Month: December 2020

Trust 15-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“Cassidy Evans. Like, the billionaire princess of Detroit, perfect daughter of their lord high majesties the queen and king of the city, Elena and Sterling? They who own half the buildings in this fucking city, and probably three-quarters of the government? That Cassidy Evans?” 

That was the new girl, of course. I had just introduced myself the moment Mrs. Donnelley had walked away, leading her to give me a double-take before blurting that whole thing out. She was staring at me as though I’d just told her I was really Abraham Lincoln, raised up from the grave and set to run for another election with her on the ticket as vice-president. 

Opening my mouth, then shutting it as a blush settled across my face, I settled on a weak, “Just Cassidy is fine, we don’t usually go with the rest of the title unless it’s a really special occasion.” 

The other girl shook her head at me, insisting, “You ain’t exactly what I was expecting.” 

Coughing, I offered a slight shrug. “Yeah, I get that a lot. My parents don’t exactly encourage a lot of paparazzi photos or anything, so most people who don’t actually know us or look into it basically assume I’m like…” Scanning the front lawn of the school, I gestured to a crowd of gorgeous cheerleaders heading inside together while laughing at something. “One of them.” 

Giving a side-glance that way, the girl nodded. “Yeah, something like that. You uhh, you sure you’re not like a body-double or something? You know, someone to pull threats away from the real Cassidy Evans?” Even as she said it, I saw a grimace cross the girl’s face. “Sorry. That sounded less shitty in my head.” 

“It’s okay, I get it,” I assured her. “And if I was a body-double, I’m doing a pretty shitty job. I mean, look at me. You were told I was Cassidy Evans and you’re having trouble believing it. How many assassins are gonna take a look through a scope and be like, ‘yeah, she looks like a billionaire’s kid, let’s do this?’”

For a moment, the two of us squinted at each other, before I managed, “We’re both trying to figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, aren’t we?” 

Dani (that was her name, I finally remembered) laughed and shook her head. “If you’re really her, probably a good thing. Keep those assassins guessing.” 

“Damn straight.” Grinning despite myself, I tried to ask why I felt so casual with this chick. We met like thirty seconds earlier, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like… weird. Weirdly comfortable. Maybe it was still just a result of me finally being able to talk to Izzy about my family? Maybe I was just still incredibly relaxed and comfortable because I’d expressed all that stuff I had been bottling up for so long, and it was spilling over into my interaction with this new girl. That was probably it, right? It made sense. 

Either way, I gestured. “Come on, I’ll show you around. We’ll stay low in case the assassins think you’re a better candidate for Cassidy Evans than I am.” 

“I’m black,” she pointed out mildly before starting to follow. 

“I said what I said.” With that, I began to guide the new girl through the school, showing her where the main office was, where various sections of the school were, the library, study hall, the indoor tennis and basketball courts (she seemed confused about those being entirely separate rooms), our theater and auditoriums (again with the confusion), and the pools. 

“Pools,” she echoed once we turned away from that door. “As in plural. Multiple indoor pools at school.” 

“Oh, there’s a couple outdoor ones too,” I quickly assured her. “If you go around the back and head…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the girl and grimaced. “And that is totally not the point you were making, was it?” Flushing a little, I asked, “You’re really not used to this private school stuff. Did your parents win the lottery or something? I mean–I don’t mean to sound like–I don’t–you’re just obviously not used to this stuff.” 

Her eyes rolled as she gestured to the clearly very stiff and not-very-used uniform. “What gave it away? I blend in so well.” Snorting, the girl added, “No, my folks didn’t win the lottery. They ahh, took off. Well, Mom died so long ago I don’t remember anything about her. Dad vamanosed with some chick awhile ago. I got bounced through foster homes for awhile, then they found some great-aunt or something. She lives in Europe, but apparently felt just bad enough to put me up in one of her apartments with a babysitter and have me go to school here.” 

It was weird. On the surface of it, every part of that story was logical and made sense. But I had this insistent little thought that it wasn’t true. It was this little voice in the back of my head that kept poking me and insisting that there was something wrong with that story and I couldn’t figure out why. Honestly, it was probably just my paranoia. I didn’t know anything about this girl, and  certainly didn’t have any reason to doubt what she was saying. Aside from… well,  everything in my life. Yeah, I did have reason to be suspicious about new people with uncertain backgrounds that popped into my orbit, especially with the whole biolem thing going on. And it wasn’t like I could just ask if she was a real person or some biological android being.

Yeah, paranoid. Absolutely and completely paranoid. This poor girl didn’t deserve that kind of shit, especially when she was walking into this brand new situation. So, I shoved all those thoughts down, locked them in a box in the back of my mind, and chucked it away for the time being. I could be paranoid later. Right now, I was just going to stick to this being a normal school thing. For fuck’s sake, I had enough problems without my brain inventing a whole new one about some random girl who just needed to be shown around for a few minutes. 

So, with a cough, I nodded. “Sorry about your dad taking off, and–uhh, all that. Sounds shitty. Decent apartment anyway?” 

She shrugged. “Entire place is probably about the size of your bedroom, Princess. But it’s good enough for me.” 

Somehow, I didn’t think informing the girl that she was probably exaggerating the size of her apartment rather than the size of my bedroom was exactly the right move. So, I snorted and nudged her as we made our way back around toward the front of the building. “Well, at least you’ve got a good school. Especially if you have any interest in swimming, inside or out!” 

“What’s this about going swimming?” It was San Francisco, the boy popping up out of nowhere, wearing his ill-fitting school uniform that was clearly a size too big for him despite his husky frame. “And who, might I ask, is your lovely new friend, Miss Evans?” He made a (very awkward) show of bowing. 

Rolling my eyes, I gestured back and forth between them. “San, this is Dani, she’s new. Dani, this is San Francisco and don’t look at me like that San, she was gonna find out your name eventually.” 

“Yeah, eventually, man. As in after I had time to make her get to know me,” the boy complained, shooting me a dirty look before turning back to the other girl. “Don’t let my parents being weird as fuck distract you from the magic fingers.” As he said it, San was holding both hands up, wiggling said fingers rapidly. 

For just a moment, I felt like slapping my own face. Instead, once the brief awkward silence had gone on long enough, I kicked San in the foot and hissed in a stage whisper, “Dude, you might wanna explain what you mean before she switches from mentally filling out a restraining order to physically doing it.” 

Poor San’s eyes had widened as he realized what he’d said, and he’d gone from wiggling his fingers to quickly holding his hands out in a stopping motion. “N-no, no, not like, I mean–piano! I play piano! Keyboard, whatever you need. That’s all I meant, you know, magic fingers, piano. I’m really good. Uh, at the piano.” 

Deciding to throw the guy a bone, I nodded while chirping, “He’s not lying about that. He is really good with the–what do they call it, tickling the ivory?” 

“As long as the ivory is part of the piano, he can tickle it all he wants,” Dani retorted before giving the boy another look. “Please stop wiggling your fingers at me.” 

“Yeah, that’s fair,” San agreed, shoving his hands behind his back. “Anyway, that was a really long and awkward way of saying, suuuuuuup girl?” 

“She’s new,” I put in quickly, before Dani had to respond to… well, that. “Obviously. I was just showing her around. She just umm, her great-aunt…” I trailed off, glancing that way since I wasn’t sure if she wanted me babbling about her own personal history and situation. 

Dani, however, seemed not to care. She offered a shrug. “Rich great-aunt, dead mom, missing dad, get to come to school here cuz of guilt or something. Who knows. I’m not sticking my head in that wooden horse. But for the record, your flirting is barking up the wrong sapphic tree.” 

San, in turn, blinked once. “Wrong sapphic–ohhh, you mean you’re–right. Have you met my friend Cassidy here?” 

My eyes rolled. “San, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m not gay?” 

“But you’d be such a good one,” he insisted teasingly, before gasping as I lightly kicked his shin. “Ow, look, I just–oh there we go. Amber!” 

Sure enough, Amber was passing by, turning our way at San’s words. She approached, asking, “Have you guys seen Paige anywhere? I don’t–um. Hi.” 

San gestured back and forth between them. “Amber, Dani. Dani, Amber. You two should do breakfast, you’ve got a lot in common. But hey, look at the time. Let’s go, Cass, we’ve got that thing at the place.” 

Before I could protest or say anything else, he was pulling me away, leaving the two girls there staring at each other. As he pulled me to the school entrance, I snorted while yanking my arm free. “Did anyone ever tell you it’s weird that you’re the one who keeps trying to set everyone up?” 

“Hey, man, being a lover of romance doesn’t mean only wanting it for yourself,” he informed me. “I just want everyone to be happy, that’s all. Is that a crime? And ahh, on a totally unrelated subject, how’s everything going with Tomas?” 

As my face turned pink, I grabbed the door and pulled it open to step inside. “Nothing’s going with Tomas. Nothing. We’re just friends, that’s it.” 

Following me, San sounded unconvinced. “Uh huh. Sure, babe, whatever you say.” He gave me a knowing look before gesturing. “I gotta head for class, but if you wanna go be ‘just friends’ with Tomas some more, I think he’s hanging in the music room auditioning people for his band.” 

With that, he headed off, and I turned to look back the way we’d come. Amber and Dani were still standing there. It looked like they were talking. Weirdly, I felt like that was a good thing. And familiar, somehow. 

Eesh, I really had to stop paying attention to San. He was clearly a bad influence. Shaking that off, I turned to head for my own locker. On the way, I glanced over to where I knew Paige’s was. Amber’s question rang in my ears. 

Yeah, I’d seen Paige. I knew where she was. I’d even taken the time to call the school from my Touched phone, using the voice changer to pose as the other girl’s adopted ‘father’ to say they were taking her out of town for a little while. The receptionist had tried to say something about signing a form, and I told her to fax it over to the number on the sheet, then hung up. I figured I’d deal with that later. After all, the least I could do was try to help make sure Paige had a life to come back here to if–when we managed to wake her up. 

Now all I had to worry about was how the hell we were going to pull that off.

********

A few hours later, in my math class before lunch, I was poring over the set of problems we’d been given to keep us busy for the last half of the period. At the same time, thoughts of what we might be able to do about Paige’s situation kept intruding, making it hard to concentrate. Normally I didn’t mind math so much, but right then I just couldn’t make my mind focus. 

That problem was very quickly made worse as a voice came over the intercom, drawing everyone’s attention that way. “Attention students and faculty,” the voice of one of the office secretaries announced, “due to altercations between members of the Easy Eight and Ninety-Niner criminal organizations taking place several blocks away, the authorities have asked that this school enter lockdown procedures. Rest assured, this action is purely taken as a measure of extreme caution, and there is no reason to believe the altercation will make its way this far. You should continue your scheduled work and lessons as planned, as class is still considered to be in session. Now, remain in your rooms and step away from all doors and windows as lockdown is initiated in five… four… three… two… one.” 

The moment the countdown finished, while all the people around me were already chattering excitedly, lockdown started. In our case, that meant steel shutters closing around all the windows, along with a larger one closing around our classroom door. It was a safety procedure. Now all the classrooms, as well as the various entrances into the school itself, would be completely shielded. 

Which meant I couldn’t go out to see what was happening in this ‘altercation’ between those two Fell-Gangs even if I wanted to. There was no way I’d be able to, say, ask the teacher if I could possibly use the restroom for twenty minutes or so just to nip out and take a peek.

Yeah, so right now I was stuck here the same as everyone else. Obviously, despite what the receptionist had requested, nobody was focused on math anymore. Not even our teacher. Everyone was chattering about what was going on down the street, trying to find details on their phones, and speculating about which gang would win the fight. 

Meanwhile, I… well, I was basically in the same position. I was trying to find out the truth about what was going on out there. Not that knowing would’ve helped me. I was stuck here in this room the same as everyone else. No rushing out to help deal with the situation for me. 

Sighing, I turned to look toward Jae, who sat behind me. Her gaze was locked intently on the nearby steel-covered window, looking almost as though she wanted to bore her way through it. Was she claustrophobic or something? It just looked like she really didn’t want to be trapped in here. 

“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” I spoke up, trying to distract her. As the pale girl’s pink eyes blinked to me with confusion, I added, “The fighting between those gangs. The news said they’ve really started going after each other lately. Now they’re fighting close enough to get the school locked down?” 

There was a brief pause before Jae gave a slight nod, her voice quiet. “I hope someone stops them.” 

Ouch. Yeah, someone should be out there stopping them. For a moment, I wondered how much of this my parents were going to allow to happen. After all, there was no way this whole war would’ve gone on this long or escalated like this if they weren’t allowing it. Obviously, they’d signed off on Blackjack getting his revenge or whatever against the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro for trying to stop him from getting the vials to save his daughter. As for the Easy Eights, maybe he and Deicide had come to some kind of arrangement as part of the favor he owed her for giving back the vial she had? 

I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was two Fell-gangs versus two other Fell-gangs, and my parents were allowing it to go on. So how much damage was enough for them? How many people would be hurt or killed while they allowed the fighting to continue? Did they give a shit about any of those people? 

“Cassidy.” Jae’s quiet voice pulled me back, and I realized she had been staring at me with a look of concern. “Are you okay?” 

Right, apparently there’d been something in my expression while I’d thought about my family. Quickly, I nodded. “Sorry, yeah. Just thinking about how long we’re gonna be stuck in here.” Biting my lip, I glanced to the girl. “Are you okay?” 

Again, the other girl paused momentarily before admitting, “I don’t like being trapped.” 

Listening to the buzz of conversation from the rest of the class around us, I grimaced. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But hopefully it won’t be too long. I mean, the authorities should break it up soon enough, right?” 

Jae’s response to that was a noncommittal noise, before we were interrupted by the sound of our teacher getting the television in the corner of the room tuned to the right station. Abruptly, everyone saw the scene going on just a few blocks away. It looked like something out of an action movie. Cars were overturned in the middle of the street as various Prev members of either gang used them for cover while taking shots at one another. Fell-Touched were there too, like Angel Dust, Juice, and Skadi on the Easy Eights side, and Sandon and Jailtime on the Ninety-Niners side, along with some other guy I didn’t recognize, who was dressed like an old west cowboy with a demon mask.

The news was right, it was a warzone. There were people lying in the middle of the street, clearly injured or worse. The news chopper doing its best to stay above the action and out of the way while still giving a good view of what was going on. Which allowed us to see more people huddled behind buildings or in any cover they could find, just trying to stay out of the way. Seeing the people out there, clearly terrified and trapped, made me bristle. Fuck. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to go help them, but I couldn’t. I was as trapped in this room as those people were trapped where they were. 

How long would my parents let this go on? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure of one thing. 

This war was probably going to get a lot worse before it got better.

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Triumph 10-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“So,” my dad faux-casually began, “exactly how long would you say you made it without getting yourself involved in another life and death struggle after Fossor died? An hour? Maybe less?” 

It was a short time after the meeting with Jophiel and Sachael. We’d left them behind with the agreement to meet the next evening, after everyone had plenty of rest. Jophiel didn’t like letting Elisabet wait that long, of course. But we had all exhausted ourselves way too much. Even if we weren’t planning on any actual Fomorian fighting (or at least as little as possible) by just jumping in, grabbing those two, and getting out again, going in this shape was a bad idea. Because whatever our intentions, we could get into another brawl. And against Fomorian-created creatures, a brawl could turn into total fucking suicide if we went in there tired. 

We had to rest for the night. Honestly, we should have rested for a week, or even a month. But there was no way in seventy-four hells that Jophiel would wait that long. We were lucky she was even waiting this much. I wasn’t sure how I would’ve felt or acted in her situation if it was either of my girls. Or Tabbris. Or–yeah. I knew just how desperate she was right now. 

In any case, we made it back and I went to where my family was to explain what was going on. Guilty as I felt for bringing the mood down right then, they all needed to know the situation. 

Cringing a little at Dad’s words, I offered a weak, “Is it better or worse if the answer is somewhere in the negative numbers, since I agreed to this rescue mission before I ever came back to the present in the first place? The only reason I was able to come back here, the only reason I wasn’t Fossor’s prisoner in the future, is because of Elisabet and Dexamene. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it back here to stop Fossor, period. I can’t abandon them now. No matter how much I just want to… enjoy this.” With those words, I cast a guilty look toward my mother. God, how I wished I didn’t have to deal with this now. My mother was back. After all these years, after all that trauma, she was here. She was here! She was right in front of me. 

But happy as I was to have her here, it would be nothing if I ignored Dexamene and Elisabet. They deserved to be here too. They certainly didn’t deserve to end up either killed or captured by the Fomorians, with the former being the absolute best-case scenario as far as that went. 

It was Deveron who spoke first. “She’s right. We can’t just abandon them. Not after what they did.” He was looking to Mom as he said it, and I realized he was simply saying what she would have. “We all know what the Fomorians are like. Not all of us firsthand, and none of us have faced a full invasion like the one that Gaia and Jos’s parents ended. But… but we all know.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. She hesitated, looking over the large front room of the cabin we were in. Deveron stood by the fireplace, with Koren sitting in front of it, perched on the fancy-looking stonework. A bit to the side was a long table, where Abigail and Wyatt sat. Dad was standing by the same table. Lillian (my mother considered her family), who had come while I was away, was standing next to him. And Mom was in the middle of the room, closer to where Tabbris and I were. She had come over to greet me when we came in, then stepped back after that quick yet tight embrace to let me get that whole story out. 

Now, she asked, “You said something about a… ship to get there.” 

With a quick nod, I explained about the prototype Seosten ship, and how they’d been working on getting it to make those instant jumps again. “They think it can probably do a jump there and back. We just have to be careful. You know, come in away from the Meregan world, fly down to get those two, then fly away and jump out when it’s safe.” 

Wyatt immediately piped up, “What if they’re dead already? The Committee woman and the Nereid. What if they’re dead and the Fomorians are waiting for someone to rescue them because they’ve already loaded up the bodies with booby traps, with biological weapons. Then you show up, think they’re alive, bring them back here, and unleash a plague.” 

“Well,” I pointed out with a shrug, “I’m pretty sure I can tell if they’re dead. I mean…” Trailing off, I felt a sharp queasiness form in my stomach at even bringing it up. “I have his power. Not his skill or anything, but between him and Manakel, I think I can tell when someone’s dead. And even if they pull some artificial life biomancer thing, I’ll make sure it’s really them.”

“We’ll make sure,” Mom amended. “There are ways.” 

“Damn right, there’s ways,” Lillian put in, stepping over to stand closer to my mother. “No one’s bringing those two anywhere sensitive until everyone’s one hundred percent sure they’re safe.” 

Wyatt, in a flat voice, retorted, “No one is ever one hundred percent safe. Eighty-seven percent is the absolute highest ‘safe’ level I’ve ever given anyone.”

“You mean besides yourself,” I pointed out. 

Koren, however, piped up with, “No, he’s eighty-five. And that’s a recent upgrade.” 

“I could have been compromised as a child,” Wyatt promptly agreed, giving a slight nod and one of his lopsided, goofy smiles toward the girl who had practically become his protege over the past year. “I can’t account for my whereabouts or memories of the first few years of my life. For all I know, I’m a shapeshifter who took over the real Wyatt as a child and had my memory wiped with implanted triggers. Stranger things have happened.” 

“I really wish I could argue with that last point,” I muttered while shaking my head. “Anyway, um, yeah, they’re working on prepping the ship. Should be ready tomorrow evening. Hopefully.” 

“You’ll need a group to go with, in case things turn sideways,” Lillian noted quietly. “People strong enough to deal with Fomorian threats long enough to get the hell out of there.” 

I nodded. “Like I said, Sachael’s going. Between him, Jophiel, Sariel, and Athena, we have four Olympians. And Haiden’s coming with, he’s pretty strong too. Tristan won’t let anyone go without him, not when it comes to Dexamene. And Vanessa won’t let the rest of her family go without her. Plus, I’m pretty sure Larissa won’t let Haiden and Sariel go potentially face Fomorians without coming along. Not after what… what happened back on that boat.”

