Author: Cerulean

Class Action 14-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

“Okay, right, right.” Felix was clearly looking over the map, carefully scanning all the possible paths and comparing it to the details written out on the back. “Hang on, just a second.” 

“Take your time,” I murmured. “I mean, read fast, but read effectively. Read–gonna shut up now.” To distract myself then, I slowly looked around the space we were in. It was pitch-black aside from where my headlight pointed. For a moment, I covered the light with a hand and switched my vision over to see through infrared, checking for any heat signatures. There were a few spots, but nothing that looked like a living creature. Not that that was definitive, since even though I was sure Sinbad would play fair by giving creatures that were supposed to be warm the appropriate heat to give off, there were plenty of things out there that wouldn’t. 

“Hey,” Shiloh started, pointing up toward the corner. “Does that thing look like a camera to you?”

Switching my vision back and looking that way while moving my hand off the light, I saw what she was indicating. A little black dome with a red light darting around. Then it centered on us. I lowered my gaze to look at my own chest, seeing a dot of red there. “No,” I blurted while jerking to the side and lashing out with a foot to kick Shiloh away, “I think it’s a turret!” 

In the background, Felix was saying something about there being no turret on the map. And yet, the very much extant turret had already opened fire. Several literal spears went shooting through the water toward us, passing right through the spot where I had been an instant earlier. With my boost going, I could see that they were dull-tipped, with some kind of electronic thing on the end that would probably alert if they hit someone and how much damage it would’ve done. Whatever the case, the turret was definitely trying to shoot the two of us. 

“Distract it!” Shiloh called out, already swimming to the right to avoid the next spear as it narrowly missed her foot. I wasn’t sure what it would’ve done with her armor, but probably best not to test it if we had any choice in the matter.

Right, so apparently I was supposed to distract the thing, somehow. Thinking quickly, I created a portal between myself and the shielded turret thing. “Hey!” I shouted, as though that would matter to an inanimate object, “over here, stupid!” With that, I drove my staff through the portal to smack into the thing as hard as I could (which wasn’t nearly as hard as usual thanks to being underwater, but I was still pretty damn strong). The staff rebounded off the clearly heavily-reinforced dome while barely leaving a scratch on it. But it did at least make that red light twist over toward me. Quickly, I disabled the portal, just in case the turret got a bright idea to use it. “Uhh, consider its attention got!” I called out, even as the thing fired three incredibly fast spears at me. The first one froze partway to me as I focused on pausing its momentum. The other two kept coming, but I didn’t move out of the way. Instead, I focused on slowing one of them down by using the Fomorian Ape-Croc’s power to increase the amount of force needed to move it. I had frozen the first spear using the Lemevwik’s pause/rewind power, and slowed down the second one with the Ape-Croc’s ability. Which left the third spear. That one was coming full-speed. But I was boosting enough to twist out of the way, catching the thing as it began to shoot past me. My hand caught the shaft, and I twisted back just before the slowed spear managed to reach me. With the captured spear in one hand, I lashed out to knock the new one out of the way. Which came just in time before the pause on the last spear ran out and it came shooting at me again. But by that time, I was already throwing my actual staff that way, enlarging it just enough that the spear rebounded off the end and went spinning away while I recalled the staff back to my grasp. 

The turret was getting ready to fire again, but I’d bought Shiloh enough time to get herself into position. She extended her arm with the computer, sending a beam of silver energy from that to the wall-mounted weapon. There was a brief silver glow from the thing before it stopped. Then the red light flicked around a few times before settling on the nearby wall. 

“Got it, I got it!” Shiloh called, swimming closer. “It’s okay, the thing won’t shoot anymore. Uhh, Felix?” 

The response was immediate, “Yeah, apparently there’s still some unlabeled dangers in there. Sinbad says it’s to simulate reality or whatever. You know, cuz sometimes stuff happens you can’t plan for. That’s what he says, anyway.” 

“Right,” I replied while shaking my head. “So we’ll be even more careful. Did you figure out where we’re going next?” 

“Damn straight I did,” she assured us. “It’s the uhh, one in the floor that’s… nearest to the entrance where you came in. But don’t go yet. You have to go when the sun is behind a cloud. Err, you know, when the artificial sun is behind a cloud, not the sun we’re actually living inside of. Hang on a second. Get close to it and I’ll tell you when to go. Just be fast, and don’t pay attention to the voice that’s gonna be coming from a couple tunnels to the right as you go. No matter what it says.”

Go when the sun was behind a cloud, and ignore a voice coming out of tunnels? I looked at Shiloh and the two of us shrugged before swimming down closer to the right entrance. Yeah, something told me it was going to be a long and eventful journey to get to where this ship was. 

******

I was right. The next twenty minutes or so were pretty damn chock-full. Between all the dangers that Felix could tell us about, and the ones that we just had to find on our own, this exercise definitely wasn’t boring. Sinbad had made sure of that. Maybe a little too sure, but hey. I was enjoying finding ways around his little traps, and just generally stretching my skills in an environment that wasn’t really life or death. It was fun. Truly, genuinely fun. I even let the sharks out a few at a time as we went to let them scout ahead or watch behind us. They had a lot of fun with that, and were clearly taking the exercise very seriously. 

Eventually, we were guided down through the bottom of the maze and into what turned out to be a massive cave system beneath the lake floor. Which raised a few questions about what it was doing there, but I assumed it had been built in for training sequences like this. Or just for underwater-based people to potentially live, maybe? 

Either way, we made it into the huge underwater cavern, and saw the vague outline of what sort of looked like a ship in the distance. Sort of like a ship, but there was something odd about it that I couldn’t put together from here. Seeing that, we stopped and looked at each other before I asked, “Hey Felix, we see the ship. Anything we need to worry about between here and there?” 

“Nah, not that I can see,” came the response. “But there’s plenty of things to worry about on the ship itself. Not that I have any specifics about that, just lots of bad things. So be careful.” 

“Yeah, I figured.” With that, I took the time to release the last of my sharks from their vial so they could all swim out around us. Once they were ready, I nodded to Shiloh so we could set off. With the shiver keeping pace, the two of us descended deeper and deeper toward that vague ship outline. And as we got closer, I gradually realized what had been so odd about it from a distance. 

It wasn’t a ship. Well, it was. It was definitely a ship. But it wasn’t a boat. It was not a water ship. It was a spaceship. Or a mock-up of one. Or maybe just a broken one that didn’t fly anymore anyway. The point was, this was a two-hundred meter long metal spaceship shaped somewhat vaguely like what we’d expect a sailing ship to look like, except the ‘masts’ were actually gun-towers. And, obviously, there was no upper deck for people to stand on. The whole thing was enclosed. It looked sort of like a submarine with those four mast-like guntowers sticking out of the top, and a wide V-shaped ‘glass’ viewing port at the front. It wasn’t really glass, of course. Ships like this had some kind of incredibly strong, yet transparent ‘windows’ that could stand up to just as much damage as the rest of the armor. 

Or rather, it could have stood up to that kind of damage. But as we got closer to the sunken spaceship, I saw that most of that transparent front viewport was gone. There were six large holes punched through the ship at random spots, leaving just a few jagged remains behind. One of those spots was in the viewport. They looked an awful lot like something had taken a few big bites out of it. For a moment, I wondered if the thing had been in the water or in space when that happened. We didn’t know if this thing was a real ship that was damaged this badly in its normal course of operations and repurposed for this exercise, or if it had been specifically broken like that just for what we were doing. Looking at it from up closer, I was pretty certain that Sinbad had not built it from scratch. A wooden sailing ship, maybe. But this? No way. This thing had clearly been a real, flying spaceship at some point. The only question was whether the big bite mark in the side  that had torn through all that thick metal armor had happened in the course of battle, or was added for flavor down here. After all, I had seen and/or heard about plenty of Fomorian ‘ship’ creatures that could probably pull off something like that. Terrifying as it was to think about. But then, literally everything involving the Fomorians was terrifying to think about. 

Right, so we needed to go inside. It felt like the easiest way in would be through the broken viewport at the front, or through one of those six big holes. And I had no doubt that Sinbad had even more tricks and traps in store depending on which entrance we happened to use. But the point of the exercise wasn’t to fight monsters or survive traps. It was to get as much treasure as we could, and bring it back in a couple dimensional-storage bags we’d both been given. So, rather than swim closer, I reached out to touch Shiloh’s arm to make her stop. While she looked at me, I murmured, “Let’s play our own game with this thing, not his.” 

With that, I reached into one of the impossibly-deep pockets in the Seosten bodysuit, producing a small, blank stone. One of Herbie’s brothers. It took me a few seconds to remember the exact spell I was thinking of, but I finally got it, using the instant-inscription power to put a special rune on my rock. Then I triggered the spell and gave the thing a toss through the water toward the sunken ship. 

Shiloh and I both watched as the rock began to glow greenish white. Then it took off, and I kicked after it while calling for Shiloh to follow me. She was clearly curious, but simply followed while the rock led us toward the ship. Not to any of the openings, but more toward the back. 

“You guys okay?” Felix’s voice piped up. 

“All good,” I confirmed. “We’re just… finding our way.” 

As we neared the ship, I saw something move in the nearest of the openings. Even as I was looking that way to see what it was, the thing came rushing out at us. It looked like a scorpion with two bladed tails and four flippers (two on each side) rather than legs. Oh, and it was spitting some sort of gas at us through the water. I was pretty sure it was supposed to be either poisonous or acidic.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about it, because the water scorpion thing didn’t get anywhere near us before Brody and Quint both slammed into the thing from the side, each biting a flipper off. The creature twisted, stinger-tails lashing out. But it never got the chance to hit them before Princess Cuddles rose up from beneath the thing and ate half of it in one gulp. Of course, the thing vanished as soon as it was ‘killed.’ Just like other things we’d faced inside the maze had. And now just as then, even though I’d explained things to my sharks, I had the feeling they were still very confused when that happened. Not to mention hungry. I was going to have to feed them real food soon, because I was pretty sure they were getting tired of delicious-looking meals vanishing.

Belatedly, I noticed that Shiloh had moved closer to the hole in the ship, almost far enough to be out of range of my headlamp. She was staring that way, before kicking her way back. Once close enough, she spoke in a whisper. “There’s more of those things. I think it’s a nest.” 

“Well, thankfully,” I replied, “we’re not going in that way. Or any of those ways. Come on.” Rather than going immediately, however, I took a moment to thank the sharks for jumping in. My hands ran over their sides as I praised all of them for being such good guard sharks. Then I kicked out again, and we continued in the direction of the glowing rock. It had stopped a bit ahead of us once we were far enough away, then resumed moving once we caught up. 

“Dude, what is that spell?” Shiloh asked while swimming alongside me. “Are you sure this is a good idea? We’re not even in the ship yet, and we’re kinda being timed with this whole thing.” 

“Trust me,” I promised her, “just keep following the glowing rock. It won’t let us down.” At least, I really hoped it wouldn’t. I hadn’t exactly done the spell a lot, though I was reasonably confident about it. It was one of the bits of utility magic that Shyel (the Chayyiel copy in my head) had taught me over the past few months. Not exactly a spell that would change the course of a battle (probably), but she had told me that you never knew what little thing could be useful at some point. I wasn’t sure ‘winning a class competition put on by Sinbad’ was what she’d had in mind, but hey. Utilizing what I had available did sound like something she’d want me to do. 

We followed that stone away from the hole where the scorpion-things were lurking, following the intact surface of the ship. Shiloh looked a bit uncertain still, glancing back now and then toward the openings. I was sure she was calculating just how badly we would fail this exercise if I was wrong and we hadn’t even made it into the ship before our time was up. Yet, despite those doubts, she followed me anyway. I wasn’t exactly sure why, given the girl barely knew me.

Whatever the reason, she stayed close while we went after the glowing stone. It had stopped moving by that point, sinking down to attach itself against one specific part of the ship. It didn’t look any different from any other part, just a random section of undamaged hull. But I trusted the spell, swimming down that way while giving a quick glance around to make sure we weren’t about to be ambushed. The coast was clear. Something told me Sinbad was keeping most of the surprises at the entrances or spread through the interior of the ship, not out here. 

Even so, I still looked toward my sharks and told them to patrol and keep an eye out. Which they did, immediately launching into a coordinated system of having one shark near us at all times, switching on and off with the rest, who would go on elaborate paths through the water to watch for anything approaching. They even used the buddy system, every shark constantly in sight of at least one other. It was amazing to see them do all that like it was instinct. 

As soon as I saw what they were doing, my attention returned to the stone. Shiloh was flipping her attention between staring at that, at me, and at the sharks. She clearly wasn’t sure where to look next. Her voice was uncertain. “Okay, so now can you tell me what we’re doing over here?” 

“Yeah,” Felix piped up. “Can you tell me what you guys are doing too?” 

“Just gotta check one thing,” I assured her. “You play a lot of video games, right? You know that thing where people will cheat and skip over most of the level? It’s like that. Or it should be.” Belatedly, I added, “Oh, and uhh, we’re probably about to see a ghost so don’t freak out.” 

That said, while Shiloh was still giving a double-take, I focused for a moment and reached out toward a familiar presence. I had a lot of them in the back of my mind by now, but I extended my attention to one in particular. While doing so, I made sure to make it a gentle touch, a request rather than a demand. One he could refuse if he wanted. I wasn’t forcing anything.

A moment later, I felt a sense of acceptance before Jorsher appeared. After Ahmose had allowed himself to fade away, Jorsher was the most senior of the ghosts that I knew. Well, not counting Rahanvael, but I was going to let her rest. After all, she’d spent an indescribably long time waiting to have a chance to stop her brother’s reign of terror and genocide, culminating in helping to kill him only a few days ago. I wasn’t about to call her out for something like this. 

The humanoid man with the overly large eyes appeared and, despite my warning, Shiloh still jumped a bit. Or jolted, at least. My sharks didn’t seem to care. I wondered if that was because of their connection to me. Huh. Something to look into. 

“You requested assistance, Lady Chambers?” he asked, before looking around. “Do you require aid in returning to the surface?” 

My head shook quickly. “No, I uhh, it’s a school project thing. Could you poke your head down through here and tell us what you see?” 

Yeah, he gave me a brief odd look at that. But, in the end, the ghost offered a minute shrug before following my request. He poked his head through the hull of the ship and was still for a moment. Shiloh used that time to hiss at me, “You really are a strong Necromancer.” 

Coughing (also a strange sensation underwater, just like snorting had been), I nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, if I’m right–” 

At that moment, Jorsher brought his head out and looked at me. “It is a sealed room, protected by various magical traps on the doorway and filled with buckets of gold and jewels.” 

“Yes!” I pumped the air–err, water. “The ‘find gold’ spell worked! Told you I knew what I was doing. Ignore the part just now where I was super-excited at the fact that it worked.” 

“Find–why do you even know that spell? We never learned that in class,” Shiloh blurted.

“Long story,” I replied. “We just need to get that gold out of there. Actually, just in case…” I looked over to my sharks, still diligently patrolling the surrounding water. “Okay, guys, I’m about to go in. Can you watch over Shiloh for me?” 

They obediently moved closer to Shiloh, and the other girl offered Simpson, our current personal guardshark, a hesitant smile before asking me, “Do you have a phase through solid spaceship metal spell too?”  

“Better,” I replied before looking at Jorsher. “Do you mind?” 

“I will require assistance,” was his response. 

He was right, so I summoned another volunteer ghost from among those who were still waiting to be taken to a place where they could say goodbye and fade away on their own terms. This one was an older human guy named Clyde. As soon as he appeared, I produced another stone from my pocket, one that had already been prepared with an enchantment. “Could you guys hold this?” 

The two ghosts each reached out to take the stone, while I used the command word, “Mar’ah.” Immediately, both of them went from being mostly translucent, to being reflective. Clyde floated down through the hull, disappearing into the ship. Then I grabbed my treasure bag, passing it to Shiloh. “Be ready to start stuffing both of those,” I noted, before kicking out. I swam straight into and through Jorsher, using my transport through reflective surfaces power. 

I emerged through Clyde, appearing, as promised, in a smallish room. It looked like some sort of lower-ranked officer’s cabin. Something told me that Sinbad had avoided putting treasure in obvious places like the bridge, or the captain’s quarters, or even in the cargo bay specifically to mess with people making those assumptions. 

I could see some of the spells on the doorway. I had no idea what they did, but not triggering them seemed like a good idea. So, I focused on the other obvious thing in the room. Treasure. There were, as promised, several large buckets filled with treasure. It was just waiting there to be grabbed. But, of course, I did not immediately grab them. Instead, I inspected the buckets and found the trap spells that sneaky sneaky Sinbad had placed, clearly expecting them to be triggered by students who were super-happy to finally be at the treasure, tired from fighting their way through everything, and in a rush to escape. I took the time to carefully disable the spells, using what Shyel, Tabbris, Athena, and more had taught me. 

Finally, I started passing the buckets out through my ghost-mirror portals, telling Shiloh to hurry up and dump the contents in the bags while I kept one eye on the door into the room just in case there were roving ‘creatures.’ 

But it was all clear, and before long we had everything in the room. I came back out through the ghosts, thanked both of them profusely while again promising that I would help them get closure as soon as I’d had a chance to rest and regroup for a little while, then dismissed them. 

That done, Shiloh and I looked at each other. She gave me a thumbs up, holding the bags, which looked just as empty as before but were actually packed with treasure. “Ready to get out of here?” Her hand hovered over the badge with the teleport spell attached to it. 

In answer, I recalled my sharks before nodding as I put my own hand near my badge. “Yeah. Let’s go, before Sinbad has a bunch of holographic ghost pirates start crewing that ship to come after us.” 

I could hear the man himself shouting about what a good idea that was all the way through Felix’s communicator. 

Previous Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-09 And Patreon Snippets 21 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

“Wh-what happened?!” Alloy was blurting, clearly in the midst of some level of panic attack. Completely understandable, given the situation she woke up in. “Who–where did–why can’t I–” 

I was on my back still, but now I was staring up at trees, and felt a few rocks poking into my back as I lay in the dirt somewhere outside of the petting zoo. Out. Out. We were out. We were safe and fine. Okay, well, not exactly fine just yet, considering I still couldn’t move. And from the sound of Alloy grunting and Pack cursing, neither could they. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it hadn’t been anywhere near the hour that Cup had said it would take for the effects of the ray to wear off. Assuming she had even been telling the truth. 

“Alloy, it’s okay!” I called over to her. “We’re out, we’re… safeish. Amanda was Cup–is Cup. But we’re out now. All three of us are paralyzed, but she said it would wear off in like an hour.” 

“An hour?!” Somehow, Alloy wasn’t too reassured. “Wait…” Abruptly, I saw her rise to a standing position. But it wasn’t like she stood up, it was more like she floated upward and set herself on her feet. And then abruptly fell down again with a yelp. “Damn it! I’m all… woozy. I think it’s making my marbles woozy too. Can’t focus on staying upright. It’s all dizzy and weird. Like trying to play a video game that keeps inverting the controls.” 

Oh yeah, her armor was made out of her marbles, and they could move. But apparently she was still affected enough that it wasn’t working very well. Which… was that what Cup had been referring to when she said that Alloy being knocked out made sense? 

“It’ll be okay,” I tried to promise. “It’ll wear off.”  

“Right, cuz the psycho supervillain said so,” she retorted, “and why are we taking her word for it?” 

“We don’t have a choice right now.” That was Way, her voice tight. “We still need to get out of here before that bitch calls in reinforcements.” Kneeling between us, she looked over to Raindrop. “Stay here with them. Keep an eye out for anyone, I’m gonna go grab the van.” 

