dark-haired girl beside me. “You think the Fomorian thing might have something to do with Aylen being the Merlin Key that’s supposed to wake up Arthur?”

She paused, head tilting slightly before offering me a shrug. “Could be related. Or maybe it’s still just the Reaper thing. Either way, she’s really different from most people.”

Tabbris looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and I nodded her way before speaking toward Avalon. “You kinda like her, huh?”

For once, the normally perfectly poised and graceful young woman missed a step, almost stumbling as she looked at me. “I haven’t— I mean, I wouldn’t—”

With a smile, I stepped around in front of her, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Valley, listen to me. Do you know how they said that a million Earths could fit in the sun when they were talking about how hard it would be to find this place?”

“One point three million,” Avalon corrected, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Imagine the biggest hypocrite who has ever existed in the history of the universe is the size of the Earth,” I explained. “If I actually had a problem with you liking somebody else, I would be the sun to that Earth. You could fit one point three million record breaking hypocrites in the hypocrite that I would be at that point. I have Shiori, remember? I have her and you. And you, just you by yourself…” Swallowing, I reached up and laid my hand against her cheek. “You’re more than I ever thought I could have. I don’t mind if you like somebody else too. It doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other.  You share love, you don’t hoard it. So trust me when I say that it’s okay if you like Aylen.” 

That all said, I leaned in and gently touched my lips to hers before leaning back to smile at her. “Okay?”

She exhaled, hands moving up to settle on my shoulders, squeezing a bit before murmuring a quiet, “Okay. You’re a pretty good girlfriend, Chambers.”

Showing my teeth in a cheesy grin, I replied airily, “It’s all thanks to Herbie. He offers excellent relationship advice.”

That all taken care of, I looked over to Tabbris. “Speaking of your mom, how’s that whole multiple recall points thing going? Wasn’t she teaching you how to work with that?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s really hard, though. It has to do with taking a little bit of the first person’s magical energy with you. But every time you take energy out of someone like that, it tries to fall out from being shaped like them to being shapeless. You have to try to keep it in the right shape the whole time until you get to somebody else and then leave it in them. Then you can trick your recall into thinking the bit of the first person that you left in the second person is actually the first person.” Her head tilted a bit and she worked through that in her head before nodding with satisfaction. “Like I said, it’s really hard. Mama does it really easily. She can take a little bit out of one person and copy it into other people. It’s crazy.”  Even as she said it, the girl was grinning broadly, unable to keep just how proud she was of her mother out of her face. 

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “That sounds pretty useful. Even just the copying someone’s magical signature part. There’s a lot you could do with that besides creating a duplicate recall point. Magical signatures are important all on their own for a lot of other things.”

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Tabbris quickly agreed. “She said we have to be really careful when we do it, because bad things can happen if it’s wrong.“

“Being careful sounds like good advice in general,” I murmured. “Especially when it comes to possession and borrowing someone’s magical energy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that not doing that willy nilly without practice is a good idea. No wonder your mom’s being careful about who she shares that with.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the other two before I straightened. “Now, speaking of things we’re going to have to be careful with, let’s go with Vanessa and Tristan and see about getting your mom involved in this insanity. Because in a dinner party that already involves a good Fomorian, an ancient Native American werecrow, and the half-Reaper daughter of the being who literally powers the Heretical Edge, we’d be crazy not to throw Artemis into the mix too.”

********

Eventually, after hours of worrying about it and obsessing over how this was going to go, it was time. As a group, including Sariel, we met Aylen in one of the transport rooms. They were  essentially large open metal chambers with spellwork all over them that was supposed to make it impossible, or as close as it could be to impossible, for anyone to backtrace a transport from here down to Earth. Or wherever else we went. A dozen of the best magic users we had, including Wyatt, had worked for over a month to ensure it was all as safe as possible. We knew that trying to get into this place would be one of the top priorities of the loyalists. So making sure that was as close to impossible as we could was one of our top priorities. 

Pffft, we and our. Like I had actually done anything. I’d seen some of what they were planning at the time, when Wyatt showed me his notes, and it was as far above my head as my new calculus classes would have been to a third grader. I’d say it was Greek to me, but I actually understood a little Greek. 

What it came down to was that the transport rooms were safe, and they were supposed to be the only place we transported from if there was any choice at all. It had been drilled into our heads repeatedly that just because we weren’t planning on facing any loyalists didn’t mean that they wouldn’t eventually find the spot we had transported down to, where they could possibly use residual energy to trace back to where we had come from if we didn’t use these rooms. 

Aylen was standing nearby, fidgeting with uncharacteristic nervousness as she watched everyone gather. I saw her eyes stray over toward Sariel now and then, before she finally spoke up. “Okay, um, there’s something you all should know about Grandfather before we go anywhere.”

Standing off by herself, Rebecca offered a weak, “You already told us he’s a Fomorian, what else could there be? Don’t say he’s a Yankees fan too. Hold on, wait, is that how they win all the time? Cuz that would explain a lot.

Stepping over by the tiny girl, I asked, “Your grandmother get you into Bystander sports?”

Her head bobbed. “I’m pretty sure she and Sands and Sarah’s mom tried to set up some kind of league for it awhile ago. You know, something fun that wasn’t combat training. They couldn’t get enough people interested.”

“Maybe they should try again up here,” I offered before looking to Aylen. “What did you want to warn us about?”

After a brief moment of hesitation, she explained, “Grandfather is very enthusiastic. He’s eccentric and friendly and maybe a little too forward, and very enthusiastic. He doesn’t tend to get to talk to a lot of people, for obvious reasons, so when he does, sometimes he goes overboard. Like I said, he’ll never hurt you. But he might get a bit… curious and touch you. It’s just something he does. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s eccentric, and really nice.”

Sariel, standing with all three of her children around her, lifted her chin to watch the girl for a moment while speaking. “You must have grown up in a very curious household, Aylen. I would be very interested in hearing stories about it later, if you are willing to share.”

It was kind of weird. Out of all of us, Sariel actually seemed the most at ease with the idea of meeting a good Fomorian. I didn’t know if she was just better at hiding her feelings, or if knowing them as well as she did made this easier to believe somehow, or what. Maybe seeing all the evil her own people had done made all this easier to go with. Regardless, after getting the situation explained, she’d barely batted an eye before apparently being completely on board with it.

Abigail, on the other hand, had wanted to come. She also wanted to forbid both Koren and me from going. But Dare had promised her we would be okay, and that her going was a bad idea. Not only was she not exactly huge in combat, but she was also very important as a symbol here in the school. If she left, it would raise a lot of questions from everyone here. We wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet for long. She’d had put herself in that kind of spotlight and couldn’t easily step out of it. 

So, somewhat reluctantly, Abigail had agreed. We would go down to this dinner and let her know about everything that happened during it.

Gwen stepped forward. She had been standing back with Gabriel Prosser, who had transported up here to leave with us. The two of them had been holding a long, magically quiet conversation. Whatever they had been talking about had been pretty intense, just by judging from the outside. 

Now, Gwen looked to Aylen. “I know this was probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, given how we could’ve reacted. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a really important secret that you’re keeping from people you care about.” Offering the much younger girl a wry smile, she added, “It must’ve been hard not knowing how it would go. Or still not knowing how it’ll go. It’s okay. Whatever happens, we’ll all try to be as diplomatic as possible. And hey, thanks for trusting us enough to even try this.”

