Month: October 2020

Project Owl 14-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: The subjects of the second edition of non-canon chapters have been decided by donators! For this story, the non-canon chapter will focus on a look at Cassidy as a villain, a member of La Casa. That as well as the HE non-canon chapter will be out for any donator regardless of level tomorrow/Saturday on Patreon, before being released for EVERYONE 24 hours later on Sunday. They will still be on Patreon, but you will be able to read them no matter what, even if you do not donate anything at all. Thanks again for everything!

My quick search over the phone to figure out where I was going had told me one thing about this warehouse on Gratiot. Back in the old days, like… before I was born, it had been a lot more rundown than it was now. Like most of the city, really. But, also like most of the city, it had grown in the past decade or so. Now, the warehouse part took up a little over twice the space it had before, while the rest of the city block was a parking lot. And there were other large buildings around it that hadn’t existed before. There was a bit on the page I’d looked at that showed the difference between the old neighborhood and the new one, and jeez. It had basically all been completely rebuilt, thanks to the new storage demands as the city itself had been expanding. 

But the way the warehouse had been before didn’t matter. All that mattered was the fact that Paige was inside it now, and she was in trouble. Trouble I couldn’t begin to understand yet, but still trouble. 

There were cars parked in front of the warehouse as soon as I landed on a building nearby, a dozen of them scattered around the lot. It looked like they’d come in a rush, all parking wherever they happened to stop, leaving the vehicles sitting at odd angles to one another. A few were up on the curb, one looked like it had mowed down a small chain link fence on its way in, and another had its front end dangling partway into a ditch. All had doors that were hanging open, where their occupants had leapt out and run inside without bothering to close them.   

Suffice to say, it was pretty obvious that whatever was going on in there, all the people from those cars had come in a damn hurry. Paige… whatever she was doing, she’d managed to get a whole crapton of people to come to this warehouse. 

I had to get in there before she went through with her plan. Whatever else was going on, whatever nasty shit her father had planned, I had to get in there and stop Paige from killing herself. I just… I had to. Not to mention all the people she was planning on killing. They might’ve been bad people, but they were still people. How Paige could even plan on killing that many–

I had to find out what her deal was. 

Standing on the roof of that nearby building, I glanced at my phone while catching my breath. There was no response yet from either Pack or That-A-Way. And I’d heard a lot of sirens as I passed through the city. Something else was obviously going on. Whether it was an intentional distraction, or just more of that war between the gangs, I wasn’t sure. But it was obvious that the people I’d been hoping would come and help were busy. 

Exhaling, I opened the tiny compartment on the back of the phone case, taking out the bluetooth earbud that was there before sticking it in my ear. Hitting the button on it made the earbud sync with the phone, activating the voice changer on it. I may not have my real costume, but at least I would sound like myself. Or rather, not sound like myself. 

That done, I put the phone away and took out the radio I’d grabbed from the… the dead guy back at the house. It had been crackling off and on throughout my trip here. I’d heard men talking about arriving at the warehouse, about being close, about gunfire, about protecting ‘the vault’ and ‘the mainframe.’ Though the warehouse looked calm from the outside, it was clear from the radio that it was anything but. There were people shouting, calling out orders and responses about where ‘she’ was. There was running footsteps, loud banging from heavy things hitting metal, and even gunshots. Some of those were quiet enough that I had a hard time distinguishing what they were outside of context, while others were loud, clearly from guns that weren’t silenced. 

And yet, standing out here looking at the building in question, it was impossible to tell that anything was going on. It looked quiet in there. I might’ve thought that I had the wrong place if it wasn’t for all the cars parked out front. Which were added to as yet another sedan came squealing around the corner. It fishtailed a bit on its way into the lot, spinning around before skidding to a stop. Three guys leapt out, guns in hand. They wore dark suits and ties, looking like any number of high-end private security I’d seen my entire life. But these ones didn’t just stand around talking into earbud radios. They took one quick glance at the street before starting to sprint toward the warehouse, guns held at the ready. 

Nope. No, I wasn’t going to let even more people run in there to add to the chaos. Dropping the still crackling radio back in the pocket and zipping it, I painted my shoes blue to send myself hurtling up and forward. I still didn’t know exactly what was going on in there, or if I was going to get any help from That-A-Way or Pack, but it was time to get involved. I couldn’t wait anymore. 

Apparently the men rushing toward the warehouse were laser-focused on what was going on inside, because none of them seemed to notice my approach as I sailed right over their heads. At least, they didn’t notice until I sent three quick shots of red paint down at each of them, activating all of it together to send the three slamming into one another. They collided hard, collapsing into a heap just as I landed in a crouch in front of them. 

“Hey, guys!” I found myself blurting without thinking about it. “Sorry, can I see your invitations? Cuz this is a private party and the host is a real bitch about it.” 

The trio immediately reacted by snapping their weapons up and opening fire, but I activated an orange star I’d painted on my back, letting the couple shots they managed bounce off me (stinging a bit) before hitting all three guns with quick shots of red paint. Activating my borrowed, red-painted motorcycle glove yanked their weapons to me, and I tossed the pile aside. 

“Nope, these invitations look forged. You’ll have to come back later.” 

The men… did not seem interested in coming back later. Instead, the three of them charged at me, producing some kind of batons. Yeah, they really weren’t in the mood to play nice. Whatever was inside that warehouse, they were willing to attack (including shoot at) me to get to it. This had to be big, even bigger than I’d first thought. It wasn’t just about stopping Paige from killing herself, this had to be something big enough to make all of her father’s men go this fucking insane about protecting it. 

The orange paint had worn off by then, just as the first of the three men reached me, swinging down hard with his baton to hit my shoulder. The guy behind him was coming in lower, aiming for my stomach. They wanted me on the ground, fast, so they could bypass me and get inside. They were obviously really well-trained, and fast. Not to mention pretty well coordinated. 

But they weren’t faster than me with my legs painted green. Instantly, I was quick enough to see the baton descending toward my shoulder in what amounted to slow-motion. I painted four purple stars across my right arm, boosting my strength beyond theirs as I pivoted away from the descending weapon, putting my left hip into the path of the second baton for a moment. My hand caught the first weapon just as it would have hit my shoulder if I’d still been standing there, stripping it down and away from the man to tear it out of his grip. Though it was harder than I expected. The dude was pretty strong. 

With that baton in hand, I snapped it down to hit the second baton hard enough to send it flying out of that guy’s grasp. Simultaneously, my leg kicked up hard into the first man’s stomach. He was obviously wearing some kind of body armor or something, but it was still enough to make him start doubling over with the beginning of an explosive wheeze of air leaving him. 

The boost to my strength wasn’t just good for my arms either. It also meant my legs were strong enough to launch myself up and over the three men while the first two were reacting to losing their weapons (and the one in the lead was doubled over from that kick). Flipping in the air, I landed behind the rear-most guy. Only a bare handful of seconds had passed, so I was still fast and strong. Using that, I lashed out with a kick into the third guy’s back to send him crashing into the first two. All three hit the ground in a heap. 

While they were still recovering, I hurriedly pointed my hands at the ground on one side of them, shooting a spray of pink. Activating it, I lunged that way, shoving my hands down into the now clay-like material. With a grunt, I used my boosted strength to yank the pink-painted pavement up and over the pile of briefly dazed men before they could disentangle themselves. 

The pink pavement I’d yanked up was about eight inches thick and a foot wide. Quickly, I shoved it down into place over the three men, securing the other end against the pavement there. The power ran out, putting the literal piece of parking lot back to normal and leaving the men trapped under what amounted to a loop of asphalt that was pinning them against the ground while they struggled and cursed at me. 

Yeah, it wasn’t perfect. But it would do for now. The men might wriggle free in time, once they started cooperating. For the moment, however, they weren’t a problem. So, ignoring their threats, I hopped over the group and looked toward the warehouse. Three guys at least temporarily dealt with. But Paige was still in there, along with God only knew how many more, given all the cars that were out here. 

I had to get in there. I had to find her. But the warehouse was so huge, how was I supposed to figure out where she was quickly enough to do anything? 

Start at the top. That was my only choice. I had to search the building as fast as possible, starting from the top and working my way down. Hopefully, I’d hear something either over the radio that I still had, or in-person, that would give me a better hint. 

Also hopefully, That-A-Way and Pack would show up soon. Because something told me I was really going to need their help before this was over. 

Ignoring the men who were pinned to the ground by the arch of pavement, I took a running start before using red paint to yank myself all the way up to the top-most window of the warehouse. Hitting the wall next to it, I silently cursed the fact that I didn’t have my real costume with the shoes that would’ve let me stick to this wall without my paint. Fuck it, I was going to have to make do. 

To that end, I took a quick peek through the window, seeing nothing but an empty hallway beyond. It looked like this top floor was offices. A tug at the window accomplished nothing, and my red paint was going to run out any second. So, I used black paint to silence the soon-to-be-shattered glass, then colored my fist purple and punched through it a couple times to clear enough space before hauling myself through. 

Now I was in, and, thanks to the black paint, no one who might’ve been nearby had heard me break out the window. For a moment, I crouched in that cheaply carpeted corridor, listening and watching. There was an elevator almost directly across from me, with a closed door to the right and an open one to the left. The open door led into an office that was only lit by the streetlights coming through the windows. It didn’t look like anyone was in there. Nor could I hear anything at all for the mo–

Gunshots. And they were coming from somewhere below me. It was kind of hard to tell for sure where, given the echo through the building, but yeah. Definitely coming from some lower floor. Grimacing, I gave a quick glance toward the open office before running the other way, to the elevator. Hitting the button made nothing happen. Either it was locked down or… or something. Fuck, fuck! I bolted for the closed door, slamming into it while turning the knob. It opened easily, and I almost fell over into the corridor beyond. This one was also cheaply carpeted, leading to some other rooms. More importantly, there was another door labeled ‘stairs’ just to the left. 

Another loud, echoing gunshot came as I bolted through that door. The steps beyond were made of cement, clearly intended for function rather than form. They continued down through the three flights in a spiral, with doors at each landing and an open space in the middle. The fact that there were multiple floors here in a warehouse seemed odd for a moment, but I figured this whole side must’ve been the offices. The actual warehouse part was probably further in. Though I sort of wondered why a warehouse needed multiple levels of offices. Was that normal? 

Not that I had time to worry about it for long. Hearing that gunshot, I listened briefly. Shouts. There were shouts coming from the second floor. At least… I thought it was the second floor. I was pretty sure. 

My level of certainty went up a moment later as I saw the first floor door bang open and a quartet of armed guys (also dressed in those same secret service-like suits) rush up the stairs and through that second floor door. They were in such a hurry and so focused on their target that they didn’t notice me peering down from above. 

That’s where Paige was. Grunting, I painted my shoes orange and black, activating both before vaulting over the side of the stairs and dropping. The air rushed past me as I dropped a good thirty feet, landing easily on the second floor railing. 

Ahead of me, the door was open, revealing some kind of computer lab. Wait, a computer lab? Yeah, it was a huge open room filled with those big computer mainframe things. Like, a lot of them. And I was no expert or anything, but they looked pretty advanced. They were in these sleek black shelving units with what looked like bulletproof glass covering the exposed parts and little keypad consoles beside each of those glass bits, as though you had to enter a code to even open it. Even more crazy, it looked like there was also some kind of retinal scan too. A retinal scan and a code to enter? What the hell was this place? Because this was definitely not an ordinary warehouse. Which I really should’ve expected, considering the whole thing with Paige coming here and all these guys being so obsessed with getting to her. There was something important about this place, and I was pretty damn sure it had at least something to do with these computers. 

The room was big enough to house a basketball court, with row after row of those tall black shelves full of computer stuff. I could hear struggling going on clear toward the back, along with the sound of running footsteps as the guys I had just seen go in ahead of me rushed to join their companions. To my left, slumped in the corner, there was a body of another suited man, with blood and… and other bits of his insides splattered across the floor. 

Paige. This was all Paige. She was doing this. How? Why? What did–Shaking off all those thoughts, I renewed the black paint to keep myself silent and raced around the side of the computers to head for the source of all the commotion. 

There she was. At the far end of the room, I saw Paige, surrounded by what looked like a small mountain of dead guys. Seriously, there had to be like fifteen or so all piled up, along with a few more who were still trying to kill her. Even as I came around the edge of the computers in time to see that, she caught one guy’s wrist, twisted it to make him drop his gun (there was a loud crack as his wrist broke), and lashed out to kick another guy in the knee with enough force to break that as well. As that second guy was still collapsing toward the ground, Paige twisted the first guy’s gun toward his own chest and made him shoot himself. 

Two guys further away who were still up each had their own weapons raised and were about to fire, when I hit them in the backs with a wide spray of red paint, using the other hand to hit the floor behind them with another spot so they were hauled off their feet and slammed down with a pair of yelps. 

There were still a couple more. Paige pivoted toward the nearest one, head snapping just a bit to one side as he fired his own (actually silenced) pistol right past her ear, before her fist hit him in the throat. 

Meanwhile, the other guy was coming at her from the side with some kind of combat knife, and the two guys I had knocked down were already sitting up and trying to shoot again. But I was already racing between them, and I quickly hit the back of their heads with more red before shooting one more blob back the way I’d come, sending them flying off that way. As they went sailing, I painted back purple before slamming into the guy who was trying to stab Paige. I hit him hard enough to knock the man out as he crashed into the reinforced glass surrounding the nearby computer thing. And the glass didn’t even dent at all. 

By that point, Paige had dealt with her own guy and spun back to me. “Paintball?!” she finally blurted, sounding totally taken aback. “What–what’re you doing here?” Yeah, I had definitely taken her off-guard. 

“I…” I started, then stopped. 

Paige was still staring. One of the guys started to move, and she lashed out with a kick to his face that put him back down without even looking. “Paintball…” There was suspicion in her voice by that point. “How did you get here? Wait, that’s not your normal costume. What…” 

She had tormented me for years. She made me feel like shit, had literally brought me to tears when I was younger because of how I looked, because I was more like a cute little boy than a teenaged girl. She had been the worst thing about that school and had done her level best to make me miserable whenever she could. 

