Heretical Edge

Patreon Snippets 24 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 24th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Avalon and Gwen (The following takes place sometime after the previous chapter 17-01 and before the next chapter 17-02

“This place has the best sushi you will ever eat. Bar none.” 

With that small aside, Gwen pulled the nozzle out of the corvette’s gas tank, slid it back onto the pump, hit the screen twice with her thumb to decline a receipt, and started up toward the rundown, dingy-looking building advertising one dollar hot dogs and seventy-nine cent large fountain drinks. “Don’t just stand there, this is the best time of day for the fresh stuff.” 

Avalon, standing by the rear of the car, stared after the blonde (with pink tips) woman while silently echoing, ‘fresh stuff.’ Her head shook as she quickly pushed herself into motion, walking that way. “Wait, this is a gas station.” 

“Uh huh,” Gwen agreed, already reaching out for the door after giving a quick nod to the distracted man who passed them while talking on his phone. 

“A gas station in the middle of Nebraska,” Avalon continued, stepping in once the other woman gestured for her to go ahead. “Which, just to be clear, is literally the most landlocked state in the entire US. I double-checked just to be sure. It’s the only state that is triple-landlocked. You have to go through at least three states, or two states and a big Canadian province, to get to the ocean no matter which way you go. We’re talking over a thousand miles to the nearest ocean.” 

Stepping into the store before letting the door close after her, Gwen airily replied, “That’s right.” She turned a bit then, eyes surveying the empty shop aside from a single employee who was silently reading a magazine while keeping half an eye on them. The man looked Latino, with long hair pulled into a ponytail, a heavyset body, and a tee-shirt advertising a boxing match that had been over for going on twenty-five years. 

Satisfied that there was no one else in the convenience store, Gwen called out toward the man sitting there. Only she spoke in what sounded like rapid Japanese, and all Avalon got out of it was that her tone sounded questioning. Plus she was pretty sure there was a greeting in there somewhere. 

By the time Gwen was half-way through her question, the man behind the counter was already scrambling off his stool. It fell with a crash while he darted around the side and approached, speaking in his own rapid Japanese the moment the woman had finished. Again, Avalon couldn’t follow the actual words, but she could tell he was apologizing. He also kept bowing repeatedly, fumbling for something in his pocket. 

“Kaili,” Gwen interrupted, her hand moving to touch his arm. “It’s alright. We haven’t seen each other in awhile, and I looked different then. But please, my… niece here doesn’t speak your language.” 

“Niece?” The man’s gaze snapped from Gwen to Avalon, eyes widening. “You are the princess of Avalon?!” He was already bowing to her rapidly, babbling in his own language once more in what sounded like even more apologies. 

“Wait, no, I’m not–I mean it’s not princess anything, it’s just Ava–” Cutting herself off in mid-objection (which she was pretty sure the man himself wasn’t even hearing in the midst of his own apology), Avalon looked toward Gwen, voice flat. “Gaia knew what she was doing.” 

Giving her a tiny smirk, Gwen nodded easily. “Of course she did. Good or bad, that woman rarely did anything by accident.” With that, she turned back to Kaili and spoke up with a gentle, yet firm voice. “It’s alright, we aren’t here for any of that. We came for the sushi. If it’s ready?” 

Clearly snapped out of his rambling apology for not somehow intuiting who Avalon and Gwen were the moment they stepped inside, Kaili stopped short, glancing toward an unlabeled door in the back while tugging a set of keys from his pocket. “Oh yes, yes, of course. Our normal customers have not arrived yet, you shall be the first. And ahh, have first choice, naturally.” Even as he said that, the man was already hurrying toward that rear door, using no-less than four keys on separate locks before he finally pulled it open. As he was starting to give a grand gesture for the two to go through, a man in a trucker’s cap began to come in the main door from the lot outside. But before he could get more than a step inside, Kaili snapped, “We’re closed!” At his words, the customer was pushed back out the door by an invisible force and the door shut firmly in his face before the sound of a lock clicking filled the air. Outside, the man voiced confusion, pulled at the door twice, then shook his head and walked away muttering. 

“Ahem,” Kaili turned his attention back to the two women, arm rising to motion them inward as he held the door politely. “Please, please, after you, your majesties.” 

Avalon started to object, then simply gave a heavy sigh before walking through the door, with Gwen following just behind her. There was a set of stairs on the other side, leading down into an open basement room that was much larger than the building upstairs. Along the walls on either side were several enormous aquarium tanks, filled with fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Many of which didn’t look like they belonged on Earth. The tanks continued down under their feet, as Avalon, Gwen, and their escort walked across a glass floor, toward several tables that had been set up in the middle of the room, spaced far enough apart that the occupants could have a private conversation. 

Handing the two of them menus, Kaili bowed once more before announcing that he would return right away. Then he moved to a door at the back of the room, which seemed to lead to a kitchen area. 

With her menu in one hand, Avalon glanced around, taking in the colorful fish on all sides of her. Glancing up, she saw a literal glass ceiling with even more fish visible there. “This is… different.” 

“Not what you expected, hmm?” Gwen teased lightly. “It’s something wonderful hiding under the guise of something plain. I think that’s why I like it so much.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Well, that and the fact that the food truly is utterly delightful. I, ah, wanted to share something nice with you. I know we haven’t… really had much time to talk about…” She gestured back and forth between herself and the other girl. “Our situation.” 

“You mean my situation as your, ah, niece?” Avalon tried out the word, face twisting a little before she shook her head. “You don’t have to call me that. I know you didn’t get along with Gaia, and she just adopted–” 

“Stop,” Gwen interrupted. “You’re right, I have had my issues with… Gaia. When we get her back, she and I are going to have a very long, very intense conversation about a lot of things. But she has more than proven that she is not the same person I knew back then. And she has absolutely proven that she loves you. Believe me when I say, I watched her all last year. The way she is with you, the way she watches you when you aren’t looking, the way–” Cutting herself off, she simply finished with, “She does not see you as a responsibility, she sees you as her daughter. I hope you know that.” 

“I’m… still coming to terms with it,” Avalon murmured while shifting in her seat. “I need–I want–we have to get her out of there. I have to tell her, I mean… I have to tell her everything I wanted to tell her before.” 

“We will,” Gwen assured her. “But that’s my point. You love her and she loves you. She is your family. Which means you are my family. Believe me, Arthur will make that abundantly clear when we get him back. Which we are also doing.” 

“Arthur… literal King Arthur,” Avalon breathed out the words even as her head shook in disbelief. It took a moment to organize her thoughts. “You know, I thought that with Liesje’s spell finally cast, my whole ridiculous important family thing would be over. But I’m sitting here with Queen Guinevere, wife to King Arthur, whose sister is the, ahem, formerly evil witch Morgan Le Fay, who is my adopted mother.” 

“Yeeeah, your life is never gonna be boring,” Gwen confirmed with a light, casual chuckle. “But at least you’ve got some interesting relatives out of it.” 

Grimacing, Avalon muttered a dark, “Better than my dad, that’s for sure.” She paused to consider briefly before meeting the woman’s gaze. “It is pretty weird though. I mean, having Harper as my aunt.” 

With an audible snicker, Gwen offered, “It could be worse. At least you’re not related to Litonya.” 

Silently mouthing, ‘oh my God’ at the very thought, Avalon gave a full-body shudder. “Is this your way of making up for not being able to mentally torture me for all the years I was growing up, by putting that thought in my head?” 

“Figured that out, did ya?” With those teasing words, Gwen sobered a bit, her voice softening. “Wherever you came from, however it happened and whatever the reasoning, you are Gaia’s daughter. Which means you are my niece. That means something to me. And it’ll mean something to Arthur. Not to mention the people who are still loyal to him. You are, for all intents and purposes, a princess. Granted, one with no lands or real responsibilities… yet. But a princess nonetheless.” 

Awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck, Avalon made a face. “I’m not–I mean… I’m not, though. Not–I just want to… I’m not that type of person. When I was a kid, I was a wimp. At the Garden, I learned how to be tough, how to fight and protect myself. Then that fell apart, and Flick… Flick, Gaia, and the others taught me how to open up a little bit and not be so hard. But I’ll never be…” She took a deep breath. “I’ll never be a princess-type princess.” 

A snort escaped Gwen, which turned into a laugh. “I’m sorry, have you taken a look at me? Listen, Avalon–” Stopping abruptly, she shook her head. “I’m starting to think Gaia named you that to mess with me too. Anyway, I was raised to be a fighter. I was raised by Michael. I never–being queen was never on my to-do list either. Neither was falling in love with Arthur. So believe me, I know where you’re coming from. I know how uncomfortable it can be to find out that people are looking up to you, that you’re actually responsible for more than just yourself and the few people around you. That’s why I’m here now, with you. Because I want to help you be ready for when that responsibility actually shows up. You and me, we’ve got a lot in common. I wish I had a me to be there for me when I was me back–” She stopped, face twisting a little. “And now I’ve lost myself.” 

Smiling just a little, Avalon quietly replied, “That’s why we’re here, so you can start talking to me about all these things?” 

“Well no, we’re together so I can start talking to you about all these things,” Gwen corrected. “We’re here because like I said, their sushi is goddamn amazing. Now look at the menu and figure out what you want. And don’t worry, if you want to sneak a little wine, I won’t tell anyone. 

“After all, I am the cool aunt. And being queen has its privileges.” 

*********

The Calendar (The following takes place sometime shortly after the upcoming 17-03)

“Why are we here?” The skinny man who asked that question had short, dirty-blond hair that was mussed up, and wore a pair of jeans with a flannel shirt tucked into them. His words were addressed to the eclectic group standing around him, all of them waiting in a large shed at the rear end of an old farm. 

“You know why we’re here, November.” That crisp reply came from a tall, blonde woman in a red evening gown that looked quite out of place in the dingy shed. “We were invited.” 

Clearing his throat, a black man with shoulder-length dark hair wearing a pristine white suit pointed out, “Now January, I believe what November was asking was why were we invited?”

“Feb’s got a point,” Julie (July) agreed. Like the man she was referring to, Julie was black and appeared to be what humans would consider twenty-two or so. She preferred to wear a tan trench coat, like various Earth detective stories they had seen, over black pants and a white shirt. “They already have three of us up there. Why would they want any more?” 

“Unless it’s a trap.” That supposition came from October, or rather, Otto. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties (making him several thousand in actuality), and his own style of clothing went toward loud Hawaiian shirts covered by a white lab coat. He also wore glasses that possessed an array of special abilities. “Perhaps Athena’s alliance believes that they can remove a resource from an enemy in one stroke by taking her entire Calendar off the board.” 

“If you believed that,” the eldest of their group, a gray-haired man in a multi-thousand dollar suit, put in, “You would not have agreed to come here.” August’s eyes narrowed that way. “Not unless you had some plan of your own.” 

The two members of the group who had been silent up to that point were both rather large men, each standing well over six feet. One would have been considered Latino if he had been human, and wore clothes that were rather drab and heavily patched. They had been worn for a long time. The other, equally as tall, had green crewcut hair and also wore simple clothing. Tember (September) and March respectively. 

It was Tember who spoke up then, his attention on Otto. “Come on, man, tell us you didn’t bring some sort of bomb or weapon that’s gonna start the war up all over again.” 

March, who rarely spoke at all given his intense dislike of attention, made a noise in the back of his throat that showed just how much he didn’t like that idea either. 

With the attention of all seven other members of the immediate group on him, Otto waved both hands. “I didn’t bring a bomb or a weapon. I mean, no more weapons than the rest of you are carrying. Trust me, I got the speech. Multiple times. I’m just saying, if they wanted to get rid of all of us, it makes the most sense to do it all at once. If they ‘lost’ the other three, it would look suspicious to ask for replacements. This way, we can all have an accident together.” 

“Now I’m regretting even bringing it up,” November muttered before shaking his head. “I wasn’t trying to say it’s a trap. I’m just asking why they want us up there. There has to be a reason, but I can’t figure out what they get out of it.”

August, who had been gazing out the nearby open door for a moment, turned his attention back to the others while speaking flatly. “When it comes down to it, we are not worth such effort. It would be trivially simple for Cahethal to replace all twelve of us should the need arise. Never forget that the courtesy she extends us in allowing our autonomy and individuality is not due to any specific unique achievements on our part. There is a long list of those like us who would quite easily take our place.” 

“She hasn’t replaced June yet,” Julie pointed out in a quiet voice. “Why do you think that is? I mean, she replaced December faster than this. And others.” That last bit served to remind the others that she was one of the longest-lasting members of the current Calendar. To the point that she had slightly adapted the provided name of July to Julie, making it more of her own. 

“That is a good question,” January agreed thoughtfully. “I suppose she could still be holding out for Kushiel’s daughter, despite May and April’s strong doubts on that front.” 

For a brief moment, all of them exchanged silent looks. In the end, it was Feb who broke that silence. “She has an Olympian power. If she said the word, Cahethal would replace any one of us with her. She doesn’t have to keep a position open. She would create an opening if she had to.” 

None of the others disagreed with that, though they were glad not to be the one who brought up the reality that they simply were not truly that important in the grand scheme of things. 

Tember finally let out an audible sigh. “Everyone calm down. No one is being replaced. Kushiel’s  daughter–” He stopped, considering briefly before amending his words. “Theia has no interest in joining us. May and April made that clear. Whatever Cahethal’s reason for not replacing June yet, I don’t think it has anything to do with her. We’ll find out when she wants us to know.” 

“Okay, so that takes us back to why does that group want us up there?” Julie pointed out. “Athena is not stupid enough to think she could get real information out of us. And even if she did, they already have the other three. What is the tactical advantage of having all of us there the same time?” 

Otto, voice thoughtful, put in, “Maybe they’ve got some new tracking spell or something and want to put it on all of us while we’re there so they’ll always know if we start spying on them.” 

January opened her mouth, then paused to consider. “That… if they had such a spell, it would be enormously valuable. At least as much as their new protection magic. The ability to mark us in a way that allows them to track us even through other possessions, and to always know precisely where we are… that would be one of the biggest anti-Seosten weapons in existence.” 

“And if anyone could and would develop it,” Otto pointed out, “it’s Athena’s organization right here at Rysthael.” 

August raised his hand to stop them. “I’m afraid we are getting far too deep into the weeds of wild supposition here. I do not know why we have been invited to visit this place any better than any of you, but I do not believe the intention is nefarious. Ignoring the fact that our friends would have warned us if they suspected any such efforts, it is simply unnecessary. Not only do they have April, May, and December as it is, they also have plenty of other Seosten with them who would quite willingly submit to the testing of such a spell. Our presence would be entirely superfluous.” 