With a sigh, Abigail spoke up. “I don’t suppose pointing out that none of you children should be going anywhere after what you’ve been through would do any good. You just… you just fought that monster. You don’t need to be rushing into this nightmare. I’ve… seen and… felt what those Fomorians do, what they’re capable of. Even if you don’t get into a fight, just–just seeing those things…” 

“None of us are children,” I pointed out as gently as I could. Technically, Tabbris was. But even then, she’d always been more than that. She’d never had a normal childhood and never would. The point stood. “We’re young, yeah. But so is Dexamene. And neither she or Elisabet deserve to be caught by those monsters. They helped me. They saved me. Dex put herself in that situation specifically to save me, to save everyone here. If I wasn’t willing to put myself in danger to get her out of it, what kind of person would I be?” 

Both Abigail and my dad looked like they wanted to argue with that. But they couldn’t. Mom, however, stepped over and pulled me to her in a tight embrace. “That’s my girl.” 

“You’re going too, aren’t you?” That was Deveron, watching her knowingly. “Five minutes out from being Fossor’s prisoner for a decade, and you’re about to throw yourself into a rescue mission against the Fomorians.” 

“Of course she is,” Dad agreed, folding his arms as he stared at both of us. “If Felicity’s going, Joselyn is. Even if she wasn’t,” he amended immediately, realizing that my going or not wasn’t the only deciding factor. It was just who his wife was. 

“Would either of you have married me if I was someone who could walk away from this?” Mom pointed out, still holding me to her as she squinted pointedly back and forth between them. 

Dad and Deveron both glanced to one another, and I saw a moment of what seemed to be silent conversation before each flushed and turned away. Dad cleared his throat, looking at my mother. “I know this goes without saying, but be careful, Jos. Please. We just got you back. Both of you. I couldn’t–” His voice choked itself off briefly before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “Be careful.” He sounded strained, like it was all he could do not to start shouting about us going into danger yet again, so soon. Honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did start yelling. I kind of wanted to yell at myself. But I also meant what I’d said. I couldn’t live with myself if I abandoned Elisabet and Dexamene to the Fomorians after everything they’d done to help me. Hell, I couldn’t have lived with myself for abandoning basically anyone to the Fomorians. 

“We don’t need to worry about it right now,” I pointed out after forcing those thoughts down. “We’ve gotta wait until tomorrow night for the rescue mission anyway. Nothing else we can do about it until then. So how about we just enjoy tonight and deal with all that later?” I felt shitty about interrupting Mom’s (and mine, I supposed) welcome home party with all that. But they’d wanted to know where I went and what was so important. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should’ve kept quiet about it until the next day.

Either way, everyone got back to the actual celebrating part pretty easily. Deveron started to say something apparently embarrassing about Mom from when they were in school, before she shut him down with a hard kick, hissing something at him about their kids being present. Then Lillian whispered something in her ear that I didn’t catch, but it made Mom turn red. 

Abigail had stood up by that point, clearing her throat, “Ah, girls, why don’t we go check out the rest of the party for a little while? At least some of us should make appearances before the crowd starts wondering if you all got kidnapped again.” She started ushering Koren, Tabbris, and me toward the door with an added, “Come on, Wyatt.” 

“Yes, I’ll ahh, help you with the crowd.” That was Lillian, who patted my dad on the shoulder before moving to join us. 

I knew what they were doing, what the whole deal with getting the rest of us out of the room to leave Mom there with Deveron and my dad was about. They deserved some time alone to figure out their whole thing. Especially after so many years and horrible things. But equally, I reeeeally didn’t want to think about any of that. 

So, after giving Mom and Dad both a quick, lingering embrace and promising I wouldn’t get kidnapped for at least a few minutes (hardy har har), I headed out with the others, to join the much louder area outside, where everyone was still partying like it was New Years or something. From the look and sound of things, they really didn’t need any us to be present right now. They were well and truly off to a rousing celebration completely on their own. One which, I was pretty sure, wouldn’t be ending any time within the next several hours. Or possibly days, for some of them. 

Which was good, because the moment we stepped outside, Shiori and Avalon were right there. I ended up being pulled out of the way with a few quick words about how they’d bring me back. Then we were off to another part of the camp, as I managed a weak, “You know, I just promised my parents I wouldn’t get kidnapped again like, fifteen seconds ago. And yet, here we are.”

“Guess we’ll just have to make breaking your word worth it, won’t we?” That was Valley, who immediately suited action to word by giving me a firm push up against the back wall of the cabin the two of them had dragged me to. 

Then, for a good long while, I forgot all about what was going on with my parents, and about the party itself. And to be honest? Yeah, it was totally worth it. 

******

“Mom?” Hours later, the two of us were standing hip-deep in the lake. I had just finished introducing her to my sharks, and apologized to them for being away for so long. I’d already thanked Tabbris, as well as Shiori and Avalon, for making sure they had enough fish to eat, and for playing with them. 

“Yes, Lissy?” Mom was brushing Quint, one of the Mako sharks. She’d been marveling a bit at how my power had actually made it possible to touch their skin like that without cutting up your hand. Well, cutting up a normal person’s hand anyway. I was pretty sure she was too tough for that to begin with. 

“I was asking Namythiet about that Wandering Woman Ruthers was talking about, and she said that she’s like… one of the first Heretics? Do you know anything about her? The way he was talking, it sounds like you do.” 

For a moment, my mother didn’t answer. She reached out to brush the snout of Brody, the other Mako shark, who had clearly been jealous of his brother. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, she replied, “Yes, I know a bit about her. We’ve had an encounter or two.” 

“Why does Ruthers think I should visit her?” I hesitantly asked, too curious to avoid the question now. 

Mom’s gaze rose to me. “Because he thinks you should give up Fossor’s necromancy.” 

The answer made me blink. “Wha–give it up? Is that even possible?” 

Again, Mom was quiet for a long few seconds before she spoke. “The Wandering Woman, Werethekau, the Witch of Endor, Isis, Freyja, any name you want to give her, she is one of the most powerful beings I’ve ever heard of, let alone encountered. She was bonded to a Primal.” 

“That’s what Namythiet said,” I hesitantly put in. “She said they were the beings who um, who made the weapons King Oberon uses up in Canada, the ones who lived here before the first humans, back around the time of the dinosaurs.” 

With a little nod, Mom explained, “Werethekau was a primitive human, one of the first from the time of stone tools, who found one of the last living Primals. One of the first of one species to find one of the last of another. No one knows what happened, but she was bonded. And in that bonding, she gained the strongest gift anyone has ever seen. The ability to undo.” 

Her words made me blink. “The ability to undo?” 

Mom’s gaze was intense. “Anything or anyone Werethekau focuses on, she can rewind the results of specific events. If you break a stick, she can unbreak it. Shatter a window, she can unshatter it. Stab a man in the heart, she can heal the injury as if it never happened. Cut every limb off, sever the head, burn the body, bury the ashes in seven different continents, she can think about that person and erase it. She can bring him back from all of that. 

“But it goes further than that. She can erase skills by rewinding the fact that you learned them. Blow up a building and she can rewind that, restore the entire place and everyone in it. And–” 

“And she can take away powers by erasing the fact that you got them,” I finished in a breath, staring open-mouthed at her. “How–how is she not ruling the entire universe right now?” 

Mom shrugged. “She has no desire to. That and I’m sure there’s limits to what she can do, but as far as most people are concerned, that might as well be chipmunks guessing about the limits of human beings. No one knows what she wants, honestly. She’s mysterious. You can find her if you know how–correction, you can try to find her if you know how, and if she feels like it, she might respond. Or she might not. You might wait a day for her, or a year, or longer. She goes and does as she pleases. She, ahh, wanders. She has existed since the time of primitive man, simply rewinding any effects of age.” 

“She’s the one who taught people here on Earth how to block time-stop spells, she–” Coughing, I realized, “It’s time-magic. Erasing injuries, restoring people from death, fixing broken things, even removing people’s powers and skills, it’s all about manipulating time. I mean, sort of. Manipulating the effects through time?” Squinting, I shook my head. “I’m not–never mind, I’m gonna go cross-eyed if I try to figure out how that actually works. But this–you’re right, Ruthers wants me to get rid of Fossor’s Necromancy. He wants me to ask this Wandering Woman to use her power to take it away. But that won’t bring Fossor back?” 

“It will not erase the fact that you killed him,” Mom quietly assured me, “only the fact that you inherited his power.” 

Staring at her, I muttered, “He wants it gone. Ruthers doesn’t want anyone to have Fossor’s necromancy. I mean, he doesn’t want the power to even exist.” 

With a sigh, Mom replied, “As long as he’s lived, he’s never understood that it’s the actions, not the powers, that make someone good or evil.” Then she looked over her shoulder at me. “But, in his own way, he is trying to help you. He thinks–never mind what he thinks. What do you want to do about it?” 

I noticed that she was being careful not to express her own opinion on the subject. She wanted it to be my decision rather than a choice I made just because of how she might feel. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. With barely a pause, I shook my head. “I’m keeping the power. Yeah, it makes me feel… gross to have something of Fossor’s. Especially necromancy. But it could also help. It’s like you said, the power isn’t evil. Not even a power like that. I can use it to do good things. Like the way I’m helping some of those ghosts get closure before they move on.” Biting my lip, I hesitantly added, “And, if there’s other evil necromancers out there, it feels like… it’s a good idea to have this power. Not just have it, use it. Exercise it.”

With a smile, Mom stepped over through the water and put both hands on my shoulders. “Have I told you how proud I am of you, Felicity?” Her voice was soft, the slightest hint of tears in her eyes as she stared at me. “You are my girl. I missed you so much.”

The words took me by surprise, a thick lump forming in my throat that made it impossible to respond. I tried, but nothing came. Nothing save for a small, almost animalistic sound before I quickly stepped forward, putting my arms around my mother to cling onto her tightly. There was so much I wanted to say right then, but I couldn’t. I had nothing. Just that simple hug. 

Mom returned it, seeming to understand that I couldn’t speak. For a minute, the two of us simply stood there, embracing as we stood hip-deep in the water. I could feel the eyes of my sharks on us, watching silently and with more understanding than any normal shark. I still wasn’t sure exactly how intelligent they were, but it was clearly pretty high, as far as animals went.

Eventually, we made our way back up onto the shore, each of us producing a field-engraver and using a spell that dried us off immediately. On the way, I looked over and saw Haiden and Sariel having some kind of intense conversation with Vanessa, Tristan, and some other girl I didn’t recognize. She was incredibly thin, almost sickly-looking, with very pale skin and dark hair. 

“Friend of yours?” Mom asked, looking the way I had glanced. Even as she said it, I saw her eyes narrow very slightly. Not at the pale girl, but at Sariel. At the same time, the blonde woman herself turned her gaze to look our way. Their gazes locked, and even though neither of them moved or said anything, there was something there. The two were exchanging some kind of communication that I was pretty sure wasn’t all one hundred percent friendly. It wasn’t actively hostile or anything, but still. Mom obviously wasn’t Sariel’s biggest fan in the world. 

Yeah, I had no idea what was going on over there with that new girl. But I was pretty sure that leading my mother away from the situation was the best thing, so I took her hand and started to head in the opposite direction. Whatever the deal was with the girl Tristan and Vanessa had brought to their parents, they could handle it. 

After all, I still had a rescue mission to a planet infested with Fomorian monsters to deal with.

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Patreon Snippets 18B (Summus Proelium)

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Eits

With a polite ding, the elevator doors opened, and Ryder Towling (the name the boy publicly known as Eits had taken for himself after his transition) stepped out onto the third floor of the apartment building. Or rather, staggered out, considering how full his arms were. The brown-haired boy had several grocery bags hooked over each of his somewhat gangly limbs, and was clutching a few of what looked like long cardboard tubes with caps on either end to his chest. The keys to the building that he’d used to get in were clutched between his teeth.

Unlike when he appeared in his La Casa costume, the civilian Ryder didn’t dress to wow people. Or to attract attention at all. At the moment, he wore simple faded gray jeans, tennis shoes, a burgundy tee shirt, and a brown leather jacket. Between that and his habit of watching the ground or his phone while walking, and his unremarkable drab brown hair that was a couple weeks late for a trim to tame it back to some working order, he blended right into most crowds.

Shuffling awkwardly down the hall while doing his level best not to drop anything, Ryder nodded politely to old Mrs. Jansen when she came trundling out of her own apartment. He shook his head when she asked if he needed help. Not that it wouldn’t have been nice given how overloaded he was (but who wanted to make more than one trip all the way back to the car?), but there really wasn’t much the nice elderly lady could do. She used a walker to get around as it was.

Waiting until Mrs. Jansen had made it to the elevator and stepped on, the boy turned back to the door of his own apartment. A thought summoned one of his mites, which jumped into the security keypad there and a moment later there was a confirming beep as the door clicked open just far enough for Ryder to push it the rest of the way with his foot and step through.

Finally, he was inside, and nudged the door shut with his heel. Once it clicked and he heard the affirming beep of the lock, the boy dismissed the mite in the control panel before heading through the narrow entranceway. To the left was his bathroom, his bedroom was straight ahead, and the living room and kitchen were to the right. That last was the way he went, yet just before he would have made it to the dining table in the living room and been safe, his feet seemed to tangle up in themselves. With a startled yelp, the boy pitched forward, falling to the floor while sending his groceries and the long tubes he was carrying scattering everywhere. 

“Well,” Ryder mumbled while squinting at the mess from where he lay, “that’s just typical.” 

Groaning, he picked himself up and began picking up the keys that had fallen from his mouth before moving on to the food items. Over the next few minutes, the boy restocked his fridge and put things away. As he did so, moving from spot to spot to pick up everything, he thought about how much easier Paintball would’ve had it. He could just stand in front of the fridge and shoot red paint at anything he needed to pull to himself. 

No, not himself. Herself. She. Yeah. Ryder had trained himself not to think or say anything about Paintball actually being a girl in front of anyone else. He’d promised, after all. He’d sworn to Paintball that he’d keep her secret, and that was a promise he wouldn’t break. Especially not by being a complete idiot and blurting out the wrong pronoun at the wrong time. It was safer for the whole situation if he just made himself think of Paintball as a boy as much as possible. 

But she wasn’t. She was a girl. And more than that, she was actually older than everyone thought. All those people who thought Paintball was like a thirteen-year-old boy, when she was actually, as the girl herself had put it ‘closer to college than middle school.’ She’d had a sixteenth birthday, at least. She’d mentioned that much, about how her family had celebrated that she’d finally made it to five feet in height that day.

Paintball was a girl around Ryder’s age. Maybe a bit younger. Either way, that was a hell of a lot different than anyone else thought. Which had to help keep her secret identity. Yet it was more than that. The desperation he’d heard and seen in the girl when she thought he might blow her secret, it was… there was… something big. A lot bigger than just keeping her superheroing secret from her parents or whatever. She had been scared, terrified. 

But why? What had her so upset? Was she afraid of a specific person? Was she hiding from something bad she’d done in the past? What if people in some other city knew the kind of powers she used but didn’t realize it was her because she was pretending to be a boy now? 

Yeah, that was a rabbit hole of paranoia that Ryder had gone down a few times. He’d had to talk himself out of actively looking up people who might have similar powers to what Paintball had, telling himself that it would be violating her trust. Digging into what could be her past, trying to figure out what her big secret was… it was tempting. The whole situation was so confusing. But it was a bad idea. It would be a betrayal of someone who deserved better. 

And yet, he couldn’t help but think what she might need was help. And would she ever ask for it? Whatever was wrong, whatever or whoever had her so terrified about even her sex being discovered, was clearly bad enough that she needed more help than she was getting. 

That was the situation he was stuck in. He knew Paintball was in some kind of trouble or had some secret traumatic backstory, but he couldn’t actually help her. Because digging into her past or trying to uncover her identity would be betraying her, and just a real shit thing to do in general. Yet just leaving it alone and hoping she got the help she needed when the time came? Was that the right thing to do? What was the right thing to do, damn it? 

He had no idea. Hell, he’d even briefly considered checking with that Squire guy. Simon. He’d gone by Ryder first, which was where the new Ryder had taken his name from. Oh, and Squire. He was known by that moniker too. But his real name was Simon, and Simon had given Ryder a card he could use to potentially call if he got in trouble. After saving him from trouble the first time.

If anyone could help Paintball with whatever problem she had, it was Simon and the people he worked for. Ryder didn’t know a lot about that whole situation, only that they were really important. And powerful, given Simon had apparently hidden his real appearance behind an illusion. They were connected, and Simon himself had already saved Ryder once. 

But no. That would definitely be violating Paintball’s trust. Maybe he could bring it up to her, mention a guy called Squire who might be able to help with any… problems she had? Would that be the best approach? 

Ryder’s thoughts were interrupted by a ringing phone, and he quickly grabbed it from his pocket, answering with a, “It’s Ryder.” 

“Hey, kid.” It was Grace. Or rather, Cardsharp. Her voice was all business. “You get those hotel blueprints yet? We’ve gotta get a move on if we’re gonna pull this off.”

“Oh, oh!” Shifting his thoughts away from Paintball for the time being (not like he could do anything about that whole situation now anyway), Ryder quickly moved to grab the long tubes from the floor. Uncapping one, he spread the large rolled up blueprint out over his table, weighing down the corners with a couple books. “Yeah, I’ve got them right here.” 

“Good,” came the response. “I’m on my way to your place. You want me to pick up some Chinese or something? This is probably gonna be a long night. We need to make sure this whole operation goes off without a hitch.” 

“Sure, sure, yeah, that sounds good. You know what I like. See you soon. We’ll figure it out.” After exchanging last pleasantries, Ryder disconnected, staring at the blueprints in front of him. Yet his mind wasn’t quite focused the way it was supposed to be. Despite his attempt to push Paintball out of his mind, the girl and her situation was still stubbornly there, right at the corner of his thoughts. 

What the hell was going on with her? Who was she, really? And why was it so hard for him to push the girl out of his thoughts? 

*******

Pack and That-A-Way While Paintball Was In The Warehouse With Paige

The sound of gunfire filled the air as That-A-Way ran along the six-foot-high concrete wall that surrounded the car lot where members of La Casa and the Ninety-Niners had started brawling. Moving to the east as she was, the very few bullets that hit her (these Ninety-Niner chumps weren’t the greatest shots to begin with, let alone in the dark) simply bounced off. All three men kept shooting, none getting the point that it wasn’t working. Which was good, considering the entire reason Way had shown herself like that was to present a tempting, distracting target. 

Finally, at the very end of the wall before one of the lot entrances, That-A-Way pivoted to her right, facing the men. Which meant she was now facing south. Her intangibility kicked in, making the bullets simply pass through her while she blew the men a kiss, right before Whamline, who had taken that time to get into position, grabbed the trio with his energy cords and hurled them away to crash into the side of an SUV with ‘shockingly low price’ stickers all over it. 

Distraction successfully accomplished, the (currently blonde thanks to her Touched-Tech mask) girl threw herself backward off the wall, dropping to the other side just as a crossbow bolt struck the part where she had been standing. The moment the bolt hit where her feet had been, a six-foot-wide section of the wall simply burst apart. It didn’t explode in the typical sense. Rather, the wall broke apart into hundreds if not thousands of tiny inch or two inch wide chunks, expanding into a large debris cloud that was perfectly orb-shaped. The pieces of wall held there for a few seconds, then all fell to the ground.

Scatterking. That was the work of Scatterking, one of the Ninety-Niners. Way could see him even as the six-foot-wide section of wall was destroyed. He was a younger Touched from the look of him, her own age or even younger. He wore a black bodysuit with a green trenchcoat over it and a silver metal helmet-mask thing with a crown shape on top to go with the ‘king’ motif. The lower half of his face was exposed while the top half was hidden under a white visor attached to the helmet crown. He carried a pistol-crossbow and a rapier, either of which he could channel his power into. It was a power that allowed him to charge inanimate objects so that, if they struck something, the other thing would blow apart into little chunks and hover there in an orb-cloud the way she’d just seen. 

