Month: October 2020

Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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And here is the next edition of Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge! Thanks to all $10+ donators for choosing/adding words to what they wanted to see.

Ruthers and Antaeus

Loud country music played through the smoke-filled bar, its crooning singer and strumming guitar leaving many of its occupants idly tapping their feet or bobbing their heads as they sipped at cold drinks. Behind the bar itself, the tender pointed the remote at the television in the corner, changing the channel from news to a football game that had been requested. Two men in front of the nearby jukebox were debating which song to put in next, while their dates watched them from a table with a mixture of amusement and exasperation at the fact that they couldn’t agree.

And in the back of the room, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty beer bottle and a small bowl of peanuts in front of him, was an enormous figure. At his full height, the man would stand seven feet tall. He appeared old enough that his long, formerly jet-black hair and thick mustache were streaked through with bits of white and gray. His dark eyes regarded the bottle in front of him for a moment before he pursed his lips and blew a small stream of ice-cold breath, restoring the chill to the beer. 

“You ruin it that way, Antaeus.” The voice came from directly beside the table, where no one had been a moment earlier. Now, Gabriel Ruthers stood there. In many situations, Ruthers himself would have been an imposing figure. Yet, even standing while the other man was sitting, he still appeared much smaller in this particular case. Both men were tall for humans, but the man with the beer was in an entirely different league.  

Antaeus, far from showing any surprise at all when the other man appeared beside the table, simply took a long and slow pull from his newly icy beer. “Ruin it, Gabriel? Have a seat.” 

Instead of doing so, Ruthers simply stood where he was while replying, “Good beer’s not supposed to be practically frozen. You’ve got English ale. It should be a bit cool, not ice cold.”   

“Heh.” Antaeus chuckled humorlessly once before shaking his head. “I like it the way I like it. Helps me forget the desert. What do you want? Thought I made it clear I was busy.” 

“I told you I wanted to talk about what happened,” Ruthers reminded him. As a waitress stopped by to ask if he wanted anything, he gave a shake of his head and sent the woman on her way before turning his attention back to the table. 

“And like I said,” came the flat response as soon as the waitress was gone, “I’m busy. Not in the mood to repeat myself.” Taking another long pull from his drink, Antaeus added, “Don’t think you can order me around either, Gabriel. Last I checked, you and me are peers now.” Finally, he turned a bit, looking over to the other man. “After all, we’re both members of the Committee and all that.” A very slight smile appeared, showing hints of his teeth. “Equal footing.” 

For a brief moment, Gabriel returned the smile. “Equal footing,” he echoed easily before adding in a pointed, deceptively calm-sounding voice, “If you don’t get up and walk out with me now, I’m going to hit you hard enough to make even someone as thick as you feel it.”  

The threat made the other man’s eyes narrow. “Don’t threaten me, Gabriel,” he half-snarled. “We may have to play nice in front of the others thanks to the rules. But if you start something, I’ll finish it and say we were sparring. And I’ve changed my mind. You’re not invited to sit with me. Get out.” 

Two things happened then. First, the air around the pair wavered until they were in a forest rather than a bar. And, just as Antaeus realized there was no longer a seat under him, Ruthers’ fist slammed into his face with enough force to send a violent shockwave through the forest itself, literally knocking over several nearby trees while the loud boom echoed like a gunshot. 

Antaeus hit the ground for a brief instant before he was abruptly and immediately back on his feet. Standing, he towered over the other man, staring intently down at him. “You always start your fights with cheap shots?” 

“Is it a cheap shot when I told you exactly what was going to happen?” Ruthers countered, not the least bit deterred. “We need to talk about what you did with Maria and Arthur Chambers.” 

“Them?” Antaeus gave a disbelieving look before shaking his head. He touched his readied fist against the front of his face where the other man’s blow had landed. There was no visible sign of any damage at all. Only his pride was stung. “I reported what happened. What more do you want? And talk fast, cuz in a second, I’m gonna show you why you shouldn’t start something you can’t finish.” 

“Gentlemen.” The voice came from the side, as Litonya, the elderly Native American Committee member, leaned a bit on a cane while watching them. “Is there some sort of problem here?” 

Antaeus jerked his head that way. “This guy wants to know about Grandma and Grandpa Chambers. Why don’t you tell him. It was your idea for me to go find them.”

“Your idea?” Ruthers turned his attention to Litonya. “I thought I made it clear that Felicity’s grandparents were to be left alone. They’re human, they have nothing to do with any of this.” 

For her part, the old woman regarded him passively for a few seconds before pointing out in the tone of a scolding schoolteacher from the days of switches and paddles, “People who have nothing to do with ‘this’, as you put it, would not have had Heracles himself protecting them. And even absent that evidence, they were involved through virtue of their son and granddaughter. Bringing them in was the correct move. The only fault was in its failure.” That last bit was added with a sharp look toward Antaeus himself. 

“Hey,” the old wrestler snapped, “I told you what happened. I would’ve handled Alcaeus, but that magic kicked in and took all of them away. I was ready to deal with him, not that. You didn’t say anything about that kind of power.” 

“Indeed,” Litonya agreed. “That is what we should be discussing.” She squinted toward Ruthers. “Steps were taken to ensure that prepared spells could not be used to remove the elderly Chambers. Those protections were entirely useless against the magic that teleported them. I shouldn’t need to remind you of how difficult that should have been. Whoever prepared the spell that took them away was powerful enough to entirely dismiss the strength of three Committee-level casters.” 

Three. Ruthers squinted. Antaeus and Litonya were two. That meant one other member of their group had been in on this attempt to abduct Maria and Arthur Chambers. “We have absolutely no indication that Alcaeus had any connection to the current rebellion. Whatever the reason for his presence, it doesn’t change the fact that neither of the Chambers should have been approached, let alone threatened. They are ordinary humans, Bystanders. They were to be left alone.” He repeated the last point firmly, eyes narrowing. “You know if you had brought this plan up with the others, you would have been outvoted. That’s why you went behind our backs.” 

“Yes,” Litonya agreed without reservation. “In some respects, you can be as weak and foolish as the rebellion sympathizers, Gabriel. You refuse to focus on what must be done to maintain or restore order. Like it or not, Felicity’s grandparents are involved in this war. As I said, removing them from play was the right move to make. If we held them right now, we could have used that to force their granddaughter to make a choice to either surrender them or face the consequences of refusal.” 

“Consequences of refusal?” Ruthers echoed in disbelief tinted with anger. He took a few steps that way. “If you’re actually implying–” 

“I imply only what would be for the betterment of this world as a whole,” came the sharp retort. Litonya met his gaze, unmoved by his obvious anger. “I would think you, of all people, would understand that. It would not be the first time you allowed innocents to be threatened in order to prevent further conflict and bloodshed.” 

You intended to have the children killed,” Ruthers reminded her in a sharp voice whose tone showed that he had not forgotten just how far she had been willing to go. “You thought having Joselyn’s children murdered would break her spirit.” 

“And you had them taken instead,” Litonya retorted. “You could have returned them, but you kept them. You kept them and used their lives to force Joselyn into compliance. Then, you understood that the ends justify the means. Why are you so squeamish about that fact now? This is no different from that.” 

For a moment, Ruthers was silent. A mixture of emotions played very faintly over his face. Subtle as they were, the fact that they could be seen at all spoke volumes as to what he was feeling. It was quite brief, yet telling. 

“You’re wrong,” the man finally replied in a quiet voice. “It is different.” Letting that hang in the air briefly, he added gravely, “What I did was worse.” That said, Ruthers straightened, his eyes glancing between his two fellow Committee members. “I used two innocent children as hostages to force their mother’s cooperation. Whatever my intentions, regardless of the fact that I never intended them to actually be hurt, it wasn’t right.” The admission, both to himself and aloud, was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I thought saving them from your assassin was enough and that keeping them to ensure Joselyn’s compliance was justified in the name of ending the war. I was wrong.”  

“Wrong?” Litonya stared at him in clear disbelief, her heavily-lined face showing her incredulousness. “You removed Joselyn from the rebellion. Do you have any idea how much more damage she could have done to this world and our society if she had remained free through all that time? Holding two infant children for a time, when they were never in any actual danger? How could that be wrong when measured against the lives that were saved?”

