Heretical Edge

Interlude 15A – Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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A black blade glowing seemed unnatural. And yet, as she stood in the mostly dark room, holding the sword in the front of herself, Joselyn could see the illumination coming from it. Not from the ruby handle or the amber jewel on the end, but from the onyx blade itself. It was casting enough light on its own to brighten the room around her to the point of being able to read a small-print book if she had so-desired. Black metal giving off light with no apparent spell or source. She hadn’t activated any sort of magic on the blade. Nothing specific anyway. It just glowed all on its own while in darkness, without any sort of obvious input. It… created light around it. 

The room itself was one of the empty magical research labs. Most of the larger ones were being used in developing the spell that would protect everyone from Seosten possession, but this one was free. She had brought the weapon here to examine it safely, where any sort of protections wouldn’t do any damage to the station. 

“Pretty snazzy sword, isn’t it?” The voice came from the nearby doorway, as Abigail stepped into the room, trailed by Athena. “I only got to look at it for a second,” she added slyly, “but I’m pretty sure that’s at least two hundred on eBay, easy.”  

Turning to face the two women, Joselyn smiled faintly at her oldest daughter before casually replying, “Maybe we could go as high as three if we put the right sort of filter on the pictures.”   

“Ooh, we’ll have to have Koren work on that then,” Abigail returned, “I’m afraid the last time I tried to upload pictures of something, all we ended up with was photos of the carpet instead of my grandmother’s silverware.” Pausing, she amended, “I mean, the grandmother that…” 

“Your grandmother,” Joselyn firmly put in. “Your parents–I mean… they raised you, Abigail. I’m not trying to take that away or anything. They raised you, they took care of you. They were there–they were there for everything.” Her voice caught a bit, the lump in her throat briefly choking the words away before she managed to swallow hard. Because that was both the truth and the problem. She hadn’t been there for anything in her eldest daughter’s life. As hard as it was to have missed ten years of Felicity’s childhood, she had missed almost everything of Abigail’s life. She’d missed her growing up, going to school, becoming a lawyer, getting married, having a child, over fifty years worth of a life, and Joselyn had missed all of it. 

She was determined to be there for her daughter any way she could now. But she would never use that as an excuse to diminish what Abigail’s adopted family had been for her. Someday, Joselyn wanted to meet them. She had no idea how that would be possible, or what sort of explanation they would give to those people. But she did want to meet them. She wanted to know the people who had raised her daughter into such a fine, wonderful woman. 

In the meantime, Athena had spoken up. “Jokes aside, if that is truly the sword of Mordred, it is priceless several times over. And I believe it truly is that weapon, from everything I have seen. Do you mind?” she asked, extending a hand that way with a raised eyebrow.

Some part of Joselyn bizarrely didn’t want to hand the sword over. For just a moment, that voice in the back of her head told her not to let the Seosten woman touch it. She hesitated, then shook that off and flipped the weapon around before handing it that way. As Athena took and examined the weapon, she focused instead on Abigail. Her voice was quiet, yet still intense. “How is she doing?” 

Abigail, of course, immediately knew she was talking about Denise. Or Denny, as she apparently preferred to go by. It had been several hours since they brought the girl up to the station and allowed some of their people to give her a once-over. Sariel hadn’t been able to pull herself away from the anti-possession spell just yet, given how critical things were with it at the moment. But they at least had enough free people to get a better idea of what was going on in that girl’s head. 

“Considering everything she’s been through, and is still going through,” Abigail replied, “she’s doing pretty incredible. That kid has been through hell and back. I can’t even think of what it would be like to have that voice in my head, his memories, his impulses. The fact that she’s kept it together this much is just… she’s amazing.” Clearing her throat, she added, “And in some ways she’s even more confused now than she was before she had any answers. Confused about how she feels, that is. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, you told her that she died. Not only that, you told her she used to be several years older than she is now. It might explain why she knows stuff she doesn’t consciously remember learning, why her education seems higher than it should be. And it explains her nightmares. It explains all of it. But she’s still confused. Just… differently confused.” 

Joselyn heaved a sigh, nodding. “Of course she’s confused. If I was in her position, I have no idea what I would do. I mean, I suppose I was somewhat close, getting memories of my old life back when Fossor found me. But even that isn’t even remotely the same. I just…” Turning, she gestured and summoned a pair of chairs from the far side of the room. As they slid closer, she moved one over to Abigail before sitting down heavily. “I want to be there for her. I want to help her. But I don’t think I’m the right person for it. My son was the one who killed her. He was the one who did all of that. It’s not right for me to try to absolve my own feelings and guilt over that. She needs to be with people who can really help her, not make her feel worse just by being there.” 

Gently, Abigail replied, “What she needs right now is time to cope with everything she’s being told. And… perhaps her parents?” She added the last bit pointedly. “That girl needs her mother and father, and we can bring them up here. We can give them the pills to temporarily restrict the Bystander Effect so they understand what we’re saying when we explain the situation. Let them decide how to handle things. They’re her parents, they deserve that chance.” 

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. “We’ll go there and explain everything to them. She can come with and… and we’ll see what happens. That’s going to be some conversation,” she murmured the last bit with a wince. “Though not even close to the hardest one I’ve ever had.” 

Abigail opened her mouth to ask for more clarification about that, but before she could, Athena turned to them, holding the weapon up higher. “This is absolutely the real Clarent. No question about it. I have run every test I can think of, and it passes all of them. This is the genuine article. Although I have no idea how it could possibly have ended up in that hotel room, or where else it has been in the meantime.”

“Can it really do what Kushiel said?” Joselyn pressed. “Can it lead to Modred’s body? And if it does, can she really… possess that permanently the way she said she could?” 

Athena, in turn, gave a helpless shrug. “Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t around my people when they built this sword, or when they… prepared Mordred’s body for Puriel to use. And I certainly have no idea how Kushiel could have returned as this powerful of a ghost. You said she was too strong for even Felicity to control?” 

“Even with help from Tabbris’s Archangel boost,” Joselyn confirmed, “the best they could do was catapult her out of the hotel and into another state. Which, I know, sounds impressive. But it took everything they had to get rid of her. And they took her by surprise. Next time, I’m not sure how well that will work.” 

“Next time, we will be more prepared,” Athena insisted. “And so will your daughter. She is getting stronger with her power every day.” A sigh escaped her then, as she added, “Although again, I have no idea how this could have happened. Yes, she is being fueled by Tartarus, but… is that what will happen to all of us with enough exposure? When we die, will we be brought back as… powerful ghosts?” 

“People from your ship have died before, right?” Abigail pointed out. 

“Minor… crew members, yes,” Athena confirmed. “No one from the bridge. Perhaps it takes a certain level of exposure, of power. Or perhaps… I don’t know. There are so many unanswered questions about that place. We need to bring Apollo and Sariel in on what is happening. If anyone around here has any chance of understanding this situation, it’s the two of them.” 

“Beyond that,” Joselyn pointed out, “They both need to know about Kushiel coming back. You know she’ll go after them if she gets the chance. And have you talked to Theia yet?” She added that last bit while looking toward the other woman in the room.

Grimacing, Abigail shook her head. “Not yet. She’s working on some sort of project with Douglas Frey. I sent word for her to come see me as soon as they’re done. I don’t… I have no idea how to bring that up. How am I supposed to tell her that the woman who did all that to her for so long, who tortured her, who killed her friends, who… who did that… is back? How am I supposed to tell her?” 

“She’s not back,” Joselyn replied flatly. “She’s still dead. She’s just…” A sigh escaped her. “The difference is elementary at this point, I suppose. She can still hurt people. She can still kill people. And she’ll want revenge against her daughter as much as she does Sariel or anyone else.” 

Abigail swallowed hard, giving a short nod. “I’ll bring her in and explain what happened. She needs to know the truth, and she should hear it from me. I just… she’s doing so well lately. She’s improved so much over these months, especially after her mother died. I don’t know what this is going to do to her. But it won’t be good.” 

Athena glanced away, clearly lost in thought for a few long moments before speaking quietly. “Kushiel’s return, in any form, is going to be bad for many people. Her daughter is near the top of an extensive list. It is something we need to deal with as soon as possible. I will be searching for any information about Tartarus-empowered ghosts. I do not expect to find much, if anything. But perhaps there will be enough to point in the direction of answers. My people have studied the energy from Tartarus quite extensively over the millennia. Someone may have found something helpful.” She sounded doubtful even as the words came, yet determined to at least try. 

“I’ve already got a list of Necromancy experts,” Abigail put in. “Mostly from checking for people who could teach Felicity. I’ll see if any of them have any ideas about containing a super-boosted ghost. There have to be spells and such that can stop her. Or at least slow her down. And for the record, if I had heard myself say something like that just over a year ago, I might have had myself committed.” 

“It is a lot to come to terms with,” Joselyn murmured quietly. “And you have even more than most. You only found out about this last year, and you’ve already taken on the role of principal for all these people.” 

“Like mother, like daughter,” Athena noted, glancing back and forth between them. “I do not believe that any member of your family could stand to be an ordinary, average part of the crowd if your lives depended on it. You are all remarkable people, and none of you could ever simply blend in. I mean, look at what you did while in Laramie Falls. The youngest sheriff in county history. Even with your memories erased, you stood out and protected people. Your daughter was making a name for herself as a young reporter exposing the truth and standing up to injustice before she even reached high school.” To Abigail, she added, “You became one of the finest defense attorneys in the country. Hiding is simply not in the nature of any member of your family.”  

As she finished saying that, the nearby door slid open, and another woman entered. “I’m sorry,” Virginia Dare spoke as she took in the sight of the other three. “Am I interrupting something?” 

“No, you’re fine,” Joselyn assured her. “We were just talking about how to deal with our new ghost problem. And what to do about this body she’s supposed to be looking for.” 

“Mordred’s body,” Virginia confirmed with a heavy sigh. “I sent word to Guinevere to come back so we can find out if she knows anything about that. She’s still on that little trip with Michael to Sudan, but hopefully we’ll get a response back soon.” 

“I sure hope someone knows something about Mordred’s body and what it could possibly do,” Abigail muttered. “Because from what you people said, Kushiel knows, and I don’t think she’s going to give up on finding it just because she doesn’t have that thing.” She gestured to the sword. “She’ll keep looking for some other way to find it.” 

“Well,” Joselyn noted while glancing to the weapon in the Seosten woman’s hands, “That thing is supposed to lead straight to it, so maybe we can beat her. But how does it work, exactly?” 

Athena answered carefully. “As I said, I am far from an expert in that sword. But from what I know, it will only work properly and unlock all of its gifts for someone who has bonded to it. Which means keeping it on your person, using it in battle, training with it, and so on.” 

“In that case,” Joselyn replied, “who is going to be the one bonding to it?”   

“That, I believe, is an easy question.” Turning the sword around once more, Athena offered it back to her by the handle. “You are both a descendant of Arthur’s knights, and the leader of this rebellion in your own right. There is no better choice for who should carry this sword.” 

Joselyn, however, shook her head. “I’m not the leader of anything right now. Gabriel Prosser has been leading the rebellion for longer than I ever did. I’ve been… gone for too long. And even if they did need a leader, I don’t know whether I would be the right person for it. After everything with Fossor, all the… everything I had to do…” She trailed off, pain in her voice. 

The others exchanged glances, before Athena spoke up. “You have been through so much. Truer words have never been spoken. But you are wrong when you say that you are not the leader of anything. The Heretic rebellion was begun by you. The people who chose to abandon centuries of indoctrination did so because of you. It was your words that showed them the truth.  And it was your memory that brought them back. The rebellion exists because of you.” 

“No one wants you to step into a role you aren’t ready for yet,” Dare put in while moving closer. “You’ve been through more than enough. You deserve as much of a break as you need. Be with your loved ones, your… your family. But you are the one who should hold onto that sword. You need to bond with it, work with it, let it get to know you. And when you have, allow it to lead you to Mordred’s body.” 

