Month: July 2020

Deliverance 7-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As with all these Fossor-related chapters, there is a summary that follows the end of this one. 

“No.” 

That single word escaped me, even as I straightened. My hand grabbed the staff at my side, yanking it free. Jaq and Gus were already in position, the bladed end of the weapon pointed at the monster in front of me. “No,” I repeated. Flashes of all the people I cared about popped into my head. I saw them, I heard them, I felt everything that the people who would be affected by this meant to me. And not just them. Even the people I didn’t particularly like, the ones who were mistaken, misled, who thought they were doing the right thing and that the Rebellion were the ones who were wrong. If this plan went on, if it worked, they would all be killed and turned into mindless slaves of this… this… abomination. Drones, just like Kendall behind me. 

Beside me, my mother took a step away. Not to be apart from me or leave me on my own, I knew. She was giving both of us room to work with, her own hand coming up to point at the necromancer. When she spoke, her voice was harder than I’d ever heard it. “Too far, Fossor. You’ve become entirely too arrogant if you think we’ll just go along with your genocidal delusions.” I could hear the pain in her voice, the thoughts and memories of everything else she had put up with over the years clearly right there in her mind. Things she had put up with for me.

If he was at all bothered by what Mom and I said, or indeed had even noticed it, Fossor gave no indication. Instead, he literally turned his back to us and walked a few feet away while casually continuing as though we never even spoke up. “Of course, the Seosten won’t like that very much. But on the other hand, they will have far more important things to worry about than payback, given a sudden potential lack of Heretic firepower on their frontlines. All of their little Heretic weapons will be under my control. And I will allow them to be used against the Fomorians, provided the Seosten accept my conditions. Leave this planet, and everything that lives on it, to me. In exchange, I will continue to provide them Heretic weapons. Otherwise, they lose one of the primary resources they’ve come to depend on so much in these few centuries.” 

Staff clutched tightly in one hand, I realized something else. “You… the hangman noose, the spell, it’s not just a one-time thing, is it?” My voice was tight, the words barely escaping. 

The man turned back to me, smiling proudly, as if I was a struggling student who had just answered a tough question. “Very good, my dear! Yes, the spell will affect any who are ever connected to the imprisoned Reaper, be it through the light or the fruit. Either way, anyone who is turned into a Heretic using those methods, from this point on, will immediately become one of mine.” 

Permanent. This was even worse than we’d thought, even worse than I’d assumed possible. Fossor wasn’t just going to turn every living Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretic into his dead slaves, he was going to turn every future Heretic into one as well. Everyone. All of them. And then he was going to use that to force the Seosten to abandon Earth in exchange for being given more Heretics to continue fighting the Fomorians. And they would have to go with it. What choice would they have? They didn’t have the power to fight Fossor here on Earth with an army of the very same soldiers/weapons they were depending on just to hold the Fomorians back. 

I had known this was going to be bad. I knew that for a long time. It had been obvious that Fossor was distracted by something. The work he’d been putting into this had been very clear. But even then, even with all that, I hadn’t had the slightest clue that it would be this horrific. 

We couldn’t let this happen. That was all there was to it. End of story. End of world if we didn’t stop this. There was no one else here, and nothing to stop Fossor from pulling this off if we didn’t stand up to him. He was going to use this spell to kill and enslave not only Heretics, but soon after the entire world. Yes. That was one thing I was completely certain of. With an army of dead, puppeted Heretics at his side and the Seosten forced to leave, Fossor would absolutely turn Earth into something just like his own world. He would enslave everyone here. Everyone. 

Unless we stopped him right here. 

“Fossor.” My voice was sharp, stronger than it had been before. This had been coming for a long time. It was time. I’d spent the past year being terrified of what would happen when my birthday came, and the past few weeks actually living that terror. I’d been forced to stay quiet, forced to put up with this monster’s evil bullshit for all this time. My own mother had been forced to do his bidding far longer than me. And now, now he wanted to turn the entire world into his slaves, his puppets? He wanted to turn Earth into another version of his own planet. No. Enough. I was done putting up with it. Mom and I both. We were done accepting this. 

Following that single word, the man stopped talking. He stood there, regarding me curiously for a few silent seconds. Finally, he quietly ‘suggested’, “Dearest Joselyn, I do believe that it would be for the best if you informed our girl of what the punishment for raising a weapon in my direction will be. Before this goes any further than it has to.” Despite the implicit threat in his words, the man’s voice was totally casual. He wasn’t worried about this whatsoever. And why would he be? I wasn’t really a challenge to him. Me? Some barely-capable student with a few Necromancer tricks he himself had taught? Of course he wasn’t even slightly worried. To him, I was basically a marshmallow attempting to stand up against an actual bonfire. He’d already proven that the day he captured me and casually swatted down every attempt I made to fight him.  

When my mother spoke, however, it wasn’t to warn me back. Instead, she addressed Fossor in a voice that was filled with more hate, more loathing than I could even conceive of. It was anger that had had far longer than my own to build up. “She is not yours,” Mom snarled. “And you will never touch her again. I told you, this was too far.” There was clearly more she wanted to say. A lot more. The things she longed to say to this psychopath had built up for a decade. But she didn’t bother wasting the breath to do so. Instead, my mother simply added a brittle, “We’re done.” 

“Done?” Fossor echoed that single word, arching an eyebrow as he glanced between us. Mom and I were both in ready positions, for all the good it would do us. I’d even brought Kendall up to stand a short distance from my side, between Mom and me. By contrast, the Necromancer himself still appeared totally casual. He didn’t quite have his hands in his pockets, but he might as well have. There wasn’t the slightest bit of worry on display. He could have been a middle-aged man standing in line at the grocery store, for all the concern he showed. 

“No,” the man informed us after letting that word hang in the air for a moment. “No, we’re so very far from done. In fact, we’ve barely started. There is so much more the three of us are going to accomplish together, so much more than either of you can even conceive now. This is simply one more rung along the ladder. And I promise, by the time we reach what is truly the end, this moment right here will feel like a far distant dream, an echo of a memory you will barely recall. And when you do recall those mostly-vanished thoughts of this day, the only thing that will come to mind will be the sheer certainty that you could never possibly have been so naive as to think that you could ever truly make a fool of me in my own home.” 

Belatedly, his words penetrated my own anger, as I managed a confused, “What?” 

His response was a low chuckle, head shaking as if I was just an adorable child. “Dearest girl, did you truly think I would show any of this to the two of you if there was the slightest chance of you putting a stop to it?” His casual tone hardened. “And did you truly think you could spend weeks plotting against me in my own home without me finding out about it? Are you still so childish to think that I haven’t noticed everything you’ve done, that I would not know of your plans and efforts? Every bit of work you’ve done for these weeks, your oh-so-careful actions and preparations, were not careful enough. You say you are done accepting my orders? 

“I am done entertaining your childish fantasies of escape.” 

Face twisting a bit with quickly mounting worry and a sick expression of dread, I forced myself to stammer, “Wha-what are you talking about?” Even while saying it, I instinctively reached out with my Necromancy, pushing that dark power that I’d learned to use over these past weeks up toward a spot elsewhere in the palace. Our room. The room Mom and I had stayed in for so long now. The swell of energy from the prepared spell in that room, I felt it there, ready to go. Maybe not perfect yet, not as good as it could be. But good enough. Close enough, for this.

And then it was gone. I felt Fossor’s own vastly superior power wash right over mine, like a tidal wave overwhelming a garden hose. His strength and skill were unbelievable. I had no chance of standing against it, none. The spell that had been intricately set up in the room that my mother and I shared was snuffed out as easily as if he had simply put out a small candle flame. It was gone, entirely erased forever, in the span of about two seconds and with little effort on his part.

Standing there frozen for a brief moment, my hand outstretched, I stared upward as though I could see all the way to the room where the carefully crafted and painstakingly energized spell had been almost instantly dissolved. My mouth was open, face wet with tears while a sound of flat, horrible despair escaped me. I barely recognized my own voice, hollow as it was with horror, disbelief, and wretched grief. “No… no, you can’t… we didn’t… how did… how…” 

Fossor took a step my way, before Mom quickly inserted herself between us. But a wave of his hand summoned Ahmose, who grabbed my mother by the arms. He was clearly using his pain power, given the way Mom jerked and spasmed, though she didn’t cry out. He was still able to yank her away from me, leaving Fossor room to come right up to where I stood frozen by obvious grief and revulsion, the horror of my spell being erased written across my face. 

“Dearest… child,” Fossor spoke smoothly, his words dripping with false compassion, with insincere understanding, “you tried so very hard, didn’t you? You worked so carefully, only using your power at night, watching for any spies, hiding your spell from me with everything you had.” 

He chuckled then, the sound making me shudder. In the background, I could see Mom struggling not only against Ahmose, but a dozen more ghosts who were all working to hold her back. Meanwhile, Fossor continued in that same ‘sympathetic’ tone. “It was a good effort, my girl. A transportation spell that would have taken you and your mother from here to your home in Laramie Falls, yes? And one you crafted oh-so-carefully too. I admired it just this morning. Given another two days, perhaps, it would have been perfect. You managed to tie it into my own wards, which…” His head shook with wonder, what sounded like genuine pride filling his voice. “Such a brilliant girl. I had no idea you were capable of so much. Truly, it is an honor to be your mentor.” 

With that, however, his voice darkened. “But I cannot entertain such efforts forever. You and your mother will be punished for this. You will learn to be obedient, my girl. You will learn that there are consequences for your actions. Very harsh ones.” 

Even as he said that, Fossor’s fingers snapped, and the room around us began to pulse with power. The very floor shook under my feet, vibrating violently. I could feel the spell that Fossor had crafted feeding into the noose. I could feel that horrible magic, the power that would kill every Bosch-Heretic and turn them into this psychopath’s eternal slaves. It was there. It was right there. It was about to erupt, while helpless tears fell down my face and my mother struggled helplessly against mounting hordes of ghosts that kept coming no matter how many she destroyed. 

Eyes closing, I dropped my head, murmuring under my breath in a shaky, broken voice. 

“You have something to say?” Fossor urged, his hand finding its way to my shoulder and squeezing even as his spell rose toward its conclusion. In a few brief seconds, it would be over.  “Some plea to make?” 

My eyes opened. I raised my head, staring at the man. In a voice that cracked from hatred but free of the despair I had been allowing him to see for these past few minutes, I retorted with seven words, followed by one more. 

“Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit. Ostendeo!” 

With that final word, the entire house above us violently shook, as a sudden crack, too loud to be thunder, pierced every corner of the palace and its grounds. Abruptly, the ghosts assaulting my mother (the ones who were left, anyway) vanished. At the same time, the vibrating levels of power from Fossor’s spell ceased. The bone floor throughout the room cracked in several places from the sheer force of that spell’s power being redirected elsewhere. And throughout the building and its grounds, literal hundreds of spots of power could be felt. 

Fossor, for his part, backhanded me so hard I hit the floor in a daze. He spun, snapping his fingers along with a single command word. As he did so, a holographic image of the whole area around his precious home from above came into view. 

Hundreds of small, yet powerful beams of light shone into the air from every corner of the palace and grounds. They shone out of windows, up through the very walls themselves, out of the gardens, the trees, the pool, they shone from every direction and in every direction. They were red, blue, purple, white, green, every color of the rainbow. The power they gave off seemed to hum through the very air itself, creating a sound almost like chimes. Hundreds of colorful, humming lights. 

Hundreds of beacons. 

From the floor, I snarled, “You found the spell in the room? Good for you. That’s the one you were supposed to find. You’d never believe I wasn’t trying something, so I worked on that in my off-time so you could feel special for figuring out my plan, you evil fuck.” 

He felt it. He knew. He understood without me saying anything else. These past weeks, the thing I had really been working on was to find every bug or insect I could, killing them and then using my necromancy to bring them back. Just bugs. Simple insects. Hundreds of the tiny, seemingly insignificant things. I directed those dead and raised bugs into every small corner and hole of this place, inside and out. Then, once they were hidden, I made them stronger. Just strong enough to carve pieces of spells into the rock, wood, brick, anywhere they were that would be out of sight. I empowered those tiny spells using energy drawn from the one thing that Fossor wouldn’t detect: his own sister. Carefully, over these past weeks, I drained a bit of her each day and used that to gradually build up these tiny spots of magic. Too small for Fossor to pay much attention to even if they hadn’t been empowered using his one blindspot. With it, he had no chance of noticing. Not until now. Not until it was too late. 

The spells I had crafted, thanks to extensive help from Shyel, did two things. First, they drained all the magical power around them that they could find. That included the wards that Fossor had set up, his alert spells, and a large portion of his prepared ghosts. They had been summoned and maintained by magic as well, so the beacon spells drained them as well. That was why the ghosts attacking my mother had vanished. 

Second, the beacons used that power they had suddenly absorbed to send out a beacon directed toward everyone I had been able to think of who could help. It was a beacon similar to the one that had been used to mark the secret Crossroads prison where Sean had been held. Similar, because Chayyiel had learned to create it when she visited and included it with the Shyel upload in my head.  With the mental construct’s help, I’d adjusted the spell somewhat, and now hundreds of those beacons were being sent out to Deveron, Avalon, Shiori, Dare, Kohaku, Wyatt, Brom Bones, Nevada, Lillian Patters, Roger and Seamus Dornan, Hisao, the rest of my team, Koren, Tristan, Athena, Mercury, everyone, everyone who might be able to help and who had a bone to pick with Fossor. Those beacons were directing them to this spot right here. And more than that. They also filled the targets with knowledge, knowledge of the layout of this place, of every piece of Fossor’s defenses that I or my mother had been able to put together in all the time that we had been here. They all suddenly knew exactly where we were, how the defenses worked, the exact layout of the building and grounds, all of it. 

But the most important thing of all, at this very moment, was the draining part of those beacons. The fact that they absorbed magic near them. Because the spell that Fossor had been working on, the thing he had been about to trigger, was full of magical energy. Magical energy that he had built up for weeks as well. And now every bit of it, all of it, had abruptly and violently been diverted into my beacons. All of it was gone. He would have to start gathering that energy from scratch in order to cast the spell he wanted to cast. And there wasn’t time for that. Not with every fucking one of our friends on their way right now. On their way to a home that had just had every last one of its prepared defenses vanish into the ether. 

I could see the realization of that, the sudden understanding, in Fossor’s open-mouthed, stunned gaze. For once in his goddamn life, the man had been taken completely by surprise. 

“So, like I said,” I snapped. 

“Go fuck yourself.”

 

SUMMARY

Flick and Joselyn start to make their stand against Fossor, telling him he’s gone too far. Fossor reveals the sudden twist that he knows all about the spell that Flick has been preparing in their room to send herself and her mother to Laramie Falls and mocks her while disabling the spell. Flick, in turn, reveals the sudden twist that he was supposed to find out about that decoy spell. She does so by telling Fossor to go fuck himself while triggering hundreds of beacon spells that she has used dead insects to place all over the grounds, which send their exact location and everything about where they are straight to everyone they know to call in the cavalry. Those same beacon spells also drain all magic around them in order to charge themselves, immediately disabling all of Fossor’s defenses and erasing the energy he’s been charging up for his kill all Heretics spell. 

 

Flick then reiterates that he should go fuck himself. 

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Interlude 12A – Pack (Summus Proelium)

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For those of you who only read Summus Proelium and may have missed the note posted at the start of the previous Heretical Edge chapter, there was a special commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium, focusing on Armistice, posted on Sunday. If you happened to miss that, you can see it by clicking here

“I’m sorry, what was that about school?” Dani Kalvers demanded while carrying her cage full of lizards through the La Casa homebase (The The House Homebase, heee, that never got old) alongside a man in his late twenties with skin as dark as hers, along with a stylish mustache and short hair. He looked like a young, very fit Lando Calrissian. In Touched life, he wore a black bodysuit with emerald green highlights, a dashing cape that was very dark, almost black green on the outside and a silky emerald on the inside, along with black gloves, boots, and a full head-covering black helmet that conformed tightly to his face, with a charmingly smiling expression etched into it in the same green as the inside of his cape. Right now, however, he was dressed much more simply, in dark jeans and a button-up red shirt. 

He was publicly known as Hardway, a Touched with the power to manipulate the inertia and motion of anything within six feet, including himself. To those who knew him in regular life, he was Isaiah Coleman, an insurance salesman with remarkable numbers (very remarkable, considering how often he left his actual job for Touched business), a wife, and a three-year-old son. 

Smirking a little at Dani’s reaction, the currently unmasked Fell-Touched glanced toward her. “What, you didn’t think you’d go forever without having some kind of schooling, did you? Come now, Blackjack wants productive, useful people. Your powers make you that to start with, but you need a real education to reach your actual potential. Not to mention,” he added pointedly, “if we’re going to put you into one of our La Casa businesses for your cover, you’ll need to have actually had the education to do that job. It’s not exactly hard to apply, but it has to look right to outsiders. You don’t want the feds working out exactly who all of us are just because they see a high school dropout managing a six figure salary with no apparent income, right?” 

For a moment, Dani stopped in the corridor to squint at him. She, like him, was currently in civilian clothes. “This feels like a trick question,” she announced, while easily holding the cage of lizards with one hand. The cage itself was a gift from Blackjack. It was Touched-tech, somehow much lighter than it should be even with all her lizards happily lazing around inside it. Made it easier to move around with her little friends, anyway. Apparently Blackjack was working on procuring something even better for her, though she wasn’t sure what that could be. 

