Month: February 2023

Center Of Attention 26-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Caishen wasn’t kidding about those meetings, or how boring they were. Once our whole team was brought together, we ended up getting debriefed by her, as well as their entire security leadership, several high-ranking police officers, my father (as Silversmith of course), and more. They all had a bunch of questions for us, often ones we had already answered. We told them everything we could about what had happened, why we made the choices we did, and even how we had ended up bringing weapons into the courthouse. I made it clear that we had only brought the guns through once the fighting started. I left it fairly vague when it came to exactly how that worked, simply saying that we had a way to transfer equipment from one place to another. They accepted that well enough, probably because we had proven to be so useful. But still, there were a lot of questions. 

In between all those, I managed to get some answers of my own. They had not managed to arrest Banneret, even though we’d left her perfectly trussed up for them. All they had found in that room was a puddle of goo where Wren’s prototype had been. I wasn’t exactly surprised by that news, but nor did I believe she escaped on her own. Given the situation, and the fact that the Ministry was clearly a big part of this, I had a very strong suspicion that she had help from the first responders when it came to getting out of there. 

Nor had Fogwalker been caught. Though in his case, the TONI had escaped the building before the authorities breached. He left in the middle of the fight against Paige and the other three, apparently deciding discretion was the better part of valor once it became clear that Poise and Style were still quite dangerous even within his darkness. I still had no idea whether people thought the two of them were simply incredibly well-trained people with technology help, or some sort of Touched in their own right. Something told me I should take a look at the SPHERE forum and see what everyone was saying. But that could come later. 

So basically, despite everything we’d done, all the important people, the Fell-Touched, had managed to escape. I felt a little let down by that, not helped by the fact that they had managed to take some of the equipment from that vault after all. Telling myself that they would’ve gotten away with a hell of a lot more helped a little bit, but not that much. It seemed like we should have been able to do more. Or maybe I just felt guilty about the fact that my family had clearly helped put this whole thing together. Which was unhelped by the presence of my father as he went through all those questions with us. 

One thing we managed to do was free Trevithick from all this questioning. Or rather, Caishen did. She sent the girl off with her own daughter so she could meet Lightning Bugs’ not-so-little friends, who had apparently been locked up in one of the other rooms when the invasion happened. So at least Wren didn’t have to sit in that stuffy Ten Towers room going through more than an hour of questioning. I almost envied her for that. 

We also managed to establish that San Francisco and his parents had been found safe. They were locked up in the basement of their home, having been threatened, but not severely injured. I felt a wave of relief wash over me at that. Sure, San could be a little exhausting with his constant thoughts of romance and who belonged with who and all that, but he was still my friend. I didn’t want to think about anything happening to his family. 

None of us outright asked if they had seen Pack, Broadway, and those others they had been with in the courthouse. Maybe we should have, considering they were bad guys who had clearly broken into that place for possibly nefarious things. But I still felt like we owed the girl for all her help, and given we didn’t know why they were there or who she had been working with… yeah. There was a fair chance they were just there to steal some stuff and blame it on the Trendscendants. I was going to have to talk to her and see what I could find out, and hopefully not come to regret not telling the authorities. 

Finally, they were done with us. We met up with Wren again, as she finished saying goodbye to her new friend and promised to visit later. Lightning Bug seemed excited by that possibility, as did all of her assorted partners. I had a feeling we would be coming back here for a field trip soon enough. 

But, that, like so many things, would come later. For the moment, the seven of us made our way out of the building through one of the back doors, escorted by Skip since her sister was still busy dealing with all of that. She thanked us again, and then held out a card. “For your services.” 

Blinking, I leaned closer to stare at the thing. It was one of those prepaid debit cards. “Uh, that’s really not–” 

Sierra’s hand snapped out to take it before I could finish that sentence. “Thanks so much. We appreciate the recognition and wouldn’t want to be rude by refusing.” She said that with a glance toward me. 

Skip, for her part, simply gave a short nod. If she had any thoughts or reactions to that exchange, it didn’t show. Not that that meant anything, of course. Instead of commenting, she simply replied, “I’m glad you were in a position to lend aid. I hope to return the favor some time.” 

Before I could point out that she’d already been plenty of help in the past, especially when it came to getting me out of that situation with the Scions, the girl was gone. She vanished, clearly teleporting back into the building to help her sister. 

Which left us standing in an alley on the far southern side of the Ten Towers Plaza. It felt weird, like we should have been doing something else, or like there should have been more to that whole debriefing. After everything that had happened, we’d talked to the authorities for just over an hour, and now we were done. We were just… standing out here in the shadows between a couple buildings. It was sort of surreal, I supposed. It just felt like there should be more to all that, something bigger for us to do than simply walk out and be on our own again. 

Shaking off that feeling, I turned to the others. “Okay, well, I don’t know about you guys, but I am starving. How about we go back to the shop and order something to eat?” 

Murphy’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Hell yeah,” she agreed, “I could eat a whole cow. Preferably cooked, but at this point, I’m not really that picky, to be honest.” 

“We should use this thing,” Sierra put in, holding up the card she had accepted from Skip. “I think Ten Towers owes us a meal, assuming they put enough on it to cover that. We should probably check.” 

So I did, by calling the number on the back and putting the code into the automated system. And boy did they ever put plenty for more than one meal, to say the least. The card was loaded with ten thousand dollars. So apparently the Towers people were more than a little grateful for what we had done. When I told the others, I thought a few of them were going to faint. 

“What the hell are we supposed to do with all that?” Peyton demanded. 

“We’ll put most of it into the shop,” I announced. “Wren deserves to buy some good stuff, and it’ll help all of us in the future, especially since we wouldn’t have gotten this far without that little drone of hers.” As I said that, my hand reached out to ruffle the top of her head, while she ducked away with a noise of embarrassment. Then I focused on Murphy, Roald, and Peyton. “But we also wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without you guys. So I think it’s fair if you all get a bonus too. Let me get some cash to match what’s on here and I’ll make sure you each get like, what, a thousand dollars to do whatever you want with? That sound fair?” 

Once again, I thought the three of them were going to pass out. They seemed a bit overwhelmed, but they had definitely earned the cash. And probably a hell of a lot more than that. With that in mind, I led the way out of the alley and to the van Fred had just pulled up in. None of us had enough energy to take the long way back to the shop, so we’d simply told the man where to meet us ahead of time. As he opened the doors, we all piled in and practically fell over in the back. Except for Paige and Sierra, who seemed fine. They both went in the front with Fred, talking to him about everything that happened while the rest of us lay in the back and tried to relax through the drive. 

Soon enough, we were at the shop and I had to put the call in for food delivery. We were going to have Chinese. A lot of Chinese. But I didn’t use the card for it, despite Sierra’s suggestion. I was pretty sure the money on it wasn’t a trap, and yet it still felt dangerous to use it and have food delivered right to the store. Instead, I used my own money. Later, I’d use the card to withdraw cash somewhere far away from this place and hand it out to everyone. That was just safer than giving anyone connected to this card a direct link to Wren’s shop. 

And, of course, I made sure there wasn’t a tracking bug on the card itself. At least, as sure as I could be with Wren’s help. Was I being overly-paranoid when it came to Ten Towers? Maybe, but better safe than sorry. Because if it went wrong, we’d be very sorry. 

Either way, when we did get our food delivered, it was a veritable feast, one I could enjoy even more considering I was able to take the helmet and mask off in front of these guys and eat normally. We laid the whole thing out on one of the long tables in Wren’s lab upstairs and really went to town on it. Even Fred seemed famished, probably because he had spent the past couple hours freaking out here at the store, waiting to hear what happened. We basically put away enough to satisfy a small army. 

And we didn’t only eat. We also talked a fair bit. Once we’d put away just enough food that it didn’t feel like our stomachs were about to devour us from the inside. We talked about everything that had happened back there. Sure, we had just gone through an hour of meetings about the whole situation, but this was different. We were recounting everything to each other, laughing, teasing, praising, exaggerating, just… having a good time. We had all happened to be in the right place at the right time to help out, and even if the bad guys still got away with some of what they had been after, it would’ve been worse if we weren’t there. I was able to put aside my own feeling of guilt enough to accept that, especially when it came to making sure the others knew how awesome they were. I didn’t want them to feel like they hadn’t done enough the way a small part of me still did. And no, telling myself that if they had done enough then I clearly had as well didn’t entirely help. Feelings were weird and stupid like that. 

Fred wanted to hear about everything too, obviously. He sat there, listening in with often worried fascination as we went through the whole thing for him. Staring at me by the end, he demanded, “How do you keep running into all that danger? You went to a courthouse, a courthouse, and managed to interrupt something like that. Before that, you were at a silly skating exhibition, and we all know what happened there.” 

Flushing a little visibly, I offered a helpless shrug. “Trust me, if I knew, I’d plan for it a bit better. And I definitely wouldn’t have brought Wren along.” 

“I helped!” the girl in question insisted. 

“You did,” I agreed. “Believe me, we would’ve been completely screwed without your drone. We all know that. But still, I just–” Hesitating, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, I’d plan for things better if I knew how they kept happening. but seriously, I’m glad you were all there.” Biting my lip, I looked down at my mostly finished plate, thinking for a moment before closing up again. “You’re my friends. I’d be lost without you. Not just today, but with all of it, all of this.” My eyes even found their way to Paige, the girl I had such a complicated history with. “I’m glad you’re here.” 

She met my gaze for a moment, a series of complicated emotions seeming to pass over her face. Then she gave a short nod. “Glad to hear it,” the girl announced. “And I hope you still feel that way tomorrow, because I’m gonna need a pretty big distraction while we wait for Irelyn’s plane to land. So all of you better be ready for some pretty intense training. 

“Don’t think what happened today is gonna make me take it easy on you.” 


School the next day was… well, interesting. San had come despite his family saying he could stay home, and had a lot to say to everyone when it came to his house being invaded by the Trendscendants. He, like a lot of people, had started calling them Trendies, probably because the name itself was already ridiculous and calling them that helped make what his family had gone through not quite so terrifying. I could tell it really affected him, even though he did his best to play it off as no big deal. 

I also took the time to tell Amber everything that happened from our point of view, just as I had Izzy the night before. She’d heard a lot of it third-hand, and had some stuff to say about being on the outside waiting to go in, but her group really hadn’t seen much action. Pretty much the only bad guys they managed to find once they breached the building were already dealt with by our group, so her whole thing had been a lot of waiting around followed by walking through a building to find unconscious or tied-up people. 

She was definitely interested when I told her about Pack and Broadway being in that place, though Amber didn’t have any better answers than I did about whether not telling the authorities was a mistake. If anything, she seemed even more uncertain about all that than I was. 

Even through all that, the other girl had seemed distracted. I asked her what was up and she just said there were some personal things she was dealing with. But it didn’t seem bad. To tell the truth, she was kind of giddy and silly. Part of me was confused about that until I saw her with Dani later that day. They were in the middle of an intense conversation at the back of the library, their fingers interlaced as they sat together on one of the couches. 

Oh, so that was what was going on. Well, good for her, though I wasn’t sure how that whole thing with Pack was going to go now that she was involved with Dani. Either way, it wasn’t any of my business. That was all up to her. 

Finally, school was over, so I took an Uber close to the shop before walking the rest of the way. It was about three when I got there, and according to the news, the plane carrying Trivial and Flea (and the ‘anonymous woman they had gone to save’) would be landing around six pm. We couldn’t actually be at the airport, of course. It was a private field north of the city, and that whole place was completely locked down. They were allowing certain reporters in to broadcast the arrival, but that was it. There was no way we could get near it. So Paige was just going to meet her sister back at the Banners’ house, which only served to remind me that we still had no idea where they were. Granted, them being on Breakwater too wasn’t completely out of the question, but something told me they weren’t. 

Paige wasn’t kidding about that training thing, either. Throughout the entire time we were waiting for the news to announce the plane’s arrival, she put us through our paces. First in the virtual reality system, but also over an hour of real-world exercise. She and Sierra were both pretty intense through that whole thing. 

Finally, Fred called out for us to come watch the television. So we gathered in front of it, all of us sweating and panting aside from, of course, the two biolems. That didn’t stop the broad smile that came as I saw the footage of the plane landing and taxiing to a stop. A minute later, the hatch opened, and the stairs were wheeled up to it, allowing three figures to emerge. Two were immediately recognizable as Trivial and Flea, while the other was a woman wearing a heavy coat and ski mask to protect her identity. Part of me wondered whether they had Irelyn dressed up as Flea or the anonymous woman at this point. Probably the former, in case anyone wanted to see her powers or compared old footage to this in order to figure out if they were faking her return. 

Whatever the answer, she was there. Dozens of reporters were shouting questions from the tarmac while the three descended the steps and waved to show that they were okay. 

Smiling broadly at the sight, I patted Paige on the back. “I guess you’ll be heading back to the house to meet her, huh?” 

“I uhh… I want you to be there too,” she informed me, seeming a bit awkward. “I mean, as yourself, not Paintball. I thought…” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I thought maybe we could pretend we’ve gotten over our issues or something. You know, so Sierra can be around the house too sometimes while Irelyn’s there.” 

“Oh.” I blinked once. “I mean, yeah, sure. We wouldn’t be pretending, but I guess we would be pretending that it just happened or how it–never mind, that’s all complicated. Sure, yeah, if you really want me to be there when she gets home… I mean… yeah.” I was making it even more awkward. “I’ll come with you.” 

“Great.” She offered me a brief smile before blushing as she looked away with a cough. “We should uhh, get dinner set up. I’m pretty sure Irelyn will be hungry whenever they finally get done with her.” 

“Great,” Peyton teased. “After all that training, you get to have Paige make you a meal at her nice cushy house, and what do the rest of us get?” 

“Oh, I’m staying here,” Sierra informed her. “Can’t have Irelyn see me looking like this, after all. Worse, I’ve still got plenty of energy and nothing to do with it. So what do you all get?” 

Peyton, Murphy, Roald, Wren, and Fred all chorused the answer together with varying degrees of cheerfulness and/or exhaustion. 

“More training!”  

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Hey guys, there was a tie for the voting on what interlude to have next, so while our wonderful donators are voting to break that tie, here’s the first chapter of the new arc!

We dropped off Denuvus and Trice without any further issues. I had been expecting her to make more problems for us before it was over, but apparently she was content to play along for now. I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing with giving her access to cloning technology in order to bring her sister back was going to work out. But that was something to handle on another day. For now, we simply left them there and took the bodies of our dead back to the station before checking in. Of course, they were surprised to see us there, let alone hear the whole story about what had happened. 

They had also already sent out a group to go to Fossor’s home planet and help back when we first reported in from the asteroid base. And God did that feel like it had happened decades ago. Unfortunately, because they didn’t have the Jitterbug, we had gone through all that and they still weren’t at the other planet yet. My dad was on that ship, since he’d refused to stay behind when both Mom and me were in obvious danger. So, I was able to partially-recall over there to let them know the situation was back under control. He was relieved, to say the least. As was everyone else on the ship, including Avalon. But they were still going to meet us on the planet, since they were only a few hours out by that point. It’d be stupid for them to just turn around right then and come all the way back to Earth. 

Besides, we still had to deal with the fact that there was a secret chamber with a horde of Revenants locked up inside it. To that end, we dropped the Seosten tribals we had captured off at the station as well. We’d have to figure out what to do with them in the long run later, but at least while they were all the way over by Earth there was absolutely no way they could do anything to unleash those monsters again. Everything else could wait. Plus, the Seosten here really wanted to meet them. I had a feeling that was going to be a whole thing too. Hell, maybe it would contribute to convincing the Seraphs to extend the truce. If we showed them that there were still living descendants from the original Seosten, maybe they would even be able to use that in their attempts to find a solution to their population issue? That had to earn us a few points, right? 

We also left Miles and Royce there, so they could… be with their friends. With some help from Nevada, I filled up some crystal things with my own necromantic energy so the ghosts could feed off that for awhile, and Brom Bones promised to take care of them as well as the rest of my haunted mansion while I was gone. 

So, after taking a few minutes to deal with all that, and promising to see the others once they got to the planet, we took the Jitterbug back there. Finally, after that whole long ordeal, we were going to do what we had set out for in the first place. Namely, meet with the people who lived on that world, let them know the full story about what happened to the man who had oppressed them for so long, and see what we could do to help the world get back on track. 

As planned, we landed the Jitterbug near that city where Rasputin had last been seen, a place apparently called Peiys. It was kind of hard to believe we had gone through all that and Robin’s group still hadn’t been able to do the one thing they’d come with us for in the first place. Seriously, the fact that they had stuck with us for so long, and helped out as much as they had meant a lot. I was pretty sure–no, I was absolutely certain we would have been completely dead without them. By that point, I probably would have agreed to help them with anything they asked for.

It was the middle of the night when we landed the ship on a high ridge a couple miles from the town. We didn’t want to freak the people there out anymore than we were obviously already going to. So we would head in there after the sun came up and people had time to be awake and all that. Besides, most of us were utterly exhausted after that whole situation anyway, so having a few hours to sleep was probably a really good idea. Plus it would give the ship that Dad, Avalon, and the others were on time to catch up. 

In my case, I slept for just a little over two hours before I was fresh and ready. I ended up sitting on top of a tall boulder on the edge of the ridge so I could look out at the torch-based lights of the town in the distance. It obviously wasn’t very advanced, thanks to Fossor. The town was surrounded by two layers of stone walls, with what looked like the broken, burned remains of what had once been a massive tower. It was clear that the thing had stretched high into the sky at one point. But now there was barely anything left of it. Even then it was taller than any of the buildings around it, despite the fact that the thing looked like the people of the town had torn the whole thing apart as much as they could, and were using the base of what remained for… something. 

While I was sitting on that rock watching the distant town, Shiori climbed up and sat next to me. We stayed there in silence for a minute, simply putting our arms around one another. I was content like this. After everything that had happened, it was nice to simply sit here with one of my girls and relax. I didn’t feel rushed to say or do anything else besides just… enjoy her presence. 

Finally, I glanced sidelong at the other girl, and smiled a little. “It’s kind of nice, isn’t it?” 

She returned the smile. “You mean knowing that you’ll be able to tell all those people that they’re free now? Yeah, it’s nice. Plus, Senny doesn’t have to go hunt down the guy who erased her dad’s memories.” That smile twisted into a very slight frown. “Not since Fossor killed him.”

“Yeah, that part’s complicated,” I agreed with a sigh. “But at least he’s dead. They both are. Now we just have to get Gaia back so she can help with Tiras’s memories.” 

“I miss her,” Shiori murmured, squeezing herself closer to me with a visible flinch. “I really thought we would have found her by now. She would have found any of us.” 

Swallowing, I rubbed the other girl’s shoulder. “Yeah, she’s pretty amazing. But we’ll get her out of there, don’t worry. No one’s forgotten about her, especially not now. We’ll save her, no matter where they try to hide her from us. One way or another, we’re going to get Gaia back.” She was right though, it was taking so long for us to find the woman. Crossroads kept moving her around, kept changing her guards, and more, doing everything they could to make it impossible for us to mount a rescue. 

I was trying very hard not to think about the fact that my mother had been held prisoner for literal decades without the Rebellion being able to save her. This was different. It had to be different. We were going to find Gaia and get her out of there, somehow. 

Asenath came into view then, looking up at us before giving what was, for her, a little ten foot hop to land on the other side of Shiori. Her voice was quiet. “Sorry to interrupt. I… couldn’t help overhearing. Vampire senses.” Snorting a bit at her own words, she turned to her sister. “Flick’s right though. We’re going to find Gaia and get her away from those people. And not just because I need her. We all need her. She’s too important. Last time she had to try being subtle to keep her position at the school. But that’s over now. She belongs with the rebellion. She belongs with all of us.” 

“How’re you doing with all that?” I asked after a second of silence. “I mean, the whole thing with that guy who erased your dad’s memories already being dead.” 

She exhaled heavily. “I really wish he was still around to punch. Or stab a few dozen times. But I guess I’ll just have to put all my energy and anger toward the people who are keeping Gaia locked up instead.”  

Snorting a bit to myself, I nodded. “Well, they’re pretty good targets for it anyway. They’ve definitely earned the full power of your wrath.” 

“Speaking of power,” Shiori put in, shifting around to look at me more directly. “You really killed two of those Revenants back there?” She sounded awed, which made me blush. “What’d you get out of that? Come on, it’s gotta be something good, right?”

