Month: April 2021

In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t that hard to convince That-A-Way to come meet us. Apparently, she had to beg off from doing some kind of school project with somebody, but didn’t really mind that much. In fact, going by her texts, the girl almost seemed grateful for the excuse. Especially when I told her I was with Pack and that this was something important that had to be done within the next few hours. Obviously, she had questions, but the girl held them until she got to the tire shop where we had both gone back to wait for her. It was close enough to Wren’s shop for this. 

Patient as she might have been over the phone, Way definitely wanted the whole story as soon as she showed up. Looking back and forth between the two of us as we all stood on that roof, she insisted that we tell her everything that was going on and what kind of emergency this actually was before anything else happened and before she would agree to go anywhere.  

So, I gave her the quick version, explaining what our Tech-Touched friend had found out about Paige’s apparently increasingly desperate situation, and how we were going to try to deal with it to at least buy ourselves time so we wouldn’t end up with the virus duplicate taking over and turning her into Evil Paige. Way made a few noises of confusion and surprise as I went through all the VR stuff, but mostly remained quiet until I was finally done explaining the whole thing.

Once I was finished, the blonde girl slumped back a bit and seemed to be lost in thought for a few long moments. She was clearly going over all of that in her head before eventually straightening up. “Wow. You really do get into some really crazy stuff, you know that?”  

With a cough at her words, I shook my head. “Trust me, you really don’t know the half of it.” 

She, of course, gave me a look while flatly pointing out, “And whose fault is that, exactly?” 

Shifting uncomfortably, I waved that off. “Anyway, like I said, we’ve got an extra slot for someone to help us go in there and help that girl. If you’re interested. But we have to do it tonight. Like, in a couple hours, so if you’ve got something else you can’t get out of… I mean, it’s short notice.” 

Snorting, That-A-Way drawled, “Totally smooth change of subject there, Paintball. How do you do it?” That point made, she firmly added, “And yeah, I’m totally in. Absolutely. If you two are going into some kind of Tron world to save Paige from turning into psycho evil crazy Paige, then I’m going too. No way am I letting both of you have that kind of adventure without me.” 

Before I could say anything, Pack spoke up first. “Technically, it wouldn’t be the two of us anyway.” Her gaze moved over to me as she slyly added, “Not with Paintball’s new sidekick.” 

Well, that definitely got Way’s attention. Her gaze snapped from Pack back to me, staring a bit. “You mean it’s true then? You really did recruit that girl you were with? Why? Who is she? Do you trust her? Have you told her about this Ministry thing? Have you told her what we’re doing at the mall? What else does she know? How long have you known her? How many times–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “I haven’t known her very long. And no, I haven’t told her anything about the Ministry. But she kind of already figured out that there was a good reason not to join the Minority, because I keep refusing to even though I’m obviously fine with working with you guys.”

“Yeah, who could’ve seen that coming?” With that flat retort, Way shook her head before continuing. “So, are you going to tell her the truth about all that? I mean, if she’s signed up to be your sidekick or partner or whatever, she’s probably going to figure out there’s something bigger going on eventually. That, or something horrible is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know the truth and you’ll feel like a gigantic piece of shit for not warning her about it. Do you really want that? Do you want to put this girl in danger because you wouldn’t tell her the truth?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “I’m gonna tell–okay I think I’m gonna tell her the truth. Just not–not yet. I want to build up to it first. More to the point, I want to get to know her first, see how she reacts to things, you know? I just need to get to know her more before we jump into the deep end with all the Ministry stuff. I mean, that’s a lot to shove onto a brand new Touched.” Glancing down, I muttered under my breath, “Seriously, it’s a lot.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Way’s mouth open as though she was going to say something. But she stopped herself. I had the feeling she was going to bring up my not telling them the whole story and keeping important things to myself again, then thought better of it.  

Of course, Pack chose that moment to speak up with, “Don’t worry, once you guys get through taking down Pencil and the Scions, you’ll definitely know her really well.” 

What?!” Yeah, unsurprisingly, Way had a bit of a reaction to that. Her eyes behind that domino mask were wide as she pointed at me. “Dude, what is she talking about? You are not going after Pencil or the Scions and you’re definitely not doing it with this brand new girl. What the hell?” 

Giving Pack a quick, pointed look (which she ignored), I sighed before launching into an explanation of the situation. I told the girl about the whole favor thing, and that we weren’t actually going after the Scions themselves, but a living witness from Pencil’s early days who might possibly have some kind of secret important insight about that piece of shit that would give Deicide an edge over him. With, of course, the added note that pointing her at the Scions was a hell of a lot safer than us having anything to do with trying to take them down. 

By the time I was done, Way had sat down and picked up Holiday (in her little skink form) to hold in one hand while gently rubbing the back of the lizard’s head with the other. She was watching me dubiously. “Do you really think it’s going to be that simple? You’re just going to track this girl down and get her to tell you some secret about how to stop Pencil, a secret she hasn’t told anybody else yet because she’s so scared of him? She’ll just tell you because you, what, ask nicely? Then you’re going to give that secret to one of the leaders of a Fell-Gang and she’s going to deal with him? And if this whole thing works, there won’t be any terrible consequences and nothing will go wrong?” 

With a long sigh, I shook my head. “I don’t know how it’s gonna go. Probably not that smoothly. But it’s the favor Deicide called in. A favor I definitely owe her. And quite frankly, she could have asked for something a hell of a lot worse than that. We all want Pencil to be stopped. If this works, great! If not, at least we tried. I’m paying back the favor by trying to help stop Pencil from killing more people. Like I said, Deicide could’ve tried to get me to do something a lot worse.” 

“Besides,” Pack put in, “I already told him to pull me in as soon as they get anywhere with it. He’s right, Deicide earned that favor. But she did it by helping save my boss’s kid. So I’m not letting him and his new sidekick run off by themselves and get hurt trying to pay her back for it.”

That-A-Way let out an audible breath, her voice dark. “Believe it or not, finding out that you’re getting involved in this whole thing doesn’t actually make me feel that much better. In fact, it kinda makes me feel even worse, because I really don’t feel like letting the girl I–” In mid-sentence, she stopped herself, clearly adjusting her words. “–the girl I’m pretty sure isn’t that bad make herself a target of that psycho piece of shit too!”   

Pack and I exchanged brief looks before the La Casa girl cleared her throat. “Sure, right. Well, the… girl you’re pretty sure isn’t that bad is already a target for Pencil. So are you. And so is our little buddy here.” She gestured toward me. “Sooner or later, he’s going to get around to targeting us to get back for what we put him and Cup through. So, you know, it seems to me that we ought to take this chance to get someone as strong as Deicide to maybe take him out. If that means we do a little digging and hopefully find an actual weakness no one else knows about so she can actually do something useful, so be it. Better than just sitting around waiting to see what his revenge for that night up at the cabin is gonna be.” 

It looked like Way wanted to argue with that for a brief moment. Then she exhaled and sank back a bit. Her finger gently traced along the body of the tiny skink before she found her voice. “Yeah, okay, I get it. You’ve both got a point. But don’t–don’t go running into life and death shit without getting help, okay? If anything happens–actually, scratch that. Anytime you’re doing anything that has to do with this… plan, tell me. Make sure I know where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you don’t keep checking in, I’ll be there. Just consider me your back-up. But that means you have to keep me updated. Got it?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t going to accept any arguments. 

“Sure,” I immediately answered, giving her a thumbs up. “Like we’re gonna argue against you having our backs? Fat chance, Pencil’s a piece of shit, but he’s a scary piece of shit.” 

“What he said,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward me. “I mean, if this thing works out perfectly we won’t get anywhere near him or any of the Scions. But I think we all know how unlikely that is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Besides,” she added slyly with a look toward Way, “I could definitely think of worse people to have watching my backside out there.” 

Making a disconcerted noise in the back of her throat, Way pointedly looked at me. “What do we need to do to get ready for this? And, wait a minute, how are we going to do anything in there? I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty reliant on my powers. I mean, yeah, I’ve had self-defense training, duh. But do you really think we can do enough in that place to help? Hell, you’re taking some brand new girl in there too and I doubt she’s had special training or experience. Unless you somehow managed to recruit a teenage ninja master commando.”

Briefly thinking about Peyton wearing a ninja commando outfit with a big rifle and a sword strapped to her back, I coughed before shaking my head quickly. “Not exactly, but Wren says we should be able to use at least some form of our powers in there. It has something to do with the system reading what we’re capable of, or something like that. I dunno, it’s complicated. The point is, we shouldn’t be completely helpless. Except…” Trailing off, I looked to Pack and frowned as a thought occurred to me. “I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to use your power. I mean, will she spawn in lizards for you or something? What’s the deal there.”

Before responding to that, Pack glanced to Way and informed her, “Wren’s the name of our friendly little tech kid.” 

“Kid?” the other girl quickly put in as she looked from Pack over to me and back, rising to her feet with Holiday still in her hand. “Hold up. You mean this Trevithick you’ve been talking about-”  

“That’s a long story too,” I muttered. “Yeah, she’s a kid. A genius kid, but a kid. Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon. She said she’s cool with it. Apparently, she has this crazy idea that if I somehow get in trouble or something, having you to call for help would be a good idea.”  

Giving me an intense stare, Way flatly retorted, “Gee, what on Earth could ever have made her think she needed to plan for that ridiculous eventuality? You’re always so careful and definitely never take on more than you can handle. I mean, you’re practically the avatar of caution.”  

Flushing at her words behind the helmet, I waved both hands. “Yeah yeah, I get it. You’re hilarious. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of choice right now. If we wanna save this Paige girl, we have to get in there. And the only way we’re gonna get in there to save her is with Wren’s help. Believe me, I wouldn’t–I’d be dead without her. Several times over. I’ve made it this far because of you guys, and her. Yeah, she’s a kid. But she knows what she’s doing.” 

After a brief pause, Way gave a slow nod. “Right, well, I guess it could be worse. I mean, I go out in the field with Raindrop and she’s saved me a hell of a lot more than once. And this kid isn’t going out to fight or anything, she’s just building stuff.” With that, her gaze snapped over to stare me down intently, “She’s not going into the field, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course not. She’s support. And she’s really good at that. Hell, her being really good is the only reason we even know about Paige being in trouble, let alone have any chance of doing anything about it. Seriously, Wren’s building a virtual reality system and patching it into Paige’s computer core in like twenty-four hours. She’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s right,” Pack agreed before pushing on. “Anyway, as far as being helpless in there goes, the kid already said she could patch exactly two of my little friends with me. Something to do with technical limitations or whatever. Point is, she can wire in two of my buddies so they’re linked to me in there, just like in the real world. I just uhh…” She trailed off, looking from Holiday on Way’s hand over to the backpack cage where the rest of the lizards were. “I have to choose which two to take in there.” I could hear the grimace in her voice. “Really wish we knew more about what it was like so I knew who I should take with me.” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I guess we could head over there and see if Wren needs any help. Maybe she’ll know more about what we’re dealing with.” Glancing to Way, I added, “And you can meet her. You know, if you don’t have anything better to do right now.” 

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Trust me, I cleared my schedule for this. Paige sounds like our best chance of finding out more about the Ministry. I mean, we’ve got the mall thing, but that’s going to take a while. Plus, it’d be better if we knew what Paige knows before going in there.” 

So, keeping an eye out for anyone watching, the three of us carefully made our way through those alleys to reach the shop. We took the same route Pack and I had before, and I noticed the homeless guy from earlier was gone. Briefly, I wondered if he had just moved to a different spot, or if he had already taken the offer to start working for La Casa. Not that I could blame him if he had. The dude was living on the streets. Getting safety and resources from Blackjack and his people was probably pretty tempting. 

In any case, we made it back to the shop, where Pack and I introduced That-A-Way to Fred and Wren. To my surprise, Fred immediately copped to what he had done to make the whole Ashton thing worse with that tool to break into the bank vault. For a moment, Way looked like she wanted to say something about how stupid that was, but she saw the look on his face and let it go. He already knew just how bad it had been. 

Besides, by that point, Wren had already jumped in to start asking her a million questions about her power, her costume, and everything else. The kid looked even more worn out than she had earlier, making it clear just how much effort getting this thing done in time was taking. But at that moment, she really didn’t seem to care that much. The exhaustion fell from her eyes as she excitedly pressed Way to answer all her many, many questions about how the Minority worked. 

It was only a few minutes of that before the kid quickly shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Gotta get the machine done. Getting there. Almost there. Really close. It’ll be done in time, I promise.” That last bit was directed toward me. “I’ll get it done.” 

Quickly, I spoke up in as reassuring a tone as I could manage. “Wren, it’s okay. You’re okay. I know. You’ll get it done. Just don’t kill yourself over it. And tell us how we can help, okay?” 

So, for the next hour or so, the three of us kept moving through the shop, carrying stuff up to Wren, holding things for her, passing the kid whatever tool she needed, and generally being as useful as we could. 

We also used that time to ask her about what we were going to be walking into. Unfortunately, Wren didn’t know much. Mostly because she hadn’t wanted to interrupt or distract Paige from defending herself against that invader. The best she could tell us was that the area we were entering kept changing appearance. Sometimes it was an open city street, sometimes it was a mall, a forest, the roof of a building, a huge mansion, a library, whatever. It changed all the time. So we couldn’t exactly plan on what kind of surroundings would be there. 

Eventually, the three of us were downstairs sorting through a couple of shelves when the buzzer at the backdoor rang. It was Peyton, covered by the armor she’d used yesterday, the purple and silver Power Rangers-like bodysuit with the ‘helmet’ that was purple on top across her head and silver across her throat and lower half of her face, leaving her eyes and nose exposed. 

The girl looked surprised to see That-A-Way when we let her in. She was also slightly surprised to see Pack, but at least I had already told her we would be working with the La Casa girl. There was a quick back-and-forth of introductions and explanations as I informed Peyton that we could trust That-A-Way with this. 

“Alloy, huh?” Pack put in as soon as that was done. She looked the other girl up and down curiously. “Cool name. Guess it fits with the whole melding your marbles together to turn into things.” 

Alloy, for her part, looked a little uncertain as to how she should react to the supervillain complimenting her name choice. In the end, she offered a little shrug. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“Hey,” Way put in, “I’m just glad you don’t have yet another P name.” 

Peyton, of course, practically choked, head snapping that way. “What?” 

“You know,” Way continued, “We’ve got Pack and Paintball.” She gestured between the two of us in question. “And the girl we’re supposed to be helping is named Paige. Too many P names. It’s becoming a thing.” 

Clearly glad that most of her face was covered to hide her expression, Peyton nodded slowly. “Right, good thing.” 

“Hey,” Pack suddenly put in, “speaking of names, what exactly are you two gonna call your little team-up thing? Hell, pretty sure you should count Trevithick too, so what’re you all gonna call yourselves? Every group’s gotta have a name, especially if there’s two of you out in the field.” 

“Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and the rest of that group didn’t have a team name,” I pointed out. “I mean, besides Bat-family. Hey, you could be–” 

“We’re not being Paint-family,” Peyton immediately interrupted. “And definitely not the Ball-family. Forget it.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Wren to come down the stairs, blurting, “Are we choosing a team name?! We’ve gotta choose a team name, right?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Is this really the best use of our time right now?” Another part of me was really resistant to the idea of making this whole team-up thing official in any capacity. It was dangerous, it was reckless, it could backfire with–

“I have an idea.” That was Alloy, hesitantly speaking up. “I mean, it might be a little silly, but I was thinking about Paintball’s powers, and mine, and the way Trevithick makes brand new things. And I sorta… I sorta came up with a suggestion?” She squirmed uncomfortably, kicking her foot against the floor. 

Not wanting to discourage her despite my trepidation, I nodded. “Okay, whatcha got?” 

So, she told us, and explained the spelling. Once she had it out, all of us exchanged looks. Pack shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. I mean, it ain’t my team, but I wouldn’t mind jumping under the banner now and then whenever you need a guest star.” 

Wren was bobbing her head rapidly, of course, gushing about how cool it was. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely cool,” Way agreed, looking to me. “What do you think?” 

“Let’s see how it looks,” I murmured, raising both hands before using my paint to spray the name across the wall in red with black outline. Once it was there, all of us stared at it. 

“I like it,” I finally agreed despite the worry I felt. “Good job, Alloy.” 

After we’d all taken in the name that we would apparently be using, Way turned from the wall. “Well, should we get busy? From what you guys said, time is sorta of the essence.” 

She was right, of course. So, we all got back to work, finishing up the last things that needed to be done before we would be able to jump into virtual reality to save Paige. Hopefully. 

In the background, meanwhile, the name of my brand new team remained in bold red letters across the wall. 

Avant-Guard.

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Long Awaited 12-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, what the hell was it with this day finding new ways to shock me into open-mouthed silence? It was starting to become a thing. And this time was a bit worse than my mother having something surprising to say. This was the wife, wife–correction, widow of one of my worst enemies suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Did we even know Manakel was married? Was that a thing? Seriously, could someone have possibly warned me that that was a thing?! 

I was still staring at the woman, no sound having found its way to my lips. She wasn’t glaring or anything. She wasn’t making any threatening moves, or even attacking. She was just standing there, grinning a bit lopsidedly at all of us. If this was a threat, it was a very casual one. 

