Month: October 2022

The Storm – 21-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so we needed to go to Fossor’s world if we were going to find the guy who could tell us what had happened to Tiras’s memory. Well, that was one of the reasons. I wasn’t exactly short on them at this point. Especially considering I had been promising Rahanvael that I would take her home so she could… move on. Yeah, an awful lot had been going on to distract me, which was nothing new. But it was finally time to do this. No more excuses and no more distractions. We were going there.

We, in this case, consisted of myself, Shiori, Asenath, Twister, Nevada, and my mother. And Tabbris, naturally. Avalon wanted to go, as did plenty of others. But we wanted to keep the group small for this first excursion. Besides, Wyatt had actually managed to dig up some interesting information about where the hardliners might be holding Gaia. It wasn’t anything that would lead directly to her, but it was something that had to be followed up on quickly. So, Valley and a few others were going to check that out before the trail went cold. With any luck, they would have what we needed to actually stage a rescue when we got back. That’s what we were hoping, anyway. 

Meanwhile, Columbus and another group had to follow up with the search for where Kushiel had taken Harrison Fredericks. They had a few leads too, which had to be checked out and couldn’t wait. 

So yeah, as much as I wanted to be involved with everything and helping everyone, it couldn’t work that way. We had to split up, and there was absolutely no question about where I belonged. This was the first trip to Fossor’s world. I had to go with them. I had to take my ghosts and help them find peace if they were ready for that. Not to mention helping Shiori and Asenath. One was my girlfriend, while the other was… I couldn’t define what Senny was. A close friend. The first Alter who had taught me that they weren’t all evil? Family in a way? She was important, and if she needed something, I was going to be there. After everything she had done, like hell would I let her go off without me to find out what had happened to her father. 

Jiao was another one who could have gone with us, speaking of family. But she was staying with Tiras. They apparently had a few leads here on the planet about what might’ve happened, and the two of them were checking that out with some help from others they knew.  

In any case, the previous couple of days following the revelation of just where Rasputin was had been filled with a lot of discussions about who was going and who wasn’t, and a lot of promises to be careful. Now it was Monday, February 11th. I had spent that morning having breakfast with my dad, grandparents, and others as Mom and I swore we would be careful and let them know what was going on. And then I went around to everyone else, the rest of my friends and family, to tell them the same while extracting similar promises given the stuff they were going to be busy with. We might’ve had to split up and do our own missions, but we didn’t have to be stupid about it. 

As our group of seven made our way through the Sun Station’s corridors after giving our last-minute goodbyes and promises, we were met by the other group that were going with us. Namely, the Mevari robot Robin, the vampire Anastasia (and the fact that I barely blinked at meeting the actual Anastasia said a lot about how my life worked), and Judas Iscariot. I’d still blinked a fair bit at meeting him, so my life wasn’t completely ridicu–okay, yes it was, but still. They had been helping Asenath–or rather had been looking for Rasputin themselves for their own reasons, but those reasons didn’t conflict entirely with Asenath’s. The point was, they were coming with. 

Robin was the one I’d seen the most over the past couple days. They were spending a lot of time with the Carnival, helping them understand their now plural-state and how to share a single body. Mostly because they themselves were plural. I still wasn’t sure why, exactly, or if it was an actual Mevari thing. They didn’t think so, but a lot of their memories were scrambled from the fact that they had apparently plummeted to Earth from orbit and been buried underground for who the hell knew how long before being discovered in medieval times. Now they wanted to find Rasputin because he was supposed to know what had happened to Marian. That Marian. See? Weird fucking life. 

Anastasia, meanwhile, had spent more time with Asenath. The two of them being vampires gave them some common ground to start with. Then there was the fact that they both wanted to find Rasputin. Asenath because he had been with her father on that last mission and had to know something about what had happened to him. And Anastasia because she held the man responsible for what happened to her family. She’d promised to give Asenath a chance to get the information she needed before doing anything drastic. Apparently even in her deep-seated need for revenge, she didn’t want to take someone else’s family away. Or, in this case, take away Senny’s chance to get her father’s memory back. 

Finally, there was Judas. He… well, he was complicated. Apparently he was a Natural Seosten Heretic. And not just any Seosten. He was a Natural Charmeine Heretic. Which was kind of a lot, to say the least. Him existing, his entire history, his–all that. It was huge, and I really didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. So mostly I just tried not to. The point was, he was Judas and he wanted to help because Rasputin had some sort of past history with Charmeine, and he thought the guy could tell us how to find her ghost now. Because her already being dead wasn’t enough, though that did apparently make him happier. He wanted to make sure she was gone forever. 

So there they were, our three new companions for this trip. All of whom had reason to want to find Rasputin. And I… wow. Just wow. Sometimes, when I took a step back and looked at the people I interacted with and my life in general, it kind of seemed a little absurd. The robot with multiple personalities including Robin Hood, Princess Anastasia the vampire, and Judas Iscariot the Natural Seosten Heretic, were all going with us on a spaceship to another world. I… just… wow. 

Leaning closer to me after seeing my expression while Mom was talking to Judas about what was going to happen next, Shiori whispered, “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, you could say that. Sometimes I just think this whole life is too absurd and I’m gonna wake up back in the ordinary world.” Even as I said that, my hand slipped down to catch hers, squeezing it. “Now that would be the real nightmare.” 

Returning the hand squeeze, Shiori nudged me. “So you don’t want to go back to being a normal girl?” 

Looking at her seriously, then toward my mother, and finally the others, I gave a firm shake of my head. “No, ma’am. I’m pretty sure that would be one of the worst things that could happen to me. Not knowing you, or Valley, or getting my mom back, or… or any of this. Life might be really weird, often terrifying, bizarre… and a lot of other things, but I wouldn’t change it.” Exhaling, I added, “But yeah, this is pretty high up there on the weirdness scale.” 

“Give it time.” That was actually Anastasia–or Stasia as she apparently preferred. The slim blonde vampire princess was looking at me, speaking in her clear Eastern European accent. “You are still very young. At the rate you are going, when you reach fifty, your life shall be so absurd it will make these days seem positively quaint and boring.” 

Nevada, who had been having some sort of discussion with Robin, turned our way and nodded. “She’s right. You should probably start pacing yourself with these dramatic events, or you’ll end up fighting deities or something by the time you’re half a century old.” 

“Pfft, please,” Twister put in. The young-looking black girl glanced over her shoulder at me and smirked. “I give her another fifteen years, tops, before she makes her way up to deity-level fights. Makes the rest of us look like slackers is what she does.” 

“Ahem.” Mom turned as well, gesturing. “Let’s not give my daughter any ideas about new threats to seek out, shall we? At least not until we get back from this little trip.”

We all started moving again, while I helplessly protested that it wasn’t as though I intentionally sought out fights like that. Not that it really seemed to help much, but I still felt the need to say so. Partly because it distracted me from thinking about the fact that we were about to go visit Fossor’s world. We were going to set foot on the planet he had come from, the one he had subjugated for so long. How were the people there going to react to my presence, to the knowledge that I held his power, to… to all of that? I had no idea, and thinking about it was making me even more anxious. So distractions were nice, even if it was getting harder to focus on them the closer we got to this trip actually happening.  

Oh, and there were two more people going with our group. Two people who met us at the entrance to the hangar where the prototype ship was waiting. The first was Persephone. She was leaving Cerberus here to help Andromeda, who was aiding in the search for Harrison Fredericks. But Percy herself was going with. She had a lot more experience than basically any of us did at space travel and going to new worlds, and there was the whole Necromancy thing. Between that and how much she wanted to help out, we couldn’t tell her no. And I didn’t want to. Not this time. She deserved to come with. 

The other person waiting for us was Mercury. The six-foot, one-inch tall man with long, dark-red hair that had been tied into a ponytail was leaning against the doorway, studying a handheld computer. When the rest of us approached in a group, he looked up and straightened. “Hey there, people. I guess I’m gonna be your pilot today, huh?” 

It was still weird for me to look at this guy and know that he had been possessing Carfried for all of last year at Crossroads. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t really been controlling Carfried. So the man I knew as my Introduction to Heretical Magic teacher was still the same guy. Mercury was more of a passenger for the most part, there to keep an eye on Aylen as the Merlin Key (and we still had no idea what that meant, exactly). He and Carfried had been doing a lot of talking over these past months, and were apparently now on fairly good terms. 

“And I shall be copilot!” That was Percy, who cheerfully reminded us of that before waving my way. “Hello, Felicity! How are your lessons with Manakel going?” 

Coughing, I gestured. “Ah, they’re good, thanks. I mean, he doesn’t want me to interrupt them right now, but we really need to do this and nobody’s ready for me to take him with us on this trip.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed, “he can stay where he is. You can pick up your lessons again once we get back. Bringing him with would just make everyone too uncomfortable, here and there.” 

“That’s fair,” Mercury agreed. “This trip’s probably going to be a bit… intense as it is. But ahh, if you’re all ready, we’ll head onto the Jitterbug and get going.” 

“Err, head onto what?” Mom blinked, looking at the rest of us. “You mean the prototype ship?” 

Tabbris, lagging a bit behind me, giggled. When we looked at her, she shrugged. “Spark said she needed to name it and wanted suggestions because she’s better at designing things than naming them. I thought Jitterbug was cute.” 

“Oh, it’s definitely cute,” I agreed. “And you guys heard our pilot, it’s time to go. So let’s go get on the Jitterbug.” 

So, we did. First, of course, we let Judas, Robin, and Stasia spread out to look at the ship. They had done a lot of stuff on the planet, but this would apparently be their first trip to another world. Well, the first one Robin remembered, in their case. They had obviously been all over the universe before crashing here and damaging their memory. But for all intents and purposes, this would be all of their first times offworld. 

“You think you’ve been everywhere and done everything,” Judas remarked after running his hand along the side of the ship. “After spending a couple millennia trotting around every corner of the globe. Then you find out some teenager’s been to the far side of the universe and back again.” He glanced up, removing his sunglasses to focus on me. “Heard you took a trip to another planet within your first couple months at Crossroads.”

I had thought the man might be upset to find out that I had already killed Charmeine before he had the chance. But he wasn’t, at least, I didn’t get that impression. Mostly he’d wanted to know if I could summon her ghost with my Necromancy to tell her what he thought of her. When he found out the complication with that idea, he said he’d stick around and help deal with Invidia first, and then tell Charmeine what he thought of her, as well as make sure she wouldn’t be a threat to anyone else.

“Yeah, I guess I always liked to keep myself busy,” I murmured, before glancing toward Shiori. “But hey, she was there too.” 

“That’s true,” the other girl agreed with a shy smile my way. That had been the first time we really interacted together, the first… yeah. It happened right after I had talked to her about Asenath and how she wasn’t actually an evil monster. 

While I was thinking about that, Robin turned to look at us. Their eyes were light pink, which I remembered meant the one who liked to joke around was in charge. Quip, that was it. He–no, wait, she. Quip preferred female terms. She caught my gaze. “We also heard it took you a few trips to other worlds before you actually remembered to start taking a spaceship with you.” 

“Hey,” I retorted, “when you can just steal one from someone else once you’re there, why bother taking it with you? That way’s far more efficient.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom shook her head at me. “In this case, we are definitely taking the ship. And keeping it safe.” There was… something in her voice. I could tell she was uncomfortable with this entire thing, and part of  her probably wanted to call it off. Going to Fossor’s world, even when he was dead and gone, was a pretty big deal. It had to be hard. But we had to do it. We had to go there. His people deserved to hear the whole story, and if Rasputin was really there we had to find him. Hell, I really wanted to get him off that world if he was gonna end up bringing trouble. They’d been through enough as it was. 

“You have the ghosts who wish to accompany you?” Robin’s eyes had shifted to dark blue, meaning Sec was in charge. I had gotten the impression that in addition to being devoted to the group’s security and safety, as the name implied, Sec also handled a lot of general preparations. He even did a lot of the grocery shopping, apparently. Picturing those three walking together through a store pushing a cart loaded with food and all was fun. And distracted me, however briefly, from thinking about what we were actually doing. 

“Yeah,” I replied after a moment. “They’re all here with me, I can… feel them, basically. But they’re resting right now. Think of it like they’re sleeping. We’ve already got enough distractions as it is. When I need them, they’ll be ready.” 

“In that case,” Nevada announced, “I think we’re ready to go.” She had her crate full of weapons and supplies open in front of her, where she had been showing a couple things to Judas. Now she tapped a button on its side. The crate shrank and transformed back into its bracelet form, which she slapped around her wrist. “Unless anyone has any last second dramatic revelations before we get outta here?” 

None seemed to immediately jump out, so we all filed onto the ship while we had the chance. Or the others did, anyway. I waited by the ramp, watching as my mother seemed to stare at the doorway we had come through. When that dragged on for a few more seconds, I gestured for Tabbris to go ahead, then stepped that way. My voice was low. “Is everything okay, Mom?” There was no response, so I hesitated before repeating, “Mom?” 

Jolting slightly, Mom blinked my way as though she’d completely forgotten where she was for a moment. Then she shook it off. “Oh, yes, sorry.” Reaching out, she brushed a hand through my hair. “I was just… thinking.”

“He’s gone forever. You know that, right?” My hand moved to catch hers, interlacing our fingers. “He can’t hurt us anymore. And now we’re going to go tell everyone on his world the same thing. He can’t hurt them either.” 

Mom smiled a bit, pulling me into a brief yet tight embrace. “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Now let’s go. 

“Those people deserve to find out exactly how dead and gone that bastard is.” 

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Interlude 24B – Dani And Amber (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The following continues directly from Commissioned Interlude 12, where Amber and Dani learned one another’s true identities. 

The second after Amber took in the revelation of just who Pack was under that mask, and before she had really processed it (considering that part would take quite a bit longer), voices just outside the stairwell made her shove the helmet she was wearing as part of her costume at this party back down. She wasn’t sure why exactly, given no one else would necessarily connect her to Pack, unless– “Get Holiday out of here!” She hissed. Now wasn’t the time to focus on any of that. “Downstairs, that way, go!” 

There was a brief second of hesitation, as Pack–Dani–Pa–as she looked like she might object, considering the dangerous man still lying there nearby. But the approaching voices were getting louder, so she scrambled up and ran down the stairs. Holiday chased after her, and before the man could get up again, Amber was there. She had grabbed a steak knife from a table, and practically fell on top of him, putting the knife up to his neck. “Don’t move.” 

In that moment, as Dani and her lizard companion vanished further down the stairwell, the nearby door opened and two police officers, clearly assigned to keep an eye on the party, came in. They stopped short, one of them blurting a curse while grabbing for his radio, while the other demanded to know what Amber was doing. He also ordered her to drop the knife, starting to pull the pistol from its holster. 

“It’s okay!” Amber blurted. “I mean, Therapists Appreciate Westerns.” As soon as she gave the code, the man’s radio informed him that Amber was connected to the Star-Touched in some way. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that she was Touched, just that she was trusted by them. The abbreviation being TAW wouldn’t even prove she was That-A-Way, because every person given one of those codes was provided one using the abbreviation for a team or person they were most likely to be linked to. In other words, many girls who fit her general description of ‘older teen female’ and were given an emergency code like that used the TAW abbreviation for it. 

The second they had confirmation that she could be trusted, the two men relaxed marginally. “What happened here?” one demanded. 

“It’s a long story,” Amber replied, pushing herself up a bit. She took the knife away from the man’s throat now that he wouldn’t have a chance to escape. “We need to get everyone out of here, but first, you need to get people out on the nearby roofs and buildings. Look for a sniper, or… or something.” 

“A sniper?” The older cop repeated, staring at her in surprise. 

“Like I said, it’s a long story.” Amber looked down at the man on the floor. “It’s been one of those nights.

“And it’s not over yet.” 

******

As it turned out, it really wasn’t over. Amber spent the next two hours working with the police and the Ten Towers Touched who showed up to deal with the situation once they used a remote that turned out to be in the pocket of the man in the stairwell to disable the cell phone jammer. They found one guy on a nearby roof with a rifle, but were pretty sure he wasn’t the ringleader. That particular person seemed to have gotten away for the moment. 

On the other hand, everyone was safe. That whole situation could’ve been a hell of a lot worse. The bombs had apparently been implanted inside the walls using some sort of device to turn those walls intangible for a brief time, at some point before guests started arriving. The guy she and Dani had caught in the coat and phone room had been making the rounds to ensure they were all still primed and ready before detonation, considering the whole ‘embedded inside the wall’ thing was kind of sketchy technology. And if those things had actually detonated… Amber didn’t even want to think about it. 

What she did want to think about, on the other hand, was… Dani. The other girl had vanished from the party completely as far as Amber could tell. Which was okay, because she really didn’t want her to end up being picked up by some cop who couldn’t look the other way. Amber had told them that she didn’t know who was behind the mask, just that Pack had shown up, probably to steal something, but changed her mind when she found out about the danger everyone was in and ended up helping. That should’ve been enough to give the girl a pass for this situation, but there was always the chance that someone might be a dick. 

And… and wow. She really, truly did not want Dani to be arrested. Yes, she was a thief. She had stolen things, but… fuck. It was complicated. Or maybe she just wanted it to be? Dani broke the law, she was actively a member of a Fell-Touched gang, damn it. Was Amber’s reluctance to see her as a bad person because of some actual gray area, or her own personal feelings for the girl, or because of the whole Ministry situation? 

Most likely, all of the above. But the main question was, did that actually matter? Was it enough to excuse not saying anything to anyone about Dani being Pack? For fuck’s sake, she had just helped save a whole hotel full of people. And before that, the very first time they’d worked together, she’d helped save most of a children’s hospital. Those bits by themselves should earn her some leeway, right? 

Everything had already been so confusing. Now this? The revelation that Dani from school and Pack from… from everything that wasn’t school were actually the same person left Amber feeling like she was floundering out in the ocean. Her legs were kicking, she was treading water, but she could sink at any moment. She needed something to hold onto, something to be certain of, and she just didn’t know what that could be. Every thought she had could have been wrong, every time she thought she’d come to a decision, she dismissed it. She couldn’t trust her own feelings or thoughts. She couldn’t trust… anything. 