“It’s not a trick question,” Isaiah assured her with a chuckle. “Believe me, you gotta play the game right if you don’t want a whole team of Fedstars breathing down your neck.” Fedstar, of course, was the (often used disparagingly) slang term for any government-aligned Star-Touched. “They look for stuff like that. You can be comfortable. Hell, they can even know that you’re probably connected to criminal stuff. But you need plausible deniability. You need a job, you need an education. La Casa’s gonna make sure you get both. Only thing you’ve got to do is put in the work for the education part.” 

“Because Blackjack wants smart people working for him, people who can do more than just hit things, yada yada, yeah, I get it.” Dani exhaled, trying not to think about everything Paintball had told her about how the whole Detroit Touched scene really worked. Blurting out a question about that probably wouldn’t end very well. At the very least, she’d be expected to explain how she knew any of that stuff. And that would be betraying Paintball, something that kid didn’t deserve.

Besides, she really wanted to find out for herself exactly how this worked, how much money was being taken away from her to pay these ‘Ministry’ people, and what she could do about it. 

Not that she was one hundred percent against the idea of something like the Ministry, but she didn’t appreciate it being a secret. And she didn’t appreciate not having a choice of how much of her money went to pad their coffers. Nor did she appreciate being the one out there taking risks while they apparently were content to just rake in the money that she earned. It was bullshit. If there was going to be something like this Ministry, things needed to be more fair and shit. 

Either way, the point was that she definitely wasn’t going to bring it up here and now. Not until she knew more and had actual leverage to pull. She cared about her teammates here in La Casa. Most of them seemed pretty cool, and she had no idea how much any given member knew about the Ministry. Maybe some of them would be just as annoyed about their income being taxed to shit. Hell, maybe all of this could be solved easily. But Dani wasn’t going to take any risks until she had some solid info, and firsthand knowledge of what the fuck was going on.

“Great, then we’re on the same page,” Isaiah announced, flashing her a quick, toothy grin that probably would’ve been charming if she’d had any interest in the male sex. He turned, starting to walk again. “Blackjack’s asked me to be your advisor for this thing. Which means getting you enrolled in a school where you can advance as much as we think you’re capable of. And believe me, we think you’re capable of a lot. We’ll fake your previous transcripts, that won’t be hard. You’ll just have to finish out this year as a junior, be a senior next year, and we’ll make sure you end up at a decent in-city university with a light schedule. You’ll have the remaining high school time to decide what you’d like your cover-career to be. Feel free to think outside the box. If you want, I’ll help you go over some possibilities.” 

“But the point right now,” Dani put in, “is that you want me to go back to high school. High school.” 

“Pshhh, just sign up for a private school,” Isaiah shot back easily. “You’d be amazed at the difference between that and the public cesspool. Go play at being a rich girl in some private academy with a bunch of naive spoiled kids and take them for all you can get. We’ll make up something about your dad being a reclusive rich designer or something. Or maybe it’s your grandparents and they live off in Europe or something. Whatever you want. We’ll go flip through some options as soon as you’re done with your session.” 

“My session,” Dani echoed, exhaling long and slow, with a slight grimace. “Right. Are you sure about this whole thing?” 

The answer was another grin. “You’ll be fine, trust me. All you’ve gotta do is hang out with the kid for a couple hours. She’s been asking about your lizards forever. Just let her see them, teach her their names, how to play with them or whatever. You’ll be great.” 

Yeah, Dani was supposed to sit with the boss’s kid and entertain her for awhile. Apparently the girl had actually specifically asked for her a few times. Which was… weird, wasn’t it? It seemed weird. Either way, part of Dani wondered if Blackjack was specifically trusting her with his daughter because she’d spent time with that Wren kid. 

Actually, come to think of it, how weird would it be for Wren and Melissa to get to know each other? Melissa had all kinds of trouble moving around very easily with her disease (which they were thankfully dealing with now that they had all the vials), and Wren was all about movement. Could she like, build the other kid an armored suit or something? Huh. 

Wait, was that why Blackjack was cool with her being around his daughter now? That opportunity-sense of his, did it… was he just… could it have told him that she could help with all that? And if she could, she would, right? Wren seemed like the kind of person who would absolutely help Melissa if it was possible. And Blackjack would definitely pay. But would that get her too involved in the Fell-Touched side of things? She’d been okay with helping to save Melissa’s life, how would she feel about making something for her? And how did Dani herself feel about it? Was she okay with getting that kid more deeply involved in stuff she might not want to? Even if she was good with helping Melissa, that might open the door to other things. If people found out she had supplied Blackjack with something, even if it was for his daughter, it might… people on either side of the line might react in different ways to that. It might force Wren to make different choices. It might… 

Well, fuck. Suddenly, this whole thing seemed a lot more complicated. And this time, it wasn’t even Paintball’s fault.  

********

An hour or so later, Dani sat on the floor of Melissa’s hospital-like room. The pale nine-year-old with light brown hair wore a pair of  loose drawstring white pants with dueling knights all over them, and a light blue tee shirt that had her name across the front in sparkly letters. She was, at the moment, holding one of the lizards gently in both hands, being very careful with him. “So this one is Mars Bar, and he’s a iguana who turns into a big, strong grizzly bear, right?” 

Dani watched Mars Bar with a small smile. “Yup. He’s not even full-grown yet. I’m gonna have to find another way to carry him around when he gets bigger. Your dad said he’s working on that.” 

On that note, she tapped the floor next to another lizard, before reaching up to scratch under his chin. “So who’s this one?” She flattened her hand, letting the creature in question crawl up her arm to meet one of his companions who was already on her shoulder. 

Melissa, in turn, pointed first to the one Dani had indicated, then the other. “That’s Tuesday the gecko, and that’s Riddles the bearded dragon. They’re a monkey and an eagle. And the chameleon over there is Twinkletoes, he can turn into a gorilla. And…” She looked around for a moment, squinting thoughtfully. “Oh! There she is. Holiday’s a skink, and she turns into a panther.” She carefully set Mars Bar down while gently petting along his side, clearly enthralled. 

“You’ve met my friends,” Dani pointed out before gesturing to the two stuffed animals who sat nearby. One was a stuffed bear with a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, holding a magnifying glass, while the other was a smaller pink crocodile on a cloth skateboard. “Who’re yours?” 

Quickly, the younger girl picked up the pair, one in each hand. “This is Inspector Guillotine the detective. He’s trying to be a better person cuz of Cassidy.” She pointed to the crocodile. “That’s her. She was a witness so he has to protect her, but she keeps getting in trouble so Inspector Guillotine helps her. And she helps him care about people. Which is hard for him, because his archenemy, Paws Lynch, killed his own sister. She was the inspector’s wife! So he got really sad for a long time, but Cassidy helped him feel better.” 

“Huh.” Carefully, Dani took Cassidy the crocodile, turning her over curiously. “Paws Lynch and Inspector Guillotine? Those are awesome names. And Cassidy Crocodile? That’s a pretty cool one too.” 

“Aunt Ellen came up with it,” the kid informed her. “She said it was a good name for a daredevil.” 

“Good name, huh?” Dani blinked up then. “Is that like… the name of a daredevil or something? Something Cassidy or Cassidy something?” 

Melissa shrugged, clearly uncertain. “I dunno, but it’s still a good name.” Changing the subject, she eagerly asked, “How many lizards can you use your power on? Could you make like… a whole army of lizard-animals?”  

“I’m not sure,” Dani admitted with a shrug. She watched the assorted creatures for a moment. “I mean, definitely not an army. I just… I feel like there’s a limit. I’m not sure exactly how it works yet, and I don’t know how I know that. It’s just like… instinct, I guess?” She grimaced a little. “I should experiment some more. Been a little busy.” 

Leaning in a little conspiratorially, Melissa whispered, “You wanna experiment right now?” 

The question made Dani blink uncertainly, squinting at the younger kid. “Experiment right now? Sorry, I don’t have any spare lizards to work with and my power can only give any lizard one alternate form. All these guys have their other forms. So, you know, I can’t use it on them.” 

To her surprise, Melissa nodded. “I know.  But you could use it if you had another lizard, right?” Slyly, she got up and moved over to the far side of her bed. Dani had already noticed that the girl always moved very slowly and carefully. She stepped gingerly, clearly afraid of how easily her bones could break if too much pressure was put on them. The medicine she’d been taking was supposed to fix her, and it was working. But it would take time to repair the damage that the disease had done. And even after that, it would take longer for the girl to get over the psychological pressure of what her body had been put through for literally years. 

It was bullshit, and if Blackjack hadn’t been a criminal mastermind Fell-Touched, he never would have been able to save his daughter. Rot Bone was a horrific, fucked up disease, and this totally innocent kid would’ve died in one of the worst ways Dani could possibly imagine if her father wasn’t a criminal who could pull up the kind of resources it took to help her. 

That was what Dani wanted. She wanted to never have to worry about money again. Not just for herself, but for any future family and friends she had. She wanted to create a legacy, the kind the real rich and powerful had. She wanted to have the kind of power that people like the Evans or the Banners had. They had so fucking much power even without being Touched, just because they were rich. All her life, Dani had been looked down on, for being black, for being a girl, for being gay, for being poor, for having a mother who didn’t really care what happened to her and a dad who had died when she was still a kid, even younger than Melissa. She was just the poor little black girl who liked girls. 

Fuck that. Dani wanted more out of life. She was going to own penthouses, convertibles, go on vacations to islands. She wanted every fucking thing that those cocksuckers always told her she couldn’t have for one reason or another. She didn’t just want to be comfortable. She wanted ‘fuck you money.’ She wanted to have so much cash people couldn’t dismiss her anymore.  

Pulled out of her thoughts by the sight of the small cage that Melissa pulled out, Dani leaned over to squint at the tiny, yet incredibly beautiful lizard inside. “Whoa.” 

“It’s a neon day gecko!” Melissa exclaimed, moving back over carefully before setting the small glass cage down between them. The creature inside was only about three inches long, but had been named incredibly well. The head was a bright green, while most of the body and tail was a metallic neon blue. the legs were slightly darker blue, and there was a long black stripe running down either side of the creature. 

“Holy crap, dude.” Dani leaned in closer, staring at the creature. “I’ve heard of these guys, but I’ve never seen one up close. He’s gorgeous.” 

“She,” Melissa corrected. “And yeah, she’s amazing, huh? I umm, I don’t really use my allowance for much, so I asked my dad if we could get you a new lizard since you umm… you know, helped get my medicine. I wanted to say thanks.” 

Swallowing hard, Dani glanced to her. This was the real reason she’d been asked to come and ‘babysit’ for awhile, she realized. It was because Melissa had wanted to give her this present. Which… yeah, she really didn’t know what to say for a moment, before eventually settling on, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” 

There was a brief moment of discomfort before Melissa hurriedly offered, “Why don’t you take her out? They’re really friendly and fun, the lizard guy Dad brought in said so. And… maybe you can decide what kind of new animal to make?” She was blushing a bit, clearly embarrassed. “I kinda… sorta… wanna see?” 

Snorting, Dani nodded in agreement while opening up the cage to let the colorful lizard out into her palm. “Sure, it’s the least I can do. Let’s see. First, she needs a name. Can’t have powers without a name. What do you think?” 

Blinking at her, Melissa stammered, “But your lizards all have awesome names. I can’t think up a good name like you.” 

“You came up with Inspector Guillotine and Paws Lynch,” Dani reminded the girl. “You can definitely help with this one.” 

The two went back and forth on several possibilities, before both of them agreed on one that Melissa had come up with. Holding up the tiny, colorful lizard in one hand, Dani stared at her. “That’s right, your name is Scatters.” She looked to the rest of her lizards, all of whom had gathered to watch the newcomer. “See, Scatters? This is your family. Guys, this is Scatters. She’s gonna be our new friend. And what kind of friend…” She squinted curiously at the tiny, colorful creature. “I bet you’d like to be bigger, huh? Big enough to… hmm… Oooh, I’ve got an idea.” 

For ten minutes or so, she sat there, focusing her power on the tiny lizard. It took that long to make the full connection, to establish the creature’s alternate form. Partway through, she had to set the gradually growing neon gecko down and step back with Melissa, most of her attention still taken up with making her power work. 

Then it was done. Dani, Melissa, and the other lizards were suddenly sharing the room with a much larger figure. Where once had been a three-inch-long neon day gecko now stood a full-sized reindeer, albeit one with very reptilian features. The neon blue, scale-covered body remained, somehow even brighter and more striking in this form. The head was the same sharp green, as were the antlers. That black stripe ran down the animal’s side, and her legs were a darker blue, right down to the even slightly darker hooves. 

“Now that,” Dani announced while resting an arm gently over Melissa’s shoulders, “is what I’ve been needing. Someone I can ride on.

“So how hard do you think it’ll be to get a saddle that’s the right size, with little carrying pouches for the rest of these guys?”

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Commissioned Interlude 3 – Armistice (Summus Proelium)

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Columbus, Nebraska. County seat of Platte County, with a population of just under twenty-five thousand. Back in the thirties, a thirty-five mile canal project diverting water from the nearby Loup River had been used to supply two hydroelectric stations, one near Columbus itself and one near Monroe, fourteen miles away. In order to find a market for their electricity and thus make the incredibly expensive project profitable, they spent years issuing revenue bonds to purchase private power companies. This eventually led, by 1949, to Nebraska becoming the only state in the Union that used only public power with no private electrical utilities. 

Columbus itself was an average town in Midwest America. It ran off an economy that was mostly centered around either agriculture (as so much in Nebraska was) or manufacturing, given the easily available hydroelectric power, which attracted plenty of industrial companies to the area.

But at the moment, none of that deep, rich history mattered. The lives of those twenty-five thousand residents had, in the early morning hours of the day, been upended in a way they would never entirely recover from. Because at roughly ten minutes past seven, Columbus, Nebraska had become the latest location of a Collision Point. 

The event actually began several miles north of town, at a gas station along Highway 81. Witnesses later would be unable to recall specific details that would have allowed the identities of the two people who transformed into their Abyssal-forms after meeting to be exposed. Cameras likewise would find their footage erased. Both the memory loss and damage to video recordings were standard at Collision Points, but would still be no less frustrating to investigators trying desperately to identify the participants and thus stop these events. 

Yet, what was known was that two people at the gas station had run into one another who never should have met. Each was secretly an Abyssal, a human who transformed into a monster the moment they made physical contact with another like them. The three types of Abyssals acted differently in human form, of course. Hidden had no idea what they were and went about their lives clueless to their nature, Wanderers traveled constantly and appeared to be mentally ill/barely cognizant, and Stalkers knew exactly what they were and actively sought out Collision Points, often even murdering people in their own human forms. And yet, different as the three categories were before transforming, once in their monster states all had only one goal: to annihilate their counterpart. No matter what type of person the Abyssal was in their human state, transforming turned them into violently murderous creatures who cared only about destroying one another, and killing or breaking everything that got between them and that goal.

For just under an hour, the Abyssals had been tearing into one another. Several local Touched teams (almost all of whom were actually based in Lincoln seventy-five miles away and had had to find various quick travel methods of getting to Columbus) had tried to intervene, but they were quickly overwhelmed and had resorted mostly to evacuation efforts. None of the Touched stationed in the state were up to the task of handling something of this magnitude. 

But that was about to change. Because, at the so-called Sock Pond, located on the south-west corner of town, part of the water right at the edge of the pond, next to the embankment, began to glow unnaturally blue. A moment later, the water in that spot quickly began rising to create a fifteen-foot across, one-foot wide, and nine-foot high waterfall. A waterfall that, seconds after its creation, froze. The falling, still-glowing water went completely still. Then, through that glowing, motionless vertical water, eight figures emerged to step up onto the embankment before spreading out. They were Armistice, the international team consisting of some of the strongest Star-Touched in the world.

Baldur, the team leader from Germany, wasted no time before lifting off the ground to hover fifteen feet up so they could take in what they were dealing with. At the moment, their body was male, though given the nature of their power (shifting bodies between hundreds of alternate selves, each with their own set of powers and a mixture of male and female sex) that changed often. Their costume at that particular moment (it changed with the body) consisted of a skintight white bodysuit and boots each with dark green piping, and a simple green helmet with a white visor that covered their entire head. 

Seconds later, the rest of the team were raised into the air beside Baldur. His power, in this body, allowed him to create and adjust invisible walls and floors, including these rising platforms that lifted himself and the rest of Armistice so they could see the Abyssals in the distance. 

“Fait chier,” the Frenchman known as Gevaudan blurted. He wore little in the way of costume. Little in the way of anything, actually. His only clothes consisted of simple black pants. His identity was concealed not by any mask, but by the fact that he looked like a stereotypical werewolf, standing slightly over eight feet tall, with long, heavily muscled limbs, fur-covered skin, and a canine snout with a mouth that was full of sharp teeth. “It is Maricoxi.” 

The name Maricoxi had been borrowed from the term for large, ape-like mythological creatures in South America. Their version of the Yeti or Bigfoot, essentially. Yet the Abyssal known as Maricoxi was far worse than any of those legends. He stood forty feet tall, an enormous figure covered in shaggy gray-brown fur, with enough strength to pulverize a tank with a swat of one hand. Worse, however, were what were called his spawn. Essentially, Maricoxi was capable of making any number of duplicates of himself. The spawn could be any size, from his full height all the way down to normal human size. But they could only exist while attached to Maricoxi himself, vanishing within a moment of breaking physical contact. They could be attached to any part of his body by any part of their body, though they were usually attached by their backs or feet. 