“Unless they just wanted to cast it on us to make sure we can’t ever actually spy on them,” Otto started to point out before blanching as the entire group stared at him. “I get it, I get it, paranoid. It’s not likely, yeah. But I still don’t–” 

At that point, his words were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the portal they had all been waiting for. It grew to full size in front of them, just before several figures stepped through. The group immediately recognized April, May, and December, even as the latter blurted January’s name and embraced her tightly. Then she began to make her way around the circle, giving each of them hugs of their own. 

By that point, April and May had stepped aside to give room for three more figures to join them. The first was Theia herself, while the second was Mercury, his gaze passing quickly over everyone as though assessing them for any threat. Finally, the third was a woman who would have been entirely unfamiliar to them if they had not read the detailed dossier about her. 

“Principal Abigail Fellows?” January couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. “We didn’t expect to see you here.” 

The woman in question offered her a small smile. “I suppose it is a bit of a surprise. And I know how surprises can be disconcerting. Sorry for that. I wanted to come greet you myself and extend our invitation to visit the school, if you are all still interested.” 

December immediately began to launch into a long spiel about how much they had to come, before May gently covered the girl’s mouth and spoke up herself. “Perhaps official introductions.” She and April went down the line, giving each Calendar member’s name. 

And with each introduction, Abigail insisted on shaking their hands. Which was quite disconcerting for all of them, even knowing about the protection spell. 

“Well,” Mercury finally announced, “shall we go back through? We have–” 

Before he could say anything else, the man abruptly pivoted, hand coming up with a pistol, which he pointed past the others toward the doorway. The doorway where another figure, simultaneously incredibly familiar to the Calendar, and utterly astonishing, had appeared. 

“June!” December blurted out loud, lunging that way. “What’reyoudoinghere?! Ithoughtyouweredeadtheysaidyouweredead! Howcomeeveryonethinksyou’redead?!” 

The man in question, a Seosten who appeared to be around twenty, with short black hair, wore the same dark clothes and white jacket they had always seen him in. But he also wore something else, a sly, cocky smirk that seemed out of place on one of their kind. 

“Well hey there, pals,” he greeted them while ruffling December’s hair. “You weren’t about to go on this tour without me, were you?” 

“Cahethal said you were dead, June.” January’s gaze was laser-focused on the man. 

“Well in a way, I suppose June is,” the man replied lazily. “I got tired of him. And tired of working with that old stuffy bitch. Decided to go back to my old self. Or one of my old selves anyway. Thought maybe I could collect some long-owed royalties.

“After all, these humans have been profiting off the name Dracula for a very long time.” 

A/N: Dracula was previously seen (and established to be an SPS Seosten) in a historical figures snippet found as the last entry in the chapter right here. And yes, he has somewhat changed his appearance since then.

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Interlude 16C – First Date (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the donator-chosen interlude that we had a tie-breaker vote to determine, which is why it is coming after 17-01. In a few days to a week after people have had a chance to read it, I’ll rearrange things to put this back after Interlude 16B where it belongs.

Flick was okay. She was safe. After weeks upon weeks, going into months, of worrying about the trouble-prone girl after she had been abducted by Fossor (and then vanished just when the rescue party had found their way into Fossor’s stronghold), she was finally home where she belonged. Granted, there had been a brief detour even after that psychotic fuck’s death in order to rescue Elisabet from the Meregan world (and find out what the Meregan themselves were up to in the process). But now, after all that, Felicity was home, safe and sound, though perhaps more than a bit worn from the whole experience. 

With any luck, she would stay out of trouble for awhile. Or, more to the point, trouble would leave her alone for awhile. God knew that girl had had enough problems to fill an entire library full of books about them. And that was just in the past year and change. It was time for the whole universe full of annoying bad guys who wanted to cause trouble to just… back off for awhile and give Flick time to get her head on straight. Not to mention time to spend with the mother she had only just managed to save. 

It was that certainty, that Felicity desperately needed a break, that had led Avalon to spend the past weeks running herself ragged. As it turned out, killing someone like Fossor didn’t end his control and power over people. The old Necromancer didn’t exactly have a lot of friends, but he did have minions who had various reasons to want to start acting up after their master was obliterated. It was some vague form of loyalty, magically-enforced or otherwise. Whatever it was, the weeks since his death had been filled with a handful of Fossor-aligned monsters making trouble. They were acting up, making noise in Flick’s old hometown or places she knew about in an obvious attempt to get the girl’s attention. 

Avalon wouldn’t let that happen. There was no way in hell she would let those people tear Felicity away from spending time with her mother. Thankfully, several others felt the same way, including Professor Dare, Nevada, Kohaku, and Klassin Roe. Plus Shiori, Asenath, and several others. They all knew what was going on and understood that these minions of Fossor were doing their level best to get revenge for his death, from Flick, Joselyn, or both. 

So, ever since then, Avalon and those others had been doing everything they could to deal with the not-so-random threats that had popped up several times without letting Flick or the rest of her family know there were any problems. It wasn’t fair to expect them to drop their whole reunion after finally having some time together, just to go fight some more. Fossor had already taken enough time away from them. The people who cared about them could deal with the stragglers and wannabes, the threats who were either trying to avenge their master’s death (whatever their reasoning), or fill the void he left by killing those responsible for that death. 

And even once it seemed those particular problems were over, there had been the spell to worry about. Her ancestor’s spell. As soon as all her time wasn’t taken up with helping to handle Fossor-related minions, it had instead been taken up by helping to put the protection spell together, in being available for those who knew what they were doing to draw blood and use various magics on both her and Professor Tangle (the other descendant of Liesje) in their efforts to update the original enchantment to their new specifications. 

But, for the moment, that was done with. There were no currently standing threats, no one making a nuisance of themselves. And the protection spell was in place. And Flick had her grandparents back. Not to mention the other reunions that had taken place. 

There was nothing else to focus on, nothing else to drag her attention and efforts away. Which meant that, for the first time in awhile, Avalon had some actual free time. And she knew exactly how she wanted to spend it. Well, beyond more training. Enthusiastic as she might have about all that, even Avalon had her limits. And these past weeks had been busy even for her. 

Besides, the thing she needed–wanted to do now had been building for quite some time. There had been–she had been too distracted and distraught during Flick’s disappearance, too focused on looking for and worrying about her to actually follow through on it. Not to mention the guilt she felt whenever the thought came up. But now that Flick was home safe, there were finally no active problems, and Liesje’s spell was in place, it was time.

So why was it that, standing outside the house directly next to the one she lived in, Avalon felt so awkward and nervous? There were no immediate threats, nothing demanding her attention (besides her missing adopted mother, but there was literally nothing she could do about that for the time being), and yet as she stood there, the dark-haired girl couldn’t stop her stomach from turning itself into knots. It was still early enough that the artificial sun hadn’t done more than barely begin to rise, leaving most of the college-aged neighborhood cast in shadows. 

It was in one of those shadows, barely on the edge of the house’s porch, that Avalon stood. Her gaze was centered on the row of buttons next to the door. Each button had a different name under it, and pressing that button would connect the person outside to that person’s room through the intercom. There was also a general doorbell that would ring through the common areas of the house (along with any personal room that had been set to accept them). But, early as it was, Avalon wasn’t going to press that one. Her attention, instead, was centered on the one simply labeled, ‘Aylen.’ Taking a deep breath, she reached out, pausing slightly to collect herself, before pushing her finger against the buzzer. 

She didn’t hear anything immediately, of course. The intercom would be ringing in that room. After a few seconds of silence, there was a click, and the girl in question spoke up. “Good morning, Avalon. Are you ready?” As she spoke, Sovereign, the cyberform hawk, flew out of the opening to land upon the edge of the porch railing so he could survey the neighborhood.

“I am,” she confirmed before her insecurities and doubts could take over. “If… if you are.” 

There was a very slight pause before the other girl replied, “Yes. I… I’ll be right there.” 

The intercom clicked again, and Avalon stepped back into the shadows once more. She fidgeted, looking down at herself for a moment. She had tried on no less than seven different outfits that morning, discarding all of them one by one. Finally, she’d settled on wearing wine-red tuxedo pants with a matching jacket that was left open over a black button-down shirt. She also wore black leather boots, and had taken roughly an hour putting her hair and make-up together after a long shower. In truth, she had been up since around three in the morning making herself some form of presentable in her own mind. 

And yet, now, standing here, Avalon started to doubt everything she had previously decided was fine. Should she have gone with lighter make-up? Or maybe a darker shade of lipstick? Was her hair curly enough? Wait, should it have been straight? Was using the curling magic a bad idea? What if she’d gone with the white suit instead? Or not a suit at all? Should she have waited another hour and arrived when the sun was actually all the way up and it was lighter? Was her breath okay? Oh fuck, was she sweating? Were her armpits soaked? She couldn’t take the jacket off, not anymore. If she took it off and there were two big sweat blotches she would completely die. Magic. What was the spell to clean up clothes? Damn it, what she wouldn’t give for a Seosten perfect memory. Maybe she had it written down in the–

At that moment, before the panicking raven-haired girl could allow that train of thought to drag her any further off the rails, the front door opened. And just like that, she found herself looking at Aylen. But this was not the sort of Aylen that she was accustomed to seeing at school or in battle. This was an Aylen who had dressed up. Like Avalon, her hair was dark, though hers was drawn into a tight braid rather than worn loose. She also wore black slacks with matching shoes, a loose-fitting white button up shirt with long sleeves, and an open vest whose color almost perfectly matched Avalon’s own tuxedo jacket and pants. To cap it off, she wore a tie very loosely around her neck, which matched the vest (and Avalon’s suit). 

Standing there, the two girls stared at one another for a moment. Aylen’s head tilted, before she found her voice. “Uh, you look… really nice, Avalon.” Visibly swallowing, she straightened up and gave a slightly stronger nod. “Really, really nice.” 

Feeling the warm blush cross her face, Avalon took a second before hesitantly responding. “So do you. I mean–” She looked down a bit, then up once more to meet the other girl’s gaze. “You look great. I uh, I thought I might have come too early and woke you up.” There was a note of apology to her tone. 

“No,” Aylen assured her. “I’ve been awake since two. I kept thinking about–ahh, hang on.” She stepped out of the house finally, closing the door after herself so the two of them could stand alone on the porch. “I kept thinking about my family. I love them, they’re just… a lot. So uh, just… keep that in mind, okay? They don’t mean anything bad, they’re just–they can be intense.” 

“I’ll keep that in mind.” With those murmured words as her own stomach flipped over, Avalon turned on her heel and started to move down off the porch, before awkwardly halting herself mid-step. She glanced over her shoulder, offering a hand back that way. “Shall we go?” Shall we go? Why would she say that? There had to be a better way to bring up the subject of leaving than ‘shall we go.’ What was wrong with her? Why was this so awkward? 

To her relief, Aylen accepted the offered hand, and began to walk with her. The two of them had just reached the end of the yard, when she glanced over toward the other house and asked, “You’re sure Flick is okay?” 

The question made Avalon hesitate, standing there at the end of the sidewalk. She took a breath, glancing to the house in question before turning back to the girl in front of her. “I’m sorry,” she started in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry that.. that the past few months have been so… busy. I wanted–I wanted to take this… I wanted to go out like this before. But I was preoccupied, and that wasn’t fair to you. If you want–” 

“Stop,” Aylen interrupted. Her gaze locked with Avalon’s. “Listen very carefully, okay? I get it. I understand. What happened with Flick being taken, that was important. If you just–if we went out together, you wouldn’t have enjoyed yourself. And after that, there were other things to do. You had to give her time with her family, and with you too. And you had to… you had to work on your ancestor’s spell. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to apologize.” There was another very brief pause before she hesitantly asked, “Is that why you’ve seemed so…” 

“Awkward?” Avalon finished for her, blanching a little. “You noticed that after all.” 

“A little,” Aylen confirmed, offering a very faint, unsure smile. Her voice was even quieter. “I thought you were having second thoughts about the whole thing.” 

Overhead, Sovereign circled while giving a low screech, clearly informing the two that he thought they were being silly. 

“I’ve had seventh thoughts about the whole thing,” Avalon informed her flatly after glancing upward. “But not because I don’t like you. I uhh, I do. I do like you. I just… I don’t want you to feel like you’ll always come second, or third, or… I don’t want you to feel like you’ll never be a priority.” 

“Flick needed you,” Aylen replied. “And then your ancestor needed you to finish the job that she started. If… if you had walked away from that to spend time with me, I wouldn’t have respected you as much. I wouldn’t have liked you as much. We have time. I’ll have my chance to be the priority. If… if you still want to give this a shot.” 

Finding a genuine smile in that moment, Avalon offered the other girl a shrug. “Well, I didn’t get dressed up this much just to go to the training room.” Even as she said that, however, a look of consideration was crossing her face. “On the other hand, it might be a good idea. I do like to practice moving in different clothes, just in case…” 

“Later,” Aylen interrupted, hand squeezing Avalon’s.

Their gazes met for a few long, silent yet somehow comfortable seconds before Avalon leaned over. She hesitated, staring into the other girl’s gaze for a moment before leaning in the rest of the way. Their lips touched softly, a bare brush at first before both gave a soft sigh of enjoyment and acceptance. Then they kissed fully. 

“Later?” Avalon finally echoed once they drew apart slightly. 

“Yes, later,” Aylen confirmed.  “You can’t get the suit all messy just yet. After all, you still need to see my family. 

“And Grandfather is going to want pictures.” 

********

A blinding flash greeted Avalon and Aylen as the front door of the small, cozy-looking two story house somewhere in northern Iowa opened. The unexpected light made Avalon reel back a step, seeing stars even as she snapped her hands out in the specific way to make her bracelets transform into their gauntlet forms, ready to deal with whatever threat had suddenly–

“It’s okay, Avalon.” Aylen’s hand found its way to her shoulder just as the weapons transformed.

Only then did the young woman’s vision clear enough that she could see the source of the light flash. And even then, the sight on its own still might have made her lash out, if she didn’t already know better. Because standing right in front of them, framed in the doorway, was a Fomorian. Yes, a Fomorian wearing rather eclectic clothing that would have given anyone pause, but a Fomorian nonetheless. 

In this case, that eclectic clothing consisted of rainbow-colored pants, a beret, and a big white shirt with the words, ‘This Grandpa Belongs To’ written across it. Below that on the left was a cartoony picture of Bastet with her name under it, while Sonoma’s cartoon face and name was next to her wife. Under Bastet was Aylen’s sketched face and name. And to the right of that, below Sonoma, was a picture of the Earth itself, with ‘All Of You’ written under it.

Only once Avalon had taken in the entire shirt did she finally see the source of that flash. Clutched in the Fomorian’s hands, having just been lowered from his face, was an old-fashioned-looking camera, like something out of the very late 1800s. 

