Month: December 2021

At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necormancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, this is not what I expected,” Alloy declared a short time later. “You didn’t say it was gonna be like this.” 

“I… uhhh….” I trailed off, unable to speak. r

The convention center was, to say the least, packed. Seriously, you would have thought that there was some sort of championship game being played there, or that a big star like Lou Devereux was going to show up. There was no room in the parking lot aside from the super VIP spots, so it was probably a good thing we weren’t showing up with a car. Similarly, I really hoped that we wouldn’t have to wait in the line that stretched out of the building and down the sidewalk, full of people waiting to show their tickets and get in.

Standing atop the roof of the convention center, staring at the packed lot and the line of people below, I found myself swallowing nervously. “Uh, that’s a lot of people,” I murmured under my breath. 

Alloy gave me a look, having switched up her marble costume to go with (mostly) the first set she’d ever used, metallic knight-like armor that was black along the legs and arms with gold highlights, and a gold chestplate with black highlights. Rather than her initial white knight helmet, however, the black and gold rose up to form a samurai-shaped one. “You think?” she demanded, nerves clear in her voice. “I thought this was just going to be, like, a school assembly sort of thing. Or, you know, some private function with a few rich people we could laugh at behind their backs. You didn’t say it was gonna be like–like–the fucking Superbowl!” 

“Oh, trust me, this is nothing like the Superbowl,” I reflexively replied, before catching myself. “I mean, have you seen how huge those crowds are on TV?” Pausing, I grimaced. “That’s not really helpful right now, is it?” As her head shook, I quickly put in, “If you want to take off, don’t worry, I get it. That’s a lot of pressure down there. I umm, I didn’t really expect it to be like this either. Really, really didn’t.” I felt a little faint, standing there staring down at that.  

I had already texted the number that Hallowed sent me, to ask how we were supposed to get in. If he said wait in line like everyone else, I was going to smack myself for waiting so long to actually come here. And for coming in the first place. This was, it was…

Alloy hesitated a moment, clearly considering before her head shook. “If you can handle it, so can I. I’m not going to abandon you here.” Straightening up a bit, clearly forcing herself to look at me rather than the huge crowd, she pointedly added, “That’s not what good partners do.” 

“Hear hear,” a new voice abruptly spoke up, making both of us spin to find Lucent behind us on the roof, perched on a piece of machinery. “Tis quite the fine thing, to see such excellent allies prepared to brave the uncomfortable and awkward for one another.”

Schooling myself to avoid yelping too much, I ignored my quickly-beating heart and replied, “Hey, I know your team is all about working with hospitals and stuff, but are they so empty you have to drum up new business by giving people heart attacks?” 

Lucent’s head dipped a bit in what I took as a gesture of apology and contritement. “Beg pardon, twas truly not my intention to startle either of you. Nor to spy upon a private conversation.” Lifting one wing, he gestured to the machine he was perched on. “This happens to be my own private entrance and exit from this facility, to avoid the ahh, crowds you have noticed.” As he said that, a hatch opened to reveal a small tunnel, just big enough for him to get through. “I received a message from Hallowed that you were waiting up here. My intentions were to welcome and aid, not frighten and eavesdrop.” 

“Wow,” I found myself noting, “that’s a pretty spiffy private entrance.” Pausing, I teased, “And speaking of getting inside, I don’t suppose it gets any bigger than that?” 

With an audible chuckle, the Touched-Raven shook his head. “Apologies, they did not prepare it to accommodate humans. Clearly an oversight. Yet, should you wish to enter the building privately, there is a more appropriately sized door on the far side of the roof, that way.” He raised a wing to point. “It is manned by a security gentleman who will simply assure that you are truly who you present yourselves as before allowing you admittance. Most Touched who come to events in this building enter through there.” 

Glancing that way, I saw the back of a raised structure. “Oh, uhh, thanks, Pops.” Giving him a quick thumbs up, I gestured toward Alloy. “See, told you we didn’t have to get in the back of the line.” 

“Good,” she retorted, “Because I forgot to bring my tent and sleeping bag.” Even as she said that, the remaining four marbles floating behind her abruptly transformed. Three became a tall, rigid tent-like structure with an open front, while the last one turned into a hammock hanging inside. Alloy, in turn, shot a look that way. “Not that I couldn’t have improvised.” 

Lucent’s voice was proud. “You appear to be gaining skill and creativity with your power by the day, Ms. Alloy. I applaud your progress.” 

Clearly blushing, Alloy stammered, “I mean–it’s not a big–I ahh, um, thanks.” She coughed, squirming a little before waving both hands as the tent and hammock turned back into the marbles. “Shouldn’t we go inside before we get in trouble for missing this whole thing or whatever?” 

“Judging from the line out there, it won’t be starting any time soon,” I pointed out, snickering a little as she shot a look at me. “Yeah, yeah, we should get in there.” Lowering my voice, I focused on Lucent. “But seriously, was this thing always such a big deal? How are they supposed to get all these people inside by eight o’clock? Let alone get them seated for dinner and–wait, how are they going to feed all those people?” 

“It is quite the event,” he confirmed. “But I’m afraid you may be slightly confused. You see, the people below are here for the SPHERE forum convention, which will be happening throughout the main floor throughout the next couple of days. The dinner you have arrived for is actually in one of the smaller rooms on the upper floor. But you are, of course, welcome to tour the rest of the convention center afterwards to see various exhibitions. Or even demonstrate your own if you wish. Though, you should be prepared to run into others dressed as either of you. Most likely will not believe that you are the, as they say, ‘real deal’ without some proof.” 

Peyton coughed behind me. “You mean dressed as him. No one knows me. I mean, no one would…” She trailed off, staring at him. “Right?” 

“I assure you, Ms. Alloy, your popularity has been growing exponentially as well,” Lucent insisted. “Your tendency to switch between multiple costumes aids those wishing to cosplay, as they may simply choose their favorite version, or any combination. Some even make up their own vaguely similar outfits and call themselves a future version of you.” 

Obviously blushing, Peyton made a noise in the back of her throat. “Uhhhh, right. Um. That’s really–I mean–” Turning to me, she hissed, “You didn’t say there were going to be people dressing up like me.” 

“I didn’t know there were gonna be people dressing up like me!” I shot back. “This whole thing is a lot bigger than I thought it was. But uhh,” I glanced to Lucent. “You said the actual dinner thing is more private?” 

“Quite a bit,” he assured us. “And should you wish to leave afterward, that is entirely your prerogative. Though I will note that mingling with others on the convention floor can be quite fun. I’m told it can be amusing to walk through while the crowd assumes you are simply another cosplayer as they are. And rest assured, all who enter the building are thoroughly scanned for weapons or Touched-Tech disguises. Those in heavy masks for costumes are asked to reveal themselves to security, to be on the safe side. Between those measures and others, it is quite safe here.” 

“Thanks,” I murmured. “I guess we’ll see how we feel after the dinner thing, right Alloy?” Honestly, I felt more comfortable with the idea of moving through the crowd of people down there than I felt about sitting in a private room listening to my parents give speeches while wondering how many of the super-rich people and other Touched sitting around me were actually connected to the Ministry. But I couldn’t exactly say that. 

“Honestly, I like the idea of being down with a big crowd of ordinary people having fun more than the idea of hanging out in a stuffy room with a bunch of rich and powerful people looking down at me,” Alloy informed me. Which–okay fine, she could say that. 

Reaching out, I patted her on the shoulder (ignoring the fact that I had to reach up to do so). “Don’t worry, I get it. But hey, we have a ready-made crowded place to disappear into if things get too awkward or uncomfortable. Maybe we could even find a couple people dressed up as us to take our places.” 

Chuckling once more, Lucent flew over to land on my helmet. “I wish you both luck with all such endeavors. Now, shall we get you inside so that you may at least make a token appearance as yourselves? There are those who will be quite pleased by your arrival.” 

So, we headed over to the area he had pointed out. As promised, there was a door there, partially concealed to look like the rest of the machinery. It was obvious once you were on the right side of it and close enough, but from the air it would blend in pretty well. As we approached, the door opened and a tall black man in a suit and tie stepped out. I could tell by the bulge in his jacket that he was armed, but he simply smiled our way. “Paintball and Alloy, the real deal?” With a low whistle, he added, “Name’s Rubin Davis. I just wanted to thank you for what you did for my friend last night.” 

“Your friend?” I echoed, confused. 

“Santiago Mendoza,” he confirmed. “He’s been down on his luck lately and he said some guys from the Easy Eights were harassing him, when you stepped in.” 

“O-oh, him.” Brightening, I gave a little nod, exchanging glances with Alloy. “It was no big deal, really. Those assholes were just–uh, assholes sums it up.” Shrugging, I added, “He’s okay, though?” 

The man nodded. “Yeah, my wife convinced him to stay with us for a little bit. He was too proud before. I ahh, I should’ve insisted.” With a sigh, he glanced away for a moment, lost in thought before returning his gaze to us. “Oh, sorry. You’d probably like to go inside. I uh, I know this is probably stupid after all that. Especially with Mr. Lucent right there.” He gave a cheerful salute that way. “But just to keep things on the level and dot all the t’s and line all the i’s, could you both show me your powers? I gotta write down that I checked.”

We did just that, as I sprayed a bit of blue paint on the ground before letting the man drop his pen on it before catching it with red paint as it flew high into the air and bringing it to the red star I had painted on his chest. Alloy, meanwhile, had her four floating marbles put on a little show for him, switching between several forms while he grinned even more at each transformation. 

“Aight, aight, you’re good.” With a voice that made it clear he would have loved it to make us stay longer just to see more demonstrations, the man stepped aside and waved us in. “You all have a good evening, and keep up the good work. Lucent, I’m still holding you to that Yahtzee rematch you promised. I’m ready for you this time.” 

From the way Lucent moved on my helmet, I was pretty sure he was giving a wide bird-bow. “I eagerly await such an opportunity to part you from more of your shiny coins, Rubin.” 

There was a stairwell just beyond the door, and the three of us descended two flights of stairs before reaching a landing with another open door. There was a familiar figure standing there waiting for us, wearing that golden armor that seemed to glow with an inner power, and metal wings that were currently tucked in close to his back to make room. The helmet he wore covered his face, but I could hear the smile in the man’s voice as he spoke. “Glad you made it.” He gave a nod toward Lucent. “Thanks for bringing them inside.” That said, he extended a hand toward Alloy. “Good to finally meet you. I’m Hallowed.”

“I… I…” The girl stood there staring at him in what was clearly open-mouthed surprise, a few more incoherent sounds escaping her. It was a reaction that made me do a double-take before realizing the truth. Hallowed was her Silversmith. Err, not her father, her favorite hero. The way that Silversmith had been mine before I found out the horrible truth. She was starstruck right now.

Quickly clearing my throat, I nudged her with my hip while putting a hand on her back to give her a very slight push. “Yup, this here’s my partner. I’d be in pretty deep caca If it wasn’t for her. I mean, even deeper than I usually am.” 

Alloy, by that point, had managed to recover a bit and quickly grabbed the men’s extended hand with both of hers to shake a bit too enthusiastically. “Yeah, hi, hi! I’m puuuuhhherrrfectly capable of introducing myself without screwing it up. Alloy! I’m Alloy. Hi, hiya. You’re uhh, you’re uhh, wow. You’re wow. You’re…” Then she trailed off and just started giggling a bit awkwardly, all while still pumping the man’s hand up and down with both of hers as though she had forgotten she was even doing that. 

Thankfully, I was pretty sure that the man was accustomed to getting that sort of reaction. He offered a small chuckle before nodding. “It’s quite alright. We’re all doing the same job here. Seems to me you’ve hit the ground running straight out of the gate.” Smoothly extracting his hand without making it look like he was yanking away, Hallowed looked to me. “In which case, I hesitate to say whether you’re in excellent company, or terrible. You both seem to feed off each other in ending up in dangerous situations.” His tone was still light, but there was clearly a mixture of worry and a bit of recrimination mixed in. “I do hope you are both aware of just how dangerous that particular one was.” 

Blanching a little despite myself, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, don’t worry, we totally get it.” I didn’t want to jump into the details just what the extenuating circumstances were, nor ask how much he knew about the situation. As the leader of probably the most important defensive Star-Touched team in the city, a team focused on protecting important medical personnel and who had to be deeply involved in the Scions situation given they had just blown up part of a children’s hospital, it wasn’t exactly surprising that he would have been given a full rundown of everything we had told Flea. 

Giving me a look that made it clear he recognized that I hadn’t actually promised to never do that sort of thing again, Hallowed still remained silent on that point. Instead, he gave a short nod of acknowledgement before pivoting. “In any case, you should come along. We have quite the event planned tonight. And if being around a bunch of rich, self-important fogeys isn’t the sort of incredible experience you’ve been waiting for, I don’t think anyone would blame you for heading downstairs to check out the rest of the convention as soon as the first couple speeches are over and dinner gets underway.” Glancing my way, he inclined his head with another slight chuckle. “It’s what plenty of others will be doing.” 

Speaking up cheerfully, Lucent noted, “I believe Lady Patchwork is already there, in point of fact.”

As Hallowed muttered something under his breath about never being able to keep her trapped in a room full of boring rich people if his life had depended on it, we moved through the corridor beyond that doorway. Honestly, the place looked like a plain old boring office hall. The walls were dully painted and the carpet was cheap, with a few very generic-looking paintings that looked like they had come from a thrift shop or something. Between that and the few very… economical chairs and tables spaced through the hall, I was pretty sure someone had been told to decorate and furnish this entire floor on a budget of about thirty bucks. Probably because this particular area was never supposed to be seen by anyone aside from the people who worked here, rather than the actual guests. 

Either way, we soon moved to the end of that hall and to a plain, unmarked door. Hallowed glanced back to us with his hand on the knob. “You guys better take a deep breath, because this is… ahh, really something.” And with that bit of warning, he pushed the door open, stepping partway through to hold it in place before raising his arm for us to proceed. 

Stepping through that door was like going through some sort of magic portal or something. The hallway behind us was as generic and drab as anything could possibly be. But the room on the other side? That was a different story. First of all, it was enormous. Some sort of grand ballroom or something fit to allow hundreds of couples to dance on the gleaming polished wood floor without disturbing hundreds more people who could sit at the circular tables that took up either side and the back of the room. Straight ahead from the dance floor was a stage, including an orchestra pit and a balcony above and to the side of that stage. 

There was a band there, but they weren’t playing at the moment. They appeared to be getting themselves sorted out, preparing for later. Nor were any of the guests dancing or eating. But there were a lot of people standing and sitting throughout the place. It looked like everyone was still in the ‘just arrived and greeting one another’ phase. 

The door we had come through was in a far corner of the room, clearly not the main entrance. In fact, looking over my shoulder, I could see how the door would blend in with the wall when it was closed. It was meant as a staff entrance or something. No, the actual main entrance was to the right, a pair of stairwells that met at the bottom before winding upward to a landing in front of a set of grand double doors. Looking through those doors from this angle, I could barely make out a wide hallway that looked just as beautiful as this room did. That was where all the actual important people were coming in. 

Hallowed spoke as though reading my mind, following the direction of my gaze. “I didn’t think you would quite appreciate that sort of entrance. But by all means, if you would like the star treatment–” 

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s… totally fine.” I was already letting my gaze pass over the crowd. They hadn’t noticed us yet, standing in the corner. Another thing I was grateful for. It gave me a moment to catch my bearings and look at the people I would soon need to interact with. And… well, it was about what I figured. A bunch of very rich, very important people. Billionaires, their less-important cousin millionaires, actors and actresses, politicians, singers, rappers, a few important authors or television personalities, and so on and so forth. Not to mention the various Star-Touched spread throughout the room, having conversations with one another or with the rich people themselves. 

“Wow,” Alloy finally managed in a small voice. “We are definitely underdressed for this.” 

Lucent, however, insisted, “I assure you, my dear, you are perfectly fine the way you are. Though one must endeavor to play nice with those who carry the purse strings, never believe that you are their lesser in any way. You have chosen to use a power you were given to aid those less fortunate. You have every right to stand shoulder to shoulder with every person in this room.”

Hallowed gave a nod and started to say something, only to fall silent as a louder voice spoke up from the stage. “Pardon me.” 

My dad. Silversmith. I hadn’t noticed him step up there, but all my attention was on him now. As was the attention of everyone else in the room. He was in costume and everything. Unless that wasn’t him and was just his body double or… or an empty suit or–I had no idea. The point was, Silversmith was apparently standing in front of the microphone there. 

“Sorry, folks. We’ll get started with a nice welcoming speech that takes way too long so you’re gnawing your own foot off before dinner finally gets to the table in just a moment.” His words made the crowd chuckle appropriately, and Dad (if that was really him) paused to allow that before continuing. “Right now, I just wanted to allow all of you to become the very first to officially meet–” 

“Hi!” A small voice interrupted, drawing everyone’s attention away from my father and up to the balcony overlooking the stage. There was a figure there, one made of… wait, was that… glass? She was entirely made of glass, even her ‘clothes.’ It was like the clothing part of her was painted while the ‘skin’ part was plain see-through glass. Her hair was a long, incredibly intricate braid of glass. If I had to guess, I’d say she was about Izzy’s age.  

Once everyone’s attention was on her, the girl jumped off the balcony. There was an assortment of cries, just before she shattered against the stage, sending shards of glass in every direction. It all happened before anyone could even move. Horrified, I started to lunge that way, my hand rising. But Hallowed grabbed my shoulder, his other hand finding Alloy’s. 

In that moment, the scattered shards flew backwards off the floor, reforming into the girl once more, good as new. 

“Ahem,” Silversmith continued, putting a hand on her head. “As I was saying, I’d like to introduce you all to the queen of dramatic entrances. This is Fragile. 

“The newest member of the Detroit Minority.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Putting in an appearance at home for a while, I found myself being invited to the dinner party that evening. Invited as myself, that was. For just a moment, the possibility of needing to play a sitcom-style game of going as both Cassidy and Paintball while rapidly switching back and forth between them in closets jumped into my head. Which, of course, would have ended with me sitting down in my dress at the table with my parents while still wearing the helmet on my head, no matter how little sense that made. Wacky, murderous hijinks would certainly have ensued.  

But no, I simply told my parents that I wasn’t really feeling it that night and felt like going to bed pretty soon. They, in turn, let it go pretty easily. I had the feeling they weren’t very surprised about me not wanting to attend some party, even if it was hosted and attended by a bunch of Star-Touched. Maybe they were just happy to think that I wouldn’t be around just in case something went wrong and Dad had to jump into Silversmith duty. Which was a thought that in and of itself gave me pause. Would they give the green light for any Fell-Touched gang shenanigans at an event they themselves were attending? It made sense that they would, given how easy it would be for someone to notice if nothing ever happened at places they went. They were probably even making sure that their own businesses and other assets were hit repeatedly during this whole war, just to avoid any suspicion at all. 