The Abyssal generally went through fights creating hundreds of these spawn, of all sizes, all over his body at various times. He could extend his arm and create a full-sized duplicate of himself, attached by the foot, that could punch something over fifty feet away from where Maricoxi himself was standing. The only limitation, again, was that they had to be attached to the original’s body in some way, and could not be taller than his own forty feet. At any given moment, there could be one full-sized spawn attached to his back to attack things behind him, two half-sized spawn attached to the outside of either leg, dozens of smaller, more human-sized spawn along his feet to tear apart people on the ground who tried to get close to him, and more of varying sizes along his arms and hands to extend his reach. He could stick his arm close to a building and sprout ten spawn along it that would tear the wall apart with their bare hands, grabbing people within before ripping into them, sadistically devouring any human they could catch, apparently feeding the energy of the dead to their creator to make him even stronger.

He was, in two words, incredibly dangerous. One of the worst Stalker Abyssals in North America, Maricoxi would have been bad enough on his own. Yet, somehow, things were even worse than that. Because he had managed to find another Stalker to fight. 

The second Stalker Abyssal was known as Backahast, a corruption of the Swedish Bäckhästen. Like the myth it had originated from, Backahast looked, from a distance, like a beautiful, majestic white horse with a gray-ish mane. Though the fact that he was twenty feet tall at the shoulder might’ve given a hint that something was odd. Worse, unlike the rest of his body, Backahast’s head was that of a skeleton horse, showing nothing but bone, with purple-silver smoke curling within the eye sockets and around its somehow sneering mouth. 

It was that purplish smoke that was the real danger. Backahast was capable of projecting the smoke in a large cloud away from himself. Anyone who found themselves caught in the cloud would be heavily compelled to go close and touch the giant horse. And if they failed to stop themselves or be stopped, actually touching the creature? Then their skeletons would be under his control, and would rip their way free of the still-living fleshy parts of the body, killing them in the process in order to join the rapidly growing skeleton army. An army of animated bones that could meld into one another to form much larger figures if need be, and often became a giant humanoid skeleton that acted as Backahast’s ‘rider.’ 

Both Stalker-Abyssals were terrifyingly dangerous on their own. Put together in a fight to the death, they were so much worse. Dozens of structures at the edge of town had already been leveled beneath their feet. Backahast had managed to compel enough people to touch him that he had a full-sized skeleton rider atop his back, and a small army of thirty or so twelve-foot tall skeletons arrayed around the front of him, grappling with Maricoxi’s own various attached spawn, while the ‘rider’ himself fought the main giant ape-man from atop his perch. The horse’s skeleton-head snapped and bit at one of the smaller spawn attached to Maricoxi’s chest, tearing an entire body free before it dissolved in his mouth. 

As the team took in what they were going to have to deal with, Baldur quickly blurted orders. They spoke in English, which the team all spoke even more fluently since they had been implanted with Touched-Tech devices that instantly taught each of them twenty different languages, a way of aiding with their ability to operate worldwide. 

“Kuruseida, Adlivun, Radiant, focus on Bäckahästen.” They used the proper Swedish pronunciation. “Curupira and Rip, stop anyone else from getting close and focus on evacuation. Big Ben, Gevaudan, and I will take Maricoxi.” 

“How long until we have reinforcements?” Rip, the dark-skinned Australian woman in her late twenties asked. She was the one who had brought them through the water-portal. Her dark hair was worn in a long, tight braid, and her costume consisted of what looked like a surfer’s wetsuit, mostly metallic red with a bit of black trim that included a stylized R in the upper right side. The top half of her face was covered by red-lensed SCUBA goggles that left her eyes entirely invisible. Only her exposed hands and the lower half of her face gave away the fact that she was black. 

Radiant, the blonde, short-haired American woman wearing a full black bodysuit covered in star-like patterns and a glowing silver metal mask across the bottom half of her face answered. “There’s a gang war going on in Missouri. It’s been pretty bad, so a lot of forces were pulled that way. It’s going to take time to get anyone else active. There were a couple smaller teams that tried to help, but they had to withdraw. They weren’t ready for anything like this. And the police and national guard don’t want to get within sight of Backahast.” 

“So we’ll hold them off until enough reinforcements manage to get here,” Baldur announced firmly. “Or until they stop fighting. One way or another.” They lowered the group back to the ground, announcing, “You all have your assignments. Let’s get to work.” 

With that, their body transformed. Instead of being male, they became a female version of themself. This version wore a bright red and black suit of armor, with a long, flowing black cloak and a red featureless metal mask that looked like solid glass but was much stronger over the front of their face. The second their new body manifested, flames sprouted up around the figure and they took off in a shot toward the clashing monsters. 

Big Ben, the British (of course) Star-Touched ran after his leader. With each step, he grew larger, until he reached his full forty-foot height, closing the distance quickly. His own costume, which grew with him, was dark blue, almost black pants, a long, equally dark trench coat worn over red scale mail-like body armor on his chest, red leather gloves and boots, and a black metal helmet with a red visor. 

Right behind those two was the wolf-man Gevaudan. Rather than run, he used his other power. Because Gevaudan was far more than just a shapeshifting werewolf. He was also capable of summoning and controlling prehistoric creatures. Generally, it was easier for him to do so with mammals. But that wasn’t a rule. In this case, he created a full-sized tyrannosaurus rex, clambering to its back before directing the twenty-foot tall dinosaur to run after his leader and teammate. On the way, Gevaudan summoned several sabertooth tigers, a ten-ton Steppe Mammoth, and a twenty-foot-long, four-ton, rhino-like (save for its long, shaggy fur) Elasmotherium. 

Together, those three (and Gevaudan’s rapidly summoned army of creatures) tore off to attack the giant ape-man and all his attached spawn. At the same time, Radiant had already shifted into her glowing energy-body and was flying off to get closer to the horse-like Backahast. Close behind her was Adlivun, the Canadian hero who wore blue-white body armor that looked like thick glass but was strong enough to take a grenade blast without cracking. His power allowed him to create a ghost-like duplicate of any person he had touched, including himself. He could maintain up to thirty of these ‘ghosts’ at any given time, all of which possessed the power to manipulate and summon ice and cold. 

Two of his ghosts were using their ice creation powers right then to form a frozen platform-slide, which Adlivun himself rode, knees bent like a surfer, after the flying Radiant. 

Meanwhile, the Japanese heroine Kuruseida also took a running start. The not quite yet twenty year old girl had stylized her own costume to look like one of the Sentai she loved so much, a white-and-blue figure with a black visor and a belt lined with pouches. It was one of those pouches that Kuruseida reached into, producing three small coins. One was red, the other two white. All three had different symbols on them. As she ran, Kuruseida shoved her thumb against the center of the red coin and hurled it in front of herself, then did the same with each of the white coins. 

The red coin flipped through the air before exploding outward. The coin itself was destroyed, but where it had been a moment earlier, a full-sized metal surfboard had appeared. The ‘surfboard’ was able to hover in place or fly at speeds approaching a hundred miles per hour. Which it did the second its creator leapt to land on it, heading after the other two. At the same time, the other two coins that Kuroseida had thrown burst apart to reveal a pair of futuristic-looking pistols. She caught one in each hand and opened fire on the horse-like Abyssal they were heading for. After those first few shots, she dropped the pistols toward the front of her board, where a hole opened up to catch them in a storage space much larger than should have fit within the thin space of the board itself. From that same opening rose a full-sized mounted laser cannon, which locked into place just before she grabbed the handle, sighted in, and unleashed a blue-white beam from the cannon with enough destructive force to have pulverized its way through several feet of solid steel. Kuroseida aimed the turret carefully, keeping the ongoing destructive beam centered on the suddenly-furious horse Abyssal while taking a wide berth around it on her board. 

Her attack was quickly joined by a blast of cold from three of Adlivun’s ghosts, freezing ten skeletons instantly. As they were turned to ice, Radiant flew past their line. A couple stragglers on the edges tried to throw their bone-weapons at her, but she simply turned herself intangible, allowing the hurled makeshift weapons to pass through her harmlessly while she focused on Backahast. The American woman wasn’t capable of firing energy blasts as many would have thought given the fact she transformed her entire body into energy. Instead, she produced short-lived duplicates of herself, which flew very quickly at her target and punched them a couple times before exploding. She put that to use, sending six duplicates at the reeling, roaring Abyssal while he was still reacting to the beam from Kuroseida’s cannon. They exploded, sending a shower of bones from nearby skeletons flying everywhere. Shards of bone which, unfortunately, quickly coalesced into a single large figure which launched into a counter-offensive.

Meanwhile, the last two members of the team were left to focus on evacuation. Rip had shifted into her liquid-form and was sliding through the town on a jet of water, raising portals in every pond, stream, or pool she could find. She was even summoning water to blast the tops off of fire hydrants to create more portals. They wouldn’t last forever without her focus, but each would last for a few minutes, and she continually swung back and forth through the streets, renewing portals for huddled citizens to escape through. 

Her partner in the endeavor, Curupira, was a black man from Brazil. He wore black body armor, a dark red hood and cloak, and a demonic red and white face mask that left him the member of the team with the least PR-friendly look. It was a look that he magnified with his own power of illusions, allowing the man to make shadows and flames appear around him, make his cloak appear far more sinister and voluminous as it ominously billowed, turn his voice into something that sounded like it was coming from the depths of hell itself, and more. He could do a lot more with his power of illusions, but primarily he used it to supplement his incredible combat skills, which themselves were heightened by enhanced strength, speed, reflexes, and stamina putting him just above what a peak human was capable of. 

At that particular moment, however, Curupira was using his illusions in a different way than he was generally accustomed to. From the roof of the building he had grappled himself to, the man used his illusion-power to create images of people urging the actual citizens of the town to run through the water portals Rip was creating. He ran, leaping from roof to roof (the town was small, so most of the buildings were no higher than a couple stories at best, but it still helped him see what was going on and where people were) while pushing his illusions through every street and alley around him, calling out for the people to flee to safety through the portals. 

By that point, Big Ben, Gevaudan (with his small army of prehistoric creatures), and the currently fire-using and feminine-looking Baldur had arrived in front of Maricoxi. The giant ape-man had been using a nearly three-quarter-sized spawn attached to one arm to sweep aside the nearest group of skeletons before the ten-ton Steppe Mammoth slammed into the side of the spawn. The impact tore the thirty-foot tall furry duplicate from the arm it was attached to, causing it to vanish in a spray of blood while the Mammoth trumpeted. Several more slightly smaller spawn appeared where the large one had been, each engaged by Gevaudan’s tigers and massive woolly rhino. Gevaudan himself shifted even more into his beastial shape, almost entirely wolf-like save for the fact that he was on two legs, before throwing himself at the figure just as ferociously as his prehistoric allies. 

Big Ben, just as tall as the original, full-sized Maricoxi, slammed his fist into the side of the ape-man’s shaggy head with as much force as he could muster. It barely made the Abyssal blink, before two ten-foot tall (if they had been standing on the ground) spawn sprouted from the figure’s furry shoulders and grabbed onto his extended arm, clawing and biting at him. 

Baldur, hovering twenty feet back, watched their companions engage the dangerous monster. They glanced back quickly, assessing how the other three were doing with their own opponent, and how well Curupira and Rip were proceeding with the evacuation. Only once they had a clear view of things did they engage for themselves. 

In this case, ‘engage’ meant holding both hands out while hovering there in the air with flames flickered around them, and sending forth a massive torrent of fire. The flames, from an outsider’s perspective, seemed to engulf the entire forty-foot tall Abyssal and everyone attacking him. And yet, there was so much more going on. Because in every single spot where one of Baldur’s allies (including the summoned prehistoric creatures) was, the fire avoided them. The flames and the heat they gave off were under so much tight control that they would lick within inches of Big Ben, Gevaudan, and the others without causing them so much as the slightest bit of discomfort. It even adjusted to their own movements, maintaining those pockets of safety wherever they were. 

The effect of the flames on Maricoxi, on the other hand, was far different. Dozens of his sprouted spawn all over his body were entirely vaporized by the heat in the matter of a few brief seconds. The Abyssal himself was far stronger than his creations, yet even he was affected. Most of the fur was burned away, leaving red-and-black charred skin, making the giant monster look far more alien, with patches of smoldering fur here and there, and the awful stench of so many instantly cremated spawn.

Yet even then, the monster was far from done. He tore a finger from his own hand, hurling it at the hovering figure who had so harmed him. In mid-flight, the torn-off finger sprouted a full-sized spawn (the finger itself was attached to this duplicate’s foot), which flew straight at Baldur. An instant before the giant ape-figure would have crashed into them, Baldur’s body shifted once more. Now they were a thinner version of their male-self, one wearing flowing golden robes and a crown with a simple metal domino mask. Their hand snapped up, catching the incoming duplicated monster in a glowing red-gold bubble, which promptly shrank to the size of a baseball, compressing the figure within into a gooey paste that quickly disappeared save for what was left of the finger. 

In that short time, Maricoxi had regenerated his hurled finger as well as a large portion of the fur that had been burned away, bellowing a challenge as he sprouted more spawn of various sizes all over his body and leapt to engage this distraction so that he could return to his primary goal: the other Abyssal. 

For another hour, the battle continued that way. The two trios of powerful Star-Touched did everything possible to slow and separate the dueling monsters, while more of the town was destroyed around them. They protected what they could, focusing on keeping places where the citizens had not yet been evacuated intact. 

It was a losing battle, even for a team of Touched as strong as Armistice. Two Stalker Abyssal, little to nothing in the way of assistance from other teams or Prev military thanks to multiple ongoing events in the surrounding states, and a very spread-out population that had to be found and evacuated a few at a time all led to an inevitable conclusion. 

“Withdraw.” Baldur, currently in a male body with cement-control powers that they had used to form a temporary wall, ordered their companions through the communicators they all wore. “Everyone else focus on evacuation. Get everyone out of the town. Everyone. No one left behind. I’ll keep their attention on me.” 

None of the others questioned how their leader was going to accomplish that. Instead, they leapt to follow the orders, rushing through every building, down every street, looking in every corner to find any straggler. With the aid of Gevaudan’s prehistoric animals and Adlivun’s ice-controlling ghosts, they searched closets, cupboards, under and inside cars, behind dumpsters, everywhere that a civilian could have hid in to escape the carnage. 

Baldur, meanwhile, took up a position directly between the giant monsters. They stood atop a pillar of concrete they had summoned from the ground, glancing back and forth as each of the Abyssals ignored everything else and launched themselves at one another. 

Once more, Baldur’s body shifted. Now, they took the form of another female version of themselves, one with green-dyed, punk-styled hair and a purple and white armored bodysuit with a small cannon attached to one arm. Thrusting both hands out as the giant Abyssals careened toward them (and toward one another), Baldur focused on this new power. 

Instantly, the space that the Abyssals were traveling through quadrupled. Space itself warped and twisted on a massive scale, creating several miles worth of area out of nothing. Buildings, the ground, traffic lights, everything was twisted and stretched to fit this warped area, like a picture in a computer paint program that had been stretched and blurred beyond all recognition. 

The Abyssals kept charging, and Baldur kept stretching out the space between them. They ran for miles while getting almost nowhere. Almost nowhere. Yet even Baldur could only stretch the space out so far. For every foot they gained, they ran several miles, but they did gain those feet. Bit by bit, they drew gradually closer. 

Fortunately, Baldur’s teammates used that time to their advantage. They evacuated the entire remaining civilians out of the town, leaving it entirely empty. Only once they were sent word that everyone was out did Baldur drop the space-warping effect, resuming the body they had originally arrived in with the invisible platform powers. Quickly, they used those powers to send themselves up and away just before Maricoxi and Backahast collided, their screams of terrifying fury echoing through the emptied town. 

“Now what?” the young, impetuous Kuruseida demanded from atop her hovering board as the team stayed well away from the clashing titans. 

“Now we catch our breath,” Big Ben advised, having already shrunk back to a more manageable ten feet in height while rubbing his fist. “And hope these two tucker themselves out.” 

“They will destroy most if not all of the town before they are through,” Curupira observed in his cold, analytical voice. “Their battle is too destructive for these small buildings. There will be little left.” 

“The people will be left,” Baldur quietly replied, their attention centered on the giant rampaging monsters. “They’ll survive. And when this is over, they’ll either rebuild, or relocate. Either way, they’ll move on.” 

Muttering a long curse in her own native Japanese, Kuruseida then blurted, “We’re supposed to be the ones who stop these monsters! We’re supposed to be the heroes!” 

“Yes,” Radiant agreed, putting a hand on the slightly younger woman’s shoulder. “But sometimes being the heroes isn’t about glorious victory, or about fighting until the bitter end. Sometimes it’s about cutting your losses and pulling out while you can. It’s just buildings and property out there now. Like Baldur said, people can rebuild those. The government will help. That’s what the fund is for.” 

The fund, as it was simply titled, was money that most of the modern nations of the world paid into. The money came from a mixture of taxes on Touched-related merchandise, publicly available Touched-Tech, and other related sources, and was used to help reconstruct areas damaged or even devastated by Touched battles and Collision Points like this. It would help get the people of Columbus, Nebraska back on their feet.  

But that would come later. For the moment, the assorted eight members of Armistice stood mostly-silent vigil, watching as the Abyssals carried on their battle to the very end. Eventually, the two damaged one another enough that each was forced to vanish, returning to their human forms in some other location far from the actual battlefield, leaving them safely anonymous once more so that they could recharge. 

All that was left in the wake of all that destruction was a ten square miles-wide collection of rubble and dust that had once been a town, and eight heroes who, despite all their power and strength, had been unable to save it. They had saved the people though, had safely evacuated every person they could. The town was gone, but its inhabitants, its people, were alive. 