If the thing he affected that way was a non-living object, he could choose to either put it back together as if nothing had happened, or let the whole thing fall apart and remain destroyed, as he had with the wall. If the thing he affected was a living object, he couldn’t leave it broken. The person or animal would return to their normal, uninjured shape after a few seconds. But, from what That-A-Way had read and heard, the experience was horrifically painful and traumatic. Not fun at all. Definitely not anything she wanted to experience. Especially considering his power apparently even worked on intangible and invulnerable things. 

She could see the smile curving his lips as the boy paused before sprinting toward her. He loosed another shot from his crossbow before drawing the rapier. That time, however, the bolt didn’t get anywhere near her. It wasn’t intended to. Halfway to the girl, it suddenly exploded in a burst of bright light that made Way reel with a yelp. The bolt was a flash-bomb, a distraction, so the boy himself could close the distance with his rapier.

Not being able to see didn’t mean she couldn’t use her powers, of course. Yet even before Way could focus on that, she heard a roar, followed by a squeal and a thud. She had already thrown herself to the side by the time her vision cleared, allowing her to see Scatterking lying on his side with a certain reptilian cat-like figure perched on his back, still growling at the boy. 

“Holiday!” she blurted unthinkingly. It was her, the panther-lizard pinning the Ninety-Niner Touched to the ground. But if she was there, that had to mean–

“Hey there, babe!” Pack was there, but off to the side. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the pick-up trucks that were part of the sale lot, dangling keys from her fingers. The rest of her lizards were all in the back. “If you don’t quit playing with the mean boy, I might think you don’t want to arrest me anymore.” With that, she started the truck and, with a roar of the engine, pulled away. Holiday abandoned Scatterking with one last swat to the back of his head, then ran to catch up, jumping into the back with her companions. 

Immediately, Way popped back to her feet. She took one last look toward Scatterking, but two of the Syndicates were already there, one waving for her to go after the truck. 

So, she did. Pivoting back, the girl saw the truck off in the distance. It was still traveling north and within sight, despite having every opportunity to turn down a different street. Which meant she could teleport straight to it, and she did so without a moment’s hesitation, landing just inside the front cab in the passenger seat. 

“Took you long enough,” Pack remarked casually. “I was starting to think I’d have to circle the block and come back.” 

“What–what are you doing?!” Amber blurted, turning in the seat to stare that way. Not that it helped, considering the other girl’s face was completely covered by a full, featureless black mask with no holes. “I thought we were gonna lay low while we look into this–” She hissed the word, “–Ministry thing. And now you’re part of a fucking gang war in the middle of the streets?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she pulled the truck off the road and into a parking garage, taking the little receipt that popped out marking what time she’d arrived before driving to an empty spot in the back. Only then did she turn to face the Minority girl. 

Even when she’d snapped the demand a moment earlier, Amber had expected Pack to make some sort of dismissive, casual retort. She still expected it. But those words didn’t come. Instead, the other girl spoke quietly. “My boss is at war with the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro. I can’t exactly refuse to participate. He found out they were making a move against one of the car lots he owns through shell companies, we had to retaliate.” 

“Wha–you mean…” Amber turned, looking in the back of the truck where Holiday and the other transformed lizards were eagerly watching her. “He owns it. Blackjack owns that car lot.” 

“Distantly, sure,” Pack confirmed, gesturing. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking the truck anywhere else. You can tell them you chased me off away from here, so they can recover it, take the truck back to the lot, sell it, and Blackjack can earn even more totally legitimate money.” 

“Oh, my God.” With a groan, Amber put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe this shit. And I can’t even tell anyone, because how would I know? Plus, even if I could explain how I knew, it wouldn’t matter, because your boss and the Ministry are peas in a pod anyway, so it wouldn’t go anywhere. Silversmith would just erase any evidence, dismiss anything I said, or worse.” 

Pack started to say something, then glanced into the back and made a sound that was half-curse and half-growl. “Down!” She was talking to both Amber and her lizards, as a handful of Ninety-Niner thugs had apparently followed them to the garage and were rapidly approaching, firing shots at the truck. 

As both girls ducked, Pack looked over to That-A-Way. “Wanna help me deal with these guys, Rose?” 

There was a brief pause before Amber reached out to grab the other girl’s arm. “Yeah,” she muttered darkly. 

“I’d love to hit someone right now.” 

*******

A short time later, the two of them were finally alone again. Well, alone aside from Pack’s collection of friends. This time on the roof of the parking garage, with the lizards spread out behind them. 

“Well!” Pack declared as she shook her hand out. There was blood on her glove from where she had punched one of the men in there who dared threaten Tuesday. “That was exhilarating. Guess we’re done now. Unless…” Her tone turned a bit mischievous and pointed. “You think you and me should wrestle.” 

“You and I,” Amber immediately corrected without thinking.

“Well, if you insist,” Pack teased, stepping that way before catching both of Amber’s hands as the other girl raised them, palms out as though to stop her. Interlacing their fingers, the black-masked girl seemed to stare intently at Amber from only a foot away, their hands locked. “Don’t worry,” she murmured in a low voice, “we’ll only wrestle when you ask for it.” 

“I… I…” Feeling her face turn red and knowing that most of hers was visible (though altered a bit) beneath the domino mask, Amber finally extracted her hands and turned away to take her phone out to look at it. “I have to check with my team and–fuck!” 

Head cocking to the side, Pack remarked, “Either I was really wrong about how boring being part of the Minority would be, or–” 

“Paintball,” Amber blurted, pivoting back. “He sent a bunch of messages about needing help while we were busy.” 

“What?” Pack produced her own phone to look at. “… Fuck.” 

“I’ve gotta go, I can’t–if the team wonders where–” 

“Go,” Pack gave her a push. “If they ask, just tell them you chased me that far. Get there. I’ll make sure things are cool and come after. Hurry.” 

Amber hesitated only for another second, then cursed again and pivoted, sprinting away before immediately teleporting. The actual destination was more to the west than north, so she’d have to use superspeed to get most of the way there. 

Watching the other girl disappear, Pack glanced to her lizards, who sat there expectantly, then started to run. “Well guys, we better get over there. 

“And see what kind of trouble Paintball’s managed to get himself into this time.” 

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Triumph 10-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It didn’t take long for Sariel to find out where Jophiel was. I wasn’t sure what she did, exactly, just that she stepped away for a few minutes before returning with the announcement that she knew where the woman was. And that Jophiel was expecting us. Honestly, I was torn between wondering if she had done some kind of special communication spell, or just used a phone. 

Either way, Tristan stayed with Vanessa and Sarah (Namythiet stayed with them too), while Tabbris and I went with Sariel and Athena to talk to their old crewmate. I was glad both of them were coming to do this, because if it was just Tabbris and me, there was no way we’d be able to stop Jophiel from running straight off to Elisabet if she had a mind to. 

As it turned out, the place Jophiel happened to be was a bar in the middle of nowhere. It was like Kansas or Kentucky or something. Whatever, it was a little truckstop-type bar somewhere off the freeway, like a million miles from real civilization. I was pretty sure even Laramie Falls would’ve seemed like a bustling metropolis compared to any place within a two hour drive. 

Why Jophiel was here, I had no idea. As we left the portal that our two escorts had created in the alley behind the building, I saw a couple guys doing their business against the nearby wall. One turned to look at us, staring for a moment until his buddy noticed that his… stream had drifted and punched him in the arm. That prompted the first guy to retaliate, and forget about us. 

“He didn’t notice the portal, right?” Tabbris piped up as we walked across the gravel-covered ground, heading for the front of the building. I could already hear loud music coming through.

“No,” Athena noted simply. “But, Bystander Effect or not, seeing several unknown figures suddenly appear in a place like this does attract attention. Even if his mind immediately filled in the blanks, believing we had simply parked nearby and walked past, we still stand out.” 

“So, why do you think Jophiel’s here?” I asked, glancing toward a couple truckers who nodded politely on their way past, then gave a double-take back toward the four of us to stare for a moment. Yeah, we were definitely attracting more attention. Which, given Sariel and Athena’s ridiculous Seosten attractiveness, wasn’t surprising in the least. At least Athena was wearing clothes that actually blended in a bit more, and not her futuristic chainmail-like armor. Gorgeous and awesome as that was, I could only imagine how much attention we would’ve pulled then. 

A big guy sitting by the front door with his feet up on the railing and hat down low on his face looked up as we approached. I wasn’t sure if he was some kind of bouncer, or just a customer taking a break. Either way, he grunted his approval as he looked us up and down, before noticing Tabbris. His voice was flat, “Hope you ain’t trying to get the kid a drink. Seems a mite bit young for it.” Immediately, the man gave a loud, rumbling laugh at his own joke. 

“She will not be drinking,” Athena noted politely, already walking past the man. Tabbris and I followed suit, with Sariel bringing up the rear. I thought I heard the guy say something else about kids in the bar, but it was a mumble and the music was loud in this place. Sariel stayed back, giving the man a folded hundred-dollar bill while replying to him before she joined us. 

There was smoke, noise, and a hell of a lot of people in this bar. The whole population of the tri-county area seemed to be centered within this single building. It was seriously packed. Everyone was drinking, laughing, shouting at one another, playing games at the tables, listening to the near-deafening country music, throwing darts, and so on. It was pretty goddamn nuts. 

My head shook in disbelief as I slowly looked around the crowded, noisy room. Raising my voice, I called, “How’re we supposed to find her in this place?! She knows we’re coming, right?!” 

Instead of answering, Sariel took Tabbris and me by the hands, leading us after Athena, who had already started walking. Together, the four of us slipped through the crowd. Somehow, they always parted at just the right moment. Maybe Athena was using her power to know just where to move. Or maybe something about the woman made people get out of the way. Whatever the case, she easily guided us through the absurdly busy bar, toward the back corner. 

There she was. Finally, we made it through the crowd and I saw Jophiel. As before, the first thing that leapt to my mind was how different she looked over the past months since Elisabet’s disappearance. She was still absurdly beautiful, of course. She was a Seosten and she had been Aphrodite. The woman positively defined gorgeous. But she wasn’t the same. She was dressed in plain jeans and a flannel shirt, her hair not particularly paid attention to. That beauty hadn’t diminished at all. She was effortlessly perfect. But it wasn’t… played up or anything.  

And, of course, she hadn’t been happy for a long time. Every time I’d seen her since Elisabet had vanished, I’d noticed how stressed and tired she was. There were always dark circles under her eyes. She just–she wasn’t herself. She was obsessed with finding Elisabet, and had obviously been working herself into an early grave (was it still considered early given how old Olympus Seosten were?) trying to do so. 

Things weren’t any different now. Or at least, they didn’t seem different at first glance. The Seosten woman was sitting at that table in the corner, drinking what was very clearly nowhere near her first drink of the evening, and watching a card game going on a few tables over. There were several large leather books sitting in front of her that looked well-worn, along with one that lay haphazardly on its front at the far side of the table, as if Jophiel had thrown it aside in annoyance or despair. I could also see a few scattered spell coins that looked half-burned, giving the impression that she’d been working on casting things. Probably more attempts to locate Elisabet herself. 

But then I noticed something new. Jophiel wasn’t alone. There was a man sitting at the table across from her. My eyes focused on him as he reached out to pick up his own glass and took a sip. He was a big guy. Even sitting down, I could tell he was tall. For a second, my mind went to ‘handsome and in-shape Santa Claus.’ Seriously, he was an old guy with pale blue eyes and shoulder-length hair with a full beard. Both of which were as pure white as perfect snow. Yeah, he looked like a tall Santa who had gone through a serious exercise regimen or something.

Seosten. I could tell at a glance that he was Seosten. At least, I was like eighty-seven percent sure. He just had that look, the one I’d come to recognize by that point. It wasn’t perfect, but given the situation, yeah. I was pretty confident. 

My assumption was proven as Tabbris caught my arm and whispered, “Sachael.” 

Sachael, right. I knew that one. He was the guy who had been Poseidon back in the old days. As far as I knew, he was still a loyal member of the Seosten Empire. But at least we had that whole truce thing going on, so this meeting probably wouldn’t end badly. I didn’t know much about the man himself, but I doubted he’d throw away the truce just to start shit right now. Especially given what we were there to tell Jophiel about.

“It’s okay,” Sariel confirmed my thoughts in a gentle, encouraging voice. “Sachael will not start anything now. Even without the truce, it is not his way.” 

As for the man himself, he had clearly noticed us by that point. I was pretty sure Jophiel had too, but she gave no sign of it. Sachael, however, lifted his glass and held it out toward our group, his eyes studying us. Mostly Tabbris and me. At least I didn’t really feel threatened by it or anything. It felt like he was evaluating us, comparing what we actually looked like to his own mental picture. 

I also noticed that the loud sounds of the bar had faded a lot. Standing close to the table where Sachael and Jophiel were, I could barely hear the previously deafening din. It sounded like it was coming through several thick walls. Magic, obviously. 

After a moment of standing there, Athena stepped over, followed by the rest of us. Her voice was cool, though not entirely unfriendly. More professional. “Sachael,” she greeted him simply. “I probably should have known you were here the moment we arrived.” 

“Athena,” the man himself replied, surprising me a bit that he used her chosen Earth-based name immediately, rather than Auriel, the name she had abandoned. That had to be intentional, right? He was pointedly calling her by the name she preferred now, even though they weren’t on the same side. “I was going to head out, but when Jophiel told me you were coming, I had to wait and say hi.” 

Okay, so at least this seemed like I was right about it not turning bad. I didn’t know anything about what kind of guy Sachael was, but he was being cordial and all. He’d even used Athena’s preferred name. That was worth some points in his favor, though I supposed we’d see if he kept them or not. Hell, for all I knew, he and Athena had some kind of nasty history that was simmering just below the surface. They had had that mythological rivalry back in the stories. And I knew she’d said something about a competition, but that had been mostly for show as far as I understood. Hopefully, this would all be okay and nothing would break out. 

By that point, the man had turned to the other Seosten woman. “Sariel.” He gave what seemed like a genuine smile. “I was so glad to hear that you were safe and sound after… all that.”  

Sariel, for her part, replied in a flat voice that did little to hide her actual feelings, “Yet not glad enough to have done anything to push toward that particular result yourself, it seems.” 

Jophiel started to say something, but Sachael spoke first, his hand touching her arm in a way that seemed like a warning or gesture for her to leave it to him. “That’s fair.” His voice was quiet, and he never broke eye contact with Sariel. “It would be easy to say that I assumed any prison you were in being maintained by an old crewmate wouldn’t be that bad. But then, I know… knew Kushiel well. We all did. We knew what she was capable of, the kind of person she was. I suppose it’s easy to lie to yourself when you aren’t directly affected. It’s easy to think of you as a traitor, Sariel. Easy to think that shutting you in a prison was the best way to deal with it. Given the Fomorians, the fact that you could just walk away and play family…” He trailed off, his eyes glancing down very briefly before he raised them once more and cleared his throat. “I want you to know that I’m glad you have a family. Whether it’s with another Seosten, a human, or anyone else, I’m happy for you. It just… took awhile to get to that point. And when you’re out of sight, when all one actually hears is the propaganda about the bad things you’ve done, it makes it easy to ignore what one really shouldn’t. 

“I’m sorry for what happened to you. Really and truly. Just as I am happy that you are safe now. And I do dearly hope that we never have occasion to face one another in battle. You are a fine warrior and, I’m sure, a fine mother as well. I would love, at some point, to meet your mate and children–ahh, pardon, your other children.” That said, the Santa-looking man looked to Tabbris. “I’ve heard a lot about this one too. And you.” His eyes flicked to me, before he rose (now towering over everyone here), extending a hand to both of us. “Good to meet you both. I am Sachael, as you undoubtedly know by now.” 

Tabbris shook his hand first, introducing herself before bluntly asking, “Are you trying to make Jophiel go back to the Seosten worlds with you?” 

While the rest of us winced from that (well, Sariel and I did, Athena just looked interested in his answer), Sachael gave the girl what appeared to be a broad, genuine smile and chuckled. “Straight to the point, aren’t you? Well, officially, no. Officially, I’m not here at all. I’m not here for work. As far as the Empire is concerned, I have a few weeks of stored up vacation time and I’m taking them. That’s really all they need to know. 

“Unofficially, I… have recently learned that knowing an old friend is in trouble and ignoring that is the wrong choice.” His pale eyes flicked slightly toward Sariel before turning back to the woman still sitting at the table. “Even if that trouble is fear for the life of someone else.” 

That made everyone’s eyes turn that way, though none of us were stupid enough to voice the obvious question. Jophiel knew though, still staring at the mostly-finished drink in front of her as she murmured, “Yes, he knows. He pretty much knew already.” 

“The lot of you always did underestimate how much I saw and understood back on the ship,” Sachael noted. “It is the First Mate’s job to know what’s going on with the crew. A job I should and could have done better in some cases. A lot of cases.”

“How does her situation make you feel?” Athena asked carefully, clearly not wanting to give anything away until we knew exactly how much he was aware of. “And how much of it are you going to acknowledge… officially?” 

In answer, Sachael glanced to Sariel first before speaking. “As I said before, I’ll be happy with anyone any of you choose to be with, unofficially. Officially, I haven’t heard anything until she makes an official report.” His voice softened then. “But I do hope you find her, Jophiel. Anything I can do to help with that while I have these vacation days… tell me.” 

That made the four of us who had come in exchange looks. Before anyone could say anything, however, the man extended his hand to me, waiting until I accepted it before speaking again. “And you are Felicity Chambers.” 

His grip was firm, though not aggressively so. He met my gaze while my hand was in his, speaking plainly. “From what I hear, you should be celebrating a pretty strong victory tonight. The death of a nemesis and the safe return of your own mother after a decade absence. That’s not something one walks away from lightly, even temporarily. Which makes me wonder what exactly has brought you here right now.”

He released my hand, raising his own with a small smile. “But, curiosity aside, you have no reason to share with me. I’ll get out of the way and let you all go about your business. I’m sure it’s important.” 

“Wait.” That was Sariel, stopping him with a raised hand. She looked to Jophiel, who had turned her attention back to the people playing darts. “Jo,” she started quietly, “we need you to be calm, but Felicity has made it back with–” 

Jophiel looked up then, focusing on me for the first time. I saw a guilty flush cross her face as she turned fully toward us, standing. “Felicity, Tabbris, I’m sorry.” There was a deep thickness to her voice. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, and that I wasn’t… there earlier today. I should have been paying attention.” 

“No, you–we made it,” I settled on before quickly adding, “We’re not here because you didn’t help. We’re here because Elisabet did.” 

My words took a few long seconds to penetrate, before the woman abruptly snapped her gaze up, staring at me. “What do you mean?” she asked very carefully, in a voice that shook a little bit as she obviously shoved hard against the hope that had flared up. “How did Elisabet help?” 

“We should sit down,” Athena started, only for Jophiel to snap a hand up to silence her, eyes locked rigidly on me. “What,” she repeated intensely, “do you mean?” 

Obviously, nothing else was going to happen until I explained. So, yet again (how many times had I told this story already?) I explained everything that had happened. I told her about Elisabet being on the Meregan world, about the whole time travel thing, Dexamene, all of it. A few times, it looked like she was going to jump in, but the woman kept herself silent and listened. 

Then I was done. I finished explaining it, just before Jophiel announced, “I’m going there. I’m going to–” 

“We are,” Athena quickly put in. “Jophiel, we are going to get Elisabet back, I promise. But you–” 

“She’s been there for months!” Jophiel blurted, voice rising with fury that I knew wasn’t actually directed at any of us. “Months! She’s been trapped with those… those abominations! If they find her, if they find–” 

“We have a plan, Jo,” Sariel interrupted, clearly trying to calm her down. “We have a plan to get over there and find both of them without giving the Fomorians any help breaking through the banishment.” 

“What?” Jophiel was very clearly barely keeping herself from running off that very instant. She had a location, and I had no doubt she could have found a way to get herself there, given the level of motivation. 

“Yes, what is it?” That was Sachael, whose presence I had forgotten for a moment. “How do you plan on pulling that off, exactly?” 