Yeah, I really needed to look that up. Maybe even get an actual list of everything my family had any ownership in and compare it to crimes over the past twenty years to see just how that lined up. I was sure they were careful, especially with my mother making plenty of the decisions. But if I looked closely enough, knowing what sort of things to search through all twenty years, maybe I could actually find some evidence for my family overall profiting from all those crimes in the long run. Say, if they lost a token amount because one business they owned was hit, but had purchased stock in their competitor shortly beforehand. Or something. I wasn’t sure exactly how well that would work, or if it would pan out at all. But it was something to think about. 

In any case, I didn’t need to go to the party tonight. At least, not as myself. But I wasn’t going to completely rule out the possibility of any other sitcom-adjacent antics showing up while I was secretly attending the same party as my parents. I just hoped it stayed firmly in the cheap comedy realm and didn’t mosey its way into the epic drama or tragedy genres. 

Also, it was slightly possible that I was overthinking this whole thing and applying far too many tropes to it. The point was, my parents thought I was staying home. Izzy, on the other hand… well, she was supposedly going over for some tutoring or extra homework or something. That’s the story I was told, in my role as a clueless, obedient daughter who didn’t know anything. In reality, she would be appearing as Raindrop alongside the rest of the Minority. 

Come to think of it, that was probably another reason my parents were fine with me deciding not to go. They might have thought that I would somehow recognize Izzy if we spent time together. Which made me wonder when they planned on telling me about her true identity. If they ever did. Hell, maybe they wanted me to be clueless forever and would send me off to college without opening up about any of it

Bitter, me? 

“You’re brooding, aren’t you?” The words came from next to my window, where Izzy had been standing and looking out at the grounds for the past few minutes. She was ready to head out for her ‘tutoring’ session as soon as my parents were ‘ready to drop her off.’ Yes, the truth was that she would be going with them the whole way. But again, I wasn’t supposed to know any of this yet, so they carried on with the charade. 

Sitting up on my bed, I focused on her and offered a faint smile. “Maybe a little bit, but they say a little brooding now and then is pretty healthy.” 

Izzy raised an eyebrow while moving to sit on one of my nearby heavily-padded footstools. “Who says that?” 

My hand waved dismissively. “Oh, you know. They would’ve introduced themselves, but they were too busy brooding.” With a wink, I pushed myself up. “I’m okay. Sorry, I was just thinking about how long they’re going to keep me in the dark. Or, uhh, think they’re keeping me in the dark. About you, I mean. Have they said anything to you about talking to me?” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy offered, “Yeah, they did. I mean, they said we should tell you what–um, about my extracurriculars when the time is right. They just, you know, haven’t exactly said when that time is. But your mom brought it up this afternoon. She asked how I would feel if you knew the truth and if I would be comfortable with it. I told her I was okay with telling you and she said to wait a little bit longer. But I think they plan to bring it up pretty soon. Um, do you think they’ll tell you anything… else?” 

My head shook. “If they tell me about you, it’ll be with you right there too. And it’ll probably be a test run. Think about it, they can see exactly how I’ll react to just the short time of being lied to and having Touched-related secrets kept instead of my whole life. It’s like getting to watch me dip my toes in the water, or just splash around in the shallows before they pull me to the deep end to see if I can swim.”

Taking that in, Izzy blanched. “You’re right, telling you the truth about me is gonna be their test for telling you the truth about themselves. It makes sense.” With a visible grimace, she focused on me. “So, how are you going to react when they tell you? About me, I mean.” 

“Uhhh, really convincing surprise?” I offered, before pantomiming slapping my hands against my face like the kid from Home Alone. 

Snickering, Izzy leaned out to kick my shin. “Maybe you should practice. Or, umm, maybe not?” She frowned, clearly trying to decide which way would be better. But before she could, and before I could say anything else, the intercom chimed and announced that my mother was requesting our presence downstairs so Izzy could head out and I could say goodnight. 

Wow, here went nothing, again. The two of us exchanged looks before getting up. We went down, as soon as I made sure I looked sufficiently ready for bed. I had changed into sweatpants and a tee-shirt that hopefully sold the idea that I would be falling asleep shortly after they left. The very last thing I wanted my parents to be doing that night was wondering what I was up to. Which, of course, made me feel like a little kid who was pretending to be sick or something. Only with much higher stakes than being forced to take a math test or something, in this case.  

My parents, of course, looked amazing. They were all dressed up to attend the event, my father in a dashing suit and my mother wearing an elegant gown. Standing in front of them in my bed clothes made the difference between us even more apparent. I would clearly never look the way my mother did in a dress. She was all… perfect, filling the gown out in all the right places, with long dark hair that curled slightly in a way that I could never have gotten mine to do. She was just… she was Elena Evans, a beautiful woman who had appeared on many magazine covers. 

Me? I was Cassidy. No one would ever look at me the way they looked at my mother. Not even if I dressed up the way she was, let alone while I was wearing sweats and a tee-shirt. I almost felt as though my parents should be offended that I was in the same room as them. I certainly didn’t belong there. 

Mom, however, opened her arms and pulled me into a full embrace. I felt her squeeze tight, her voice a tender murmur, “I love you, my principessa. You are everything you need to be.” 

Dad took his turn then, embracing me even more tightly before lifting me off the floor. “We probably won’t be back until after midnight, so don’t wait up. Maybe we’ll go do something fun tomorrow.” 

“Can’t wait,” I made myself say as he set me down. Stepping back, I waved. “Have a good time.” To Izzy, I added, “While you’re at the library, if you see this old lady with white hair that’s pulled back in a bun, and these big glasses with gold rims, don’t tell her you know me. I’m pretty sure she’s still holding a grudge from that whole sledding incident. Which is totally unfair, because that was like five years ago. Ancient history.” 

“Sledding?” Izzy blinked at me. “How do you annoy a librarian by sledding?” 

“When you do it inside the library,” Dad put in. Despite his put-upon sigh, he failed to hide all of his amusement. 

I offered a shrug. “Hey, those stairs were perfect for it. Four stories of steps? Come on. Besides, Noel double-dog dared me. What was I supposed to do, say no?” 

From the look my mother was giving me, saying no was exactly what I was supposed to do. But she didn’t say anything, instead settling on reaching out to gently squeeze my shoulder. “We will be home later tonight. You look very tired. Get some sleep, my beautiful girl.” 

With that, she released me and they all turned to head out. I waved once more, then pivoted and headed back upstairs, moving casually past a couple maids on their way down. As they passed, I smiled and nodded, acting as though I had nothing more interesting to do with my night.  

The facade dropped as soon as I was back in my room with the door shut behind me. Immediately, the mask of casual, bored innocence vanished from my face as I ran to the nearby sliding door and opened it to carefully peek outside. In the distance, I could hear the car engine start up, before a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows pulled into view on its way down the long driveway. There they went. Even now, Izzy was probably in the rear-most row of seats with the divider up so she could change into the costume that had been sitting there waiting for her. Meanwhile, my parents would be sitting in the middle, having a glass of wine while chatting to each other. Would they talk about Ministry business? With the divider up, Izzy wouldn’t be able to hear them, so it was possible. At the very least, I was sure the gang war was giving them plenty to talk about. And plenty of fires for the Ministry to deal with. They had to be allowing the conflict to continue and even escalate the way it was, but I had no idea how far they were willing to let it go. Or how bad it would get before they shut it down. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I moved to lock my bedroom door. Setting the computer to let people know I was asleep, I used purple paint to move the mirror out of the way in my closet, pulled the bag with my costume out, and went back to the balcony. There, I slung the bag over my shoulder, made sure the coast was clear and the cameras weren’t watching, then used red paint to zip my way to the wall. After one more quick glance around, I dropped to the other side and began to sprint through the wilderness at a diagonal toward the road. Once I was clear, I would call for a ride and head over to meet up with Alloy. And then? Well, then we would head for the same party that my parents were going to. 

Suddenly, this was seeming more and more like a bad idea. But what was I supposed to do, tell Peyton we couldn’t go because I was afraid my parents would recognize me? Besides, I’d gotten through a much closer dinner back at Caishen’s place when the Chambers and my parents had been there, without giving anything away. I could totally get through a much larger gathering. With all the other Touched there, I doubted anyone would even pay attention to me. 

Right, good thing I had some time before meeting up with Peyton. Because I was going to need every second to convince myself I wasn’t full of shit. 

*******

Showing up just outside Wren’s, I found Murphy, Roald, and Peyton out in the alley behind the shop. The other two hadn’t bothered to change out of their funeral clothes, though they were pretty dirty by that point. It looked like Murphy in particular had gone mud-sliding in hers or something. She was standing with her back to the nearby dumpster, bouncing a ball off the ground, then the wall, then back into her hand. When I dropped into view, she looked up, her eyes a bit bloodshot, voice audibly strained. “How’s it going, Boss? Heard you dropped by.” 

“I–” My voice caught a bit, before I managed a weak, “Yeah, I wanted to–I mean I thought I should–fuck. I’m sorry. I wanted to watch and be there, even if it didn’t really matter.” 

“It mattered,” Murphy informed me, her own voice cracking slightly. “Believe me, it mattered.” It looked like she was about to say something else, but in the end, she just closed her mouth tightly, gripped the ball, and looked away. 

Roald spoke instead, standing nearer to the shop door with a phone in one hand. “We were just wishing Alloy good luck at that dinner thing tonight. Sounds like it’s gonna be a real… umm, something.” 

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded emphatically. “Oh, it’s bound to be a real something, that’s for sure. Probably a bunch of rich people standing around, patting each other on the back, throwing some money around like it’s water, and giving speeches that last way too long.” 

Alloy snorted, “Listen to him, talking like he’s been to sooo many of these things.” She gave me a look. “Admit it, you’re interested in seeing how this whole thing goes too.” 

Well, at least my cover was intact. Forcing myself to sound casual, I replied, “I have a feeling we’ll be pretty bored before the night is over.” 

“By which,” Murphy put in while turning back to face me once more, “he means he really hopes he’s bored. Because the alternative is that something went wrong again and everything is on fire.” She offered a weak smile by the end of that, before immediately ducking her gaze once more with a guilty look as thoughts of her brother clearly intruded. 

“Come on,” I spoke up, gesturing toward the door. “Let’s go inside for a few minutes. You can tell us about Tyson.” 

“What?” She blinked at that, confused and uncertain. “You don’t want to hear me talk about my brother again. You’ve got that party to go to.” 

“And we will, later,” I confirmed. “But we’ve got some time right now. I’m not in a rush, believe me. That dinner will still be there later. And yes, I do want to hear you talk about your brother again.” But far more importantly, she needed to talk about him. That much was obvious. 

Giving me a long, appraising look, Murphy finally shook her head and muttered, “You’re a really weird kid, you know that?”  

With a quick, easy nod, I agreed, “People have said that now and then. Now come on. Roald, you still got those cards you’ve been playing with at the tunnel?” 

“Uhh, yeah?” He dug in his pocket to come out with the worn deck. 

“Great.” Giving him a thumbs up, I waved with the other hand for everyone to go inside. “Then let’s get in there and see if Wren wants to play. 

“If we’re going to be a dangerous influence, we might as well teach her poker while we’re at it.” 

*******

We did not have to teach Wren poker. Not only did the kid already know how to play, she cleaned our clocks. 

Honestly, I should have realized something was up as soon as Fred had a coughing fit when I brought up the idea of teaching her how to play. At the time, I’d thought that he was just stopping himself from objecting. But no, now I realized he had definitely been laughing. 

It was still worth it though. For about forty minutes, we’d sat around the table in the shop and played cards while letting Murphy tell stories about Tyson. There were good stories, bad stories, sad ones, and ones that made even Murphy laugh. At least, until she cried again. 

Wren had clearly won the games. But I was pretty sure Murphy had won a good bit too, just from being there. She had needed that far more than Peyton and I needed to get to the party. 

Still, we did need to make an appearance. So the two of us eventually said our goodbyes, left the others to play without us, and headed out together. 

Once outside, we made our way to the nearby roof and I used the handy dandy GPS mapping function that Wren had included in my helmet to tell me which way to go to the place the Seraphs were using for this whole party thing. They weren’t having it on Seraph grounds, but rather at a large convention center a mile or so away from there. I wasn’t sure exactly why, unless it had to do with the size of the crowd or something. Which itself was pretty odd. This was just a thing for rich people, right? How many rich people could there be? 

Either way, it was bound to be incredibly well-protected. But then again, the mayor’s fundraiser event across from the children’s hospital had been well-protected too, and look how that went. 

“You think something bad is gonna happen tonight?” Peyton asked, as we stood on the edge of that roof. 

“Okay, one, you are entirely too good at reading my emotions considering you can’t see my face,” I informed her with a look. 

“Body language, Boss,” she replied easily, shrugging. “I can’t help it if you’re basically an open book.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved a hand. “That’s me, open book. Uh, anyway, two, I want us to be prepared in case it does. I don’t think anyone in any of the main gangs will try anything at an event that’s gonna have that many Star-Touched and other armed people around, but I wouldn’t put it past the Scions to try something just to lash out at people for…” 

“For what we did,” the other girl finished for me, her voice flat. 

Wincing a little, I put a hand out to touch her arm. “We did the right thing.” Yet even as I said that, I felt a pang of guilt. Jolene Iverson had been murdered specifically because she reported on the information we exposed. Right thing or not, if we hadn’t exposed Pencil and Cup’s true identities, she would still be alive. 

Yes, they would have killed people anyway, and exposing their identities was a real step toward catching them… maybe. It was the right thing to do. And yet…

And yet the pain in my stomach whenever I thought about Jolene Iverson and the people who had cared about her still remained.

Staring at me through that moment of silent introspection, Peyton quietly murmured, “Yup, definitely an open book.” It was her turn to reach out to squeeze my arm then. “I… for some reason I always forget I’m sort of the older one here. It doesn’t seem like it. You’re just so–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “I’m sorry you have to be the mature one.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. Instead, I forced all of it down and simply turned to look at her once more. “I’m just glad I have people to talk to now. And someone to go with me to this party.” 

“Changing the subject?” she asked, as the extra marbles turned into question marks around her head. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Did it work?” 

With a quiet chuckle, Peyton gestured. “Sure. We uhh, we can talk about that later.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the edge of the roof. “Great, for now let’s go party. I don’t know about you, but I am starving. And if something does happen, I’d like to deal with it after eating.” 

“Didn’t you say the food thing is supposed to come after all the boring speeches?” she pointed out. “You know, as the last possible thing.” 

“Oh my God, you’re right,” I agreed. “We’re doomed.” 

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At Last 16-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was fast. Or maybe that was just Charmeine. Either way, she was practically on top of my mother the moment those words had left her mouth. Before any of us could move, she pivoted under the raised sword and lashed out with a fist. No, there was a dagger there, I realized at the last instant. A ghost-dagger which turned solid in mid-strike. 

But Mom was pretty fast too. The sword that the ghost-woman had ducked under was suddenly in her other hand, transferred instantly before she brought it up to block the incoming blade. With her other hand, she summoned… what looked like a ball of ghost-fire around her fist before punching through Invidia’s face. Or rather, where her face had been, because the ghost-woman dodged it with a loud, cheerful laugh. Yeah, a laugh, as though this was a game. Because just like she’d said a moment earlier, this was fun for her. For them. 

As for me? Well, a lot of words immediately sprang to mind when it came to the idea of fighting Whisper-possessed Olympian Seosten ghosts. But none of them were ‘fun.’ Or any word that could be found under its entry in the thesaurus. Especially not when we still didn’t know exactly where my grandparents or the others were. I just had to hope that my ghosts were getting the message across to the other searchers. Who, of course, might be dealing with their own problems already. Because somehow I really doubted we were looking at all the Whispers on the ship. Or even all the Seosten ghosts. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to focus on that. Or even time to go to my mother’s aid, because the rest of those ghosts seemed to have taken Invidia’s laugh after that first, blindingly-quick exchange as an invitation, as all of them attacked at once. And yeah, they were laughing too. 

The nearest Whisper-Ghost throwing himself at me was a tall figure. Well, sort of tall. A few inches over six feet, with black and red hair worn long, and incredibly fit. Not to mention clearly angry, and focused on killing me in particular. Not that anyone would know just from listening to him. He was laughing cheerfully, like a kid at the carnival or something. Which was juxtaposed against a look of such vile hatred that I seriously took a reflexive step back. The mix of cheerful laughter with looks of utter disgust and bitter animus was disturbing.

But I had my own ghost. Rahanvael was right there, interposing herself between us. The moment I saw her block the Seosten, I focused on shoving power into her so she could do more than simply be visible. In this case, she used that power to catch the Seosten’s arm as he reached for me, driving her knee hard into his stomach before flying straight up while dragging him up after her. Then she sort of inverted in the air, essentially giving him a shoulder throw. Except instead of tossing him toward the floor, she heaved the other ghost up toward (and through) the ceiling. Then she followed him up and out of sight.  

That gave me time to grab for the piece of pencil-sized wood Sariel had provided. As instructed, I snapped it with my thumb before giving it a toss toward the nearest Whisper-Ghost just as he was coming for me. As the spell activated, a half-visible greenish cage appeared around the form before falling to the ground with the ghost contained within. 

Around me, I could see the others doing the same. Some managed to catch their targets while a couple missed. But it still helped, immediately taking out about four or five of the things. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect solution. I saw the familiar distortion in the air as the Whispers who had been possessing those particular Seostens escaped, and several new ghosts appeared. Like–like they had summoned brand new ‘bodies’ to possess. We had trapped some of their ghost options, but they still had more to choose from. 

In other words, things were still bad. As evidenced when I caught sight of another of the things… not coming straight at me. Instead, she was standing back a bit, hands raised. Just as my attention snapped that way, I saw a slight distortion in the air. Something that looked a bit like a diamond-shaped icicle flew straight at my face, so fast that even with my reflex-enhancements, I barely managed to snap my head out of the way in time to avoid most of it. I felt the thing slice across my cheek, drawing blood on its way. Worse, there were three more coming right at me, moving just as quickly. 

Instantly, I hurled myself into a sideways flip, allowing the first of the three icicles to pass inches away from my stomach. A thought brought my staff to one hand while I was still in mid-flip, and I snapped it outward to knock the second icicle out of the air while simultaneously hitting the button to shoot a burst of kinetic force out the other end, which took care of the third icicle. 

Landing on my feet, I brought the staff up and out, snapping, “Time to fight!” The words summoned Jaq and Gus, who assumed their positions as blade and grapple. But that was for later. First, I hit the button on my staff to make a cloud of sand shoot out one end to form a thick cloud. 

It was just in time too, because there were suddenly seven of those deadly icicle things flying at me. All of them spaced perfectly in an attempt to hit me with at least one of them no matter how much dodging or staff-swinging I did. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t planning on doing any. Instead, I focused on the sand I had summoned. It immediately turned red-hot, even as I spread it out and sent the cloud flying forward to catch the icicles. They melted, turning to steam. Which itself might’ve been a problem, as it was still spraying forward toward me. But I was ready for that too. Or rather, Tabbris was. She had taken control of one of my hands, summoning a small stone to the palm before tossing it forward while triggering the power that made it grow to the size of a much larger boulder. In mid-flip, it caught the incoming super-heated spray, shielding us. 

