Heretical Edge

Summer Epilogue 12 (Heretical Edge)

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“So that’s why I wanted to tell you about it alone,” Flick announced to Virginia Dare, just after explaining the entire situation with Jophiel and Elisabet, as well as the more recent revelations, as the two of them stood out in the forest a bit away from the camp. “Now that the spells stopping us from talking about it are gone, I wanted to… to tell you myself. So we can talk about it without talking around all the other stuff that no one’s allowed to know.”

With a faint smile while her eyes remained contemplative, Dare replied, “You mean the fact that I’m your grandmother, so I might feel especially outraged at what those two want to use you for.”

Biting her lip, the younger girl nodded. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” She hesitated then, looking to the woman directly. “Sorry we couldn’t tell you about it before. But, I kind of figured that if anyone was going to understand magic stopping us from talking about something, it would be you.” She ended that with a kind of sheepish half-smile, trying to break the potential tension.

Raising an eyebrow at that, Dare was quiet for a moment before heaving a long, low sigh. “A part of me wants to confront them, yes. For whatever little good that would do. But, on the other hand, as you said, they could have done much worse. And their intentions are… if not totally pure, at least along similar lines as our own. We don’t always get to pick our allies, and it sounds as though their goals and ours are at least within similar… ahhh, zip codes, as it were.” Lifting her hand, she laid it on Flick’s shoulder and squeezed. “If this Jophiel has already taken a few steps from ‘only Seosten are worthy’ to ‘Seosten and humans are worthy’, it feels like a better idea to keep pulling her toward ‘all species are worthy’ rather than shoving her off the bridge entirely just because she’s not quite to the end of it yet.”

“That’s a… a good point,” Flick agreed, looking over to the woman while reaching up to put a hand over the one on her shoulder. “I also thought you’d be mad that they weren’t doing more to get Gaia out of the Crossroads prison. I mean, part of me is kind of mad about that.”

“Yes, well…” Dare hesitated before murmuring, “there is a bit of that. But on the other hand, I highly doubt even a full Committee member could simply release Gaia, given everything that’s happened. If they were to push too far, they would blow their cover with both the Committee and their own people. As much as I want Gaia back, I can’t blame them for being more cautious.”

She looked to Flick pointedly. “They have already helped you in aiding Sean, after all.”

Quickly nodding, Flick confirmed, “Yeah, they were the ones who helped get Apollo in so he could start helping Sean stay… you know, sane.” She hesitated then, before adding. “I… I could go in with him, you know. I could possess Apollo and let him pull me in to talk to Sean.”

“You could,” Dare agreed, glancing to the girl curiously. “Are you going to?”

“Yes.” Flick spoke instantly before pausing with a wince. “Soon. I just… want to have something to tell him about how we’re going to get him out of there. I don’t want to tell him that we don’t have any ideas. I feel like that would make things worse, somehow, you know?”

“Felicity,” Dare started, then hesitated. Her voice turned softer. “Sometimes it’s good just to know someone is thinking about you, even if they don’t have all the answers. If you want my suggestion, go with Apollo. Visit Sean. Just the fact that you’re there, that you take the time to visit him, could make a world of difference in his… psyche. Having Apollo to talk to will help, of course. But one of his friends showing up? That’s even better. Even if you can’t get him out.”

“Good point,” the girl agreed softly before kicking at the dirt. “I guess I also feel bad. I mean, we can’t help him except for this. We have no idea how to get him out. And I feel like… we escaped and he didn’t. I don’t know how to look him in the eyes with that. I can’t tell him that we can get him out, only that we’re trying. And we’re not even doing that twenty-four seven. I’m… I’m having fun with Avalon, Shiori, and the others. He’s in prison constantly, and I’m just… every time I think about him and remember that we don’t know how to get him out, I feel like a… a traitor because I’m not burning down the world to try to get him out. I feel helpless. And then sometimes I don’t feel helpless because I stop thinking about it, and that makes it worse when I do think about it.” She was half-flailing by the end before folding her arms tight against her stomach. “I feel like a shit. I should have found a way to get him out of there by now.”

“I wish I had a better answer for you.” Dare’s voice was quiet, as she stepped around in front of Flick, adding a second hand to her opposite shoulder and squeezing with both. “I wish I knew how to get him out of there, just as I wish I knew how to save Gaia. But we don’t have those answers yet. You, however, have the ability to let your friend know that you’re still thinking of him, that you’re trying. Do that. Be there. Let him see and hear you. I think you’re truly underestimating just how much that can help when he feels alone and lost.”

With a tiny smile, the girl nodded. Then she embraced the woman. “I know. I… you’re right. See?” She leaned back and winked at her. “You’re already giving good grandmother advice.”

“I think that falls more along teacher advice,” Dare mused, “but I’ll take it.”

The woman turned then, starting to walk through the trees, with Flick following. “For now, I’m less interested in impotently ranting about what I’d like to do to Jophiel and Elisabet if they hurt or manipulate you, and more interested in hearing about what you’ve learned from them so far.” She glanced sidelong to the girl, adding, “Or what they plan on teaching you. After all, if they want to be helpful, even if it is for their own purposes, there’s no reason not to take advantage. Learn everything you can from them. If it helps convince the Seosten leadership to ally with humanity, great. If it doesn’t… well… you won’t be alone out there, I can promise you that. But even if you were, I’m pretty sure those Seosten would end up being pretty surprised about what you pull off.”

Another brief smile came to Flick’s face, and she walked faster to move alongside the woman. “Speaking of surprises, you should’ve seen Harp–I mean, Gwen’s face when Aylen turned out to be the person she’s been looking for all this time.”

“I can imagine,” Dare murmured thoughtfully. “What about Aylen’s… mothers? Do they know anything about this connection with Arthur?”

“We don’t think so,” Flick replied, walking literally through a tree and out the other side using her wood-traveling power. “But I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks, since we’re supposed to meet them, and her other grandfather.

“I just wish I knew why she keeps snickering whenever someone asks if her grandfather thinks it’s weird having a Reaper in the family.”

*******

“Okay, Chambers, new rule. You have to deal with at least six of the gigantic conspiracies that you’ve tripped into before you’re allowed to find any more of them.”

The words came from Avalon, as she stared intently at the girl in question. The two of them, along with Shiori, were sitting on a small sailboat out in the middle of the lake. Flick had brought her girlfriends out here to talk about everything, and was sitting across from them, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s not my fault things keep jumping into my lap!” Flick protested, face flushed. “Besides, most of these are things that have been going on for a long time, I just stumble across part of them.”

Shiori used her foot to poke Flick in the leg. “Are you okay, though? I mean, if Elisabet and this… Jophiel put all those spells on you, did they really get rid of all of them?”

“Wyatt, Athena, Sariel, and Gwen went over us,” Flick replied with a quick nod. “They said we’re clear of any unknown magic as far as they could see. And trust me, they were thorough. Especially Wyatt.”

“Good,” Avalon replied shortly, head tilting a little as she watched the blonde girl.

“Are you… upset?” Flick asked hesitantly, biting her lip as she watched her reaction.

With a long, quiet sigh, Avalon shook her head. “No, Chambers… Felicity. I’m not upset or angry. I’m a little… disappointed that I didn’t realize something else was going on. And I kind of want to yell at them for not saving Gaia, but… but logically I get it. And for the record, I would’ve understood even if it took you a lot longer to tell us the truth. You’re allowed to have important secrets. Especially ones like that. Because… because I know if I was in their situation, I’d want to make sure you were safe, above everything else. That’s what they were doing by putting those spells on you. They were protecting each other. I get that. And you were making sure you could rescue Sariel. I get that too. I’m not going to be mad at you just because you were in an impossible situation, and I’m not going to be mad at them for doing something I could see myself doing if it meant protecting you from a potential enemy.”

Her words were perhaps slightly undercut in seriousness by the fact that Porthos climbed from the girl’s pocket to her head and made chittering noises of agreement. The little metal lizard ended by jumping from Avalon’s head to Flick’s quickly raised hand, landing in her palm before dashing along to her cheek so he could reach up and pat her cheek.  

Shrugging, Shiori gestured toward Avalon. “She said it better than I could, but yeah, that. We get it. And she’s right, those two might have really different ideas about the whole… enslaving other species for the good of the universe thing and all that, but in this case, they’re protecting the person they love. I can get mad at them for a lot of things, but not that.”

With a tiny smile, Flick stepped over and embraced Avalon first so that Porthos could jump back to his partner’s shoulder. The two girls exchanged a brief kiss before Flick did the same with Shiori, quietly murmuring, “You guys are pretty awesome, you know that?”

Grinning despite herself, the Asian girl drawled an easy, “You ever wonder why awesome is good and awful is bad? Wouldn’t it be better to be full of awe instead of just some of it?”

“Okay, fine,” Flick replied deadpan, “you’re awful.”

With a snicker, Shiori blurted, “Yay!”

“You’re both awful,” Avalon informed them both, rolling her eyes before settling into a slight frown. “But I do want to know what Jophiel and Elisabet can do about Gaia. I… understand that they can’t get her out. But they have to be able to do something. Tell us what kind of spell they’re using to keep her asleep, let us know who is in charge of her, any ideas about where they have her, anything. They have to know something. And they have to know that getting Gaia back is the best chance we have of being strong enough to actually make the Seraphim listen to any alliance ideas.”

Flick and Shiori exchanged brief glances, the former nodding. “I mean, you’re not wrong. There’s others that are stronger, but Gaia’s got her whole ‘I puppet your technology’ thing that might make them think twice about bringing their ships here.”

“Not to mention,” Shiori added, “there’s lots of Heretics that will listen to her because of everything she’s done for them. And she’s the one who knows the most about who and where all the hybrids that are probably still pretending to be loyal are.”

Slowly nodding in agreement, Avalon murmured, “So, they have to know something, anything that might help. Even if it’s not useful right this very second. I want to eventually succeed at saving Gaia, not just make myself feel better by trying something immediately that fails.”

“We will, Valley,” Flick promised while putting a hand on her arm. “We’ll get her back.

“I just hope we can do it before whatever Fossor wanted her out of the way for happens.”

******

“Knock knock.”

As she said those words, Avalon rapped her knuckles against the side of a tree in the forest while looking up into it. Her other hand was taken up by the plastic bag that she carried.

In one of the branches above her head, Aylen leaned over, face appearing as she blinked a couple times, clearly having just woken up. “Oh… uh, hi.”

“Do you mind if I come up?” Avalon asked, lifting the bag. “I brought food.” She felt awkward. This kind of outreach was usually more Flick’s thing. But she’d gotten to know Aylen a lot better than the other girl had while Flick was gone, especially after finding out her secret.

Nodding quickly, Aylen started to ask if Avalon needed a hand. But the girl was already on her way, taking a few steps back before running up and jumping to plant her foot against the tree, using that to reach a lower branch. From there, she made her way rapidly and smoothly up before settling in beside her.

“I guess you’re fine then,” Aylen noted dryly, shifting over on the branch a little to give Avalon more room before returning her attention to looking out over the cabins and lake in the distance. As she did so, Sovereign landed further out on the tree, giving a soft scree that drew Porthos out of Avalon’s jacket. The two exchanged a flurry of sounds, before the little lizard looked to Avalon for permission.

“Go on then,” the girl motioned with one hand. “Have fun.”

With a chirp, Porthos darted that way, clambering up onto Sovereign’s back before the flying cyberform took off into the air.

The two girls sat there in comfortable silence for a minute or so, neither needing to talk. They just watched as Sovereign flew with Porthos riding. Finally, Avalon spoke up with a soft, “How’re your mothers doing with all this?”

“I don’t know,” Aylen admitted. “They’re still off on their… uhh, mission. I’m not really sure exactly what they’re doing, but they said it’d be another few weeks. It was an emergency.” She glanced over to the girl beside her, adding, “If this was an emergency, I could get them here right now. They’d drop everything. But I don’t think it is, so I don’t want to take them away from what they’re doing. I mean… Arthur’s been… gone for this long, and we don’t even have all the bones or anything, so–”

“Bones?” Avalon echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, yeah.” Aylen gestured over toward the cabins. “I talked to Ha.. I mean, Gwen. She said we need to find all of Arthur’s bones before we can do… uhh, whatever it is I’m supposed to do. She’s got most of them, but apparently there’s still some out there.”

“Do you think they used some of his bones to help make the Heretical Edge?” Avalon suggested. “If he’s so powerful, maybe his bones are powerful. And if you were going to try to free your… your grandfather from that, maybe freeing him is what releases Arthur’s bones. That could be how you’re supposed to bring Arthur back.”

Aylen blinked at that, head tilting a little. “I… huh. Maybe, I didn’t think of that. But Gwen and that… um, Mercury guy said the Seosten didn’t want to just kill me because they were afraid that might be what wakes up Arthur.”

“They probably don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Avalon pointed out. “They’re erring on the side of caution because they have no idea what could happen to make him come back.”

“Point,” Aylen conceded before letting out a long breath as she tilted her head up to the sky above, visible through the tree canopy. “Maybe that is it. I dunno. It’s strange though, right?”