“Well, that was an event, wasn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Amber, as she stood on the roof of an old tire shop several blocks away from the hotel where the party had been. That place was still being swarmed by the authorities, but she’d eventually managed to excuse herself, claiming she was going to go home and rest. Instead, she had come here, sending a text to Dani’s phone about where she was going to be. 

And now, here was Dani herself, just stepping off Scatters the lizard-reindeer. She was in her actual costume rather than the one she’d worn to the party. Amber, meanwhile, had simply changed into street clothes. 

For a few long seconds, the two of them stood there staring at one another. It was clear that neither of them knew exactly what to say to the other. A couple of times, one of them made a noise as though to speak, but no actual words came out. There was so much going through their minds that was impossible to sort through, even now, hours after the fact. Both of them had thought that they were ready for this, but being here in the moment was different than thinking about or planning for it. This was… a lot. 

Finally, Dani reached up to push her hood down and pulled the mask off. She blinked that way a couple times before pushing the mask into her pocket. Still, she said nothing, simply looking at Amber with an expression that was more uncertain than any the other girl had seen on her face before. Her voice when she had first arrived had been casual, but it was the faux sort of casual. It was rehearsed, and now everything else she had planned to say had completely vanished, from the moment their eyes met. 

It was Amber who eventually broke the silence. “An event? Do you mean the part where me, a bunch of other people, and a girl I… liked sort of almost got blown up? Or the part where another girl I liked showed up and helped me stop the bomb even though she’s a criminal? 

“Or maybe you mean the part where both those girls turned out to be the same person.” 

Swallowing, Dani kicked her toe against the building roof before offering a weak shrug. “Yeah, take that whole thing, flip it around a little bit, and that’s basically where I’m at right now. You know, the whole, one girl you like, another girl you like, and poof they’re the same person. Which, in most cases, you’d think would simplify the whole situation, but not here.” She snorted and leaned back to stare up at the sky with a muttered, “I guess we’re just special that way.” 

“Special,” Amber echoed, following the other girl’s lead in staring upwards. The two stood there in silence for a moment before she spoke again. “Yeah, we’re special. So special that I’m supposed to arrest you. I mean, you’re a criminal. You’ve helped a lot with–with all that other stuff, but you still rob places, you steal things. You help Blackjack and all your other teammates. And you’re not gonna stop doing that.” 

Another couple seconds of silence passed before Dani lowered her gaze from the sky to look at Amber directly. Her voice was quiet. “No, I’m not. I don’t mind helping out when it matters. You know, stopping the real bad stuff from happening. But I’m no hero. I’m a criminal. I’m a thief.” 

“And I’m stuck trying to figure out if that even matters anymore,” Amber replied before taking a few steps over to the raised portion of the wall around the edge of the roof. Slumping down to perch on that, she added, “Sure seems like it doesn’t, considering I’m basically already working for criminals. The Ministry decides whether to let crime happen, and how much of it we’re going to be allowed to stop. Maybe not every single thing, but enough of it. The big things. It’s all a big game or something. And if I play the game the way I’m supposed to, by the rules, I have to turn you in. Which is something I should want to do.” 

Dani waited for a few seconds, then moved over to sit down as well, several feet away. “Because I’m a thief and you’re a hero. I steal from people and you protect them. And now you know who I really am, so you could definitely get me arrested. It wouldn’t take that much, not with the record you’ve got. They’d take your word for it, enough to take me in and do a search of everything I own and everywhere I’ve been.”

A derisive snort escaped Amber, as she turned a bit to look out over the parking lot below them. “You know why it’s so hard for me to see ‘little crimes’ as not that big of a deal? I mean, yeah, you’re not actively murdering people or kidnapping children for ransom or whatever. But do you know why it’s been… difficult for me to agree with your, ‘not that bad’ sort of criminal thing?” 

“Because of your dad,” Dani immediately confirmed. “He was hit by a joyrider, someone who stole that guy’s car and rode around in it. The cops told you they were pretty sure it was just an accident. Whoever did it wasn’t targeting your father, or anybody. They stole the car to screw around in and your dad just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

Amber’s eyes closed briefly before she nodded, turning slightly to meet the other girl’s gaze once more. “When you say you don’t hurt people, I always hear a ‘yet’ in the back of my head. You don’t want to, you don’t mean to, you don’t… you aren’t setting out to kill anyone. But neither was the person who hit my dad. Whoever they were, they were just out stealing a car to have fun, and they still killed someone, a completely innocent person.” 

Once again, silence reigned between the two for a few long seconds. Each was lost in their own thoughts, sitting several feet apart while considering the truth of that. Finally, Dani shifted around, sitting on the edge of the roof with her feet dangling off. “You’re right,” she agreed. “Just because I’m not planning on hurting people like that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But there is a difference between me and whoever hit your dad. If it was me, I’d fess up to it. Killing an innocent person like that, I…” She trailed off, shoulders lumping a bit before her voice softened. “I couldn’t live with myself. I wouldn’t be able to let that go and run away from it. I know it’s easy to say that, but–” 

“I believe you,” Amber interrupted before Dani could push on. “I know you, Dani. I mean, maybe I didn’t know everything. I didn’t know you were Pack. But I know Dani, and I know Pack. And now I know you’re the same person. But the most important thing is, I know you wouldn’t be okay with killing someone like that. You’re not a monster. If you accidentally killed somebody, you would turn yourself in, because you wouldn’t be able to ignore it. You’re a thief, but you have a conscience. And that’s part of the problem.” 

Her words made Dani blink in confusion. “Me having a conscience is a problem?” 

“No, I mean yes, I mean–” Stopping herself, Amber sighed while running both hands back through her hair so she could clutch the back of her neck with interlaced fingers. “If you accidentally kill someone, you’ll turn yourself in, and I won’t be able to… I won’t be able to help you. You’ll be gone, and I don’t want–I don’t want you to be gone.” 

“And that makes you feel even more guilty,” Dani guessed. 

“It does!” Amber blurted with a quick, emphatic nod. “It’s stupid, I mean, it’s just… every time I think about turning you in, or doing anything I’m supposed to do, I feel sick in my stomach. They’d take you away, they’d lock you up. I don’t want that. I don’t want you to accidentally kill anyone, and I don’t want to turn you in, and I don’t want you to–damn it. I don’t want you to go away. And on top of all those feelings, I still know that this whole thing doesn’t really matter. We can’t stop all the crime in the city, the Ministry won’t let that happen. And right now the one specific criminal I could stop from doing more crime is a girl I like!” 

After those last stammered words, Amber stopped talking. She sat there, a few feet away from Dani, while both of them looked out at the cars below. When she finally spoke again, her voice was soft enough that it was almost inaudible. “I kind of expected you to make a joke about this whole thing by now.” 

“No,” Dani replied flatly. “Not right now. Not about this.” She folded her arms against her stomach. “It makes me feel sick too, you know. Thinking about you not talking to me anymore, or me having to go away. Not just to prison, but… but just not spending time around you anymore. I thought about what would happen if ‘Dani’ had to disappear. If I told Blackjack you knew my identity, he’d pull me out of that school so fast both our heads would spin. He’d get me a new civilian identity. There’s millions of people in this city, it wouldn’t be that hard to disappear. All I’d have to do is say the word and I’d be safe, as a completely new person. But…”

“But you wouldn’t go to our school anymore,” Amber finished for her. 

Dani took in a long breath before letting it out slowly. “Yeah, I wouldn’t go to your school anymore. I wouldn’t be able to hang out with you. And that would suck.” She smiled very ruefully, glancing sidelong toward the other girl. “This shit is complicated, you know?” 

Amber, for her part, made a noise deep in her throat. “Tell me about it. I wish there was a simple answer, but I’m pretty sure there’s not. It’s just messy. It seems like no matter what I do–no matter what we do, we’ll be messing something up. Or a lot of things.” 

“Yeah, it does.” Dani kicked her heels against the side of the building a few times, lost in her own mind. Eventually, she added, “Maybe we should just put a pin in it and… call a truce for now. We can figure out what to do later. This was a lot, you know?” 

Amber shifted to look at her. “You mean agree not to do anything drastic either way and make the bigger decision later? I… guess we could do that. Kick the can down the road?”

“Yeah,” Dani agreed. She hesitated again, then pushed herself up and swung her legs back around to stand on the roof once more. “I should probably let you get back before somebody misses you or wonders where you went or whatever.”  

Standing up as well, Amber nodded once. “Sure, yeah. That’s probably best. I’ll uh, I’ll head out then. I won’t say anything about–you know. I won’t tell anyone. We can talk about the rest of it later.” 

The two stared at one another for another moment, before turning away by silent agreement. Dani moved over to where Scatters was patiently waiting, while Amber headed for the other side of the roof to teleport away. 

“Could’ve gone worse, huh?” Dani whispered to her lizard-reindeer, rubbing her head a bit before scratching under her chin. “We should take off. I’ll get all you guys some treats, and–” Her gaze caught sight of Scatters looking past her, and she turned reflexively. 

Amber’s hands caught her shoulders, pulling her forward as she leaned in. Their lips met in a desperate, hungry kiss, before those same hands slipped off the other girl’s shoulders so her arms could wrap around Dani’s back tightly. And for several long, precious seconds, the two were locked together like that. The strength in their legs left them both simultaneously, and they slumped down together, still kissing while they fell to their knees. 

Finally, they parted, though only by a few centimeters. Their lips were still almost touching, as both girls opened their eyes to stare at one another. Dani’s voice was a whisper. “I… I don’t… what are you… Why?”

“Because fuck it,” Amber replied simply. “I thought it was hard, but it’s not. I know what I want right now. It’s you. Everything else, we can figure it out later. Right now, right here, I choose you.” Her voice cracked slightly through those last words. “You got a problem with that?” 

When Dani’s answer came, it wasn’t in words. And yet the meaning was clear. 

She did not have a problem with that.  

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Interlude 20A – Robin and the Carnival (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the middle of a small, yet comfortable room, with a cozy fireplace surrounded by bookshelves, and a couple of soft, cushioned chairs that would be incredibly easy to fall asleep in, two figures sat facing one another. One was Robin, the silver-bodied robot. Their eyes were currently green, indicating that the Medical One was active. Their fingers were steepled as they observed their companion in the other chair. That companion, at the moment, looked like a very shabbily-dressed, heavily scarred, and generally unkempt version of Denise Cartland. She was known as Feisty, the werewolf aspect of the recently-born Carnival System. She was also shifting a lot in the apparently too-comfortable seat, sniffing in the air while looking around to take everything in.

“It’s a lot to get used to, isn’t it?” Med asked gently. The rest of their System had agreed that they would be the best representative to start things off. They didn’t have a lot of experience speaking with others like them, those who shared multiple minds and personalities amongst a single physical body, but they did have some. Having Quip or Chat start things off sounded good on paper, but the former could tell a joke at the wrong time, while the latter could be a bit too intense in talking people up right off the bat. Both of which felt like the wrong approach to take with someone who was still so new to all of this, and who had already been through so much as it was. If there was one thing the Carnival didn’t need, it was to be even more overwhelmed.

As soon as they had spoken, Feisty turned her attention that way. Her nostrils flared as she sniffed again before quietly responding, “What’s a lot to get used to? Knowing that monsters and magic exist, that the original versions of ourselves were horrifically murdered and we’re all melded-together aspects of the our dead selves and some part of Denise, living on a space station in the middle of the sun, sharing a single body among all of us, that the good side of the person who killed the original Denise in the first place is also in our head, or something I forgot to include in that list? Because it sure would be easy to leave something out.”

Med offered a slight smile of understanding. “Yes, there certainly is a lot. Personally, I was referring to that last part. From what we understand, you have what amounts to an internal semi-physical space where all of you interact together, rather than simply doing so mentally, as it were. Even to the point where you may pull others in to see and speak with all of you at once.” They paused, clearly considering before adding,”That does seem helpful, in some ways.”

Shifting forward to sit on the very edge of the plush seat, Feisty gave a slow nod. “I guess it is. Besides, when we’re not in charge of the body, we can all play on the rides and games.” She gave a somewhat fierce smile, adding, “I’m really good at the dart game. And the knife throwing. I think–” She stopped, glancing away with a frown. “The original version of me, the werewolf I mean, I’m pretty sure I spent some time with a circus. I keep having memory flashes of that, and  it’s definitely not from the Denise side.” A cough escaped her then before she turned back to the silver figure. “Some of us remember more of ourselves than others, you know. Do you think that’s because some of us were put together from more than one dead person? Maybe our memories have more broken pieces to sort through. Me, I’m pretty sure I’m just the one other person. At least, those circus memories are the only other ones I’m getting.”

“I’m afraid anything I say will only be a slightly educated guess,” Med carefully explained. “In our case, we weren’t created from combinations of other peoples’ memories, we simply… exist. It may be a result of our creators making us this way intentionally, sectioning off parts of our… processes into separate personalities for whatever reason. Or it could have been a result of the damage we took upon our arrival on this world. Or any number of other things. Suffice to say, we lack the specific comparison to your situation. But with that in mind, I believe it is a sound theory. If you are each drawn together from multiple similar… deceased people, it would make sense that having more source-memories to sort through would take longer.” 

Rather than respond immediately, Feisty glanced away as though engaged in internal conversation. Then she focused on him. “Hang on, Loudpound wants–” 

In mid-sentence, she shifted, growing larger as her skin turned rough and greenish into a pseudo-Orc shape. “Me, I got a bunch of different memories. Just flashes, but they’re all one of two things. Either fighting, or getting ready to fight. All the images I get are about being in the battlefield, in a barfight, in a wrestling ring, whatever. That’s all of it. So I was wondering, like…” Her hand waved a bit, face twisting into a frown as she struggled to think of the exact thing she was trying to say before shaking her head. “Fuck it, you do it. You’re better at that shit.” 

She was not addressing Med, or any of the other Robins. Instead, her body shrank and changed into the blonde figure known as Letters. She offered them an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry for the confusion, we’re still… working some things out. Tailor is getting a lot of practice though.” 

“Tailor is your shapeshifter?” Med asked, having heard a little bit about that whole situation. 

“That’s right,” Letters confirmed. “Time passes differently inside, so when the message comes that one of us needs her to make an appearance shift, she can take her time to get there but it still seems instantaneous to people on the outside.” Having explained that, she added, “And what Loudpound was trying to ask was whether you think the chicken or the egg came first. Does she only have memories of fighting and violence because she’s intended to be the Aspect who fights a lot, or does having memories of fighting and violence make her more likely to be the Aspect who fights a lot?” 

Med paused to consider, before holding up their hand. “I believe this is a question better suited for one of my other Facets.” 

With that, their eyes shifted from green to red. “Hey, well I ahh, I’m Brawl. Kinda fill the same role as your… is there a term you prefer for your relationship with one another?” 

“Headmate is fine,” Letters replied easily. “Some of us consider one another System siblings, Syslings. Others are closer to friends or roommates. Headmates. You’re the aggressive one?” 

Brawl shrugged, crimson eyes flickering a bit as though he was considering that. “I guess you could put it that way. The point is, when it comes down to it, it’s my job to make sure that whatever’s trying to hurt us or our friends, stops doing that. Sec and me, that’s Security, we sort of… you might call us twins I guess? We used to be more of a single Facet–ahh, that’s what we call ourselves, Facets. We used to be one, then it was like… there was a difference between protection and attack, so we split up. Sec’s the one that focuses on safety. Me, I hit things really hard. Not sure why or… or how we went from being one to two, exactly, but it’s what happened.” 

Letters seemed to consider that before holding up a finger. “Not to be rude, but someone else would like to speak.” 

That time, they grew only a few inches, body shifting into a male-presenting form though their hair remained long. It also darkened from blond to black with a slightly shimmering effect. The new arrival wore a bright pink suit jacket, pants, and tie, with a white silk shirt, a long cape that was black on the outside and pink on the inside, and a black and pink top hat. He immediately sprang out of the seat to stand up, voice filling the small room. “Hi, hello, how are you?!” He took a step back so he would have room to sweep into a bow. “I came with no name to my face, but I opened my mouth and they all said I was ostentatious. So here I am, Austin Tasious. Such a pleasure to meet you, we thought we’d have to wait a long time to find someone who understood.” Even as he said that, Austin was stepping that way, taking the Robins’ hand to shake firmly with both of his. “It really is such–ahh ahh, wait, what’s that behind your ear?” Reaching back slightly behind the robot’s head, Austin snapped his hand back and opened his palm to reveal a small silver egg, which immediately cracked open to allow a flock of colorful butterflies to sail out in every direction. They soared around the room before vanishing. 

Brawl, taking all that in, grunted, “You’re the magician.” 

“That’s right,” Austin confirmed while offering a faint smile that was slightly tinted with something a bit less cheerful. Worry. Despite his outward appearances and showmanship, he was worried. “Look, we’re all basically hanging all over your words in there. You said you and Sec used to be a single personality. Well I’m like… my whole thing is magic, okay? That’s who I am. I’ve got all the memories and skills of all the spells Ammon collected from the people he killed. If the Carnival needs magic, they talk to me. But now, like… are you saying that I’ll start splitting up into smaller versions of me. Not smaller, you know what I mean. Am I gonna stop being me and start turning into three, four, however many other people that aren’t quite exactly me?” 

There was a moment of silence while Brawl considered that before Robin’s eyes shifted from red to brownish as Hood took over. “Speaking as the first of us, at least as far as we can remember, one becoming several isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But we all understand what you mean, and why you’re worried about it. It can be complicated enough to share a body with others, let alone if you think you might be a…” 

Their eyes shifted to light blue for Chat to find the right word. “Placeholder. If you think you’re a placeholder for others to show up. And yeah, we get why you’re worried about that. Since, ahh, your siblings are more about being created from the memories of specific people, and you’re more drawn from a general skillset.”  

The eyes went to green for Med. “I would have phrased that differently, but yes. Sorry.” 

“It’s okay,” Austin muttered, making his cape billow a bit before adding, “Thing is, I like being me. It’s fun. I like standing out, I like my thoughts, my mind, my–me. I don’t wanna… disappear.” 

