Month: February 2021

Promise And Peril 11-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so Jophiel and Elisabet had something incredibly important to tell Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, Sariel, Athena, Sachael, Mom, and me. For a moment as we walked through the ship corridors, I wondered what it could be. Was it about the way Jophiel had been poisoned, or–no. No, it had to be about how and why Elisabet had ended up on the Meregan world to begin with, right? It had to be about how she was cut off from the Committee. Everyone had wondered how that was even possible. That had to be what this was about. It was the only thing that made sense. Elisabet had been focused solely on making sure Jophiel made it through being poisoned, and now that the Seosten woman seemed to be pulling out of it (thanks to help from the Roenier), the time had come to finally tell us what the hell happened. 

Which was both exciting and terrifying, honestly. Because while I really wanted to know what could’ve stripped Elisabet’s Committee link and blocked Jophiel, at the same time I really didn’t. There was little chance that the answer was going to be anything even remotely positive. No, it was going to be terrifying and awful and I was going to regret finding out the truth. And yet, I couldn’t just ignore it either. That never worked out. 

Tabbris, walking right beside me, caught my hand and whispered, “Do you think it’s something new? I thought it was Fossor for awhile, but it couldn’t’ve been him that did it, right?” 

Grimacing, I shook my head while squeezing my sister’s hand. “Yeah, sorry. I don’t think we’re lucky enough to have the problem be something that we already dealt with. This is something new. Something new and bad enough to separate someone from the Committee, which…” I trailed off, not wanting to finish that sentence. It was bad, that was the point. Really bad. 

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Tristan was saying as he pivoted to walk backwards so he could face us. “We dunno what happened. It could’ve been a one-time thing, or some other kind of specialized situation. Personally, I wouldn’t put it past that Litonya bitch to be behind it. She’s been on the Committee for a long time, right? She could probably figure out how to kick someone off it if she really put her black-hearted, psychotic little vindictive mind to it.” 

“I don’t believe even she could do that,” Sariel informed her son. A moment later, she amended, “Given the chance, I believe she would do such a thing to the right people, but this seems beyond even her actual capability. Beyond which, why target Elisabet with it rather than one of the people she knows to be a rebellion sympathizer? Elisabet was acting under cover, there was no reason for Litonya to believe she would be a good target for this sort of attack, even if she was capable of it.” 

“Besides,” I put in, “I don’t think Litonya’s the type to keep quiet about what she did. Come on, she killed her own brother and people know about it. If she found out anything incriminating about Elisabet and pulled some kind of super-move to cut her out of the Committee, how quiet would she be? Especially if she could point at people like Teach and Percival and tell them to behave, or they could be next. I mean, it really seems like the sort of thing she’d use as leverage if she had it. She just–she doesn’t strike me as the type to be subtle, you know?”

“Yes,” Mom muttered under her breath in a dark tone. “Subtle is something Litonya is not.” 

Yeah, I had a feeling my mother wanted to go a few rounds with the bitch for being the one who suggested killing Abigail and Wyatt. That wasn’t going to be something she just let go. Mom obviously still had issues with Sariel, yet her whole thing hadn’t actually been intentional. She’d suggested to Ruthers that he abduct Deveron, yes. But at least Deveron was a combatant, and Sariel’s whole intention had been to stop the war from escalating to the point that her people stepped in directly before she managed to finish fixing the spell to open the Tartarus universe again. Sariel had always wanted to use that as a bargaining chip to make her people back off, or at least negotiate, and it would’ve been much harder to do that if Mom’s rebellion had gotten to the point that the Seosten were sending troops to deal with the situation. Her efforts to delay the rebellion hadn’t been intended to stop it entirely, only to manipulate it into slowing down long enough that she could put her own game-changer into play without anyone else knowing what she was doing ahead of time. 

Yes, her actions had backfired, but she’d had decent intentions at least. And Mom knew that, even if she still harbored completely understandable anger at Sariel for it, which would take her quite awhile to get over. If she ever did fully. Litonya on the other hand had no such excuse. Given the opportunity, I was almost certain that Mom would, to put it mildly, cut a bitch. 

But all those thoughts were pushed aside thoroughly as we reached the secondary medical area where Jophiel had apparently been moved once she was out of immediate danger. They were still keeping an eye on her to be certain that the poison wouldn’t get worse again, but at the moment the combination of the healing that Elisabet had done to her and the Roenier’s efforts were apparently keeping it pretty thoroughly at bay. Enough, at least, that it was okay for her to have visitors.

Our Roenier guide stayed outside, while the rest of us moved in through the doors into… well, the hospital room, I supposed. Though it was different from most I had seen. There was no visible bed. Instead, Jophiel was sort of floating in the middle of a tube-like forcefield in the middle of the room. She wore some kind of skintight hospital clothes similar to a Seosten bodysuit, but clearly fashioned on this ship given the way it had a dozen cords leading out of it, through holes in the forcefield and into various machines that appeared to be monitoring her. She was conscious though, and apparently deep in conversation with Elisabet, who stood beside the tube with one hand on it. As soon as we all stepped inside, they waited for the doors to close before the (former?) Committee woman beckoned us closer with an urgent look. “Come here, all of you,” she quickly insisted. 

Yeah, it was definitely serious. Glancing briefly toward my mother and getting a nod in return, I went with her and the others over to the tube. As soon as we were there, Elisabet began activating more privacy spells than I had ever seen in one place. It was obvious that she’d been preparing them for a long time. Just one after another. In the end, the air was practically vibrating from the overlapping bits of magic that were working together to make sure no one overheard. 

Mom was the first to speak, her voice quiet (though sort of echoey, which I assumed was also a result of all the privacy spells). “Elisabet, I’m starting to suspect you don’t want anyone to know what you’re about to say to us right now. If you cast any more of those spells, you might not hear it yourself.” 

As if seeing her for the first time when she started to respond to that, Elisabet gave a brief double-take. “Joselyn Atherby,” she breathed. “You are quite–” She cut herself off, glancing toward me and offering a very faint smile. “All other things aside, I’m glad your daughter managed to rescue you from the Necromancer. Jophiel tells me he met a rather satisfying end.” 

I was pretty sure there was a lot Mom wanted to say to that, starting with the fact that Elisabet and Jophiel had been instrumental in having her imprisoned and erased the first time, as well as everything else that had been done to stop the Rebellion from making things right. But she set all that aside, visibly swallowing them back before simply replying, “Yes, Fossor did meet his end, finally. An end that was a long-time coming. And I hear you have been busy instructing my daughter, her sister, and her other siblings in a great many things, which you believe will help in the long run?”

“Yes…” Looking thoughtful for a moment, Elisabet eventually shook that off. “But that is of lesser concern right now.” 

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “I do have one question. When you were dying, why didn’t you just possess Elisabet and take the free healing that usually comes with it? We were all sort of lost in the moment at the time, but seriously, couldn’t you have just done that? And even if it didn’t heal you, at least it should have paused the poison’s effect on you while you were possessing her.” 

It was Elisabet who answered. “She refused, because the Fomorians… trap their poisons that affect Seosten.” 

With a nod, Sariel added in a grave voice that made me think she was speaking from experience, “When we possess other beings while poisoned, it transfers the poison to our new host and spreads that way. The result is… bad. Any poison powerful enough to incapacitate a Seosten will do horrific damage to most hosts, including humans. Particularly, while the poison primarily affects the Seosten’s body, during possession it initially targets the brain for a host.” 

“It drives the host mad,” Sachael put in. He also sounded as though he had personal experience with what they were talking about. “Irrevocably. It… creates a level of paranoia and terror that we can’t do anything to fix, making the host see all friends as nightmares and turning them homicidal. It makes them forget who they are, makes them go so far as to tear their own eyes out to avoid seeing the things the mind-poison is making them witness.” 

“Wha–but–but–that’s ridiculous!” Vanessa looked personally offended by that explanation. “How could a poison that affects the Seosten’s body also affect the mind of someone they possess?! How does the biological element even–how–what?” She continued to sputter for a moment, clearly personally offended by the idea. 

“Truly, it is a question for the ages,” Elisabet agreed. “However, at this particular moment, the thing we need to discuss is Maestro.” 

The way she said the name, with that dark intonation, made all of us look at one another as if we expected someone else to have some idea. But other than Jophiel within the forcefield, everyone seemed equally clueless. Finally, it was Sariel who spoke up. “Who, or what, is this Maestro?” 

So, over the next few minutes, Elisabet began to explain what had really happened to her. And boy was it a doozy of a story. Apparently, waaaaaay back when she and Jophiel had first been getting close, they were stranded on some lost alien ship. Jophiel had gone to get help while Elisabet was trapped there. But she wasn’t alone. There was a… a creature there with her, a being who called himself Maestro, who had chased the trapped Elisabet through the ship. She had known he was too powerful for her, and that he would fuck with her memories. So she created some kind of failsafe system to restore those memories and block out the artificial intelligence he was planning on inserting into her. Basically, she used spells on herself that were cued to go off when this Maestro guy was close to his goal and when the inserted AI was projecting itself out of her mind. And then she not only erased her own memory of having performed those spells, she erased her memory of ever knowing them in the first place just so that the implant wouldn’t have any warning at all. Not only that, but apparently whatever spell she’d used had been enough to stop Jophiel from noticing that anything was different about what magic she knew. 

No wonder the Seosten woman had been attracted to Elisabet from early on. Young Elisabet was a badass.  

Mom was shaking her head once Elisabet got that far. “But I don’t understand something. What exactly is this Maestro’s goal, and how did he get close enough to it for your spell to trigger? And what happened to make you end up trapped on Aiken’te’vel with no link to the Committee?” 

“That’s where the whole thing gets more complicated, and more terrifying,” Elisabet replied simply after she and Jophiel exchanged a brief, yet very intense look. A look that made me realize I definitely didn’t want to hear what else they were going to say. Actually, what I really wanted to do in that exact moment was turn around and walk out the door. Would it be that bad if I just left right then and let other people deal with whatever the real problem was? Seriously, hadn’t I done enough? Actually, I could grab my mom and my sister and just–

And just what, exactly? Leave Tabbris’s siblings (and my friends) and mother to solve the problem? Refuse to be involved even if it got Sariel and the twins hurt or killed? What was my endgame with that plan? Oh, and how did I expect Tabbris to go along with it and not have any opinion of her own? Or was I just going to abandon her too? 

No, much as I hated it, I had to stand here and listen to whatever horrific information was about to come out of Elisabet’s mouth. Because I couldn’t leave the people I cared about to deal with something that was bad enough to make her and Jophiel openly worry. I just couldn’t. 

Instead, I stood there and listened, knowing that this would be something we would have to deal with. But at least it was something I could deal with alongside my mother. That–that was what had made this entire rescue mission so different, honestly. My mother was there, and even when she wasn’t right beside me, I knew she was close. I was fighting near my mother, the mother who had been torn away from me (and the rest of her family) for so long. My mom was here on this mission with me, and that made all the difference in the world. I could handle whatever this was. And really, how ba–

Nope, nope, nope. Abort. Launching that thought through the torpedo tube and into the sun. You hear me, universe? I did not finish that thought. I did not finish that thought! 

Once everyone had made it clear we were as ready as we would ever be to hear what they had to say, Elisabet continued. “This Maestro, he’s a… a hybrid of sorts, but not like your children, Sariel. He’s an unnatural hybrid, an abomination. He was once two distinct beings who were fused together somehow, I don’t…” She grimaced, shaking her head. “One of his halves was one of your archangels, one of the Dyeusai.” 

That made both Sariel and Sachael do a sharp double-take, almost completely in sync. Their mouths opened, but Jophiel interrupted. “Yes, it’s who you think. It’s Zadkiel.” 

Sachael looked like he had been physically shoved, reeling backward a step. Seldom had I seen a Seosten look so thoroughly stunned. Sariel, meanwhile, also looked surprised, but recovered faster. She spoke aloud, explaining to the rest of us. “Zadkiel was the first of our people to enter Tartarus, long before the Summus Proelium project. He–his power as one of the Dyeusai meant that it was believed he would be as safe as possible, that he could handle any threat that presented itself. But he was–he was left in there. They lost contact and he was cut off.” Swallowing, she added, “They tried to find him. They did everything they could to pull him out. Believe me, I–we… Apollo and I researched everything they did back when we had to get Chayyiel out of there. We pored over everything they tried, and they tried everything. But it was like–it was like Tartarus refused to give him back. Like it had a hold of him and wouldn’t let them find him.” 

There was a brief pause as she glanced away, clearly reliving some very emotional moments from the days when they had been focused on saving Chayyiel. How could that have made them feel, to have ideas about saving her, then read through the notes to find out that their idea had already been tried and failed? Then to have that happen over and over again, knowing that there was an innocent little girl lost out there that time rather than a battle-hardened archangel? 

“It tried to do the same with Chayyiel, but we got her out,” Sariel was saying. “And now–now you’re saying Zadkiel made it?” 

“No.” That was Jophiel, head shaking. “No, he’s not Zadkiel anymore. He’s nothing like–he’s worse. Like she said, he’s been fused with another being. Probably while he was inside Tartarus. He was fused with–” 

My eyes widened, as I blurted, “A Fomorian. He was fused with a Fomorian.” 

The outburst made Jophiel, Elisabet, Sachael, and my mother twist to look at me. Not the others though. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and their mother had already gotten it, and were exchanging looks of their own. 

Meanwhile, I continued. “There was a damaged Fomorian there already, one that… that had been in there for a long time. For hundreds of thousands of years by then, probably. Or whatever was left of him by then. He must’ve come across this Zadkiel and that place… fused them together.” 

Elisabet, who was staring at me intently, slowly continued. “You’re right. The Fomorian that was in there was split in half. One of his halves escaped and the other was left behind, until he met Zadkiel and they fused. This twisted hybrid, he doesn’t just call himself Maestro. He goes by other names too. Names like Godfather. He likes that one because his other half, his brother–” 

“Goes by Grandfather,” I finished for her. “His other half calls himself Grandfather.” 

“Felicity,” my mother was saying, “how do you know all this?” 

Biting my lip, I glanced to Sariel and the others before exhaling. “Right. 

“I guess we really do have a lot to talk about.”

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Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Throughout the entire trip to get home, the plan that had popped into my head back at Wren’s was still bouncing around in there. It seemed entirely too simple and obvious on the face of it, yet was that a bad thing? Being simple meant it was harder to fuck up, and it still might actually work. Assuming, well, everything on a long list of ways it could go wrong didn’t happen. 

Still, I didn’t exactly have time to dwell on any of that, considering that by the time I finally made it to the house, it was barely a few minutes before I would’ve been late for family dinner. If that had happened, I probably wouldn’t need to worry about this break-in plan (or any of the other myriad dangers I kept walking into) getting me killed, considering Mom would’ve done it herself. 

Okay, that was an exaggeration. Mom wasn’t going to freak out just because someone was a minute or two late. She had some more chill than that. But still, she did take this stuff seriously. Family dinner was important. And the last thing I wanted was for Mom to start paying more attention to where I was and what I was doing. If I was late, she’d start wondering why I was late. Which felt like a really good (terrible) way to end up having my secrets exposed. No, best to always be where Mom wanted me to be when she wanted me to be there, to avoid questions.

After sneaking back inside and dumping my costume in its hiding place under the floorboards of my closet, I gave myself a quick pat-down. Good, good, I was good. No costume, nothing that could stand out and give me away. Satisfied, I checked the clock on the wall. Fuck, two minutes left. Which meant I’d already missed the warning chimes and flickering lights that were supposed to tell me it was time for dinner. Right, this was cutting it very close. 

Grimacing, I sprinted out, heading down the hall and past a couple of the house staff (who casually stepped out of the way as I passed, one even calling out encouragement for me to hurry), sliding down the main stairway bannister before finally dashing right to the dining room.  

Stopping outside the doors, I took a breath and checked the nearby tall, antique clock. Ten seconds. Exhaling, I made sure it didn’t look like I was panicked, then opened the doors and stepped through barely a moment before that tall clock outside announced the hour. 

Everyone else was already there, of course. Mom, Dad, Izzy, and Simon were waiting at their spots. They all looked up as I came in, but waited until I had come to the table before speaking. 

“Everything okay?” Dad asked in a thankfully casual tone. Wait, was casual bad? Was he being intentionally casual? Did he know something? Was this a trap? Did he–did they know what–God damn it, get a grip, Cassidy. He’s just making conversation because you barely made it. It’s fine. 

“Just fine,” I immediately forced myself to reply. My hand (as I somehow managed to make it stop shaking) picked up the glass of water before taking a sip. “Why, what’s up?” Fuck, was my voice calm enough? Should it be less calm? Did I sound like a robot? Was something else wrong that I should’ve known about and been upset by? Was fine the wrong answer?!

“Whatever.” That was Simon, already changing the subject as he focused on our parents. “I talked to that guy from Montreal today. He said they’ll be ready for the trip next month.” 

“Trip?” I spoke up. This, at least, was something I could express curiosity about without attracting any suspicion. “Are we going to Canada again?” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mom give a slight nod to Simon and mouth something to him. It looked like ‘good job’, followed by something I didn’t catch. 

Meanwhile, Dad just chuckled, drawing my attention. “Not this time, sorry, kid. This one’s about business, not pleasure. But we’ll make sure to go somewhere fun as soon as school’s out. As for where…” He glanced toward Izzy beside me, considering for a moment before adding, “That’s a decision we can all make when the time comes.” 

By that point, Mom had picked up the little silver bell and gave it a ring, prompting the doors into the kitchen to open. Christiana and Ethan entered, carrying the covered metal trays, with Chef Claudio right behind them to explain and detail everything we were about to eat. 

Okay… fine. It was fine. I was almost late, but no one really seemed to care. Probably because of that almost part. I’d made it in time, Simon was talking about some kind of trip next month, and everyone was focused on how amazing dinner looked. 

Shoving all the uncertainty out of my head, along with the rushing thoughts of my new plan to break into my own family’s secret base, I managed a small smile, thanking Claudio and his assistants before starting to dig into the food. Dinner now. Later, I would tell Izzy about the plan I had come up with. 

And hope she didn’t think it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard. 

*********

“It is pretty crazy,” Izzy was saying later as the two of us sat in the gaming room across the hall from our bedrooms. We had a game up on one of the systems just in case anyone poked their head in, yet neither of us were actually playing. “It’ll take awhile to pull off. There’s a lot of ways you could get caught. But still…” She considered for a moment before nodding. “I like it.” 

Exhaling, I managed a weak smile. “Really? So, it’s crazy but a workable sort of crazy?” 

“Workable sort of crazy,” she confirmed. “You think you can find the right place for it?” 

“I’ll head down there in a bit and look around,” I replied thoughtfully, gazing off toward the window before asking, “What about you? They still putting you back on patrol tonight?” 

With a nod, the other girl confirmed, “Yeah, I’m supposed to go out with your mom in an hour and get dropped off with Carousel and Whamline.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “They said I didn’t have to do regular patrols for awhile, but I think it’ll be better if things look normal.” 