“Definitely strange,” Avalon agreed before adding, “Though strange is normal anymore. Here.” She lifted the bag, offering it to the other girl. “Here. I thought you could use it.”

Aylen took the bag, blinking once before reaching in to retrieve a small glass box with holes in it. A rat was there, breathing slowly as it was clearly alive, but sedated. “What–you… brought me…”

“I knew it was getting about that time,” Avalon murmured, feeling a little uncomfortable. “And I didn’t think you’d been out lately. If that crossed a line or something–”

“No,” Aylen quickly interrupted, shaking her head. “No, it’s okay. I just meant… thank you. Most people would not be bringing me something to kill just like that.”

“You kill to eat,” Avalon replied flatly. “How is that different from any non-vegan or vegetarian out there? If you eat meat, something died to feed you. This isn’t different, you’re just… not exactly eating it.”

With a tiny smile, Aylen retrieved the rat from the box. Taking a breath, she hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re sure you’re okay with this? I can wait until later.”

Shrugging, Avalon assured her, “Don’t worry about me.” She reached into the pocket of her jacket, retrieving a wrapped sandwich, which she began to pull the plastic off of. “I brought my own.”

The simple words and actions, completely dismissing any thought that there was something wrong or strange with what she was doing, made Aylen’s smile grow a little. She glanced down at the tranquilized rat before smoothly breaking its neck. A rush of energy flooded the girl, put off by the animal’s death. She gave a soft gasp and slumped slightly from the rush. She could… feel the creature’s life, could… see a flash of memories from its life, short as it had been. It was tiny and incredibly quick, but it was still a wave that washed over her.

Avalon’s hand was on her shoulder, keeping the other girl steady on the branch. “You okay?”

“Um… yeah.” Aylen blushed, sitting up a bit more. “I’m good. And thanks.

“I guess if I’m supposed to wake up Arthur, being close to Avalon isn’t a bad start.”

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Summer Epilogue 11 – Eden’s Garden Victors (Heretical Edge)

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It was known as the Chamber of Victories. The room, located in the very center of the very top of the tree that served as the home of Eden’s Garden, was a mixture of beauty and danger. Perfectly circular, the wooden walls, as well as the floor and domed ceiling, held thousands of intricate carvings in the polished wood. Those carvings told the stories of not only the history of Eden’s Garden itself, but of each of its leaders. Every Victor, past and present, had the main points of their history carved into the wood. If one knew where to look, they could follow the story of any of the Garden leadership, with their battles, their losses, and their triumphs.

At least, normally one could do such a thing. Currently, there were dark scorch marks, acid burns, and deep gouges from various blades cut deep throughout the room from some recent battle.

In the center of that room was an enormous table, large enough to allow each of the sixteen Victors ample room to sit without being too close to their neighbor. Not only for the sake of simple comfort, but because many of those Victors, if put too close together, would resort to violence at the first provocation. More marks of damage lined the table itself.

Meanwhile, above the table was the main tree canopy, each leaf large enough to serve as the sail of the largest wooden Bystander ship from the ancient days of exploration. And below those leaves, lighting the room itself, were glowing vines and fruits, the latter of which gave the Garden Heretics their power. They only grew in that specific spot, the fruit-bearing vines themselves carefully cultivated to appear here, above the Chamber of Victories, where they could be monitored, counted, and divvied up between the tribes as needed.

The glow from both the fruit and the vines they were attached to wasn’t nearly as bright as it should have been. Several full vines with their attached budding fruit had been severed recently, in the same battle that had left the room beneath them so damaged.

Around the edges of the damaged room, nine figures stood, eight of them in pairs of two while one stood alone. They watched one another carefully, eyes roaming from one to the next as a palpable tension hung in the air like an oppressive mist that clogged the senses. No weapons were drawn, but it was a near thing.

“How about it?” The one who spoke was a tall, heavily muscled man with long white hair that fell to the middle of his back. Despite the color of his hair, he seemed young, appearing to be in his early thirties at most. His face would have been handsome were it not for the long hook-shaped nose that curved out a bit too far. Brown eyes, peering out from a deeply tanned face, scanned the room. “Anyone else want to make a play for more fruit so they can follow the others?”

Beside him, a much smaller, black-skinned man with white-lensed sunglasses gave a single nod. “As Lorenzo said, would anyone else in this room like to turn traitor?”

Straight across from both men stood two more figures, one male and one female. The latter was a very slight and slender woman with incredibly pale skin and soft brown hair. She appeared almost china doll fragile.

The man, meanwhile, stood around five foot ten inches in height, his skin almost rosy white. His black hair was elaborately styled with curls and a single long braid. Some might have called him soft-looking at a glance, but the glare he was shooting across the room at the first two who had spoken was anything but soft. “You’re looking at me,” he declared. “It wasn’t funny the first dozen times, Prestor. It will never be funny.”

“Never?” the small black man named Prestor Cannon asked with a note of curiosity. “I don’t know, assuming that the great Benedict Arnold, whose name is quite literally synonymous with traitor, would be up to his old ways? That seems a little funny to me. And, you know, maybe a little bit common sense too.”

“My great-uncle is not a traitor,” the small woman beside Benedict Arnold spoke up then. “Watch your mouth, Prestor.”

On the far side of the room, to Prestor and Lorenzo’s left, stood another male and female pair. The man was an elderly Native American, who stood alone with no apparent counterpart. “Hannah,” the man spoke, addressing Benedict’s grandniece. “No one trying to claim anyone here is a traitor.”

“Aren’t they, Quevias?” Hannah demanded. “Because it sure seems to me like that’s what they’re doing.”

“Enough.” The snapped word came from the elderly, severe-looking woman with the tight gray bun who stood opposite Quevias and his partner. Remember Humility Bennett, looking somehow even more like an angry schoolmarm than usual, stood next to her own Victor partner, a much younger-looking Indian woman who did not look old enough to have even graduated Bystander high school.

It was that younger woman who looked at her supposed ‘partner’ while speaking simply. “Of course, while we’re talking about traitors… maybe we should bring up the big ones.”

“Zoya,” Remember spoke through gritted teeth. “Now is not the time for your games. Victors are to present a united front.” She turned sharp eyes to her. “And you know that I hold no allegiance toward either Joselyn or Felicity. Nor they to me, clearly. We are strangers to one another.”

“Either way, we should stop pointing fingers at one another,” a new voice grumbled from yet another male and female pair. In this case, it came from a somewhat heavyset Middle Eastern-looking man with dark skin and a full beard. He stood beside the smaller, light-skinned and dark-haired female figure who was known to those present as Ikita, and to very few as the woman currently possessed by the Seosten named Cahethal.

Most of those present had their own Garden-based names that they went by amongst their own tribes. But here, in this room, they used their real names. That was part of being equals within the leadership of Eden’s Garden. Only Ikita, her real name of Lydia Smallwood almost completely forgotten by all but a select few, used her tribal name here. None were really sure why she was allowed to get away with such a thing, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that she had been going by Ikita since long before Garden had ever been a thing.

“Kyril has a point,” Zoya agreed with a nod to the Middle Eastern man who stood next to Ikita/Cahethal. “I’m sorry, Remember. We should be united now.” Her eyes flicked over to the damaged walls. “There’s been enough fighting.”

“Enough?” Prestor demanded. “Or not even close? Because from where we’re standing, the traitors still escaped with a third of the apples for this year.”

“Don’t forget the Stranger resources they released,” Zoya put in. “Thousands of cages and magical prisons were broken. Some went with the traitors, some simply fled through other portals. They’ve scattered by now. It will take quite some time and effort to collect the ones who went on their own, to say nothing of those who are now accompanying the traitors.”

Hannah, still standing close to her great uncle Benedict, nodded. “The escaped Strangers are irrelevant compared to what was stolen from this room. Because it’s not just the apples. They have the vines. They could technically find a way to grow more with the vines.”

“Doubtful,” Remember disagreed with a frown. “I suppose it could be possible. But without the Children of Bosch…” Her gaze moved to Prestor and Lorenzo, the Victors of that tribe. “It is not likely.”

These, who had spoken and stood facing one another, were the Victors of the five Eden’s Garden tribes who had remained loyal after the spell from Gaia Sinclaire and her pet student Felicity Chambers, the daughter of the first great traitor, Joselyn Atherby, had reawakened the rebellion. Five tribes.

Remember Bennett and the incredibly young-looking Indian woman Zoya Dalal led Lost Scar.

Ikita, secretly Cahethal, and Kyril Shamon, the heavyset Middle Eastern man, were the leaders of the Eternal Eye tribe.

The Victors of the Children of Bosch, known for their scientific experiments, were Prestor Cannon and Lorenzo Hunt.

The tribe known as the Reapers took their name from those same powerful creatures from which all Bosch Heretics drew their power. Unlike the other tribes, their Victors had been split on their loyalty. The elderly Native American known as Quevias Quarter had stayed, along with roughly half of their number. Their other Victor, the woman named Aniya Keita, had left with the remaining half.

Finally, the eponymous American ‘traitor’ himself, Benedict Arnold, led the so-called Remnant Guardians alongside his great-niece, Hannah Beckman.

Kyril looked toward Prestor and Lorenzo as well. “How about it?” he asked in a voice that rumbled through the room. “How many of yours went with the traitor tribes? Enough for them to work on planting those vines?”

Three and one half of the eight tribes had turned almost fully traitor, rebelling nearly as one. But not all of those tribe members left with them. Some stayed behind and would be taken in by the remaining tribes once their loyalties were assured. Unfortunately, as Kyril’s words implied, some from the loyal tribes’ members had left as well.

Four and one half loyal tribes, versus three and one half traitors. An almost even split. The loyalists had considered it a win that they retained control of the tree while the rebels left, but that would not be nearly as much of a victory if the traitors actually managed to use their stolen vines to grow new fruit. It was a process that should have been impossible, or at least too slow to be useful anytime within the next few decades. And yet… more unlikely things had happened. Losing any of the fruit, let alone entire vines, was a dangerous blow to the loyalists.

In response to Kyril’s question, Prestor and Lorenzo looked to one another, before the latter spoke. “We don’t believe that any of those who left are… advanced enough to succeed at such an attempt.”

“Belief is not knowledge,” Ikita/Cahethal pointed out flatly, letting her gaze move over the assembled group, her eight fellow loyal Victors. “We cannot be certain until we retrieve the vines. That should be our primary goal, above all else. We take the vines back, before the traitors manage to defy expectations by finding a way to make them grow.”

Benedict gave a firm nod at that. “Agreed. We track down the traitors. First priority is to take the vines. Second is to apprehend our… counterparts. This rebellion must be stopped before they ally themselves with the Atherby camp. You know what happened the last time, how far we had to go to ensure that war was ended.”

“It will not get that far,” Kyril stated firmly, his dark eyes blazing with anger at the very idea.

“I certainly hope not,” Remember murmured, her soft voice drawing the attention of the others. “As Benedict said, we all remember what happened during the last rebellion, when entire tribes abandoned the tree. We need to nip this in the bud.

“Before it’s too late.”

*******

“This… is a very long way from the Chamber of Victories.”

The man who was speaking was small and relatively thin, though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with green eyes and hair that was cut short, its natural blond color turned dark blue.

His hands gestured to the room around himself and his companions. Like the aforementioned Chamber, it was a large room with a single table in the middle. But that was where the similarities ended. In this case, rather than being at the top of a magically gigantic tree, this was the private dining room in the back of a small buffet restaurant in a medium-sized town somewhere on the west coast of the United States.

“Yes, Carseus.” The Asian woman who sat beside the man who had spoken looked equally young, save for her incredibly ancient pale eyes, which looked as though they had been through many centuries. Given the woman was well over three thousand years old, the eyes were a far more accurate representation of her age than her flawless skin and hair were, in this case.

She looked to her male partner, adding, “It is very different. Yet I… cannot find too much fault in it.” She offered a very slight smile. “I rather enjoy it more than the Chamber, personally. So much food variety. I am planning on trying that… what is it called? Spawgetshe?”

“Spaghetti,” the man sitting across from her who spoke up then looked very old and very weathered, like an ancient cowboy, his skin wrinkled and leathery. He even wore a leather duster and the wide-brimmed hat most associated with the old west. Or normally wore them, in any case. Currently, the duster had been draped over the back of his chair, while the hat sat in front of the man on the table. “They call it spaghetti.”

“Thank you, Jack,” the Asian woman, known as Fu Hao, gratefully murmured with a slight bow of her head. “Yes. I am looking forward to trying this… spaghetti. It shall be an adventure.”

Beside the cowboy, known as Jack Childs, sat his own partner, a man who appeared to be in his early forties, with short black hair and a wide face. His expression looked almost permanently surprised. Since the days when he had served at the command of King Arthur with the other Knights of the Round table, he had been known as Lamorak.

Now, Lamorak the knight sat in quiet meditation, his eyes closed as he let the words of his fellow Victors wash over him. Arthur’s words had guided him this far. But what would come next? And would he know what to do when it did?

Near Lamorak, close enough to touch him (which she did, occasionally), sat a lone woman. Aniyah Keita, the Reaper Victor who had taken half of her tribe away from her own actual partner to follow her knight lover, had long red hair with one part at the front that was midnight black. Her skin was quite tanned, particularly for a red-head, and she had gray eyes with flecks of black.

