Month: November 2021

Patreon Snippets 23B (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 23rd edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Actually, it is only most of them. There is one more snippet, but for plot-related reasons it will be attached to the end of one of the next couple chapters. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Sometime Over The Summer

It was a moment that both mother and daughter had dreamed about for a very long time. In the quiet, early evening air, Sariel and Tabbris walked through a beautiful park somewhere in southern California. They were alone here, no other visitors in sight as they watched the end of the sunset across the distant ocean. Holding hands, the two stopped together at the top of the low hill the pathway through the park had led them to. Neither had spoken in the past few minutes, content to simply be with one another in silence. It had been a long road to get to this point, and neither had been certain they would ever actually make it. 

Finally, once the last rays of light had disappeared behind the horizon, Tabbris spoke up. “I wish I could show you the house, Mama.” She didn’t have to clarify further than that, they both knew what she meant. The house where she had grown up, the house she had spent so much time in while secretly possessing Flick. Her home for so long, even if neither of the other two who lived there had known that she was with them until after they left. She wanted to show her mother the house, the room where she had slept inside Flick, the flower garden where she had secretly performed so many protective spells, and so on. She simply wanted to share that and let her mother see the home that she had been sent to. 

Unfortunately, it was too dangerous. The Crossroads loyalists would be watching many places just in case, and the Chambers’ home was one of them. If they showed up there, even for a few minutes, it could set off an alert and cause problems. No matter how much Tabbris wanted to show her mother the house, it wasn’t worth that sort of danger. She knew that, but still felt a pang of regret that she wouldn’t be able to walk through what truly was her childhood home with her mother that way. 

“Well,” Sariel murmured thoughtfully while turning to look at her daughter with a fond smile. “You can still show me, you know? You can show me everything you’ve done, if you want to.”

Hesitating slightly, Tabbris guessed, “You mean with my memories?” She knew she could share memories with her mother. Using it for this sort of thing simply hadn’t occurred to her. 

Sariel, however, replied, “In a way, with my memories.” Smiling faintly at her daughter’s confusion, she continued. “You remember the… other me.” 

“Dream Mama?” Tabbris gave a hurried nod. “Of course I do! She taught me everything, and she was there for me when I was sad and lonely, and she rocked me, and–and…” Trailing off, she hesitated. “She hasn’t been around very much since I showed Flick who I was. I guess because I had someone else to talk to and I wasn’t alone anymore. And… and I think she ran out of things she could teach me. But she helped me a lot. She–you…” Swallowing, she moved to embrace her actual mother. “I’m glad you were here, Mama, even if it was just like that.” 

Returning her daughter’s embrace, Sariel smiled. “Yes, I was here, in a way. And, if you allow it, I can experience everything the other version of me did.” She gently stroked Tabbris’s hair. “If you send her back to me, I’ll have all of her memories of everything that happened while you were growing up. Just as if I was there myself.” 

Eyes widening a bit at that, Tabbris stared at her mother. “S-so you mean, it would be like… you’d have memories of me being a baby and you taking care of me? And teaching me? And… and everything?” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “I know… I know it is a lot to ask you to send me your mental version of me, after everything she meant to you–” 

“It’s okay, Mama,” Tabbris insisted. “Um, she’s you. She’s part of you. And now I have you. So if I give her back, it’s like you’re whole now. You’re both of you. And you’ll have all her memories, so you’ll, umm, you’ll remember everything you said to me and everything we did. I’ll have Dream Mama and Real Mama at the same time.” 

Touching the side of her daughter’s face, Sariel asked, “Are you absolutely certain?” 

Without hesitation, Tabbris nodded. “Mama, I want you and Dream Mama to be one so I can hug her when I hug you and you can remember everything she said. It’s… ummm, you couldn’t be there to raise me yourself, but you did raise me. And if you take her back, you’ll remember it. But, how do we do that?” 

“I’ll show you, baby,” Sariel quietly assured her before turning to look out at the ocean once more as the moon shone across it. “In a few minutes. There’s no rush. 

“We have plenty of time.” 

*********

While Flick And Company Were Dealing With The Denny Situation

Two wolves, one gray-furred and one a tawny color, raced through a quiet suburban neighborhood together. Accompanying them was a cyberform cougar. People out mowing their lawns, delivering papers, or any other number of mundane daily tasks simply saw a trio of dogs that had gotten loose and were running free. A couple called after them, but no one gave chase. Blame the Bystander Effect, or the bystander effect, upper or lower case. A worldwide magical enchantment drawing away the attention and memories of ordinary people, or a very mundane reality in which many people witnessing something will all assume that someone else will act. Either could explain the fact that no one moved to intercept the ‘dogs’ racing through their neighborhood.

Eventually, the wolf pair and their cyberform companion cut through a backyard, startling a man who had been picking up weeds in his flower garden. They leapt over a tall fence, easily clearing its ten foot height before sprinting through the empty yard behind, approached a fence that was two feet taller than the previous one. They still cleared that in a single leap. 

Finally, the trio stopped upon finding themselves facing an assembled group of people waiting for them. 

“Good,” Mateo, a quite thin Latino man who was barely five foot eight, spoke up. “You made it.” 

Immediately, the two wolves began to transform, while the metal cougar simply sat on her haunches and watched. The tawny-furred one shifted and grew into blonde-haired Roxa, while the gray one next to her became Gia Perez, better known as Pace. Both were wearing dark blue skin-tight Seosten bodysuits. 

Taking a quick glance around, inventorying who was there, Roxa recognized the pack leader Mateo, the red-haired man Franklin Corson (who was a couple inches shorter than even Mateo), the other Latina member of the pack, Hasty, and their newest member, a tall, muscular man with long brownish-blond hair who went by Pars. Pars had been the werewolf who was controlled by the evil plant-creature Kwur to attack Flick and the others in Las Vegas. Flick had pointed him toward Mateo, and now he was part of the pack. 

Unfortunately, there was one member Roxa didn’t see. She winced, reaching down to touch the top of Gidget’s head. “You haven’t found Lesedi yet?” 

Lesedi, the last member of the pack. Once there had been another, but Fezzik had died during the fight against the Seosten in the Auberge, when everyone had been trying to get to Liesje’s vault. 

With her short purple hair and dark skin, as well as her tendency to wear sunglasses with purple lenses, the woman stood out. But there was no sign of her here in the yard where the pack had been staying recently, and the only scents of the girl that Roxa could pick up as she carefully sniffed were at least several hours old. 

“Yes and no,” Corson (he preferred that over his first name of Franklin), answered. “We know where she is, but getting in there might be a little tougher with all the cops.” 

“All the cops?” Roxa echoed, blanching. “What happened? Why–she was locked up for Vice Day, wasn’t she?” 

Vice Day came once a month. It was a different day for everyone, normally sometime around when they were first changed. For roughly twenty-four hours, they would be entirely taken by one of the seven vices. It was always the same vice for each person. For Mateo, it was envy. He wanted what other people had. For Hasty, it was gluttony. She gorged herself on treats and food, but also on having fun. Corson’s was wrath, Pace’s was pride, and Pars’ was sloth. 

Roxa’s, much to her embarrassment, was lust. But she and Sean had a standing arrangement to lock themselves in a motel room and… waste that twenty-four hours. There was no shame between the two of them, because they had plenty of discussions before and after about what they could do while she was taken by her vice and how to be safe. Between protection and dialogue, they made it work.  

Which left Lesedi. Her personal vice was greed. 

With a grimace, Mateo explained the situation better than he had when sending the message for the two of them to hurry down here in the first place. “Lesedi locked herself up in the safe room, like usual. She had all the games and movies in there, and we dumped in that bag of gold coins for her to count. That usually makes her feel better and helps her pass the time. But there was some sort of short in the electrical system, and the door opened while we were out getting lunch. She got out and…” He sighed. 

“And she went to rob a bank,” Hasty put in promptly. “Now she’s in the vault down there counting all the money, and there’s a bunch of cops outside waiting to go in. I mean, not really that tough. We could smack all of them around, but Mateo wanted to be more subtle.” She sounded very put out that their pack leader had put the kibosh on that idea. 

“We were hoping,” Mateo himself announced flatly, “that the two of you would have some Heretic powers that could get you in there more quietly.” 

Pars spoke up finally, rubbing his shoulder. “We can still probably help, quietly put the uhh, snipers to sleep for awhile or whatever. Give you an opening to get in the back. Plan B was getting Barnyard to cause a distraction.” He smirked just a little at the thought of his troll buddy. “But this seemed better.”  

Exchanging glances with Pace, Roxa gave a quick nod. “Yeah, I think we can do that. We’ll need to see a picture of the bank so we can plan it out and all, but… wait, how do you know she’s still safe in there and they haven’t gone in?” 

“We’ve got a member of Section Four in charge of the police response,” Mateo answered. Section Four was the secret Alter-Adjacent (human unaffected by the Bystander Effect) group within various positions of authority throughout the government and similar institutions. “He can’t make them leave or anything obvious like that, but he’s been making sure they don’t go inside. For now, anyway. We need to hurry up.” 

“Okay,” Roxa agreed. “Then let’s bring the place up on Google Maps and figure out how to get in. 

“And, more importantly, how to get Lesedi out.” 

********

Sometime Over The Past Few Weeks

“And when Feutar the Cannibalized landed his ship on that half-moon island in the middle of the Kavnan Ocean on the Rakshasa homeworld, who can tell me the name of the tribe he ran into?”  

As he asked that question, Hubert Hobart (they were pretty sure that wasn’t his real name, but it was what he chose to go by) looked through the class of assembled young students. They ranged in actual age dramatically, given the varying maturity rates of different species. But for the most part, the class the heavy-set humanoid with dark green skin and pronounced orc-like tusks was teaching would be considered sixth grade or very early middle school. Some were younger than that, even as far as the maturity rate of their species went. But that was a fair general estimation. 

Perched on her seat around the middle of the class, Tabbris was quiet until a foot gently kicked the back of her leg. She turned slightly to see the boy behind her, a young Menmeran (frog-like humanoid who naturally grew to have quite pronounced muscles) named Gleeger. He whispered, “I know that look. You know this, you should answer.” 

“But it’s not fair,” Tabbris whispered back. “I know it because Seosten memorize everything and he mentioned it at the beginning of the semester. It’s like cheating. I have to give everyone else a chance.”

Even as she whispered that, Hubert Hobart pointed to the young Prevenkuat (two-headed humanoid hyena) sitting near the back of the room with their hand up. “Kahrsa? You had something you wanted to say?” 

The two canine-like heads faced one another, quietly bickering in whispers about which of them was right. Then they faced forward. The female head announced, “I think the tribe was called Aleshkashkah.” 

“And I think it was called Ellifkahkesh,” the male head put in. “The name of the town he went to after that, once he finally got off the island, was Aleshkashkah.” 

“Well, it seems we have a bit of debate,” Hubert noted while taking a few more steps until his quite plump form was at the front of the room once more. “Tabbris, can you tell us which one of them is right?” 

Flushing a bit at the realization that the man was aware she already knew the answer, Tabbris fidgeted a bit in her seat before offering, “Um, he’s right, it was Ellifkahkesh. That was the tribe. But Aleshkashkah wasn’t really the name of the town, it was the name of the family that met him when he got there. So… so they were both names of groups he met, just at different times.” 

“Very good, thank you, Tabbris,” Hubert confirmed with a broad smile. He gestured to the Prevenukuat. “And very good for both of you as well. A gold-worthy answer. But now let’s get back to poor Feutar himself. When he arrived on the island, there was a bit of a familiar surprise waiting for him. Who can tell me which of his former wives was already there, hmm?” 

Class went on that way, before eventually ending. Which meant it was time for lunch. Tabbris shifted off her seat, already planning to simply check and see what Flick was having. But a hand found her arm, and she looked over to see Kahrsa. Both their male and female heads were looking at her, the latter speaking up. “Can you sit with us today? We need help with some of these names before the test.” 

Gleeger the Menmeran gave a hurried nod. “Me too.” Behind him a few others spoke up in agreement. 

“Uhh, I don’t–umm, yeah, I can try.” Tabbris was blushing a bit at the attention. 

Even as she said that, the girl felt someone else step up beside her. Kisea, the young, Asian-looking Seosten girl she had first met alongside several others way back when she and Flick had been taken in by Athena in Seosten space. “I can help too,” the other girl announced. “Um, if you want.” 

Relieved, Tabbris nodded hurriedly. “Uh huh. We can help together, right? Right?” She looked to the others who had come to her in the first place. 

“Right,” Kahrsa’s male head cheerfully replied. “We’re not gonna argue about having more help. Especially more perfect memory Seosten help.” There were a few murmurs of agreement to that. 

“O-okay,” Tabbris, still a bit taken aback by people her own age wanting to spend time with her, found herself smiling a little. “But umm, we definitely need to get lunch first. I still can’t believe how hungry you get when you’re not possessing someone all the time!” 

Even as those words left the girl, her eyes widened and her hand was covering her own mouth as her face turned pale. What if they got mad about the reminder of what her people could do, about what they did all the time? What if they didn’t want to talk to her anymore? What if–

The silence that had followed was broken by a laugh from Gleeger before he spoke up. “I wish I could hide inside someone else so I didn’t get hungry all the time. Maybe I could lose weight that way.” 

His words made a few other people laugh as well, before he gestured. “Come on, let’s get food before poor Tabbris wastes away.” 

And with that, they all walked toward the cafeteria together. Tabbris found herself caught up in the crowd, moving right alongside Kisea. 

She would let Flick know she wasn’t going to see her for lunch today. 

*******

Thousands of years ago, in Rome

Stepping through the door of the villa into the square patio beyond, the cloaked figure paused almost imperceptibly. They clearly caught sight of the other figure waiting for them near the exit to the street, yet gave no verbal acknowledgement for the moment. Instead, they turned to look back the way they had come. A portly man in heavy robes stood there, hand extended with a sack of coins that jingled as his arm shook from emotion. “It is not as much as you deserve–”

“I require no payment,” the cloaked figure insisted while making no move to accept the sack. “for correcting betrayment. Should you wish to show gratitude, there are many in need of food. Take your funds to the unfortunate, for their hunger is truly importunate.”  

The man paused briefly at that before giving a short nod as he lowered the bag of coins. “It shall be done in your name. Thank you, thank you for aiding my daughter. If you had not come–” 

“Yet I did, and she will recover,” came the response. “Though I bid you say you love her. To the child in question, is my suggestion. She has come through danger so harrowing, yet her time as a child is narrowing. Embrace these moments you have left, afore they fall to time’s theft. She is your daughter, see what this has taught her.” 

Without another word, nor a moment’s pause to see what the man would say, the figure turned to leave once more. They passed the woman waiting for them while remaining silent on her way through the archway leading to the street. For a few moments, they simply walked along the dark road, the city illuminated by lamps along the buildings as well as the high moon and stars overhead. 

Finally, once the two had walked together for almost a minute in silence, the cloaked figure spoke. “How many times have you returned, to push for what you have not earned?” After a brief pause, they added, “Lest this has all been in jest, and I am to be possessed.” 

Snorting, the blonde woman moved up to walk alongside them, though still out of arm’s reach as a matter of politeness. “As I said the first time I tracked you down, Hecate, your reputation precedes you. I am not foolish enough to believe I could win such a battle of the minds.” 

“So you have said,” Hecate allowed, before pausing in their walk to turn their head that way, “yet still not fled.” Even in the dim light, their mismatched blue and green eyes were visible, as were the long curls of dark hair escaping the heavy hood that cast shadows over a face that was equal parts beautiful man or handsome woman. 

Meeting their gaze, the blonde woman pointedly replied, “My name is Sariel. And yes, I am a Seosten. We both know what that means, what my people do. But as I said, I am not here for any of that. This is a personal matter. No one knows I’ve come to visit you, and they will continue to not know. I need your help. Me, personally. Not them.”

Lifting their chin, Hecate regarded her silently for several long seconds before speaking. “You wish me to believe, as you cling to my sleeve, that your captain has not sent you, to make me assent to, teaching you my ways, through all mental maze.” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed without breaking eye contact. “That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Puriel doesn’t know I’m here. My own brother doesn’t know. I haven’t told anyone. What I’m asking for has nothing to do with our mission here. Nothing at all. You have my word.” 

A very faint, unamused smile played at the face of the cloaked figure, before Hecate replied, “Some would say that such a word was meaningless. Your people’s reputation being thus. Yet I know of you, Sariel, Diana, or Artemis. And if it is your vow, that I may not so quickly dismiss.” They paused yet again, seeming to consider their next words before turning to walk once more. “Despite my lingering doubt, you have convinced me to hear you out. But kindly be quick, and I loathe any trick.”  

Moving to follow after them, Sariel gave a quick nod. “Yes, of course. I– I come to learn from you, Hecate. Not for the benefit or purposes of my people as a whole, but… but for my mother.” The words came through a thick lump in the woman’s throat before she forced it down and continued. “Everyone on this planet says that there is no one who knows more about working with mental magic and helping people with their memories than you. My people are experts in their own right, given… given everything we do. And I have put a lot of research into it. But I have never heard of my people being able to do the… level of work others claim you are capable of. If half of what I have heard is true, I believe you might be the only person who can help me.” 

Hecate was silent at first, as they walked past several buildings. They were clearly taking a moment to decide how much they were ready to believe, before giving a single nod for the woman to go on. “It is your mother for whom you request aid, if the truth you have not betrayed.”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “My… mother. Her name is Korsmea. A long time ago, many centuries in the past, she was inflicted with a magical curse which my people can do nothing to heal. This curse affects her mind, her memories. It makes her think she’s somewhere else in her past, somewhen else. She wakes up and thinks it’s a thousand years ago and she’s in the middle of an infiltration mission on a desert planet, instead of sitting inside the mental hospital. She’ll get lunch and in the middle of the line, she’ll suddenly think she’s a child again, back in the orphanage. It changes several times a day, she’s just convinced that she’s at some other point in her past. She doesn’t remember where she is, what’s happened to her. She just–” Folding her arms protectively against her own stomach, Sariel finished with a quiet, “She’s been that way since before I was born. I remember her trying to hold on whenever I was with her. She did her best, but she couldn’t stop the… she couldn’t keep her memories. She tried so hard to be herself with me. She always tried to remember. And now I haven’t been around her for so long, I don’t know how… how she’s doing. But I know she needs help. And my people can’t do it. They’ve been trying for centuries and haven’t been able to do it. They can’t fix it.” 

Hecate’s voice had softened, as they stopped walking and turned to face the woman. “Your people are not the sort to ask for aid from an outsider. Most would demand any relief I could provide her. I first dismissed your request to speak, believing you were as much of a sneak. Yet perhaps I judged in haste, and you are not indeed two-faced. I am sorry to hear of your mother’s plight, that is not what I thought to learn this night.” 

