Month: January 2020

Perennial Potentate 4-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter

“So what are the rules for addressing this King Oberon guy?” I asked later that afternoon while standing in front of a window of the airport watching the planes down on the runway. 

Yeah, all the magic and superpowers and everything else available to us and we were taking a plane to get from Las Vegas to Canada. It was actually part of the king’s rules for allowing us entry. People he didn’t know and trust didn’t get to teleport into his territory. That and I was pretty sure he was also going to have people on the plane checking us out the whole way over to make sure this wasn’t some kind of trick or something. He struck me as a pretty cautious guy, from what I’d heard. Which was completely understandable when it came to dealing with both Heretics and Seosten. 

Still, it felt weird like this. For all the traveling I’d done over the past year, I hadn’t really just flown on a plane. It was… both mundane and also a bit exciting. Which was just absurd for me to feel, considering I’d been on an actual spaceship. Multiple spaceships, come to think of it. 

The others, save for Twister and Columbus, were all gathered around or sitting nearby. We had this particular section of the waiting area to ourselves, courtesy of a couple well placed spells convincing anyone who came near to find another place to wait. 

As I asked that question, Asenath spoke from where she was sitting. “I haven’t met him, but from what Twister says, use the terms your majesty, your highness, and King Oberon. Lord Fae apparently works too.”

While she said that, Senny kept a wary eye on the nearby window. Even with the amulet thing keeping her in shadows, she didn’t like the idea of being out in the sunlight. I supposed after a few hundred years of avoiding it save for very special occasions like this, that was a pretty fair reaction to have. 

“Hold on,” Tristan put in, “did you just say that Twister knows this Oberon guy? Like she actually met him before?”

“Damn straight,” Twister herself informed him while she and Columbus approached with a tray of drinks they had gone to pick up. “Obs and me are like this.” She held two fingers up, crossed over each other. “We go way back. But just for the record, if any of you call him Obs, he’ll probably kill you. I’m exaggerating. Sorta. Just don’t call him that.”

She and Columbus started passing out the drinks, and I looked to the boy. “Are you doing okay?” The last time he had been in an airport, of course, had been when Charmiene grabbed and possessed him. This couldn’t be bringing up pleasant memories. 

He hesitated, but gave a short nod. “Yeah,” the boy grunted, “it’s not great, but I just keep picturing the look on her face when I blasted her out that window and you finished her. Good times.”

Before responding to that, I glanced down to the other end of the waiting area we’d commandeered, where Tabbris was sitting with December and April. The two kids were engrossed in rapid conversation, but the red-haired girl was looking at us. There was no judgment or accusation in her eyes. There wasn’t much of anything at all. She just sat there watching, as though she was curious about what I was going to say. 

“Yeah,” I finally agreed, “Charmiene had it coming.” It might not have been the single most tactful thing to say, but it was the truth. Columbus was my friend, and that bitch had enslaved and basically emotionally tortured him for a long time. She absolutely got what she deserved, no question about it. 

Whatever April thought about me saying that, she didn’t reveal. Instead, she simply got up, stepped over, and spoke to Haiden. “Will your mate be joining us? From the briefings we’ve had, this would seem to be a situation she would wish to be involved in.”

Giving her a brief look, the man flatly replied, “My wife will not be there, no. She wants to, but… but she has a lot of her own work to do. That and we thought this might be pushing the King far enough as it is. He seems to dislike your people even more than he does Heretics. We’re trying to keep this whole thing cordial, so aggravating the man by bringing more Seosten than we already have felt like a bad idea. But trust me, if we need her, she’ll be there, King be damned.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, April replied, “Then let us hope that we do not need her.” There was a brief pause before she added, “From your reaction, I feel as though I should note that I meant no disrespect when I referred to Sariel as your mate rather than wife. In our society, one who is a mate is one who has successfully borne or provided children for you. It was not my intention to dismiss the state of your union, only to acknowledge that the two of you have produced viable offspring. I was… attempting diplomacy.”

“You hear that, Nessa?” Tristan piped up while nudging his sister, “we’re viable offspring. I am totally putting that on a college application.”

“We’re not going to college,” Vanessa reminded him. “Not that kind of college, anyway.“ She still sounded just a little bit distraught at that fact, despite everything. 

With a grin, Tristan retorted, “Well, no. But it’d be fun to imagine what kind of reaction those recruiters would have to some of the stuff I could put on the application.”

Snorting, Miranda took a sip from her drink. “Can I put down a tree as my previous address? Or do I have to specify which branch?”

Jason, who had been quiet up to that point, spoke without looking up from the cell phone he was tapping away at. “You’d probably have to use Section Four for that.” 

Most of us just blinked at him blankly, though I could see the look of recognition on Haiden’s face. 

“Section Four?” Shiori asked curiously. 

“Yeah,” the boy confirmed with a blank look as he glanced up. “Don’t you—oh, shit, right. You wouldn’t know about that, I guess. Section Four, it’s this joint thing between certain Alters and Heretics. Natural Heretics, that is. Basically it’s just people who work in various services like the mail or the fire department or anything like that, who are in the loop about all the stuff Bystanders don’t know. Police departments with detectives who can point the right kind of people at certain cases, doctors in hospitals who know how to recognize magical poison. Or postal workers who can deliver to certain places that normal ones can’t.” 

“Yeah,” I muttered in agreement, “that definitely doesn’t sound like anything that our brand of Heretics would be involved with. God forbid we work alongside other species.” 

Wincing a little at that, Haiden nodded. “Anyway, refer to the man as King Oberon, Majesty, all that stuff that Asenath was saying. Be polite, be cordial, be deferential. Don’t forget that we’re there by his permission. If he gets annoyed, he can send us right out again. And if he gets too annoyed, well… just don’t annoy him that much. Don’t be rude and don’t be impatient. If he asks you a question, answer it. We’re his guests, and we can’t forget that.” 

We talked a bit more about all that, before it was time to go board the plane. On the way, Bol and Eldridge showed up to wish us well. They were clearly itching to go too, but had to stay to keep a lid on the trouble that was already brewing. Las Vegas was really close to going to war with itself over this missing children thing. If we couldn’t find Rowan and the others pretty damn quick, there was going to be a hell of a lot of violence around here. And if the families of Las Vegas went to war, I had no doubt that loyalist Crossroads or Eden’s Garden people would take advantage, which would take away one more relatively safe haven that the world’s Alters had. 

We had to find those kids, and Jiao, as soon as fucking possible. 

As a group, we moved over to get in line. My eyes glanced around, as I asked myself if this Oberon guy’s people were already here. He definitely wanted to get a read on us throughout this flight, so it would make sense for them to already be here. Were they other passengers, some of the flight attendants, or both? Probably both. And I doubted I’d be able to catch them. Not if they had been hand-picked by this guy to watch us. Actually, it might be considered rude to try. I was just going to sit back and try to relax as much as possible. 

Sitting next to Shiori (I let her take the window seat) and across the aisle from Tabbris and December, I settled in. We had a few hours of flight ahead of us. A few hours where I couldn’t do anything except relax. At least, relax as much as I could. With Shiori there, that sounded like a pretty good time to me. 

And if we were lucky, the plane would make it all the way to Calgary without being attacked by a giant Roc or some kind of Manticore or something. 

Wait, why the fuck did I let myself think that?!

*******

Believe it or not, we actually were lucky, despite me having that stupid thought right as we were about to take off. The plane made it to the Calgary International Airport without issues. I never even noticed who might have been keeping an eye on us, so they were either really good, or there wasn’t anyone there. I was betting almost exclusively toward the former. They were just that good. 

As we came off the plane, there was a dark-skinned man with intricate red tribal-like tattoos all over his body (or at least the arms and neck that I could see), face, and bare head standing in front of us. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt, jeans, and held up a sign with the words, ‘Vegas Hunter Party’ written on it. That was us. We were coming from Vegas, and we were hunters, of a sort. It was a joke, apparently. Unfortunately, Shiori didn’t even snicker. She was too worried about her mother to really notice. 

Not that the guy needed the sign, considering he obviously knew who we were. As soon as we came into sight, he stepped forward and lowered the sign. “Welcome to Canada,” he announced. “My name’s Conner, but there’ll be time for more thorough introductions later. I’m sure you’re all in a hurry, so let’s go. We’re bypassing Customs. Well… Bystander Customs, at least. This way.” 

That, the man turned and began to walk at a brisk pace. The rest of us exchanged brief glances before following after him. I had a feeling that falling behind and ending up separated from the man that King Oberon had sent to collect us wouldn’t exactly look very good as far as first impressions went.

As promised, Conner led us through the airport, going through a staff door that bypassed Customs entirely. We walked through the maze of corridors, past a few people who looked confused at our presence but didn’t say anything. At one point, a man in a police uniform approached, but walked on after a brief word from our guide. 

Eventually, we made it out of the airport and down into one of the parking garages. The man walked us over to a shuttle bus, where the driver was waiting with the door open. Rather than wave us on, however, Conner turned to us. “Okay, like I said in there, sorry for rushing you. It’s rude, but given the reason for your visit, we were pretty sure you wouldn’t mind skipping over a lot of the formalities.” 

“We don’t,” Haiden assured the man. “And we thank your king for his generous acceptance of our presence.” 

“Yeah, you can thank him yourself in a couple hours,” Conner replied. “King Oberon is, unfortunately, tied up by events he couldn’t escape on such short notice. He has his own responsibilities, I’m sure you understand. But he’ll meet with you as soon as physically possible. In the meantime, we’re to take you out for supper and give you a place to get cleaned up before meeting the king.” 

Asenath spoke up then. “The last thing we want is to be rude or ungrateful, but we really do need to hurry. We have to find those missing children, especially Rowan, before things… escalate too much in Las Vegas.” 

“And our mom,” Shiori put in, standing next to her sister. “We have to find our mom too.” 

The big black guy with all the tattoos bowed his head gracefully. “Of course. I promise you that all of this is proceeding as quickly as possible. We don’t want to see anything happen to those children any more than any of you do. King Oberon is absolutely aware of the urgency of the matter. That’s why he allowed you to come here on such short notice. You will have every bit of aid we can give, just as soon as the king assures for himself that you are… well, legitimate. I hope you understand that he is wary of Bosch Heretics intruding in our land. It has a tendency to go wrong.”

We agreed, because what else could we do? As much of a hurry as we were in, we still had to go through these motions. So, as a group, we filed onto the bus and found seats. Conner stepped on after us, having been joined by a gold-skinned humanoid woman with black wings. Her face had no mouth and no ears. Just very black eyes and a nose.   

The bus started moving, while Conner introduced the winged woman as Dia. Apparently, she was one of Oberon’s chief assistants, or whatever. After being introduced, Dia stepped up to the center of the aisle between the bus seats and looked over us.

Hello. 

The word, just like that, appeared in the air in front of her. Like, physically appeared. It was gold writing in mid-air, a solid shape several inches thick and about a foot in height. A second after it appeared, there was an audible voice, female and authoritative, speaking it. The voice came from the letters themselves. A second later, the letters dissolved into dust, and the words, Welcome to Canada appeared in their place. Those too were spoken aloud just after appearing, and then disappeared. 

This was how Dia spoke. The words physically appeared in front of her and were given sound by… something. Huh. That was different. 

Over the next couple minutes, the woman exchanged greetings with us, getting everyone’s name before asking where we’d like to eat. She provided a few suggestions, and all of it sounded good. Despite the rush we were in, I was hungry. We all were. And we couldn’t just run off without Oberon’s permission to start searching. Hell, we were going to need his help to make sure we found these guys in time before they just disappeared again. They probably thought they were safe enough from pursuit for the time being, but… well, we had to hurry before they changed their minds about that. 

Unfortunately, we needed help and support to do the actual searching part properly. Not to mention the fact that we wouldn’t get very far on empty stomachs. So, we picked a place for dinner, and the bus headed that way. 

There was one readily obvious thing in the restaurant: there were Alters there. A good number, actually. A good third of the patrons and several of the wait staff were setting off my Heretic sense or just plain looked like obvious Alters. Some of them looked curiously at us, but we still had the enchanted necklaces to hide that we were Bosch Heretics, so no one seemed too upset. Though I wondered how they would’ve reacted if they did know who we were.

We got dinner, and while we were all eating, Dia asked to speak with me privately. So, with a shrug toward Shiori, I stepped away from the table. The two of us moved to an out-of-the-way corner of the room, and she looked me up and down for a moment before speaking, the words appearing in front of her before being spoken in a much quieter voice than before. 

You are her. You are the descendant of Lyell. 