Finally, on the far side of Fu Hao and Carseus, sat two figures whose similarities revealed their close relation. Each had equally olive skin, on the somewhat darker side, with black hair and brown eyes. Their noble, regal facial structures came from literal royalty, as the siblings, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, were the direct children of the latter’s namesake. Their mother had been the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, while their father was the Roman general and leader Mark Antony. The twins had, in all their many centuries of Heretic life, remained a near-constant in each other’s lives. Including now, as they led the tribe known as the Dust Striders.

These were the leaders of those who had rebelled from Eden’s Garden following the removal of the memory spell. Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (or Cleo as she preferred) Selene had taken all of the Dust Striders who were loyal to them. Carseus Elsen and Fu Hao had taken their own Vigilant Sons (and Daughters), Jack Childs and Lamorak had taken the ones known as Fate’s Shepherds, and Aniyah Keita had taken roughly one half of the Reapers tribe.

From her seat, Cleo looked toward Fu Hao. “Don’t forget,” she murmured, “we aren’t here solely for the enjoyment of new tastes. Our people are depending on us.”

“And the Alters we took out of that place,” Lamorak quietly pointed out. “The ones who stayed with us.”

“That’s right,” Childs agreed with both while rubbing a hand over his heavily-lined face. “We’ve got ‘em all spread out pretty well between here and the border with Canada, so we probably won’t attract too much attention just yet. But we need to find a place to settle in and start building up defenses. And we can’t go any further north than that.”

He was right. Even the seven of them together did not want to risk angering the one who called themselves the King of Canada. That place was off limits to Heretics. It was entirely too dangerous to make an enemy of that… being.

“What about Seller?” Childs asked then, addressing his question toward Carseus and Fu Hao, the Victors of Seller’s tribe. “Is he joining us? And what of the others in his… group, Atherby’s oldest daughter, and the Eternal Eye girl.”

“Miranda,” Fu Hao informed him. “And we believe he will come to meet us. But she… she will likely stay with the Atherbys. As will Abigail and the other girl, Gia. Or ‘Pace’ as she is known.”

Childs coughed. “Then there’s the elephant in the room. Hannah Owens. Bosch’s descendant. We really screwed up there, didn’t we?”

Fu Hao was quiet for a moment before simply replying, “It is doubtful she will have any interest in returning either. Most probably, she and the others will choose to stay with the descendants of Camelot.”

“Are we sure we shouldn’t join up with them too?” Childs considered, head tilting curiously. “Linking up with the remnants of Arthur’s kingdom might just be exactly what we need to do to win the war that’s coming.”

Eyes still closed, Lamorak murmured, “Not yet. It’s not the right time. We need to be able to stand on our own first.”

Cleo gave a nod of agreement. “He’s right. The Atherbys and Prosser may be a great help, but we must come as allies, not dependants. We will create a new place for ourselves and defend it.”

Carseus spoke then. “We have the vines too. They’re safe enough in the storage dimension, but they’re not going to grow like that.”

“As far as we know,” Alexander Helios put in, “they will not grow at all. We do not know how to make them work.”

“We have some ideas,” Aniyah corrected him, moving a hand to gently squeeze Lamorak’s leg while she amended, “Some of our people do, and those who came with us from the Children of Bosch.”

Fu Hao gave a very slight, almost imperceptible nod. “Yes. Yet this is not something we will have more chances to get right. We must be absolutely certain that the vines will thrive and grow before we risk losing them. If we do not have the vines to create more of our people, the other tribes will soon hold an insurmountable advantage.”

Drumming his fingers along his hat, Childs pointed out, “Maybe we should’ve stayed then. If we had the tree and drove them out…”

Opening his eyes, Lamorak shook his head. “We didn’t have the numbers, old friend. Better to take what we could hold and leave to fight again another day. We will find a safe place for our tribes. And we’ll grow the vines.”

“You sound confident of that,” Alexander noted, his dark eyes watching Lamorak curiously. “Is there something you want to tell the rest of us?”

For a moment Lamorak was quiet. “I’m… not entirely certain. But… yes, I think so. Arthur, when he was alive… he told me a lot of things. Some of it had to do with visions he had of the future. I’m not entirely sure how it all fits together. I don’t think even he was. But one of the things he said was that the seeds would grow near the Lost Territory.”

“Lost Territory?” Cleo echoed. “That… sounds like Desoto.”

Aniyah leaned back a bit in her seat. “You think the old king saw all of this and wanted you to take the vines and plant them near what used to be Desoto?”

“I don’t think he understood much of what he saw,” Lamorak pointed out quietly. “It was all just images and thoughts jumbled together. But yes, I think that’s what he was saying. Even if he didn’t understand it then.”

“Well then,” Fu Hao announced, “we will begin taking the tribes south-east, toward what was once Desoto.

“But for now, let us eat. I wish to try this… spaghetti.”

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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“Oh damn it, I liked you as a teacher!”

The outburst came from Tristan, as the boy put the heels of both hands against his forehead, fingers pressed against his scalp. “Seriously, dude, you’re possessed too?”

Wyatt, meanwhile, had a hand against his own forehead as well. In his case, however, the man was repeatedly slapping himself. “No! No, should’ve known. I did it wrong. I knew I did it wrong. Had to test. I had to test and it was supposed to work. What did I do wrong?”

There was a brief pause as the man in the doorway blinked at her, before stepping fully inside. “First, Mr. Moon,” he began simply, “I promise, the man you enjoyed having as an instructor is basically the exact same guy you always knew. My, ahhh… influence runs pretty much the same way as Sariel there. You know, I act as subtly as possible, and only taking direct control when I absolutely have to. For the most part, all the teaching you experienced was from Benji himself.”

Flick was pointing at him. “You–that–we tested you! I tested you! I swear, I used the choker thing and you didn’t show up as Seosten. And Wyatt! He’s right! Wyatt used the ejection rune thing on everyone who came in here. Why wouldn’t it work on you? Why didn’t you show up as Seosten before? What?”

Holding up both hands for peace, the Seosten-possessed-man carefully replied, “There’s a reason for both of those not working. My old friends here, they already know.”

“Amitiel,” Sariel herself announced neutrally, already having moved to step in front of the man.  

“He prefers Mercury,” Apollo reminded her as he put himself beside his pseudo-sibling. “Right?”

The man wearing Benji Carfried gave a very slight swallow before his head bowed. “Yup. That’s right. Mercury’s my name. Just like Apollo is yours. Do you want to explain why their tests didn’t work?”

“It’s Mercury’s Olympian power,” Apollo murmured, glancing to the others. “It allows him to extend, delay, or quicken the effects of any magic that’s used on him. When you tested him with the choker, or the expulsion rune, he just delayed the effect long enough to convince you it didn’t work, then got out of sight before letting it happen.”

Wyatt, cursing rapidly under his breath, yanked a well-worn notebook from his pocket once more and set about rapidly scrawling in it. He tore three pages out, looked around briefly as though looking for somewhere to throw them, then simply shoved the paper into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before setting out to scribble even faster.

“Errr, right,” Mercury murmured at that before shaking his head. “But before we get too far with this, I ahh, I’d kind of like to speak to you guys directly. Without my host, I mean. Do you have a place for him to rest for the time being? He and I… we need to have a conversation about where we’re going from here, if he’s up for it. But that can wait. This seemed more pressing.”

“So you’re not going to try to possess him against his will again?” Flick put in, staring intently at the man. She too had enjoyed Carfried as a teacher and didn’t know what all this meant for that, despite Mercury’s words. “You’re not just gonna make some deal about jumping back in?”

The man offered her a brief, genuine smile. “You know, I’m pretty sure the days of that are almost gone as it is,” he pointed out. “After all, Liesje’s spell must be pretty close to being ready to go. So I would’ve revealed myself eventually regardless.”

He heaved a slow sigh. “No, I’ve no intention of forcing control of Benji again, after this. I’d… ahhh, kind of like it if somebody else would sorta… talk to him and explain the situation. Tell him that, if he wants, we can have a face-to-face conversation any way he wants. Or I can leave him alone. His choice. Either way, it’d  be best if he hears it from someone other than me, at first.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “You really don’t take much control of your vict–host?” She was squinting suspiciously at him.

Clearing Carfried’s throat, Mercury quietly pointed out, “Yeah, I get your doubts, trust me. All I can say is that you’ll see for yourself when you talk to him enough after I’m gone. You’ll know it’s him. He’s your teacher and he always was. I took control only when I had to for my mission. Or to protect some other Seosten secret. For the vast majority of my time with Benji, I was a passive observer.”

“He definitely sounds different,” Flick pointed out. “I can’t explain it, but he’s not really talking like Carfried does. If I didn’t know about Seosten or anything, I’d almost say they were twins.”

From the corner where she was still standing, Gwen agreed, “She’s right. This guy may look like Benji Carfried, but you can tell the difference. He’s not trying to blend in. I can’t say if that means that he wasn’t acting different before, or that it proves what he’s claiming about not taking control. But he is different now.” As she spoke, the woman continued to look the man up and down with a hard, yet thoughtful expression, still deciding exactly what she thought of him.

“I’m sorry,” Abigail suddenly put in, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole ‘Flick, Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris have been co-opted by Aphrodite to convince an intergalactic evil empire to completely change everything about itself in order to win a war against another intergalactic evil empire full of even worse monsters, and they have a year to do it’… thing. Now this guy’s another Seosten?” She paused, taking a breath before exhaling long and hard while muttering, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss law school.”

“Don’t worry,” Flick assured her sister with a hand on her shoulder, “we’ll let you learn Seosten law so you can help convince the Seraphs not to kill all of us.” As Abigail lifted her head to squint at her, the girl raised her hand to give a thumbs up. “You got this.”

Lincoln finally spoke, standing up. “Well, Mr… ahh, Mercury. Whatever’s going on, I guess you can put your… host over in the bedroom here.” He waved for the man to follow while heading that way. “He can sleep on the bed, and we’ll explain things to him later.” Pausing, he added, “I should probably make sure there’s alcohol nearby at the time.”

While the two went to do that, Gwen took a breath before quietly asking, “Are you sure we can trust him to tell us the truth about the Merlin Key?” Her eyes were on Sariel and Apollo.

The ‘twins’ exchanged glances before Sariel spoke. “He has no real reason to lie right now. It’s in the best interest of everyone who stays on Earth that Arthur be awake before the year is up. The Seraphim are much more likely to listen to alliance suggestions if we make them from a position of strength.”

Apollo nodded. “Kinda hard to get any stronger than a natural Dragon-Heretic. If you guys say that Jophiel sent him, I don’t see why he’d lie about anything here. He has to know that that would be a bad idea for the trust they’re trying to foster.”

“And,” Sariel added, “he’s the one who first convinced us to… to save Chayyiel. He begged us to find a way to get her out of Tartarus. He was willing to risk everything, willing to do anything, to save her.” She paused briefly, before finishing with, “I’d say we can trust him for that, if nothing else. Besides, as we said, he has no tactical reason to lie right now.”

Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s arm, asked, “Does he really possess people like you did?”

“As far as we know, he does,” Apollo confirmed. “Mercury was always getting in trouble for not taking more control, for not having a… firm hold on his hosts. If he says he’s barely been doing anything with Carfried, I’d believe him.”

“Thanks.” That voice, unknown to most of them until now, came from the doorway where Lincoln stood with the actual Mercury. He was shorter than the man beside him, yet taller than his host, standing just over six feet. His hair, dark red to the point of nearly being black, was worn long, with a tight ponytail, and his skin was very tanned, with firm, lean muscles. He looked like a lightweight boxer, with eyes that were bright green.

“I’d like to say it’s nice to meet all of you face to face,” the Seosten observed. “Honestly, I would’ve preferred to do it without all this tension, but I suppose that was pretty inevitable.” Taking a breath, he stepped forward and extended a hand toward them. “Let’s start this again. You can call me Mercury.”

Haiden was the first to step that way, taking the man’s hand firmly as he looked him straight in the eyes. “I hope my wife and brother-in-law are right about trusting you with this.”

“Yes,” a new voice announced from the entrance into the cabin. Athena stood there, watching the other Seosten as she let the door close after her. “So do I.” Glancing to Flick and the others, she added, “Guinevere has brought me up to date about what happened. I…” She paused to consider, then finished with, “I’m sorry you were put in that kind of position.”

Vanessa offered her a weak shrug. “We’ve been in worse. I mean, Jophiel isn’t that bad.”

With a small smile, Athena agreed, “Yes, there were certainly worse people who could have discovered Tabbris at the lab that day.”

She and Gwen exchanged brief looks and a silent conversation passed between the two before Athena turned back to the others, her gaze finding Mercury once more. “As tense as it may be for some of us, for this alliance to ever work, we are going to have to trust each other.”

“In the… interest of that,” Mercury began slowly, “there’s something that Chayyiel was trying to convince me to do a long time ago. I resisted. But it’s probably time, if it’ll help with trust.” While the rest of the room looked uncertain, he focused on Flick. “The Anuk-Ite choker, do you have access to it?”