The words were enough to draw a small smile out of Aylen, as she admitted, “Mother had me wear magic on my shoes that would have taken me out of here if you reacted badly.” She shrugged, casting a somewhat guilty look over toward Avalon. “Sorry, no offense. Our family’s just really accustomed to being careful.”

With a light chuckle, Gwen shook her head. “Believe me when I say, none taken. Isn’t that right, Gabriel?“

The large, dark-skinned man gave a single nod. “We do know something about needing to take care when reaching out to trust someone potentially dangerous.”

“And yet,” Dare pointed out, “we also know a bit about needing to take a leap of faith at times. You say this grandfather of yours is a good Fomorian? I have to admit, that’s pretty hard for me to accept, after everything I’ve seen. But, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I didn’t at least give it a chance.”

“Earths in the sun kind of hypocrite, huh?” I couldn’t help but put in, with a wink toward Avalon. 

Dare gave me a brief, curious look before nodding. “Indeed. Earths in the sun level hypocrisy. So believe me, Aylen, we’re going to give this a shot, no matter how uncomfortable it may make some of us.” She exhaled, adding, “I just hope your family understands if things are a little bit tense for a while.”

“Oh, they’re ready for it,” Aylen assured her (and the rest of us). “Grandfather’s been so nervous that he was baking all week long.”

Baking. Wow. That just filled my head with the image of a big gray Fomorian with bulbous eyes bustling around a kitchen wearing a frilly apron and one of those fluffy white hats, making little cakes and cookies. Which, of course, was just silly. He might’ve been eccentric, as Aylen said, but there was no way he would go around like that. 

Tristan interrupted my mental image by piping up then with, “So, are we gonna do this, or what? Because I don’t know about you guys, but I’m famished. And we already know it’s gonna take forever once we meet this Grandfather dude before everyone will be satisfied enough to actually eat. Let’s get this show on the road already.”

Smiling, Vanessa clapped him on the back. “My brother, cutting through any and all diplomatic issues at warp speed because he’s hungry.”

Tristan gave a firm nod. “Damn straight. Get done with all that and move onto the important stuff, like the first course. Come on, I’m giving up Chef Gisby’s stuff here, remember? Now that’s a sacrifice that should be written about in one of those old Iliads things. Which, for the record, are total bullshit anyway. I don’t remember there being one single mindflayer in that whole story.”

Vanessa made a disgruntled noise in the back of her throat while twitching a bit, looking like she wanted to say something to her brother, who was just smirking knowingly at her. He knew exactly how to push her buttons, and delighted in doing so at any given time. Even now, when we were about to go see what was possibly the only decent Fomorian in existence. 

In the end, the blonde girl couldn’t stop herself from rising to the bait, blurting, “That’s Illithid, not Iliad!”

Snickering despite myself at her inability to resist correcting him, I put in, “The boy’s got a point. You can go on about what a biological genius this special Grandfather of yours is, Aylen, but how is he with dinner, really? Hell, how’s the rest of your family? I mean, when it was my dad and me, we didn’t exactly go all out. Our idea of a big dinner with company that Dad wanted to impress was ordering Boston Market instead of KFC or pizza. So, are we talking microwavable stuff here, or…”

While Tristan made put-on horrified sounds and faces in the background (clearly playing it up a bit when he made Tabbris giggle), Aylen simply replied, “I told you, he’s been baking all week, trying to get everything just perfect. He really wants to impress you guys. Whether he’s any good at it or not…” She shrugged, clearly content to tease us at this point. “You’ll just have to come and find out. 

“Let’s just say, my family may be new to entertaining, but they’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to food.”

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Showdown 7-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy. 

I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something? 

Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–” 

“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…” 

“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.” 

“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–” 

“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.” 

“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–” 

“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”

Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting,  hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.

Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.” 

And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.

Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something. 

His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.” 

“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!” 

It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit. 

By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.

“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.” 

Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it. 

Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now. 

“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?” 

“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.” 

Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…

Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?

“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded. 

“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”

Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”

She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”

Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down. 

For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system. 

“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”

It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there. 

Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large  security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”

I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”

Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”

Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”

Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”

He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”

Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”

“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”

Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”

Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”

Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?” 

Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”

“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”

Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too. 

“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway. 

He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”

“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”

He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”

Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”

Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”

“They’d chase you in,” I realized. 

He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”

“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.

“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.” 

Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards. 

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”

Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then. 

“Let’s do it.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, after we were done eating that afternoon, Avalon, Koren, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I met with Aylen at the park. The rest of us were sitting on the grass, watching as the part-Reaper girl paced back-and-forth in front of us, looking more frazzled and unsure of herself than I had ever seen her. 

I wasn’t sure why she was so nervous about us meeting her family. Did it have anything to do with the fact that she still chose to hide her true heritage? Most hybrids around here felt safe enough by now to reveal what they were. But Aylen was still posing as a normal Heretic student, despite the fact that she wasn’t actually a Heretic at all. Her power-gain abilities came from the Reaper side of her genetics, much as her crow form came from the other side. But we knew all that, so what would she be nervous about when it came to us meeting her family?

Avalon spoke up carefully. “Aylen, you know that we all have personal issues and traumatic secrets in our families. Whatever it is, no one’s going to hate you.”

I saw a brief smile cross the noble-looking girl’s face, as she raised her gaze to watch Sovereign glide across the top area of the domed environment. “Still, you’ll understand why I’m a bit… apprehensive once I tell you. Which I’ll do, just as soon as they get here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, but the other girl’s timing was pretty perfect, as two figures came into view just then, approaching us.

“Professor Dare?” Vanessa started, “and… umm, Guinevere?”

“Just Gwen is fine,” the woman who had posed as Harper through almost all of last year replied. It was still seriously weird to look at her. She was still Harper, just older, a woman who appeared to be in her twenties rather than a teen girl. The pigtails I had always associated with her were now a pair of tight braids that fell down her back. The hair that had been dyed pink was now almost fully brownish-blonde, with just a little hint of pink in the braids that helped me see more of Harper. 

Dare was looking curiously to Aylen. “Gabriel is a bit busy right now, but he said he will meet us tonight.”

I blinked at that. “Wait, as in Gabriel Prosser? Okay, what’s going on? Now you want Professor Dare, Gwen, and Prosser to come with us to this dinner?”

Tristan’s head bobbed quickly as he rubbed the head of Bobbi-Bobbi, who was draped over his shoulders. “Yeah, what’s with bringing the army along? Are your moms really that terrifying to guests?”

The two women looked just as curious, even if they didn’t say anything. I had the feeling they wanted to know what the deal was as much as the rest of us. Which made me wonder what she’d said to them in the first place about coming to this thing. 

For a moment, Aylen didn’t say anything. She just took in a breath before looking to the adults. “Could we get a privacy bubble, please? I mean a really good one. It’s important.”

Whatever doubts they may or may not have had, Dare and Gwen didn’t hesitate to take her seriously. Both formed layered privacy spells, which I had no doubt would be basically impossible for anyone to eavesdrop through. Between the two of them, that was a hell of a lot of power put to making certain that whatever Aylen was about to say stayed between us. 