Before the Whisper-Ghost could send any more of those things at me, I made my super-heated sand fill the air around her, specifically spreading it out a bit to make it as hard as possible for her to actually form the damn things. From what I had seen in those few seconds, she made them right in front of her hands before launching them. Now, she couldn’t do that. Because every time the icicle started to form, my sand instantly melted it.  

She hasn’t played enough Pokemon, Tabbris noted in my head. Everyone knows ice is weak against fire, fighting, and rock. Her power loses three different ways. 

Yeah, I replied, and you know what ghost is weak against? Other ghosts. 

Abruptly, Rahanvael appeared behind the ice-creating ghost, as I sent more power into her. Enough power that she was able to shove the Whisper-Ghost hard, making the figure stumble forward just as I hit my boost and threw myself that way. My thumb found the spell I had there to summon ghost-fire, surrounding the staff in that glow just before it collided hard with the side of her head, snapping it back. Before she could recover, I spun the staff around, driving the blade through her chest. 

The ghost vanished, though I knew she wasn’t gone for good. I could still sort of feel her essence around. I had just disrupted her for now. Or them. All these Seosten ghosts were actually possessed by Whispers, I had to remind myself. It was just… weird. 

At that moment, I barely had time to glance around to see how the others were doing. From the corner of one eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon rapidly parrying with blades formed from her gauntlets as a Whisper-Ghost went after her with what appeared to be a pair of swords made out of electricity. Avalon was back-pedaling, but Miranda was right there, shield raised to block one of the incoming swords, giving Valley an opening to turn her energy blade into a large fist. And apparently the energy constructs from those gauntlets had been upgraded to actually affect ghosts, because it slammed into their opponent, making him stagger, form flickering a bit from the effort of maintaining cohesion. 

Further away, I could see Apollo and Aletheia standing together against two more of the Whisper-Ghosts. They seemed to be handling themselves well enough, unsurprisingly. It looked like Apollo was doing some sort of containment spell, while Aletheia held her hand out and used what had to be her own power, which was… disrupting them or something. I wasn’t sure, but every time she used it, the ghosts who were trying to attack them sort of… flickered a bit. It threw them off, whatever it was. Slowed them down, delayed their reactions, made them sort of dazed or whatever. Enough that Apollo was able to finish his spell, tossing a playing card from his palm, which hit one of the ghosts and literally sucked it inside. Yeah, he threw a card and sucked one of the ghosts into it. 

I really needed to get him to teach me that spell. 

And yet, just like the others had with the first containment spells, the Whisper who had been captured simply escaped the ghost it had been possessing and summoned a new one to control. Which put Apollo and Aletheia, not quite back to square one, because they had still taken one of the Seosten ghosts out of the equation and made the Whisper bring out another (and there wasn’t an endless supply of those), but still. Not great. 

Meanwhile, apparently a couple of the ghosts had gotten the idea that my dad might be an easy target. It was a mistake they quickly came to regret as, at that particular moment, the Seosten Dad had Chimera-bonded with while attempting to recall to Grandmaria was Mercury. The Seosten man’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, shorten, or delay effects on himself. Which also allowed him to boost for minutes at a time rather than seconds, and with even more effectiveness. That was where Mercury had gotten the reputation for having super speed from. And Dad was using that in the moment to speed himself up so he could create and empower specific anti-ghost magical enchantments on the blank coins he’d brought with him. In the short time that I spent glancing that way, I saw my father’s blurred form rush through scrawling a spell onto his latest coin, before tossing it at the floor right in front of the ghost who was coming for him. A burst of purple electricity shot from the coin, making the ghost blow apart (though it left that distinctive distortion in the air that meant the Whisper itself was still around). 

Then there was my mother. She was still going toe-to-toe with Invidia, both moving too quickly for me to keep track of very well. The Whisper-Ghost still had her daggers, and was a blindingly-fast dervish, attacking my mother from all sides. Mom, meanwhile, continued to block or evade every strike, lashing out with several of her own. Yet no matter how quick she was or what extra powers she threw into the mix, Invidia evaded all of it. It was clear they were pretty evenly matched. And I still had no idea how much of that was the Whisper herself (or itself), and how much was Charmeine’s skill and power. 

That was as much as I was able to take in with that quick glance around. We weren’t falling, but we weren’t exactly winning either. There were more of these things jumping into the fight already, and the ones we did manage to hit hard enough to disrupt simply reformed shortly afterward. Or summoned new ghost bodies to use.

Oh, and on top of all of that, all of these ghosts were still laughing. They were just having a grand old time with this whole thing. Laughing while giving those hateful, threatening glares and trying to murder us. It was really sending mixed messages. 

Behind me, Rahanvael intercepted the return of the ghost she had followed through the ceiling. I gave her a quick boost of power before pivoting to snap my staff up, intercepting an enormous ghost-like hook on the end of a pole that had been coming toward me from behind. The Whisper-Ghost there was a lanky woman with short blueish hair and light skin. Well, light even for the whole ghost thing. Which, again, the fact that ghosts possessed by Whispers had pretty much their normal color tone was just… weird. Her polearm had that large hook at the end, now caught against my staff. 

“Kinda hard for a ghost to sneak up on a Necromancer,” I informed her a bit tersely. “Just FYI.” Worry about everyone else kept any amusement out of my voice. The words were dark. I wanted these ghosts to back the fuck off, and the fact that I couldn’t affect them (at least, not very easily) even with my own Necromancy power was incredibly annoying. I wanted to find my grandparents, damn it! 

If this particular Whisper-Ghost cared about my anger, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just glared at me even more hatefully, while simultaneously giving a delighted squeal of laughter, like a small child going down a water slide. 

“Yeah,” I grunted, “haha to you too.” And without another word, I knocked her hooked polearm away from my staff and pivoted, bringing the weapon around toward her head. She recoiled to make it miss her by about six inches. Or rather, it would have missed by about six inches, except in that moment, I focused on the ‘make things grow’ power once more. That time, instead of turning a small stone into a boulder, I extended my staff several more inches so that Jaq, in his blade form and glowing bright from ghost-fire empowerment, cut straight through her throat. The form dissipated violently, that condensed magical energy blowing apart. And yet, she never stopped laughing. Well, until the form had completely vanished. Even then, I was pretty sure the Whisper left behind hadn’t stopped. I just couldn’t hear her thanks to Liesje’s spell. 

At the same time, while that had been going on, Tabbris was busy keeping another of the ghosts, a guy who looked like he could have passed for a particularly buff Indian man on Earth, busy by directing the superheated sand into his face. Which didn’t actually hurt him, of course. But it did obscure his vision enough that he didn’t see as she also directed my finger to hit the button that would launch the ghost-fire empowered grapple right into his chest. Or… it would have, except that just before the grapple reached him, he abruptly appeared in like six different places at once, scattered all around within about a twenty foot area. There were six versions of him for a second, then five of them disappeared. Including the one the grapple had been shooting toward. 

Wait, I knew that guy. Or rather, I knew of him. Apollo had mentioned him one day when we were talking to Miranda about her duplication. His name was… Enyalius, that was it. Apparently he had been a big disciple of Abaddon. His power had allowed him to–well, do exactly what I had just seen, make anywhere from five to ten duplicates of himself within an area that stretched to about fifty feet wide. He had little-to-no control over where all of them ended up appearing, and had to pick one to keep before the rest disappeared within a couple seconds of being created. 

Oh shit, which meant– with the realization and my own senses screaming at me, I spun around, snapping the staff up to knock aside the ghost-figure’s reaching hand. No, hands. My staff knocked two hands and a knife away. As expected, he had duplicated himself again, and several of the ten clones he had created had been close enough to lunge at me. I deflected their attacks, barely, and they vanished an instant later. He just chose to keep one of the clones that had appeared further away. 

This was his game, it was how he fought. He would create a bunch of short-lived duplicates, attack with as many as were close enough to reach the target (or targets) in the couple seconds of life they had, then simply allow them to disappear while choosing to keep one who was far enough back to be safe from immediate retaliation. 

All of which meant that fighting this guy was a pain in the ass. Soon, he was pressing the attack. He just kept creating more duplicates, coming after me with whoever was close enough, and then allowing them to vanish a second later. There was no point to actually trying to hit any of them, because they were just going to vanish almost immediately anyway. And I couldn’t take him out, because he could just pick any of them at random to make his new self. 

I might have been overwhelmed pretty quickly, except I did have a couple of advantages to help out. Namely, I had Tabbris copiloting to help deal with defense, and Rahanvael had returned to cover my back. Even then, however, keeping up with the guy who could mass-spam these two second duplicates all around me was pretty much a losing battle. It was just a matter of time. He could just keep pressing and waiting for us to make a mistake. Worse, the Whisper-Ghosts I had already dealt with were reforming. This could get bad very quickly. 

But the thing was, I wasn’t limited to only having one ghost for help. Through those frantic few seconds, I let Tabbris partially take over so I could put some focus toward calling back some of the spirits I had sent out to search the ship. I made the call pretty simple, if they hadn’t found anything yet or had already delivered their message, they were to come back to where I was. 

Just as the next wave of duplicate attacks came, Seth appeared to one side of me. His hand caught the nearest Whisper-Ghost-Clone’s wrist and yanked hard before throwing a punch at his face. Only for that one to poof out of existence. Seth, in turn, blinked at his own fist and muttered something about not knowing his own strength. 

The rest of the ghosts aside from Grover appeared shortly afterward. And now it was a much more fair fight. I had five ghosts on my side, counting Rahanvael, so it was a lot harder for Enyalius to find a blind spot to hit me from. And having all these ghosts with me to cover my back meant I could press my own attack. No matter which duplicate he chose to stay in, I had someone nearby ready to hit him. And my ghosts could actually touch his. 

All of which meant that it wasn’t long before the blade of my staff found his main body (or ‘body’) and made it burst apart in another spray of ghost… energy or whatever. Not that the threat was over, not by a long shot. He wasn’t gone for good, either him or the Whisper who had been piloting him. Not to mention the rest of these damn things. But I did feel a burst of satisfaction in the moment.

But it wasn’t enough. Again, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of them for good. Tabs, I think we might need to do the super-wing boosted ghost shove. And later come up with a better word for it. 

But we can’t hit all of them! Her voice was plaintive. Last time it was all we could do to shove Kushiel away, even with the wing-boost. 

These guys aren’t Kushiel, I reminded her. But you’re right, we need a better idea than the shove. And I just got one. 

She already knew what it was, of course, as soon as it had occurred to me. Immediately, the two of us began to coordinate moving closer to where Apollo and Aletheia were. Everyone else was fighting, keeping the Whisper-Ghosts back without actually stopping them, while Mom and Invidia’s fight continued without either gaining any real advantage. 

“Apollo!” I shouted as soon as I was close enough to be heard. “Let us in!”  

Thankfully, he understood immediately, and extended his hand. I used a portal to reach the distance between us, grabbing on before possessing the man with his permission. Then I was inside him, and he knew my plan in an instant. Immediately, he drew another of the spell cards with the ghost-trap enchantment on it. But this time, just as he went to power it, Tabbris manifested her wings through him. They flared to life, extending out behind the man while the power they provided was shoved into the spell. 

Most of the Whisper-Ghosts had no idea what hit them. The ghost trap spell filled the entire room. Knowing it was coming, I had already ordered my ghosts to disappear. But our opponents didn’t get the message. Almost every single Seosten ghost in the room was sucked into the card. 

Almost every single one. Invidia resisted it, though she did snap her head around to snarl in our direction. Mom attempted to take advantage of that, but the woman vanished from where she had been standing. Only to reappear right where the card newly-full of ghosts had fallen. 

We didn’t have a chance to grab her, or it. Apollo was staggering from the effort of putting everything he had into that spell. Aletheia made an attempt to blast the ghost-woman with her power, but she grabbed the card and vanished. 

“Wha-what just happened?” Miranda demanded, looking around the suddenly empty battlefield. 

Stepping out of Apollo, I replied, “They’re uhh, they’re gone for now?” 

Apollo nodded, his face a bit grim. “It’ll take her a little bit to get her pals out of the card, but I’m not sure how long. We need to move. Come on, the jamming spell should be right in the core here, they probably have it drawing power from that.”

Appearing beside me, Seth spoke up. “So your pals on the bridge know what’s up. And from what the others said, they warned the rest of them too. Just in time too.” 

“So there are other Whisper-Ghosts. Are they okay? Sariel and the others, I mean.” 

“Sounds like it,” he confirmed. 

I started to say something else, but felt a tug at my consciousness. Grover. The last ghost who hadn’t shown up for the fight. Reaching out to him, I looked through his eyes to see what was up. And what I saw only took a few seconds to compute before I immediately withdrew and blurted, “Guys, we need to move, right now!” 

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, quickly turning to me. 

“I know where Popser and the others are,” I replied, using the name for my grandfather that I had used for such a long time while I was a little kid. It was always Popser or Grandpartie. “And they’re in trouble. Puriel’s like–not responding to anyone, not doing anything, and there’s a lot of Whispers all around. The others are trying to hold them off, but… but the Whispers are doing everything they can to get into Puriel’s head. 

“And if they take him over, we’re all fucked.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story posted a couple days ago which is now available for EVERYONE to read right here

So, I skated for a while, both blades and board. A lot of people liked to stick with one or the other, and saw switching back and forth as not being loyal or whatever. They got really into that sort of thing, with huge arguments about which was better. But I tended to go with whatever I was in the mood for at the time. If that actually made me worse at both than I would have been if I focused on one, the way some people thought, so be it. I didn’t feel worse than I could have been, plus I had fun. And wasn’t having fun kind of the point of the entire thing? 

Anyway, once I’d had enough of that fun for a while, I found myself grabbing a couple bottles of water from the cooler and standing in front of that guy from before, Ryder. As promised, he hadn’t set foot on anything with wheels. He was just sitting off to the side, watching everyone else. He didn’t seem to know anybody except Dani, and something made me want to make sure that he wasn’t lonely or whatever. I couldn’t explain it, I just didn’t want to let him feel ignored. 

Twisting the caps off the water bottles, I extended one to him before speaking up. “So, you’re absolutely sure there’s no way we could talk you onto one of those boards? It’s seriously not as scary as it looks from the outside. Just takes some practice.”  

After a moment of hesitation, he took the bottle while shaking his head. “Sorry, I like having all my bones intact. I have enough trouble walking around without killing myself. Adding wheels into the mix just seems like a bad idea altogether.” Belatedly, he added, “But, you know, you seem pretty good on them. You sure you weren’t born with wheels?” 

Snorting despite myself, I plopped down next to him and took a long gulp from my own bottle. “I’ve seen baby pictures, no wheels attached. Though maybe they had them surgically removed first?” Pretending to consider that, I finally shook it off. “Nah, I’m pretty sure my family would have told me. They lie about plenty of stuff, but that seems like it would’ve come up.” 

Looking away from me, Ryder murmured, “I guess all families lie, even the super-rich ones.” 

“Maybe especially the super-rich ones,” I found myself replying before grimacing. Why would I even say that? Or any of this? I didn’t know anything about this guy. Like, absolutely nothing aside from the fact that he was tutoring Arleigh and was friends with Dani, whom I also didn’t know very well. I had to be careful not to open up too much. Saying the wrong thing, even to a completely random person who didn’t know me at all, could seriously backfire. 

Ryder, meanwhile, had looked over to me. “I guess money doesn’t solve everything. Just makes it easier to deal with a lot of things.” He hesitated briefly, seeming to consider something before speaking again. “Though in a way, you’re really lucky as far as the rich and powerful parents thing goes. Err, I mean obviously you’re lucky. But for a different reason. I just–” Shaking his head as though clearing it, he pushed on. “What I mean is, people don’t know you. They don’t recognize you. Do you have any idea how strange that is, for the daughter of people as big as your family to be completely invisible on the street? You can walk into any store and nobody will recognize you. Most girls in your position would be going around getting constantly mobbed. You know, by paparazzi and people like that.”

Flushing a little, I folded my arms across my stomach. “Trust me,” I murmured, “they’ve got much better things to photograph than me. I don’t exactly take after my mother. If I did, maybe more people would want pictures.”

“And if more people wanted pictures, you wouldn’t be able to sit out here doing the things you like,” Ryder pointed out with a shrug. “I mean, do you want to be a model?” 

“I dunno,” I answered honestly. “I mean no, not like that. I don’t want to be chased around and like, yeah. I still want to do my own thing most of the time. You’re right about that, having anonymity is really good. It means I can do stuff like this.” Biting my lip, I slumped back a bit and sighed. “But sometimes I do like to feel pretty. I like to dress up. I like feeling… I dunno, feminine? Sometimes I feel like this stuff suits me better, the skating, running around, screwing off with the guys, that sort of thing. And other times… other times I really wish I could fill out a dress better than I do. It’s like I can’t make up my mind if I’d rather be more of a girl or more of a guy.” Grimacing, I gave a quick shake of my head while trying to make it sound like this stuff didn’t really matter. “Forget it. Believe me, I know it’s stupid.” 

Before I could tell myself to shut the fuck up and stop talking about this with someone I barely knew, Ryder’s hand touched my shoulder. His voice was quiet. “It’s not stupid, Cassidy. I know a lot of stupid things, and that? That’s definitely not one of them. What you’re talking about, it–” He stopped, seeming to consider his words for a moment. “It just sounds like you’re your own person. And that’s a good thing. Don’t let anyone try to force you into a box. Sometimes you feel more like this.” He gestured over to where the others were shouting at one another while skating through the various concrete ramps. “And other times you feel more like… you know, a traditional sort of girl. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be both. Whatever you are, just make sure it’s what you chose to be. Not what someone said you should be just because it fits their own personal understanding of the world.”

I couldn’t–I had no idea what to say to that. Or how to deal with the feelings that kept twisting their way up through me. My stomach felt weird. I wasn’t sure why this whole thing had come up, or why I felt like talking about it with him of all people made sense. Again, I didn’t know anything about Ryder Towling. There was absolutely no reason at all for me to feel comfortable talking about this sort of sensitive, personal thing with him. Part of me wondered if he was a Touched, like that Tell guy. But no, that didn’t seem right either. I just… felt comfortable with him. 

Yeah, it didn’t make any sense. And it sort of scared me a little bit. But not as much as it probably should have. The thought that I could say the wrong thing to a guy I barely knew should have terrified me into immediately excusing myself and walking away. Instead, I sat there and considered his words for a long, silent moment before replying, “Probably a good thing that people don’t depend on me to be a certain type of person. I’d end up disappointing them.” 

Ryder gave a soft snort at that. “Now that I really doubt,” he informed me before taking a long pull from his bottle. His voice turned quieter. “You are an awful lot of things, Cassidy Evans. But I’m pretty sure one thing you could never be is disappointing.” 

A deep blush rose within me, and I turned slightly that way, trying to find the right words to ask what would make him say that just because I did a little skating around him. But before any words could come out, we were rejoined by Dani once more. She had a couple others with her, including Amber, whom I had not seen arrive. 

