Author: Cerulean

The Source 23-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

Okay, what?! No, really, what the fuck? For a moment after hearing those words come from the tape player, I just stood there and stared down at it. My thumb had hit the off switch reflexively while my brain spun out. Fomorians coming here to Earth? They always came here, of course. But they were supposed to come sometime around the year nineteen hundred, not sixteen hundred! If the woman on this tape was right, if she wasn’t full of it, the Fomorians could show up over three hundred years early. 

How much would that change history? So many of the people who had helped stop them before–or would in the future (time travel was annoying) weren’t even around yet. And the ones who were, did they even know the spell that had been used to banish the Fomorians in the first place? Would the Seosten fight back as much to save Earth at this point as they had/would at the normal invasion time, or would it be easier for them to just pull out and grab as many humans as they could to breed as weapons? 

Something told me this whole situation would be very different, and unfathomably worse, if those monsters came through right now. I didn’t even know anything about this woman on the tape other than her name, Jaquelin Prose, and the fact that she worked for Section Four, which I had heard of. And I definitely had no idea how she’d sent this tape back. But whoever she was, I couldn’t take the chance that she was right. If the Fomorians were actually about to come through–no, there wasn’t time to waste. 

All those thoughts played through my mind in just a second or two, before I hit play again. 

Jaquelin’s voice continued as I held the recorder up and listened intently. “The third building from the left of the sheriff’s office, where you were before, is a church. There’s a tunnel underneath the altar. Err, that’s altar spelled with an a, not an e.” She sounded about as anxious and nervous as I felt. “The priest is one of his minions. You–you have to get past him. Then get through the altar, find the tunnel, and follow it to the chamber where he’s been setting up the spell to summon the Fomorians. The town–the people who live there, they’ll try to stop you too. It’s not their fault. Please, don’t–just don’t kill them. The priest has been putting… things in them, so he can control them, puppet them. They’ll do anything to protect the church and the altar, even sacrifice themselves. They don’t even know why they’re doing it or why it matters. He’s just… he’s infected them, and there’s no time to try to argue with them or fix it the hard way. They won’t listen to you. The second they realize you’re trying to get into the church, they’ll try to stop you. But if you can get through the tunnel under the altar and break the ritual, you can free them from it. You can stop the Fomorians from coming here early. Once you’re in the chamber where the ritual is, you have to–” 

The tape went fuzzy then, and I frowned before hitting the button a couple more times. “What? I have to what?!” 

“It’s enchanted,” Persephone informed me. “The rest of the tape won’t play until you’re in the proper location.” 

Oh, well of course. So much for listening ahead of time to know exactly what I was walking into. Apparently I had to actually get there first. And I had to do it as quickly as possible. Which meant I needed a ride.  “Percy–”  

She was already up on Cerberus, and just as I glanced that way, her hand caught mine and hauled me up. “What about Ehn?” she asked curiously. “He is quite powerful, and quite unlikely to want the Fomorians to overrun this planet any more than we do.”

Before I could respond, Cerberus was already running back the way we’d come. Holding onto Percy ahead of me, I blurted, “I don’t know if we have time to go find him! He said this thing was some sort of buried power, not a message! Maybe this is a test, more training, or–or… I don’t know! Seth!” Belatedly, I shouted the ghost’s name, summoning him once more. “You remember the way back to the creek, right? Go there, take some of the others so you can spread out, find Ehn and tell him what’s going on! And if he already knew this was a thing, tell him it’s not fucking funny and to help!” 

I barely heard his response as he and several other ghosts took off to work on that. The only thing I could focus on was the terror I felt about what would happen if we–if I screwed this up and let the Fomorians come through. The fact that they hadn’t previously made it to Earth in this time period had to mean that I successfully stopped them, right? But were things set like that? I was pretty sure they weren’t. I could still fuck this up. Wait, was it always me that stopped them? What if Ehn was supposed to be the one who found this thing? What if he was supposed to be with me right now? Oh God, what if other versions of me who got to this point had insisted that Ehn stay with them-me so he was there to stop the Fomorians? What if them-me had had better ways of contacting him to ask for help? What if–damn it, I didn’t know! I had no idea if anything was different, or if I could still make the wrong choice and screw this whole situation up. If I did–if I messed up, I could doom the entire human species! Or at least Earth. What if–what if I created a timeline where the Fomorians overran the planet? 

Yeah, I was kind of spiraling a bit. It was a lot of pressure, and I had absolutely no idea how bad things would get if I made the wrong choice. Or if I already had made wrong choices. Still, my desperately flailing mind stopped as Persephone put her hand on mine while my arms were still wrapped around her to help stay on the running three-headed robot dog. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “We can stop them. The future message wouldn’t be here to tell you what to do if you couldn’t do it. We’ll help you. Right, Cerberus?” Her words were met with a trio of sharp barks. 

Right, yeah. Her words, and Cerberus’s agreement, helped settle my nerves a little bit. They were right. Ehn be damned, I had them. It wasn’t like the Fomorians were here already, after all. Jaquelin had said that I needed to stop ‘him.’ That was singular. Was it the priest she had mentioned? No, that couldn’t be it. She’d said the priest was one of ‘his’ minions. Whoever this ‘he’ was, that was the main threat. But whether this was one Fomorian, or some other species who was trying to bring them over, or would do something stupid that accidentally summoned them, I had no idea. Not yet, anyway. If it was a full Fomorian… well, I had Persephone and Cerberus. Not to mention all these ghosts. I wasn’t alone. 

Wait, speaking of that… Another thought came to mind, and I reached out with my Necromancy once more. Once again, I didn’t make it a demand. I requested the presence of the ghosts I had already spoken to earlier. Kehchul the goblin, Elsworn the bear-man, Avonaco the Native American, and Francis the European settler. Soon, they appeared hovering in the air as Cerberus bounded up the hillside. In a few words, I told them what was going on and where we were going. They, in turn, immediately promised to ‘rally the troops,’ and said they would meet us there. Then they disappeared again. I just hoped they’d make it back in time to help. And also that Seth and the others would find Ehn in time for him to come help as well, come to think of it.

Yeah, there was an awful lot of hoping going on right now. Including the fact that I hoped the lady on the tape knew what she was talking about. And that she wasn’t lying. That had occurred to me as well. What if this whole thing was a trick right from the start and doing what she said would be what summoned the Fomorians? What if the ritual was actually helping to keep them away? Or whatever she told me to do would finish it? Sure, it didn’t seem all that likely that I’d be necessary for that, but… but…

Yeah, I really didn’t know. The truth was that I was going to have to make that estimation when the time came. I had to wait and listen to what this lady wanted me to do once we made it to that ritual room. And if the next words out of her mouth were, ‘have Ehn kill the ultra Fomorian kaiju beast that just appeared in front of you because you’re totally no match for it’ I was probably going to scream. 

Soon enough (hopefully), we reached the edge of town once more. Now there were people outside working, talking, or just walking around instead of hiding indoors. But they all stopped short as we came into view. And why wouldn’t they? I was a blonde human girl sitting on the back of a giant three-headed robot dog behind a pale woman with snow-white hair. Granted, this was a village full of Alters with a tall, blue-scaled man and his humanoid grasshopper deputy. But still, we probably stood out a little bit. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to reassure them. And I didn’t even know what I would have said anyway. All I could do was stare for a second, wondering briefly just how badly this was going to go. I had to get into that church and go under the altar, which would probably look bad even at the best of times, let alone when the entire town was apparently brainwashed or whatever to make sure that wouldn’t happen. 

Ehn had to know about this, right? There was no way he didn’t. He’d sent me off to find this thing, talking about how it was power or whatever, and it turned out to be this? I refused to believe that he didn’t know. This was an intentional test. He wanted me to be here, taking care of this situation. Well I was going to take care of it alright. And then he and I were going to have some words about his teaching methods. 

While I slipped off of Cerberus, murmuring for him and Percy to hold off and let me handle this, Sheriff Dune approached. “Well hey, can’t say I was expecting you to come back so soon. Did your partner find the guy he was looking for?” His words were friendly enough, but I could sense a tiny bit of an edge to them. Or maybe I was just imagining it thanks to what I had been told. Either way, I doubted he’d stay as friendly over the next few moments. 

Still, I had to try. Taking a breath, I met the man’s gaze. “I have reason to believe you and your people are being… manipulated. I need to go into that church and check on something.” My hand gestured toward the building in question. “I really hope we can do this the easy way, but if you–” 

All four of his six-shooters were in his hands before I could say another word. For most people, that probably would’ve been the end of it. He was so fast, his quick draw a blinding motion that brought the barrels right in line with my head in an instant. He didn’t wait for me to explain, didn’t even listen to anything past the point when I said I had to go into the church. He just drew, aimed, and fired with the full intent (in as much as someone who was puppeted via some sort of infestation could have intent) of putting all four bullets, and probably more besides, through my skull. 

Fortunately, as fast as he was, I was faster. And I had been expecting something like that. Both of my hands snapped up. The first summoned a small portal in front of my face, with the other end appearing off in the distance to make his bullets pass right through and shoot off into the woods harmlessly. Meanwhile, a sharp gesture from my other hand sent a spray of sand into his mouth and eyes, forcing the man to recoil reflexively. Which was all the time I needed to send even more sand inside the barrels of each gun. A moment of focus on my object size-changing power made all those grains grow. They only went from being as big as… well, grains of sand to being the size of large pebbles, but still. All of them together like that within the tight space of the gun barrels was enough to twist the weapons out of shape so they wouldn’t fire properly anymore. Part of me felt bad about that, but if this all went well and the whole planet didn’t end up getting invaded by Fomorians, I’d try to make up for it. 

Of course, Dune wasn’t done just because his guns were disabled. And the rest of the town wasn’t sitting idly by either. But before any of them could do anything, I felt the arrival of Elsworn and the others. And.. and a lot more besides. When those guys said they were rallying the troops, they had meant it. Without conscious thought, I shoved power into the ghost army, my voice rising to a shout. “Don’t hurt any of them!” 

And just like that, a swarm of semi-transparent figures rushed past and over me. Dune was grabbed by six different ghosts, struggling and cursing as they hauled him to the ground. Strex, the deputy, came bounding into view just in time to be caught by two more ghosts, disarmed, and pulled all the way to the roof of a nearby building. All around us, it was the same story. Every person in town was being held down by two or three ghosts. They came because I’d asked for help, because Elsworn, Kehchul, Francis, and Avonaco explained the situation and convinced the entire army of ghosts from the forest out there to come into town and hold down these people so they couldn’t stop me. 

Yes, I had a ghost army essentially holding this entire town prisoner. But now wasn’t the time to focus on how amazing and overwhelming that was. I had to move. If this Jacqueline woman was telling the truth, if she was right, then every last second counted right now.

While the townspeople struggled to free themselves from my ghost army, I ran straight toward the church. Cerberus and Percy trailed right behind me all the way. It seemed like the closer we got to the building, the harder the people who lived in this place fought to stop us from getting to it. They really were brainwashed. All those people were basically foaming at the mouth, spitting curses and threats as they clawed the ground and heaved against the spirits. But they couldn’t get free. Especially not after I sent another burst of energy to refuel those ghosts. There were so many of them and yet I just shoved a bunch of power into them all like it was nothing. Some part of me recognized how crazy that was, but I didn’t have time to think about it. It was just a thing that sat there in the back of my mind, telling me just how difficult this should’ve been. The power I was putting in those ghosts should have staggered me. There were two or three for every townsperson. Even if this particular town was only about a hundred people, that still meant I was fueling several hundred ghosts at the same time and didn’t even feel particularly winded by it. That was absurd, right? I was pretty sure it was absurd.

A man stepped out of the church just as we neared it. But no, this wasn’t just a man. It was something worse. I could sense the evil and dark power pouring off of him even as he came into view. There was something fundamentally wrong about him. His skin was grayish brown, and he stood about average height, a couple inches under six feet. He looked human aside from his skin, and the fact that he didn’t have any eyes. Not as in he had empty holes in his face. No, there was no place for his eyes. Where they should’ve been was simply flat skin. Then he opened his mouth, extending a foot-long tongue with two small bulbous structures on either side. They started near the middle of the tongue, but rolled down to the end as the tongue pointed toward us. A second later, those bulbs twisted and opened to reveal a couple eyes staring our way. Eyes attached to his tongue. 

Okay, I was officially creeped the fuck out. Which only got worse as the men let out a banshee-like scream that filled the air. He lifted his arms and a dozen rock and dirt golems rose from the earth around him, while the figure himself flew up into the air, lightning crackling around him.

“Go, Flick!” Percy gave me a push, even as Cerberus sent a bunch of lasers lancing out toward the incoming golems. “We’ll handle this, I promise! We’ll keep him off you! Go stop the Fomorians!” 

Oh boy did tongue-eye boy want to fight me when he heard that. But even as he turned his attention my way and shrieked even louder, Percy launched herself off Cerberus and crashed into him. Both went down hard onto the roof of the building. 

There wasn’t time to argue. Percy was dealing with that guy and Cerberus would keep the golems busy. For my part, I gave one last quick glance around, gave my ghosts a bit more power, then ran for the church once more. The heavy doors surrendered after a couple hard, boosted heaves, slamming inward. There, the altar at the far end. It was enormous and appeared to be made of a mix of gold and heavy wood. Still, I didn’t care about that. All I cared about was what was under it. 

To that end, I boosted myself once more and practically flew that way. I could take the time to shove it out of the way, or break it. Or… I slammed right into and through the altar, using my wood-possession power to pass right inside. 

Sure enough, there was a tunnel underneath the thing. I sensed it immediately, wide open space beneath the heavy altar. I couldn’t see down there, but it felt like the tunnel went on for quite some distance. 

Okay, the voice on the tape had been right so far. I just had to hope she was also right that I could stop whatever was going on at the end of that tunnel. 

Because if I couldn’t, the future was going to look a hell of a lot worse than it had when I left. 

Previous Chapter

Together And Alone 27-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Well, so much for getting out of here before the super-powered people started showing up. Now not only did we have several sedans full of very angry Breakwater assholes chasing us, but there was also a flying guy. At least he didn’t seem to be one of the faster fliers. Sure, he was keeping pace as I floored the pedal and pushed the van up to seventy on our way down this quiet residential street, but I’d seen plenty on the news who already would have been able to catch up with us, tear the doors off, and haul us all out of the van before we could blink. Maybe we were lucky and Breakwater couldn’t afford to send the real heavy hitters yet. It would be nice to have some luck during this whole situation, at least. Which probably wasn’t a very fair thought, considering we had the machine, plus we’d found Robert and a brand new TONI friend. But still, given what these guys would do if they caught up with us, I was hoping for a little more on the luck side. 

Gripping the wheel tightly, I had to swerve around a tow truck that was pulling out of some guy’s driveway. Probably his own. He leaned on the horn, shaking his fist angrily out the side window while shouting curses. Which just made me wonder what that guy thought was happening. He saw a van hauling ass down the street with several sedans and a flying man chasing after it. That hardly would’ve raised eyebrows back in Detroit, but something told me it wasn’t exactly a common sight around here. He was probably calling the cops right now. How were they going to react to this? Was I about to have to avoid a bunch of local police along with the Breakwater people?

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I took a sudden right turn onto a side street. Paige shouted something about there being a no outlet sign, but I ignored that. I wasn’t here for the road. Instead, with our pursuers coming up right behind us, I aimed for the fence beside one of the houses on the far side of this cul-de-sac. 

“Faster, faster!” Still perched on my shoulder and clinging there, Qwerty cheered while seeing the fence rapidly approaching. “Blow right through it! That thing doesn’t stand a chance! Shred it!” 