“Plus it’s an excuse to get out of the house for awhile besides school,” I pointed out. Then, feeling a little awkward, I added, “But umm, just be careful, okay? With that Easy Eight attack, I’m pretty sure the Niners are gonna be in the mood to retaliate. And–wait a second, I didn’t tell you about the new girl!” I’d been so obsessed with explaining the plan I’d come with, I’d forgotten the other part of what happened tonight. 

And wow did that prove my life was too fucking busy or what? 

Still, I quickly explained how that whole thing had gone, and about the armored girl. Izzy had a lot of questions, mostly revolving around what those new powers seemed to be and what sort of things she’d done with them. Which, well… I had no idea. All I knew was that she had some colored object… things she could reshape into various other objects. Like that armor. 

“You think she’ll call and get you to help her figure out how her power works?” Izzy asked, before adding, “And uhh, what’re you gonna tell her about… umm… any of this?” 

“As far as that first part goes, I hope so,” I murmured before exhaling long and hard. “For the rest, fuck, I don’t know. I can’t tell her the truth, right? There’s no way we can trust her. We don’t know anything about the girl. She could be anybody, she could side with you-know-who. She could do anything. I mean, yeah, she helped save those people, but that doesn’t mean she’s the sort of person we can trust for the rest of this. It’s sort of, you know, a lot to throw at anyone even if you do know them. With this girl, we just… don’t.” 

Izzy nodded, biting her lip. “Yeah, you’re right. But if you tell her not to join the Minority, she’ll wanna know why. And so will everyone else, especially if she actually uses her powers to help people. Are you going to start your own team? Take her on as a partner? If you do that–”

“Then we’re right back to whether we can trust her or not,” I agreed with a sigh. “Yeah. Like I said, I dunno. I just… I need to think about it. Any suggestions?” 

“Think really hard?” she offered before wincing. “Sorry. I’ll think too. I mean, there’s gotta be a good solution, right?” 

“Sure, there’s gotta be good solutions to everything going on,” I agreed. 

“I just hope we can actually figure some of them out at some point.”

********* 

“Tell me your plan doesn’t involve trying to intimidate the mall into surrender just by glaring at it.” 

A couple hours had passed, and I was crouched beside the air conditioning unit atop a fast food place across the parking lot from the mall in question. My gaze had been fixed intently on the building itself in the distance. The voice came from That-A-Way, who had just popped up a few feet behind me, deliberately coughing and shuffling her feet a bit to let me know she was there.

“Why,” I quipped without turning around, “you don’t think it’ll work? I’ll have you know, I can have a pretty intimidating stare if I really put my mind to it. That’s what my brother says, anyway.”  

“Oh, you have a brother?” Way remarked, making me curse myself inwardly for that stupid slip. “Cool, Pack was pretty convinced you were an only child. Guess I just won that ten bucks.” 

That was enough to make me turn my head a bit finally, looking toward her so I could incredulously ask, “You guys really bet ten bucks on whether I had any siblings? Seriously?”

Her response was a very slight smirk as she shrugged. “We actually bet a lot of different things when it comes to you, Paintball. Just something you’re going to have to get used to if you don’t want to give people any answers. You’re a mysterious guy. Which, you know, don’t get me wrong, if you were a few years older and also not a guy, I’d be pretty intrigued. I mean, I’m intrigued now, but in a different way. More of a, ‘hey, I just made ten bucks’ sort of way.”  

Damn it, do not say anything, do not say anything. Do not react. Do not show anything in reaction to what she just said about being older and not a guy. Fuck, it was almost like she was intentionally setting me up. Which she wasn’t, of course. Even my overly-paranoid brain knew that. But still, the dozen different remarks that jumped to my lips the moment I heard that had to practically be physically shoved back down again. I swallowed hard before shaking my head. “I guess that’s my loss. But from what you’re saying, I could make an awful lot of money just by winning those bets myself.” Saying that thoughtfully, I tapped the side of my helmet.

With a snort at the suggestion, Way shook her head. “You’re not eligible, sorry. Just gonna have to make a few bucks some other way. Although,” she continued conspiratorially while leaning a little closer to me, “maybe if you told me some of the answers, I could cut you in for half.” 

The rattling of the nearby ladder drew our attention, as Pack leaned up over the edge to look at us. She had two of her lizards (Riddles and Scatters) on either shoulder. “And here I thought I was supposed to be one who was a disreputable cheater and overall scandalous person. Am I having a bad influence on you, Rose? And if so, is there any way I can speed up the process?” 

Beside me, I actually noticed Way blush a little bit before she cleared her throat and waved that off to very clearly change the subject. “Pack. So, he called you here too, huh?” 

“I wanted both of you to hear the idea,” I confirmed, gesturing for Pack to come closer  before turning back to look at the mall while lowering my voice a bit. “We need a way to get in there without going through their front door and dealing with all the alarms and security that’d call.” 

Moving up to stand beside That-A-Way, Pack replied, “I still say you could use that pink paint and get us right through the door pretty fast, before they could react. We could jump them.” 

“That still involves having a straight-up fight really quickly,”  I pointed out. “And we don’t know what’s in there. We’d still set off all their alarms when they saw us come through. So who knows how much time we’d actually get to look around before we’d have to retreat. Plus–” 

Way finished for me. “Plus, it would involve Paintball using his powers right out in the open, so they’d know who was there, even if he was in disguise. Which we’re trying to avoid, because I, for one, don’t want the Ministry to have any clue that I know anything about them.” 

“They already know that I know some things,” I murmured quietly before exhaling. “But yeah, I’d really prefer if they didn’t realize I was doing anything openly against them. It’s just… yeah, it’d be bad. They have all the power and influence. We can’t use our abilities in there or they’ll know exactly who we are. Which means no lizards,” I pointed out, looking directly at her. “There’s not exactly anyone else in the city who uses them. It’s a dead giveaway. And I do mean dead.” 

“I know, I know.” It sounded like Pack was making a face behind her full-covering mask. “But you’re asking us to go in there with a pretty big handicap if we can’t use any powers at all. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly some kind of super-spy martial arts master. Without my little friends here, I’m basically just a girl with a gun. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a fair equalizer a lot of the time. But I don’t think it’ll be enough in that place. What’re we supposed to do?” 

“I’ve thought about that.” Turning to look at the two of them, I continued, “And I think I can put different paint colors in separate spots underneath like… whatever overcoats we wear. You know, out of sight. Then I can activate the paint separately whenever we need it in the base itself. Just don’t let them realize it’s temporary, and if we do it right, they’ll end up looking for people who are really strong and tough.” 

“Like those biolems, maybe,” Way pointed out. “Maybe they’ll think we’re some of those things. I mean, it’s not like they know there’s no more in the city, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Exactly, yeah. It’s decent cover, anyway. Might send them chasing the wrong direction, but we still have to be careful. And first, we need to get inside without going through their front door. The longer we have to look around without an army of reinforcements descending on us, the better. Even if it’s just an extra couple minutes. Every little bit helps.” 

“And you’ve got a plan for that?” Pack asked curiously, crouching down to set Riddles and Scatters on the roof so they could explore a bit. “Some idea of how to get in there quietly?” 

Nodding, I replied, “It’s all about building connections.” When that was met with blank stares, I coughed before continuing to actually explain. “Not connections like acquaintances, physical connections. It’s about building connections. Making connections. See, you’re right, my pink paint could get through the door if we were standing right in front of it, which would let them know exactly who I was. Or…” Turning a bit, I pointed down at the parking lot and began to run my finger along it. “We could find another place nearby, a building that isn’t protected by their security, and use the pink paint to start tunneling that way. It’d take awhile, but it’d basically be completely silent. We just keep painting it, ripping some out, painting more, ripping it out, and so on. If I’m just using pink paint for that, with the time it takes to actually pull the pieces out, I shouldn’t need too many breaks to recharge. You know, if I pace myself. We just find a place that’s safe to start from and take the time to patiently and quietly tunnel all the way over there. Once we’re close, we start being really careful, just poking little holes in each spot until we find where the edge of that underground base is.” 

“Sure we can keep track of exactly where we are and where we’re going if we’re in a tunnel?” Pack asked pointedly. “Sounds like a good way of getting turned in circles.” 

I, however, tapped my helmet again. “Trevithick’s upgrades, they let me know where I am in the city. Shouldn’t be too hard to keep track of my location well enough to keep going toward the mall.” With that, I shrugged. “I mean, it’s the best idea I’ve come up with. What do you guys think?” 

They, in turn, exchanged looks. There was a brief murmur of conversation before both turned back to me, Way speaking. “We’d need a safe place to start from, and you’re right, it’d take awhile. So it’d have to be a place that wouldn’t be found, and that we could go back to repeatedly.” 

Nodding, I pointed off across the lot. “See that half-built motel over there? It’s been under construction for like a year, and all the contracts are stalled right now. We should be able to find a spot that’s out of the way, and I’m pretty sure they won’t get back to building before we’re done.” 

Again, Way and Pack looked to each other to have some private conversation that was only partially verbal. Then they turned back to me. “It’s a good plan, Paintball,” Way confirmed. “I mean, still totally crazy and all, but it’s the best one we’ve got.” 

Exhaling in relief that at least they didn’t immediately see a dozen impossible problems with it, I murmured, “So I guess we just have to make sure no one ever sees us over there. We need a place to take the chunks we pull out of the tunnel so they don’t know how it was made when they investigate after it’s over. Just–you know, leave it as much of a mystery as possible.” 

“I’ll get a big van or a truck,” Pack put in. “One of us can drive the pieces away every time it’s full. Dump them in the river or something.” 

Way quietly agreed, “Sounds like a plan. Or the start of one, anyway. We can iron out details as we go.” She looked over to me then, adding, “And now that that’s settled, I’ve got a question. 

“What’s this Pack’s been saying about you having minions?”  

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Promise And Peril 11-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We asked Kernek if there was anything we could do to help, of course. Even after everything that had happened, all of us wanted to throw whatever we had left behind helping whatever remained of the Meregans escape their planet. Even if at least one of those volunteers, Sachael, was probably more focused on the damage he could do to the Fomorians in the proc–no, that wasn’t fair. Sachael wasn’t a bad guy just because he was loyal to his people. He’d already proven that. He was keeping Jophiel and Elisabet’s secret–had kept their secret for awhile. As long as it wasn’t openly a threat to his people, he wasn’t going to go blabbing about it. And honestly, from what I’d seen of the man, he was actually curious about where their whole ‘experiment’ would go.

In any case, it turned out the Roenier had things in hand. The Fomorian’s anti-magic stuff apparently didn’t stop whatever actual technology these guys used to transport people. It was like the beaming technology from Star Trek, pretty much. This whole space battle was essentially a delaying action while they identified all the pockets of remaining Meregan and teleported them up to the ships to be met by representatives of their own people, just in case. 

That same technology was helping Jophiel right then. The Fomorian’s poison or venom or whatever was really nasty, but the Roenier had ways around it. Apparently, it was just going to take awhile. Their doctor assured us that they could handle the situation and that she’d be back, good as new. They just needed to do some more work to flush everything out of her system. 

Meanwhile, as they worked on that, the rest of us (including those who had been waiting on the prototype ship) sat in the cafeteria-like area we had been shown to. It looked remarkably well-suited for human-sized and shaped people, which Sands had remarked on only to be told by Kernek that several of the rooms on this ship were capable of reshaping themselves to suit whatever other species they picked up. Apparently, while we were busy talking to the doctor, Kernek himself had pulled Haiden and Larissa aside to ask them about what sort of furniture we were accustomed to, working through their descriptions to create this place. 

Again, it was a really good job. The chairs were basically perfect, if slightly larger and a little more rounded than expected. And the tables were more triangular than rectangles, but still. It just seemed a little eclectic rather than wrong. It was a pretty good approximation of human furniture for a species that walked around on six legs. I was definitely impressed. By the whole situation, really. 

Still, there was one pretty important thing. Which led to me asking, while sitting at one of the tables, “Uh, Kernek, exactly how many of the Meregan can you save? I mean, Fossor had his way with the world for a long time and there wasn’t much left when we came here before. And… and now the Fomorians have been around for at least months. What–” There was a lump in my throat, which I swallowed back with some effort. “What’s left of their species?” I was glad, in that moment, that Alecra had stepped away to help greet the members of her people that were being transported onto this particular ship. I wouldn’t’ve wanted to bring this up in front of her. 

The scorpion-butterfly-centaur man let his colorful wings stretch out away from him in both directions, tilted downward before wiggling a bit. He’d done that a couple times while explaining things, and I had the feeling it was his species way of indicating that they were thinking about how to answer. Sort of like the way a human might say, ‘Uhhhmmm.’ Finally, he straightened a bit, focusing on me. Around us, I could see the rest of the group paying close attention, their own conversations forgotten in that moment. 

“There are more than you might first guess,” came the eventual response (translated as always by the extra voice amongst the chittering language of his species). “Our friends, the Meregan, have perfected the technology to sheathe their forms in a powerful, stone-like structure.” 

Quickly, I nodded, but it was Shiori who spoke up. “It’s supposed to be able to survive in the sun, right? I mean, in a star. It’s like super cryogenics or something.” 

Kernek made no audible response, but his head tilted to the right and as he did so, the machine translated it as, “Yes.” Their equivalent of a nod, apparently. He continued audibly. “The process is remarkably suited to guarding both against the…” He stumbled a bit over the next words, which the machine translated as “Plays-with-dead-things.” 

“Necromancer,” my mother spoke up. 

Kernek asked her to repeat that a couple times while he fiddled with the translation collar, then said the words in his language again. That time, instead of saying ‘plays-with-dead-things’, the collar translated it as, “Necromancer.” Waiting until he got the nod from my mother and others that it was right, the man pressed on. “The Meregan rock-freezing process is quite suited to protecting against both the efforts of the Necromancer and that of the Fomorians. While both were able to break through eventually, it seemed to require much effort and work on their part. And the stone-process also shielded them against easy detection. Which means those who were not near known cities or easily seen from aerial detection methods–” 

“They survived,” Sariel abruptly put in, her eyes widening a bit. “How many? What–how large of a population are you pulling up?” 

It took a bit to figure out how the different numbering systems worked, but in the end we got it down to being just under two hundred thousand. Which, of course, was still horrifyingly close to complete species extinction for a people who had once spread across their entire world. Despite that, however, a couple hundred thousand was more than I had expected to still be alive. The Meregan could survive being down to that, right? Especially if they had this chance to go and regroup with their new friends on a safe world. Safer than this one, anyway. 

The point was, this was better news than I’d ever expected to get as far as the Meregan were concerned. This was good. This was excellent. The Meregan could survive and, with any luck, even thrive eventually. God, I hoped so. They deserved the break. 

Belatedly, I thought about the whole time-travel aspect of what I’d told Purin and his Meregan several years in the future. Right now, they believed that most of their people had been wiped out, and I couldn’t change that until we passed the time when I’d told them so. Still, I spoke up, explaining the situation to Kernek and asking if there was anything we could do to send them coordinates to find the rest of their people once we caught up with that timeline. That, of course, required more explaining and translation to work out the whole concept of time-travel. But eventually, the man understood. 

“Ah, fascinating. And terrifying for implications… But in such case, we will give numbers to place in space to send these people. In that time, one of ours will be at those numbers to meet them, and take any other friend-Meregan who wish to go to our homeworld.” He offered me what looked like his best approximation of a smile. “Perhaps you would like to come as well, for some visit?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Sorry, there’s way too much to do back on Earth. But you know, maybe by the time we catch up with Purin’s people, things will be calm enough for us to come say hi. I think… I think I’d like that.” As I said it, my eyes glanced over to my mother. 

“I think several of us would like that,” she agreed quietly, hand moving to squeeze my shoulder. “Kernek, thank you. Thank all of your people. What you’ve done for the Meregan, what you’re doing right now? It’s–you are good friends to them.” 

“They are good friends to us,” he insisted. “The Meregan have more than won our loyalty and assistance. What they have been through as a people…” That time, his head bobbed up and down in what looked to me like a nod. But his collar translated it as, “Very bad feeling.” 

Athena was there, stepping up with Theia behind her. “You’re right, it’s very bad. These people… they deserve every break they can get. They were very lucky to find you, Kernek. I…” She paused before settling on, “I wish you and they the best in the future.” 

In response, Kernek tilted his head to the left in an identical motion as when he had tilted it to the right for ‘yes.’ The collar translated it as, “No.” Then he pressed on verbally. “There is more you wish to ask, General Of Seosten Rebellion Athena?” 

Hearing that, the woman paused. I saw her eyes glance over toward Sachael and back again before she spoke. “A part of me wishes to ask for your continued aid against the Fomorians, yes. Your people would be a great boon. But that is an unfair request. You appear to be far enough away if this is your first knowledge of them. And I would not wish to drag the Meregan into more conflict when they have already been so… harmed.” 

Again, Kernek stretched his wings and wiggled them in that ‘uhhmm’ motion while clearly considering his response. Finally, he settled on, “There is aid we may give. Aid in technology, aid in resources. As we are told, the Fomorians are a threat that will reach our world in time should they not be stopped. Better we are giving what we can now to make that not a problem in the future.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sachael watching this whole exchange intently while Athena, my mother, and Kernek started talking about some specifics. It was clear that the old Olympian was very curious about the whole situation. Briefly, I wondered what he was going to tell his own people about all this. Would they see the–who was I kidding? Of course they would see the Roenier combined with the surviving Meregan as an asset. That wasn’t even a question. The only real question was how much effort they’d put into trying to locate them, or this wormhole thing. And that depended on how much Sachael told them. 

Actually, come to think of it, if he told them anything about them, he’d have to explain what he was doing here. And I was pretty sure telling them he helped save Jophiel’s host would lead to even more questions that he had promised not to answer. He was supposedly on vacation right now. Telling them about this would be… complicated. 

By the time I’d worked my way through all that, the man himself was watching me. He offered a very faint smile and nodded once. It was almost like he’d read my mind. Or, more likely, had watched the expressions on my face and accurately interpreted them. It was a thought that made me squint at the buff Santa Claus for a moment before making a face at him. He, in turn, chuckled slightly and inclined his head as though acknowledging my reaction. 

“Flick.” It was Roxa, hissing at me from nearby. She had Pace with her, both of them sliding closer along one of the other sides of the same triangular table I was at. “Tell me you’re not trying to antagonize another Olympic Seosten. Cuz you’ve been lucky so far, but–” 

“What? No!” Hissing my denial, I felt my face turn pink while shaking my head quickly. “That’s not–I wasn’t–I wouldn’t…” Squinting at the two, I continued in a softer voice. “I wasn’t staring him down or anything.” 

Pace, for her part, looked unconvinced. “It’s just that… you sort of have a bit of a reputation, you know? And he’s gotta know by now.” 

Sinking a bit in my seat, I shook my head a bit more. “I don’t have a reputation. I mean I shouldn’t. Everything has been extenuating circumstances done by other people. I just sort of happen to be close by or… you know, tangentially involved.” 