“Not having any luck getting this guy on wheels, huh?” Dani teased lightly while gesturing. “Well come on, maybe we can interest you in a different sort. You know, the kind attached to a car.”

One of the boys, a tall red-head named Clyve, spoke up. “We’re gonna go get ice cream from that new place. Some of us keep hearing people babble on and on about how good it is and haven’t had a chance to go yet.” 

New ice cream place. Maki’s place. The thought of going to see my ex-boyfriend’s new love interest immediately made me want to give excuses and leave. But there was that voice in the back of my head reminding me that I really did need to find out more about… them if I was going to figure out what that whole deal was. And to be quite honest, going in a big group like this was undoubtedly the very best cover I would get. Even if it made me uncomfortable, going was the best choice. Which, of course, was a realization that made my stomach twist. 

I found myself looking over toward Amber, who met my gaze with an understanding expression. She raised both eyebrows before clearing her throat to casually ask. “Oh uhh, didn’t you say something about having a thing with your parents this weekend? Is that today?”

I knew what Amber was doing. She was giving me a way out of this. She knew how uncomfortable it would be, and was letting me know that she would be there to find out more about Maki herself. She was telling me that I didn’t have to be there if I didn’t want to be. 

Except I still felt like I needed to. Sure, she could find out stuff on her own, and could almost certainly do as much if not more than I could. Okay, definitely more than I could in some ways. But if I let my discomfort with the situation keep me away from it, even with this excuse, it would open the door to allowing such feelings to keep me away from other uncomfortable situations. Which, given that the whole thing with my family, felt like a very bad precedence to set. Yes, I didn’t really want to be there, but I wasn’t going to let my personal feelings get in the way. Finding out what was going on with the sex-shifter person who had some connection to the Ministry was more important, and if having one of us there was good, having two had to be better, right? 

Forcing back a sigh at my own annoying logic, I gave her a thankful look before shaking my head. “Nah, not today. I’m up for some ice cream. And believe me,” I added in Clyve’s direction, “they haven’t been overselling it. This stuff is just as good as everyone keeps saying. Better, even.” With a wink, I added, “But uhh, I don’t think all of us can fit in one car.” Saying that, I glanced around at the roughly fifteen or so people who were still hanging around. 

“Well, I brought Ryder here for a reason beyond coaxing him out of his comfort zone,” Dani noted. “Namely, he has a car. So ahh, come on.” Pivoting, she waved both hands around her head. “Everyone heading for ice cream, load up and move out!” To Amber and me, she added, “Come on, it may not be the limousine the princess there is used to, but I’ll see if I can scrounge out a chauffeur’s hat to make you feel more at home.” 

Her words very easily could have been taken as rude or… taunting coming in the wrong tone. Yeah, they could have come off poorly from someone else. But somehow, I wasn’t offended. I knew she was teasing, it was just her way of doing that. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but maybe she was just good at expressing herself. Or… or something. 

Shaking that off, I started to move after her and Ryder. But Amber gently caught my arm, her voice low. “How… how was the funeral?” 

Of course she knew I had gone. Biting my lip, I looked back to her before glancing around quickly to make sure no one was in earshot. Then I whispered, “Simon was there.” As her eyes widened, I gave a quick two sentence summary for her about what I had seen. Through it, Amber seemed to reel a bit. Yeah, it was a lot to take in. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times as she tried to find the right words to respond to the news, before finally settling on a simple yet effective, “Motherfucker.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” I murmured, frowning at the uncomfortable, confusing thoughts in my head. I still had no idea why he had been there, or what his whole deal was. It just raised a bunch of questions that I had no way to answer right then. So, I shoved them down and gestured. “We better get over there before everyone starts yelling at us for holding up ice cream.” 

The other girl looked like she was going to say something else for a moment, but in the end she just gave a short nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “don’t wanna keep everyone waiting.” 

So, we started off that way, after I gave a quick glance back to the spot where Ryder and I had been talking. That weird feeling rose up in me once more before I made myself quash it for the moment. 

Today was just… really weird all around. 

******

“So uhh, I owe you an apology.” 

The words came as I was stepping away from the toppings station at the ice cream parlor with my cup of the frozen treat heavily laden with caramel syrup and sprinkles. Turning, I found myself looking at none other than Maki himself. Themself. Damn it, I still didn’t know what the right term was. I was going to mentally stick with them for the moment. 

“Uhh,” I managed uncertainly, “an apology?” 

They nodded, meeting my gaze a bit sheepishly. “I probably should have said that I knew who you were before. And then I went and talked to Tom about you visiting. It’s ahh…” Raising a hand to rub the back of their neck with obvious discomfort, they glanced away while murmuring, “It was kind of rude. So yeah, I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t fair. Not with the whole… ex thing going on.” With a grimace, they added, “I think I’m probably making the whole thing worse.” 

My head shook quickly. “It’s okay. I mean, it was already pretty awkward before you said anything. But I swear I didn’t know who you were before we came. My dad just mentioned ice cream and I didn’t put it together with what Tomas said about how–yeah.” Shaking myself slightly, I focused on adding, “Let’s just say there’s been plenty of awkwardness to go around. But hey, it’s still really good ice cream. And trust me, I’ve tasted a lot in my time. This stuff is basically perfect.” 

To my confusion, Maki glanced away with a muttered, “Yeah, well, it would be.” As I blinked uncertainly, they seemed to realize what they had said and visibly blanched. “I mean, sorry. It’s just been a long few days. Long couple weeks, really. My family just moved here and all.” 

Well that was as good of an opening as I was going to get. Bracing myself inwardly, I tried to sound as casual as possible while asking, “So uhh, how’d you and Tomas meet, anyway? I mean, if it’s not too personal or whatever. And even as I say that, I realize I sound like a crazy ex. Don’t worry about it. I mean, I may be crazy in a lot of ways, but I’m not that sort of crazy. And I–I’m making it worse again. So you know what, I’m just gonna shut up.”

With a tiny smirk, Maki replied, “Believe me, I’ve been on your side of the whole thing before. With a lot more confusion and weirdness than you could possibly imagine. So yeah, I get it. But the truth is there’s not really much of a story to tell. We met because our fathers introduced us. His dad had some history with mine, and when we were going to move over here to the States to start up our business, Mr. Jackson suggested we come to Detroit. So, we did, and I met Tom. I dunno how that’s going to go, but uhh, he’s… nice. I mean, more than nice, I just–” They made a face. “It was my turn to make it awkward.” 

“Well, I appreciate you giving me a break from the job,” I found myself casually replying. The two of us met each other’s gazes and both snickered a bit. Okay, yeah, putting aside the mystery around their whole… thing, I could see why Tomas would like them. 

Still, I did have questions that I needed to get answers to if I was ever going to figure out what was going on. So, trying to sound as casual as possible, I asked, “Ahh, where did you move over here from? I mean, you said your family came to the States and all. Are you uhh, I’m not sure how to… your English is really good. I mean, you don’t really have much of an accent at all.” 

Offering me a faint smile and a lifeline, Maki replied, “We’re originally from Hamamatsu, in Japan. It’s a couple hundred kilometers south of Tokyo. Ahh, sorry, about a hundred and fifty miles for Americans. But I only spent the first seven or eight years of my life there. My family moves around a lot. It’s–” Clearly stopping themself from whatever they had been about to say, Maki instead finished with, “I’ve spent most of the past eight years or so bouncing through Western Europe. I guess that’s how my dad met Tom’s.” 

“Is your dad a diplomat too?” I asked, before amending, “I mean, was he, before you guys did the whole ice cream shop thing? Which seems sort of like a weird career move, but hey.” 

Maki chuckled slightly, offering me a perfect smile that made me see even more why Tomas would be interested in them. “He just likes to start up businesses, run them for awhile, then hand them off to other people so he can do something new. I guess he gets bored easily or something. He–” Stopping, they clearly mentally corrected something they were about to say. “He’s got a lot of irons in the fire. And now we’re here doing this. He promised we could visit America the next time he made a big change, and that I could pick the business. So, ice cream.” 

“Well,” I replied while gesturing with my full spoon, “judging from the taste of this, it was the right move. Whoever your supplier is, they’re a genius.” 

With a mysterious smile, they replied, “It has a lot to do with the storage and preparation too. But thanks, my parents will be glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. I umm, I’m glad I could meet you. You know, officially. If it wouldn’t be too awkward or bad for you, maybe we could all go hang out sometime. I wouldn’t mind hearing some stories about Tom. And it’s even more fun if we’re talking while he’s right there.” They added that last bit with a wink. 

Well, as far as getting opportunities to snoop on their life and find out what was going on went, this was going incredibly well. Better than I really could have hoped. I pushed aside my personal feelings and nodded. “Sure, ahh, that sounds good. Here, why don’t I give you my number. Then we can keep talking about him and set up a time to do it in person.” 

In the end, we both exchanged numbers and texted one another to make sure we had them right. Then I went back to join the others, who were just about done anyway. I was teased a little bit about ‘stalking’ Tomas’s new boyfriend by a few people, but they moved on pretty quick. And soon, everyone decided to disperse and head out to do their own thing. Which was just as well, considering I really needed to go home and put in an appearance before escaping to go to that party. And boy did that sound like completely ordinary teenager things when I thought about it like that. Funny how that worked. 

As I was heading out, Ryder caught my attention at the door and raised an eyebrow. “That guy over there is your ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend?” 

Flushing a little, I replied, “Yeah well, what can I say? I live an exciting and interesting life.” 

Ryder chuckled softly, holding the door for me. “You know what, Cassidy Evans? That I can definitely believe. 

“I’m pretty sure you live a more interesting life than anyone could guess.” 

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At Last 16-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – there was a non-canon posted for this story which is now available for everyone to read on Patreon right here

Mom was the first to find her voice, unsurprisingly. With the black-bladed sword held out protectively as she scanned the room to watch all those other doors as though expecting something to rush through them at any moment, she spoke up in a quiet, tense voice. “What do you mean, pilot the ship to Tartarus? Why–and how would these Whisper things do that?” 

Aletheia, in turn, regarded her briefly. She seemed curious, but didn’t want to bring up anything that wasn’t directly related to the situation at hand. “The former requires speculation. As to the latter, there are, as it turns out, certain locations within this universe with very minor… links to Tartarus itself. Similar to the portal whose study led to the original Summus Proelium project. Except rather than a portal, per se, these spots are closer akin to windows. Or, for a more suitable comparison, the connection used all those millennia ago was a direct hole between our universe and that one. Whereas these windows still have some material between them, thin as it is.” 

From the corner where he was standing, Seth muttered something about how much more complicated everything got once you left Earth, and how he missed having good solid ground under his good solid feet. 

Meanwhile, Aletheia turned that same curious look from before my way, the expression making it clear that she wanted to talk about certain things later, when there was more time. But for now, the woman simply finished with, “Call them potential portals between this universe and Tartarus.” 

“Let me guess,” Apollo put in. “Our Whisper friends have ways to, ahh, realize that potential.” 

“But why would they do that?” Avalon demanded. “You said it required speculation?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed. “Speculation which… I am unprepared to make right now without further investigation. Suffice to say, the Whispers have arrived on this ship and are attempting to pilot it toward the nearest of these windows so that they may send it, and all of us, through to Tartarus itself. I do not believe I am the only one here who would prefer to avoid that.” After a brief pause, she added in a slightly more quiet voice, “One thoroughly chaperoned and tethered trip into that place was more than enough.” 

“You’re telling me,” Apollo agreed. “And I didn’t have nearly the chaperoning or tethering you did.” To the rest of us, he added, “We need to get everyone off this ship or take control of it back and kick the Whispers off before they reach that window and open it. You do not want to be in that place. No sane person does, and I’m not teleporting off and leaving the people still on the ship stuck here. Not a chance in… uh, well, not a chance in Tartarus.”

Finally unable to take it anymore, Tabbris hopped out of me, her attention solely focused on Aletheia. “Where’s my brother and sister? Where’s our grandparents? Where’s Puriel? What happened?” 

“What she said,” I agreed, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Where are the others? Also, how do we stop the Whispers from piloting us straight into hell? I suppose that’s two missions. First, take back control of the ship. Second, find everyone. And then teleport the hell out of here with them if we can’t manage the first one.” 

Aletheia, by that point, had stepped out of her little magic circle protection thing and took a knee in front of Tabbris. She offered the girl a faint smile. “It is good to finally meet you in person. I have heard a great many… and many great… things. You remind me of your mother. And your siblings.”  

“You’re Savvy’s mom,” Tabbris pointed out solemnly, before adding, “she wants to meet you.” 

“And I her,” the woman murmured before her eyes flicked back and forth between us. “Your family members are going to be very pleased to see you, when we find them.” She straightened up then, clearly addressing everyone. “I do not know where they are on this ship. I was attending to other things in preparation for our arrival when Puriel sent a message warning me of the Whispers’ presence. I attempted to return to the bridge, but detoured down here to investigate what the Whispers were doing. On the way, I left a few protective runes, which I learned from Chayyiel, in an attempt to contain or slow these creatures down. Unfortunately, upon arriving in this area, I found myself overwhelmed and was forced to create the protective circle you see there in order to prevent the Whispers from influencing me. They are… as you have no doubt seen, quite powerful and dangerous in large groups like this.” 

“You said you found out they were down here and came to see why?” Dad asked curiously. “Did you find out anything else before they, ahh, surrounded you?” 

Practically sliding along the floor to where I was standing, Seth spoke up. “They did try to keep all of you out of this area. And I doubt it was just to isolate her.” 

He had a point. The resources it must’ve taken the Whispers, whatever they were, to stop my mother and Apollo in particular from realizing that we were all walking in circles had to be considerable. It felt like there was a bigger, better reason for that than as merely a way of keeping us from finding Aletheia. And if she had detected them down here to start with… yeah, there was something else. 

“Mercury said that communication jamming was coming from down here,” Avalon pointed out. “The source of the interference is somewhere on this deck.” 

Aletheia nodded once. “Yes, I detected that as well. I believe I was on my way to it when… well, they truly did not wish for me to progress any further.” 

“Which means progressing further is exactly what we need to do,” I pointed out. “These Whisper things don’t want us to see what they’re up to down here, so it’ll probably help stop them. But… we need to let the others know what’s going on too.” 

“I’ve tried to get through again,” Apollo noted with a grimace. “No luck, ever since we had that brief conversation with Mercury. It’s like the Whispers turned up their jammer, or closed the frequency, or… something like that. Both tech and magical communications are blocked.”

“Too bad you guys aren’t using that ‘magically connect all your people who are out on missions together so they can permanently communicate no matter how far apart they are’ spell,” I pointed out. “It screwed us over enough last year, getting it to work in our favor would be nice. Oh hey, I can use ghosts.” 

Everyone was staring at me for just completely changing my own subject practically in the middle of a thought, and I flushed a little bit before gesturing. “I meant I can send ghosts out to look for the others and–hold on, Seth, were you able to see those Whispers when they were in here, beyond the ripple in the air?” 

“One, yes but they were still pretty indistinct. Just a little clearer than ‘ripples in the air.’ And two, did you just flip between three entirely different thoughts in the span of a couple sentences?” he demanded while staring at me. “Is that what just happened?” 

“Seth,” I insisted while waving off his words, “we seriously don’t have time. I mean, I assume we don’t have time. Wherever this–hey Aletheia, how do you know they’re taking us to one of these Tartarus window things anyway?” 

“Four!” Seth blurted in the background while I turned back to the woman in question. 

She, in turn, met my gaze while explaining. “The protection spells I used prevented the Whispers from gaining control of me, but I could still hear some of what they were saying. In summary, they were attempting to convince me that going to this window and opening it to get back to Tartarus was a good thing, for all the power it could offer. There was… much talk of how useful having stronger abilities would be, and how many things I could accomplish with such a boost. Their words did not have the magical coercion effect they are capable of, and yet… and yet I did hear them. Some of them, at least. Enough to understand what they are attempting to do.” 

Right, that made sense. I exchanged a glance with my mother, who nodded and spoke up pointedly. “You said something about sending ghosts to communicate with the others?” There was a tenseness to her voice, despite her clear attempt to sound calm. She knew just how dangerous this was, just how much we really needed to stop the ship, or grab the others and get off of it, before these Whispers piloted it into Tartarus.

“Yeah.” Focusing on that, I continued. “I can summon ghosts and send them through the ship to find the others and tell them what we found out. The bridge should be easy, we know that’s where Mercury, Haiden, and Larissa are. And uhh, well, I figure I can send the ghosts off and let them search for the others. You know–” I looked to Miranda. “So you don’t have to sacrifice your… uhh, the version of you that’s right here just to tell them what’s going on. Actually, even that would only inform the original you, who is…?” 

“With Haiden and them,” she answered with a small grimace. “In other words, the one you can find most easily without my help. So, you know, I’m being incredibly useful right now.” 

“Hey, I’d rather have a version of you helping every group by being there, than waste your individual existences by letting you turn yourselves off just to send information,” I pointed out, offering her a faint, hopefully reassuring smile. “Besides, like I said, I can summon ghosts.”

“Grab that Grover kid while you’re at it,” Seth put in. “If I’m not back there enjoying the Haunted Party, he might as well get dragged into this too.” After a brief pause, he coughed and amended, “I mean, I’m sure he wants to help.” 

“Uh huh.” Rolling my eyes a bit despite myself, I looked to the others. “I can summon the ghosts and send them out, but we shouldn’t wait here for as long as it takes me to do that.” Extending a hand toward Tabbris, I added, “Hop in, drive me along with the rest of the group, and I’ll send those messages with some ghosts.” Pausing then, I played back everything I had just said in my own mind before tilting my head. “I uhh, we have very strange lives.” 

You say that,” Dad muttered with a grimace. “Imagine that whole thing from my perspective.” 

“I would say it gets better,” Mom informed him while putting a hand on his back. “But mostly you just get better at rolling with it.” 

“And manipulating it, from time to time,” Apollo added, before turning back and leaning over to whisper something quietly to Aletheia. From the couple of words I picked up, I was pretty sure he was asking about how Puriel was doing and whether she trusted him right now. 

In any case, I asked Seth to take that trip back to the bridge to tell Mercury and the others about what was going on, then come back to us. As he set off for that, Tabbris took my hand and jumped back into me. Then I focused on summoning a few more ghosts while she, uh, drove my body to keep following the others in searching the engine deck for the source of the jamming. And whatever else we could find that the Whispers very clearly wanted to keep us away from. 

We really were a long way from the station now. A long way from the mansion where I had left all my ghosts so they could party on their own terms, specifically because I didn’t think anything would be going on today. Or at least that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. You’d think I would have learned by now, but here we were.

With that distance, it took me a bit of time to reach out to the ghosts. I could still feel my connection to them but it was definitely a stretch to make full contact. Even more than it had been when I pulled Seth over, likely because the ship had been moving that whole time. We were getting further away with every passing moment. Not for the first time, I thought about the fact that Fossor had been able to reach all the way back to his home planet, and realized just how much work I still had to do if I was ever going to be more than an insect compared to what he had been capable of. 