Robert, for his part, simply called, “I hope you know what you’re doing up there, kid!” He pointed his pistol out the back window he’d already broken and fired a couple shots that made the flying man swerve to one side, slowing him down just a bit. 

I definitely knew what I was doing. Well, hopefully anyway. Telling myself it would all be fine, I focused on the fence and pointedly pushed my foot down harder. The van roared as it hit the curb, bouncing roughly before tearing up the grass. I had just a second to wince at how the owner of this place was going to react before we hit the fence and ripped right through it. Yeah, the homeowner probably wouldn’t like that either. By the time this was over, I was going to be the most hated person in Tooele, and they wouldn’t even know who I was. 

Well, hopefully. If this went badly enough, they would know exactly who I was. But in that case, I’d have a lot more problems than some people who were mad at me for ruining their lawns and fences. 

As soon as the van hit the backyard, I spun the wheel to the left and went right through yet another fence into the yard next door. There was a sandbox followed by one of those miniature wading pools, and we destroyed both on our way. Yep, definitely gonna be loathed here in Tooele. Somehow I doubted they would be giving me the key to the city anytime soon. Or recommending me for a driver’s license, if they had anything to say about it.

Obviously, I wasn’t just destroying all these yards for fun. We went through two more of them before I quickly twisted the wheel to the right once more and sent us off an incline, between several large trees with barely enough space (as it was, several branches scraped loudly against the windows and the passenger-side mirror was broken off), and over a railroad track. The van jostled heavily, but held together while we flew into open air several feet above the ground on the far side of those tracks. All of us aside from Robert screamed as the van dropped, slamming into the ground. But the tires found purchase on grass there, and suddenly we were moving again. We were on the back field of some local school. The running track was to the right, the main building straight ahead, and to the left was the baseball diamond. 

Behind us, the flying man shot out of the trees, with the sedans right behind him. Well, most of them. One of the cars slammed into the same tree that had taken our passenger mirror, and another came off the railroad tracks at too steep of an angle, slamming into the ground hard enough to fill the air with dark smoke. Neither of them would be going anywhere anytime soon.

Okay, so two cars down, three left. Plus the flying guy. We could work with that, right? Please let us be able to work with that. 

Heading for the baseball diamond, I was just telling myself we had a chance here when the flying man abruptly picked up speed. Apparently we’d pissed him off, because he was suddenly catching up. By that point, he was close enough for me to get a good look at him in the rearview mirror. The guy was clearly pretty thin, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with black armored panels in important places, and a blue metal helmet with white eye lenses. There was no insignia or anything indicating who he was. Probably because he worked for Breakwater rather than acting as a normal Star-Touched. And even though I couldn’t see his expression, something told me the guy hadn’t picked up speed so he could hurry and congratulate me on my awesome driving skills. Which was too bad, because property destruction aside, I was killing it right now. 

Oh, and he was wearing a jetpack. Well, what looked like a jetpack. It wasn’t projecting flames out the back or anything, but it definitely seemed to be the source of his flight. I didn’t know if he was a Tech-Touched, or just some guy using something another person created. Whatever it was, he definitely wanted to end this whole chase. 

“Poise,” I tensely spoke up toward the girl seated beside me. “I think you better–” 

“On it,” she agreed. With that, she hauled herself up and partway through the side window there, pointing a gun across the roof at the incoming flier. Watching the rearview while the baseball diamond rapidly approached, I saw him spin off to one side just as she sent several bullets flying that way. Robert, in the back, anticipated that move and actually hit the man with his own shot, though it bounced off his helmet. The impact was still enough to make the guy’s head snap back briefly and slowed him down. Which bought us just a few more precious seconds. 

As soon as we hit the baseball field, I spun the wheel to stay on the baseline, following it all the way from home plate to first, then second, and back around to third. Our tires sent dust flying into the air, creating a thick cloud that the flier and three remaining sedans had to drive into. And just like that, we were heading straight toward the rear-most car as it reached home plate and started to turn the way we had gone, its driver partially-blinded by the dust. 

Paige, who had dropped back into her seat by that point, gripped the armrest tightly while speaking through gritted teeth. “I hope you know what you’re–” 

“Hang on!” I interrupted with a shout. With one hand, I reached up to grab hold of Qwerty so he wouldn’t go flying through the windshield. In the next second, our front left bumper slammed into the rear-left corner of the last sedan, spinning it around so hard its front end very nearly slammed into us as it came back around. But we were going fast enough that it barely missed, as the sedan went spinning out across home plate to slam down into the dugout. Its lower half was caught up on the bench there, as the engine screamed from the driver’s attempt to get going again. I could hear several voices screaming out for him to hurry up, and a handful of bullets ricocheted off the back of our van. They definitely weren’t playing anymore. 

Another sedan was down. Meanwhile, the other two cars and the flying man had reached the far side of the dust cloud. Any second now, they would realize we weren’t ahead of them, but behind. Especially with the screaming and shooting coming from the guys in the third car. But we were already hauling ass once more, back the way we’d come. Or at least somewhat. I angled the car to head more toward the running track, and the parking lot beyond it. A glance in the rear view showed those two remaining cars doing quick U-turns, while the flying man inverted in the air and came right after us once more. If they hadn’t been angry before, they sure as hell were now. 

Letting go of Qwerty so I could grab the wheel once more, I sent the van up and over the low grassy hill leading onto the track. Once again, we were sending up a dirt cloud that blocked the people behind us from seeing very well. Though something told me the same trick wouldn’t work twice. They were going to be on the lookout for us to turn around. Which was exactly what I wanted. If they were holding back, anticipating the same move, they wouldn’t be pushing so hard to catch up. With any luck, I was making them second-guess themselves. 

Of course, that was when we got the bad news. As we launched off the track and headed through the open gate to the parking lot, a dozen cop cars came skidding around the corner of the street ahead of us and into the same lot. So yeah, now the local authorities were involved. Fantastic. And we still had the two Breakwater sedans plus the flying guy behind us. This whole thing was just going swimmingly. 

Okay, thinking the word ‘swimmingly’ was clearly a bad idea, because it would be just like the universe to decide the best thing to do next would be to send us right into that stinky lake, and I didn’t want to give it any ideas on that front. As if it needed any help from me. 

The twelve cop cars coming at us had spread out a bit, already trying to block us in. I felt a rush of apprehension, but pushed it down and focused. A slight twist of the wheel to the left sent us just past the first car, its front bumper passing our rear one within a couple inches while the cop inside leaned on his horn, sirens already blaring deafeningly. The instant we were past that, I spun the wheel to the right, cutting back that way. Which put the left side of the van directly in the path of the cop car coming up behind that first one. But as I’d expected, that guy reflexively hit the brakes just enough to stop from hitting us. And a very slight adjustment to the left sent our van right between the next two cars over, passing them perpendicularly just ahead of the nearer one and just behind the further one, with barely enough space left on either side. Seriously, I was pretty sure you couldn’t fit a finger in the area between all of our bumpers. 

At the very instant that we were past those two cars, I hauled the wheel left once more, braking just a touch. The van slipped directly between the last two vehicles that were in our way, coming so close that the sides of our vehicle crashed right through their mirrors, sending up a loud, protesting sound of screeching metal. It was a good thing this van was reinforced, or it probably would’ve fallen apart on us already. We were going to have to send a big thank you card to the guys Paige had hired to deliver it. Maybe even a gift basket of our own. 

Either way, we were through those cars. I had managed, however barely, to thread the needle between all of them. Now the cops and the Breakwater sedans were in each other’s way. I had no idea how that was going to go, and we weren’t sticking around to find out. Instead, I floored it once more, sending the van out the same driveway the cops had just come in through. To one side, I could see a bunch of students standing around the front and side doors of the school. The sun was just barely starting to come up, so just how early did they start classes around here? I had half a mind to send the school district a link to all the studies about how students should be getting more sleep than that. 

But uh, yeah that would probably have to wait. 

Of course, even with the cop cars and sedans needing to separate themselves and turn around, we still had the flying man to deal with. He came right over that whole mess, flew up a bit higher, and pointed some sort of rifle our way that he had pulled off one side of his jetpack. I wasn’t sure what it was, but still jerked the wheel to the left just as we hit the street. It was a good thing I did, because whatever the man was pointing at us sent a beam down that struck the chain-link fence there and ripped it halfway out of the ground. He fired again just as I shoved the wheel to the right, and a big blue mailbox was sent flying. It was some sort of magnetic cannon. Which was probably going to do bad things to our very-metal van if he managed to hit us. 

“Distract him!” I shouted toward Robert and Paige while thinking quickly. Okay, right, I knew what to do. The question was whether we could pull it off. Actually, that wasn’t a question. We had to, no matter what. So, while those two fired several shots to keep the flying man from getting a good aim at us with that magnetic cannon thing, I gritted my teeth and sent the van flying down the street once more. If I remembered the layout of this city from what I’d seen on the map right, there should be a good place for what I had in mind coming up in just a couple blocks. Assuming we made it that far. 

On the way, I used one hand to carefully pick Qwerty off my shoulder and bring him around to my face. “You said you could glide, right? Can you help us out here?” I didn’t feel great about sending the little guy into danger, but he really was our best shot of this.  

For his part, the tiny bird-squirrel bobbed his head rapidly and saluted. “Put me in, coach! I’m ready to kick some ass!” 

“Don’t worry, you won’t have to do much kicking,” I promised, just before twisting the wheel to send the van down the next street. It was a neighborhood on a steep hill, and I kept the pedal floored while telling our new TONI friend exactly what I needed. Beside me, Paige made a noise of uncertainty and apprehension, but didn’t say anything. Robert remained silent too, aside from reloading his gun to send several more shots at our friend with the jetpack, forcing the flier to pull back just a bit. 

While he was distracted with that, I put my left hand against the door and sent an orange line down under the seat and all the way through the front area where Paige and I had our feet. If this was going to work without tearing the whole van apart, we needed all the protection we could get. 

It was now or never. As we reached the top of the hill, I twisted the wheel to send us to the right, going through the backyard of one of the houses yet again. I really was a menace to property values. The van ripped through another fence, crushed a couple flower beds under our wheels, and completely destroyed a bird feeder while I continued to spin the wheel, sending us back through the yards of the same houses we had driven past a second earlier. But that was okay, in another second, we weren’t going to be in any yards anymore. We weren’t going to be on the ground anymore. 

“Hang on!” I shouted once again, gripping Qwerty in one hand while sending the van up over an incline on the side of the hill. With the roar of the engine, we shot out into open air, tore through some branches in a tree, and were suddenly face to face (err, face to windshield?) with the flying man. He definitely hadn’t been expecting that, and quickly dove to one side. But even as he went, I gave Qwerty a hard throw that way, out the window. The bird-squirrel spread his wings with a scream that seemed half-maniacal, half-joyous. He went flying right over the other man, took a sharp turn, and glided down after us. 

For our part, the van didn’t exactly stay in the air very long. Right after we passed our flying pursuer, we hit the ground. I activated the orange paint just in time, but we still landed pretty hard, crashing down onto the pavement at the base of the hill. Ahead of us, the cop cars and Breakwater people were still extricating themselves from that parking lot, with a lot of shouting and threats being hurled back and forth. 

Our flying man, meanwhile, had already inverted in the air. He lifted that magnetic cannon, ready to take advantage of the fact that we were momentarily motionless. But in that second, the crystal bomb thing that Paige had given me before I went into that house, the one I had handed Qwerty, exploded right where the TONI had tossed it. Namely, in the flying man’s pocket. A sudden electricity-draining pulse filled that hundred feet around the man. Not only did that kill the gun he was holding, it also drained whatever he was using to fly. The man dropped out of the sky, crashing and rolling along the ground. 

With the flying guy dealt with, and the cars back in the school lot still sorting themselves out, I reached out with one arm to give Qwerty a spot to land. He glided in, half-crashed into my hand before scrambling back inside, and blurted, “Now that’s falling with style, assholes! Whooo! Come get some!” 

“Can we get out of here now?” Paige pressed, eying the mess of cars across the way. 

“Yeah,” I agreed, already turning the wheel to head the other way. The street was completely clear ahead of us. 

“Trust me, I’ve had more than enough of this town for awhile.” 

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The Source 23-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Looking down at the tape recorder sitting there innocently in the middle of that open coffin, I had a few questions. Was this the great power Ehn had been talking about, the one all those ghosts and this entire chamber were set up to protect? This was… well, it wasn’t what I had expected, to say the least. And how had it even gotten here? It was absolutely from the future, there was no question about it. Sure, the Seosten and even plenty of other species that could be here on Earth at this time could have recording and playback technology. But not exactly like this. This was a full-on classic magnetic cassette tape recorder. Not digital, not some special alien technology or magic. It was a simple handheld tape recorder from like forty years in the past of my normal timeline and several hundred years ahead of this one. Hell, I could see the faded logo. 

“Well that’s not what we expected to see, huh?” Whispering those words very softly into the previously silent air as the almost entirely irrational fear that something dramatic would happen if I spoke too loudly and disturbed this thing filled my head, I glanced over to Percy, just in case she happened to be less taken aback than me. “Unless…” 

“I am surprised too, Flick,” she confirmed, talking in just as quiet of a voice. Like she too was afraid of waking it up or something. “That device is from the future. It shouldn’t exist in this time unless it was brought back and left. Why is it here? Why in a buried and guarded coffin like this?” 

“Good questions,” I muttered. “I’d really like to find out the answers myself.” 

Of course, curious and confused as I was, I didn’t just reach out to immediately grab the thing. I wasn’t that stupid. Instead, I very carefully checked around it for magic as well as actual physical traps. There were plenty of both. Which I set out to disable, though it took some tricky work for a few. Whoever had set up these traps really knew what they were doing. If I hadn’t had so many lessons from people like Wyatt, Shyel, Athena, Gaia, even Brom Bones and Doctor Manakel, I would’ve been pretty screwed. It required every lesson I knew from all of them on the subject to disable everything protecting this machine.

While I was doing that, Percy went over to stand under the hole where Cerberus was anxiously waiting, calling up to let him know we were okay and would be out soon. I also sent a few ghosts out to keep an eye on things, while keeping the others (including Doctor Manakel himself) to consult with about what I was actually doing. The old Seosten man watched me carefully, speaking up whenever he noticed anything or thought of something I could test for. Sure, maybe Ehn would consider getting help like that against his rules or whatever, but seriously, he wanted me because of my power, and this was part of my power. Not consulting with ghosts who knew more than I did about any given situation would have been idiotic. I thought Ehn was a lot of things, some worse than others, but I was pretty sure he was not idiotic. 

In any case, I was eventually as convinced as I could possibly be that it was safe to touch the recorder. And yet, even then, I didn’t do it myself. I was going to, but Ghost Kaleigh interrupted and pointed out that one of them should do it, since they were already dead. If we had messed up and missed something, it wouldn’t matter. Well, as long as whatever happened didn’t destroy everything in this cave or something. I didn’t like having my ghost take risks that I wasn’t, but Seth called me an idiot and pointed out that it was their choice. 

So, I moved to the opposite side of the room with Percy and we watched while ghost Kaleigh carefully picked up the recorder with some energy I gave her. There was a lot of tension as she lifted the thing out of the coffin, from the two of us as well as all the other ghosts who weren’t aboveground with Cerberus. I was holding my breath for those few seconds. And yet, nothing seemed to happen. I gave it a quiet ten count while Kaleigh carefully held the thing out, before exhaling as I slowly walked that way. “Okay, well, points to all of us for actually disabling all the traps, I guess. Good job, team.” I gave the assembled group a couple thumbs up (thumb ups? thumbs ups?) before holding my hand out so Kaleigh could pass over the tape recorder. 