“I know my people have done many bad things,” Sariel quietly murmured, meeting their gaze. “I’m not asking you to forgive that, or work with us as we do anything else. But I need your help. You’re the only person who can teach me how to work with memories enough to… maybe, someday help my mother. Please.” 

“And if what I know cannot erase the curse which afflicts her?” Hecate pressed. “Where will you go next, in this quest for an elixir?”  

“I don’t know,” Sariel answered honestly. “But anything you teach me could be useful. Even if you don’t know how to remove the curse itself, I can… I can build off what you know. I can learn from you and then practice. I don’t care if it takes me another thousand years or more, I have to try to help my mother. I have to try to give her mind back.” 

One last moment of consideration passed, before Hecate finally bowed their head in acceptance. “I shall push you away no longer. Your will is truly stronger. If aiding your mother’s condition is possible, to refuse would be far from ignoscible. Yet I must firmly tell you this, my aid is for you, not this war’s abyss. Do not send more of your people seeking trinkets and teachings, I will ignore all such pleas and beseechings. If you are my student, so shall it be. This changes not reality. I accept your words as presented, yet your people oft prove demented. My lessons are for you alone, not for your captain or any upon a throne.” 

“Yes, I promise,” Sariel assured them. “I won’t send any of my people to you. I won’t tell them that you’ve taught me anything, or even that I found you. This is between you and me.” 

After meeting her gaze for another few seconds of judgment, Hecate turned to walk once more. “Then let us speak more of this curse. 

“It may take much time to reverse.”

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Patreon Snippets 23 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 23rd edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Shortly Before 20-06

He was definitely being watched. Ryder Towling knew that much even as he stepped out of his car, parked in front of the Fosters’ house. Of course, he could have said as much before ever coming into Sherwood territory. Everyone knew how the gang operated. Feeling eyes on him as he closed his door and walked around to open the back was hardly surprising. It took a lot of effort for him to resist the urge to look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he grabbed his satchel from the backseat, hoisted it over his shoulder, and closed the door. 

Yes, there were definitely plenty of eyes on him. Which was why he had to be very careful not to let anyone know the real reason he was here. Or anything about his other identity. Something told him that if the Sherwood people found out that he had any connection to another gang, let alone that he was Eits, someone who primarily used their hated technology, they wouldn’t be too happy. He might not even get a chance to explain the situation. 

And even if he did get that chance, what would he say? Was he supposed to tell them that he had been repaying a favor to a secret organization that had helped him… become who he really was inside, and had actually kept information they probably didn’t want him to have? Information which revealed that Cup and Pencil were desperately trying to find someone who had been adopted years earlier. Someone who now lived in Sherwood territory, in this house. Errol Fosters. 

The Fosters themselves shouldn’t even have been living in this area. The family was rich specifically thanks to a business involving transporting technology. Ryder had no idea how they managed to convince the Sherwood people to leave them alone. It was one of many questions he had about this whole situation. Some of which he might even be able to get answers to. 

As he walked away from his car and approached the front door, the boy asked himself for about the thousandth time why he didn’t just go to Blackjack, explain everything he knew, and ask for help. Seriously, what was he doing here? He wasn’t a fighter. He was a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t some sort of secret agent James Bond type. If he ran into trouble here, deep in another gang’s territory, what was he going to do?

It was stupid. Not asking for help was stupid, the whole thing was stupid. Yet something made him stop every time he thought about going to Blackjack. He had no idea what that whole situation was, how close his boss was to the people who had helped him. For fuck’s sake, they had helped him, so he didn’t even know for certain why he wasn’t going straight to them with this, or just letting them handle it. He just… he couldn’t explain it. He owed them so much, but he wasn’t blind to possible problems. 

He needed to find out more about what was going on, why the Scions wanted to find this kid so much, why his family was living here of all places given what they did for a living, what–all of it. He just had to be careful and find out as much as possible before he made any real decisions. Because once he told anyone about what he knew, there would be no going back. 

With that thought firmly in mind, the boy reached out to push the doorbell. Here went nothing. If this whole thing went wrong, he was totally going to tell himself that he had said so. 

He only had to wait a few seconds after pressing the button for the bell before hearing the sound of several deadbolts and chains being unlocked. Finally, the door was pulled open, and he found himself looking at a beautiful, tall blonde girl who was probably incredibly popular at her school. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he could tell at a glance that the girl was accustomed to being ogled. More than accustomed, she expected it, pausing there with the door open and a knowing smirk on her face. “Hey there,” she greeted him, looking the boy up and down. “Arleigh Fosters. You my new college prep buddy?” 

Yes, this was how he had decided to get into the house and find out more about Errol. Searching through posts from the family online, he had found out that they were looking for a tutor, and a little bit of electronic trickery thanks to his little Mites meant that he was given the job. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to go from working with the girl to learning exactly what was going on with Errol, but at least this gave him a foot in the door. He had even gone through the trouble of making some fake business cards for his supposed services, as well as giving himself a mixture of reviews online. Most good, a few middling based on personality differences, even a couple bad ones. He’d wanted it to look as realistic as possible. 

“Ryder Towling,” he confirmed, extending a hand reflexively even while berating himself for the gesture inwardly. “It’s uhh, nice to meet you.” 

Gazing briefly at his hand as though trying to decide how to react, Arleigh finally offered a very faint, somewhat amused smile before reaching out to gently squeeze it. She didn’t exactly shake his hand as much as… grasp the back of it briefly, but at least she didn’t leave him hanging entirely. 

With that, she pivoted and beckoned. “Come on in. Dad’s back in his office, and my little brother hasn’t gotten home yet. My big brother… who the fuck cares, he’s not here, that’s what matters. Are you hungry? Carol’s probably still in the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, she raised her voice to call, “Carol, bring some snacks up to my room! Something fun!” 

“Ah, it’s okay, I–” Stopping himself from objecting too much, Ryder shifted his focus to the other thing the girl had said. “Your room? I mean, you want to go up there to study?” 

Giving him a light, clearly teasing glance, Arleigh replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open. For now.” With that, she pivoted, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she walked to the nearby stairs and began to ascend. The way she walked made it clear that she wanted him to watch her. This was a girl accustomed to having everyone in a room be attracted to her. More than that, she encouraged it. Which… was kind of cool for her, actually. He wasn’t interested, at least not beyond the obvious biological sense. But still, he wasn’t going to fault her for owning it. She seemed, well, certainly not modest in any sense of the word, but sociable enough so far. 

Shaking off those thoughts, he followed her up the stairs. Spending several long seconds trying to think of a casual way to bring it up, he finally settled on a simple, “So you’ve got two brothers, huh?” 

“That’s right,” the girl replied without looking back. “One younger, one older.” She paused by an open door and gestured. “That’s Errol’s room. My little brother. He should be home soon, but you know, if he bugs us too much I’ll just throw shit at him until he leaves. It’s usually not hard to make him fuck off. Micah’s the one that’s the real pain in the ass.” 

They had reached what was obviously her bedroom by that point, as the door was shut and had a big whiteboard hung on it with the words, ‘Stay The Fuck Out Micah’ written on it. Before opening the door, Arleigh spoke clearly. “Xanah, disable the alarm on my door, code Eulogy Kermit Piggy Grover.” 

After a brief pause, a female voice coming from a nearby speaker acknowledged, “Alarm disabled, Miss Fosters. Have a pleasant afternoon.” 

“You put an alarm on your door?” Ryder asked, raising an eyebrow. 

With a snort, the girl pulled it open. “Like I said, Micah’s a pain in the ass. And I mean that with a capital P and A. I can’t give him any opening.” 

This all felt… like a very awkward and strange house to live in. But Ryder pushed those thoughts aside for the moment, following the girl into her quite large bedroom. He was pretty sure the place was bigger than his whole apartment, actually. She had her own bathroom, accessible only through this room, with what looked like a full whirlpool tub inside, and a separate enclosed shower. The bed itself, on the opposite side of the room from the entrance to the bathroom, was big enough for about six people to sleep on, yet it didn’t even take up half the room. 

Looking around briefly, he finally stepped over to where the desk with her computer was. There were already a couple chairs there. “But you ahh, you don’t think your other brother’s such a pain?” 

Shrugging, Arleigh replied, “He’s little, I can kick his ass. I mean, I can kick Micah’s ass too, sometimes. It just–” She stopped, seeming to consider her words once more before simply finishing with, “Micah can go fuck himself. Errol’s not bad. Annoying sometimes, but… you know, not a big deal.”

Looking to a picture on the wall, Ryder stepped that way. “This them?” He focused on the younger boy in the photo, who looked nothing like the other two. He was little and scrawny, with glasses and a very awkward appearance. 

“Yeah, that’s my brothers,” Arleigh confirmed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “But come on, you’re not here to tutor them, remember? Micah’s already in college and Errol’s like, really smart anyway. He’ll be fine.” 

Turning away from the picture, Ryder started to step over that way, when a sight through the nearby window made him pause. “Someone just pulled in.” 

“What?” Arleigh jumped to her feet, moving next to him to look out. “If Micah’s back already, I swear–oh. Hey, that’s Cassidy.” 

“Uh, Cassidy?” Ryder looked again. There was a small girl behind the wheel of the car. From that distance, she looked pretty, in a way much more understated than Arleigh’s in-your-face hotness. Her hair was cut short on one side and long on the other, with pink-tinted bangs. Standing at the window, he found himself staring intently that way before noticing the older man sitting next to her, and the two kids in the backseat. Including a very familiar sight. The boy whose picture he had just been looking at, and who was the very reason he was here. 

“Cassidy Evans, she’s the one driving, next to her dad,” Arleigh announced, already pivoting to head for the door. “And that’s Errol in the back. Come on, let’s say hi. We can get to the tutoring thing in a minute.” 

Well, that was strange. She was really eager to run downstairs and greet this Cassidy. Even as he followed her, Ryder asked himself why that would be. Did she have a crush on the girl or something? 

Forget it, that didn’t matter. Whatever her deal with the Evans girl was–wait, that Evans girl? The realization struck him suddenly, making the boy stop briefly. He had… never thought that–okay he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what Sterling and Elena Evans’ daughter would look like, but from that brief glimpse he’d gotten, that wasn’t it. She… wow. 

Shaking that off, he told himself to focus on being pleasant and getting through this whole thing. Then he could try to push for more information about Errol, maybe even talk to the boy himself a bit if an opportunity presented itself. 

After all, he was here for answers, and he probably wouldn’t get any by focusing on Cassidy Evans. 

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

Immediately After 20-09

As the video call from her adopted little sister ended, Irelyn found herself staring at the phone in her hand. A wide assortment of thoughts were running through her mind, many of them involving a lot of curse words. Of course, the very first thing she did was hit the button to call the girl back, ready to launch into a diatribe about what exactly Paige thought she was doing. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, there was no response. The call went to an automatic voicemail after a few rings, and Irelyn left… not quite (anywhere near) the full list of things she wanted to say in that moment, but enough to make it clear that she needed Paige to call her back immediately. 

Not that she expected that to work, of course. Paige was incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be. So, Irelyn turned away from the grocery store she had been about to walk into, thoughts of preparing dinner that evening completely gone in the moment. She called a different number while striding toward her car, sticking the bluetooth device in her ear to talk as the person on the other end picked up. “Hazel? Yeah, listen, can you get hold of your brother for me? I need him to trace a phone number. Yes, I could go through the official system, but I don’t want to for this. And you both owe me for making those introductions. Yeah, you guys love it here and you know it. Right, here’s the number. Thanks, let me know what he comes up with.” 

Reading it off for the girl, Irelyn got into her car and started it up before realizing that she had no idea where she was driving. She had been in such a rush to move somewhere and feel like she was accomplishing something after that frustrating call from her sister that she had briefly forgotten that she had nowhere to move to just yet. 

Instead of pulling out and driving aimlessly, she took a moment to replay everything that had been said on the phone. Then she paused, a frown touching her face. Paige had stopped her from bringing up the fact that she was Touched, that she was a member of the Conservators. Irelyn had been about to remind the girl that she had experience with this sort of danger specifically because of that, but Paige had spoken up quickly to cut her off. 

Someone else was there with her. Someone had been with Paige and the other girl hadn’t wanted them to overhear Irelyn give away her secret identity. But who? And why hadn’t Paige said anything about someone else listening in? Why–was she captured? Was she being held prisoner? Fuck. Fuck, fuck. That made sense. Of course, that was why she had refused to say anything more. They probably heard about Irelyn asking around and had forced Paige to make that call, likely at gunpoint. This was all bad, so bad. Unless she was jumping to conclusions. It was possible, possible, that there had simply been someone there who wasn’t a threat, but whom Paige didn’t want to hear about Irelyn’s secret. She had to find out more. 

It wasn’t long before Hazel called back, her voice coming through the car’s speaker system that time. 

“Okay, Bryson says this thing’s coming from Florida. Down just a little north of Miami. You wanna tell us what this is all about? Or do we have to play twenty questions? Is it a person? I bet it’s a person. My second guess is animal.” 

Frowning inwardly, Irelyn muttered, “Florida, who do they know in Florida?” The answer, of course, was a lot of people. Her parents were rich and had contacts all over the place. But maybe the Miami part could narrow it down a little. Finally, she shook off those thoughts and focused on what the girl on the phone was saying. “I don’t know exactly. My parents and little sister disappeared a little while ago. And now Paige called me to say they were looking into one of Dad’s businesses, but they got in trouble somehow and she was going to get them out of it.” 

There was a brief pause at that before Hazel replied, “Uh, is your sister some sort of super-ninja secret agent or something? Wait, is she–” 

“She’s not Touched,” Irelyn assured her. “And she’s not–I mean she knows self-defense, Dad made sure of that. So did I. But she’s not–no. I don’t know what she’s thinking. But I have to find her, and our parents, before something terrible happens. There’s something going on around here, and I’m pretty sure Paige knows all about it. She’s the one I need to get answers from.” 

“Well, let Bryson keep working at this on our end,” Hazel tentatively replied. She sounded uncertain, yet curious. “He says there are a few weird things about that signal, like they were trying to mask it or something. But he’s pretty good with this stuff, so he can probably work it out eventually. I’ll make him keep digging a little deeper, let you know what we find out. If anything.” 

“Hazel Ruthers, you and your brother be careful,” Irelyn cautioned. 

“Ew, don’t use my full name, it makes you sound like my mother,” the girl on the other end retorted. “And the last thing I need is to be reminded of my mother. It ruins the mood.” 

Snorting, Irelyn shot back, “Right, right, sorry. Consider me chastised. And… do me a favor, keep all of this off the official record on your end too? Don’t take it to your boss just yet. I don’t know why, it just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.” 

“You always have a weird feeling,” Hazel lightly teased before sobering a bit to add, “Seriously, we’ll keep it on the downlow, sure. It’s the least we can do. Well, that and help you find your family. Give Bry a little more time to pick through this thing and see what’s so weird about it, then we’ll get back to you.”

After agreeing with that, Irelyn disconnected before heaving a sigh. She still had no idea what to do about this. Well, she did. The call had come from Florida. She could go there and look around in person. Was that the right thing to do? There was a war going on right here in Detroit, yet her sister and parents… Fuck, what was the right call here? If something happened to her family because she stayed here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But on the other hand, if she left and this war kicked into even higher gear and people died because she wasn’t around…

Cursing once more under her breath, Irelyn reached out to hit the button on her dash to call Silversmith. Once he picked up several rings later, she tersely spoke, explaining a bit about the situation as succinctly as possible while trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn’t want him to think she wasn’t being professional about this whole thing. Mostly she simply said that her parents and sister had gone off the grid and she needed to go check on them. 

Once she finished, there was a brief pause before the man replied, “I’m sorry to hear about your family, Flea. Of course you can take the time out to go down and look for them. I have a few contacts in the Conservators down there who can help out.” 

“What about the–” she started to bring up the gang war. 

“Don’t worry about us,” he assured her. “Finding your parents and your sister is the important thing right now. Make sure they’re safe. If I need to, I’ll call in some help up here to fill in for you. We’ll be fine, I promise. You head to the airport right–wait, no. I’m going to call in some favors and get you a rapid-transit. Head for–here.” He paused briefly before reading off an address. “Go there, I’ll have a teleporter meet you in twenty minutes or so. They’ll take you straight to Miami where you can meet with the Conservators and get the ball rolling to figure out where your parents and sister went.” 

Still taking a bit aback by the man’s quick reaction to all of this, Irelyn finally found her voice. “Right, thanks, Smith. I’ll get this done, find them, and get back here as soon as possible.” 

“Don’t worry about us,” the man insisted. “Take care of your family. And let me know if you need anything else while you’re down there. We’ll be ready to back you up if we need to. That’s what a team is for.”  

After hesitantly agreeing and thanking the man, Irelyn disconnected once more and began heading for the address. She set the car into autodrive before rolling her seat back to change into her costume. The whole time, a multitude of thoughts were running through her head about what she would find in Florida when she got there. What had her father gotten himself involved in now? And why was Paige so insistent on dealing with it herself? There was something incredibly suspicious about the whole situation, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. 

Whatever this was, whatever was really going on, she was going to find out the truth. And then she and Paige were going to have a long talk about not running off on her own. 

Florida though? Really? Why the hell did it have to be Florida

A few minutes later, she pulled up in front of what looked like a disused warehouse. Parking her car, Irelyn stepped out, now fully-clad in her costume as she looked around. Catching a glimpse of a man waving toward her from the doorway, she strode that way. 

The man stood just under seven feet tall, heavily muscled under a black bodysuit with a silver cloak and hood. His face was covered by a dark red metal mask with holographic white numbers displayed across the front. Currently, the numbers simply read zero point zero zero. 

“Snapback?” Flea, now that she was in costume, asked. “He called you over from Chicago?” 

“I don’t mind,” came the surprisingly gentle and cheerful response given the man’s size and build. “Good luck finding your family though. You let me know if you need anything, yeah?” 

Agreeing, Flea reached out to take the man’s hand. Immediately, she felt the air twist around them. It was a disturbing sensation, making her stomach flip over. The view around her distorted to the point that it hurt to look at it, and she closed her eyes before the nausea would have taken over. 

And with a popping noise, they were abruptly standing elsewhere. As her eyes opened, she found herself still grasping the man’s hand, as they stood in the middle of an alley. The beach was visible in the distance, and the ocean beyond that. 

“Miami Conservator base is about two blocks north,” her ‘lift’ informed the woman. The zero point zero zero previously displayed across the front of his red metal mask had changed to one thousand, three hundred and ninety six. “Thought you might want to get your bearings a little bit before heading that way to check in. But ahh, this is a pretty big jump so you might want to let go before I snap you back with me.”