On the other hand, she had basically just plummeted out of the sky and disintegrated something as powerful as a Nuckelavee, then got up as if nothing had happened. So maybe she didn’t really need to go out of her way to look intimidating. Honestly, that was pretty damn impressive all on its own. And now she was looking at me. Looking at me because I had killed her husband. 

Before I could move or find any words, Miranda was suddenly standing in front of me. She had her shield up, projecting a force field. “Flick, get out of here,” the girl snapped over her shoulder in a voice that was tense and brittle, like she was barely keeping it together. Yeah, seeing this chick blow through the Nuckelavee that easily had gotten to her too. “You guys get help, we–” 

Abruptly, the woman started walking toward us. And that was apparently the trigger for everyone to react. Miranda sent the force-field flying that way, while Sands made a thick, solid rock wall rise out of the ground in the woman’s path just as the forcefield flew past that spot. At the same time, Koren made a wall of earth rise up to match and reinforce the rock. Finally, Sarah had her rifle in her hands, and took three quick shots through a scope-portal she had positioned above and to the left to hit the advancing figure from behind. They all acted instantly to protect me

And all of it did essentially nothing. The force-field hit the advancing figure and shattered into bits of light without apparent effect. The bullets bounced off of her, and she walked through the rock and earth walls as though they weren’t there, leaving a her-shaped hole behind. She didn’t even slow down at all. Though on the other hand, she also wasn’t sprinting or anything. She was just walking at a normal pace. It was like she didn’t even really notice the attempts to hurt or stall her. She brushed off the frantic series of attacks as easily as a semi brushed off the flies that bounced off its windshield. And with even less notice.  

Through it all, there was a strange sensation at the back of my mind. It felt familiar somehow. She felt familiar, in a strange way. Wait a second, I knew what this was. I knew what this sensation meant. It was absurd, crazy, but I knew what I was feeling in that moment. 

The strange woman was still walking toward us, casual as could be, while the other three began to launch another wave of attacks as they shouted for me to move my ass and get out of there already, while I still could. Instead, I quickly held up both hands, shouting, “Stop!” 

My friends listened and stopped attacking. But, more importantly, the strange woman halted. I felt my power reach out to her. My necromancy power. Yeah, she was dead. At least, I thought she was. It was a strange sensation. It was like she was sort of dead, but not completely. I had no idea what that meant, only that I had recognized the feeling that my power could affect her. My necromancy had wrapped itself around the woman and held her steady when I shouted for everyone to stop. And, just like that, she had stopped. 

“Uhh, Flick?” Koren was looking back and forth between the apparently frozen woman and me. “What–huh?” 

For a brief second, I had a flash of intense worry. This was at, least partially, power that had belonged to her dead husband, and I was using it to make her stop walking. I was using her dead husband’s power to stop her from enacting righteous vengeance for his death, or whatever. She was probably about to lose her shit on us, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to keep her in place through something like that. Oh God, this was about to get bad, wasn’t it?

Except, the woman didn’t actually look mad at all. Instead, that smile she’d had the entire time just got wider as she clapped. Yeah, I felt her casually break the hold my power had over her just enough to bring her hands together a few times with obvious delight. 

“I knew it!” the woman actually cheered while hopping up and down. “I knew you had it now. Do it again, do it again!” With that weirdly ecstatic cry, she started walking toward us once more, arms raised extended out to either side. I swear, it looked as though she was trying to hug me. Which was a hell of a lot more confusing than if she had been screaming at me in anger and attacking. At least that I would have understood. This? This I had absolutely no idea how to react to. And neither did the others. 

Before any of us could figure out what to do, another interruption came. This one was in the form of half a dozen adult Garden Heretics, who appeared between us and the strange woman in a flash of light. No, they weren’t just Garden Heretics. They were Unset, led by Croc himself. The enormous Native American man in dark red armor loomed right in front of me, bellowing for the woman to halt even as two metal coils tore their way out of the ground and wrapped around her arms. The five other Heretics had produced weapons and seemed ready to lunge at her. Not that the woman seemed at all put off by that. If anything, she was smiling even more than before, as if the whole thing was just one big game. Hell, considering I kept getting the impression that she was at least partially dead, maybe it really was a game. 

Well, there was clearly something very weird going on with this whole thing, so I quickly blurted out once more, “Croc, stop! Everybody stop. Just stop! Hold on for a minute!” 

To their credit, the Unset stopped. So did my friends, who had looked as though they were about ready to jump into the fray again themselves. Everyone froze, even the strange woman herself, though she still looked like she wanted to hug me. Which was very much not the reaction I expected to get from a woman who claimed I killed her husband. This whole thing was even more baffling than my life usually was. And that was definitely saying something.

“Flick,” Sands demanded with her mace out and ready. “What the hell is going on?” 

“Yes,” Croc agreed flatly, not moving his eyes off the woman herself, who was still at least nominally held by those metal coils around her arms. “Who is this?” 

My mouth opened to say I wasn’t sure who she was, exactly. But before I could actually get the words out, another voice spoke up from nearby. “Persephone?”

It was Mercury. The real Mercury, not possessing Carfried as he had through most of last year. The somewhat tall (just over six feet, so fairly diminutive next to other people like Croc), leanly muscled man with very dark red hair worn in a ponytail stood there, beside one of the Unset people. He sounded just as surprised as the rest of us felt. Though perhaps in a different way. “When did you get to Earth?” Even as he spoke, the man was moving over to stand between me and the woman. I had the feeling he wasn’t exactly positive that she wasn’t going to attack after all. Which didn’t exactly help my confidence in the situation, considering he was the only one here who had any idea who she was. If he thought this might still be a problem, I wasn’t going to let my guard down anytime soon. And neither was anyone else, judging from the general reaction of everyone around me. 

If she cared or even noticed that everyone facing her was right on the edge of violence, the woman–Persphone apparently, didn’t actually show it. Instead, she positively beamed. “Murky! You made it! And you’re not hiding! It’s so good to see you! It’s been a long time, huh?”

Sarah managed to catch my gaze, silently mouthing a confused, ‘Murky?’ She still had hold of her gun, but had lowered it to rest at her side in one hand. Her other hand, the artificial one, was touching Sands’ arm as though telling her to wait. 

Mercury, who had put himself right in front of me (in front of Miranda and the others too) and near Croc, spoke carefully. “Yeah, been awhile. I ahh, I thought you were busy chasing down that crystal Manakel sent you after. How long ago was that?” 

“Oh, that one took a long time!” Persephone piped up, sounding completely unbothered and casual as she added, “He asked me to find it about a hundred years ago. It was really hard! They kept moving it a lot, and I had to find someone who knew where it was, only he was hard to find and then he died so I had to find his friend on this other planet, then that guy ran away for some reason and I had to go find him again, and it was a whole thing.” Through all that, the woman was squinting thoughtfully, before abruptly brightening. “But I found it! I really found it! It took me so long, but I found it and I knew Manakel was going to be sooo happy and proud of me!” That proud, cheerful smile turned contemplative, her voice quieting a bit as her gaze moved past the others to focus on me. “And then I found out Manakel died, because she killed him.” 

“No,” a sudden new voice spoke up then, as Sariel emerged from the crowd to stand beside Mercury before giving him a nod of thanks, apparently for summoning her. “She didn’t kill Manakel, Persephone. I did. If you want vengeance for his death, I’m the one you owe it to.”  

Oh boy, I really wanted to jump in and argue there. Not that she was wrong about the fact that she had basically been the one responsible for Manakel’s death (I certainly would’ve been completely screwed without her), but I really didn’t think it was a good idea to essentially call this strange, clearly powerful woman’s attention onto her like that. And, from the look of things, basically everyone else around us was ready to object and jump in to interrupt as well. 

But, before any of us could say anything, Persephone reacted in a way that was, uhh, a little confusing. Not that that didn’t describe this entire encounter, but still. She laughed. Okay, it was more of a giggle. Yeah, a simple, casual little giggle. Her hand waved dismissively. “Ohhh no, silly goose. You helped! You were there, sure. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t have his power.” Slowly, her eyes moved over to lock onto mine, past everyone who was standing in front of me. “She does. She has his power. I knew it. I knew it before, when they said she killed him. And I felt it just now. She made me stop. She used his power to make me stop.” Her voice, strangely, didn’t sound angry or indignant about that. She was talking about me using her husband’s power to make her stop walking, and yet she didn’t sound pissed off about that. She didn’t even sound resentful or anything. No, she actually sounded positively delighted

Sands slowly raised a hand. “Okay, so is anyone else really fucking confused right now?   

Beside her, Sarah offered a hesitant and clearly uncertain, “She didn’t like Manakel?” 

“She was devoted to Manakel,” Mercury put in. “Obsessed with him. You heard her earlier, he sent her to get something it took a hundred years to find and she still did it. She tracked it across the universe. He did that a lot, and she always managed to find whatever she was sent for. And she always brought it to him. The only thing he could never get her to do was leave forever. She always came back and always did everything she could to help. She loved him.”  

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Persephone agreed easily, bouncing up and down a bit. In the process, the metal coils that had been wrapped around her arms simply snapped like they were made of tissue paper. If she had the slightest bit of worry about the fact that she was still surrounded by a bunch of very tense looking and powerful Heretics who had their weapons out and pointed at her, she didn’t show it. Instead, she smiled broadly while continuing with, “I loved him. And now I love her.” 

Yeah, she uhh, she pointed at me. And it was a good thing I wasn’t drinking at all, because it all would have ended up on the ground as I spat it out. As it was, a fit of coughing grabbed me as I stared that way. After the first few violent heaves from my chest, I managed a weak, “What?” 

“The power,” Sariel abruptly put in. “You loved Manakel because of his power. You…” Trailing off, she glanced around, raising her voice a bit to address all of us. “She’s a Revenant.”  

Oh. Well that sort of explained part of why she was so powerful. I’d learned about them in school. They were spirit-like creatures who were weak in their natural state, but when they possessed a dead body, they became almost unstoppable. The problem for them was that they tended to run through a body pretty quickly. It would age rapidly and fall apart around them as they used it. They were incredibly strong while possessing a corpse, but all you had to do was wait for the body to run out, and then hit them when they were in their natural state again.  

“We found her while the Olympus was out exploring other parts of space,” Mercury added. “There was another of us, another Olympian named Kore. She… something happened and she was infected by these parasites. We couldn’t save her. She was dying in the medical bay and no one could do anything. Even her own power wouldn’t save her.” 

“Her power?” Croc asked, voice a bit tense for utterly understandable reasons. 

Sariel answered. “Any physical condition Kore created in any living being, she could recreate in that same being at any point after that. If she broke someone’s nose, any time she saw them again after that, she could re-break it just by looking at them. If she stabbed them in the stomach, she could recreate the same stab wound in that same person later with a glance. On the other hand, if she used magic to heal someone’s broken arm, she could re-heal that same arm later. It worked on herself. Except… except the parasites couldn’t be removed that easily. She could reset her body as much as she wanted, but they were separate organisms. She… she couldn’t save herself. We couldn’t save her. And when she died, the Revenant called Persephone possessed her body.” 

“Oh my God,” I realized aloud, “that’s why she’s still here. She’s still using the same body after all this time because… because Revenants make their hosts age while they use them. They age really quickly until they die. But Olympians are immortal. I mean, they never get any older. So she can–she can just possess her forever. She’s a Revenant with a permanent body.” 

While everyone else (aside from the two Seosten who already knew what was going on), reacted to that, Persephone gave a near-blinding smile. “See?! I knew she was smart. She had to be smart to help beat Manakel. He was really strong. You beat him, and you took his power!” 

She was smiling at the fact that I helped kill her husband. This was a man she’d been devoted to for thousands of years, doing everything he said, including scouring the universe for a century just to find something he wanted. That was how much she cared about him. That–wait a minute. 

“It wasn’t Manakel,” I abruptly blurted as the sudden realization came right then. “She wasn’t in love with Manakel. It wasn’t him she was so devoted to. It was his power, his Necromancy. She was… like, drawn to it? She loved his Necromancy. And now… now I have his Necromancy.” 

“Exactly!” Persephone sounded like this was all very obvious and not insane in the least. “You have his power, so you’re the one I love. If you want, we can play games. Manakel and I used to play games, like Hold This Bomb, or Airlock Jump. We usually played hide-and-seek after Airlock Jump, cuz the ship would fly away and then I’d have to find it. Sometimes it took a long time cuz they went really far! But it was fun, and Manakel was always excited when I found him again. He drank a lot to celebrate.” 

Squinting toward Mercury and Sariel despite myself, I hissed, “You guys just got her to jump out the airlock and then left?” 

“Or put a bomb in her hands so it’d explode?” Miranda added sharply. She was squinting that way too, sounding just as offended. 

Sariel shook her head. “Not us. Manakel and Puriel were afraid of what would happen if she ever turned, if she ever changed her mind about being so devoted. She was–she’s a Revenant with a permanent body. They were trying to find out what weaknesses she might have, just in case.” 

“And,” Mercury added in a slightly quieter voice, “she’s possessing Kore. A lot of people liked Kore, including Manakel. He felt like–he felt like he completely failed her. He was the ship’s main doctor, and he couldn’t save her. He couldn’t save Kore. When Persephone started… started walking around as her, possessing her body, it really messed a lot of people up. Including Manakel. Especially when she went on about loving him and all.” 

Sounding completely innocent, the Revenant in question spoke up. “I thought they’d be happy, because I made her walk again. I tried to say hi, but people were… they were still sad. And they were angry too. I didn’t… I didn’t understand.” Her voice had gone soft, gaze focused off into the distance as though trying to comprehend those emotions. 

Swallowing hard, Sariel murmured, “It was a lot to deal with. People were upset. There were all those emotions every time anyone saw her, for a long time. And as I said, they were terrified of how much damage she could do if she wanted to.”

Persephone, of course, wasn’t suddenly deaf. At that, she promptly piped up. “That’s true, I can be pretty scary. Raaaawr.” She held up both hands in front of herself like a monster, growling in a way that could only be described as unbelievably cute.  

Fuck, stop it, Flick. What the hell was wrong with me? 

There was a flurry of murmured words between all of the Unset, before Croc spoke up. “We need to make the rounds to check for any more Nuckelavee. Is uhh…” He awkwardly gestured back and forth between the woman and me. “Is whatever this is under control?” 

“Persephone,” Sariel spoke then, her voice careful. “You don’t want to kill Felicity Chambers?” 

Persephone, in turn, giggled as though that was the silliest question she had ever heard. “Why in the Void would I want to kill her? She has the power. She took Manakel’s power. That means she took me. You don’t kill the person you’re married to, unless they hurt you. That’s just rude.”  

It took a second for her words to really penetrate, a moment for me to actually comprehend what she was saying. Then I was sputtering all over again, my eyes widening. Despite myself, I moved that way quickly and put myself next to Sariel. “Hold on, wait, what did you just say? What was that about being married? Cuz you’re not talking about us. You can’t be talking about us. We’re not married. I don’t even know you. I don’t know anything about you except for what I’ve heard in the past, like, thirty seconds. I haven’t even met you until right now. You and me, we’re not–we’re definitely not married.” 

In the background, I could see Croc getting his people to head off to do their search. None of them wanted to be involved in this now that it wasn’t turning into a fight. Which was fair, but still. Cowards. 

Persephone, still grinning just as cheerfully as ever, corrected me. “No, see, Manakel and I were married. We took the binding oaths to each other. But I didn’t make the oaths to him. I made the oaths to the power, to his Necromancy. We were linked through that. He’s dead, but you have his power. He’s dead, but I took the marriage oaths to his power, and that’s not gone. You took it. That means you took my oath. You own it. So, my marriage isn’t over. It just transferred to you. You own my loyalty. Like I said, we’re married! Isn’t that fun?” 

“I…” My throat was dry. The sudden rush of terror, confusion, then more terror, then even more confusion over the past few minutes from the moment the Nuckelavee had shown up had taken its toll. And this? How was I supposed to deal with this? What was I–how was I–where was…

“I think I need to sit down.”

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In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

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For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

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Commissioned Interlude 12 – Maria, Arthur, And Company (Heretical Edge 2)

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Wearing stained coveralls, a backwards cap, and goggles, with a face that was as grease-stained as the clothes themselves, Maria Chambers whistled cheerfully while focusing intently on her work. The work, in this case, involved making very specific adjustments to a series of very complicated-looking pipes and valves behind a section of wall about fifty feet forward and one floor down from the Olympus’s main engine. A very small metal ball floated in the air just to the side, its single lens projecting a holographic display of exactly where this section was, what it should look like, and what Spark needed to be done to it. A box lay nearby with the assortment of parts that the young girl wanted to be used to replace specific pieces. 

“Well, you seem to be in a pretty good mood.” The voice that interrupted Maria’s whistling came from the elderly-looking Native American man who strolled casually down the rounded corridor toward her. Though over a thousand years old (and technically believed by everyone back on Earth to be deceased thanks to an attack from his own sister, Litonya), Kutattca had a strong spring in his step and an easy smile. “Having that much fun working as a mechanic?” 