“Hold on!” Pack blurted. “You can’t go back around there by yourself! What the hell do you–” 

“Pack, stop.” Way’s voice was firm. “We don’t have a lot of options right now. This should be far enough away that she can’t find you. But I have to get the van before they do. I’ll be right back.” 

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like it at all. But it was like she said, we didn’t have much choice. Pack, however, apparently had other ideas. “Get my backpack off and put my hand in it.” 

That-A-Way only hesitated slightly before following her instructions. Lifting Pack up carefully to get the ‘empty’ pack off her, she unzipped it and placed the other girl’s hand inside. “Okay?”

“Twinkletoes, here boy!” Pack called, waiting until she apparently felt the little chameleon against her paralyzed hand. “Okay, boy. You know what to do. You remember, we practiced this. You can do it. Just like back in the parking lot. Okay… now go, get out of the cage!” 

“Uh.” Raindrop started to speak up before hesitating. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” 

“He’s transformed,” Pack replied. “And… just get us to the road. He’ll drive the van down it. At least I think he will. We practiced it for awhile just in case of an emergency. He should be able to follow the road, but I’m not exactly sure how good he is at getting out of the way of other drivers, and I know he doesn’t understand road signs or… yeah, we should get back to the road and keep an eye out. This could get a little messy. Or a lot messy.” 

I had seen a lot of weird things since becoming a Touched, but the idea that there was about to be a lizard-gorilla hybrid creature driving a van down the road kind of… reached its way up into the top ten. But again, we didn’t have a lot of options. Pack was clearly desperate to make sure Way didn’t have to go near the petting zoo by herself, and that idea didn’t appeal to me either. 

Now all we had to do was get to the road. Which actually ended up being fairly easy, since Alloy transformed her floating marbles into a couple fancy stretchers for Pack and me. Then she simply used those plus her own armor to make our group float that way. Raindrop and That-A-Way played escorts, keeping their eyes out for any Scion activity, just in case. We had no idea how long it would take Cup to call in reinforcements and whether they’d even go out into the surrounding area searching for us. But it felt better to be safe rather than sorry. We had to get out of there. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that far to the road. Way could’ve teleported us, but we would’ve been much further north in the process. This was fine. Or at least, I kept telling myself it was. Really, my mind was still spinning wildly from everything we had just found out. Cup. Amanda was Cup. Which meant her brother Nick was Pencil. And something told me he wasn’t actually in Alaska. 

“You know he’s going to be even more pissed at all of us now.” Way practically read my mind while we were moving toward the road. “We know too much about him, and the rest of their group. And we hit his sister again. They’re gonna be targeting us any chance they get.” 

“They’ll move her first,” I pointed out. “They don’t know how long it’ll take us to get reinforcements, so they’ll focus on getting her and all her stuff out of there.” 

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be calling in those reinforcements right about now?” Alloy put in. “And who are we calling anyway, the… uhh, ones who call themselves actual heroes or the woman we were supposed to be doing this whole thing for in the first place?” 

It really was a good question. We were supposed to let Deicide know what was going on so she could go after Pencil. And I was damn sure she’d want to know about this. But on the other hand, it was also the biggest lead that anyone in the Star-Touched society could possibly have. We had uncovered the identity of Pencil and Cup. That was huge. The authorities could probably do a lot to try to track those two down from knowing who they really were, though I was sure they both knew how to disappear. It was something, a way of potentially stopping them from killing more people, if they were too busy keeping away from the authorities. 

“Both,” I abruptly answered. “We’ll let Deicide know what we found out, but we’ll contact the Conservators too. Flea. We’ll contact Flea. And Caishen. We’ll let them both know, let them come check this place out with the cavalry. The more people who know the truth about Pencil and Cup, the better chance of someone tracking them down. Maybe they’ll go on the run.” 

If she could have moved, I was sure that Pack would have turned to stare at me with an incredibly dubious look. “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? Seriously, come on.” 

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. But every little bit helps. Like I said, the more people we have going after them, the better off everyone’s going to be. Someone might get lucky. And yes, I know it’s unlikely. But even the slightest chance that someone could maybe stop them is better than nothing. Plus, if they’re busy staying out of reach from the big guns, that’s less time they have to put into making innocent people suffer. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got right now.” 

By that point, our strange little convoy of stretchers and floating armor had reached the road. We stayed low, just on the edge of the treeline in case one of the Scions happened along. Then we waited. 

It wasn’t long before we heard a horn blaring, coming from up the road. Raindrop and Way looked at each other, then leaned out of the trees to stare that way. For about the eighty-seven thousandth time, I wished I could move to see for myself. The sound of the blaring horn got louder, joined by another, then a third. A car that was driving past in the opposite direction joined the chorus a moment later, and I saw it swerve off to the other side of the road. 

“Alloy?” I put in over the sound of the horns. “Could you–” 

She immediately lifted the stretchers and turned them to face the road so we could see. And what a sight it was. The van was heading toward us, swerving in and out of both sides of the street like some sort of incredibly drunk fat man. It wasn’t moving all that fast for a vehicle, barely reaching fifteen miles an hour. But the way it was swerving back and forth, every vehicle from every direction had to get out of the way. Not that there were that many, but still. The few who were there pulled off the road and honked, or just shouted out their windows. 

Raindrop quietly spoke up while she and Way both looked pointedly toward Pack. “I don’t think Twinkletoes should try to get his driver’s license anytime soon.”  

“You kidding?” the La Casa girl shot right back, “He’s doing better than a lot of the useless pieces of shit I’ve seen on the road back in the city. Look, he’s even signaling. Uh, sort of.” 

She was right, particularly about the sort of part. Somehow, Twinkletoes kept flipping the turn signals on and off randomly. It had no connection with which way the car was going, but still. He also kept turning the windshield wipers on and off. I had the feeling he was just randomly hitting things in there. Honestly, we were lucky he had his foot on the pedal and was keeping the van on the road, even if it was taking up the entire road in the process. He was a lizard in a partial gorilla body, so I was going to give the extent of his driving skills a break based on the fact that they existed at all. I had really had no idea that Pack could possibly make her lizards do something like this. It raised even more questions about how smart they were, or how well they could be trained. Questions that were obviously going to have to wait until later. After all, we had slightly more pressing things to deal with right now. 

Pack had Alloy lift her stretcher out into view so the incoming Twinkletoes could see her. He immediately stopped and managed to get his driver’s side door open. Not that we saw much. He was invisible, after all. Yeah, that was another thing throughout all of this. The van had been driving wildly down the road while apparently having no driver. We just saw the door pop open once the van was near enough, and a moment later the gorilla-lizard revealed himself by popping up right in front of Pack while making worried grunting sounds that were kind of adorable and endearing. He kept gesturing to her, then to the van while making those anxious gorilla noises. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was more terrified about what he had just done, or about what was wrong with his owner. Probably some mixture of both, really. 

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, the van was still moving. Yep, the lizard hadn’t actually stopped it at all, let alone put the thing in park. He just opened the door and hopped out. The thing was still heading down the road, already past us and continuing on, coasting entirely off momentum. 

“I’m on it!” Way blurted, her figure turning into a blur as she raced out of my sight. I heard the van door close a second later, and then the thing started backing up toward us once more. She parked it right nearby, then hopped out. She and Raindrop opened the backdoors, letting Alloy guide herself and the stretchers into the rear compartment. As soon as we (including Twinkletoes) were in, Way shut the door, hopped in the front, and started to drive off. No way were we going to sit around here talking about things. We need to get somewhere safe. 

Raindrop, meanwhile, stayed in the back with us. As Way was driving, I asked the younger girl to get my phone out of my pocket and use the number for Deicide that I had recorded in it. The phone was still connected through my Bluetooth, so I heard it ring in my ear a few times before the woman’s voice answered. Rather, that same booming feminine voice that was clearly being projected from the books she had nearby. Yeah, she still wasn’t talking in her own voice, even on the phone. So she was doing this whole thing on speaker? I still wasn’t sure why she talked like that. Was she incapable of speaking the normal way? Like, was she mute or something? 

Either way, the voice came through my earbud. “Do you have something for me, Paintball?” 

“Oh boy, do I ever,” I managed as my eyes reflexively rolled. “First of all, your intelligence is the fucking worst, lady. Also, the fucking best. Both, at the same time. I’m not sure how you pulled that off, but seriously.” Yes, I knew it wasn’t her fault, at all. But I had to say something.  

There was a brief pause at my words before her projected voice replied, “Pardon me?” 

So, I explained the situation. Very succinctly, I told her about Amanda’s real identity, what had almost happened, and what Amanda’s real power was. Yeah, that last one felt like something that some people might’ve kept a secret or only told the authorities. But fuck it. It was just like I had said, the more people who knew the truth, the more chance there was of actually stopping these guys. It was obvious that one of the biggest reasons Cup and Pencil had managed to stay off the trail of the authorities for so long was because they had no idea that Cup herself was the one building a lot of their Touched-Tech toys. Hell, knowing about that, maybe we could actually convince Braintrust to go after her for not doing her part to contribute to them the way they insisted all Tech-Touched do. Or even convince Sherwood to target them in retaliation for Cup building the devices in the first place, since they hated technology so much.  

Yeah, getting Sherwood and Braintrust to actually work together against the same target. Boy, wouldn’t that be pretty wild. But if any people could inspire such incredibly different enemies to be on the same side, it was definitely Pencil and Cup. Those two never played by any rules. Even the Ministry would obviously be fine with shutting them down. I had no doubt that my parents wanted the entire Scions organization taken out. 

By the time I finished explaining what had happened, my fingers were starting to twitch just a little. It wasn’t much, but I could feel them respond ever so slightly to my desperate orders for them to move. The paralyzation was gradually starting to wear off, though I was pretty sure it would still take awhile for me to be able to do more than make the ends of my fingers bend. 

Deicide was quiet for a moment after I finished. Finally, her voice returned. “That is surprising.”

Right, so apparently another of her superpowers was incredible understatements. “Yeah, tell me about it. You asked us to find this Amanda chick and tell you what she knows. We found her and… well, I think you can safely say we told you what she knows. Deal’s done, we’re even.” 

“Yes,” came the response immediately. “Your favor is repaid in full. You have done more than I could have expected.” There was a brief pause before she added, “I am… very sorry for sending you into that danger, Paintball. It was never my intention. If I had had the slightest inkling that you would have run into that sort of trouble, I never would have made that the favor.”  

She obviously didn’t have to apologize. But I appreciated it anyway. Taking a breath while coaxing my fingers to wiggle a little more, I replied, “Thanks. We’re safe enough now, anyway. And umm, and we’re calling the authorities too. They need to know the truth about those two.”

Part of me expected the woman to argue against that. Instead, she replied, “Give me the address. I can be there before the authorities. I’ll do my own examination and leave before they get there. I can…” She hesitated. “I can find out everything I need without moving anything.”   

Part of me felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but on the other hand, it wasn’t like I could object to sending a bad guy there, considering I was going to be doing the same thing when we contacted the Conservators. Okay, okay, I didn’t actually know that any of them beyond my own dad were actually bad. But still, the whole situation was incredibly gray. I might as well let Deicide do her own investigation on top of the one the authorities would do. 

With that in mind, I gave her the exact address about where she could find the petting zoo with Amanda’s apartment. That earned me a look from Raindrop, but she remained silent. 

“Got it,” Deicide replied. “I will be there shortly. You may feel free to contact the authorities. And Paintball… thank you.” 

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “Yeah, well, we might be really different people, but I think we can all agree, ‘fuck those two and their little gang in particular.’”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before adding, “though someday you may find that we are not quite as different as you believe.” There was something important behind those words, but I couldn’t read enough into what it was before she simply finished with, “I will see you another time, Paintball. With any luck, it will not be on the battlefield. I would hate to be faced with you.” 

Well, that was a little surprising. I expected her to say something like she would be sad to have to kill me. Before I could respond to her actual words, she disconnected the call. I was officially done with my favor to Deicide. 

Even better than that, when I finished telling the others that it was done, I was able to close my hand into a fist and then open it again. I could also make my toes twitch. The paralyzation was definitely wearing off. Which, thank God Cup had actually been telling the truth about that. There’d been a small nightmare working in the back of my head about it being either permanent, or needing some kind of exterior cure to turn it off. But, thankfully, it really was temporary. 

“So what now?” Alloy put in. I could barely see enough of her hand from this position to tell that she was doing the same thing as me, closing and opening a fist. “We call in the authorities and tell them where to descend to rain righteous legal hell on that place and look for clues?” 

“How do we explain what we were doing there?” Way put in carefully.  

I had been thinking about that this whole time, and finally exhaled heavily. “I think the best thing we can do is just say that Alloy and me were investigating something independently, and we called you for help, Way. You were out with Raindrop, so you guys came to see what was going on.” 

“Without calling anyone else?” Raindrop put in. “If we were going anywhere near the Scions–” 

“We didn’t know it was actually the Scions,” Alloy pointed out. “None of us did.” 

I agreed quickly. “That’s a good point. It’s the truth. We really didn’t know they were going to be there, only that it was a lead that might not pan out at all. We just tell the truth, as far as that goes. We looked into it and called you guys for help talking to who we thought was just a normal witness just in case she might respond better to someone from the official hero teams.”

Way hesitated slightly before shifting around in the front seat to look back at us through the window while still driving. “Yeah, I think we can deal with that. How’re you guys doing with that whole moving thing?” 

In answer, I slowly moved my head from the left, then to the right. It was almost painfully stiff, but I managed it. “Getting there. Call Flea and get the Conservators there. I’ll get hold of Ten Towers as soon as I can move my hand a little more.” 

“Yeah, I’ll–” Way started, just before the van abruptly jerked violently, almost skidding sideways off the road. All of us in the back were thrown to the floor. 

“Dude, what the hell?!” Pack blurted. 

Way was looking at the side mirror, her voice tight. “Hang on, guys. That was some sort of–” She suddenly spun the wheel, sending the van to the left just as a high pitched whine of something shooting past us on the right filled the air. “It’s Cup! And some others. They’re in a car and–” She spun the wheel back the opposite way to avoid another shot. 

Right, apparently we weren’t quite done with that whole escaping from the Scions thing. But hey, maybe if I was lucky, I’d manage to get myself fully unparalyzed before they killed all of us. 

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

January 16th, two months before the start of the story. 

“Hey!” Arleigh Fosters pushed her way through a crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the long cement staircase in the outside courtyard of Cadillac Preparatory School. “Move, damn it.” There were too many people in the way, making the tall blonde growl under her breath in frustration. She grabbed the nearest guy by the elbow, making him turn to her. “What the hell is going on? Someone said Cassidy Evans was out here.” And god, she better be. If Arleigh had to go back home yet again and tell her dad she hadn’t had any luck getting close to the Evans kid…

The guy shrugged and nodded. “Sure, she’s right over there.” He stepped aside a bit, raising a hand to point over at the top of the long set of cement steps. 

The sound of wheels clacking rapidly across the cracks between concrete squares grew louder, as Arleigh looked that way just in time to see the girl in question. Cassidy Evans, daughter of the richest and most powerful (in more than one way) people in Michigan, reached the top of the stairs on her skateboard before grunting as she jumped the board up and turned so that it landed sideways on the metal railing running down the middle of the steps. With that, arms held high above her head, she rode the board all the way down to the bottom, jumped it before the very end, flipped the board over three hundred and sixty degrees in the air, then landed smoothly on the wheels before rolling to a stop. As the assembled students who had been watching cheered, she stepped off the board and popped it up into her hand before grinning as she took a bow. 

“Thank you, thank you,” the obscenely wealthy girl called out before focusing on one guy in particular, a senior who had been watching with folded arms. She held a hand out. “From the entrance all the way down the walk and off the railing. Isn’t that what you said would prove I wasn’t a poser? Now uhh, I think we bet something, didn’t we? Right, right, for me, it was a hundred bucks. For you, it was… what was it again?”  

“You know what, Evans?” The guy was practically baring his teeth as he snarled, “you’re just lucky you–” 

Taking that as her cue, Arleigh immediately stepped that way, putting one arm around the other girl as if they were BFFs. “Hey now, if you made a bet, you better honor it,” she informed the boy while wagging a finger at him. “You wouldn’t wanna be known as a welcher, would you?” 

The boy looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally just sighed and reached into his pocket before pulling out a pair of tickets, thrusting them out. “Fucking take ’em, whatever.” 

As he stalked off and the crowd started to disperse, Arleigh saw that the tickets Cassidy had taken hold of were for a concert the next night. Pretty good seats too. Perfect. This was perfect. If she went to a concert with the Evans girl, her dad would stop being such an asshole about making friends with her. 

“Oh hey, if you’re going to that concert, I could–” 

Cassidy, however, was already slipping out from under the arm that Arleigh had slung over her shoulders. “Nah,” she dismissively replied, holding the tickets out to some other girl, a sophomore. “Val’s the one who won them, Greg just convinced her he’d date her if she went to the concert with him.” 

The girl in question gave a relieved nod as she clutched the tickets to her chest. “But as soon as I let him hold them ‘for safe keeping’, he broke up with me and pretended he didn’t know anything about it. When I pushed it, he said they were payment for… looking at my ugly face.” She cringed. “I couldn’t tell my dad, he’d think I was just so stupid.” 

Arleigh’s mouth opened to tell the girl she was stupid for falling for something like that. But Val spoke again, addressing Cassidy. “Hey, maybe we could go together, since I don’t have anyone else to use this ticket for?” 

Stupid or not, the girl had just given her the opening she needed, and Arleigh immediately took it. “Yeah, I can get a ticket too and we could all go together. I could drive, so you don’t have to arrange anything. We could even go to dinner first.” Perfect, this whole thing was pe–

“No thanks,” Cassidy infuriatingly replied with a shrug. “Hey, you two should go together. Have fun.” She turned without another word, heading off with the skateboard tucked under one arm. 

God damn it! Arleigh fumed, watching the girl leave. Beside her, Val started to say something about arranging a place to meet tomorrow, but the older girl simply turned to stalk away without another word. Then she pivoted back, grabbed one of the tickets, and replied, “Five o’clock, front of the school right over there. Don’t be late.” 

Then she stalked off, ticket in hand. What the fuck was wrong with Evans? She was friendly enough, she stuck up for people she could have been much more popular than she was, even before you counted the whole rich thing. And she was… popular enough as far as school went. Some people liked her, some didn’t. She just… she had school ‘friends.’ As far as Arleigh had been able to figure out in the past several months since her father had started on this whole ‘make friends with the Evans girl’ kick, Cassidy didn’t have anyone from school who was actually close to her. She hung out in groups, she went to games and movies and stuff with other people, but there was no one she actually confided in or spent time with alone. 

“What the fuck is her problem?” Arleigh muttered to herself while mentally rehearsing what she was going to say to her father. 

Needless to say… she was going to be glad to get out of the house tomorrow night. 

*********

Plan Z

Jania Estrada, the sixty-six-year-old Panamanian woman who had worked as a maid in the Evans household for eighteen years, was humming to herself while running the vacuum back and forth across the carpet in one of the dens downstairs. More accurately, she was humming along with music playing through a single earbud. The music, humming, and vacuuming all stopped when a single buzz from the phone in her pocket informed the woman that she had a message. She turned off the vacuum and checked what had been sent to her, reading the message twice before leaving the vacuum where it was, pivoting to walk out of the room. Exchanging greetings with a couple other staff members, she made her way to the kitchen, where Chef Claudio and his two assistants were preparing lunch for the employees.

The moment she stepped into the room, the three of them looked up. Claudio started to say something about when their food would be ready, but Jania pointed to one of his assistants. “Christiana,” she announced while holding up her phone. “Mrs. Evans would like to have a few things picked up from the grocery store.” 

