Month: April 2022

Interlude 22B – Meanwhile On Breakwater (Summus Proelium)

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The drone passing over the island known as Breakwater was silent, while its physical appearance was masked by the thick clouds. Clouds which threatened rain, but had not amounted to more than a few drops just yet. Yet before the day was out, it would certainly become a deluge. Being an island in the middle of the ocean, rain was not exactly an uncommon occurrence. Its inhabitants had long-since learned to recognize the signs that a particularly strong storm was coming and seek shelter. From their various caves, holes, and more man-made shelters, these people who would have been (and once were) considered some of the most dangerous supervillains in the world would watch the rain when it came. For most, it was a welcome sight each time, as it meant they would have more fresh water collecting in the various tarps and bins they had set up for such a purpose. More water meant they could be more active, and even meant they could eat more food. Digesting food properly required water. When there was less water, even when they had food, it was dangerous to eat. They would dehydrate faster if they ate food without having enough water. Having as much as possible was important, and it wasn’t always possible to get to the island’s main river, or the various smaller streams that led off from it. 

There were three ready-sources of potable water on the island, if someone didn’t want to go through the process of making the sea water drinkable. One was the river that ran through the center of the island. But the river, and the streams leading off from it, were often dangerous. Even if one avoided passing through claimed territory, there were those who hunted one another along its banks. After all, the people of this island had not been sentenced here for their ability to be nice to one another and get along. While the island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide, the river was only about nine miles in length, originating just north of the center, and angling southwest. Those nine miles were heavily protected either by various established and fortified camps of prisoners who had agreed to work together under the often dictatorial fist of their strongest and/or most dangerous member, or by rogue loners who ambushed anyone foolish enough to come into their view and look vulnerable. They had been removed from society for being monsters who killed, tortured, and destroyed lives. They didn’t all stop and become better people simply because their only possible targets were others like them. 

The second source of decent water was the rain, like that which would soon be pouring heavily onto the island, ensuring that even those who stayed far from the dangerous river would survive. Even if they had to slurp from the heavy leaves the rain left soaked through, they could keep going. 

And the last real source was the supply drops, where large crates of not only water, but also food, medicine, and even entertainment were sent to the island. There were two different kinds of these drops. The first sent the supplies to the same location every time, regular drops that could be depended on. Like the easily-defensible spots of the river, the areas each of these drops were made had almost immediately become encircled and fiercely defended by the largest gangs of Breakwater prisoners. Though ‘largest’ wasn’t saying much, given no gang on Breakwater had more than twenty members. They simply could not get along beyond that. Larger groups inevitably broke apart as their personalities clashed. 

In any case, these smaller groups sometimes did work out. They formed camps around where these drops were. The boundaries of these camps constantly fluctuated, as the various gangs fought to bring and keep as many of the steady supply drops within their territory as possible. Especially any supply drop within a near enough distance to the river for a gang to control both. Those were the single most dangerous parts of the island, as small-scale wars often broke out for control of them. A lot of blood had been shed in the name of holding onto the most coveted areas.

But the second type of drop was far more interesting in some ways. Rather than being sent to the same location every time, these drops were random. The crates would simply be sent down first, then have their locations broadcast over the island’s speaker system so that everyone would know where to go find them. 

Why did they do that? Because the people behind the island enjoyed mixing things up and seeing their prisoners fight one another. Which was why the crates with the most entertainment and extras beyond the bare necessities were often these random drops. The people behind Breakwater had long-since found that the island’s inhabitants would fight the hardest for these extras. The prisoners saw water and basic food as possible to get in other places. They had fish, they had animals, they had ways of feeding themselves and drinking, even if it wasn’t the best and wasn’t easy. Books, though? Pillows and blankets? Batteries for their music devices and new music itself? Even cards and board games, and other ways of making the days go by. Those were what worked best to encourage the prisoners to go out and run into one another. They were what the people would most often fight and even sometimes kill for. So those were what was often put into the randomized drops. Even then, they often weren’t really random. They were deliberately chosen in ways that would push so-called interesting groups or individuals together in order to create intriguing or exciting situations. 

After all, it was important that the prisoners entertain their eternal watchers. 

“You’re sending out a drop now, in this weather?” 

The question came not from one of the island’s prisoners, and not even from the island itself. Rather, it came from a man standing in the hatchway of a small room located on a large military ship several miles away. His dark blond hair was cut short on the sides, though the top was a bit of a mop of curls. At a glance, he would have been guessed to be in his late thirties.

Meanwhile, the man he was addressing appeared to be ten years younger, with black hair that was worn somewhat long, just past his ears. This one sat at a console, watching several monitors in front of him as the drone he had launched passed over the island they and those like them were charged with watching over. 

“I’m sending those Stars a little help,” the man at the console replied. “They’ve survived this long, it’s about time they got something.” 

From the doorway, the other man made a noise in the back of his throat. “You know what the orders were, Colin.”

“Yeah,” Colin confirmed. “They can’t get off the island because finding out people can be sent there would make everyone paranoid. And because this is our biggest ratings boost since this whole show started. I get it, Lyle.”

“Do you?” Lyle stepped into the room, shaking his head. “All three of the Earths that we broadcast this Vile Island reality shit to have reported record numbers. Having those two on that island with all those people looking for them is gold to the Board. They are seeing cartoonish levels of dollar signs, my man. Before this happened, they were talking about doing some other big stunts to spice things up. I even heard a couple of them talking about possibly letting the people on this world watch the show.” 

Colin gave him a brief, disbelieving look. “This world? There’s no way that would fly. We’d get shut down so fast the Boards’ heads would spin if the people of this world knew the ultimate island prison was a goddamn supervillain Truman Show mixed with one of those battle royale flicks. Has the Board lost their minds, or did they just forget that that’s the whole damn reason we broadcast to other worlds? Worlds where they know no version of Baldur exists so they can’t rat us out to this version, I might add. If they’re so paranoid about being caught they won’t even broadcast to a world where another version of Baldur exists, how the fuck were they going to broadcast it here?” 

“You got me, man,” Lyle replied with a shrug. “All I know is they were talking about it. But since those two showed up, it’s all about them. They want to see more. They want the prisoners to keep chasing them, keep fighting them. And it’s not just views. People have been betting on this shit. On how long they last, on which of them will die first, how many they’ll take out with them, whether they’ll find a way off, all of it. And since the Board owns all of the official betting sites, they take a cut. I think they’re getting visions of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. So trust me, if anything threatens that, they’ll come down on us like a hammer the size of this ship. If they even get a whiff that we’re about to fuck up their bottom line, they will shove the fist of God up our asses and rip our colons out the hard way.” 

“Relax,” Colin retorted, “I’m not threatening their bottom line. Everything in the drop is kosher.  Nothing in there that isn’t approved by the Board themselves. You know how hard it is to sneak something new into those crates. Everything has to be approved sixteen different times. All I did was give them some extra supplies to keep going, and send it near their last known location.” 

Lyle watched him for a moment. “Let me guess,” he slowly put in while tugging a chair out to sit next to the other man at the console, “you’re not announcing the drop over the PA.” 

“Rules are rules,” Colin pointed out, “I have to announce it. Except I always get the grid mixed up. Is this area six-eleven or eleven-six? Oh well, I suppose if it turns out to be the wrong announcement, I can always correct it later.”  

“After all the prisoners are sent in the wrong direction,” Lyle murmured with a very faint smirk. “So those girls you like can get everything out of it and move on.” 

Colin turned back to the monitors then, watching as the drone targeted the area for its drop. “Maybe I can’t help those two get off the island, or tell anyone what’s going on so they can get them out of there. But I can damn sure give them a little bit of a fighting chance to keep going. Especially after they’ve made it this far on their own. You got a problem with that?” 

There was a very brief pause before Lyle offered him a sly smile. “Nah. I’ve got money riding on them getting out of this.” 

******

Irelyn Banners had not had a very good week, to say the least. Since the moment she and Trivial had ended up on this island, they had been fighting to survive. The best of the people here wanted to kill them. The worst… well, she’d rather not focus on that. There were cannibals and truly horrific monsters among the Breakwater inhabitants. Being evil was a requirement to be sentenced to this place. The population was one hundred percent hardened supervillains. 

Or rather, ninety-nine point nine percent. She and Trivial had thrown off that perfect score slightly. 

The two of them had been moving around a lot, staying away from the gangs as much as possible. As confident as she was in her own abilities, and Hazel’s, they couldn’t stand up to all of these monsters at once. And if there was one thing that gave the assholes reason to work together, it was hunting for a common enemy. So, Irelyn and Hazel kept moving, finding various safe places to stay for a day at the most before moving on. 

At first, Irelyn had not expected to be on the island that long. Surely as soon as someone behind the multitude of cameras watching the place saw who they were, there would be an extraction. But as the hours and days went on, she very soon realized that there would be no help coming. The people behind those cameras didn’t want to admit what had happened. If they let the public know that a couple of Star-Touched had been sent by some third party to this place, there would be panic about others being sent there. Or about people who were supposed to be here being transported off of it. There would be a huge mess for the people in charge, a potential shake-up of the whole system. 

So, Irelyn and Hazel were on their own. How they were going to get off this place was… a question for later. Right now, they were focused on surviving. And on hoping that their teammates would raise enough of a fuss for a real investigation into their whereabouts to happen. 

She still cursed the fact that she had dropped her phone back when they first arrived. They’d run into trouble almost immediately after realizing where they were, and in the ensuing fight, she’d lost the cell. Now it was who the hell knew where. Not that it would’ve helped that much anyway, given this island very obviously had no cell service, and no way to charge it. As evidenced by Hazel’s phone. But still, it would have been nice. 

Just what the hell was going on that whoever was behind Paige’s… entire situation had ended up transporting them to Breakwater? Irelyn had no idea, but she knew who did. That Albert Elcott guy, the one who had posed as the agent who had processed Paige’s adoption, and two others that same year. The man who had built the portal machine that transported himself as well as Irelyn and Hazel to this island to begin with. He had answers. If they could find him, if they could get him to talk, they would find out the truth. 

Unfortunately, finding him was hard when they couldn’t even go anywhere without being hunted by the assortment of psychopaths who had been forced to make this island their home. The two of them were working on that. Right now, their best plan was to find a way to make it look as though they had either died or been taken off the island so that the search for them would fade. Once they didn’t have so many people scouring this place for them, they could start their own search for Albert. He was here somewhere on the island. And whoever he had been trying to help get off the island with that teleporter would have the real answers. If they found Albert, they would find the truth about what was going on with Paige. 

But first, they had to survive. Which had led them here. At one point this had been a decent-sized stream, if not a full on river. But other prisoners had diverted the water with a dam in order to direct it to their own base years ago. Now it was a dry creek bed, about twelve feet across and two or three feet deep, like a ditch running through the ground for two miles or so. Sitting in the center of that creek bed right then was the latest cargo drop, a bright red metal crate six feet across on all sides. The parachute it had used to land safely lay nearby, connected via an assortment of cords. 

The intercom had lied. Though she had only been here a short time, Irelyn had quickly realized how the grid system worked, and where they were. Whoever was doing the announcement of the drop had inverted the numbers. Whether that was intentional or no–it was intentional. She had to believe that. The fact that the drop had come practically right on top of them, yet the gangs who would have been after it were sent in a completely wrong direction couldn’t have been a coincidence. The people in charge may have decided not to help them get off that island, but someone out there was deliberately sending them supplies. 

Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be as simple as just walking up and taking them. They weren’t the only ones who had noticed the actual physical drop. Even as Irelyn crouched on the outstretched limb of a tree that hung over the dry creek bed, she could see two men approaching the crate. One was about six and a half feet tall, wearing a pair of ratty old jeans that were falling apart and a black tank top. The exposed parts of his brown skin were covered in dozens of small, crescent shaped white markings that ran across his upper chest, down his arms, across his face, and so forth. The other man was a few inches under six feet, with short blond hair and clothes roughly similar to his companion. They approached the crate, keeping a wary eye out for anyone trying to intercept their prize. 

It was now or never. Waiting until the two men had their attention focused on opening the crate, Irelyn (or Flea as she was in-costume) gathered herself before leaping that way. From her crouched position a good thirty feet away, she lunged straight to the men in a single bound. The taller man spun that way, but her foot collided with his chest and sent him flying backward six or seven feet before he fell to his back and skidded through the dirt even further. 

“Haha, two for one!” the man’s partner crowed while pivoting to face her. His hands began to glow brightly red. “We get a supply drop all to ourselves and a tasty treat to play with.” Even as he said that, a pair of red rings of energy shot out from his extended hands, flying straight at Flea.

Meanwhile, behind her, the man she had knocked down was picking himself up as his hand literally ripped one of the white crescent shapes from his own skin. As it was pried up, the mark transformed into a fully three dimensional shape, extending and growing into what amounted to a boomerang. Just as his partner let loose with those two ring blasts, the second man hurled that boomerang. Rather than fly straight at her however, the thing took off like a miniature drone of its own, flying up and to one side as tiny yet very dangerous and rapid laser blasts shot from it. 

With a snap of one hand, Flea sent a sword flying up and to the side, cutting through the ‘drone’ and sending it crashing to the ground. At the same time, she gave what was for her a very slight hop, carrying herself six feet to one side as the rings of energy shot through the space she had been in a moment earlier. The man fired several more times in rapid succession, but Flea was never where he expected her to be. Her quick hops carried her back and forth as he grew increasingly frustrated, firing those rings faster and faster. 

Then, as quickly as if a switch had been flicked, the man passed out. He collapsed abruptly, hitting the ground already snoring. Through those rapid few seconds, Flea had been using her stamina draining power, until he was so tired within even that brief amount of time that he literally fell unconscious while standing up and actively fighting. His body hit the ground and he started to snore. 

Meanwhile, the sword that she had tossed to cut through the small drone had been caught in midair, as Trivial appeared. Turning invisible for three seconds and teleporting one foot at a time might not have sounded like much, but it added up to a lot very quickly when she was coming up from behind the crescent-marked man. Especially when her ability to float several inches off the ground meant he never heard her footsteps. She had run up to a spot almost directly behind him, then turned invisible, taking a few more steps past the man before teleporting that single foot at the last moment to grab the sword. By the time he actually saw her, Trivial had spun back that way, putting the blade right up to his throat. “Touch another of those crescents and I’ll carve a new one that you can’t rip off.” 

The man glowered that way, though he didn’t move. “You think you stand a chance on this island? You should give up now and ask for protection. Or maybe beg for it. Yeah, I like that idea. How about the two of you… sorta… tell me how… far… the dragon… kicked the… ehhhh….”

Trailing off like that after starting to speak exhaustion-inspired randomness, the man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he collapsed not far from where his partner had fallen. 

“I do like when they rant or monologue,” Irelyn noted. “Makes it so much easier to put them to sleep. And it makes them say funny shit like that when it kicks in.” Glancing to the other woman, she added, “Are we good?” 

“We’re good,” Hazel confirmed. “Just help me pull them up next to each other.” 

So they did, putting the two men side by side. Hazel knelt between them, putting one hand on each man’s forehead. “Remember, I only get to erase one minute worth of memory per person, per day, and I forget everything that happened in that minute too.” With that, she focused, then abruptly sank back with a gasp. “What–wha?” Her gaze snapped around quickly before realizing where she was, and the two unconscious figures lying on either side of her. “Oh. I guess we won?” 

“We won,” the other woman confirmed. “And within the sixty seconds too, so if we move these guys somewhere else before they wake up, they won’t have any memory of seeing us, or what happened here.” 

The two of them were interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. As their eyes snapped toward the source, a heavy-set pale-skinned man with long red hair and eyes that were jet black with no visible whites stepped into view from the treeline. “Oh, excellent. Excellent indeed. Now I don’t have to share.” 

As Irelyn took a step that way, he held up one hand. “Bup bup. I assure you, I have seen more than sixty seconds of this situation. And even had I not, a word from me and every person on this island hears my voice. You come toward me, and I will ensure they all know where you are.” With those words, the man rubbed his hands together as his eyes turned from black to white, and both women felt the uncomfortable sensation as though their own hands were rubbing together. When he touched his neck while his eyes remained white, they felt a hand on their own necks. Not only could the man share his voice with the entire island, he could make anyone he wanted to within his line of sight experience the exact sensations either he himself, or anyone else within the same area, experienced. 

“Now,” the man continued. “We can come to an arrangement of course, one that does not necessitate that I share my bounty with anyone else.” 

“You’re not getting a damn thing,” Trivial informed him. 

Her words made the man chuckle low, his eyes shifting back from white to black as he ceased focusing on his power for the moment. “No? Because from where I’m standing, you both have very few choices. You could take me prisoner, but I’m too far away right now for your little sleepy power to work, so you’d have to get to me before I can speak the words that would summon every nasty fiend on this island right here. I promise, you can’t fight all of them. And even if you did manage to take me prisoner, I’d get the word out eventually. It seems to me your only chance is to do what you’re told, or try to kill me. But you’re just a couple of superheroes, you’re too good and pure and perfectly innocent to do what–”

In mid-sentence, the man was abruptly cut off. As was his head, which went tumbling off into the bushes. He’d never had a single moment of warning before Flea, in one instantaneous lunge, had put herself right in front of him, slicing through his neck in a blindingly-quick slash. 

“I carry swords for fuck’s sake,” she informed his body as it fell one way, his head rolling off in a different direction. “Did you think I don’t know how to be lethal if I have to?” She looked down at his fallen form, murmuring, “You know who that was?” 

Hazel nodded. “Sharealike. He kidnapped four girls and three boys over a two year period before he was imprisoned here. Most of them didn’t survive. The one who did is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life. Then he killed another thirteen people in one mass terror attack at a grocery store. When the police searched his apartment, they found his girlfriend. The one he killed when she tried to call the cops after she found out who he really was, just before the grocery store incident.” 

“Yup,” Flea confirmed. “So if his fucking ghost thinks I’m going to lose any sleep over him being dead,  he can think again.” 

With that, she gave a sharp flick of the blade and sent the blood away before looking over to her companion. “Are we clear?” 