Athena regarded him before asking simply, “Are you sure you don’t want to walk away, back to the people you are supposed to be loyal to?” 

“I am still loyal,” he informed her. “I believe the Empire is the best chance this universe has against the very creatures you are about to face. But as I said, I have vacation time. And I’d like to see how this plays out, if you wouldn’t mind a little extra help.”

“Hey,” I managed, “at this rate we’ll have most of the Olympian bridge crew reassembled in no time. 

“Too bad we have no idea where the Olympus actually is, cuz that would be a hell of a reunion.” 

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Trust 15-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Unfortunately, by the time I eventually left Wren’s place awhile later, I still didn’t have any more concrete plans. Involving Eits seemed to be the only real chance we had, but I was reluctant to bring him in. He had every reason to be loyal to La Casa after everything they’d done for him. But did that make him loyal to the Ministry if he found out about it? And did he need to find out about it? And was it fair to not let him find out if he was going to do that level of favor? And could he be trusted with knowing about what Paige was even if he didn’t know about the Ministry? He already knew I was a girl and hadn’t given that away, but… but… this was more. 

I trusted him not to tell people about me being a girl. But this? This would be trusting him with Paige’s secrets, Paige’s life. If he even just mentioned to Blackjack that he knew a cyborg, or thought that saying something about it was necessary to protect his own people… could I trust him that far? Was it fair to involve him when I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell him the whole story? 

And yet, things didn’t get any easier if I put the idea of Eits aside. Because who else could I bring in? Who could I talk to who might be able to help? Then, even if we got to the point where there was someone, we ran into the same damn problem. Worse even. If there was some stranger we could bring in to help Paige, then they would know her secret just as much as Eits would. Putting aside the (incredibly important and impossible to actually put aside) questions about whether Eits could be trusted with that kind of secret, there was no reason to believe some stranger could either. Eits had already proven he’d keep my secret, but, but this was…

Either way, I was going to have to trust someone with incredibly dangerous information. The only question was who, and how much. Bringing in someone from the outside would involve tracking down a person good enough with computers and technology to help Wren fix the orb and someone good enough at the medical stuff to open Paige up in order to get at it. 

Fuck. It was so much. I had no idea how I was going to make a decision like this. Every option just seemed dangerous and bad. Yet, I couldn’t just not make one. Paige was counting on me. Terrifying as the concept of making the wrong decision might’ve been, making no decision was still a decision. And it was the wrong one. Leaving Paige trapped in her mind, locked down like that, wasn’t going to solve anything. For all I knew, it would make things worse, the longer she was like that. I was pretty sure she was safe for the time being, but… but not positive. I wasn’t positive about anything, it seemed like. I just desperately wanted to make the right decision. 

At least I had one thing now that I hadn’t had before: someone to talk to about it. Yeah, that was a fucking miracle. Or it felt like one. After leaving Wren’s, I went back to the library, changed clothes, and met Izzy. The two of us went into a private study room where we wouldn’t be overheard, and I explained everything that had happened at the shop. Which wasn’t much, given I hadn’t come to any decisions. But it at least gave me the chance to voice my thoughts and worries aloud while the younger girl sat there and quietly listened. That was pretty huge. 

I also mentioned the call from her teammate, telling her about how That-A-Way had said the bodies that were in that building were gone and everyone was acting like they were never there.

“Your parents covered it up,” Izzy announced in a quiet, somewhat stunned voice once I got through that part. It sounded like she was still processing the fact that they could manage something like that on such short notice. Which was fair, considering I was still processing it. “They’ve got that kind of influence? They could just make a bunch of bodies disappear from a crime scene and have everyone believe it never happened?” Yeah, she was definitely reeling. 

“I’m betting it’s not just their level of influence,” I pointed out. “It’s not just a matter of them owning everyone who was there, I mean. There’s gotta be people who weren’t on their payroll. My bet is they used Mr. Jackson to help erase a few memories. You know, just adjusted things a bit to hide the truth. But… yeah, yeah, they’ve got that kind of influence. As far as I know, they either own or have a lot of power and say over practically every law enforcement, Star-Touched, and Fell-Touched group in the city. I’m gonna guess that they own important people everywhere. The government, hospitals, everything. Which seems like a lot of people for a secret organization.”

“Most of them probably don’t know who they actually work for, or how big it is,” Izzy pointed out. “They just know some guy comes with money in one hand and a picture of their family in the other, and tells them to do something. Or blackmail, or anything. The point is, they don’t know they’re working for some city-wide criminal conspiracy group. They just know that single guy.” 

Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. See? You’re already helping me figure all this out.” Offering the girl a small smile, I shrugged. “Sorry. Yeah. I don’t know what to do. Paige is–is counting on me. But if I bring the wrong person in, if I trust Eits or anyone and they betray us? It’s just too much to think about. But I know I have to. I have to figure it out.”

Izzy, in turn, scrunched her face up a bit thoughtfully. “Okay, well, think about the worst case scenario depending on how much you say. If they know she’s Paige Banners and her father is on Breakwater and she’s one of these cyborgs and your family are the Ministry–” Cutting herself off, she winked at me. “Maybe a little too much info?” 

I blanched. “Yeah, just maybe. They don’t need to know anything about my family. Or me. There’s no reason for them to know who I am or what my family does. So–” Abruptly, I blinked at her. “You were saying that out loud just so I’d stop freaking out about the worst possibility.” 

Izzy’s response was a grin, before she tapped the table. “Right, so put the Ministry thing aside. If they know about Paige, everything she is, and what and who her dad is, how bad is it?” 

My mouth opened, then I hesitated and thought about it for a moment. “In that case, they’d know that Paige was basically artificial, a human mind put in a robot brain which was put in a… a clone body, basically.” Even as I said that out loud, my face twisted a little. “This is weird.” 

“Really weird,” Izzy agreed, her own face having twisted to match mine. Then she shook that off, adding, “And they’d know about her dad being on Breakwater. But not really his plans or anything. They’d just know that some crazy guy built his daughter a new body, put her brain in it, and then got sent to supervillain prison. That’s the most they know. What can they do with it?” 

“Blackmail Paige?” I offered, before amending, “I mean, if they could figure out who to take that kind of info to who would actually listen.” 

“Paige’s family is rich and powerful,” Izzy pointed out. “They’ve had crazy stories written about them in sleazy magazines and online all the time. Do you have any idea how many people think your family are all secretly lizard aliens?” 

I coughed. “A few, I guess.” Shrugging then, I added, “So the general public might not–probably wouldn’t believe it. I mean, it is a pretty absurd story. But the Ministry might, especially if they remember the bio-tech guy that got put away. With the timing and everything, they could put that together. Then they’d know Paige was related to the guy who was a threat to them. And they’d go after him. I mean, I guess that depends on how much they know about…” I trailed off. 

“How much they know about what?” Izzy prompted after a moment. 

Shaking myself, I continued. “How much they know about the situation. I don’t actually know how much my family knows about Paige’s dad. She said she called my old bodyguard, Robert Parson, and that he made some calls to get the guy arrested. But I don’t know if he involved my family at all. Or, if he did, how much they actually know about it. For all I know, they don’t know him from Adam.” 

“You need to talk to Robert Parson,” Izzy noted quietly. 

“Yeah,” I agreed, grimacing again as a sigh escaped me. “Just one minor problem with that plan.  

“I have no fucking clue where to start with that.” 

*********

We didn’t magically come up with a perfect solution while we were at the library, but talking it out did help me feel a little more focused. I was going to have to look into what kind of potential options we had. Maybe I would need to take the plunge to trust Eits enough to do his thing with Paige’s orb. Or maybe I’d have to find a way to pay someone else while keeping Paige’s identity as secret as possible. But either way, I couldn’t do either of those things until we had a plan for actually getting to the orb. And that required some kind of medical person who could open her up. Which… yeah, I had no fucking idea how we could find and trust someone like that. 

The only idea I had that wouldn’t involve getting someone else was to use my pink paint and somehow… pull Paige’s body open enough to get at the orb, then keep applying the paint as long as whoever our tech person happened to be was doing their job. I wasn’t sure if that would work, because applying the pink to a physical body had never allowed me to actually tear their body open before, it just let me stretch a body part out, like silly putty. 

And, to be perfectly honest, the very thought of trying something like that made me really queasy. I was hoping there was another way, before I had to test it. Because urgh. 

Either way, I didn’t have a plan yet. Which made me feel pretty useless as far as Paige went, but my only hope was that she was basically just sleeping. That was okay, right? She was essentially in a coma, so it didn’t matter how long it took me to find a solution to this. And it was better for me to make the right plan, one that would actually help her without destroying her life, than it would be to jump on the first thought that popped into my head. 

She was safe. She was with Wren, she was basically sleeping, and no one else could find her. At least, as long as I was careful. Which was the whole point of taking my time figuring this out. 

Izzy and I spent most of Sunday dealing with that, in between walking to the mall to get some food. Not just to get food, of course. We also walked past the entrance to the secret Ministry base so she could see what I was talking about. There was a guy standing nearby wearing a mall security uniform, looking like he was just watching for shoplifters. But we both knew the truth. He was definitely keeping an eye on that door. 

That was how our Sunday went, aside from family dinner, which went about as well as it could. Izzy did her best to keep her reactions as normal as possible, and any bit of nervousness or uncertainty was easily dismissed as just the way she’d been with us the whole time. Afterward, we watched a movie in the screening room with Simon half-watching while doing work on his phone. Eventually he left and the two of us talked a bit more. 

That was what we spent the entire day doing: just talking. We talked through everything. Not just the whole situation with my family, but Izzy’s too. She talked about missing her mom, despite everything the woman had done. She mentioned wanting to find out if her mother ever made it out of the city, or if my family had done something to her. I could hear the fear in her voice. Despite the way her mother had betrayed her, Izzy still cared about her. I promised the girl we would find out what happened, somehow. It was another problem to deal with later. 

Eventually, that day was over. Izzy and I slept in the same bed again, neither of us wanting to be alone in that moment. And it was, again, one of the best night’s sleep I’d had any time recently. I didn’t even think about going out as Paintball that night. I just–I couldn’t do it. I needed the break. 

The sleep was so good that I actually woke up before the alarm would’ve gone off for school. Only like two minutes before, but still. I felt rested and awake, ready to go. Which was only added to once I had a shower and Izzy and I both wolfed down a truly amazing amount of breakfast. Between the two of us, we were a couple bottomless pits.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this, Izzy?” That was my mother, who was simply drinking a cup of coffee while watching the two of us devour our expansive breakfast with a look of mixed amusement and fascination. “If you’d like to wait another week or so…” 

Izzy’s head shook. “No, thank you, Mrs. Evans. I’m ready. It’s okay.” 

What she was ‘ready’ for, in this case, was going back to school. Or rather, back to a school. She wasn’t going back to her old one. Instead, my parents were going to send her to the same elite private middle school that I had gone to. It was part of a compromise. They didn’t think her old public school was safe enough, but she really wanted to get back to some kind of normal. Which meant being in school and around other people her age. Hence this. She’d go to my old school. The arrangements had been made the night before, and the people at the school were expecting her. 

With a soft smile, Mom gave her a short nod. “As you wish. You can leave with Cassidy, and Jefferson will drop you off after leaving her at the other school. But please, remember you can always call him to pick you up if you need to, if it’s too much.” 

Despite her words, I had a feeling that Mom was happy Izzy was taking this step. In her mind, it probably meant the girl was settling in. She was seeing this whole situation as less temporary. Going to school was something normal. It meant she was more comfortable with us. At least, as far as my parents were concerned. 

Izzy mumbled something resembling agreement with my mother’s advice, before the two of us finished our breakfasts and headed out. As promised, Jefferson was waiting right out front for us. Mom had made sure to let the man know the new route the night before so he wasn’t surprised to see Izzy with me. Which was a good thing, considering how the man generally reacted when it came to surprises. 

So, the two of us sat in the back of the car, as I gave the other girl some advice about teachers I remembered, how to avoid annoying the draconian assistant headmistress who roamed the halls looking for people to throw into detention, and how to get to the main office. 

Izzy was nervous. I could tell that much, no matter how much she tried to hide it. Nervous and uncomfortable, in her brand new school uniform that had arrived overnight and been waiting for her this morning. It was basically identical to my own, consisting of the same black pants, black blazer, blue shirt, and white tie. Which made sense, considering this was basically one of the main feeder schools for Cadillac Preparatory.

Either way, it was obvious that Izzy felt ridiculous and uncomfortable in her uniform, as much as I tried to make her feel better. But it was okay. What she really wanted was the chance to get out of the house and be around other people. And this was that chance. 

Eventually, we made it to my school. Quickly, before Jefferson could be annoyed by the delay, I made sure Izzy had my phone number so she could let me know if she had any issues. Then I slipped out and started to head inside. 

I only made it a few steps before Mrs. Donnelley, one of the women from the school’s main office, stepped up. She was a tall lady, just over six feet, in her late fifties with dark brown (likely dyed) hair who always wore a really neat red suit. I liked Mrs. Donnelley. 

“Cassidy Evans, just the girl I was looking for!” the woman boomed with a broad smile. 

“You found me,” I replied with a shrug. “Which is a really huge bit of luck considering this is where I’m dropped off every morning.” 

Tutting her finger at me while unable to contain her laugh, Mrs. Donnelley shook her head. “Now now, just be quiet then. Time for you to give something back to the school by showing our brand new student around. Think you can do that?” 

I shrugged. “Uhh, sure, I’ve got time to spare. Who–” 

In answer, the woman gestured for someone behind her to come into view. “Come on then, introduce yourself, sweetie.” 

With that, a black girl with short, spiky hair that was dark except for the very bright white tips stepped into view. “Hey,” she mumbled. “Nice to meet you, I guess. 

“I’m Dani Kalvers.”  

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Triumph 10-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It took a bit, considering the… enthusiastic partying going on around them, but I eventually managed to pull Tristan and Vanessa aside. Sarah came too, as we moved to a slightly quieter area behind one of the cabins. The celebration was still going full-force nearby, but at least we weren’t right in the middle of it. And once Vanessa had used a quick few strokes from a field-engraver against the nearby cabin wall before activating the spell she’d put there, the noise faded almost entirely. Finally, it was quiet enough to think. Quiet enough to talk.

“So, what’s up, Flicks?” Tristan was asking, giving me that usual lazily confident smile while catching Tabbris by the hand and helping her twirl in a circle while she gave a quick giggle. “Tell me you don’t have another world-ending threat you’re trying to deal with already,” he teased. 

Oh boy. Grimacing at his phrasing, I glanced toward Namythiet on my shoulder for a moment before pushing myself to respond. “Not exactly. It’s more a world-ending threat we already knew about, and the world they’ve already ended. A world that’s been ended repeatedly, actually.” 

With that, and having gained their complete attention, I explained what was going on. As gently and quickly as possible, I told them about the entire time-travel loop, about Elisabet, and about Dexamene. I explained that the two were stuck on the Meregan homeworld, hiding out from the Fomorians who had already taken it over. And that their only chance of getting out of there was for someone to rescue them. Preferably before the Fomorians figured out that one of the Committee members was there and sent a full-on assault to raze the planet getting at her. 

Halfway through the explanation, as soon as it became clear that Dexamene was in trouble, I saw Tristan’s hand snap out to grab his sister’s arm, squeezing it tightly. His face grew more distressed throughout the rest of it, mouth opening once or twice to interrupt. But he stopped himself, listening to all of it despite what was obviously a mounting rush of emotions.

Finally, I ended with, “If anyone can keep Dexamene safe for awhile, it’s Elisabet. Okay, maybe there’s a few others that could do it even better, but she’s still a decent choice.” My head shook quickly, “I mean, I think she’ll be okay, Tristan. As long as we get both of them out of there.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan’s voice was firm, the boy already turning. “As long as we get them out right now.” 

Vanessa caught his arm, head shaking. “Where are you going?” she quickly asked after giving me a distressed look. She was worried about her brother running off and doing something crazy.

“To save my friend,” Tristan informed her. “Look, Prosser’s over there. We just tell him we need to get to Aiken’te’vel, pop over, grab Dex and Elisabet, then pop back again. Easy peasy.” Despite his casual words about how easy it would be, I could hear the stress in his voice. He was clearly just this side of losing it, having been violently emotionally dropped from a celebrating mood to the realization that one of his closest friends was in horrific danger. 

“You’re right, we can tell him,” I confirmed immediately. “But he’s not going to go immediately. It’s not that simple, Tristan. With the Fomorians there, we can’t just pop out, hope we find them, and then jump back. We don’t know how their banishment would interact with a portal leading directly here. Or where Dexamene and Elisabet are. We’ll need help, resources, an actual plan.” 

The boy’s mouth opened, and for just a second, I thought he might snap at me. He was panicked, the thought of Dexamene being taken by the Fomorians driving almost all rational thought out of his mind. His eyes were wild with terror, reminding me again that he, more than most of my friend group, actually knew first-hand just how bad those monsters could be. He’d seen them during his travels with Petan. And I had no doubt that visions of what could happen to Dexamene if they got hold of her were running wild through his increasingly terrified mind. 

But he stopped himself from snapping, which honestly was pretty impressive. I wasn’t sure I could’ve done the same if it was someone I cared about the way he clearly cared about Dexamene. He caught his reaction, forcing it back with visible effort. 

Sarah was there, hand touching the arm that Vanessa wasn’t. “Jophiel,” she said simply. 

“Right,” I quickly agreed with a nod. “Jophiel needs to be here too. She might have ideas about how to get there, grab them, and get out without problems. And she’ll definitely have an idea of how to find them. Like, a spell or something once she’s on the actual planet, even if her recall still doesn’t work.” Swallowing hard, I focused on Tristan. “We’ll get Dexamene out of there.” 

He was still freaking out, obviously. I was pretty sure he was practically to the point of trying to literally punch his way through to the other universe in order to find his friend. But he knew. After all the years spent with Petan, not to mention getting his family put back together, Tristan knew better than to run off half-cocked with no plan. Hard as it obviously was, he managed to force down his blinding rush of panic, and gave a very short nod. “Find Jophiel,” he said in a quiet, yet forceful voice. “Whatever you have to do. I–we’ll get things ready here. We’ll talk to people–my parents. Our parents. Mom’ll have a plan too. And Dad, he jumped worlds a lot. We–they’ll have something.” 

Leaving Sarah and Vanessa with him to focus on that, I turned. Tabbris and Namythiet stayed with me, the three of us heading quickly through the bustling, loud crowd as I looked for someone in particular. Not Prosser. He might have some idea of how to locate Jophiel, but I had someone else in mind. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find anyone in this crowd. If anything, the celebration had gotten even louder and busier by now. There were so many people. Every few steps, someone popped out to talk at me about how glad they were I was okay, how awesome it was that Fossor was dead, and so on. 

Finally, I looked to Namythiet. “Hey, you know Athena, right? Think you could fly up and figure out where she is in all this?” I figured she, of all people, would have a good idea of either where Jophiel was, or how to find her. She seemed like the type to keep tabs on her old crewmate.

With a quick salute, the little pixie flew straight up into the air, then out over the heads of the crowd. I watched her go for a second, before looking back to Tabbris with a wince. “I really suck, huh? Can’t even let people have a single day of celebrating the death of one of the most evil pieces of shit in the universe before being like, ‘by the way, now we have this whole other life and death problem.’ What’s wrong with me?” I was only partially joking. Seeing the look on Tristan’s face as he realized how much danger his friend was in, thinking about the terror in his voice at the thought of the Fomorians getting her, made my soul want to shrivel up. 

Tabbris, however, quickly shook her head and grabbed onto me. “Nothing!” she blurted. “Don’t be stupid.” Her small fist punched me in the back mid-hug. “It’s not your fault bad people do bad things. And if Dexamene hadn’t gone there, you never would’ve gotten back here, you never would’ve stopped Fossor, and he would’ve killed all the Heretics! He would’ve killed everybody! Then the Fomorians would’ve figured out he was the only one they had to kill to cripple the entire Seosten defense, and they’d take over everything!” The kid’s voice was as firm as I’d ever heard it as she glared up at me intently. “Sometimes people have to do the scary thing to stop the terrible thing.” 