Carefully using what amounted to an incredibly fancy wrench to adjust the long, metallic green tube to the exact position Spark’s instructions specified, Maria finally turned to the man. She waggled the wrench at him pointedly. “A space mechanic, thank you very much.” With a cheerful wink, she added, “And yes, it’s quite exhilarating, honestly. And ahh, processing all these instructions, learning what these different tools do, all of it helps with the umm…” 

“With your new gifts,” Kutattca finished for her, chuckling a little while he nodded. “Yeah, believe me, I know exactly what it’s like when you start out. Actually, Boscher Heretics get that a lot. Getting new powers, figuring out how they work, slotting them into your normal rotation, all that. Especially when you make a new power work alongside something you already had. There’s just a… a really satisfying feeling when you make something new work with something old.” 

Watching him for a moment, Maria gave a very slight nod. When he spoke of being a Boscher, the same thing her granddaughter was, the man’s voice held an inescapable tone of guilt. The things he had done, the people he had killed, the ignorant hate that he had taught to others over so many years, the man clearly had a lot of feelings about all of it. Not that such things were entirely his fault, of course. The Seosten had established things, had set things up intentionally to make Earth some kind of Boscher Heretic training ground so they would be combat-capable before being sent out to the front lines of this war against the Fomorians. Still, it was obviously one thing to know that he had been manipulated into being the way he was and doing the things he did, and emotionally accepting it. The thoughts of all those likely-innocent creatures he had murdered out of a mistaken assumption of guilt had to weigh heavily on the man at times. 

While she was still focused on that, Kutattca turned his dark-eyed gaze to her and offered a very faint smile. “Then again, you have another reason to be happy right now.” 

With that thought, Maria’s own smile grew, a warmth filling her. “Yes,” she agreed. “Seeing my son and my granddaughter–well, feeling and hearing them, anyway. It was…” Trailing off, the woman swallowed. “It was very nice. I can’t wait to see them all again. Without any lies,” she added pointedly. “Not that I blame them, but… well, yes, without any lies.” Her eyes shone with delight and relief then. “And my daughter-in-law, they saved her. They truly saved her from that… monster.” Simply from what she had heard and read about the evil Necromancer, Maria knew that his death had been a long time coming. She shuddered to think of what sort of things poor Joselyn had been through over the years. And shuddered almost as much when remembering the horrible things she herself had thought about that poor woman. 

In a kind, gentle voice, Kutattca quietly replied, “I’m glad your family is safe. And you’ll get the chance to see them in person. Just as soon as we get this ship put back together and ready to go.” Turning a bit, he looked up and down the corridors, head shaking with obvious wonder. “Live over a thousand years, think you’ve seen everything, and it turns out you’re completely clueless about the real universe out there. Until my… until Litonya played her little betrayal game, I had no idea there were things like this out there. They don’t let us know about this. As far as most Boschers are concerned, so-called ‘aliens’ all come through portals or things like that. The majority of us don’t have any idea that there’s literally space empires out there, with all these fancy starships. We… we spend so long thinking they’re demons and monsters, I don’t think we could ever truly process the idea that they could put something like this together.” 

“They don’t want you to process that,” Maria gently pointed out. “The Seosten, they need you to see every other species a certain way for their little training ground to work.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides, if you don’t know anything about spaceships, it’s easier for them to hide their own. They’ve built that entire society to work one specific way for them. Leaving all those blindspots for them to manipulate and get around with, it’s not exactly surprising.” 

“Yes…” Looking back to the woman thoughtfully, Kutattca murmured, “I’ve never met him, of course, but I believe I can see why someone like Joselyn would be so attracted to your son. And any child they produced…” Trailing off once more, the man gave a very low whistle. “Well, now I truly do want to get back to Earth. This is something I have to see for myself.”

With a whoosh noise, the nearby elevator doors opened, before Arthur Chambers stepped off. He took in the sight of the two talking before shaking his head as he teased, “Oh good, you found another audience to show off for. Guess you don’t need me around then.” With that, the man did an about-face and acted as though he was about to walk right back onto the elevator.

Shaking her wrench-thing at him, Maria primly countered, “You march your little butt over here and hold this nozzle so it doesn’t turn when I start moving the pipe here. And honestly, as though you haven’t been the one showing off what you can do for days now. Don’t think I haven’t heard all about it from the children, young man.” 

“Young man?” Raising an eyebrow as he did just that, Arthur pointed out (with no small amount of obvious amusement in the words), “You do remember that I’m older than you, right?” 

A broad, knowing smile crossed his wife’s face as she confirmed, “Caught that, did you? Besides, we are young, compared to all these people we keep meeting and learning about. You and I, we’re practically infants.” She looked over her shoulder. “Kutty, how old are you, again?” 

The Native American man gave a very soft cough before simply replying, “A hell of a lot older than most and far younger than many. My sister and I were born around three hundred AD. Which doesn’t exactly make us spring chickens, but there are a lot of people older and stronger than us.” After a pause, he added, “Litonya might have an edge over them in hypocrisy.” 

“I dunno,” Arthur objected thoughtfully, “From everything we’ve heard since we got here, she has some pretty stiff competition in that field. There’s a lot of hypocrites out there.” 

Acquiescing to that with a bow of his head, Kutattca agreed, “I suppose you have a point. I’m just a little…. the situation with my sister is a lot more personal. The two of us have a long history, and I ignored far too many of the warning signs about her for far too long. To the detriment of myself, those I care about, and many others. And the world itself.” 

“You were close once, weren’t you?” Maria quietly prompted, fully facing the man by that point. Her work could wait for the moment. This was more directly important. She’d heard so much pain in the man’s voice whenever he brought up either his sister in general, or what she had done in attempting to kill him. It was obvious that Litonya’s betrayal, and her actions in general, hurt him a lot. A part of her wondered if he had ever really talked about it with anyone else, if he had ever unloaded those feelings rather than bottling them up and allowing them to fester. 

At first, Kutattca was silent, before giving a very slow, faint nod that was barely visible. “Once,” he confirmed in a soft voice. “We were inseparable, best friends. We hunted for our village, brought back food together even as children. When we were teenagers, we started hunting whales. Not by ourselves, of course. We were part of a whole hunting party, out in these long canoes. It was during one of those trips out on the boat when we saw the Thunderbird and the Haietlik.” His gaze had moved away from them by then, looking off into the distance as though staring into his own memory of that long-ago, far more innocent time. Before everything changed, before his life became something far bigger than simply hunting whales. 

After a moment, Arthur spoke up. “Haietlik, that’s what you were a Natural of, right? And Litonya was a Thunderbird Heretic. What uh, what are those, exactly? If you don’t mind me asking.” 

Shaking his head, Kutattca replied, “Not at all. The Thunderbird is ahh, well it’s a giant bird.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Puriel announced, as he approached from the opposite end of the corridor than the one Kutattca himself had come from. He was accompanied by Aletheia on one side, while Spark and Omni walked together on the other. Three of the four were covered in the same sort of grease and various other liquid stains that coated Maria. Spark, being a holographic projection, was as clean as ever. Maria had once asked the girl if she regretted not being able to get dirty, and Spark had stared at her as though she was being utterly absurd. Apparently, despite being a child, the girl had little to no interest in being messy. She was always very well collected, presenting herself in pristine clothes and skin, with hair that was immaculate and perfectly split between being blonde and black.

As soon as she saw both children, Maria took a knee and opened her arms. Omni immediately came running, throwing himself into a hug. It was a far cry from the way the boy had been not-so-long ago, convinced that he couldn’t touch anyone without using his power to shift into a younger version of who they were. Because those idiot scientists who had been working with him were more interested in testing what it could do and how they could use it than they were in teaching him to control it. Now, after enough training with Puriel and Aletheia, he only used it when he chose to. Well, for the most part. If he was overly emotional, scared, and whatnot, it tended to happen anyway. But it certainly wasn’t the uncontrollable, automatic reaction those cretins had apparently acted like it was. 

Of course, the woman embraced not only Omni, but also Spark (hard-light holograms could be hugged too, as she had made perfectly clear). With both of the kids held close, she asked, “Are the other children with Uncle Al?” 

Omni gave a quick nod, his shaggy mop of brown hair going wild. “Making pictures,” the five-year-old announced before reaching into his pocket to produce a folded up piece of paper. He proudly held it up, displaying an enthusiastic, if not incredibly skilled, drawing of Sariel herself using a bow and arrow to hunt giant scorpions.

While Maria gushed over that drawing, and the one he produced that had apparently been drawn by Spark, Kutattca glanced toward Puriel. He arched an eyebrow at what the man had said before. “Yeah, I suppose you’ve probably run into plenty of those yourself. Maybe even wherever they come from. I’ve always wondered, the Thunderbirds and Haietliks, do they and those Nemean Lions and the Amarok wolves–” 

“They come from the same planet,” Aletheia confirmed. The dark-skinned woman glanced toward the older Seosten beside her briefly before adding, “Several other ordinary animals on Earth, and derivatives of those animals, are smaller versions of those found on that other world. We are not precisely certain why, but our best guess is that they are the descendants of the remnants of other Fomorian experiments. They made humans look like us, and some of their other creations look like species from across the universe. Perhaps for eventual infiltration purposes.” 

Curious as ever, Arthur asked, “Is there a, ahhh, commanding species on that world? You know, actual advanced civilization. Cuz, you know, any species that could thrive in a place with so many of those things around…” 

“Yes,” Puriel confirmed with a slight grunt. “There is a ruling species… of a sort. They’re called the Jotunn, and they–” 

“Jotunn!” Arthur blurted, “That’s like… Odin. Are you telling me Odin really existed?” 

In response to that, Maria gave her husband a long-suffering look. “You do understand that you’re asking that of the man who was Zeus, yes? Why on Earth would that surprise you?” 

While Arthur huffed a bit, exaggeratedly, Puriel gave a very soft chuckle. “Well, yes, Odin exists. The Jotunn are actually artificial creations, created by a… well, he’s known as Ymir, and he is apparently the only surviving member of a species who lived there long before even we as the Seosten existed. They lived before the great calamity that destroyed almost their entire population, and that of most of the universe. Ymir was the only survivor of his species, and he cloned himself into several more Ymir. Together, the multiple Ymir attempted to restart their species, but were only able to create what they consider the imperfect replicas known as Jotunn. Eventually they shifted away from creating versions that looked like them and simply tried to make incredibly different Jotunn, as many they could, to see which they preferred to be the inheritors of their world.” 

“So Odin, he’s one of these Jotunn?” Arthur carefully asked, trying to think of what he could remember about the mythology. 

Aletheia, however, shook her head. “Odin was a human who somehow found his way to that world. He became close enough to one of the Ymir clones that they… bonded. Odin is the only known Ymir Heretic. Which makes him one of the only Heretics of a species that existed before the arrival of the Four.” 

Maria swallowed as a chill ran through her. “You mentioned them before. They were the giant, world-destroying monsters that almost wiped out the Suelesk before they created the first dragon eggs and fled through their portal to some other universe. Your people found one of their crashed ships on your world and it accelerated your technology.” 

“Yes.” Puriel was frowning thoughtfully, his gaze intent on the nearby wall. “Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about those creatures. Including why they disappeared. We don’t know if they were defeated and destroyed, if they followed the Suelesk elsewhere, or…” 

“Couldn’t you ask him?” Arthur pointed out. “Ymir I mean. Or one of him. If he was there at the time and survived–”

“Ymir does not speak to people very often,” Puriel flatly replied. “And he–or they, don’t speak about what they call the ‘before-times’ at all. Believe me, more powerful and more diplomatic Seosten than I have tried to get information about those creatures and what happened. The most they’ve ever managed is a single name, but we haven’t been able to get any details.” 

Standing next to Maria, both hands clutching her leg, Omni solemnly piped up, “What if they come back?” As everyone’s eyes moved to the young boy, he added, “The bad things that killed all of Ymir’s friends and family. What if they come back and kill more people?” 

“Oh, dear, now see we shouldn’t be talking about all that.” Maria stooped, picking the boy up and holding him close. “It’s not something we need to worry about now, sweetheart.” 

Clearing his throat, Kutattca nodded. “Yes, well, the point is that Thunderbirds and Haietliks are giant birds and giant snakes. The Thunderbirds–some call them Rocs, are incredibly strong. Some say they tear apart mountains. They also control lightning and storms. Hence the name. The Haietliks manipulate electricity too. They’re better at that than the Thunderbirds are, but they don’t fly on their own and they don’t control weather the way their winged partners can.” 

“Partners?” Maria asked curiously. “The giant snakes and the giant birds are partners?” 

“Oh yes,” Kutattca murmured, his attention clearly back into his own memories. “The Thunderbirds use the Haietliks as, ahhh, javelins. They carry two of them on either side under their wings, close to their bodies. When they’re hunting and spot a whale, or any other animal big enough to be food, they use their wings to project the Haietlik ‘javelins’ down to strike the target, stunning or killing it outright between the impact and the electricity from the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks.” 

He was quiet again for several long moments, once more lost in the past. Finally, the man murmured, “I’d rather not get into it right now. But… to put it simply, Litonya and I found several of those things. We were foolish children who wanted to go and see them up close, but the older hunters in the canoe forced us not to. They took the boat back to our village, saying it was too dangerous. But Litonya and I… we snuck out again, in one of the smaller canoes. We wanted to see the giant birds and snakes.” 

“Why did you remember them?” Maria put in abruptly. “Wouldn’t the Bystander Effect–you said this was around 300 AD, yes? That was a long time after it was established.” 

Puriel was the one who answered that. “It took hundreds of years for the Bystander Effect to spread across the world and grow to its full strength. Think of its original form as a virus. From where we targeted it, the spell had to be spread by people who were affected by it, to people who were not. In remote areas, such as where this tribe lived, it probably took hundreds of more years past this point before it existed in full strength.” 

As the others processed that, Kutattca continued. “We took a smaller canoe out there. We watched the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks. When they left, we saw there was still plenty of whale left. So we harvested from it. We thought… we thought we could prove to the other hunters that they were cowards to run away in the first place, by bringing back meat for the village. We took as much meat as our canoe could carry, and went back. But… but one of the Thunderbirds saw. And it was angry about us stealing their food. So it brought its flock and they all followed us back to the village. Then they, the Thunderbirds and the Haietliks, destroyed our home. They killed everyone we knew. Everyone we loved. Our warriors managed to bring down one of the birds and a couple of the snakes, but that was… they killed everyone we had ever known. But they left us alive. I still don’t know why. Punishment, maybe? Killing everyone we knew, but letting us live so we’d know what our theft cost us. Litonya and I, we ate from the bodies of dead Thunderbird and the Haietliks. It felt like some minor form of vengeance. We ate their meat raw and drank their blood. Each of us drank from both. Litonya formed a bond with the Thunderbird blood, and I with the Haietlik.” 

“And then it was just the two of you,” Maria murmured. “Alone out there, with the bodies and… and no one else.” 

“And no one else,” he confirmed. “We found others, of course, eventually. But for years, it was just the two of us. And for centuries after that, we could always count on each other. We had different opinions, but we loved each other, and we were there whenever one of us needed the other.

“I… thought my sister, for all her problems, would be there for me when I trusted her with what Joselyn Atherby had told me. I was wrong. She betrayed and attempted to murder me.” 

“And how did you survive that?” Arthur asked. 

Kutattca’s response was a very faint smile. “That, I’m afraid, is a story for another time.”

Understanding that it was hard for the man to talk about all that, Maria turned back to Puriel. “Before, you mentioned that your people managed to get some sort of name out of this Ymir when they were asking him about what happened to the world-ending monsters? What name?”  

Puriel was silent at first, before answering quietly. “We don’t know what the name means, exactly. Only that it is the name of someone connected to the end of those monsters. A survivor, their destroyer, their creator, we have no idea. Ymir offered nothing more than this single name, and title. 

“Galazien the Iron-Souled.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Long Awaited 12-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Well, after that little revelation and explanation, it was time to find out what Asenath had wanted to talk about. And as it turned out, she had a mix of good and bad news herself. Namely, she finally had more information about where her long-lost father was. That was the good part. The bad part was that the information she had pointed to one of the Garden Victors (a guy I didn’t know by the name of Kyril Shamon) being the guy who was holding Tiras. Or had been holding him several decades earlier. For all we knew, those guys traded their Alter slaves like Pokemon cards. Or Pokemon themselves, come to think of it. Why were cards my first thought? 

In any case, Asenath went through explaining all that, with some input from Twister about how fucking cool it had been to ambush the man they got the information from with what was apparently Senny’s first field-use of her new ability to borrow powers through drinking blood. 

“I mean,” the Pooka was saying, “we basically made her into a vampire that can turn into a bat. By which I mean, a proper vampire. Kinda silly that the rest of them don’t, you know?”

“I’ll bring it up at the next convention,” Asenath dryly replied, “make sure everyone knows just how silly it is that we don’t have the power to shapeshift. Maybe we can get it in the next patch.”  

“You’re teasing,” Twister noted while pointing at her. “But a vampire convention would be awesome. Especially if there was like, a werewolf convention next door and the walls fell down. Battle royale, last person standing is the champion of that old rivalry once and for all.” 