But that… wasn’t her fault. That wasn’t the real Paige. The real Paige had been… my friend? The real Paige had been–no, was willing to literally kill herself to stop from being forced to kill me. I had no idea how her father controlled her, but he did. And the only way, at least in Paige’s mind, to make sure he would never be able to order her to kill me again in a way she couldn’t rules lawyer her way around was by killing herself. And she was willing to do that. 

She was willing to kill herself to protect me. 

And she already knew… more than I did about my family’s business, and was against it. She’d been working against them. 

So, I said nothing. I remained completely silent, even as I reached up to the borrowed motorcycle helmet…

And took it off. 

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Kairos 9-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eight geysers of blood blew their way out of the ground, each like a firehose of red-stained water turned on full blast. Those eight sanguine jets hardened immediately into long, deadly spikes and rushed toward Shiori, Avalon, Asenath, and me. Two for each of us, and they came in the blink of an eye, faster than most people would have been able to even think, let alone dodge. 

But we weren’t most people. Even as my pair of red-tinted spikes were about to shove themselves through my stomach and chest, I was already pivoting while lashing out with my staff. A quick kinetic blast blew the sharpened ends off, making those ends shift back into liquid form to spray off to the side. 

Meanwhile, just to my left, Shiori slipped directly between her own incoming spears, catching hold of one before flipping herself up onto it. She then opened her mouth and used the Cù-Sith’s sonic scream, projecting a blast of sound that was so loud and so focused on a very small area, that it literally shattered part of the red spikes a bit closer to the point where they had popped out of the ground, making both fall apart. Shiori, of course, ended up covered in blood as her temporary perch went from solid to liquid. 

Avalon and Asenath were dealing with theirs too, but they were behind me, so I had no idea what they did. Only that they were alive and still moving, according to my item sense. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had we broken Fossor’s blood spikes and made them turn back into liquid, than they were suddenly solid again. And this time, they weren’t spikes. Instead, dozens of snakes, spiders, and scorpions, all made of solid-formed blood, erupted from those puddles and were set upon us. They were everywhere, dozens of them biting and stinging while we tried to smack them away. But whenever we tried to hit them, they turned back into liquid and just reformed an instant later. It was like trying to punch water. It was all we could do to survive those few precious seconds. Alone, even the four of us probably would have been overwhelmed. 

But we weren’t alone. And not only because of my mother and her team fighting Fossor on the other side in a fast-pitched battle I couldn’t even hope to keep track of while in the midst of my own. Virginia Dare was with us too, a fact she made sure to remind the son of a bitch of by appearing directly in between our group, a quick teleport. She had her spell-loaded sword in one hand, already shouting a command word while she drove the blade through one of the blood-formed snakes that had been trying to lunge at me. As the blade passed through the crimson serpent, it turned liquid once more. But then it also turned into powder and dust, blowing apart. An instant later, the rest of the blood-creatures did the same as the spell apparently passed to them. We were clear, for a brief moment anyway. 

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of my mother fighting alongside her oldest friends (and first husband). The magical energy blade she summoned extended itself out to be ten feet long for a single swing, cutting through a giant skeletal hand that had been ripping its way out of the ground toward them. Even as the bones fell, Tribald Kine clapped his own hands together, creating some kind of wind-ball that flew out from him, caught the shattered bones, and sent them flying away. Meanwhile, Deveron and Lillian were both dealing with a small army of giant zombified vulture-creatures, and the two Dornan men had a dozen ghosts captured in some sort of energy net. 

That was all I was able to see in that brief glimpse, before a backhanded, almost contemptuous gesture from Fossor sent a brand new threat our way. This one came in the form of a deep, incredibly heavy fog. Suddenly, it was all-but impossible to see more than a foot or so in front of our faces. Worse, the fog was cold. So cold I felt ice immediately start to form around and on me. It was an oppressive, magic sort of cold. It made me want to just…. stop, just lie down and stay completely… just… take a little nap, a quick one. It wouldn’t hurt that much in the long run, would it? I could close my eyes, curl in on myself, and then go right back to the important business of… of whatever I was doing. Yeah, it couldn’t be that–

FLICK! 

It was Tabbris, screaming in my head as she took over my body to trigger the boost from the staff, launching us upward. We flew out of the magic fog, and I felt the supernatural cold fade, along with the overwhelming tiredness and confusion. I could see Mom and the others on her side fighting Fossor head-on. They hit him repeatedly, but of course nothing stuck. He just passed off everything that could possibly hurt him to any of his billions of magical hostages. It was taking everything they had just to stop him from progressing. They couldn’t actually hurt him. And in a fight like that, it didn’t matter how powerful or skilled they were. Fossor would win through sheer attrition. Eventually they would slip up, no matter how good they were.  

Worse, I couldn’t see Dare or any of the other three through that thick fog. I’d only managed to avoid falling to it thanks to my partner. The others didn’t have that bit of help. I had to do something to clear it out. But what? 

All of that, taking in what my mother’s group was doing, along with the rush of thoughts about Avalon and the others, came even as I started to fall back into the fog. The blast had only taken me up so far. But I compensated by using the Lemevwik’s power on the feet part of my Seosten bodysuit, freezing their descent. Again, it would only last for a few seconds. But for those seconds, the feet of my suit, and thus my whole body, stopped falling. It was like standing on solid ground. 

A few seconds. I had a few seconds to figure out how to get rid of that magic fog. But how? How?! I didn’t have the power to just blow it away, and there wasn’t–

Wait. There. One second into my frantic rush of thoughts, I saw a small hole in the ground just beyond the fog. It would have been impossible to notice from below, but from this angle it was visible. The hole was only a few inches across, and the fog was being projected from it. That was the source. 

Without wasting another instant, I shifted my staff back into its bow form. Even as the Lemevwik’s power faded and my body started falling once more, I managed to send a kinetic-energy arrow right at that hole. It struck home, blowing a spray of dirt and rock in every direction and destroying the spell rune that Fossor had apparently placed there ahead of time, no doubt when he was prepping this place for an event like this. And I had no doubt there were more surprises like that all over. After all, the man was annoyingly good at being prepared. A place where he was setting up his final, apocalyptic spell to kill and take over all Bosch Heretics and subsequently all of Earth? After his regular home had been attacked? Yeah, he would have tricks and traps like that all over the place, just ready to be triggered. 

This one, however, was dealt with. The instant I blew apart the bit of ground where the spell rune had been, the magic freezing fog vanished like it had never been there. I landed in a crouch, just beside Avalon even as the other girl straightened from where she had been hunched in on herself. 

“Flick,” she managed, in a voice that cracked from emotion. 

“I know,” I managed, though there was so much more I desperately wanted to say. “Later. This first. This now. We stop Fossor. It’s all that matters.” 

She gave a very short nod, a bare acknowledgment. She knew. We all knew. Nothing mattered except for putting Fossor in the fucking ground for good. Ending him before he ended us. That was all there was to it. Nothing else, not my love for Avalon and Shiori, not my desperate need to reunite with my mother, not my relief to have Tabbris back with me, not my worry about Dare being my actual grandmother, none of that held a candle to stopping Fossor right now

Without another word exchanged between us, Avalon and I ran together toward the monster himself. Within two steps, Shiori was on my other side, joined by Asenath. 

An army of undead rose into our path. Hundreds of rotting corpses tore their way out of the ground, forcing themselves between us and our target. I couldn’t control that many, not even close. And fighting them would slow us down. It was too much, this fucker never ran out of troops! 

A deafening roar filled the air, and I saw an Amarok–Dare. It was Dare, in her full Amarok form. The giant wolf, bigger than a city bus, lunged over our heads and landed right in the middle of the largest concentration of zombies. She spun, taking half a dozen into her mouth and pitching them away even as her tail and legs knocked more flying. A path, she was clearing a path. 

The four of us raced right between the giant wolf’s legs, sprinting together into the semi-open space she was creating. 

Semi-open, because there were still zombies around, still undead tearing their way out of the ground and toward us. Dare-Wolf was doing everything she could to clear space for us to move, but we still had to deal with plenty of them ourselves. 

Avalon pivoted toward me, Porthos (her lizard-cyberform) in his pistol form clutched in one hand as she fired three quick shots. They came so close that one brushed through my hair, each hitting a different zombie behind me in the head. At the same time, her other arm stabbed to her left, gauntlet manifesting a buzzsaw blade that took the head off a fourth zombie that was coming toward Shiori before the buzzsaw immediately transformed into two horizontal blades faced in opposite directions that extended outward to spear through the heads of two more enemies. 

Shiori, at the same time, was hurling her electrified discs through the foreheads of a couple different zombies while simultaneously lashing out with a kick against a third into its chest. That third zombie was sent stumbling backward, just as a second Shiori appeared. But it wasn’t actually a second Shiori. Not in the same way that Miranda duplicated herself. Instead, this version seemed more ghost-like, only partially visible, like a flickering image. It only appeared long enough to duplicate the exact same move Shiori had just done a moment earlier, kicking the zombie further away. Then it vanished and a third Shiori appeared, this one even more indistinct and flickering, kicking the zombie yet again in the exact same way. That continued through a total of five increasingly flickering and gradually almost invisible duplicates, all doing the exact same thing until the zombie was positioned directly under Dare-Wolf’s giant foot just as it came down hard, smashing the undead thing. 

Meanwhile, as Avalon fired those three shots past my head and Shiori’s repeated semi-tangible duplicates kicked the zombie into position for Dare, I drove the blade of my staff down through a portal I had created. The other end of the portal opened up behind Valley, sending the blade into the head of the zombie that had been moving up behind her even as she focused on watching the backs of Shiori and me. Just as quickly, I yanked the staff out of the portal, shouting her name as I threw myself that way. 

Avalon reacted instantly, ducking down and bending forward to present her back to me, which I used by planting one hand on it to vault over her while lashing out with my staff. The bladed end cut through two zombies that were coming up on that side, while I simultaneously launched the grapple-end into the face of another one, retracting it to rip the head off entirely. 

Behind me, Avalon had straightened in time to switch Porthos to his lizard form, tossing him onto the shoulder of another incoming zombie. Porthos, in turn, pulled his tail free, using it as his sword to stab into the neck of the undead creature he was perched on. With a rush of chittering nonsense words that sounded like his own version of some epic declaration, the tiny cyberform stabbed the zombie repeatedly in the neck, severing the head and riding the body to the ground. 

Just beyond Avalon’s lizard, as I shifted my staff to its bow form and fired a shot into a group that was moving to cut us off, Asenath had flipped up and over a zombie that was lunging for her, hurling two daggers into the foreheads of a couple others who were coming toward her. As she landed, the girl produced a third dagger, driving it backwards through the back of the first zombie’s head. Then she pivoted, lashing out with a roundhouse kick that hit the hilt of that last knife so hard, it was projected all the way through the zombie’s head and out the other side to fly into the throat of yet another one. 

The zombies kept coming, making us pay in drastic violence for every single inch of ground we gained. Even with Dare-Wolf above us, dealing with the largest concentration of them (and she was doing a hell of a lot more than biting them, actually involving a lot of lightning, fire, and wind in the process to blow them away), there were still a fair number who made it through. 

And yet, we pressed on. I took two steps, then ducked and spat a glob of quick-hardening resin against the feet of two zombies who were in mid-lunge. They were stopped short in their tracks, just before Shiori’s hurled discs tore through their necks, leaving the heads to fall to either side. But before the two bodies could drop, Avalon was there. She grabbed both by the chests, disintegrating them into dust the way I’d seen her do earlier. Her hands snapped outward then, sending the disintegrated zombie dust flying onto another pair before it ignited in green flames once more. The zombies were melted by the intense heat. 

A skeletal form tore its way up from the ground to grab Avalon’s ankles and bite into her leg, but I was already there. I’d felt the thing arriving, and my hand snapped up, forcing the undead creature to stop in mid-lunge. It released her, and with a quick gesture from both hands, I made it scramble its way out of the hole before sending it running into another of its own kind. They collided violently and collapsed together, leaving a tangled heap of bones on the ground from the impressive tackle. 

While I was doing that, Tabbris took control of my right hand, creating a quick portal before stabbing the blade of the staff through it to punch into the side of another zombie’s head just before it could grab Shiori. That girl, in turn, had been in the midst of catching a skeleton’s incoming swinging arm against both of her discs, before she gave a sharp whistle and made the thing’s head blow apart into bone-dust. 

A quick burst from my staff sent me flying that way, just in time to put my foot through the chest of a zombie that had been right between my girls. And that was literally through the chest of the zombie. It was gooey. 

Even as that one was falling, Avalon blurted my name while seemingly punching right at my face. I ducked, letting her extend the blade to take the head off the thing that had been coming up behind me. 

At the same time, Shiori extended her own hand, snapping, “Gun!” Which was all it took for Valley to backhand toss Porthos to her before the other girl snapped him up in his pistol form and fired three rapid shots that took yet another trio of zombies out that had been coming up from behind Avalon. 

Kill, punch, stab, dodge, kick, power. It went on and on. Dozens and dozens of the things fell, and yet dozens and dozens remained. There was no limit to them, none. We were closer to Fossor, but he was also closer to the altar, gradually forcing my mother and her team back inch by inch. And we weren’t closing the gap fast enough. It was all Dare could do to keep things as clear as they were so that we weren’t completely overwhelmed. Not to mention everyone else who was here fighting in the quarry. Fossor had billions of forces at his disposal. Even if he could only bring over so many at a time, our small group would have been completely destroyed without literally everyone else who had our backs. 

But it wasn’t enough. There were still… fuck, way too many zombies in our way. Fossor had flooded the area between us with another hundred or so, and there wasn’t time to deal with all of them. There just wasn’t time! 

Flick! Tabbris’s voice in my head blurted. Tell Shiori to electrocute you, absorb it all, then on the count of three, boost with everything you’ve got. All of it! 

I didn’t question it. I had questions, for sure. But I trusted my sister. “Shiori!” I snapped. “Shock me, now!” 

To her credit, she didn’t question it either. I felt her slam both her discs against my back, flooding me with electricity while I focused on absorbing everything I could. In the back of my mind, I heard Tabbris counting. On three, I shoved everything I’d absorbed into my boost. I felt Tabbris doing the same, adding her own boost to mine. 