Cocking her head to the side, Hazel listened with her slightly enhanced senses. She wasn’t exactly able to hear a fly land on a leaf, but it was the best they had. After a moment, she nodded. “I think so, but we should hurry up and get away from this place. Those flipped coordinates are only gonna confuse people for so long.” 

“Right,” Irelyn agreed, hopping away from the body, back toward the crate. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here. 

“And hope it gives us what we need to hole up until this heat dies down, so we can go find Albert and smack some fucking answers out of him.” 

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Growth 18-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, this was a bit of a surprise. As soon as the man called Tabbris his daughter,  my eyes looked that way, mouth falling open. My expression matched hers, as the other girl gaped while making a sound of confusion in the back of her throat. She tried to say something, but the only thing that came out was a weak croaking sound, like a very sick frog. 

The man, Jegudiel apparently, gave a broad laugh and stepped forward before anyone could find their voice. “That’s right, my filia, my daughter!” He stooped, going down to one knee. Yet even like that, he still towered over her. “How’re you doing, kid? You know who I am? They told you, right?” 

Glancing around, I saw everyone watching this interaction. The whole cafeteria had stopped every conversation to focus over here. Probably because his arrival hadn’t exactly been subtle, to say the least. But then again, despite only knowing this guy for a few seconds, I was already pretty sure that nothing he did could ever be called subtle. He was the type of person who drew attention no matter where he went, and not only because of his height and muscle. Though that was certainly a factor too. Yeah, this guy was basically a hurricane given flesh and blood. I just hoped he wouldn’t end up causing as much destruction around here as one of those could. 

No, I had to shove that out of my mind. This guy hadn’t done anything wrong to us yet. It wasn’t his fault that Kushiel had used his donated material to impregnate Sariel, any more than it was Tabbris’s fault. I had to give him a chance, not be jealous of him on my father’s behalf. This whole situation was already complicated enough as it was, there was no reason for me to make that worse. 

For her part, Tabbris only hesitated briefly before giving a slight nod. Her voice was quiet, yet she didn’t look away from him, meeting his intense gaze while answering. “You’re Jegudiel, one of the Dyeusai, the archangels.” 

That smile of his only broadened at that, the man showing his teeth in what was clearly delight. “Yes. Yes, I am. And I’ve heard many things about you too. You gave some people a pretty hard time, from the sound of it.” Yet he didn’t sound annoyed or upset about that, even though he was talking about Tabbris having caused problems for his own people. If anything, the man sounded incredibly proud, his smile growing even more. “Made one hell of a nuisance of yourself, didn’t you?” 

“Uh.” Tabbris squirmed a bit on her feet, glancing to me, then to her other siblings, then to Athena before finally focusing on the man once more. “I had to protect… my sister.” Her voice rose a bit at the end there, hand reaching out to grab mine. 

For the first time, the man focused on me, his eyes looking me up and down curiously. “Oh, of course. You’re the Chambers girl, Felicity. I’ve heard of you too. But you prefer Flick, don’t you?” 

His words made me blink. “You know that already?” Somehow, the fact that he had so much information about me that he knew my name preferences kind of freaked me out a little bit. 

Jegudiel laughed broadly. “Well of course I do. You didn’t think I’d come all the way here without taking the time to do some research about who my daughter’s spending so much time with, did you? I know all about you. Well, the stuff my people know about, anyway. Even the classified material. But I’m gonna–what was that Earth phrase I looked up before? Go out on a rock?” 

“Limb,” Athena corrected him from behind. “As in the limb of a tree.” 

“Ahh! That makes a lot more sense!” The man laughed again before nodding. “Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my people don’t know everything you’ve gotten up to. But the stuff I did read about, well, that’s pretty impressive. You’re a good influence on my–” He stopped, seeming to consider his words before amending, “On Tabbris.” Looking that way, he added a bit slyly, “Or is that more of you being an influence on her?” 

“We… help each other.” That was her hesitant response, as she squeezed my hand. “Um, so you’re really not angry about all that? I mean, about everything that happened?” 

“Angry? Hah!” That loud laugh came again, and the man shook his head. “Far as I’m concerned, as long as you don’t go signing up with the Fomorian monsters that want to raze this whole universe to the ground and kill everything in it, you can be on whatever side you like.” He paused as though considering before a grimace found its way to his face. “Okay, I guess there are some others besides the Fomorians that I’d be disappointed to see you with, but something tells me I don’t have to worry about that. From everything I’ve heard about you, kid, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. I just hope you keep it there.” He reached out as though to squeeze that very head, before pausing with his hand in mid-air. “Ahh, sorry, you sensitive about being touched? I’ve had a bit of trouble with that before, took time to get it through my thick skull.” That was said with a soft, self-deprecating chuckle as he rapped his knuckles against his own head through the luxurious black mane. “But I got it eventually. Mostly.” 

Tabbris bit her lip, a very slight smile forming though she was clearly still nervous and uncertain about the whole thing. “Um, it’s okay, you can… touch me.” 

With that approval, Jegudiel finished reaching out. His hand dwarfed her head as he basically palmed it. “Yeah,” the man murmured after testingly rubbing it, “definitely a good head here. If you gave the other Seosten a hard time, they probably had it coming. Our people often do.” He added that with a wink. “Even me now and then. But I do try to learn from my past, even if I don’t always get it right.” 

 “Speaking of learning,” Athena took the chance to put in, “perhaps we should take a walk somewhere a little more private for this?” She made a point of glancing toward all the onlookers, most of whom quickly glanced back to their meals or to one another. 

“You know, a walk sounds pretty good, sure.” Jegudiel rose to his feet, utterly towering over the rest of us once more. “If you’re up for that, kid?” Once again, he sounded like he was doing his level best to not dominate the entire interaction or demand things. Which seemed a bit at odds with what I’d heard about the man in battle, where he was… intense, from what others had said. 

“Can Flick come with?” Tabbris immediately asked, before quickly leaning over to whisper something to Jehoel and Spark. I heard something about waiting for their mother. Both of them whispered something back, and she gave a quick, decisive nod back to the man. “Can she?” 

“Well of course she can!” Jegudiel answered without any hesitation, giving me a broad grin. “After all the time she spent with you, it’d be pretty dumb for me to try to shut her out if I want to learn anything about you, wouldn’t it?” His hand moved as though to clap me on the back, but again he stopped himself and squinted. “Ah, are you–” 

“It’s okay,” I informed him with a slight shrug as I shifted my shoulder that way, “I’m fine with being touched.” 

Immediately, his hand slapped my back so hard I almost fell over even with my not-inconsequential strength boosts. “Now that’s good to know!” Pivoting with a cheerful laugh, he gave a nod toward Athena. “Lead the way, if you don’t mind.” 

“Not at all,” she agreed, giving Tabbris and me a brief glance before turning to walk to the nearby door. She paused just long enough to say something to a guy standing there, sending him off to do something. Probably to let Sariel know where we were going when she got the message about the man being here and came running.  

Tabbris, Jegudiel, and I followed, leaving the cafeteria and all those clearly incredibly curious people behind. I was almost certain there would be a lot of speculation and conversation as soon as we were out the door. Not that Tabbris being related to one of the archangels had exactly been a huge secret, after the way her wings had manifested during Dad’s bonding ritual. But still, this was the first time her birth-father had been confirmed outside our little circle. That was bound to cause some rumors to start flying around. 

Speaking of Dad, he was suddenly right there. Practically manifesting in front of the doors as we passed through, he looked a bit out of breath. “Hey, what–” His gaze found the enormous Seosten man immediately. 

“Aha!” Jegudiel grinned. “It’s my daughter’s–ahh, other father. Her papa.” He reached out, offering a hand that way. “A genuine pleasure to meet you, Lincoln Chambers. I am Jegudiel. I want to thank you for being the kind of man you are and accepting Tabbris here as soon as you found out about her.” 

Dad hesitated slightly, glancing to Tabbris herself, then to me before his gaze found the larger man’s hand. Then he accepted, shaking it firmly. “Yeah, well, there wasn’t really any question about that. She’s my daughter.” 

“Yes, she is,” the Seosten Archangel confirmed before releasing Dad’s hand. “She’s been your daughter this long, no one’s gonna change that.” To Athena, he added, “We’ve still got an audience behind us, maybe we should keep going.”  

Once we were walking through the corridor, Jegudiel stepped aside a bit so he could look over and down at the two of us. Well, mostly Tabbris. He was smiling the whole time, practically radiating cheer. “They said you were still young, but damn. You really were running circles around our people almost from the time you were an infant, weren’t you?” 

“I, umm…” Tabbris flushed a little, hand squeezing mine even more tightly. “I had to help protect Flick.” 

“Of course you did,” the man agreed, giving a nod toward me. “She was–sorry, she is your family. And your mater sent you to help. Just wish I could’ve seen you last year when you were beating old Manakel and the others. Including your nephew.” 

Tabbris started to respond to that, before giving an almost identical double-take to the one I was giving. But it was Dad, trailing slightly behind, who spoke. “Wait, nephew? What?” 

“You didn’t tell ‘em?” Jegudiel squinted over to Athena before focusing on us, stopping there in the hall. “I mean, more of what you’d call a great-great-great… great nephew, but yeah, I heard you had a run-in or two with one of my descendants.” 

My mouth opened and shut before I blurted, “Abaddon? You mean Abaddon is–” 

“That’s right,” he confirmed, grinning once more. “You can see the family resemblance now, can’t you?” 

Okay, well that was a thing. While Tabbris made another uncertain noise deep in her throat, I looked back and forth between her and Jegudiel. “You mean Tabbris is really–she’s Abaddon’s aunt? I mean, great-whatever aunt, but–but…” It was my turn to make that noise before finally managing to push out a weak, “Wow.” 

“Wow is certainly the correct word,” Athena agreed. “And I did not say something because I wasn’t aware of it. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone else on the Olympus.” 

“Hah, guess he kept his word,” Jegudiel mused. Then he explained, “I take all my descendants through some training excursions of my own. Try to get ‘em hooked up with some good assignments where they can learn a lot too. Did the same with Abaddon. He liked the training part, but told me no when I offered to get him assigned to a nice ship. Said he was gonna make a name for himself without my help. When he got assigned to the Summus Proelium project, I had to swear to him up and down on magical oath that I didn’t make it happen. I ahh, guess that went as far as not telling his crew who his ancestor was.” He frowned just a little at that, but shook it off.    

There was an awful lot to unpack there, but one thing stood out that we could actually get into at the moment. Giving a glance toward Tabbris, who was still just standing there staring at her biological father, I hesitated before turning back to the man. “Did you say you take your descendants on training excursions?”

The man’s grin was dazzling, and a little intimidating. “That’s right! I’ve got a whole moon set up for camping, exercise, wrestling, target practice, some academics so their brains don’t wither away, the works. You’re ahh-you’re both welcome to come check it out anytime you want. You know, assuming I’m not in the middle of a battle. But then again…” His smile turned somewhat feral as he narrowed his eyes pointedly. “No fight tends to last very long when I’m around.” 

“Wa-wait, Flick too?” Tabbris abruptly piped up, finding her voice again for that. She sounded a bit uncertain. “You mean you’d let Flick go to your umm, family training camp place?” 

Dad stepped up then, moving directly behind us. “Yeah, you would?” 

“Well, yeah!” The man bellowed those words, making all three of us flinch just a little. He clapped me on the shoulder, once more nearly knocking me over in the process. My knees buckled a little bit. “She’s basically a sister to you, isn’t she? Hell, ain’t no basically about it. She’s your sister, blood be damned. So I’m not about to go and try to separate you. Far as I’m concerned, if she’s a sister to you, she ahh…” He paused before lifting his gaze to meet Dad’s. “She and you both, your whole family are welcome at any of our family gatherings. Which we do have now and then, you know. You should come to one of those. You all should. The look on Abbi’s face would be amazing.” 

Abbi. He called Abaddon Abbi. I just… wow. That was basically the only thing I could think right then. Wow. This was a lot. 

“Wait, but… you do all that for all your descendants?” Tabbris was squirming uncertainly. “The whole training camp and still having reunions and stuff? I thought–I mean, they don’t… have the same wings as you, right?” Even as she said those words, the girl was blanching a little, as though the thought of what she was implying made her sick. Her hand slipped backward to find Dad’s, squeezing it tightly. 

If he was offended, the man didn’t show it. “What, you think I’d only give a Doufel’s patare about my own family if they had my wings? Now don’t get me wrong, whole reason I wanted to have as many kids as possible was to try to spread out that chance. But just because it didn’t pan out in any of my other descendants doesn’t mean I’m just gonna toss them out the airlock. You’ve seen Abaddon, right? He was a glorious terror in a fight even before the project. My family’s got some genuine tough ones in it. Some real… ahh, I think the word you use is badbuttocks.” 

“Badasses,” Athena calmly interjected. She seemed content for the moment to just let us talk while she stood out of the way to make sure no one interrupted or eavesdropped. 

“Right, that.” Jegudiel pounded his fist into the other palm. “Real badasses. But the most important thing is, I want to create a legacy. One that lives on forever. Not just me or my battles, I want my family to be remembered. Hard to do that if you just toss out every single relative that doesn’t fit one incredibly narrow specification, you understand? If I ignored every single descendant I have just because they didn’t have the Dyeus connection, that’d be…” He gave a low whistle, shaking his head. “It’d be a lot of people. My family isn’t small. Well, probably small by Earth standards over all that time, but big for our people. That’s not the sort of legacy I want to have. They might not be the absolute biggest achievement I was looking for, but they’re not failures, and I’m not the sort of piece of gekna that’d throw them out for that.”  

Dad spoke up then. “I ahh, I’m pretty sure the Earth analogy you’re looking for is that while a homerun would’ve been nice, you aren’t going to quit the game over a base hit.” 

With a broad smile, Jegudiel replied, “I have no idea what you just said, but if it makes sense to all of you, then sure.” He focused on Tabbris once more. “Here’s the main point, kid. Being a–what was–a badass isn’t about abandoning the people who need you just because they might not have everything you want exactly when you want it. It’s about protecting them, teaching them, being there. It’s about guiding them into being the, ahh, homerun. Even if that means they’re a homerun in their own way, not the way you were thinking. And being a legendary badass, that’s where you really have to step up. Me, I plan on being the sort of legend that could leave this universe and go find another one for a hundred millennia, then come back and people would still know my name.” That feral smile had returned. “And sure, you could do that by being a…” He looked toward Athena for assistance. 

“Evil bastard,” she supplied. 

“You could do that by being an evil bastard,” he finished. “Do enough horrific things and people will remember you for a pretty long time. But that’s not the sort of legacy I want. Me, my family? We’re going to do amazing things. Things that people won’t just remember forever, but cheer forever.” 

“So…” Tabbris squirmed from one foot to the other, fidgeting with one hand while holding tightly to Dad’s with the other. “You’re really not here just because you heard about the wings?” 

There was a brief pause as the man considered before meeting her gaze. “I won’t lie to you, Tabbris, I probably would not have come as quickly. I would have come, and probably wouldn’t delay too long. But the strings I pulled, the work I rescheduled, the effort I went to just so I could get here this fast was definitely influenced because I heard about the wings. The absolute truth is that if I had only just barely heard of you and no one knew much, it probably would have taken me at least another year to get here personally. But I would have sent someone. Now, just going off the things I heard you did or helped do? Even without the wings, that would have gotten me here at least within the next half-year or so. Dyeus or not, everything else I’ve heard is impressive as hell. You’re a real badass kid, even without anything extra. But no matter how little I heard about you, no matter how little you managed, I would have come here when I could. I don’t know how they do oaths here, but you have mine on that.” 

“And now that you are here,” Sariel abruptly spoke up while stepping into range of my item sense, “what do you plan to do?” 

“Mama!” Tabbris took a few quick steps that way, her hand finding her mother’s as she stood partially in front of the woman. It was almost like she was protecting her, just in case Jegudiel got any ideas. “I thought you were busy.” 

“Not too busy for this,” Sariel assured the girl. Her eyes were on Jegudiel himself. Not quite threatening, but certainly mixed between curious and wary. Bordering on the latter. 

“There she is.” If he was worried about the look Sariel was giving him, the man didn’t show it. He simply offered her the same smile he’d given all of us. “I have to say, I thought a lot about what to say to you when we met. Everything that came to mind felt a bit too… wrong. For what it’s worth, and that may not be much, I am truly sorry for what happened to you. Not for who came of it.” He added that with a glance toward Tabbris. “But sorry for the circumstances. I mean that, as genuinely as I can mean anything. You have the vow of my name, on the cusp of the Void, I did not know what my… donation was being used for.” 

Sariel was quiet, seeming to consider his words while running her free hand through Tabbris’s hair. “I believe you,” she finally replied. “And I thank you for the sympathy. But if you have come here believing that you are going to take Tabbris–” 

“No,” he interrupted easily. “I only wanted to meet her, not take her. To be quite honest, impressive as she is, I’m afraid my full-intensity training course would be a bit too much. And I don’t have the free time to be away from the war for that long. Keeping her on the frontlines with me, that’s a horrific tragedy waiting to happen. And it wouldn’t be waiting very long.” He glanced toward the girl in question then. “No offense.” 

“I’m not offended,” Tabbris quietly informed him. “I’d die really fast out there.” 

“Which would really just blow up the whole reason I want her around in the first place,” Jegudiel finished. “So no, I’m not here to take her. Just see her and talk to her for now. And invite her and her sister there to… a short trip sometime, so we can get to know each other even better. You’re welcome to come too.” His gaze turned to my dad as he added, “You too, Lincoln Chambers. And any of your friends. I’d like to spend a little time here on the station with all of you, where you’re most comfortable. Another time, maybe we can make it somewhere else.” 

Sariel looked like she was considering all of that, running it through her head several times. Finally, she exhaled and looked to Tabbris. The two of them exchanged what seemed to be a moment of silent communication, before the woman looked back at Jegudiel. “She is your daughter too. If you want to… get to know her, that is up to her. If she says no more, you respect that.” 

“I will,” he confirmed, before focusing on the girl in question. “And now that that’s all out of the way… would you mind?” The man almost sounded embarrassed from his own eagerness. Like a gigantic little kid. “I’ve waited a very long time.” 