For today, that was going to have to be enough. 

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Pink 12-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The three of us talked a bit more, getting a fairly rough plan of what we might do to get into that secret base. We had ideas, though there were a few blank spots we’d have to fill in later. It was something, at least. And thankfully, having these two onboard meant that I had people to bounce thoughts off of other than myself, people who could point out flaws in any idea I had, and who could come up with their own. Not coming up with the entire plan entirely by myself was a real treat. Almost as much of one as not carrying out the entire plan alone would be. 

And yet, I was still alone, wasn’t I? On the big stuff. There were still things I wasn’t telling them about, things I couldn’t tell them about. They had no idea who I was, that my own parents ran the secret criminal conspiracy I’d clued them in on, that… that… a lot. There was a lot they didn’t know, and that I couldn’t share. Not yet. Maybe someday? Maybe–fuck. Or maybe I was just keeping it to myself out of habit or paranoia or something. Should I tell them who I really was? Should I tell them everything? They knew enough to really get in trouble now, so what exactly was the point of holding back on those few very key details? Was there a real reason? 

Yes. Because once I told them all of my secrets, there was no going back. There wasn’t really any going back now, of course. But telling them about the Ministry was a different kind of vulnerable than telling them about me. Showing them who I was, who my family was… that would be something I could never actually walk back, a box I could never close. It would leave me personally vulnerable in a way I wasn’t just by telling them about the Ministry existing. 

Did that mean I was a coward, because I didn’t want to expose myself like that? Was I just a scared little girl, was I protecting my family, was I… was I… what? What was I? Was my refusal to tell them the truth about everything good or bad? What was the right decision? When was the right time to tell them about who I was? How far did this have to go before I told the full truth? How much did they have to do to prove they were on my side? What did I want from them, exactly? How many times was I going to run these questions through my head. 

Fuck! I didn’t know. I just didn’t know, and I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Which was actually a big reason why I didn’t tell them about me. Because that would be making the choice to do so. A choice I could never change. So I just… didn’t. Somehow, in my head, not telling them spared me from making that choice. At least for the moment. But it was coming. I knew that much. At some point, I was going to have to reveal who I really was and how much I was really connected to this Ministry. 

How would they react to that? I… I didn’t know. I was afraid to think about it. 

Either way, I wouldn’t have to deal with it right now. At the moment, Pack and I were standing alone just outside the storage place, in a dark alley untouched by any of the distant streetlights. That-A-Way had just excused herself, saying she had to get back to her patrol before any of the people on her side noticed anything wrong. She’d paused before leaving, looking at Pack and me for a few long seconds. It seemed like she had been about to say something. But, in the end, she just muttered something about meeting us later to ‘deal with all this’ before teleporting away. 

For a moment, Pack was quiet. The only sound in the alley came from the lizards in the cage crawling around. Finally, she spoke up. “If you don’t have any damsels in distress to save, Eits wants to talk to you too.” 

“What?” I blinked, turning that way. “How’s umm… how is he–” 

“He’s doing better,” she informed me. “Not perfect. We’ve got our own access to special healers, but it’s not an immediate thing. He should be back to normal in another day or two. But he’s up and around. And, like I said, he wants to talk to you. In private. If you’re up to it.”

My head bobbed hurriedly, as I blurted, “Sure, yeah! I mean, of course. If he’s up to it. I just–I didn’t want to push him, or you, or… or the whole situation. I just–I wanna tell him how–” 

Pack interrupted with a raised hand. “Not me,” she said simply. “Whatever you wanna say to him, you can say to him. Just uhh, let’s keep this Ministry stuff to ourselves for now, huh? He’s already gotten pretty hurt once recently. Plus, he umm… he owes Blackjack a lot for helping him transition and all that. I’d rather not make him choose between loyalties right this second. Maybe later, but right now it’s just a bad idea. Let him recover, at the very least.” 

I swallowed hard, thinking about how much trouble Eits might’ve gotten into if my parents thought he was onto them. “Yeah.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want him to get hurt again either.” She was right, the last thing Eits needed at this moment was to get in trouble again. Even if using his help to break through the security in the mall base would–no. No. The Scions already hurt him really bad once. If something happened to him and it was because of my parents, I’d… I’d… I didn’t know what I’d do. But I wasn’t taking that chance. Not right now. 

With that much agreed between us, Pack and I left the alley. She had a car parked nearby that the two of us slipped into. From there, it was a short drive to some old, beat-up parking lot behind a self-serve car wash. She’d texted while we were on the way, but Eits hadn’t arrived yet. 

Instead, the two of us sat in the car, watching the mostly-empty road as we listened to the lizards in their cage once more. That time, I was the one who found my voice first. “This whole situation is pretty screwed up, huh?” 

Gazing sidelong at me, Pack was quiet before slowly replying, “Something tells me I don’t know the half of how screwed up it is from your point of view.” She shrugged elaborately. “You’re holding stuff back. I get that. There’s parts of this you’re not ready to share. And from what you have shared, there’s probably a good reason for that. Just…” Hesitating, Pack obviously took the time to consider her words. “Just try not to let it bite all of us in the ass, huh?” 

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. What else could I say? I wasn’t going to deny that I still had secrets, or that they could be dangerous, or anything like that. She and I both knew how stupid that would be. But I meant what I said. I would do my best not to let things get even worse. 

Before the other girl could respond, headlights drew our attention to the entrance of the lot, where a gray sedan pulled in. The lights flickered twice, then once before the car pulled up alongside us. I saw Eits sitting in the driver’s seat, though he didn’t seem to be actively holding the wheel or anything. Must’ve been using one of his mites. 

“Go ahead,” Pack urged with a gesture. “He said he wanted to talk in private. And Paintball…” She paused briefly, looking toward me in silence as though she couldn’t decide exactly what to say. Finally, she settled on, “Thanks for trusting me with this. I know I gave you shit about what happened to him, but… but I know you were doing the best you could. It wasn’t your fault.” 

Awkwardly thanking her, and promising that we would get to the bottom of the whole thing, I stepped out of her car and moved to get in the passenger side of the other. Closing the door after myself, I hesitated before looking over to the boy in the driver’s seat. My voice was quiet, and obviously a little strained. “Hey.” 

Eits shifted in his seat to look my way. There was the slightest grunt of discomfort. Soft as it was, I still cringed at the thought that even moving that much hurt at all. “Hey yourself,” he replied. Belatedly, the boy added, “Pack wasn’t giving you too much shit, was she?” 

“I’d deserve it if she did,” I insisted. “I never should’ve asked you to get involved in something that–” 

His hand rose to stop me. “Paintball, stop. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have asked. Hell, if it wasn’t important, those assholes wouldn’t have jumped me. And they wouldn’t have abducted you. I just–fuck, Paints, they’re the Scions. Of course they’re into some really bad shit. But you…” He raised his gaze to mine, staring at me. The diagonal black and gold bands that ran across his face to serve as his mask did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes. “You didn’t know the Scions were involved before.” 

Quickly, I shook my head. “No. No, of course not. I swear, I didn’t know they were involved. I didn’t know it’d be that dangerous. I mean, I knew it was important or I wouldn’t’ve asked. But if I knew the Scions had anything to do with it, I swear I would’ve warned you. If I asked you at all. I would’ve made sure you had backup, and… and, you know. I would’ve done more.” 

“I know you would’ve,” Eits assured me. He hesitated before adding, “Did you find what you needed at the cabin? Pack said you went back in for a minute after all that.”

Oh God. How much should I say? For a moment, I sat there, frozen by indecision. But… look at what he’d already gone through. I’d already promised Pack we wouldn’t involve him in the rest of this just yet. But I could at least talk about what I’d found a little bit, right? He deserved that, after what he’d been through to get me as far as I was. 

“I found a few toys,” I carefully answered. “They had a code on them that glowed in the dark. The code was to a folder in Seraph HQ, and when I looked at that, I found a bit… more about what I’ve been looking for.” 

That made Eits give a quick doubletake. “Err, how exactly did you look at a folder in Seraph headquarters? You been making friends in high places over there too?” 

Oh, wait, shit. Fuck. He didn’t know about that whole thing. Freezing, I stared at him guiltily from behind my mask and helmet. “Um.” Wow, good thing he couldn’t see my expression. “It umm, I guess it sort of…” Squirming there in the seat, I managed a weak, slow, “They sort of… found out about the program you put on the computer in that shipping company and Hallowed was waiting after I returned the item, so we made a deal for me to do a little work for them in exchange for ‘borrowing’ their equipment?” 

For a moment, Eits just stared at me. His uncovered mouth fell open, a slow, quiet sound of disbelief escaping him. Finally, he managed, “And you didn’t tell me?! I–Paintball, that was my fault! I should’ve–that–I didn’t put everything I could’ve to–I figured a trucking company wouldn’t have–that–you should’ve told me! I was involved in that too.” 

“I know! They know, I mean–” Flushing deeply, I insisted, “It’s okay. I mean–yes, yes I should’ve told you. But it’s over. I’m working it off and they were pretty understanding about the whole thing.” 

Still, Eits shook his head. “Damn it, Paints, if I’d known they were onto that, I would’ve helped you another…” Exhaling, he pointed to me. “You’ve gotta stop trying to do all of this by yourself. I don’t know the half of what you’re up to, but I know it’s big. I know it’s important, and that you’re keeping a hell of a lot to yourself. I’m also pretty sure you’ve told Pack part of it too, a different part than you’ve told me. And I know you’re doing all of it like that because you’re afraid of something even worse happening than me getting a little beat up. But for fuck’s sake, if it’s that big of a deal, you can’t do it alone.” 

I froze, not saying anything. What could I say? I didn’t want to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him anything more than I already had. Not right then. It was a bad idea even if I hadn’t promised Pack that I wouldn’t get him deeper involved until he fully recovered. 

For a long few seconds, the two of us just stared at each other like that. Eventually, Eits sighed, slumping back a little. “Paintball, we both know you’ve got secrets. Big ones. And you’re obviously keeping them for a reason. Just… just don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Find someone you can trust, even if it’s just to talk to. Even if it’s not me or Pack or anyone, find someone you can unload with. Does anyone beyond me even know that you’re… you know.” 

“A girl?” My head shook, voice quiet as I glanced out the window. “No. You’re literally the only person besides me who even knows that much.” Quickly, I snapped my gaze to him once more, blurting, “And you can’t–” 

“I’m not telling anyone,” Eits insisted firmly. “I already promised I wouldn’t. Your secret is safe with me, I swear, Paintball. That wasn’t my point. Just… you just need someone to talk to. Someone you can trust to just… just vent about all this to. Believe me, as someone who had a hell of a lot of my own venting to do about my situation, it really helps. And bottling it up, trying to handle all of it just by yourself? That’s gonna make things worse. Please. Find someone you can unload this stuff on before it boils up too much, okay? Just try.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t tell him why I didn’t trust anyone with the stuff I knew, or why I didn’t want to burden the people I did at least mostly trust with the whole story. I couldn’t tell him that I still wasn’t sure whether I was protecting other people or my family by keeping it to myself, or what any of that meant to me. It was just too much for me to ‘unload’ like he was saying. 

But I couldn’t refuse either. So, throat dry, I nodded. “I’ll work on it.” That was all I could manage. 

Belatedly, I changed the subject. “Hey, we figured out what my pink paint does!” Yeah, it was an obvious attempt to talk about something less uncomfortable, but still. I really did want to share it. 

From the sound of his voice, Eits was just as aware of what I was doing, but he was curious too. “You did?” 

“Yeah, with a bit of help,” I confirmed. “Uhh, watch.” Carefully, I pointed to the steering wheel and covered about four inches of the top right side with pink. As Eits watched, I reached out, activating the paint before grabbing hold and stretching it up and back to myself. That part of the steering wheel stretched like chewing gum, while the boy beside me made a noise of surprise. 

Letting it go, I watched as it stayed perfectly in place, stretched out like that. It was easily stretched and molded, yet when I released it, the painted thing remained solidly where it was. 

I showed Eits a few more things with it while he watched, obviously enthralled. And while doing so, I realized something else. When I had a nonliving object painted and let the paint run out on its own, it would simply stay where it was, like that bit with the steering wheel. 

But, if I disabled the paint ahead of time, if I focused on turning it off, the object didn’t immediately go back to its normal state. Instead, for just a few extra seconds, it turned sort of… loose-rubbery, for lack of a better word. Like a rubber band. I could pull it out, let go, and it would snap back to where it was when I first turned the paint off. It was only for like three seconds or so. But the point was, I could paint something, disable the paint, yank it out, then it would snap back to the position it was in when I disabled the paint once I stopped holding it back. Again, like a rubberband. 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Quickly, I scrambled out of the car. Pack was still sitting over in hers, apparently involved with her lizards. She looked up and over as I climbed up on Eits’ sedan, even as the boy himself asked what I was doing. 

“Check this out!” I blurted, before spraying the pavement with pink. Instantly, I dismissed the paint and then jumped. As my feet hit the ground, it literally bent under the force of my impact, then snapped back to where it was, launching me several feet into the air. Trampoline. It was like a trampoline. It wasn’t quite the same kind of launch I got from blue paint, but still. It was cool. It was really fucking cool. 

Pack came over to see what the hell I was doing. When I explained, she brought the lizards. Then we let them play, bouncing off the ground and into the air. They seemed to enjoy it, especially when Eits stepped out of the car and stood in a third spot as we all bounced them back and forth. I kept reapplying and dismissing the paint whenever needed, and the three of us played bounce the lizards off the trampoline ground. Pack, of course, made sure her little friends weren’t scared or anything. They seemed to understand what was going on. Which made me feel even more confused about how exactly her power worked and what it did to them. 

Either way, the three of us were laughing throughout all of that. For a few minutes, I forgot everything else. I stopped worrying about that whole stupid situation and just had goofy fun with the two Fell-Touched. I even forgot they were technically villains. We just goofed off with Pack’s lizards, finding things to bounce them off of. I used orange paint to keep them safe from being hurt, and we just… forgot everything else. 

Eventually, the other two had to leave. I thanked them both again, promising Eits that I would think about what he’d said. As I was walking away, however, he called out before coming over to join me. He was moving slower than normal, and wincing a little, but at least he was moving. 

Once the two of us were a bit away from Pack, who studiously paid attention to getting her lizards back in the car, Eits lowered his voice. “I meant to say something before, about that Paige Banners girl.” 

“You said you couldn’t get any more info about her without physical access to the adoption records,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. I’ll deal with it myself.” I hadn’t even told him about finding out that Paige was found by those Ten Tower people, or the dead bodies that had been around her. 

“Well, too late,” he retorted. “I already got something for you. It’s not much, but… here.” With that, Eits produced a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Turns out that Paige girl has some kind of history with Ten Towers. Not sure what it was, but one of the Ten Towers Prev troops who was involved in all that sort of went rogue a couple years ago. He’s working as grunt muscle for the Ninety-Niners now. Maybe you can get something out of him about what he saw back then?” He shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, it’s the best I could do.” 

“That’s–” Swallowing, I took the note. “Thanks. But just… just get better, okay?” 

As soon as he promised he would take it easy, I took a running start, spraying blue at the ground in front of me. As my feet hit it, I was launched up and forward. In mid-flight, I sprayed a pink circle into the middle of the billboard I had launched myself toward. Twisting in the air, I activated and immediately disabled the pink, just before my feet hit it. That spot of the billboard bent inward dramatically, bowing in like a trampoline being pushed to its limit. Then it snapped back to normal, hurling me even higher into the air and over the roof of a building. 

Yeah, I had a lot to deal with. But Pack and That-A-Way were going to help. They knew some of it. I had… something approaching friends, even if none of them knew the whole story. And, just as importantly, I knew how to use the pink paint now. I knew how to use all of my powers, I had allies who were ready to help with the whole Ministry thing, and I had a new lead for figuring out Paige’s whole deal.  

Maybe, just maybe, I was finally going to get somewhere with all this. 

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Deliverance 7-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once more (and for the last time in this arc), Fossor does not physically appear in this chapter. But there is a summary at the bottom for anyone who still would prefer to skip over Fossor-related things. 

So, I was supposed to practice in that tower room, learning how to summon ghosts from a ghost. Which was… an odd idea, to say the least. Although the oddness of learning from a ghost was nothing next to the feeling of overwhelming depression and horror I felt at the thought of what the people I was trying to summon had been through to get to this point. The story of these people, depicted in the stained glass windows, was of a village that was subjected to a plague that killed a large portion of their population. That dead population was then reanimated into zombies and killed the rest of the town, including all their family members and friends. The town was wiped out. Every man, woman, and child had been massacred and used to kill others.

And because that clearly wasn’t enough, Fossor had then had their ghosts magically sealed into this tower. For what? To practice with? Just in case he ever needed them for something like this? In case he took an apprentice the way he had conscripted me and made them learn this shit? Whatever the reason, he’d destroyed that town’s entire population and imprisoned their spirits in this single room with these four windows depicting their story. I was going to be sick.

“Control yourself,” came the flat order from Ahmose, as he gazed at me impassively. It was like he’d read my mind. Or maybe he just had eyes that allowed him to see the expression on my face as I stared at the nearest stained window. It was probably that second one. “We have much to do, and Lord Fossor will be unhappy if we do not reach a certain point in our lessons.” 