A smile, weak as it was, found its way to my face as I hugged the girl tight against me. “Do the scary thing to stop the terrible thing,” I echoed thoughtfully. “You know what? I think that’s a pretty good motto for this whole world. You should copyright it, we’d make millions.” 

In response, Tabbris just hugged me even tighter, face pressed against my shirt as she quietly murmured, “I don’t think that’s how it works, Super-Reporter.” 

Before I could respond to that, Namythiet returned. She came zipping straight down, blurting, “Found her! I said you need to talk about something important, so she’s waiting over by the docks. Errr, not the really busy ones, the old broken docks that way.” She pointed while zipping back and forth with excited energy. 

Thanking her, I headed that way. Even more people wanted to talk, or shove food at me, or just offer me a high five. A few offered a few words about their own histories with Fossor, times people they cared about were killed by him or his minions. Mostly his minions. All of this, the jubilant party, the fact that so many people had a story about losing someone (or a lot of someones) to Fossor, it all reminded me that it wasn’t just my family that was fucked with over the course of that fucker’s life. These people, some of the humans had horror stories going back a few hundred years. And the Alters? Some of them had stories that went back millennia. They had lost friends, children, entire families to that piece of shit. And had spent all these years, all that time, believing he was completely invincible, that he would never be stopped. 

No wonder they were all so happy. No wonder they were having this party, and barely noticed that I was distracted. And like hell would I argue or dismiss them. Yes, saving Dexamene and Elisabet was important. But I wasn’t going to fault these people for being happy. 

Thankfully, no one really pushed too hard. I was able to smile and nod and say a few words as I slipped through the crowd, which was only getting more rambunctious as the minutes went on. People were drinking, cheering, even screaming at one another. Not in anger, just… pure bliss. Joy. Between all the drinking, the screaming, a few playful fights, and tables laden down with food that had been brought out, this place was nuts. It was like a mixture between what I assumed a college kegger and some kind of viking feast would be like. With more magic involved. 

Yeah, it was nuts. But eventually, Tabbris and I (with Namythiet flying above our heads) managed to slip through the far edge of the main crowd. To the right was the main dock, where people were lined up to jump into what had to be freezing water, judging from some of the squeals. 

But the broken dock to the left, still cast in shadows far from the main party, was almost empty aside from the single figure who stood there watching me. Athena. She was patiently waiting, her eyes clearly evaluating me even through the shadows. It made me pause briefly before I took a breath and continued that way. 

“Lady Felicity,” the Seosten greeted once I was close enough to easily hear without raising her voice above a quiet murmur. “I wasn’t able to say this before, but it is quite good to see you and your mother returned safely.” 

“I–thanks. And thanks for being there today.” Biting my lip, I stepped up onto the wooden dock, listening to it creak under me before adding, “I’ve got a lot of people to thank, actually.” 

A very slight smile seemed to touch the woman’s face, though it was hard to see that clearly through the shadows. “And many more who wish to thank you for what you accomplished.” 

“Only with a lot of help,” I pointed out, shifting a bit self-consciously. “I never, ever would have gotten that far without everyone who showed up. I’d be dead. My mom would be dead.” 

“As, I believe, would a great deal of the Heretic population,” she pointed out gently. “You have gone through quite a lot, and have earned this victory. Do not doubt that. You had help, yes. But if I have found one thing over the course of this life, it is the bridge built by others that allows us to reach our greatest accomplishments. Sometimes, all we can do is build upon the bridge, taking it one step closer to the other side. Other times, it has been completed and we may race across. But whatever the case, any goal we reach for cannot come without striding upon stones laid by those who have come before. It is good to remember your allies.” 

Taking that as a convenient jump-on point, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, you’re right. And speaking of remembering allies, umm… there’s sort of a situation we really need to do something about.” 

So, over the next few minutes, I quickly explained what was going on yet again. Tabbris piped up now and then, while Namythiet fluttered around worrying about how Jophiel was going to react. Which actually confused me a little bit, as I didn’t know she’d had much, if any interaction with the woman. But it sure sounded like she knew her pretty well. 

In any case, I managed to get all of it out, leaving Athena silent as she considered. “Yes,” she finally murmured, “Rescuing Elisabet and this Dexamene is the new priority. But, as you say, simply creating a portal and jumping through hoping to find them before the Fomorians arrive is… inadvisable. Giving those creatures any link here to Earth would be incredibly dangerous. Even if it doesn’t allow them to bypass the banishment spell, it may give them a loophole they could exploit.” Her head shook. “Allowing them any access to Earth is a nonstarter.” 

Feeling the approach of someone through my item sense, I turned a bit to see Tristan approaching along with his mother. “Are you saying you won’t help get Dex back?” the boy demanded, sounding like he was basically just this side of completely losing it. 

Sariel quickly put a hand on her son’s shoulder, stopping him. Her voice was gentle. “That’s not what Athena meant, Tristan. Only that we must be careful.” 

Athena, in turn, nodded to her old crewmate. “Precisely. I only mean that opening a portal near Aiken’te’vel is not the correct move. Fortunately, we have other options available to us.”

Sariel seemed to realize what she was talking about, head turning a bit. “You mean–” 

“I do,” Athena confirmed. “I believe it may be the best opportunity we have to retrieve the two of them safely, without leaving a path for the Fomorians to follow or take advantage of.” 

“Um.” After blinking back and forth between the two, I glanced to Tabbris, who offered me a shrug. “You guys wanna share with the rest of us? Cuz I’m not sure what–” 

“The prototype ship,” Tristan suddenly put in. “The one that could jump universes. You guys have been working on it, right? That’s what you want to use to get over there. Except not there. You want to use it to get to the right universe, the one Aiken’te’vel is in, but far enough away that they can’t find or do anything with the portal signature.” 

That made me do a double-take, processing his words. “Wait, will that work? Can the prototype ship jump like that again?” 

“We have been working on it, as Tristan surmised,” Athena confirmed. “While the system is not perfect, I do believe it can manage a jump there and back again. If we set a jump-point far enough away from the Meregan world that the Fomorians could not find it before any lingering transportation energy was too far gone to be useful… then yes, I believe that would be workable.” 

“And we know the gun works!” Tabbris abruptly piped up. As everyone’s eyes moved to her, she turned pink and slipped back behind me to hide with a mumbled, “Well, we do.” 

Smiling despite myself, I reached back to catch the girl’s hand and squeezed it while focusing on the others. “If that’ll really make the jump, then when can we do it?” 

Tristan’s mouth opened to blurt something (probably ‘right now’), but his mother squeezed his shoulder before speaking up instead. “Very soon. We need to run checks over the ship, make sure it’s up to the job. And give people time to rest and recover after today’s fight.” 

Tristan didn’t like the idea of waiting. That much was obvious. But he gave a reluctant nod before tersely pointing out, “Dex and Elisabet don’t get to recover until we get them out of there.” 

“Tomorrow,” Athena informed him. “Get some rest tonight. If they’ve lasted this long, they can last another twenty-four hours. We will gather a few important people and ensure that the ship is prepared. With any luck, this will be a simple, quick retrieval mission. We get in, find those two, and get out with them. But one never plans for the best case scenario.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “And speaking of not planning for the best, can we find Jophiel? Cuz she needs to know what’s going on.” 

“I can find her,” Sariel noted, giving me a sympathetic look. “You do not have to come talk to her if you would prefer to be with your family right now.” 

“I would prefer that,” I confirmed. “But I need to be the one to tell Jophiel. After what Elisabet did to get me out of there, after what she’s–I need to be there. I owe her that. But you guys might wanna make sure you’re ready to stop her from portaling her way right over there the second you tell her where Elisabet is. And hey, speaking of Elisabet, once we get her back, maybe she can fill in a few blanks. 

“Like how she ended up there in the first place, and why she’s been cut off from Jophiel and the Committee.”

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Trust 15-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we were dropped off at the library, Izzy and I actually did go inside together. Partly so the driver would see it, and partly so we could keep talking (quietly of course) about what we were going to do. We wanted to make sure both of us were on the same page about what we supposedly did here, just in case my parents happened to ask about it later for any reason. 

The library was big enough that it was easy to get lost in, easy to avoid people and hide in a corner to quietly work. And by this point, both of us were pretty sure that Cuélebre’s people weren’t looking for her anymore, if they ever were. 

Yeah, given what I now knew about that situation, I was pretty sure my parents had put the full kibosh on that whole forced-recruiting thing. Oscuro was definitely one of the gangs they had a lot of control over, and with Izzy actually living with us… yeah, she was safe. Cuélebre’s group wasn’t going to violate my parents’ wishes just to try to grab her again. Particularly not in the public library. Hell, I doubted anyone from their side could pick her out of a crowd by now. Or at least, they wouldn’t be willing to admit they could if my parents ever asked. That was enough. 

So, with Izzy’s promise that she would sit in a private area, do her studying, and let me know if anything happened, I eventually left her there. Heading out one of the side doors of the library, I kept my eyes open, looking around for anyone my parents might’ve left to keep an eye on the place. But it looked pretty clear. They were probably about as confident as I was that Oscuro had backed off. If not more so. Honestly, I was pretty sure they’d been keeping up appearances for Izzy’s sake, given how odd it would have looked if they weren’t being super-careful with her. 

But things were clear now. So, I found an out-of-the-way roof to change into my costume, stowed my regular clothes in a bag out of sight, and took a running leap off the roof to head for Wren’s. With any luck, we’d be able to come up with something to help Paige. 

Actually, that was a good point. My parents hadn’t brought up anything about Paige. They hadn’t said a word about any possible disappearance, and I hadn’t seen word online. No one on social media was going on about it, or anything about her pare–her adopted parents. It was like nothing happened. Nothing involving Paige anyway. There was some about the warehouse that exploded, but not even much of that. Just that the authorities were looking into it and that there appeared to have been no one alive in the warehouse when it went up, which was… weird, given all the bodies Paige and I had left behind. 

And boy was that ever a disconcerting sentence to think. 

On the way to Wren’s, I thought about what had happened the night before. The Izzy part, specifically. God, she knew everything. I’d told her all of it. Well, pretty much. The major points. It would’ve taken a lot longer than we’d had for me to tell her absolutely everything that had happened since the night I’d stowed away in the back of that car. But the secrets, all the stuff I’d been keeping locked up tight inside my own brain for so long, she knew it. She knew who I was, what I was doing, what my parents were, all of it. She knew the truth. 

I felt… good. Okay, not fantastic. There was still so much I had to worry about. Still so many problems that I had no idea how to solve. Particularly Paige, right now. I didn’t know how we were going to fix her, who we could even talk to who might be able to fix what was wrong with her, let alone anyone we’d actually trust with that kind of access and secret. 

So yeah, I still had plenty of issues weighing on my brain. But the fact that I had finally actually talked about all of this stuff with someone helped. Seriously, it helped so much. Saying the words out loud, getting them out in the open, talking through how it all made me feel with Izzy? I felt better than I had in a long time, even with the whole Paige situation. It felt like I wasn’t alone anymore, like I had someone I could trust and… and rely on, even just a little bit. It was seriously amazing how much that helped. I really had slept better last night, despite everything going on with Paige and that entire mess, than I had in a very long time. 

Shaken out of those kind of musings as the phone buzzed in my pocket, I waited until I found a spot on another roof before taking it out. Glancing around to make sure I was clear and not about to be jumped or anything, I checked the ID. It was That-A-Way. 

“Hey, Way,” I answered immediately, stowing the phone and talking through the bluetooth as I took off running across the roof once more. “What’s going on?” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl answered. “You tell me.” She sounded tired, like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. “What happened? With Paige, I mean. Did you find out–did your Tech friend get anywhere with her? With–do we have any ideas?” 

Wincing at the sound of how stressed That-A-Way was, I quickly replied, “She can’t get through the body. I mean, we don’t even know if she could do anything with the orb part, but even if she could, she’s terrified of trying to even get to it. We need to find someone who can help with that, and I don’t even know where to start.” With a sigh, I added, “She said she could probably make a scanner or something that can find the orb. After that, we just need to get to it without… you know, doing too much damage. To it or to the body. I have no idea how we’re gonna do that, or even where to start with finding someone capable of it, let alone trustworthy.” 

Again, there was a moment of silence. Well, almost silence. I could hear the girl breathing, clearly lost in thought. Finally, she sighed audibly. “I’ll–I won’t ask around. I’ll quietly poke and see if anything comes up. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I’m not gonna…” She trailed off before simply finishing with a quiet, “I’m not gonna fuck up, promise. Just start with figuring out where the orb is and if she can get anything else. Images of it, how it’s doing, how much it’s connected to her, anything.” 

I nodded, then realized belatedly how useless that was. Flushing a bit under my helmet and mask, I spoke up quickly. “Right, yeah. Don’t draw any attention to the–hey wait a minute. Do you know why they’re saying there weren’t any bodies found at that place? I mean, we know they weren’t real people, but there were an awful lot of the things left there, and I didn’t see anything about that. They keep saying the place was empty except for equipment. Which… technically, but.” 

That time, I was pretty sure I heard That-A-Way mumble a curse before she replied in a dark voice. “I don’t know. I know I saw bodies there, but when I got back, they said there weren’t any. When I asked, they said it was the fire and the smoke playing tricks on me, that they went through the whole place and found nothing like that. No bodies, no remains, nothing.” 

Landing on the ledge attached to a billboard, I frowned. “So they knew. I mean, someone important figured out those weren’t normal bodies, and covered it up. But that would take a lot. They had to move any remains, make sure no one who wasn’t involved didn’t see it or shut them up, make sure no one got any pictures and the media didn’t find out…” My parents. That whole thing had to be my parents. The Ministry. Somehow, they’d pulled that off. The fact that they could do something like that at the drop of a hat just… yeah. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite as rested as I had before answering the phone. And I also had a slightly better understanding of why That-A-Way sounded the way she did. God, the realization that they had that kind of power, knowing the amount she did about the Ministry? No wonder she was stressed. 

“Yeah,” came her quiet response, almost as though she could read my mind, “Someone important knew, and managed all that. So I’m pretty sure they’ll be interested in our little friend if they ever find out about her. You sure you trust the place you’ve got her now?” 

“Absolutely,” I replied immediately, before amending, “I mean, it’s the best place we’ve got. And I trust Trevithick. She’s not going to tell anybody. But do you have any idea if anyone has any way of linking Paige to that warehouse? No one’s said anything about her disappearing yet. Or her ‘parents.’ At least, it’s not online. And I’m pretty sure they kept their names off any ownership papers, so–”

“I don’t think they’ve connected her to it, or realized that she’s missing,” Way put in. “I went by her place, since we were supposed to–” She coughed. “Since my patrol went that way. But I didn’t see anything. It was all locked up. The gates were closed, no guards at the entrance, no response to the intercom.” 

“Did you check the place out any closer?” I hesitantly asked, curious as to how far the other girl had gone. 

“I didn’t have any legal reason to,” she pointedly informed me. “There was no sign of anything wrong other than the lack of guards, no one called for help, I didn’t have a warrant or any sign of immediate criminal activity or danger.” 

She held that for a few silent seconds before exhaling in a long sigh. “I took a quick peek. The place is shut down. There’s no one there. No bodies, no guards, no servants, no Banners family, nothing. It’s like everyone just got up and left last night after the–after everything that happened. They’re gone.” 

There was something about what she had been saying that tickled my brain, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Instead of dwelling too much, I replied, “Could be the Ministry, or could be Paige’s father’s people, if he still has any. Could be a lot of things.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Thanks for checking it out anyway, even if it wasn’t exactly by the book.” 

After a moment of silence, Way responded with, “Yeah, well, it didn’t really accomplish much, did it? We still don’t know anything about how or why they disappeared. And we still don’t know what to do about Paige. I don’t have some special doctor I can pull out who could do surgery to get to the orb, and I definitely don’t have any I’d trust completely with that. Not to mention, just getting to the orb is the easy part. Can Trevithick fix what happened to it? I mean, I don’t know a lot about Tech-Touched stuff, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard for someone who didn’t make something to beat out the person who actually made it. Paige’s dad designed that thing. It’s his power. So how do we find someone who can change what he did?” 

My mouth opened, then I paused, frowning thoughtfully as I took another couple jumps, getting close to the shop. “Maybe we don’t need a Tech-Touched. I mean, not for the reprogramming part. If Trevithick can just keep the orb running while…”

“While what?” Way put in. 

“Sorry,” I quickly apologized. “I just–I need to think about it. I’ve got a few thoughts, I just need time to figure out if they’ll work or not. I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I figure it out, promise.” 

“Paintball,” Way started before seeming to catch herself. She sighed then, insisting, “Yeah, let me know. I’ll look around, like I said. See if anyone pops out who could pull something like this off and then be quiet about it.” She sounded understandably doubtful about that possibility. “And be careful. I don’t think they know about Paige right now, but if they figure it out…” 

“Yeah, it’d be bad.” Grimacing, I stopped at the edge of the last roof, across from Wren’s place. “I’ll be careful, believe me. You too. Don’t get caught. Don’t–” 

Way interrupted. “Don’t give anything away, I won’t. But listen, I went for this run earlier and saw–I mean, do you know anything about this guy…” She trailed off then. 

“This guy?” I echoed. “What–” 

Once again, she cut me off. “Nothing, never mind. I’ll figure it out myself. Just gotta look into someone, but I can do that. You’ve got enough to deal with. Talk to you later, Paintball.” 

She disconnected, and I hesitated, wondering if there was anything better I could’ve said. But no. I was doing the best I could. We all were. That-A-Way was going through a lot. Seriously, I’d just told her that the girl I’d said could have information we needed about the Ministry was actually a–like a cyborg sort of. After that, and the whole warehouse thing, and figuring out that the Ministry could cover something like that up with no advance warning? No wonder she was obviously stressed. 

Shaking that off, I made my way down to the entrance into the shop, glanced around to make sure it was clear, then went inside. Or rather, tried to. The door was locked. 

“Um.” Blinking, I raised my hand to knock, only for the door to open seemingly on its own. For a second, a rush of fear and paranoid thoughts filled my head. What was going on? Slowly, I took a step inside, scanning the room intently. The place was mostly dark, the lights dimmed to the lowest setting. It didn’t look like anyone was in the actual store part. A thick knot of worry formed in my throat. If something was wrong, if something bad had happened because I–

“Sorry!” That was Wren, popping out of the elevator on the far side of the room and zooming over to me, using her flightpack thing to glide a few feet off the floor. “Security, we’re not letting anyone in right now. I mean, except you. And Pack. And–I mean no customers. Come on!” She grabbed my hand, pulling me the rest of the way inside just before the door shut once more behind us. I heard several clicks as various locks engaged. 

“Wren, is everything okay?” I asked, after giving a quick glance around. Things seemed just the way I’d left them aside from the lights being dimmed. 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, it’s fine!” Wren shrugged, hovering there at eye level with me thanks to the dragonfly-like wings from that harness she wore. “Uncle Fred and me just thought having customers right now might be a bad idea, cuz I’ve gotta focus. And cuz bad guys might sneak in. So we’re closed for now.” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, we never really opened after the thing with bad guys coming in before, but we still had a few people come in. Now it’s all locked.” 

Her words made me wince. “Sorry. You’re just trying to get the shop on its feet again and I make you close the whole place down.” 

Wren’s eyes rolled. “You didn’t make us do anything, Paintball. You asked for help. That’s the right thing to do.” Her hand poked me in the middle of the visor on my helmet before she turned in the air. “Besides, I like figuring things out, and this is a big thing to figure out! Come on!” 

She flew ahead of me, while I followed at a trot. At least Wren seemed to be less overwhelmed than she had last night. Apparently the intervening hours had taken her from terrified of the very concept of being responsible for fixing Paige, to excited about solving the problem. 

Making it upstairs to where the girl’s real workshop was, I looked around. There. Paige was lying on a couch. It looked like she was sleeping, even though I knew better. 