“Before Kushiel finds it, preferably,” Abigail added. “Though I’m still not sure how a sword is going to lead to a body, I’ve pretty much accepted that all of this is way beyond me.” Her voice softened as she looked at her mother. “But they’re right, even if you are taking a break from it, you are the leader of the Atherby clan, and of the rebellion itself. Believe me, I hear people talk. I listen to them. The ones who came back, came because of you. And the other ones, they came because of what they heard about you and about what you’ve done.” 

Taking in a deep breath before letting it out again, Joselyn finally reached out to take the offered sword from Athena. Her voice was flat. “I don’t know if I can ever be the same person I was back in those days. That’s why I keep saying I’m Joselyn Chambers now, not Joselyn Atherby. I don’t know if that person, that woman, can ever exist the way she was, before everything that happened. Before Wyoming, before Fossor. I’m different now. I’m not the woman who started this rebellion. But then, the rebellion itself has changed. After all,” she added with a glance toward Athena, “we’re working together this time.” 

Athena, in turn, gave a nod of agreement. “Of course. Both of our organizations… all of our people, are better off now than they were before. Being allied this way, that is what will make the difference. The Seosten, those of my people who cling to the old ways, they win these wars by keeping groups separate when they would be stronger together, by taking advantage of lack of communication. We didn’t take on the entire universe at once, we took one world at a time, bringing each under our heel by targeting their leaders, by exploiting weaknesses and making them fight against one another. Even the Bystander Effect itself was about creating divisions, about turning allies against one another.”

“It’s certainly the best chance we’ve ever had of making things right,” Dare confirmed. “We have Liesje’s spell, the original rebellion, the Aelasetiam people, the Seosten have already agreed and held themselves to this temporary truce, which gives us time to put things in order. Quite frankly, I don’t believe there will ever be a better opportunity to make this world–this universe, better. And you, Joselyn, are the right person to stand at the head of that.” 

For a long moment, the woman in question gave no response. She looked away, clearly lost in thought. The flash of pain that went through her gaze was quick, but everyone in that room saw it. 

“Like I said,” she finally announced, “I’m not the woman I was back then. But maybe I can try to be better than that. Maybe it’s not about going back to being the person who started the rebellion, but about being the person who can finish it.” 

While the other three watched, Joselyn slowly turned to face them. “My father sacrificed his life to stop the Fomorian invasion. My mother allowed the memory of who she was to be erased from everyone’s mind. Now… I hope she still lives, but she could be anywhere. She sacrificed everything she was.” She gripped the weapon tightly, holding it out in front of herself as the black blade continued to give off light. “I’m tired of my family having to make sacrifices. It’s time to make some real changes. Lasting changes. The Fomorians need to be stopped for good. Which means stopping this war with the Seosten and working together. Those monsters don’t differentiate between Seosten, human, or anything else. If it’s not Fomorian, they kill it. We’re all in the same boat. And that boat is going to sink if we all keep fighting each other. Your people tried this their way,” she added with a glance toward Athena. “They’ve been trying their way for hundreds of millennia, and it’s not working. We have to show them a better way. We have to show the Seosten leadership that their best move going forward is to make the truce permanent. We have to make them see that working with us is the only way anyone is going to get anywhere. A true, lasting alliance is the only way this universe is going to survive total genocide at the hands of those monsters.” 

“You think you can make the Eden’s Garden and Crossroads loyalists actually listen to you?” Abigail carefully asked. 

“I don’t know,” Joselyn admitted. “They’re pretty stubborn. What I do know is that the best way forward is to make the Seosten leaders see that we’re a better asset than a liability. If we can make them stop backing up the loyalists, or even agree to show what they’ve done to create this situation in the first place, we’ll have a chance to change some minds. Maybe even enough to make everything better. But that’s the trick. We need to convince the Seosten to back off for good and let us bring our own people together. And we have about six months to do that. So I hope everyone enjoys the holidays and gets ready for the new year. 

“Because as soon as that anti-possession spell is in place, it’ll be time for the real work to begin.” 

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The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

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The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Seeing Seth as a ghost had been a pleasant sort of surprise. This? This was basically the worst kind. Seeing Kushiel there, even as a ghost, made me reel backward. This was wrong. This was all wrong. She was supposed to be gone completely. And how was she possessing Francis? I didn’t–what–how? All those questions rushed through my head as I stared open-mouthed at the figure. 

“Lady,” Mom announced, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to explain just what the hell is going on here. And let Francis go. Now.” Even as she spoke, my mother focused, producing a gleaming silvery-gold sword out of nowhere, with runes inscribed on it that were glowing with energy. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but it seemed pretty dangerous. My mother clearly wasn’t playing around. 

“It’s Kushiel,” Sean informed her in a flat voice, without taking his eyes off the woman in question. He had one hand on Vulcan’s head, while the cyberform gave a low growl. “Puriel’s wife. Theia’s mother.” 

“Her name is not Theia!” Kushiel practically thundered. Seriously, the room shook a little bit, with paintings and light fixtures rattling against the walls. Her ghostly figure turned a bit red, and seemed to actually give off a bit of heat. “She has no name, she is Mendacia. She could have earned a name if she worked hard enough to help fix what she is, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t. She has no name. And even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be that name.”

“What are you doing?” I put in, before we could get more off track. Besides, I really didn’t feel like letting her talk about Theia at all. She didn’t deserve to. “How are you controlling Francis? And what the hell did you do to Denise?” Even as I said that, I gave the girl in question a quick glance. She had moved to hide behind the nearest couch, peeking over it with a tiny whimper when I said her name. 

“What am I doing?” Kushiel echoed, her voice reverberating through the room once more. “Well, little girl, as it turns out, it would seem that being dead is not exactly the end for those of us with enough of a Tartarus gift. We still have things to do. That energy, that power… I can still feel it.” She looked at her own semi-translucent hand, clearly marveling. “Yes, I am a ghost. But you can feel for yourself, not the ordinary sort. Tartarus sustains me, gifts me with the strength to resist even your control. I even maintain my ability to possess and control others.” She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless man behind her. “In exchange for service.” 

“Something’s wrong,” I murmured. “This isn’t her. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. She’s different.” 

“Different?” Kushiel glowered at me, gaze seeming to burn straight into my soul. “If I have changed in some way, perhaps it is the fault of the creature who murdered me.” 

“That creature is your own daughter!” I snapped back. “The one you abused and tortured for most of her life, just because she’s different.” 

“She is an abomination!” The ghostly figure roared. That time, several of the paintings fell off the walls and I felt a blast of heat fill the room. It was enough to make me wince a little bit, though it only lasted for a moment. “And I assure you, she will get what is coming to her.” 

Mom spoke up then. “You are not going to hurt anyone else.” As she said that, the sword flared to life with light blue flames. A form of ghostfire, I was pretty sure. 

“You might want to think twice about using that,” Kushiel retorted darkly, even as her form seemed to fade just a little bit. She didn’t disappear, but most of her body turned even more translucent. Except for her eyes. Those flared even brighter. “Even in life, I was a bit harder to harm than you might assume.” 

“She reflects damage to other people,” I put in. Mom knew that, she’d heard the stories. But I wanted to make sure everyone remembered, just in case. High as tempers were right now, one wrong move could turn incredibly bad. “You hurt her, she makes it hurt someone else instead.” 

Kushiel’s cold, dead gaze focused on me. “Very good, child. Gold star for you. That is what they say on this backwater, nothing world, isn’t it? Several gold stars. Have all you want. For all the good they will do you.” 

Twister, straightening up beside Sean, replied, “How do you know she even still has that power? I mean, she’s a ghost. Did she really get to smuggle that sort of gift past Death Customs?”

A look of amusement crossed the woman’s gaze, as she stared Twister down. “Oh, by all means, have a go if you wish to see for yourself. Or, perhaps you should ask the child there.” 

Denise, with a tiny gulp, managed to weakly put in, “They tried to hurt her when she showed up. Mr. Gale did, before she… before she took him. But everything they hit her with, it… it hurt other people.” 

Great, so there was our confirmation. Kushiel really had kept her power after death. Because that was fair. Sometimes I really just wanted to look at the sky and scream bullshit as loud as I could. Not that it would actually help anything, but it might make me feel a little better for a few seconds.  

Asenath finally spoke up, her voice quiet. “But what does Denise have to do with any of this?” 

“That child?” the tall, ghostly woman gave a contemptuous glance that way, making the girl in question whimper and duck down again. “Everything and nothing. I sensed the dark presence in her as soon as they brought her in. The power she has, I can smell it. For months, I had no firm presence in this place. I floated through its walls, my form… scattered. It was so… difficult to focus, to think. I was dreaming of Tartarus, of what has to happen. Dreaming of what must come, but unable to bring myself together. I could not force myself to coalesce, no matter how hard I tried. Like attempting to wake from a deep slumber. The protections within this place forced me to continue my aimless drifting, my sleep, my dreams. When that child was brought into this place, I felt her presence like a beacon. It helped me bring myself together, just a bit more. Not enough, but it was better than nothing. And then… when the man who has been entrusted with this hotel’s care left the premises, my head cleared even more.” 

Mennin, I realized. His mother was gone, and when he had left to come collect us, it somehow removed the protections that had stopped Kushiel from bringing herself together fully. I didn’t know how or why that was a thing in the first place, but it was the only way this made sense. For a certain definition of ‘making sense.’ The thought that all of this had started happening just because we pulled the man away from the Auberge was enough to send a cold chill through me. 

“I felt my strength return,” Kushiel was saying. “For the first time in months, I truly felt like myself. And I knew what to do. I took their protector.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand toward Francis, who was still standing motionless, staring at nothing. “I took his body for my own. He fought me, as she said. But it was both meaningless and too late. And, of course, it did not help that he was distracted attempting to aid the child there.” 

“She killed them,” Denise managed in a voice that cracked from fear and grief. “They were trying to h-help me, and she… she killed them. She killed them and their… their ghosts were there. But sh-she took them. It was like she… swallowed their ghosts.” 

That was enough to make Grover and Seth each take a step back, while Kushiel gave them a dark smile. “Yes, absorbing other ghosts does seem to help with my own focus and strength. And I am getting a bit peckish.” 

Denise went on quickly. “I tried to stop her, I tried to use the voice, but she didn’t listen. It didn’t work. I-it didn’t do anything.” 

Kushiel was immune to Ammon’s power? That raised even more questions. Was it a ghost thing or–yeah, I had no idea. Not to mention the way Denise talked about it seemed to indicate that she wasn’t actually being controlled by Ammon’s memories or whatever. But that opened a whole new confusing can of worms that we didn’t have time to get into thanks to the elegantly dressed and psychotic ghost elephant in the room. 

Denise was still talking. “Sh-she said she’d stop killing people here if I helped her find the thing she’s looking for. I-I didn’t want to, but she promised she’d leave everyone else alive if I found it.” 

“Yes, and you have failed at that repeatedly, haven’t you?” Kushiel shot back, her harsh voice making the girl recoil and drop back behind the couch once more with a choked sound of terror. 

Asenath quickly snapped, “Leave her alone! What the hell are you even looking for in here? What do you want?”  

From the corner of my eye as she was saying that, I noticed Seth move to put his hand on her shoulder, only to fail as it simply passed through the girl. He glanced down at his hand and grimaced. 

“What do I want?” Kushiel echoed the question, just as she had the earlier one. “What I want is what belongs to me. Perhaps if you children assist that one in finding it, I will be grateful enough to allow you, and everyone else who still resides in this pit, to live for the time being. Who knows, if I get what I want, I may be so pleased that I will spare you permanently.”

We really were in trouble here. I had been trying to get hold of her ghost form with my power this whole time, to no avail. It was that Tartarus energy. Not only was it somehow sustaining her as a ghost and allowing her to do far more than she should have been able to, it also made it impossible for me to make my Necromancy latch onto her. It was shielding her or something. Or it just made her ghost too different for my power to get a good grip. I could sense her pretty well now. Hell, I could even sense the link she had to Francis, like a piece of her sitting inside him. Her recall point. 