The world slowed down dramatically. I saw the incoming horde blocking our way. I saw every detail of their rotting faces. I saw my mother and her people on the far side of Fossor, fighting to stop him from getting any closer to his target. I saw all of it. 

My staff hit the ground, slammed down by Tabbris as she triggered the kinetic blast while simultaneously leaping with our feet. We hurled up into the air, just barely missing colliding with Dare as the giant wolf moved aside. The horde of zombies stretched out below us, while more flying versions were already incoming. But for this single moment, we had an opening. 

And boy did Tabbris use that opening. As we were briefly suspended there in mid-air, I felt… power unlike any I had ever felt before. Wings made of golden light erupted from my back, extending outward to either side to flare like a literal fucking angel. 

Then… annihilation. The wings fired a massive laser, empowered by our combined super-charged boosts, which tore through the line of zombies below and utterly decimated them. There was nothing left but a crater full of random assorted body parts. Nothing. 

A second later, we landed in a crouch right in front of Shiori, Avalon, and Asenath, with Dare already reverting to her human form right behind all of us. 

I… had questions. God damn did I have questions. But there wasn’t time. All that mattered was getting to Fossor. And right now, the way was open. 

But it wasn’t open for long. While the five of us raced that way, more of those undead troops were rising to plug the gap that Tabbris had created. They fell in behind and around us like a flood of water rushing to fill in a brief hole. Even as we ran, they kept coming. Dare pivoted, using a forcefield to block a rush from behind us. With one hand, she tossed something to me. It was a round piece of metal with a rune inscribed on it. 

“Get it to your mother! She can use it to break the altar!” 

With the enchanted bit of metal in one hand, I sprinted. Avalon shouted for me to keep going, focusing her own efforts to the left side to keep those ones down. Shiori and Asenath turned to the right, repeating Valley’s words. 

And me? I ran straight on. Fossor was there, face to face with my mother. Most of the others were caught up, dealing with other things he had summoned. But Mom still stood in his way, albeit barely. They were only a few feet from the altar, and she was faltering a bit. Nothing she did actually stuck. She could kill this fucker a dozen times over or more and it wouldn’t matter. 

Then she saw me, and steely resolve returned to her gaze. Her sword snapped up, actually cutting through the one that Fossor had summoned, before she lashed out with a kick that sent him stumbling backward toward me. As she did so, I used a quick portal, shoving my hand through to drop Dare’s magic bit of metal into Mom’s grasp. I felt her fingers against mine ever-so-briefly.

Then my hand pulled back as the portal disappeared. Mom had the thing in her grasp. Our gazes met. We locked eyes. And then my mother did the one thing Fossor never could have expected. 

She turned her back to him and focused on the altar itself. 

In that moment, at that very instant, my mother… trusted me to handle Fossor for the few seconds it would take. She didn’t rush to protect me. She didn’t focus on keeping him away from me. She trusted me. And she put my fate in that trust, while she herself dealt with the threat to the actual world. 

Fossor, taken aback, screamed a threat while Mom raised the enchanted metal disc above the altar. He saw what she was doing, and it was apparently a real threat, because suddenly he was very focused on killing her. 

But I wouldn’t let that happen. With my own scream, I launched myself at him. His free hand lashed out to contemptuously smack me away… except I wasn’t there. Instead of blindly flinging my body at him, I had used a short burst from my staff to arrest my motion in mid-leap. Dropping to a crouch just as Fossor’s hand passed right over my head, I triggered the grapple, launching it full-force into the hand that he was pointing at my mother. The grapple itself passed right over his arm, but the energy rope part caught him, yanking his extended hand to the side just before he could finish whatever he had been intending to do to stop her. 

And then it was too late. Mom’s hand with that disc came slamming down as she blurted a single command word. With a brilliant, blinding burst of energy and light, the altar literally disintegrated before our eyes. Every bit of magic that Fossor had put into it just… fell apart. 

As for the man himself, he… wasn’t happy. To say the least. A deafening scream of rage erupted from him, and he was suddenly moving at me. I brought up my staff to defend myself, but he smacked it aside easily. “You take what I want?!” he bellowed at my mother, while a flickering green forcefield sprang up around us, cutting her off even as she lunged to save me. 

The world spun as Fossor easily manhandled me, throwing me against the ground so hard it took my breath away. His foot stomped down on my chest, making that whole breathing thing worse. Then he stomped hard on my arm, snapping it. Pain filled me as I cried out, only for the man to stomp down on my wrist that time. That broke too, renewing my cry. It would heal, pretty fast considering everything I’d gotten regeneration from. But not quick enough for me to defend myself. Beyond the forcefield, Mom was shouting at him. 

Fossor didn’t care. A snarl filled his voice. “You take what I want?” he repeated, “I will take what you want. But first, I will… break!” With that word, he stomped on my hand, and I felt something snap there. “Every!” Another stomp, and two more fingers broke. “Bone!” He stomped yet again. My hand felt like he was crushing it. Agony filled my every thought. 

Well, almost every thought. I did have one more…

“In!” Fossor continued, his foot coming down once more. Except… this time he didn’t hit my hand. His foot collided with something solid. And as he did, a thunderclap, loud enough to rock the heavens, filled the quarry. A level of power I had never experienced, not even when Fossor had sent me to the future, suddenly washed through the air like a shockwave going in every direction. 

He knew something was wrong. He felt it immediately. Doubling over with a gasp of genuine shock, Fossor snapped, “What–what… my world… my world, I can’t–what did…” 

Yeah, Fossor’s connection to his own world was gone. He’d triggered the curse that said setting foot on Earth ground without stepping on ashes from his people would sever his connection to his homeworld and all those people. Suddenly, he wasn’t a necromancer who controlled billions. All he had was what was already here on Earth. No more unlimited reinforcements. No more passing off every bit of damage that was done to him to literally billions of hostages. 

He was vulnerable. 

In his shock as to how that was possible, Fossor lifted his foot, the one he had been using to stomp my hand into dust. Clenched there in my palm, right where he had technically ‘stepped’, was a small… entirely Earth-bound stone. An Earth-bound stone wearing a hat and holding a tiny sword. 

“That’s right, you piece of shit,” I managed through gritted teeth. 

“Herbie says hi.”

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Project Owl 14-04 (Summus Proelium)

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No. 

No, no, no, no! Fuck no. Absolutely not. I wasn’t going to let this happen. Like hell. I had spent years hating Paige Banners. Years being belittled, attacked, insulted, and demeaned by her while having no idea what the hell I had done to piss her off so much. Years spent like that, only to finally find that it wasn’t either of our faults, that she had behaved that way because of her father’s orders. Not only that, but also that we had been friends before my parents had my memory erased. Paige Banners and I had been friends. And now, now that I finally knew all that, she was going to sacrifice herself? She was going to kill herself to protect me from her dad? 

Fuck. That. 

Of course, the first thing I tried was running to the door. It was a heavy, solid metal thing that stood completely firm as I yanked at it. Naturally. Paige thought she was protecting me, so she wasn’t just going to stick me in some random broom closet with a door I could easily kick down. 

Fortunately, she didn’t know I had superpowers. So, after yanking uselessly at the door a couple times, I stopped and squinted at it. Glancing around, I saw nothing. No cameras hidden up in the corners, nothing like that. Which wasn’t perfect evidence, but I didn’t have time to worry about it. Paige was going to kill herself unless I stopped her. And I was going to stop her. 

First, I started by painting my hands and arms purple, powering that up while shoving at the door as hard as I could. Nothing. The thing didn’t budge at all. Whatever this place was originally built for, the door was meant to hold against something a lot stronger than that. 

Okay, fine. I painted my entire upper torso purple, from my neck down to my waist, front and back, arms and hands included. That time, when I slammed myself as hard as possible up against the door, I felt something. It wasn’t very much, but the damn thing did react, at least. Unfortunately, a few more hits during those ten seconds didn’t accomplish much more than that.

As my paint vanished, leaving me looking normal again, I took a breath and let it out. Then I blinked. “I’m an idiot,” I muttered. I’d been in such a rush, so blinded by my urgency to get out of here, that I had stopped thinking. Quickly, I painted a thick pink line all along the outer edge of the door, the whole way around. Making the part of the door that was actually touching the wall rubber instead of steel would make it a hell of a lot easier to break down. 

That done, I turned, walking away from the door, all the way to the far side of the room. There, I pointed, drawing a line of green paint wide enough to walk on. The second that was done, I put orange paint on my shoes and hands for protection. Then I covered every last remaining bit of myself with purple paint. Everything. From my ankles all the way up to my head. My clothes and exposed skin, including my face and hair, were all purple, aside from my orange hands and shoes. I probably looked completely ridiculous, but fuck it. I didn’t care about fashion at that moment. I didn’t care about anything except for getting the living fuck out of this goddamn room. After a brief second of thought, I added a little puddle of blue about a foot from the actual door.

Once I’d managed to set all the paint I needed, I focused on my target once more. “Okay, asshole,” I snarled at the inanimate object, “let’s see just how strong you are, huh?” With that, I took off, activating all the paint at once, aside from the blue. The green on the floor sped me up, making me cross the distance almost instantly. At the last second, strengthened and toughened by the purple and orange paints and sped up by the green, I hit the blue puddle, which launched me at the door, itself weakened by the pink paint around the edges where it was attached. A scream escaped me as I slammed myself full force into the damn thing as hard as I possibly could, protected by the orange paint while the green, purple, and blue worked together to let me hit it with a hell of a lot more force than I should’ve been able to.

Two things happened the moment I hit that pink-painted door. First, it became very clear that I hadn’t actually used enough orange paint after all. It saved me from breaking anything, at least, but it still hurt like hell. It was like… well, it was like slamming myself into a metal door. But at least I didn’t splatter myself into a gooey puddle at that speed and force like I probably should have. 

And the second thing that happened was that the door finally gave out. Yeah, it was enough. As I slammed full-tilt into the fucking thing, it burst open. No, not just open. The whole thing broke free, slamming into the opposite wall just before I slammed into it as well. With a yelp that probably sounded incredibly unsuperhero-like, I rebounded off it before landing on my backside. For a moment, I just laid there, dazed and trying to recover as I stared blankly up at the ceiling of the garage.  

Wait, garage? 

Yeah, I was definitely lying in a garage. A big one, though not quite as big as my family’s. There were fifteen cars and trucks lined up around me, as I lay between a Mercedes-Benz and a Komorebi (they were a luxury electric car company founded by a Tech-Touched in Japan about twelve years ago). A row of four-wheelers and motorcycles took up the space next to the door I’d come out of, leading to a big metal cabinet that stood open to reveal hanging jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, helmets, and more safety equipment. Finally, there were cameras in this room, up in opposite corners. But they’d been broken, torn free of their mountings and were hanging loose by the cables that were supposed to connect them to the walls. Someone hadn’t wanted anything in here to be recorded. 

So yeah, the garage. My guess was that the room I had been locked up in had started as some kind of mechanic’s office or something at one point.  

Either way, I was out. And dazed (not to mention sore and bruised) as I was, I still remembered the whole point of why I had been so intent on getting out. Paige. Paige was going to kill herself. Well, after she killed a bunch of her father’s goons. But the point was, I had to stop her–save her–whatever, I had to make sure she didn’t fucking die! 

That thought motivated me enough to ignore the pain. I shoved myself back to my feet, scrambling a bit to grab the side of the nearby car so I could get all the way up. Garage. I was in the garage. On the far end there was the door into the main house itself, while three separate rolling-style doors lay at the opposite end from there to let the cars in and out. Beside those was another human-sized door. It was to that last one that I ran, sprinting as fast as I could. I didn’t care about anything else. Getting out of here and finding Paige was the only thing that mattered.

Getting through that door was a hell of a lot easier than the first one. I used a little bit of purple paint on my leg, and the thing broke right open as soon as I kicked it and burst through into the open air of the early evening. 

Specifically, I was in the driveway, where I could see… well, no one was here. The cars that had been lined up were all gone, and all of the lights in the nearby mansion were off. It was dark. Clearly the party was over. But it was more than that. The whole place was dead silent. Even the guard shack at the bottom of the driveway looked empty. It was like Paige had told everyone to go home. Not just her guests, but everyone. It was kind of eerie, actually. Seeing what should have been a full, bustling mansion just… empty and dark. It seemed wrong. 

Or maybe it just felt that way because I knew what the girl was planning to do, why she had sent everyone away. 

Okay, now I was out. I was free. So what the fuck was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to find Paige in order to stop her? Because it was pretty blatantly obvious that she wasn’t here.

As if in answer to that very question, a sudden burst of static from the nearby bush made me jolt, nearly jumping out of my skin. It was followed by a voice blurting, “–here anymore, just bodies!” 

After settling myself out of that particular heart attack, I realized what I was hearing. Radio. I was hearing someone speaking over a radio. Sure enough, lunging that way revealed someone lying in that bush. 

Or rather, it revealed the dead body that was lying there. One of Paige’s family’s security guards was facedown, blood pooling from a traumatic and very unsurvivable head wound. Something had hit him really hard. The voice had come from the radio that he was holding in one hand. It looked like he’d been taken completely by surprise, assaulted from behind by something. Or someone. 

He was dead. He was just… dead. Staring at the body of the man for a moment, I felt bile rise in my throat. She’d killed him. That was the only answer, right? The only thing that matched what I knew. Paige had killed him, just like she’d said she would.

Paige. The security for the Banners, they must actually work for her father. Her real father. 

Those thoughts and more rushed through my head, even as the radio crackled again with a different voice than the first one. The words were mixed with static. “–matter–get to–cover the–mainframe—Gratiot warehouse. Holed up–can’t let her—get here now.”

Gratiot. There was an old (really old) warehouse on Gratiot Avenue. That’s where these guys were being called to. I didn’t know why, or what was there that made it so important, but apparently it was where Paige was going. 

So it was also where I was going.  