Pace and Roxa looked to each other, then back to me. “Uh huh,” the latter replied. Neither she nor Pace looked convinced. 

“They’ve got a point,” Sands informed me in a quiet voice. She and Sarah had slid closer from the other side. “I don’t mean that you’re targeting people or anything like that. But he’s gotta know what you’ve been involved with. Extenuating circumstances or not, you’ve been around and somehow involved when several of his old crewmates and friends were killed, you know?” 

“Be careful,” Sarah finished simply for her sister, voice equally soft as she watched my reaction.

Glancing around at all of them, taking in their urgent looks, I finally nodded firmly. “I know. I get it. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start anything or go off alone with–” 

“Miss Chambers.” It was Sachael, voice rising a bit as he stood up and approached. “May I speak with you over there for a moment or two?” He nodded toward a corner of the room. 

Okay, well, I didn’t expect to break that promise before I could even finish making it. But hey, I’d still be in sight. And seriously, I was positive he wasn’t going to pull anything right here in front of everyone. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t pull anything at all, but especially right in the same room. So, ignoring the looks I was getting from the others, I straightened from the table. “Uhh, yeah.” My gaze turned a bit, first seeing my mother and the other adults still talking to Kernek, then to where Tabbris and December were deep in conversation about the ship, near to where Tristan and Vanessa were talking to Dexamene. Finally, I nodded and moved to where Sachael had indicated. “What’s–uhh, what’s up?” A little awkward, but seriously, I had no idea what he wanted to talk to me about. It wasn’t like he was just going to bring up the fact that I was connected to the deaths of several of his old crew. 

“You have been present at the deaths of multiple members of the Olympus crew,” Sachael replied, “yes?” 

Right, okay, so I was just wrong about everything today, apparently. Seriously, maybe it was just time to stop making assumptions altogether. Maybe he was about to try for some vengeance or–

He must have seen the look on my face, because Sachael interrupted my thoughts. “I assure you, Miss Chambers, this is not about enacting revenge. I understand that there are losses within serious conflicts, and that those you have taken away from us were responsible for harming you and those close to you. It is… certainly not a pleasant thought. You have been near the deaths of several people I had grown to care about or respect very much over the years. But we have taken much from you as well. War, even a mostly silent one, begets losses. I am well aware that you were not the one who began or sought out such things.” 

The man paused then, seeming to be lost in thought for a few seconds before sighing heavily. “The point is, I have not brought you aside seeking–what is the term, an eye for an eye? I seek something else. Specifically, your memories.” 

Well that didn’t exactly help. Eyes widening a bit, I managed to sputter, “You want to take my–” 

Quickly, Sachael shook his head, holding up one hand. “Ease, Miss Chambers. I misspoke. I do not mean to take any memories, or adjust any. On the contrary, I would like you to share your memories of the moments those Seosten died. Our… my people find memories incredibly important.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted despite myself and before I could think about what I was doing. “That must be why you’re so quick to remove or change them from others.” 

“That is fair,” he agreed in a soft voice. “My people have done many things that most of us would regret, given the opportunity. And yet, I still find myself asking for your aid in this. Sariel knows how to copy such memories, and I believe you trust her. I would be…. very grateful, if you could possibly find it in yourself to have her copy those memories so that they can be taken home to my people. Memories are, to my people, very important factors of the afterlife. I understand that it is a lot to ask of you. Perhaps far too much, considering the… situations that those deaths are connected to. I have no promise to make, and no threat. Only the request. Please.”

What was I supposed to say to that? No, I won’t help you follow your people’s customs to honor your dead because I didn’t like them? After a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Let me talk to Sariel. I–we’ll figure something out. But you should talk to Theia too. She was there with… with Kushiel.” 

“I know,” he murmured. “And I will. I…” He looked that way as well. His voice was quiet. “Her father believed that sending her to Manakel would help her. He knew of what his wife had done, and wanted… he wanted her to have a chance. He believed his oldest friend would give her that chance. He didn’t understand how much had changed.” 

It seemed like the guy was talking more to himself than to me. As I tried to think of what to say, one of the other Roenier abruptly entered the room and said something to Kernek. This one didn’t have a translator, so I had no idea what the words meant. 

Then I was given a bit of a hint, as Kernek turned back to us to speak. “The one you call Jophiel is awake. She and the one called Elisabet have requested the presence of the four who are their students, as well as the ones Sariel, Athena, Sachael, and Joselyn.

“It seems they have information of vital importance to share.”

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Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me awhand I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority? What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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Patreon Snippets 19 Including Fomorian Origin Story (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 19th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Months Ago, During The Night Of The Rebellion Being Reformed

There were three incredibly important things that one had to know about Malcolm Harkess’s father, Shane, if one was going to understand his son. First, the man was very rich. He had inherited a decent amount (seven figures) of money as an eighteen-year-old orphan. Second, despite inheriting such cash, Shane Harkess was still incredibly driven to earn his own way. He went into the US Marines and served his country for ten years on three different continents before retiring as a first sergeant. From there, he used the money he had originally inherited as well as the contacts he made in the service to start-up an armed private security company. 

Those were two of the three important things to know about Shane Harkess. The third, even more vital piece of information, was that he was also incredibly paranoid. Shane had been convinced since the time that he was a child that some sort of very dangerous and devastating war was coming. A war which would begin with most technology in the world being wiped out or eliminated. Which, of course, would make supplies quite hard to come across. Thus, he trained the men in his security company not only how to fight using their fancy guns and equipment, but also in much more archaic forms of combat. He had trained in medieval weapons construction, upkeep, and fighting, hand-to-hand, various survival and concealment techniques, and so on since before he had even entered the military itself. The Marines, of course, had taken these skills to the next level. And he passed that level to everyone who ended up working for him. 

But it wasn’t only his men that he taught. Shane Harkess passed everything he knew, everything he had trained himself to do, on to his son. Malcolm, from the time he had been barely old enough to walk, had been taught how to fight and survive by his father, as well as his father’s military buddies and security subordinates. He learned how to clean, maintain, and fire every type of gun imaginable, as well as how to fight without such an advantage. He learned to survive in the woods with nothing but a knife, and eventually with less than that. 

All that training had been instilled so thoroughly in Malcolm that he was incredibly competitive. That competitive streak had accompanied him here, to Crossroads. Yet no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he worked, he could never manage to beat Avalon Sinclaire. And he so desperately wanted to. Not because he particularly disliked the girl or anything. Not even because she was a girl, that was stupid. He knew too many really strong females to think something idiotic like that. 

No, Malcolm wanted to beat Avalon simply because she was better than he was. And if he beat her, he’d know he was improving. It was nothing personal. But he could never do it. Which led to him pushing himself harder and harder, training more, to the point that he received special permission to train in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. 

And that was why he was standing in the middle of the gym that night, when everything went down and that blaring music began to play. Malcolm had had no idea what was going on, only that he was locked in the gym by a passing security guard who told him to stay put. From there, he stared through the doors and out the various windows, trying to figure out what had happened. 

Then it came. The sudden rush of understanding that left Malcolm staggering backward. The rebellion, Flick’s mom, everything that had been done to shut them down. She–that chick did something to fill everyone’s heads with all that information. All that–and now they were leaving. They were going to take off. He could see the large group down by the ocean, through the window. Something was going on down there, and he had to get the hell out of–

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Malcolm, and he spun to find a completely unexpected figure standing there. 

“Counselor Leven?!” It was her. Zeke’s mother and member of the Crossroads Committee. “What–what’re you doing? Shouldn’t you be down… uhh, down there?” He gestured toward the scene going on in the distance through the window.

“Hello, Malcolm,” the beautiful, auburn-haired woman greeted him. “And no, I believe what happens there will happen regardless of my presence, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in what you plan to do now.” 

“I–uhh…” The tall, muscular boy hesitated, feeling uneasily intimidated by the smaller, yet profoundly more powerful woman. “That stuff, the memories or whatever, is it true?” 

There was a short pause from Sophronia before she gave a very slight nod. “You want to go with them?” 

The pause from Malcolm, in turn, was much longer than hers. Finally, he carefully replied, “I’m not sure how to answer that, ma’am.” 

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Then allow me to tell you what I would like. You are the closest friend my son has, Malcolm Harkess. Which, given his typical dismissal of Bystander matters, is quite remarkable in and of itself.” 

Offering him a very faint smile, she continued. “Zeke will not leave this place now, it’s not… it’s not who he is, yet. I believe he can be better, I have to. But I also believe that your leaving will sour him against the subject permanently. He will view his best friend joining the rebellion as a betrayal, rather than an informative moment.” 

Malcolm stared at her briefly before slowly asking, “You saying you want me to stay here because it’ll piss your son off if I leave?” 

“What I am saying,” she informed him, “is that if you choose to leave I will not stand in your way. I will even aid you in reaching those who are fleeing. But I ask… not as a Heretic, not as a member of the Committee, as a mother. As a mother, I ask that you stay and try to help my son. If you leave, he will be alone save for those who wish to make him even more of a fanatic.” 

“What about you?” the boy demanded. “You’re his mom.” 

“And there is some I can do, yet not enough,” Sophronia replied. “I am his mother, and also a member of the Committee. What I do, particularly around my son, is watched more than what you do. You are his friend, someone he has chosen to open up to despite his own prejudices. I believe that, with time and effort, it may be possible to reach him. If we do so gradually and give him more reasons to doubt his own beliefs.” 

Reaching out, she put one hand on his shoulder. “Say the word, and I will take you to the newly-budding rebellion. Or choose to stay. Not for me. For my son. I want him to be better, but it’s something he has to choose for himself. I would prefer he have a better chance of doing so by being connected to a good influence. Your influence.” 

Once more, Malcolm was silent, glancing to her hand and then to the window where people were retreating. Where the new rebellion was escaping. His expression was indecisive. Finally, he exhaled long and low. “Fine. 

“I’ll stick around for Zeke.” 

*****

Puriel And Company

With a slight squeak of metal, a two-foot wide, square panel was pried away from a wall. Doing so revealed an intricate network of tubes and wires surrounding brightly colored lights. Some of the tubes seemed to carry liquid of one kind or another, while others appeared empty. The lights blinked in various patterns that surely meant something to… someone. 

“Welp,” announced Arthur Chambers, who was not one of those someones, “Have you checked the oil?” 

Slowly, the man standing beside him, Puriel, turned his head to look that way. “Have we what?” As he spoke, the man was setting the metal panel against the nearby wall with a very soft ting. 

The two of them were in one of the Olympus’s many vast corridors. The hall was only lit by the dimmest of lighting, as most of the ship remained on extremely low power for the time being. It was an effect which left both men barely visible to one another. And most of that was thanks to the colored lights from the newly-opened panel. 

“Sorry,” Arthur murmured with a shrug, having turned his attention back to what they had revealed. “Usually the first thing you’re supposed to ask when someone’s checking for engine trouble. But ahhh, this might be slightly beyond anything I’ve ever worked with.” Glancing back that way, he added, “Not diesel, is it?”  

There had been a time when Puriel would have scoffed at that, when he would have treated the human as a useless primitive, barely capable of speech. Now, he paused before snorting softly. “No, Mr…” He hesitated before amending. “… Arthur. I don’t believe it’s diesel. Though as far as my people are concerned, most of this ship is little more than a quaint antique. Top of the line in her day, yet… yet she has fallen behind.” Despite his words, there was a clear fondness in his voice, while the man gently ran one hand along the wall. For a moment, he was lost in memories. 

“You think the kid can really bring her up to snuff?” Arthur asked after giving the other man a few seconds to reminisce. “That Spark, she’s like a real genius at this stuff. That’s not normal for your people, is it? Sorry, I mean it’s not usual.”

“Indeed.” The answer came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The small, black Seosten woman approached through the winding corridor, accompanied by Arthur’s wife, Maria, as well as the enormous figure of Alcaeus. “Spark is very much an unusual level of genius,” Aletheia continued to confirm, once they had all arrived. “Happily for us.” 

“How are they doing?” Puriel asked, his question directed toward Maria. He could easily tell for himself, of course. Spark was still connected to him, after all. She was simply using the projection spell to put an image of herself elsewhere. All he really had to do was stop actively shunting his attention away from the spell she was using to see through that hologram. But he preferred to give the girl as much privacy as their unique situation allowed. 

Maria, in turn, offered a grandmotherly smile. “Spark is assisting her brother and the rest of the children with sandwich preparations. Kutattca is with them. You don’t exactly have peanut butter and jelly here, but I believe Grandpa Kutty and I managed to piece together effective substitutes from the new supplies.” She looked toward Aletheia then, adding, “Your friend here is very good at acquiring things.” 

“Always has been.” That was Al, grunting the words before stepping up to join the men in staring at the flashing lights, wires, and coils. “So like Artie here said, between all of us and the kid’s super-genius, can we really get this ship into good enough condition to make it to Earth?” 

“With some luck and a lot of work from the rest of us, yes,” Puriel confirmed. “At least, I believe so. This ship was intended to operate under a much larger and… no offense intended, much better trained crew. But between general improvements, automation spells we can set up, and Spark’s own inspired upgrades, we should be able to pull it off, eventually.”

There was a brief exchange of looks then, before Maria cleared her throat. “Oh, honestly, would you all just spit it out.” To Puriel, she flatly continued with, “Everyone wants to know if that genius kid of yours got her spiffy tech skills from whoever her father might be. You know, since you said those superpowers could be passed on after all.” 

“You’re asking if Spark’s father is Radueriel,” Puriel finished for her. He paused, waiting for the collection of nods before giving a very slight shake of his head. “No. I have been through all of my late wife’s records. Spark’s father was an unremarkable volunteer from the front lines of the war, who wished to have some chance at passing on his genetics. He was unaware of the extent of what was happening at the lab, only believing that some of our scientists were working on creating children through… artificial means.”

The others absorbed that, before Arthur asked, “Does that mean she’s just… naturally coming up with this stuff? No offense, just seems like it’s about the same as a twelve-year-old on our world with no training randomly inventing… well… one of these.” He gestured at the ship around them. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel nodded once. “As far as we can tell, yes. There is nothing in her genealogical history that would account for some special Tartarus-derived power to explain her skills in design. Her mother’s ability is nothing like that, and her biological father has no such power, nor any particular skill in technology. From all of the very extensive research I have done, Spark’s genius is simply that. Her genius.”

Taking that in, the others exchanged looks once more before Arthur eventually spoke once more. “I suppose if Spark’s father is some random guy, so is Omni’s.” 

“Oh, no, not at all,” Puriel corrected. “Omni’s father is very much someone we know. 

“His name is Abaddon.” 

*****

Fomorian Origins

A/N – Sariel first told Larissa the Seosten understanding of the origins of Cronus and the Fomorians back in Mini-Interlude 37, right here for those who would like to compare.

Throughout the vast, unfathomable reaches of space, trillions of worlds existed. Some dark, dormant, and cold, others bright shining beacons. Some were small, churning balls of hot gases that would melt and twist steel within seconds, while others were goliaths of frozen liquids and mountains that towered into the sort of immeasurable size that would make the Earth itself vanish within a single cavern of such a world. 

Such incalculable cosmic phenomena existed within the bounds of only one universe, let alone several interconnected realities, that it was beyond the capabilities of even the most celebrated Seosten scientist to document even a decent fraction of them. Despite their own ten thousand year average lifespan and infallible memories, space was simply too large to be accurately understood and charted.

If it was beyond even the Seosten’s ability to fully detail the worlds within their own area of space, then those that lay beyond the battlelines of their war with the Fomorians were as mysterious and unknown as the land of Earth’s moon would have been to primitive, pre-fire humans. And like those ancient, aboriginal societies, many stories had been made up and spread throughout the Seosten Empire of what the Fomorian-controlled worlds were like. Or what Fomorian society itself, if it even truly existed, might have been. The Seosten scientists who detailed these ideas of their enemy’s society based them on millennia of observation and evidence that had been collected by their peers, or pieced-together witness reports from a few scattered survivors. They put together as clear of a picture of the Fomorian ‘society’ as they could. 

And they were, in almost every countable way, entirely wrong. Personal prejudices, misunderstood or even deliberately falsified evidence, survivors whose stories were exaggerated or whose memories had been tampered with by either side, and more problems made it entirely impossible for anyone to have anything even remotely close to an accurate view of what the Fomorians were like away from the front lines of their war. Or what the origin of their species had truly been. Their own worlds, the center of their society, were entirely cut off from any outsiders. Not one single non-Fomorian had laid living eyes upon those original worlds since before the great war between the genetic monstrosities and the Seosten Empire had begun, hundreds of thousands of years earlier. None who were not Fomorian themselves had ever stood upon the soil of their capital world and seen the truth of who and what these creatures were. 

Most importantly, none had ever laid eyes upon the world where all Fomorians were born.

There were many reasons for this, from the vastness of their owned space, to the ferocity with which they defended (and constantly expanded) their borders, to the atrocities committed by their people on those who wandered anywhere near the edges of their territory, let alone getting close to the center. But above all, there was one primary reason for why no living, non-Fomorian being had ever seen the planet all of them were born on, the seat of their civilization. Because the Fomorians, as the universe knew them, were not born on any world. 

They were born on a ship. 

——–

Under a veil of darkness, one pair of eyes opened. Those eyes, bred and enhanced through hundreds of generations, were capable of viewing the world around them through any of a dozen different vision modes. They could see perfectly within pitch-black night, would have been capable of counting the hairs on the leg of a common Earth housefly from a mile away, could stare directly into a star for hours without harmful effect, and could even view ultraviolet and infrared waves, as well as literal magical energy itself. Nothing that was capable of being seen by a living being (and many things that technically weren’t) could be hidden from this single pair of eyes. 

And yet, at that particular moment, the eyes saw nothing. The area around them was not simply dark, it was obscured, physically covered by something. The being attached to the eyes floated within what amounted to very thick, almost pudding-like nutrient liquid of pure black coloration, their body held rigid and motionless by four muscular tentacles coiled around their arms and legs (two of each). Those tentacles were attached to the inner walls of the cocoon or egg-like structure the being had awoken within. A cocoon which entirely encased the being and produced the nutrient paste their body had used to grow to its full size, while its attached tentacles held the being by the arms and legs. 

For many years, the body within this cocoon had been nurtured and maintained. Now, as the eyes of the body within opened and the body began to twist a bit, its job was done. The tentacles holding the being’s limbs retracted at the very instant that the occupant began to struggle in earnest, while the cocoon itself began to dissolve. The hard outer shell, capable up until that point of standing against even a full barrage from a capital starship, melted into the same pudding-like gel that had filled its interior. The tentacles followed suit, the resulting pool of thick liquid dripping through a thin, yet incredibly tough membrane that made up the floor below it.

As the cocoon dissolved and dripped through the floor, the being that had been held within was left crouching, naked on a small platform in the middle of a cavernous structure surrounded by dozens more eggs just like the one they had just emerged from. The walls of the cavern were flesh, with visible rib-like bones across the domed ‘ceiling’, and an overall general structure that looked like the inside of a mostly-hollowed out whale. 

