Month: May 2021

Reception 13-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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With one quick little bound, Cerberus was right in front of Avalon, Shiori, and me. Then he–or they, I was still confused about that, started to excitedly lick us. Yeah, all of us at the same time. Three heads, three people to lick. The tongues were as metallic as the rest of them, though there was some kind of lubricating liquid that… yeah, there was fake dog slobber, and it was getting all over us. 

“Oookay, okay, hi!” Pulling my face out of range with a few coughs mixed with a giggle, I put both hands on the side of the head that had chosen to focus on me. “Nice to meet you too, I guess.” Still holding the head while it happily barked so loud at me it was almost painful, I looked toward Persephone. “So he’s your pet, huh? Wait, is it he or they? You know, three heads, one body.” 

Avalon, who had already stepped back away from the head that had been licking her, nodded. Her voice was flat. “What she said. Also, why do you have a three-headed robot dog?” After asking that, she extended her hand and gave the head in front of her a little rub under the chin that made him happy.

Answering Valley first, Persephone chirped, “Why not? Who wouldn’t want to have a three-headed robot dog?” To me, she added, “And he’s he. All three of them are he.” Taking a step that way, she brought her hand down to pat his black metal side a couple times. “One cybernetic brain, three heads. Multitasking.” 

Shiori, who was still giggling and rubbing at the head that was licking her face, turned a bit so she could talk. “He’s really friendly!” 

Smiling slightly at that sight, I turned my attention back to Persephone. “I think what Avalon was asking was where he came from. How did you get him? Who built him, and why? And how did you end up having him instead? Did he belong to Manakel like the myths?” I had more questions than that, of course. But that was a good place to start. Carefully, I reached out and followed Avalon’s lead by rubbing under the chin of the head nearest me. He seemed to like that, just like Vulcan enjoyed having his chin scratched. Both were metal, so I had no idea what they were feeling, if anything.

“Nope! Not exactly.” Shaking her head, Persephone explained, “He was built to kill my Manakel, actually. You know, metal so he couldn’t possess him. Special ghost-killing weapons so he could fight anything Manakel summoned. And–” 

“Wait,” I blurted, “What do you mean, special ghost-killing weapons?” 

“Oh, like this.” With that, Persephone ordered, “Cerberus, ghosthunt!” 

As soon as she said that, all three dog heads bared their teeth and growled. Their fangs lit up with glowing blue-white flames. A moment later, ten different small holes appeared along his back, five on each side. From each of those holes, metal coils emerged with a laser cannon and camera attached. The coils were flexible, able to point in any direction.

“Snakes,” Avalon muttered softly from beside me as we watched the weapons snap from position to position to check for threats. “They said Cerberus had snakes growing out of his back. I guess venomous snakes are easier to explain than cannons attached to tentacles.”

“That’s ghost-fire, isn’t it?” Shiori spoke up, gesturing to the flames billowing around the dog’s mouths. 

“Sorta!” Persephone confirmed. “It’s an artificial recreation his creators made. Does the same thing, lets him bite through spirits and intangible things. And his laser cannons help destroy a lot of zombies really fast.” 

“Because he was made to kill Manakel,” I murmured, shaking my head before pausing. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. “You know who a giant dog that could use three different heads to eat ghosts and rip through zombies with a bunch of independently aimed laser cannons would’ve been super-fucking useful to use against?” After getting a couple emphatic nods from the others, I added, “But who managed to make something like this specifically to target Manakel? And how did he end up switching sides?” 

Andromeda spoke up from my phone. Her voice, now that I had listened to it a little bit, was somewhat clipped and short, yet polite. It sounded almost like someone doing the accent of a proper English woman, but not quite the same. She would pause almost imperceptibly every few words. “That would be my doing, actually. I held no particular affection toward the man myself, but Percy was fond of him. So, I fixed the issue. My ability allows me to control technology. It required a bit of effort and rolled up sleeves, but was well worth it in the end. Cerberus is very loyal to his mistress and her friends. He makes for a quite effective guard. And a not-terrible companion during the times when Percy must be off on her own adventures.”

I still had a lot of questions about, well, all of that. But a different pressing one came to mind as I stared at this three-headed dog, with tentacle laser cannons, that was about as tall at the shoulder as I was. “You said this was his small form? First, how exactly does he have two forms? And second, how big is the other one?”

That time, it was Persephone who answered, sounding excited. “He has two different bodies! The one he’s not using gets transferred inside a dimensional pocket while he shifts into the other one. And the second body is… you know Amaroks?”

Coughing, I confirmed, “We’re familiar, yeah. So, you’re saying he’s as big as—”

“They look like his puppies!” Persephone interrupted. “You have to see him when he’s big. He gives even better licks!” Even as she said that, the white-haired woman was launching herself that way to hug the mechanical canine around the side. One of his heads turned that way to sniff at her, and she giggled. 

Shiori had moved next to me by then and whispered, “Can you picture her spending time with Manakel?”

Before I could respond, Andromeda’s voice emerged once again from my phone. “They were quite the odd couple, that is for certain. But, I do believe that she will be better off around more positive influences.”

“Okay, seriously,” Avalon put in, “Who are you, exactly? You said you have the power to control technology and you were being imprisoned until Persephone saved you? Oh, and Sachael was annoyed about that.”

“He tried to stop it, yes. And he failed. There was some drama around that fact.” Pausing briefly then, Andromeda’s voice took on a quiet tone. “I was locked in a Seosten lab and treated as a science experiment, as you would say, for a long time. I owe my freedom to Percy. As for who I am, I am Andromeda. You would consider me an artificial intelligence, but there is as much magic as technology in my existence.”

That made me do a double-take, staring down at my phone. “You’re an AI?”

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “Yes, of a sort. But, I have been consuming your media about those like me, and I assure you that I have no desire to either build an army of terminator machines, nor put all biological beings into little pods to use as batteries. And if so, I certainly wouldn’t do anything as energy-inefficient as providing elaborate virtual reality simulations.”

“Uhhh, great, I guess.” Unsure of what to say to something like that, I focused on Persephone briefly. “Hey, when you showed up and, uhh, splattered that thing, you fell out of the sky. And there was that whole thing about Cerberus being sent down. So, umm, where did you both come down from, exactly?”

Pivoting on her heel to face me, Persephone brightly answered, “From the pirate ship, of course!”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I managed a weak, “From the pirate ship, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvio—what pirate ship?”

So, Persephone told us about how she had been tracking down a special object for Manakel yet again, and had found it on some pirate spaceship. Then she got the word about his death and commandeered the ship to make them bring her here to Earth, so she could meet me. Apparently, they were still up there somewhere, using an invisibility field to stay hidden. It was the same thing the pirates used to ambush passing ships.

“Oh,” she added, “and we stopped long enough to pick up Cerberus and Andromeda, of course! I couldn’t meet my new wife without my best friend and my puppy!”

I felt like I needed to sit down for a minute, but equally knew that wouldn’t help. So, I pushed on. “What you’re saying is that there is a whole ship full of pirates, wait, space pirates, up there right now? Are you sure nothing’s going to go wrong?”

The answer came from Andromeda. “I am controlling every part of their ship, from its propulsion, to its weapons, doors, life support, and food heating appliances. If they manage to cause trouble anyway, they will have earned it. At the moment, they are sequestered in their quarters or the crew villages they have established, and I have sent an assortment of Earth entertainment videos for them to peruse. That should keep them occupied for the time being.”

Okay, clearly the world wasn’t done sending weird things at me today. Now, all of a sudden, there was a cloaked pirate ship in orbit, full of probably bloodthirsty buccaneers who were being distracted by what amounted to Netflix or YouTube by a friendly Artificial Intelligence, who in turn owed a life-debt to a Revenant-Possessed dead Seosten who thought she was married to me. I just… I couldn’t… I… yeah. Wow. My life had been a lot for a long time, but seriously. Not for the first time, I wondered how I would have handled all the stuff being thrown at me over the past year without the ridiculous stamina boost that I had gotten from the Amarok. It really was one of my most useful powers when you got right down to it. 

Physically shaking all that off, I focused on looking at Cerberus and Persephone. “Okay, we should probably get someone to go up with us to check out this ship and do something about those pirates. I don’t know if they’re good or bad, or if they’re vicious killers or…  yeah, we need to go through them and figure out what to do with all that.” 

Shiori, of course, pumped both fists in the air. “We’re going on another spaceship! I don’t care how much it happens, I’ll never get tired of that! And meeting space pirates? Dude, being around you so much is the best.” With that, she latched on to hug me tightly. 

I returned it and sniffed her hair briefly before glancing over to where Persephone was watching. She didn’t seem jealous or anything, just curious. It actually made me wonder how much open affection she had ever gotten from Manakel. Somehow, he didn’t strike me as the type. But, of course, I could’ve been wrong. After all, I hadn’t exactly seen him in casual situations. 

Finally, using one hand to stroke Shiori’s hair, I announced, “Right, I guess we’re doing that now.

“Let’s see who wants to go tour a pirate spaceship with us.” 

*********

Eventually, the group that ended up going to this pirate ship amounted to myself, Shiori, Avalon, Apollo, Doug, Theia, and Dare. My mother had a thing with some of the Atherby clan people that I didn’t want to interrupt. Not after they’d lost her for so much longer than even I had. 

We were back up on the Starstation by that point, waiting for Persephone and Andromeda (Cerberus had been sent back to the pirate ship already) to talk Dare and Apollo through setting up a transport portal over to the ship. 

Of course, technically, we could have had the thing dock here on the station. It just would have required creating a portal in one of the gigantic docking bays that was large enough for the ship to pass through. But not only would that require a hell of a lot of magical power on short notice, the adults also didn’t want to bring that ship in until they saw for themselves that it was safe. Which meant looking the whole thing over, and going through all of the pirate crew to find out just how bad they really were. 

While waiting for them to work with all that, I had stepped aside and sent a message to Tabbris saying I needed to tell her something important. So, a moment later, I felt her presence. She wasn’t fully recalling, just linking herself to me. Her voice was curious in the back of my mind. Heya, Flick. What’s goi–I left you alone for five minutes and you’re married?!?

Yeah, she had definitely read my surface thoughts. Wincing, I quickly opened up my mind to let her know everything that was actually going on and how exactly it had happened. I take it your mom hasn’t talked to you yet? 

After taking all that in, Tabbris’s voice sounded a bit sheepish. I uhh, I’m working on something secret, with Columbus and Nevada. I guess I’ve been really busy. I’m so–

Don’t you dare apologize, I interrupted. It’s okay. It’s great. It’s fantastic. You’ve got your own things. 

Weeeelll, technically it’s something for you, came the response. It’s a present. And a surprise! You don’t get to know what it is yet! You don’t get to know anything about it yet! I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget I said anything. You have to be surprised. 

With a small, inward smile, I assured her, I promise I will be surprised, whatever it is. And you’re getting help from Columbus and Nevada, huh? Well, color me intrigued. 

She responded with a sort of mental kick. Are you sure you’re going to be okay going to that ship? What if there’s a monster over there? What if the whole thing is a trap? What if there’s a malfunction and it jumps to another universe? Maybe I should tell these guys to wait, and come over.

My head physically shook in the real world, pointless as that was. Tabs, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, really. You do your thing and I’ll see the surprise when it’s done. And once we’re sure the pirate ship is safe, you and I can look it over. And you can meet Persephone in person. 

I can’t believe you didn’t even invite me to be a flower girl at the wedding, Tabbris teased. Or the ring bearer! Wait, Marian should be the ring bearer. The ring foxer. 

Flushing deeply, I gave her a mental swat and reminded her again that I wasn’t actually married. Not that that was going to stop her or anyone else from giving me shit about it until the end of time, of course. The two of us silently talked a little bit more, the other girl making sure I really was doing okay with everything, despite the teasing. Finally, she said that Columbus and Nevada needed her, but made me promise again to let her see the pirate ship and meet Persephone later. And Cerberus. She made it very clear that she wanted to meet Cerberus. 

Then she withdrew from my mind, and I glanced over to see Theia and Persephone looking each other up and down with obvious curiosity. The Seosten girl was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat. I was pretty sure she rarely took it off ever since he told her she could keep it even after she and Pace were separated. The two of them had become pretty good friends over the summer. And apparently that had continued throughout the time that I was gone. 

Still staring intently at Persephone, Theia asked, “You knew Manakel before he was so grumpy?” 

“Oh, he was always a little grumpy,” came the cheerful response. “But he definitely got a lot grumpier in the past couple centuries…” Trailing off thoughtfully, the woman finally added, “He was mad at me for a while at first because I took over this body and he was sad that he couldn’t save her. But then I helped and he liked me a little more. He kept sending me away, but when I was there, he was pretty nice to me. He taught me stuff about medicine and his family. I think he got sad again when I was there too much, because he’d send me away. But he always called me back and let me in when I found him again. I just had to give him some breaks.”

“So hang on,” Doug spoke up, rubbing a hand over the Seattle Mariners cap he was wearing. I was pretty sure it was also enchanted, just like the Rangers hat. “You said Manakel started being nicer to you or whatever for a while, but in the past couple centuries he got mean again?”

Persephone gave a little shrug. “He sent me away a lot more, and he didn’t tell me stories anymore. Before, when I was there and he wasn’t sad, he would tell me about all sorts of things from his past. He liked telling those stories. Or he used to. But in the last couple centuries, he didn’t do that anymore. Even when I was there and he wasn’t sending me away, he barely talked to me. And before, he made reasons for me to go do other things when he got too sad, but then it was more like he was making up excuses. He wasn’t sad, he was… anxious. Like he wanted to do stuff but couldn’t because I was there. Which was silly, because I’d never stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.”

Well, that was curious. And maybe a little suspicious. But then again, it was also possible that he’d just become more short-tempered in his old age and decided he didn’t want to play nice with her anymore.

While I was considering that, Theia gave a slow nod. “My father took me away from my mother’s tests. He said she wouldn’t kill any more of my friends, and that he was going to send me to his friend. He said I could learn a lot from him. But Manakel didn’t really want to teach me very much. He just told me what to do. My father said that Manakel liked to tell lots of stories. But he didn’t tell me stories.”

Yeah, that was definitely a whole complicated thing. Maybe something had been up with Manakel. After all, we did know for a fact that there was an incredibly powerful figure out there corrupting and controlling Seosten. Maybe Godfather had gotten to him? But to what end? I had no idea, and there wasn’t enough evidence to say one way or another. Just because he’d been different over the past couple centuries and didn’t like to share stories anymore wasn’t exactly proof positive. Still, it was something to think about. 

Avalon and I exchanged glances that made it clear we were both thinking the same thing. Then she turned that way to ask Theia, “Your father really said Manakel would teach you? When he said that, was he being nice or subtly menacing?”

Theia, of course, just blinked at her. “I think he was being nice. But then again, subtly menacing was nice compared to Mother’s total revulsion and loathing.”

Sometimes I definitely needed the reminder that I’d had a really good life compared to a lot of people. When I thought of the things someone like Theia had been put through just based on the fact that she was born with a disability, it made me want to bring Kushiel’s ghost back just so she could see how much better her daughter was doing without her. Not to mention taking a detour to show her how much Sariel was enjoying being with her entire family, including the girl she had snuck out of Kushiel’s facility right from under her nose. 

Yeah, there were definitely about a million things wrong with that thought. At least. Still, it came up now and then before I pushed it away. I wasn’t going to reach out for any ghosts of my dead enemies just to gloat at them. I wasn’t quite that dumb.

In this case, I dismissed the thought just in time for Apollo to straighten up from the magic teleport spell he had been drawing on the floor along with Dare. “Right,” he announced, “it should be good now. Who’s ready to go see a pirate ship?”

Straightening up as well, Dare looked at me. Our gazes met, and there was a brief moment of silent communication that made it clear she wanted to talk later when we had a little privacy. Probably about the whole Persephone thing, because she couldn’t exactly give me grandmotherly advice in public without raising more questions than we or the spell wanted to deal with.

After giving her a subtle nod, I turned back to the others. “Well, I’m definitely ready. But I do have a very important question before we go through that portal. 

“Did anyone try to call Blackbeard? Because doing this without him feels like it should be against the law.”

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In Like Flynn 17-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Paige, the real Paige that was, turned to me with an exasperated look. “You can’t seriously think that you can trust her. Come on, Paintball, don’t be naive. She was sent by my dad to erase me, to replace me. Do you really think she’ll just give up on that? She’s like his golden child or whatever. She just wants to get all of us to lower our guards so she can find a way to take over again and prove that she’s worth keeping around. The whole thing is a trick. I bet she’s actually in control of those guys after all, and would’ve made something else happen to stop them from killing her if none of you had. She’s playing games with you, with all of us.” 

Offering her a helpless shrug, I pointed out, “She didn’t have to reveal who she was. She could’ve kept that going. Why switch to a different mind game like that unless they really were trying to kill her? Now we know which one she is and which one you are.” Through that whole bit, I was silently reminding myself that Paige really was the one on my side. Actually, come to think of it, being face to face with two Paiges like this was basically straight out of my nightmares. Or it would’ve been not that long ago. It was still a whole thing, and separating ‘good Paige’ from ‘bad Paige’ was a real mindblower just for ‘good Paige’ existing at all.

Maybe that made it easier for me to accept that this other Paige was possibly telling the truth. If I had to shut down my suspicions of the regular Paige herself so much just to accept that one of them could be on my side, I might as well accept that the other one was telling the truth now.

Beside me, Alloy piped up with, “I mean, it sounds to me like she’s just trying to save her own skin, right? Err, whatever the digital version of that is, I guess. Point is, she doesn’t wanna die, so we can all work together to keep the ‘not dying’ thing going for both of you. Then work from there, right? ” 

From where she was standing next to Mars Bar, Pack put in, “I hate to point out the obvious, but we really don’t have time to bat this back-and-forth. If those guys are trying to reformat this chick’s entire harddrive, we better get there before they do. You can bitch and argue about the rest of the shit later.”