Ruthers knew what she was really saying. Litonya had murdered her own brother, a man she had loved through their incredibly long lives, after he expressed a belief in Joselyn’s mission. She would never accept that anything was wrong when it came to stopping the rebellion. If she could kill her own flesh and blood, the brother who had been a part of her life for over fifteen hundred years, she would never believe that any measures taken to stop the rebellion were too far. 

And yet, he still gave a short nod. “I took Joselyn off the board. I could have given her children back, and didn’t, just to make her surrender. You’re right. And yes, it worked. But to what end? The rebellion continued even without her. And now, her new daughter has brought it back. We have done nothing to address the root of the problem, only swept it away for a time.” 

“Which,” Litonya retorted, “is precisely why you should have allowed my assassin to do his job. If Joselyn’s children were eliminated, she never would have allowed herself to live long enough to make any of this a concern. Her emotions would have driven her to a suicidal attack, and we could have worked together to remove her entirely and permanently.” 

For a few long seconds, Ruthers was silent. He stared at the woman, barely paying attention to Antaeus, who stood in the background glaring at him. Finally, he found his voice. “Arthur and Maria Chambers are not to be harmed. Whatever happened, they are not to be put in danger. They will not be used as hostages. Period. When we find them, they are to be returned safely to their home and then… whatever they choose to do is up to them. That is something I will put to the rest of the Committee. And I promise you, it will not go your way.” 

Litonya and Ruthers stared one another down for several long, very tense seconds. Finally, the old woman exhaled. “It shall be as you say, and the consequences will be on your head. But perhaps, if you are finished with such posturing, you would like to know more about the magic that took them away to begin with.”

“What is there to know?” Ruthers countered. “You just underestimated the amount of power that the Rebellion put into their protection spells. Does it surprise you that they would take those kinds of measures after what we did to Joselyn’s children?” 

“Perhaps not,” came the simple, knowing response. “But that is not the intriguing part. You see, from the traces we’ve performed, the spell that took them away did not deliver the Chambers and their bodyguard anywhere on Earth. 

“It took them somewhere very… very far away.” 

********

Arthur Chambers

“More security at the border?” As he voiced that question, Arthur Chambers glanced toward the gray-bearded man who stood beside him on the balcony overlooking the small island. It was the same island, on the same world, where he, his wife, and their long-time friend Al (recently revealed to be Alcaeus/Heracles) had been magically transported after being attacked in Alaska.

“Yes.” Puriel murmured. His blue eyes remained centered off in the distance. Out on the grass, the two men could see Maria with the assortment of Seosten children. She had them all sitting on the grass around the large easel-like hologram projector that had been set up. It functioned a lot like a chalk/whiteboard in schools, projecting a flat glowing surface that could be written on using a special metal pencil-like tool. 

At the moment, Maria was teaching the children some basic science (at least as much as she could), but she also taught other things. Particularly with help from Aletheia for math, and from the old Native American Heretic Kutattca for History and English. They had an actual room for lessons, but Maria preferred to teach the children outside in the fresh air as much as possible after they had been kept imprisoned in that sterile lab for so much of their lives. 

Puriel’s attention was centered on the small girl with the black and blonde hair. Spark. From what Arthur understood, she was one of the Seosten whose possession power malfunctioned. Puriel had forced her to possess him in order to save the girl from his wife, and now she only manifested in this ghost-like form using the man’s own energy manipulation powers. Here at Puriel’s home, far away from any prying eyes, it was safe for her to manifest anywhere on the island. Yet, it still seemed hard for the man to let her out of his sight for long, despite the fact that she was technically always connected to him. They were safe on this island, and would have plenty of advance warning if anyone dangerous approached. Logically, there was no reason to worry. 

But logic often didn’t factor into things when you were worried about someone you saw as your child. That much Arthur understood, even if a lot of this was still incredibly alien… literally, to him.

“There was an incident,” Puriel continued after that moment of silence. His voice held a slight hint of curiosity. It was clear he hadn’t been told as much as he would have preferred. “Some sort of pirate ship raided one of the border stations that prevent transport to Earth. They managed to do enough damage to make a temporary hole and pass through.” 

Arthur opened his mouth, only to stop and consider the entire situation. He was discussing an alien spaceship raiding some sort of magic starbase with an alien who was actually Zeus. Zeus. The mythological god. Would Arthur ever stop being awed by that? How did his son and granddaughter even function if they regularly interacted with people and… and situations like this? How did they avoid being completely overwhelmed to the point of being gibbering wrecks? It seemed as though every time he started to talk, the sheer scale and enormity of all this left him incapable of even thinking straight, let alone contributing in any meaningful way. 

Finally, he managed to sort himself out enough to speak. “Seems like that’s not an easy thing to do.” 

“No, it’s not.” The response came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The slender, dark-skinned woman came through the doorway behind them. “It should have been impossible for a single pirate ship to accomplish something like that. At least not as quickly as they did. They were through and gone before reinforcements could arrive. For a group that small and relatively weak to do such a thing…” 

“They had assistance,” Puriel murmured. “Either a mole within the station itself who could prevent or slow down certain security measures, or someone far stronger than the rest of the pirates on the ship with them. Someone who was using the pirates as transport.” Pausing, he allowed, “Perhaps both.” 

“Whatever happened,” Aletheia replied after stepping over to stand on the opposite side of Arthur, “security has been drastically raised. They won’t allow anyone through now. It won’t be possible to get to Rysthael–Earth, until things calm down there. Not even for someone like you,” she added with a look toward Puriel. “They have Raduriel working on some new protective measure.” 

“He had ideas about that for some time,” Puriel noted. “But the Seraphim wouldn’t provide the resources he wanted for it. They said the border was secure enough without such an expenditure.” 

“They changed their minds,” Aletheia murmured quietly, eyes on the children and Maria in the distance. “Now they’re giving him everything he wants. Apparently part of his argument was that if his creation works, it could be used in other places to guard against Fomorian intrusion as well.” 

Reminding himself that these two beings had been alive for literally longer than recorded human history, Arthur felt like a very small child as he spoke up. “This ahhh… Radueriel, you said he’s the inventor, the uhhh… Hephaestus.” 

“That is how your people know him, yes,” Puriel confirmed before looking that way. “He is also very dangerous. He and his husband, Abaddon. The one you know as Ares.” 

“Right, you mentioned…” Trailing off thoughtfully, Arthur exhaled. “Which means he’s really good at his job. Between that and the fact that there’s a lot of attention on the border… we’re not going back home anytime soon.” 

“I told you that I would find a way to get you there,” Puriel reminded him. “Just as I promised Spark that I would get her to her mother. That has not changed. Somehow, I will keep my word.”

“Kutattca has thoughts on that subject,” Aletheia informed them. “He believes his sister could be the key.” 

“His sister?” Arthur echoed. “You mean the same one who tried to kill him and is currently part of the group that wants to turn my daughter-in-law, son, and granddaughter into a bunch of red paste? That one?”

Aletheia gave a single nod of confirmation. “Indeed, one and the same. Kutattca believes there may be a way of using both their close blood relation and the fact that she is a powerful Heretic to create a link that can be used similarly to the way Puriel brought you here to begin with.” 

Arthur glanced between them. “You couldn’t do the same thing to send us back because you already had the spell created on Earth, so the link between Al and you was established while you were there, and sort of… pulled through the border with you when you left. Like a string that just kept stretching, right?” 

“Yes.” Puriel glanced to Aletheia, then back to Arthur. “I believe what Kutattca is suggesting is that we create a bond with him, and somehow transfer it to his blood relation through the connection both have to the Reaper that gives Bosch Heretics their power. He and his sister are both connected to this Heretical Edge, and if we could use that link…” Trailing off, the man nodded. “This will require some thought. And a lot of work.” 

“Well, whatever Maria and I can do to help,” Arthur offered. “Which isn’t much, I know. But–” 

“You may be able to do more than you think,” Puriel pointed out quietly. 

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

Tabbris, December, Theia, and Doug, sometime during Flick’s disappearance but before Tabbris’s wings were revealed. 

“You guys really didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Doug Frey informed his three Seosten companions as the group walked through an enormous room filled with dozens of large marble-like monuments. Each was roughly eight feet in height and twelve feet wide, with thousands of different names inscribed upon all four sides. “I’m just saying hi.” 

Tabbris, Theia, and December exchanged glances. As usual, it was the latter who spoke first. “Ohit’sokay… Wedidn’thavealot… todootherthanhelpTabbris… worryaboutFlick… andshedoesn’tneedhelpwiththat.” 