The immediate thought that came to mind was that I didn’t particularly care if the guy who used his torture touch on me got in trouble. But that was stupid, of course. First, because I’d be in trouble too. If Fossor was annoyed, he’d make sure I regretted it. And second, because as I’d already realized, Ahmose was as much of a prisoner here as I was. If not more. I knew from the way that Mom interacted with him that there was more to his story. He wasn’t just some evil asshole who liked hurting people. I didn’t know what his story was, exactly. But I knew there was more to him. Hell, from an outside perspective, someone could think my own mother was some evil bitch just because she did what Fossor ordered her to. She didn’t have a choice, and neither did Ahmose. I couldn’t take my anger at the evil piece of shit Necromancer out on him. It was just like the thoughts I’d had before. These ghosts, zombies, all of Fossor’s dead minions, none of them were responsible for what happened in this place. The… credit for that was all his. 

So, I shoved all those feelings down and exhaled long and slow to collect myself. “Fine, I get it,” I murmured, almost more to myself than to him. Raising my gaze, I looked to the ghost man. “How do we start this?” My own voice sounded hollow even to my own ears. I hated this. I hated being here, having to do all this. Hated being beholden to Fossor, living with his… ugliness all over everything. His evil permeated this entire building and everyone in it. It was a gilded hell. 

Ahmose, in turn, floated over to the first window. It was the one at the twelve o’clock position, showing the street full of bodies and the cart pulling more of them. His partially-translucent hand waved vaguely toward it. “You have been taught how to control ghosts that have already been summoned and are directly in front of you.” From the tone of his voice, I was pretty sure he did at least see the humor in the fact that he, a ghost himself, was the one telling me all of this.

“Yeah,” I murmured quietly, unable to take my eyes off the horrible image in the window. Fossor had definitely put work into teaching me to force ghosts that were right in front of me to do my bidding. I couldn’t override his control, of course. There was way too much of a skill level difference between us. But I had been getting pretty good at overriding a ghost’s free will and taking control over the past fourteen days. So… good for me? Maybe I should get a fucking trophy. 

Ahmose gave a short nod before continuing. “The process of summoning and controlling spirits requires several things. You must have at least some of each of these things for it to work, though you may make up for deficiencies in one by having more of another. Do you recall what you were told these required elements are?” At that moment, he actually sounded like a regular teacher, and if I’d closed my eyes, I almost could’ve imagined that I was back at school. 

But, of course, he wasn’t a normal teacher and I definitely wasn’t back at school. So, forcing that thought away, I answered with, “First you need necromantic energy. Most people produce this through extensive rituals, animal or even sapient being sacrifices, things like that. It takes a lot of time and effort to build up that kind of necromantic energy the old fashioned way, so many Necromancers who don’t have a natural gift for it will spend a lot of their free time building up that energy with various rituals and storing it in things like dolls, taxidermied animals, even entire buildings. That’s what causes some hauntings, because the energy from so many dead things is stored in those places and it boils over or gets out of control.” 

“And how are you and the lord different in that regard?” came the pointed question. 

“We can make necromantic energy the natural way,” I forced myself to answer, much as I hated even that bit of comparison between myself and that evil fuck. “We can convert our own magical energy, our own… strength, into the necromantic kind on the fly, without using rituals or sacrifices. Though both of those can also help us add a boost beyond what we’re capable of providing on our own.”  

Waiting until the ghost nodded once more, I went on. “Second, you need the skill to manipulate that energy. Practice, basically. You have to learn to touch and manipulate the energy, to weave it through the dead things you’re trying to control and use that to make them do what you want. It’s sort of a mixture between puppeting them and mind control. Or somewhere in the middle, though specifics depend both on how sapient and how powerful the thing you’re trying to control is.”  

“What else?” came the firm prompting, once I’d trailed off at the end of that second part. 

Quietly, I replied, “A connection. The better you understand the thing you’re trying to control, the easier it is to do so. Understanding can come in three forms. First is knowing them personally. If you’ve talked to them, interacted with them, that kind of thing, it helps. Second is researching them. That can be talking to their families and friends, reading about them, watching videos about them, just learning about them. And the third way is just to understand the species themselves, a general understanding of the species of the creature you’re trying to control. That helps a lot more with non-sapient creatures like rats and dogs and stuff than it does with, say, humans. But it can still help regardless.” 

“Correct on all counts,” my ghostly instructor informed me. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve said that he almost sounded proud. “One note on your second point about skill. Emotion, sheer will and desire, may also help in that regard. But essentially, you are entirely right. You summon and control your necromantic minions through a combination of power, be it provided by your own natural ability or through rituals, practice or skill in weaving that energy, and an understanding of the thing you’re trying to control, either the individual or the species.” 

With all that said, he added, “What then, do you believe the first step of controlling the spirits in this room would be?” 

I didn’t want to say it, but I knew what the answer was, what he had been leading me to. “Learning about them,” I muttered under my breath, my gaze still riveted to the image in front of me. “I have to learn everything about this village, about the people in it.” 

“Precisely,” came the measured response. “And so I shall tell you about this village, and the people who lived in it.” 

Afraid of the answer that would come, I forced the words out. “You knew them?” 

“Yes,” Ahmose informed me. “It was my home. They were my people. It was my duty to protect them. A duty I failed in. And it is now my duty to teach you how to use them to further your skill in carrying out Lord Fossor’s will.” 

******

So, I listened for an hour while my ghost tutor told me everything he could about his old village. He told me about what it was like to live there, in a medieval village in the northern part of Italy with a mixture of humans and hidden Alters, like Ahmose himself and his family. I wondered what kind of Alter he actually was, but the ghost just looked at me silently for a moment when I asked, before moving on. Apparently he didn’t want to talk about that. Or couldn’t, for some reason. 

Ahmose did, however, talk about the history of Italy in that time. Apparently, the short version was for awhile in central and northern parts of the country back in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a bunch of city-states were at war with one another over whether they were loyal to the Roman Emperor or to the Catholic Pope. If people were loyal to the Pope, they were known as Guelphs. If they were loyal to the Emperor, they were known as Ghibellines. 

That, at least, was the basic Bystander understanding of things. Ahmose didn’t get too into it, but he mentioned that on the non-Bystander side of things, there was some kind of race to locate some ancient buried treasure around that time. It was something similar to the weapons that the King of Canada had found. So, yeah, with something that powerful apparently hidden in the area I could see why people were going nuts for it. Heretics and Alters alike. 

I asked if anyone ever found that buried weapon or weapons, and Ahmose simply said that he didn’t believe so. Whatever powerful objects were hidden remained that way even now. 

All of that was just background anyway. Mostly, he focused on the village in question. Ahmose described several of the important people in the place, like the woman who ran the inn, and what amounted to their village elder. They were ostensibly aligned with the Ghibellines (Emperor loyalists), though according to Ahmose that didn’t really come up very much. They were mostly focused on doing their own thing, on living their lives and avoiding any official entanglement in the ongoing conflicts (both of the Bystander and Artifact Hunters variety). And they were successful at that. Until Fossor showed up to play his little game. Between his ‘little’ plague and the zombies, he wiped out the village entirely. Why, Ahmose either didn’t know or couldn’t say. Part of me wondered if it had to do with those hidden artifact weapons, because the idea that Fossor just happened to go through all that in an area where people were looking for those things seemed just a bit too coincidental. But whether that meant Fossor had actually found what everyone else was looking for and kept it hidden all these years or not was anyone’s guess. 

In any case, I learned about the people in the village, how day-to-day life worked, how the village was laid out, what the buildings were made of, what they smelled like, how their food tasted, and more. Ahmose told me everything he could, painting a picture of living in that village with its people, with his people. And with each word, I learned more than just simple facts. I also learned just how much he still clearly cared about them. There was real pain, real… emotion in his voice as he reminisced about living there. With every word, the ghost-figure bared a bit more of himself with me. Not because he wanted to. Not because we were friends. But because Fossor had ordered him to do so. I knew that. Ahmose was opening up to me, sharing his emotions and story, because doing so would help me summon the ghosts in this place. 

And that… that somehow felt like even more of a violation than Fossor was already so good at. Ahmose’s emotions, his story, his feelings and history, were none of my business. But now they were being bared to me just to help me learn to practice my fucking Necromancy. 

Damn Fossor. Damn that evil, psychotic piece of shit to the darkest pit of any hell that would take him. I wanted him gone. I wanted him dead. I wanted him erased from all existence. 

At the very least, I didn’t waste the effort that Ahmose was putting into this. As much as part of me wanted to resist actually summoning and controlling the people he still clearly cared so much about, I knew it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t like refusing to do this, or pretending I couldn’t, would help him. On the contrary, Fossor would obviously punish him for failing. I wouldn’t be helping him at all. 

So, I focused on one of the people in the first painting. Reaching out, I pointed to a body lying on the ground whose face was fairly visible. “Can you tell me about this person?” I asked hesitantly, my voice dry. I had to force the words past the thick lump in my throat. 

After a brief pause, Ahmose did so. The man I had pointed out was apparently a baker named Galasso Fuscone. He would yell at the children for hanging around his place while he was trying to bake, but was a sweet man behind the bluster, one who left bread scraps out for them (a few too many ‘scraps’ to be accidental) and who had a lovely singing voice. Galasso was a thin man with stringy gray-yellow hair and had a constant reddish blush to his face, as if he was always in the middle of a long run or workout.

Listening to everything my ghost tutor said, I focused on the man in the picture. My eyes narrowed until the only thing I was looking at was that single part of the painting, while I tried stretching out my power. In my head, I was chanting his name. Galasso Fuscone. Galasso Fuscone. Then I started saying it outloud, which was probably slightly more helpful. 

Galasso Fuscone. Galasso Fuscone. Come. Come to me.” There was an odd quality to my voice, as I felt my power wrap itself around the very sound, causing it to echo even more, reverberating heavily through the tower room. I felt faint resistance, as the figure I was seeking didn’t want to emerge. Part of me reflexively wanted to relent and let it go. But I knew Fossor wouldn’t accept that. As much as I hated this, I had to pull that spirit out. 

He materialized in front of my face, right between me and the painting. As soon as the ghost appeared, I felt his panic, his terror. He was sobbing, pleading with me–no. Fossor. He was pleading with Fossor not to do… something again. Whatever it was, I couldn’t follow all of it. He was stammering in Latin, which I was fairly decent at understanding by that point as long as people spoke slower. But this guy definitely wasn’t speaking slow. He was blurting words so quickly they all blended into one another. 

Finally, Ahmose spoke sharply, also in Latin, while I was still standing there in stunned silence. It was something about telling him to be silent. Galasso stopped, looking at me as if he had only just then realized I wasn’t Fossor. 

“Look, I… I’m sorry,” I managed. “I’ll send you back as soon as I can. I just have to practice for… for a bit.” The words seemed empty and useless both in my head, and even more so aloud. But what else was I supposed to do? 

For the next little while, I worked with Galasso, manipulating him, summoning and releasing him back to the painting, sending him around the room. I told him to try resisting, promising that I wouldn’t hurt him. I was pretty sure he didn’t believe me. After all, I was Fossor’s apprentice. 

Yeah, he was terrified the entire time. It was awful. As soon as I dared call it enough, I released the ghost to the painting and turned back to my escort. “I’m done,” I informed him. “I’m tired and hungry.” And I’d had enough of terrorizing a dead man. I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Not now, anyway.

“Very well,” came the response. “We will return soon, and you will learn to summon more at once.” With that, Ahmose turned to float to the exit, leading me out of the tower. 

As I left that awful place, with Kendall trailing behind as always, my attention focused inward toward Rahanvael. Pretty sure he didn’t notice, what about you? 

The response was an affirmative, positive feeling, and I gave a short nod. Yeah. As much energy as I was throwing around in there to ‘practice’, there’s no way he figured out what else we were doing. That’s one more room in this place almost primed. I couldn’t get everything done, but I think I can reach this far from the bedroom to finish up. Just gotta keep being careful. Slow and steady is what’s gonna win this race, like the tortoise. 

That earned me a feeling of uncertainty. She had no idea what I meant. 

The tortoise and the hare, the rabbit. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you the story later. I paused before turning to face Ahmose. “Thanks, I guess. For the lesson.” 

And for helping me with the next step of my plan to break the fuck out of this place. Give me a little more time, and Fossor will wish he’d never even looked at my family. 

 

SUMMARY

Flick learns that the doomed village depicted in the stained glass windows from the previous chapter was Ahmose’s village, and that he was responsible for protecting the people who lived there. He goes over how Necromancy works with her, with Flick reciting that to control something dead, you need a combination of power (either natural Necromantic gift the way Fossor and now Flick have, or through rituals to convert regular magic into Necromantic magic), practice/skill using that power, and an understanding of either the individual you’re trying to control, or the species they belong to. The former helps more than the latter. Flick then practices with one of the other ghosts from the village for awhile before declaring herself done, and leaves with Ahmose. On the way out, she has a silent conversation with Rahanvael, revealing that she also did something involving the next stage of her plan to escape while she was in there, and that she is almost ready to make Fossor start regretting everything he started.

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Pink 12-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So, the other two told me about the ‘theory’ online. A joke theory that the real reason I wore a helmet in addition to a mask was because I was hiding a beak. Because my real dad was actually Lucent the raven. 

Once that much was explained, I stared at the two of them open-mouthed. I knew I should say something, but what exactly was I supposed to say? It was so absurd, I just wanted to laugh. So I did. I snorted first, then shook my head as the snort turned into a giggle fit. My hands pressed against the visor as I doubled over, unable to muffle the outright laugh that came next. A bird. People thought, or were pretending to think, that I was part bird. Somehow, in the midst of every bad thing I had to deal with, all the stress that came with figuring out how to investigate my own family’s underground crime ring, finding out more about this secret history with Anthony Tate and Paige that had been erased from my brain, the entire Pencil situation, all of it… all of it was just too much. And this stupid, ridiculous little theory made me start laughing until I couldn’t stop. I was laughing so much I was almost crying. And then I was crying. Only belatedly did I realize that the snickers and laughter had turned into tears. 

The fuck was wrong with me? I couldn’t even laugh properly without crying. God damn it. 

“Um.” Pack exchanged an obviously confused look with That-A-Way before asking, “You okay?”

Forcing down all of those feelings, I nodded quickly. “Right, yeah, sorry. We’re good. I’m good. We just–um, no beak here.” 

“Yeah, we’ve seen you without the helmet,” That-A-Way pointed out dryly. “Otherwise, totally would’ve bought that theory.” She was obviously trying to tease me a little bit, offering a slight smile of encouragement. “So, you wanna figure out this pink paint thing or what?” 

My mouth opened to agree, then I paused for just a second. Something about That-A-Way’s smile, it made me… feel like it was familiar somehow. But that was dumb. Of course it was familiar. I’d seen Way smile before, after all. God, my brain was weird sometimes. 

Shaking that off, I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Hope we have more luck with you guys.” 

“What’ve you tried so far?” Pack asked, setting Riddles on her shoulder to let the bearded dragon look around curiously. 

I shrugged at that. “I’ve kinda been distracted, so I haven’t tested it as much as I should’ve. Mostly I just put it against things, activated it, then tried touching them. Nothing happened. It doesn’t give mind-reading powers or anything, or disguise powers, or flight. I tried putting paint on my shirt and jumping up and down, tried walking through walls with paint on the wall or on myself… It feels kinda funny when you touch it but I can’t figure out what that means.” Flushing a little, I admitted, “I keep getting distracted by other things every time I try to focus on just the paint.” 

“You, getting involved in too much stuff?” That-A-Way made an exaggerated sound of disbelief and a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I don’t believe it.” 

It was a good thing I had a helmet on, because letting those two see me stick my tongue out at her probably wouldn’t have done a lot of good for my whole pretending to be a boy situation. Still, it made me feel better. As did kicking her in the leg to make the girl yelp. 

In any case, we really did need to figure this out. Because having my entire arsenal of paint was important if we were going to pull this off. So, the three of us moved up to the circle I’d painted on the wall, and Pack put her hand against it. “Turn it on? Or whatever you call it.” 

Shrugging, I did so, focusing on activating the paint. “You’ve got ten seconds.” 

“Well it’s not electrified,” Pack pointed out after running her hand over it. She tugged her glove off, revealing dark skin as she pressed her fingers back to the paint. “Check this out, Rosey.”

“Rosey?” I echoed blankly. 

She pointed to That-A-Way without looking. “Compass Rose.”  

“Wha–never mind.” Shaking her head, the blonde girl stepped closer, reaching out to feel the pink circle. “Huh, it–” Then the circle disappeared. “Shit. It definitely didn’t feel like the rest of the cement around it.” 

Pack nodded. “It’s not hot or cold. It didn’t turn anything invisible. I didn’t feel any different when I touched it. It wasn’t… hmm. I didn’t feel different, but that spot definitely felt weird. Not like the rest of it.” 

Way was staring at the spot where it had been, sounding thoughtful. “It felt more like… umm… softer? Yeah, it felt softer. Hey, try it again.” 

Spraying another circle, I watched as the two examined it once more. That-A-Way finally reared back her fist and punched the wall. When she pulled her hand back, there was a noticeable dent in the pink circle, a fist-shaped impression deep in the actual cement. 

“Um.” Frowning, I stepped over there and leaned in, just as the pink disappeared. The wall was definitely dented. The actual concrete had pushed inward, like it was made out of playdough or something. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think cement is supposed to do that.” 

That-A-Way put her hand out, running it along the fist-shaped indentation. “Holy crap, dude. What the hell did that stuff do, make the wall… soft? Your paint makes things soft?” 

Pack stooped, grabbing the wooden broom before holding it up. “Hey, paint this thing.” 

So, I did. Carefully spraying pink over the handle, I activated it and gave her a nod. 