Way was nodding. “She’s right, we don’t have time for any of this. Can you two get us to the core? And how do we stop these guys permanently in the first place?”

Green (Not-Paige) gave a feral smirk. “Control of this place is kind of split between both of us playing tug-of-war. Between that and Dad‘s invasion force, we don’t exactly have a firm grip on anything. But if you help us get to the core and let both of us plug into it, I’m pretty sure we can shut them out. You know, working together.” Even as she said that, the girl was giving a sly look toward her doppelgänger. 

Paige looked like she had a few choice words to say about that, but Way interrupted. “Great, we’ll figure out the rest later. Let’s just do this before we end up losing both of you.”

“Oh good,” Green drawled lazily. “I love working together. We can all be friends who keep each other‘s secrets.” She wasn’t looking at me when she said that, but she really didn’t need to. I knew exactly what she was saying. 

“So, sis,” she added with a humorless smile, “you wanna take the shortcut?” As she asked that, the girl was extending her hand that way. “With all this interference from Daddy‘s invasion, it’s going to take both of us to control a shift like that instead of just randomly jumping from place to place.”

Again, it was obvious that the real Paige had a lot of things she wanted to say. But even as her mouth opened, I saw her head cock a little to the side as though listening to something. Whatever she heard or sensed must have been pretty bad, because her mouth snapped shut and she simply gave a short nod before reaching out to grab her twin’s hand. 

“You all might wanna get close,” Green murmured. “Wouldn’t want to accidentally leave anyone behind.”

Still unsure if we could trust this girl any further than Wren could’ve thrown her without any invention assistance, all of us squeezed in close. I felt a weird heat rippling through the air around us while both identical figures glared at one another. It really looked as though they would just as soon rip each other‘s throats out than work together. But, somehow they restrained themselves. 

The air grew even hotter over the next few seconds, to the point of almost being painful. It never quite got that far, but it was definitely uncomfortable. I briefly wondered if this was actually a trick after all and we were all about to be incinerated. 

But, with a sudden flash of light and an abrupt, dramatic twisting in my stomach, we were suddenly somewhere completely different. Different, and yet also incredibly familiar. 

“Wha—” Alloy was looking around before her gaze centered on the massive structure in front of us. “What happened? Did the mansion just change?”

“It’s a different mansion,” That-A-Way informed her in a voice that sounded just as confused, even if for other reasons. “Haven’t you seen all the billboards and magazine covers?” Turning to face the enormous building that I had been silently staring at the whole time, she quietly noted, “That’s the Evanses’ place.”

Mars Bar made a confused grumbling sound, and Pack nodded. “He’s right, what the fuck is going on? What’s with the grand tour of all the rich people places? What do the Evanses have to do with any of this?” 

It was Green who answered, without even glancing in my direction. “Dad always wanted to be them. Always wanted to be even more successful and powerful. Of course he made our core be the center of their power. Plus, you know, the man wants to cure death. You don’t get as far as he has with that goal without being pretty arrogant. Putting the center of operations in the house that represents a couple of the most successful people in the state? That just makes sense.”

“Wait, I’m sorry,” Alloy managed, “did you just say he wants to cure death?”

“It’s not that simple,” I informed her flatly before turning my attention back to the house. My house, or a simulation of it. This was all getting way too close to home, quite literally. “So, we get in there and get you guys plugged into the core thing, whatever that is. But where are the invaders? Tell me they’re not already inside.” 

Paige shook her head, turning to look down toward the front gate (where I half-expected to see familiar guards patrolling). “We took a shortcut. But they’re coming. They’ll be here any minute.”

Cracking her neck (was that even necessary), Green casually asked, “So who’s going inside to help us get plugged in, and make sure we don’t kill each other? Cuz the rest of you are gonna have to stay out here and make sure those guys don’t interrupt. This could take a few minutes, and something tells me they’ll be hitting this place pretty hard as soon as they figure out what we’re doing.”  

From the look on her face, Paige wanted to argue just for the sake of arguing, but she clearly knew her twin was right. With the faintest nod, she muttered, “They’ll come from that way, but you’ll have to stop them from spreading out. We need someone in the house watching our backs just in case, but most of you should stay out here.” 

Yeah, it wasn’t even a question really, and I didn’t need any further prompting than the very subtle glance she sent to me. Immediately, I announced, “I’ll go in with Paige and…” Trailing off, I looked toward the other girl. “I’ve been calling you Green, but do you–” 

“I was gonna be Roxanne,” she interrupted, sounding thoughtful. “You know, dear old Daddy’s real daughter. But since he’s decided to be a giant fucking jackass and try to erase me just for taking a few extra minutes, maybe I don’t wanna carry on that legacy for him. I’m not Roxanne, and I’m certainly not Paige.” Those words came in a snarl as she looked to the girl in question. “Why don’t you call me something in between. How about… Raige.” A smirk crossed her face briefly. “Yeah. That sounds good.” 

“Are you sure we can’t just call you Edgy McEdgerson?” Alloy piped up, before ducking back with a squeak when the girl in question squinted at her. 

Waving that off, I shook my head. “Whatever. I’ll go in with Paige and Raige. You guys stay here and protect the house. We’ll get this done as soon as we can.” 

That-A-Way looked like she wanted to object, raising a hand. But in the end, she sighed rather than argue. “Just get it done. I’ll save my questions for later.” 

“Yeah, and believe me, there will be questions,” Pack put in, resting a hand against Mars Bar while holding a gun that she had taken off one of the invading troops in the other hand. 

After taking a very brief moment to assure Alloy that she would be fine and all she had to do was stay with the others and watch their backs, I turned to the two identical blondes who were standing several feet away from each other. The tension between them was palpable. It was very clear that the only reason they weren’t actively attacking one another was that they both needed each other to survive. I had no doubt that things were going to get complicated again once the invaders were eliminated. But we would have to deal with that later. One thing at a time. 

To that end, I walked right between them and moved toward the front door. Once there, I sprayed pink paint against the front door in a circle wide enough to put my hand through, then painted one arm purple so I could punch through that pink bit easily. If this place was built to be anything like the real house, kicking the door in wouldn’t have worked. The door in the real world was built to stand up to much worse than that. 

This way, I was able to punch through the little hole and unlock the door from the other side before opening it. Turning back to the other two, I gestured. “After you. So, where’s this core thing? You guys are going to have to help me get through this freaking maze. Wait, tell me they don’t actually have a hedge maze inside the house. Cuz I heard a rumor about that.” 

By that point, we were inside. Using her foot to idly kick the door shut again, Raige snorted with amusement. “Good try at keeping your identity secret, babe. Have you been practicing?” 

“Shut up,” Paige snapped. She took my arm and pulled, keeping herself between me and her twin while starting to stalk through the front foyer, still addressing the other girl. “Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her. You’re the one who wanted to kill her for Dad.” 

“And yet,” Raige pointed out while trailing behind us, “you’re still the one who treated her like shit for years. All that time in school being a bitch to her, making fun of how she looks, taunting her for not being classically beautiful like dear Mommy, or even the ‘guys panting at our poster on the wall’ example of sheer hotness that we are.” In an eager tone, she added, “Gee, I wonder what kind of complicated feelings she has about that whole thing.”  

Growling under my breath despite myself, I snapped, “She can talk for herself. Both of you stop. This seriously isn’t getting us anywhere, and I’m not in the mood to talk about any of it. Not with either of you. So let’s just find that core thing and get you plugged in so we can get on with all of it. Tell me you know where it is, because I think we all know that this place is too big to search room to room.”  

“We know where it is,” Paige informed me, already heading for the stairs. She had let go of my arm, but was still making sure that she stayed between me and her other self. There was definitely very little trust there. After a moment, she added, “It’s in your room. In your closet.” 

Sounding downright chipper, Raige put in, “It’s in the spot where old Paige here was hiding while she watched you get your memory wiped. She thinks if she’d done something different that day, things would have been better. If she’d stopped them from wiping your memory, or gotten you out of there and taken you somewhere… whatever. That’s where so much of her regrets and fears all boil together. So, it’s a natural place for our core.” 

My core,” Paige snapped a bit testily, giving an icy look that way before starting up the stairs at a trot. “And it doesn’t matter why it’s there. We just need to get to it and do this.” 

Halfway to my room, we all heard shouting start outside. Right, the invaders were here. Time to get on with this. We exchanged very brief looks before breaking into a run. Together, the three of us sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs to the right floor,  and continued down the hall to the wing where my room was. As we approached the door, I put purple paint on my foot before lashing out to kick the whole thing in, not waiting to open it. Sure enough, the door flew off, admitting us into a reasonably accurate facsimile of my bedroom… five years earlier. Yeah, the real thing had changed a decent bit in that time, but this version was clearly taken from back then.

Oh, and there was one other pretty major difference. My closet door was open to reveal a glowing silver ball about two feet across with scattered orange and red lights flashing across it. It was just hovering there in mid-air, giving off a low humming noise. 

“Time to plug in,” Raige announced. “And boy, isn’t it weird that we all keep ending up in situations like this? We plug in, turn vulnerable, and have to depend on our little friend Cassidy to protect us.”

Instead of verbally responding, Paige just gave her a shove toward the orb before looking back at me. “Be careful. If they get inside they’ll come straight here. They won’t bother attacking us, they’ll just try to destroy the core itself.”

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I gave a short nod. “I’ll cover you, I promise. Just do what you need to do. And Paige… I know what it’s like to have to work with someone who tried to hurt you so much, no matter why they were doing it.” Meeting her gaze, I added, “Don’t let that get in the way of doing what you need to do for all of us to get through this.”

With that, I moved back to the broken door and peeked out, looking one way down the hall, then the other. I could hear the fighting going on in the distance through a few open windows. God, I wanted to be down there. I wanted to help the others. It felt wrong to just stand here and depend on them to do the bulk of the work out there without me. But I couldn’t abandon these two. If they didn’t finish their work with the core, the fight outside didn’t matter. 

So, hard as it was, I kept my position. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the two identical blonde figures standing with their backs to me, one hand from each on the orb. They were clearly interfacing with it, or whatever the term was. I just hoped it wouldn’t take that long, because from the sounds of things outside, this was a full-scale assault. I heard gunfire, shouting, and a lot of deep roars from Mars Bar. It was clearly getting nasty out there, and it was probably just going to get worse. 

The next few minutes were incredibly tense, to say the least. I kept watching and listening for anyone to breach the house, but they were clearly doing a pretty bang-up job out there, because no one was making it in. For a brief moment, I stupidly let myself think we would actually pull this off without bigger complications. Yeah, I know, how could I be so dumb?

As if to immediately prove me wrong, the sound of shattering glass suddenly filled the air behind me. Whirling that way, I saw a figure leaping through the window to land smoothly on the carpet. 

He wasn’t dressed like a soldier, or anything like that. He was about average height, in his late thirties with dark blond hair and an intense look. There was also something incredibly familiar about him, something right on the tip of my tongue. 

“Sit down,” he snapped in my direction. Abruptly, a series of wires tore their way out of the nearby wall and wrapped around my elbows, ankles, and stomach to yank me back and pin me next to a virtual recreation of my own dresser. I was trapped in an awkward position, with one hand pinned against the nearby wall and the other bent up over my head. And these wires were strong. Painting a purple ninja across my back, I focused on breaking them. But it was going to take a few seconds. 

Before I could get anywhere with that, Way suddenly appeared in the room, having teleported in. She went to grab the man, but he pivoted out of her reach and lashed out with a baton that suddenly appeared in his hand. There was a spark of electricity or something, and she hit the floor with a yelp. Rolling over, she went back to her feet, only to stop short, blurting, “Wha–I can’t use my powers.” 

“Think you can fight me in here?” the man snapped. “Me?! I built this world.” With that, he waved a hand, and several more wires tore their way out of the wall to wrap around That-A-Way and yank her back next to my old bed. 

Eyes widening at that, I managed, “Paige’s dad?” 

“It’s Benjamin Pittman,” he informed both of us, brushing himself off. “Or, well, a reasonable facsimile, anyway. Let’s just say I didn’t leave anything to chance when it came to making sure my child would be brought back into line. Just took the automated code I had running some time to build… me.” He waved a hand to himself. “A virtual version of my own mind. You know what they say, if you want something done right, do it yourself.” With that, he started to turn to where Paige and Raige were. 

“Wait!” Way blurted, clearly trying to buy time for them. “What the hell do you think you’re going to do, erase both of them and then what? You’re going to take over the body? How far do you think you’ll get like that? And seriously, there are so many different levels of fucking creepy in that.” 

“She’s right,” I pointed out, “this whole thing is pointless. Just let them go.” 

The man looked for a moment like he might rise to that bait and argue with us. Unfortunately, he decided against it, simply shaking his head. “You know what? I don’t particularly care what either of you think. You don’t matter. You’re nobody.” 

He was already turning back to where the other two were, taking a step that way while my heart beat its way out of my chest. I was straining at the wires, and had even started painting them pink to snap them more easily. But more appeared to entangle me every time I got free of one. I couldn’t get out of this in time. I couldn’t point my hand toward that guy, not with one arm pinned against the wall and the other bent up over my head. I was as trapped as That-A-Way, both of us struggling uselessly to free ourselves. In a moment, both Paige and her twin were going to be wiped out of existence! I had to do something! I had to–I couldn’t–what could I–

“Wait!” It was my turn to shout that word, though that time the man didn’t even slow down. He was reaching out toward the core. But I wasn’t done. “You think I don’t matter to you?! I do!” 

Without looking my way, the man started to lay his hand against that orb, his voice dismissive. “You’re nobody.” 

Painting as much of my body purple as I could, I tore at the wire holding my arm above my head. It snapped enough to let me grab my helmet. In one motion, I tore it up and off, along with the mask, tossing both of them aside to land at Way’s feet before speaking in my normal voice.

“Was I a nobody when you told Paige to kill me?” 

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Reception 13-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before I could find my voice in response to my girlfriends suddenly showing up like that, Persephone abruptly blurted, “Oh, hello!” Suddenly, she was out from behind me and smiling broadly at the other two while waving with a cheerful, “It’s so good to meet you! I’m Persephone, but my friends call me Percy, and I just know we’re all going to be great friends! You must be Avalon Sinclaire and Shiori Porter, my wonderful sister-wives!” 

Okay seriously, was it possible to choke to death on absolutely nothing? Because I made a valiant effort at doing just that. Eyes widening, I coughed violently while snapping my gaze back and forth between all of them as I tried to sputter a response, for whatever good it would have done.

Shiori was busy sputtering as well, while Valley barely raised an eyebrow, though I could see the slightest hint of a blush cross her face briefly. Her tone was mild as she turned her gaze from Persephone over to me. “Sister-wives, huh? You do realize that that is not going to do anything to help your case when Ruthers says you and your family are running a cult?” 

“Yeah, Flick,” Shiori quickly put in. “I mean, I thought you were teleporting down here, not getting a random stranger to give you a ride.” 

Okay, that one confused me. Blinking a few times, I slowly replied, “We… did teleport down here. What do you mean, a random stranger gave me a ride?” 

With that adorable little lopsided smile that meant she was barely containing herself from outright doubling over laughing, Shiori managed to squeeze out the punchline. “That’s funny, cuz it sure sounds like you’ve been hitchhiking.” 

Yeah, I slapped my own face with both hands, muffling my snickers while shaking my head, playing up the reaction a little bit because I knew even that amused the other girl. She found the myriad of ways people overreacted to her puns almost as fun as the jokes themselves. “Is cruel and unusual punishment really necessary?” Running my hands down my face and taking a deep breath, I shook my head. “Okay, so obviously you guys already know at least part of what’s going on. Haha. Yeah, this is Persephone, and these guys are Avalon and Shiori. Everyone say hi and make sure it’s very very clear that none of us are married. There are no sister-wives.” Before the Revenant next to me could say anything, I quickly added, “Except for very technical magic-based inherited power nuptials that would never hold up in a court of law.”  

If anything, the woman simply smiled even more. “It’s okay, my schnookie-wookums, I won’t let any court say what we do or don’t have. And,” she added, “if anyone tries to hurt the sister…” Trailing off, she looked over at the other two, then amended, “If anyone tries to hurt the sister-girlfriends, I will break them in little pieces and sprinkle the remains across the moon.” 

“You know what?” Avalon noted thoughtfully, “I think I like her. She can stay for awhile.” She turned her attention back to me, slyly adding, “But watching you squirm and freak out is never going to get old. Uh, as long as she drops the whole sister everything part.” 

With a grimace, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, and no schnookie-wookums either, Persephone. We talked about that. Just Flick, okay? I’m Flick, that’s Shiori, and that’s Avalon. We’re good with you sticking around and hanging out, and even getting to know each other. But we’ve got to take it slower, okay? It’s a weird, crazy human thing. We like to know each other’s hobbies and stuff before we jump to the whole marriage situation. Silly, I know, but hey. I do like to hold onto some normal things in this crazy life.”

“She says,” Avalon noted with a slight smirk, “to her two independent girlfriends and the Seosten-Possessed-By-A-Revenant who already wants to be married to her.”  

Coughing at that, I muttered, “Hey, I said some normal things. Can I help it if the world doesn’t cooperate very often?” Abruptly, my eyes widened as what I’d said that in reaction to struck me. “Wait, go back. What I meant to say was that I’m super incredibly lucky to have such wonderful, beautiful, perfect girls to spend time with, and who needs normal? Definitely not me, not when it comes to that. Normal is boring and dumb and filled with people who are not loved ones like you two.” 

Apparently I had suffered enough trying to fumble my way through all that, because Shiori snickered before offering a simple, “You think we could go take a walk and talk about what’s going on?” Belatedly, she added, “I mean, what’s actually going on. And something about… Senny’s dad?” The last bit came in a hopeful tone, making it clear just how much she really wanted her half-sister to find her own father. Hell, that reminded me that Shiori herself still had a father who was missing. As far as I knew, he hadn’t responded to any of Jiao’s attempts to make contact to let him know about their daughter being a Heretic or any of that. That was a whole other thing on its own, considering he was supposed to be the apprentice of one of those Ba Xian/Eight Immortals (the Chinese Heretic version of Crossroads Academy). 