Still, she didn’t speak right away. The girl stood there, hands clenching and unclenching a couple times. She stared at the ground, as though working herself up to this. No one moved or tried to rush her. We all wanted to know what was going on, but it had to come out in her own time, even if I couldn’t stop my mind from racing about what she could be about to tell us. I had a lot of wild thoughts. What if one of her mothers was related to Fossor? What if she was a clone of Litonya? What if she knew where Arthur was? What if she was Arthur? 

Now I was just getting silly. But my mind wouldn’t stop racing with various wild thoughts about what this might be about. After the year that we had just been through, this really could have been absolutely anything. 

Finally, Aylen let out a long breath and spoke. “What I’m about to tell you is a really, really big secret. And when I tell you, you’re probably going to freak out a little bit. Or a lot. But I really need you to keep listening, please. I need you to hear all of it before you start losing your minds too much. I just need you to know that my family and I would never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. My grandfather, he’s… different, and you’re going to have to let me explain that.”

Dare took a few steps that way, her voice gentle. “I know you’re nervous, Aylen. But it’s okay, we’re going to listen, I promise.”

As if she was ripping off a particularly stubborn and painful Band-Aid, Aylen looked up to meet Dare’s gaze, the words popping out in a way that seemed to surprise even her. “My grandfather is a Fomorian.”

Well, that bomb went off and physically rocked everyone. I saw Dare actually take a reflexive step back, while everyone else gave soft gasps. Well, most of us anyway. Beside me, Avalon quietly murmured, “That’s what I thought.” Seeing the incredulous looks the rest of us gave her, she offered a one shoulder shrug. “After everything that happened last year and what she already knows, there were only so many possibilities. A connection to the Fomorians was my best guess.”

Rebecca spoke up then. “Wait, wait, wait. I don’t understand. You can’t be… I mean you’re not Fomorian. You’re not. You’re part Reaper and part werecrow. There’s no Fomorian in there. Wha-what?” She sounded like she was pretty close to hyperventilating. Which, given she had grown up knowing about everything those monsters had done, was fair. 

And speaking of people with plenty of reason to freak out, Koren was on her feet. It looked like she didn’t know what she was doing there, whether she wanted to run away or at Aylen. Her voice trembled. “What are you talking about? You can’t be related to them. They’re all evil. I mean, I know what this whole school is about and everything, but still. It’s the Fomorians. Their whole thing is being evil monsters. You can’t have some kind of connection to them. Do you know the things they do? Do you know how many civilizations they’ve completely wiped out? Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of genocides they’re responsible for? They’ve wiped out half the universe!” She was getting louder with each word. 

Tristan spoke then, gesturing between himself and his sister. “And our mom’s species has enslaved the other half, you know. She’s different. Tabbris is different. So is Uncle Apollo, and a bunch of others. If there can be enough good Seosten to be an entire section of their populous, then why not one Fomorian who is different?”

Koren shook her head at him. “You don’t understand.”

The boy slowly stood, head tilting. “I don’t? I spent years with Grandpa Nick, traveling all over the universe on his ship. We saw world after world after world that was hit by the Fomorians. When I was fourteen, I tried to help a little girl with purple skin and these glowing white braids. She was so scared and I told her we were there and she was going to be okay, and do you know what happened? She exploded because of a genetic bomb that the Fomorians planted in her. She exploded when she was hugging me. She blew up and I spent three weeks in the infirmary dealing with the infection that almost killed me. They saved me from the infection, but they couldn’t save me from that memory, and I still have dreams about it.

“So don’t tell me that I don’t understand. Because I do. I know exactly what they’re like. I saw world after world of examples of what they’re like. I know them better than almost anyone here.

“But I also know that the entire point of everything we’re doing here is that not everyone has to be evil just because others like them are. The entire point we’ve been trying to say this entire time is that people should be judged by their actions, not the species they come from. But if we’re just going to say that it’s completely impossible for a Fomorian to be good, before even listening to Aylen? Then we might as well just pack this whole thing up and go back to Crossroads. Because we don’t really believe it.”

Vanessa had moved to stand behind her brother, putting a hand on his back as his voice grew more emotional throughout that. He finally quieted, while Dare cleared her throat, glancing toward Gwen briefly before nodding at Aylen. “I believe he summed it up better than I could,” she said in a soft voice with clear emotion behind it that I was sure only Koren and I had any real inkling of the reasoning behind. “It’s okay. Keep going. We’re listening.”

Aylen did so, biting her lip before pushing on. “Nothing I told you before was a lie. One of my mothers is a werecrow, and the other is a half-Reaper. Her father is the Reaper that Crossroads uses to power the Heretical Edge. But he didn’t raise her. Neither did her mother. We don’t actually know what happened or why she was alone, but she was. She was on her own as a tiny little girl, until Grandfather found her. 

“We all call him Grandfather. I don’t think he has any other name, at least not one that we can pronounce. He’s a very old Fomorian, like… really old. And he’s not like them. He’s not like them at all. He’s the one who stole humans from the rest of his people to begin with. He’s the one who brought human ancestors here to Earth to begin with. He sabotaged their whole project, make sure they couldn’t make any more humans, and set up this whole world to try to keep us safe. I know that’s really hard to believe, but—”

“The traitor!” The words came from both Koren and me. The two of us glanced to each other before I quickly pushed on. “The Hiding Man, the Fomorian who… who killed Koren’s dad. He told us about this guy! He told us about a Fomorian who betrayed his entire species and stole the human project to bring it here. They hate him. They loathe him. He’s like the Benedict Arnold for their entire species.”

Beside me, Avalon murmured a quiet, “Victor Benedict probably wouldn’t like that comparison.” 

Aylen gave a faint smile. “That’s Grandfather alright. He sort of… made me. He took samples of both my moms and put them together. and he did some other stuff too. The point is, I’m both their kid and sort of a combined clone or whatever? With some other bells and whistles that even I don’t know everything about. Grandfather likes to tinker.”

Finally speaking up as she lifted her chin, Gwen asked, “And now he wants to meet, after spending the entirety of human history in the shadows?”

“Stuff is happening,” Aylen replied. “With all this that’s going on, and… other things, Grandfather says that you should meet and talk. He can warn you about some things, and explain some other things.”

Dare’s voice was careful and measured. “What makes him so different? Do you know why he’s not like the rest of his people? What could possibly make him turn against them. Because if this is true, he’s the only one I’ve ever heard of like that.”

Gwen nodded. “Same here. I’m pretty curious too. I mean, I am in for meeting this guy anyway, because… a good Fomorian? This I’ve got to see. But still, what do you know?” Coming from her, it managed to sound less like a demanding interrogation and more open curiosity. 

Finding my way to my feet, I put in, “Yeah, Aylen. I think you’ve got us all convinced enough to at least go through the meeting, even if some of us are going to be pretty freaked out the whole time, but if there’s anything else you could tell us so we could maybe understand a little more?” Rebecca, in particular, still looked really uncertain about this. Koren was more mixed ever since she and I had simultaneously realized that the girl was talking about the Fomorian traitor. She still looked torn, but not exactly like it was completely abhorrent. 

Aylen, in turn, nodded. “I can. It has to do with the place the Seosten call Tartarus.”

