Heretical Edge

Calm Before 20-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

A/N – the following takes place shortly before the situation depicted in interludes 19C and 19D at Harrison Fredericks’ lab. 

After everything we had been through inside the vault, we were all exhausted by the time we got out of Wonderland. With the promise that we would go back and visit again while hopefully not ending up trapped in another pocket dimension for the entire time, of course. We were tired and just plain done with everything. So, Mom insisted that Marina, Dakota, and the Carnival (that was what Denny and all her new Aspects wanted to be called when referring to all of them together) come with us to my parents’ apartment and sleep there for the night. She said other people would ask way too many questions if we tried to go to sleep in our houses or our own rooms, and that they had plenty of space. 

She wasn’t wrong about that part, for sure. There was a big room my parents weren’t using at all, and after a quick reunion with my father and grandparents, Mom insisted they had let us sleep and that there would be more explanations in the morning. Or that she would explain things while we got the rest we needed. Either way, glad as I was to see all of them again, I was almost as glad to be able to fall into bed and completely turn my brain off for awhile. It had been a long day. Between dealing with the whole murder thing, trying to help Denny, and then running into the ghost of Manakel, it was… a lot. I just needed to stop for a bit. 

I did, of course, want to know what I had missed while we were in there. So, Tabbris caught me up to speed about the Avalon situation. Or rather, the Zeke situation. Apparently the Whispers had gone after him for some reason that no one was exactly clear on, except his mother said that it had to do with something his father had done on that same world where the Whispers had been imprisoned to begin with. Which probably meant that we really didn’t want them doing whatever they were intending with Zeke. 

So now, at Sophronia’s request, he was staying here on the station with us. And boy, from what Tabbris said, was he not very happy about that. To say the least. He still thought we were all evil cowardly traitors or something, and now he was convinced his mother was crazy. Still, he couldn’t really stop the adults here from keeping him. He didn’t know how to use transportation magic (they didn’t teach that this early at Crossroads), and any powers he had for that were short-range. He had no way of getting all the way from the sun back to Earth. Not that that stopped him from ranting about how we were holding him prisoner and all that. According to Tabbris, Abigail had tried to talk to him for awhile but gave up and told him they’d talk a bit later, once he calmed down. She did make sure he had all the food and entertainment he could need, and kept sending some of his old classmates to talk to him. Especially Erin Redcliffe and Travis Colby, his old teammates. Even that didn’t really seem to help, though. If anything, he was apparently even angrier with them.

Obviously, I wanted to talk to Avalon. But she was asleep when I got back, apparently at Abigail’s order. So was Shiori. They had both been told that there was nothing they could do to get into the vault where I was, and that if that changed, they would be informed and wouldn’t it be just terrible if there did turn out to be a way to go in and they were too exhausted to do it? 

Yeah, it was blatant manipulation and everyone involved knew that. Still, it apparently convinced them enough to lay down for a bit, so they were asleep when I got out of that place. I didn’t want to wake them up, no matter how much I wanted to see them. Besides, there was that whole thing about me needing a bit of sleep too, so my brain could actually function. So, I put off that particular reunion. Besides, as long as it had felt in the vault, we weren’t actually in there even for a full day. It just seemed like it had been a week. Or longer.

I did do one important thing before sleeping. I took Perrsnile to the haunted mansion and told the other ghosts to keep an eye on him. I also used another of those ghost containment spells just to make sure of it, and promised to explain more later after giving them a quick rundown of what was going on and who the son of a bitch was. I also dropped Ausesh off there, but let her know she could do whatever she wanted in that place and that I would turn one of the rooms into an actual lab to work in as soon as possible. Then I left to get some actual rest. 

Marina, Dakota, the Carnival, and I camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. Letters was the one who had manifested when we went to sleep, but when I came to a couple hours later (fully-rested, of course), I didn’t see her at all. Then I spotted Peanut, the tiny pixie Aspect, curled up in a nest she had apparently made out of a towel on a nearby table. She was making adorable little squeaking noises with each soft exhale, wings fluttering a bit now and then.  

Quietly getting up so I wouldn’t disturb the others, I slipped out of the room. They definitely needed more rest. After all, not everybody had the benefit of Amarok power allowing them to get away with being fully refreshed after just a couple hours of sleep at most. Though if asked, I’d have to say that I highly recommended it. Especially if you were going to throw yourself into the sort of situations that kept popping up in my life.

The only person awake in the apartment when I stepped out was Grandmaria. It was early enough that she was sitting in a kitchen illuminated only by the small light over the stove, drinking a cup of tea. As soon as she saw me, my grandmother was on her feet saying something about how she would make me some food. Before she could, I stepped over and embraced her. I’d done it earlier, just before going to sleep, but I needed another one. And it was clear she did too, from the way she squeezed me back. 

I thought about insisting that she didn’t need to make me anything, but I also knew that it made her feel like she was contributing and helping. And I didn’t want to take that away. On the other hand, I also didn’t want her to do it all by herself. So, I insisted on at least making my own drink and refreshing hers, while asking if she’d had any sleep. 

“Oh, I’ll get some rest later,” she replied shortly. “Don’t you worry about me. I want to know how that girl in there is doing.” She paused, clearly sorting through things in her head before questioning, “I mean, those people? I’m not sure what the proper… term would be…” 

Yeah, we had explained a little bit about that before crashing, and I was sure my mother had told them more before she’d gone to bed herself. Still, it was no wonder that my grandmother would probably be a bit confused about that whole situation. So, while we were making food for ourselves and something to drink, I went through the whole situation from the top and explained everything. Not just about the Carnival, but everything that happened in the vault. Some she already knew, but I could tell it helped for me to go through all of it like that. And it also helped me sort it out in my own head. 

“So, we talked about it, and if you’re talking about the body as a whole and the people inside it, they prefer ‘they or them.’” I informed her. “But each one of the different Aspects has their own preferred term. Most of them are ‘she or her,’ but there’s a couple individual ‘they or them’ and ‘he or hims.’ Like Bang-bang. The easiest thing is just to use the term for the one who is physically active and in control of the body if you’re saying something specific like, ‘do you want a soda?’ Or address all of them if you’re trying to ask the whole collective something. And don’t worry about being confused. They’re still working out that whole thing too, so it’s not like they don’t have questions themselves. All that really matters is to listen to what they say, and  understand that they may share a body, but they’re individuals. They have their own likes and dislikes, so just because one of them says they prefer something doesn’t mean they all do. Denny… Denny needs a lot of help. She’s been through a lot, and she’s not ready to be in control of the body right now. I mean, she deserves a break.” 

“She does,” Grandmaria agreed with a troubled frown. “I just wish there was more we could do for her. For all of them. So many people inside one body. I… it reminds me of when you, your father, and the others came into my head while your grandfather and I were still out in space. Hearing all your voices and feeling you there, that was, well, it was a lot. If I had to share my body with you, I would do it in a second. But are we certain we can’t get them their own bodies?”

Biting my lip, I offered a shrug. “Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. They’re part of–they’re all sort of… it’s complicated. But even if it did, I’m pretty sure some–or even most of them don’t want to leave. Grandmaria, I get it. Believe me, I understand. But I don’t think this is something we need to ‘fix.’ It’s just who they are. They’re like a family living in one body. They need each other, they’re a part of each other. And that whole situation isn’t something we need to fix or change, it’s just something we need to accept. If they need help with something, they’ll ask for it. We just need to listen, and give it to them.” 

My grandmother absorbed that, clearly considering it before giving a short nod as she nibbled on some toast. “Well, if that’s what they need, it’s what they’ll get.” She hesitated then, clearly uncertain of how to bring it up before carefully adding, “But, about this other part, the… Theodore. Is he really– I mean is he only…” 

“As far as we can tell, that’s not Theodore mixed with part of Denny,” I confirmed. “He’s just the memories or… personality of him before Fossor turned him into Ammon. Before he–before he did all that. He’s like the piece of Theodore that was locked away, the part Fossor cut out or blocked off or whatever. It’s complicated, like the rest of that entire situation. But it’s him, Grandmaria. It um, it kinda freaked me out too, believe me. You didn’t know Ammon. You never met him, you never–” A shudder ran through me as my face twisted a bit. “It’s weird, seeing him now. But it’s not Ammon. It’s Theodore. He’s Theodore. Or at least as close to him as we’ll ever see. Closer than I thought. And we can talk to him. Mom already did.” 

A smile found its way to the elderly woman’s face as she sipped her tea. “Yes, she was quite happy about that. And chatty. I don’t believe I’ve seen Joselyn so talkative since…” She paused again, head tilting before her eyes found mine. “Actually, I do remember the last time she talked that much. It was over the phone just as you went into first grade. She had dropped you off, still had time before her shift, and your father was already at the paper. She needed someone to talk to, so she called us, and your grandfather put the phone on speaker. I remember sitting out on the back porch on our swing, listening to your mother telling us everything about that morning. She told us what you were wearing, how you woke up, the lunch you both made together, every single thing you said on the drive there, what you looked like going into the big, big building with that little green backpack…” She trailed off, smiling fondly at the memory. 

Then Grandmaria swallowed hard, voice troubled. “I never should have believed that she would ever willingly abandon you or your father. Not after that, let alone all the other times that… I never should have believed it.” 

“It’s okay.” That wasn’t me. It was my mother, standing in the doorway. Her voice was soft, gaze focused on the older woman. “I understand why you would.” 

My grandmother was already on her feet, moving that way to embrace her. The two of them exchanged a couple of quiet, private whispers before Mom joined us. Which meant Grandmaria was bustling around making more food. Meanwhile, I turned to my mother and I asked about Manakel. So she informed me that Puriel and the other Seosten were still with him, as far as she knew. They were keeping an eye on him while a proper containment room was prepared. He’d already agreed to stay wherever we wanted him to, but no one was going to take any chances. Not with someone like him. Yeah, I wanted to take advantage of the lessons he was offering, but we were still going to be careful with it. Even if he was telling the truth about not being a horrible person anymore, even the man himself admitted that there was no telling when Tartarus might get its hooks into him again. We had to make sure that, if something went wrong, he couldn’t do any damage to this place. Or to any of us, for that matter. 

Giving them a moment together, I stepped out of the kitchen to the main living room and simply stood by myself for a minute. Or rather, for about seven seconds, before a lump laying on the nearby couch was suddenly picking it–herself up. My item sense picked up just what I needed to tell me who it was in the relative darkness, even as I spun that way. “Shiori?” 

She threw herself at me, and I caught the other girl while taking a step back to brace myself. Then we were kissing. It was… oh, it was nice. Wow. Really nice. After a moment of that, I came up for air and smiled a bit. “I think I found the sweet spot. If I’m out of touch for just most of a day, you get worried about me without getting mad at me for being gone for much longer than that.”

Snorting at me, Shiori punched my arm. “Don’t be a jerk about it or I could be mad at you for that.” She was smiling though, beaming really. “You solved a murder mystery.” 

“That’s what they pay me the big bucks for,” I replied as casually as possible. “Maybe I should get a private office and a trenchcoat, huh? You could be one of my dames.” 

Shiori giggled, started to say something, then just hugged me tighter. That felt about as good as the kiss, honestly. I held onto her, giving a soft sigh of contentment before quietly asking, “What are you doing here? I mean, sleeping out on the couch?” 

“We didn’t wanna wake you up,” she informed me. “But we knew you wouldn’t sleep all night. I uhh–” Looking over toward one of the recliners, which had also been made up for someone to sleep in but was empty now, Shiori added, “I think Avalon went for a walk. Saving Zeke and then having him stay here was… a lot. Especially since she was worried about you the whole time.”

“I bet,” I murmured softly before kissing her once more. “I’ll find her. Are you okay though?” 

She confirmed that she was fine. She and Twister had been off helping Asenath try to track down the person who erased her father’s memory. Apparently they had some big lead with that. Asenath and Twister had found some group of other people who were also looking for Grigori Rasputin, the Akharu who had been with Tiras on that last mission. There was some woman named Inanna who could point them all in the right direction. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just giving them a current address. Inanna had clues about where Rasputin was, and they were working on narrowing it down. The man wandered a lot, apparently. 

Either way, they were all busy with that. I made Shiori promise to let me know the second they needed any help. By that point, she was yawning, so I walked her back to the couch and got her to lay down again. But just as I was about to quietly head out, she caught my hand. “Oh, I almost forgot. Is it true about Denny having… I mean about her having a lot of people inside her head?” 

Blinking once, I nodded. “Yeah, they’ll definitely wanna talk to you when they wake up again and all that. Err… you know, I’m not sure if the inside carnival part sleeps or gets dark or… what.” Briefly, I gave her the explanation about what I was even talking about. 

Shiori, in turn, nodded slowly as she absorbed that. “You should have her–or them talk to Robin.” 

“Robin?” I echoed, tilting my head curiously. 

With an audible snicker, Shiori informed me that she was talking about Robin Hood. Or Robin Med. Or Robin Chat. And so on. Apparently one of the people Asenath was working with now was a robot. Actually, they were one of the Mevari, the incredibly powerful robots created by the Tseuckaviel like Lord Yup, the small, purple-skinned man who was capable of seeing through the eyes of any living person he’d ever seen. Now I really wanted to find Lord Yup and let him know that one of his peoples’ creations was still intact and living on Earth. 

In any case, the point was that apparently this particular Mevari had been the actual Robin Hood. And they, like Denny now, had many different personalities/minds living inside one head. I wasn’t sure how that worked, if it was an intentional Mevari thing or something new. But they had experience communicating as several people living in one body. So, Shiori thought Denny and the rest of that whole group would want to meet them. I was pretty sure of that too, but told her I’d check with them first to make sure. 

With that, I told Shiori to go back to sleep, kissed her once more, and headed out. Grandmaria and Mom were still talking in the kitchen, so I stepped out of the apartment and looked around for Avalon. Not that I had to look very hard. She was just down the hall, doing something with her phone. When I approached, I could see that she was looking at pictures of herself with Gaia that looked like they had been taken last year. 

“I didn’t know you had those,” I murmured while stepping up beside the other girl. 

She, in turn, smiled very faintly. It was almost a grimace. She was blinking rapidly as well, pushing wetness out of her eyes before she put the phone away. “Gaia sent them to me. She had cameras watching us sometimes, and they… she wanted mementos.” Swallowing visibly, she looked to me, and I could see the vulnerability there. “Felicity, we have to get her out of there.” 

Flinching, I reached out, pulling the other girl to me. We embraced tightly, and I whispered, “We will, I promise. We’ll get her out.” Putting both hands on either side of her face, I made her meet my gaze. “You hear me? We’re gonna get her back.” 

“She saved my life,” Valley murmured, staring intently at me. “More than once and in every way possible. She saved me, Felicity. We have to save her.” 

She kissed me then, and the two of us lost ourselves in one another for a few moments. I held her tight while talking about what had happened, and she told me a few more specifics about her own day. We had all very clearly been busy, to say the least. 

And something told me that between me needing to take lessons from Manakel’s ghost, Asenath getting closer to finding out who was responsible for her father’s lost memories, the whole Whisper situation with Zeke being up here now, whatever Kushiel was doing, the need to save Gaia, and the whole rebellion in general, things weren’t going to get boring anytime soon. 

But hey, if they did, I always had that private detective gig to fall back on. 

Previous Chapter

Interlude 19D – Cyber Defense (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the wake of Kushiel’s words, there was no hesitation, no moment of shock. The people she was gloating at were too well-trained for that, and none of them needed to have things spelled out even more than they already were in that moment. The whole group knew just how bad it would be to let someone like Kushiel and her… entourage take off with an assortment of incredibly powerful, giant cyberforms. Whatever she intended to do with them couldn’t be positive for basically anyone on the planet. Especially considering she was apparently working for Tartarus itself. And while the idea of a somehow sapient and evil alternate universe was still a lot to wrap their heads around, stopping Kushiel was not. That part basically went without saying. 

Less time than a blink passed from Kushiel’s announcement, before the others were moving. Tristan was first, launching himself off the ground. In the same motion, his own cyberform snake dropped from his arm, shifting to form a narrow sort-of  board under his feet with the cannon part aimed backward. It let off a blast of energy, propelling itself into the air with the blond boy balanced on top. His hand snapped out, as three feather-like metal darts rose from his wrist. As the rocket-propelled robot snake hurled him upward toward the nearest of the dragon robots, Tristan launched those three darts from his wrist. They shot unerringly that way, his inherited accuracy powers ensuring that all three struck the young Seosten boy with short black hair and incredibly pale skin who was perched on top of the mech. 

Or they would have, had the Seosten boy not just as abruptly snapped his head to the side to avoid the dart aimed for his forehead, twisted his body sideways to avoid the one aimed for his stomach, and used two fingers to snatch the one aimed for his chest out of midair. The dart disintegrated in his hand a moment later, before he could do anything more than give it a curious look. 

At the same time, Vanessa had launched herself upward as well. In her case, she didn’t rely on a cyberform partner to carry her upward. Instead, the blonde girl transformed into a raven, expertly guiding her small, black bird form through a sudden hail of gunfire that came from the second of the dragon mechs. A minigun that had popped up next to the Seosten girl there, a figure with long brown hair tied into a tight braid, and a very slim, almost anorexic-looking form. The large gun popped out of her own stolen ride’s shoulder, took aim seemingly of its own volition, and opened fire on the incoming bird. But its bullets came nowhere near Vanessa, who spun and barrel-rolled her way through the incoming fire like the most incredible ace pilot who had ever taken the controls of a plane. Where Tristan had used their mother’s perfect accuracy to send those darts at his own opponent, Vanessa used Sariel’s perfect control and understanding of her own body and its position to carry herself through the smallest of openings between incoming gunfire. She instinctively knew exactly where and how to position herself to make it safely through what should have been an impossible wave of bullets. 

Meanwhile, as the Moon siblings were busy finding their own ways up toward the dragon mechs, the other set of twins in the lot weren’t standing still. Sarah and Sands ran together, side by side. Two of the other mechs had already opened up on them with a barrage of lasers, which instantly chewed up the pavement around the pair, but they kept moving. As she snapped her rifle up with one hand, Sarah held the other one out with a bullet between two fingers, all while still running. No conversation or explanation was needed. Her sister immediately put her own hand against the offered bullet and vanished, using her object-possession ability to put herself into the thing. In the next moment, Sarah had shoved the bullet into her gun, diving into a forward roll to avoid another volley of destructive shots from hovering mechs. As she came to one knee, the girl took aim and fired. The bullet she had just loaded shot that way in an instant, heading straight for the head of the two cyberforms who had been taking careful aim at her. One would be distracted in just a moment. Unfortunately, the other, under the command of a green-haired girl crouched by its neck, was still right on top of the human girl, and began to chase her across the lot with a barrage of lasers as she ran.  

