Heretical Edge

The Source 23-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Source 23-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Source 23-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Source 23-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, full of ghosts? Oh, duh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Source 23-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Interlude 22C – The Truth Of Gehenna (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Hey wonderful people! The new non-canon for this story has been posted and is available for everyone to read right here

Standing just inside an alcove in the back corner of a Bystander university, Sean Gerardo listened intently to the sound of struggles and cursing coming from throughout the rest of the building. His right hand rested on Vulcan’s head, both calming the anxious Cyberform dog and making certain his contact-based invisibility spell stayed active on both of them. This would have been a bad time to let up on that and allow themselves to be seen. But Gehenna rookie though he might have been, Sean was better than that. Especially after the extra training he’d gone through with Larees.

Feeling Vulcan nuzzle into his hand just a little while still remaining firmly focused on watching for any incoming threat, Sean pursed his lips and blew out a gust of air. But this was no ordinary bit of wind. It was one of several important powers he had picked up over the course of his time working with Gehenna. The tiny tornado, invisible unless one were looking incredibly closely with phenomenal vision, sailed away from the boy and his dog. It twisted through the air as it made its way back and forth through the book stacks, up to the front of the library, turned to go up the stairs, and then sailed close to the rows of computers there. Finally, the gust took a pass across the doors leading into the various conference and quiet study rooms. 

The little wind gust’s entire trip took only a few seconds, long though it might have seemed. When it was done, Sean focused on the path it had taken. He was able to move both his hearing and sight along that path so he could check on the entire library without ever stepping foot away from the spot where he was still standing with his invisibility spell. And with that, he marked each of the dozen spots throughout the building where his targets, a gang of mercenary thugs who once worked with Kushiel, had gathered. The rest of the Gehenna reinforcements would see the marks and get all his mental notes about what they were facing, including weapons and likely capabilities. 

This gang had taken over the library here, using magic around the border to stop any Bystanders from thinking about entering while they kept those who were already inside as hostages and potential playthings. These guys knew Gehenna was after them, but had no idea just how close they were in that moment. No idea just how close Sean was. They were trying to use the people in here as leverage to get themselves a new ship to replace the one other agents of Gehenna had already destroyed that left them stranded here in Maine.

Or at least, they wanted Gehenna to think that’s what they were doing. As Sean listened in on the various groups of thugs scattered throughout the library, he heard the truth. They already had a ship. It had been buried here underneath this very library for decades, and one of their number had known about it. The thing wasn’t quite flight-ready in its current condition, but that’s what the whole fake negotiating thing was about. They knew Gehenna would never actually let them go, and were just buying time while their mechanics worked getting on the buried ship working. 

Sean, who was in constant contact with a full strike team waiting outside through a telepathic spell carried on through an enchanted rock in his pocket, relayed this information along with everything else he had shared. If there was a nearly-ready ship on the premises, it changed the circumstances substantially. They needed to know just how close that thing was to being space-worthy, and what its weapons compliment was like. No one in Gehenna or any of their sources had had any idea that thing was here. 

After a few moments while the troops outside conferred with their superiors, Sean got the go-ahead to check on the ship and make certain the people putting it together were contained while the others moved in. But first, it was time to call in his own personal backup. Sending a message to her, he made sure the coast was clear, waiting until one of the roaming mercenaries had walked right past his location before sending the all clear. A moment later, a glowing portal opened up in the wall next to him as Roxa stepped through before immediately turning invisible as his hand found her. She had her own hand on Gidget, her cyberform cougar, to ensure they all remained unnoticed. 

As soon as the small group was assured that no one had noticed the new arrivals, Roxa knelt and put her hand on the floor while focusing on a power of her own. After a few seconds, the floor shimmered. It looked like a mixture of water and colored paint in a spot just a few feet wide. Roxa continued to focus on that spot, extending the effect down through the building, though it narrowed down to a few inches in width as it moved away from that opening in the floor. She was frowning in concentration, searching out the spot where that ship had been buried so long ago, a hidden hangar in the deep sublevels of what had become a public library. Her power continued to transform the materials of the building it passed through into a narrow tunnel. It snaked its way through walls and floors, through the very ground itself. Over the course of just thirty seconds, Roxa created a semi-liquid tunnel just large enough for a large insect to crawl through, which stretched on for almost three hundred feet counting all the twists and turns it had to include. 

Finally, she found it. Her twisting tunnel opened up into a large hanger. “Got it,” she announced while not bothering to keep her voice low. Not only were they using magic to ensure no one could overhear them, the girl herself still had a power that made it impossible for anyone to detect her by any sense other than direct line of sight. And considering Sean was currently making her invisible, that was out too. “We’re connected. Ready to go. Pretty sure they’ll know when we get there though.”

“Then let’s make sure to make a good first impression,” Sean replied simply.  

The two of them, plus their cyberforms, gathered around the glistening liquid-like spot of floor. Sean went first. Taking a breath, he stepped forward and hopped into that spot. It was like jumping into a pool. The second his feet touched the spot, his body was transformed into being part of the tunnel itself. It always felt funny when this happened, even though he’d done it dozens of times by that point, ever since Roxa got this particular power. He was transformed into a liquid state, sending a funny tingle throughout his entire body. It felt like he was completely soaked while also having every part of his body asleep. His arms, legs, every part of him had that numb feeling combined with the wet one. Yeah, it was difficult to get accustomed to. As was the feeling of momentum as he was sent flying through the tunnel at top speed. That was like going down a steep, long waterslide. The whole tunnel flew by in an instant, and he went sailing out into the middle of a brightly lit cement room with the large cargo ship straight ahead of him, along with half a dozen very surprised mercenary mechanics who had been hurriedly fixing it. 

“Hey guys!” Sean called out, even as Vulcan arrived right behind him, followed by Roxa and then Gidget. The four of them spread out a bit, turning into five as VJ hovered up off his ‘brother’ in drone form. “Sorry, I heard there was a really cool old ship down here and just had to show my girlfriend. Hope you don’t mind. She loves antiques like that. I’m sure you understand.”

“Oh, I really do,” Roxa agreed. Even as she spoke, the girl was shifting into her midway werewolf form, still standing on two feet, but taller, more muscular, and furrier. Her claws emerged from her hands even as the girl’s face slightly elongated, teeth extending into pronounced fangs. “But I hate sharing with a bunch of other tourists. So if you wouldn’t mind, we’re gonna need you to get away from it.” Her words were accompanied by dangerous growls from Vulcan and Gidget. 

One of the mercenary mechanics straightened up to his full eight foot height, his body covered in reddish-gray reptilian scales. “Gehenna. You really don’t care about those hostages, do ya?” 

“Oh don’t worry,” Sean informed him. “They’re being taken care of.” Even as he said that, the sound of gunfire, lasers, and more could be heard coming from upstairs. “My friends are professionals.” 

“Yeah?” the tall reptilian man retorted. “Well, so are we. And like it or not, we’re taking this ship. The four–” He glanced toward the hovering VJ. “Sorry, five of you ain’t gonna stop us.” 

“Well thanks for including my little pal,” Sean replied. “But you still miscounted. See, there’s not five of us.” As he said that, the young man’s buttoned-up shirt opened up seemingly of its own volition, revealing an intricate tattoo of a cougar in mid-roar across his chest. A tattoo which shifted, glowed, and emerged into full three-dimensional form, growing into a real (or at least three dimensional) cougar that landed in front of him. A cougar that was black and dark blue, with shadows seeming to pour off its body to form thick pools on the floor around it, while electricity danced in its eyes. 