“Okay, so… do we listen to it?” I wasn’t sure who I was asking, exactly. Or why I was bothering. Of course I was going to listen to it. There was no way I was going to hand this over to Ehn without knowing what was on it first. After all, he hadn’t told me not to. Mostly because he didn’t tell me it was a tape recorder to begin with. But whatever, the point was, I wouldn’t be breaking any of his rules by listening to what was on this thing right now. Even if the thought did make me nervous. I was absolutely certain this thing wasn’t here by accident. Someone had brought it back from the near present day and left it in this place. Whatever was on it was something that Ehn wanted. He said it was powerful. Information was powerful. But what sort of information could be on this thing that he saw as that important? 

I had to know. Even if it was something bad and I couldn’t actually stop him from taking it, I still had to at least be aware ahead of time. If knowledge was power, I wanted to find out exactly what sort of power Ehn was after in this case. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to find out just yet. Because just as my finger hovered over the play button, there was an odd creaking or groaning sound from above. I blinked up that way, just before Percy abruptly grabbed me and lunged away from that spot as the ceiling of the cave fell in. There was a trio of yelps from Cerberus, followed by a crash as the robot dog landed down in the cavern with us, sending up a spray of dirt in every direction. 

Before Persephone and I could move from where we had landed on the far side of the cavern, the robot dog was right there. He whined and barked alternatingly between all three heads, clearly afraid that he’d done something wrong and wanted to assure us that he didn’t mean to. 

“It’s–” I coughed, then tried again while extricating myself from Percy so I could reach up and rub the nearest head with both hands. “It’s okay, boy. It wasn’t your fault. I really didn’t think it was that unstable up… there…” I had to trail off in the middle of saying that, because something was happening in the now-wider opening that had been left behind when Cerberus fell in. The hole was covered by what looked like a red glowing circle. Worse, there was blood pouring out of the circle and down into this cavern. A lot of it. Way too much. 

“Okay, I was a bit of a glutton as a vampire and even I think that’s overboard,” Seth announced as he, Grover, Doctor Manakel, Kaleigh, Jason, Emily, and Chas flickered a little. There was a lot of Necromantic power fluctuations going on right then. “Where’s it coming from?” 

“Right now, I’m more interested in where it’s going,” I replied with a frown. “Namely, in this place.” The blood really was coming in quickly. Sure, this was a pretty big cavern, but still. It was rushing like a firehose. Or several fire hoses, rather. The red sticky puddle right where the coffin had been before Cerberus landed on it was already rapidly growing. Apparently there had still been some sort of trap somewhere that we missed. Or maybe it was just something that was going to happen when we moved the tape player no matter what. Either way, it was time to get out of here. Fortunately, I had an emergency teleportation spell for just this sort of situation–okay not just this sort. We absolutely had not considered something like this. But I had brought along a teleportation enchantment that would take me to anywhere within about five hundred feet, as long as I had physically stood in that spot before. It was basically meant as a way to let me quickly escape any sort of cage or trap. Percy, Cerberus and I would be out of here before that blood could even reach our shoes. 

Or… not? When I held out the stone in question and spoke the command word, we didn’t teleport. Instead, the stone itself sparked and then essentially blew up in my hand like a firecracker, making me yelp. 

“It is the energy,” Doctor Manakel noted while hovering a bit closer to the rapidly-expanding pool of blood with an intensely curious look, “the wild fluctuations of Necromantic power all over this chamber. It’s become even worse since this started. I’m sure you’ve felt it yourself. It will interfere with any magic you attempt to cast.” He waved a hand over the expanding pool while grimacing. “And I would not allow the blood to touch you. Unless you, for some unfathomable reason, have suddenly decided that you wish to melt yourself down into more of the same red puddle.” 

Right, well that was bad news all around. So I couldn’t use magic to get out of this place, and going through the pouring blood was out as well. I’d thought about sending an energy arrow from my bow that way to see if I could break the thing that was pouring it down here and make some sort of opening, but I wasn’t even sure it was solid. It kind of looked like a mix between glass and a portal, so it could go either way. And even if I did break it, that might just send the blood stuff spraying everywhere. Which felt like a bad idea now that I knew about the whole melting thing. 

Cerberus had already started backing up from the rising pool, all three of his heads whining as he backpedaled before reaching out with one of them to tug Percy back as well. For her part, Persephone looked at me and shrugged. “I can stand in the blood just fine. But I don’t know how that will get you out. Or Cerberus.” She looked back and forth between us while biting her lip thoughtfully. “Perhaps a teleportation spell cast from the outside will work better?”

My head shook. “The energy in this place will probably still throw it off.” A glance toward Doctor Manakel made the man give a subtle nod of agreement, so I continued. “We need another way.” I took a step back as the pool got near my shoes. It was time to think quickly. Turning, I looked at the dirt wall and frowned before pointing. “Cerberus, buddy, I know you’ve got all those handy zombie-killing lasers. Could you point them at that wall there? Spread them out to make an opening just a little bigger than you are.” By then, I had to step back again. This was getting more dangerous by the second. Pretty soon the whole floor was going to be covered with this stuff. If we didn’t get out of here soon, we were going to have to get creative about standing on things. And it wasn’t like there was an overabundance of stuff in here to do so with. 

Fortunately, Cerberus immediately took my instructions to heart. Turning to face the wall, he made all those snake-like tentacle things emerge from his back and spread out before they began firing tiny rapid lasers that way. Soon, dust filled the air as he created a hole right there. 

As he was doing that, I took another step out of the way while turning to my ghosts to ask them to deal with the next part. They agreed and I looked back the other way to see Percy already perched on top of Cerberus. She held a hand out to me with a bright smile. “Time to go now?” 

Accepting the hand, I nodded as she hauled me up behind her and settled into that spot on the robot dog’s back, with laser tentacles all around me. “Yep, time to go.” I shoved the recorder in my pocket, telling myself we’d listen to it as soon as we were safe. “All right boy, let’s hit it.” 

And boy did he hit it. Suddenly, Cerberus threw himself forward, right at the hole he had made. Percy and I both ducked down a bit just to be on the safe side, as our ride ran into his own makeshift tunnel. We would have been blinded and possibly choked (well, I would anyway) by the dirt filling the air from the continued lasers, as well as the heat they were giving off in these tight confines. But that was where my ghosts came in. They were spreading themselves out through the tunnel, using the energy I’d given them to become just sold enough to act as pseudo shields. Obviously, considering what he was meant for, Cerberus was capable of hurting ghosts with his lasers. But he wasn’t doing that now. The rapidly firing beams passed right through the ones in front, tearing up the dirt while leaving the ghosts unharmed. Their semi-transparent bodies kept the dust out of our eyes and helped contain the heat just a bit. Maybe it wasn’t quite how most Necromancers would have used an army of ghosts, but hey, I was working with what I had. 

Meanwhile, more of my ghosts were staying behind to pound at the ceiling of the tunnel and knock more dirt down behind us to stop the blood from following very easily. It would still probably get in through cracks, but at least that would buy us time. Every second counted right now, as Cerberus laser-tunneled us out of there. I’d told him to run forward for a ways before going up, just to make absolutely certain we were far from any other traps that might have been waiting for us on the surface. Because I really didn’t trust that whoever had set this up would’ve been satisfied with just the acidic blood pool. For all I knew, that was just meant to chase us out into something even worse.

So, we weren’t going to take any chances with that. Cerberus kept running for almost a full mile, lasers constantly chewing up the dirt and rock ahead of us to create the tunnel he was running through, while my ghosts kept pace on all sides. Finally, he started slanting the tunnel upward when I called out for it. Over the next hundred yards, he brought us up toward the surface, before finally breaking out into open air. With a dangerous snarl that was clearly meant to warn anyone around that he was not in the mood for any problems, Cerberus lunged out and skidded to a halt in the middle of a clearing. His heads were looking in every direction, as were his laser-tentacle things. Only once it looked like the area was clear did he slowly lay down to allow Percy and me to slide off. But he kept his lasers out, clearly not fully convinced the area was safe yet. 

For our part, Percy and I looked around intently as well, while my ghosts spread out to check the surrounding area. After a few moments, Grover came back and shook his head. “All clear, boss. Except for the other ghosts around here. They’re watching, but they don’t seem to be in much of a talkative mood. Pretty sure they just want to see what happens next, you know?” 

Yeah, I suppose I couldn’t really blame them for that. After all, protecting the thing in that coffin had been the whole reason they were here in this forest for all this time. Now I had it. What was going to happen then once we left with this tape player? Would they just disappear? What about that trap we had set off? Would that acidic blood just stay there? It probably wasn’t a good idea to leave it like that, in case someone stumbled over it. Which just made me picture some little kid falling into that hole and–uugggh, no. Maybe I could convince Ehn to do something about it. 

Right now, however, there was something more important to focus on. Namely, the tape player itself. I pulled it out of my pocket and examined the thing once more. I’d already gone over it before, of course, but still. I couldn’t be completely certain that touching this thing again wasn’t going to open up another acidic blood trap somehow. And yet, going over it with a fine-tooth comb yet again revealed nothing special. It was just a tape player.

“Are you going to listen to it, Flick?” Percy prompted anxiously as her eyes glanced between me and the thing in my hands. “I think you should before giving it to Ehn. Just in case.” 

Letting out a breath, I nodded. “Yeah, let’s see what we’re dealing with here.” With that, I held the thing up between us and pressed the play button. The tape spun up with a surprisingly loud whirring noise for a moment before a female voice began to speak. 

“So I’m not sure this’ll work or not, but here’s hoping it does. I mean, we still exist in this time, so it must work, or he would’ve–never mind. Let me start over. My name is Jaquelin Prose. I’m–I was part of Section Four. We help keep everyone safe from the Boschers, keep them hidden, give them government documents, citizenship papers, that sort of thing. Some of us are cops, firefighters, doctors, anyone who can help. But that’s not–it doesn’t matter. None of that matters. If you’re listening to this, you have to be the right person. You have to be. I don’t even–” There was a heavy sigh. “If you’re listening to this, you have to be the right person. And if you’re the right person, then it’s the right time. That’s… that’s how this is supposed to work, if we did everything right. Please, you have to go to the village you first saw when you arrived in this time period. You have to go now. There isn’t any time to spare. Go there right now and stop him. 

“If you don’t, history is going to change. And the Fomorians will get here hundreds of years before they’re supposed to.” 

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Together And Alone 27-11 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for this story posted a couple days ago that focuses on a look at a few Orb religions. If you haven’t seen that yet, you do so by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Okay, so the coast was clear for a minute. But apparently that wouldn’t last, so we had to get the machine out of this place and into the van before those reinforcements showed up. Especially if Robert was right about them being Touched reinforcements. I didn’t really want to try to fight people with powers when I couldn’t use mine effectively. Actually no, if it came down to that, I would have to stop holding back and use my powers the right way. Even if that did tell Breakwater more than I wanted. Sure, they couldn’t exactly inform the authorities that I was out of Detroit without exposing what they were doing, but even just letting Breakwater themselves know was probably too dangerous. I had enough problems without drawing that sort of heat down on myself. And something told me that they would be very interested in me if they knew I was the one trying to steal Pittman’s machine right out from under them.

So yeah, the best option right now was for us to get the hell out of here before those people showed up. Paige and I both sprinted through the house and out the front door. Thankfully, all the neighbors had already been escorted away from this place, so there were no onlookers to gawk and ask questions as we ran past the unmarked but official-looking Breakwater vans to our own. On the way, I gave those vehicles a quick look. There really was nothing on them showing where they were from, but they had clearly reinforced armor, along with police style lights. They would just look like ordinary SWAT vans to most people. Which I supposed made sense considering Breakwater wouldn’t want to let anyone know they were operating here. But had they gotten permission from the local authorities? Did the cops here even know anything about what was going on? I was pretty positive they didn’t know the whole story. No way would these Breakwater people trust local cops to keep their secret. But what had they told them? Either way, in a town like this, the whole situation was going to be big news. A whole neighborhood being evacuated? They would talk. And boy would that be a big thing around here. Over in Detroit, it probably wouldn’t even make the front page and would at most be a casually-mentioned three sentence thing at the end of a news broadcast. But in a place like this? They would be going over it for months. 

Actually, come to think of it, that was probably a big part of why they hadn’t sent Touched in here to grab the machine to start with. Not only because they thought it was going to be a simple smash and grab (Pittman’s defenses notwithstanding), but also because they didn’t want anyone who stood out with powers to be seen. Sure, they could hide what their powers really were so it would be harder to identify them specifically, but still. This whole bit had been the safest way for them to do it. At least until they found a few complications when they ran into us.

And speaking of creating complications for them, both Paige and I thought about doing something to the vans to stop them from following us or being used anytime soon. Unfortunately, according to the other girl, those tires were the reinforced type that wouldn’t be popped even from a bullet. 

Still, I had another idea. And with this one it wouldn’t matter how reinforced the tires or armor were. Quickly dropping onto my back with Paige right beside me, I extended my hands and took aim under all the vans before sending a spray of pink paint out over their axles. As soon as all of them had the pink spots, Paige fired her pistol repeatedly. Each bullet tore through that spot of pink that I had made and destroyed the axle on all of the vans. They wouldn’t be going anywhere. Which might also force them to try to explain things to the locals a bit more. I was just sorry I wouldn’t get a chance to see that. 

Paige also took the time to wirelessly hack into their vehicle cameras to erase them so they wouldn’t be able to see what we had done. It wouldn’t exactly be a great idea to do all this to hide who we were, then leave them camera footage of me using my paint power. 

Anyway, that was about as good as we could do with these things. And we didn’t want to take the time to try anything more elaborate. No, the trick now was to get out of here before this became an even bigger issue. So, we reached our own van and Paige hopped in the driver seat, with me right behind her on the other side. She spun the van around and then backed it right up over the curb to put the thing directly in front of the house. Even avoiding letting the wheels hit any of the traps I had marked out, we still ran over the grass and flower bed, but neither of us cared. The time for subtlety was completely gone. 

As soon as the van was in position, we both hopped out and ran inside. Robert was already downstairs, disconnecting the machine from the pipes in the ceiling and floor it had been connected to. We’d have to work out specifics about how this thing worked later. Or rather, Wren would with as much help as we could provide. Which just made me feel bad again about how much pressure we were putting on the poor kid. But what else were we supposed to do? She was the best shot we had at this. I was just going to have to make sure she knew how appreciated she was. 

The machine split apart into four pieces, each only about five feet wide and four feet tall. But that was still too big to just carry through the doorway and up the stairs. Or at least I thought it was. But a moment after the two of us arrived, Robert moved to the wall next to the entrance and pressed a hidden button there. As he did so, that whole section slid out of the way. Suddenly, we were looking at a doorway several times larger than it had been. Even the stairs were bigger. Or, more accurately, they had always been larger than they looked, but now there weren’t walls on either side to hide that fact. It was like whoever had built this place made a much larger stairwell and then positioned the walls to make it look smaller. I had no idea why they’d go to the effort of hiding the larger stairway, but now wasn’t the time to question it. Instead, I just moved to one of the machine pieces, secretly used a fair bit of hidden purple paint for strength, and lifted it up. 

Paige and Robert were already strong enough to each lift one of the pieces on their own, so we carried three of the four through the now-larger doorway and up the stairs. I just had to keep redoing the paint on myself every ten seconds, praying silently that we weren’t about to walk right into an army of Breakwater Touched. Please, just let them be a little slower. We could do this. We could get the hell out of here before they showed up. Because if fighting a bunch of superpowered people before hadn’t been my idea of a good time, doing so while holding the very machine they wanted to destroy was even worse. There was no way that would go well.