Not that I wanted to be capable of–yeah. I needed more training and practice, that was the point.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was more like a couple minutes, I gently convinced several ghosts to accept the pull, then guided them my way. Grover was there, as Seth had requested, along with a few other ghosts from Fossor’s old collection who had not been released yet. Including Rahanvael, whose presence I had been surprised to feel. Ever since the death of her brother, she had been mostly dormant, just waiting to go back to her home world and… disappear. 

They didn’t exactly appear around us (I checked in on the outside world just long enough to see that we were searching along a massive engine thing), but they were definitely here. I could feel their invisible presence, their curiosity, their… well, let’s just say they weren’t surprised that I had found a way to get into trouble again. I was pretty sure a couple of them had won a bet. 

Quickly and silently, I passed along a detailed idea of what was happening and what I needed. It was a bit like how I communicated in my head with Tabbris, but more… if talking to Tabbris in my head was like a normal conversation, this was the equivalent of sending an e-mail. I composed every thought I had and then pushed it out to them. They, in turn, sent back their own fully detailed e-mails of thoughts.

Thankfully, they understood the urgency and quickly spread out to set off. I made sure to stress just how much they needed to hurry, and that if they encountered anything odd they should let me know immediately. I also made them go on a buddy system, since I had pulled more ghosts than there were groups to search for, just to cover the ship more thoroughly and efficiently. They went in pairs, Even to the point of sending Grover to find Seth, because I didn’t want my ghosts being alone out there with these Whispers around.

Rahanvael, meanwhile, stayed with me. She made it clear that she would keep an eye out and be ready to jump in if we ran into Whispers, or any other ghostly thing (like Kushiel) along the way. Apparently she didn’t trust me to stay out of trouble on that front. Which, well, fair. She could also give advice on the Necromancy front, given how long she had been connected to Fossor and watched over his shoulder. 

Finally, with that done, I focused on the outside world, sliding back into control while asking Tabbris what was going on. She, in turn, let me know that we hadn’t found anything yet, aside from Apollo managing to detect a faint trace of the jamming source, which we were all following. There had been another attempt to throw us off like before, but now Mom and Apollo were ready for it, so we pushed right on through. Which was good, but it made me wonder what the Whispers were going to do when we got closer. I doubted they’d give up, or that that was their only trick. 

Which also made me wonder just how many of these things there were, or how strong they were. From what I had heard from Doug, those protective runes had been enough to keep them out of his head entirely just by having a set of them on a hat. Yet these Whispers were only somewhat held back and limited by them. And it wasn’t a lack of power thing, because I was pretty sure Aletheia was as good at magic as Doug’s uncle. 

Looking around, I took in the sight of the room we were moving through. It was much larger than the corridor where we had started, with huge machinery all around us. We were deep in the engines, with Apollo leading the way while holding some glowing stone in front of himself. The thing he was using to track the source of the jamming. Aletheia was just behind him, using a flashlight to illuminate all the dimly lit corners behind and under the machines. Mom and Dad were near the back of the group, whispering together while keeping an eye that way. Meanwhile, Tabbris and I were in the middle, with Avalon to the left checking that area and Miranda to the right. Everyone was keeping their eyes peeled. 

“How close are we?” I spoke up in a whisper. 

Aletheia glanced back to me. Now I could see more of the anti-Whisper runes that had been drawn all over her outfit. She’d gotten a spellpower boost from all the adults for that while I was distracted, which would hopefully be enough to keep those things at bay. At least while we were down here. 

“The tracing spell indicates that the source should be directly ahead,” she informed me quietly. “Which… judging from where we are, would put it on the heart of the Slide Drive’s power core.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Not surprising, I guess. Hang on, I’ll send Rahanvael to scout ahead.”

So, everyone stopped and settled in a group, watching warily while the ghost figure appeared beside me. Rahanvael, for her part, gave them a nod and a whispered promise to hurry, before heading out. I shifted my senses to see through her eyes, while reaching out to grab Avalon’s hand to one side and Miranda’s to the other. They both squeezed back. 

Watching through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the room passing by quickly. She was searching that way, not really waiting to look around. Her focus was ahead. I supposed it made sense that she would know what the Slide Drive core looked like and that it wasn’t any of the things around her. 

There, that had to be it. Well, the entrance to it anyway. I could see a fifteen foot tall, ball-shaped structure ahead with a hatch on it that had a bunch of security consoles nearby. That was the way into the core. 

Unfortunately, getting in there wasn’t going to be simple. Not even for a ghost. Because the whole area around it was swarming with… distortions in the air. Whispers. I recognized them from a few minutes earlier when they had been trying to get through Aletheia’s protection circle. But there were a lot more here. That much was clear just from how visible the distortions were, like waves of heat coming off the hot desert sand. There had to be at least a few dozen of them, if not more. All bunched up around each other like… well, swarming really was the best word I could think of. They were protecting the core, ready to stop us from getting anywhere near it by any means possible. 

And they had all stopped to look at Rahanvael. I wasn’t sure exactly how I knew they were looking at her, given I couldn’t actually see them. But it was definitely the impression I got. They were staring at her, while she stared back at the, well, distortions they made in the air. 

“They won’t allow her to go any closer. They won’t allow any of you to go closer.” 

The all-too-familiar voice came not from where Rahanvael was, but from nearby me. Opening my eyes, I turned it to look along with all the others. We saw the figure coming into view from behind us, a ghostly form approaching with a deceptively casual motion. 

“Charmeine?” Avalon blurted. And yes, it was her. Or at least her ghost. Her dark skin and short white hair was immediately recognizable. Which in and of itself was a bit weird. Though she had the ghostly semi-transparency going on, and I could feel that she was one, she was full-color. She looked like herself instead of having a tint to her like basically every other ghost did. 

Reflexively, I reached out to stop her with my power, only to have it slide off just like it had when I was facing Kushiel back at the Auberge. The Tartarus connection still made them next to impossible to control. 

“Oh, she does not like you,” Charmeine noted, with a glance toward Avalon. “Or any of you, really. Not even you two.” That was added toward Apollo and Aletheia. Stopping there, about ten feet away from us, she added, “And to answer the question, no, this is not Charmeine. Weeeelll, sort of. It’s what you would call her spirit, what remained after her death. But me? I’m just giving it a little test drive.” 

“You’re one of the Whispers,” Mom noted, sword held out protectively. 

Charmeine’s eyes turned that way, a small smile playing at her lips. “Is that what you call us? Interesting. I suppose it’s as good a name as any. Yes, I am.” 

“Let me get this straight,” Miranda put in. “That Seosten chick is a ghost, but you, a completely different creature, are… uhh, essentially possessing her? You’re a Whisper possessing a Seosten ghost.”

“Very good,” the… creature confirmed. “But to differentiate between your Charmeine and what I am, why don’t you just call me Invidia? It’s another of her names, after all.” 

“It’s a distraction,” Avalon snapped. “We need to get to the core and shut down the jamming and the slide drive itself.” 

“Oh, I wouldn’t try to do that if I was you,” Invidia drawled lazily, her eyes scanning over all of us. 

“Why is that?” Dad carefully asked, stepping a bit to the side as though to draw her attention that way to give Mom an opening. “Are you going to stop us?” 

“Little old me?” Invidia smiled again. “Wouldn’t dream of it. After all, you’re such strong fighters. Even with Charmeine’s gift, I probably couldn’t take all of you by myself. But then, I’m not exactly by myself. You see, there were many Seosten who died on or connected to this ship.” 

As she said that, more figures began to appear all around us. Seosten ghosts, all of them with Tartarus-links and thus hard for me to do anything about. 

Invidia chuckled low, as a dozen or more Whisper-possessed Tartarus-powered Seosten ghosts surrounded us. “It has been quite some time since we were able to express ourselves physically

“This should be fun.”

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Equal And Opposite 21-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The next morning was Saturday. It was also the day of Tyson’s funeral. Some part of me had had the wild thought that even if I couldn’t appear as Paintball because of the connection it would draw to Murphy, maybe I could at least go as myself. Except that was a bad idea too. Even if people didn’t recognize me (and to be honest, most wouldn’t because I didn’t fit what they assumed the daughter of Elena and Sterling Evans would look like), they would still wonder why I was there. After all, this clearly wasn’t going to be some big crowded event. If I attended, I would be noticed. Especially by Murphy and Roald, who would wonder why some girl they had never seen before was sitting in on the funeral. 

Not for the first time, I wondered if I should just come straight out and tell all of them exactly who I was, and the full truth about this entire situation. But there were things still holding me back. I trusted them, of course. But if I let them know who I was, I didn’t know how it would change… everything. How they thought about me, how they–but no. No, that wasn’t the important thing. The most important thing was that I was afraid of what would happen if my identity happened to somehow get further than that. Or if my parents found out they knew something and… talked to them. If they didn’t know who I was, they would have no way of telling– but that put them in danger too. If they couldn’t tell my parents what they wanted to know, if they–so I should tell them. But if I told them, I didn’t have control over who found out. Or even less control than I already had, given Izzy and Amber knew. But they didn’t–but if my parents–

God damn it. I had no idea what to do, or what the best move was. Every time I thought that I was bound and determined to just tell them all the truth, my stomach twisted in on itself and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure exactly why not. I just couldn’t make myself take that step. Something in my head kept telling me that it was something I couldn’t take back. If I told Murphy, Roald, Wren, Peyton, and Fred all who I really was, I just… Something about that felt like too big of a step. It was so dangerous. Even telling them as much as I had was dangerous, of course. But totally revealing all of my secrets was just… I felt queasy at the thought. Was that stupid? Was I being dumb about this whole thing? Should I just bite the bullet and go for it? Maybe… maybe later. Yeah, I just had to let them process what I had already told them. It was too much to dump on all of them all at once. Later, maybe I would see what–how they dealt with it. 

Telling myself that made sense helped somewhat. But then, it didn’t actually solve my original problem. I wanted to do something for Tyson’s funeral. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore it. Of course I didn’t know the guy, and what little I did know about him didn’t paint a very flattering picture. But he didn’t deserve to die, and Murphy had said that he was trying to turn his life around. Except now he would never have that chance. Just ignoring his funeral, when my family was the reason that his murderer was still free, was wrong. I couldn’t do that. 

In the end, I had to do something for it. Even if I couldn’t actually attend the funeral itself, I could at least be nearby. So, I found myself taking a seat on the roof of a building across the street from the cemetery where the funeral was being performed. Well, we kept calling it a funeral. It was more of a simple graveside service. They couldn’t afford some big event at a church. And it seemed like they didn’t have the family or friends to fill such a thing anyway. That part didn’t surprise me, given everything I had heard and already knew about the Murphys. 

The building was really too far away to make out much of the funeral. Which was kind of the point, given I didn’t want to be seen attending it. But that was what high-powered binoculars were for. Nestled in a sitting position with my back to an air conditioning unit, I lifted the front of the helmet so I could put the binoculars against my eyes and scan that way. Now I could see what was going on more clearly. They were all standing around the open grave with the casket ready to be lowered into it. Murphy was there, in an ill-fitting suit that looked as though it had been patched several times. Roald was standing next to her in a suit of his own, which didn’t look much better. There was a smaller girl right beside him whom I assumed was his younger sister. The older sister, if I guessed right, was standing a little further away talking to what looked like the man who would be giving the service once they got started in a few minutes.

My eyes scanned over the rest of the people, not that there were many beyond that. I did, however, catch sight of a van approaching through the winding cemetery road that had the Detroit Department of Corrections logo on it. Which gave me pause for a moment before I realized. It was Murphy’s parents. That had to be it, right? If they were going to be given leave from prison for anything, it would be the funeral of their son. Somehow, I hadn’t even considered the fact that they would be there. How would they react to the whole thing? How would Murphy react to them being there? Suddenly, I felt more like a creepy voyeur than I had ever intended. This was wrong. I had felt so strongly that I needed to be here, but now I was questioning that whole thing. Maybe the truth was that while being here might make me feel better, I was actually just spying on things I didn’t deserve to see. This service wasn’t for me. It was– 

A sound nearby interrupted my inner turmoil, and I quickly lowered the binoculars and turned to see a familiar figure landing on the roof nearby. Peyton, in her newest purple and black armor configuration. As the hoverboard transitioned back into her bronze and gold marbles, she spoke up. “You couldn’t stay away either, huh?” 

Grateful, for more than one reason, that I still had my ski mask to hide my face even with the front of the helmet lifted up, I hesitated before giving a short nod. “But now I’m starting to rethink that. It feels weird to spy on them, you know? LIke I’m being a shady creep.”

“We’ll tell them we were there,” Peyton offered with a hesitant shrug. “I mean, we’ll tell them you were there. I already said I would try to find a way to watch. I was looking around for a decent place when I saw you down here. It umm…” She trailed off before sighing while taking a seat next to me, both of our backs to the metal box. “This whole thing sucks, doesn’t it?” 

“It’s definitely not fun,” I replied simply before raising the binoculars again. The van had stopped by that point, a couple hundred feet from where the burial was happening. I could see a couple of prison guards opening it up to help the occupants out. I didn’t recognize them, of course. But I could tell that they were Murphy’s parents. One was an average-height slender black man with long, incredibly luxurious-looking hair. The other was a somewhat tall caucasian woman with brownish-blonde hair and a nervous look about her. She kept glancing around constantly, as though convinced they were being watched. Which… well, yeah. Both of them were wearing prison jumpsuits and were still handcuffed as the guards helped them down from the van and then started to escort them over to where the service was happening. All of which seemed stupid to me. They were in prison for simple drug offenses. Couldn’t they be given normal clothes to wear so they could attend their own son’s funeral without looking like Hannibal Lector? I mean, yeah sure it wasn’t that bad, but still. This was ridiculous. Just unchain them and let them say goodbye to their son, for fuck’s sake. 

I was so focused on my annoyance about that whole situation while following the moving parents with the binoculars, that I almost jumped when Peyton nudged me while saying something. I’d half-forgotten she was there in my distraction. “Huh–what?” 

“I said,” she repeated, “Doesn’t it seem fucked up that they think they need four armed guards just to watch over a couple grieving parents, who are still chained up? They just sold some drugs to willing people, it’s not like they murdered the pope or something.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed in a flat voice, “it’s a bit of overkill.” Even as I said that, I realized what she had said. Four guards? I had counted three, the driver and two helping the Murphys down. Looking back that way once more without the binoculars zooming me in so much, I finally caught sight of the fourth guy. He was a bit further back, having apparently gotten out the far side of the van before trailing behind. From this distance, I could barely make out anything about him. And yet, there was something immediately familiar about–

Raising the binoculars quickly once more, I focused that way. And then almost cursed vehemently out loud. Of course the fourth guard looked familiar. It was Simon. My brother. The person who was the entire reason Murphy’s brother’s murderer had escaped unscathed. He was dressed up like a prison guard, escorting their parents to the funeral. What–why? What the fuck? Why the hell was he here? What did he think he was doing? Was this some sort of sick joke or something? Why would he ever come to a funeral like this? I knew he wasn’t a real prison guard. He had to be using one of those hologram things or something. But either way, why? What the hell did he get out of being here? What was–why–what? 

“Uh,” Peyton spoke up curiously. “You okay? You’re holding those binoculars so tight it looks like you might snap them in half. And they look pretty fancy, so you probably don’t want to do that.” 

Forcing myself to lower them and look back to her, I kept my voice as even as I could. “Yeah, I’m good. I mean, no I’m not. I’m really pissed off about this whole situation. But I’m about as good as you could expect.” After a brief pause, I added quietly, “I’m doing better than Murphy.” 

With a sigh, the other girl slumped back a bit next to me and reached into a compartment she had added to her armor, pulling out some binoculars of her own. Lifting them up, she looked that way and murmured, “This whole situation is pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” 

Wincing inwardly, I nodded. “Pretty fucked up indeed.” She had no idea just how much. Even as that thought came to mind, I was adjusting the binoculars to check on Simon again. He was standing at the edge of the funeral, playing the role of a guard watching over their prisoners even as Murphy’s parents embraced her. There was… there was a lot of emotion going on there. I quickly moved the view back over to Simon, not wanting to intrude on a family thing like that. He was staring intently, not at the Murphys, but at the casket. He looked… not happy. 

I had no idea what to make of that. I have no idea why he was here, what was going through his mind, why he looked angry while staring at the casket containing the body of the guy whose murderer he had helped esca–okay, when I put it like that, It sort of sounded like he felt guilty. But did he? I didn’t trust my own judgment about that whole thing. I couldn’t think of any other reason why he would be here. Was he going to all the funerals? Or was there something special about this one? Was I being incredibly naive? Maybe there was a valid reason beyond guilt for a member of the Ministry to come here. Maybe he was making sure there were no more loose ends. And the anger was because he had something else he wanted to do more, and blamed Murphy’s brother for making him miss it. 

Okay that felt a little too far to the other end of the naive/cynical line. Both of those felt wrong, but I had no idea what the actual answer could be. Why was Simon here, and why did he look so upset when he looked at that casket? 

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that, short of marching down there and demanding answers from him in person, I wasn’t going to get any right now. And, come to think of it, that probably wouldn’t help either. Even if it was really tempting just to see the look on his face if I had actually confronted him. Maybe being taken by surprise like that would make him give something away that he wouldn’t have otherwise. But no, this wasn’t the right time for that sort of desperate move. Especially not now. I wasn’t going to ruin the funeral just because I wanted to violently shake my brother until he spat out real answers. 

Instead, I made myself put that thought away and focus on the funeral as a whole. For around an hour while people spoke and said their goodbyes, Peyton and I both sat there watching. Every once in a while we spoke quietly to each other, but for the most part we just sat silently and observed. It still felt a bit like we were intruding, yet this was the best we could do. Now that I saw Simon there, I knew not physically attending the funeral properly was the right way to go. A terrifying thought of what he would have done if I had been down there as myself raced through my mind, and I shuddered inwardly. That could have been really bad. 

Eventually, the service was over, and Tyson’s casket was in the ground. Several of the people, including Murphy and Roald, had each shoveled some dirt over it, then watched as a backhoe did the rest of the work. Once he was completely buried, goodbyes were said. That lasted for about five minutes or so, while Murphy and her parents had a whole… thing. It felt awful just sitting here, my emotions twisting inside my stomach. Again, they were only in prison on drug offenses. Couldn’t they be released for a couple days to help their daughter get through this whole thing? 

If they were rich, they would have been. It was no question. Hell, their prison would have been a country club, and they would have been given at least two weeks leave from it to handle funeral arrangements and everything else. But they weren’t rich. So they were fucked over by the system that was supposed to protect them. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, and made it even harder to avoid snapping the binoculars, I watched Simon and the real guards lead their charges back to the van. Meanwhile, the rest of the (rather small) crowd was dispersing as Roald’s older sister led the others across to another lot where a beat-up sedan was waiting. From what Murphy herself had said, they would now go to get some lunch at a buffet somewhere. Obviously, I wasn’t going to follow them. I was tempted to follow the prison van just to see what Simon did, but that was probably a pretty bad idea too. 