But first, I pivoted back and ran into the garage once more. Worried as I was about what was going on with Paige, intent as I was that she would not kill herself, I couldn’t expose myself any more than I already had. Using my powers out in the open to get to her? No. No, that would be the absolute end of my life, possibly literally. If people knew who I was, it would get back to my parents, and that… that would be bad. Apocalyptically bad, as far as my life was concerned.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t like I could spare the time to go all the way home to get my actual costume. I was pretty sure whatever was going on over at that warehouse would be over by then. Nor could I call home and have them deliver it, because wouldn’t that be an interesting conversation to have? Hey, Simon, could you go to my room, find a way to move the huge mirror, open the floorboards, get the bag out, and bring it to me? Oh, and don’t look inside it. K, bye!

Yeah, not likely. Luckily, I did have another option. Once in the garage, I beelined straight for the metal cabinet where I’d seen those jumpsuits and safety equipment. I didn’t know if it was just a bunch of old equipment from Paige growing up, or stuff for guests/friends, or some mixture of both. Whatever, the point was, there was a lot of stuff there, and a quick (frantic) moment of searching scored me a motorcycle jumpsuit that mostly fit, and an old helmet. It wasn’t as good as even my original helmet, let alone the super-special one that Wren had made. But it had a black visor. It would do. It would have to. 

Changing clothes as fast as I could, I shoved the helmet down on my head after zipping up the jumpsuit. Good enough. It was good enough. A pair of motorcycle gloves from the nearby drawer completed the look, and I ran back out. I didn’t have my own helmet. I didn’t have my special shoes, only normal (if expensive) sneakers. I didn’t have…  I didn’t have anything other than my powers and this incredibly makeshift costume. But this was all I had time to grab. Even that, the less than a minute it took me to grab and change into those clothes, felt like too much. 

Reaching the driveway once more, I started to run toward the gate, only to stop short. My gaze snapped toward the body I’d found, and I moved that way. Not to help him. He was beyond help, no matter what I might’ve wanted. Instead, I stooped and reached for the radio in his hand. But then I hesitated. He was dead. Taking something out of a dead man’s hand, it was… it was…

I had to help Paige. Grimacing behind the helmet, I grabbed the radio and pulled it free while trying not to gag. Under my breath, I murmured, “I’m sorry.” 

Then I was up and turning, racing toward the gate. Like the cameras in the garage, these ones were broken, and the light in the guardhouse was off. There was a body lying there too, and a quick glance that way showed me that he wouldn’t be getting up any sooner than the one I’d taken the radio from. They were both dead, and I was positive there were more bodies than just those two. 

I had no idea how Paige had killed them, but she did. She killed those men and was planning to kill more. Everyone who worked for her father, she’d said. And then herself. I couldn’t let that happen. I just–I had to stop her, whatever it took. I wasn’t going to find out that Paige and I had been friends and then immediately lose her again just because she thought she had no choice but to kill herself. Fuck that.

Reaching the end of the driveway, I used blue paint to launch myself up and over it. In mid-air, I shot red toward a tree in the distance, using that to throw myself further before cutting out the paint so that I wasn’t drawn straight into the tree. Instead, I flipped over, shooting a bit of blue at the branch I was heading toward in order to bounce myself even higher off it. 

There weren’t a lot of houses or traffic out here by Paige’s mansion, of course. Like our family, their property was enormous. But I was able to use the streetlights, signs, and trees to make my way back toward the city proper. In the process, I barely touched each landing spot, bouncing off them immediately to keep going. I’d hit a tree, run two steps, leap again, then hit a street sign with a quick blue spot that hurled me up and forward. I was doing everything I could to keep going. But it still wasn’t enough. Faster, I had to get back to the city faster! 

On the way, I took the time to paint the helmet and jumpsuit both black. I was going to go with white, but I had the feeling that I’d want to blend into the darkness rather than stand out. I had no idea what I was walking (or rather, running and flinging myself) into, other than the fact that it was dangerous. Who Paige’s real father was, how he could control her as much as she said he could, why all these men apparently worked for him even though he was stuck in Breakwater… I didn’t know the answers to any of it. Yet all the questions pointed to this being a situation where taking people by surprise would be a pretty fucking good thing. 

Eventually, I reached the more populated part of the city. Which meant there were a lot more cars, buildings, and other things for me to use, speeding up my progress. I still wasn’t moving as fast as I could have if I’d had my pace-skates (why the fuck didn’t I find a way to bring my costume and hide it somewhere nearby?), but it was something, at least. Speeding myself up with green paint as I raced along the roof of an old apartment building, I frantically tried to remember exactly where Gratiot was. I thought I knew, but what if I was wrong? What if I was going the wrong way? What if–

My phones! I was an idiot. God, of course. Hurriedly, while still sprinting along that roof, I fumbled to get my Touched phone out and looked at it. Bars. It had bars. I had a signal! Which meant I could use the map to make sure I was going the right way. 

But more than that, I could also call for help. But… from who? Who the hell could I ask for help from, exactly? I had no idea what I was walking into here, and if Paige was killing people to stop her father, if she was–if–

Fuck. Stumbling to a stop, I hesitated right there on the corner of the building. Call for help from someone or don’t, which was the right answer? That-A-Way or Pack. Should I call them in or not? If I didn’t and everything went wrong because I didn’t have help… but if I did and it exposed everything…

I had to make a decision, right now. 

And in the end, there was only one real option. Before I could second-guess myself any further, I quickly opened a text conversation with both That-A-Way and Pack, sending, 911 – Need *BOTH OF YOU* to help at Gratiot warehouse ASAP. Plz hurry. Life & death. 

There. Right or wrong, I’d made my decision. I asked for help. Now I just had to get there myself, before it was too late. 

Tucking the phone away once more after checking the map for my direction, I took a breath before hurling myself off the edge of the building, hand outstretched to shoot the paint that would take me closer to the warehouse. Closer to stopping Paige from killing herself.

This wasn’t over yet. I could get there in time. 

I had to get there in time. 

I had to. 

Please. 

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Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In that moment, it would’ve been easy to think that we outnumbered our opponent. But, of course, we didn’t. Not in the least. Fossor, after all, commanded and controlled more than an entire world’s worth of slaves he could kill and bring to his aid at a moment’s notice. From what I’d been told, he was at least limited from bringing over literally billions of ghosts with a snap of his fingers, because even he was only so powerful. Particularly when it came to transporting his troops intergalactic distances. 

But while he couldn’t easily bring over enough billions, or even millions of his cannon-fodder, there was nothing stopping him from bringing over thousands. Which he did, in that exact moment. With no warning, none at all, the quarry was suddenly overrun. Thousands of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, everything dead that Fossor could push his control into, manifested and attacked. They tore their way out of the ground, descended from the air, or simply appeared around us, tearing their way into apparent existence as though ripping through the fabric of space itself. 

In my case, it started as the huge fist of a (dead) Meregan male punched its way out of the dirt. It came so unexpectedly that I took the blow head-on and was sent crashing to the ground, even as the ten-foot-tall figure clambered out of the dirt. The giant zombie roared, slamming both fists down toward me just before Tabbris took control and threw us into a backward roll. 

Mom was fighting her own Meregan giant, along with a handful of fire-manipulating ghosts that seemed intent on trapping her. No, intent on cutting us off from each other. More and more of Fossor’s newly summoned troops were flooding the area between us. 

It was the same all around me. Everyone who had come to help, my old team, my mentors, my friends, my family, everyone was being swarmed. While pushing myself up, from the corner of my eye, I saw Avalon, beautiful amazon that she was, take the heads off of three zombies with a single swipe of a glowing energy blade projected from her gauntlet. In the next second, her hand snapped out to touch one of the collapsing bodies. Under her grip, the zombie disintegrated into a cloud of dust. That dust, at a quick gesture from Avalon, flew into an incoming ghost before suddenly igniting into green flames. Those flames, in turn, destroyed the ghost, making it blow apart with a scream. 

Others, there were others. Shiori of course. God, Shiori. And not only them, not only my girls. But Sands, Koren, Sarah, Sean, Columbus–everyone. I wanted to see them. I wanted to check on them, wanted to help them. But I couldn’t. That fleeting glance was the best I could manage, before my own giant Meregan opponent hurled himself at me. 

But Fossor had taught me a lot. More than I wanted to know really. Particularly about controlling zombies and Meregan in particular. My right hand snapped up, stopping the charging giant in his tracks. He literally froze, just for a moment. I could feel Fossor’s power warring against mine. It would win out in the end. But I only needed a moment. In that time, I snapped my hand down and out, making both of his much larger hands follow suit, slamming into a few smaller skeletal-creatures who had been rushing past him to reach me. 

Meanwhile, completely on her own, Tabbris had taken control of my left hand, the one with the staff. She triggered the cloud of sand to shoot out, superheating it in the process before sending the sand through three zombies that had been coming at us from behind. At the same time, even as the sand was burning through them, she used my mouth to trigger a renewed ghost-fire spell on the staff itself, as the other one had run out. With the staff newly-empowered, Tabbris hurled it through a ghost that was coming up from our other side, before recalling it. 

All of that simply in the time it took me to take control of the Meregan and have him smash those skeletons. We were working together, cooperating and multitasking the way Elisabet and Jophiel had been helping teach us to. In this moment, as we fell instantly back into sync, it was like we’d never been separated. Both of us using my body, my powers, to attack multiple enemies at the same time in entirely different ways. 

And yet, even with that, there were still so many enemies around us. Prosser by himself had been set on by wave after wave of the strongest undead I’d ever seen. Even he, powerful as he was, couldn’t easily swat them aside. He, Gwen, Sariel, Athena, all of them were being attacked by so fucking many of the empowered necromantic creatures. The entire quarry was swarmed, covered, engulfed by these monsters. They came from everywhere, tearing, slashing, clawing, even biting at everyone who sought to stop their master. If Mom and I had been on our own against that kind of onslaught, we never would have lasted as long as we had. It wouldn’t even have been close. 

But, of course, Fossor hadn’t been trying with us as much as he was now. It was patently obvious that, even while he was angry and fighting my mother and me, he’d been dramatically holding back. He still wanted to pull off his spell, after all, and had been saving power for that. That and he was just so accustomed to two people, especially the two of us, not being any real threat, that he didn’t need to go all-out. But now? Now he’d been backed into a corner. He was surrounded by an army of super-powered, pissed off people who wanted him dead. So there were no more half-measures. He was showing us, and everyone else, why he was such a threat. Even in the face of so many absurdly powerful beings, Fossor still had the advantage. Because, powerful as all these people were, cutting through literally billions of hostages in order to actually hurt the son of a bitch himself would take too long. Especially when he could send tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands given enough time, of those same hostages to actively attack. 

But none of that mattered. Not in the long run. It was all noise, distractions from the main point, the main problem: Fossor himself. Because the necromancer hadn’t given up on his plan. Even as a warzone raged around him, even as thousands of his troops were repeatedly summoned and destroyed by some of the most powerful beings on the planet, he was still moving to that altar. He’d been knocked back a couple hundred feet by Gabriel’s shovel-blow. But he was making up the difference, heading right for the altar while using his minions as cover. Strong as everyone here was, even they could only work so fast. Fossor didn’t need to win this fight, he didn’t need his undead minions to actually succeed at beating all of us. He only needed them to play distraction long enough for him to reach that altar and finish his spell. 

I couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t. With a quick thought, I shoved all the knowledge of what was going on and the risks of just how bad it could be into Tabbris so she would know how important this was. At the same time, I made my commandeered Meregan zombie pivot back that way and sent him running to tackle another of his own (dead) people. I’d worry about the horrors of what I was doing in that moment later. Right now, the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was stopping Fossor. Whatever it took. 

Even as I started to throw myself into a sprint that way, Tabbris was absorbing what I’d ‘told’ her. She gave no verbal response, because one wasn’t needed. Instead, I felt her take control of the burning sand once more, using it to help clear the path and leaving me to focus on actually getting to Fossor in time. The white-hot cloud flew ahead of us, burning through the legs of two zombies so they would fall and allow me to jump over them. Just as quickly, even as I was still in mid-air from that jump, she used my hands to convert the staff into its bow form and sent a shot off to the side to hit three skeletons who were tearing their way out of the ground. 

So many. Fuck, there were so fucking many of these things! Too many to find a way to portal through. They were everywhere, so many I couldn’t even actually see Fossor himself anymore after that brief glimpse. Everywhere I glanced there were hundreds of them, swarming in out of nowhere. He was dumping dozens on top of us with every passing second, filling up every inch of space. For every undead minion that one of us killed, ten more appeared. Between the noise, the screams, the clash of weapons, gunshots, the fwoom and crash of powers, it was utter insanity. No one could keep any of this straight. No one could be expected to focus through all of that. Which, of course, was what Fossor was counting on. Chaos was where he thrived, in this moment. All he had to do was keep everyone busy for these crucial seconds. After that it would all be over, in every way that mattered. 

I only managed two more steps past the legless zombies before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked like some kind of reptilian crocodile-humanoid, about nine feet tall and covered in some kind of crackling electricity. Electricity that the semi-translucent figure sent flying at me with a snarl of rage that I was pretty sure actually came from Fossor himself. 

The electricity never reached me. Before I could even move, a sudden wall of stone emerged from the ground to catch the attack. A second later, stairs rose as well, giving me a way over it.

“Go!” Sands blurted, even as she spun to slam her ghost-fire enchanted mace into the side of the spectral-reptilian’s head with so much force he was blown apart in a spray of ectoplasm. “We’ll cover you, we’ve got you, just go!”

As if in response to her words, three zombie heads suddenly exploded, as a shot from Sarah’s rifle blew through them in a line. An instant later, a ghost that had appeared behind Sands was disintegrated by a second quick shot. 

I wasn’t alone anymore. Not in any way. With a quick, blurted thanks, I raced up the stairs that Sands had created. Once I reached the top, the other girl made a sharp gesture with her mace, extending a bridge out from the wall that I could run along. 

She couldn’t get me all the way there, of course. And even from that height, there were still so many ghosts flying through the air that getting a good look at Fossor or the altar was impossible. I still couldn’t just launch or portal myself there. There were too many threats in the way, too many minions that would stop me. 