Fortunately, our luck seemed to hold for the moment. We rushed the pieces through the house and into the garage through another oversized doorway that Robert opened up. From there, we just had to hit the button for the garage door and carry the machine straight to the van. On the way, I found myself asking, “Hey, how did you know about the secret door things?”

He gave me a quick look, eyes seeming to look right through both my mask and my soul, before answering simply, “I had time to look around before you showed up. And let’s just say I have some experience finding and hiding that sort of thing.” 

Yeah, considering who he had worked for, I supposed he would. Which just made me think about how many secret doors were probably all around my own house. Maybe I should look into that. If I found anything and my parents caught me in the process, I’d just say I was exploring and play dumb. After all, it wasn’t like they expected me to actually know anything important.

By that point, we had reached the van. The other two waited while I quickly set my piece down and opened the back doors. Soon, we had all three of the pieces we’d carried up, and Paige said she was going back for the other one. 

As she disappeared back through the garage, I looked at Robert. There was so much I wanted to say at that moment, but I didn’t dare get into most of it. Instead, I asked, “What if the guys out back decide to start causing problems again? We were kind of in too much of a rush to secure them very well.” 

Again, he looked at me with a somewhat curious expression. It looked like he wanted to ask something, but wasn’t sure if he should. Finally, the man just replied, “Don’t worry about it, they’re not here anymore.” 

Okay, now I was really curious. And that just reminded me of the fact that there was no sign of the people out here in the front where he had been dealing with them. “What happened to those guys? What about the ones who were supposed to be out here? I don’t see anybody. It’s like you made them disappear.” Had he disintegrated the bodies or something? Please tell me he didn’t disintegrate them. I wasn’t sure how I would react to that sort of thing.

Looking down at his phone, Robert grunted. “Start the van,” he ordered. “We’re cutting it really close.” Then he seemed to come to a decision and looked at me while adding, “I used this.” He reached into the inside of his jacket and pulled out what looked like a simple pair of barber shears. “Press it against the back of a person’s neck and press the button for a second. It sends them a few hundred miles away. Stops them from being a problem for awhile.” 

Part of me wanted to ask where he got something like that from. Hell, another part of me wanted to just flat out ask if he was still working for the Ministry and how much he knew about my parents. After all, there were a hell of a lot of questions he could answer and blanks he could fill in. But this probably wasn’t the right time, even if I had wanted to expose that much to him. So, I shoved that down and quickly ran around the front of the van. Jumping in, I turned it on and looked up just as a truck came screaming around the corner. There was a guy standing up in the back with a rifle pointed our way, before he could get off a shot, Robert had his own pistol out and fired a single shot that caught the man and sent him flying out of the truck. Then he fired a couple more times at the driver, but the windows appeared to be bulletproof.

Leaning on the horn, I watched as the truck went skidding sideways across the street. There! Paige finally emerged from the garage, carrying the last piece of the machine. With Robert covering her, she shoved the thing in, then the two of them hopped up, closing the doors behind them while both shouted, “Go!” 

Right, it was way past time to get the hell out of here. Shifting into drive just as I heard Paige say something about reconsidering this, I hit the gas. The van leapt forward off the grass and tore through part of the fence in the process of slamming down onto the street. Shouting for the two in the back to hold on, I kept the pedal pressed down. Instead of turning left or right once I reached the pavement, I just sent the van straight across and up into the yard of the person across the street. 

Robert and Paige, of course, had loud opinions about this. But I ignored them because they weren’t exactly helpful. I knew what I was doing. Angling the van at the fence in the neighbor’s yard, I plowed through it and straight over their front lawn, past the side of the house, and into the back yard. I had to swerve to the left to avoid a swingset, but we made it to the back fence and went through that as well. Only then did I violently shove the wheel to the left, coming out onto a rear alley that I had known was there from our research into this place. The Breakwater people might have put up some sort of traps on either end of the regular street, but it was less likely that they would have covered the alley back here.

As we reached the end of that alley, I gave the wheel a jerk to the right to send us out onto the next street over and kept my foot firmly on the gas. We went up over a curb and actually got airborne. In the back I could hear Robert grunt a little while Paige made a noise in the back of her throat that seemed to be a mix of worry and reluctant enjoyment. It was like she was having fun with this, but was afraid of letting me know that in case I used it as an excuse to do something even more wild.

Then there was the loud exuberant cry of, “Whoooooooo!” That was… unexpected. Especially since it seemed to be coming from directly above us, outside of the van. Twisting my head to look at the ceiling, I reflexively hit the brakes. That exuberant cry got even louder as a very small figure flew forward into view past the windshield. I couldn’t pick out many details, but it was pretty tiny and colorful. At the last second before it hit the pavement, wings extended from the thing and glided it to the ground. A long bungee cord of some kind lay draped over the windshield from where it was hooked onto the luggage rack on top.

Paige and Robert were both blurting questions while I quickly shifted the van into park and jumped out. A quick glance showed that I was right about the bungee cord being hooked onto the van. The opposite end, laying near the front bumper, had a makeshift handle on it. It was like someone had been using our van’s momentum to parasail. Someone very small.

With that realization, I quickly ran to the figure I had seen while Robert and Paige jumped out the back. Now, as I approached, I had my first decent look. It was a small, yet colorful creature that was maybe about eight or nine inches long, plus a big fluffy tail almost the same length. The thing appeared to be covered in bright red, green, and blue fur. But it also had a pair of feathery wings that were equally colorful. As it rolled over and groaned a little, I could see that his face was mostly that of a squirrel, but with a small beak. 

Laying there splayed out on the ground, this strange creature lifted its hand and gave me a thumbs up. “That… was… awesome. Let’s go back and do it again.”

Paige, who had come right up beside me by that point, blinked a couple times. “Did you switch brains with that creature or something?”

Ignoring that, I crouched down. “Hey, are you okay? What–uhh, who are you?” I wanted to ask why it looked like a hybrid of a bird and a squirrel, but I wasn’t sure how to do so without being offensive.

The creature finally focused on me and offered a broad smile. “Hey, you’re the driver! You’re awesome. Hi!” Jumping to his feet (the way he had been sprawled out before belatedly made me realize for certain that he was a boy), he announced, “The name’s Qwerty. I’ve been so freaking bored around here, but then I saw what you guys were doing and I knew you’d be making a fast getaway, so I hitched a ride. At first I was just using that bungee to hold on, but then you started going so fast so I had to try letting my wings out, and whooooosh!” He opened his feathery wings to indicate what had happened. “It was totally awesome and I wanna do it again. Can we do it again, please, please, please? I haven’t been able to figure out how to fly properly with this body yet, just glide. That was the closest I’ve ever gotten. At least, this version of me.”

Paige was the first to find her voice. “Are you a bird or a mammal?” Apparently she didn’t have a problem sounding awkward with questions like that. “And why are you called Qwerty?” 

Qwerty scuffed a bit. “Why, I’m both! One of me was a parrot and the other was a squirrel. We both touched this orb thing at the same time and then we were smart and also me. Both of them turned into me. Just one brain. I guess you could say I’m a flying squirrel!” His ears drooped a little. “Except the part where I can only glide. Oh and I’m Qwerty because I found out I could read when I saw this little broken computer in the garbage and Q-W-E-R-T-Y were the first letters I read on the keyboard.” 

I had so many questions right then. Unfortunately, now definitely wasn’t the time for them, considering the sound of screeching tires we could hear from down the street. My head jerked that way in time to see five dark sedans approaching rapidly. “Those probably aren’t the local neighborhood watch.” 

Robert straightened and turned, firing three quick shots from his pistol that made the cars swerve just a little, but they were still coming. “Get back in the van,” he ordered. 

Well there was no way I was leaving this poor guy here to get run over. “Come on, Qwerty, time to go,” I quickly said while putting both hands down in a cupped position. He climbed onto them, then ran all the way up my arm to perch on my shoulder with his wings tucked in close against his back. 

I jumped in the front, with Paige right beside me while I started the van once more. In the rearview, I could see the sedans getting closer. Worse, there was a figure flying just above them. A Touched of some sort. 

“Hey look,” Qwerty noted while turning around to look out through the back window of the van. “That guy figured out how to fly. I wonder if he’d give me lessons.”

“Let’s not ask him,” I replied while flooring the gas once more to send the van screaming down the street with the sedans and flying man in hot pursuit.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” our new tiny friend agreed. 

“He looks like a jerk.”

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The Source 23-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium yesterday focused on a look at a few Orb religions. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it right here

It wasn’t that often that my habit of dropping myself into the dark unknown to face certain danger was quite so literal. In this case, I was falling through the inky-black void into some sort of underground cave to find a coffin that was definitely being guarded by some sort of powerful force. Sure, the ghosts outside had decided I was okay and actually led me here. But that didn’t mean that whatever was in this place would agree with that assessment. Or that it wouldn’t just decide to test me in its own way. A way that could be pretty nasty. I had to be ready for anything. 

Even as I fell, I held up my staff with one hand and triggered a slight boost from it to slow my descent. At the same time, my other hand touched a spot on my leg, activating a spell I had already placed there. Immediately, the dark vision magic kicked in, and I could see. Which gave me a really good view of the massive cavern I was in. This place was positively enormous. I had already fallen about twenty feet, and there was still another thirty to go. From one wall to the other was about three hundred feet across. And it was empty. Just a big empty dirt cavern with no apparent tunnels or anything else.

Persephone hit the ground far ahead of me, straightening up without any apparent reaction to having fallen for over fifty feet. Then again, I’d already seen her fall from orbit without being remotely bothered by the impact, so this wasn’t exactly a surprise.

Landing next to the Revenant, I turned in a quick circle, staff up as I scanned the cavern. I was searching with both my eyes and my other senses, including my necromancy. I tried to detect any death energy, but it didn’t help. Not because there wasn’t a response, but because there was too much of one. There was death energy everywhere in this place. The whole cavern and area around it was completely drenched in the stuff. It was like looking for light while standing in the middle of the sun.

Grimacing, I looked at Percy and quietly asked, “You see anything special?”

Her head shook. “No, Flick,” she informed me quietly without actually looking my way. She was too busy continuing to scan the cave. “I don’t see anything. But there’s a lot of necromancy power in here.”

“Tell me about it,” I murmured. And the fact that she didn’t immediately start doing so said a lot about how accustomed she was to being around us by that point. 

Okay, this was weird. From what I’d heard from the ghosts combined with what I’d sensed, I really expected to find something more than an empty cavern in here. Especially considering Elsworn had said there would be other tests and challenges. Sure, the place was big, but there was nothing here. Unless the coffin was buried underground? I really wasn’t sure. And with the overwhelming amount of death energy I could feel, it wasn’t going to be as simple as sensing where the coffin was and digging it up. I didn’t really have time to go over every inch of this place. Hell, it was even worse considering this thing wasn’t necessarily in the ground. Maybe it was buried in one of the walls, or even the ceiling itself. Nor did I know for sure how deep it might be, wherever side of the cavern it was on.

No, there had to be a better way to deal with this. First, I started walking. With my staff held up defensively, I paced the whole cavern one step at a time, moving from one side to the other repeatedly, each time moving a few steps over. I was trying to see if my item sense would pick up the coffin in the ground below. Sure, it was a long shot, but it was better than trying to just dig randomly. The very thought of that possibility made me feel tired. 

Percy stayed a few feet away, following me the whole time while watching my back. The two of us were ready for anything to jump out or suddenly appear, but it never did. I walked that entire cavern as quickly as possible, and nothing happened. Nor did I sense the coffin anywhere below me. Again, not surprising, but I would’ve kicked myself if I didn’t try that first and it ended up working. Either the thing was too far down, or it was shielded from my senses. Or, I reminded myself, it was in one of the walls too high up for my sense to reach. If I had to cover every inch of those… we were going to be here for even longer. 

Right, that didn’t work. What now? Crouching down in the middle of the cavern once more with my staff held against the dirt, I frowned and tried to think. I couldn’t find the coffin by sensing for it, and there was no way I could just dig this whole place up. There had to be something else I could do. 

Hold on, maybe there was. Looking at my staff again, I switched it into the bow form. Then I drew a concussive energy arrow, took aim toward the far end of the cavern, and released it. The arrow hit the ground a few feet from the wall and sent a shower of dirt everywhere. 

Percy had already jumped to her feet, looking for a threat. Belatedly, I assured her it was okay. Then I adjusted my aim, drew another arrow, and released it. Again there was a shower of dirt and a small indentation in the ground. I repeated that over and over again, charging my bow when I needed to. I sent a couple dozen arrows through the cavern that way, constantly sending dirt flying in every direction.

Looking around at the holes I had made, Percy grimaced. “I’m very sorry to say this, Flick, but I really don’t think you’ll be able to dig up this cavern with your bow.”

Giving her a small smile, I shook my head. “That’s not what I was doing,” I assured her. “See, I figured this coffin has to be protected by more than just dirt. And what’s the best way to protect something when you can’t stand in front of it the whole time?” As I was talking, I had walked about fifteen feet to the left, near one of the holes I made with my bow. My foot reached out to brush some dirt that was seemingly floating in midair, on an invisible shield. “A forcefield.”

That had been my plan. I spaced my arrows just about as far if any area had some sort of protection on it. Creating holes all over the cavern and allowing the dirt to fly into the air before dropping back down revealed the spot where the invisible shield was. The blast created a hole and the flying dirt landed on top of the forcefield that had previously been underneath it. 

Percy clapped, making a slight blush cross my face as I crouched by the shield. Tapping the dirt around it to find the edge, I brushed more away without actually touching it. I wasn’t sure how the forcefield would react to that, and didn’t want to risk some sort of violent response. 

Fortunately, I had a thing for this too. Thanks to all my magical training with so many impressive people, I had a lot of spells in my repertoire. Which included one from Wyatt. I didn’t have Tabbris and her perfect memory, but I did have the book I’d written many spells down in, so I summoned that from the storage space in my pocket and flipped through it to find the right one. Soon, I was using my image inscription power to draw on a blank metal tablet from the same storage space.

Percy watched the whole time, very curious about what I was doing. So, I explained, talking her through the whole thing before setting the readied spell tablet next to the shield. It took about five minutes to do, but when I was done and activated the thing, all the runes I had drawn on the thing vanished. A moment later, they were gradually replaced by more writing, this time in English. It was the details of this shield. Wyatt had taught me a spell to identify magic. I wasn’t as good at it as him or even Koren, but I could do this much. Even if it did make me want to close my eyes and take a little nap. Had it really been this long of a day? The thought of doing even more made me yawn before forcing myself to focus. 

Picking up the tablet once it was done being filled out, I studied the description. “Okay, it’s a powerful shield, too strong for me to break just by hitting it. Or both of us for that matter. It’s draing power from something below, nothing I can reach and not death energy so I can’t just pull it out. Damn, I was really hoping it would be that simple.” Ugh, even with my level of stamina, this situation was exhausting. 

Shaking that off, I continued. “We can’t just dig down under it and then over, because it’s a bubble. Judging from this, I’d say the bubble’s about twice the size of a coffin. Though now that I say that out loud, they never actually said it was a human coffin, did they? It could be one for a bigger species. Or a smaller one for that matter.”

Straightening up, I paced slowly around the whole forcefield, frowning thoughtfully. “It’s too strong to beat by force, too advanced to disable with any little tricks, I can’t just drain the energy out of it… There has to be another way to turn this thing off.”

None of these spells I had access to would be enough to stop this thing. So if I couldn’t get past it that way then I had to… what? Frowning thoughtfully, I continued to stare at the dirt sitting on the invisible shield for another minute while mulling the problem over in my head. There had to be a way to get past this without taking days to do it. I just had to figure that out. I could do this. Just think, Flick. Calm down and think it through. 