One more thing, besides the clothes and camera, would have given Avalon pause about the uniqueness of this particular Fomorian. His smile. She had seen them grin before, of course. The one back on the Meregan homeworld had done plenty of smiling, but it was the terrifying sort of smile, the sort that twisted a person’s soul and made their skeleton try to escape. This? This was an open, goofy, beaming smile of pride and love. 

“Oh! I forgot to say it!” the ancient creature abruptly announced. “Do it again!” Without any further warning, he slammed the door in their faces. 

“Uh.” Avalon started. She had met the eccentric old Fomorian before, of course, back when she, Flick, and several others had come to hear his story. So the fact that he was a bit different wasn’t shocking. But still, she hadn’t expected this, exactly. 

“It’s okay,” Aylen assured her before reaching out to knock once more, two quick raps against the door as though they hadn’t already been through that. 

Once again, the door swung open just as it had before. This time, when the old Fomorian appeared with his ancient-looking camera raised, he didn’t trigger it immediately. Instead, he called, “Say Timberdoodle!” 

Without missing a beat, Aylen promptly echoed the word while nudging Avalon with her foot, who mentally shrugged and said it as well. As soon as she did, the blinding flash came again. 

“Perfect!” Grandfather declared, stepping back. “That’s a good first one. Come in, come in out of the cold. Wait, is it cold?” Sticking his finger into his mouth, the Fomorian extended his hand past them into the outside air before considering briefly. “Hm, two-seventy point nine. Why aren’t you burning up yet?” A concerned expression crossed his face, and he leaned between the two girls, gaze snapping up and down the quiet suburban street. “Come to think of it, why isn’t everything on fire?”   

“That’s Kelvin, Grandfather.” The response came from further back in the room, as Avalon caught a glimpse of the small and somewhat delicate-looking Native American woman who was one of Aylen’s mothers. Sonoma. She stood next to a large, quite elaborate cuckoo clock. “You translated it into Kelvin again.” 

In that moment, Sovereign glided down out of the sky outside, shot through the narrow opening in the doorway just next to Grandfather’s head, and landed on the back of an armchair next to Sonoma so the woman could reach out to rub his metallic wings. 

“Aha! Mystery solved.” Stepping back out of their way once more, Grandfather noted, “In that case, it’s twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and negative two point two Celsius.” His gaze found Avalon’s before he smiled even brighter, cheerfully adding, “Isn’t it just wonderful what overachievers you all are? I gave you the chance to name everything and you eager beavers have looped back around several times to name the same things over and over again.” 

With a quiet chuckle, Aylen gave a single, graceful nod. “We do enjoy our various languages, Grandfather.” After saying that, she stepped over to hug the Fomorian, who had set the camera aside. The two embraced tightly, before Aylen did the same for Sonoma. Then she stood by her mother (or one of them at least), and looked back to the girl she had arrived with. “Ah, you met–wait, is Mother here?” 

Mother, Avalon knew, was what Aylen called Bastet. Sonoma was Mom. It was how she differentiated them. 

“She’ll be up in just a moment,” Sonoma informed them. “She’s just… attending to something downstairs in the basement.”  

That raised several questions in Avalon’s mind, but before she could find the right words, Grandfather had stepped in front of her. He started to lean in close before catching himself. Holding up both hands placatingly, he recited, “Hm, ah, I have been told my appearance and eagerness can be a bit unsettling. Would you, ah, perhaps mind if I were to examine you closer so that I might see the one who has come to mean so much to our little Aylen?” 

“Grandfather…” Aylen half-groaned, though she clearly couldn’t help the very faint, somewhat embarrassed smile that crossed her face. 

“It’s okay,” Avalon assured her before offering the Fomorian a slight shrug. “I mean, you basically made us, right?” 

Promptly producing a pair of bifocals that she in no way believed he actually needed, Grandfather set them atop his nose and leaned in close while hmmming to himself. He peered into her left eye, then her right, before leaning around to stare intently at her earlobe. Very carefully, he took hold of a bit of hair and lifted it up, then let it drop. “Hmm, yes, a proud line indeed. Aha, haha, I remember when he fell in that mud pit trying to impress his mate. Would not believe the places he had to pry leeches out of.” Abruptly leaning back to look her in the eyes once more, he noted, “You have greater balance, I hope.” 

“So do I,” Avalon fervently agreed. It was a lot to take in, even having met Grandfather before. But he had a way of being immediately endearing that made the whole thing easier than it should have been. 

By that point, the nearby closed door had opened, allowing Bastet to step out. The blue-haired, pale woman was pulling what looked like bloody dishwashing gloves off her hands. “Well, that thing’s not coming–” The lid of the trashcan had opened seemingly of its own volition for her to toss the bloody gloves inside before she looked over to Avalon. “Ah, glad you made it.” 

Rolling her eyes, Aylen gestured. “She did that on purpose to mess with you. Mother, stop. Mom, Grandfather, Mother, this is Avalon. Please, be nice.” 

With a very small smile, Sonoma cleared her throat. “I don’t think that will be a problem, dear.” She looked to the girl in question then, adding a little more gently, “But I think we all understand if we can be… a lot.” 

“Eh.” Avalon made a point of shrugging. Her hand reached out to take Aylen’s. “I’m used to people who are a lot. You all seem great. Aylen’s very lucky.” She said that while interlacing their fingers. 

“Yes,” Bastet agreed with a genuine smile. “She is. And I think that luck is continuing.” 

“But enough of this,” Sonoma announced. “I’m sure you two would like to be off for your date.” 

Grandfather, however, gave a quick shake of his head. “Not yet, not yet!” The man’s hand snapped out to snatch his camera up once more. “Come, we need to get a couple pictures out in the garden, next to Peaches and Apricot.” 

“Peaches the apple tree and Apricot the blueberry bush,” Aylen informed Avalon. “Don’t ask, he named them.” 

“Ahem, they simply informed me of what their names are, young lady,” Grandfather corrected. “They would give me the silent treatment for a month if they didn’t get to meet Miss Sinclaire as well. Besides, they’re blooming beautifully right now after the cold-resistant upgrade I gave them, so those pictures will be just wonderful. 

“And they’ll look perfect on the quilt I’m making!” 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Christmas morning was, to say the least, a bit of a blur. It seemed weird to immediately think of it in the sense of a montage, and yet that was what it felt like even while it was happening. I had my grandparents back, and that was a whole thing. I spent hours just sitting on the couch with my parents in their apartment on the station, listening to Grandmaria and Grandpartie tell stories about what they had been through since they were transported to the Seosten homeworld. My grandfather, of course, compared everything to various adventures in Star Trek. That was a whole thing, especially since my father’s favorite captain was Picard and Popser’s was Sisko. My grandmother and mom, meanwhile, liked Kirk the best. All of which begat an entire conversation about various episodes and what-if situations. And apparently whenever Uncle Al showed up (he was giving our immediate family time to reunite), he would have his own very strong opinions to share. 

Personally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to that entire franchise, but it was still nice to just sit there and listen to them go back and forth about it. Though, to be fair, given the people involved I would have quite willingly listened to them go on about nearly anything. All that mattered was the fact that they were here now. They were all here, together on Christmas morning after we had been separated for so long. Hell, even the fact that it was Christmas was basically immaterial when you got right down to it. My grandparents had arrived. It could’ve been Arbor Day, and it would still be one of the most amazing and wonderful times of my life.

There was also the fact that through that, I found out that my grandmother had become a Puriel-Heretic. Seriously, she was bonded to him and it had stuck. She actually had his power, even if she was only a tiny fraction as powerful with it as he was at the moment. But she was learning. Baby steps, just like the way I was with my incredibly powerful Necromancy. Except even more, because it was goddamn Puriel

Which, of course, fled to a sudden moment of fear about what would have happened if the Whispers had decided to go after her instead. Whether their lack of attempt had more to do with not knowing about that, or her not being powerful enough for their purposes yet, I was just glad they had mostly left her alone. 

And she wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful grandparent I had, either. Well, she already wasn’t because of Dare, but still. She wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful paternal grandparent I had. Grandpartie had been bonded to the same sort of thing Gaia and Seller had been bonded to. He had picked up the technology control powers, like the former headmistress. Because of course he had. This was my grandfather we were talking about. He loved new technology. Given the chance to mentally control it? I was willing to bet that he had quite literally jumped at the chance. Possibly to the point of banging his head on the ceiling.

So, both of my paternal grandparents were bonded to incredibly powerful beings, and had their own absurd gifts that they were slowly learning how to harness. Which was… yeah, that was a thing. 

Not only did we sit there listening to Grandmaria and Popser tell their stories, but we also got to tell them our own. Well, mostly me. I ended up talking a lot that morning, from quite early, essentially re-telling the whole story about what had happened since I took the bus that morning a year and half earlier. A year and a half. God, it felt like so much longer. Most of a lifetime, actually. When I tried to think about what life was like before that day, through the first full sixteen years of my life, I almost couldn’t picture it. The whole thing basically felt like a story I had read somewhere, rather than what amounted to almost ninety percent of my life. 

In any case, telling the story (or many stories) about what I had been through up to this point eventually led to my grandmother insisting we make cookies and take them with us when we visited the others. She felt distraught that she hadn’t had time on Earth to actually buy presents, and assured us all that they would be doing that eventually. No amount of protests that it wasn’t necessary would dissuade her. She was going to get presents for everyone, no question about it. We would just have some sort of late/extra Christmas when the time came. 

That, of course, added to the ‘montage’ feel. I helped her bake cookies, while also taking the time to help my parents put the finishing touches on the gifts we were taking over to the others. Which was supposed to have been done the night before, but we’d been a bit occupied. 

We weren’t too far through that before Tabbris arrived. She had been spending time with her other family, and popped up to meet our grandparents for the first time in an actual peaceful, quiet situation. Or at least, that was the idea. Except as soon as she arrived and saw them in the kitchen, Tabbris immediately hid behind me with her hands on my shirt. She was clinging to me while peeking out that way, making a very uncertain noise in the back of her throat. Apparently it was one thing to meet them in the heat of the moment back on the ship with everything that had been going on, and quite another to do so right now on Christmas morning with no other distractions or anything. 

Brushing her apron off, Grandmaria took one look our way and seemed to understand. She immediately reached out, plucking one of the just-finished cookies from the tray. Her voice was chipper as she took a couple steps our way. “Now, if there’s one thing I know about my Flick, it’s that she loves my coconut chocolate chip cookies. She doesn’t share them with anyone she doesn’t really care about. She especially wouldn’t break one in half except for the most special sort of person.” 

Having said that, she extended a hand with the warm, delicious, oh-so-incredible cookie in her palm, offering it to me. In the background, I saw Popser and Dad having a quiet conversation in a corner of the kitchen while occasionally glancing our way, and Mom was pretending to be busy with the mixing bowl, all of them giving us time to get through this.

Taking the cookie, I went down to one knee and looked toward Tabbris. My hands smoothly broke the treat in half before I spoke quietly. “She’s right, you know. I don’t share my grandmother’s special coconut chocolate chip cookies with just anyone. They have to be my top most favorite people in the world. And splitting just one?” I gave a low whistle before raising my half of the cookie to take a bite. Immediately, my eyes rolled back a bit as I gave a murmur of appreciation. Then I lifted the second half and offered it to the other girl while continuing softly. “That sort of thing is only for someone I love very much.” 

There was a brief pause before Tabbris, face pink, slowly took the offered cookie half and bit into it. Immediately, she visibly shivered and gave a very quick nod. Her voice was a whisper. “I wouldn’t wanna share a whole cookie either.” Having said that, she quickly shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth and murmured appreciatively. Then her eyes blinked open once more to focus on our grandmother, offering a tentative smile. “Um, hi… hi.”

Gesturing back and forth, I introduced them officially. “Tabbris, this is our grandmother. Grandmaria, this is Tabbris, my sister.” 

“Why, hello, Tabbris.” Grandmaria stepped over closer. She didn’t go down to one knee the way I had, instead reaching out to take the girl’s raised hand as she started to wave. “Do you know what my very favorite sorts of heroes are?” 

“Um, no?” Tabbris offered a bit uncertainly while letting the older woman take her hand (her other one was busy checking for any crumbs from that cookie). 

With a kind, gentle smile, our grandmother explained, “I have three favorites. My first favorite heroes are the very sneaky ones who do all this work to help people without getting a lot of credit for it. My second favorite are the people who help my friends and family. And my third favorite are my own family themselves. So, you know, by all that, I would say that you might just be my very most top favorite person right now. I’m not sure yet though, we need one more test, just to check.”

Eyes darting briefly to me, still kneeling beside her, and then back again, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “One more test?”  

Still giving the same tender, welcoming and yet somehow conspiratorial smile that I recognized from so many years past, Grandmaria gently replied, “Well, yes, before I decide if someone fits the family member sort of favorite person, I have to see how good they are at hugs.” 

A giggle escaped the girl beside me, before she managed to retort with a somewhat-straight face, “I dunno, that puts a lot of pressure on a first hug.” 

With a laugh at that, our grandmother tugged her over by the hand and the two embraced. It was somewhat tentative at first on Tabbris’s part, as she was obviously still a bit nervous about the whole thing. But that quickly vanished as she felt just how intently Grandmaria was hugging her, and she ended up latching on just as tightly. 

Watching that while smiling, I straightened and glanced to my parents. They were both watching as well, and Dad gave me a thumbs up. Then he leaned over to whisper something to his own father before both of them chuckled softly. 

By the time Tabbris and Grandmaria separated, Popser was right there. He reached down, taking the little girl by both hands and squeezing them. On a ‘one, two, three, hup,’ he hoisted her off the floor and into his arms for a tight hug of his own. 

It didn’t end there either. They both passed Tabbris back and forth for several more hugs before being satisfied for the moment. Then we got back to talking while finishing the last batch of cookies as I (with help from Tabbris, Dad, and Mom) finished getting them caught up on what they had missed. Or at least as much as we could think of right then. I was sure there would be a lot more specific details we have to get into later. But they had at least the broad strokes. And it also gave me a chance to let Tabbris know about just what our grandparents had been bonded to, so I could see if the look on her face was as great as the one on mine had probably been. So, of course, she had to hear all about that. And they both had to demonstrate, which was fun. Especially when Popser got Tabbris to ‘pull his finger’ and turned every television, radio, light, etcetera in the apartment on, including setting off a couple alarm clocks. And yes, that made Tabbris fall over giggling.   

Eventually, the cookies were ready and we packed them up along with all the presents, before heading out to go see Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt. They were waiting for us in Abigail’s apartment, and we all exchanged more hugs and greetings. Grandmaria and Grandpartie were both immediately taken with all three of the others, and stories were soon flying back and forth. Wyatt wasn’t exactly shy (awkward sure, but not shy), yet even he seemed to take to our grandparents incredibly quickly. Before long, he and Popser were sitting at a corner of the room, going over some sort of security device designs that Wyatt had scrawled on the back of a napkin. They sounded like little kids conspiring to build a tree house or something. It was pretty great, even if I was a bit nervous about what they would end up with. 