But the bridge that Sands had created at least got me closer. I was able to run a good twenty feet along it, over the heads and grasping hands of the zombies below. On the way, Tabbris focused on keeping the various dead things from scrambling their way up with us, using burning sand and the staff to either blast them with stored kinetic force directly or to create mines that blew them away from us. A couple managed to climb onto the path ahead of us, but I just leapt up and over them without breaking stride. With my copilot, my little sister, on board once more, I didn’t have to worry about watching my back. She did that. She helped keep the damn things off us so I could focus on moving forward. Without her, I would’ve had to slow down. Without her, I never would have caught up with the piece of shit who was trying to kill and enslave everyone I cared about. 

Reaching the end of the bridge, I was met by an enormous ghost with four arms and some kind of rhino-like horn, hovering there. The ghost gave a wide (too-wide) smile with its large, gaping mouth before that horn started to glow even brighter than the rest of it. 

In the next instant, before I even had a chance to avoid whatever rhino-ghost wanted to do, a blonde figure leapt between us. Nevada. She had that chainsaw-sword of hers, and it was apparently enchanted to hurt ghosts as well, because my would-be attacker gave a violent scream as the buzzing, rapidly-rotating chain sword was shoved into and through him. As the ghost blew apart, Nevada lashed out with her free hand to send a small red ball into a group of skeleton-creatures nearby. The ball exploded into a blast of energy that blew the skeletons apart into pieces of bone, then sort of… reformed and sucked the remains into it. Seriously, it basically hoovered the pieces of bone all back inside it after blowing apart, then returned to Nevada’s hand. 

Meanwhile, I kept moving. Even as the ball returned to its creator’s hand, Nevada pivoted and pointed with the hand that still held her sword. A ring on one of her fingers glowed, sending out a solid-light extension of the stone bridge that reached about thirty feet closer. As I passed her, she turned back to keep my pursuers away. 

Even with her help, Tabbris and I weren’t alone on this bridge. We had to fight our way through every inch of space, as more and more creatures were sent after us. Some kind of flying zombie, a rotting thing with bat-wings and a head that was as large as its body, flew down to grab me by the shoulders while both of us were focused on other threats. 

But it didn’t hold on for long. A beam of concussive force passed right over my head, blowing the flying zombie’s head off before it could so much as screech. 

Columbus. He’d teleported onto the bridge and was already using another couple quick blasts from his goggles to blow away two more of those flying zombies who had been trying to swoop in. He’d also brought Sean with him, who turned back the other way with Vulcan in his minigun form, opening up a devastating hail of bullets that tore through all the creatures who had been blocking our path, opening it up. 

“Better get going, Flickster!” Sean called, still sweeping Vulcan back and forth to pick off those who were still moving. Hundreds of bullets tore through the things. “These hijueputas ain’t gonna stop coming!” 

There was so much I wanted to say right then. But I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There just… wasn’t time. So, I kept moving, sprinting between the two while praying that there would be a ‘later’ to actually say all the things I wanted to. 

At the end of this second bridge, I was met not by a threat, but a friend. My oldest friend, actually. Miranda was there, using her shield to block several sprays of what looked like acid spit from far below before raising one hand. A distortion in the air, like an almost-invisible tennis ball made of violently twisting and spinning air, appeared in her grasp. With a grunt, she threw it right into the midst of the creatures who were attacking from below, and I arrived just in time to see the tightly-contained winds within it blow apart, sending the creatures violently flying in every direction. 

Even as I reached her, Miranda split off a duplicate, both of them giving me quick, wild grins. “You made it!” one blurted, before the other added, “Wish we could talk, but–” 

“I know,” I interrupted. “Gotta stop him!” With that, I snapped my staff down, using the kinetic force it had charged up to launch myself up and away from them. Fossor. I had to get to Fossor. 

Two more of those flying zombies tried to intercept me in mid-flight. But they were both literally smashed into pieces by two pillars of dirt and rock that tore their way out of the ground to slam into one another, catching the winged-monsters between them. Koren. The girl was below, using one hand to form the arch she’d created out of the two pillars into a raised platform for me. Meanwhile, one of those solid-energy animals she could make, a full-sized wolf in this case, was tearing apart a skeletal figure that had tried to attack the girl. 

I landed on that platform, using it to get a look below. Fossor. There. There he was, getting closer to the altar with each step while the cataclysmic battle raged around him. With a grunt, I launched myself that way, using a blast from my staff to send myself right toward the bastard. 

More undead tried to stop me, only to be caught by the people who cared about me. 

A screaming, banshee-like spirit was captured in a forcefield-like cage by Risa Kohaku, before the cage shrank itself into a tiny ball, destroying its prisoner in the process. 

A four-legged bull-like zombie thing ripped up from the ground and opened its mouth to send a disgusting, horrifyingly long tongue up to grab me. But the tongue and the bull-zombie itself were literally frozen into a solid ice statue by Gordon Kuhn, who stood behind the thing and grabbed it. 

A giant, almost-entirely rotted humanoid corpse, so large it made the Meregan look small, tried to snatch me out of the air. But Hisao was there. Though he only came up to the undead creature’s knee, he punched the thing so hard in that knee that its leg snapped. As it fell, Hisao caught the body, pivoting to slam the thing into the ground so hard the Earth itself seemed to shake. Then I was down. I was on the ground, already running. Everyone behind and around me was still fighting for their lives. And for the lives of everyone else. No matter where I looked, I could see people I cared about being set upon by dozens of undead creatures. Roxa, Carfried, Haiden, Rebecca, Jazz, Doug, everyone and anyone. They were all doing literally everything they could to deal with the literal legion of monstrosities that Fossor had summoned. It was an army of everyone I cared about versus an army of the undead. 

As for the piece of shit himself, he’d… stopped. I realized that even as I came rushing up behind him. The man was a good thirty feet from his altar, but there was someone in his way. 

No, someones. My mother was there, but she wasn’t alone. Deveron was there too. And so were Lillian, Roger and Seamus Dornan, and Tribald Kine. Her old team. Her friends. They were right alongside her, blocking Fossor’s path. 

From the sound of his growl, the man wasn’t exactly in a good mood. I wondered why. He glanced over his shoulder at me, eyes narrowing. “It seems our girl has decided to join us all by herself,” he noted in a dark, threatening voice. 

“No, she hasn’t.” That was Avalon. Valley. She was there, right beside me. “She’s not by herself.” 

“She never is.” Shiori, appearing on my other side, put in. Both of them, both my girls, standing right there on either side of me. Both glaring at Fossor. Not only that, but Asenath was by Shiori as well, standing with her sister. 

Before the man could retort, another voice spoke up from behind the four of us. “They’re right about that, Fossor.” Dare. It was Dare, standing with her sword out to one side as her own gaze narrowed at the man who had unknowingly hurt her family so much. “Felicity will never be alone. Not in the way that you will always be.” 

“Always.” That was Rahanvael, appearing slightly in front of me. Her voice was solem. “You will always be alone, Fossor.” She was clearly making a point by using that name rather than the one belonging to her brother. “You have lived alone. And you will die alone.” 

Fossor, in turn, actually growled a little bit. He looked toward my mother and her people, then back toward me and mine. “You think so?” His words were a snarl through gritted teeth. “Come then.

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Project Owl 14-03 (Summus Proelium)

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You have to die. 

Coming awake after fading into darkness with words like that ringing in my ears wasn’t exactly a fun experience. Wait, scratch that. What the fuck was I saying? Waking up at all after hearing words like that as the darkness had claimed me was a remarkably fun experience. If I was awake, I was alive, considering actual full-on ghosts didn’t really exist. 

Also, I had a headache. I kind of doubted that people in any kind of afterlife had headaches. Unless–well, on the other hand…

Right, focus, Cassidy. I was alive, awake, and my eyes were open. At least, I thought they were open. It didn’t make much of a difference, because everything around me was dark. I didn’t feel any pressure against my face or anything, so it wasn’t a blindfold. And I wasn’t handcuffed or tied up in any way. I was just lying on a floor. A cold cement floor, from the feel of it. 

For a few seconds, I just laid there, listening. I was trying to figure out if I could tell anything else about where I was or if anyone was in here with me. But there was nothing. The room was completely silent and completely dark. I didn’t know if there was someone else in here, or if there were cameras with night vision, or anything. So, no using powers just yet. Especially since I had no idea what I would use said powers on even if I had actually wanted to reveal them. 

Okay, this was getting me nowhere. If there was someone in here, they weren’t going to say anything. And lying here wasn’t accomplishing anything or getting me any more information. I had to move. Carefully, I put my hands down against the cement floor, starting to push myself up. I made it to a sitting position, then got my feet under me to stand. But in mid-motion, the lights came on with a suddenness that made me yelp out loud, almost falling over again. 

Wait, no. Not lights. One light. Specifically, a television. It was a large flatscreen mounted on the nearby wall. But the illumination from the screen coming to life allowed me to see more of the room I was in. Not that there was much to see. It looked like an empty unfinished basement room, about fifteen feet by twenty feet. So, pretty small. The floor was concrete, as expected, and so were the walls. In the far corner there was some kind of heavy metal door. 

“Cassidy.” 

The sound of Paige’s voice made my gaze snap back to the television. She was there, on the screen. She looked… bad. Well, no, she looked perfect, as always. Physically, there was nothing wrong or different about her. She was just as much the pristine cheerleader princess as always. But there was something… something else wrong, something deeper that I couldn’t really define. Maybe it was in her eyes. She looked tired and worn out. Definitely stressed. 

“I know you must be very confused right now,” she continued. “I wish I could be there myself to tell you what’s going on, to tell you all of it. But I can’t. I just–” For a moment, it looked as though the other girl was going to say something else, before she finally just shook her head. “I can’t be there. This recording, this video, is going to have to do. It’s linked to a motion sensor that should only go off once you’re sitting up, so… unless I really screwed up, hopefully you’re actually awake when it starts playing. Otherwise, this–” Seeming to realize that she was getting off-topic, she visibly shook herself and focused. “But there’s one thing you need to know, one thing I wish I could’ve said before.” 

Those words were followed by a long, silent pause as Paige apparently took the time to collect herself. I saw her swallow hard, barely keeping herself somewhat together. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I said to you before, for everything I–for everything that happened between us. My father–my real father, not the man you know, he… well, he didn’t give me a choice. I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to say the things that I said, or–or do any of that. You were my–” Again, she stopped, heaving a long, heavy sigh before looking down. It took her a few more seconds to collect herself like that, staring at the floor. From the background of the video, it looked like she’d recorded it in this same room. She might as well have been standing in front of me. 

No, because if she was standing in front of me, I could have shaken her violently and demanded she actually give me some fucking answers. Or at least said ‘what the fuck’ to her in person. That would’ve been nice. 

Eventually, Paige looked back up. If anything, her gaze looked even more haunted. “Let’s just say you and I have a very complicated history, Cassidy Evans. Even more complicated than you know. My father wanted me to hurt you. He didn’t give me a choice. I know that’s hard to understand, I know it’s not a real–that I’m not explaining what you really need to know. But I can’t be sure this recording won’t end up with the wrong people, no matter how careful I am. So there are things I can’t say.” 

Taking in a long breath before letting it out, she continued. “There are few things I can say. Things that I know you have no reason to believe. Especially after the past few years and everything that I’ve said and done. All I can say is please just… just listen for a few minutes, because everything I’m about to tell you is one hundred percent true.  

“First, your best friend when you were young was a boy named Anthony Tate. You were going to his birthday party five years ago, when you found his entire family and their household staff murdered. You saw Anthony himself killed right in front of you. The men who did it worked for your grandfather, your mother’s father. He was angry at your parents and sent those men to kill Anthony’s family and to abduct you. But your bodyguard, a man named Robert Parson, saved you. He killed them, and your dad killed your grandfather.” 

Paige trailed off like that, apparently giving the words time to sink in. And I was definitely reeling. Her explanation made sense, so far. It fit everything I knew, and definitely filled in some blanks. Was it the truth? She’d said it was, but…. right, just listen. I’d sort out how I felt about it and whether I believed the whole thing once she was done.

“The thing you need to know, Cassidy,” Paige continued eventually, “the thing you need to believe even if you don’t believe anything else, is that your parents love you. Never doubt that. They’ve made mistakes. They’ve screwed up, made choices in trying to protect you that might have done more damage. But it was never out of malice. They love you, Cassie. They saw you were hurt and they wanted to take that hurt away.” 

If I hadn’t been able to piece some of what had happened with Anthony Tate together before, this whole thing would’ve left me reeling even more than I already was. Hell, if I didn’t know about my family’s real situation, I would’ve been even more lost. At least I had a head start on understanding some of this, and I still desperately needed to sit down. 

Almost like she was ripping off a Band-Aid, Paige continued. “Your parents had a special Touched use his power to erase that traumatic event from your memory, Cassidy. They did it because they love you, and you were in pain. They shouldn’t have. They should have let you get better, should have let you get through it. But they didn’t want you to feel all that pain. When your best friend died, when he was murdered by someone working for your grandfather, they didn’t want you to be stuck with that memory. So they had it erased. Not because they were hiding some dirty family secret from you. Not because they didn’t trust you. Because they wanted to help you. Right or wrong, good or bad, they wanted to take your pain away.” 

Wanted to take my pain away. My parents had wanted to make me stop hurting after I’d seen my best friend murdered in front of me, along with the bodies of all his family and house staff, so they’d had my memory erased. Was that true? Was that the only reason they had Tomas’s father do his thing? 

And what about the rest of it? Anthony and his family were killed because my grandfather was pissed at my parents? Was he really capable of that? Was–what was I saying, my parents were capable of doing plenty of evil things. They had to get it from somewhere, right? Or was that just a dumb way of thinking? I didn’t–fuck, I had no idea. 

Paige had stopped talking on the video, as though giving me time to process all of that. Then she continued. “Your parents…” Trailing off, she looked uncertain of how to proceed or how much to say. Finally, a heavy sigh escaped her. “There’s a lot you need to know about your parents, Cassidy. But I know you have no reason to believe anything I’d say to you about them. Not after everything that’s happened over the past few years. I’d say trust me, but… that would be stupid. So, I’m just going to say it and you can decide how much you believe.” 

And then she told me about the Ministry. Basic stuff, really, most of which I’d already worked out or realized on my own. She told me my parents ran the organization, that they kept crime in Detroit to what they considered a reasonable (and profitable) level, and that they had contacts inside most of the Star and Fell organizations in the city. And, after telling me that what she was about to say would hit me really hard so I should sit down or brace myself, she ‘revealed’ that my father was Silversmith. While, of course, telling me that she knew I probably wouldn’t believe it. 