Of all the things he could have said right then, that was probably one of the most surprising. Blinking at him, Flick hesitated before looking over toward Athena. Only when the woman nodded to her, did she hold her hand out. “Tabs?” Tabbris, in turn, produced the necklace and passed it over.

“Go ahead,” Mercury urged gently while putting his hand out, palm down. “Test me.”

“But you’re–” Stopping herself, Flick put the choker on, adjusting it. Giving one last look to the others, she shrugged before putting her hand on his. Her eyes had just begun to squint that way when she jumped, stumbling backward a step. “What–the–but you’re–”

“SPS,” Abigail murmured. “You’re an SPS-Seosten, like Theia, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure what that stands for,” Mercury replied, “but I am what my people call a Lie, yes.”

Sariel was staring at him. “You… you’ve been like this the whole time. Back in the lab, you were supposed to have disappeared, run off with some supplies or something. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“And that’s why Chayyiel trusted you,” Apollo added. “Why you were so intent on saving her. And why you prefer the name Mercury instead of Amitiel. Because you’re not really Amitiel.”

“She kept my secret,” Mercury confirmed, swallowing visibly. “She… she was my friend, in the lab. The original Amitiel saw me in her room when I went to visit her, and jumped to conclusions. We fought. He was gonna…” He grimaced, looking away. “He was going to kill me and tell them that I was doing things to Chayyiel. She was my friend. I would never–” Cutting himself off, he sighed. “I possessed him. We… struggled. I won. I was going to turn myself in, but Chayyiel convinced me not to. So it’s been a secret. Our secret. Until now.”

Flick, who had been staring at the man that whole time, swallowed hard. “That… you’ve been keeping that kind of secret for that long?”

“Yeah,” the man murmured, “saying it out loud like this is pretty… pretty hard.”

It was Tabbris who moved to him then. Stepping in front of Flick, the young girl squinted before speaking softly. “It must’ve been really scary to hide for so long, around so many people that would’ve hated you.”

Meeting her eyes, Mercury slowly sank to one knee. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kinda got used to it. Mostly, anyway. But I never forgot that I didn’t belong there.”

After a very brief hesitation, Tabbris reached out to embrace the man. “It’s okay,” she informed him. “You can belong here, if you want to.”

Flick glanced to her younger sister and partner before nodding. “Yeah,” she murmured, “she’s right. If you’re open about things now. Which means telling us everything about this… Merlin Key.”  

Taking that as her opening, Gwen stepped forward with a nod. “Yes. Everything.”

Glancing up to her, Mercury offered a slight smile. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad to have good news for you, your majesty. And not just because I’d rather not have to face you when you’re angry.”

He straightened then, standing up to face the woman. “I should probably explain first. You see, Chayyiel… she wants to bring back Arthur too. She had me track down and keep an eye on the Merlin Key, to make sure they’re safe.” Pausing, he amended, “Well, technically my official orders from Metatron were to make sure the Merlin Key didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that no one found them.”

Raising his hand, Tristan asked, “Not that I’m objecting, but they didn’t tell you to just… kill this Merlin Key?”

The man shook his head. “No one exactly knows how the Key is supposed to wake up Arthur. They’re worried that if the person is put in too much danger, that could be what wakes him up. The rules were to keep an eye on them and keep anyone else from interfering or doing anything that might set things off. Chayyiel wanted me to watch for the right moment and… help things along.” His gaze moved to Gwen. “When I saw you, as you, that’s when I figured it must be about time. At least… time to tell you all the truth about it.”

“Yeah,” Abigail put in, “I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been really careful to not even give away the gender of this Merlin Key while you’re talking. It’s all ‘they’ and other such words.”

With a slight chuckle, Mercury bowed his head to acknowledge that. “True. I ahh, sorry, product of spending a long time keeping secrets. I’m a little too accustomed to being careful.”

“Okay,” Haiden acknowledged. “So who is this Merlin Key? Are they here at the camp?”

Holding up a hand, the Seosten man murmured, “First, yes, they are here at the camp. But before we get into the who, we need to make something clear.” His eyes moved over everyone in the room slowly, his voice firm. “This is the one chance to bring Arthur back. One. If we fuck this up, he’s gone forever. And here’s the thing, even the Imperium doesn’t actually know what might make him return. We know who is supposed to bring him back, but not how. Putting that person in danger might be the thing that triggers it. Or that might stop it. No one knows. But we do know that if Metatron and the other Seraphim find out that you know who it is, let alone that you’re trying to make it happen, they might just panic. The last thing we need is panicking hostile Seraphim in the middle of a truce. So everything we talk about here, everything, has to stay secret. I mean it cannot leave this room. At all. I don’t care how much you trust someone else, things have a way of getting out there.”

Abigail’s mouth opened to respond to that, but Athena spoke first. “He’s right. We won’t get another chance to bring Arthur back. If this goes wrong, that’s it. So we have to make it perfect. Which means not letting the information out of this room. If anyone here isn’t okay with that, you’re free to leave.”

Apollo nodded, arms folding across his chest. “Believe us, if the Seosten Empire can stop Arthur from returning, they will. Too many of them will always see him as too much of a threat to their power, instead of as the ally against the Fomorians that he could be. So we’re gonna have to play this perfectly. Which is gonna mean keeping secrets. For now.”

“We can do that.” That was Vanessa, her voice soft and reflective. “If it’s a chance to bring Arthur back to life, I think you’re probably right about keeping it secret.”

“But if the Imperium already knows who it is,” Flick put in, “what if they get jumpy and order something done about them?”

“I’ll be the one they ask,” Mercury pointed out. “And I’ll give you the heads up. That’s another reason for why we have to keep it secret. If they find out I’m talking to you, this whole thing blows up.”  

Slowly, and with various degrees of reluctance, everyone in the room agreed to keep the identity of the Merlin Key secret, until the time was right. Once they had all done so, Tristan offered, “You know, this might be a bad time to ask, but are we keeping the whole Merlin Key thing secret from… well, them? The person themselves, I mean. Cuz that could be a pretty big conversation all by itself.”

“It’s okay,” Mercury informed him simply, “that’s not a conversation you have to have. Mostly because I already had it. I’ve revealed myself to the Merlin Key and I’ve been talking them through it for the past few days. It felt like something they should know ahead of time. I’ve been helping them deal with it.”

“You have?” Tristan blurted, snapping his fingers. “Oh. Well, I was kind of thinking it’d be Avalon. You know, the name Avalon and all. It seemed appropriate.” He frowned then. “Except they were trying pretty hard to kill her before… huh. Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s no one in this room,” Mercury assured him with a slight smile. “Though I have asked them to come here. Now that we’ve talked it out this far, they should be–”

Once again, the people in the cabin were interrupted by a knock at the door. As everyone else looked that way, Lincoln stepped over, glanced to the others, and then opened it.

Everyone watched then as the person destined to bring back the Once and Future King stepped hesitantly into the room, the door closing behind them.

“Uhhh… hi. I umm, I guess back when Arthur was still… right before his village was attacked, right before he… before he became a Dragon-Heretic, my grandfather was the Reaper who met him.

“Which I guess means,” Aylen Tamaya continued, “I’m the one who has to wake him up.”

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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“Well, guys… you’ve assembled quite a little group here.” As he spoke, Haiden Moon glanced around at the other occupants of this small cabin. Sariel was there beside him, as were Apollo, Lincoln, Abigail, and Wyatt. They were arranged around a table, their eyes on the other side of the room where Vanessa and Tristan stood with Flick and Tabbris. Guinevere stood in the corner of the room, watching the proceedings.

“Yeah, you have,” Abigail agreed. Her gaze was focused intently on the quartet who had asked all of them to come. “I was even planning on going with Koren and the others on that hike that Klassin’s running until you asked to meet up here.”

“Don’t worry,” Tristan assured her, “there’ll be other hikes. But this is a lot bigger.”

“Why?” Abigail pressed. “What’s going on? Did… something else happen?”

Apollo, who had been watching them closely, spoke up. “I’m pretty sure something happened a couple weeks ago. Something that let them know what was going on with Sean.”

Instead of answering immediately, Flick and the other three exchanged glances. Finally, Vanessa was the first to speak. “Something did happen. But it happened awhile ago. We… umm, we couldn’t… exactly talk about it before…” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable while shifting from foot to foot.

“Hey, Nessabird,” Haiden started while frowning a little at his daughter’s nervousness. “It’s okay. You know you guys can tell us anything. No one here is gonna get mad at you, whatever it is.”

Lincoln nodded slowly, his own gaze centered on Flick and Tabbris. “Girls? Something’s been off with you lately. Especially today. But if something’s wrong, something that’s got you this… out of it, even after everything else that’s happened…”

Apollo, whose gaze had been more on Gwen than the children, spoke quietly. “Oh yeah, something’s definitely been off. But for longer than that. It’s been off since around–”

“We don’t like lying to you,” Flick abruptly blurted. “We hate it. We… hated it. But we had to.”

Raising an eyebrow, Sariel echoed in a slow, soft voice, “You… had to lie?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, only curious, as her eyes moved from Flick to her own children. She said nothing else to prompt or push them, content even now to let the story come in their own time.

Tabbris, who was half-hiding behind Flick while clinging to the girl’s waist, nodded. “We had to. Magic ‘had to.’ It was part of the deal.”

Before Sariel or any of the others could question that, Tristan spoke up. “We should really start from the beginning instead of skipping around so much. It’d be a lot less confusing. So um, it started back on that prison lab, the one… the one Kushiel was running, when we were…” He hesitated, glancing toward Sariel. “When we were saving Mom.”

Haiden leaned forward, glancing to his wife before turning his attention back to the group that had called them all here. “That’s right, you four were off on your own at the end of that, weren’t you? You made it to the room just before Apollo showed up to help.”

“We made it a little sooner than that,” Tristan muttered. “We made it in time to hit that security field that knocked Tabs out of Flick.”

Eyes widening just a bit, Abigail blurted, “I’m sorry, what? There was some kind of anti-possession field and you walked into it with Tabbris?”

Wincing a little, Flick nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t know about that until it was too late. We walked into the room just outside the place where that transport ship thing was and suddenly she was… outside me.”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Tabbris added, “Uh huh. It felt funny. And then Miss Jophiel showed up.”

For as simply as she stated those words, the girl might as well have thrown a bomb into the middle of the room. Two different chairs hit the floor as both Sariel and Lincoln jolted to their feet. Several people spoke at once, all talking over each other.

Finally, Apollo cleared his throat. “Ahem. Maybe it’d be easier to get the answers you’re all looking for if you let them keep talking.”

His words made Sariel flush a little, but she remained standing, her gaze fixed on her children. “What… do you mean, Jophiel was there?” Her voice was careful and deliberate, but it was very clearly a shell covering her true fear at the revelation that the other Seosten had seen Tabbris.

It was apparently Vanessa’s turn to speak, drawing her mother’s (and everyone else’s) attention with, “She came in her host.” A brief pause, then, “Elisabet, from the Committee.”

Again, there was a flurry of reactions. Lincoln was staring at Flick. While most of the others were talking, he met her gaze and silently mouthed, ‘Are you okay?’ Getting a quick nod from the girl, he relaxed just a little. It helped.

Wyatt, meanwhile, was on his feet, though he said nothing. For once, he wasn’t blurting out conspiracy theories or accusations. Instead, the man drew a notebook from his pants and proceeded to scribble in it quickly. He crossed out several entries, added a few words to others, and even seemed to draw a picture. Meanwhile, everyone else kept talking, until Sariel stepped around the table and moved to where the children were. “She… did she…”

“They didn’t hurt us,” Tabbris promised her mother, hesitating slightly before moving to embrace her tightly. “We’re sorry, Mama. We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, but we couldn’t.”

“Magic.” Of all people, it was Abigail who realized that first. “They used magic to make sure you couldn’t tell anyone about them seeing you, didn’t they?”

“That figures,” Apollo muttered, adding a few words in Latin that was clearly a curse of some kind.

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “But it’s–it’s not like they wanted to hurt us or anything. They weren’t setting up a trap or… you know, they could’ve told the Empire about Tabbris way back then. They could’ve captured us. They–right, gotta tell it in order.” He looked to his sister for help explaining.

“We freaked out,” Vanessa supplied dryly. “Especially when Jophiel, umm… revealed herself. It was scary. I mean, they knew about Tabbris, and we couldn’t exactly… fight her. We couldn’t fight either of them. But it’s like Tristan said, they didn’t want to hurt us or anything.”

“You keep saying ‘they,’” Haiden observed, trying to keep his mind from spinning out. “But it sounds like it was just Jophiel and her host. Are you saying that…”

“They’re a couple,” Flick confirmed, clearly watching everyone’s reaction to that. “Jophiel and Elisabet. I mean, even when she’s not possessed, Elisabet is head over heels for Jophiel. Still.”

Apollo coughed. “I don’t know how much I’d trust that. Jophiel’s got ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Supernatural ways.”