Either way, beating her the easy way was out. At least for now. Worse, none of us had the sort of power it would take to kill Kushiel without having it rebound back on one or more of us. I was curious whether Tabbris’s wings could destroy her without being reflected, but I wasn’t sure. And that really wasn’t the sort of thing that you could just test. If I was wrong and the damage from the wing blasts could be reflected, whoever it hit would be obliterated. We couldn’t risk that. 

On the other hand, thinking about that made another thought pop into my head. Immediately, I blurted, “Well, it’d be pretty hard to help you find whatever you’re looking for when we don’t even know what it is.” 

“I-it’s a sword,” Denise put in. “A sword with a red handle, a umm, a little yellow jewel at the end, and the blade is black. Like, totally black.” 

“Shit, you really think you can find that thing?” That was Grover, of all people. The young-looking ghost boy had floated up to one side of me, staring at Kushiel. “You know how many of our folks have scoured the whole world for that sword? It’s a myth. And not the real sort of myth. The fake kind. You think you’re the first dead thing to try to get it? I had a pal who wasted two centuries looking for that thing. Never got anywhere. You know why? Because it’s a dumb bedtime story. It ain’t real and it never was.” 

Kushiel looked like she was about to retort, before giving a double-take, her eyes narrowing. “I have no idea who you are.” The words came in a suspicious snarl. 

“Grover Clyde, at… her service,” he replied with a nod toward me. “And like I said, lady, if hundreds of ghosts over the past thousand years can’t find that sword, what makes you think you can within five minutes of waking up?” 

Glowering once more, as her ghostly form gave off even more heat, Kushiel snapped dangerously, “Perhaps it is the fact that I was there when it was enchanted, simpleton. I know who took it. And I know he stayed in this hotel, in this room. It may have been changed and redecorated many times over the centuries, but I know it was here. The blade is in this room somewhere. I can feel it.” 

“Uh, for those of us who have no clue what the hell you’re talking about,” Sean spoke up, “how about you tell us what the hell you’re talking about? What sword? Why do you want it so bad? And why were a bunch of ghosts looking for it?” 

Kushiel’s glower turned that way. For a moment, I was afraid she’d get so hot she might start incinerating things. It was almost like that old Disney Hercules movie, when Hades would get so pissed off he turned red. But this wasn’t funny. It was dangerous, and we still didn’t have a way to safely counter her. Especially not when she could jump back into Francis at any point and suddenly be in control of a Steward-Hybrid within his own home. That was a recipe for disaster. 

In the end, however, I supposed her need for the sword was stronger than her rage. Because the ghost woman calmed a bit, lifting her chin thoughtfully. “You want to know what this sword is? Why doesn’t your little friend there tell you all about it? Given his clear expertise, and all.” 

“Yeah.” Seth was looking at Grover as well. “I’m kinda curious about that myself.” 

Grover, in turn, shrugged carelessly. “Well sure, I guess. According to the myth, because that’s all it is, the sword is called Clarent.” 

“Wait, hold on,” I blurted. “I know that one. That’s the, you know, the sword Mordred used. G–Morgan’s son. That was his weapon, right?” Yeah, I had done a little research after the whole Guinevere revelation. Not to mention finding out that Aylen was supposed to be the one that brought Arthur back to life somehow. That was still a doozy. 

“Very good, another gold star,” Kushiel put in, a bit tauntingly. It made my mother growl just a little while stepping closer to me. If the Seosten woman cared, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply offered me a very faint, humorless smile. “But then, from everything I have heard, you were always an ambitious little go-getter. I’m not surprised you did your homework.” 

Grover quickly pushed on. “Well, uh, anyway, according to all the rumors, this Clarent can be picked up and used by ghosts. Or anyone else of a less-than-tangible nature. It’s got a lot of powers attached to it. And it’s supposed to help you find his body. Mordred’s that is.” 

That made me do a double-take, though Sean spoke first. “Why would you want to find that body?” 

The ghost-boy’s eyes glanced toward me before he flatly replied, “Because that body is special. You know, according to the legend. Yeah, even ghosts have legends. If you believe them, a ghost is supposed to be able to possess that body and control it permanently. You know, basically coming back to life. And you get all his power and everything too. Supposedly.” 

Turning my gaze sharply back toward Kushiel, I snapped, “That’s what you want? You want to find that sword so you can get to that body and possess it?” 

“What can I say,” she lazily replied, “there’s a few bells and whistles on that corpse that would be very useful for someone as living-impaired as I happen to be. To say nothing of some other benefits. My little friend behind me there is a decent temporary fix, but maneuvering him is so much more awkward than it should be. He’s always fighting me. But with the body that Manakel and my dear husband prepared? It would be exactly like coming back to life again. Or, as close as one can get. Add a little magical shapeshifting, and I’ll be as good as–well, better than new, really.” 

Yeah, this was definitely bad. One of the last people I wanted to find a way to come back to life again was Kushiel. Not exactly the very bottom of the list. That spot was and always would be reserved for a certain necromancer. But she was definitely pretty far down there. We couldn’t let her find that sword or that body. And we absolutely couldn’t let her kill anyone else in this place. But we still couldn’t fight her directly. Anything we tried to hurt her with, she would just reflect back at one of us. 

“How do you even know that sword is in this suite?” Sean demanded with a glance toward me. “Seems to me like the kid over there has been tearing this place apart without much luck. Maybe you got your rooms wrong. Did you mix up the one and the seven, or maybe the nine and the six? People do that all the time. I’m just saying, we could expand the search.” 

Kushiel was… unamused. She gave him a withering stare before retorting, “The sword is here. I know it is here. And now that you are all here as well, you can help find it.” 

Taking two steps forward, my mother spoke quietly. “And just what on this planet, or any other, makes you think we would ever help you find something that would allow you to be that dangerous?”

Unmoved, Kushiel flatly replied, “Because unlike me, your daughter is not a disappointment. Truly, you have so much to be proud of.” Her eyes moved to me, and I felt a shiver run down my spine at the coldness of that gaze. “She has done so much to gain the enmity of me, and my people. But given our respective sides, I believe that makes you care for her even more. As you care for all these people. So allow me to put this plainly. Find me what I am looking for, and I shall take my leave of this place and you may all go about your day. Perhaps you may even discuss a way to kill me again.

“But deny me? Try to keep my property away from me? Should you make such a foolish choice, I will have the gentleman behind me incinerate every room in this hotel. Believe me when I say he is capable of it. This is a true Steward Hybrid.  And this is a home full of so many gifts for him. You cannot harm or stop me without killing yourselves. And should you try, I will burn this entire place to the ground and retrieve my property from the ashes.”

Mom started to say something to that, but I quickly interrupted. “You were right about something else, you know.”

That made Kushiel look at me, eyes narrowed. She was clearly suspicious, and yet too arrogant to act on that suspicion. Which said a lot given the fact that she was literally dead thanks to underestimating someone. “I have been correct about a great many things, child. Perhaps you should be more specific.”

For a moment, I didn’t respond. Instead, I took in a deep breath and let it out, eyes closing briefly. Then I opened them and looked at her. I intentionally kept my voice as calm and steady as possible. “A minute ago, you said I was an overachiever. I guess I have been in some ways. It’s been that way for a long time. I always felt this extra drive to try harder at something I cared about. And awhile back, I found out why that was, where that extra drive came from. The truth is, I was feeling the drive of two people. There is always someone right there with me cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me to do better. She was right there, every time I needed her.”

Kushiel raised a hand, but it was too late. Because in that moment, Tabbris, whom I had spent the past several minutes summoning and silently conferring with, made her presence known by manifesting those glowing wings out of my back. 

But we didn’t use them to blast the woman, not without knowing whether it would work or not. Instead, every ounce of the power they could provide was pushed into my necromancy. The wings flared blindingly for one instant before fading, as I felt their strength flood through me. 

“Bye, bitch.”

With those words, I pushed as hard as I could with every ounce of power I now had.

And with a scream of rage that seemed to shake the entire building to its foundation, Kushiel’s connection to Francis was snapped, and the ghost herself was sent far, far away. 

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The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For several long seconds, all of us just stared at the ghost figure. My mouth had fallen open, a noise of disbelief escaping me. Somehow, in the rush of trying to find out what had happened to Denise, I had entirely forgotten that Seth had been murdered right here in this building. Abaddon. Abaddon had killed him. Of course it made sense that one of the ghosts I would feel was him. He had to be one of the most recently killed people, aside from… aside from those three below and whoever else Denise-Ammon had killed. Of course it made sense. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. It had completely slipped my mind until he was standing right in front of us. 

Asenath was the first to actually find her voice, stepping right up to the shield. “Seth,” she managed, eyes wide. “You–you actually left behind a… you.” 

“A ghost?” He winked casually. “Yeah well, you didn’t think I was just gonna fade away into nothing, did you? Someone like me, we pretty much have to leave a mark on the world. In my case, it turns out that mark is literally a copy of myself.”  He squinted thoughtfully before adding, “I suppose there’s a story in there somewhere.” 

“That’s the sort of story that can come later,” Mom put in. “Can you do what we need?” 

“Oh, hey there, Jos.” Seth turned his attention to her and gave a little bow, his look one of familiarity. “I heard a few of the people around here talking about you getting out from under that fuck’s heel. Good for you. Wish I’d been there for that little scuffle. I had a few things I wanted to say to the bastard. As for this, yeah, I know where the power source for the shield is, but I need a little boost.” His eyes found me. “Can’t really generate enough physical force to break it without some help. Suppose that’s the problem with being dead.” As though to demonstrate, he waved his hand through a nearby wall. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Necromancer? I hear you’re pretty strong with that these days.” Raising a hand to the side of his mouth, he stage-whispered, “Ghosts gossip.”

Yeah, it was definitely him. Even in this sort of situation, Seth just didn’t take anything seriously. If I had thought his own death might change that, I was sorely mistaken. Or maybe it was just that ghosts were literally an impression of the original person left on the world using their magical energy. Either way, he was definitely still Seth. I was sorry that Shiori wasn’t here to see him. I knew how much she had liked the guy. 

Pushing all that out of my mind immediately, I gave a short nod. “I’ve been practicing,” I confirmed before closing my eyes. I focused on the energy in front of me. It took a moment to reach past the forcefield in order to feel Seth himself, but I managed it. With a little bit of effort, I pushed more power into him. I could feel his form solidify a little bit. It was somewhat like filling up a balloon with water, if that balloon had already held its shape for the most part. He became more present, more capable of acting on the outside world. 

“Ah, better.” Seth exhaled. “There we go. Now you all sit tight here. I’ll be right back.” With that, the man spun on his heel and walked into one of the nearby rooms we could see. The rest of us exchanged anxious looks. 

“Damn,” Twister noted, “even dead, he’s still pretty damn cu–”

“Don’t say it,” Asenath interrupted. “Trust me, he can hear you. Even as a ghost, he’ll never miss out on a chance to hear someone saying something that could inflate his ego.” 

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” my ghost buddy from the other hotel spoke up. “Sounds like you guys all know each other. C’mon, gimme the story. I like stories almost as much as stabbings. Especially if the story involves stabbing.” 

“I don’t think–hang on, what’s your name, anyway?” I realized I had never asked him. Mostly because I’d been a bit occupied back at Mercer’s place (not that I wasn’t occupied now), and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. 

“Grover,” he replied. “Grover Clyde, at your service.” He flashed me a smile that had probably melted a lot of hearts back when he was a living little boy. 

Over the next twenty seconds or so, I quickly gave Grover the rundown on who Seth was and what had happened. When I was done, he actually seemed to blanch a bit. “Damn. That sucks, man.” 