“Now,” Sean started while his own tattoo-cougar stood next to Roxa’s cyberform version, “just out of curiosity, is anyone interested in surrendering?” 


Unfortunately, as it turned out, they weren’t. But Sean, Roxa, and their companions made short work of the group, including the pair who had attempted to to turn the partially-fixed ship’s weapons against them. Finally, once they were secured with only one fatality amongst the mercs, Sean called in the cleanup crew to take the remaining troops Into custody along with the ones who had been upstairs. 

By that time, he had physically joined with his tattoo-animal, which merged with the young man in a way that made his arms, chest, and head transform into those of a black cougar. Shadows rippled off his body, which seemed to blur heavily within those shadows, making it difficult to tell precisely where he was and therefore harder to land an attack against a specific part of him. The long claws emerging from his paw-hands had electricity dancing between them. 

As the cougar-man stood over the dazed and injured reptilian figure who had been in charge of this group, that man snarled at him. “What are you doing coming after us anyway? Don’t you have bigger fish to fry right now? Or are you too chickenshit to do something useful?” 

Sean had no idea what the man was talking about, and had just opened his mouth to ask for clarification when a voice spoke up behind him. “Sean.” It was Selaphiel, the archangel. “We need to talk. Let the others handle this.” 

Oh. If Selaphiel wanted to talk to him, combined with this guy thinking Gehenna should have other things to focus on… this was big. Several possibilities went racing through Sean’s mind even as he took that in. A thought made his cougar separate into its own form, returning him to his human self.  

“Miss Pittman–Roxa,” Selaphiel corrected herself with the name the girl had requested she use in the single interaction they’d had months earlier. “You are welcome to come as well.” And with that, she pivoted, created a new portal with a wave of her hand, and walked through it. 

Sean and Roxa exchanged looks, while he held a hand out toward his now-separated shadow-cougar. Its name was Moondoggie, which not only fit the werewolf connection he had with both his girlfriend and his uncle, but was also the name of Gidget’s boyfriend. The movie and book version of Gidget that Roxa’s cyberform had been named after, that was. 

Moondoggie the magic tattoo-cougar nuzzled Gidget the cyberform briefly, then returned to his place in tattoo form on Sean’s chest. Then they turned to head through the portal. Sean was already wincing to himself about what this could possibly be about. There were only so many possibilities about what could have made Selaphiel come to personally discuss something with them without any warning, and he was pretty sure he didn’t like any of them. Even now, he could already tell that this, whatever it was, would end up being a giant pain in the ass. But that was okay. He had Roxa with him. They could handle whatever this was, as long as he kept his cool and stayed calm. 


“Oh you have got to be kidding me!” As those words erupted from Sean’s mouth, he stared in complete disbelief at the tall blonde Seosten woman standing in front of him in one of the many offices she had throughout the galaxy. This one was here on Earth, in a tall building on the edge of New York City. Behind him, he felt Roxa stiffen a bit, even as Gidget and Vulcan made low worried noises. But his attention was focused firmly on the archangel. “Our entire purpose, the whole reason this entire organization exists, is running around free right now and you aren’t sounding a full all-hands-on-deck alert? Why aren’t we sending out the troops to bring him back? You know, before he drags my friend into whatever stupid plot he’s cooked up for her?” 

Many might have at the very least questioned Sean’s sanity in raising his voice toward not only his boss, indeed the boss of the entire organization, but a literal archangel. Yet she had made it clear that she preferred when they spoke their minds like that. Besides, after everything he’d already been through, Sean had no intention of playing politics.

“Yeah,” Roxa put in with a suspicious squint, “not to mention that whole Sun Wukong thing. Between those two, it seems like you should be pulling the full force of everything Gehenna can wield to deal with the situation. You seem pretty calm about this, all things considered.”

Taking a moment to consider her response while gazing past them and out the window overlooking the busy city below, Selaphiel finally replied, “Wukong is currently entertaining himself. If what he’s said is entirely true, and we have no reason to believe it isn’t, he intends to remain with your friends and continue to… ‘pose’ as Felicity Chambers for the duration of her absence. The effort it would require to force him to return to our custody far exceeds the benefit in doing so, particularly in this case. I do not believe it would be worth the losses.” 

“Yeah, okay,” Sean managed through gritted teeth. “But what about Ehn? You all created this entire organization to keep him contained. Every other, less important prisoner you keep is just so you have the funds and resources to stop that guy from escaping. Now he’s out there, and you seem pretty damn calm about it.” 

Selaphiel offered him a faint, thoughtful smile. Then she gave a decisive nod. “It’s time you both understood the truth about our organization. I had assumed this would take much longer, but given the situation it seems to be for the best. Especially considering your personal connection to Felicity Chambers. Besides, he authorized you to be told.” 

“Who–what?” Sean blinked several times in confusion. “What do you mean he authorized something? You’re the one in charge of this whole… wait…” He was getting a rapidly mounting feeling about this whole thing, and he wasn’t sure he liked where it was going. 

But, he and Roxa stayed quiet after that while the woman summoned a set of chairs and gestured for them to sit with her. And they waited patiently while she told them the full truth. A truth that only a few within the Gehenna organization, and almost no one outside of it, were privy to. It only took a couple minutes to explain, but they would both need much longer than that to come to terms with it. 

“Let me get this straight,” Sean started once the woman finished. “This entire organization, all of it, is a complete fucking lie.” He felt Roxa squeeze his knee in a warning to be careful, and adjusted his next words from what he’d wanted to say. “You’re all working for the guy who you’re supposed to be imprisoning. He’s like, your boss. Wait, I mean our boss. You recruited me to work for him.” His voice was tightening throughout that entire bit as he fought to keep his reaction under control. 

“In some ways,” Selaphiel agreed, “yes, it is a lie. The man we now know as Ehn created an independent universe-spanning organization millennia ago that could serve as his personal army at some far-future point. The safest way of doing that without being disturbed by outside forces attempting to force their own control over it was to pose as a prison, with the man himself as our most important subject. It allowed him to slowly grow in power over time without being seen as a threat. If outsiders, such as my own people, had realized that this entire organization functions as his private army, they would have interfered before we were ready. Before he was ready. Thanks to the disguise of our purpose, we have outposts on almost every important world, recruits drawn from people across the entire universe. But make no mistake, we do keep many dangerous and vile prisoners from hurting and killing innocent people. Those we are able to rehabilitate and trust over the many years that they have been kept here can be put to use in the future. Those who cannot… they either remain imprisoned, or their strengths are taken by those with the ability to do so, such as the two of you.” 

Roxa couldn’t take it anymore and stood up, almost knocking her chair over in the process. “You really are a private army for that guy. Not just from the guards that you recruit, but the prisoners too. That’s why you keep them here, why you make such a big deal out of imprisoning the most dangerous and strongest threats throughout the universe. Because you’re recruiting them. Either as actual assets, or as food for people who can take their powers. You– I mean he created this whole thing as a secret army to… to what, take over the universe?” 

