Month: January 2021

Promise And Peril 11-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Flick, on left!” 

With Columbus’s words ringing through my ears, I spun that way, the bladed end of my staff lashing out and extending to be long enough that it cut through the head of the snake-creature that had been lunging toward me. The body (with its long, sharp talons) was still coming forward, however, so I sent a burst of concussive power from the end of the staff to blow it backward.

At the same time, I felt several of those enchanted quills from the boy’s cyberform porcupine, Amethyst, fly just behind the back of my head to collide with the chest of the enormous, six-armed monstrosity that had been charging up from that side. The quills activated as soon as they hit, summoning a cloud of intense acid that literally started dissolving the ten-foot tall thing’s flesh while it bellowed and staggered. It was like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the guys melted. Soon, he was little more than a rather-disturbing puddle fading away into the sand.

A moment later, the ship behind me let loose with another barrage of shots that cut through more of the larger creatures. They were still mostly focused on fixing the thing so it would be spaceworthy, but every once in awhile they managed to find the time and power to fire off the newly-revealed weapons. It was enough to keep the swarm of monsters from totally overwhelming us, at least. 

But it didn’t completely take care of everything, as evidenced by the fact that two more creatures were already coming at me from either side. One was a four-legged… almost dog-like thing except for the rhino head and the prehensile tongue it was already lashing out my way. The other, meanwhile, looked like a gorilla with no fur and three different heads, all stacked on top of one another. The top was where the real head should be, with the second in its chest and the third in its stomach. And the worst part was that they looked like human heads. They looked like the faces of people I would see just randomly walking down the street on Earth. 

Tabbris and I didn’t have to confer, or even actively say what we were doing. We were too connected for that. We knew, our thoughts, our impulses, all of it linked. Instantly, I snapped my left arm, with the staff gripped in it, toward the gorilla-man (men?). At the exact same time, Tabbris directed my right arm to snap out toward the dog-thing while summoning Herbie from his spot in my pocket. The rock went flying, growing into a much larger stone thanks to my object-growth power. Suddenly, he was about the size of a boulder, sailing through the air. 

While Tabbris was getting the true hero of Earth into the fray, I was sending a burst of concussive force into the legs of the ape-men-thing. The blast knocked the thing tumbling heads over heels with a roar, before I launched myself that way. Flipping over the monster, I drove the blade of my staff into the back of its neck, landing on its back to drive it into the ground as it died. 

Herbie, meanwhile, was frozen in mid-air. Tabbris had used the power from that Lemevwik I’d killed in Fossor’s arena to pause the enlarged-stone. Frozen like that, it remained completely still while the dog-thing went plowing straight into it. Oh, and it also burned half its face off, eyes boiling apart. Apparently Tabbris hadn’t just enlarged and frozen the stone, she also used the super-heating power on it. Now the dog-rhino monster was blinded and its horn (as well as the rest of its snout) was basically a half-melted mess. It looked horrific, and sounded even worse. 

Thankfully, it didn’t exactly last much longer before Avalon was there, cutting the monster’s head off with a casual backhand from one of her energy-bladed gauntlets while simultaneously snapping her other hand down to touch the thing. Under her grip, the creature’s body disintegrated into dust, which then flew toward yet another monster before bursting into flames. 

Yeah, I really had to ask her what the deal with that power was. I’d seen her use it before, back at the fight with Fossor’s army. But later. Right now, there were far more problems to deal with. 

A thought snapped Herbie back to his small size and summoned him into my hand. At the same time, I triggered a burst from my staff to send me flying over to where Shiori was, slamming into one of the humanoid-things she was busy struggling against. Between the two of us, the thing finally went down, leaving us to collapse on top of its body just as Roxa, in wolf form, flew over our heads to rip out the throat of yet another monster. They were everywhere. No matter where I looked, there were more of the things, a never-ending tide that kept slamming up against the wall that was… well, us. And this was a wall that couldn’t last forever, even with help from those new cannons or whatever they were.  

As far as I could tell, none of these kills were giving anyone any kind of power boost. That was a thing with Fomorian creations, of course. Sometimes they gave power boosts and sometimes they didn’t. This time, it appeared that they wouldn’t. Which was both good and bad. It was good considering that distinctive burst of pleasure at the wrong time could have been catastrophic for someone who didn’t have a Tabbris to mute it (which was why we were supposed to be covering one another in big fights). But it was also bad in that it meant we weren’t actually getting anything out of each kill.  

It wasn’t enough. All of this, all of us including the ship itself, and it still wasn’t enough. The Fomorians just kept coming. No matter what we did, no matter how many we killed or how powerful we were, they kept coming. There seemed to be no limit to either the Fomorian numbers, or the depths of the horrors they could think of. Every monster, every single one of their abominations, was a nightmare. And they seemed to have one for every grain of sand on this entire goddamn planet. 

In the distance, I could see my mother and Deveron, back to back as they destroyed the monsters descending upon them. Lillian was there too, the three falling right back into their same teamwork to deal with everything the Fomorians sent at them. But again, they were only so many people and there was only so much they could do. We had to finish this. We had to get out of here. Preferably before we had to face any legitimate Fomorians rather than just their creations. Their army of monsters was bad enough, but a real, full-scale Fomorian? That could very easily tip the scales. It was already all we could do to stem the tide of these minions. 

We didn’t give up, of course. Even as the thought of how bad this could be flickered through my mind, I was already driving my elongated-staff through another pair of monsters, yanking it back, and spinning to hurl the weapon into the face of a third before summoning it back to my hand. 

Yeah, giving up wasn’t even the slightest hint of an option. We would keep fighting, keep killing these fucking things, for as long as we could move. But not all of us had the kind of stamina that I did. We all had various boosts to it, but I knew for a fact I could keep going at full strength for a lot longer than someone like Shiori or Sands could. We had to finish this, one way or another, before they started to falter. Because that would start a domino-like collapse that none of us were going to survive. 

Then it happened. A flash of Vanessa’s face appeared in my mind, along with the words ‘Surrounded – McGillicuddy – Help.’ 

It was my taboo-word power, one of the other things I’d gotten during my time with Fossor that allowed me to designate any word and know when anyone within a quarter mile said that word, along with a single word before and after, and their face. Right now, that word was McGillicuddy. That was what I’d called out for Vanessa to remember as she left with the others. Now she was using it to let me know that they were surrounded and needed help. Which was just fantastic, because the rest of us were doing so well. We were downright bored right now. 

But that didn’t matter. We had to help. Because until Vanessa and the others managed to get Elisabet and Dex to the ship, none of us could get the hell out of here. And time was clearly not on our side. Hard or not, I had to get over there. 

“Jophiel and the others need help!” I shouted over my shoulder toward Shiori, even as the two of us were pressed back-to-back. 

“How’re we supposed to get there?!” Shiori blurted, while Choo came charging in to collide with one of the monsters. And considering he was so big his shoulders were taller than I was, anything that warthog collided with knew they’d been hit. In that case, Choo slammed into the creature with enough force to send the thing crashing to the ground, wide-open for Shiori herself to sever its head with a toss of one of her discs. “I don’t think these guys are gonna listen if we call a time-out!” Even as she said that, her enormous Jekern partner sent a blast of electricity into the air that turned a descending pterodactyl monster into what amounted to a barbecued corpse.  

Avalon was already right there, along with Sands, Sarah, and Columbus. The latter spoke up while shooting a blast from his goggles. “You three go! We’ll cover you.” He vanished briefly, appearing directly behind what looked like a two-headed centaur before bringing it down by ripping both of its necks in opposite directions with enough force to nearly rip the heads clear off. 

Sarah was nodding, raising her rifle to fire three quick shots that took a trio of bat-like monsters that had been in mid-dive directly behind the much larger thing Choo had killed. “We have you. We’ve got this. With the ship’s help, we can handle it.” she informed us flatly. 

It was going to have to be enough. As an idea jumped into my head, I blurted, “On me, let’s take a ride!” To Sands and the others, I added, “I’ll open a path, you keep it open and stop them from following!” With that, I began to shift into my werelion form, using a quick boost to speed the process into taking only a moment before I was running on all fours.

Quickly, Shiori summoned Choo back into his ball and stowed him. At the same time, Avalon caught her hand and tossed her up onto my back. A second later, the other girl landed right behind her. 

There we were, me in lion-form with my girls perched on my back as I ran straight at the nearest wall of Fomorian monsters, all of whom were very eagerly waiting for our arrival. I could put on an incredible burst of speed with my boost, which was why I’d wanted the girls on my back. Unfortunately, in that instant, all it would do was make us slam into that wall of monsters faster

But as I’d said, I had a plan. And I put it into action in that moment, focusing not on the monsters standing there eagerly waiting for us, but on the ones that were already dead. I focused on the piles of shattered, broken, eviscerated Fomorian creations that all littered the ground around their still-living companions. Instantly, using barely more than a nudge, I felt the dead things respond. Dozens of them, dozens, tore themselves upward, half leaving body parts behind as they basically mindlessly and awkwardly threw themselves against the living versions. 

Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. It looked janky as hell, not to mention horrific, with half-destroyed bodies just sort of dragging themselves up with whatever limbs they had left and bodily lunging at one of the other creatures. But it worked. Horrible and awkward as it was, it worked. I’d managed to force the dead Fomorian creatures to create a hole in the middle of their line by shoving their living companions to either side. The hole was basically just big enough for me to fit through. 

I took advantage of that instantly, shoving all I could into my boost for those few seconds. Suddenly, I was running a hell of a lot faster. It was like being back on that freeway in Vegas. I tore across the sand, blowing through the open hole just as Sands, Sarah, and the others opened up on the monsters to make sure they didn’t follow us. My control over the dead ones fell away as all my focus went toward getting to where I could still feel Dexamene through her blood. 

There! I could see a big hole in the sand, like a crater. My power was telling me that’s where Dexamene was. Which meant it was where they all were. Pushing myself harder, I made my lion-self into what amounted to a blur, a furry rocket-engine screaming across the desert. It wasn’t far, of course. But every second counted. Every moment it took for us to get there felt like an eternity where Vanessa and the others could be overrun. So I pushed myself harder, shoving everything I could into moving just a little bit faster. 

Finally, we reached the edge of what turned out to be a thirty-foot deep, eighty-foot wide pit. Sure enough, Dexamene and Elisabet were down there, basically directly in the middle along with Jophiel, Sariel, Tristan, and Vanessa. 

And they were surrounded by even more monsters than I could count, including one that looked like a twelve-foot tall octopus using its tentacles to stand. A large, pulsing blue gem thing took up most of its head, which seemed to give off little sparks of energy now and then. It was in the middle of the group, apparently being protected by everything around it, if my split-second glance was right. It looked like everyone down there was trying to aim for the thing, but their attacks were intercepted. 

Vanessa must have seen us right there on the edge, because suddenly I saw her face again, and heard three words. “Octopus – McGillicuddy – Trapping!” 

Right, yeah, my first impression was correct. That big thing, with the giant pulsing gem in its head, was somehow trapping the group down there. Blocking teleportation or movement powers somehow? I wasn’t sure. Quickly, I shook myself just enough for the others to get off, then shifted into my normal (hah, as if anything about me was normal) human form and blurted that we had to kill the octopus. 

Unfortunately, Avalon quickly revealed the real problem and why the others couldn’t escape by reaching out. Her hand stopped in midair, blocked by a shining, glimmering forcefield that disappeared once she drew back.

 “What’re we supposed to do?” Shiori quickly asked, staring at the group below. “It’s the gem thing, right? That’s making the shield, but we can’t get through the shield to hit it, and those guys can’t get to it because of all the monsters! I don’t think we have enough firepower to overload it.”

“Actually,” I corrected, “that’s exactly what we have. I knew it was a good idea to save this. Ready, Tabs?” 

Uh huh! came the almost-feral sounding response. Of course, her mother and siblings were down there. She was damn sure ready to blow this shield to hell in order to get them out.  

Realizing what I was talking about, Avalon and Shiori both backed up, as those bright energy wings erupted from my back. The wing spread out, even as I shoved everything I had into boosting their power. Tabbris did the same, and an instant later, all that power erupted into a blinding blast that slammed into the shield… and shattered it. I was left staggering, blurting, “Kill it, kill the thing now!” 

Neither Avalon nor Shiori needed a written invitation. Both of them were already moving, leaping out over the pit. Valley produced something that looked an awful lot like the same small silver ball Shiori used to store Choo. Only when she threw hers out and it popped open, a majestic white stag with silver antlers and blue wings emerged. Salten. He flapped hard once just as Shiori and Avalon landed on his back, then carried the two straight over to the octopus thing where they dropped off him to land on either side of the gem. Even as I was recovering from that brief moment of exhaustion, the other two were hitting that gem with everything they had. There were monsters attempting to swarm them, but it was too late. The giant crystal thing shattered, sending power flying in every direction. Power that knocked Avalon and Shiori to either side. Thankfully, before I even had a chance to worry, both were caught in mid-air by Salten doing some pretty impressive midair acrobatics in order to get to each of them. With the monsters below throwing acid, blades, spines, and all manner of other things, Salten flew back up. He was followed by Sariel, Jophiel, and the others as Elisabet used some kind of floating power to raise everyone up. More attacks were being thrown at them, of course, but Vanessa had both hands out and had created some kind of big…red gooey gel ball thing from her palms. It was about ten feet in diameter and she held it with no apparent problems, so it couldn’t have been that heavy. Yet everything that hit it was just absorbed into the ball like some kind of freaky jello mold. Either way, it was weird. But probably not as weird as certain powers I had. 

Before long, everyone made it. Salten landed, and Avalon only waited until she and Shiori were both off him before returning the Peryton to his ball. I couldn’t blame her for wanting him to be out in this hellhole as little as possible. Emergencies only. If anything happened to him here, with these things? Yeah, best he just chill out in his ball. 

“Flick!” Suddenly, Dexamene was hugging me. The Nereid’s grip was tight. “You came!” 

Flushing a little, I nodded. “Told you I would.” As I squeezed tight, my gaze found Elisabet. “I… hi.” She looked very different than I remembered, wearing what was obviously hand-crafted leather armor. That long, luxurious-looking black hair had been cut down to barely reach past her ears. She also had a line of golden daggers attached to one arm and a golden sword at her hip.

“Thank you, Felicity.” The woman was clearly ragged, barely keeping herself upright as she half-leaned against Jophiel. “We had no idea those things were so close. They were waiting for us to get help, they knew–” Shaking that off, she managed, “We need to go, now.” 

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed. “There will be time to sort all of this out. Now, we get back to the ship. 

“Before this entire world turns itself into a portal to the void just to spite us.”

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Interlude 15A – Peyton Favors (Summus Proelium)

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A/N- For those who missed the commissioned interlude posted Saturday, there… was a commissioned interlude posted Saturday focusing on Lion! You can find that right here

“Heeeey Mom, this is my hourly check-in to prove I didn’t get kidnapped again. The password is ocelot. Or wait, was that yesterday? No. No, I swear, this isn’t a cry for help. No, no one’s making me say that. I swear, I thought the password was ocelot. What–ostrich! We should’ve gone with ocelot, they’re cooler. No, Mom, still not a secret code for you to call the police.” 

Throughout her conversation with her mother, Peyton Favors strolled through one of Detroit’s outdoor shopping malls, idly checking storefronts to see if anything looked good enough to step inside. The fifteen-year-old redhead checked her own image in the reflection of one window, turning her head this way and that as she studiously watched for any zits that might’ve snuck their way in. Her hands were full of shopping bags, the entire conversation being had through a bluetooth earpiece. Her eyes rolled exaggeratedly at her own reflection as she carefully replied, “Mom, I need you to listen very carefully to the words that are coming out of my mouth. No secret codes, no one has a gun to my head. I have not been kidnapped. Mitchell is gone, the creep got what he deserved. Yes, I know Paintball can’t be around to save me all the time. Believe me, I’m just trying to find something cute for Tanya’s party this weekend. And maybe a couple other things.” She glanced down at the full bags in her hands and made a face at her reflection. “No one is bothering me. I promise, I am absolutely and completely safe. I love you. You’re even more paranoid than Grandma, which is saying something, but I still love you. Bye!” 

Reaching up to hit the button, disconnecting the call, Peyton took the earpiece out and put it in her pocket with a shake of her head. “Urgh, you’d think she was the one thrown into the back of a car by a fucking pedo piece of–” She shook that off abruptly. Dr. Corners, the therapist she’d already seen a couple times since that whole thing went down, had said something about how her mother was overcompensating for not being able to help at all during the kidnapping itself by trying way too hard now. The whole calling in every hour, checking everything she did, using codewords to say whether someone was holding her against her will, it was crazy. Peyton wasn’t sure how much longer she could deal with it. Half the time she was afraid that she would say the wrong thing on a call and her mother would end up sending a SWAT team after her. 

Hell, there’d already been that one bit a few days earlier when Peyton had been at the theater. She’d made the mistake of hissing into the phone that she ‘couldn’t talk now’ before turning it off. They’d only been fifteen minutes into the show when security came barging in and the house lights came on. That had been just about one of the most mortifying moments of her life. Especially considering she’d been that close to telling Sarah Conrad that she thought she was cute. Now that was definitely ruined, after those guards had made it clear whose mother called them in. 

Sigh. Being into both guys and girls was supposed to make it easier to find someone to date. But between the guy she had liked online turning out to be some much older creepy kidnapping pedo loser, and looking like a fucking paranoid freak family in front of Sarah, maybe she was just doomed from the get-go. Byron was ace and he didn’t seem to have any problems with his own relationships. Or maybe he was just a lot better at hiding it and looking like they were fine.

“I don’t care what Mom says,” Peyton informed her own reflection in the window, “it is not easier being a fifteen-year-old. And you know, it’s kinda fucked up that she says that practically in the same breath as the one she uses to give me all these rules because she’s so paranoid that I’m going to somehow magically end up in danger again. Like, we live in Detroit, not the middle of–” 

In mid-sentence, Peyton was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a roaring engine, followed by a loud crash. Spinning that way with a yelp, she stared, mouth agape. 

The outdoor shopping center she had been meandering through was shaped like a large U, with the doors into various shops spaced all along both sides of the curved shape. The middle of the U was essentially a large patio full of stands to buy snacks, sunglasses, cell phones, or even get massages. There was a fountain toward the front of the shopping area, with a statue of some old man holding an umbrella just beside it. 