Beyond all that, Paige also explained that the backbone of the Ministry had evolved from a criminal organization run by my grandfather. Detroit’s version of the Mafia. My parents had stolen the organization out from under him somehow, kicked him and his loyalists out of the city, and gradually reworked it into what it was today. The fact that my grandfather’s group had strong contacts and allies in the police force and government (not to mention the amount of powerful people they could blackmail) was what gave Mom and Dad the headstart they needed to put their spies in place on so many Star-Touched groups. They basically took the city’s criminal mob, complete with all that organization’s influence over corrupt law enforcement, and twisted it into this whole ‘control or manipulate all supervillain and most superhero actions in the city’ thing. 

Yeah, it was a lot to take in even while knowing what I did. I couldn’t even imagine how I might’ve reacted if this had all been completely new to me. Would I have stood there through all of these claims? Would I have shouted back denials at the television? Would I have ignored her completely, or even tried to break the screen? Would I have tried to leave, or just ignored her? Would I have–wait, my phone. 

While listening to the recording continue, I dug in my pockets. My phones were there, but there was no signal. Of course. I had the feeling that, whatever else was going on, Paige didn’t want me leaving this place, or calling for help. Particularly considering I might’ve called my parents before she explained everything. And certainly before I would’ve believed her if I hadn’t already known the truth. 

Paige pushed on. “The point is, your grandfather was pissed about being kicked out of his own organization, his own city, by his daughter and her husband. So he brought his loyalists in and they attacked your best friend’s birthday party. They killed Anthony in front of you, and your bodyguard barely got you out. He was almost killed by your grandfather, who wanted to abduct you, before your father showed up and killed him. Then they had your memory erased to protect you. That was the end of it… or so your parents thought. 

“You see, my father was working with Anthony’s. They were working on… on a huge project, one that was supposed to change the world. It’s called Project Owl. When your grandfather had Anthony’s father killed, it ruined Project Owl, my father’s life work. He blamed–blames your parents for it. He tried to get back at them by having your brother abducted and… and altered so that he would kill his sister… you. Then Simon would have revealed the whole truth about the Ministry to the public, and while your parents were occupied with all of that, my father would have taken their resources and used them to finish Project Owl. 

“But I couldn’t let that happen. Because when your parents erased Anthony and his death from your memory, they erased me too. You and I–we were friends too. And Anthony. All three of us. You were-” She stopped, clearly choked up a bit before managing to catch herself. “You were both my friends. But it was a secret. Your parents didn’t know about me, so they didn’t know they were erasing me. You forgot about me. But I didn’t forget about you, and I couldn’t let my father do that. So I… I called your bodyguard, Robert Parson. He was still too injured to do much back then, but he made some calls. He made sure my father ended up arrested and sent to Breakwater. Because he’s… he’s Touched, Cassidy. He’s a Tech-Touched, but his focus is on working with bodies, working on living things, biological things. He’s–” She stopped, considering for a moment before shaking her head. “The point is, they sent him to Breakwater, and that was supposed to be the end of it too, just like your parents thought before.”

Again, there was a brief pause, before the girl made a face. “But… but I didn’t realize that my father had contingencies. I can’t… really get into them right now. All that matters is that he can control me. He can make me do exactly what he says, even if I don’t want to. I have to follow the letter of his orders, even through intermediaries. And he used that intermediary to order me to go with the Banners. He sold me to them, and ordered me to spend a few years being a total cunt to you. He wanted to establish years of bad blood, of arguing, of… of us being rivals, I guess. Because when I turned seventeen, when I was old enough to be sent to Breakwater too, I was supposed to kill you myself and, when the authorities came after me, make it look like I was Tech-Touched, using the equipment he left. Then I’d be sent to the island, but… but it wouldn’t stop me. When they sent me to Breakwater, I would be able to break my father out and he would go back to his plan to use your parents’ organization to finish his project, while they were too busy mourning you to defend themselves.

“Like I said, I had to follow his orders to the letter. He ordered me not to warn you or anyone about this until it was over. He ordered me to treat you like shit, to start fights with you, to insult you, to do everything I could to make the two of us fighting be realistic. He–there were a lot of orders, Cassidy. Most importantly, he ordered me to kill you on my seventeenth birthday. He ordered me to invite you here, and to kill you in a roomful of people. So I did.” 

Well, that part was a bit confusing, yeah. I just stared at the screen as she continued. “I followed the letter of his orders. The gas I pumped into you was enough to kill you. You died, Cassidy. And I did it in a room full of people. But I had the lights go out so they didn’t see what happened. My father never said the lights had to be on, only that there had to be a lot of people in the room when it happened. And he said you had to die, but he never said you had to stay dead. So, when everyone was still reacting, I took your body through a secret door and gave you the antidote. You were dead for about one minute. That was enough to fulfill my father’s orders.” 

Glancing away for a moment on-screen, Paige seemed to gather herself. “But he still has people who will kill you if they find out you’re alive. So I can’t–you have to stay there. I used this…” With that, Paige pointed some kind of remote at the camera she’d been using to record this whole thing. As she clicked it… I appeared in her place. It was some kind of video editing overlay on the screen or something, but it looked and sounded completely realistic. It looked like me. Suddenly, Paige wasn’t the one on-screen, I was. It was only a view from the waist up at that point, which helped with the height problem. 

“Hey, guys,” my voice said, “that was pretty fucking crazy, huh? Listen, I… I can’t deal with this. Paige is just–she’s too much. So when the lights went out, I sort of… I took off. I just need to clear my head. Could you make sure Izzy’s okay and that she gets home? Thanks. And–and sorry. I just had to get out of there. I’ll explain later, I promise.” 

Paige clicked the image thing off, returning to herself. “I spoofed your phone number and video called Amber like that. So, you shouldn’t get in too much trouble or anything, I hope. I just–stay there, Cassidy. The room’s set to unlock and let you out in two hours. That should be long enough for me to do what I have to do to make sure you stay safe. 

“I’m sorry, Cassie. I’m sorry about everything. I wish we could’ve stayed friends. But I was never… I was never meant to have friends. As for everything I’ve told you about your family, you can decide to do whatever you want with that information. Believe it, don’t, look into it yourself, just… be careful, please. I wanted you to know the truth. You deserve the truth. I can’t tell you how to react, whether to believe me or not, who to talk to about it. I can’t tell you anything like that. All I could give you was the facts. The rest is up to you. Because I–I can’t be there. I want to, but I can’t. I’m going to take out every single one of my father’s agents here. I’m going to kill everyone he could use to hurt you or your family. And then… and then I’m going to kill myself, so he can never use me to hurt you either.

“By the time that door unlocks and lets you out, my father’s people will all be dead, and so will I. 

“Goodbye, Cassie.”

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Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes daring around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Commissioned Interlude 10 – Section Four (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: The following is a special commissioned interlude, the regular chapter continuing Flick’s confrontation with Fossor will be out tomorrow as scheduled.

Months ago, shortly after Gaia and Flick restored the Rebellion memories.

Kingman, Arizona. At last count, the city, which lay just over a hundred miles southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, held a population of around forty thousand. That put the town in a sort-of sweet spot as far as many were concerned. Small enough that it was easily overlooked and would never be a huge tourist destination, yet large enough for someone to blend in. 

Small enough that Bosch Heretics would rarely see a need to visit. Yet large enough that, when and if they did come through on one of their hunts, certain members of the town’s population could quite easily disappear during their presence without attracting undue attention. 

Henry Meyers Carden, as he was known to the people of Kingman, sat behind his desk in the local DMV. The Bystanders who worked with him or came to fulfill the errands one normally did at the DMV would see a fairly nondescript, dark-skinned man with close-cropped black hair and unusually bright green eyes. Yet, those with the ability to see through the Effect would see a man with tiny, beautiful, dark blue scales rather than skin, with small, two inch horns on either side of his forehead, and a mouth full of incredibly sharp teeth. His eyes were that same piercing green, but were twice the size one would expect to see on a human face. 

Despite his true appearance, Henry Carden’s current actions were no different from any other employee at this place. He listened to customer after customer who took their turns to come up when their number was called, asked for the appropriate identification and paperwork, then either walked them through getting what they needed, or sent them away to retrieve the appropriate items. Or, in some cases, informed them that there was nothing the DMV could do.

The mundane routine of each day was broken occasionally, such as now, when the man who approached while clutching his number slip very clearly wasn’t an ordinary human. He was a young Rakshasa, or feline humanoid, obviously unsure about what he was doing and as paranoid as… well, a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, as the saying went. 

When he reached the desk, the Rakshasa didn’t say anything at first. His eyes darted around, taking in all the other (actual human) employees as though expecting them to draw weapons and attack him at any second. The sound of a bell by the door as another customer entered drew a gasp as the man spun that way, hands raised defensively in front of his face. 

Quietly, Henry cleared his throat, quickly drawing the half-panicked Rakshasa’s attention back to him before the figure could decide to bolt or something. His voice was low, as calm as though he was talking to any other customer. Keeping up appearances, even (or perhaps especially) in front of ordinary Bystanders, was important. “You look like you could use an ice-cold drink.”  

“A drink? I–oh–” Catching himself, the Rakshasa remembered the code phrase. “Actually, I’d like four to go,” he recited. It clearly sounded just like he was reciting something he’d memorized, but hey. Close enough. Henry couldn’t expect everyone who came through needing help to be perfect at the cloak and dagger stuff. 

“Wouldn’t we all?” he replied, finishing the back-and-forth code before picking up a folder. “If you’ll come with me, sir, I think we have what you’re looking for in the back.” Reaching out, he flipped the sign at the front of his desk around so that ‘please see another attendant’ was displayed before gesturing for the other man to follow him on his way to a door marked for employees. None of the other employees in the office gave them a second glance, though there were some disgruntled mumbles from customers when they saw the number of people ready to serve them go down by one. 

Leading the feline figure into the back hallway before turning to open an unlabeled wooden door, Henry ushered him inside, glancing both ways before closing the door after them as he followed into a small office. “What’s your name?” he asked while stepping around the desk. 

“What-oh, Miren,” the feline figure answered belatedly. “My name is Miren.” 

“Good afternoon, Miren, I’m Henry. Well, that’s close enough to my name anyway,” the other man replied, gesturing as he sat at his desk. “Have a seat. How long have you been on Earth?”

“My umm…” Miren hesitated before sitting a bit awkwardly. “My family–I don’t know. I mean all my life. I was born here. I think my parents lived here all their lives too, but they were… they died when I was still a cub. I lived with my grandmother in Tulsa until last month when she passed. I was… I was at the funeral and… I mean, she always told me to be careful. She told me stories about the Heretics, but I didn’t–they came to the funeral. I was just trying to say goodbye to my grandma and they accused me of trying to eat people. They–” His voice was getting louder by the word, emotion making him choke up a bit. 

“That’s what they do,” Henry muttered, sighing to himself as he pushed away a few bad memories of his own before focusing. “Okay, so they attacked you but you got away. I assume either your grandmother or another friend told you about us and where to go? Tulsa’s a long ways away. We have other offices between here and there.” 

“I just ran at first,” Miren explained. “I didn’t know where I was going. Didn’t really have anywhere to go. No one to talk to, really. Figured they’d know where my home was, or find out pretty soon. I just took off. Hitchhiked and bussed across a few states, had a couple more close calls. But then I found these people camping out by the side of the highway about twenty miles north of here. A couple trolls, werewolf, and this pixie dude. They told me there was a group called Section Four, people who, ahhh… help Alters. Alters? That’s the right word for… us?” 

“Alters, right,” Henry confirmed. “And yes, Section Four helps Alters get new identities, money, transport, whatever they need. We exist in all levels of government, even a few senators. We’re a mix of Alters and Natural Heretics–” 

“Heretics?” Miren quickly interrupted, his eyes widening. 

Gently, Henry explained the difference before continuing. “Basically, Section Four exists to help maintain some level of normal society for Alters. We have postal workers who know how to deliver to questionable locations that might not get service otherwise, police who can handle the kind of cases that come up with our people, firefighters with knowledge about cancelling out mystical flames or identifying if a fire comes from one of our people in danger, or doctors who can deal with magical burns, poisons, and other things that would stump Bystanders. More importantly, in your case right now, we do what we can to keep innocent Alters away from the Bosch Heretics and provide them with new lives. But we have to be careful. That’s why we have the codes. If you looked like you needed help without the codes, we’d still do what we could, we’d just be more careful about approaching you. The codes help us know just how informed you are about what we’re doing, if you’re someone just feeling things out, or if you’re a threat. Alters who do bad things, we call them Nocen, sometimes our people will give them false codes. That way, when they show up and give those false codes, we know what we’re dealing with. That’s part of how we’re careful. Another part is why Nuella is here.” 

“Nuella?” Miren echoed, only to glance toward the corner of the room when a flicker of motion drew his attention that way. Seeing a tall, gray-skinned and silver-haired woman standing there, he jerked with a yelp and nearly fell sideways. 

Henry winced. “Sorry. We just can’t be too careful. Nuella here is a Leusteren, sort of an empath. She could tell if you were lying or deceiving me with your explanation, or if you had bad intent.” 

Nuella, for her part, quietly greeted the man and explained that her emotion-reading extended to a sort of pseudo-invisibility by manipulating a person’s emotions into not caring about her presence to the point of not even consciously acknowledging it. 

From there, the three had a conversation about what they could do for Miren, how they could get him a quiet life out of the way in an area he’d like to live, under a new identity just in case the Bosch Heretics were looking for his old one. They talked about the place he might want to move to, areas that were relatively safe from constant Heretic hunters and other ways he could stay safe. 

Eventually, Henry left Miren and Nuella to talk a bit more while he went to print off new identification records in the back room. On his way down the hall, however, he heard the sound of running footsteps behind him and turned to glance over his shoulder just in time to see a wide-eyed figure rushing his way. Like Miren, this man had feline-like fur, though he was not a Rakshasa. His fur was very fine and tiger-like though colored blue and white. He looked closer to human because he was closer to human. He was a hybrid, born to an Alter father (of a species known as Tzeuens) and a human mother, though no one knew what had become of the latter.