Sariel, Dad, and I stepped out of the way when Tabbris glanced to us, before focusing. A moment later, her bright golden wings extended. 

Seeing that, Jegudiel actually looked almost stunned for a moment. His gaze swept over the wings, and he swallowed visibly. He was clearly taken aback by the sight, even though he had not only expected, but actually asked for it. “It’s true,” he whispered faintly, the persistent doubts he had obviously held vanquished by the glow of the wings in front of him. After a few seconds, his gaze moved from the wings to her face once more. “Kid, I’ll tell you one thing for sure. 

“You and me, we’re gonna be legends.” 

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Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Growth 18-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The next few days passed relatively uneventfully, aside from the funeral for Tribald Kine. A funeral which made me feel even worse for the fact that I hadn’t been able to bring his ghost along with us. I still couldn’t understand that. I had felt other dead people there, so why couldn’t I feel him? My only speculation was still that his ghost had been taken or left before I could get to him, which… 

In any case, Mom showed up for that, taking time away from her mission to say goodbye to her friend. She spent a little time with me as well, apologizing for not being there. I could tell just how torn up she was. The guilt at the fact that she hadn’t been there to help her old friend… yeah, it was bad. And if she felt bad about not being there, I couldn’t even imagine how bad Deveron felt considering he had been there and still couldn’t save him. 

With that thought in mind, I made sure that Mom spent most of the time she had here with him, as well as the Dornans. They were the ones who needed her at the moment. Tribald had been their friend for a long time. They needed each other. Dad understood that too, and left them alone after having just a little bit of reunion time with Mom as well. We were both there for the funeral, but other than that, we let Mom, Deveron, and the others from that time mostly just be with one another. They could reminisce, focus on the good times they’d had with their friend. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it felt like remembering why they cared about him was more important than focusing on the fact that he was gone. And as my mother put it, this was not the first long-time friend they had lost. 

In any case, she stayed as long as she could before the situation in Peru forced her to go back there. Lillian too. Both of them apologized for not being able to stay longer. Yet when they left, they had company. Deveron and the Dornans were going with them, apparently against both Mom and Lillian’s objections. But the guys insisted that they needed to keep themselves busy.  

So they were busy with all that. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the weekend resting and doing a bit of studying for classes so my parents and Abigail wouldn’t completely freak out about me missing out on school. It was kind of nice not having anything immediately demanding my attention. Not that there wasn’t plenty of stuff to worry about, between the regular Alter-rescuing missions, fights against Loyalists, and so on. Hell, that wasn’t even counting the big things like trying to find Tiras’s second family, figuring out what was going on with that prisoner camp and the monster they had been feeding, and everything to do with the Whispers. Yes, there were a lot of things I could be focused on. But between the things I couldn’t do anything about right then and the ones I had been specifically told to leave alone for the moment, I had no choice but to relax and focus on school. Honestly, I wasn’t going to complain too much. Taking a little break felt like the right thing, after that whole thing we had just been through. Which, sure, a large portion of the time had been spent sitting in that truck not really doing anything, but it was far from relaxing. Not when we could have been discovered and attacked at any point, on the way there and back. To say nothing of the actual fighting we had done once we arrived. 

The point was, being able to sit around for a few days without much in the way of responsibility or terrifying panic was good. Especially considering I could spend a lot of it with Shiori and Avalon. Even Valley toned down the obsessive need to train a little bit. Not completely, of course. She was still herself. But that whole mission had taken a lot out of her too. 

Between those two and spending time with my dad, Tabbris, and my grandparents, that was basically how my weekend went. I even had Monday off because it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Which didn’t mean all that much to anyone who had grown up in other countries, let alone other worlds (like all of Athena’s people), but they certainly understood the concept of celebrating the life of a man who had wanted everyone to get along and have the same rights. So I had a three-day weekend, which was pretty well-timed given how much I needed it.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, I felt ready to sit in class just quietly listen to the teacher. Who, in this case, was Rovon Reinswield, the guy I’d met the first time I’d visited this station way out in Seosten space, who had once been a loyal Eden’s Garden Heretic before he’d objected to the recruitment of an innocent little girl and had thus been thrown out onto the frontlines of the Fomorian war as a flesh-suit for a Seosten. Athena and her people eventually rescued him, and he had been helping teach the children they brought in ever since. 

Seeing the man sitting there at the desk after I walked into history class, I paused and tilted my head. “Don’t you usually teach the younger classes?” I knew for a fact that Tabbris enjoyed  every lesson she had with him. 

Giving me a somewhat distracted smile, the scruffy-looking man with short blond hair and round glasses nodded once. “Normally, yes. Unfortunately, your ordinary teacher for this class is a bit indisposed at the moment. As is his substitute. The sad reality of having teachers who double up as soldiers in this war. So, I volunteered to step in for the day. With any luck, I’ll avoid passing out in the middle of the lesson.” Reaching out, he picked up his mug of coffee and gestured with it. “Well, luck and a little bit of magical help.” That said, he took a sip of it and murmured appreciatively. “Mmm, abracadabra.” 

By that point, others had to started to file in, and I wished the man luck before going to find a seat next to Koren and just in front of Shiloh, the girl who had been on Harper/Gwen’s team last year, and whom I had gone through that underwater mission in Sinbad’s class with a little while back, where we had searched for treasure on that sunken spaceship. 

As I sat down, the girl behind me spoke up. “Hey, you guys found a bunch of Alters who were trapped in that prison place, right?” Brushing shaggy brown hair out of her eyes, she watched until I nodded before pressing on. “I was just wondering if you found any trolls while you were there. Two trolls, specifically. Brother and sister.” 

“I uhh, I don’t know if they’re brother and sister, or even what sex either of them are,” I admitted. “But yeah, we found a couple of trolls. They call them Two and Three, but I’m pretty sure that’s not their actual names. I think they’re still going through intake with Athena’s people so they can explain the situation. Which is uhh, taking a bit because the trolls don’t speak English or Latin. Why?”   

“We’ve got some people looking for them,” Koren put in. “From one of the rescue missions we went on a few months ago, while you were… you know.” 

Yeah, I knew. While I was trapped with Fossor. The memory made me grimace before giving a slight nod. “You rescued some people who were looking for a couple missing trolls?”  

“They heard about your mission,” Shiloh explained, shifting a little in her seat. “So they came to find us and said they had a couple troll friends who were taken to some Eden’s Garden work camp that sounded, you know, similar. I’m pretty sure they said their friends only spoke Troll and umm, what was the other one?” 

“Akkadian,” Koren answered, giving a nod my way. “They speak Troll and Akkadian. You know, from ancient Mesopotamia. If Athena’s people have anyone who can understand either of those.” 

“I’m pretty sure they can drag somebody up,” I agreed with a small smile. “Last I heard, they were having Buddy System from Wonderland talk to them. But if these people who were asking about them are around, having them up there would probably help a lot too. Especially if they’re friends. From what I could understand, I think those two have been… eager to help. They’re really friendly. Can’t understand a word I’m saying, or vice versa, but still really friendly. They smile a lot, and wave. They like waving. Shiori taught them to do a thumbs up if they like something or a thumbs down if they don’t. They like doing that a lot.” 

We talked a little bit more about that, and the other two promised to go find the people who had been asking about the trolls, so they could take them up to meet the pair and find out if they were the right ones. Shiloh sent a message to them through her wrist computer. Which literally involved her typing on the screen until a small glowing envelope appeared in the air like a hologram before it flew off. Apparently the thing would go straight to the nearest of the people they had talked to, and when that person touched it, the message to meet after our classes were over for the day would appear in the air in front of them. Which was a pretty neat trick, to be honest. Shiloh’s wrist computer seemed cooler every time I saw what she could do with it.  

Other than that, we focused on class. Despite his words about being tired, Mr. Reinswield seemed to have plenty of energy once we actually got started. Apparently the coffee had reinvigorated him, because he paced throughout the entire class, gesturing a lot while he told a story about the ancient Mayans fighting off an invasion of off-world sapient bear creatures with the help of magic and these flying snake things (not Rattlejacks). Between that and the fact that the alien bears apparently used mechs, the whole story really should’ve been made into a movie. I definitely would’ve paid money to see it, at least. And judging by the way everyone else was staring in rapt silence through the entire story, I was pretty sure the rest of the class would have too. 

Eventually, however, that class was over and I made my way to the next one for the day. Specifically, the very same Calculus class I had been studying for with Vanessa and Tristan. Between working with them and the studying I’d done during the trip, I at least felt like I hadn’t been completely left behind. Still, the teacher had me take a little ungraded quiz through the first fifteen minutes to see if I was still good to stay with the class or if I needed some extra help. Apparently I did well enough, because she gestured for me to take my normal seat before getting back to the lesson. So I was definitely going to have to let Vanessa and Tristan know that their help had paid off. 

Eventually, however, that class ended as well. As did the third and final class of the day. Well, final for everyone else. I still had some make-up to do in the afternoon, along with the others who had gone on that mission. For the moment, however, I headed for the cafeteria to meet up with Tabbris and her newly-reunited siblings so we could have lunch together. 

It only took me a moment of looking around at the entrance before I saw the girl in question standing up on her chair to wave at me from a corner of the room. As I waved back and made my way through the crowd, I eventually found the trio sitting around a table that was heavily-laden with bits of machinery, tools, and what looked like blueprints. 

“Boy,” I remarked, “doesn’t this all look positively scrumptious?” I made a show of rubbing my hands together while looking over all that stuff. “I hardly know where to start. Hmm. Oooh, I heard socket wrenches are always a good way to start off a balanced meal.” With that, I started to reach out for the tool in question as it lay on the edge of the table. 

Omni–no, he was mostly going by Jehoel now, his real name. The pale boy with shaggy brown hair quickly gave a laugh while reaching out to cover the wrench with both hands. “You can’t eat that!” he blurted, only to immediately flush guiltily, instinctively moving his hands as he withdrew as though a snake had hissed at him. “I–I mean… I mean…” It was obvious that he’d had a flash of memory about how bad it was for him to tell anyone they couldn’t do something. Let alone actually reach out to physically stop them.  

Tabbris looked like she was going to say something, but held off as I spoke up instead. “It’s okay, Jehoel. You’re right, we’re not supposed to eat tools like that. Especially not tools that belong to other people.” Offering him a little smile, I held my hand out. I didn’t just take his hand, given how important it was to convince the boy, and the other Seosten like him, that it was not only okay to touch other people, but also okay to not want to be touched as well. It was up to them to decide what they were comfortable with.

After a brief hesitation, the boy accepted my hand and squeezed it a little while giving me a hesitant smile in return. He had been working hard on being able to touch people without accidentally turning into a younger version of them. It still ended up happening sometimes when he got overly-excited about something, but he was getting a lot better about that. Still, it felt funny whenever I ended up facing the eight-year-old version of myself. But not nearly as funny as it had been to see the child version of my father. Yeah, that was a real trip. 

“So it looks like you guys have been pretty busy,” I noted as I looked over the table once more. “You mind if I ask what all this stuff is? You know, considering I’m not allowed to eat it.” I added that bit with a wink toward Jehoel, making the boy giggle once more. 

Spark was sitting on the far side of the table. Well, she appeared to be sitting there, anyway. The holographic projection of herself was here, while the real girl was still trapped inside Puriel. Sariel was good, but she wasn’t quite good enough to solve that entire situation in a month. It was going to take a bit more time for them to figure out how to extract the girl without hurting Puriel himself. But if anyone could do it, I was sure Sariel could. Especially when you added in Puriel’s power and the level of resources they were able to throw at the problem. There was no doubt in my mind that Spark would eventually be separated from Puriel. 

Regardless, the black-and-blonde haired girl was sitting next to some sort of radio-looking device with a tiny screwdriver in one hand, adjusting something on the machine. When I asked what they were working on, she sat up a bit, put the tool down, and focused on me. “It’s a secret project to help trap the Whispers when they show up again. A cage.” 

Tabbris gave a quick, eager nod. “Uh huh, uh huh. I asked Spark if she had any ideas, and she didn’t at first, but then Jehoel said something about throwing a net over them.” 

“It happened in Scooby-Doo,” the boy put in, his own face brightening as he mentioned what had apparently become his favorite thing to watch as soon as Popser had introduced it to him. Actually, I remembered my grandfather introducing me to Scooby as well, back when I was even younger than Jehoel. The image of the boy sitting on my grandfather’s lap watching the antics of Mystery Incorporated had been enough to bring a flood of nostalgic memories from those days. I was really glad Popser had someone else to share that with. And that judging by the way he had been smiling the entire time, he was too. 

“Oh, it has the Scooby seal of approval, huh?” Grinning, I gave the boy a thumbs up. “In that case, we’re in good hands.” 

“Especially with Spark designing it,” Tabbris added, practically bouncing in her seat. “She’s got a lot of good ideas now.” 

“I… am better with designing buildings and ships,” the girl in question insisted with a look of embarrassment as she squirmed. “But I think I can do something with this. It’s just the programming work that is… intimidating.” 

“Well, I know a few people who would love to help out,” I replied while taking a seat. “Actually, I was just talking to this girl Shiloh earlier, And I’m pretty sure programming is one of her big things. She was in the Development course last year. Uses a wrist computer and everything. If you’d like, I could ask if she’d come talk it over with you.” 

For her part, Spark only hesitated for a moment before nodding. “That would be nice, thank you. I didn’t want to interrupt our mother’s work to ask for her help with something else. She is… very busy.”

“I’m pretty sure she’d never be too busy to help out with anything you asked for,” I assured her, with a glance toward the other two. “Or anything any of you asked for. But yeah, let’s let her keep working on that. I’ll see if Shiloh’s interested in helping out with this Whisper cage.” 

They agreed, and we cleaned off the table before ordering actual food. For the next twenty minutes, I ate with my sister and her siblings. Well, Spark didn’t actually eat per se. But she did create a sort of holographic meal and act like she was eating just so she wouldn’t be completely left out. Which, judging from the looks that the other two were giving when they thought she wasn’t looking, I was pretty sure made them feel even more determined to help the girl separate from Puriel and get her own body back. Something told me nobody in that family was going to fully rest until that situation was taken care of. Which obviously only involved changing something that had been a thing for hundreds of thousands of years. Clearly no big deal. 

Actually, as it turned out, Sariel wasn’t even on the station at the moment. Apparently, she’d gotten a lead about some spell or something that might have a clue about dealing with the Puriel-Spark situation. So she was out chasing that down. It wasn’t the first lead she’d gotten, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be the last. According to the kids, some of those leads paid off and others didn’t. None held the full answer, of course. If it was that easy, someone would have handled the whole thing by now. It wasn’t like the Seosten didn’t have people working on it. Most of them much better at the science part of things than Kushiel had been. As far as I knew, solving that whole thing was one of their most important projects, alongside their general population problem. Which, come to think of it, was another thing that Kushiel had failed at solving. It seemed like the real takeaway here was that that psycho bitch never should have been put in charge of any project. She shouldn’t have been given authority over a science fair potato clock, let alone that whole thing. 

We were almost done with our meals when a disturbance near the entrance made me turn in my chair to look that way. There were people standing up, a large crowd forming there. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but obviously something was going on. Everyone was talking at once, too fast and too scattered for me to pick out much in the way of specifics other than how big someone was. 

Frowning a bit, I rose from my seat while murmuring, “What in the…” It looked like people in the crowd were parting, getting out of the way. Or being pushed, I wasn’t sure which. They pulled apart closer and closer to where we were sitting. Tabbris had already moved to stand at my side, with Spark and Jehoel right behind her. 

I caught a glimpse of long black hair through the crowd, barely visible over the heads of a couple tall juvenile orcs. Then Athena appeared, sliding out of the other side of the crowd to put herself in the way. Her voice was a bit exasperated. “I asked you to wait in the other room until we could contact Sariel.” 

“I did wait,” came the heavy, deep male retort. “Then I got bored.”

He was already pushing his way forward, and as the pair of orcs slid to either side, an enormous Seosten man appeared. He was just over seven feet in height, and wore no shirt at all. The man looked like a barbarian, with black hair that went clear to the middle of his back, muscles upon muscles upon muscles, and a sword tattoo across the entire front of his torso, from his navel all the way up nearly to his throat. “Besides,” he continued in that deep voice, “how long am I supposed to sit around before I get to meet…” His eyes fell on Tabbris as she stood next to me, and a broad smile leapt to his face. 

“My daughter!” 

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Interlude 22A – The Artist Formerly Known As Raige (Summus Proelium)

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“Where are you going?” 

Hearing that voice as she strode across the main room of the pawnshop in her brand new body, the girl known as Raige paused and let out a long, low sigh. Then she smiled, because sighing was yet another thing she could now do with her own body. The last few hours, since they had come back to this shop and everyone else had left, had been full of those moments. Everything she did, every sound she made, was brand new. Bending her arm or fingers a certain way, raising her leg, winking, scratching her head, turning in a circle, hopping on one foot, everything and anything she did was completely new and completely hers. This was her body, one she didn’t have to share with anyone. Even if it did happen to look like Cassidy Evans if she was blonde and had glasses, it was still Raige. Or…

“Should I keep the name Raige?” she mused aloud while turning to look at Paige, who had been the one to address her from the stairs on the other side of the room. “I mean, if I want to blend in, Raige might not work for that. Plus, it’s not me. It’s not my name. It’s a combination of your name and our… original self’s. Roxanne and Paige. I guess we could’ve gone with Poxanne or Poxxy, huh?”

Paige was silent for a moment before giving a short nod. “Whatever name you want to go by, that’s what we’ll use. It’s all up to you. But like I said, where are you going?” 

“I waited for curfew to be over,” Raige (for now) replied casually. “Which was really hard, I’ll have you know. Do you have any idea how much I want to be out there walking around? There’s so much stuff to see, so many people to talk to and things to hear. Ohh and taste. I’ve been waiting to taste things for so long. Soda, pizza, broccoli, steak, brussel sprouts, bread, chocolate–I’ve heard good things about chocolate. I mean, sure, I have the basic memories of tasting things from your head, and from that prick bastard’s programming. But that’s not the same thing as tasting it with my own mouth.” She gestured that way with one hand idly. “The point is, this is a brand new body, my body, and I have a lot of things I need to do with it.” 