Flushing visibly, Tabbris folded her arms against her stomach while changing the subject. “You remember where Paul and Rudolph’s names are?” 

Doug nodded, starting toward the monument in question. “Yeah, it’s this one over here.” Finding the name of his murdered teammates, he reached out to gently run a finger along both engraved names, side by side. “They umm, they asked us which one we thought they’d want their names to be on. We… we thought they’d like to be next to each other. Paul and Rudolph… damn it, this sucks.”

“Would you prefer a larger monument? Or a private one?” Theia put in curiously. “Did they spell the names wrong? They spelled the names wrong, didn’t they?” 

“What?” Doug blinked that way before shaking his head. “No, I just… I just meant that them being dead sucks. It just…” Trailing off, he stared at Doug and Rudolph’s names before quietly asking, “Do you guys–sorry, I mean the Seosten. Do the Seosten believe in any kind of paradise after death or… or reincarnation or anything?” 

December was, once more, the one who spoke first. “There’sthecusp…butwedon’tgettogothere.” 

“What?” Tabbris blinked at her friend. “I… I’ve heard a little about the Cusp. It’s sort of like an afterlife, isn’t it?” 

“Cusp, Rim, Edge, it has a lot of names,” Theia put in a bit absently, her own attention mostly on staring at the memorial in front of them. Realizing belatedly that the others were watching and waiting for her to continue, she straightened, offering an awkward smile before she continued. “Seosten think beings split into three parts when they die. Magic, life, and self.”

“Magic is like ghosts, right?” Doug noted. “That whole thing where ghosts are a person’s magic shaped and sort of… formed into an echo of them.” 

Theia’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! That’s one. The life part is someone’s… life. Their health, their living energy. That part goes back into the universe and gets…” Her face screwed up a bit thoughtfully. “… recycled? It’s recycled, like cans and paper and bottles. The life force is recycled back into the universe and used to make more living things.” 

Doug thought about that briefly. “So Seosten believe that the energy of a living being is split in three parts when they die. The magical energy goes to make ghosts… sometimes, and the life energy gets put back into the universe as fuel for future lives. But what’s the third part?” 

“Self,” Theia reminded him. “Self is the part that goes to the Cusp. Or Rim, or Edge, or whatever you want to call it. The Cusp is where a person’s mind or personality goes. They stay in the Cusp, watching over everyone they want to, in any world. They can’t affect anything, but they can watch.” Pausing at that for a moment, she quietly added, “Does that sound creepy?” 

“A little,” Doug acknowledged, “but it’s not really different from other ideas of an afterlife, I suppose. Lots of people think the dead stay in some form of heaven or whatever forever.” 

“Oh, not forever.” Theia corrected him. “That’s why it’s called the Cusp. You only stay there for awhile, before your Self falls into the Void and disappears forever. You stop existing then.” 

“Youcanstayforalongtime,” December quickly put in. “Centuriesandcenturiesormore. Aslongaspeoplerememberyou.” 

Theia’s head bobbed in agreement with the younger girl. “Yup. You stay in the Cusp and keep watching over everyone you want to as long as enough people remember you, as long as they know about you. The more people remember you and the more they know about you, the longer you can stay in the Cusp without falling into the Void.” 

Doug took that in, murmuring, “Which… I guess that means a lot of your people want the Olympians, like Sariel and Apollo, to remember them. I mean, they’re supposed to be immortal, right? As long as they don’t get killed. They won’t die naturally. So as long as they remember someone, and with the perfect memory your people have, they will, anyone they know who died will stay in the Cusp.” 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “And even the Olympians who are killed will be in the Cusp forever, because no one will ever forget them. At least not for a longer time than the Seosten have existed so far.” 

“Seepeoplearegonnaknowyouforalongtime,” December informed Tabbris. “Evenifyoudieyou’llstayintheCusp. I’lltrytowaveonthewaytotheVoid.” 

“We’re not gonna die,” Tabbris curtly retorted. “Not for a long time anyway. And not–if we do, we’ll hang out in the Cusp together. We’ll watch people.”

December, however, shook her head. “That’snothowitworks. Liesdon’tgettostayintheCusp.” 

“Hey, don’t call yourself that,” Tabbris quickly blurted. “And what do you mean, you don’t get to stay in the Cusp?” 

It was Theia who answered. “That is why Lies don’t have names. Our people do not want Lies to be a part of the Cusp, where they could infect generations-to-come. We are not given names, so that, at death, we will fall directly into the Void.” 

For a long moment after that, Tabbris and Doug both stared at Theia and December. Doug was the one who finally found his voice. “Just when I think I can’t possibly loathe your people any worse for how they treat those like you, we break through into whole new levels of hatred. They deliberately–they don’t give you names because they want your soul to disappear for eternity as fast as possible so you don’t infect their descendents?! That–you–that–” His face twisted as the boy tried and failed to put words to his fury and disgust. Finally, he blinked toward Theia. “Wait, you–when Principal Fellows gave you a name, she was… she was actually giving you… she was… oh. Oh damn.” 

“You need a name!” Tabbris blurted, suddenly throwing herself at December to hug the girl tightly. “You need a real name, a name that’s just you, not a title! Everyone’s gonna remember you forever and ever!” 

“ButIamDecember,” the other girl pointed out in a voice tinted by confusion, not only at Tabbris’s words, but still at least partially at the fact that the girl actually willingly touched her. “I’mpartoftheCalendar. Youcan’ttakemeawayfromthat. TheCalendararemyfriends. Ican’tabandonthem. WearetheCalendar.” 

“You won’t abandon them,” Tabbris solemnly promised, still not releasing her tight grip. “We’re gonna name all of you. Real names that are just for you! You’re not gonna fall into the Void.

“Even if we have to find every Seosten we can and stamp your names directly onto their skulls so they don’t have any choice but to remember you.” 

********

Sophronia and Gaia

“Did it help?” Sophronia Leven spoke aloud while standing in front of the tube that held Gaia frozen in stasis. Her hand was pressed against the metal plate allowing the link to the woman. “Do you think he listened?” 

He, in this case, was Liam Mason. The man had just left after his own discussion with the former Crossroads Headmistress, before Sophronia herself entered to have this conversation. 

Somehow, despite only being able to communicate mentally, Gaia managed to convey a heavy sigh. I do not know. Liam is very stubborn, and lost in a way that may be unreachable. The choices he has made… if he is ever to change, it will only be by his own decision. 

“It would mean accepting a lot of mistakes,” Sophronia quietly noted, her gaze meeting Gaia’s frozen, motionless eyes. “More than most people could. Given what he’s already allowed those mistakes to cost him, repeatedly…”

It is not impossible for him to change, Gaia insisted. Speaking as someone who made more than my share of ‘mistakes’, often born from my own stubbornness and emotions. Heretics live a very long time. He can become a new person, if he wishes to. 

“If he wishes to,” Sophronia agreed pointedly. Then she changed the subject. “Ruthers, Litonya, and Antaeus had a confrontation over the disappearance of the elderly Chambers. You were right, Ruthers didn’t order it. And he was pretty unhappy.” 

Gabriel believes in leaving humans out of any such conflict, Gaia noted. He would never have agreed to send Antaeus, or anyone else, to abduct Felicity’s grandparents. This is something else. 

After a brief, pointed pause, Sophronia carefully asked, “And you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t you? Something you set up and wouldn’t want anyone to know about, no matter how much you trusted them, because of compartmentalization?” 

Gaia managed a mental chuckle. I assure you, this was not me. I do not believe it was the Atherbys either. 

“I know it wasn’t them,” the other woman confirmed. “I have… friends who keep me informed about certain things on that side. They don’t have any idea who took the Chambers or where they are. Do… do you think it was Fossor? He might have taken the grandparents to use in some kind of spell related to bringing Felicity back from the future and enforcing obedience.”

There was a brief pause as Gaia considered that. No, she finally answered. I don’t believe Fossor is connected to this. It’s too convenient that they disappeared with Alcaeus right when they were in danger. You said they appeared to be transported offworld?” 

Sophornia gave a short, pointless nod. “Yes. We can’t trace the spell all the way to the source, only that it’s very far away. Too far to track. It–wait. You think it was those Seosten. But why would the Seosten take Felicity’s grandparents?” 