So, I did. Closing my eyes, I rocked back on my heels, still crouched in front of the thing. My lips moved silently as I talked to myself inside my own head, weighing options back and forth. Through it all, Percy remained silent, watching me as I thought it through. This forcefield was so strong. How was it possible that it could just sit here for all this time and have a shield that was so effective?

As soon as I had that thought, my eyes opened. It wasn’t possible. No matter who would put this thing here, I refused to believe that they would make a shield draw that much power constantly. If they were good enough to make a shield like this, then they were good enough to not waste so much energy and effort. Why would they need to? The shield only needed to be here if someone was about to get to the coffin. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time this thing was just sitting here in the ground. Hell, as far as I understood from the ghosts outside almost no one ever got this far anyway. So having the shield be here like this all the time would have been an absolutely colossal waste of power. I didn’t think whoever had set this up would do it like that. Especially when I thought about how long this coffin was supposed to be here. This wasn’t a short-term thing. The person or people who had set this up wanted it kept safe… maybe forever. Definitely centuries at the very least. They wouldn’t have made it constantly take so much power. And honestly, I didn’t think there were many things in the universe that could keep a shield like this going for so long anyway. If there was, that probably would have been more of a prize than whatever was actually in the coffin.

With all that in mind, I straightened up and looked around once more, feeling that Necromantic energy still flooding the chamber. That was the hint. That was what I was supposed to do. 

Moving over to Percy, I took her hand and told her what I was doing. She gave me a broad smile before offering her other hand. Then, I closed my eyes and focused on the energy around us. I pulled it closer, wrapping the energy around us like a thick cloak. Because that’s essentially what it was, in every sense of the word. I was cloaking us in that energy, covering every inch of our forms with that death magic. 

It took several minutes of just standing there holding the energy tightly against the two of us. But finally, it worked. The dirt lying on top of that invisible shield fell. The shield was gone. 

The truth was that I had been slightly wrong when I said that the shield was being projected by the energy source inside. Well, not wrong, but I didn’t have the whole story. The thing inside was projecting the shield, but it was doing so by drawing power out of Percy and me, magical power. In much the same way as how the Bystander Effect drew energy from the humans it was affecting, this thing took energy from the two of us to power itself. It was pretty brilliant that way, honestly. The thing inside the shield took our energy. That was why I had been feeling more tired than I should have, even with my stamina boosts. That way, no matter how much magical power someone had, they would never have enough to break through the shield. Because it was draining their energy to fuel itself. I had no doubt that the thing was set up to drain even more magical energy if someone was actively using magic. That was why simply making that spell-identification tablet had been so tiring when it really shouldn’t have been. It took far more of my energy to do so. Someone trying a huge spell to break through the shield would definitely knock themselves out in the process. 

Which was where the death energy came in. I had considered just using a bunch of magic to exhaust my reserves enough to make the shield drop, but I was pretty sure that would’ve left me in a coma or something considering this thing was draining so much power even from me using a minor spell. Instead, I had completely covered us in that death magic, essentially to hide us from the thing that was draining our energy. I made a thick cloud of the energy that was already here to disguise my own power. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if that would have worked if I hadn’t been a Necromancer and Percy a Revenant. Our own power was already so close to matching what was in the chamber that I was able to hide us. And it had worked. The thing inside thought we were gone and it turned off the shield. Or it just didn’t have any more power to keep it up without actively draining us. Either way, it was off. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t be certain how long I would be able to keep hiding us before the thing inside would notice and put the shield up again. So, I had to move quickly. To that end, Percy and I carefully moved right over to where the shield had been and I let go of her hands to lay down on that spot, pressing my face right into the dirt as I focused on my item sense. Please, please be within range of– yes, there it was. I felt the coffin just a few feet below, with a crystal sitting on top of it. That had to be the source of the shield, the thing that had been draining our energy. I couldn’t sense what was inside the coffin itself. Either it was empty or the contents were still shielded.

Straightening to my feet and positioning my staff right over the spot, I summoned Gus and Jaq from their little storage space and waited until they were in position. Gus, my grapple-mouse, was pointed straight down. As soon as he was ready, I took a deep breath before stabbing down into the dirt with as much strength as I could muster, backed up by a slight concussive boost from the other end. The staff was driven hard into the ground, and I felt the grapple open up to catch hold of the crystal down there. Then I yanked it out and spun, giving the crystal a toss as hard as I could away from this spot before it could activate the shield again. 

Of course, I didn’t want to lose access to something that could be useful, so I didn’t let the crystal just shatter against the ground or wall. Instead, I used my five second freeze power to stop it in midair once it was far enough away that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, jogged that way, and took hold of the thing. It was almost hot to the touch, so I quickly put inside one of my extra-space storage bags to keep it safe. I’d look it over more closely later. 

With that done, I went back over to the spot where the hole from my staff was. Percy and I exchanged a look before I reached into another storage bag and pulled out two shovels. Again, these were a product of Wyatt insisting on equipping me for every possible situation. Also, just because I thought it was funny, I’d had both shovels autographed by Gabriel Prosser. 

The two of us dug up the coffin. It was a hell of a lot easier without that spell draining my energy, that was for sure. Still, I was sweating as we finally got all the dirt out of the way and stared at the thing we had uncovered. It was a normal, human sized coffin like any other, though maybe a bit more ornate. Come to think of it, the thing looked more modern than it should have. This definitely wasn’t just some random pine box they tossed a body in. Whoever was buried in this thing was important. 

Before doing anything else, I carefully checked the whole thing over for more traps or tricks. There were about a dozen of them, and I took the time to disable each. Then I went over it again just to be certain, or at least as certain as I could be. When I was relatively convinced that it was safe, I nodded to Percy. She took one side of the coffin while I took the other, and we hoisted it out of the hole. The two of us shoved the thing out onto open ground before clambering up to kneel by it. 

Now was as good a time as ever, so I grabbed the lid and started shoving it up. It was locked, but that didn’t last long against my strength. With a grunt, I forced it open, braced myself, and peeked into the coffin. 

I had entertained many different thoughts about who or what could have been inside this thing, what Ehn would have considered ‘source of great power.’ Some of those thoughts were a fair bit more wild and ridiculous than others. But out of everything I had considered as a possibility, none came close to the truth. Because when I looked into the open coffin, the only thing I could see… was a nineteen eighties style tape recorder. 

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Together And Alone 27-10 (Summus Proelium)

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So wasn’t this just absolutely fantastic? Paige and I had come all this way to get this machine so we could force Pittman to tell us how to save her sister, my parents, and all the others. And now it turned out we were going to have to fight a bunch of people from the very same prison that had been meant to stop that son of a bitch from doing this sort of thing in the first place. Granted, I had fantasized about punching those people repeatedly for their complete and utter failure to do their jobs, but not quite like this. Somehow, I wasn’t sure I would actually get any satisfaction this way. For one thing, the people I really wanted to punch were those in charge, not the grunts they sent to clean up their mess. Something told me the people out there weren’t making the real decisions. They were just going to get kicked in the head for them. Which seemed to be about typical. 

While I was processing that, Robert was still looking at the video feed on his phone to check what the people out there were doing as they evacuated everyone from the neighborhood and surrounded the house. He checked his pistol and then glanced at us, his voice flat. “I’d say stay here, but they’re coming from the back too and I can’t be everywhere at once. I’ve seen how both of you move, and I’ve seen how good you are. If they get to this machine it’s over. You got this?” 

Oh right, that was another thing. I needed to do all of this without openly and obviously using my powers. Not only because I didn’t want Robert to realize I was Paintball, since that would open a whole can of worms about being a girl, but also because I didn’t want the people out there to realize that Paintball had left Detroit. Yeah, this was even more complicated than I’d thought. 

Still, at least these people weren’t expecting to run into us. We had the element of surprise. Plus, just because I couldn’t openly use my powers didn’t mean I couldn’t find sneaky ways of doing so. That whole thing at the fast food place had shown us that much. I could work with this. 

Pushing all those thoughts out of my head, I gave the man a nod. A dozen things to say came to mind, but most of them were jokes and I still didn’t trust how much I could say in front of him without giving away my identity. Was it weird to think that if I said more than a few sentences around Robert then he would immediately know exactly who I was? He hadn’t even been around me or talked to me or anything for like half a decade. And even when he had been, I was just some kid he was playing bodyguard and driver for. There was no way he’d recognize me.

And just why in the hell did that thought make me sad?

There was too much going on for me to spend any time dwelling on stupid and confusing things like that. So I pushed them out of my head while Paige answered for us. “Yes, we’ll handle the ones coming in from the back. That is, if you can take the front.” 

Starting toward the steps, Robert replied in a soft voice. “I suggest you use whatever toy that one has that let her make a hole in that ceiling to go out the back.” He nodded to me, making me belatedly realize that he hadn’t actually seen the pink paint, which explained why he didn’t have any questions on that front. All he knew was that I’d made a hole in the floor above. 

“Watch your backs,” the man continued. “If you need help, shout.” He paused at the bottom of the staircase and looked back at us with a clearly reluctant frown. It was obvious that he really didn’t like the idea of sending us out there, but couldn’t come up with anything better given the situation. “Just be careful,” he reminded us after a brief moment. “These people aren’t playing around. They’re here to cover up something incredibly embarrassing for their employers, which could potentially cost them billions of dollars. They’re not going to stop for anything. You can’t negotiate with them unless you can outbid Breakwater. And they’re not quite that bad off yet.”

Yeah, my allowance wasn’t that big, even if I had been comfortable exposing who my family was. Even combined with Paige, that might be a problem. So, the two of us just nodded and watched as he went up the stairs with an added warning to wait until we heard his signal before making our own move.

Once he was gone, Paige looked down at her own phone, and I realized she had tapped into the same video feed Robert was watching, the one showing all the Breakwater agents gathering up around the house. Did he know she’d done that? 

Looking over at me, Paige spoke quietly. “Looks like they’re about to move. You ready?” 

I knew what she was really asking. She wanted to know if I was actually going to do this without openly using my powers. I could hear the warning in her voice, as well as the promise that if things went wrong and I had to use them, had to expose that much, she would have my back. 

How exactly I read that much in just a couple words like that was a mystery, but there we were.

“Yeah,” I replied simply, looking up toward the hole in the ceiling. “Let’s do this.” Activating the blue paint I’d put on the bottom of my shoes while simultaneously leaping, I flew right up through the opening, landing back in that bedroom that was on the other side of the stairs. Paige leapt up right after me, and the two of us glanced carefully out the window there overlooking the backyard. Sure enough, what appeared to be a fully armed and armored SWAT team was carefully approaching the building. It looked like they were doing the same thing I had been, checking for traps. Which had at least bought us some time. 

“I’m surprised they don’t know we’re in here,” I murmured. “You’d think they’d have heat sensors and stuff in those helmets, considering what they’re supposed to deal with.” 

“The house is shielded,” Paige informed me, speaking just as quietly. “None of that sort of tech can see into it. Trust me, I tried.” 

Yeah, that made sense, now that I thought about it. Of course Pittman wouldn’t want it to be that easy for the place holding his ticket out of Breakwater to be raided. But really, that also just raised the question of why there weren’t actual Biolem defen– oh, Robert had dealt with them, of course. Honestly now I was just wondering what he’d done with them.

But now wasn’t the time to think about that. Fortunately, I was able to multitask and had been covering every bit of the inside of my clothes with as much paint as I could. At the same time, I put a hand on Paige’s sleeve, then the side of her leg to give her some paint under her clothes as well, just in case. The two of us peeked out either side of the window once more and compared that with the camera feed on her phone. I hoped Robert was ready on his side, because we were already cutting it close. Those guys were halfway across the yard. We had to get out there right now if we were going to stop them from getting in the house. Otherwise it would become even harder to keep them away from the machine.

Of course, we weren’t just going to go barging out the back door. We weren’t that stupid. Instead, I used pink paint on the ceiling of that room and we went up to the second floor, then again to get onto the roof. By the time we were up there, the troops outside were approaching the back patio. There were a dozen of them, and they all had their guns raised and pointed at the building. One guy in the back kept checking some sort of wristwatch he was wearing, calling out whenever they got anywhere near any of the traps buried in the ground so they could step around them. But even more than that, any time he called out, a little laser pointer thing shot out of the watch, hit the part of the ground where the trap was, and made a sort of small, one foot high glowing flag marker thing on it so they’d know where they couldn’t step. Which made me briefly consider the idea of setting them off intentionally to stop those guys, but I wasn’t sure how lethal the traps would be. Besides, there was always the chance that something could happen to the machine if it detected those traps going off. After all, it was a teleportation machine. Maybe it would just disappear. Then this whole situation would be for nothing. 

So, unfortunately, I had to put that brief thought out of my mind. From the hard stare Paige was giving the marked spots, I was pretty sure she was going through a similar process. We both exchanged glances while simultaneously realizing the same thing. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t use the traps to make taking these guys out easier. We also had to avoid accidentally setting them off at all during this fight for the same reason. If we hit someone and they fell on a trap, that could screw this whole thing up and make the machine disappear too. But we also couldn’t risk letting them get into the house because the machine could even end up being damaged that way.

All of which meant this was going to be even trickier than I’d thought. We had to keep them out of the house, we couldn’t let them hit any of the traps (or hit any ourselves), and I had to do all of it while handicapped by not using my powers to their full extent. And without giving away that I was Paintball in any other way. 

On the plus side, I didn’t have time to worry about that too much. Because right as I was wondering just how badly this was going to go, the gunfire started out front. Which I was going to go out on a limb and guess was the signal from Robert. A signal that gave us a quick opening as the guys on the grass below reflexively looked toward the sound of those gunshots. So every doubt and uncertainty I had was shoved aside. Whatever we were going to do had to happen right now, before the Breakwater troops recovered.

Slapping a hand against Paige’s back, I activated one of the orange boosts I’d given her and blurted, “Go!” 

She went. Taking a few steps back to give herself a running start, the blonde girl hurled herself off the roof. Her leap was belatedly followed by more gunshots. Only these ones came from right below us. Yeah, we definitely had their attention. 

My first instinct was to throw myself right after Paige, but I stopped myself and waited for two seconds first. I wanted to give the guys down there time to turn toward the spot where she landed instead of jumping right into view while they still had their guns raised at that same spot. That seemed like a good way to get shot about a dozen times. Which, orange paint or not, wouldn’t be much fun. 

On the other hand, letting Paige get hurt wouldn’t be fun either. So, after two seconds that felt like thirty, I launched myself off the roof as well, activating a bit of orange and green paint as I went, while also activating blue paint on my shoes at the last second just to get even more momentum. 

Paige was already on the ground in the middle of the yard, ripping one of the rifles out of a man’s grip while simultaneously kicking another man in the stomach with enough force to make his body fold in on itself as he fell over. And sure enough, the other troops scattered across the yard had pivoted that way, already taking aim. Which meant the two directly below the roof had their backs to me, a fact they would quickly regret as I slammed into both of them from behind. They were standing close enough together that I hit one with both knees while slamming my arms into the guy next to him. Thanks to my green speed combined with being launched by the blue paint on my shoes, I crashed into the two hard enough to knock them down despite my frankly diminutive height. And thanks to the orange protection, I didn’t break half the bones in my body doing so. They, on the other hand, weren’t about to get up in a hurry. I might’ve only weighed like a hundred pounds, but taking a hundred pound cannonball to the back, even with body armor, was probably enough to make most normal people have to lay down for a minute. 