The question made me blink with realization. “Oh, shit, you’re right. We were just so busy in the middle of all that, and then the whole thing with… with Kaleigh, Jason, Chas, and Emily happened. I guess I just forgot about it. I don’t–I’m not sure, and since Tabs is asleep–”

“No, I’m not!” That was Tabbris herself, of course. She stood at the bottom of the boulder, looking up at us while clutching her magic fishbowl against her chest. “And I know what you got from those guys. I uhh, checked before, but I didn’t think it was the right time to… you know, talk about it.” 

Exchanging a look with the other two, I shrugged before pushing off the boulder and dropping to land next to my sister. “Well,” I announced, “in that case, maybe we should go over there out of the way, and talk about it? Come on, guys.” 

So, the four of us moved further away from the camp where the others were still sleeping and toward an open meadow about two hundred feet away. Once we were there, I looked back at Tabbris. “Okay, since I know the others are wondering, too, what did I end up getting from those Revenants?” It still felt weird to phrase it like that, like I was being irreverent or something. But still, there wasn’t really a better way. Besides, those things had killed our… well, not friends, I barely knew anything about them, another thing I felt guilty for. But our people. They killed our people, who didn’t deserve to die. The very least they could do was contribute something toward making sure I could stop as many others from dying as possible. It wouldn’t fix the situation, not by a long shot. But it was something.

“Okay, well,” Tabbris started as the rest of us looked to her expectantly, “the first thing is that you can umm… sort of, drain the health from corpses to make yourself stronger and tougher. Err, not the health. I mean like, you can touch a corpse and make it turn into dust and fall apart in exchange for getting one… umm, charge I guess? Yeah, one charge of a umm, corpse boost.” She grimaced while explaining that part. “Sorry, it’s really gross, but yeah. You can hold ten charges like that, but you can only activate one at a time. When you activate a charge, it uses up the energy from that, uh, corpse. And for the next… anywhere from one minute to ten minutes depending on how strong they were when they were alive, you’ll be three times as strong and as tough as you usually are. Or you can burn that entire, err, corpse-worth of energy at once and be ten times as strong and completely invulnerable to almost everything for just a few seconds.” 

I took a moment to absorb that. “Okay, so I touch dead bodies and turn them to dust in exchange for up to ten charges, which I can expend to get either a short-term boost to strength and all that, or an incredibly short, almost instantaneous burst of being invulnerable and staggeringly strong. That could be… yeah, useful. Gross and all that, but then again, I’m kinda getting used to that by now with the whole Necromancy thing. And I’m pretty sure we won’t lack for corpses.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed, “besides, you’ll always be the cutest Necromancer I know.” 

Giggling despite herself, Tabbris’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh, and that’s not all. The second thing you got was umm, I think you’d call it Corpse-Disguise?” 

Senny arched an eyebrow, giving me a brief look. “Well that sounds interesting. And disturbing.” 

So, Tabbris explained. It turned out that I could also use any of the corpse charges I had to transform myself into a perfect physical copy of that person. A version that would actually look like they were alive, that was. I wouldn’t actually have any of their powers, but every single test that anyone could do besides that would show me as being that person. My voice would match, as would fingerprints, retinal scans, even magical signature tests. All of that would look completely identical to the living person. Assuming anyone we were trying to fool didn’t know the person in question was dead, I would be able to fool them. Assuming, of course, they didn’t insist I use that person’s powers, or know something they would know. Biologically speaking, it would be a perfect match. 

“Well,” I murmured after all that was explained, “that could actually be pretty useful when it comes to the whole getting Gaia out of prison thing. And probably any number of other things that could come up. I just need, uh, useful corpses I guess?” Saying that made me grimace. “Yup, still disturbing to think about.” 

“It’s more than that,” Tabbris put in. “See, while you’re in that other body, if you die–I mean take lethal damage, you’ll revert back to your own body, but you won’t be injured anymore. Any damage you take in the other body doesn’t transfer to your normal one. But it’s a one shot deal. Once you change yourself into them, the body’s used up for good. So if you change back, you can’t turn into that person again anymore. The corpse gets turned to dust when you make the charge, and you expend the charge to turn into them. So you only get one shot with each… body.” She paused before swallowing as she clutched the fish bowl tighter. “You’re right, it’s kinda creepy.” 

“But useful,” Senny noted with a thoughtful look my way. “Definitely very useful. Even if you just happen to be in a fight and you’re about to take a lethal hit, you could use up a charge to shift into one of your corpse-bodies first. And you already had the creepy thing going for you anyway, so this is just right up your alley.” 

“Gee thanks,” I retorted with a snort. “Glad to know I can be the creepy one for everyone else. But yeah, you’re right, both of those things sound really useful. Thanks, Tabs.” I added that part while reaching out to ruffle my little sister’s hair. “You’re pretty cool to have around sometimes, you know?” 

Giggling a little, she embraced me tightly. “Oh, and you also got a pretty big umm… well, not really a boost to your magical energy but a boost to your… efficiency. It takes less for you to do more.”

That was also going to be pretty useful, considering what we had learned about me supposedly being able to stop the Fomorians. Which I still wasn’t sure how I felt about. It was a lot of pressure, to say the least. But if I could stop them for good, I was going to, no matter what that took. If nothing else, it would be a way for Dare to reveal herself and actually be my grandmother publicly. If I had the chance to give that to her, to give her life and identity back, I was going to. But even without that, the Fomorians had to be stopped. I just still wasn’t sure how to adjust to the idea that I was supposed to be the one doing that.

After I was silent for a few seconds, thinking about all that, Shiori spoke up. “He still hasn’t told you exactly what he’s here for, has he?”

“Wukong?” I shook my head. “I tried to talk to him about it when we were coming back here, but he just said it would wait and there wasn’t a big hurry. He says he’ll talk to me about it after we’re done with the people here on this world, no matter how long that takes. Which is pretty nice, actually. I don’t think any of us could stop him if he was more demanding about whatever he wants. But I’d sure be really annoyed about it.”

The others agreed, and we ended up talking a lot more about everything. Before long, another couple hours had passed. The sun was starting to rise, as we heard something back in the camp and looked that way to see mom and Nevada standing in front of a portal. Dad was the first one through it, and he embraced my mother immediately. Then he came my way, and I met him with my own tight hug. Promising him I was okay, that we were both fine, I clung tightly for a few long seconds. Then I did the same with Avalon as she came through the portal as well. There were others behind her, but mostly I was focused on Valley. “God, I’m glad you guys are here.”

“Even if we missed the excitement?” she lightly teased, though I could still see the worry in her expression. As well as something else. I was pretty sure she had more she wanted to share with me and we hadn’t been able to talk about it so far. 

But whatever it was would apparently have to wait. For now, my head shook. “Oh, trust me. You may have missed the fighting, but I’m pretty sure there’s still going to be plenty of excitement.” Saying that, I looked out toward the town in the distance.

“But in this case, I think it’ll be the good kind of excitement.”

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Center Of Attention 26-12 (Summus Proelium)

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A handful of the bad guy troops opened fire on the spot where I was, or rather, where I had been. I was already flinging myself into a backwards leap, assisted by my blue paint to get the hell out of that spot. An instant later, a lightning blast went flying through the air, as Juice very clearly targeted the spot he thought I was going to be in. But I had thrown myself backwards rather than straight up, anticipating something like that.

Thankfully, he didn’t have time to follow up with that, because Caishen had recovered from her own surprise, and lashed out with a punch at his back. She must have used her power to magnify the ‘value’ of that blow, because even with his incredible strength, it still knocked him down. The man caught himself on his hands and knees before his leg snapped out into a kick. Caishen managed to pivot out of the way just as Ephemera produced a shotgun and unloaded both barrels into the man’s face. I had no idea what the thing was loaded with, but it was enough to make his head snap back with a bellow of pain.

Leaving them to that, I activated a series of green interlocked circles on myself and Alloy, as both of us went sprinting toward Janus together. On the way, I saw Devil’s Due trying to pick himself up, so I activated the black-painted band-aid on his neck just to make sure he couldn’t fuck us over any time soon. Then I took a quick glance over my shoulder at an area behind us to judge my aim before sending a shot of red that way. That done, I gave a sharp whistle toward Janus themselves ahead of me. “Hey I’m pretty sure if you wanted a job here, you could’ve just dropped off an application! Or two? Whatever, the enthusiasm is good but coming in with all your friends for moral support is just gonna make you look immature and needy. It does not look good to a hiring manager.” 

They took the bait. An instant later, there was a fist the size of my entire bed flying at both of us. Alloy went high, having her marble suit lift her into the air, while I dove into a low slide as though I was heading for homebase. On the way, I hit the massive fist with two shots of paint. One was green and the other red, with the former fed into the latter for speed. I activated all of them, including the red paint I had sent over my shoulder a few seconds earlier. Janus was taken by surprise as their fist flew much faster than they expected, stopping them from adjusting their aim as I went sliding under the extended limb. “Hey, hey,” I shouted, “I know you need support, but no hugs!” 

Meanwhile, their fist was pulled by the red paint, extending outward faster than they could recover and stop themselves until it slammed into the backs of Two-Step and Last Word. Both men were knocked to the floor. Not down and out, unfortunately, since the former had managed to notice the incoming fist soon enough to throw up one of his ghost-like copies to absorb some of the impact, and the latter was using some sort of power that enhanced his strength. Still, they were down for the moment. More importantly, Alloy and I weren’t. That was always a positive thing.

Of course, Janus still had an arm that wasn’t being extended out clear across the room. Which they unfortunately realized in that moment and lashed out with it at Alloy and me. At the last second, I managed to activate the orange shield pictures I’d painted across both of our backs. But we still took that suddenly-massive arm head-on, knocking the other girl out of the air before we both went tumbling across the floor together. 

Grabbing my partner, I rolled myself on top of her before slumping down with a pained, incredibly dazed and barely coherent, “Don’t… can’t…” 

I could almost see the smirk on Mister Harmful’s face as he brought his sedan-sized fist down toward us, attempting to squash Alloy and me like a couple bugs. His fist hit us… and then bounced off as Janus recoiled from the force of the blow that had just hit them. Or rather, that they had just hit themselves with. When I rolled on top of Alloy, I had activated a second set of orange paint, this one mixed with blue. Not only was I protected from the worst of the damage (though it still felt like getting slugged in the back so definitely not fun), but a portion of that damage was reflected back onto its source. Janus, in this case. They staggered with a surprised and clearly confused yelp, before abruptly cursing several more times in quick succession as a series of zapping sounds filled the air, like insects repeatedly hitting one of those bug killing electrical light things. 

Yeah, that definitely wasn’t me, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t Alloy either. Both of us rolled away from each other, looking up in time to see Skip holding some sort of fancy-looking baton. She kept appearing all around Janus, taking advantage of the opening we’d given her to repeatedly hit them with that weapon. With each blow, a jolt of electricity was sent into the men, apparently strong enough to hurt even them. They kept trying to grab her, but she was constantly disappearing and reappearing in a different spot. It looked like she had run in a circle around the joined men and was now simply ‘skipping’ back and forth through that circle, wherever their hands weren’t. Every time their limbs started to grow, she smacked them with that baton and interrupted their focus. And yeah, they were clearly getting pretty pissed off about that. 

Finally, the men both let out a pair of enraged screams, and suddenly grew much fatter. That was the only way I could describe it. Their torso became three or four times as wide as it had been. I’d had no idea they could even do that. I thought they were limited to increasing the size of their limbs. But either way, it was enough to catch Skip and knock her to the floor. While she was briefly dazed, they stomped down toward her. But Alloy was faster, having already sent one of her marbles that way, transforming it into a stretcher-shape just in time to scoop the other girl up and pull her aside before the foot slammed down into that spot. 

Alloy and I managed to jump to our feet, even as the marble stretcher dropped Skip off right beside us. By that point, the massive form of Janus had turned to face our direction, bringing both hands up. But even as we started to brace ourselves, another voice filled the air. “It’s scrubbed, go!” The voice came from that second vault, where the mostly-naked red metallic skinned T-1000 woman was. But it wasn’t coming from her. Or rather, it was, but not from her mouth and not in her voice. A new face, one that looked an awful lot like Theory if he was made of red metal, had appeared on her stomach. Which absolutely was weird as fuck. As was the fact that he was speaking through that face. It was his voice and his orders, somehow projected onto a re-creation of his face on her own metal skin? Yeah, I was both horrified and confused. 

But whatever that whole thing was, it made all the bad guys in the room immediately stop fighting. Instead, they abandoned their opponents, including Janus, both of whom took turns giving Skip, Alloy, and me one last glare before they took off at a quick run. Before the rest of us could react, another surprising thing happened. Namely, that metal chick jumped up, bounced off Two-Step’s raised and cupped hands, then off the hands of his ghostly duplicate who appeared in the air slightly above him, before flipping over in the air to dive right toward the floor, like she was going into a pool of water. But instead, she became the pool. As her body impacted, it spread out into a fifteen-foot-wide liquid metal thing. 

Then it got even weirder, as all the bad guys proceeded to jump into her. They jumped into that metal… puddle, vanishing from sight. I was honestly so surprised by what we were seeing that it took me a moment to even realize that we should probably be trying to stop them. And I was pretty sure the others were in the same boat. By the time we all started moving, there was no one left aside from Juice. And he proceeded to unleash a massive blast of lightning throughout the room. It wasn’t targeting anybody, it was just meant to slow us down, essentially a dome of electricity that made most of us hit the dirt. Then he jumped into the metal puddle, leaving the transformed woman alone. Except not, because the second he was through, the puddle seeped into the floor and vanished. They were… gone? 

“Holy shit, did we win?” Alloy, standing beside me, managed. 

“Not completely.” That was Linesight, shaking his head as he emerged from the vault where they had been fighting. “Several of their people managed to grab a few of our secure cases from a couple of our vaults. That’s why they brought the big guns in here, to force us to focus our response on their Touched while the Prev troops grabbed whatever they could.” 

Ephemera, currently in the form of a male who appeared to be in his early twenties, insisted, “Dude, it would’ve been a hell of a lot worse without these guys.” They gestured toward Alloy and me. “Getting rid of Praxis before she could do much damage with those laser-hands? That was pretty dope.”

“Indeed,” Caishen agreed. “Forcing those two to waste their time with that power. Even if they had come up with a way to return, it would require abandoning the power they had just created, finding a new one that would work, and then arriving back here while only having a short time left with the transportation gift before they would be forced to switch back into Theory so he could craft a new power for his partner.” 

“And while they did that, they’d be vulnerable in here again,” I confirmed. “Yeah, that’s basically what we were thinking. Or rather…” Wincing just a little, I amended, “what your daughter thought?” 

“Hi, Mama!” Sure enough, that was Lightning Bug herself. She and Trevithick emerged together from the elevator shaft and waved while everyone looked that way. Caishen gave a startled gasp, staring at her daughter in surprise for a moment before quickly moving that way. She scooped the girl off the ground, blurting, “That was your escape teleport badge! Why are you still here? I told you to get out of the building, Bug.” 

Clinging to her mother, the little girl shook her head. “I couldna just leave you! They were bad guys. What if you needed help?” 

For a moment, it looked like Caishen was going to say something about that. But in the end, she just exhaled. “We’ll talk about this later, and I promise it’s going to be a long one.” Holding her daughter close, she turned to the rest of her people. “Do an assessment, find out what they got away with. And get our internal communications back up so we can call security to do a full sweep of the building to make sure they’re all either gone or secure. Bring medical down for whoever needs it.” Her gaze turned to us then before she nodded to the elevator. “Let’s go talk while I check in with my people.”

Skip accompanied us as well, as we all went that way. The elevator arrived a moment later, clearly summoned by Caishen somehow. A control on her costume maybe? Whatever it was, Alloy, Trevithick, Caishen with Lightning Bug in her arms, Skip, and I filed onto the thing. 

As the doors shut behind us, Caishen turned our way. “First things first. You’re the Tech-Touched who’s been helping Paintball here. I saw you in the footage from that zombie fight. Trevithick, right? After the inventor of the steam locomotive.” 

Clearly surprised that the woman recognized the reference, Wren gaped at her for a second before giving a hurried nod. “Uh huh, uh huh! Practically nobody ever knows who that is!” 

“I get paid to know things,” Caishen informed her, sounding more than a little tired. Which was fair, considering everything that had just been going on. Then she turned her attention to me. “Second of all, thank you–all of you–for your help back there.” 

“We didn’t stop them completely,” Alloy muttered darkly, folding her arms over her chest while giving a heavy sigh. “They still got away with important stuff from your vaults.” 

“Far less than they would have,” Skip, her even tone betraying no more emotion (good or bad) than ever, noted. “And with less damage being done to our people.” 

Caishen nodded. “My sister is absolutely correct. If you hadn’t shown up when you did, and managed to remove one of their biggest threats from the fight, I’m afraid they would have been able to escape with far more than they actually managed. This might not have been a complete failure for them, but nor was it the level of success they were looking for, especially considering how much effort they put into it. Besides, something tells me that your group is the reason we were given any warning about the invasion at all. So we owe you a debt of gratitude for that as well. Which, I suppose, helps make up for the fact that you did not insist that my daughter use her escape badge while she had the chance.” 

Wincing a little, I offered a weak, “I mean, if it helps, they were supposed to fly up the elevator shaft and hide as high as they could. It umm, it wasn’t as good as teleporting out of the building, but when she said it could work to get Praxis out of there…” I sighed. “I’m really sorry that we didn’t just make her teleport out of here. It was–it was the heat of the moment, I saw an opportunity to get one of the biggest threats out of there, and I thought she’d be safe in the elevator shaft since we were gonna be dealing with the bad guys anyway. But something still could’ve happened. She still could’ve been hurt, and if she was, that… that would’ve been on me.” 

“On us,” Alloy put in quickly. “We both made the call. We–we’re sorry.” 

“Hey.” Caishen shook her head, considering her next words briefly while the elevator doors opened to reveal a bunch of Ten Towers people running around. One approached, but she held her hand up to stop him, addressing us a bit more. “I understand why you made the decision you did. I just needed to be certain that you understood the possible ramifications and that you didn’t make it lightly. Whether it was my daughter, or any other vulnerable person, what matters in that sort of situation is making certain they’re all as safe as possible. You did what you could and you made what you believed to be the best decision in the moment. Thank you again for everything you did. I know it’s not always easy to make perfect decisions every time, believe me. You’re still learning, and you’re doing the best you can. In my book, for the record, you’re doing pretty well.” 

Having said all that, she paused briefly before adding, “But if anything had happened to my daughter, we would be having a very different conversation right now. Just keep that in mind.” 

We promised we would, and then she checked in with her people. While the woman was doing that, I grabbed my phone to do the same with ours. Paige picked up on the first ring. “The courthouse is all good,” she immediately announced. “The Stars and cops managed to breach the place and deal with everyone we didn’t. What’s going on with you?” 

“They all retreated,” I explained. “We can get into the details later. What about Fogwalker?” 

“He bounced,” the other girl informed me. “But we caught a few of their people. Maybe the Stars will be able to get some answers out of them. Like the location of their base.” Even as she said that, the girl’s tone made it clear she didn’t believe it. Of course not, the Ministry wouldn’t let something like that happen to a group they had only just allowed to come into their city. How would they ever make all the money they needed in that case?

“Here’s hoping,” I agreed. “Can you guys get up to the judge’s office so Trevithick can let you through to join us over here? I mean, I don’t know how hard it’s going to be to slip past the–” 

The other girl interrupted me with a chuckle. “Look up.” 

Blinking in confusion, I tilted my head that way, only to see Poise, Style, Calvin, and Hobbes leaning over the railing of one of the open balcony areas that overlooked this lobby area from several floors above us, waving down. Paige spoke into the phone she was holding. “Once we knew there was a door there, it wasn’t hard to get it open. We were going to help, but it sounds like you’ve got everything under control here.” 

“Oh you know, we’re doing our best,” I replied with a vague gesture. “Come on down, join the party.” 

By that point, Caishen had come back. She looked up to see where the rest of us were staring, before shaking her head. “Clearly, we need to do something about Switchshift’s door. And several other things. But yes, do please bring your full team together. We owe all of you a great deal of gratitude for your help. And yet, I’m very sorry to say, the form that gratitude is going to take at the moment is a series of meetings for you to explain everything you know. Very long, excruciatingly boring meetings.” 

“I knew it,” I managed to get out while Alloy groaned beside me. “You really are pissed about Bug’s teleportation badge.