After what would have been considered several Earth-minutes, the crouched, naked being straightened. Their gaze slowly turned to take in the area around them, absorbing the sight of those other cocoons before lowering their eyes to take in the sight of their own raised hands. Gray-green hands, thin yet unbelievably strong. Powerful, tough, incredibly dexterous, and… wrong. 

“No,” the being murmured under their breath, their head starting to shake. “No, this is wrong.” The words that emerged from their strange, unfamiliar mouth were what people of Earth would consider Latin. The Seosten language, though the exact words and pronunciation were quite different in many ways than what most would understand. Different, because they were many, many centuries out of date. 

“This isn’t me!” The being was shouting out loud by that point, their bellows filling the egg-filled cavern. “What is this?! Hey, what in the void is going on here?! Hey!” They pivoted, moving toward the nearest cocoon. If they had been trapped inside, maybe others they knew were trapped within the rest. 

Stop.” The loud, booming voice came from everywhere, yet nowhere. It seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, echoing throughout the biological cavern. It was a voice which, despite the confused and frantic newly-emerged being’s desperation, made them follow that single order and halt instinctively before slowly looking around as though searching for the source. 

“Where–where are you? Where am I? What is this? Come out, now!” The shouted command was a mix of fearful and angry, the being’s confusion warring with their rising emotions about where they had found themselves, and in what state. “I swear, if you don’t show yourself right now–” 

“Apologies.” The voice came from behind the confused new hatchling, and they spun to find a figure standing between two other eggs. Unlike their own awkward, unfamiliar gray-green body, the person who had now revealed themselves had pale skin, long brown hair, a slightly muscled physique, and soft green eyes. He wore nothing more than loose brown pants, and appeared completely out of place here in this cocoon-filled flesh cavern specifically because he looked entirely human. Entirely human, or–

“Seosten!” the hatched figure blurted abruptly, their surprise and relief audible. “You’re Seosten! Like me, like…” Trailing off, they looked down at their hands. “Like I’m… supposed to be. What did they do to me? What–I’m not–” Looking up again, voice and bulbous, too-large eyes pleading, they continued. “What is this? Wh-what happened to me? Is this… is this aliens?” Their voice had turned tentative, fearful as they took a step that way, reaching out to desperately grasp at the arm of the Seosten man. “Where are we?” 

After a very brief pause, the pale, shirtless man offered a slight smile before taking one of the confused, frightened figure’s hands. Squeezing reassuringly, he turned and began to walk. “Come, I’ll show you exactly what has happened. It’s alright, you have nothing to be afraid of. Please, what’s your name?” 

“I… I’m Lailah,” came the hesitant answer. “And I’m not-not this thing.” Their hands gestured toward the strange, unfamiliar body. “I’m a Seosten like you! I mean, a female Seosten. Not this, I’m not–I’m not this thing! What happened to me?! Please, just–just tell me what happened? Was it an accident in the lab? Was it–” 

“Shh, please, it’s alright.” Gently soothing her with his voice, the shirtless Seosten man continued to lead her through the large cavern as he asked, “I promise, we’ll get to the bottom of this, and you will be okay. Just try to calm down a little bit. Can you tell me the last thing you remember before waking up here?” 

“The last thing I remember?” Lailah echoed uncertainly. She had to think about it. And thinking was rather hard right then, though something about the man’s voice made it easier than it should have been to follow his instructions. He asked her to calm down, and part of her did, despite the insanity and terror of waking up in a strange body. “There was some kind of accident in the lab I was working at. We were investigating experimental treatments for diseases, like the one Caelus Euven–he’s my boss–the one his son has.” 

There was a brief pause while her guide stopped walking. He glanced away and seemed to think about her words before curiously asking, “Cron?” 

“You know him?” Blinking that way with more than a little surprise, Lailah nodded. “Yes, he’s been in our lab for a few months now. His father’s desperate to find a cure. I’m afraid… I’m afraid he’s been cutting a few safety corners. He has this strange idea that he can create a secondary… wait a minute.” As she trailed off, those large, alien eyes widened. “He wanted to make a new body and transfer his son from the sick one to the healthy one. Did–did he do this?” She had stopped walking again, raising those strange greenish hands up in front of her face to stare at them in horror. “Was I–was I his test subject? Wait, those other cocoons. Those other–the rest of–” 

Turning to face her, the still normal-looking Seosten man held his own pale hands out. “Easy–” 

“Easy?!” she echoed, blurting the word in disbelief and anger. “Have you looked at me?! What am I! What did he do to me?! What did that monster do?!” 

Immediately, the man closed the distance between them. Fury blazed in his eyes as he raised a hand, shaking from emotion. “He is not a monster. It wasn’t his fault. He was trying to save me!”   

“Trying to save…” Once more, the woman trailed off. She stared at him, placing the face as a very soft gasp escaped her. “Cron–no. You’re young–barely more than a child. How are you–years. Whatever happened, whatever this is… I’ve been out for years.” 

“Years?” A faint note of amusement entered the voice of her guide, Cron. “Oh, Lailah. It’s been a bit longer than that. Though, I suppose it really depends on how you count, to be honest. By your personal measure, it’s been a very, very long time. By mine, we had this conversation a few months ago. And a few years before that. And perhaps a decade earlier–your model is very prone to arrogance. It gets you in trouble.” 

“My–my model?” She took a step away from him, mouth working a bit as a wordless sound of confusion escaped her. “What are you talking about? What–what’s happening?” 

“It’s more about what already happened,” came the casual response. “And what happened is that my father succeeded–in a manner of speaking. He created a new body for me, with the help of you and your colleagues, of course. He also gave me the ability to create a connection to the new body, so I could transfer myself into it. Unfortunately, that new body he transferred me into wasn’t some empty, blank slate. 

“You see, it turns out there was a mind in there already, because one of your other colleagues had a brother who got into an accident and brain-damaged. This other doctor, he thought he could use my father’s work temporarily, just enough to transfer his damaged brother’s mind into the new body to have one last conversation. To say goodbye. He did the same thing to his injured brother that my father did to me, performed alterations to his DNA so that he could match it to the new body. He even managed to make that connection. He managed to transfer his almost brain-dead brother to the new body. But my father interrupted, and wouldn’t listen before he started the procedure for me. So when I was transferred, there was already a mind inside what should have been an empty body. A mind that was terrified and confused. He lashed out. I fought back. We struggled, and then my father tried to hug me. He didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t know there was a problem. A problem which got worse, because the method he used to allow me to transfer myself into the new body extended to taking him into the body as well. We absorbed him, my father.” 

“I…” Lailah was gazing off into the distance as screams and orders echoed through her mind. “I remember. I think I remember, anyway. We tried to stop it. We tried to get the situation under control. We were trying to sedate the body, but it didn’t work. He–you–it fought back. It… I was… you picked me up.” She stared at him, voice shaking. “You threw me across the room. I hit a table and… and then the wall. You were standing over me. You reached down, and I… and I was gone. Then I woke up here. Why–” She stopped, clearly trying to understand something. “Why can’t I be angry with you? Why can’t I–I want to yell at you. I want to hit you. I want to scream and run away. I can’t. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do any of that?” 

Sounding unconcerned, the man pivoted and began to walk once more through the flesh and bone tunnel. “Come, you’ll understand eventually. Or not, but it hardly matters. I suppose there was a time when I would have tried harder to make you understand. And knowing how these things fluctuate, there will come a time when I try harder again.” 

As they walked, he explained, all-too-casually, what had happened to the Seosten after her memories faded out. He told her about how the combined form of Caelus and Cron, now called Cronus, kept absorbing more and more people in an increasingly desperate attempt to possess enough mental power to solve their problem and save themselves. He told her about how that was quickly twisted, their original goal forgotten as they sought only to absorb more Seosten for no particular reason, and how the genetic alterations to their body mutated, spreading out from them in virus-form to infect even those they didn’t absorb. He told her about how that mutation rapidly propagated through the remaining Seosten population, granting them the ability to possess and control others, and about how the subsequent war between Cronus and the rest of the Seosten population devastated their planet to the point of reshaping the world itself by turning what had been a singular massive continent into a much smaller one surrounded by thousands of islands. He was fairly candid about the lengths he–or Cronus–went to in their mad attempt to absorb as many people as possible. Thousands upon thousands of minds, hundreds of thousands, even. A million or more. All of them taken into one body, and all contributing to make him less and less sane. 

Finally, Cronus had left their homeworld. He–or they– abandoned Elohim using the experimental spaceship the Seosten had been working on, and set out to find a new home where they could sort through what was, by that point, hundreds of thousands of voices from all of the people they had absorbed.

Entranced by his story, Lailah only belatedly noticed that they had reached the end of the biological tunnel, and were now standing in what appeared to be the cockpit of that same, just-mentioned spaceship. Though there were various… additions to the space. Mostly consisting of several tentacles spread across the metal walls and over the controls. Tentacles with living, beating/pulsing organs attached to them, like those of a living creature that had been directly connected into the technology. 

“What… what is this?” Lailah tried to demand, yet her voice came out as a soft, uncertain question. 

“What is it?” her guide echoed before pointing toward the main screen in the center of the fairly cramped (particularly with the organ-covered tentacles running through it) cockpit. “Look, and see where we are. See the heart of what we have achieved. Or perhaps a better term would be, the womb.” 

As he spoke, the view on the screen flickered, before abruptly showing the outside of the ship itself from up close. They could see the cockpit window, could see themselves watching the screen. Seeing that, Lailah glanced that way, but the window was mirrored from this side, making it impossible to see anything beyond. 

Turning her attention back to the monitor, she watched as whatever was out there transmitting the signal began to pull back. She saw more of the ship. It was essentially a thick silver-white oval, like a semi-flattened egg. Larger tentacles, like the ones within the cockpit running through all the controls, were wrapped around it. They looked like the roots of a giant tree that had grown to envelop the ship, leading back to… to…

The best way Lailah’s mind could describe it was a gigantic snail, complete with (a soft, pulsing) shell. It was over a thousand miles from one end to the other. The opening of the ‘shell,’ where the snail’s head would emerge, instead had hundreds of various-sized tentacles. Some were as small as ordinary tree vines, while others were miles across. One singular tentacle-like tube attached the moon-sized soft-looking shell to the ship they were now standing on. That was the organic tunnel they had walked through to get here, and the cocoon-filled chamber was but one of what had to be hundreds within the shell itself. 

“We traveled for decades on this ship,” her guide murmured. “Years upon years where we spent most of the time hardly cognizant of our surroundings. We found that our body didn’t need nutrients. It took what it needed from the people we absorbed, storing the energy from their bodies and keeping it for later. Many thousands of our people, converted to the nourishment our combined self required. For decades, the ship traveled through space while we drifted within our own minds. Close to a million minds and personalities, all fighting and struggling to be heard, to be released, to be noticed. Many living out entire fantasy dream scenarios. It was impossible to think, impossible to focus through the noise. We lost ourselves for a long time. Years upon years passed while those minds within us fought for attention, or simply played out their imagined lives. We lived every life of every person we had taken, our focus and attention drifting from one to the next, aimless and chaotic. 

“Finally, we could go no further. Our ship reached this point, this empty area of space, and would proceed no more. We had fixed it before, but there was no fixing this. It was done, our physical, outward journey over. Yet our mental path, the dreams of nearly a million minds longed to have showed no signs of ending. For another dozen years after our ship had stopped, we lay here on the floor just where you stand, our body incapable of moving because of so many minds arguing over which direction it would go. Perhaps we would have stayed there forever, until the energy we had absorbed from all those bodies finally faded, and we simply died there. Perhaps, save for a single, chance encounter.” 

For a few long seconds, he simply stood there, staring off at nothing as though lost in those memories. Finally, the man slowly turned his gaze to her, their eyes meeting before he continued. “An alien ship found us. A ship full of refugees and explorers, who sent a team aboard. They found our body lying there, and they made perhaps the worst mistake they ever could have. They tried to save us by taking our body back to their ship, to their medical center. There, our body continued to lay while their doctors did what they could to determine what was physically wrong with us. They even installed a translator device allowing us to understand them.

“The main doctor had a child with them, a young boy who sat with us for hours that night, telling us stories of his world. He wanted to help us. His father told him that we could hear, because their instruments showed a mental reaction to his words. So he told those stories. Some were amusing, some were adventures, but many were horror. The boy liked those, the scary, disgusting stories the most. They were all nice to hear. We enjoyed them. We couldn’t show it, couldn’t find the way of guiding every mind within us to thank the boy for his stories.” 

“Did you kill him?” Lailah’s voice was quiet, though tinted with emotion. “Did you kill the alien boy and everyone else on that ship just like you killed all of us?”

He didn’t respond at first, instead simply meeting her gaze in silence before carefully answering with a firm, “No. The mistake those people made was not in taking us aboard and trying to help. It was in stopping to do so. They did not want to go any further until they understood what had happened to us, lest it be something that could affect them. So they waited. They stayed here in this spot where our ship had stopped. And that was their undoing. The monsters they fled from, soldiers from their own world who served a genocidal dictator, tracked them down to this spot. Their ship was overrun, and they were all slaughtered. Thousands of them, killed without mercy. The boy who told us stories was one of the last. He was here, hiding, when they came. He pleaded for help. His words, his voice… he begged for us to save him. We heard, and saw, as they gleefully murdered the boy. 

“And that was when our souls became united in one single, solitary goal. For the first time in decades, every mind we had absorbed had one thought: to kill those monsters. Our confusion lifted, burned away by white-hot rage. We moved. For the first time in so long, we moved of our own volition, and tore into those things. We avenged the deaths of those who had tried to help us. We killed every single invader who boarded the ship. Unfortunately, a few escaped back to their own vessel and fled.” 

Reaching out to gently stroke one of the nearby tentacles thoughtfully, the man continued after another moment. “We were alone again. Alone with a million minds trapped within us. But we did not fall back into our motionless coma, because we had a goal. Some of those monsters had escaped. And the dictator who led them, the one their victims had fled from in the first place, was still safe and sound back on their world. He would continue to thrive after his men butchered the people who had been kind to us. That was something we could not allow to stand. Our fury remained, the rage that gave us the focus we needed to be united. 

“But we knew that we could not accomplish true revenge in our current state. Powerful as we were, there was but one of us. One body. We had been defeated and chased away from our own home by our people because of that, because we were outnumbered by so much. That was our weakness. A weakness we had to do something about. And now, we had the materials to work with.” 

Swallowing hard, Lailah quietly put in, “the corpses who were left behind, the bodies of those who tried to save you, and of the ones you killed in retaliation.”   

“Precisely,” he confirmed. “Our rage gave us what we needed mentally. It united us, gave us a purpose to move toward. The purpose of vengeance. With that unity, we took the minds we had absorbed and put them all toward one goal: fixing the corpses left behind on that ship to create new bodies for all of the people who were inside us. We would overcome our singular weakness of being a legion trapped within one body, by creating a legion. We put the bodies back together, upgraded them, used materials from those too broken to be useful in order to add to others.” 

Slowly, Lailah held up her own green-gray arms. “These? This is what the aliens looked like. This is what their bodies were.”

With a slight nod, the man continued. “It took months of work. But we put the bodies back together. Hundreds of them, then over a thousand. They could support life again, yet had no minds within them. That was when the truly hard work began. Over more months, twice as long as it took to put the physical bodies back together, we learned to project those we had absorbed into those bodies. The first few attempts were… failures. We pushed too many minds, or broke the mind irreparably in the process of the transfer. Yours was one of those injured. We managed to put it back together, but your memories were damaged in the process. Now you and others who were similarly damaged in the process of our testing must be told the truth of things whenever you reawaken.” 

Lailah was about to jump on the many questions she had about that, but he had already pushed on. “With trial and error, and far too many losses, we finally managed to perfect the process of transfer. Over a thousand bodies now had minds within them, and we were alone no longer. And with our new bodies, we set to work repairing the damage to the alien ship that had been done during the invasion. When it was ready to travel once more, we used their computer to send the ship back where it had come from, back to their home planet.” 

From there, while Lailah watched and listened with rapidly increasing unease, the man detailed how their new army had flown back to the alien planet and began to attack them. They spread like a virus across the other world. For every member of the other species they killed, Cronus was able to put the body back into working order and inject one of his stolen Seosten minds into it. With that, their numbers expanded exponentially, and they began to use the biological expertise, which had been cultivated and boosted in order to make repairing the bodies possible in the first place, to enhance the bodies they were given. They didn’t have the original Cronus’s ability to absorb anyone they touched, yet their biological enhancements meant they remained a terrifyingly effective invasion force. 

The Seosten’s own homeworld had barely survived the attacks from Cronus specifically because he’d only had one body. With an exponentially growing army, that weakness was removed. The aliens didn’t stand a chance, particularly when they failed to recognize the true extent of the threat early on. Soon, there were enough dead aliens to give a (soon enhanced and improved) body to every stolen Seosten mind. Yet they were not themselves anymore. Decades of being part of a single body and connected to the corrupted mind of Cronus had twisted them beyond all recognition. One and all, the former-Seosten obeyed their master, the one called Cronus. 

There were, of course, far more dead bodies than they had minds to inject into them. At most, there were under a million Seosten minds, and billions of dead aliens. Not wanting to let such resources go to waste, and still needing more troops in order to continue spreading their war across the planet, Cronus and his former-Seosten began to use those bodies, and those of random animals they came across, to create even more troops. These had no real minds, no real sapience. They were simply predators, monsters who were twisted, improved, and turned against the world’s inhabitants as shock troopers. Soon, the despotic leader who had been responsible for sending his army to track down and murder the original refugees was dead, along with all of those who had supported him. 

“But you didn’t stop–we didn’t stop,” Lailah quietly murmured. “Why? You–we… killed the dictator and his men, but you kept going. You spread over the entire world, you killed all of them. Every single person on the world. Why didn’t we spare the innocents?” 

“The innocents?” her companion snarled in disbelief, shaking that off. “There were no innocents left on that planet. The innocents were those who fled and tried to help us. Anyone left behind was complicit with their leader. They all got the justice they deserved for aligning themselves with the monster. You may not remember the pleading of the child who told us stories, but we do. We hear his voice. We hear his screams, his terror. And we enacted his revenge.”

For years, then decades, and then centuries after that, Cronus and his altered people continued to grow and enhance themselves. They used the resources of the world they had taken over to make their bodies stronger, spending hundreds of years perfecting their skills of biological manipulation and enhancements. As they were no longer truly Seosten, they took the name of the species they had so thoroughly destroyed and whom they now resembled (save for the enhancements each member performed on themselves), the Fomorians. 