“Yeah, she checked that.” Flick gestured to the corner of the room where Gwen stood, the woman nodding once in acknowledgment. “She used something to block Jophiel’s Olympian power and it didn’t change how Elisabet felt. They’re in love. They’ve been in love for a long time. But that’s not the point. I mean, it really is a huge part of the point, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Vanessa nodded in agreement. “Yeah, totally getting ahead of ourselves. Jophiel and Elisabet showed up, but they didn’t want to turn us in. They… they wanted our help.”

“Your help?” Apollo echoed, glancing toward Sariel as the woman held Tabbris close. “Help with what, exactly?”

Tristan took that one. “They don’t want to dominate humans anymore. I mean they didn’t want to, even before we got the spell from that vault.”

“Jophiel’s in love with Elisabet,” Flick added. “So she wants humans and Seosten to work together. You know, sort of… combine forces.”

Vanessa quickly pushed on while everyone stared. “They said the best way to make an alliance with the humans is to prove to the Seraphim that humans and Seosten working together willingly is better than their other system. The umm, constant enslavement and manipulation of our entire society, I mean. And the way to do that–”

Lincoln realized what she was going to say first, supplying, “–was to show them human-Seosten hybrids and a human-Seosten possession pairing worked together willingly instead of with slavery. They wanted Flick and Tabbris to show their leaders how effective a willing, cooperative partnership could be.” Pausing then, he added with a frown, “Because apparently those same leaders haven’t heard it enough times from Athena’s rebels, or that Chayyiel girl’s people. Or basic common sense. Remind me, how did they get to be your people’s leaders again?”

“Trust me, it takes a lot to convince the Seraphim of anything,” Apollo informed him in a flat voice. “It kind of needs to be hammered home a lot. And sometimes I’d really like to do that with an actual hammer.”

Looking a bit troubled, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, Flick put in, “Anyway, they’ve kind of adjusted a lot of the plan now, especially the timeframe, considering the whole ‘one year to prove they shouldn’t invade’ thing. But the deal we made back then was that they would teach us what they knew, that they’d… you know, train us to impress the Seraphim so we could convince them that an alliance is better than slavery.”

“And God forbid they use themselves as the example,” Abigail muttered darkly, “instead of using children. After magically forcing them to keep it a secret from their families.”

“Wait, just… wait.” Flick’s head shook. “That’s not really fair. I mean, yes, they strong-armed us into keeping it secret, but they were just protecting themselves. It’s a really big secret. Like Vanessa and Tristan said, they could have completely destroyed us if they wanted to. They could have taken us in, exposed Tabbris, kept Sariel imprisoned… they didn’t. And their plan, the one about teaching us to be an example for the Seraphim, that… like it or not, it’s a better plan than anything else we’ve got. The Seosten leaders obviously aren’t going to listen to people they see as rebels or traitors. Jophiel staying in power long enough to train us and then using us as the example might sound crazy or like they’re taking advantage of us, but they’re kind of just working with the hand they were dealt. Maybe they’re not perfect, like with the whole… being okay with enslaving other races just because they think it’s the best way to beat the Fomorians thing. But they’re not that bad.”

Vanessa was nodding. “Yeah, and really… they would be putting themselves at risk. As they pointed out already, the Seraphim aren’t stupid. They’d figure out that Elisabet and Jophiel weren’t exactly a normal Seosten-slave host relationship pretty quick once they started talking up the benefits of being partners. Like Flick said, maybe they’ve done some shady stuff, but they’ve also got the best chance of actually convincing the Seraphim of changing things. Bright wishes and hopes just aren’t going to do it. Maybe their plan can.”

“Still,” Abigail insisted, “They just had to terrorize a handful of minors into doing what they… what they…” She trailed off then, her eyes widening as something occurred to her. “Those… God… damn…” Abruptly, the woman jerked upright, staring at Flick. “They made rescuing Sariel a condition, didn’t they? They made rescuing their mother a condition.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan while her voice cracked audibly. “If you guys wanted to free her, you had to agree to their plan.”

Hearing that was enough to make Sariel drop to one knee, wrapping both arms around Tabbris tightly. “You–oh. You’re right. They–she would… Jophiel would do that.” She sounded stricken upon the realization that her own imprisonment and subsequent freedom had been used to essentially blackmail her children into obeying Jophiel and Elisabet.

Swallowing hard, Flick managed, “Yes. But we would’ve agreed to a lot more than that. All they wanted was for us to meet with them for training any time they wanted so they could use us to prove their point to the Seraphim, and to keep the truth about their own relationship secret. I mean, we had to keep all of it secret. They used magic to make sure we couldn’t talk about it.”

“I knew it!” That was Wyatt, suddenly blurting out loud as he pointed at Flick. “I knew you had a different spell on you! I could smell it. I could taste it. But I couldn’t see it. They hid it really well. But I knew. Iiiii knew it. Thought I was being paranoid, huh? No! You were spelled. I tried to find the spell, but I couldn’t. I thought it was Gaia’s spell, the one she broke to let you bring back the rebellion. That was a secret spell too. So I thought the secret spell I sensed on you was that one. But it wasn’t! I mean, it wasn’t just that. You had that one and this one, and–”

He paused then, frowning at Flick. “Has it occurred to you that you get a lot of secret magic put on you?”

With a tiny smile, the blonde girl nodded to him. “It, uhhh, crossed my mind a few times, yeah.”

Haiden had moved by then to take a knee by the twins, holding one of each of their hands. “They said you had to take this secrecy spell thing to save your mom, and you went for it?”

Blinking away tears rapidly, Vanessa stammered, “W-we had to. It was Mom. It was our chance to get her back. They said that… they said they’d give us the passcode to unlock her stasis chamber.”

“That’s how you had that,” Sariel breathed, rising to step that way while pulling Tabbris with her. She embraced all three of her children, and her husband, together. “I thought there was… something about it that you weren’t telling. But I didn’t know it was anything like this.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Flick carefully explained. “They really do seem like they want humans and Seosten to work together.”

“And other species?” Abigail prompted pointedly. “How do they feel about stopping all enslavement?” Seeing the expression on her younger sister’s face, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I don’t see them speaking up to stop the mistreatment of SPS Seosten either.”

Finally speaking up for the first time, Gwen asked from her spot in the corner, “SPS?”  

“Sticky-Possession-Syndrome,” Flick supplied. “Miranda made it up. It’s better than calling them Lies.”

“Huh,” Gwen murmured thoughtfully. “Yes, I imagine it is.” She went quiet once more, allowing the group to continue their story.

Tristan was shaking his head at Abigail. “Yeah, they’re not exactly all-in on ‘everyone is equal’ yet. It’s more of a human and Seosten thing. But hey, it’s a start. It’s probably easier to go from ‘humans and Seosten should totally be allies’ to ‘all the non-assholes band together against the assholes’ than to get there from ‘everyone who isn’t Seosten is worthless.’”

Muttering something under her breath about how that should be self-evident, Abigail continued to bristle for a moment before sighing audibly. “Fine, it’s a start. But they made you lie to everyone.”

Tabbris’ head bobbed up and down while she clung to her mother. Her voice was quiet. “W-we’re sorry. We had to take the spells so we could save Mama.”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Lincoln assured her. He exchanged a brief look with Sariel before reaching out to pick the young girl up, holding her to him. “No one’s mad at you.”

“I can think of a few choice words I have for those two, though,” Haiden put in, his eyes cloudy as he stared at the nearby wall as though imagining having a chance to confront the pair.

Looking over to Sariel, Lincoln asked, “What do you know about this… Jophiel?”

There was a brief pause from the Seosten woman before her head shook. “It’s been a long time since I had much to do with her. If she’s really in love with a human… then she’s changed a lot.”

“She is,” Gwen put in. “I put them both through enough tests to be sure of it. Elisabet’s feelings for her are real. And as far as I can tell, so are Jophiel’s toward Elisabet. It makes sense given what they’ve done. Jophiel wants to prove humans are okay to ally with so that she can be open about her relationship with Elisabet. But they want to use these kids to prove it. Which means getting them ready.”

“So they’ve been… training you?” Sariel asked carefully, her voice bristling with what was clearly tightly controlled anger.

The group exchanged glances before Vanessa nodded. “Teaching us how to use our Seosten gifts, how to fight, and… everything else they could think of that could be impressive. And they were teaching Flick and Tabbris how to work together.”

“Basically like what Athena started,” Flick put in, “but more intensive. Plus, they’ve worked together for so long, they have a lot of tips.”

“That’s just fantastic,” Haiden dryly remarked, “but how about they do it the right way, instead of sneaking around behind all our backs and magically forcing our kids to lie to us for months?” His words were followed by a collection of tight nods, as the adults tried not to let their kids see just how upset they were with the whole situation.

“What changed?” That was Wyatt, who spoke up while the others were all silent as they took in everything that the group had told them. “They had magic spells to keep you quiet. Why can you tell us now?”

Straightening a bit while still holding Tabbris, Lincoln looked toward Gwen. “That’s a good question. And I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with you.”

Flick nodded. “Yup. She umm, sort of accidentally found out part of the truth while she was posing as Harper, and I guess she followed us to find out more. She’s been keeping an eye on us.”

“And when all this went down,” the woman herself added, “there was no point to keeping my involvement secret. So we arranged a meeting a couple weeks ago and… made an arrangement for the secrecy spells to be removed. There’s little point to them. We have a year to prove to the Seraphim that invading this planet is a bad idea. Which they have their way of doing, and I have mine.”

That drew Sariel’s attention. The woman looked to her, blinked once, then realized. “Arthur. You want to bring Arthur back.”

“Having him would tend to push the Seosten toward cooperation, yes,” Gwen confirmed. “Not that I don’t like the idea of happy alliances against the bigger threat, but with people like the Seosten, it’s a good idea to extend one open hand while holding a really big gun with the other.” Pausing, she added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Apollo and Sariel both replied simultaneously. The two exchanged looks of their own that said just how much was going through their minds, before Apollo added by himself, “We need to talk to Jophiel. About this and a lot of other things.”

“She said you’d say that,” Tristan informed them. “And they said they’ll meet with you later, once they can get away. Plus, we have this other meeting first.”

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

Gwen took over once more. “To bring Arthur back, we need to identify the Merlin Key, the prophesied figure who will wake him up. That person is supposed to be one of the students at Crossroads.”

“And Jophiel knows who?” Apollo quickly asked, his eyes widening. “I couldn’t get that much, even with what was, let me tell you, an awful lot of work.”

“She knows someone who probably knows who,” Flick informed them, biting her lip then before adding a quiet, “Mercury.”

That made the two Seosten look at each other once more, their eyes meeting before Sariel snapped, “Mercury is here too?”

The teens started to respond to that, only to stop as there was a knock at the door. Gwen, standing next to it, glanced to the door, looked it up and down before whistling softly as she reached out to tug it open, revealing a figure standing there.

“Good evening,” the man who appeared to be Benji Carfried announced. “May I come in?

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Summer Epilogue 8 – Fossor and Joselyn

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“So yes, I must say, that was certainly an… unexpected turn of events.”

As he murmured those words, the man known as Fossor strode through the busy suburban mall, looking for all the world like an average, middle class dad out for a little shopping trip with his younger, far more attractive wife. Well, average save for the fact that a small cloud of ash kept appearing in front of his feet for the man to step on. But save for that small anomaly (which no one else seemed to notice), they could have been a hit sitcom.  “Unexpected indeed.”

Joselyn, who walked in his shadow, spoke softly without looking at the necromancer. “And just when you thought you had Gaia dealt with and out of the way. Too bad, really.” She could not inject even the slightest amount of sincerity into her words. “You must be so upset.”

Joselyn had experienced the same ‘awakening’ that every other Heretic must have when Felicity and Gaia had triggered that spell. The sudden download of information about her own rebellion, her own situation, that had abruptly flooded into her mind had dropped the woman to her knees.

Gaia. Gaia had destroyed the spell that erased the rebellion. She had brought it back, had restored everyone’s memories. More than that, she had shoved knowledge of it into everyone’s head, even those who weren’t there at the time. Every Heretic, everyone connected to the Heretical Edge, had been given the same rush of information.

They knew her. They knew Joselyn. All of them knew who she was, what she had tried to do. They knew what happened to her, what… what Ruthers had done to her children. They knew the truth. It was a thought that struck Joselyn even harder than the actual information upload had. Everyone knew who she was. Everyone knew the truth. They could accept it or not, but they knew. Ruthers had taken her children hostage, had treated babies as bargaining chips to win a war. And now everyone knew.

She truly, genuinely wished she could have seen the look on his face as it happened.

Pausing to give a brief fatherly smile to a woman who passed by with her two young children, Fossor replied simply, “Upset? Hardly.” Winking at the little boy who looked over his shoulder at them, he gave a jaunty wave before turning to walk once more, his gait one of a man with little care in the world. “As a matter of fact, I feel quite invigorated. It’s not good for a man to have no challenges. That just makes you slow. No, I dare say the good headmistress did me quite the favor here. Bringing you back to the attention of the Heretics, reinvigorating that delicious civil war? That should make for some fun, don’t you think?” Pausing, he pointed to the food court. “Oh, let’s treat ourselves. I do enjoy a good soft pretzel, don’t you?”