Snapback was well-named. Essentially, he was capable of transporting himself to any location he had a decent understanding of, no matter how far away. But he could only stay in that location for a limited time. The further the distance, the shorter his time there. When he released his grip on the second location, the man instantly returned to his starting point and gained a brief moment of total invulnerability, as well as a level of super strength depending on how far away he had transported and how long he held it for. Like a stretched rubber band. The strength and invulnerability only lasted a couple of seconds, but it allowed him to hit someone or something with utterly devastating force simply by making a jump to somewhere very far away, holding the teleport for a few seconds until he could stand it no longer, then transporting back and lashing out. He could smack ordinary people around incredibly effectively just by teleporting several miles away and then ‘snapping back’ to swat them. Even better, if he wanted to, the man could expend his temporary strength in a single concussive blast from his hands rather than a physical blow, if his target had moved. 

Alternatively, he could choose to ‘snap’ the connection entirely and stay in the location he had teleported to. Doing that would send a concussive wave out at both his starting and ending locations, though he could choose exactly how to divide that force, giving his starting location the brunt of it and the ending point only a minimal amount, vice versa, or anywhere in between. When he was making a long trip and trying to stay there, the man had to find starting and ending areas that wouldn’t be damaged in the process. 

Thanking the man for the lift, Flea watched him vanish with a rush of expanding air that made a popping sound, before turning. Florida. Time to go visit the local Convervators, and–

“So,” a voice abruptly interrupted. “We heading out?” 

Jumping a bit, Flea pivoted, finding herself facing a familiar figure in a costume consisting of what looked like purple scalemail body armor over her chest, a black hooded cloak, purple metal helmet with black visor, and tan pants over dark brown boots.

Hazel?” she blurted. “What the hell are you doing here? I just–I told you to help your brother look for–how did you–” 

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can call in teleport assistance when you need to,” the other girl retorted. “I’ve still got friends from my old Minority squad in Nebraska. And I had time-off to take. I told you, I wanna help. 

“And hey, don’t call me by my real name. It’s not Hazel Ruthers while we’re in costume. 

“It’s Trivial.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

At Last 16-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – For those who haven’t seen it yet, there was a non-canon chapter focusing on what it would have been like if Morgan/Gaia had remained loyal to Arthur back in the day. You can find it available for everyone right here

With the speech out of the way, it was finally time for the big event. Every room, every place where we were all gathering for this, had a few people in charge of keeping things within the room in order and making sure everybody stayed on task until the main business was done. In our case, those people were Professor Dare, Hisao, and a couple others. They were at the front of the room, just under the large main monitor, with a couple large metal boxes at their sides. Meanwhile, on the screen, Athena had come to the front to start talking. She told everyone to hold two hands, or other relevant appendage(s), together out in front of ourselves and to be ready to hold something. As we all did so, Dare, Hisao, and the other adults at the front of the room (and the rest in the rooms beyond ours) tapped their boxes, setting off some sort of spell that sent the contents out to all of us. Abruptly, there was an almost perfectly clear crystal about the size of a grapefruit in my hands. It felt very slightly warm to the touch. 

I knew what this was. We all did, basically. It had been explained over and over, particularly for the past few days. The crystals were tied to the big spell. We, or everyone who was capable of it, were going to push a little of our own energy into them. When the people in the main spell room pulled the trigger, so to speak, it would first lash out to grab onto the power we were putting into the crystals, then sort of… use those as a stepping stone to spread through and affect everyone here. That was how we could have people affected by the spell who weren’t actually physically on the station, like those at the Atherby camp, the Eden’s Garden people, Wonderland, or those on the colony worlds. It spread and amplified through the crystals.

Meanwhile, those who couldn’t use magic, like Asenath, had their own special orbs with what amounted to bits of themselves in it. In Senny’s case, that meant a few pieces of her hair, a couple pieces of fingernail, and a bit of blood and saliva. Kind of gross, but hardly the worst I’d seen. And necessary for the spell to latch onto her properly since it couldn’t connect to her magic.

Really, not that she needed it, given the fact that she was technically a hybrid and thus… well, a hearty good luck to any hostile Seosten who thought possessing her was a good idea. But she wanted to be included. Besides, stopping any Seosten from even accidentally possessing her and going kablooey was probably a good idea when it came to the whole truce thing. And on top of all that, we didn’t know what would happen if a ghost Seosten like Kushiel tried possessing a hybrid. We had no idea if she would actually kablooey or not. If we just assumed she would and didn’t give Senny protection,  I was pretty sure it would come back to bite us in the ass. That just seemed like our luck. So we weren’t even going to flirt with taking that sort of chance. 

Following Athena’s instructions, we all carefully pushed our own magical energy into the orbs. It really wasn’t very hard at all. They had intentionally been created in a way that made it so they would gently pull the energy they needed from us once we got it started. Sort of like siphoning gas from a car with a hose. At least, that was the analogy that my father gave when we explained it to him. Which kind of made me want to know more about his teenage years, honestly. Maybe I could ask Grandmaria and Popser when they showed up… with Puriel. 

Yeah, nope, I tried to make it all casual in my own head like that, but it didn’t work. That whole situation was still completely fucking crazy.  I couldn’t believe my grandparents were basically hanging out with Zeus and Hercules (the latter of whom had been their best friend for decades), and coming back to Earth on the Olympus spaceship! This–that was–it–yeah. It was nuts. Every time I thought I could maybe sneak a thought about it through my head as if it was something mundane, my brain started blowing a whistle like a cliche old British police officer and made me come back and recite what I had just said again so it could stare at me incredulously. 

Okay, it was possible that my own metaphor to myself had gotten away from me somewhat. The point was, the situation with my grandparents was absurd, and I still hadn’t quite come to terms with it. Maybe it would be easier once I could actually see them. 

In any case, I had filled my own little crystal as much as I needed to. Nearby, I could see the others doing the same. That included April, December, and May, along with the other Seosten. Of course they wanted to be included in this, to feel like they were a part of it. Well, that and the Seosten here who weren’t affected by SPS might have thought making themselves immune to being accidentally possessed by those who were was a good idea. 

And again, we didn’t know how the whole ghost Kushiel thing worked. That was a whole big bag of… poisonous scorpions (worms were entirely too tame and harmless of an example) to think about. We were taking every precaution we could, which yes, had included sending out a station-wide announcement about the fact that there was a malevolent ghost Seosten running around who was able to possess people. None of us had any desire to end up getting bitten in the ass just because we didn’t actually share information.

By that point, the next stage of the spell was ready, having pulled all the energy it needed through the orbs. The air around us seemed to be electric, crackling with power throughout the station and beyond. This spell was bigger than I could even imagine, its web of magic threading far beyond my comprehension. It felt as though the slightest spark would create an inferno that would wipe us from existence, as the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Then even more of my hair, along with the others around me. It was like touching the Van de Graaf generator ball thing at the museum to make your hair stand on end. Except in this case, the energy was all around us.

As planned, words appeared on the screen. Words that we had all already learned about, and some practically (or literally) learned by heart. But seeing them now was important, particularly for the timing, as we all began to speak them aloud by following the bouncing ball that moved along the letters (like watching karaoke videos). All of the people in this room. All of the people in the other rooms. All of the people on the other colony worlds shown on the monitors. The residents of Wonderland. And all of the Eden’s Garden rebels. Everyone, thousands of people, all linked through the crystal orbs that tied fragments of the spell energy together. All of us speaking the words of the same spell, our voices becoming its steady, thrumming heartbeat. In the distance, we could all feel the physical aspect of the spell that had been drawn so painstakingly over these past months. We could see the rising power on that half of the main monitor, as the various lines of runes and intricate spellwork began to glow with an assortment of colors. 

There was more magical power in this moment than I had ever thought I would experience. This was it, the culmination of everything Liesje had put her life toward, the thing her descendants had been hounded across the planet for and that her husband had been imprisoned for centuries to prevent. The spell those loyalist, hardline Seosten had been so desperate to prevent. They could stop it no longer. In the end, though late by so many years and far too many ruined lives, Liesje’s spell was here. 

The words of the spell came slightly faster with each passing moment. But never too fast to read. That itself might have been impossible, given we were all in what amounted to a magical trance. I barely saw the words, yet I knew them. We all did. We spoke in one voice, the words of the spell seeming to twist through the air. I could feel them, almost as well as I could feel the floor beneath my feet. The power of the spell seemed to almost give physical form to the words being spoken, chanted aloud. 

Logically, I knew time was passing. A fair bit of it, actually. I had known ahead of time that this spell wouldn’t be over quick. Not even this part of it. Yet, despite academically knowing that we had been doing this for a while, I didn’t really feel it. Hard as it was to believe or truly understand, it was as though the spell itself was warping time around us so that what was actually over an hour of chanting seemed to take only a few seconds. Yet those few seconds were still over an hour. They were moments, seconds, minutes, days, centuries. Chanting that spell took a thousand lifetimes and a mere instant, simultaneously. 

It was confusing. It was absurd. It was contradictory. But it was the best way I could even hope to describe what was happening. The spell took no time, and it took all of the time in the universe, all at once. I had been chanting for all of my existence. Or was that the spell itself I was feeling? 

I, Felicity, had been standing in this room and chanting for one hour. 

I, the spell itself, had existed for mere moments. All of reality was new. 

I, the power behind the spell, had existed since the dawn of creation. I had seen the rise and fall of countless civilizations. Eons upon eons had come and gone while my power filled the universe, pieces of myself being twisted, colored, used by those beings who entirely failed to grasp the full extent of what I was. Ants crawling through the sand, each believing the shapes they built their mounds into were some grand achievement. Yet the water rose inevitably toward them, wiping away the tiny dot of their work from the surface of a beach many thousands of miles long. I was magic. I was power. I was the energy which tied all universes in all reality together. They shaped me in their corner, but that shape would not hold, and their work would be as nothing. 

Spells were transient. Magic was forever. 

We were all ourselves. We were all the spell. We were all magic itself. We existed in this second and in every second that there had ever been. Nothing would ever exist beyond this spell. Nothing had ever existed. Everything existed. The world, the galaxy, the universe stretched into infinity and yet we saw beyond that. We felt all that had ever been felt. We knew all. We saw all. We were power beyond imagining.  

The words stopped. Our voices came to a halt. A supernatural silence, the likes of which had not been experienced within the universe since the very first forms of life began to form, fell over the room. Over the station. Over everyone and everywhere. 

We had done our part. We had done all that we possibly could. The spell was ninety-nine point nine percent done. It had our words, our power, everything that we could give it. To finish it, a single word remained to be spoken. That word was the trigger, and it could only be spoken by one person. The person whose wife had begun this whole thing so long ago. He, more than anyone else, deserved to be the one who finished this. This moment belonged to him. 

And, in that moment of silence, Dries spoke the final word of the spell his wife had begun all those years earlier. A single Latin word. The word meaning forever, always, eternal. 

“Aeternum.” 

It wasn’t an explosion of power. It was more like a flood, as though we were standing in the path of a dam that had burst. The ‘water’ spilling forth, carrying away everything in its path, was magic itself. It was the spell, erupting from every corner of the station, from every orb in our hands, from the seams of reality. It washed over us, filled us up and became a blinding force that wiped away not only our vision, but every sense we had. For those brief few moments, we could not see, hear, feel, smell, or even taste anything. We existed within a void. If building up the spell had connected us to everything, triggering it left us, if only for a brief time, alone in a way that I could never hope to describe. We were cut off, floating in nothing. Existence was empty. The spell had taken everything and, for one terrifying second, I pondered the possibility that this nothing would continue. Had we failed? Had we, rather than creating a spell to protect everyone from the Seosten, simply managed to sentence ourselves to a lifetime of existence within a sensory deprivation nightmare? Would these brief moments be all that we knew for the rest of time? 

No. The emptiness lasted only for a handful of seconds. And then all of our senses came rushing back. I could see. I could hear. I could feel, taste, and smell. 

I was on my knees, where I had fallen at some point. As was everyone around me. We had all fallen, catching ourselves automatically. Every crystal orb we had once held was gone, shattered and turned to dust by the spell. The last remnants of the magical energy we had triggered could be sensed throughout the room, gradually dissipating in that moment, like water fading through the cracks. It had swept through everything, carried our very souls with it through the universe and left us feeling simultaneously more and less than we likely would ever feel again. And now it was gone. 

No. It wasn’t gone. It was there, or a piece of it at the very least. I could feel that piece deep inside me if I focused on it. It had attached itself to me, this spell that we had all spoken into existence. It was there, waiting to perform the one duty it would have for all of time. It would stop any Seosten from possessing me unless I gave my permission. And that same protection extended to every member of the Rebellion. It would force all Seosten everywhere to be given intentional permission before they would be physically able to possess any of us. 

Needless to say, it took some time to recover from being part of a spell like that. Raising my head as my breath came in short gasps, I looked to see Avalon sitting there, her own gaze on the floor. Her hands were clasped tightly, her lips moving as she whispered. 

Liesje. She was speaking to… to Liesje’s ghost. Not really, of course. The woman wasn’t here. It would be more accurate to say that Avalon was speaking to her memory. Her voice was quiet, a whispered promise that her work was not all for nothing, that Avalon and the rest of us would use her work to free countless enslaved beings throughout the universe. An oath that, however her life might have ended, her work would continue through us. We would ensure that Liesje’s name and efforts were known. The Seosten had spent centuries attempting to crush the woman and her descendants out of all existence and thought. Now? Now they, and everyone they had hooked the yoke of eternal servitude to, would know who Liesje was, and what she had done. 

The woman had died many centuries ago. But what she had accomplished would free countless individuals. It would, quite literally, change the course of the universe. 

Raising her gaze to meet my own, as though she could sense me looking at her, Avalon stared for a moment. Our eyes locked, and I felt the peace that had risen within the other girl. Oh, it wasn’t total peace, of course. She still had Gaia to worry about, to say nothing of all of the other big and little things going on. But this single thing, that had been such a big part of her life, and the lives of everyone in her family, for so long was finally complete. It was done. The spell was finished, active, and there was nothing the Seosten could do about it. 

Centuries after being betrayed, hunted, and murdered, Liesje had finally, in the end, triumphed. 

Before I really knew what was happening, I was already moving, shuffling across the floor to pull Avalon into a tight embrace. She half-lunged at me just as I got there, and we both fell to the side together. My arms were around her, my lips finding hers. We kissed, and everything else melted away for that moment. There were others around us doing much the same with their own loved ones, but I barely noted their existence. All that mattered, all there was right then, was Avalon. My Valley. I kissed her, I felt the relief that had swept through her, the joy that this spell was finally complete. Mixed, of course, with a bit of sadness that Gaia wasn’t here to experience it with us. But overall joy. She was happy, right in that moment, for the culmination of her ancestor’s work. Not to mention the utter failure of the Seosten in putting a stop to it even after all these years. And I could not have been happier for her, and for all of Liesje’s family. 

Finally, we pulled back a bit, and she leaned up to whisper in my ear. “I love you, Felicity.” 

As a tingle ran through me, I put one hand on either side of her face, touching my forehead to hers. “I love you, Avalon,” I murmured. At this exact moment, this was all that mattered. There was so much more to do, so many other problems to deal with. But they could wait. Right now, Liesje’s spell was in place. That was what mattered.

A voice filled the room. It was Athena, speaking from the monitor as she addressed everyone. “The spell has taken hold. By all of our tests, it is stable and performing as expected. From this day forth, our people will never be enslaved, by force or by subterfuge. We will stand against tyranny and create a better way for all to follow. Thank you, all of you, for everything you have done to contribute to this moment. There is far more work to do in the future. But that will come soon enough. For now, enjoy yourselves. You have certainly earned it.” 

By that point, I was on my feet, pulling Avalon up. All around us, others were rising. Piles of incredible, delicious-looking food had appeared on the main tables, while music began to play throughout the room. Everywhere I turned my gaze, I could see people with relieved, ecstatic smiles. Everyone was talking at once, hugging one another, embracing loved ones and friends alike. Some were jumping up and down, or even just tilting their heads back and screaming in joy. An air of relief, of triumph, of victory filled the room. No, not just the room. The entire station and beyond. The web of the spell’s power might have faded away from how it had previously connected all of us, but it had been replaced with a tangible feeling of accomplishment, which would take much longer to wane. 

The others were there. Shiori embraced me, her lips finding mine even as Aylen tugged Avalon to her. They kissed, before the rest of the team and our friends took their turn for a hug. We laughed, shouted back and forth at one another, embraced, and felt the joy of the moment swell through the room. I brought my sharks out, one at a time, so they could experience it. People were eating, dancing, cheering. I sent one of my sharks (Jabberjaw) through the room above everyone’s heads, and other figures joined in, a mixture of actual people with various flying abilities and summoned/magical creatures. A pixie (not Namythiet) flew up through the bubble of water and planted a kiss on Jabberjaw’s nose. He was more than a little confused, but seemed happy enough to be a part of things. 

Looking toward Avalon, who was holding Aylen close against herself, I smiled. “How does it feel?” I asked, raising my voice a bit to be heard above the sound of everyone’s celebration. 

She, in turn, considered the question for a moment before answering. “It feels right. It feels like… it’s about time.” Her own smile rose to a beaming radiance. “It feels pretty good.” 

“Liesje would be proud of you,” I informed her, then thought of the rest of that family. Those who had survived and those who hadn’t. “She’d be proud of all of you.” 

Still holding onto Aylen, Avalon reached a hand out to touch my face. I raised my own hand to brush her fingers, interlocking them as we smiled at one another. 

The work was done. After all that time and work, the spell was finally active. 

Now it was time to celebrate.

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Interlude 20A – Jolene Iverson (Summus Proelium)

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“I’m telling you guys, I really don’t think this is necessary at all.” As the tall, red-haired woman said those words, she was striding out of an elevator into the below-ground parking garage of one of the local news stations, flanked on both sides and followed by several figures. “Don’t you have better things to do? Actually, scratch that. I’m a reporter. I know you have better things to do. So, why don’t you go ahead and focus on one of those other things. I’ll be fine. The report went out over the air days ago.” 

“Sorry, Ms. Iverson.” The apology came from the man on her left. He was a fairly short guy at just a hair over five foot five. In his late twenties, the Latino figure who wore somewhat baggy, loose-fitting gray pants that allowed him to move quite well, with a sleeveless black shirt that had a faded gray Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star around the skyline of the city they were a part of, Detroit in this case) on the front, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a bandana-like mask that left the lower half of his face, and his long dark hair, uncovered. “With the threat on your life, we have orders to escort you straight to the Plaza.” 