Koren, standing beside me as we watched everyone interacting and laughing like that, leaned over to whisper, “Did you ever think we’d be standing here like this back at school last year?” 

The thought made me snort at first, before shaking my head. A lump had formed in my throat. Looking at everyone, I stopped to think about how lucky I was in that moment. Sure, plenty of bad stuff had happened. And plenty of other bad stuff would happen in the future. But right then, I was celebrating Christmas with my father, mother, Grandmaria, Grandpartie, Koren, Wyatt, Abigail, and Tabbris. They all knew the truth, they were all on the same page, and we were together. What would the me from the year before even do if I had told her things would be like this was what the next Christmas would be like? I honestly had absolutely no idea. 

Of course, that led to the question of what next Christmas would be like, but I wasn’t going to focus on that right now. This was a day that I wanted to savor every last minute of. 

Finally, I found my voice. “Nope. I think I can safely say that I never expected to be in a situation like this.” Then I glanced toward the other girl and added, “Especially not when we first met.” 

Koren, in turn, snorted while giving a vigorous nod. “Especially not when we met.” After a brief grimace, she offered a small shrug. “I guess that just goes to show how much things can change, huh?” She glanced over toward Wyatt before adding, “Really, really change.” 

“Here,” I raised my hand with a treat in it. “Try one of Grandmaria’s cookies. Believe me, you wanna talk about change you’ll look back on? 

“After this, everything in your life will be ‘before cookie’ and ‘after cookie.’”

*******

So, that was how Christmas went. Well, that was how Christmas with the family went. We exchanged presents and all that. Uncle Al did eventually show up, which started a whole other round of stories, especially when who he really was got pointed out. And yes, they all made me change into my werelion form to pose with him. It wasn’t exactly the same as a real Nemean Lion (I was entirely too tiny), but the others got a kick out of it anyway. 

All in all, it was fun. And I also spent time with others, besides family. It was an entire day of that stuff. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was still deep in partying mode after that whole protection spell thing. Which they had gotten Puriel and everyone else linked into, so hopefully they would be safe from Whisper counterattacks. And beyond that, they were apparently working on security updates on the station to keep them out or monitor for them. I’d tried to get more information, but Abigail basically gave me a hard stare and told me to enjoy Christmas. I sort of heard an unspoken ‘or else’ behind her words, so I left it alone for the moment. Abigail could be pretty scary in her own right when she wanted to be. 

Late that night, after almost everyone else had already gone to bed, I was sitting in the park part of our housing area, watching a few people on the forcefield elevators as they came down. I had both of the rings that I had inherited from that Seosten ghost hovering close to the ground in front of me, as Jaq and Gus played by hopping back and forth through them from both sides so they could be faster or slower. They were clearly amusing themselves quite a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I glanced that way. 

“Well, it’s nice to see they’re having fun.” Asenath, seated beside me, noted. “Who gave them the Christmas hats?” 

Yeah, both cyberform mice were wearing little red Santa hats that had been attached to their equally-little heads. There were even tiny bells on the end that jingled softly whenever they did their hops back and forth. 

“Shiori,” I informed the other girl, as a fond smile found its way to my face at the thought. “I told them they didn’t have to wear the hats past the party, but you should have seen the look they gave me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to get that girl to make a whole bunch of little hats for them to wear. Otherwise I’ll never get those ones off them.” 

With a very low chuckle, Senny took a small piece of metal about the size of the top of a soda can from her pocket and tossed it down for the pair to immediately start munching on from either side. “Well, I can’t exactly blame them. They are very stylish.” 

“That’s for sure,” I agreed, before looking toward her. “It must be weird for you. I mean, you grew up before the whole Santa myth was even–” 

“Myth?” She glanced to me and raised an eyebrow. “After all this time, you really find the story of Santa completely impossible to believe?” 

Her words made me squint at the girl. “You are not about to tell me that Santa Claus is real. I’m sorry, but if you say those words, I’m just going to get up and walk away.” 

She, in turn, gave a low laugh. “Okay, the answer is no, he’s not real. And yet he is. Sort of.” To my confused look, Senny waved a hand. “It’s the elves that are real. Or rather, the LVS.” When I didn’t get it, she spelled it out. “The L-V-S.” 

From there, she told me the story about the tiny creatures who had arrived on Earth with no memory of their past, and their only clues being a badly damaged ship with the letters L V S visible. Letters the collective amnesiac creatures had taken as their name. LVS or ‘elves.’ Apparently they had been helped a lot by the actual Saint Nicholas way back in the days that he had actually lived. Once he died, they spread his legend and basically helped create and push the whole Santa Claus thing. And they tried to give gifts as much as they could. Clearly, they couldn’t do the whole world or anything like that, but they did do what was possible. And any parents that happened to see brand new gifts under the tree with no explanation, well, that was covered by the Bystander Effect. If they even got that far. According to Asenath, a lot of people just assumed either the other parent or some relative left the gift. They ignored it. 

Hearing all that kind of made me want to meet these LVS, but apparently they were pretty notoriously secretive. Asenath herself had only met them one time, a few decades back. Still, I’d met enough important people in the past year and a half that I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility. 

Before I could say anything else about that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I plucked it out and took a look before blinking. “Uh, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here,” I murmured. “It’s Jack Childs.” The Eden’s Garden Victor was calling me, and I could only think of one reason for that. 

“Hello?” I answered, hitting the speaker button. “It’s Flick, and Asenath is here too.” 

“Ah, good to hear,” came the response. “Heard a lot about you, Asenath. Good things, for the most part. And plenty of bad from the right sort of people.” 

“I do enjoy hearing that the right people have bad things to say about me,” Senny noted. 

We both heard the man chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth. Anyway, a happy Christmas to you both. But I think you know why I’m calling.” 

“You have a lead on Kyril Shamon’s secret prison,” I immediately replied. “I mean, where he might be keeping… Tiras.” As I said that, my eyes darted toward Asenath. She had gone a bit still, staring intently down at the phone. 

There was a very brief pause (which seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was) before Childs confirmed. “That’s right, we’ve got a lead on it. But even better, we have a lead on a transport that’s taking place. If you can take a group, subtly intercept that transport, and show up there, you’ll be able to get your entire group inside before they know anything’s wrong and when it all goes down, Shamon will think the Rebellion simply chased it down that way.” 

“So whatever resources you used to find out where it is won’t be burned,” I murmured thoughtfully. A part of me wanted to note that they also wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, but I knew better than that. This was about more than Senny’s dad. As important as he was to her, and to Shiori and me by extension, there was a whole war for the world and beyond to deal with. The rebel Victors couldn’t blow every resource they had to help save one guy. Or even a full prison camp. 

“Yes,” came the response. “The transport isn’t for a couple weeks, but if you’re interested, you should start putting together a group to deal with it. Be ready to get into the camp, find the prisoners, and get out before Shamon finds out and sends reinforcements.” 

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” I replied, smiling dangerously toward Senny. 

“Just give us the details. We’ll take care of the rest.” 

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Interlude 16B – Reunions 2 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There is some important information in the author comment after the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. Thanks so much to all of you!

The sound of a ball repeatedly bouncing between wall and racket grew faster and louder with each passing moment. Soon, the figure darting back and forth across the small court became little more than a barely-visible blur as she activated her inborn boost ability. It wasn’t quite as fast as the girl had been capable of moving while possessing Pace with her superspeed, but still quite a feat. More than the average Seosten was capable of, that much was certain. And she held it, if not as long as many of the eldest and most powerful of her people, at least substantially longer than most her own still relatively-young age. 

Finally, after boosting herself as high and as long as possible as she turned the ball into a nearly-solid line of back-and-forth bounces between the wall and her racket, Theia abruptly pivoted a hundred and sixty degrees on one foot without any warning. The hand holding her racket dropped limply to her side while her other hand snapped upward to catch the ball that was still coming her way, snatching it out of midair an inch from the back of her head. And just like that, she stood facing the figure who had stood in the doorway for the past minute. 

“Hello, Father.” 

Puriel, his eyes focused on hers, stood silently for another moment before stepping the rest of the way into the enclosed racquetball court. His footsteps echoed a bit as he took several steps and then stopped. The door fell shut with a somewhat final-sounding thud, and still the man had not spoken. Nor had Theia moved other than to lower the hand that held the ball. For a handful of seconds, which seemed much longer than that to both involved, they stood facing one another in complete silence. A pin dropped to the floor could have imitated the sound of a grenade in those brief moments. 

In that time, he took in the girl’s appearance. She wore a pair of tennis shoes that had been painted bright orange, with several white lightning bolts added to them, and a pair of mismatched purple and green socks. Her baggy jean shorts fell to her knees, with a rainbow-colored belt. Beyond that, she wore an open orange windbreaker with its own lightning bolts, matching her shoes, over a rainbow striped shirt to match the belt. And, atop her head, the New York Rangers cap. 

Finally, Puriel spoke his first words since entering the room. His first words since opening the door to see her. The first words he had spoken to her since he had taken her away from Kushiel’s experiments and sent her to be trained the way others with her condition were. The first words he had spoken to her since she became a person with a name. His first words not to the person she had been, but to the person she had become. 

“Hello, my daughter.” 

Three words. Each by themselves simple and unimpressive. Yet, as with all things, far greater when put together. Words held power. Not only of the enchantment sort, but true power, of the sort that would shape reality with no particular magic involved. The proper words, spoken at the proper time and by the proper person, could decide the course of an entire empire. As could the wrong ones, spoken at the wrong time, by the wrong person. 

These words might not have determined the fate of so many (though that in itself remained to be seen, as lesser moments had caused great change), but neither of those affected by them missed their significance. 

Another thump broke the brief silence that had followed those words, as Puriel dropped to one knee in front of the brown-haired girl. His hands rose almost to her face, before he stopped himself and stayed there with his hands shaking very slightly, mere inches from her skin. 

When she saw that he had stopped, the girl closed her eyes and began to let out a low, quiet sigh despite herself. Yet before all of the air could escape her, Puriel spoke once more. 

“May I touch you?” 

Eyes snapping open as the breath she had been slowly letting out became an audible (if barely) gasp, the girl met her father’s eyes in stunned silence. Silence which stretched on for several more seconds, as their gazes locked. And somehow, standing there in front of the man, she knew that he would not be the one to break that silence. If it took a lifetime, he would not move or speak again until she did. He had given her something precious, something far more powerful than any who had never been without it would comprehend. 

No, even that wasn’t correct. He had not given her anything. Acknowledging her right to choose whether to accept his touch was not a gift to be granted. Such a small thing which, in a just society, would have been entirely mundane. It would–should have been the absolute rule. 

It should not have mattered so much. And for that, the girl felt something she had thought impossible for her in the moments leading up to this reunion. 

She felt a single tear, before her eyes blinked it away. Setting her chin, she gave a very slight nod. Her voice was very soft, almost inaudible. “Yes, Father.” 

Granted the permission he sought, Puriel finally moved his hands those last few inches. A gasp of his own escaped the man as he cupped her face. His expression was, at first, unreadable. He slowly moved his thumbs along her cheeks and under her eyes with the gaze of a man who was truly seeing and touching his own child for the first time. An unconscious, entirely unbidden smile rose to his face. It was a smile of pride, of delight, of… pure wonder.  

“Theia.” The name came in a hushed, reverent tone, as he slid both hands along her face and through her hair, then down to her shoulders to squeeze. “Theia, my… my…” Where only a single tear had appeared on her face in response to that simple-yet-crucial request, his own fell freely. And then his arms wrapped around her, as the man pulled the girl to him. He was saying something, yet the words were muffled as he all-but crushed her to his chest. 

And then he repeated it, drawing back just enough that she would hear and understand. 

“I am sorry. I am so very sorry, my daughter. My daughter. My child. I’m sorry.” 

For several long moments, they stayed there like that. Puriel’s voice had fallen silent as he simply kept his arms locked around her. He held on as though afraid that to let go would be to lose her for good. His hand brushed up through the girl’s hair once more, then down her back. He held and touched his daughter in the way of a brand new parent only just experiencing their child for the first time. He touched her as though she was a newborn, and he a father who was just experiencing the true miracle of what he had made. 

Finally, the man pulled back slightly, meeting her gaze once more. Before he could say anything else, however, Theia spoke first while letting the ball and racket drop from her hands with a clatter. “You know what I did to Mother.” It was a statement of fact, an acknowledgment of reality. And yet, more than that. It was an acceptance, her voice making it clear that she expected anger, if not more.

Puriel, however, was silent for a few seconds. He said nothing, did nothing, made no move. His eyes continued to meet hers, his steady gaze the only proof that he had not once more fallen into lost memories. No, his silence in this moment was born entirely of shame rather than a damaged mind. When he spoke at last, it was with a voice that was rough, cracking slightly with each word. “I failed you in more ways than I could ever truly count. But by far the worst was to leave you with… with your mother for so long. I allowed my own prejudices, my own fears, my…” He stopped, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to her while swallowing hard. “I failed you, Theia. I failed to give you a name. I failed to protect you from what I knew was a terrible environment, from a… a damaged woman. I failed to protect and guide you. I failed in every conceivable way.” Slowly, he moved his hand back to her cheek, gently resting it there. “I failed you when I could have helped. And yet, you have made your way through all of it.” His voice still held pain and regret, yet there was more pride in those words. 

Theia, mouth opening then shutting briefly, made a noise in the back of her throat. It took the girl a couple of tries before she found the right words. “You do not… seek justice for her?” 

It was then that Puriel realized why they were here alone, in this out-of-the-way room, why she had told others to let them meet here without any onlookers. She expected some form of punishment. She expected anger, retribution for the death of his wife, her mother. And she had sent everyone away who could have intervened. Hearing that in her voice, seeing it in her eyes, the realization made him start just a little. 

This was what she expected, because it was what Kushiel (and he to a lesser extent in his inaction) had cultivated into her. She expected her parents to hurt her. 

Processing all of that, realizing what his own daughter thought would happen here even after their initial reunion, Puriel closed his eyes. A low shudder ran through the man as he fought through all of the feelings and thoughts that came with her expectation. It seemed impossible to find the right words to respond to such a thing. Through distant memories, he thought of how desperately he and Kushiel had tried to conceive a child, how terrible each failure had been and how delighted they felt when it had finally happened. He thought of his wife’s face when she proudly told him that the pregnancy was sticking, how it had felt in his own soul every time she reported in to tell him that she still had the baby. He thought of how wondrous it had been to touch her stomach shortly before the birth, and know that he would soon have his own child. 