That statue was the source of the loud crash. Or rather, the enormous pick-up truck that had just slammed into said statue, knocking it over. And it wasn’t alone. Three more huge trucks had come roaring up to block basically the whole road along the front of the shopping center. The backs of all four vehicles were full of thugs wearing a lot of leather and chains, holding bats, pipes, knives, and a few guns. All were hollering and whooping as they leapt from the trucks, landing right in front of dozens of shoppers paralyzed by surprise and confusion. 

“You know the drill, boys!” The voice came from the direction of the truck that had knocked over the statue, as the passenger door opened and a heavyset figure emerged. He was a large black man, standing about six and a half feet tall and very wide. His only concessions to a ‘costume’ of any kind were the sleek-looking blue metal helmet he wore, and a pair of matching metal gauntlets. Beyond that he wore simple street clothes. 

Juice. It was Juice, one of the lieutenants of the Easy Eights. Which were who all these other guys were. The guys who were already spreading out, grabbing people who started trying to run. As the screaming started, the man called over it, “Gather ‘em and shut ‘em up! Torch every building in this fucking lot!” To punctuate his words, the man extended his hands out to both sides and sent a blinding blast of electricity in either direction to slam into a couple storefronts with a loud, terrifying bang. “I want the whole fucking place burned to the ground! Move!” 

Almost as if he had been speaking directly to her, Peyton reacted to that last word. The bags dropped from her hands, even as one of the Easy Eight soldiers approached with his baseball bat raised threateningly. He was saying something, but Peyton didn’t hear. She was too busy pivoting. A scream tore its way from her own throat as she ran, sprinting away from that spot, away from the man who had approached her, away from the Fell-Touched Juice. Away from all of it, screaming the entire time. She ran, not even knowing where she was going. No plan, nothing. 

The sound of a loud curse from the man who had been approaching spurred Peyton to run even faster. She heard other people shouting, heard a couple terrifyingly loud bangs. Gunshots? She didn’t know, she didn’t know! Just run, that was all she could do. Just run. 

Racing past several stores, the girl glanced to the side. In the reflection of the windows, she saw herself. But she also saw the man behind her. He was so close! Oh God, oh god, he was so–he was lunging! 

Seeing the man make that leap, Peyton threw herself to the right, through the open doorway of a storefront. She landed hard on the floor, even as the man who had been chasing her landed on his stomach right where she would have been. His gaze snapped toward her as she lay on her side, and the man snarled while raising that bat. Reflexively, Peyton kicked out, hitting the door where it was propped open and sending it slamming closed just as the hurled bat crashed into the wood with a terrifying bang. 

Laying there on her side, Peyton hyperventilated as she stared at the door. It was only for a second, but that single second felt like an eternity. She heard the man cursing, could see through the window in the door as he started picking himself up. Up. He was getting up. 

Get the fuck up! 

Grabbing the side of the nearby counter, Peyton used it to haul herself up. She could see the man running toward her, toward the door. He was right there, right there. But just beside the door was a bookshelf stuffed with magazines. Even as a surge of terror raced through her, the fifteen-year-old lunged that way, shoving it hard. The shelf fell about halfway over before hitting the opposite wall of the doorway, wedging itself in tight just as the man kicked the door. But the bookshelf held, for the moment at least. 

A screamed threat from the guy as he hit the door again reminded Peyton that she couldn’t just stand there. The shelf was already starting to move under the repeated furious blows. Any second, the man with the bat was going to break in, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t happy with her. He would–he would–he had the bat–he was–

She ran. Pivoting away, Peyton fled through the shop, tears of terror almost blinding her, to the point that she tripped over the edge of another counter, landing hard on her stomach with a yelp. Behind her, she heard a loud crash as the bookshelf was nearly knocked clear out of the doorway. From the sound of multiple voices, he had been joined by more people, all of them working together to shove the door open. There were a couple shouted threats about what they would do if she didn’t stop, punctuated by the sound of a metal pipe hitting the wall. 

Fueled entirely by panic, the girl scrambled back to her feet and kept going. She didn’t dare look back, instead practically diving to the left where, thanks to hours spent wandering through these stores, she knew there was a set of stairs just beside the employee counter. 

The stairs were narrow and steep, but Peyton hardly noticed. Hearing the sound of the men behind her finally managing to breach the shop, their angry shouts growing even louder only spurred her to get up the steps faster. Taking them several at a time, using the railing and wall to boost herself, she struggled not to sob. Crying wasn’t going to do anything. Paintball wouldn’t sit there and cry about it. Sure, he had superpowers and all, but still. He’d actually do something, and he was like… a little kid. Okay, maybe just a couple years younger than Peyton, yet the point remained. He threw himself into life-threatening danger all the time. He’d done so to save her. If he could do that, she could keep running instead of cowering on the stairs blubbering. She wasn’t going to reward Paintball taking the effort to save her from that fucking creep by letting herself be… be whatever these creeps were planning, especially now that they were pissed off. He’d saved her before, but he wasn’t here now. She had to save herself. Somehow.

Only once the girl reached the top of the stairs (she’d always wondered where they actually went) did she realize the problem. Where the fuck was she supposed to go now? She was standing in some kind of storage area, full of boxes and crates for the books that were actually on display below as well as some promotional material, lines of other shelves, and a few old mannequins for some reason. There were windows, but they were all blocked by metal bars. 

She only froze for a brief moment, thoughts of how stupid she was to come up here flooding her mind, before the sound of the men reaching the stairs below spurred Peyton to move. Rushed by blind terror, she fled past the row of mannequins and several stacks of books, throwing herself into one of the corners between two different crates. Huddled there, the girl drew herself back as tight as possible into that small space and prayed something would happen to interrupt the men. Or maybe they’d spread themselves out too much and she could bolt for the stairs to escape? Please, please, she just wanted to go home. 

Home. In a rush, she reached for her phone, only to find her pocket empty. A memory flashed through her head of falling flat on her face downstairs. Her phone and the bluetooth had obviously fallen out then, and she’d been in too much of a panic to actually notice. Fuck, fuck! 

By that point, the men had reached the top of the stairs. There was a moment of quiet murmuring as they clearly had a brief discussion about what to do, before one of the men called, “Hey kid! Look, no one’s gonna do anything rash, aight? We’re just burning down these shops cuz the Niners make a bunch of money out of ‘em. Ain’t got nothing to do with you. Come out, we’ll take you to the rest of the braindead civvies out there, and you can just sit until the cops show up to hold your hand, take your temperature, and give you a nice cup of hot chocolate. What do you say? Come on out, no hard feelings. But ahh, if we have to come in there and drag you out, I can’t promise nothing.” There was a heavy thump of something like a bat or pipe hitting a nearby crate as though to punctuate his words. “Let’s make this easy.” 

It was tempting. Oh God was it ever tempting. But Peyton hesitated. Ducking her head as low as possible, she peeked out and looked, praying that she wasn’t about to be face-to-face with one of the attackers. She saw three men standing right in front of the stairs. The guy who had chased her initially was facing the man who had spoken, hissing something angrily into his ear. That man gave him a short nod, and the guy with the bat started to silently move through the open room, bat raised as he carefully searched. 

“We’ll give you thirty seconds to think about it!’ The man who had been talking, still by the stairs with the other guy, called. “Then we’re coming in there and you won’t like it!” 

Right, thirty seconds. They were totally giving her time to think about it. That’s why the pissed off guy with the bat was already searching. It was a distraction. They wanted her to think she had time to breathe, while that guy made his way through. And when he found her, he’d–he’d…

For just a moment, Peyton’s eyes closed. A shudder of panic ran through her as the tears came. What was she supposed to do? What could she–

Something was in front of her face. Nearly screaming as she opened her eyes, expecting to find the bat pressed to her nose, Peyton instead found herself staring at a small, glowing orb, about the size of a softball. It was blue, with hypnotically glowing hieroglyphics moving across it randomly. 

Oh. 

Oh, that was neat. 

Completely forgetting her entire situation, the girl slowly reached out. Her hand grasped the ball, and she felt… peaceful. She felt like she was safe. 

She wasn’t in the store. She wasn’t… anywhere, really. Peyton stood in some kind of completely empty space. Instead of a floor, there was gray dirt under her feet. It was impossible to make out any details, thanks to the fog that filled the whole area. Not that there seemed to be much to see anyway. It was all just a flat gray wasteland filled with that fog. 

Spinning in a circle, she saw images appear in the fog. She saw herself at the computer, flirting with someone she had thought was her own age. She saw her own look of disgust upon realizing the truth, saw the way she’d cut it off with the pedo fuck. She saw the moment she was kidnapped and thrown into the back of that car by Mitchell and his idiot friends, as well as the moment Paintball had saved her. She saw the intervention by those Braintrust people. She saw all of that, before the images shifted to show her today. It showed her shopping, fleeing, running up to this very point with the men chasing her. 

Finally, the images in the fog shifted to showing her the orb. The very orb she had touched to find herself here. And as that orb filled her vision, a woman’s voice spoke. 

“Summus Proelium.” 

Instantly, the vision vanished. Peyton was suddenly back in the shop. The orb had disappeared, but her open hand wasn’t empty. Instead, six small metal marbles filled her palm. They were sleek and featureless, each a different color. Gold, silver, bronze, purple, black, and white. They felt warm to the touch. 

“Hey!” The furious voice snapped her attention upward, just in time to see the man with the bat standing over her. “I got the bitch! C’mere, you little–” 

The silver marble suddenly flew out of her hand, slamming into the man’s chest. There was a sudden shockwave that knocked over the nearby shelves and crates, as the guy was sent flying a good ten feet to crash against a pile of books with a scream. 

Scrambling to her feet, Peyton saw the man lying there in a heap, groaning. The other two men had been taken completely by surprise, but were already moving her way with a pair of shouts. One–one had a gun. The guy who had been talking pulled out a gun! 

The marbles reacted to her terror immediately. All five that were still in her hand flew out of it. But instead of flying at the men themselves, they surrounded Peyton. The gold and black ones smacked into her chest and began to meld together before expanding. Suddenly, they weren’t marbles anymore. They grew and shaped themselves into a golden chestplate with black highlights, which then expanded down into black armor with gold highlights across her legs and up over her arms.  

Meanwhile, the white marble flew up to her face, seeming to stare at her for an instant before it opened up, expanding like a mouth to swallow her as she screamed. 

No. It didn’t swallow her. It turned itself into a sleek, pristine white helmet, covering her face and head but leaving her eyes exposed. 

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Suddenly, her entire body was encased in armor created by three of the six marbles. The three remaining, purple, silver and bronze, hovered in front of her as though waiting. 

The two guys who had been running at her suddenly stopped, stumbling over their own feet as curses of confusion escaped them. Before she could react, the man with the gun fired a shot. Peyton screamed, stumbling backward… even as the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the armor. It didn’t feel like anything. 

For an instant, she stared down at the spot of her chest where the bullet had struck, then her gaze snapped up to the source of it. The remaining marbles reacted to her impulse. The bronze transformed itself into a bat not unlike the one she’d nearly been hit with, flying out to crash into the stomach of the man with the gun, then slammed down into his back to knock him to the floor. Simultaneously, the silver marble transformed into a rope, lashing itself around the other man before hurtling him through the air to slam into the first guy who had been knocked through the air just as he started to get up. 

Which left the purple marble. That one transformed into a long, flowing cloth, which lashed out the length of the room to catch all three men in a wide arc, before hurling them bodily into the far wall together with a collection of screams. 

The rope shifted slightly to become a whip as it flew into Peyton’s left hand, while the bat found its way into her right. Finally, the purple cloth–cloak, she realized, affixed itself to her shoulders. Peyton was left standing there over the three men as they groaned in pain and confusion, muttering half-conscious curses. 

“Oh my God,” she whimpered, standing in the newly formed armor with the two weapons in either hand. “Oh my God, oh fuck, oh god. What do I do now?” 

“Well, ain’t this a surprise!” The sudden voice snapped the newly-Touched girl’s gaze toward the stairs, where Juice stood. The huge man could barely fit, but didn’t seem to care about the damage he’d done getting up there. His gaze was centered on her. “Thought this was gonna be a boring cakewalk, but looks like I get to have a little excitement after all.” 

“Wait!” the girl found herself blurting in a panic, “I didn’t–” 

He didn’t wait. Instead, the man used a blast of lightning that slammed into Peyton. It… it didn’t kill her. It hurt, that was for sure. But not nearly as much as it should have. 

Unfortunately, it still served to distract the girl, and before she knew it, the big guy was right in front of her. He hauled her off the ground, snarling. “Pretty tough, eh bitch? Let’s see how tough.” Suddenly, he was spinning, much more graceful than he should have been at his size. Before she knew what was happening, Peyton found herself hurled toward one of the bar-covered windows. She struck it with enough force to break through, flying out into open air. 

Then she dropped. With a scream, the girl fell all the way to the ground in the middle of the open shopping center, landing hard on her chest. The bat and whip dropped from her hands, reforming to their normal marble shapes. 

A terrifyingly loud crash, followed by a thud made her spin over into a half-sitting position, staring as Juice straightened up from his own landing. There was a hole in the wall where he’d leapt through. 

“Still ticking, huh?” A low, dangerous chuckle escaped the man. Electricity played over his fist as he slammed it into his palm. “Good.

“Let’s have some fun.” 

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Promise And Peril 11-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium posted yesterday. If you read that story but missed that chapter, you can find it right here

Fortunately, I wasn’t out for long. Unfortunately, the reason I wasn’t out for long was that the sound of screeching and tearing metal snapped my eyes open. Blinking past the lingering bleary spots in my vision, I stared upward just as a spot of sunlight appeared. Sunlight through the hole that was being torn in the side of the ship as something literally drove its claws through it and ripped upward. Something that was snarling and growling nastily as it continued its work. 

Before I could focus my vision enough to tell what the thing looked like, a laser shot upward from nearby, hitting the invading creature and making it recoil with an angry, pained squeal. Kohaku was there, hand raised with her thumb raised and index and middle fingers pointed like a gun. That was where the laser had come from. A second later, after giving me a quick glance, she launched herself upward toward the hole and disappeared through it. I heard two more quick shots, followed by what sounded like a roaring fireball or something similar. Either there were more Fomorian-crafted creatures out there, or the one was pretty tough.

Or both. Probably both. Either way, I had to get up. This was really no time to lay here. My gaze snapped over to Mom. She was awake. Then it moved to Tabbris. Also awake, sitting next to December and May as the three gazed up at the hole the monster had created. From the looks on their faces, I was pretty sure they had gotten a much better look at the thing than I had. And they weren’t exactly bursting with joy about that fact, so I doubted it was a pleasant creature. 

Avalon and Shiori were up already, standing nearby as they looked to me, the latter pulling Columbus to his feet from where he had been sprawled. I gave them both a thumbs up. 

“Sound off!” Athena was up by then, calling out those two words as she gave a quick look toward the main control panel where smoke was steadily rising, along with a few sparks.

“Risa’s outside,” Haiden quickly snapped. “Covering her.” With that, after making sure Larissa and his family were conscious, the man disappeared. I heard him join the fray out there, my worry about just how many of those things were descending on the ship rising by the second. 

Quickly, the rest of us started calling out to say we were conscious and mostly unhurt. Mom was right by me, her hand on my arm (whether she was reassuring me or herself I wasn’t certain) as she seemed to be scrawling a spell of some kind on a blank stone with a field-engraver. She was drawing too quickly and murmuring too quietly for me to know what it was. One by one, the rest of the Seosten and my friends reported in as we heard the fighting continuing. There was too much of it. This obviously wasn’t a few scouting monsters. It was a full-scale attack.

“Elisabet.” That, of course, was Jophiel. She was up too, her hand outstretched toward the prepared transport circles. But a moment later, the woman hissed, “Blocked. Something’s blocking transports.” Rather than dwell on that, she pivoted, already moving to the hole. 

“Jo, wait.” That was Sariel, speaking up obviously hard for her as she had already stopped her kids from chasing after their dad when he took off to keep the monsters away from the ship. 

“I’m through waiting!” Jophiel snapped, whirling on her. “You have your family back, Sariel. Elisabet is my family. She’s been my family for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve had yours. She’s been in this hellhole for months. I’m going to get her, and if you think you can stop me–”

Sariel raised a hand, speaking up over the other woman. “You’re right. But don’t go alone. You don’t know what condition they’re in, if they’ve been–just don’t go alone. Come on. I’ll go with you.” She’d obviously been about to point out that the Fomorians had attacked us the second we got close to Elisabet and Dexamene, but stopped herself and simply implied it instead.

“Mom!” Tristan blurted, scrambling that way with Vanessa right behind him. He was clearly all geared up to protest that they couldn’t be left behind, that Dexamene was his friend, and so on.

Sariel, however, simply said, “You two, with us. Tabbris, stay with Flick. We’ll be back.” 

“The rest of us will secure the… landing site,” Athena announced carefully. “Clear space around it, then we’ll see what repairs need to be made, and get to work. Be quick, but thorough. I don’t think there was any severe damage, we just need to make it last for a jump out of here.” 

Even as she said that, Sariel, Vanessa, and Tristan were already leaving with Jophiel. As they went, I called to Vanessa, figuring she was in the best head space for it, “Remember what I said back at camp about getting help!” 

The blonde girl gave me a quick thumbs up. Then she was gone with the rest. I hoped… okay, I hoped a lot of things, but in that particular moment, I was mostly hoping that Dexamene and Elisabet were actually safe and that this hadn’t been an intentional trap.  

“December and May will stay with me,” Athena continued. “You’ve both worked on ship systems before, as I understand it. You have experience. Help me assess the damage and determine repairs.” She looked to the two, who seemed surprised that she was asking a couple of SPS Seosten to do such an important job. In response to their staring, the woman snapped sharply, as though she had no time for foolish time-wasting, “Am I wrong?” 

“No,” May immediately replied, head shaking. “We’ve done maintenance on ships. It is… it is one of the most important things our type are allowed to do.” 

“Itwasmyfirstjob!” December piped up in a rush. “CuzI’mlittleandIfitinthepipes!” She said it proudly, even as the implication of someone her age being put in dangerous maintenance situations on live spaceships made a rush of anger rise in me before I pushed it back down. Now really wasn’t the time to start getting offended about the way the Seosten treated people. There would be plenty of time for that later, assuming we all survived this. 

“Good,” came the response. “Then get busy. The repair spells we brought are in the compartment there. Find the right spots to employ them.” 

With that, she looked to Sachael. “Something brought us down. It’s one hundred yards west and about twenty feet below the ground.” 