The Plaza, in this case, was their term for the headquarters of Ten Towers in Detroit, where the main three towers themselves were located. It was also a thought that made Jolene Iverson grimace, head shaking. “Come on, Stick. I get threats all the time. All reporters do. Especially the ones who talk about Touched stuff. That’s why we use these.” She pointedly withdrew a small black box that fit within the palm of her hand, with a single silver button on it. To demonstrate, she pushed her thumb against that button and stopped walking. As she did so, there was a shimmer of energy in the air, and the woman abruptly looked quite different. Her long red hair had shortened and turned blond. Various features of her face had shifted around, eye shape widening slightly, nose turning up and narrowing, skin color itself darkening just a bit as though she had much more of a tan, and so forth. Within a few seconds, she looked like a completely different person other than the specific height. “Tell me exactly how someone who saw this person give a report about the identities of Pencil and Cup is going to be mistaken for–” She hit the button again, returning to her normal appearance. “–this person? The entire point of using the Incogniter and false names is so that none of those psychopaths out there know what the people reporting on them actually look like. At least, that’s how it was sold to me.” 

“That’s the general idea,” Stick confirmed, watchful eyes glancing around as they stood in the parking garage. “But when there’s a specific threat, we have to take it seriously. Our boss told us the intel they picked up was detailed enough that there is a concern for your safety. So she told us to come here and escort you straight to the plaza while she and Skip check out the source. Once they determine whether the threat is real or not, they’ll decide how soon you can leave.” With a shrug, he added, “It’s in your contract. Your station is a subsidiary of Ten Towers. When there’s a threat like this, we have to deal with it. And you have to let us.” 

“Yeah,” the person on her right-hand side put in. “Believe me, Caishen would be super-pissed if we let you go off on your own. And quite frankly, she’s scarier than you are.” 

Glancing that way, Jolene took in the male form. Well, male for the moment anyway. Ephemera wore a costume that was just as simple as Stick’s, amounting to red pants with matching shoes, a white turtleneck, and a white ski mask with red trim. A belt around their waist held two pistols, a knife, and a collapsible baton. 

Jolene exhaled. A part of her still wanted to argue, but there was little point. They were right. Ten Towers held ultimate authority over the station she worked for, and if Caishen said there was a real threat, nothing Jolene could say would change anyone’s mind. Finally, she settled on, “Okay, fine. I get it. Believe me, if there’s actually a threat, I have no desire to face it myself.” She put the Incogniter back in her pocket. “But do we really need five of you?” Turning a bit, she gestured to the three figures who had been trailing behind. “Five Touched just to protect me?” 

“It’s not so much to protect you as it is to catch them,” came the casual reply from one of those figures. He was a decidedly taller man than Stick, standing about six foot two. None of his skin was exposed, as he wore long black pants, heavy boots, a dark blue shirt under a white trench coat, and a blue helmet that had no visible visor. Instead, the front was covered by the white insignia of a crosshair. Jolene had absolutely no idea how he saw out of that thing.

“Linesight,” Stick chastised slightly with a look that way. 

“What?” The other man offered a shrug. “I didn’t say we wanted anything bad to happen to her. But she’s right, all of us being here would be overkill to protect a single person from some vague threat. We’re here just in case there’s a chance to catch any of the Scions, and you know it. She knows it. We all know it. She reported on Cup and Pencil’s real identities. Even if those two are laying low, any other Scions could be out there looking to impress their bosses by making an example out of her. That’s why we’re here, and why Caishen and Skip took a whole contingent of Towers security to check out the apartment they traced that phone call to. It’s common sense. Ain’t that right, Bungle?”

Beside him, a young woman gave a quick, hurried nod. Her costume consisted of a black bodysuit with purple highlights along the legs and arms, along with the Ten Towers logo, also in purple, across the front. She also wore purple gloves and boots, along with a cape that was black on the outside and purple on the inside, with a connected matching hood that rose up over her head. Under the hood, her head was encased in a black helmet with a large purple visor, which covered the entirety of her face from chin to just above her eyes. The visor appeared to be made of glass, but was actually quite durable to the point of being bulletproof. 

As the woman known to the public as Bunglebotch put it, considering how goofy and uncoordinated her power made her look, the very least she could do was have a cool costume. Besides, she found it infinitely more amusing to show up to a place and make people think they were about to see something incredibly cool and inspiring before, in her own words, ‘drastically disappointing them.’ 

Yet despite her self-disparaging words, Bunglebotch loved her Touched gift. It was a power which allowed her to accomplish essentially any physical task any human being was capable of with enough training and skill. But doing so would always appear to be a completely uncoordinated, comical accident. She could perform incredible athletic stunts of hand to hand combat, acrobatics, sharpshooting, piloting, parkour, and more, yet anyone watching her do so would swear she was about to kill herself simply by taking a step. Watching her in action was akin to viewing an old slapstick-style movie, or even cartoon. She would constantly appear to be tripping, sliding, slipping, stumbling, accidentally yanking down curtains, and more in the course of a simple chase. But no matter how uncoordinated her actions seemed to be, they always accomplished her task and left her relatively unharmed. 

The gift extended beyond uncoordinated-looking-yet-incredible physical prowess as well. Simply by focusing on a single person, Bungle could force that person to comically fail at any physical task they were attempting to accomplish at the time, regardless of how trivial it was. Including simply taking a step, sitting down in a chair, or tearing a sheet of paper in half. That last one she had demonstrated to great effect on a particularly annoying middle management type who annoyed her one day. He ended up giving himself a fat lip. 

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Bungle agreed with Linesight. “No offense, Miss Iverson, but yeah. We’re definitely supposed to try to catch at least one of those Scions. The boss-lady thinks they might try something stupid because they’re so pissed off right now. You’re a visible target for them to take their anger out on, you know? Even if you do have that disguise thing, which is super-duper cool by the way, they might still figure out who you are. You know, by having an inside person or something. But if they do try something, we’re here.”

“And the Minority kid?” Jolene asked, focusing on the fifth and final person who had been accompanying her as he stood a bit back from the others. “What’s he doing here?” 

“Oh, Whamline?” Stick waved a hand. “He’s here for a ridealong.” A ridealong, as it was called, was simply when one of the younger Star-Touched would accompany an adult team, both for some on-the-job training, and to see how they got along with the team. And, of course, how the team got along with them. It helped everyone involved decide where the young Touched should go once they were of age. “Technically it wasn’t supposed to be until next week, but he has a… thing?” 

“School project,” Whamline replied with a shrug before adding a bit apologetically, “I’ve been getting behind a little bit, and they don’t like that.” With a low whistle, he added, “They really don’t like it.” 

“I remember school,” Bungle noted. “School sucked.” As Linesight nudged her pointedly, she gestured defensively. “What? I’m pretty sure he knows that already. I mean, come on, he already said he was behind.” The continued pointed stare made her protest, “What’d I say?” 

Clearing his throat, Stick spoke up. “Okay, speaking of ridealong, I think we can set a good example by keeping our attention on the task at hand.” With that, he looked at Jolene. “Whamline, Linesight, and I will be with you in our van over here. In the back, please.” 

“In the van?” Jolene started to protest. “But my car’s right there. What about–” She stopped then, as a flash nearby drew her attention to Ephemera. Or at least, where Ephemera had been. Their body had abruptly disintegrated to ashes, blowing away in the wind. A foot or so to the side, their new body had appeared. A body which looked completely identical to Jolene in every way. It was like looking into a mirror.

Ephemera’s power was, on the surface, somewhat similar to that of Baldur, leader of Armistice and the strongest Touched in the world. But where Baldur’s power allowed them to shift their own body through various differently-powered versions of themselves and thus come up with practically any gift they needed, Ephemera was far more limited… at least as far as powers went. With a thought, they were capable of making their current body disintegrate. At which point, they would reappear in a new body, which could be any age, sex, gender, and appearance they wished. Which included creating a new costume/set of clothes, though the materials for that would disintegrate once removed. Rather than having any powers they wanted, they could simply infuse the new body with any set of skills possessed by any person they had spent at least one hour with in the past. They often shifted rapidly throughout any given situation, going from an innocent-looking child who could walk through a crowded street without drawing attention, to a man with computer hacking skills to break into a secure building, to a woman with intense combat training to fight their way through that building. And so on. They could last within a single body for twenty-four hours, but very seldom went longer than an hour or so without changing. As they had to put it, staying in the same body with the same skills for too long made them feel antsy. 

“Okay,” the reporter slowly murmured as her head shook. “No offense, but that’s really creepy.”  

“Sorry,” they replied. “I’ll be taking your car and playing human target.” 

Bunglebotch was already moving to the front passenger’s side. “Yeah, and I get to play bodyguard. Don’t worry, we’ve done this before. You’d be surprised how many fancypants executives get their underoos in a twist and need us to run interference.” 

Before Jolene could (somewhat reluctantly) move to the unmarked van instead of her car, Linesight put a hand up to stop her, staring intently at a pair of glasses in his hand for a moment before nodding in satisfaction. “It’s set.” With that, he handed them to her. 

Realizing what the man had done, Jolene gave a soft gasp. Linesight’s power allowed him to mark up to four different spots, including moving objects. Any person who looked at that spot or object, who wasn’t included within a list of mental exceptions the man set at the time that he marked them, would be hit by a powerful concussive beam for as long as they looked at it. 

“Keep the glasses on until we get to the plaza,” he instructed. “They’re only a last-second defense, but if shit actually goes down, you’ll be glad you have them, believe me. And if worst comes to worst and you lose them…” He held up a coin, intently staring at that as well for a moment before passing it to her. “Put that in your pocket. If you’re in real trouble, wait for an opening, then hold that up and use it to get away.”  

Stick spoke up then. “We don’t expect to run into that much trouble, if any. But in this line of work, it’s better to be overly prepared.” To Whamline, he added, “You should probably make a note of that yourself. Always be prepared.” 

Whamline, for his part, gave a thumbs up. “Be prepared, got it. Like that song from the Lion King.”  

“Sure,” Bunglebotch replied from the side of the car. “Except for basically every word in it, and the fact that it’s sung by a villain. But sure, just like that.” 

“Still a good song,” Whamline murmured with a shrug, humming it to himself a bit as he moved to get in the back of the van. 

Jolene followed suit, with Stick getting in the back with the two of them. Linesight took the driver’s seat, and they waited for Ephemera and Bunglebotch to pull out of the lot ahead of them before following suit a moment later. It would only be about a ten minute drive, and the woman found herself leaning back in the seat to look out the heavily tinted, and no doubt bulletproof, window as they progressed. She had actually driven this same route multiple times, going from the station to Ten Towers for interviews or the like. Despite her outward dismissal of the threat to her life, the woman was a bit nervous. Especially once they left the safety of the news station’s parking garage. And yet, as they drove most of the route with no apparent issues, the anxiety that had started to rise up in her stomach quickly began to fade. In another couple of minutes, they would be at Ten Towers Plaza, and she could thank them for the help before finding someone in charge to insist she be given some space to do her work in for as long as this protection detail was supposed to last. Come to think of it, she needed to call Mrs. Morson, who lived in the apartment next door, and ask her to take poor Jitters the cat over to her place and feed him. He had to be yowling at the door by now, confused about why Jolene hadn’t–

“Eph, on your left!” Linesight’s voice suddenly bellowed a warning to Ephemera in the car ahead. 

Just as Jolene’s gaze snapped that way to look through the front windshield, she saw a heavy pickup truck driving alongside her car swerve sideways in an attempt to ram into it. But Ephemera reacted too quickly, slowing the car and twisting it just out of reach as the truck went skidding past. Immediately, one of the men in the truck twisted to point a gun out the back window, opening fire. Yet he had only fired one or two shots before two pale blue beams of energy lashed out from the side of Jolene’s car, slamming into the gunman and knocking him backward out of the truck, where he rolled and sprawled along the road. 

Linesight, Jolene realized that the Touched ahead of her had marked her car right then, even as another pair of beams lashed out toward a second gunman in the truck. Unfortunately, the vehicle swerved that time, and they missed. 

By that point, Ephemera had stopped the car, while Bunglebotch hopped out. As the truck spun around to come back to them, Bungle focused on him. Abruptly, the driver completely failed at the task of driving, sending the truck into a wild spin that ended with a violent slam into the nearby guard rail. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it, as men were already clambering out of the truck. Worse, there was another truck full of them coming up fast from behind the van. They all wore normal clothing, but everyone knew why they were here. Whether they were officially members of the Scions or just wannabes, they were there to impress Pencil and Cup by making an example of the reporter who had exposed their identities over the air.

With the van stopped, Stick yanked the side door open, reaching down to grab a tire iron from the floor before hurling it out ahead of the oncoming truck. In mid-air, the man used his power to make things he touched stay where they were put no matter what force was exerted on them. The tire iron abruptly froze, just as the truck’s front left tire slammed into it. Instantly, the tire was demolished from hitting the immobile object at that speed, and the truck went spinning wildly out of control. 

Hopping out of the van, Stick shouted back to Linesight. “Get Iverson to the Plaza, go!” Then he produced an extendable metal staff from his belt, snapped it out to full length, and ran toward the second truck. 

Without wasting another second, Linesight hit the gas, accelerating around the stopped vehicles while shouting, “You two get down back there. Stay down! Whamline, cover her!” 

Obliging immediately, the Minority hero quickly apologized before pushing Jolene to the floor as he crouched beside her in the narrow space between seats. “Don’t worry, Miss,” he assured her in a tense voice, “we’re almost there.” 

He was right, she knew. They were less than a minute away from the Ten Towers headquarters. In another few seconds, they’d be safe. Part of her was still reeling from the fact that she had actually been attacked. There had been so many false alarms and fake threats over the years that a group of people actually, truly trying to kill her was–

Something hit the truck. Or… or exploded the truck. All she knew was that there was a sudden deafening boom, her vision went blindingly white, and she had the sensation of the van flying. Or falling. Something hit the side of her head, then the back of her head. Spinning. The van was flipping over and over, crashing along the ground. Then everything went dark. 

Seconds, or possibly minutes later, the woman blinked her eyes open blearily. She was lying on the sidewalk somewhere beyond the van, where she had been thrown. The vehicle itself was on its side, the slumped figure of Linesight barely visible through the shattered windshield. Not that she could make out any details. Her vision was still fuzzy, fading in and out. 

She did, however, see the figure walking purposefully toward her. Immediately, she shifted so they would face the glasses Linesight had marked. Unfortunately, only then did the woman realize the glasses were actually gone, having flown off her face at some point in all of that. 

The blurry figure was right in front of her, even as she remembered the coin in her pocket. With fumbling fingers, she yanked it out and held the coin up. 

Nothing happened. No, did it–did it only work if Linesight was conscious? What–

Finally, her eyes focused on the figure who had been standing over her. “Wait… oh.” It was so hard to talk. Something was wrong with her throat, and her stomach had twisted itself into knots. “You… help…” 

“Sorry,” came the flat response, even as the figure raised their hand. A pistol was gripped in it, aimed that way. “But I did this whole thing to impress Cup, and I can’t stop now.” 

With that, the figure pulled the trigger, and Jolene Iverson would never think of anything else again. 

“I mean, come on, can you blame me?” Whamline finished while lowering the gun. “She’s so hot.” 

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At Last 16-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We weren’t trying to shove every member of the Rebellion together into the same room for this whole thing. As enormous as this station was, that just didn’t sound fun at all. And after all, one of the main points of all this was to have a party to celebrate finally getting that spell off the ground. And, more importantly, finally having a real, permanent defense against Seosten possession. Yeah, it was a big deal, and we were damn sure going to celebrate accordingly. Quite frankly, the idea of packing everyone into the same space and then setting them off made me picture a mosh pit. Which, those things were dangerous enough already, before you added in superpowers and a huge amount of size difference between various people. It–yeah. To say nothing of the fact that what the younger people would see as a good party was very different from what a lot of the older people would. 

So, we weren’t trying to squeeze everyone together. Instead, each major group had their own rooms. These were enormous chambers in their own right, like, football field-sized. I was pretty sure the various rooms had different set-ups, but this one (the one for adult students, our teachers, and a few others) had a large dance floor in the middle, long tables waiting to be filled with an assortment of food lining the sides, and smaller, circular tables to sit at toward the opposite side of the dance floor. Not that anyone was dancing or eating at the moment. We were mainly just standing around waiting and talking to each other. Or watching the screens. 

Yeah, screens. The walls were lined with dozens of them, most showing the other rooms full of people here on the station, while a few showed places away from it, like the Atherby camp, Wonderland, or the motel that the Eden’s Garden rebels had taken over. I even saw some that appeared to show completely different planets. Yeah, this was a big deal. Even bigger than I had already known. There were thousands of people pictured through these screens. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t seeing all of them. This was just… it was huge. There was no other way to put it. 

I could look around this single room and see most of the people I knew personally. And even in that case, most of the people here I didn’t know at all beyond a passing glance and name at most. I saw my teammates, my friends, my housemates, my teachers, other people from my classes, and a lot of people I had never even spoken to before. I saw dozens and dozens of people, of all shapes and sizes, whom I was pretty sure I had never seen, just right here in this room. Then I looked at the giant monitors all along the walls and recognized even less faces. but they were faces of people totally committed to this Rebellion, committed to changing things, to risking their lives in an attempt to make the world a better place. 

Only in that moment, as I stood there in our own room and stared at all these video screens showing so many people, did I really even start to grasp the size of this rebellion. Between the Alters who joined up with us, my mother’s original group of Heretics, their descendants who joined recently, those on colony worlds who wanted to be a part of it now that they knew it existed, the Garden rebels, and Athena’s group… yeah. I finally understood what a relatively small part of this whole thing I really was. 

All these people had their own reasons for being involved in this rebellion. They all had their own stories, their own battles, their own triumphs and failures. They had their enemies and friends, their lovers. They had their own everything. It would have taken a million lifetimes for me to find out even a fair percentage of all their stories. I was a piece of this, just a piece of a much larger whole. A whole which, with any luck, would use this spell as the real starting point to actually start to change not only the world, but the entire universe

Right, no wonder I suddenly felt so small. 

“It’s pretty intimidating, isn’t it?” 

Recognizing the voice, I turned to find myself staring at Avalon. She stood there, looking tired but still so incredibly beautiful. For a moment, my heart clenched. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen her at all recently. Sure, she’d been really busy helping with the spell, but she still came home most nights. We had spent time together these past few weeks, even if it was a bit short. And yet, seeing her right then, now that she was finally at the end of the long road that her ancestor’s spell had led her along, it… it meant more than I could even describe.

“Intimidating,” I found myself echoing without even thinking about it, “I’d say gorgeous.” 

Raising an eyebrow as her mouth quirked up very slightly in a smirk, Avalon casually replied, “Well, if you think all these people are gorgeous, maybe I don’t feel nearly as special.” 

Eyes widening, I flushed before quickly stepping that way to take the other girl into a tight hug. “You are definitely special,” I insisted. Just standing there with her, arms around my girl, was just… a shiver ran through me. It felt good. It felt right.

But that was nothing compared to how right and good it felt when Avalon took my chin in her hand and kissed me. At that moment, the entire world seemed to fade away. All of the hundreds of people in the room with us, the thousands on all those different monitors, everything and everyone disappeared, until it was only the two of us standing… no, floating in a void. I didn’t care about anything for those few long, precious seconds. The only thing that mattered was Avalon. 