So yeah, no wonder Shiori was invested in helping Asenath find her own father. 

Before I could actually respond, Persephone held up her hand high, like a student in class. “Yes, we did helpful things! The Chief Gardeners are going to help tattle on their other Chief Gardener and find out where he keeps his prisoners.” 

With a shrug, I nodded. “Yeah, that basically sums it up, I guess. But come on, I’ll tell you all the details about it. 

“And I promise not to do any more… hitchhiking on the way.”

*******

Yeah, that was a pretty interesting conversation, to say the least. Especially as Persephone piped in here and there with her own take on everything that had happened. But eventually, I managed to get the full story across and we were all on the same page. And then? Well, then the three of us who had grown up on this world decided to take our strange and easily-excited friend to do something incredibly human. Namely, see a movie. Yeah, we were already here in town and nothing was on fire for once, so we just sent a message back about what we were doing and went to the cinema in the mall, where they were playing an action-comedy thing. That seemed safe enough, all things considered.  

Persephone got the concept easily enough, even if I wasn’t entirely sure if Seosten had anything specifically like theaters. And I knew she didn’t have any experience with that sort of thing as a Revenant. But regardless, she immediately understood how to act in the theater. She stayed mostly quiet, ate popcorn and drank soda when it was offered to her, and enjoyed what was on the screen. At first I had been a little worried about how she would react to any seating arrangement, but she immediately announced that Avalon and Shiori should sit on either side of me, and she would sit next to the latter. It was something about them being ‘first-girls’, which I really didn’t need to think about that hard. 

In any case, going to the movie worked out just fine. Which summed up the movie itself too, ‘just fine.’ It wasn’t anything to write home about or gush over too much, but Persephone sure loved it. As we were walking out of the mostly empty screening room and back out to the main part of the mall, she kept going on and on about every little part of it. It was pretty hilarious all on its own, honestly. Listening to her dramatically reenact every other scene, including the completely normal, not funny or actiony parts, somehow managed to be pretty great. 

While we were standing near the entrance into the theater, a couple younger teenagers came up to ask who Persephone was dressed as. Which belatedly made me remember that she was still clad in the sleeveless version of the skin-tight bodysuit. Which wasn’t exactly normal clothing, to say the least. With her snow-white hair and those clothes (if the suit could be called that), these guys thought she was dressed up as an anime character or something. 

“Hello!” the woman in question promptly greeted. “I am Persephone! I’m a Revenant, but don’t worry, I don’t want to hurt anybody. I just got to this world–well, I was here a really long time ago, but you didn’t have movies then. Or electricity, or cars, or a printing press, or–” 

Quickly, Shiori piped up. “It’s a brand new show, you wouldn’t have heard of it yet. But you will, really soon. We’re just getting pictures for like a uhh, publicity tour or whatever. Come on guys, let’s go see if the photographer’s ready for her!” 

My head bobbed quickly as Avalon and I pulled Persephone by the arms, and I called back to the boys, “Keep your eyes out for it! Great show, it’s gonna be a big deal when it drops!” 

Leaving the boys back there audibly wondering how they were supposed to keep an eye out for a show we hadn’t even told them the title of, the three of us humans quickly guided Persephone with us through the mall. Avalon spoke first. “We need to get her some real clothes that won’t stand out.” She paused before adding, “Not just for the regular world, but up there too. People are already going to be wary about her.” 

Her words were met with an affirmative squeak from her pocket, and I saw Porthos poke his head out to look back the way we’d come, as though checking to make sure the boys weren’t following us.  

“Real clothes?” Persephone echoed, head tilting curiously. “Am I wearing fake ones? They seem real.” She poked at her own stomach as though waiting to see if they would disappear. And that, of course, was a thought that I really didn’t need right then. Or any time. 

Clearing my throat pointedly, I nodded. “Don’t worry, your suit’s real. We just uhh, need to get you clothes like ours, see?” I gestured at myself and the other two. “Clothes that will let you blend in a little more. It’s a good thing, trust me.” 

She, in turn, gave a prompt, “Of course I trust you, belo–Flick.” Giving me a smile as she corrected herself, the woman added, “If you think getting different clothes would be for the best, then that is what we shall do.” 

And with that, she abruptly pivoted and took three steps over to where a woman of about her size was walking past through the mall corridor. “You,” she promptly announced while pointing that way, “give me your clothes. I need them because my Flick wants me to change.” 

While the woman sputtered and stared at her, I quickly lunged that way and put myself in front of Persephone while giving a loud laugh. “Sorry, sorry, it was a joke! I mean it was supposed to be a joke. You know, like from the Terminator? Give me your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle? Haha, she’s just different, no big deal. Sorry, go ahead on your way.” 

Thankfully, the woman didn’t make too big of an issue about it and went on her way, though she gave a wide berth around us. I guess for some reason she thought we were weird. Once she had moved on, I turned back to the white-haired figure who was staring curiously at me. “Dude,” I hissed, “you can’t just take things away from people or demand they give them to you. I meant we’d buy you some clothes.” Raising my hand, gestured to the stores nearby. “See, lots of places to buy clothes. We can buy everything you need to blend in.” Pausing, I turned to look at the other two. “As long as somebody has enough money with them for that or–” 

Snorting, Shiori drawled, “I guess we could buy new clothes for the girl you’re trying to seduce.” 

Of course, that left me red-faced as I stammered about how that totally wasn’t what was going on and that I definitely didn’t want anything like that, while Avalon and Shiori snickered at my expense. This was definitely so much worse than letting the Victors buy pizza. 

Finally, the latter extended something to me, and I belatedly realized it was my wallet. Or a reasonable facsimile, since the last one had been lost when I was with Fossor. “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. Or, you know, your dad does.”

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, “he thought you’d need that at some point. Though I doubt he realized you’d be bumming money off the Eden’s Garden leaders for lunch.”

“Reeeeeally starting to regret telling you guys about that during the movie previews,” I muttered before putting the wallet away. “But thanks. And uhh, I guess we can get those clothes now.” Turning to Persephone, I added, “So, let’s go see what kind of things you like to wear.” 

*********

As it turned out, when left to her own choices and given basically free rein, what Persephone liked to wear made her look like a lumberjack. Okay, an incredibly attractive lumberjack, but still. Yeah, her choices amounted to jeans and flannel shirts. Which wasn’t at all what I would have expected, but I also wasn’t going to object or anything. I was just glad she stopped asking what I wanted her to wear after the first couple stores we made our way through. 

Eventually, she had several similar outfits that she liked and had changed into one of them. The four of us had made our way to the food court by then. Not for actual food, of course. But we did get milkshakes, and sat at a table in the far back of the open room, where nobody was around. Between that and the privacy coin that Shiori activated, we could talk openly about anything. 

“See?” I started with a gesture toward the Revenant figure sitting across from me (who was curiously poking at her strawberry milkshake with a spoon), “You definitely look a lot better like this.” At a pair of amused glances from the other two I quickly amended, “I mean you blend in more. You’ll get along better in public. You–it’s good that–you know what I mean!” 

“Chambers,” Avalon informed me with a very slight smile, “you really need to pull yourself together.” Saying that, she set her cyberform lizard on the table and dumped a handful of little metal bead things down for him to happily chew on.  

“Under the circumstances, I’m doing fine,” I informed her with a sniff, before adding, “How’re you doing, Persephone? How’s the milkshake?” She had chosen strawberry because it was pink. 

She, in turn, lifted the spoon and took a bite before making a cute little gasping noise. “Cold!” 

That raised all sorts of questions in my mind about what she could feel and be affected by, but before I could ask, she quickly took a much larger spoonful and made happy noises around it. Then she raised her hand to point over at where Porthos was enjoying his own snack. A bit of pink ice cream dripped down her chin as the woman asked, “You have an automaton!” 

“They’re called Cyberforms,” Avalon informed her. “And his name is Porthos.” 

“Oh, hello, Porthos!” Leaning down to put her chin on the table so she could see him from up close, the other woman introduced herself. “I’m Persephone! It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Would you like to meet my automaton?” 

That made the three of us humans exchange glances before I carefully asked, “You mean you have one of these things too?” That made me curious, of course. If she hadn’t been on Earth for so long, and Harrison Fredericks had only started making them in the past few decades, then what exactly did she have, and how did it measure up to ours? 

“Oh yes!” Happily nodding as she took another spoonful of her treat, Persephone asked, “He’s very friendly unless you’re mean, or a bad person. Would you like to meet him?” 

Part of me thought this might backfire somehow, but I really was curious. Actually, if she had something like that, where was she keeping it? Just in one of her suit pockets or something? There could be a lot of space in those things thanks to the bigger-on-the-inside tech, but still. 

“Uhh, sure, let’s see your little friend,” I agreed. “Jaq and Gus probably want to meet him too.” With that, I took a moment to produce my own little cyberform mice, who quickly greeted Porthos with a series of back-and-forth chirps and squeaks. He even shared some of his metal beads with them. 

After taking a moment to greet my little buddies, Persephone straightened and offered a bright smile. “Good, they can all play together. He’ll like that.” She put her finger up to her ear then, touching something there. “Andromeda! Could you send my cute little friend down?” 

“Andromeda?” I blinked in confusion. “Who’s Andromeda?” 

“I am Andromeda,” a female voice announced from the direction of my new phone, which I had laid down on the table. “Apologies for co-opting the use of your communication device, but I thought it necessary to speak to the entire group. I am a friend of Persephone, and have been ever since she freed me from Seosten imprisonment. I owe her my freedom and my life several times over. Still, it is sometimes necessary for me to ensure that she does not cause more damage or commotion than she is intending. So, I must ask, should her pet be sent to you in his full form, or his miniature shape?” 

Okay, now I was really curious. After exchanging a look with the other two humans, I carefully replied, “Let’s go with his little form. Actually, why don’t we go outside first? You know, just to be safe.” 

Andromeda, whoever she was, agreed to wait, before we gathered our things and started to head out of the mall. On the way, I asked, “I know Andromeda from the myths and all that. Her mother went on about Andromeda being the most beautiful woman ever and Poseidon had her chained to the rocks as a sacrifice to some monster or something before Perseus saved her.” 

Persephone’s head was bobbing. “Oh yes, Sachael was not happy about me saving her from the Seosten lab where they were experimenting on her. But she was nice to me.” 

“Okay, wait,” Shiori put in. “You saved her, instead of whoever Perseus was?” 

“Me,” Persephone informed her. “I am Persephone and sometimes I am Perseus. I’ve been both.” Lowering her voice, she whispered, “Sometimes I pretend to be someone else. That’s Perseus.” 

“In that case, I have the feeling you’d really get along with Guinevere, Lancelot, Harper, or whatever she’s going by right now,” I murmured while shaking my head in wonder. 

By that point, we had left the mall and made our way out to an open space in the back lot where there weren’t many vehicles. Glancing around to make sure we had privacy, I finally nodded and held my phone up. “Okay, Andromeda. We’re good now, so go ahead and send him down.” 

Right after saying that, a thought abruptly occurred to me. “Hold on,” I mumbled in confusion, “send him down from where exac–” 

As far as I got before there was a sudden flash of bright light. Directly in the middle of our group, a figure began to appear, its form coalescing over the next few seconds. Wait, no, it was three figures. Hold on, no, one figure… wait… wait…

In the end, I realized why it was so confusing. The thing that appeared in front of us was one figure with three heads. Yeah. It was a tall obsidian black canine form, its shoulders slightly higher than mine (and this was its small form?), with three wolf-like heads extending out from broad shoulders. And yes, it–errr, he looked like a robot. A robot dog with three heads that was big enough, even in his ‘small form’ to basically eat any of us for lunch. Actually, given the fact he had a full trio of heads, he probably could’ve eaten all three of us. He was a huge, three-headed robot dog.

“Friends!” Persephone chirped, “meet Cerberus! Cerberus, these are our new friends. Say hello!” 

Staring at the enormous three-headed canine as he–(they?) eagerly wagged their tail and gave a trio of cacophonous barks that echoed across the parking lot, I slowly raised a hand to wave. “You know…

“We really should’ve seen this coming.” 

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Reception 13-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It turned out the Victors did like the pizza. Well, Childs liked it. Fu Hao loved it. Seriously, between all the different kinds the woman tried, she put away the equivalent of two full pizzas all by herself. Even if she did insist on carefully eating all of it with a knife and fork. In a day that was already jam-packed with incredibly surreal things, watching that Asian woman (who looked like she was in her early twenties despite being astronomically older than that) carefully and daintily eat slice after slice after slice of pizza with a pair of gleaming silver utensils was still pretty extraordinary.

The pair of them also asked Persephone a lot of questions throughout the meal. They seemed fascinated by what she was. From context, I knew they had killed Revenants before, but they obviously never actually sat down and talked to one. They seemed surprised that she was capable of holding an intelligent (if somewhat weird) conversation, and kept asking her questions about how Revenants were born or created, what sort of society they had, and more. The answers basically amounted to Persephone having no idea. She cheerfully explained that she had no memory of any others like her. She had always been instinctively aware that they existed, but had no idea about any family structure or society. Her earliest memory was in passing through a sort of alien cemetery searching for a body that ‘smelled right.’ 

Of course, there was no telling yet if her experience was universal, or if she was the equivalent of an orphan left at the side of a road or something. Both Fu Hao and Childs insisted that, while they were on the side of believing that not all Alters were inherently evil, neither they nor anyone they knew of had ever had any encounter with a Revenant that amounted to anything more than psychotic murderous violence. And when my mouth opened, they immediately reiterated that the violence was often started by the Revenant. Heretics were called to the scenes of massacres that the Revenants perpetrated to create a cache of bodies for themselves. As to the question of what they needed a large supply of meatsuits for, the answer always seemed to be ‘so they can keep killing more people.’ It all seemed a bit… circular. They needed to kill people to get more bodies to inhabit, and they needed more bodies to inhabit so they could kill more people. 

Pushing my empty plate away, I squinted. “You mean you’ve never found out what they want? They just kill someone, take over the body, run it down killing more people, take more bodies, and do that until someone stops them? Why? What’s the point? Do they get anything out of it?” 

Childs pointedly replied, “As it happens, you seem to be in a better position to get an answer to that than we’ve ever been. Like we said, never met a Revenant who bothered chatting.” 

Carefully cutting herself another bite of bacon, chicken, and onion pizza, Fu Hao added, “Indeed, I am not certain that you truly comprehend the magnitude of the opportunity for learning and study that has, ahem, fallen out of the sky for you. I hope it is not wasted. But then, if all I have heard of you is true, then I cannot imagine that it would be.”

Naturally, before I could respond to that, Persephone herself happily piped up with, “Oh yes, my wife is quite wonderful, and intelligent, and beautiful. She is–” 

“Okay, okay, that’s enough.” My face was red as I shifted to squint at the white-haired woman. “Just, uhh, well, do you have any idea why the rest of your people are so crazy murderous? And do you know why you’re not? Wait, did you used to be that way before you got that body right there that doesn’t run out? Does it have something to do with searching for the perfect body or something like that? Or did something about the body being a Tartarus-enhanced Seosten like… change you? Except, wait, you said you were drawn to them because you sensed Manakel’s power and you possessed Kore because you thought making her body move again would make him happy. So, you were like, actively trying to please him before you ever possessed her, right? What, uhh, what’s the deal there?” Belatedly, I added, “Sorry, do you mind me asking stuff like that? I mean, I don’t know how, uhh, private or whatever it might be.”  

“Oh, I’d just love to answer all the questions you have!” After that bright, cheerful assurance, Persephone’s head tilted sideways. Seriously, her cheek was touching her shoulder. It was like those overly exaggerated body expression things in anime or whatever. “But I dunno that much. It’s like I said, I don’t know anything about other Revenants, and I’ve never talked to any. I just woke up by myself in the graveyard looking for a body so I could stretch. I never really felt like killing a lot of things though, even when I was in other bodies. I liked to run around. I liked to jump, jumping’s really fun! Oh, and swimming. It took me a long time to figure out swimming. Especially when people kept interrupting me with the screaming and the fire. I had to find quiet places to practice, but it’s hard to find dead bodies that aren’t near places with a lot of people that get mad when you borrow them. Oh, maybe you could ask one of the creators.” 

I had been blankly nodding through all of that while struggling not to focus on the adorable and horrifying (adorifying was the word, right?) imagery of a young Persephone possessing various corpses and trying to learn how to swim before angry villagers attacked her. Which meant that it took a moment for the last thing she’d said to really hit me. With a quick glance toward the Victors, whose intense gazes made it clear that they too had picked up on it, I hesitantly asked, “Uhh, what exactly do you mean, ‘ask one of the creators?’” 

Her response was as simple as it was confusing. “Oh, you know, ask one of the beings who created me.” 

Childs apparently couldn’t contain himself, and immediately pointed out, “You said you didn’t know who your parents were, or even how your people reproduce. And you also said that you don’t know anything about your society, so how would you know about any religious belief?” 

With a giggle, Persephone replied, “I don’t know anything about my people. But I know who made me. I don’t know why, or how, or what makes the rest of my people do the things they do, or why I don’t, or anything like that. But I know who created us. Revenants us, not you and me us. I mean, I don’t think they created humans. I just… know. I’ve always known, right here.” Her hand indicated her stomach. “Deep inside. I know where I come from. Nothing else, just who our creators were.” 

After letting that run through my head for a moment, I took a breath and nodded. “Maybe some kind of genetic memory or something? Anyway, I’ll bite. Who created the Revenants? Anyone we know about? And I swear to everything that calls itself a god, if you say the Fomorians…” 

Looking positively delighted that she could answer one of my questions, the woman promptly replied, “Nope, not Fomorians! But you do know them. In fact, you’re already connected to them!” She spread her arms wide while brightly announcing, “You call them Reapers!” 