During the original fighting, it had been found that any of the former-Seosten whose new body was destroyed would instantly find their mind back within the body of Cronus himself. They were, in effect, immortal. Dying simply meant being sent back to Cronus and then injected into a new body. And over those centuries, they developed a new system. Rather than being put back within Cronus upon the ‘death’ of their physical body, their minds were sent to a ‘hive’, where new bodies based on the original Fomorian prototype were created within egg-like structures before they were released once more. This hive, the center of the Fomorian life, was created in where their original ship had shut down, built around the precise spot where the refugee ship had been. 

“Yet it wasn’t enough,” Cronus quietly noted. “Our guilt, over our failure to protect the child, over the loss of our original identity as a species, over everything…” 

“Everything we did,” Lailah put in. “We felt guilty because we were monsters. You turned us into monsters. You twisted us, made us… wrong. We were supposed to be Seosten and you made us something far worse. We spent decades with our minds trapped inside your body, our thoughts, loyalties, and personalities manipulated and corrupted. Then you put us in these strange, unfamiliar bodies. We were breaking down, our… our minds were falling apart.”

“And I fixed it,” the man informed her. “I removed the guilt, the confusion, the fear. Every new body your minds inhabit includes enhancements which ensure you feel none of that. You feel loyalty to me, and a desire to expand our people. Nothing more than that. You feel no sadness or guilt for what must be done. You do not feel the horrific remorse over everything that has been done to us, or that we have done. You feel none of it. You are incapable of feeling such things. That is my gift to all of you. One of them. The other is the promise that we will rewrite this universe–all universes. We will make everything like us. Connected, beautiful, and perfect. There will be no more random disease that ravages an innocent child, killing him in his bed while his father stands helpless and ashamed of his own failures. Everything in this universe will be connected to us. It will work. It will make sense, because we will create it to make sense.” 

That was the truth of the Fomorians. Almost one million former Seosten, their minds twisted in every conceivable way, with their new bodies intentionally engineered to render them incapable of feeling things like regret, guilt, compassion, or even empathy. They felt nothing, save for love of their own species and a desire to spread what they were across the universe. They saw every other living creature, everything not created and manipulated by them, as the enemy. And felt no pity for them. The only thing they truly felt was a hatred of everything different, everything  that was not Fomorian. 

“When you die as a Fomorian,” Cronus informed her, “your mind is reset to what it was before. Some of you are cast back to earlier times, some later. Either way, your memories return to your former selves, temporarily. But in time, anywhere from seconds to hours, the improvements I’ve included in your bodies do their work, and you become my people once more.”

There was no response at first. The figure he was speaking to stood silently, gazing off at nothing as though they didn’t hear him at all. Finally, after almost a minute of that, the figure straightened and looked to him. And in that gaze, he knew it was over. There was nothing of Lailah’s original mind left at that moment. The Fomorian body had done its job in suppressing her personality entirely. 

“Ahh, apologies, Lord Cronus. I appear to have experienced some… setbacks. There were humans there, on the Meregan world. More Heretics there to… rescue the one we were attempting to capture. And they were with Seosten.”

“Tell me more,” Cronus ordered, turning his back to the view of the birthing hive in order to focus all of his attention on his newly-reborn subject. “You say there were humans and Seosten working together. Elaborate. I want to know everything about them.

“This sounds… interesting.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Time, time. I needed time for my paint to come back so that I wasn’t essentially a helpless little girl facing a bunch of armed men anymore. But I also needed to make sure I kept their attention long enough for that to happen without the group noticing the other girl over by their prisoners. 

“Hey, asshole!” The sudden shout from Juice himself made me jump, but it was coming from the front while I was already back near the stock room with several rows of shelving units in the way. “Think you’re getting outta here?!” he continued in a loud, echoing bellow. “Think again! We got this fucking place surrounded! Out back and up top. It’s all covered. You ain’t going nowhere!” 

Oh boy, oh boy was it hard not to call out a retort pointing out his double-negative. I had to bite my tongue, because he was so begging for it. Apparently a consequence of dealing with all my confusion and insecurities in the middle of horrible, traumatic danger by using insults and bad jokes was that it was hard to turn that impulse off when using it was a really bad idea. 

When he was met with no response (barely), Juice gave an audible growl. I heard a blast of his electricity shoot out somewhere, though it came nowhere near where I was, currently ducked behind the last row of shoe shelves. His voice was dripping with annoyance and the promise of violence. If not to me, then to others. “Get your asses moving. Drag that arrogant little brat out here.” 

Right, so… apparently I wasn’t going to have to work very hard at the ‘keep their attention on me’ plan. In fact, I was gonna go right ahead and give myself a stunning A-Plus on that assignment.

But now what? The men were starting to move through the store, smacking shoes and boxes off the shelves, spreading out so they could cover every row, and methodically working their way toward me. The area I was in at the moment was the kid’s section right before the stockroom. There were two rows of half-sized shelves sticking out perpendicular to the wall, creating a sort-of miniature boxed in area that was all kid shoes. I was currently ducked down behind the last of those shelves to stay out of sight. The stockroom door was only a few feet away, but it was in plain sight of one of the rows that I could hear one of those guys making their way down. 

Okay, my paint only needed a short time to recharge. Like a minute or two? Had it been a minute or two yet? It had to be, right? Fuck. Fuck. I had to wait as long as possible, let my tank have as much time as it could to recharge or refill or whatever the hell it did. Unfortunately, the men were almost to my spot, and I had a feeling they were starting to realize that it was the most likely place for me to be, because all of them were moving faster. Before, they had been taking the time to knock boxes around, leaning up to peer on top of the shelves, and just basically being thorough. Now, however, I heard footsteps approaching quickly, along with dangerous muttering. In a second, they were going to be right on top of me. They could peer over the half-sized shelf or come around the corner there. Then I’d really be a sitting duck. I had a few seconds at best.

Ready or not, it was time to do this. Quickly, I grabbed the nearest thing that could possibly be anything resembling a weapon. It was a Brannock Device (one of those metal measuring things you put your foot into and adjust to tell you what size shoes you should wear). With the thing in my hand, I focused. To my immeasurable relief, it turned orange. Paint was back on the menu! 

Instantly, I put the image of a large purple stick-figure man kicking someone across the front of my costume, and an orange bull head on the back. But I didn’t activate them just yet. First, I waited and listened to the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. At the last possible instant, I activated all that paint both on myself and the Brannock Device, as my hand lashed forward. With a grunt, I hurled the metal measuring thing like a tomahawk or something, chucking it as hard as I could right at the space where one of the men was just coming into view. Just as it left my hand, I left a spot of red on one end of the thing while pivoting to face upward.

The hurled metal device, spinning through the air, slammed into the face of the first guy just as he came around the corner with his gun raised. Between the orange paint keeping it intact and the strength boost from the purple paint on me, the thing hit him hard enough that he immediately collapsed with a strangled cry, hand snapping up to his suddenly-bleeding face. 

By that point, I had just started to see the head of the man right by the half-shelf I was hiding behind. My hand, still outstretched, summoned the measuring device back by activating the red paint on it and on my glove. It flew right into my grip just as the man in question leaned over, his gaze reflexively looking to where the other guy had just fallen. That head, covered in a dark ski mask, presented the perfect target for me to crack with my makeshift weapon. There was a cry from the man as he fell out of sight, gun going off to shoot a hole through one of the shelves. 

Two down. Or at least hurt enough that they weren’t going to jump right back up immediately. Unfortunately, I could already hear what sounded like half a dozen more running for this spot. Not to mention the fact that Juice was still at the front. 

But I still had over half my time for the already-active paint, and I wasn’t about to waste it. Shooting red paint toward the ceiling above the nearest aisle, I used it to pull myself up and over that way. Immediately, the guy there snapped his gaze up and started to shout while raising his gun. But I released the red paint, dropping down to crash into him first. We collided, my momentum knocking the man to the ground before I lashed out with a quick, somewhat-awkward backhand. It wasn’t pretty or skilled, but with the purple strength, that didn’t matter. The guy’s head snapped back as he groaned in pain and went limp under me. 

With maybe a couple seconds left on my current paint, at best, I pivoted to put my feet against the row of shelves, then shoved as hard as my enhanced strength would let me. There was a loud, protesting groan, then a violent snapping sound as the shelf broke. It tipped over sideways, collapsing into the next aisle over. As it went down, the shelf hit the one next to it, knocking that one over, and so on like dominoes. I could hear yelps and curses from the guys in each aisle. 

“God damn it, you useless motherfuckers!” I heard Juice shout from the front even as he started to move, finally coming fully into the store himself. “Can’t you do one goddamn thing right?!” 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself up to the ceiling, inverting so the shoes would hold me there, in plain sight. “Hey, don’t blame them, a good manager takes responsibility for his employees!” 

With a snarl, the big guy lashed out, sending a bolt of lightning. But I was already moving before I’d even finished saying that, throwing myself sideways along the ceiling (which was more like a floor for me at the moment, thanks to Wren’s work). I was also still talking, blurting out a quick, “Maybe you guys just need a team-building exercise!”

Another bolt of lightning came my way. Also, a large rack of sports shoes, which the man hurled with his other hand while bellowing about what he was going to do when he put his hands on me. Honestly, none of it sounded very pleasant. 

But again, I was quicker, launching myself straight down toward the floor. Or rather, toward one of the overturned shelves, just as the electricity and hurled metal rack hit the spot where I had been. Shoes rained down all around me, while the rack itself landed in a crumpled heap a bit to the side. 

“Seriously,” I called while quickly scrambling on my hands and knees over the rows of shelves, “I hear those retreats do a lot of good for building rapport between boss and employees!” Putting blue paint under my feet while still scrambling, I launched myself forward and up, shooting another puddle of blue at the wall ahead of me just as yet another blast of electricity hit where I had just been. Hitting that blue spot, I rebounded backwards off it to fly over Juice’s head, landing in a roll behind him as he spun back toward me. But just before he could try to hit me from point-blank range, I snapped a quick, “How ‘bout we start with a trust fall?” 

With that, I activated the red paint I’d stuck to his back while flying over him, as well as one of the bits of red I’d left on the shelving unit I’d been scrambling over. Instead of pulling the shelf to him, however, I sent him flying backward, yanked up and over to crash down onto his back against the shelf. 

“I think it’ll really lift your stocks!” I shouted, while activating the other bit of red paint I’d left on the shelf he was lying on, as well as its matching spot on the ceiling. The shelf flew upward, slamming full-force into the ceiling with the man lying on it. 

Right, now the rest of his men in here were starting to pull themselves out. Plus, I could hear crashing and banging in the ceiling above where the guy was pinned, while chunks of the shelving unit started snapping and falling. He was breaking out, and it definitely wasn’t going to take long. These shelves weren’t exactly built to contain a guy like that. Not to mention the fact that he sounded seriously pissed off. Between this guy and Janus, I was just racking up friends on the Easy Eights. With my luck, they’d find Cuélebre and the whole group would form a club dedicated to making my whole existence a living hell. Because that was just how these things seemed to work. 

But, oh well. I would have to deal with that later. Right now, I shot several quick bursts of red at the remaining shelving units and one spot at the floor right in front of the doorway. Seeing several of the men scrambling toward me and shouting, I pivoted and threw myself through that doorway while activating all the paint. Instantly, I heard a cacophony of bangs and crashes as the shelves all flew to block the door I had just gone through. Hopefully, I hit a couple guys in the process. But right now all I cared about was slowing them down for a few seconds. Even if they just went through the back door, it was still something. Every little bit helped.

For the moment, I pivoted, coming face-to-face with a bad guy who looked completely surprised to see me there. He was just coming around the corner of the shop, through a narrow path that ran between the buildings. His gun was held loosely at one side, and he started to bring it up belatedly. But I reacted faster, quickly lunging that way while painting purple on my gloves and activating it so I could rip the gun from his grasp, then simply shove the guy hard in the chest. He hit the ground and I jumped over him. There wasn’t time for any of this. Hurling the pistol as far as I could to the side, I sprinted back toward where the prisoners had been. 

Had been being the thankfully operative words, because all I saw as I reached that point were two of the Easy Eight thugs laying on the ground, groaning in pain. The civilians were all gone. Well, mostly gone. Looking up, I saw a few of them disappearing off across the street or rounding the corners of the other buildings. The point was, they had escaped. Thank God.

Or rather, thank whoever the girl in the armor was. Because she was clearly the one who–

“Paintball!” Speaking of whom, the girl herself suddenly jumped out from behind the overturned cart where she had apparently been hiding. “Are you okay? What happened in th–” 

Abruptly, the girl was interrupted by a loud crack of thunder and power as the front of the shoe store was blasted apart by a burst of lightning. The enraged Juice came into view, head snapping our way immediately as a violent curse erupted from him. Yeah, he was not happy. 

“Oh, you know,” I managed, reaching out to grab the girl with both hands while turning my shoes blue to launch both of us upward. “Just did a little browsing!” As we rocketed upward, the next shot of lightning passed right where we had been. I aimed for the roof of the nearest shop, and we came down there, tumbling just past an air conditioning unit with a pair of yelps. 

Lying there on my side, I looked over to where the other girl was sprawled. Somehow, the helmet had stayed in place. But just as my mouth opened to say something, I heard a bellow from below. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Move!” and shoved her away. Then I quickly rolled the opposite direction, scrambling to get out of the way. 

It was just in time, as Juice landed right where we had been. His hands lashed out to grab both of us, but he missed by inches. “You wanna fuck up my night, huh, assholes?! This whole thing would have been smooth. Use the civvies to keep the cops back long enough to bust up everything the fucking Niners have in this place, then let ‘em go. They would’ve been fine. But no! No, of course not. You stupid fucks have to jump in and play hero so you can ruin everything!”

On my feet, I quickly spoke up to draw his attention and ire. “Sounds like you’re having a bad night. We could always call it a draw. You go home, we go home, all of us just rethink our lives and choices? What do you think?” 

Apparently he thought ‘zap’, because the man pivoted to throw a bolt of electricity at me with a snarl. I’d already anticipated, and activated a pair of green wings on my back. They made me fast enough to dive out of the way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to dodge the second bolt that he sent right to where I was diving, having anticipated the move.

It was only a brief hit, a graze really. But it was enough. The electricity hit me, and drew a sharp cry of pain. Suddenly, my whole body seized up. I hit the ground and spasmed. In the background, I heard a girl’s voice shout, “Get away from him!” Then there was a grunt of surprise, and a large shape was flung over me. Opening my eyes, I saw… well, first I saw a bunch of static on the screen where my heads-up display was supposed to go. But it cleared up a second later. More importantly, Juice was on the ground, while an enormous silver, bronze, violet, and black battering ram was hovering in the air just in front of him. It was about as big as a car, the colors spread throughout it in a tie-dye pattern. The armored girl was standing back a bit, arms outstretched. Her armor no longer had black in it, and looked a bit thinner. The purple cloak was gone too. Wait, purple cloak was gone, black part of the armor was gone, and now the previous silver and bronze transforming marbles had been joined by those two specific colors? Right, duh, the armor was made up of the same marbles as the weapons. Yeah, that made sense. Not like she’d had time to go grab a costume in the ten seconds since she’d gotten her powers. Convenient, really. Also explained how her helmet had stayed on before. 

In any case, apparently both of those marbles that had been a part of her armor and the cloak had helped form the massive battering ram that hit Juice hard enough to knock him clear across the roof and left him lying there looking dazed. Which was just fine with me, because I was still feeling pretty dazed too. 

Armored girl, however, wasn’t dazed. She was more along the lines of pissed off. Her hands swept out to either side. With that motion, the battering ram split apart too. It broke into two half-sized pieces. One was black and purple, the other silver and bronze. Those two pieces instantly shaped themselves into a pair of enormous glowing boxing gloves of those respective colors. Each was about the same size as the big guy himself. Then, as the girl slammed her own fists together with a loud, ringing metal clang from her armored gauntlets colliding, the huge, glowing boxing gloves did the same, slamming into one another. Or rather, into either side of Juice. They collided with the big guy hard enough just as he was picking himself up that he fell right back down again, actually bleeding and bruised. 

Immediately, the girl made a quick twisting motion with her hands. The two boxing gloves actually scooped up the man and held him tight, cupped around him. Then she pivoted, making a wide throwing gesture. As she did so, the cupped gloves flew up a good thirty feet and forward another twenty before abruptly disappearing. But Juice’s momentum didn’t disappear. The man was sent flying clear off into the distance, sailing over at least two different buildings before crashing down somewhere a couple blocks away. 

As it turned out, the giant gloves didn’t disappear. They simply turned back into four colored marbles, all of which flew back to hover around the girl herself like obedient puppies waiting to be praised. 

Looking down, I murmured under my breath, “Test, test…” Then I breathed a sigh of relief. My voice changer was still working after being shocked. I hadn’t been hit nearly as hard as Cuélebre had with his own lightning. 

“What?” the other girl was asking as she turned to me. Already, I saw the white from her helmet had sort of half-melted down into the rest of the armor as though to reinforce it. 

“Nothing,” I quickly replied, shaking my head. “But–dude, that was amazing. What–how did–wow.” 

“Ummm, I…” Trailing off, the girl squirmed on her feet. “I think–” Just then, she was interrupted by the sound of loud sirens and the sight of a dozen cop cars roaring up. Seeing that, she blurted, “Oh God! I’ve gotta get out of here!” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “Are you like… wanted, or–” 

“No!” she interrupted, sounding panicked. “It’s my mom!

“If she finds out about this, she won’t let me out of the house for a year!”

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Promise And Peril 11-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It wasn’t long after I’d made that announcement before the alien guy who had been talking before came back on the communications network, still being translated by the computer voice. “Having troubles with connection to Friend. Fomorian attacks rendering communications difficult. Take landing in open port, will guide if follow.” 

With that, one of the fighters pulled ahead of us. It waggled back and forth a bit as though to get our attention before beginning to fly closer to the much larger Meregan ship. Now that we took a closer look at it, I could see how it was a Meregan vessel. The thing really was huge. The space between the front of the pyramid-like shape and the back was enough to fit at least thirty or so decks comfortable for the ten to twelve-foot tall Meregan. 

Which also begged the question of just how many people those command vessels for these new aliens carried. Because they were a hell of a lot bigger than the Binsayeac, and judging from the much smaller fighters that were escorting us, their people weren’t giant like the Meregan. Put in that context, those command ships really were incredible. The jellyfish structures themselves were big enough that they could have had a dozen of the Meregan ships land across the top without filling it up. Staring that direction, I realized they were further away than I’d first thought, it was just that they were so big they looked closer. The dome parts of each command ship had to be a good ten miles across, and given the shape, about three-quarters of that tall. Not counting the miles-long energy tendrils that acted as their main weapons. 

They were big ships, that was the point. And that was just the main command vessels. They had a lot more. No wonder they were capable of fighting the Fomorians head-on. Though that, of course, left a hell of a lot more questions. Like who they were, where they’d come from, why the Seosten had never heard of them, and how the Meregan had found them. Which I hoped we were about to get answers to once we landed on this ship.

As promised, the fighter escorting us led the way to an opening around the back of the Binsayeac-Two. I could see the docking bay beyond, as well as a handful of familiar giant figures. Well, generally familiar. I didn’t actually recognize faces of course. Especially not from this distance. But they were definitely Meregan, standing out of the way while waving as we approached. 