Blinking in surprise, considering I’d expected her to ask me about my mom, I nodded. “Uh, Lyell Atherby, you mean? Yeah, he’s my great-grandfather. You knew him?” 

There was a brief pause before she gave a short nod, looking wistful. He was a dear friend for a long time. And then much more than a friend for even longer. 

“I–oh. Ohhh.” Blushing a little, I looked to her. “You and Lyell…” 

And Edeva, came the response. We were very close. I miss them both, though I am quite glad to see their descendant has become such a good person. From everything I have heard while performing these background checks for King Oberon, they would be very proud of you. 

The words didn’t come all at once, of course, but just a few at a time. It was like watching closed captioning in real life. Catching up with all that, I slowly shook my head in wonder. “You–huh. I’d kind of like to hear more about… about Lyell and Edeva, whenever you’ve got the chance. I don’t really know that much about them.” 

She bowed in acknowledgement, replying, Assuming this pressing matter is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, I would love to speak with you some more. My first allegiance is to my king, of course. 

“Of course,” I agreed with a nod. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything to upset your… liege, I guess? Whatever, we’re definitely trying to stay on good terms. Thanks for… um, telling me who you are. I’m really looking forward to talking with you later.” And I was. The idea of talking to someone who knew Lyell and Edeva that well? Sign me up. 

Either way, we sat back down and finished our supper. As soon as we were done, Conner stood up. “Okay, sounds like King Oberon is ready now. If you’ll come this way, we’ll go see him right now.” 

Once more, we followed our two guides to the bus. After our little detour for dinner, it was finally time to meet the King of Canada. 

And then, with any luck at all, we’d be on our way to save Jiao and those kids.

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                                   Next Chapter

At least there was one good thing about the fact that these woods were crawling with guys who wanted to kill us. It meant that we had to keep quiet, so I didn’t have to actually talk to Paige. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d been expected to keep up a conversation with the girl who had spent so much time and effort attacking every aspect of my existence throughout the entire time I had known her. 

We also had a bit of an advantage in that the people searching for us thought we were heading for the road or at least toward the city. They had no idea we were going for a boat instead. Still, that was something that could change in an instant, so we had to move carefully. Unlike our earlier headlong flight through the woods, this time we were more cautious. We both crept from bush to bush, keeping our eyes and ears open. 

I used black paint sparingly here and there, just whenever we thought there might be someone vaguely within earshot. We could see their flashlight beams bouncing everywhere, but not all of them were using those, so we couldn’t count on that kind of warning constantly. Slow and steady, we just had to go slow and steady.

Except not that slow, because the sound of an approaching helicopter reminded me that we had that problem too. The chopper came in low and fast from the east, its spotlight beam shining down through the trees.

“Whatever you did to piss these guys off,” I whispered under my breath, “it doesn’t look like they’re giving up any time soon.”

I heard the girl audibly gulp beside me before she muttered, “They’re trying to stop me from getting to a computer. Because if they don’t, this whole thing is over and they can’t touch me anymore.”

That made me blink at her. Squinting in the darkness, I could barely make out the other girl’s face. Not that I ever really wanted to see much of Paige to begin with. “What do you mean? What happens if you get to a computer?”

She hesitated, before replying, “If I get to a computer, I can upload the files I stole to my cloud servers. Then, if anything happens to me, the files will go out everywhere. They know that. That’s why they’re so desperate to stop us right now, because if I can upload the files, they won’t dare touch me. Their secrets are too important.”

My head shook. “You’re saying you’ve got a bunch of their secrets on some kind of USB or something and they didn’t just take it from you?”

Even in the darkness, I could see her faint, humorless smile. “They didn’t find it. The point is, if we can get out of here and to a computer, you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I upload this information and set it to go out if anything happens. Then they’ll have no choice but to leave me alone.”

“You sure they will?” I asked, thinking about the way my family had been ready to kill me (without knowing it was me) to protect their secrets.

“Trust me,” came the response, “these people care way too much about themselves to risk losing everything. As long as I make it clear that I’m not releasing the information if they leave me alone, they’ll back off. For now, anyway. It’s a short term solution.”

“And in the long term?” I asked. 

“In the long term, they’ll try to find a way to delete the files and take away my leverage,” Paige replied. “But I’m pretty good with computers. It’s how I got the files to begin with, when I was…” She trailed off, a brief look of what seemed like pain crossing her normally perfect face before she muttered, “Never mind. Just… help me get out of here and you can be done with this. Believe me, you don’t want to be any more involved than you already are.”

“You might be surprised,” I mumbled as it struck me that this was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with the girl where we didn’t insult and attack each other. I hadn’t even known that she was into computers and that stuff. Shaking it off, I looked to her. “If you’ve got this top secret information that could expose whoever these guys are, it sounds like you should go to the authorities.” That was, of course, a bad idea, at least here in Detroit. But I wanted to see how much she knew about that. 

Sure enough, Paige shook her head quickly. “No, it’s too dangerous. The second I let go of my leverage and play scorched earth, it’s over. They’ll hit me with everything they’ve got and I’ll be dead within the hour. And so will my family and everyone I care about. I’m not doing that. Not yet. There’s…” 

Again, she trailed off. It looked like she wanted to tell me something, but thought better of it. “Look, thank you for saving me. Seriously. I have no idea how you ended up out here to do it, but you’re amazing. You’re too amazing to get involved any deeper in this. I don’t want to do that to you. This isn’t stopping a purse snatching or catching some robbers. And I swear I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s just… this is more than anyone should have to deal with. I don’t want to deal with it, but they destroyed—” Catching herself in mid-sentence, Paige amended, “There’s things I need to do, things I need to find out, before I can take the next step. You don’t want to be involved in that.”

Resisting the urge to snap at the other girl, I took a breath before pointing out, “You do realize that they already know I’m involved, right? It’s kind of hard to mistake me for someone else.”

Paige gave a short nod. “We get my leverage uploaded and I’ll tell them to leave you alone, I swear. All of this… it doesn’t go away with the leverage, but it gives me time. The people behind this… they’re bad. Really bad. But they also really like their secrets. They’ll negotiate with me if I have the ability to expose them. Like I said, if anything happens to me after this stuff gets uploaded, all their secrets get blown out into the world. If it comes down to either leaving me alone or being exposed, they’ll leave me alone. And I’ll make them leave you alone. You’ll be part of the deal. After what you did for me, it’s the least I can do. We just have to get this stuff to a computer with an internet connection, that’s all.”

I wanted to ask a lot more things, such as how they hadn’t taken her evidence away from her when they had her prisoner. Or how she had found something that important to begin with. Hell, I wanted to ask her specifics about what the evidence was. I wanted to grab the girl and shake her and ask what she knew about my family. But that might not exactly be subtle. No, I had to convince her to trust and confide in me even more. And she wasn’t going to do that until she felt secure. Which meant letting her upload that information as a safety net to make my parents and their people back off.

Was it really bad that I had the brief instinct to make her stop to protect the family? Even after everything I knew they had done, some part of me wanted to destroy that evidence. It wasn’t very loud, but the fact that it existed at all was… troublesome. It made me fall silent and really think for a minute about who I was. What the hell was wrong with me? My family was evil. They deserved to go to prison. They deserved to be stopped. 

And yet… God damn it. Fuck emotions sometimes. 

Thankfully, I was distracted from that bit of terrible introspection as we reached the edge of the woods. Ahead of us was a gravel covered beach area with a small cottage that looked like it hadn’t been inhabited in years. There was a rundown little dock, with a boat tied to it. 

The area looked clear, but just as we were about to make our move, the sound of the helicopter got a lot louder. It was looping around and coming in fast, the spotlight playing out over the trees and beach. Quickly, I pulled Paige by the arm and dropped into a crouch with her. At the same time, I covered my entire body with black paint and wrapped myself around the bigger girl to shield her from the spotlight. 

Yeah, of all the places I wanted to be in the world, ‘cuddling with Paige Fucking Banners’ was right around the very bottom, bottom, bottom of that list. Please move on, Mr. Helicopter. Move on really fucking quickly. 

It did, thank God. The beam swept over us once quickly, but didn’t pause. The chopper kept going, making its way down the beach and out toward the far side of the woods. As soon as it did, I released Paige and quickly pushed back. Somehow, I avoided making a disgusted sound. 

Paige didn’t seem to notice my disgust. Her attention was solely on the boat. “My friend Edwin keeps that boat here. He bought it, but he didn’t want his parents to know so he keeps it here at his dead uncle’s place. We go joyriding in it sometimes. It should have enough gas to get us out of here, but we’ll have to row first so they don’t hear the engine too soon.”

Yeah, I knew Edwin. And I was pretty sure that the main thing he used that boat for was to go out on the water and get high. But, whatever. Of all the reasons I had to dislike Paige, the fact that she hung out with people who smoked pot (and probably did herself) wasn’t one of them. Who gave a shit? I was pretty sure Simon did plenty of that himself, though never at home. Mom would have crucified him, maybe literally. 

The two of us gave one last quick look around, then rose and sprinted, hunched over a bit, toward the boat. We would untie it, row further out into the water, then start the motor and be gone while these guys were still searching. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, just as we neared the boat, a figure stepped out from behind the house. It was Mr. Jackson, and he held the assault rifle I’d seen earlier pointed at Paige. “That is far enough,” the man announced flatly. “Paintball, I believe you call yourself? If I see you point your hand at either of us, I will open fire. Do you truly want to see if your paint is faster than a few dozen bullets?”

Fuck. He had a point. I could make the girl bulletproof, but not before he shot her. Not with him as ready as he was. If I made a move, Paige would be dead, and all three of us knew it. 

On top of that, Mr. Jackson had some kind of power that apparently didn’t work on her. But it might work on me, and I had no idea what it was because I had stupidly not asked the girl during our trip through the woods. 

I had to do something, but what? With that gun pointed at Paige and some kind of unknown superpower possibly in play, what the hell could I do? Think, Cassidy, think fast!

None of the paint I had right now would stop him from shooting her. Maybe the pink paint would have, but I still had no idea what it did. 

Wait a second. 

“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” I informed the man while trying to make my voice much calmer than I actually felt. “If you shoot her, I’ll get mad. And if I get mad, I’ll use the pink paint.”

As far as threats went, it obviously wasn’t much of one on the surface. Sure enough, Mr. Jackson didn’t look impressed. “The pink paint,” he echoed dully, his tone making it clear that it was more repeating my statement than an actual question. 

Still, I raised my hands slowly above my head, turning the right glove pink so he could see. “You must know a lot about what I’ve been doing, the things I’ve been involved with already. But I’ve never used the pink paint. Why? Because most people don’t deserve something like that. But if you shoot that girl, trust me, you’ll deserve it.”

There was a moment of brief hesitation from the man before he slowly shook his head. “You expect me to believe that you have some kind of secret weapon that you haven’t—”

“Oh shit, ow!” I suddenly blurted, turning a bit to yank the pink glove off before throwing it to the side away from all of us with another yelp of pain. Fake pain, of course. I didn’t feel a thing. 

But Mr. Jackson didn’t know that. His gaze instinctively turned to follow the pink glove as it flew away from me, which took his gun very slightly off of Paige. And that was all I needed. Painting green along my sleeves for speed, I sent a shot of red toward his gun and a bit of blue at his feet. The rifle was torn from his grasp an instant after the man realized he’d made a mistake. Then he was launched into the air with a shout. As he started to fall, I hit him with black paint and yellow, to both silence him so he couldn’t call anyone, and to slow his fall so it would take him longer to reach the ground. 

My hand grabbed Paige, and I covered her hand in green paint as well while blurting, “Run!”

The two of us sprinted. I used a shot of red to grab my glove back, refusing to leave that behind for them to analyze. 

Mr. Jackson hit the ground, but before he could do anything, I shot a bit of red at him and another at the tree in the distance. He was yanked off his feet and flung that way, while the two of us made it to the boat. 

“No time for subtle,” I snapped. “Use the motor now, go!”

She didn’t argue, quickly starting the engine as I grabbed the rope tying the boat to the dock. Using a bit of purple paint, I ripped the rope free, and the boat took off. Both of us nearly fell out, before dropping down into the seats. We were sent, engine screaming, along the waves of the river. 

But that helicopter was still in the sky, and it was starting to circle around. Obviously, Mr. Jackson had managed to call in the instant that black paint wore off. The chopper was heading for the river, heading for us.

I had another idea, looking toward the engine while pointing my hand that way, I shot a bit of green paint at it. Suddenly, the propellers were spinning much faster than they had been, and the boat was practically flying over the water. 