Eyes shifting to yellow for Sprite, the silver robot rose from the seat and took a step that way before quietly asking, “Uh, can we hug you?” She danced just a little from foot to foot, her reactions and apparent impatience making it clear that it had been one of the others who reminded her to ask for permission first. 

Austin agreed, and the two embraced for a moment, the Sprightly One holding relatively tightly (though not anywhere near as tight as their body was capable of) before adopting a cheerful tone. “I don’t think you’re gonna disappear, and neither does Med. You’re different from us. You were, you know, created differently. And… and even if you do change like Sec and Brawl, you’ll all still be who you are now, just with more of you, right?” 

After hesitating to consider that for a moment, Austin swallowed before giving a short nod. It was clear that not all of his worry was gone, but he did at least feel a little better. The magician boy offered a thanks before adding, “I’m glad you think I won’t just die.” 

With that, their body changed once more. The new arrival looked basically like Denny herself, but a, well, dead version of the girl. Her skin was pale, eyes sunken in, with visible scarring and rope marks around her neck. She offered a toothy smile. “He can’t be the dead one anyway, I’ve got that covered.” 

As Sprite made a squeaking noise of surprise, their eyes shifted from her yellow to the pink of the Quipping One. Quip looked the seemingly dead girl up and down before offering, “Lemme guess, you’re the one who shapeshifts into animals.” 

Then their eyes went back to green for Med, shaking his head. “More seriously, are you… Denise?” He was clearly worried that the girl was presenting herself as dead for more psychological reasons. 

The girl, however, shook her head. The rope marks on her neck vanished, while her skin remained pale but took on a slightly blueish tint. Her hair became soaking wet, dripping onto the floor. She had gone from someone who had been hanged to someone who had drowned. “Nah, that’s not how she died. And neither is this.” Her head shook demonstrably, throwing water around in the process. “I’m like Austin, except that where he’s got all the memories of the magic that all Ammon’s victims knew, I’m all their memories of dying.” Despite her somber words and appearance of a somehow animated dead girl, she offset them with a bright, cheerful smile. “I’m Bucket. As in ‘Kick The.’” Her explanation was followed by an audible giggle. “Every single person Ammon killed, I’ve got the assortment of their memories of the… you know.” She drew a finger across her throat while making a cutting sound effect with her mouth. “But then again, I also have super-powerful regeneration. There was this one time that Asenath chick threw a knife right into Ammon’s heart and he was fine right after. That’s the power I’ve got.” 

Her skin turned red and blustery, as if it had been horrifically burned, while her hair became almost non-existent, what remained sticking out in jagged strands. “Isn’t that funny? I get every memory of every death, but I can’t die. I just heal from everything. It’s like, ironic or something.” 

Med absorbed that, looking her up and down before asking, “Are you afraid you’ll disappear, or grow into multiple people?” 

“Nah,” came the casual response, “like you guys said, we’re not the same as you. Similar idea, but different. And even if we were, my whole job is to hold onto the memories of how the others all died. I mean, it’s a long list, but I don’t exactly need help doing it, you know? It’s all right up here.” Bucket tapped her forehead, even as her body shifted back to being almost normal aside from her too-pale skin and a single bullet hole right next to where she was tapping.   

“Well, if you ever do want to talk about that, or even about any… questions you have about the deaths you remember, feel free to say something.” Med extended his hand once more, as a slot opened up in his palm and a small card appeared. “That goes for all of you, of course. Our personal contact number is there.” 

Their eyes shifted to light pink, as Quip cut in, “And when he says personal contact number, he really means personal.” 

Then the eyes were dark blue, almost black. “I’m Sec. And the card links to a communication device within our own head. You will be able to reach us in virtually any circumstance.” 

As Bucket’s hand reached out to take the card, her body shifted and changed once more. The new figure was, again, slightly taller than the original Denny, though only by a couple inches. Their hair was light brown. Beyond that, the most obvious part of their outward appearance was that it was split in half. The left side of their body was clearly feminine, with longer hair that fell to their shoulder and slightly softer features (though their apparent age made that not quite as obvious as it might’ve been). The right side, meanwhile, had short hair that was somewhat messy and unkempt, with slightly more masculine features despite their young appearance. They wore a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved button-up shirt. The jeans were black, while the shirt was pink on the male side and white on the female side. 

“Hey there,” the new arrival announced in a female voice, “I’m Tick.” As she said that, a small swarm of buzzing bees appeared over her shoulder and hovered there. 

“And I’m Talk.” That time, the voice was male. “Or as they would’ve said in the Yupiltepeque region of Guatemala a century ago…” He repeated the same words, but in a language that was technically considered extinct.

“You’re showing off, Talk,” the female voice pointed out. 

“Like you’re not, Tick,” the male voice retorted before waving toward the hovering bees. “I mean, hello?” He stopped waving and focused on the nearby robot figure. “In case you’re confused…” 

“We’re twins.” Despite only one mouth speaking, both voices emerged in a perfect chorus. 

Eyes shifting to amber-brown once more, Hood lifted his chin while regarding them. “Twins, Tick and Talk. That’s pretty fun. Do… you know why you specifically are twins? Are you linked like this in the Carnival space?” 

“Nope, not usually,” came the response from Tick. “We’re separate in there. But we like to come out together.” 

“Share and share alike,” Talk agreed. “And I think we’re twins because we came from the same source. I communicate with and understand people.” 

“And I communicate with and understand insects,” Tick added. “Well, and control them. But Talk can control people too, in some ways. See, we think that’s why we’re so connected–” 

“And in sync,” their voices chorused together. 

With a faint smile, Hood nodded. “Well, that’s interesting. Wouldn’t you say?” 

His eyes shifted to green once more, as Med agreed, “It certainly is. And it’s somewhat connected to what we were talking about before. If you both originated from the same ‘communication powers’ source, simply diverging into ‘people or insects,’ perhaps that means any diverging, such as what happened with Brawl and Sec, is already done.” 

Hair shifting to blonde as her own choice of clothes (a white shirt and pants) reappeared, Letters carefully asked, “You meant what you said, about being able to call you whenever we want?” She was holding the card with the phone number. “We… we might need to do that a lot. You’re the only people we know like us. But we don’t want to bug you.” 

“Hah!” That was Quip, as the Robin System’s eyes turned pink. “Bug us. Pretty sure that’s Tick’s job.” 

“Ahem.” Their eyes shifted to green as Med took over. “Absolutely. Any of you can call us any time. We cannot promise that the one you wish to speak to won’t be… occupied in the moment, but the benefit of being what amounts to multiple artificial intelligences within the same body is that while one is physically occupied, the others are more than capable of carrying on a conversation.” 

“Which,” Chat put in, eyes shifting to light blue, “is a fancy way of saying, we’ll talk any time you want. About anything. Believe me, some of us love talking.” 

Letters nodded slowly. “Good. I mean, thanks. We could really use someone who can give us advice for… for all of this. I think… I think some people around here think it’s too strange, even for them. Or they think we’re all just Denny acting it out.” 

“They’ll learn,” Med assured her. “Or they won’t, but either way, it is not a problem with any of you. Remember, there is a difference between not understanding and wanting to learn, and not understanding because you don’t want to learn. But either way, it is not your job to educate them unless you want to.”

As Letters slowly nodded, her figure shifted again. Soon, Feisty stood there once more in her shabby clothing. “Okay, but… do you ever wonder about your memories from before you were on Earth? Do you want them back?” 

There was a brief pause, before the silver robot’s eyes shifted to amber-brown, the color for Hood. “If we’re going to talk about that, maybe we should sit down. 

“Because I have a feeling it’s going to be a long conversation.” 

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Interlude 24A – Fragile And Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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Her father would never approve of this. As she stood on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in Detroit, Melissa Abbot knew that much for sure. He didn’t know she was here, and if he had, he would have bent reality in half if that was what it took to get her away from there. The nine-year-old girl wasn’t sure exactly how he would react to seeing her standing with her toes on the very edge of the roof, but she did know it would be dramatic. Her father was good at being dramatic. It probably came from being the leader of a gang of supervillains. You had to be dramatic for stuff like that. Deicide, Cuélebre, Sandon, even Pencil, they were all dramatic. 

Did the Ministry have something to do with that? She knew they kept crime in the city under control, but still present, so they could get rich off of it or something. It was weird, and she didn’t completely understand the whole thing. But she did know that they wanted a lot of tourist people to come, and they wanted a lot of exciting Touched things to happen. It brought money to the city in plenty of ways. Money and power. The government sent the city money to help deal with the Touched situations, which allowed them to recruit more Star-Touched, which made people see the city as being safe so they brought more tourism dollars and business. They just had to like, balance it and stuff.  

The way Melissa saw it, the Ministry was sort of like the sun. It was big and powerful, staring too hard at it would be bad for her, but she needed it to stay alive. Also, if it was suddenly gone with nothing to replace it, she was pretty sure life everywhere she looked right now would get a lot worse. And yet, if it got too much stronger, that probably wouldn’t be good either. 

Not that the actual sun was out right now, of course. It was too late for that. The sun had gone down before she finished with her patrol with Wobble and Whamline. And oh how tempted she had been to come up with a W name so they could be WWW. 

Heee, patrol. Last month she had been completely bedridden. No, not just last month. She had been bedridden basically her entire life, as far back as she could remember. She was always too weak to run around like a normal kid. She just sat in her bed and dreamed up stories. She imagined grand, epic adventures. Adventures that some part of her had always known she would never get to have for herself.

Known. She had known it, and yet, here she was. She had used a spray of her glass shards to trap a man with a knife earlier. He had been harassing this girl who was only a few years older than Melissa herself, barely a teenager, which was just super-gross. He’d threatened to cut her if she didn’t do what he said. He was a bad guy, a real bad guy, and she stopped him. The boys were busy with other things down the street, but she had seen the man drag the girl into an alley, and she stopped him.

It was possible that she was still a little hyped up after all that. Going from being trapped in her bed with a body that would break if she stepped too hard, to being… well, technically she still had a body that would break if she stepped too hard, but now it didn’t matter. She had been metaphorically made of glass, and now it was literal. But it was also better, because she could shatter apart over and over again, and just put herself back together.

Not that that stopped her father from worrying completely. Hence why he would probably freak out a little bit if he saw her standing on the edge of this roof. He’d asked her more than once if she had a death wish, and not jokingly every time. He was seriously worried about her. Which was silly. Of course she didn’t have a death wish. The whole reason she kept throwing herself into these situations and doing the stuff that made him worry was because she wanted to live. She wanted to experience everything.

She had spent years trapped in her bed, imagining the things she would do if she ever had a chance. Now she had it. Her body was fine. Well, in a manner of speaking. Every memory she had up to the moment she had Touched was filled with the fear of breaking. 

But now? Now breaking couldn’t kill her, so she refused to be afraid of it. She refused to be afraid of falling as she tilted her head to look at the ground down far, far below. From now on, she was going to live.

It was now or never if she was going to do this. Her ride back home didn’t know she was already done with patrol, but he would be coming soon, and would want to know why she wasn’t waiting at the usual spot. If he wondered more than a few moments, he would call her father, and that would start a whole thing. If she was going to try this, it had to be now.

Of course, she could’ve tried it from much lower, or even the ground, but hey, her dad wasn’t the only dramatic one in the family.

Taking one last look down and around at the street below (mostly empty thanks to the curfew), Melissa walked back several long, deliberate steps. She glanced at her glass arms and legs, currently not hidden behind the incogniter. Then she looked over her shoulder at the crate full of glass bottles she had carried up here. Without wasting another moment, she clapped both hands together hard enough to make them shatter. Then she sent the resulting shards from her broken hands flying out to hit the bottles. Every bit of glass they touched, she could suddenly sense and control. 

A moment later, the pieces of her hands came back and reformed themselves before safely attaching to her wrists. Meanwhile, the bottles she had taken control of rose and hovered in the air behind her. There were a hundred of them, and they all shattered at once. The resulting thousands of shards all flew around like a swarm of bees around the girl as she looked across the street toward the next building once more. Taking a moment to collect herself, Melissa smiled very faintly before whispering, “This is for you, earlier me.” 

With that, she ran forward and leapt off the roof of that enormous skyscraper. The nine year old girl plummeted rapidly toward the ground, even as her swarm of broken glass shards dove after her. Several hundred of the shards merged under her feet to form an angled ramp that swooped down and around. Landing on it, Melissa maintained her momentum by racing along the ramp toward the steep, curved slide that the rest of those shards were making. With a loud whoop, she dove onto the slide head first, riding it down through midair. Shooting off the end and tumbling through the air, she laughed riotously even as the ramp and slide disintegrated, their pieces swarming after her to form a sideways, slightly angled path right in front of her. She hit the ramp hard enough to shatter her feet, but that only made her stumble very slightly before the glass reformed and she was able to keep running. 

To one side, she could see a few people looking out the windows of the building. She waved at them cheerfully before making the glass walkway shatter under her so she could drop once more. Tucking her arms to her sides and angling her feet downward, the girl plummeted and spun, squealing out loud. This was the most amazing, wonderful moment in her life. No, no, that was when she had been able to run around the block alongside her father. Yes, maybe most would have found that shockingly mundane in comparison to this. But for Melissa, it had been everything she dreamed of while being stuck in her bed.

She was still falling and squealing as something flew in from the side to form a different ramp under her. No it wasn’t a ramp, it was a funnel of some kind. Melissa barely had time to notice it appearing before she was suddenly sliding down the funnel. It carried her around in circles, like a spiral slide while she tried to focus on using her glass to break through it. But it all happened so quickly. The twisting slide was carefully angled to slow her descent until she finally came to a stop lying directly on her back, cocooned within this weird material. Wait. Curiously, Melissa moved her arm a bit and easily cut through it with her sharp glass finger. Paper? Wait, the slide was made of paper? That meant—

“Are you okay?”

The question came from everywhere at once, the words filling the air even as the top of the enclosed paper slide opened to reveal an armored figure standing there on top of two floating books, one foot on each. A dozen other books were hovering around this figure, the source of the voice. The books would open randomly and flip to a page before a word on that page was spoken aloud in that loud, seemingly omnipresent voice.

Taking all that in before focusing on the figure in armor, paper armor, Melissa pointed while blurting, “Deicide? Wait, do we have to fight right now? I was having fun.”

There was a pause as the figure stared at her before the box flipped through pages again and the voice spoke. “Fun? Are you saying you weren’t in danger?”

The question made Melissa giggle a little bit before she quickly covered her mouth. “Oh, sorry. I mean, not really?” To demonstrate, she focused on her own glass form and made it float up off the paper slide. She hovered there in the air and spread her arms to either side. “See? I could stop whenever I wanted. Besides, if I hit the ground and broke, I’d just put myself back together again. Thanks, anyway? But, um, I thought you were a bad guy?”

There was a mix of faint annoyance and dry amusement in the voice now as Deicide replied, “There are different types of bad, I would have you know. Allowing a small child to plummet to her death is slightly worse than I prefer to see myself as. Even if others would disagree.” 

That made sense, of course. Melissa’s own father was one of the nicer types of bad. Still, she didn’t want to say that. Instead, she formed a new ramp under her feet so she could stand there next to the villain. “Everyone says you’re really angry right now. You know, after—”

“I know what they’re referring to,” the books interrupted. That armored figure folded her arms while continuing to seemingly stare at her. “I’m still not about to let someone like you fall and die. Doesn’t matter how pissed off I am. I’m not a monster.” 

After another moment of hesitation, Melissa asked, ”But you are going to kill other people, right?”

The armored figure seemed to shrug. “Why, do you want to try to stop me?” At first, Melissa thought the voice was taunting, but then she realized it was more curious. It was as though Deicide really wanted to know if the girl was going to try to intervene. “You might have trouble with that. I can be pretty persistent.” Another pause came, before she added, “Especially when I’m pissed off.”

Once more, Melissa hesitated. She wasn’t sure she should bring this up, but then again, when would she ever get a chance like this again? “How come you hate Cuélebre so much? A lot of people keep saying this seems personal. It’s not just about taking territory. It’s like you really wanna, um, hurt him.”

Several long seconds of silence passed. Deicide seemed to be staring off at nothing. It was like she couldn’t decide if she was going to answer or not, like the way Melissa’s dad would get when she asked him how bad her illness was getting. The young girl waited before starting to speak up to tell her never mind, not wanting to push her luck. But before she could do more than open her mouth, that voice came again.

“Let’s just say, I am one of his many victims, whom he has never thought about. The specifics don’t really matter to anyone but me, certainly not to him. But he has hurt too many people. He has a reckoning coming, and I am going to give it to him.”  

Melissa raised both shoulders in a shrug. “But aren’t you hurting people too? And not just to get to him. You run one of the biggest gangs in the city. They definitely hurt people.”

“Hardly one of the largest gangs right now,” Deicide pointed out with a dark tone. “Not after those arrogant mother—” She stopped, seeming to take in who she was talking to. “Oh well. They’ll get what’s coming to them just as he will. They were useful for a while, now they’ve proven not to be.”

Melissa wasn’t sure how to react to that. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to be able to talk Deicide out of her whole revenge thing. Not that she expected to be able to, but hey, getting confirmation that there really was some sort of personal history between her and Cuélebre was more than she expected. There had been rumors about it for a long time, and all the online stuff that she read. But she was pretty sure this was the first real confirmation.

Finally, she replied, “So, I guess that means you’re not gonna just let it go and walk away?” 

The pages of the book flipped rapidly, as sounds emerged. They were all ‘Heh’ sounds, but seemed to be taken from the start of words. It was as though the woman was creating a slightly unsettling approximation of a laugh by simply taking the H sounds from the start of words like Home, Hamilton, Harris, or Hockey, without allowing the rest of those words to be said. It was… weird. The whole thing was weird, really. Was she mute? Did she have to talk through her books? Did her being mute have something to do with why she hated Cuélebre so much? Did he do something that made her lose her voice? 

She couldn’t spend too much time thinking about that before the off-putting laughter stopped. Deicide spoke flatly, that eerily omnipresent voice sounding even stranger now. “No, I will definitely not be walking away. But you should, now. Your ride is here, I believe.” With that, the armored figure pointed downward and over a bit, to a spot where an unmarked sedan was idling. The driver got out and looked around as though wondering where Melissa was. Then he looked up. Melissa could see the way his eyes bulged at the sight of her and Deicide standing in midair, before he fumbled to get his phone out. 