Pack, in turn, gripped the broom handle from both ends and bent it in half. It didn’t break. It didn’t snap. The handle itself bent easily, as Pack basically tied it into a knot. “It’s… it’s like it’s made of rubber,” she announced, as the pink paint vanished, leaving a normal wood broom handle that was stretched out to be thinner than it used to be and wrapped around itself several times.  

“Are you telling me that paint makes things… what, rubber?” That-A-Way asked, taking the tied-up broom to examine it. “Some kind of soft rubber that you can bend and twist around?” 

“Hold on…” Curiously, I held up my own arm, focusing on painting not only my costume, but also my actual arm inside pink. Activating both, I took hold of the middle of my arm with my other hand and very carefully twisted, ready to stop if I needed to. 

It bent. My actual forearm bent. Not like, at the elbow or the wrist, but midway in between. It bent in half as if I had a whole other elbow there. Before even thinking about what I was doing, I grabbed tight and pulled at my arm. It stretched out like it was made of taffy. I twisted it around a few times and yanked it out in two different directions. It was silly putty. My arm was like silly putty. And it didn’t hurt at all. It looked really fucked up, for sure. but it didn’t actually hurt. Actually, it barely felt like anything at all except for maybe a little tingly. 

“Oh, my God!” I blurted out loud while staring at my pretzel-like arm. “That’s what the pink does. You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to figure that out.” 

“Goodie,” Pack muttered. “Excuse me while I go barf in the corner.” 

Of course, the real question was what would happen if my arm, or any body part, was bent and twisted like taffy when the pink wore out. Which was a thought that occurred to me about half a second before that very thing happened. The pink paint wore off, and my arm instantly snapped back to being the way it was supposed to be. It unbent and sort of… schlooped back in on itself just like normal. It was all really quick, almost before I could even think about how bad it might be. 

“Oh fuck!” That-A-Way blurted. “Did that hurt, are you okay?!” 

“Nope,” I replied. “Didn’t hurt. Felt a little weird, but it didn’t hurt. I uhh… guess I’m lucky the power works like that on biological things, huh? Might’ve been bad if it just… snapped or something.” Even as I said that part aloud, my face paled. God, that really would’ve sucked. I probably would’ve been on the ground screaming my fucking head off if my power didn’t put my arm back properly.  

“You guess you’re lucky it works like–” Pack started to echo before cutting herself off with an exasperated sound. “Rose, are you sure about this whole thing? Cuz I think we just got ourselves involved with a lunatic.” 

“Lunatic or not,” the Minority Touched insisted, “he knows more about the truth of what’s going on in this city than anyone.” She gave me a brief look, “And definitely more than he’s said so far. So I don’t think we have much choice right now.” Belatedly, That-A-Way added, “What else do you think that paint can do?” 

“Well,” I offered with a shrug, “let’s find out. I mean, if you guys want to help me some more.”

The other two looked at each other briefly, before Pack replied with a flat, “Duh. Playing with new powers is like… one of the best things in the world. Helping someone else play with new powers? That’s a pretty close second. So yeah, come on, let’s see what else you can do with it.”

Considering what to do for a moment, I held my hand up, painting it pink. “Hey, Way. Pull my f–” 

“If you finish that sentence,” she interrupted sharply, “I swear I will lock you in this shed.” Squinting at me pointedly, the girl carefully reached out to take hold of three fingers at once. “Just… tell me if it hurts,” she advised before gingerly starting to pull as I activated the paint. As expected, my fingers stretched out. Again, it was like pulling taffy. Or gum. I wasn’t sure what was going on with my bones inside, but it probably looked pretty gross. Hell, it looked gross just like this, as That-A-Way pulled those three fingers out until they were a good two feet long.

“Okay, hold up,” Pack quickly put in. “Where’s the extra material coming from? Cuz yeah, your fingers are a bit thinner than they would be, but not that much. That’s two extra feet of skin and… and…” Flailing a bit helplessly, she blurted, “How’s it stretching out that far?!” 

I started to say something, but in the next moment, the paint wore off. Instantly, the pink color vanished and my fingers were snapped out of That-A-Way’s hand with a schlooping noise before they shot back to my hand and into place, practically vibrating from the force of it. 

“Fuck!” That-A-Way jumped, head jerking my way as she looked at my now-normal fingers. “Are you okay?! Did that–are you–” Her gaze was riveted to my hand, voice quiet. “What the fuck?” 

“Nope,” I assured her, as well as Pack, who was also staring intently at me. “I swear, it didn’t hurt at all. Felt a bit tingly or whatever, and sure sounded weird. But it definitely didn’t hurt. I think the effect turns off pain receptors in it or something?” Belatedly, I thought about how useful that by itself could be. If painting something pink turned off physical pain… yeah, that could help a lot. Hell, I’d had that exact thought before, that being able to shut off pain would be great.

Opening and shutting my hand a couple times before pointedly wiggling my fingers, I looked to the others. “See? It’s all good. No problems.” That said, I tilted my head curiously. “You know, my paint affects other people too.” It was too bad I had a mask and helmet on, because it meant they couldn’t see the way my eyebrows were waggling. But I was pretty sure they could guess. 

There wasn’t exactly a rush to be the first to volunteer. Finally, Pack sighed and stepped over, gingerly extending a hand to me. “If this actually does hurt and you’ve been fucking with us,” she informed me, “I swear I will find a way to pay you back.” 

“Trust me,” I assured the girl, “I don’t have that good of a poker face. If that actually hurt even a fraction of what it seems like it should, I would’ve been crying and screaming. I swear, you don’t really feel anything at all. Cross my heart. Which, come to think of it, I might be able to do with this power, if I could twist my chest around the–never mind.” Realizing they were really staring at me by that point, I waved it off. “Here, the point is, it’s definitely not gonna hurt. And even if it somehow acts differently with you than me, we’ll go really slow and careful at first, I swear.” 

Suiting action to words, I painted her index finger pink. Then I very gingerly took hold of the end and watched her face while starting to pull. I heard her sharp intake of breath and saw a visible flinch when the finger started to stretch, and stopped short. But after a moment, she gave me the nod to continue. It had just surprised her. So, I tugged a little more, stretching the finger further. It was now about a foot long and, judging from the lack of screaming, didn’t hurt after all.

“Holy shit!” Pack blurted, head shaking. “Look at that. My finger’s just like–you’re right, it doesn’t hurt. Feels funky, but not really…”  She trailed off, sounding like she felt a bit sick. “Oh man, that’s fucking gross. Totally fucking g–” At that point, the paint wore off and the tip of her finger was snapped out of my hand to sloorp right back into its normal position and length. The suddenness of it made Pack yelp, stumbling backward while grabbing her hand. Then she stopped, staring at it, then up at me. “God damn, dude. You’re right, it just feels really weird.”  

We tested that a little bit more, with That-A-Way’s help too. Very carefully, I let both of them tie two of my fingers into a knot, just to see what would happen. I was ready to instantly paint them again if something went wrong, but wanted to see how my power dealt with that. Better in a semi-controlled environment like this than the middle of a fight, after all. 

As it turned out, there wasn’t a problem. When the paint wore off, my fingers sort of… schlurped in their still-boneless and stretchy forms to release one another before zipping back to their normal positions. The feeling and structure and all that didn’t return until they were back the way they were supposed to be. And no matter how much we tried to tie them up, they were able to go right back to normal. Which made me wonder what would happen if it was somehow physically impossible for a stretched-out body part to get back to the way it was supposed to be. But that kind of extensive (and dangerous) testing would have to come later. Right now, I was still getting the hang of the basics of this stuff. 

We did try a few other things. I stretched my fully-pink arm out and watched as That-A-Way hit it with that metal pipe. She started softly, working her way up to full on, two-handed slamming it into my pink arm. Each time, I didn’t feel anything and the arm just bent inward under the force of the hits. Again, it looked gross and awful, but didn’t actually hurt at all. And each time, once the power wore off, my arm returned to normal with no apparent ill-effect. I tried it with my leg too, with the same result. Everything I used the paint on turned rubbery and could be pulled, stretched, or twisted into new shapes as long as the paint was active. If the thing was biological (or close attached to something biological, like my clothes, I supposed), it went right back to normal after the paint wore off. If it was some random object like the wall or the broom, it stayed the way it had been twisted. 

That, of course, made me wonder how the paint knew which was which. I could see biological things going back to their normal shape as some kind of safety measure, but how did it know to put clothes back to the way they’d been? How did that work? 

Eventually, I even moved on to testing the paint on my lower torso. Painting the costume and my skin pink (Front and back, all the way around, of course), I let Pack take a turn with the pipe. She shoved it into my stomach end-first, and it just kept pushing that in and back. Looking over my shoulder, I watched as a pipe-shaped bit of my pink-painted costume torso started pushing back that way. 

“Oh gross, gross! Nope, I’m done, I’m done.” Pack quickly yanked the pipe away, a moment before my stretched-out insides snapped back to the way they should be. 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way piped up, gesturing to the wall, a blank section near the one that had the fist-shaped impression in it. “Try it over here again, on this part.” 

So, I did. Extending a hand, I shot a circle of pink about a foot across at the wall. As soon as I activated it, That-A-Way shoved both her hands into the wall hard. She was able to, with some effort, grab two handfuls of the rubberized wall and pull them out, yanking the playdough-like cement out, then pushed and molded it until there was a hole in the wall leading into the storage unit next door. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Pack blurted, “do you have any idea how easily you could use this to break into places and…” She trailed off, blinking over toward That-A-Way, who was squinting at her. “Umm… save… puppies and orphans and… something. Whatever.” 

Snorting, I shook my head. “You’re right about one thing. This will make it easier to break into places…

“Like, say… that secret base under the mall.” 

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Deliverance 7-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Fossor does not directly appear in this chapter, but there is a bit about a previous evil thing he did far in the past, unrelated to Flick or any of her people. A summary is at the bottom of the chapter for those who would prefer to skim Fossor-related content. 

I didn’t want to say that things settled into a routine, because… well, fuck those implications. But honestly, they did. The next two weeks were simultaneously the longest in my life while also blurring together. There was so much horrible dread, so much hatred and anger every time I saw or thought about the man who was holding my mother and I prisoner, so much… ugliness that the specifics all got muddled up together in my head. It got to the point that I had to stop and really think about what exactly happened on what day, even just a short time afterward. 

It helped that I kept myself busy. Or, rather, everything kept me busy. My nights were spent mostly talking to and learning from Shyel while I was asleep in my mother’s bed, and plotting with Rahanvael while I was awake. I would lie there in bed with Mom, letting her sleep while I silently communicated with the ghost girl. Whenever possible, she remained totally invisible, only answering me with positive and negative/yes and no feelings. But occasionally she did have to manifest to have a real conversation, when I needed more specifics than a simple yes or no could provide. Thankfully, she could detect any of Fossor’s little necromancy-touched minions, and he was too paranoid to let people he didn’t control come snooping around. She knew whenever any of them were coming and could hide.

Meanwhile, my days were mostly split between spending time with my mother (something I would never be able to get enough of, and the only good part about any of this), learning from Fossor with the occasional bout in the arena to show off what I’d learned, and taking care of/maintaining my golems. Not only Kendall and Gavant, but the other Meregan he’d brought with him. There were four beyond Gavant himself, none of whom I recognized specifically. Not that that mattered. They had been living beings. Worse, they had been living members of a nearly extinct species. Every time I saw them, every time I thought about how that callous, evil, vindictive piece of shit had hurt and… and destroyed the Meregan people, I wanted to scream until my own throat wouldn’t let me scream anymore. The Meregan had suffered enough. Why couldn’t they just be left alone to recover? They… they were nice to me. They didn’t deserve this. No species deserved to go through what theirs had. It wasn’t fair. 

Right, as if Fossor gave a shit about fair. All he cared about was what was good for Fossor. And, apparently, what was good for Fossor at the moment was giving me a bunch of Necromancy training. It wasn’t just with golems either. He also taught me other Necromancy tricks. Not enough to challenge him, of course. I’d need a hell of a lot more time than I actually had to be able to get close to doing that. He’d been doing this for literally thousands of years. It was like Shyel had said, my only chance was going to be in taking advantage of one mistake, in hitting him from some direction that he didn’t actually anticipate. And that was going to be tricky. 

Thankfully, I had something resembling a plan. A plan that was taking a long time to pull off, and would be really easy to fuck up, but a plan nonetheless. That was the other thing that had eaten up every spare moment I had over the past fourteen days and made everything blend together so much. Not to mention the fact that I had to spend time doing a bunch of other things that could conceivably lead to escaping just so I could drag my answer out with all of those if Fossor happened to ask (and he did) if I had physically done anything that might lead to escape.

Not that he used the Writing Room that much. Surprisingly little, actually, given the circumstances. And it wasn’t just because he was ‘saving power’ in the room or whatever, though I had a feeling that was part of it. He was also still clearly preoccupied with something else whenever he wasn’t actively teaching me or ruling over his little arena battles. He was really busy working on something else. 

The question of what was distracting him so much was, of course, pretty important. But it wasn’t like I could just start asking Fossor questions in the Writing Room myself. All I could do was quietly worry about it while focusing on my own plan. A plan I had shared with my mother a few days after conceiving it, using that same ‘secret information sharing’ spell that Prosser had taught me. That was the one single way that we had to keep things absolutely private. 

So yeah, the point was, the past couple weeks had been really busy. To say the least. I kept myself occupied to avoid dwelling on how much I missed my dad, my friends, Shiori and Avalon, and… and everyone. Between the horrors of being here under Fossor and the pain of being away from everyone I cared about other than my mother, I had a lot to distract myself from. 

At that particular moment, I was performing maintenance on Kendall after another bout in the arena. It had been my third one since that first day, a battle between both Kendall and Gavant (I was learning to switch which one was active based on what I needed) and a mixed group of a couple orcs, one lizard man, a troll, and a snake monster whose body had wrapped almost all the way around the arena. That had been… well, not fun. I was using Necromancy magic that Fossor had taught me to patch up the holes in Kendall’s body, murmuring useless apologies. 

Caleb, Miles’s father, was here as well, working on cleaning the blood off of Gavant with a rag and ladder. That was his job. The man whose species was all about protecting people had been given the duty of cleaning and patching the zombies and other dead things in Fossor’s stable. He bathed them, cleaned them, put new clothes on them, and basically just made sure they were presentable in general. He and I had talked a bit about trying to find out where his wife was being held, but neither of us had a real plan as far as that went. I wasn’t going to risk asking Fossor, because if he knew the connection between his little ‘keeper of the dead’, as he called Caleb, and someone from my real life, he would’ve found some horrific way to exploit it. 

The two of us couldn’t talk right now, because Ahmose was here. Fossor’s favorite torture ghost was watching me work. I wasn’t sure why, but it was obviously part of his orders from his master. He didn’t interrupt or anything, he just floated there in the doorway watching what I was doing. My nerves were on edge from the fear that Fossor had some idea of what I was really working on, which may have been the point. Not that the Necromancer actually knew anything, but that he wanted me to be paranoid and possibly make a mistake if I was trying something. 

That or he was simply fucking with me to see what would happen. That was basically just as likely. Fossor had all the control here, and he knew it. It was a fact he’d exploited for the past fourteen days by making me fight in his stupid arena, making me learn from him, threatening to have innocent children killed not only if I didn’t cooperate, but if I didn’t win. These fights had been hard enough without the pressure of knowing how many totally innocent people would die if I failed. It was too much, and I was terrified that I would end up being responsible for a massacre.

No. I wouldn’t be responsible. Fossor would be. I knew that. Intellectually, I knew that. I’d even said so repeatedly. But emotionally, the fear of how that would feel kept creeping up on me. 

“Are you finished?” The voice of Ahmose, coming from directly behind me as he had apparently floated up while I was distracted thinking about all that, made me jump. “You appear to be finished,” he added flatly when I jerked around to stare at him. 

“I–um, yeah. Yeah, she’s good for now,” I mumbled a bit uncomfortably. The last thing I wanted was to be near the ghost who could make me feel blinding agony just by touching me. The memory of how that punishment had felt the first day (and I’d gotten a couple reminders on Fossor’s orders since then) still made me shudder. “Why, we’re not going back to the arena already, are we?” Once before, Fossor had called me there right after I finished cleaning up from a fight, only to sit and watch some other battle. But for whatever reason, he never had me watch Mom fight. He always ordered me out of the arena before she would have her battle. I wasn’t sure why, or if there actually was a reason at all. I’d asked Mom about it, but she just told me the fights were a straight up brawl and that she couldn’t think of any reason Fossor would want me out of the room. For all we knew, it was a test to see if I’d push to see her fights or try to find a way to sneak around. 

The point was, I had yet to see my mother in combat. And I knew she was doing that right now, so the thought that Fossor might be calling me back… I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. 

“No,” Ahmose informed me in a low voice. But he didn’t elaborate beyond that. Instead, after that single word, the large, purple ghost with red eyes turned to glide silently away from me. He went through the open doorway and continued through the hallway beyond, clearly expecting me to follow after him without actually explaining anything. Which was fair enough, considering it wasn’t like I had any choice in the matter whether I’d known where we were going or not. 

I wanted to glance back toward Caleb on the way out, but there was no way that I would take that kind of risk. Not with Ahmose this close. Instead, I just exhaled and patted the dead Kendall on the shoulder before starting out of the room, summoning her to follow. One thing I knew for sure. If it was at all possible, I was going to get not only Caleb (and hopefully his wife if we could find her), but also as many of the dead bodies as possible out of here. They deserved to be put to rest. Yes, they were dead. But Fossor was defiling them by forcing their bodies to do his bidding in these sick games. If I could, if it was possible, I would get them out of this horrible place. 