Shaking her head as she muttered something about having no idea where the idea of a werewolf-vampire rivalry had come from when the real Akharu rivalry was with Vestil, Asenath eventually looked at Mom and me. “Anyway, that’s where we are now. It’s… it’s something, at least. After all this time, I finally have a name to go off of.” 

“A name is a good thing to have,” I agreed. “Especially when you’ve been looking for this long without even having that much. But uhh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this Kyril Shamon.” 

“I have.” That was my mother, her voice contemplative. “Though he’s better known as Tarhunz.” 

“Wait, wait,” Twister suddenly put in, “he’s not the Tarhunz, right? I mean, when it comes to really powerful Heretics, it’s just good to check now and–you’re nodding why are you nodding?” 

Offering the girl an apologetic grimace of sorts, Mom quietly confirmed, “Yeah, that Tarhunz. Or Tarhunna, as the Hittites knew him. Or even Teshub, as the Hurrians knew him. He got around.”

“Uh, I’m sorry, what?” My hand was raised as I looked back and forth between the other three. “Can someone stop to fill in the person without a degree in ancient mythology? Tarhunz, Tarhunna, Teshub, whatever he used to go by, who is this guy? Or who was he? Why is him being these other names scary? I mean, we’ve met a lot of scary people already, you know?” 

Mom and Twister looked to each other, with the former gesturing for the latter to go ahead. Which made the Pooka girl grin happily as she turned back to me and launched into an explanation. “Tarhunz, he was basically this super-badass weather god for these bronze-age people in the Middle East. Like, their main guy. When he was Tarhunna for the Hittites, he and the Sun goddess of Arinna were top of the top. They ruled the heavens or whatever. This guy was the chief god for a lot of people back then. Even Bystanders know that from their little history clubs.” She gave me a pointed look, fox ears twitching. “You know what it means in real terms if Bystanders know this guy was god-level important back then. God-level important means–” 

“Means god-level powerful,” I finished with a grimace. “And you said bronze-age. That’s before the Bystander Effect. Which means humans and Alters all lived together, people knew about magic, yada yada. So this guy couldn’t just do a few little tricks, make a couple sparks fly, and maybe summon a little drizzle to really impress everyone. If they saw him as a god at that point, he had to be really strong. Strong enough to hold onto that position through the people who would’ve been trying to knock him out of it. And he did that for, you said three different groups of people back in those days?” Heaving a sigh, I shook my head. “Right, and if he was that strong even before getting the Victor upgrade–hang on, what kind of Heretic was he before?” A sudden thought had struck me in that exact moment, and I really didn’t like it. “I mean, what was he a Natural Heretic of? Cuz, like, being a super-powerful storm manipulator makes me think–”

“He’s not a Sachael Heretic,” Mom assured me, erasing that particular worry from my mind, at least. “He was linked to a Raijin, a Japanese storm-being. How that happened is anyone’s guess. He doesn’t exactly give classes on the subject, from everything I’ve heard. He’s quiet about his past. Quiet in general, really. Except when it comes to fighting. Then he gets loud.” 

Yeah, a guy who was known as a storm god for a bunch of ancient, magic-using civilizations getting ‘loud’ didn’t sound like a good thing to me. Especially not when that same guy was apparently now an Eden’s Garden Victor, and had apparently been holding Asenath’s dad prisoner for awhile. All that just seemed to add up to very bad things, as far as I was concerned. 

Apparently Asenath agreed, because she heaved a long, audible sigh. “Like I said, good news and bad news. Now I have a lead on my father, but that lead just happens to be someone powerful enough to backhand swat me across the continent if I try to demand answers.” 

Reaching out, I touched the other girl’s arm. “Guess it’s a good thing you’re not alone then, huh? Trust me, Senny, if you ask that guy for answers, you’re gonna do it with a lot more than just yourself standing there.” With a small smile, I added, “I mean, you’re my girlfriend’s sister. Like either of us are actually gonna let you just go off and pick a fight with a Victor all by yourself?” 

“She’s right,” my mother agreed quietly, her eyes glancing to me briefly before she focused on Asenath. “You have many friends. When the time comes, you won’t be alone. We’ll help you.” 

“Exactly, dude.” With a thumbs up, Twister teasingly added, “And you know what? You’ve been such a good friend for all these years, I’ll even give you a ten percent discount for my help.” At a trio of looks from all of us, she snickered before relenting. “Okay, okay, I’m there regardless, eesh. You people want me to starve.”  

For Senny’s part, she was quiet after that, seeming to consider for a few long seconds before nodding. “I know. And I’m… I’m grateful to all of you. Truly grateful that I–that there are people who would help me find my father. My mother, she’ll want to be there too. But before we do anything about that, we need to know more about him. And, preferably, if he even has my dad at all. Or, for that matter, keeps him anywhere nearby. I mean, it’s possible my father is part of some group this guy stuffed into a random work camp somewhere and that we can save him without ever actually seeing Shamon, or whatever name he goes by, face to face.” 

“Possible,” Mom allowed in a very careful tone before adding, “but you know what they say.” 

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Senny confirmed. “Which means we need to know more about him. Knowing is half the battle and all.” She paused briefly, then looked to the two of us. “And there’s always the chance that he was holding my dad as a favor for his Victor partner. Which means we’d have to know as much as we can about both of them.” 

My mouth had just opened to ask who that was, when Mom answered, “Ikita. The two of them run the Eternal Eye tribe. I don’t know much about her, only that she’s always seemed fairly reasonable about things, even if she is loyal to a bunch of murderous–” Stopping herself from what clearly would have been a very in-depth rant, she sighed before pushing on with the actual point. “In my experience, both Ikita and Shamon have always struck me as the type to play things quietly and close to their chests. They watch a lot, pay attention–there’s a reason their tribe is called the Eternal Eye, the watchers, the ones who wait and see things. They’re careful and they take their time. They are not as quick to jump to action as some of the other tribes. Which, in some ways makes them safer, and in other ways it makes them more dangerous.” 

“They were also Miranda’s original tribe,” I quietly pointed out. “She might know a lot more about them than any of us do just being on the outside. They were her leaders. Even if they didn’t stick their necks out to save her or anything, she probably spent time around them. And from the sound of things, we could use all the information we can get. About both of them, just in case.”

Asenath’s head bobbed quickly. “Miranda, yes. Her and anyone else we can talk to who’s had a lot of experience with these two, or just that tribe in general.” She frowned, mind clearly racing frantically from the very thought of how close she was, relatively speaking, to finally finding her dad. “There are some other Eternal Eye tribespeople with the Garden Rebellion, aren’t there?” 

“Some,” I confirmed. “Most of the tribe stayed loyal, but some of them left. We could probably talk to them too, besides Miranda. And Seller.” To that last bit, I added, “He wasn’t part of that tribe, but he spent plenty of time around all the Garden people. He’d probably know something important.”

For a brief moment, it looked as though Mom was going to say something about that. But in the end, she just offered a very faint smile. “Yes, there’s people we can talk to. No one is going to run into this blind but, I promise, Asenath, we will do absolutely everything we can to find your father.” She exhaled, a flash of emotion running across her face briefly before focusing. “After everything you’ve done for my family, I owe you that and so much more. When the time comes, we will all be there to help get your dad back, no matter where he is or who has him.” 

“Same.” With that word, Twister gave Asenath a quick, firm swat on the back. “She just said it a lot more poetically than I could. Or whatever. Point is, I’m right behind you. Or maybe in front of you. Or above, if I’m a bir–hey, the point is, I’ll be there. I mean hell, after all this time, I really want to meet the man behind the myth, the guy who helped give the world all this awesome.” Along with her words, the Pooka gestured pointedly up and down Asenath like she was a prize.

With a cough, Senny shook her head. “So, right now we just need more info. As much as we can get. Which means a lot of talking to people.” Offering me a slight smile, she added, “Good thing at least two of us have a lot of interest and experience with interviews, isn’t it?” 

“Three,” Mom put in. “I did more than my share back in Laramie Falls as the sheriff. And I figured out pretty quick how to tell when people knew more than they were saying, back during the… the first rebellion.” Her last words came quietly, as she gazed off into the distance. “It took awhile for me to learn how to tell who could be trusted, but I got there. Just a little too late.” 

Liam, I knew. She was thinking about Liam, and the fact that his betrayal had been what forced the Rebellion to go loud in the first place, instead of staying a quiet, subtle thing that could have built up a lot more strength and potentially beaten the loyalists. Instead, they had been forced into the open, leading to everything that happened. In a way, leading to my own existence. No wonder Mom seemed to have complicated feelings about that whole thing. I got the impression that she really would have liked to be in a room alone with Liam Mason for awhile. Though what would happen in that room, exactly, I didn’t know. And I was pretty sure she didn’t either.

Twister was already waving her hand. “Yeah, yeah, you’re all amazing investigators, whatever. Some of us spend our super-long lives doing far more awesome things. But hey, I think I can lower myself to doing a few interviews around here, for a good cause like this. Hey, if nothing else, I make pretty good muscle standing in the background being intimidating.” To demonstrate, she immediately transformed into an enormous grizzly bear standing on her hind legs, showing her teeth. 

With a cough, Senny nodded. “I’m not sure how much we’re going to have to intimidate the people who are on our side, but yeah, you’re always helpful, Twist.” Exhaling then, she folded her arms, clearly containing the emotions she was still feeling about finally having actual information she could use. Yeah, it wasn’t an immediate, easy jump from that to having her dad back, but it was something. It was an actual step, and for someone who had been stuck on the edge of a half-finished bridge with nowhere to put her feet next, having something firm extended to her so she could actually take that next step was important. I knew that from experience. 

Now all we had to do was take that little bit of information and turn it into something we could actually act on. No one was going to run up to this Shamon guy and get anywhere by demanding answers out of him. But, if we could get the right information about who he was and what he was up to, even where he might keep his prisoners, maybe we could actually find Tiras. Right now, it seemed like the best way to start would be to find and talk to my old best friend. 

And I could definitely think of worse ways to spend a few hours than hanging out with Miranda. 

******

As it turned out, Miranda wasn’t actually up on the station today. She was down with Dakota at the place where the Garden rebels had set up, helping with more of that whole ‘making the vines work’ thing. The good news on that front was that they now had an idea of what had been stopping the vines from working even after they were planted in the right place. The bad news, of course, was that the things responsible for hurting the vines were the Nuckelavee, servants of the big bad nasty thing living at the bottom of the ocean. No one knew why said big bad nasty thing was so interested in the vines, but it was obviously nothing good. 

But, knowing what the problem was had apparently led the Garden people to at least put up guards all around the spots where they were planting the vines, down on the ocean floor. They used strong enough Heretics, spaced close enough together, to make sure the Nuckelavee, or anything else their master sent, didn’t have a chance to get close to their prizes. It wasn’t a solution that could last forever, of course. But at that point, I was pretty sure the Garden rebels  just wanted to prove that they could keep the fruit coming. They’d deal with how to keep it safe in the long term once they actually got the damn things growing properly.

In any case, I eventually headed down there to find my friend. Mom didn’t come with me, since she still wanted to spend at least some time with the rest of the family. And, she said she’d contact a few other people to find out what they might know about Shamon.  

Spreading out to ask people things made sense, of course. That was why Asenath and Twister weren’t coming with me either. The two of them had been joined by Shiori and were going to talk to a few Alters up on the station or down in the Atherby camp who’d had run-ins with the Eternal Eye Victors or those close to them (apparently there were at least a couple who had once been held prisoner at Eden’s Garden). Which would hopefully lead to something. Especially the ones who have been prisoners. If they could tell us where the Eternal Eye prisoners were kept… yeah, it was a serious longshot that any would still be kept in the same place, of course. But it was something. And right now, we kind of needed any kind of lead we could get. 

At least I wasn’t alone heading down there. As soon as they found out what was going on, Koren, Sands, and Sarah had all volunteered to come with. I’d also taken the time to tell the three about the situation with Denise and what my mother had done, since they had been part of looking into that whole thing back during our first real Investigation Track meeting. All four of us had learned about Denise’s death before we even knew Ammon existed. That was when I’d been drawn to pick up the exact same things he had bought at the gas station when–huh. Did I ever find out why that had happened? Was it just a weird half-sibling connection thing, or some kind of… I didn’t know. Thinking about Ammon made me feel sick. 

We had called down ahead to let Miranda know we were coming, so she was already waiting there in the field behind one of the motels that the garden Rebels had taken over. As soon as we appeared, Randi came jogging up and embraced me tightly. The two of us hugged like that for a few seconds before releasing each other so we could step back and breathe. 

“Already throwing yourself into something new to take care of, huh?” the other girl teased. 

“More like something old,” I corrected. “This is dealing with something that’s been waiting to be dealt with for a long time.” With a grimace, I added, “And hey, it’s not like we can exactly hurl ourselves into certain death yet. We’re just…” 

Sarah finished for me, her voice flat. “Just doing the boring legwork to hurl ourselves into certain death later.” 

“Which,” Sands put in, “you have to admit, is a step-up from our usual way of doing things.” 

Coughing, I waved both hands. “Come on, no one’s hurling themselves into–okay yes we’re talking about a Victor. But the entire reason we’re talking about all this is to avoid that kind of danger. You know, find a way around him or how to… how to deal with it without a fight.”

Sands nodded. “Like I said, a step-up from our usual way of doing things.”

Before any of the others could say anything to that, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. An instant later, we all heard the sound of alarms going off, and calls to action from around the motel. Someone shouted something about Nuckelavee, which was just fantastic. 

My mouth opened, but a shout from Koren interrupted. The other girl jerked her hands outward, and a column of dirt rose up beneath the five of us, pitching our whole group out of the way. Flipping over in the air, I landed on my feet with one hand down for balance, sliding backward a couple yards. Around me, the others more-or-less managed the same, all of us staring toward the spot where we had just been. 

Sure enough, a Nuckelavee was there. God, the thing looked horrific. Like a horse with a rider, but all the same being. Covered in exposed muscle, with the human-part’s torso tilting back around the middle to reveal a huge secondary mouth beyond the horse-part’s. And speaking of the horse part, it had only a single, too-large eye, with an enormous, tentacle-like tongue that whipped back and forth threateningly. 

In the background, we could already hear other Garden people fighting. Which meant there were more than one of these things. Where had this one come from? It was just… there, all of a sudden. 

Wherever it came from, it was here now. And the rest of the Heretics around this place were busy. Which meant we had to deal with it. I just hoped we–

Koren’s hand grabbed my arm, as she blurted. “What the hell is that?!” 

I was about to remind her of what a Nuckelavee was. Then I realized she wasn’t talking about the thing in front of us. No, she was referring to the object or… or something that was streaking down out of the sky directly above our heads. For a second, all of us, even the Nuckelavee, looked up that way as the object–no… person got closer. A person who was flying down out of the sky, screaming in terror. Wait… no, that… that wasn’t terror. 

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” 

And with that, the falling figure slammed into the Nuckelavee with so much force that the thing actually fucking exploded. Seriously, it was like Gallagher hitting a watermelon. Chunks of that monster went flying in every direction, splattering across the ground–and across all of us. Fucking gross, yeah. But mostly we were stuck staring that way in shock, none of us having a clue what the hell was going on. 

And then the figure who had fallen out of the sky popped right back to their feet–to her feet. She stood up in the midst of the… the splattered remains of what had once been a Nuckelavee. The girl was drenched in gore, but she appeared to be like twenty-one or so. Her skin was very tan, and she had long, snow-white hair that fell to her mid-back. She wore what looked like skin-tight leather clothing, but I couldn’t tell what color it was because all of it was entirely covered in bits of dead monster. 

“Hello, Felicity Chambers!” the woman blurted. “I’m so glad I finally found you!” 

“You killed my husband, Manakel.” 

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In Like Flynn 17-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, Izzy and I had a lot to talk about that night. The two of us took a long walk near the mall after I changed clothes and got back to her, going over everything that had happened. I told her about Peyton, about Deicide calling in her favor and what exactly she wanted, about the whole Paige situation and how that was suddenly a much bigger priority than I had thought, all of it. It was a huge dump of information, obviously, and I wanted to get all of it out before we went home. Besides, walking around helped me think a bit, and God knew I really needed to think. 

There was one good thing about Paige’s situation being so dire, at least. It meant that everything else had to wait. She was the priority. Seriously, my feelings about the girl might be complicated considering the years we’d spent at each other’s throats, but logically I knew that wasn’t her fault. It didn’t entirely help my subconscious feelings and emotions and all, but still. And after everything she’d done to try to avoid carrying out her father’s orders, I owed her. So, I was going to do this whole virtual reality thing, see inside that computer core of hers, and save her from this evil virus double. Or, well, that was the goal, at least. Here was hoping we actually pulled it off. 

In any case, talking about it with Izzy helped organize my thoughts about the whole thing. There was nothing else we could do about Paige until tomorrow evening. 

While we were walking around, I’d also texted Pack to tell her that I had to ask something important that had to do with ‘the girl we took to the shop’, and her first response had been to ask what was going on and if it was an emergency. So, I sent back a bit about the situation and said that it was important, but that we couldn’t do anything about it until the next evening. She, in turn, asked to meet me the next afternoon on the roof of some old tire shop to get details. 