Naturally, the dragon mech that Sarah had shot that single small bullet toward initially ignored the projectile. But it couldn’t ignore Sands as she popped out of that bullet right in front of it. Especially when she went from being a five-foot nothing girl, to abruptly being thirty feet tall. Now, Sands was the same height as the mech. Her boosted threat became even more evident as her fist slammed into its head. Between her own strength and the force from being shot as a bullet, the impact knocked the dragon mech backward through the air, allowing Sands to grab onto the thing and ride it straight to the ground. It crashed hard into the pavement, sending up a shower of broken concrete. The Seosten teen who had been riding the thing, a male figure with white hair that was cut very short and a muscular build, leapt clear with a shout of annoyance, flipping over in the air before landing on Sands’ outstretched arm. Immediately, he snapped his hand down, clearly intending to possess her. 

“Yeah,” the giant Sands informed him as he reacted with confusion when nothing happened. “Good luck with that.” With that, she swung her arm sideways to throw her unwanted passenger off. He was sent flying, yet recovered in midair, producing a small pistol which he opened fire with. Several quick laser shots cut through even Sands’ incredible durability in her giant form, forcing the girl to stop short so the rest of the barrage would bounce off. 

In that same moment, Tristan leapt from Bobbi-Bobbi and landed neatly on the shoulder of the dragon mech he had been aiming for. His cyberform shifted itself once more, splitting in half as it jumped back over to attach itself to the boy’s arms, like protective gauntlets. Which was just in time, as his own opponent, the black-haired boy, ignited one of the Seosten laser swords and lashed out with it. Tristan caught the glowing energy blade against his own gauntlet, which glowed faintly with a short-range forcefield. There was a loud crack of power as blade met gauntlet, before Tristan pivoted on one foot to bring himself away from the luxensis (energy sword). His right hand snapped up, before a set of long, werejaguar claws emerged. Those claws were already dangerous enough, but they became immediately more so as the boy activated an entirely different power. This one superheated the claws, turning them bright red just as he lashed out with them. In that same moment, Tristan used his Seosten-inherited boost, pushing his speed and strength several times higher. 

The Seosten boy boosted as well, avoiding the strike… mostly. His head snapped backward, though the claws still cut along his cheek, leaving five long marks down the side of it. His luxensis blade swept upward, clearly intending to cut his opponent’s extended arm off. But Tristan was faster, abruptly shrinking several feet in height, which instantly yanked his arm away from the incoming blade. Just as quickly, he not only regained that height, but increased it further. He first went from being just under six feet tall, down to about three feet, then just as quickly grew to eight feet while driving his knee forward. It caught the Seosten in the chest, knocking him backward several steps before the other boy managed to catch himself just shy of falling from the dragon mech’s head. 

Unfortunately, Tristan couldn’t follow up with that, considering just as he took a step forward in his enlarged form with the intention of punting the other boy from the mech, a multi-barreled gun similar to the one that had just attempted to shoot down his sister popped into view partway down this dragon cyberform’s back, took aim, and opened fire. He was forced to shrink back to his normal size while throwing himself into a sideways dive, catching himself on his hand before shoving his body up and over the next wave of bullets. Just like Vanessa, he expertly avoided every incoming shot, but the very act of dodging carried him further away from his opponent and allowed the Seosten boy to regain his footing. 

For a moment, while the turret was adjusting its aim, both boys stood on opposite sides of the giant cyberform’s back. Then Tristan launched himself into a sprint that way. At the same time, his hand snapped upward, producing a small sheet of plastic just a few inches across. There was a pre-prepared rune there, which glowed pale red as he pushed the last bit of power needed into it to activate the spell that had been engraved on the thing. An instant later, several small beams of energy shot from the rune to hit the base of all those gun barrels. They were immediately severed as the metal-transfer spell took those small pieces that connected the barrels to the turret and transferred them several feet away. The turret was rendered useless as its barrels dropped and clanged loudly along the metal body before falling toward the ground. 

In the midst of all that, Columbus vanished from the spot he’d been standing on and reappeared directly behind the third male Seosten, aboard his own dragon mech. This one had yellowish-blond hair, worn down to his shoulders in luxurious locks. Between that and his well-built form, the boy reminded Columbus of one of those old romance novel models he’d seen on his adopted mother’s bookshelf. 

It was a fleeting thought in the heat of the moment, as he let off a blast of energy from his goggles. This was not a beam of concussive force. Instead, his goggles were set to project what looked like a wide burst of static electricity, which would slow his opponents movements dramatically. It was a recent upgrade he’d built, this being his first time using it in a real-world combat scenario. And, just like in testing, the blast did its job, forcing the Seosten teen to move at a tenth of his normal speed as he started to turn around while bringing his weapon up. 

Unfortunately, the mech’s attached weaponry wasn’t similarly slowed. Before Columbus could take advantage of the opening, a pair of barrels popped out of the metallic dragon’s neck and sent twin bursts of lightning his way. The boy was forced to pivot that way, bringing his arm up. As he did, a shield of amber resin appeared there, catching the electrical blasts. 

By that point, even slowed as he was, the Seosten teenager was able to use his own boost in order to get his speed up to something resembling normal. He finished pivoting around, his glowing luxensis blade snapping outward toward Columbus’s neck as the other boy stood with his side to him, blocking the incoming lightning shots on his resin-covered arm. 

But Columbus was ready for that. His other hand came up, palm extended as he created a forcefield about two feet across, just enough to catch the incoming blade and deflect it with a loud crack of energy as blinding sparks went flying in every direction. 

With the five young Heretics busy facing five of the seven mechs, that left two more. Including the largest, the fifty-foot cyberform dragon that had been one of Harrison Fredericks’ most powerful and advanced creations. One of, because his strongest creation was already glaring up that way. Galahad sighted in on his ‘big brother’ (in a manner of speaking), and the golden blonde-haired Seosten female who stood atop him. She was clearly the oldest of the group, her ponytail swaying in the breeze as the dark-skinned girl stared down at the others. Her mouth opened, and Galahad heard her voice as she shouted, “You know the job! Prove Mother’s faith has not been misplaced!” Even as she said that, the girl proved her control over the cyberform by making the metal shields covering one of its weapon sets slide out of the way. A half dozen one-foot-wide holes appeared, before the nose of a rocket poked out of each, the rumble announcing they were about to be launched.

Even as he saw that, Galahad bent at the knee before hurling himself upward. In mid-jump, his large metal body immediately began to transform. He did not, however, turn into a truck as he normally would have while out on the road. Instead, his parts shifted and twisted around until he appeared to be a VTOL Harrier attack jet. The parts of him that amounted to the ‘trailer’ for his truck form remained on the ground, turning into a surface-to-air missile platform that could provide covering fire for his jet-self. 

Vanessa, by that point, had shifted back to her human form as she landed on the shoulder of the mech she had been aiming for. The thin, brunette Seosten waiting for her gave a very slight smirk and nod before graciously gesturing. “Would you like a moment to catch your breath after such an impressive display?” 

Vanessa hesitated, but the girl’s words didn’t seem to be sarcastic. After she had sent the barrage of gunfire at the incoming bird, she really did want to give her a moment to prepare herself now that she’d actually made it. Her gaze flicked from one hovering cyberform to the other, just in time to see the giant Sands take hers to the ground. “You could just stop,” she tried, having to at least give that a shot. “Kushiel is evil, you guys don’t–” 

“Do you want to sit down for a second and catch your breath, or not?” the thin Seosten girl interrupted, eyes narrowing. It was clear that she wouldn’t listen. 

“No,” Vanessa finally replied, whip snapping out to one side. “I’m good.” As the end of her weapon snapped against the air, it left a whitish rune hovering seemingly on nothing. An instant later, the rune activated, sending a blast of wind that way.

Despite offering the other girl a break, her opponent was prepared for an attack. Before the wind blast could knock her off her perch, she dove forward, boosting herself so she could move even faster. She came up in a roll, foot lashing out to catch Vanessa in the stomach. Or she would have, had the blonde Heretic not brought her own arm slamming downward. In mid-motion, Vanessa transformed into her enormous werebear form. Her now much stronger paw casually slapped the other girl’s leg aside, throwing her clear off the mech in the process. Vanessa had known that her opponent would dive forward to avoid the wind, and had planned for that. 

That, however, wasn’t the end of it. Before she had fallen more than a couple feet, the Seosten caught herself on seemingly nothing. She stood in the air, as the empty space under her feet seemed to shimmer a little bit. Before Vanessa could see what was actually happening, the other girl threw herself back onto the mech, facing the huge bear with a reckless grin. “Now this,” she announced, “this is how I prove myself.” With that, she lashed out with one hand from several feet away. Despite the distance between them, Vanessa felt hardened air cut through her thick fur and muscles, a deep wound appearing along her side as she reeled backward. 

Was it magic? That didn’t make sense. As far as she could tell, this girl hadn’t activated any spell or anything. And she wasn’t using a weapon. She just had the ability to harden air like that. Enough to stand on, and to make those blades. But that would mean–

While Vanessa was having her realization, Sarah had taken aim through one of her scope-portals. Rather than focusing on the green-haired girl atop the dragon mech that was still chasing her across the lot with its flurry of shots, the portal she had created appeared inside the machine’s cockpit. Her body ran almost on autopilot, zigzagging across the parking lot as the enormous cyberform tracked her movement, sending dozens of deadly lasers downward. Each blast burned a hole through the pavement, while narrowly missing the girl herself. 

Then it was Sarah’s turn. Her portal was ready, as she pivoted back the way she had come, dropping into a prone position with her rifle held out. The next volley of lasers tore up the ground right where she had been heading. Before the mech could adjust its aim, she fired a single shot. Her own bullet emerged into the cockpit of the machine, struck the main controls, and then exploded dramatically. The metal dragon reeled backward before starting to pitch sideways. The green-haired Seosten girl atop it was forced to throw herself out of the way as it collapsed. Yet, as she fell, something exploded next to Sarah. She threw herself to the side, just in time to see a geyser of water from the pipe that had burst. The spray caught the falling Seosten girl, seeming to solidify somewhat under her, just enough to slow her fall so she could land gracefully. 

She controlled water. No spell, no magic, no technology. She had simply done it instinctively. But…

Galahad, by that point, had reached his own target. Still in his jet form, he shot right past the largest of the dragon mechs, before immediately transforming back to the humanoid shape. Though smaller without his trailer attachment, he was still a good fifteen feet in height, allowing him to catch hold of the fifty-foot tall dragon mech’s back and shoulders. The Seosten girl with the golden hair spun toward him, hand rising. But before she could do anything, Galahad extended half a dozen cables from his arm into the machine’s back. In an instant, he had regained control of the thing, and all the onboard weapons she had been about to direct at him abruptly turned to focus on her. She, in turn, cursed under her breath before an explosion appeared where she had been. An explosion neither Galahad nor the mech he had just regained control of had created. And the girl had vanished from that spot.

At the same time, the final mech, with the blue-haired boy on it, was taking aim at where Galahad was perched. But before it could fire, his other half made its presence known. The trailer-turned-artillery platform he had left on the ground opened up, sending three enormous laser blasts and a single powerful rocket arcing upward. Each shot struck home, sending the less advanced dragon reeling through the air as the boy fought to regain control. Then there was yet another explosion that Galahad wasn’t responsible for, as the golden-haired girl appeared next to the boy, followed by a third blast as they both vanished from that spot.

Soon, there was a rapid series of explosions all around the battlefield. The force of them threw the Heretics to the ground, while their opponents were casually picked up and carried along with the teleporting golden-haired girl.

Finally, they all picked themselves up and stood together, facing the other group as the Seosten teens appeared on the ground, the explosion that carried them there sending a shockwave through the ground. 

Vanessa was the first to speak, staring that way. “Wh-who are you?” 

It was the golden-haired girl who spoke, holding her hand up as a tiny series of repeating explosions, barely large enough to be seen, appeared in staccato bursts in her palm. “Why exactly should we tell you anything?” 

“She’s Aureus,” the thin brunette with the braid put in, giving their leader a glance. “I’m Fuscus. That’s Caeruleus, Candidus, Lūteus, Viridis, and Āter.” In turn, she had nodded toward the blue-haired male, the white-haired, muscular male, the blond romance cover male, the green-haired girl, and the pale, black-haired boy. 

“Gold, brown, blue, white, yellow, green, and black?” Sands blurted. “You’re named after Latin colors that happen to match your hair? Let me guess, the uncreative bitch over there–” 

Don’t talk about our mother that way,” Lūteus snapped. The almost-achingly handsome boy brought his hand up. As he did so, a two-foot wide, three-foot tall section of pavement next to him rose out of the ground and  formed a larger fist shape. 

Columbus shook his head quickly as they took that in. “Wait, you’re children from the Olympus. Your parents were—“

“Our mother is Kushiel,” Aureus, the golden-haired girl, interrupted. “She gave us everything, and we’ll make sure she gets everything she wants in exchange.” 

Tristan started to shrug. “Yeah, well if you want to help her now, you’ll have to–” He cut himself off, having turned a bit to look at where Kushiel should’ve been inside her forcefield cage. But there was no one there. He gave a double-take, blurting, “Where the hell did she go?” 

The group took that in before spinning back to the Seosten, as Viridis, the green-haired girl, winked and offered a sly, “I believe the term is, gotcha.”

With that, Aureus raised her hand, and another explosion enveloped the Seosten. Everyone was knocked backward, only to find the spot completely empty as the explosion cleared. Columbus was looking around, counting the mechs. “They’re all here,” he announced. “They didn’t get away with any of them.” 

“No,” Galahad agreed, his voice grim. “But they weren’t trying to. I’m afraid while we were all distracted, Kushiel escaped her cage and left with the biggest prize of all. 

“She has Fredericks.” 

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Interlude 19C – Cyber Attack (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sitting on the floor of an enormous, airplane hanger-sized laboratory (one of many in the space belonging beneath the Capitol One Arena in Washington DC), Columbus balanced his personal cyberform, Amethyst, in his lap. The robotic porcupine-armadillo made a soft chirping sound as he tinkered in one of her open compartments with a screwdriver and pen light. Testing one of the wires, he spoke up absently. “Could you hand me that box of one-inch star button head screws on the table over there?” 

“Sure thing,” came the loud, rumbling voice as the huge robotic figure crouched behind him turned a bit. Even kneeling as he was, Galahad barely fit within the space, often brushing his head against the ceiling if he sat up too quickly. An understandable issue for a thirty-foot tall blue-silver robot who could transform into a full-sized semi-truck and trailer. Of course, in most cases, he could have simply transferred his consciousness into his much smaller humanoid form, but that was busy being tinkered with by the lab’s actual owner, Harrison Fredericks. 

The man himself, responsible for the initial creation of the cyberforms that had become so useful to Heretics all over the world, was in the far corner of the lab working on that. Columbus and Galahad both doubted the distracted man had any idea they were still there, let alone that he had other visitors outside in the parking lot. He was quite occupied with his work.

Easily reaching from one side of the lab to the other, Galahad very carefully pinched the desired box between two of his fingers. His hand massively dwarfed the box of screws, yet he was delicate enough to pick it up, move his arm over, and set it down next to the boy. He had a lot of practice being careful with his large hands and great strength. Between that and the incredible work Fredericks did to begin with, he could have picked up a living mouse without harming it. Well, aside from the heart attack the poor thing certainly would have suffered. 

“Your friends are still waiting, you know,” he gently reminded the boy. 

“Almost done,” Columbus promised. “I just need to run a couple quick diagnostics and–” He had looked up and turned a bit to glanced toward a corner of the ceiling, the lenses of the goggles on his face glowing slightly as he activated the x-ray vision to see out to where Vanessa and the others had been playing an impromptu soccer game on the pavement above while they waited for him to join them for a trip to the movies. What he saw instead, however, made Columbus drop the screwdriver and penlight, bolting to his feet. “Oh shit! What the hell’s wrong with the alarms?”

“Alarms?” Galahad echoed, head tilting. “I see nothing wrong. Your friends are playing–wait.” He paused before making a noise of disbelief. “The security footage is fake. Harry!” That booming voice flooded the hangar, drawing even the distracted scientist from his work. “We have trouble.” 

“Trouble?” Fredericks dropped his tools, vanishing from where he was standing before reappearing next to Columbus. He was a remarkably short man, standing only four feet, one inch tall. His dark red hair was short, and he had a goatee that was neatly trimmed. Aside from a pair of unnaturally green eyes, his other distinguishing feature was an arm that was very clearly cybernetic. “What sort of trouble?” 

“The dangerous sort,” Columbus informed him, still staring through the ceiling even as he stopped himself from instantly transporting out there to help the others. Better to make sure Fredericks knew what was going on before this whole situation got completely out of hand. Including one incredibly important point. 

“Kushiel’s here.” 

******

Several Minutes Earlier

With a thump as the soccer ball bounced off his head, Tristan Moon watched it bounce between two small trash cans that they had set up to be a goal and pumped his fist in the air. “Ha,” he crowed, “three to two, we are so pulling ahead of you guys.” 

This side of the parking lot of the Capital One arena was essentially empty, given there were no games or events going on anytime soon. Despite that, in most cases, the security guards would have insisted several teenagers playing ball in it should leave. But those security guards were being magically charmed to ignore the group, thanks to one of many safety measures Fredericks had installed along the property. 

“Maybe by definition,” Tristan’s sister retorted to his teasing. Vanessa had her long, typically loose blonde hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail. “Three to two isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead, you know.” 

Grinning, Tristan waved that off. “You’re just jealous that we didn’t go with sibling pairs.” 

“That would’ve been cliche,” Sands pointed out as she pointed toward the ball. A blue glowing outline surrounded it, and the thing went in an exact reverse of its previous trajectory, as if it was being rewound. It was a new power she had picked up during a recent trip, when a group of Alters they had been escorting to a safehouse were unexpectedly ambushed by a trio of religious fanatics, cultists for one of the many supposed world-destroying entities that were said to live in the Earth’s core or some such. Either way, they were dead now and Sands had picked up this ability to reverse the motions of any non-living object, up to about fifty pounds, for up to thirty seconds. 