Yeah, it was a good thing I had finished eating already, or I probably would have choked on pizza. My eyes widened as I stared at her in confusion. “Wait, what? You mean Reapers created Revenants? But–” Glancing toward the Victors, I managed a stammered, “I sort of got the impression from talking to others over the summer that Reapers don’t exactly like necromancy, or anything connected to it. I mean, I know it’s not the same when you take over a body, but I didn’t know if they’d see it that way, or–I mean…” Realizing my rambling wasn’t getting anywhere, I gave a quick headshake. “You’re serious?” 

“No, silly,” she immediately shot back, “I’m Persephone, we already met!” With that, she doubled over laughing at her own joke before giving a rapid nod. “But yes! Those are the creators. They made us a long, long, long time ago. I dunno what they wanted us for, or why they don’t have anything to do with us anymore, or… anything else. Just that the Reapers created us. So uhh, whatever the rest of my people are doing is probably because they were told to.” 

Following that, my eyes caught movement as the two Victors both slumped back in their seats. Childs was staring not at Persephone, but me. “Well, I’ll be damned. You truly do find yourself tripping over the answers to a staggering number of old questions, Miss Chambers.” 

“Yeah,” I muttered, “and as always, those answers lead to more questions. Not to mention danger, violence, usually explosions and fire, and plenty of screaming.” 

Fu Hao was speaking thoughtfully, mostly to herself. “If it is true that the Revenants were created by the Reapers so long ago, it was likely their more… violence-oriented selves. Though long before any of our times, the Reapers were once all far closer to their so-called Hangmen versions than what we know now. They were a true scourge upon the universe, and committed truly heinous and abominable acts. It is quite possible that they created the Revenants as foot soldiers, and that the way they behave now is a result of following their creation-level instructions. They are, in short, doing what they were created to do in the first place.” 

“But the Reapers aren’t like that now,” I pointed out. “I mean, most of them aren’t. Unless they–never mind. The point is, why haven’t the umm, not-omnicidal Reapers hit the off switch or whatever? Why haven’t they stopped them, if the Revenants are their weapon?”  

“That’s a good question,” Childs agreed. “A few thoughts come to mind, but most of ‘em aren’t very good. I think the bigger point here is… what makes this one different?” Picking up the bottle of whiskey he had pulled from somewhere, the man used it to indicate the nearby Revenant. “She’s ahh, not like any of the others we’ve ever seen.”  

As though to prove that point, Persephone was currently leaning back on the table she had been sitting on, to the point of almost laying down entirely. She had two very different pizza slices, one in each hand, and was holding them above her face so that the slowly dripping cheese made it to her open mouth. Every couple of seconds, she would make a loud, exaggerated chomping sound as she took a bite from one of the slices. Then what sounded like a happy purr would emerge before she took a bite of the opposite slice and repeated it. 

“Uh, Persephone?” I somewhat awkwardly managed after watching that for a moment. “I know you said you don’t know why you’re different from the rest of your kind. You’ve never really interacted with them. But, it also took you a minute to bring up the whole Reaper connection. And I get that, it’s because you assumed we knew already, or whatever. But can you… umm, can you think of anything else that might be related to why you’re different? Even if you assumed it was something we already knew. If we haven’t outright, expressly talked about it right here, I mean. Anything at all, no matter how obvious it seems to you.” 

From the corner of my eye while the Revenant considered that, I noticed Fu Hao giving a slight, approving nod. Apparently I’d asked the right question. 

Meanwhile, Persephone tilted her head from one side to the other before sitting up straight. She shoved what remained of the pizza slice crusts into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing it all before finally announcing, “Well, you know the one who created me. I can smell him on you. On all of you.” Her gaze moved to look at the two Victors. “You’re all connected to him. Could you tell me what he’s like? I always wondered, and I thought I’d be able to ask him when dearest beloved Mannikens asked all those questions before about finding him. But then I never got to talk to him, even though I helped find him before. My sweetest cupcake said it was too dangerous.” She sighed, not in annoyance but almost dreamily. “Isn’t it sweet, how much he cared about what happened to me? Even worried I’d get hurt if I met my creator.” 

Okay, that was a lot to process. Which was obviously the motto of this day. Before I could actually respond to that, Childs grunted. “The Reaper connected to the… huh. Well, I’d say that explains a lot, but not really. ‘Cept for how they targeted the thing in the first place, I suppose.” 

“Him,” I immediately corrected, thinking of how Aylen and Bastet would react to that. And my mother, come to think of it. “Not ‘the thing,’ him. But yeah, I guess they used her connection to find him and…” Trailing off, I grimaced. Boy was all that complicated. It was obvious that Persephone hadn’t intended to help lock up her creator and have him put in the position he’d been in for centuries. Manakel had used her. He’d–yeah. And I wasn’t sure how much of that I should point out, or how soon. She still called him her beloved, even if it was all connected to his power, which I now had so she wasn’t mad at me for killing him, yet she still referred to– ugh. Complicated. The whole thing was really complicated, and I couldn’t focus on that now. 

Of course, Persephone simply asked, “Is anything wrong, sweetest frosting on the cake of my new life?” 

Feeling my cheeks burn with embarrassment, I shook my head. “I’m not–I mean that’s–never mind. Just… yeah, I’ll talk to my mom about… your creator. She might have some thoughts.” 

The silence after that stretched on for a moment before Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Well, you’ve certainly given us plenty to think about. And a pleasant meal in the process. This pizza was very… delightful, Miss Chambers. And to you, Miss… Persephone, I would simply like to say thank you for the information you’ve volunteered. As has been well-established now, you are very different than the rest of your kind, and I believe we would all be delighted to hear more from you at some point.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Once everything has had a chance to settle in, of course. But, for the moment, I believe we should take the time to process all of this.” 

Childs nodded once. “And like we said, we’ll look into our old colleague, see if we can figure out where he might be keeping this Tiras guy. That’s gonna take a while. You know, if we don’t want Shamon to hear about it. Gotta be subtle and careful, so he doesn’t just move the guy.” 

“Yes,” Fu Hao agreed. “But we will do what we can, you have our word on that. Let this Asenath know that we will pay her back for everything she has done and risked to bring us to this point. It may take a few weeks to get any real results, but we will not forget. In the meantime, perhaps use this opportunity to do what it seems you have not managed in quite some time. Relax. Enjoy time with your family and your friends.” Pausing then, she looked toward Persephone before adding, “Both old and new. Embrace these breaks when they come, Miss Chambers.” 

After that, the two absurdly powerful and old Heretics excused themselves, wishing me luck while giving meaningful glances toward my new… companion. Rather than simply walking out of the room, they both literally vanished from where they were sitting. One second they were sitting at the table, and in the next, there was no sign of them. 

Which, of course, left me sitting there with Persephone. She was looking at me curiously, already slipping down off the table before popping up onto her tiptoes. “Did I do good?” 

“You, umm…” I nodded, rising to my feet. “Thanks, Persephone. I know this is all probably pretty different and new for you too. And that the way we react to things is just as confusing to you as you can be to us. I get that you’re trying, and that you think about things differently than we do. So thanks for that. And for being patient about all this.” Pausing, I added with a cough, “Oh, and thanks for not being a murderous revenge-obsessed monster trying to kill me.” 

“You’re welcome!” the Revenant chirped happily. “I’m glad I’m not a murder-monster too. But I wish I could tell you more about why. Like I said, I’ve just always been this w–oooh.” She practically dove over to the other table, having spotted one last slice of pizza with garlic, sausage, and green peppers lying in a corner of the otherwise empty box.

Watching her devour that, I half-smiled before blinking as something she had already said tickled my brain. Considering for a moment while gazing off into the distance, I finally looked back to her. “Hey, actually, I do have a question. The umm, the Seosten you took over was named Kore. And you said you never interacted with your own people. Plus, I doubt all the people who thought you were a monster took the time to name you. So where did ‘Persephone’ come from? Was that just what the Seosten decided to call you once you were on the Olympus?”

She, however, shook her head while correcting me. “Actually, it is what the people who saw me used to call me. It means ‘bringer of death.’” She said that perfectly cheerfully, before her hand snapped out to grab a piece of bacon from a nearby pizza box so she could pop it into her mouth, offering me a bright smile. “See, remember how I said that it was hard to find bodies I could use that weren’t around a lot of people? Most of the ones I found were either living all by themselves and didn’t have anyone to check on them when they died, or they were murdered by someone and the bodies were hidden. When people saw me control the bodies of the ones who were murdered, they thought I killed them. Same for the ones who didn’t have anyone to check on them to find out they were sick, or depressed, or had an accident. They didn’t know why the people died, so they thought I did it. That’s why they started calling me Persephone. Bringer of Death.” 

Once she finished explaining all that, I bit my lip and tried to think of what that was like from her point of view as well as from the point of view of all those people who had apparently seen her puppeting the corpses of people they cared about, even if she didn’t really understand what was wrong with that. Finally, I asked, “I don’t want to sound doubtful or… or anything, but you’re not actually saying you never killed people back before you were in Kore, right? I mean, I know you’re different from the rest of your people, but–”

“Oh, no.” Her head shook quickly. “I defended myself. If they tried to kill me, I fought back. Not just to wound them. I killed them, so they’d stop trying to kill me. I got really angry sometimes. But I don’t like to be angry. It makes my insides feel funny when I’m angry.” 

There was probably a lot more we could have gotten into with all that, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I turned and started to walk. “Well, come on. We should probably get back and see what’s going on with the others. And…” Grimacing, I murmured, “And I can explain just who you are and what you’re doing here. Not to mention all this stuff about Bob. And if you’re really connected to him–err, the Reaper, I’ve got someone you should meet. It’ll probably be a whole–” 

By that point, we’d reached the exit and stepped out of the restaurant. As I did so, with Persephone happily trotting behind me, we both stopped at the sight of two figures a few yards away. They were both standing there on the curb next to the parking lot, clearly patiently waiting for us to emerge. Once we did, their gazes swept over us, lingering on Persephone before returning to me. 

“Hiya, Flick!” Shiori called, giving me a wave. 

“Yes,” Avalon agreed, “hey there, Chambers.

“So, anything new going on with you?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Right, so I had two main issues to deal with right now. First, we had to figure out which Paige was the real one. Which was bound to be all sorts of fun, because that sort of thing was always such a blast in the movies. And second, I had to figure out how I was going to stop the fake one from blurting out all my secrets the second we knew who she was. It might look suspicious if I just kept putting black paint on her to make her stop talking. If she was just a virus program that copied Paige’s form, we could delete her or something, right? Wait, would that be like killing? If Paige was a real person, what about a program that copied her? Was–what were we supposed t–yeah. That raised a whole new giant and incredibly complicated mess of questions. 

Apparently everyone else was just as confused as me, because no one said anything for a few long, incredibly tense seconds following Pack asking how we were going to figure out who was who. We all just stood there, gazes snapping back and forth between one another. I could practically hear the dramatic, tension-filled music in the background. 

Finally, it was, well, one of the Paiges who broke the silence. “How did you all get in here?” Her voice was brittle, like she was right on the edge of really freaking out. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing if that was because she was the real Paige who had been forced to fight for her life for several days, or the fake one who was about to have her chance to kill and replace the real one taken away from her. Too bad my powers didn’t include some kind of truth-forcing paint. 

“It’s a Matrix thing, or a Tron thing,” Way replied before I could speak up. “Whatever. Tech girl linked us into your computer and sent us in here to help you. They… they said you sent a message asking for help. Or the real one did, whoever you are.” 

Of course, both identical girls immediately declared that they were the real one. Unsurprisingly, there was no way to tell which of them was lying. This whole thing was going to be just as complicated as I’d thought. I had spent the past couple minutes frantically trying to think of how to deal with this, but had come up utterly blank. 

Also, we were all still standing partway in water. I was up to my knees, while the others were only up to their shins or so. Because on top of everything else, I was still really freaking short. 

While I was still focused on that (the identifying the right Paige thing, not the being short and standing in water thing), one of the ‘twins’ turned her attention toward Peyton. “Who the hell is that? If she’s someone new, my father could have–” 

“She’s not from your father. Or Paige’s father, whatever.” My head shook. “Trust me, it’s a long story, but she has nothing to do with your dad.” 

“Uh, hi!” Peyton herself piped up. “My name’s Alloy. I enjoy old movies, racing simulators, and listening to people talking about me like I’m not here. So, you know, feel free to continue.” 

Way spoke, her voice tense as she glanced around. “Whatever we’re doing, we need to do it now. Before more of those security things show up. I don’t feel like going through round three.” 

“They won’t bother you here,” one of the Paiges informed us. “As long as you’re with me–” 

The other Paige quickly interrupted. “As long as you’re with me, the security drones won’t attack.” Her eyes narrowed pointedly toward her identical duplicate. “Which gives us time to deal with this.” 

Like people watching a tennis match, our eyes bounced back to the previous Paige as she glowered while retorting, “You’re the one who’s going to be dealt with. Dad thought he could use you to replace me? Well, he’s wrong. Dad’s staying right there on that fucking prison island where he belongs. He’s a fucking psychopath who deserves to be right there on Breakwater forever.” 

In the background, I heard Alloy make a noise in the back of her throat. But she didn’t say anything. Instead, the girl gestured and a couple of her marbles transformed into a flat surface about as long and wide as a surfboard, with a narrow set of stairs leading up to it. She climbed out of the water, shaking her legs out before folding her arms. “Can we please go back to solid ground while we figure out which one of these is Dark Samus? I don’t know whose idea it was to make this place so realistic it even smells like a dirty old lake, but they did a fantastic job. I hate it.”

Slowly, we all made our way out of the water. Mars Bar brought up the rear, keeping wary eyes on the two identical figures who were pointedly glaring at one another. It was clear that they were half a second and a single word away from lunging at each other’s throats again. They’d been fighting in here for days, and while both were obviously some form of exhausted (if you could even get exhausted in this particular situation), I didn’t think either of them would hesitate to go right back to trying to drown one another. And I was still confused as to how that worked. 

Once we were back on dry land, That-A-Way pivoted to face the two duplicates. “Okay!” she announced, “Let’s figure this out right now. Look, one of you is the real Paige, and the other one is being used by… by your father to try to kill the first just so he can put you back under his control. Whichever of you is the copy, is that really something you want? Do you want to be some kind of slave under that psychopath’s control? Does that sound like fun?”

Folding her arms pointedly, Pack added, “Yeah. For one thing, what do you think he’s going to do with a second version of you annoying him or wanting to do your own thing? Even if you succeed at this and take over this chick, what makes you think this guy won’t have a third version of you ready to pop in anytime you so much as have a different opinion? Do you really think he’ll go through all this to make a copy he can use to take over now, and then politely hash things out the next time? You’re willing to be his lapdog right now, but what’s going to happen the second you want to do something else? Or do you really think you’ll be satisfied taking marching orders from some crazy guy on an island? Oh, right, he probably wants you to help him get off that island, huh? Do you think you’ll survive something like that?” 

From where I was standing, I quickly put in, “Do you think he cares if you survive it?” 

One of the Paiges spoke up tensely. “Believe me, I spent the past few days trying to tell her that. She won’t listen. She thinks my dad is going to make her the real Roxanne, as if he’d let anyone be her. As if he’s even capable of caring about one of us like that.” 

Before any of us could say anything to that, the other Paige snarled, “No, I tried to tell you that. Because I’m Paige, and you’re the duplicate. They’re going to figure that out, and as soon as they do, you’re–” 

“Hold it!” I finally managed to cut in, my gaze snapping back and forth between them. “Who the hell is Roxanne? What is–what’s–what?” Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a coherent series of questions, but hey, could you blame me? This whole thing was completely crazy. I was just glad I’d somehow managed to sound even that clear with the way this whole situation was going. 

“Yeah…” Way sounded pretty confused too, frowning as she echoed, “who is Roxanne?”

Unfortunately, before either Paige could answer, everything around us suddenly shimmered and changed. We weren’t standing at the edge of a pond near the farmhouse anymore. Instead, we were all on a perfectly maintained grassy lawn next to a fountain. Straight ahead of me, I could see an intricate flower garden that looked similar to those at my own home. Actually, all of this looked similar to my own home. The grass, the fountain, the flowers, all of it could’ve been in my own backyard. 

Of course, that particular thought made me gasp as my head snapped to the side to look toward the building in the distance that I’d caught a glimpse of out of the corner of my eye. I expected to see my own house looming over all of us. But while there was a great looming mansion, it wasn’t my family’s. And it wasn’t some pseudo-replica either. It looked very different. Smaller, for one. And it wasn’t Paige’s adopted family’s place either. It didn’t look similar enough to either of those, aside from the fact that it was a mansion. And yet, there was still something deeply familiar about the place. Staring at it, a sense of warm familiarity filled me. But also a feeling of deep, horrible dread. There was something very bad about this place, and I really didn’t want to be here. An animalistic, instinctive part of me wanted to run away right then. It wanted me to get away as fast as possible, not caring about anyone else who was here. I just wanted to leave. Seeing that house made me instinctively whimper just a little under my breath before I even realized what I was doing. In the end, it was all I could do to stay right there where I was, planting my feet firmly. I didn’t care how afraid this house made me. I wasn’t running away. 

Belatedly, I realized what this place was. This was Anthony Tate’s house, right? It had to be. That was the only thing that made sense. The memories of being Anthony’s friend, and of what had eventually happened to him and his family, had been erased from my mind. But some part of me still remembered, still reacted to seeing this house. Which made me wonder just how bad my reaction here would have been if I actually remembered everything about all that. 

Alloy was the first to find her voice as she turned in a circle, marbles floating around her head, “Okay, first we’re in some super-elite private school for wealthy spawn, then on a farm, and now we’re standing in front of some rich guy’s fucking house? What the hell is going on? Why did everything change this time? Why are we here now? Who the hell decided to flip this switch?” 