So, with that much done, Izzy and I had gone home. We ate a snack in the kitchen while making a point to talk about the movies we had supposedly both seen (she told me about them while we were walking so I’d know what to say) in front of the household staff before heading to our rooms. And, once again, the two of us ended up talking even more, long into the night before falling asleep together in the same bed. All in all, it could’ve been a much worse day. 

The next morning, we were up and talking some more before it was time to get up. I’d already gotten so accustomed to splitting my sleep, getting only a few hours at night and a few here and there during the day, that it was weird sleeping almost all the way through. I was newly refreshed even before the sun finished rising. Which was probably a good thing, because I was pretty sure this whole situation with Paige tonight was going to end up being a doozy. 

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, Izzy asked, “Do you really think this umm, Pack is going to want to go in and help you save Paige? I mean, she doesn’t really know her, right? And it’s not like she’ll get anything she wants out of it. There’s no reward or anything.” She shifted a bit, clearly feeling uncomfortable just bringing it up. “I just mean, yeah, she likes you or whatever. She’s been nice to you and helped and all. And she wants to do something about the Ministry–” 

“That’s why she’ll help,” I put in. “She knows that Paige knows more about the Ministry, and that she can help us do something about them. Or at least get her a better deal. I’m pretty sure that’s what Pack’s leaning toward…” Trailing off, I sighed before adding, “So yeah, I think she’ll help, because her reward is getting more info about the Ministry and being in a better position overall.” 

“And Peyton?” she immediately asked. “Do you think she’s umm, you know, ready for this?” Once again, the younger girl looked awkward. She clearly felt weird about questioning how ready a girl several years older than her was to do this sort of thing. But it was completely fair, considering Izzy had been using her powers and working alongside a team to help people for awhile now, much longer than even I had. And Peyton, meanwhile, had been doing this for… well, about a day. Despite the difference in their ages in one direction, there was a big difference in experience in the other. 

Of course, thinking about that made me realize something that I really should’ve thought about before. Biting my lip, I looked over to the other girl. “Izzy, do you… feel bad that you’re not involved in this? I mean you are, you help me just by talking about this stuff, seriously. You make me feel like my head’s not about to explode. But… I mean, do you feel left out because I’m not taking you to help with stuff like this? I um, I mean, in some ways you’re in an even worse position than me. You have to go play good little Minority teammate and pretend you don’t know anything. It’s… it’s gotta be hard. I know it’s hard. And I’m really sorry about that. I wish there was something I could do–I mean something we could do. It’s just, you know, really complicated.”

For a moment, Izzy didn’t say anything. She seemed to be considering, her expression pensive. Finally, she gave a very slight nod and quietly spoke. “Uh huh. It’s really complicated. And yeah, part of me feels a little… bad that I don’t get to be there, and that I have to keep pretending not to know anything. It’s hard. But I know why I have to, and I know why I can’t be involved with, like, actually helping. Physically helping. I know, I get. I just… I wish I could do something. And I wish we could find my mom. I know, I know she’s bad and all. I just… I wanna make sure she’s okay.”

Wow, yeah that was rough. Wincing, I reached out to take her hand. “I know. I get it. Believe me, I do. Look at my parents, my whole family. We know what they are. But if they were missing, I’d still be worried about them. I’d be out of my mind. I’d still want them to be okay.” 

Izzy, in turn, shook her head, voice firm. “It’s not the same. Your parents love you. They didn’t try to sell you into slavery, or get pissed because they couldn’t make enough money off you, or–or hurt you like that. They’d never hurt you, Cassidy. Not on purpose. They–they really love you.”  

Oh boy. Yeah, I knew what the implied bit of that was, that her own mother didn’t love her. And why shouldn’t she think that? After everything that piece of shit had done, after what she’d tried to do to her own kid, she deserved–yeah. She deserved a lot of bad things that I shouldn’t think about.

Still, I swallowed back all those thoughts, managing a quiet response. “I know. I know my parents love me and that it’s not the same as your situation with your mom. But I still get it. You love your mom and you want to know that she’s okay. You don’t want anything bad to happen to her.” 

A very slight blush of guilt crossed the other girl’s face then, before she held up two fingers close together and whispered, “Maybe I’m okay with a little bit of a bad thing happening. I mean, prison. Jail. I think she should go to jail. She tried to do bad things to me and she might’ve done other bad things, I dunno. I think she should go to jail for it. Maybe… maybe if she does, she’ll realize what she did was wrong and umm… get better?” There was a small, very faint hint of hopefulness to her voice that really tore at me. Wow, that hurt. 

For a few seconds, I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to tell her that her mother wasn’t likely to change, especially not from being in jail. Who was I to crush that tiny little hope she had? Especially considering all the private hopes I had about how things with my family might end up turning out. I’d be a gigantic fucking hypocrite of the worst caliber.

So, in the end, all I could do was squeeze Izzy’s hand and quietly reply, “I’ll help you find her as soon as we can. I promise. We’ll figure out where she went and… and what happened. And if we can get her back here and make her go to prison, we’ll do that, okay?” 

Izzy, in turn, met my gaze. I could see a lot of different emotions working their way through her before she finally nodded, her own voice barely audible. “Okay, Cassidy. 

“And thanks. I’m really glad I have you to talk to. Because you help me too.” 

********

School that day seemed like it would never end. It was impossible for me to focus and I even blew it more than once when a teacher wanted me to answer a question. I kept zoning out, watching the clock and imagining what the whole trip into Paige’s computer thing was going to be like. And, of course, worrying about what would happen if we couldn’t save her. Not to mention everything that was going on with Deicide’s favor and finding this Amanda girl. 

The point was, I had a lot of stuff to be distracted by. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell my teachers the reasons I was distracted, so I just had to deal with their annoyed or disappointed looks. Oh well, I supposed I would try to make it up later when I took a few of these things off my plate. 

Hah, listen to me trying to pretend that I didn’t know full well that more things would land on the plate just as quickly as I cleared them off. It almost sounded like I was that optimistic, didn’t it?

Either way, the school day couldn’t literally drag on forever, no matter how it felt. Eventually, classes were over and I bolted, with a few quick words toward my friends on the way out. Someone said something about a party that weekend, but the best I could manage was a noise acknowledging the invitation before hitting the doors almost full-speed. There was no way I was going to be able to hang out and chat just to look sociable. Yeah, I wasn’t actually doing the Paige thing until that evening. But I still had to meet with Pack to find out if I was right about her being willing to go on this little trip. And talk to her about Peyton coming along too. I had the feeling that was going to be a fun conversation all on its own. Especially when the possibility of eventually telling the girl about the whole Ministry situation inevitably came up. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do about that. I couldn’t worry about it right this second. There was too much else to focus on. 

Including, apparently, catching myself from plowing straight into San as I jogged down the front walk of the school. He was looking the other way and I barely managed to skid to a halt, comically flailing my arms in the process, right before I would have planted my face right into his shoulder. The hopeful part of me wanted to say I’d knock him down, but the truth was that I’d probably bounce right off. 

Noticing my flailing, last second stop, San turned my way. “Dude, what is with the girls in this school running all over the place? First I try to have a nice conversation with Dani about how awesome Amber is before she practically runs over me saying something about her aunt calling home, and now my good, wonderful, oh-so-polite friend Cassidy tries to turn me into road pizza too.” 

Barely paying attention to what he was saying, I stopped just long enough to apologize and added something about needing to get home so I could take my parents’ call from their hotel. Whatever San’s response was ended up being lost in the wind as I ran all the way off the school grounds. I’d already told Jefferson that morning that he didn’t need to pick me up because I would be hanging out with friends for awhile. So all he had to do was take Izzy home, which I was sure he was thrilled by, considering how much time it shaved off his route. Yeah, he didn’t like his schedule being unexpectedly changed. But as long as he was told early enough, I was pretty sure the prospect of saving time outweighed the annoyance of change. At least, that was the impression I’d got. Telling him in the morning or the night before that he wouldn’t have to wait around for me tended to go over a lot better than if I tried to call and cancel when he was literally on the way, or even waiting. I’d found that out the hard way. 

So, he wasn’t there waiting for me, thankfully. Instead, I simply ran off the school grounds, cutting my way through all the other cars (including a fair number of dark SUV’s and limousines) that were lined along the front waiting to pick up their own passengers, and continued across the street. My backpack bounced with each pounding step, reminding me of the heavy weight of my helmet in the very bottom. I really needed to find a better, safer way of going around with this stuff. I was probably pushing my luck every time I went to school with it. But I wasn’t sure what else I could do besides always going home to my closet to change. At times like this, when I had to change and get out there as soon as possible, I had to take the risk of carrying it. Or, again, find another way. But I couldn’t think of what that could be. 

Getting myself out of sight, making sure I wasn’t being followed or spied on, and quickly changing into my costume, I headed on my way. I had to double-check the location of the tire shop that Pack had asked to meet at. Thankfully, it was in the same general neighborhood as Wren’s place, so I had a good idea of how to paint my way there. 

Apparently I had such a good idea of how to get there that I completely beat Pack. Seriously, I was there and lounging around on the roof for a solid ten minutes before finally hearing the sound of someone climbing the ladder. I was back on my feet and facing that way, ready just in case it turned out to be someone else randomly climbing onto the roof of a closed tire shop in the middle of the afternoon. Hey, stranger things had definitely happened in my life. 

But no, it was Pack. She had the cage with her lizards in it strapped onto herself like a backpack as she climbed the rest of the way up, huffing a bit before shrugging it off and setting the cage down. Only then did she look at me. “You’re lucky… your school… gets out early.” The girl panted in between every couple words. “And you’re lucky you’re one of the good guys.” Finally, she straightened. “Because that means you can run and jump around all willy nilly through the sky and let everyone see you, no problem. I mean yeah, I’ve got Scatters here.” With that, the tiny neon-colored lizard poked her head around from the back of her neck where she was perched. “And she is amazing for getting around. Aren’t you, buddy?” Pack raised a gloved hand and let the little lizard crawl into her palm before nodding to her own question. “Yes, super-amazing. Seriously, you think your way of getting around is fun? You should try riding a lizard-deer that can jump thirty feet and stick to the walls. It’s… exciting.” 

Sobering after taking a moment to let me picture that, the girl pointedly added, “But, I couldn’t exactly ride her all the way here. You know, laying low and all. So I had to hoof it about four blocks, with my friends here. All of which is to say, why exactly am I here, Paintball? You said a little bit last night, but let’s go with details this time, huh?” 

So, over the next few minutes, I did just that. I went into detail about everything I knew as far as the new Paige situation went. I told her about Wren’s proposed virtual reality rescue mission, and how that was supposed to go. Actually, I had little to no details there, because we all had no idea how it was going to go. All we knew was that it would make us feel like we were inside Paige’s computer system, in her brain, whatever that would look like. And I told Pack about Peyton going in with us. Or rather, about Alloy going in. 

By the time I finished getting all that out, Pack had released the rest of her lizards to crawl all around the roof so they could explore. Meanwhile, the girl herself was staring at me. Yeah, her mask covered her entire expression. But I could tell she was staring. 

“You seriously don’t ever take a break, do you?” she managed in a soft mutter before sighing. “And you already picked up a sidekick. I heard about that, but I was half-convinced they were making it up.” For a moment, it looked like she was going to go on about that, before focusing. “Well, I guess we’re going in this robo-chick’s brain, huh?” 

Letting out the breath that I hadn’t even realized I was holding, I managed a smile that the other girl wouldn’t see. “So, you’re in? You’ll help with this?” Damn it, I sounded like a little kid. Wait, was that a good thing? It helped my cover and all that, right? So why should I care that it–never mind, I wasn’t going to think about that. Too many other problems. 

Pack was nodding even as I shook all that off. “Yeah, yeah, I’m in. Like hell am I gonna let our best non-Mall-related chance of finding out more about this whole Ministry thing disappear just because her psycho Daddy hit control alt delete or whatever. But seriously, you think the two of u—sorry, the three of us can deal with whatever this virus thing is?” 

I shrugged. “We’re gonna have to. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an army I can call in to help. And I’m pretty sure Wren can’t make that many virtual reality links.” 

Pack was looking at me again, making a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat before simply asking, “What about Way? She knows what’s going on. I mean yeah, she doesn’t know exactly where the kid’s place is or anything, but she’s still involved in this. And you’ve trusted her with other things. If Wren says it’s okay, I think you should see if Minority girl wants to jump in.” 

Jeez, maybe I really was just super-accustomed to keeping secrets and compartmentalizing. I hadn’t really thought about asking That-A-Way. Still, even as Pack suggested it, a dozen thoughts of what could go wrong went running through my head. Maybe I was also a little bit paranoid. Forcing those thoughts aside with more than a little effort, I finally gave a short nod. “We can ask Wren. Then… well, it’s up to her. But if she’s okay with it, and if she has an extra slot, we can see if That-A-Way wants to go play Tron tonight.”  Pausing, I added, “Does that sound as weird out of my head as it did inside?” 

“Weirder,” Pack assured me. “But yeah, if we’re doing this, let’s do it right. We’ll go see Wren, find out what the deal is, and try to call in the Minority Babe if she doesn’t already have a date with some other Touched stuff tonight.” 

Curiously, I tilted my head. “You sound jealous about that possibility.” 

Yeah, Pack definitely shot me a dirty look at that. I could tell even through her total-face covering mask. “Let’s just do this before something more interesting comes along to distract me, huh?” 

“Well hey,” I started while moving toward the edge of the roof to head down, “if you’re looking for something interesting and this isn’t enough, I should tell you what Alloy and me are supposed to be doing for Deicide. 

“Now that’s a real doozy.”  

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 20th 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.

Vanessa

Today was a good day. No, as far as Vanessa Moon was concerned, it was a fantastic day. Nothing horrible was going on, her family was basically as safe as they could be, and no one she cared about was in immediate life-or-death danger. Which was basically the best that people like them could ask for. Everything was relatively quiet, for the moment at least. Not that she expected it to last that long, but you really had to take the opportunities you had to enjoy things.

In this case, Vanessa was enjoying things by carrying a large tray to her room. The tray was packed with a wide assortment of food. There were a dozen different dishes represented on the tray, and all of them had one thing in common. Each and every one was a different kind of potato. There was a baked potato, french fries, mashed, sweet, cheese-and-bacon covered, tater tots, hash browns, a grilled cheese sandwich with oven-baked potato slices added, latkes, potato salad, and a few others. 

Not a gigantic serving of each, of course. After making all these potatoes downstairs, Vanessa had left plenty for her housemates to pick over. No, her tray was laden with enough samples from each to keep the potato-loving girl happy for an entire afternoon. Especially considering the tray itself had a simple enchantment that allowed it to keep the food warm. She could sit for hours, pick from the tray anytime she wanted to, and the food would be plenty hot. Or cold, in the potato salad’s case, thanks to a special secondary enchantment right where it was seated.

Having all the potatoes she could possibly eat was the first half of Vanessa’s idea of a wonderful way to spend her afternoon down time. The other half was sitting on her bed when she came in. A thick, heavy leather bound book was lying there, just waiting for the girl to curl up with it.

Vanessa had never been able to explain why she loved potatoes so much, exactly. All she knew was that they were, in every single form she had ever encountered, her very favorite sort of food. They made her feel happy and safe. Some might have thought that had originated back when she had been stuck in that mental hospital and one of the orderlies (a nice man named Peter) had come by every afternoon to share some of his french fries from the lunch he would have delivered. Yet her love of the incredibly versatile vegetable extended back before then, to when she was still a very young child living at home with her family. 

In any case, even if his visits weren’t the reason for her obsession, Peter was still a fond memory within a lot of bad ones at the hospital. As scary as being in that place had been, the man was always friendly, and told her about what was going on out in the world. He also, over their shared fries, listened to the very young Vanessa telling him about what happened to her family. Unlike the doctors, he had never made her feel like she was wrong or crazy. For those few minutes each day, Peter listened and seemed to understand, even if he never really said much about it. 

She’d since wondered, of course, if Peter was some kind of Heretic, or an Alter, who really did have an idea of what was going on. Or even part of Jophiel and Elisabet’s little plan. But she’d called the hospital and Peter no longer worked there. And aside from just asking the two women about it (they had denied any relation and insisted the man was just a normal person as far as they knew) she had no other way of following up. 

In any case, eating those fries everyday had surely helped foster her already extant love of potatoes. And now, she could really indulge it. Clambering up onto the bed, she settled herself with the tray on the table next to her, then she picked up the book and examined it. It wasn’t just any other book. This one was special. Not that every book wasn’t special as far as Vanessa was concerned. But this even more so. This was a book about her mother. 

Okay, it was about more than just her mother. It was actually the first volume of the official log of the Olympus’s mission before they had come to Earth. It was details about the things her mother and her people had been up to when they were much younger. A lot of it wouldn’t be good, Vanessa knew. She wasn’t naive about the sort of things her mother had been a part of. But she still wanted to know about them. She wanted to know everything about her family, including that side of it. Her mother, Uncle Apollo, Athena, Mercury, all of them. She wanted to know about their stories, their adventures. They had gone out exploring unknown regions of Seosten space. What kind of things have they found? What kind of people have they interacted with? She wanted to know all of it, the good and the bad. She could accept the bad because she knew what kind of person her mother was now. She just needed to know. 