Christiana Diaz, a quite thin, young Latina woman with dark hair that was cut very short on the sides with a mop of curls on top, set down the knife she had been chopping with and politely excused herself before heading to the door. The two of them stepped away together, leaving the sounds of Claudio and Ethan picking up the pace in chopping vegetables. 

“Aunt Jania,” Christiana started once they were alone in the corridor. “What is it?” 

Seeing the two walk side-by-side, it was easy to notice the family resemblance in their faces, specifically their eyes and around their always-smiling mouths. Christiana was smaller than her aunt, standing only an inch over five feet. That, combined with her general youthful looks and hairstyle, made her appear to be closer to the end of her teens, rather than the twenty-seven she actually was. Or the twenty-two the rest of the household believed her to be, in her job as Claudio’s assistant.  

Not that that was her only job within the Evans household. 

In response to the question, Jania held up the phone for her to see. Indeed, it was a message from Elena Evans, asking her to send Christiana to the store to pick up a list of items. Anyone who glanced at the message would see nothing untoward about it. Certainly, they wouldn’t see the code buried in the list. Christiana, however, read the code as well as she read plain English. Or Spanish, for that matter. Her finger traced over a few key points, making certain she had translated it correctly. Then she took her aunt’s phone and sent back an answering response. To an outside observer, it would appear to be simply querying what prices were acceptable and if specific substitutes were okay, just in case. In actuality, the response included a separate code, which essentially repeated the gist of the assignment so that Elena could inform her if she had translated incorrectly or misunderstood anything. 

But no, as usual, she was spot on. The confirmation came back a moment later, and Christiana nodded to her aunt, passing the phone back to her. “Tell Claudio I’ll be back as soon as I run the errand,” she remarked, before turning on her heel, heading for the side door that led to the small employee parking lot, hidden out of sight from the front of the house for aesthetics.

Fifteen minutes later, Christiana parked a car in the underground lot of an office building. It wasn’t her car, but rather one she had borrowed from a grocery store several blocks away. No one would see her own car anywhere near this building. Rather than step out immediately, she took out her own phone, texting a totally different number from the one that Elena had used to contact Aunt Jania. Mrs. Evans’ rules. They divided these instructions and responses between multiple phones to make it even harder for anything to be traced back or decoded. The message she sent simply read, ‘You awake?’ After a few seconds, Elena sent back an emoji of a man in a business suit. Which was the last confirmation. Unless Elena sent a message to stop her, it was time to go. 

Tucking the phone away, Christiana focused for a moment. Her body shifted, transforming into a dark, mist-like shadow. Looking straight at her in this form, people would see only a pitch-black humanoid shape with a simplified face that would be impossible to recognize as anyone specific. She was clearly female, yet that was the only specific feature that could be determined. 

Stepping out of the car without opening the door, simply passing through the solid material, Christiana looked up while focusing once more. Her humanoid form shifted slightly, becoming even more of a shadow than a person, a human-sized bit of darkness. A moment later her shadow-form flew through the ceiling and into the building proper. She was in a corner of the main lobby, yet no one noticed. Anyone who looked that way would only see a notably darker section of the room, as if something nearby was casting a dark shadow there. And these people were too busy rushing back and forth to the elevators or the street to notice something like that. 

After making certain she hadn’t been noticed, Christiana moved even closer to the far corner of the lobby and continued her way upward. Floating higher, she passed through the ceiling and into what turned out to be a restroom on the second floor. Yet she didn’t stop there. One by one, she passed floor after floor, counting them to herself as she went. Finally, on the eleventh floor, she stopped. This too was a restroom, and she made her way forward through it, a barely visible shadow fog heading for the door. It opened just as she reached it, her dark figure hidden behind the door itself as a man walked right past on his way to the urinal. 

Christiana walked through the door as it closed, looking both ways in the corridor. People rushed every which way, calling out requests or questions from their cubicles while phones rang and managers worked to keep it all organized. They paid no attention to the dark shadow moving through the room. She was intangible, practically invisible, and they were distracted. 

On her way, however, she heard one man in particular snarling some very untoward things toward his clearly junior, female employee. The poor girl sat huddled in her seat, drawn in on herself while the man hissed hateful things about how terrible she was at her job as well as how useless she was in plenty of other aspects of life. He also made sure to mention at least three times that he was about to have a very important meeting with a couple of the vice presidents and if this girl knew what was good for her, she’d get him those files right now. Listening to him for only a few seconds, Christiana could tell exactly what he was. She knew his type far too well. Lording his power and authority over others, he knew the girl he was attacking here had self-confidence issues and reveled in his ability to make her miserable. 

Her job could wait for a moment. Turning to face the man, a simple shadow against the wall of the cubicle, she reared back before giving him a hard shove as hard as she could. 

He gave no reaction, of course, as her intangible hands passed through him. That was, he gave no reaction yet. Turning, Christiana stepped out of direct sight, waiting for the man to lead her back to his own small office along one side of the room. While he stopped in the doorway to say something to another middle manager, Christiana found the mug of coffee on his desk and gave it a simple push with one finger near the top. Again, there was no physical response, as her finger simply passed through. Then she swept her arm across the desk, through all the little knick knacks, before shoving both hands into the computer monitor. Finally, she turned and kicked the trash can next to the desk as hard as she could, aiming for the doorway. As always, none of these actions had any effect.  

By that point, the man had moved into the office and took a seat at his desk, clearly antsy as he waited for that important meeting. He kept glancing up at the doorway, leg bouncing anxiously. 

Standing in the corner of the room where her shadow shape would be all-but entirely invisible, Christiana watched as well. She saw the way the man’s eyes lit up when two older guys in much nicer suits began to approach. This was it, his meeting. He reached down, taking up his mug for one last sip. 

And that was when Christiana set to work. Focusing on the mug, she triggered the action she had used on it. When she had shoved her finger against the brim, nothing had happened. Now the mug reacted to that previous action, tipping over while he was sipping in order to spill all across the front of his shirt. 

While the man yelped and cursed at that, she triggered the response to her arm sweeping across the desk. All those little bits and pieces, the mug of pens, the stapler, the pristine and polished nameplate, everything went flying off to the side. A second later, she triggered the action on the computer monitor, sending that off to slam into the wall with a crash. 

By that point, the man had bolted upright, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?!” He shouted those words just as the two higher-ups came into the doorway. And in that moment, Christiana triggered both the shove into the man’s back and the kick against the trash can. Simultaneously, the man staggered forward while the can itself was sent flying over, literally smacking into one of their heads. 

And then it was done. The man was left standing there beside his desk where he had stumbled, monitor broken against the nearby wall, random junk from his desk scattered across the floor, while his trash can had just hit one of his bosses in the face. From the fresh stain on his shirt, it would appear to those men as though he had spilled his own coffee and violently overreacted. Even the stumble forward from being pushed combined with the flying trash can looked like he had lunged that way to kick it.

With a small smirk, Christiana stepped backward through the wall into another office, leaving the man to explain that whole situation while the yelling started. 

Satisfied with her own moment of justice, she moved through several more offices, finding the one she was looking for. A heavyset, very tall man sat at the desk there, reading through a few files. Christiana took the time to ensure that this was the right man, before holding one hand out as she stood behind him. A thought made a knife appear, while she solidified herself into a more humanoid form. Then she gave a low whistle. 

The man jolted, turning to face her. As soon as he did, Christiana stabbed the knife into his throat. He yelped, jerking backward before falling to the floor. But, of course, the knife had done nothing. Not yet, anyway. 

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, standing there over the suddenly terrified man while he clutched his perfectly-fine throat. 

“Y-you… you work for them. Z. They call you Z,” he stammered. 

“Plan Z, to be completely accurate,” she informed him. “Then you know how this works. They’ve asked you for the files twice. This is the third time. The last time. You have one hour. Deliver the files, then they will call me and tell me to call it off. If I don’t get that call by that point, I will trigger the effect. Your throat will be slit. If you go to the cops, I will trigger the effect. If you tell anyone, I will trigger the effect. No one else can save you, no one else can stop it. Nobody. If I trigger that knife I just put in your throat, you will die. Deliver the files and you’ll be fine. You have fifty-eight minutes now. Do you understand?” 

He tried to plead with her, and she simply repeated, “Do you understand? Fifty-seven minutes and forty seconds. If I was you, I would hurry.” 

That was all it took. The man lunged to his feet, blubbering a bit as he bolted for the door while saying something about getting the files out of storage. Christiana watched him go, then simply turned and stepped through the nearby wall, floating down along the outside of the building before reaching the street. There, she made her way back to her own car where it was parked several blocks away, resumed her normal form, and took out a different phone out of the glove box to text to yet a third phone number, ‘Got the tickets, you still wanna go to the game?’ 

‘Let me check with the old lady’ came the response. 

And there it was. Christiana only had to wait now. If the response came back affirmative, that the supposed person at the other end of the line was allowed to go to the game, it meant their target had delivered the files as instructed and she could cancel the knife attack. But if it came back negative, that the ‘old lady’ had denied them, it meant he had not followed instructions. In which case… he wouldn’t be making any other decisions again. 

Reaching out, Christiana turned on the car to listen to music. 

And then she waited. 

Previous Chapter

Class Action 14-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Pushing aside all those thoughts about how amazing this not being a life or death situation was, I focused on activating my air-production and water communication spells. And boy was it still weird to breathe water. Seriously, it was one thing to hold my breath for a long time, but magically breathing in the water itself? Yeah, it was just… a hard thing to accept reflexively. I had to stop holding my breath and just… let the water flow in and out. Somehow, it provided oxygen without drowning me. Magic was weird. 

At the same time, I looked around. My shiver was already on their way over, and I greeted them cheerfully. For a minute, I took the time to say good morning to them all, giving each shark the rubs and kisses they deserved. Then I got them to line up in a circle and explained what was going on. To be fair, I still wasn’t exactly sure how intelligent they were, but they tended to do what I asked, and they were definitely smarter than, say, a dog. I just wasn’t sure where the line was between their actual intelligence and them simply doing what I wanted. It was a little blurry there. 

In either case, whether because they understood or because me putting what I wanted into words helped my power direct them subconsciously, explaining things to my sharks tended to help. So I spent a couple of minutes doing that, making as certain as I could that they knew this was all a game and nothing was really going to hurt them, before sending the whole shiver scattering away from me. They would come when called. And in what was, in my opinion, incredibly adorable, all of them made sure to swim away from the place where the sunken boat was supposed to be so they wouldn’t accidentally cheat by seeing it too soon. 

Smiling to myself when I realized what they were doing, I shook my head before speaking to Felix and Shiloh through the badge. Letting them know I was on my way, I struck out, swimming around the ship underwater until I saw the marked off (with buoys) area near the bow where we were supposed to wait. Then I rose up, breaking the surface just in time to meet up with Shiloh as the other girl dove in next to me. She wasn’t wearing a swimming suit. Instead, her body was covered from toes to throat with what looked like pristine crystal armor. It was very thin, looking more like a second skin, and gleamed in the artificial sunlight. I could see various rainbow designs flickering through bits of it. 

“Wow,” I remarked once she had surfaced and was treading water next to me. “Shiny.” 

Shaking that shaggy hair out of her eyes now that it was wet, Shiloh grinned. “Thanks. It absorbs energy and redirects it. I think you have a power like that.” 

“Yeah, but I didn’t get the spiffy armor to go with,” I replied. “And something tells me you don’t have to focus on it every time you want it to work.” 

“Nope,” she confirmed. “The armor can only take so much, but it’s set and forget.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sinbad leaned out over the railing to look down at us. “You two ready?!” When we called that we were and gave him a pair of thumbs up, he looked over to where Felix was perched on the railing, map in hand. “You ready?” 

“Now that you showed me which way was up on this thing, yup!” she cheerfully replied before waving down at us. “We’re all good!” 

“Excellent!” Sinbad offered that gold, silver, and ruby smile once more. “Dive, for treasure and glory!” 

Looking at one another, Shiloh and I each shrugged before doing exactly as he requested. We dove under the water and set off together. Time to get through the maze, find the ship, and bring back any of the treasure we could find. 

There obviously wasn’t enough time in the two hour class for everyone to have a turn, even in three-person groups and six different mazes/ships. But anyone who didn’t get to go today would get a chance next time. Sinbad had, of course, made it clear he would be changing the mazes and the ships enough that asking those of us who went today for hints wouldn’t help at all. And might even hinder, if it made people go in with certain expectations. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he’d cackled maniacally while saying it, so I was fairly confident he almost wanted someone to try cheating that way.

In any case, Shiloh and I swam toward the giant stone structure. We were next to each other,  just far enough apart that we wouldn’t smack one another while going deeper. On the way, my sharks came swimming in on all sides. I had a feeling their presence made Shiloh a little nervous, so I turned a bit to her and began to gesture at each shark, introducing them by name. That seemed to make her feel a little bit better. But I was pretty sure she still wasn’t exactly completely at ease. Not yet, anyway. I had confidence in my sharks’ ability to charm the girl before this was over. 

The sharks formed an honor guard around us, keeping an eye out for anything dangerous. Or, well, ‘dangerous’ as far as the exercise went. And so we continued like that, flanked on all sides by my sharks while heading down to where we could see the vague outline of the enormous building that held the maze we were supposed to work our way through. 

It was just like the others I’d caught a glimpse of on the opposite side, and I very briefly wondered why Sinbad would make a point of not wanting me to see this ahead of time when all I would see was the giant walls. Then I remembered, duh, people with vision powers who could see through those walls. 

Even once we’d reached the building, we had to dive deeper to get to the entrance itself. Those were the rules that Sinbad had been quite firm on. No going into the maze through some other way. Everyone had to start at the entrance. And once you left the building going back toward the ship, you were done. So no going in through the door just to fulfill the letter of the rule, then going back out and finding a shortcut. 

Yeah, I had a feeling Sinbad had a lot of practice with that sort of cheating. And every other kind.

On the way down, I glanced back over my shoulder, past the sharks bringing up the rear and toward the shape of the ship on the surface. “You hear us, Felix?” 

“Yup!” came the response. “Crystal clear. You guys just keep heading down. Oh, when you get to the entrance, don’t go right inside. There’s bad things that could happen if you do. Eesh, right at the start?” Her voice rose, and I realized she was calling out to the man himself. “Dude, you really don’t take it easy with this stuff!” 

Shiloh and I glanced at one another, both smirking a little. Up here, it was light enough that we could still see each other unaided. That was at about a hundred feet, which was already deep enough that a normal SCUBA diver would have to deal with something called the bends if they went up too fast. Basically, the pressure underwater was high enough that if you went back up out of that pressure too fast, it made bubbles of nitrogen and other gases build up and cause a lot of problems. Even fatal ones. So you had to stop for a little bit at certain depths and stay there until your body adjusted before going higher. 

Thankfully, in our case, a mix of the water-breathing spell we were already using, our own general regeneration/healing powers, and an extra spell coin Sinbad had handed over at the start of class for us to activate on our way up, we wouldn’t have to deal with that. Not that I really would have objected to staying down longer with my sharks, but I did have another class to go to after this. Calculus, which was gonna be a weird thing to jump to. 

As we got deeper, the light began to fade. It got dark enough that I called out through the water for Shiloh to stop. As the girl looked at me, I reached into one of the nearly-invisible pockets on the bodysuit, my fingers slipping into the much-larger-on-the-inside space. Fumbling a bit until I found what I was looking for, I came out with a headband. While the other girl looked at me curiously, I touched my fingers against the band and created a simple light spell rune. Activating it made a powerful flashlight-like beam project outward from that spot of the headband, and I put it on. Now it functioned like a headlamp, and I could see Shiloh’s eyes widen with realization. 

“You want one?” I asked, indicating my pouch. Thanks to everything that had already happened, I’d spent a couple hours the night before filling up my bags and pouches with all sorts of stuff I might need. It really paid to be prepared.

Shiloh, however, shook her head before pointing at her eyes. As I watched, they began to glow faintly purple. “Dark vision!” she called. “It’s as bright as the park at noon down here.”  

Grinning, I gave her a thumbs up. “Useful! All I’ve got for that is infrared, which doesn’t really help navigate underwater where everything’s equally wet and cool.”  

“Still pretty great,” she assured me. Then a brief pause before the girl added, “You’ve got a lot of powers, you know?” 

“Dude, doesn’t she, though?” That was Felix, sounding like she was lounging back somewhere. Probably lying on the railing of the ship, holding the map up. “How do you even keep them straight? Between all the powers and those spells you know right off the top of your head without even thinking about it…” 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Believe me, it’s not a big deal. The stuff you have to do to get that kind of boost…” Pausing, I grimaced before gesturing to the ship we were supposed to be heading for. “Let’s just get in there, find the ship, and see what we can grab.”  

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Shiloh wanted to say something more about all that. But she just nodded finally before starting to swim that way once more. Something told me the subject would come up later. If not with her, then with others. They were really curious about what sort of things I’d been through, especially if they weren’t really close to me and didn’t know the whole story. I could only imagine what they were going to think when word about Persephone started to spread. I just… yeah, maybe that whole newspaper article thing I’d come up with earlier was an even better idea than I’d thought. I needed to get my story out there in my own words. 

We reached the entrance soon enough after that. My earlier impression was holding up. This place was like a skyscraper that had been turned on its side, and the door we were going through was directly on what would have been the bottom if it was rightside up. 

The two of us began to tread water right by the entrance while Shiloh told Felix we were there. The cat-girl, in turn, promptly told us to look toward the top left of the doorway. We were supposed to be careful though, and not touch it, or go through the doorway. So, we got closer and peered over the doorway until we found a marking that looked like a four-leaf clover with squiggles coming out of each ‘leaf.’ Once we reported that, Felix very deliberately led us through the instructions on disarming that spell. Apparently, the deal was that she had a list of spells on the back, with pictures and instructions of how to disarm them. On the front of the map, all she had was markings of ‘dangerous spell here.’ She had to get us to describe the spells we found correctly to her so she could find the right one on the back. And there were some that were really similar, but had very different disarming methods. So yeah, we had to be very specific. It was all about telling her exactly what we saw and testing the way we all communicated. Not to mention making sure none of us acted too quickly. 

So, we disarmed the rune fairly easily once it was described properly for Felix. Just to be on the safe side, Shiloh and I double checked the rest of the doorway. Even though the map said it was clear, we didn’t want to take any chances. But sure enough, we couldn’t find anything. Shiloh even used one of her own powers, which made her fingers light up with a faint white glow, while running them along the doorway. Apparently if there was any active hostile magic within a couple feet of them, they would change colors based on what type of magic it was. But her fingers remained white. Between that and Felix’s map, I was satisfied. 

There was, however, one more thing I had to deal with. Turning toward my sharks, I announced, “Okay guys, I know this isn’t fair, but you’ve got to go inside for a little while. There’s no room in this part for you, and we don’t want you to end up being claustrophobic. I promise, I’ll bring you out soon.” With that, I recalled them to their private pool area in my special vial, before nodding to Shiloh so we could move on. 

We passed through the doorway together and were finally inside the maze. It was, as advertised… a maze. Yeah, shocking. Wait, no, amazing. Shiori would kill me if I didn’t jump for that pun, even in my own head. 

We were swimming in a narrow corridor. It was just wide enough for the two of us to swim side by side without hitting one another, and about eight feet from the floor to the ceiling. This first entrance area ran ahead about ten feet before reaching a T-junction with a split to the left and right. The left went straight that way, while the right sort of curved a bit. 

“Okay!” Felix was saying, “Don’t go forward yet. Do not go near that intersection unless you want the Kyerekeunk to use you for lunch.” 

“What’s a Kyerekeunk?” I asked while curiously glancing around. I didn’t see anything, or detect anything with any other sense, for that matter. 