Over the next thirty seconds, I used the green paint a couple more times. We were far ahead of where the helicopter expected us to be, and the river was too dark for it to easily find us. So dark, in fact, that we could barely see each other. But it worked. The chopper was much further back, sweeping its spotlight over the water as it searched for us in the wrong place.

Still, I didn’t want to push things too much. It would spread out it’s search pattern soon enough. So, as soon as we were away from the wooded area, I looked over to the other girl. All I could see was her vague shape through the darkness. “You better take us back to land. And for the record, what exactly are that guy’s powers? Cuz that would’ve been useful information back there. And why didn’t he try to use them?” 

“He screws up people’s memories,” the other girl informed me. “He can erase them, implant them, change them, anything like that. But he can only do it through physical contact.” 

“And he didn’t just do that to you in the first place because…?” 

Her answer was a flat, “Because it doesn’t work on me.” And that was all that Paige would say about it, as she brought the boat back to solid ground. It was just a random part of beach, and the two of us scrambled out of the boat, leaving it there without a word. Edwin would have to find it later. 

We were back to the city proper. The streets were busy even at this time of night, and Mr. Jackson had no idea where we ended up. But the only way to make sure that Paige was safe was to get her to a computer. 

Yet again, that small voice in the back of my head asked if I really wanted Paige Banners to have leverage over my family. Pointedly ignoring it, I grabbed her by the arm. “Come on, I know where an internet cafe is. They’ll be all over your neighborhood, no way you’re getting to your house.”

With that, I put an arm around the girl and used a shot of red to yank us to the nearest roof. Paige yelped, grabbing me tightly as we shot up toward that building. But she didn’t protest or curse me out. Nor did she complain when we had to do it again to get to the next roof. 

From there, we made our way several blocks, before eventually reaching the cafe. Landing in the parking lot, I gestured. “Do your thing, then we can talk about how much I need to know. I’ll keep an eye out.”

Once again, she hugged me. Paige Banners hugged me twice in one night. What the fuck was even my life right now? “Thanks, I’d be dead without you.”

Then the girl went inside, and I watched the street. There were a few people paying attention, a couple of whom came up and asked for actual autographs. This was weird. I indulged them as much as I could, before glancing over my shoulder toward the window where I had seen Paige move to a computer.

She wasn’t there. Quickly, I excused myself and went right to the building. The girl behind the desk started to absently tell me the price, before looking up and staring at me in surprise. I slipped past her with a murmured apology, moving through the store. Paige wasn’t anywhere in sight. But I could see a rear exit. Goddamnit, what the hell?

On the screen of the computer she had been using, Paige had left a message written in the notepad program. It read, ‘Thanks for everything Paintball. I have my leverage now, so they’ll leave me alone. But you shouldn’t be any more involved in this. I know you’ll probably be mad about me ditching you, but it really is for the best. You don’t deserve this. Good luck with your superheroing. – Paige. P.S. You’re still pretty awesome. <3’

For a moment, I just stared at the screen. Dammit, she got her leverage and split. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to confide in me. She wasn’t going to tell Paintball the secret she knew about my family, because she thought she was protecting ‘him.’ And she sure as hell wasn’t going to tell Cassidy. Somehow, I had to convince her to let me help. I had to get her to let me in on the secrets she had. 

But how in the hell was I supposed to do that?

Previous Chapter                                                   Next Chapter

Interlude 3B – Triss, Felix, Sands, and Sarah (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

Sometime While Flick And Company Are In Canada

“So, what’s the deal with all the twins around here?” seventeen-year-old Felix Laja, the human-Nekomata hybrid asked her six-month older half-sister (and full Nekomata), Triss. She was eyeing Sandoval and Sarah Lucas (formerly Mason) as the four of them stood in one of the transport rooms of the Fusion School space station. Or, as many had taken to calling it, the star station. “Not that I, or my dreams, are complaining, mind you. Just seems to be a lot of them.” 

For their part, Sands and Sarah looked to each other for a silent moment before stepping apart. The latter replied simply, “Heretic regeneration abilities gained from various kills increase the chance of multiple-birth pregnancies by anywhere from twenty-five percent to thirty-six percent.” 

“Whoa, really?” Felix blinked at the girl while tilting her head, the bangs of her short white-blonde hair falling into her face briefly before she blew them out. “I didn’t really think there was a–wait.” She squinted at the straight-faced Heretic for a second. “You’re screwing with me!”

Snickering, Sands gestured to Sarah. “Yeah, she is. But you had it coming. Seriously, gross.” 

“Don’t mind her,” Triss spoke up in an obviously long-suffering voice while poking her sister in the back of the head. “Between being a complete lech all the time, and her obsession with pushing people’s envelopes, sometimes Felix doesn’t know where the line actually is.” 

“I’m a cat,” the hybrid girl retorted while doing a quick casual standing backflip for no apparent reason other than boredom. “If someone tries to tell me where the line is, I push it off the table. Even if I have to drag it onto a table first. Look, the metaphor falls apart pretty easily.” 

Triss opened her mouth to retort that she was more of a cat then the other girl. But before the words could come, the door on the other side of the room opened and Risa Kohaku entered. The former head of Crossroads School Security (and former host of the Seosten Manakel) crossed the room to where they were. She held a computer pad in one hand and glanced at it before stopping briefly to tap something in. Then she looked to the group. “You girls okay with a trip?” 

“You asked for the four of us, right?” Sands piped up, her tone making it clear that she was incredibly curious. “Which, for the record, thank you. Seriously, you have no idea how boring it is just sitting around waiting for Flick, Columbus, and the others to get back from their thing. We can’t even bug Avalon cuz she’s busy with the spell stuff. And Mom’s on that trip to London.” 

Giving a slight nod of agreement, Sarah added, “Why did you ask for us specifically?”  

“Well,” the woman replied, “first, because I know the two of you–” She nodded to the twins. “–are good enough to pull this off. And because I promised your mom I’d take you on a mission if something came up that seemed to be your speed. Something about wanting you to have a chance to stretch your legs a bit. I don’t know, seems like she might trust you or something.” 

Then Risa glanced to Triss and Felix. “As for you two, well, let’s just say you’ll be very useful for what we’re going to be doing today. But before we get into that, I need all four of you to swear to me that you’re going to work together. I mean it. No running off on your own, no solo heroics, nothing like that. I don’t mean you have to be joined at the hip in a fight, but be reasonable. You all work together. If you don’t, I’m sending all four of you back here immediately.” She squinted at them to make her seriousness clear. “Do you understand?” 

There was a chorus of agreement from the group before Risa nodded. “Good. Now, as for what we’re actually doing, take a look at this.” She touched a couple buttons on her handheld computer and a hologram appeared a few feet away from her. It was about ten feet high and ten feet wide, an image of a very large farmhouse, nearly a mansion in its own right, sitting in the middle of nowhere with a rundown silo and a barn that was missing several large pieces of its walls on either side of it. There was a fenced-in paddock that looked as though it hadn’t seen use in decades. The road leading through the field up to the house was made of dirt and covered in very deep ruts from heavy vehicles moving over it repeatedly. Yet there was no sign of any such machinery at the farm. And from the looks of it, there hadn’t been for some time.

“The place is known as the Coalbright Farm,” Risa informed them. “It’s been abandoned for four years, ever since the nine-year-old daughter supposedly went crazy and killed her entire family one night. Two younger sisters, one younger brother, and one older brother, along with both parents and a grandfather.” 

“A fucking nine-year-old killed her entire family?” Sands demanded dubiously. 

“So they said,” Risa confirmed. “And so did she. They were found by neighbors the next morning with the girl sitting with the bodies. She claimed she was possessed by a demon, which forced her to do it. She was found psychologically unstable, and remanded to a mental health institution, where she stayed until one week ago, when she escaped by stabbing an orderly with a ballpoint pen and taking his keys.” 

“Seosten?” Sarah guessed immediately while making a face as she glanced toward her sister. 

Sands quickly nodded. “Yeah, maybe this kid was telling the truth about being possessed before, and she escaped when the Seosten came after her again to shut her up? Or the Seosten just possessed her again for some reason. I mean, they love secrets.”

“A fair thought,” Risa replied, “But why wait four years to do it? And why do it while there’s a truce going on? There could be an argument that it doesn’t apply to this particular situation, but still. I don’t think any of those in charge would take that kind of risk unless they absolutely had to. And whether it’s something they had to take that much of a risk on, or something unrelated, we need to know.” She paused before adding with a look to Felix and Triss, “In any case, the Seosten bit doesn’t answer the other part of this whole thing, the reason the other two are here.”   

“Let me guess,” Triss put in quickly, “ghosts. There’s ghosts at that farm from all those dead people and you want us along because we can make ghost-fire to help deal with them, right?”  

The woman nodded once more. “Of course, there’s been various reports of ghosts from the farm for the entire time, since shortly after the deaths. But in the past week, ever since the girl broke out of the hospital, those reports have skyrocketed. Eighteen people in the nearby town have talked about being woken up at night by ghostly figures outside their windows or even inside their rooms. The police searched the property several times since the girl escaped, but they found nothing, not even any sign that she’s been there at all. And yesterday morning, two teenagers who snuck into the place to show off were found dead. They supposedly hung themselves in the main room of the house, suspended together from the upstairs banister.” 

“I’m gonna hit the X for doubt button,” Felix piped up. “I mean, yeah, they totally obviously didn’t kill themselves. Duh. But what’s going on then? Someone possesses this girl or controls her somehow back when she’s gods damned nine years old to kill her whole family for no apparent reason, then four years pass where people in the town occasionally report a ghost, and now the girl breaks out of her hospital just in time for those ghost sightings to go up several thousand percent and a couple more people die? What’s the deal with all that? How’s it connected, how–ohhh, right, we’re supposed to figure that out.” Quickly, she looked to the other three. “Dudes, dibs on Daphne if we run into the Scooby gang out there. I totally called it, you all heard me.” 

Risa gave a slight shake of her head. “Yes, we did. Now, to the next point. Yes, the five of us are going to investigate the farm and figure out exactly what is really happening. But that’s not our primary goal. We’re actually looking for a group of refugee Alters who were supposed to hole up at the house to wait for extraction. We’ve used the farm a few times in the past months with no problems. This time, our people found out about the situation when a pair showed up to take the Alters to safety and found the place crawling with police dealing with the supposed suicides. That’s when we picked up the news about Dakota Coalbright escaping, and everything else.” 

She said that, and she was even pretty convincing. But Sarah knew better. Risa had been controlled by Manakel to do terrible things. It wasn’t a coincidence that she’d chosen this mission. The stated goal may have been to find the lost Alters, but it was pretty apparent that Risa Kohaku had stamped ‘and help the girl’ in bright red letters across that statement. 

“You don’t think it’s one of the Alters in the group that killed those teenagers, do you?” Sands asked, biting her lip uncertainly as she quickly added, “I mean, I know, I know, they’re not all bad. Come on, I get it by now, definitely. But there’s still some bad, just like there’s some bad humans.” 

“That’s part of why we’re investigating,” Risa confirmed. “Just in case. We need answers either way. But the fact that Dakota escaped so recently after such a long time seems like too much of a coincidence to be unrelated. It’s probable that the Alters we sent there are in just as much danger as anyone else. We’re going to find them and work out what actually happened. 

“So, everyone ready to go? Because I’m pretty sure this is going to be a long day.” 

********

With a terrifying shriek that would send cold chills through anyone’s heart, the gray-green ghostly figure of an old man with a pitchfork dove at Sands as she stood in the farmhouse kitchen. Instantly, the girl shifted into her two-dimensional shadow form and allowed the ghost to pass right over her. Then she popped back up, spinning while activating the spell she’d put on her mace that allowed it to hit intangible figures. “Hey, bitch!” she blurted while slamming the mace in the back of the ghost’s head, “You’re not the only one who can pull the ‘can’t hit me’ trick!” 

The ghost stumbled from the blow, just before two quick shots from Sarah’s sniper rifle came through an invisible portal and struck him in the chest. Like the mace, the bullets were enchanted to be able to hit him, and his form flickered while the man bellowed in a mindless rage, which literally shook the house from the force of his anger. A couple dust-covered paintings were knocked from the walls to shatter against the floor, and the lamp hanging above the table swung a bit, shuddering as it was nearly torn from the chain holding it to the ceiling. 

While her sister followed up the attack against the angry, staggering ghost, Sarah (crouched on the front porch of the house) briefly switched the view of her scope to see through a different portal. That one showed her the living room next to the kitchen, where Felix and Triss were busy fighting a couple more ghosts, those of the older brother and the mother who had been killed. Taking careful aim, she fired a shot that caught the brother and stunned him long enough for Triss to swipe a ghost-fire covered set of claws through his chest. Meanwhile, Felix launched herself backwards, bouncing off the wall and using that to propel herself forward into a flip above the mother-ghost. She ignited her hands with the same ghost-fire while dropping down on top of the figure with a loud snarl that was, in turn, drowned out by the howl from the ghost herself. 