It had been Athena who gave her the book. Their logs weren’t normally kept on paper, of course. But she had transferred it to a real, solid book because that was Vanessa’s preference over reading things on a screen. She liked to have an actual book to hold. So, Athena produced one. 

Now, Vanessa took a sip from a cup of water, then set it down before picking up the book and settling it onto her lap. Carefully opening it, she let her eyes find the first word while picking up a fork and taking a big bite of delicious, delicious baked potato. A murmur of exquisite pleasure escaped the girl. 

Then, she started to read. 

******

Jasper Patterson

“Damn it!” 

With that blurted curse, the dark-skinned, blue-haired boy standing in the kitchen of his house on the Starstation spun and hurled the tray full of cookies in the general direction of the trash can in the corner. The tray hit the wall and most of the cookies scattered across the floor, though a few did make it into their target. 

From the doorway, a voice quietly spoke up. “Now that’s the intense Jasper Patterson I know.”  

Taken a bit by surprise, Jasper’s gaze snapped that way, before a very slightly embarrassed expression crossed his face as he took in the sight of the black woman who had been his teacher for a long time. Wincing, he replied, “Hey, Professor Tangle. Sorry, I didn’t know you were here. I uhh, I’ll clean it up.” He murmured the last bit under his breath. 

“Giselle’s fine, you’re an adult,” Tangle assured him. “I mean, you only had one more year left at school before you would’ve graduated.” 

“Yeah, one more year,” Jasper muttered, his gaze meeting hers. “Good for me, huh?” 

Rather than directly addressing that immediately, Tangle made a noise in the back of her throat before carefully stepping into the room and moving to the trash, where she reached down to pick up the still-scalding hot tray. Not that she showed any discomfort from it. Using the tray to indicate the scattered cookies, she asked, “I’m not exactly super-hip on things. Is this some new sort of diet or something? You go through all the trouble of making delicious cookies and then just throw them away?” 

Sighing heavily, Jasper shook his head. “They’re wrong. They’re just… they’re wrong.” 

Considering that for a moment, Tangle reached down to pluck a cookie off the floor. She examined it, blew on it, then took a bite. Finishing the cookie in short order, the woman looked back to him. “I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself. That was delicious.” 

“No, it’s–” Jasper started to blurt before catching himself with a sigh. “It’s… it’s not the same. There’s something missing. It’s not the way we used to make–” In mid-sentence, he stopped, looking guilty. 

“They aren’t the same as when you and your mother made them together,” Tangle finished for him, her voice quiet as she watched his reaction. “They taste different because she didn’t help you make them.” 

Jasper was quiet for a moment before giving a very slight nod. He folded his arms across his chest and looked away. “She hates me now,” he murmured. “They both do. My whole family hates me. They think I’m a… they think I’m a traitor. I mean, I am a traitor. I abandoned them, I walked away to side with people who are literally rebelling against everything my family believes. You can’t really get much more ‘traitor’ than that. I mean, you can, but… yeah.”

Tangle was quiet for a moment before she stepped over, putting the tray down on the stove. “You came because of Carly, right?” 

Jasper started to shake his head before catching himself. “No–I mean yes. I mean, I didn’t know  about the rest of this before. But Carly’s my friend, and when I found out she was–that she’s half-Strang– I mean half-Alter, it was… it wasn’t even a question. I trust her with everything. I always have, since like our first week in school three years ago. Why wouldn’t I trust her now? Nothing changed, not really. It’s not like she suddenly became half-Succubus. She was always a hybrid. It’s just, now they want to hurt her. So I helped her. I helped my friend, and things just sort of spiraled from there. Now my family hates me. All those people hate me.” 

“Do you think you were wrong?” Tangle gently asked. “Deep down, do you think you made the wrong choice?” 

His answer was immediate. “No. No, because she’s still my friend. Seriously, she’s my best friend. My family thinks it’s like a crush thing. They think it’s sexual. But it’s not. I mean, I know she’s part succubus and all, but it’s not about that. Our thing–it’s never been sexual. Sure, she’s super hot and stuff, but we’ve never… we’re friends. That’s what I care about. That’s what I want.” He sighed once more. “Besides, now that I’ve lived here, been around these other Alters, seen them… There’s no way I could go back to Crossroads. I just couldn’t. But…  but my family won’t change their minds either. And now… now I’ve just been… trying to make these cookies, and they didn’t taste right and I thought I should ask my mom what was wrong with them but–but she won’t–she can’t–” His eyes were closed tightly, tears streaming down his face as he hugged himself tighter. “I can’t ask her about the cookies. I can’t ask her about anything. I can’t even talk to them. They won’t listen.” 

Before the boy knew what was happening, Tangle had tugged him over to her and into an embrace. “I’m sorry,” she quietly murmured. “Jasper, I’m so sorry you have to go through that. Maybe your parents will come around eventually. These lives of ours can be pretty long sometimes. But even if they don’t, I want you to know that you’re right. You made the right choice. It hurts, and it can feel incredibly lonely. But you made the right choice. You make the right choice every day you stay here, hard as it is. And, no matter how your family feels, no matter what happens with them, I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you.”

They stayed like that for awhile before Jasper pulled back, shifting a bit uncertainly. “I… the cookies, they’ll never taste the same.” 

“No,” Tangle agreed, “they won’t. But you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay if you find your own way of… of making the cookies. You find what works for you, Jasper. 

“And I guarantee, your cookies will be perfect just the way you make them.” 

*******

Haniel

The world wasn’t even important enough to have a name. Technically, it wasn’t even a world. It was a moon. The moon of a gas giant. Barely larger than Earth’s own moon, it had existed with little more than a numeric designation ever since it had been discovered by Seosten explorers a few hundred years earlier. Though inhabitable, there were only about a dozen different forms of non-bacterium life on the moon, including aquatic, and none of them were anywhere near developing sapience. 

In almost all respects, it was entirely inconsequential. Almost all. But there was one specific thing that made it a target for the Fomorians. Specifically, its location. The moon was situated entirely too close to a relatively less secure section of the Seosten lines, and would make an incredibly tempting staging point for an intense Fomorian attack. Allowing the monsters to take that place and solidify their hold over it would have been disastrous, regardless of how much other strategic value it did or didn’t have. This incredibly small, otherwise insignificant moon had to be protected to prevent the Fomorians from using it as a stepping stone to more important targets. 

By the same token of the moon being out in the middle of nowhere, it was hard for the Fomorians to get a significant foothold on it. Their Seosten enemies tended to watch the place for any intrusion, leaving a token force to slow down the attack, then send in a bigger fleet to wipe out all traces of the Fomorian incursion before they could settle on it properly. They fought back and forth over that small rock in the middle of space once every few years or so. Some battles were bigger than others, but the Fomorians never entirely gave up on their plan of finding a way to use the place for their attacks against stronger targets.

The most recent of those attacks had taken place several days earlier. The moon itself had been (as far as the Fomorians were concerned) cleared of any Seosten defenders, leaving it ripe for settling. But first, all the biological material, whether native to the place or the corpses of Seosten and Fomorian alike, had to be scavenged. That was how the Fomorians operated. They established footholds on a planet by destroying all life and then using those same biological materials to create not only their own defenses, but the building blocks for all of the troops, weapons, and even transportation the place would need to sustain itself in the war. 

At this particular moment, that was exactly what the Fomorians here on the moon were doing. A series of enormous creatures that looked roughly like oversized Earth elephants (four or five times the size of one of those) mixed with a biological dump truck (their backs had huge holes in them that were deep and wide enough to carry several tons worth of material) lumbered onward across the ground, escorted by various monsters meant to protect the supply-creatures. Any plant material was torn away to be melted down for base components, the nutrient parts added to pastes that would be used to feed the Fomorian forces. Biological materials, meanwhile, were also collected and dropped into the oversized-elephant creatures’ back holes in order to be carried back to the Fomorian staging base on this moon. The remains of native animals, Seosten defenders, and the Fomorians’ own troops alike were all dumped unceremoniously into the elephant-creatures and carried onward. 

At one pile of corpses in particular, where a particularly heavy fight had clearly occurred, the goblin-like leading Fomorian escorts (they were three feet tall and had arms that were four feet long, leading to a lot of loping movement where their arms essentially propelled them up and forward to hit the ground, then repeat) launched themselves that way to land beside the spot where two large ogres had fallen under the combined assault from a dozen Fomorian beasts. Bit by bit, the goblin-creatures pulled the pile of bodies apart, using their own considerable strength to toss their comrades up into the hole of the nearest elephant-thing. Finally, the elephant itself used its long trunks to pick up each of the huge ogre bodies one at a time, tossing them in the back as well. 

From there, the parade continued. For three more hours, the creatures moved on to collect more bodies, killing any living things they came across to add to their supplies before eventually making a wide circle to move back to their staging point. There, within the confines of the Fomorian protective (living, of course) walls, the collected remains were added to the pile there. They would be taken apart down to their base materials and used to create more troops. Or, they would have been. But someone else had plans to the contrary. 

Six hours after the pile of rotting bodies had been dumped in place, and nine after it originally been picked up, the bustling Fomorian creations were finally joined by one of their masters. An actual Fomorian, an Alpha of all things, strode into view in the middle of the camp, eyes scanning the piles of corpses. This Fomorian was twice the size of the standard Betas and Gammas that made up the bulk of their population (already relatively few in number), having upgraded his own body with longer, stronger limbs, much heavier plating that protected him from anything weaker than a capital ship barrage, and a set of dragonfly-like wings that would allow him to reach blinding speeds in the air. Along with other surprises that made him, and other Alpha Fomorians, some of the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

Standing there, flanked by a small army of guards and assorted creature servants, the Alpha Fomorian looked over the thousands upon thousands of decomposing corpses intently while sniffing. “Something,” it hissed, “lives. Something there is not dead. It–” 

In mid-sentence, the Fomorian saw it. A very small green laser shone out of the pile of corpses, the point ending right in the center of its chest. A tiny, insignificant laser point. It came from a small, cylindrical, pen-sized device that was sticking out through a hole in the chest of one of the ogres whose corpse had been picked up nine hours earlier. 

The Alpha Fomorian barely had time to consider what this meant, before a second laser struck it. This, however, was far different from the first. For one, this second laser came from the sky. No, it came from far beyond the sky. The laser came from a ship that had been hidden behind the gas giant this moon orbited. A ship that had been so well-hidden, it was incapable of being seen without being right on top of it. And, by the same measure, equally incapable of seeing anything on the planet itself. And yet, it fired a shot from its primary cannon the moment that it had a target. A target granted to it by that single laser pointer. 

When the smoke cleared from that single shot, fully three-quarters of the Fomorian base itself had been wiped out, eradicated entirely. Nothing was left where the shot had struck, save for a twelve-foot-deep, hundred-foot-wide crater. 

Nothing, that was, save for the Alpha Fomorian. Most of it, anyway. The creature, as with any of its fellows who reached the rank of Alpha, was incredibly tough. Tough enough, in fact, to stand up to a direct hit from a Seosten capital ship. Though wounded, the Alpha was not dead. Its wings had been sheared away, the force of the blast had slammed the thing flat to the ground, and it was showing severe damage. But it had survived that shot. 

It may even have survived the second and third that punched into the ground shortly after that first one. The fourth, however, probably killed it. The fifth and sixth were just to make sure. And the seventh might have been overkill. 

In the end, nothing remained of the Fomorian Alpha, or any of his troops. Once the firing had stopped, the small laser pointer was withdrawn back into the ogre corpse. A moment later, it was replaced by a much stronger laser blade, as the corpse’s occupant cut herself free. Covered in blood and the assorted internal fluids and broken organs of a half-decayed ogre, the brown-skinned and dark-haired figure, who would have been seen as stereotypically Indian (of the actual India) clambered out and brushed herself off. Taking a rag from the pocket of her mechanic-like jumpsuit, the Olympian Seosten known as Haniel wiped her gore-covered face clean, tossed the rag aside, then plucked a bottle of heavy booze from a different pocket before taking a long, sustained pull. Only once she had drained a good half of the contents did she put the bottle away and produce a communication pin, slapping it to her chest to activate the thing. “Congratulations, Trierarch, that is one dead Alpha. Now come get us so I can shower.” She could have recalled herself back to the ship, of course. That would have been the plan had she been discovered in her hiding place before the Alpha showed himself. But he had shown himself. And now they were going to mop up the remains (literally, to an extent) and take what was left to be studied by Seosten scientists. 

Soon enough, Haniel was picked up by a quick shuttle that teleported her up to it, and then returned to the capital ship. Unfortunately, before she could actually find her way to the shower, the ship’s captain, or Trierarch, met her coming off the shuttle. He was an old Seosten with a thick walrus mustache and very tired eyes. “Sorry, got new orders for you. Well, for all of us. We’re going to Rysthael to drop you off.” 

The announcement made Haniel blink. “Why would I go there? We’re still at peace, right? Truce, whatever. We’re not supposed to be doing anything over there.” 

“No idea,” came the response. “That part of the orders is sealed to your identity signature. Your eyes only. We’re just supposed to deliver you.” After a brief pause, he added, “But uhh, speaking of that truce, you think it’ll hold? I mean, do you think it’ll be permanent? You spent a long time there with those humans, right? Back when they had you running around playing Dionysus.” 

Haniel, in turn, shrugged. “Not with those humans. Err, mostly not. And there’s a lot more than humans there anyway. But uhh, yeah it’s been awhile.” She glanced away, clearly deep in thought for a few seconds before continuing. “Look, I don’t know much about what’s going on there. Kinda tuned out of that stuff for a reason. All I know is that our people, flawed as they might be, are the only ones stopping those things from overrunning the entire fucking universe.” She jabbed a finger in the direction of where other Seosten and assistants were gathering the remains of the Alpha in buckets and large steel crates. “So if these Rysthael people prove they can be an asset and work with us to do that, great. Nothing but love for them. If not, well, we need humans to be Heretics or this whole universe gets fucked over, us and them. Sometimes doing the shit that needs to be done ain’t pretty. As you can see.” Her hand indicated the assorted (quite fragrant) goo that still covered her body. 

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go soak my body in fifty gallons of scalding water, and my liver in about that much wine.” 

***********

Dylan

“This is impossible.” The words came from Haiden Moon, as the man stood a short distance away from the main collection of cabins around the Atherby camp, with his wife, his son and daughter, and another girl. Fossor had been killed only hours earlier, and yet, apparently that wasn’t enough of a shock for the day. Not if what his children were telling him was true. 

“It’s true, Dad,”  Vanessa insisted. “We did the blood test while you were busy earlier. This is Dylan, your niece. Our… our cousin.” 

“Hello,” the girl in question piped up, raising a hand in an awkward motion. “Um. I’m Dylan. She said that. I didn’t… um, mean to say that. I didn’t mean to say that either. Um. I’m not—I’m not really, um, great with this? This is…. umm, different? I–um, it’s new, and I don’t–I didn’t know it was gonna be like this. And you’re here, and I think my mom would’ve wanted to be, but she’s not, because she died and I really didn’t mean to say that either. But now I’m thinking about my mom and dad dying, and I’m sad, so… so I’m gonna go. Okay, bye.” With that, she pivoted on her heel and began to take a few steps away. 

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Tristan quickly moved that way, gently but firmly guiding the girl back. “See, Dad, she’s definitely part of our family.” 

“Part of our…” Trailing off, Haiden glanced toward his wife before turning back to Dylan. He took a step that way before going down to one knee to reach out, his hand barely touching the side of the girl’s face as she shifted nervously from foot to foot. Her eyes met his, their gazes locking for a moment before he swallowed hard. “Vanessa…” The word was not directed toward his daughter, but toward the long-lost aunt she had been named for. Haiden’s sister, who had supposedly died during training at Eden’s Garden. 

Except she clearly hadn’t, because her daughter was here. A daughter who had clearly been born much more recently than the over hundred years it had been since his sister had ‘died.’ 

But… but if she survived and was here on Earth, with a family, why had she never reached out? Who tracked her down and killed her? Why didn’t she fight back? What–what? 

“I don’t understand,” he finally managed, voice cracking a bit. “What are the odds?” Haiden demanded. “What are the odds that you would happen to run into someone who could get in contact with us, someone who knew Vanes–her roommate, for Void’s sake. Erin was her roommate at Crossroads. What are the odds that my daughter’s roommate would happen to run into my long-lost niece? It doesn’t–” He sighed. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Dylan promptly answered. “I used magic. I was… lonely, so I used a spell from the fox-man’s library to find out if I had any family. It was supposed to direct me to a place where I could eventually find them. It took me to the grocery store. I had to work there for a long time. So long I thought it didn’t work. But then it did. It just took awhile. And it wasn’t exactly direct about it.”

“That’s usually how that sort of spell works,” Sariel quietly put in, her voice sounding awed. “When it does anything at all. You’re–you’re really self-taught? That’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone take to it that well without–without any direct instruction.” 

“The fox-man’s blood made me good at magic,” Dylan replied. “And he had a lot of books.” 

“She likes to read,” Tristan piped up. “She’s definitely related to Vanessa.” 

Vanessa, naturally, squinted at him. “You’re related to me and you don’t like to read. You’re my twin.”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed, “which obviously means you stole all my reading books DNA. It’s clearly your fault.” 