“We have many goals,” Selaphiel informed her calmly. “The most pressing of which is to create a force powerful enough to eliminate the Fomorians as a threat. That is what Ehn is working toward right now with your friend, Felicity. That is a very important step in the process. We’d like you to continue to be a part of that, a true part, as we move to the next phase. But we understand that you will need time to consider all of this.” 

“Time to consider?” Sean exchanged a silent look with Roxa, both of them coming to mutual decision together without ever saying a word. Then he turned back to the archangel in front of them. “No, we don’t need time to consider. I’m not stupid enough to think we can stop this, or even meaningfully delay it. Hell, I’m not even sure I’d want to. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know how I feel about it, and I sure as hell don’t trust this Ehn guy. But he’s had this ball rolling for millennia, like you said. If that’s where this organization is going, if that’s where it’s always been going, then I–we want to be part of it. Not because we completely agree with or trust either of you, but because this is happening with or without us, and I’d rather be included so I can see what’s coming. I’m damn sure not about to close my eyes and pretend it’s not happening.” 

“What he said,” Roxa agreed. “But if I’m included here, then I’m fully included. I’m not just helping him, I’m a part of this whole thing. All of it.” 

Selaphiel took a moment to look back and forth between them, before smiling just a bit. “Excellent. 

“Let’s discuss the specifics.” 

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The Source – 23-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Hey people, we’re having a tie-breaker vote for the donator-chosen interlude so here’s the first chapter of the new arc for now!

We didn’t go straight into lessons on Necromancy. Ehn said we’d build our way into that. For the moment, he just wanted to see what sort of condition I was in. And how well my stamina power worked. Which, in this case, apparently meant having me run, a lot. He jogged with me, as did Persephone and Cerberus, as we made our way through the wilderness, avoiding the buildings I had seen in the distance. We headed for a forest and ran through that, the man simply telling me which way to turn now and then as we went on and on. 

Cerberus definitely enjoyed the run. He barked repeatedly with all three of his heads while bounding all around us. He kept switching back-and-forth between his normal large size and his gigantic size, seeming to really enjoy the opportunity to stretch his legs. Even Percy was having a good time, if the grin on her face as she chased Cerberus around was any indication.

Between my stamina, Ehn’s own power, the dog being a robot, and Percy a Revenant, it took a lot of running to leave any of us winded. We carried on for hours, and must have run over a hundred miles. I didn’t go at top speed, but still, we crossed some good distance. Or we would have, if we hadn’t essentially run in a circle to end up back where we started. We had run a full loop all the way around, which made me wonder how much of that was him testing my stamina and how much was him getting the lay of the land we were in. Was that even necessary? Honestly, I was pretty sure he could have flown straight up in the air and looked down to get a good view of everything within about ten seconds.

Either way, I had to stop and drink again, accepting the canteen the man offered. Looking toward the same buildings from before, I asked, “So now that we’ve gone all the way around, do we get to go over there? You said some mix of Alters and humans lived there, right?”

He nodded, taking a bite of jerky before tossing me a piece. “Eat, build your energy back up. Then we’ll go introduce ourselves.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I replied, “I take it we won’t be telling them who we really are and where we’re from. Unless you’re just planning on killing everyone to maintain the timeline.”

Snorting at me, he shook his head. “I assure you, Felicity, I have no intention of indiscriminately murdering everyone we encounter. You may have justified issues with some of my methods, but I am not a complete monster. Believe it or not, I truly do wish what is best for this universe. I want to ensure every living being is safe and prosperous.”

“That doesn’t include the Fomorians,” I pointed out after taking a bite of jerky. I really was hungry by that point. It had been a while since breakfast, and I had been pretty nervous while that was going on. Hell, I was still nervous, but here we were.

“If the Fomorians had a good time, everyone else would be dead.” That was Persephone, cheerfully pointing that out while she sat on Cerberus’s back. “Their idea of a good time isn’t good for anybody else.”

Nodding to that, I agreed, “Yeah, believe me, no one except those guys would be happy for them to have everything they want. I’m just saying, they’re the ones you want to destroy, right?” I was focused on him again. “That’s the whole reason why I’m here. Because you think you can help me get strong enough to help stop them for good. But that also means that you don’t think you can stop them all by yourself, which is kind of scary considering how strong you’re supposed to be. I would’ve thought you could just offer your services to the Seosten to help end the threat. They’ve got some pretty strong people on their side too.”

Taking another bite of jerky, Ehn smiled humorlessly at me. “When the time comes, we will indeed offer our alliance to the Seosten. But it will be under our own terms, not theirs. They have had hundreds of thousands of years to handle this threat, and have not been able to do so. And their reaction to first learning of our existence was to immediately attempt to control and enslave us just as they have done so many others. Whether they have begun to learn the folly of that or not, we will negotiate from a position of strength. We will not allow ourselves to be subservient to them. I will not allow it. This will be a partnership in every way.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but honestly I wasn’t sure where to start or how to phrase it. The man certainly had deeply held convictions, and they weren’t completely wrong on the surface. I wasn’t sure he was the best one to be in charge of that sort of thing, but having an alliance with the Seosten really was the right way to go. Hell, it was what we were trying to do already, even if somewhat different than how he seemed to be envisioning it.

So, instead of pursuing that at the moment, I simply asked, “What are we going to do when we go over there? I mean, you had a reason for coming to this place besides this just being a good open spot with free time for training, right? We’re hundreds of years before I was born, so we could’ve gone anywhere on Earth. It’s not like we’re going to run into anyone who knows me.”

His head bowed in acknowledgment. “Yes, there is a man in that village I would like to speak to. He has a piece of information I’m willing to trade for. Something I’ve been searching out across many decades at this point. It’s taking me quite some time to narrow things down this far to find him. Consider this killing two birds with one stone. We are in a good time for your training to begin, and we can speak with this man.” 

“When you say speak with him,” I hesitantly asked, “do you mean hurt him?” Yeah, I had no idea what I was going to say or do if the answer was yes. It wasn’t like I could actually stop this guy. I wasn’t that arrogant. Still, I felt the need to at least ask so I could try to figure out how I was going to react. 

From the look on the man’s face and his voice, he was somewhat curious of how I would react in such a case as well. He paused like that for just a moment before shaking his head. “You have my word, Felicity, I mean the man no harm unless he pushes me toward such ends. My intention is to pay the man quite handsomely for what I want from him. How it goes from there is up to him. But I do not anticipate too much trouble. The difficulty in acquiring this information was in locating the man in both time and space, not in ensuring his cooperation once we’re face to face.”

I thought about that for a moment, but I probably wasn’t going to get any better answer than that. And even if he was lying and intended to destroy that entire city with a flick of his hand, again, there was very little I could do about it.

But I would still try, no matter how completely irrelevant my efforts would have been.

Percy piped up then. “Well, if you’ve been chasing down this man for so long, we better go find him. You wouldn’t want to get over there and find out he just choked on a peanut and died, or tripped and fell off a cliff, or…” She paused, face twisting a little bit. “People are very fragile when you stop and think about it.”

Unlikely as it was that the person we were apparently looking for would accidentally die just like that, she did have a point about getting this over with. So, praying this wasn’t about to turn into a huge problem, I started walking with the man as we headed for the buildings in the distance. Persephone and Cerberus brought up the rear. As we walked, I asked, “So how are the humans over here going to react when they look at our giant robot dog with three heads?”