The man said nothing to that. He simply nodded, then leapt through the same hole as the others, vanishing from view as he moved off to deal with the thing that broke the ship. All by himself, apparently.  

To the rest of us, Athena added, “Help the others clear those things out. Stay together, stay near the ship, don’t let them draw you away. Watch each other’s backs. You clear space while we assess the damage and fix it.” She was clearly reiterating her order to make certain we understood. “We’re not here to kill a bunch of Fomorians. We’re here to grab those two, fix the ship enough to escape, and get out. Go.” With that, she pressed the button to open the rear doors, extending the ramp rather than making us rely on going through the hole in the roof. 

Apollo, Deveron, Pace, and Theia were the first group to go through, joining Kohaku and Haiden outside. Immediately, the sound of fighting got even louder. Things clearly weren’t settling down. Any hope I’d had that the space battle going on above would distract the Fomorians too much to be a threat down here was rapidly evaporating. Then again, Fomorians had a way of doing that with any hope. For a brief moment, my thoughts jumped back to Dare and all the sacrifices she had made just to kick these monsters off Earth. What was she thinking right now, stuck back there while we were off fighting the very creatures she’d lost so much to? How would I feel at this moment if I was in her position? Especially if most of the people putting themselves out here had no idea why I cared about them so much. 

Mom’s hand was still on my arm. There was obviously a lot she wanted to say. Instead, she held the stone out to me. “If we’re separated, use that. It’ll bring you to me.” She hesitated then, looking not only at me, but also to the others. “Be careful. Please.” From the strained sound of her voice, it was taking everything she had not to tell us to wait here. Not that we would’ve listened, and she knew that. 

Still, I took the stone, tucking it away while murmuring, “I love you, Mom.” My hand caught hers, squeezing very tightly for a moment as our gazes locked. It was only for a brief second, not nearly long enough. But then, ‘not nearly long enough’ seemed to describe our entire history with each other, and Mom’s history with her children in general. 

Fuck, that sounded dark and unfair. Which, again, suited Mom’s relationship with–fuck it.

Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Shiori, Columbus, Roxa, and I went together, with Mom and Lillian right behind. On the way, I glanced over to where Tabbris stood and called over the sounds of battle that had gotten so much louder ever since the ramp was opened. “You staying with December?!”  

There was a very brief pause, before her head shook. She disappeared, and I heard her voice in my head as she spoke a single word. Partners

Partners, I replied firmly, managing a very slight smile before wiping it away. Time to do this. 

With that, I shoved down all the doubts that tried to creep into my thoughts, all the fear of facing more of those Fomorian abominations, and pushed myself into running down the ramp while drawing my staff. Avalon and Shiori were on either side of me, the others all around us. 

Reaching solid ground (or as solid as the sand under my feet could be), I looked quickly to the left and right, my gaze taking in everything that was going on. And as I did so, any last lingering optimism I’d had that we could easily deal with this situation was gone. I’d already realized that this wasn’t a scouting party, but it was even worse than I’d imagined. The entire area around our crashed ship was flooded with monsters of all shapes and sizes. It was a horror show beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of the creatures all swarming around all sides. It was impossible to tell where one monster ended and another began. Some had multiple heads, some had none that were discernible. There were claws, tails, tentacles, fangs, bloated sacks of venom or acid, snakes with shark-like heads, an enormous antelope thing with shoulders twelve feet high and a dozen legs, something that looked like a giant pterodactyl with a fat body and hundreds of tiny baby-like hands all along its front from neck to tail, flailing and grasping at the air. All that and more, so much more. Monsters beyond description were in every direction. 

Haiden, Kohaku, Mom, Theia, and all the others were doing their best to deal with the things, but it was all they could do just to stop the beasts from completely overrunning our small group. They were a flood of nightmares that kept swarming higher and higher, like a rising wave threatening to capsize a ship. Only in this case, our ship had already crashed. The longer we were here, the more of these things that would show up. And it was already right up at the tipping point. We didn’t have any backup or rescue coming. We were the rescue. If we didn’t hold them off right here and now, that was it. 

But we didn’t have to last long. That was our only saving grace. If we could hold off the swarm long enough for Sariel, the twins, and Jophiel to grab Elisabet and Dexamene, we could escape. Well, assuming Athena and Calendar girls (still didn’t like that term) could fix the ship. 

The point was, we only had to hold out for a short time. Please, please let us last that long. 

To my right, Avalon was already using three quick shots from Porthos in his gun form to make a flock of bat-like creatures with steel-tipped wings abort their dive-attack. The bat-things regrouped, shrieking as they launched tiny, needle-like blades from their wings, which Avalon caught against a glowing energy shield that was suddenly projected from one of her gauntlets.

Meanwhile, Shiori had intercepted a four-foot tall stone-skinned ape thing with four legs and three arms. She launched herself that way, fist slamming into its face before a sudden, momentary duplicate appeared just long enough to copy her motion to hit it a second time. It tried to grab the real Shiori as the duplicate disappeared, but she turned to sand, letting the thing fall through her before reforming behind it, mouth open to shoot a burst of lightning into its back. 

They were both handling things. Which was good, because I didn’t exactly have time to help either of them. Ahead of me, there was a fifteen-foot long squid thing with its own tentacles lashing out, and as my eyes snapped that way, the front of the squid’s body opened up right along the middle to reveal a naked humanoid male shape attached within a nutrient sac. The humanoid was maybe four feet tall, with fully-formed genitals and an oversized head that lolled to the side within the gel-like liquid. It had no eyes, and only three fingers on each hand. All six of those fingers rose to point toward me, and I heard an utterly horrific wailing as it opened its mouth. It was a wail that seemed to make my very bones creak, sending an awful chill down my spine as it vibrated in my skull.

The squid-thing that served as the naked, immature humanoid’s main body boosted itself up on two tentacles while sending three more straight at me. The screaming continued unabated. If anything, it actually got louder, the sound seeming to drive itself deep into my brain, taking all of my focus. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t–

And then it was gone. The would-be distracting pain from the thing’s scream vanished, and the sound itself was heavily muffled. I could still somewhat hear it, but it was barely there. My eyes focused just in time to launch myself up in a leap over the nearest tentacle, staff lashing out to stab the already-prepared bladed end into the second tentacle. That drew a new scream from the humanoid, but this was a wail of pain rather than an attack. 

Thanks, I blurted quickly to Tabbris for shutting down my senses to save me from the thing’s scream. At the same time, I was already landing on the third tentacle, which instantly flung me toward two more tentacles that were already lashing my way, trying to snap my body in half by crushing me between them. But I was faster, launching myself into a backward flip that carried me just barely through the narrow space between the two incoming tentacles. On the way, I spat a wad of resin, which caught all three tentacles (the two that had been coming toward me as well as the one that had flung me), trapping the trio together like a wad of super-strong rubber cement. Which gave me an opening, as I dropped toward the ground, to create a quick portal in front of me. With a grunt, I boosted my strength while shoving the blade of my staff through the portal and out the other end, which was located right in front of the humanoid’s face. The amniotic sac or whatever the thing was encased within was tough, but it shattered under the strength of my empowered blow, and the blade went right through the thing’s face while it screamed. 

Then I hit the ground, landing in a crouch as the squid-humanoid fetus thing collapsed lifelessly. To my right, Sands and Sarah were working together with Avalon to deal with an incursion from that side. To my left, I caught a quick glimpse of Roxa, Pace, and Theia bringing down the big antelope thing. Meanwhile, Shiori was racing straight at me, shouting something about a boost. Instantly I saw what she meant, crouching to catch the other girl’s raised foot as she leapt. Activating my boost once more, I heaved as hard as I could, throwing her upward just high enough to catch the swooping pterodactyl thing with all the tiny hands. The second she was there, all those hands tried to grab her. But once more, Shiori did the ‘shift to sand, let the thing pass through her, then reform again’ trick. That time, it put her on the flying monster’s back. 

In that instant, I had two more creatures coming after me. The first was essentially a three-foot diameter ball with a humanoid face on the front that popped hands out anywhere it needed to. It flew through the air at me just ahead of a fat, five-foot tall reptilian figure with nine-foot long arms. 

Laser? Tabbris pressed, seeing the line of monsters behind those ones. 

My head shook, even as I closed the gap. Save it until we need it. Last ditch thing. 

In the background, I could see Shiori throw something out ahead of the flying monster she was riding. It was a small silver ball, which popped open to release Choo. In mid-air, the horse-sized warthog creature unleashed a blast of electricity straight into the flying monster just as Shiori flung herself off it and shot an identical blast into the thing from behind. The twin lightning bolts hit the Fomorian creation, sending it sputtering lifelessly to the ground. 

By that point, I’d reached the ball-creature. A plus-sign shape appeared along the front of the thing before it split open along those four sections to reveal what looked like a miniature blackhole. It was some kind of super-gravity field that instantly yanked me toward the thing. But I caught myself with a burst of energy from my staff, arresting my momentum just in time before the bigger monster’s long arm swept through the space where I would’ve been without that help. 

A sudden shot from Porthos hit the ball-creature, which exploded into a spray of goo that I threw myself forward and rolled under to escape from. I wasn’t absolutely sure being hit by the goo would be a bad thing, but it was a fair guess. 

By that point, even as I smacked the long-armed creature’s hand out of the way with my staff, I could see Shiori and Choo out of the corner of my eye. She was actually riding him, having landed on her pet’s back before he, in turn, landed on the back of one of the giant snake-serpent monsters. The Jekern was charging ahead, shooting lightning from his mouth while Shiori urged him onward, riding her pig-mount as they took the snake thing right to the ground. 

In that moment, just as the blade of my staff was driven through the long-armed reptilian’s stomach as I half-lay at its feet, one of Avalon’s energy blades cut through it from the back. The thing was basically cut in half, falling apart while the beautiful dark-haired girl caught my hand to haul me back to my feet. “No time to nap, Chambers!” she blurted, turning to put her back to mine as even more of the monsters appeared. There was no end in sight, as more and more of the things emerged. Nothing we did was enough. I saw kill after kill, but there were just so many of them. 

If Jophiel and the others didn’t get back with Elisabet and Dexamene, if we couldn’t get this ship back off the ground and get out of here really soon, we were going to miss our chance. We would be overrun. Even with my mother, Haiden, Risa, and the others, it wasn’t enough. There were too ma–

Abruptly, I sensed a sudden change behind me. But before my item-sense power could thoroughly process it, there was a high-pitched whine, and a burst of bright, blinding light as a laser passed just over my shoulder. And a bit to my left. And far off to the right. And in a dozen or more different directions. 

Half of the Fomorian army that had been descending upon us completely vanished, blown apart from lasers fired by…. by… 

I pivoted back toward the ship. Except it wasn’t the same ship anymore. Before, the thing had looked like a tube with a flat bottom. Like a metal twinkie, basically. Now, the main body of the twinkie had grown by about a third of its original length, as sections of it had split apart down the length and extended almost like an accordion. Every few feet, a series of panels slid apart. Doing so uncovered a series of glowing reddish discs. Those red discs were where the lasers that had torn through half of the Fomorian pack had originated. 

“Hey!” we all heard May’s voice call through some kind of ship-mounted intercom. “Starting the repairs on the ship made it shift into some kind of combat mode!” 

There was the slightest of pauses, before Athena’s voice carried through the same intercom. “Made it do what?!

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Commissioned Interlude 7 – Lion (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude. The regularly scheduled (Heretical Edge) chapter will be out tomorrow as normal.

To any outside observers, the man striding casually across the semi-crowded floor of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport would not stand out in any way. He was of average height and build, his face entirely nondescript and clothing just dull enough to avoid attention aside from the simple glasses that he wore. There were no logos on his shirt, and they were clean without being obviously new. He wore his dark hair at average length, and offered faint smiles to those he passed without stopping for conversation. Not that many would care to strike up a discussion with the clearly incredibly boring figure who passed them. 

Nor would passersby be any more interested in the simple-looking backpack the man wore over his shoulders. There were no logos or patches on the brown and white bag, nothing that would give any indication that there was anything special about it at all. What appeared to be a very cheap padlock held the zippers shut, just as anyone moving through a public space like this would use. The bag, and the man who wore it, could have been any number of the thousands who passed through the airport every single day. To any who saw him, even those who paid attention, the man would disappear from their memory almost immediately. He was just another face in the crowd, one who did absolutely nothing that could make him stick out in their minds. 

That, of course, was entirely intentional. The man’s ability to blend in and attract no attention was specifically why Lion had hired him to begin with. And in these past couple of years, Jared Keene had become a very trusted friend. One of very few whom the little Touched-Mouse felt comfortable with taking her through a place as terrifying as this busy airport. 

She was in the backpack, naturally. And, like the man who wore it, the bag wasn’t nearly as simple and run-of-the-mill as it had been intentionally designed to look. Within the bag were three levels, separated by plastic dividers and slanted tubes that she could scurry up and down. The top level, just below the main zipper, was a bit of a watchtower. What appeared to be opaque cloth or leather material from the outside was actually easily see-through from the inside, like a fairly thin mesh that allowed the little mouse to peer through at the outside world. 

Meanwhile, the middle level was where her temporary living area was. Down there was a soft and warm nest to curl up in, her water and food, and a smartphone that had been set up to function as her main television. It wasn’t simply for watching movies or browsing online, however. It also allowed Lion to view the outside world through the cameras built into Jared’s glasses, or any of the several other cameras in the bag or his clothing. Or through the cameras of several small fly-shaped drones which automatically followed them from various distances.

All of which meant that at any point, she could look in any direction to see what was around them. It was, again, the only way she could feel even slightly comfortable in a place full of as many dangers as an airport. Or any public space. 

Then there was the bottom level of the bag. That was the smallest and most protected section. It was essentially a safe room, surrounded by a thick, reinforced metal that would stand up to almost any level of abuse up to and including being in the middle of an explosion. From inside that small space, Lion could employ any of the dozen weapon systems and other defenses the backpack contained. She could also call in the fly-drones with their own attack capabilities.

Many would have called all these measures completely paranoid and unnecessary. A hired (and highly skilled) bodyguard intentionally made to look as nondescript as possible, cameras facing in every direction, a secret panic room that was harder to break through than almost any actual bank vault, tiny fly-robot drones capable of putting a grown man down within a couple shots, and more weapons built into the bag itself. Most would have said all of that was patently unnecessary when one was simply walking through an airport to board a plane. 

To those people, Lion would have pointed out that… they were people. Humans. Tall and strong compared to her. She was literally a mouse. At the absolute best of times, she was vulnerable to people stepping on her because they either didn’t see her or did and panicked. Even if they recognized what her golden armor meant, some would still lash out. Either because they hated Touched-Animals like her, or thought it was funny because they didn’t see her as a real living, thinking creature. She was perfectly and painfully aware of how many humans thought of her and those like her as abominations. Some thought TOuched Nonhuman Individuals (or TONIs) were connected to Abyssals somehow, or that all of them were Abyssals or would become them. Others believed their god dictated that animals ‘cursed’ with intelligence be purged. 

And that wasn’t even counting the people who would try to actually abduct Lion to work for them. Her Tech-Touched ability to design elaborate structures and defenses would, after all, be an incredible boon for any Fell-Touched who wanted a new base. Or simply eccentric rich people who didn’t want to commission and pay for her designs, but still wanted her work. 

The point was, between everyone who would accidentally or casually kill her, those who would intentionally do so out of maliciousness or religious fanaticism, and those who would abduct her to work for them, Lion had every reason in the world to be careful. Especially in a place she didn’t visit often, like Detroit. In her home of Seattle it might have been different. People knew her there, and she knew them. It was much safer to be seen. But here, in this place? She would take no chances. 

But despite all the dangers of the world that she was all-too-painfully aware of, Lion still enjoyed watching people. She didn’t hate the world. Far from it. She was simply incredibly cognizant of the dangers it held. From the safety of her secure backpack, the tiny mouse eagerly gazed through the mesh to look in every direction, trying to take in everything at once. Every person she saw had their own story, and she couldn’t help but wonder what they were. And more than wonder, she actually made up stories about them in her own mind. Seeing a beleaguered mother half-dragging her two protesting children toward the restrooms while an uncaring father trailed behind with his attention on his phone, Lion instantly made up names and an entire story for their lives. The family in this story went through a harrowing adventure aboard a hijacked airplane that brought them together and made them much stronger in the end. 

While Lion was focused on trying to decide whether the mother and father in her story would be the one to land the plane in the end, the voice of her bodyguard/driver quietly spoke up with a simple, “Ahead.” That single word was almost more of a cough, but she caught its meaning.

The moment he said that, Lion scrambled in a circle, pivoting as fast as her tiny paws would allow. A second screen built into the back of the bag up on this top level showed the view through Jared’s glasses, and she immediately saw what he was drawing her attention to. Or rather, who. Approaching them was a Native American woman in casualwear, simple jeans and a dark hoodie. Yet Jared and Lion knew her immediately, despite the fact that she wasn’t wearing her normal costume of dark blue and white army camo and tactical helmet. This was Mika Holt, known to the rest of the world as the leader of the state-sponsored Star-Touched team of Spartans. And also, more importantly, a friend. Mika had, after all, been the one who introduced Lion to Lucent after the two had been online contacts for some time. 

“Hey, Jared,” the woman greeted, “and company. You mind if we find a place to chat for a minute? I know your plane doesn’t leave for another hour, and this shouldn’t take long.” 

Lion, of course, agreed by reaching out to touch a button beside the screen so that the voice from the speakers attached to her armor would be transmitted through the small button on Jared’s collar. “Ahh, oh, oh of course, let’s get something to drink. If, umm, if you’re thirsty.” The voice was soft enough that it barely reached far enough for the intended recipient to hear. 

A small smile appeared on the dusky-skinned woman’s face, before she gave a slight nod. “Sure, I know just the place. Expensive as hell and basically the only spot in the airport that isn’t fast food, but hey. It’s a place.” 

With that, she turned to walk, with Jared easily following. To anyone watching, this was nothing more than some random nobody guy meeting some random nobody woman and going for coffee at the horrifically overpriced airport shop. 

Choosing a booth at the back of the room, Jared and Mika both ordered their drinks and waited for them to be delivered before putting the privacy screen up. It was essentially a wall of colored light that surrounded the booth and kept all conversations within private. Popular, for obvious reasons, with businessmen trying to make last-minute deals before catching their flights. 