“You’re right,” Paige agreed, “We do have a lot of things to do, like figure out how to save Irelyn and Trivial. And what to do with all that other stuff we took from the Ministry. And you still look like–” She turned a bit, looking around as though to make sure no one was around to overhear. Not that there was much chance of that, given how early it still was. The two of them might have had plenty of energy, particularly considering how long Paige’s body had been resting, and the fact that Raige’s had effectively been asleep for literally years. But Wren and Fred didn’t have that luxury, and they had been up for a long time. It would be several hours before either of them started moving. Still, it didn’t hurt to check. Only once she was confident they were alone did Paige continue. “You still look like Cassidy, at least somewhat.” 

“And that’s another thing I’m gonna take care of while I’m out,” Raige informed her sister. “I figure I can get some of that self-tanning stuff to make my skin a little darker, and colored contacts too. Between the hair change, the glasses, and that stuff, I won’t exactly look totally different, but it’ll help. So you see, I’m thinking ahead.” She tapped her temple before waving. “I’d invite you to come with, but weren’t you going to go to school today? You know, since everyone’s wondering where you are.”  

Paige was quiet for a moment, running that through her head before she sighed softly. “You’re not planning on disappearing, are you? Tell me you’re not just going to go out in the world and vanish so we never see you again.” 

Mouth quirking just a bit in a sly smile, Raige replied, “Are you saying you’d be worried about me? Or that you like having me around? Or that you need my help.” One hand waved around in front of her own new face. “Or maybe you’re just afraid that I’ll get in trouble while looking like this.”

“All of the above,” Paige informed her. “I’m worried about all that. And we definitely need you if we’re going to stop… Benjamin.” She was clearly making an effort not to say ‘father.’ “You said you cared about Irelyn, after everything you saw in my–our memories.” 

Raige nodded idly. “I do, and I’m definitely gonna help. Not just because of the caring thing, but also because fuck Benny. He’s a piece of shit traitor and he’ll get what’s coming to him. So yeah, I’ll be there to help with that. But the genius kid’s asleep, and you and everyone else are going to be busy all day going to school. Which leaves me, and I refuse to be cooped up in here that whole time waiting for you people to tell me I’m allowed to do something. I’ve been cooped up and trapped my entire existence, first in the computer, then inside that bullet, then inside you. We’ve spent weeks just lying there. And while I do think you’re better company now than I thought before, I need more than that. This is my body now, and I’m going to go out and have some fun. I’ll be careful, sort of, but I’m not just going to sit around like your wind-up toy. I’m not going back in the box. And if you try to make me, then we might have a problem.” 

Paige’s head shook. “We don’t–we won’t have a problem. I’m not trying to force you to stay in a box. It’s just–you’re right, you haven’t been out in the world by yourself. You have my memories and your programming, but that’s different from being out on your own. I just–fuck, I’m worried about you, okay? Just be careful, please? Here.” She reached into her pocket, tugging out a roll of twenty dollar bills, which she passed that way. “Don’t steal shit. Try not to attract a lot of attention. And if you get lost–” 

“I can’t get lost, we both have internal GPS,” Raige reminded her with a smirk. “Besides, I took one of these.” She held up one of the special cell phones from Wren’s lab, the ones that couldn’t be tracked. “Don’t worry, Mother Hen, I’ll call if I need anything. Now breathe and focus on your own shit. Wait, focus on my shit one more time. You never answered the question about changing my name. 

“What do you think of Rassidy?” 

********

They hadn’t come to a conclusion on that name thing by the time the currently-still-named Raige left the shop. She knew Paige was still fretting over what she was going to do out in the big city by herself, which was almost amusing. Despite their initial meeting, particularly the part where they had tried to kill each other for so long (which, okay, was mostly Raige’s doing), she had grown fond of her sort-of twin over all that time. 

Was twin even the right word now? After all, she was currently more of a Cassidy twin. And it was unlikely that they would find another body she could use. Hell, she wasn’t even sure she would want to if the option came up. It had only been a few hours, but this one was already starting to feel comfortable. It was shorter than the first body, but she could work with that. It would help make people underestimate her. And that could be incredibly useful.  

Walking out of the alley behind the shop, she made her way to the sidewalk and slowly looked around. The street in front of Wren’s place wasn’t exactly incredibly busy yet, not this early. But there were people walking around here and there, and cars were passing by on their way to work. The sun was up and bright, and Raige tilted her head back, spreading her arms out to let its warmth wash over her. A long, content sigh escaped her. This was what she had been waiting for, this was what she had been missing. Being outside, completely free and able to do her own thing. She hadn’t even technically done anything other than walk outside yet, but this was still the best day of her life. She could do anything right now. This was completely different than being inside the holographic mental projection mind space that she had been sharing with Paige. She couldn’t control this world. She couldn’t shift it around however she wanted. And that, more than anything, excited the girl. There could be surprises out here, new adventures, even danger. Oh, she hoped there was danger. She could have a lot of fun with danger. 

A sudden ringing bell and a shout of, “Hey, get out of the way!” filled the air. Reflexively, Raige pivoted aside, even as a bike messenger went sailing past right where she had just been standing. The annoyed rider called back over his shoulder, “Watch what you’re doing, dumbshit!” 

Clenching her fist, the girl took a step that way, her eyes scanning at the ground for something to throw after him. But she stopped herself. No, she had promised to be good and not attract attention. Assaulting a bike messenger in broad daylight directly in front of Wren’s shop just because he was a bit rude to her probably didn’t fall within the line of not attracting attention.

So, grumbling a little to herself, she turned the other way. Food. She could have some real food now, her own food. She could find out what this body liked to eat, how its tastes went. 

That prospect thoroughly distracted her from the annoyance about that guy on the bike, and she set off walking down the sidewalk. She had no idea where she was going, or what sort of food she was looking for. But that was basically the best part. She didn’t have a plan, and she wasn’t doing something anyone told her to. She was just walking. If she chose, she could turn around and go back the other way, or simply turn the corner to go right at this intersection. 

She went left instead. No real reason, she just made a last-second decision. Crossing the street, the girl smiled brightly and chose to skip a few times along the asphalt. Just to see what it was like. Once she made it to the other sidewalk, she did a cartwheel. Yet again, solely because she could. Other people nearby looked at her a bit curiously, but she ignored them. They weren’t important. Her new freedom was important, and she was going to enjoy it. Anyone who didn’t like that could go jump in a river. She’d gladly help them do so if they tried to say anything about what she could or couldn’t do. Come to think of it, if that rude messenger came by again, she wouldn’t mind temporarily relieving him of his bike so she could see how it felt to ride one.

Unfortunately, a glance around revealed no sign of him, or any other bicycle, so she simply started walking once more. A young couple were passing her going the other way, and she promptly met their gazes with a bright, “Fun to be out walking with our own feet today, isn’t it?” 

For some reason the two seemed freaked out by that and didn’t respond, instead putting their heads down as they hurried past. Which seemed rude, but oh well. She didn’t have the time nor inclination to waste worrying about two people she didn’t know anything about. There was far too much to do, far too much to experience. 

Speaking of experiencing things, right ahead of her was a corner diner. Spotting the sign, the girl smiled. Food. It was time to experience real food, not someone else’s memories, or the fake sensation from the virtual world she had shared with Paige. 

As she approached, there was another brand new sensation. The scent of food filled her nose, and the girl almost tipped over sideways. Her mouth fell open in surprise. Smelling things in virtual reality hadn’t felt anything like this. And experiencing memories second hand? Forget it.  That was absolutely nothing compared to standing outside this diner and smelling the food within. Her existence had been fairly short, and her experience with an actual body of her own even shorter (counted in a handful of hours), but she could safely say that this was the most amazing moment of her life so far. 

On the other hand, if standing out here smelling the food was such a good experience, how amazing would–Even as that thought filled her mind, she quickly stepped that way. Her hand found the handle for the door and she stepped inside. Now the scent was even more overwhelming. She stood just inside, tilting her head back to let the experience wash over her. She could smell dozens of different plates of food, hear people talking from all sides, the clink of glasses, of dishes being moved around, the sizzle of stuff cooking back in the kitchen, all of it. She felt all of it, standing there with her head tilted back and her arms spread. For those few moments, she let it all wash over her and just… absorbed everything. 

“Yo, kid, you okay?” A tired-looking woman with frizzy red hair and a waitress uniform stood a few feet away, eyeing her with a mixture of concern and obvious nervousness. It was clear that the last thing she wanted was to deal with someone who was about to pass out or throw up on her floor. “If you need some he–” 

“Food,” the girl interrupted. “I need food. I’m very hungry, feels like I haven’t eaten in… ever.” Saying those words made her give a broad smile, even if the tired waitress didn’t get the joke. 

Eh, it was pretty funny though, wasn’t it? She thought those words inwardly, before pausing for a moment. No response. Right… right, of course there wasn’t. Paige wasn’t here. They weren’t sharing a body anymore, so they couldn’t communicate like that. Which was… good. It was good, of course. She had her own body now. If she wanted to talk to Paige, or anyone else, she would just track them down and do that. Or use the phone she had borrowed. She didn’t need to have the other girl inside her head, spying on all her thoughts and just–this was better. So much fucking better. 

The waitress had given her a brief scan, before striking as she turned to lead the girl to a booth in the corner. Setting a menu down, she asked, “Get you anything to drink?” 

“Yes,” the girl immediately answered. “I would like coffee, and orange juice, and iced tea, and… chocolate milk.” 

Squinting at her, the woman asked, “You got… other people coming? Hang on, if this is some sort of YouTube prank, I don’t–” 

“It’s not a prank, and they’re for me.” Reaching into her pocket, the girl produced the roll of twenties, passing one of them to the woman immediately. “I know I can be odd, and I might say more weird things. But that’s for you right now. If you bear with me, I’ll give you another one just for you after I’m done. And I’ll pay for the food. It’s not a dine and dash, or a dumb joke. Please just bring me coffee, orange juice, iced tea, and chocolate milk. In small glasses? I want to taste all of them.” 

The waitress waited a moment, clearly considering her indecisively before taking the money with a nod. “You got it, kid. Coming right up. You ain’t the weirdest customer I’ve had around here, not by a long shot.” 

Through the next half hour or so, the girl tasted a little bit of everything she could. She judged the orange juice as acceptable, coffee as delicious with and without sugar, chocolate milk as bad, and iced tea as almost as good as coffee. Foodwise, normal pancakes without syrup were fair, adding each different flavor syrup or jam made them better, bacon was amazing, sausage was almost as good, and of the multiple kinds of eggs she tried, all were adequate but sunny-side up was the best. She liked dipping the toast and sausage into the bright yellow yolk. 

Chocolate pie was another thing she tried, and hated that as well. Both chocolate milk and chocolate pie tasted gross to her. So she tried ordinary milk just to check, and that was fine. So it was clearly the chocolate thing. But people were supposed to love chocolate, so… clearly they were the weird ones. That stuff was nasty. 

After paying for her food (plus the promised extra tip) and leaving the diner, the girl found herself back out on the street once more, focused on something else. Her name. Did she want to continue to be Raige? She’d brought it up before, but really. For the entire time she had been in that diner, she hadn’t thought of herself as Raige. It didn’t really… feel like her anymore. Sure, she could be angry sometimes, but was that really the name she wanted to represent herself? Even if the idea had been that she was part Roxanne and part Paige, maybe she… needed a name that was just her. She wasn’t Roxanne or Paige. She was herself. It was like she had said to Paige, she needed her own name, one that didn’t tie her to either of them. 

But the idea of calling herself Rassidy was still pretty funny.

Considering all that and musing over the possibilities, she picked a random direction and started to walk once more. She had experienced food (and smell) but there was still so much more out there. Plus, she needed to buy that stuff to help change her appearance a bit more. 

Eventually, she found her way to a mall (not the same one their little group had raided the night before), and casually made her way through it, looking over the assortment of stores. She also bought a candy bar, tried it, and tossed the rest in a trash can. Yeah, chocolate was disgusting. One of the mall security guards approached while she was looking at a pair of shoes in a display window and asked if she was supposed to be in school. She, in turn, cheerfully informed the man that she was not in the school because she had been suspended for fighting with another girl. Which didn’t seem to make him feel much better about her being around the mall, but at least he backed off. 

Eventually, she bought some new clothes, as well as the self-tanning spray and colored contacts. A trip to the restroom gave the girl a chance to apply all of it, and she also changed into some of those new clothes, a pair of designer white jeans and a tummy-baring black top, along with new sneakers. Checking her new look out in the mirror with those now blue eyes and long blonde hair, she smiled faintly. This was the new her, not just a blonde Cassidy Evans, even if the resemblance was still apparent. For one thing, Cassidy would never dress like this. 

Satisfied with her new look for the moment, the girl turned to walk out. She was still musing over a possible name, one that really said who she was. It had to be a good one, because she didn’t want to keep changing it. Not Raige, not Roxanne, not Paige. One for her, one that said who she was. The only problem was… what could it be? She wanted one that actually fit her, one that felt like hers

Turning her head slightly, she caught sight of a large picture on the wall just outside the restroom. It was a breathtaking image of snow-covered mountains that made her gasp. After a moment, she stepped that way and gently touched the picture. It was quite possibly the most beautiful view she had ever seen, a photograph taken high above those peaks. It made her feel as though she was flying over those gorgeous mountains. Right next to that photograph was another, this one of the same mountains but lower down. That second view was taken with a gorgeous lake framed in the center, while the mountains themselves towered over it in the background. Slowly, she raised both hands, touching each picture. For a moment, her fingers brushed over the images. There. She wanted to go there. She wanted to see those mountains, that lake. She wanted to be there. That… that was freedom. 

Eventually, her gaze was drawn to a small caption explaining where the photographs had been taken. She leaned in close, reading that before moving her eyes back and forth between the pictures and the caption. These mountains were perfect. They wouldn’t be pushed around. They were free and strong. They were indomitable. They were everything she wanted to be. 

The phone she had taken buzzed in her pocket, and she glanced at it before answering in an intentionally-deepened voice. “I’m sorry, whoever’s calling, the girl who had this was just dragged away by a SWAT team for killing some guy on a bicycle.” 

“Very funny, Raige,” Paige flatly retorted. “I was just calling to make sure you’re okay.” 

“Oh, I’m just dandy,” the girl replied evenly. “But it’s not Raige anymore.” She turned slightly to look back at the name of those beautiful mountains once more, another smile finding its way to her face. 

“Call me Sierra. Sierra Nevada.” 

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Interlude 17D – Robin, Judas, and Stasia (Heretical Edge 2)

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As the slightly-too-old hot dogs spun in slow circles on the rotating gas station grill, a silvery-metal face with glowing emerald-like ‘eyes’ leaned in close to watch them. “These meat selections have become unsuitable for human consumption. They should be discarded immediately and replaced.”

The response to that announcement came from the dull-faced, bored woman standing with a pair of tongs in one hand and a magazine in the other. “Dude, you want a hot dog or not?” The Bystander Effect assured that she saw not a robot in front of her, but a slim, fairly androgynous-looking figure with a pale complexion and light hair. 

“We would like the dangerous meat to be discarded and replaced,” the metal man informed her. 

“Discarded and–who the fuck do you think you are?” she demanded, her annoyance not quite rising to the point of anger simply because she was too bored and tired to care all that much. Still, the idea of a customer insisting that she put brand new hot dogs out to cook ticked the woman off a bit. Did he have any idea what her boss would do if she wasted that much meat?

The figure blinked once, then again before answering in a simple, yet pleasant voice. “We are Robin. I am the Medical One. You may call me Med if you wish. Others do.” 

“Medical–what, you trying to say you’re a doctor?” Vana, the gas station clerk, squinted that way. If this guy was really a doctor, maybe he did know something about the hot dogs. 

“I am medically licensed in every state in this country, as well as several others, yes,” came the flat answer. “It is quite important in our line of work to understand how to aid others who have become unwell.” There was a brief pause before they added, “We understand the common phrase is that you care for the patient, but we attend to injuries and illness whether we care for them or not.” Another pause, then, “Which is good, as we often do not.” 

“Uhh riiiight…” Slowly taking a step away, Vana looked them up and down as she took a moment to consider her response. “You’re… Doctor Robin, then. Sorry, Doctor Robin, my boss’ll really hang me out to dry if I throw that much expensive meat away, and I need this job. My kids enjoy eating and having a roof over their heads, you know? They’re selfish like that.” 

“Med, please. We have far too many names to add more to our individual facets. Medical One or Med is quite enough,” the metal figure politely, yet firmly requested. 

Almost as soon as they finished saying that, their head tilted to one side, then turned back to her and smiled broadly as their eyes flipped from emerald green to a light blue. “Hey there, sorry. I’m the Chatting One. You can call me Chat. What my headmate was trying to say is that that meat over there is gonna make people really sick if they eat it. You don’t wanna be responsible for that, right? Sending people to the hospital with food poisoning would be pretty bad. So let’s see if we can sort this out in a way that makes everyone happy, and keeps your customers from having their stomachs pumped.” 

Vana opened and shut her mouth a couple times, staring that way. Had his eyes always been blue? Yes, of course they had. “I… have no idea what–what?” Her head slowly tilted, gaze narrowing suspiciously. “Are you fucking with me?” 

“Absolutely not,” Chat assured her as politely as he could. “We would like to help you, and I have an idea as to how. Here.” Reaching into their pocket, he produced a well-worn wallet and selected three twenty dollar bills before passing them over. “We would like to purchase every piece of meat on that grill.” Turning, he plucked a small box of white garbage bags from the nearby shelf before setting it on the counter. “And these as well.” 

Vana hesitated, but she certainly wasn’t going to give up that big of a sale, even if it was from someone as weird as this. And hey, at least he was relatively polite. She’d certainly served worse customers, especially with the station situated just off the side of the busy freeway like this. So, she shrugged and took the money, as well as the box. Ringing him up, she passed the box back to him, waiting until Robin, Med, Chat, or whatever he was calling himself tore open the box, took out a trash bag, and shook it out. Then, one by one, she used the tongs to pick up each hot dog and drop them into the bag as he held it up, until they were all gone. “Satisfied now, sir?” 