“We should’ve let Mister Harmful smash us.” 

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Interlude 21B – Miles, Royce, And Their Team (Heretical Edge 2)

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As Miles and Royce knelt next to one another in the small garage-like space, where their teammates’ bodies had been laid out in front of them to keep the four safe until they could be put to rest, neither said anything. Nor did the ghosts of those four dead friends speak. They hovered at the back of the open space. This place was meant to keep several small vehicles, but they had been cleared out before Nevada came to this planet. She had been keeping space open for other things that she might need to bring back with her. Not something like this. 

After kneeling in silence for what felt like an hour, but was almost certainly only a few minutes, Miles rose to his feet. He turned away from the bodies of his deceased friends, moving instead to face their ghosts while putting a hand on Royce’s shoulder. It took him a moment to open his eyes, and once he did, there were visible tears in them. But he forced himself to look at Chas, Emily, Jason, and Kaleigh. “I… I’m sorry.” It was all he could do to get those words out, but he owed it to them. That and so much more. “It’s my fault we were here, my fault we went into that fight. It’s–”

“Royce?” Kaleigh interrupted, floating a little bit closer while gesturing with one hand. “I don’t want to use up the energy Flick gave us, so would you mind?” 

Before Miles could ask what she meant, he felt a hand smack the back of his head. It was Royce, who stepped beside him and grunted, “We all made our choices.” And yet, despite his words, Miles could tell the other boy felt just as guilty as he did. They had survived while their friends hadn’t. It wasn’t fair. That was all that was to it. Not that something being unfair was unexpected, or new by that point, but it seemed to have reached new levels with this.

Chas nodded while moving right in front of Miles. “Hey look, I spent most of my time at Crossroads thinking I was training to be a hero and save people. If I had to go out, I’m glad it came when I really was saving them. That was a whole planet’s worth of innocent people, buddy. You can’t know that Flick and Shiori would have been able to pull that off if we weren’t there. Yeah, we died. But if we didn’t go in that chamber, they might not have made it. And then a hell of a lot more people would be dead right now. Maybe even everyone else who went in there. Maybe we didn’t add that much, but we added enough.”

“Exactly.” That was Emily, moving forward to join him. “So while you’re thinking about everything, we should’ve done differently, just remember that. We chose to be there. We knew what could happen. But if it meant letting those monsters kill more people, I wouldn’t change it.”

“Neither would I,” Jason agreed. “Wait, no, I would tell that bitch just how much of a pathetic coward she is for not going in to help. Oh wait, I can still do that. You think I’ll get another chance?”

Royce was the one who answered, his voice firm. “Yes. Even if I had to find some necromancy powers of my own and summon you up after I take a bat to her face a few times.”

“Or a few dozen,” Kaleigh put in darkly. “I wouldn’t object to that.” 

The others all voiced their fervent agreement with that before Miles shook his head. “Okay, I get it. You wouldn’t change things because if we weren’t there, everything might have been a lot worse. You change one little thing and you might make the situation much worse instead of better. I’ve seen all those time travel movies. It never works out properly. But still. While we were in there, I should have covered you better. I was the team leader. I should have been watching you. I should have been stronger, faster. I got distracted.”

“They were Revenants, dude,” Jason reminded him. “You kind of had your own fight to deal with. You had to focus on that or you’d both be dead too. We’d all be dead. So don’t go on blaming yourselves for what happened to us that way either. Yeah, we died and it sucks. Believe me, we’re not happy about it either. Probably even a little less happy than you are. But we don’t want you to start thinking it was your fault.”

“It wasn’t,” Kaleigh agreed. “We all did the best we could against those things. I’m just glad all of us didn’t die, you know? You can go back and tell stories about how cool we were. Maybe you could use that to hook up with some hot people, huh? At least then I might get to feel like I got some vicariously.” 

She made a face partway through saying that before sighing as they all stared at her. “Yeah, I get it, that one was a little more morbid than I was going for. Trying to lighten the mood and totally killed it.” A slightly wry smirk crossed her face. “Get it? Killed it.”

Miles snorted, head shaking as he unthinkingly reached up to shove the girl by the shoulder. But of course, his hand went right through. In that moment, as he stared at his hand sticking through the girl’s semi-transparent form, the full crushing weight of what had happened came slamming back down. He recoiled reflexively, a curse finding its way to his lips before he clamped down on it. Forcing his suddenly shaking hand to steady, he made a fist before letting out a long breath as he met the girl’s gaze. “Kaleigh… fuck.” Tears tried to find their way to his eyes once more, but he blinked them away. “I know it wasn’t our fault. I know you wouldn’t change it if it meant letting those people die. But I–” It felt like there was a rock in his throat he had to swallow in order to continue, and when he did, his voice was even more strained. “I’m sorry.” 

Silently, the girl lifted her hand and held it close to his. She was nearly, but not quite, allowing it to pass through him, giving the two of them the opportunity to imagine that they could physically touch for just a moment. The look on her face was one of mixed sadness and anger. Not at him, of course, but at the unfairness of the situation. “Just promise me, promise, all of us, that you guys won’t just give up on all this. If we can’t be there to fight, you’ve got to make up for it.” 

Emily moved next to her. “Yeah, that. You have to protect the people that we would have. I’m sorry, I know it’s not fair,” she offered with a very faint, helpless smile. 

“Yeah,” Jason agreed, “it’s definitely not fair, not for anybody. But if you can help people, you do it. You don’t give up just because the four of us died. You don’t walk away from this, and you sure as hell don’t turn into a couple brooding, emo assholes who hate everything.” He raised a finger to point first at Royce and then at Miles in succession. “You guys don’t get to shut yourselves off. You’re the ones representing our team now. You’ve gotta make us proud and all that shit.” 

Royce made a noise deep in his throat opening and shutting his hands a couple times. “That’s not exactly gonna be easy,” he managed with a strained voice. “Listen, you guys were the first ones I told about my… about how I was going to transition, that I wasn’t a girl. I mean, besides Headmistress Sinclaire. When she told me there was a way to do it without surgery and all that, you were the first ones I told, and you… you accepted that. You accepted me.” 

“Not all of us,” Kaleigh muttered under her breath. “Not the whole team.” 

Jason made a face. “Hey, Keith made his choice. He transferred teams because he couldn’t deal with it. So whatever. It opened up a slot in our team and we got Emily out of it. Upgrade in my book.” 

Miles gave a nod of agreement. “If Keith couldn’t accept who you are, Royce, I really doubt he would’ve accepted my situation.” He put his hand on the other boy’s shoulder and squeezed it. “You’ve been a better roommate than he would’ve been, believe me.” 

Royce, for his part, blushed visibly. “Look, you guys are just proving my point. You’re all the best. You always will be, and now I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know that I’m gonna miss all of you.” Again, his voice cracked. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do without you guys.” 

“Dude, don’t you get it?” Chas spoke up. “We don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t have to disappear. I mean yeah, we can’t help you the same way we could before. We can’t go out with you and fight the same way. But we’re ghosts, and Flick is like… the strongest Necromancer on Earth or something. I mean, close to Earth–in the solar system. Sure, she’s still learning and all that, but she can keep us around. She’s got that haunted mansion place or whatever. I don’t know about these guys, but I’m not done. Maybe I can’t do all the same things I could before, but if sticking around means I can spy for her, or watch her back, or whatever else she gets the ghosts to do, then I’m there. I’m going to stay in that place. And anytime you guys want to come hang out, do it. We can chill in the haunted house and see what kind of stories the other ghosts have. It’s gotta be some pretty wild shit.” 

Kaleigh quickly nodded. “Yeah, exactly. We’re not disappearing, guys. Not anytime soon. We need you to make up for the fact that we can’t fight the same way we could before, but we’re still here. She pulled our ghosts out of that place so we could go back with you. We’re not just gonna wave, say goodbye, and vanish. Besides, she said she was going to release a bunch of her ghosts on that planet anyway, so she’ll need some replacements. We don’t have our powers anymore, it’s really hard to physically touch things unless she gives us extra energy and all that, but we can still help. Maybe we’ll have to stay around her all the time, just to be able to contribute, but if that’s how it goes, so be it. I’m still going to try to help anyway I can.” 

“Hey, yeah,” Jason agreed, “they’re right, we don’t have to disappear forever right now, or anytime soon. We can still hang out and talk, even go with you whenever you happen to be on a mission with Flick, you know? Yeah, it won’t be the same. It’s gonna be a lot more complicated and hard. But not impossible.”

Miles found himself smiling just a bit. It didn’t erase all the loss and anger he felt, not by a long shot. But the fact that these four could still be around, that they could still talk to them was… it did a lot to help. He couldn’t even imagine how he and Royce would be dealing with this if they didn’t literally have these four right here to talk to. It helped ease the sting of their deaths. It really was as though they had moved to a different sort of existence this way. Was this how religious people felt when they lost people and believed they would see them again, or that they could communicate with them through prayer? It couldn’t be the same as actual immediate responses like this, not the same as seeing them right in front of him this easily. But still.

Royce spoke up, his voice firm. “If you guys are sticking around to help Flick, then, yeah, we’ll visit you at the haunted mansion all the time. Hey, maybe we can even still have our D&D game. She can give you enough power to roll some dice, right?” Despite his attempt to sound as enthusiastic as possible, there was still a note of sadness in his voice at the very idea that they would have to go through extra steps to even be able to do that much. But before the others could say anything, the boy straightened and smacked his own head. “Okay, damn it, enough morose bullshit. You guys are here, you’re here. If we didn’t have Flick, we wouldn’t be able to talk to you like this. It’d just be Miles and me with your… with your…” He nodded over his shoulder toward the bodies, swallowing hard. “You know how fucking awful that would have been? This is one gift horse that I’m going to stop playing dentist with. You’re still here, so let’s just be happy about that.” 

Kaleigh spoke up after the brief moment of silence that followed. “Okay, one, we are definitely continuing the D&D game. That’s just a given. Do you think being ghosts is gonna make us let you off the hook on keeping the adventure going? We’ve got a necromancer to track down and kill.” As soon as she said that, the girl covered her mouth and giggled despite herself. “Boy, that sounds really weird now, doesn’t it?” 

Snickers escaped the others before Chas agreed, “Yeah, it’s a little weird, sure. But so is basically everything about… I was going to say this whole situation, but really, everything is weird. Think about it. I mean, tracking down monsters, rebelling against Crossroads, living in a space station in the middle of the sun, getting tricked by Denuvus, going to another planet to fight Revenants and..” He swallowed. “Look, there’s nothing not weird about our lives… and unlives or… post-lives? Whatever, all this shit is just right on brand.”

The group talked for a bit more about what they were going to do and how they would continue as best as they could. Before long, the pocket dimension was opened from the outside, and Nevada let them know that they were back at the Fusion School. 

Exchanging looks of encouragement, the two living students and their four deceased but still present teammates and friends walked out of the box together, emerging into the bright lights of the sun station. They expected to step out into one of the landing rooms, where everyone who arrived was supposed to appear and be scanned for any potential issues or threats. Instead, they were in one of the private recreation rooms a couple levels up from that area. 

Nevada, standing out of the way along with Principal Abigail Fellows, Athena, and Professor Dare, spoke up as she saw them look around. “We thought you might prefer to have some more time away from everyone staring at you. Flick put some of her power in these.” She held up a couple black crystals. “They should help keep the… the four of you stable until she can get back. You can draw energy out of them when you need it. And if you need more, just ask. We have–” 

‘I’m sorry.” That was Abigail, stepping right up in front of the group, clearly unable to contain herself. “I’m so sorry. I should have noticed something was wrong. I should’ve paid more attention to all of you. I–” 

“Principal Fellows, stop.” That was Chas, protesting as he shook his head. “You just got brought into this whole situation last year, and now you’re running an entire school like this. You can’t blame yourself for not being able to magically figure out what that bitch was up to.” He hesitated a little after saying that word. “Sorry, I mean–” 

“No,” Abigail interrupted, “I think you’ve earned the right to call her a bitch. Call her anything you want. You have my blanket permission to use foul language when it comes to that woman.” Her own voice caught a little upon saying that, and she swallowed hard before clearly forcing herself to continue. “Whether it’s reasonable or not, we still failed to protect you the way we were supposed to.” She raised a hand to stop them from interrupting. “It was still our failure, and we’re going to learn from it. We’re going to do better, you have my word. We’ll find a way to protect everyone else from her.” 

“Yes,” Athena agreed, speaking up from where she was standing next to Nevada and Dare. “Now that we know she’s been sneaking around here, messing with our people, we need to do something about it. There’s no guarantee that you are the only ones she’s affected. Felicity has already said that she believes Denuvus affected her mind to prevent her from noticing Miles’ absence, or the fact that she hadn’t talked to him about his parents yet. There must be more.”

“I… I think there is,” Royce murmured with a frown. “I think I half-remember seeing others, but she must have messed with our memories.” 

“Sariel can look into that,” Athena noted. “She’s very good at bringing lost memories back to the surface. And she can use that opportunity to see what the signs of Denuvus’ memory tampering might be, so we can check others. If you’re all willing to be part of that.” 

The whole group, ghosts and living alike, agreed immediately. After what they had gone through with Denuvus, all of them wanted to be part of making certain she couldn’t manipulate or use anyone else at the Fusion School. Even if they couldn’t get away with punching her as much as they wanted to, this was something, at least. 

“Yeah, I– ow, what the hell?” Royce flinched, reaching into his pocket to produce a piece of paper that was folded up. “Where’d this come from?” 

“May I see that?” Dare stepped forward, gently taking the paper. There was a rune scrawled on one side. “This is a spell. It’s enchanted to heat up once a specific conversational topic is mentioned.” She examined it a bit more closely. “It’s what we were just talking about, identifying people Denuvus has manipulated.” 

“What,” Miles snapped, “did she leave a nasty note for us and slip it into Royce’s pocket?” 

“Not her,” Dare replied after unfolding the note. “This is from Trice. He left the note for you, and enchanted it so you’d find it once you started talking about how to find the other people she’s used her power on.” 

“What does it say?” Emily asked, voicing the question they all had. 

Dare was silent for a moment, before turning the paper so they could see it. There were only four words scrawled on the paper. 

She Has Klassin Roe

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Center Of Attention 26-11 (Summus Proelium)

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So, following the directions of our new security buddy, Alloy, Trevithick, and I made our way through the building toward the vault area that the bad guys were apparently trying so intently to break into. We ran into a few other scattered groups of security people, but they recognized us and didn’t open fire despite a close call or two. When we told them where we were going, they even helpfully pointed the right way. Unfortunately, none of them could come with us, because they were too busy trying to keep the rest of the building as safe as possible. 

Yeah, this gang really knew what they were doing when they came in. They had scattered just enough of their heavily armed troops away to various corners of the building to put people in danger so Ten Towers couldn’t focus their entire response on the vaults. Between that and the fact that they had locked down the building so no one outside could get in, and terminated communications, it was obvious that they had come in with a plan.  

To be honest, part of me was wondering how much of what they knew was thanks to my family. Did the Ministry give them all the information about how the security in here worked, the codes to get through, the fact that they could get everything they needed about the courthouse Switchshift door from San’s dad? They had to be at least partially responsible, right? Which would mean they wanted these guys to be able to get in here and take these weapons. Why? 

Not for the first and certainly not the last time, I wished I could just ask my parents what the hell they were thinking. Instead, I shook off those thoughts as the three of us approached the elevator that was supposed to lead down to the vault. It was locked down, of course. And according to the guy we had talked to upstairs, it would take hours to drill through the metal this thing was made of. But thankfully, we didn’t have to worry about that. Really, all I had to worry about was getting billed for damages over what I was about to do, but how much could that possibly cost? 

Besides, if this worked, they would totally owe us. They could deal with replacing part of their elevator door, no matter what it was made out of. 

As we approached the huge freight style elevator with the security doors, I shot a spray of pink paint over it in a circle before adding black paint around it to silence the metal. Then Alloy turned one of her marbles into a battering ram, and it slammed into the pink paint with enough force to knock the circle out, manifesting claws to grab onto the pink-covered metal before it could fall into the elevator shaft and loudly announce our presence. 

That left a hole wide enough for each of us to dive through one at a time, which we did without hesitation. Now we were in the elevator shaft, and I used a shot of black and red paint from each hand to pull myself over to the far wall, where I stuck with my boots. Alloy landed on her own marble battering ram, turning it into a platform (which was still holding onto the pink metal from the door). Trevithick, of course, hovered on her boots. They weren’t as quick or maneuverable as her wings, but they still allowed her to stay off the ground.

The three of us looked at each other, then turned our attention downwards through the shaft to the next floor below. We could hear fighting going on, gunshots, shouting, that sort of thing. We were definitely in the right place. Which was good, considering how little time we undoubtedly had. If we’d gotten turned around and ended up breaking through some other elevator so we had to circle back again, I had a feeling we would’ve been too late. 

But we hadn’t gotten turned around. We were here. So, together, we quietly made our way down to that lower level. The doors here were just as reinforced as the ones above, if not more so. But that wouldn’t matter any more than those others had. What really mattered was that we had to get out there and hit the Trendscendent Touched before they noticed our arrival. We had to take them by surprise if we were going to actually end up helping rather than hindering. There were only two of us who could actually fight, because there was absolutely no way in hell I was going to let Trevithick get anywhere near actual danger. To do this right, we had to take full advantage of the fact that Trendscendents had no idea we were here. 

To that end, I had already covered the three of us with as much paint as I could on our way down here. Alloy simply moved parts of her armor out of the way a bit at a time so I could paint underneath the marble. Even though it would be covered by her marbles, I could still activate it with a glance as long as I knew exactly where it was and could picture the paint in my head. 

Trevithick, again, was absolutely not going into combat. She was here to help from the sidelines. Even so, I still gave her all the paint I could, just in case. If something bad happened, I wanted her to have protection. Between that and the gun she’d had Fred send over in case of an emergency, hopefully she’d be okay as long as she stayed out of sight.  

Now we were as ready as we were going to be. We just had to be careful about exactly when we showed ourselves. So, I made another pink circle on this lower door, but this time I made it smaller, and down near the bottom so I had to crouch to be in front of it. From there, I gave myself a bit of a purple boost by activating the hummingbird image on my left shoulder (replacing it with one facing the other direction) before giving that bit of pink a poke. 

It popped out, falling to the floor on the other side. Thankfully, it was small enough that the people over there didn’t hear anything over the sound of gunfire and all that. Which left a small hole. Too small, in fact, for me to get my helmet close enough to peer through. Even then I wouldn’t have been able to see everything on the other side. 

On the other hand, it was not too small for Trevithick to send her bee drone through. Which she did, before flying it into the air to give us a decent view of what was on the other side through the screen on her phone.

The room immediately visible on the other side of those doors through the drone’s camera was a wide open circular area about a hundred feet across with a single desk in the middle where someone was supposed to sit, be it a security guard, receptionist, assistant, or whatever. There were three vault doors around the circular wall, one directly across from the elevator we were in and the other two spaced to either side. All three of those doors were open, but that didn’t mean the bad guys already had the loot. Because through each of those doors was another open area similar to the first one, with another desk and a single vault door behind it. Those were the doors that led into the secure storage areas. The Trendscendents were going to have to break through those second doors to get what they wanted. And that was what Caishen and her people were here to stop them from doing. 

There were at least a couple dozen armed Prev troops in that first room alone. Their gang had managed to completely take over that area. Unfortunately, that meant Caishen’s people were cut off from each other within whichever of the vaults they had each managed to retreat to. There was no way to go from one vault to the other without going through that first area. 

It took a moment to figure out who was where, even with the drone’s help as it flew around to get a better look at things. Finally, we had it. Caishen, three security guards, and Ephemera were in the vault to the left, fending off Juice, Two-Step, Last Word, and a handful of their guys who weren’t part of the two dozen who were busy keeping that first room locked down. The second room was being assaulted by some three-quarters naked woman with metallic-red skin and blue hair, wearing only a bikini top and bottom along with a metal mask over her face with eye holes in it. The T-1000-like woman, I was going to guess. She was accompanied by another group of the Trendscendant Prev gang members, along with Theory (taking cover while clearly planning out what power to give Praxis next), and Devil’s Due, who was being protected by one of Ten Towers’ own security people. He must have used his power on the guy. Another four Ten Towers people were protecting the vault from them, along with Stick, Bunglebotch, and Linesight. That last one was the one who seemed to be doing the most work in keeping these guys away from the vault, considering his ability to mark four different spots so that if anyone looked at them, a blast of concussive force would hurl them away. 