“She hasn’t changed at all.” That was Fred, speaking up as he approached, pushing a wheeled cart laden with tools. “No movement, no sound, nothing. She just lays there. Body’s still working. She’s got a heartbeat, pulse, she’s breathing, all that. But there’s no active response. I can’t even tell if she can hear what we’re saying or not.”

Swallowing, I stepped that way, putting a hand on Paige’s face for a moment. God, my feelings about this whole thing were so confusing. I was angry, sad, confused, worried… fuck. It was too much. 

Finally, I shoved all that down and turned back to the other two, yet again glad that they couldn’t see my expression. “Any ideas? You seem… better about it, Wren.” 

“I still can’t do anything about the body,” she insisted firmly. “I’m not a doctor and I’ll break it. Errr, kill it–her. I don’t–I can’t–” A hint of that previous worry crept into her voice before she shook it off and pressed on. “But I’m making that scanner I told you about, the one that can find the orb so we know where it is, exactly. If we can find it, I think I can make something to umm… stabilize it? I can’t fix it, that’s programming stuff. But I can make sure it doesn’t go boom or anything else that creep might’ve put in it.” 

Smiling a bit behind the helmet, I nodded. “Thanks, Wren. For everything. I just–I guess we need two things. Two people. Someone who can open up the body to get to that orb once you find it, and someone who can do the programming part.” 

I had one idea about the latter. Eits. His Mites could probably get in there and help with the virus or whatever it was that Paige’s father had installed. But… but could I trust him that far? Could I risk involving him like that? Pack had already said he was very loyal to La Casa. 

And more importantly, even if I did stretch the trust far enough to involve Eits, who the hell could we trust to do the biological part? 

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Patreon Snippets 18 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For those who read Summus Proelium who might have missed it, there was a commissioned interlude for that story posted yesterday. You can find it by clicking right here

The following is the 18th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Gabriel Ruthers 

The Necromancer was dead. After more than a dozen mortal lifetimes, after an untold number of victims and atrocities, the monster who had shown Gabriel Ruthers what the beings who lurked in the shadows were truly capable of was gone. He was dead and he would never threaten another person’s life, would never corrupt and torture another innocent soul. 

It should have been a time of joy, a time of relief and celebration. And it was, for some. For many, really. A large portion of the Crossroads population who had any clue who the man named Fossor had been were currently engaged in parties that stretched across just about every major holding their society had. There was talk amongst others in the Committee of making the day Fossor fell into a literal holiday, perhaps even working in a way to make it one amongst the Bystanders as well somehow. They were giddy with relief and joy, most not caring anything about who had struck the final blow, only that it was done and that Fossor was dead. 

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. Such things hardly ever were. Particularly these days.  

As for Ruthers himself, the man stood not at any of those parties. Nor was he celebrating more quietly, as others were, in various bars or private restaurants. No. Instead, he stood on a hill a few short kilometers north of Collobrières, in France. With one hand resting against a tree, Ruthers stared at a nearby spot between two fallen logs. To most, it would seem the same as any other patch of dirt in any other forest. Looking there, they would see nothing important, nothing special. 

Nothing that had changed the entire course of human history. 

But, of course, it was far more than that. When Ruthers looked to that spot, he saw himself, young and so naive. He saw Fossor, expertly manipulating him. The two of them had stood there, in that very spot, to finalize the ‘deal’ that was supposed to involve Ruthers and the other Heretics he had gathered together giving Fossor the power he needed to use a spell that would have eliminated the grave threat they had all faced. 

Fossor had presented himself as a friend, one they could trust. Others hadn’t believed him. Ruthers had vouched for the man. He had traveled with Fossor for months, had fought alongside him, had saved his life (or so he thought) and vice versa. For those months, Fossor had worked to convince Gabriel that he was trustworthy and honest, someone who only wanted to help. 

And Gabriel, fool that he was, had believed it. He had well and truly believed that this Fossor, though not human, was someone who could help them. He’d argued with their other allies, had nearly come to blows with them, had staked everything he was that the man at his side was one they could count on. 

It was his words, his urging, that convinced the others to take a chance. They helped contribute the power Fossor had asked for. Desperate as they were to stop the threat that had been looming in front of them, they gave the Necromancer everything wanted, everything they could give. 

Only later did Ruthers find out the truth, that Fossor’s magic on this world had been weak, thanks to the efforts of some other entity. He was–not quite cut off in the same way as the curse for stepping on Earth soil (that had been accomplished later), but his efforts to draw power here to Earth were weakened. But by convincing Gabriel and the others to give him so much power, Fossor managed to break that limitation. And, in the process, he had nearly wiped out all humanity. Killing millions of innocent people, a solid chunk of the entire population of the world at the time, and turning the slow trickle of his power on this world into the full geyser it was supposed to be, all in the same move. Which of those was his primary goal would forever be a mystery. Perhaps both. Perhaps it didn’t matter. 

What mattered was results. And the result was that because of his own naivety, Ruthers had convinced others to give Fossor everything he needed to nearly wipe out the human race and become a threat to the Earth for centuries following. Every person who had died from that disease, every person Fossor had killed since then, was because of what Ruthers had done. They were dead because he had trusted the Necromancer when everyone else had said he shouldn’t. If he had listened to them, if he just hadn’t been so stupid and naive… 

It was a mistake he would never make again. Humans. His loyalty was to humanity. After what he’d done, after what he’d helped cause, Gabriel Ruthers would never forget that. Whatever happened, he would always put humanity first. He would protect them from everything he could, no matter what. The horror and guilt he felt whenever he thought about this moment, the moment all those centuries ago when he had stood in this forest and agreed to convince his companions to trust Fossor, would never leave. After all this time, it was only stronger. 

And when he saw Joselyn, when he saw the young woman with so much charisma and power falling into that same trap, not understanding that the evil things that wanted to destroy the human race were patient enough to play nice for months and even years at a time, he wanted to scream. He wanted to grab the woman and shake her, shout in her face about what Fossor had done to him. Fossor had played him, just as those creatures were doing to her. 

His mistake had nearly resulted in the complete annihilation of the human species. Hers could be worse, if someone didn’t make her stop. She was too charismatic, too capable of convincing other people to join her. Joselyn and her daughter. The two of them together could drag humanity to destruction or complete servitude, all with the best of intentions. Because they wouldn’t listen, because they refused to understand. 

The smell of ash filled Ruthers’ nose, and he turned a bit to find the tree he had been touching had been disintegrated. Lost in his memories and thoughts as he had been as he stared at that single spot where he and Fossor had stood, his hand had subconsciously heated up to the point of burning the entire tree down to nothing. Without even thinking about it, without any conscious thought, he had destroyed a living thing that had been standing for two hundred and seventeen years. He knew that, because he had seen the tree sprout the first time. He knew every plant in this area, every rock, every creature that called it home or passed through. 

He knew this place as well as he knew his own room. Or even more, because it was far more important.  

For a moment, the man grimaced at the sight, pausing a bit before looking over to a nearby tree that was still standing. Holding out his hand, he waited until a seed from that tree flew through the air to his palm. Then he crouched as a perfectly circular hole appeared in the ground to drop the seed in. Using both hands, he pushed the dirt in on top of it, patted the ground flat, and stood. A thought made the seed begin to sprout and grow at a rapid pace, until a young but sturdy sapling stood where the previous tree had been. 

Satisfied, Ruthers stepped away from the sapling, leaving it to grow the rest of the way on its own as he moved to stand in the spot he had stood all those centuries ago. He heard his own voice, his own words agreeing to Fossor’s supposed plan. He heard the stupidity in them, the childish belief and trust. He heard everything in his own voice that he now heard whenever Joselyn or Felicity spoke. Or any of their people. 

He heard their words and he heard his own. He saw his consequences, and saw what theirs could be if someone didn’t stop them. If they were being played, if even one person in their little collection of monsters had the same intentions that Fossor had had…

He couldn’t let that happen. Fossor was dead and gone, and good riddance. Ruthers hadn’t been the one to kill him, but he truly didn’t care about that. All that mattered was that the Necromancer was dead. But if his legacy continued, if one like him managed to carry on where he had failed, because Joselyn kept the fucking door open for it…

Pivoting away from the spot with a grunt of disgust, the man began to stride away from it purposefully as a portal appeared to take him back to Crossroads. Let others celebrate. They deserved it. As for him, he had to get back to work. 

Joselyn and her people had to be stopped. They all had to be stopped. That was all there was to it. Ruthers would make absolutely certain of it. Whatever it took, whatever had to happen, he would make sure nothing like Fossor ever happened again. 

Or he would die trying. 

*******

Zeke Leven 

That Felicity Chambers chick was a pain in the ass. 

The thought, along with other similarly uncharitable ones directed toward his former classmate and her entire family, filled Zeke Leven’s mind as he repeatedly hit a punching bag that had been set up in one of the Crossroads Academy gyms. The bag was enchanted to take a lot of damage. Which was a good thing, considering the boy had gained enough power over the past year and change to pick up and hurl a decent sized Bystander car. Every punch he subjected that bag to would have turned an ordinary, mundane one into dust and shattered cloth. And he hit the thing rapidly, twenty, thirty full-force punches in the course of ten seconds. 

Sandoval was out there, along with her sister. Both of them had bought into the cuddly, friendly, oh-so-misunderstood Strangers bullshit. How? How was that possible, after everything they had seen? Scout especially should have known better. After everything she’d been through, after what their mother had–

But their mother had bought into it too. Or had she? Was the woman who had shown up really their mother, or one of those bodysnatchers that had been talked about? What kind of woman would really drag her daughters into that bullshit rebellion against humanity when they themselves were humans? It didn’t make any sense. It was bullshit. It was wrong. 

“Zeke,” a quiet voice spoke from nearby, drawing the boy’s attention. He turned, to see a familiar woman. 

“Mother,” the boy said simply, blinking a bit as her appearance threw him. “What are you doing here?” 

Sophoronia, in turn, replied, “Is it so strange for me to check on my son?” She paused, eyes flicking toward the severely punished heavy bag before they moved back to him. “How are you? I assume you’ve heard the news of Fossor’s death.”

“Heard? Yeah, I heard,” Zeke retorted, gesturing off toward the grounds. “That’s what all the screaming and partying going on out there is about. Newest excuse anyway. Not like people need much of one.” 

“Yet, you’re not celebrating with them,” his mother noted carefully, watching him.  

Zeke shrugged, folding his arms over his stomach. “We didn’t do much, did we? I mean, it was the traitors who actually killed the motherfucker.” 

“Language, Zeke,” Sophronia gently chastised before reconsidering. “On second thought, use whatever bad language you like when it comes to that creature. But please, leave that specific phrase out of things. It’s a bit too… on the nose.”

Ignoring that, the boy looked to his mother. “What are you people going to do about the traitors? They’re turning innocent people to their side now. And since they killed Fossor, I heard some people talking about how maybe they’re right. Especially since they had Strangers helping them.” 

Sophronia met her son’s gaze. “Do you know who specifically has been saying that?” 

For a few silent seconds, Zeke stared back at his mother as a handful of thoughts swirled through his head. He considered every possible answer before simply looking away with a muttered, “Just some mutters. Nobody specific. But that’s not the point. The point is people are starting to look up to them, Mother. This whole thing is going to be worse, because you guys won’t stop them and put those traitors where they belong.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” his mother quietly informed him, seeming to consider her words then before continuing. “Would you have us put everyone who has left Crossroads under this belief in prison? Including the Mason twins and others?” 

“No,” Zeke snapped quickly. “They’re just–they’ve been tricked. They’re…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. 

“As I said,” Sophronia gently put in, “it’s complicated. And even if such a decision could be made lightly, they’re quite strong. Going to full-scale war against them could leave the Earth itself vulnerable to other threats. We have to be careful.” 

With a sigh, Zeke turned away to face the heavy bag once more. “Yeah, whatever.” 

For a moment, his mother said nothing. Then she moved closer, putting both hands on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Zeke. The work I’ve done, the things I’ve been busy with, they… I haven’t spent as much time with you as I should have.” 

“What?” He blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “What does that have to do with anything?” 

It looked, just for a second, like his mother was going to say one thing. Then she clearly changed her mind and shook her head. “Nothing. I just… I haven’t been able to be there for you as much as I should have.” Carefully, she turned the boy around, pulling him closer into an embrace. “I just want you to make good choices. But they have to be your choices.”

Zeke, of course, had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Nor why his mother was acting so strangely. Maybe it was just the fact that Fossor, a long-time enemy, was finally dead. Maybe it made her feel nostalgic or something. 

He did know two things for a fact, however. First, the traitors were going to have a field day recruiting people after this victory that had made Crossroads look like idiots. 

And second, Felicity Chambers was definitely a pain in the ass. 

******

Sariel and Haiden 

“You know, shotgun weddings have their benefits,” Haiden Holt noted as he stood near the window of the Vegas hotel room, “but downsides too.” The man, wearing a provided bathrobe, was gazing out over the brightly lit Vegas strip far below, watching the line of cars and starry-eyed tourists. How would they react if they had the slightest idea of who the actual people who ran this city were? A trio of Strang–Alter families, vampire, Vestil, and Oni all in an uneasy truce to keep Heretics (or most of them, anyway) out. 

Come to think of it, given the mix of Bystander rumors and truth about the powers behind Vegas over the decades, maybe people wouldn’t blink too much at the truth after all. 

“Are you saying you don’t want to get married?” Sariel teased from the bathroom where she was drying off and dressing after their shower together. 

Eyeing the reflection in the window where he could barely make out the beautiful woman’s form, Haiden retorted, “Did I say anything of the sort? I just think it’s too bad that neither of us have friends we could invite. Okay, no friends that we’ve known longer than the few months we’ve known each other, anyway.” Abandoning everyone he’d ever known, as Sariel herself had on her side, had taken a lot. But the two of them had each other. And soon, once they were married, the bond between them would be a far more formal and permanent one. 

Sariel stepped out into the room, not bothering to dress as she moved up behind the man and wrapped her arms around him. “It would be nice,” she murmured, “but there’s no way it could work.” 

“You thinking about specific people you’d like to be here?” Haiden asked, as it took everything in him to focus on their conversation and not on the fact that the woman he loved was naked and clinging to him. She really was cheating. 

“Are you?” Sariel returned, before adding, “I’d like my… Apollo to be there. And a few others. My mother…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “That’s impossible for a lot more reasons. Not just because she’d probably want to kill you for being human and corrupting her daughter. But also… all that.” 

Of course, because of ‘all that.’ Haiden knew about the woman called Korsmea, how she was in some kind of Seosten mental hospital because of the curse. A curse that made her constantly forget when she was in her own personal timeline. Every time the woman woke up, or even multiple times a day, she would think she was at some different point in the several thousand years she had been alive before the curse. 

Thousands of years of memories, all being randomly relived with no way of focusing on the present. It sounded horrific, and in some ways even worse for a young child like Sariel had been to live through. 

No wonder she wanted this Apollo guy to be there. The Seosten who had been her partner, her brother of sorts, for so long. He’d tried to get Sariel to tell him more about the guy, so he could reach out to him (the man had left the Seosten after all), but she refused. She was, as far as Haiden could tell, ashamed that she hadn’t left with Apollo in the first place. Which seemed like a dumb reason not to reach out to him now, but he wasn’t going to push that. Not yet. 

“Vanessa,” he murmured, answering her earlier question in a quiet voice. “I’d like Vanessa to be here.” Which was even more impossible, given his sister had died many years earlier. She’d been killed in training back at Eden’s Garden, even before the two had graduated to full Heretics. 

With a visible wince even in the reflection, Sariel held him more tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while gently kissing his shoulder. “I wish your sister could be here too. I wish everyone we cared about could be here. I wish… a lot of things.”

Turning from the window to face her, Haiden shook his head. “It’s okay. We’ll find new people we can trust and love and open up to.” Arching an eyebrow, he pointedly looked down, then back up again. “And I can’t say I’m exactly suffering right now.” 

It was fun seeing the way he could make a woman as ancient as the original Artemis blush. A wave of pink spread over her face as she punched him in the shoulder while rolling her eyes. “I should get dressed. And you should think if there’s anyone else you wish you could invite.” Poking him in the same spot she had punched, the woman turned and started to walk away. Again, a view he didn’t exactly object to. 

Turning back to the window once she started to dress, Haiden idly remarked, “I suppose I could try to reach out to see if Lucy’s interested in showing up. I mean, after everything that guy did for me before we met, and–” 

Suddenly, Sariel was there. Her hands caught Haiden by the arm, turning him to face her. “What?” she demanded, eyes wide. “Who did you say helped you?” 

Haiden was left blinking a little, confused. “Lucy–no big deal. He was the guy, the Heretic I mentioned who helped point me to a few problems. Like the one where I found you.” 

“You never mentioned his name before,” Sariel pointed out, her grip on his shoulders still tight. 

With a confused shrug, Haiden offered, “Yeah, he had a big thing for secrecy. Has, I guess. He was huge for being anonymous, I guess I was just respecting that. He was–umm, are you okay?” He’d noticed the odd look in his fiance’s gaze. 

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She turned away, arms folding across her stomach as she stared at the floor and shivered a little. She was lost in thoughts, in memories, in doubts. 

“Hey, what–” Haiden hesitated before putting his hands on her shoulders, gently turning the woman to face him. “What’s wrong? Is this–you know this Lucy guy, don’t you? He pointed me at you for a reason.” In that moment, seeing the way the woman he loved reacted to the name, he was trying to decide if that was a good thing or if Lucy had somehow been fucking with them both. If this was a guy who hated Sariel, if they were–

“Apollo,” the woman finally spoke up, her voice cracking just a little. “It was Apollo.” She looked to him, swallowing hard. “His original name was Lucifer. They–my people made him the… yeah. Lucifer. Lucy. It was him.” 

That was a… a lot. For a moment, Haiden just stared at his fiance as he digested that. “Your brother–Apollo, the one you call Apollo, he’s Lucifer. Your people turned him into the embodiment of all evil in the Bystander Christian mythology, and he… he was the guy who sent me to you.” 

He’d known that he’d been intentionally sent to meet Sariel, of course. He’d known that there was someone who had purposefully pointed him toward her, likely with the intention of just what had happened. Except he’d never considered it being Lucy, because the man named Lucy had always presented himself as the go-between. He had simply passed along a message from the man named Nicholas. It was Nicholas, whoever he was, whom Haiden had assumed was responsible for making sure he and Sariel met. 

Except was there even an actual Nicholas to begin with? Or was that just a way for this Lucifer/Apollo to hide in plain sight? 

Focusing on Sariel, he quietly asked, “Are you okay?” She had to be reeling even more than he was, after the long and incredibly complicated relationship she’d had with the man. He knew there was more to the story, but from what he had heard, this Apollo or Lucifer had basically been the most important person in her life for… for a really long time. 

For her part, Sariel was quiet at first. She seemed to be digesting the information, her gaze moving past him to stare out the window. He saw flashes of guilt in her expression, but also wonder, relief, fear, and happiness. It was a clearly a confusing rush of emotions, before she finally looked back to him, visibly swallowing. In a very small voice, she whispered, “He sent you to me.” There were tears in her eyes, which she blinked away rapidly before repeating in an even more tender voice, “He sent you to me.” 

Before Haiden could respond, Sariel’s hands were on either side of his face, and he was pulled down. Her lips found his, in a kiss that seemed to eclipse all they had shared before that moment. 

She said nothing else after that, not for some time. Nor did he. Because nothing else needed to be said about how they each felt about each other and their relationship. 

Not with words, anyway. 

********

Guinevere and Arthur

Two teenage figures, one male and one female, stood atop a hill facing one another. In the distance, a small village could be glimpsed with smoke rising from several fireplaces. The sound of merriment for the local festival to celebrate the harvest could be heard, but neither of the teens paid attention. Their sole focus was on one another, and what they were doing. 

“So,” Guinevere began while squinting at the boy across from her, “how does this work? And if you start talking about needing some kind of kiss or something to make your power work, I shall make certain you regret it.” 