Vanessa blurted, “The empty universe with that energy that gave Mom and the other Olympians their powers?”

“Yes,” Aylen confirmed. “A long time before the Seosten ever found it, the Fomorians did. They found a way into it and they sent one of their best scientists inside along with a collection of minions, genetically engineered creatures that were basically like guard dogs. These creatures barely had any intelligence of their own, and the energies in Tartarus messed with them first. It made them stronger, meaner, gave them powers and took them out of the Fomorian’s control.”

She took a breath then, and I had the feeling this was the first time she’d ever told the story herself. But she had clearly heard it plenty. “The mutated guard dogs attacked the Fomorian. They destroyed the thing he was using to tether himself to his own world and left him stranded there. He managed to kill them, but he was really badly injured in the process. One of the minions managed to rip part of his head off. Literally, it took off a big chunk of his skull and brain. And not just that. It went all the way down through a third of his head and into his neck and then out under his shoulder. All of that was just cut off, including his arm. But Fomorians are tough enough that he survived.”

Rebecca managed a weak, “He survived having a third of his head, part of his neck, and his arm ripped off in one big wound?”

“Like I said,” Aylen replied, “Fomorians are tough. Plus he had a little help. That energy in Tartarus started regenerating them. Both of them.”

I blinked. “Both? Wait, you mean the three quarters of his body that was still intact and the one-quarter that was on the ground?”

She nodded. “Exactly. The part that was standing up realized that his other part was regenerating too. He freaked out and tried to stop it, but the one on the ground, that was mostly just an arm and part of his head, fought back. It was regenerating the whole time, so there was this little barely forming body while they were fighting. They fought and they got separated. Geographically, I mean. The other Fomorians found the one that was rebuilt from just part of the head and the arm. His body had completely re-grown by then, so they didn’t know the difference. They went in to find out what he discovered, and he escaped.”

“The one you call Grandfather,” Dare murmured, sounding completely taken aback by all of this. 

“Yeah.” Aylen hesitated then, before continuing. “When he regenerated, something changed. He doesn’t know if it was just because he only had a third of his brain left or what, but he didn’t think the way they did anymore. He felt things like remorse, and pity, and… and love. He loves his creations. Us, I mean. Humans. His original self was one of the lead scientists on that project and suddenly, this version of him actually cared about what happened to us. 

“First, he knew that Tartarus was dangerous, so he destroyed everything they knew about how to reach it. He wiped it all out so they could never get there again. I don’t know exactly what he did, but he’s pretty confident they can never open the portal to get there. Then he stole all the samples for humans and all the other regular animals here on Earth.”

“Wait,” I put in, “all the other animals?”

“Well, a lot of them.” She looked to me. “That’s why there’s so many Alters all over the universe who kind of or really look like animals here on Earth. They started out as Fomorian experiments based on those species. It’s also why humans don’t Heretic bond with Earth-native animals, because they’re Fomorian experiments. Or they started that way. They were the ancient ancestors of the animals we know now. Grandfather mixed them in with the animals that were already here. And from that point, they’ve intermixed so much over the millennia that the genetic lines are indistinguishable. There’s so much of the Fomorian-creations in them that humans can’t bond with them, just like they can’t bond with Fomorians themselves.”

“But we can still get powers from most of their creations,” Dare pointed out. “Not from the the Fomorians themselves, but from the things they send after us. Trust me on that one.”

“Yeah,” Aylen confirmed. “It’s the specific creatures from that lab. Humans were designed to be incompatible with them from the start, and the Fomorians can’t make new creatures that are incompatible with humans because Grandfather destroyed all their human research and samples. He also sabotaged any attempt they could ever make at resuming the process.”

My mouth was opening and shutting. It was all I could do to keep this straight. “So he destroyed their experiments, stole all the samples, and came here? And now he’s been here on Earth just watching us this whole time? That’s… that’s…”

Avalon spoke up. “He’s hiding for a reason, isn’t he? His other self.”

With an audible swallow, Aylen confirmed, “His other self got out at some point. We don’t know what happened or how long he’s been around. But he’s been trying to find Grandfather because he wants to re-combine with him. Believe me, that can never happen. It would be apocalyptic bad. Grandfather basically has all the cheat codes for the human genetic line. If his other half manages to join with him and take over, he could basically control all humanity. All of it. Everyone with even part human blood would be under his control. Everyone in the universe.”

To the side, Gwen quietly remarked, “Well, as long as it’s nothing too serious. Here I thought learning about the only good Fomorian would be cupcakes and rainbows.”

Aylen’s voice was somber. “Grandfather said that if it would save his creations and the universe, he’d destroy himself to make sure that never happened. But he and his other half have matching Tartarus Energy in them. He says that if he dies, everything in his brain will go to his other half. So destroying himself isn’t an option. Because that would just give the other him everything it wants anyway.

“But now he’s afraid that things have happened, that the other him is making moves. So he wants to meet you guys, because there might be a time in the future when he has to ask for help.” 

Clearly finished, Aylen shrugged. “I… know this is a lot. Really. A lot lot. So… I’m just going to step away and let you guys talk for a minute. You probably have things to discuss. Just let me know when you’re ready to go.” With that, she stepped out of the privacy bubble, leaving the rest of us to look at each other. 

Which was the exact moment I felt a sudden familiar presence in my mind. Hi! Tabbris blurted happily. 

What’d I miss? 

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Showdown 7-03 (Summus Proelium)

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We waited until after dark to go out with Ashton. That was just the easiest way to avoid as many issues as possible with people seeing what we were doing. Of course, we tested it on him first, getting him into the suit (against his will) and getting him to walk to various places in the room by asking him to think about the couch, or the television, or his cell, that kind of thing. He wasn’t happy, which he made very vocally clear in the course of cursing us out. Especially once it became apparent that the suit actually worked and that he couldn’t stop himself from walking to the thing we used the control box to tell him to think about. The suit wasn’t fast or anything. He kind of walked at what felt like a snail’s pace, though that was at least partly my impatience. 

In any case, it worked. After that, we just sort of hung out until well after dark, when things had settled down as much as possible. We didn’t want to wait too long (not that we were running out of time just yet, it was just very hard to sit still and be patient when we were so close), so as soon as we felt like it was late enough, we started suiting Ashton up again (we’d taken it off him while waiting so there would be less chance of him being able to damage it somehow). It took me using purple paint along with both Pack and Fred to get it on the guy without hurting either him or the suit itself too much. Tempting as it might’ve been to be rougher, we couldn’t do that.

Finally, I pushed his leg down into the thing while Fred zipped it up in the back. Once the suit part, which still looked like thick thermal underwear, was securely on him, I nodded to Wren. She pushed a button on the control box, and I heard the snapping sound as dozens of tiny needle-like wires poked through his skin to find his nerves and muscles. It sounded awful the first time I saw it, but Wren had promised that it would only feel like a series of little pinches for him. She’d even put her own arm in the suit and let it clamp down on her to show that it wasn’t that bad, and all she’d done is gasp a little when it happened. I’d tried it then, and she was right. It wasn’t super-fun or anything, but it definitely wasn’t like getting dozens of shots. You could barely feel the wires. The suit did some kind of numbing process when it poked you. So yeah, there was absolutely a series of pinches all the way through the suit, but nothing that bad. 