Before they could answer, the bell over the nearby door jingled as a slim, quite attractive woman with dark blonde hair poked her head in. When she spoke, it was with a distinctly Russian accent. “Robin, are you coming or what? Where are the snacks?” 

The metal figure looked at her, then to Vana, then to the trash bag in their hand, before slowly turning away. “We’ll ahh, find some chips and jerky. Be right there, Stasia.” 

“Yeah, well get a move on,” Stasia retorted. “We’ve only got a couple hours before the sun comes up and I’d like to get to the motel so we can reach Roanoke first thing tonight.” 

“Roan–oh you’re tourists!” As if that explained everything, Vana shook the lingering confusion off. “Gonna head over to see the lost colony then. Planning to watch the show, are you?” 

Dropping an armful of various snacks on the counter, before adding a couple of large sugary drinks, Robin offered her another couple twenty dollar bills. “Yes, ma’am. Stasia there is just a little anxious. She’s been looking forward to this for a long time.”

For a moment, it looked as though Stasia was going to say something else. Instead, she just stepped over and took the half-full garbage bag from them. Her nose wrinkled as she sniffed once, before grimacing. With that, she executed an about-face, walked out of the store, and dropped the bag of old hot dogs in the nearby trash can without a second glance.  

Once she had rung them up for all the snacks, Robin gathered them in a couple bags, thanked the still fairly-confused woman, and walked out with them. Once the door had closed behind them, they paused, head tilting once more. “Ah, well. She’s gonna have a story to tell.” 

“Hood?” Stasia asked, standing nearby with a curious expression. 

“Yup,” came the reply, as Robin Hood gave a short nod and glanced to her with amber-brown eyes. Robin Med and Robin Chat had both done their best to handle the situation inside, but none of them believed that the woman actually understood what was going on. Not even the understandable, Bystander version of it. 

The Hooded One, or Hood, was their leader, the default facet of the Robin system. They were the one who had first awakened here on Earth after they had been damaged and buried for so long, the one who had met Marian and Sheriff Wendenal of Nottingham. They chose to operate under gender-neutral pronouns both as the collective being now known as Robin, and as their individual facet of Hood. Meanwhile, their other headmates, like Med, Chat, and others, sometimes chose gender-neutral pronouns as well, but sometimes didn’t. Med preferred they or them. Chat was more of a he and him person. It all depended on their individual choices. They were each individual pieces of the same whole. 

Taking a sip from the soda that she had been handed, Stasia made a face before promptly dumping three-quarters of it out. From the pocket of her jacket, she produced a small bag of blood, tearing a hole in one end before emptying the bag into the soda bottle. Tossing the bag into the trash, she shook up the soda and blood mixture, then took a sip of the dark red liquid and smiled very faintly. “Better.” 

Robin and Stasia were joined there on the sidewalk just beside the gas station by the final member of their group, the olive-skinned man with sleek black hair known as Judas. Where Robin wore simple jeans and a hoodie, and Stasia a pair of army camo pants, black shirt, and her favorite green leather jacket, Judas had a perfectly-tailored suit with a silk shirt, tie, and expensive italian loafers. He looked completely out of place standing next to the other two. 

“Well,” Judas announced after joining them, “the van’s full. I see we have snacks for the rest of the trip. Should we get a move on?” His gaze flicked toward the sky. “I think we have just enough time to make it to our motel before the sun becomes an issue for Miss Stasia.” 

The others agreed, and the three headed back to the simple, unassuming-looking red minivan parked at one of the pumps. Judas took the wheel, while Robin and Stasia climbed into the back. They all situated themselves, before pulling out and away from the gas station. 

“We’ll check the possible burial sites on the mainland first,” Judas noted while weaving the van through the predawn traffic. “Sundown’s around six-thirty, and the last ferry’s at 4:30, so with Highway 64 closed from that storm, we’ll have to rent a boat anyway. We’ll check the mainland burial sites as soon as we get up and situated, and if we don’t find Odysseus’s body in any of those places, we’ll rent a boat and go over to the island to check the list there.” 

“Oh good,” Robin abruptly put in as their eyes shifted to a light pink color, “so we get to go scour through a bunch of graveyards trying to find a single, specific dead body. Can’t imagine why people get weirded out by us, no sir.” That was The Quipping One, or Quip, the facet of themself who tried to make light of situations they were discomforted by, or simply wanted to make people laugh. She preferred female pronouns. 

“It’s okay, Quip,” Stasia flatly assured her, as well as the rest of Robin, reaching out to squeeze their shoulder. “You can stand guard. I don’t mind being the one who digs around and identifies the corpses.” She paused briefly before adding, “I’ve created enough of them.” 

“We’ll need to use the spell to identify the correct body anyway,” Judas noted. “It’s been far too long for even your senses to pick him out. The man has been dead for well-over four hundred years. Even with the preserving spells that were supposed to have been put in the coffin, it will have… it will be hard to recognize.” He grimaced slightly at his own words. 

“You take us to all the best places, you know that?” Quip informed the man with a somewhat weak, shaky smile. “Just a few months ago, it was that cannibal cult in Morgantown, then the Mausoleum with that Lich in Kentucky right after we met Stasia here. Now this.” 

Stasia, for her part, offered a shrug. “I didn’t mind the Lich.” 

“You stabbed the Lich in the throat, cut his head off, and punted it into the blast furnace,” Quip reminded her. 

“Yeah…” Stasia smiled fondly at the memory, leaning back a bit. “Good times.” 

Over the next couple of hours, the three of them ate their snacks (Robin didn’t particularly need food, being what they were, but did enjoy feeling like they were a part of things) while continuing down the freeway. Eventually, with the sun just threatening to make its appearance, they arrived at the motel they had already made reservations for. The other two got out to stretch their legs and walk around the lot, while Judas went inside for their keys. 

The clerk behind the desk was watching a boxing match when Judas stepped inside, barely glancing up before distractedly murmuring, “We’re full-up, sorry.” 

“Actually,” Judas informed him while stepping to the counter, “we have a reservation. It’s under Jude Holiday.” While saying that, he has produced his wallet with an ID and credit card naming him as such. 

Clearly disappointed that he would have to turn his attention away from the match after all, the clerk rose and began to take down the information. “Let’s see, three rooms with a single king sized in each for two nights. That’ll run you three hundred and seventy two bucks. On a card, okay, let’s…” He ran it through, humming to himself while sneaking the occasional glance back to the television. Once the system was satisfied, he held out three keys. “You’ll be right across the lot over there in the corner. Anything else?”

Judas nodded while taking the keys. “We’re going to be sleeping all day, so we’d prefer no maid service or any other interruptions. Believe me, my friend Stasia out there gets very grumpy if her rest is disturbed. I’d hate for her to leave a bad review.” With that, he offered the man a friendly smile. “This place seems too nice to unleash her sleep-deprived self.”

The clerk promised to make a note of that for the housekeepers, before Judas returned to his partners with the keys and began to hand them out. 

“You know, you get annoyed when your beauty sleep is interrupted too,” Stasia noted casually while examining the key in her hand. 

“I forget just how good your hearing is,” Judas murmured before nodding. “Yes, but I only burst into flames metaphorically, not literally. Better that they be more afraid of what will happen if they bother you.” 

“Either way, we’ll keep an eye on things,” Robin’s security-minded facet (The Security One/Sec) announced as their eyes shifted to a very dark blue. “We don’t need to sleep. You two do.” They tucked the key into their pocket, adding, “We’ll walk the perimeter first and get the lay of the land before posting up by the window so we can see the whole lot and the entrance. If anything happens, one of us will let you know.”

Judas shrugged toward Stasia. “I guess I can’t argue with that. It’s nice having a near-invulnerable android buddy around. And not just because being mechanical means they’re immune to a certain species of body-snatching dictators.”

“I like the invulnerable part,” Stasia replied while reaching out to lightly tap Robin on the forehead. “You’re a lot of fun in a fight.” 

Plucking a pair of sunglasses out of their pocket, Sec held them loosely in one hand while scanning the parking lot for any threats. “We’re all glad to be of assistance. Perhaps none as much as Brawl…” 

Their eyes shifted to a bright red briefly as Brawl put in, “Ya got that right. So if someone does poke their noses into our business, we might have to shout it out to ya while we’re bashing their faces into the concrete.” 

Clearing his throat, Judas gracefully noted, “If such an unlikely situation does arise, it would be good to have an intruder left to question.” 

Robin’s eyes shifted back to dark blue once more as Sec nodded. “We will take care of it. Now please, find your way to your room before that sun gets any higher.” 

Without wasting any more time, the other two retired to their rooms to sleep, leaving Robin to watch over the area. Though the three had only been working together for just over a month, Judas and Robin had been partners for some time before that. And regardless of how long Stasia had known them, she already trusted both the Meravi and the old Seosten-Heretic implicitly. Which was an odd feeling for her. Throughout her extended life over the past century, Stasia had seen herself as a loner. Yet, she found herself caring deeply about Robin and Judas in such a short time. They had found their way through her defenses, and now she couldn’t see herself anywhere else.

Once they found the body of Odysseus for the woman who wanted it, she would give them the location of Grigori Rasputin. Then she would finally get her revenge for what the man had done to her, and to her family. After which, she would be able to move on for the first time since… since she had been turned into a vampire to begin with. 

And she could think of no people she wanted to move on with more than them. 

*******

Much later that evening, the three of them stood in a small grove of trees. They had already searched half a dozen cemeteries on the mainland with no luck, before renting a boat to come out to the island. The spot they were at was one of another fifteen noted possible locations for Odysseus’s hidden grave, marked only by a boulder with a single cross carved into it. They’d had to hike through the forest to find it, here only a few feet from a deep ravine. With the moon high in the sky casting its illumination over the trees, the trio worked to dig up the body. 

Well, two of them did. Judas and Stasia did the actual digging part under the light of a hanging lantern, while Robin stood watch a few feet away. Their eyes scanned the surrounding woods suspiciously, taking in every heat signature within the surrounding area. None were human, or any other sapient for that matter. The currently-closed highway lay roughly six hundred meters south, with the Coastal North Carolina Refuges Gateway Visitor Center just beyond that. Northwest Point, a small housing area, lay to… well, to the northwest. But right here, they were alone save for the rather large assortment of animals who were either curious or afraid. Some of them both. Robin’s more innocent, childlike facet, who called herself The Sprightly One or Sprite, wanted to go explore and talk to the animals. But Hood and Sec kept them on task. There would be time later to enjoy the island. Right now, their job was to watch over the other two while they dug up and tested yet another body. Their eyes shifted rapidly back and forth between various colors, including Sprite’s soft yellow, as they internally conversed and debated. 

Robin was pretty sure they had not always been like this. When they had first been dug up and awoken by Marian, there had only been Hood. Yet there were other portions of their identity, of their mind, which gradually became unlocked and grew into their own distinct selves. Collectively, they would always be known as Robin, while these separate selves chose their own additional identifiers, such as Hood, Med, Quip, Sec, Brawl, and Sprite. They shared this body and worked together to take care of their friends.  

That, after all, was why they were here, why they had met up with first Judas and now Stasia to begin with. They had been looking for Marian for a very long time before finally getting this lead. Hopefully, it would pay off. Rasputin had to know where Marian was, and what had happened to her. If he didn’t, if all of this was for– no, either way it would not be for nothing. Because finding Rasputin would help both Judas and Stasia. And as much as Robin wanted to find their old friend, they also wanted their new friends to get what they needed as well. So either way, this was worth the trip. 

Still, they had waited a very long time to see Marian again. Hopefully… hopefully their wait would soon be over. 

Even as that thought crossed their mind, Judas spoke up. “Okay, there’s the lid. Stasia?” 

The vampire woman promptly leaned down, catching hold of the sealed coffin before tearing it open with one hand. Despite not looking, Robin could guess what the body inside looked like, and it wasn’t pretty. 

“Yeah,” Judas murmured with a glance toward Robin’s back. “Consider yourself lucky that you’re standing over there. Either this isn’t our guy, again, or he’s been preserved just enough that it looks like he’s been dead a few years instead of four hundred.”  

“Test him,” Stasia replied, straightening up before cracking her neck. “He looks right to me. Close enough to the drawing.” 

Judas nodded. “Sure, at least this one isn’t a woman. Or a kid.” Grimacing at those memories from earlier attempts, he drew a knife from his belt and activated the prepared enchantment before kneeling next to the hole. The light from the lantern danced eerily in the light breeze while he leaned down and drove the knife into the corpse as gingerly as possible. Waiting a moment, he drew it back and squinted at the blade. 

After a moment of no reaction, Hood spoke up. “Okay, well, if that’s not the right–” Abruptly, he was interrupted by a bright blue light that filled the small clearing, overwhelming the lantern for a second before fading. 

“That’s it?” Stasia demanded, her eyes flicking from the body to Judas and back again. 

Judas, for his part, gave a slow smile and nodded. “This is it. We found him.” He rose to his feet, brushing off his hands before giving a long, slow exhale. “Now we just need to get him out of there and trade the body for what Inanna knows.” 

Robin finally turned, as the three of them exchanged looks. They were so close now. After a month of chasing down leads, getting a map of various potential burial spots, and finally finding the right place itself, they had the body that their benefactor had been searching so long for. 

“Call her,” Stasia told Judas in a flat voice. “She will want to know.” 

With a nod of agreement, the man slid a phone from his pocket and found the contact he wanted before hitting the button. Then he held the phone to his ear, waiting as it rang. The other two listened, their own senses good enough that it might as well have been set to speaker mode. 

“Yes?” came the by-then-familiar woman’s voice. 

“We have it,” Judas informed her. He said nothing else, no introduction, no small talk. Only those three words. 

“Good,” Inanna replied. “Give me the location and I will send someone to pick it up. There is no need for you to carry it out of there. Once the body is secured, I will call you with the information you wanted. But in the meantime, I have something I want you to check in on. Someone who has been asking about me. Investigate and handle the situation however may be required. 

“Her name is Asenath.” 

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Dig In 22-15 (Summus Proelium)

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“Ohhhh no. Oh no, no, no. Nope, no.” Those words and more filled the air, sounding dull with shock and disbelief. It took me a moment to realize that I was the one saying them, even as I took several reflexive steps back. My head was shaking almost violently. In between words, I was making a disbelieving, distressed sound in the back of my throat. It sounded vaguely like a low whine, and also possibly like an airplane plummeting toward the ground. Which was probably a pretty decent metaphor when it came to what my brain was doing at that moment. 

Amber and Izzy were just staring in shocked silence, their body language making it clear that they had no idea how to respond to what we were looking at. Not that I would have heard it if they did say something, most likely. Not through the ringing in my ears that seemed to get louder the longer I stood there and stared at… at… me. Not me. Raige. Raige who now looked like me. Like a version of me who was wearing a simple gray sweatsuit. What–how was that–why would–what– My brain kept looping back in on itself. Every time I thought I was ready to say something besides no, it came right back around to that same blank, confused denial. I had absolutely no idea how to react to this, inwardly or outwardly. 

Clearing my–her throat, Raige spoke up with my voice again while looking straight at me (with my eyes). “So, I completely understand that this is probably a lot to take in. You know, us being new twins and all. But hey, we accomplished the mission. I have an orb and a body.”  

“A bo–you have my body!” I found myself blurting, a flush rising to my face under the mask. “You look like me. I mean it, you look identical to me. I mean–what–how–what?” It was all I could do to stop those last few words from turning into another inarticulate whine.  

“It’s the only body we can find,” Paige gently put in. “The only biolem that was still sitting around waiting for our father to do something with.”  

Amber was the first to finally find her voice after that. “Why… the hell would your father have a biolem who looks like Cassidy?” She demanded in a hissed tone. “What was he playing at?” 

“He was probably planning on replacing her.” That was Izzy, speaking quietly as she looked back and forth between the updated Raige and me. “You know, embed a fake as a spy. Or maybe he thought they might work with him if he offered to download your brain into a biolem and make you immortal? Or–” Her head shook as she managed a weak, “I dunno. I dunno, it’s just—obviously a replacement, right? Or, I mean–” 

“I get it,” I put in. My voice sounded a bit hollow even through the changer. Really, was it ironic that Raige sounded more like me right now than I did? Because this was just… I had no idea how to… or what was… ugh. My brain was looping back in on itself again, which wasn’t helpful. 

“I don’t know for sure,” Paige hesitantly offered, “but I think she’s right.” Her head nodded toward Izzy. “I think one of his plans involved either replacing Cassidy or offering to make you and your family part of… the system in exchange for funding at one point. This was like a proof of concept or something. He had DNA samples from somewhere. I swear I don’t know where he got them. But they were in there, in that machine that was holding this… body. They grew it just like this, and it’s been sitting there growing and being groomed this whole time with no–uh, brain or personality. Just an empty body.” 

“From DNA,” I found myself murmuring, barely resisting the urge to scream it. “He had my DNA. That’s how he–how this thing looks like me still. Even though he must have built it a while ago. Wait, you said it aged normally? Did he just create it at–I guess that makes…” I trailed off before I could finish saying that it made sense, because none of this made sense to me. I felt like I was in the middle of a crazy fever dream or something. 

“He would have created the body at the age you were when he built it,” Paige slowly remarked. “So it makes sense that it would be the same age you are now. It’s just been sitting here, being automatically cared for just in case he decided to come back to it or… something. Once he gave up on working with your parents, he probably kept it around in case there was an opportunity to… to replace you.” She spoke the last few words quietly, wincing.  

Putting both hands against my forehead, I breathed in and out a few times. Hearing that Pittman had been planning to replace me with a copy, who would probably have ended up doing terrible things to my family, was a lot to take in. Even considering the fact that it was coming from a guy who had already demonstrably planned to kill me. I was starting to think that I didn’t come out ahead in very many of Pittman’s plans. It was almost like he had some sort of grudge against me personally instead of just my family. Was he pissed because I had made friends with Paige? Was that it? I had no idea, but this whole thing was starting to feel personal.  