“Much as I would love to be on a team with my sister,” she added with a nod to Sarah, who stood behind Tristan, “we do have to mix things up a bit.” She left out the fact that she knew Sarah wanted to team up with Tristan, given the two of them had started going out together a few months back. It was still relatively new, and they were taking things slow. But still, Sands was happy for her sister. Even if she did have to resist the urge to take Tristan aside and warn him about what would happen if he hurt her. Tempting as that was, it wasn’t her place to play that sort of game. Sarah could take care of herself. She didn’t need her twin sister threatening her boyfriend. Even if there was a bit of uncertainty about what was going on between him and that Nereid girl, Dexamene. She had come all the way back from the future and across the universe. Yes, it was to help Flick get back to the present, and save Elisabet, but still. She was Tristan’s best friend, and maybe more than that? No one was sure, possibly not even the two of them. But whatever was going on there, Sarah, Tristan, and Dex could handle it between themselves. They didn’t need her help. 

Especially not when Sands herself didn’t exactly have any luck in the romance department. A fact that made the short (the twins were barely five feet tall) brunette give a soft inward sigh before reaching out to catch the ball as it began to make its way past her and back toward Tristan on its reverse trajectory. “Besides,” she added aloud, “hitting the ball with your head shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, it’s so hard.” To demonstrate, she reached out as though to rap her knuckles against his temple, before the boy drew back with a laugh. 

“Hard and oblong, that’s my head alright,” he replied easily. “Now are you guys gonna take the ball out so we can steal it from you and rack up another point, or what?” 

Before the others could say anything, Sarah held a hand out while speaking up. “Wait, look.” Her sister and the other two turned to see where she was pointing. On the sidelines of their impromptu ‘field’ in the parking lot, Tristan’s cyberform snake, Bobbi-Bobbi, had been curled up to watch them. Now she lay stretched out on her side, twitching a little. Nearby, one of the many cyberforms that Fredricks allowed to roam the property, a monkey robot called Tipsy, was also laying on her side with the same occasional twitch. 

“Something’s wrong,” Sarah announced, even as Tristan took off running that way. 

“Bobbi?” he called, dropping to his knees next to the snake robot. “What–” In the next instant, his hand lashed out. The bracelet on his wrist glowed brightly, producing a blue-white set of flames over his fist as the boy punched the partially transparent figure who had emerged from beneath the pavement and was halfway-into his robotic partner. “Ghost!” he shouted as his empowered fist collided with the spirit’s face. 

Unfortunately, while he had been quick enough to stop the ghost, who had been pushing its way into Bobbi-Bobbi, Tristan wasn’t able to catch the one next to Tipsy. It disappeared into the monkey robot, and an instant later, he had to throw himself backwards to avoid being kicked in the face as the cyberform abruptly shoved its hand against the ground and kicked out of him with its two long legs. Blades had emerged from Tipsy’s feet, narrowly avoiding cutting the boy’s throat. 

“Tristan!” Vanessa shouted. Before she could move that way, however, an owl and falcon cyberform who had been flying overhead dropped into view. The owl shifted into a helmet form, hovering in midair as its goggle-like eyes blasted a concussive wave of force that slammed into the blonde girl, as well as Sarah. The two were sent flying a good twelve feet before tumbling along the ground. Sands was struck as well, but she had activated the power that allowed her to remain completely motionless and protected no matter how much force she was hit with. Up to a certain level, of course, but the owl didn’t surpass that. 

She was already bringing her mace out to swing at the cyberform itself before it could blast them again, but the falcon had transformed itself into a two-bladed sword, one end swinging out toward her throat. The girl was forced to stop short, going still so her power would kick in again and force the blade to bounce off. 

Tristan, by that point, had rolled back to his feet with Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form on his arm. He extended it, letting off a quick shot toward the falcon-blade, while his foot lashed out to kick Tipsy as she leapt at him. “What the hell?! Since when can ghosts possess cyberforms?!” 

“Well,” an unexpected (and entirely unwanted) voice announced from nearby, “I suppose since I gave them a bit of an upgrade?” Kushiel’s own ghost hovered next to a parked car, regarding them with a mixture of contempt and amusement at their confusion. “Stand still for a moment, and you’ll see just how much of one.” 

“Kushiel?” Vanessa blurted while she and Sarah picked themselves up. Her whip was already out and ready, scanning the air for more attackers coming from that way. Distracting as Kushiel’s appearance was, it felt just like the woman to show herself just so another possessed cyberform could hit them unexpectedly. She was far from the type to fight fair. “What are you doing here?” Even as she said that, the girl’s free hand was grabbing for the emergency alert coin in her pocket that would bring a full set of reinforcements. 

Sarah, meanwhile, brought her rifle up, but stopped herself from pulling the trigger. Tempting as it was to shoot Kushiel with as many ghost-fire empowered bullets as she could, it would’ve been pointless. The woman would just pass the damage off to one of the others. Denny had already informed them that she still had that power, even after death. A fact she had apparently demonstrated quite thoroughly when the people at the Auberge had sought to interfere with her attempts to find Mordred’s sword, Clarent. She’d failed then, and the sword was now in the hands of Joselyn Chambers. So what was she doing here now? 

“Try to call for help if you like,” Kushiel informed Vanessa without apparent care, knowing exactly what the girl was doing with the hand in her pocket. “It won’t do you any good. Not anymore.” She sounded oddly casual, given her usual personality and anger. Which, to be honest, was a lot more troubling than if she had shown up in full righteous fury mode. Kushiel being calm meant she was confident, and none of them were comfortable thinking about why that was. 

Sure enough, Vanessa felt something blocking the spell that would have called her mother and others to their location. “What– you’re stopping it.” 

“Very good, abomination,” Kushiel tauntingly retorted, giving a soft clap while staring daggers through the girl. Despite her calm demeanor, it was the hatred in those eyes that truly gave away the woman’s feelings. “Your ability to state the patently obvious truly does mark you as the genius they all say you are.” 

“Genius, no,” Vanessa informed her simply. “Prepared, yes.” With that, she touched a different coin in her pocket and triggered the spell there. Instantly, the backpack she had brought with them, discarded along the side of their playing field, flipped over. The flap on it opened, seemingly by itself, before three steel balls, each about two inches across, burst out. The trio of balls flew into view and hovered in a triangular formation around the ghost woman before projecting a glowing semi-transparent blue pyramid around her. 

Arching an eyebrow, Kushiel reached out to tap the glowing wall. “A ghost capture field, hmm? And I see your mother helped you add in a bit of anti-Tartarus tech as well. It’s not quite enough to block my power entirely, but it’s certainly… muffling it a bit, I suppose. I can feel the energy it’s giving off, making it harder for me to reach for my gift. I didn’t know that was possible.” The fact that she was, even now, speaking calmly made the hair on every one of their necks stand up. Something was even more wrong than they already knew. 

“It’s not, for living creatures,” Vanessa replied flatly. “You’re a ghost. You’re different. Your connection to Tartarus is stronger, but the one into this world, the physical world, isn’t. We can trap you that way, block you that way.” 

“For a time, perhaps,” Kushiel acknowledged, sounding unconcerned. “Still, it is a remarkable effort. You and your mother have been busy little bees. But you and I both know this is a prototype. It will not hold for very long.” Her hand brushed the wall testingly. “No, not long at all.”  

Her calm demeanor in the face of being trapped was even more worrying. As was the fact that half a dozen more cyberforms of various types had begun surrounding the four young Heretics. They were all obviously possessed, but none attacked. Not yet, anyway. 

Sands, Sarah, Tristan, and Vanessa had all moved closer together by that point. Not right next to each other, as they all needed room. But close enough to watch each other’s backs. Tristan spoke up for his sister. “Doesn’t have to hold you for long. We’ll have help here soon.” 

“Sooner than you think,” Columbus, appearing nearby, announced. He was facing Kushiel as well, Amethyst perched on his shoulder to hiss at the ghost woman. “Don’t worry, Fredericks is working on a way to expel our unwanted guests from the cyberforms,” he informed the others. “It won’t take long.” 

“Oh dear!” With mock concern, Kushiel put her hands to her mouth. “I suppose I’d better hurry then. Friends, would you mind?” At her words, three of the possessed cyberforms, the owl, falcon, and a small bluejay, turned their attention toward the balls projecting the pyramid that was currently containing her. Meanwhile, the others, including Tipsy, turned their attention to the five Heretics. 

And yet, before either group could carry out their attacks, a large figure came flying down out of the sky. Galahad, still in his thirty-foot tall robot form, crashed onto the pavement after launching himself through the air. His hand lashed out, smacking half a dozen of the other cyberforms out of the way to send them tumbling across the ground. “Sorry, buddies,” he announced, “the big guy’ll fix you up as soon as we get rid of your hitchhikers.” 

Even now, Kushiel showed no particular annoyance as her plan to have several of her ghost-possessed, unwilling partners break her out of the temporary prison. In fact, she simply chuckled at the side of the giant robot figure smacking them aside. To his words, she offered a slight shrug. “Doing that may be harder than your friend suspects. And you may have even less time than you think to make it happen.” 

“What do you want?” Sands demanded, taking a step that way. As one of the possessed cyberforms made a move toward her, she quickly threw a wall up into its path with a swing of her mace. But her eyes never left Kushiel’s. “Why are you here? Too much of a coward to face your daughter or Flick again, so you thought we’d be easier targets?” 

Through all of this, Kushiel had shown herself to be unnaturally, unusually calm. Yet it was the mention of Theia that made her drop that facade, even if only a little bit. Her eyes blazed with even more anger than had already been smoldering there, as she half-spat, “The thing I spawned will meet her fate in time. As for the would-be Necromancer child, she is still no threat to me. That much should have been clear after our last meeting.” 

“I dunno,” Tristan remarked, “Flick has a way of surprising people like you. And by people like you, I mean evil, irredeemable pieces of shit. Just ask Fossor.” 

“She doesn’t have to ask anyone,” Galahad put in. “She isn’t leaving this place. Not after–” He stopped in mid-sentence, head turning toward a nearby section of the parking lot. “What…” 

“Ah yes,” Kushiel remarked, as everyone’s attention shifted that way. The dull rumble that Galahad detected was soon audible to all of them. “As I was saying, I did not show myself to all of you in order to begin carrying out my plan.” 

With that, the ground exploded outward in a violent shower of rock and pavement, as a dark-green, fifty-foot tall dragon cyberform tore its way out of the ground and flew upward with a terrifying roar. It was followed by another, slightly different one, and another. Soon, seven cyberform dragons were in view, all of them spreading out to surround the group. As they hovered there, a figure appeared on top of each of the seven dragons. These were not ghosts, but living Seosten. Young Seosten, by the look of them. They couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, which made them look only about fifteen by human standards. Four boys, three girls, all dressed in gold and black versions of the Seosten bodysuit. Black with gold piping for the girls, the reverse for the boys.  

“I showed myself,” Kushiel finished, “because my true children, born of the lab you helped destroy, have already succeeded.” 

To be continued next chapter

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Interlude 19B – Rescuing Zeke (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was quick, to say the least. With Avalon, Aylen, Rebecca, Shiloh, Erin, Miranda, Eiji, Cameron, and Nevada already reacting to her appearance, the Whisper-possessed ghost instantly vanished from where she was. She reappeared directly in front of them, taking the time to give Avalon a sly, taunting smirk just as one of Cameron’s twin short swords lashed out. The blade was already glowing from a triggered ghost-fire enchantment, proving the former mentor of Vanessa, Tristan, and Erin’s team had come prepared. And yet, her blade struck nothing but empty air, as Invidia twisted sideways to avoid it. The move was relaxed, almost contemptuously so, as she shifted just enough to make the blade whiff past her. In the same motion, her hand snapped out with a deceptively casual look. The impact was anything but casual, however, as her hand slammed into Miranda’s chest with enough force to send the girl flying out the window with a violent and loud shattering of glass. 

In the next instant, Rebecca fired a blast of pulsing energy from a wrist-mounted gun of some sort, Eiji sent a burst of electricity from his hands that way, and Avalon activated her own gauntlet to produce an energy blade that would cut through ghosts. All three of their attacks, despite their close proximity to one another and the lack of warning, were reflexively situated to avoid hitting either one another or any of the others. They had trained far too much to make that sort of mistake. And yet, none of their attacks hit their actual target either. Somehow, the ghost woman moved too quickly for any of them to land a blow. The next thing they knew, she had caught hold of Shiloh by the arm and back of the neck and threw her out the window that Miranda had already gone through. Meanwhile, her foot snapped out to slam into Eiji’s stomach hard enough that he was knocked to the ground despite his size and strength. Another half second passed while Invidia spun toward Rebecca. But before she could make another move, a small green ball was tossed into her. It stopped in the middle of her ethereal form and began to glow. The ghost woman made a motion as though to move forward, only to stop short with a grunt. The ball was holding her in place. Her gaze snapped over to Nevada, who stood with her arm outstretched. In her other hand, the blonde woman held a pistol. “Everybody get down,” the former teacher  ordered while taking aim. The students all dove to either side at her words. 

Seeing a small pistol pointed at her, Invidia smirked despite the fact that she had been trapped in place. “Is that really the best you can do?” 

Meeting her gaze evenly, Nevada slyly replied,”Nope.” With that, she flipped the gun around so it was upside down in her hand. A flick of a button on the side immediately made the gun rapidly grow and transform itself. The barrel extended and separated out into several larger versions, while the sides of the gun opened to reveal pocket dimension space within where more and more pieces extended out and snapped into place. Within a few seconds, the small pistol had transformed into an absolutely enormous gatling gun that was literally larger than Nevada herself. She had to hold it by the main grip as well as an extra handle partway down the giant barrel. Invidia had just enough time for her eyes to widen as the barrels began to glow with ghost fire energy before thousands of bullets were flying her way. Bullets which were fully capable of harming ghosts. 

Invidia took several dozen of those hits, holes appearing in her form as she recoiled and hissed before managing to break the hold of the ball. It blew apart and she instantly vanished, clearly needing to regroup. Immediately, Nevada snapped toward Avalon. “Get out there and check on those two, then get those other Whispers away from Zeke. Yeah, I know, but do it. Rebecca, go with her. The rest of you watch for our new friend, because I don’t think she’s done being a pain in the ass yet.” The whole time she was speaking, Nevada had been doing something with an enchanted stone she pulled from her pocket, which disintegrated into ashes once she activated it. 

Avalon didn’t need to be told twice. While a part of her really wanted to stay behind and deal with Invidia, given the history she had with the host of the woman she was possessing, she knew better than to argue. This was too important. Without wasting another second, she pivoted and raced to that window before diving through. Rebecca was right behind her, and the two of them fell to the ground below. It was only a couple story drop, practically nothing for them by that point. They both landed smoothly next to Miranda and Shiloh, who had already picked themselves up. The four of them saw Zeke as he held his shield in front of himself. The shield was glowing with energy as he used it to deflect one of the ghost’s hands as it tried to grab him. A second ghost was coming at the boy from the right-hand side, while a third and fourth came up from behind, and a fifth was coming from his left. His free hand produced a flash of light that made the ghost to the right recoil reflexively, while he twisted away from the grasping hands of the ghosts behind him, and turned his head to look straight at the one coming up on his left. His eyes produced a pair of blueish-white beams of energy, which cut through that ghost and made it vanish. 

Which would have been all well and good, except that four more ghosts had appeared in that time and were grabbing for his arms. They all managed to catch him, but before they could solidify their grip, Avalon had produced her lizard cyberform, Porthos, and shifted him into his pistol form. She had, of course, already upgraded him to produce ghost-fire shots on command. Between having known multiple necromancers as enemies and being aware of the Whispers in general, not being prepared for something like this would have been absurd. Her first shot caught one of the ghosts in the side of the head, which wasn’t enough to destroy it, but made it recoil and let go of Zeke. Her next three shots hit each of the other ghosts, drawing their attention in rapid succession. 

Rebecca, by that point, had switched from using her wrist-mounted gun to produce her enormous cannon from that backpack she wore instead. As the nearest ghost focused on Avalon when she shot him once more, Rebecca opened up with that cannon. A positively massive blast of energy erupted that way, catching not only the one Avalon had just shot for a second time, but two others in its radius as well. All three of the ghosts were blown apart. 

“Takes awhile to recharge up to that level again, so you guys better do something!” the small girl blurted while shifting back to her wrist blaster to shoot one of the other ghosts who was flying at her. 

Shiloh held her wrist computer up and hit a couple buttons on the holographic display. And she did so, a beam of silver energy shot from that, to a nearby parked car. The engine on the car started up, before the entire thing was sheathed in the familiar ghost-fire as it abruptly drove forward to crash through two more Whisper-ghosts, dissolving them. 

“Yeah,” Shiloh called toward Avalon while directing the car toward the largest cluster of the ghosts, “you’re not the only one who prepped for more necromancer bullshit!” 

Miranda, meanwhile, was running toward Zeke. One of the ghosts went to grab her, and she smacked it away with her own glowing shield. The motion created six energy duplicates of her weapon, all of which slammed into the ghost, one after the other to drive it further back. When Miranda reached the boy, she blurted, “You need to get the hell out of here, right now!” 

He, in turn, snapped, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’ve got this, traitor!”  

By that point, Avalon and the other two had joined them. “Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “you’re hearing voices in your head. Voices that won’t shut up. It’s them, the Whispers, and you have no protection against them. You need to get the hell out of here right now.” 

From the way the boy flinched when she brought up the voices, everyone knew she was right. Still, he sneered, “What’s the matter, your girlfriend decided to come after me on her own and you didn’t like that?” 

Avalon blinked once before staring that way. “Do you think Flick’s behind this?” 

“Gee, let me think,” he retorted, “she’s some big hotshot necromancer and these are a bunch of ghosts who randomly decided they hate me in particular. Let me do the math on that one.” 

Miranda and Avalon exchange looks, both rolling their eyes. But it was Shiloh who spoke first. “Don’t be an idiot, she already told you what these things are. They can whisper in your head and take control of you if you don’t get the hell out of here right now. Use your evacuation thing, you gotta have one.” 

Rebecca added, “Have you noticed all your backup is gone?” 

While they were all saying that, the Whisper ghosts had regrouped and were surrounding them. Avalon could hear fighting going on in the building they had just come from, and silently wished Nevada and the others luck against Invidia. Right now, they had other things to focus on. 

Zeke, for his part, seemed to take a moment to consider what they were saying. He kept a tight grip on his shield, gaze snapping around very distrustingly. He clearly didn’t like any of them, to say the least. But, in the end, he admitted, “I tried, it didn’t work. They’re blocking it or something. But you probably already knew that,” he quickly added, as though he couldn’t stand not to suggest that they still could have something to do with this. 

By that point, the ghosts had begun charging in once more. Rebecca kept firing shots from her wrist blaster, while Miranda sent some more energy copies of her shield flying out to collide with them, and Avalon used Porthos.

“We have to get him out of here,” Avalon ordered. 