“You should go now,” Deicide informed her. “Before your… driver does something unwise.” 

The way she said it made Melissa blink that way very briefly. Did she know something about who Melissa’s family really was? Her tone… it was clear that she knew the man down there wasn’t her father or another relative. Maybe she just thought he was an Uber driver or something? But that didn’t really fit with the way she said it. 

Still, she couldn’t exactly ask about it. Not without giving something away if the woman didn’t actually know much. She might’ve been fishing for information or something. Melissa really wasn’t sure, and she didn’t want to mess anything up by saying too much. Plus, Duke down there really did seem like he was freaking out. He was probably trying to call Melissa’s dad. And if he thought she was in trouble–oh no, she couldn’t let that happen. Dad already had enough things to deal with, and he’d already been hesitant as it was to let her come out like this.

With thoughts of her father losing his mind and sending an army of his people filling her head, Melissa quickly waved at the woman and let herself drop toward the ground. She caught herself right before landing next to Duke, blurting, “It’s okay! I’m okay, I’m fine. It’s okay, okay?” She was saying okay too much, but the rushed words came out before she could think about that. 

Duke, a short, unassuming-looking man with graying brown hair and hazel eyes, stared at her with the phone to his ear. He hesitated slightly before speaking. “Hold on a second, I think we’re good.”  Slowly he lowered the phone. “You sure we’re good? That–” He looked up, only to give a doubletake. “Where’d she go?” 

Sure enough, there was no sign of Deicide anywhere. The woman had vanished already. Melissa looked around, but the only other sign of life on the street was a teenaged Latina girl walking past at a quick pace while talking on a cell phone to someone who seemed to be her mother, telling her she was just going to the store to get a drink and that it was no big deal. She did give a double-take at the sight of the glass girl, waving excitedly with a called, “Hey!” Then she quickly informed her mother that she had just seen one of the Minority and she should guess which one. Other than that, the street looked empty. 

“I guess she had to go,” Melissa replied with a shrug after waving back to the passing girl. “She probably didn’t wanna deal with the police she thought you were calling.” She almost pointed out that she thought Deicide might’ve known about her connection to La Casa with the weird way she had mentioned Duke as her driver. But she definitely didn’t want to let her father know about that. He’d freak out even more. 

“Okay, well, let’s get out of here before she starts another war and we end up in the middle of it.” With those muttered words, the man opened up the backseat of the sedan, gesturing for Melissa to get in.

Melissa, in turn, had just started to climb into the car when something came flying up from behind to slam into her. It was more paper, this time hundreds of sheets shaped like a large hand. It knocked Melissa to the side, before catching hold of Duke to hold him tightly within that enormous fist. 

Landing hard enough on the pavement to make several pieces of herself shatter, Melissa stared as Deicide came into view once more. “Wh-what’re you doing?! Let him go!” She focused on bringing her swarm of glass shards back, wondering if she could actually do anything to hurt the Fell-Touched leader. 

“I don’t think you want me to do that,” Deicide’s assortment of flying books replied, before the woman walked right up to the struggling, cursing man. She reached out, making the paper fist open just enough for her to stick her hand inside his jacket. His struggling got worse, as did the cursing. But she managed to pull out a folded piece of paper, and some sort of remote control. “Here.” With that, she held the paper out. 

Melissa stared at it uncertainly. On the paper was written, ‘Do it tonight and the debt is forgiven. Stand back from the car when you hit it. See if that little bitch can rebuild herself out of this.’ 

Once Deicide was sure the girl had read it, she held the remote up for Melissa to see, then pressed the button. As she did, the entire inside of the car, the car she had been about to get into, was suddenly engulfed in flames. It wasn’t a simple explosion. The car, centered on the backseat, had been transformed into a ridiculously intense blast furnace or… or something. It was really hot, that was all Melissa knew. Hot enough that, within a few seconds, there wasn’t much left of the car. The flames died out soon, leaving Deicide, Melissa, and Duke, who was still held tightly in that paper fist. 

“So,” the armored woman started after a moment. 

“I think you need a new ride. And a new driver.” 

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Calm Before 20-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Children? Children of Olympians?” As he said those words, Manakel started to continue before pausing. A slight grimace crossed his face. “I would ask if you were certain, but I do not believe you would have come to me with that if you were not.”

I was back in the room where the Seosten ghost man was being held, with my mother standing at the doorway watching. She had that sword that Kushiel had wanted held in one hand, her attention torn between inspecting it and keeping an eye on every move he made. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed flatly, “we’re sure. The others saw a few of them use powers. And they basically confirmed it when it was brought up. Except they said Kushiel is their mother. Apparently they seemed pretty loyal to her.” 

Manakel absorbed that, floating backwards a couple feet as though the information itself had physically rocked him. “Kushiel having access to any children at all is very bad news. Having Olympian children is much worse, especially if they are, as you say, loyal. It sounds as though she has raised fanatics.” 

I took a breath, preparing myself. “Okay, look I just have to ask. Did you know anything about this? Did you know she had offspring like that? You or your old self or whatever. Did you have any idea?”  

The man shook his head firmly. “I assure you, I may have had a good many issues by the end, but I was loyal to my people in my own way. Had I known there were living offspring from our ship, I would have had them taken away from her to be raised properly.” 

I continued to stare at him for another few seconds, trying to read if there was anything duplicitous in his face. I wasn’t sure, not entirely. But something told me he was telling the truth about this. It didn’t take much to know that allowing Kushiel to raise a group of potentially incredibly powerful fanatical teenagers was a bad idea. So, I glanced toward my mother and gave her a short nod. As I was doing that, Manakel spoke up. “When you say these children displayed powers, what were they?” 

“They didn’t have any necromancy,” I replied simply. “At least none that they saw. But apparently not all of them used any visible powers.” I thought back to what the others had described. “There was one who controlled water, another one who made the concrete turn into fists, big ones. Another made the air solid enough to walk on or hit people with. And then there was the girl, the one in charge I mean. Apparently she made explosions and teleported? They’re not sure if those were part of the same thing or what.” 

Manakel considered that, silent thoughts clearly passing through his mind as his expression twisted. “The water isn’t hard. That must be Sachael’s child. As for the concrete manipulator, my… best guess is Orifiel. He was able to control physical buildings and similar constructs. That may be an earlier manifestation of it. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t using the power to its full extent. Either way, Orifiel… passed away over fifty years ago. Kushiel must have either kept some of his genetic material herself, or acquired it from another storage facility.” 

He went silent for a few seconds, processing his thoughts. I didn’t interrupt, and he eventually spoke again. “The girl who manipulated the air would almost certainly be the offspring of Rabia. She was… killed by the Moon girl during your assault on Kushiel’s original lab. And as for the girl who teleports via explosions…” He paused before visibly sighing. “I’m afraid I have no idea. It could be a manifestation or use of an ability I didn’t witness, or… perhaps a combination of two powers from a pair of Olympian parents, which created this form… I apologize. It could also be part of one of my removed memories.” 

“Removed–” I started before realizing. “Right, Athena and Sariel talked about that. Seosten can just… remove bits of their memory and store them somewhere else to go back for later when they need them.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “If that is the case, all you need to do is acquire my stored memories from the homeworld.” Another grimace came then, as he lamented, “I intended those words as a mixture of a joke and praise for your probable ability to actually accomplish something like that. But I’m afraid it may have come off as taunting.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I pushed all of that down and simply replied, “Yeah, well until we happen to get those memories, we’ll just have to go with what you said. Which, for the record, basically matches what Sariel and the others thought.” Of course we had talked to them first before asking him any questions. I want to know if he would keep anything back. 

Manakel, in turn, gave me a short nod. “Please tell me you are going to inform my people of this.” He hesitated before adding, “If you truly wish for this peace treaty to work out, telling them is a good idea. They will not react happily should they learn about it and discover that you’ve kept it from them.” 

Before I could respond, my mother spoke up. “Yes, we are going to let your people know about it. Especially Sachael. He was already willing to help us once before, and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t…” She glanced away before turning back, expression hard. “I wouldn’t keep a secret like that. Your people are… you have trouble creating offspring. These children… their parents deserve to know they exist. The ones who are still alive anyway.” 

The reminder made me grimace a bit. That reminded me of another potential issue. I had no idea if that air-controlling girl, Fuscus apparently, knew that Vanessa was the one who had killed her real mother. Or if she would even care. That whole situation was complicated, to say the least. And it had the potential to become even more so. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I asked, “You were around Kushiel a lot more recently than the others here. I mean, you were on decent terms with her. Plus you uhh, you’ve had that connection to Tartarus. Do… do you have any idea why she might’ve wanted to take Harrison Fredericks? Is this a Kushiel thing, or a Tartarus thing, or–why does she want him? What is she planning to do?” We’d asked the other Seosten here on the station the same thing, of course, but they’d had no idea. 

Unfortunately, Manakel shook his head. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly guess why she would want to abduct the creator of cyberforms, aside from forcing him to create more for her. You said her ghost companions could possess them. Perhaps she wants to give them bodies they can use so they are not limited to ghost forms. But that is merely a guess.”  

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s basically where we’re at too.” I hesitated before looking back to him. “If you remember or think of anything else–”  

“I will tell you,” he assured me. “Even if I was not intent on making up for past mistakes, removing those offspring from her control is vital. I will attempt to think of what they could be doing with Fredericks. Of course, I can make no promises, but I… I will do what I can. You have my word, Felicity Chambers.” 

That was basically all I could ask for, and all I would trust him to say. So, excusing myself, I left him there with his thoughts. As Mom and I stepped out, we looked at each other. “This could get really bad,” I said quietly. 

Still holding that sword, Mom gave a short nod. “Yeah, it could. But we’ll handle it. Whatever she’s planning, we’ll deal with it. Now, don’t you have something else to do?” 

I blanched a little. “Right, homework. Actually, does it count as homework if we’re living on a space station in the middle of the sun? Maybe we should call it sunwork. That makes it sound exciting.” 

Mom, for her part, chuckled while reaching out to brush my hair. “You can call it anything you want, my little Felicity. Just make sure you get it done. You know the rules.”

Snickering despite myself as I pushed worry about what Kushiel and her newly revealed entourage were up to out of my head, I replied, “Yeah, yeah, I am totally not allowed to go on any life-and-death, world-saving and horrifyingly terrifying missions to far sides of the planet and or universe until I get my homework done. Sorry, my sunwork done.” 

“That’s right,” Mom confirmed, hand brushing down the side of my cheek fondly. “Now you head on back to your room to work on that, young lady. Don’t make me get Wyatt to lock you down until it’s done.

“I’m sure he’d love the challenge.” 

*****

For the next couple of weeks, things settled down for the most part. We didn’t see any sign of Kushiel, or Invidia, or any of the other Whispers or Seosten ghosts. Besides the one we had locked up here with us, of course. We had groups out searching for Fredericks with no luck. The loyalist Heretics from Crossroads and Eden’s garden had already set up camp at his lab. Well, they set up camp outside of it. Apparently they were incapable of getting inside. Which raised the question of how Kushiel had managed to go through that and get him out of there. His defenses were too much for a joint team of Heretics to properly deal with, but she got through it as a ghost? Yeah, I had a few questions about that.

But, there was nothing to be done about that for now. Not until someone managed to track them down, or at least get a lead. For the moment, we had nothing. So, I went about my days like an ordinary student. Two weeks of ordinary school days, or at least as ordinary as they got around here. 

I had spent time helping the Carnival System explore who they were. They started attending their own classes alongside Dakota, Bobbi, and others. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard for the other students to accept them. Apparently multiple minds sharing one body wasn’t all that extraordinary or weird for them. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like in the Bystander world. 

I didn’t visit Zeke, of course. We weren’t friends, and my presence wouldn’t make his staying here any better. But from what I heard, he really wasn’t happy about the situation. They had him in a comfortable set of rooms without letting him near any of the non-Heretic students. He kept going on about being a prisoner, but what else were we supposed to do? We couldn’t trust him not to react violently the first time some innocent little Alter kid went running past him. 

Malcolm, his old friend and roommate, had left Crossroads. Actually, Sophronia brought him over. Apparently he had only stayed there to try to help Zeke in the first place, not because he still believed in them. Which made me wonder how many others were there just to be with friends and family. 

Either way, Zeke might’ve been more angry with Malcolm than he was at his mother or anyone else. He refused to see him. Which had to hurt, but Malcolm seemed to roll with it.

I did go back to visit the residents in the hidden vault. I had promised we would help them, and we were. Most chose to stay and wait for us to find their missing kids with the information we had taken from Perrsnile. Information which, unfortunately, was going to take time to pan out. After all, it wasn’t like the people he had sold those kids to had all stayed in one spot. We were working on tracking them down. Which, overall, the vault people were being pretty patient about. Especially considering what they had already been through. Some chose to leave the vault and go out on their own, or even come up to live on the station. Whatever they wanted, we helped with as much as we could. 

Beyond that, I spent time with Manakel, taking lessons from him about how to use my power properly. As promised, we started with me learning how to undo the spell that had sent Grover’s friend away. It was a slow process, and I wasn’t ready to do it just yet, but it was definitely progress. I assured Grover that as soon as I had a handle on it, we would go back to that hotel and give it a shot.

So, basically, I had a lot to work on even if there wasn’t much openly happening. I definitely wasn’t bored, to say the least.

That whole not bored thing went triple at the moment, considering I was busy frantically sparring with Avalon. She was intent on making sure I wasn’t slacking in that department. And, I was pretty sure, she was also working out various frustrations of her own. She was getting more and more worried about Gaia with every day that went by. Which I couldn’t blame her for. We had to get the woman out of there. Preferably as soon as possible, and definitely before this truce with the Seosten ran out. 

Finally, after an intense series of clashes between my staff and two of the energy blades from her gauntlets, we both took a few steps back and bent over to grab our knees while panting a bit. I shook my head. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have someone like Zeke in here to beat up on?”  

She gave me a look and snorted. “Trust me, Felicity, if there was any chance I could get away with that, I would. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold back with him nearly as much as I do with you.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted, “if this is you holding back, he’d probably end up in rough shape. I’m pretty sure Sophronia would object to us handing him back to her in more than one piece.” Sobering after that, I added, “I take it there still hasn’t been any luck trying to figure out why the Whispers want him.” 

“Nothing new,” she confirmed while cracking her neck as she straightened up. “Something to do with that colony world, but we can’t go there and check it out ourselves. Crossroads still has a presence there. Athena says they’re working on getting someone there to look around, but they have to be subtle about it.” 

“Speaking of which,” I put in, “I was talking to Wyatt earlier, and he said they’ve put together another packet of information to send to Crossroads and Garden about protections against the Whispers. Everything we know about them. I mean, there’s no proof they’ll even listen to us, but we’ve gotta try, right?” 

Avalon grimaced visibly, murmuring, “Yeah, we have to try. The last thing–one of the last things we need is for a bunch of loyalist Heretics to end up being controlled by Invidia’s pack.” 

“Sure doesn’t sound fun,” I agreed, stomach twisting a bit at the thought. “I think I’m starting to understand why you want to exhaust yourself with all this.” My hand gestured around the training room before I focused on her, voice softening. “Seriously, I know it’s a lot to deal with, but we’re getting there, you know?” 

“Are we?” she replied simply. “Because it kind of seems like we keep adding new problems we need to deal with without actually handling the stuff we already have.” 

She wasn’t wrong about that, and I had just opened my mouth to try to find something I could say when there was a chime from the door, indicating someone wanted to come in. We opened it, and found Shiori on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. Asenath was there too, along with another figure I didn’t recognize, but knew immediately. They were a silver metallic android with glowing gem-like eyes. From what I’d heard, those eyes changed color, but for the moment they were an amber-brown. 

“Hey, Flick,” Shiori chirped, stepping in to embrace me tightly. She had been busy lately, helping her sister search for answers to Tiras’s lost memories. “Hey, Avalon.” 

“Hey guys,” I greeted alongside Valley. “Looks like you brought a friend.” 

Senny nodded. “Yeah, this is Robin. Ah…” She leaned around to glance at the figure’s eyes. “Hood. Yeah, Robin Hood.” 

The robot smiled brightly. “Pleased to meet you, Felicity Chambers.”

Their eyes shifted to yellow while they added, “We’ve been waiting a long time to meet the one who stomped Fossor’s stupid butt so hard!” 

Before I could respond, the eyes turned red. “I just wish we could’ve been there to lend a hand. Cuz beating the shit out of that asshole sounds like fun.” 

I’d heard about this, of course. Shiori had explained the whole situation when she heard about Denny and the Carnival System. But we still went through official introductions. This was the Robin System. The one I’d seen first, with the brown eyes, was the original–or at least the first one who had woken up here on Earth. They were Robin Hood, or the Hooded One. The yellow-eyed one was called Sprite, or the Sprightly One. Red eyes was Brawl, or the Brawling One. Med/Medical One, Chat/Chatting One, Quip/Quipping One, and Sec/Security One all had green, light blue, pink, and dark blue eyes respectively. And each took the time to introduce themselves. 

Once that was done, I smiled easily. “I take it you’re here to see the Carnival?” There had been talk about the Robins coming up to see Denny and the others, but they had been really busy the past couple weeks. Apparently it wasn’t easy to track down the Rasputin guy, even with the special information they’d received in exchange for some sort of favor they’d done for some woman. She knew places he had been, and stuff about where he might go, but not a current physical location. 

Their eyes shifted to green as Med spoke up. “Yes. We would like to speak with them and… and help ensure they understand their situation and that they are not alone.” 

Then the eyes turned yellow for Sprite once more. “And it’s fun! We like meeting others like us. We don’t… we don’t get to do that very often.” 

“Trust me, they’re excited to talk to you too,” I assured them. “Actually, I’m pretty sure we can head up there right now.” 

“Excellent,” came the response as those eyes shifted to dark blue, for Sec. “And, of course, there is the other matter we came here for.” 

“Other matter?” I echoed, exchanging a glance with Avalon. 

“Yeah…” Shiori scratched the back of her neck. “You’re not gonna believe this, Flick. But we found out where Rasputin is right now, and why it’s been so hard to actually find him.” 