“No idea!” the girl back on the ship replied. “But the picture has a lot of tentacles and teeth, so maybe that squid thing from before? I dunno. Just don’t go forward yet. This thing says that you have to pass through that area when it’s sleeping, and it only sleeps for about ten seconds out of every minute.”  

“Boy,” I noted, “I thought I got away with a weird sleep schedule. Oh, and I hope those are consecutive seconds.” 

While Shiloh snickered, Felix was murmuring to herself, obviously distracted as she focused on deciphering her map and instructions. “Okay, hold on. Right, got it. Okay, I got it. Look to your right. Do you see a thin vertical blue line partway up the corridor?” When we acknowledged that we did, she explained, “The timing starts as soon as any part of you passes that line. After that, it’s fifty seconds of danger. If you’re within the area between that blue line and another one further in, you get a free trip to pain town with the Kyerekeunk. Then you’ve got ten seconds to get through before the thing resets.” 

“Okay,” I murmured with a look to Shiloh. “Guess we need to be careful then.” 

She gave a nod of agreement, swimming past me to get close to the blue line without crossing it. “Felix, which way are we going once we get through here, left or right? And please, please make sure you’re looking at it the right way.” 

There was a brief pause while the other girl triple-checked that before answering. “You want to go to the right. And when I say that, I mean the one that curves. It should curve. You see that?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “we definitely see it.” 

“Great! Good, fantastic, super.” Felix was clearly excited, but composed herself quickly. “So you definitely wanna go to the right, the direction that curves. Oh, and stay to the inside of the curve. I mean stay against the right wall when you do that. There’s a pretty nasty stinger spell along the left-hand side of that. It just makes you itch badly if you get in range, but that’d slow you down so you don’t get out of there before the Kyerekeunk wakes up. If you hug the right wall before you start into the curve, you should be safe. Oh, and you’ll know you’re safe when you hit an open area with pathways leading up, down, and forward. Stop in that area and don’t go anywhere. Seriously, just get to that spot and stop. You do not want to find out what bad things you could run into if you swim through the wrong doorway.” 

“Go to the right, stay against the right wall, stop when we get to the open area with paths up, down, and forward,” Shiloh repeated. “Got it. Okay, hold on.” With a glance toward me, she held her hand out until it was right next to the blue line. “Sadie, put up a stopwatch, ready to start on my mark.” 

Apparently Sadie was her wrist computer thing, because a holographic stopwatch appeared in the water, clearly projected from that. Shiloh, in turn, took a breath before simultaneously dropping her hand past the line and saying, “Mark!” Then she yanked her hand back while the holographic display began to count off the time. 

“At least we don’t have to try to get the shiver through here in those ten seconds too,” I cheerfully noted while watching the seconds. “You wanna go first or second?” 

She hesitated before gesturing. “I’ll bring up the rear, you’re probably better on the front line if we run into anything unexpected.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably fair,” Felix put in, clearly not insulted in the least, “I might’ve missed something. I mean, I’m really trying not to, but this Sinbad guy is intense.” 

Snorting a bit (a weird sensation underwater) I put in, “It’s okay, he’s trying to make sure we’re ready for the unexpected. And probably having a lot of fun while he does it.” 

By that point, we had about ten seconds before it was time for the actual ten seconds. Shiloh and I both braced ourselves. Just as the counter reached fifty, I kicked off and started swimming as fast as I could. The other girl was right behind me. Briefly, I thought about using the Seosten boost, but I didn’t want to leave her behind. Besides, I could make it the old-fashioned way. At least, I hoped I could. 

We swam hard, making the turn and heading around that curve while staying close to the right wall. No way did I want to get hit by that itching spell. I had no idea how much time had passed, and didn’t want to glance back to see the clock. We just had to keep going.  

As soon as I saw the slightly more open area ahead I swam even harder, using a little bit of boost to get there. Finally, I emerged into that open foyer space, seeing three dark doorways up in the ceiling, two below, and one big one straight ahead. I didn’t take the time to look too closely, however, spinning around to look back the way I’d come. Shiloh was there, still back a little bit with only three seconds left. So, I summoned my staff, enlarged it to twice its size, and extended the thing that way. The other girl grabbed on, before I yanked hard to pull her all the way into the open area. 

She was through. We were both through. And not even a second later, the timer hit sixty. 

“Whew,” I managed. “That was a little close.” 

“Thanks,” she gasped out, breathing hard. “I got a little close to the wall and got caught up.” 

Felix quickly put in, “Close, but still good, right? You’re both good? I don’t hear any tentacle thrashing.” 

With a little smile, I confirmed. “We’re good. Thanks for the directions, Felix.” Turning, I looked over the area we’d made it to, with multiple paths up, down, and forward. “And speaking of directions, oh mighty navigator…

“Which way now?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I couldn’t move. Whatever we had just been hit with, it paralyzed us. All I could do was lay there.

Okay, to take stock, this… could have been going better. I had spent so much time focusing on being afraid that talking to this Amanda girl would somehow attract Pencil’s attention, from him seeing her as a potential loose end, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ever think that she could be an actual threat. And I sure as hell had never expected anything like this. 

Amanda was Cup. The girl we had come to talk to, the one who had been a potential lead to a way of stopping Pencil, was his sister–wait. That meant the guy who was supposed to be in Alaska, Nick, he was… he was… oh. God damn it, why did I never even think about that? 

Well, obviously, because there was a video of Pencil himself with the young Amanda and Nick tied up while he manipulated their parents into killing each other. Deicide had shown it to Alloy and me, though she stopped it just before the gunshots. What–how would that even–what? 

A giggle interrupted my racing thoughts. My attention was dragged right back to Aman–Cup herself, as she straightened while still standing over me. “Isn’t this fun? You came back! And you brought friends this time.” Her gaze moved to look over toward Pack and Alloy, before pausing. “Hold up.” Moving that way a few steps, she leaned closer to my new partner for a moment before audibly sighing while straightening back up, her voice full of annoyance. “Great, it knocked that one unconscious. I thought it was supposed to just paralyze!” She paused, then gave a little giggle. “Ohhh right, yeah that makes sense. Never mind, we’re all good. I mean, I’m good. You’re all still kinda fucked.”  

Alloy was unconscious? I supposed that explained why her marbles weren’t going psycho attacking Cup right now. But damn it! I was supposed to keep her safe. I’d–this was first thing we were doing together  in the real world, and it had all been fucked up this badly. She was unconscious and paralyzed in the home of one of the leaders of the fucking Scions of Typhon, for fucks sake. I screwed up. I screwed up badly, and if we couldn’t get out of here, Alloy would… no. Don’t think about that. I couldn’t think about that. If I did, I’d spiral into a hopeless nightmare. I had to think.

After her little giggle fit, Cup shrugged. “Oh well, two out of three staying conscious ain’t bad. And we can still play.” 

“You wanna play, cunt?” the La Casa girl countered in a growl while still laying motionless. “How about Connect Four? I’ll shove every single one of those plastic discs up your–” 

“Not on the first date, silly!” Cup interrupted, tutting while giving Pack a light, almost playful kick with her foot. “Besides, I have much more fun plans in mind than a dumb board game. I’ll just have to do most of the physical stuff myself, since that paralyzing ray won’t wear off for awhile. And, you know, that new best friend of yours is still asleep. Gotta do something about that…”

Through the bluetooth in my helmet, I heard That-A-Way. “Paintball, we’re on our way in!” 

Right, right, because we hadn’t actually been completely stupid about this whole thing. We had backup. Backup that would come in and help deal with Cup before she had time to call Pencil or any of the other Scions. She was too busy gloating in front of us to even think about moving fast. And why not? As far as she knew, she had all of us trapped here. We’d even told her that no one else knew we were there when we came in. She was in no rush. She wasn’t even…

“No!” I suddenly blurted out loud as a thought jumped to mind. “Don’t… don’t come any closer.”  

Tilting her head, Cup stared down at me. “Aww,” she all-but-purred, “is the little hero boy scared now that he’s back here?” She squatted down close to me, tapping the visor of my helmet. “Don’t you worry one little bit. Auntie Cup’s gonna take excellent care of you, yes she is.” 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way’s voice came through the earbud again, “if you were trying to tell us to wait, say something that ends with the word ‘Scion.’ And you better have a damn good reason.” 

I did. At least, I hoped I did. Taking a breath, I stared up at Cup’s eager face. At least, the part I could still see with that white mask covering the lower half. God, how had I completely failed to realize that the girl we had been talking to was her? Seriously, now it was obvious while looking at her eyes. Sure, she was pretty good at pretending to have all her marbles, but I should’ve recognized her. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve been more on top of things.  

Forcing those thoughts away, I quickly spoke up. “So you’re really part of the Scions.” 

“God damn it,” Way snapped, clearly upset about the whole situation. Which, fair. “This better be a real plan. If you’re just trying to play noble sacrifice or something, I’m going to kill you. We’ll wait for a minute, but you need to make it clear what the hell you’re doing or we’re coming in. And when you do want us to come in, end a sentence with the word nuts.”   

Cup, meanwhile, chuckled a little while shaking her head. “Still catching up with that, huh?” She gave me a kick that wasn’t nearly as gentle as the one she had given Pack. “Poor boy. You know, I haven’t forgotten about that whole nasty business at the cabin. You and your…” She turned, giving Pack herself a second kick, this one as hard as mine. “… friends hurt me! Threatened me, made poor Pencil all mad too. Oh, but he’s gonna be really happy when I bring you to him. Think I’ll find a big red bow and stick it right on your head. Won’t that be great? And wait til I tell him how you came strolling right in. Ain’t that the funniest shit?” 

Okay, okay, I had to be careful with this if the plan that had jumped into my head was going to work. This was incredibly dangerous, and maybe stupid. But it was the best chance we had to actually get somewhere with the whole Scions thing. Yeah, there was still a chance of doing some real damage to them, and not just from knowing Cup’s identity. Given how many stolen Touched-Tech toys Pencil had, and the fact that Cup had already demonstrated having this place wired with stolen tech that was able to paralyze us? I had no doubt that she had a way to teleport out of this place to safety the second Raindrop and Way got here. She certainly had methods of escaping, so we couldn’t even count on catching her with help from those two. Especially not while Pack and I were paralyzed and Alloy was unconscious. No, if those two burst in, at best they’d just be able to make her flee. Then we’d be back to square one. Which, to be fair, was a hell of a lot better than being at square ‘captured by the Scions,’ but still. 

To that end, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking again. “That was some pretty good acting back there. I really felt sorry for you.” I was careful to keep my tone a mix between forced lightness and fearful. I wanted Cup to see me as terrified but trying to hide it. Shockingly, that wasn’t a hard thing to pull off, given the actual situation we were in.

“Paintball,” Pack snapped in my direction, “I really don’t ask for that much, but could you pretty please refrain from complimenting the evil fucking psychopath who wants to torture and kill us?”  

“Aww, you really liked that, huh?” Cup was ignoring Pack, her gaze focused on me. “And see, I didn’t even expect to see you today. Pulled that whole performance out of nowhere, just like that. Can you believe I lost the lead in the school play to Bethany Dane? Not that she had much of a chance to enjoy it.” Her tone with those words sent a terrible shiver down my spine. 

“Actually,” I made myself reply, “I wasn’t talking about today. I mean, really, kudos there too. No, I was talking about the video. The one of you and… what was his name, again? Your brother. I mean, his real name. Nick? Right, Nick. I was talking about the video where you and Nick were all terrified because your parents were about to be killed. Err, sorry, were about to kill each other. You two seriously looked scared. I really thought you were innocent victims. That’s the performance that really should’ve gotten you the lead over that Bethany Dane chick.” 

There was a brief pause while the girl seemed to be considering my words. I held my breath, waiting to see if she bought into it. Then, she chuckled lightly. “It should’ve, huh? That was the role of a lifetime. I mean seriously, how many people get to pretend they’re sad that their parents just had to shoot each other because they thought they were saving them?”

“You’re completely fucked up,” Pack put in from where she was still lying on the floor. “And honestly, I’m not sure if I mean you or the idiot over there trying to butter you up!”   

She sounded completely pissed, but I knew Pack fairly well by now. I was pretty sure she’d already figured out that I actually had a real reason for all this. She knew I had a plan, and was backing me up on it by being openly antagonistic. The bad cop to my good cop, so to speak. 

Casually, Cup remarked, “Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly what he’s doing.” My stomach clenched, before she went on. “He’s hoping if I talk long enough, that paralyzing ray will wear off and you can all escape. But it doesn’t really matter. See, it’ll take another… oh, hour or so? Unless I use the counter ray. But you know, I really don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.” 

Oh man, she’d figured out my cunning plan to trick her into talking long enough for the paralyzing beam to wear off so we could escape. What was I going to do now? Woe is m–oh right, that wasn’t my actual plan. But cool for her for thinking she’d caught on. 

Still, I made myself hesitate a little as though her words actually had an effect before pushing on. “But seriously, how? I mean, did your brother just kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” 

There, that ought to do it. 

“Kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” Cup’s voice radiated annoyance. Yup, my words had done the job. “Are you that fucking stupid? Of course we didn’t–I mean… kid, he is the real Pencil. The one and only truly original. That guy was just a stupid patsy, he was dead before he ever left the house, like five minutes after the camera stopped rolling.” 

“W-wait.” Again, it wasn’t hard to inject fear into my voice. I had the subtlest impression that she got off on scaring people, so she’d react better to that than fake awe or respect. Trying to play up to her ego wouldn’t work, but pretending everything she said scared the crap out of me? Well, I wasn’t really pretending so much, but either way, that was how I could make her talk. “You mean you guys didn’t just… wa-wait, I thought you were just… just so broken after what he did that you turned bad then. Like, he made you bad?” Yeah, saying it like that sounded ridiculously childish, but again, that seemed like the best way to get the crazy bitch talking. 

“Made us bad?” Cup’s taunting laugh was enough to make my teeth grind a bit. “Oh, you sweet, sweet little boy. No, no, no. We pulled him in, hired him. He was an actor, little puppy. Just a dumb wannabe like so many others. A poser. He played his role just the way we scripted it.” 

“Oh come on,” Pack put in, clearly getting all the way into her role as the bad cop of this whole thing. “You expect us to believe a couple teenagers did all that? Who was your boss? Who’s the one who really put all of it together and recruited you? I wanna know who the real power is.” 

From the corner of my eye, I could barely make out Cup’s form as she moved to stand over Pack. Her voice was dangerous. “Is that right, lizard girl? You want to know who the real power is? I think we can accommodate that. Give me five minutes, you’ll know who has the power.” 

Okay maybe that was a little too far. Cup was clearly right on the edge. We didn’t want her to immediately call Pencil or the others, but if she started… getting involved like she clearly wanted to do with Pack right now, that would be bad too. Quickly, I blurted, “It was the powers, right?” Feeling Cup’s gaze on me, I continued. “Some people think they can make you evil. That must’ve been what happened to you guys. We can get you help, there’s some doctors who think they can reverse the psychological effect of the sphere and make you normal ag–” 

That did the trick. A little too well, actually, as there was an abrupt rush of movement before her foot collided with my stomach. Thankfully, I’d painted a bit of orange on the inside of my costume, so I barely felt it. Still, I gave her the yelp of pain she was clearly itching for. 

“Now you listen to me, you little fuck,” Cup snapped. “Nothing changed us. Nothing made Nick and me what we are. We’re in control. We did all that before we even had powers. That’s right, we didn’t get powers until right after that happened. Those little spheres showed up and gave us these gifts because they were so impressed. They knew we deserved them after what we managed to do. Just think about that for a second.” Her foot came down on my stomach, not hard but just sort of resting there with a little force. “We talked our own parents into killing each other, and we did it through a fucking proxy. We talked a moron sucker into playing the big bad role on camera so everyone would think he was responsible and feel sorry for us, got him to talk our parents into killing each other, and then killed him ourselves. Myself. I did it. Now everyone thinks Pencil is the guy who did all that. You know who’s not a suspect and will never be? His first poor, innocent victims. That’s what we pulled off. That’s why the orbs came and gave us our rewards. Because they wanted to see what else we could do. They were proud of us.” 

Oh boy, was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But I stuck to my original plan and simply replied (in a voice that was still shaky from the terror I wanted her to hear), “Th-the orbs gave you power as a reward? I–I don’t… Is that why they gave Pencil such a bigger reward than they gave you? Because all that stuff was his idea and he’s the one in charge?”  

There was a very slight pause before Cup crouched over me. Her gaze seemed to bore through the visor and straight into my eyes as she very dangerously murmured, “Excuse me?”

Right, I had to be careful about this. Hesitating slightly, I offered her a confused, “I mean, because he’s invincible. He’s like, completely invincible to everything and you… uhh, you make people freeze for a couple seconds?” Yes, I was deliberately downplaying it. I figured with any luck, I could maybe get her to tell us any weaknesses Pencil might have just to counter my claim that he was completely invincible. Measured against her own power, complete invincibility to everything seemed wildly unfair, and I figured that would twist her buttons a little. Maybe just enough to get the girl to retort that Pencil wasn’t actually totally invincible. Sure, it was a longshot, but it was the best chance we had of getting real information while we were here. 

Cup gave a low chuckle of amusement while roughly tapping my visor a few times. “You think that’s all I do? Boy, you really are as stupid as the others, aren’t you?”  

“What?” Pack put in, “you gonna try to say that making someone stop to think about whatever ridiculous nonsense question you make up is better than literal invulnerability? Face it, babe, you’re a far distant second behind the kind of power your brother has. Hell, not even that. You guys recruit some good powers. Maybe you’re like… third or fourth? Seriously, it’s not even close. With his power, it’s like he’s Superman, and you’re… just that bad guy with the stilts.” 

There was a low growl from the crazy girl before she retorted, “First of all, you’re mixing comic universes. Superman’s DC and Stiltman is Marvel. Get it right. And second…” She trailed off, tapping my visor a couple times indecisively before straightening. “I’ve got some news for you.”

Wait, was this actually about to work? Was she about to tell us something secret about Pencil’s power? The whole thing had been such a crazy reach, and yet, it sure sounded like that. 

But no. The next words out of the girl’s mouth weren’t some big secret about Pencil. Actually, it wasn’t about him at all. Instead, she picked up that remote she had been using earlier, the one that triggered the paralyzing ray. “You think my power just makes your brain freeze up? It lets me borrow your brain, stupid.” She tapped the remote pointedly against my visor. “I ask you a stupid, nonsensical question and while you’re stuck trying to figure it out, I get these ideas. Ideas like this thing.” She waved the remote in my face. “I know how to build things, anything I want. But I only get inspired when I get to borrow other people’s brains for it. I use my power, their brains lock up, and I get ideas for my inventions. Different people give ideas of different… flavors. That’s what’s so fun about this. The paralyzing ray? You gave me that idea. I used my power on you back at the hospital and it made me think about a big colorful beam that could make things stop moving. That’s what Pencil used on you at the cabin. Then I built an upgraded version here in my home sweet home that lasts longer and hits everyone I want instead of just one person. Once I mix the portable version and the more effective one together, it’s gonna be useful as hell.”  

Okay, that was unexpected. I’d set this whole thing up to find out a secret about Pencil’s power, and ended up getting a secret about Cup’s. What the fuck? Her power was–wait a second. 

“That’s how you guys have all those Touched-Tech things,” I blurted in surprise. “Everyone thinks you just steal them from others all over the place, but you build them yourself?” 

She offered a smirk my way. “Well, some of them. We steal enough that those Techie geeks whine about it, which makes everyone assume that all the toys we have come from that.” 