Finally, the third vault was being protected by Skip, another few troops, and a guy I didn’t recognize. Either he was a brand new Touched, or (far more likely) a transfer from one of Ten Towers’ organizations in another city. Or maybe a recent graduate from a Minority program somewhere else? Either way, yeah, he was clearly Touched, considering the dark green, metallic armor he wore along with a helmet with a black visor. In one hand the man held what looked like a billy club that was the same color as his armor. 

Janus were the ones assaulting that vault. They were accompanied by more of their troops, but really, they were the biggest threat. They had already used one massive hand to smack several of the security guards hard enough into the wall that they wouldn’t be getting up again anytime soon. And their other hand, grown to the size of a small car, slammed down against the floor right where Skip had been a second earlier. If she had been an instant slower in teleporting a few feet away, she would’ve been squished. 

The Prevs tried to open fire on her just as she appeared in that new spot. Not that it would have done much, but maybe they hoped she was too distracted to skip the effect. Either way, they didn’t get a chance to shoot. That guy I didn’t recognize extended his billy club. He was still a good fifteen feet away from them, but the weapon extended that far. What’s more, it sliced right through the guns to cut them in half. Yeah, the club looked like a blunt instrument without a single edge on it, and yet it still cut through the very metallic guns as if they were made of butter. I was confused, but now really wasn’t the time to think about it. We had to help them, as well as everyone else in there. Caishen’s people were doing their best to hold off the assault, but something told me that wouldn’t last forever. Especially with Theory clearly about to give Praxis what had to be one doozy of a power considering how long it looked like he had been ‘planning.’ 

“We’ve gotta help them,” Alloy whispered. Obviously, with the fighting that was going on in there, we could have screamed at the top of our lungs, and probably not revealed ourselves, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, but we need a plan first. Can we contain Theory somehow?” Even as the words came out of my mouth, I was grimacing before answering my own question. “No, because he can just shift over to Praxis. Even without counting any powers he could give her, they can appear in different places. If we trap Theory in one of your marble boxes, he’ll just make Praxis appear outside it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can trap them,” Alloy admitted, “but I do have another idea for you.” She made part of her armor slide out of the way so she could dig into her pocket before coming out with a handful of coins. 

“Uh, loose change?” I blinked at that. “Sorry, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help.” 

So, she told me. And it was a pretty good idea. I was still taking that in, holding the coins she had handed me before a sudden, unexpected new voice spoke up from just over our heads. “Hi!” It was still a whisper, but a happy one. 

Yeah, we jerked in surprise. Falling onto my butt, I looked that way to see none other than Lightning Bug. She was hovering upside down with her wings right there in the elevator shaft above us, staring down with those large, bright blue compound eyes. 

“Bug?!” I found myself blurting, staring that way. “What’re you doing here?” 

Landing next to us, the tiny red-skinned girl hurriedly replied, “I was with my mama when the bad guys broke in, so she told me to hide. Well, she told me to get away, but I hid in here instead. Then you guys came. Are you gonna help Mama and Aunt Skip?” She sounded hopeful, looking back and forth between us eagerly.

“Yeah, that’s why we’re here,” I confirmed. “But you should still stay here with Trevithick. You guys keep an eye on what’s going on with her bee-drone.” 

“Bee drone?” Bug was suddenly interested. “Like Kenobee? He’s locked up in a safety vault with my other friends.” 

“We’ll show you later,” I promised. “But here, sit down right next to Trevithick where it’s safe. Alloy and me’ll go out there and help your mom and the others.” Even as I said that, my eyes were glancing toward the screen itself to check on what was going on. Everything was pretty much the same, as they continued to fight to a standstill. But Theory still hadn’t brought out Praxis. And the longer that took, the more worried I was about what sort of powers she was going to appear with. We had to get in there and help deal with these guys before this whole thing escalated completely out of control. 

Unfortunately, we still had no idea how to lock Theory and Praxis down, but hopefully if we helped deal with the others, something would present itself. There was no more time to talk about it or plan. Not if we didn’t want to be fighting these guys all by ourselves after they beat the Ten Towers people. 

If. If they beat the Ten Towers people, of course. But that wasn’t worth the risk. Better to assume the worst would happen and jump in now. 

“Mr. Ball?” Lightning Bug spoke up hesitantly, raising a hand. “I uh, I heard what you were saying about trapping the bad guy. And um, I think I can help you help Mama.” 

That made me blink a couple times at the tiny five-year-old. But what the hell? It wasn’t as though we were drowning in ideas. With that in mind, I heard her out. She explained it in just a few seconds, and she was right, it could work. We were just going to have to be quick about it. 

So, I double-checked the paint we had to make sure we were covered before Alloy and I went on either side of the elevator doors. I painted them pink with black along the sides to keep it quiet. Then I added a shot of black to the battering ram the other girl created, just in case. We had to take these guys by surprise before they had any warning that we were there. The two of us looked at each other, nodded, then went for it. Alloy made her battering ram marble slam into the pink doors, knocking a hole through them, which the two of us dove through together. 

Even as we dove into the room, I activated the green wings on both of our backs to speed us up. At the same time, I reared back before hurling the handful of coins right at the assembled Prev troops who stood with their backs to us, focused entirely on the vaults. The coins were all painted a mix of blue and green, thanks to Alloy’s suggestion. Just as they were being flung through the air, I focused on that paint and activated it at the very instant that the coins started hitting the bad guys. Sure enough, the coins did their jobs, sending the armed Prev troops flying. Two of them were flung to the ground by the force of the blue painted coins hitting their backs, one was hurled sideways into the desk, three more went forward a dozen feet before crashing to the ground, and so on. The green paint fed into the blue made them expend their entire charge in that single second, making it strong enough to throw these guys around just by being hit by a few coins. 

It was fun, to say the least. And something I was going to have to play around with later. But for now, my eyes were laser-focused on Theory. He had noticed us by that point, even as Alloy went flying past me on her marble-board to slam into Devil’s Due with enough force that he wouldn’t be trying to say anything anytime soon. And just in case that wasn’t enough, as he was falling, she slapped a band-aid against the back of his neck. A band-aid that I had painted black and would activate the instant it looked like he was going to try to say anything. 

In that same instant, Theory disappeared, replaced by Praxis. She stood there with a raised hand pointed my way. Of course I had no intention of waiting around to see what she could do now, so I used blue paint on my shoes to fling myself upward just as a blast of some sort of laser erupted from her extended hand and tore a hole through the nearby wall. These guys weren’t playing around. Considering how easily that laser punched through the vault wall, it easily could’ve killed me. But I didn’t have time to panic about that. Instead, I hit the woman with red paint, just a quick little shot. She, in turn, sent a second powerful laser beam into the air from her other hand. The beams weren’t ending either. They were a continuous blast, cutting through the walls all around me. She was trying to pen me in, trap me between both beams. Fortunately, I had already managed to hit her with the red paint. Which was phase one of the plan. Phase two came a second later, as I dropped back toward the ground while holding up what looked like a tiny metallic badge just a couple inches across. It already had red paint on it, which I activated to send the thing flying toward the red paint on Praxis’s shoulder. 

The woman was so focused on lasering me to death, she didn’t notice the thing until it smacked into her. And by then, it was too late. For her, anyway. Her eyes looked down in confusion at the badge (it said Ten Towers VIB, for Very Important Bug, on the front) while she brought the twin laser beams from each hand closer and closer to my falling form. 

I could feel the laser beams practically cooking me in my costume, closing in from either side. Just as I hit the floor, however, the beams vanished. As did Praxis herself. That was Lightning Bug’s idea. She had that badge which, when activated, would teleport the person who was wearing it (supposedly Bug herself) to any of a dozen safe locations, including outside of the city. It was a single-use sort of thing, only for dire emergencies. Her mother intended for her to use it to get out of the building, but she hid in the elevator shaft instead. 

All of which meant that Praxis was transported away from the building, to the parking lot of a Ten Towers facility in Grand Rapids, which was over a hundred and fifty miles away. That would keep her from getting back here anytime soon, and effectively removed both her and Theory as a threat. 

Unfortunately, Lightning Bug didn’t have any more badges like that. It was rare and incredibly expensive. Another thing for Ten Towers to add to my tab. Which meant that we were going to have to help Caishen and her people deal with the rest of these guys the hard way. 

And judging from the pissed off looks I was getting at that moment, as the Trendscendents realized what I had just done, the hard way was about to be very violent.

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Patreon Snippets 29 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 29th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, andb have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

The Calendar Discusses Kushiel’s ‘Children.’ 

“So that’s her in there, huh?” May, the dark-haired, Asian-looking member of the Calendar, murmured while standing in an observation room on the Fusion School sun station. She was looking through a one-way window at what looked like a simple bedroom, where a blonde figure was sleeping on the bed. Or at least, appeared to be sleeping. Judging from how tense the body actually was, May was pretty sure she was actually waiting for someone to come in so she could try to jump them. Which just helped show what they were dealing with, really. Both the fact that she wanted to ambush them and that she believed it was a trick that would work. 

Standing beside her, the red-haired April gave a short nod. “Uh huh. They said she calls herself Aureus. As in gold.” 

May shook her head. “You mean that’s what Kushiel named her. None of them have chosen their own names.”

“Does anyone?” April pointed out. “Other people are named by their parents or guardians, something like that. We don’t even have names of our own, not really. We have the titles Cahethal allows us to use.” 

Before May could decide how to respond to that, the two of them were interrupted. “Isawher… whentheybroughtherin!” That was the much younger December, bouncing up and down right near the window while staring that way eagerly. “She’sreallypretty, andstrongtoo. Shemakesexplosionssothey… hadtousemagictocalmherdown. Seethosescorchmarks?” She indicated the black spots along the walls and door, as well as part of the mirror they were looking at her through. 

“Yup, we see them,” May confirmed. “She wasn’t happy about being here, that’s for sure. And I don’t think she’s going to get any happier as it goes on.” Looking over at the girl beside her, she added, “You know what this means, right? It’s not just us. That girl in there and the rest of them aren’t Mendacia. They’re normal Seosten–no, they’re better than normal. They have powers from Tartarus. They inherited powers from their parents. And they still won’t give them real names, and raise them like soldiers, or tools.” 

“Every Seosten is raised to be a soldier,” April pointed out, though there was a bit of doubt and uncertainty in her voice. “We all fight the Fomorians.” 

“Sure,” May agreed, “but do you think Kushiel raised them for that? Because I’m pretty sure she just raised them to be her own personal army. Nobody else knew about them. She hid them away and trained them somehow. Probably ordered someone else to do the hard parts of taking care of them. Look what she did to her own daughter. Her real one, I mean. And now our leaders are going to be fighting over who gets to take them. That’s what they care about.” 

Moving up to stand next to December, April put her hand on the glass while speaking quietly. “They’re loyal to her because she took care of them. She raised them and told them to only believe what she said, and to think that they don’t have any other choices. She made them think she was their only person they could trust.” 

May stepped up on the other side of their smaller companion, who had remained silent through this. “Are you talking about Kushiel with them, or Cahethal with us?” 

April remained silent for several long seconds. Then, rather than respond to the question directly, she simply announced, “I want to go in there and talk to her. 

“I want to talk to all of them.” 



Thick, caustic clouds of smoke filled the air over the cliff and down into the valley far below. With a great, terrifying roar, the massive dragon, who had already suffered dozens of stab wounds through its side (though only a couple of any apparently real consequence) bellowed its last grievance before weaving almost drunkenly from one side to the other. Finally, it collapsed with an earth-shaking crash, before slowly tipping sideways off the edge of the cliff to fall far, far to the ground below, its body already beginning to be taken by the rapidly-spreading flames from the fire it had breathed. Soon, that entire valley would be stripped of all its once-glorious plant life, turning what was a green and fertile land into ash and jagged dirt. And the bones of a formerly unspeakably powerful beast. 

Wiglaf, the man who would in the future be known as Ehn, slumped over with a gasp of relief. His shield was long gone, his sword nothing more than a broken hilt. His skin was heavily burned, and drenched in blood that belonged not only to himself, but also the dragon. “Tis done, cousin!” He called. “The beast is–” 

Even as he started saying that, the man’s eyes looked up through his exhaustion, only to find the man in question, Beowulf, holding his chest and stomach where obviously grievous claw wounds left much more of his blood on the outside than there should have been. His face was pale, as he stared back at Wiglaf while teetering on the edge of that same cliff. “Yes, the beast,” he managed weakly, “the beast is dead. Gone. We have… we have… slain…” Unable to finish his words, he pitched over backwards, falling from the cliff. 

Wiglaf screamed a denial and dove that way, but he was too slow. Falling to his stomach, he stared down to see the body of his leader, cousin, and friend vanish into those flames alongside the dragon they had finally killed. By the time the flames were out, there would be little left of either. Nothing to differentiate one from the other. 

From that spot far above, leaning over the cliff, Wiglaf wouldn’t see a figure emerge from the flames at the far end of the valley. The man called Beowulf, brushing himself off, stayed near the edge of the cliff, turning to look up at the far distant form of the one he had called his cousin. They weren’t, of course. There was no relation between them. It was more of a term of affection. If they had been related–well, this trickery would neither have worked, nor been necessary.   

Well, it still would have been necessary, he just would have needed to choose another man. As it was, finding a true warrior, someone who could fill the role the one called Beowulf required, had taken quite some time. But now he was certain that Wiglaf would be that person. 

Allowing himself a smile of satisfaction, Beowulf turned and walked away. Wiglaf had the blood. He would be changed, would grow into an unbelievably powerful force. 

With each step, the ‘man’ grew in size, scales appearing across his skin, before wings emerged from his back. Creating an illusion of his own body in order for his shapeshifted self to ‘kill’ (and subsequently die as well) had barely required any effort at all. It was walking away from his friend that was the truly difficult part. He would never be able to explain the truth, or speak to the man he had spent so much time with over these past years. 

But at the very least, the dragon called Beowulf consoled himself while giving a mighty flap of his wings to fly off into the sky, he was done choosing his two champions. 

And now he would wait to see what Wiglaf and Arthur ended up doing with the gifts he had provided. 


Marina and Deveron When Charmeine Made Her Move To Abduct Flick And They Were Kept Busy Out Of The Way

Their van had broken down, because of course it had. They were in the middle of New York City, trying to show the first year students they were mentoring a good time, and then this had to happen. Marina shook her head while watching the van that had not ended up with a flat tire drive off. Her team mentees, as well as Deveron’s, who stood beside her, had all squeezed into that van. All aside from Rudolph and Felicity, anyway, who were further ahead in the car with Professor Dare and Josiah Carfried. They would all meet up together at the destinations. 

Turning back to look at the smoke coming out of the engine, Marina made a face. They had already tried to fix it for several minutes, including getting help from the drivers of both vans. But nothing worked. And neither of them wanted their charges to end up getting left out of any fun stuff. So, they sent them on ahead to meet up with Dare and the others while Marina and Deveron stayed with the van to wait for a Heretic to show up who could transport the van as well as the two of them where they needed to go. 

“Boy, you don’t really think a lot about mundane problems like this, huh?” As she said that, Marina looked over to see her companion not looking at the van itself, but watching the empty street around them. When the van had first begun to slow and shudder, the driver had managed to pull off the main street to a side road behind an old office building. And yet, even though there was no one around, from the way Deveron was scanning the area it was like he expected an army to come rushing into view any second.

“I don’t think it’s mundane,” he replied simply, without looking at her. “I think someone expected the van to break down and they’re looking for us. I think they wanted to find us here. That’s why I said the others should go on without us. And why I wanted you to go with them too.”

That was true, he had tried to convince Marina to leave him alone here, but she couldn’t do that. Leaving the boy alone in the middle of New York? It was out of the question entirely. Besides, what was he even talking about? Marina shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. We’re all just students, why would someone try to ambush all of us? When did you suddenly become so paranoid?”

The boy was silent for a few seconds, before giving a soft sigh. “Look, I hope I am wrong, and that we just sit here for a few minutes until the Heretic the driver called manages to get here. I’d call to see how long it’ll take, but you know, with that blocking spell and everything…”

Taken aback by his last words, Marina started to ask what he was talking about, but he was already holding his phone up for her to see. “Look, we don’t have a signal any more. Went out just a few seconds ago. It’s being jammed, probably by some sort of spell.”

Okay, now he was really confusing her. Last year, Deveron had been this incredible, record-breaking student. So far this year, he had flipped into a lazy, do-nothing guy who really deserved a kick in the pants. That had been changing somewhat more recently, but apparently, now he had decided to change again, this time into a completely paranoid nutcase.

“Look, calm down,” she tried to tell him. I’ll just use my phone. Yours is probably broken or somethi–” She started to take it out of her pocket, but in mid-motion, Deveron grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way, just as a blast of white-hot fire filled the air where she had just been. 

After a brief stumble, Marina found her footing and looked up to see a group of what looked like gang members stalking toward them. But these weren’t just ordinary gang members. They wore that sort of clothing, yet they weren’t human. Two looked like big heavy orcs, several had slimy, almost amphibian skin of various colors, another one was very clearly a troll of some sort, and more. The group was stalking their way, including one that looked kind of like a pterodactyl without wings. He was the one who had launched that fireball from his mouth. And all of them were carrying weapons.

“Still think I’m just paranoid?” Deveron asked while producing that pistol of his. “Come on, we can deal with these guys and then catch up with the others.” His voice was tense, but somehow Marina didn’t think that was because of these guys. He seemed to see them as barely an annoyance rather than a threat. 

As the stranger gang approached, the boy stepped forward and glared at them. “Sorry if you were expecting a bigger group,” he announced. “We’ll have to make up for the others.”

The gang stopped, exchanging looks and chuckles with one another before the pterodactyl man narrowed his eyes at them. “More of you? No, we were just sent for you two.”

Marina still had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. And now even Deveron looked surprised. His mouth opened to say something, before he could, the gang attacked. 

She may have been confused and lost about what was happening, but Marina was still a Heretic who had been through a year and a half of training, so she knew how to react to being attacked. In one motion, her three-pointed corseque spear was in her hands, and she made a sharp upward motion to summon a glowing bear paw out of the ground, which emerged from underneath two of the monsters who were running at her and launched them into the air. While they were flailing, she hurled her weapon between them, focusing on one of her powers to make three different sharp metal blades extend from the shaft on either side in order to cut through the pair.

Those two fell, bleeding profusely, but not dead yet. Her first year had been spent learning how to fight and kill. But in the six months she had been going to classes for the second year, Marina had been learning better ways to put her opponents down temporarily, long enough to thin out a large number so she could kill them more easily without ending up getting herself killed while reacting to the pleasure rush that came when one of them died. Heretics were supposed to work together to help counter it, but they still had to know how to protect themselves from that particular downside. 

And it was a good thing she had learned to do that, indeed, because two more of the Strangers were right on top of her. From the corner of her eye, Marina caught a glimpse of Deveron trying to evade the rest of those guys as they swarmed him. She had to get over there and help the boy. He might’ve been good, but there was no way he could handle half a dozen bad guys coming at him from all sides, including that massive troll.

She had to help, but first, she had to survive the next few seconds. As one of the orcs came at her with a crude-looking sword, Marina transformed her neck and upper shoulders into her partial water form, allowing the blade to pass through without any damage. At the same time, she extended her left hand out toward the other one, an amphibian figure who looked like a man crossed with an eel. He fired the pistol he was holding, but the bullet had barely emerged from the gun before it dropped uselessly to the ground. Meanwhile, the force the bullet had been using was reversed, and pushed into the blast of concussive force that Marina had just sent flying from her palm. That power allowed her to steal the momentum of anything that passed through a small area that she pointed to, and turn it into a blast of force from any part of her body. In this case, she simply used the same hand to send that concussive force flying into the man’s head to knock him over.

The orc with the sword was already reacting to it passing harmlessly through her now-watery neck, but before he could try again, Marina caught his extended arm and spun, kicking to take his legs out from under him. As he fell toward the cement, she opened her mouth and spat just past him. The saliva hit the ground and instantly spread out, becoming a small, one-foot-wide puddle of incredibly sticky fluid. The orc fell onto it and couldn’t pull himself up.

During that same spinning motion that came as she kicked the man’s legs out from under him, Marina had extended her arm out. Her hand was literally launched away from her body, extending up and outward on a thin tentacle-like flesh thing that was attached to her wrist. It was gross, but the power allowed her to launch any part of her body out on those tendrils, which could grow to be as long as fifty feet. She could only make one at a time, and could manipulate it with as much strength and control as any of her limbs.