Only once the drinks were there and the shield had been raised did Jared carefully set the bag on the far side of the table. By that point, Lion was ready and waiting, and a small slot appeared for her to scramble out. Casually hopping from the opening in the front of the bag to the table, the armored mouse peered upward to the woman who sat nearby. “Ahh, hi there, Mika.” 

The woman, in turn, asked, “Biscotti?” With that, she snapped one of the treats in half and set part down for Lion before taking a bite of her own piece. “Heard you really helped Lucent out with his little project for the upgrade of the Seraph building out there.” 

Taking a little nibble of the treat while Jared carefully prepared a saucer with some of the tea he had ordered, Lion gave a quick nod. Her tiny nose sniffed the air, taking in every detail of the area surrounding the table and the dozens of people who occupied the restaurant beyond their private booth. “Ahh, oh, yes, well I’m just glad he found it, ahhh, helpful? Ahh, did… did he say so?” Even as she answered, the sound of a glass being set down a little too hard three booths away (where the privacy screen had not been put up) made Lion pivot quickly, nose sniffing frantically. Danger! Danger! No–no danger. No, just a somewhat clumsy waitress who apologized. No predator. No problems. No death. Still, she kept a wary ear that way while taking another quick nibble of the biscotti. 

“He did,” Mika confirmed. “But he didn’t have to. It’s sort-of your specialty, my mane friend.” The pun was accompanied by a wink before the woman casually added, “Well, that and secretly directing the affairs of an entire universe.” 

Mice didn’t blush. But if they could, Lion would have right then. Squirming a bit, she didn’t respond immediately. Instead, she turned to the saucer of tea Jared had set down, leaning in to lap from it briefly. Only then, once she had assured herself that the drink was perfect (as usual, Jared knew what he was doing), did the small mouse turn her attention back to Mika. “Oh, ahh, I only write some stories here and there.” 

Her words were met with a disbelieving raised eyebrow. “Write some stories here and there? Is that what they call being one of the primary writers and directors of canon for a multibillion dollar franchise? You know they’re saying the new movie is going to break records again, right?” 

Lion, of course, simply shrank back into her golden armor a bit from the attention. It was true. Much as it would have surprised people to know that the simple privacy booth in the corner of the airport restaurant held the Touched-Mouse known most for designing incredibly high-tech defensive structures, it certainly would have floored them even more if they were to realize that that same mouse was responsible for writing several of their favorite science fiction novels over the past several years under various pseudonyms. Specifically, three books within the Outlanders of Reach series. And that, since her first book in that previously-established universe had come out, she had been secretly made a consultant for shaping the direction of the overall narrative. She was credited as one of the screenplay writers under the name Eve Titus, writer of the old children’s novel series Basil of Baker Street (which Disney had turned into the movie The Great Mouse Detective). 

Very few people knew of her work, given the names she used. Only three or four people within the publishing and production companies knew the true identity of their director of canon and the author of several of the most successful books in the series. Which was how she wanted it. Because if the public knew, Outlanders would suddenly become the series written by a mouse, rather than being judged on its own merits. And she desperately wanted those works to stand on their own. Her Touched-designs were one thing, but knowing she could write stories that people enjoyed based on nothing more than actually enjoying them was priceless. 

It was no real surprise that Lion was so involved and knowledgeable of the Outlanders universe, or that she loved writing so much in general. After all, before his untimely death in the same event that had given Lion her intelligence and powers, the tiny mouse had been the personal pet of the original creator of the books, long before they were turned into movies, comics, a toyline, and more. Aaron Nodgers, the man who had written the first books over two decades earlier, had kept Lion right next to his desk and often spoke of everything he was writing at the time.

Of course, she hadn’t understood any of it at the time. The man’s words were nothing more than sounds. But they were comforting sounds that came from the man who fed and cared for her. And once the… tragedy happened, once poor Nodgers was killed by the man who broke into their home before her orb appeared and changed Lion’s entire existence, she finally did understand the words. She understood the things he had said when he picked her up in his enormous hand and cooed at her. She remembered and understood every word he’d spoken to her in the privacy of their little home. 

It was that hindsight understanding of everything her owner and first friend had been telling her throughout their time together that really instilled the love of writing and of the Outlanders universe within Lion. Being able to direct his vision now the way she believed he would have wanted, that was worth more than she could ever possibly be paid for it. 

And that was the other half of the reason she didn’t want her work in that fictional universe to be known. Because ‘a Touched-Mouse wrote the new stories’ would be all anyone knew about them. They would never understand or remember that the stories had originally been created and written by Aaron Nodgers, and Lion would rather die than take over his legacy like that. Outlanders was his baby. 

“I–ahhh, I’m glad people like the stories,” was all she could manage, shifting a bit to look toward Jared with a slightly quieter, “You said it was doing okay.” 

The man, in turn, offered a very faint smile, completely unabashed. “It is. I’d call breaking records doing okay.” 

With a small chuckle, Mika put in, “You keep teasing her like that and one of these days, she’s going to find a way to replace you with a robot. Then where are you gonna be?”  

Jared, in turn, simply replied, “Maybe I’ll find out if the hive in Oregon needs an errand boy.” 

Making a soft squeaking sound of distress in the back of her throat, Lion quickly assured the man that his services and friendship would always be needed. Then, after taking a few more nibbles of the treat, finally asked the woman across from them, “Ahh, umm, did… did you really just want to talk about the uhh, movie until it’s time for the plane?” 

Sure enough, Mika shook her head. “Actually, I was kind of hoping to talk you out of taking that plane.” Once she let those words penetrate and knew that she had the mouse’s attention, the woman pressed on. “You might’ve noticed we’ve got a bit of a rising war going on between a few of our gangs. I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, so I had a few ideas about setting up some defenses around the jails and some other areas. I was hoping you might stick around and offer advice. For a regular contracted fee, of course.” 

Pausing, she put a hand out, flat against the table close to the mouse. “I know you want to get home. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I just–something tells me the fighting here is gonna escalate beyond what other people think. We could really use an edge, and I think you’d be a good one to have.” 

Lion, for her part, was quiet at first. Mika was right, she did want to get back to her own comfortable (and very well-fortified) home. But how could she walk (or be carried) away from a request like that? How would she ever live with herself if she left and found out people died here in Detroit because they weren’t protected the way she could protect them? 

So, after considering for almost a full minute while the two humans watched her in silence, Lion gave a short nod. “Cancel the flight, Jared. 

“We’re staying in Detroit for awhile.”

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Trust 15-11 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we all started to head inside. But before I could go through the door, Mom turned my way. “And do your parents know what you’re…” She trailed off, clearly considering her words before amending, “Do they know about all this?” 

Why? I wanted to ask. Do you want to know if you need to get their permission to turn me into one of your obedient little thugs? Is that something you’d need to draw up a special parental permission slip for, or do you already have those for the other minors you’ve probably twisted?  

I didn’t say anything of the sort, of course. I wasn’t nearly that stupid or suicidal. Tempting as it was just to see the look on her face, on both of their faces actually, I resisted the urge. Instead, staring right back at her, thankful that face was hidden by two separate layers, I flatly replied, “No, I’m pretty sure my folks would be pretty surprised if they found out anything about this.” 

Yeah, they’d be super-surprised alright. Especially if I took my helmet and mask off right now.  Which, yet again, was almost tempting just for the reaction it would spark. I really had to shove every thought of shocking my parents tonight out of my head before they got me in trouble.  

I saw the look of concern on Mom’s face, her voice lowering a little. “I know you don’t need to be told to be careful, but… you should think about letting your parents know what you’re doing. I know it can seem like a bad idea, and I assume that’s why you’ve refused to join the Minority. Because you don’t want them to know about this, and having a guardian who is aware of your position is a requirement to be a part of them. Maybe you’re afraid they’ll make you stop. But they’re your family. They’re your parents. They deserve to know if you’re in trouble. If… if anything happens to you and they find out like that, they’ll probably blame themselves.” 

If my parents found out that I got hurt doing this, they would blame themselves? Oh boy was that just begging for me to have a fun response. I literally had to bite my lip to stop from saying the first thing that popped into my head. Because it definitely wouldn’t have been anything good as far as keeping my secret identity went. 

Mom might have interpreted my moment of silence as awkwardness, because she spoke up again. “I’m sorry. You can do as you wish, of course. I just hope that you give it a thought. It’s important to have people on your side. Especially those who love you, as I’m sure your parents do.” 

Dad spoke up then, hand on the side of the doorway as he looked over to me. “She’s right, Paintball. Whatever your reasons for keeping your family out of it, I think it’s safe to say they care about you. You seem like a pretty well-adjusted kid, all things considered. And the stuff you’re doing, it’s dangerous. That’s why being part of the Minority–or any team is a good idea. Having friends, having people watching your back, from everything I’ve heard, it’s pretty huge.” His gaze was locked on me, voice a little quieter as he pointedly added, “As my lovely wife said, it’s important to have people you can trust watching your back.” 

God damn it, they kept setting me up perfectly. There was… a lot I wanted to say to every last bit of that. So many immediate retorts sprang to mind and nearly leapt out. But all of them were a really bad idea, as much as they might have given me a very brief moment of satisfaction. Seeing the look in my parents’ faces would’ve been amazing for about ten, maybe fifteen seconds. Then I’d definitely regret it as my entire world came crashing down around me. 

So, I pushed all that deep into the back of my mind, smothering my reflexive responses under a metaphorical pillow before simply replying, “Don’t worry, I have people I can trust.” Not my family, but people. Belatedly, I added, “Thanks.” 

With that, we headed inside. The penthouse was–well, a penthouse. It looked a lot like the hotels that my family went to, or maybe one of our vacation homes. In fact, judging from the paintings on the wall of the main living area, I thought the place might’ve been decorated by the same guy who did the villa in Geneva. The place had his same sense of flair and style. 

On the way to the kitchen, we moved through the main living area, passing a series of huge floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the grounds on the way, similar to the ones in the main hall outside. These ones, however, were also clearly television screens as one of them was displaying an image of the news rather than a view outside. And another a few panels down showed a completely different view of what looked like the New York City skyline. 

Seeing the way my gaze moved as I paused there, Dad spoke up. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” He stepped next to me briefly, as I struggled not to tense up. His hand moved to gesture as he started to explain all about the technology behind the joint window/video screens, telling me all sorts of stuff I already knew but had to pretend I didn’t. It was pretty clear he thought this was a good way of bonding, by talking all about the fancy toys that a ‘boy’ like me would definitely be super into. 

I did my best to play the part, asking questions for a minute or so before we made our way into the kitchen. Skip was there, taking something out of the oven without bothering to use any kind of mitts. Obviously, she just ‘skipped’ the effect of being burned. Useful, that. 

Mrs. Chambers was there too, as promised. The blonde woman had just finished chopping up some mushrooms and was spreading them over several plates of salad. When we entered, she pivoted with a smile. “I have to say, a dinner party with so many superheroes is fun.” Her gaze found me, and she extended a hand. “Paintball, right?” 

“Uhh, yeah,” I managed, mentally kicking myself for the hesitation while accepting her hand. I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her yet. “You’re Mrs. Chambers?”  

She gave a short nod to that. “That’s what they tell me. But please, just Joselyn. After all, we’re all having dinner, there’s no need to stand on formality. Here.” With that, she picked up the tray full of salads. “Would you mind taking these into the dining room? I–oh, what’ve you got there?” 

For a second I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I glanced down, realizing I still had the little paper bag from Lightning Bug, the one with the cute faces drawn on it. I’d been holding it through all of that, somehow. “Oh, I–” Looking to the girl in question, I asked, “Is it okay if I open this now?” 

She gave a hurried, excited nod. “Uh huh! But you can’t eat any until after dinner. Those are the rules.” The kid recited that last part firmly, squinting at me with those compound eyes as though letting me know that she was going to be watching to make sure I didn’t cheat. 

“I’ll be good,” I promised before opening the sack to glance in. Cupcakes. The sack had several cupcakes, all sealed up in ziplocks to keep them fresh and safe. Each cupcake had clearly been hand-decorated by Bug herself, with frosting and little candy pieces to make it look like the faces on the bag itself. Four cupcakes, one decorated to look like her face and three more decorated like Cinnamon, Kenobee, and Snugglebug. 

Suddenly sounding nervous again, Bug quietly piped up. “I did them myself. Um, sort of. Mom helped with the oven part.” 

“That’s right,” Caishen agreed, laying a hand on her daughter’s white hair. “She did it herself.” 

“Yum!” I enthusiastically intoned. “You sure we have to wait til after dinner?” 

With a giggle, the kid nodded. “No cheating!” she insisted while shaking her finger at me. “No dessert til you eat your veg-ih-tuls.” 

“Well, if you insist,” I finally agreed, rolling the top of the bag shut again before adding, “Thanks, Bug. They look great.” 

Her response to that was to give a little squeak of embarrassment and hide behind her mother again. Giving her a break, I turned back to take the tray from Joselyn. She easily handed it over with a smile that reminded me of my own mother, before asking, “Oh, and are you allergic to anything?” 

My head shook as I took the tray. “Not as far as I know, thanks. I’ll ahh, take this in…” I trailed off before looking toward Caishen and Skip for help. 

The latter had already put the glass dish from the oven down, and was stepping over to a nearby door next to the gleaming metal fridge. “This way,” she instructed flatly. 

So, we made our way into the actual dining room. There was a large glass table in there, big enough to easily seat ten on each side, where place settings had been arranged in what was clearly a carefully planned way. At one end nearest the door were two settings next to each other, one on the very end and one beside it to the right. A bit further up, about a quarter of the way up the long table, were two settings next to each other. Meanwhile, across from them and another quarter of the way (so halfway up the table) was another setting by itself. Finally, there were three settings at the far end of the table, one on the actual end opposite the one set here, and the other two to the right of it. The first seat to the right had a booster chair in it. 

We found our seats easily enough. Mom and Dad were at this end, with Joselyn and Lincoln up from them at the next two spots. Obviously, mine was the one by itself on the opposite side. Setting the tray of salads down in the middle, I stepped around to head that way. 

As soon as I sat, Caishen stepped over and showed me where there was a dial and button on the side. When I turned it on, a glowing forcefield of sorts appeared out of the glass. It was U-shaped, the sides of it continuing past me on either side to form a couple short walls near either shoulder. The field was semi-translucent, like frosted glass so that it was impossible to make out details through, and high enough that it would cut off all view of me while we were eating. Since I was all alone on this side of the table, with the way the forcefield continued onto either side of me to block off the view, all they would see was a frosted-glass sort of image if they looked my way. There was one at the other end too, where Caishen, Lightning Bug, and Skip were, so that they could block any view of their faces as we all ate. 

“It won’t block any sound,” the woman informed me. “We can carry on normal conversation. And you can see through it just fine from this side. Is that okay?” 

Nodding quickly, I assured her, “Thanks, it’s great. And–and thanks for having me over. This is all really cool.” 

For a moment, the woman regarded me. It looked like she was about to say something, possibly about how I could have this all the time if I signed up. But in the end, she clearly pushed the recruitment speech aside and simply replied, “I’m glad you’re here tonight. Buggy likes you a lot.” 

With that, she went back to help Skip bring out the rest of the food, carefully laying out trays. One by one, we each took salad first before settling into our seats. 

Despite the cover afforded by the forcefield thing, I was still careful. I was going to be careful regardless, but with my parents here (let alone an LA Times reporter)? Yeah, no way was I taking even the slightest risk. I opened the front of the helmet and lifted my mask up to my nose so I could actually put food in my mouth. Even without the shield, there was still no way to identify me that way. I also made sure the bluetooth in my ear wasn’t disturbed when I pushed the mask up, so it would continue changing my voice as I spoke. 

Even then, all of dinner was horribly nerve-wracking. I’m sure it was delicious, but I barely tasted it. Technically, I was pretty confident that given another hour I would completely forget what it even was. I was too paranoid about every last thing I said, every movement anyone made. Between that worry and trying to act like I wasn’t worried, we could’ve been eating broiled shoes for all I knew. 

Thankfully, Lightning Bug drew a lot of attention. She clearly loved having visitors around, shy as she might’ve been, and knew my parents enough to ask questions about… well, about Simon and me. She’d met Simon, apparently, and kept asking when ‘Cassie’ was going to visit. To which my parents promised they’d think about seeing if I wanted to come visit, which apparently made Bug happy. It sounded like they’d been telling her stories about me, which was… odd to hear about.  

And boy, wouldn’t that be an interesting time? I could hardly wait for my parents to bring that up to me. 

The kid also asked about the Chambers’ kids, Zed and Lexi. Apparently they were visiting another friend’s place for dinner that night, someone Lexi knew from her online games. That prompted a whole lot of discussion about Ten Towers sponsoring certain competitors in those kinds of games, and the fact that Lexi herself was angling for something like that. 

In any case, I was soon distracted by the fact that Caishen started talking to me directly. Paintball me, that was. She was talking about how I should think about joining Ten Towers if I wasn’t interested in the Minority, how they had specific rules that would help soothe things over if my parents ended up objecting to what I was doing, rules that would help them feel better. And, of course, very good benefits packages. 

She still wasn’t overly pushy about it or anything, but yeah, it was clear that a large part of this whole thing was about testing the waters for potentially recruiting me, with my parents chiming in now and then about their own donations and investments. In Mom and Dad’s case, it was obvious that they wanted to test just how much I was devoted to working alone. Whether Caishen was actively in on that or just a convenient way to probe, I couldn’t say. 

Thankfully, every once in awhile, Joselyn or Lincoln would speak up and turn the conversation away from me. I really owed both of them for that. They seemed to almost instinctively know when I really didn’t want to talk anymore, and always had the right thing to say to pull attention to them. Especially Joselyn, actually. I’d expected her husband to be the one who could command people’s focus that easily. But she seemed to effortlessly draw attention, regaling all of us (me included) with stories about what it was like to be a police officer (homicide detective, to be specific) in Los Angeles. Apparently she worked as a liaison with one of their local Star-Touched groups, which helped explain why she and her husband were so casual with this sort of thing, come to think of it. She basically worked right alongside Touched every day. 

God, I really hoped the Chambers weren’t part of the Ministry. Please, I liked them a lot, even as little as I knew. They were cool, and it would’ve sucked to know that they were just more minions of my parents, possibly extending their reach all the way down into California. Hell, Mr. Jackson had been stationed in Britain, so the Ministry having people in Los Angeles wasn’t exactly far-fetched. But fuck, I really hoped not. 

In any case, whether they were part of the bad guys or not, dinner eventually ended. I had just fixed my mask and helmet before Lightning Bug hopped out of her seat, pleading with me to come play with her friends and make them pretty again. I agreed, partly because who could say no to her? And partly because it would get me away from my parents so I could breathe again. 