Before I had time to even start processing that, there was a soft groan from nearby. Alloy. “What–” she started before giving a yelp. “I can’t move! What the–why–hey!” 

“Oh, sorry, babe.” Cup teasingly called over that way. “Pencil only really cares about punishing these two. We don’t actually need an extra.” Her hand moved to push something on the remote. In that second, a gold marble flew out of nowhere, transforming into a baseball bat before slamming into the girl. She was sent colliding into the wall. But not before she managed to hit the button. It wasn’t another paralyzing ray. Instead, three different very lethal-looking gun turret things dropped into view from the ceiling. 

“You’re nuts!” I screamed, just as the guns sighted in on Alloy. They made loud humming sounds as they began to charge up to fire some sort of beam that way. 

But That-A-Way was faster. She appeared along with Raindrop right in the middle of the room. While Cup was jolting to her feet and spinning to face the new arrivals, Rain hit her with a massive wave of water powerful enough to send the evil bitch right back into the floor with a squeal of surprise. More importantly, the tidal wave washed across the ceiling, and with a grunt, the younger girl made the entire roof of the building tear itself off. Yes, the entire roof. It ripped its way upward with a scream of protesting metal and a shower of sparks and bits of debris before flying off through the air, taking the turrets with it just as they opened fire. 

By that point, two more turrets had popped out of the floor and were swiveling around to take aim. Fortunately, Way had used that time to throw herself down across the three of us. Her foot touched my waist, she was laying over Pack, and had stretched out her hand just enough for her fingers to brush Alloy’s arm. Raindrop fell backwards on top of her, and I heard Cup scream something in a blind rage. 

Then Way activated her power once more, and we were gone.

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Class Action 14-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the archangels posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can see it right here

Pretty soon, Sinbad had us all divided into trios. Our job as a group was to work together to navigate one of several underwater mazes he had set up, reach a ship that would be waiting for us somewhere within, and then find the treasure on that ship. We were being scored on how efficiently we got through the challenge, how well we worked together, and how long it took. And, of course, on how much treasure we safely retrieved. There were actually six mazes, ships, and treasures, all of them apparently different. When one trio finished, another would start. 

As far as the groups went, one person would stay up on this ship above the surface, using the makeshift map and notes they would be given to direct the other two through the maze and into the ship. From there, it would be up to the duo underwater to find the treasure safely. Apparently, whoever won would get a special prize from the man himself. 

Of course, it wasn’t just about navigating the underwater maze and then ship. The pair down in the water would also have to deal with traps and fake attacks from ‘sharks’ and other potential monsters down there. Not my sharks, of course. I wouldn’t even put them in as fake opponents, just in case someone got carried away or they were confused. No, these ones were apparently entirely fake creatures summoned and controlled by magic. Though from the large octopus thing that Sinbad made poke its tentacles out of the water and wave, they were very realistic. Only once he made one of the tentacles extend and allowed us to touch it did it become clear that the thing wasn’t real. It felt like a warm solid-light hologram of sorts. It would definitely seem real in the heat of the moment, and they would react to being hit the way a real one would. We were going to have to defend ourselves, and do so underwater as best as we could while using the powers and magic we had available to us. Sinbad wanted to see how well we all did like that. 

In my case, I was grouped up with Shiloh and Felix, Triss’s Nekomatan-human hybrid half-sister. She was the one who looked like a pale caucasian woman with very light blonde hair that was cut short, with a secondary set of cat ears atop her head and a long, fluffy white tail. When I’d first met her back before the whole thing with Fossor happened, she was hitting on some guy’s girlfriend, and had made it clear that she was very bisexual. Also, she was into Tristan and Vanessa. Like, Tristan and Vanessa. Which quite understandably weirded them both out. 

Anyway, according to Sands and Sarah, Felix had mellowed a bit after being told about certain people being a little uncomfortable. She still teased and played things up, but made sure to leave anyone alone if they didn’t like it. Triss had convinced her half-sister to avoid, as Felix put it, ‘throwing bait out there’ for anyone who made it clear they weren’t interested. In her words, she wanted to have fun, not make people feel creepy. 

In any case, as the three of us stood at the edge of the deck staring down into the water while waiting for one of the other trios to finish their run, I asked, “So which of us is going down there and who’s staying up here to play director? Uh, Shiloh, your computer thing?”

“It’s fine with water,” she assured me, waving her arm around so I could get a good look. It was a pretty sleek device, running from her wrist almost to her elbow along the back of her arm. The sides were slightly rounded, with dark blue edges while the bulk of it was white, including the screen whenever it wasn’t displaying anything (it could show images and text across the screen itself like a regular cell phone, or project a hologram image). There were various buttons along it which only Shiloh seemed to know the functions of. Well, her and anyone who had built the thing or helped her maintain it. But it was all Greek to me. Aside from the fact that I actually understood a little bit of Greek, thanks to some late-night study sessions. When you only had to sleep a couple hours a night, you had time to pick up a few extra things.

Felix’s cat-ears twitched a little. “Not to lean into stereotypes, cuz I’m fine with water, but I’ll stay up here and let the big bad Heretics–sorry, big good Heretics go explore the boat. Besides,” she added slyly, glancing around before lowering her voice in a somewhat husky whisper, “this way, I get to stand here and watch you two jump in the water. If it’s not too much trouble, could you do the Baywatch slow motion thing when you come out?” 

Yeah, I said she was being a bit better about leaving people alone who were demonstrably uncomfortable. That didn’t mean she had totally changed. She was still Felix, after all. 

Beside me, Shiloh choked a little before retorting, “I thought you said you weren’t leaning into stereotypes, Miss Sexy Cat Girl.” 

That earned her a Cheshire grin from Felix, “The thing about stereotypes is that some of them are fun to ride as far as they’ll take you. And speaking of–” 

“Okay!” I quickly interrupted, clapping my hands pointedly. “Felix is staying up here and Shiloh and I will go underwater. Works for me, considering I promised my buddies down there I’d go for a swim with them anyway. This is their big chance to show off for an audience.” 

“Yeah, having a bunch of sharks at your beck and call does give you a bit of an advantage that way,” Shiloh noted, watching me for a moment with a curious look. It seemed as though she was about to say something else, but stopped and simply shook her head.

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Is something wrong?” Yeah, I knew people were looking at me funny after… everything. Between being abducted by Fossor, my mother being the one behind the first rebellion, the fact that I had triggered the spell that restarted that rebellion, and… and everything else, people were staring at me a lot since I’d come back. It made me feel funny. 

Shiloh shook her head quickly. “No, no, not wrong. Actually, it wasn’t really about you at all. I just–” She paused to consider her words before continuing. “I was just thinking about how I spent the whole year on a team with someone who has like… all the advantages and never even had a hint about it. I umm… guess I spent awhile wondering if I was just dumb.”

Eyes widening a little at that, I insisted, “What? No. Come on, you were on a team with freaking Lancelot-Guinivere. Do you have any idea how good she is at that sort of thing? Seriously, she fooled Gaia! And Gaia actually knew her! She tricked people who had a hell of a lot more time, skill, and power than any of us have. And it definitely wasn’t about making you feel dumb. She–I’m pretty sure she’d be upset if she thought she made you feel dumb, Shiloh.” 

Shiloh started to nod. “I guess you’re–wait.” She blinked at me then, head tilting as something else occurred to her. “What do you mean, Gaia knew Harp–I mean, Gwen? They met before?” 

Oh. Right, most people didn’t have Gaia’s adopted daughter as a girlfriend/teammate so they wouldn’t have been told about Gaia being Morgana. And boy had that been a surprise to find out about over the summer in my case. But Shiloh apparently didn’t know about that yet. 

My mouth opened to say she should talk to Gwen about it (at least she was involved in that situation), but before I could even get that far, Sinbad called our names along with Felix’s. The man was standing up towards the front of the ship, waiting for us to join him while the previous pair who had been in the water were pulling themselves, soaking wet, back onto the deck. 

Reaching out, I patted Shiloh on the back, murmuring that she should talk to Gwen about who she knew and how. Then I walked with her and Felix while trying to run through everything I needed to do before we jumped into the ocean, all the spells I had available, the ways I could get my shiver to help, the tricks and threats that might be waiting for us down there, and so on. 

We all glanced toward the three who had been ahead of us, but that wouldn’t reveal anything. Sinbad had erected a soundproof barrier around the member of each team who stayed on the ship, specifically so that the rest of us couldn’t hear what sort of problems that group was dealing with and get any sort of advantage for not going first. And the teams who went weren’t allowed to talk to anyone who hadn’t gone yet. He had a whole section set aside for the people who were done to get dry, have snacks, and gush over how they’d done, what they’d fought, and how much of the treasure they’d managed to bring back. 

“Good luck, Flick!” Sands called from where she, Roxa, and Sarah were waiting to do their own run together. The three of them waved, and I waved right back before focusing on the matter at hand once more. There were a lot of spells I could use that might be helpful, thanks to all the extra training I’d received from the Chayyiel ghost in my head (and the fact that I could think of that without being weirded out really said how much had happened in the past year and a half). The problem was knowing exactly what spell was the right one, and how to dole out my use of magic so I didn’t run out of energy to cast. Especially when I had no idea what was going to happen down there. Yeah, I had a lot of options, but I still needed to pace myself. 

Once we passed the little barrier line that prevented people outside it from hearing what was going on, Sinbad offered one of his trademark gem-filled toothy grins. “Now then! First things first, which of you three will be going under the sea? Hah! You see, I make poetry without even meaning to! Truly, I am a man of many skills! But now, tis time to see yours! So, who shall it be?” His intense gaze (everything about him was intense) passed over the three of us eagerly.

“Shiloh and me,” I announced, gesturing to the other girl. “We’re going down there. Felix is staying up with the map and directing us. Right?” I clarified, looking at them. 

The other two confirmed that with a pair of thumbs up, and Sinbad immediately pivoted to me. “Excellent! I was hoping you would jump in so we can see your shark friends get involved!” He visibly sobered a bit then before adding, “Of course, you know the so-called monsters you may face down there are not real. We have guardians standing by just out of sight, ready to jump in just in case anyone gets… stuck or has any problems. And, you have these.” From seemingly midair, he produced a couple small badges. They were red circles with a white triangle inside. “They allow the three of you to communicate with each other. Push the triangle, hold it for three seconds, you’ll be transported right back here to the deck of the ship. You can also use that to get back here once you have the treasure. Push it three times quickly and you’ll be transported all the way over to the hospital wing.” 

Shiloh, Felix, and I each took one of the badges and clipped them on. After Sinbad was assured that they were secure and working properly, he clapped his hands loudly. “Safety first!” His voice lowered a bit conspiratorially, “I have to say that to keep my job. Do any of you have any idea how terrifying your principal can be if she’s annoyed?” He eyed me then. “I bet you do.” 

Smirking despite myself, I offered him a somewhat casual shrug. “I guess I have some clue.” 

“But!” Turning cheerful and cocky once more, the man waved a hand encompassingly toward the sea. “Now that all that is taken care of, on to the more exciting business!” His eyes took in Shiloh and me once more before slyly adding, “I trust you both know how to cast a water breathing spell, or something of that sort?” When we both nodded, he asked, “And what of a communicate underwater spell? The badges will carry your words to one another, but if you can’t talk, your words will be a bit… indecipherable.” The man laughed loudly, adding, “You know, glub glub glub. Hard to talk under the sea without a little help.” 

“Oh, don’t worry, we know how to use the talk underwater spell,” I assured him. 

“We do?” Shiloh was looking at me with a bit of confusion, clearly taken aback by that. 

“Wh–oh.” Right, that was one that I had learned from my special tutor. Coughing, I waved a hand. “No big, I’ll show you how to do it. Here.” With that, I took a blank metal coin from my pocket and held it up for her to see. “First, you put a half circle line along the top like this.” My finger tapped the coin as I used my image-inscription power to do just that. “Then you want two little triangles just under it, with the tips just barely touching the inner part of the half-circle line, but they have to be exactly here, with the lower inside corners exactly as far from each other as they are from where the curve of the circle is here. As soon as you have both of them done, you want to put just a tiny bit of energy in the left triangle, then sort of… focus on letting that energy bleed through from that into the right one, until they both feel full to you. Once they are, you stop and finish the bottom half of the circle, like this. Then you write the letter C on the left side of the circle and L on the right side. That makes the circle stand in as the O in COL. It stands for the first three letters of Collucutio, Latin for conversation. Once that’s done, in that exact order, just put some power into it again, starting in the circle and spreading out to the C and L. Let the energy fill it until you sense that it’s full. The spell should last about an hour with a normal amount of power. You can refill it with a touch if you need to.” 

“Dude,” Felix managed once I’d finished all that, “you know a lot about magic.” 

“What she said,” Shiloh agreed quietly, her eyes darting from me to the coin I was holding up, then back again. “I’m starting to think I should ask you to tutor me. Or, you know, teach a class or something around here. You sure you were raised with Bystanders?” Even as she said it, the girl seemed to remember the whole thing about my mother, flushing visibly. 

With a very small, embarrassed smile, I shook my head. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve just had a few teachers who knew what they were doing. You know, my own tutors. It’s–yeah, it’s nothing.”

From the looks that Felix and Shiloh were giving me, they didn’t quite believe the whole ‘it was nothing’ response. But they didn’t push it beyond that, though Shiloh did reiterate that she was going to come to me for help learning other spells in the future. Especially once I guided her through the water communication enchantment once more to make sure she had it. Then I showed the girl how to push it against her lips and trigger the spell. Now whenever she (or I, after triggering the same spell on myself) spoke underwater, it would actually be audible. 

“Well, that all makes things much easier, doesn’t it?” Sinbad noted. The way he said that made me realize that if I hadn’t known the right spell, he would have provided something. Now, he simply spread his arms cheerfully. “Time to see what you are all capable of! Let us–wait!” Clearly interrupting himself, the man snapped his fingers before pointing at me. “As I was saying before distracting myself before! Your sharks are welcome to join in on the adventure, and I assure you they will not be harmed. However, should the enchantment surrounding my little traps and monsters register that a shark should have been incapacitated, they will be transported to an enclosed underwater space over there.” He pointed past the opposite end of the ship. “There will be plenty of room and fish for them to gorge themselves, and as soon as you are through the test, you can have them right back again. I trust that is fair enough?” 

“Yup, definitely fair enough,” I confirmed immediately. “Just give me a minute to explain it to them before you start the timer, would you? Actually, I need to explain this whole thing to them. Not fair if they don’t know what we’re trying to do.”

After considering that briefly, Sinbad gave me a broad smile once more. “Of course! Of course, everyone should be on the same page, as they say! Yes, ahhh, you may have a few minutes to speak with your water-bound friends, naturally. But to keep things fair and not give extra time to study the maze or vessel you are about to go into, you must get into the water and speak to them on this side of the ship.” He indicated the opposite side from where our target was. “Take the time you need to make them understand, then you and Miss Lexx here can enter the starting area. And, of course, Miss Laja cannot begin to look at the map until then. No extra time for that!” 

Exchanging a look with the other two, I nodded. “Right, yeah, that’s fair.” With those words, I touched the small pouch on my belt that was currently holding the Seosten bodysuit, exchanging that for my regular clothes. It would do for going into the giant lake, given it was waterproof, temperature-controlled, protective, and all sorts of other fun things. 

“Dude,” Shiloh abruptly blurted, “you just have something like that with you?” 

“Not that we’re complaining,” Felix quickly put in, both eyebrows rising pointedly. “I mean, I’m not.” 

Face turning red, I muttered something about understanding why Tabbris had kicked me for the way I had looked at her mother. Then I left the other two to get ready, with a word about meeting Shiloh on the other side. From there, I moved to the edge of the deck before diving overboard. A second later, I hit the water smoothly, dropping down a good ten feet before righting myself. There was no rush to using the breathing spell, considering I could hold my breath for up to ten minutes. And thanks to the aforementioned temperature-control, the water wasn’t cold at all. Some part of me wondered if that part was an unfair advantage. But then again, there were people in the class who had their own temperature resistance. The point of the exercise was to see how well we could do with what we brought in with us, be that equipment or innate abilities. And I had definitely brought the suit in with me. Being able to change into it just by touching the suit and exchanging that with what I was wearing was one of my powers. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I glanced off into the distance. Two of the mazes were visible, though one of those was far off to the left. Essentially, they looked like giant underwater buildings made of thick stone, with only one entranceway. Like a massive skyscraper that had fallen on its side. And somewhere in there would be the ship each group was looking for. 

God damn, when Sinbad set up a project like this, he didn’t half-ass it. 

For just a moment, I had to stop and really let myself feel the reality of this. I was home. I was back in classes (ridiculous as they may have been). I was doing something fun. Challenging, sure, but fun. I was meeting different classmates and spending time with them. I was… I was enjoying this. Seriously, I didn’t really care if we won or lost this challenge. I was going to shoot for the former, of course. But it wasn’t life or death. And that, all on its own, was amazing. No matter what happened with this today, I was going to go to another class afterward. I would go to another class, then to lunch, and then… who knew? My afternoon was open. We’d see when the time came. 

The point was, whatever happened in this class didn’t really matter. 

And after everything that has happened over the past couple of months, all the life and death struggles and trauma that had seemed to come relentlessly, something not mattering… actually mattered quite a lot. 

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Hostile Witness 18-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted for Heretical Edge over the weekend. If you read that story and have not seen the chapter, you can see it right here

A sense of relief washed over me once Amanda agreed to let us come inside. I had really expected that to be harder, after everything she’d been through. I figured she’d be pretty paranoid about anyone unexpected showing up, let alone a few Touched. Then again, maybe she’d had enough good experiences with Star-Touched helping her since that horrible night that she was okay with us. I wasn’t sure, but either way, at least she actually let us into her place.

On the other hand, she definitely wasn’t interested in anyone else getting inside. That much was made clear when Amanda immediately shut the door as soon as we were through, and took the time to set the lock and alarm once more. Which… made me feel a little funny in my stomach. I couldn’t explain it, but the moment that girl locked and keyed the alarm, I felt a little jittery. It was probably just because of the whole situation. Anything that had to do with Pencil and the Scions made me antsy, for obvious reasons. Especially considering how pissed off he would be if he found out we were trying to find out about any weaknesses or vulnerabilities he might have. 

“Nice uhh, crowded place you’ve got here,” Pack noted after a moment of looking around the room, stuffed as it was with boxes, stacks of magazines and books, scissors, glue, clocks, and more. “You ever think about renting a storage unit for some of this stuff?” She added that bit while turning back to the girl in question. “I mean, just so you have more room around here.” 

“I like it this way,” Amanda informed us in a quiet, uncertain voice. “I know where everything is.”  She squirmed a bit uncomfortably before adding, “And I don’t trust storage places. People can break into those. Here, I–at least I’ll know if someone breaks in. They don’t let you put alarms or extra security on storage units. And it’s super-easy to get through one of their dumb padlocks.” 

Pack, clearly grinning behind that mask, gave her a pair of thumbs up. “Yeah, that’s probably safer. My people and me, we break into those places all the time. You’re right, security sucks unless you go with something really high end. Even then, really. This one time, my buddy Eits, he–” 

“That’s okay,” I quickly put in, before this whole conversation could devolve into even more of an ongoing list of things I really didn’t want to hear about. “I think we all get the point. Besides, we’re not really here to talk about where, uh, Miss Sanvers decides to keep her belongings.” 

“But why are you guys here together?” Amanda slowly asked, looking back and forth between Pack and me, her attention flicking toward Alloy for a brief moment, but mainly staying on the two of us. “I mean, you’re a good guy, and you’re a bad guy. Uh, bad girl, whatever. You’re a villain.” Her tone wasn’t accusatory at all, more curious about the situation than anything else.  