Which left me sitting next to Peyton as the two of us looked at each other. With a heavy sigh, I muttered, “Well, that pretty much sucked, huh?” 

“Hoover-level sucking,” she agreed. “Can we go find some bad guys to beat up? I need to get it out of my system, and the people I really wanna punch, I… can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, pushing myself up. “Let’s take a bite out of crime.” 

*****

Unfortunately, McGruff the Crime Dog would have starved that day. No matter where Peyton and I went, we couldn’t find any criminals to deal with. It even looked like the always-rampaging gang war had decided to take a timeout for the day. Which was just typical, really. The one time we wanted to find bad guys, they had all decided to go on vacation. Or maybe we just sucked at finding them. It was, after all, a pretty big city. 

Whatever the reason, we finally gave up after a couple hours. We both had other things we wanted to take care of before that big dinner thing tonight. So, after warning the other girl again that she had better show up to the event hungry given how much food there would be, I headed off. My brain was full of thoughts that I didn’t want to have, yet wouldn’t go away. Mostly revolving around what the hell was going on with Simon going to the funeral. Yeah, that was clearly a whole thing. There was no way I was going to be able to figure it out just based on what little information I had, but that wouldn’t stop my brain from obsessing about it. Because brains were stupid like that and often refused to listen to common sense. 

I was hungry, but after all of that, there was no way I was going home just yet. So, I changed clothes to avoid attracting attention, and found a small, out-of-the-way Indian place to eat at. It was pretty incredible, even distracted as I was. So, I made a mental note to come back another time, and to bring the others.  

As I was getting up to leave, my phone buzzed with a text. The one for Cassidy Evans, rather than Paintball. So, I took a look. It was from that Dani girl, inviting me out to that skatepark on Grand River. Right, that whole thing about people from school talking me into doing dangerous shit for fun. For a moment, I squinted and considered asking for a raincheck. But no, I needed some way of distracting myself from everything. Later tonight, I was going to have to play nice in public while my father and others gave their big speeches and all that. Going while I was still tense about the whole situation with Tyson probably wasn’t a good idea. If I couldn’t let off steam by finding crime to fight, maybe I could do it this way. 

So, in the end, I sent back a text saying I would be there as soon as possible. I just needed to grab my stuff from home. I would head in, grab it, and head out again. No reason to stick around. With any luck, I would avoid Simon and my parents altogether. Sure, it was Saturday, but they had plenty of their own stuff to do before that party.

*****

For once, I wasn’t completely proven wrong about my assumptions. My family was occupied with their own things, and I was able to get in, grab my stuff, order a ride, and get out without any interruptions. A short while later, I arrived at the skatepark, paid the driver, and headed over to where I could see a bunch of people from my school already hanging out. 

Dani was there, talking to someone with their back to me. As I approached, she gestured and called out, “There she is. Told you the richest teenager in Detroit wouldn’t blow us off.” 

Rolling my eyes, I retorted, “Maybe I bought the place and came to kick everyone off it.” 

“What–” Turning quickly to face me, the person Dani had been talking to came up short. “Oh, uh, hey.”

“Hey yourself, I know you,” I put in, realizing belatedly where from. “You’re–” 

“Ryder Towling,” Dani interrupted, gesturing back and forth between us. “this is Cassidy Evans. Ryder–wait, did you say you know him?” 

“He’s tutoring… uh, someone from school, Arleigh,” I replied. “Right?” 

Ryder, for his part, squinted briefly before belatedly extending a hand. “Oh, yeah. We met at her house the other day.  She uhh, talks about you a lot. Are you guys–” 

“We’re nothing,” I immediately cut in. “Nothing at all.” With a gesture, I added, “So, you skate?” 

“Me?” The boy blanched. It was pretty cute, and I couldn’t help the quick smile even as he continued. “Nope, no sir. I’m just here as emotional support. Dani’s an… old friend. I get to watch. Believe me, if I step on one of those things, I’ll find a way to break my leg and at least three limbs from an assortment of other people.” 

“He’s not exaggerating much,” Dani remarked with a small smirk. “You definitely don’t want him on a board anywhere near you. But he’s pretty good at watching. So, let’s get to it. I wanna see what you can really do. Surprise me.” 

Yeah, I was pretty sure if I showed them what I could really do, she’d be plenty surprised. It was a bad idea, of course. And one that I would never actually indulge. 

But boy, was it ever tempting. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

At Last 16-08 And Patreon Snippets 23 Concluded (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Okay, something really fucked-up was going on around here. First we had found the Olympus seemingly abandoned when Puriel, my grandparents, and the others were supposed to be on it. Not to mention the fact that recall wasn’t working the way it should, cutting us off from getting any information from them at all. And now, shortly after we had transported over here to check things out in person, the ship was suddenly moving again? Someone else was in control, and they were sending the ship… somewhere. We had no idea who, and no idea where they were directing the ship. 

Apollo was already using his communication spell to call up to where Mercury, Haiden, and Larissa were. They answered immediately. Unfortunately, they didn’t know anything more than we did about what was going on. According to Mercury, he was totally locked out of the controls. They weren’t responding at all. He was going to try to get to the bottom of that, but it would take awhile. 

Worse, the connection was really faint. We could barely hear them. Mercury said something about interference, and that we should try to find the source of it because it was coming from somewhere on our level. 

Then the communication cut out entirely. We tried again, but got no more response from Mercury, or the other two. Nor did any of the other groups respond when Mom tried for herself, using multiple powers. Finally, she grimaced and looked to the rest of us. “It’s like he said, they’re being jammed somehow. Not just communication, but transport-type powers too. At least, within the ship. I really don’t like this. I hate to say the obvious, but this seriously feels like a trap of some sort. A trap that we just walked right into.”

“We can’t use the escape spells yet,” I immediately insisted. “We don’t know what happened to the others. If we transport off the ship, we might never find it, or them, again.” 

Dad’s hand found my shoulder, squeezing it. “If my parents and the others are on this ship, we’ll find them. And figure out what’s going on around here.”  

Mom sighed softly, nodding once. “Yes, we will. But if this gets to be too dangerous, I want both of you to use the escape spells. You too, Avalon. And–I know you’re not the original Miranda, but I want you to jump back to your original self and tell everyone there to get off the ship too, if it comes down to it. I mean it. If we have to, Apollo and I can keep the search going without you.” With that, she drew Clarent from its place at her hip, the black blade giving off that strange light in the process. 

Valley and I exchanged glances, but didn’t argue. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything right then. But I knew for certain that the last thing I was going to do was run away and leave my mother on a ship that was going who the hell knew where, controlled by who the hell knew who. Or what.

“So, we find the source of that jamming?” I finally asked. “Mercury said it was coming from somewhere on this floor. Uh, deck, I mean. That’s the ship term, right? Anyway, it’s coming from somewhere around here. And if the jamming is coming from around here, I bet we could find answers about the rest of what’s going on.” I made a show of turning in a circle with my hands out. “There’s gotta be something helpful around–” 

In my head, Tabbris piped up, Flick! Look to your right, over there in the corner next to the elevator doors. I–I just saw… There was something there, but I need to see it better. Not the A&M, something else. It’s down low.

Confused, but trusting her, I pivoted promptly and took a step that way before leaning down. At first, I couldn’t see what she was talking about. Then my eyes found it. A symbol etched into the metal, almost invisible. I was surprised she had noticed it at all as I had spun in a circle. But now that I had a closer look, it was immediately familiar.  

“Uhh, guys?” I spoke up, raising a hand. “Look at this thing. It’s the same sort of rune they used to drive away the Whispers back on the Quietus. And on Doug’s colony world.” 

Clearly taken aback by those words, Apollo moved closer and leaned down to look for himself. Frowning immediately, he ran a finger along them and murmured, “These are fresh. Someone put them here recently. I’d say at least within the past day. Probably less.”

Dad shook his head, having stepped over to look for himself. “Okay, but who would have put them there? Puriel?” 

“Him or Aletheia, maybe,” I pointed out. “Or maybe Uncle Al. They said he’s pretty good at magic, I think. But I don’t know if any of them know these spells. Wait, does that mean that it’s those Whisper things that are controlling the ship right now? Maybe they showed up and whoever knew these spells used them to try to protect Grandmaria and Popser, and the kids.” 

“That doesn’t explain where any of them are now,” Avalon pointed out. “Unless they’re holed up somewhere else in the ship and that jamming stuff, whatever it is, is stopping them from reaching out or responding. Or even knowing anyone’s here.” 

Apollo’s voice was grim. “I don’t want to think about what these things could be capable of if they’re enough to make Puriel hole up instead of blasting them off his ship. But that sounds like the best explanation we’ve got so far.” He pivoted. “We need to find the source of that jamming. And keep an eye out for more of those protection runes. They might lead us to answers too.” 

Mom gave a short nod, glancing around once more. “You take the lead. You know the ship. I’ll stay at the back, just in case.” Giving Dad, Avalon, Miranda, and me a brief look, she gestured. “Like Apollo said, you guys watch for more of those runes. I don’t know who put that one there, but I doubt it’s the only one.” 

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed, leaning in close to stare at it. “I just wish I could communicate with the other me’s to share information without poofing out of existence here entirely. It’s a one-way trip, and I can’t jump right back here to tell you guys anything they know.” 

With that, we started to move once more. It was basically the same as before, when we were searching each engine-connected compartment, only now we were moving faster, and we had specific jobs to do. Dad, Avalon, and I were checking each square inch of surface we passed, looking for more of those runes. Mom and Apollo were watching for threats and using various spells to scan for the source of that jamming. 

On the way, I spoke up. “So hold on. If those Whisper things are here, do you think we can’t hear them because of Liesje’s spell? I mean, the anti-Whisper stuff on Doug’s hat sort of protected against Seosten. Okay, not completely, but it let Pace and Theia both control her body at the same time. So if it works one direction, maybe it works the other way. The spell protects us from possession and might be shielding us from the Whispers too.” Even as I finished saying that, I found myself blanching. “Which means–” 

“Which means they might be somewhere around us,” Apollo finished, voice grim. “Possible. I don’t think so, but possible. I’ve got detection spells going and they haven’t picked up anything. Then again, I don’t want to stake anyone’s life on the idea that they’d be able to pick up these Whisper things.” Pausing briefly, he sighed. “Just keep your eyes open, I guess. For those marks, for any sign of these Whispers, or… anything else.”

So, we continued on like that through the engine deck, watching for anything that stood out. If there were Whispers around, we didn’t see any sign of them specifically. Nor did we find my grandparents or anyone else. On the other hand, we did find more of those runes. Hidden as they were, I was pretty sure we didn’t see all of them. But we found enough to let us know that they were all over the place. We checked a few more and all of them were quite fresh. This was definitely something new. And it made me even more intensely curious to find out what had actually happened here. Not to mention what was happening now. Why had the ship suddenly turned on? Where the hell was it taking us? How had whatever was responsible locked Mercury out of the system like that? And on and on the questions went. They kept replaying through my head while we walked, even as I forced myself to focus on watching for anyone.

On the other hand, maybe it was that slight distraction that ended up helping in the end. My thoughts were drifting slightly as I leaned around the edge of yet another doorway to scan it for any runes, when I felt something. It was very faint, but made my head tilt as the rest of me froze.

Avalon noticed immediately, stepping over to put a hand on my arm. “What is it?”

Everyone else had stopped to look at us, and I held up a hand for them to wait before closing my eyes so I could focus. That sensation had been at the very edge of my perception, almost too faint to catch. But it was there, barely. With my eyes still closed, I tried to stretch my senses that way to pick up more of it. Or even pull it closer. But it was like trying to grab liquid soap with splayed fingers. I felt a bit of its remains, even as the rest simply slipped away. And what little I had managed to grab faded before I could pull it back to us. It wasn’t the best metaphor, but close enough. The point was, I couldn’t keep hold of it. 

Did you… I started, needing someone else to verify what I felt. 

It was there, Tabbris assured me. She sounded just as frustrated as I felt. But I couldn’t get anything else. It was right there, like… like seeing something out of the corner of your eye.

With silent agreement, I looked to the others as they watched me expectantly. Taking a breath, I explained, “Ghosts. Or something like them, I’m not sure. I can sense something, just… sort of on the edge. I can’t get hold of it. Like… like it’s only partially here or something. It keeps fading out whenever I reach for it. But there’s definitely something. It’s just… faint.” 

Mom’s voice was flat, as she glanced around us with that black-bladed sword held out, its glow illuminating the nearby walls. “Does it feel like Kushiel did?” 

I hesitated slightly before offering a helpless shrug. “Not exactly, but similar I guess? I need to get closer, but I can’t even tell exactly where it’s coming from. I can’t sense a direction, just that it’s barely there at all. I just…” Heaving a sigh, I muttered, “I’m sorry, it’s not really helpful.” 

“Yes, it is,” Dad assured me. His hand found my back, squeezing it. “Just knowing there’s something out there is helpful, isn’t it?” 

“Something,” I agreed, “but we still don’t know what. Maybe the–I don’t know.” Something about that feeling was bugging me. Which wasn’t exactly a useful feeling, considering I had been feeling bugged about this whole situation from the start. Still, even that faint, fleeting sensation of something at least ghost-adjacent was enough to send a shiver up my back. 

Pausing, I murmured, “Hold on a second.” Then I reached out, stretching my power toward not the feeling I’d just had, but to someone else.

It took a few seconds, but I felt the response just before Seth coalesced in front of me. His ghost form appeared, the man immediately speaking. “Right, this better be important. We have parties too, and I was right in the middle of teaching–” He stopped, blinking a bit while looking around to take in where we were and who was around. “I ahh, I haven’t been everywhere on the station, but… this isn’t the station, is it?” Focusing on me once more, his eyes narrowed. “Let me guess, you couldn’t even take one damn day off without–” 

Mom spoke up. “Seth, it’s Lincoln’s parents. And the others.” He looked to her and she gave him a quick rundown of what was going on. Only a few sentences worth, but enough that he immediately muttered a curse. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” I agreed. “I need you to come with us, and if we do find any ghosts, or anything like them… well, use a ghost to fight a ghost.” 

He regarded me for a moment, before giving a short nod. “You’re worried that they’ll be like Kushiel, that you won’t be able to control them yourself.” 

Shrugging, I replied, “It’s a possibility. And if I can’t affect them, maybe I can at least boost you enough to punch them in the face really hard.” 

“I do enjoy punching,” he agreed. “Okay, fine. I’m with you. But we better get back before the party’s totally over. I don’t know about you living people, but the haunted mansion is hopping.” 

“I don’t think it’s ending anytime in the next couple days,” I pointed out flatly. “Now come on, we’ve still got a lot to search.” 

So, we kept going. If I had been by myself, I would have had to try to split my attention between watching for more Whisper runes, and stretching out my senses to check for any sign of that ghost sensation. But I wasn’t alone. Tabbris was here, so we split the duties. She took control of my body, making me walk after the others while looking for the runes, and I devoted everything I had toward trying to detect anything I could as far as spirits went. Or anything else that tripped my Necro-senses. I was barely paying any attention to the world around us, trusting Tabbris to navigate and let me know if anything stood out. I had to put everything toward the single task of sensing for ghosts. 

In the end, it was a good thing I did so, otherwise I would have missed the tickle at the very back of my mind several minutes into our search. Even focused as I was, I still barely picked it up, almost dismissing it before stopping myself. I strained even more, like stretching up on my tiptoes to reach for something on a high shelf that I could barely brush with my fingers. Almost… almost… there. There it was. I could feel it, and that time when the presence withdrew, I was able to make my senses follow it. 

And with that, as soon as I kept my grip on that faint sensation long enough, I was finally able to figure out what was going on, what was really happening. As soon as I did, I stopped short, grabbing control of my body once more before holding my hands out for the others. “Wait, stop. Hold on.” 

Tabbris, who could already read my mind and had realized the truth right alongside me as soon as I had, gasped inwardly and immediately muttered a couple words in my head that she probably wouldn’t have said aloud. 

Everyone else was looking at us expectantly, and I took a breath before raising my hand and turning to point. “We need to go that way.” 

Without actually looking, my mother simply replied, “Honey, there’s a wall there.” The others gave assorted nods of agreement. Again, without looking. 

“Is there?” I insisted. “Mom, you trust me, right?” 

“With my life, and everything,” she confirmed without hesitation, meeting my gaze. 

“I know it’s going to be hard,” I informed her, my gaze laser-focused on my mother. I had to break through to her. “But that’s okay. You’re accustomed to doing hard things. You do them all the time. You survived everything this universe could throw at you. You did what you had to do. You won every time, no matter what it was. You saw what you had to do and you did it. Nothing else could have stopped you, and neither will this. So, please, I need you to do one more thing for me. For me, Mom. No matter how hard it is, no matter how much you don’t want to. You have to do this. Please. For me, for Dad, for the rest of your family. You have to do this one thing.” Letting out a breath, I finished with a firm, “Turn around and look at where I’m pointing.”  

She almost didn’t. The effect was that strong and that difficult to push past. But in the end, after several long moments of silence, Mom finally, with great mental effort, turned her head. She followed the sight of my finger first, every muscle within her clearly fighting the effort. Her eyes were downcast, one last effort not to see. And then… oh so slowly… they rose. 

That was enough. With a gasp, Mom jerked as though something that had been holding her was abruptly broken. “Door!” Her voice sounded like someone who had been deep underwater for too long and finally broke the surface, that almost violent exhale, that gasp. “There’s a door!” 

With effort, the others did the same, helped by Mom’s reaction as it broke through the effect. Everyone finally turned to look and saw the door there. When his own eyes found it, Seth cursed out loud, much more colorfully than Tabbris’s silent mutterings a few moments earlier. Finally, he ended with, “–the chocolate-coated fuck?” 

“It’s the Whispers, I think,” I quickly put in. “The anti-possession spell helps, but it doesn’t completely keep them out. They’ve been able to do a little bit, like stop us from noticing this door. Or the fact that we keep going in circles in this small area. We’ve barely gone anywhere on this floor. We keep turning around. Probably because you need to go through this door to get anywhere else.” 

Apollo, who seemed as shaken as anyone by the realization that something had been affecting his mind like that, spoke up. “Yes. We can’t get anywhere else on this deck without passing through that hatch. They’ve been running us in circles. I… I didn’t even notice.” 

“Fuck, dude, I didn’t notice either.” Miranda was clearly reeling, pivoting in place as she pointed one way, then the other. “We must’ve gone through this area… God damn it, how many times?” 

“None of us noticed,” Dad pointed out, his voice proud as he looked at me. “Except Flick.” 

Flushing a little bit despite myself, I waved that off. “I would have missed it too. I did miss it, repeatedly. Every time we passed this spot, I felt that little brush on my mind, but it wasn’t enough to figure out what was going on. Not until I really focused on it and let Tabbris control me. I just–even then I almost missed it. I almost ignored it, because it told me to ignore it.” 