Finally, the ship landed, Sariel expertly setting it down in the middle of a pretty empty-looking docking bay (I assumed most of the ships that should have been there were out fighting). After a brief pause, Athena spoke. “Most of us should stay here. Take care of Jophiel or just be ready for whatever happens. But we need answers, and we need to see if they have a medical center that can do more for her than we can.” 

There was a bit more discussion for the next few seconds. In the end, it was decided that Tristan, Shiori, and I would go out there, since we knew the Meregan the best, along with Athena, my mother, Vanessa, and Sariel. The rest would wait back here to see what happened, and to be ready to go if we needed to take off quickly. Which was what we would do if they had nothing that could help Jophiel. She was stable enough for the moment, apparently. But she needed help as fast as we could get it. 

I expected Elisabet to have an opinion about us taking the time to stop for this, but she was too busy focusing on keeping the other woman stable. The only thing she said, as we started toward the back door, was a simple, pleading, “Hurry.” Her voice was strained and desperate.

Tristan and I exchanged brief glances, then moved quickly to the back of the ship with the others right behind us. As we approached, the door slid open and we moved down the ramp. Just as we reached the bottom, a voice called out, “Friends-Shiori and Flick! Friend-Tristan!” 

The voice made all of us look over, just in time to see a tall (naturally) Meregan woman approach with a wide smile. She also had long, dark-green hair and a very familiar face. The name jumped to my mind, my mouth opening. But Shiori beat me to it. 

“Alecra!” she called, moving that way quickly. 

Yeah, it was the Meregan woman we had met a year earlier during our first visit to their planet, the one who showed us how their special transport thing that had brought us to their world in the first place worked. Alecra had explained that we ended up in the desert above the ship because she had forgotten to shift the beacon’s transport location to account for the ship being underground at the time. 

Shiori was already hugging the woman’s leg, leading Alecra to gently pat the top of her head while looking over to Tristan and me. “Friend-Tristan! You are…” Frowning, she leaned closer. “You are being bigger than you should being.” 

“Alecra didn’t go with us on Grandpa Nick’s ship,” Tristan informed me. “She was one of the ones who stayed behind on the planet, but… but how are you here?” 

Before the large woman could respond, Sariel quickly spoke up. “I’m sorry,  but we have an emergency. Do you have a medical room we could use? And preferably someone who could help. It’s… it’s some kind of Fomorian poison.” 

Instantly sobering, Alecra gave a quick nod and gestured for two of the other Meregan who were waiting in the background. “Yes, yes, whatever any of yours are being needing. We are having not as much as we would be liking for the monsters who have been taken our world, but what we are having you are having.” 

Vanessa and Sariel quickly led the other Meregan over to the ship to let them know they could bring Jophiel down, and the next few minutes passed very quickly. Elisabet emerged with her lover on a magic stretcher, already snapping information at the Meregan about what she’d tried and what sort of condition the other woman was in. The Meregan, in turn, took down everything she said while calling ahead for their medical bay to be prepared, promising that their doctor was waiting. 

Together, we ran out of the docking bay and through a winding series of enormous rounded corridors. Like the first Meregan ship we had been on, this one was very rock-like. Instead of looking like it was made of metal, the interior appeared to be more of a cavern, carved out of stone. We had to go down an elevator (which turned out to essentially be a floating boulder held up by… something, and through two more twisting corridors before finally reaching a large open room full of various consoles where a tall (even by Meregan standards) man with a shock of dark blue hair sticking out in every direction Einstein-style stood waiting next to a slab of stone. 

The doctor Meregan didn’t bother to introduce himself, of course. He ordered that Jophiel be put up on the slab, then started to examine her while listening to everything Elisabet was saying. In between her words, the man quickly snapped more directions to his assistants in the room to bring him various instruments and tools. 

“We should being stepping out,” Alecra whispered. “Giving them time for working.” 

She had a point. Of course, Elisabet wasn’t going to leave Jophiel’s side even if an entire army tried to make her. So we didn’t. And Sariel stayed as well, to help as someone closer to the right size who wasn’t as emotionally compromised as Elisabet was. 

But Athena, Mom, Tristan, Vanessa, Shiori, and I left the room with Alecra. Once we were in the hall and a large stone slab had rolled into the way to give the doctor and others some privacy to do their jobs, I shook my head at Alecra herself. “Looks like you’ve been really busy,” I managed that unbelievable understatement in a quiet voice. 

Belatedly, Shiori, Tristan, and I introduced Athena. But when we got to my mother, who had been quiet, Alecra took a second look before we could even speak. It was the first time she had really focused on Mom since we arrived, with the whole Jophiel thing. And the moment she did, the green-haired woman’s eyes widened dramatically. “Friend-Joselyn!” she blurted out loud. Without wasting another second, she immediately reached down to pick my mother up from the floor, voice delighted as she pulled her into an embrace. “Friend-Flick has found you!” 

A noise escaped Mom that was half-gasp and half-laugh. “Yes, Alecra, it’s very good to see you too.” Her words were soft and gentle, with… with a lot of emotion behind them. She returned the embrace slightly awkwardly, held off the floor as she was. “I’m glad you’re safe.” 

That, of course, prompted a lot of questions from the Meregan woman about how Mom was here and what had happened. So, while we were waiting to find out what happened with Jophiel, we all gave an abridged version. When we got to the fact that Fossor was now dead, the large woman took a knee in front of me. Her expression was intense as she carefully put my hand up to touch the side of my face with a couple fingers. “Are you be speaking true, Friend-Flick? The monster is truly being dead forever?” 

Right, long before the Fomorians had ever gotten here, it was Fossor who first destroyed the Meregan civilization. He turned them into his slaves and basically broke their people to the point that they were vulnerable enough for everything that came after. No wonder Alecra was so invested in wanting to make sure he was actually dead. This meant a lot to her, to all of them. 

So, taking a deep breath, I nodded. My voice was quiet, yet firm as I carefully assured her, “I promise, Alecra. He’s really and truly dead. He’s never coming back and he’s never going to hurt anyone again. He’s dead. Totally and completely dead. They took his body apart and disintegrated every bit of it separately just to make absolutely sure. There’s nothing left. He’s gone.” Reaching up, I put both hands on one of her enormous arms. “Fossor is dead.” 

For a moment, there was no reaction. I saw the words penetrate, as Alecra simply met my stare. Gradually, the true realization of everything that meant appeared in her gaze. The emotion, the relief, the… release of everything Fossor had done to her people was visible right there in her face, before she ever said anything. There were tears that never physically formed in the seemingly bottomless green wells of her eyes. It was a pit of emotions that I knew well, the immeasurable relief that the evil creature was forever gone, mixed with the realization that that still didn’t fix everything he had broken. Fossor was dead and would never hurt them again, but that didn’t actually help her people, it didn’t change everything he had done to them or bring back the ones he had killed and enslaved. It was a moment to be celebrated, but it didn’t fix things. Everyone Alecra and her people had lost would stay lost. Which, of course, reminded me that there was even more loss than the woman actually knew. 

So, cringing a little, I told her about Gavant and the other Meregan who had ended up at Fossor’s fighting arena while I was there. It was hard. Especially when I saw her expression. But I pressed on. She needed to know. Mom helped, stepping in to take over when it was obvious that I couldn’t stand to say anything else. Her gentle voice filled the silence, as she told Alecra about how brave her people had been, and that there were still living members back on Earth who had survived that whole thing. 

That gave me the time to collect myself before adding that Purin and still other Meregan were still with Nicholas Petan and would still be there several years into the future. Which kind of seemed to help a little bit, I thought. But again, it didn’t fix everything. Alecra still had a heavy weight of sadness, which was fair. Her people had been destroyed so many times, had been through so much already. How could they go on after all this? And their world was still…

“Wait, what about you?” I suddenly blurted. “How are you here? Who are all these people? You–you went out and found a fleet to come back and help you fight the Fomorians here. You–” There was a thick knot in my throat that I swallowed back. “You found friends.” 

That made Shiori quickly pipe up with, “Yeah, who are all these people? Where’d this fleet come from? How did…” She trailed off, looking uncertain about how to actually ask the next part. 

Tristan took over. “How did you convince them to come help fight the Fomorians?” 

Alecra took a moment to collect herself, straightening up and stepping back. She glanced toward the boulder covering the entrance to the medical bay, seemingly lost in her own thoughts before finally speaking up. “Those who were remaining after many took left with Lord-Nicholas were be fixing the Binsayeac. It was requiring much working, much fixing. Then it was becoming much different ship. More pieces. We did be naming it Binsayeac Two. Then we did be going to do what we were be doing before. Finding friends.” 

Over the next few minutes, the woman explained that, for what turned out to be several months, the new Binsayeac had basically wandered around aimlessly. Apparently several times they were almost destroyed, found nothing but people who wanted to kill them or take the ship. Or use them as weapons, given their size and strength. Alecra and her people had almost given up. She didn’t get too into it, but I could tell from what she did say that the mood on the ship had been pretty dour, at least as far as Meregan went. They were afraid they would never find the allies they were looking for. 

Then they found it. Not another planet, not even another ship. They found a wormhole in space. A wormhole leading to some other universe entirely. And, being the insane explorers they were, the Meregan actually went through it. Yeah, they had no idea where it led or what they would find. But Alecra and her people still went through that wormhole just to see what would happen. 

Apparently what happened was that they found another ship on the far side, a science vessel that was examining the wormhole from that end. There was a bit of a miscommunication, considering this other species and the Meregan didn’t understand each other at all. So they initially fought, but when the science vessel was damaged and started to lose atmosphere, the Meregan risked their lives to save them. 

Athena, who had been silently observing this whole situation up to that point, spoke up finally. “That changed things. They knew you weren’t a threat then, once you saved their ship.” 

Alecra started to nod, but before she could respond, a different voice spoke up in that completely indecipherable alien language that was belatedly translated. “Yes, our captain knew the Meregan intended no danger to us, and that the fighting had been a mistake.” 

The voice (or voices, considering the overlapped alien words) made everyone turn. And that was when we got our first actual look at the people the Meregan had made allies with. 

My first thought was that the being in front of us looked like a humanoid scorpion mixed with a butterfly. The upper torso was definitely fairly human in basic form, though covered in a blue-green exoskeleton and with four arms rather than two. The lower half was more shaped like an ant with a thorax and abdomen that were horizontal to the ground as opposed to the torso’s vertical position. Sort of like a centaur’s human torso compared to the horse part. There was a long scorpion-like tail coiled behind him. His face, meanwhile, was also fairly insectoid, with large dark-blue compound eyes that took up most of either side of his head, and mandibles that were the source of the clicking sounds that came as his people spoke their language. 

Then there was the butterfly part. Yeah, the guy had two enormous, beautifully detailed and delicate-looking wings that were spread out behind him, attached to the horizontal part of his body rather than the torso. The wings flickered a bit, glowing briefly as he spoke before he tucked and folded them in tight. 

“Apologies for interruptions,” the alien continued. “We are known amongst our people as the…” He trailed off. “It is impossible for your language to translate, we believe. The nearest would be Roenier.” He pronounced it like row-near. “That is, we believe, close enough. I am privileged to be known as First Liason Officer Kernek.” 

“First Liason Officer Kernek,” Athena repeated before introducing herself. “I have to say, your people are incredibly generous for coming to this world to help a species–a people you’ve only just met.” 

Kernek, however, clapped his mandibles together twice and made a guttural sound, which the translator (I now saw that it was a small collar thing around his neck with a glowing gem attached to it which pulsed different colors with each word) interpreted with a vocal, “It is nothing less than what is deserved.” 

He went on to explain that the Meregan on that ship had been incredible allies with the Roenier for those few months, aiding them in over a dozen incredibly important battles to take back their own homeworld from other enemies. Over those months, the two species became–to put it simply, best friends. They were unshakeable allies, to the point that an entire section of the Roenier homeworld had been set aside for the Meregan to live on. 

“That is why we are being here now,” Alecra put in. “Friends-Roenier are being here with their fleet to help take our people.” She paused. “All who are remaining, anyway. Every Meregan will going to our new Friends-Roenier.” 

“You’re not here to fight the Fomorians to take back your planet,” Tristan realized. “You’re here to evacuate everyone who’s left and take them to a new world, a safe world.” 

Quietly, with clear sadness in her voice, Alecra explained that while it was a very hard decision, they knew that they couldn’t hold their planet anymore. After everything that had been done to it, there wasn’t enough left to save. But their people could go on. They were going to take every last Meregan they could find, from all the hiding places on their world, and get them to the safety of the Roenier’s world, where they could finally have some measure of peace. And, of course, time to recover from everything that they had been through as a species. 

“Is it being wrong?” That was Alecra, her eyes on my mother as she hesitantly spoke up. “Abandoning our home.” 

Mom, in turn, shook her head, speaking in a gentle voice. “No, Alecra. It’s not wrong. Take your people. Recover. Grow. Survive. You deserve that and so much more. Take everyone you can and be with your new friends. Build back not to what you were, but even stronger. Become more than you were, with your friends. You and the Roenier are much more together than either of you ever were apart. 

“And I, for one, can’t wait to see what you become together.”

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Building Connections 16-02 (Summus Proelium)

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By the time I caught up with the Easy Eight trucks, they had reached what was apparently their destination. It was an outdoor shopping center, where one of the trucks had already plowed its way through a statue in front of the fountain. All of the vehicles were spread out along the road and sidewalk in front of the shopping center, clearly being used as barricades to help stop the people within from easily escaping. They couldn’t block off everything, but they did their best. 

Landing on the roof of one of the buildings, I took a second to process what I was seeing. Down below, a bunch of the Easy Eight troops were busy rounding up customers and employees alike. They were moving them to a specific area in the middle of the open walkway between shops. Some of the civilians were struggling more than others, but it didn’t do them any good. Easy or hard, all of them were taken to join that crowd, tied with what looked like ordinary zip-cuffs, and made to sit on the ground. Just how rough the thugs were with their respective prisoners seemed to vary a lot, though at least it looked like they were treating the elderly a bit more gently. There were a few benches nearby and anyone who genuinely looked old was being allowed to sit there with their hands zip-tied in front of them rather than behind. So at least there was that. Not that it made these Easy Eight guys heroes, but they weren’t the ‘push a helpless elderly person to the ground’ level of scum. They still had some vague level of decency. 

Beyond just waiting to see what the general scene looked like before I threw myself into it like an idiot, I was also trying to get an idea of where Juice might be. He was obviously the biggest threat. I couldn’t do anything to the other guys until I knew where he was. I had to hit him first, had to make sure he couldn’t jump me from behind or whatever, cuz between his strength (I’d seen reports of him hoisting a truck over his head) and his electricity powers, that would be bad. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the guy anywhere. As I stayed low and quickly scanned the whole scene, he didn’t appear. I was pretty sure it would have been hard to miss a guy his size, wearing that helmet and gauntlets. But he wasn’t anywhere. Not out here, at least. Did that mean he was in one of the shops? There was no way he would’ve taken off already, right? 

Even as I was wondering all of that, and trying to figure out what I was going to do to track him down before this all got too out of control, there was a blast of what sounded like thunder coming from directly below me. My gaze snapped to the roof under my feet, and I managed a snapped, “Well, that doesn’t sound good,” before the air was filled with sound again. That time, it was the sound of tearing metal and shattering glass, also from below me but slightly ahead. 

A figure was hurled through the window just under me. I barely caught a glimpse of bright metal–armor of some sort? Whatever it was, the shape went flying through the window, screaming the whole way before sprawling out onto the ground before I could even think of moving. They were holding a bat and a whip, but even as my gaze took that in, I saw both weapons shift and transform to… marbles? They looked like marbles. What the hell? 

Now I had a better look at the figure. They were female, that much was clear. Not to mention young. My age maybe? Either way, she wore a gold chestplate with black highlights, while the rest of the armor across her arms and legs was the opposite, black with gold highlights. She also wore a white helmet and a purple cloak. The whole armor set, including the cloak, gleamed and shone brilliantly with what seemed like some kind of minor inner glow. They were a knight in shining armor, quite literally. 

While I was still trying to process all of that, there was a much louder crash below me. Juice. Hey, I found him. The huge man had hurled himself through the wall and landed easily a little bit away from the metal-armored figure. I heard his voice even from the roof. “Still ticking, huh?” He chuckled, sounding awful and evil as he slammed his electricity-covered fist into his other palm. “Good, let’s have some fun.” 

Right, so… I supposed it wasn’t hard to figure out which side the armored girl was on. Whether she was part of the Ninety-Niners or not, I wasn’t sure. I’d never seen or heard of her before. 

But now, all that really mattered was the fact that she was in trouble. Juice wasn’t exactly going to take it easy on her. His tone of voice, the way he smacked his palm eagerly, made that much clear. This guy was going to do some real damage to the armored girl if I let him. 

Thankfully, he was also intently focused on her. He had no idea I was even here, which would give me one free hit. I just had to make sure it counted. A single free shot while he was distracted. 

To that end, I checked the path between the front of the shopping center and where Juice was straightening up. Just a few Easy Eight thugs, watching with what appeared to be amusement. Oh, they’d be super-amused soon. Quickly, I shot a wide blotch of red paint against the hood of the nearest of their trucks. With my other hand, I hit Juice with a blotch of red on his raised arm even as he was pointing toward the frantically-protesting armored girl, who was lying there frozen from apparent terror. 

Apparently he noticed the paint hitting him, because Juice blinked down at the red mark. “What–” 

That was all he had time to say before I activated the paint. Instantly, the truck tore itself off the ground and went tumbling end over end, crashing its way through those few thugs (who dove to either side with a collection of curses). But Juice couldn’t dodge. Even as the man started to dive away, the truck adjusted its trajectory. I heard a brief, belated curse (or maybe it was a threat) escape the Easy Eight lieutenant just before the truck slammed full-force into him. He was sent crashing to the ground within the wreckage. From the sound and look of it, the truck actually took the worst of that collision. But it still helped, because it put the guy on the ground at least for a moment. 

It was a moment that I put to good use. Namely, by extending a hand to shoot red paint at the still-motionless girl on the ground. She gave a yelp as I activated it, launching her up off the pavement and toward where I was standing. My hand caught hers and I pulled her onto the roof beside me. “I take it these guys weren’t part of the entertainment for tonight?” 

“Paintball!” the girl blurted out loud. I could see her eyes through the small, open slits in the helmet. They were wide with what looked like a mixture of confusion, shock, and fear. “Y-you saved–” She seemed to cut herself off, making a noise in the back of her throat as though unsure of what to say. Then her eyes shifted slightly to the side, and widened even more as she blurted, “Down!” 