Felix fell through the ghost after damaging her with the flaming claws. Before the ghost, in turn, could retaliate, Sarah fired a quick shot that caught her in the forehead and made her reel. That left her open for the Nekomata hybrid to spin and rake her claws through the ghost’s leg. 

Without missing a beat, Sarah shifted her scope view back to the kitchen. She saw Sands use the spider-web production power she’d gained from the Spinnevurrs the year before to catch hold of the kitchen table and yank it to herself. The table passed harmlessly through the ghost in front of her. But just as the table landed in front of her, Sands slapped a prepared spell-coin against it. At a command word from her, the table ignited with ghost-fire, making the intangible figure flinch backward with a shriek. Before he could react further, Sands lashed out with her foot and kicked the table into him. His entire form went up in flames while his horrible screech filled the air. While he was still engulfed by that powerful ghost-fire, Sands used a power she’d gained over the summer. Specifically, she extended her left hand and projected what amounted to a shotgun-like burst of power that was capable of severely disorienting conscious minds while also damaging or even unraveling spells and other magical constructs, particularly those who weren’t shielded or were caught unawares. Which, given the fact that ghosts like this were not actually the ‘spirits’ of dead people, but the remains of their magic given semi-conscious form, did a lot of damage. The burning figure was blown in half by the shotgun-like blast from Sands. 

Sarah, meanwhile, disabled her scope view. She remained where she was for a moment, before abruptly rising and spinning on one foot. As she did, the solid-hologram that had been made to look like her missing arm shifted and turned into a blade. The blade went right through the face of one of the younger sister ghosts who had been attempting to sneak up behind her. Of course, the solid-hologram did little to the ghost. But the eight-inch long metal cylinder that was projecting the hologram had been given the same ghost-fire spell enchantment, and Scout activated that with a word while the cylinder was buried in the surprised ghost’s head. The ghost became even more surprised as she burst into flames and dissipated. She wouldn’t be gone for good, of course. That would take a lot more. 

“Good job, Sarah.” That was Risa, who appeared through a conjured portal from where she had been fighting in the upstairs of the house. “That’s the last of them for now. Come on.” With that, she led the girl inside to meet up with the others, who had just gathered. “Everyone okay here?” 

“Peachy,” Triss replied while rubbing her shoulder. Her tail swished back and forth before catching against her sister’s and intertwining with it fondly. “But what do we do now? Those ghosts aren’t going to stay gone forever. They’re tied to this place, right? The house, it’s gotta be what’s keeping them here.” 

Felix bobbed her head quickly. “Yeah, sounds like the best thing is to burn the place down. Burn down the house, get rid of the ghosts. The home is their anchor, so we get rid of it, right?” 

“We do,” Risa confirmed. “But first, we check the basement.” 

The four girls exchanged confused glances before Sands asked, “What basement? We’ve been all over this place, there’s no stairs down to a basement.” 

With a wink, Risa replied, “That’s because someone hid them with magic. Which is why the police never found their missing fugitive.” With that, she turned to an apparently blank part of the wall and made a gesture with her hand. A chunk of that wall was torn away, revealing a set of stairs leading, sure enough, down into the darkness. “Stay together, girls,” she ordered, before starting to descend. 

All five descended the stairs carefully, finding themselves in a wide open, unfinished basement. A dark-haired, pale young girl who had very clearly been long-deprived of much sunlight sat in the middle of the room on the hard basement floor. She was small and thin, her hair and skin dirty and clearly uncared for through not only this past week, but for quite some time before. Even as the group approached with weapons drawn, the thirteen-year-old spoke in a trembling voice. “It’s too late. It’s too late, he came back. He came back, he came back.” There was terror and loss in her voice and she barely seemed cognizant that they were there. 

Giving the students a look for them to be quiet, Risa carefully asked, “Who came back, Dakota? What happened here? What happened four years ago?” She took a knee next to the girl. “It’s okay.” Extending a hand carefully, she used a subtle power that would calm the clearly traumatized thirteen-year-old’s wild emotions slightly. 

It didn’t help very much. She blinked up, tears streaming down her face. “There were people here this week, strange people with powers and magic. He took them. They found their way in here and he took them. They broke the magic and came in here. They weren’t supposed to come in here. They found him, and he took them.” As she spoke, Dakota raised a small hand to point across the room. The group looked that way, but all they could see was a shattered flowerpot with a bit of dirt lying around it. 

“Dad… Dad went on a trip,” the girl was explaining in a hollow voice. “He went on a trip and he… he brought back a flower for Mom. But the flower was evil. The flower was evil. It made everyone do bad things. Mom, Dad, James, even Raina and she was practically a baby. I felt it too. I felt it too. It made me so mad. Like when James used to make fun of me cuz I sucked at basketball, but… but worse. Really worse. It was like that for everybody. We attacked each other. W-we… we attacked each other and I heard his voice. I heard… I heard him laugh. I could hear him laughing. And he.. he told us to kill each other. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill my Mom and Dad. I wanted to kill my–we were– They wanted to kill me. I was–he made us. He made us. I’m sorry. Oh god, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The girl shuddered heavily, slow tears falling down her face as she continued, sounding empty and lost.  “I heard his voice again. I heard it in the hospital and I knew he was back. I knew someone found the basement. The doctor who believed me said he’d hide it with magic and no one would find it, but someone found it. Those people found it. I tried to tell them but they were already affected. They heard his voice and they ran away. They left. But my family–my family was here. I couldn’t–I couldn’t–” With that, she dissolved into wretched sobbing, doubling over.

“Something in a flower… turned all these people into violent monsters,” Sands murmured softly. “It was hidden down here in the basement, but the Alters found it and were affected. That… somehow woke up this thing and now the Alters are gone? Where’d they go?” 

Risa shook her head. “I don’t know, but…Dakota, this is important.” She tenderly touched the girl’s shoulder. “We’re going to take care of you, I promise. Nothing is going to hurt you anymore. But we need to know, where did the flower come from? Where did your father get that flower?” 

The answer came in a halting, miserable voice. “Canada.

“He brought it from Canada.”

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Why Paige? Of all the people in the entire universe I had to be saving, why Paige Banners? 

Okay, she didn’t deserve to die. That was true. As much as I didn’t like her, as much of a bitch as she had always been to me, she definitely didn’t actually deserve to die. But still. Why did I have to be the one to save her, considering all the effort she’d put into mocking and belittling me? 

Yeah, it was childish. Definitely. No question. And I was absolutely going to save her, no matter my own personal feelings. But that didn’t stop the grumbling in the back of my head, along with a lot of questions revolving around what the hell she could know about my family’s business that made her such a pressing target for being killed? Executed, really, by a literal British diplomat. 

There were a lot of things going on here that I didn’t understand. That much was obvious. And I probably wasn’t going to get any answers to those things unless I could get over myself and save the girl who had loudly and vocally hated me since we were in middle school. So… yay. 

But, oh well. I was going to save her even if the thought of doing so made me want to grind my teeth down into powder. No way was I going to let Paige get shot in the head by one of my parents’ secret evil minions just because she was a bitch to me. I wasn’t a psychopath

That said, I still had to do this right. It wouldn’t exactly do either of us any good if I showed myself and then immediately got mowed down by all of Mr. Jackson’s armed security escorts. 

Speaking of Mr. Jackson, he was raising the pistol in his hand, pointing it at the clearly sobbing girl, who was frantically pleading with him through the gag in her mouth. He looked regretful, but not regretful enough to stop or even reconsider. This whole thing was happening right now, no more time for thinking.

Moving quickly, I shot a glob of red paint over the raised pistol. At the same time, I shot another bit of red at the ground several yards past where the group was, further up the pier. Even as Mr. Jackson and the other guys with him were reacting to his gun being painted, I activated it, instantly yanking the gun from his grip and sending it to that spot behind them with a soft clapping sound from the silenced weapon firing off (hopefully harmlessly) into the woods. 

But I didn’t leave it at that, of course. Even as the gun was flying through the air to land on the ground, my hand was already snapping over to fire another shot of red to the van itself. Activating that with a thought connected it to the red paint already on the pier. The van was yanked off the ground and sent tumbling side over side right toward the clustered trio of armed security guys who had just pivoted to face my direction. Two of them dove out of the way, one dropping his gun in the process. The third was hit by the van, crying out as he was knocked off the pier into the water. Mr. Jackson and Paige were both missed entirely, the van settling into a badly damaged heap on its roof just a couple feet from where the two were still standing, frozen. 

Target, target. I had to give them another target. A more important and immediate target. To that end, I used blue paint under my feet to launch myself up and out, turning over in a somersault in the air before landing right in front of the two men who had dived out of the way. They were just picking themselves up when I caught each of them by an arm. Painting a small image of a muscular man flexing his biceps on my chest in purple, I used the strength boost to haul them off the ground before turning and hurling them off into the water near where their friend had gone. They went flying off, screaming in the process as their guns clattered to the dirt. 

So yeah, two seconds in and all three normal guys were… well, not dealt with, but at least delayed and disarmed for the moment. It would take them time to get out of the water. But that wasn’t the main problem. Mr. Jackson was. He had some kind of power that I knew nothing about. It could’ve been anything. Except he’d said that it ‘didn’t work’ on Paige, so I was assuming it wasn’t super strength or healing or anything like that. It was something else. 

But I really wasn’t in the mood to find out what that something was the hard way. Mr. Jackson was still, understandably, trying to react to his gun being yanked from his hand, then a van flying in out of nowhere to nearly run him over, and then a couple of his men being thrown over his head out into the water. It was a lot to take in over just a brief handful of seconds when he’d had no idea anyone else was even out here. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him time to recover. So, while the strength boost was still active, I pivoted, snatching one of the dropped guns off the ground before hurling it that way. He snapped an arm up to block it reflexively, but still staggered backward with a cry, and I heard the crack of bone where the pistol hit him. 

By that point, I had already used one more shot of red paint. This one, however, was aimed at Paige. With a startled scream, she was hauled off her feet and flung back toward my outstretched red gloves. The girl collided with me, and I stumbled a little before catching myself. A quick glance back the other way showed the men already recovering and clambering out of the water. Mr. Jackson was starting to move toward grab the gun that I’d hit him with, and there was a lot of shouting. Yeah, this whole situation was about to be really bad, really quick. 

But I couldn’t just let the guys here, or (more importantly) my parents wonder how Paintball could possibly have found out about this. Remembering what the guy a few moments earlier had said, I quickly used red paint to yank the gun away from Mr. Jackson and tossed it while taunting him with a quick, “You should tell your minions to be more subtle when they grab someone. Or at least pay attention when they’re being followed!” 

Painting my gloves purple for strength then, I grabbed the handcuff chain with both hands and ripped it apart. Luckily, they hadn’t bothered using staydown cuffs. These were the normal, old-fashioned kind. So I was able to easily break them before pointing into the woods. “Run!” 

Rather than doing what I told her to, Paige stared at me and yelled something that was muffled by the gag. Her hands reached up to try to undo the gag, and only then did I notice that it had some kind of complicated buckle system that made it hard to undo by yourself. 

“Just go!” I shot a bit of green paint at her stomach and gave the girl a push. “I’ll be right beh–” That was as far as I got before catching sight of Mr. Jackson pointing some other gun he’d grabbed. Quickly, I painted an orange hand flipping him off on my back, spinning around to grab Paige and yank her out of the way. A few quiet gunshots filled the air, and I felt them ricochet off my back, stinging a bit. Paige was screaming again. That time when I pushed her, she ran. Fucking finally. 

As soon as the girl disappeared into the treeline, I shot a wide spray of red paint all along the wooded ground just past the edge of the parking lot in front of me. Then I spun and dropped to one knee. The other men had retrieved their guns, or produced new ones, and were all taking aim. But before they could start firing, I shot another spray of red that way, coating them and Mr. Jackson. Then I connected the paints and sent a cloud of random ground debris right into their faces. Dozens of tiny pebbles, twigs, leaves, dirt, and more were sent flying that way while they recoiled and cried out. 

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. Well, technically I wasn’t even in the woods yet. The point was, there were more bad guys coming. Like, a lot more. I heard loud engines and my eyes snapped that way in time to see a couple more vans speeding along the road toward us. Shit, shit, shit. Time to go! To that end, I quickly painted green lightning bolts on my legs and used the extra speed to sprint off into the trees, while the new cars were still skidding to a stop and Mr. Jackson and his guys were recovering from having a bunch of debris thrown in their faces. 