Looking back and forth between them, I slowly asked, “Something tells me this is gonna be a big answer, but… where is he?” 

“Not on Earth,” Asenath informed me, voice solemn. “He’s on Fossor’s homeworld, Flick. 

“That’s where we need to go if we’re gonna find him.” 

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Schooling 24-14 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted and is available for everyone right here

For a few long seconds after that, I stared at the boy. My mouth hung open. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to that. Hell, I’d just started to get over the shock of having found out who he really was, and having exposed my identity to him. What was I supposed to say to him somehow figuring out the rest of it? Finally, I managed a squeak, which sounded a bit like an old screen door slowly opening. That sound snapped me out of my reaction enough to find words. “H-how did you–what–huh?” Yeah, I said I found words, I didn’t say they were eloquent ones. 

Ryder quickly held up his hands. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t spying. I mean, I was spying, but not on you. I mean my spying on them didn’t have anything to do with figuring out your thing. I mean–” He stopped, taking a breath. “I should probably start over.” 

Taking a breath, I gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, uh huh, probably a good idea.” I had no idea what he meant by spying–wait, no, yes I did. Arleigh’s family, duh. He had been sneaking around their place and breaking into their fathers office. Why he was doing that, I had no idea. He’d said it wasn’t for Blackjack or La Casa, that he was working on his own. Which… yeah, I still had no idea what that was about. But my main focus was on how he knew about my family. 

Still keeping his hands up, as though he was either trying to calm me down or surrender, Ryder started again. “Okay, so I didn’t know the whole truth until we were in the closet–actually it was after that. I mean–right. After we got out of the closet downstairs in the kitchen, I was thinking a lot. I mean, about everything. If you were Paintball, that meant… I didn’t know what it meant, not at first. But I was thinking about it that whole time we were finishing dinner, and right up until you showed up here on the roof. And I realized that your parents running the Ministry makes everything else make sense. Everything about how you reacted to everything, I mean.

“You’re so desperate to keep your identity secret. I know you don’t really like it when people think you’re a boy at your school. That’s what the others were saying, anyway. When we were at the skatepark, I mean. Even Arleigh said you don’t like that, and if she notices something, it’s either wrong or really obvious. And I was pretty sure she wasn’t wrong. So you definitely don’t like it when people at your school call you a boy, but you pretend to be a boy in costume? That didn’t make any sense to me, unless… unless hiding your identity was more important than that. And the people you’d be most likely to want to hide your identity from are your parents. They’d probably be the first to figure out who you were without the boy thing. And why would you want to hide from your parents that much? Because they’re the Ministry, the people you’ve been trying to investigate. Which I uhh, picked up from some of the things Pack said or asked about before.” He finished up with a slightly awkward smile and shrug. “See, not spying. Just… thinking all that through.” 

Oh boy, how was I supposed to react to that? Wait, I knew. “How did you know about the Ministry?” I asked that flatly, watching his expression for any sign of lying or making up a response. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of information Blackjack gives out to every member of his gang.” 

Snorting audibly, Ryder shook his head “No, trust me, he doesn’t.” He took a moment to glance away, a myriad of emotions playing out across his face, before he slumped against the wall. Then he told me the full story about the mysterious group who had helped him get through his transition. It wasn’t just Blackjack or La Casa responsible for that. Some guy from this mysterious group, who went by Squire (Simon, of course, though I kept my mouth shut), had actually saved him from a few assholes and made sure he was safe. Later they asked for help with something else. Something that had made Ryder pay attention to them. Apparently the Ministry (not that he’d known what they were called at that point), were trying to stop Pencil and Cup from finding a specific name within some sealed adoption records. What name? Errol Fosters, as in Arleigh’s adopted little brother. Ryder didn’t know exactly why the Scions were so obsessed with finding this kid, or why the group who had helped him out and clearly had all that power were trying to stop them. But he did want to find out, so he investigated by getting himself hired as Arleigh’s tutor so he could snoop around. 

With an audible sigh, the boy waved a hand. “I knew it was going to be dangerous trying to look around that place in the middle of Sherwood territory, but I didn’t know I’d be going right into the middle of the lion’s den.” 

“Middle of the lion’s den?” I echoed blankly, before my brain caught up with my mouth. Everything he had said so far, everything he’d implied. Wait a minute–my eyes widened. “Hold on, wait, wait. What–are you trying to say that–do you mean those guys–” I shut my mouth, inhaling sharply through my nose while staring at him. Instinctively, I lowered my voice. “Are you trying to say that Arleigh’s family are part of Sherwood?! But they–her father runs one of the biggest technological–they–Sherwood attacks Taurus trucks! Taurus delivers technology all over the–” Then I stopped, still reeling. “Aaaand that would probably be one of the best possible covers they could have. Who would ever think that the people behind a Touched-Tech delivery company were also the violently anti-technology Fell-gang?! You just told me they were, basically, and I still didn’t believe it.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” he agreed. “It was a lot for me to take in too, I promise. Arleigh being Clime–” 

Okay, that made me do another double-take. “She’s who?! But–but Clime is this total nature-loving girl who–she’s–and–ohhh she’s good. Wow, she’s better at pretending to be someone else than I ever thought she’d be. What the hell?” My poor brain was taking a battering from all these shocking revelations. I felt like they were going to give me a concussion or something. 

Ryder was shaking his head, putting a palm against his face. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. Damn it, there’s a whole thing about not–look, you can’t act on that, okay? I mean you can’t tell the cops or anything. If you do they’ll–” 

“They’ll backtrack everything to figure out where the leak is, which means they’ll double-check everyone they’ve had contact with,” I finished for him. “And you’ll be one of the first people they hone in on, especially if they check with the Ministry and find out who you really are. Or the Ministry just does the work for them. And if the Ministry checks in and finds out you started investigating the Fosters right after that–oh my dad knows.” 

“What?” Ryder blinked at me, then realized. “Oh. Oh he was there with you when you guys were in the driveway. He saw me there with–oh.” It was his turn to rock backward in obvious shock before adjusting. “I mean–I mean I’m not dead yet. No one’s said anything to me. He had to figure out why I was there, right? I mean, there’s no way that could be a coincidence. As soon as he saw me there, he had to have figured out that I knew the name and was investigating, so why haven’t the Ministry or Blackjack said anything to me about backing off?” 

“Maybe they’re thinking about hiring you?” I offered. When he gave me a look, I pushed on. “No, I’m serious. You did all this on your own, so maybe they’re waiting to see if they can trust you with more stuff. You know, seeing what you do with this information, how effective you are at dealing with it, that sort of thing. They’re probably ready to jump in if you do something they don’t like, but for now they’re sort of giving you slack on the leash or whatever so they can see what happens. See how effective you are at the whole thing and how much you can find out.”

He was still absorbing that while I pushed on. “And don’t worry, I’m not about to call the cops on Arleigh. As fun as that would be in some ways, especially now that I know she’s literally a villain and not just annoying and rude, it’d be just as bad for me. Because if they start looking into people who have interacted with her lately, I’ll get attention too. Remember, you’ve been at their house multiple times, and you have no reason to expose her. Not considering what you’re actually there for, I mean.  If I was over to their house and the very next day Paintball suddenly knew who she really was, I think they might be able to add two and two. I kind of try to avoid letting anyone connect Paintball and Cassidy. So yeah, I’m not gonna tell anyone.” 

Visibly relaxing a little bit, Ryder met my gaze. “Thanks. I mean seriously, thank you. I can’t–” He stopped, giving an audible chuckle of disbelief. “This whole situation is a lot to take in, isn’t it?“

Snorting, I retorted, “You think? I’m pretty sure if I get one more shocking reveal tonight, I’ll fill up my punch card and get another shocking reveal for free.” 

The remark made him snicker before he looked me up and down for a moment. “You really have been through a lot the last couple months, haven’t you? I’ve been dealing with this Errol thing, and it’s been hard enough to keep secrets from the rest of La Casa. But you… you’ve been keeping secrets from your family. I mean, that wouldn’t be hard for me, but you seem like you have a pretty good relationship with them.” Right after saying that, he blanched. “Shit, sorry. That’s both none of my business, and not necessarily true. Outward appearances don’t–I mean that–” He stopped short and gave a sigh. “Sorry, I’m just gonna shut up about it.” 

I glanced away, pulling my arms across my stomach. “Yeah, I kind of freaked out when I found out who they really are, and the stuff they do. The first hint I had that my family weren’t exactly on the up and up was finding out my brother was responsible for executing two people.” As Ryder reacted to that, I went on to give him a quick summary of how that first night had gone. 

“But ever since then, I’ve found out they’re responsible for some good things too,” I added while giving a helpless shrug. “You know, like what happened with you. Or how they stop some crime. But that doesn’t–my family still profits from all of it. Sure they do good stuff with it, but they do bad stuff too. They let bad things happen and then excuse it if the people pay the right fine or tax or whatever. It’s not–” I sighed heavily. “It’s complicated. The whole thing is so complicated.” 

There was a moment of silence before I felt Ryder reach out and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m really sorry,” he murmured. “ I mean, like I said before, your family’s group really helped me out. If it wasn’t for them, and Blackjack, I… I don’t know where I’d be right now. I don’t know who I’d be. But I get what you mean about it being complicated. If you really found out about them by seeing a couple people get murdered, and then found out your brother was responsible, I don’t…” He swallowed audibly. “Yeah, I kind of get why you feel that way. I wouldn’t know how to react to all that either. I’m basically on the outside of it and even I don’t know how to react.” 

A strained and slightly high-pitched giggle escaped me for some reason. “I guess it’s kind of a lot, isn’t it? I still don’t know what I’m going to do about all of it. I keep telling myself I just need to find out more, but I don’t know how much I need to know before I do something, or what I should even do. I’ve got other things to deal with, like helping… helping a couple of my teammates with their own problems. And there’s the gangwar, and the whole Scions recruiting people thing, and–” I stopped, realizing there was already another distraction. “Wait, what are you gonna do about the Scions thing? Errol, I mean. Did you ever find out why they’re looking for him? Or why the leader of Sherwood adopted him? Wait, is that a coincidence? I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence.”

Ryder dropped his hand from my shoulder and slumped back a bit. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s not either. They adopted him to like… keep an eye on him or something, I guess? I dunno. But it seems pretty obvious, you know?” He glanced away then while adding, “And… yeah, I do know what the Scions want him for. I stole some files from the house before, and I heard… I heard Mr. Fosters talking to someone he called Minister Gold. Actually that whole thing is what led to me figuring out they were called the Ministry. That and some other things.” 

He shook that off before pushing on. “Like I said, I know why they’re so desperate to find him. So desperate, actually, that that Cup chick had a really intense program running to sort through all the adoption files. It was running on a laptop that was pretty damn hard to get into. Seriously, this thing needed a numerical passcode, a fingerprint, and a voice print to get into. She did not want anyone opening the damn thing.” 

“Okay,” I announced, “after all of the experiences I’ve had with Cup, and that’s way more than I ever wanted, there’s a lot of things I would call her. But ‘careful’ isn’t one of them. If she went through all that trouble to lock that laptop up that securely and keep that program running, it has to be something huge. And it can’t just be something like the kid knew their real identities or whatever, because the Ministry wouldn’t be having you go through all that trouble to get into the laptop just to hide the information. Not after Pencil and Cup were already exposed. At first I thought maybe it had something to do with my own family’s identities, but that can’t be it either. They have nothing to do with this Errol kid, either before or after he was adopted. I mean, I don’t think they did…” 

“They didn’t, not as far as I can tell,” Ryder assured me. 

That made me look at him once more, realizing, “Wait, you said you did know why Pencil and Cup want to find Errol so badly, and why the Ministry is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. What–what’s so important about him?” 

So, he told me. Over the next couple minutes, Ryder explained that Errol’s birth parents were apparently college roommates and friends of the man named Rodney Barlow. Or, as he was known throughout the rest of the world, Overseer. Which was a name I recognized immediately. Actually I knew the name Rodney Barlow too, but Overseer even more so. Seven years back, he had been a big problem in Wisconsin. Basically, any time he touched a piece of someone’s body, like their hair, blood, or even their sweat, he could ‘charge,’ it. When he did that, he could see through that person’s eyes, hear everything they heard, and even control them like puppets. 

But it didn’t end there. It got worse. When he had enough pieces of someone, he could fashion those pieces into these little dolls. And anyone could use those dolls, not just him. Yeah, any random person, you didn’t even have to be Touched. If you picked up someone’s doll and held it, you could control them. 

“Oh… oh I don’t like that,” I managed, my eyes widening as I stared at the boy. “I don’t like that at all. This sounds really bad already.” 

“It doesn’t exactly get better,” he warned me before continuing. “Anyway, from what I’ve been able to find out, Cup and Pencil have this DNA-locked safe that used to belong to Errol’s parents. They killed them, but they didn’t realize the safe was DNA-locked. And everyone’s pretty sure Overseer left dolls in that safe. Dolls of Touched here in Detroit, because he was planning on coming here and taking over before he was arrested.” 

I absorbed that. “So, there could be dolls inside that safe of anyone who was Touched seven years ago. Maybe even everyone, knowing how Overseer worked. And Cup and Pencil have that safe. But they can’t get into it because they need Errol, except they don’t know who he is… yet. Hold on, I don’t wanna sound morbid–I mean I’m not pushing for this–I mean–” 

“You wanna know why the Ministry hasn’t just killed Errol, don’t you?” Ryder finished for me, his expression grim. “Yeah, I sorta had the same thought, believe me. I don’t want them to kill him either, it just seems like the obvious solution for a group that’s already willing to kill.” 

I nodded slowly at that. “So… why haven’t they? Do they really not want to kill a kid? Is that–” It sounded too naive to my own ears to think it could be that simple. “I don’t get it.” 

“I don’t either,” he replied. “That’s why I’ve been trying to sneak around there a bit more, to try to figure out if they’ve got plans for Errol or something. You know, plans they need him for. I was working on getting into some of Hemlock’s more secure files tonight, but then… you know.”

My head bobbed. “I interrupted. But if I hadn’t, Micah would’ve found you.” 

“Yeah, I let myself get too distracted,” he agreed, blanching visibly at the thought before focusing on me. “Thanks again. And thanks for, you know… trusting me not to tell anyone.” 

“Yeah, right back at you,” I replied as casually as I could manage. My voice still cracked a bit anyway, making me flush visibly. “Look, I’ll see if I can find out anything about this situation too. My team and I just stole a bunch of files from the Ministry. I’ll look for anything involving Errol, or Overseer, or his parents. You know, anything like that. Maybe we accidentally grabbed something relevant and didn’t even notice.” 

“That was–” Ryder stared at me before giving a low whistle. “Right, you guys are pretty impressive.” He smiled before sobering. “Right, I guess we just… keep each other’s secrets and keep looking into this, huh?”

My head bobbed once more. “I guess so. But Eits–I mean Ryder… seriously, be careful. I know the Ministry helped you out, but they can be very dangerous too. Especially if they start to think you might be a threat. And if Pencil thinks you might know something…” I blanched, thinking briefly about how badly Ryder had been hurt the last time he had information the Scions wanted. 

He promised he would, and we made a plan to meet up sometime soon, after I had a chance to go through that stuff. As if I didn’t already have enough to deal with. Finally, I put my mask and helmet back on and left the boy there so I could start heading home. There was a lot I had to think about.

As I started to leave, my phone buzzed. It was Amber. Answering, I leapt off the roof and let my red paint carry me to the next building. “Hey, what’s up?” 

“Just uhh… checking in. Sorry, I got kinda busy at the party and… Never mind, everything okay?” Her voice sounded a little odd, strained maybe. Or I could’ve been imagining it. “Your text wasn’t exactly clear, but if you still need–” 

“Nah, I’m good,” I replied. “It’s just been one of those nights, you know?” 

There was a brief pause before she replied, “Dude, trust me. 

“I know exactly what you mean.”  

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Calm Before 20-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and is able to be read by everyone right here

“Answer her,” Avalon was already pressing, her gaze intent as she stared that way. “Why were you looking for Hajer? And why in an old hotel that was taken over by a gang of Alters?” 

“To answer your questions in reverse order,” Manakel’s ghost informed us, “Hajer moves around quite a lot. Hence her title. I had it on quite good authority that she was there most recently at that time. Why she went to that place, I could not possibly say, only that she was at one point. Unfortunately… for me at the time, she was gone by the time I arrived. Which, as you have already learned, was not something I enjoyed learning.” He paused, giving a slight sigh before pushing on. “As to the first part, I wished to employ her services in removing the protections from Miss Sinclaire here.” His eyes moved to Avalon, who was still staring intently right back at him. “It was a long shot that she would agree to such a thing, but then, we were trying a lot of long shots at the time. And she has been surprising before in what she has agreed to.” 

Squinting, Valley slowly asked, “She’s the ancient human who was bonded to one of those Primals, right? The… whatever they were who created the weapons the King of Canada uses.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Your people would have called her a caveman. Or cavewoman. Bit offensive, but not incorrect. She was born in a time when the majority of your people did live in caves, when most of the Alters who would eventually come to call this planet home had not yet arrived. And those who had were… genuinely more threats than allies. In the early days, there were large portions of this planet which were ruled by incredibly dangerous creatures. Among those ancient inhabitants were very, very few of the beings you call Primals. Their own species was already doomed despite their vast power, and you might say a couple of those who were left… retired here. They stowed large armories of their advanced weaponry, such as what Oberon found.”

“Um, why were they doomed?” I found myself asking uncertainly. “I mean, as a species. What happened to them?” Was it weird that I was asking questions of the guy who had spent so long trying to murder my girlfriend and destroy my entire life, as though he was just another teacher? And did the fact that Avalon was right here with me, also asking him questions, make that whole situation better or worse? I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely a thing. 

“We don’t precisely know, to be honest,” was Manakel’s somewhat disappointing response. “Well, there are theories based on information we do have. I can tell you the one I subscribe to, which is that the beings we know as the Primals performed a spell that was so… dangerous and consuming, it destroyed their ability to procreate. And it did so to such an extent that even cloning would not help, because this spell they created and triggered worked by draining the life force from any iterations of their species who were not alive at the moment it was triggered.” 