“Tell me about it,” Senny murmured. There was clear emotion in her voice, despite her attempt to play it off casually. For all that she had given Seth shit for being… well, Seth, it had always been obvious that she cared a lot about him. He was basically a brother to her, and I knew she felt horrible for what she saw as ‘letting him die’ before they could find her father. Who, of course, had been the one to turn Seth into a vampire in the first place. Tiras had brought him into their family. Asenath saw his death as a personal failure on her part. Which wasn’t really fair, but feelings and emotions seldom took fairness into account. 

Reaching out to avoid focusing on that, I looked through Seth’s eyes. He was standing in front of a black crystal about the size of a bowling ball. It was red and silver, floating in the air on a cushion of magical energy. That same magical energy surrounded the thing, seeming to form a sort of shield around it. Seth had already punched the thing a couple times, wearing out some of the power I’d given him. So, I filled him up with more, shoving my own energy into the ghost-man. He gave a gasp, before I saw him look down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Why, thank you.” He was clearly talking to me, before rearing back to punch the shield surrounding the crystal once more. That time, it was enough, and the shield shattered. Which allowed Seth to reach in and grab the floating thing. He held it up above his head, grunted, and then slammed it down to the ground. The crystal shattered entirely, and I snapped myself back to seeing through my own eyes just in time to witness the forcefield that had been blocking our path completely vanish. 

Immediately, we all started to run that way. Twister flew down in hummingbird form, transforming to herself briefly before shifting into a wolf that raced alongside us. Even Seth jogged along with the group as soon as we passed the room where the crystal had been. I could still feel Denise ahead, on the far end of this floor. And yet, something was bugging me. I quickly spoke up, “Where did Denise-Ammon get a big crystal to power that forcefield?” 

Mom pivoted, facing me while still moving. “What big crystal?” 

Seth explained what he’d had to break in order to make the forcefield come down. Which brought my mother to a momentary halt. “Wait,” she spoke up sharply, making the others stop as well. “Felicity’s right, why–how would Denise, or Ammon if his memories have taken over, have that crystal? It’s… possible that it was already here, for some other purpose and they just took it.” Even as she said that, I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in her voice. And I didn’t blame her for that. There was just something very strange about the fact that crystal was there. Strange and convenient for trying to keep people like us away from them. There was a lot about this whole thing that wasn’t adding up. Could someone else be involved? That felt like wishful thinking. 

“Ammon… Ammon probably made someone tell him where he could get an energy source,” Asenath pointed out. “There have to be a lot of them around here.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, fair point. Still, something just seems…” 

“Off,” Twister agreed, rising up into her human form. “Yeah, babe, it’s felt off since we’ve been here. And it’s not just the fact that there were three dead bodies waiting for us. This whole place is just… it feels like someone’s watching us, you know?” She shivered, folding her arms. “I thought it was my imagination, paranoia from that whole creepy Ammon thing. But I dunno.” 

“We need answers,” Mom pointed out, gazing in the direction of where I could still feel Denise. “The best way to get those is to find that girl, make sure she can’t hurt anyone else, and then ask her some questions.” 

“Ahh, just out of curiosity here, what girl are you all talking about?” Seth put in. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his gaze sweeping over us. “I didn’t exactly see what happened here before you showed up, but I’ll tell you this much, there was definitely more than one person. I heard lots of voices, and some of the scuffles that happened, it wasn’t some little girl doing it.” 

“She could have put people in the hotel under her power. Or his power. Or–” Shaking off the whole confusion of that, I focused, telling Seth what we believed had happened. “The Ammon part of her has probably put some of the hotel guests and staff under her control and made them fight the others. That makes sense, right?”

“It does,” Mom reluctantly confirmed. “But we should still make sure we know what we’re walking into.” It sounded like the last thing she wanted to say. Mom needed to get in that room and stop Denise from doing… whatever she was doing. But she was right, we needed to know more. We weren’t going to do her or anyone else any good if we ran straight into some sort of trap. Sure, maybe this whole thing was just a result of Denise being taken over by Ammon’s memories/personality and using his power to make people in the hotel do things (including bringing out that crystal and setting up the forcefield), but even that still left a lot of questions. Including a lot of whys. Why would she want to do that? Why was she still spending time in this hotel instead of leaving? What was she looking for up here? What were we missing? Besides a lot. I was pretty sure one of the main answers to that last question was, ‘a lot.’ 

With a slight shudder to myself about how badly this whole situation could go, and was already going considering the dead people, I offered, “Maybe Grover and Seth could scout ahead and see what’s going on first?” Belatedly, I looked at the two ghosts. “That is, if you guys don’t mind that.”

The two, who had just met, immediately and without hesitation replied together, “Sure, what’re they gonna do, kill me?” They both then pointed and blurted, “Jinx!” 

Quickly, I waved my hands. “Just go see what’s going on in there!” Something was wrong. Something more than we knew. The urge to brush down this last hallway and run right into the room where I could still feel Denise moving around was almost overwhelming. I had to grab my own arms and make myself stop. A glance over to the side showed that Mom was basically in the same situation. She was staring that way, tightening and loosening her fists repeatedly. We had to help Denise. But we had to actually help her, not go rushing into a trap, or whatever this was, just because we were anxious. 

So, hard as it was, we waited. At least I had it a little easier than my mother. I was able to close my eyes and focus on the vision of one of the ghosts so I could see what was going on. I chose Seth. 

Immediately, I saw the door he was looking at. It was clearly an entrance into one of the fancier suites. Which also meant that it had a lot of magical shielding around it. Or at least, it had had a lot of magical shielding. Even while looking through Seth’s eyes, I could see where over a dozen different protective runes had been expertly broken. He and Grover were both leaning in to stare at where the shielding had been destroyed, clearly checking to see if there was any protection left. But I could tell already that there wasn’t. The room was completely open, at least as far as its magical defenses went. 

Sending a silent message for the two of them to wait for a moment, I opened my eyes and turned back to the others, telling them what we had seen. My head shook once I’d finished. “Does Ammon know how to break magic like that?” 

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mom murmured thoughtfully. “But it’s possible that his father taught him without my knowledge, or that he forced someone else to teach him at some point. It’s also possible that he controlled someone here into doing it. Through Denise.” With those last two words, her eyes darkened considerably.   

While she was saying that, another problem had jumped into my mind. If Denise had Ammon’s memories, or his personality had taken over, or… or whatever, did that mean that she remembered what had happened to kill him? More to the point, did she know that Dare was immune to him, and what that must mean? We hadn’t seen the sky crack apart temporarily like it had back when Koren and I had figured it out, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at any second. Hell, it could have happened outside now without us knowing, right? Because what I really needed right now was another huge problem to worry about. If Denise really did have Ammon’s… everything, I had to find a way to make sure it didn’t get blurted out in front of everyone. Or we would risk an entire Fomorian invasion taking over the planet and probably killing billions of people in the process.

But hey, at least there was no pressure or anything. 

Realizing that the others were looking at me expectantly, I tried to shake that off and focus on the problem right in front of us. First we had to figure out what was going on with Denise. Then we could deal with the fallout of everything related to it. 

To that end, I focused on the two ghosts once more, seeing through their eyes as I asked them to turn invisible and poke their heads through into that room. There were no more defenses, so hopefully they wouldn’t have any problem taking a peek. We had to know what the hell was going on there. Especially considering my blood sense was still pointing directly through that doorway. Denise should be in the room right in front of them. For better or for worse, we were about to find out what she was doing. 

Holding my breath, I reached out for my mother’s hand blindly while watching through Seth’s eyes as he and Grover leaned over to peek through the door. The instant their heads passed through, we could see the grand entryway of the suite beyond. It was even bigger and more lavish than the other room, with an actual foyer beyond the entrance with a marble floor and a couple statues of centaurs holding up spears over the archway leading into the living area beyond. A staircase to the left (before the archway) spiraled up to a second floor with a balcony just over the arch where someone could stand and look down, and a doorway behind that seemed to lead into a library of some sort. Through the arch back down on the first level, there was a front living area, with several plush couches just in view surrounding a massive fireplace. 

While we were taking that in, a small, dark-haired girl went running past the archway, inside that front living area. Denise. Her sudden appearance made me reflexively jump, but she wasn’t attacking or hiding or anything. It didn’t look like she knew anything about the ghosts who had just poked their heads in. Rather, I realized as she darted past the archway again, dropping to her knees to peer under a couch, it seemed like she was looking for something. Rather frantically, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

Sure enough, a moment later we heard the girl blurt in a desperate voice, “I don’t know! I don’t know where it is! You have to be more specific. They moved everything around or something. Are you sure it’s in here?” There was a brief pause before her head shook quickly. “I know, I know! I’ll find it, I promise. I’ll find it, just… just don’t hurt anyone else, please? You don’t have to hurt anybody else, I’ll find it.”

Telling Grover and Seth to wait again, I popped back out of their vision. The others were watching expectantly, so I quickly explained what I had seen. Not that it gave a lot of answers, but still. With a grimace, I finished, “It sure doesn’t sound like she’s turned to evil or anything.” 

“She’s talking to someone,” Asenath murmured. “Ammon, maybe? Or the Ammon in her head. Maybe she’s trying to appease his voice or personality. You didn’t see anyone else in the room?” 

“No, and no one said anything when she stopped talking, before she responded,” I confirmed. “So yeah, that does kind of sound like a voice in her head. But if Denise is still herself enough to argue with the Ammon part that much, maybe we can actually pull her out of it and get her back to normal.” I gave my mother a hopeful glance at that. 

“Yes,” she confirmed, “that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Keep the deafening spells handy, but only use them if it looks like she’s about to do something with that power. I want to give her a chance to explain what’s going on.” With that, she started moving that way, while the rest of us quickly followed after. Now that we knew Denise was in there, and seemed to be alone, Mom wasn’t going to wait any longer. She wanted to get in there and help that girl. Asenath was right beside her, with Twister, Sean (with the Vulcans), and me bringing up the rear. 

On the way, I gave one more peek through the ghosts. But nothing had really changed. Denise was still looking for… whatever it was. At the moment, she had her body half-twisted inside the fireplace, peering up the chimney as she insisted there was nothing in there. Still, there was no sign of anyone else. And I heard nothing during the pause while she was silent before responding to whatever it was she heard, quickly pleading for more time. It sounded like the voice in her head was getting pretty impatient. I really didn’t want to think about what it might be threatening to terrify the girl so much. This whole situation was creeping me out even more with every passing moment. We had to get in there and deal with whatever this was. 

It didn’t take long for us to reach the entrance to the suite. As Grover and Seth glanced over to us, looking just as uncertain as the rest of us were, my mother kept going. She didn’t even break stride while waving her hand to make the doors swing open so she could pass through, Asenath right at her side. As we followed right behind, Mom’s voice called, “Denise? Denise Cartland!” 

With that, we were there, passing through the foyer and standing in that archway. And I could see Denise with my own eyes. She had jolted at the sound of my mother’s call, jerking upright from where she had been peering behind one of the statues in a corner. Eyes wide, she pivoted to face us, looking panicked. “N-no! No, what are you doing here? You can’t be here. Please, please, go away. If you don’t leave, she’ll hurt you.” 

“It’s okay, Denise,” Mom assured her. “We know what…” She trailed off then. “What… do you mean, ‘she?’ You mean he.” 

“Wh-what?” The girl, looking even more terrified as she saw how many of us there were, pressed her back against the wall as her head shook wildly. “N-no, no, she. She made him do it. She made him hurt them. She–she hurt–she–” 

“That’s enough, dear.” A new, yet vaguely familiar voice spoke from the other side of the room. Our gazes snapped that way, to see a man standing in one of the doorways. A man I knew, with light-blond hair, a slim build, and amber eyes. As with the last time I’d seen him, he wore a pristine white trench coat over a red silk shirt with buttons down the front, and white slacks.  Francis Gale, the Steward Hybrid. The Auberge’s head of security, essentially. He was there. But… but…

Even as a rush of confusing thoughts ran through my mind, a glowing figure emerged from him. My first thought was ‘Seosten.’ But I immediately felt the difference. This was a ghost. An incredibly powerful ghost. Instantly, I reached out with my power, attempting to halt it in its tracks. But my power just slid off it. The thing was too powerful, shrugging away my attempt to grab it. 