Finally, my eyes opened as our lips parted, and I whispered, “I love you.” 

It was her turn to shiver, swallowing hard as she met my gaze. “I love you, Felicity,” Avalon murmured, gently kissing me once more. “You… you’re one of my favorite people.” 

Her eyes fell then, and I knew why. Gaia. Another of her favorite people. Reaching up, I gently cupped the side of her face, brushing my thumb just over her cheek. “We’ll get her out of there, Valley, I promise. Now that we have the possession-protection spell, we’ll find out where they’re keeping Gaia and save her. She needs to be back here. She needs to be part of this.” 

“She does,” Avalon agreed in a soft voice. Her hand moved to catch mine against her face, interlacing our fingers. “She saved me… a lot. She saved me more than I can say. I have to save her this time, okay? I can’t–I can’t just leave her.” 

“We won’t,” I promised, squeezing her hand firmly. “Whatever it takes, Valley, we’ll find her and get her back.” Then I asked about the other person she had grown quite fond of over these months. “How’s Dries doing?” 

There was a brief pause as she considered. “He’s… going through a lot right now. He’s happy that this whole thing is finally finished, after everything he and Liesje went through. But also… sad that she’s not here to see it. As good as it is, as happy as he is about the spell finally being done, the whole thing just keeps reminding him of all the bad stuff too. It’s… bittersweet.” 

Swallowing, I replied, “We have to be there for him. Make sure he knows he’s not alone. He… he deserves to have you around. You and Professor Tangle both. He needs to see and know that his family still exists, that they survived. That… you survived.” 

The two of us nodded to one another, then turned and began to make our way through the crowd together, still hand-in-hand. No way was I going to let go if I didn’t have to. We walked the room, saying hi to a few people here and there, mostly those I didn’t know but Avalon did. They were all talking to her, all congratulating and/or thanking her for everything. Valley, for her part, seemed embarrassed by the attention, but was trying to keep it together. She knew as well as I did just how big of a deal this was for the people who had lived under threat of Seosten possession for so long. Even those who had only recently found out the truth. It was big for them too. It meant that they wouldn’t have to constantly worry about the people around them being turned into spies and puppets. It was–yeah, it was a big deal. 

Eventually, the two of us found our way to a corner of the room where most of our friends were waiting. They had staked out an area with a few tables we could sit at once the whole thing got started. As we approached, Shiori hopped up from one of the tables, where she had been playing some sort of card game with Koren and Jazz. “Flick!” She came to give me a hug of her own, as Avalon released my hand so she could turn to say something to Columbus as he stepped over. I returned Shiori’s hug, pulling her to the side a bit so I could kiss her without feeling like we were being stared at the whole time. “Hey, Shy,” I murmured. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Before she could respond to that, Tabbris took her turn for a hug, whispering in my ear that December and the other Calendar people were ‘over there.’ I looked, and saw the three in question along with a couple other Seosten. They were all sitting at a nearby table, looking… well, not confused. They looked like they didn’t know if they would be welcome here or not, like they were ready to bolt for the door the moment anyone gave them a dirty look. Obviously they felt awkward about the fact that this entire thing was about their people being prevented from possessing people without permission. 

I felt like I should step over there and say something, but before I could move, Miranda was right in front of me. “Flick!” she blurted, “look at all these people.” She gestured to the monitors then. “Look at all those people. This is crazy.” 

“I guess getting the chance to be immune to Seosten possession brings a lot of people out,” I managed with a helpless shrug. “Hang on a sec.” Giving her a brief hug, I stepped around the other girl, waving the others off for the moment as I moved to find my way to where April, May, December, and those few other Seosten were sitting. “Hey there, guys,” I put in while grabbing a seat and pulling it out. “This the cool kid’s table?” 

They exchanged looks before May focused on me and quietly replied in a very stiff, yet also uncertain voice that sounded at least partially rehearsed, “We do not believe we should be here. We do not wish to intrude. This is not a place for us.”  

My head shook at that. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. I mean, let’s think about it for a second.” Letting my gaze move over all of them, I continued. “The main point here isn’t to stop your people from using their power. It’s to stop them from abusing their power. And I don’t just mean the possessing thing, even if that’s the main focus. It’s about stopping them from taking their power and using it to enslave, manipulate, and marginalize others.” Falling silent for a moment then, I watched the reactions of the Calendar people as well as the other couple Seosten who were sitting with them. “They do that to you guys too, even without possessing you. They abuse the difference between your powers to marginalize you. Most of them without even really thinking about it or knowing any better. And the way these situations work, nothing will change unless someone makes it change. You guys should know that most of all. Look how long your people live, and how… stuck in their ways they get. They need to be… pushed into changing. This is a push.”

April was the first to respond, her voice catching just a bit in a way that betrayed her uncertainty, much as she tried to push it down. “We are still loyal to our people, whatever faults they may have. We do not wish to make enemies of them. We…” She hesitated, clearly looking for the right words. 

One of the other Seosten, an achingly handsome guy with piercing green eyes, dark skin, and a shaved head spoke up. “We do not wish to destroy our people’s society. Only to make it better. The idea of fighting them directly, and of sitting in a room celebrating a victory over them such as this, is… not disturbing, precisely. We have made our choices. We know what is right. But it still… causes unease.”

I gave a quick nod. “That makes sense. I mean, yeah, you chose to turn against the… um, your society as a whole. Not because you want to destroy them, but because you want to make them better. That–” I sighed. “Believe me, I know how that is. You want to change things, just like we want to change Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, not destroy them. We’re sort of in a similar boat as far as that goes. Or maybe we’re just on the same river. Or–never mind, the analogy got away from me.” 

Exhaling, I pushed on. “The point is, we don’t want to fight your people. Okay, not the majority of them anyway. We don’t want to fight your people as a whole. And we sure as hell don’t want to kill all of them or destroy your society or whatever. The Fomorians are the real enemies, and we all know it. This whole thing is about forcing your people to stop using a method that obviously isn’t working and to do something new. You know, like work with other species. An alliance. That’s what we’re celebrating here. We’re celebrating taking a step that will maybe force the… hardliners among your people to come to the table and make meaningful changes. So we can all fight the real threat instead of each other. That’s why you should be here for this party. Because it’s about celebrating the chance to make things better for everyone.”   

By that point, some of the others had come over and joined us at the table. Shiloh pulled a chair over from another one and sat next to May, leaning in to whisper something to her while Eiji asked the Seosten whose name I didn’t know if he ever found some book they had apparently both been looking for. Vanessa came over, with some other Seosten boy she had been talking to nearby. Soon, there was no way to tell that these guys had initially been separate from the main group.

The air around here was practically electric. Everyone was talking back and forth. The entire room was practically vibrating with excitement. Every time I glanced around, I saw more and more people coming in and spreading out to find their own friends. Not to mention how many were showing up on the monitors. The energy level in this place was rising with every passing second. I was pretty sure if they didn’t start this thing soon, someone was going to pop like a balloon. 

Wait, given the wide assortment of powers, magic, and temperaments among everyone involved in this, I belatedly realized that I probably shouldn’t think about that. Not even as a joke. The point was, everyone wanted to get this show on the road. Which, given how long it had been coming (with various interpretations of that), was understandable. It was time to make this happen. 

As if in direct response to that thought, the lights in the room (and all the others on-screen) dimmed. The main monitor at the far end, which had been dark up to that point, came to life. We were looking at a split-screen view. On one side was the room with the spell itself. I could see people in there making last-second checks of the whole thing, including Wyatt, Sariel, and Apollo among several more. On the other side of the screen there was a small stage where others like Athena, Abigail, and my mother were having a whispered conversation slightly away from the microphone.

Eventually, there seemed to be a brief discussion about who was going to go up and talk. The others all looked to my mother, who was clearly reluctant. But finally, she rose and moved to the microphone. She was standing there, at center-stage on the main monitor, while everyone in this room and all the others stared in silence. Well, silence aside from a few scattered cheers when they saw the woman who had started this whole thing. I could tell so many others wanted to cheer too. But they wanted to hear what she had to say more. A hushed silence quickly fell over everyone. 

After a momentary pause, Mom seemed to rise slightly. She didn’t actually get any taller (though I was pretty sure she could have), but… something about the way she straightened herself up and squared her shoulders made her seem bigger than she had been. When she spoke, her voice carried through the entire room, through every room. Her eyes seemed to stare right into me just as they did everyone else. 

“My name is Joselyn Chambers. I have spent… the past hour watching these monitors. I have watched all of you, and the thing that stands out to me the most is how many of you I do not recognize. We’ve never interacted directly. I don’t know you. By and large, you are strangers to me. And… aside from my family, my husbands and my children, nothing in this life has ever made me happier than looking at these screens and seeing so many people I don’t know. 

“This… this movement started because a few of my friends and I decided we wanted to change things. We started in my room at Crossroads. We spoke in hushed, magically protected whispers. We celebrated faking the death of a single person, a man we had been sent to kill. Five of us spent days planning the rescue of one life. And in the hours of our quiet celebration that followed, I found myself standing by the window, looking out at all my classmates as I asked myself if things would ever truly change, if we could make a difference. 

“Had I the power, I would show my younger self these monitors. And when she asked who all of you are, I would tell her that I have no idea. I would tell her that one of the most remarkable and wonderful things I have ever experienced in my life is to look at all of you and have no idea who you are. I don’t know your names. I don’t know your faces. I don’t know your lives or your stories. But what I do know is that you are all here because you want to make things better. And you are willing to fight for it. To go from being five people in that room, to standing here looking at all of you is truly one of the most amazing and humbling moments of my life.  

“They say that I started this Rebellion. While there is some truth to that, a fire cannot burn without fuel, regardless of who struck the match. We will not win because of who lit the torch. We will win because of who carries it. Each and every one of you. Because as we have already seen so clearly, as long as a single torch exists, the fire will spread. They cannot snuff out every flame. And we… all of you… together we will take the injustice, the hatred, the very system which teaches us that these things are to be admired… and we will burn it to the ground. 

“This movement continues because of you. This world, this… universe will change because of you. Now it’s time for the next step of that change. With this spell, each and every one of us will be immune to unwanted Seosten possession. They will have no choice but to negotiate in good faith. No longer will they manipulate our civilization from the shadows. No longer will they turn us against one another based on lies and deceit. We will pull them to the light. All of them. And those who can stand in that light with us will be at our sides as we turn the focus of our war where it truly belongs, to those who would annihilate us all. 

“I do not know your names or your faces. But I do know this. Together, we are going to change the universe. 

“And they will all know our names.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in for a bit of a surprise when I made it to the alley (really it was more of the space between one half-finished office building and an old self-service car wash that barely got any use) where I was supposed to be meeting Amber, Izzy, and the others. Two surprises, actually, named Murphy and Roald. They were both standing next to a dumpster with the others, and were the only two besides Fred not wearing any sort of mask. As I dropped down from the roof to land casually on my feet (thanks to orange soles), both looked up from the ground they had been intently staring at. No one had been talking, aside from Amber and Pack, who were in a whispered conversation until I arrived. 

Focusing on Murphy and Roald first, I stepped that way after catching myself. “Wha–you guys–” 

“Don’t say it,” Murphy interrupted. Her eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles under them, voice sounding hoarse and strained. “Don’t say we don’t need to be here.” She opened her mouth, then stopped as the only thing that escaped her was an almost keening sound for a moment before she caught herself. Visibly swallowing, she tried again. “I need to be here.” 

How was I supposed to argue with that? Instead, I simply asked, “No masks?” 

They both shrugged, Murphy asking, “What difference does it make? Not like they couldn’t figure out who we were if they actually put the slightest effort into it. If we’re gonna work at the pawn shop, they could all just… you know, walk in and shop there.” Belatedly, she added, a bit darkly, “Besides, what’s Pack over there gonna do, tell all her supervillain friends how to track us down and steal our three-dollar lamp and fifty-dollar television?” 

For her part, Pack offered a casual, “I asked Blackjack and he said the market for fifth-hand goods held together with duct tape and prayers dried up last week. So I guess their stuff is safe.” With a glance toward those two, she added a belated, “I mean, fuck. Sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean–” 

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Murphy, her voice flat. “I don’t care if you think our shit is shit. I care if you’re gonna help drag the secrets out of these motherfuckers so we can find the guy.” 

“That I can definitely do,” Pack agreed. “Luciano’s a worthless fuckbag. And he definitely doesn’t deserve to ride off into the sunset after that shit he pulled. I’m in for bringing him down.” Looking at me, she added, “And not for betraying people.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “I didn’t think you were. Just… wanted to make sure they were comfortable with this. It’s not just about you. It’s about showing their faces to everyone here.”  

Clearing his throat, Roald spoke up finally. “We couldn’t sit around the apartment anymore. My sister’s taking care of all the big picture stuff, so we just…” He trailed off, though it was obvious that he was going to say something about feeling useless. Instead, he finished with, “… decided it’d be a good thing for you guys to have people who can stand around and play lookout, or go over to the mall itself. And trying to do all that while constantly putting ski masks on whenever you guys come out or we go in was, you know, more trouble than it’s worth.” He offered a weak shrug. “We’re not important enough to disguise.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. But I wasn’t sure where to start, or what good it would do. Still, I felt like I needed to say something. It was just that everything that came to mind felt wrong, trite, or worse. In the end, all I managed to say was, “Any time you guys need to leave to… to focus on other things, do it. And if you need anything–” 

“I’ll tell you what we need,” Murphy put in. “We need to do something about those fuckers who let–who helped Luciano escape. And we need to find out where they sent him. Both of which we do by getting inside that fucking base. Which isn’t gonna happen by standing around here.” 

Alloy, standing behind the two with her arms folded tightly as though trying to restrain herself from doing… something (probably punching the nearest wall), spoke up. “Yeah, we all wanna contribute. See?” Her head nodded over to several of her marbles as they transformed into a shovel, a drill, and a pick-axe. “Even these guys. We’re raring to go.” 

Fred, who had instinctively put his hands over Wren’s… helmet where her ears would have been every time Murphy cursed, spoke up. “We’ll be heading back to the shop to get to work on the tech stuff. Okay, she’ll get to work on the tech stuff and I’ll hold stuff. But the kid wanted to be a part of this whole… thing.” He waved a hand around as though encompassing all of us. 

Bobbing her head quickly, Wren added, “It’s important! But don’t worry, I already have ideas about how to make some stuff to protect you guys. But seeing you together, it helps me, uhh, visualize, and visualizing is important.” With a heavy sigh, she mumbled, “I wish I could ask Lion for advice.” Even as she said that, however, the girl was already holding up both hands. “I won’t, I won’t, I swear. I won’t talk about it at all. I won’t say a word.” She mimed zipping her lips, running fingers across the front of the helmet. “I know how to keep secrets.” 

“We’re all gonna have to be the biggest secret-keepers in the world,” I pointed out, glancing around at everyone. “If we don’t want the Ministry to figure out what’s going on.” 

“He’s right,” That-A-Way agreed, before gesturing in the direction of the mall. “This isn’t a simple, quick thing. Even with help, it’s gonna take days, even weeks of digging to make this tunnel, considering we have to be so careful about doing it while also doing all the other stuff we have to do. We don’t rush. We don’t screw it up. Cuz we won’t get a second chance if they even get a hint about what we’re doing. As soon as they do, as soon as they even have a reason to start checking around, we’re screwed. Our main advantage here is them being complacent. So, as much as we all want to get to the part where we break through to the base, let’s try not to get in a rush and end up captured and exposed.” 

Pack grunted. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But I still don’t want to spend months doing this thing, and the longer we take the more chance of something going wrong anyway. So let’s get busy, huh?”  

“Well that’d be a completely new situation for me,” I muttered without thinking. As the others all looked at me, I found myself flushing under the helmet and mask. “You know, the ‘get busy’ thing. I mean. Because I’m always busy, and I have a to-do list the size of a–never mind.” Waving them off, I quickly changed the motion into urging them to move. “Let’s get insi–wait, Pack?” Before we all went running out into the open, I looked to her. Sure, the alley was only a short distance across what amounted to a dirt road (used for construction crews)  leading to the unfinished motel across from the mall, but still. There was always the slim chance that someone could be nearby, and given how close we were to that Ministry base, we were going to have to be really careful.

She, in turn, took a moment to lean out and look up at the sky before turning back to me. “Coast is clear. Riddles doesn’t see anything.” 

Taking the opportunity, we all ran across the dirt road, trying to be quick and low. It was only about a twenty yard dash to get from the alley to the cover of the construction site, which itself was down in what amounted to a pit lower than the level of the road. Once at the edge, there was a dirt slope we kind of half-slid down (aside from Alloy, who rode one of her marbles in board-form) about fifteen feet to the ground level. We could’ve followed the road around and into the lot, but that would have taken us into plain view of the nearby busy street, which would’ve defeated the purpose of being stealthy right then. 

Once we were all down and hidden from the back by the raised dirt, and from the front by the half-finished building itself, I spoke up. “Okay so most of the time when we come out here, we’ll make sure it’s after dark.” 

Way gave a quick nod, before focusing on me as she put in, “And never come out here alone, anybody. Sure, we all wanna get this done as soon as we can, but digging by yourself isn’t a good idea. You need at least one lookout.” 

Alloy raised a hand. “Hey, uhh, sorta speaking of lookout, how exactly are we gonna make sure no one finds this tunnel in the days or weeks it’s gonna take to dig far enough? I mean, sure, the construction isn’t active right now, but can we count on that lasting? And besides, there could be inspections, or just people who come up and screw around. If any of them find a big long tunnel leading toward the mall, they might, you know, say something.” 

“We’ll hide it,” I immediately answered. “We’re not gonna, like, start the tunnel right in the middle of the main office or whatever. We’ll find an out-of-the-way room, dig a hole down, and then cover it up whenever we’re done. We need to dig down first anyway to make sure we’re close to the level of the secret base itself. So we go down, widen it out a bit so we have some space to work with, then start tunneling over. And whenever we’re not digging, we’ll make sure it’s hidden.” 

By that point, we found our way to the building itself. The place was in varying stages of completion, with the main office and the nearest rooms to it being basically done except for paint and moving furniture in, while some of the rooms further away were little more than framework. We chose one of the near-completed rooms so we would be as hidden as possible. There was a wooden pallet just outside, and we looked around before finding a handful of heavy bags of cement mix. And Roald found a ratty old rug. That seemed like as good as anything for hiding the hole. Whenever we weren’t digging, we would put the rug over it, pull the pallet over top of that, then put the cement bags on top of the pallet. As long as we just did all that in a corner, it would hopefully stop anyone from finding our hole. At least accidentally. Assuming we could get this done before construction started again. If we didn’t, that was a whole new bag of worms. 