As I said my goodbyes to the Chambers and to my own parents before starting to follow the girl while she pulled my hand, my father spoke up. “Whatever you choose to do, stay solo or join a team, make sure you have people who can watch your back. Make sure people you trust know where you are. What you’re doing, this whole life, I haven’t been there but I’ve heard about how dangerous it can be. Like we said before, you need people you can depend on out there.” 

“And think about telling your parents,” Mom put in. “They would want to know, and as I said, finding out the hard way would be so much worse. For them and for you. If there’s anyone you can trust with this Touched stuff, it should be them.” 

I was quiet for a moment, squeezing Lightning Bug’s hand while she stood there gazing at me with obvious impatience tempered by trying to be as polite as a little kid could be. Finally, I nodded. “I’ll think about that. Thanks. I guess you’re right. 

“Families really should be able to trust each other.” 

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Promise And Peril 11-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Our original idea had been that we would fly in, locate Elisabet and Dexamene, then get close enough to teleport them onto the ship and flee before the Fomorians had time to scramble too many of their defenses. Obviously that plan had been completely incinerated thanks to the fact that the fuckers were already in the middle of a pitched battle against… some unknown force. 

That unknown force wasn’t the Seosten, yet was strong enough to send a whole fleet after the Fomorians here on the Meregan world. Why? Who? How? Every possible question was swirling through my head as I simply stared open-mouthed at the screens that showed the battle going on ahead of us. For that moment, I couldn’t think, let alone speak. I had no idea what to do. And from the looks on the faces of Vanessa, Tristan, and the other students around me, neither did they. We’d thought we were ready for just about anything we could’ve run into. We were wrong.

Thankfully, we weren’t the only people here. And the others we had with us were a hell of a lot more experienced than we were. Taken by surprise or not, the real adults around us had been through more than we had (crazy as that might seem), had seen far more surprises and learned to react faster to them. Particularly the Seosten given their lifespans, but Mom and the others too. My friends and I had been through a hell of a lot in a year, but they had been through so much more for so much longer. 

Athena was the first to react, after what had to be barely a second since she had admitted that she had no idea who the other ships belonged to. “Helm, full power on sub-engines, boost forty percent from weapons and reserves split evenly. Take everything you need to do your thing. Guns aren’t going to get us through this today. Navs plot Ah and Bay courses through sector quattuor-sex-septem and feed to Helm, bracing for on-fly adjustments. Jophiel on exterior spellwatch, Haiden and Larissa back her up, you’ve done this before. December and May on secondary spellwatch. Something gets through Jophiel, call it out and intercept with counters. Sachael is on power-watch. Feed energy where it’s needed. Joselyn, Risa, back him up. If he raises a hand, he needs you to feed magic energy to him so he can shift it to the ship’s systems when needed. Helms has full control, feed everything she needs to her and let her work.”

She rattled off those instructions so effortlessly, and everyone immediately moved to follow them. Sariel was apparently Helm, while Apollo was Navs, both of them springing to action as their hands danced across the consoles, blurting words to one another in a rapid series of what had to be half-code and half-intuition from the sheer length of time they’d known each other. No wonder people had considered the two of them to be twins, because they sure communicated like they were right here and now. They were barely speaking English, just blurting sentence fragments or strings of numbers and letters, often finishing one another’s… whatever. 

Meanwhile, the others jumped right to action too. Mom and Kohaku slid closer to Sachael, who had lifted one hand to press against the wall of the ship while his other hand steadied a console and turned it closer to him, his fingers flying over the holographic buttons to make it send reports on the ship’s systems. At the same time, Jophiel (whose magical meditative-state had vanished the instant she was needed) sank in her seat a little while producing two small metal discs, one in each hand. Her eyes drifted half-closed as she began slowly moving the discs around seemingly randomly. They glowed very faintly now and then, and when they did, she would move the discs back to the spot where it had happened and murmur something. My guess was that the discs detected magic that might affect our ship or the people in it and she was ready to block such attempts. With the help of Haiden and Larissa, who had already produced what had to be counterspell-enchanted coins, ready to use them at whatever spot the Seosten woman indicated. 

May did the same as Jophiel, though her movements weren’t quite as smooth. She had December backing her up, one hand on the other Calendar member’s side as though ready to feed energy into her while her other hand held a counterspell coin of her own. 

The rest of us weren’t totally left out of things, obviously. The moment the ship took off, heading what seemed like straight for the battle, Athena turned slightly to call back, “Felicity, be ready to track the moment we’re within the atmosphere. The rest of you, prepare the transport circles just as I showed you!” 

Trying to ignore the fact that we were flying straight into the crossfire between two fleets of warring ships and had no idea whether the people fighting the Fomorians would give a shit about killing us along with them, I reached deep into my pocket, unzipping it. After digging around a bit, I came out with a small vial. A thick, pale blue liquid was visible through it as I clutched the vial tight. It was protected against damage, of course. But still, the contents were entirely too precious to risk losing. Not after we’d come all this way. 

All around me, Avalon and the others were already crouching in the bit of open space where the base of the transport circles had been started before we ever left, drawn in by Athena and Sariel the night before. Vanessa, Tristan, Roxa, and Avalon worked on one while Sands, Sarah, Columbus, and Shiori worked the other. Tabbris helped by moving between both, suggesting improvements or corrections here and there. They couldn’t finish the enchantments because the details had to be saved for when we were actually here. But my friends were quickly sketching in what was needed with a few glances toward a nearby console to get specific coordinate details. Even then, they wouldn’t be able to finish just yet. Not until we had an exact location. And that part was up to me. 

Trying not to think about what would happen if the world-shattering forces around us actually started to pay our relatively little ship too much attention, I focused on staring intently at the planet ahead while gripping the vial tight. I wanted to help the others, I wanted to do anything other than sit there. But I had to be ready. I couldn’t be distracted. Besides, as much as I wanted to contribute, they had enough people drawing in the transport spells. And I sure as hell had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually helping with the ship defense. My need to help wasn’t an excuse to get in the way. 

But, valid as that point was, it didn’t really help me feel any better. I couldn’t contribute right now. All I could do was sit there, tensely watching the battle going on ahead and all around us. Lasers, missiles, random spells, tentacles, fang-filled monstrosities, and more exploded, shot, and swarmed everywhere I looked. Our ship barrelled right on through, spinning, diving, and rolling just to get a little bit closer to the planet with each passing second. Several spells came close, but Jophiel and May, with help from the others near them, dispelled and countered them before they could do too much. Meanwhile, Athena was snapping orders back and forth between Sachael, Sariel, and Apollo. She was clearly using a mix of watching the screens and her own power to keep track of any immediate dangers, telling them where to go and when to transfer power between the shields and engines just for that little bit of a boost at the exact right time.

There was no way we could’ve made it through with this array of forces against us, on either side. The plan, again, had been to get to the planet and out before they could assemble everything we were already seeing. This ship was a prototype, intended to test the transport system, not to win (or even survive) a battle like this. And here we were, flying directly into the middle of a fight between two incredibly powerful fleets who were intent on utterly destroying one another. We were a very small bird flying through a hailstorm of lasers, missiles, and worse. 

The fact was, we probably still would’ve been destroyed if we didn’t have Athena, Sachael, Jophiel, Sariel, and Apollo. They knew what they were doing, and had fallen right back into working together as if no time had passed since they were part of the same crew. It was kind of amazing to behold, terrified as I was about the whole situation. 

And yet, above and beyond all the others, it was Sariel who got us through it. I watched her at the controls as she seemed to sit in total relaxation. She wasn’t stiff, wasn’t hunched over in her seat. Instead, she sat back, breathing calmly in and out while carefully yet coolly putting her hands up against the holographic display. Then? Then she went to work. 

When it came down to it, flying this ship through this battlefield amounted to driving a dump truck through a field full of tanks, artillery, and racecars armed with machine guns. But impossible had apparently never met Sariel’s piloting. 

A very slight touch with one hand sent the ship spinning upside down (well, relative to how we were before), while her other hand slowed our speed fractionally and touched the nose of the craft downward by maybe a meter. In that same instant, while the ship was in mid-spin, two massive laser-blasts passed through the space where it had just been. They came in at an upward angle, spaced apart just enough they passed above and below the ship itself. The fact that it was already spinning and thus at a diagonal angle was the only reason the shots missed. And, given the ship was basically a tube aside from having a flat bottom and rounded top meant the shots came really close indeed. 

No sooner had those two shots skimmed past us than we were fully upside-down, and in that instant, a flailing Fomorian tentacle passed just barely above the now-upward facing belly of the ship, while some kind of glowing ball of… something bad went sailing just above the nose of the ship that Sariel had nudged down enough to avoid that very thing. 

That was just the first half-second. Three different attacks, all avoided with a single maneuver. And then? Then it got really nuts. Sariel flew that ship like it was an extension of her own body. I’d seen her in physical action, I’d heard and seen how her power amounted to more than just being able to hit things really well. It gave her perfect accuracy. Anything whose path and motion she was capable of controlling, including herself and things she drove or piloted, she did with that same perfect accuracy. She threw and shot things like a goddess, true. But she also moved and piloted like one. If she controlled where and how something moved, it did so utterly flawlessly. 

It should have been impossible to make it through the battlefield before us. Yet Sariel made it look easy. Every motion of her hands, every control she touched, every slight adjustment of the ship’s trajectory, speed, and more made dozens of attacks miss. Some of them (mostly from the Fomorian side) were intended for us, some were just attacks we happened to pass through on our way. But between Sariel’s piloting and the magic defenses from Jophiel, December, and May we avoided all of them. This little, flimsy, dump truck of a shuttle danced through the entire battlefield like it was nothing. 

Through it all, with each passing minute, we drew closer and closer to the planet. Yet it didn’t seem to be enough. No matter how close we got, the world seemed eternally far away. It was like staring at a pot of water while you were trying to make food, willing it to start boiling and all it would do was steam forever. Except in this case, instead of a few hunger pangs there were blindingly bright, six-meter-wide laser blasts that would have obliterated our entire ship and everyone on it if they got too close. And all I could do, the only thing I was capable of in that moment, was rocking my body back and forth in the seat, silently willing us to please go just a little bit faster. Which was about as helpful as… well, about as helpful as rocking back and forth on a spaceship to make it go faster. With the vial clutched tight in one hand, I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. Please. Please get there. Please let us make it in time. We were so close. After everything that had happened, if Elisabet and Dexamene ended up dying anyway, or worse, I wasn’t sure how I would live with myself. To say nothing of what would happen if I managed to get myself and everyone on this ship killed by dragging them into this in the first place. 

We had just beaten Fossor. He was dead. And now I had to pull basically half the people I cared about in the world into a situation like this? Yet, what choice did I have? I owed Dexamene and Elisabet everything, everything. I owed them my life, my freedom, the lives and freedom of basically everyone I knew, everyone in the entire world if Fossor had had his way. 

We had to get there. We had to save them. 

An explosion of blue light and what appeared to be a rapidly expanding mushroom (not a mushroom cloud, a literal mushroom in the middle of space) appeared just to our left, while a beam of energy wide enough to encompass an entire football field blasted through the space to the right. But Athena had been ahead of things, snapping orders two seconds earlier that made Sariel twist the ship to fly right through the relatively narrow space between the two attacks. Immediately, the woman called out another order to Sachael to shove all the power he could to engines for the boost, and the ship sped up to narrowly avoid some kind of gravitational anomaly spell that burst to life right where we had just been. The engines strained against the force of its pull, but with the added power were barely able to pull us through. 

It went on like that, chaotic and insane. Anything Sariel herself couldn’t avoid with her expertise and power, Athena was on top of with her own. Sitting where I was, unable to actually help, I saw all of it while most of the others only seemed to be able to focus on the one thing they were trying to do. Lucky them. I sat, eyes snapping from person to person, from near-hit to near-total-destruction. I saw Apollo calculating the best approach through the dazzling array of attacks passing back and forth between the two fleets, saw my mother and Kohaku next to Sachael, feeding power to him so he could keep the ship’s systems running properly, saw my friends frantically yet carefully trying to finish the transport spells. All of this, everything around me, was happening all at the same time, throughout this chaotic battle. And through all of it, I could do nothing to actually help. I had to sit there, waiting and hoping we would get close soon. Tempting as it might have been to try to aid my friends, not only was getting in the way a bad idea, but if I ended up getting distracted with that and missed the fact that we were in the atmosphere I’d end up making the whole situation worse by dragging everything out. 

So, I waited, tensely watching throughout the fight. If it hadn’t been so terrifying and the situation so critical, I might’ve enjoyed the show. Between all the lasers, the monsters literally swimming through space with their tentacles waving out to grab passing ships, the way various spell effects triggered here and there, it was the sort of spectacle that would take a hundred million or so to make a movie of. 

Gripping the vial tight in one hand, I stared as the fighters and smaller vessels swooped here and there, or looming above and below like enormous whales in the case of the capital ships. I could hear my own breathing over the sound of everyone else calling back and forth, and forced myself to breathe. Calm. Listen. Watch. If it came down to it, knowing everything possible about these people who were fighting the Fomorians might end up being really important. So I took in everything I could, just in case. I didn’t understand much of it, to say the least. But I took it in.

Ten minutes. It took ten minutes of this, one of the longest ten minutes of my life, and our ship was a bit singed, the shields heavily damaged from a couple near-misses. But we made it. We finally penetrated the atmosphere, dropping quickly toward the world below while Athena called out for me to do my part. 

Immediately, I popped the top off the vial and poured some of the contents out into my hand. The pale blue liquid pooled in my palm. It was blood. Specifically, Dexamene’s. Yeah, we weren’t just blindly hoping I’d be able to find her when the time came. I had my harpy blood-tracking power from the last time I’d been here, fighting against Nicholas’s forces. It clearly required we be at least somewhat nearby, but I could use it as the ship skimmed through the atmosphere and point out when we were close, getting us to them through a game of hot and cold. At least, that was the idea. 

The real question was, would the fact that there was an all-out war going on just above help or hinder us? The Fomorians were already out in force rather than having to scramble the way we’d expected, but they were also busy at the moment. I supposed it really depended on how well the unknown forces did at keeping them occupied. 

But seriously, how the hell was there an entire fleet powerful enough to stand up against the Fomorians this way and none of the several very well-informed Seosten here had any idea who they were? How was that even possible? Was it just a case of space being really fucking big and therefore the Seosten simply didn’t know every force that was out there? That seemed too simple, and yet I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Especially if these people were relatively new to the scene. That made sense, sort of. I’d just spent the past year being conditioned to believe the Seosten knew basically everything about the universe, so it was a weird awakening. 

In any case, wondering about all of that could come later. Right now, I was going to hope that, whoever they were, they managed to keep the Fomorians off us. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes, focusing on the blood pooling in my palm. Dexamene… Dexamene… where was she? Please. God, please, I had to find her. I wasn’t positive of how far away I could be and still use the Harpy’s power. Hopefully not too far, or this could take a long time. 

Now it was everyone else’s turn to anxiously watch me. There were a few tense words about staying low and keeping an eye on any incoming threats, but for the most part the other people onboard simply stared and waited. I could feel their eyes on me, clearly silently urging the power to trigger just as much as I was. Please… Dexamene… please… How much time had passed? How many minutes? How much longer could we stay here? How long would it–

“There!” Without warning, and while barely consciously realizing what I was doing, my hand snapped out toward the right. “A hundred miles that way!” It was right on the edge of my senses, barely a blip, yet I was absolutely certain it was her. 

The ship instantly turned, heading the way I pointed out. As we got closer, I was able to guide them more specifically, all while praying that what I was leading us to was a living, free Dexamene and not a body. Nearby, I could see Tristan clasp his hands, staring ahead anxiously while Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. Jophiel, on the other hand, had her gaze fixated solidly on me as she waited tensely. We were close, so close. Within a few seconds of my pointing out where to go, the distance had dropped from a hundred miles to practically nothing. 

Then we were there. My power said Dexamene was directly below, and the ‘window’ at the front of the ship adjusted to show a view of what was down there. 

“Yes!” Tristan suddenly thrust his fists in the air. And I didn’t blame him, because they were there. Dexamene and Elisabet both. The two stood below, staring up at the ship. We’d made it. They were safe, they were–

Brace!” Athena abruptly shouted, an instant before… something hit us. I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that there was a bright flash, a loud bang, and the ship suddenly started spinning wildly. The view went wild, the ground coming up far too quickly. 

Then we hit, and my vision went black.

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Trust 15-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I couldn’t breathe. There was a loud, tinny sound flooding my ears, a whistle that seemed to get worse the longer I stared at my parents. For just a moment, I forgot I had the mask and helmet on and almost blurted, ‘Dad, Mom?’ only to stop myself at literally the very last possible instant. I had to bite my lip hard enough that I almost yelped. Which would’ve been another thing to explain. For all I knew, that dull whine in the back of my head was actually audible, and coming from me. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic demonstration of keeping my cool under pressure, by standing in front of my parents literally audibly whining in some mix of terror and anxiety. It was perfect, they’d definitely never guess that I knew things I shouldn’t then! My poker face was a steel vault! 

But apparently I was better at hiding my reaction than I thought, because my mother and father never hesitated. Slowing only once they neared, Dad extended a hand and offered me his trademark winning smile that had graced so many magazine covers. “Hey there, it’s Paintball, right? Nice to meet you. Sounds like you’ve been making a real splash out there lately.” 

Oh God, he was still holding his hand out. What was I gonna do? What was I supposed to do?!

You’re supposed to shake his hand, idiot, I thought, snapping out of my shock just enough to raise my hand and accept his firm grip. Fuck, fuck, don’t shake his hand like Cassidy would. 

Cassidy doesn’t shake his hand, she’s his daughter, you maroon. Just shake his hand normally!

Shoving all those thoughts (and more) away and doing my best to focus, I moved to shake my own father’s hand, only to freeze briefly as another rush of panic ran through me. What the fuck was I supposed to say to either of them? Were they using that illusion thing? Was I supposed to be seeing them as who they really were, or under some kind of disguise? If I greeted them as who they were, and they were using an illusion, that would… yeah, that would be really bad. 

Fortunately, I was saved by Richard Mornes, whose departure had been interrupted by their arrival. With a chuckle, the man spoke up. “Not sure how much attention the kid pays to old fogey rich folks. Or to money in general. He’s got terrible financial sense.” With that, he stepped over, gesturing. “Paintball, this is Sterling and Elena Evans.” 