An embarrassed blush crossed the dark-haired boy’s face at her words. Which, Guinevere decided, made him look even more attractive. Not that she’d ever tell him that. 

Well, not soon, anyway. 

“I, ahh, I’m not completely sure,” Arthur confessed. “I’ve never really done this before. But Nimue says it’ll be instinct. She says dragons were always supposed to enhance the abilities of the rest of the armies they were at the head of, so I should just… um, be able to do it by thinking about it.” 

For another moment, the two just stared at each other. As it began to feel a little awkward, Guinevere offered, “Perhaps we should hold hands. As long as you don’t get any ideas.” She added the last bit primly, mostly just to see his reaction. 

And it was a fun reaction indeed. The blush that she had decided was cute spread even more, as Arthur shook his head quickly. “No, no ideas. I mean, ideas for this, but not–I mean. Here.” Quickly, he grabbed both of her hands and held them. His eyes closed briefly, but then drifted open as he stared at her. 

At first, Guinevere met his gaze only for the purpose of teasing him about staring at her. But the words faltered in her throat as their gazes locked. She stared into Arthur’s eyes, feeling her own heartbeat, hearing her breath gradually slow along with his. The two gazed at one another, as a feeling of warmth built through her. It began in her hands, clasped within his, spreading through her arms and into her core. That feeling of warmth, of acceptance, of… of power built in her. She lost herself in his gaze, tumbling endlessly and yet felt perfectly safe. 

With a sudden gasp, both Arthur and Guinevere stumbled away from one another, releasing their hands as they almost fell. 

Catching herself, Guinevere blurted, “Gods! You–that was–you just…” The feeling, it was so strong. She felt–she felt so… amazing. Turning, the girl looked toward the village and focused. The moment she did, a gasp escaped her once more. “It worked!” 

“It did?” Arthur blinked, stepping that way. “How can you–” 

“I can see a long way,” she informed him, not looking away from the village. “The griffin I was bonded to, it let me see things from a far distance. But now I can see even further. I couldn’t see the sign by the pub before. Now I can. I can count the number of coins on the bar through the window.”

That said, the girl turned away from the village, drawing a knife from its sheath at her leg. Holding the weapon up, she eyed it. At a thought, the blade bent all the way to the left, then to the right, while her smile grew. “It’s easier to control metal too. It responds faster. This is–Arthur, you made me stronger!” 

Quickly, the boy pointed out, “Nimue says that boost was growing since I was bonded. It’ll take longer to do more boosts like that. Or they’ll be smaller. And more spread out.” 

“I don’t care,” Guinevere informed him, “this is amazing.” 

After a momentary hesitation, Arthur asked, “You can fly too, right? Do… do you think you’re faster now?” 

The question made a sly smile cross the girl’s face. “Do I think I’m faster? Faster than I was, or faster than you?” She watched his reaction, giggling despite herself before reaching out to poke his nose with her finger. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” 

With that, and with no further warning, the girl abruptly erupted from the ground. In an instant, she was a distant speck far off in the sky. 

Gazing after her, Arthur gave a slow smile of his own as he watched the figure doing loops through the air as though taunting him to catch up. 

And then he was gone too, launching himself into the sky to give chase. 

********

Joselyn and Abigail

Long after the main party celebrating the defeat of Fossor had died down, people still spoke in small, isolated groups or pairs. One of those pairs, standing on the porch behind the cabin where others of the family were resting, was Joselyn and Abigail. Mother and daughter, separated for so many decades to the point that they were entirely strangers, stood side-by-side, looking out at the forest as they bonded over the single shared experience they had: motherhood. 

“Once,” Abigail was saying, “when Koren was around eleven, she decided she really wanted a dog. I told her only if she was responsible for it, so she said she’d start feeding and walking some neighbor’s dogs to prove it. Good so far, right? Well, little did I know, my little angel wasn’t about to wait for as long as proving herself would take.

“Turns out, she had already been given a dog by one of her friends. Long story there. But she kept him out in the shed in the backyard. We thought one of the neighbor dogs was just barking a lot. She kept him out there, and when she fed the neighborhood dogs, she just kept a little bit from each in a baggy and brought it all home to put in a pan for her dog. She took him for a walk the same way she took the other dogs for walks, just pretending it was one of the neighbor’s. She played with the dog, walked the dog, fed the dog, all right in front of us while we thought it was yet another neighborhood dog she was taking care of. That kid must’ve fed, walked, and played with ten different dogs over those few weeks just to hide the fact that she already had her own dog she was taking care of.” 

With a smile, Joselyn asked her own grown daughter, “Did you let her keep him?” 

“Well at that point, what else could we do?” Abigail snorted. “I told her to prove she could take care of one, and she took care of him and nine others.” She exhaled, looking away. “We had Thumper for about three years after that, until he went missing. Koren was heartbroken. I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “She really loved that dog.” 

For a minute or so, both women were quiet. Then Joselyn spoke up. “Felicity was in kindergarten. She was doing really well, but then she started getting in trouble. Not bad trouble, just enough to get in timeout. She refused to share, took someone else’s crayons, talked back to the teacher, little things that made them put her in the corner. All week long, every day, she did just enough to get put in timeout. The teachers couldn’t understand why, and we couldn’t either. Until I figured it out.” 

“What was she doing?” Abigail asked, curious about what her much-younger sister had been up to. 

With a chuckle, Joselyn explained, “See, I was working at the high school that week, helping with the career day events and a few other things. I thought Felicity was jealous or something, upset that I was at the high school and wasn’t visiting her school, because they were right next to each other. But when I went to visit her teacher to have a talk, I realized something. The timeout chair in the corner, it was right by a small window. And through that window, she could see the parking lot in the high school where I’d been working all week.” 

Abigial gave a double-take, staring at her. “Oh my God. You mean she was intentionally getting in trouble so they’d put her in time-out, just so she could watch you from across the parking lots?” 

A fond, tender smile touched Joselyn’s face as she nodded. “That’s right. She just wanted those few extra minutes every day to watch me, even if it meant getting in trouble to do it.” 

“Being a mom, it’s worth it,” Abigail quietly announced without taking her eyes off her own mother.

Joselyn, in turn, met her gaze while slowly lifting a hand to touch the other woman’s face. “Yes,” she agreed. 

“It absolutely is.” 

******

The Olympus

With a snap of his heels and a quick salute, the incredibly young Seosten (he couldn’t have been older than sixty or so) military guard jumped to abrupt attention at the unexpected appearance of a surprising guest. “Trierarch!” he blurted aloud, voice betraying his surprise, “Apologies, sir, if you were expected I wasn’t informed.” Belatedly after saying that, he seemed to want to correct himself to avoid potentially throwing any of his close superiors under the bus.

Puriel, however, shook his head. “Ease, peditatus. It’s okay. I know it’s early, but I ahh, just thought I’d come take a look at the old girl while the place was closed.” Meeting the other man’s gaze, he added with a very small smile, “I’d rather avoid crowds and fuss.” 

“O-of course, sir.” Quickly, the young Seosten turned toward the heavy metal door he had been half-dozing in front of before this unexpected arrival. Taking the field-engraver from its slot on his belt, he carefully touched all four points of the alarm spell, disengaging it and unlocking the door. It hissed open a moment later, as he gestured. “Right this way, Trierarch.” 

With that, he started forward through the airlock, leaving Puriel to follow. The two of them entered a long, clear tube. The Seosten homeworld of Elohim lay far below. They weren’t quite in space, being ‘only’ around thirty thousand feet up. This was the navy museum, where dozens of old, decommissioned military vessels were kept. The facility itself consisted of a maze of these clear corridors connected to various box-like structures where classes and presentations about ships (both those kept here and others that had been used throughout the long conflict with the Fomorians) were held. The ships that were actually kept here at the museum were attached to the open spaces between the main structures, able to be viewed from all sides through the maze of clear tube corridors. The entire facility was kept aloft through powerful engines at all four corners that allowed it to remain in the same relative position above the Seosten capital city.

Stepping out into that particular tube, Puriel took a look at the ship that had been his home for so long, his pride and joy, his… his true achievement. The ship that had truly meant more than he ever could have understood until long after he’d lost it. 

The Olympus. The ship itself consisted, at its base, of an orb five hundred meters in diameter. The main science and living facilities of the ship were kept there, along with the primary bridge directly in the center. Attached to that primary orb were three long gunships that were about a third of the width of the core and vaguely curved in order to attach/overlap it. The gunships were each attached equidistant around the orb, extending twenty meters behind the orb and a hundred meters in front of it, with two on what was considered the ‘bottom’ and one on the ‘top.’ It essentially looked like a long, thick metal pipe with three large cracks between where gunships were between the two and three o’clock positions, the six o’clock position, and the nine to ten o’clock positions, all surrounding a large ball trapped inside said pipe.

Not that the gunships had to stay connected. At any point, one or all of the three cylinder pieces could detach from the main orb and operate separately to provide fire support. The Olympus was essentially four vessels in one, a science orb protected by three powerful gunships. 

For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He simply stood, staring silently at the sight in front of him. A myriad of thoughts, emotional, very complicated thoughts, ran through him. The memories that came when he saw that ship were… almost more than he could bear. He could feel himself start to slip away, start to lose himself the way he had done for so long after that broken banishment orb had all-but destroyed his mind. 

Spark pulled him back. He felt her presence, felt her gently catch his drifting thoughts and point him back to what he was doing, before he could entirely lose himself. 

“Sir?” It was the Seosten who had unlocked the door to let him in here so he could see the old ship. “Are you okay? Should I get someone to–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. “No, it’s alright. Thank you, peditatus, I–what’s your name?” 

“Eilerien, sir,” came the response. 

“Eilerien,” Puriel repeated. “Good. Would you mind giving me a few minutes here? I need to… I’d like to reminisce without feeling self-conscious.” 

The other man gave a hurried nod, clearly glad for the excuse to avoid the embarrassment of standing around while an old, retired captain stared at his ship. “Yes, Trierarch, of course. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” He quickly moved back through the doors, shutting them behind himself to provide some privacy. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel spoke quietly, “It’s safe. We’re alone and no one’s watching.” 

Instantly, Spark appeared beside him, manifesting herself in a visible form by harnessing his own energy powers to bend the light into what amounted to a hologram. As always, she presented herself as having long hair pulled in a braid, half of it dark to match his hair and half blonde to match her mother’s. 

“It’s bigger than you imagine it,” she pointed out. 

“It feels smaller when I think about how many people we had,” he informed her. “It was home. A dysfunctional, often dangerous home, but still home. Seeing it empty… that’s what makes it seem bigger now.” 

For a few long seconds, neither of them said anything else. Spark simply stared through the clear corridor, watching the ship where her mother had served for so long. Finally, she spoke quietly, “Can you really do it?” 

Puriel didn’t answer at first. He simply stared at the ship, considering before giving a short nod. “Yes. I just need some time.” 

With that, his eyes closed, as the man reached out with his own Tartarus-granted power. The ability to control and manipulate vast amounts of energy to almost limitless ends, including magical energy. He could, in effect, create almost any spell effect he knew of simply by willing ambient magical energy to shape itself properly. Even if he didn’t know how to cast the actual spell itself, he could force the energy to follow his will. 

The ‘some time’ he had asked for turned out to be nearly an hour. A few times, he felt the guard outside the room take a glance in to make sure everything was still fine. But the man, of course, never saw anything untoward. As far as he was concerned, Puriel was simply standing there, one hand on the clear tube, as he stared at the ship and lost himself in memories. 

It would’ve been easy to actually lose himself that way, to be fair. But Spark helped keep him on-task and focused. For that hour, he worked his own power over the ship in the distance, pulling energy from the air and shaping it into the spells he needed. 

Finally, it was done. The Olympus, with a suddenness that was almost jarring despite the fact he was ready for it, vanished as though it had never been there. 

Almost immediately, alarms began to blare. The door slammed open, and Eilerien burst through, eyes wide. “Trierarch?! What happened, what–” 

He was stopped in mid-sentence, as Puriel produced a small, clear-colored orb and touched it to the man’s forehead. The memory modification spell he’d previously attached to it had already set to work, shaping itself to follow his words. But it would do more than that. The orb wouldn’t simply rewrite the man’s memory, it would also alter the holographic recordings to match. 

“I was never here. You were attacked by a band of pirates who infiltrated the facility. You managed to kill three of them at great risk to your own life, but they proved too much. Their intended target was the military vessel Aeternum, but your valiant efforts forced them to retreat to take the Olympus instead, as a secondary target. You’re proud of yourself for standing your ground and driving them away from their main target. Now, sleep.” 

With that, the guard collapsed to the ground. Stepping away from him, Puriel waved a hand to summon a portal. As it appeared, he spoke to Spark, whose holographic form stood nearby. “It’s time. 

“Let’s go take a closer look at the ship that’s going to take us to Earth.”

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Commissioned Interlude 6 – Amber (Summus Proelium)

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Shortly after dawn, the sound of shoes slapping against concrete filled the early morning air, as a dark-haired, slim girl jogged up the hill wearing running clothes and a set of earbuds. Through those earbuds, Amber O’Connell listened to the near-deafeningly loud, pounding music that was doing its level best to help her not think about all the things she kept irritatingly thinking about. 

The whole point of this run was to help the girl clear her head, help her avoid thoughts of… of the horrible truth while she was supposed to be pretending to be a normal, everyday person. It was supposed to help her stop dwelling on all that bullshit. 

But there was too much. Her thoughts were too loud even for the music to drown out, no matter how high she pumped the volume. As she ran along the sidewalk, with each foot that came down against the cement, Amber’s mind was filled with thoughts. Filled with the actual truth

Silversmith was a bad guy. He worked for this… this Ministry. Everything Amber and the rest of the Minority–everything all the Star-Touched in Detroit did, it was only because the Ministry allowed it. This crime syndicate ran everything. They decided what the supposed heroes were allowed to do, how much they were allowed to stop. No matter what Amber or any of the other ‘good guys’ did, the Ministry won in the long run, because they controlled things behind the scenes. They took money from villains just to be allowed to operate in the city, they controlled the courts, the police, they had people inside the Touched teams to sabotage or simply spy. 

There could have been someone on Amber’s team who was really reporting to the Ministry. Her supposed friends, her teammates, one of them might be–probably was a traitor. Everything they had been through together, everything they had accomplished or fought against as a team, and one of the people she was supposed to be able to trust with her life was a fucking spy, damn it!

But who? Which of her supposed friends was actually reporting to the bad guys? It could’ve been any of them, as much as Amber wanted to scream out loud that it wasn’t. Syndicate? He had four bodies, he could easily have one of them spy where he shouldn’t without being noticed. Wobble and Whamline? It could’ve been either of them too. They tended to hang out together the way she did with Jae, so did that mean they would’ve been in on things together if one of them was? 

Jae. No, it couldn’t be her. Or Izzy. Amber knew them both too well. She hung out with Jae all the time, they were basically best friends by this point. And Izzy was a kid. And–

But that was the point, wasn’t it? The best spies were the ones you’d never expect. And this Ministry could have lied to either of them, Amber realized. They could’ve convinced Jae or Izzy that they were doing the right thing by reporting what they knew, like it was some kind of secret Star-Touched thing that no one was supposed to know about. And it wasn’t like Amber could just start asking them about it without giving the whole thing away if they were in on it at any level.

So she couldn’t ask them. Not without something more than she had. She couldn’t ask them and she couldn’t trust them. God damn it! She couldn’t even trust her best friend or the kid she’d grown really fond of ever since Izzy was put on their team. She couldn’t–didn’t… fuck. 

Not knowing who you could trust was a really fucking shitty position to be in. Not knowing if you could even believe anything your best friend or the people you relied on to have your back in a life-and-death fight said? It made Amber want to scream out loud, made her want to start hitting things and not stop until she’d broken all the bones in her hand. It made her want to grab every single one of her teammates and shake them, scream in their faces, demand answers. 

It made her want to do drastic things. Things she couldn’t do without giving everything away. It would betray Paintball, the poor guy. He’d trusted her with this and he was holding it together even after knowing the truth for longer.

That poor kid. He had to be like Izzy’s age, maybe a little older. And he’d been stuck knowing about this all by himself. No wonder he’d refused to join the Minority. Fuck. All that time he’d spent knowing that even Amber could’ve been a spy for the Ministry? How was he dealing with it so well? Because she already felt like she was going to explode. And that was before the whole insane Paige thing. 

Paige. On top of everything else, suddenly Paige Banners was some kind of artificial lifeform. Seriously? There wasn’t enough shit to deal with, not enough insanity, now suddenly someone Amber knew in her real, civilian life was a biological android or something. And her real father was a supervillain living on Breakwater? She’d just–that was just such a giant–

Urgh. She’d known Paige for years. Years. And she’d never had any idea that the girl was anything more than what she seemed. Well, okay, her weird hatred of Cassidy Evans had been something. But honestly Amber had just written that off as something that started between Paige’s parents and Cassidy’s as the second-richest and richest people in the state. Like Glomgold and Scrooge McDuck. She’d just figured that eventually Paige would grow out of it. 

But now? Now it turned out that Paige was a biological robot or whatever. So why had she been drawing attention to herself by hating Cassidy so openly? Was it a flaw, or a… was there a reason for it? What was the point of being such a bitch specifically to Cassidy and no one else? Because that was just weird. It had been weird before, but now it was really weird. 

Fuck, she had no idea. Which was even more frustrating the more she thought about it and came up with no actual answers. Lots of questions, but no answers. It was like there was one huge, crucial key to this whole thing that she was missing, a central piece of the puzzle. And without that central piece, none of it would fit together no matter how hard she shoved at them.

Yeah, she really needed to scream and hit something. Unfortunately, there was no one who deserved it in front of her. And even if there was, Amber was pretty sure it wouldn’t actually help anything. It might make her feel better for about two seconds to walk up to Silversmith and try slugging him, but in the long run it would make everything a hell of a lot worse. 

She wasn’t that stupid. She would keep it under control, would stop herself from pulling some insane move that would accomplish nothing except for getting herself, Paintball, and Pack in some deep shit that would be impossible to get out of. She had to bottle up those impulses. 

But the real shit, the real thing that was pissing her off so much, the thing that made her want to grab a baseball bat and just start screaming at the top of her lungs as she used it to hit Silversmith over and over again had nothing to do with the Paige situation. It was something a lot simpler and a hell of a lot more personal. 

Did they know where the guy who killed her father was? The piece of shit who stole that car and hit her dad before magically disappearing with absolutely no trace. Did he really just get lucky and leave no evidence of who he was? Did no traffic cameras pick up his face, no witnesses see anything about him? Was this random fucking cocksucker really that lucky? 

Or did he have help? Did he pay money to this Ministry to make his problem go away? Did Silversmith help him just to make sure Amber was motivated to join the Minority? Was her entire recruitment, after getting her powers, fueled by making sure she never found the man who had killed her dad? Was it possible? Of course it was. She had powers. The moment they knew what she could do, Silversmith or any of the other Ministry fucks could’ve looked into her history, found out what happened, and made sure she never found the asshole no matter how hard she looked. Or he could’ve gone to them first. Either way, there was a chance the Ministry was covering up who this guy was, that she could have found him by now if it wasn’t for them. And that chance, that possibility, was more than she could stomach. It was a possibility that drove her to try to drown out those thoughts with the pounding music, with running until she couldn’t breathe, until she wanted to pass out. 

If that was true, if the Ministry had helped the guy who killed her father escape or hide… what would she do? What could she do? Bring them to justice? They were the justice. From what Paintball had said, they controlled everything important in the city, if not the entire state. She would have to have absolute proof, a dump truck full of evidence. And she’d have to take it right to–to someone above even the state level. FBI? One of the other Conservator teams in another state that wasn’t compromised? Or a different Star-Touched group. Maybe a lot all at once. 

Regardless, none of that mattered right now. To do any of it, they needed a lot more information. And evidence, of course. But they needed information to begin with. They needed to know who they could trust, first of all. Finding out which people were working for the Ministry, so they knew who they could safely bring into things, that was the overwhelmingly first priority. 