Alloy was being silent, probably an attack of nerves given how new to all this she was. And Pack was probably the wrong person to defend herself. So I spoke up. “Yeah, she’s a villain. But more of a jolly thief sort of villain instead of the…” Suddenly, I didn’t want to finish that sentence. Not after what I knew this girl had been through. It felt too much like I was making light of it. 

Amanda finished it instead, her tone flat. “Not the kill everyone you know and laugh about it sort, like him.” She didn’t have to be any more specific than that. We all knew who she meant.  

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath before shaking off the deeply uncomfortable feeling that had tried to creep over me yet again. “More than one kind of villain, and her kind is nothing like his. Let’s just say we’re all interested in getting rid of that piece of shit before he hurts any more people. If we can, we’ll make sure they stick him in a deep, dark hole in the middle of Breakwater, where he can’t ever get out. He can rot there forever like the rabid worm he is.” 

For a brief second, there was a strange look on the older girl’s face. I couldn’t really describe it, nor did I understand what it meant. It was sort of an almost feral expression, and my best guess was that she was thinking about all the terrible things she wanted to happen to the guy who had hurt her family so much, who had torn them apart and destroyed their lives. Thinking about it that way, the expression made sense. Of course she wanted to rip his heart out. That was what that look had put in my head, the feeling that this girl was desperate to tear someone apart. 

Thinking about what she had been through and had to be feeling was making me really uncomfortable. So, I cleared my throat before pushing on. Uncertain as I was about this whole situation, it was important. Far too important to let a little thing like a heavy feeling in my stomach stop me. “Sorry, maybe we should start from the beginning. You already know who we are, but still. I’m Paintball. That’s Alloy and Pack. And yeah, we’re here to find out anything you know about Pencil, anything you might not have shared with the authorities already.” 

“The word is you might be holding something back,” Alloy put in, stepping over to put herself behind me and slightly to the side. “Either because you’re afraid of what he’ll do if he finds out you umm, you actually do know anything important and tell anyone about it, or…” 

“Or that you don’t want the official by-the-book hero types to know because you’re afraid they’ll screw it up,” Pack finished for her. “Which, yeah, totally fair. I mean, have you seen some of those guys? Anyway, that’s where I come in, to let you know this definitely isn’t by-the-book.” 

Amanda started to say something, before stopping herself. She seemed to consider briefly, then turned to walk through the nearby doorway. “Come on, the kitchen’s a little less crowded than this place. You can sit down, while we talk about what a suicidally stupid idea this is.”   

So, the three of us looked at each other and offered a collection of shrugs before following. I’d known from the start that this was going to be awkward, but even this was more than I’d expected. It was going… well, in some ways it was going better than I’d imagined. She wasn’t yelling at us, or refusing to talk, or breaking down because we’d brought up those tragic memories. On the surface, it was going okay. And yet, there was still something. I felt strange, uncomfortable, even… not quite afraid, really. Tense. I still felt tense, and it wasn’t going away.

Well duh, of course I felt tense. Who wouldn’t in a situation like this? We were asking a girl who had been horrifically traumatized to throw herself into the lion’s den again and paint a target on her back by telling us secrets that she didn’t even feel comfortable telling the Conservators. 

The kitchen was slightly less crowded, if only because everything was piled on the counters rather than the floor or table. There were a bunch of boxes in there too, all of them labeled things like ‘dishes’ or ‘towels.’ One big one in the corner of the room had ‘microwaves’ written on it. There was barely space on the counter to cook anything. Even the stove was covered. 

But the table was clear (completely empty, actually), and surrounded by four chairs. We all sat down, the three of us on one side of the table and Amanda on the other. 

“So,” I started once everyone was settled, “you were going to tell us how stupid we were?” 

Before she could respond to that, Alloy spoke up. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. I knew I had, but it was–you were at my school. You and… your brother?”

Amanda offered a very faint smile. “Yeah, we visit the schools sometimes to give motivational… talks or whatever.” She shrugged listlessly. “He’s more into it than me. You know, when he’s in town. I don’t really…. do much by myself.” A slight frown touched her face before the girl sighed, folding her arms protectively against her stomach. “You always think it’ll go away, you know? It’s been years. It should’ve gone away by now. It should feel better.” She swallowed hard. “But it doesn’t. It doesn’t get any better. You just learn to live with it.” 

There was a moment of silence before she gave us a very shaky smile. “Sorry. I’m really sorry. I’m usually better in the schools about telling kids how they can move on, seriously. I just–I wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today. Let alone, you know, people like you. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to talk about…” She took in a long breath before letting it out. “Him.”  

Yeah, now I definitely felt bad about being here. As if I hadn’t already. Looking down at the table, I heaved a long sigh before raising my gaze to hers. She was staring at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. When our eyes met, she offered me a small, clearly humorless smile. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” Her voice was emotionless. “You’ve talked to him. I can tell.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while doing my best not to think about what being around Pencil and Cup had been like. I still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes from dreaming about being taken by the two of them for their revenge. Even closing my eyes right now, I could picture that psycho staring at me from behind that cloth sack mask. It made a thick lump form in my throat while a cold chill washed over me. I had to swallow hard before pushing myself to my feet. It felt too uncomfortable to sit anymore. Like I was trapped. I felt trapped in here, which was crazy. 

“We know your history with him,” Pack spoke up, taking heat off of me for a moment so I could pull myself together. “You and your family were some of his first victims, before anyone even knew he was Touched. Hell, you guys might’ve even been the first, before he knew what he was capable of. Before he had a solid lock on how his power works, or how it doesn’t work.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I finally managed, folding my arms as I stood behind Pack’s chair. “Because we think you might have seen something that night. Something he didn’t know he should be careful about because he was so new to the whole thing. And… and we’re really sorry to bring up those memories. What happened to your family, it was…” I fought the urge to shudder at the thought, meeting her intense gaze as she seemed to stare right through me. “It was awful. And he’s hurt so many more people since then, killed so many more people.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to pop up from the table, the chair falling to the floor behind her as she stared at me with a mixture of anger and frustration on her face. “And you think that’s my fault? You think I wouldn’t’ve stopped him if I could? You think I know something I haven’t told the cops already? That this piece of shit killed my fucking pare–no, made my parents kill each other, but I’m holding back some super-secret special weakness of his just because–what, because I don’t want him to get caught? Oh, maybe you think I’m laughing at it, is that it? Do you think that I think all those people getting hurt and dying is funny?! Is that what you’re getting at? You think I’m laughing about them dying?!” Her voice had risen to the point of near-hysteria by that point, eyes wild as she practically shouted her way through the whole retort.    

“No!” That was Alloy, who quickly stood up to put herself next to me as if ready to jump in for protection. “That’s not what he’s saying, just–just hold on. No one’s saying that, Miss Sanvers.”

“She’s right,” I carefully managed, holding both hands up. Obviously, this was a very touchy subject. Not that I could blame Amanda for feeling reflexively defensive about the whole thing. If it was me and I had been through that with my brother and parents? I… yeah, I definitely would’ve been pretty upset if someone came up to me and seemed to be implying that I didn’t do everything I possibly could to bring their murderer to justice. No wonder she was angry. 

With all that running through my head, I kept my hands raised and didn’t break eye contact with Amanda. “I know us being here and bringing this stuff up again isn’t easy. I know the– I know it’s fucked up for us even to bring up this possibility at all. It’s not that we think you wouldn’t have helped the cops already if you could. It’s more that… that you might’ve been afraid to tell them something that would make Pencil come after you again. Which, trust me, everyone understands. Maybe even something that you thought of later. The people we talked to, they think you might know something that you’ve been waiting for the right time to share. That’s why we’re here. Because we’re not the cops. We’re not the Conservators or the Minority. We want him stopped, whatever it takes. Even working with Fell-Touched.” I gestured toward Pack demonstrably. “But I promise, no one thinks you don’t want him arrested, Miss Sanvers.” 

“Amanda,” she corrected, seeming to visibly deflate with a heavy sigh. Folding her arms protectively against herself, the older girl slumped against the nearby counter. “Just call me Amanda, all of you. And I know. I know that’s not what you were saying. I didn’t mean t–I just…” Her eyes closed tightly and I saw a single tear slowly leak down one side of her face. “Every time someone brings up what happened back then, I can’t think straight. I want–I hate him. I hate him so much. It scares me sometimes, how much I want him to suffer after what he did. He took my mom and dad away. He made them–he was going to-” She cut herself off with a shudder before opening her eyes to look at us, her gaze sweeping over Pack, Alloy, and me. “If we’d stopped him that night, if Nick and me actually could’ve remembered something back then that helped the cops catch him, all those other people would still be alive.” 

She looked away from us staring through the nearby window in silence for a few long seconds. Then the girl swallowed, setting her shoulders as though preparing to say something very difficult. “And we did.” She turned back to us with a nervous expression, making it very clear that she was afraid to even be saying what was about to come out. “We did see something. I mean we found something. Later, after the cops and everyone all left, we found a… a wallet just sort of laying under a chair. We… we realized it was his. It had a bunch of different IDs in it and everything, but it was a lead. It had his face. I didn’t really look at it very much, I was… I was scared to, after everything. But Nick did. He looked at that monster’s face for hours.”   

“You know what he looks like?” Pack’s voice was flat. “You and your brother know what Pencil really looks like? Why didn’t you tell anyone about that, so they could identify him? If your brother stared at it for so long, he really could’ve helped catch the guy a long time ago.”  

“Was it because you were afraid of what might happen if Pencil found out you identified him?” I asked very quietly, afraid that all of this would set the girl off again. “If he even thinks you might be able to tell the authorities what he really looks like…” A shiver ran through me as I thought about how the psycho undoubtedly would have reacted to a threat like that. 

“That’s why he hasn’t come after you,” Alloy realized with a soft gasp. “Because he thinks if you did find his wallet and all those IDs with his picture, you would’ve told the cops already. But you didn’t, so he thinks you never found it. Or maybe he thinks he dropped it somewhere else.” 

“Is that it?” I carefully asked, watching Amanda’s reaction. “You guys found his wallet and didn’t tell anyone because you were afraid of what he’d do if he found out you identified him?” I tried to keep all judgment out of my voice, because I had no idea how I would’ve acted in that situation. Part of me was angry that she and her brother hadn’t done more to stop this, but I knew firsthand how terrifying Pencil could be. Actually, they knew a lot better than I did. I didn’t have nearly as bad of an experience as Amanda and her brother had. But just from what I’d read and seen for myself, I could understand the two of them being too afraid to paint a target on their backs, no matter how much they wanted Pencil to go down. It was a horrific situation all the way through. Being afraid of making that piece of shit angry was completely reasonable. 

Amanda, however, corrected me. “We did tell, once. We told… someone who was investigating it. We told him exactly what you guys are asking. But he just–he told us it wasn’t his job to get involved with something that dangerous, and if we knew what was good for us, we’d back off. And he… he took the wallet. He kept it himself, as like… insurance or something. If you want to know what Pencil looks like, you have to find that guy.” 

“Who was he?” I asked, glancing briefly toward the others. Yeah, this wasn’t all that surprising. Pencil was dangerous, whoever took the wallet from them might’ve, in some way, thought he was saving Amanda and her brother. Or maybe he was just a dick. He could’ve sold the wallet back to Pencil himself. Hell, I knew for a fact that the authorities weren’t always trustworthy. 

Either way, tracking him down and finding out what he did with it would be–

“Parson,” Amanda promptly informed us. “His name is Robert Parson.” 

The other two reacted immediately, though quite differently. Pack looked over at me, while Alloy promptly echoed the name. “Robert Parson. So I guess we just have to find this guy, and–” 

“No.” The word escaped me before I even knew I was talking. My head was shaking suddenly. “No, that’s not right.” I had no idea exactly how I was so certain at that moment. I did remember the guy enough to know that I had liked him as a kid. Even before you added in the whole saving my life part that Paige had informed me of. I had liked him back then, yet even that didn’t fully explain why I was so dead certain that he never would’ve done what she was saying. But I was. Which could only mean one thing, which I blurted unthinkingly. “You’re lying. He didn’t do that, he didn’t take the wallet. You’re lying about that. You’re… you’re lying.” 

“Huh?” That was Alloy, blinking over at me in obvious confusion. “What do you mean? Aren’t we–” 

She was interrupted, however, by Amanda, who offered a casual little shrug. Her expression had turned to a sly, cocky smile. “Oh well,” she all-but purred, “it was worth a shot.” 

Yeah, I didn’t have a danger sense (clearly), but if I did have one, it would’ve been screaming its head off. Alloy and Pack obviously both realized something was wrong too. Unfortunately, before any of us could do anything, Amanda held up her hand. There was a remote in it, and she pushed the button. Instantly, the three of us were blinded by a bright flash that seemed to come from every corner of the room. At the same time, I felt a wave of nausea that made me fall to my knees, then onto my side. Nearby, I heard thumps from the other two. I tried to fight my way through it, but the whole room was spinning. There was a dull ringing in my ears, and it felt like I was going to throw up in my helmet. 

My vision was swimming, going in and out for a moment even as I caught a glimpse of Amanda standing over me. She was staring at me with an intensely creepy, soulless smile while producing a deceptively simple-looking white cloth mask. She touched it to her face, and the thing automatically attached itself and stayed there. 

“Now,” Cup informed us. 

“I guess it’s safe to say I have a few questions of my own.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 14 – Archangels (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Zadkiel 

“Are you angry, sir?” The question came from a tall, thin figure wearing a dark hood and ruby-red metal mask that left his eyes exposed. Three other figures dressed similarly stood somewhat behind him. All of their attention was focused on the man who stood a short distance ahead of them, his back to the entire group. Although some might have objected to calling the being a man. He was half-Seosten, half-Fomorian, a creature born not of some romantic union, but two separate beings who had been forcibly merged together in the bowels of Tartarus. Standing almost eight feet in height, the creature’s normally Seosten-handsome features were broken by the influence of his Fomorian-self. His skin was gray and pallid, eyes almost twice the size they should have been. The wings that had emerged from his back were partially solid, bat-like structures where the bones in such a creature would have been, while the flat parts that would ordinarily have caught the wind to propel lift were filled by solid energy. 

“Angry?” the one who, as a potential point of contention against his missing self went by the title of Godfather (alternately Maestro and even his original Seosten name of Zadkiel), echoed with a small smile. A very slight giggle escaped him, which echoed weirdly through the underground cavern the group were standing in. “Why would we be angry?” 

That prompted the four masked figures to look at one another briefly, wondering if their report had been heard correctly. None of them knew who each other was. That was the reason for the masks, enchanted as they were to prevent any powers from seeing through them. It allowed their master to ensure that only he was aware of all those he had turned. They would leave this place separately, and for the most part would forget what had happened during their time here. It would sit at the back of their thoughts, a subconscious knowledge of who they belonged to, though they would be mostly unable to directly recall it until he called for them again. Another safety measure against their connection to him being uncovered. Not even Seosten possession would reveal his influence. 

His. Their. Which was it? The terms seemed interchangeable. The hybrid sometimes spoke as a singular, sometimes as plural. None who interacted with him (or them) knew the reasoning behind it. Perhaps even they themselves (or he himself) didn’t. He… they… simply were

Finally, the figure who had spoken first tentatively replied, “They know of your existence. And the Olympian has disappeared after the death of her Committee host. She knows you were responsible for her beloved’s presence on Aiken’te’vel, and clearly blames you for her death. Now she has returned to Earth safely. She and those who take her side will be watching for you. It is… not good news.” 

There was a moment of silence before the tall hybrid slowly turned to face them. He reached out, his long arms extending to put his hands against the mask of the man who had spoken. The minion froze, going completely still while Godfather very tenderly brushed too-long, too-thin fingers over the metal that covered his face. “We are not angry,” came the slow, deliberate response. “After all, to be angry would imply that their knowledge will make any difference. Forewarning of a storm does not prevent it from accomplishing its destruction. They may flee, they may prepare, they may do anything they wish in advance of our arrival. But when the time comes, none of it will save them.” 

As he spoke, Godfather’s fingers slipped under the mask. He pulled it down, looking into the face of the man beneath. The three figures behind stirred a bit, but remained silent. They could not see their companion’s face, not from that angle. Nor did they wish to. Seeing his face would have been against their master’s orders, and to go against their master was to face immediate death. 

But their master could see. He could look into all of their faces, could look through their souls. He knew them, he owned them. They were his tools, tools he would use to further his own goals. And if they failed him, if they faltered, he would cast them aside, their bodies and souls erased before they even touched the ground. 

“No,” Godfather quietly repeated, “we are not angry. Let them try to prepare. Watching the ants as they scurry in such panic may lead to something…” There was a pause before they gave another eerie giggle. “… interesting.” 

That said, he released the face of the man he had been holding and turned to face the nearby blank cavern wall. “Go now. Return to your lives. The time will come when I require you again.”

The hybrid figure stood there then, waiting for the group to obediently disperse. Only once they were gone did he reach out to touch the seemingly blank wall. Under his hand, part of the wall faded and vanished, allowing him to step through into what appeared to be the interior corridor of a ship, buried deep within this cavern far underground.

“Soon,” he murmured, reaching out to run a hand over one of the nearby consoles fondly. “Soon, you will be completed. They are already on their way. Before long, they will bring us the one we need to finish your construction, the one whose genius will finish what we began.

“And that will be the… Spark of the flames that will burn it all.” 

******

Remiel 

Stand! Rise!” The bellowed call, erupting from a figure who seemed entirely too small and slight to produce such a powerful sound, filled the air of the battlefield where a motley assortment of several thousand figures of various species had slumped in preparation of their impending defeat. The land, once a lush valley, had been scorched, burned to dirt and pockmarked by various craters from incredible impacts and explosions. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty seven beings lay in various states of exhaustion behind a makeshift dirt wall that had been built up to shield them from the army of steadily approaching biological horrors. It was an army that was repeatedly repelled, yet came onward inevitably. 

The army here had once measured several times larger than their current numbers. They had been fighting for their lives for days now, with barely any rest. And still, the army of Fomorians showed no real signs of abating. Their enemy was a tidal wave of death and destruction, one that could not be resisted. This world, a small out-of-the-way place near the edge of Seosten territory, had already mostly fallen to the monsters. The Seosten simply did not have the resources to defend it right now. Perhaps they would be back to wipe the Fomorians away before they could establish a firm foothold. But either way, it would be too late for the inhabitants of the place itself. 

Most of the actual Seosten had already abandoned this place, leaving on their ships to reinforce other positions. And they had taken the strongest among the planet’s defensive military with them. It hadn’t been the Seosten’s first choice, but they were needed to ensure the Fomorians could not overwhelm a different, more strategically important position. All of which left the planet’s only defenders as ill-trained, ill-equipped, doomed figures who could do little more than stave off the inevitable while allowing as many of their people to flee on ships as possible. 

Most of the Seosten were gone. Save, of course for one. The one who was already standing at the head of their embattled position. The small woman who barely topped five feet in height. Her coal-black skin was offset by brilliant blue eyes that seemed to glow with power far exceeding her very slight stature. Her dark hair was worn quite short.

“Stand?” one of the planet’s original inhabitants (tall, green-skinned humanoid figures with yellow faces and black lines across his arms) echoed, his voice full of disbelief. “Rise with what? Your people already abandoned us. They went off to defend something more important. We’re all gonna die anyway. Why do you think we should get up again? Why shouldn’t we just end it? Who cares if it’s now or when they get here?” His hand thrust toward the sound of the approaching Fomorians. His words were met with an assortment of exhausted agreement that spread through the mostly-broken people. They had lost all hope of escape from this place, and nearly all hope that they would be able to help others flee. Their faith was broken, their morale shattered. 