I’m not certain, came the response. But I wonder if we are not coming at this from the wrong angle. We have been assuming that whoever was responsible abducted the Chambers and accidentally took Alcaeus as well. What if it was the other way around? 

“You mean the Seosten took old Heracles and Felicity’s grandparents were just caught in it by accident?” Sophronia considered that. “But why? Why would they go through the effort of using the kind of power it would take to transport him and two others, the latter by accident, all the way across the universe?” 

Again, Gaia was silent (even mentally) for a few long moments. I do not know, she finally admitted. There is a very large piece of this puzzle that is missing. It would be nice to have some answers before Felicity returns. 

“You think she’ll make it back to this time then?” 

I know she will. Felicity Chambers will find her way back to this time. When she does, I believe it will spark the final, direct conflict between her and Fossor. 

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

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Interlude 13B – Paige’s Preparations (Summus Proelium)

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A sleek, elegant-looking sports car slowed at the road construction cones that blocked off the quiet, otherwise empty street. The orange lights atop the ‘detour’ sign flashed repeatedly in the darkness of the post-midnight hour, illuminating an arrow pointing toward a nearby alley. A sign next to the alley itself insisted that it would lead around the construction. For a moment, the driver seemed to be considering their options, before putting the car into reverse, pulling back a few feet, and then following the ‘detour’ instructions by pulling ahead into the alley. 

Only once the car had made it halfway down the alley did its headlights actually reveal the truth. There was a wall at the opposite end, with no way of actually getting through. Nor was there room in the alley to turn the car around. There was barely room to open both doors. 

Just as that became clear, a large van pulled backward into the open alleyway, blocking the exit. Immediately, the back door of the van opened, and four men wearing red and black masks and dark jackets with various years written across the back and (in smaller lettering) over the front pocket, emerged. The years were all different, but each was 1999 or earlier. Of course, because these were members of the Ninety-Niners gang, those who only allowed members who had either lived (or had family who lived) in the city prior to the year 2000. They tended to boast of how long each of their families had lived in Detroit. The further back you could trace your family connection to the city, the higher you were regarded and the easier it was to be promoted. 

Each of the four Ninety-Niner men who hopped out of the back of the van carried a gun. Two had pistols, while two had shotguns. They split into pairs, one of each weapon type, and advanced. Two moved to the driver’s side, while the other pair moved up on the passenger side. All four glanced toward the license plate on the car. It was an out-of-state plate, of course. That was what had made this particular vehicle such an attractive target. Fucking outstaters coming to their city, reaping the benefits of what people whose families had actually lived there had earned? Hell no, not anymore. The Ninety-Niners were going to make damn sure that didn’t happen. Especially with some rich, spoiled cocksucker who thought they could come here in their fancy sports car. Detroit was for Motor City natives, not some Johnny-come-lately.

The driver of the car hadn’t moved once the men emerged. They kept sharp eyes on the reverse lights while raising their weapons, making it clear if the person tried to reverse into them, they’d be hit by a hail of gunfire. But the driver gave no indication of doing anything of the sort. They simply sat there, as though waiting for the gunmen to approach. 

Reaching the back of the car, the two pairs of masked figures briefly exchanged glances before starting around. The two by the passenger side carefully used small lights attached to their weapons to check for anyone crouched or laying in the back on that side, but found it empty. The car’s only occupant was the driver, whom they could now see was a blonde female. 

The two on the driver’s side glanced at each other once more. Then the one with the pistol, who was in the lead, tapped his weapon lightly against the roof of the car. “Open the door,” he ordered. “Put your hands out first, then step out slowly. Do it now and you won’t get hurt. We want your car and any money you’ve got on you, that’s it. After that, you can run off, call the cops, report to your insurance, whatever. Not like some rich cunt like you can’t afford it.”

There was no response to his words, only the very faint sound of whimpering. The blonde girl’s head was down, and it sounded like she was crying, obviously in shock. She gave no indication that she had even heard what he said, seeming lost in her own terror. 

Great, it was going to be one of these. People who screamed and cursed them were one thing, but the criers were really annoying. Grimacing behind his mask, the man sighed and steadied himself before knocking a bit louder with the butt of his gun. “Hey!” He raised his voice. “You hear me? Just get out of the car and you’ll be fine. I–” He cast an annoyed look back to his partner before leaning down to be even with her open window. “Look, just fucking cooperate and we’re not gonna hurt you or anything.” 

“I know,” Paige Banners replied, no hint of emotion in her voice. As the man reacted to that, eyes widening, her hand snapped out through the open window. She caught hold of his jacket and yanked hard, slamming the man’s forehead against the top of the car. Twice in rapid succession, she repeated the same move, shoving the man back and then slamming his head against the car, all before any of the others could react. His arm with the pistol came up, and she caught it with her free hand, yanking his dazed and barely conscious body partway into the car in order to force his own hand to point toward the opposite side as she made his finger pull the trigger, shooting the pistol-armed man who stood by the passenger door. Silenced as it was, the weapon made almost no sound. They hadn’t wanted to attract police or Touched attention if this went wrong. Which it was, but not in a way they could ever have imagined. 

The first man’s partner with the shotgun was trying to get a clear aim, but Paige was using his buddy as a personal shield, blocking his view. Smoothly, she stripped the pistol from the man’s grip, lying backward across the seats with him on top of her as she pointed the weapon backward, firing a single shot that hit the other man on the passenger side right between the eyes. He dropped, his own shotgun clattering to the ground. 

Finally, the man with the shotgun on the driver’s side took quick aim, desperately trying to get a shot at the girl herself. Before he could see anything other than his own buddy’s flailing body, however, Paige released said buddy’s jacket. Her now-free hand snapped up and flicked to the side, prompting a small silver dagger to jump into her palm from her sleeve. Another quick snap of her wrist sent the blade through the open window, where it rebounded off the nearby brick wall before stabbing itself firmly into the back of the remaining man’s neck. 

He collapsed to the ground, gun clattering loudly. Finally, Paige used her foot to kick her door open, emerging as the barely conscious figure of the first man fell to his knees on the alley floor when she pushed him out of the car with her. He jerked just a little bit while making a sound. It could have been a curse, a protest, a plea, she didn’t care. The hand with the gun she had taken from him simply pointed that way and she shot him through the side of the head, leaving his body to collapse. 

Everything had transpired in the span of just a few seconds. Short enough that the driver of the van barely had a moment to realize just how terrible things had suddenly become. As Paige looked that way, the van shifted into drive as the driver panickedly began to flee. Rather than chase him, however, she pivoted toward the door of the nearby building. The van started to tear out of the alley, while Paige fired a single shot from her borrowed pistol at the doorknob before shoving her shoulder into it. The door opened, and she sprinted through the closed and empty shop, vaulting over a couple tables and counters on her way to the front. 

She reached the main door, firing another shot that shattered the glass so she could leap through it, just as the van came out of the alley and around the corner. The driver barely had time to notice the figure emerging into view before she sent one more shot into the side of his head. The van kept going for another twenty feet or so before coming to a slow stop as the now-dead driver slumped over.

Looking one way then the other up and down the street, Paige checked for anyone paying attention. But the Ninety-Niners had chosen their ambush spot for a reason. There was no one around. Satisfied, she walked to the van, yanking the door open before pulling the dead driver out. Letting the body fall to the ground, she examined him critically, turning him over with her foot. 

“Between the five of you,” the girl muttered darkly under her breath. “I sure hope one has clothes that actually fit me. 

“Otherwise this really was a waste of time.” 

*******

An hour later, the Ninety-Niners van pulled through another alley and stopped at the rear entrance into a laundromat. Paige, dressed in the clothes, jacket, and mask of one of the men she had killed (which did actually fit, to her relief), parked the van, turned it off, and stepped out with a shotgun held loosely in one hand. 

A whistle from the doorway drew her attention to the similarly-dressed gang member who had previously been hidden out of sight. “Yo, you by yourself tonight?” 

When Paige spoke, her voice came out sounding far deeper than it did naturally, matching that of the man the clothes had actually belonged to. “Lost a fucking bet. They get to grab food at Dino’s, I get to bring this shit over.” 

“Hah, figures.” The man pushed his way away from the door and moved to the back of the van. “Let’s get it over with. You get a good haul, at least?” 