Not that that stopped Ashton from bellowing and cursing like we’d literally set him on fire, of course. He jerked, struggling to free himself while ranting about how we were torturing him and what kind of hero did I think I was. He also did a whole chorus about how my helping Blackjack meant I was just as much of a villain and that every person he killed or helped kill in the future would be my fault because I encouraged him by saving his daughter and yada yada yada. 

“Dude,” I reminded him once the suit was attached and linked up with him, “I told you before, you have no high ground here, none. You want to let an innocent little girl die just to hurt her dad. That is the opposite of the high ground. You’re under water, down in the Marianas trench.” 

“And what about all the people it could save?” the man all-but spat at me. “If Blackjack loses his nerve, if losing his kid makes him think about all the other people he’s hurt, what if that makes him stop being an evil piece of shit, huh? What about all the people that might survive if he stops being a villain? Isn’t that worth losing one little kid if it saves a bunch of others? What–” 

Whatever he was going to say next was cut off, as Fred of all people punched him in the face. His head rocked backward with an audible yelp, and I saw blood coming from his nose. He also had a bit of a bruise under his eye. Fred, meanwhile, was rubbing his hand and wincing. “Shit, ow,” he mumbled, walking over to the bathroom to run some water over his knuckles. 

Pack and I looked at each other before shrugging. I looked to Ashton. “You had that coming. Now shut up, before someone else loses their temper and hits you. I can’t promise it won’t be me.” Reaching down for a box of tissues on the nearby table, I used a few to wipe off his face as gingerly as possible. Yeah, he was a dick, but I knew what had driven him to be like this. Even if I didn’t agree, I could still somewhat sympathize with how losing his friend had broken him. 

Pack and I put the helmet on him, securing it in place. Again, Wren hit the button on the control box, and there was a snapping sound as the helmet linked into his brain. The bit inside the helmet was the most important part, the one we’d taken from the Seraphs. Ahem, the one we’d borrowed from the Seraphs and would absolutely be returning once this was over. Yeah. 

Fred came back, looking embarrassed by his outburst. “You about ready to take this jackass out and finish this so we can all move on?” He muttered the words, clearly about as done with this whole situation as I was. We had to get those vials and then turn Ashton in to the police for everything he’d done. I still didn’t know how Blackjack was going to handle Ashton being in police custody. After the guy endangered his daughter, could he possibly just let him sit in prison?

I had my doubts. But I would just make sure to warn the authorities that Blackjack would want to kill him. After that… well, I’d warn them, that was all I could do. 

“We’re ready,” I announced, holding out a hand for the control box. Wren passed it over, and I smiled at her for a second before remembering that she couldn’t actually see the smile. Nor could she see the subsequent blush, as I quickly spoke aloud. “Thanks. You guys gonna monitor things back here?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, and she held up a cell phone. “Stay in contact, Paintball. Tell us everything that’s going on.” 

“Soon as we get started,” I assured her before nodding to Pack. “Okay, let’s do this.” With that, the two of us guided Ashton up and out of the basement. He couldn’t just go on his own for a couple reasons. First, we definitely didn’t trust him with knowing where this place was. There was too big of a chance of him ending up talking to a bad guy about it. So, his helmet was also currently blinding him. That made it somewhat harder for us to expect him to be able to walk anywhere. Plus, the suit wouldn’t actually let him move very well on his own. It severely limited his range of motion so he couldn’t just run off or attack us. 

Similar to the special staydown cuffs, however, if other people were guiding him, he could move slowly. So I led him up the stairs, announcing each step on the way so he wouldn’t trip, while Pack followed behind to help with that. 

On the way up, the man kept talking. His voice, muffled by the helmet, alternated between pleading and threatening. I really don’t think he expected us to take it this far. But what else were we supposed to do? I refused to let a kid die just so he could stick it to Blackjack. If that meant strong-arming him to this extent to force him into showing us where the vials were hidden, so be it. Yeah, it made me a bit uncomfortable. But I’d take feeling uncomfortable over letting a kid die just so he could spite someone he hated. How justified that hate happened to be was irrelevant when it came to letting a child die, period. To paraphrase a certain cop show I’d seen before, having a cool motive to murder was still murder.

To give us some peace and quiet without Ashton bitching the whole time (and also to make sure he didn’t try to play any games with alerting passersby or claiming we were abducting him, Wren had included a mute function in the helmet. It wouldn’t let any sound escape. I enabled that, silencing the man before we reached the parking lot. 

Once there, Pack and I looked around, making sure the lot was still empty before I murmured, “I guess keeping where Wren’s place is secret from you kind of went down the tubes awhile ago. But still, I hope–” 

“I’m not going to go blabbing about it,” she informed me flatly. “I like the kid too, Paintball. Blackjack isn’t in the habit of forcing anyone, let alone kids and even further Tech-Touched, to work for him. It’s a seriously bad idea on several levels. But even if he was, like I said, I like the kid. She’s safe, okay?” 

“Okay.” I felt like I could trust Pack by that point. Especially when it came to something like that. She might’ve been okay with stealing from people, but hurting kids was totally beyond her level of villain. And, for that matter, I thought she was probably right about Blackjack. 

Letting it go at that, I asked, “Got your friends?” 

“In the car.” She nodded toward the nearby red sedan that Wren had apparently fixed up for her to use. The lizards were in there, apparently. I saw the one I recognized as Riddles the bearded dragon sitting up on the dash, staring at me through the window. I waved, before the other girl and I guided Ashton that way. It took a few seconds to get him situated in the back seat, then I took the front passenger side (Riddles dropped down into my lap and I scratched her head), while Pack took the driver’s side. A moment later, we were pulling away. 

The spot we drove to wasn’t too far away, but we did drive for a longer time than we needed to. In order to throw off any chance of Ashton being able to figure out where Wren’s place was, Pack took a few random turns, drove in circles a bit, doubled back, went through a few parking lots, stopped in the middle of an open street (when no one was behind us) as if waiting for a stop sign or traffic light that didn’t exist, and so on. When we finally stopped, it was technically only a few blocks from where we’d started, but we took about ten minutes or so to get there. 

Pulling Ashton out of the car, I disabled the blinding effect and let his visor turn clear once more. His eyes were wide as they darted around, taking in his new location. We were in the parking lot of a self-serve car wash. Actually, at the moment we were actually in the car wash. It was a good way of being out of sight for the moment. 

Pack and I put a long coat on him to cover up the suit. Then I nodded to her. “Right, I’ll keep you updated,” I promised, looking over at our guide for the evening. “Let’s do it.” 

She got back in the car, already calling Wren. A moment later, my own phone buzzed, and I accepted the conference call. I already had the phone linked to the mic I was using to alter my voice, so that was all set. “Wren, you good back there?” 

“Trevithick,” she informed me. Before I could ask what the hell that meant, the girl amended, “My name. You should call me Trevithick. If everyone else gets a cool codename, I do too.” 