“On it,” Shiloh called. With that, she directed the car she had taken over to come screaming up in front of them, before the door opened. “Get in!” she shouted at Zeke. 

He, in turn, scoffed. “What the hell makes you think I’m just gonna –” 

Before he could say anything else, Avalon grabbed the back of his neck with her free hand and bodily threw him into the backseat of the car while firing three more shots in rapid succession. Then she lunged to jump on top of the car before firing yet another shot at the ghost who was trying to come from that side. Miranda jumped onto the trunk, while Rebecca and Shiloh threw themselves into the front seat of the car. And with that, the tires squealed loudly as the car took off. 

“I can’t keep the ghost-fire charge going all the time!” Shiloh shouted while her fingers danced over the controls on her wrist computer. The car went squealing around a corner, while the Whisper ghosts chased after them. 

Leaning back a bit to steady herself as she was nearly launched off the top of the car, Avalon focused on a power she had picked up by killing that Heretic back on the prison world. Her feet were immediately rooted to the metal there. As long as she didn’t want to move, almost nothing could make her. Between that and her own balance, she was able to keep herself upright and aim her pistol at the ghosts as they gave chase after the group. No matter how fast the car went, the Whispers were right behind them. Grunting, Avalon pulled the trigger several times, sending glowing bullets that way. At the same time, she dug in her pocket for a teleportation stone and looked at it before shaking her head. Crouching so she would be closer to the windows, she fired again while shouting, “Transport stones are down for us too! We’ve got to get further away!” 

Miranda, ahead of Avalon in her spot down on the trunk, shouted a warning as the pursuing ghosts sent… some sort of collective energy blast their way. It was as wide as the car itself, and looked a bit like weird glowing ectoplasm with lightning dancing through it. Whatever it was, being hit by it felt like a very bad idea. Thankfully, Shiloh reacted to the shout and sent the car into a sharp turn toward a nearby alley. They had been passing bystanders in other cars and on the sidewalks the whole time, without any of them noticing anything aside from the fact that they were speeding, of course. But now, as the car went screaming past several vehicles to cut them off, there were a few annoyed honks. As well as a scream as one of the pedestrians had to throw themselves backwards to avoid the oncoming car. Another person wasn’t fast enough on their own, but before the car could run them over, Rebecca leaned out the front passenger seat and thrust her hand that way. A glowing blue replica of her hand, several times larger, caught the person and pushed them out the way just as the car passed through the spot they had been and made it into the alley. In the next instant, the ghost energy blast hit the wall of the building they had just passed, and a ten-foot-wide section of that corner immediately crumbled into dust to reveal the interior. 

Seeing that, Miranda exchanged a quick look with Avalon above and behind her before turning her head slightly to shout, “We really, really don’t want to get hit by that thing!” 

From his own spot in the backseat, Zeke had picked himself up and demanded, “Would you people let me the hell out already?! Do you think I’m about to let you kidnap m–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” Avalon ordered without any preamble. “I don’t know why those Whispers are so intent on getting you, but we’re not about to let it happen.” The damn things were enough of a threat as it was without having control of a Heretic, even a young and incredibly annoying one like him. Besides, something told her this was more important than the Whispers simply trying to grab any random Heretic. There were too many of them here and they were too intent on their mission. Invidia was involved, and had sent what had to be over a dozen of their people after this one boy. Maybe she was just missing something or overthinking it, but it felt like there was more to the whole situation. 

And speaking of the Whispers not giving up, there they were. The alley was suddenly full of them as the ghosts chased after the car. “Can we jump yet?!” Rebecca shouted while leaning out the passenger side so she could fire a couple shots toward their pursuers. “Please tell me we can jump!” 

Checking her teleport stone again, Avalon grimaced, then fired two more shots at a couple ghosts who were getting too close.  “No! We need to go further!” 

Miranda made a noise in the back of her throat before launching three energy-duplicate shields to slow down the approaching ghosts. “Just how big is their teleportation blocker?! And can I just say, I wish Flick was here!” 

By then, they reached the end of the long alley, and the car narrowly avoided crashing into a passing box truck, which spun out of the way while the driver leaned on his horn. “You’re not the only one,” Avalon half-muttered. Then something else occurred to her and the girl’s eyes widened slightly before she turned a bit to shout toward the front of the car, “Check Zeke! He might have something on him that’s blocking the transport spells!” 

“What the hell are you talking about?!” Zeke’s voice shouted back. “I don’t have anything li– hey get the fuck off me!” 

Rebecca had jumped into the backseat with him and was checking over the boy. Despite his reflexive struggle, she shouted in his face for him to knock it off unless he wanted to be possessed and enslaved by those things that were chasing them. That was enough to make him stop, and he finally started helping her by patting himself down, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

While that was going on, Shiloh sent the car weaving back-and-forth across the entire road, moving between other cars going both directions as she used all six lanes, three on each side, to keep the car away from the ghosts chasing them. Avalon kept shooting, while Miranda used her shield replicas to help hold off their pursuers, given they couldn’t pass directly through the energy constructs and had to go around. It slowed them just enough. 

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the ghosts sent another massive ectoplasm blast of power at them. The thing was twice as large as the last one, and seemed even more dangerous with the lightning crackling inside it. It sheared right through an oncoming van, turning half of it into dust. Worse, when Shiloh sent the car to the far side of the road, the energy adjusted course to follow. And it was catching up quickly. Seeing that, Avalon shouted, “Miranda, you’ve gotta make the biggest shield you can!” 

In response, the other girl dropped onto her backside, leaning against the rear window while lifting her arm up. A new shield-shaped energy construct appeared, projected from the physical one on her arm. This one remained attached to its parent, growing larger and larger by the second. Soon, it covered the entire back half of the vehicle, large enough that Avalon could have ducked behind it to use as a wall. 

But it wasn’t enough. The pursuing ectoplasm blast rose up over the shield, picking up speed to get in front of them before starting to come down from the top. Seeing that, both Avalon and Miranda shouted warnings, with the latter starting to lift her massive shield a bit too late. 

Then the ectoplasm was caught by a new shield, a more physical one. Zeke had leaned out the window and thrust his arm up, making his own shield grow in the process until it caught the blast. It did its job, making ectoplasm blast expend itself and fizzle out, though the shield didn’t fare much better. The thing broke apart instantly under the impact, leaving the normal-sized one behind, looking a bit charred and damaged. Zeke hissed with pain and annoyance, head turning until he saw Avalon staring down at him from the roof. There was a brief pause before he muttered, “What, as if I was gonna let that thing kill all of us, me included.” 

Avalon really wasn’t sure the Whispers had any intention of killing Zeke, but now wasn’t the time to get into that. Instead, she shouted, “Rebecca?!” That was all she said. It was all she needed to say. 

“Working on it!” the other girl shouted back from inside the car. She yanked Zeke backwards by the belt, then shoved her hand into one of his pockets while the boy yelped. Finally, Avalon heard her exclaim in relief before blurting, “Got it, got it!” 

“Good!” Avalon retorted. “Now get rid of it!”

Rebecca did just that, hurling the thing out the window. As it flew out, she shot it with a blast from her wrist. The small coin disintegrated. Yet the teleportation stone in Avalon’s hand only flickered a bit. It was waking up, but not fast enough. They had to get further away from the effect the coin had created. It was gone, but the anti-teleportation field hadn’t collapsed yet.

In that instant, she heard Shiloh curse, and Avalon turned to see a line of the Whispers ahead of them. Now they had a group behind and one in front. They had to get further away, but these guys weren’t going to let them. 

Well, they didn’t really have a say in the matter. Shiloh immediately hit something on her wrist, and that glowing ghost-fire reappeared around the vehicle. It had recharged. 

And speaking of recharging, Rebecca pushed herself halfway out of the rear passenger-side window and sat on the edge of it, turning toward the Whispers who were waiting for them. Immediately, her cannon reemerged from the girl’s backpack, extending itself to its full size. In the next instant, she fired another enormous blast. It tore through the Whispers, disintegrating several of them just before the car passed through that spot. Others tried to swarm the car from the sides, but the ghost-fire kept them away, while Avalon and Miranda protected themselves with shot after shot, and shield after shield. 

Soon, they broke through the line, and Avalon finally saw the teleportation stone in her hand light up. “We’re good, go, go, go!” She leaned over just enough to watch as Rebecca ducked back into the car, grabbing onto Zeke as she activated her own emergency exit stone. Then the two of them were gone. Shiloh followed suit, leaving the car driving along on its own toward a concrete wall, while the Whispers continued to give chase, more desperate now with their screeching. 

Exchanging one last look, Miranda and Avalon activated their own stones, and disappeared. 

Instantly, they reappeared back at one of their fallback spots, a small apartment several miles away from the bus station. Zeke was there, scrambling away from the others to put his back against a nearby wall as he blurted, “Okay, now tell me what the fuck those things were!” 

“That’s a long story,” Avalon replied evenly. 

“Yeah, are you sure you want to hear it?” Shiloh put in. “Or are you gonna assume we’re lying?” 

“You’re all just–you just–fuck you,” Zeke managed. “Just tell me what those things are and let me get the hell out of here.” 

“Zeke.” That was a new voice, speaking up from the doorway. They all turned, to see no less than the boy’s mother, Sophronia. She was there alongside Nevada, and immediately passed the others to embrace her son. “You’re safe, the Whispers didn’t take you.” 

“What?!” He blurted the words while leaning back. “You know about them? What the hell is going on?” 

While those two were talking, Avalon looked toward Nevada, who looked bloodied and haggard. “The others?” 

There was a pause before the blonde woman quietly answered, “They… they’ll be okay, with time. They were hurt, Cameron pretty badly, but they’ll live. Invidia’s gone, for now. And pretty pissed off about the whole situation.”

“Mother,” Zeke put in, “can we please get away from these traitors now?” 

Sophronia, however, was silent for a moment. Then she spoke carefully. “Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s best that you stay with the group who have far more defense against the Whispers than we do. If that is alright?” She directed the last bit toward Nevada.

“Of course,” the other woman agreed. “Zeke can stay with us.” 

The collective shout of, “What?!” may have been the first time Avalon and Zeke were both in full agreement. 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay. Okay, okay, okay. No, no, not okay. What the fuck?! Staring at the ghost figure in front of us, I heard a sound not unlike the emergency alert tone on the television go through my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I had already shoved myself in front of the others and snapped my hand up. With a grunt of effort, I forced every bit of power I could summon toward the dead man so I could trap him in place and stop him from doing anything. But could I even manage that? I hadn’t been able to stop Kushiel before because she was empowered by Tartarus. What made me think I could do it now? And yet, what choice did I have? I had to try. 

Sure enough, I felt the same problem I had with Kushiel. My Necromancy couldn’t catch a hold of him. It kept glancing off. I was going to have to try something else. I was going to have to call someone else for help, call everyone for help. Tabbris, call– 

“Please, please,” Manakel abruptly put in, “it’s all right. Please, calm yourse–” In mid-sentence, it was his turn to be interrupted, as a sudden fireball exploded right in the middle of him. It disrupted the ghost’s form briefly, obscuring him from sight. 

Flak, who had apparently taken over from Jordan, held her hand out with another fireball forming at the tips of her fingers. “He’s a bad guy, right?! Can we go?! Can we get out of here?!” 

“Ahem.” Manakel’s ghost appeared a few feet to the side from where the fire had been. “Please, before you burn down the entire hillside and that town over there, may I speak?” 

In the back of my head, Tabbris was telling me to hang on, and that she was getting people to help. I focused on the ghost, shifting over a few steps to keep myself in front of the others. I could feel Marina lift her weapon protectively in front of Dakota as well. Still, I kept my focus on the man in question. If he could be called a man now. “So,” I managed, “you came back too?”  It really shouldn’t have surprised me. Hell, apparently this was the time for people to come back in one form or another.

Manakel hovered there, his eyes watching me. But strangely, I didn’t feel any of the hatred and utter contempt that I had felt from him before. Or even from Kushiel’s ghost more recently. Instead, I felt something more like… shame? I felt disgust, but not at me. It was… what? 

The man spoke finally, his voice quiet. “As I was saying, I owe you an apology, Ms. Chambers. I owe a great many apologies. Far too many to ever truly manage, no matter how long my… extra existence may last.” 

I was absorbing all of that, still confused beyond belief. “Are you trying to say you don’t want to kill me?” I finally managed. Even as I said that, I was still keeping a wary eye on the man while holding my staff up. A single word would activate one of the ghost-fire spells I already had prepared on it, but I held off for the moment. 

There was a brief pause before the ghost gave a slow bow of his head. His voice was soft. “Ms. Chambers, I can safely say that killing you, or any of those who might believe I hold some vendetta against them, is the furthest thing from my mind. This may be difficult, or impossible, to believe, but I am quite truly not the man you knew me to be.”

Looking over my shoulder briefly to exchange a quick look with Marina and the others, I then turned back to him. “What exactly are you saying? You died and now all of a sudden you’re not a giant piece of shit anymore?” 

Clearing his throat audibly, the man grimaced before nodding. “I suppose that is one way to put it. You are correct that in my old state of mind, I would have quite loathed you for your actions. And yet, that hatred would not have been limited to you or to any who had actually wronged me. Before my death, I was… not the sort of man I ever wanted to be.”

Before he could say anything more about that, or before we could respond, a portal opened up nearby. Several figures came rushing out. The first was Sariel, with Tabbris right behind her. They were accompanied by Athena, Mercury, and my mother. And, just behind them, Puriel came as well. 

The new arrivals spread out, and I found myself gently pressed back by my mother as she put herself in front of me. Which was funny, considering the way I had done the same to the others before.

“Manakel,” Sariel immediately started, “if you wish to enact some vendetta against the one who killed you, then look to me, not her.”

“No one is going to be the subject of a vendetta.“ That was Puriel. The man focused his gaze firmly on Manakel’s ghost. “You came back.”

With a soft, somewhat beleaguered sigh, Manakel confirmed, “Yes, apparently I have. And as I was just saying, I’ve not come to enact any revenge plot. Or any other plot. I’ve come to apologize. To a great many people, actually. But I am glad to see that several of those have already come to me.” 

None of us were going to let our guards down, obviously. But we stood there and cautiously listened while he explained. Apparently, the man had actually partially reformed shortly after his death. The connection with Tartarus had brought him back, as it had Kushiel and the others. But for some reason, that same connection had been at least partially severed. It was like he was being pulled in two directions at once, connected both to Tartarus and to something else. He couldn’t understand what that other thing was for a while, but it gave him a sense of clarity that he had not had for a long time. It made him think about the person he had become over the years. 

At one point in his past, before the Olympus had come to earth, Manakel had been a good man. That much we had heard already from others. He took care of Sariel, Apollo, and Chayyiel not only as the ship’s doctor, but as a source of advice. And he had been a close friend to Puriel, who had actually countered some of Kushiel’s influence. 

So yeah, he had, at one point, been far different from the man we had come to know. But over the centuries, he had found himself becoming more and more corrupted by that same connection to Tartarus. In his new ghost form, with that strange connection to something else, he was able to think more clearly and fully grasp the type of man he had become. Faced with the guilt of the things he had done, he let his ghost form drift in a state of near-nonexistence. He expected to be taken by the void anytime, and had even wished for that.

Mercury’s voice was quiet as he asked, “But what happened then? Pretty obvious you didn’t disappear into the Void.” Even while he was saying that, my item sense picked up something. On the man’s shirt was a button. Well, there were a lot of buttons. But this was a particular button that wasn’t a button. Instead, it was a camera. A camera that was picking up audio and visual stuff, and, I was pretty sure, transmitting it to Chayyiel. 

There was a brief pause before Manakel sighed. “No, I did not. Some time ago, I felt a rush of power, an explosion of sorts, coming from the other end of whatever I was connected to besides Tartarus, the thing that prevented me from being subjected to its control. It took me a while, but I brought myself together and followed that power to a small prison world. A human Heretic prison world.” 

Realizing what he was saying right then, my eyes widened as I blurted, “You’re talking about the place we went to. That explosion, it was me using all that necromancy in that fight. You felt me, because I’m the one you’re connected to. When I killed you— I mean when we killed you, I reaped your power. That connected you to me.”

Looking my way, he gave a short nod once more. “Precisely. I learned that you were the one preventing me from falling back under the sway of that place. You may have aided in my death, but in so-doing, you reaped my power and thus gave me a… connection which prevented me from falling entirely back under Tartarus’s influence. After that realization, it took me some time to decide what I should do about it.” 

Athena took a step forward, exchanging a look with Puriel before speaking carefully. “And what decision have you come to?” 

I could tell this was a lot for them to take in. Not only because of the whole ‘him supposedly not being an evil dickhead anymore’ part, but it was even more confirmation that if they died, they would be turned into Tartarus ghosts. That had to be hard to think about. 

Manakel was quiet for a moment before his eyes focused on me. “I wish to teach you. I have no idea how long the connection between us will allow me to maintain my own thoughts and personality. But for whatever time we have, I want to use it to help you understand how to use my power. I had millennia to practice with it.” He paused again before quietly adding, “And, with any luck, I will be able to instruct you well enough that should the time come where I no longer control myself, you will be able to send me through the void where I can no longer harm anyone. As, I hope, you will do with all of our people, removing them from Tartarus’s influence and sending them on.”

Okay, yeah, that was a lot to take in, to say the least. He wanted to teach me how to use Necromancy so that I could destroy him if he ever turned evil again? And then use that same knowledge to destroy other Olympian ghosts so they couldn’t be used by Tartarus? Even assuming that was true and this wasn’t some sort of trick, wow. I just… wow. 

Puriel spoke up carefully. I could tell he was trying not to instill his will on the situation, even if he did have an opinion. “It is true that over the centuries since we were connected to Tartarus, he did change, quite substantially. I was far too distracted to pay attention at the time. Nor… nor would I have done what I should have if I had.” 

“It… was not specifically the connection to Tartarus,” Manakel informed us. “It was the deaths. Every… every one of us who had that connection and died, some part of me felt them. Their deaths… weighed on me. Not in the normal way. I felt that connection to them.” 

It was Sariel who realized it first. “They died and were tied to Tartarus, just like every one of us who dies and becomes one of its ghosts. Like Kushiel. Even though you weren’t dead, you were connected to them. You felt its influence on you through them. Because of your necromancy. Every Olympian who died gave you another small connection to Tartarus. That… changed you.” 

Athena took over, her own voice clearly contemplative. “When you died, you should have been taken by it too. But Miss Chambers reaping your power connected you to her as well, and that… saved you. Like being thrown a safety line when you’re about to be sucked under a whirlpool.” 