Ehn gave a soft chuckle before responding. “Speaking quite truthfully, I’m not entirely certain myself. They live amongst as many Alters as there are humans, so it should be interesting to see.” He smiled thinly before continuing in just as casual of a voice. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind, please stop that creature.”

Wait, stop what– just as that thought entered my head, I sensed it. Something undead was coming toward us from the side. My head turned that way in time to see some sort of bare-chested Native American charging our way. He had several wounds over his chest and throat, his face pallid. Some Necromantic energy was piloting him and directing the man our way while he waved two small axes or tomahawks in the air and screamed at the top of his lungs, the sound just now reaching us. Or me, anyway. I had no doubt that Ehn had been hearing him for a while.

I wasn’t sure who or what had animated this guy to begin with, but it wasn’t hard to take control of him. I did it immediately, first making him stop short. Then I realized we still needed to get a good look at the guy, so I made him keep walking closer. Meanwhile, I glanced toward Percy and asked, “I don’t suppose you recognize that specific energy?” My voice was a little tense at both thoughts that had entered my head.

To my infinite relief, she immediately replied, “The creature wasn’t animated by Manakel or Fossor. That’s a strange taste. I don’t think I like it.”

Yeah, Necromantic energy tasting like something even she didn’t like? That probably wasn’t the best sign in the world. Still, I simply filed away the information while turning back to our guide on this little trip. “What about you? This from one of your old friends? Or enemies?” By that point, the zombie had reached us, and I made him stand still, giving the guy a quick once-over visually as well as with my necromancy from this close distance. “If it helps, I think he died about two months ago, and he wasn’t buried or anything. He’s had Necromancy keeping his corpse intact the whole time, that’s why there’s so little decomposition.” 

Immediately after saying that, I paused to blink a couple times and tilted my head curiously. “Huh, I guess I am getting a little better at this.” I hadn’t even needed to summon up Doctor Manakel to ask his advice as a Necromancer and, well, medical professional. And yes, I was still differentiating him in my head from the old– or rather, the version of him I had met last year by referring to this one as Doctor Manakel. Maybe it was weird and unnecessary, but it helped. 

Ehn, meanwhile, just touched the dead man’s forehead curiously. “Hm, while I was aware that this area would likely be infested with these creatures, I am not entirely certain where they originate from, or who would be sending them. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. At the very least, it should be a fun test of your abilities. I look forward to seeing how you handle all of them.”

I was about to ask what he meant by all of them, when my senses jumped in to tell me. There were more coming, a lot more. My eyes snapped the same direction this guy had come from, only to see what had to be a hundred and fifty or so more zombie warriors charging toward us. This one had just been a scout or something. And now we had a small army coming our way. An army which, judging from what the Dragon-Heretic beside me had just said, he expected me to deal with by myself.

Holding up my hands in a quick time-out motion, I looked at my guide through all this. “Uh, how much is this gonna change the timeline? We’re being attacked by an army of zombies right now, and if I do anything about that–” 

“This army is only active due to our presence here in the first place,” Ehn informed me. “You will change nothing by halting them now.” 

Right, I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but on the other hand it wasn’t like I could just allow those zombies to kill us. So, I’d just have to go with it.

Cerberus was practically dancing with excitement, all three of his heads laser-focused on the incoming zombies. I started to tell him to wait a moment, then felt something else. Another rush of the creatures coming from the other side. This one was just as large. Whoever was behind this was trying to catch us in a pincer movement or something. Looking back that way, I patted the anxiously whining Cerberus on his nearest head. He desperately wanted to go charging that way to deal with the monsters he had been created to destroy. “It’s okay, buddy. I’ll handle the other ones. You go have fun.”

That was all it took. With a near-deafening bark from all three heads at once, Cerberus charged that way, ready and eager to tear through everything in his path.

Looking at me until I nodded to show it was fine, Percy chased after him to help. I watched them go, then turned to face the second oncoming horde. I didn’t bother asking Ehn if he was going to help at all. It would’ve been a very stupid question. He could wipe every opponent in this entire area off the mountain with a flick of his finger. This wasn’t about him. It was about me and what I could do. He was testing me again. I had a feeling I was going to be going through a lot of these tests over however long this took.

This was also, I realized, why he made us run so much before we even approached the village. It was all part of the test. He wanted to wear me out as much as possible before we set off this trap or whatever it was. He wanted me to be tired when I had to start dealing with these zombies. Of course it was all intentional. I doubted very much happened by accident when it came to this guy.

Hearing Cerberus excitedly barking in the background as he and Persephone dealt with that group, I took a few steps forward to meet the other. They were all screaming and waving those weapons. These weren’t the slow, lumbering type of zombies. They were fast, racing our way at top speed. For whoever had done this to be able to fill them without much energy, and affect this many at once, they have to be a very strong necromancer. Strong enough, come to think of it, to have killed all these people. They were all just like the first one, having died several months earlier in a single battle. Unless the person controlling them was someone from their own side. What if he was one of these people, a last survivor or something, resurrecting his own to create a new army? 

Shaking those thoughts out of my head, I focused on the task at hand. Ehn wanted to see how strong I was even after he made me run for hours? Fine, I would show him.

To that end, I first focused on my own ghosts. I had brought a couple dozen with me, including Doctor Manakel, Seth, Grover, Jason, Kaleigh, Emily, and Chas. With a thought, I made all of them appear directly in the middle of the oncoming horde, solidifying them so the zombies who were still charging forward would slam into them. It effectively cut the group in half, as the zombies who had been in front continued to charge forward, and those behind bounced off my ghosts and started to mindlessly swipe at them.

Alright, now I had a smaller group to focus on. Which I did by visualizing my own necromantic power as tendrils twisting through the air. Basically, I was focusing my power into those tendril forms as I shoved them through as many of the still-charging zombies as I could. My power overrode that of whoever had created these things, allowing me to take control and force them to turn on their companions. Soon, that group was cut in half as well, as the quarter I had completely taken over jumped on a bunch of the others and both sides began to tear each other apart.

Meanwhile, the half that had run into my ghosts was being efficiently destroyed as well. I had given the ghost battalion enough energy to shift back-and-forth between solid and intangible essentially as they wished. Every time one of the zombies swiped at them, their attack went right through before the ghost they were attacking would hit them in retaliation. There might’ve been fewer of my people, but they were stronger and better.

All of which meant only about thirty of the creatures were still coming my way. Taking a breath, I focused on another lesson I had been through and reached out. I felt the energy that was maintaining them, keeping the creatures moving. I carefully work my own power up into them, visualizing it twisting around the power that was already there. With a grunt of effort, I yanked down both with my hand in the air and with that power. I tore the energy that was reanimating them out of their bodies, pulling it in to take for myself. Instantly, those zombies fell to the ground, completely lifeless corpses once more.

Using the energy I had just stolen, I did the same to the other groups I had scattered apart, or what was left of them. Soon, that whole part of the incoming army was done. 

A glance back to the other side revealed that Cerberus and Percy had finished dealing with theirs as well. Giving them a thumbs up, I focused on Ehn. “Is that good enough, or do you want to wait for another attack?”

“That will do for now,” he assured me before gesturing. “At the moment, I believe we should go to the village. With that attack, the man I’m looking for might just decide to flee. I’d like to find him before that happens.

“After all the effort I’ve gone through to locate him, that would be rather annoying indeed.”