As she wasn’t really in any position to argue, Joselyn followed after the man. On the way, she made the mistake of glancing back once more to see that small boy with his sister and mother. Soft blonde hair, pink cheeks, an innocent smile… Her gaze quickly snapped away from him while a hard lump formed in her throat. As her eyes jerked from the little boy, she brought her thoughts firmly with it, forcing herself to not think about… that. About him.

Fossor was already standing in front of the pretzel shop, hemming and hawing about which one he wanted to get. When he noticed Joselyn standing quietly nearby, he ordered two, passing the teenage clerk behind the counter cash for them. Taking the napkin-wrapped pretzels, he held both up. “I just can’t decide. Which one would you like, my dear?”

Barely looking at them, Joselyn took one of the pretzels, holding it loosely in one hand just so that he would shut up about them. Her eyes were on Fossor himself, as she spoke in a low, pointed voice. “Are you done with this game? Why are we even here? You know there’s a chance that there could be Heretics in this place. What if they recognize one of us?”

Fossor’s reply to that was as casual as if he was discussing the weather. “Well, if that were to happen, I’d simply have you kill them, of course.” He took a bite of the pretzel, smiling pleasantly. “Mmmm. That is quite the treat.”

“So you’re saying we’re just here so you can see if anyone comes after you,” Joselyn murmured, not bothering to keep the disgust from her voice. “Don’t you have anything more important to do?” Besides manipulate this whole situation to try to force me to kill one of my old friends, she added silently. Despite not saying it aloud, he would know she was thinking it.

Taking another bite of his pretzel, Fossor simply shrugged one shoulder. “Let’s just call this whole thing a test, shall we?” With those simple, yet also troubling words, he turned to walk once more. “Oh, I do hope there’s a decent sale at Old Navy. I need a new pair of slacks.”

As they walked through the mall, Joselyn remarked, “You did all that to get Gaia out of the way so she couldn’t protect Felicity, and she still managed to paint a giant target on you. If anything, Felicity has even more protection now. She’s with Prosser and his people. You won’t get anywhere near her.” She didn’t truly believe that her daughter was completely safe, of course. But Joselyn hoped that taunting the man about it might get him to reveal something she could use, eventually. And, of course, make him believe that she was actually that arrogant or blind.

For a moment, however, Fossor gave no reaction at all. Well, no reaction aside from stopping in front of the window of a pet store to smile at the little puppies on display. “They really are adorable at that size, aren’t they?” Giving the tiniest dog there a two fingered wave, he added, “Perhaps we should pick up a few. I enjoy having some of man’s best friends around.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Joselyn asked, injecting false sweetness into her voice. “We both know how much you hate anything else getting more attention than you.”

Chuckling seemingly genuinely at that, Fossor tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Nicely riposted, my dear.” He smiled, strolling onward through the busy mall after giving the dogs another brief look. His tone was as casual as ever. “Do you know why I enjoy these little jabs of yours?”

Joselyn sighed under her breath, head shaking as she followed after him. “I don’t know, maybe you’re just tired of being surrounded by nothing but mindless sycophants. Which is odd for a necromancer who kills almost everyone who spends any time with him, but maybe you just don’t think these things through.”

He chuckled again, head shaking. “No, no, no. A good thought, but no. You see, I enjoy hearing every single one of these little acts of verbal spite. Because each is a tiny flower in a garden of rebellion that shows you haven’t completely surrendered, that you still have your spirit. Which makes the fact that you will always do exactly as I tell you even more perfectly delicious.”

With that simple pronouncement, the man began to step onto the escalator, before stopping to allow an older couple who were holding hands to go first. “Oh no, go ahead, I insist.” He gestured for them to proceed, while giving them a disarmingly pleasant smile.

Joselyn stepped beside him, watching the two retirees ride the escalator to the top. Her voice was flat. “I don’t suppose you could at least tell me why you wanted the Hangman rope now?” She offered him a humorless smile. “It’s not like I could do anything to stop you anyway.”

“Curiosity is a powerful thing, isn’t it?” Fossor replied while stepping up onto the escalator. He didn’t bother gesturing for her to follow, knowing she would anyway. “It motivates one to such great lengths.” He turned a slight smile her way. “It can even inspire you to make unneeded conversation with someone you truly despise with every fiber of your being.”

Standing two steps behind the necromancer as they rode the escalator to the next floor, Joselyn retorted, “Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of practice talking to people who make me sick. And,” she added while stepping off at the top, “you didn’t answer the question.”

“I have a habit of that,” Fossor agreed, wrapping his empty napkin up in one hand before nodding to her. “Don’t forget to eat your pretzel before it gets cold.” With that, the man turned to walk once more, passing a group of teenagers arguing in front of an arcade. He didn’t speak again for a minute, contenting himself with simply window shopping through the next couple of stores. Finally, he spoke thoughtfully. “The trouble with telling you what the rope is for is that it would spoil the surprise. And I do so love to see your look of surprise.” Glancing from the selection of shoes and boots he had been idly looking over to meet her gaze, the man added slyly, “In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it when we get to the end of today’s test.”

Positively certain that she didn’t want to know what he meant by that, Joselyn took brief look at the group of teens, watching them finally settle on going to see a movie instead of heading into the arcade. As they strode off, she sighed and followed after Fossor while absently taking a bite from the pretzel. She was almost annoyed by how good it tasted.

Since he clearly wouldn’t answer any of her earlier questions, she chose to ask a different one. “You’re doing all of this, all these schemes and risky plans to piss off the Committee and the Seosten, just to get a little stronger. Just to protect yourself a little more. Why bother? You’d be completely safe on your own world. No one could challenge you there. The place is an impenetrable fortress. Why not stay there? You have billions of servants, lives to play with. You have everything you could ever possibly need. Why stay here on Earth, with all the Seosten, the Heretics, and even the random Fomorian? Why risk it?” She paused briefly before adding in a quieter, almost resigned voice, “You could even take me back with you.”

Fossor chuckled at that. “First, my dear, don’t be arrogant. Not everything is about you. I have far more interests than you or your family, even if you are a rather pleasant distraction in… let’s say several ways.” His look made her shudder, as bile rose in her throat.

“Second,” he continued, “I stay because they have tried to drive me away. They have tried so very hard to tell me that I cannot be here.” His eyes hardened then, a dark look crossing them as he continued in a harsh, vindictive tone. “And no one tells me where I cannot be.”

Just as suddenly, the man’s eyes brightened. “Oh, look, twenty-five dollars for men’s slacks. Exactly what I was looking for.” He stepped past her, heading for the Old Navy store.

Muttering about psychotic necromancers under her breath, Joselyn trailed after the man, giving a short nod to the young man who stood just outside the store with a sign advertising the sale. Together, she and Fossor moved through the store. Just like any ordinary mundane couple, they actually shopped for pants. The man hemmed a bit over various brands, holding them up to himself before looking in the mirror. Finding several he liked the look of, he stepped into the changing room to try them on, leaving her with a casual, “Find a belt for me, would you, dear? The old one is rather frayed.”

Left on her own for a minute, Joselyn never thought about walking away and abandoning him. As nice as it would have been, the spell she had taken part in all those years earlier would never allow it. She gave a soft sigh instead before moving away from the dressing rooms, looking for men’s belts. On the way, she passed several people who nodded to her pleasantly. One actually made conversation, stopping to ask if she knew where the summer children’s clothes were, but most simply went on their way with barely a glance in her direction.

Would there be a Heretic in here? Would someone she knew, or who knew her actually approach? Was this the test that Fossor was talking about? Did he want to know what she would do if she encountered someone like that? What would she do if… if ordered to kill them?

She had no choice. The spell would allow her to disobey an order only if following it would put Felicity in direct danger. There was no way around that. She knew all too well just how far Fossor could push his control of her. The things he had already forced her to do…

She snapped out of it, head physically jerking as she found herself standing in front of the belts. Her hand was actually on one of them, gripping it so tightly she’d nearly snapped the thing in half. And yet, she found herself unable to immediately let go of it. As angry as she was, as frustrated and helpless as she felt, all she wanted to do was squeeze harder.

“Oh, good,” Fossor announced as he stepped up behind her, brushing a hand over her shoulder while reaching for the same belt she was holding. “You found one. And just my style too. See now, you know me so well.” With a wink, he took the belt and tried it against the new pants. “Perfect. Why don’t you head to the front and pay. I’ll mosey along after you in just a moment.”

Simultaneously unsure of what the man would be doing in the meantime, and absolutely sure she didn’t want to know, Joselyn took the pants that he offered her along with the belt before moving to the checkout. There, she waited in line, spoke casually with a few customers as well as the employee herself, and then stepped out with bag in hand.

Fossor joined her immediately, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “So,” he began simply, “what do you think? Was today’s test successful?”

Squinting at the man, Joselyn shoved the bag of clothes against his chest while muttering, “What test?” Even as she asked, the events of the entire shopping trip were playing through her mind. Was he expecting her to challenge him more? Had she missed something important?”

Still clearly enjoying himself more than she liked, Fossor replied, “Come now. Play everything back, our entire trip here. Has anything stood out to you? Anything jump to mind?” He could clearly barely contain his giddiness over the whole affair, her obvious bafflement over what he was referring to only making it better for him. “Look around,” he added ‘helpfully.’ “See if anything stands out at all. Take your time.”

Instead of moving immediately, Joselyn met his gaze, trying to read him. Finally, she turned and stepped to the nearby railing. Looking out over the crowd below, she watched for a couple silent minutes. Nothing. Nothing stood out. No one seemed to be paying too much attention to them. No one was following them. She saw no Alters, nothing out of the ordinary. They were just shoppers, employees, random people.

Finally, Fossor spoke up from behind. “Let me give you a hint.”

With a sharp sound, the man snapped his fingers. And everything stopped. Everyone stopped. Hundreds of shoppers on both levels suddenly halted. Conversations ceased instantly. People who were arguing, people who were hugging, chatting, shopping, everything. They stopped. And as one, in the exact same motion, they turned to face Joselyn. Hundreds of eyes were suddenly staring at her blankly. They had no emotion. They had no hopes, no dreams, no fears, nothing of their own. They had nothing, were nothing, not anymore. Because they were…

“Zombies,” she breathed out, eyes widening. “They’re… zombies. All of them. All… the whole..”

“Yes,” Fossor confirmed, the delight evident in his voice. “The whole mall. Every last shopper, employee, man, woman, child, all of them. They are all mine.” He watched her with a bright smile as she slowly turned to stare at him in horror. “They did well, didn’t they? Did you enjoy the show? My puppets did try oh so hard to impress you. Or, not impress you, I suppose. After all, the point was not to stand out.”

“But… why?” Joselyn demanded, feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. The children she had seen, the… the… all of them. They were all dead. All killed and then puppeted by this monster. “All this, just to put on a show for me? Why?”

“A show just for you?” he echoed. “Don’t be absurd. You’re the bait here, not the target.”

Swallowing hard, Joselyn murmured, “You’re setting up a trap.”

The man winked. “One of several, yes. You see, you’re right, now that Heretics know who you are, they will be on the lookout for you. They will try to find you. And this, what you see around us? Let’s just say it’s one of several preparations I’m making. We’ll see if any of your old friends follow you in here. And if they do, we’ll spring the trap.”

Staring at the man, Joselyn pointed out, “Pretty elaborate just to have them killed.”

“Oh no, no no, not killed,” Fossor corrected, shaking his head. “You see, our friends here are very special creatures. Very… special indeed. I designed them myself after watching one of those old Romero movies. You know the whole ‘zombies want to eat your brains’ nonsense. Well, these don’t eat your brain. They infect you. With each bite, each wound, they tear at your willpower, your ability to resist commands.”

Letting that sink in for a moment, Fossor continued. “Of course, the downside of creating these wonderful creatures is that they are limited to a relatively small area. If they move beyond the area of their creation, in their case, this mall, they will disintegrate. Which means anyone I wish to subject to them must come here. But that shouldn’t be hard to achieve. As you said, there will be people coming after you. People who will follow you into this simple, ordinary mall. So yes, a little bit of extra work, but worth it, I believe.

“After all, as much fun as having one Heretic enslaved at my beck and call has been, imagine what I could do with an army of them.”

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Patreon Snippets 8 (Heretical Edge)

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Author note:  I have decided to present these particular snippets without a preface before each one spelling out what they are about/who they are focused on. This is for a couple reasons. First, each snippet flows into the next in a deliberate way which a note like that would interrupt. And second, I believe even without that, these snippets are better if you find out exactly what is going on as you read them. But I would definitely appreciate any feedback any of you might have as to how well that works. Thanks!  

Through an empty, long-abandoned building, six figures fled. Though the place should have been dark, the corridors they desperately raced along were lit by globes of fire, lasers that shot through the air after them, and other flashes of light which served mostly to illuminate the fact that the fleeing beings, though each shaped very differently, were all almost completely transparent.

As a species, they called themselves Sceyl. But most referred to them as Glasswalkers. The name came both from their ability to transport (as well as manipulate and shape) any and all forms of glass and similar transparent material, and from the fact that the Sceyl themselves quite literally looked like living, moving glass sculptures. Their own shapeshifting ability meant that they varied wildly in size and shape, from small figurine-sized beings who looked like ballerinas, cats, horses, or other animals, all the way up to enormous hulking (yet still clearly glass-like) troll or ogre-shaped humanoids. No two Sceyl looked much alike, aside from their transparent body structure. They considered it offensive to copy each other, and always sought to make themselves look unique in some way.