Paige, in turn, waited until the man yanked open the rear door of the van and was confronted with the sight of his five dead fellow gang members. Just as he started to react to that, she drove the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him senseless. Casually, the girl shoved him up into the van, grabbed the keys out of his pocket, and shut the doors once more while muttering, “Mostly trash.” 

With that, she headed for the door of the laundromat, unlocking it with the keys she had grabbed before stepping inside a short hallway. As she passed through the doorway, she heard a simple beep. To most people, it wouldn’t have meant anything. But Paige knew that the single beep was the sound of the Ninety-Niners’ security system verifying that the jacket and mask she wore contained the hidden microchips tagging her as one of their own members. If it had detected her entering without those microchips, the alarm would have sounded immediately. 

Straight ahead the hall opened up into the main room where the machines were, while a single door to the right was labeled ‘restroom’ and a door to the left read ‘staff only.’ The sound of a loud television and a man chuckling came from that latter door. 

For a moment, Paige simply stood and listened, head cocked to the side. Two people. There were two people in that room. And, from the sound of things, one further off in the main room, doing something with the machines. There was an occasional bang and curse as he was apparently having trouble with his work. Three guys upstairs. More downstairs, she was sure. 

Rather than open the door to the office where the two men were watching television, she simply produced a small, matchbook sized silver box and pressed it against the doorjamb. It stuck in place, remaining there while giving a soft, barely audible beep to confirm it had been armed. That done, Paige walked swiftly and silently past the door, heading for the main room. The man working there had his back to her as he leaned over one of the washing machines, fiddling with it. Paige, in turn, moved right up behind him. He sensed her presence at the last second and started to turn, but she caught the back of his neck and shoulders with both hands and forcefully slammed his forehead down into the top of the washing machine twice. Then she shoved his dazed form down, lashing out with a kick that put him down. 

She paused, listening just in case. But there was no movement from the office. They obviously believed the bangs they had heard were simply more examples of their companion’s annoyance with his work. 

Satisfied, Paige stooped to grab a badge off the man’s belt and moved to an unlabeled door on the far side of the room. It was barely visible, intentionally positioned and painted to blend into the wall. If you weren’t looking right at it, and sometimes even then, you’d have no idea it was there. At most, anyone who didn’t know what it was would think the door led to a small supply closet or something. 

But Paige knew better. She had spent months researching to know better. It had taken that long to work out what she needed for her plan to succeed, and to find out where it actually was. 

There was no obvious place to put the badge that she had taken from the unconscious man’s belt, which was also intentional. But Paige, again, knew what to do. She held the badge up against what appeared to be a simple stain on the wall next to the door. After a couple seconds, there was a click, and she hauled the door open with her other hand, keeping the shotgun tucked under one arm. 

Stairs lay beyond, which the girl quickly started down. So close now. She was so close. Just a little more and she’d have what she so desperately needed. 

A man emerged from a door at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her in clear surprise. “Hey, what’s going on? Is something–” 

Paige shot him. There was no time to waste, no way she was going to risk losing out on her goal when she was so close. The shotgun blast took the man directly in the chest, making him collapse to the floor while Paige hopped over him, landing in the doorway he had come out of. It was a sterile lab, where the Ninety-Niners mixed their drugs. A dozen men and women in plastic cleanroom suits jerked upward from their work at the tables, but Paige simply held the shotgun up, watching as they jerked their hands in the air and went still. 

Drugs lined the tables, and the people clearly expected her to take them. But she ignored those. Instead, keeping the shotgun raised and trained that way, Paige made her way across the room to another door. Just as she reached it, a man came rushing out, pistol in hand. He would have fired, but Paige had already reacted. Even as the door was still opening, before the man had actually emerged, she snapped her free hand out, producing one of her knives before throwing it. The blade whistled through the air, driving itself into the man’s throat the instant he came into view. He never had a chance to so much as fire a shot before he was already falling. 

That prompted a lot of screaming, with one man from the cleansuit brigade bolting toward the stairs. Paige let him go, and the rest followed suit, scrambling to escape. 

She didn’t care. They didn’t matter. All that mattered was in that room. She stepped over the dead body, entering what looked like a small storage area filled with the supplies and equipment the people in the main room needed to put the drugs together to be sold. 

There. In one corner of the small room was a locked metal cage, about four feet high and four feet wide. Paige murmured a word of thanks under her breath before crouching. Her hand found the padlock, and she gripped it tightly and took a breath before yanking hard. It took a couple tries, but the lock finally snapped, and she tossed it aside before opening the cage. 

There. A small green and silver tank, just like one that would hold oxygen, sat there alongside several more just like it. But this one didn’t have oxygen. Technically, the Ninety-Niners used small portions of it in some of their drugs. But that wasn’t why Paige needed it. She had… a different use in mind. 

Grabbing the tank, the girl straightened and turned. She quickly made her way across the main basement room and up the stairs. Emerging into the laundromat itself, she found the main door hanging open where the workers had all fled. To the left, she saw the hallway she had come in through. The door to the manager’s office was open, and the two men who had been watching television inside lay slumped on the ground where the device she’d attached to the doorway had left them when they triggered it on their way out. 

Satisfied that there were no more surprises, Paige pivoted and walked out through the open front door. More Ninety-Niners would be on their way shortly, but she would be long gone by the time they got there. They would have no way of finding who had ambushed their men, infiltrated their facility, and stolen their equipment. 

Quickly moving down the street, Paige found her way to a small parking lot beside a diner. The car she had left there earlier, before any of this started, was still waiting. Opening the back door, she carefully stowed the stolen tank, then stripped out of the jacket and mask, tossing them into the nearby dumpster so she couldn’t be tracked. 

That done, the blonde girl gave one last look around, then stepped down into the anonymous sedan, started it up, and pulled away. In the rearview mirror, she saw three vans full of Ninety-Niners come screaming up to the laundromat before dozens of armed men went storming inside. 

But they were too late. Paige had what she needed. She was ready for her birthday party. 

She was ready to deal with Cassidy. 

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Interlude 8B – Liam Mason (Heretical Edge 2)

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The first time he lost his wife had been the second-worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Second-worst, because at the time, he’d still had his little girls. As traumatized as little Scout had been, as much as it had killed him that he couldn’t erase what she had experienced, she was at least there. He could hold her, he could comfort her. She and her sister were there as reminders of the woman he loved. He’d had that, at least. They’d had each other. 

The second time he lost his wife had been the worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Because he hadn’t only lost Larissa again. This time, he’d lost his girls too. Scout and Sands. He lost all three of them. And not to some monster or a magic spell. No. He lost them to themselves. They willingly left, chose to leave, out of some misguided belief that the monsters who wanted to enslave, kill, and devour humanity itself were some kind of… innocent little fluffy puppies. 

He’d lost his wife and children, his entire family, within months of actually getting them all back in the first place. They chose to walk away, chose to abandon their father, to side with… with… those things. 

Just like Joselyn. Just like Deveron, Lillian, Roger, Seamus, and Tribald. All of them were supposed to be his friends, back in the day. All of them had gone off on this… absurd belief that the creatures who tore human bones from their bodies, devoured their hearts, and used the remains for blood rituals were actually just misunderstood. The creatures they fought were monsters. Jos, Deveron, the rest of them just didn’t understand. Liam had thought that getting the adults involved would put an end to the whole situation, but it had only made things worse. Instead of being talked down out of their insanity, Joselyn and the others had blamed him for exposing their little group, and everything blew up into a full-scale war. A war that had ended with Joselyn’s identity, as well as almost everyone’s memory of that war, being erased so that things could go back to the way they should have been. 

Now the war was back. It was unerased, thanks to Joselyn’s daughter. And while Joselyn had taken his friends away when she started her version of the war. Felicity Chambers took away his wife and children. 

Felicity Chambers was an idealistic child who had no doubt been manipulated by those much stronger and more malicious than she was. Creatures, likely the same or related to those who had first manipulated Joselyn into believing this insanity, had gotten to her. Whether it was before she ever joined Crossroads or after, Liam wasn’t sure. Only that they used her as a weak point, twisting her mind until she believed the same evil lies as Joselyn had. 

Was it the bodysnatchers who had been exposed earlier in the year? It had to be them, right? That was what made the most sense. If they could possess people, it wouldn’t have been hard to bring some onto the school grounds to say the right things to twist Flick and those around her. 

And Gaia. She was fooled by all this too. Fooled or puppeted or… or… Gods, who knew. It was all such a mess. The war was going again, his family was gone, Gaia was locked up for being part of it, and now Liam had been put in charge of Crossroads as its new headmaster. 