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Interlude 22B – Tristan, Aureus, And The Carnival (Heretical Edge 2)

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Three seconds after they had arrived in the carnival space, Aureus promptly vanished with a small explosion. It was just enough to make Tristan stumble sideways slightly, looking to the spot where she had been. Briefly, he appreciated the fact that she had clearly not made the explosion as strong as she could have. Unless he missed his guess, she had intentionally made it just strong enough to push him a bit, but not do any serious damage. She had simply seen what she thought was an opening to escape and get back to Kushiel, so she immediately took it. 

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Tristan didn’t bother trying to chase after her. He just looked around, frowning at what appeared to be an empty carnival. Where the hell was everyone? Someone should’ve come up to greet him by now. Hell, they had been with Bucket in the outside world, so where was she now? Something was very wrong here. 

Thinking about that, he drew a communication coin from his pocket and focused on trying to use it to get in touch with Vanessa since she was the brains of their little operation, but nothing happened. Strangely enough, nor could he access any of his powers at all. Come to think of it, from what Flick and Marina had said, they couldn’t access their powers in this place either. None of them had been able to once they came in here. And yet, Aureus was able to use hers. Yeah, this whole thing was… weird and unsettling. He had to find out what was happening.

To that end, Tristan engaged in the quickest way he could think of to get answers. “Hey!” he shouted, starting to walk through the aisles of rides and games. “Hey, guys, anybody here?! It’s Tristan! I think I’m here to help? It’s okay, you can come out! Anybody?! What’s going on?!” 

He had made it through a couple aisles like that with no luck before a nearby explosion caught his attention. It was Aureus, of course. She appeared and stalked toward him, jabbing a finger toward his face. “What sort of game is this? Where are we? There’s no way out of this… whatever it is. When I go too far in one direction, I appear on the opposite side. It appears to be impossible to teleport any further than the limits of this place.” She made an annoyed growling sound under her breath, finger still pointed at him. “If you don’t release me right this moment–”

“Hey babe,” he interrupted, “does it look like I know exactly what’s going on here? I mean, okay, I know more than you do about it. But I’m just as trapped. So hold on a second and I’ll tell you what I know. But I can’t just let you go, even if I wanted to. I don’t have any control over this place. And I can’t find any sign of the people who actually do. Maybe we can find them together if you chill.” 

The girl paused for a long moment before lowering her finger. “Tell me what is happening.” Her voice was still tense, but she seemed at least somewhat willing to listen. Which was an improvement over the possibility of her hitting him with an explosion. Especially since he couldn’t access his powers, so any fight between them would be an incredibly short one. 

So, Tristan told her the whole story about Denise and how the Carnival had become a thing. It was a rather long discussion, so he kept walking through it, searching through all the booths and rides they could find for any sign of the people who were supposed to be here. Unfortunately there was nothing and no one. He was getting more worried by the second as that went on. The Carnival couldn’t just be gone, right? They wouldn’t simply vanish forever without a trace. Something else had to be happening here, something obviously very wrong. Whatever it was, they had to find everyone, had to bring them back here and… and fix it. Unfortunately, the only people who were here to do that were himself, with no powers, and Auereus, who basically wanted nothing more than to go straight back to Kushiel and help her try to murder all of them.

At least she quietly listened to that whole story without interrupting or making more threats. Once he was done, she was silent for a few moments, apparently absorbing all that while he continued to call out various names of the Carnival members, trying to get any response whatsoever. But it was all to no avail. The whole place was just empty. Disturbingly, distressingly empty. 

Finally, Auereus gave a heavy sigh of annoyance before looking straight up. “Fine,” she announced, “let me see.” With that, there was another explosion that made him stumble out of the way, wincing a little. She was gone. No, she was up in the air. The girl had teleported probably to the upper ceiling of this place. He could see her up there, doing several more explosive teleports through the sky while looking down. She was getting a bird’s-eye view of everything. Helping. She was helping. Sure, maybe it was just because she wanted to get out of here too, but still. Tristan was going to take what he could get. Finally, she reappeared nearby, brushing herself off while looking at him. “The large building with the gravestones and what I believe are supposed to be frightening images. There are signs of people there.” 

“The Haunted House,” he realized aloud. “Maybe they all went there to hide or… or something. They found Theodore in that place before. Maybe it’s a safe spot for them or something. Come on.” Immediately, he started running that way, with the Seosten girl making another resigned yet annoyed sound before she followed after him. Together, the two raced past dozens of rides and games to reach the gate of the haunted house. Sure enough, there were lights on inside. He couldn’t see any actual people or anything yet, but it was the most promising sign so far. 

Without wasting another second, Tristan walked right through the gate and up toward the front door. He ignored all the decorations meant to scare people. The idea of the Carnival people just outright vanishing into thin air and this place remaining completely empty was terrifying enough by itself. He liked those people. They couldn’t just disappear forever. He had to find them, now. 

Taking the steps three at a time, Tristan grabbed through the heavy door and hauled it open, silently cursing the fact that he still didn’t have access to any of his powers to make this easier.

No, come to think of it, he actually was still stronger than he should’ve been, given his size. The big door came more easily than it should have. And then there was his memory. He could still remember everything that he’d seen since developing that. Well, everything he cared to pay attention to, anyway. Did that mean his Seosten powers were still working and it was just the Heretic ones that were out? Keeping that in mind, he slipped a penny from his pocket, still holding the heavy door with one hand. With a flick of his fingers, he sent the penny across the wide porch to bounce perfectly off a knothole in the distance. Which made Auerus give him a strange look, but he didn’t respond, too lost in thought for the moment. 

Okay, yeah, he still had the accuracy power. But what did that mean? Why would he have access to that, but none of the Heretic powers? It was obviously the same deal with Auerus herself. She didn’t have any Heretic powers to erase, since hers came from Tartarus. Or rather, from the parents she had inherited this Tartarus gift from. So whatever was blocking access to the Reaper-derived powers wasn’t doing so for powers from Tartarus. But did that mean it wouldn’t block any powers aside from ones from Reapers/Heretics, or would it block all powers except for the ones from Tartarus? Wait, his Seosten memory wasn’t a Tartarus thing, it came straight from his genetics. But was that because it came from his genetics, or–

Oh boy, now he felt like Vanessa, obsessed with figuring all this out as he got more and more lost in his own thoughts and theories. That had to stop right now. Sure, she wasn’t here, but he didn’t have to fill in for her. Obviously, there wasn’t going to be an easy answer to all this. Especially not one that he would find just standing there in the doorway like a lump. 

Just as that thought came to him, Aureus gave him a hard shove from behind, sounding more annoyed than usual. “Are you going to stand there for a full planetary rotation, or go inside and find out if those people are in there? We don’t have time for you to have some sort of breakdown or whatever this is.” 

Coughing, the boy shook his head. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not having a breakdown. That’d take more than this. It’s fine. I was just thinking about how much fun this whole situation is and how I hope we get to partner up like this all day long.” He gave her a quick grin before turning back to step into the front foyer of the building. “Hey guys!” He tried again to call out to all of them, silently praying that they would actually answer this time. “Hey, it’s Tristan! Anyone in here? We didn’t bring any cupcakes or anything but I swear if I knew we were coming I would have!” 