“That… is an accurate assessment,” Manakel agreed. His eyes focused on me. “All of which is why I say that I hold no ill will to you, Miss Chambers. Were it not for that connection, I would have been lost entirely and would simply be a thrall of that place. The fact that I retain any of my own faculties is because of you. I wish to repay that… and make up for my actions before my death, as well as ensure those who I was given charge of are not eternally enslaved.” 

Mom‘s voice was flat and somewhat dangerous. “You want me to believe the only thing you’re here for is to teach my daughter how to stop you and the rest of the Tartarus ghosts?” 

“Mrs. Chambers,” he replied in a voice that showed far more respect than I would have expected, “to say that I understand your doubt would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is part of why I did not make myself known for some time. Not only your doubt, but that of everyone else as well.” His eyes flicked toward Athena, Puriel, and Sariel. “And yet, when I sensed Miss Chambers’ disappearance from this reality, I thought perhaps you had been taken by those still beholden to Tartarus.” He paused and let out a heavy sigh, his ghost form flickering slightly. The impression I got was that it was from the various emotions he was having. “I thought it might be too late, that I had delayed for too long, and at any moment, my connection to you would be severed. I feared I had made yet another mistake and would be back under the thrall of that place. It was… a disturbing, terrible fear.” 

I believed him. I wasn’t exactly sure why exactly, but I did. It just felt like he was telling the truth, like… I could feel his sincerity. He was terrified of being controlled by Tartarus the way Kushiel apparently was. Or, I was pretty sure, being taken by the Whispers like Charmeine had been. 

While I was thinking about that, he continued. “I understand that this is difficult to believe, if not impossible. But as I said, I mean none of you any harm. The man I was before my death, the things I did and what I became…” He bowed his head for a moment before lifting it to look at them. “I am not proud of any of it.” Looking toward Puriel, he added, “You entrusted your daughter to me, and I was not the man you believed me to be. I did not help her in any way, certainly not as you expected.”

The others looked like they were still absorbing that, while Athena spoke up. “If we are going to allow you to continue to exist anywhere near us, and particularly near young Miss Chambers, we are going to need certain assurances. Special assurances, not merely your word.” 

Mom gave a quick nod at that, not taking her gaze off the translucent man. “That’s for damn sure. You say you want to help my daughter learn to control your power better, so she can stop others like you? Maybe you’re telling the truth, but before I’d let you anywhere near her, we’re going to make sure you can’t make us regret that.” 

For a moment, Manakel looked like he was considering those words and how best to respond to them. His form flickered a little more, as the impression I got was… disgust. Not at them or any of us, but at himself. He felt sick about the fact that we, and particularly his old friends, were reacting to him this way. Sick at himself. I felt the disgust directed inward. He hated what he had been, and the things he had done. I was completely certain by now. In the time since I had first laid eyes on him, I’d come to sense his emotions and general state of being better with each passing moment. And right now, I was completely certain that he hated himself. He genuinely wanted to pass on everything he knew to me so that I could destroy him when the time came. He wanted to be sent through the Void before he could be turned against the people he cared about again.

Reaching out, I put a hand on Mom’s arm before speaking up. “You don’t have a problem with that, right? You’re okay with us making sure you can’t hurt anyone else.”

His eyes centered on me, and then softened. I knew he could tell that I sensed what he was feeling. He gave me a short nod without breaking that stare, before speaking softly. “Yes. Whatever measures you deem necessary.” 

This was still a lot to take in, to say the least. This guy had been doing his level best to destroy my life and kill my girlfriend through most of last year, and now he was dead and his ghost wanted to help? I wasn’t sure what to do with that. Part of me strongly wanted to tell him to take a hike. Of course, that would have been a waste, and yet, it was still right there on the tip of my tongue. After everything he had done, everything he tried to do, I was just supposed to forget that and accept that he had been affected or turned evil or something by Tartarus even before he died? 

I found myself looking at everyone else for a moment as they seemed to be waiting to see what I said. Apparently since I was the one he wanted to teach, they were waiting for my opinion. I still hesitated before offering a shrug. “I’ve got all this power, and I barely know how to use it. I mean, Brom is helping a lot, and so is.. uhh… Persephone…” Trailing off then, I glanced toward Manakel. He looked a little surprised to hear that she was around, and then his expression turned to one of shame. He was obviously thinking about how he’d treated her. 

Letting that go for the moment, I pushed on. “Anyway, they’re helping, but learning from someone like him? I think I need that. I think he could really help me use this power the right way, before it’s too late. I need to get better at it. And you know there’s no better teacher than him.” 

There was a moment of silence as the others absorbed that, before Athena and my mother exchanged a brief, whispered conversation. Then the Seosten woman nodded toward Manakel. “We will discuss how to contain your spirit somewhere safe within our home. You will not be allowed to leave that area, and Miss Chambers will come to you there for instruction. Is this acceptable?” 

He agreed, and then all of the Seosten started to discuss things together. Not just how to contain him, but also about everything they have missed. Leaving them to that, I turned to my mother. There was something else incredibly important that we needed to do.

First, of course, I found myself facing Tabbris. She sprang my way to give me a tight hug. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I should’ve been with you, I shouldn’t’ve–” 

“Stop,” I insisted, returning the hug. “I’m fine. You can’t be there all the time, Tabs. You have your own life. You were visiting your dad. Which–is he…” 

“He’s still here,” she replied. “He’s visiting Michael right now.” 

“Good.” Hugging her more tightly for a moment, I added, “This was a really long day, and I wanna hear about the rest of it. But uhh… first, I think–Mom? You need to meet someone.” 

Her gaze had already moved to Flak, taking in the red skin and all that. “Denny? What–” 

Boy, this was going to be complicated. Glancing toward Marina, I gestured. “Explain it to the others, please? Let them know we’re fine and we’ll be right back.” Then I turned back to Flak. “Would–” 

“Yeah, yeah,” she immediately replied, waving a hand dismissively. That shimmering wave passed over her again, as the body shifted from Flak to Walker, with her gray skin and cloak. 

Needless to say, Mom was even more confused. Her eyes widened at that, taking the whole thing in. “Okay, now I really need to know what’s going on.” 

“Mom, that was Flak. This is Walker,” I informed her. “They’re–it’s a long story, but easier to tell inside.” Reaching out, I took the gray-skinned girl’s hand, before offering my other one toward my mother and Tabbris. “Trust me?” 

They did, both reaching out to touch my arm. I waited until we were all ready, before looking back to Walker with a nod. She returned it, before visibly focusing. And then we were gone, taken inside Denny so they could meet the rest of the Aspects. 

And Theodore. 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, I learned everything Perrsnile knew about the people he had sold those children to. It was going to take a lot of effort and time, but we would track them down and save all the ones we could, the ones who were still alive. I held no illusions that they would all be safe and sound after all these years, but I was going to do everything I could to put them back with their families. I had detailed notes written down, and promised the nasty little man that I would be keeping him with me while checking on the information he gave. Part of me thought I should just get rid of his ghost immediately, but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t screwing with us one last time. He had no chance of hurting any of us anymore, but I really wouldn’t have put it past him to get sick amusement out of telling us a bunch of lies just before I erased his ghost, leaving us with no way of getting the actual information.

Besides, maybe someone like Brom Bones knew a spell that could make him tell the truth. Or maybe Denny would do it if she showed herself at some point. I wasn’t sure. But either way, getting rid of him right then, no matter how much I wanted to, felt like a bad idea. Still, I didn’t have to deal with him at the moment. So, I used my necromancy to take him down to a tiny speck of power so he wasn’t even visible. Then I basically shut him away for the moment so I could move on to the next thing. In this case, the next thing was going with Gliner and the other ghost, Ausesh, up to the auditorium so we could talk to Sesh– hold on, was this really the first time I was noticing the similarities between those two names? There was absolutely no relation between Sesh and Ausesh, as far as I knew, and yet… yeah that was weird. 

Shaking that off, I took the elevator that way, and soon found myself facing a bunch of curious and scared people all looking to me for answers. They were also staring in confusion at Gliner, Archibold, and the ghost of Ausesh, who hovered in the background trying to ignore all of them. Her whole problem with crowds might’ve been lessened by being dead, but it wasn’t gone entirely. When she saw me glancing her way, the woman whispered, “Don’t look at me, you talk to them.” 

“She’s right,” Gliner agreed while folding his arms as he stood next to his partner. His voice was a soft murmur. “They don’t really know us, for the most part.” 

Swallowing hard, I stepped to the middle of the stage and raised my voice. “First, I want all of you to know that the murderer has been caught and stopped. We know what happened here, and you’re all safe.” 

Yeah, that brought on a lot of questions. They were being shouted at me from every direction, until I whistled as loud as I could. That made them stop so I could push on. “I’m going to tell you all the truth, and it’s going to be hard to hear. But we have proof, and we’re going to restore your memories about all of it.” That started even more murmuring about what I meant by restoring memories, so I held up both hands and continued. “Like I said, this is all going to be pretty hard to hear, but I really need all of you to listen.” 

And with that, I gave them the whole explanation. I told them about Perrsnile selling their children and then erasing their memories using the vault’s built-in system for making sure no one could expose this place. Needless to say, hearing that they could have decades-old children running around in the outside world, or rather, enslaved in the outside world, caused even more of a fervor. But they all wanted to hear everything, so they settled down soon enough, now definitely latched onto my every word. 

I continued through the rest of it, telling them about the whole Ausesh, Gliner, and Archibold situation, and about Gliner and Archibold making their mistakes about who the guilty person was. I told them about Perrsnile killing Mophse, and why that happened. I told them all of it. Not really the Denny stuff. That felt personal and not exactly relevant to the situation. But I did tell them that Perrsnile was dead now, and would never threaten them again. I just left out who exactly killed him. 

Obviously, they had a lot of questions about their missing children and the memories related to them. So, I quickly assured the whole crowd that Ausesh knew how to undo the memory eraser system, and that we were going to work on that immediately. “I just wanted you guys to know it was coming so you wouldn’t be so… umm, shocked when you get your memories back,” I explained. “I promise, we’re about to go work on that. But since the bad guy is gone, I think you can all safely go back to your rooms and all that, if you want to. Or to the cafeteria, or whatever. We’ll send out an intercom message when we’re about to restore your memories, and I’ll talk to you again once we figure out what’s going to happen next. I just–yeah.”

Feeling a bit awkward and like I might have been rambling on too much, I stopped myself before taking a breath. “I promised you guys before that we weren’t going to make you leave this place if you don’t want to, and we’re still not. We’ll find someone to help take care of the vault’s system, someone who can learn from Ausesh over here. She might not have programmed the computers, but she did design and build the vault itself, so between that and Sitter, we can keep the place running.” 

For her part, the ghost woman hesitated before straightening a little with a nod. “I will… do everything I can,” she agreed quietly. “Valdean would have wanted that. I am… sorry he is not here to be the face of this any longer. And that I am… not physically equipped to do as good of a job as he would like.” She was mumbling those words by the end, and I could see people in the audience trying to lean forward to hear what she was saying. 

Rather than ask her to repeat herself (figuring that wouldn’t go well), I just spoke up myself. “She’s right, she’s gonna help any way she can. We all will. And that includes helping all of you find your lost family members. If any of you want to help with that when the time comes, you can. But either way, if you have kids out there, or other family, we’ll find out what happened to them, and if possible, bring them back to you. I know you guys don’t have a lot of reason to trust Heretics, but I promise, we’re going to take care of this.” 

All of that was obviously a lot for them to digest, to say the least. I answered a few more questions about what was going on and what we were going to do, then stepped out of the way while waving Sesh up to join us. Once we were closer to the back of the stage and had a little privacy, she stared at me wide-eyed. “Damn, Flick. When you get to the bottom of things, you really get to the bottom of them.” With a quick glance toward Gliner and Ausesh, she looked back to me and added, “What about the others?” 

After a momentary hesitation, I gestured. “They’re okay. There’s just uhh… well, there’s stuff with Denny, but they should tell you that part themselves. Sorry to ask this, but could you stay up here a bit longer while we get the memory thing working right? Just in case those guys need something. I know I said they could head out to their own rooms and stuff, but uhh… they don’t seem to be doing that.” 

Glancing over her shoulder to look that way before turning back to me, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, sure. We’ve uhh…” She reached into her San Jose Sharks jacket and withdrew a large hardcover Dungeons and Dragons handbook, waving it idly. “I’ve sorta got a game going with some of these guys right now, so take your time, you know?” A soft chuckle escaped her before she sobered. “Perrsnile was playing for awhile… fuck!” She punched her own hand. “I can’t believe I never even–”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “None of us realized until–well, yeah. He had everybody fooled, believe me. And there’s no point in playing the what if or should have game. He’s dead. Now we just have to pick up the pieces. 

Sesh nodded once. “Sure, I’m just saying, I never would’ve let him play a paladin if I had any idea. But uhh, just so you know, I’m gonna want to hear everything that happened, cuz I’m pretty sure you’re leaving some stuff out right now. For now though, yeah, I’ll stay in here with these guys some more. Just make sure you let us know before you shove everyone’s memories back in their heads? Most of these people are probably gonna want to be sitting down when that happens. It just, you know, feels like it’s gonna be a lot.” 

Promising that we would absolutely do that, I headed back for the elevator once more. On the way, I casually glanced toward the others., “Is there some sort of record for riding this thing around the vault the most times in a single day? Because I feel like I’m approaching the championship.” 

“You might be in the top ten,” Gliner informed me, “but you’ll never touch Valdean’s record. Not with as much as he went tearing around this place trying to solve everyone’s problems and…” Trailing off, he sighed before looking at the ghost woman nearby. “I am… the words I want to…” His face twisted a little, as all six of his eyes looked off in different directions before he clearly forced himself to focus on her, as the words came out. “I am sorry. I am so very sorry for my–for my assumptions, and my actions. My–I murdered you. You trusted us to protect you, and I not only failed to do that, I took your guilt for granted and didn’t give you any opportunity to defend yourself. I–I can’t–” 

“Stop,” Ausesh interrupted, her voice flat. “You’re right, you killed me, and you can’t undo that. Nothing you say will magically bring me back to life.” She paused, and I could feel the turmoil within her ghost energy before she sighed. “But, I understand why you did what you did. I was an old Heretic. Even if I was never exactly top of my class in combat, if I had been the monster you believed me to be, you never would have gotten a fair shot off.” Her hand rose to point at him. “That does not mean I have forgiven you. But I do understand your reasoning. Let us leave it at that for now. Anything else would be a waste of time and effort.” 

It looked like Gliner still wanted to say something about that, but he acquiesced and gave a short nod. I could tell that he didn’t want to push things too much. No matter how much he felt the need to apologize for, well, killing her, it was better if he let it go for the time being. Otherwise, he’d just be apologizing for his own feelings rather than hers. 

Instead, after letting out a long breath, he turned to me. “Are you really going to go out there and try to find all those missing children? Even though it’s been decades?” 

After grimacing slightly at the reminder of just how long those ‘kids’ (probably mostly adults by now depending on how fast each of their species matured) had been missing, I confirmed, “I mean, there’ll probably be several of us taking turns working on that. We’ll have to trade off whenever one of us has some free time, but yeah. It needs to be done, and something tells me there won’t be a shortage of volunteers to help with it.” 

“I’ll be one of them,” he informed me. 

“As will I,” Archibold noted. “We… have a lot to make up for.” 

A moment later, the elevator door opened, and we moved back into the server room. As soon as we got there, I saw Sitter standing up. He was lifting one foot off the floor, even as De–Letters stood in front of him and requested, “Okay, the other foot, please.” Immediately, the robot lowered that foot and lifted the other one. 

“Hey, Sits! You’re awake.” Waving that way as I approached, I added, “How’re you feeling?” 

“I believe the correct term is ‘annoyed,’” came the response. Sitter’s mouth lights shifted to an amber color before he added, “Mostly at my own failure to identify the trap before it was sprung. I apologize for being unable to assist your investigation.” 

“Oh, Sitter,” Ausesh murmured before hovering closer. “You have always been entirely too concerned with aiding others over your own personal well-being. You nearly died.” 

“And you…. did.” Sitter flatly pointed out, mouth-lights shifting to a soft green as his head tilted that way. “I am told that I should know you, that you aided in my creation, and that of this vault.” 

“Yes, we can restore those memories, I… believe.” Frowning a little, the ghost woman looked toward me. “As I said before, programming is not my strong suit, but I know a little.” 

“Right arm, please,” Letters put in, watching as Sitter lowered his leg and raised the arm. Then she addressed the rest of us. “I think I can help with the memory thing, I just want to make sure his physical responses are working right. Other arm, please.” 

Marina, approaching from the back area of the server room, spoke up. “You managed to get him working pretty quickly, Letters.” 

The blonde girl shifted a little, looking embarrassed by the compliment. “It wasn’t that big of a deal. I just reconnected a few–never mind. He should be okay now. Oh, uh, you can put your arm down. Do you want me to dig deeper and try to fix your memory?” She sounded a little hesitant and unsure of herself. 

Sitter, however, nodded once, mouth lights shifting to a dark blue. “I trust your ability, Lady Letters. And it would certainly be nice to know that my memories are correct. If nothing else, it would be a good idea to have all those memories checked before I trust myself to disengage the locks for this vault. If my memories are still wrong, I shudder to think of what could happen.” 

Taking that as a good shifting point, I looked over to Ausesh. “Speaking of having the correct memories, is there anything else we need to bring down here before we get started on fixing everyone else’s?”

“No,” she replied, “we can start that right now. I may not know a lot about programming but I know how this works. Valdean and I worked on it together. He was always…” She trailed off before giving a soft sigh. “We can do it now. Here, come this way.” 

So, while Letters worked on fixing Sitters’ memory, Archibold, Marina, Gliner, and I did all the physical work on the system itself as Ausesh called out instructions. Shifting the memory-eraser part of the system over to restoring the memories it had changed wasn’t exactly easy. It was possible, but required some rewiring and even physically moving components. Apparently she mainly knew how to do this because Valdean had talked her through it as a just in case sort of measure. Which, well, we had definitely hit ‘just in case’ quite awhile back. 

Either way, while it was time-consuming, and would’ve been impossible if she wasn’t telling us exactly what to do, the actual work itself wasn’t that hard. I was able to zone out just a little and simply focus on moving one piece of the machine somewhere else, or switching the positions of two wires, that sort of thing. Mostly I focused on what was going to happen once we got out of here. Avalon and Shiori were probably going to kill me. Then find a way to resurrect me so Tabbris and my dad could kill me. Then Abigail and Wyatt could take their turn, and– yeah. I probably had a lot of death in front of me. 