“Sergei?” Henry started. “What’s going o–” 

“Rebellion!” Sergei blurted out loud, grabbing hold of his shoulders. “Rebellion–Heretics! My mom, my–Atherbys, the–the Rebellion! The memory, they were–my dad! He was–it’s back!” 

Poor Henry, of course, had absolutely no idea what the other man was saying. “Slow down, slow down. Are you okay? What Rebellion? What about your mother? Are there Heretics in town?” That last question was, obviously, the most important one given the danger they posed. 

Over the next few minutes, right there in the hall, Sergei explained everything. He told Henry about the memories that had returned to his mind early that morning, memories of living in a quiet house with his father and his Heretic mother. Memories of his parents both telling him stories about the Heretic Rebellion, an actual rebellion, led by a woman known as Joselyn Atherby. Atherby, of course, was a name familiar to Henry and Section Four. The Atherby Camp itself had helped out plenty of times. 

Apparently, this Joselyn Atherby woman was both the leader of that group, and of a group of Bosch Heretics who rebelled against both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. According to Sergei’s stories, she had led a full scale revolt against the status quo, and had actually taken a fair chunk of other Boschers with her. 

“Uhh, Sergei, I hate to be a Debbie Downer,” Henry carefully cut in, “but if this rebellion thing was that big of a deal, I’m pretty sure I would have heard about it. Are you sure–” 

“You did hear about it.” The words came from Nuella, who had stepped into the hall. “You were a part of it. As was I.”

While Henry stared at his Section Four partner in disbelief, she explained that she had felt Sergei’s emotions from the other room and came to investigate. The moment she heard him talking about the rebellion, her own memories of being a part of it with Henry had come back in a rush. Decades of memories, throughout the twentieth century, all flooding her brain. 

“That’s what happened to me this morning!” Sergei blurted. “I was eating breakfast and then it all just–it hit me all at once.”

“The Bosch Heretics, the loyalists,” Nuella murmured, “they erased everyone’s memories. They stopped the Rebellion by making everyone forget about it.” 

“Then why is it back?” Henry asked, still feeling a bit uncertain and doubtful about the whole thing. “Why would your memories suddenly return? And why both of yours but not mine?”

“That spell.” The two-worded answer came not from either of the people he was talking to, but from a man who had just appeared in the middle of the hall. A man who, as Henry and the other two turned that way, instantly set off alarms in their heads. Alarms that typically drew many possible reactions, all of which mostly amounted to panic.

“Heretic!” Henry blurted, stumbling back and nearly falling as he grabbed for the emergency teleport coin in one pocket. “Get down!” he started to warn the others, hand raised to hurl the coin at the floor to get the three of them the hell out of there before they were all killed. He had a flash of hope that the kid in the office would escape, but there was no way he could get to him from here, not before their attacker murdered all of them. There was no telling what powers–

His hand was caught in mid-motion. Not by the Heretic, but by Nuella. As the coin fell from his hand, she quickly snatched it out of the air, her voice firm, yet soothing. “It’s okay. It’s alright.” 

As Henry stared at the woman, his panicked mind trying to figure out just when she had gone completely insane or if this was some sort of reaction to that level of terror, the memory of what they had just been talking about rose in the back of his consciousness. Heretics. Rebellion. His wide, terrified eyes darted back to the man who caused such alarm. 

The Heretic himself appeared to be an older man. Old enough to have visible gray hair and a fairly pale face lined with wrinkles. He held no weapon. In fact, his hands were stretched out to either side with the backs facing Henry and the others rather than the palms. It was the best way for someone who could potentially project energy blasts from those hands to show that he meant no harm, rather than holding them out and up toward the group. 

“Easy,” the Heretic carefully spoke. “Take it easy, Hank. We’re good. We’re good. Nuella?” 

“I remember you, Artzain,” she confirmed, giving Henry another look. “Easy. Calm.” 

Sounding like he was having as much trouble dismissing the blaring danger sense as Henry himself was, Sergei carefully and hesitantly asked, “Guy from the Rebellion?” 

“I was,” the Heretic, Artzain apparently, answered. “Before those Garden and Crossroads pigeon-livered hornswogglers erased my memory. Our memories. You… you don’t remember those days, Hank? The spell didn’t give your memories back, did it?” There was audible pain in his voice, making it clear he desperately wanted the man in front of him to know who he was. 

“It seems some of us have remembered certain parts,” Nuella put in. “Others have not remembered anything. But what is this spell you speak of?”

Before the Heretic could respond, the door at the end of the hall, leading back to the main room, opened up as one of the other DMV workers poked his head in and took in the sight before him. “Hey, Henry! Finish up whatever this is and come on back. The line’s getting pretty long and some of us don’t like the way these people start growling at us. You’re better with the growlers.”

Once the man closed the door to go back to his work, Nuella quietly murmured, “Well, we can rest assured that the Bystander Effect remains in place, whatever else has happened.”  

Artzain gave a quick nod. “Yes, the spell didn’t affect that. It was meant to erase the eraser, as far as we can…” Trailing off, the man seemed to realize that he should start at the beginning. So, as quickly as possible, he explained what had happened the night before/very early that morning. The headmistress of the Crossroads school, together with the daughter of the Rebellion’s original leader, had used magic to undo the spell that had erased the Rebellion, and Joselyn Atherby herself, from the memories of all Heretics who were connected to the Reaper who provided their powers. 

“It seems that in breaking the spell for Bosch Heretics,” Nuella mused, “the remainder of it has been weakened. Some of us are remembering a little, some a lot, and some nothing at all, yet.” That last part was added with a glance toward Henry, who was still at least partially convinced that this whole thing was completely made up. “I believe it will fade more with time, perhaps even breaking apart entirely, now that the foundation of the spell has been so damaged.”

“Okay, wait, just… wait.” Henry was shaking his head, trying to come to terms with everything still. “You’re saying all the Boschers who used to fight for the Rebellion are getting their memories back and… and what, going right back to fighting their old friends and family?” 

“So it seems,” Artzain confirmed. “It’s been a busy day, believe me. A good chunk of us Garden people took off together with some of our Victors. Almost didn’t make it with the vines we had to grab.” Exhaling, the man visibly winced, memories of what he and the others had gone through to liberate these ‘vines’ (whatever those were for) clearly playing through his head. “Not fun.” 

“But what brought you here?” Henry pressed. They had been standing here talking to this Boscher for long enough that the warning siren screaming in his head had finally faded. Which was a really strange situation to be in. He hadn’t exactly spent enough time around Boschers to find out that the danger sense could fade until today. 

Or, if the others were right about these lost memories, apparently he had. Huh. 

Artzain was already replying, “Once the Garden refugees found a spot to stay for the day, a bunch of us split up to go find the… the people that spell made us forget. I checked a few other places before I remembered that you and Nuella used to work here for Section Four. Well, not here. You were at the hospital back then, but still. It didn’t take long to work out that the DMV might be a good place to look for my… for my old friends.”

This was so weird. Staring at the Heretic, Henry could see the sincerity there. He didn’t need Nuella’s emotion-reading powers for that. This Artzain remembered the three of them being very close friends. Nuella herself apparently also remembered it. The two of them had all these restored memories, but Henry had nothing. He stared at this man, trying as hard as he could to dredge up some image from the past, but it was for naught. He couldn’t remember anything about him. 

“It’s okay, Henry,” Nuella quietly assured him. “As I said, the spell may take longer to crack apart for others. Your memories may come back eventually. Give it some more time.” 

Sergei spoke up then. “What about my mother? I don’t have your memories, all I have are stories. Her name was… is Jessica, Jessica Trent. She’s this tall with black hair that’s cut short except for this braid part on the left. And she has a scar. Right here.” His hand rose to indicate the space from the left side of his jaw, over his cheek, and up over his nose. “Like that. Her memories would be back now too, right? Do you–do you know her?” There was an eagerness to the Tzeuen-Hybrid’s voice, just as there had been when he first showed up sputtering at Henry about the memories of the Rebellion. “Please, tell me you’ve at least seen her.” 

“It’s… it’s familiar,” Artzain carefully confirmed. “I think I’ve seen her now and then, but she was from Crossroads, not Eden’s Garden. And even the Rebellion by itself was pretty large before the end. I think we might have fought together a couple times, in a larger group. But I haven’t seen her lately. I’m sorry, I don’t know where she would be now. But that spell would have restored her memories, so she’ll remember you, and your father. Wait, your father. Where–” 

“Dead,” Sergei informed him in a flat voice. “Killed about six years ago by one of your–by a Boscher.” 

“Odds bodkins,” Arztain cursed with a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, boy, I truly am.” One of his fists tightened, a small bit of frost forming around it. “When I think about the things I myself did in these past couple decades just because my memories were erased, the people–” He cut himself off, clearly pushing aside some very bad images. “The people who erased our memories, they’re going to pay for it. They’ll pay for all of it. The Rebellion’s already reforming. We’re contacting the Crossroads people who have left and just… we’re getting organized, but it’ll take time.” He focused on Sergei. “I’ll ask around about your mother, this Jessica Trent. If she’s still around, I’ll find her. You have my word.” 

Before Sergei or either of the others could respond to that, the nearby door opened. Miren, the young Rakshasa Henry had been helping in his office, poked his head out. “Hey, I finished all the–” Seeing the Bosch Heretic standing there, he let out a strangled scream, the door slamming quickly to cut them off. That was followed by the sound of a few crashes as the panicked boy tried to escape from a room with no other windows or doors. 

“I will speak with him,” Nuella quietly informed the other two. “I will explain the situation, and calm him down. The two of you should speak for now. After all,” she added with a knowing glance, “you still have that bet, I believe.” 

As she moved to the door to deal with the panicked Rakshasa, Henry looked to this stranger-who-wasn’t. “You and me, we were close, huh?

“What was that like?” 

******

It turned out that many others within Section Four had also either gotten pieces or large chunks of their memories of the Heretic Rebellion back, or had been contacted by Boschers who remembered them. The entire organization was in an uproar over the new revelations, which was making doing the jobs they were supposed to do even harder than usual. Especially given the fact that their urges to run from Boschers were now competing with the revelation that some, yet not all, of those people were their old friends. 

For an organization like theirs, where every group was intentionally kept separate and isolated from the others for security reasons, the whole thing was hard to deal with. There were only a few people who linked various cells together, and essentially none who were connected to all of them. They weren’t set up for passing communication back and forth in a situation like this, because they weren’t set up to communicate as a whole group at all. The entire point was for Section Four to remain a loose collection of independent cells with the overarching goal of taking care of Alters who needed them. 

All of which meant that Henry was on the phone with various contacts for the next six hours, as everyone tried to get a full handle on exactly what was happening. Word was being passed around, new code phrases were being brought up, and people whose memories had started to come back were being partnered with those who hadn’t in order to keep track of what Boschers showed up looking for old friends. All while they were also trying to do the jobs Section Four was actually intended to do. 

As for Henry’s group, they had their own mission. As he disconnected from what had to be his seven hundredth phone call of the day, the man himself emerged from the now-dark DMV building to find an SUV waiting for him. Nuella stood next to it, along with the Boscher, Arztain. Seeing the latter made that alarm go off in Henry’s head yet again, and he had to force back the panic it brought on. 

“Where’s Sergei?” 

“Here!” the Hybrid in question called while approaching with several heavily-laden grocery bags. “Just had to pick up some snacks for the road.” 

Yes, for the road. Sergei remembered where his family had lived before, so they were going on a road trip to find his house, just in case his mother went there. At first, the boy had planned on going alone, but Nuella and Henry had both refused to abandon him. And Arztain insisted on accompanying them as well. 

Nor was he the last member of their little group. 

“Hey, are we ready to go?!” From inside the SUV, the actual final person who had insisted on going, Miren, called out through the open window. “It’s a long way to Virginia!” 

“He’s not wrong,” Arztain murmured. “It is a long way. But is he sure he wants to go with… ahhh, well, me? Kid still whimpers when I look in his direction.”

“He’s doing his best,” Nuella informed him. “We all are. He feels as though helping out now will save others from what he went through. Even if it… you scare him.” 

Shoving aside his own doubts and fears, feeling as though he was about to get into a car with a rabid tiger who just happened to currently be sedated, Henry focused on the man who had supposedly once been his close friend. “Right. Let’s get on the road then. 

“Time to find a missing Boscher Lady, and hope this whole memory restoration thing isn’t temporary.” 

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Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, there’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” one of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

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Kairos 9-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I’d thought I was prepared for the twisting, spinning, stomach-churning sensation of being sent literally years through time and who-the-hell-knew how far across the universe. I had psyched myself up for it, prepping sort of like you would when you were about to go on a rollercoaster. But it didn’t help. My internal organs still felt like they wanted it to leap through my throat to get free, and I was so dizzy I couldn’t see straight. Not that there was much to see. Coming through the transport, I was encased in the same meteor-like stone that Tristan had arrived in a year earlier. There was nothing to see except for stone all around me. 

I couldn’t see anything, but I could tell we were falling fast. Also spinning. There was a lot of spinning. My vision (such as it was) kept fading in and out as my consciousness flickered. 

Then, before I could even hope to collect myself, we hit the ground. The spell on the meteor absorbed all the impact, sparing me from being killed by making the rock surrounding me shatter into a thousand tiny pieces while leaving me standing there. 

Well, standing there for about two seconds before the whole spinning/falling sensation caught up with me. Then, rather than looking like some kind of heroic badass arriving in the nick of time, I mostly just face-planted onto the ground while struggling not to lose the entire contents of my stomach. Urgh, that was really bad. Worse than I remembered. Was going backward in time that much harder? Was it the way Petan and those guys did it, with the whole meteor thing? 

Either way, it sucked. But hey, at least the fact that I had the Seosten bodysuit meant I didn’t have to show up totally naked or anything. 

Plus, all my recent training had done one thing, at least. It gave me the push I needed to focus through all of that and activate the beacon spells I’d brought with me. There were a dozen of them, all locked into various coins and stones I’d enchanted with spells to send an emergency alert to every god damn person who could help. I didn’t even take the time to look at where I was or anything that was around me first. I just forced power into those beacons. Whatever happened to me, if Fossor smacked me down in two seconds, at least the others would know where to come. Sariel, Prosser, Athena, Gwen, all of them. They could finish the job if I couldn’t.