Avalon gave a little shudder, head shaking. “If they can make all of us completely ignore a door and walk in circles for ten minutes, even with Liesje’s protection, what could they make people do without it?” 

“Very bad things,” Mom answered, already striding that way. “And now I, for one, want to find out why they were trying so hard to stop us from going in here.” 

“Mom, wait,” I interrupted, holding out a hand before looking toward Seth. “Could you…?” 

He gave a short nod before floating that way with a casual, “Sure, what’s the worst they could do, kill me?” Pausing briefly by the metal hatch, he looked back to me. “Seriously, they better not be able to erase me, I’m just getting the hang of this ghost thing.” 

With that, he pushed through the hatch, and I sent my senses into him, watching through his eyes as he came out the other side to a narrow corridor. There was nothing there aside from a second hatch about ten feet onward, so he kept going, passing through the next one. 

Now there was something. An octagonal-shaped room with doors on every side, including the one Seth had just passed through. In the middle of that room was a smallish black woman in a dark red suit, who stood in the middle of a circle of those Whisper runes. All around her were… distortions in the air, even as the woman herself seemed calm and collected, almost like she was ignoring them. But I could feel the runes around her starting to lose power. They wouldn’t last much longer.

“We have to get in there,” I blurted immediately as I snapped my focus back to myself, moving to the door while explaining in a rush what I had seen. 

We could all feel the Whispers trying one more time to divert our attention away from the door, but now that we knew what their influence felt like, it was much easier to shrug off. No doubt largely thanks to Liesje’s spell. If we hadn’t just finished that before doing this, I had no idea how this whole thing would have gone. Poorly, no doubt. 

As it was, we pushed through the effect and made it into the other room. The moment we did, I could feel the Whispers all around us. They weren’t exactly ghosts. Well, maybe they were. They were something akin to them, at least. Either way, I could feel a lot of them filling up the room. Immediately, I shoved hard with all my power while snapping, “Get out!” 

They vanished promptly. I wasn’t sure how much of that was from my power, and how much was because they chose to. But the point was, they were gone. Which gave us time to look at the woman standing in the rune circle. 

“Aletheia?” Apollo immediately put in, stepping that way. 

“Hello, Apollo,” she greeted him simply, turning to face us. “I’m glad you’re here. We have to find the others and stop this ship. 

“Before the Whispers finish piloting us straight into Tartarus.” 

*********

Patreon Snippets 23 – Concluded

A Short Time Earlier

“We’re here!” The excited cry came from the small, six-year-old dark-skinned girl with bright green eyes as she bounced up and down, hands tightly clutching Maria and Arthur Chambers’ hands. She’d had no name in the facility she had been kept within before being rescued alongside her fellow… experiments, but had since been dubbed Zahd by one of Puriel’s household staff. It was the word for laugh within the language of the woman who had named her. “We’re here, we’re here!” 

Her cry heralded much more excited chattering from the rest of the assorted children, all of whom were staring intently at the viewscreen, which showed the planet Earth directly ahead, taking up much of the view. It was zoomed in, of course. They weren’t that close to the planet. Still, they were close enough that it would not be long at all before they would finally truly be there. After all this time and all the close calls they’d had, the Olympus was finally at Earth. And everyone on board who had family waiting for them were about to have their reunions. 

Needless to say, Maria and Arthur were just as excited as the children around them. They even did a bit of their own bouncing, though theirs was considerably more restrained. Still, they exchanged smiles with one another, before Maria turned fully to look at Puriel by the captain’s chair. He wasn’t sitting in it at the moment. That honor, in this case, had been reserved for Spark. Which, yes technically she wasn’t actually sitting there. She was still inside Puriel’s body, using a tiny portion of his power to manifest a solid-light image of herself. An enchanted stone kept within the ‘head’ of the magical hologram provided all the sight, hearing, and other senses she needed, and allowed her to speak. It was as close as they could get to giving the girl her own body, so long as she was trapped within Puriel’s thanks to her own condition. 

“How long until we can contact them? And… and how long until we can be there?” Maria asked the man himself, unable to keep the anxiousness out of her voice. She wanted to talk to her son and granddaughter. And, now that she knew the whole story, even her daughter-in-law. There were many things she needed to say to that woman, most of them apologies for the things she had thought and said over the past decade. But she wanted to do it in person. After everything, she owed her son’s wife that much. 

Puriel glanced over from the screen, meeting her gaze with a soft smile that told her he knew what she was thinking, and how badly she wanted to be with her family. His eyes, meanwhile, showed that he had his own assortment of apologies to give. “Technically, we could contact them over coms now,” he replied. “But we are still far enough away that they would likely be picked up by other Seosten forces around the planet, including the outpost on the moon.” 

“There’s a Seosten outpost on the moon?” Arthur turned that way, suddenly interested. “What are they doing, spying on the planet with telescopes or something? Can we see them from here?” He turned his attention back to the monitor, squinting toward the small speck where the moon was, as though attempting to pick out the outpost for himself with his naked eyes. 

Chuckling softly, Puriel shook his head. “No, you would not be able to see them. They are very well-hidden. Particularly since your people began to truly study the place with their technology. And they are not spying on the planet. My people have agents down there to do that. They are standing guard over–” 

Before the man could finish what he had been saying, there was a whooshing sound as Alcaeus entered at a jog. “Did I miss it? Did we call them already to let them know we’re here? Tell me I didn’t miss it!” He was looking around rapidly, arms full of various colorfully-wrapped packages. 

“You didn’t miss it,” Maria assured him with a small smile before nodding to his packages. “What do you have there?” 

“This?” The large man smiled broadly, his attention centering on the assortment of children surrounding Maria and Arthur. “These are just a few gifts I wanted to hand out before we get there.” When there was no response from the kids, he cleared his throat. “Ahem, time to come get your presents!” 

That did the trick. The children, who had been entirely unaccustomed to receiving anything throughout their time as what amounted to medical experiments, had learned what ‘presents’ were throughout their time on Puriel’s island and then this ship. Arthur and Maria had made certain of that. Hearing the magic word made their eyes light up, as they stampeded that way. 

Laughing cheerfully, Alcaeus handed out the presents and watched as the children began to unwrap them to reveal various jeans, skirts, shirts, jackets, and shoes. 

Seeing that, Maria’s eyes widened. “Al, what did you do?” 

The man’s voice was fond. “If we’re going to be on Earth, I thought it would be a good idea for the kids to have some Earth clothing. Just used a little magic to turn the designs I drew from memory into the real deal.” 

“That is…” Maria shook her head before stepping over that way to embrace him. “You are a good man.” With that, she turned back to the kids, starting to address them, before her eyes fell on Spark, still seated on the captain’s chair. One other person hadn’t approached the gift opening either. Omni. He was standing by his sister, both silent. 

Before Maria could say anything else, Al was already stepping past her. He held two more gift packages, one of which he handed to Omni, before pointedly setting the other in Spark’s lap. “You should both open these together,” he informed them in a low voice. 

The siblings did just that, opening the gifts together. Both contained more clothing, similar to what the others had received. 

“I know you can manifest your… hologram to look like anything you want,” Al informed Spark. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve real clothes that you can put on, just like everyone else. And when we get you into your own body, you’re going to need them.” 

For a moment, it looked as though the girl was trying to find the right words to respond to that. Her mouth opened and shut, staring up at the man from the seat. In the end, she simply managed a soft, “Thank you.” 

Before Al could respond to that, Maria spoke up. “Puriel? What is it?” 

Turning, Al saw the man in question moving to the doorway leading out of the bridge. His voice was distracted. “Do you all hear that? Who– Aletheia?” 

Arthur, Maria, and Alcaeus exchanged looks. Whatever Puriel had heard, it wasn’t the woman in question. She was on the far side of the ship, taking care of a few extra things before they arrived. 

The three followed after him as he stepped out into the room beyond the bridge. They were trailed by Spark, Omni, and the rest of the children. Maria thought about telling them to remain there, but decided it was better for everyone to stick together. 

Spark had already transported herself to appear next to Puriel, as the man stood in that trapezoid-shaped room outside the bridge. He turned one way, then the other. “Someone was talking,” the man murmured. “Someone was whispering right outside the bridge. No, more than one. People. They were whispering. I… heard them. It was just on the…” He trailed off, a frown finding its way to his face as his head slowly turned to the side, as though listening once more. 

Abruptly, Spark did something none of them would ever, in a millennium, have expected her to do. She pivoted, lashing out with a hand to smack across Puriel’s face with as much force as she could muster. His head snapped to the side while everyone else gasped. 

“Spark!” Maria blurted. “What are you doing?!”

Puriel, however, held up a hand. “Stop, she was right. I was… losing myself. Those whispers, they were telling me to… oh.” His gaze snapped up. “Whispers.” 

“Whispers?” Arthur echoed. “Who’s whisp–” 

“Whispers!” That was Kutattca, the Native American man approaching from one of the elevators. His face was covered in sweat and a bit of blood. “You’re right, it’s those creatures. They’re here on the ship. I don’t know how, but they are.” 

“What creatures?” Arthur demanded. “What are you–” 

“We need to find a safe place to defend,” Puriel announced abruptly. “We’ll use the protective runes and block them out, before they have a chance to affect the others.” Even as he spoke, the man focused, using his power to cast a spell that would give him a communication line with Aletheia. “Whispers are on the ship,” he informed her. “We do not know how many, but… enough that I have been affected. I’m contacting Aur–Athena now.” 

“Oh, no, I don’t think you are,” came another response. This was from the doorway leading into the bridge crew conference room, across from the bridge. And it was more than a whisper. It came as a full voice, along with a figure who moved into view, visible to everyone. 

“What–” Puriel started, before his eyes widened. His communication with Aletheia had stopped, cut off from his distraction. “How are…

“You.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 10 – Minority Guys (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. There was ALSO another chapter focusing on Jae and the Chambers twins posted earlier. If you have not read that yet, you can see it by clicking right here

Laki Sefo/Wobblef

Present Day

The repetitive sound of a basketball hitting pavement filled the park early in the morning. A tall, lone figure was backlit by the rising sun as it came across the horizon. In the crisp air, he dribbled the ball between his legs and back again before rising up to shoot from the three-point line. The ball swished smoothly through the net before falling directly into the hands of a man who had approached from the sidelines. 

“Looking good, Laki,” the curly-haired blond man announced while turning the ball over in his hands. Thirty years earlier, Harris Mauter had been on his way to the NBA, before twisting his knee his last year of university. He’d taken to coaching basketball first for college before his own bitterness at his situation had seen him demoted to high school. There, he’d found his calling and become relatively stable and happy. Or rather, normally happy. Aside from when one of his most-promising young athletes went and threw their whole career away for nothing. 

It was that very athlete the man was staring at just then. Laki Sefo. Just sixteen years old, yet he stood six feet, seven inches tall. And unlike many youths who grew tall early, Laki wasn’t thin. He was well-built, and often passed for being an adult. Hell, the Samoan boy had been passing as an adult for a couple years. And the boy had talent. Incredible talent. At fifteen and only a sophomore the year before, he had led his public high school team to be state champions.

And then he quit. It happened shortly after the party to celebrate their final win. The boy, who was set to cruise on through two more years of high school before being snatched up on a full scholarship to any university he wanted ahead of an inevitable NBA career, had quit the sport entirely. No reason given, no injury, nothing. He still played like a champion, but he just… refused to. 

Catching the ball as the man tossed it to him, Laki quietly replied, “Thanks, Coach.” 

“Coach?” Harris tilted his head curiously. “I’m sorry, am I your coach? Was this entire past year a bad dream and you didn’t throw away everything for no reason?” 

Grimacing a little, Laki spun the ball around in his hands before shaking his head. “Sorry, Coach.” 

Harris paused, taking a breath before gesturing. “Look, kid, I drive by here every morning. And I see you out here a lot. Even watched you play a couple pick-up games. You’re just as good as you used to be. Maybe better. You say the word and you can come right back. Everything forgiven, same spot again. I mean, technically you’d have to try out and earn it, but we both know that’s not a problem.” 

Laki was quiet for a moment, still holding the ball. He knew just how badly the man wanted him to say yes. He knew… he knew how badly he wanted to say yes. He loved basketball as much as he loved anything else. And yet, in the end, the boy simply shook his head. His voice was soft as he repeated his last words. “Sorry, Coach. I… need to get to work.”  

With that, he turned and began to walk away, while Harris stared after him in disbelief. The man called out a question about where he was working, and that they both knew he still loved basketball, but Laki didn’t respond to either. He didn’t want to lie to the man. Not after already disappointing him. And he couldn’t tell him the truth about where he was working. He couldn’t tell him the truth about why he had quit the team.

He couldn’t tell him what had really happened, the night of the championship game. 

********

One Year Earlier

Lying on his back on the cement in his own backyard (well, his family’s backyard), fifteen-year-old (and already six-foot three) Laki held one hand out toward the basketball hoop attached to a metal post. A series of vibrations shot from his outstretched finger, carefully calculated to carry the ball through the air, directing it somewhat precariously toward and finally through the hoop. As the ball fell, he sent a stronger vibration that way, making it bounce the ball off the nearby garage wall and back toward him so he could catch the thing without getting up.

“Damn, dude,” another boy, standing closer to the gate leading out of the backyard, shook his head. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Laki, standing only five feet, seven inches. His blond hair was  fashioned into a faux-hawk, and he had a ready smile. “That shit’s cool, every time I see it.” Stepping over, he looked down at the other boy (Laki lying on his back was basically the only time he would be able to look down to see him). “Still can’t believe you got that lucky. Come on, your life is already perfect. You’ve got like, a hundred million dollar NBA career ahead of you and you find one of those orbs? So now you’re a superstar basketball player and you have actual superpowers. Save some for the rest of us, huh?” 

Chuckling easily, Laki pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry, Ken. Like I said, it just showed up while I was waiting for the bus. I didn’t exactly call for it. But tell you what, next time, I’ll make sure to ask the orb to stick around so you can touch it too.” 

With a snort, Ken retorted, “See, you joke, but I wouldn’t put it past you to find a second orb to get even more powers. That sounds just like you.” Checking his phone then, he added, “I gotta run. But I’ll be there tonight. You’re gonna win, right?” 

Laki, in turn, offered a broad smile and wink. “Can’t predict the future, dude. Grand Rapids has a pretty good team.” He let that sit in the air for a moment before laughing. “But yeah, we’re gonna smoke ‘em.” 

The boys exchanged high fives before Laki watched his friend head out the gate. Still antsy, unable to make himself sit still for the hour it would take before it was time to head out for the game, the tall boy decided to go for a jog. He could listen to music, clear his head, and get himself in the right frame of mind. 

Almost fifty minutes later, he was on his way back home after completing a nice loop. Earbuds blasting one of his favorite songs, Laki jogged down the street several blocks from his house. He would be home in a minute, and would have just enough time to grab a lift from his dad to the school. In that moment, the boy was mostly lost in his own world, thinking about how the game was going to go. And about how great it would feel for his team to be state champions.  

He was not so lost in thought, however, that he didn’t notice another boy approaching from the side, crossing the street with his hand raised. Slowing, Laki looked that way. He sort of recognized the boy as someone from school, and around the neighborhood, but they had never really interacted. 

“Uh, hey, Laki. Uh, hi.” The boy, black with a buzz cut and an oversized football jersey, started awkwardly. “I mean, you’re Laki. Of course you are. I just–um, my name’s Joe. Joe Pallamarti. We don’t-uhh, know each other or anything. I mean, you probably don’t know anything about me. But I live right down the street, we go to the same school, and–” 

“Hey, sorry, really cool to see you, Joe.” Giving the boy a casual smile, Laki started to move past him. “I gotta head out so I can get to the game. You gonna be there?” 

“Wa-wait!” Joe called out, face heavily flushed. “Look, I–fuck, fuck. I need your help, man.” 

His words made the taller boy blink, slowing a bit. “Uh, what? You okay?” 

Joe folded his arms against his stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Look, I–I was there, okay? I saw you touch that Orb the other day. I saw what you–I mean– I wasn’t gonna say anything. I’m not gonna say anything. Not to anybody. Never, ever. Not a fucking word. But I–I need your help. And I can’t think of anyone else to talk to about it.” 

Eyes widening through that, Laki gave a quick shake of his head. “What–hey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you think you can latch on and blackmail–” 

“No!” Joe hurriedly insisted. “No, no, that’s not what–I swear, I won’t tell anyone. That’s not what this is–I’m explaining it wrong. Listen, I just need–” 

Laki put a finger against the boy’s chest, pushing him back. “Whatever kind of game you think you’re playing, I don’t want anything to do with it. If you try to fuck me over, you’ll regret it.” 

“No, I swear!” Joe’s voice was desperate. “It’s not about–I need… look, there’s this guy, he keeps harassing my sister. She told him off but he won’t listen and–and I’m afraid he’s gonna come back. I just want you to tell him to back off, that’s all. I mean, look–you’re huge. And with your–” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “With your powers, if you wore a mask or something, you could put the fear of God into him, you know? You could make him leave her alone.” 

Opening his mouth, Laki hesitated. “I don’t–that’s not… why don’t you call the cops?” 

“Don’t you think I tried?” Joe insisted. “They don’t listen. He hasn’t done anything, so they just said they can’t step in. Just–I know he’s going to come back today. Any minute now. If we could run over there, it’ll just take a–” 

“Whoa, whoa, now?” Laki’s head shook. “Hey, sorry. Look, maybe I can come help you out later, but not right now. Are you crazy? It’s the last game tonight, the championship. You know, that thing everyone at school is talking about.” 

“But if you–” Joe started. 

“Later,” Laki interrupted. “Seriously, come by after the game. We’ll go over and find that guy you were talking about. Make him lay off your sister. But I gotta go right now. I’ll see you then, dude.” 

As he started jogging back to his house, the other boy stood where he was, calling after him, “What if he shows up?!” 

“It’ll be fine!” Laki called back, already putting it out of his mind. He had other things to focus on. Couldn’t let his coach down. Couldn’t let his team down. Couldn’t let the scouts who would definitely be there that night down. 

Time to show how good he really was.

*****

Much later that evening, Laki was high off the adrenaline of leading his team through the championship. They won. They were indisputably the best team in the state, no question about it. He had been on fire all night long. It was the best game of his high school career. Those college scouts were damn sure to be calling. Things couldn’t get any better. 

Stepping out of the car after his friends dropped him off, the boy was about to head inside when flashing lights down the street caught his attention. Turning that way, he saw several police cars and an ambulance outside of a house in the distance. The sight made him frown, walking that way before he knew what he was doing. 

There was a small crowd of neighbors gathered around the house, held back by police crime scene tape. Ken was already there, glancing over as the other boy approached. “What a fucking nightmare, huh? I mean, uh, congrats and all. But…” He turned back to look at the house in the distance. “Fuck.” 

Laki was frowning even more. “What’s going on?” 