Headmaster. He was the new headmaster of Crossroads, and what happened during the first hunt they’d put together, even with all the precautions? One of their students disappeared. Erin Redcliffe had literally vanished in the middle of the hunt. Despite all the extra guards they had, despite the trackers that were supposed to make sure the students could always be found, despite everything, Erin was just…. gone. 

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing outside of a wooden door as he exhaled a long, slow breath. The man inside had already called for him to enter, but Liam took another moment before pushing the door open and stepping through. 

It was a war room. Or at least it looked like one, with a large table projecting a hologram of the Earth with various marks indicating where sightings of certain people had been, weapons lining all of the walls, a heavy oak desk at the back covered in reports and a handful of recording devices, and shelves behind the desk lined with various enchanted objects. There were no decorations, nothing to indicate any kind of personal life or entertainment for the occupant. It was all entirely built and designed around function. 

Gabriel Ruthers stood at the back of the room, looking at the shelf with magic items. His hand casually toyed with one of the metal orbs there, rolling it between two fingers as he spoke in a quiet, somewhat weary voice. “It’s been a long year, hasn’t it, Liam?” 

“Are we counting since three hundred and sixty-five days ago, January, or the beginning of this school year?” Liam asked. Pausing then, he grimaced. “I guess it doesn’t matter. The answer is yes.” 

“It’s going to get longer,” came the gruff response. With that, Ruthers turned and moved closer. “You’re here about the Redcliffes. What’s going on with her father?” 

“We haven’t told Nolan yet,” Liam informed him simply, folding his arms across his chest while he watched the man. “But he’ll figure it out eventually, when we don’t let him talk to her. You know what a shitshow that’s gonna be? The only reason he’s still here and hasn’t gone off to join the idealists is because he thinks we still have his daughter here.” 

A short pause followed that statement, before Liam dropped his gaze to stare at the floor, his entire frame seeming to deflate a bit. “You know what that sounds like when I say it out loud?” 

“I know what it sounds like,” Ruthers confirmed quietly, his hand finding its way to Liam’s shoulder. “But you have to be strong. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel or sound right. Sometimes it’s hard. When it comes to saving humanity, to protecting our world and our people, we don’t always have the luxury of playing nice. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy to make sure even more people don’t suffer. Liam, you know what we’re up against, don’t you?” 

“Idealists manipulated by evil,” Liam murmured, frowning a bit before looking back up to the other man. “There’s already students talking about Erin’s disappearance, and I know there’s a few trying to decide if there’s a way for them to pull the same disappearing act. They play it cool around their teachers, but I just… I know they’re planning something. I can’t just throw them all in holding cells because I suspect they want to defect. I’ve cancelled future hunts for the time being until we find out what happened with Erin, but what… what else are we supposed to do? We can only keep them trapped at school for so long.” 

“It’s a tropical island with a magnificent beach and a jungle,” Ruthers dryly retorted, “they’re not exactly suffering.” Sobering a bit, he added, “They’ll be fine, Liam. Tell them the truth, that we’re protecting them. Tell them that their friends and family have been tricked, but we’re working to bring them back. Tell them about the bodysnatchers. If it scares them… good, maybe it’ll convince them not to trust people they don’t know, and to be critical of anyone they do know showing up with strange new ideas and opinions.” 

“You want me to make my students paranoid about everyone they talk to?” Liam’s voice was flat as he stared at the man he had looked up to and trusted for so long. 

Ruthers, in turn, stared right back at him. “I want you to teach them to be critical and wary of people who might be trying to lead them astray, be that strangers or… strangers wearing the faces of people they think they know. Teach them that people who suddenly change their minds about every truth we’ve known for so long might not be themselves anymore. Whether they’ve been fooled or… or taken over, those are the people we need to lock down if we’re going to get this under control. I want you to use the authority you’ve been given to keep a lid on our students so we don’t lose any more of them to this absurd insurrection. Can you do that?”

Liam was silent for a few long seconds, letting the words sink in before he straightened a bit, meeting the other man’s gaze. “Yes, Counselor. 

“I can do that.” 

*******

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing in front of a heavy, metal door lined with magical runes and radiating power beyond anything even he could actually comprehend. The spells on the door were stronger than he could possibly have deciphered in several years, let alone done anything about. A single one of the multiple incantations could have been studied for decades to get a full understanding of. They had been prepared by the strongest mages in Crossroads. 

“I can’t let you in here for long, you understand?” Sophronia Leven, the beautiful, auburn-haired Crossroads Committee member whose human story was told in the epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, reminded him as she stood by the door. “There are rules that all of us have to follow, no matter how… much we may disagree with them. Lines that we have no choice but to toe.” 

Before he answered, Liam gave the woman a brief, curious look. It sounded more as though she was annoyed about something else when she spoke of lines they had to toe. Belatedly, when she squinted at him, he gave a quick nod. “Of course, Counselor. I don’t need long.”

At least, he hoped he didn’t. Even coming here in the first place felt like a betrayal of Ruthers and everything he was supposed to stand for. But then, Liam was well-versed in betrayal. 

Finally nodding with what was apparently satisfaction, Sophronia touched several parts of the door, speaking an incantation. As a few runes lit up, she gestured and the door swung open entirely soundlessly. “Go. Do what you must,” she instructed. “I will warn you before your time is up. Do not linger when I do so, or the security measures will take their own precautions.” 

With a single, somewhat distracted nod, Liam stepped through the doorway and into a small, dark room. He could sense the walls around him, the space only slightly larger than one of those Bystander portable toilets or a closet. More magical runes covered each of them, all lighting up as the door closed behind him. For a full minute, he was scanned and various queries were sent to three separate people in different locations to ensure that he was allowed to be where he was. Only once all three of those had come back positive did the magic unlock, and he felt a quick rush of power as the small room transported him to his actual destination. 

Now, he was standing on a platform in a large, brightly lit room with no doors or windows. The walls, floor, and ceiling were white and lined with even more spells than the previous door and small room had been. There was more magical power on a single wall of this room than Liam could produce on his own, even if given a full century to do so. 

The room itself was empty, aside from a large glass tube directly in the middle. Within the tube floated the reason for all the security measures, the woman he’d come to see. Gaia Sinclaire. She wasn’t actually floating in water, or any other liquid. Instead, the red-haired woman had been frozen in an ongoing stasis field that was projected from the tube and powered by a few of the spells on the surrounding walls. The rest of those spells were meant to make it impossible to find this place, to have any contact with Gaia herself, to keep Gaia contained if she broke from the stasis, and so on. 

For a moment, Liam froze, staring at the tube. A rush of thoughts and memories passed through his mind, before he exhaled and stepped that way. There was a single metal plate in the middle of the tube, and he put his hand against it firmly before speaking aloud. “Headmistress?” 

You don’t need to call me that, Liam, came the response directly into his mind through the mental link that the metal plate established. Not anymore. 

Yes, Gaia’s body may have been frozen, but it was possible, through the spells that kept her that way, to contact her mind. From what Liam knew, the Committee had been using that in an attempt to get any information from her about the bodysnatchers, the rebellion, the Atherbys, anything useful at all. 

“Gaia,” he amended, cursing himself inwardly for the slip. Of course she didn’t have that title anymore. He had her position. She was a prisoner, a traitor. So why had his first instinct been to show deference and respect? 

Shaking that off, Liam pushed on. “I need–I mean… Erin Redcliffe disappeared.” Over the next few minutes, he explained the situation, how the girl had vanished from the middle of a hunt and their thoughts that either she had somehow planned it out and run away to join her roommate and friends in the rebellion, or that they themselves had taken her. 

When he was done, Gaia was silent. Well, she was always silent. She gave no mental response for a few long seconds. Just as he was about to ask if the spell had malfunctioned somehow, the woman finally ‘spoke.’ Let me tell you a story. 

“A story?” Liam echoed. “Is this really the right time?” 

There is no better time than this, she insisted before continuing. Once, very long ago, a man lived happily with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They weren’t rich, but neither were they poor. They were content. One day, while the wife and children were off, a traveling salesman came to the man’s door and showed him a grand mirror, six feet in height and three feet wide. The mirror was a sight to behold, set into a stand of wood that had been intricately carved to look like two beautiful, androgynous figures holding the glass. 