Yeah, I’d get them out. Right around the time I got myself and my mother out. I wasn’t so much putting the cart ahead of the horse there as I was building an entire western theme park before I had a single foal. But hey, it was good to have goals? 

Either way, Ahmose led me through the palace. As promised, we weren’t heading back to the arena. I’d (regrettably) been in this place enough for me to have at least a basic idea of where things were, and we were heading up and away from the direction of the arena. We were heading for an area I hadn’t been in very much. It wasn’t Fossor’s private quarters or anything, just a part of the palace I’d only very briefly passed through. 

Well, sort of, anyway. I had been through this area in another way over the past week and a half, just as I’d been almost everywhere that Fossor wasn’t actively keeping me out of. But that was… different. And I certainly hadn’t been in a position to see everything the way I was seeing it now. I’d been rather occupied with my plan at the time. 

Any idea where we’re going? I directed inward toward Rahanvael, keeping an eye on Ahmose’s back as he glided along ahead of me. By that point, I was over ninety percent sure he’d never notice her presence even if she communicated (silently) with me, but I watched him a bit anyway. Sure enough, he showed no reaction at all as the negative response came back. Rahanvael didn’t know what was going on either. And from the feeling she’d expressed, I was confident that she wasn’t sensing an ambush of zombies and ghosts or whatever. 

As it turned out, the place I was being taken to was the top of one of the mansion’s towers. The west tower, actually. It was a round room, about three hundred feet in diameter, with stairs (the ones we had just come up) directly in the middle and four huge stained glass windows at the twelve, six, three, and nine o’clock positions. The images in the colorful windows depicted various horrific scenes. Straight ahead at the twelve position was an image of a medieval city street full of bodies, with a cart that had more bodies stacked up on it, being pulled through by a skeletally-thin mule. There were people leaning out of the buildings, and looks on their faces… the fact that the artist had managed to create such haunting, terrifying visages in stained glass was a testament to their skill. It also made me sick. One bit in particular showed a little girl leaning out a window with what looked like a wooden doll hanging from one hand. 

Meanwhile, the other three windows were equally horrible (in content). The three o’clock one showed bodies being burned in a pit while some actively tried to climb out of it. The six o’clock window depicted mangled, rotting corpses walking back into the same street scene from the first window and attacking the living. That girl with the doll was gone from the window and was instead down on the ground, her back to the viewer as she fled. 

And yet, it was the last image, the one for the nine o’clock position, that was somehow the worst of all. This despite the fact that it didn’t show any zombies or monsters. Or any people at all. It was a view of the same neighborhood, except it was empty, devoid of any living things. In the very center of the painting was that wooden doll from the girl. It lay on its side, with a small yet telling puddle of blood leading away from it and off ‘screen.’ 

Okay, that really fucked me up. Just standing there seeing all those windows, feeling the ‘story’ they told, made me have to close my eyes to collect myself for a moment. Thankfully, Ahmose didn’t push me to get on with it or say anything. He just waited in total silence.

Finally, I forced myself to ignore the windows. Instead, I focused on the ghost (which honestly wasn’t that much of an improvement, all things considered) and spoke in a somewhat hollow voice. “What are we doing up here? What does Fossor want from me now?” Because I sure as hell knew this wasn’t something Ahmose had done on his own. Whatever this whole thing was about, it was my piece of shit ‘host’ who was behind it. 

“We are here,” Ahmose answered in a voice that seemed to echo around me and through the room, “to continue on to the next stage of your training. Lord Fossor requires that you begin summoning and putting to work the spirits of the dead. Many such spirits are tied to this very room, through the images depicting their last days. They will be your training tools.”

The words penetrated, but made no sense for a moment. Or maybe I just didn’t want to understand. But then I did. And I immediately regretted it. My gaze first glanced toward the motionless Kendall, then snapped over to look at the first window. I stared that way for a moment, then at the rest of the windows before blurting, “Wait, you mean… you mean this is all real? Those images, they’re depicting literally real events, not just… not… the people in those windows, that little girl, they’re all… they’re all real. All of that really happened, and now they’re bound to this single room with nothing but stained glass windows showing the horror of their last days?”

There was a brief pause before the ghost gave a single nod, his blazing eyes not leaving mine. “That,” he confirmed, “is correct.”  

Now I really was going to be sick. I was supposed to call up those ghosts, I was supposed to learn how to manipulate and order them around. How was I… what was I… How…

My hands had found their way to my face. I shuddered a little despite myself. I couldn’t refuse. As much as I desperately wanted to, I couldn’t tell Ahmose to tell Fossor to go fuck himself. There was too much at stake. If he was pissed off, there were too many ways that bastard could hurt me (mostly by hurting Mom, or by killing innocent people). He was, for the moment, in total control, and he knew it. It was why he hadn’t even bothered being here for this part. He could just send his ghost minion with me, check in through him once in awhile, and make sure I did everything I was supposed to. 

I had no more choice than any of Fossor’s ghosts, really. Not in whether I followed a direct order or not. And this was clearly a direct order. I was going to learn to control ghosts, and I was going to do it with these… these poor victims. 

“Fine,” I managed in a voice that cracked just a little despite myself. It was all I could do to force those words out. “Let’s get to it then.” 

Meanwhile, inwardly all I could think was that Fossor had better enjoy the advantage he had at that moment, because eventually, my plan was going to be ready. 

And I couldn’t wait to see the look on that son of a bitch’s face when he finally found out how I was going to fuck him over. 

 

SUMMARY

Flick has spent a couple weeks learning, training, fighting, etc. And working on her escape plan, which she has secretly shared with her mother. After a session of cleaning up the damaged Kendall golem, she is taken by the ghost Ahmose to a tower room where she finds four stained glass windows depicting an old village being infected by a plague and then the dead villagers rising to kill the rest. Flick learns from Ahmose that the windows depict actual events and that the ghosts of those villagers are held within the tower room. Ghosts which she is supposed to learn to summon and control. 

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Pink 12-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Owww, owwww! My head. Fuck, god damn it! Yeah, the next few minutes after I saw those words weren’t fun. I held my head, grimacing and whimpering through the pain, as flashes of… of something worked their way through my mind repeatedly. Flashes of a van? A van. Why was I seeing a van? 

Find Cassidy. Cassidy will help me. 

What in the living fuck was that supposed to mean? Why would Paige Banners say that once, let alone repeatedly? How did she… what… why would… Why? Just why? Once I’d recovered from the rush of pain in my head, that single question and variants of it echoed through my mind for hours, as I worked in a daze to clean up more of that room. I couldn’t just take off the moment I found that file, naturally. That would’ve looked just a bit suspicious (not to mention being wrong considering I was supposed to be working on this to make up for temporarily stealing from them). Still, I couldn’t actually focus on anything I was doing and just went about the work barely noticing the specifics of it. I felt even more lost.

Spending those hours dully and mechanically moving files around and scrubbing things while obsessively thinking about the Paige situation didn’t really help all that much. I still had no idea why she would have asked for me or what she thought I could’ve done. Or why she acted like such a… bitch to me the moment we supposedly met in middle school. Because this had definitely been before that. Paige Banners knew me before I supposedly met her in school. 

Finally, I figured I’d been there long enough and stopped working. By the time I got out to the front area, Tricia was there. The elderly woman greeted me happily, said she’d heard I had the chance to meet Lucent, and offered me a couple cookies from a tupperware behind her desk. I thanked her and said a few more words, but honestly I really wasn’t paying much attention. As soon as possible without being overtly rude, I excused myself and got out of there quickly. 

Once I was out of the Seraph place, I made my way to the roof of a building and just sat down, took my helmet off, and put my still-masked face against my hands. Fuck. Fuck. What did all this mean? What did all of it mean? Why was Paige asking for me? Why did she think I could help her? Why did she suddenly hate me after we met at school? What did all of that have to do with that Anthony Tate kid? Why did Bobby have a secret code on those toys that led to a file all about Paige Banners being found in an alley in some kind of catatonic state or something, next to three dead bodies? How did all of it fit into my lost memory? What picture was this puzzle? 

Right, okay, I could work out some of it if I just stopped freaking out so much. Take the whole thing one step at a time, right? I’d been focused on the shocking revelation that Paige Banners asked for my help, that she’d basically pleaded and begged for them to contact me. Because there was no way that was just some other Cassidy. That would be too much of a coincidence. 

The point was, I’d been reeling from that and stopped really focusing properly. I just had to take this whole thing from the top. First, Paige clearly knew me before I remembered us meeting. The only two possibilities for that I could think of were A: she knew about me enough to ask for me but we’d never met, just as I’d always thought. Or B: I knew her before I remembered knowing her, but that memory had been erased from my mind just like Anthony had been. 

It had to be B. Honestly, that was really the only option that actually made sense given everything I knew. A was technically an option, but I only included it in my thoughts to be thorough. But I shoved it aside for the time being to focus entirely on option B. And then I just sort of let the realization of B’s implications wash over me for a few silent moments, still keeping my face against my hands while sitting alone on that roof in the early evening sunlight. 

I knew Paige before, just like I’d known Anthony. That was the only real answer. I knew her. And not only did I know her, she knew me well enough to tell the authorities that I could help her when they found her catatonic surrounded by several dead bodies in an alley. She’d wanted my help. She’d begged them to have me help her. We had been… we had to have been… friends? 

Fuck. That was the part that made all of this so hard for me to accept. Friends? Paige and I had been friends? Close enough friends for her to beg for the authorities to find me back then. But how? How could I have been friends with Paige fucking Banners when we were children?

Obviously, my friendship with Paige (I just had to accept that it was a thing and move on) had been erased, just like my friendship with Anthony had been. For whatever reason, everything I knew about both Anthony Tate and Paige Banners was erased. To figure this out, to really understand and get anywhere, I was going to have to accept that fact. I had been friends with Paige at some point and my memory of being friends with her had been taken away from me. 

Okay, with that accepted at least tentatively, what next? Paige. This whole thing had happened five years earlier. Both her being found and asking for me and the death of Anthony and his parents happened five years ago. That wasn’t a coincidence either, and it almost certainly meant those two memories, of Anthony and of Paige, were erased for the same reason, right?

I didn’t think that was a stretch. Both incidents being five years earlier and my memories of both being erased… yeah. I’d ‘met’ Paige shortly after that, in the seventh grade. That I remembered. I definitely remembered how much she’d obviously hated me from the very start, how she’d made fun of me for looking like a little boy. Not helped by the fact that I had been skipped forward past the first grade. So in seventh grade, I should have been in sixth. And I would’ve been small for a sixth grader. Which meant… yeah. Paige had basically been the ringleader of kids who taunted me about all that from the very first day we (supposedly) met. 

But why had she acted like we didn’t know each other? Why had her attitude about me changed so thoroughly between the time that she begged for the authorities to find me just months earlier, and when we ‘met’ in the seventh grade, after she had apparently been adopted by the Banners? Was it for the same reason that I didn’t remember her? Did her memory get erased too? Or did she think that I was suddenly ignoring her? Had she spent all this time not knowing that my memory was erased and I had no idea who she was? Was she pissed off because I didn’t help her when she’d needed it, because I hadn’t been there when she asked for me? 

No. No, that didn’t make sense, right? Either her memory was erased or she knew that mine was, otherwise she would’ve approached me. She would have asked me why I wasn’t there for her, why I’d ignored her or whatever she might’ve thought happened. She would have brought it up. If she remembered me and thought I abandoned her or whatever, she would have used that as part of her reasons for why I sucked. And it wasn’t like she would’ve had a hard time convincing people of it. I was a little rich girl. She easily could have used me supposedly ignoring her when she needed help to turn people against me, even if she didn’t give specifics. 

But it never came up. She never even implied that we’d known each other before, as far as I could remember. Not that my memory was exactly the best witness in this whole situation, but still. She didn’t make a thing out of it. Which didn’t make sense unless she either lost her memory too, or knew that I had and deliberately chose not to remind me of it. 

The problem was, I had no idea which of those was right. Why would she not talk to me about any of what happened if we used to be close enough friends for her to ask the authorities to find me. And not just ask, but repeatedly ask. According to that file, asking for my help was basically the only thing young Paige would do. 

I’d used my phone to scan the papers in the file, so I could look through it later. But honestly, I didn’t know what else I could get out of it. Not without knowing more. Maybe the names of the Ten Towers people who had found Paige to begin with could be useful? But even if I tracked them down, what was I supposed to say to them? What was I supposed to ask? That was a whole conversation that I had no idea how to even start. 

So yeah, I was still really confused. And I had to get home, because I didn’t want my parents to start to worry about me. I was going to have to play this easy and safe over the next few days. Especially considering I was planning on seeing if That-A-Way and Pack could meet the next evening to talk about… all that stuff. 

Right. Time to go home for now. I could figure all this out later. Hopefully. 

********

“Okay then!” The two words were accompanied by the sound of a heavy rolling door being shoved upward along its track. That-A-Way, gripping the handle as she held the door up just above head level, gestured. “You wanted privacy, so here’s some privacy.” 

It was the next evening, after Tuesday family dinner with my parents, Simon, and Izzy. I’d managed to contact both Pack and That-A-Way, arranging to meet here at this old storage yard away from prying eyes and ears. Apparently That-A-Way knew the owner and that the cameras in this back area hadn’t worked in months. He didn’t have enough customers to fill up these sheds, so he hadn’t bothered to fix the security for them. As long as we stayed back here away from the management office, we’d be safe. Especially inside one of the storage units. 

Maybe it was a little bit of overkill, but for the things I needed to talk to these two about, I was totally cool with being too paranoid. If there even was such a thing in this kind of situation. 

Standing a bit to the side with her cage full of lizards at her feet, Pack gestured for me to go ahead. “This is your show, Paintboy. So you first. I’m not exactly jumping for joy about sneaking around behind the backs of the people who’re supposed to be part of my team. But if you’re right about some mysterious secret society skimming money off the top, I wanna know about it.” 

Taking a breath, I nodded before stepping into the storage unit. Pack and That-A-Way followed me in, before the latter pulled the door shut. We were in darkness for a moment, then Way found the light switch and flipped it on. Now we were alone in this almost empty unit. There was a broom, a random metal pipe, and a few other bits of trash lying scattered along the floor in this place. But it was about as close to completely alone and safe as we were likely to get. 

Turning to the other two, I told them about the mall base again. I explained about how I’d noticed someone I recognized from the night I’d gotten my powers (leaving out that the person in question was my brother) and followed him to that door. I mentioned distracting the guy guarding it, and how I’d gotten into the hallway, seen the security pad on the inner door, then hid before listening as the guy I’d recognized had the spat with that other guy about being paid. I explained the details about the whole ‘Ministry tax’ as far as I understood it. 

“He said they pay ten percent of the take from any job done in the city,” I informed the other two. “Just for permission to operate in the city. Then it’s another twenty percent for the patrol schedules of heroes in the city for the day of the job. Apparently it’s more than that if the Ministry directly intervenes. The Ministry guy said that they knew exactly how much whatever these biker dudes took was worth, and that thirty percent was forty-six thousand.”

“Wait, a biker dude?” That-A-Way frowned. “Was he like this big, heavy guy with all these tattoos on his arms. One of them was like a… umm, like an eagle with a headband.” 

“Eagle with a headband!” I quickly blurted, nodding while pointing at her. “Yeah, he definitely had that. It was up on his bicep here.” Gesturing to my own arm, I added, “You know that guy?” 

“We’ve met,” the other girl informed me dryly, rubbing her own fist. “I know what that job was too. They stole a couple classic cars. We weren’t supposed to be in the area, but there was this kid with a bike that–never mind. The point is, they got away with a couple vehicles from that museum on Piquette.”

“Piquette–you mean the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant?!” I blurted, my voice rising a bit. “They stole cars from that place? Which ones, did they hurt any of th–” Belatedly, I realized the other two were staring at me, and stopped myself, flushing. “I mean, I didn’t hear about that.” 

Squinting at me, That-A-Way murmured, “Uh huh. Car guy, got it. Anyway, the point is, I had a thing with that guy. He’s lucky he got away.” Pausing then, she frowned intently. “Or maybe not lucky. We were going to chase them, but got called off by Silversmith. He said we were supposed to cut them off on this other route, but they never even went that way.” Her voice was troubled, to say the least. After saying that much, she looked up to me. “You said not to trust anyone on the Conservators, not even Silversmith.” 

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “I know what I said. We have no idea who they’re working with on the Star-Touched side. But if they have all this power and information, if they can actually influence patrol routes? That’s gotta be pretty big, right. So yeah, don’t trust anyone else. Not now. Not until we know more. Like I said before, this isn’t something you can just put back in the box once it’s open.”

“And part of knowing more is getting into that mall base you were talking about,” Pack pointed out. She’d taken one of her lizards (I was pretty sure it was Tuesday) out of the cage and was rubbing his neck. “So how do we do that without immediately broadcasting who we are? Cuz if both our leaders are in on this,” she gestured between herself and That-A-Way, “they’re gonna know who we are.” 

“I was thinking about that,” I confirmed. “You guys can’t go there in your normal costumes. You’ll need alternate disguises. And you can’t use your obvious powers.” 

“Us?” That-A-Way pointed out. “What about you? If these guys are as big as you say…” 

I shrugged. “They already know I’m investigating them. I mean, they saw me save that Paige girl. What they don’t know is how much I know. But still, we have to be careful. I’d rather avoid having any confrontation if we can help it. So we go in the middle of the night, hopefully after everyone’s gone.”