And then he thought of every failure that had come following the girl’s arrival and the revelation of her condition. He thought of every change he could have made and didn’t. He thought of everything his entire society did to punish people like his daughter for the crime of being born. And most of all, he thought of what her mother had done in her deranged, deluded attempts to ‘fix’ the girl. 

“There is justice to come,” he finally found himself saying. “But it is justice for you, not toward you. It is justice for all… all like you.” Swallowing hard, he slowly stood up while sliding his hands down to take both of hers and squeeze them. “Kushiel made her choices. I do not fault you for protecting yourself and those you care about. I fault her for the choices she made, her father for forcing those choices onto her, and our society for creating… the situation in the first place. I do not blame you.” 

His voice softened, gaze meeting hers as he quietly added, “I blame myself for not doing more when I could have, before you were forced into such a choice. You deserved better. You always deserved better. A better family, and better people.” Head tilting slightly, the man added, “And it sounds as though you finally found it.” 

“I have… an Abigail,” the girl informed him. “And a Pace. And a Douglas. They are not Kushiel. They are better.” Even after saying that, she looked uncertain if it was the right thing, almost fearful of his reaction. But then she steadied herself and gave a nod of certainty. “They are better.” 

“I have heard of–well, the first two,” Puriel confirmed. “They sound quite impressive. As for the last… what is a Douglas?” 

“He is a friend. He gave me this hat.” Raising her hand, Theia touched the object in question, before amending, “It is covered in the enchantments which block out the Whispers and partially affect our people when possessing someone. He gave it to Pace so that she could help move the body we shared. When we were… separated, I attempted to return the hat, but he was… he wanted me to keep it. So I have.” 

Puriel absorbed that for a moment before choosing to focus on something else. Something far more important. “The name. Your… your name. I must know. How did– how that come about?” The odds of her happening to choose a name so close to that of the woman whose closeness to him had so infuriated Kushiel couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? 

And yet, it did seem to be just that. Theia informed him that Abigail had, independently of any actual knowledge of the situation, come up with the name Aletheia as a reference to the mythological goddess of truth (originally born of Apollo’s work, of course), which his daughter had shortened to Theia. 

Somehow, it didn’t surprise him that Kushiel had failed to tell their daughter about the real Aletheia. If his wife had ever had any inclination that there could be any relationship between the woman she had decided was her enemy (one of many), and her child, she would have… He grimaced at the thought before focusing on the girl in front of him. His voice was soft. “It is a good name. It is–” He stopped, considering his next words carefully. “It is the right name. But–but I should have named you. I am glad that you have one. It is yours. And yet, I am–it was a mistake to send you away. I had three… three opportunities to name you. First, when you were born. Second, when I sent you away from your–away from Kushiel to the training camp. And third, when I sent you to Manakel. I–I should have named you. I should have followed up, should have seen how you were–” Stopping once more, the man took a breath and let it out. “There are many things I should have done, but did not. I have made a great many mistakes. Those I cannot change.”

He was silent for a moment, his eyes gazing past her before slowly moving back with visible effort, holding himself then and there. He would not lose himself in memories. “Living in the past is–it’s something I find myself doing far too often, in ways I cannot control. When it comes to–to what I can control, I would prefer to focus on the present and future. You are Theia. You are my daughter. If… if you will allow me to, I would like…” The man straightened to his full height. “I would like to get to know you.” 

Blinking several times rapidly, Theia took a moment to find her own voice, though it came in a soft whisper. “And I would like to know my father.” 

Those simple words, that she wanted to know him, sent a rush of feelings through the man. He found himself smiling very faintly. His hand rose to gently brush two fingers along her forehead. His daughter. His child. It was so–it was overwhelming. It shouldn’t have been. He’d had decades to comprehend that, and yet somehow, right now standing in front of her, it was different. She had grown, and so had he. Things were… better. 

“You have your mother’s hair, and eyes,” he murmured quietly, before adding, “And her gift.”

“She is not happy about that,” Theia noted. “The hair, eyes, or gift. She does not like me.” A thoughtful look crossed her face. “Perhaps because I killed her.” 

“Yes, well…” Puriel grimaced once more, memories playing through his head along with an assortment of emotions. “She was always good at holding a grudge.” His next words were a half-muttered, “I expected that to end with her death, but perhaps I should have known better.” 

“You loved her,” the girl quietly noted, her eyes watching his intently. 

“Yes,” he confirmed immediately. “A part of me still does. I know what she is. I know what she did to you, and to others. I know that her death was for the best, and I do not blame you for it. I even… I believe it would have been better had she not come back in any way. I know that. I feel that. I believe it. And yet, there is a part of me that will always see the Kushiel I knew, the one she was when it was only the two of us, when she was…” His eyes closed, as he forced himself through great effort not to fall into that memory. He would not allow his wife to take him away from their daughter. Not this time. 

Finally opening his eyes once more after several long seconds of focus, the man spoke again. “A part of me will always love the person she once was, as well as the person she could have been. But it is a part that does not control me. As I said, living in the past is something I have done far too much. When she died, she was not the person I loved. She made her choices. Now I make mine.” 

“You sent me away,” Theia noted. Her voice was not quite accusation or relief. She wasn’t certain how to feel about the simple fact she was stating. “Twice. You sent me away to the… to others like me. And then you had me sent here, to Earth, to Manakel. You knew that–that she was wrong. But you did not tell me that. You did not… tell me anything. You sent me away.”

“I believed doing so would protect you,” Puriel admitted. “I believed that had I shown you much affection or… or spoken up more than I did in simply taking you away from Kushiel, she would have reacted poorly. She was quite jealous of my affections. And I did not trust that I could always be there to protect you should she react poorly. I believed the best way of protecting you was to make it seem as though I simply wanted you out of the house, as though I was tired of her… work with you. I believed that following up would draw her ire toward you once more.” 

“And when you told them to send me to Manakel?” Theia prompted, her hand tightening a little bit on the racket as she thought about how that had gone. 

“I thought he would give you–I thought he would help you.” Puriel took in a breath before letting it out. “It seems that failing to notice how much my old friend had changed was another to add onto the list of all the many mistakes I have made over the centuries. I heard of the problems you were having integrating with the other–with those like you. I thought that… sending you on a mission, sending you here to work alongside the man who was one of my closest friends once, would be good for you. I thought it would help.” 

A cough escaped him then, as he gestured around the room. “In the end, it seems to have done just that, though not in a way I ever could have expected.” 

“I did not imagine it either,” Theia admitted, before adding, “But I would not change it. Not if it meant not meeting Abigail and Pace.” A brief pause followed, then, “And Douglas.” 

“Yes,” Puriel murmured, “as much pain as there is in our past, it has led to some good. And people whose presence I would not wish to live without.” 

“One in particular?” Theia prompted knowingly, raising herself up on her toes while waggling her eyebrows at him. “Who happens to live in your head and invent things like teleporting spaceships? One who is basically my–my…” She trailed off uncertainly. 

“She is Sariel’s child,” Puriel murmured, before adding, “But she is also more than that. She has been a daughter to me. I–does that make you sad?” 

“Because you spent time with her that you did not spend with me?” Theia bluntly asked, before her head shook. “Abigail says that learning from our mistakes is a good thing. She says that doing the wrong thing to one person and the right thing to another because you came to understand what you did wrong the first time is… is how it is supposed to work.

“Besides, that all makes her a little sister to me. And I have always wanted a little sister. When do I get to meet her? I’m told noogies and fighting over telephone time are to be expected. I do not have a boyfriend, but I believe she is supposed to have a crush on whoever it ends up being. I hope she calls me an ugly pig and then apologizes so we can hug and promise that boys aren’t important while the names appear on the screen.” 

For a moment, Puriel just stared at her, processing all of that before giving a slight shake of his head. “I–you will meet her soon. She deserves time with Sariel and her other siblings for now. And… and I wanted this time to be just the two of us. This is about you, Theia. I want to know more about you. 

“Starting with this Douglas. Tell me more about the boy who gave you that hat.” 

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Interlude 16A – Reunions 1 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The Olympus was docked with the Star Station. With the shields from the station extended over the old ship, it was protected in the middle of the sun, safe from any detection. Normally, it would have taken a lot more effort to set the ship up in a way to accept the Star Station’s shields like that, but her temporary crew had been working hard to create a few modular systems that allowed the Olympus to seamlessly plug itself into the station and accept that protection. 

They had all built the system in the time the Olympus had been traveling. But only one of them had designed it. One of them had developed the plans necessary to protect the ship like that. 

Spark. At least, that was what she was called now. She was the daughter who had been taken away from Sariel so long ago. She was the one whose brilliance had helped put the ship back together, the one who designed the system which helped the Olympus get past the Seosten barrier, as well as the one that allowed the ship to safely dock here at the Sun Station. She was the one who had designed the prototype teleporting ship whose existence had saved Puriel from being taken over by the Whispers, thus saving everyone else on that ship. And, by extension, most likely the rest of the universe.  

She was the one who had done all of that. She was the one whom Sariel herself was staring at from the doorway into a small meeting room just off the side of the Olympus’s primary cargo bay. The ship was docked, others were taking care of important things as far as dealing with finding out what the Whispers were attempting to do. Which left Sariel standing in that doorway, looking at the daughter she had lost so long ago. 

And she wasn’t alone. Sitting beside his sister was the other child who had been ripped away from Sariel. The one who was called Omni. Where Spark had long hair fashioned in a tight braid with alternating blonde and black hair, Omni had shaggy brown hair. He was the youngest here, a year younger than Tabbris, where Spark was a year older. Neither of them were looking toward their mother. They held hands, gazes locked onto the floor.  

Puriel was there too, sitting in a far corner of the room without moving. Like the children, he made no move to look at Sariel when she entered, despite all of them clearly knowing she was here and who she was. He was instead staring at a holographic screen that had been projected in front of him, reading up on something. 

For a few long moments, the woman stood there in the doorway, gaze passing over the group. So many thoughts went through her mind in those moments that she had no idea what to say or do. She felt frozen in place, realizing belatedly that Puriel was intentionally keeping himself out of the way and ‘distracted’ to give her the opportunity to make the first move, the first decision. He had been their leader for so long, and had tried to control everything she did, that sitting there doing nothing was the best way he had to show her that he would not try to control things anymore. He wasn’t approaching her, wasn’t loudly greeting the woman and introducing her to the children, her own children. He was giving her the opportunity to decide how this whole thing would go. 

After those first few frozen moments, Sariel pushed herself out of the doorway. Silently, she approached the pair of children sitting in the middle of the room. Once she was directly in front of the two, Sariel slowly took a knee. Without speaking just yet, she reached out to put her own hand on top of the two they were holding clasped together. One hand from each of them, brother, sister, and mother. Still, none of them spoke. They stayed like that for a minute, as Sariel absorbed the pure, wondrous joy she felt at the simple fact that she was there with them. A shudder of emotion ran through her, and she slowly lifted her other hand, reaching out to very tentatively brush her fingers through her son’s hair. A soft whimper escaped the woman at the feel of it, her fingers trailing down his cheek as the boy squirmed uncertainly. The lump in her throat grew thicker as she moved her hand over to the girl sitting beside him. Or at least the image of the girl. Sariel knew that what she was seeing there was a solid hologram, projected from Puriel’s power. But that didn’t matter. None of that mattered. For all intents and purposes, Sariel’s daughter was right there. Yes, her skin and hair felt a little too solid and warm, but it was her. It was her mind, her thoughts, her soul. She was there. They were both there

It was that thought which finally broke through the lump in Sariel’s throat, bringing forth her first words to them. “My babies.” There were tears in her eyes. “My… you…” Her eyes closed tightly and she gave a heavy shudder as the emotions from this reunion became too much to handle in that moment. These two had been ripped away from her such traumatic times, and she had been convinced for so long that they were either dead or… or so far gone she would never see them again. To be right here with them now was more than she ever thought she would get. That joy mixed with the heavy emotions that came from thinking about losing them in the first place became too much to handle. Her eyes were tightly shut as she held one hand against the slightly too-warm face of her missing daughter. Tears escaped to fall slowly down her face. 

Then she felt it, a small hand touching the side of her face to gently brush tears away. As her eyes opened, Sariel saw her son sitting there with his hand extended. His gaze met hers, voice small and vulnerable. “We can leave if it makes you sad, Mother.” 

“Oh Void. Oh no.” That was enough. Sariel reached up to take her son’s hand, squeezing it while shaking her head. “No baby, you don’t make me sad.” Her voice cracked through the words. “You don’t make me sad at all. Losing you is what made me sad. Seeing you right now, you are so–you’re my little boy. You’re my boy. And I just–I just think about all the time I missed with you, because I couldn’t protect you.” 

With that, she moved her other hand over to cup the side of Spark’s face. Her touch made the girl start a little bit, reluctantly raising her gaze to meet her mother’s. The two of them locked eyes for a moment before Sariel found her voice once more. “I am so sorry, my sweet, incredible babies. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.” As she spoke, her fingers moved back to brush through that holographic hair. “You are so brave, so brilliant, so… incredible. Both of you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between them. “I love you, both of you. You are both so… amazing.”

“I am not what you want,” Spark spoke, her own voice cracking just a bit as she met her mother’s gaze somewhat reluctantly. “I am Mendacia. I am not what you would hope for.” 

“No,” Sariel informed her in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You are so much more than I could ever have hoped for. You are everything I ever wanted you to be and more. So much more. You are a brilliant, brave girl who does the right thing. You try. You take care of the people you love. That’s what matters to me. That’s what you are, what you will always be, my child.” 

There was a very brief pause then before she thought of the next most important thing for her daughter to hear. “Your name… your name is what you want it to be. Your name has been Spark, and that is who you are. I will use any name you like. That is your choice. But I want you to know… to know the name I gave you.” 

A confused frown found its way to the girl’s face as she shook her head. “You knew I was Mendacia. You would have given me no name.”   

“Yes, she would have.” That was Puriel, speaking up without looking that way. His voice was rough, cracking a little. “Your mother would have given you a name before you were taken.” 

Sariel, gaze passing over the man as a rush of very conflicting emotions ran through her, turned her attention back to her daughter. “Your name is Spark. It is a brilliant name for a brilliant girl. But you are also Korsmea. My… my mother’s name. I gave it to you as soon as I knew about your condition. Because I love you both, and I always will. No condition is going to change that. Not my mother’s memory problems, and not… anything that might change how your possession power works. You are my daughter. I love you. Whatever you call yourself, whoever you are attached to, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you. You are Spark. You are Korsmea. You are my daughter. I love everything you are.” 