“She did.” The answer came in a chorus from both Paiges, each of them glowering at the other. Though they had to do that peering over the head and shoulders of Mars Bar, who had lumbered up on all fours to put himself between them while we were distracted. Clearly, he took the job he’d been given to guard them very seriously. When we got out of here, I was going to give both him and Riddles (who was still soaring overhead playing lookout) all the treats Pack would allow. 

“Look, it was her,” one of the Paiges insisted. “She’s playing games, controlling things in here.” 

“We both control this place,” the other Paige snapped. “And I didn’t change the scene.” 

Looking from one Paige to the oth–okay I was just going to think of them as One and–no, if I thought of them as One and Two, It would influence which one I saw as the original. I had to think of them by completely even names. So, I raised both hands, shooting a burst of green paint onto one and a burst of blue paint onto the other. The paint covered the front of both of their shirts in a large blotch as I announced, “Okay, for now, we call you Green and you Blue.” 

“Great,” Way announced, “Would either Green or Blue like to say anything that could give us an idea of which one is the real one so we can get out of here? Seriously, whichever one of you is… not Paige, the guy you’re so intent on working for obviously isn’t going to be that loyal to you. Look what he’s doing to his own daughter. Do you really think he cares about you?” 

I was watching the two carefully, trying to pinpoint when one of them looked as though she might want to argue about that. The real Paige hated her father. So, the second one of them looked as though she might want to defend him, that was the fa… wait. Hold on a minute. 

Half-expecting a light bulb to have literally popped to life above my head (hey you never knew in a place like this), I started to blurt, “Hang on, I think we’re going about this the wrong way. If–” 

Unfortunately, that was as far as I got before my words were interrupted by the loud and piercing sound of Riddles shrieking from up in the sky. Which was followed immediately by gunfire from far off on the distant side of the ground, behind a building next to a tennis court. It wasn’t aimed at us, but rather, at the lizard-eagle herself. As bullets filled the air, she took a screaming, dangerously steep and fast dive toward the ground to escape it, only for that scream to turn into a pained cry as one of the bullets clipped her wing before she could get out of sight, causing her to start spiraling uncontrollably.

“Riddles!” Pack screamed, sounding horrified and panicked. I didn’t blame her for not remembering in that instant that even if any of us, including the lizards, were killed in here, it wouldn’t translate to the outside world. With that cry, she was already starting to sprint to the spot where the crumpled figure was plummeting. 

That-A-Way, however, was faster with her teleportation. She vanished from where she was standing, appeared in the air to catch Riddles and tuck the bird-lizard against her chest, then teleported a few feet further ahead and back to the ground. Then she turned back the other way just in time for Pack to get there and take her little friend into her own arms. 

One sort-of crisis averted for the moment. That still left the main problem, which was the fact that the sources of Riddles being shot were coming into view from around the sides of that building by the tennis court. Namely, a whole bunch of very nasty-looking bad guys in what appeared to be military uniforms. They were carrying assault rifles and other weapons, and really did not look as though they had any interest in blending into the actual scene that they were supposed to be a part of anymore. They looked more like they should have been storming the streets of Rome back when the Fell-Touched Ambit and Giufà had teamed up with their own private armies to take the whole city over for a few days about ten years back. Raising that kind of army was a pretty simple thing to do when your powers involved everyone believing that no matter where you were or what you were saying, you belonged there and knew what you were talking about in the case of Ambit. Or, in Giufà’s case, forcing everyone to think that anything you did, no matter how horrible, was funny. Even if you were the person he was torturing to death. 

The point was, the soldiers running toward us could have been part of the assortment of troops who had been sent in to deal with the army those guys had put together back then. They were heavily armed, and clearly weren’t interested in stopping to ask any questions. The second they saw Pack and That-A-Way when coming around the building, all twenty or so of them immediately took aim and started to fire. I was already shouting a warning (joined by Mars Bar, who was still obediently guarding Blue and Green but issued a pants-wetting roar to join my shout). In the midst of that, I raised both hands to shoot orange paint that way. But, just like before, my aim went wide, missing entirely. Which was just fucking fantastic.

Fortunately, Way had already reacted by turning to the east while yanking Pack close. That direction triggered her invulnerability, and the thick hail of bullets ricocheted off them. For the moment, they were safe. But those guys were still sprinting toward them, and Pack had an injured lizard-bird in her arms.

I was about to launch myself that way, mouth open to blurt for Alloy to watch the two Paiges with Mars Bar. But before I could, even as I formed the blue paint beneath my feet, the girl was already shouting a warning at me. A warning about something else besides the small army of guys with guns charging around the tennis court. Namely, the small army of guys with guns charging out of the nearby mansion. Yeah, because obviously we weren’t dealing with enough problems as it was, there were a dozen or so well-armed soldiers coming right out of that building too. And they were already taking aim at us. 

“Alloy!” I blurted while lunging forward. Painting orange over myself for protection, I leapt over the low wall that the other girl turned her marbles into. The wall was semicircular and shielded herself as well as the two Paiges. And Mars Bar, who dropped down a bit on his haunches to be behind it while the deafening sound of bullets rebounding off that joined the sound of bullets rebounding off of Pack and That-A-Way in the distance. 

Landing on my feet while bullets collided with my orange-painted body in a way that I knew would have left me sore and bruised if any of this had been real, I quickly sprayed as wide of a burst of blue paint as I could from one hand, and an equally wide burst of red paint from the other. As soon as I had covered as many of the troops as I could, I activated all of it at once. Instantly, they were all yanked toward each other by the red paint, slammed together, repelled by the blue paint out several feet, yanked back in again by red paint, then slammed apart, and so on. It was complete chaos for a few seconds. Which would’ve been great. Unfortunately, it didn’t solve the problem. Mostly because there were still more troops coming from around and out of the building, who looked fresh, armed, and pretty pissed off. 

Suffice to say, we were all doing just great. This really was just the perfect situation. Pack and That-A-Way were trapped on the far side of the yard, pinned down by the rapidly approaching troops from that direction. Meanwhile, I had Alloy, Mars Bar, and both the version of Paige who had bullied and insulted me for years but didn’t want me to die, and the version of Paige I had literally just met but did want me to die. I could hear Alloy herself demanding to know which of them had summoned the armed troops, but they both sounded genuinely confused while shouting back that this shouldn’t be happening. 

Were they both telling the truth? Was this neither of them? I had to consider that, and how to approach actually talking to not only the real Paige, but the other one too. Because that was the thing I had figured out moments earlier and had been about to say before this sudden interruption. If we were going to get through this without everything getting screwed up, I couldn’t think of the two girls here as one being Paige as the other being some virus that just had to be erased. If Paige herself was considered a real person as a thinking, conscious human mind inside a computer, then the mind that had been put in here with her could be one too. Yeah, she did what her creator/father told her to. But what other choice did she have? What other choice had we actually presented to her, besides pointing out that her father would kill her as easily as he did Paige? As far as she knew, we were simply going to delete her the first chance we got anyway. So yeah, maybe she knew that she couldn’t trust the man in the long run. But at least if she sided with him, it would give her time to think of something to deal with anything else he did when the time came. 

So, all I had to do was help beat all these guys here, help Pack and That-A-Way deal with their guys, keep both Paiges under control, survive without being killed so I wouldn’t have to start this entire thing over again, and then convince the newer version of Paige that we could figure out some alternative so that neither of them had to die. Oh, and convince her that I was more trustworthy than their father. And I had to do all of that without letting her expose my real identity. Well, I thought as the approaching troops came sprinting toward me while raising their weapons to take aim, I sure hope I don’t get bored in here.

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Reception 13-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once I briefly explained the situation, both of the Victors agreed to talk to me in private for a few minutes. Or rather, they agreed to talk to us. Yeah, Persephone wanted to come along. I felt a little awkward about that, naturally. But she had been a really good sport through the whole putting a binding spell on her thing, and I didn’t want to push it too much. Besides, I really did need to get to know her if I was going to figure out how to deal with this whole thing. And with the spell making certain that if she did betray us, there’d be immediate consequences, there really wasn’t a good reason to tell her no. After all, being allowed to spend time with me was the reason she’d agreed to have the spell put on her to begin with. I’d look pretty bad if I didn’t keep up my end of that bargain, even if it was awkward. Not to mention, I needed to get to know her as much as she wanted to know me. Not because I had any interest in this whole wife business, but because if she was going to be around, I needed to know more about her. 

So, strange as it felt, I agreed to have the woman come along. Mom looked a bit hesitant too, but didn’t object. She did, however, turn toward Sariel and Mercury as soon as the Victors started leading me to the door. I had the feeling she was about to demand a very in-depth explanation on absolutely everything they knew about my new… whatever Persephone was. 

We didn’t go too far after leaving the room. Fu Hao and Jack Childs simply led the two of us over to the restaurant attached to the motel, asking if we wanted something to eat. 

“Is there Earth Pizza?” the white-haired figure trotting along slightly behind me immediately piped up. “I have heard many wonderful things about it, and would like that to be the first meal I enjoy on this planet with my sweet darling.” 

Wincing inwardly, I turned, walking backwards as I faced the woman. “Look, it’s just Flick, okay? Flick is fine. You don’t need to call me darling, or wife, or beloved, or–yeah, any of that. The point is, we barely know each other. I’m not Manakel. You were married to Manakel, not me. I’m still figuring out who you are, and you’re definitely still figuring out who I am. So let’s just stick with names. It’ll be… less awkward, somewhat. Could you do that for me, please?” 

With a bright, cheerful smile that somehow reminded me of a puppy despite really having no similarities, Persephone eagerly nodded. “Of course, Flick! It will be very nice to get to know my…” She seemed to consider her words before ending with a simple, “My Flick.” 

Yeah, somehow even that was enough to make my face turn pink. My mouth opened to say I wasn’t exactly her Flick, but by that point we’d reached the restaurant, the doors opening to admit the four of us. 

The dining room was almost empty, save for a couple scattered groups at different tables spread out pretty far apart. They all looked up as we entered, but just as quickly turned back to their own conversations and studiously ignored us. It was clear that none of them wanted to look as though they were eavesdropping on a couple Victors, as if that was even possible. 

Fu Hao spoke as we all moved together toward the back corner of the room. “We have been attempting to expand our palette beyond what we had grown accustomed to in the Garden. I too have heard fine things about this so-called pizza. The concept intrigues me. How shall we have it brought? 

After a brief moment, I realized that all three of them were looking at me. Both Victors and the Revenant were staring, waiting for me to answer. Because, of course, I was the only one there with that kind of experience. I was standing next to this table with three indescribably powerful and incredibly old people on the planet, and none of them knew how to order a pizza. 

I’d gotten accustomed to a lot over the past year and a half, but sometimes the surrealness of this life still really struck me. Because this was really weird, wasn’t it? It felt really weird. 

Still, I pushed all of that aside and found myself nodding. “Oh, uhhh, yeah we can just order a pizza. Or a couple pizzas. Pretty sure when you guys taste the first one you’ll want more. Besides, we’ve gotta get a bunch of different kinds and find out what you like, there’s so many different top–right. Uhh, hold on.” Fumbling a bit to get the new phone that my dad had provided that morning out of my pocket, I brought up a list of nearby pizza places and called the one with the best reviews. I ordered six large pies, trying to get as much variety as possible so the other three (and whoever else ate them) could find something they actually liked. 

Once they confirmed the price and said it would be about forty-five minutes, I started to thank them, then I blinked at the phone in my hand and asked the guy to wait for a second before looking to the others. “Oh, right. We need money to pay for this.” Frowning, I slowly turned to the other three. “I, uhh, don’t suppose any of you carry cash. Or have credit cards. This uhh–” 

I had been about to say that this might be a problem, but Childs reached into his old dirty jeans before producing a rather clean and new-looking Visa card. “We’ve figured out it’s a bit easier to get around down here if you’ve got one of these.” 

As my hand rose to take the card, it occurred to me just how different this was from my first experiences with people this powerful the year before. Fu Hao and Jack Childs were Victors, the Garden equivalent of the Crossroads Committee. And I could still definitely sense the power coming off them. They were both strong enough to basically snap their fingers and kill me if they really wanted to. Or even if they had the vague notion to. As strong as I had become over the time since I had become a Bosch Heretic, I was still barely a bug to them. Strength-wise, at least. 

Yet, here I was holding a credit card from one of them while having a normal conversation, just like they were ordinary people. They were still powerful and potentially terrifying, but they weren’t mythical figures atop a mountain or whatever anymore. After everything that had happened, everything that I had been through, things were different. I was different. They could still scare me, quite easily in fact. But I wasn’t going to let that make me shake in shoes in front of them. 

Of course, maybe the fact that there was a millennia-old Revenant standing beside me who wanted to call me honeybuns and sweetums or whatever contributed to that. I was so busy being confused by that whole situation, that I didn’t have time to focus on how dangerous the Victors could be. They were the relatable/understandable figures in this situation by comparison. Which was really wild if you thought about it. 

The point was, it had been a very long year-and-a-half. A year-and-a-half that had been filled with so many people who were so much stronger than me that it honestly didn’t affect me as much anymore. I was still awed by the things they could do, of course. But I wasn’t like… overwhelmed as much. I could handle it. If they meant to do anything bad, I’d… well, I’d probably get squished like a little bug. But I wasn’t going to spend all my time bowing in terrified reverence, treating them like gods. They were people. Incredibly powerful people, but still people. They made mistakes, had prejudices, often ignored common sense, everything those less powerful than they happened to be did at times. They weren’t infallible. Which, in many ways made them even scarier than they already were, to be fair. 

But I’d deal with it. These guys were on my side–okay to be fair it was more that I was on their side. Either way, they didn’t leave me shaking and staring nearly as much as they would have a year earlier. I’d been through too much, with Fossor, with the Seosten, meeting literal Olympian gods like Artemis and Athena–fighting against those like Ares, Hephaestus, and Hera, meeting the King of Canada only to find out he was the Fae King Oberon, finding out silly, goofy Harper was actually literally Guinevere and Lancelot, or even that big Uncle Al was Hercules

Yeah, that list could go on. When it came down to it, I’d been through so much that sitting here ordering pizza for two of the Eden’s Garden Victors just wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list. 

So, holding the card, I read off the name and number for the pizza guy who was waiting patiently. The name literally said Jack Childs. Which made me wonder what sort of name someone like Ikita or Childs’ partner Lamorak used on things like this, or anything where they needed to put their name. Or Benedict Arnold, who was apparently one of the Victors as well, for the Remnant Guardians tribe. Yeah, that Benedict Arnold. Ironically, he was not one of those who had joined the rebellion. Actually–wait, that wasn’t ironic. Him being a loyalist was completely in-character. 

Shaking off those strange thoughts, I disconnected and gave Childs his card back before focusing on the beautiful, white-haired woman who was simply sitting on the edge of one of the tables nearby with her gaze intently locked on me. She had been staring my way the entire time I’d been ordering the food, never blinking as far as I could see. It made me feel weird, even the way she offered a broad, cheerful smile as soon as I looked at her. Her voice was chipper. “I’m glad that my first meal on this planet after so many years will be pizza with you, Felicity! I have heard that it is a very common food for first dates!” 

Oh boy. Coughing, I managed to keep my face mostly straight while replying, “It’s a really versatile food, that’s for sure. I uhh, hope you like it.” Hey, this was weird. I was being courted–wait, did it count as being courted in this particular case? I was… umm, getting to know Manakel’s widow, who was this cheerful, happy, sorta-kinda-undead woman that–yeah. Yeah, it was weird. No wonder I was barely fazed by the whole being around two Victors thing. Who had any time to focus on how powerful those two were with this girl sitting right there saying things like that? 

Still, I pushed that out of my mind as much as I could, and focused on taking a seat at the table where Jack Childs and Fu Hao had already sat down next to each other. The two of them looked fairly amused as they glanced from me to the woman who was still staring my way. Of course, I was sure this whole situation was pretty hilarious to people who didn’t have to find a way to navigate it. Someday, I was going to be the one on the outside watching someone else deal with something this absurd, and I was going to be just as amused, damn it. 

“Uh, thanks for doing this,” I managed, my attention centered on the two incredibly powerful Heretics sitting across from me. “I just umm, I guess you guys probably know at least a little bit about Asenath by now? She’s kinda been involved in a lot of this stuff.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Persephone produce some kind of pocket computer, mouthing ‘Asenath’ to herself as she typed the name in while kicking her legs back and forth like a little kid from her perch on the next table over. Belatedly, I realized what was going on. She was taking notes, like she was preparing for a test or whatever. She was studying my life, taking notes on people I knew or talked about. Not for anything nefarious (apparently), but just because she wanted to know everything she could about… about me. The test she was studying for was just about getting to know me. Eesh, that was an odd feeling. Then again, basically everything surrounding that woman had given me an odd feeling since the moment she showed up. Before she showed up, come to think of it. That whole sensation I had gotten before, with the hair on the back of my neck standing up, it wasn’t about the monster. I didn’t have some magic Nuckelavee detection power. But I did have a pretty strong Necromancy power, and I’d obviously felt the Revenant-possessed Olympian body rapidly approaching. 

Meanwhile, as those thoughts ran through my mind, Fu Hao had shifted slightly in her seat. The deceptively young-looking Asian woman gave a slight nod, her gaze flicking between Persephone and me curiously. “Yes, we are aware of her, thanks in large part to our discussions with Miranda and Ha… Avalon. She was the one whom Gaia Sinclaire sent to obtain the piece of rope, which was used to power the spell that reminded everyone of your mother’s rebellion.”

“That’s her,” I confirmed. “She’s been a lot of help. Not just with getting people’s memories back, but with plenty of other things too. And now she’s the one who needs help.”

Childs, leaning back in the seat a little, lifted his chin while regarding me. “I know a little bit about this vampire girl. Not much, only came close to crossing her path once before. Missed her by about thirty seconds, as I recall. Had something to do with an old ranch down in Oklahoma. When I heard she was there, looking into the same situation I was, I poked around a bit to find out what I could about her. Needed to know if she was trying to hide anything out there. From what I heard, she’s pretty capable on her own. So if you’re asking for help on her behalf, either it’s about something pretty goddamn strong, or something pretty goddamn personal.” 