“What,” the Seosten woman returned, “is my name?” She stood in front of them, waiting a moment while they stared her way before raising her voice to a bellow once more. “What is my name?!” 

Finally, the group called back, “Remiel!” 

She, in turn, gave a firm nod. “I am Remiel. And by my name I will tell you this. The Fomorians come. I am going to meet their charge. I will take their approach and I will blunt it against myself, so that your people, your people may escape. Yet I am but one person. I will do as I must. I will stand in the path of these creatures to protect your people as I would stand to protect any in this universe against the scourge that approaches. These creatures are a flood. They are a rushing river. I will stand in the water’s path. I will hold back all I am able. But when they pass me, what will they meet? Will they see a wall of soldiers? Will they see brave forces, standing in their path to ensure your children and families have another second to flee, another moment to reach their ships, another minute to rise into the stars? Or will they see cowards, lying in the dirt awaiting their deaths?” 

With that, she turned and began to climb the dirt hill. 

A slight pause followed her words. The assembled exhausted soldiers looked to one another. Finally one rose, then another, and more. A little under three quarters of the almost thirty-five hundred motley soldiers tiredly took up their weapons once more and forced themselves to climb that dirt hill. Their bones ached, their eyes burned from lingering poison gas. They longed to lay down and sleep for days. Yet they followed the Seosten woman at her words. 

When they reached the top of the hill, the troops found themselves facing that woman. Her back was to the approaching Fomorians, still over ninety seconds away before the nearest would reach them. 

“And so here you are,” Remiel noted, her voice a soft rumble, like distant thunder rolling through their ranks. She raised a hand, speaking a single word. As she did so, a flash of brilliant blue light filled the air behind the assembled group. They spun back, to find that those who had chosen to stay behind, who had not risen to join them, had vanished. 

That, of course, gave rise to a rush of confused, fearful words about what she had done. But Remiel kept her hand in the air, speaking over the crowd. “They are safe! You will see them soon enough. Despite their fears and fatigue now, they served well. They tried their best for as long as they could. I do not fault their exhaustion, mental or physical. I have sent them to join your people as they leave this world. A moment of faltering does not erase the blood, sweat, and lives that all of you have sacrificed in this battle. Yet they were not prepared for what comes next. I had to know which among you were strong enough.” 

“Strong enough to die against those monsters?” one man demanded, barely capable of holding his rifle up to indicate the incoming horde, barely twenty seconds out. 

Remiel, however, gave a very faint smile. “No, I do not need those strong enough to die.” At those words, her own archangel wings emerged from her back. Made of brilliant blue energy, matching the color of her eyes, they stretched out impossibly wide, enveloping the nearly two thousand, five hundred troops in a ring of blazing, nearly blinding power. The troops were forced to look away, lest they be blinded. 

And then the wings were gone. As was the battlefield itself. They were somewhere else, some entirely different world. A world free from Fomorian invasion. 

“You may visit your people soon,” Remiel informed the confused group. “They are already safely fleeing. Once they are settled in a new home, I will ensure you are able to see them. Of that you have my word.” 

“What–what happened?” One of the troops stammered. “Why–how–what? Why… why are we here? Why did you bring us here?”

“Why?” Remiel echoed. “Because I do not need sacrifices. I do not need people to throw themselves uselessly against an enemy they stand no chance against, to protect a world that has already been lost. I need those, as you, that I can build into something more than you are now. As I said, I do not need those who are ‘strong enough to die.’

“I need those strong enough to train.”  

*******

Selaphiel 

A tall woman, fully six feet in height, with long, flowing blonde hair (including heavy bangs that covered her forehead down to her very light green eyes) stood at the very edge of a mile-wide crater that marked what had at one point been the Earth-based outpost of the Gehenna prison organization. Her face, which looked as though it had been chiseled from marble, betrayed no emotion as she surveyed the destruction. Not that there was much to survey in the first place. Nothing had survived the devastation of that magical explosion. 

“Fossor sure did a number on this place, didn’t he?” The man who spoke stood inside the crater. Yet despite the pit itself being almost fifteen feet deep, he was still almost eye-level with the woman as she stood on the edge of the lip. 

“Paul Bunyan,” she remarked simply, “I presume.” 

“That’s right,” he drawled. “And you’re the Seosten. Well, do they still consider you a Seosten these days? You’re the one they call Selaphiel.” An archangel (or Dyeus, as they were technically called) who had joined Gehenna. She was one of the organization’s leaders. 

“I shall always be Seosten,” the regal woman informed him. “Though I have endeavored to become more than I began.” She turned her gaze to him with a slight nod. “And yes, Fossor has dealt this organization quite a blow. Not a mortal one. But quite damaging nonetheless.” 

“The King wants to know what you’re all going to do now,” Paul informed her simply, turning his gaze away from her to look out over the vast barren emptiness. Roughly a quarter of the way into the crater, a much deeper hole stood. The magic explosion had been intentionally formed to force most of its destructive power to follow the path of the building deep into where the underground portions had once been. Nothing was left of the Gehenna structure. 

Selaphiel gave no response at first. Her pale green eyes simply passed over the same hole his own gaze had locked onto, while a very slight frown wrinkled the center of her forehead. Finally, she broke the lingering silence that had formed over those moments. “You mean, he wishes to know if Gehenna will rebuild here, move to somewhere else on the planet, or leave entirely.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” Bunyan confirmed. “With Fossor dead, he won’t be a problem anymore. But he’s not the end of the enemies you all have. And enemies targeting Gehenna, now that Fossor’s proven you’re not invincible, could bring problems to Canada. The King isn’t exactly bursting with joy at that idea.” 

“They are no threat to him,” Selaphiel pointed out flatly. As she spoke, the woman flicked her hand out, summoning a long golden staff, richly decorated with magical runes, with a brilliant gleaming emerald at one end. The jewel itself pulsed with power, sending lines of green light running down the shaft and over each of the runes in a clearly deliberate pattern.

“Nope,” the man agreed. “They aren’t really a threat to him. But he can’t be everywhere at once, and he’d prefer not to put his people in danger. Which is why he wants to make a new deal.” 

His words made the Seosten woman turn her gaze to him, one eyebrow rising. “A new deal?” 

“He says your people can rebuild here,” came the response, “but he gets to have a few of his own people on-site to help keep the place safe, and as outside observers to the situation.” 

“I do not know that the other directors will be eager to accept such a requirement,” Selaphiel carefully informed him. “We do not allow such oversight in other places.”

“Sure,” Paul drawled, “but something tells his majesty that your people really want to keep an outpost here. Fossor’s gone but you’re not pulling up stakes. There’s more to why you want to be on-planet. We’re not sure why, but he thinks whatever it is will be enough to make you agree to those terms. We put people in your new location, help you watch out for any of your new… friends that might take a shot, and we get to help make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.” He indicated the crater stretched out before them. 

After a few moments of silence, the woman finally gave a short nod. “Agreed. Have your king draw up the necessary contracts so I may peruse them. You have my contact information.” 

Without waiting for a response, Selaphiel extended the staff toward the deep hole. It began to glow brighter, even as the woman’s brilliant, nearly blindingly bright wings emerged from her back and spread out to their full extension. The wings were the color of malachite, nearly matching the emerald atop the staff. They pulsed with power of their own even as the woman began to chant a series of indecipherable words from some long-dead language. The power around them grew and grew, forcing Paul to withdraw several steps and turn his head away. 

Finally, an explosion of power erupted from the staff, careening toward the hole in the ground before impacting with enough force that Paul felt himself, despite his height, recoil a bit. When he looked that way, shielding his eyes with one hand, he saw the emerald light fading to reveal a tower standing there. It was just the same as the last one, a tall black obelisk rising toward the sky. 

“That was fast,” Paul remarked with a cough. 

“We have no time to waste,” she informed him. “There are no prisoners within the structure, and will not be until your king agrees. Go and see the contracts drawn up, so that we may put the building to use.” 

With that, she made the staff disappear with a flick of the hand that was holding it. Then the tall Seosten woman touched two fingers to her forehead, brushing her blonde bangs out of the way to reveal a tattoo there of two emerald-colored serpentine eyes. Those eyes began to glow under her touch, before rapidly becoming three-dimensional. The eyes emerged from her forehead, followed by the rest of a reptilian face. It grew exponentially by the second, a truly massive green lizard creature rising out of Selaphiel. 

No, not a lizard. A wingless dragon, fully large enough to swallow the twenty-foot-tall Paul Bunyan whole. It towered a full fifty feet high, scales gleaming with inner power. Not a true dragon, of course, but similar to the phoenix summoned through the tattoo of another Seosten member of Gehenna, the one called Larees. 

The summoned creature extended its tail, allowing Selaphiel to stride up toward its back. As she did so, her own wings faded from her body before reappearing on her companion, forming the actual wings of the dragon. From there, the woman stood atop her partner as those powerful glowing energy wings flapped down hard, sending both the creature and the Seosten herself upward. 

In a moment, they had vanished from sight, disappearing into the clouds. 

******* 

Gabriel 

Through the remains of the secret facility that had once belonged to Kushiel, three figures strode purposefully. Well, one strode more purposefully, with the other two hurrying to keep up.  The one in the lead was a woman who would have been considered Asian if she had been human rather than Seosten. She wore a sleek dark blue bodysuit under a long white leather coat. Her black hair was held in a long, tight braid, and her light brown eyes gleamed with anger.  

“Why was I not informed of this place while it was still in use?” Her demand came in a sharp, no-nonsense voice while she marched onward, heels clicking sharply against the floor with each step as she glanced briefly through various doorways leading into facility rooms where labs and prison cells were before making a disapproving sound and moving on after each. 

Of the two figures following, one was a Seosten man who appeared to be much older (but in actuality was several full millennia younger), while the other was a Relekun female hurriedly taking notes of everything that happened. It was the Seosten man who spoke up. “Ah, well, Miss Gabriel, the decision was made that there was no need to involve you, or distract you from your own work unless sufficient progress was seen. To avoid corrupting either your work or theirs with–” 

In a sharp voice, Gabriel interrupted. “I would hardly appreciate you defecating into your own hand and giving it to me as an explanation, let alone simply offering the excrement someone else has handed you to pass along. I am not a fool, Seurateis. I know precisely why I was not included.” She stopped, pivoting on one heel to face him. “Because I would never have approved of such a facility. I was told that I would be given charge of all research groups devoted to correcting our peoples’ population problem. And yet, I was kept entirely in the dark when it came to this place. Inform the Seraphs that if such a discrepancy is found again, they will not enjoy the measures I take to ensure it does not happen a third time.” 

“I–uh.” Seurateis faltered. “I am not entirely certain that I can pass along that tone of message. But I will… ensure that they are aware of your disappointment in the situation.”

Gabriel, in turn, made a soft scoffing sound under her breath before looking to the Relekun woman. “Daen,” she spoke the girl’s name a bit more gently, “what is the number one rule of working in such advanced scientific fields?” 

There was the slightest pause before Daen carefully recited, “Your actions have consequences.” 

“Precisely,” Gabriel confirmed, turning back to Seurateis. “The knowledge we gain, the power we unlock, the weapons and spells we create, everything we do can have untold consequences. We know that quite clearly from the fate of Cronus, and the rising of our Fomorian foes. We know that from the state that our own people have been in for hundreds of thousands of years. What we do carries repercussions, often grave ones. It is important that we remain respectful of those consequences, lest we create an even more dire threat than that which we already face.” 

She paused deliberately, allowing those words to sink in before continuing. “Let there be no misunderstanding, we have long-since sunk below the moral high ground. The things our people do in service of victory over the Fomorians do not make us heroes. Yet I do believe they are necessary things. But I will not tolerate such… evil as this, not for our own people and not for others. Every Seosten who worked within this facility is to be put to work going through every file, every scrap of information we have about those who were imprisoned here. Those who did not survive are to be identified, their families notified and compensated fairly. The bodies, if they remain, are to be delivered to their homes so that they may be disposed of in whatever manner their loved ones prefer. Those who survived, Seosten and otherwise, are to be released onto a world of their choosing.” 

“But most are criminals,” the man protested. 

Gabriel’s eyes sharpened, glowing amber wings appearing behind her as she dangerously replied, “They have served their sentence. Release them.” 

With that, she pivoted once more and began to walk away, wings fading from view. “Daen, assist him in the endeavor.” 

The Relekun woman gave a short nod before tentatively asking, “And what of the medical data that was collected?” 

There was a brief moment of silence as Gabriel stopped walking. Then she replied simply, “Moral or not, we will not cast potentially valuable information into the flames. That would simply make the sacrifices of the people held here even more pointless. Gather it, we will see if there is anything useful. And when you have taken all this facility can provide, I want it erased. Destroy every scrap of it.

“While I exist, such evil will not be glorified.”  

*******

Jegudiel

Is that all you have brought to face me?!” 

The bellowed demand came from a tall, shirtless Seosten man, who stood an inch over seven feet in height, his long black hair worn all the way to the middle of his back. His bare, heavily tanned chest, rippling with muscles and gleaming from sweat, was adorned by the tattoo of a sword that rose from navel to just under his throat. In one hand, he held a long, blood-stained axe, while the other gripped a hammer with one flat edge and the other a sharp point. The remnants of pulverised organs and various fluids adorned each. A pair of long, crimson red wings stretched from the man’s back, illuminating the otherwise dark area surrounding him with a deep red glow.  

His name was Jegudiel, and he stood at the center of what had, up until moments earlier, been a battlefield. Now, it was the site of a mass execution. Where once had stood hundreds of Fomorian monstrosities, now there was only ashes. Nothing of their intended invasion force on this moon outpost had survived his onslaught.

“I have been told so much of the ferocity of the Fomorian forces assaulting this place!” Jegudiel shouted into the darkness. “But what do I find when I come to face it? No worthy foe, no battle deserving of my name! Bring forth your creatures, bring forth your own people! Bring me a foe I can sink my teeth into, so that I may tear out their heart and bathe in the blood of one worthy of being torn asunder!” 

There was no response to his cry, the Fomorians who might have remained long-since having retreated from the field rather than uselessly throw themselves against the threat he presented. Finally, with a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, Jegudiel turned to stride back the way he had come. On the way, he paused before turning his head sharply to look out into the darkness, his tone dangerous. “Present yourself.” 

After a very brief hesitation, a smaller, slightly more pale Seosten man stepped into view. “I see your excursion here has been successful.” 

Jegudiel, however, scoffed at that. “Hardly a battle worth my time, Pravuil. But…” He paused before admitting, “I am glad that this place is protected once more. I do not fault those who require assistance, nor do I wish harm to them. Few can stand against the forces the Fomorians bring to bear. The people of this outpost are safe now, and that… that is good.” He sighed. “I only wish to find a true battle, one that will secure my legacy and ensure my name will never be forgotten.” 

Pravuil, in turn, offered him a faint smile. “In that case, perhaps you will be interested in a bit of information that has come our way.” He waited for the man to give him a nod to continue, then explained. Over the next few minutes, he told his leader exactly what whispers had reached him. 

When he was done, Jegudiel had straightened to his full height, gazing down at him intensely. His crimson wings were even brighter than before, glowing powerfully. “Is this true?” he demanded. “Do not give me such false hope, Pravuil.” 

“As far as I have been able to confirm it,” his subordinate confirmed, “it is true. My sources are quite confident.” 

There was no response at first. Jegudiel’s wings slowly folded in against his back. “Well then,” he finally announced in a far quieter, far more introspective voice. “Inform the leadership that I will be taking that vacation they have been insisting upon for so long. 

“Tis time I visit Earth. And see my daughter.” 

*******

Raphael And Chayyiel

“You must want this thing pretty badly, to ask for help.” The drawled words came from Raphael, as the tall, lanky man with long gray-blond hair stretched lazily. He was standing just outside of a small antique shop somewhere in Boston. The subject of his comment, the deceptively young-looking (they were all that, but her even more so) Chayyiel, stood in front of the door, reading the sign posted there about the hours. 

“It’s important,” she murmured absently, before glancing over to him. “And you are the one who sent a message saying you wanted something interesting to do.” 

He grinned in response. “That’s because I know you’re always doing something interesting, busy little feun.” He referred to a small mammal native to their homeworld that was essentially a miniature beaver that could fly like a bat with long wings. They created homes inside massive trees that grew up out of the abundant oceans. “Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention to what I hear about your trip across this world. You’ve been raising a few eyebrows back home. And that’s just from the parts they know about.”  

“I keep myself occupied,” she agreed idly before nodding to him. “If you’re ready for this?” 

He nodded lazily while stretching his arms over his head. “Sure thing, but ahhh, why don’t you take a step to your left? Scooch over.” He made a little flicking motion with his hand until she did so, moving out of the way. Then the man cracked his neck to both sides before glancing over to the nine-month-old English Bulldog currently sniffing a nearby fire hydrant. “Check this out, Zad.” 

The bulldog, in turn, plopped on its haunches and looked that way. He had been well trained to know what was coming when his new owner spoke in that tone of voice. Particularly as it often meant he would end up with treats afterward. 

And with that, satisfied by his audience, Raphael allowed his golden-white energy wings to emerge, flared them out behind him… and then fired a beam from each. The beams tore through the facade of the antique shop, literally erasing it (and the myriad of protective spells and weapons that had been waiting to cause problems) from existence within a bare handful of seconds. When the beams finally stopped, there was little left of the shop other than a smoldering ruin with a metal hatch in the middle of the floor. One more brief, incredibly casual shot from a single wing erased the hatch itself, revealing a ladder leading down. 

“Probably a good thing you had the right place, huh?” Raphael casually remarked. “Would have been pretty embarrassing for you to get that wrong.” Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that he himself would not particularly have cared that much. But he knew she did, and didn’t mind at least making the slightest attempt to follow her preferences in such a matter as far as collateral damage went. It was why he had made certain to contain his beams to only hit the building itself and not blast any further than that.   

“I made sure,” she informed him while already moving toward the hole in the floor. Zad accompanied her, leaning over it to stare down into the dark abyss while sniffing curiously. 

“Sure you don’t want any more help?” Raphael asked, stepping up to look that way as well. “No telling how much trouble you might run into down there. I’d feel sort of bad if I went to all the trouble of blowing away the front door defenses just for you to get in trouble down in the tunnels. Especially if you’re right about what’s in that place. They’ll be protecting it pretty heavily.”

“I can handle it,” she assured him, “but thank you.” Turning that way, Chayyiel listened to the sound of the people below reacting to the intrusion. “You should go, get Zad some lunch. He’s hungry.” 

“He’s always hungry,” Raphael pointed out before stooping to scratch behind the ears of the animal in question. “Maybe we’ll try that… what did you call it, a Morongleen Barby Q?” 

“Mongolian Barbecue,” Chayyiel corrected, even as the sound of multiple weapons being readied directly below them reached their ears. “Two blocks down to the west.” 

With that, she touched something on her shoulder, activating a protective spell before hopping into the broken hatch. As she fell toward the people below, the gunfire and screaming started.  

“Ahh well,” Raphael remarked, straightening and turning away from the sound of fighting going on below, “Let’s go, Zad. 

“I’d like to find out if these ‘Mongolians’ are any good at cooking.” 

*******

Michael And Chayyiel

Two heavily armed humanoid figures wearing golden armor stood outside the entrance into a clearly heavily reinforced bunker in the middle of the woods. The man on the left held an enormous trident weapon with a shotgun attachment, his gaze panning over the trees in front of them while he asked, “So what do they have the old man working on now?” 