Even as she finished saying that, Sariel was tugging the girl off her seat and pulling her into a tight embrace, crushing her against herself. She hugged her daughter tightly, before looking toward the boy. “And you are Omni. You are everything. You can be anything you want to be. But you should also know the name I gave you. You are Omni, and you are also Jehoel. That is the name of Apollo’s father, the man who took me in as a child and cared for me when nothing forced him to do so. I named Spark Korsmea in honor of the woman who could not always be my mother. And I named you Jehoel in honor of the man who took it upon himself to be as much of a father to me as he could.” 

Her eyes moved back and forth between the two with deep, tender affection. “You are Spark and Omni.” Her arm moved to pull the boy up as well, tugging him right up against herself to crush both of them in as tight of a hug as she could manage. “You are Korsmea and Jehoel. I love you both no matter what you call yourselves. I love you more than I could ever tell you. 

“You are my children, and nothing will ever change that.” 

******

Ten minutes later, Tabbris stood outside the room. She wasn’t quite in the doorway, huddled in on herself with her arms folded around her special fish bowl. When she had run to the house to get it, all Tabbris had been able to think about was sharing a look at her fish friends with her new siblings. But now, standing here in this moment, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was dumb. What if they hated fish? What if  they thought it was silly? Why did she run all that way to bring the fish bowl back instead of just focusing on meeting them in person for the first time? What if they thought she was showing off? Dumb, dumb, it was dumb. She shouldn’t have brought it. Maybe she should run back and put it away, or find someone who could hold the bowl for her. Or–

“Hey, Tabs, you okay?” 

It was Tristan, standing there with Vanessa. As her older siblings, the ones she already knew quite well, stood in the hall next to her, Tabbris swallowed hard. Her voice was a whisper as she hesitantly admitted, “I don’t know if I should take this in.” 

Tristan exchanged a glance with his twin before taking a knee next to Tabbris. “Well, the fish are your friends, right?” 

“And you want them to meet your friends,” Vanessa continued, taking a knee as well. 

Gulping, Tabbris gave a slow nod, taking a moment to find her voice. “But what if they don’t like them?” 

Another brief, silent glance passed between the twins before Tristan spoke with a shrug. “Vanessa doesn’t like everything I do. And I don’t like everything she does. Cuz we’re different people.” 

“Very different,” Vanessa confirmed. “But no matter how many things he likes that I don’t, he’s always going to be my brother. And I’m always going to love him. Even when he ticks me off.” She gave him a quick look at that, squinting briefly before turning back to the younger girl. “Maybe they’ll like your fish and maybe they won’t. But the point is, liking those fish is who you are. And you shouldn’t hide that. Because they’ll love you, just like we do.” 

Tristan nodded, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Tabs, siblings don’t always get along or like the same things. But you’ll always be siblings. That’s what matters. Trust us on that.” 

Before Tabbris could say anything else, or even think much about what her older siblings had said, a voice called from within the room. “Kids, you can come in now.” 

Hearing her mother’s words, the young girl froze up briefly. She blinked down into the magic fish bowl, seeing several of her little aquatic friends swimming around in the much-larger pool within. “Sorry, guys,” she whispered to them, “if this is dumb, it’s my fault, not yours.” 

With that, she took a deep breath, held the bowl closer to herself, and nodded to Vanessa and Tristan. Together, the three of them stepped through the doorway. 

Immediately, they saw their mother and two new siblings sitting in the middle of the room. A moment of quite emotional silence passed before the trio began to walk once more. They crossed the distance quickly, despite walking slowly to take in the sight of the other two for as long as possible. Before they knew it, all five were arranged in a circle with their mother standing a bit to the side, watching them silently. 

Of all of them, it was Sariel’s youngest son who spoke first. “Hi,” he started in a quiet voice. “I… I’m..” He glanced at their mother as though searching for her strength, then turned back to them and straightened up a bit. “I don’t want to be everything. It’s… too much. I’m–I want to be Jehoel. I mean, I am Jehoel.” 

“I’m Spark,” the blonde-black-haired girl declared. Immediately after spitting that out, she gave their mother a quick glance. “I mean, I can be Korsmea too. Spark Korsmea. I’m okay with that. I can be both. But I want to stay Spark. I can’t forget that. I won’t.” 

“You don’t have to,” Sariel assured her, voice soft as she reached out to touch the girl’s solid-light shoulder. “No one is ever going to make you forget where you came from or what you’ve been through. You are whatever you want to be, now and forever.” 

From there, the other three introduced themselves to their new siblings. Tristan boasted about how cool it was to finally have a brother to help him with all the girls, before immediately launching into a discussion about the pranks he had pulled on Vanessa. Despite the protests from his twin about not corrupting their new brother, the two boys were almost immediately whispering and snickering into each other’s ears. 

That, of course, led Vanessa to start whispering to her two sisters. Soon, they were all teasing one another with those whispers, some speaking just loudly enough to be overheard by the others in order to prompt aghast protests. Eventually, Spark asked what Tabbris was holding, and the girl tentatively, nervously introduced her fish, holding up the bowl. 

Spark and Jehoel were immediately interested, the latter more so. The boy kept asking what the different fish were named, and what type they were. He asked what they liked to eat, where she had gotten them, where they liked to live, anything and everything. Tabbris, of course, had answers for every question, and had soon gotten over her nervousness to proudly talk about her aquatic friends. 

And through it all, Sariel stood back to watch. Her hand covered her mouth to contain the vocal reaction that came as she stared at her children interacting with one another. She didn’t want to say anything, she couldn’t say anything. Not without disturbing them and breaking the spell that had come over the room as soon as the five siblings began to truly interact for the first time in their lives. Five of her children were there. All save for… all save for the one she had created without knowing what she was doing. The child who had never been intended as one, yet was suddenly so important. 

Someday, somehow, she would bring the orb she had created back to this world, and let all of her children be together. It was impossible to do now without endangering the universe that her other child had created. 

And that in and of itself was more than Sariel could even try to comprehend. The spell she had created had become sapient and was even now in that other universe, searching for her. But if she went to her immediately, the result would be catastrophic. No matter how much she wanted to find this incredible… magic daughter, they had to be incredibly careful about it, or risk accidentally destroying everything that magic daughter had built. 

But she wouldn’t forget her. Even standing here, watching her five incredible children finally meet, Sariel promised herself that she would never forget there was one more out there. And someday, somehow, she would bring her back too. No matter how she had first come about, she was still her child. And Sariel would never give up until she had finally put her family together. All of them. 

From there, with that thought in mind, the woman turned her head. Her gaze found its way to the man who sat silently in the corner, who had been sitting there the whole time and had only spoken up once. All without ever looking that way. 

For a moment, Sariel simply stood there, watching the man while listening to the sound of her children talking. A rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, as she gave a little shudder before managing to focus. One more thing mattered right then, one very important thing that had to happen. 

She took a step, only to find herself facing Spark as she transported her holographic body directly in front of her. Hands raised, the girl met her mother’s gaze while speaking firmly. “Mother, he saved me. I know he did bad things. I know he hurt you, and… and the others.” She glanced back toward her siblings, who were all watching. “But he saved me. I am only here because of him. I was… nothing.” 

Swallowing hard, Sariel reached out, hand cupping the girl’s face. “No matter what Kushiel may have called you, I promise, you were never nothing.” She paused then, meeting the girl’s gaze before giving a very slight nod. “But you’re right, he saved you. I won’t forget that.” Leaning in, Sariel gently kissed her holographic forehead, voice tender. “Give me a minute, okay? It will be okay, I promise.” 

After a brief hesitation, Spark glanced to Puriel and then back to Sariel before giving a nod. Once more, she vanished, reappearing by her siblings. 

Which left Sariel standing there, watching the man who had affected her family so much, for both good and ill. Taking a breath, she took several more steps, putting herself directly in front of where he was sitting. 

Finally, Puriel raised his eyes to meet her gaze. Visibly swallowing, he spoke very softly. “Hello, Sariel.” 

She didn’t respond, not at first in any case. Instead, the woman stood, watching him as she fought to sort through her feelings. Several long, silent seconds passed before she finally spoke. “Hello, Puriel.” Another long pause filled the air, then, “You didn’t listen.” 

“No,” Puriel agreed as his voice cracked slightly. “I did not listen to you, or to others. I…” The words caught in his throat, before he managed to force them out. “I owe you a greater apology than I could ever give. I owe–”

“No,” Sariel interrupted immediately, her own voice cracking as well as she cut in. “You–the things I… the things that happened were-” She stopped, eyes closing briefly. So many emotions were running through the woman that she could barely hold herself together, could barely stand there. “You helped tear my family apart. I can never forget that.” 

As Puriel’s gaze fell, Sariel reached out, her hand catching his in a firm, almost too-tight grip. “But–” Her voice broke, forcing the woman to take a moment before she could speak again. “But you also helped put it back together. You saved my daughter, and my son. And for that, even if I can’t forget what you did… I can forgive it.” 

She gave a tug, pulling the man to his feet to stand in front of her while speaking in a soft whisper. “I forgive you, Puriel.” 

It took the man several tries to find his voice, eyes flooding with tears as he stared at her as though incapable of finding the right words. Finally, all he could manage was a weak, “Thank you.” 

“Thank you,” she returned, “for my children. But… I think you have your own daughter to go see right now. 

“And she has been waiting to speak with you for quite some time.”  

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necormancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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At Last 16-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was fast. Or maybe that was just Charmeine. Either way, she was practically on top of my mother the moment those words had left her mouth. Before any of us could move, she pivoted under the raised sword and lashed out with a fist. No, there was a dagger there, I realized at the last instant. A ghost-dagger which turned solid in mid-strike. 

But Mom was pretty fast too. The sword that the ghost-woman had ducked under was suddenly in her other hand, transferred instantly before she brought it up to block the incoming blade. With her other hand, she summoned… what looked like a ball of ghost-fire around her fist before punching through Invidia’s face. Or rather, where her face had been, because the ghost-woman dodged it with a loud, cheerful laugh. Yeah, a laugh, as though this was a game. Because just like she’d said a moment earlier, this was fun for her. For them. 

As for me? Well, a lot of words immediately sprang to mind when it came to the idea of fighting Whisper-possessed Olympian Seosten ghosts. But none of them were ‘fun.’ Or any word that could be found under its entry in the thesaurus. Especially not when we still didn’t know exactly where my grandparents or the others were. I just had to hope that my ghosts were getting the message across to the other searchers. Who, of course, might be dealing with their own problems already. Because somehow I really doubted we were looking at all the Whispers on the ship. Or even all the Seosten ghosts. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to focus on that. Or even time to go to my mother’s aid, because the rest of those ghosts seemed to have taken Invidia’s laugh after that first, blindingly-quick exchange as an invitation, as all of them attacked at once. And yeah, they were laughing too. 

The nearest Whisper-Ghost throwing himself at me was a tall figure. Well, sort of tall. A few inches over six feet, with black and red hair worn long, and incredibly fit. Not to mention clearly angry, and focused on killing me in particular. Not that anyone would know just from listening to him. He was laughing cheerfully, like a kid at the carnival or something. Which was juxtaposed against a look of such vile hatred that I seriously took a reflexive step back. The mix of cheerful laughter with looks of utter disgust and bitter animus was disturbing.

But I had my own ghost. Rahanvael was right there, interposing herself between us. The moment I saw her block the Seosten, I focused on shoving power into her so she could do more than simply be visible. In this case, she used that power to catch the Seosten’s arm as he reached for me, driving her knee hard into his stomach before flying straight up while dragging him up after her. Then she sort of inverted in the air, essentially giving him a shoulder throw. Except instead of tossing him toward the floor, she heaved the other ghost up toward (and through) the ceiling. Then she followed him up and out of sight.  

That gave me time to grab for the piece of pencil-sized wood Sariel had provided. As instructed, I snapped it with my thumb before giving it a toss toward the nearest Whisper-Ghost just as he was coming for me. As the spell activated, a half-visible greenish cage appeared around the form before falling to the ground with the ghost contained within. 

Around me, I could see the others doing the same. Some managed to catch their targets while a couple missed. But it still helped, immediately taking out about four or five of the things. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect solution. I saw the familiar distortion in the air as the Whispers who had been possessing those particular Seostens escaped, and several new ghosts appeared. Like–like they had summoned brand new ‘bodies’ to possess. We had trapped some of their ghost options, but they still had more to choose from. 

In other words, things were still bad. As evidenced when I caught sight of another of the things… not coming straight at me. Instead, she was standing back a bit, hands raised. Just as my attention snapped that way, I saw a slight distortion in the air. Something that looked a bit like a diamond-shaped icicle flew straight at my face, so fast that even with my reflex-enhancements, I barely managed to snap my head out of the way in time to avoid most of it. I felt the thing slice across my cheek, drawing blood on its way. Worse, there were three more coming right at me, moving just as quickly. 

Instantly, I hurled myself into a sideways flip, allowing the first of the three icicles to pass inches away from my stomach. A thought brought my staff to one hand while I was still in mid-flip, and I snapped it outward to knock the second icicle out of the air while simultaneously hitting the button to shoot a burst of kinetic force out the other end, which took care of the third icicle. 

Landing on my feet, I brought the staff up and out, snapping, “Time to fight!” The words summoned Jaq and Gus, who assumed their positions as blade and grapple. But that was for later. First, I hit the button on my staff to make a cloud of sand shoot out one end to form a thick cloud. 

It was just in time too, because there were suddenly seven of those deadly icicle things flying at me. All of them spaced perfectly in an attempt to hit me with at least one of them no matter how much dodging or staff-swinging I did. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t planning on doing any. Instead, I focused on the sand I had summoned. It immediately turned red-hot, even as I spread it out and sent the cloud flying forward to catch the icicles. They melted, turning to steam. Which itself might’ve been a problem, as it was still spraying forward toward me. But I was ready for that too. Or rather, Tabbris was. She had taken control of one of my hands, summoning a small stone to the palm before tossing it forward while triggering the power that made it grow to the size of a much larger boulder. In mid-flip, it caught the incoming super-heated spray, shielding us. 

Before the Whisper-Ghost could send any more of those things at me, I made my super-heated sand fill the air around her, specifically spreading it out a bit to make it as hard as possible for her to actually form the damn things. From what I had seen in those few seconds, she made them right in front of her hands before launching them. Now, she couldn’t do that. Because every time the icicle started to form, my sand instantly melted it.  

She hasn’t played enough Pokemon, Tabbris noted in my head. Everyone knows ice is weak against fire, fighting, and rock. Her power loses three different ways. 

Yeah, I replied, and you know what ghost is weak against? Other ghosts. 

Abruptly, Rahanvael appeared behind the ice-creating ghost, as I sent more power into her. Enough power that she was able to shove the Whisper-Ghost hard, making the figure stumble forward just as I hit my boost and threw myself that way. My thumb found the spell I had there to summon ghost-fire, surrounding the staff in that glow just before it collided hard with the side of her head, snapping it back. Before she could recover, I spun the staff around, driving the blade through her chest. 