In this case, she used it to grab her weapon as it was falling toward the ground, yanking it back to herself. In that moment, the orc was trying to push himself off the glue she had stuck him to, the two figures she had sent her weapon cutting through in the air had just hit the ground and were groaning in pain, and the eel-man had fallen onto his back, clutching his face where she had sent the concussive force stolen from his bullet. He was also bleeding profusely. 

Without hesitation, Marina quickly stabbed each of them in turn, through the first lethal spot she could find. She had to be quick about this, had to kill them and go help Deveron. She got through two before the pleasure began to overwhelm her, and had to quickly stab the remaining pair before they could get up while she lost herself. Even then, the rush of four kills in quick succession left her panting on the ground for a moment before she managed to force herself back to her feet.

And yet, as she told herself to focus on her next opponent, Marina found nothing there aside from the massive troll, who had fallen on the ground and wasn’t moving. Blinking in surprise, she looked around, only to see Deveron shove the troll off of himself and roll out. He came to his feet, looking toward her. “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” she shot back. “What about you? Where’d they go?” 

The boy shrugged. “I guess they ran off, figured this big guy could do the job.” He started to say something else, only to groan. 

Belatedly, Marina realized he was looking past her. Turning, she saw another group coming their way, who looked just as dangerous, if not more so. 

“Great,” Deveron muttered while moving up beside her, “I guess they had reinforcements.” 

“Hey,” she awkwardly replied while holding her weapon up. “Maybe they’ll run away too.”

The boy just chuckled softly. “Maybe they will,” he agreed.

“But let’s give them a good reason to hurry along.”


Sarah And Tristan Go On A Date

With the lights and sounds of the amusement park filling the air all around them, including shrieks from dozens of people on the nearby roller coaster, Sarah and Tristan walked together. The boy held a half-finished cotton candy in one hand, taking a bite of it. Sarah, meanwhile, carried a box of roasted peanuts, which she occasionally took one from to crack open between her fingers and toss into her mouth. The two of them had just come from the snack cart, and were making their way through the rows of midway games. They both stopped in front of the dart toss, examining the balloons attached to the cork board. Immediately, the man there began to cajole Tristan into taking a shot at winning a stuffed animal for his date. The pair looked at one another, and smiled faintly. Tristan was the first to blush, and glanced away, while Sarah held her free hand up. A brief moment of silent communication followed before Tristan followed suit. They made their hands into fists and played paper rock scissors three times in quick succession. Sarah won before setting her peanuts down on the counter. Then she produced a five dollar bill and handed it over to the man. He shrugged before giving her three darts. Adjusting quickly to the fact that the girl was throwing, he stepped out of the way while cheerfully encouraging her to take her time and make her shots count. 

Sarah, in turn, gave her first dart an almost careless underhanded toss upward. It flipped up through the air before coming back down from above the balloons rather than hitting straight on. The added force from its downward fall popped the first balloon it hit. The man quickly cheered for her ‘good luck,’ followed by watching as she duplicated the move for the other two. Laughing a bit about how she must have some Robin Hood in her blood, he handed over a green stuffed elephant. 

Soon, she and Tristan were walking away from that booth. Sarah examined the elephant before smiling as she offered it to the boy beside her. He accepted the toy happily and announced, “I’ll name him Circus. I’m pretty sure he likes peanuts.” 

Raising an eyebrow curiously, the girl plucked a peanut from her small bag, cracked it open, and gave the nut itself a toss toward the elephant. 

Tristan, still grinning, held the toy up. Just as the peanut hit where the elephant’s mouth was, he used a power that allowed him to turn up to roughly ten feet worth of the same material he was touching into a portal, which would take any object that entered it and send it out at any other point on the same ten feet worth of material. The only visual indicator that this was happening was that the affected material glowed faintly. In this case, the peanut entered the ‘portal’ at the toy’s mouth before coming out the back of its head, straight into Tristan’s waiting mouth. He chewed and patted the toy on its head. “See? It’s his favorite. How awesome is this day for him? First, he gets freed from the oppressive prison back there by your amazing dart tossing skills, and now he gets snacks.” 

Sarah’s cheeks turned a bit pink as she snickered softly before pointing out in a soft voice, “You could have popped every balloon on the board.” 

“Probably,” he agreed with a shrug. “But it’s more fun to watch you do it.” They both glanced at each other for a quick second before looking away, blushing. The two of them had agreed that they liked each other some time ago, even if other things kept interrupting. They had eaten together up on the sun station, had watched movies in their rooms or in the small theater, had done all sorts of things like that. But this was their first time going on an official date down here on Earth. They’d intentionally chosen something they couldn’t easily do at the Fusion School, hence coming to a wide open amusement park with so many games and rides.

“How about the baseball toss?” Tristan finally offered after a moment of that. “We know you’re awesome at that. Those milk jugs’ll never know what hit ‘em.” 

Giggling a little self consciously, Sarah shook her head, informing the boy, “Your turn.” She felt her phone buzz in her pocket and already knew it was Sands checking in to see how things were going. That wasn’t simply because of insight to how her sister thought, or any sort of connection between them. It was also thanks to a power she had picked up, which allowed her to ‘read’ words written or displayed on any screen, paper, wood etching, and so on that happened to be touching her. It even worked through her clothes, so she could read a paperback book by putting it in her pocket. The reading wasn’t instantaneous, she still had to work her way through each page in turn and take the time to actually comprehend the words, but she could read that way. And, in this case, she could read the message that popped up on the screen. It simply read, ‘If everything’s all good, don’t respond at all. Don’t even take the phone out of your pocket! If you need to be rescued because it’s so awkward, send any message back at all.’

Sarah, of course, left the phone firmly in her pocket. 

By that point, Tristan had finished looking around before raising his hand to point. “Oooh, bumper cars! We are totally doing the bumper cars.” 

So, they did. The two of them went for a couple rounds through the bumper cars. The first time through, they teamed up together to take on all comers, the pair managing to dominate the whole arena. For their second round, they split up and went head-to-head. From there, they went through the funhouse, two different roller coasters, the rapidly spinning rotor ride, a couple more midway games, and the ‘scrambler’ ride, which consisted of a central machine with four extended arms, each of which had four small carts attached to it. The machine itself spun in a circle, while the arms holding the carts spun as well. 

Once they were through that much, the two teenagers grabbed a bowl of ice cream and a couple spoons before making their way to a quieter area at the back of the park to sit down and enjoy their treat while watching the excitement from the rest of the guests. There was a bench there, near the fence leading to the dark parking lot beyond, and they both sat next to one another, sharing the ice cream. 

While they were talking about which baseball team they wanted to keep track of in the upcoming season, Tristan abruptly put his hand on Sarah‘s arm while looking past her. With one hand, the boy produced a privacy coin and activated it so they wouldn’t be overheard. His voice was sharp, yet quiet. “Look over there.” 

She did so, glancing that way at what turned out to be an employee entrance into one of the buildings a few hundred feet away. It was illuminated by a hanging lamp, revealing a man and older teenager, both of whom were having an intense, whispered conversation. Sarah recognized the boy immediately as one of the previous third year, now fourth year students at Crossroads. He had stayed with the school when the rebellion restarted. She also recognized the man he was talking to after a moment. He had visited the school several times over the years to give talks to the older students. 

“Crossroads,” Sarah murmured, even as she and Tristan both slipped off the bench and moved to hide themselves behind the nearby bathroom building. She glanced around the edge of the wall in time to see the pair of Heretics in the distance look at their watches simultaneously, both checking the time. They were waiting for something. 

Her voice remained soft, as she tugged her phone out. “Not here to relax.” 

“Nope,” Tristan agreed, already looking at his own phone. “Okay, let’s call in backup and then—oh shit.” Even as both of them had been sending messages, they saw a third Heretic, this one someone from their own year. Or at least, the year they would’ve been in if they hadn’t left. It was Orvis Trench, a light-skinned, dark-haired boy neither of them, or any of their friends, had interacted with much. He was a very gung-ho type who took the job very seriously, and saw himself as one of the last lines of defense between innocent humanity and the armies of evil who threatened to wash over them. A true believer in every sense of the word.

Orvis also wasn’t alone. He was leading a group of obvious Alters. There were a dozen of them, of varying ages and descriptions, all different species for the most part. The weird part was that none of them seemed scared. At least not to the point that they should’ve been considering who they were following. And yes, they were following him, giving no indication of trying to get away.

Setting her phone down after sending her sister that quick message, Sarah reached out to her belt to find the fake camera case hooked there so she could reach into the pocket dimension and pull out her rifle. Still concealed behind that wall, she took aim and created an invisible scope portal out and ahead of them. With that, she sent another scope portal through it in order to get a close look at the group. The girl already had enhanced hearing, but the two by the door were clearly using some sort of privacy spell of their own, and the others were still too far away. Fortunately, her gun had been upgraded so that she could also hear through those portals with an attached earpiece. She put that in, handing the other one to Tristan. They were both just in time to hear one of the Alters thank Orvis for saving them. Only she didn’t call him Orvis. She called him Doug. A moment later, one of the other altars referred to him as Mr. Frey. 

That was why these people weren’t afraid. They thought the heretic who was leading them to their obvious deaths was Doug Frey. More to the point, they thought these three were part of the rebellion. Crossroads people were posing as the rebellion in order to get innocent Alters to walk right along with them. It was a realization that struck both Sarah and Tristan abruptly, making them snap their gazes to one another in shock, disbelief, and anger. An awful lot of anger.

Getting a message from Sands informing her that the cavalry was on their way and would be there soon, Sarah looked up as the group of completely unknowing victims began to be led through that employees only door. 

Her voice was flat. “No time.” 

Tristan gave a quick nod. “Yeah, you’re right. If we don’t do something, they’re dead. But there’s three of them and two of us.” 

Sarah took only a second, watching the group of Alters who thought they were safe, who thought they were being escorted by the Rebellion. “Wait?” she asked as gently and non-judgmentally as she could in that moment.

Tristan didn’t even hesitate. “Fuck no,” he replied. “The others are coming, we’ve just got to distract these guys for a minute.” He held up his fist then, and Sarah bumped hers against it. 

“Distract them for a minute,” she agreed. 

The two of them took only a couple seconds to come up with a plan. It was all they had, considering the people they were trying to save were about to vanish through the door that the older, fourth year student was holding open while all three Crossroads Heretics offered fake, encouraging smiles to the incoming group.

In the end, Sarah went for the direct approach. Taking aim through the scope portal she had already set up, the girl fired three quick shots, all of them aimed at the man in charge, the adult Heretic. Unfortunately, the man’s danger sense must have triggered, because he abruptly pivoted out of the way, hand snapping out while conjuring some sort of field that slowed the bullets, allowing him to pluck them out of the air.

The Alters cried out in fear, one of them shouting that they were under attack. A few tried to back out of the doorway, while others went forward. The fourth year student shouted for them to get inside and take cover, even as he held his arm out, summoning a large shield over it as though to protect them. 

Tristan was already on the move. He had Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form as he sprang around the corner of the wall and fired off a blast toward the assembled Heretics, being careful not to hit any of their would-be victims. The blast of energy went straight for Orvis. But the boy in question lunged right toward it while lifting his hand. A metal gauntlet appeared there, similar to the ones that Avalon used. He created an energy shield from the gauntlet, blocking the incoming blast. It was still enough to knock him stumbling backwards, and Tristan took advantage of that by racing that way, reshaping Bobbi-Bobbi from a cannon into a gauntlet of his own. A gauntlet with an energy shield around it as the cyberform used her power for defense rather than attack in that moment.

Orvis turned his own shield into a blade, lashing out at the incoming boy, but Tristan blocked it with his own glowing blade before driving his fist into the other boy’s chest. No, not his fist, his claws. He had produced his werejaguar claws at the last second, and drove them right into his former classmate’s chest before he could even start to react.

While that boy staggered and went down to one knee, the adult Heretic bellowed in anger, and vanished from where he was standing. He appeared behind Tristan, hurling the bullets he had caught with such speed and force that they would have torn through the boys back. But Tristan used the power he had played with on the elephant earlier in order to turn his shirt into a portal, allowing the bullets to pass through the back and continue through the front, where they hit Orvis in the arm while he was shielding his chest.

Sarah was already there, while the adult Heretic grabbed Tristan by the hair and began to yank him backwards. Before the man could do whatever he planned on, she reached for his shoulder. He, in turn, pivoted while still holding Tristan off the ground by his hair with one hand so he could grab Sarah‘s extended arm with his other and yank her off the ground as well. “Oh,” he snapped while using some sort of telekinesis power to hurl her gun off into the distance with a sharp chin motion, “is your dad gonna be glad to see you.”

Dangling from the man’s grip on her arm, Sarah gave him a thin, humorous smile. “I’ll send him a postcard,” she informed the man in that soft, barely audible voice.

The man’s danger sense went off then, and he attempted to fling her away, but before he could, Sarah’s arm exploded. It was her fake one, the one she had replaced over the summer with what amounted to an energy projection that could reshape itself. In this case, it didn’t reshape into anything. Instead, it simply blew apart, sending all the energy it could into the man’s hand. It wasn’t enough to cripple him or anything, but it still made the guy cry out and let both of them go while staggering backward.

The instant they landed on the ground, while the older Heretic was staggering, Sarah and Tristan didn’t hesitate. Tristan reshaped Bobbi-Bobbi into her snake form, lashing out so her fangs could dig into the man’s leg. She delivered what should’ve been enough venom to instantly put a full-grown and angry moose on the ground.

Sarah, meanwhile, flooded the area in front of her with a freezing mist that should have slowed their opponent down even more than he already was from the venom being pumped into his system.

But in this case, both of those attacks barely affected him at all. He got his feet back under him, his foot flashing out to kick Tristan hard enough that the boy was hurled over fifteen feet to crash into the wall of the employee building. At the same time, a massive hand made of concrete rose from the ground and backhanded Sarah hard enough to daze her. 

Orvis had recovered enough by that point to grab Tristan as the boy fell near him. He managed to get his knees onto Tristan‘s arms before driving a fist into his face once, twice, a third time. “You stupid, selfish bastard!” he shouted. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?” As he said that, the boy produced a bone blade from his wrist, and began to drive it down, right at Tristan‘s throat. But in mid-motion, a gunshot rang out, and he pitched over backwards with a hole through the center of his forehead. Sarah, who had managed to grab her rifle with her newly reformed energy hand, lay on her back while pointing it that way. 

Her voice was slightly choked. “Winning a war.”

That was all she managed to get out before the rush of pleasure made the girl gasp.

Unfortunately, before it had finished, the adult Heretic had his hand around her throat, and was lifting her from the ground. “Murderer!” he shouted into her face while she began to see spots. “I changed my mind, your dad isn’t going to see you again after all.” With that, he began to squeeze harder, intent on snapping her neck right there before she could recover. 

Tristan, however, was already back on his feet and racing that way. Without looking, the man pointed with one hand and sent over a dozen quick laser shots from his palm. But Tristan evaded each and every one of them, twisting and ducking to keep his body barely out of the way while continuing to run. Just as Sarah felt things start to go dark, Tristan launched himself at the man. He, of course, simply grabbed the lunging boy. But then Tristan vanished, disappearing into him, possessing him. Instantly, the man’s hand released Sarah, dropping her. 

“Go,” Tristan snapped with the man’s voice, “stop them!”

Sarah knew what he meant. The fourth year student had already vanished into the building, taking the confused and frightened Alters with him. He had abandoned his teacher and the other student, probably rightfully believing that Sarah and Tristan would have help soon. Or that the adult Heretic didn’t need any backup to deal with a couple students.

Sarah‘s head shook, even as she turned to run at the door, calling over shoulder, “Not fast enough!”

Tristan immediately interpreted what she meant, leaving the Heretic he’d just taken over and before taking several quick steps to lunge out and touch the girl’s back. In an instance, he was possessing her instead. 

The adult Heretic staggered, looking at his hands briefly before his gaze snapped back up as he started to shout. But whatever had been about to say was drowned out by the sudden explosion that came as the dozen magical bombs he had stored in his pockets, which Tristan had discovered and activated while possessing him, went off. Despite his incredible strength, the man couldn’t stand up to that. His body was blown apart into a fine mist.

Tristan felt the binding rush of pleasure while possessing Sarah, but fortunately, he didn’t have to focus on anything. He just used his boost and gave the girl as much speed as he could. She, in turn, sprinted blindingly quickly through the doors, and made her way down the hallway toward the sound of shouting.

They arrived just in time to find the fourth year student they had been pursuing lying on the floor with Sands standing over his obviously dead body. She was accompanied by half a dozen others, including Jazz, the actual Doug, Pace, Theia, and a couple adults. 

Seeing them, Tristan hopped out of Sarah, both them skidding to a halt.

“Heeeey,” Sands greeted them while the utterly confused and terrified group of Alters stared in confusion, “what’s up? How’s the date going?”

Tristan coughed, opening his mouth to reply. But Sarah caught his hand. When he looked back that way, she provided their real response, by leaning up to touch her lips to his. 


Eden’s Garden Hybrids Before The New Rebellion

“Lenny. Lenny, wake up.” The insistent voice was accompanied by an almost violent shake of her shoulders as Elena Four was startled out of a deep sleep. Her eyes opened, blinking up at the familiar figure, a red-haired, green-skinned boy the same age as her at twelve years old. 

“Muh, buh.” She had to open and shut her mouth a couple times, throat dry as she struggled to make words come out coherently after being awoken so suddenly. “Manny? What’s goin’ on?” 

Manuel Seven, or Manny as she knew him, grimaced apologetically at her reaction. “Sorry, Lenny, they need you to help track a couple of the calygreyhounds. They got out a couple hours ago.” 

It took a moment for the girl to process those words, but as soon as she did, Lenny pushed her way out of the small, military-style cot and stood. Her room was only large enough for the bed, a small desk with a mirror over it, and a chest to keep her clothes and other belongings in. She glanced toward that mirror then, seeing herself as others did, a small girl with short brown hair that was almost, but not quite light enough to be considered blonde. Her eyes were a dark red color, while her skin was very pale. When she yawned, the girl could see the same multiple rows of sharp teeth that others saw when they looked at her.

She slept in a dark red sweatsuit, so the girl didn’t bother to change clothes. She simply put her shoes on quickly and then left her room alongside Manny. Her door opened up into a field at the base of the Eden’s Garden tree. She and those like her, hybrids whose parents consisted of one human and one Stranger, didn’t live in the tree itself. And they certainly didn’t live near their parents, given one was an evil Stranger and the other a Heretic who couldn’t be expected to deal with the evil that they were capable of. Lenny and her kind couldn’t be trusted to be near proper civilization. Instead, there was a series of what looked like cabins arranged in a nearly complete circle here at the base of the tree. They were stacked on top of one another, ten cabins high. There were two doors on each cabin, and each door led into a room identical to the one she had just come out of. Rigid ladders were attached to the walls on either side of every door, allowing those who lived higher to climb up or down. The circle of stacked cabins was wide enough to allow for fifteen of the buildings. Fifteen cabins per level, each containing two single-occupancy rooms. Thirty occupants on each level. Ten levels. Three hundred of those like Lenny and Manny. 

They were hybrids. Children of Strangers and humans. Their human parentage gave them just enough control that they could avoid their other parent’s savagery and evil, if they tried hard enough. 

Their names came from others who had been here before. Others who had either died in battle or moved to another place such as one of the colonies. Either way, someone who wasn’t here at Eden’s Garden anymore. But none who had given in to their Stranger impulses. If you went feral, your name was stripped from the list of potentials and never used again. Lenny was Elena Four, the fourth to bear the name Elena since this had been started a couple hundred years earlier. Elena Three, who had come before her, was killed fighting the very Stranger who had given Lenny her pale skin and teeth. Fahsteth, the Akheilosan. 

Even at this early hour (it was not quite dawn) there were a few others standing around, making food at the fire pit in the middle of the courtyard. They greeted both children and the two waved back before running together to the space between the furthest two buildings, an exit leading out of what was dubbed Hy-town (for hybrid town). That led the pair to a series of trails, most of which proceeded deeper into the massive forest beyond the Eden’s Garden tree. But the two of them followed the trail that went right, Lenny not even needing to be told where the others would be waiting. That smaller trail led to another clearing just past a thicket of smaller trees and bushes, where dozens of large metal storage crates were stacked up quite similarly to the cabins they had just left. There were two men waiting there, deep in conversation. They were full Eden’s Garden Heretics, not hybrids. When they saw the pair come into the clearing, both men focused on them. The taller of the two, a man with black hair and a face lined from age, walked that way. “Elena Four, I trust Manuel Seven told you the situation?” 