“You don’t know?” Ken grimaced. “Sorry to bring you down on your big night.” He nodded to the house. “That’s Joe Pallamarti’s house. You don’t know him, but he goes–”

“To our school,” Laki finished. “I know him. Why–what happened?” 

Ken shrugged. “Some guy his sister was dating or something. Sounds like she dumped him, so he came over, broke his way into the house, and uhh, things got ugly. Joe tried to get in the way, but uhh, he and his sister both got shot. They didn’t make it.” 

“Didn’t–” Laki reeled backward, eyes wide. “Wha-what the fuck do you mean, didn’t make it? He was just–he was–I–” He doubled over a little, voice hoarse. Bile filled his throat. “I should’ve… I should’ve…”

“Hey, hey, man, ease up.” Ken reached out, putting a hand on his friend’s arm. “It’s fucked up, but come on. You didn’t even know them, man. You were at the game, you didn’t know anything about it. You weren’t here.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, right?” 

**********

Damarko Myers/Syndicate

Present Day

Standing in front of what would look from the outside like a completely mundane tool shed in an out-of-the-way alley, Damarko Myers stood facing himselves. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say all four of him stood facing themselves.

Being a single person with four different bodies and separate minds was complicated. Two years earlier, there had been only one of him. Then the tall (though not nearly as tall as Wobble), dark-skinned and wiry boy had Touched. First there had been two more of him, though only one of the group could be solid at any given time. They had called themselves Trilogy. But six months later a fourth version had appeared, so their name had become Syndicate. Individually, they went by animal names to differentiate amongst themselves. Rabbit, Colt, Puma, and Armadillo.

In their insubstantial form, the various versions of Damarko could choose whether they were visible to everyone (though with a blueish-gray ghostlike appearance), or only to each other (including whichever of them was solid at the time). At the moment, they were only visible to one another. So, anyone who might have happened to look down that alley would see what appeared to be a lone Damarko, dressed in jeans and a long open flannel shirt over a black tee, tapping his fist three times against his other palm before showing one or two fingers to… apparently no one. That repeated a few quick times before he pumped his fist in the air, and then immediately vanished, only to reappear a few feet away. 

No, he didn’t teleport. That version (Rabbit) simply became insubstantial, while Colt turned solid. Snapping his fingers, Colt insisted, “Someday I’m going to figure out what my tell is, then I’ll win one of those games.” 

“Sure, buddy,” Rabbit retorted with a grin. “But until then, you get toilet duty.” 

“I dunno what you’re grinning about,” Colt shot back, “Trash duty isn’t that much better.” 

“Sure seems better to me,” Rabbit replied, shrugging. “But maybe that’s cuz the trash doesn’t go out for another three hours, and the restroom’s right now.” 

They, and the other two, continued to tease one another about what chores they had been saddled with that evening while turning to move toward the nearby shed. Colt, as the solid one, reached out to press his hand against the seemingly blank wall next to the door. As he did so, his palm activated the button, which activated the pinhole camera a couple feet higher. The camera was basically invisible. He only knew where to look in order to see the tiny hole it was looking through thanks to being told exactly where it was. The thing scanned his eyes, and there was a brief pause before the door clicked, allowing him to open it. 

Technically, the other three versions of him were intangible and capable of going through the door before it opened. But the place had a lot of security against that sort of intrusion. Which they knew from past experience. If they did try to go straight in, it would have set off about a dozen different alarms, called in aid from various authorities, and just been a complete mess. Besides, simply going into the building like that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything anyway. So, they waited before heading in with their solid brother. 

The shed’s interior didn’t look any different than it should have. It appeared to be a completely empty small building. But, as the door shut, the Touched-Tech built by the Ten Towers Touched known as Switchshift went to work. A moment later, there was an audible ding, and Colt reached back to open the door once more. Rather than admitting them to the same alley they had just left, the quartet emerged into a wide, circular room with a desk to one side, a pair of double doors straight ahead with an enormous clock above them, and an elevator to the left. 

“Syndicate.” Smiling warmly, the blonde woman in her forties who sat behind the desk rose and emerged from behind it. “Or should I say… Colt… Armadillo… Rabbit… and Puma.” With each pronouncement, she pointed to one of the boys in particular. 

All four of them stared at her. The intangible trio had made themselves visible in those blue-gray ghostly forms just to test her (for about the thousandth time), and were still surprised by the results. Armadillo shook his head. “You know, someday we’re going to figure out how you do that, Ms. Esters.” 

His words made the woman smile. “Just like I told you before, I have triplets. You get pretty good at telling them apart with enough practice.” Her hand gestured back to the desk, where a framed photograph of the woman with her husband and the identical ten-year-olds was visible. “So, who’s doing what tonight, boys? I’ve got a porcelain ticket, an emerald ticket, tile ticket, and fuzzy ticket.”

Puma spoke up. “You know, no matter what cute names you give them, it’s still restroom cleaning, trash collection, kitchen clean-up, and vacuuming the clubhouse.” 

“Sure sounds like you’re the one with toilet duty,” she teased him with a raised eyebrow. 

“Nope,” Rabbit put in. “He’s in the kitchen. Colt’s the one cleaning the toilet. I’ve got trash. And uh, Armadillo gets to play with the vacuum.” 

“Well then.” Turning, Ms. Esters stepped over to a cupboard behind her desk and returned with a bucket, mop, and other cleaning supplies, which she handed over to Colt. In the bucket was also a box of large trash bags for Rabbit to use when the time came. To Puma, the woman added, “When you clean up that kitchen, don’t forget to really get into the inside of that microwave. Those hot pockets make a real mess. And you boys let me know if you need any help.” 

“I guess that means there’s no reports?” Colt sounded a bit hopeful. Anything to get him out of focusing on the bathroom. 

His words drew a sly, knowing smirk from the woman. “Nothing just yet, but you know how it’s been lately. Something could come in any minute.” Before he could smile, she added, “Which means you should get in there and scrub that toilet now, while you’ve got the chance.” Her voice turned to a stage-whisper. “Believe me when I say, it needs it. And you know the rules about cleaning the Clubhouse.” 

The Clubhouse was the term for the areas of the Minority Headquarters where the actual team members hung out, trained, played games, ate food, and generally stayed while they were on-duty but not patrolling or responding to a situation. The Minority Headquarters itself technically consisted of two other floors full of support personnel and office workers. It took a surprising number of people to run this team of teenage superheroes. There were two private practice lawyers and their assorted paralegals for dealing with civil cases and legal questions that arose, a handful of police officers who worked directly with the team and were assigned to the building, three people whose job it was to scour the internet for anything that could possibly either make the Minority look bad or potentially expose their identities, at least four full-time accountants, and a couple of technicians down in the lab picking through new toys that were either sent in from other Tech-Touched who wanted to help, or scavenged from crime scenes. In most cases, the latter were sent to bigger labs such as those used by the Conservators. But they did have a small place here. 

Beyond all that, there were even more people working in the various offices. Even a couple of public relations people to help keep their team looking good in the eyes of the rest of the city. To say nothing of all the special investigators they had. All in all, it was a very busy building. And those people had plenty of their own support personnel, employees who kept the building clean, delivered their mail throughout the offices, and so forth. All except for the Clubhouse itself. The area where the teenagers hung out. There was a very firm rule that it was up to the members of the Minority themselves to clean their area. They cleaned up their kitchen, their bathroom, took out their trash, vacuumed their own carpet, and so forth. Some might have said that they already did a lot of work putting their powers toward helping people, but the people who had instituted that rule wanted to make sure the teenagers didn’t end up thinking they were above everyone by having what amounted to servants clean up their hangout every week. They still got plenty of benefits, including a salary and a lot of free food (always good for growing teenagers). But cleaning up their own messes was non-negotiable.

Together, the four identical figures thanked the woman and turned to head for the elevator. The double doors straight ahead from the entrance they had come through would have led them to the office area where everyone else worked. Those doors were securely locked, and monitored by Ms. Esters or one of the other two who took turns at that desk, to stop anyone who didn’t have clearance from accidentally seeing the Minority members unmasked or fully in civilian clothes. She, and the other two, were essentially their… minders. And tutors when the occasion called for it. They stayed upstairs for the most part, leaving the Minority teens to carry on as they wished so long as they followed the rules. 

Syndicate didn’t head for the doors, however. They turned and walked to the elevator. Unlike the normal ones inside the main office, this one only went down to one area, the Clubhouse. 

Once they were on the elevator and the doors had closed behind them, the Damarkos glanced at one another. Puma spoke first. “She still reminds me of–” 

“–Alice,” Armadillo finished. All four nodded together, their expressions identical not only in physical appearance, but also in the pain that passed through them. 

The elevator doors had opened by then, but none of them moved. It didn’t feel right to do so. Not yet. Not until they had all lowered their heads, staring at their own feet for several long seconds as the memory washed over them.

Alice Mcgregor. Four years earlier, she had been the then-singular Damarko’s piano teacher. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he had visited her house twice a week to take lessons and practice. He wasn’t an expert or anything, but he had gotten pretty good. Mostly because Alice was a good teacher. 

Then she was killed. Not at her house or anything. She had been mugged and murdered at a bus stop late at night. Damarko’s parents didn’t tell him the truth about it at first, of course. He’d had to read the details online. Something he still regretted doing. Worse, they never caught her killer. It was just a random attack. 

It was the memory of Alice’s killer escaping justice that had helped prompt Damarko to join the Minority when he eventually found an orb and Touched two years after that event. The Touching part itself wasn’t traumatic or anything. He had simply been playing lasertag with some friends, huddled behind cover, when an orb showed up right in front of his gun. He thought it was part of the room at first, a new special effect or something. But then he reached out to touch it and… well, things had never been the same. 

The point was, remembering reading about the savage murder of his old piano teacher, a nice woman who had given him chocolate and peppermint candy, two years before that moment had convinced all of the Damarkos to head straight to the Minority and sign up to help however they could. And now here they were. 

Raising their gazes to look at one another, the four gave an assortment of firm, silent nods. Their promise to help anyone they could reestablished, they turned to walk out into the Clubhouse, Colt dragging the mop and bucket with them. 

It was time to go to work. 

*****

Jerry Meuster/Whamline

A Little Over One Year Ago

Throwing open the door to his bedroom with a slam, the red-haired teenager rushed inside, already cursing. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Rather than anger, his tone was one of fear and desperation. He quickly began to yank his jacket off while kicking the door shut behind him. In a frantic rush that ended up being far less efficient than if he had taken his time, and nearly made him fall over repeatedly, the boy stripped himself down to being completely naked. 

Still cursing the whole time, tears in his eyes, he grabbed all the clothes and threw them into an old duffel bag. His shaking hands zipped it up, before he cursed even more emphatically and unzipped it to yank all his possessions out of the pockets. Then he zipped it back up, and stood while grabbing the bag. The boy was halfway back to his door before remembering that he was naked. Throwing the bag down, he raced to put on new clothes.

Once he was actually dressed, Jerry Meuster went to grab the bag once more before jerking with a yelp as his cell phone buzzed and vibrated from the pile of stuff on the floor. Staring at it as though the thing was a hissing snake, he hesitated before gulping as he grabbed the phone and checked the caller ID. A relieved sigh at what he saw escaped the boy before he answered. 

“Yeah? No, I’m not fucking kidding! It was an accident, asshole! I was just fucking around, the dude wasn’t even supposed to–yeah. Of course not, how fucking stupid do you think I am? But I’ve gotta get rid of the clothes, right? You know, for like, evidence and shit. No, I didn’t throw it away. I’ve gotta–yeah. Fuck, fuck. Just meet me out by the school. I don’t know, it seems like the right place. Whatever, just fucking meet me there! And bring some gasoline!”  

Clicking the phone off, he gave one more look around the room before racing back out, letting the door slam behind him once more. A shout came in from the far side of the house about not slamming things, but he ignored it for the moment. There were more important things for him to focus on. Like not ending up in prison. 

*****

Jogging across the school parking lot several minutes later with the duffle bag on his shoulder, Jerry approached another boy who was standing there waiting for him. The second boy was slightly taller, a Latino teenager with long dark hair. He turned as Jerry approached, jolting a bit. “Fuck, you scared the shit out of me. That’s the clothes?”

Shaking the bag on his shoulder, the other boy gave a quick nod. “Well, I didn’t leave them at home. Did you bring the fucking gas, Jorge?” 

“Over there.” Jorge nodded to a red gas can, sitting next to a large metal trash container that was chained to the ground. “You sure you need to burn them? I mean, you didn’t like… get blood on you or anything, did you?” 

Giving the other boy a sharp look, Jerry retorted, “I’m not taking any chances. You think I want to end up in prison just because some guy was too fucking stupid to live? I was just screwing around, having a little fun. He’s the one who–” Cutting himself off, he made a growling sound in the back of his throat before walking over to dump the contents of the bag, and then the bag itself, into the large trash barrel. That done, he stooped to pick up the gas can and began to empty it over the clothes. Once they were all thoroughly doused, the boy held his hand out. “Gimme your lighter.” 

After a brief hesitation, Jorge stepped over that way and passed him the flip lighter from his pocket. “Be careful with it, I–” 

Taking the thing, Jerry simply flipped it open to get a small flame and then tossed it into the can. Immediately, there was a whoosh as the contents went up. 

“–like that lighter,” Jorge finished, staring at the tall flames. “Damn it.” 

“No evidence,” Jerry insisted, watching the fire burn. “We watch this for awhile until we’re sure it’s all gone, then we’ll put it out. Gardener’s still got the hose attached to the school over there. We make sure it’s all destroyed. Can’t have anything tying me back there.” 

The two of them stood there silently for a few minutes of silence, both lost in thought. Finally, Jorge spoke in a soft voice. “Kinda feel shitty about that guy, huh?” 

Jerry didn’t respond for a moment, his eyes locked onto the flames. His eyes closed, head tilting a bit before he quietly replied, “Yeah, shitty. That guy shouldn’t have been out there. Shouldn’t’ve… fuck. It’s all so fucked up, you know? Why the fuck did he have to be there?” 

Jorge opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and remained silent. His eyes moved back and forth between the flaming barrel and the other boy, a thoughtful look crossing his face before his gaze rose toward the sky. 

“We clean this up,” Jerry finally announced after another few minutes had passed, “and then we never talk about it again. You understand? Once we’re done with this, it never happened. We don’t talk about it, we don’t write anything about it, we do nothing about it. It’s over. We erase it with the fire, right?” 

After a moment of silence that made Jerry move his gaze from the barrel over to his friend, Jorge finally gave a short nod, his own voice barely audible against the crackle of the flames. “Right. We erase it and walk away. 

“It’s over.” 

*******

“Three weeks, man!” Jerry snapped. “We burned those fucking clothes three weeks ago. It was over, remember? It was over! We said we weren’t going to talk about it again, so why the fuck did you bring it up?” 

The two boys were standing in an alley several blocks from the diner that Jerry’s family ran, late into the evening. It was almost midnight, as they stared at one another, expressions barely visible through the light of the distant streetlamps. 

“Why?” Jorge echoed. “You know why! You know what they found!” 

Rolling his eyes, Jerry’s head shook. “And I’m telling you, they can’t trace it back to me. I didn’t leave any evidence in there, okay? Nothing they can use. I wiped the whole thing off. Even if they got some fabric or whatever, we burned my clothes, remember? They’ve got nothing. We’re fine!” 

Turning away, Jorge groaned, putting his hands to his face. “I never should have gotten involved. I never should have showed you how to do any of that. I should’ve–fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

“Hey!” Jerry reached out, grabbing the other boy’s shoulder. “Just calm down. It was an accident, okay? It was an accident and it’s over. Nobody knows I was there, and nobody knows you had any involvement at all. We’re cool. We’re safe. It’s all good.” 

“All good?” Jorge made a face, pulling his shoulder away before turning to look at his friend. “Dude, you fucking killed a guy. How is that all good?” 

“It was an accident!” Jerry snapped, voice rising to a near-shout before catching himself. “It’s like I said, total and complete accident. I didn’t know he was there, okay? I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t–fuck. I didn’t mean for any of that to happen. But I’m not going down for it just because he was in the way. So calm down. They don’t have anything tying me to that. All we have to do is keep our heads down and not say anything. This’ll blow over. Hell, it’s already blowing over. They’ve got more important things to focus on.”

Jorge fell silent, clearly choosing over his words before looking up once more. “Listen, if they do track you down, it’s gonna be really bad. Straight up murder charges or whatever, cuz you ran and you hid it. But if you, you know, negotiate with them and get it down to accidental manslaughter or–” 

“Why the fuck would I say anything to them?” Jerry demanded. “Like I said, they’ve got nothing. They can’t find me. They can’t track me down. They don’t even know who the fuck I am. I don’t need to negotiate them down from murder to manslaughter, because they can’t get me for either of them! They don’t know who I am!” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jorge stammered. “I’m just saying, if we talk to them about how it was an accident, and like–” 

“We?” Jerry interrupted once more. He took a step that way, eyes narrowing. “The fuck do you mean ‘we?’ You mean me? It’s my fucking ass on the line, dude. You’re my friend, right? So we don’t say anything to them, right? Because that’s the way we make this go away, right?” 

Jorge took a deep breath before exhaling. “Right.” Turning away to stare at the brick wall once more, he added, “Maybe we can send something to his family. Like, anonymousl—” 

In mid-sentence, the boy gave a sudden grunt of surprise and pain, jerking violently. 

“Shhh.” Jerry held a hand clamped over the boy’s mouth, shoving the knife deeper into his back before bringing it out to stab again, then a third time. “Shhh. I told you. I fucking told you to drop it. I told you not to bring it up again! Now you’re talking about sending shit to his family? You wouldn’t let it go, would you? You wouldn’t–” He brought the knife back out and then stabbed it in again one last time. “–let it go!” 

Stepping back, he let the body fall to the ground, panting as he stared down at it. The knife was still buried in the boy’s back, and he reached down while taking out a handkerchief to wipe off the handle. Once that was done, he looked around the empty alley quickly before stepping back to fumble with his phone until it was out of his pocket. His fingers dialed 911, and Jerry stammered, “Pl-please, come quick. Please, my friend–it’s my friend, we were mugged and–and they stabbed him. They stabbed him in the back—he–he’s not breathing! Please, come quick! Please!” 

In mid-plea, the boy saw something out of the corner of his eye. Ignoring the operator’s requests to stay on the line, he disconnected and turned his head. 

An orb. A glowing orb was floating right next to him, as though staring at the body on the ground. Seeing it, everything else seemed to wash away. Slowly, he raised his hand and reached out toward the orb. 

Soon, Jerry Meuster would have his own superpowers. He would choose to join the Minority, as everyone there would believe the orb had come to him in the wake of witnessing his friend’s murder. Which, of course, was technically true. He would even have a pretty good time playing superhero for awhile, much to his own surprise. 

Although his surprise at how much he enjoyed being a member of the Minority was nothing compared to when he found out just who one of his teammates was. After all, in all of his planning how could he possibly have expected to find himself working side by side with Amber O’Connell…

The daughter of the man Jerry had hit and killed while joyriding in a stolen car.  

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