Oh, thank God. At least that answered that. A weird rush of relief mixed with even more terror (it was still my parents and I had to pretend I didn’t know them) washed through me while I took my dad’s hand and managed a belated, “Uh–right, sorry, Mr. Evans. It’s just, when my fortune teller said I’d have dinner with someone incredibly rich this week, I was really hoping for Scrooge McDuck.” 

That was good, right? That was sort-of good? I was making a joke, just like Paintball would. Sure, it was a bit lame, but so were a lot of my jokes. At least I was trying. And I was a little distracted by all the my parents were standing right in front of me. The fact that I’d actually managed to pull out a rich figure’s name, even a fictional duck, was pretty much a miracle.

Dad’s grip was firm, though not painfully so. It was the handshake of a man who made hundred million dollar deals regularly, the handshake of someone who knew exactly how strong he was (both literally and figuratively) and didn’t need to show off by crushing someone’s hand or jerking them back and forth. He kept it up for just a moment, barely long enough to make the person (me, in this case) feel like they had his full attention and focus, like they mattered. Then he released and moved his other hand out to guide Mom forward by the shoulder. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please, call me Sterling, you’ve earned far more than that. And as our friend Richard here said, this is my wife, Elena. Elena, this is the newest defender of our beautiful city.” 

Our beautiful city. The words taken by themselves might have been innocent, of course. People said them all the time. It just meant you lived there. It was ‘your city.’ And yet, coming specifically from my Dad, they meant something else. They were literal. This really was their city, in a way that probably hadn’t been true in hundreds of years. This was the city of the Ministry, and they ran the Ministry. They owned it. They owned the cops, the media, the Star-Touched, the Fell-Touched, the courts, all of it. Not every last piece, of course. They didn’t own literally every person. But they might as well have. They had control unlike anything in modern times. Detroit, and probably all of Michigan itself as an extension, was their kingdom. 

Mom was smiling beautifully at me. It almost made me whimper again. Seeing her, contrasting what I knew she felt for me and what I definitely felt for her against the thoughts I’d just had about what sort of empire she and my father were running was completely screwing up my brain. I loved my mother and my father. But seeing them here, while I was dressed in my costume, was fucking with my head. It made it impossible for me to mentally separate them from the Ministry. Just as it was equally impossible for me to separate the Ministry from them. They were criminals, villains, people who let so many bad things happen in exchange for money and power. But they were my parents. They were my mom and dad. I loved them. I couldn’t–I couldn’t separate the people I loved from the crimes they were responsible for. 

Not that I’d been very successful at doing that before (nor should I be given how important it was to remember what my parents were capable of), but this was hitting me hard in a way I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t prepared to face them like this, and I’d had no time to brace myself. I’d been completely and utterly blindsided by their presence here. It twisted the two worlds I’d been trying to keep separate as much as I could for my own personal sanity. God, how was I going to get through the next few minutes like this, let alone an entire dinner? They’d figure it out. They’d realize something was wrong. They’d know, they’d pull something, they’d summon help, they’d–

Mom spoke then, her voice rising over the steadily droning buzz in the back of my head as I fought back that rush of panic. “I’ve seen the news. You’ve truly been a blessing for this city, young man. We’re all quite proud.” 

My throat was dry. It felt like I was going to throw up. If I threw up in the mask and helmet, would I drown? Would that save me from having to deal with any of this shit? Why did that seem preferable right now? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Somehow, I forced the words to come past the hard, thick lump that had formed. “I’m just trying to do my best. Sometimes it helps.” I had to mentally kick myself not to say anything else. Keep it light, keep it simple. Don’t babble. There was more chance of them figuring out who I was the more I talked. But I didn’t want to say too little, because then they’d know something was wrong. But–yeah, it felt like I was screwed no matter what I did. And that left me practically petrified. Be cool, I kept trying to tell myself. Calm down, just be Paintball. You can do this. You can keep it under control. Please, please don’t fuck this up. 

“Oh, he helps a lot more than just sometimes.” That was Mornes, whom I had somehow forgotten was still there despite him speaking up only a few moments earlier to ‘introduce’ us. Him and Lightning Bug, who had emerged once more from the apartment with two of her insects to see what was going on. “This guy here, he’s a real hero. We’re doing our best to make him realize he can do even more good with Ten Towers.” The way he said it was like a joke that wasn’t really a joke. His hand patted my shoulder briefly as he added. “Nice to see you again, Sterling, Elena. You both look wonderful tonight.” 

“Thank you, Richard,” Mom (Damn it, think of her as Mrs. Evans or you’ll fuck this up!) gracefully replied, granting the man a small, yet beautiful smile. How did she do that? How did she always manage to look so perfect, poised, and… and gorgeous? And why was I such a clod next to her? Each of them, both my parents, always looked so perfect. Dad was handsome, with a movie-star smile and million dollar hair, while Mom was just… just… Mom. She was Elena Evans, gorgeous and graceful, like some kind of queen. 

Meanwhile, I was just… Cassidy. The very best anyone could say about me was that I looked cute for a twelve-year-old boy. 

It was just slightly possible that running into my parents like this was seriously screwing with my head. With effort, I shoved all those thoughts into a box, forcing myself to focus. 

Mornes was still talking. “And now, since you made it here without my intervention, I suppose it’s time I headed out. Please, enjoy your dinner. I hear it’s going to be delightful. See ya, kiddo.” That last was directed toward Lightning Bug, as he headed off toward the elevator. Leaving me with the younger girl, her bugs, and my parents. Abandoning me with my parents. Jerk. 

For a moment, I was saved then, as the kid herself scampered past me and ran to embrace my father. He knelt, hugging her tightly in a way that made those conflicted feelings of mine a hell of a lot more conflicted. God damn it, just seeing my dad hugging Bug, laughing as she showed her giant insects to him in a way that made it clear he knew them quite well (he even asked about Simminin by name), brought that thick knot of bile back to my throat. I felt cold. I felt itchy. I felt–I felt helpless. I couldn’t do anything about this. And even if I could have, I didn’t know what I would do. Fuck, this was all so complicated. 

It was obvious, so very obvious, that Mom and Dad had a good relationship with Bug. Where she had been fairly shy with me, particularly when we first met, there was no such reaction here. She laughed loudly, proudly babbling on about something her insect friends had done, and excitedly told them all about how ‘Mr. Ball’ made them pretty. 

Were they being nice to her because they cared about her, or because having someone with her power at full strength once she was older would be incredibly useful? That was the thought that I couldn’t stop from worming its way into my head. Just like with Izzy. It made sense, didn’t it? If they were going to stay in control and keep the kind of power they already had, or even expand it, they were going to need to jump on the next generation. Getting powerful Touched on their side right now, while they were young? That was basic-level common sense. But how much of how they were treating Bug right now, how much of how friendly they were, was from that? 

Fortunately, I was distracted from that dark pit of obsessive thought when a voice spoke up from the doorway. “Well, I didn’t expect the rest of our guests to arrive at the same time.” The electronically-distorted voice came from Caishen, dressed in her full costume of dark gold pants with black lines down the sides that ran all the way to her matching black boots, and a dark purple scale mail-like shirt with a gold leather coat. Her usual black metal helmet with purple lenses where her eyes were hid the woman’s face. 

She greeted me first, extending a hand to shake just like my father had while telling me how glad she was that I’d accepted her sister’s invitation. Then she held her arms out. With no further prompting, her daughter leapt from where she had been hugging my mother, beating her wings twice before landing in her own mother’s grasp to embrace her. 

“Mama!” Lightning Bug blurted happily, “See? Mr. Ball came! Is he really gonna eat dinner with us?” 

“Well, Bunny, I think you should ask him, shouldn’t you?” Caishen prompted while shifting her grip to hold her daughter up a bit more comfortably. 

Suddenly turning a bit shy again, Bug turned to wrap both arms around her mother’s neck fully, burying her face against the woman’s shoulder. After a moment, she turned just enough for me to see one big, compound eye. “Are you really gonna eat dinner with us, Mr. Ball?” 

Screaming no and then throwing myself out the nearest window was probably a bad idea, huh?

Not only would it be slightly upsetting to the poor kid, I was pretty sure my parents might regard it as vaguely suspicious as far as ‘does that guy actually know anything about us’ went. No, I had to play dumb and cool, pretend any reactions I had were about being starstruck by the presence of super-rich people, and push on through this entire dinner. Sure, this would be fun. What a fantastic way to spend my evening, because I definitely hadn’t been paranoid enough. 

My head was already nodding, as I tried to keep my voice as cool as possible. “Sure, I mean, I kinda skipped out on dinner with my family already, so I better eat here while I’ve got a chance.” 

“Skipping out on dinner sounds dangerous.” 

It was a new voice. Yet not new. There was something familiar about it, and even as my head turned toward the doorway that Caishen had just come through, I realized why. 

Lincoln Chambers. It was him, the reporter guy from before. He stepped through, still looking more like a giant mountain man than someone who worked for a newspaper. Hell, the guy looked like he should be chopping down the trees that became the newspaper rather than writing on it. 

“Mr. Chambers,” Dad greeted the guy, extending a hand that way as well. “Glad to see you made it after all. And I hope your wife did as well?” 

With a nod, the big, heavily-bearded guy gestured over his shoulder. “Oh yeah, we couldn’t miss an invitation like this. Joselyn’s inside with that ahhh, Skip. And was it… Cinnamon?” He looked toward Bug, who was hiding behind her mother’s leg but leaned out just enough to nod before ducking back again. 

Belatedly, I realized the guy was staring at me. And that he wasn’t supposed to know me. So, I quickly blurted, “Oh, uh, hi. I’m Paintball. Nice to meet you, Mr… uh… it was Chambers, he said?” I gave a quick glance toward my father and back again. “Are you ahh, new in town?” 

For a long moment, the man watched me. It almost looked like he was staring through me, like he could see through the helmet and mask. Like he could read my mind. His gaze bore into me, practically picking me apart without saying a single word. Yet, in the end, he simply extended a hand. “Please, Lincoln’s just fine. Just visiting from Los Angeles for a bit. Always nice to meet someone trying to do some good in the world. And, from what I hear, you’ve been doing a lot of good.”

My head tilted a little. “You’ve heard of me even in LA? That seems a little crazy.” Eyes widening behind the helmet, I stammered, “I mean, not that you’re crazy, or that LA isn’t–I mean–” 

With a chuckle, Mr. Chambers shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, kid. Believe me, I get it. But yeah, I’ve been up here interviewing some people for the Times and every time I ask about you, they’ve got nothing but good things to say. Well, aside from the criminals. Most of them don’t like you as much. But I’d take that as a good thing, if I was you.” 

“You interview criminals?” I asked a bit blankly. 

That earned me another light chuckle before the man nodded. “I interview whoever will let me. Gotta be careful about a lot of that stuff, but sure. If you want the whole story, you’ve gotta take a look at it from every angle. You have to consider every side.” There was a brief pause then before he looked over to my father. “Isn’t that right, Sterling?” 

“Absolutely,” Dad replied smoothly. “But right now, I’m afraid the only sides I’m considering are those potatoes and broccoli I smell.” 

“Yeah, Joselyn’s been helping them out in there,” Lincoln agreed. “And banning me from the kitchen, just to make sure the whole place doesn’t burn down. I think everything’s about ready though.” 

Caishen gave a nod, gesturing. “It sounds like everyone could do with getting this dinner started. In that case, won’t you all please come inside?” She stepped out of the way then, still holding her daughter while gesturing for us to go ahead. 

Right, great, fantastic. I was about to have dinner with my parents and this reporter guy whom I already knew was really good at his job. And I had to do it all while pretending I didn’t know any of them, especially my parents. Was this what I got for accepting these kinds of invitations? 

Fuck. Suppressing the worried sigh that tried to escape, I took a breath and then moved toward the door. 

Whatever happened next, this was definitely going to be a meal I would never forget.

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Promise And Peril 11-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Athena was right, of course. It was a bumpy trip. The moment the prototype ship’s jump was triggered, it started shaking violently. Almost like it was trying to tear itself apart. It was like sitting on top of an overloaded washing machine or something. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had been through it before. So had Sariel, though she had been in stasis at the time. For everyone else, this was new. And apparently not the most pleasant first experience. Worse, it would start shaking violently, then stop and be still for a few seconds, then start again and repeat that. 

“Is it supposed to be doing this?!” Sands called out a bit nervously while gripping her seat armrests. She, like the rest of us, was strapped in tightly. The seats in this thing were lined facing one another along both walls, like one of those military transport jets or something. “Cuz I don’t think I like the experimental ship running an experimental jump drive shaking like this! It feels like a bad thing!” 

Tristan was the one who answered from his own spot a few seats away, “Hey, it’s not so bad! Just be glad we actually get to be strapped in this time instead of fighting a telekinetic asshole!” 

“Trying to fight,” Vanessa murmured in correction, her own voice barely audible over the rapidly rising sound of the ship jerking back and forth. “We didn’t exactly do a very good job at it.”

Theia, meanwhile, just raised her arms above her head like she was on a rollercoaster with a loud, “Wheeee!” With Roxa and Pace sitting on either side of her, she even lifted one of each of their hands up with her own. Then the ship would stop shaking, and she would pout, lowering their arms. “Aww.” It started up again, and her arms shot back into the air, carrying the other two with them. “Wheeee! Awww… Wheee! Awww… Wheee!” The fact that she was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat (as far as I knew, she basically never took it off) helped add to the impression of her being on a casual day out at the amusement park.

For their part, Roxa and Pace each half-raised their other hand to go along with Theia, exchanging looks with one another. 

While all that was going on, everyone clearly trying to distract themselves from the fear of what would happen if this jump went wrong, I found myself looking over to where Sachael was. The white-bearded Seosten was watching me with a neutral expression. If the repeatedly violently shaking ship was bothering him, he didn’t show it at all. As our gazes met, he offered me a single, simple nod without speaking. 

What was he thinking? What kind of person was he? All I knew about the man was that he was still loyal to his people, but willing to bend the rules in his off-hours. From what Sariel and Athena had said, Sachael was really devoted to the idea of separating his work life from his private life. When he didn’t consider himself to be on-the-clock, he was a lot more chill. 

As for what his opinion about me was, I had no idea. And it didn’t seem like he was eager to speak up about it. After that simple nod, the man turned his gaze to look toward Sariel. Again, his expression remained completely unreadable. I had no idea what he was thinking. 

“I-it’s longer this time!” Tabbris piped up, drawing my attention to where she sat beside me, with Tristan on the other side. “It didn’t take this long before, even though we had to go further!” 

She was right. And it wasn’t just taking longer, the shaking was noticeably worse too. The ship seriously felt like it was about to tear itself apart and send pieces flying in every direction. 

Athena, at the front of the ship near the console that controlled everything, simply called back, “Everything is fine! The ship was prepared to go to Earth before, it had a smooth path plotted out. This time it doesn’t. It will be a rough ride, but the ship will hold together. Give it a moment.” 

She sounded distracted while explaining that, and I belatedly realized she was using her power. That scattershot precognition that allowed her to see the results of actions she took several seconds in advance. She was using that to make sure the ship wasn’t about to fall apart. Which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But still, I really hoped this would be over soon. 

Mom, who was sitting on my other side, put one hand on my shoulder. Her voice was firm. “Whatever happens, if we see a real Fomorian, you don’t fight it.” She squeezed firmly, looking up to Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, and the others to make sure they were listening. “That goes for all of you. I don’t care if you outnumber it twelve to one. If you see a real Fomorian, you run away from it. You can fight their creatures, but if there’s an actual Fomorian, all of you run away. You fight to get clear and you run. You don’t jump in to help, you get away. Is that understood?” 

Kohaku spoke up then. “Joselyn is correct. None of you, not even together, are prepared to face a full, battle-ready Fomorian in combat. And none of us are prepared to extract you should you be captured. If you try to jump in to help, you’ll be nothing more than a distraction. That isn’t intended as an insult,” she added quickly. “You are all amazing students. You truly are. You’ve advanced far faster and further than any of us could have anticipated, and all of us are more proud of you than we can say. But this is something beyond that. If you see a full Fomorian, you retreat immediately. No macho bullshit. Run away and leave them for us to deal with.” 

The rest of the adults voiced their own agreement with that. They all wanted to make sure we weren’t going to try to go toe-to-toe with a Fomorian. But before any of us could respond, Athena abruptly called back, “Brace!” 

Her warning came just in time. As all of us grabbed our armrests, the ship’s shaking suddenly jumped into overdrive. Seriously, it made the previous shaking feel like nothing. My stomach was twisting itself into knots, as the sound of metal screaming in protest filled the air. 

Another sound filled the air too. It was Theia again, arms still held high above her head (with Pace and Roxa’s lifted too) like she was on a rollercoaster, calling out an enthusiastic, “Whoooooo!” Yeah, she was still having a grand old time. I was pretty sure if this actually was an actual ride in a park, she’d jump right back in line for it. 

Meanwhile, I was almost afraid the ship really was about to blow apart and take all of us along with it. Which would have been a pretty bad way for this whole rescue mission thing to turn out. 

But it didn’t blow apart, of course. Just as the ship’s horrific shaking hit its peak, it just as abruptly stopped entirely. Seriously, one second it felt like we were about to explode in slow motion, and in the next second everything was completely still. Like someone had flipped a switch. 

“What…” Columbus started, looking around the moment everything stopped. “Did we break it?” 

Theia, however, shook her head. She still looked exuberant, though her voice was completely matter-of-fact. “We are here, of course. If we broke it, we would all be dead.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, eyes glancing around the interior of the ship as though making sure everything was still completely sealed. “It stopped shaking because we made it.” 

Athena spoke then. “Yes. We are here.” With those words, she hit a few buttons on the console, and screens appeared around us to act like windows, showing the exterior of the ship. Not that there was much to see. We were, as planned, in the middle of nowhere. I could see stars all around us, of course. Brilliantly bright now that we were away from Earth. But there were no planets nearby or anything. It was the middle of empty space. Like drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only about a million times more dangerous if anything actually went wrong.

And this was the easy part, I had to remind myself. Before too long, we’d be where the real monsters were. I just hoped we were actually ready for that. 

Apollo, who had been silently checking over a different console through all of that, finally spoke up. “We’re on target. We hit the exact coordinates. Whoever designed this thing knew what they were doing.” 

“I mean, it was Radueriel, right?” Shiori piped up. “It had to be Radueriel.” 