“Reading… books… DNA…” Vanessa barely managed to get those words out, looking and sounding as though she was either about to strangle the boy or cry. He, in turn, simply grinned. 

Clearing his throat, Haiden focused on the girl in front of him. “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how–what… I don’t know anything. But… but you are Vanessa’s daughter. You–” Cutting himself off, the man simply asked, “Do you, ahh, mind if I hug you?” 

“Why?” Dylan promptly asked, her eyes narrowing to a slit. “You’re not trying to plant a tracking beacon for Galazien’s forces, are you? He’s really persuasive. He can make you think he’s on your side. Quick, how long has it been since you were checked for mind manipulation?”

“Who–who is this Galazien?” Haiden managed. They had mentioned the name before, when Vanessa and Tristan were giving the quick story about what they had learned from Erin. But he was still pretty confused about the whole thing.

Dylan answered promptly. “He is the Iron-Souled, the world-devourer, the one who will reap the heavens and call the hells to tear asunder all who stand before him. He is the flash of heat felt oh-so-briefly by those who die from the cold, the warmth that causes them, in their delirium, to shed their clothes to embrace their fate. He is the inevitable, torn from this world in its infancy to spare it a youthful end. But his forces amass, and he cannot be forestalled for eternity. In his time, he will come, and he will finish what he started, all those millennia ago.” 

A few long seconds of silence passed, before Tristan leaned in to speak quietly. “I think she means he’s a bad guy.” 

“I–I have so many questions,” Haiden murmured, still reeling from shock. “But something tells me you don’t know where your mother was before she had you, or why she was pretending to be a normal human. Or… or what happened to her when she was younger.” 

Dylan, of course, shook her head. “No. I think the Fox-Man knew more, but… but he died before he could tell me.” She went quiet for a moment, clearly remembering the horrific murders of her mother and father in addition to the Kitsune. Her voice, when she spoke, was very soft. “I… think I might be okay with a hug now.” 

And that was exactly what she got. 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th 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.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. “We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Long Awaited 12-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In the year and some odd months since I had been officially introduced to this life, I’d seen a lot of crazy things. I’d heard even more crazy things. I had experienced and been told a lot that stretched my capacity to be surprised. I wasn’t going to say that I couldn’t be shocked, because that would obviously just tempt the universe into making it happen. 

But if the past year–hell, if the past couple days hadn’t made me immune to being left completely speechless, they had at least given me a pretty strong resistance. Which is why it was so impressive that, with one sentence, Mom had managed to leave me so utterly astonished, I actually literally stared at her with my mouth open while strange noises escaped me. They weren’t words, that much was for certain. At most, they were a random assortment of vowels and consonants with no real rhyme or reason. It felt like my entire brain took several long moments to entirely reboot itself. For those seconds, there was nothing of note going on in my head. Nothing aside from that last sentence from my mother playing on a repeating loop. It was like she had spoken in a completely foreign language and I was trying desperately to decipher the meaning. But I understood the meaning. Well, I understood what the words in that order meant, generally speaking, even if I couldn’t comprehend basically anything else about it.

My only real consolation in that moment was that I wasn’t the only one left standing there in shock. Asenath and Twister seemed equally affected, both of them actually taking a step back reflexively as they too stared at Mom. None of us found actual words to say for those few seconds, simply looking at my mother while opening and shutting our mouths like a trio of baby birds. It probably looked pretty funny from the outside, if anyone else had been watching. 

In the end, it was Twister who managed to speak first. Specifically, she blurted a quick, “I’m sorry, you did what with a Pooka respawn power? What the actual fuck are you talking about?” 

“Uhh, yeah, what she said.” I pointed to her without looking away from my mother, actual vaguely coherent words finally finding their way to my lips. “What’s going on, Mom? What did–what the–what?” Yeah, I did say vaguely coherent. At least they were actual words. 

Asenath didn’t say anything at all. She just stared at Mom silently, apparently satisfied enough with the verbal questions that Twister and I had managed to wait for an actual answer. 

As for Mom herself,  I could tell there were a lot of emotions running through her. Many of them conflicting with one another. She seemed sad, yet also proud. Lost, yet determined and focused. She was in deep mourning, but she was also happy in a sort of bittersweet way. There was regret, peace, grief, and acceptance. I had the feeling that she had gone through all of these feelings in much more separated detail for a long time, and what we were seeing was the abbreviated form jumbled together as she was in the situation of finally explaining what had actually happened. 

Finally, after a long, heavy silence, Mom started to speak. She didn’t look at me, or either of the others. Her gaze was fixed off into the distance, voice thick with emotion. “No mother should ever have to plan for her child’s death. Not in any way. Not in the sense of preparing for a terminal disease. And not in the sense of ensuring that should he ever die, he would not come back.” 

Silence returned for a moment while my mother’s eyes closed, and she took a long, deep breath in an attempt to steady herself. It didn’t seem to work that well, as her voice still cracked when she continued. “No mother–no parent who has ever lived should ever be put in the position of making certain that if their son dies, he will stay dead. I have hated some people in my life. I have loathed some of my enemies, those who have hurt me or those I love. But I would not wish such a fate on anyone I have ever quarreled with. No one should ever be in a position where they have to look at their child and not only plan such a thing, but–” Her voice broke then, and it took her a moment to force the words out. “–but actually enact it themselves.” 

Part of me wanted to reach out to her, but it felt as though this whole story was something she needed to get through without my interruption or distraction. So, clenching my hands, I watched and listened in silence. Of all the things I owed my mother, the absolute least I could pay her with right now was patience. I could stand here and wait for her to get through this on her own terms.

“And yet,” Mom eventually continued, “That is the very situation I was in. My son… my son was corrupted, changed irrevocably by that… thing. He took my sweet boy and he broke him. Magically, permanently broke him. He destroyed his sense of morality, took away any chance he had of being a good person. He was, at one point. He was my sweet boy, so curious about his–about everyone. He would have been good. He would have been a good boy, a good man.” Eyes closing tightly, Mom folded her arms, hugging herself as she continued in that lost, broken voice. “Fossor took that away. He destroyed my son. His magic was–the experimental spells he performed to erase Ammon’s conscience–his morality, there was nothing anyone could do to fix it. I tried–I looked–I asked–I did… I did everything I could. But there was nothing. There was no way to restore him, no way to make him what he once was. There was no way to fix him. And with his power–with the abilities he had… he would have done so much more terrible things as he got older. As a child, his evil was bad enough. But if he got old enough to become truly cruel, with the power he had to force people to obey his commands, the things he would have done…” Mom physically shuddered, mouth tightening a bit as her head shook. I could see the tears in her eyes as they opened once more, but she blinked them away stubbornly, forcing herself to focus on telling the story. 

“And then Fossor manipulated a situation that would make things so much worse. He ensured that Ammon killed a Pooka, Scott, and inherited his respawn power. Now, no matter what happened, Ammon would be a threat forever. Every time he died, he would simply come back as a child. Unless he was killed again before the Pooka’s respawning gift recharged, he was effectively immortal. Free to ruin people, free to torture and kill as much as he or his father wanted, with almost no consequence. He would grow up, destroy innocent lives, traumatize and break them. Then, if he was killed, he would simply wait in safety, grow up, and do it again. That was the future Fossor described to me, a future where my son would be an immortal monster who would never stop ripping innocent souls apart. That would be the legacy of my little boy.” 

The deep hatred for the monster who had done that, who had planned all of that and gloated about it to her, filled my mother’s voice in a way I had not actually heard her fully express before. This was something far worse than possibly anything else he had done, in a personal sense. Because this forced my mother to do something so repulsive to her, so wrong, that it had torn a bit of her own soul out to even consider it, let alone to actually do it. 

“I couldn’t let that happen,” she murmured, eyes closing once more as she folded her arms against her own stomach as though holding in the deep, horrible pain. When she spoke again, her voice cracked even more than before. She could barely get the words out. “I couldn’t–wouldn’t let my son become that. I loved him. Gods forgive me, even with the terrible things he did, I loved him. I remembered him as he was, as he used to be. I remembered the boy that Fossor killed, not the evil, empty shell he brought back to me. 

“But if I let it happen, if I let my love of who my son used to be stop me from doing what had to be done, then the things he did would be my fault. Every innocent life he destroyed, every person he killed, everyone he tortured and traumatized, every family he ripped apart would, in some way, be because of me. It would be because I couldn’t get over my love, because I couldn’t do what had to be done. Parents would lose their own children, and children their own parents, because I refused to do the thing that only I could do. I could save them from that. I could save all those future victims, could stop all those horrific things from happening.” 

Slowly, Mom lowered her head, staring at the ground as she almost inaudibly whispered, “All I had to do was condemn my son to permanently die. ” 

Okay, now I couldn’t resist. Seeing my mother like that, hearing her strained voice, I moved that way and reached out to take her hand with both of mine. “Mom.” I meant to say more than that, but the single word was all that managed to come out before the lump in my throat took over and I couldn’t speak anymore. Not that I really had any idea of what to say. It just felt like I should have something, like I should have a way of making my mother feel better. But how was I ever supposed to do that in this situation? I still wasn’t sure exactly what she had done or how she ever could have ‘given the Pooka power’ to this other girl. But everything she was saying, hearing the pain and loss in her voice as she remembered not the Ammon that we had known, but the one she knew before Fossor had turned him into… into that, made me want to resurrect that evil piece of shit just so we could all kill him again. And again, for good measure. 

After a few long seconds, Twister spoke. “Jos… how did you give this human girl Pooka resurrection? Especially after she’d already been dead for a long time. It doesn’t–how?” 

Mom’s hand squeezed both of mine before she straightened up a bit, squaring her shoulders. It was clear she was bracing herself, drawing strength from me, to push on through the story. “There are spells used to temporarily share or transfer the powers that Heretics have to someone else. Normally that’s just another Heretic. The Committee and the Victors for Eden’s Garden are two examples of massive versions of one of those spells. The Committee share all of their powers amongst one another, and the Victors share small portions of the powers that belong to every single member of their tribes. They’re similar spells. But another version allows for one or more Heretic power to be shared with any other person. It’s very complicated magic. And normally, impossible to do with an ordinary human. After all, most magic requires that you be a Heretic of some kind. But do you know why?” 

After exchanging brief looks with Asenath and Twister, I shook my head. Mom, in turn, offered a very faint, humorless smile. “It’s the Bystander Effect. The enchantment drains all magical potential from any normal human in order to sustain itself. That’s why it’s so hard to get things like healing spells to affect a normal human, because the Bystander Effect is draining their magical potential so the healing spell can’t find a foothold. And it’s the same thing in this case. Trying to magically share any Heretic powers with a normal human will fail because the Bystander Effect will suck up that energy for fuel to keep the worldwide enchantment going.” 

Falling silent for a few seconds as she clearly worked her way through several conflicting emotions, Mom finally pushed on. “But there’s one difference between a normal human and Denise that made the Bystander Effect no longer a problem.” 

“Was she a–no.” My head shook. “Ammon didn’t turn her into a Natural Heretic or anything. What–” 

“She was dead.” Asenath’s voice was quiet, yet certain. “Denise was dead. The Bystander Effect wasn’t affecting her anymore. It wasn’t part of her. Because she was dead.” She reiterated the last part with what sounded like pointed wonder as she looked toward the phone in my mother’s other hand. The phone that had shown us the video of an alive Denise. 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “Denise was dead. The Bystander Effect wasn’t targeting her anymore. So, I asked Fossor for permission to visit the grave. He thought my witnessing Ammon’s victims was a good thing. It amused him. So he allowed it, with very specific rules, of course. But those rules didn’t prevent me from doing what I needed to do. I used an old spell, one similar to the Committee power sharing ritual. It… it was taught to me by the reaper inside the lighthouse. He was–is my friend. I used the ritual spell to share one single power with Denise’s… body for one single moment. That was all I was capable of doing. A Pooka’s resurrection gift is incredibly powerful. It’s one of the strongest abilities imaginable. It’s so strong even the Committee can’t share it amongst themselves. But… using power that I stored up for months, I was able to create a spell that would transfer that specific power for exactly three seconds. Just long enough to work. The spell was set to trigger at one very precise moment.” 

“When Ammon died,” I quietly put in, realizing the truth. “You set the spell so that it would transfer his Pooka power to… to Denise for three seconds at the exact moment that he died.” 

Mom’s gaze met mine as she gave a slight nod. “Months of preparation, and even then, I could only transfer it for three seconds. Which, for any other power, would have been almost useless even for a living person. After all, how much use can a person get out of a power transferred to them for three seconds, using magic that’s stored up for months and requires a ritual that takes several hours to perform? Even more useless for a… for someone who’s dead. Taking that much magic and time to transfer almost any power to a dead person for three seconds would be basically the biggest waste of time and effort you could ever imagine.

“But not the Pooka resurrection. For three seconds at that exact moment, when Ammon was killed and that respawn power activated, it was transferred to Denise’s body. She resurrected, not him. And then the power transfer faded, but Ammon was–he was already dead.” Once more, my mother’s voice cracked and sounded like her soul was breaking. “He won’t… he won’t come back. The power activates upon death. Now that he’s gone, it won’t activate at all. It’s gone forever. I–” Her hand pulled away from mine so she could clutch her arms around her stomach. It looked like she was going to be sick. “I killed my son.” There was a horrible, soul-wrenching sound in those words. 

“Mom, no,” I quickly insisted while stepping that way to put my arms around her tightly. “Don’t you see? You didn’t kill him. You freed him. You said yourself that what Fossor did to him couldn’t be undone. Do you really think the innocent little boy you remember would ever want to be the thing he was turned into? He wouldn’t want to hurt and kill those people, Mom. Fossor thought he found a way to enslave that little boy into being his monster forever. That’s what he was gloating about, because he thought he beat you. He thought he made your son into a monster who would never die, who could never escape. But you stopped him. Mom, you saved him. You freed Ammon and let him move on.” 

Asenath spoke up. “You did a lot more than that. You made the hard choice, Joselyn. You sacrificed whatever small hope you might have had to eventually change Ammon back, to save everyone he would have killed in the meantime. All of the victims he would have tortured and killed, all those innocent people who would have been his targets. You saved them all. And you did it by making the hardest choice a parent could ever have to make. You chose not to save your son. You chose to let him die, so all his future victims would live. You freed your son from Fossor’s control, you gave up any hope you had of turning him back to the way he was, you saved every future potential victim, and… and you brought one of his victims back to life.” She still sounded completely floored by that last part. Which, yeah, no kidding. So was I. 

One of his victims.” From my mother’s voice, she sounded more guilty about the fact that she had been limited to that single resurrection than proud that she’d managed it at all. “He had a lot more than that. But I couldn’t do anything for the rest of them. I had to pick one. And Denise was… she was the innocent person he killed on his way to meet Felicity. Because of the stories I told him. He wanted to meet his sister because I told him about her. About you.” She glanced toward me, eyes blinking back a rush of obvious tears. “I–I couldn’t let that stand. When I saw her mother–when I looked at that woman and thought of how she felt having her daughter ripped away from her like that, I… I had to give her back. I couldn’t do anything for most of my son’s victims. But I could do that. I could fix that one thing. I could save one person. I could stop one mother from feeling that… that grief. I could fix one family.”

“But what about her memories?” I put in, confused. “Her and her mother’s. Wouldn’t they remember her being dead and all? Not to mention everyone else’s memories. Everybody knew she was dead. But then she’s suddenly alive again? Oh, and all the news about it, the paperwork, the–everything. All the stuff that would’ve happened to show she was dead. I mean, did the Bystander Effect just magically take care of all that? And where did she respawn? Cuz if she woke up in a coffin underground….” 

Holding up a hand to stop the barrage of questions, my mother confirmed, “For the last part, no, she did not wake up in the coffin. The spell moved her back home. And for the rest of it, the Bystander Effect is very powerful. There’s a reason why it has to constantly feed itself with the magical potential  of every ordinary human. Billions of living beings are providing power for it. So yes, it changed things. It fixed people’s memories, changed the news reports, fixed the evidence, everything it had to do to erase the fact that Denise had ever been that old, ever worked there, ever died there. It changed all of it. As far as anyone affected by the Bystander Effect is concerned, Denise was always born several years later than she actually was, and has never been that old. And, since the Pooka power transfer was temporary, Denise herself is also affected by that. She doesn’t remember anything about what happened with Ammon. She’s a normal, happy little girl growing up in an ordinary household. She doesn’t remember any trauma, and neither does her family. It–I couldn’t do much. There were so many of Ammon’s victims who I…  I couldn’t do anything for. But her–her I had to. I had one chance to help one victim. So I did. I freed my son. I killed my son. I let him die so she could live. She has a chance now. She can live her life, grow up, have everything she would have had if she never met him. It was all I could do.” 

Swallowing hard, I took a second to let all of that wash over me. It wasn’t enough, of course. It was going to take a hell of a lot longer than a second for me to fully understand and process everything my mother had given up simply to save the life of one girl she would probably never meet. But I did know one thing for certain. It was something I had known for a long time, but kept being reiterated. And now that realization, that feeling, was even stronger than it had ever been. 