The ghost vanished, though I knew she wasn’t gone for good. I could still sort of feel her essence around. I had just disrupted her for now. Or them. All these Seosten ghosts were actually possessed by Whispers, I had to remind myself. It was just… weird. 

At that moment, I barely had time to glance around to see how the others were doing. From the corner of one eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon rapidly parrying with blades formed from her gauntlets as a Whisper-Ghost went after her with what appeared to be a pair of swords made out of electricity. Avalon was back-pedaling, but Miranda was right there, shield raised to block one of the incoming swords, giving Valley an opening to turn her energy blade into a large fist. And apparently the energy constructs from those gauntlets had been upgraded to actually affect ghosts, because it slammed into their opponent, making him stagger, form flickering a bit from the effort of maintaining cohesion. 

Further away, I could see Apollo and Aletheia standing together against two more of the Whisper-Ghosts. They seemed to be handling themselves well enough, unsurprisingly. It looked like Apollo was doing some sort of containment spell, while Aletheia held her hand out and used what had to be her own power, which was… disrupting them or something. I wasn’t sure, but every time she used it, the ghosts who were trying to attack them sort of… flickered a bit. It threw them off, whatever it was. Slowed them down, delayed their reactions, made them sort of dazed or whatever. Enough that Apollo was able to finish his spell, tossing a playing card from his palm, which hit one of the ghosts and literally sucked it inside. Yeah, he threw a card and sucked one of the ghosts into it. 

I really needed to get him to teach me that spell. 

And yet, just like the others had with the first containment spells, the Whisper who had been captured simply escaped the ghost it had been possessing and summoned a new one to control. Which put Apollo and Aletheia, not quite back to square one, because they had still taken one of the Seosten ghosts out of the equation and made the Whisper bring out another (and there wasn’t an endless supply of those), but still. Not great. 

Meanwhile, apparently a couple of the ghosts had gotten the idea that my dad might be an easy target. It was a mistake they quickly came to regret as, at that particular moment, the Seosten Dad had Chimera-bonded with while attempting to recall to Grandmaria was Mercury. The Seosten man’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, shorten, or delay effects on himself. Which also allowed him to boost for minutes at a time rather than seconds, and with even more effectiveness. That was where Mercury had gotten the reputation for having super speed from. And Dad was using that in the moment to speed himself up so he could create and empower specific anti-ghost magical enchantments on the blank coins he’d brought with him. In the short time that I spent glancing that way, I saw my father’s blurred form rush through scrawling a spell onto his latest coin, before tossing it at the floor right in front of the ghost who was coming for him. A burst of purple electricity shot from the coin, making the ghost blow apart (though it left that distinctive distortion in the air that meant the Whisper itself was still around). 

Then there was my mother. She was still going toe-to-toe with Invidia, both moving too quickly for me to keep track of very well. The Whisper-Ghost still had her daggers, and was a blindingly-fast dervish, attacking my mother from all sides. Mom, meanwhile, continued to block or evade every strike, lashing out with several of her own. Yet no matter how quick she was or what extra powers she threw into the mix, Invidia evaded all of it. It was clear they were pretty evenly matched. And I still had no idea how much of that was the Whisper herself (or itself), and how much was Charmeine’s skill and power. 

That was as much as I was able to take in with that quick glance around. We weren’t falling, but we weren’t exactly winning either. There were more of these things jumping into the fight already, and the ones we did manage to hit hard enough to disrupt simply reformed shortly afterward. Or summoned new ghost bodies to use.

Oh, and on top of all of that, all of these ghosts were still laughing. They were just having a grand old time with this whole thing. Laughing while giving those hateful, threatening glares and trying to murder us. It was really sending mixed messages. 

Behind me, Rahanvael intercepted the return of the ghost she had followed through the ceiling. I gave her a quick boost of power before pivoting to snap my staff up, intercepting an enormous ghost-like hook on the end of a pole that had been coming toward me from behind. The Whisper-Ghost there was a lanky woman with short blueish hair and light skin. Well, light even for the whole ghost thing. Which, again, the fact that ghosts possessed by Whispers had pretty much their normal color tone was just… weird. Her polearm had that large hook at the end, now caught against my staff. 

“Kinda hard for a ghost to sneak up on a Necromancer,” I informed her a bit tersely. “Just FYI.” Worry about everyone else kept any amusement out of my voice. The words were dark. I wanted these ghosts to back the fuck off, and the fact that I couldn’t affect them (at least, not very easily) even with my own Necromancy power was incredibly annoying. I wanted to find my grandparents, damn it! 

If this particular Whisper-Ghost cared about my anger, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just glared at me even more hatefully, while simultaneously giving a delighted squeal of laughter, like a small child going down a water slide. 

“Yeah,” I grunted, “haha to you too.” And without another word, I knocked her hooked polearm away from my staff and pivoted, bringing the weapon around toward her head. She recoiled to make it miss her by about six inches. Or rather, it would have missed by about six inches, except in that moment, I focused on the ‘make things grow’ power once more. That time, instead of turning a small stone into a boulder, I extended my staff several more inches so that Jaq, in his blade form and glowing bright from ghost-fire empowerment, cut straight through her throat. The form dissipated violently, that condensed magical energy blowing apart. And yet, she never stopped laughing. Well, until the form had completely vanished. Even then, I was pretty sure the Whisper left behind hadn’t stopped. I just couldn’t hear her thanks to Liesje’s spell. 

At the same time, while that had been going on, Tabbris was busy keeping another of the ghosts, a guy who looked like he could have passed for a particularly buff Indian man on Earth, busy by directing the superheated sand into his face. Which didn’t actually hurt him, of course. But it did obscure his vision enough that he didn’t see as she also directed my finger to hit the button that would launch the ghost-fire empowered grapple right into his chest. Or… it would have, except that just before the grapple reached him, he abruptly appeared in like six different places at once, scattered all around within about a twenty foot area. There were six versions of him for a second, then five of them disappeared. Including the one the grapple had been shooting toward. 

Wait, I knew that guy. Or rather, I knew of him. Apollo had mentioned him one day when we were talking to Miranda about her duplication. His name was… Enyalius, that was it. Apparently he had been a big disciple of Abaddon. His power had allowed him to–well, do exactly what I had just seen, make anywhere from five to ten duplicates of himself within an area that stretched to about fifty feet wide. He had little-to-no control over where all of them ended up appearing, and had to pick one to keep before the rest disappeared within a couple seconds of being created. 

Oh shit, which meant– with the realization and my own senses screaming at me, I spun around, snapping the staff up to knock aside the ghost-figure’s reaching hand. No, hands. My staff knocked two hands and a knife away. As expected, he had duplicated himself again, and several of the ten clones he had created had been close enough to lunge at me. I deflected their attacks, barely, and they vanished an instant later. He just chose to keep one of the clones that had appeared further away. 

This was his game, it was how he fought. He would create a bunch of short-lived duplicates, attack with as many as were close enough to reach the target (or targets) in the couple seconds of life they had, then simply allow them to disappear while choosing to keep one who was far enough back to be safe from immediate retaliation. 

All of which meant that fighting this guy was a pain in the ass. Soon, he was pressing the attack. He just kept creating more duplicates, coming after me with whoever was close enough, and then allowing them to vanish a second later. There was no point to actually trying to hit any of them, because they were just going to vanish almost immediately anyway. And I couldn’t take him out, because he could just pick any of them at random to make his new self. 

I might have been overwhelmed pretty quickly, except I did have a couple of advantages to help out. Namely, I had Tabbris copiloting to help deal with defense, and Rahanvael had returned to cover my back. Even then, however, keeping up with the guy who could mass-spam these two second duplicates all around me was pretty much a losing battle. It was just a matter of time. He could just keep pressing and waiting for us to make a mistake. Worse, the Whisper-Ghosts I had already dealt with were reforming. This could get bad very quickly. 

But the thing was, I wasn’t limited to only having one ghost for help. Through those frantic few seconds, I let Tabbris partially take over so I could put some focus toward calling back some of the spirits I had sent out to search the ship. I made the call pretty simple, if they hadn’t found anything yet or had already delivered their message, they were to come back to where I was. 

Just as the next wave of duplicate attacks came, Seth appeared to one side of me. His hand caught the nearest Whisper-Ghost-Clone’s wrist and yanked hard before throwing a punch at his face. Only for that one to poof out of existence. Seth, in turn, blinked at his own fist and muttered something about not knowing his own strength. 

The rest of the ghosts aside from Grover appeared shortly afterward. And now it was a much more fair fight. I had five ghosts on my side, counting Rahanvael, so it was a lot harder for Enyalius to find a blind spot to hit me from. And having all these ghosts with me to cover my back meant I could press my own attack. No matter which duplicate he chose to stay in, I had someone nearby ready to hit him. And my ghosts could actually touch his. 

All of which meant that it wasn’t long before the blade of my staff found his main body (or ‘body’) and made it burst apart in another spray of ghost… energy or whatever. Not that the threat was over, not by a long shot. He wasn’t gone for good, either him or the Whisper who had been piloting him. Not to mention the rest of these damn things. But I did feel a burst of satisfaction in the moment.

But it wasn’t enough. Again, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of them for good. Tabs, I think we might need to do the super-wing boosted ghost shove. And later come up with a better word for it. 

But we can’t hit all of them! Her voice was plaintive. Last time it was all we could do to shove Kushiel away, even with the wing-boost. 

These guys aren’t Kushiel, I reminded her. But you’re right, we need a better idea than the shove. And I just got one. 

She already knew what it was, of course, as soon as it had occurred to me. Immediately, the two of us began to coordinate moving closer to where Apollo and Aletheia were. Everyone else was fighting, keeping the Whisper-Ghosts back without actually stopping them, while Mom and Invidia’s fight continued without either gaining any real advantage. 

“Apollo!” I shouted as soon as I was close enough to be heard. “Let us in!”  

Thankfully, he understood immediately, and extended his hand. I used a portal to reach the distance between us, grabbing on before possessing the man with his permission. Then I was inside him, and he knew my plan in an instant. Immediately, he drew another of the spell cards with the ghost-trap enchantment on it. But this time, just as he went to power it, Tabbris manifested her wings through him. They flared to life, extending out behind the man while the power they provided was shoved into the spell. 

Most of the Whisper-Ghosts had no idea what hit them. The ghost trap spell filled the entire room. Knowing it was coming, I had already ordered my ghosts to disappear. But our opponents didn’t get the message. Almost every single Seosten ghost in the room was sucked into the card. 

Almost every single one. Invidia resisted it, though she did snap her head around to snarl in our direction. Mom attempted to take advantage of that, but the woman vanished from where she had been standing. Only to reappear right where the card newly-full of ghosts had fallen. 

We didn’t have a chance to grab her, or it. Apollo was staggering from the effort of putting everything he had into that spell. Aletheia made an attempt to blast the ghost-woman with her power, but she grabbed the card and vanished. 

“Wha-what just happened?” Miranda demanded, looking around the suddenly empty battlefield. 

Stepping out of Apollo, I replied, “They’re uhh, they’re gone for now?” 

Apollo nodded, his face a bit grim. “It’ll take her a little bit to get her pals out of the card, but I’m not sure how long. We need to move. Come on, the jamming spell should be right in the core here, they probably have it drawing power from that.”

Appearing beside me, Seth spoke up. “So your pals on the bridge know what’s up. And from what the others said, they warned the rest of them too. Just in time too.” 

“So there are other Whisper-Ghosts. Are they okay? Sariel and the others, I mean.” 

“Sounds like it,” he confirmed. 

I started to say something else, but felt a tug at my consciousness. Grover. The last ghost who hadn’t shown up for the fight. Reaching out to him, I looked through his eyes to see what was up. And what I saw only took a few seconds to compute before I immediately withdrew and blurted, “Guys, we need to move, right now!” 

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, quickly turning to me. 

“I know where Popser and the others are,” I replied, using the name for my grandfather that I had used for such a long time while I was a little kid. It was always Popser or Grandpartie. “And they’re in trouble. Puriel’s like–not responding to anyone, not doing anything, and there’s a lot of Whispers all around. The others are trying to hold them off, but… but the Whispers are doing everything they can to get into Puriel’s head. 

“And if they take him over, we’re all fucked.” 

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At Last 16-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – there was a non-canon posted for this story which is now available for everyone to read on Patreon right here

Mom was the first to find her voice, unsurprisingly. With the black-bladed sword held out protectively as she scanned the room to watch all those other doors as though expecting something to rush through them at any moment, she spoke up in a quiet, tense voice. “What do you mean, pilot the ship to Tartarus? Why–and how would these Whisper things do that?” 

Aletheia, in turn, regarded her briefly. She seemed curious, but didn’t want to bring up anything that wasn’t directly related to the situation at hand. “The former requires speculation. As to the latter, there are, as it turns out, certain locations within this universe with very minor… links to Tartarus itself. Similar to the portal whose study led to the original Summus Proelium project. Except rather than a portal, per se, these spots are closer akin to windows. Or, for a more suitable comparison, the connection used all those millennia ago was a direct hole between our universe and that one. Whereas these windows still have some material between them, thin as it is.” 

From the corner where he was standing, Seth muttered something about how much more complicated everything got once you left Earth, and how he missed having good solid ground under his good solid feet. 

Meanwhile, Aletheia turned that same curious look from before my way, the expression making it clear that she wanted to talk about certain things later, when there was more time. But for now, the woman simply finished with, “Call them potential portals between this universe and Tartarus.” 

“Let me guess,” Apollo put in. “Our Whisper friends have ways to, ahh, realize that potential.” 

“But why would they do that?” Avalon demanded. “You said it required speculation?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed. “Speculation which… I am unprepared to make right now without further investigation. Suffice to say, the Whispers have arrived on this ship and are attempting to pilot it toward the nearest of these windows so that they may send it, and all of us, through to Tartarus itself. I do not believe I am the only one here who would prefer to avoid that.” After a brief pause, she added in a slightly more quiet voice, “One thoroughly chaperoned and tethered trip into that place was more than enough.” 

“You’re telling me,” Apollo agreed. “And I didn’t have nearly the chaperoning or tethering you did.” To the rest of us, he added, “We need to get everyone off this ship or take control of it back and kick the Whispers off before they reach that window and open it. You do not want to be in that place. No sane person does, and I’m not teleporting off and leaving the people still on the ship stuck here. Not a chance in… uh, well, not a chance in Tartarus.”

Finally unable to take it anymore, Tabbris hopped out of me, her attention solely focused on Aletheia. “Where’s my brother and sister? Where’s our grandparents? Where’s Puriel? What happened?” 