Racing through the trees with my enhanced speed, I quickly caught up with the stumbling Paige. As soon as I was within sight of her, I activated the paint I’d shot her with earlier and she was suddenly moving faster. Apparently it was enough of a surprise that she nearly fell on her face. Which totally wasn’t my intention. Not consciously anyway. Before she could fall, I reached out to grab her arm. She jumped and spun with her fist up, before freezing upon seeing who it was. 

“You’re faster now, so use it and keep running!” Without thinking about it, I reached out and caught her by the hand. In most situations, I would sooner have picked up a hissing and spitting venomous snake. But this wasn’t a normal time. Her hand clutched onto mine with what felt like desperation and we ran together through the forested area. Behind us, we could both hear more gunshots clipping the trees around us while men shouted and car engine started back up. They were going to try to cut us off. And, considering I had no idea where we were going or what was around, they could probably pull it off. They clearly knew this area better than I did. The headstart and my powers were our only advantage, and even those wouldn’t be worth much if we were stupid about this whole thing. With numbers and weapons they could beat my powers, and if we just ran right to them, the headstart wouldn’t matter. 

Just as I was thinking that, I felt a tug at my arm. Paige was trying to lead me into running to the left, deeper into the wooded area rather than straight through. Apparently she’d had the exact same thought about being cut off. Smothering my instinctive urge to disagree with whatever she thought, I nodded, and the two of us started running that way instead. The speed boost had run out by that point, but I didn’t trigger another one, not yet at least. I wanted to save some paint and let it recharge a little bit. 

Also, I needed to save some to do things like what I did when the sound of approaching footsteps chasing us got closer. Pointing my free hand down, I shot a puddle of blue just ahead of us. We ran onward, and Paige gave me what was obviously a confused look. But she got it a second later, as the sound of running footsteps was interrupted by a quick, short scream and a crack as our nearest pursuer was launched upward to crash into a low tree branch. 

Continuing on, I used a few more traps to slow down our pursuers. There were a couple blue puddles that I activated as we passed them, and a long line of yellow paint that would slow down anyone who happened to step in it. Given it was pretty dark out here, the guys behind us had to slow down a good bit to watch the ground. Which was a good chance for us to extend our lead. I did that repeatedly, enough to hit a few more guys and keep the rest nervous. 

Unfortunately, the fact it was dark also affected us. Neither Paige, nor I could see very well, and we kept stumbling over various roots and shit, almost spraining our ankles, or worse, a few times. I was pretty sure she didn’t know where we were going any better than I did. We were just intent on getting away from all the guys with guns. 

Just ahead of us was a really big tree with a long, crooked branch growing out above the path we were on. A bit to the left was a steep hill. Seeing that, I pulled my hand free from the other girl’s and painted my arm purple for wrapping it around her. “Grab on,” I snapped quickly. I barely gave the taller girl time to put both arms quickly around my neck before using my other hand to shoot red toward the tall branch while we were still running. It yanked us upward, and I switched to a shot of blue to coat that same branch while releasing the red once we had momentum. Tightly clutching the girl I never would have willingly touched with a ten-foot pole in almost any other situation, I sent us flying to that blue spot on the branch, which launched us even higher when we landed on it. The two of us were hurled into the air, and I used the momentum and height to carry us over, landing on top of that high, steep hill. 

Flashlight beams were already cutting through the trees, and we could hear footsteps and loud voices. Paige started to move, but I use the remaining strength boost to yank her down while dropping myself. Painting myself black, I did the same to her, shooting black to silence her while holding my hand in front of the visor in a shushing motion.

Thank fuck, she seemed to get the point and laid completely still. We pressed ourselves against the ground, watching just over the edge of that hill toward the path we’d just been running along. The men were right behind us. I could see Mr. Jackson in the lead, an assault rifle in his hands by that point as he snapped orders to his subordinates and kept moving. Just as he reached the spot directly below us, he stopped and looked around. Quickly, Paige and I ducked back. But we could hear his voice as he spoke. 

“Alpha and Beta, keep moving along the streets. I want a full canvas, they don’t get back into the city. Delta and Epsilon, spread out and do a tree by tree search from here all the way to the waterline. Flush them out, whatever it takes. You find anything, you let everyone know. Gamma, come in from the west side and meet us in the middle. Where’s that helicopter? Get it out here right now. And keep blocking those cell signals.”

Oh great, they were bringing in a helicopter too. That was just fantastic. Paige and I definitely had to get out of here before that thing became an issue. And, apparently, we had to do it by getting past a whole lot more bad guys than I’d even thought. There was some other group coming in from the same direction we had been moving originally. This was just great. Not to mention, I apparently couldn’t call out for help either. Not that I was sure who I would call that could actually get out here quickly, but still. Maybe the Minority would have helped. And wouldn’t it have been fun to try to explain to Tomas why his dad was arrested by the local teen superheroes? 

The men below us had moved on by then, but they were still close, spreading out to look through the trees for where we could have gone. As I was thinking about what to do, Paige shook my shoulder. She was pointing at the gag in her mouth and making emphatic, yet quiet, noises. Apparently, she really wanted it out.

I thought about leaving it in, to be honest. This was the most I’d ever been able to stand being around the other girl, and it had everything to do with the fact that she couldn’t say anything. It seemed like a shame to throw that away and let her start talking again. 

Okay, that was bad. But seriously, she was not a nice person. At least not to me. 

But, somewhat reluctantly, I used both hands to unclip the buckle, fumbling with it a little bit before pulling the gag out of her mouth. 

She took a few seconds then, opening and shutting her mouth and making very soft gagging noises as she worked her jaw. Finally, the girl spoke. To her credit, she kept her voice very low, a whisper that barely reached my ears. 

“The water,” she murmured. “I know this area. There’s a boat we can use on the water. It’s not that far from here. I think we can make it with your paint stuff.”

Okay, apparently I’d been wrong when I assumed she didn’t know anything about this area. Hesitating slightly, I whispered back, “Are you sure?”

If she’d known it was me, Paige would have had a scathing remark then. Instead, she just gave a quick nod. “Trust me, I don’t want to be found by those guys any more than you do. They were about to kill me.”

So, I nodded back to her. “Let’s go.” 

With one more glance around to make sure we were clear for the moment, the two of us carefully stood up and started moving back toward the water. Before we’d gone more than a couple steps, however I felt Paige’s hand catch my arm. “Hey…”

Blinking, I turned that way, just in time for her to suddenly hug me tightly. I made a noise of surprise, as the girl who had hated me since we’d met and who had gone out of her way to belittle and insult me every chance she got suddenly embraced me. 

“Thanks,” she whispered. “Like I said, those…those guys were gonna kill me. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t… I…” I could hear the lump in her throat, could feel the way her fear made her entire body shake along with her voice. “You are seriously the most awesome person in the world.”

Yup, it was official. 

This was the most fucked up night of my life. 

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Interlude 3A – Erin Redcliffe (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

She was a hostage. 

Erin Redcliffe understood that now. Actually, it hadn’t taken her that long to figure out. She was a hostage being held against her father. Not her birth father. That jackass had split with her mother when she was three so he could go live with some colony girl. Then her mother had died when Erin was about nine. She’d been taken in and adopted by Nolan Redcliffe. He was her real father, and he was the one she was being held hostage against. Not that anyone would admit that straight up, but it was the truth. 

Her father was a rebel, but he wasn’t actually helping the rebels. The new ones, that was. Erin knew that, because she’d actually talked to him over video chat in Headmaster Mason’s office. Yeah, Sands and Scout’s dad was the new headmaster at Crossroads. And he had made it clear that she wasn’t supposed to mention the ‘traitors’, or the call would be cut off. Oh, he’d been nice about it and all. He’d phrased it as if avoiding touchy subjects was best for everyone. But she could read between the lines. Just like she’d read between the lines of the bullshit nothing comments from her father about how he was going to be busy doing some extra work for awhile and that she should be good for Mason and the teachers at Crossroads. 

He wasn’t doing anything. She knew that much just from looking at him on that video chat, just from hearing the things he said and things he didn’t say. He wasn’t working for Crossroads and he wasn’t working for the new rebellion. Or ‘traitors’ as Headmaster Mason called them. He was sitting out everything to protect her. Obviously, Crossroads had made some kind of deal with him, and probably with the parents or guardians of other students here. They sat out the war, and their kids would be safe. Who knew what would happen if they didn’t sit it out. Erin wasn’t even sure if the threats had been specific or just implied. Either way, they were enough. 

So, she’d spent the past few months basically holed up on the island, desperate to find out what was really going on. But it was impossible to get real information. She and a few of the others that she’d managed to find out were also leaning toward believing the revelations that Flick and Gaia had magically uploaded into everyone’s minds were being kept in the dark about everything rebellion-wise. They were meant to sit around and ‘enjoy themselves’ over the summer. Right.

At least now school had started. Which was… something of a distraction. And now that they’d been going to classes for a couple weeks, they were even allowing Erin to leave the island. Sort of. She was going along with the rest of her new team (everyone had been shuffled up for the start of school) on their first official monster hunt of the year. Which was something she’d expected to at least be delayed for awhile, but nope. Something about keeping to tradition. A part of her wondered if some of it was also because Headmaster Mason wanted to prove to the Committee that he was capable of keeping things under control and running smoothly. 

Well, that and the fact that sticking them out here on hunting missions was clearly also a potential trap for any family members who might come to pick them up. They had extra security guarding every hunting group, and all the participants, including Erin, were outfitted with a magic bracelet that could teleport them straight to Crossroads at any time if something went off script. Which they said was because of all the events that happened last year with the hunts, but as good of an excuse as that was, Erin was pretty sure the real reason was to yank them back if any of their rebel-leaning family members tried to intervene to get them out of there. 

Seriously, at exactly what point in the course of actually holding students hostage with magical leashes intended to stop their own family members and friends from rescuing them did these people look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they might just possibly be the bad guys? 

Whatever, it was just good to get off the island for a while, though she was also pretty sure that this was a test to see how they would react to killing things after that little memory upload. Mason and the rest wanted to see if they would hesitate too much after hearing the rebellion’s theory about Strangers not all being evil. 

So here they were, her whole team on the first hunt. Her team this year consisted of Zeke Leven and Malcolm Harkess, both members of her team from last year, as well as Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Erin’s new roommate, a Middle Eastern-looking girl named Laila. Erin hadn’t interacted with her very much the year before, because Laila always kept to herself and didn’t say much. Either that had changed this year, or she was different with roommates, because Laila had been asking her a lot of questions every night about what happened the year before. Erin told her that she hadn’t been involved with any of it and that Vanessa had kept everything a secret even from her. Which was a fact that still hurt to think about. Not just from Vanessa, but Sands and Scout too. The three of them had grown up together. They were supposed to be friends. Her dad and their mom were like… besties for a long time. And neither they, nor Vanessa, had said anything to her. 

So yeah, that hurt. And she wasn’t even sure Laila believed it. 

But frankly, Erin had more things to worry about than what her new roommate believed. Most importantly in this very moment was the question of what she was going to do about this whole hunting thing. She’d been thinking about the rebellion’s message for months now, and she just… she believed them even more now than she had that first night. It felt right, even if that meant that everything she’d been taught for so long was wrong. 

But even believing the rebellion’s message, what was she supposed to do about it? She couldn’t exactly just refuse to hunt. That wouldn’t  go over well. And there were very clearly actual bad monsters out there. Monsters that did need to be killed. But she couldn’t trust the people she was supposed to be able to trust to point her at the right ones. 

She wanted to talk to her dad, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not without strict supervision making it impossible to really talk. 

So, she had no actual help on that front. And here she was on the first hunt. She and the rest of her team were standing just outside the loading dock of a grocery store. According to their briefing for this hunt, a pack of Crocotta had taken up residence in the place. They were a sort of magical wolf-dog hybrid creature that was as big as a lion and had teeth that could and did eat through anything. They were always hungry, eating whenever possible because of their fast digestion. And that digestion could apparently take anything. They ate meat and such, but also metals, brick, wood, everything. They were like super powered termites shaped like really big wolf dogs. 

And they had already killed several people in the store before it was shut down by a few Adjacents in the local police department, people without the Bystander Effect for various reasons who helped out a bit but were not actual full Heretics. 

Now Erin and her team were being sent in to kill the monsters, with plenty of people watching over their shoulders to see how they did. And how they reacted to it. She was pretty sure it was no accident that the creatures they were being sent after for their first hunt were non-humanoid and had already clearly killed people. It was a test, but also a safe one. They were being eased into things. 