“I’m sorry dear,” the figure informed me, as the glow faded. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Perhaps you should go practice. In the meantime, where is my daughter? 

“We have some catching up to do,” Kushiel’s ghost announced.  

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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The Runaway 15-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Getting to the Auberge was a bit more complicated than just saying it, of course. Sure, we had something of an ongoing relationship witdoh them, but they were still in hiding. Between the rich and accustomed-to-comfort clientele that the Auberge tended to keep normally, and the people from Wonderland they allowed to visit and share time there, no one at the hotel particularly liked the idea of being easy to find. They kept the entrance into the hotel moving constantly, bouncing it from city to city with no set schedule or anything. There was no way to anticipate where they might be at any given moment. Because being easy to anticipate would mean being easy to kill. 

The only way we had to actually get through to them so we could schedule a meeting was to call up Abigail at the station and have her send a message that we wanted to have a face-to-face. And from there, we had to wait for her to call us back once she managed to get a response. Which left our little group holed up in an old, rundown building that had once been a tire shop. We had to put down a couple different spells that would make us hard to track, and also another couple that would alert us if anyone approached. We didn’t think that the Crossroads people would keep coming after us (they probably figured we had teleported away by that point), but it was better to be safe than sorry. 

Everyone was sitting around on a couple folding chairs, an old table that had been left behind, or just (as in my case) flopped out on the cement. I was staring at the ceiling, musing aloud. “Why does Denise keep remembering things? Why does she remember Ammon controlling her, or the gas station? And what… what made the Alter detection spell keep flickering back at the house? And smashed the gas pump? And why did Mercer forget the debt? Why did he… why?”

“I think you’ve summed up all the questions, babe,” Twister informed me, perched up on top of the nearby empty steel tool cabinet that had apparently been too heavy to bother removing. She gave me a thumbs up. “Now, can you actually answer any of them?”  

“Poor Denise.” That was Asenath, standing over by a window to watch the street beyond. She spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice. “Can you imagine going through what she is right now? She must be an Adjacent.” 

“That’s someone who had the Bystander Effect broken, but they’re still just a normal person other than that, right?” I put in, glancing toward the corner of the garage, where Rebecca and Koren were sitting together. 

Sean nodded. He had pulled a folding chair around and was sitting on it backwards, while Vulcan (with Vulcan Junior attached) lay by his feet as though resting. “Yeah, that’s right. So somehow the Bystander Effect didn’t fully take when Denise respawned. And now she’s getting nightmares about what really happened to her. And as if that’s not enough, without the Bystander Effect, she keeps seeing all these monsters and has no idea what they are. Or even that they really exist. And anyone she tried to tell wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They wouldn’t believe her. Which is… you know.” He grimaced. “Really not good.” 

Everyone was making very good points, but none of it was making me feel any better. And a glance over to the doorway where my mother was standing showed that it wasn’t making her feel any better either. We were all very anxiously waiting to see where we were supposed to go to find an entrance to the Auberge, so we could actually get some real answers. Which would be really nice, at this point, given how weird this whole thing with Denise had been so far. 

Asenath was still talking. “She’s an Adjacent, so she’s seeing all these monsters around her and no one knows what she’s talking about. Until she met those Alters.” She frowned then, looking between my mother and me. “Are you guys sure there was no other information about… you know, how she met them? Did she just go up and start talking?” 

I shrugged completely cluelessly, while Mom answered. “If he knew more than that, he didn’t include it in the spell. Felicity?” 

“Nope,” I replied. “He just said she met up with some people and went to the place he was going to name in that spell. I didn’t even know they were Alters until Mom said so. I think he was being as vague as possible intentionally. Whether he knows more than he said or not…” I hesitated before adding, “He seemed pretty competent, all things considered.” 

“So he’s probably not hanging around the place a bunch of Heretics were at just so he can be forced to answer more questions,” Sean lamented, reaching down to rub Vulcan’s head. “Too bad, it could have made this whole thing a lot easier. But then, nothing about this seems very easy so far.” He muttered the last bit thoughtfully before pushing himself up with a sigh. “Have you guys considered that there could be some sort of really powerful ghost haunting Denise?” 

Without a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been considering it. Maybe some sort of spirit that’s doing Fossor’s bidding one last time?” Glancing toward my mother, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I know you were sure that he didn’t know anything about what you did, but sending some independent ghost-thing off to screw with the one good thing you managed to do involving Ammon is… sort of completely his style, you know?” 

Mom didn’t respond at first, but after a moment, she gave a short nod. “You’re right, it does sound like him. But that still doesn’t explain why Mercer would forget the debt.” 

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Rebecca piped up. “Unless… umm, we know the Bystander Effect isn’t working on Denise. Could it be something like… the Effect is malfunctioning on her and erasing or adjusting other people’s memories? Maybe it could even be directed by her, whether she knows it or not. Like, if she was there at the gas station and told Mercer he should forget the debt, and he just… did, because the Bystander Effect kicked in and erased his memory.” 

Thinking about that, I offered, “Maybe that’s what is making her parents not check in on her. You know, if she told them she was going to stay with her aunt before she ran away, and the Bystander Effect made it stick in their heads that way. Is that… even possible?”

We all exchanged curious looks before gradually turning our gazes, one by one, to the pair of Seosten sitting together next to the garage door. Tabbris and December looked at each other, then up to us, before the latter spoke. “Ohwe’renotexpertsaboutit. Justcuzwe’reSeosten… doesn’tmeanweknowanything….abouthowtheBystanderEffectworks.” 

Tabbris, meanwhile, pushed herself to her feet and fidgeted a little before hesitantly putting in, “I think maybe it’s possible? You should ask Mama though. She’d know a lot more about that sort of thing. But uhh, yeah maybe? The Bystander Effect is really weird and all that. It’s like, spells that are that big can have really weird side effects or go wonky if you poke them the right way. Or the wrong way.” Biting her lip, clearly uncomfortable from all the attention, she added a quiet, “I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t really help to just say ‘uh huh, maybe,’ but… uh huh, maybe.”  

“We’ll have to make do without bothering Sariel,” Mom noted gently. “We still can’t disturb them while they finish setting up that spell.” She offered the girl a soft, reassuring smile. “Your mom’s too important for that. They need her.” 

Stepping over that way, I put one arm around my little sister, tugging her closer. “That’s right, can’t finish the spell without help from the champion Seosten memory-adjuster. It’s okay, though. We’re all just spitballing here anyway. We’ll know more once we talk to Denise herself. And hey, bonus, if she really is an Adjacent, she’ll actually remember what we’re talking about.” 

Yeah, that clearly wasn’t exactly helpful in a lot of ways. Especially given the way I saw my mother flinch, subtle as it was. She had clearly been hoping to give the girl a normal life back. Forcing her to have all those memories on top of noticing the non-humans all around her, and having no one to talk to about any of it? No wonder she felt guilty. I didn’t want her to, of course. But I understood it. All I could do was hope that finding Denise and talking to her directly would settle as much of that guilt as possible. Making sure the girl was okay, that was what mattered now. And hey, maybe this would be for the best in the long run. If Mom could actually explain what happened and give Denise some closure on all that, it might be good, right? 

Reaching up behind her to grab a nearby metal railing before hauling herself up, Koren announced, “Hey, at least she’s at the Auberge, right? Face it, one little girl seeing monsters and running off on her own could have gone a lot worse than that. She found some people who listened to her enough to take her to the Auberge. That’s like…  one of the best possible outcomes, you know? If you think about it, she got really lucky there.” 

Yeah, Koren definitely wasn’t wrong, though the thought of how bad that could have gone made my stomach flip over. Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “Exactly. Now all we have to do is go there and talk to her. We’ll explain everything and help any way she needs, right?”  

The others agreed emphatically, just as Mom’s phone buzzed. She looked at it before straightening. “There’s a guide on his way. Abigail told him where to find us.” Her voice went flat. “Whatever happens, Denise needs real answers. She deserves real answers. After everything she’s been through, we owe her that much. I can’t give her back everything Ammon took with his… with what happened. But I can give her answers.” 

So, we collected ourselves and were ready a few minutes later when there was a light knock at the side door. I was the closest one to it, so I stepped closer, item-sense telling me there was one person beyond. With a shrug, I pulled the door open, before finding myself face-to-face with a familiar figure. The man in front of me was about six feet tall, with pale skin and a face that might have been incredibly handsome if it wasn’t just slightly off in subtle, yet subconsciously noticeable ways. His nose was just a tiny bit too small, and his mouth slightly too big. The proportions were just… a little off. Enough to make someone’s brain skip a little when looking at him, trying to figure out what was wrong. It was sort of uncanny valley-ish, that thing when something looks mostly human, but there’s something just wrong enough about it to make someone’s mind uncomfortable.  

“Mennin?” I managed. Yeah, it was Mennin Tombs, the son of the Auberge’s current owner, Caela Tombs. He was the guy who had been possessed by Radueriel for awhile when he, Abaddon, and Kushiel had been working on breaking into that side of the vault. “We didn’t know you were coming.” Quickly, I stepped back to let him in. 

“You kidding?” the man himself asked while stepping through the doorway. “If Mom wasn’t in the middle of a pretty intense meeting in Paris, she would have come herself as soon as she heard who was asking. And she’ll definitely want you all to stick around until she can get back to the Auberge to see…” His gaze moved around the garage before focusing on my mother. “Joselyn Atherby, I presume.” 

“It’s Chambers now,” Mom corrected with a faint smile. “But yes, and you would be Caela’s son.” With that, she stepped over and extended a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I just wish that was the only emotion connected to this moment.” 

“Right, the girl.” Mennin agreed, giving a quick glance around at the rest of us. “Sorry, some of you I know, some of you I don’t. I assume you’ve all been fully vetted?” He gave Mom a brief glance before hurriedly nodding. “Right, yeah, sorry. Habit. You know what they say about the first rule of the Auberge.” 

“Don’t tell anyone about the Auberge?” Koren piped up.

Mennin, in turn, grinned with that slightly-too-wide mouth. “That’s what I said! Err, I mean, no. The first rule is don’t let anyone who isn’t a registered guest find the Auberge. So, we’re going to have to make you all registered guests in order to keep up with that rule. We just, um, ever since last year, we’re even more careful about who we bring in. Usually that requires a lot of personal vetting. Which takes weeks. All of it to make the guests feel as safe as possible. But, you know, if anyone’s going to merit an exception, it’s Joselyn A–Chambers.” He offered Mom a smile, which then turned to me. “Not to mention the people who helped save the hotel in the first place last spring.” 

“We didn’t exactly save the–never mind.” My head shook. That was too complicated to get into. “What about Denise though? She wouldn’t have had weeks of vetting before showing up with–who did she show up with? Wait, she is there, right?” A sudden, horrible thought had just raced through my mind that this was all a wild goose chase and he would have no idea who that was. 

“Oh yes,” the man confirmed. “She is in the hotel. At least, we believe it’s her. The timeline and description both fit. Along with a few other things.”

Asenath frowned. “What do you mean you believe it’s her? Hasn’t she introduced herself?” 

With a cough, Mennin grimaced. “Not so much. I ahhh, well, see, that’s where things get a little more complicated.”

“Fantastic,” Koren blurted, “because what this whole situation was really missing was complication. It was all too simple and straightforward. Downright boring, really.” She noticed the looks everyone was giving her and flushed a bit, mumbling, “I’ll be quiet now.” 

“She is right though,” Mom noted with a look at Mennin. “This has all been quite complicated enough already. Can you tell us what you mean? Why hasn’t Denise introduced herself? Is she okay?” 