Her head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, Mr. Fernweh. Calygreyhounds escaped?” The creatures, despite their name being so close to that of the Bystander-bred racing dogs, were quite a bit different. Their main bodies were that of a deer, their front legs and feet looked like those of a bird of prey with talons, while their back legs and feet were more like a lion. Matching their hindquarters, their heads were always that of some form of various wild felines, aside from the antlers or horns they tended to also have. Finally, they possessed enormous feathered wings. 

Suffice to say, if a couple of them had gotten out of their pen hours earlier, they could be anywhere by that point. But that was why Lenny had been sent for. Even as Lenny confirmed that she knew what was happening, Fernweh was pointing to one of the stacks of enormous metal crates. Each was the size of a Bystander shipping container. As he pointed, the crates in that stack lifted up and rearranged themselves until one in particular was on the bottom. “Go get your friends and we’ll start tracking.” 

The twelve-year-old didn’t miss a beat before running that way. It only took her a moment to enter the code on the keypad attached to the crate. It beeped an affirmative at her and then rumbled open. “Sugar, Spice, come on, we’ve got a job!” she called out. 

As with all of the crates that were stacked up there, the interior of this one was quite a bit larger than even its decent size on the outside implied. In this case, the crate contained a vast open field, trees of its own, and even a pond where a dozen antelope were drinking. But her attention wasn’t on those antelopes. Instead, she watched as two gigantic figures bounded toward her. A pair of lions, one male and one female, mates of course though they had been sterilized to prevent any unwanted litters. But not just any lions. These were Nemeans. They were called other things, of course, it was just that they were most well-known by the name of the place where the legendary Heracles had defeated one. 

These two Nemeans were each almost fifty feet long and fifteen feet tall. The male, Sugar, had a mane that was incredibly thick and soft enough for Lenny to completely fall asleep in, as she had plenty of times. 

Thinking about sleep right then was a bad idea though. So she shook that off and gave each of them scratches in turn as they leaned in close to sniff her. Thanks to the girl’s Akheilosan heritage, she had been bonded to the pair since she was barely old enough to walk. They took care of her, and helped her contribute to the safety and prosperity of Eden’s Garden. 

At least, they would do that until she lost control over her evil side and had to be put down for the safety of real people. 

Soon, she was perched on Sugar’s back, holding onto his mane. The female lion, Spice, carried Manny. The boy’s own orcish parentage didn’t quite lend itself that well to tracking, but he was incredibly strong and would be able to help if they ran into trouble. 

Not that that was likely with two full Heretics accompanying them of course. Between them as well as Sugar and Spice, there was little out there in the woods that could prove to be a threat. 

“Alright,” Fernweh announced once the kids were set, “let’s get out there and bring those Calygreyhounds back before it gets too late. We’ve got more important things to deal with. 

“And you two don’t wanna miss the whole school day. I hear Miss Ævi wants to take you up into the branches, so you can meet some normal people and see what you’re protecting.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Wait… that’s what these guys were really up to? Under this whole cover about being here to get their people out of custody, they were actually looking for this apparent back door to transport directly to Ten Towers so they could steal shit? Switchshift was the Tech-Touched who created things like the connected rooms that allowed the Minority to reach their secret headquarters from multiple doors all across the city (which I had only recently learned about from Izzy). So it made sense that he would have other things like that. Which, in this case, apparently included a door from the courthouse to a sensitive area of Ten Towers.

While the others were reacting to that, I quickly called Way back. As soon as she answered, I gave her a rushed explanation of what we had just heard, and told her to warn Caishen and her people. And that she should get someone who could find the Cavers family to make sure they were okay. I was still worried about San Francisco and his parents considering these guys had apparently extracted information about this Switchshift door from them, but there wasn’t enough time to focus on that. Way promised to do all that immediately before signing off. 

With that done, I made another quick call. This one was to Fred back at the store. Needless to say, he was a bit… worried about everything that was happening. Especially when it came to Wren. But I promised him we were looking after her, and that we could do that even better if he did something for us. Namely, taking Roald and Murphy’s Tech-Touched guns as well as one of the prototype versions Wren had been working on, and putting them in the special bag where my clothes currently were. The one I’d left at the store that was linked to the one in my pocket. After a quick back and forth, he did just that. 

So now Calvin and Hobbes had their weapons, which was useful. And we had the prototype. Which, in this case, was essentially a long, wand-like cylinder with a couple buttons on it. It could pick things up and move them around with a beam of energy. Or, in this case, hold them in place. Yeah, we set it up to help hold Banneret so Alloy could have her marble back, since it seemed like she’d need it. We’d have to leave the prototype in this room so it could continue projecting the energy beam that held Banneret off the floor and stopped her from touching anything, but like most of Wren’s equipment, any unauthorized person touching it for too long would make the thing melt into goo anyway. So we weren’t worried about someone taking it. 

With Calvin and Hobbes sufficiently armed and Alloy reunited with her marble, my mouth opened to say something to the others, but before I could, Wren raised a hand and pointed at her screen. “Wait, wait, look!”  

So we looked. Theory was on a video call on his phone, holding it out in front of himself. From that position, our bee-drone could see the screen. It was a view of the courtroom where the hostages were waiting. Fogwalker was perched on top of the judge’s podium, desk, or whatever it was called. Apparently one of their people was holding a phone up for him to talk to his partner with. Which he did in a low, snarling voice. “We’re getting a bit anxious down here, Genius-boy. Are we ready to go or what?” 

Theory nodded. “Yeah, bring ‘em all up. Whoever’s left at Towers once this goes down gets to decide how many hostage deaths they wanna be responsible for.”

With that, he disconnected before picking up his radio, sending a message to Banneret for her to ‘do the thing.’ Without waiting for a response, he stood, waving for the line of Prev troops who had been waiting for his go ahead to start moving through the special door he had unlocked. The invasion of Ten Towers was underway. Worse, they were apparently going to be bringing those hostages in there with them to use against the security forces there. 

I froze for a moment, my panicked mind seizing up. What were we supposed to do now? What–how–the hostages. We had to focus on the hostages. If they took those people into Ten Towers, that whole situation was going to be a hell of a lot worse. 

“Pack and the others?” I blurted, even as I started to move toward the stairs. The others were right behind me. 

“No sign of them,” Sierra replied. “Not since that first bit when they were heading into the records room. You want someone to go down there and check on them?” 

My head shook, sprinting up the stairs two at a time. “No, leave it, we’ve gotta get those hostages. No more playing around.” Maybe the authorities would end up being upset about us, leaving the basement and interfering, but I really didn’t care at that moment. Not when those guys were about to start dragging innocent people into the middle of a fight to use as human shields. 

“Paintball,” Paige interrupted my thoughts, “you and Alloy should go help Ten Towers.” When I turned that way in mid-step to argue, she insisted. “It’s Fogwalker and some guys with guns. The rest of us can handle that. Trust me–trust us. We’ve got it, Paintball. But Ten Towers is about to be under threat from the inside where they’re not expecting it. You know how dangerous people like Juice and Janus are. That’s where Lightning Bug lives. Even with That-A-Way warning them, it might not be enough. We need to split our attention.” 

“I’ll go too!” That was Wren, hovering up ahead of us along the stairs with her special boots. “I can help, I promise!” 

Part of me wanted to argue even more, but there wasn’t time. And Paige was right anyway. They could handle the hostage situation. The real threat was the rest of the Fell-Touched and their army heading into the middle of Ten Towers. We had to get over there and help. 

So, reaching the top of the stairs and emerging into the courthouse proper, we split up. Poise, Style, Calvin, and Hobbes sprinted toward the lobby. I could hear the guards there react, but they wouldn’t be enough to stop Paige and the others. 

Meanwhile, Trevithick, Alloy, and I looked toward the ceiling together. Reaching out, I sent a wide shot of pink paint that way, before all three of us were lifted up on a platform one of Alloy’s marbles turned into. Reaching the pink-paint, I activated it, then used a bit of purple strength to tear through quickly. Soon, we were moving through the ceiling and into the upper floor. It was one of the other judge’s private quarters, not the one we needed. But we were getting closer. A quick glance toward Wren’s phone as she held it up revealed that there was still a line of Prev troops heading through the doorway. And all of them were heavily armed. They had come loaded for what looked like a full scale war. Worse, Janus, Juice, and Devil’s Due were heading through as well. Whatever the situation on the other side of that door was right then, I doubted ‘pleasant’ was anywhere near the list of adjectives. Yeah, assuming the others stopped Fogwalker and his group they at least wouldn’t have a bunch of hostages to use, but still. We had to get in there and help.

Thankfully, with my paint, we could get there quickly. We didn’t bother trying to go through the hallways or anything like that. We just picked the right direction and used pink paint to go through the walls, racing from room to room like that, one after another. Maybe the authorities would complain about that, too, but we’d worry about it later. Right now, all that mattered was getting there before this whole situation became completely unsalvageable. 

And as we were going, I sent a quick text to Way to let her know what was going on and what we were doing. Then I put the phone away just as we went through the last wall. There were only a couple more guys left, including one standing next to the computer. As soon as he saw the three of us Kool-Aid Man our way into the room, he lunged for the keyboard, apparently intent on closing the doorway. Fortunately, Alloy was faster, sending a fist-shaped marble to slam into the man and knock him to the floor. 

The other guy took one look at us before turning to dive through that doorway in order to warn the rest. But I was faster too, sending a shot of red paint that hit his back and yanked him away from it to crash into the wall next to me where I had sent a second shot of paint.

“Hey, hope we didn’t miss the party!” I blurted. “We would’ve RSVP’d, but I’m pretty sure crashing is fashionable these days.” 

Without wasting another second, Alloy and I both grabbed handcuffs that the men themselves had on their belts, and secured them to a metal pole along the wall. Doing that plus grabbing the keys from their pockets and their guns before tossing the latter out of the way took precious seconds, but we didn’t want them coming after us. 

Finally, we exchanged quick looks between ourselves and Wren, nodded to one another, and went straight for the special doorway. I just hoped that we could handle whatever was on the other side, and that Paige and the others were doing okay with their part of this whole thing. But hey, at least I had a team to worry about now. 

I had absolutely no idea what I would’ve done if I was by myself right then. 

Alloy and I went first, passing through the doorway together before emerging into what looked like another office similar to the one we had just left. Which made sense, I supposed. If the judge guy was working both at the courthouse and here in Ten Towers, he’d probably need a similar space. 

Whatever the specific reasoning, we came out on the far side of the room from the doorway leading into the building proper. I could hear a bunch of alarms going off already, and there were several of the armed gang troops in front of us, facing the exit as they fired a few shots out into the hallway. Apparently they were in the middle of an ongoing fight. From that quick glance, I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, just these few guys. They had probably been left behind to guard this exit or something. 

One of the guys noticed our presence behind them and turned to look. Before he could shout, I hit him with black paint to mute the man. At the same time, the two of us leapt that way. He and his partners went down quickly, the others never knowing what hit them until they were on the ground. They struggled, obviously, but Alloy kept them in place with one of her marbles shaped like a long metal band, trapping the three against the floor while we took their weapons away. 

Trevithick appeared through the doorway a moment later, and I held up a hand for her to wait there before looking toward the opposite exit. The Ten Towers guards were still out there, and I didn’t trust them not to open fire the second they saw movement. 

I could have protected myself with orange paint, but instead, I pointed my hand and shot a bit of red paint out into the hallway beyond. Not to pull anything, in this case. Instead, I painted words on the floor in as large of letters as I could manage, reading, ‘Paintball Here. Bad Guys Down. Don’t Shoot.’ 

Was it weird that I was able to paint that in perfectly legible script while shooting a stream of paint out of a doorway to write it essentially upside down and sideways from my perspective? 

After doing that, I glanced toward Wren. She had the laptop from the judge’s office. As I looked at her, she gave me a thumbs up before hitting a couple keys on it. Immediately, the door behind her closed and I heard it lock. “Now nobody else can come through! Unless Poise and the others wanna come, then I can unlock it again!” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the other doorway, just as a shout filled the air. “This is Towers Security! If you’re really there, Paintball, show yourself and prove it!” 

It could have been a trick, or something, of course. But something told me it wasn’t. Theory and the others were here for a reason and it wasn’t to hang out around this room. They’d probably taken off running for their target as soon as they came through. Still, I gave myself some orange paint for protection before carefully stepping out. I had my hands raised as I looked around. 

It was, obviously, the middle of an office building. This particular room was in the corner, with a wide corridor extending in both directions away from it, leading to (presumably) more offices. A dozen or so armed and uniformed security guards were using those other doorways for cover as they kept their weapons raised and pointed at me. 

“Prove you are who you say!” the man who was apparently in charge called. “And tell us what the hell is going on!” 

Right, that was fair. Carefully, moving my hands to either side, I shot paint at the walls. Then I put a big blue smiley face in the middle of my chest. Once they had a chance to see that much, I spoke up again. “Those guys attacked the courthouse. But it was a trick. They just wanted to use Switchshift’s door back in that office over there to come through and attack this place. The rest of my team and I were there to make some reports and got caught up in this whole thing. We heard what they were doing over here, so a few of us came to help.” As I said that, I gestured for the other two to come out. Soon, Trevithick and Alloy were on either side of me. 

Finally assured that this wasn’t some sort of trick, the security guards lowered their weapons and approached. The leader glanced into the office and saw the still-pinned guys there before ordering a couple of his guys to cuff them. Alloy promptly removed the bar so they could do that. 

“Any more trouble gonna come through there?” the leader asked, nodding toward the inner door. 

My head shook as I gestured to the laptop that Trevithick was holding up. “We’ve got the computer for that. She locked it down, but if you guys want to post guards, I think we’d understand. What’s the situation around here?” Even as those words came out, I was already bouncing up and down on my toes, looking around quickly just in case we ended up with unwanted company. There were still alarms going off, and I could hear gunshots echoing throughout the building occasionally. This whole thing wasn’t anywhere near contained yet.

The security guy exchanged a look with his companions before sighing. “All of our communications are cut off inside the building. We can’t coordinate with the rest of our teams. They shut down most of our security measures. We’re not even sure how they knew about it, let alone how to turn it off. Worse, they’ve locked down the building. No one can get in. Except through that door, apparently.” He added that bit with a nod to the room behind me. “As for the bad guys, they’re everywhere, it seems like. But the biggest force seems to be heading for our weapons vaults, where we keep all the big stuff.” His expression sobered as he met my gaze. “I don’t think I have to tell you how bad it would be if they got all that stuff. The boss and the rest of our Touched who were in the building before it got locked down are holding them off down there. Our job was to stem the tide and make sure no more reinforcements could come through. And cut off their escape from this end.” 

For a second I just took all that in. “Okay, Fogwalker’s in the other building still. Our uhh, teammates are dealing with him. And we already caught Banneret. Which means the ones attacking your vault must be Theory and Praxis, Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due. Honestly, that last guy is probably one of the biggest threats when it comes to getting into places you don’t want him. But assuming Skip is here, she’d be immune to him, so that probably helps. I–”

“Pardon,” the security head interrupted. “That’s only four Touched. Well, four and a half. We’ve got seven in the building, at least. Two-Step and Lastword are here too, and they’ve got someone else with them. Some woman with what looks like liquid metal powers, like the T-1000 from that old Terminator movie.” 

Two-Step and Lastword? Jeez, how long had it been since I thought about them? And apparently they had more help with a third member of their little group? That made things even more complicated and difficult than they already were. I had thought that we only had the four known bad guys to deal with, which already would have been bad enough, considering how dangerous they could be. But now we had to add three more Touched into the equation. One of whom could have basically any power since Lastword’s abilities changed based on the… well, last word he spoke. And the new girl was almost a complete unknown. T-1000 powers? How far could she stretch that? What else was she capable of? We had no idea. Yeah, this just kept getting worse the more I thought about it. And we hadn’t even come here with the whole team. It was just Trevithick, Alloy, and me. 

“They hired mercenaries to help,” Alloy muttered while I was processing that. “Just great. What do we do now?”

Grimacing under the helmet and mask, I replied, “We stop them. Caishen and her people need help down there. But then again–” I winced, looking toward the security guy. “You said they’ve got more troops spread through the rest of the building?” 

“Buildings,” he corrected. “And yeah, it’s bad. But trust me, it’ll be a hell of a lot worse if they get into that vault. We can deal with the rest of it. If you can help the boss, we’d appreciate it.”

Yeah, he had a point. If all of the Fell-Touched were focused on getting into the vault, Caishen and her people wouldn’t be able to hold them off forever. We had to get down there and help, or this whole situation was going to get a hell of a lot worse. Both in the short and long term. But if something else happened while we were busy with that, or if one of those Fell-Touched managed to…

“Okay,” I finally managed, shaking off as much of the doubt and uncertainty as I could. This was what we had to deal with. There was no point in worrying or wondering about what-ifs. “Just point us in the right direction. We’ll get down there and help Caishen kick these guys out of your offices.

“But we better be invited to the next Christmas party for this.” 

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Interlude 21A – Rescue Mission (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Man, I hope this is the right place.” The whispered remark came from Columbus, as he, Sarah, Sands, Vanessa, and Tristan crouched behind a low wall on the far side of a seemingly abandoned warehouse. There was no real need to whisper, thanks to the privacy spells they were all using, but still. It felt like a whispering sort of situation. 

“Tell me about it,” Sands retorted, peeking through a hole in the wall at the distant warehouse a hundred yards or so away. “What’s this, the fourth possibility we’ve checked today? I lost track.” 

“Fifth,” came the answer through the magical communication badges they all wore. It was Croc, the Eden’s Garden Unset Heretic, who would be on the front side of the warehouse with Kohaku and about a dozen other adults. They were the frontal assault, the ones who would go straight in and draw the immediate response if this was the right building. 

Everyone here was looking for Kushiel’s ghost, those Seosten kids she had on her side, and Harrison Fredericks, the man they had abducted. Why they took the man who had invented cyberforms, no one knew. But it couldn’t be for anything good. They had to find the man and free him. So, while Flick’s group went to Fossor’s world, Columbus and the others had been running down every lead they could find about where Kushiel could be holed up. In this case, the clue had been that she was somewhere in a large building on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. That didn’t completely narrow down the possibilities, but they were working their way through them methodically. 

“Is everyone back there in position and ready?” Kohaku asked through the badges. They could hear the tension in her voice. She wanted to get this done with already. The adults would draw most of the attention if their targets were inside. While they were doing that, Columbus and the others would make their way through the back, find Fredericks, and get him out. The main goal of their mission wasn’t to destroy Kushiel’s ghost, it was to save Fredericks before she could force him to do whatever it was she had abducted him for. 

Though to be honest, Columbus wouldn’t object if the opportunity to destroy that evil cunt happened to show itself. She had already been killed once, so the fact that she was back causing trouble again was unfair to begin with. He’d definitely be a-okay if one of their group got the chance to end her for good.

Shaking off that thought for the moment, he glanced over the others and received an assortment of thumbs up from them. “We’re set,” the boy answered simply. “So let’s see what’s going on inside. You guys got anything up there?” Even as he asked that, Columbus touched the side of his goggles while staring at the building. He cycled through various vision modes, zooming in and checking for heat signatures. That turned up nothing, but when he tried to use the x-ray vision to see through the walls, nothing happened at all. “It’s got some sort of shield, I can’t see into the building. Sarah?” 

The girl in question already had her rifle raised while sitting with her back to the wall. She created a quick series of invisible scope-portals, each getting closer to the building. But a moment later, she too shook her head and spoke quietly. “Can’t get inside with them. It’s blocked.” 

“Yeah, we’re in the same position out here,” Croc confirmed. “Whatever’s in there, it has some pretty powerful magic blocking anyone from seeing inside. So, I guess we’re just going to have to do this the direct way. Wait for us to go in loud, then make your approach. You’ve all got your escape stones if this goes sideways, right?” After they confirmed they did, he reminded them once more that Kushiel and those kids weren’t the main point of this mission. “You see Fredericks, you get him out and retreat, that’s it. We’ll handle the big guns. You know, with these big guns.”

“You know we can’t see you flexing, right?” Sands pointed out. 

“Maybe not, but you’re imagining it just fine,” came the confident reply. 