“Yo, Earth to Erin.” Malcolm’s voice cut through her inner musings, and Erin snapped back to the present. Right, the store. They were right there.

“I’m good,” she whispered back before looking to the others. Malcolm, Zeke, Laila, Freya, and Summer. For whatever reason, they had put her in charge. Well, Zeke nominated himself, but the others pushed for Erin. And Namid, their new team mentor for the year, had taken their suggestions. 

“Okay,” she continued, speaking quietly despite the magical charm they were using to keep their conversation private, “three in the back and three in the front. The three in the front go in and start driving them back this way. If they attack straight on, the ones in the back come in and hit them from behind. If they turn and run, the ones back here stop them and the ones in the front are the ones who hit them from behind. Good?”

Zeke looked like he might argue, but seemed to catch himself. Instead, the boy ran a hand through his wild mop of brown hair and adjusted his glasses before giving a short nod. “Who’s going around front?”

“Malcolm, Summer, and me,” Erin replied after thinking about it for a second. That would split the team’s two best fighters, Malcolm and Freya, between both groups. And if the monsters did retreat back this way, Freya and Zeke both had shields to help keep them from escaping. Finally, it put the team’s two big weapons, Freya’s rocket launcher (combined from her shield and warhammer) and Summer’s railgun (converted from her shockprod-and-sawblade armed staff) at opposite ends of the store to hit the monsters from either side. 

Still, after making that decision, Erin turned toward the nearby empty semi-truck to look at the girl who stood there. 

“Hey,” Namid idly replied, “I’m just here in case you all fuck up completely. So don’t fuck up, okay?” After a second, she relented and gestured. “If you were doing something really stupid, I’d say something. Note the lack of me saying something.”

Namid. Erin was pretty sure that being a team mentor was about as far from something the punk Native American girl wanted to do as dying her hair blonde, putting on a bright pink dress, and entering one of those Bystander beauty pageants. Unfortunately, it seemed like Litonya, Namid’s great-something aunt, hadn’t given her that much of a choice. But, as much as she clearly didn’t want to do it, Namid wasn’t a bad mentor. She spoke up when she needed to and actually taught them things. She was good at it. At least, she had been over this past couple of weeks. Whatever anger or annoyance she felt at being forced into this, she wasn’t taking it out on Erin and the others. Which actually just seemed to prove that Litonya hadn’t been wrong to put her in this position. 

Quietly, Erin, Malcolm, and Summer made their way around to the front of the store. The parking lot was almost entirely empty and the doors were locked. The inside of the place looked dark, but they could occasionally see shapes moving around between the aisles. The monsters were definitely still in there. 

Touching the badge on her uniform to communicate with everyone at once, Erin spoke up. “Okay, guys. On the count of five, we’re going in. Rear team, stay put until we tell you what they’re doing. Be ready to come in or receive if they run. We’re going in loud so they know we’re here.”

 After getting a collection of acknowledgments, she started counting down. In the process, she freed her sword from its scabbard, noting Malcolm pulling out his own massive hammer and Summer producing her staff. They were ready. 

Reaching zero, Erin lashed outward with her sword. The weapon’s special ability allowed it to control and manipulate the wind. In this case, she used that to generate a hurricane force gust that slammed into the doors with enough strength that the glass was shattered in all of them and went spraying inward throughout the front of the store. 

With the other two at her side, Erin went running right through the opening she had made. The sound of savage barking and howling throughout the store greeted them. The Crocotta were apparently not interested in trying to flee. 

So, Erin let the others know to attack from the other side, and the fight throughout the dimly lit store was on. 

********

After what felt like far longer than the eight minutes it actually was, Erin was very carefully making her way through the snacks aisle. The rest of the team was either spread out throughout the store as they searched for more of the wild monsters, or watching either exit in the case of Freya and Malcolm. They’d already killed more than half of the Crocotra, and now they had to find the rest.

Everyone could be in communication with the others at any point, and Malcolm had touched his hammer against each of them. Which meant he could teleport in next to any of them at any point if they got in trouble. They could do this. They could finish this hunt. Then Erin could go back to figuring out a way to get hold of her father and get away from Crossroads. 

But for the moment, she had to focus on this. There were still monsters in here, monsters who had definitely killed people. Slowly, her eyes scanned the aisle. Seeing nothing, she instead raised the hand that wasn’t clutching her sword and focused on one of her powers. Gradually, a faint red fog appeared, along with a slight yellow one mixed in. The power allowed her to create a visible representation of various strong emotions felt within a certain timeframe. Anger and violent feelings were red and fear was yellow. Only a short time earlier, something feeling very angry and slightly afraid had come right through here. One of the monsters. Following the trail, Erin made her way to the end of the aisle. Rather than poke her head out, she summoned another power. This one brought a small crystal ball to her hand. She threw the ball out about ten feet, then summoned it back. When the ball was back in her palm, she focused on it, and an image of everything the orb had seen while it was out there came to her mind. She could see everything from all sides, everywhere the sphere had a view on. She saw herself standing there and the area surrounding the end of the aisle. And she saw the huge wolf-dog creature crouched behind one of the refrigeration units in the middle of the open space. It was waiting for her. 

Slowly, Erin started to raise a hand to the badge to let the others know she had one. But her hand froze in mid-motion, as she noticed that the creature wasn’t alone. There were several much smaller versions curled up behind it. Pups. The thing had puppies. 

Well, what the fuck was she supposed to do now? Crossroads would say to kill the things before they could get bigger. But they were just puppies. Puppies being protected by their mother or father. Damn it, this was supposed to be simple! 

“Erin,” Malcolm’s voice came, “you got anything?”

Pausing for a brief moment, she reached up to touch the badge before they could think anything was wrong, whispering, “Not sure yet. I’ll let you know.”

Just as she finished saying that, Erin sensed something behind her. She started to spin with a yelp, but a hand suddenly covered her mouth and she was yanked backward. Jerking free, she shoved the person who had grabbed her away and spun with her sword out.

It was a teenaged girl, a very thin one with hair that was long and black as opposed to Erin’s own short, currently neon green hair. 

She was also clearly not that strong, considering she almost collapsed completely when Erin shoved her. “Oof,” she half-yelped and half-gasped. “Boy, you’re really strong. I mean girl. You’re definitely a girl, even if you’re really strong.” 

Staring at the girl for a moment, Erin blurted, “Who the hell are you?”

The girl, in turn, shook her head while straightening up. “No, the question is, who are you? I mean, I had that question before I touched you. And you didn’t know I was there, so I definitely had the question first. And why did you have a big leash spell all over you?”

“Look,” Erin started, “you need t— Wait, you know what magic is? Who are you? Where did you come from? Wait, are you from Eden’s Garden? Or the rebellion?”

The girl stared at her blankly. “I’m from 3621 Montgomery, about three blocks that way.” She pointed before turning that finger toward Erin. “What’s Eden’s Garden? What’s the Rebellion? Were you the ones who sent the spy eggs? I thought you worked for Galazien the Iron-Souled, but you’re not nearly evil enough for that. And he usually makes his women wear bikini chainmail.”

“The spy—what?” Erin was now even more confused and started to ask for clarification. Then something else the girl had said suddenly struck her. “Wait, you said why did I have a leash spell, past tense. Why did you use past tense?” 

Staring back at her evenly, the thin girl replied, “Oh, it doesn’t function in the circle. None of that magic stuff on you does. It’s a protection circle.”

Looking at the floor where the girl gestured, Erin saw various symbols drawn on the floor.  A second later, voices caught her attention, and she turned to see Malcolm and Zeke come running. Her mouth open to say something, but Malcolm spoke first. “Where the hell is she?”

“They can’t see or hear you until you step out of the circle,” the strange girl informed her while Zeke and Malcolm walked right past them, stepping on the spell runes to no apparent effect. “It only works for people I pull onto it, so we’re cut off from those others.”

“What about th—” As she started to ask about the monster, Erin glanced that way, only to see nothing there. A fact that Malcolm and Zeke confirmed by stepping all the way over there and finding nothing. 

“She’s my friend,” the girl informed her firmly. “Her and her puppies. They were here a long time before the other ones. The other ones showed up and started killing people yesterday, but she’s nice. She’s not like them. So I sent her and the puppies away. I was going to make an illusion spell for you and your friends to chase, but you told them you didn’t find her.” She frowned. “That’s why I pulled you onto my privacy circle. Why did you do that? Why did you lie to your friends and tell them you didn’t find her?”

Erin’s mind was reeling. But there was one thing she had to focus on, even as she saw Malcolm starting to call in the fact that she had disappeared. “Look, wait, I’ve got just as many questions as you do, about who you are, how you know all this, and what the hell is going on. But there’s just one important thing right now. You said that Leash spell doesn’t work in here, right? Can you get rid of it completely?” That had to be the magic they’d put on the wristband that would yank her back to Crossroads. “And can you do it fast? Because we have to get out of here. You get me out of here without that spell and without any of those guys following and I’ll answer anything you want to know.”

With a shrug, the other girl crouched to touch one of the runes. She seemed to pour some power into it with a look of focused concentration before pointing at Erin. A beam of silver light lashed out, hitting the wristband and disintegrating it.

By that point, the rest of the team was there along with Namid. They were all looking around, shouting her name. An instant later, two adult Heretics from the security team came bursting through a portal with their weapons drawn. They started setting up spells, ordering the other students to go through the portal and get back to Crossroads. There was a lot of arguing, and another adult Heretic appeared.

“Boy,” the strange girl remarked, “there sure are a lot of you.”

Erin’s head shook. “You have no idea. And I don’t care how good your privacy spell is, Miss Magicka, they’re going to figure out we’re here any second. They’re too good to be fooled for long. Do you have any way to send us out of the store like you sent the Crocotra and her pups?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, “but for the record, my name’s Dylan, not Miss Magicka. I—”

“There!” one of the adult Heretics blurted, pointing right at them. 

“You’re right,” Dylan remarked, “they are good.” With that, she pulled a pouch from her pocket and threw it at the ground. Even as the rest of the Heretics suddenly moved their way, a cloud of blue smoke enveloped the pair. 

And they were gone. 

Author’s Note: Dylan was both introduced and last seen in second edition of Patreon Snippets, third entry from the top, located here: https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/08/22/patreon-snips-2/

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

Note that there was a commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge focusing on Avalon and Gaia posted yesterday. If you have not read that and would like to, you can click right here

My hand was over my mouth, pressing tight to cut off the sound of my gasp. My eyes were practically bulging their way out of my head, and all I could do for that moment was stare at the door ahead of me. My God. Oh my God. My gaze, staring at that door, was distorted by the tears that suddenly leapt to my eyes. No, no, no. Please, no. Not them too. Not this, not this. Why? Why?! 

Move, move, Cassidy! Move before he catches you, or someone else does! Move! Jerking visibly to my mental scream at myself, I turned and quickly made my way down the hall as silently as I could. The whole time, I kept frantically looking over my shoulder, expecting to see the man suddenly burst out with a gun pointed at me or something. Or someone to jump out in front of me. I stumbled, almost falling before catching myself. Go, fuck, go, Cassidy! Fucking go! 

Only when I was already to the stairs and had retreated up them back to the third floor did it occur to me that I had the black silencing paint. Fuck. I could’ve–I could’ve just made it easier to get out of there. I could’ve, but I wasn’t thinking straight. I was barely thinking at all, after… that.

Mr. Jackson did work for my parents. And he was going to kill a girl. Kill a girl. What girl? What girl were they talking about? Wait, not… no, not Izzy. Of course not, why did my brain immediately go there? But who? What– He had said that the girl was snooping around. Someone was snooping around and he caught them? And now he was going to have them killed?! Wait, he also said something about his power not working on her. Power? What power? What girl? What the hell was going on?!? Why did it have to be like this? Why wasn’t he just a normal guy? Why did my ex-boyfriend’s father work for my evil parents?! Had he worked for them–he had. He’d worked for them the whole time. That was the only thing that made sense, the only–oh God, did Tomas know? Did he know? Was he involved? And if he did, if he was… had he ever actually cared about me? Or was I just an assignment? Was he supposed to babysit me or something? 

My hands were covering my ears, pressing so tight against my head it actually hurt. No, no, please. Please no, I didn’t want this. Please wake up, please. Just wake up, wake up! 

Wake up. Wake up, Cassidy. This wasn’t going away. Yes, Tomas’s father was evil. He was evil and he worked for your parents. And Tomas might have something to do with it. Maybe. That sucked. It sucked so much. But what was worse than that? Being murdered. Being dead. And some girl out there, some girl in the back of some van, was about to be just that. So just get the fuck over yourself and your issues, stand up, and do something about it before that happened. 