His companion, a slightly smaller female figure with a sword at her hip and rifle in her hands, shook her head. “Fuck all if I know. You think they tell me anything more than they tell you? I’m only your senior by like three weeks. All I know is it’s something big and they don’t want any interruptions, so keep your eyes peeled. Hell, if we’re lucky, maybe they’re having him build something that could wipe out those fucking Boschers for good this time.” 

“Actually,” a voice from above and behind them remarked, “at the moment they want him to create something that hides all of you from any of those Boschers. You know, a permanent, perfect cloaking field around all your facilities that can stand up against their powers.” 

The sudden interruption was, to put it mildly, surprising. Both guards spun that way, snapping their weapons up. They found themselves staring at a small, young Seosten girl crouched there on top of the bunker’s roof, eying them curiously. The unconscious figure of the sniper who had been stationed further back on the roof lay next to her, his rifle discarded a bit to the side. 

“What th–shoot her!” the female guard snapped, already starting to open fire on the crouched figure. A rapid series of small purple lasers erupted from her rifle with the speed of a minigun, flooding the air with a hundred shots within only a couple seconds of pulling the trigger. The shots were intentionally spread out to cover an area roughly the size of a human male in order to hit any conceivable weak point on the body, and to cover any immediate attempt to dodge. 

Beside her, the male guard fired several quick rounds from his shotgun-like weapon. The destructive force from the explosive pellets the weapon fired could easily blow apart a car.  

All of that firepower, however, accomplished nothing. They simply hit a glowing forcefield that appeared in front of the girl. No, not a forcefield, a wing made of energy, which stretched out from behind the men and reached up to cover the crouched figure. 

Within seconds, the guards had stopped firing. Their heads slowly turned to find a slim man with gray hair and wire-frame glasses standing behind them. The glowing energy wings came from his back. 

“Afternoon,” Michael greeted them. 

“I’m truly sorry about this.” 

*****

Thirty seconds later, Michael used his wings once more to blow a hole through the bunker door. Then he gestured for his companion. “After you, my dear.”

Chayyiel, in turn, gave a short nod before proceeding inside and down the hall. She was already counting out a handful of previously enchanted marbles into one hand. At the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps, she reared back, triggered the spells upon the marbles, and chucked them. The marbles careened down the hall, bouncing off walls, floor, and ceiling. With each bounce, they emitted a stunning electrical shock. Soon, she heard them reach the incoming troops, who began firing uselessly at the tiny orbs while the sound of their cries filled the air, followed by dull thuds as their unconscious forms collapsed. 

“An elegant solution,” Michael noted. 

“Thanks,” she replied. “One makes do when you don’t have magic wings that can blast through everything in their way.” 

And so it continued. Chayyiel and Michael made their way through the entire bunker, casually dispatching anyone who happened to be in the way. Eventually, she reached the heart of the structure, a workroom filled with various tools, equipment of every shape and size, books full of spells, various types of field-engravers, and more. A single figure stood within that room. He was a tall (almost seven feet), heavyset male figure with dark blue skin, a turtle-like shell on his back, a pair of compound eyes centered on his face with two slits above that were used as a nose, and a mouth below. Four antennae, two small at only two inches and two large at almost six, adorned the top of his bald head. His long arms reached all the way to the ground if it let them droop, and had seven incredibly dextrous looking fingers at the end of each. 

“Are you here to kill me?” the man asked without looking up as the door slid open. His attention was on the oblong box he was carefully inscribing something into. “If so, might I ask that you wait until I finish this? An interruption could create a vortex that would swallow this entire facility and several hundred surrounding square miles.” 

“We’re not here to kill you, Quervus,” Michael informed the man before nodding to Chayyiel. “I was simply helping my young companion here find you. She’s been looking for quite awhile.” 

Chayyiel spoke up. “You did a job for a friend of mine about fifteen hundred years ago. You enchanted a piece of dragon bone and turned it into a sword.” 

There was a brief pause before Quervus nodded. “I remember it. You want another of those, I need another dragon bone.” 

“Not a sword,” she replied, reaching into her pocket to produce a bag, which she unwrapped and reached into, taking out a square chunk of dragon bone about three feet across. “Let’s just say, I acquired this from an old antique shop. I need you to turn it into the chest piece of a suit of armor.” 

Finally, Quervus turned to look at her. His eyes scanned over the bone she was holding. “For one of you, or the man the sword was for?” 

“Neither,” Michael put in. “But I have the measurements for you right here.”

Chayyiel nodded in agreement. “We have someone else in mind. 

“We need you to make it for a woman named Joselyn.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Hostile Witness 18-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“A petting zoo, seriously? Couldn’t this chick live somewhere that stinks less, like an outhouse?” 

The complaint came from Pack just over three hours later, after we had followed all the leads that we could. Kayla Dugan’s list had had a few that crosswe ed over with the list we had gotten from Deicide, so we checked on those first. But in the end, it had taken every single hint we got from the original list as well as what Kayla and a few other people had been able to give us. 

Not everyone was willing to talk to us, of course. Some slammed the door in our faces, or just claimed they didn’t know anything. Others we weren’t able to track down at all. But a few talked, and a few of those few had actual information. A lot of it was the same as others, but helpful nonetheless. For those few hours, we trekked back and forth across the city, tracking down every lead we could. It involved a lot of waiting, a lot of duplicated names, and a lot of talking.

But, in the end, we had what was supposed to be the address that Amanda Sanvers was currently living at. And yes, it was at a petting zoo. Or, to be precise, an apartment above a petting zoo. According to the information we’d managed to collect, she had been living there for about seven months or so. Honestly, as we sat in the van with the windows open, I couldn’t imagine how she’d lasted more than a week. The smell of the goats, sheep, ponies, pigs, rabbits, and more was just awful. They even had cows and a couple regular sized horses. Seriously, this girl must either have no sense of smell at all, or the apartment was really good at filtering out the scent. 

Just as before, the rest of us were in the back of the van while Pack sat in the front, talking to us through the little window thing. When she made that comment, I replied, “I just hope she doesn’t think seeing all the cute little animals would make Pencil change his mind about doing terrible things. He really doesn’t strike me as the type to stop and coo over the cute little lamb.” 

With a snort from her seat next to That-A-Way, Raindrop darkly pointed out, “Maybe she thinks he’ll be so distracted hurting and killing all the adorable animals, it’ll give her time to escape.” 

“Ew,” Way managed, shaking her head. “Let’s not think about that right now, okay? Whatever her reasoning is, you guys just need to go in there and talk to this girl. Try to get her to open up, convince her to tell you what she knows. Rain and I will be listening the whole time, right?” 

“Right,” I agreed, waving my Touched-business phone in one hand. “I’ll have this thing on and connected to your phone. You guys will be able to hear everything we do. You know, just in case something goes wrong. Which is clearly a ridiculously unlikely scenario.” 

My words were greeted by a unified doubtful, ‘Uhhhh huh’ from literally everyone in the van. Even Alloy. If the lizards in their cage in the front seat had been capable of it, I was pretty sure they would have added to the chorus. I’m sure they were in spirit, anyway. 

“Anyway,” Pack put in, “The three of us go in together. These two stay outside for backup. We get every bit of info this chick’s got, tell her she should probably lay low somewhere else until Pencil’s dealt with just in case he hears about us looking for her, and get out of there. Then we send that info to Deicide and let her handle it. And somewhere in there we find a way to cope with whatever extra problems pop up.” Her gaze turned to me, staring intently through the mask she had put back on. “You know, as ‘unlikely’ as those problems are.” 

“Sounds like a plan,” I confirmed with a slightly exaggerated thumbs up before looking over at my new partner. “Ready to go see what this girl knows?” 

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she was connected to one of the other bad guys in town instead of this one,” she informed me, squirming a bit with clear unease. Then she took a visible breath to steady herself, focusing on me. “But yeah. Yeah, I’m ready, I guess.” 

“I’m ready, I guess,” I echoed with a firm nod. “Sounds like as good of a rallying cry as we’re gonna get for this. So let’s head over there.” Looking over to Way and Raindrop, I added, “Just be ready to jump in the second it sounds like something’s wrong, okay?” I may not have been accustomed to having actual backup from people who knew what was going on, but I was definitely going to take advantage when it was right here. 

They agreed, and I took a moment to call Way’s phone. We made sure there was a good connection and that those two could hear everything. Then it was time to stop stalling and go talk to this girl. No matter how crappy I felt at the thought of making her relive what that fucker had done to her family. God, seriously, how shitty was it going to be for us to show up at this girl’s doorstep asking her to risk her whole life just to tell us everything she knew about the psychopath who had tormented and tortured her family, and made her parents kill each other? I just… yeah. No wonder none of us were exactly eager to get down to business. 

But, in the end, this was what we had agreed to do. And it was clearly the right thing. Pencil had to be stopped before he destroyed any more lives. At least this way we weren’t actually facing the man himself. So, Alloy and I slid out the back together before looking around. The petting zoo wasn’t actually in town. Instead, it was off a section of road about ten miles west, and fairly isolated. Probably because nobody wanted to be their neighbors. 

The van was parked in a small area behind a few trees just a couple hundred yards from the fence that surrounded the place in question. And yes, the smell was bad from here. I was seriously considering asking Wren to add a scent filter into the helmet she had made. 

Actually, come to think of it, having some kind of gas filter built into this thing was probably a good idea, smell or no smell. But Wren had a lot to deal with already, and after the lengths she’d already pushed herself to just so she could get that VR machine ready for helping Paige, I was going to back off a bit and let her work on other things for the time being. Still, it was something to keep in mind. 

Pack joined us, and I immediately noticed that she was wearing a small green and black backpack just like one you’d take to school, which was in no way big enough to carry her lizards, or the cage that had been holding them back on the front seat of the van.

“Oh, you like it?” she asked, making a show of modeling for us by spinning in a circle. “Newest gift from the boss. The bag and that cage in there are linked. I reach in here, and I can grab one of my buddies from there. Makes it easier to run around and still have everybody I need.”

After exchanging a brief glance with Alloy, I replied, “Well, good to know he’s got spiffy rewards for you.”

“Employment benefits,” she slyly informed us. “Which, both of you could totally get if–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by a knock on the back of the van from the inside. Then the door popped open and Way called through the crack, “Would you please stop trying to recruit heroes for your villain gang and get on with it!” 

“Don’t worry, babe!” Pack called that way, “No need to be jealous, your offer is still the best one! I made sure to really talk you up when Blackjack went over all the different welcoming packets we could hand out.” 

Snorting despite myself at that and Way’s sputtering reaction, I started to move. “Come on, both of you should probably focus a bit. This is supposed to be important.” 

Through the bluetooth thing in my ear, I heard Way mutter a retort of, “Oh I’m focused, I’m totally focused. Just make her focus.” There was a brief pause before she added a little more quietly, “And be careful. Make sure you’re all careful.” 

“We will,” I murmured, before turning to look at the other two. “Okay guys, I know this mission really stinks, but let’s try to get through it. Just remember, the worst isn’t the pigs and horses, it’s the goats and cows. You might say we’re walking into some real dairy air.” 

I was met with two staring figures, Pack demanding, “Have you got all that out of your system now?” 

Painting a broad smiley face across my helmet, I retorted, “Probably not, but I’ll be good for now.” Yeah, soon, when I got nervous I made jokes. It helped me focus. And right now, I was definitely very nervous. This whole situation was making me incredibly antsy. But I tried to shove all those feelings down, focusing on moving through the wooded area up toward the fence around the petting zoo. Neither the smell, nor my nerves, improved along the way. 

Before long, we reached the fence and could see through it. Where we had come up (quite intentionally) was right near the actual main building, visible through cracks between the tall wooden boards. To the right a bit was a chicken coop, which was doing nothing to help the scent we were all dealing with. And further beyond that was the pen for the goats, and that was clearly giving the chicken coop a run for its money. Yeah, this whole place was farm animal central, and the pens were close enough to the main three-story house that my earlier assessment had to be right. Either the people who lived there really did have no sense of smell, or the building was set up with very good filters. No way could they sleep at night like this. 

There were also a few people scattered around, a couple obvious employees helping take care of the animals, and what looked like two or three different families of tourists wandering around to see and pet anything they could. Not to mention getting pictures with them. 

“Let’s try to get inside the house without being seen,” I murmured quietly. “If we’re really doing our best to make sure Pencil doesn’t find out about this, waltzing right in past a bunch of tourists with cameras seems like it might be a little bit counterproductive to that.”  

“Yeah,” Pack snorted, “maybe just a little. So how exactly do you want to get in there if we’re not attracting attention?” There was a brief pause then before she amended, “You know, that sounded like I was being dismissive of the idea, and I’m definitely not. Not attracting attention that ends up getting all the way to the Scions is a very good thing in general. But still, how?” 

Before I could respond, Alloy pointed a bit to our left. “Over there,” she whispered. “There’s a little gate hidden between some bushes. I think it leads down to a well or something near the stream. It’s next to the toolshed on the inside. The gate’s locked, but we can hop over.”

“Wow,” I remarked, “good eyes. How’d you see all th–wait, did you get actual information from your little marble buddies? Can they scout for you now? See, this is why this whole thing isn’t fair. You get marble buddies and she gets lizard buddies. Where’re my paint buddies?”  

Clearly blushing a bit beneath the Sentai-like helmet she wore, Alloy shook her head. “No, I uhhh, I sort of came here with my mom a few months ago. She was on this kick about spending time together, and that’s cool and all, but I was trying to figure out if this girl liked me or not so I brought her with us. Then Mom was being all weird, so we snuck away to find a place to hide so we could talk. We found that gate and climbed over it. I sorta ripped my pants a little bit.” Waving off that memory, the girl added, “Anyway, we can probably get in right there. It’s hidden enough that if we watch until nobody’s looking, we can go right to the house.” 

Exchanging a glance with Pack, I shrugged. “Good enough for me. Better plan than I could have come up with, that’s for sure. Come on, let’s get over there. Maybe it won’t smell as bad.” 

“It’s like thirty feet away, Paintball,” Pack hissed as we started to move quietly and stealthily along the edge of the fence. “There’s being optimistic and then there’s just being delusional.” 

Through my bluetooth earpiece, I heard Way murmur, “Told you we should’ve stopped long enough to get those scented lip balms to rub under your nose before we came all the way out here. See what happens when you’re in a rush?” 

“You might’ve been right,” I whispered, waving a hand dismissively at the other two when they looked at me curiously. “Feel free to rub that in my face when we’re done with this. But while you’re at it, could you also rub a bouquet of flowers or something in my face too?” 

By that point, we’d reached the little gate that Alloy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was easy to climb over. I used a quick shot of black paint to silence the gate so that it wouldn’t rattle as we did just that. Quickly, the three of us dropped into a crouch in the bushes next to the tool shed. To the right off in the distance, we could see people still walking around with the animals. But this area seemed to be for employees, and none of them were over here. At the moment, it was clear. Well, mostly clear. There was one young couple, maybe in their very early twenties, who were having a conversation and could have seen us if we darted across the space to the house.

Hoping that more people wouldn’t wander over, we crouched there and silently urged the two to hurry up and move on. But they just kept standing there. Finally, I whispered an idea to Alloy, and she nodded before sending her bronze marble flying low to the ground that way, keeping the thing out of sight. It went past the couple, into the nearby pig pen, and sort of… firmly poked one of the pigs there. It was enough to make the pig jerk around and oink loudly, which made the couple turn to see what was going on.  

We immediately took advantage of that, darting quickly across the space to the house. There was a door there, but we didn’t use it. Instead, I shot red paint up toward the balcony of the third floor, where we knew Amanda’s apartment was supposed to be, and let it yank me that way. Behind me, Alloy turned two of her marbles into a flying platform to lift herself and Pack. We got all the way up, dropping down onto the balcony itself before anyone saw us. At least, I hoped we did. At the very least, nobody seemed to react, and a glance down showed everyone acting normal. We’d made it. We were here, right outside the girl’s apartment, without attracting attention. So far, so good. Now if only our luck would actually continue. 

As soon as the three of us were convinced nobody had seen us get up there, we turned our attention to the sliding door. Or, more accurately, through the door. I was ready to quickly try to reassure Amanda that we weren’t a threat if the woman was standing right there, but there was no sign of her. We were looking into a small, cluttered living room that looked like it hadn’t been picked up in months. There were no food containers or anything gross like that, it was just… cluttered. There were blankets and pillows everywhere, a TV tray stand with a bunch of toys scattered across it, random flashlights and other electronics, books, and a few bottles of various types of glue, a bunch of boxes with who-knew-what in them (I could see a stack of magazines practically spilling out of one), and more. It was a mess, with a narrow path leading to the very comfortable-looking armchair seated in front of a fairly decent television. 

“This chick definitely doesn’t care about keeping her place tidy,” Pack murmured. She leaned forward and looked down before coughing. “But she does care about her security.” 

Following her gaze, I saw what she was talking about. There was a very elaborate and advanced-looking alarm attached to the door. If we slid it open, it would go off. And since that was there, I was pretty sure the glass itself was probably alarmed too. To say nothing of the windows and every other entrance. This was going to be complicated. Not that I could blame her at all. If I had gone through what she did, I’d make sure every inch of my home was protected from invasion too. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have some Touched-Tech that she’d bought added into the mix. Not to mention guns. Or even Touched-Tech guns. Good ones were expensive as hell, especially to have someone come out and maintain them, but something told me this Amanda girl would see having the extra protection as worth it. 

“What if she’s not home?” Alloy whispered, reminding me of an option we really hadn’t put too much consideration to, somehow. “How long do we sit here waiting for her? Because I’m pretty sure those guys will eventually look up. And the three of us? We don’t really blend in.”

Yeah, she had a point. Grimacing to myself for a moment while thinking intently, I finally shrugged. “I guess the best we can do is knock and see if she responds,” I whispered back. 

So, that was what we did. While the other two kept an eye below just in case, I reached up and gave a light knock against the sliding door. When that prompted no response, I knocked a little louder. Again, there was nothing. So, I knocked one more time, even louder, though hopefully not enough to attract attention from below. It was a hard balance to strike. We wanted the woman inside (if she was there) to hear, but not the people below. 

I was about to suggest that we think of somewhere safer to wait for the woman, such as the roof, when movement from inside caught my attention. I looked that way in time to see the girl in question standing in the doorway between the living room and some other place, staring at us. She was just like the pictures I’d seen in a few of the houses of the people we’d visited, a girl around eighteen or nineteen, with long dark hair and features that most probably would have called gorgeous. Brilliant blue eyes with a sort-of smoldering look, a figure that would’ve made any guy turn his head, all that sort of thing. All the stuff I wasn’t. 

But then again, I hadn’t had my entire family destroyed and torn apart by a psychotic monster. 

I could see the surprise on the girl’s face. She looked visibly taken aback, standing there with her mouth open. So, I reached out to touch the glass and made words appear there, reversed on our side so she could read them. 

‘It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt you. Please, can we come in? It’s safe, we promise.’ 

See her lips move as she read those words. For a moment, her head tilted, as though considering them. There was a momentary strange expression on her face. It almost looked like amusement before she shook it off. Probably just didn’t know how to react to something like three Touched showing up on her balcony asking to come in. 

Finally, the woman moved over by the door. She opened a little pad there and hit a few buttons, before unlocking the door and sliding it open. She looked at us crouched there, quietly asking, “This is about that psycho, isn’t it? You’re here about… him.” The girl shuddered visibly, her gaze a bit haunted. 

I nodded quickly. “We’re really sorry to bother you. We just… we have to ask you a few things. We were careful, we made sure no one saw us come in.” 

“You’re sure?” she pressed. “You’re absolutely positive that nobody else knows you’re here?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. It’s safe.” 

“Safe…” she echoed the word, biting her lip before stepping back. “Okay then. 

“Come on in.” 

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Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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