But we’d deal with that when and if the time came. For now, we had a plan. After finding the spot we wanted to start in, and gathering the stuff to cover the hole when it was made, we all met up once more in that room. 

Wren, hovering up off the floor on her dragonfly wings, was already cheerfully insisting, “This place is great! It’s perfect, you can dig down and over, you can see if anyone’s coming, but you’re out of the way.” 

“She’s right, you can see the main road from here,” Way was saying, as she stood over by a window (there was no glass in it) and pointed. “Right down that way is where the dirt road leading up here starts, so you should be able to see if any cars start heading this way.” 

“And over there,” Pack put in from the doorway, “You can see clear over the whole site. That way goes to the slope we came down, and that way is… pretty wide open.” She glanced to Murphy and Roald. “If one of you, or whoever’s standing guard, sits here by the door and the other sits over there by the charming and lovely That-A-Way’s window, you should be able to give us a heads-up if anyone heads this direction.” 

“Sure, whatever,” Murphy replied simply, glancing away from everyone as she muttered, “As long as we contribute. Standing guard, digging holes, kicking mother–” She caught herself, eyes shifting toward Wren before amending, “Kicking people who deserve it in the junk. Whatever.” 

“You’ll help,” I agreed. “You all will. You…” Hesitating, I swallowed, completely overwhelmed as I glanced around for a moment to take all this in. “Thanks, guys. I didn’t expect to have all this help when I came up with the plan before. It’s–you’re…thanks.” Yeah, it felt awkward. I had no idea how to say what I was feeling right then. Hell, I didn’t even know how to describe what I was feeling. Seeing these guys, realizing they were actually… helping, that they all wanted to do something about the Ministry (even if it was for varying reasons), it was big. It meant more than I could say. 

Thankfully, Izzy seemed to realize that I was floundering, and spoke up. “We should see how well the digging thing works. And the dirt plan.” 

“Dirt plan?” Roald echoed before giving a quick double-take. “Wait, what are you gonna do with all the dirt? I mean, you’re digging a tunnel all the way to the mall, that’s… a lot of dirt.” 

“Thankfully,” Amber replied, “we actually do have a plan for that part, like Raindrop said. We’ll put the dirt in buckets, then she’ll use water to make them weightless and float them up out of the hole to dump in one of the dirt piles that’s already out there from the construction work. Which means she’ll be focused on that, while Paintball has to be down there to do the whole pink thing.” 

“I can do both,” Alloy put in. “Whatever’s helpful. My little friends can be shovels, axes, buckets to carry dirt, and probably more things I can’t think of right now. And they can dig without anyone holding them.” 

My head was bobbing a bit. “I think the best thing for your friends to do, besides giving us a break on the digging sometimes, is to turn into scoops that can pull the dirt out of the way and carry it over to the buckets. And possibly even be buckets themselves. I mean, you and Raindrop can work out the specifics with each other. I’m pretty sure you can both carry out dirt and rocks faster than we can dig. We’ll figure out a system as we go.” 

“Yeah, and speaking of breaks and a system,” Pack noted, “we can trade off and on.” She glanced over to Murphy and Roald. “Me and Rose, we’ll switch back and forth with you minions between standing watch and doing the digging part. It’ll go faster that way. One pair gets tired of digging, the other pair switches in. If you think you’re good for that.” 

“I’m good for whatever helps find Luciano,” Murphy informed her. “I’ll dig twenty tunnels if that’s what it takes. Whatever. Let’s just get this show on the road.” 

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up. “Yeah, I think that’s our cue. We’ll head back to the shop so the kid can get to work with her designs or whatever.”

Those two headed off, quickly followed by Pack, who went to get the van with the supplies she had picked up, and Amber, who went to get the supplies that she and Izzy had bought. Which left me standing in the half-finished motel room with Alloy, Raindrop, Murphy, and Roald. The four of us just looked at each other in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and moved over to the spot we had picked out for the hole. “Okay, so let’s see how this works. Here.” Extending my hand, I painted a pink circle onto the floor, about three feet wide. Then I stepped back and gestured for Alloy to go ahead. 

She, in turn, waved a couple of her marbles that way. They transformed into a pair of shovels, then shoved their way down into the pink floor. The effect of my paint extended down about ten inches, so they were able to easily pull up big pieces of the floor and some of the dirt beneath, all of it like… thick foam or playdough. Very easy to rip away in solid chunks. Well, solid chunks for about five more seconds, before it turned back into a mix of dirt and broken pieces of cement. 

“How often do you think you can do that before you have to take a break to recharge?” Raindrop asked, stepping over to look at the hole. “For the actual tunnel, I mean.” 

Without thinking about it, I crouched down to run my hand over the dirt. “If I’m only doing that, and say the tunnel is… let’s say six feet high and four feet wide… I’ll probably need to take about sixty seconds to refill around every… maybe fourth time? Depends on how quick we are about digging into it and pulling the dirt out of the way. Probably get more efficient as we go. You know, work out a rhythm. Maybe we can get to the point of timing our speed so I don’t have to actually stop completely.”

Roald spoke up, his voice curious. “How do you know how much paint you have?” 

“I–” My mouth opened, before I stopped, head tilting. “I didn’t used to. It was more of a whole, ‘shit I’ve used a lot of paint recently, I’m about to run out.’ But now I can just… sort of sense it a bit? I know when I’m low.  I guess I’ve just gotten better at estimating after using it for awhile?” 

“Powers get better as you use them,” Raindrop informed us. “Sometimes that comes as ‘make them stronger’ and sometimes it’s things like knowing how much paint you have. When I started, I couldn’t umm, I couldn’t summon water. I mean, I could pull it and move it and stuff, but I couldn’t summon it from somewhere else.”

“Is that what you do?” That was Alloy. “I always wondered why you weren’t like, solving people’s water problems all over the place. You don’t make it out of nothing?” 

Raindrop shook her head. “Nuh uh. It’s pulled from other water sources. We did a test awhile back. The water I… ‘make’ gets pulled from places like one of the lakes or rivers around here. Whichever one is closest. It’s like… it’s like I can sense water in the air, you know? Humidity, I guess. And I can umm… feel all the way through that humidity to big sources of water, and then I just… think about it and put the big sources of water where the humidity right in front of me is.” Frowning, she sighed. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t think of a better way to explain it.”

“You did just fine,” I assured her. “I mean, it makes about as much sense as a lot of powers do. They get pretty weird. Teleporting water to yourself through the connection of humidity in the air is about as good of an explanation as any.” 

By that point, Roald spoke up from the window where he had been idly watching. “They’re coming.” 

He was right. A couple minutes later, both Pack’s van and a truck that Way had apparently borrowed from someone were parked close to the room, the backs opened up so we could all carry the tools, lights, chains, and other supplies inside. 

“Okay, I think we should focus on digging down and widening it out at the bottom enough to stick all this stuff down there,” I murmured. “You know, so we don’t just have all this sitting here in plain sight. I don’t think anyone will come through the area tonight, but just in case.” 

So, we got started on that. And as we did, I took another look out through the window. The mall was visible in the distance. From here, it looked like way too much distance. It was definitely too far for me to do this by myself. I never would’ve gotten anywhere near the place. 

But I wasn’t by myself. Not anymore. I had people I could talk to, people who knew varying amounts of the truth. I had Amber and Izzy, who knew all of it. And I had Pack, Murphy, Roald, Alloy, even Wren and Fred. I had all of them here to help. 

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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At Last 16-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The first non-canon for THIS story was posted a couple days ago and is available for everyone right here

“So all fifteen of those ghosts are just gone now?” As Sands asked that, she feinted toward the left before moving quickly toward the right, foot lashing out in a kick toward my knee. At the same time, she lifted her left hand toward my face and released a burst of energy that spread out like the blast from a shotgun. Up close like that, the burst would damage or unravel various types of spells or magic constructs. Against a conscious mind on the other hand, like the one inside my head, it would leave the person incredibly disoriented and confused for a brief moment. Long enough for her to get several good hits in if I let it happen.  

Needless to say, I wasn’t going to let it happen. Twisting sideways so that my back was to her rising leg and my right side was to her arm as it lashed out, I snapped my right hand down and back to swat her foot out of the way. My other hand caught her elbow and pushed it to the side enough that her blast of disorienting energy flew into the face of Sarah instead of me, as the other girl came up from behind me in an attempt at an ambush. 

It was Sunday, the twenty-third. The day after my visit to that neighborhood in North Carolina. And I was facing both of the Lucas (formerly Mason) twins head-to-head. We weren’t really fighting, of course. Well, actually, we were. We were sparring in one of the training rooms, but basically going full-contact. Or as close as we could without actually trying to kill each other. Powers were allowed, magic wasn’t. And we weren’t using our weapons either. Not this time. Oh, and no ghosts. We were fighting without Necromancy this time around. Mostly to make sure I didn’t fall behind in everything else while trying to work on that.   

“Almost,” I replied while pivoting once more to put my back against Sands’ front. With a grunt, I gave a sharp heave to throw her up and over my shoulder. A yelp escaped the other girl as she flipped over in the air. In the midst of that, I released her, but she didn’t go flying or fall. I had used my five-second pause power to freeze her shirt, so she basically stayed right in that spot, lying on her back in mid-air. 

Before she could free herself or the pause wore off, I took a step and pivoted all the way around. In mid-motion, I used my pause power again. Or rather, I used the rewind portion of it. Instead of being frozen, her shirt was yanked backward along the path it had taken when I threw her over my shoulder. It put her on a collision course with my foot as I spun into a roundhouse that collided with her back. The force of that sent her flying forward into Sarah, who had just recovered from the burst of disorienting energy that Sands had accidentally hit her with. 

Just as Sarah was stumbling backward from the collision with her sister, she managed to lash out with her own foot, stomping into the ground. She used the power to turn similar surfaces into portals for her limbs in order to send her foot up out of the floor behind me. The kick hit the back of my knee just hard enough to make me stagger. 

Sands, meanwhile, had already shifted into her two-dimensional shadow form, sliding right off of Sarah. “Almost?” she echoed in mid-move. 

The girl’s transformation left her twin free to catch herself on her left foot just before she would have fallen, before shifting her energy-construct arm into a long, coiled whip. Which she lashed out with while I was stumbling from her kick. The whip wrapped around my arm, sizzling just a little. Not painfully, but it was definitely warm. Before I could react, she was yanking hard to pull me forward, toward her.

No, not toward her. Toward the Spider-Man-like web that Sands was shooting right into that space while calling out, “What do you mean, almost?” It was the power she had gotten from way back when they fought the Spinnevurrs while Avalon and I had faced Doxer and Trice. The webs were incredibly strong and sticky, and she could ignite them with fire if she wanted to. All in all, not a good thing to get caught in. 

So, I didn’t. Snapping my free hand out even as I was being yanked that way by the other, I created a portal in the air right in front of where Sands was aiming. The web went in the portal and out the other end, right behind Sarah. At the same time, I replied (a bit hastily), “Turns out Gimcrack–” I had to stop talking for a second then, because the web didn’t actually hit Sarah the way I’d planned. Instead, the girl used her Tzentses-given energy construct power to create a shield at her back, catching the web before it reached her. At the same time, her mouth was opening. Which meant she was about to hit me with another newish power of hers. And that was something I really didn’t want to happen. 

So, I used my boost. Just enough to yank my arm free of her energy whip before diving into a roll. The motion carried me under the wide spray of freezing mist that had just erupted from Sarah’s mouth. One touch from that mist, and anyone hit by it would find themselves incredibly cold. But it was more than that. The mist made you cold and slowed you down considerably, making you move at about half-speed. The more direct and full of a hit you took, the longer the slow-down lasted. And the thing was, even if you were immune to the cold aspect, the slow part affected you anyway. 

In this case, I managed, although barely, to avoid being hit by it. My diving roll carried me just under the spray, before I popped back to my feet. But I didn’t simply stand up. No, they were expecting that, and already adjusting their aim to hit where they thought I would be. Instead, I used what was left of the boost I had triggered to launch myself high into the air. It wasn’t anywhere near what I could do with a burst from my staff, but I still managed to get a good seven, eight feet up from that boost added onto my already enhanced-strength. On the way, as Sands’ web passed through the space where I had just been, I quickly blurted out, “Gimcrack’s brother studied necromancy!” 

Still in mid-air, I flipped over and spat in front of myself. Not actual spit, of course. I was using the hardening-resin power I’d taken from that Fomorian deer-snake thing just before I’d met up with Nicholas Petan in the future. It passed through a new portal that I had created. The other end appeared in the floor right behind Sands. The resin expanded to encase both of her feet, trapping her there even as she tried to step forward. 

Meanwhile, Sarah had already taken two quick steps to the side, transforming her whip-arm into what looked like a harpoon gun. Yeah, it was part of an upgrade that Columbus and Nevada had helped her with. I wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, but she could ‘shoot’ energy constructs out from her arm. It could be single bullets, arrows, a harpoon like she had right now, spears, or anything like that. The larger the object, the more time and effort it took to ‘reload’ after firing. 

Needless to say, I was in no particular rush to get hit by her harpoon. Even if she had blunted the end so that it would only hurt rather than piercing all the way through. So, before I could fall the rest of the way to the floor where she was already shooting, I used my pause power on my own pants. It… wasn’t exactly the most comfortable feeling, to say the least. A wince escaped me as I was abruptly jerked to a halt in mid-fall. But hey, at least Sarah’s harpoon went through the empty space where I had been heading instead of hitting me directly. 

While briefly suspended there, I focused on Sands, who was bracing herself to rip her feet up out of the resin. Which, given her enhanced strength, was something I was pretty sure she could manage. Or at least, she could have if I hadn’t chosen right then to hit her with another power I’d gotten from the planet with Petan. Namely, the one from the Fomorian ape-crocodile that dramatically increased the amount of force needed to move something. It was the same power that monster had used to stop Petan’s ship from getting off the ground. Though, of course, mine was a lot weaker. It was, however, enough to make Sands incapable of generating enough force to break the resin trapping her feet to the ground. At least for another moment, she was still trapped there. 

By that point, I had disabled the pause and allowed myself to drop the rest of the way to the floor. Which put me directly in front of Sarah just as her harpoon hit the wall somewhere behind me. Before she could manifest a new one, I lunged that way. 

Or rather, I pretended to lunge that way. In actuality, it was a feint. In mid-motion, I dropped to the floor, catching myself on my hands. At that exact instant, Sands, whose motion I had detected with my object-sense power as the sleeves of her shirt rose and extended my way, sent another attack my way. I had expected webbing again. But this time, the air above my head was filled with purplish arcs of what looked like electricity. But no, it was definitely not electricity. Instead, any being struck by the ‘electricity’ would be forced to copy the physical motions of Sands for about three seconds after she hit them with it. 

I knew immediately why she had used that power rather than the webbing. It was because the puppeting-electricity (or whatever it was actually called) wouldn’t actually go far enough to hit Sarah on the other side of me. 

At least, it wouldn’t have. Except for the fact that, while throwing myself down, I summoned a portal right on the floor. My right hand went through it and out the other end, directly behind Sarah. The force of the hard shove sent her stumbling forward toward me. And thus, directly into range of the purple energy arcs. 

Of course, Sands didn’t have any intention of forcing Sarah to move at all. But she didn’t have to. The moment the energy struck the other girl, it forced her to stop in place. Because Sands wasn’t moving, thanks to the resin still trapping her feet against the ground. She couldn’t walk anywhere. Which left me free to throw myself into a backwards roll before popping back to my feet right beside Sands. She immediately froze, thinking that I was going to hit her. Which wouldn’t have done much, given how close to completely invulnerable she was when not moving. But I wasn’t hitting her. Instead, my hand barely brushed her arm as I used my power to create muscle spasms. Immediately, Sands yelped and jerked a bit, her entire body giving a violent shudder. 

Then I hit her. Because her body was moving, so she was no longer invulnerable. Pivoting around, I kicked the back of her leg out from under the girl. Ten feet away, Sarah was copying the same spasming motion, still affected by that puppeting power. Likewise, as I kicked Sands’ leg, Sarah’s went out from under her too. Both of them fell toward the floor. As they caught themselves on their hands (Sarah duplicating Sands’ motion to do so), I spat twice more, sending hardening resin at both of Sarah’s hands to trap her there. 

Meanwhile, I dropped down, planting my knee in Sands’ back before putting a hand against her neck. Not hard, but a bit firmly so she knew just how much control I had in that moment. “We good?” 

Taking stock of herself and her sister in their current positions, Sands considered briefly, then gave a short nod. “Oof,” she informed me. “More than good in your case. That was intense. And you said Avalon was going to get on your case about not training enough. You seem pretty good to me.”

“Hi, have you met Avalon?” I retorted with a broad gesture from my free hand. “She’ll still get on my case about not training enough. Scratch that, she’ll get on all our cases.” Pushing myself up, I focused on dissolving the resin I had trapped both her feet and Sarah’s hands in. Soon, it was gone, and they were able to push themselves up. “I’m just trying to head off the worst of it. Once she’s not busy with this spell thing anymore, she’s gonna put all of us through the wringer.” 

“Good point,” Sands agreed, brushing herself off. “So what was that you were saying about Gimcrack’s brother studying Necromancy? That was the gnome girl, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, turns out he spent a lot of the past ten years studying Necromancy so he could work out what happened to his sister. After she died he was trying to find a way to pull her spirit back or whatever. And, he didn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure he meant to have some sort of face-off with Fossor too.” 

With a grimace as she shifted her prosthetic arm back to its normal shape, Sarah quietly murmured, “That would have gone poorly.” 

“Tell me about it.” I gestured. “But now he doesn’t have to. And a good part of that whole thing is that while he definitely isn’t strong enough to have even been a blip on Fossor’s radar, he is good enough to keep his sister around for awhile. She was ready to go before, but now she’s going to stay with him for at least a little while. It gives them a chance to have time together and get to know each other again before she, you know, moves on.” 

“See, that’s something that confused me,” Sands put in. “Why are these ghosts choosing to disappear at all? I mean, they could just go on forever, couldn’t they? Especially now that they don’t have Fossor bossing them around. It’s not like you’ll force them to do anything they don’t want to do. And besides, ghosts like that Grover dude have hung around the Runaway hotel forever without having a Necromancer to keep them going. So even if they did want to leave you to stay away from the, I dunno, taste of Fossor’s energy or whatever, why does that automatically mean they have to dissipate, or fade away, or… you know? Why do they have to be gone?” 

Before I could say anything to that, Sarah answered, “Natural versus Bonded.” 