While waiting for the adults to do their thing, Columbus shifted his weight and scanned the grounds once more just in case. “What do you guys think she wants him for?”

“Probably wants him to build a giant robot thing for her,” Tristan replied, already shifting Bobbi-Bobbi from snake to cannon form. “You know, a body she can use even as a ghost, like the way those pals of hers were possessing the other cyberforms. You think he can build her something nasty enough to be a threat?”  

“If anyone can, it’s Fredericks,” Vanessa replied flatly. “But could she find a way to make him do it? I mean, from what everyone said, he’s pretty stubborn, especially when it comes to people using his creations. He managed to stay neutral between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, and between the rebellion and loyalists. I don’t think it’s exactly that easy to make him do something he doesn’t want to do.” 

“In that case,” Sands muttered, “hopefully he hasn’t actually done anything for her yet. It’d be nice if we could get him out of there before Kushiel gets what she wants out of him. You know, so we don’t have to deal with the worst case scenario for once.” Her tone was almost wistful, a far cry from the girl who had been so eager, and even desperate to find some action and prove herself a year and a half earlier.  

Before anyone else could respond to that, the sound of a loud explosion drew their attention toward the building. As promised, the adults made their incursion very loud and obvious. One of them, probably Croc, blew a hole in the side of the building, sending chunks of debris flying in every direction. And with that, they were inside. The group could now see various flashes of light coming through that hole, where the magical façade could no longer cover what was actually happening within. They heard shouts, and caught glimpses of various forms moving around inside. From the look of things, either they had the wrong place, and this was just an unrelated magically protected building, or Kushiel had recruited a lot more people to help with whatever she was doing. Unless they were just more of those ghosts from before. But these figures seemed more solid than that. 

The moment the assault started, Sands put a hand out to touch the bullet that Sarah was offering her. Seconds later, she disappeared into it, possessing the small bit of ammo. Whatever happened next, she would be ready to appear right where Sarah sent her. 

Columbus, for his part, had just started to focus on getting a look inside that hole, when a flash of movement drew his attention to the opposite end of the building. Right there, at one of the back loading dock doors, were the Seosten kids they had seen at Fredericks’ lab when the group had briefly taken over the cyberform dragons. Seven of them, four boys and three girls, just like before. And just like that day, they wore the same uniforms. Gold with black piping for the boys, black with gold piping for the girls. 

The seven of them emerged together, clearly surrounding and escorting another familiar figure. It was Fredericks. The man’s hands were in some sort of shackles with glowing magic runes on them, and he was stumbling along with one of the boys, the one with short black hair and almost unnaturally pale skin, walking right behind him. It was Āter, latin for black (they were all named after colors, because gods forbid Kushiel actually put some effort into naming children). The boy had one of the luxensis, the Seosten laser swords, ignited and held close enough to do some real damage if Fredericks had tried to run. 

The blue-haired boy (Caeruleus) and brunette girl (Fuscus) were in front, eyes scanning the area ahead of them as they jogged toward the far side of the warehouse grounds. The green-haired girl (Viridis) and blond guy who looked like he belonged on the cover of a trashy romance novel (Lūteus) remained on either side, watching for attacks from that angle. Finally, the white-haired, well-built guy (Candidus) and golden-haired girl (Aureus) were bringing up the rear, a few feet behind Āter and Fredericks. All of them were watching for any attack, while heading straight for what looked like a large van parked just off the grounds. That had to be their escape route. Or at least the one they were planning on using now that the adults had cut off the ones that would have been inside. 

But this was precisely why Columbus and the others were here. Well, technically they had been here to sneak in the back once the adults had Kushiel’s attention. But like hell were they just going to sit back and let those guys get away with Fredericks a second time. The group all exchanged quick looks, nodded to another, and then made their move.

Sarah went first, firing two quick shots. The first contained Sands, and went through three portals before coming out on the far side of Lūteus. As that bullet hit the ground, the girl herself appeared, already making a sharp sweeping motion with her mace to summon a wall of solid steel all the way around the front of the Seosten youths before they could react. 

At the same time, Tristan brought his cannon in line with the group before shifting it to the side to fire a blast of charged energy right at the door they had just come out of. The shot demolished the opening, collapsing it under a pile of rubble to ensure they couldn’t go back the way they’d come. 

Columbus, meanwhile, was already sprinting forward. After a couple steps, he vanished, reappearing in the middle of the group, right where Fredericks was. Or rather, where Fredericks had been. Columbus had used one of the powers he’d picked up while being possessed by Charmeine to switch places with the man, leaving Fredericks next to Sarah and Tristan. 

The golden-haired Aureus was already raising her hands toward Sands when Columbus appeared. Catching a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye, her fingers extended that way. But before she could summon any explosions with her own power, Columbus sent a wide blast of concussive force from his goggles right into her. It was enough to knock the girl flying off her feet to crash into that pile of rubble that had once been the doorway the group had come through.  

Behind him, Columbus could sense Caeruleus and Fuscus turning, the latter sprinting toward Sarah and Tristan, where Fredericks had appeared, while the blue-haired boy snarled and went for Columbus himself. Viridis had already summoned a wave of water to carry herself toward Sarah, Tristan, and Fredericks as well, picking up Candidus first, then Fuscus on the way. And Lūteus was in the midst of a pitched fight with Sands. 

The explosion-teleporting girl he had just knocked into the rubble would be back up any second. But right now, Columbus had to focus on Caeruleus. Spinning around, he narrowly managed to twist his head aside from the glowing yellow luxensis blade that the blue-haired Seosten had suddenly slashed at him with. 

For the moment, Columbus was going to have to just trust that his companions could take care of themselves, because he was already dealing with about as much as he could handle. Bringing his hand up, the boy created a brief burst of flame to make his opponent back up a step. Unfortunately, instead of doing so, Caeruleus grabbed onto the flame. It somehow solidified into a glass like structure under his touch, allowing the boy to literally pluck the fire out of the air.

Columbus barely had time to curse inside his own head before the other boy threw the glass fire at him. Even though he had three different layers of heat protection from various powers, he still instinctively dove out of the way. Which turned out to be a good thing, as he could feel the pain from the flames when they exploded back to life. So this guy could turn fire into solid objects, even when that fire was created by other people, and made it hot enough to damage Columbus, despite multiple heat protection powers. 

Yeah, safe to say that was bullshit, but not all that surprising by that point. At least they had answered the question of what one more of these Olympian children could do. Now he just had to do something about that.

Already rolling back to his feet as he felt the explosion of fire behind him, Columbus pivoted and focused on summoning the metal armor around his body. Some might have seen that as a bad idea considering the way metal would conduct heat, but he had already done several experiments on that front and in this case, whatever metal his armor was made of added another layer of protection against fire. Between that and the skintight forcefield he was able to encase himself within, he would be safer. 

But not safe enough that he didn’t still wince as his opponent created a new wall of flames in front of him out of the remains of that explosion. Columbus was really starting to regret having made the fire to begin with. Though something told him this guy didn’t need his help on that front.

Forcing himself to ignore the pain, Columbus took a couple steps forward right through the flames. They solidified into that solid glass-like structure around him, but he was strong enough to punch his way through it with just a bit of effort. The guy was waiting with that laser sword already swinging, but Columbus was faster. He lunged, catching the other boy’s extended arm at the elbow to keep the blade raised while lashing out with a fist to punch him in the face. He didn’t strike as hard as he could. They didn’t want to kill these guys if they could help it. They had obviously been raised and corrupted by Kushiel, twisted into acting as her bodyguards or weapons. If it was at all possible to get them away from her and deprogram them or whatever, they had to try.

Besides, the Seosten would probably appreciate it, and right now Earth needed as many brownie points with them as they could get. They wanted this truce to keep going, and giving the Seosten leadership every excuse they could to keep playing nice was the best way to do that.

Caeruleus recoiled from the punch before abruptly rising into the air under a column of fire that emerged from his feet. The fire turned to that solid glass shape as quickly as it appeared, still giving off just as much heat, enough to make Columbus reflexively lean away from it. 

“Amethyst, fire suppression,” the boy snapped, bringing his arm out. From her place hidden within a bracelet he wore, the armadillo-porcupine cyberform appeared in her shield form. A handful of the enchanted quills he had prepared tilted upward before shooting off into the air. 

Caeruleus had already begun to surround him with a circle of blazing hot glass fire. But as the quills hit a spot several feet above the other boy’s head, the spells on them triggered, engulfing the area in a spell that would disrupt any fire or heat source over a certain temperature. Immediately, Columbus felt a wave of relief as the fire stopped burning him. But he couldn’t just leave it there. The other boy was already recovering, hands rising to summon more fire. So, Columbus reared back before thrusting both hands up and forward. The power he was summoning allowed the boy to project a blast of kinetic force out from any part of his body, magnified by the force with which he moved that body part in the process. In this case, the wave of energy was enough to knock his opponent off that now-frozen column of glass fire, sending him flailing toward the ground before he righted himself and landed smoothly.

They didn’t have time for an extended fight. That wasn’t what they were here for. They came to rescue Fredericks, and that’s what they were going to do. To that end, Columbus ran forward as though he was going to tackle the other boy. Caeruleus set himself, raising that laser sword. At the last second, Columbus teleported again. That time he changed places with Lūteus, the romance model who had been fighting Sands by animating pieces of the nearby building. The two Seosten almost crashed into one another as the switch was made, but both recovered quickly. 

Not quickly enough, however, to stop Sands from encasing them both in a steel dome. Which wouldn’t last long with Lūteus’s ability to manipulate walls and such, but it still bought them a couple seconds. Which the two of them used immediately. Columbus caught hold of Sands before looking toward Vanessa, who was in her werebear form keeping Aureus busy after Columbus had knocked her into the rubble, stopping the Seosten girl from focusing enough to do much damage with her explosions. 

The golden-haired Seosten girl had just forced herself up from the rubble. But before she could hit Vanessa, Sands extended a hand that way and fired off her shotgun-like blast of disorienting energy. It struck Aureus, making the girl reel and stumble dizzily for a second. Which was all the time Vanessa needed to spin around and lunge at the spot where her two companions were. In mid-leap, she returned to her human form, just in time for Columbus to catch her outstretched hand. Then, just as all their opponents in this little area were about to converge, Columbus teleported one more time with the other two. In that case, he made Sands, Vanessa, and himself switch places with Viridis, Fuscus, and Candidus, who were over by Sarah, Tristan, and the still-cuffed Fredericks. 

Landing smoothly, Columbus pivoted to look back that way. The six Seosten figures were already recovering and starting to move. “Do it, do it, do it!” he snapped. 

Vanessa did it. Triggering the transportation spell, she sent a wave of teleportation energy around them, engulfing the group to send them several hundred miles away, to the rendezvous point. 

As soon as they arrived in the empty field behind a grocery store, he quickly looked around to do a headcount. Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, himself, and… Fredericks! They were all here, they did it. 

“Uggnn…” A groan drew everyone’s attention to the ground at their feet. Aureus, the golden-haired explosion-teleporter. She was lying there, apparently having teleported right into the middle of their own transport spell before being dragged along with it, and now she had been left even more dazed and disoriented. 

Oh. They hadn’t simply freed Fredericks, they had accidentally brought one of the Olympian teens with them. 

Well… that was going to be interesting.

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Center Of Attention 26-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh. Oh this was bad. Now we had guys who weren’t even here in the courthouse who were about to go out and kill some innocent people somewhere completely different? Not to mention burn down their house. All just to send a message to some guy who tried to stop them. 

We couldn’t let that happen, obviously. But that wasn’t our only problem. We also had those guys who were heading here right now with the laser thing. Which was undoubtedly going to lead to Theory and Praxis wanting to know if the doorway into the rest of the tunnel was open yet, and… yeah, complications. So many complications. 

Even as we were all reacting to that, I had my phone out and was trying to call Amber. My first thought was to call Izzy, but given I was calling from the Paintball phone I didn’t want my parents to start wondering why she was my first thought. Even now, in this situation, I had to worry about that sort of thing. 

I also half-expected (okay, more like three quarters-expected) to get no signal at all, considering how prevalent call blockers seemed to be. But, miracle of miracles, I immediately heard ringing. Apparently our friends upstairs weren’t concerned about people making phone calls. Probably because they thought they had them all together in that room. Also the fact that it didn’t matter how many calls they made if the authorities couldn’t actually come into the building, of course.

The phone rang three times before I heard Amber’s voice. Or rather, her That-A-Way voice. “Paintball? We just made it outside. Are you guys really in there? What’s going–” 

“Way!” I interrupted, giving a quick, questioning look toward Paige before nodding to the stairs. She, in turn, shook her head to indicate that we weren’t about to have company yet. So I continued. “Yes, we’re here, but you have to go somewhere right now before innocent people get killed.” I quickly gave her an incredibly condensed version of what was happening and why she had to hurry, passing along the address as Paige recited it from memory for me. “So you have to get there first, you have to go now!” I wasn’t quite shouting, not wanting to draw attention just in case my voice carried too much. But I was definitely doing my level best to stress the urgency. Every second that this took made me more convinced that those other guys were gonna get there first. 

“Damn it, that’s to the south-east!” came the response a second later after Way had looked up the address. Which meant neither her super-speed nor teleportation could work, given those were only available when she was moving west or north, respectively. “Hang on, just–Dynamic!” she shouted away from the phone, apparently flagging down the speedster/energy manipulator from the Conservators. I couldn’t hear the next few seconds of conversation aside from some muffled words, but she came back a moment later. “She’s going. She’s heading over there right now. It’s okay. I mean it’s really not okay, but she’s got it. What about you guys? What the hell is going on in there?” 

Before I could respond to that, Paige waved her hand to get my attention and pointed to the stairs. So I quickly replied, “Call you back, gotta deal with something.” 

With that, I disconnected the phone, and we all spread out to get out of sight, putting ourselves on either side of the stairwell entrance. Soon, I heard the footsteps approaching, and glanced over at Paige. She held up three fingers. Right, so we had a trio coming down here. We could deal with that, no problem. The real question would be how to handle what came next. Would the bad guys just keep sending a few people down at a time to see what was going on? Unlikely. But maybe we could set things up so that they only came down at a speed and quantity we could deal with. As long as the people upstairs didn’t get wind that their troops were being taken apart down here, at least. 

Of course, we’d run into problems as soon as it was someone like Juice or Janus, anyone we couldn’t take down and get under control immediately. But that was a problem for later. One step at a time. 

And speaking of steps, our three bad guys came off the last ones and went dashing through the doorway together. Two of them were carrying a four-foot long, one-foot wide tube thing that sort of looked like a grenade launcher. They came without even noticing Poise, Calvin, and me standing on one side of the doorway, or Style, Hobbes, and Alloy standing on the other. And they certainly didn’t notice Trevithick hovering in the air above them. She didn’t have her wing-pack right now, but apparently she had already upgraded her shoes and gloves to allow her to hover in the air without it.

In any case, the guys didn’t notice her either. They did, however, notice the stack of guns and radios piled up about halfway through the room. Coming to a sudden halt, the group stared that way uncomprehendingly. One of them reached for the radio on his hip, which was our cue. Raising both hands, I shot that guy with a mix of purple and black paint before activating it. The muting power of the black paint was expanded by the purple to encompass all of them. They had already started to twist around, eyes widening as they saw us. But now they couldn’t even communicate with each other, let alone call for help on their radios. And that was just about it for them. Within seconds, all three guys were down, their equipment secured, and Sierra and Peyton were escorting them to the room where their friends were already locked up.

Once that was taken care of, I picked up one of the radios those three had left behind. “Okay, now what’s going on up there?” I was looking toward the ceiling, where Wren was still hovering while keeping an eye on the view from her bee-drone. She’d had the audio playing through that mask of hers so she could hear it without giving us away to the new arrivals.

She, in turn, quickly returned to the floor so I could see the screen for myself. “That, umm, hostage guy, he’s begging them not to hurt his family.” Her voice caught a bit. “I muted it while he was… while he was doing that.” The kid audibly swallowed. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t– He’s really sad.”

“It’s okay,” Paige put in while crouched over the tube thing those guys had dropped when we jumped them. “She let me connect to her equipment. I can hear what’s going on. It’s–they haven’t made him stop pleading yet. I think they like hearing it.” 

Well, these guys were assholes. Not that that was a surprise. After all, they were the ones who had sent people to go murder an innocent family just because the father didn’t behave for them. At least they were consistent that way. 

“Yeah,” I replied to both girls, “well Dynamic’s heading over there right now. She’ll save his family. We just have to focus on saving him, and the rest of those people up there. And we still don’t know where Theory and Praxis, Juice, or Janus are. And–” 

“Hang on a second,” Paige interrupted. “Trevithick, do you see–” 

“The girl!” Wren blurted, sounding both confused and excited. 

“What girl?” That was Murphy. “Huh?” 

So, Wren showed us on the screen, rewinding the footage. As we watched, the blonde gang woman from before with the mostly-buzz cut hair exchanged whispered words with Fogwalker. Then she stepped away and took out her cell phone before typing in a message. Wren must have moved the bee closer or zoomed in or something, because we quickly saw the screen a bit better. She was sending a message to… wait, she was sending a message to the Doephone app? It was a warning about two guys going to an address to–what the fuck? She was sending the authorities a warning about the two guys they had sent to the address of that guy’s house. She was telling the cops to stop the very guys she had sent to–huh? 

My head was shaking even as I watched the woman give Fogwalker a nod to show it was done. “Wait. Hold on, was that whole thing an act? I mean, hold up, sending a couple guys to kill a woman and some kids and burn down their house just because a guy annoyed them must be further than the Ministry wants them to go. So was that whole ‘go kill them’ just to build their rep as dangerous, or convince the hostages not to try anything else, or… something like that?”

Sierra muttered a few curses. “But they don’t wanna go completely against the Ministry’s rules, so they alert the authorities and pretend it could’ve come from anyone’s phone in the building. I mean look, they’re practically begging someone in that room to secretly use their phone. They’re barely looking at them.” 

Okay, well at least these guys weren’t so bad that they would actually kill a family like that. But still. “What the hell is their plan?” I demanded. “The real one, I mean. Theory said the tunnel down here is Part B, and that the whole thing only works if they get enough attention. So is the other part of the plan just… another escape tunnel or something? Maybe they want to draw attention to this tunnel so they can use a different one. One that might not be so well-covered?” I was already frowning throughout that. “No, that’s not it. Theory said they need ‘the tunnel,’ not ‘the other tunnel’ or ‘that tunnel.’ So it can’t just be that simple. But what then? They’re not just walking out the back door. What… the hell are they doing up there?” 

“I’ll find them!” Wren declared, directing the bee drone out of the courtroom with a murmured apology to the man there. Things would be bad if Fogwalker and the others decided to kill some of those hostages after all. But we only had one drone and we still had to find the other Fell-Touched. The longer we went without knowing where those guys were or what they were up to, the worse my bad feeling got. Besides, after what we had just found out, I was pretty sure it would take an awful lot before they actually killed any of them. 

Style spoke up in a flat voice while the drone was making its way through the building. “Right, brilliant, so as long as they keep sending a couple guys at a time, we’re good. No chance they mix it up, get creative, or just figure out we’re fucking with them, right?”

“We’ll deal with it,” Poise informed her while picking up the tube thing. “So this is the laser they were talking about. I checked, there’s no self-destruct on it, no listening devices, but there is a tracker. I can disable that whenever you want. They’ll know when I do it though.” 

“They figured the laser was powerful enough to cut through a vault door,” I murmured, “so it’s gotta be pretty strong. Maybe we can use that for something. If nothing else, Wren can have it for spare parts and to examine.” 

Wren, for her part, clapped while bouncing up and down in the air using her hover boots. “Yay, toys! I mean, not toys, dangerous weapon. But I can make it–I mean I can–” 

“It’s okay, we get it,” I assured her. “And yeah, you can turn it into something useful. Or at least learn from it.” That said, I looked down at the screen on the phone she had handed me as the drone slowly made its way along the ceiling to check other rooms. “Now we just need to–” Quickly, I interrupted myself while hitting the button on the screen to stop the drone. Juice had just emerged from one of the doors, accompanied by Janus, Theory, and half a dozen armed guys. “Look, look,” I blurted, waving a hand while unmuting the thing so we could all hear instead of just Paige. The others gathered around while I held it up. 

“–finally just get those cops to come through and get her ass back with the others so we can get out of here,” Juice was saying. 

Wait, what? Get the cops to come through? Where–why–huh? Now I was even more confused, to say the least.  