Just as I thought that, the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps from the direction of Mr. Jackson’s office penetrated my head. He was coming. This time, I actually remembered my black paint, making a spot of it appear on my shirt before looking both ways quickly to make sure the coast was clear. Then I shot a bit of red paint up to the ceiling and yanked myself up there, managing to get out of sight in the little overhang area just as Mr. Jackson walked by directly below. He was still on the phone, walking purposefully as he ordered someone to pull the van around. So, he wasn’t talking to my dad anymore. Instead, he was on his way out to… to do what he’d promised he would. Kill the girl. He was on his way out to kill the girl, if I didn’t do something. 

Once he was gone, heading further down the stairs to the first floor, my paint faded and I dropped, landing in a crouch before pushing myself up. Fuck it. Whatever other issues I had, whatever horrible thoughts and fears this whole revelation had spawned in me, I would deal with it later. Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting that girl, whoever she was, away from Mr. Jackson without letting him know who I was. My problems could wait. Her life couldn’t. 

First, I had to get out of the house. To that end, I made my way downstairs. There was no way I’d be able to sneak out of here the way I did my own house. I didn’t know the security well enough, and it was all much smaller, with at least one guard on the roof. I couldn’t sneak out, so I was going to have to just leave the normal way while trying not to let on… anything at all. 

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, right there by the living room, I was immediately put to the test as far as keeping myself together went, as Mrs. Jackson suddenly appeared in front of me, holding a wine glass in one hand and a plate of brownies in the other. “Oh!” A smile appeared, one that… looked awfully genuine. “I was just going to bring these up for you and Tomas.” 

Did she know? Did Mrs. Jackson know that her husband was evil, and that he was on his way out to kill some girl right now, a girl that he had in the back of a van out front? Did she know

Shaking that off, and swallowing the hard lump that had formed in my throat, I forced myself to reply, “Tomas fell asleep, Mrs. Jackson. I’ve got some homework to do anyway, so I better get home.” 

“Aww, that’s too bad. I’m sure he’ll feel bad about crashing on you.” With a conspiratorial wink, Mrs. Jackson added, “We’ll only make fun of him for it a little bit, okay? Here, take one at least.” 

Reminding myself to act as normal as possible, as hard as that was, I forced my hand to take one of the brownies. Knowing what the woman I expected, I took a bite. It felt like biting into cardboard. Not because it tasted bad, but because all I could think about was how much the woman in front of me knew about the evil things that her husband and my parents were up to. 

Still, I forced myself to swallow and brought a smile to my face. “Thanks, Mrs. Jackson.” 

She started to say something, but was interrupted by a voice from behind me. “Okay, I’m heading out.” It was Mr. Jackson. He had his phone in my hand, as I saw when I whipped around. Seeing my reaction, the man simultaneously winced and chuckled. “Sorry, Cassidy. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He paused then, seeming to think about something before adding, “You leaving already? Don’t tell me Tomas said something dumb and made things awkward.” 

“He fell asleep,” Mrs. Jackson informed him, a not-insubstantial amount of amusement in her voice. “Poor boy’s still turned around from the sudden move.” There was a hint of… maybe reprimand in her voice? Not much, just a little bit that told me maybe she wasn’t completely cool with the fact that their lives had been suddenly uprooted to bring them here. But it disappeared in her next words, as she added, “If you’re heading out, maybe you can give Cassidy a ride.” 

“That’s okay,”  I quickly put in before the man could open his mouth. “I sort of already called for a ride, and you know how much it sucks for those Uber people to get a call that cancels.” 

Quickly masking the look of relief that came to his face, the man gave a short, polite nod. “I’m going the opposite way, in any case. Good night, Cassidy. I hope to see you again soon.”  

It was clear that he wanted to stay and say something to his wife, so I quickly excused myself. Leaving out the front door, I glanced to the side. The van. There was the van that Mr. Jackson had mentioned, sitting in the driveway. It looked like any other ordinary white van. For a second, I froze, before catching myself. Forcing my feet to keep moving, I nodded to the guard at the gate and he let me out. On the way, I glanced back to say thank you. But I used that moment to check the license plate on the plain-looking van, committing it to memory as well as I could.  

Right now, there was a girl in that van. And my ex-boyfriend’s father was going to kill her unless I did something about it. I could worry about everything else that came with this revelation later, after I saved her. But I couldn’t do that as myself. I had to change, and I had to do it fast. Unfortunately, I couldn’t look like I was in a rush, so I forced myself to walk normally to the end of the street, looking down at my phone as though checking for my ride. 

As soon as I reached the end of the block, I sprinted for the building I’d left my costume on. At least I had it close. Thank God I’d been planning to visit Wren after dinner. I honestly had no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have it. Try to disguise myself some other way? 

Whatever, the costume was nearby, and it only took me a minute to get myself up onto the roof and quickly change into it. As I pulled the helmet on and secured it, my eyes looked out toward the cross street just down from the Jackson house. There it was. I saw the van. At least, I thought it was the van. It was… it was turning this way. Quickly, I dropped down, laying flat on my stomach behind the metal air conditioning unit. It was dark enough now, being past dinner, that I was pretty sure no one in the van had seen me standing up on the roof of the restaurant. 

Keeping myself low, I listened to the van as it approached. It passed beneath me and I poked my head out to look off the edge of the roof. There. I saw the license plate below, and it was definitely the right one. Okay, that was the van. Now what? I couldn’t just jump in and attack them right now. Not only were we too close to the house, but I had no idea how many people were in the van, what kind of condition the girl was in, or how the bad guys were armed. 

Right, I was going to have to follow them and try to intervene once we got there and before they killed this girl. Which meant I had to keep up with the van without letting them see me. And the only way I was going to be able to do that was by staying far enough behind, taking shortcuts, and hoping that I didn’t end up losing them. At least I knew that they were heading for the water. Mr. Jackson had said something about a pier, so that helped a little bit. Okay, Cassidy, do this right. Shove everything else about this shit aside and whatever you do, don’t lose that van

Watching the tail lights of the van as it kept going down the street, I took a running start and launched myself upward, using red paint to reach the next building on the opposite side of the street before running a few steps, popping my skates out with a quick blurted command. From there, I followed the rooftops, trying to stay low while painting my costume black so I wouldn’t stand out. My eyes stayed focused on those tail lights, doing my best not to lose track of which ones were the actual van. A couple times I had to get close enough to double-check, but for the most part I stayed as far back as I dared, using the darkness and height to my advantage, as well as the fact that whenever I saw the van at a stoplight with its turn signal on, I could move ahead and catch it further on. The whole time, we got closer and closer to Lake St. Clair. Or rather, to the Detroit river that the lake fed into. We weren’t going to the lake, we were going to the river. 

The van pulled off the main road and took some side streets. I had to abandon the roofs and make my way through the wooded park area on the side of the road on foot while doing my best not to be seen by anyone. Again, being able to make my costume completely black helped. I had no idea how people went around doing the superhero thing without being able to change the color of their costume at any given point to match the situation. It sounded much harder. 

Now I was running through the forest to the side of the road. Or rather, I started running, before realizing that was dumb. Instead, I jumped straight up to the top of the nearest tree with the aid of a bit of blue paint, then leapt to the next, using a mixture of that and my red paint now and then to yank myself onward much faster. With the help of green paint for speed, my feet barely touched each tree before I leapt to the next one. It felt like I was some super-modernized and colorful version of Tarzan or something. 

Some small part of me wondered how I could navigate the dark forest I’d never been in that well. Seriously, I jumped from tree to tree like I’d been there my whole life and knew every branch. What was that about? But there were far more important things for me to focus on. 

Finally, the van reached a rest stop or something, an open space with one small building labeled restrooms, lit by a single struggling lamp post. Sure enough, there was a path leading down to a pier overlooking the river. This was it. This was definitely it. As soon as I saw the van stop, I threw myself out of the tree, using black paint to land silently on the ground behind a bush. We were here. This was it. I had to do this right. The girl. I couldn’t let them kill her. 

Maybe she knew something about their operation. Not only was this my chance to save her, whoever she was, it was also my chance to find something out about my family’s organization. Whatever she knew, it was important enough for Mr. Jackson, a British diplomat (seriously, how did that fit into my family’s criminal empire?) to personally make sure she was dead. This wasn’t just any old victim. She knew something. I had to get her out of there, without revealing who I was. 

But Mr. Jackson had a power. He’d said that his power didn’t work on this girl. Why didn’t it work? And what was his power? Something that should have allowed him to avoid killing her? That was sure what it sounded like when he’d been on the phone. But I wasn’t sure what that meant. So, he had a power that I knew nothing about. This was going to be fun. 

The van doors opening caught my attention, and I squinted that way through the dim light to see three men get out. None of them were Mr. Jackson. But the man himself stepped out a moment later, as the first three looked around, clearly watching for any uninvited guests. They were armed with what looked like submachine guns, all of them dressed the same as his security detail. They probably were from his security detail, actually.  

Mr. Jackson turned in a slow circle after exiting the van. His gaze passed over the bush where I was hiding, but didn’t slow at all. He scanned the lot before snapping his fingers. As he did so, one of the men reached back into the van and yanked a struggling figure out before giving her a toss to the ground. 

The girl. Her head was covered by some kind of black hood, and her hands were cuffed behind her back. She started to curse as the man pulled her out of the van, but it turned to a yelp when she was thrown to the ground. 

“No one saw you grab her?” Mr. Jackson demanded of one of the men beside him. 

“No, sir,” the man replied. “No one was around and we took side streets to get her to the house.” 

“Get her up,” Mr. Jackson ordered then, speaking in a flat, bored voice that told me he just wanted to be done with this and move on. He didn’t care that he was about to kill some girl. He wanted it over with so he could go home, or whatever he was going to do. This was nothing new to him. 

One of the men yanked the girl up by the arm, setting her on her feet. She started to say something, but her words were unintelligible. She was clearly gagged somehow under the hood. Not that it mattered, as she’d barely gotten a few sounds out before Mr. Jackson pulled a pistol from his suit jacket and pressed it against her head. “Stop,” he ordered, and she fell silent. 

Just as I was building myself up to send a shot of red paint that would yank the gun away from the girl’s head, he lowered it. “Not here,” the man said simply. “Bring her to the pier so the body lands in the water.” 

That was enough to make the girl start to bolt, even with her hands still cuffed. But two of the men grabbed her by either arm. They carried the struggling girl after them while she gave some kind of muffled scream. She was fighting, struggling with everything she had. But it didn’t matter. They were stronger, bigger, and they bodily carried the girl with them, down that path. 

Okay, Cassidy. This was it. Quickly, but silently thanks to black paint, I made my way in a running crouch behind the van and over to the trees on the far side. The men were pulling their prisoner right down there. She fought the whole time, kicking and muffledly screaming. Not that any of them cared. 

Raising both hands, I focused on my red paint and got ready to yank their weapons away, while they pushed the girl right up to the edge of the pier. 

Then Mr. Jackson reached out and yanked the hood off her head, snapping, “It didn’t have to be this way, kid. But you wouldn’t stop digging, and people who keep digging… eventually they make a grave.” 

The hood was gone. I could see her face. I could see the girl they were about to kill, the one who knew enough about my family’s criminal empire that they wanted her dead. 

It was her. The girl who had spent years mocking me for looking like a boy, who had started a whole thing about ‘male cheerleaders’ when I’d been on the team in junior high, the girl who had always seemed to hate me for no reason. 

I was here to save Paige Banners. 

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

 

Commissioned Interlude 3 – Avalon and Gaia (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter

During Thanksgiving Break Last Year

Water filling her nose and mouth, clogging its way down her throat. Her eyes stinging as she fought. Or rather, tried to fight. Her arms and legs refusing to listen to her commands, dead weight attached to her torso. Whatever drug had been injected into her making it impossible to control her limbs. Unable to struggle in any way other than moving her head. The hand at the back of her head forcing her face into the water. Helpless. Pathetic. Going to die like this. 

Abruptly, Avalon jerked upright as much as her still somewhat paralyzed limbs would allow. Her eyes snapped open as a cry escaped her, and she blinked around what turned out to be a clean and quiet hospital room that she recognized as being inside the main building of Crossroads Academy. The room was mostly dark, save for some light coming from the nearby corridor.

“It’s okay.” The voice came from the side, and Avalon’s gaze snapped that way to find a familiar figure sitting in a chair next to the bed. It was Gaia. The light from the hallway partially illuminated her face, but left most of her expression hidden in shadows. She continued in that same gentle voice. “You’re safe here, Avalon. We pulled you out of the water in time.”  