“No.” That was Pace, actually. The Latina girl, who had switched her green-dyed hair to a full rainbow after cutting it quite short, was shaking her head. “If it was his, he’d already be trying to get it back. Think about it, he had to know you guys took it from Kushiel’s place, a toy like this? And he has no interest in grabbing it? Not even in negotiations? If he made it, wouldn’t he want his prototype back? That’s… that’s the impression I got of him from when… from everything I learned with Theia.” 

The Olympians onboard all exchanged looks, before focusing on Sachael. He, in turn, offered a simple shrug. His voice was even. “Sorry to say, I don’t know who designed this thing. But the girl there is right. Useful as it is, I would think that someone as protective of his designs as Radueriel is would have insisted on having it back as part of the truce agreement.” 

Yeah, that was pretty close to the same thing I had thought before. It made sense. Or rather, it didn’t make sense for this to be Radueriel’s design with as little interest as he had shown in it. But again, if it wasn’t his, then who? Should we be worried about someone else in the Seosten Empire who could design a ship like this that could jump anywhere almost instantly? How many more of these things had they already made? Was there a fleet of instant-jump ships just waiting for the truce to end so they could appear over Earth before we had any warning they were coming? Was I paranoid for even thinking that was a possibility? Well, yes, maybe it was paranoia. But was it unfounded paranoia? I didn’t think so. Not after everything I’d seen. 

“Okay, so the jump was on-target.” That was Lillian, who had been staring out one of the ‘windows’ for the past few seconds. “Can this thing actually get us to the Meregan world now?”  From the sound of her voice, the small woman had her doubts on that subject. Which was fair, after we’d just spent the past few minutes feeling the thing shake itself apart around us. 

“It can,” Sariel confirmed, her fingers moving over one of the control panels that had slid around in front of her seat, sort of like a tray table thing in an airplane. “The slide-drive isn’t exactly top-of-the-line. It’s barebones and barely adequate. But it is working. We should get there in one hour.” Before anyone else could speak up about how long that would take, she added, “We’ll be taking a few separate slides just to throw off any investigation once we’re done. We won’t be coming back to this spot after we grab Elisabet and Dexamene anyway, but the Fomorians could still potentially trace our entrance point back to here. We don’t want that. So we’ll take the long route around and throw them off with those extra slides.” 

“That’s the plan, anyway,” Apollo put in. “Which means we’ve got about fifty-seven minutes now for everyone to relax and breathe, then sixty seconds to psych yourselves up, thirty seconds for that to turn into blind panic, and then another thirty seconds to calm down again. Ready? Go.”

“You remain as inspiring and helpful as ever, Apollo,” Athena quietly noted before glancing at Sachael. She paused then, looking briefly as though she was carefully choosing her words. 

Actually, wait, was she using her power to judge what the best approach would be? That felt–well not exactly manipulative, but… huh. Was it bad? That was a tough question. And the fact that she’d paused long enough to be noticeable, how many options was she playing through, if that was the case? 

Either way, cheating or not, the woman finally addressed her Seosten-loyalist former crewmate. “Which does make it feel a bit like old times, doesn’t it?” 

Seeing Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and Sachael like that, I wondered what it had actually been like back on the Olympus. With Kushiel and certain others around, it definitely hadn’t been a picnic. And yet, there had certainly been good times. They’d been together fifty years or so even before coming to Earth. Which, I knew for them was seriously a drop in the bucket. And yet so many of them defined basically everything they were around either that, or their ‘god’ identities back on Earth. Athena used her Earth-goddess name rather than Auriel because she loathed the person she had been. Apollo didn’t go by Lucifer because he saw himself as more connected to Earth than the Seosten since he had left them. Mercury still used that name because it was the first one that the SPS-afflicted man had seen as his own after taking over the original Amitiel.

But Sariel didn’t. Sariel used her Seosten name consistently. Actually, I’d almost never heard her use the name Artemis. For a moment, I wondered why that was. Did she not like the identity? Was being Sariel more important for her than holding onto their old names was for the others? Was I just reading way too much into it? 

My gaze drifted over toward Jophiel. The Seosten woman had been silent through all of this since entering the ship, her gaze unfocused as she looked off into the distance. I had no idea what she was doing, other than worrying about Elisabet, but she seemed more… passive than I would’ve expected.

“Meditation spell.” That was Lillian, whispering toward me when she saw the direction of my gaze. “Way of keeping calm and clearing your mind before something important. Think of it as a magical tranquilizer that instantly wears off when it needs to.” 

Realizing I’d missed whatever Sachael had said in response to Athena, I glanced over to my mother, grabbing her hand to squeeze it. Really, I was hiding the fact that I’d palmed one of the privacy coins and was using it to make sure only her, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon could actually hear what I was about to say. Though the only person I really didn’t want to hear was Sachael. “I don’t suppose Bob’s linked you back into the Committee now that you’re free?” I was joking, mostly. “That’d be pretty useful.” 

Mom blinked at me briefly. “Bob?” she echoed blankly, clearly trying to think of someone with that name who would be the least bit relevant to what I was talking about. 

Oh, right, she wouldn’t know about that. Belatedly, I explained that we’d named the Reaper in the lighthouse Bob, thanks to Koren. 

Once she understood, Mom chuckled a little under her breath. “Ah, I used to call him Pops. He always felt like a… grandfather to me, of sorts.”

“That’s funny,” I replied with a chuckle despite myself, “Aylen sees him the same way.” Then I saw the way Mom blinked at me, clearly unknowing, and realized she had no idea what I was talking about. Right, maybe I hadn’t been able to tell her everything that had happened over the previous year. Bringing up the whole ‘friendly Fomorian’ thing had felt like something that could wait until we were free. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up right now. 

“Never mind,” I murmured. “I’ll tell you later. But you definitely don’t feel Committee-energized?” 

From the look on her face, Mom was tempted to pursue the previous subject. But she let it go with a shake of her head. “No, I haven’t felt anything like that. I don’t know if he even knows that I’ve been–that my memories have been restored, let alone that I’m no longer with Fossor.” 

“If he doesn’t, we’ll have to find a way to give him an update,” I assured her, squeezing my mother’s hand a bit more before quietly adding, “Not just because of the power thing. But because he misses you. He–I…” Hesitating, I explained how Bob had helped me before, by instantly teleporting my friends and I so we could fight Lemuel’s were-pack and eventually get the choker that allowed us to identify who had been possessed. Avalon, Shiori, and Tabbris piped up now and then too, helping to explain that whole situation. 

By the time we were done, Mom was shaking her head. “You mentioned most of that before, but not the detail about Pops. He–he really stepped up.” She sounded sad, and I realized he was yet another person (yes, person goddamnit) my mother cared about who had been taken away from her for a long time. “I’m glad you talked to him. He… needs more people to talk to him.” 

There was more to that, I realized. It sounded like Mom wanted to say something else about Bob-Pops needing people to talk to him. But she visibly put it aside, exhaling before settling on simply adding, “He deserves better.” 

We talked a bit more over the remaining time. Not all with the privacy spells, of course. I didn’t want to be that rude or obvious about it. I’d just figured that, whatever else he’d said about not reporting everything that happened to his superiors, it was still best not to let Sachael (or the Calendar duo) know too much about Bob and the fact that he was (sort of) communicating. 

Either way, pretty soon all of that was irrelevant. Because we were getting closer to the Meregan world, as all of our conversations kind of petered out. We were thinking about what was about to happen, about what we were going to see and potentially have to do basically as soon as we got there. 

We were nervous. All of us, even the Olympians. A glance around showed me that much pretty plainly. It was immediately clear that none of us wanted to be here right now. No one wanted to go running into a Fomorian-infested planet. We were all thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, about how bad it could potentially be. And I was pretty sure that no matter how detailed our imaginations might be, reality could probably get even worse. 

Finally, Apollo counted down while we all braced ourselves for what we were about to see. “In three… two… one…” 

We came out of the slide, all of us telling ourselves that we were prepared for the worst. And yet, nothing we had braced ourselves for could have prepared us for what we saw. 

There was a battle going on. An insane space battle the likes of which I’d never seen outside of movies. It was even more intense than the battle between Athena’s fleet and Kushiel’s research station defenses back when we had been rescuing Sariel. We were just beyond the outer edges of it, with the planet dead ahead. But between us and the world were dozens of enormous ships. Half were the biological sort the Fomorians used, while the other half were definitely technological. Lasers, missiles, various spell effects, tentacles, explosions of gore and acid, gigantic whale-like monsters that swam through space with their mouths open, all of it was laid out in front of us. We’d arrived in the middle of a massive warzone. 

“What–the Seosten are here?!” Lillian blurted, her gaze snapping toward Sachael. 

“No,” Athena immediately replied, her gaze riveted to the sight before us. “Those aren’t Seosten ships.” 

“Then who the hell are they?” Haiden demanded, leaning forward to stare at the screen at the front of the ship. 

Athena’s answer filled the small space around us. 

“I have no idea.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Trust 15-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

They were expecting me at Ten Towers, of course. Tours of the place had shut down for the day by then, but the guards at the gates to the complex were ready. As soon as I showed up, two of the uniformed men greeted me before sending for my guide. While we were waiting, one of the men asked if it was true that I was making a picture book for ‘that Orens guy over at Seraphs.’ When I confirmed it, he quickly said his own daughter would love something like that too and asked if he could give me his phone number to call when I was done with the first one. Of course, I agreed, and soon had a paper with his number stuffed deep in my zipped-up pocket. 

A moment after that, while I was still reeling from the thought that all these people apparently wanted me to draw pictures for them, the sound of footsteps drew my attention. My guide was approaching, and I immediately recognized him. It was Richard Mornes, the same guy that had shown me around before. He wasn’t wearing the exact same clothes, but it was the same style and easy to pick out. Before, he’d had a white suit over a black hawaiian shirt with red and pink flowers. Today, it was a light purple suit with an open jacket over a bright pink shirt. He wore the same dark pink Aviator shades and comfortable tennis shoes. He definitely stood out from the dark-suited guards that were standing nearby or patrolling the grounds. They almost could’ve been clones. Or, come to think of it, biolems. Which was a thought that made me shudder. 

“Paintball!” Richard greeted, extending a hand. “Glad to see you again. It’s been too long.” 

Accepting his hand, I replied, “Mr. Mornes, I see they still haven’t adopted your fashion sense.” 

The man chuckled while giving my hand a shake. At the same time, he pointed at me with the other one. “I’m wearing them down on that one, believe me. And please, call me Richard.” 

“In that case, you can call me…” I trailed off, head tilting to the side as I made a show of thinking quickly. “Uhhh, Paintball, I guess.” Coughing, I shrugged. “Sorry. But hey, I can’t believe you’re still here. Shouldn’t you be home by now? You’d think the vice president of outreach would have plenty of lackeys he could make stay around to escort me to wherever dinner’s supposed to be.” 

“Believe me,” Richard promised, “I have no shortage of lackeys. One of the perks of the position. But another perk is getting to choose the things you do want to do. Err, to an extent, anyway. And I definitely wanted to be involved with this one.” He offered me a smile, taking his sunglasses off to tuck them away. “You’re a pretty intriguing figure, you know that? I mean, you were already, but the way you’ve been going… a lot of people already look up to you. Saving the girl in that car chase was pretty damn impressive. And showing up to help at the theater? You’ve got some of the teams angling to find a way to recruit you, Minority or no Minority.” 

Feeling myself flush a bit under the mask and helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal. Seriously, it’s really not. And um, that whole ‘finding a way to recruit me’ includes you, I take it?” 

With a chuckle, the man turned, gesturing for me to accompany him. “Come on, I’ll get you up to the residence. And yeah, of course I’d love to have a young, hotshot Star-Touched with a long career ahead of him sign up for the Towers. Trust me, kid, you’d be an amazing get. Everyone knows you turned down the Minority, yet you keep working with them. It adds an air of mystery. You’re great on-camera, the public has fun watching you, and you’re not dark and edgy. You have any idea how many grim and gritty assholes there are who think the way to popularity is lurking in shadows and growling at people like they’ve got a mouthful of glass or something?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Sorry you’ve gotta deal with all that. But I’m still not interested in joining any team.” Especially not now that I’d worked through in my head just how likely it was that Ten Towers was in some way, either directly or indirectly, controlled by my parents. 

If he was offended or upset or anything, Richard didn’t show it at all. Of course, he probably had a lot of experience with disguising that sort of thing. He simply smiled as we approached the door of the same building from before. The doors opened automatically to let us through. “Don’t you worry, I’ll find a way to make you an offer you like. Might take awhile. Might take a year or two, but… just promise me if you do decide to join up with some people, you give me a chance to show you what we can provide? I’d hate to make the board think I’m not doing my job.”

“I’ll totally vouch that you’re definitely doing outreach,” I assured the man. “And yeah, if I change my mind about the team-joining thing, I’ll give you a chance to woo me.” God, it felt weird to say that. The whole idea that there were multiple groups angling to get me to sign on the metaphorical line was strange. And, given what I knew about my family, a bit uncomfortable. 

But, I pushed all that aside and followed Mornes onto the elevator. He used a key to unlock a panel next to the regular buttons. Behind that panel was what looked like a small camera. It projected a green laser light thing that ran over the man’s face as he spoke. “Richard Mornes. One guest. Starlight.” To me, he added, “Please stand as still as possible.” 

After scanning the man himself, the green light moved over me. It scanned me from head to toe before flickering off. Then the elevator began to rise smoothly. 

“Starlight?” I asked, glancing at him curiously. “That’s not some kind of nickname for me, is it?” 

With a chuckle, Mornes shook his head. “Don’t worry. We just have a special password to let the computer know we’re not acting under duress. It changes a few times a day. Makes a couple of the bigwigs who can’t remember anything crazy when they get locked in until someone comes to check on them, but you know. Better safe than sorry. Especially in this line of work.”

It made sense, of course. Dad had taken me on tours of places that had similar, or even stricter security measures. A lot of those people tended to squint at me until they found out who my father was, then they were suddenly a lot more accommodating. Which, now that I thought about it, made me even more uncomfortable. It was… yeah. Yeah, it was a whole thing I didn’t want to think about right then. Or anytime, really. But especially not right then. I was just going to shove all of that out of my mind and focus on what I was doing here. 

To that end, I quickly piped up with, “So Caishen and her family really just live on the grounds?” 

“All the Ten Towers Touched do,” he informed me. “Most live in the apartments belowground. Don’t take that the wrong way though. Those apartments are pretty damn spiffy. And safe. But yeah, Caishen, Skip, and Lightning Bug live up here in one of the penthouses. There’s a few for the board members and other VIPs when they show up, but the main one in this building is for the Star-Touched boss lady and her family.” 

Right, yeah, there were other Star-Touched who worked for Ten Towers here in town beyond just Caishen and her family. A lot of them tended to be focused on protecting corporate interests rather than patrolling in the city the way the Conservators, Minority, and Spartans did. Well, they did help out in the city, of course. When Fells attacked places or caused trouble nearby, the Ten Towers people would jump in and help deal with the situation. They just didn’t tend to actively patrol for the most part. Kind of like the Seraphs, come to think of it. 

By that point, we had arrived. The doors of the elevator slid open soundlessly, revealing a wide, long corridor beyond. The floor was made of white polished marble, while the entire wall opposite the elevator was a floor to ceiling window looking out over the grounds of Ten Towers and the city beyond. 

“Impressive view, huh?” With a little smile at his own words, Mornes stepped out of the elevator with me, gesturing. “Go ahead, take a look.” 

Resisting the urge to reply that my father’s office in the city had a better view, I stepped out to join him and stared out across the scene below. Identity-revealing jokes aside, it was a really nice view. I could see why he was proud of it. Across the way I could see the other two skyscrapers that had formed the original Three Towers Plaza. With the way the grounds themselves were lit up and the rest of the city stretched out beyond… yeah. He definitely had plenty to be proud of. And I was going to do my level best to ignore my questions of exactly how connected this place was with the Ministry. Because those kinds of questions might just interfere with my enjoyment of dinner tonight. 

Before I could actually say anything else, what appeared to be the sound of several people running filled the air. Except, as I pivoted that way reflexively, it turned out not to be several people at all. It was one thing. One giant, neon-green beetle with a small figure perched on its hardshell back. The sound I’d heard was the beetle’s multiple feet all hitting the floor in a rapid rush as it came running for me. 

“Snugglebug, stop!” the beetle’s rider blurted, making it suddenly halt just a few feet from me. Which gave me a chance to see said rider a bit better. It was, of course, Lightning Bug herself. The five-year-old looked the same as the last time I’d seen her, with that red skin, shockingly white hair that hung loose and wild around her face, and compound eyes that were both incredibly bright blue and also about twice as big as average human eyes. Oh, and the insect-like wings that sprouted from her back. Wings that made me think of Wren’s flight pack, though these were natural. 

With a squeak as she realized how close they were, the kid slipped backwards off her mount and half-crouched behind him. All I could see was the top of her big eyes and a bit of her hair as she peeked over the shell to stare at me. 

Exchanging a brief look with Mornes, I offered the girl a smile. Then I remembered that was idiotic because she couldn’t see my face. Whoops. Quickly, I spoke aloud. “Hey there, ahh you like to be called LB, right?” 

There was a brief pause before the hesitant response came. “Or Bug. Bug is okay too, Mr. Ball.” 

“In that case, you can just call me Ball,” I assured her. “And that’s Snugglebug. Is it okay if I come closer?” I really didn’t want to freak the beetle out if he was in protective mode with Lightning Bug suddenly being nervous and shy. 

Again, there was a brief pause, before Lightning Bug slowly stepped out from behind the beetle. Her wings fluttered uncertainly while she gave a short nod. “Uh huh. Y-you can come say hi if you want to. That’s… that’s what Snugglebug wanted. He wasn’t tryin’ tah… attack you or anything.” Her foot kicked nervously at the floor as she squirmed. 

Stepping that way, I took a knee in front of the beetle. “It’s okay, I know. Hi there, buddy. You remember me, right?” Staying still, I let the pony-sized bug lean closer, its antennae working over the front of my helmet. Snugglebug made a sort of chittering noise, his enormous green mandibles looking like they could chomp right through my arm if he wanted to. But he didn’t. Mostly he looked like an oversized, armored puppy pleading for attention. 

Carefully reaching out, I ran my hand over the beetle’s outstretched leg, feeling the hard exoskeleton. “Yeah, you remember me. I made you pretty. You’re a great boy, huh?” 