Gesturing, I agreed, “What she said. See, there’s Natural ghosts and there’s Bonded ghosts. Which is weird phrasing, since we already have ‘Natural Bond Heretics,’ but hey. As far as ghosts go, Natural ones are those that, ahhh, occur naturally. Ghosts that stay behind because of their own intense power and/or feelings. Or even ghosts that stay behind because of some sort of power in the environment. Which isn’t really ‘natural,’ but no one said people name things perfectly. All it basically means is that they’re ghosts who weren’t intentionally summoned and controlled by a Necromancer, or someone with Necromantic spells. That’s the sort of ghost someone like Grover is. Or Seth. They’re ghosts who weren’t intentionally summoned by anyone. So they can continue to exist without the help of a Necromancer. Even in their case, manifesting takes energy. They’re basically imprints of that person’s magical signature and personality on the magical energy around them. But it takes effort for them to appear. Usually they only have enough energy to manifest visually and audibly. Physical manifestation takes a lot more.” 

“Which is why you have to give energy to them so they can hit people hard enough for them to feel it,” Sands noted. 

I gave a quick nod. “Exactly. It works the same way for the other sort of ghosts too, the Bonded ones. But in their case, because they didn’t come about the natural way and were summoned–I think a better word is created, but even that’s wrong, because the Necromancer doesn’t ‘create’ them. Eh, it’s complicated. The point is, ghosts who come about because someone yanked at them can’t really exist without either that Necromancer or someone else with similar power to keep them going. That’s why Grover could wander around the hotel for a century or whatever without having anyone to boss him around, but the ghosts from Fossor had to stay with me. They’re sort of… short-cut ghosts. I mean, it’s possible that some of them could actually exist on their own without any help. Possible. Especially with all the power Fossor pumped into them over the years, decades, or even centuries. But for the most part, Bonded ghosts need to be linked to a Necromancer to keep them afloat. Natural ghosts do it on their own, but they tend to be tied to a specific location or object. You know, like a haunted locket, or their own body, or whatever. It could be a lot of things. Anything they can anchor their signature to and use the ambient magical energy around them to manifest. The more energy they have, the better the manifestation. That’s why places or things with a lot of ambient magical power tend to make strong ghosts appear. They attach themselves to it and siphon energy to appear and sometimes even move things. You know, like a haunted house that has a lot of magical power running through it for whatever reason.” 

“Let me guess,” Sands put in, “they can attach their energy to something else. Or someone else. Like, say, a Necromancer who wanders through their hotel.” 

With a chuckle, I nodded. “Yeah, that’s what Grover did. He was attached to the hotel, and he transferred that link to me before I left. I was… a bit distracted, so I didn’t notice. That and I don’t have enough practice. That’s a whole thing. And it’s the opposite of what Fossor’s ghosts are doing. They’re taking their link off of me and then… well, mostly just fading away. Because they want to. They… they lived–okay lived is the wrong word. They’ve existed for a long time, being forced to do so many terrible things. But they think–they want to rest now. They think that Fossor being dead is the last big memory they want. That’s enough for them. It takes… from what they said, being enslaved by Fossor, forced to do all those horrible things for him, it took pieces of their soul away every time. Now most of them just want to disappear. They want to fade away and… maybe see if anything comes after this. Or…” 

“Reunification,” Sarah put in. 

Sands looked confused, blinking between us. “Reunification?” 

“It’s a theory that a lot of people have about ghosts,” I explained. “Basically, it’s that a person can’t really move on to whatever comes after this life until their ghost joins the rest of them. If their ghost is still here in this world, then the part of them that started to move on is in a sort of limbo or purgatory. So they think that if they allow themselves to dissipate here, they’ll join up with the rest of themselves and move on.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “Anyway, like I said, Gimcrack was ready to be one of those that moved on, like the others, but since her brother learned Necromancy, she’s going to stay with him for awhile first. Whatever comes next is between them. It’s something, anyway.” 

Before the other two could say anything, the door into the training room slid open, and Larissa stepped partway in. “Girls,” she called, waiting until we were looking at her. A faint smile touched her face as she gave a single nod. “It’s time to start.” 

Right, time to start. By which she meant it was time to get everyone together so Liesje’s spell could be triggered. Finally, after all this time, after the woman herself had spent her life running and hiding while working on the spell, after centuries of the Seosten chasing after her descendants, after Avalon’s mother had been killed, her father turned against her, her life uprooted, after a year of repeated attempts to kill her, after Tangle had been manipulated and used, after… after so much, it was finally time. 

“Well?” I managed after that rush of thoughts ran through me. “What’re we waiting for? 

“Let’s go finish this thing.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The new Summus Proelium non-canon, continuing the story of Flea and Cassidy running into each other during the events of Project Owl and then teaming up with Paige, can be found and read by EVERYONE right here

We didn’t go immediately, of course. There were still a few things that needed to be done. First of all, we needed shovels, pick-axes, that sort of thing. Sure, once we got closer to the base itself, we were going to have to be a lot more careful and quiet (likely using my black paint as much as possible), but at least early on, we could use ordinary tools to move faster. Wren initially said she was going to look into putting together some sort of quiet debris mover/digging device, but I told her that she should focus on ways to protect everyone once we eventually got through to the base, so we didn’t have to use our powers quite as much. Protective equipment, especially for those who didn’t have any powers like Murphy and Roald, was the priority. For the moment, we could just dig the old-fashioned way. Well, as ‘old-fashioned’ as it could get while I was literally using pink paint to make the dirt and rocks easy to move. 

Yeah, I was trying to psych myself up. This was going to be long, hard work. Even I knew that much, inexperienced as I was. It was going to take us a long time to dig a tunnel all the way through to the mall. But it was the best plan we had. There wasn’t really a better option, aside from the crazy thought I’d had about finding a way to bribe or trick Undermine into digging the tunnel for us. But somehow, I didn’t think that would work out very well. 

So, Fred and Pack were both going to get tools. Separately, that was. They both had their own ideas about where to get the stuff we needed. Alloy ended up going with Fred to help carry stuff. Meanwhile, Amber and Izzy were going to get other supplies. Lights so we could see what we were doing down there, chains to hang them off of through the tunnel once it got going, a generator for those lights, and anything else they could think of. Not all of it was super necessary right at this second, given how long it was going to take to actually get far enough into the tunnel for it to be relevant, but still. Better to have it. 

Meanwhile, I went upstairs to see Paige and Raige. After everything else that had happened, I still needed to get answers from them about what was going on with her sister. Their sister? I wasn’t sure. The point was, I needed to find out more about how to deal with the Irelyn situation.

So, I grabbed the control box thing, sending the word ‘aardvark’ as Raige had requested. Then I sat back and waited for a few minutes, gazing out the nearby window while thinking about everything that was going on. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be left to my own thoughts for very long before Paige’s voice abruptly spoke up. “Paintball?” 

Quickly, I shoved everything else out of my mind and turned that way. “Paige?”

Just as before, her eyes were still closed. She was just lying there, completely motionless on the couch aside from moving her mouth to speak. “Yeah,” she replied flatly. “It’s me. And her. Both of us.” 

Immediately, her mouth moved again, and I knew it was Raige this time. “We both want to know what’s going on. Had any more encounters with the Banners’ real daughter?”

Reflexively, I started to insist that Paige was their real daughter too if they had adopted her. Then I rethought. I had no idea what sort of relationship they’d had. They’d literally bought her, so maybe I shouldn’t insist that she was their daughter. Maybe I should just leave it alone for now. Instead, I replied, “No, I haven’t seen her since that one time. But I did hear at…” Pausing, I looked around a bit to make sure we were still alone, then sat next to her (them) and lowered my voice. “I heard she’s been at the school asking about you. Trying to find out if anyone there knows where you or your parents went. I’m pretty sure she’s doing the same at their offices or whatever. She’s talking to anyone who might know anything.” Swallowing, I quietly murmured, “She’s not just going to let this go.” 

There was no response from either of them for a few seconds. But I could see her mouth open and shut a couple times without any sound, as though she was repeatedly starting to say something before stopping. Finally, Paige very hesitantly spoke with a somewhat weak, “But I’m not her sister. I never was. Everything she did was just playing a role, like they did. She came around once in awhile and took me to dinner or a show, but it didn’t really mean anything.” 

Biting my lip, I offered a hesitant, “Maybe it meant more to her than you thought?” 

“No,” came the quick response, almost too quick. Like she was telling herself the same thing and had to quickly quash it before her hopes rose too much. “No, she’s probably just looking for her parents. That’s… the important thing, finding out where her parents are.” 

Before I could even say anything to that, she spoke again. Or rather, her voice spoke again. It was Raige this time. “That’s bullshit and you know it. They disowned her, threw her out because she wouldn’t be their obedient little puppet, the thing they were literally gonna turn us into. Yeah, she might try to find out what happened to them, cuz that’s just the sort of person she is. But going to the school, asking people like… Paintball over there about it? That’s for you. She’s looking for you, cuz she like… gives a flying fuck about you or something.” 

“I think she’s right,” I put in. “Seriously, Paige, that was the impression I got. She wants to find you because she’s worried that something bad happened. I mean, I think she’s worried about her parents, of course, at least somewhat. But it’s you too. Or you mainly. I dunno. The point is, she’s not gonna let it go. She’s going to keep looking and asking around. And even if she doesn’t find out the truth, if she keeps pushing…” 

“She might get into something dangerous,” Paige finished for me, voice grim. “She can–” There was a pause as she considered her next words. “She can take care of herself, but she doesn’t know what she’s walking into. She could turn over the wrong stone and find a snake under it.” 

Hesitating, I quietly asked, “What do you want me to do?” God, this whole situation was so weird. I was trying to help Paige Banners, who was really one of my oldest friends, after having spent years as the girl who treated me like shit because her Tech-Touched father forced her to in a long-term plan to get himself out of Breakwater and take down my parents’ supervillain organi–yeah. If I sat there and thought about it for too long, my head was going to explode. 

Paige was already answering. “I don’t know. I don’t–we have to make her slow down and…” She paused. “I have to talk to her. I have to call her, video chat, something she can look at and hear me and let me… tell her… something.” 

“What?” Raige put in. “You really think I’m just going to hand over control of the body so you can make a video call and then shove me down into a dark pit? The second I hand you that much control, you’ll make me disappear.” 

“No, I won’t,” Paige insisted. Which, yeah, it was really weird to sit here and watch what appeared from the outside to be a girl literally arguing with herself. If I didn’t actually know better already, I might have thought she was doing a skit or something. “I’m–you don’t want anything bad to happen to Irelyn either. I know you don’t. We–we both know how it could go, what sort of trouble she could get into. She–we have to stop her.” 

“Yeah, we. We have to stop her,” came the response immediately. 

“But we can’t both control the body at the same time. We can barely manage this much,” Paige insisted. “We have to let one of us talk to her. Otherwise we’re going to screw something up and she’ll notice something’s wrong. Which is just going to make things worse.” 

They were both silent for a few seconds then. It felt like I should say something, but I had no idea what. This felt like something they were going to have to work out with each other while I just sat there and listened. It made the whole thing pretty awkward. 

Finally, Paige spoke. “Raige, listen. I’m saying this in front of Paintball so… he hears it too. I am not going to abandon you. I’m not going to shove you away. I’m not going to make you disappear. Let me talk to Irelyn and try to calm her down. Then I’ll let go of the body until they bring us a second one for you. I swear to you. I swear on…” There was a brief pause before, “I swear on Anthony. I swear on our memories of Anthony, I will not try to get rid of you and I will not shove you away. Let me help Irelyn so she doesn’t get in trouble, please. Then we can go back to this.” 

Her words were met with silence, while I felt a twisting in my stomach when Anthony’s name was brought up. I still didn’t actually have my memories of him, but that didn’t stop my emotions entirely just based on what I did know. Which… really raised the question of how bad this would be if I ever did get my memories of him back fully. Hell, just seeing his house–or rather, a virtual replica of it, had hit me really hard back when we went into Paige’s computer. So if I ever got my actual memories back, it was… it wasn’t going to be fun. And yet, I wanted them. They were my memories. I knew it was going to hurt, that it was going to suck. I knew it would be incredibly painful. But he was my friend. I wanted… I wanted to remember him. I wanted the pain. Because it was mine. Was that selfish? Was it dumb? Was it stupid to want the pain of losing my best friend back just because it was mine

Finally, I was drawn out of my own thoughts when Raige spoke up. “Okay, fine. I’ll give you the time to talk to her. But don’t make me regret it. I seem to recall the last person I trusted and tried to help immediately tried to erase me.” Her voice was hard, but I could hear a bit of vulnerability behind it too. She really had been loyal to their father. She thought he cared about her because she was… because she was doing what he wanted. She had been all-in on his side, and he destroyed that. No wonder she was hesitant to actually trust anyone else right now, no matter what we said.

Paige spoke then. “It’s a deal. But we need to come up with a good excuse that will make her back off until we can… until we get you a body.” Something in the way she paused there made me think she had been about to suggest that they meet her in person, but she stopped. Whether that was because she didn’t believe the other girl would go for that after how reluctant she was to even allow a few minutes for a video call, or because she was afraid of meeting Irelyn face-to-face like that, I wasn’t sure. Maybe a bit of both. 

Realizing they were waiting for me to say something on the whole ‘how to explain things to Irelyn’ front, I coughed. “Uhh, I’m not sure. You guys know her better than I do. Wait, would it be better to try to tell her that you’re completely okay and just busy with something, or to send her on a wild goose chase for a few days?” 

There was a brief pause before Paige asked, “What sort of wild goose chase?” 

Oh boy. Wincing, I offered a helpless shrug before remembering that her eyes were closed. They couldn’t see me. So, I spoke up. “I don’t know. Just something that can take her out of the city for a few days so she isn’t poking the hornets’ nest too much. You know, convince her to go look somewhere else where she won’t get in trouble. Though…” I sighed. “It’s gonna take longer than a few days to actually get into that base so we can find your new body. And I’m pretty sure there’s nothing we could say that would send her somewhere for a couple weeks.” 

“No,” Raige put in. “But maybe we can convince her that Paige is somewhere else for those couple weeks, looking into something else. Come on, the whole point is that we want her to stop digging around here, right? If she thinks Paige is hundreds or thousands of miles away, then she’s got no reason to keep poking around Detroit.” 

“Keep it vague,” Paige added thoughtfully. “Maybe give her a reason to start trying to figure out exactly where I am, so she puts all her energy into that instead of pushing over potential snake-rocks here. But it has to be enough of a push to make her focus on it, without being an obvious trick. Irelyn isn’t stupid. And…” There was another pause before she admitted somewhat more quietly, “And I don’t want to lie to her too much. But it’s too dangerous to let her keep digging around here. Between our father and your parents, it’s… we have to distract her.” 

“Fair enough,” I agreed. “But what exactly do we say to give her that distraction? What’s gonna make her think you’re somewhere else but not know exactly where? It has to be something pretty convincing, you know?”

None of us had an immediate answer to that. We sat there in silence, trying to think of the exact right thing. If we screwed this up, we’d just be putting Irelyn in even more danger. And while I was sure she was plenty capable for who she was, this was the Touched sort of danger. Not something she was exactly prepared for. 

Raige started to speak up slowly, obviously still considering. “What if we tell her that you think her parents got into something dangerous. They disappeared, but you think you can find them.” 

“And,” Paige took over (how I could tell the difference between them that easily when it was the same mouth speaking, I wasn’t sure), “we promise to keep checking in, but refuse to tell her exactly where we are because it’s too dangerous. We could set up a whole thing of… a whole story of trying to find our–no. No, that’s lying to her. It’s lying too much.” 

“Do we have a choice?” Raige insisted. “I mean, it’s a lie to stop her from getting herself between the rock of Daddy dearest and the hard place of the Ministry. Neither of them would hesitate to get rid of her if she was a problem, and you know it. If she keeps poking around like she is, she’s going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person and they’ll put a stop to it. Either permanently, or by fucking with her memories. They could go as far as making her forget about any feelings she might have for you enti–”

Abruptly, the mouth stopped moving, contorting slightly as Paige yanked control back to interrupt. “No, we won’t let that happen. Okay. We can lie to her, as long as it keeps her out of their crosshairs. Just… let me think of the best thing to say. I mean, let… us think.” 

So, the three of us sat there for a while longer, batting ideas back and forth as we planned out exactly what to say. Eventually, I went downstairs and asked Wren if she still had one of those untraceable phones, like the one Fred had sold to Ashton. When I explained the general idea of why we needed it, she went digging in a box and found an upgraded version. Apparently this one was supposed to make it look like your call was coming from anywhere you wanted. Something about moving the signal or whatever. The point was, it would look completely convincing if Irelyn tried to have it traced. 

Thanking the girl, I went back upstairs and we talked a little bit more about exactly what would be said. Then it was time. We couldn’t delay any longer. Any minute now, Irelyn might ask the wrong question to the wrong person and see the wrong reaction. It could be bad. 

Instead of moving immediately when I held out the phone, however, Paige was silent and still. Belatedly, I realized she and Raige were having their own private conversation, one that I wasn’t privy to. That was fair. I had felt a bit like an eavesdropper earlier. So, I just sat there and waited. They had their own issues to work through. Obviously, Raige still wasn’t eager to let go of the death grip she had on stopping Paige from controlling the body. Not even for a few minutes. She had been burned so hard by their father that even a little bit of trust was almost impossible now. She was still afraid that Paige was going to use that control to shove her into a hole for good. And could I really blame her for having those worries after everything Paige had–no. No, that wasn’t her. She had no choice. Paige had only acted that way toward me because of her father. I had to keep telling myself that. And yet, that by itself proved my point. After Raige had been burned so hard by the man she had clearly trusted the most, no wonder she was hesitant to trust the girl she had literally been sent to replace. Yeah, that was a whole thing. 

Finally, Paige’s eyes opened. She met my gaze while slowly pushing herself into a sitting position. “We’re ready.” 

Handing over the phone, I murmured, “Good luck.” Then I stood back and watched. 

Paige held the phone in one hand, taking a breath before letting it out as she brushed her finger over the screen a couple times to select where she wanted the call to appear to be coming from. Florida, in this case. Then she dialed the number for the video call as I made sure that neither I, nor any windows could be seen from the camera’s point of view. It would have been pretty bad to go through all of this trouble of pretending Paige was somewhere else, only to have her sitting right in front of a window showing the Detroit skyline. 

The phone rang a couple times before I heard Irelyn’s voice answer. “Hey, what–Paige!” She sounded completely shocked. Which was fair. 

“Hey, Irelyn,” Paige replied tiredly. “Heard you’ve been looking for us. I mean, your parents.” 

“And you. I–where are you? Paige, what’s going on?” the woman demanded. “Are you okay? What–” 

“I’m fine. I mean, I…” There was a brief pause before Paige pushed on. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but there’s something going on. Your parents were… they were looking into something in one of your father’s businesses somewhere in–” Cutting herself off with a very convincing look of nervousness, she shook her head. “I can’t–I don’t want to–” 

“Paige, you know who I am. You know what I do,” Irelyn put in. “If you’re in some sort of trouble, I can help. I mean, I’m–” 

“It’s okay!” the other girl blurted quickly. “I mean, it’s not–you should focus on what you’re doing. I don’t know what’s going on with your parents, but I’m pretty sure they got in over their heads.” 