With that reassuring thought (well, as reassuring as the thought of being skewered in two seconds could be), I managed to shove myself back to my feet, weapon in hand, as I took in my surroundings quickly. Even with the flares activated, there wasn’t time for me to lay around and indulge my stomach’s rolling. 

I wasn’t, as expected, in a building. Instead, I had appeared in what looked like some kind of open rock quarry. The place was huge. So huge, in fact, that the dark limousine sitting nearby would’ve had to drive full-speed for several minutes to get from one side to the other. That and the bulldozer next to it probably looked like children’s toys from the top of the quarry, so far above me I could barely see it. 

But none of that mattered. Only one thing did. Stopping Fossor. This was my last chance. And I was going to make damn sure that son of a bitch didn’t pull off his psychotic fucking plan. Whether it was me or one of the people I had just summoned for help, he wasn’t going to get away this time. One way or another, whatever it took, he was going down today. No more games, no more delays. I was going to save my mother and put that bastard in the ground where he belonged. 

Or die trying. But, well, I knew which option I preferred, at least. 

And speak of the devil, literally. Even as I straightened and focused, the back door of that limo opened, and the man in question emerged. He stared back at me with an expression that was clearly incredulous, though he was trying to force it back behind a mask of indifference. “Felicity,” he announced flatly, managing to control his voice despite everything as he regarded me with one hand holding the canteen he used to spread ashes. “You are truly a wonder.” 

Still working to calm my stomach and avoid throwing up in my mouth, I shot back, “Yeah, give me a few minutes and you’ll wonder what happened to your spleen and lungs.” 

Fossor, for his part, had clearly gotten himself under control by that point. My sudden arrival may have taken him by surprise, but he was good at rolling with surprises after all these centuries. Now, he was staring at me dangerously, obviously re-evaluating various thoughts he’d had. “Tell me, where did you disappear to in the future? I know someone took you off course, but the level of power and foreknowledge that would take….” He trailed off, chuckling quietly. “Clearly, my attempts to reacquire and contain you were… or will be, rather unsuccessful.”

“Nah,” I shot back sharply, “You found me just fine in the future. Then we bonded, you had a total change of heart, and switched sides. You even sacrificed yourself to send me back to the past to stop the you back now. It was a whole emotional thing. Whoever plays you in the movie version is totally going to nab an Oscar for it.”  

Yeah, from the look he was giving me, the man wasn’t buying it. Probably because even he knew he didn’t have a fucking conscience that could be reached anymore. Slowly, his head shook. “I do hope you aren’t trying to buy time for those beacons of yours to work,” he abruptly informed me. “After all, I would have had to be remarkably stupid not to adapt from your last attempt.” 

As my heart sank at those words, he raised a hand to gesture around us. “These stones you see all around us, think of them as a sort of jammer, my dear. They cannot stop your signal forever, that much is true. But they will absorb the energy of the spells long enough that, by the time your allies get the message, it will be too late.” He winked at me. “You see, I learn from past experience too. Now then,” he added in a low, dangerous voice as his eyes narrowed at me, making it clear that he wasn’t playing around anymore either. “Where is my sister?”

Yeah, this was bad. I had known, somewhere in the back of my mind, that Fossor could have adapted to all this and been ready to stop any beacon spells I had. But I’d hoped he wouldn’t have had time to worry about that in between getting his spell ready once more. It hadn’t been more than a few days since I’d been sent forward, so both Petan and I had thought he wouldn’t have had time to create and set up a whole new defense against those beacon spells. 

Now, as it turned out, he hadn’t needed to. He just set up his new spell in this quarry full of beacon-absorbing rocks. Because that was totally fair, gods damn it. 

“In that case,” I forced myself to retort while pointing the bladed end of my staff at the man who had hurt my family so much, “I guess I’ll just have to delay you until that spell gets out, won’t I? And I’ll tell you where your sister is as soon as you tell me where my mother is, you fucking rapist piece of shit.” 

Fossor, in turn, straightened a bit while squinting at me. “Your mother, hmm? After everything you’ve been through, all that you’ve seen and experienced, you’re still a child crying out for her mother. In spite of everything, you still haven’t grown at all from that helpless little girl I met over a year ago now. You’ve learned nothing.” 

“Don’t think so?” I retorted, staring him down. With that, I shoved down every doubt, every fear, every bit of uncertainty. I pushed all of it into a little box and locked it away. None of that mattered. I was here. I had to stop this son of a bitch. I had to delay him until those beacon spells got through and help could get here. Then I spoke three more words. Quite possibly the last three non-spell words that I would ever speak. 

“Let’s find out.” 

I ran. Not away. I ran toward the man, toward the monster who had hurt my family, who had destroyed so many others. I ran toward the creature who had nearly wiped out humanity all those centuries ago with his Black Death, and who was trying to do so again with his new spell. As Fossor stood, waiting to receive me with what looked like a mixture of annoyance and amusement warring for dominance on his face, I crossed the distance between us. One more chance. I had one more chance to stop him. 

Not that he was going to make that easy, of course. Before I’d crossed even half the distance between us, with another hundred feet or so still to go, the man raised both hands. And with that simple gesture, an army of figures appeared in my way. They were a mixture of ghosts, appearing out of nowhere, and zombies who clawed their way out of the ground right under my feet. One hand in particular popped up right near my foot, trying to grab my ankle in its crushing grip. But I was faster, snapping my staff down, without breaking stride, to cut the half-rotted hand off before it could catch hold. 

A ghost reared up in front of me, and I dove into a roll to go under it, while speaking a single command word to power the ghost-fire spell that I’d already attached to my weapon. The staff lit up with a pale blue glow, as I shoved it up through the ghost while passing under it. With a scream, the ghost literally exploded into a spray of ectoplasm and light. 

Two more zombies had pushed their way out of the ground, and were trying to grab me while I was rolling. But they never had the chance. Even as the pair straightened to put themselves in my path, a cloud of super-heated sand flew over my head and tore into them. The cloud was so hot, it literally burned a hole through the two undead monsters. One of their heads came off at the neck, while the other’s head basically disintegrated entirely under the blazing hot sand. 

I was back on my feet then. With a sharp gesture, I sent my heated sand out to one side, lashing with it like a whip. A whip that took the heads off three more zombies, cleaving through their necks. In the same moment, I hurled my staff to the other side, sending the bladed end through a ghost that had gotten near me before recalling it to appear right back in my hand as I threw myself into a sideways flip, barely clearing the raised arms of the zombie who was halfway out of the ground ahead of me. Landing, I swept my staff behind me, taking the head off that creature with that single swipe, while spitting a glob of resin at the next one, sticking his hands to the ground as he was trying to push himself up. One more step, and my foot lashed out, colliding with the head of the trapped zombie with enough force (considering I could lift a good three thousand pounds by that point) to pop it like a watermelon, sending blood everywhere. A lot of it sprayed up on me, but I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. None of that mattered, except stopping that son of a bitch.  

The son of a bitch in question was already turning away from me, walking in the other direction (ashes appearing from his canteen to fill the ground along his path) even as a whole new swarm of his minions appeared to fill in the space between us. He was trying to act like he didn’t care, like he wasn’t worried about me. But he also wasn’t sticking around. He wasn’t gloating, wasn’t waiting. He was keeping me busy with his summoned cannon fodder and heading off to finish his spell, before everyone I had called could show up. He knew he was on the clock, and he was going to beat it.  

Fuck, fuck! No! I couldn’t let that happen! I had to be faster, had to be better, had to get to him. What I would do if I managed to get that far… I’d focus on that then. Right now, I just had to get there.  

Of course, I wasn’t going anywhere if the swarm of ghosts and zombies had anything to do with it. They weren’t exactly the world’s greatest tacticians. All they were doing was attempting to mob me, drag me to the ground into a dogpile. But that would be enough. If they caught me, if they managed to hold me down, Fossor would win. 

My staff hit the ground twice behind me and once to either side, leaving a concussive mine with each tap. Behind me, as I continued running, the mines blew apart the zombies who were trying to catch up with me. A quick burst from the staff sent me flying up and over a small, otherwise impassible horde, and as I flipped over in the air, my weapon shifted to its bow form just before I shot an energy arrow down into the group that sent them flying in every direction, opening up a small hole for me to land in and keep running. 

Straight ahead of me, an enormous, seven-and-a-half foot tall ghost rose out of nothing and lunged toward me. There was nowhere to go. So, I didn’t go anywhere. I straightened my staff vertically, throwing it ahead of myself before focusing on it. With the power I’d gotten from Fossor’s own arena, I stopped the staff entirely. It froze like that, vertical in the air. Granted, it would only be frozen like that for a few seconds, but for that time, it was totally stopped. The huge spectral form slammed into the ghost-fire-enchanted staff and blew apart with a scream. In the next instant, I was running again, staff summoned right back to my hand. 

Unfortunately, that was the moment when another ghost slammed into me from behind, knocking me forward a step, just as a zombie raked at me with rotted fingernails. It would have torn through my throat, but my skin was tougher than it should’ve been, and the nails just left a series of long scrapes across it. Still, it was enough for another ghost to appear, grabbing hold of my left arm, while still another zombie shoved itself out of the ground to catch my right leg. They were trying to shove me down, trying to pile themselves on top of me. More were coming, more piling in, forcing themselves over me to keep me from reaching their master. Clawing at me, ghost hands tearing at my eyes, rotted corpse fingers digging into my stomach, against my throat, shoving into my mouth. 

Enough! 

With a thought, I shoved every bit of my willpower into the ghost who had hold of my left arm, forcing it to let go against all of Fossor’s orders. My arm was freed, and I adjusted the grip on my staff while pointing with my right hand to summon a pair of quick portals. The first appeared just behind the head of the zombie who had me by the leg, while the other appeared just above the ghost that was trying to shove his semi-solid hands through my eyes. Grunting out a curse around the fingers of the zombie who had his fingers in my mouth trying to rip my tongue out, I triggered the grapple on my staff, sending it shooting out and down, where it ripped straight through the head of the zombie on my leg. The grapple continued on after splattering that skull, passing through the portal to hit the ghost in front of me. With the ghost-fire spell active, the spectral figure screamed and blew apart. That, in turn, freed me enough to snap my other hand out. In that motion, I summoned a brand new silver knife from a storage spell on the sleeve of the bodysuit. The knife cut through the throat of the fucking rotting corpse whose hand was practically halfway down my throat, and I followed it up with a kick that sent him flying. 

It didn’t matter. More were coming. No matter how many I killed, they just kept swarming over me. Dozens and dozens of them. I would never get all the way through them in time to stop Fossor, or even catch up with him. He was already most of the way to what I now saw was some kind of altar set up on the far side of the quarry. And there were so goddamn many figures between the two of us. 

A ghost appeared in front of me, but I focused all the Necromantic strength I had on forcing it to remain completely still, frozen there in my path. 

“Fossor!” I screamed out the name with every ounce of volume I could manage. 

It was enough to make the man turn back to me. Whether he meant to gloat, or simply see just how desperate I looked, I had no idea. But it didn’t matter. He slowed and turned, looking at me through the assortment of creatures blocking the way between us. And that was exactly what we wanted.  

From my pocket, I summoned a small stone, shoving my hand outward straight into the chest of the ghost I’d forced to remain completely still, while practically spitting, “Mar’ah.” 

It was Hebrew for vision or mirror. In this case, that acted as the command word to activate the spell on the stone I was shoving into the chest of the ghost. A spell that took him from being mostly transparent, to being reflective. The ghost now acted as a mirror, showing me a vision of myself. 

In Vegas, I’d picked up the ability to travel through reflective surfaces. Which meant I needed two, of course. But Rahanvael was already on that, appearing directly behind Fossor as he turned toward me. Even now, she was entirely invisible to his power. He had no idea she was there. And she used that, turning herself reflective as well. 

Fossor knew something was wrong. He was already turning back. But it was too late. I threw myself straight into the ghost in front of me, passing through him and coming out of Rahanvael before driving the blade of my staff right through Fossor’s shoulder with a scream. 

It did nothing to him, of course. He simply passed the damage off to… well, any of the literally billions of hostages he had back on his own world. But I was at least rewarded with the look of surprise on his face. 

That surprise, unfortunately, quickly morphed to anger, as he lashed out with a backhanded fist that knocked me to the ground. My staff fell from my grasp. I heard Rahanvael shout my name, only to stop as Fossor’s hand snapped up, forming itself into a hard grip that seemed to stop her in mid-motion. It looked like he was choking her telekinetically or something. She grabbed her throat, frozen there. 

“You…. have been… a most disappointing sister,” the man snarled, even as his foot lashed out to kick me in the face. It knocked me backward, dazing me just as I was trying to push myself up. “And you, a most disappointing daughter.” 

Abruptly, something slammed into him from behind. It hit the Necromancer so hard, he went flying past us before hitting the ground. The impact obviously didn’t hurt him, of course. He even managed to summon a new ghost to disintegrate into ashes for himself to land on. But it did knock him away, forcing his invisible grip on Rahanvael to vanish. 

“I told you,” my mother sharply informed the man while stepping up, offering her hand down to me. “She is not your daughter. And she is far from disappointing.” 

Fossor was back on his feet, turning to face the three of us. “What?” His voice actually cracked just a little. “No. What? You can’t be here. This is a trick. You shouldn’t come out of the time spell for another five minutes. I calculated it perfectly.” 

“Yes, well,” my mother retorted while hauling me to my feet, “when I realized what you were about to do, I used a little magic of my own. It absorbed just enough of the power you put into your spell to make me pop out a little bit early, and a little bit out of the way. Over there.” She gestured off into the distance. 

“Now then,” Mom continued while staring down the man who had done so much damage to our lives. “Where were we?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously, and I felt the power she was summoning to fill herself with, felt the strength that was suddenly making the air all-but vibrate around us. “Oh, yes,” she announced. “I remember.

“We were about to kill you.”

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Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

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The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to go see that girl’s birthday? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

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