“Tristan!” To his indescribable relief, there was actually a reply to his call that time. A familiar, pink-furred, rabbit-like version of Denise came scrambling into view out of a nearby doorway, nearly falling over in her eagerness. “Is it really you? Are you really here!?” She stopped short upon seeing both of them standing there in the entranceway, her eyes jumping to the golden-haired girl as she stumbled a bit in surprise. “Wait, who–what?” 

“Bijou!” Tristan blurted reflexively, stepping that way to gently take the skittish girl’s hands. “It’s okay. I uh, Bucket was with us in the outside world. We were visiting Aureus over there and something happened. She said something about something being wrong and suddenly we were in here without her. There’s no one out in the main carnival area. Are you guys all in here? What’s happening?” He didn’t want to terrify the girl even more, or make things worse, but they had to find out what was going on, and she was the only one they’d been able to find so far. 

Of course, that changed a second later, as three more figures came through the same doorway. Bang-bang, the male Aspect dressed up in military fatigues, was first. He was accompanied by Flak, the red-skinned female Aspect who controlled fire, and Feisty. That last figure let out a gasp of relief upon seeing them. “Oh thank God, you made it. We were afraid Walker might’ve lost her grip on you when she was pulling you in here. She thought she might’ve lost you partway in.” 

“So Walker did pull us inside? Why? What’s happening?” Tristan looked around at the four of them. “Is everyone in here? Why are you guys hiding out in the Haunted Mansion?” 

Flak shook her head, retorting, “We’re not hiding. We’re investigating. And trying to fix it.” 

Before Tristan could respond to that, Aureus interrupted in a sharp tone. “Investigating what? What are you trying to fix? Whoever this Walker is, if they’re responsible for this, bring them up here to send us back to the outside world, now.” 

“Dude,” Bang-bang replied, “make up your mind. Do you want us to tell you what’s happening, or bring Walker up so she can send you home?” He carried right on without waiting for a response. “Scratch that, we can’t do the second thing anyway, since she’s not here right now.” 

That certainly caught Tristan’s attention, and not in a good way. “What do you mean she’s not here? Is she the one in the outside world herself right now? Is something going on out there?” It occurred to him then that this whole thing could’ve been because some terrible situation was going on outside and the Aspects had pulled them into this place to save them. The thought of that was enough to make Tristan almost panic all over again. He immediately tried to focus on either his connection to Sarah, whom he had possessed most recently, or the default link he had to his mother (and briefly pondered why he hadn’t thought to do that in the first place). If the first one was down, the second should still be up. But there was nothing. He couldn’t recall, either partially or fully, to them from wherever this was. Which wasn’t exactly surprising considering everything, but since he’d still had Seosten and Tartarus powers, it had been worth a shot.

Meanwhile, the group of Aspects exchanged glances before shaking their heads. Flak turned and gestured for them to follow. “Come on, you better see this for yourselves. Maybe you’ll have some idea what to do about it. Or even what it is. Cuz we’re kinda stumped. And freaking out.” 

Giving Aureus a brief look, Tristan shrugged. “Sooner we find out what’s going on, sooner we can get you back outside.” He left out the fact that as far as he was concerned, she still wouldn’t be running back to Kushiel no matter how long it took them to leave this place. Yeah, maybe she thought it was the best choice for her, but she’d been essentially brainwashed to trust that crazy, vindictive bitch practically since birth. Or maybe literally since birth. She didn’t really know what she was doing, or how bad the woman she thought she owed all that loyalty to actually was. She didn’t know any better in general. Maybe… maybe there was still a chance to help her. And if they could help her, they could help the rest of those people, the Olympian Children, as people kept calling them. And maybe, just maybe, the best way to do that was to get her to help with whatever this situation was. It couldn’t hurt anyway. Or at least, he hoped not. 

Either way, the Seosten girl didn’t object audibly. She just followed as they were led through the haunted mansion to a set of stairs leading down into the basement. Bijou spoke apprehensively on the way. “We were just trying to remodel in here, to make the place a little prettier, you know? And we found a door. But, we don’t think the door was always there. It was a new door.” 

Bang-bang nodded as they started down those heavy cement steps. “Yeah, it was definitely new. None of us saw it before, not even Theodore and he spent a lot of time in this place.” 

On the way down, they explained a bit more together. Apparently they had all come to talk to Theodore and try to make him feel better about Flick being gone, when they found this mysterious new door in the basement of the mansion. The whole group had begun investigating the door itself while trying to find out if any of them knew anything about it. They tried opening it, to no avail… at first. Then, with apparently no warning, the door had opened and some sort of powerful, invisible force had begun sucking several of the Aspects through. Which included Walker, though she had acted quickly by pulling Tristan and Aureus inside for help, calling out about what she was trying to do as well as the fact that she might’ve lost her grip on them. Then she and about half of the other Aspects had vanished before the door shut once more. Those who were left had been frantically trying to figure out how to open it again to go after their companions. Which explained why no one had been around to notice the other two arrive, or the fact that they had been wandering around out there looking for them.

They had reached the basement area by that point. Sure enough, there was a massive door in front of them, against the far wall. Actually, it was a set of double doors. They reached all the way to the ceiling, standing just over twelve feet tall and each was about six feet wide. They also looked very out of place in the dingy basement, with gold and ivory patterns along with what looked  like a bit of ruby stone around the edges. The doorknobs also seemed to be made of gold, and had some sort of intricate lock.

Seeing the doors there, Tristan stared for a moment, trying to comprehend where they could’ve come from. “Are you sure none of you guys accidentally made them? I mean, you do have control of this place. Or Denny does, or… yeah.” 

Besides Bang-bang, Flak, Bijou, and Feisty, the other Aspects gathered around the doors were the pixie known as Peanut, the aquatic Jordan, the glass-like Crystal, Bucket, the hooded and cloaked vampiric Belfry, the wooden Butternut, and the so-called ‘twins,’ Tick and Talk. In the outside world, they always appeared together, as a single figure whose right side was more masculine while the left side was feminine. In here, however, the two were only metaphorically joined at the hip. Both looked quite similar, with slim forms and light brown hair that was kept shorter and messier on Talk’s part. Tick wore a white shirt, while Talk’s was pink. It was his favorite color. 

The whole group insisted that none of them, nor any of the Aspects who had vanished (which included Denny and Theodore, worryingly) knew anything about why the doors had appeared. They were all terrified about what might’ve happened. 

“Okay, okay,” Tristan interrupted while they were going on. “Let’s just see if we can get it open again and go from there. We have to find out where these doors lead.” 

“Oh,” Aureus informed them, “I will get them open right now. Move.” She pointed both hands that way, clearly ready to send an explosion that way to literally force the issue. 

Before she could do so, however, the doors actually opened from the other side. Tristan quickly stepped in front of the Aspects, who all seemed panicked about the possibility of being sucked through like the others. But this time, there was nothing. Nothing, that was, aside from two familiar people who came into view from that side.

“Denny!” he blurted. “Theodore! What–guys!” He moved that way, accompanied by everyone else, aside from Aureus, who still looked ready to throw an explosion or two that way. 

“Tristan!” Denny blurted, holding tightly to Theodore’s hand. “Oh good, you’re here. We need help. We need all your help to save the others.” 

“Save the others?” That was Butternut, sounding suspicious as always. “From what? From who? Where are they?” 

“They’ve been… s-scattered across the Archives,” Theodore put in, visibly wincing. 