I absorbed that for a moment before my eyes widened. “Wait, you mean they effectively destroyed their own ability to continue their species because they made a spell that killed any members of that species who weren’t there at the time? So they could never make any more, and the ones who died just… never got replenished?” 

“That seems like a very bad plan,” Persephone put in, gently rubbing one of Cerberus’s heads. “I don’t know what sort of goal they could have had for that.” 

“What she said,” Avalon noted dryly. She was still watching the man with obvious suspicion despite her curiosity. “What the hell were they trying to do? Are you sure they did it to themselves? That sounds an awful lot like something someone else would have done to them.” 

Mankel’s head bobbed slightly to acknowledge the point. “Yes, well, as I said, we know very little about them for certain. For the most part, they came from a time long before even my people. Certainly before we were an intergalactic civilization. We’re forced to piece things together from old records and stories. But we do know that, within the few records we have found and translated, the Primals repeatedly referred to their situation as something they had done to themselves. They blamed no outsiders, no invading enemy or force. Whatever happened, they were the source of it.” 

“So they couldn’t have any kids or create any clones, or do anything that would carry on their species,” I murmured. “And apparently this spell or whatever it was couldn’t be stopped. They were stuck with just whichever of them happened to be alive when the spell was cast, and once they died, that was it.” The idea made me shudder. What would it be like to live as a people as advanced as these Primals had been (if the weapons Oberon had found were any indication) and then become completely helpless to prevent your entire species from just dying out? 

“A few ‘retired’ to this planet, and this Wandering Woman, or Freyja, or Hajer… whatever she calls herself, she came across one of them way back in the primitive days.” Avalon frowned a bit. “If they lived so long ago that even your people didn’t know anything about them, they must live for a long time for any to have survived long enough for a primitive human to meet them.” 

The man gave a slight nod once more. “Yes, they were incredibly advanced in many ways, to the point of becoming nearly entirely immortal, in some cases. And yet, still, once one died for any particular reason, they were gone forever and the species was one step closer to complete extinction. And even they could only prolong their lives, or protect themselves from outside threats, for so long. Or perhaps some simply… chose to die, after so much of their species was wiped away with no chance to return to their former glory. They could have given up.” 

He was silent for a moment after that, clearly considering how it would feel, before visibly swallowing. Then he went on. “Hajer met one and was bonded to them. Perhaps it was an intentional way for that particular Primal to feel as though they were passing something of themselves on. Whatever the reasoning, she is quite possibly the most powerful being on this planet.” 

“She has the ability to undo things,” I remembered. “Mom said if she focuses on something or someone, she can undo the effect of anything. If you burn a house down, she can wave a hand and put it back to the way it was before the fire. Even if that means bringing everyone who was killed in the fire back to life. But like, she can even undo learning. She can make you forget things, or even erase skills out of your head by removing the fact that you ever learned them.” 

“All of which is correct.” After saying that, Manakel paused, glancing away as though losing himself in thought for a moment before shaking it off as he turned back to us. “As I said, my goal was to find her and convince her that it would be in the best interest of this world for me to succeed in my mission.” His gaze focused on Avalon as he flatly finished with, “My mission, of course, to kill you. Again, for however little it is worth, you have my apologies. Yet I did, absolutely and without question, believe what I was saying at the time. I believed that killing you, eliminating any possibility of Liesje’s spell from ever being put into the world, would maintain the peace here. Because if my people found out that spell was active, I believed they would come here in force.” 

“Yeah, they still might try that,” I muttered under my breath. “But I guess you didn’t find her.” 

“No, I did not. So I returned to other plans.” He looked to Avalon once more. “Plans which failed.” 

“Yeah, we’re all glad about that, believe me,” I noted. “But anyway, to get back to the whole reason I brought that up in the first place, you said you could help me learn to undo that… ‘severscatter’ spell that you used on Grover’s friend so we can bring her back?” 

“As I also said, it will take some time for you to learn enough to do so,” the man reminded me. “But yes, I believe it can be done. Once you have learned how, you will have to go to the spot where it occurred. And you will need to know as much about the girl as possible. That, you will need this… Grover’s aid with. But assuming all goes well enough, you should be able to, ahem, bring her back.” 

My phone buzzed at that point, so I glanced down at it before replying, “Well, I’ll definitely be coming to you for lessons soon. But in the meantime, it sounds like the others are starting to wake up.

“And I really need to get back there in time for my grandparents to meet Theodore.” 

******

Of course, Manakel had no idea what I meant by ‘Theodore,’ and I wasn’t yet to the point where I felt like explaining it. So Avalon and I left him there with Persephone and Cerberus. They had a lot to talk about, and I was pretty sure most of it was pretty private stuff. Still, I made sure Percy knew she could call for us any time she wanted, and that she absolutely did not have to do anything Manakel told her to. And I told Andromeda she should listen in and make sure nothing untoward happened. Even if he was being… well, nice now, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Having a secretly-still-evil Manakel manipulating Persephone into something bad wasn’t quite the worst situation I could think of, but it wasn’t good either. 

Either way, right now wasn’t the time to think about all that. Now was the time to focus on Grandmaria and Popser, who were standing in the kitchen alongside Dad, Mom, and me. And Loudpound, who was wolfing down a very large stack of pancakes at the table. Or rather, pancake and egg sandwiches. She took two pancakes at a time, shoved several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs between them, then ate the result like a sandwich. While sometimes dipping it in syrup. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to try it like that, but she sure enjoyed it. 

“Uurph, I gotta tell ya, Grandma Chambers, you make some fine flapjacks,” she announced after devouring another of her concoctions. “I mean, I never actually had real ones before, just what I’ve got from borrowed memories, or how they taste inside. But if I had to have anything as my first outside meal, I’m glad it was this.” She took another huge bite then, with a murmur of pleasure, then gulped down half a glass of milk. 

Staring at the greenish-brown, taller Denny in wonder (for more than one reason, I was sure), Grandmaria finally found her voice. “Oh, well, if you think those little things are good, you should try my cookies sometime.” 

Pointing with her latest pancake and egg sandwich clutched in one hand, Loudpound declared, “I’ll hold you to that! Err–what?” She looked to the side as though listening to someone else before muttering under her breath, then turned back. “I mean, thanks. You know, for that and all this food. It’s all ahh, it’s all good.” 

Grandmaria paused before smiling. “Well, I’m just glad you’ve all been enjoying it. Or… is that just you? I’m afraid I’m not quite certain how that works with your… ahh, situation.” 

Taking another gulp of milk to finish off the glass, Loudpound shrugged. “I’m not really the explaining things type, unless you’re talking about explaining just how much it hurts to have my fist in your face. Then I’m more of what you might call an interactive teacher.” She offered a toothy grin that showed off her fangs. Then there was another pause as she listened, before shrugging. “Yeah, well, you do it.” 

With that, her body shrank down half a foot, back to the original Denny’s height. Her skin shifted away from the brownish-green and became a bright fuchsia, while her clothes were a mint and black mix. She even had a matching cape. Her eyes were yellow with no whites to them, and she had short and spiky white hair. 

“Hi!” the new arrival chirped. “I’m Tailor! Letters was gonna come out and talk, but she’s busy right now. I wanted to say I really liked the pancakes too! I probably wouldn’t have put them together with the eggs like that, but it was a new experience. I think new experiences are good! Err, most of the time. Okay, okay, maybe there’s a lot of bad new experiences, but this one was just weird, and weird isn’t bad! I like experiencing things.” 

She looked to my grandmother then. “We can taste what the person on the outside eats, but it’s like… one step removed? It’s not quite like having someone describe something to you, but it’s not exactly the same as experiencing it yourself either. It’s like, uhhhhh… you know when you eat something and then a couple seconds later you can still remember what it tastes like really well? It’s sorta like that.” She thought about her own explanation for a second, then gave a firm nod. “Basically.” 

“Well,” Popser started, “it’s certainly a delight to meet you, Tailor. I hope we didn’t annoy your… sister? I hope we didn’t annoy her too much with all our questions.” 

“Psshh, nah, she’s okay.” Tailor waved that off. “Like she said, she just doesn’t like to explain things. Or listen to things being explained. She gets bored pretty quick.” Her head tilted to look up toward the corner of the ceiling. “What? You do. I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Looking back to my grandparents, she added, “Anyway, we decided we don’t really like the term sister or brother, because… well, some of us are more connected than others. Letters was reading stuff online earlier when she was out, and she thinks those should be called syslings. Like system siblings. That’s what we are, a System, basically. We didn’t start out the same way they do, but… I mean, it’s close enough. Anyway, we’re the Carnival System. Some of us are syslings, some of us aren’t. Mostly we’re what you call Aspects, or maybe headmates.That’s another word Letters found. Individually, we’re Aspects. When you’re talking about what we are to each other, it’s Headmates. Loudpound and Bijou are syslings because they’re really close, even though they’re pretty different. But just go with headmates for all of us as a whole.”  

Dad, who had been standing in the back corner of the room next to Mom as they watched all this, spoke up. “I had an interview with someone like that awhile back. We were trying to find out what they knew, but the one we needed to talk to was, ahh… gone. I think they said he ‘walked out.’ I ended up talking to their–what did he call himself? Archeologist, that was it. He called himself the System Archeologist. He had this mental museum of all of the pieces of memory the other parts of them left lying around. Ended up being pretty helpful. And ahh, educating.” 

We all talked a little bit more about that, before Grandmaria promised to make cookies soon, and said she would invite any of the Carnival System out to help. Then she and Popser decided they were ready to go in and see Theodore. Apparently the System had already figured out that he couldn’t manifest outside. He wasn’t exactly the same as them. They were all pieces of Denny, at least partially, so they could take over and control the body. But he was more of a separate entity inside her memories, and apparently that wasn’t enough for him to take over. Though, to be honest, I wasn’t sure he even wanted to. He was pretty nervous about interacting with anyone in there, let alone taking over the body in the ‘outside world.’ 

In any case, Tailor swapped with Walker, who grunted her own greetings before waving for us to step together. So, Mom, my grandparents, and I all moved closer. The four of us were going in. Apparently it wasn’t easy for Denny to support too many people inside herself at the same time, and we didn’t want to push things any further than that. 

We arrived in the carnival itself, and my grandparents looked around in wonder. Grandpartie went on a bit about how amazing it would be if they could make a virtual reality video game look this good, while a few of the Aspects cautiously watched from various game booths and rides. They weren’t approaching. 

Then a voice spoke up cautiously from nearby. “I… hello.” It was Theodore, of course. He tentatively stepped out from behind one of the booths, looking nervous. He had dressed up in a cute little black suit with a blue bowtie and matching boots. 

Turning that way, Popser was the first to react. “Aha!” he crowed, making Theodore jump a little. “There’s my grandson!” With a grin, he stepped that way, then paused before lowering himself to one knee. Even then, he still towered over the small boy. “I like your tie. That’s not a clip-on.” 

“No, sir,” Theodore confirmed. “Bang-bang helped me tie it.” 

“Well, he did a bang-up job.” Giving a laugh at his own joke, Popser added, “And it sounds like he’s a good friend. You can call me Popser, or Grandpartie, just like the others.” He offered his hand. “You like Theodore or Theo?” 

After a very brief pause, the boy accepted the shake, his own hand vanishing into our grandfathers’ much bigger one. “I think I usually prefer Theodore, but… Theo sounds okay coming from you, uh, sir.” 

“Theo it is, then,” Popser agreed before waving a hand. “Maria, come meet our grandson.” 

Soon, the three of them were talking animatedly. Well, our grandparents were doing most of the talking. Theodore stayed pretty quiet and just watched. But his eyes were certainly animated, as he stared at them and alternately nodded or shook his head while they asked questions. 

Stepping next to my mother as that went on, I quietly murmured, “I’m pretty sure this is good for all of them.” 

Her head gave a short nod, eyes remaining centered on Theodore while shining with half-shed tears. “Yes. It’s good for them, and for us. And I think it’s good for Denny and the rest of the Carnival as well.” Saying that, she smiled even more at the sight of Popser rising while picking Theodore off the ground so he could hold him up as high as possible, making the boy give a reflexive laugh. Her voice became so quiet, I could barely hear her next words.  

“It’s just plain… good.” 

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Schooling 24-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Unsurprisingly, there was clearly a lot running through both of our minds. Not to mention a lot we needed to say as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to get into it. Even as I saw the boy open his mouth, I put my hand up to stop him. My voice was a hissed whisper. “Not now. They’re gonna figure out we’re missing really soon. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want to start explaining to Arleigh and her brothers why we’re hiding up here in their dad’s office.”

A visible blush crossed his face and I saw his mouth open to say one thing, but he thought better of it and simply gave a short nod. He kept his own voice below as well, barely a whisper. “We’ve got to get back down there, without letting Micah see us. Hang on.” His head tilted a bit as though he was–oh, he was seeing through one of his mites. “Okay, he’s in his room and the door is mostly shut. The plants are still taken care of–” He saw the look on my face and explained quickly. “They’ve got cameras and plant spies in here. The cameras aren’t any issue, but I’ve been working on the plants for awhile. They were a problem until I got this stuff from a… friend.” In one hand, he held up what looked like a small pocket-sized spray tube of perfume. “It makes those plants, uhh… hallucinate is the best word. Mostly it makes them see what they’ve been seeing recently instead of what’s really there. So if they’ve been seeing an empty room–” 

“They keep seeing an empty room,” I finished. “That seems pretty specialized. And probably expensive. Where–never mind.” Interrupting myself, I shook my head. “Later. So it’s still working? And just how many plants do the Sherwood people have spying on this house?”

For a brief moment, he looked confused. “Wait, you don’t–” It was his turn to interrupt himself, shaking that off. “Right, no time. Here.” Standing up, he moved to the door leading into the hallway and carefully poked the bottle through the doorway before giving it a quick spray. Then he counted to ten before opening the door and stepping out. “We’re good,” he whispered while heading through.

On our way out of there and back downstairs, the boy kept glancing at me. I could tell he wanted to say something else, or maybe a lot of something elses. But as we had both established, there was no time. All that would have to come later. Instead, we quickly made our way back down and split up. He went into the kitchen with the others first, and I heard them start teasing him about getting lost. 

I waited another fifteen seconds before heading in after him, making a show of saying goodbye to my mother before shoving the phone into my pocket. Then I looked up and rolled my eyes. But I didn’t talk about anything she supposedly said to me. I thought about it. Hell, I thought about coming up with a whole story about what my mother had said. But honestly, why would I talk to Arleigh about a phone call with my mom? There was no way that wouldn’t come off as making up a story. So, I left it at the rolled eyes and looked toward Inessa before asking, “How long are you in town for? And please tell me you’re doing another show. I have got to be there.” 

The blue-haired girl offered me a grin. “Well, if what Arleigh here has been saying is true, perhaps I should invite you to come up with me to help make the show even more impressive. It sounds as though you could teach me a thing or two.” 

A deep flush crossed my face, for more than one reason. First, I didn’t really need to think about Arleigh talking about me at all, and I definitely didn’t want her to talk about me being a good skater. That was just… yeah, I didn’t want that to be on her mind. Letting Ryder/Eits find out my real identity was one thing–and yeah even that was freaking me out pretty bad right now. But the very thought of goddamn Arleigh finding out about me was enough to make me want to vomit. I could barely handle having to play nice with her as it was. If she had that sort of leverage, there was no way I would survive for very long. Or possibly no way she would. One way or the other, one of us wouldn’t get through it. 

And yet, I still had to play it cool. This was my skating idol talking about me going to a show with her. No, not just going, actually performing with her. It was like a rock star inviting one of their biggest fans up on stage with them. What kind of person wouldn’t jump at that? Even if it did mean letting Arleigh act like she had done me some sort of favor. A favor I would owe her for. 

Again, I felt the urge to vomit. But I kept it down, and simply offered a weak giggle, as though I was totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly a hard thing to fake. Actually, I wasn’t really faking it at all. “Oh, haha, uhh, no, I–I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I could ever teach you.” Even as I said that, I could see Ryder staring at me from the corner of the room where he had moved to get a soda. He was out of sight from everyone else, so they couldn’t see the way he was staring. But I could, slightly. It made my blush deepen a bit, which I played off as just being about the Inessa thing. “You’re like, the best in the world, dude.” My voice cracked a bit embarrassingly with that. 

A cheerful, charming laugh escaped the older girl, which sent a tingle through my stomach for some reason. She gave me a wink before replying with that clear Eastern European accent. “Trust me, nobody is so good at something that they can’t learn from somebody else. That’s something I figured out a long time ago. Actually, I’m pretty sure I learn something new from every big skater I talk to. And if Arleigh is to be believed, you are a very big skater.” 

“I’m not a big anything,” I immediately pointed out reflexively. My blush was back and wouldn’t go away. I honestly couldn’t figure out whether it was more from her praise, or the way Ryder was looking at me. He wasn’t being completely obvious about it after sitting back down at the table, but since everyone else’s attention was on us, he had an excuse to stare a little bit. Under all that attention, I shifted in my seat before coughing. “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just like to skate. And I learned a lot of it from watching you. So, you know, I’m pretty sure anything I could teach somebody would be what I learned from you.” 

For her part, Inessa seemed to consider me briefly while taking a bite of pizza. Then she nodded and spoke casually. “You should definitely come to my next show. It’s tomorrow night at the park on… what was the street?” 

“Riverside.” That was actually Errol. I’d almost completely forgotten the boy was there until he piped up right then. “I mean, the Riverside Skate Park on Jefferson. It’s a really cool pla–” He started to say something else, before jolting a little. 

“Eat your pizza,” Arleigh, who I realized had just kicked her brother under the table, ordered before turning back to us. “So you’re going tomorrow, right, Cassie?” 

Some part of me was tempted to say that I had way too much to deal with right then, but that would have made her ask what I could possibly need to do that was more important than going to a live performance from my idol. An idol who happened to be sitting right there looking at me. Though, to be honest, I did consider what it would be like to outright tell Inessa my secret and get help from an international skating star, the part of my brain that wasn’t completely enamored with her knew that was incredibly stupid. Even if I could talk to her about all that without Arleigh being around, what on Earth was she supposed to do about it? Yeah, she had been my hero for a good portion of my life. But, in the end, she was just a skater. I couldn’t dump something like the Ministry on her, nor did I want to. 