Shaking that off, I raised myself before taking a few steps that way. Leaning in close to stare into my duplicate body’s eyes, I slowly scanned down my–her face, taking in every possible detail. It was me. Well, obviously a bit different with the longer, undyed hair, but still me. Staring into the face was like looking into a mirror. Every bit of her was just me. She was me, from top to bottom. 

“It was lying facedown in the machine,” Paige informed us. “And Raige was… excited. We didn’t really look at it until after she was plugged in. I knew there was something familiar, but–” She cut herself off, sighing a little. “Like she said, we know it’s a lot to take in. But–” 

“It’s my body,” Raige interrupted. “The only one there is, the only one we’ve got. So it’s the one we have to use. Unless you’re going to try to go back on the deal.” Her tone turned slightly dangerous, though still mostly understanding, as she squinted at me. As my own eyes squinted at me. “You know, the one where I help in exchange for this? Because if this is too much and you’d rather go back to the old status quo where I fight every single one of you…” It wasn’t quite a threat. Well, It might have sounded like that to an outside observer, but I could hear the worry and frustration in her voice, the fear. She was afraid that we would stab her in the back just like Pittman had. Because of course she was. That was how her father had treated her, how he’d treated both her and Paige. So why wouldn’t she assume the worst from other people? 

Taking a breath before letting it out, I shook my head firmly. “No one’s saying anything like that. Just–just give me a second.” I had to move away from her, taking a few steps the other way before turning my back to my new duplicate body. My hands covered my face and I gave a long, slow exhale. A lot to take in? That was basically the understatement of the century. I hadn’t even begun to start thinking my way through all of the ramifications of this, let alone the simple question of what we were going to do with having someone who looked just like me. Not just in the wider city, but simply around everyone else on the team who didn’t know who I was. 

Actually, that was probably the best question of all. Taking another breath, I turned back that way. “What are we going to say to the others? They’ll want to know if we found a new body for Raige, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be a bit interested in seeing it.” 

The girl in question was still squinting at me. Which, again, was weird to see coming from what was essentially myself. “Does that mean you’re not gonna start a big fuss over it?  You’re going to let me keep the body?” 

My mouth opened to say something, before I paused and held up a hand to take a moment. I had to think about my next words briefly. “I… that was the deal. You would get a body of your own. I didn’t question it when we thought it would look like Paige, or like some random person. It wouldn’t be fair to—it’s weird, yeah. Totally fucking weird. No question about that. But no matter what it looks like, it’s your body, not mine. It’s my appearance, my face, my–it makes me feel funny. But I’m not going to say you can’t use it, just because it looks like me. But bear with me a little bit, okay? It’s a lot to deal with. I can’t–oh jeez, it really looks like me. You. You really look like me.” I was looking it–her up and down once more. It was still surprising, no matter how many times I closed my eyes, told myself what I was going to see, then opened them again. Some part of me kept thinking that it would look different the next time I opened up my eyes. But it never did. She always looked identical to me. That wasn’t going to change. I just had to deal with that and move on. Which meant figuring out what to do about it as far as everyone else was concerned. 

Amber stepped closer as well, hesitantly lifting a hand to touch the long hair of my duplicate. “Damn,” she murmured, “They really got down to the smallest detail, didn’t they? I mean, of your–yeah.” 

Grimacing visibly, Raige brushed the other girl’s arm away from her. “As much as I love everyone complimenting Bastard Dad’s work, we should probably get down to business. Cuz if Cass over there is really gonna let this go without raising a fuss, then she’s right. We probably do need to explain why I look like this.”   

She was right, of course, we did need to explain that. A part of me was wondering just what the odds were that we would’ve just happened to only come here with the people who already knew my identity. If Peyton had come with us, or Pack? Yeah, this whole thing would be even more awkward. 

“I could tell them the truth,” I murmured under my breath, barely able to put voice to the thought. “I could tell them who I really am, and we could explain… you know, all of it. They already know about the Ministry and all that. It’s just one more step or two for the rest of it.” 

“Pretty big steps,” Amber pointed out. “Are you really ready to tell Pack, Wren, Fred, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald who you really are and what your connection to all this is?” 

“You mean do I trust Pack to keep it to herself?” I replied flatly, meeting her gaze. “I mean, she is a thief in the long run. She still works for Blackjack, who is still linked to my parents. She works for him, and he works for them. Well, maybe not for, but you know. He follows instructions. He pays his taxes. He just–” Stopping myself, I sighed. “That is the real question, isn’t it? Not to mention Fred. Sure, he’s really learned a lot, but he screwed up once and nearly got Blackjack’s daughter killed for it. He’s grown, but do we know for sure he’d never make a mistake like that again? Not even a mistake like that, necessarily. Do we trust them to never use my identity for their own ends, or to even mess up and accidentally reveal it?”

After getting all that out, I gave a heavy sigh before focusing on Amber once more. “They already know about the Ministry, and about what we know. They know we were the ones who broke into that base tonight. We’re already all in this together. And if they wanted, or just messed up, we’d already be completely screwed. I trusted them this far. I trusted them with it this far. I’ve taken this many steps out over the ledge, and now I feel like one of those cartoon characters who’ll fall if I look down and see how far up I am. So you tell me, do you trust Pack not to give up my identity to her boss?” 

There was only the slightest hesitation as Amber ran the question through her mind before giving a short nod. “I… I know she likes you. I mean, she thinks you’re a lot different than you are, but she still likes you. And I don’t think she would reveal your secret to anyone. Not for money or anything else. She talks a big game about being a bad guy, and sure, she still steals stuff. But she’s loyal to her friends. She’s loyal to Blackjack because he’s helped her out so much, and I think she’d be loyal to you too. So yeah, I think you can trust her with this.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Raige cleared her throat. “Sure, that’s sweet and all. Very touching. But you know you might not have to, right?” As we all looked at her, she rolled her eyes. Which gave me a good idea of what it looked like when I did that. “Yeah, I look like her. But you people do know that disguises exist, right? Fuck, I already have long hair instead of having it short on one side. Give me some blonde hair dye, some colored contacts, some glasses, let me dress differently, whatever. And that’s before you get into the Touched-Tech stuff that could change my appearance even more drastically. Sure, it’s not exactly sitting on the shelves of Wal-Mart, but it’s not impossible to get either. They don’t have to know we look identical now, that’s all I’m saying. Trust your buddies or don’t, but you don’t need to let me looking like this force you into making a decision before you’re ready, that’s all.” 

Glancing away for a moment as thoughts ran through my mind, I finally gave a nod and looked back that way. “You’re right, there are ways to disguise you. Besides, it’s not like my picture is all over the news constantly. Between the media’s disappointment that I don’t take after my mom, and my parents protecting me, most of the general public can’t instantly pick me out of a crowd. Add in a few changes like different hair and all that stuff and… yeah, I guess it would work. Hell, it’s not like any of them have any reason to know what the real me looks like anyway. I’ve never met them as myself.” 

While everyone else exchanged looks, I went on. “The point is, maybe it is time to tell the others the truth about me. But Raige is right,  it’s probably a bad idea to let something like this force us– force me into it. I’m going to tell them. I want to tell them all of it, the full truth. They’ve definitely earned it. But I want to do it because I decided it was the right time and place, not because I didn’t have any choice. I just–I want to tell them when it’s right. Soon. But maybe all separately. Peyton first. She’s earned that, she’s supposed to be my–my partner and all that. My–I need to tell her. And I will.” 

Realizing I was rambling a bit, I coughed. “Anyway, we should focus on this right now.” My hands gestured toward Raige. “We need to make her look different before we go back to Wren’s. Who, for the record, is probably already wondering what’s going on with us.”

“Um, it’s not like there’s a store open right now,” Amber pointed out. “It’s the middle of the night and there’s a curfew. So how are we supposed to find hair dye and stuff like that at this hour?” She hesitated very slightly before adding a weak, “We’re not gonna steal it, are we?” 

“If we did break in somewhere,” I replied, “we’d be subtle about it and we’d leave money. I know it’s not perfect, but…” With a heavy sigh, I shook my head. “Lots of ways it’s not perfect. But what choice do we have? You’re right, there’s no stores open that we can use.”

“We don’t have to steal anything.” That was Izzy. “And we don’t have to buy it.” She reached into her bag, pulling out, of all things, three bottles of hair dye in various shades, and several different styles of glasses. She also had three different tee-shirts in varying sizes, and a few different pairs of pants, also different sizes. When everyone stared at her, she squirmed under the attention. “I um, I didn’t know if the body we found would have clothes, or what it would look like. I just thought if it looked–I mean if she looked too noticeable or if we needed to change her appearance for some reason. Or– I mean it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of money for it. So I just–”

“Izzy, you’re a genius,” I interrupted. “A straight-up genius. I can’t believe none of the rest of us even thought about that. Of course disguising the body was a good idea, no matter what it looked like.” 

“Yeah, she’s brilliant and all. Congratulations,” Raige put in. “Now can we get down to business, please? Because I’d like to take this body for a spin, not stand here all day talking about it. I don’t know if you’ve all forgotten or something but this is my first time having a physical body all to myself, without somebody backseat walking.” She added that with a pointed glance toward Paige. “Need to run around the block, do some flips, get in a fistfight, really put this body through its paces.” 

Grimacing at her choice of words, I managed a weak, “Please don’t get into a fistfight anytime soon, okay? Not just because–well… that looks like me and it’d be weird, but also because we’re trying not to attract attention.”  

I was treated to the sight and sound of what looked like my own body scoffing at me. Raige waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, no running off and punching the first person I see. It was a figure of speech, or whatever. The point is, I just want to get it out there and test this body for real. You don’t know what it’s like being all cooped up and having to share what little control you have with someone else.” 

“Gee, thanks,” Paige mumbled before focusing. “She’s right though. I mean, about all of it. She deserves to stretch her legs, even just a little bit. Not to mention, we don’t know how long we might have before someone in the Ministry thinks to start checking these places. Sure, it’s not super-likely anytime soon, but we probably shouldn’t push our luck. So can we get started?” 

“Hang on,” I interrupted, biting my lip before stepping back over there. I had to look at myself again. My hands rose to settle on my–her shoulders, as I simply stared, taking it all in. It was still so weird to see my own body standing there like that. It made a funny feeling rise up in my stomach. Not revulsion or disgust or anything bad like that. Just… a funny feeling. It was hard to describe. Standing there, I looked myself–no, I looked Raige up and down once more. This was the biolem body that would have taken my place in my family, that would have secretly spied on my parents and probably ended up doing something horrible. Actually, probably more than one horrible thing. It was–yeah, it was a lot to take in, to say the least. It was going to take a lot more time than these few seconds for me to adjust to the idea that there was someone who looked identical to me, even if we were going to make her look slightly different now. This was a pretty huge thing. 

So, after a moment of that, I released my new twin and stepped away. “Okay, let’s get to it. Let’s make a version of you who looks at least somewhat different than me.” 

We got to work on that pretty quick. The hair dye was one of the new kinds that sprayed in, only affecting hair even if you got it on something else. Well, it affected other things, but it was really easy to wipe off if that thing wasn’t hair. Raige chose the blonde color, and soon there was what amounted to a blonde me standing there in front of us. She changed out of the sweatsuit, switching it for a simple red tee-shirt and jeans that mostly fit, then searched through the glasses until she managed to find a pair she didn’t completely hate. They were thin metal frames. 

“So, how do I look?” she finally asked while standing in front of us. 

“Let’s just say we definitely need to do more to change you before anyone who actually knows me sees you,” I managed with a hesitant shrug. “But… you know, pretty good other than that.” 

“Great.” Giving us all a thumbs up, Raige started to walk around us toward the ladder. “Now let’s get the hell out of here. Like I said, gotta take this puppy for a test drive.” 

Paige glanced to me, hesitating before asking, “Are you really okay?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” I admitted, “but she’s right, we do need to go. 

“If you think it’d be awkward to run into my family after breaking into one of their secret bases, imagine doing it while one of us looks like a Hannah Montana version of their daughter.” 

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Dig In 22-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so we weren’t quite done for the night yet. At least, some of us weren’t. Pack, Alloy, Murphy, and Roald might’ve gone home, but Amber, Izzy, and I were still going to go along with Paige and Raige to check out those secret labs. Part of me felt a little worried about going out again this soon, but it really was the best time. The Ministry would be occupied trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to them and who was responsible. They certainly wouldn’t be reinforcing these other places. Not yet, anyway. They might have been talking about refurbishing Pittman’s labs for other things, but I was pretty sure that that would be one of the furthest things from their minds right now. Later, of course, it would become a problem. Especially once they decided that they needed to put a heavier security on all of their properties. It would become a hell of a lot harder to get in those places and take what we needed then. That was why we needed to go tonight, while they were still reeling and distracted. 

I was telling myself all of that while putting the hated stuffed bra back on along with the suit itself. Seriously, I did not like doing this. But if we went in there as ourselves and found out too late that the Ministry had put up cameras, we would be screwed. I was going to go ahead and assume my parents could look at their mall base being invaded and then Pittman’s old labs being searched a couple hours later and put two and two together. 

So, we were suited up once more as we crouched in an alley across the street from what looked like an old dive bar that hadn’t been open for ages. It was sandwiched between a pawn shop and a tiny Chinese restaurant. From what we had been able to put together, the last time the bar was open was over ten years earlier. Pittman had bought it and used the place as one of his smaller labs. Which, given there was an entire basement area beneath the shop, made it possible that there was a hidden area somewhere in there that my family’s people hadn’t found. 

Sure, it wasn’t likely that we’d get super-lucky with the first place we checked. Hell, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t find anything at all in any of these places. The Ministry had to have gone over them pretty thoroughly. But we had to try, and trying meant starting somewhere. So, this seemed like as good of an option as any. 

The area we were in wasn’t exactly the best part of town, to put it mildly. Even with the curfew, there were still some people out walking in small groups. Probably because the cops didn’t patrol here that often. The place wasn’t rich enough to have constant security, and it wasn’t right in the middle of disputed gang territory. Not those sort of gangs anyway. There were just a lot of poor people around, and homeless, and… yeah. It wasn’t a good neighborhood. 

Still, eventually the way was clear. There was no one in sight at the moment, after a couple very clearly drunk guys managed to find their keys and stumble into an apartment a few doors down. We exchanged glances before collectively nodding. With one more quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, we darted from the alley and crossed the street to the doorway of the old bar. Paige was in front, and she ignored the visible deadbolt, instead turning to what looked like one of those intercom systems on the front of apartment buildings where you hit the button to contact one of the places inside so they could buzz you in. Despite being for a single place, there were about twenty buttons spread across the thing, all of them unlabeled. Paige didn’t hesitate at all, her fingers dancing across the console to put in the eight digit code. There was an immediate corresponding beep, and then a click as the door opened. She gave the rest of us a brief look, her expression unreadable under the mask. With a muttered reminder to be careful, she opened the door the rest of the way, and we all slipped inside. 

Yeah, this had definitely been a bar at one point, though it was clear that almost everything of value had been taken out of it. The only things left were the booths along one side and the bar itself. The shelves were bare, there were no tables or chairs, and I could see a spot where there had clearly been a jukebox at one point. It was all gone now. It had been emptied out, either by Pittman himself, or the Ministry, or people who managed to break in somehow before the place was secured. Whatever it was, that didn’t matter. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were there for far more important things than a jukebox or some random alcohol. 

Quickly, we scanned the room, but couldn’t see any cameras. It was possible the Ministry didn’t have any set up here yet, given they would have taken out everything they could find in this place and didn’t have any reason to keep it under constant surveillance. Not this long after Pittman had been sent to Breakwater. As far as they would be concerned, he had no way of getting out of there, so why spend the effort and resources to watch over his random properties constantly years after he had been dealt with? They were talking about converting his spaces to new labs, but until that happened, they probably didn’t care too much. Not yet, anyway. Which, again, was why we needed to do this right now.

It didn’t take long to find the door to the basement, and we carefully descended the cement stairs while keeping our eyes open for cameras or traps. But the place was empty. We got down there to find a wide-open space, like an unfinished basement in a house. It was all cement, with a heavy sink in one corner, and clear markings where there had once been equipment. But now all of it was gone. There was nothing in here. At least, not that we could easily see. 

“We should spread out,” Amber murmured, “check for any hidden doors or anything.” 

Raige, who had apparently taken control of Paige’s body in that moment, snarled, “If we have to check the quick way by knocking down some of these walls, so be it.”  

We scoured every wall, even going over the floor for trapdoors. And yes, we put a couple small holes in the walls where there might be something. We even found one promising bit, a hidden space in one corner. But it turned out to just be the size of a closet (one in a normal house, not mine), and held little more than some random science equipment and tools, like scalpels and flasks. There might have been something useful within that stuff, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We took some of it in a bag, looking around the place for another minute or so, then made our way out. This was our first try, and it was basically a bust. Which wasn’t surprising or anything, but still. A part of me had hoped that we would get lucky. 

At least we had several more options to go. So, we made our way out, returned to the alley, and headed for the next spot. All these labs were close enough together, in this part of town, that we could get there by moving through alleys, keeping our heads down, and watching out for anyone. Which meant I didn’t have to keep changing back into my Paintball costume to play lookout. Pittman had probably intentionally kept his places close enough to quickly move back and forth between. Far enough apart that they all wouldn’t be found if one was (if you didn’t have the addresses already), but close enough that he could walk to any of them within about fifteen minutes.  

Or maybe I was overthinking it, and he chose these places because it was an area he could afford to buy property in, and set up a shop without attracting a lot of attention. 

The second place we checked looked like it had once been a clothing shop. There were still metal racks sitting around, but that was about it. We didn’t even find any secret rooms in that one, no matter how much we searched. It was even more of a dead end than the first place. 

The third place we checked, on the other hand, didn’t look like it had been anything of note before. It was just a smallish, one-story building sitting in one corner of a parking lot near a much larger pharmacy and medical supply center, the sort of place you would drive past your entire life without really noticing. At most, you might idly wonder what the place was as you drove past, then forget about it immediately as soon as you turned the corner. The building was just there, amounting to little more than scenery in the neighborhood. 