The potential for evil, for the most part, existed in all species. And the Sceyl were no different. Some of their people who would be called Nocen even took on the forms of various weapons and allowed themselves to be used by others, purely to be directly responsible for deaths and destruction.

Yet, the group running frantically through this particular abandoned building were not those types. They were simply a group of travelers, heading for a gathering of their people on the northern edge of Arizona. Unfortunately, they had been spotted by a trio of Heretics, who had spent the past ten minutes chasing the group of Sceyl down, herding them here, to this building.

The place had to have been prepared ahead of time. There was no glass anywhere in it. The windows had all been smashed out, the shards taken away. There were no mirrors, no bottles, no glass bulbs, literally nothing that could be used by the fleeing, terrified Sceyl.

As they careened around a corner, searching desperately for a way out of this trap, the group suddenly skidded to a stop. The six glass-like figures, two fairly humanoid, one looking like a walking tree, another like a pixie, the fifth like a miniature horse the size of a chihuahua, and the last like a large rolling ball three feet in diameter, all came to a halt.

One of the Heretics was in front of them, waiting in that room. “Right,” the tall, bearded man announced as the room was abruptly illuminated by several glowing balls that appeared throughout it, “I think that’s far enough. If there were any more of you monsters, they would’ve shown themselves by now.” He held a long black-metal sword in one hand.

Behind the group of Sceyl, the remaining two Heretics appeared. The first was a dark-skinned woman with white hair, holding a double-bladed axe. Her companion was also female, a quite small and somewhat pale brunette woman who appeared to hold no weapon or defense, aside from a series of dozens of metal rings lining both of her arms from wrist to shoulder.  

Looking to one another, the glass-like figures all turned to put their backs to one another. Three faced the man in front, while the other three faced the women behind. With a sound that was a mix of shattering glass and ringing chimes, the ball-figure reshaped himself into something more like a humanoid lizard with a scorpion-like tail. At the same time, the small pony became a much larger centaur.

“So,” the male Heretic snarled under his breath. “You show your true selves after all. Good. Then let’s finish this.”

The six Sceyl broke in opposite directions, lunging for the three Heretics. Unfortunately, that only lasted for an instant before a wave of force knocked five of the six to the ground as the two female Heretics each used some form of gravity power to keep them there.

The last, one of the humanoid figures, was yanked backward, his neck caught and held by the male Heretic. “Now,” the man snarled while hurling his captive down as well, leaving him prone on the floor. “You’re never gonna kill anyone else.” The ebony blade in his hand was raised high up. “Not in this–”

He stopped then. Stopped talking and even stopped moving, aside from physically reeling backward as his eyes closed briefly, the sword in his hand wavering a little. On the other side of the room, the two female Heretics did the same, a pair of gasps escaping both. The smaller, pale woman staggered back a step, almost falling before catching herself against the nearby wall.

No longer pinned, the six Sceyl stared in confusion and apprehension. After a brief moment of that, as if they had all come to the same conclusion, they tried to jerk upright. But with a sudden roar of rage, the male Heretic’s eyes opened, and he drove his blade downward, on course toward the prone figure at his feet.

With a brief whistling sound punctuated by a loud clang that echoed through the room, the sword was struck in mid-descent by a metal ring that flew through the air to collide with it. Knocked off course, the sword was driven several inches into the floor beside the terrified Sceyl’s head. The ring itself, meanwhile, bounced off the blade, then off a nearby wall, a pillar, and then returned to its owner. The pale, small woman had straightened, arm extended to let the metal bracelet fall perfectly back onto her arm to join the rest. It latched into place with a click.

“Lillian!” the dark-skinned woman nearby snapped, while the male Heretic simply stared with his mouth open. “Stop, you can’t–”

“Can’t what?” Lillian Patters asked sharply. “Can’t make my own decisions? Can’t trust the people I was supposed to be able to trust? Can’t have my own memories? Yeah, I think all of that was made perfectly clear.”

“Lillian…” Speaking slowly, the bearded man straightened his blade. Instead of pointing it at any of the utterly bewildered Sceyl, he turned the end toward the small woman. “Don’t do this. We’re on the same side.”

Lifting her chin, Lillian retorted, “I’m going to go ahead and say that my side is the one that doesn’t slaughter innocent people wholesale. Oh, and also doesn’t wipe the memories of everyone who doesn’t think the exact same way we do, and then force them to keep murdering the same innocent people they already chose not to. And what was the other thing? Oh, right.”

Her eyes hardened, and the woman snapped both arms out to either side. The series of rings that extended up to her shoulders all flew off, ricocheting around the room wildly for a second before each ended up hovering around her at various heights and angles. She was surrounded by dozens of the metal hoop-like rings that hovered there, spinning rapidly with a soft buzzing sound, like angry hornets.

“We,” Lillian finished, her voice dropping into a dangerous tone, “don’t side with people who kidnap infants and hold them hostage.”

“You’re right.” The words came from the other woman.

What?!” the man snapped, jerking his head that way.

The black woman held up her hand, voice stammering a bit. “About… about the last part. That was–I… I don’t know what… That was wrong. It was wrong. But you’re wrong too. You have to be. Lillian, please. We can figure this out. We’re friends.”

“My friend,” Lillian informed them quietly, “is Joselyn Atherby. As long as you side with the people who kidnapped her children and mindwiped the rest of us… we are not friends.”

“Fine.” Voice dripping with venom, the male Heretic snarled, “Then I suppose we’re not friends. Your choice.” He took a step that way, sword raised. As he moved, the rings surrounding Lillian all began to spin faster. Some turned white, sending off chilling waves of cold, while others turned red, flames flickering around them. The rest became yellow, electricity crackling in the air where they were spinning.

Just as it looked like an all-out brawl would break out, the dark-skinned woman suddenly appeared behind the man. Grabbing his arm with one hand and his neck with the other, she blurted toward Lillian, “I don’t want to fight you!”

Then both were gone, as the woman transported herself and their male companion away. Left facing the empty space where they had been, Lillian slowly extended her arms, summoning the rings back.

“Wh… wha… what?” The voice of one of the Sceyl finally broke the silence that settled once the rings had all stopped spinning and finished attaching themselves to the woman. “What just… happened?”

“It’s a long story,” Lillian softly informed them, her voice cracking a little. “I have to get out of here. I have to find my granddaughter, my… my… she’s at Crossroads now. And Felicity. Oh my God, her baby girl. She’s–” Snapping out of it, she looked to the group of terrified Glasswalkers. Her voice softened. “I’m sorry. I know this won’t make any sense to you, but I am so… so sorry. There isn’t time to explain.”

“Uh…” One of the Sceyl raised a hand. “We sort of picked up the gist of it from your conversation. But… just… one question.

“Who is Joselyn Atherby?”

*******

“I have no idea who Joselyn Atherby is.”

With a sigh, Abigail Fellows dropped her gaze to the glass of iced tea in front of her on the table where she sat. The plate holding the crumbs of her finished lunch was nearby. “She’s my mother. She’s my mom, and I… I never knew her. I never met her. I’ve never spoken to her, never looked her in the eyes. Not since I was an infant, anyway, and I don’t… I don’t remember any of that. Or the Edge vision, I guess. I saw her then, but I didn’t… really talk to her. I never got to know her.”

From where he was sitting across from her, the cabin’s other occupant, Lincoln Chambers, winced. “Hey, I… I didn’t know her as a Heretic either. But I know Joselyn the person. And I know she would be so… indescribably proud of you, Abigail. You raised a beautiful, brilliant girl. You’re a lawyer. You stand up for people. You defend people who don’t have anyone else to defend them.”

Swallowing before taking a breath, Abigail raised her gaze from the glass to meet his gaze. “I can find out plenty about Joselyn the Heretic by talking to… to anyone here, I guess. Especially with that memory spell gone. It’s Joselyn the person I want to know about.”

With a little smile, Lincoln nodded. “Then I’ll tell you all about her. Anything you want. I…” He paused before giving a soft chuckle. “Sorry, this whole thing is just kind of… I don’t want to say–”

“Weird?” Abigail finished for him. “Yeah, it’s okay. You can say it. It’s weird. I mean, I’m sort of like your… stepdaughter, but I’m also older than you.”

“It’s a weird situation all around,” Lincoln agreed. “For us anyway. I get the feeling it happens more than not with these Heretic people.” He smiled despite himself then, adding, “But for the record, weird as it might be, you and Wyatt are a couple of the best people I’ve met. The way you stick up for everyone, the way Wyatt plans everything out so well… that’s Jos. I just… I just hope you get to know her for yourselves. So you can see how similar you are.”

“Well,” Abigail offered, “if this whole rebellion thing works out, maybe people can focus on getting her back from that psychopath.”

“True.” Lincoln started to nod before heaving a sigh. “I still can’t believe Felicity and that headmistress of hers pulled that off. Bringing the rebellion back, restoring all those memories… If they’d been caught before they managed it, if anyone else saw what was in that notebook, or looked too closely, or–”

Abigail stopped him with a raised hand. “They didn’t. The spell worked. There’s enough things to deal with as it is without fretting about bad things that could have happened.”

Coughing, Lincoln gestured. “Right, point. See? You’re already helping your dear old stepdad feel better.”

With a squint, Abigail snorted. “Right, dear maybe. Old… ehhh, you’re still a whippersnapper.” Pausing then, she added, “Speaking of which, you know what everyone’s wondering.”

“Yeah.” The man sat up a bit more. “They’re wondering when I’m going to do the Heretic bonding thing. I just… I haven’t decided exactly who or… or what… I…”

Resting her hand against his arm, Abigail met his gaze. “No, see, if you think about it, I’m pretty sure you know exactly who you should be bonded to.”

With a slow, soft exhale, Lincoln managed a very slight smile. “I suppose you’re right. Would you believe I’m nervous?”

The woman’s response was a simple nod. “Yeah. It’s a pretty big deal. But hey, I can’t think of a better person for you to be Bonded to than the Seosten kid who sees you as her father.” Her eyes focused on him once more, as she added pointedly, “You m–” Voice cracking slightly, Abigail cleared her throat. “You make sure she knows you see her as a daughter, okay? You make sure she knows every day. You don’t make that girl think for one second that she’s not wanted.”

“Never,” Lincoln vowed, his throat tightening at the very thought. He remembered all the times he had laid in bed with that girl curled up against him. He’d thought it was Felicity at the time, sure, but that didn’t matter. He knew now. He knew and he loved that kid as much as his own. Because she was his own.

Smiling at that thought before shaking himself a bit, the man finally spoke once more. “But hey, we’ve got some pretty impressive kids all around, huh?” His bright words turned to a very slight sigh. “Bright kids who are now part of this rebellion.”

“Better than being part of monsters who hunt down and slaughter innocent people and creatures,” Abigail pointed out. “Your daughters helped stop that. Every single person out there who remembers what they really believe, who remembers the choice they made not to kill innocent people anymore? That’s because of your daughters. Both of them.”

Lincoln’s smile had returned by then. “You’re right. They’re pretty damn special. Just like their mom. And their big sister.”

Picking up her glass, Abigail took a long, slow sip of her iced tea before she spoke again. “Don’t forget their amazing, goofy, wonderful big brother.” Pulling the straw out of her glass, she teased slightly, “Who might just be listening in on us through this thing right now, for all we know.”

With a snort, Lincoln shrugged. “Well, if he is, maybe he should go ahead and turn up the eavesdropping spell. Because I’m going to tell you all about Joselyn. The Joselyn I know. The one I hope you get to know someday.”

“Before you get started,” Abigail replied, “give me a second and I’ll get him in here in person. I want Wyatt to hear about our mother too.

“After everything he’s been through, my brother deserves that.”

********

“My brother does not deserve that!”

Brown eyes blazing with rage, Ian Gerardo swung his fist. It collided with the brick wall of the building next to the alley he was in, leaving a sizable hole. He stood there, two inches over six feet in height, his broad, muscular arms exposed by the sleeveless black shirt that he wore. He also had black jeans, combat boots, and a belt with several pouches. His black hair was slicked back, and he wore a single silver earring in his left ear.

As the dust settled, his companion, a red-haired man several inches taller than even Ian was and considerably better built, nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed while shaking out his long crimson locks, which fell almost to the middle of his back. “I don’t know your brother, but no one deserves to be left in time-accelerated solitary like that. That’s fucked up.”

“Look, you don’t–” Ian’s eyes were wild. “You don’t understand. I–I’ve been a pretty shitty big brother, okay? Especially lately. But now? I can’t just leave him in that hellhole! I have to get him out! I’m gonna go to my fucking parents and make those evil, psycho–”

“Ian, Ian!” the other man put both hands on the younger Heretic’s shoulders, squeezing firmly. “Stop. Listen. If you run off half-cocked like this, you’ll just end up captured too, okay?” As Ian’s mouth opened, the man quickly pressed on. “And you think you don’t care, I get it.  You feel like you have to do something right now. But do you want to help your brother, or do you want to feel better about yourself for two seconds just to fuck it up again?”