That led to another grimace from the man. “Okay, well, that’s a uhh…” He hesitated before pushing on. “After what happened last year, we had some new defenses installed. They’re spells that are supposed to expel you from the hotel if you intend to harm any of the other guests or employees. Really high-end stuff too, they had to bring in some serious mojo people to get it done. And we think that’s somehow affecting her. I mean, it hasn’t sent her out, but they’re reacting to something. She came into the hotel and barely had time for a how do you do before she just… passed out. Collapsed right there on the floor, and she’s been in a coma ever since.” 

“Wait, what?” Mom blurted. “She came in and then collapsed and she’s been in a coma for weeks? But what does that have to do with your new defenses? You said they should teleport her out of the hotel if she intended to harm your guests. But they’re not doing that.” 

His head shook once more. “Nope, they’re not. But they’re not working right either. Since the second she came in, those spells have been acting up. They’re just… off. I dunno the specifics, our mages do. They said the spells are wonky, and it started since she came in. We’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with them and her ever since. Haven’t had much luck.” 

“Not that we’re not super-glad you didn’t,” Sean put in, “but why didn’t you just send her out of the hotel if she was screwing up the protection spells by being there? Or just disable the protection spells to wake her up.”

“As far as the first bit goes, Mom wouldn’t let them,” Mennin replied. “She said there was something about the girl, she didn’t want to let anything happen to her. She couldn’t even really explain it. She just said we had to take care of her. So we’ve been trying to figure out what happened and how to wake her up. Mom had some other pretty powerful guests stop by to try their hand at it, but nothing worked. We were even going to reach out to you Rebel Heretics for help pretty soon if you hadn’t reached out first. As soon as that principal of yours described who you were looking for, we knew it had to be our coma girl.” 

He shrugged then. “And as for the other part, we did. Believe me, they disabled the spells, tried putting her in an area where they were blocked, even took her out of the hotel temporarily. Nothing worked. She’s still unconscious and still won’t wake up no matter what we do. She says some stuff sometimes, just mutters words now and then. But she’s still completely out of it.” 

“And you have no idea why the protection spells knocked her out in the first place?” I asked. “They just randomly completely messed up this one girl and threw her into a coma when she came into the hotel, all for no apparent reason?” There had to be more to it than that, of course. But damned if I had any idea. It was another piece of a very confusing puzzle. And at this rate, I was afraid we had a quarter of like six different puzzles all jumbled together. 

Mennin, in turn, replied, “Not exactly, but we think it might have something to do with her power.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a double-take along with everyone else. 

“She doesn’t have any power,” Mom informed him, even as her eyes narrowed. “She’s a normal human. An Adjacent at most.”

“Uhhh…” Mennin looked back and forth between all of us. “Are you sure about that? Cuz that’s not what the people who brought her in said. And they were pretty confident about it.”   

Sean was the first to find his voice. “What do you mean? What–uh, powers do they think she has?” 

The man looked at us as though we’re trying to decide if we were playing some sort of prank on him or not. Finally, he took a breath before explaining what the Alters who had brought Denise into the hotel had told them. First one of the bad guys had smashed his baton into her head. When Mom heard that, she actually growled under her breath. But apparently the blow to the head, though it had knocked Denise down, hadn’t actually hurt her. She got up again, and actually punched the man who had hit her. Apparently she hit him hard enough to knock him flying backwards. Which had pissed off the second guy enough to kick her backwards into a tree. Which, again, had done nothing to the girl. 

“Then what happened?” Tabbris quickly urged once Mennin trailed off. We were all hanging off everything he said. 

“Then she uhh, she introduced herself,” Mennin replied. “At least, the people she saved think she did. They heard her say ‘My name is–’ but they didn’t catch the rest of it. She introduced herself, then told the men to stop. And–” 

“And they did,” I finished, through the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat. No. No, no, no, this wasn’t right. No. “Wait. Wait, did… did she say her name? Did she say Denise? Did she say ‘My name is Denise’, or… or…” 

“Ammon,” Mom finished for me. Her tone was brittle. “Did… she say… Ammon?” 

This can’t be happening. No. Ammon couldn’t actually be back. He couldn’t have been reborn in her body or whatever. A sudden rush of emotions and memories flew through me about everything we had seen up to this point. All those carvings in the wall, the dents in the side of the gas pump, Mercer forgetting the debt, all of it. Was that… was that Ammon? No. No, that didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t help people. He wouldn’t–but if he–but if she–but…

Mennin was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. They were a little preoccupied and didn’t hear everything she said. She introduced herself and told them to stop talking. Then she told them to drop their weapons and walk for an hour. When they left, our guests tried to thank her, and she begged them to help her. So they brought her to the Auberge. And then she collapsed. Now you know everything I do. Possibly more, it seems like.” 

I couldn’t even begin to sort through what I was feeling at that moment. If Ammon really was back in any form, or… or… no. No, we had to get there. We had to get there right now. I felt a sudden squeeze, as Tabbris grabbed my hand. She knew. As I glanced that way, my eyes wide, she quickly possessed me, and I felt her comforting presence like a warm embrace, from the inside. 

Mom’s voice was quiet, as she fought to keep herself together. “Take us to the Auberge,” she murmured. “Take us there, now.” 

Mennin gave a short nod, passing around what turned out to be hotel keycards. He told us to keep them in our pockets for safety purposes, against their other magical defenses. Then he held a hand up, focusing for a moment before a large, wooden door appeared in the middle of the room. Once it was there, he stepped up and turned the knob before opening it. He was already explaining, “This should take us straight to the medical wing, where–” Then he stopped talking, as he turned to face the door he had just opened. 

When the man froze, Mom moved over, gently pushing him out of the way. I was right behind her and we both stared into what looked like it had been a very nice private hospital room. Had been, that was, before all the murder. Three bodies were on the floor, two obvious nurses and one doctor. Blood literally coated the floor, like a small wading pool. It was everywhere. The bed where Denise should have been was empty, and those three were dead on the floor. 

We were too late. 

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The Runaway 15-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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There was a bit of arguing back and forth between more of Mercer’s men after that. They really didn’t like the idea of letting me walk away with their boss and only one guy. But they also didn’t have that much of a choice. There was nothing they could do while I was inside him. Well, there was, but I had the impression they didn’t know the ejection spell. And even if they had, they would’ve had to get close to me and hold him down to make it work. It would’ve been a whole thing. Not to mention the fact that I could’ve killed him before they got that far. 

Either way, within about ten seconds of arguing, Beied shouted everyone else down and ordered a couple of them to go downstairs to find out what the hell was going on out there for themselves, while the rest were told to grab everything valuable and retreat to the secondary base. Whatever that was. I didn’t really care. All that mattered was finding out what this guy knew about where Denise had gone. 

That particular revelation was still rebounding through my head. My instinct back at the house has been right. She really did take off on her own. At least, it looked like that. She’d willingly gotten on a bus to leave town. Which explained why her parents and aunt both thought she was staying with the other. She’d chosen to tell them that. Though even that opened up a few more questions. Or a lot more questions. Like how she had convinced them it was happening, why they never realized there was anything wrong, and so on. It raised far more questions than it answered, really. But at least it was a direction. It would be a direction as soon as the man told me which bus she had taken. Which meant getting out of here without starting another fight. 

After ordering everyone else to step aside and make room, Beied gestured to the door. “Come with me then, Heretic. We’ll go to the roof, I’ll give you the information you want so much, and then you can let him go and we can all get back to our own very busy lives.” His eyes narrowed. “And no more funny business. You want what I know, you play nice for it. Try that possession trick on me, and this–” He drew a field-engraver of his own, giving a few quick swipes across his own forehead, “will wipe my memory of everything you’re looking for. It’ll be gone forever. So the only way you’re finding out what you want is by being nice and letting the boss go. Got it?” 

I wasn’t sure he was being truthful about what that rune on his head could do. But I also wasn’t going to take the chance. So, I gave a short nod and made Mercer start walking that way. “Sure thing,” I murmured with the man’s voice, “But like I said, we should hurry. Some of those Heretics down there are from the loyalists, the really… ambitious ones. And I don’t think my people are gonna be all that interested in stopping them from getting in here for much longer.” 

That started a little murmuring from the other guards before they were silenced with a sharp word from Beied, followed by an order to get the hell to work before the Heretics killed everyone in the hotel. Then he gave me a look and snapped that I should follow him before pivoting and walking out. I did so, though I kept a close eye on the people I was walking past, just to make sure none of them tried to do anything stupid. I didn’t think they would, given the situation. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down either. It was too dangerous to just assume none of them would get any bright ideas, either about trying to hurt me through their boss, or making a power play themselves by killing said boss while he was indisposed. After all, these guys were a gang. I had a feeling backstabbing was their most common method of promotion. And killing the boss could be a hell of a promotion, if they could hold onto it. 

But, in this case, no one tried anything. They left me alone, aside from a little grumbling under their breaths. They were not very happy with me. Which was just something I would struggle with, but with enough mental fortitude, somehow would find the strength to muddle on through it.

On the way through the corridor, as I followed after the Nekomata man, I reached out to Tabbris to find out how things were going out there. She couldn’t say much, but let me know that things were, as she put it ‘tense and a bit violent’ but that they were okay. She also wanted to know how I was doing, so I told the girl what I had found out so far, and that I was about to get more information before coming out. I was trying really hard not to focus on the fact that my little sister, mother, and friends were out there with some Heretics who probably wanted to kill all of them. The students probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they would have adults with them. And if this went on too long, those guys might get word back to the Committee about who was here. And that… that could make this whole situation turn really bad. 

Yeah, the point was, I had to get the information and get out of here so that we could all leave. Every moment that passed was another moment that the situation could turn even more sideways than it already was. Because seriously, what were the odds that a Crossroads student hunt would happen right here, right now? I didn’t even want to try to figure that out. But hey, maybe Ambrose Keaton, my Calculus teacher, would be willing to give it a shot. 

It was just slightly possible that being forced to keep my anxiety over not knowing exactly what was going on down there in check so I didn’t screw this up was making me a little screwy in the head. Maybe more than a little. Either way, I kept a sharp lookout as we made our way through the corridor to the stairwell. This was a different one than the one I had been in before, where I had left the unconscious body. This one was labeled roof access, and there was a keypad lock. But the door was already standing open, and was held that way by a large planter. 

At a gesture from me to keep going, Beied started up the stairs, with me right behind him (keeping an eye over my shoulder just in case someone who was shielded from my item sense got any big ideas, of course). My guide’s voice was faux-casual. “So, you’re part of that Heretic rebellion thing, huh? How’s that working out for you?”

“Peachy,” I retorted before pointedly adding, “So, you’re part of a gang that terrorizes people into getting themselves killed during gas station robberies while trying to pay off a debt to you, and then also terrorizes their surviving child to try to force her into paying off the same debt, huh? How’s that working out for you? Also, just in case I wasn’t clear about this, if you or any of the people from this collection of upstanding citizens go anywhere near Kalia again, my friends and I will burn your entire organization to the ground. Your boss might have literally forgotten the debt, but you don’t get to bring it back up and go after it just because you didn’t. She’s done. She lost her dad from you fucks trying to get blood out of a stone. Either the debt is over, or you are.” 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the roof. There were guys up there who had been leaning over the edge to look at what was going on below. But they must have already been briefed about what was going on, because none of them looked surprised when we appeared. Nor did they look to their boss for orders. Instead, they shot him (me) nasty looks while obviously restraining themselves from lifting their weapons. Yeah, in about three seconds, they made it clear that they knew I was there. And that they weren’t at all happy about it. 

Beied, in response to what I had said, gave a short nod. “You can believe what you want, and make any threat that makes you feel better. But the fact is, I got no problem ignoring that debt. Far as I’m concerned, it died with the man himself. Going after family, that’s just a step too far. That’s why I didn’t remind him about it. Didn’t want it blowing back on any innocent parties. My interest was in finding out what happened to the boss to change his mind. Literally change his mind.” He paused briefly before giving me a look. “But I get the feeling you’re about as lost on that as me. So good luck. Now you ready to let him go?” 