Though that sentence could be completely accurate in a few other ways too. 

In any case, after about an hour, we had the whole thing put together. Letters had finished with Sitter about twenty minutes earlier, and had been replaced by Peanut, the pixie Aspect. And yes, that meant that, thanks to Tailor, she shrank down to a positively tiny form. In that body, small as it was, she was able to get into the very tight spaces within the machine, which would’ve required the rest of us to take the thing apart to reach. And boy was Peanut excited to be in the outside world. She kept commenting about how big everything was, even though she’d been in a larger space inside the Carnival. But when I pointed that out, she said this place felt bigger. I could only imagine how she’d react to the actual outside world. 

Between her going into those tiny spaces we couldn’t fit in and (somewhat reluctantly) temporarily shifting into the skittish bunny-like Bijou so she could simply reach through solid material, the Aspects were already incredibly helpful. 

Not that they weren’t already helpful, considering Letters’ ability to fix Sitter. But still. They were definitely making very good first impressions. 

Finally, it was done. Before we activated it, of course, I told Sitter that we needed him to use the intercom to warn everyone it was coming. Which he did, politely reintroducing himself, assuring the guests he was fine, and that they should sit down while their memories were restored. 

From where she was hovering next to one of the computer terminals, Ausesh nodded to me while indicating the enter button. “Press that, and the system will restore all altered memories.” 

My finger rose, then I stopped myself and looked over to Bijou. The pink bunny girl was half-hiding behind Marina, eyes and ears darting in every direction. She might’ve been less afraid of us now, but that didn’t mean she was completely calm. And she was making absolutely certain to keep either Marina or me between her and any of the others. So, I kept my voice low. “You guys wanna do the honors? Since you helped so much.” 

Her head tilted a bit at me, before she abruptly shifted down into the much smaller Peanut. “I’ll do it!” the pixie girl cheerfully called. Flying over, she landed next to the computer. “This is one small step for pixies–which is saying a lot, cuz we’re pretty small to begin with, and one giant leap for Aspect-kind!” With that, she stomped down hard with her foot on the enter button, while making a trumpet sound with her mouth. 

*****

After that, well, a lot of things happened very quickly. The people of the vault had all of their memories back. They knew who their children were, and that caused a lot of emotions. Marina and I did our best to help them through it, as did Sitter and Sesh. Ausesh wasn’t exactly suited for that sort of thing, and the two bodyguards were more about physical action than helping with emotions. 

Obviously, we promised again to help get their families back together. I reassured them once more that we would send more people into the vault to talk to all of them. I knew Abigail would want to come in here, and that she would know exactly who to bring with her. There was a lot that was going to have to be done in order to fix all of this. We were also going to set up a way to get in and out of it more easily, which Ausesh said she had a few ideas for. A way to link this vault both to Wonderland and to the Fusion school. 

There was a lot to be done. I would have to go in and out of this place for quite awhile before we were through fixing everything Perrsnile had done. And I couldn’t even get rid of that piece of shit’s ghost until we knew for certain he’d told us everything. 

But, in the meantime, I could at least get out of here for now. Ausesh was coming with, given the trouble she would have when it came to those orichalcum walls. I was going to set her up with a lab in the Haunted Mansion so she could work on those new vault entrance ideas. Besides, she wanted a bit of time away from Gliner for the time being, which I couldn’t blame her for. 

As for Gliner himself, and Archibold, they would be staying in the vault to help out, in between going out with us to find the missing family members. Sesh was staying there too. Apparently she’d taken a liking to all the vault people, and wanted to stick around for awhile. Besides, they were deep into that D&D game and she didn’t want to abandon her players. 

Which left Marina and me standing back in Valdean’s room, along with Dakota and Jordan, the Denny-Aspect who was blue, with the scales, red hair, and the trident and all that. Apparently she manipulated water and had something to do with marine animals. Even as we stood there, she bounced the trident against the floor, making it give off a steady ringing sound as she called, “I cannot wait to see the outside world! My first order of business shall be to investigate this ‘streaming video.’ I had no idea computers were so protected against being wet.” 

The words actually made Dakota snicker before she poked the blue-scaled figure. “Did Denny make you as the one who likes puns on porpoise?” 

“I do not know,” Jordan shot back, “I shall have to ponder that.” 

Groaning despite myself at their antics, I shook my head. “Well, I can already tell which of my girlfriends you’ll get along with.” Turning to the two bodyguards, who stood nearby, I added, “Take care of things in here until we bring some more people back to help, okay?” 

They promised they would, before I nodded to Sitter. “Okay, hit it.” 

“Very well,” he confirmed. “Be safe, and do not be strangers, Lady Flick, Lady Marina, Lady Dakota, and Lady… Jordan,” he confirmed. “And all the other Sir and Lady Aspects. We will look forward to your return visits. For more than one reason.” 

With that, he did… something, and the air shimmered around us. Suddenly, we were standing on the hillside right above the ghost town of Wonderland. I could see the place stretched out below us. 

“Ahh, that’s better,” I announced while stretching my arms. Then I reached out through my connection to my little sister. Tabs, you there? 

Flick! She sounded both shocked and delighted. You made it! 

Yup, I confirmed. It’s a really long story, but what did we miss? 

Uhhh… There was a pause, then, Hang on, I’ll come to you! Then we can share stories. Cuz this one’s pretty long too. 

That’s great, I sent back. I gotta tell you, what I definitely really need right now is a big surpr–

“Ms. Chambers,” a voice spoke up from behind me, even as my Necromancy started screaming at the power I was feeling. I spun so fast I almost fell over, even as Marina, Dakota, and Jordan did the same around me. We found ourselves facing a single semi-transparent figure. 

“I believe… I owe you… and a great many others… an apology,” Manakel’s ghost announced.

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Denny’s body didn’t literally physically change or anything like that when Marina and I appeared next to her back out in the regular world. It was still just Denny’s body, even if she wasn’t the one in control at the moment.   

Adjusting to the sudden information I was getting from my item-sense (and oh boy did it feel better to have my powers back), my mouth opened to ask if the girl was okay. But before I could say anything, a voice from behind us blurted, “What in the living hells was that?” 

It was Gliner. He was back by the doorway, staring at us. 

“Oh,” I started with a cough. “Right, sorry, you’re probably wondering where we’ve been this whole time.” 

“This whole time?” the man echoed. “You disappeared for about ten seconds. Then you reappeared and now you’re talking like it’s been awhile? Wait, was I frozen again?”

“Hold on, ten seconds?” The girl sitting at my feet sounded surprised. 

Then her head tilted, expression shifting. Somehow, it was like her entire demeanor changed. Walker tended to come off as a mixture of defensive and impatient. She just wanted to get on with whatever she was doing, while also assuming that most people were going to accuse her of things or make her justify everything she did. In that moment, however, her expression was more curious, eyes looking as though she was soaking in everything she saw and analyzing it. 

“Ah, yes,” Letters announced, “we can speed up the flow of time, relatively speaking, within our own mind so entire conversations, or arguments, can be had while mere seconds pass in the outside world. Walker and I just had a conversation about that which, to us, lasted about five minutes. But to you, it was almost instantaneous. That should be helpful in the future.” 

Blinking down at her, I tentatively murmured, “Wow. Okay, one, that’s pretty cool. And two, you guys really do shift back and forth completely seamlessly.” 

“Perhaps too seamlessly,” Letters noted thoughtfully. “If we can hold entire conversations within the Carnival while little time passes outside… Hold one moment, please.” 

Barely a few seconds passed before her expression changed again. This time, a wide, beaming and clearly mischievous smile appeared. Her eyes widened, though with clear excitement rather than surprise, even as an audible giggle escaped her. “Ohhh yeah. Sure, you got a deal.” 

“Err, a deal?” I managed, blinking at Marina next to me. She offered a confused shrug. 

“Sorry, wasn’t talking to you!” the Aspect who had taken over informed us cheerfully before using both index fingers to point at their head. “Gotta talk in the quiet indoor voice! Not used to having a mouth in the outside world! But it’s fun. Maybe I should have more, hmm?” Even as she said that, a second mouth appeared on her forehead, then a third and forth, these ones vertical, appeared on both cheeks. It was, in a word, horrifying. 

“Ah,” all four mouths announced in a perfect chorus, “this was a bad idea.” Then all three extra mouths vanished. “Sorry! Still learning what works and what doesn’t. I’m Tailor. That’s T-A-I-L-O-R, like the clothes person. And I’ve got a brand new job! I’ll talk to you later, but for now, back to your regularly scheduled Aspect!” 

With that, she scrunched up her nose and gave a firm nod. And with that, Denny’s skin turned gray, her eyes went pitch-black, and her clothes became the same hooded cloak I had seen inside the Carnival. Now she looked like Walker. 

“That’s better,” the girl announced, looking down at herself before rising. “Letters made a deal with Tailor. She’ll pop in and shift the body whenever one of us takes over. At least then you people don’t have to be confused all the time.” Stretching her arms and cracking her neck, she blinked. “Wait, hang on. Can I still…” 

Just like that, her body vanished with a slight popping sound, leaving behind a brief shadowy cloud, which dissipated quickly. She reappeared in a standing position a few feet away. Slowly, her head turned to look around the server room with obvious curiosity, including giving the man by the door a quick once-over. “I didn’t really get a chance to drive this thing before,” the girl noted, “I just took over long enough to pull you guys inside. This is neat.” 

“I, ahhh, what?” That was Gliner, of course, sounding understandably baffled about this whole situation. “Can I just… huh?” 

“Uh, right, long story.” Looking back and forth, I hesitated before simply shrugging. “Short version, there’s a lot of… people inside Denny right now and they’re taking turns piloting. This is Walker. The one who was talking just a second ago was Tailor, like she said. And before that was Letters. Walker, this is Gliner. They’re… uhh, I guess it’s a long story on both sides.”  

Marina, who was kneeling next to Dakota to check on her, raised a hand. “De–Walker, how do we wake her up? Is she okay?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, “Hang on, she needs Tucker.”  

There was a brief pause, during which it was apparent that Tailor had briefly taken over, as their skin shifted once more. Instead of being white or gray, it became a sort of dark purple, with a few white (like paper white, not skin white) swirls along her arms. Her eyes were black with little flecks of white, like stars. And just like that, she abruptly jerked upright and smiled brightly. “Hey, hey, sorry I was busy in there before and didn’t get to meet you! The others made me clean out the ticket booths just because I spilled blueberry soda on one of the seats. Apparently they think I’m exhausting. Which, I kind of am, but it’s only literal when I want it to be.” Even as she was saying all that, the girl was literally bouncing up and down excitedly. “See, I drain energy from things and people and then convert it into my own energy so I can move faster, be stronger, all that stuff. And whatever gets drained gets sorta shut off.” Looking one way, then the other around the room, she added, “I guess I probably shouldn’t do it to the machines in here, right?”

We all exchanged books before I shook my head. “Yes, please don’t drain the computers in here. I feel like that’s probably a bad idea.” 

“Okay!” With that cheerful agreement, the girl, Tucker apparently, darted over to where Dakota was and dropped to her knees. “I’m sorry, we all sort of panicked when everything happened, and I was the part of Denny that sort of made her go to sleep. Here.” Putting both hands on the girl’s shoulders, she seemed to focus for a moment. 

Abruptly, Dakota‘s eyes opened and she jerked a bit. “Wh–Denny!” she blurted upon seeing the girl in front of her. An instant later, she was embracing her. Then she just as suddenly stopped, pulling back to blink at her altered appearance. “Uhh, Denny?” 

“Err, not exactly,” Tucker admitted once that was over. “I’m Tucker. It’s great to meet you, but I’m not even supposed to be out here right now. It’s Walker’s turn, I was just helping undo what we did. And now you’re awake, so uhh, catch you later!” 

With that, Walker resumed control, skin turning gray as she straightened up. “There. We think she’ll be okay. I mean, she should be. Like Tucker said, when that whole thing went down, we all panicked and just did whatever we could to protect Denny. We weren’t even fully formed yet, not really.” She turned to look down at the girl who was still on the floor and added, “Walker, nice to meet you, I guess.”

Yeah, needless to say, Dakota was a little confused. As was Gliner. So, we gave all them a quick crash course in what happened. Which took a little while, and involved a lot of questions. Especially when I had to take a quick detour and give Gliner a very abbreviated version of what happened with Ammon. Basically just that he was a sort-of pseudo Heretic with a Pooka power who had been killed and had that resurrection gift temporarily transferred to Denny, one of his victims. And now she had his power. Or rather, powers, apparently. It was a pretty huge box of worms to get into, but I felt like he (and his partner, once one of us told him what was going on) deserved to have some clue about what was going on with this whole situation.

Finally, once we were done with that, Dakota stared at the girl in front of her. At some point, she picked herself up so they were both standing facing one another. Her voice was slow and hesitant. “You’re… not Denny. But you sort of are? I mean, the actual Denny is herself, and you’re more of a little piece of her mixed with a piece of one of the… umm, dead people Ammon killed?” 

Letting out a breath, Walker held up a hand. “Hold on. Someone else should deal with this. I’m not in the mood.” 

“There, hi,” came the announcement a moment later as she turned back into a blonde-haired white girl. “I’m Letters. The short version is yes, you might say we’re a mix of a dead person, or several dead people in some cases, and various pieces of the actual Denny’s personality. Some parts are magnified, other parts are minimized. But what it comes down to is that we’re all our own people. We just happen to live mostly inside our own little world in Denny’s head, and now we’re going to take turns controlling her… our body.” 

“But… Denny’s still in there?” Dakota asked tentatively. 

After another brief pause, Letters offered, “Do you want to hop inside and visit her for a little while? She’s… she doesn’t feel comfortable coming out right now, but you can go in. If you want.” 

When the other girl looked at me, I nodded. “Go ahead, we’ve got stuff to do out here. I think she could use your company.”

Marina agreed immediately. “You guys should hang out in there while we’re dealing with the rest of this. It’s umm… you should meet everyone.” 

So, Walker took over once more and put a hand on Dakota’s shoulder. A second later, with a puff of black smoke, the girl was gone. Then Walker looked at the rest of us. “Are we gonna get on with this, or what? I didn’t agree to come out here just to stand around and explain everything. I wanna see the outside world. And I don’t just mean the inside of this vault. Dakota figured out Perrsnile was the bad guy and Denny… dealt with him when he hurt her before she could tell you. So it’s over, right?” 

I hesitated. “Mostly, I guess it is. At least that part of it. We know he was the one who–wait, what did Dakota figure out? What happened while we were gone, exactly?”

“Uuuuggh,” came the annoyed response, “I just said I didn’t want to stand around explaining things. Whatever, call me when you’re doing something interesting.” 

And just like that, she was gone. Her skin went back to being white, even as her hair shortened all the way up into that near buzzcut. It wasn’t exactly easy to tell, given Denny herself was only like thirteen, but their body did seem a bit more ‘male-presenting.’ Hands locking behind his back, she announced, “Hey there, it’s Bang-bang. I guess I’m taking over for this part. Must be what I get for letting everyone think I enjoy briefings.” 

Bang-bang, for his part, explained things as succinctly as he could. Apparently, Dakota had been pacing around the server room while they waited for us to get back, when she found a small leaf on the floor. It was a leaf that Perrsnile had tracked in on his shoe. When she touched it, she got some sort of… memory flash or something (which she could get from plants sometimes, apparently) of him killing Mophse. Unfortunately, Perrsnile apparently recognized the look on her face when she looked at him reflexively, and immediately went after them. Dakota activated the alarm spell and tried to use my taboo power to warn me, while Denny attempted to use Ammon’s power to make the man sit down. But he was too fast, and managed to knock them both down before covering Denny’s mouth with one hand while he choked Dakota with the other. 

That was when Denny had killed him. She saw Dakota’s face turning red and was fighting to get out from under Perrsnile, or at least get her mouth free so she could talk. But she couldn’t. He was bound and determined to stop her from using Ammon’s power. So… so she did what she had to do. She punched through his chest. Which was… yeah. 

In any case, she killed him and then freaked out. The rush of new personalities who were trying to protect her ended up dragging Sitter and Dakota over to the corner of the room, before that Crystal personality made them, and Denny herself, invisible. Tucker also reflexively drained Dakota’s energy to make her fall asleep in the process, because Denny was terrified of letting the other girl see her as a murderer. 

We couldn’t really blame them too much for what happened. It was, from the way Bang-bang put it, a spur of the moment thing in the midst of what amounted to being born. They didn’t really have control over themselves at the time. They barely had any idea of who they even were. 

“And, well, that is basically the whole story,” Bang-bang informed us once he’d gotten through all that. “You know the rest. Though we would all like to hear the explanation from your end. What was happening inside this vault?” 

Which meant it was our turn to fill in the blanks. By the time we finished explaining the whole story, I felt parched. “So that’s the whole story. Perrsnile was working with slavers to sell the children in this vault and used the memory erasing system, which was supposed to be used to make sure no one could tell people on the outside anything about this place, to make everyone forget those kids ever existed. Archibold and Gliner over there found out and asked Mophse to help them look into it. But Perrsnile found out and killed him. Archibold thought it was Valdean and Gliner thought it was that woman, Ausesh. They both killed their respective suspects.”

“Three deaths,” Marina put in. “And we know who killed all three.” 

“Four, technically,” Bang-bang pointed out. “Mophse was killed by Perrsnile. Valdean was killed by Archibold. That Ausesh woman was killed by Gliner. And Perrsnile was killed by Denny. Four deaths, four killers.”

My mouth opened to say that Denny wasn’t a killer, but I stopped. It was more complicated than that. And from the look on Marina’s face, she was having the same thought. So, I simply replied, “She saved Dakota and quite possibly all of us. I had no idea Perrsnile was the bad guy at the time. None of us did. We probably would’ve left our guards down. Then he would’ve either gotten away with it, or actually killed one or more of us when we weren’t expecting it. Either way, it would’ve been bad. She and Dakota exposed him, even if it took awhile for us to work the whole thing out.” 

“For you to work it out, you mean,” Marina insisted. “I had no idea.” 

I shrugged at that. “Whatever, I couldn’t’ve done any of this without all you guys. And speaking of all you guys, we need to go find Sesh and tell her what’s going on. Not to mention everyone else. And then… what about Sitter? We need him to turn off the lockdown now that we can say we know who the killers were. Oh, and uhh, I should do something about Perrsnile’s ghost before that trap wears off.”

“Not to mention talk to Ausesh and Archie about all this,” Gliner noted. 

Marina shook her head. “But how are we supposed to wake Sitter up? Ausesh said that Valdean was the computer guy on their end, and we can’t exactly ask Perrsnile to do it.”  