“Mom,” I managed in a quiet voice, “you’re the bravest, strongest person I’ve ever known.” 

A rush of emotions passed through my mother’s face at that. In the end, all she could do was pull me to her. I felt her strong arms hold me close, pressing me against herself protectively while she gave a very slight, yet powerful shudder. “My Felicity,” she whispered. 

For a long moment, we just stood there like that. Nothing else had to be said about it. We all knew what my mother had sacrificed, what it had cost for her to do what she did. We knew how much it cost for my mother to give up any chance she might have had to get back the little boy she loved, what it had taken for someone like my mother to let her own son die. I had never known the Ammon that she knew. But I did know, in this moment, how much choosing to let him go had torn my mother apart. And I knew something else. 

I had never been more glad that that evil piece of shit Necromancer was fucking dead. 

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Interlude 16B – Conservators (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – For anyone who might have missed it due to me forgetting to mention, the non-canon for Summus Proelium was posted last weekend right here

At one point, an enormous warehouse had taken up an entire block of Gratiot Avenue. The original, smaller version had stood for many years before Touched had become a thing. Once the city began to be revived, the warehouse had been almost entirely rebuilt and expanded to take up much more room. Just another in a very long list of ways that Detroit had been reborn. 

And now it was gone. The entire place had been burnt almost entirely to the ground. There was barely anything left, save for a few pieces of wall, some of the foundation, and scattered rubble. 

In a way, that perfectly fit with the whole comparison to the city being reborn thanks to Touched. Because they did a lot of damage too. The warehouse was reborn, expanded, and improved. But in the end, it was also destroyed. The very thing that gave it new life ended up taking that same life, and now there was almost nothing left. It had been rundown before, but at least it existed. Now, after a relatively brief burst of renewal, it was all-but completely gone. 

The woman known to the public as Flea truly hoped that the analogy with Detroit itself wouldn’t go that far. And yet, as she stood on the sidewalk surveying the broken remnants of the demolished building, she couldn’t help but compare it to the gang war that only seemed to be getting worse. 

“There a reason Smithy doesn’t have to play detective today?” 

The voice that interrupted Flea’s thoughts belonged to Dynamic. She was a speedster of unlimited stamina who was capable of draining other people’s powers by running near them, then using that power to create energy constructs with additional elements related to the powers she had drained. And that unlimited stamina thing extended as far as never needing to sleep. It truly was a bottomless well of energy.  Which was one of the main reasons Flea and Dynamic worked so well together. The fact that Flea was capable of draining stamina from people to add to her own, combined with the fact that Dynamic had an unlimited amount of it, meant that any time the Detroit Conservators’ second-in-command needed a little hit of energy to keep going, she could always take some from the speedster. They had an arrangement for that. 

“Silversmith had prior commitments.” As she gave that simple, pat answer, Flea glanced over toward the younger woman. At that moment, she couldn’t help but compare their appearances. Her own costume consisted of a black Tech-Touched chainmail-like top, simple blue pants that were loose on her legs and gave her very free range of motion, and a helmet that was essentially that of a samurai, with mandible-protrusions to fit with her theme. A light blue cloak with gold trim hung from her shoulders, and she carried a katana across her back along with two short swords attached to her hips. 

Dynamic, on the other hand, looked very different. Her entire body was encased in gem-like purple armor that was so smooth and featureless she appeared to be a glass statue when standing still. The look was completed by the fact that the helmet she wore left only the vague impression of facial features, as if they had been chiseled into the amethyst gemstone the armor appeared to be made out of. In motion, Dynamic was incredibly fast and agile. But when she wasn’t moving, an onlooker could be excused for believing that some incredibly talented artist had sculpted her. 

“Prior commitments, huh?” Dynamic made a noise in the back of her throat that made her opinion of that clear. It was… odd. While the man was a clear champion for the city, who had risked his life so many times and was loved and trusted basically above all else by basically everyone of note, for some reason Dynamic had never liked him. Oh, she followed his orders and did everything she was supposed to. She worked with the team, and he was the leader of the team. She didn’t argue with him… much. And never in battle. But she never liked him. It was a fact she kept mostly quiet about to everyone except Flea. Yet when the two of them were alone, she made no secret of her dislike for the man. 

Then again, Dynamic generally liked to be contrary anyway. She was one of a quickly growing number of people pushing to have the name Conservator changed. Apparently they wanted to rename the organization Corona (as in the circles of glowing light seen around the sun or stars for Star-Touched) and call members of the group Coroknights. The movement had been gaining traction in recent weeks when several members of the senate had expressed interest.  

“Yes,” Flea replied simply, “prior commitments. He has his own life he has to take care of. A… family, I think.” That was another odd thing, this time about Silversmith himself. And perhaps a big reason for Dynamic’s dislike. The rest of the Detroit Conservators had all unmasked to one another. They knew each other’s real names, their families, everything. Which certainly wasn’t required. Anyone on the team was allowed to keep their identity secret if they chose to. But the fact that their leader was the only one who exercised that right was, perhaps, a little strange. He, however, simply said that he had people he loved who had to be protected and that as long as everyone knew he never let even his own teammates know his identity, no one would try to get at those loved ones through that team.

For a moment, the two women looked at each other. Flea imagined she could see Dynamic’s slightly younger (twenty-four compared to her own twenty-eight) Hispanic face through that violet gem-like helmet, staring pointedly at her, eyes silently yet clearly insisting that their team leader was just as much of a dick as she had always been convinced he was. 

However, before either of them could speak again, the sound of footsteps approaching made them turn to see the rest of the team (sans Silversmith, of course) approaching. Three figures, all male. They came from the van that they had clearly just arrived in and parked across the street. 

“You guys found anything important yet?” Kriegspiel asked. He was the oldest member of the team. Older than Silversmith even, Flea was pretty sure. The man had turned fifty a month earlier, though he was in pretty good shape for that. Which was helped by his Touched ability. It allowed him to enhance the strength, power, speed and so forth of everyone in an area he considered an ally, as well as allowing them all to communicate with one another mentally and even see through each other’s eyes or share what they were seeing. He always used his power on himself to even greater effect than others, meaning that though just over fifty, he had the physical attributes of someone half his age in top condition. For ten minutes at a time (one minute less for each additional person he was aiding beyond himself), he could push his power and raise that boost to about double what a normal human was capable of. He was also a fairly tall man at nearly six foot five, with gray-black hair worn long, to his shoulders. His costume consisted of tan body armor under a brown duster, with a black mask that covered the bottom half of his face, and a wide-brimmed sable fedora identical to that worn by Indiana Jones. He wore what appeared to be an ordinary revolver, but was actually a Touched-Tech gun, from a holster on one hip. 

“Nope.” The answer didn’t come from Flea or Dynamic. Instead, it came from the shorter man walking to Kriegspiel’s left, who happened to be the youngest member of the team at barely twenty-two. RePete (his real name wasn’t Pete, he just thought it was amusing to make people think it had to be) wore his usual costume of green camo pants, army boots, a black turtleneck, dark gloves, a green ski mask, and quite possibly half of the guns in the city. He wore a pistol on either hip, a shotgun across his back, a smaller pistol on either ankle, and another pair of small pistols holstered halfway up either arm. Those last two were holstered with one on the outside of his right arm and one on the inside of the left, their grips positioned so that he could cross his arms and yank both weapons free. 

And those were just the guns that were in plain sight. Flea was confident that he had more. 

“They just got here, same as us,” RePete continued.  

“Reap,” Dynamic flatly reminded the man while using what the team had settled on as the more serious ‘nickname’ version of his chosen moniker, “you know everyone hates it when you do that, right? We’ve made that clear?” 

“As crystal,” was the response. If he was abashed at all, the man didn’t show it. No matter how often they complained, he would still randomly use his power to, in his mind, speed along conversations. His gift was a powerful, though limited one. It allowed him to set a marker and then repeat (hence the name) the previous five seconds with everything he already knew from that time. After that, he could choose to repeat four of those seconds again, then a third time for the last three of those seconds before the marker would expire. It gave him three increasingly short-windows to change or react to something. 

Or, in this case, to answer a question someone else had answered in the original timeline.

“Hey, hey, be nice to the ladies!” Those words came from the final member of their team. And what a member he was. Walking on Kriegspiel’s right, opposite from RePete, was a wiry black man in his late thirties, just over six feet in height. His costume consisted of full padded body armor. But rather than being dark or camo-colored, the torso part of the armor was colored and patterned after a bright, loud Hawaiian shirt (he had several versions using different specific colors, this one was blue with bright palm trees). The pants part of the outfit were the usual black. Meanwhile, his identity was concealed behind a metal helmet that covered the top half of his face and almost his entire head, leaving only his mouth exposed. His eyes were covered by lenses whose color matched that of whatever Hawaiian pattern he was wearing at any given time. 

He was, in short, not what people pictured if they knew that his chosen name of Bokor referred to a male vodou sorcerer who created zombies. That was, however, a decent name for someone with his power, which allowed him to create zombie-like duplicates of any person he could see. The duplicates weren’t able to use any Touched powers the original had, but they were very strong and tough. Plus, they could expel a gas from their mouths that made people who breathed it in tired, weak, clumsy, and generally more likely to surrender. 

“After all,” Bokor was saying, his voice bright, “we’re a team here, yeah? To be a good team, we make each other comfortable, not annoy each other. Hey, who wants to hear a joke?” 

Though no one on the team answered him, Bokor nodded toward a figure who had just appeared next to RePete. A ‘zombie’ duplicate of him who stood with his arm raised. “Why thank you, ReRePete,” Bokor spoke with a broad smile at his own humor. Then, he quickly asked, “How did the man build his house out of snow? Iglood it!” As soon as the words left his mouth, he was already guffawing, pounding a fist against his own chest. “My nephew told me that one!” The pride in the man’s voice made it clear just how he felt about the joke, and about his nephew in general. 

Chuckling despite herself, though mostly out of admiration for how much Bokor cared about and doted on his sister’s little boy, Flea gestured. “We need to get busy. Spread out, look for anything that might give us an idea of who or what took down this building. Anything the regular searchers might have overlooked or just missed.” 

So, that was exactly what they did. Each of them began picking through piles of ashes and debris. There was, of course, very little to find. Whoever had burned this building down had done a very thorough job. They had clearly wanted to be certain that it would be impossible, or near to it, to find anything that explained what this place had really been, or who had been behind it. The original inspectors had found nothing useful. That was why the Conservators had been called in to begin with, out of the hope that something would stand out to them based on their own experiences. Or that one of their gifts would be useful somehow. It was a long shot, but then, they didn’t exactly have much else. The authorities were torn between being very confused about why this place had been burned so thoroughly, and not… particularly caring that much because it was just a warehouse with no owner stepping forward to claim damages. The biggest reason for the investigation was due to just how thoroughly the place had been destroyed. Ironically, whoever had taken such pains to ensure that there would be nothing for investigators to find had actually drawn more investigators than there would’ve been otherwise. 

In any case, now it was time to find out just what there was to find around here. 

******

Nothing. There had been nothing to find… in the remains of the warehouse. Fortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the area around the warehouse. The authorities had already asked nearby businesses for access to security footage, of course, to no avail. However, while doing a run around the neighborhood, Dynamic had spotted something curious. A single, almost entirely-hidden camera pointed in the direction of where the warehouse had been. The camera was small, one of those that was meant to be set up above a garage or door at home for personal security. It had been secured to the wall of a building across the street, hidden behind a dumpster in a way that ensured it was almost impossible to spot. The camera itself had sent its footage across a wi-fi signal to a device attached to the bottom of the dumpster itself, which would in turn broadcast that footage to a receiver far away. 

It had taken some time, almost two hours, to get their tech people to track that signal to its source. Which was almost a miracle in and of itself, because according to the tech guys, the receiver was set up so that whoever was on the other end should have been able to shut it down the second they started tracking it. The thing had sent an alarm that way before they could stop it. Yet, the connection was never turned off. Apparently the person wasn’t paying attention to their alarm for whatever reason. The alarm they had specifically set up to warn them about someone tracking the signal, and yet they weren’t doing anything to stop that very thing? 

Regardless, the tech guys found the source. Which was what led the five Conservator members to this spot out in the middle of nowhere, an hour and a half from Detroit itself. Specifically, a literal cabin in the woods near Lake Victoria. 

They’d driven out here in a van, despite Dynamic insisting she should run ahead. Mostly because she got bored sitting still in a vehicle. Being capable of running hundreds of miles per hour, and having unlimited stamina, Dynamic really didn’t see the point of spending time in vehicles. Not knowing what might be out there, Flea had refused. She wanted everyone together, just in case they were about to walk into something bad. Whoever had gone through the trouble of burning down the warehouse had wanted to be damn sure nothing was ever found of it. And yet, they didn’t bother to shut down the signal from their hidden security camera after it was traced? Something strange was going on, and Flea didn’t trust any of it. Part of her wished Silversmith was here, whatever Dynamic’s reservations.

The cabin itself was a couple of miles up a gravel road once they had passed through a metal security gate. Or what had once been a gate. Something had smashed into it somewhat recently with enough force to slam the thing open permanently. That had led to even more confusion about what was going on here. Was this whole situation some kind of fight between two mysterious parties that no one knew about? Was it possible that the person who burned down the warehouse wasn’t the same person who owned or operated it? That had been discounted by the authorities simply because of how much work and set-up burning that place down so completely would have required. It wasn’t a simple arson fire. Someone would have had to be inside for an extended time, possibly weeks, to ensure everything was set properly for it to be so thoroughly destroyed so quickly. 

Hopefully, they would find some answers inside this small cabin. At least, that was what Flea told herself as the five of them stood together about twenty feet from the porch, eyes carefully scanning for anything out of the ordinary. They had parked the van so that the headlights illuminated the front door, and thus far had seen nothing suspicious. On the other hand, they hadn’t seen anything not suspicious either. They’d seen nothing, heard nothing. The cabin appeared to be empty. Which would go a long way toward explaining why nobody had responded to the alarm the camera had sent when they started tracing the signal, but still. 

“Hey, Flea,” Dynamic called over to her from the far end of their assembled line, “your family’s pretty rich, how many cabins did you grow up with?” 

“Just in the woods like this, or on the beach too?” Flea retorted. “Three and five respectively. Oh, six if you count the villa in Italy. That’s sort of a cabin. A little bit. Anyway, doesn’t really matter. I haven’t been to any of them since… you know.” They all knew. Her father had been angry with Flea (or rather, Irelyn) for choosing to go from the Minority to the Conservators rather than signing up to lead his own corporate security team. So angry, in fact, that he, and the rest of her family, had barely spoken to her since she’d done it almost ten years earlier. There was the occasional hurried e-mail, text, or christmas letter from her mom, and a bit more than that from her younger sister. But for the most part, they followed the family patriarch’s orders to leave the family traitor out in the cold. 

It had been a hard choice, but Irelyn wouldn’t change it if she could. She was overall happier this way, even if it had meant walking away from her family and her easy, privileged life. 

“We doing this?” Bokor finally asked, once the five had taken in the view for long enough. 

“Yeah,” Flea confirmed. “Go for it.” 

With a nod, the man gestured. Immediately, ‘zombie’ duplicates of  the five of them appeared and began to walk toward the cabin. Flea and the others weren’t going to take any chances about this place being booby-trapped, just in case. In fact, they took a few extra steps back closer to the van, and watched as their clone-like selves approached the door.

“And,” Kriegspiel announced, “we’re live.” 

With that, Flea was abruptly able to, with a small bit of focus, see through the eyes of her zombie duplicate rather than through her own. It had been a strange thing to get used to at first, but she had plenty of experience by now. Around her, the others would be linked to their own copies, as Kriegspiel used his power to connect each of them with the zombies that Bokor created. He also linked them with their other selves telepathically, allowing them to send messages. Normally this would simply be communication, but since Bokor had ordered the zombies to obey them, Flea and the others could essentially steer and control their duplicates through that mental connection. It was one example of how well Bokor and Kriegspiel worked together. Now if only the two of them would figure out the feelings they had for each other before she had to strangle them both. While Bokor had been an out-and-proud pansexual man since he was a teenager, Kriegspiel had grown up over a decade earlier and had more problems. He had been self-closeted through twenty years of an unhappy marriage before finally separating, and was only beginning to explore the fact that he was gay. 

The two of them really were great together, in personality and the way they could use their powers, but it wasn’t Flea’s place to point that out. No matter how much she wanted to.  

Instead, she turned her attention back fully to what her duplicate was seeing as they all worked their way through the cabin. Whoever had been living and working out here had something to do with that warehouse. Whether they were responsible for burning it down or not, they clearly knew something. Which meant the Conservators needed to talk to them. 

“Found something,” RePete finally announced, once they had been searching the cabin fruitlessly for about ten minutes. 

It was strange to hear that voice coming from just a couple feet to her left where the real RePete was standing, yet have to walk her zombie duplicate all the way through the cabin to where his was. But soon, Flea and the others had done just that, until all of their duplicate selves were standing together in what turned out to be the bathroom. 

“Couple envelopes fell behind the toilet,” RePete informed them, holding them up. “Whatever was inside is long gone, but we’ve got a name, at least.

“So who exactly is Robert Parson?” 

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