Tristan blinked several times at that, confused. “Scattered across Archives? What do you mean, Archives? Whose Archives?” 

“My people’s.” That was a new voice, as a figure Tristan had never seen before appeared in the doorway. She looked to be in her late teens, with very pale skin and bright pink hair with black highlights. She wore pink, hole-filled jeans, dark combat boots with pink laces, and a long-sleeved black shirt with a neon pink skull and the words ‘One Of A Kind’ filling most of the front. 

“Hey there. I’m Jones. Seems like this place is connected to the Reaper Archives. And all those other Aspects of yours have just been scattered over a whole bunch of them.” 

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Interlude 22A – Tristan And The Carnival (Heretical Edge 2)

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As the blonde young girl sat at a desk in an otherwise empty classroom and studiously wrote down the answers to a quiz she had found in the back of a math book, the nearby door leading out into the Fusion School hallway creaked open a bit before a voice spoke. “You know, from the back I almost would’ve thought my sister was the one in here wasting a day doing extra school work.” Tristan stepped in, adding, “Well, assuming she was hit by some sort of magic spell to make her a few years younger. Or there were time hijinks involved.” He smiled a bit lopsidedly, moving to lean against the teacher’s desk nearby. “Sorry, how’s it going? You know, for you and the rest of… uh, the others?” 

Letters carefully set the pencil she was using down, looking up to meet his curious gaze. “It’s okay. I mean, we’re okay. Denny comes out once in awhile, she’s just not ready to be in charge or to front most of the time. So the rest of the Carnival and I take turns.” 

“You’ve been doing it the most though, right?” Tristan pointed out while idly picking up the nearby stapler to fiddle with it. “You’re usually the one I see around.” 

“You see us most often around the classrooms,” Letters reminded him politely. “As the Aspect most interested in learning, I find myself active the most during those times.” She paused briefly before adding, “That said, I do tend to be one of the more active among us. Perhaps because this entire facility has become a school itself. I feel at home here.” 

Her words made the older boy grin. “Well that’s good to hear. I was uhh…” He rubbed the back of his neck a little awkwardly. “I was just checking to see how you’re all doing with Flick leaving. I mean, she just came home after a long trip and now she’s gone again for an even longer one, and we don’t even know when she’ll be back. You–uh, I mean you all seemed pretty close to her after what happened. Plus with you know who in there, and his whole–” 

“His name is Theodore,” Letters reminded him firmly. “Not Voldemort. You can say his name without fearing for your life. He is not Ammon either. And yes, he has… we all have feelings about Flick being gone. Some handle it better than others.” She glanced away briefly before turning her attention back to him to speak in a softer voice. “It is complicated.” 

With a snort, Tristan nodded. “Right, yeah, that I definitely believe. Things tend to be complicated in general around here, and you–” He paused, considering his words. “You all seem to have been hit with an extra dose of complications. Or maybe a few extra doses. Either way, I just wanted you to know that any time any of you want to talk or whatever, you know, to someone else outside the Carnival, I’m up for it. Flick may be gone for now, but you’ve still got people here.”

“I–thank you,” Letters started before hesitating. There seemed to be a brief internal consultation. Which, if Tristan understood how time worked within the Carnival, meant it was a very long consultation for them. “Pardon me, there’s something I need to attend to inside.”  

And just like that, her form shifted and changed, as the one known as Tailor used her shapeshifting abilities to make their external body match that of the one who was talking to him now. In this case, she looked like twelve-year-old Denise Cartland normally did. Except this version wore shabby, ill-fitting clothes that were more like rags thanks to the amount of use and damage they had seen. That familiar dark hair had been cut unevenly and amateurishly, as though the girl herself had done so with only scissors and no access to a mirror. Various scars lined her face and other parts of exposed skin, adding to the understanding of the battles this version of the girl had been through. This was Feisty, the personality that had been created to serve as the amalgamation of all the were-creatures, and those like them, who had been murdered by Ammon. If Letters was a combination of those of his victims who had been studious, Feisty was the result of those who had lived off the grid, who had been homeless wanderers living either in the woods or scattered through any number of big cities. With the Boscher Heretics an eternal threat, the weres Ammon had found for his lethal games were always accustomed to a harsh, dangerous life. Unfortunately, they had suffered even more under his ‘care’ before being killed. But now, some version of them was alive, their memories and personalities coalesced into a single being. Or at least a single part of a greater being. 

As soon as she had appeared fully, Feisty rose from the chair so quickly the desk came with her partway before crashing back down with a bang. She barely noticed, simply moving away from it and toward the door. “Fuck, fuck, we’ve been sitting around too long. I need to walk, clear my head. Come on if you want, but I ain’t wasting my time around here anymore. Get me out of this place.” 

Tristan raised an eyebrow, starting to follow after grabbing the books and pencil that Letters had been working through. Feisty was apparently too intent on getting out of there to remember those. He tucked the things under his arm, then joined the girl in the hall. She was walking quickly past other classroom doors. “You going anywhere in particular?” 

“Just walking,” came the quick response. “Can’t sit still. Feels wrong to sit still. Boring. Dangerous.” She paused briefly, looking over her shoulder at him. “I know it’s safe here. Logically, realistically, whatever. Safe as any place could be. But it feels wrong to sit around. Feels like there’s a target on my back–our back. Makes me itchy or whatever. I get anxious and have to move. Longer I sit still, the worse it gets. Even when it’s someone like Letters who’s been sitting. When I take over, I feel like it’s been me the whole time. I hate taking over for her after she’s been on a study binge. Makes me feel paranoid. More than usual.” 

With a slow nod, Tristan replied, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense, considering where you come from and all.” He picked up the pace a bit to walk alongside her before adding, “Actually, I was about to go check in on Aureus and see how she’s doing today. If you want, you could come along.” He shrugged then. “You know, if you ever wanted to know what it was like to have someone threaten to explode you. She’s good at that. Both threatening and doing it, really. But don’t worry, it’s safe. She knows she can’t get anywhere by attacking any of us, she just likes to talk about it.”

There was a brief pause before Feisty replied, “I think some of the ones who came before me, the ones whose memories I have, actually did get exploded a few times. They didn’t think it was very fun. At least not for the most part. I think one of them liked it, which is weird.” She considered that, making a face before shaking it off. “Yeah, whatever. As long as we can get away from all these classrooms. I’m about to break into hives if I have to sit at another desk again.”

With a chuckle and grin, Tristan gave her a high five. “Trust me, I hear that. Come on.” With that, he began to walk ahead, leading her through the station. On the way, he asked, “So, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you have all those powers? I mean, can you shapeshift into a bunch of different were animals?”

Feisty took a moment to respond before nodding. “Yeah, between all the different Were people who make up who I am, I can do about seven different animals. Wolf, bear, snake, jaguar, shark, crow, and spider.”

Tristan gave a double take at that last bit. “A spider? You mean like a little black widow or a tarantula or something? That doesn’t seem as dangerous as the others. I mean, if someone could just reach down and flick you away like that.”

The lift arrived and they stepped onto it while Feisty rolled her eyes. “Sure, yeah, I can be tiny like that. It’s good for infiltration or whatever, I guess. But I can also be bigger. I can turn into a spider that’s about the size of a large dog if I want to.”

Coughing, Tristan agreed, “Right, yeah, that’s a little more dangerous than I thought.”