After once more taking the time to make sure the coast was clear, we made our way over there and into the building, using the code to unlock the door. Inside, the place was a maze of small offices, with a waiting room out front. It looked like this had once been a doctor’s office or something. Which made sense given the nearby pharmacy. And it was obvious why setting up in a place like this would be good for someone like Pittman, who would need ready access to a lot of medical stuff in order to build his bodies. This place was looking somewhat promising. But on the other hand, it also meant that the Ministry would have gone over everything very thoroughly too. We still had to get lucky and hope that they hadn’t taken everything useful in here. 

A search through the main floor revealed little of consequence. A few empty pill bottles, some dusty medical tools that hadn’t been taken lying here or there, that sort of thing. Most of it was picked clean by one group or another. But just as I was starting to think this would be a dead end as well, Raige kicked open a supply closet, and a thorough search revealed a trapdoor in the floor under the carpet. The four of us (five, actually, given Paige and Raige both counted) exchanged looks. Then I went first, struggling very slightly with my fake chest (and yes, I did mutter and curse the entire time about it) before climbing down the ladder to the room below. 

Upon arriving in the room below, the place was filled with a steady humming sound. It was also pitch-dark. But I was able to run my hand along the nearby wall and find a light switch, which I flipped up. As I did so, a long row of overhead lights began to turn on one after another, starting almost directly above me and leading down the length of what turned out to be a room roughly the size of a basketball court. 

As the others joined me, we could immediately tell that this place was different. It was readily apparent that the Ministry had not found that secret door. It reminded me a little bit of Wren’s lab for the fact that there were tables along the room full of tools and random bits of machinery. But there were also large floor to ceiling freezers all along both walls to either side of us. Those were the source of the humming sound that filled the room. As I looked at them, I could see a clipboard hanging next to each door. With a glance to the others, I walked toward the nearest and carefully pulled the board up to look at it. There were notes there, listing what appeared to be names, dates, ethnicities, diseases, and causes of death. There were two dates actually. One generally between fifteen and forty years earlier than the second. 

I wasn’t dumb. I knew what this was. My eyes selected to the freezer then to the clipboard and I grimaced while stepping away. “Bodies,” I announced. “He’s got dead bodies in all these freezers. Or parts of them, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like this is the place where he was doing a lot of his dissection to figure out how to make new bodies or whatever.” 

Sounding a bit sick, Izzy weakly noted, “I guess that means we’re in the right place? I mean… not really the right place, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a place we really want to be,” I agreed, “But it’s probably the best shot we’ve got. So let’s look around.” Even as I said that, my eyes were widening. “We’ve gotta check all these freezers, don’t we?” 

“Check the clipboards,” Paige advised, already moving to the opposite side of the room to start working her way down the line there. See if you can find any that don’t sound like a person who was alive before.” 

“We’ll work on that,” Amber put in before nudging Izzy. “You should check the tables for anything useful. We still need one of those orbs.” 

We all knew what she was doing, making it so Izzy didn’t have to go down the row of freezers and potentially have to open some of them to check inside. And I was glad for that. Izzy had been through more than enough emotional turmoil tonight. She didn’t need to deal with… that. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about doing it myself, obviously, but still. She deserved a break. 

So, we searched down at the line of freezers on either side. Unfortunately, none of the clipboards said anything about a newly built body or anything like that. They all listed birth and death dates as well as causes. Some of them had the information crossed off in red ink, followed by a third date and either a checkmark or the word ‘disposed.’ My best guess was that that meant he had either used that body or discarded it. 

This whole situation was incredibly morbid, to say the least. And I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually open the freezers. But I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have another choice. We couldn’t risk walking away from this place without checking if there was the slightest chance he had simply stuffed one of his prototype biolem bodies inside one of them. And it was looking more and more like we wouldn’t find one conveniently labeled as such. 

We started with the freezers that were labeled as the bodies having been used, of course. Amber and I both stood in front of one, looking at the clipboard announcing that the body had been ‘disposed’ about six years earlier. Exchanging glances, the two of us sighed heavily together, then reached out to grab the heavy metal bar on the door. Neither of us wanted to do it alone. With a pair of grunts, we hauled the door open, bracing ourselves for… 

Nothing. There was nothing in that freezer, just as the clipboard had promised. Well, almost nothing. The space within the freezer was basically coffin-sized (which just made the whole thing even worse, and the walls were covered in blood and… and probably other body stuff that I really didn’t want to think about. It also smelled so bad that I instantly recoiled and gagged against the mask, barely keeping my stomach under control. Amber was in much the same boat, but managed to shove the door shut first. 

“Don’t you–ugh, love being a superhero?” she asked while half-doubled over and clearly doing her level best not to lose her dinner. 

Grimacing, I gave a short nod, breathing heavily. “Yeah, it’s fantastic. Nothing but glory and sunshine for this job.” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning the row of freezers. Oh god. If an empty one smelled that bad, how was it going to be when we had to open one with an actual dead body in it? The freezers–damn it, this was not my idea of a good time. 

Unlike Amber and me, Paige–no wait, that was Raige– was on the other side of the room opening one door after another, looking inside before muttering a curse, and moving on. Somehow that made me feel worse, like I was making such a big deal out of this while she was just fine with it. She was looking for a body she could use, a body she could live in. And here I was just being a baby about smelling some–okay yeah it was still awful. But still. 

Before I could think too much more about that, Izzy abruptly called out from the far end of the room where she had been sorting through a pile of stuff in a large crate there. “Hey! Hey, I think I–look.” She turned as the rest of us looked that way, holding up something in one hand. It was a small metal ball about–oh. 

Raige was there in a second, literally shoving one of the other tables out of the way and sending a small pile of tools crashing to the floor in the process. “Wait, is that–holy fuck, kid, I could kiss you right now.” Even as she said that, the girl was taking the orb from Izzy’s hand. “This is–this is it. I mean it’s not perfect, it’s not the most advanced version, but I can definitely use it.” 

Amber and I arrived then, looking at the thing. Just like the one I had seen back in the warehouse when Paige cut open that biolem’s head, the orb was baseball-sized and had a series of various-colored flashing lights along it. I could see a collection of short, maybe three-inch wires sticking out of the bottom, which probably extended when the orb was… inserted. I remembered the other one had had those wires leading down through the body to control various parts. 

“So you can use that?” Amber asked, giving the thing a long look. 

Shifting just a bit as she stared down at it, Raige gave a short nod. “Yeah, get me a body to plug it into and we’re in business. But this is a great start, pipsqueak.” She reached out to give Izzy a light punch in the shoulder. 

“Probably shouldn’t call her that.” That was Paige, clearly. “I think she’s earned a better name than pipsqueak.” Even as she said that, the girl was clearly examining the ball in her hand. 

“It’s a term of affection,” Raige announced. “Anyway, this looks like the start of home sweet home. Now let’s find an actual–” 

“Hey, look at this.” Amber, who had stepped away to the other side of the table where Izzy had found the orb, put her hand against the wall. “This bit here looks a little–” Her hand pushed hard against that bit of wall, and it abruptly shoved inward. Hidden door. There was a hidden door in this already-hidden room. Whatever was in there, Pittman definitely didn’t want anyone to find it.

One by one, we slipped through that hidden door, and found ourselves in a much smaller room. This one was barely large enough for the four of us to stand in along with the large metal tube taking up most of the space. It was about four feet across and six feet high, and had a large computer console next to it that seemed to be displaying a bunch of information that I couldn’t even keep track of. But the gist I got from it was that this might be exactly what we were looking for. 

Sure enough, Paige smiled. “This is it. This is what we need.” 

Her face shifted then, as Raige spoke. “Could uhh, could the rest of you wait outside for a minute, huh?” I could tell she felt a little awkward, which was strange to see coming from her. “This bit’s a little personal. Like changing clothes.” 

Amber, Izzy, and I exchanged glances before collectively shrugging. Then we moved back to the larger room, stepping away while talking a bit to each other about what was going on. Not that we had very productive things to say. We were all exhausted by this point. All I wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Especially knowing that I was going to have to get up in a few hours and go to school if I didn’t want my parents to suspect anything. And now it was even more crucial that they didn’t. 

Eventually, Paige stepped out of the room. She grimaced a bit when we looked that way. 

“You okay?” Amber asked. “I mean, are you… you?” 

“I’m me. Just me,” Paige confirmed. “We made the transfer, but uh, we’ve got a umm, maybe a slight… uncomfortable… a uhh, issue with–” 

“Fuck it, I’ll show ‘em!” A voice called from in the room. Something about it made me blink. Something very famili–

And then Raige stepped into view in her new body. Only she didn’t look like Paige. And she certainly didn’t look like any random person. 

The hair was different, long on both sides rather than short on one, and without the dyed tips. But other than that, her new body… was me. 

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Commissioned Interlude 18 – How Haiden And Larissa Met (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on how Haiden and Larissa met out in Seosten space. It does not count as a regular chapter on the regular schedule. Thanks so much!

Several Years Ago, In Seosten Space

To an outside observer, the twelve-foot-tall, eighty-foot-wide pile of random junk looked like any of the dozens of others surrounding it in the corner of this old, mined-out section of an otherwise beautiful planet in the middle of nowhere. The planet was known by others in the universe as DRI-97V. To those who lived on it, it was known as Drinz. Or The Drinz for some. The mountains, visible in the distance, appeared to be made of glass, with multi-colored, glowing waterfalls that ensured the nights were never too dark. 

Most of the planet that wasn’t glass mountains consisted of either deep, turquoise oceans or fields of deep purple grass. The fields in this particular area, however, had been thoroughly cleared away to leave bare dirt and rocks for buildings. Once considered portables or temporary structures, most had been set up so long ago even the current residents’ great-grandparents would remember them being in position. The whole place was a mixture of those long-standing ‘temporary’ buildings, ramshackle structures that had been built out of scrap to give the too-crowded population more roofs over their heads, and landed ships in various states of utter disrepair. Some broken in half or more pieces and simply used as convenient living facilities. Or even simple lean-tos and makeshift shelters.

One part colony, one part prison camp, and one part town, the society that had been built up on this planet revolved around two things. First, the mining facilities that were spread across the planet, anywhere useful materials could be found. And second, the ship-building facilities that were in orbit above, blocking out a large portion of the sky. Another reason why the glowing waterfalls were important, given their absence would have led to near-perpetual darkness. As it was, the ‘town’ (known to its residents by the same name as the planet, Drinz) was essentially in permanent twilight, here beneath the extensive orbital factories. 

The town served as a place where its inhabitants could live and transport daily to the mines or satellite factories for work. They were all considered to be low, barely worth the food it took to keep them working on the materials and ships that were so required for the war. Yet even they didn’t spare a glance for what amounted to a garbage dump for random bits of metal and broken pieces that could no longer be useful. At some point, each pile there would be shuffled off to be melted down for scrap. 

Each pile, that was, aside from this one. Not that any of the people who passed by the dump daily on their busy commutes would notice that this one always stayed precisely where it was. Nor did they notice the dark-haired man who stepped off the beaten path and began to weave his way through the cast-off junk toward that specific pile. 

Had Haiden still looked like himself, he would have attracted some attention. Mostly because he looked like a Seosten, and that would have terrified everyone in this place about who he was here to take away or punish. But he had used magic to disguise himself. His skin was a dull gray rather than white, his eyes more cat-like. The disguise spell also muted the normal Heretic alarm that Alters looking at him would have experienced. Beyond that, he wore drab, old clothing that made him blend in with everyone else down here. He avoided attracting unwanted attention this way. A necessity if he didn’t want a contingent of Seosten soldiers on top of him. 

To be fair, he often welcomed exactly that. Fighting and killing those bastards was one of his main forms of entertainment these days. Fun and practical, given one of them had to have some idea of how he could get his memories back, and get home. But he preferred to do that on his own terms, in places of his choosing. Not here. He survived and kept himself free by carefully choosing his targets, not by willy nilly running around and leading the bad guys right back to the place where he rested and recuperated. 

Speaking of which, he glanced around to ensure that he wasn’t being watched, casting his senses outward. Only once he was certain that everything was clear did he turn back to that large pile of junk. His hand reached out to cut on one part in particular, causing a door-shaped opening to appear. Haiden was through it in a moment, blowing the door to slide shut behind him and return to its previous appearance. The pile of meaningless junk was once more a pile of meaningless junk.

The interior of this place was one room, filled with an assortment of random furniture and clocks. A lot of clocks all over the walls, tables, chairs, and even lining the floor. They were from all different civilizations and species, the vast majority of which he still couldn’t read properly. 

There were also two beds in opposite corners of the room, each surrounded by a long shower curtain to give the faintest concept of privacy. One was closed, where Haiden’s belongings were stored. The other was wide open, revealing a short, three-foot-tall reptilian being with deep bronze skin and long tusks like a boar. He was fussing with one of his many clocks, apparently fixing it. Or trying to.  

“Mutters,” Haiden greeted him. His name wasn’t actually Mutters, but Haiden wasn’t capable of pronouncing the real thing. He muttered to himself a lot, leading to the nickname. It was a name he seemed to like, despite his continued grumbling about that and everything else. “What’s going on?” 

“What’s going on?” Mutters echoed, casting a dark look that way. Haiden didn’t take offense, nor did he think that Mutters had taken offense to his presence. That was just the way the old man was. The way he had been ever since Haiden had shown up in this place, years earlier. “I’ll tell you what’s going on, I found another piece of that toy of yours.” While saying that, the man gestured toward a partially-assembled orb sitting on a nearby table. The thing was only about a quarter-complete, with several other pieces sitting nearby that weren’t actually connected yet. 

“Another piece,” Haiden echoed, stepping that way while dismissing the spell that altered his appearance so he would look like himself once more. He gently brushed his fingers over the partially-fixed orb. This thing had done so much damage to his family, to his memories, to his life. And yet it was vital that he put the thing back together. In its destruction, he had been magically banished to this world. But he had found that he could move to other worlds that actually held pieces of the orb after it had been shattered and sent those pieces all over the universe. He could go to any planet that had one of the pieces. For the past several years, he had been doing just that, whenever he or his friend Mutters here managed to locate one. 

Putting the orb back together so he could undo the spell that had banished him from Earth had turned out to be a very long process indeed. But he wouldn’t give up on it, no matter how long it took. He was going to get his memories and his family back, no matter how long it took. 

“Where is it?” he asked the man, glancing that way. Belatedly, he held a hand up. “Wait.” Taking in a deep breath before letting it out, Haiden carefully started again. “What I mean is, thanks for all the work you’ve been doing to find these things. I’d be fucked if it wasn’t for you, Mutters. I owe you a lot, and I don’t know if I can ever repay it.” 

A slight orange glow came to the short reptilian man’s bronze skin, evidence of his deep blush. Meanwhile, he was scoffing audibly. “Pah, bah, don’t get sentimental, human. It’s in my own best interest to make you go away. We get this orb put together and you can go back to your own world and leave me in peace.” He huffed a bit more before pushing himself off the bed. It took a moment, and he had to grab a nearby cane, but Haiden didn’t move to help him. He’d made that mistake once and the old man had verbally lambasted him for ten minutes about not needing charity. So, Haiden just waited while Mutters slowly and painfully hauled himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the cane. He shuffled past Haiden to another side of the hidden room, where a transportation rune had been inscribed.

“The place you’re going is a prison colony. Not that there’s a lack of those, but this one’s got the next orb piece you’re looking for. It’s somewhere in the warden’s office, probably on a shelf. Doubt he has any idea what it is, but the shards are pretty and they’ve got magic in them. Not a lot, but enough to make someone like that want to turn it into a trophy. You get in that office, find that shard, then get back here so I can beat your ass at another round of Ipithka. Here.” Raising the hand that he wasn’t using to clutch the cane so he stayed upright, Mutters held his now-glowing palm out toward Haiden. A rush of information flooded into the Heretic man’s mind, all about the layout of the prison, the assortment of guards he would have to deal with, and more. Every piece of information that his friend had managed to piece together about the place, beamed directly into his head in an instant. It was an incredibly useful power, particularly given its ability to be used on multiple beings at once, and was one of the reasons why Mutters had been hiding out here for so long. He didn’t feel like being used as a tool by the Seosten. Not after so many of his people had been used that way for so long. And particularly not after his own son had been killed by the Seosten leader of this mining colony.

Taking in all that information, Haiden staggered just a little. He took a breath before letting it out. “Got it. Okay. Keep the coffee hot, would you? I’ll be right back.” 

Grunting noncommittally, the old man brought his staff down hard on the assortment of transportation runes. At a word from him, they lit up, creating a portal. “Just don’t take too long,” Mutters muttered. “If I fall asleep waiting for you and you wake me up with your clumsy oafishness, I’ll show you a real fight.” 

Smiling a bit to himself, Haiden promised to be as prompt as possible. Then he stepped through the portal, reaching down to touch the handle of his weapon where it was sheathed beneath the dirty rags he was wearing to assure himself that it was there. 

As always with these sorts of transports, there was a rushing sensation as if he was falling down a very long distance. The banishment rune was trying to keep him where he was, but with the other shard on the planet he was going to, the magic containing him got a bit confused. It released him, allowing Haiden to make the full transit. But it still felt weird, sending a brief wave of nausea through the man until he got it under control. 

The portal had taken him to a large, rocky outcropping of a cliff overlooking the prison below. According to the information download he’d gotten, this place was a moon with even less going for it than Drinz. It was about half the size of Earth’s moon, and held almost no valuable materials. The only thing here was the prison camp below, where the Seosten kept people they really wanted to be out of the way, yet accessible when needed. They were political prisoners, of a sort. Important enough for the Seosten to keep track of, but not useful to the immediate war effort. Or just people they didn’t want in with the regular population.

All of which meant that they would be quick to mount a counter-offensive as soon as he started causing problems. So Haiden was going to have to be quick about this. He could do a lot of damage when he hit the Seosten unexpectedly, where they were weak or complacent. But even a Heretic like him would quickly be overwhelmed if he gave them a chance to really gather their forces to retaliate. In a place like this, they would have reinforcements nearby. This was going to have to be an in-and-out mission. 