Blinking at that, I looked over to Pack, who shrugged at me. “Err, sure. Does the word mean something, or…” 

There was a giggle from the other end of the line, before she explained, “Trevithick was the name of the guy who created the steam locomotive. He basically invented the train. Plus, it’s a funny name. And he was really cool. He said that people called him insane and that he deserved to hang for what he created, but that even if that was the only reward he ever got from the public, he’d still be satisfied by the pleasure and pride he felt just from knowing that his invention would push everything forward so much. He said no matter how poor he might end up being, no one could take away the honor he felt at being useful.” 

“Wow.” I blinked again, that time from being impressed rather than confused. “Okay then, Trevithick it is. You ready back there?” 

“All good,” she assured us. “Right, Fred? He nodded. He has chicken in his mouth, so he can’t talk. I don’t think I was supposed to say that. Oh, right, just, uhh, keep telling us what’s going on.” 

Snickering despite myself, I nodded to Pack, then looked to Ashton. “Right, dude, here we go. See, walking all over town with you would take too long. So we’re going to shortcut this whole thing.” To that end, I first told him exactly where we were, the address and a description of the area just in case he wasn’t that great with directions. Once he knew the location, I took the control box, hitting the button. “Now, think of where the nearest vial is.”

He was clearly struggling not to. But it was no use. Wren did good work, and he immediately turned to start walking out of the car wash. I gave Pack a thumbs up, heading after the guy while she got back in the car. “Okay,” I announced for both her and Wren over the phone, “he’s heading… south on Rosa Parks. Making the jump.” 

Using the control box, I told Ashton to stop. Then I put one arm around him, gave myself a bit of extra strength with purple paint, and used my other hand to shoot a spray of red paint off toward the roof of a building across the street. With a grunt, I let it yank both of us up that way. Once we were in almost there, I cancelled the paint before shooting another bit toward a metal bit that stuck up further onto the roof and let that yank us the rest of the way.

After landing, I did the same thing across the next couple rooftops, going about six blocks that way while keeping the others updated. Once I saw a decent, mostly empty parking lot behind an old apartment building, I brought us down. Then I used the control box and told Ashton exactly where we were before repeating the order to think about the same vial he’d been focused on before. 

Again, he began walking immediately. And again, he clearly wasn’t happy about it. But I was done pleading with him to do the right thing. So, we were doing it this way. 

I kept doing that, narrowing down just where this first vial was by going several blocks at a time, setting him down, and seeing where he started walking next. At one point, we overshot, because he started walking back the way we’d come from. Which narrowed it down even more. It was like playing hot and cold, sort of. 

Eventually, we ended up in front of an old coin operated twenty-four hour laundromat. There was no one inside, so Pack pulled in and we had Ashton lead us right in. He went to one of the machines before I stopped him. Then Pack and I searched around the thing for a couple minutes until she found the vial duct taped to the back of it, up underneath a bit. 

“Another one down,” she announced, holding it up with what sounded like a grin behind her featureless black mask. “Blackjack has two, this makes three. We’re halfway there.” 

“And we’re getting the rest tonight,” I murmured with a glance toward Ashton. “See, we can do this just like we got that one. Or you can make the whole thing easier by just telling us where the rest are. Then we can be done with this. You hurt Blackjack, man. You scared him. Give it up now.” 

I unmuted him, and he stared at me for a few long seconds. His mouth stayed closed, but his lips kept moving, like he was working himself up to reply. But in the end, after waiting through it, all he said was, “Fuck you.” 

“He said no, didn’t he?” Wren’s voice asked through the phone. 

Sighing, I nodded. “Yeah, he said no. So, we keep going.” 

And we did. For the next couple hours, I took Ashton all around the freaking city just to get two more. He’d hidden the vials as far as he could while staying within Detroit, it seemed. They were all in out-of-the-way spots that he could easily get to at any time of day. 

Finally, we only had to get the last one. Pack had one of the vials in the car jockey box and the other in her hand, toying with it curiously, as we stopped in front of what was apparently the last place. It was a supermarket, one open twenty-four hours. Apparently the last vial was in there somewhere. Pack and I looked at each other while standing at the back of the lot next to the car. “We could wait until no one’s there,” I pointed out. “It’s not that busy now. We hold off for like an hour, it’ll be empty except a few employees. Then me and our buddy here can go in and grab it.” 

She started to nod, then looked past me and cursed. “Motherfucker. Isn’t that–shit!” 

“What?” I blurted, confused. “What–” Reflexively, I whipped that way, just in time to see movement in the sky across the street. A figure there was flying away out of sight, carried on enormous wings. “The hell was–” 

“Yahui,” Pack replied shortly, already shoving the vial she had into her pocket before yanking out a different phone from the one we were using to keep in contact with Wren. “It was Yahui. She was watching us. Probably been following us for awhile.” 

Yahui. That was one of Cuélebre’s people, one of Oscuro. She had the ability to manifest basically any animal part on herself at any point, mixing and matching as much as she wanted to and gaining the abilities related to those particular animal parts. If she was following us, she could have seen or heard anything depending on what animal eyes and ears she was manifesting at the time. This was bad. This was really bad. 

“Go!” Pack gave me a shove. “I’m calling in reinforcements. Go get the vial.” 

“I’m coming!” Wren called through the phone. 

“No!” Quickly, I shook my head, using the control box to order Ashton to go to the vial before addressing Wren again. “Stay there, we’ll get this and get out of here. Just wait. We’re almost done.” 

Rather than let Ashton stall by walking, I grabbed him and painted us right up to the store. A guy coming out stopped and stared, while I shoved Ashton through. “Sorry, sir,” I blurted, “but I really suggest you get out of here, fast!” That was called over my shoulder while I dragged Ashton through the front of the store, pausing just long enough to see where he started moving before dragging him again. 

We attracted attention. Because of course we did. But I managed to get to the ice cream aisle, finding the vial itself hidden way in the back, taped up under the top shelf. Yanking it out, I felt a surge of triumph. 

Then I heard Pack through the phone. “Problems,” she informed me. “More problems. A bunch of Oscuro vans just pulled up. I barely got out of sight. I’m working on getting my pals in fighting shape.” 

“How long til your other friends get here?” I asked. 

“That’s another part of the problems,” came the terse response. “Double Down says one of our main safe houses just got attacked by other Oscuro troops, right out of the blue. Oscuro troops and Ninety-Niners, working together. And… yeah, some Ninety-Niners just showed up outside here. They’re talking in the lot. Definitely working together. And… shit. There’s people in the back too. They’ve got you cut off and pinned in there. And–” 

“And your people are busy,” I finished, thinking fast. “Hold on. I’ll call back, just wait.” Disconnecting, I quickly fumbled through my coveralls until I found the card That-A-Way had given me, frantically dialing the number on it. 

“It’s That-A-Way,” the by-now familiar voice greeted me a couple rings later. “I always love saying th–” 

“This is Paintball,” I quickly interrupted. “Our old trucy ally and me, we’re at the Huey’s on Park West. Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners are about to come in guns blazing to get the stuff Blackjack’s been tearing apart the city looking for. So, you know, I don’t know if you’re busy or anything, but a little help would be great.

“And, uhhh, you probably better hurry.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 Yeah, on top of everything else, I was spending a lot of my evenings secretly being trained by one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. Or at least, by a sort of virtual reality copy of her. Which was pretty close. 