With that, she grabbed my arm, yanking herself and me both flat against the roof even as a blast of lightning went flying over our heads. It was accompanied by a bellow of anger. Apparently Juice was up. I’d really been hoping getting hit by a truck would keep him down a few seconds longer. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to focus on that. Because Juice’s super-strength extended to his legs. He leapt, landing hard in the middle of the roof before pivoting to face the two of us. I could hear the snarl in his voice. “Paintball. Who’s your new friend?” 

“Uh.” I blinked that way while scrambling to my feet, hauling the girl herself up after me. “You don’t know her either, huh?” 

My words were met with a low chuckle. “Doesn’t matter. Deicide might have reasons for playing nice, but they don’t extend to me. You threw yourself into this. And me? I think you’re pretty fucking annoying.” 

Grabbing the girl beside me by the shoulder, I adopted a scandalized tone. “Dude, I think he’s trying to say he won’t join the Paintball fanclub! But we already have posters and hats and bye!” With that last word, just as Juice extended his hand to shoot a blast of lightning at us, I shoved the startled armored girl off the edge of the roof, activating the orange paint I’d put there when I grabbed her arm. At the same time, I fell backward myself and activated a bit of orange on my back. 

We landed back on the ground, while the lightning shot off into the air above us. But we weren’t exactly in great shape there, considering now we were surrounded by more Easy Eight thugs who had picked themselves up and realized just what was going on. Which meant they were about to open fire, so I quickly painted an orange shield across my chest while reaching out toward the armored girl to do the same. 

Except it turned out I didn’t need to. Because just as four different guys started shooting, the two marble-things I’d seen earlier (the ones that had been weapons before this girl dropped them) abruptly came zipping through the air, transforming into a huge pair of shields that covered the two of us from both sides. One bronze and the other silver. They were shaped like medieval kite shields or whatever. The incoming bullets just bounced off, and I heard one guy squeal as he was hit by a ricochet. 

“Dude, did you do that?!” I quickly demanded, looking over my shoulder to the girl. She stood there, looking completely flatfooted and confused. I could see her wide eyes glancing back and forth in what amounted to a panic. 

“I-I dunno!” she stammered. “There was the orb thing and the voice and–” 

Oh shit. I’d never heard of this girl because she was brand new. No wonder she didn’t seem to have any idea how her power worked. And now the bad guys were closing in, deciding to go with melee weapons. Worse, Juice announced his presence by crashing to the ground, grabbing one of the hovering marble-shields, and tossing it aside with a violent curse before lunging straight at us. 

Instantly, my hand snapped out to grab the new girl, holding tight as I painted blue under our feet and activated it. The two of us were launched upward, just barely escaping the big guy’s grasping arms as I shouted, “No free chiropracty today, thanks!” 

The momentum of being launched sent us up and backward, landing toward the rear of the shopping center and sort-of out of sight behind one of those big stands with a bunch of tee-shirts for sale all over it. Slightly beyond where we were was a railing overlooking a set of stairs leading down to a secondary parking area. Already, those guys were coming, so I turned to the girl. “You need to get down. Just find a corner and stay there, I’ll try to deal with these guys and help the prisoners.” 

“No,” the girl abruptly blurted. “I wanna help. I can help. I mean, I think I can.”

There wasn’t time to argue. Even as my mouth opened, a bolt of lightning tore through the top half of the tee-shirt stand while Juice bellowed for them to drag either us or our carcasses back over there. Between that and the running footsteps–yeah. No time. So, I just spoke as quickly as I could, all in a rushed whisper. “Stay low. I’ll get their attention, you sneak around the side and use those fun toys of yours to free the prisoners and get them out of here. Go, go!” With that, I shoved her away, sending the girl falling over the railing and to the stairs below where she would hopefully be okay and ready to follow instructions. 

Either way, I didn’t have time to worry about it. Because just as I did that, one of the Easy Eight guys came lunging around the side of the half-destroyed cart thing I was hiding behind. He was already shouting, raising the shotgun he was armed with before opening fire at point-blank range. 

All those pellets tore into my chest… and through it, as I’d already painted my torso pink. The shotgun blast literally left dozens of holes in my chest, as the man gaped briefly. 

While he was still stunned, I red-yoinked his shotgun away, painting both my arms purple before lashing out to smack the man across the face with it. He went down with a cry. Then, hearing more guys coming, I pivoted and lashed out with a kick into the destroyed sales stand to send it and all the shirts hanging up over it (whatever was left of them anyway) flying out to slam into the bulk of the group. 

“Hey, Juice!” I called, even as my pink paint wore off (thankfully restoring my torso to pristine shape instead of leaving a bunch of little holes in me). “Is that Sunny-D or plain OJ? You know no one likes the purple stuff!” 

Yeah, that got his attention. As if he needed even more of a push. With a growl, the big guy reached out to grab the remains of the same truck I had hit him with, pivoting to hammer throw it right at me. Immediately, I started to launch myself upward using blue paint. But the instant my feet left the ground, I saw Juice already aiming upward. He knew what I was about to do. He was anticipating it, electricity coiling around his hand and already leaping forth toward the spot where I would be. 

So, I did the only thing I could think of. I shot red paint toward the remains of the incoming truck while both it and I were in midair, and hauled myself that way. A touch of orange shielded me from the impact as I hit the bottom of the spinning truck and stuck there, while green gave me the speed I needed to pull the next part off. The boots Wren had provided kept me firmly planted to the truck while it spun end over end, and I watched as the view in front of me kept changing through those brief seconds. Thanks to my own speed from the green paint, the spinning seemed slower than it really was. I saw Juice, then the ground, then the trashed tee-shirt cart behind, then the sky, then Juice, then the ground, then the tee-shirt cart, then the sky–as Juice came back around, I put blue paint beneath my feet and launched myself that way. 

He was still watching the sky where he expected me to be, his bolt of lightning already leaping from his hand and beginning to tear off toward that open space. From the corner of his eye, he saw me coming and tried to adjust, but I was a missile. A missile that flew right past the superstrong man even as he braced himself for a hit that never came. 

Instead, the instant I hit the ground right behind the man, my hands snapped up and around, touching his legs to turn them yellow. A quick activation left the man slowed to about half-speed. He was already pivoting, but I was gone, flinging myself sideways. Which left him time to see the red mark on the ground that I’d left where I was. 

I had to say this for him, the dude wasn’t an idiot. He knew immediately what was happening, and tried to fling himself aside as I had. But the yellow paint slowed him down just enough that the truck remains, hauled that way by the matching red mark I’d left when I was perched on it as the thing spun end over end, slammed into the big guy once again. 

Even that didn’t keep the guy down for long. As the rest of his men looked like they weren’t sure if they wanted to be the first person I threw a truck at, Juice tore the thing apart, scrambling to his feet with a furious shout. “Grab that stupid piece of shit!” 

Yeah, that motivated them. Even as intimidating as me yoinking a truck at them might’ve been, the group was more afraid of their boss being pissed off. Which, well, was fair. I threw trucks, he tanked being hit by the damn things and tore them in half. 

Still, I definitely had their attention. While Juice and his men came rushing my way, I gave the most sarcastic and condescending wave I could manage, then used red paint to yank myself clear to the far end of the shopping center. Landing in a roll, I tried to put some green paint on for a bit more speed. 

Nothing. Fuck. I was out of paint, and the bad guys were–yeah, they were coming. They were charging, weapons raised. Fortunately, they had no idea I was out of paint for the moment so they didn’t bother shooting at me. Unfortunately, they’d figure it out pretty soon. And even if they didn’t, I couldn’t exactly fight without it. 

Stall. I had to stall until the paint came back. Shoving back the sudden rush of terror, I made my body pivot and hurled myself through the open doorway of one of the shops, falling onto my side in the process. The place was a shoe store, and I quickly scrambled to my feet to rush toward the back even as Juice’s voice filled the air, bellowing for them to tear the fucking place apart and drag me out. 

Right, well… I had their attention. They were definitely focused on me, most of them anyway. I just hoped it was enough for the other girl to free those prisoners and get them out of here. 

Cuz, really, I’d hate to have all this fun for nothing.

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Promise And Peril 11-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It wasn’t exactly a pleasant stroll to get back to the ship, even with everyone we had. The Fomorians had clearly had a long time to build up their forces on this planet, and it seemed like they were sending every fucking ground unit they had at us. Any hope I’d had that whatever was going on above us in orbit would distract the monsters enough for us to slip in and out had vanished a long time ago, of course, but still. This was pretty ridiculous. They were obsessed with taking us down. 

Worse, we still couldn’t just teleport back, thanks to whatever was blocking transportation powers. Sariel was pretty sure it had been seeded recently in the atmosphere by the Fomorians ahead of our arrival, possibly because of whoever those ships they were fighting belonged to. Whatever the reason, we had to resort to taking the long way.

We moved in a wedge formation. Mom, Deveron, and Lillian were at the front, with Kohaku and Elisabet down one side and Haiden and Larissa down the other. Jophiel was on the stretcher that had been summoned, being carried by Dexamene and Shiori so the adults could focus on fighting. Meanwhile, Avalon and I (with Tabbris riding shotgun within me once more) were backing up Kohaku and Elisabet on the left wing, as Vanessa and Tristan backed up their father and Larissa on the right. Sariel was bringing up the rear, working both to cover our retreat and help thin out the herds with her long range shots. 

Which also, I couldn’t help but notice, worked to keep Mom and Sariel as far away from each other as possible through this whole thing. I was pretty sure that wasn’t an accident. 

But in any case, despite any lingering issues they had and despite everything the Fomorian monsters threw at us, we made steady progress. We weren’t exactly sticking around to fight everything, of course. We were mostly just charging straight through, punching a hole in the Fomorian line and rushing onward. Like they’d already said, there was no way to save the Meregan world from this occupation. Much as it made me physically ill to think of these poor people getting the shaft again, there was literally nothing we could do about it, or for them. 

Instead, we just had to keep going. Jophiel was still completely out of it. She moved now and then, muttered something that took Elisabet’s attention or just groaned (which also drew brief looks from Elisabet), but nothing coherent. Whatever the Fomorian had hit her with was keeping her down and out of the fight. And, for some reason, she wasn’t just possessing Elisabet to avoid the poison effect. I just hoped that, whatever the full problem was, we could deal with it once we were somewhere safer, without a horde of incomprehensible nightmares lunging out of the sand at us. 

Not that the nightmares were all entirely against us. Elisabet had also brought what remained of her own co-opted monsters and sent them ahead to take the brunt of the damage. That was one of the things that allowed us to progress as quickly as we were. Another was the fact that every time I saw (or felt) one of the monsters die, I sent a burst of necromancer-energy into the thing with a single command to attack any other monsters around it. They didn’t tend to last long before being ripped apart, but it was a bit of a distraction. It helped slow our attackers down just a little more, and every second they wasted focusing on their already-dead companions was another second we could keep running. 

So yeah, between Elisabet and me, we helped turn some of the enemy force against itself. Between that and the fact that my mother and the rest of the adults around us were really good at killing things that got in their way, we made progress.  

In any case, those next few minutes were basically a completely incomprehensible blur. I killed a few more things and sent more dead things to kill their former allies, but mostly I just ran. There was blood and gore everywhere, all from things that tried to block us, things that tried to capture us. No one was taking the time to make this a real fight. They–we were just killing and running, killing and running. It was like throwing a bunch of animals in a woodchipper and then sprinting through the haze that filled the air. 

It was the stuff of nightmares, but I didn’t have time to think about such things. All I could do, all any of us could do, was shove it aside and try not to worry about what our dreams that night would be like. Step one was surviving long enough to have dreams. Then we’d fret about details.

There, there it was. The ship. I never thought I’d be so fucking happy to see a simple tube of metal. It was sitting there, still surrounded by monsters. But Athena and Sachael were dealing with the bulk of them. It looked like the others had already run onboard, leaving the two Olympians standing by the ramp to keep it clear enough for the rest of us. And boy were they doing a good job of that. 

I’d already seen what Athena could do, of course. When I’d first met her, she had completely destroyed a small army of Radueriel’s troops without even pulling Excalibur from its sheath. Then chased the man himself off just by putting her hand on the hilt. She was a certified badass, and calling her a war goddess had not been exaggeration on Apollo’s part whatsoever. And right now was no different. She wasn’t using Excalibur (actually, I wasn’t exactly sure who had that sword at the moment), but had one of those Seosten laser swords instead, along with some kind of enchanted shield. Not that she seemed to need Arthur’s personal weapon to slaughter everything in sight. There were so many dead creatures surrounding her that it was hard to see the woman herself. She was basically a whirling dervish of death. That woodchipper analogy I’d used earlier? Yeah, she was the real one. Nothing got within twenty feet of the ship and survived.

But then there was Sachael. I had never seen him in action, given I’d just barely met the man. He, of course, had been Poseidon. God of the oceans, named because he was one of the most powerful hydrokinetics in the universe. But we were in the middle of an enormous desert. That should have meant he was all-but useless as far as his power went, right? After all, what exactly was a man whose entire thing revolved around controlling water going to do in a desert? 

As it turned out, quite a fucking bit. Bodybuilder Santa was standing right at the bottom of the ramp. Dark clouds had filled the air high above, and rain was–well, it wasn’t quite pouring. It was barely a drizzle, probably all that even his power could summon to this place. But that wasn’t the point. No, the point wasn’t the water, it was the rest of what came with a storm. Namely, the wind and the lightning. At a gesture from the man’s left hand, a miniature tornado tore down from the sky, lifted half a dozen monsters into the air, and catapulted them off into the distance. A sharp sweep of that same hand sent three more whirlwinds to catch half the visible creatures between us and the ship, collecting all of them into one group. And once they were there, pummeled and tossed by the wind into a single location, Sachael brought his other hand down in one swift gesture. That motion brought down the biggest, loudest bolt of lightning I’d ever seen in my life. It was like the finger of a god, colliding with the stack of monstrosities with so much force that the concussive force nearly knocked me off my feet. I was briefly deafened by the thunder that echoed off of it. And as for the monsters? There was nothing but charred remains left. Charred remains which were immediately blasted to either side in order to make a path by two more gusts of wind. 

But he wasn’t done yet. Thrusting both hands forward, the powerful Seosten brought down a double line of more lightning bolts leading up toward where we were, a dozen on each side with a roughly fifteen-foot space between them. They all came down one after another, hitting like a series of bombs dropped from a passing jet. Almost thirty bolts all-told. Not as powerful as the main one he’d used a moment earlier, but still enough to utterly destroy everything they hit. 

With that opening, he created another series of whirlwinds. But these were different. I could see frost and snow collecting within them, little shards of ice being whipped around in a circle. Those ice shards within the whirlwinds were spinning fast enough that they cut through chunks of the next set of approaching monsters as the twisters were sent that way. 

And with those ice-filled tornadoes, the man dug an enormous trench all along either side of the path he had cleared for us, leaving two huge pits. Digging out all that sand served two purposes, of course. First, it left holes the monsters had to find a way over or around. And, just as importantly, the sand that was torn up into the tornadoes themselves served to block the monsters from seeing us, creating a shield wall of sorts on top of the ravines. A shield wall consisting of bone-crushing wind filled with ice shards and sand, both of which were being spun and propelled fast enough to sheer through bone. 

On top of everything else, that light rain I’d noticed had turned into a thick fog, covering the air above us and filling in the space behind as we passed through. Just to make it even harder for the things to keep track of us. 

Yeah, I… I was starting to see why Poseidon was considered to be part of the Olympian leadership alongside Hades and Zeus. Which, come to think of it, begged the question of just what sort of damage was Puriel capable of if he was the guy who had been in charge? 

Actually, considering he was still supposed to be a pretty nasty guy, I was hoping I wouldn’t find out. Not really counting on it, given my track record, but still hoping. 

Either way, the path was clear now. And we took advantage, sprinting all-out to reach the ship. There were more of the unending waves of monsters falling in toward us from all sides, but they wouldn’t get through the ice-and-sand whirlwinds in time. Waved onward by Athena while Sachael continued to cover the area all around the ship to keep them back, we ran straight up the ramp. It was long-past time to get the hell off this planet. Especially given I was pretty sure the longer we stayed, the more of their ground forces the Fomorians could point at us. This was one war of attrition we would never win. No, it was definitely time to get the fuck out of Dodge. 

The second we were aboard, Athena followed and Sachael followed us on. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw the man toss what looked like a canteen onto the ground. He just left it there, lying on its side in the sand as the door closed. Apollo, already in the pilot’s seat, called out to find a seat even as he was hitting the controls to lift off. So there wasn’t time to ask about it. 

Instead, I fairly dove for the nearest seat and buckled myself in. All around me, the others were doing the same. I could feel the ship shake and shudder as things hit it from either side. These things were all over us. They leapt up to the ship from the ground, and fell out of the sky to land on top of it. They were going to rip the thing apart to get to the juicy insides (us) before we could go anywhere. And we couldn’t use the special jump drive at all. Not only would it leave a trail for the monsters to potentially use to bypass the banishment spell, but with these minions literally on the ship itself, we might just take some back with us. 

“Can’t fire the weapons,” Apollo announced, “need all power for the engines, and we don’t have a lot of that to begin with.” 

Lillian was talking quickly. “We can use a magnified force spell in a three-sixty range, shove everything out of the way and–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by Athena, who simply announced, “Sachael, use your ace card.” 

“Gladly,” the man retorted. His eyes went blue then. I didn’t mean just his pupils, which were already kind of blue-gray. No, the entire eye went blue. As they did, I saw the image on one of the nearby screens suddenly shift. It showed a view from behind us, back toward the ground itself. There were dozens of monsters in view, but that wasn’t what the camera was focused on. Instead, in the center of the screen was the canteen Sachael had left behind a few moments earlier. 

We saw that, and the second we did, the canteen exploded. Not with fire, but with water. Not just some water. Not a few gallons, or even a few hundred gallons. Not a swimming pool of water. All of the water. Where the canteen had been, a lake had suddenly appeared. Seriously, it stretched out to fill a huge portion of the area we’d just been in. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that a lake appeared, because that was exactly what happened. Filling up that portion of the desert, turning it into a beach, was what had to be literally hundreds of millions of gallons of water. It didn’t just create some small pond, it covered that section of the desert with a roughly oval-shaped lake ten miles across from end to end and thirty to forty feet deep. 

By the time we had taken all that in, Sachael  had raised his arms above his head. His hands closed into fists, and  I saw a slight smile touch his face. Then, with a grunt of effort, he brought both arms forward and down. And as he did so, that lake he’d created out of a canteen exploded upward. Yeah, all those millions of gallons of water were suddenly spraying up toward us. 

Every last drop flew upward in a violent geyser. Every creature that was on the ship, every monster around us in the air, everything the Fomorians had sent to us, was slammed into by a lake’s worth of water hitting it at speeds faster than a car could reach. Millions of gallons of water hitting these things at hundreds of miles per hour. Many of them simply exploded, bursting apart from the force. But even those that managed to survive through various enhancements were still knocked out of the way. They were all carried upward by the force of the geyser. 

Meanwhile, the ship was left entirely untouched. Not a single drop of water came any closer than a few inches from it. Sachael’s power tore everything away from the ship, sending all that water upward to utterly destroy everything surrounding us, without so much as getting the ship itself a little damp. 