‘This will protect your family, good sir,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Because there are monsters in this world, and the mirror will reveal them to you.’ 

“It was a mirror enchanted to break the Bystander Effect?” Liam asked, curiously. 

So it would seem, was her response. With some hesitation, but an eagerness to protect his family from any threats, the man bought the mirror and placed it in his home. As he stood admiring it, his wife returned, and the man brought her to the mirror. However, to his horror, the reflection showed not the woman he knew, but a foul beast. He saw, in the reflection of his wife, a creature with dark scales, pointed horns, and a wide mouth with many fangs. In a panic, the man killed the beast, before hearing the approach of his son. 

Quickly, he hid the body, resolving to explain the truth to the boy before forcing him to see his mother’s body. But, as the boy entered, the man saw his son’s reflection in the mirror. Again, it was that of a demonic being, a snarling beast that drove a shiver through the man’s heart. In despair, he killed the boy, unable to stand the sight of that creature in the mirror. 

Once more, he heard someone approach. His daughter. Terrified and thoroughly suspicious, the man hid the body of his son and waited. Sure enough, when the girl entered the room looking for her family, the man saw the reflection of a most terrible beast, the worst of all. With a heart laden with sorrow and regret, he killed his daughter. 

“I don’t understand the point of this story,” Liam interrupted. “Is it that evil can be everywhere, even where we least expect it? Because–”

He was cut off as Gaia pushed on as though he hadn’t spoken at all. The man was certain the enchantment hiding his wife and children’s true forms would wear off upon their deaths. But it didn’t. They looked the same as they always had to his naked eye. Worse, when he displayed them before the mirror again, their reflections were as normal as his own. Grieving, he took the bodies behind the house to bury, when the salesman returned. 

‘You!’ the man shouted. ‘You lied to me! You told me the mirror would reveal the monsters in this world!’

‘And so it has,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Can you tell me of anyone more monstrous than he who would kill his wife and children?’ 

“I should’ve known that coming here was a mistake,” Liam muttered. “What is that supposed to mean? What does it have to do with saving Erin?” 

Again, there was a brief pause before Gaia responded. Its meaning is for you to determine, Liam. I cannot tell you that. As for Erin, I believe she is fine. My intention was not to protect her, but to save another of my students. One whom I will never give up on, no matter what mistakes they may make. 

“Who?” he snapped, unthinkingly. 

You, Liam.  

I want to save you

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Interlude 13A – Paige and Her Father (Summus Proelium)

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Seven Years Ago

“Project Owl, day seven hundred and thirty two.” Speaking into the portable voice recorder that he held in one hand, a man frowned thoughtfully. He was a Caucasian male with dark blond hair and brown eyes, in his mid-thirties. A white lab coat and dark, heavily stained red apron were worn loosely over his clothes, and he sat in a room that might have been large were it not entirely filled by heavy metal tables piled high with a mixture of mechanical devices and tools. Not to mention the large human cadaver lying on a metal dissection table on the far side of the area, next to an industrial-sized sink. The chest of the body had been opened up, with several organs sitting next to it. Tubes and wires connected the heart and lungs both to the body itself and to a nearby machine, which had a small screen displaying a continuous line of computer code. 

The slight frown on the seated man’s face held until he thought of the next thing to say. “Paige is getting better every day. She’s going to surpass my best estimate months ahead of schedule. At this rate, we’ll be able to move on to phase three before Christmas.” Another pause, then a murmured, “Julie would’ve wanted it that way. And with help from the Tates, we’ll have the funding we need. As soon as Paige is ready to show what she can do, what these… enhancements can do.” He trailed off briefly, eyes turning slightly to look at the wired-up organs next to the corpse across the room as those last few words left his mouth in a murmur. After that, the man pushed himself up from the wooden stool he’d been perched on and stepped over, hand brushing over the heart just enough to assure himself that it was still occasionally beating. Softly and slowly, but beating nonetheless. A very slight smile touched his face. It was an expression of accomplishment, of satisfaction at hard work being rewarded with results. “We’ll change the world, Julie. With help from the Tates and the Evans, we’ll make everything better.” There was a hoarseness to his voice, born of long-buried emotion that the man didn’t dare allow himself to express in that moment for fear of the damage he might do to the valuable materials around him in a fit of anger. It would not be the first time, but he had learned his lesson after losing hours of work. 

Clearing his throat after that momentary pause, the man spoke again for the recorder. “I have another meeting with Russell Tate tomorrow. I’ll take Paige with me and show him how far she’s progressed since he saw her last. If he can convince Sterling and Elena to front the other half of the funding, we’ll never have to worry about working in such… sparse conditions again.” 

“Dad?” The voice came from the small blonde girl who stood just inside the doorway of the lab wearing dark blue pajamas. In one hand, she held a well-worn and clearly loved book full of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips clutched tight against her chest, while the other hand rubbed sleepily at one of her eyes. “I had a bad dream. Can I have some water, please?” 

“It wasn’t a bad dream,” the man replied simply, casting a brief look that way. “You were just–” He sighed, shaking his head while muttering something under his breath. Then he stepped over that way. The girl raised her hands as though to be picked up, but he stepped past her without noticing or paying attention. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed. It’s a big day tomorrow.” 

Rather than following immediately, the small girl leaned up on her toes to stare at the partially dissected cadaver on the nearby table. Her face twisted a bit before she pivoted to trot along after her father, bare feet slapping against the tile floor. On the way, Paige raised the comic strip collection, finding one section in particular. “Dad, dad, listen. Calvin thinks bats are bugs, and–” 

“Bats aren’t bugs,” her father retorted without even glancing that way, his voice making it clear that he hadn’t really been listening to the context of what she was saying. “You know better than that. What’s the scientific name for them?” 

“No, no, I know.” Head bobbing up and down, Paige hurriedly tried to explain. “But he doesn’t. It’s just–” 

They had reached the kitchen by then, and the man flipped on the light before stepping to the nearby fridge. “Scientific name for bats, Paige. You know this.” 

With a soft sigh, the girl closed the book upon the realization that her father didn’t care about what she was actually saying. “Chiroptera. It means ‘hand-wing’ in Greek.” As she answered, Paige yawned once more, adding a somewhat mumbled, “They used to be sub-ordered into megachiroptera and microchiroptera, but now they’re grouped as Yinpterochiroptera and Yangochiroptera.” The words came automatically, with Paige clearly barely paying attention.

“Good,” the man noted, while his voice made it clear he didn’t care all that much aside from registering the factual correctness of her words. He took a glass down from the cabinet, then pushed it against the water dispenser in the fridge to fill it before handing the glass to her. “Have a drink, then it’s back to bed. You know how important tomorrow is, don’t you?” 

Taking a sip of the cool water while holding the glass in both hands (the collection of comic strips was tucked under one arm), the young girl slowly nodded. “Yes, Dad. We get to meet Mr. Tate tomorrow. Will we meet Mr. Evans too?” She knew the latter was the fish that her father really wanted to land. The Tates were rich, but with the resources that the Evans could bring to Project Owl, everything her father had been working toward for so long would come true. 

The man’s head shook. “No,” he murmured. “Not yet. Russell knows the broad strokes of the plan, but we have to convince him it’s possible before he takes it to his friend.” His eyes focused on her, narrowing. “Which is why you need to go to bed, so you can do your job tomorrow and impress him.” 

Paige murmured an agreement, before finishing her water and putting the glass into the nearby sink. Then she turned back to face the man with a somewhat uncertain look. “You said the Tates and the Evans have kids like me, right?” 

The man’s response to that was a low chuckle that expressed the sheer absurdity of such an idea. “No, not like you. There is no one else in the world like you, Paige. No one at all… yet.” An anticipatory smile touched his face briefly before he shook that off and focused. “Now, sleep.” 

******

Two Years Later/Five Years Ago

After a quick series of beeps as a code was entered in a control panel, followed by an affirmative chime, the thick metal door into the structure that served as both the man’s lab and his makeshift home opened with a whoosh of air. Immediately beyond the heavy door was a set of metal stairs, which Paige descended quickly, taking them two at a time. “Dad! Dad!” 

Hitting the bottom of the stairs, the girl had reached a long hallway with an arched ceiling, the walls all made of the same thick metal as the door above. Which made sense, given the amount of damage this bunker had been designed to guard against. Its owner was not an incautious man, in most respects. To the left were the labs and testing chambers, while the living areas, such as the kitchen she’d had her drink of water in that night a couple years earlier, were to the right. 