Tabbris knew about it, naturally. As for the others, Avalon and Shiori knew, as did my father, Dare, and Sariel herself. We were keeping it as secret as possible beyond that to avoid Fossor somehow getting wind of it, as he tended to do. Not that I didn’t trust the rest of my friends and family, of course. It was just… better to keep certain cards close to the vest until the time came to play them. The fewer people who knew about me having a copy of Chayyiel in my head, the less chance of Fossor finding out.

She was here to train me, to help me prepare for the future. That included whatever was going to happen when my birthday came around, and beyond. I’d even asked her opinion about the whole Fossor’s sister thing, and she gave me some tips. 

We split our time between her teaching me magic and teaching me to fight better. My lack of needing real sleep meant I could go through a lot more of these extended, intense virtual training sessions than others who needed more time fully shut down. 

It wasn’t exactly the same as a full physical training session, but pretty damn close. And coming from someone as skilled as she was, it was worth everything. Months of training under her several times a week was probably the equivalent of years or even decades training under other people. The extra help she was giving me this way was worth more than I could ever really repay, even if I lived a thousand years. It was completely invaluable. 

That was what I kept telling myself no matter how often she beat me up. And I got beat up a lot. The fact that this was taking place in my head apparently meant I could take all the damage in the world and then just be fine. I’d been ‘killed’ more times than I could count in these training sessions. But it was never gratuitous or anything. Chayyiel was teaching me. Or Shyel. That was what I referred to the one in my head as to separate her from the real one. Shy because she was hiding in my brain. Shy Chayyiel. Shyel. It worked. 

Shyel showed me what she was doing over and over again, getting it into my head as well as into my body until it was reflex. Then she did something else that totally destroyed me, and taught me how to handle that. Move after move, bruise after bruise, death after death, she had spent these past couple of months driving me as hard as she safely could given everything else going on. It wasn’t every night, but it was enough. At least, I hoped it would be. I hoped all of this would be enough to deal with Fossor. To say nothing of everything else that was bound to come up. After all, I had at least two members of the Crossroads Committee who were definitely royally pissed off at me. I needed all the help I could get. 

Groaning a bit as I lay half in a pile of leaves while rubbing my arm, I blinked up at the simulacrum. “You’d think that if we’re in my brain, we could make getting hit not hurt so much.”

Offering me both a smile (making her look even more like an innocent child than she already did) and her hand, Shyel replied, “It would do more harm than good to teach you how to handle something without any pain involved. It’s better for you to learn how it’s going to feel and go on through it anyway.” 

Her expression softened considerably then, as the girl helped me back to my feet. “But I’m sorry if I’m hurting you. I just know we’re running out of time and there’s so much more I want to teach you.”

“Hey, I am the one who’s supposed to be getting nervous and antsy about this whole thing,” I reminded her. “We’ve still got time. And I think I’m getting better, even if you keep taking me apart like I’m a toddler.” I didn’t have any problem admitting that, considering the real Chayyiel took basically everyone apart like they were toddlers. There was nothing to be embarrassed by. 

Hesitantly, I admitted, “I’m still not sure why you did all this, exactly. I mean why the original you went through all this trouble to help me train. I doubt you do this with everyone who gets into trouble.”

“That would be an awful lot of people to stick mental constructs of myself into,” she agreed, “even if I did only pick up the skill from Sariel recently. The truth is, I’m pretty sure you’re going to end up being important down the line, so I have a vested interest in keeping you safe and strong. And out of the hands of certain people.”

“Certain necromancers, for example,” I murmured before looking back to her. “Yeah, I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty awesome. It’s amazing, the fact that you’re doing all this. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse keeps beating the crap out of me. But if you say I’m supposed to do something important in the future… well, somehow I’m even more nervous.” 

“I think you might do something important,” Shyel corrected. “It’s a big distinction. I haven’t used some kind of future sight prophecy spell to prove it or anything. That stuff is impossible to really rely on anyway. It makes things more complicated. I’m going off what I know about your situation, and about you yourself. It’s an educated guess. The point is, there’s no such thing as ‘grand destiny.’ You take your own actions. And I think you could take some very important ones, if you get a chance to. You’re important because of the kind of person you are, not any mythical future. I want to make sure enough people like you make it into that future in good enough shape to actually do something with it.” 

Somehow, I managed to blush inside my own head and couldn’t stop it. Which totally wasn’t fair. Coughing, I glanced away before asking, “Do you think any of this is going to be enough when the time comes and Fossor decides he wants to take me?” 

“I think every little bit helps,” she informed me. “In the end, the more options you have for dealing with it, the better off you’ll be. That’s why I’m teaching you magic as well. And speaking of which…” 

“Time for spell lessons?” I managed a slight smile at that. “Good, give my bruises a chance to fade. By which I mean the ones on my skin and the ones on my ego.” 

With a (probably unneeded) wave of her hand, Shyel turned the forest we were standing in into a classroom. There was a single desk, and I sat down while she moved up to where a row of bookshelves were waiting. “Tonight,” she started, “we’re going to learn a bit more about transmutation spells. Specifically, the ones to protect or enhance yourself.” 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “I guess I can see how those might be useful at some point.” Sitting up a bit in the desk, I added, “Sounds good, Teach. Hit me. 

“And by that, I mean with knowledge. Like I said, still bruised over here.” 

*******

The next couple days basically went like that. We had classes in the morning, split between normal academic stuff and more exotic learning, then training in the afternoon. I had another nightly training session with my brain tutor, where I got beat up a lot while gradually learning what I was doing wrong. 

Then it was Friday. My first class that morning, which I had with Aylen, Sarah and Sands, Columbus, Miranda, and Jason, was xenozoology. We would be learning about various Alter animals, like Choo’s Jekern or Salten’s Peryton. Or, hell, like the Amarok that had given me my ‘hardly ever get tired’ power so long ago. We were apparently going to get into what kind of powers and advantages they had, as well as the best ways of either taming or at least avoiding a fight with one. And, of course, how to fight or kill them if we had to. Because there would be times when that was unavoidable. Even animal-intelligence level Alters could be a real threat. Like, again, the Amarok. 

But there were potential alternatives to always killing them. Alternatives which we would be learning here, in this small forested area built into one of the side rooms of the station. The place was basically like a park, with heavy doors along the far wall, opposite where we came in. Apparently there was a whole animal care facility beyond those doors, and our teacher would be bringing the creatures in to meet us whenever needed. Eventually, we’d even have a chance to go back there ourselves. But the teacher wanted to start us off a bit more slowly than that. Apparently he had doubts about a bunch of Bosch Heretics coping well surrounded by Alter animals, for some reason. 

To be fair, he was actually a Bosch Heretic himself. Specifically, the man had been part of Eden’s Garden, apparently since its inception. His name was Scratch. Or at least, that was the only name he went by, and he’d been going by it for so long that no one Miranda talked to had ever known or been willing to say what his original name had been. Not even Seller. 

Scratch was a fairly short, thin man, barely an inch taller than me. His long, dark gray hair was tied into a ponytail, and his heavily tanned face was marked by a single curved scar, shaped kind of like a crescent moon, up under his right eye and extending onto his cheek. I didn’t know what the scar had been caused by or why it wasn’t healed, but it had to have been something pretty bad. 