Twelve troops to start and I had just knocked two of them down, right after Paige had already kicked a third while ripping the gun away from a fourth. And while I had taken these two guys to the ground, she had flipped that gun around to slam the butt of it into the faceplate on the helmet of the man she took it from. That guy started to stumble backward before Paige caught his arm, yanking him away from the trap he had been about to step on. She hauled him forward, throwing his rifle overhand to hit another guy’s gun while he was lining up a shot. 

A bullet hit my shoulder from the far side of the porch even as I was picking myself up. The guy there had adjusted faster than I’d expected. Fortunately, the orange paint meant it felt like getting hit with a thrown rock instead of a bullet, but still. I managed to restrain my yelp while pivoting that way. My foot lashed out, kicking the rifle that one of the men had dropped. It went flying that way, making the guy who had shot me recoil reflexively as it crashed into him.  

At the same time, another guy was coming up behind me. I heard him approach, the way his heavy boots sank into the grass and dirt, the way his clothing and body armor rustled in the air, his grunt as he reached out to grab me. But I wasn’t there anymore. Even as my foot came down from kicking the rifle into the other guy, I pivoted on it to twist away from this guy’s grasp. My hands caught his outstretched arm, and I activated hidden purple paint to give myself enough strength to yank him off balance. He stumbled forward and I brought my right foot into the back of his leg to knock him down to his knees right in front of me. 

Before he could recover, I hopped up, planted my left foot against the back of his neck, and kicked off him to send myself right into the guy who had been a few steps over, sighting in on me with his weapon. He dropped his gun and caught me in reflexive surprise, just before I brought both arms down on his shoulders with all the purple-enhanced strength I could muster. That was enough to make the man fall to one knee, allowing my feet to touch the ground so I could grab the front of his helmet, yanking the thing with enough force to pull it off his head. Which meant his face was exposed to my rising knee. 

Blood. There was blood on my knee from where I’d hit the guy’s nose. It was probably broken. Which I felt a little guilty about, but not too much. He recoiled as I released him. But again, before he could fall, I yanked him away from the nearby trap. It wasn’t marked by their laser thing, but I knew it was there. 

Activating another set of purple, green, and orange paint, I stepped aside while shoving the guy over to land on top of the one I had kicked off of to throw myself into this one’s arms. The two of them got tangled up with each other, buying me a couple seconds. Which I used to glance quickly toward Paige so I could activate the same trio of paints for her. 

By that point, the other girl had already put three more guys down. That meant, of the twelve we started with, she’d dealt with five of them. Meanwhile, the two guys I had crashed into weren’t going to be getting up any time soon. And as for the two who were now tangled up and scrambling to separate themselves, I took three quick steps that way and snapped my right foot out, kicking the guy who still had his helmet in the back of it hard enough to knock it into the face of the one who didn’t. Given that guy already had a broken nose, it probably wasn’t much fun. Both of them were definitely cursing up a storm, but weren’t about to jump up again. Nine down, three left. 

One of those three was the guy who had shot me, just now recovering from the gun I had kicked at him. He was already taking aim to shoot me again, but I dove forward and threw myself into a roll while he shot right over my head. As I came out of it barely a foot from one of the trap markers, I was hurling the helmet I’d taken from the other guy that way. It collided with the gunman’s own helmet, and by the time he’d recovered from that, I had already launched myself off the ground, over the trap, and collided with him. He fell against the wall of the house while I ripped the gun out of his hands, pivoted, and slammed the thing into the side of his helmet. That was enough to knock him down, and the follow-up smack into the back of his head from his own weapon made sure he stayed there. 

Two left, and we had thus far managed to avoid setting off any of the traps. I kept hearing gunshots from out front, but all I could do on that was hope Robert was okay. There wasn’t time to focus on anything more than that, considering one of those two remaining guys was coming straight at me. 

He wasn’t using his gun. Instead, he had some sort of electrified baton, snarling a nasty curse as he lunged in to swing at my throat. I still had a bit of time left on my green, enough to barely lean back and turn my head so the baton went right past my cheek. He tried to snap it back to crash into my neck from that side, but I ducked and let it sail over the back of my head. Then my right arm went up, catching his wrist as he brought the baton back for a third swing. Even with my purple-strength, the guy very nearly knocked my arm out of the way and hit me with the baton anyway. It was all I could do to keep myself in place. But I managed it before quickly driving my left fist as hard as I could into his elbow. It was enough to make him drop the baton. Which I caught with my right hand and drove up into his exposed armpit, a spot that wasn’t covered by armor. There was a trigger thing on the handle of the baton, so I pushed it down, sending a jolt of electricity into the man. He scream-cursed at me while spasming a bit before hitting the ground. 

And just like that, it was over. Well, close enough. Not all these guys were knocked out or anything, but they weren’t going to be jumping up to do jumping jacks (or run into the house to blow up the machine) anytime soon. Paige had already put the last one down, leaving the guy holding his stomach and groaning painfully. 

The two of us looked at each other for a second, took in the sight of these guys, then turned quickly to the back door of the house just as it slammed open. But it was just Robert. He came into view, looking a bit bruised and covered in blood that wasn’t his. “Go get your van and pull it in as close as you can.” Without waiting for any objections, he added, “We need to grab that machine downstairs and get out of here. These guys have reinforcements coming. Some of which are probably Touched. 

“And we really don’t want to be here when they show up.” 

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The Source 23-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so now no matter what I made myself look like, my Incubus/Succubus power would force that appearance into a more attractive version. There had to be a way to control the power and make it knock that off, but I had no idea how. Not yet, anyway. And something told me Ehn wasn’t interested in spending time on that sort of training, so I was on my own. Or, well, at least I’d have moral support from Percy and Cerberus, but I doubted either of them knew how to help me control it either. Even if it was really fun to think of Cerberus playing professor. I was just going to have to go along with this for now and worry about it later. At least I didn’t have anyone else I knew in this time period with me right now to tease me about it.

Trying to push that thought out of my mind, I followed Ehn to the apple tree and down that trail to follow the creek that had been mentioned. On the way, I tied one of the colorful ribbons around each Cerberus’s necks, fashioning them into bows. Percy took out a mirror and let him see how he looked, and from the noises each of his heads made, he really liked that. So, of course, Percy and I both played up how handsome and pretty he looked with his colorful bows. Ehn’s contribution to the whole thing was a simple, “Good” when asked how it looked. But hey, it could’ve been worse. And even getting that much praise from the Dragon-Bonded was enough to make Cerberus positively glow with pride. He even skipped. Yes, the giant robot dog skipped cheerfully along the trail with all three heads held high. And yes, it was absolutely adorable. 

Eventually, we found the cabin that had been mentioned. Ehn checked it for traps before we went anywhere near the place, but found nothing. So we went closer and I looked inside, only to see that the place was empty. Well, empty of people. There were clear signs that someone was living there. 

“I guess he’s on the creek panning for gold, like the sheriff said,” I noted, lifting a hand to my forehead to shield my eyes as I looked that way. “I don’t see anyone though. He must be further down, so I guess we can start walking–hey wait can’t you just fly up and look for him from the air?” In the middle of that, I’d remembered who I was talking to and turned to squint at him.

The man offered me a faint smile. “Yes, I can. And I shall do so. But while I happen to be busy locating my old friend, I believe it’s time for another test. Somewhere in these woods is a place where a coffin has been buried. It’s quite well-protected. In that coffin is a source of great power. Defeat the guardians and take the object of power. You will know it when you see it.” To Percy and Cerberus, he added, “You are allowed to step in if need be, I know quite well insisting you stay out of it entirely would be a waste of breath. But should you step in too much, Felicity will fail this test. Allow her to succeed on her own as much as possible.” He paused briefly before amending, “Of course, the manual labor sort of help is allowed without any penalty. Lift and carry as much as she requires. Provide assistance in simple ways. But allow her to do the important parts herself, please. The decisions must be hers.” 

I wasn’t sure what sort of special Dragon-Bonded training amounted to telling me to go do something on my own while he fucked off to do something else without even watching me, but whatever. If he wanted me to check things off his to-do list, who was I to complain? I was here to follow his instructions, and at least he was allowing Percy and Cerberus to play backup. 

“Okay,” I found myself replying, “so how am I supposed to track down this place with the special coffin in it? ‘Somewhere in these woods’ is a bit vague. Or is that just part of the test?” 

Again, Ehn smiled. “You are very quick, Felicity. I’m certain you’ll be able to work something out.” With that, he turned and began following the creek once more. “I shall find you when it’s over.” Somehow, his voice sounded ominous. 

Watching him go for a moment, I exhaled before turning to face the other two. “Right, so what are the odds that he’s just sending me off to do something else because he doesn’t want me to know what he’s saying to this Caitiff guy? Or what he looks like, or… anything like that.” 

Percy’s head bobbed quickly. “It is very possible that he wishes to keep certain details from you, Flick. Perhaps he would prefer you not raise objections to his method of extracting the information he requires from Caitiff. You would feel obligated to object, which could escalate.” 

Giving a long, heavy sigh, I frowned to myself. “Yeah. Or maybe he really does just want to kill two birds with one stone by having me go get this thing he wants while he focuses on the other guy. I think I’m going to choose to focus on that possibility, because I’d rather not think about what sort of things he might be doing that he doesn’t want me to see. Not that it matters either way, I suppose.” With a shrug, I added, “I couldn’t stop him if I wanted to. So let’s see about this coffin.” 

Percy stepped back, lifted one hand, and drew two fingers along her mouth, then made a twisting motion with both of them. Right, zipping her lips and locking them. She wasn’t going to offer any suggestions or aid unless she had to. This was my test, I had to solve it. 

Cerberus, meanwhile, expressed the same general idea by laying down, putting his heads close together, and covering all three snouts with his two front paws while staring at me pointedly. He wasn’t going to jump in and offer any suggestions either, apparently. 

Thinking about it for a moment, I spoke aloud. “I guess the best way this makes sense is if he wants me to use my Necromancy to find this thing. That’s what he’s trying to make me improve, after all.” Giving a little nod to my own words when neither of the others expressed any reaction at all, I sat down right there in the dirt. Folding my legs under myself, I rested my hands palms up on my knees, closed my eyes, and focused. If this was about using my Necromancy to find something, it had to be death. This place I was looking for was supposed to have a coffin in it, after all. So finding a big source of death energy was probably the way to go.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that easy. It turned out there was a lot of death in this forest, of both the animal and sapient kind. Even as I stretched out my senses, I felt it all around me. Animals were being killed for food by other animals, and by the people in the nearby village. Speaking of which, I could feel death there too. Not a staggering amount, but it was still there. People dying of old age, from battles, even accidents. 

More overwhelmingly than that, however, was the massacres I could sense in these woods. So many people had died here over the years. I wasn’t even sure how far back I was sensing, but their deaths lingered. For some reason, this area seemed to have been fought over for centuries. At least, if the amount of battles I was sensing was any indication.

Hold on, since when had I been able to sense individual fights? It wasn’t just a matter of knowing that a lot of people had died here, I could tell that they had taken place at different times, and that there were years in between those battles. I was able to literally pick out individual deaths in the same area and say that they had taken place many years apart. I could focus on one small clearing two hundred yards to my left and know that three of the deaths I could sense in that spot had happened four decades earlier than two other deaths I could sense there as well.

Was all this just a product of me getting better at all this? Or was it a product of my taking power from that Incubus guy? And for that matter, why had I gotten two different powers from him? He wasn’t a Boscher Heretic, obviously. So what was that about? I really needed to see if Ehn would actually give me some answers about that when this is over, assuming he knew anything. And I was going to go out on a limb and say he did.  

“Are you okay, Flick?” Percy asked, before quickly amending, “I mean, in a strictly, ‘figure out the solution to this puzzling problem on your own’ sort of way.” 

Smiling a little despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. Just distracted.” Then I explained the whole bit about being confused by how many powers I seemed to have gotten.

“Oh, that is simple,” she informed me, seeming pretty happy that she could actually explain something to me without violating Ehn’s rules. “The Tartarus power you’ve taken from Manakel combined with Fossor’s own power has made the Reaper skill you use to harvest gifts see you as… what was the term your people use? A Natural Necromancer. It sees you as a Natural Necromancer. Thus, whenever you kill another Necromancer–that is, anyone of sufficient Necromantic power, it will treat you as though you were a Natural Heretic killing one of that same species.” 

That made me give a double-take. “Wait, hold on. You’re saying my Necromancy is so strong right now that the Reaper power thinks I’m a Natural Necromancer–whatever that is–so it’s handing me a full download of powers from anything I kill that happens to be strong enough in Necromancy?” I reeled backward a bit as she nodded. “Oh… oh.” 

Okay, yeah, that was going to take some time to adjust to. But right now, I had to focus. And whatever the reasoning for my power boost, it was helping me get plenty of information when I reached out with my power. Too much information, honestly. I knew all this stuff about people dying here in these woods over the past centuries, but not where this special coffin was. There was so much death energy around me that I couldn’t narrow it down. I was overwhelmed by all of it. I had thought that I could reach out to find the thing by sensing a ghost around it, but these woods were chock-full of ghosts.

Wait, full of ghosts? Oh, duh. 

Focusing a little more, I tried reaching out to those ghosts and gave them a little tug. I made it clear, at least as much as I could, that it was an invitation and not a demand. I wasn’t going to force them to do anything they didn’t want to. I may have had Fossor’s power, but I for damn sure wasn’t going to turn into him.

It took a minute, but I soon sensed an answering feeling of curiosity. Several of the ghosts were responding to my silent invitation by approaching through the woods. And boy was that still a strange feeling. When I was a little girl sleeping outside in the backyard I had been kind of terrified of the idea of ghosts watching me. And that had been in complete safety. Or at least, what I had assumed was complete safety. As it turned out, my backyard had been more of a hotbed for supernatural activity then I’d ever have believed back then. 

But now I was sitting out in the middle of these woods, cut off from almost everyone I knew, and in a time period hundreds of years before I had even been born. Woods that were full of ghosts, literal ones rather than metaphorical, and I was summoning them to me. Because I wanted their help. 

Pushing that thought out of my mind, I spoke quietly toward my two companions. “I have some friends coming, don’t overreact.” I was mostly directing that toward Cerberus, considering he had literally been created to fight and kill ghosts. I didn’t want to get this whole thing off on the wrong foot by having the very good dog simply try to do his job when he saw these guys arrive.

A moment later, the presences I had sensed made it to our little clearing by the creek. Opening my eyes, I stood up and looked toward what turned out to be four figures. All ghosts, of course. Two were dressed like old Native Americans, though one of those appeared to be a cross between a human and a large bear. Another was a small goblin-looking creature dressed in fine clothes with a Tricorn hat, who actually reminded me of Fancy the Kobold back at the Atherby Camp. The last one appeared to be some sort of European settler with a musket. They were all staring at me curiously.

Taking a breath before letting it out, I held up both hands. “Hey there, thanks for coming.” Oh boy, this seemed awkward all of a sudden. But I pushed that feeling aside and focused. “I’m looking for some sort of special coffin that’s supposed to be in these woods. There should be a lot of dark energy coming off of it. That’s really all I know for sure. Do you guys think you could maybe help me find it? Or maybe you know someone else who can?” Relatedly, I added, “Oh, sorry. My name is Felicity. I’m… Well it’s a long story. Could I get your names, please?”

If anything, the four ghosts seemed even more confused about the situation. They looked at one another and seemed to confer silently. Then the goblin took a little step forward. “You are the strongest Caller we have ever felt in these woods. And we have felt many over these years. All have tried to find this thing you seek, and have fought many battles over it.”

The bear man in the Native American garb gave a soft grunt before nodding. “My people were killed to the last for protecting its location. Men, women, and children all murdered, and none breathed a word of where it was.”