Oh boy was I ever ready. I desperately wanted to kick my way out of this piece of shit and go down to join the others. But there was still one thing I needed. It was the entire reason we’d come this far, and I wasn’t about to run off without it. Making my host give the Nekomata man a hard look, I growled out, “Soon as you tell me everything you know about where Denise went.” 

“Of course,” he agreed. “Like you said, you and your friends can come after us and wipe us out. Pretty sure that includes if I lie to you right now. And you Heretics are good at finding people when you’re motivated. I don’t want you motivated to find me. So here it is, the full truth. That girl you’re looking for got on a bus to Chicago three weeks ago. I did a little digging after that cuz I was still curious and found out she went south to Belleville. From there, she met up with some people and went to one more place.” With that, he held up that field-engraver again, along with a flat metal sheet about three inches across. “The name of that place is right here.” He showed me the symbol he had drawn on the sheet. “Take this thing and say Maescarvien while giving it a little magic juice, and it’ll tell you where she went. Maescarvien.” He spelled it and said it once more, slowly. 

“Or you could just tell me right now,” I pointed out, making a point of glowering a bit at him. Somehow, it seemed less effective even though it was coming from a guy much bigger than I was.

“Yeah,” Beied agreed, “but see, this way you need to step out of my boss to get all the information you want. Like I said, possess me and the info’s gone. Only way you get it is with this thing right here. It’s a bit delicate, so you don’t wanna let it hit too hard. But then, I figure you Heretics have plenty of powers to help get the–oops.” Even as he said that, the man had already given the thing a toss, sending it flying off the roof.  “Might wanna get that.” 

I was already launching myself that way. With a curse, I lunged out of the man I was possessing, once more leaving an unconscious host to collapse while I dove off the roof and plummeted after the thing Beied had tossed. I heard the other guards start to shout something about shooting, but the Nekomata man called them off, telling everyone to evacuate and that they had enough problems without the rage that shooting a Heretic in the back would invite. 

Not that I was paying attention to any of that, of course. It was just noise in the background while I threw myself off the building and started to fall. All my attention was on the metal plate that guy had thrown. I could see it plummeting ahead of me, my eyes locking onto it. Nothing else mattered in that moment beyond grabbing that plate. Which wasn’t that hard, since I was finally far enough away from those magical transport defenses that a thought made a portal appear directly below the plate, while I put the other end slightly above me. As the plate passed through, I snapped my hand out and caught it. 

Right, now I had the plate. I just had to avoid hitting the ground at full speed. I was tough, but hitting the ground from like eighty feet up would probably still be pretty unfun. Thankfully, my staff had plenty of charge in it, so I managed to hold it in one hand while flipping over, triggering the boost a couple times to slow my descent before landing in a crouch on a small patch of dead grass near an empty fountain beside the hotel. 

Immediately, I shoved the plate away safely into a pocket while reaching out to Tabbris, as I could still feel her presence. Where am I going?

Her response was a blurted, Behind you! 

Yeah, I’d sensed it too in that same moment. We both felt my item-sense warning me about a figure rushing up at my back, moving completely (unnaturally) silently while reaching out with one hand. I let the person get close enough to think they were about to hit me, then pivoted and twisted out of the way. At the same time, my staff lashed out to collide with their stomach. 

Between my own strength and the other person’s momentum, I was pretty sure I hit hard enough to flatten a bear. But this wasn’t a bear. It was someone a bit more familiar. 

“Hey there, Zeke,” I breezily greeted while repositioning myself a few steps backward. “Mind if we catch up later, I’ve sorta got stuff to do.” 

Yeah, it was my old classmate. Zeke, generally speaking, didn’t exactly look that intimidating. He was physically average in most respects, standing about five foot eight, with brown hair that always looked like he had just ruffled it up after getting out of the shower and let it stay that way. He wore thin-rimmed glasses along with the Crossroads uniform with the white trim showing he had stayed in the security track. On his left arm was what looked like a metal gauntlet, but I knew it could expand into his weapon. All in all, he wasn’t the world’s most daunting figure. 

But then, neither was I. In all the time since I had woken up on that bus over a year earlier, I had long-since had to do away with any notion of what a powerful figure should look like. I knew better than to actually dismiss Zeke as a threat, especially given I didn’t really know what he was capable of. We hadn’t been close enough for me to keep track of his powers before leaving Crossroads, and it had been over six months since then. A lot could have changed in that time.

What had not changed, apparently, was Zeke’s dislike of me. His lower lip curled distastefully as he held one hand over his stomach where I had hit him. It wasn’t enough to put the boy down or anything, though from his expression it definitely hurt. “Chambers.” He said the name like it disgusted him, eyes narrowing into a dark glare. “Let me guess, the guys in this place are just tragically misunderstood orphans whose hugs cure all diseases and if we dance in a circle singing Kumbaya, it’ll erase all the effects of pollution on the planet.” 

“Those guys?” I nodded toward the hotel without taking my eyes off him. “Nah, I’m pretty sure they’re all assholes. And that’s not why I’m here anyway. Like I said, why don’t we do this another time. You go back to your… whatever you’re doing, and I’ll back off and go my own way. That way.” I used my free hand to gesture back over my shoulder. “Hotel’s all yours.” 

From the look on his face, Zeke didn’t believe me and thought it was some sort of trick. I almost wanted to just turn away from him and take off running to find the others, but there was no way I would give him that sort of opening when, again, I had no idea what he was capable of. 

Instead of just taking my offer and letting both of us move on with our lives, Zeke snapped, “Do you have any idea what Sands’ and Scout’s dad is going through right now because they listened to you? You fucking tore his family apart. You tore a lot of families apart. And you’re gonna get a lot of people killed with this bullshit.” His head shook. “But you don’t care. You never took any of this seriously. You never actually cared about any of it. The whole thing was just one big joke to you.”

“You know what, Zeke?” I shot back, “I’ve been connected to newspapers my whole life, and even I have no idea how to unpack all the issues you just threw on the table. Sands and Sarah make their own decisions. So does their mom. People make their own decisions. Good decisions and bad ones. People make choices and those choices determine what they are. That’s kind of the entire point of what we’ve been saying the whole time. If you still don’t get that, maybe I could send you a powerpoint presentation sometime if you–” 

Yeah, apparently that was more than the boy was willing to take. He abruptly lunged my way, the thing that had looked like a gauntlet on his left arm expanded into a full, circular shield. Even as I was reacting, the boy lashed out with that, sending the shield flying… not at me. Instead, it rebounded off the wall nearby before several spikey blades extended from all sides of the thing. As my head snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of a guy who had been standing just beyond the range of my item-sense, gun raised to point at me before his head was cut off by the now-bladed shield. The instant the headless figure dropped, the shield vanished from mid-air and reappeared on Zeke’s arm as he doubled over a bit, stumbling slightly from the rush of the kill. 

Two seconds passed before he looked up, focusing once more. “You didn’t hit me while you had the chance.” 

“You didn’t let that guy hit me,” I pointed out, still a bit surprised by the whole sequence. I might’ve been just as stunned as he was, despite not killing anyone. 

He, in turn, stared hard at me with a flat, “I’m not the bad guy.” 

“Yeah,” I replied, “and neither am I.” With that, I reached out with my Necromancy power, caught hold of the ghost of the man who Zeke had just killed, and made him appear directly in front of the boy. As Zeke reacted to that, I used the distraction to pivot and launch myself out of the way with a shot from my staff. In mid-air, I switched my clothes for the Seosten body-suit and transformed into the werelion form before hitting the ground running. By the time the ghost had vanished, Zeke would be left facing the empty space where I had just been. 

A few words of direction from Tabbris sent me through an assortment of alleys and side-streets before I finally came to the small dirt lot where the others had already gathered. Everyone looked more or less okay. Vulcan even seemed pretty energetic, like they had just been playing a fun game. VJ, meanwhile, was hovering up high in the air, keeping an eye out for anyone coming. 

“Felicity,” Mom started, focusing on me as I came to a stop and transformed back to my human self. “Did you–” 

“I got it,” I replied, switching the Seosten suit for my regular clothes before reaching into the pocket of my coat to take out the metal plate before asking, “What about you guys? What… what happened back there?” 

Asenath stepped closer. There was blood across her face, a bruise under her eye, and a Twister in hummingbird form perched on her shoulder. “They didn’t feel like listening to reason. As usual. What about Denise? Where is she?” 

Holding up the plate, I replied, “Let’s find out.” Of course, I didn’t just use a spell I didn’t know that had been told to me by someone who probably would’ve been just fine with all of us dying. I wasn’t quite that desperate or stupid. Instead, I told my mother what he’d said. She, in turn, looked at the plate and confirmed that the spell would do what he said. 

I gave it to her, so she could find out where Denise was. It felt like the right thing to do. While letting my mother do the spell, I reached out to take Tabbris’s hand, murmuring thanks for her help, and for staying with the others while all that was going on. She, in turn, embraced me tightly. 

After speaking the single word (Maescarvien) to trigger the spell, Mom recoiled a bit as she absorbed whatever it was saying. I heard a soft gasp escape her, before her eyes widened. 

“What? What is it?” I prompted, the sentiment echoed by the others. 

Mom, in turn, focused once more and glanced around to take everyone in. “The Auberge. The people she met are Alters. They took her to the Auberge.” 

“What?” I managed, giving a double-take. “Why would they–how would–what?” 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” my mother murmured. 

“But it’s time to go to the Auberge, find Denise, and get some actual answers.” 

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The Runaway 15-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted earlier today focusing on Reapers. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks!

What?! I silently blurted as Tabbris’s words made me physically recoil. Or rather, made the guy I was possessing recoil. That doesn’t even make sense. Why would Crossroads have a student hunt right now? It’s only a few days before Christmas for God’s sake. Aren’t they on vacation? 

Tabbris’s voice was helpless, and clearly just as uncertain. We don’t know, maybe it’s extra credit or something? Or maybe they’re really short-handed and needed more help. But it doesn’t matter, they’re just here. And they’re about to make a move against the hotel, so we’ve gotta interrupt them before they blow this whole thing and make those guys retreat with Denise.

Immediately, I replied, Hold on, I’m coming out. I’ll be right there. I was already starting to focus on looking for the nearest exit. I could walk my host that way and be down there in seconds. 

No, my sister immediately insisted. You have to find out what happened to Denise, Flick. Don’t worry about the stuff down here. Your Mom and the others can handle it. Just hurry and find Denise, before the guys in there figure out something’s wrong and make her disappear again.

She was right, of course. I hated to admit it. Boy did I ever hate to admit it. But she was definitely right.  What mattered right now was finding Denise, and if Mercer saw a fight involving Heretics right outside his front door, he wouldn’t stick around. He would grab whatever he could and disappear. Which probably included Denise herself. I had to find her and get out of here before that happened. 

So, trying to shut aside thoughts and worries about what was going on out there for the moment, I focused on my own situation. The door ahead of me and down the hall a little bit. That was where I needed to go. But there were two guys standing on either side of it who probably wouldn’t be eager to let my host go through that easily. I could deal with them, but there was a camera above the door, pointed down at it. If I started something right there, the people inside would know. Which would give them time to escape. Fuck. I was going to be careful about this, no matter how rushed I felt. No matter what, I could not give Mercer time to retreat. I had to get to him and find out where the hell he had taken Denise. Which meant getting past the guards and through the door without raising any sort of alarm. And I had to do it before the situation outside grew obvious and loud enough for an alert to be sent upstairs. 

That was the real irony of this whole thing. I had the powers, skills, and weapons to deal with these guys fairly easily if it came down to it. Probably, at least. I could smash my way through them, and could probably get through the shielded door within a couple minutes. But a couple minutes wouldn’t be fast enough to stop Mercer from vanishing, along with the only real clue about Denise that we had. I had all this power and I still had to be careful. 