“What she said,” I agreed, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Where are the others? Also, how do we stop the Whispers from piloting us straight into hell? I suppose that’s two missions. First, take back control of the ship. Second, find everyone. And then teleport the hell out of here with them if we can’t manage the first one.” 

Aletheia, by that point, had stepped out of her little magic circle protection thing and took a knee in front of Tabbris. She offered the girl a faint smile. “It is good to finally meet you in person. I have heard a great many… and many great… things. You remind me of your mother. And your siblings.”  

“You’re Savvy’s mom,” Tabbris pointed out solemnly, before adding, “she wants to meet you.” 

“And I her,” the woman murmured before her eyes flicked back and forth between us. “Your family members are going to be very pleased to see you, when we find them.” She straightened up then, clearly addressing everyone. “I do not know where they are on this ship. I was attending to other things in preparation for our arrival when Puriel sent a message warning me of the Whispers’ presence. I attempted to return to the bridge, but detoured down here to investigate what the Whispers were doing. On the way, I left a few protective runes, which I learned from Chayyiel, in an attempt to contain or slow these creatures down. Unfortunately, upon arriving in this area, I found myself overwhelmed and was forced to create the protective circle you see there in order to prevent the Whispers from influencing me. They are… as you have no doubt seen, quite powerful and dangerous in large groups like this.” 

“You said you found out they were down here and came to see why?” Dad asked curiously. “Did you find out anything else before they, ahh, surrounded you?” 

Practically sliding along the floor to where I was standing, Seth spoke up. “They did try to keep all of you out of this area. And I doubt it was just to isolate her.” 

He had a point. The resources it must’ve taken the Whispers, whatever they were, to stop my mother and Apollo in particular from realizing that we were all walking in circles had to be considerable. It felt like there was a bigger, better reason for that than as merely a way of keeping us from finding Aletheia. And if she had detected them down here to start with… yeah, there was something else. 

“Mercury said that communication jamming was coming from down here,” Avalon pointed out. “The source of the interference is somewhere on this deck.” 

Aletheia nodded once. “Yes, I detected that as well. I believe I was on my way to it when… well, they truly did not wish for me to progress any further.” 

“Which means progressing further is exactly what we need to do,” I pointed out. “These Whisper things don’t want us to see what they’re up to down here, so it’ll probably help stop them. But… we need to let the others know what’s going on too.” 

“I’ve tried to get through again,” Apollo noted with a grimace. “No luck, ever since we had that brief conversation with Mercury. It’s like the Whispers turned up their jammer, or closed the frequency, or… something like that. Both tech and magical communications are blocked.”

“Too bad you guys aren’t using that ‘magically connect all your people who are out on missions together so they can permanently communicate no matter how far apart they are’ spell,” I pointed out. “It screwed us over enough last year, getting it to work in our favor would be nice. Oh hey, I can use ghosts.” 

Everyone was staring at me for just completely changing my own subject practically in the middle of a thought, and I flushed a little bit before gesturing. “I meant I can send ghosts out to look for the others and–hold on, Seth, were you able to see those Whispers when they were in here, beyond the ripple in the air?” 

“One, yes but they were still pretty indistinct. Just a little clearer than ‘ripples in the air.’ And two, did you just flip between three entirely different thoughts in the span of a couple sentences?” he demanded while staring at me. “Is that what just happened?” 

“Seth,” I insisted while waving off his words, “we seriously don’t have time. I mean, I assume we don’t have time. Wherever this–hey Aletheia, how do you know they’re taking us to one of these Tartarus window things anyway?” 

“Four!” Seth blurted in the background while I turned back to the woman in question. 

She, in turn, met my gaze while explaining. “The protection spells I used prevented the Whispers from gaining control of me, but I could still hear some of what they were saying. In summary, they were attempting to convince me that going to this window and opening it to get back to Tartarus was a good thing, for all the power it could offer. There was… much talk of how useful having stronger abilities would be, and how many things I could accomplish with such a boost. Their words did not have the magical coercion effect they are capable of, and yet… and yet I did hear them. Some of them, at least. Enough to understand what they are attempting to do.” 

Right, that made sense. I exchanged a glance with my mother, who nodded and spoke up pointedly. “You said something about sending ghosts to communicate with the others?” There was a tenseness to her voice, despite her clear attempt to sound calm. She knew just how dangerous this was, just how much we really needed to stop the ship, or grab the others and get off of it, before these Whispers piloted it into Tartarus.

“Yeah.” Focusing on that, I continued. “I can summon ghosts and send them through the ship to find the others and tell them what we found out. The bridge should be easy, we know that’s where Mercury, Haiden, and Larissa are. And uhh, well, I figure I can send the ghosts off and let them search for the others. You know–” I looked to Miranda. “So you don’t have to sacrifice your… uhh, the version of you that’s right here just to tell them what’s going on. Actually, even that would only inform the original you, who is…?” 

“With Haiden and them,” she answered with a small grimace. “In other words, the one you can find most easily without my help. So, you know, I’m being incredibly useful right now.” 

“Hey, I’d rather have a version of you helping every group by being there, than waste your individual existences by letting you turn yourselves off just to send information,” I pointed out, offering her a faint, hopefully reassuring smile. “Besides, like I said, I can summon ghosts.”

“Grab that Grover kid while you’re at it,” Seth put in. “If I’m not back there enjoying the Haunted Party, he might as well get dragged into this too.” After a brief pause, he coughed and amended, “I mean, I’m sure he wants to help.” 

“Uh huh.” Rolling my eyes a bit despite myself, I looked to the others. “I can summon the ghosts and send them out, but we shouldn’t wait here for as long as it takes me to do that.” Extending a hand toward Tabbris, I added, “Hop in, drive me along with the rest of the group, and I’ll send those messages with some ghosts.” Pausing then, I played back everything I had just said in my own mind before tilting my head. “I uhh, we have very strange lives.” 

You say that,” Dad muttered with a grimace. “Imagine that whole thing from my perspective.” 

“I would say it gets better,” Mom informed him while putting a hand on his back. “But mostly you just get better at rolling with it.” 

“And manipulating it, from time to time,” Apollo added, before turning back and leaning over to whisper something quietly to Aletheia. From the couple of words I picked up, I was pretty sure he was asking about how Puriel was doing and whether she trusted him right now. 

In any case, I asked Seth to take that trip back to the bridge to tell Mercury and the others about what was going on, then come back to us. As he set off for that, Tabbris took my hand and jumped back into me. Then I focused on summoning a few more ghosts while she, uh, drove my body to keep following the others in searching the engine deck for the source of the jamming. And whatever else we could find that the Whispers very clearly wanted to keep us away from. 

We really were a long way from the station now. A long way from the mansion where I had left all my ghosts so they could party on their own terms, specifically because I didn’t think anything would be going on today. Or at least that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. You’d think I would have learned by now, but here we were.

With that distance, it took me a bit of time to reach out to the ghosts. I could still feel my connection to them but it was definitely a stretch to make full contact. Even more than it had been when I pulled Seth over, likely because the ship had been moving that whole time. We were getting further away with every passing moment. Not for the first time, I thought about the fact that Fossor had been able to reach all the way back to his home planet, and realized just how much work I still had to do if I was ever going to be more than an insect compared to what he had been capable of. 

Not that I wanted to be capable of–yeah. I needed more training and practice, that was the point.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was more like a couple minutes, I gently convinced several ghosts to accept the pull, then guided them my way. Grover was there, as Seth had requested, along with a few other ghosts from Fossor’s old collection who had not been released yet. Including Rahanvael, whose presence I had been surprised to feel. Ever since the death of her brother, she had been mostly dormant, just waiting to go back to her home world and… disappear. 

They didn’t exactly appear around us (I checked in on the outside world just long enough to see that we were searching along a massive engine thing), but they were definitely here. I could feel their invisible presence, their curiosity, their… well, let’s just say they weren’t surprised that I had found a way to get into trouble again. I was pretty sure a couple of them had won a bet. 

Quickly and silently, I passed along a detailed idea of what was happening and what I needed. It was a bit like how I communicated in my head with Tabbris, but more… if talking to Tabbris in my head was like a normal conversation, this was the equivalent of sending an e-mail. I composed every thought I had and then pushed it out to them. They, in turn, sent back their own fully detailed e-mails of thoughts.

Thankfully, they understood the urgency and quickly spread out to set off. I made sure to stress just how much they needed to hurry, and that if they encountered anything odd they should let me know immediately. I also made them go on a buddy system, since I had pulled more ghosts than there were groups to search for, just to cover the ship more thoroughly and efficiently. They went in pairs, Even to the point of sending Grover to find Seth, because I didn’t want my ghosts being alone out there with these Whispers around.

Rahanvael, meanwhile, stayed with me. She made it clear that she would keep an eye out and be ready to jump in if we ran into Whispers, or any other ghostly thing (like Kushiel) along the way. Apparently she didn’t trust me to stay out of trouble on that front. Which, well, fair. She could also give advice on the Necromancy front, given how long she had been connected to Fossor and watched over his shoulder. 

Finally, with that done, I focused on the outside world, sliding back into control while asking Tabbris what was going on. She, in turn, let me know that we hadn’t found anything yet, aside from Apollo managing to detect a faint trace of the jamming source, which we were all following. There had been another attempt to throw us off like before, but now Mom and Apollo were ready for it, so we pushed right on through. Which was good, but it made me wonder what the Whispers were going to do when we got closer. I doubted they’d give up, or that that was their only trick. 

Which also made me wonder just how many of these things there were, or how strong they were. From what I had heard from Doug, those protective runes had been enough to keep them out of his head entirely just by having a set of them on a hat. Yet these Whispers were only somewhat held back and limited by them. And it wasn’t a lack of power thing, because I was pretty sure Aletheia was as good at magic as Doug’s uncle. 

Looking around, I took in the sight of the room we were moving through. It was much larger than the corridor where we had started, with huge machinery all around us. We were deep in the engines, with Apollo leading the way while holding some glowing stone in front of himself. The thing he was using to track the source of the jamming. Aletheia was just behind him, using a flashlight to illuminate all the dimly lit corners behind and under the machines. Mom and Dad were near the back of the group, whispering together while keeping an eye that way. Meanwhile, Tabbris and I were in the middle, with Avalon to the left checking that area and Miranda to the right. Everyone was keeping their eyes peeled. 

“How close are we?” I spoke up in a whisper. 

Aletheia glanced back to me. Now I could see more of the anti-Whisper runes that had been drawn all over her outfit. She’d gotten a spellpower boost from all the adults for that while I was distracted, which would hopefully be enough to keep those things at bay. At least while we were down here. 

“The tracing spell indicates that the source should be directly ahead,” she informed me quietly. “Which… judging from where we are, would put it on the heart of the Slide Drive’s power core.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Not surprising, I guess. Hang on, I’ll send Rahanvael to scout ahead.”

So, everyone stopped and settled in a group, watching warily while the ghost figure appeared beside me. Rahanvael, for her part, gave them a nod and a whispered promise to hurry, before heading out. I shifted my senses to see through her eyes, while reaching out to grab Avalon’s hand to one side and Miranda’s to the other. They both squeezed back. 

Watching through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the room passing by quickly. She was searching that way, not really waiting to look around. Her focus was ahead. I supposed it made sense that she would know what the Slide Drive core looked like and that it wasn’t any of the things around her. 

There, that had to be it. Well, the entrance to it anyway. I could see a fifteen foot tall, ball-shaped structure ahead with a hatch on it that had a bunch of security consoles nearby. That was the way into the core. 

Unfortunately, getting in there wasn’t going to be simple. Not even for a ghost. Because the whole area around it was swarming with… distortions in the air. Whispers. I recognized them from a few minutes earlier when they had been trying to get through Aletheia’s protection circle. But there were a lot more here. That much was clear just from how visible the distortions were, like waves of heat coming off the hot desert sand. There had to be at least a few dozen of them, if not more. All bunched up around each other like… well, swarming really was the best word I could think of. They were protecting the core, ready to stop us from getting anywhere near it by any means possible. 

And they had all stopped to look at Rahanvael. I wasn’t sure exactly how I knew they were looking at her, given I couldn’t actually see them. But it was definitely the impression I got. They were staring at her, while she stared back at the, well, distortions they made in the air. 

“They won’t allow her to go any closer. They won’t allow any of you to go closer.” 

The all-too-familiar voice came not from where Rahanvael was, but from nearby me. Opening my eyes, I turned it to look along with all the others. We saw the figure coming into view from behind us, a ghostly form approaching with a deceptively casual motion. 

“Charmeine?” Avalon blurted. And yes, it was her. Or at least her ghost. Her dark skin and short white hair was immediately recognizable. Which in and of itself was a bit weird. Though she had the ghostly semi-transparency going on, and I could feel that she was one, she was full-color. She looked like herself instead of having a tint to her like basically every other ghost did. 

Reflexively, I reached out to stop her with my power, only to have it slide off just like it had when I was facing Kushiel back at the Auberge. The Tartarus connection still made them next to impossible to control. 

“Oh, she does not like you,” Charmeine noted, with a glance toward Avalon. “Or any of you, really. Not even you two.” That was added toward Apollo and Aletheia. Stopping there, about ten feet away from us, she added, “And to answer the question, no, this is not Charmeine. Weeeelll, sort of. It’s what you would call her spirit, what remained after her death. But me? I’m just giving it a little test drive.” 

“You’re one of the Whispers,” Mom noted, sword held out protectively. 

Charmeine’s eyes turned that way, a small smile playing at her lips. “Is that what you call us? Interesting. I suppose it’s as good a name as any. Yes, I am.” 

“Let me get this straight,” Miranda put in. “That Seosten chick is a ghost, but you, a completely different creature, are… uhh, essentially possessing her? You’re a Whisper possessing a Seosten ghost.”

“Very good,” the… creature confirmed. “But to differentiate between your Charmeine and what I am, why don’t you just call me Invidia? It’s another of her names, after all.” 

“It’s a distraction,” Avalon snapped. “We need to get to the core and shut down the jamming and the slide drive itself.” 

“Oh, I wouldn’t try to do that if I was you,” Invidia drawled lazily, her eyes scanning over all of us. 

“Why is that?” Dad carefully asked, stepping a bit to the side as though to draw her attention that way to give Mom an opening. “Are you going to stop us?” 

“Little old me?” Invidia smiled again. “Wouldn’t dream of it. After all, you’re such strong fighters. Even with Charmeine’s gift, I probably couldn’t take all of you by myself. But then, I’m not exactly by myself. You see, there were many Seosten who died on or connected to this ship.” 

As she said that, more figures began to appear all around us. Seosten ghosts, all of them with Tartarus-links and thus hard for me to do anything about. 

Invidia chuckled low, as a dozen or more Whisper-possessed Tartarus-powered Seosten ghosts surrounded us. “It has been quite some time since we were able to express ourselves physically

“This should be fun.”

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