And, when I got right down to it, there was no way to know for sure that I could even trust her. It was a painful thought to have, but if I couldn’t trust my parents, there was no way I could just blindly trust some superstar skater I happened to like. It couldn’t happen. 

That was, obviously, just a fleeting thought before I pushed it out of my mind, a wild and completely ridiculous impulse. Maybe because I’d already exposed myself to Ryder? Was that why the idea jumped into my head? Whatever, the point was, it couldn’t happen. 

So, I forced myself to look back at Arleigh while casually replying, “Oh believe me, if I have any say in it, I’ll totally be there.” 

With that, we went back to eating. I hung out with them for another hour or so while trying not to look or act as though my entire world had been upended. I could not look like I was panicking or freaking out. Calm. I had to pretend I was calm. Hell, I had to pretend I was having a great time. Which–yeah, to be fair that much wasn’t hard. Arleigh would probably never be someone I voluntarily hung out with (though I was starting to think her older brother and possibly her dad were a really big influence on how she acted), but Inessa more than made up for that. It was just so cool to be there, eating dinner and talking to her as though she was a normal person. And yeah, I knew she really was, but this was… it was special for me. Even if I did have that voice screaming in the back of my head to panic about the real situation. 

I had to talk to Ryder. I had to make sure he wasn’t going to tell anybody. Yeah, he’d kept my secret about being a girl, but this was even bigger. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to pull him aside without being obvious about it. And I had Jefferson coming to pick me up. Hell, even if he wasn’t coming, Ryder and I couldn’t exactly go somewhere else in this neighborhood to chat. Not with the Sherwood spies all over the place. 

To that end, before the dinner was over, I got a text on my phone. It was from Ryder himself, giving me an address elsewhere in the city, followed by a time, ten pm, and a question mark. He was asking if I was good with meeting up then and there. Hesitating slightly, I glanced across the table that way. Obviously he wasn’t using his phone. He could control it with one of his mites without even taking the thing out of his pocket. Our gazes met briefly, and I gave a short nod without actually responding on my phone. That, I slipped back into my pocket. Then I turned my attention back to Inessa and tried to postpone freaking out until later, after all this. 

And hey, at the very least, Ryder was probably the least terrible person in this house who could’ve found out my secret. Except maybe Errol, he seemed cool. But I wouldn’t want to shove this sort of secret on him. He already had enough to deal with, having Arleigh and Micah as siblings. Inessa–yeah I couldn’t even imagine having her find out the truth about me. She didn’t even live here. How would I deal with some international star knowing my secret identity? Probably panic all the time. Even more than usual. 

The point was, if Micah or Arleigh had found out who I was, my life would basically be over. This whole thing could’ve been so much worse. 

Now all I had to do was wait until ten pm, so I could talk to Ryder and find out just how bad it was. 

*********

I ended up having to promise Inessa that I would be there for her show the next evening. She gave me a couple ‘backstage’ passes (there wasn’t really a stage or anything since it was at a skatepark, but there was a VIP area that would be roped and curtained off for privacy) for me and any friend I wanted to bring. 

But all that was something I would have to think about later. For now, I was in costume and perched on the side of the building across the street from where Ryder wanted to meet. I’d thought about bringing Izzy with me, but that would have required me to tell her exactly what happened. Which I didn’t want to do until Ryder and I actually talked. How could I expect him to keep my secret if I went and blabbed about his immediately? 

I’d also tried texting Amber just to see if she was available to play backup if something went wrong. But there was no answer. I had belatedly remembered she was going to some special costume party with Dani tonight. Hopefully she was having a good time there. Or at least a less crazy one than I was having.

Shaking those thoughts off, I watched as a figure emerged from the stairwell access door. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but I spoke quietly. “Night vision engage.” Immediately, my Wren-provided helmet switched my viewing mode so I could see better. Sure enough, Ryder was standing on that roof, also in costume as he nervously fidgeted around. 

Obviously, I wasn’t stupid enough to jump right over there. I looked around from where I was, scanning every area I could see. I didn’t expect to find out that he had told the Ministry or Blackjack, just because… well, if my parents knew my identity, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t show that with an ambush in the middle of the night like this. And it didn’t seem to be Blackjack’s style, if he’d even do anything with it at all aside from possibly use it to force favors out of me. But I wasn’t going to take that for granted. I checked for any sign of an ambush for the next couple minutes, letting Eits wait for me. 

Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. As certain as I could be that he was alone, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, landing a few feet away from the boy as he jumped at my arrival. 

“Hey, Eits,” I managed to sound vaguely casual while turning that way. “What’s up? Read any good books lately? Seen a fun movie?”  

He, in turn, coughed and looked embarrassed. “Hey, Paintball. I mean…” Pausing, the boy kicked the roof before meeting my gaze. “Are we good? I mean, good to talk for real.” 

I knew what he was asking. He wanted to know if we could talk about our identities, or if I had someone watching. Meeting his gaze, I asked evenly, “We’re good on my end. Are we good on yours?” 

The question made him pause before he nodded once. “I’m alone, I swear. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. Hell, I haven’t talked to anybody about any of that. Nobody even knows I’ve been going into Sherwood territory at all. It’s kind of my own private investigation.”  

Private investigation? Well, I definitely wanted to know more about that. Why would he be investigating Arleigh’s house? Pushing that out of my head for the moment, or at least to the back of it, I gestured. “Stairwell’s safe, right? I don’t really wanna risk people looking out windows.” 

He confirmed it was safe, and we went through the door he had come out a few minutes earlier. Now we were standing in the stairwell, with no cameras or witnesses. This was as safe as we could possibly be. Reaching up, I hesitated very slightly, then pulled my helmet off, followed by the mask. My fingers were shaking a little bit as I did so, but I forced myself to look at him straight on. “Hi.” 

Eits reached up to take the X-shaped mask off his own face, slipping it free. Then he was just Ryder again, holding the mask in one hand while staring back at me. “Hi.” There was silence for a moment, before he finally offered a weak, “This is awkward, isn’t it?” 

“Little bit,” I agreed, dropping my gaze briefly. Then I took a breath and looked up again. “Thanks. You know, for not telling anyone about me being a girl before. I’m pretty sure if you had said anything to anybody, it would’ve gotten around by now. Even Pack doesn’t know, and I… I know she’s your friend. So, yeah, thanks.”

“I’m not gonna tell anybody about this either,” he assured me quickly, his eyes staring right into mine. “I won’t tell Blackjack, or Pack, or anybody else. I just–I won’t say anything, I swear.” 

“You know, I… I believe you,” I slowly replied. “You kept me being a girl secret, now this is just sort of… the next step?” Shrugging self-consciously, I sighed. “I won’t tell anybody about you either. I mean, yeah you’re sort of… a bad guy?” Even that felt wrong to say. The lines between good and bad were so blurred they seemed practically nonexistent sometimes. “My point is, I won’t use this to help anyone catch you, or follow you to find out any secret La Casa bases or plans, or… or anything like that.” 

He offered me a faint smile. “I’m pretty sure if you were the type to do that, you could’ve followed Pack one of those times. Even if you… don’t know who she is?” His voice turned questioning. 

“I don’t,” I replied. “Trust me, that whole situation is already awkward enough as it is. I don’t know who she is and I’m not trying to find out. You…” Oh boy was there still a lot I needed to say. “Look, before we get into anything else, I just… I know you just said you wouldn’t tell. And like I said, I believe you. But you really can’t tell. You can’t even let anyone know that you know. You can’t hint. You can’t–” My eyes squeezed shut as I tried to think of how to make sure he understood how vital this was. “It’s… it’s more important than you know. I mean, life and death important. You have to keep it a secret. I can’t– I can’t get into why it’s so–” 

“Because of the Ministry, right?” the boy immediately put in. 

“And because your parents are the people in charge of it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Calm Before 20-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Beside me, Persephone made a noise as though she was going to say something. Before she could, however, Avalon put a hand on her arm and looked at her. Neither of them spoke in that moment, but I could see some sort of silent communication through expressions going on. After a couple seconds, Percy bowed her head slightly as though accepting what the other girl wanted. Then she glanced toward me and whispered very faintly, “She is very persuasive.” 

“That she is,” I murmured under my breath. I honestly wasn’t sure what to make out of the fact that Valley was capable of convincing an Olympian-powered Revenant to let her go first, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. She was pretty damn special. 

Meanwhile, Avalon herself took a couple steps forward while keeping her eyes on the ghost. Her voice was flat, though I could hear the emotion layered within it. “You tried awfully hard to make sure I died last year, Manakel.” The only slight stumble in her words came when she said his name, as though she hadn’t decided until that very moment whether she was going to use any sort of honorific or not. And to be fair, I really couldn’t blame her for going with not. 

“I did,” Manakel confirmed. He seemed to consider how to respond next before speaking again. “I would say that it was not personal, but of course, it was very personal to you. And, I believe, quite personal to me by the end. I would also say that I was not myself at the time, but that should not matter to you. Both for the fact that the victim should never be made to excuse the faults of the aggressor, and because I was hardly the sole representative of my people who caused you harm. We Seosten made a bit of a habit of that.” 

Again, he fell silent for a moment, his gaze watching her. And yet, though his expression appeared fairly blank on the outside, I could feel the turmoil within the man. He really did feel guilty about the whole thing, but honestly felt as though showing his feelings that way would be selfish. The man was taking time between sentences to choose his words not in an attempt to be manipulative, but because he wanted to be careful not to turn a discussion about Avalon’s feelings into one about his own problems. 

Okay, seriously, I was getting an awful lot of information about his emotions and whatnot. Was this just because of our connection through the Tartarus thing? Because I definitely didn’t get that much detail from all my ghosts. If I did, I would’ve been able to tell whether Perrsnile or Ausesh were lying back in the vault. 

“What I can say,” Manakel eventually continued, “is that I am sorry for all suffering I was directly or indirectly involved with when it comes to your life, Avalon Sinclaire. I was performing the duties which were assigned to me, but that is not an excuse, for I had previously proven myself capable of creatively reinterpreting orders, and I certainly could have suggested other solutions to the situation. The fact is, I chose not to. For that, regardless of any outside influence I may have been operating under, you have my deepest, most unequivocal apology.” His gaze met hers. “I am sorry for hurting you, and for participating in causing you pain.”

Avalon seemed to absorb that for a moment. Watching her from behind, I could see the way her shoulders hunched slightly before she forced them down and continued to meet his gaze. After all that time, after everything she had been through when it came to the Seosten in general and Manakel in particular, she wasn’t going to look away from him or show any fear. A brief couple of seconds passed before she finally replied, very slowly and deliberately, “I’m going to be watching you, and I’ll be ready… if you end up trying anything.” Another pause, then, “For whatever reason.” Which, I imagined, was her concession that he might very well be telling the truth about being ‘better’ now, but could still end up being re-corrupted by Tartarus. 

Manakel obviously understood all that, acknowledging her words with a simple nod. “I would expect nothing less, Avalon Sinclaire. You have, in all respects, proven yourself to be a quite remarkable and resourceful young woman. Who,” he added while glancing to me very briefly, “is also very adept at finding remarkable and resourceful companions.” 

“Yeah,” Avalon retorted, “and I’m rather fond of them. So don’t think you can try something just because one of them might be… more inclined than I am to believe any story you tell.” After letting that sit very briefly, she added, “Not that I’m saying you’re lying right now. But if you are, or if your… situation changes at any point, I won’t hesitate to make sure you go away forever.” 

Beside me, I could see Persephone shift a little. I wasn’t sure what exactly she was feeling about any of this situation, let alone what Avalon was saying. It was complicated, to say the least. Whatever she was thinking, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the same thing she would’ve thought before she came here. I’d only known her for a short time, but the experience of having Sariel and several of her other former crewmates apologize for how they had treated her seemed to have meant a lot to her. Though I was also certain even she didn’t understand those feelings.

Manakel never looked away from Avalon through her words. He took them in and waited to be sure she was done before quietly replying, “I am glad to hear that. And I hope, if that time comes, you truly will ensure that I do not cause you any more harm.” 

Avalon looked like she was going to say something else briefly before deciding against it. Instead, she stepped aside, moving back toward me before glancing toward Percy with a quiet, “Sorry, he needed to hear it. And I needed to say it.” 

“It’s alright, Avalon,” Persephone brightly informed her, “sometimes we need to say things.” With those simple words, she turned her attention back to Manakel and quietly added, “Hello, my husband. You still smell of the Necromancy, though not as much. It is… filtered?” She sounded like she wasn’t sure that was the right word, but rather, the closest she could think of. 

Again, I sensed a torrent of emotions from Manakel, even though his expression remained relatively blank. He took a moment, looking like he was inhaling though of course there was no actual air involved. A habit, I supposed. Then he spoke, his voice as gentle as I had ever heard it. “Persephone, I am glad to see that you’ve made your way here. You and Cerberus.” 

Hearing his name, the three-headed robot dog immediately took a few cautious steps forward, before all six of his ears laid back as he made a soft whining sound. I knew the problem immediately. Cerberus recognized Manakel, but also knew that he was intended to fight evil ghosts. Even though I’d had him around my ghosts a few times, this specific situation was still awkward and different enough that he wasn’t sure what to do about it. And, I was pretty sure he could sense how uncertain and tense the whole thing was, which didn’t help.

Persephone moved up as well, stopping next to Cerberus once more before laying a hand on one of his heads. Her voice was still bright. “If it is true that ghosts of your people are being taken to serve this… Tartarus, then I am very glad you managed to avoid that fate.” She glanced over her shoulder toward me, offering a smile before turning back to him as she continued. “Felicity is very special. She taught me how to effectively protect my yellow pseudo-circle from the evil colored ghosts.”

Manakel, who quite obviously had no experience with Pac-Man, made a noise of uncertainty before managing, “I’m glad she’s been here for you. And that you have… grown.” 

“He means he’s glad you’re not immediately throwing yourself at him while pledging obedience,” Avalon put in flatly. “Which is one thing I think we can safely both agree with.” 

“Quite,” Manakel murmured with a glance that way before turning his attention fully to the Revenant woman. “If I owed Avalon Sinclaire an apology, I owe you more than I could ever give. My treatment of her was at least covered by duty. It was my job to find a way to kill her. But you… the way I…” He grimaced, giving a soft sigh. “I believe the part of me that was becoming increasingly influenced by my connection to my… our fallen crewmates was afraid that you might be able to detect something different about me. So I continually sent you away on long trips, under the pretense of not wanting Kore’s body to be near me. A, ahh, readily accepted excuse, to say the least.” 

After saying those words, he hovered forward a bit and focused on her. “I have failed in so many ways to give you advice, guide you along your journey of self-discovery, or in any way aid you as I should have. But if I can do any of that now, if it is not too late, I would like to say this. Listen to Felicity Chambers and to Avalon Sinclaire. And to those close to them. They are the best guides you could have when learning to exist in this universe.” 

Another pause came before he added, “And yet, you are Olympian too. You served on that ship. You performed every duty asked of you. You put yourself in danger repeatedly, and were responsible for protecting everyone there. You were a member of that crew. Don’t you let anyone take that away from you, or forget it. Sariel, Luci– Apollo, Athena, all of them, they can help you. They will… want to help you. Let them. And those who try to take away from your contributions, who try to diminish your worth… don’t accept it. You are special, Persephone, in ways I don’t believe you, I, or anyone else we know quite understands just yet. You don’t need a husband, or a wife, or any other version of someone to attach yourself to in order to be important. You always were. All you have ever needed was to be yourself. I mistreated you, took advantage of you, sent you away when you might have formed bonds with the crew so that you would remain alien to them because I didn’t want you to be too close to them. For that and everything else, I am sorry. Please, never call me your husband again. I did not treat you as one should, and I did not earn it. I would like, before my time is up and I reach whatever fate comes for me, to be able to call you a friend. But I would prefer to take our time at that.” 

Persephone seemed to take that in, considering it for a few long moments before straightening up. “I would like to call you a friend in the future as well, Manakel. And I have been told that it is rude to refer to someone by a term or name they have asked you not to use. So, just as I do not refer to Felicity as my wife, I will not refer to you as my husband. But I want you to know that, should this Tartarus attempt to claim you again, I will do everything in my power to ensure that does not happen.” 

Visibly grimacing at the very thought of that place taking control of him, Manakel hesitated before finding his voice. “I assure you, I would accept any and all aid in avoiding that.” Then he looked to Cerberus and added, “Yes, even from you, Spot.”  

Stepping forward myself while Cerberus bounced around in a happy circle at being acknowledged, I announced, “Well, we might not all be friends, but at least we can accept that Tartarus and Maestro are the real threats.” 

A clouded expression crossed Manakel’s face, and I felt a mixture of anger and fear from him. “Yes, that is…” He sighed. “Sariel asked me what I knew about that, about him. Unfortunately, the answer is nothing. All I know now is what they told me. I never heard any mention of Zadkiel, or any Fomorian-Seosten hybrid while hearing the… pardon I know the term is sensitive right now, lower-case whispers of my old crewmates.” 

“That’s right,” I put in, “You were hearing the voices from the Olympians who died. And they were actually speaking out loud. Persephone heard them, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. You…” I considered my words before just outright asking, “Why didn’t you tell anyone about that? I mean, didn’t the ship have a psychologist who should’ve been available?” 

“Miss Chambers,” Manakel promptly replied, “precisely what evidence have you seen in all your short, yet highly consequential dealings with my people which would make you believe we have a strong grasp of the necessity of mental health?” 

“Well if I was gonna think too much along those lines, I’d wonder if you people could even define the term,” I retorted before coughing. “But yeah, fine. Not telling Puriel though? He was your captain and, like, your friend, wasn’t he?” 

For a second, Manakel looked away. I could sense… well, that same regret, yet also some positive feelings. He was remembering old days with Puriel. My pointing out that they were supposed to be friends made him think about what had made them friends in the first place. The memories, happy as they might’ve been, were obviously tainted by what came later and his own regrets. Yet they existed, and for a moment he simply enjoyed those memories. Which, given the Seosten perfect recall, had to be easier to do. Yet on the other hand, it also meant that he could perfectly recall every bad thing he had done as well. 