“And how do we get past that locked door you were talking about?” Pack demanded. “Cuz you know it’s alarmed. Not to mention all the other security measures they’ll have.”

“That’s why we have to find a guy who works in there, wait for him to leave, then…” I hesitated before pushing on. “Then grab him and use his pass key to get in once everything’s locked down.” 

They were staring at me again. That-A-Way managed, “You want to abduct a guy who works in that secret basement and use his passkey to get in?” 

“That’s about the size of it, yeah,” I confirmed. “I can’t think of any other way to do it, can you? We need proof about what they’re doing down there. The whole reason they’re leaving Paige Banners alone is because she has mutually assured destruction material. We need our own. We need to know more. Which means we need to get in that basement, get pictures, video, whatever. I’ve just been flailing around in the dark here. If I’m gonna get anywhere, I have to take some chances.”

“We,” That-A-Way corrected gently. “We have to take some chances. But you’re right. And you’re also right that Pack and I need to hide who we really are. At least until we know more.”

“And speaking of knowing more,” Pack put in, “how about you explain everything your paint is capable of so we know what we can all do? And by paint, I mean the pink one. Because there is a whole thing on Sphere about what paints do what and no one can figure out what pink is. Unless it really does hide the beak.”

That made me do a double-take. “Hide the what?”    

I could’ve sworn she was smirking at me from behind that full face-concealing black mask. “Never mind. But you might want to check out your thread in that place. It’s… right, yeah, never mind. The pink?” 

That made me shrug helplessly. “I dunno. I haven’t figured it out. Here.” I pointed at the nearby wall and sprayed a pink circle onto it. “When I activate it, nothing happens.” 

“Well, good thing you’ve got help now,” That-A-Way informed me. “Trust me, it took awhile for me to figure out how my direction powers worked. Between the three of us, we should be able to crack this little mystery.” 

“Yeah,” Pack agreed. “And if all else fails, we could always ask Paintball’s bird-daddy.” 

“My what?!” 

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Commissioned Interlude 9 – Persephone (Heretical Edge 2)

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Against the backdrop of stars far different from any that could be seen from the surface of Earth, a spaceship drifted along on low engines. The ship was a moderately large freighter, shaped essentially like what someone from Earth would know as a sperm whale. The vast majority of its nearly two mile long size was devoted to carrying supplies from the Seosten strongholds out to various frontlines of their war against the Fomorians. 

At least, that was what the ship had originally been meant for. In recent years, it had been commandeered by pirates. Now most of its interior held the various camps they had set up. What had once been a single enormous, open cargo bay had been sectioned off with various bits of makeshift walls, fences, even bits of hung curtains, to create places for each pirate and their closest companions and trusted allies to sleep and live together. Over a mile and three quarters worth of storage space transformed into a ragtag city. A city that moved through space, ransacking whatever worthwhile target they came across. Though, at the moment, there were no targets. The ship, previously known as the Seneia but redubbed Quietus by its new owners, currently had its coffers full from several recent jobs. Its occupants were enjoying the fruits of their labors. Which, in that case, meant partying from dawn to dusk. And considering there was no dawn or dusk in deep space, that amounted to near-constant celebration. There were areas cordoned off for sleeping, with active privacy spells for those who wanted to escape the almost deafening cheers, music, and rambunctious fighting to get some sleep. Others simply fell where they were, too drunk or too tired to be bothered by the ongoing parties around them. 

Of course, even a ship far away from any threats, on no particular current mission, with a load of treasure and blind drunk revelers had to have an actual (mostly) sober crew on duty. Everyone had a chance to celebrate, but the captain was firm that if it was your shift, you used whatever magic or potion needed to be coherent and alert, and you did your job properly. If not, you’d get tossed out the airlock. There were no second chances. Not aboard the Quietus

At the moment, two of those totally sober and alert crew members were in the collections chamber. It was a room located around the bottom front of the ship, around where the whale’s mouth would be. The chamber was semicircular in shape, with three duty stations, each overlooking a different magically reinforced window. Through those windows were three different enormous bare rooms, each large enough to park several Earth garbage trucks inside of. 

The central duty station was empty, with the two on-duty pirates faced away from one another, entertaining themselves (and keeping each other awake to avoid the wrath of Captain Motzer) with various stories and tall tales. Each was obviously making up the vast majority of their claims. Which was the point, of course. They knew the stories weren’t real. The goal was to be entertaining, not realistic. 

At the right-hand station sat a male Guhlben, a ten-foot-tall, monstrously overweight humanoid figure. His name, or the one the others called him, in any case, was Pocker. As with all chairs aboard modern multi-species vessels, Pocker’s seat grew automatically to match his size. Even then, rotund as he was (even more than usual for his species), the man dwarfed his chair to an almost comical degree. 

His companion was Qif, a female Bebarlang. They were a humanoid species that fed off of psychic energy from those they had touched recently. Most nourished themselves by giving harsh nightmares to those they had marked with their touch, as the terror made that energy so much tastier. 

The two pirates would have gone on for hours further, constantly one-upping each other with their tall tales, had it not been for a single, unmistakable beep from Pocker the Guhlben’s computer. The instant that sound came, accompanied by a light that popped into existence in the top right corner of the holographic screen, both of them went completely silent. 

“What?” Qif demanded, pushing away from her own duty station to move next to her massive crewmate. “What the void did the scanner pick up all the way out here?” 

Hitting a few buttons on his oversized console, Pocker shook his head. “Looks like a body.” He grunted thoughtfully, hit another button, and grimaced. “Seosten body.” 

“A Seosten body, out here in the middle of nowhere?” Qif made a face. “What do you think, teleportation mishap? You see any debris from an explosion or anything? What do the scanners say about magic signatures?” 

Pocker was already reaching out to hit the button for the intercom to the bridge. “Nothing, just the body.” He called it up to the captain, assuring the man that the body floating out there in space was definitely dead. There were no signs of life. Which only made sense, considering it had no real protective gear. Nothing aside from a standard Seosten bodysuit, red colored. The suits could protect their wearers in space for a short time, but not this long. Certainly not for long enough to be floating around in the middle of nowhere like this with no sign of how they’d gotten there. The scanners couldn’t detect any sign of debris or transportation energy that could explain the body’s presence. By all indications, it had simply drifted out here from someplace much further away. 

After a brief pause for consideration, Captain Motzer told them to haul the body in. There was always a chance that a Seosten corpse could have something valuable on it. Even the organs of dead ones were worth something to some people. And if nothing else, the Seosten themselves sometimes paid a handsome bounty to be sent back the bodies of their fallen. Particularly if they were someone important. 

Using the controls at his station, Pocker extended one of the smaller mechanical arms from the side of the ship. There were larger ones, used for grasping industrial cargo crates, smaller ships, and the like. These ones were meant for more precise jobs. The hand closed carefully around the body, sensors allowing its controller to avoid ripping through the body in the process. As soon as the corpse was enclosed, a hole in the arm opened up, and the body was sucked through a portal. Simultaneously, an identical portal appeared in the holding room through the window in front of the duty station, and the Seosten corpse tumbled through before lying there. 

The corpse was female. To a human, she would appear to be in her very early twenties. She had deeply tanned skin, a slim figure, and long, snow-white hair. Her eyes were closed, and the entire body was covered in a layer of frost that made it look as though the corpse would shatter under the slightest pressure. It was like a delicate ice sculpture. 

“Right,” Qif started while staring at the body’s frozen face, “Scan the body for parasites, bacteria, anything we don’t want to pull out of th–” 

In mid-sentence, she stopped talking. Because the Bebarlang realized that she was staring into pale green eyes. Pale green eyes that had been closed a moment earlier. The… corpse had opened its eyes and was staring at her. “Wha–” 

The corpse stood up. No, more than that. It bounced to its feet like it had been loaded with springs. A wide smile was stretched across the Seosten woman’s face, as she gave a violent, full-body shake, like an animal getting water off itself. The ice crystals on the not-corpse went flying, while two pirates simply stood in open-mouthed shock at what they were seeing, more frozen than the body that had just been retrieved from open space. 

Snapping out of it relatively quickly, Pocker’s hand lashed out to hit the alarm. But before he could reach it, the formerly dead body in the holding room took a running start. Both Pocker and Qif reflexively jerked backward. But that was pointless, because the window was layered with thin, yet powerful forcefields on either side and the glass itself was reinforced with magic. It was as strong as steel even before those protective forcefields were added. There was no way that a Seosten, even a powerful one boosting as much as possible, could even put a dent in the thing simply by lunging against it. 

And yet, against all logic, the window shattered under the impact of the body slamming into it. Both layers of forcefields flickered and dropped, as shards of glass went flying. The ‘corpse’ landed in the control room, directly in front of the two staggering pirates. 

Straightening, the white-haired figure offered the pair a bright, dazzling smile and an enthusiastic wave. “Hello! I’m glad you finally picked me up, I was getting bored out there! I mean, I have a really good imagination, but you can only talk to yourself for so long before you kinda go a little nuts, you know?! O’course you know! You’re space pirates!” The words came out in a rush, leaving the pair even more stunned than they already were, each reeling backward figuratively and literally.

“You… you can’t be alive,” Qif managed, staring at the figure in front of them. 

“Well, of course not, sillybuns!” came the immediate, brightly cheerful response. “I haven’t exactly been what you’d consider alive for a long time, but that’s never slowed me down before!  Now!” She clapped both hands together. “I’m looking for a crystal. It’s about yea big.” She held her index finger and thumb up in a rough circle shape. “It’s purple near the base, black in the middle, and red along the top. It’s a present for my wonderful, brilliant husband! Oh, he’s just going to be so happy that I finally found it! He asked for it over a hundred years ago, you know. I don’t think he knew just how much of a right bother it was going to be to find that darn thing. Anyway, listen to me, just gabbing your ears off. Gab gab gab! Hah! Well, let’s see, did I describe the crystal? Yes, I did. So, whoooo do we talk to about that? Do you have an official crystal holder? Oooh, does he have a special hat? I hope he has a special hat!” 

Almost to himself, Pocker muttered, “Sounds like the thing on the captain’s scept–” He was interrupted as Qif kicked him. 

“Captain! Of course the captain would have it.” The strange, supposedly dead figure’s smile widened, a bright, exuberant grin. “Let’s talk to him then, I’m sure once I explain just how much my honey bunny needs it, your captain will sell it.” 

“Sell it?” Qif piped up, suddenly intrigued. 

“Well, of course, goofy-goose,” the woman playfully replied. “You see?” Reaching into the pocket of the red bodysuit, she produced a marble-sized orb. “There’s enough energy stored here to fuel this ship of yours for a full year without any other help. That should be a good trade for the crystal.” 

The two pirates exchanged brief glances, before Pocker spoke up. “In that case, let’s go right up and talk to the captain.” 

So, eyes shining with the thought of not having to worry about fuel for a whole year, Pocker and Qif led the strange figure to the bridge. On the way, they attracted several followers, and once they were finally to their destination, there were no less than thirty people surrounding the supposedly-dead woman, counting everyone on the control center itself. As for that bridge, there were two levels to it, and the room was shaped a bit like a rounded triangle, with the higher rear section being where the executive officers stayed. 

Captain Motzer was an enormous figure by human standards. Standing slightly smaller than Pocker at a solid nine feet, he was covered in very fine metallic blue fur, had four arms, and six fur-covered yet insect-like legs in an even circle around his waist. Once Qif explained the situation in a hurried whisper, he and the rest of his assembled crew (those who weren’t still partying in the main living area) all focused on the strange woman. Motzer demanded, “Now who are you, and how aren’t you dead, exactly?” 

“Ohhh, it’s just like I told your little friends there, I am dead. I’ve been so very dead, by your standards, for a long time!” The response was just as bright and happy as everything else the woman had said up to that point. “As for who I am, well, I prefer the name Persephone right now. But maybe if we become friends, you’ll be able to call me Percy! I really hope we can be friends. All I need is that crystal right there.” She pointed to the scepter in one of the captain’s four hands. “Then I’ll give you this, and we can all be happy!” In two fingers, she held the power-filled marble. 

“Yeah… about that…” Motzer smiled, though his version of that expression was far less cheerful. “I kinda like my crystal just where it is. And I want your stone there. So here’s what’s gonna happen. We’re gonna take it from you, then toss you right back out the airlock. If you’re lucky, maybe whatever magic you used to survive out there’ll last until some other ship comes by.” 

“Aww.” Pouting, Persephone lamented, “But I really have to take that crystal. My love nugget wants it sooooo much! And I promised him I’d scour the whole universe until I found it. Like I told your friends, it took a long time! Now I found it! So I’ve just gotta take it to him. I can’t play airlock right now.” 

“Yeah, well…” Motzer drawled, before one of his hands abruptly snapped upward, pointing a pistol. A single shot sent a blindingly powerful blast of energy directly through the woman’s forehead. 

Or rather… against her forehead. The blast, which should have been enough to punch a hole through several feet of solid steel, barely left a singe mark against the woman’s tanned skin. Her head snapped backward, then simply righted once more. Her smile never wavered. 

“Oh, now that’s just all kinds of rude, that is,” she informed them, sounding no more put out than if the captain had made a demeaning gesture toward her.

“The fuck?” Motzer fired several more times, hitting the figure in the head twice more, in the neck, the stomach, and the chest. “What the fuck are–” Then he understood. “Revenant! It’s a void-damned Revenant!”  

None of the new shots accomplished anything more than the first had. Nor did the dozen extra that various confused crew members put into her. And the burst of fire, shot of electricity, and two different acidic gases that were added into the assault were equally useless. 

The attacks finally stopped, revealing that none had accomplished anything. The woman still stood right where she had been, utterly unphased. “I’m sorry,” she informed them brightly, as if they were only having the slightest disagreement. “But I feel like you’re being a bit unfair about all this. I mean, yes, I am a Revenant. But you don’t have to be all dramatic about it.” 

“That–that–how… you… “ Motzer opened and shut his mouth, reeling physically and mentally. “A Revenant possessing a Seosten? You’d run that body out in… in… days!” 

“Well, normally, yes!” came the cheerful response. “Revenants like me burn out the dead bodies we possess really quick, especially ones that use a lot of power. And once we burn out the corpses, they fall apart. And that’s really sad, cuz who wants to walk around with a body that’s falling apart? But I’m lucky! The dead Seosten I found was what they call an Olympian! Actually, I found my husband first. He controls dead things! His name is Manakel, and he is sooooo dreamy. He’s really great. I hope you find someone as smart as him someday. Anyway, he controls dead things so I just had to get to know him. There was a Seosten in their sick bay who was hurt. They couldn’t save her. So, I slipped inside as soon as she went kaput and I’ve been here ever since! It’s been a few thousand years now and we’re still going strong!” 

“Olympian–those… fucking, super-soldier Seosten,” Motzer managed, while a collection of confused voices arose around them. “Those upgrades of theirs. They’re… they’re keeping that body going. It should’ve worn out in a few days of being possessed by a Revenant like you, but the upgrades, they keep the body going.” 

“You got it!” Persephone held her right hand up sideways, back of the hand outward, with her index and middle finger extended and touching while her pinkie, ring finger, and thumb were all curled in against her palm. Then she gave her wrist a quick snap up and down, the whole gesture essentially amounting to what humans would know as a thumbs up. “I’m so glad we’re on the same page now. So, I’ll just take the crystal, and you can think about how you should treat guests in the future. See? It’s all good now.” 

“I told you before, I’m keeping the crystal,” came the growled response. “So I think we’ll see just how much that body can really hold up. Light her up!” 

With that, everyone on the bridge opened up, unleashing everything they had on the woman. None slowed her, as she took several steps forward. Motzer scrambled backward, but one of Persephone’s hands grabbed his nearest leg, yanking him closer with inhuman strength. Her free hand casually caught his extended arm, the one with the scepter, tearing it off with no more effort than one would use to crush an ant under their feet. As the man howled and a panicked frenzy of shots and deadly powers flooded into the woman, she tore the crystal from the scepter, dropped it, and gave a nod of satisfaction when the attacks finally ceased at a frantic wave from the injured captain. “There we are. Now you think about what you did. You don’t deserve being paid for this. It’s what you get for being very bad hosts.” With a firm nod, she pivoted to walk away, paying no attention to the people who had been shooting her. However, before she could reach the doorway, a pleasant chime emerged from her pocket. 

“Whoopsy daisy,” Persephone giggled, staring at the device she had tugged free. “Looks like I had a few missed messages while I was out there. It just connected to your system and…” Trailing off, her head tilted. “My Manakel, he’s dead. He’s gone. A human girl killed him and took his power. Chambers. Felicity Chambers. A girl named Felicity Chambers killed my Manakel and took his power.” 

There was an extended moment of silence so complete that a sweatdrop hitting the floor would almost have been audible. Finally, the snow-haired woman put the device away. “Well! I guess it turns out I can’t leave your ship just yet. I need you to turn this thing around and head to the border so I can go to Rysthael.” She used the Seosten name for Earth.  

“Go to Rysthael, just like that?” Holding an enchanted cloth against the stump of his missing arm that stopped the bleeding, Motzer stammered, “You gonna kill this girl for murdering the guy you loved?” 

“What?” Persephone looked genuinely perplexed for a moment, before her head shook. “Oh, no, no. You don’t understand. He controlled dead things. That was his power. That’s why I loved him, my little smoochie-bear. This… Felicity Chambers, she has that power now. She took it. It’s her power. And I guess that makes me hers too.

“Oooh, I can’t wait to meet her! I bet she’s a better kisser than Manakel.” 

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