And that meant getting into that base under the mall. That was the only actual lead they had at this point, aside from whatever Paige might know if they could wake her up. Because she had to know something important, right? Paintball had said that Paige knew a lot about the Ministry. So if they could wake her up, if they could… could fix her or whatever, they might know more. 

And what the hell was with all the P names? Pack, Paintball, Paige? 

Okay, Amber might have been a little tired by that point, possibly. Doubling over by a tree at the top of the hill, she panted, taking the bottle of water off its slot on her hip before taking a long swig. Fuck, it was too much. The problems, the implications, all of it kept rebounding through her head until she couldn’t even think straight. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, right there in the middle of the sidewalk. 

That… might attract some attention. She was pretty sure Silversmith and the rest of the Ministry would notice if she just started screaming incoherently like that. And she probably couldn’t do much to expose or stop them if they managed to commit her to the nuthouse or whatever. 

So, Amber kept it under control. Gulping water and breathing in and out until she felt herself calm down a little bit, she focused first on the music, allowing that pulsing, pounding rhythm to drown out everything else just for a few seconds. 

Then she shifted her mind, gradually, back to the thoughts that might actually help. The mall and Paige. Those were the two options they had right now. Finding a way to infiltrate the secret Ministry base could get them answers. She doubted there was anything as handy as a simple list of everyone who worked for them, but there had to be something useful in there, right?

But that was the problem. How did they get in there without exposing her powers? Because Amber could teleport into the place easily enough. But they’d have cameras, they’d see her, even if she was in disguise. And the second she used teleportation to get in and any other power to get out, they’d know who she was. 

Unless she didn’t use any other power. What if she pretended to only have teleportation? It wasn’t like her ‘porting had any specific tells other than only moving north. And she could couple it with something else, some sign to throw them off like… like a flash effect. 

Hey, yeah, that was a thought. If she could get some kind of device that gave off a colored flash whenever she hit a button or something, and only used it when teleporting, they’d start looking for someone who gave off that colored flash when they teleported. That could throw suspicion off her. 

And if… wait, wait a minute. If she got one of the others to act as though they had her power, say….  have a disguised Pack take her hand and pretend she was the one turning intangible to walk them through a wall or a door, that could throw them off too, possibly. 

It was worth thinking about. Using her powers while throwing in different details to send the Ministry barking in the wrong direction. See how they liked being tricked. She’d have to think about it some more, maybe look into what sort of things they could get a hold of that would help. But it was a thought. She’d share it with Pack and Paintball too, see what they could come up with along the same general idea. 

Lost in those thoughts, Amber almost missed the commotion happening ahead of her. The music in her ears was loud enough that she didn’t hear it at all. Not at first. But from the corner of her eye, she saw a car that had stopped basically in the middle of the street. Early as it was in this residential area, there weren’t that many cars to begin with. But that one had stopped short. 

Blinking up, the girl saw a black sedan with dark windows. All four doors were open, as several people had gathered around one other person. All of them were Asian, and as Amber muted her music, tugging the earbuds out, she heard them talking in Chinese or something. Whatever it was, they were all clearly arguing. The three surrounding the other were all dressed in dark suits, two male and one female. All older. The one being talked at, who was doing just as much yelling back at them, was a younger female, maybe a year or two older than Amber at most. 

She had no idea what they were saying, but there was a lot of yelling and a lot of hand waving going on. It was clearly an intense argument that was getting more intense by the moment. Amber was afraid someone was going to start swinging. And judging from the vehement voice coming from the lone girl, it might well have been her. 

Fuck, what was she supposed to do? Could Amber intervene without exposing anything about herself? She wasn’t in costume or anything. She wasn’t That-A-Way, she was just Amber O’Connell, high school student. There was no reason for anyone to listen to her, especially not a group like this. So what could she actually do? Should she try to at least speak up? Maybe these people would calm down if they knew they had an audience. 

Fortunately, before Amber had to make that decision, and before the whole situation escalated any further, another car showed up, slowing to stop beside the first. This one had diplomatic plates. In fact, Amber recognized it. And she recognized the man who stepped out of the passenger side. It was Tomas Jackson’s father. 

Why was the UK diplomat here now? It was kind of weird enough that there were international diplomats in Detroit anyway, but Amber understood that was because of how much Touched manufacturing was in the city. A number of other countries had put a lot of money and resources into helping to build up this place, so they had a vested interest in keeping an eye on it. It was a whole thing. 

But why was the guy here right now? Was this a whole UK-Chinese thing? Or Japanese, she still wasn’t sure exactly what they were. Maybe Korean? They could be–focus, Amber. 

For reasons she couldn’t explain, she had already ducked behind the tree and the partial fence that was there. It was weird, but she felt like being seen watching this was a bad idea. 

Mr. Jackson stepped out of his car, saying something in… whatever language they were speaking to the people there. There was a whole spiel of back and forth between those three, Mr. Jackson, and the girl they had been arguing with. Finally, Mr. Jackson stepped that way, gesturing for the others to step away while he said something more quietly to the girl and handed her something. It looked like a phone. She took it, held it to her ear and listened for about twenty seconds, then seemed to deflate a bit and handed it back. 

Things were calm then. Mr. Jackson said something to the other three Asian people and they moved to get back in their car. But he gestured to his own vehicle, and the girl they had been arguing with moved that way rather than following her other companions. Mr. Jackson opened the backdoor, and she moved to get in. 

Then something else weird happened. As Amber was watching, the girl… wasn’t a girl anymore. Her hair, facial features, and body shape shifted, until it was a boy getting in the car. She just casually shifted her sex before stepping in the vehicle, like taking off a hat. 

Mr. Jackson looked around, but Amber had already ducked back. She listened until both cars started up before peeking in time to see them drive away together. 

Okay… that was weird, right? 

Because that seemed kind of weird. 

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Trust 15-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next morning was Sunday. Because that meant there was no maid cleaning my room, so Izzy and I were able to sleep as long as we wanted. And we wanted a lot, apparently. Both of us were completely out of it throughout the morning, neither so much as stirring until almost noon. That was the time I saw on the (local) clock when my eyes opened at the feel of the other girl shifting a bit behind me. Wow, we’d really zonked out, apparently. 

After a brief hesitation, I turned a bit, sitting up as my gaze moved to Izzy. She was staring around the room, only belatedly looking to me with a somewhat guilty expression. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Trailing off, she clearly shifted her unneeded apology to a question. “How do you do it?” The guilty look turned pensive. “How do you stay in a place like this, sleep like this, live like this, while you know where all the… where a lot of it comes from? How do you live knowing what your family really does?” Her voice was a whisper, and I saw the way she clutched one of the pillows tightly in both hands, holding it against her stomach after sitting up fully. 

Boy, was that ever a hard question. Yeah, I didn’t answer at first. Instead, I turned to put my back against the headboard, staring around my room along with Izzy. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, before I forced them down and focused. “I tell myself that I grew up with it. I’ve had sixteen years like this. So acting strange about it now would be… weird. It would draw attention. And, you know, that could be bad. If my parents think I know something, if they have even the slightest reason to start paying more attention to what I’m doing or whatever…” 

Izzy finished for me, her own voice still barely audible. “It could blow everything up.” 

Her choice of words made me flinch. Blow everything up, right. Just like that building last night. My head nodded a bit. “Yeah, pretty much. That’s the point, I have to act normal or they–well, we already know they can erase memories. And Mr. Jackson is here. If they thought the best way to handle the situation was to erase everything I knew about them, they could.”

“You mean we have to act normal,” Izzy pointed out, hugging the pillow even tighter. “We have to act like nothing’s wrong, like they’re totally just what they pretend to be. Like we don’t know anything. Because they’ll erase my memory too.” There was a little bitterness to her voice. “They’ll erase my memory so they can keep molding me into being their little tool.” 

Ah, that was why she sounded bitter. Wincing a little, I hesitated before offering, “I know it doesn’t mean much after everything I told you, but I do think my parents care about you. I mean, I’m pretty sure they also like what you’re capable of and all, but it’s not just that.” Even as I said that, my face twisted a little. “I know, I know what that sounds like. Believe me, I know. But it’s true. Two semi-conflicting things can be true at the same time. My parents would like you on their side because of your powers and everything, and they care about you. They do like you, Izzy. I’ve seen the way my parents act with guests they’re just being polite to, believe me.” 

After that, I fell silent for a few long seconds, before quietly adding, “But you’re right. They would erase your memory if they found out you knew anything about them. And they wouldn’t give up on turning you to their side.” Quickly, I looked that way to meet the other girl’s gaze intently. “That’s why you have to be careful. Because if they find out, if they even get suspicious–” 

“I know,” Izzy interrupted. After speaking those two words, she sighed, heaving the pillow away before pushing herself out of bed to stand up. “I’ll be careful. I’ll act normal, I promise. Besides,” she added with a little shrug. “It’s not like me being nervous around this place would be new.” 

She had a point. Rising to my feet on the other side of the bed, I nodded. “Right, fair. I just–sorry, after everything, you’re just… Like I was saying, you’re the first person I’ve trusted with this. I mean, I know we both kind of tripped into that, but still. You’re the only person who knows about me.” I repeated that point while looking toward the girl. She held basically my entire life in her hands. And her own life too, come to think of it. Our memories, anyway. Our choices. She held our choices and future in her hands. 

Izzy, in turn, met my gaze seriously while giving one firm nod. “Trust me,” she said quietly, yet with a determination that somewhat surprised me. “I won’t give anything away. Like I said last night, I can help cover for you. I can–I can be there to talk to when you need it. I…” Her voice turned soft and small at the end. “I know what it’s like to need to talk to somebody.” 

For a moment, neither of us said anything. Then she moved away from the bed, adding, “And we can check each other’s memories once in awhile. You know, just in case something goes down and one of us… and they make one of us forget.” 

That was also a good point. “Yeah,” I agreed, “we definitely need to do that.” Heaving out a long breath, I shook off the feeling of nerves. “But now we should get dressed and all. You ahh, you can take the shower first. “Then we can go get breakfast. Err… lunch.”

“Hey,” Izzy offered a little weakly, “at least we’re still blending in. After all, we’re supposed to act normal.

“And is there anything more normal than teenagers sleeping in until noon?” 

*******

“You know you’re not technically a teenager yet, right?” It was later, after the two of us had gotten cleaned up and dressed in fresh clothes. We were back in my room, taking a moment to collect ourselves before heading down for food. I had just looked over at the other girl to blurt that. “You know, cuz you’re… twelve.” It sounded more awkward out loud than it had in my head, but I pressed on anyway. “Sorry, my point is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry all this got dumped on you. I’m sorry–I mean, there was that whole thing with your mom, and you were supposed to move to a safe place. And now…” I swallowed hard. “And now you’ve got all this dumped on you, even though you’re only twelve. You shouldn’t have to worry about all this. Any of it. So, I’m sorry.” 

For a moment, Izzy didn’t respond. She just looked at me. Seeming to consider that for a few seconds, the girl then moved over to stand in front of me. Her foot snapped out, lightly kicking me in the shin. After I yelped quietly, she pointed out, “You shouldn’t have to deal with it either. Especially by yourself. And you’re only four years older than me, Grandma.” Sniffing with that last point, Izzy added a shrug. “And it… it just is what it is. We both know, we both deal with it. Together, right?” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, sort of together. We can help each other.” 

“We can help each other,” I agreed, offering her a tiny smile before poking her forehead. “Thanks for not pointing out the obvious, that you’re gonna be taller than me really soon.” 

Izzy just offered me a wink. “I’ll save that for if you try to keep me out of things later,” she teased a little. Then the girl sobered and added pointedly, “I’m in it, Cass. I know I can’t go out with you or be seen like that or anything without spoiling the secrets, but whatever I can do, I want to.” 

“Thanks, Izzy,” I murmured. The two of us stared at each other for another few seconds before I sighed and gestured. “Come on, if we hole up any longer, Mom and Dad might end up sending a search party after all.” 

There was a very brief flash of something on the other girl’s face before she pushed it down. It looked a bit like disappointment. Yeah. This was definitely affecting her. She’d just been opening up to us, just started to trust my parents. And now there was this, after the way her own mother had so thoroughly betrayed her. Fuck. It was so much to dump on the girl. I was surprised she was holding up as well as she was. 

Though, I supposed the real test would come in a couple minutes, as we went downstairs to face my family for the first time since Izzy had found out the truth. 

God, I really hoped this wasn’t about to go horribly wrong. 

******

The first test came before we had even made it downstairs. Just as Izzy and I emerged from the hall where our rooms were, right at the top of the stairs leading up to this floor, Mom was there. It didn’t seem like she was waiting for us or anything. Her back was to us as we came out, and she was in the middle of a conversation on her bluetooth. It was something about setting up a private viewing at one of the art museums for some of her friends next week. Apparently there was some kind of special exhibit in town for a short time, and Mom didn’t exactly want to wait in any lines. Not that it was hard for her to arrange these personal exhibits, given several of the museums in town had entire wings named after our family. Or a building, in one case. 

Apparently she was just finishing up, because Mom glanced over her shoulder as we emerged, holding up one finger before giving a few pleasantries. Then she tapped the earbud and smiled at the two of us. “Well, there you girls are. I was afraid we might have to send in a search team.” With that bit of teasing, she added, “And what are we up to today? Any adventures planned?” She sounded almost wistful with those words, as though she was so busy with her adult life and responsibilities that she had to live vicariously through our… ‘adventures.’ 

Beside me, I felt Izzy tense up for just a second before she got it under control and forced herself to relax. I was pretty sure there was nothing for Mom to notice aside from the other girl being quiet and a bit nervous. Which, as she’d said before, wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary.

Quickly, before anything could be noticed, I loudly piped up. “Well, we definitely need food before going on any adventures. It’s been like…. forever since we ate!” 

“Forever or last night,” Mom retorted affectionately, reaching out to brush my hair. I let her do it, resisting both the urge to pull my head away and the one to lean into it. Each was equally strong. God, this was complicated. It seemed even more so now that I’d told Izzy about the whole situation. Feeling her eyes on me as I stood there made me even more uncomfortable.

But I shoved it down, smiling up at my mother before adding, “You coming to lunch?” 

To my relief, Mom offered me another smile before shaking her head. “Sorry, Principessa, you two will have to eat enough for me. I have a meeting to get to in an hour and I’m nowhere near ready. But have some ice cream, will you? Claudio made some fresh last night, and someone in this house should sit and enjoy it. Promise you’ll make sure he knows he’s appreciated?”

“Promise,” I agreed, ignoring the lump in my throat as I reached out to take Izzy’s hand. “Come on, we better get to it before Simon hears about this, or we’ll never get any of that ice cream.” 

“Uh, thanks!” Izzy remembered to call back as I pulled her past my mother and headed down the stairs with her. We both took the steps two at a time, bounding that way in what I hoped looked more like eagerness to get to the kitchen rather than eagerness to get away from Mom.

Simon and Dad were already eating lunch when we got in there, though it looked like they were just about done. As Izzy and I walked in, both of them gave us the expected ribbing about taking so long to get up. Which was good. Everything being this normal helped ease my lingering paranoia that they would somehow have known what happened the night before. The fact that everyone was still being this casual, teasing us, moving on with their lives, it meant they didn’t know that Izzy knew. And with any luck (and a lot of work on her part) it would stay that way. 

Once the two of us took a moment at the intercom to order food (we were both in the mood for breakfast despite what time it was) and sat down, Dad spoke up. “So, getting pretty close to D-Day, isn’t it? Or should we put it off for another year? You know, until you’re more comfortable.” His voice was teasing, knowing exactly what kind of reaction he was drawing out.

“D-Day?” Izzy echoed, blinking over at me. I felt her hand squeeze my leg tightly as she forced her reaction to having to sit here like this to only come out through her grip while keeping her face as clear as possible. 

Putting on a quick scowl for my father, I retorted, “Driving Day. It’s when I graduate from Driver’s Ed and get to go for my actual license. And we’re not putting it off for a year. Or a month. Or a week. I’ve had this day marked in my calendar since I was like… nine.” It felt like playing a role that was unfamiliar, or wearing clothes that didn’t fit anymore. I had so many more important things to worry about than driving. But if I didn’t play it up like this, my family would know something was wrong. I had to play the part. 

“Yeah,” Dad put on a show of lamenting, his head shaking back and forth mournfully. “I’ve had it marked in my calendar too. With lots of sad faces and a note about calling the Department of Transportation so they can put some warning signs out. Maybe get a police escort arranged that can just follow along on both sides of your car like bumpers.”

First, I made a face and threw a rolled up cloth napkin at him. Then I blinked and blurted, “Hah! Haha! Your car. You said your car! As in my car. As in the car I’m getting.” 

“Figure of speech,” Dad insisted, teasing me right back. “You can drive that old station wagon Mrs. Depel’s been trying to get rid of. I hear it gets up to twenty-five on a decent straightaway.” 

“Sure that’s not too much for our little Booster?” Simon jumped in, reaching over to ruffle my hair as he got up from the table. “I was thinking like one of those little Power Wheels things would be more her speed.” 

“Alright, alright,” Dad jumped in, raising a hand to push Simon away before I could retort. “That’s enough. What about today? You ready for the meeting later?” 

With a nod, my brother replied, “It’s all set. We should be good to go by the time the Aikawas get to the hotel.” 

Before I could figure out how to press them on what that meant, Dad looked to me. “And you girls? Anything big planned?” 

My mouth opened, but Izzy spoke first. “Cassidy was going to go with me to the library.” Belatedly, she corrected, “the public library. Mr. Tutters gave me a report to write on the Salem Witch Trials for my last assignment before going back to real school.” 

Mr. Tutters was the tutor that Izzy had been seeing. But this was the first I was hearing about a trip to the library. Luckily, I had a lot of practice by this point in keeping surprise off my face. 

Dad obviously had a lot of practice too, but still looked surprised then. “The public library? Are you sure? There’s plenty of resources right here.” 

There was a brief pause before Izzy quietly replied, “I know, but… it’d be nice to get out and have some fresh air.” She met my father’s gaze, offering him an innocent, even eager smile. “And I was thinking a library would be totally safe, right? Especially if I’m actually going to school tomorrow.”

Dad seemed to think about it for a moment before giving a short nod. “Of course. I’ll have a car brought around to take you girls whenever you’re ready. Could I talk to you in the hall for a minute, Izzy?” 

Instinctively, I tensed up. But I forced that reaction down, simply nodding. “Better hurry,” I remarked, “before breakfast gets here.” 

Then the three of them left, Simon going with them. Which left me to sit alone for a couple minutes, staring tensely at the table while wondering what was going on out there. When Izzy finally came back, it was just as our food was being delivered. So, I was silent until we were alone again. Once everything was quiet, I quickly moved to peek through the doors, looking up and down the hall to make sure we were alone before closing the doors once more. Then I went back to the table. But even then, we didn’t talk about anything important. The two of us ate our breakfast and sent the plates back to be cleaned before heading outside. 

Only then, once we were out of the house, did I ask in a quiet voice, “Is everything okay? What’s this about the library?” 

Izzy, in turn, nodded. “He just wanted to give me this.” In her hand, she held up a small black remote with a button on it, about the size of a normal key fob. “He said if I push the button, it’ll send an alarm and we’ll have like a whole SWAT team show up in sixty seconds.” Pausing then, she looked at me. “How come you don’t have something like that?” 

Flushing, I admitted, “I do. It’s in my sock drawer where I left it like… years ago. Ever since I accidentally sat on it and our school field trip was ummm… interrupted.” 

The younger girl blanched at that. “I’ll be careful. Anyway, for the library thing, I said I’d cover for you, right? This way, we can go to the library and then you can go see what’s going on with Paige. I’ll let you know if anyone shows up.” She offered me a shrug. “I really do have to write that report. And I wanted to get out of the house, after… after all that. This way, no one will wonder where you are or anything.”

For a moment, I stared at her. Then I smiled just a little. “Thanks, Izzy. 

“I’m starting to think you might be pretty useful to have around after all.”

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