With a visible sigh, the man focused once more, his gaze meeting mine. “He was, and I would like to say that it was the influence of Tartarus which prevented me from speaking up. Which, perhaps, became the truth eventually. But at first…at first it was selfishness. I believed that it was simply my own power allowing me to see and hear the ghosts of those who died on the ship, and I thought if I said it was happening, they would either do something to prevent it, or… or relieve me of my duties. Neither of which I wanted to happen. I wanted to continue serving on the Olympus, alongside my friend. And I wanted to keep seeing the ghosts, even if they didn’t listen to me.” 

“Didn’t listen to you?” Avalon immediately echoed. 

“That is why I believed they would either relieve me or find a way to remove the ghosts,” Manakel replied. “Unlike all other spirits, these did not obey my commands. I didn’t know if that was a psychological block on my own part, not wanting to command those I felt I had failed in allowing them to die, or… or what. Either way, the fact that they continued to appear only while I was alone, and that I could not control them, convinced me that outsiders would believe I was either losing my mind, or that I could not effectively control my own gift when it came to the deaths of my crewmates. It was… it was a conscious choice not to tell anyone when I could have. A mistake on my part.” Another slight pause, then, “One of many.” 

I had no idea what I was supposed to say to that, so I moved on. “I have another question for you. It’s important. I need you to think back to last year. There was a hotel called the Runaway. It was taken over by a bunch of Alters, a gang. You went there for some reason, and when the two ghosts who live there showed up, you asked them about something or someone named Hajer. When they couldn’t answer your question, you tried to do something to them. The girl ghost pushed the boy out of the way, so he was only slightly clipped by it, but she took the full hit.” 

Manakel seemed to be focusing on recalling that memory, before looking back to me. “You have the boy ghost, don’t you? He only took a small fraction of the hit, so he would have come back on his own eventually.” 

“Oh!” Persephone abruptly piped up. “You used a pehvne spell.” To us, she added, “I guess the best translation would be… uhh… severscatter?” 

“That is as good as any,” the man agreed. “A pehvne, or ahh, severscatter spell normally involves shoving your own magical energy into your opponent, infecting his energy, the fuel he uses to cast spells and even use many abilities, and then rip that fuel out of him before scattering it in all directions. Some levels of the spell scatter the energy within the same area, allowing it to be reclaimed quite quickly, while higher levels scatter it much further to the point that it is essentially gone forever. Which, in the case of most living creatures, means little aside from the fact that it will take them time to regenerate their own magical fuel.” He paused then, considering Avalon and me. “Having posed as one of your instructors for quite some time last year, I know that you are both very bright. And that you are aware of how that works.” 

“People gradually absorb energy from the sun or just air around them and convert it into mana, or whatever you want to call it,” I confirmed. “Once they convert it, the energy has their own sort of signature that makes it theirs, so they can use it properly. So you’re saying the power you used was supposed to take someone’s magical energy and scatter it so they can’t cast spells until their tank refills. But you used it on ghosts, and they’re basically nothing but magical energy.” 

He confirmed that with a nod before explaining, “I put enough power into that to ensure they would not come back within the next ten of your Earth years if used on both. As the girl took the brunt of it, I can only imagine it would take twenty for her to return. I was… quite angry at the time. As I recall, we had just discovered that Zedekiah Pericles was not the person responsible for Miss Sinclaire’s protection.” 

Meeting his gaze evenly, Avalon retorted, “After you people murdered him.” 

“Yes.” Manakel’s voice was flat. “After we murdered him. And yes, before you ask,” he added to me, “I believe I can help you bring the ghost back. Or teach you how to do it. That will take some time, but it is as good a place to start as any with our lessons.” 

“Well, good,” I replied. “And while we’re at it, maybe you should explain exactly what, or who, you were looking for at that place anyway. Because if not being able to find this Hajer pissed you off that much, I think it’s something we should know about.” 

“Ah,” the ghost-man replied, “well that is not difficult. You may have heard of her yourself. But I believe you would know Hajer as the ahh… Wandering Woman? Or possibly Wrethekau, Freyja, Isis, the Witch of Endor?” 

“Oh. Right, yeah, we’ve heard of her,” I agreed. “But why were you looking for her, exactly? 

“And I swear to any deity-level power you might have any shred of belief in, if any of the next few words out of your mouth have anything to do with her having any part in my or Avalon’s family histories, I may have to give Grover what he wants and stab someone.” 

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Schooling 24-12 (Summus Proelium)

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I had been through a lot of surreal things in the past couple of months. But I really couldn’t think of anything more surreal in that moment than making dinner in Arleigh’s kitchen alongside her, Ryder, and the skater I had been fangirling over since I could walk. 

Well, obviously there were things, like going into a virtual reality controlled by the girl who had apparently once been one of my best friends turned enemy because her psychotic supervillain father reprogrammed the computer her computer-brain and– yeah, the list of crazy things was actually pretty long. But, the point was, this was completely about my civilian life. It had nothing to do with being a Touched. If you took out all the Paintball situations, standing in the kitchen helping Arleigh, Ryder, and Inessa make pizza for dinner while we talked about skating was definitely pretty high up there. Even better, there was no real danger about it. This was a weird situation, but it wasn’t a life and death weird one. Well, there was danger of wanting to stab myself for spending more time in this particular house, but still. I could resist that urge. 

Obviously, Arleigh didn’t know anything about the skating scene, either board or blades. But, equally obviously, she didn’t want to admit that. She kept talking like she knew everything there was to know, and just made things up when she had to. Whenever any of us made it clear we didn’t know what she meant, she just waved it off as having learned ‘different terms’ when visiting places like California, and claimed that ‘the coast people talk different.’ Because God forbid she just say she didn’t know something and listen to others who did. 

I could see Inessa roll her eyes a couple times as she glanced toward me. But she didn’t speak up too directly, and neither did I. I guess because neither of us wanted to be rude inside Arleigh’s own house. That and I didn’t particularly want to give her even more reason to talk. 

Ryder, for his part, seemed equally clueless. But he was far more willing to admit that fact. He kept asking questions and seemed genuinely interested in what we were saying. And not just for Inessa either. He was interested in the stuff I was talking about too, as far as skating went. And, even more amazing, so was she. They both actually listened to my stories. Inessa freaking Sidorov listened to my stories about skating! It was like I’d died and gone to some sort of paradise. I honestly wasn’t sure which of their attentions made me blush more. But either way, it helped make up for the fact that I was stuck here in this particular house. 

Before the pizzas were done cooking, but after they had started to smell good, Errol came wandering down. From the way his mess of blond hair was sticking in every direction, I would’ve thought he had just woken up from a nap or something. But apparently this was just what he looked like all the time. I was pretty sure Arleigh was going to tell him to go away, but before she could, Inessa started chatting with him cheerfully, and mentioned missing her own brother with all these long trips she kept going on. Obviously, Arleigh did a complete one-eighty and started talking at the boy as though they were really close, and how he was just the best little brother anyone could have. None of us were buying that, of course, but I wasn’t going to give her any reason to stop treating her brother like a human being. 

Beyond that, I also found out that Ryder was apparently a vegetarian. He just spoke up about it to make sure we had a pizza that didn’t have any meat on it. Surprisingly, Arleigh didn’t say anything bad about that or even seem annoyed. When he brought it up, she immediately confirmed that they had a pizza that would suit him, and even asked, unprompted, if he had any other dietary needs. It was unexpected, to say the least, but still, good for her. It was one of the very few times that I noticed her act like a real human being who thought about others without it being forced or fake. For just a moment, I actually forgot about what sort of person she was. Then, of course, she had to go and ruin it by very clearly and obnoxiously faking interest in the video game her little brother mentioned, just because her special celebrity skating guest showed actual interest in it. Arleigh was a lot of things, but a good actress was not one of them. Given her apparently genuine acceptance of the food thing, it was even easier to tell when she was putting on an act. Or maybe she didn’t care enough to put in an actual acting effort. Either way, she clearly didn’t want to hear more about the game, yet (poorly) pretended she did just to impress Inessa. Which made me wonder why she bothered. I knew she didn’t like skating, so why would she care about a celebrity skater? Was it just the celebrity part, or did her father push for her to show off for her? But if he cared that much, why wasn’t he here? What was keeping him too busy to show up for this? And was I just being paranoid again about that whole thing? Yeah, I was probably just being paranoid. So, with some effort, I tried to push that thought aside. Whatever Trey Fosters was up to, it didn’t affect me. 

With Inessa’s suggestion, since Ryder was vegetarian, we dug through the large fridge and managed to put together something akin to a decent salad to go with the pizza. Arleigh didn’t seem interested in that sort of thing at all, but Errol knew enough to find the dressing to go with it. We chopped up some tomatoes and cucumbers to go with the fresh spinach leaves, and even found some pepperoncini on the door. In the end, it was a pretty decent salad. Nothing that even would’ve come close to matching anything Claudio or his assistants could make, of course. But then again, we weren’t Michelin Star-rated chefs. At least, I wasn’t, and I was willing to go out on a limb and say Arleigh, Ryder, and Errol weren’t. On the other hand, as talented and incredible as Inessa was, it really wouldn’t have surprised me to find out she actually did have that sort of skill. 

Finally, the food was ready. No sooner had we set it all out on the table and began to take plates and forks for the salad, than their other brother showed up. Micah came in through the back door, having apparently either been outside the whole time, or he just walked home and came in that way. Whatever it was, he grunted an uncaring greeting to us, reached out and shoved his sister none-too-gently out of the way so he could take the plate she had been about to use right out of her hand, and loaded it with pizza before grabbing a beer out of the fridge as he headed upstairs to his room. I could see Arleigh grimace painfully while rubbing her shoulder a bit where she had hit the wall from the hard shove, and felt a wave of confusing feelings pass through me. If that was an example of how her own big brother treated her when there was company around, especially famous company, who knew what he was like when they were alone? Was this the sort of environment she had grown up in? Weird thoughts passed through me about what that would do to a person. If he was that casually cruel in front of us, the things he could get up to in private… eesh. Yes, obviously she was still absolutely terrible to hang out with, and not exactly a caring person herself. Especially to her own younger brother. But now that it seemed like there was a reason for that, it felt a little different. Hell, maybe the fact that her dad wasn’t even here for any of this was another indicator of the environment she had grown up in. Yeah, my parents ran the Ministry and all that, but I had never gotten the impression they didn’t care about me. Even Simon had made it clear, despite the teasing and everything, that he cared about me. This whole thing was just… wrong and uncomfortable. 

I could tell the others felt the same way, especially Ryder, who sat next to me and kept glancing toward the doorway where Micah had gone. Something told me he was tempted to go after him and say something, but stopped himself. Which was a good thing, because I was pretty sure the older boy could have pounded him into a thick paste, and this probably wasn’t the best time or way to show off my fledgling self-defense lessons. To say nothing else my powers. Oh God, the thought of having to convince Arleigh to keep my secret made my entire body shudder. 

Inessa, of course, noticed, looking over at me from across the table. “Hey, are you all right? There’s nothing wrong with the pizza, is there?” She asked that while inspecting her own slice curiously. 

My head shook quickly as I took a bite to demonstrate. “No, no! It’s fine. It’s cool.” I shrugged, searching my brain for excuses that would work. “Sorry, I was just thinking of something else.” A quick thought came to mind, and I launched into a story about one time when I had misjudged a jump and ended up breaking my ankle. It distracted everyone from my previous reaction, especially when I talked about how gross it had looked while all bent out of shape. That made Inessa eventually jump into her own story about one of her bad injuries, and soon no one was thinking about my weird shudder. 

And yet, through all that, I saw Ryder glance at the door a couple more times, as if he couldn’t stop thinking about Micah and that whole situation. Eventually, he excused himself to use the restroom. I immediately felt a slight flare of alarm go through me. Was he really going to the restroom, or was he going to go find Micah and say something to him about that whole situation? This could be bad. I might’ve barely met the boy a couple times, but I liked him well enough. I sure as hell didn’t want to find Micah punching him in the face next time we saw him. Call me crazy, but I really didn’t think Arleigh’s big brother was the sort to take criticism very well. My own brother teased me and even wrestled with me now and then, but the way Micah treated his siblings seemed different. There was no love there, no care. It wasn’t that he was teasing them in a way that sometimes got out of hand, he genuinely did not seem to care if Arleigh was hurt by him shoving her into the wall. No way did I want Ryder to go find him on his own and have any sort of confrontation.That could only end poorly. 

Thinking quickly, I pretended I was getting a phone call and said it was my mom, so I excused myself to the other room while pretending to talk to her. As soon as I was out of sight from the kitchen, I looked around quickly just in time to hear footsteps disappearing up the stairs. Yeah, Ryder was definitely heading up there. This could turn really bad, really quickly.

Grimacing to myself, I painted black on the inside of my clothes just in case there were cameras (or spying plants) that would’ve seen me put it in any more obvious places, and made my way up after him. I wanted to get up there as quickly and quietly as possible, grab the boy, and get out before Micah noticed we were around. And before the others paid any attention to how long we had been gone. Reaching the top of the stairs, I looked around in time to see a shape disappear through a doorway at the end of the hall. Was that Micah’s room? Did Ryder just barge in there? Oh God, if I started to hear shouting, I was going to yell at myself for taking so long. Quickly, yet quietly, I made my way down that hall to the doorway. I stopped just outside it, hesitated, then peeked through the crack. I expected to see Ryder and Micah about to have a confrontation. But what I saw was… different. Very different indeed.

The first thing I saw was that this wasn’t a bedroom at all, and it certainly wasn’t Micah’s. It looked like a personal office. An expensive one at that, judging by the furnishings. Most relevantly, there was a desk there with a computer, which was where Ryder was standing. He was next to the desk, holding his hand out. Just as I peeked that way, my mouth opening to hiss that we had to get out of there, something happened to make the words die in my throat. A small, glowing figure appeared on the boy’s palm. It cackled softly before jumping from his hand to the computer. I recognized it immediately, and had to cover my own mouth to stop the gasp of shock.

Eits. Ryder was Eits. Oh God. Oh fuck. Ryder was Eits! No wonder he had seemed somewhat familiar! Had he recognized me? Did he remember my voice? I was pretty sure he didn’t, or he probably wouldn’t have tried something like this right now. But what was he even trying? Why was he here right now? Was he pulling off a job? Was this about stealing from the Taurus shipping company after he’d been embarrassed about being caught before? Trey Fosters was one of their primary owners, and this place was easier to hit than my own family’s home. Was that what this whole thing was about? Something told me that wasn’t quite right, especially considering where this place was.

We were in the middle of Sherwood territory. Would he really risk pulling a job like that around here? Especially with a gang like Sherwood, who were so good at spying on everyone. 

Needless to say, there were a lot of thoughts rushing through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to sort my way through any of them. And I definitely didn’t have time to focus on what Ryder/Eits was actually doing. Before I could even start to wrap my head around any of that, a sound from behind me made my gaze snap that way. Another door was starting to open. That had to be the room Micah was in, and he was about to come out. Eyes widening, I shoved the office door open the rest of the way and burst through before pushing it shut. 

Ryder looked up, mouth opening to stammer some excuse or another. But before he could, I rushed that way. The footsteps were approaching, and given the stairs were the other direction, this seemed like the only place Micah could be going. So, without another thought, I grabbed Ryder by the arm, and yanked him sideways toward the nearby closet. He heard the footsteps as well by that point, and didn’t resist. The two of us managed to get the door open and slip inside, shutting it behind us just as the other boy came into the office itself.

We could barely make him out through the cracks in the closet door, enough to see that he didn’t seem to be trying to find us or anything. He didn’t appear to have any idea we were there. Instead, the older boy walked to the desk and opened a couple different drawers, apparently looking for something. The boy was muttering curses under his breath as he rifled through the contents of the desk, then angrily shoved it shut. He straightened, apparently still annoyed about not finding whatever he was looking for. Then he turned to look at the closet. 

Uh oh. 

Yeah, he was definitely heading this way. And this closet wasn’t big enough to hide in. There were a few stacked boxes and two filing cabinets in there, but that was about it. There were no hanging clothes to hide behind, no deep corners to squeeze into. If he opened that door, which he was clearly about to do, Micah would find us instantly. And how in the hell would we ever explain being all the way up here, hiding inside the closet of his father’s private office? That… that would be bad. 

There was only one area in this closet that had any room where we could hide and possibly not be seen. As Micah approached and reached for the door, I looked up. Oh God. What was I about to do? Was I really going to–could I really–was this the only way to… my mind raced, going through what seemed like a million thoughts in those brief couple of seconds. 

I could feel Ryder tense beside me, obviously ready for some sort of fight. But before he could do anything, Micah was right there, just on the other side of the door. There was no more time, none. I had to make a decision right then and there, about whether I trusted him or not. Which was worse, exposing a secret to him, or letting Micah find us like that? Which was more dangerous? 

I made my choice. Reaching out, I shot Ryder, Eits, with a bit of black paint to silence the gasp I knew would be coming. Then I hit him with red paint as well as myself, before pointing upward. Just as the door started to open, we were yanked to the ceiling and held there. Next to me, I could feel Ryder’s jerk of surprise, and saw his mouth open to blurt something, only to react with even more surprise as no sound came out. His gaze snapped to me, as I held a finger to my lips. 

Below us, Micah poked his head in. His focus was on the boxes, Which he dug through for a moment. I had to renew the red paint on Ryder and myself as the boy below seemed to take his sweet time. But he never looked up. He rummaged a bit, found something he had apparently been looking for, and celebrated with an annoyed, “There you are, fuck.” It was a choice of words that obviously made me tense up, but he wasn’t talking to us. Instead, he had some sort of folder in his hands, which he tucked under his arm before straightening up. The closet door closed, and then he was heading out of the office. 

I managed to put black paint on the two of us again, as well as the floor, just before Ryder and I both crashed back down. We landed within the small space before I shoved the closet door open and both of us fell out together, landing in a tangled heap on the floor of the office. The two of us lay there, staring at one another for a solid five seconds before we both hiss-blurted the same thing. 

“You!” 

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