Before I could respond to that, the European guy and the other Native American gave their own agreements with that. Which just made me even more confused. Just what the hell was in this coffin that I was supposed to find? All those battles I had sensed had been over people fighting to find it? And yet, they never had? 

“It’s magically hidden, isn’t it?” I realized that belatedly. “Something’s masking it so they can’t just scour the woods and find the place.”

There was another brief moment of silent discussion between the four. Then, rather than directly answering the question, they introduce themselves. The goblin was named Kehchul (it was pronounced catch all), the European settler guy was Francis, the bear man was Elsworn, and the Native American man was Avonaco. They had all lived in very different time periods, but all had died here in these woods. For centuries, or decades in the case of Francis, their ghosts had lingered here along with many others. 

Another thought came to mind after introductions were exchanged. “Hang on, when we first arrived here, we were attacked by a bunch of zombies.”

“Yes,” Avonaco murmured, “the protective magics here would have sensed your intentions and attempted to drive you away.”

So Ehn was right about us not changing the future by fighting those things, and that they’d only attacked us in the first place because we were here. Still, I shook my head. “They weren’t my intentions, I didn’t even know about this coffin until a few minutes ago. But the guy I came with, he’s the one who wants me to find whatever is in there, and he’s not someone you want to disappoint.”

Considering all that, I asked what these guys knew about the coffin and why it was so important. Unfortunately, they couldn’t remember. Yeah, I thought that was weird too, but I believed them. It seemed like the knowledge of what they were actually protecting was wiped from their minds somehow. All they knew was that it was incredibly important and their job, the job of every ghost in this forest, was to make certain that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. 

Kehchul the goblin continued after I had absorbed that much. “We have waited for the right one for all this time. Maybe that is you, and our watch over these woods may be ended.”

“Let me get this straight,” I managed. “Whatever is in this coffin is super-important and powerful. Everyone who dies out here while trying to find it somehow magically becomes a guardian stopping anyone else from getting to it. But the coffin itself is magically hidden so no one knows where it is. You can’t even find it by looking for it, right?”

Elsworn the bear man gave a short nod, his eyes seeming to glimmer as he watched me. “Only those who have died may know its location, and only they may lead the living to it. But the magic of this forest guards against any attempt to force our compliance.”

Right, so it didn’t matter how strong the Necromancer was, they couldn’t force these particular ghosts do something they didn’t want to do. That was useful for protecting the secret of where the coffin was, for sure. But did it really mean that no one who came to this forest looking for that thing had ever just tried having a civil conversation with these guys and asking nicely?

We talked a little more. I felt anxious, but didn’t want to push the issue too quickly. Instead, I told them about myself. I even said that I was from the future and that I had been brought back here for training to learn how to stop a great evil force from massacring everyone in the universe. And yes, I felt like an idiot the whole time I was saying it. Or at least like a self-absorbed narcissist. Who was I to claim that I had any ability to stop the Fomorians? Saying it out loud like that felt wrong.

But at the very least, these ghosts listened and seemed interested. In the end, they agreed to lead me to the place I needed to go. Apparently they had become convinced that I was the person they were supposed to wait for. Which just made me even more uncertain. What if they were wrong? What if whatever was in this coffin was meant for someone else? Why would a whole spell have been put together to protect what was in this thing until I got here? That was just weird.

All those doubts and more filled my head while I followed the ghosts on a long hike. Cerberus and Percy trailed behind, staying out of the way but within sight just in case things went wrong.

For over an hour we walked. I had realized very soon that we weren’t going in a straight line. We were taking a meandering, circular path. I wasn’t sure why, but there were many more ghosts along the way. I sensed them watching us, judging me. They were probably checking to make sure I wasn’t tricking them or anything. Or maybe they just wanted to see how I would react to being led in circles. Whatever it was, I kept quiet about it and simply followed. I didn’t care how long this took. If Ehn was in a rush, he could just deal. Which just made me wonder what he was doing right then. Had he found the man he was looking for and gotten whatever he wanted out of him? Hopefully I would find out soon enough.

Eventually, we reached a literal hole in the ground. It was surrounded by bushes and tall grass, which the ghosts moved out of the way. Yeah, they moved physical objects even though I hadn’t given them any power. They were given energy by the forest itself, which was interesting all on its own.

Standing there over the hole, I crouch down to peer into the darkness. I couldn’t see how far it went, but it obviously wasn’t a short drop. 

“There will be other tests,” Elsworn informed me with a grunt. “We will wait here to guide you back should you survive what is to come.”

Cerberus made a whining sound and I nodded to him. “That’s okay, buddy. You don’t have to fit in this hole. Wait here and guard it with these guys, all right? I’m trusting you.”

He gave a hard woof of agreement and straightened up, all three of his heads looking in different directions. He was going to make absolutely certain our way out remained safe.

So, Percy and I exchanged looks and nods. I had no idea what we were going to find in there, but I was glad I would have at least some company. Pulling out my staff, I looked down and breathed for a moment. 

Then I took a step forward and dropped into the hole, plummeting through darkness. 

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Together And Alone 27-09 (Summus Proelium)

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For a couple long and incredibly silent seconds, I just stood there in shock staring at the man in front of me. I couldn’t think of anything to say or do. Hell, I couldn’t think of anything at all. I just stood there while a loud static sound seemed to play through my head. Of all the possible things I had considered might happen when we got to this place, running into Robert Parson wasn’t anywhere on the list. What the hell was I supposed to do now? What was he doing here? Where did he come from?

For his part, the man allowed the silence to carry on for a moment before speaking again. “Something tells me you’re not one of his, are you?” He looked me up and down, mouth pursing thoughtfully. “No, you’re definitely not one of his. So my question is, what are you doing here? You’re not just some kid out looking for a thrill, or those traps would’ve caught you. You couldn’t have gotten in here if you didn’t know what you were doing. You disabled them or you snuck past them. Either way, you made it all the way in here because you were looking for that thing.” He raised his hand to point at the machine. “Which leads me back to, who are you?”

While I had been standing there lost in my shock, I heard Paige’s increasingly insistent voice through my bluetooth earpiece wanting to know what was going on. She was obviously getting worried. So worried, in fact, that she stopped waiting for a response and said she was coming in. Which she somehow managed to do so quickly and quietly that the first sign that she was even inside was the door to the stairs being kicked open and the sound of her clothing rustling in the air as she jumped all the way to the bottom without hitting a single step.

“Stop!” she snapped that single word even as she landed smoothly with a pistol pointed at Robert. She was holding it steady, and directly at his head as she took in the situation. Only belatedly did she seem to notice who it was, and froze not unlike the way I had. I couldn’t see her expression behind the mask she was wearing as well, but I could imagine it looked similar to my own.

If he was at all surprised or worried about the second girl who was just showing up and pointed a gun at him, Robert didn’t show it. He simply stood there and looked at both of us curiously before grunting under his breath. “Now that’s a little more curious.” His gaze centered on Paige. “I wasn’t sure about her, but watching the way you move, you’re definitely one of his creations. So why exactly would any of his creations be breaking into his place here to steal his machine?”

Paige’s voice was dark and brittle, clearly barely containing her anger in that moment. “I’m not his. He doesn’t own me.”

Robert considered that briefly before inclining his head. “Ah. You’re the one who contacted me back then. You’re the one who exposed him in the first place. Then you just disappeared. Or seemed to.”

He went silent for a few seconds, still holding the gun, but without actually pointing it toward either of us. It was just sort of there. Paige hadn’t taken her aim off his head, but he still didn’t seem to care. He paid absolutely no attention to it. Instead, he just stood there looking thoughtful for another few seconds before making a noise of decision. 

“To be honest, for a while I thought you exposed him just to take his place, but then there was nothing. So I thought he killed you before we could take him. Still, I wanted to make sure. So I went through a whole little investigation. Tried to find out everything I could. Which led me around to one thing.” He offered a thin smile, holstering the gun pointedly. “How are you doing, Paige?”

It wasn’t too surprising that he knew who she was, not after the clues he had left. Which, to be honest, I still didn’t know why he’d done that or who the clues were for. There were those toys in his cabin that had led me to the file about her in the Seraphs place. But that couldn’t have been for me. He didn’t know anything about me being aware of my parents, and he couldn’t possibly have known I would have any access at all to those files. 

Paige slowly lowered her own pistol and reached up to take the mask off. “If you figured out who I was, why didn’t you ever say anything?”

Robert shook his head. “It seemed to me like you went through a lot of trouble to hide your identity. I assumed you wanted to keep it quiet and live a normal life. At least as normal as you could. Pittman was already in prison. I thought the best way for you to move on was if everyone left you alone. If anyone else knew who you were or what you were capable of, or even where you came from, you’d never get that chance. And after what you did to help stop him, you deserved that much.”

He gave me a brief, curious glance before turning back to her as he added, “I suppose it makes sense that something like this got you to come out here. He’s the one responsible for what happened in Detroit, isn’t he? As soon as I heard about the Breakwater thing and who was involved, I knew it had to be him. That’s why you’re here.” He pointed at the machine again. “That thing is supposed to get him off that island somehow. Now please tell me you’re not stupid enough to think you can trade his freedom for the cure to save your adopted sister and everyone else.”

Paige kept her voice flat. “I am nowhere near that stupid. That thing is a teleporter. We’re going to use it to get to him and get the cure the hard way. For him.”

Robert cocked his head a little, absorbing that. “Yeah? What makes you think you can do enough damage to make him give up literally the only advantage he has? I don’t think you’re the type of person to go that far. And even if you were, I don’t think you’re dumb enough to think it would work. He’s not about to give up his advantage no matter how rough you are. Believe me, that’s not a bluff you can win.”

He was still clearly curious about who I was and what I was doing there, along with why I hadn’t said anything yet. I could have spoken, of course. I had my voice changer active under the mask. He wouldn’t immediately recognize me through that. And even if he did, would that be a bad thing? I still didn’t know. There was so much I didn’t understand. Was he still part of the Ministry? Would he tell my parents the second he knew about me? Almost every sense I had was screaming at me to trust him, but could I trust my instincts? Could I trust anything right now? I had no idea. I was so confused and lost and the only thing I could do was stay there frozen, waiting as these two continued their conversation.

Paige, for her part, shook her head again. “We weren’t planning on torturing him. Let’s just say we have a virtual reality machine. A friend of ours is fixing it up so we can plug Pittman into it and get into his subconscious. We can find out things he doesn’t want us to know by pulling him into virtual reality and making his brain show us the truth.”

Yeah, that had been our plan. We were going to teleport Pittman off of Breakwater or teleport ourselves there, we still weren’t sure on that exact point. But either way, we would have the virtual reality machine and plug him into it. Wren was working on combining her work on that with the suit she had put together to force Ashton to lead us to the vials. The suit worked by reading their subconscious thoughts when they were asked a question and controlling their motor functions to lead us to the place they were thinking of. Wren was pretty sure she could adapt that to work in virtual reality so he would move in the precise way he needed to in order to make the cure. It was our running theory anyway. And, of course, the best shot we had.

After absorbing that as well, Robert brought his hand up to his chin and ran his fingers along it thoughtfully. Then he grunted. “You’re part of that new Avant Guard group. Poise, right? I haven’t been spending much time in Detroit lately, but I do keep up on things. As much as I can anyway. And from what I’ve heard, that’s the group that could and would try something like this. Which makes you…” he turned to look at me once more. “Hmm. You’re the right height for a couple, but you’re definitely a girl. So I’m gonna say you’re the one she always partners with. Style, isn’t it? Poise and Style. You’re another one of his creations, one that went rogue too.”

Oh boy. Yes, it was probably a good thing that he was jumping to that very understandable conclusion. After all, we did look identical whenever one of us wasn’t actively disguising ourselves. And if things hadn’t changed at the last minute, Sierra really would have been the other one here. But did I want to let him just keep going along with that assumption? Should I just tell him who I really was? I still didn’t know. I’d been debating that wildly in my head this entire time. He was the man who had saved my life. When I looked at him, everything I had said that I could trust him with my life, with my soul. He would never ever betray me. But up until a few months back, I would’ve thought the same thing about my parents. And part of me still did. My family loved me. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt me either. But even if they wouldn’t knowingly hurt me, would they do something bad thinking it was for my own good? And would this man, whom I also trusted with everything I had despite barely consciously knowing him, do something that was bad just because he thought it was for my own good as well?

Finally, all I could do was give a short nod. “Pretty much.” I kept my answer short, not wanting to say too much even with the voice changer.

Paige, who had obviously been waiting for me to decide how to answer, rolled with that immediately. “It’s a long story,” she informed him slightly. “And not one she likes to get into. So why don’t you tell us why you’re sitting here with this thing?”

Robert glanced at the machine again before turning back to her. “Like I said, I figured out he had to be involved. I’ve been tracing your big sister’s footsteps for a while, trying to figure out how they ended up on Breakwater. That led me to a few of their men, Breakwater’s, that is. They were… well let’s just say they were trying to clean things up and erase any other connections to that place. It turns out Flea and Trivial told those people exactly how they ended up there. But Breakwater didn’t bother telling our authorities. They just sent people over here to erase that trail themselves. On the plus side, it seems those Star-Touched were smart enough not to tell Breakwater the truth until they were on their way home. They kept that little bit of information to themselves to make sure the prison people didn’t try to pull a fast one and accidentally lose them.”

Oh, right. We had wondered about that and whether we would end up finding nothing here because the authorities had already taken the machine. But nothing in what Paige had been able to find in official files or communications had indicated that they had any idea about this place, so we took a shot. Now at least we knew why the officials didn’t know. Of course Breakwater had wanted to cover up something like that. They wouldn’t want anyone, not even the American government, to have their hands on a device that could teleport people onto their island. 

Robert continued easily. “All that led me here, and I’ve been examining this machine trying to decide what to do with it. To tell you the truth, part of me wants to turn it on, go over there, and beat the shit out of Pittman myself. But that wouldn’t really accomplish much, now would it? On the other hand, if you think it could be used to drag him over here, that’s another story.”

I shook my head quickly, the words coming before I really thought about it. “You said it yourself, beating him up wouldn’t accomplish anything. He’s not going to tell us how to make the cure just because we hurt him. We have to get him back to Detroit and plug him into the machine so he has no choice but to show us the truth.”

Robert looked at me, his expression curious once more. But whatever he was thinking, he didn’t give voice to it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod and replied, “You’re probably right. As nice as it might feel to punch that son of a bitch until his face breaks, it wouldn’t get us anywhere. That’s another reason I’ve been sitting here thinking, trying to decide who to involve in this.” He looked back-and-forth between us. “Now it seems like I’ve got an answer that I wasn’t even considering.”

All of this was dangerous. It was so very, very dangerous. Involving Robert in this whole situation? How could I even consider it? And yet, was there any other choice? It wasn’t like he was just going to back off and let us do it without him. Not now. We’d given him a potential solution to his problem, a way to get answers out of Pittman. But there was absolutely no way he would just step back and let us do the work ourselves. No, he would have to be involved. Even though involving him ran a very good chance of exposing my identity. And I still didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. There was such a big part of me who wanted to rip off the mask, throw myself at this man I subconsciously trusted so much, and tell him absolutely everything.

And even beyond that, I wanted to get answers from him. There were so many questions I had about everything, including his cabin out in the woods, what was going on between him and Pencil, and everything else. I needed actual answers, but I was afraid that the only way to ask them was by exposing myself to more danger. 

I was torn, to say the least. I have no idea what the right answer was, and if I did reveal myself, it was something I could never take back. After all, unlike my parents, I didn’t have a convenient person to erase his memory if this went wrong.