“Scratch was always good with the animals,” Miranda informed me in a hushed whisper while the man himself went to one of the large doors to retrieve the first creature he wanted us to see. “He was the Dust Striders’ creature keeper, but the other tribes got help from him sometimes too. He wouldn’t let anyone abuse his, ahhh, charges, even before the whole rebellion thing.” 

By that time, the man was on his way back. A large metal cage floated along behind him. Though ‘cage’ was probably a bit of a misnomer. I knew that, like the bag Shiori had kept Choo in through a lot of last year, there was actually a lot more room than it looked like in that box for whatever was in there. It would have its own private habitat built specifically for it. Or them, considering there could be any number of animals within. The box was just what it looked like from the outside. The entrance to the habitat, or whatever. 

In any case, the box was about nine feet long, four feet wide, and six feet high. It settled to the ground directly beside Scratch, while the thirty or so other students and I watched carefully and curiously. 

When the man finally spoke, his voice was quiet and subdued. It wasn’t hard to hear, exactly, it was just… sort of restrained. It was just loud enough to understand him and no louder. “Good morning,” he greeted us, dark green eyes scanning the group. He met my gaze for a brief moment before his eyes moved on. “I assume all of you have fought and killed what you would consider a monster of some kind before? It’s okay, we’ve all done it, to protect ourselves, to protect others, or because those of higher authority told us it was the right thing to do.” 

Gradually, everyone nodded in agreement or half-raised their hands, and Scratch continued in that same soft voice. “This class is going to teach you how to handle such creatures properly. And properly means different things depending on the situation. In some cases, handling a creature will mean killing it. There’s no two ways around it, there will be times when killing is the best and perhaps only solution to a situation. But there will be other times when you may be able to control and contain the creature, taking it away from where it was doing harm and either keeping it for safe study and care by experts, or releasing it in its proper habitat.”

Again, his eyes moved over us. “Many of you who grew up with Crossroads teachings have believed that all such creatures must always be killed immediately, lest they destroy all civilization. Others, who grew up under the Eden’s Garden ways, were taught that they can be controlled, used as beasts of burden, as slaves. And, of course, there are those of you who grew up under neither system and have been taught all manner of things. Some good, some bad. But here’s the truth: killing every animal, even the ones who seem threatening and dangerous, is wrong. Now, letting them hunt and massacre civilians, that’s wrong too. The point is to learn to recognize when a situation calls for violence, and when it calls for restraint.

“A lot of you have spent your entire lives learning to fear and hate the creatures out there. So, before I teach you anything else, before we say a single word about how to fight the kind of animals you see out there, I’m going to teach you something far more important than how dangerous they can be. I’m going to show you how wondrous they are.” 

With that pronouncement, the man took a laser pointer (or what looked like one) from his pocket. He pointed it at the ground a few yards in front of the box, and the laser from it created a blue line. Gradually, he drew a semi-circle around that area from one side of the box to the other. When he clicked another button on the thing in his hand, a mostly transparent, humming  forcefield popped into existence from the line he had drawn. It stretched up and over the box like a bubble, enclosing the space directly in front of the cage. 

Scratch spoke again, once the shield was in place. “Alter animals, those not of this world, can be incredibly dangerous. Never forget that. But they can also be beautiful, wonderful creatures, worthy of our respect, and our care. There is a balance to be found between fearing or hating them, and allowing them to slaughter innocents. This class is meant to teach you how to find that balance, how to kill when you need to, and how to control them when possible. My partner and I will teach you how to recognize aggressive behavior, how to stop it, how to make these animals listen to you.” 

I was just wondering what he meant by partner, when my item-sense picked up someone coming in from behind us. Turning a bit, I saw Rebecca’s grandmother, Lillian. Mom’s old best friend and roommate. The small woman approached, giving me a brief wink as she spoke up. “That’s absolutely right. I know Crossroads, for one, never stops to show their students how truly amazing some of these creatures can be. Only how dangerous they are, and how to kill them.” 

Stepping past us, Lillian offered the group a broad smile, laying her hand on the side of the metal box. “And speaking of truly amazing creatures, how many of you have ever heard of a Taynfiel? More commonly known as a lion-bee.” 

A few hands went up, mostly among the Alters and Natural Heretics in the group. A single Eden’s Garden student put his hand up too, though he looked a little uncertain. 

“Lion-bee?” I whispered to Jason, who had his hand raised. “Why do they call it a–” 

That was as far as I got before the door of the box slid aside, and the creature within came bounding out. It was… well, yeah, I could see why it was called a lion-bee. The thing was about the size of a large dog. It had dark tan fur, with a couple black stripes. Its head was very lion-like, complete with a full-on furry mane. It had a set of large insect-like wings, and instead of a floppy lion’s tail, it had a prehensile one with a long, sharp blade at the end. Like a stinger. 

It was a lion-bee, there could be no other conceivable name for it. 

And then it made a sound. It was like a cross between a heavy purr and a deep buzz. Its wings contributed, suddenly beating very rapidly but barely moving, going up and down only a couple inches each way. The thing looked back and forth between us, giving off that wing-assisted purr-buzz. 

“This,” Lillian informed us, “is Tatters. He’s a lion-bee, a Taynfiel, who was raised in captivity from birth. The only thing he likes more than fishing with his tailblade is cuddles. The forcefield was just to make you all feel safe. But we’re going to take it down in a minute. Everyone stay fairly still. Don’t overwhelm him, and don’t make any threatening moves. Tatters is tame and friendly, but he’s still an animal and he will defend himself if need be. Stand still, let him come to you. You can pet him if you like. If you’d prefer he not come to you, go ahead and take a few steps back. No one will blame you, I promise. If you’re not comfortable yet, go ahead and step out of the group.” 

A few people did so, not trusting either themselves or the animal. The rest of us stood still, while the forcefield lowered. The fuzzy lion-bee sniffed the ground where the shield had been, then took a quick wing-assisted jump over to where Lillian was. He enthusiastically sniffed her stomach and offered hand, licking her palm once before turning his attention to us. 

I was the first one he came to. Part of me wondered if that had to do with my own werelion form. I’d used it that morning to go running around the neighborhood, could he smell it? I wasn’t sure how that worked. 

Either way, he came right up and sniffed me. Slowly, I went down to one knee and let him sniff my face. His tongue, as he licked over my cheek, was a bit rough. Still, I giggled a little. Which he liked, apparently, going by the way his wings beat a little faster, making his purr louder. 

“Hey, buddy,” I murmured with a smile, rubbing my hands up through his luxurious, fluffy mane. “Who’s a good boy, huh? You’re a good boy. Good little bee-kitty.” 

A few others had a couple minutes with him, before Lillian and Scratch announced that we should step back, because Tatters wanted to stretch his wings. We did so, and the lion-bee zoomed straight up off the ground. He flew to the ceiling, flipped over to land there, and stared at us from an upside down position for a few long seconds before zooming off again. He did a few barrel rolls and loopty-loops, very clearly showing off for a (mostly) appreciative audience. 

Aylen stood beside me, her voice a soft murmur. “My family’s back,” she informed me while we all watched Tatters. “So, I guess, if you’re up for it… they’d like you and Avalon and a few others to come over for dinner tonight. But first, meet me out in the park by our houses after lunch.

“There’s a few things I really need to explain.”  

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