Looking toward the bodyguard, I asked, “I don’t suppose you or the other two might know any good candidates for fixing a broken robot so he can let us out of this vault?” 

“Ah, pardon me,” Bang-bang put in with a raised hand. “Not to speak out of line, or toot the horn of my compatriot, but I do believe Letters might be just the person you’re looking for.” 

“Hey, right.” My fingers snapped. “She’s a technopath, isn’t she? Do you think she could help wake up Sitter?” 

Giving a short nod, Bang-bang half-drawled, “Well, as they say, there’s no time like the present to try. I’ve explained the situation, and I believe–” 

Abruptly, his head tilted a bit, as he blinked a few times while his hair extended out and lightened. Then… well, she focused on us. “Hello again. Dakota and Denny just started catching up in one of the diners. They’re having pancakes. Sorry, I would have brought some out, but… I don’t think we’re quite talented enough for that just yet. In the meantime,” she added while looking back to me. “There was something about fixing a robot? That’s Sitter, right?” Her hand rose to point to the motionless figure on the floor nearby. 

“Yeah, that’s him,” I confirmed. “Do you really think you can do something about that?” 

“I–” She paused, clearly hesitant. “I want to say yes, but I’m not positive. This… ahh, this is sort of my first time using these powers out in the real world. I have vague memories of accomplishing much more difficult tasks with my gift, but of course, that was not me. It was the person whose power was… given to me. For all intents and purposes, I am completely new to this.” Her face twisted a little with distaste about that whole situation. “I will try.” 

So, she sat down next to the robot and put her hands on him. While the girl was busy with that, I looked over at Marina. “Okay, I think we’re good now. Could you stay with her while I go down and deal with Perrsnile, Archibold, and Ausesh? Then I’ll go let Sesh and the others know what’s going on.” 

“Yeah, I’ll go with you,” Gliner agreed with a grimace before looking at me. “ I guess I owe Ausesh a few apologies. Not that–damn it. Not that it’ll be enough. But I owe her that much, at least.”

So, the two of us took the elevator back over to the room we had left the ghosts in, while Marina stayed with Letters and Sitter. On the way down, I glanced at the blue-scaled, six-eyed man next to me and hesitated slightly before speaking up. “You didn’t know. You were trying to stop her from having a chance to sell any more kids. Or… get away. With magic and the fact that this was her vault, anything could’ve happened if she found out what you thought you knew.” 

“That does not excuse my mistake,” the man insisted flatly. “If I had attempted to capture her, render her unconscious, find some way of…” He trailed off before sighing. “I was employed as her bodyguard, and I betrayed that.” 

I had no idea how to respond to that. He was right, he had. And maybe there was a better thing he could’ve done. But on the other hand, given what he believed, if he had been right, how could he possibly have captured an old Heretic without giving her a chance to escape and do even more harm? It was–fuck. Yeah, it was an impossible situation. Especially considering what he had believed she was guilty of. 

And yet, in the end, he had killed an innocent woman, who probably could still have done a lot of good. No wonder he clearly felt like shit. That was going to take some time for him to get through. But hey, at least he could actually talk to the woman herself about it. 

Speaking of which, the elevator arrived back at that room, and we both stepped off. To my intense relief (I had been low-key terrified that something else would go wrong), Perrsnile’s ghost was still trapped right there in the spell I had made, with Ausesh floating nearby, next to Archibold. 

“Okay, well, first things first.” Focusing on the small, trapped ghost-man, I announced, “We found both girls, and they’re going to be fine.” 

“That’s good,” Perrsnile murmured before his eyes found mine. “You must understand, I never… wanted to hurt them. I never wanted to hurt any of the children. Things simply got… so far out of control. When it started, I thought I could save–” 

“Stop.” With that word, I focused my Necromancy that way. As I’d said before, I couldn’t compel a ghost to speak the truth. But I could force them to stop speaking entirely. “Anything you say could be true, or it could be a lie. But you know what it comes down to?” My shoulders rose in a shrug. “I just don’t give a shit about your tragic backstory.”  

Letting that hang for a moment while pointedly keeping him silent, I continued. “You hurt children for your own benefit, and then you killed to cover it up, and you were willing to do it again. I’m not sure when the best time for you to feel guilty would’ve been, but it was definitely at some point before you forced one child to kill you in order to save the life of another child you were choking to death. So I’ll tell you what. I’m going to let you talk now. And you’re going to tell me the names and locations of all the people you sold those children to, and how to restore everyone’s memories that you erased, the ones of their children.”  

“I can tell you how to do the second thing,” Ausesh put in. “You don’t need him for that.” 

“Good,” I replied without looking that way. My attention was centered on Perrsnile. “Names and locations. And before you decide whether or not to tell me the truth because you think I can’t do anything worse to you now that you’re a ghost, let me tell you exactly who I am. My name is Flick Chambers. My mother is Joselyn Atherby. Yes, that one. When I was a little girl, the necromancer named Fossor, yes, that one, abducted her. Last year, the Seosten named Manakel, better known around here as Hades, tried to kill my girlfriend. They were two of the strongest Necromancers who have ever set foot on this planet. Then they hurt the people I care about. Now they’re dead, and I have their powers. You think I can’t hurt you now just because you’re dead? Ask yourself what you really want me to do, send you on to whatever afterlife is waiting for you… 

“Or get creative.” 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, yeah, that was obviously a lot to get dumped on us on top of everything else that we were dealing with at that moment. I felt myself physically reel backwards, before looking quickly to the four Aspects who had accompanied us into this place. “Guys? What’s he talking about?” Even as I asked that, my gaze was snapping right back to where Amm–Theodore(?) was still standing. Part of me wouldn’t–couldn’t believe that this wasn’t some sort of trick. Ammon was right there, he was inside Denny’s mind. Of course he was, of course. She had his memories. Having the boy’s mind as well, his personality locked in this–but he said he wasn’t actually–what? 

Letters spoke for the others, staring that way as well with an unblinking gaze. “I promise, we didn’t know anything about this. We thought it was just Ammon’s bad memories that were locked up in this place. That’s what it’s for.” 

A–Theodore spoke again, his eyes glancing away while he seemed to shrink in on himself a little. “That’s the whole reason I’m here. I am one of his bad memories. The worst memory. I’m what he used to be before our father changed us. I’m what he was, or maybe what he could’ve been. And the piece of him that our father locked away, so he could create… him. But part of him still remembered who he was. He hated me, hated those memories. Or maybe he loved me. I… I’m not sure. Maybe it was both. But I am his worst memory, that’s why I’m locked up here.” His voice was soft, resigned. 

This was so much to take in. Just staring at the boy like that, I had to force myself to unclench my fist. My nails had left marks on the palm of my hand. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. God, what–what was I supposed to do with this? What was I supposed to do with him? Was he really the–for lack of a better term, ‘good’ part of Ammon? Was he Ammon’s good personality that had been suppressed and locked away by Fossor? Or was this some sort of trick? When it came to Ammon, I felt incredibly paranoid about any evil ‘games’ he might have been playing. I really could not have put it past him to try something like this, just to fuck with us. Or rather, just to fuck with me. 

While I was thinking about that, the boy spoke up once more. “There’s something I know. Something I remember from when he died–when we died. I can’t say it out loud because it’s dangerous, and I don’t know how… how it’ll react in here. Maybe it won’t do anything because we’re all in her head. But you know why I can’t say it.” 

Oh. Oh yeah, I did know what he was talking about. He remembered the fact that Professor Dare hadn’t been affected by his power, and what that had to mean. He was the one who had ended up with that memory. Was he trying to give me some proof that he wasn’t evil, that he really was what he claimed to be? Would the real Ammon, the one I knew, have thought things through like that? Or would he just have blurted it out for fun to see what happened? I wasn’t sure. I just–I didn’t know. There was no way to know. Not right now, not like this. So what could–

“Flick.” That was Marina, speaking firmly as she tore her gaze off the boy to focus on me. “This isn’t the time to work all this out. We have to find Denny.” 

Of course, she was right. Dealing with the whole Theodore situation was going to have to wait. Whatever else was going on, we had to get Denny the hell out of this haunted mansion. The other stuff could wait until we had her out in the main– wait. “Is she even in here? Is she here, or did everyone just see–um, him in the windows? How good of a look did they get?” 

Before the others could answer that, Theodore spoke again. “She’s here. In this place, I mean. I–I can help you find her.” The offer came a bit hesitantly. But it didn’t sound like he was reluctant. It was more like he was afraid we would throw the offer back in his face. “If… if you want, I think I know where she went.” 

Right, this could still be a trap, of course. But something told me it wasn’t. Maybe I was just being stupidly naïve. Either way, we had to do something, and wandering around this enormous place completely blind was taking too long.

While all that was working its way through my mind, Walker spoke up. “Look, if he wants to help, let him help. If it’s a trick or whatever, we’ll deal with it. We don’t have time to stand around debating this whole thing all day. She’s in trouble. So can we get a move on or what?” 

Pushing all those other thoughts out of my mind, I nodded. “She’s right, we need to find Denny. So if you know where she might be… Theodore, lead the way. We’ll be right behind you.” And yes, I had more than one reason for deliberately pointing out that we would be following him. It might’ve made some level of sense to give him some benefit of the doubt in the moment, but I wasn’t going to be stupid about it. We still couldn’t be completely sure what his deal was. 

Theodore, visibly and audibly swallowing, stepped out of the doorway he had been standing in, and slowly began to walk past the six of us. His voice was a soft murmur. “This way. I think she’s downstairs. Very, very far downstairs.”

So, we followed him. Things got worse rather than better as we kept going.  The images were even more horrific and consistent, often shoving themselves right in our faces so we couldn’t ignore them. And it wasn’t just images, but sound as well. We heard the screams, the sick sound of bones breaking, even the horrifyingly slick sound of blades carving through flesh. We saw it, heard it, and smelled it. Even though they were ‘just’ holographic images in front of us, or played along the walls and windows, we could actually smell the blood and rotting flesh. It made my stomach churn and my heart ache. 

But then I realized the truth. The images weren’t worse just because we were getting closer to Denny. They were worse because of who we were with. What we had been seeing and experiencing before were just shadows of what these were. The main point of all this was to torture Theodore. The holograms were so much more realistic now because we were with him. He was the target, the one the images, the sounds, the smells were focused on. Even if everything he’d said was true, and he was really the ‘good’ part of Ammon, he was still being tormented by the memories of everything the other side of him had done. If this was true, then he was a little boy who was being viciously tortured by memories of things he’d had no control over.

Fuck, fuck. This whole place, all of it was just–it was wrong. We had to get the hell out of this mansion, as fast as possible. But first, we had to find Denny.

And find her, we did. Though it required following Theodore all the way down into the lower subbasement of the mansion. We tracked down heavy wooden stairs into what amounted to a dirt pit with cement walls, and found the girl in question huddled in a corner with her knees drawn to her chest. There was a line around her, a half circle from one corner wall to the other, with Denny curled up behind it. The line glowed a bit with what seemed like magical power, and I could see the ghost images that we had been subjected to all around her. They didn’t cross the line. Apparently they couldn’t. I wasn’t sure how that worked or how Denny had figured it out. Maybe it was just because this was her mind and she controlled it, to some extent anyway. 

Theodore, who stepped back out of the way and half-disappeared into the thick shadows, spoke in that soft, tentative voice. “They’re here for me, but she’s close enough for them.” 

“Flak?” I immediately announced while glancing that way. 

She, in turn, nodded and sent a burst of fire that actually dissolved the various ghost images. With the way clear, all of us ran to Denny. Marina was first, though she stopped short of the line. Somehow, it felt wrong to cross it. Even if it didn’t affect us, the girl had put it up as a bit of protection. Instead, Marina took a knee in front of her. “Denny, Denny, it’s us. It’s Marina. It’s okay, you’re okay. I…” She hesitated with her hand partway outstretched, still not crossing the line the girl had drawn. “Denny, are you alright?” 

For her part, the younger girl drew her knees to her chest and shook her head rapidly. “Have to go away. Have to be gone. Can’t be outside. Can’t be there. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t let him out.”

The line slowly dissolved, disappearing as she dropped her gaze with obvious shame, unwilling to look at us. Immediately, Marina reached out to pull the girl up, dropping beside her so she could wrap both arms around Denny. “No, no. It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s alright. You saved Dakota. You saved her, Denny.” 

Nodding, I put myself on the other side of the girl, taking her hand with mine. “She’s right, Denny. We know what happened. You stopped Perrsnile. You stopped him. We know all of that. We know he was the bad guy. You saved Dakota. It’s okay. No one blames you for that. He was a monster and you stopped him.” 

“I killed him.” That was her soft, pained reply. “I know I had to. I know. But…” Her eyes closed, and I saw a tear slide its way down her cheek as she admitted in a hoarse, horrified voice. “I liked it. I enjoyed it. I wanted to see him die more. He was afraid, and I… I watched him die and I…” more tears came, her eyes squeezing even more tightly shut. “I loved it. I loved seeing how scared he was. It was Ammon. It was that part of him. I wanted to kill again.” 

“I’m sorry.” That was Theodore. The boy had come forward, and slowly sat down a few feet away from us, still on the edge of the line. 

Denny, looking up, gasped a little and reflexively recoiled while blurting a half-panicked, “Get away fro–wait.” She stopped then. “You… you’re not him. You look like him, but you’re not. I can tell you’re not.” 

There was a brief pause before Theodore wrapped both arms around his stomach and hunched in on himself protectively. I could see the shudder that ran through his small form. “I think… I think when you get down to it, I’m his… his guilt. I’m the part of him that was locked away, the part that felt bad about… about all of it. The part he was trying to find.” His eyes had been closed, but they opened as he looked up to stare at the girl, and I could see the tears there. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for… for what we did to you. But you’re not this.” His gaze turned to look at the nearest of the horrific images playing out nearby. “You didn’t do that. You didn’t do any of it. Please, stop torturing yourself with it. You didn’t do that stuff. You aren’t that person.” 

“Neither are you.” That was Marina, suddenly speaking firmly. “Neither of you are the person responsible for any of those things. You aren’t him. So you don’t need to be locked up in here either. Nobody does. This place should be burned to the ground. But… failing that, no one should be inside.” 

Swallowing as a myriad of thoughts ran through me, I glanced up. “Walker,” I murmured, “we need to get out of here. All of us.” 

The gray-skinned girl gave a little nod, then made a sharp gesture with her hand. Shadows enveloped us that time, until we were all back outside the mansion, in the middle of the carnival grounds. The six of us, along with Denny and Theodore.

“You knew the other versions of you were here, didn’t you?” Marina quietly noted, still squeezing Denny closer to herself. “You made this carnival for them.” 

“I had a dream about going to the carnival,” came the hoarse whisper, “just before the other dreams, before I found out about Ammon and all of that. It was a really good dream. It was so… realistic. I dreamed that I was… older, just a couple years. I was at the carnival for a school trip, with my friends. There were four of us and… and they were my best friends in the world. We spent all day at the carnival and it was my favorite day ever. We won these big teddy bear things and they had these little top hats. We had those Dippin Dots ice cream and it was–we were sharing the–” She cut herself off, taking a deep, shuddering breath. 

“I thought it was so weird, having a dream that was that real. It was like a memory, but it couldn’t be, because I was older in the dream. Now… now I guess we know why. But whatever the… the reason, it was so vivid. Then when… when I felt everyone in my head, I wanted… them to be somewhere nice. They deserve to be somewhere nice. Even if I had to lock myself up. Then I remembered the carnival, so I… I made it.” 

I still had no idea how she had managed something like this, or exactly how the whole ‘creating alternate personalities based off a combination of some form of herself and pieces of the Alters Ammon had killed’ thing worked, or… a lot of it. But it was right in front of us. Clearly, it happened. 

“You deserve to be somewhere nice too.” That wasn’t Marina or me, it was Letters. She stood alongside Flak, Bang-bang, and Walker. In that moment, Bijou joined them, as did Peanut, landing on Letters’ shoulder. Loudpound, the taller, sort of Orcish Denny, moved up behind the others. Even the wooden/Relukun-like Aspect I’d caught a brief glimpse of earlier, whose name was apparently Butternut, was there. Soon, the rest of the Aspects had formed a circle around us. At a glance, there were somewhere around twenty of them. And they were all echoing the sentiment that Denny deserved to be happy. 

“And you definitely don’t need to lock yourself up in there,” Marina added, with a glance toward the haunted mansion. “No one deserves to be in there.” She gave a quick glance toward Theodore, who was standing a bit apart from everyone else. “No one.” 

There was a moment of quiet, as Denny stared at the ground, then looked up and took in all of her Aspects. “Thank you. I… really did want this place to be fun for you.” She took a breath and let it out before looking over to Marina and me. “I won’t go back in the mansion. But… but I don’t think I’m ready to go back out… there again yet. The things I… I felt when I killed him, I can’t–I can’t go out there right now. Not yet. But… the others can.” 

“You mean us?” Walker put in. 

“All of you,” Denny confirmed. “And me too, sometimes. I mean, later. I made you. Or… something made you. I don’t know, exactly. But you’re here. You’re real. You’re people too. You deserve to walk around in the outside world. We can share. We can take turns. Maybe if I just take turns it won’t be so hard.”

Oh boy was there a lot I wanted to say to that. I felt like this was far out of my league. Denny needed a psychologist. Maybe we could get one inside here to–right, yeah. That was going to be a whole thing. But on the other hand, she was right that if all these Aspects were real personalities and all, they did deserve to have their own chance ‘outside,’ as it were. 

The Aspects were all talking amongst themselves about what it would be like to go outside. Some seemed eager, others uncertain but willing, and a few made it clear that they had no desire whatsoever to do it. 

“Maybe I can help you,” Theodore put in, clearly hesitantly. “I mean, if you want to talk about… about what happened, about our memories. Maybe that would help?” 

“I think it would help both of you to talk about them,” I managed. Sure, the idea of Denny getting help from someone who looked like the boy who had killed her–yeah, the whole thing was fucked up beyond belief. But if this was really a part of Ammon that wasn’t evil, the part Fossor had suppressed or… or whatever, then they might just be the only two who really understood each other and what they were going through. 

“I’d like that,” Denny was saying, while staring at him. Her voice was just as hesitant as his, yet she had clearly thought it through. “I have… questions about a lot of things.” 

“We can stay in here and talk about all of that,” Theodore offered, squirming a little uncertainly. “While the others go outside.” 

“Outside,” Jordan, the water-focused Aspect with the blue skin/scales and trident put in. “We can really go outside?” 