At first, Ian glared, his rage almost transferring itself to his companion. Then he sighed and deflated. “I know. Fuck. Frode, I just… I can’t leave him in there. I can’t.”

“I know.” Speaking softer, Frode leaned back to watch the younger man, who was barely in his twenties. “Look, I owe you. Penny, Owen, and I, we all owe you.”

When the spell that restored everyone’s memories and flooded the minds of every Heretic with the full and unfiltered details of the rebellion and everything related to it had happened, Ian, Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of another group of Heretics. They had been out on practice maneuvers, training to head for a newly discovered potential colony world.

Then the spell had happened. Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of Joselyn Atherby’s group back in the day. And all three were taken by surprise when the rest of their companions acted quickly enough to the reveal to take them prisoner, preventing them from escaping to rejoin the rebellion.

Ian was too young to have been part of all that. He had been ignored, dismissed as the trio of former rebels were secured.

But young or not, Ian was capable of seeing right from wrong. Ignored as he was, he had been able to take the Crossroads loyalists completely by surprise, knocking out two of them before managing to free Frode and the others. Together, the four had escaped before they could be brought back to Crossroads.

“You guys don’t owe me anything,” Ian insisted. “You’ve got enough problems.”

“We do owe you,” Frode informed him, giving the boy a firm nod. “And we’ll repay it. Trust me, just… just stick it out a little longer. We’ve still got friends. The rebellion… we’ll get your brother out of there, okay? We just have to meet up with some people. We’ll get Sean out. But we’ll do it together. Do it the right way?” He offered his hand.

Accepting the hand, Ian nodded. “Yeah. The right way.” He sighed then. “I can’t believe Madre and Padre would do something like this. I mean… I just… you know, I wish I could just tell them exactly what I think of them right now.”

*****

“I’m sorry that you can’t tell them.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s voice was gentle as she sat on a chair across from Flick in her office. The Crossroads headmistress was watching her student carefully as she continued. “The idea of keeping secrets, especially one this important, is probably quite troubling. But it is imperative that, if our plan is to succeed, no one else know about it until it is too late.”

Shifting in her seat, Flick met the woman’s gaze. “Even me, right?” she offered with what was clearly a weak attempt at humor. “I mean, even I won’t actually remember what I’m doing or why. Once we start this, you’ll be the only person who actually knows what’s going on.”

Except that wasn’t true. Once the memory spell was in place to prevent Flick from remembering the plan she and Gaia had come up with or from consciously realizing what she was doing whenever she wrote in that notebook, there would be one more person beyond the headmistress who would remember, one person who would know what they were doing.

And neither of them knew she existed.

Tabbris was silent, as always, as she watched through Flick’s eyes. She felt a flicker of sadness at the thought of what would happen when the girl one day knew about her. As much as some small part of herself might retain a tiny spark of hope that the two of them could be friends, she knew it wasn’t to be. The betrayal and horror that Flick would feel as soon as she knew just how long Tabbris had been possessing her, that would ruin any potential there might have been for friendship.

It was too late already for any explanations. Flick would hate her, would loathe her for that violation. Tabbris knew that. She was terrified of it, but she knew it would come.

But in the meantime, she would help as much as she could. She would continue to keep Flick safe from possession. And now, she would keep this particular secret.

How much would her own people, her… her mother’s people, want to know about this? A plan to undo the revolution-eraser and restore everyone’s memories? They would, quite literally, kill to stop that from happening. They would kill Gaia, and they would kill Flick.

If they found out. Which was why Tabbris would do absolutely everything she could to stop that from happening. Because even if… even… when Flick did end up hating her, Tabbris would still do everything in her incredibly limited power to keep the older girl safe.

Restoring the rebellion. That was what Mama would do. Tabbris knew that much. If her mother was here, she would be helping Gaia and Flick. Heck, she’d already started with the plan of restoring Flick’s mama’s memories before finding out that the woman had been abducted. So she would definitely be on board with this. She probably would’ve found a way to do it by herself already… if she was here.

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t here. Tabbris didn’t even know if she wa–how she was doing. All she knew was that her mama would have helped with this if she could. And since she couldn’t, Tabbris would instead. She would keep it secret. She would make sure the notebook was safe. She would watch for anyone paying too much attention to it. She would be a second set of eyes keeping the secret safe until it would be too late for anyone to stop it.

And maybe someday… someday if–when she saw Mama again, she would look at Tabbris and say…

******

“I’m proud of you,” Sariel announced to the group of huddled, traumatized figures crouched in what amounted to a crater that had been driven into the ground by a particularly hard stomp from a passing giant. That giant’s body lay just over a hundred yards away, being literally eaten from the inside out by a swarm of Fomorian-created insects the size of large dogs. A few of those insects had crawled out of the desecrated corpse to look for their next meal, only to be set upon by a trio of griffins that came soaring down out of the sky.

“P-proud?” one of the huddled group in front of Sariel stammered. She was a Relukun, a wood-person. Her companions were an assortment of other Alters and two young Eden’s Garden Heretics who had probably only graduated within the past few years. “Wh-what are you proud of?” the Relukun demanded. “That we’re all gonna die together? If we’re lucky?”

One of the Heretics peeked over the edge of the footprint crater, a slight whimpering sound escaping him. “Di-did you see what they did to that big guy? We can’t fight that. We can’t fight them. We’re gonna die. Oh God. Oh God in heaven. We’re going to die. We are going–”

“I’m proud of you because you’re here,” Sariel interrupted, drawing their attention to her. “Live or die, you’re here. You’re trying. You’ve made it this far. You knew the odds and you came anyway.”

“If we didn’t, we’d all die anyway,” one of the other Alters put in, his voice barely audible over the sound of fighting, screaming, and dying going on all around them. “Th-those monsters, they’ll just keep coming.”

“You’re right, they will.” The confirmation came not from Sariel herself, but from the enormous (for a human) gray-haired man who dropped into the crater with them. At his full standing height, were he not crouched as he was now, the man would have been just a hair under seven feet. The incredibly muscular physique of his bare torso had been the stuff of legends for thousands of years. Though there was only one person in this deep footprint who recognized the man, who knew exactly who he truly was.

“Alcaeus,” Sariel greeted him simply, her voice careful and measured.

“Sariel,” he returned just as carefully, both of them watching one another for a moment before the man offered her a very slight grin, showing his teeth. “Of all your people that I could’ve run into in this pit, you’re one of the only ones I wouldn’t chuck right out of it.”

“I shall measure myself relieved then,” Sariel replied smoothly. Sobering then, she looked into the man’s eyes. “It’s good to have you here. The battle is…” She turned slightly to look over the edge toward the continuing violence. “It’s not going well.”

“Fighting Fomorians rarely does,” the man who had once been known as both Heracles and Hercules murmured. “But someone’s got to. Otherwise those genocidal cocksuckers will just kill every last person, plant, and animal on this forsaken planet.”

“They’re coming!” one of the other Alters blurted. His eyes were wide as he stared over the rim of their cover at the horde of variously-shaped Fomorian creations that were swarming over the open ground toward them.

With a thought, Sariel summoned her bow to her hands. “Alcaeus?”

“It’s just Al,” he corrected, straightening. “And I’m right with you.”

Giving him a brief nod of thanks, the Seosten woman addressed the others. Her voice was sharp. “The rest of you stay here until you see an opening. We’ll take the brunt of it. Hit when you get a chance, once they’re focused on us.” Sparing them a brief glance, she added, a bit more softly, “For the dead. Those who are, and those who would be.”

The sentiment was echoed by the others, just as Sariel and Alcaeus heaved themselves out of the crater. The two found themselves facing dozens of Fomorian-crafted nightmares literally running over each other to reach them. Beasts of all shapes and sizes, some with only two legs, others with more than could be easily counted at a glance. Fat, skinny, tall, slimy, furry, and some that were all of those at the same time. They were a tidal wave of monstrous flesh and claws pushing inexorably onward.

Together, the woman who had been Artemis and the man who had been Hercules met their charge.

Taking the lead, Al ran straight for the incoming mass. In mid-step, his hand touched a rune that had been drawn on his opposite shoulder, and he spoke the command word to trigger the spell attached to it. Instantly, his bare torso was covered in gleaming silver and red armor, his head encased in a helmet in the shape of a lion’s head, complete with a long, flowing mane. In both of his hands appeared enormous weapons. One held a claymore, while the other gripped a massive hammer. With both of his weapons raised high, the man bellowed a roar of challenge that matched the lion’s helmet he wore, before charging straight at his enemies.

Four arrows, released simultaneously from the woman behind him, flew past the man. Two shot under each arm. All four impaled themselves through the assorted eyes of two of the nearest creatures in the horde before bursting into flames that engulfed their targets.

Ignoring the screaming, flailing monsters, Al lunged up and over their falling bodies. His hammer came down so hard on the skull of a crocodilian creature with its jaws open wide that it literally caved in the beast’s head. Blood, brains, and other fluids (some of which should not have been fluids) went flying. At the same time, his sword was driven up under the rib cage of the furry, two-legged beast who had been reaching for him from the other side.

“Boom!” Al called, while pivoting with his sword still embedded in the fur-covered creature. It was all he had to say. Just as he presented his foe’s back to the woman behind him, Sariel shot three quick arrows into it.

The moment the arrows were in place, Al heaved the monster off his sword, tossing it back into the incoming swarm. An instant later, the explosive arrows detonated, sending chunks of the Fomorian beasts flying in every direction.

It was a good start. But Sariel and Alcaeus had a long way to go to even begin to stall the Fomorian advance. If they were going to stop Earth from being yet another in a long, long line of worlds that had been destroyed by those monsters, they would need a miracle.

But they would keep trying. Because there was an entire world’s worth of innocent lives at stake. Alcaeus, Sariel, and the others who fought would protect those people from the Fomorians. They would save them, whatever it took.

******

“Whatever it takes, I’m going to fucking kill them!

As the words burst from her lips, Roxa Pittman’s face transformed partly into her wolf-self. Her teeth grew, face elongated partway, while her eyes darkened with rage. Claws had already appeared from her fingers, as she gripped the post at the end of the basketball court tight enough to leave deep grooves in the metal.

“I know.” The more careful, measured response came from Mateo, as the slight man stood behind her. His hand found her shoulder, shaking just a little before he caught himself. He took a deep breath. “Believe me, pup, I know. Sebastian, he’s… he’s basically in the same shape as you. It’s his brother that’s doing this to his own son, to Sebastian’s nephew.”

Whirling toward him, Roxa furiously spat, “How?! How can they do evil shit like this and still think they’re the good guys?! How fucking deluded are they?!” Her fist lashed out backwards, denting the post. “They’re torturing their own fucking child!” The bellowed words echoed over the otherwise empty basketball court, before her face shifted back to normal. Tears of rage and helplessness filled her eyes. “Mateo, please! Please! We have to do something. We have to–to… to stop this! We have to get him out of there! He can’t–we can’t–he’s–” She was in such a blind panic that she kept tripping over her words.

“Roxa.” Putting his hands against either side of the girl’s face so she would look at him, so that her eyes would be focused on his, Mateo spoke in a voice that was equal parts firm and gentle, forcing confidence and reassurance into his words. “Sean is going to get out of there, okay? Whatever it takes, everyone out here is going to find a way to get him out. You know that. No one is abandoning him.”

“B-but… but…” Squirming there on her feet, trying to keep her anger at the forefront of her mind so that despair and helplessness wouldn’t overtake it, Roxa stared into the eyes of her pack leader. “What if we can’t? What if he loses his–his everything in there? How could they do that? How could they–” She closed her eyes and looked away then. “I’m not supposed to be surprised,” the girl said softly, voice cracking with each word. “I saw too much bad shit as a Bystander. This isn’t supposed to surprise me.”

“The cruelty of those who believe themselves righteous very often outweighs that of those who know that they are evil,” Mateo quietly informed her. “And it almost always strikes much harder. They are his parents. They are supposed to protect him.”

“There’s a lot of parents who don’t,” Roxa muttered darkly. “They’re nothing new.”

With a nod, Mateo agreed, “You’re right, they’re nothing new. And we’ll stop them. We’ll get Sean out of there. As soon as there’s a plan, we will get him out. Which means you have to be ready. No running off, no getting yourself hurt or… worse, okay?”

It took Roxa a moment, but she finally nodded, lifting her gaze to him. “Okay,” she murmured softly. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. But just for the record, I still want to break every bone in their fucking bodies.”

“You and me both, pup,” Mateo confirmed, thinking back to his long discussion with Sean’s uncle when Sebastian had found out what was going on. It had been much harder to talk the man out of storming off to give his brother and the man’s wife every last piece of his mind. The rage, helplessness, exhaustion, and confusion in his beloved Sebastian was also here now in Roxa. And not just in her. The same feelings were in the whole pack. The werewolves had all known Sean since he was a kid. Hearing this… hearing what those psychos were doing… it was too much. It reminded Mateo of… of times spent with his own ‘well-intentioned extremists.’ And that thought… that was almost enough to drive him into a blood-rage the depths of which he might never escape.  

“You and me both.”

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