Did that sound bitter? It probably sounded bitter.

We were all silent for a moment before Paige gestured while starting to move to the stairs she had just leapt down. “Give us a minute, would you?”

Robert gave a simple nod. “Of course. The machine and I’ll just wait here for you.” 

Paige and I started to move to the stairs to go up and talk this out. But even as I took a few steps that way, a sound caught my ear. It was coming from Robert’s phone, a chime that filled the air. He glanced at the screen and frowned. “We have company.”

Paige snapped her gaze that way, speaking sharply. “More of Pittman’s people?” From the sound of her voice, she was more than willing to take all of her frustration out on them if so.

Robert, however, shook his head and turned the phone to show us. There was a view of the street outside. I could see our van, but also about six others, all lined up along the curbs. There were people in official looking uniforms going up to the houses around us and pulling people out. I didn’t know what they were telling them, but within just a few seconds dozens of people who lived in this neighborhood were being rushed to one of the vans and driven away. 

“Breakwater people,” Robert informed us flatly. “Looks like the guys I took care of had a lot of backup. And they won’t be playing nice.”

Paige made a noise in the back of her throat before sighing. “They also won’t listen if we tell them we need to use the machine to fix this problem, will they?”

Robert grunted, looking down at his pistol as he drew it back from the holster. “No, they won’t. Their job is to protect Breakwater and stop that place from getting any more bad publicity. There’s no way they’ll risk allowing an access point like this to exist, or let anyone else know about it. They’re here to destroy the machine and make sure it can’t ever be used again. They won’t care about fixing the situation in Detroit.”

Of course, this whole situation couldn’t resolve itself peacefully. We couldn’t just get the machine without much fuss and drive home with it. No, even running into Robert wasn’t enough of a complication. Now we had to fight these Breakwater people. Because if they got their way, they’d destroy our only chance of getting answers out of Pittman and fixing this whole situation. I had to fight the people responsible for keeping the worst of the worst supervillains in prison in order to save Irelyn, my parents, and everyone else who had been poisoned. 

But hey, at least I was going to have an exciting road trip story to tell.  

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The Source 23-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, the four of us walked together into that small village. I was still worried about what I might’ve changed about this place and its future by dealing with those undead, but Ehn insisted that it was all fine because those creatures only attacked because we were there. I couldn’t exactly prove otherwise, and was stuck taking his word for it. But if I really had changed something drastic and we ended up going back to a present that was different, I was definitely going to have some pretty cross words for him. Maybe even some loud, four-letter ones.

The whole place seemed pretty empty at first as we approached, but I caught glimpses of people of all shapes and sizes peeking out of windows and from behind fences. They were watching us with obvious curiosity and probably more than a little apprehension. If Ehn noticed at all, he didn’t comment on it. He simply walked straight to the largest building in sight and continued through as the door opened automatically without even breaking stride. I was pretty sure that was something he had done, not anything about the door itself. Was he also telekinetic? Or had that been a spell that I hadn’t even noticed him use? Hell, for all I knew, he’d literally intimidated the door into opening. 

Whatever it was, I exchanged a look with Persephone, before she stayed outside with Cerberus to keep an eye on things while I followed the man in and prayed that we weren’t about to cause more problems for the people who lived here. Sure, I had maybe, possibly just stopped an army of monsters from doing bad things to this place, which may or may not have only come near it because we were here. Hell, for all I knew, Ehn planned on hurting this village himself.

Yeah, okay, that seemed unlikely based on what he had said he needed from these people. Or rather, from the person he was looking for. But I still didn’t have a good read on who he was and what he was capable of. I wanted to think that he would be on his best behavior just to impress me and keep me on his side, which would mean he wouldn’t do anything too bad. Yet, anything could happen and I would have no way of stopping him. That was probably the most stressful part about this. If things did happen to go wrong, there was absolutely no way I could step in and save anyone from this guy. If he decided to do things the hard way, I was kind of screwed. We all were.

Doing my best to shift that out of my mind, I focused on the room I was stepping into. This place looked like an old western sheriff’s office, complete with a couple jail cells in the back. There were two desks up front, only one of which was manned. The guy there had just stood up from the desk when I entered behind Ehn. He was a tall, heavily-muscled figure with dark blue skin and visible scales. He also had four arms, and wore a belt around his waist with four pistols arranged along it. They were all six-shooters, which gave me a bit of a mental pause, considering I didn’t think guns like that were around at this point. This was pre-American Revolution by most of a century, after all. But then again, what I had learned in my Bystander history class probably wasn’t quite right. Especially when it came to an obvious Alter like this. And a second glance at those guns, combined with a consultation with my item-sense power about what they were made out of, convinced me they weren’t exactly packing normal bullets either. They were like some mixture of an Old West and science fiction weapon. And I was going to go out on a limb and say the body armor I could sense under his old, ratty shirt was a lot more effective than anything ordinary humans would have available even in my normal time. 

“Can I help you?” the blue-scaled man asked, in the sort of voice that made clear that what he was actually saying was, ‘go away.’ His eyes shifted from Ehn to me briefly before going back again. Yeah, I couldn’t really blame him for instinctively seeing who the bigger threat was. I would’ve been paying a lot more attention to Ehn too if I was in his situation. Actually, I wasn’t in his situation and I was still paying more attention to Ehn. There was a big question remaining at the front of my mind about exactly how this was going to go. Was it weird that I kept expecting the worst? Or would it have been weirder if I didn’t? 

Ehn, at least for the moment, chose to speak in a pleasant, cheerful voice. “Good afternoon, Sheriff. Such a nice village you have here. The name is Wig. Just Wig. This is my apprentice, Felicity. I assure you, we will be out of your hair as soon as possible. As it happens, we also might be taking another problem off your hands at the same time. We’re looking for a man called Donner. Caitiff Donner.” 

Caitiff? I knew that word. It meant a coward or something like that. Despicable, that was it. The word basically meant ‘despicable coward.’ Was that this guy’s nickname? Was it meant ironically or did he just have that poor of a reputation? Either way, what could someone known as Caitiff have that Ehn would be interested in to the point of going through all this to find him? 

While I was thinking about that, the sheriff made a soft grunting sound of recognition mixed with annoyance under his breath. Then he raised himself to his full, impressive height of nearly seven feet. “Well, you can call me Dune. And before I tell you anything about the people under my care and responsibility, I need to know why you’re looking for him. Just so I can assure myself that I’m not handing over someone to a pack of wolves, you understand. Pretty though the package they come in may be.” 

Before either of us could say anything to that, the door behind me creaked open and a somewhat squeaky voice called out, “Dune, hey Dune!” The voice stopped suddenly as the person noticed us, and I turned to see a much smaller figure than the sheriff. He was still obviously an Alter, however. This guy looked like a humanoid grasshopper, standing just an inch or so taller than I was. His big, bulbous eyes took me in for a long moment, really seeming to stare longer than I was entirely comfortable with before darting to Ehn, then over to the sheriff. 

“Come in, Strex,” Dune calmly ordered him, beckoning the grasshopper man over to him. “We’ve got a couple guests, as it turns out. This is Wig and Felicity. And this,” he added in turn toward the two of us, “is Strex. He’s my own apprentice, I suppose you could say.” 

Strex murmured something about ‘it’s them’ a few times excitedly to himself before bouncing that way. He stretched himself up on his legs, which extended to make him tall enough to whisper in Dune’s ear. I caught something about ‘army’ and ‘ghosts’ and ‘dead things’ as he waved in our direction. Right, apparently someone had noticed what happened out there. And who had been responsible for it. Did that mean this was going to be more, or less complicated than it would have been? Because I was pretty sure it could go either way. 

For his part, the sheriff listened while keeping his expression neutral. Finally, he grunted and focused on us once more. “Well, it sounds like we owe you a bit of thanks for dealing with a problem out there before it came all the way to town.” His eyes found me, seeming to stare right into my soul intently for several long seconds before he spoke again. “So why don’t the two of you tell me why you’re looking for old Caitiff.” 

Hearing that name made Strex start a little bit visibly, but he quickly schooled his reaction and moved to the second desk, seeming to busy himself with several parchments he found in a drawer there. But it was obvious that he was paying rapt attention to us. I doubted he even knew what was on the papers he was shuffling around, to be honest. 

Ehn spoke up again in that same pleasant, welcoming voice. “I can promise you that our business is nothing that would bring trouble to your town here, or its people. The man I’m looking for just happens to have information I’d like to buy from him.” As he said that, his hand moved to set several golden coins on the desk. “And speaking of buying things, consider this our contribution to keeping this place safe. I’ve been looking for Caitiff for a long time now. I’d like to finish this as quickly as possible, get the information he has, and move on. With any luck, Felicity and I will be far away from this place very soon.” 

Dune seemed to be considering his options for a few seconds while staring at the coins that had been left on his desk. Finally, he used one of his four hands to pull them over while speaking brightly. Or at least as bright as his voice seemed capable of getting. “Right, in that case, you can find old Caitiff down at the prospector’s cabin. You’ll want to go out the back side of town, near the big fence. You’ll find an old apple tree there in the corner. There’s a trail that’ll lead you down to the creek. Follow the creek south until you find the cabin. It’s not far. If he’s not there, then he’s on the creek itself panning for gold. Or he took off again. That happens sometimes.” 

Ehn thanked the man and we started to leave. As I turned to the door, however, Strex spoke up. “Hey, those other two outside, are they with you?” 

Ehn looked my way, clearly leaving how to answer up to me. So I turned back that way. “Yeah, they’re my friends. Why, is something wrong?” 

“Oh no,” the deputy quickly assured me. “I just wanted to say you have a handsome dog out there.” From his desk, he pulled out a leather bag and tossed it to me. “Maybe he’d like these.” 

Looking inside, I found three brightly colored ribbons, one red, one blue, and one green. They seemed to sparkle in the sunlight coming through the window. It was a sight that made me smile a bit to myself. “Thanks,” I replied genuinely, “I’m pretty sure he’ll love them.” 

For whatever reason, my words made the grasshopper man… blush? It was hard to tell, but it seemed like he was blushing. He made a sound that was like he was trying to demure, shuffling more papers before accidentally dropping them. Then he leaned down to pick them up and bonked his head on the desk. 

“Oh honestly, Strex,” Dune admonished him, “you’ve seen a pretty girl before, pull yourself together.” 

Well, that was weird. Now it was my turn to blush as I quickly moved through the open doorway. Why was he that flummoxed by me? Okay, sure, I supposed I was at least a bit attractive as a blonde girl, especially after over a year of regeneration powers and hard exercise. But still, that was… awkward and strange. Was that why he’d spent so long staring at me when he first came in? I’d thought he was trying to assess the potential threat or something. 

Well, whatever, it was probably just because of the time period I came from. Shoving that out of my mind, I focused on Cerberus as all three of his heads turned toward me. “Hey, buddy, I’ve got a present for you from the deputy in there.” With that, I held up the colorful ribbons. 

“Oooh,” Percy put in, “those are pretty. I think the deputy likes you.” 

“Yeah, apparently he made a good first impress—” Belatedly, I blinked up that way and then poked myself in disbelief. “What, you mean me? Why would the deputy like me? And what does that have to do with giving Cerberus some pretty ribbons?” 

“He thought Cerberus was your dog,” Percy pointed out. “So he gave you a present. But because it was ‘for Cerberus’ he wasn’t so nervous about it.” 

“Okay, what?” Reflexively, I turned back to look toward the building we had just come out of. “Why would he be nervous about giving ‘me’ a present? Why would he even want to give me a present? He didn’t know anything about me. I just freaking met the guy two minutes ago.” 

Percy blinked at me a couple times before turning to Ehn. “She hasn’t figured it out yet?” 

“Apparently not,” was his flat response. “Though I imagine it wouldn’t take too much longer. Particularly if we encounter many more people of less self control than we have already.” 

I started to ask what the hell they were talking about, when Percy pulled out a small hand mirror and passed it to me before gesturing. “You should take a look. See what everyone else does.” 

Uh, okay then. Frowning in confusion, I held the mirror up and took a look. Which immediately made me almost drop the mirror as I practically jumped back in surprise. That wasn’t me!

Wait, no, it was me. Cautiously, I peered into the mirror again. Yeah, I was the one staring back. But it wasn’t the me I was accustomed to. It was like an idealized version of myself. It was recognizably the person I had always been, but every aspect was perfected. My eyes were a bit sharper, my cheekbones slightly more defined, with some sort of faint natural blush to them. My mouth was just a little… well, fuller or whatever. It was like staring at a version of myself that was perfect in every way. Which only got better (worse?) as I pulled the mirror out a bit to stare at the rest of me. Everything about my… everything was more defined and just… better than it had been before. Just what the hell was–

“The Necromancer!” I blurted with wide eyes as the truth dawned on me. “Oh shit, he was a fucking Incubus! I totally forgot what you said about–oh. Oh.” Now I felt a little dizzy, and had to put a hand out to steady myself against Cerberus. That was what I had gotten from killing that guy, besides the increase in my necromancy. And yet, it wasn’t the only thing I’ve gotten. Or the only other thing, rather. Because while I was still staring at that mirror, my features changed in a rather dramatic way. Oh, I still looked like myself, but now I was a male version of me. A pretty male, but still male. I looked all the way down, past my suddenly-flat chest and down to– yeah, I was male all over. “What the fuck?!” 

Percy quickly calmed me down, and with a little thought and effort, I was able to shift back to my female self. Once I was trying to catch my breath from that, she explained, “Remember, Flick, Incubi and Succubi are the same thing. They shift their visible sex as much as they want, like changing clothes. You felt confused and threatened when you saw how you changed, so you instinctively shifted to a male form. That’s all.”

That was all?! I wanted to blurt that back at her but caught myself and swallowed. “Uhhh right, okay then. Hang on.” I was almost afraid to do the next part, but I had to try. Besides, all my other powers worked fine, why would these ones suddenly malfunction? Maybe it was just because it felt so weird to do. Either way, I pushed aside those feelings and focused on shifting. Sure enough, just like that I was a male again. Another thought shifted me back to female. I tried that a couple more times, just to be completely certain there was nothing funky going on. But no, as far as I could tell, it was all working just fine. 

I also tried just using my facial-shifting power to at least bring that back to what I recognized as myself. Which worked for a moment, but as soon as I relaxed my focus on it, my face went back to that stunningly beautiful version. I tested that by shifting my face to look like someone completely different, and that general appearance remained but once again, the Incubus power adjusted it to be a more attractive version of what I had chosen. So, I could adjust my appearance to whatever I wanted, but the other power would always make it a better-looking version. Great. Just wonderful. 

“Fascinating,” Ehn noted, “it seems the Incubi power you have inherited is quite a bit stronger than the one you use to adjust your appearance manually.” 

“Oh yeah, it’s just fantastic,” I retorted, feeling the blush cross my face. God, this was weird and dumb. Why did I have to look different? Sure, I was still recognizably me. Someone who knew who I was wouldn’t be completely lost when they looked at me. But still, it was just… just weird. 

With some effort, I pushed that out of my mind and tried to focus on the situation at hand. “Anyway, you said you’ve been looking for this Caitiff guy for a long time, so let’s go find him. I can deal with being smacked by the hottie stick some other time.” 

Inclining his head very slightly in acknowledgment, Ehn turned to start walking once more. “Yes, of course. You need only speak if you’re in need of any… advice.” 

I had no idea what part of my situation I would ever want advice from him about, but I kept my mouth shut on that front. Instead, I just kept walking with a slightly anxious glance toward Percy and Cerberus. Whoever this Caitiff guy was and whatever Ehn wanted from him, it had to be less weird than what was going on with me, right? 


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