Feisty started to say something else, only to look away while groaning. “Hang on, I’ve gotta go in and help deal with this.”

Before the boy could say anything in response to that, her form changed once again. She still looked like Denise, only instead of being shabbily dressed and heavily scarred, this one looked like she was literally dead. She wore normal clothes, with visible strangulation marks on her neck, along with bluish skin and bloodshot eyes. Despite that appearance, however, the girl gave a bright, almost infectious smile. “Hi!” she chirped. “Do we really get to go see the explosion girl? Cuz Feisty was right, we do have a lot of memories about explosions in here.” She tapped the side of her head while adding, “And some of them did like it, but mostly because being exploded meant they wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.”

That was a lot to take in, and Tristan almost missed the elevator door opening. He only managed to notice when the girl herself cheerfully hopped off it, forcing him to follow. “Oh, hey, Bucket,” he greeted her. There was always a lot to take in when it came to each of the Carnival’s various Aspects. But most of them were simply the memories of various people who had some similarities before being killed by Ammon. Such as all the Were people when it came to Feisty, or the academically and technologically-minded for Letters. 

Bucket, however, was literally the memories of all their deaths. As far as everyone had been able to put together, she was made up of two types of victims. First, she held the personalities of all the ordinary human people Ammon been responsible for killing, those who didn’t have any extra powers. Her appearance tended to shift randomly between various versions of a Denise who had been killed in all the different ways those people had. She always resembled a corpse, with different lethal wounds.

The other half of the victims she embodied were those who had had some form of regeneration or healing ability. That was Bucket’s personal power. She could reassemble herself from literally any amount of damage. Which, come to think of it, could prove useful if they were going in to see Aureus. Again, Tristan was certain she knew better than to actually attack them regardless of what she said, but still. It never hurt to be on the safe side. 

Shaking that off, the boy focused on a more important, immediate question. “What’s going on in there? Letters had to leave, and now Feisty too? Is everything… uh, okay?” He didn’t want to push too hard or anything, but seriously, something was definitely happening.

Bucket’s form shifted a bit. Instead of the strangulation signs, she had a single bullet wound in the center of her forehead along with what appeared to be multiple cuts along her cheeks and neck. “Oh yeah, it’ll be fine. They’re just checking something out. Honestly, some of us are pretty upset about Flick being gone and they think we won’t see her again. So they’re trying to distract themselves.”

Tristan grimaced a bit at that. The whole reason he had gone to see the Carnival in the first place was because he was worried about how they would feel. But turning out to be right didn’t exactly make him proud. With a soft sigh, the boy replied, “Okay, well, like I said back there, if any of you need to talk to someone outside the collective, I’m right here. Or, if you prefer someone smarter, I could get Nessa or our mom. Anybody. We’re all here to help if you need anything.”

Bucket thanked him, and the two of them made their way through the station before finally reaching the rooms where the Seosten girl was being kept. There were several guards outside keeping an eye on her, considering how dangerous it would be if she got out into the larger station. Despite being here for over a month, Aureus had made it clear that she held no particular fondness for most of them and would gladly blow up the whole station to escape.

Or at least, that was what she claimed. Tristan believed otherwise. Oh, he was certain she would escape and go back to Kushiel if given the chance. But he doubted her claims that she would kill everyone here. The way she talked, the hesitation he heard in her voice and saw in her eyes, all of that didn’t match her actual words. She wasn’t a monster. She had simply been trained and raised by Kushiel and her people to act a certain way. Every now and then when talking to her, or at her considering the lack of response she usually had, Tristan could see interest, even buried longing. Some part of her wanted to know more about this place and the people in it. But that part was always shoved down and hidden. She buried it deep under her rage at being confined and kept away from the woman she felt such loyalty to. 

Somehow, he had become the person she tolerated the most in there. Oh, she still threatened him now and then. Especially whenever he arrived or left. But it was mostly ceremonial, as though she thought not threatening him would be seen as accepting her imprisonment, and she couldn’t have that. Beyond those lackluster threats, she actually sat and listened while he talked about things. He told her stories about his life, especially all the things he had been through while out in space with Grandpa Nick. And from the way she listened, he was certain the girl had some longing to be out in space herself. That was why she was interested in this sunstation despite her anger. She wanted to be on a spaceship and go exploring. Of course she did. She was a Seosten. But Kushiel kept her confined and hidden away, training the girl and her companions to be her personal honor guard or whatever. So her deep desire to be out among the stars, exploring and seeing brand new worlds was at odds with her loyalty to the woman who had brought her up.

He had explained all that to Bucket on the way to the rooms, wanting the girl to understand what they were about to walk into. Now, he greeted the guards before holding up a bag of beef jerky from his pocket. “I promised I’d bring her a meat snack that humans like. Do you mind?”

The guards checked both of them over and looked in on their prisoner first, but finally waved them on. Tristan and Bucket walked into what amounted to a very nice hotel room. The girl had been upgraded from the simple prison cell she’d been in before with all the explosive marks all over the walls. Once she had made it clear she wouldn’t destroy everything in the room in an attempt to escape, she was brought here and allowed to live in some comfort.

Aureus, the golden-haired girl, was sitting in the middle of the queen sized bed, facing a television that she had quickly turned off when they started to enter. But Tristan knew thanks to the security videos that she had been watching an old human sitcom with rapt attention. He didn’t say anything about that however, not wanting to discourage the girl from enjoying herself, even if she felt like she had to hide that.

“Didn’t I tell you that if you came back again today I’d pop your eyeballs?” she demanded darkly. Only then did she notice the person with him, gaze narrowing. “Why in the void did you bring a zombie with you?”

Far from being offended, Bucket cheerfully gave her a thumbs up and twirled while her body shifted once again to clearly resemble a person who had been burned to death. “Oh, I’m not a zombie! My name’s Bucket. I’m just… uh, it’s a long story. But I’m really alive. I just look like I’m dead. I look like I’m a lot of different kinds of dead.”

There was a brief pause where Aureus clearly wanted to push for more information, but somehow convinced herself that to do so would make her look like she was actually interested in anything around here. So, she simply retorted, “I don’t care. And unless you want to die in a whole new way, I suggest you leave the same way you came in. Better yet, leave the door open and I’ll show myself out for good.”

Ignoring that, Tristan held up the bag of jerky and tossed it next to her on the bed. “See? I keep my promises. I told you I’d get you that snack I was talking about. Dried and seasoned meat.”

Aureus moved to open the bag without even thinking about it, tearing it while reaching in to take a hunk of the jerky so she could shove it into her mouth. She chewed and swallowed quickly, only then seeming to realize what she had done. Face slightly flushed from embarrassment and annoyance, she pushed herself off the bed and faced the two of them. “If you think you can bribe me into betraying my mother just by giving me a little snack, I’ll–”

Her words were interrupted by Bucket. “Hang on, wait. Something’s going on. Something’s going on inside. Something’s… bad.” She staggered to one side, holding her hand against her head.

“What is this?” Aureus demanded. “What is wrong with her?”

Tristan shook his head. “I don’t know, but we need to call–” 

A flash of light filled the room, and they were suddenly gone. They weren’t in that room anymore. Instead, Tristan and Aureus both found themselves standing in front of a large Ferris wheel. The sounds of more rides and games were all around them. 

Tristan knew what this was. They were inside Denise. They were in the Carnival.

But… but why? And what the hell was going on?

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