“Quite,” Fu Hao agreed. “And suffice to say, we do not believe that you would be asking us to provide physical strength. You have other sources for such aid. Between that and your mention of this help involving one of our ‘old colleagues,’ I would say the girl is searching for information about someone close to her. A family member or friend, whom you believe one of the Eden’s Garden Victors has… imprisoned?” 

From a few feet to the side, Persephone piped up, “Yay! I read lots of Earth books. The ones about the private detectives are Andi’s favorites. We love the parts when the smart detective people explain how they detectived things and go through the suspects. Oooh, can I be a suspect?!”

The Victors waited for me to respond to her, naturally. Glancing that way, I hesitated (briefly wondering who Andi was) before shaking my head. “It’s not exactly that kind of situation. It’s more…” I paused to consider. “It’s the part where the detective goes to the police to find out if they know anything important that could help his case.” 

Nodding sagely at that, the white-haired woman replied in a stage-whisper while glancing toward the two indescribably powerful people sitting across from me, “Which one of them is going to turn out to be the bad guy’s secret lover and which one is going to die dramatically while they’re giving you the last clue you need to figure out his identity?” 

Before I could say anything, Fu Hao spoke up, sounding completely serious. “I would like to call–I believe the word is dibs? Dibs on the latter. I have always enjoyed acting, and a grand, dramatic death scene is quite an accomplishment.” 

Leaning sideways in his seat, Childs gave a look that way. “So you just leave me to be the traitor, hm?” After a pause, he added, “And the bad guy’s lover, come to think of it.” 

Without looking at him, Fu Hao flatly replied, “Well, you do have a mustache. I’m told that qualifies you for both.” 

Mouthing a silent, ‘wow’ toward the floor, I gave myself a firm shake before pushing on. “Yes, you’re right. Err, I mean about what she’s doing. Asenath’s looking for her father. His name is Tiras and he’s an Akharu. Apparently Kyril Shamon had him as a prisoner, at least for awhile. He gave him to that Desmoterion prison place about thirty years ago for seven or eight years, then came and took him back. That’s the last time those guys saw him. So we’re trying to find out if he, you know, still has him. Or even why he put him in that prison.”

From where she was sitting, Persephone cheerfully announced, “Sounds like he was hiding the prisoner. Did he only hide that one, or were there others?” When I looked that way, she added, “You know, that way you know if he was hiding one specific prisoner, or the fact that he had any of them.” 

“That…” Trailing off, I tilted my head, considering. “That’s a good point, actually. I don’t think they asked.”

“Yay!” Throwing both hands triumphantly in the air, the Revenant-woman declared, “I’m being helpful!” Her gaze met mine earnestly. “Would you like me to kill them for not asking the right questions?” She asked that in the same manner she might have asked if I wanted her to pick up milk or something. If getting milk had somehow become dangerous and violent enough to require someone as strong as an Revenant-Possessed Olympian. And I really didn’t want to know what sort of situation would lead to that. 

As it was, my head shook so fast I was almost afraid it might fall off. “No! You’re not killing Asenath for— why would you even ask that?!” 

“Well,” came the simple response, “That is the sort of thing my prior dearest beloved would have asked for someone who had failed him.” Pausing, she considered. “Not at first, but recently. In the past few hundred years.” She leaned closer then, putting a hand up beside her mouth to continue conspiratorially, “He got really grumpy for awhile, before you helped kill him.”

There was so much I wanted to say to that, but all of it was jumbled in my head. All I could manage was a choked noise in the back of my throat before holding up a hand. “Look, I don’t want you to kill anybody, okay? And whatever you do, unless I am in immediate mortal peril, don’t just assume I want you to kill someone at all. Ask first. Always ask first.” 

After she cheerfully agreed, I turned back to the two Garden rebel leaders. “So, do you know where Shamon might keep his slaves now? Or maybe you’ve seen this Tiras guy. Or do you know why he sent Tiras, and maybe others, to this private prison for a few years? I just–anything. We really need to find Asenath’s father. He’s been missing for a couple hundred years.”

Childs and Fu Hao exchanged glances before turning back to me. The latter spoke. “Roughly thirty years ago, the tribes of Eden’s Garden faced a unique threat on one of the colony worlds we had settled over fifty years earlier. Specifically, the invasion of alien beings who seemed drawn to humans and were uniquely suited to hunting us. They projected a sound that was debilitating to all but the strongest Heretics. The Victors agreed to a plan. Any combat-capable beings among the… slaves would be given the choice to fight these creatures and drive them from that world to save the colony. If they did and survived, they would be released. The agreement was made, and magically enforced, that should they do their best to defeat these creatures, they would be brought back to Earth safely and released to go free with no attempt to harm or track them until enough time had passed for them to safely disappear. If they were found later, that would be different. But they would be allowed to leave safely and given that single pass.” 

My mouth opened to ask what that had to do with Tiras, before I stopped myself. “Shamon didn’t want to give Tiras that chance. Let me guess, you guys all brought your combat-capable people together and asked them in a group? You gave them the choice together, and this Shamon guy didn’t want Tiras, and maybe others, to have the chance to say yes. So he snuck them out to this private prison. And that war of yours, I bet it lasted through the exact time that Tiras was in there.” 

“It ahhh, does seem to line up,” Childs agreed. 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so we know why he was in the mercenary prison. But not where he is now.” 

“Actually,” Childs corrected, “we might be able to get something else for you when it comes to that. Give us a little time, we’ll see if we can find out where he’s been keeping his prisoners lately. He tends to put them on secret projects, but we have… people who could poke around back at Garden.” 

“You’d really do that?” I asked. 

Fu Hao gave a single nod. “Of course. As you said, we owe this Asenath for everything she has done. Aiding in the retrieval of her father would be a pleasant change from what we have had to do in the past.” 

“What she’s saying,” Childs translated, “is that it’d be nice to be the good guys for once.

“Now is that pizza here yet? I’m ‘bout to eat my damn belt.” 

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In Like Flynn 17-06 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, four girls, a lizard-bear, and a lizard-eagle, all crouched and huddled behind a marble-construct wall that was being pummeled by gunshot after gunshot. I honestly had no idea how much longer it was going to be able to hold up under this kind of assault. And I really didn’t want to know what was going to happen if it crumbled and left all of us open and exposed. We had to deal with these ‘cowboy’ programs quickly, before we ended up as fish in a barrel.  

And, of course, it had to get worse. Because the ranch hands were all on horses. So they didn’t exactly have to stay where they were while firing. Already, several of them were starting to spur their mounts to take off to either side so they could get a clear line of fire around the wall. 

Yeah, this was a not-great situation that was getting worse by the moment. Not to mention the trouble I was having with my own power. I was just plain off on aiming, on knowing where things were, on everything. And I didn’t have time to sit around trying to figure it out. Yeah, there was obviously something different about the way my powers really worked and the way the machine was interpreting them. Like the way I had traveled through the dark forest, or the way Murphy and Roald had pointed out my aim at the basketball court. But I couldn’t fix that or even spend time dwelling on it. I had to work with what I had in here. Paige was counting on me to do something before it was too late and she ended up being taken over by this evil copy, not just lament about power problems. 

“We’re jumping,” Way blurted, even as the shots from the guys who were spreading out got way too close to the edge of the wall. Alloy had adapted by curving the thing inward to continue covering us, but it was getting spread pretty thin to do so, and was already shuddering under the force of the incoming bullets. Pretty soon, the wall was going to be a full circle, and I really didn’t know how long it would hold up like that. Way was right, we had to teleport out of there. 

Still, I had an idea, so I quickly put a hand up against the girl’s arm and shook my head. “Wait! I’ve got something. Alloy, dome us. Doesn’t have to last long, just cover us up, now!”  

She may have been even newer to this stuff than I was, but Peyton knew how to listen. Immediately, she shifted the circular wall into a dome to cover us entirely, even sending the silver marble out of her own suit to reinforce. Which left the girl wearing only the main purple part of her Sentai-like armor. It didn’t exactly expose her skin so much as make the rest of the violet material spread out to cover what was left, but it was obvious that the remaining armor was weaker. Even so, it did, at least, give the dome around us a bit more of a boost to survive as the hail of gunfire only seemed to intensify. The bullets were coming in from all sides constantly.

The point was, we really didn’t have much time. So I didn’t waste any, quickly blurting out my plan in a few words. The others looked at one another, but nobody had anything better. And we didn’t have the precious minutes it would take to come up with something else. So, everyone agreed, and we went to work over the next few seconds, while the dome flickered around us. Any moment now, that shield was going to fail. We knew it, and our attackers knew it. 

Moments later, the shield broke apart into its individual marbles. But, the security programs weren’t faced with a group of exposed victims like they thought. Instead, they found themselves staring down the solitary figure of a large reptilian-bear. A very large, very angry, very colorful reptilian-bear. Mars Bar had green across all four paws and ankles, purple up all four legs, and the rest of his body was entirely covered in orange, save for his head. 

As soon as he was revealed, the big colorful bear-lizard let out a terrifying roar that seemed to shake the entire world, before taking off. The green made him so fast that the fake cowboys were barely able to react before he slammed into the first of them. And with the added strength from the purple paint, the force of that collision made both the ‘man’ and his mount burst apart, shattering into light particles. In the same motion, Mars Bar lashed out toward the next nearest attacker, that simple swipe of his enormous paw literally shattered the program he hit. The security figure flickered and vanished as if it had never been there, before it could even retaliate.

Finally, the other cowboys reacted and started shooting. But with all that orange paint and the bear-lizard’s natural defense, their bullets didn’t stand a chance of stopping him before it was too late. He fell on the largest group, going through them like a wheat thresher even as they all continued to frantically concentrate all of their gunfire on the huge threat tearing them apart.

And that, of course, worked to distract the remaining cowboys from the threats that had just shown up behind them. Namely, the rest of us. That-A-Way had teleported us out of there before Alloy took down the shield to reveal Mars Bar. We ended up behind the barn, and made our way back around just in time for me to activate the paint so the big bear could do his thing. 

Now, instead of being trapped there while literally surrounded by a group of gun-toting security figures, we were behind them while they were completely focused on the threat who was tearing through the largest clump of their men. And they had no idea where we were. Not yet, anyway. Which was something we were about to take full advantage of. 

We hit them before they knew what was happening. Pack, wielding the bat she’d taken from before, popped up beside one guy’s horse and slammed her liberated weapon into the back of his head as hard as she could. At the exact same time, Way grabbed two guys and teleported a few feet to the north and a good two hundred feet into the air before releasing them. As she started to fall, she teleported another couple feet forward and right back to the ground before pivoting to face two guys who were shooting at her. Except she was facing south, so her intangibility meant the bullets just passed through her and hit a couple of the remaining cowboys on that side. 

Meanwhile, Alloy and I hit the remaining guys, whose attention had suddenly been diverted to where Pack and Way were. Peyton had brought her marbles flying back to herself, reinforcing her armor once more while creating a white and bronze sword in one hand, which cut through one of the men just as he pivoted on the horse to face her. The black and gold marbles had, at the same time, transformed into a huge floating hammer, which crashed into another guy to send him flying before he splattered apart against the wall of the barn. 

Which left me. I had saved just barely enough paint after setting up Mars Bar to put purple stripes across my arms and an orange exclamation point on my back. It wouldn’t save me from sustained fire or anything, but it gave me a little bit of a boost so I could grab the leg of one cowboy and yank him off his horse. He struggled, catching me in a tight grip, but I grabbed hold of his shirt collar and slammed my helmeted head into his face before he could do more than that. It was enough to make him let go of my collar before I spun and threw him into the next guy, who had just been taking aim at me.

Ignoring the horse, I stooped and grabbed the guy’s fallen gun off the ground. While he and the figure he had crashed into were picking themselves up, I took aim from right up close, hesitating only slightly before telling myself it was just like a video game. No matter how real it felt, these people aren’t real. They were just obstacles to stop us from getting to Paige in time. 

With that thought filling my mind, I narrowed my eyes and pulled the trigger several times. The gun kind of bucked in my hand, but not as much as the one back in the real world had when I’d been fighting those biolems. This was more of a videogame gun, naturally. The bullets hit the figures on the ground and made them blow apart into light fragments before disappearing. Quickly, I turned the weapon to any others I could see, firing several more times before the gun clicked empty. Even without the harsh recoil, I still missed with a couple shots, because as much as this was like a video game, there was still a major difference between physically holding a gun and pulling the trigger, or doing so on a screen with a controller. But hey, two of the shots hit their targets, making the ranch hand figures burst into pixels. 

Between the four of us, Mars Bar, and even Riddles (who dropped in out of the sky to cover her partner-lizard, raking at the eyes of anyone still taking shots at him), we cleaned out the rest of the guards pretty quickly. Which left us standing there alone, at least for a moment. 

“Gotta hurry,” Way was saying while we panted there together, catching our breath. “These things are just going to keep respawning and coming after us. We’ve gotta find Paige. So where is she? I–this is some farm outside town. A bunch of schools take field trips out here all the time. So why is this important? Why would Paige’s computer thingie put us out here? And how do we find her? Preferably before we end up in brawl number three with those assholes.”

She was right, we couldn’t just run around in circles hoping to accidentally trip over Paige. There had to be a reason that the scene had gone from the school to this place. This… ranch was where my first real nasty encounter with the girl had happened. That was important, right? Was Paige like… reliving things or whatever? Or just jumping between various locations where important moments of our history had happened. 

Oh boy, if that was true, we really had to get through this before the scene changed to something that would give too many hints about who I was. That was a thought that spurred my brain to start working overtime. It was time to figure this out and find Paige

Pack had already turned and started to move, with Mars Bar quickly starting to lumber after her. “The main farmhouse. It’s the best chance we’ve got, right? It’s like the main building. They’ve gotta be up there. Where else would they be?” 

Where else indeed? Yeah, the main farmhouse made sense. Except that wasn’t right. The second she made the suggestion and started moving, I knew where Paige actually was. It jumped into my head instantly. The pond. There was a pond just over the hill, where the two of us had had our first ‘fight.’ She’d kicked muddy water up onto me, and I sort of shoved her into it, then she pulled me after her and we both had to be separated. It was a whole thing. That was it. That was where this program had put her when the scene reset. It had to be. Not the farmhouse, the pond. 

But how was I supposed to get them to go over there without giving anything away? I couldn’t explain how I knew the truth, and they were already heading the wrong way. For a brief moment, I stood there, frozen by indecision. Then I simply blurted, “Hey, did you hear that?!” As they all turned toward me, I pointed toward the hill. ”It was coming from that way.” Oh boy, if I was wrong about this, it was a real fuck-up. But I was positive that I had to be right. We’d barely even gone in the farmhouse on that tour. If this was supposed to be an important place for Paige, it had to be over by the pond. 

The others were saying they didn’t hear anything, but I didn’t wait around for that. I was already turning that way and rushing while claiming I’d definitely heard something. My only chance was to fully commit to this and not give them time to object more. 

Thankfully, I was apparently convincing, because the others didn’t question it too much before simply following. Apparently I had just become that good of a liar, which was probably something I should examine later. But right now, the only thing that mattered was getting to Paige.  

Unfortunately, the direction we were going was not within Way’s super speed or teleportation range of direction. So, it would have taken a long time to make the whole trek, following the trail that I had vaguely remembered. It had been like a twenty minute hike. Fortunately, we had Alloy. She made a large, semi-circle shaped board to fly everyone that way, including Mars Bar. She was at the front, and the only one standing given her ability to lock her armor boots in with the board itself. Meanwhile, the rest of us were kneeling and holding onto handles she had created, with That-A-Way and me to one side, Pack to the other, and Mars Bar lying down in the middle. The poor lizard-bear did not seem to be happy about flying, and kept making low groaning noises of objection. I just hoped he wouldn’t lose his lunch, if that was even possible in here. Digital bear vomit was not something I wanted to think about, on top of everything else. 

It wasn’t the most stable or fast ride, given the weight involved, but it was a hell of a lot quicker than walking. With that help, it only took us a couple minutes to reach the hill and get to the top, Which meant that, at the very least, my paint had had time to regenerate completely. 

Finally, we reached the crest of the hill and could immediately see the glistening water of the pond stretched out below. At first, I saw nothing else. My eyes frantically scanned the ground around the water, searching for what I knew had to be there. Or rather, who. But I saw nothing. Oh God, oh God, was I wrong? If I had fucked this up, I’d never forgive my—

“There!” It was Alloy, pointing toward the far edge of the pond, where a large mess of reeds had grown up out of the shallow water. They stood several feet high, blocking the view of anything within. But, as my eyes focused that way, I could see two figures rolling around in there. They weren’t standing up, but rather, were scrambling on their hands and knees, grappling one another, and generally struggling together. Whatever was going on in there, it seemed nasty. From up here, it sure as hell looked like they were trying to drown one another. It was impossible to make out any details about the figures, including what they look like or who was winning. But it had to be Paige and the virus, right? There was no other real option. It was them, and from the look of things, they were really going at it. 

“Get us over there!” I blurted, eyes widening at the sight. Through the reeds and across so much distance, it was all I could do to make out that the two figures were both struggling to push one another’s heads under the water. Part of me wondered what that would accomplish inside a place like this, but maybe it was representative of a different kind of computer attack or something. Either way, we had to intervene, because I had no idea which one of them was winning. That was something we were going to have to sort out once we separated them. Hopefully without being interrupted by more security programs. We had enough to deal with. 

With a hasty nod, Allow sent the board flying down the hill. Mars Bar groaned again, before Pack reached over with one hand to rub his head comfortingly. Meanwhile, Riddles flew in a dive right beside us, clearly resisting the urge to let out a shrill bird-of-prey cry. The eagle-lizard was smart enough to know that we were trying to be quiet right then. We had to hit Paige and the virus copy before they knew what was happening, separate them, and figure out where to go from that point. There had to be a way to get rid of the virus for good. 