Theory shook his head, looking one way, then the other down the corridor. Thankfully, he didn’t look straight up at our tiny drone. Finally, he gestured for the others to follow as he went right, further away from the courtroom where the hostages and Fogwalker were. “Banneret knows what she’s doing. They’ll get those cops’ attention, make them think we’re fighting our way out through there so they pull in all the help they can get to reinforce. Which they obviously can’t pull off the doors they’re already covering, so they’ll have to pull it in from somewhere else.” He gave a low, dangerous chuckle then, sounding a lot like the mad scientist his outfit already seemed to be channeling. “And that’s when the real fun starts. So go grab troops and make sure everyone’s got their ducks in a row for it.” 

Okay, I definitely didn’t like the sound of that. And from the way the others reacted, they didn’t either. I couldn’t see their faces, but from what I could pick out… yeah, they were all as worried as I was by that. Clearly, opening up that tunnel behind us was an integral part of the Trendscendents’ plan. So they weren’t just going to give up on it or only send a couple people. As soon as this took too long, they’d investigate. Probably in force this time. Plus, what was that about the real fun starting once they managed to lure reinforcements to the tunnel? 

The group on screen split up at that point, with Juice and Janus moving back the way they had come while Theory continued down the hall. Wren gave me a quick look, asking, “Who’re we gonna follow?” 

I had to think quickly before making the drone trail after Theory, watching the man from above. “He’s the one who was talking about the plan, whatever it is. I want to see what he’s doing now. If those other guys are getting the troops ready, he’s gotta be the one doing the actual work for whatever it is, right?” 

“Works for me,” Sierra agreed, eating a piece of beef jerky. When we glanced at her, she shrugged. “One of those guys had it in his pocket. What’s he gonna do, complain about it?” 

Before any of us could actually respond to that, Theory stepped into a small, clearly private elevator at the end of the hall. He had to put his hand on a fingerprint/palm scanner, which he did while wearing a glove. The scanner went over the glove and beeped an affirmative. So clearly, there was something special about that glove. Before the doors closed, I sent the bee drone inside and moved it to a corner, so it would be out of sight.

Hobbes was bouncing up and down on her toes, clearly anxious. “What do we say when he calls back and asks if they’ve got that wall open yet? I mean, if it’s that big of a part of their plan, he’s not exactly gonna be patient about it, right?” 

I had to think about that for a moment. It wasn’t as though the guy wouldn’t notice if the people outside never summoned reinforcements. The longer this took, the more suspicious he was going to become. But we still had to know what they were doing, and why this whole thing was happening. This had to be about more than just breaking their people out of the courthouse. It was too complicated.

Besides, I had already been through one situation with these guys where what they were apparently doing was a lot different than what was actually going on. I didn’t trust this one to be straightforward either. 

Finally, I sighed. “When he calls in to check, tell him we’re cutting through the wall and we can hear cops on the other side. Let them tell us what to do next. Maybe it’ll give us some idea what their full plan is. But obviously, act like we know what it is already.” I was looking toward Sierra, since she had been the one to talk to him before. “Think you can fake your way through another one of those as our friend in there?” 

“I’ve been listening to every second of audio we have of her, here and from the news,” my doppelganger replied. “Trust me babe, as long as he doesn’t ask anything too personal, I can handle it.” 

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about anyone calling me babe, let alone someone who looked exactly like me outside of a few minor cosmetic changes. But I couldn’t think about that right now. Instead, I focused on the screen as the elevator stopped and Theory stepped out. The drone followed the man, while he emerged into what turned out to be some sort of private judge’s office. And a pretty lavish one too. The room was as big as my dad’s main office at home, and almost as well furnished. Theory moved to the nearby bar and poured himself a glass of whiskey before heading for the desk. “Okay, shitface,” he announced aloud, “let’s see if you were lying about where the wardrobe to Narnia is.” 

Oookay, I had no idea what that meant. Who was he talking about? Wait, he was inputting a password on the laptop, which it immediately accepted. Quickly, I made the bee drone turn, looking for some sort of answer as to whose office this was. There, on the desk. There was a nameplate for Honorable Horace Cavers. Wait, Horace Cavers? That was San’s dad. I’d known he was a judge of some sort, but didn’t realize he had an office like this. 

“Guys,” I addressed Poise and Style quickly, “can you check on Judge Horace Cavers and find out where he is right now? I don’t know if there’s any way to–” 

“He’s not in the building,” Paige interrupted. “I started checking as soon as you got that nameplate on screen. He called in sick this morning. And San–his son–” She added that for the benefit of the others. “–was supposed to be at baseball practice today and never showed up. His wife had a date to get drinks with a couple of her friends and called to cancel at the last minute.”

“They have them,” I realized. “These guys must have jumped the Cavers at their home before they came here. They got information out of the judge, his password and some sort of secret about a door, I think. What–” 

By that point, Theory was already typing on the computer. He had some sort of program up that looked like blueprints. But before we could zoom in for more details, he triumphantly hit one last button. As he did so, there was a loud beep and part of the wall across the office slid aside. 

“Hell yeah,” Theory announced, before picking up his radio. The message came through all the ones we had lying around us. 

“Okay people, if you’re not working on that tunnel, pack your shit and get up here. Banneret, you better be ready to get those reinforcements called in right fucking now. Cuz I’ve got Switchshift’s backdoor open. 

“And while Ten Towers is busy sending all their troops out to help the cops down there, it’s time for us to stroll into their own vault and grab everything that’s not nailed down.”

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The Storm 21-20 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The answer to my question, as it turned out, was that we had to put Chas, Emily, Kaleigh, and Jason somewhere safe so we could bring them back with us. We had the pocket greenhouse, of course, but all those villagers were still there and we still weren’t completely certain this entire crisis was over yet. Or, more to the point, we weren’t certain that they wouldn’t be able to restart it somehow if we let them out. And none of us wanted to risk leaving the bodies of our people in there with those people where they might just do… whatever. Even if they didn’t do anything to them, putting those four into the same secluded space as the people who were celebrating the event that led to their deaths would have been disgusting. 

Luckily, Nevada had her own extra storage spaces (besides the ones with all her weapons), so we put them there. I forced myself not to dwell too much on the feelings that swelled up inside me while we were doing that. There would be time to focus on all that stuff later. For now, we had to keep moving. 

But Miles and Royce couldn’t. They came back after we put the bodies away, and asked to go in there with them. They both wanted to sit and… and be with their teammates for awhile. I wasn’t sure how good of an idea it was to leave the two of them in there like that, but how could we refuse after everything that had happened? They deserved to have some time to say goodbye to their friends. We couldn’t deny them that, or make them wait. And we couldn’t ask them to help with anything else right now. They had all done more than enough. More than they should’ve had to. 

Of course, the whole ‘saying goodbye’ thing didn’t have to be as metaphorical as usual in this case. While everyone waited, I took a few minutes to focus on the room beyond that portal. I had to be incredibly careful because I didn’t want to accidentally bring back one of the Revenants or something, if that was even possible. Thankfully, it wasn’t actually hard to tell the difference between those malevolent creatures and the ones I was looking for. In time, I managed to summon the… the ghosts of all four of our lost people. I pulled all four of them up in front of us, which… yeah, caused a bit of a scene. Mom, for one, kept apologizing to them, as did the others. 

But we really needed to get out of here, and there would be time for discussing all of that soon enough. So, after a very brief interaction with everyone else as the four reacted to being brought out as ghosts, the four of them went into the box that Nevada had opened up alongside their two living teammates and friends. The six of them could take all the time they needed in that place. I’d given the four enough power to keep themselves visible and audible for awhile. Once they were set, Nevada closed it again after giving them a magic stone to use if they wanted to tell her they were ready to come out. But something told me that wouldn’t happen for awhile. 

Whatever happened next, at least we weren’t leaving the ghosts of those four stuck here in this awful place. They were coming back with us.

“What…” That single word came before I realized I didn’t know how to follow it up. I had to say something. I had to force words out, no matter how much I just wanted to scream inarticulate sounds until my throat gave out. Finally, I made myself focus on Wukong, who had been standing to the side through all of that. “What about the cities out there? How… how bad is it? How many did we lose?” I was already dreading the answer. Rahanvael’s people had been through thousands of years of Fossor, were freed for like… a couple months, and then had to deal with this

Sun, for his part, made a sharp harumphing sound as he stared at me in disbelief, his tail flicking back and forth agitatedly. “I beg your pardon? Lose? I think you must be confusing me with someone else, Miss Blondie. My name is Sun Wukong, and I do not lose. At worst, I have temporarily misplaced victories.”

Persephone, stepping over next to me, spoke up. “Felicity didn’t mean to offend you, your fuzziness. She’s just worried about all the people in those cities.”

“Indeed,” Mom agreed as she moved to my other side. “As strong as you obviously are…” She paused, hand finding my shoulder before she clearly slightly amended, “It must have been an incredible fight.” 

The Monkey man grinned broadly, all annoyance forgotten. “Truly spectacular indeed. I do hope someone managed to record it, I love watching myself. Do you have any idea how rare it is for me to get to stretch my legs like that?” His eyes found me once more. “Eh, and to answer your question, I delayed them until you pulled off your part. They never made it to the cities.” 

I exhaled in relief, but still couldn’t help but stare. “You delayed them. Like, you delayed all one thousand of them flying in different directions? I know you can duplicate yourself, but all your duplicates are that strong?”

“Why wouldn’t they be?” he demanded. “They’re made of me. Here’s the thing. I’m an infinity of–hold on.” Reaching into his pocket, he produced a small, handheld computer and tapped at it a couple times. “Earth… modern… no… aww they stopped saying that? What in Naraka is a fleek? Ah.” He put it away and cleared his throat. “Awesome. I’m an infinity of awesome, and you can’t divide that into smaller pieces. When you duplicate it, all you end up with is more awesome.”  

“So they’re okay,” I pressed, even as Rahanvael appeared a few feet away at a thought from me. “The cities haven’t been attacked and… and…” Before I knew what I was doing, I had already lunged that way and put both arms around him. My mother made a noise as though to stop me, but I was already embracing the man. “Thank you. Thank you for that, for… for…” Realizing where I was and what I was doing, my eyes widened. His shoulder fur was pressed against my nose, and I could feel the muscles throughout his body. Oh. Oh God. 

“Um. I’m kinda surprised you didn’t throw me to the ground for jumping at you like that,” I managed in a soft voice. “Sorry if it looked like I was attacking you.” 

His response was a laugh. A very amused laugh. “Haha! Excellent, I’m glad you’re not too traumatized to make jokes. But ah, maybe you should hold off on any more of them, out of respect.” Stepping back out of my grip, he continued to chuckle softly. “Attack me, that’s adorable. As though I can’t tell the difference.” 

“Uh, all that being… as it is,” Judas put in, “does this mean the situation is really over? I mean, those monsters are sealed up again, and as long as no more Revenants show up to let them out, they’ll stay that way. At least until someone finds a more permanent solution.” 

“Yes,” Denuvus agreed. “I, for one, would like to leave this place as soon as possible. You may all feel free to return here and do whatever you like with those who remain. I have had quite enough of this.” She offered a thin smile, her eyes finding me. “And I’m certain you’ve had enough of me. I accept your offer of a compromise in providing Seosten cloning technology in place of…” She glanced toward Nevada. “… her. But I would like some sort of assurance that you will actually follow through.” 

“Assurance?” Mom echoed, putting a hand out to stop me from responding. She took a step that way. “The only assurance you get is my promise that if you try anything like this again, if you try to take any of our people under your control like this, if you subvert our free will for your own ends, we will find out about it. And you’ll need that cloning technology to bring back more than your sister.” 

She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “What we will do is make a deal. We’ll do everything in our power to get the technology you need to pull that off, and even help you as much as can reasonably be expected. In exchange, you will give us every bit of information you have about Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. You have clearly picked up secrets over the years through the use of your power. Some of it may be useful. Once you get home, write it all down, every little bit of it. When you’re done, we’ll trade the cloning technology for the information. And just so you know, we have some of the best memory-alteration experts in the world on our side. So if you try to fuck us on this, we will find out.” 

Denuvus looked like she was considering all that, and trying to decide exactly how to react for several long seconds. Her gaze flicked over to Nevada (and Erin by extension through whatever the other girl was using to see what was going on from the ship) a couple times before she gave a heavy sigh. “Yes, very well, as you wish. I suppose I have made worse arrangements. Your offer is acceptable. Though I must stress that as dangerous as you believe it would be for me to interfere with your Rebellion, it would be equally as foolish for any of you to believe you can stand in the way of my goals.” 

Basically ignoring that, Mom turned to Asenath, Judas, Robin, and Stasia. “You all still had questions for her?” 

“I have only one question,” Senny replied, her eyes laser-focused on the woman in question. “Where are the memories that were stolen from my father? You said they were not destroyed.”

“I did,” Denuvus agreed. “And it is true, they still exist. The Vestil who stole them wished to be absolutely certain they were safe. He couldn’t risk them being destroyed and sending the contents back to their rightful owner. So, he hid the crystals containing your father’s memories inside of several incredibly valuable and dangerous artifacts before ensuring they would be found and put away in a safe location by someone he could trust not to use or share them.” 

“Who?” Senny pressed while very clearly trying not to snap at the woman for dragging it out. 

Denuvus’s smile reappeared. “Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire, of course. He knew those artifacts would be safe with her, and so would the items hidden within. If you wish to find where she put them, you’ll have to take it up with her. I’m sure that won’t be too much of a problem though.”

Gaia? Gaia had Tiras’s memories? How was that–but she wasn’t–but–oh. My mind was racing, understandably, as I looked back and forth between Denuvus and Asenath. 

Senny, for her part, absorbed that news, frowning intently while Shiori put a hand on her arm. Then she spoke in a low, contemplative voice. “In that case, I guess I have even more reason to help get her away from Crossroads. And if you’re lying–”

“Please, don’t insult me or yourself,” the other woman interrupted. “You know you can’t threaten me, and I have no reason to deceive you right now. That’s where they are. At least, as far as I know. If they were moved after that or something else happened, you’ll have to take that up with Sinclaire.”   

“And Rasputin?” That was Stasia, her voice betraying how done she was with this whole thing. “Where is he? And if you say he is locked up somewhere in a Crossroads vault…” 

Denuvus gave a soft chuckle, shaking her head. “I promise, assuming he still lives, you will find him on this world. In the village known as Peiys, there is a priest named Tuuenfa. He will know Rasputin’s current whereabouts.” 

Turning to my mother then, she added, “And with that, I believe I have more than maintained my side of the bargain. I don’t wish to be a broken record, but–” 

“Let’s get out of here.” Mom turned away from her, gesturing. “We’ll go outside the mountain, to flat ground. Denuvus, before Nevada tells Erin to bring the ship back, you will go into one of her private storage space boxes. Trice can hold onto it if that makes you more comfortable. Once you’re out of the way, we’ll get the ship back here and send Trice back to Earth with the box. We’ll drop him off, leave, and then Trice can let you out.” 

Denuvus snorted at that in disbelief. “Do you truly think I would agree to something like that? First, how do I know you won’t overpower Trice and throw the storage box into… oh, a volcano even more active than this one? And I still require the treasures I acquired from Fossor’s vault.” 

Nevada answered. “Trice can be your eyes and hands. You said you trust him, right?” She glanced that way, clearly wondering how far that extended. As was I, to be honest. “We’ll unload the treasure with him, before leaving so he can let you out. This is the deal.” Her voice was firm. “You’ve spent a lot of time and effort cultivating a reputation. Here’s the downside of it. No one trusts you not to try something if you get a chance.” 

“Uh, why don’t we just ask Mr. Wukong to… to…” As I was saying that, my eyes turned to where the monkey man was. Or where he had been. There was no one there, and I couldn’t see him anywhere. “Err, where’d he go?” 

Clearing her throat, Shiori pointed off in the distance. Turning that way, I saw the man in question crouching over some sort of bug (a real one, I assumed), having what appeared to be an animated argument with it. The only words I could catch from this distance involved something about the best dirt to dig a nest in or whatever. 

“That’s why,” Mom murmured. “I’d rather not depend on someone who gets distracted so easily when it comes to keeping an eye on someone as devious as Denuvus. And we still don’t know why he’s here or what it has to do with you.” She was clearly leaving unsaid the fact that if he had any sort of nefarious intentions, there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. Not to someone who could trounce fifteen Revenants all on his lonesome, then duplicate himself to take on a thousand of them. 

So, we headed out of the mountain lair or whatever it was. Thankfully, we didn’t have to walk the whole way. Mom created a portal that transported us several miles away, out to an open field. Obviously, Stasia’s group wanted to go straight to that village, but we promised we’d all head over there together soon enough. We still had to talk to these people and let them know what was going on and that they were one hundred percent safe from Fossor. And a few other things they deserved to know about. Which we might as well start doing in the same village the others were going to in their search for Rasputin. We owed them a lot more than that, and we were still their ride home anyway. So staying together was the right idea. 

Besides, we couldn’t be absolutely certain there wouldn’t be some other huge problem before this was over. Better to keep all of us in the same place so we could deal with it more easily.

Mom, Nevada, and Denuvus were still working out the last few details of how they were going to handle that whole situation. I tuned them out and focused on the monkey man. He had brought the bug with him and was talking to it in his palm a few feet away from the group. Exchanging a look with Shiori and Tabbris (she had stepped out of me by that point), I moved that way. “Um, is that another one of your duplicates? I mean, I know you like to turn into bugs.” 

“Huh?” he blinked at me, then looked down at the thing in his hand before making a face. “Of course it’s not me. Do you really think I’d turn into a bug this ugly?” Raising his hand, he whispered to the bug. “Don’t you start with me, you know I’m just making a point. And I am a much more handsome bug than you. Shush, you’re not involved in this conversation.”

Then he refocused on me once more. “But hey, that’s not the point! You’ve got as exciting of a life as he said you did. I’m really glad he wasn’t making all that up. I hate when people do that just to get my attention. It’s incredibly rude.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times as I tried to decide how to respond to that. A lot of things ran through my head at the words about my life being exciting, especially right now. In the end, there was only one thing that was relevant. “Who? You said he told you something about me, and earlier you said you were here to talk to me or something. Who sent you? Why are you even here? What do you–I mean, thank you. Thanks for all your help, really. You’re as amazing as the others keep saying. But what… what do you want from me?” I was trying to phrase it in a way that was as unlikely to offend him as possible. After everything we had been through, we really didn’t need an angry Sun Wukong. 

For a moment, it looked like the man was considering his response. His face scrunched up thoughtfully, and he put his fist under his chin. It looked a lot like the Thinker statue, except for the whole monkey thing. Finally, he shook his head. “It’s a pretty heavy thing for you to deal with, but it’s not an emergency. So we’ll just wait on that. All I can say is you’re not in any danger and neither are your friends. I’ll tell you more when you get through this whole situation. So don’t worry about it. I’ll be here when you get a minute. There’s plenty of time, as they say.” With that, he offered a wide smile.  

Okay, there was a lot I wanted to say to that. But he wasn’t wrong about the fact that I already had a lot going on. Specifically, in that very moment, Nevada opened the storage box and a clearly reluctant Denuvus stepped inside. She paused to say something to Trice, who gave a short nod before moving out of the way. 

Then she was safely put away. And not even thirty seconds after that, the Jitterbug appeared a couple hundred feet away. Which was pretty damn good aiming on Erin’s part considering she couldn’t have had much in the way of actual practice with the thing. Not to mention how relieved I felt at the sight of it. 

Erin herself appeared in the open hatch, descending the ramp at a run before embracing a waiting Nevada. The two of them had a quick, whispered conversation before she looked up and blanched a little. “I… sorry for hiding and basically tricking all of–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted. “After what happened, what you and Nevada accomplished, don’t apologize. You did the right thing. If you hadn’t been able to take the ship and force Denuvus to work with us…” She trailed off, exhaling. “It would have been worse.” Even as she said that, Mom was looking away, the expression on her face making it clear that she didn’t want to think about how much ‘worse’ it could have become than four of our people dying. Four innocent teenagers who had nothing to do with the situation and shouldn’t have been here in the first place. 

Finally, she straightened. “We’ll take them back. We’ll drop off Trice and Denuvus where they want to go, then take the… the bodies and their… their ghosts back to the station. Once they’re home, we’ll come back here and finish this. It’s time for the people of this world to get the good news.

“Gods know, someone deserves some.”

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