“Where did you go?” The demand came from her father, as he appeared in one of the lab doorways. Dark circles had formed under his eyes in the past few days, ever since the massacre at the Tates house. “I told you to be here waiting for me, not to go wandering off.” 

“I wasn’t wandering, Dad,” Paige insisted, taking the few steps that way to stand in front of him. “Listen, I had to help Cassie. I–” 

“Cassie? Who–what?” Her father interrupted, a sudden frown crossing his face. “Who is Cassie? Who have you been talking to? You know you’re supposed to be subtle, invisible. You’re not supposed to stand out. If anyone finds out the truth about you, about–”

“It’s okay, she won’t tell anybody!” Paige hurriedly insisted. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Dad. Just listen for a second, okay?  She’s my friend, Cassie’s my friend! She–they–” 

Abruptly, her father’s hands cupped either side of her face, forcing her to look at him and nowhere else. “Paige,” he snapped sharply, his voice dangerous. “Tell me what happened. What did you do? What do you mean, you have a friend? Who is this Cassie? You know we can’t trust anyone. You know that. Especially now, especially after–” He muttered a curse, releasing the girl’s face while turning to step away, his fist hitting the nearby wall. “It’s the Evans and their family bullshit! All them. We were so close, we were so close. Russell and me, we were going to–he was–” He sighed, pressing his forehead against the wall he had struck. “Russell. He was our friend, Paige. He was our friend and he was going to help make everything better. Everything. If it wasn’t for the Evans dragging their family bullshit into this, if it wasn’t for…” Trailing off, he closed his eyes, shaking his head with a murmured, “I’m sorry, Russell. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Fuck.” 

For a moment, it looked as though the man had entirely forgotten Paige. But eventually, he straightened a bit, voice hollow and quiet. “We’ll make them pay. The Evans and everyone like them. We’ll make them understand what they’ve lost. We’ll tear everything they have away from them, burn it down, and build something better. Something that works.” 

With those words, the man took in a long, deep breath before letting it out slowly. He was a bit calmer now, a bit more in control, though the dark circles from lack of sleep remained, of course. “You can’t endanger that by talking to people, Paige. Everything we’ve worked for, it’s almost gone. You and me, we’re going to break the Evans. We’re going to break the entire goddamn system.” 

Carefully, Paige pointed out, “I thought you wanted them to fund your work, so you could–” 

“Yes, yes,” the man interrupted. “That was the plan. The Evans and the Tates, with both families, we could have changed the world. We’ll still change it. But not with the Evans. Not with them. It’s their fault Russell and Gloria are gone. Their family, their—their evil bullshit drama! Everyone else suffers but them. Everyone else gets plowed under the ground, just like Julie. You really think I’m going to hand this kind of power to them? No. No, no. We’re going to make them pay for what happened to the Tates, for what their kind does to everyone else in the world. We’re going to put them in the ground, and then we’ll make everything better without them.” 

Smiling in satisfaction at that declaration, the man seemed to abruptly remember what had started the entire conversation. “Cassie. Who is Cassie? Who have you been talking to?” 

For a very brief moment, Paige hesitated, the answer on the edge of her lips. But the anger in her father’s voice, the way he talked about breaking the Evans. She had come running in to tell him that they had to help Cassidy, after she’d witnessed that man in the other girl’s bedroom erase her memory. She’d hidden in Cassidy’s closet, watching as her friend’s memories of Anthony (and of Paige herself) were wiped away. After escaping the house, she’d come here, hoping that her father would help her save her friend. 

Now she saw what a mistake that was. She saw just how much his hatred of the entire Evans family had grown. He had been friends with Russell Tate for a long time. Now the Tates were dead, and her father needed someone to blame. He’d chosen to blame the Evans simply because it had been Mrs. Evans’ father and the remnants of his old criminal gang (the majority of which Sterling and Elena themselves had taken over) who had murdered the Tates. 

In her father’s mind, his friend Russell would still be alive if the Evans hadn’t allowed their ‘family drama’ to go that far. If they had stopped Jacopo Russo, Elena’s father, before, it never would have happened. Now he would never accept that it wasn’t their fault.

So, the girl did something that should have been impossible. She lied to her father. “She’s this homeless lady by the laundromat,” she answered simply, after a hesitation that had lasted only for a second as all those thoughts ran through her mind. “Remember you said I could go for walks if I didn’t attract attention? The laundromat is across the street from the park, and I see that woman by the bench outside a lot. So I started giving her part of my sandwich, and she told me her name’s Cassie Bawneworth. She thinks I’m Jenny Ferguson.” 

“You said you had to help her?” the man pointed out curiously, raising an eyebrow. 

“Her dog,” Paige lied again. “He got off his leash so she needed help getting him back. Because she doesn’t run very well anymore. You know, because she’s old.” 

Apparently satisfied, her father clearly dismissed the story from his mind entirely with a simple, “Well, you’re going to be too busy to play those kinds of games now.” 

“What are we going to do, Dad?” Paige asked, after a very slight hesitation. She knew that talking her father out of his revenge wouldn’t work. She knew how obsessed he could be, how much he had cared about not only the project in general and all the good he was certain it could do, but about his friend as well. The Tates being murdered hadn’t just hurt the project that he had put his entire soul into for so many years, but also hurt him personally. No, not just hurt. Destroyed. He meant it when he said that Russell was his friend. A friend who had done so much for him, who had been there through the beginnings of the project and had been ready to push everything to the next level. And now all of that anger, for the death of his friend and what could very well be the death of his years-long dream of making the world a better place, was being put onto the entire Evans family. Nothing she said would dissuade him from that.

Chuckling softly at her question, the man straightened. “What are we going to do?” he echoed, voice sounding somehow dangerous. “The Evans have two children. We’re going to take the older one, the… boy, was it? Yes. The boy. We’ll take the boy. And when I’m done with him, he will be…” He trailed off once more, words turning to a simple chuckle of dark amusement. “Well, he’ll be better than he was. And more obedient. He will do what I tell him to, just as you do. And with that…” The man’s face set, the anger, outrage, grief, and sheer agony from the death of his friend blazing through his hard eyes and his dark words. “With that, he will kill his sister. The older Evans boy will kill his sister, then confess. Not only to that, to everything. He’ll tell everyone, the whole world, that his sister was going to tell the police about this… Ministry of theirs. He’ll tell them that he tried to stop her, that they struggled and he killed her. And now he’s so upset, he has to tell the truth about everything. He’ll go on national television to expose the truth. Yes. One of the Evans’ children will kill the other, and then expose all of their dirty little secrets to the entire world.”

On a roll by that point, the man pivoted on one heel, walking back toward the lab he had come out of. “And when the Ministry lies exposed and ruined, with so much attention on the Evans and their allies, what remains will need leadership. We will step into that void. You and I, Paige, will take up their resources and use them to complete Project Owl. The Evans will be in no emotional condition to retaliate, not with the loss of their daughter at the hands of their son, and the revelation of their secrets to the world. Every eye in America will be on them, and more beyond.” 

He stopped in the doorway, looking back toward her. “We will make this world better, Paige. Just as we planned. But only once the stench of the Evans and their people is removed from it. We’ll scrub them away, and build something better than they could ever dream of.” 

Swallowing slightly, the blonde girl straightened and gave her father a very faint nod. “Yes, Dad.” 

From there, she watched as he disappeared into the lab once more, to map out his plan in full. Already, the man was muttering to himself about how to grab the boy, how long they would have to work undisturbed before any alarm was raised, and what sort of supplies he would need to stock up on to make certain everything was ready. 

For almost a full two minutes after her father vanished from sight, Paige stood there. Her eyes stared unseeingly, her attention and thoughts elsewhere as she fought through so many decisions. Cassidy didn’t remember her. She had no idea who Paige was. 

But Paige remembered her.

Eyes finally focusing, the girl turned. She strode past several doors to reach her father’s office before stepping inside. Glancing back to check the corridor, she listened to the sound of the man talking to himself in the lab, before stepping over to the desk. The phone. She picked it up, hitting a series of numbers from memory. 

When the person on the other end of the line answered, Paige spoke in a voice that was far different from her own, sounding more male than female. “Robert Parson? No, you don’t know who this is.

“But there’s someone you need to know about.” 

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