We were rapidly getting closer as we blew down the hill. But it wasn’t fast enough for me. I desperately wanted to launch myself that way with a shot of red paint to hit one of them, but I didn’t trust my aim in this place. There was still something wrong with my power. Closer, we had to get closer. Tightening my grip on the handles, I stared intently that way, trying not to seem too desperate. This whole situation was going to be hard enough to navigate without letting the others wonder why I was so emotionally invested in saving Paige. 

Finally, we were close enough, and I couldn’t wait any longer, secrets be damned. It was clear from this distance that one of the figures was on top of the other, pushing their head under the water. It could have been Paige winning, but I couldn’t take that chance. With a blurted thanks for the ride, I put blue paint under me to launch myself forward just ahead of the flying board. Extending both hands, I sprayed a much wider burst of red paint that I normally would have, just to make sure I hit my target. The figure on top twisted around just as the paint hit them, reacting instantly by looking that way. Before they could do anything else, I activated the paint and was immediately yanked through the air the rest of that distance. Once I was within about fifteen feet, I tried something new by focusing on reversing the pull so that the other girl was yanked toward me instead. Just as she was hauled off her feet and launched my way, I released the paint entirely, tucking myself into a ball with a green exclamation point across my chest to speed up my drop. 

It worked. I fell faster than the figure I had yanked up rose, passing just beneath her before twisting in the air to land on my feet, up to my knees in the water. An orange smiley face across my back protected me from the impact. 

Meanwhile, the figure I had yanked into the air landed about ten feet away, crashing down with a splash in the water before popping up and spinning toward me. It was Paige. 

Then the figure she had been trying very intently to drown popped up as well, just a few feet to one side. That was Paige too. 

“Cassidy!” They both blurted. Thankfully the board with the others was still too far for them to hear, but still. I flinched inwardly, shooting a burst of black silencing paint at each of them. 

“First one to try to expose my secret is obviously the fake,” I blurted immediately. “That’s the one we get rid of.” 

A moment later, while both Paiges (they each looked pretty exhausted, injured, worn-down, and generally as if they’d been fighting for a long time) reacted to that, the others reached us. Alloy dismissed the board into separate marbles while they all hopped off and looked around. That-A-Way stepped forward right next to me, looking like she was about to say something before catching herself and reconsidering. 

Both Paiges, meanwhile, were clearly reeling from the shock of all of us showing up like this inside their computer brain digital world. I could see their eyes darting from one person to the other, obviously taking everything in while they panted from their recent fight, taking the moment to recover. 

In the end, it was Pack who spoke first. Her voice was blunt as she stood next to a looming Mars Bar. “Right, so we found them. Good for us. So, how do we figure out which one is the real chick and which one’s the fake?” 

My mouth opened before I stopped. I had no idea. But, worse than that, I didn’t know what was going to happen once we finally did identify them. Right now, the thing stopping the fake Paige from giving up my identity was the fact that she was still trying to pass as Paige herself. At least while she looked for an opening. But if we figured out who the fake was, she would have no reason to keep quiet anymore. 

And once that happened, how was I going to stop her from blurting out every secret I had? 

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Reception 13-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Summus Proelium were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

“You remember when we were little kids back in school?” Miranda’s voice oh-so-innocently asked as the girl herself sat beside me at a table. I was pretty sure she was smiling, but couldn’t tell for sure, considering my head was down against said-table. “And we all used to make jokes and–uh, well fantasies for some of them about which of us would get married first?” Yeah, she was definitely smiling. Or smirking. “I seriously never thought you’d be the one to take that pot. Congratulations, I’m pretty sure there’s like twelve bucks in change, a handful of hair scrunchies, two stuffed animals, three tubes of the good chapstick out of the Laramie Falls Junior High vending machine, and that sweet Lego watch waiting for you back home.” 

Raising my head from the table, catching a glimpse of Koren, Sands, and Sarah sitting on the other side collectively snickering in the process, I turned toward Miranda next to me and squinted at the innocently-smiling girl. “You think this whole thing is just super funny, huh?” 

Randi, of course, gave a quick nod, even adding a thumbs up. “It’s fucking hilarious, dude. Come on, this immortal Revenant girl comes out of nowhere and says she’s your wife because you killed her husband and inherited his Necromancy power, which is the real thing she made her wedding vows to? Exactly how many people would something like that happen to? This has ‘Flick’s Life’ written all over it. And for once, it’s not something horrific or sad. Yeah, it’s funny.” 

“She’s got a point, Flick,” Sands put in while reaching across the table to gently poke my shoulder. “Seriously, how often does something insane happen to you that’s just… weird and kind of hilarious instead of terrible and violent? I mean, yeah the way she showed up was violent, but she saved us from that Nuckelavee! That’s gotta put her in the positive column, right?”

“Yeah, that’s definitely positive,” I confirmed. “She showed up and took out the monster, fantastic. She says she’s friendly, double-fantastic. She also says she has no interest in getting revenge for the whole killing her husband thing, which is just extra bonus fantastic levels. But…” 

As I trailed off, Miranda asked, “Are you afraid she’s just playing the long game and is more into the whole revenge thing than she’s letting on? You know, stab when no one’s looking?” 

Koren spoke up. “From what Mercury and Sariel said, that doesn’t really sound much like her either. It kinda sounded like what you see is what you get with that chick. She’s really straightforward. If she was pissed at you, she’d say so. Which uhh, kinda goes with what we saw, you know? She doesn’t really seem like the tricks and subterfuge type.” 

My head started to shake, then I hesitated before continuing to shake it. “No–I mean, yeah, you’re right. From what those two said, that didn’t really sound like her MO. Besides, they’re checking all that.” Turning my head slightly, I looked away from the table on the playground next to the motel where we were sitting, gazing off to the main building itself. In one of those rooms was where the Seosten, along with several others (including my mother), were having a long, magically assisted chat with this Persephone chick. They’d insisted on doing a full rundown without me present, just to make sure everything really was on the up-and-up with her. 

Behind me as I was looking toward the building, Sarah spoke quietly. “Avalon and Shiori.” 

Turning back and settling once more, I nodded. “Yeah, them. I’m not sure how they’ll react or how she’ll react to them. I mean, she says she doesn’t mean me any harm and that she’s in love with the power I have and loyal to it and all. But does that extend to being nice to the girls I love? Or anyone else I care about? I just–how much is she actually going to listen to me or care about what I care about? What if she decides only she gets me and turns violent against them?” 

The other four exchanged looks for a moment before Koren spoke again. “Uncle Wyatt’s in there, and Grandma. If she’s a danger to anyone here, they’ll sniff it out. And uhh, I’m just gonna guess she won’t really mind, Flick. Seriously, I’m gonna be super-surprised if she’s the strict monogamous sort. I mean, she’s definitely not the ‘til death do we part’ sort.” 

Snorting despite myself while the others outright snickered, I waved that off. “Right, yeah, okay. Point. And yeah, they’ll probably find anything wrong in that whole interrogation thing. I just… this whole thing is weird. Better weird than usual, but still weird.” My foot was tapping nervously against the floor. “She’s… she made an oath or a vow or whatever to Manakel’s power, and now it’s my power so she thinks it extends to me. It’s like inheriting an old grandfather clock in a will, and then finding out some other person has an arranged marriage with that clock, so now you’re married.” 

With a cough, Miranda offered, “Can I give you a little advice, old best friend? Maybe don’t tell the immortal Revenant chick the comparison about her being married to a clock.” 

Blanching a little, I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything. I mean, she seems fine. She saved us, she was friendly, I just–I’m worried about where this is going. Everything Sariel and Mercury said makes her out to be super-loyal to Manakel. Or, you know, to his power. Which I guess maybe translates into being loyal to me, or something? But she also seems, I dunno, unpredictable? I guess I’m just afraid that this ‘not a problem’ is going to turn into ‘very big problem’ as soon as she finds out I’m already romantically involved. Yeah, you’re right about the whole multiple loves thing being pretty accepted and all, I just… I’m really confused. And maybe just a little pessimistic that this totally random thing won’t find some way to turn out to be terrifying after all. Especially if I stop worrying about it.”

Miranda put her hand on my back, squeezing it. “Don’t worry, we get it. Everyone here knows why you might be… uhh, pretty hesitant to believe this isn’t some huge problem, believe me.”  

Sands nodded. “Yeah, totally. But I’m pretty sure this is more like Tristan showing up out of nowhere while you were on that jungle hike with Deveron, Wyatt, and Koren, you know?” 

“And hey,” Koren quickly put in, “He fell out of the sky too, remember? So it’s totally like that.” 

A very slight smirk found its way to my face as I looked around at all four of them. “You guys are pretty good at the whole encouragement thing. Thanks, I–I guess I really needed that.” Letting out a breath then, I straightened and gave a firm nod. “Kay, I’ll try to believe that this whole thing isn’t about to blow up in all of our faces, but I reserve the right to scream I told you so if it does.” 

“Thankfully,” Miranda pointed out, “I’m pretty sure if it does turn into a problem, we’ll all be too busy to listen.” Coughing, she added a flat, “Anyway, are you sure you’re not just hoping it turns into a problem so you don’t have to tell Avalon and Shiori that you’re freaking married?” 

Face flushing deeply, I gave a quick shake of my head while the others snickered. “Oh come on, I am not married. If anything, my Necromancy power’s married. Hell, only half of that’s married, just the part I got from Manakel. Half of one power I have is married. So like, that barely even counts as anything, right?” Saying that, I found myself looking around at a group of pretty dubious-looking friends, before muttering under my breath, “Well, it makes sense to me.” 

“That’s good!” Koren teased, “get your excuses and explanations ready before Avalon finds out.” 

That prompted another round of snickers while I extended my leg to kick her under the table, my face still pink. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Believe me, someday you’re gonna be in a situation like this, and I will totally take advantage.” Without missing a beat, I added over my shoulder toward the person my item-sense power had just detected, “And you’re not allowed to protect her from my eventual cunning revenge, Wyatt.”  

Stepping closer, my (much) older brother sniffed while stopping at the end of the table. “You’re very capable,” he informed me primly, “but you can’t stop me from protecting my family.” 

Squinting that way, I pointed out, “I’m your family too, you know. You could’ve been here protecting me from all this awful teasing and mockery.” 

There was a very brief pause as the gangly-looking man seemed unsure of how to respond to that. It was a little awkward, as if he knew he wanted to say something teasing back, but wasn’t quite to the point of knowing exactly how to do so. Wyatt had gotten a lot better over the past year with all this family and friend interaction, but there were still times he just lost it a bit. 

However, that only lasted for those momentary seconds before Koren whispered something into her hand, then made a flicking motion toward Wyatt. I heard nothing, but the way the man reacted made it clear that she had somehow… thrown the whisper to him? New power, obviously. 

Sure enough, Wyatt gave a very short nod toward Koren before focusing on me once more. His voice was calm as he spoke the retort she’d given him. “Tough diddies.” 

“That’s not wh–oh never mind,” Koren waved it off before asking, “So how’s it looking over there? Is she a secret murder-assassin just waiting to jump Flick?”

“Or,” Sands put in, “is she just waiting to jump Flick.” That made her and Miranda snicker. 

Sarah, kindly stepping on her sister’s foot, pointedly spoke up. “They mean, is she safe?” 

It took a moment for Wyatt to answer, while he collected his thoughts. Finally, the man confirmed, “She didn’t trip any guilt spells, or make any of the threat-indicators light up, and the danger-gel I made her hold stayed completely calm. Everyone checked her and she…” The next words looked like it took a lot for him to say. “She appears to be on the up-and-up.” Looking straight to me, he added, “Our mother is making her take a binding oath spell to do no intentional harm, nor intentionally allow harm, to you or anyone you care about. It’s being prepared right now by Mom, Sariel, Mercury, and two of the Victors on our side.”  

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “You’re not there helping?” 

Wyatt, in turn, folded his arms, looking a little annoyed at himself. “I… might have gone a little overboard with the truth and danger sensing spells. They didn’t want to wait for me to recover. They said they have enough power to make them binding as it is.” 

Right, that made sense. He’d used so much magic making sure this woman wasn’t a threat, that he didn’t have enough left at the moment to contribute to the oath-making spell. Was it weird that I found that a little adorable despite everything? My brother really cared about what happened to me. 

As I was thinking about that, Wyatt continued. “They need you to come talk to her. The oath magic works better if you’re there for it.” His tone turned serious as he reached out to touch my arm. “But if she makes any funny moves or makes you feel uncomfortable, you say the word and she’ll be buried under so many trap spells it’ll take her a month to dig her way out.” 

“Good to know,” I replied easily while pushing myself up. Thanking the others and promising to let them know what happened, I headed off with Wyatt toward the motel building. On the way, I glanced over to him and asked, “So, what do you think of this woman? I mean, I know she’s really intense and all. And potentially dangerous, obviously. But what do you really think?”  

Wyatt didn’t answer at first. He was quiet, clearly considering the question. Which did a lot to show how much he had really changed over the past year. Before, he would have ranted on for an hour about how she was obviously plotting to kill all of us, and probably wear our skins or something. But now, while he was still suspicious, he was a lot more reasonable about it. He thought things through more and was much more in control of himself. Finally, as we were about halfway to the building, he answered. “You’re right, she could be dangerous. She’s very strong and hard to stop.” His long, beak-like nose had scrunched up a bit. “But I’ve learned two things about you this year. Okay, more than two. But two specific ones now. The first is that you’re really good at making enemies. Really horrible, strong, vicious enemies I can’t always be there to help with. Even with magic. They find a way to get past it if they have to.”

My mouth opened to say something, but he waved me off and continued. “The other important thing I’ve learned is that you’re also really good at making friends. So, my instinct is to say this girl is dangerous and just get rid of her. That’s what my brain wants to do. It’s what my heart wants to do. Just throw her out and be done with it. But we wouldn’t be done with it. Either she’d be angry and turn into a threat herself, or she just wouldn’t be here to help you with a different threat. She–she’s strong, capable, terrifying. And I’d rather you make her into a real friend, than me make her into an enemy. Even if she scares me. I… I trust you to handle it.” 

We had stopped outside the motel room by that point to finish all that. I didn’t speak at first, just looking at my awkward, wonderful, gangly, incredible brother. Then I stepped over and put both arms around him to hug tightly. “You’re pretty cool, you know that?” My voice was quiet, yet still audibly choked up. “I’m lucky to have someone like you.” 

Despite all the progress he had made, Wyatt was still reflexively stiff when I hugged him. But, after a brief moment, I felt his arms move down to return the embrace. His voice was a bit thick as well. “Be careful, okay? Not–not just because she’s dangerous. But because… because I think she’s fragile too. Not– she’s different. You could really hurt her if you wanted to.” 

That… yeah, that wasn’t at all what I’d expected him to say. Still, I nodded while releasing the man and stepping back. “Trust me, I’ll keep it in mind. The last thing I want to do is traumatize the millennia-old ghost-creature possessing an immortal dead body. Yeah, immortal dead. I said it.” 

With that promise, I turned to the motel, took in a breath before letting it out, and moved to knock on the door. Before my knuckles could actually make contact, however, it opened seemingly of its own volition, with nobody nearby. So, I shrugged before stepping in. The door closed behind me, leaving Wyatt to head back to the others. 

The motel room had had all the furniture taken out of it. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in various magic runes that were all centered around a single figure who stood in the middle. Persephone, of course. She stood there calmly, wearing only a sleeveless version of the Seosten bodysuit, arms extended out to either side with more spell-runes drawn along them. 

Meanwhile, Mom, Sariel, and Mercury were on one side of the room, with the two Victors opposite them. They were Jack Childs, the old cowboy from Fate’s Shepherds, and Fu Hao, the Asian woman who looked very young except for her ancient-looking eyes that had clearly seen an incredible number of years. She was one of the leaders of the Vigilant Sons. Seller and Avalon’s tribe, whom I might have had a pretty big problem with given how they had treated Valley. But apparently Fu Hao had already apologized and openly admitted fault for that. Which, given how old and powerful these people were, the fact that any of them were willing to admit when they were wrong meant a lot. I still wasn’t happy with what happened, except that if they hadn’t kicked Avalon out, I wouldn’t have met her the way I did, and–god, that same thing kept coming up, didn’t it? Bad things led to good things. It was all so complicated. 

Eyes lighting up when I entered the room, Persephone called out without moving, “Hello, beloved! Did you eat something yet? Was it good? I’ve heard very nice things about something called pizza on this planet. I’m very interested in trying it once we’re finished with all this.” She spoke so casually, as if she was just waiting for something like… toast to pop up rather than being put under an intense set of spells meant to ensure she wouldn’t kill any of us. 

Before I could say anything, Mom spoke up. “Felicity, come right up in front of her. It’s okay. Put your hands on her shoulders and we’ll finish the spell. Persephone, you know how it works.” 

The white-haired woman remained completely motionless, even as she cheerfully confirmed, “Don’t move an inch or the spell gets messed up! You got it, no moving. I am a tree. Except I smell better.” Her eyes found mine as she amended, “Not that trees smell bad, but you should sniff me, Honeycakes.” After a brief pause, she noted, “I smell like honeycake.” 

Moving that way, I hesitated uncertainly before putting both hands on the woman’s shoulders. She was taller than me by a couple inches, but shorter than Avalon. Speaking… completely academically, she was also incredibly beautiful. Like any Seosten, really. She had that totally snow-white hair and tanned skin, with a slim figure that– yeah. And yes, she absolutely smelled like vanilla cake and honey. It made me blush a little. Especially when she smiled brightly at me, clearly knowing exactly how I was reacting to all that. Oh boy, because this whole thing hadn’t already been awkward enough.  