The prison itself, laid out nearly a thousand feet below him, consisted of three semi-circle buildings, all with the open parts of the partial circles facing one another, with a larger tower in the middle. The tower was what he wanted. It stood five hundred feet high, so the top of the tower itself was only about three hundred feet below where he was crouched. 

Taking a few minutes to observe the guards and other defenses, Haiden waited until the right moment. Then he launched himself off the outcropping and plummeted downward. When he was about halfway to his landing point, the man focused on one of the powers he had picked up many years earlier, while he was still a teenager in training. It allowed him to shrink down to the size of a small coin, passing directly between a tiny gap in the layers of magical defenses. The instant he was through that, he was nearly picked up by a roaming beam of light that would have immediately bathed him in tracking magic. But the tiny Haiden vanished in midair, reappearing on the far side of the beam while it passed on in the other direction. 

Now safely past the perimeter defenses, Haiden transformed into his hawk form. Between that and his still-small size, he was unlikely to be spotted by anyone. Soon, he made his way in that form to a small window along the side of the tower. He knew the basic layout of the place and that the warden’s office was somewhere near the top floor. But he had to get inside to get a full idea of where he was going. 

Thankfully, that didn’t seem like it was going to be hard. Landing in his bird shape on the edge of the windowsill, Haiden pecked his beak lightly against the transparent material. It was much stronger than glass, but he could still see through it. That was enough. Focusing that way, he found himself outside an L-shaped corridor. A tall suit of gleaming black armor was positioned decoratively at the corner, while two men were talking just under it. With a thought, Haiden teleported himself to the statue’s head, perching there before looking down at the figures in mid-conversation. They were talking in some other language, one he didn’t understand. Still, it was obvious that they hadn’t noticed his arrival, and there were no alarms going off. So far, so good. 

It didn’t take long for him to sort out exactly where he was. Then, he simply waited for the men below him to move on, before pushing himself off the statue to fly around the corner and down the hall. His tiny bird form glided through the maze of corridors for the next few minutes until he found the place he was looking for. The heavy twin doors leading into the warden’s office were shut, but Haiden didn’t care about that. He landed, looked both ways, then grew into his full-sized human form before pressing his hand against the metal of the door. A moment of focus allowed him to make that metal push itself apart so he could slip through the opening and into the incredibly palatial office beyond. The room was enormous, with a fireplace taking up most of one wall, large enough to drive a car into. The man who ran this prison really enjoyed fire. There was a raging inferno in that fireplace right now, the room shielded from the majority of the heat by a thin forcefield. 

“Wow,” Haiden remarked, his hand snapping out to throw his long, black-bladed sword to one side without looking. The weapon flew that way, narrowly missing the throat of the elderly Seosten man seated behind the enormous throne-like chair behind the equally massive desk. It drove itself most of the way through his seat, stopping him in mid-motion from reaching for the alarm button on the desk. 

With the man sufficiently halted for the moment, Haiden continued while turning that way. “Talk about a waste. How much fuel are you burning every day just to keep that going?” 

The warden opened his mouth, but Haiden moved abruptly. In an instant, his speed took him clear across the room so he could kick that desk, sending it skidding backwards. The desk slammed into its owner, carrying the warden with it as the thing slid all the way up to the far wall and pinned the man there. 

“Hey, hey, hey now!” the gray-haired Seosten blurted, hands raised while being mindful of the blade embedded in his chair (and now into the actual wall behind him). “There’s no need to get violent. I’ve heard of you. Yes, you’re the rogue human who’s been running around for the past few years. You know a lot of people call you a myth? Which is kind of funny when you think about how we Seosten got along on that planet of yours.” 

Taking a few steps that way, Haiden offered the man a very faint smile. “Oh, it’s hilarious. And you must be Warden Yaqroun. Now, I know we probably don’t have long here. So let’s make this really quick. I’m going to ask you one question, and if I don’t like your answer, I’ll just take your head off and find my own–” 

“No, no,” Yaquroun immediately blurted, “there’s no need for that. I assure you, I outgrew any lust I had for blood and glory quite some time ago. Give me your word as to my continued health and freedom, and I will gladly tell you exactly where she is.” 

Haiden’s mouth opened to retort, before he paused. Stepping closer, he moved around the desk. His hand took hold of the hilt of his sword, and he pulled it free. Then he placed the blade very close to the warden’s throat, voice low. “Tell me… exactly… where who is?” 

*******

Larissa Mason had been through a lot over the past couple of years, ever since she ended up trapped in Seosten space. Not that she blamed Sariel for that, given the alternative would have left her in the not-so-tender mercies of that Fomorian. No, not only her. Sarah too. Sarah would have been–the thought of what that creature would have done to her daughter was far worse than anything that had happened to her here. The Seosten were bad, but they weren’t Fomorian bad. Not by any stretch of the imagination. 

The Fomorian had been dragged through with her as well, brought along when Sariel had pulled her back toward her own body. So it wasn’t left behind. Sarah was safe. She was safe. That alone was enough to keep Larissa’s spirits up. She wanted to get back to her family, had to get back to her family. But at least she knew that her child hadn’t been left alone with that monster. 

For almost three years now, she had been bounced back and forth between various Seosten prisons and labs while they tried to figure out what exactly Sariel had done to make Larissa immune to being possessed. 

Yes, that specific thing had been a real surprise to both Larissa and her initial captors. The fact that they couldn’t possess her, no matter what they did, had sent a real tizzy through the Seosten leadership. Some wanted to kill her and be done with it, but others thought that was short-sighted, given it wouldn’t actually answer the question. If they really wanted to know why she couldn’t be possessed, they had to keep testing various things. 

So, the woman spent her time either being poked and prodded both physically and magically, or working in one of their many prison camps. She couldn’t be possessed, but they had other ways of ensuring she didn’t go anywhere. Specifically, a metal bracelet they had locked onto her wrist that would do very nasty things if she wandered too far from their supervision. She had tried to get it off, but they were rather experienced and effective at making sure such things were secure. Between the materials they used, its construction, and the active spells they put on it, she didn’t have a chance. Not that that stopped her from working on various plans, but nothing had panned out so far. Still, she was able to maintain her hope almost solely because she knew her daughters were safe. 

The truth was, she had no idea why she was immune to being possessed. Thankfully, the Seosten were smart enough to employ truth spells and assured themselves that she wasn’t lying about that. Of course, they were still piece of shit slavers who went to great and sometimes painful lengths trying to find out what had been done to create that possession immunity, but it could have been worse. Or so she often told herself while sitting in various laboratories or cells. 

Cells like this one. It wasn’t the worst prison that she had been in ever since being captured. The cell was about eight feet by ten feet, with a cot for a bed, a toilet in the corner with a privacy curtain, and a table. On that table was the one bit of entertainment property she had been allowed to keep wherever she went. It was what amounted to a holographic e-book reader. One of the guards at a previous prison had been nice enough to fill it with a random assortment of stories and novels from all over the galaxy. Some of the tales didn’t really translate very well, but it still helped her avoid falling into a pit of boredom-induced despair. When she wasn’t being tested or put to work in various back-breaking jobs, she was left alone in her various cells for days or sometimes weeks at a time. Aside from the food and water that was delivered, of course, and that was often automated. Her tray would simply appear by magic on the table or floor. 

Having stories to read certainly helped, and she would be eternally grateful to that Seosten guard who gave her the book reader. And, in some ways, to the wardens of her various prisons who elected not to take it away from her. As long as it wasn’t a threat or a weapon of some sort, they didn’t really care. Though there had been a few close calls. 

At the moment, Larissa was sitting on her cot, staring at the reader over on the table. She was gingerly running her fingers along the knuckles of her other hand, which were bloody and bruised from the past twelve hours she had spent lifting and moving machinery in one of the work pits. She was strong and healed quickly, but still. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was worse, being left alone for weeks with no one but herself to talk to, or the multiple days of intense hard labor that came whenever someone got a bee in his bonnet and decided that wearing her energy out would fix the whole possession issue. And they always thought they were the first one to come up with that plan, or that they had some unique solution for it. They wanted to make a name for themselves by fixing the ‘problem.’ 

Still, none of that was as bad as the ones who decided that pain was the solution. Thankfully, that didn’t come up too often, but it had been a thing more than once. And that was what made her entire time being imprisoned even worse. Not simply the torture sessions themselves, though they were very bad. It was the not knowing that was the worst part. On any given day or week, she had no one idea what sort of time she was going to have. She could be left alone for a month, then go through several days of a scientist deciding that near-drowning would provoke some sort of response that would eliminate the possession immunity, or give them a better idea of what caused it. She could believe that a month-worth of being left alone was coming, only to be interrupted two days into it for a week of hard labor. Every time she woke up, the woman had no idea what the day would bring. 

Today had been one of the labor days, and she was pretty sure the next day would be too. Now she just had to hope that they hadn’t decided to try depriving her of food again, because her regeneration absolutely needed more fuel. She had only been back in her cell for about ten minutes, so there was still time for them to send her meal in. But she was starting to have a bad feeling about it. 

That bad feeling was interrupted as Larissa felt the sensation of being watched. She glanced at the door, though it didn’t help. The door itself appeared to be solid metal from this side, though she knew from experience that it appeared clear from the other side. Between that and the sense-blocking magic along the walls of the cell, someone standing in the hallway could watch her in this cell and she would have no idea they were there. Which was a large reason she was grateful for the privacy curtain around the toilet. 

Still, as she sat on that cot and stared at the door, Larissa had the strongest feeling that there actually was someone there. Which didn’t really mean anything, of course. Even if there was someone there, it wasn’t like various scientists or guards staring at her was anything new. She had spent the past several years essentially being an object of curiosity. Or, in many cases, hatred. They really didn’t like the idea of people being immune to their possession powers. It made them nervous, to say the least.

So, she was very accustomed to being looked at like some sort of circus attraction at the very best. And yet, as she sat there and stared at the door, she couldn’t help but feel like there was something different about this. 

The sound of the various locks being undone on the door proved her right, and Larissa rose to her feet. She had no idea if they were going to order her back out to do even more work, run tests, give her food in person, or… or  any of a number of other options, some of them quite unpleasant. But no matter what they were coming into the cell for, she was going to meet them on her feet. She wanted to be ready in case… well, in case. 

But, standing, sitting, or laying down, she never could have been ready for what she saw when the door opened. A man with long black hair, wearing what looked like old beggar rags and holding a long black sword with a red line running through it, stepped into view. “Larissa?” he started, gaze finding hers. “How’d you like to get the hell out of here?” 

Wait, was this a trick? Some new test? Larissa hesitated, frowning as she looked the man up and down. “You… you’re not Seosten?” 

He snorted, shaking his head. “Believe me, you’re not the first to make that mistake. Here.” Without another word, he transformed into a hawk, flew in a quick circle around the room, then turned back into himself. His hand gestured as he made the four metal posts of her cot snap in half before sending them flying around the room as well. Then he let them drop and looked to her again. “Satisfied?” 

“You’re human,” Larissa agreed. “But that doesn’t mean much. You could be possessed.” 

There was a brief pause before the man inclined his head in agreement. “Sure, and I wish I could tell you how to do this spell to expel any possession, but you don’t have any reason to believe it really work–” 

“I know the spell,” she interrupted. “I–a friend taught me. You have an engraver?” 

“Can you do it quick?” the man asked, flipping the tool in question to her before holding out his hand. “I sort of made a mess on my way in here.” Even as the man said that, they could both hear alarms going off in the background. “We’ll have a lot of company soon. Then I’m pretty sure it won’t matter what I am.” 

Grabbing the field-engraver, Larissa hurriedly stepped that way. She drew the spell on his hand and watched him carefully. There was that flash of pain, but no Seosten emerged. If Sariel had been right–and she believed the woman was, the man couldn’t have been possessed. Unless it was by one of the Seosten their people referred to as Lies, but that… that was a rabbit hole she didn’t want to go down at the moment.  

“Who are you?” she demanded then. “How did you get here? What did–never mind, save it for later.” 

“Good idea,” the man agreed before producing a triangular piece of silver metal about four inches long. There were runes on it, which glowed as he touched the thing to the bracelet on her arm. “Let’s just make sure they can’t track you.” Meeting her gaze, he added, “Courtesy of Warden Yaqroun, with a little encouragement.” 

The bracelet opened and fell to the floor a moment later, and Haiden exchanged the key for a stone that he pulled from his pocket. With his sword held in one hand, he ran his thumb over the rock, murmured a word, and then threw it at the ground. In the next instant, he grabbed her arm to yank her over with him. “Hold on!” 

A bright blast of energy enveloped them, just as they could hear guards approaching at a run. Then it felt like they were falling. It wasn’t nearly as bad as when she was yanked all the way out here from Earth, but still. Larissa’s stomach twisted into knots as she felt herself flipping end over end through empty space. Then, just as suddenly, the sensation stopped as they appeared through the other end of the teleportation. The floor came up to smack her as she fell face-first against it with a grunt. 

“Ugh,” the man next to her muttered. “That’s never fun, and I guess it’s even worse pulling someone else with you. But hey, guess we made it.” He reached down, helping her up while addressing someone else. “I know you’re gonna be annoyed about this, Mutters, but trust me, we didn’t– Mutters?” 

Finally able to look around the small, enclosed space, Larissa asked, “Where are we? Who–” 

Before she could say anything else, the man snapped, “He’s not here. Why isn’t he here? He’s always here. He doesn’t go anywhere.” Even while saying that, he took a step toward one of the cots in the room. As he did so, there was an audible click as his foot crossed a beam of some sort, and then a hologram appeared in the middle of the room, right next to them. It made both of them jump backward. 

Then Larissa got a better look at the three-dimensional image of the bronze-scaled short reptilian figure. A quick glance toward her rescuer made her ask, “Your friend?” 

He nodded, even as the hologram spoke in a gravelly, disgruntled tone. “Hey there, kid. Assuming everything worked out, you’re standing here with a girl of your own kind right now instead of just one of those shards. Eh, don’t get me wrong, you better have gotten the shard too. If you didn’t, you’re a bigger dumbshit than I thought you were when you first showed up. You better have the girl and the shard, or I want you to smack yourself in the head for me right now.” There was a pause before the recording went on. “No? Good. Hey there, Miss. Welcome to my home, I hope it’s better than where you were a few minutes ago.

“Anyway, I never really told you this, human, but I’m glad you showed up when you did. It’s made these past few years pretty interesting. But the thing is, before you showed up, I only wanted to do one thing, and that’s make the keurgfyet who killed my son pay for it. Probably would have done something about that a long time ago if it wasn’t for you. That’s not a complaint. I’m glad I had the chance to work with you. But I’m getting too old. If I waited much longer, I wouldn’t ahh, I wouldn’t have had the strength to do what I needed to. I made a bomb, and I’m going to carry it with me into that Seosten monster’s office, then I’m gonna blow both of us into the void.” 

Eyes widening, the man pivoted as though to run out of the room. But the hologram spoke first. “Ain’t no use running off like that, kid. It’s over and done with by now. I left as soon as you did. But I didn’t want to leave you by yourself. That’s just–that wouldn’t be right. So for the past year, I’ve been putting feelers out, trading favors, doing what I could to try to find that family of yours. And that just… I couldn’t find them. Your kids, your wife, they’re hidden pretty good. But I found the girl next to you. From what a few of the Seosten have been saying, she used to be possessed by a Seosten woman who went rogue, got married to a human, and had hybrid kids. It’s some big secret that not many know about. And most of them that do are ashamed of it, but rumors get around. Especially when you can call in the favors that I can.” 

The hologram waited for the two surprised humans to absorb that, Larissa spinning that way. “You’re Sariel’s husband?!” 

“Sariel, her name is Sariel. I–yes, I–” the man stammered, clearly taken completely aback by the sudden revelation. “My name is Haiden. I don’t know my last–” 

“Moon,” Larissa interrupted. “Haiden Moon. That’s it. That’s your–” 

The hologram of Mutters continued. “Like I said, I didn’t want to leave you by yourself when I gave this monster what he had coming to him. Couldn’t find your family, but I feel like this might just be the next best thing. So, when I found out where the lady there was, I had an old… old friend gift one of those shards to the warden there, as a trinket. Yeah, sorry, I’ve known where that one was for awhile, but since you can only go where the shards are, I thought it might be useful to move somewhere else. And here we are. 

“Anyway, you keep doing what you need to find the rest of those shards. I’ve got more leads on the desk over there. Find the shards, find your family, get home. Have yourself a good life. You deserve that much. Course, you also deserve a smack upside the head sometimes, but maybe your new friend can give you that much too. 

“Like I said, it’s been good to have you around, even if I didn’t always say it. I missed my son, and you gave me another little idiot to look after for awhile.” There was a long, heavy pause before Mutters continued. “I’m glad to have known you, Haiden. It’s made these past few years worth it. Good luck with everything else coming in your life. I feel like… it’s gonna be a busy one.” 

Again, there was a pause before he continued in a soft voice. “When my son died, I spent a long time thinking I’d be moving on without leaving anything good behind to carry on.” The hologram seemed to find Haiden’s gaze, staring through him while giving a single, decisive nod. “I’m glad to say I was wrong.”

The message ended there, the hologram vanishing. Haiden and Larissa were left in silence, staring at one another. She was the first to find her voice. “Do you want to go try to stop him?” 

“No.” Haiden’s own voice sounded hollow, as he closed his eyes against the dampness that had overtaken them. “Like he said, it’ll be too late. Besides, I wouldn’t take that away from him. He owes the motherfucker up in that ivory tower and… and he deserves to deliver it.” 

He stood like that for a few long seconds, eyes closed and arms crossed. He thought of everything he had been through over the past few years and where he would have been without Mutters. Finally, he exhaled heavily and opened his eyes to look at the woman. “So, you’re Larissa. Sariel talked about you. There’s a lot of details that were fuzzy or blocked, but they’re starting to come back already. I think meeting you unlocked some stuff.” 

Swallowing audibly, Larissa straightened a bit before replying, “I’ll tell you everything I can. Sariel… she did a lot for me. Now she’s in trouble. She’s–she’s in a lot of trouble. We have to find her.” 

“We do. We will,” Haiden agreed. “But I have to know something first, before we get into all of that. 

“How the hell did you end up all the way out here in a Seosten political prison?”  

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