“Your parents too, Paige,” Irelyn insisted. “And what do you mean, in over their heads? What business were they looking into? Where are you? Where are they?” 

“I’m sorry, I–I can’t say anything else,” Paige informed her, stumbling a bit over the words. “I’ll call you later, I promise. Just… I’ll find your parents, okay? I’ll find out what happened and call you.” 

With that, she disconnected the call and sat back with a heavy sigh. It wasn’t much at all, but then, we had decided that not saying very much was the right way to go. Now if Irelyn traced that call, she’d get a result of somewhere in Florida. Which, quite intentionally, was nowhere near Detroit. So, with any luck, she would start poking around there instead of here. 

“Are you okay?” I finally managed to ask after a few moments of silence. 

Paige, in answer, slowly laid back on the couch. Her hand moved toward mine, and I accepted it. Squeezing firmly, she looked to me. “Find Raige a body, please. And be careful, okay?” 

“We will,” I promised, returning the squeeze before straightening up once more. “We’ll get you both in your own bodies.” 

With that, I said goodbye to both of them, released her hand, and turned to walk out of the room. On the way, my phone buzzed. It was Amber, who spoke as soon as I answered. “We’ve got the stuff on our end, how’s it going over there?” 

Glancing back toward Paige’s motionless form, I replied, “We’re good. And…” Checking the texts on my phone, I confirmed, “The others have their stuff. So I guess I’ll meet you guys over by the mall. 

“Time to start digging.” 

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At Last 16-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Well the kids definitely liked that. For the next couple hours, we took them around the ship and let them see the various rooms, like the bridge, the engines, some of the cabins, and so on. Andromeda played guide, while Cerberus remained an even more effective babysitter than Columbus, Shiori, or me. Granted, a large part of that was because the Seosten kids didn’t get such a kick out of riding on our backs, but still. Maybe if I turned into my lion form, I could’ve given him a run for his money, even if I didn’t have three heads.

In any case, they had a lot of fun and that was what mattered. But eventually, it was time to take them back to the station so I could get on with the next part of my day. Namely, heading for the neighborhood that had been so tragically decimated by Fossor (and the fact that that description did essentially nothing to narrow down the options was pretty depressing) so I could let some of my inherited ghosts go. They deserved–okay, what they really deserved was to be brought back to life along with all the family and friends they had been forced to murder or watch be murdered. But failing that, they deserved to be released so they could rest properly. 

Unfortunately, Avalon still couldn’t join us. Part of me felt a little sad that she couldn’t be there, and that she was so busy in general lately. To the point that she basically devoted all of her energy to it. But, on the other hand, that was completely selfish and I shoved it down as far as I could. She was doing far more important things right now in helping to get that spell ready. I would have plenty of time with her soon enough. 

I did have Shiori with me still, and Columbus. And we had been joined by Triss (the full catgirl with white-brown fur) and Felix (the half-catgirl with pale skin and short white-blonde hair with just cat ears and a tail) as Nekomata had a whole culture built up around helping and releasing ghosts. Not to mention fighting them when necessary. Which, I supposed, made sense given creating ghost-fire was one of their natural abilities. The two of them had apparently felt drawn to be involved in something like this once they heard about it. Even if Felix was only half-Nekomata, she still embraced that side of herself. That and I was pretty sure she also thought ghosts were cool. 

As we waited in one of the smaller transport rooms for someone to come help us get down to Earth, Shiori looked at me. “Is umm… Seth with you?” Yeah, introducing ghost-Seth to Shiori had been a whole thing. She tried to hug him and went right through. Then I’d used just enough power to make him solid so she could actually pull it off. Seeing her be able to actually embrace him probably wasn’t the absolute best thing I would ever do with my Necromancy, but I was pretty sure it would occupy a solid part of the top ten for a long time. 

Now, however, I shook my head. “He said he didn’t really feel like being anywhere near all the depressed ghosts. Neither did Grover. I left them back in the haunted mansion.” 

The haunted mansion, that was what we were calling it, because it was what Seth had called it. Basically it was just another house on the far corner of the neighborhood. Well, it looked like just another house from the outside. Inside, it was more like a castle. There were seven floors and like a hundred rooms. I wasn’t sure what it was actually intended for, but it wasn’t being used at the moment, so Abigail had allowed me to start keeping ghosts there when I didn’t want to carry them around with me. It helped with the privacy thing too. I could always summon them to me when needed, but giving them their own space was important. It helped them feel less like tools or slaves. 

Also, a television with voice control. That was important too. Or so Grover had emphatically informed me. Apparently he had gotten really into some daily soap opera that one of the guards always watched back at the Runaway, and didn’t want to miss any of it. 

Nearby, Felix was doing a handstand and getting Triss to time how long it took her to do ten laps around the entire room like that. She called out, “I think they’re both just scared of the stories they’ve heard about Nekomata. We’re sort of like ghost boogeymen. Sorry, boogeygirls. Boogeycats?” She kept scrambling on her hands while considering that. “Yup, boogeycats, I’m sticking with that one.” 

Jumping on that, Columbus asked, “What kind of world did the Nekomata come from to naturally develop the ability to hurt ghosts? I mean, I understand someone making a spell that does it, but you guys just have it naturally, right?” 

Triss, still holding her phone with the stopwatch app running in one hand, held up the other and popped her claws, making pale blue flames flicker across them as she gave a short nod. “When we get older, we’ll be able to make it bigger and stronger, even create weapons out of thin air with it. We’re still pretty young and… new to all this.” She got through all of that without reflexively looking at us with suspicion as though wondering if we were going to somehow use that knowledge against her. Which really showed how much she’d changed since the start of the year. Of course, spending every day with people probably had a way of working through your apprehension of them. Especially if you were fighting alongside them now and then. 

“Time!” Felix called while flipping from her hands to her feet in one smooth motion as she reached the corner of the room where she had started ten laps ago. “And what sister-dear means is that we are so incredibly awesome right now, but just wait until we learn a few more tricks. Then we’ll totally kill the awesomeness meter.” With a grin, she held up her fist, creating a similar blue-flame glow around it before slyly adding, “And when that turns into a ghost, we’ll kill it again. How many people can say they broke the awesome-meter and then killed its ghost?”

“She says,” Triss put in dryly, “to the girl who can make ghosts perform the King of New York sequence from Newsies if she wanted to. Also,” she added while glancing toward Felix, “one minute, twelve seconds. Not your best.”  

“That’s an oddly specific hypothetical,” I informed her with a small smile. “And hey, I’m not quite that good yet. I mean, unless I just ask them and they’re in a good mood. Actually, I’m pretty sure some of them would do it anyway. I’ve seen a few that seem like they’d be into that. But the point is, I’m not good enough to force dozens of ghosts into an intricate, coordinated dance number against their will.” Belatedly, I added, “And I wouldn’t do that anyway. But if that’s something you’re interested in, maybe I can see if there are any musical-inclined ghosts later. Sounds like pretty good practice, come to think of it. All that coordination and–okay I have to stop thinking about directing a bunch of ghosts in a play now.” 

“Probably a good idea,” Shiori piped up while giving that familiar and incredibly endearing goofy grin. “After all, you don’t wanna confuse Patrick Swayze. He won’t be able to figure out if he’s in Ghost or Dirty Dancing.” 

Leaning close to her half-sister, Felix loudly whispered, “Who’s Patrick Swayze? Actually, wait, scratch that entirely. What’s Dirty Dancing? That sounds like the far more important question.”

Before any of us could respond to that, Triss cleared her throat, pointedly changing the subject. “Anyway, as far as why the Nekomata developed these powers, our ghosts are sort of umm… difficult. They have a habit of turning into what you would call a poltergeist more often. Not all the time, but enough that it’s a thing. They become really angry and hostile. So we have the ability to defend ourselves from them and… and end the angry ghost. I guess a really long time ago, our people did some big project to write ghost-fire into our DNA or whatever. Sort of a mix between genetic manipulation and magic.” 

“Sort of like how the Seosten extended their lifespans and made themselves all attractive and all that?” I suggested. 

Triss, in turn, shrugged. “I guess so. I’m not sure how it worked. But I do know that most of our people probably wouldn’t react well to the comparison.” She looked to Columbus then, and I saw… well, not a blush. She had fur. But there was something in the way she looked at him that made me think there was something possibly there. Or maybe I was just crazy. Either way, she focused on him while adding, “I guess it was really bad for a long time, back in the ancient days. We had whole rituals set up to expunge ghosts. It wasn’t just Nekomata either. Something about everything that lives or comes from that world makes them more likely to create ghosts, and much more likely for those ghosts to turn violent. Which made it hard to build things that lasted. When they created our ghost-fire powers, that was when our people were really able to focus on expanding our civilization.”

For once sounding completely serious, Felix flatly added, “Yeah, until people like Fossor found out what they could do and started hunting all of us nearly to extinction. Between him trying to get rid of anyone that could innately fight his ghosts, and Heretics trying to steal our power to do it for themselves, we–” She stopped, blanching just a little with a glance toward Shiori, Columbus, and me as her extra cat-like ears flattened. “Errr, I mean…” 

“It’s okay,” I immediately assured her while restraining a wince. “Trust me, we get it. Boy do we ever get it.” 

Thankfully, it was right around then that the doors slid open, and Nevada strolled in. “Hey there, guys! Sorry I’m a little late, had something I had to take care of. Hope you didn’t die of boredom waiting for me.” She exchanged a high five with Felix, then Columbus before turning to the rest of us, holding a hand out expectantly. 

“We survived,” I promised while slapping her hand. Shiori followed suit, with Triss going last. 

Only once she’d gotten a high five from everyone did Nevada continue. “Good, cuz if I had to come in here and find a bunch of corpses because I made you wait too long, I’d probably have to fill out like…  a pile of paperwork at least six inches thick.” 

“You’re just scared of Abigail’s reaction to finding out you let five students die right here on the station,” I retorted. 

“Pffftt, hell yeah I am,” she confirmed while vigorously nodding. “Your sister is scary, babe. And trust me, I know–” She cut herself off then. “Never mind, come on, let’s get this show on the road.” 

*******

So, with Nevada’s help, we transported down to the neighborhood in question. It was a gated community on the north-west side of Cary, North Carolina. The town itself had a population of about a hundred and ninety thousand people, and was spread out across a large area. Lots of good-sized one or two-story houses with big front and back yards and positively enormous trees. Well, as far as North America, Earth trees went. There was a lot of greenery everywhere. From what I had read, the east side was where downtown was, along with a lot of the older buildings. The western side was the suburban area. That was where Fossor had been that fateful night when those neighborhood watch people annoyed him into killing all of them and making them haunt, torture, and kill their own families over the next week. All so he could search for whatever he’d been trying to find in peace. 

I’d done some research about this place ahead of time, so what I saw didn’t really surprise me as we came through the portal. At one time, the neighborhood here (known as Elkwood Estates) had been one of the most prestigious places to live in the town. Given a little more time, it probably would have been a home for the truly elite in North Carolina. 

But Fossor had put an end to that. Now, the place was practically a ghost town. Only about half the houses were still occupied, and they were all rundown. Graffiti covered basically every surface, trash cans lay out on their sides in the road, most of the street lamps were either burned out or broken, weeds were overgrowing everywhere (and were just about the only plants still alive), and so on. It looked like the ‘bad timeline’ in the second Back To The Future movie.

As the six of us emerged from the portal that Nevada had created, we were standing in one of those empty lots. Behind us stood a two-story Victorian-style house that had clearly been vacant for years. The ‘for sale’ sign in the weed-covered yard looked like it was about to fall over. The houses on either side of this one weren’t doing any better. Nor was the one across the street. Though the one next to that at least had a beat-up old sedan in the driveway and a couple lights were on. There were also thick bars across all the windows, and what looked like a security camera above the front door. Looking down the street, there were a couple other houses like that. Maybe one in every four appeared to be occupied. I assumed others were as well, but didn’t look like it from the outside. 

“Well,” Columbus started quietly as he gazed up the street and gave a little shudder. “Fossor definitely left his mark on this place. You said you don’t know what he was looking for out here?” 

“He took a small wooden chest,” I replied, “about a foot wide and just under a foot tall. The ghosts have no idea what he did with it, if anything. They never saw him open it. Not that that means much. He wasn’t exactly in the habit of sharing his plans with them.” 

Nevada spoke up then, “So we have no idea what this thing was, why it was buried out here, who put it there, how Fossor found out about it, what he did with it… or anything, other than the fact that he found it and the box was roughly one foot by one foot.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” I confirmed, exchanging a nod with Shiori as she gave me a quick, brief smile for the pun. “And it was ten years ago, so either he put it away somewhere or he used it and… did… something.” Offering a helpless shrug, I added, “But we’re not here for that. We’re here to help these people say goodbye.” 

While saying that, I extended a hand and sent a mental call to the fifteen ghosts in question. They knew it was coming, that I was doing this today. We’d had a whole discussion late the night before while everyone else was asleep, and I had promised that when I called for them next, it would be right here in this neighborhood. 

A moment later, they all appeared. Fifteen ghosts. Eleven of them human, one Rakshasa, two sibling Ailkins (basically humanoid deer people with a lot of sharp teeth and four arms), and a single gnome. They appeared, before immediately spreading out. As the rest of us simply watched in silence, the ghosts moved across the yard, looking up and down the street. I heard a couple very soft sobs, and a single quiet curse. A couple of the humans pointed down the street while murmuring something about living that way, while the Ailkins moved to the very edge of the driveway and were having a murmured conversation that I didn’t catch any of (and didn’t want to pry). 

I just gave them time. In no way, shape, or form was I going to rush any of this. We were here to let them get as much closure as we could manage. And right now, that meant standing back while they adjusted to actually being here. 

The Rakshasa ghost, a male feline figure with long gray-white fur, turned to me. His name, I remembered, was Keoph. Meeting my gaze, he spoke in a solemn voice. “Perhaps it would be best if we all took a walk through the neighborhood together, one last time.” 

The rest of us exchanged looks, and I gave a short nod. “That sounds fine, yeah. Which ahh, way do you want to go?” 

In answer, the fifteen ghosts conferred briefly before starting to head down the sidewalk together. All save for the gnome, at least. Her name, or at least the one she’d told me, was Gimcrack. She was a tiny, faintly glowing pink color with just a hint of white to it around her face. When she spoke, her voice was deeper than I would have expected, given her size. “If’n you don’t mind, I would prefer to stay back with you, Miss Felicity. There… won’t be anything for me in any of these houses. I lived alone. No one to miss me. Only reason I was even with that neighborhood watch group in the first place was because they trampled through my yard and I wanted to give them a piece of my mind. See how that turned out.” 

Swallowing hard, I gave a quick nod. “Sure, walk with us. But I umm, I think you’re wrong about people missing you. Just because you didn’t have family here doesn’t mean you didn’t affect their lives.” 

“Aww, that’s sweet of you to say, dear,” she informed me. “But I’m afraid I was a recluse. Bit of a hoarder. Never talked to my neighbors, didn’t see the need, seeing as they wouldn’t know anything about me anyway. Far as any of the humans were concerned, I was just a little old lady who lived by myself and never talked to them. Probably thought I was a witch. Being little and a lady is about the only true parts that salaud Bystander Effect didn’t erase, and they didn’t even know how little.” 

Something told me there was a story there, about her being screwed over in trying to reach out to people but constantly losing them because they couldn’t remember details about her. Which was just one more sad thing on top of a whole heap of depressing that this entire situation was. 

So, we walked together like that. Columbus and Shiori kept asking Gimcrack a lot of questions about her life, while Felix and Triss moved ahead to walk with the rest of the ghosts. I stayed around the middle, watching as we passed all these mostly-empty houses. Every time we reached one that was supposed to belong to one of my little group, they would split off and fly over that way. I let them go, simply sending a bit of power their way so they could interact with a couple things. Brush a hand over a person’s face, touch a portrait, stuff like that. Bystanders wouldn’t be able to see them, but the ghosts themselves would get some measure of closure. And, in a small way, I liked to think that the Bystanders would too. Even if they didn’t remember it. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us walked onward, taking a slow, long loop through the once-promising community. On the way, Keoph fell back a step and focused on me. “You, you’re a good person, Miss Felicity. Been a long time since any of us were around good people for very long. I think you ahh… I think you mean to do positive things with these Necromancy powers of yours. Thank you for that. And for this. It’s–it’s more than we thought we’d ever get. Which is what makes asking for anything else–” 

“What is it?” I quickly put in. “What can we do? What can I do?” 

He hesitated, before offering a heavy sigh. “Just… maybe, if you get a chance, look in on this place once in awhile? I don’t expect you to fix all the problems it’s got, but just… I don’t know. I’m sorry, forget I said anything.” 

“No, I–it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I get it, really. I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll check in on this place and… maybe find out if there’s any way to get it cleaned up. Or find people who could move here. You know, Alters would understand about the haunting thing and that Fossor is dead now so it’s safe. I’ll figure something out, I promise.”

By that point, we were down to only the Alter members of my little ghost group. The humans would be joining back up with us soon enough, after saying goodbye to their old families and homes in their own way, but right now, it was just Keoph, Gimcrack, and the two Ailkins (their names were Hijer and Jiher). And we had just reached the small, wooded area where Fossor had been when they found him. When… yeah. This was where they had all agreed they would say goodbye for the last time. 

And lined up in that wooded area, right where Fossor had been, were three long picnic tables. An assortment of figures surrounded the tables, of several different species. There were coolers and baskets spread out both on the ground and up on the tables. 

The moment we came into view, the people around there looked up, and immediately started calling out the names of these four. And the four, in turn, called out names of people they recognized. Their family and friends. Three of them rushed that way, after recovering from obvious surprise. They couldn’t exactly embrace them… or at least, they couldn’t until I pushed enough power in them for it. 

Meanwhile, Gimcrack was staring up at me. She pointed with a shaking hand. “That… that is my… brother over there. My brother I never told anyone about. How did he…?” 

Offering her a faint smile, I quietly replied, “I did my research. I reached out to people and asked anyone who had any connection to the people here to come for this. Even got a few who had some connection to the human ghosts, so they’re not completely left out. I wasn’t just going to send you off without any goodbyes. Now go on. Talk to your brother. Take all the time you need.” 

Using part of the power I had given her, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. There were tears in her eyes. Then she pivoted and moved that way, the ghost gnome meeting the living one in a tight hug. 

Stepping back with Columbus, Shiori, and the others, I lowered my voice. “Hope you all weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, because I’m planning on staying for awhile.” 

“Nope,” Shiori murmured, “as far as I’m concerned, these guys can have all the time they want. 

“And if anyone tries to ruin this, we can help you restock your ghosts.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

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