“We… have to be fair about it,” Denny murmured thoughtfully. “So… you go outside with the hall pass. Like the restroom at school.” As she said that, a white plastic thing about eight or nine inches long, four inches wide, and thin like a bookmark appeared in her hand. The words ‘Hall Pass’ were written in cursive purple letters across the front, and there was sparkly glitter on it. 

“One at a time,” she announced, before holding it out. “You can give it to each other, but you can’t take it without permission. You have to share.” There was a moment of uncertainty among the Aspects, but in the end, Walker took it. She, after all, had been the one to bring us in here in the first place. Well, Bijou had asked for our help to start with, but she was still a bit skittish about the idea. So Walker would go first. 

“Denny,” Marina started. 

The other girl interrupted. “It’s okay. I just… I’d like to be in my carnival for awhile, with my new friends.” She glanced toward Theodore with a hesitant smile before turning back to us as the smile faded a bit. “I can’t go out there. I’m not ready. Tell Dakota I’ll be watching. And she can come in here and visit. Just have–have Walker bring her.” 

This… hooboy, this whole situation was really confusing. But I had no idea what to do or say about it. Obviously, Denny needed help beyond what either Marina or I could give her. Not because she wanted to share her body with the other Aspects, that was understandable. But her reluctance to go outside at all, I felt like someone should talk with her about that. Someone who was better at it than me. When you added in the whole Theodore thing, it was… eesh.

Instead of getting into all that, however, I leaned over to embrace the girl. “You have Walker pull us in to talk to you a lot, okay? And Dakota’s gonna want to hop in and see this place too.” 

Marina expressed the same sentiment while embracing her as well. Both of us made her promise to have us and others visit her. Finally, we all stood up. The rest of the Aspects closed ranks around Denny, clearly protecting her. 

Turning to Theodore, I hesitated once more. “I don’t know–I don’t know what to say to you. Not right now.” 

“That’s okay,” he murmured with a self-conscious squirm. “I don’t know what to say either. I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry about everything. If… I know it’s a lot, but if you ever want to talk again, you know where I’ll be.” 

I paused, then nodded. There wasn’t a lot I could say to that, but there was one thing. Reaching out, I forced my hand to stop trembling before putting it on his shoulder. As he looked up at me, I took a moment to find my voice. “I’m glad you aren’t in the haunted house anymore. Just… just stay away from those memories, okay? You belong out here, where you can… where you and everyone else can help each other.”

He nodded solemnly at that, looking like he had no idea how to respond. Which was fair, since I had no idea what else to say just then. At least I didn’t have to figure it out right away. He would be in here, and if I wanted to talk to him again, well, I could. 

Yeah, this situation was fucked up, to say the least. But we were just going to have to deal with that. Just like every other fucked up situation in my life. 

With the other Aspects clustered around Denny and ready to help her, Walker remained standing near the two of us. The gray-skinned girl cracked her neck, then glanced to Marina and me while clutching the hall pass in one hand. “Ready to go back outside?” 

Before either of us could answer, I felt that twisting, shifting sensation. And just like that, we were gone once more. 

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Four Deaths Four Killers 19-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A few minutes later, Marina and I were walking through the carnival once more. We were passing a spinning teacup ride as the other girl shook her head. “I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on. Are we really inside Denny’s head? Like, literally inside her? Is this what it’s like when you possess someone?” 

I swallowed slightly. “Not exactly. I mean, there can be mental constructs. I’ve got something like that when I’m training with… one of my new friends. She helps me out inside my head, and she’s got this whole virtual reality sort of thing. But this seems different, somehow.” My shoulders rose in a helpless shrug. “I guess we just have to roll with it. Weird stuff happens in this universe.”

“I’m pretty sure weird stuff happens in every universe,” she replied before leaning over one of the game booths to call, “Denny! Denny, it’s okay! We just want to talk!” Pausing then, she grimaced. “Saying it like that makes it sound like we actually want to do more than talk, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s hard to make that sound right,” I agreed before looking around once more. Several other versions of Denny, or Aspects as they called themselves, were in sight. The Pixie, who had introduced herself as Peanut, was zipping through the air, hovering over one aisle, then another in a frantic, clearly disorganized aerial search. Meanwhile, the fire-controlling, red-skinned Aspect (her name was Flak) was flying a bit more slowly, but with more deliberateness. Then there was Bijou, the bunny-girl, who could apparently phase through solid matter. She kept running back and forth through the booths and rides, searching under everything in sight while fretting out loud. The shabbily-dressed werewolf, who we had come to find out was named Feisty, was moving along one of the other aisles. I caught a glimpse of her now and then, slowly pacing while sniffing intently in an attempt to catch the right scent. 

Everyone was looking for the… I wasn’t sure if ‘regular’ Denny was the right term or not. They were all helping us search for the Denny we knew. But nobody was having much luck. This mental construct of a carnival was enormous, and it seemed like there were hundreds of places for her to hide if she didn’t want to talk to us. And that was if she was even actually in the carnival. What if she had taken herself out of this particular construct and was somewhere else entirely? Was that even possible? I had no idea. I didn’t know enough about any of this. For about the millionth time that day, I wished someone like Sariel was here. She’d have a much better idea of what to do. She probably would have solved this entire situation by now. 

As it was, all we could really do was keep walking around while calling the girl’s name and hoping she would both hear and listen to us. It wasn’t exactly the best plan, but it was all we had. I really wanted to find Denny. She had to hear that what happened hadn’t been her fault, that she hadn’t done anything wrong. We had to tell her that she wasn’t turning into a monster, in a way that she might actually believe. But first we had to find her.  

While Marina and I were looking under another booth, just in case the girl was curled up there, someone came around the corner. I looked up to see yet another half-Alter Aspect of Denny. This one wore military fatigues, and had hair that was very short, like a buzzcut. Other than that, she looked a lot like the Denny we knew, aside from something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. 

Coming to an abrupt halt, the military-Denny snapped a crisp salute. “Bang-bang, reporting in. We believe we have movement in the haunted house on the southwest side.” 

Haunted house. Right, why hadn’t I thought of that? Given the mood she was probably in, it made sense that Denny would have hidden herself inside the scary place. Marina and I exchanged looks before turning that way. Before we could go anywhere, however, Bang-bang spoke up behind us. “Pardon, it’s a bit of a hike and, given the urgency of the situation, we can get you there faster, ma’ams. Walker?” 

That shadowy, cloaked figure appeared out of nowhere and held her hands out to us. “If you’re actually gonna help Denny, come on. Before she disappears again.”

I only hesitated for a second before reaching out to catch her hand. Marina had already done the same, and we instantly vanished from that spot. I felt my stomach twist itself into knots, which was an odd feeling considering it wasn’t my real stomach. Or any stomach. This whole thing was just a mental construct. So… actually, I had no idea how that worked. Clearly I wasn’t in my actual body right now. But was my real body still outside? Was it in limbo? Was I sort of technically possessing her? Were we both– huh. Yeah, I had a lot of questions. But right now, all that mattered was finding Denny. 

As soon as that wave of disorientation and nausea filled me, it was gone, as we found ourselves standing in front of the haunted house in question. It was at the end of a long, winding path through what was supposed to be a graveyard. The tombstones themselves were covered in webs and moss, while the dirt around the graves was pushed up, with bits of broken coffins visible. Clearly that bit was intended to make it seem like the dead had torn themselves up out of their own graves. Which, as far as that sort of thing went, was pretty effective. 

Then there was the haunted house itself. The place looked like an actual mansion, five stories tall and covered in dark vines and more spiderwebs. It was positively creepy, even just from standing out here on the brightly lit path next to the rest of the carnival. I really wasn’t excited about going in there, not when I didn’t have any powers right now, or any weapons. It just didn’t sound like my idea of a fun time. But then, this was just inside Denny’s mind. Nothing could actually happen to us, right? Nothing would happen. We were going inside to get Denny so we could talk to her. That’s what mattered. We just had to find her in there. 

Landing nearby with a short burst of flame, Flak stared up at the house and swallowed. “The bad place. She shouldn’t be in there. Why did she go in there?” 

“Bad place?” I echoed, looking that way. “What do you mean?” 

It was Letters who answered, stepping up on the other side of us while speaking in a quiet, subdued voice. “We have lots of Ammon’s memories locked up inside there. The bad ones. The scary ones. Why would Denny go in that place? There’s nothing good in there. It’s where we locked everything terrible away.” 

Marina answered immediately. “Because she thinks she’s bad too. She’s trying to lock herself in the bad place because she thinks she belongs there. She killed Perrsnile. So she thinks she deserves to be locked up with the other bad things.”

Without another word, the girl gave me a pointed look before stepping forward. There was a loud, anxiety-inducing creak as she pushed the gate open and started along that path toward the front door in the distance. I was right behind her. Letters, Walker, Flak, and Bang-bang followed suit. The other Aspects were staying outside, and the four who were with us didn’t seem that happy about being there either. I had a feeling this place creeped most of them out pretty badly.  Which, if it was holding what they said it was, I really couldn’t blame them for. I wasn’t exactly eager to see any of Ammon’s memories myself. This whole thing felt like a terrible idea. 

Glancing to the side, I saw the gravestones. They had names on them, and dates. It took me a moment to realize what they were. The graves were for all the people Ammon had killed. These were the names of all his victims. That thought made me swallow, as I realized just how large the cemetery really was, considering the thing stretched out into the yard behind the mansion. This… this was a very bad place for Denny to lock herself inside of. No wonder the other Aspects were so anxious about it. I certainly wouldn’t want to be here if I had any other choice.

Finally, as we reached the front porch and mounted the painfully creaking wooden steps to the door, I grimaced at the sight of the heavy bronze knocker. It was shaped like a twisted demon head with its mouth open in a horrifying scream, and had what looked like real dried blood over it. If this had been a real haunted house (well, ‘real’), that would have been a pretty decent bit of attention to detail. The fact that Denny had made this herself made me wonder if she was pulling from memories the older her had. Which might’ve been a strange thought to wonder about, but I really had no idea what we were walking into here. It felt like we needed to have all the information we could. But on the other hand, we didn’t have time to sit and think about it. If Denny was in here, we needed to get her out. The details could wait. 

Ignoring the knocker, Marina grabbed the knob and shoved the door open. It was really stiff and groaned loudly through the entire motion, which just added nicely to the whole ambience, really. We couldn’t have more obviously announced our entrance if we’d come with a full brass band. 

Despite that, we moved into the front foyer as silently as possible. Our eyes were snapping quickly around the room to take in as much as possible while watching for any threats. Not that we had any idea what sort of threat we might find in a place like this, but still. We just had to watch and be careful.

There were more webs and very realistic-looking skeletons (okay, they were probably literally real as far as the mind-space went) hanging along the walls, along with a set of stairs leading up to the second floor. Next to the stairs was a set of double doors, while a smaller door stood to the left. The whole place was lit by soft candles that flickered a lot, casting incredibly creepy shadows in every direction, which kept making my gaze snap toward them as my brain misinterpreted the dancing shadows as actual movement out of the corner of my eyes.

For a few seconds, we were quiet, looking around while listening for anything. Then Marina shook her head and muttered something about having enough of that. She raised her voice and shouted as loudly as she could, “Denny! It’s Marina and Flick! And…” She looked to the other four before adding, “your friends! It’s okay! Everything’s alright! Please, we just miss you, that’s all! We want to see you! You didn’t do anything wrong! You’re not in trouble!” 

She trailed off then, and we all listened once more. Aside from the eerie sound of her words echoing through the house, there was nothing. No response. If Denny heard us, she wasn’t responding. Which didn’t really mean anything right now, considering the situation. Looking over at Bang-bang, I asked, “Come to think of it, I probably should’ve asked this before, but what did you mean when you said someone saw movement over here? What exactly did they see?”

“She was in one of the windows, ma’am,” came the answer. “All the way up on the fifth floor. But then later they saw her in the fourth floor window, and it looked like some sorta shadow moving over the second floor bedroom balcony just before we came in here. So we’re not sure where she is now. Seems like she’s moving around a lot. I’m in contact with the troops outside, though. If there’s any new signs of our girl, they’ll let us know as soon as it happens. It’s all clear right now.” 

“Uh, sorry, Miss Bang-bang, but how are you in contact with them?” Marina asked, blinking that way. “I mean, do you have like, a radio you’re listening to, or…” 

Shaking her head, Bang-bang replied, “Apologies Miss Marina, but I have to say, I just prefer the more masculine pronouns. He, him, if you don’t mind. I know it’s odd, considering our circumstances and where we come from, but that just feels more natural to me, personally-speaking.” 

Pausing to let us absorb that, sh–no, he continued. “And, as it turns out, most of the deaths I’m connected to are Alters with powers that involve delayed or charged effects. A lot of that involves explosions of various types. Charge a rock with power and set it to go off after a certain amount of time, or when someone says a specific word. Not just explosions either, there’s a whole list. That’s the general idea. But ahh, another Alter I’m connected to happened to be what is called an Iesean.” It sounded like Ice-eon. “Among a few other things, the power I have from that includes the ability to mark objects and then see and hear through them. I’ve got a few of those objects with people outside so they can talk to us.” When my mouth opened, he nodded to me. “Just like the one you killed in Las Vegas, ma’am, for your lesser version of the power.” After a brief pause, he grimaced. “Ah, when I say lesser–” 

“It’s no problem, really,” I assured him. “Believe me, I get it. But just so you know, Marina and I don’t have any powers or anything in here. We might end up being more of a handicap than you expect, if there actually is something bad in this place.” 

“You might not have superpowers,” Letters informed us quietly from where she was standing near an old painting of a lighthouse on the edge of a cliff, “but you do have a lot of regular power. Denny likes you, both of you. She’s afraid you’ll hate her now, that you’ll be disgusted by her, for what she did.” She paused briefly, eyes glancing away from us while she continued in a very soft voice. “For being like Ammon.” 

“She’s not like–” Stopping myself as I realized that Denny was the person who really needed to hear that, I took a breath before turning to start walking to the stairs. “Let’s go. If she’s in here, we have to find her. This isn’t a good place for anyone to be, let alone Denny. Especially not in the mindset she’s probably in right now.” 

Dad had taken me through a few different ostensibly scary places in the past, wanting to show me the various ways you could tell that there was nothing actually wrong. It was part of his teaching me to logically think through things and spot inconsistencies. Especially when it came to what people said and what the rest of your senses told you. He’d wanted me to learn not to let a few frightening images mixed with the power of suggestion completely take control of my brain.  Between that and the much scarier, very real life and death experiences I’d had over the past year and a half, there really wasn’t a lot that a normal haunted house could’ve thrown at me. 

But of course, this wasn’t a normal haunted house. Not in the least. As we began to make our way through the place, we all began to see half-transparent images floating along the walls and in the corners of the rooms. It was all images taken from Ammon’s memories of the horrific things he had done throughout his life. They were like bits from a video projector that was always just out of sight. And they were often better than flat images. More like holographic videos played on the windows, on the walls, or even right out in front of us now and then, as though whatever was behind these images wanted to drive home a particular point about how evil he was. The people he had killed, everyone he had tortured and destroyed, we saw it all as we slowly made our way through that mansion and looked into all the rooms we could find. Not every second of his interactions with them, but just… the highlights. Or lowlights, rather. The worst parts. We saw him kill them, we saw them beg, we saw–we saw all the terrible, horrific things that were part of Ammon’s past and had been passed on to Denny’s memories. We saw what Denny was torturing herself with through all of this. 

It was, to put it mildly, not a very fun time. The four Aspects who had been walking with us were mostly huddled together, trying not to look at the various images that kept presenting themselves to us. Flak had created a ball of fire and was making it fly in front of us to illuminate things better, but also had another, smaller fireball cupped in her left hand protectively. It seemed like she was just barely stopping herself from lashing out with that one to burn everything around us. 

Finally, as we were subjected to yet another image of Ammon pushing a girl and an old man down an elevator shaft while a bunch of people looked on in horror, Flak blurted, “So what?! That wasn’t us!” With those words, she finally reared back and hurled the ball of fire she was holding so that it went flying out to burn away the ghostly images of the screaming, falling girl. It created a very disturbing effect as the girl in the hologram seemed to be burning up while in mid-fall. “We didn’t do that! None of us did! It wasn’t us! It wasn’t her and it wasn’t us! Fuck off!” 

“Damn straight,” Bang-bang insisted. He held his hand up, speaking firmly toward his palm. “Johnny Nines.” His voice sounded odd in those words, sort of echoey and deeper than it should. A second later, a nine-millimeter pistol appeared in his hand. He saw us looking that way and gestured. “Other side of the Iesean powers, ma’am. If I touch an object and empower it with a name, I can call that name and summon the object to me. Also fits that whole ‘charge an object for a later effect’ theme my power set’s got.” 

“You named a gun Johnny Nines?” Marina realized, blinking a bit at that. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “Well, you know, guns and cars always get girl names. I wanted to switch it up.” With a cough, the boy added, “We gonna go find the chief or what? Feels like we should probably get a move on. This place is… more unsettling the longer we stay in here.”

He was right, of course. So we kept moving. Now we knew some more of what Bang-bang could do, though I was still curious about that whole ‘timed explosion’ thing. And, of course, we already knew about Flak being able to create and control fire as well as fly, and Walker was a teleporter (though given we had no idea where we were going in this place, that didn’t help as much as it might have). Finally, Letters, as she explained it while we were walking, was basically a technopath. A pretty strong one too, apparently. Which, again, didn’t help a lot in here. But she wanted to come along to help, and I was pretty sure we would need as many different… Aspects as we could get if we were actually going to convince the… first Denny that she wasn’t turning into some evil monster. 

Yeah, this whole thing was so complicated I could barely keep up with it. But all that really mattered, past all the confusing parts, was getting to Denny and talking to her. Seeing all these Ammon memories, which she had clearly locked herself up in here to torment herself with, made that even more clear than it had already been. 

The creak of a door at the end of a nearby hallway made my head snap that way. I could barely catch a glimpse of some shadowy figure standing there, visible through the crack. “Denny?” I called. “It’s us. It’s… it’s okay, we’re here to help.” 

Marina nodded. “Come on, let’s get out of here. You don’t need to torture yourself with this stuff.” 

“The torture isn’t for her,” a familiar voice quietly informed us, before the door creaked open even more, so we could see the figure standing there. A small boy with bright blond hair. “It’s for me.” 

My eyes widened dramatically, as I found myself reflexively stepping in front of Marina. “A-Ammon?” 

There was a brief pause before the figure shook his head slowly. “No. Not Ammon. I’m the one who was locked away, the one my father tried to destroy. 

“Our mother called me Theodore.”  

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