So, for the next few minutes, I stood there basically face to face with this woman who kept calling herself my wife. Which would’ve been so much easier to deal with if she wasn’t so attractive. And cool. Seriously, she flew down out of the sky and completely exploded a Nuckelavee to introduce herself. It was–no, Flick. Knock it off. Firmly telling myself to push those thoughts aside, I focused on just looking at Persephone. 

Okay, scratch that. I focused on closing my eyes and pretending I was somewhere else. Somewhere with cake and honey. 

Damn it. 

I knew why the spell was taking awhile. Even with two strong Seosten, my mother, and a couple Victors, a Revenant was incredibly hard to target with magic that would actually stick. And one like this, who had found a body as powerful and long-lasting as Persephone had, took even more effort and time. Oh, sure, they could’ve hit her with a teleportation spell or something quite easily, shifted her somewhere else. But for an ongoing effect like this, one that would give even her enough trouble if she started to turn against us, it took a lot. According to Sariel, when they were back on the Olympus, only two people had been able to tell Persephone what to do. The first was Manakel, with the very same Necromancy power that attracted her to him in the first place. And the other was Puriel, who was basically a god when it came to magic. 

But in this case, we had enough power to put the spell on her. Plus, she was willingly cooperating, which helped. She could probably break the spell, but doing so would alert basically everyone Mom was including in the spell, so Persephone going bad would result in a whole bunch of people jumping in, while the Revenant herself was buried under a heap of targeted trap spells. They wouldn’t stop her forever, but they would, with any luck, slow her down. It was the best we could do. Between that and my own ability to sort-of control or at least push her with my Necromancy (I wasn’t as good with it as Manakel had been, so I couldn’t just order her around), this whole thing was as safe as we could make it.   

Finally, with a rush of power that even I felt closing in all around us to culminate in a burst that made my ears pop, it was done. Mom stepped over, putting her hand on my arm to tug me back. “There,” she said quietly, her eyes on Persephone. “You say you want to spend time with my daughter. You can do that, but… when she tells you to back off, do it. Sariel has an extra room you can use. You live with her, not with Felicity. You give her space when she needs it.” 

“Of course, Mother!” the woman cheerfully replied, “we wouldn’t want to rush things.” 

Oh boy. Yeah, Mom had her own reaction to that. But before she could get too into it, I quickly turned to the two Victors, who were starting to leave. “Uhh, um, excuse me?” 

Fu Hao and Childs exchanged brief looks before turning to me, the Asian woman curiously asking, “May we help you with something else?” 

Pushing aside the thought that it was really weird to ask them for anything else after they’d already done this much, I nodded. “Yeah, I uhh, I sure hope so. 

“Let’s just say I have a friend who really needs some help when it comes to one of your old colleagues.”

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In Like Flynn 17-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Heretical Edge were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

So, this was just great. Now we were being attacked by a bunch of computer program defense systems that looked like my teachers and other staff from school, all of them trying to defend Paige because they thought we were enemies. And we were going to have to tear our way through them to get to her. Yeah, I was pretty sure a therapist would have a field day with this. 

Even as the group was rushing toward us, I caught a glimpse of That-A-Way grabbing hold of Mars Bar before they both vanished, reappearing behind the mob that was ahead of us. It took the lizard-bear only a second to adjust, turn back the other way, and fall on the crowd from behind with a terrifying roar that shook all the lockers and windows around us. 

Meanwhile, Alloy was standing there, making a noise of awe as she stared between the spot where Way and Mars Bar had been, and where they were now. “Oh, man,” she muttered, “that’s so–” 

“Alloy!” I blurted toward my new partner, “help them hold those guys off!” 

“O-oh, right.” Sounding guilty, the girl quickly made the marbles that weren’t part of her armor join together to create the scoop from a bulldozer, large enough to cover the entire hallway. It slammed forward into the crowd to stop them at the same time as Mars Bar crashed into them from behind. Yeah, it sounded nasty over there. And that was even before counting the fact that those things were still letting out those horrific screams, which echoed through the hall as a sort of background accompaniment to Mars Bar’s roars.

Unfortunately, that still left the mob that had come through the doors behind us for Pack, Riddles, and me to deal with. Quickly, as they came rushing in, I shot green, purple, and orange paint at the La Casa Touched, then activated it for her before putting blue under my feet to launch myself up in a flip over their heads. I intended to land behind them, but one of the security programs (it looked like my quite elderly and quite overweight ninth grade English teacher) leapt into my path, so I slammed into her. Which seemed to hurt me more than it did her, being a program and all. 

I used to like Mrs. Moderane. She was one of my favorite teachers freshman year. But those fond memories started having a bit of trouble when she came down on top of me as we landed on the floor, then punched me in the stomach. At the last second, I managed to paint my helmet orange (still unsure of exactly how well this program ‘translated our powers into virtual reality’), but even with that, the blow was enough to make me grunt. God damn it, these things were strong.

Putting purple arrows across both arms, I grabbed both of Mrs. Moderane’s shoulders and then jerked myself backwards as hard as I could before planting my knees in her stomach while simultaneously heaving with both hands to send her flying over my head and into the wall. In the same motion, I kept rolling backwards to move into a crouched position just in time to see one of the janitors and a security guard rushing me with these big, jagged machetes. My hands snapped up to shoot red paint that way… only to miss the two entirely and send both blobs of paint past both of them to hit a couple lockers against the opposite wall. Wait, what th–

A loud bang suddenly filled the air, as Pack came out of nowhere to slam the metal door she’d ripped off a locker into the head of the security guard who was rushing at me. She hit him with enough force to bend the door in half while also basically caving in the entire backside of his head. There was very little blood, all things considered, it mostly just seemed to pop like a balloon before the entire body vanished. The janitor spun that way just in time for her to snap the bent locker door back into his face, sending him crashing to the floor in a heap. 

“Would you keep moving, Ball?!” the girl snapped at me before throwing the by-now totally crumpled hunk of metal at the legs of another charging teacher. “They’re not real, stop playing nice and just make sure they stay down! We don’t have time for this, remember?!” 

As if to punctuate her owner’s words, Riddles let out a shrill battle cry as she flew overhead, tore a bat out of the hands of another virtual teacher, and sent it flying into the face of one of the office secretaries. Which was only a distraction before the lizard-eagle was right in her face as well, tearing at the woman’s eyes with talons and beak alike. 

Okay, yeah, they were right. We didn’t have time for any of this. Paige could lose her ongoing battle against her other self any minute, and we’d already stretched this out long enough. I just–I was used to hitting things I aimed for. Missing completely when they were right in front of me was… kind of new. But I couldn’t worry about that right now. I had to focus on this. 

Giving the other girl a quick recharge of purple and orange, I launched myself upward, renewing my own purple arms before spinning toward a heavyset old man in a plaid shirt. He was wielding a chain, which he tried to swing around my throat while still giving that horrible scream that just would not stop. They were all doing that. Yeah, it was obviously an alarm to call more of them or whatever, but seriously, we got the point. Everyone got the point. Knock it off already. 

My hands managed to catch the weapon as it swung at me, forcefully tearing it out of his hands even as I reflexively blurted, “Don’t you hate it when someone yanks your chain?” 

Not only did the virtual computer simulation program not laugh at my joke, it responded by simply creating a new one in its hand, then swung it at me even harder. 

Catching the new chain against my arm as well, I quickly jerked on it to yank the figure closer while simultaneously lashing out with a kick. “Ah, you’re prob–aaaaahhh!” That last part, interrupting what was going to be a fantastic follow-up to my joke before, came as the damn thing caught my leg and spun to throw me toward the other lockers. I barely managed to flip over in the air and send a shot of blue that way, which helped me rebound off the metal doors (caving them in partway) before crashing into the guy. We both hit the ground, but I managed to wrap the chain around his throat tightly, jerking a bit on it. A purple lion face appeared on my chest for additional strength. For an instant, I hesitated. Video game. It’s just a video game, I told myself. 

With that, I jerked as hard as I could at the tightly twisted chain around the figure’s neck. There was a nasty crack, and the body under me vanished. I… killed him. It. I killed the–

Shoving that thought out of my mind, I hurled myself into a sideways roll just as a machete came down into the space where I had just been. My 10th grade social studies teacher was there, snarling and screaming (do not ask me how he managed both at the same time) with the knife buried halfway into the floor. 

Planting my hand against the floor for leverage, I used that to shove myself up, blurting, “Just a thought–” My foot lashed out, kicking hard into the man’s face. “Sneaking up on someone works better–” As his head snapped backward from the blow, the foot I’d used to kick him the first time hit the floor and I rose on that single leg while simultaneously twisting around to plant my other foot in his face as well, hard enough to send him skidding backward down the hall. “If you’re not fucking screaming the whole time!” 

“Paintball, up!” Alloy called from behind, over the sound of the continued wailing.

My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see what looked like a thin blade the width of the hallway come flying our way. With a grunt, I grabbed Pack, launching both of us toward the ceiling with one more puddle of blue under our feet. We flipped over in the air and I planted my boots (Wren had included their gravity-flipping in this, thankfully) against the ceiling while holding Pack’s hand as she dangled under me. Or above me, as far as my boots were concerned.

Below us, Alloy’s blade uhh… yeah, it cut through about half of those guys right around the waist. It went straight down the middle of the corridor, moving really quickly as soon as Pack and I were out of the way. Some of the computer programs managed to duck under or jump over it, but she cut a good number in half. Again, there was very little blood. They just vanished. 

Dropping Pack to the floor, I pushed off, flipping over to land next to her. The remaining ‘faculty’ were starting to close ranks, but before either of us could do anything, That-A-Way called out. “Come on! Let’s go!” She, Alloy, and Mars Bar had cleared the path. We could get out of here. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Spinning on our heels, Pack and I raced over to meet up with Alloy, before all three of us ran to the other two, with Riddles soaring along just above our heads.

Ahead of us, two doors on either side of the hall tried to open to admit more staff into the hall to block us. But before the doors could fully open, Alloy sent two of her marbles that way, each transforming into what amounted to a crowbar to slam into the doors with enough force to slam them shut once more. The transformed marbles stayed in place while we ran onward, giving us time to get past before flying in to join up with their owner once more. 

“Dude,” Way blurted, “those things are awesome! You are welcome to join in on these ‘do whatever insane thing Paintball drags us into’ jobs any time you want!” 

Before I could defend myself from that total slander and point out this wasn’t my fault, the four of us (six counting both lizards) reached an intersection in the school hallway. To our right was the hall leading to the library and media room. Straight ahead was a wall full of academic trophies and a couple doors that would lead into the history section of the school. And to our left was the front hallway leading to the main offices, with an open section about halfway down on the right side of that left hall that would take us to the cafeteria and the main gymnasium. A set of stairs leading to the second floor was in the corner of this intersection, near the hall to the front offices. 

“Where’re we going?” Alloy demanded, spinning in a circle. “Uhh, and can we decide pretty quick?” She was looking back the way we had come, where more of those security programs were coming fast. And I swore some of them were the same people we’d already put down. So either the computer was spawning people with the same faces, or the program itself was respawning after being put down. But really, was there a functional difference?  

Dammit, where were we supposed to go? Where would Paige be fighting her evil duplicate? How were we supposed to guess something like that? I had no idea, and time was of the essence. Worse, there were suddenly more fake faculty coming down the stairs toward us. 

No, wait. they weren’t coming down the stairs. They were standing halfway up, blocking the stairs. And suddenly, I knew which direction Paige was in. Raising a hand, I pointed that way while blurting, “We wanna go whichever way those guys don’t want us to go!” 

Several things happened in very quick succession then. Pack sent Mars Bar to slow down the guys coming up from behind us. Riddles, meanwhile, flew up to harass the guys on the stairs. And left must’ve been the direction of Way’s superspeed, because her form blurred before she was suddenly up there on the steps in time to catch hold of the arm of one guy who was swinging a bat at the lizard-hawk, pitching him over the edge to crash down to the floor below, where Pack herself took his own bat and slammed it into his face so hard the program fizzled and vanished. 

Meanwhile, I ran forward, using blue paint on my shoes to launch myself up and forward. In mid-flight, I extended both hands and sprayed a wide burst of red at the remaining guards. Then I activated it, making all six of them slam together in a tangled jumble of limbs just before I landed on the edge of the railing. At least, I meant to land on the railing, but I overshot a bit and ended up crashing into the opposite wall with a grunt. 

Okay, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me, my powers, or both in this place. It was all just… off for some reason. I didn’t feel as coordinated as I should. There was something missing. Nothing felt right. It just… my powers were all here, my paints were doing what they were supposed to, but somehow it was wrong. Something was different or missing. 

Thankfully, Alloy (who had, once more, been standing flatfooted watching this for a moment) snapped out of it and took advantage of me tangling all six guys together by hitting them with a big shovel made out of two of her marbles to knock all of them down the stairs before the paint expired. 

That-A-Way caught my arm, pulling me away from the wall I’d crashed into. Her voice was clearly concerned. “Paintball, are you okay? You seem–” 

“I’m fine,” I quickly blurted, just as Alloy’s shovel-formed marbles reshaped themselves into a board to lift her past the just-then separating heap of computer troops to reach us. “Just… orienting.” 

Ignoring the other girl’s look, I raised my voice to shout, “Pack, hitch a ride!” With that, I pointed both hands. But rather than shooting the girl herself as she stood in the middle of the intersection down there, I fired purple and green paint toward Mars Bar, who was busy smacking around several of those fake faculty members. And again, I missed with one of the shots. The purple paint blob hit a wall, and I had to quickly adjust to shoot a second blob. 

“Dude,” I heard Alloy mutter toward Way, “have you ever seen him miss?” 

Ignoring that, I quickly activated the paints on Mars Bar while shouting, “Come on!” 

Pack didn’t need me to say it twice. She gave a quick whistle, and the big bear-lizard spun around, dropping onto all fours before charging that way. That green paint on him, he really charged. He was a runaway truck, screaming its way across the polished floor. Pack barely had time to leap on, half dragging herself up and over his back before he continued in a headlong rush. The guys at the bottom of the stairs where Alloy had pushed them didn’t even know what hit them before Mars Bar barreled through with enough force to make all six explode.

These stairs weren’t specifically built for something like a giant lizard-bear, but they were built to look impressive to a bunch of spoiled rich teenagers who did ridiculous, dangerous stuff all the time. So, they held. But I was still pretty sure sticking around here for long would’ve been a bad idea even if we weren’t already in a rush for plenty of other reasons. And I wasn’t even going to wonder if the stairs here had the same structural integrity as the ones in the real world. That was just way too complicated for me to think about right then. 

Before the computer could summon more things to block our path, we all went charging up the stairs. Pack stayed on her pet’s back, while the rest of us ran. I thought about using green to speed us up, but decided it was probably best to hold off. After all, we had no idea what we were running into. Okay, I did know where we were running. At the top of these stairs would be another intersection, similar to the one we had left below us, except with a big glass window looking into the second floor of the library. 

At least, that was what we were supposed to see. But we didn’t. Instead, all of us reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a small wooden structure that smelled awful. Alloy, Way, and I stopped short in confusion just long enough for Mars Bar to crash into us from behind, sending us stumbling through the nearby doors and out into… sunlight? The fuck? 

Yeah, we were standing outside, in broad daylight just outside of a barn, which we had climbed the stairs in the school to reach. The barn sitting in the middle of this obvious farm. There were cows in a nearby pasture listlessly mooing, a silo nearby, the farmhouse itself in the distance, another paddock with horses, and so on. It was an honest to God farm. 

Wait, hold on. I knew this farm. We had taken a school trip out here in middle school. Yeah, this was the farm we’d visited on that first school trip after I met Paige. Err, re-met Paige, I supposed. She hadn’t exactly been nice up to that point, but it was here on the farm when things had really turned bad. Or rather, when she had really turned up the mean. She and her new friends had made up a whole song about me being a cowboy. Specifically, Hopalong Cassidy. Yeah. Which might sound cute, but it wasn’t. It was very much not cute. I didn’t exactly have great memories about this place. 

“Okay,” Alloy was saying while the marbles hovered around her, “for the record, there’s no more stairs in that barn. They disappeared after we all went through. And speaking of, uhhh, all this, either that rich kid school is even more absurd than I thought, or–” 

“The program shifted,” I put in, looking around quickly. “Everything changed to a new location. The–a farm, I guess?” I’d been about to say the name of the farm (which was burned into my mind, as much as I might’ve wanted to forget), but that felt like a bad idea for my secrets. Yeah, other schools might visit this place too, but still. 

“Paintball.” That was Pack, looking at me. “You sure you’re cool? You uhh, seemed like… a little off back there.” 

“I’m off?” Flushing a little, I mumbled, “Yeah, I know. I just– it’s weird in here. Doesn’t it feel weird to you guys? Like, isn’t it screwing with your powers a little bit?”

All three of them looked to one another for a silent moment before turning back to me and offering a collection of shrugs. 

“Great, so it’s just me.” I started to mutter something about that being just typical before shaking it off. Instead, I looked around, focusing on the reason we were here. I’d just have to deal with whatever was wrong with me as we went. And hope I didn’t screw things up for everyone. “Well, I don’t see that girl we’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I don’t see anyone. So how are we supposed to find her now?” 

“We could always ask those guys,” Pack dryly remarked. Her attention was centered off in the distance, where a group of ranch hands were riding closer on horses. 

“Something tells me they’re not gonna be any more helpful than the teachers back there were,” Way retorted. “Especially since–down!” That last bit came as the assortment of farm people all produced a mixture of rifles and pistols, taking aim. 

Yeah, we all hit the dirt. I sent a burst of orange from both hands to hit the other five (yes, I included Riddles and Mars Bar, of course) while putting more on myself, just before several of the bullets struck home. The paint saved us. And a second later, Alloy managed to combine her marbles into a low wall to give us cover, while more bullets ricocheted off as the hail of gunfire continued. 

“Okay!” I shouted over the unending barrage as we all huddled behind that conjured wall, “you know what?! 

“This might be jumping to conclusions a bit, but I’m really starting to feel like this computer might not want us around!” 

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