By that point, Lightning Bug had stepped the rest of the way around to nervously stand next to her buddy’s head, one hand on the shell. “He liked being pretty,” she offered hesitantly, voice quiet while shifting back and forth on her feet. “A-and we wanted tah give you… this.” 

I looked up to see the red-skinned girl nervously holding out a brown paper bag. There was a smiley face drawn on the front. Actually, four smiley faces. One was a normal human circle face, another had antennae poking out the top, the third had crudely drawn praying mantis claws and big bulbous eyes, and the last one had big eyes too, along with wings sticking out behind it. 

“Oooh,” I took the bag, turning it to point at each of them in turn. “So this is you, right Bug? And this one here is Snuggle. This one with the pincers is Simminin. And who’s this right here?” 

The kid hesitated before moving her finger to point to the last picture while replying, “Kenobee.” 

“Kenobee?” I echoed. “Wait, is that a joke about–” 

Then I heard it. A loud buzzing sound filled the air, and I turned to see… well, a giant bee. But not just any ordinary bee, even discounting its size (the thing was as big as a large housecat). It was also bright metallic purple, a gorgeous coloration that made me gasp.

As the bee flew, Bug held out her arms and it basically fell right into them, allowing the girl to hug the insect against her chest. It looked basically like a little kid holding a cat that was almost too big for her to do so. “Kenobee!” She announced happily. “See, he’s already pretty!”  Quickly, as though afraid she had offended me, the girl added, “But he’d like tah be even more pretty.” 

“Aww, well we’ll have to see what we can do about that.” Carefully, to avoid startling the insect, I reached out and rubbed over the fuzzy shell while his head tilted to consider me. “Hey, buddy. How’d you get to be so pretty all by yourself?” 

“He’s a orchard bee!” Lightning Bug informed me brightly, clearly incredibly proud of her (sort of) little friend. 

“Orchid Bee,” Mornes gently and quietly informed me with a small smile. “The third and newest of Miss LB’s companions.” 

Gently petting the insect, I made a bright white and pink flower appear on the back of his purple shell (using the white to allow the pink to stand out). “Well you are definitely a handsome guy.” 

“Flower!” Bug chirped happily, turning the bee in her arms a bit to see better. “See, Kenny? I knew Mr. Ball could make you more pretty!” With that, she clutched the bee even tighter before holding him out. “Could… could he give you a hug?” 

Well, how would I ever say no to that? Gently taking the offered insect, I hugged him as best as could while the kid watched with delight. Once Kenobee started squirming, wings pushing against my arms, I released him and let the bee hover up into the air between us. 

Of course, giving one insect some paint meant I couldn’t exactly ignore the other one. Especially when Snugglebug started bumping against my side, managing to look almost anxious despite being, well, a huge bug. So, I gave him (my version of) a rainbow across his shell along with some various colored stars. He seemed happy with that (probably because Lightning Bug was happy with it), and we started down the hall toward the actual penthouse, passing a few other doors that apparently led into the apartments of other VIPs. 

On the way, I asked, “Speaking of Simminin, where is she?” 

“Protecting Mommy,” Bug piped up immediately and solemnly, head bobbing as she sat on Snugglebug, who was walking alongside me. Kenobee was flying nearby, clearly quite interested in Mornes’ bright pink shirt. “And helping.” 

“They’re in here,” Mornes informed me, gesturing to the door of the penthouse ahead of us. “Simminin likes to help in the kitchen when Caishen cooks.” 

I wasn’t sure what the protecting Mommy bit was about. Hopefully it was just a little kid not wanting to leave her mother alone and not something actually dangerous she had picked up on. Either way, I nodded. “Right, well I can’t wait to see what’s for dinner. Are you coming in?” 

Mornes shook his head. “Nope, I’m just your escort to the door tonight. Go right ahead, they’re expecting you. I should go make sure the other guests are on their way.” 

“Bye, Mr. Mornes!” Lightning Bug called while excitedly pushing the door open to rush in, followed by her two insects. Within, I heard her excitedly babbling to her mother about ‘Mr. Ball’ showing up and making her friends pretty again. 

Before going through, I glanced toward the man who had brought me up here. “Thanks again. Hope you can go home and take a break now.” 

The man’s expression was mostly hidden behind his large colored aviators as he offered me a simple, basically humorless smile. “I don’t think anyone’s getting much of a break while this gang war keeps escalating. But I’ll do my best. Enjoy your dinner, kid.” 

He headed off then, while I took a deep breath and faced the open door. Well, time to see how this dinner thing was gonna pan out. 

But before we could step in, a voice called out from behind us, near the elevator. “Are we late?” 

I knew that voice.

I knew it incredibly well. 

My heart had already stopped, but my body was still turning. My head was still twisting. My gaze was still rising. 

“Oh good, we made it,” my dad spoke as he and Mom approached together. 

“This is one dinner I definitely didn’t want to miss.”

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Promise And Peril 11-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on Lincoln posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Something else had happened while I was busy with the whole Jophiel thing the night before. Not to mention having some time with my family. Apparently that Dakota girl had had an encounter with a monster from the ocean called a Nuckelavee. An encounter that had resulted in the death of an older Garden student before one of the Victors stepped in. 

At least Dakota was alive. Even more traumatized than she already had been, but still alive. And, according to Avalon, she and Miranda had also had an… interesting conversation when they went to see the girl. A conversation with Gaia’s former lover… about one of Gaia’s other former lovers. Yeah, relationships among people who lived for centuries were really complicated. 

Uh, not that I had much room to talk. 

Anyway, they met Accolon, who told them that the man who was the father of her biological son (Mordred) was ready to step in and help save her. Oh, and one other tiny detail, the guy in question was Oberon, the King of Canada. Yeah. Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was so close to Gaia before, so close that they’d had a fucking son together? I had no idea. Again, relationships were weird. Coupled (hah) with people as powerful and old as Gaia and Oberon? Yeah, it was a whole thing. 

The point was, he was ready to offer aid now. Which was good, because we were going to need help if we were going to get Gaia away from the Crossroads loyalists. There was no way getting to her would be as easy (relatively speaking) as rescuing Sean had been. Wherever she was, the Committee would have her locked down tighter than basically anything else in the world. And thanks to certain binding contract spells, we couldn’t even count on getting help from the people on the Committee who were actually on our side. They couldn’t so much as tell us where to look without exposing the fact that they’d done so, allowing the loyalists to move Gaia. 

“Hey.” Avalon’s voice suddenly interrupted my musing, making my attention focus on her as the two of us sat at a table in the Atherby Camp dining cabin where we were eating breakfast. Her eyebrows were raised. “Look, knock it off. I know that look, you’re obsessing about everything that you can’t do anything about right now. Focus on the thing in front of you. We’ll get Gaia back, but we can’t do anything about that right now. That Accolon guy said Oberon was going to put some resources into finding out where the prison is, and they’ll get back to us. Nothing else we can do right this second, okay?” 

Porthos, her lizard-cyberform, was sitting next to her on the table eating his own breakfast of metal beads. He gave me a firm shake of his fist as if to punctuate Avalon’s words. 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered her a small smile. “You’re the one giving me a pep talk, even though she’s your mother.” 

“I know Gaia,” she replied quietly, yet firmly. “She’ll be okay. When we find her, she’ll be okay. But she’s just in prison right now. The… the not-psycho Committee members won’t let the others do anything that bad. She’ll be safe. Safe enough, anyway. We’ve got a more immediate situation.” 

“Elisabet and Dexamene,” I agreed with a grimace. “Yeah, being on a planet full of Fomorians is a pretty immediate problem.” Sighing, I added, “I know it’s a lot to ask for you to focus on something other than your mom, I–” 

“Stop.” Avalon’s voice was sharp, her fist hitting my shoulder from across the table. “Don’t be an idiot, Felicity. After everything we–” She cut herself off, shaking her head pointedly. “Just don’t be an idiot. I’m with you. Of course I’m with you. When we get more about Gaia, you’ll be there.” 

I gave a short nod, moving my hand to catch hers and squeeze it. “I’ll be there,” I confirmed. 

“And I’ll be here now,” she informed me. “Besides, like I said, we can’t do anything about Gaia right this second, so I need something else to kill. A bunch of Fomorian minions sounds like just what the doctor ordered.” The smile she gave me then was basically feral. “I do have a lot of aggression to get out.” 

Snorting at her, I brought her hand in to gently kiss the fingers without breaking eye contact. “Even after that whole thing with Fossor’s zombies? I would’ve thought you’d be done fighting for awhile.” 

Lifting her chin, Avalon retorted, “Like I said, a lot of aggression.” Adding a wink, she noted, “Though I guess there are other ways to work out energy like that.” 

Oh boy. My face was suddenly hotter than my food, as I choked a bit while the other girl snickered at me. “Not fair,” I managed to croak, “definitely not fair.” 

“What’s not fair?” That was Roxa, taking a seat next to me with a plate of her own before she blinked with realization. “Oh, right, you guys are being gross. Got it.” 

“Gross isn’t the word I’d use,” I informed the other blonde while giving her a poke in the arm with my fork. “A little bird told me you were angling to come on this rescue mission.” 

Casually spearing a huge hunk of steak with her fork before lifting it to her mouth to tear a bite out of it with her teeth, Roxa replied, “Yeah, well, sounds like an insanely dangerous trip that’s gonna end up with a lot of screaming and violence. So, you know, I’m there.” 

“Hopefully not too much screaming and violence,” I murmured, looking back and forth between her and Avalon. “You guys do understand that the goal here is to fly in, grab those two, and get out without too much fighting, riiiiaaand I realize even as I say that how stupid it sounds.” 

“At least she got there on her own,” Roxa noted with a smirk, taking another bite of her huge steak, chewing ravenously before adding, “When shit goes wrong and everyone’s fighting for their lives, I wanna be there.” Her expression sobered a bit then as she met my gaze. “Seriously, I can help. I want to help. I need to do something.” 

“You’ve done plenty,” I insisted. “Roxa, everything you–yeah. You were there yesterday. You and the rest of your pack. But if you really want to be there for this, I’m not gonna say no.” 

“Good,” she shot back, “I’d hate to have to kick your ass until you change your mind.” 

“I see wolf-instincts make one delusional too,” I teased despite everything. “Good to know.” 

That prompted a lot of back and forth between the three of us, before Shiori and Columbus showed up, along with Choo. The Jekern was insistent on attention, so I stepped up and wrapped both arms around him. He was huge now, big enough for Shiori to ride on. Which was a pretty big change from the tiny thing he’d been when we first met. 

“Hey, big guy,” I murmured while hugging the warthog-like creature tight. “Thanks for taking care of our girl while I was gone.” 

Choo, in turn, huffed and made a flicker of electricity tickle my face. From his snorts, I was pretty sure he was trying to tell me off for being gone so long and making his owner sad. 

“Believe me,” I informed him, “I feel the same way.” 

Rising, I exchanged a long, tender kiss with Shiori herself, ignoring everyone else for a moment. Then I embraced the other girl tightly before announcing, “So, both my girls here and nothing’s currently on fire except for all the things that are currently on fire.” Squinting at myself, I shook my head. “That made more sense before I said it.” 

“Pretty sure it didn’t,” Columbus put in mildly, scratching under Amethyst’s chin as the cyberform lay across his shoulder. “But I think we can give you a pass, all things considered. So, what’s going on with the whole rescue mission thing?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Guys, everyone can’t go. It’s supposed to be a quick in-and-out and yes I know the odds of that, but seriously.” 

“Ship’s big enough,” the boy pointed out. “If we don’t get into a fight, great. But don’t think you’re gonna be able to run out into Fomorian space without a hell of a lot of back-up. Shiori won’t let you go without her, right?” He looked to his sister, who gave a firm nod. “Right, and she’s not going without me.” 

Exhaling, I nodded. “I get it, believe me. I’m not about to run off without you guys. Let’s just… hope that this is a quick little jump across universes to grab those two and get out again. Hope for it, but plan for the worst.” Giving them all a thumbs up, I added, “And then maybe everyone can take a real vacation. And by real vacation, I mean go back to normal school for awhile. Actual school with classes and everything. How fucking weird would that be?”

“You’ve got a point there,” Shiori agreed. 

“With you, the only possible totally unexpected thing is a completely normal day.” 

************

That night, the ship was ready. Or at least as ready as it was going to get without weeks more work, and no way were Jophiel and Tristan going to wait weeks to start this rescue mission. We were lucky the two of them had waited this long. As it was, it took a lot to keep the two of them calm enough to stick with the plan so they didn’t run off to try to rescue Dex and Elisabet alone. 

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. The two of them already understood, and they weren’t idiots. Still, I felt like we had to keep an eye on Tristan especially. Not that the boy had a way of getting to the Meregan world himself, but I wouldn’t entirely put it past him to try to find someone who could

So, we mostly focused on killing time by establishing who was actually going to go on this rescue mission. As we’d said before, the hope was that we’d barely have to fight at all. But in anything, and especially where the Fomorians were concerned, hoping for the best and planning for the worst seemed to be the best way to go. We had to have enough people to fight. 

Jophiel was going, as were Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and this Sachael guy. That was five Olympians. We also had my mother, Deveron, Lillian, Haiden, Larissa, and apparently Kohaku. 

I’d had a private conversation with Dare about that whole situation, and she said that she wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if the Fomorians had too much interaction with her, so it was for the best that she stay behind. But boy did she not like it. Five minutes after getting Mom and me back in her life (even if Mom by necessity couldn’t know the truth about all that) and she already had to watch us go right back into life-threatening danger against the very species she had basically given up her entire life for. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly enjoying that idea, to say the least.

She did give me a few emergency enchantments she’d prepared, telling me to stow them away just in case. And she made me promise about a million times that I wouldn’t do anything that stupid and insane. Oh, and the hugs. She hugged me basically as hard as I’d ever been hugged, even with my mother’s return. This whole situation was hitting her pretty badly. 

As for the rest of us, I was going of course. So were Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, Columbus, Avalon, and Shiori. Oh, and Roxa too. And she was bringing Theia and Pace along. Finally, May and December had hopped aboard the plan. 

Of course, May and December coming along brought up another point. Sachael already knew about the situation between Elisabet and Jophiel, of course, and had agreed not to make an official report about it until she officially reported it herself. But with those two, it was a bit more complicated. We knew they were reporting things back to Cahethal, and she wasn’t nearly as likely to keep quiet about this situation. But, as it turned out, we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris. 

Actually, ‘we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris’ came up a lot, now that I thought about it. At a certain point you’d think it’d stop being a secret, but there we were. 

Anyway, the point was, we had Tabbris. And she had become basically best friends with December. She asked the other girl to please keep a certain something a secret, promised it wasn’t a direct threat to the Calendar or to Cahethal, and the three of them agreed to take oath spells to not reveal that little secret. Pretty similar to the spells that Tristan, Vanessa, Tabbris, and I had been put under by Jophiel and Elisabet in the first place, actually.  

So that was our, ahhh, ‘crew’ for this mission. We could’ve had more, obviously. But we didn’t want to involve too many people. It was already a big enough group as it was, considering Elisabet and Jophiel had been keeping their whole thing secret for so long. Though I had a feeling it would be coming out sooner than they had planned, regardless of our precautions. 

Finally, it was time to head out. Athena had brought everyone who was going to Gaia’s secret cave where the ship was being kept. They’d put some more last minute work on it to make sure it was as ready to go as possible, and now we were all standing in front of the thing. 

Even now, I still didn’t think the thing looked much like a spaceship. It was just a long, jetliner-sized tube with a ramp leading up into it. Its weapons, engines, everything was well hidden. When it was closed up, it just looked like a semi-sleek metal cylinder. Whoever had designed this ship had focused entirely on function and not at all on form. Probably because it was a prototype. It wasn’t meant to be pretty or even heavily armed as far as ships went. It was meant to test that instant-jump system. 

Which made me wonder, not for the first time, who had designed it. Because it sure wasn’t Kushiel. It had to be Raduriel, right? That was the answer that made the most sense. Though it did raise the question of why he hadn’t done more to try to get his prototype back. Yeah, there was a truce, but you’d think he’d at least ask for it. Yet he hadn’t brought it up at all. Which seemed a little odd to me, given how special the prototype ship was. 

Athena was talking. “You all know the plan. Given optimum conditions, no one will have to lift a finger. That said, assume everything is going to fall apart. Watch each other’s backs, stay together as much as you can. Don’t let anyone get pulled away and separated. Do not let the Fomorians lead you into a trap. Don’t go anywhere alone, don’t chase them even if they look weak. If they start to retreat, let them. You have no idea how many of our people have been killed because they fell for the Fomorians pretending to be routed and then falling on them from all sides, even from what were supposed to be corpses.” 

For a moment, it looked like Athena might say something else, but decided against it. Instead, she simply continued, “If things fall apart, stay with each other and watch your backs. We’ll come to you. You all have emergency beacons and teleportation stones. The green ones will try to take you back to the ship. If those fail, the red ones will pick an unoccupied space on the planet as far from Fomorian detection as possible and send an alert to the rest of us. Use them if you need to. And… and you all have the X-stones.” 

Yeah, we did. The X-stones were just what they sounded like, rocks in the shape of an x. They were intentionally made to be impossible to mix up with any other enchanted object. As for what they did, they were essentially magical cyanide pills. Yeah. If this all went wrong, we had the opportunity to end ourselves rather than risk being experimented on by the Fomorians if we chose to.  

Wasn’t this just a super-awesome happy optimistic mission we were going on? Just what I had been looking forward to once Fossor was dealt with, a nice, quiet break to just relax. 

I would get that once the other two were safe. After everything they’d done, I couldn’t relax until they were back where they belonged. Once that happened, then I’d demand a vacation. 

Mom spoke up then. “Whatever happens, the job isn’t to kill Fomorians. Remember that, we cannot beat them. They’re too numerous, too powerful, and they’ll have reinforcements on the way the moment they detect us. The job is to get in, find Elisabet and Dexamene, and get out again. We kill what’s directly in our way and then leave. That’s all. The Fomorians have already taken over the planet. We can’t stop that and we can’t save that world. Not now.” Her voice was a bit strained as she said it, reminding me of the history she had with the Meregan. It had to be killing her not to even try to save those people. 

Once everyone agreed to what they were saying, Mom and Athena exchanged looks and some kind of silent communication. Then the Olympian woman turned to start walking up the ramp. “Right then. Let’s go see what we can do. Everyone find a seat and strap yourselves in.

“This is going to be a bumpy flight.”  

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