All of that was amazing enough on its own, of course. But, as it turned out, the man who had been considered master of the oceans wasn’t done yet. With a slight snarl in his voice, he spoke a single word. 

“Fulmen.” 

Thunderbolt. He said thunderbo–

The lightning came. Another dozen strikes, but these were each as powerful as that single one from earlier. They tore down out of the sky and through the water that was currently carrying all of our attackers upward. Nothing survived it. They were all dead, bodies burnt to a crisp. And, with every single one dealt with, the water stopped rising. It dropped back toward the ground, taking those hundreds of corpses with it to rain across the ground below. 

Blinking twice as his eyes returned to normal, Sachael announced calmly (though I could hear a hint of exhaustion in his voice that he was clearly forcing back), “Now we can get out of here.” 

And get out of there we did, as fast as possible. Sariel took her seat back before punching the engines. We climbed rapidly, rushing out of the atmosphere and back into–

Oh… right, there was still a battle going on out here. And it didn’t look like it was any closer to ending now than it had when we first arrived. If anything, the battle was even more intense. Yet, something was different this time. Even as Sariel and Apollo were plotting the escape course, a pair of what looked like fighters approached. They definitely weren’t biological, looking a bit like gleaming silver and blue metal manta rays. 

As they approached, Sachael started to say something about defenses, only to stop as Athena interrupted. “Wait. They’re hailing.” 

Roxa and I exchanged glances, since the two of us were across from each other. I saw the other girl mouth, ‘Who?’ and shrugged back at her. 

By that time, Apollo had hit the button to answer the hail, and a voice filled the ship. The words were completely alien and incomprehensible, and came with repeated clicking sounds. But they were accompanied by a robotic voice that was clearly translating. “–say again, is the one known as Felicity Chambers aboard this ship?” 

Well, that definitely made everyone look at me. Not that I blamed them. If I could’ve taken my own eyeballs out and turned them in my own direction, I might’ve. As it was, I simply reeled a bit in confusion before unthinkingly blurting, “That’s me!” 

That could have been dumb if those guys turned out to have a grudge against me for whatever reason (and there were a lot of possibilities). I saw that on everyone’s face, even as the translated alien-speak came. “Will escort behind battlefield. Friends. Follow for safety.” 

With that, the two fighters finished swooping around us, coming in on either side in escort formation. Which left everyone still staring at me. 

“I dunno,” I managed, shrugging in confusion. “Never seen or heard of these guys before.” 

“Boss?” Apollo asked, looking toward Athena. 

For her part, the woman considered for a moment. She looked to the ongoing battle, then to the screen that showed the fighters pacing us, then to me. With her gaze locked on mine, she finally answered. “Stay with them. I believe it’ll be okay. But everyone be ready, just in case. This ship is held together with what the humans call duct tape and prayers. Even with the recently revealed secondary combat mode, we can’t afford an actual fight.” 

So, with basically everyone still looking at me while I helplessly shrugged and insisted I had no idea, we were escorted along the outskirts of the battle. Some of the Fomorians tried to give chase, but other ships fell in to block them. Before long, we were away from the central fighting. Ahead were what appeared to be the main command ships of the unknown aliens. They looked–well, they looked like metal jellyfish, really. There were gigantic dome-structures surrounding a central orb thing, with dozens of energy-coils drifting under them, which occasionally fired hundreds of lasers off into the battle to rip through various Fomorian monstrosities. 

Our escorts called back then. “Hold for connection to friend.” 

“Connection to friend? Who–Flick, who are they talking about?” Sands demanded. 

“I dunno,” I started. “I don’t–” 

“Flick.” It was Tristan. He was standing up from his seat, pointing toward one of the screens that showed the various views around us, his eyes wide. “Look.” 

Turning that way, I saw what he was looking at. It was another ship, one closer and smaller than those big command jellyfish (but still enormous). This one looked sort of like a pyramid if you cut the top third off and replaced it with an enormous opaque glass dome, then also cut the back corner of the pyramid off in order to put in the engines. 

But Tristan’s attention wasn’t on those details. They were on the name stenciled across the main body of the ship. A name that… I couldn’t read. The symbols were clearly meant to be letters, but I had no idea what they meant. 

The blond boy read the name aloud, for me and for everyone else. “Binsayeac Two.”

“Binsayeac? Wait,” Roxa blurted, “What does that mean?” 

But I knew. I remembered the name as soon as Tristan said it. “It means that guy before wasn’t saying he was going to connect us to a friend, he was going to connect us to the Friend, the name of the ship. That name, it means Friend-Finder. The… second Friend-Finder. And it means they did it after all. That’s why this fleet is here. It’s why this battle is happening. They finally did it. 

“The Meregan found friends.” 

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Building Connections 16-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Hold up, wait just a second. Wait, so let me get this straight, you just came right out and asked for someone to help you fix a Touched-Tech robot-android thing on a public forum?” 

The incredulous words were from Pack, who stood in one corner of Wren’s upstairs lab at the shop, staring at me as if I’d just told her I was engaged to marry the Abyssal Typhon. 

It was Tuesday, April 14th, the next day after my interesting dinner with Caishen, Skip, Lightning Bug… and my parents. I’d spent some time after they left just hanging out with Bug, playing with her insect friends (and making them pretty, of course). Eventually, I’d promised to visit again soon and made my exit. Then I’d told Izzy all about what happened while we were safe in my room, which was… yeah. Just being able to tell someone else about the near-panic attack I’d had when I saw my parents there, and all the way through it, was basically a life saver. Or at least a sanity saver. 

Anyway, now it was the next day, shortly after school had let out. Pack and I had arrived at roughly the same time, which made me wonder how far away her school was. Did she even still go to school as a supervillain member of La Casa? Or was there like a… work-study program? 

Coughing while pushing that thought away, I held up both hands quickly, glancing off to the side where Wren was carefully running the new scanner she’d made over every inch of Paige, who lay motionless on a padded table. “Not exactly,” I corrected. “I’m not that stupid. Like I said, Lion told me about that secret code to privately hire Tech-Touched, so I’m just… feeling it out. I’m not giving any details yet. I’m seeing who bites and chatting with them a bit. Just, you know, feeling them out. It’s a potential option.” 

I couldn’t see her face, of course. But from her body language alone, I was pretty sure Pack wasn’t exactly convinced. A side glance toward her cage full of lizards sitting on a nearby equipment table showed that they seemed to be just as doubtful about the situation. Which, honestly, was a really weird impression to be getting from a group of reptiles to begin with.

With a sigh, Pack started to respond. “Look, I know I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of trusting anyone you talk to online and the whole stranger-danger, pedo–” She stopped, choking a bit before giving me what was clearly a sharp look. “I don’t have to tell you about that, right?” 

Squinting at her from behind the mask and helmet for a long, silent moment, I very slowly shook my head while keeping my voice even and flat. “I’ve had the discussion a few times before.” 

“Good, just… good.” Sounding almost insultingly relieved, Pack pushed on. “The point is, just because you think someone might sound trustworthy in a few internet conversations doesn’t mean they are. Don’t do anything crazy that you might regret, okay? It’s not like you’ll get a second chance if whoever you bring in here happens to blab about the whole situation.” 

“I’m not gonna do anything crazy,” I solemnly promised, raising my hand as though taking an oath. “I wouldn’t bring anyone in without seeing what you guys thought anyway. Not with something that important. Just–believe me, I won’t be stupid about it. But we have to do something, and soon.” With that, I glanced over to Wren again, who was still working.

Pack hesitated, watching me for a moment before giving a very short nod. “We will, Paintball. Trust me, I know it’s easy to feel… you know, fucking anxious and shit about all this. But we’ll figure it out. You said yourself there’s no real rush. The girl’s fine over there, just sleeping. And honestly, if we were in a rush, I’d rather trust Eits to get in there and fix the damn orb thing.” She shrugged. “Even if that meant finding a way to get to it. You sure you can’t just pink paint it?” 

Grimacing slightly, I offered a hesitant shrug before admitting, “I dunno. I’ve never really pulled someone’s body, uhh… apart or open like that. It just stretches the body part out like taffy. And I’m afraid–I mean, what if it does actual damage? Like, the part that’s painted is protected, but what if I rip open her stomach or whatever and expose her inner… uhh… organs and that goes wrong? I’m pretty sure they have super sterile operating rooms for a reason. And like, a bajillion years of lessons about how to safely open someone up.” My face twisted a little at my own words. “Plus I’d have to keep reapplying the paint or the whole thing would just, umm, schloop back. And that’s if it works to begin with.” 

“Too bad you don’t have another biolem body to practice with,” Pack noted thoughtfully. 

Before either of us could pursue the thought any further, Wren called out, “Got it, I got it!” 

“You sure, kid?” Pack asked while immediately stepping over that way with me just behind her. 

Wren, who was perched on a stool with the scanner against Paige’s back as the other girl’s motionless body lay on her stomach, gave both of us a hurried nod of excitement. “Uh huh. I mean, unless she’s got some other metal orb thing in her body that’s connected to all her nerves and muscles and all for a completely unrelated reason.” Pausing as though considering that, she quickly shook her head, pointing to a point about midway down Paige’s back before hurriedly insisting. “It’s here. Right in there. Basically right between her lungs. You know, protected by the ribs.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I slowly nodded. “I mean, that makes sense. Her dad would want it to be safe. He put the others inside the skulls, but maybe he thought avoiding obvious headshot damage would be easier?” Shrugging, I added, “Anyway, great job, Wren. At least we know where it is now. And if it’s in her chest instead of her head, maybe it’ll be easier to get someone else involved without exposing her identity. I mean, we can mask her up pretty well, right? If it comes down to it, we can just hide her identity that way. They’d know there was a really good biological android… person, but not who she actually is.” 

It was Wren and Pack’s turn to exchange looks, before the latter shrugged. “Sure, it’s an idea.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else, but a sudden chirp from my phone interrupted. Holding up a hand, I glanced at the phone. “Oh, hey, it’s time for me to go pick up my uhh…” 

“Your minions?” From the tone of her voice, Pack was incredibly amused by the whole situation. With a wave of both hands, she teased, “Time for the noble and incredibly valiant Star-Touched hero to go meet up with the older teenagers he press-ganged into being his loyal minions.” 

Boy was I glad the helmet meant she couldn’t see my blush. It really would’ve wrecked my rep. Or something. “They are not minions!” I blurted, my voice rising in an embarrassing squeak that Pack did an absolutely awful job of pretending not to laugh at. Hurried, I pushed on. “I mean they’re not–I’m not–they’re just… you know, helping out in exchange for not getting in trouble and then we’ll give them money if they keep helping and keeping everything we’re doing secret and oh my God they really are minions.” 

“Hey, it’s okay!” Wren piped up. “I’m sure you’ll treat your minions really good, right?” She started to say something else, then paused while looking at Pack. Something on her face made me glance that way too, before realizing what it was. The other girl was standing basically directly beside the painted banner on the wall that read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Pack, who turned a bit to see where we were looking, pivoted back and offered an exaggerated shrug. “Hey, I consider this more me working for you.” 

Wren, however, simply shook her head. “It just says we don’t work for bad guys. You’re not a bad guy. There’s bad guys and then there’s bad guys.” 

Coughing, the lizard-tamer gently pointed out, “Far be it from me to argue, kid, but I literally rob places. I mean, sure it’s fun to do some good stuff now and then, especially with you guys. And I’ve got my limits. Still, I ain’t gonna stop stealing shit. Most people would consider that being a bad guy. Pretty sure taking what doesn’t belong to you is part of the definition, actually.” 

“Uh huh.” Sounding entirely unconvinced, Wren pivoted to look at me. “Uncle Fred’s picking up a pizza! And some breadsticks and stuff! So you should bring them back so it’s still hot when they get here. Oh, and make sure they’re not lactose intolerant or gluten-free or anything,” she added sagely. 

“Speaking of which, have you told those guys about ahh… who they’ll be working for in this place?” Pack asked, making a vague token effort at keeping the amusement out of her voice. As she spoke, her hand fell on Wren’s shoulder, squeezing it. 

“Not yet,” I replied, already starting to head to the nearby window so I could head out. “I mean, I could’ve. 

“But why spoil the surprise?” 

*******

Reaching the roof above where I was supposed to meet Murphy and Roald, a few blocks from Wren’s shop, I was greeted with the sound of a basketball being dribbled, then bouncing off a rim. Peering over the edge, I saw the two in question playing on a nearby court attached to the small apartment complex this building was a part of. Yeah, it was definitely them. Roald the skinny, pale blond boy and Murphy (seriously, was that her first name?) the biracial girl with very short brown hair and a temper that was even shorter. 

Neither seemed to be particularly good at the game they were playing from the few moments I watched, but they were clearly having fun. And who was I to judge someone else’s basketball skills? I wasn’t exactly… uhhh insert good basketball player. Simon would know.

In any case, they missed a lot more baskets than they made, but neither of them seemed to care. Crouching there, staring at the two, I saw the way they just goofed off and acted like they were both hotshot stars, playing up for an imaginary crowd and trash-talking each other.

God, what was I doing here? Why was I involving them at all in any of this? I should just disappear, leave a message to let the two of them know everything was fine and they didn’t owe anything, and let them live in peace. Even if I wasn’t planning on involving them in any of the actual… bad stuff, just having any connection to me could put them in danger. They didn’t have any powers or anything. They were total civilian Prevs with their whole lives to deal with. 

Right, their whole lives. That was the problem. I’d promised the two of them jobs, a way to get out of the holes that were their lives if they put some effort into it. Sure, they were going to have to work off the cost of the damage they’d done before, but after that, working for a Tech-Touched could seriously change everything for them. If I snatched that away now, after saying I was going to give them a chance, I doubted they’d listen to ‘but it’s for your own good.’ I’d just be another asshole who didn’t give them a chance. 

Besides, I could still keep them out of the worst of it. Working with Wren wasn’t exactly being around me. And Wren had all those defenses she’d been working on, right? Right. Yeah, I just had to keep convincing myself that this wasn’t an awful, terrible, horrible idea that I was going to regret. 

Pushing on past all that, I straightened, took aim, and fired a shot of red paint at the ball while it was in midair. Holding out my own red glove, I activated the paint, summoning the ball to me just as it bounced off the edge of the big wooden board thing the rim was attached to. 

Murphy and Roald both pivoted, their eyes following the ball as it flew all the way up to the roof of the three story building I was on. While they watched, I overhand chucked it back the other way, hurling the ball as hard as I could in the vague direction of the basket. It sailed… nowhere near going in. But while the ball was still falling, I hit both it and the inner part of the rim with red paint, activating them with a thought. That sent the ball on a complete course correction, falling neatly through the net. 

“Whooo!” Leaping from the roof, I painted my feet orange to land comfortably on the pavement. “How many points is that? Like seven?” 

The other two exchanged looks, before Roald jogged over to get the ball. As he was doing that, Murphy approached. She still had the mark on her face from the sealant that the ambulance guys used, since it hadn’t been a week yet. 

Oh my God, it hadn’t been a week yet? What the fuck? Was it really only Tuesday when Paige’s birthday party had been Saturday? It felt like it had been a couple months at least. What the hell was happening to my life? 

While I was busy reeling from the shock of how time worked, Murphy gestured toward the ball that her friend was picking up and remarked, “How’d you do that?” 

“Uhh, you do know I used my power, right?” I was confused. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that sneaky.” 

While the girl rolled her eyes so hard I thought she might pass out, Roald approached and spoke up. “She means the paint part. You hit the ball in midair twice from all the way up on the roof. And you hit the inner part of the rim. Those are like… really good shots.” 

“Oh.” Blinking at the thought, I finally shrugged. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had practice aiming my paint lately. And if you think that’s impressive, you should see me navigate a forest in the middle of the night.” 

Right, I should probably try to figure out what was up with that at some point, huh? 

Poor Roald and Murphy, meanwhile, were just staring at each other in silence for a few seconds before both turned back to me. “Dude,” Murphy managed, “if you try to get us to follow you into a dark forest, I’m gonna have to peace out. I don’t do nature walks. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s how like half of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales start. You know, the original really psycho ones.”

“I promise to wait awhile before taking you to the Gingerbread House,” I solemnly replied before gesturing. “Anyway, you guys ready?”

“Sure, do we need these?” From her pocket, Murphy pulled out a ski mask. Probably the same one she’d been wearing that night when they tried to steal from the convenience shop.

“We weren’t sure how much you wanted us to hide,” Roald put in. 

“Depends,” I replied, “do you want to wear those the whole time you’re working for your new boss? I mean, it’s totally up to you and I’m pretty sure she could help you with more comfortable ones if you wanna keep your identities secret and all that. But you don’t have to. Like I said, up to you.” 

After a moment of thought and whispered conversation, Murphy shoved the mask away again and shrugged. “Whatever. I mean, you said we’re working for this chick, right? This shit is legit?” From the sound of her voice, she was at least half-expecting me to laugh in their faces and take off. Between that and the whole thing with her drug-addict brother giving her that cut on her face, I was getting the vague impression that Murphy didn’t have a lot of dependable people in her life. 

“As legit as we can make it,” I assured her. Briefly thinking about how both of them were going to react to finding out their boss was technically still young enough to get into the theater using kid prices, I smiled faintly. “I mean yeah. It’ll be real work and, as soon as you catch up with what you owe for your little escapade, you’ll make real money. From there, well, we’ll see what happens.” 

“Okay, sure, whatever. But how do we get there?” Murphy gave me a doubtful look. “And please don’t say we have to let you carry us or something. That’s just gonna be embarrassing for everyone involved.” 

Snorting at that, I shook my head and gave them the address and directions. “It’s just a couple blocks that way. You head there and wait by the backdoor. I’ll let you in and we’ll meet your new–” 

In mid-sentence, I cut myself off. Something had drifted past the corner of my eye, over by the building. My gaze snapped that way, and I thought I saw it right next to one of the bushes there. I could’ve sworn that it looked like one of those Summus Proelium orbs, but it was gone the instant I focused, so it must’ve just been my imagination. A trick of the light or something.

Either way, facing that direction meant I saw the trucks that went past. Several of them, in fact, all decked out with Easy Eight decals, men with weapons standing in the backs. I even caught a glimpse of Juice himself in one of the passenger seats. He was looking away from me, his attention on wherever they were going. But it was definitely him. 

A bunch of Easy Eight people heading down the street into what I was fairly certain was considered Ninety-Niner territory? Fuck. This wasn’t gonna end well. Or start and proceed well, come to think of it. It was gonna be bad all around. 

“Paintball?” That was Roald, drawing my attention. “What’s–” 

“Go to the address,” I blurted, already starting to move after the line of trucks. “Hit the bell on the back door, tell them who you are, and that I’ll be there soon. Just let them know that I’m going after some Easy Eights heading into Ninety-Niner territory.

“Looks like there’s not gonna be a ceasefire in the gangwar today after all.”

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