For a moment, the girl said nothing. She looked down at her arm and strained. It slowly lifted, but felt very awkward and slow. Her fingers were clumsy. It felt like she was wearing thick mitts. They were numb and unresponsive. Focusing hard, she was able to close her hand and then open it. But far too slowly to be of any real use. Her feet and toes were the same way. She was pretty sure there was no way she would be able to support any weight on her legs just then. 

Gaia waited for her to work her way through that before speaking. “The poison will wear off in time. But I’m afraid you will likely need the support of crutches for a little while to get around. Not for too long, but at least a bit. Even with your own regeneration and our healing, that was an incredibly potent magical poison. The fact that you survived the attack at all is honestly…” 

“Thanks to you, right?” Avalon’s voice felt thick, and came out harsher than she meant it. She adjusted her tone a little bit and exhaled before continuing. “I’m sorry. I mean, I didn’t do anything. I would have died if it wasn’t for you swooping in to save me. I know I owe you. Like I owe you for taking me in, for taking all the political heat from Garden for all this. Just like I owe-”  

Gaia put a hand up, head shaking. “No, Avalon. You don’t…” She hesitated, and the other girl could see some strange emotion twisting her face, but it was hard to read through the shadows. Not that Avalon was that great at reading those kinds of emotions at the best of times, anyway. 

“Hey, it’s okay,” she assured the headmistress. Her voice still felt weak, but she tried to inject it with something approaching confidence and control. “I’m alive. I survived the bad guy, again, thanks to you. You did your job. You did your duty. So thanks, seriously.  I guess somehow, someday, I’m going to have to find a way to pay you back for all this. Taking me in, putting yourself between me and all those people at Garden who want me dead, not to mention whoever these new assholes are. I just–I know I owe you everything. Hell, I… I still owe you for showing up and saving me when I was a kid. If it wasn’t for you, I’d–” She cut herself off, because the emotions that rose up at the memories of her own childhood in general, let alone how it had nearly ended, were bad enough at the best of times. When combined with the still very strong terror of nearly drowning, they were entirely too much. She couldn’t deal with them. 

So, Avalon shoved them away, focusing on what she was saying. “I owe you so much. I’ll pay you back. I don’t know how, and I don’t know… I don’t even know why you’re doing all this, really.” 

“You don’t… know…” Gaia’s voice started haltingly, her gaze staring at Avalon. That half-shadowed expression was back, the one that Avalon didn’t understand. “Oh, my girl…”

Before the headmistress could say anything else, and before Avalon could read her expression any better, there was a voice from the doorway as someone stepped into view. It was Professor Kohaku. “Gaia,” the woman started, “sorry to interrupt, but may I speak with you for a moment?” 

There was a brief pause before the headmistress nodded and rose to her feet. She gave Avalon a glance, looking for a moment like she was going to say something again before simply reaching out to put her hand on top of the girl’s. Avalon could barely feel it. But she did feel a rush of warmth that filled her arm and spread through her body. It lasted for a second or two after Gaia had removed her hand and stepped out into the hallway with her subordinate.

Lying back on the bed and staring at the ceiling, Avalon tried to shove the horrific memories of nearly being drowned out of her mind. It didn’t work. They rushed up on her just from laying down. She had to sit up again. She couldn’t even stand laying on her back, not without starting to hyperventilate. Jerking herself up, she tightened her hands into fists as tightly as she could (not very tight at all) and closed her eyes, trying to focus on pushing those thoughts away. Belatedly, she realized that she could hear the voices coming from the nearby corridor.

“I can sit with her, so she feels safe,” Kohaku was saying gently. “I know how you feel about nearly losing her, Gaia. You know I do. And you know I would never let anything happen to that girl. You’re the headmistress. The school still needs you. Trust me,  I’ll stay with her.”

There was a brief pause before Gaia’s quiet, yet firm voice came. “You do know what it’s like, Risa. You and I have both been through that same terrible loss. We have each buried a child long before their time. We have each been helpless to–” She cut herself off abruptly and there was a few seconds of silence before the woman continued. “We have each lost those we love with everything we have. That’s why you know I can’t leave her right now. You are right, I do trust you. I trust you, Risa. That’s why I know the school will be in fine hands for a few hours, or a few days, or whatever it takes. You, Virginia, and the others will have everything under control. If something dramatic happens, I will be here for you. But for the moment, I am off-duty.” 

Another minute or two passed where the other woman gently attempted to persuade Gaia to at least take a nap for a few hours to recharge. But the headmistress held firm, and Kohaku eventually simply replied quietly, “You must really care for that girl in there. I’m glad she’s okay.” 

“As am I,” Gaia agreed softly. “And I will ensure she stays that way until she is able to raise a hand in her own defense once more. Thank you, Risa, for your concern and for being there both today and whenever I need you. I would be very lost without you and the others by my side.” 

Again, there was a pause before the head of security quietly exhaled. “Of course. Anything you need, whenever you need it. You know that. This school is only as strong as it is with you, Gaia. We all need you. But she needs you just a little bit more right now. Take all the time you need here with Avalon. The rest of us can cover things until both of you are ready to come back.” 

“Thank you, Risa,” Gaia murmured. “You will always be one of my dearest friends.” 

“And you will always be one of mine,” Kohaku replied, before adding, “And my greatest teacher.” 

From the way the shadowed forms, barely visible through the partially closed door, moved then, Avalon was pretty sure they were embracing for a moment before releasing one another.  Apparently, that was the end of the conversation. Because Gaia stepped back into the room, closing the door behind her that time. One hand began to glow gently to give the room some light, while her other hand touched the door and she murmured a spell that apparently locked it.

With a wave of her first hand, Gaia sent the gently glowing light up to the corner of the room before moving to sit down in the chair again. As she began to pass the bed however, Avalon spoke up. “Why?” Her voice choked up even more on that single word that it had earlier. It was really all she could do to force the word out through the thick lump that had formed in her throat. 

Pausing where she stood, Gaia slowly looked over to her. “Why what?”  she asked quietly. 

It took Avalon a few seconds to find her voice again. She pushed herself slowly to a more upright position, back against the pillow by the headboard. Then she met the older woman’s gaze through the light cast by the glowing orb. “Why don’t you go take care of the rest of the school? The other students are your duty too. You know you can have someone else sit here with me if you think I’m that incapable. Professor Kohaku even said she would. You trust her, you said so yourself.” 

Again, there was a pause. Then Gaia took a step over and sat, this time on the side of the bed rather than the chair. “Yes,” she agreed. “I trust her as much as I trust anyone. As I said to her, Risa is one of my dearest friends and has been for quite some time. I believe that she would do anything possible to protect this school and to protect and teach any of the students within it.” 

Not breaking her gaze, Avalon quietly insisted, “But you don’t want her to sit in here with me while you do headmistress things. Why? Why do you want to be here with me so much? You know I’m not going to die now. You could have someone else protect me. Why aren’t you?” 

Rather than answering verbally right away, Gaia reached out and took Avalon’s hand. She interlaced their fingers and squeezed before gesturing with her other hand to make the orb in the corner brighten just a bit. It grew light enough for both of them to see each other’s faces much better than they could previously. Bright enough for Avalon to see that expression from earlier, the one she couldn’t read. Even in the stronger light, it was still fairly inexplicable. 

“I trust them with this school, with everything I am responsible for,” Gaia informed her, voice shaking just a bit. Which was a strange thing to hear in and of itself. The headmistress of Crossroads Academy never… shook. She was never that emotional. Before she knew what she was doing, Avalon’s hand tightened against the older woman’s. 

Gaia glanced down at their interlaced fingers, exhaling slowly before looking up again. She continued with, “I trust Risa and the others with all of that. I trust them with everything I am responsible for. But you are not–” Her voice cut off for a moment, clearly unable to continue until she had taken a deep breath. “Avalon… you are not simply something I am responsible for. You are not just something I need to take care of, not just something… someone I am shielding. You are–you have always been–more than that. So much more. From the very moment I saw you with your father and Fahsteth that night all those years ago, you have been more than that.” 

Avalon couldn’t speak. She couldn’t really breathe that well, and it had nothing to do with the remnants of the magical poison. She just sat there staring at the woman sitting beside her.

Gaia went on after a moment, her voice thoughtful. “I made Bernlak send me pictures of you growing up. I made him tell me stories about how you were doing. I think I spoke to him more regularly in these past few years than I have throughout many years previously. Always about you. I had to know how you were doing. I had to know that you were okay. I was so proud to hear about the first time you walked the thin branch without any help, the night after you saw the Turul. Or about how he found you practicing your form that night in the grove, when the two of you stayed there until dawn just to make sure you were ready for the next test. Or when you met Salten, by the bend in the river.” 

“Why did he–why did you want to know any of that?” Avalon asked in a quiet, vulnerable voice. She couldn’t help it. None of this made sense. None of it fit what she had thought for so long. 

“I wanted to know everything about you, always,” Gaia informed her. “Because as I said, you were always more than a duty. Avalon… Valley, I did not adopt you simply to protect you from harm or retaliation. I did not adopt you merely as a political maneuver. My adoption of you only made legal what I have felt for a very long time, since that night with Fahsteth and the creature who called himself your father. 

“You… are my daughter. You are my child in every reasonable way. You are Avalon Sinclaire. You are whoever you want to be, whoever you wish to grow up as. But you are also my daughter. And while I will entrust this entire school to Risa and the others, you are more important than that. You are the most important person in the world to me. You come before everything else, and you always will. You are not a responsibility. You are a joy. My joy. I love you. I have always loved you and I will always choose to protect you above all else.” 

That whole not being able to breathe problem had gotten worse. Avalon stared at the woman, barely able to see through the thick curtain of tears that blinded her. “I–you can’t–that’s… I… but Gaia, you’re…you’re too… I’m too…” 

What was she trying to say? She didn’t know. The words just forced their way out of her mouth without any rhyme or reason. There were no thoughts. How was she supposed to think after that? How was she supposed to do anything at all? 

In the end, there was only one thing she could conceivably say, one single, short word that encompassed everything she was feeling. But she couldn’t say it like that. With effort, Avalon pushed herself over, almost falling as she tried to move closer to Gaia, until the other woman caught her. Then, unable to hold herself up any more, she slumped that way. Her head fell against Gaia’s shoulder, and she felt an arm around her side, holding her close, being there for her as the woman had been for so long. And so much more fully than the girl had understood, until now. 

The word came as Avalon’s eyes closed, as she let herself be held like that. It came with all the meaning and feeling behind it that she had never truly understood before, not until now. 

“…. Mom…” 

******

Present Day 

 

“Mom…” Standing in the station that served as her new school, Avalon stared through the viewing screen that was pretending to be a window. Through it, she could see an image of the Earth taken from the moon. 

Somewhere… somewhere down there, Gaia was trapped. Or maybe she was on some other world. Avalon didn’t know. She had no idea where the woman was being held right now, only that she was moved often and kept in a deep, enforced slumber. She was held prisoner and Avalon could do nothing about it. She hadn’t been able to help her the night she was taken, and in all the days and nights since, nothing had changed. 

Standing there, she wondered if this was how the other woman had felt whenever Avalon was put in danger, whenever she was nearly killed by the Seosten and their minions or puppets. Was this how she had felt from being unable to find who was responsible for all those attacks for so long? 

“Mom… I’m sorry,” she said quietly, voice barely reaching even her own ears. “I’m sorry I haven’t found you. I’m sorry I can’t–I can’t save you right now. I promise we will. We’ll find you and we’ll get you out of there. I swear.”

Realizing that her hand had tightened into a fist to the point of hurting herself, the girl slowly relaxed her fingers, spreading them out as she stared down at her hand. She thought of that first night when she had finally realized just how much the older woman cared about her. And just how much she, in turn, cared for Gaia herself. The first time she had called the woman her mother and truly, genuinely meant it in every possible way. 

“We’ll find you, Mom,” she promised, looking back through the ‘window’ to the Earth floating in the distance. Her voice grew slightly louder, slightly stronger. “Wherever they have you, whatever they’ve done to hide you, it won’t be enough. We’ll get you out of there. It’s our–it’s my turn to help you. And I won’t fuck it up. I swear, I won’t fuck it up. 

“Mom… I know this is stupid because you can’t hear me, but… please hold on. We’ll be there.” 

Touching the screen, Avalon disabled the view. The false window went blank, and she could see herself, the reflection of her face. She could see the expression there, and finally, in that moment, understood exactly what she had seen on Gaia’s face all those months earlier. She had felt it before, of course. But it took until now for her to finally fully understand what that expression, half-hidden in the shadows had been. 

“I love you too, Mom.”

Previous Chapter                          Next Chapter