Oh well, what was life without problems to solve, huh? I could handle this. It just required a little creativity rather than a straight-forward slugging match. I still had my little ghost-boy pal, hovering curiously behind me while (maybe a little impatiently) clearly waiting to see what I was going to do. He had no idea anything about the situation had changed. He just wanted to watch me do something interesting to help with his boredom. 

Silently telling Tabbris to keep me updated if they needed help down there, I went to work on my own thing. First, I did a quick check to see if my guy knew anything about Denise. But just like the last one, he had nothing. It was like he’d never heard of or seen her before. What was going on? If Mercer had taken Denise, was he really keeping the fact that he had kidnapped a little kid secret from his men? Why? Was he afraid they weren’t loyal, that they would object to the whole situation? Or that they might sell him out? I didn’t want to think that we were barking up the wrong tree entirely. Mercer had to know something about what was going on. I just wasn’t sure what, or why he was keeping it secret. There was clearly something I was missing, and I was hoping that getting to the boss-man himself would help fill in those gaps. 

To that end, I made my guy push away from the wall where he had been leaning, and turned to walk toward the room I needed to get into. The moment he moved, both of the guys on either side of that door turned their attention that way, one of them calling out, “You gotta piss again, Dugal? Come on, man, stop guzzling so much at lunch all the time. Ain’t good for you.” 

While he was talking, I took in the appearance of the two guards. One of them, the one who wasn’t talking, was another of the almost-Orcs. He was just rolling his eyes as though annoyed that his daydreaming, or whatever he’d been doing, was interrupted by something out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the guy who had spoken looked like a Nekomata, a feline humanoid like Triss back home. They were the ones who were able to make ghost-fire. So siccing my new, bored little buddy on him was probably a bad idea. Come to think of it, given the Nekomata clearly had a thing against ghosts, maybe this guy had something to do with why the forcefield around the penthouse was able to keep them out. 

All of that passed through my mind in a brief moment as I took in the scene, before making my host shrug. “What can I say,” I made his voice grunt, “I really like my–” I did a quick search of his memory for the appropriate drink. “–Coors.” 

“Gotta get that checked,” the Nekomata (his name was apparently Beied, pronounced bye-eed, while the other guy’s name was Istor, rhyming with mister) taunted with a smirk. “I read something about how having shit taste might be a sign of brain damage. Anyone who actually likes that piss water must be about three seconds from a fucking aneurysm or something. We shouldn’t even carry that shit in this place. Make Del Shannon roll over in his grave.”

I almost made my guy ask what some old rock musician had to do with anything, but caught myself. Instead, I checked my guy’s memory. Del Shannon. Right, the hotel had been renamed in honor of him back in the sixties. The Runaway. The name of the hotel was The Runaway. How… convenient. 

That sentiment about Shannon’s objection to Coors being in the hotel named after his most famous song was echoed by a couple of the other guards stationed further down the hall. All of which just reminded me that, outward appearances aside, this wasn’t a super-professional set-up. These guys were part of a gang, not world-class elite soldiers or anything. Another reason why I could have smashed my way through them pretty quickly if that was on the table. But I gave myself a firm reminder that I couldn’t be too cocky. I was on the clock, and these guys could still be a problem. After all, the Seosten had underestimated me plenty of times, and look how that had turned out for them. No matter how casual they seemed from the outside, I had to be careful. This whole situation could turn sideways really damn quick. So no dismissing them as a threat. I was not going to make the Seosten mistake of being too arrogant and then getting screwed over for it. Not when Denise’s life was on the line. 

With a quick search through my guy’s memory (hopefully without violating him too much), I shot back a retort about how Beied couldn’t talk about having shit taste as long as he kept eating something called liver sausage pineapple. Going by this guy, it was apparently a pound of liver sausage mixed with lemon juice, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce, all put together and shaped to look like a pineapple. I… I had no idea. But apparently Beied really liked it. 

There was a bit of back-and-forth teasing about who had the worst sense of taste. I was trying not to let my anxiety about what was going on outside show through the guy I was puppeting.  And yet, I could think of almost nothing except what was going to happen the moment these guys told Mercer that there were Heretics outside fighting. Trying to figure out an excuse to get in there was hard, when that was the only–wait. Hold on. Shit, I was being an idiot, wasn’t I? 

Making a show of heading down the hallway to use the restroom, I made my guy glance out the nearby window and paused. Turning him, I stepped closer and looked down for a few seconds.  I didn’t want to say anything too quickly. It had to look like he was uncertain, even though I could feel the seconds ticking away in the back of my head like a bomb waiting to go off. 

There wasn’t actually anything to see. Not yet, anyway. It looked like Mom and the others had been able to keep the attack away from the front of the hotel so far. But I didn’t really think that would last forever. Any minute now someone on the roof was going to notice what was happening and call it in. I had to get ahead of that. 

“Watcha looking for out there?” Beied finally spoke up. “Cuz if it’s a personality or a life, you might need to look a little harder. And you probably should’ve started earlier.” He chuckled at his own words, and I heard the sound of him exchanging a high five with Istor next to him. 

Pretending I wasn’t paying attention, I made my guy lean closer to the window as though staring at something intently down there. After about two seconds that felt like twenty, I made him physically recoil and pivot on his heel. “There’s something going on down there,” I informed the others in a quick voice, trying to inject it with the sort of surprise and worry that he should have given the situation. “Some sorta fight or something.” Belatedly, I added, “Ain’t no schoolyard brawl, they got weapons and shit. Could be–” I pulled the memory of a rival gang from the man’s mind. “–Darmon’s guys starting something.” 

Before I had even finished talking, several of the guys from down the hall came to look out the window or through one of the others. I pointed, telling them that I had seen the fight start to come around the corner of the building down there before they disappeared again. 

“You fucking serious?” Beied was clearly pretty unhappy about this news. “God damn it, I was ten minutes from getting off shift and hitting this great–fuck.” He pivoted, hitting a three digit code on the pad beside the door to open it. Beside him, Istor the not-Orc started to step over to see what was going on outside for himself. 

Okay, I had three other guys in the hall. Two were right beside me, leaning up to see through the same window in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what I had supposedly seen. Another was further down looking out a different window to see from another angle. Istor was coming up behind me, and Beied the Nekomata was faced the other direction to open the door so he could warn their boss about what was going on. None of them besides Istor were focused directly on me at the moment, and he wasn’t suspicious yet, he was just walking up to look for himself. This was my best–only chance to deal with these guys and get inside that room before Mercer was put on high alert. Getting Beied to open the door by pretending I saw the fight going on out there before anyone else could sound the alert had been a risk, but now I had to follow through. It was only a brief advantage, and it could vanish in a few seconds. So, here went nothing.  

First, I glanced over my shoulder to get Istor in my line of sight before making a portal directly in front of my current host’s hand. It was hidden from the not-Orc himself by my guy’s body, and the two beside me were focused on the window so they didn’t see it yet. The other end of the portal appeared behind Istor, and I gave him a firm tap on the shoulder before dismissing the portal. He pivoted that way. So now, for just a second, I was out of everyone’s line of sight. The camera was focused on the door itself, so it couldn’t see what was going on now that Istor had stepped out of its line of sight. 

As soon as the not-Orc turned his back, I immediately shoved myself backwards out of my current host. He was still unconscious, so the body was already starting to collapse as I appeared behind him. I was still out of sight from the two intently peering through the window in front of me, as well as the one just down the hall. That first pair might have noticed the body falling instantly and reacted, but even as I landed in my own body behind the falling man, I was already focusing hard, using my five-second pause power to freeze his shirt in place. The body sort of went limp, caught in place. It wouldn’t look at all convincing to anyone looking directly at him. But they were still distracted by staring out the window, so all they registered was that his body was still (somewhat) upright. 

It would only buy me a couple seconds, at most. Between those two standing right by the limp form, and the other guy down the hall, one of them would notice that he wasn’t conscious. Not to mention Istor, who would only be distracted by checking to see who had tapped him on the shoulder for a moment. They were going to see that something was wrong any second. 

Thankfully, a second was all I needed. Pivoting on one heel, I slapped my hand out to grab Istor while his back was still to me. A second later, I was inside him. I could feel his sudden rage and sent a quick apology and promise that I would let him go in a moment before turning.  

By that point, the two by the window had noticed their unconscious companion and had turned that way. I immediately sent Istor into a charge, sprinting straight at the two, before once more launching myself backwards out of my host. His momentum kept him going forward, slamming into the other two as they collapsed in a heap. Which caught the attention of the guy down the hall, of course. But it was too late for him to do anything, even as he caught a glimpse of me while turning to see the commotion. 

Throughout all of that, having no idea that anything was wrong just yet, Beied was still in the middle of opening the door. He had barely gotten it half-open as he started to speak up, when the sound of Istor colliding with the other two filled the hall. His words turned to a confused curse as he started to turn. But I was already there. Using a mix of my own enhanced speed and my Seosten boost, I slammed into the feline man, catching him by the shoulders before he could react. Spinning to put my back to the half-open doorway so that he was facing the hall, I lashed out with one foot. The hard kick was enough to knock the man flying backward to land in the corridor with a bellow of surprise and anger. 

Quickly stepping backward through the open door, I slammed it shut once more before touching my hand to it. A thought made another quick-inscription spell appear, and I triggered it to seal the door. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would keep them out for the moment. Long enough for me to do what I needed to. 

Spinning back even as the pounding and knocking at the door started, I took in the sight of where I had managed to get. It was a wide-open living room of some sort, full of plush couches, statues, paintings of old guys (many of them not-human) on the walls, and a gi-freaking-normous television that took up a huge portion of one wall. That was where most of the people in the room were. Ten guys of various species, all sitting around playing video games on that giant TV.  Two looked human, one Rakshasa (the other feline species I knew of that wasn’t Nekomata), a pair of what looked like goblins, three Satyrs (the goat-men weren’t as small and cute as they looked like in the cartoons and comics, but were more human in size), a silver-scaled reptilian figure who stood about seven feet tall, and… their boss. Yeah, I knew in an instant that the final guy had to be Mercer. He was even taller than the other guy, with thick, blue-green scales over his body and vertical-slit pupils. He gave off the air of being the person in charge, even as his gaze snapped from the television to me, dropping the controller in his hand. 

“Hey there,” I announced, summoning my staff to one hand while everyone in the room lunged to their feet, putting themselves in front of the boss. “Mercer, I presume.” Even as I said that, I focused on summoning a portal to get my hand near him. But it fizzled. The protections in this place extended to blocking that sort of thing, apparently. Which meant I was going to have to get close to him the old fashioned way, by going through everyone trying to stop me. 

“Heretic,” he snapped, the annoyance clear in his voice. “What exactly do I owe this interruption to?” 

Even as he said that, a voice from a nearby intercom frantically called out that there were Heretics attacking the hotel. Mercer gave the intercom a dark look, his voice flat. “No shit.” 

“Believe it or not,” I informed the man, “I’m not here to kill you, or any of your men. I’m here for one thing, answers.” My eyes narrowed as I stared at him. “I need you to tell me what happened to Denise Cartland.” 

Mercer showed no reaction at all to the name, his voice completely blank. “Who?” It was pretty convincing, actually. Sure, he almost certainly had to be a good liar to get into this sort of position. But still, it was hard to entirely dismiss the idea that he really had no idea who I was talking about. Not that I was going to take that for granted without checking for myself, of course. 

“Denise Cartland,” I repeated. “Tell me where she is, and I’ll go away.” 

“Kid,” he snapped back, “I got no idea who you mean. And you know what? I think you’re going away right now.” With that, he dropped his hand, and the rest of his friends in the room all launched themselves my way. 

I met their charge, but I wasn’t interested in actually fighting them. All I cared about was getting to Mercer, which meant lunging, twisting, ducking, spinning, leaping, and diving my way through every guy standing in my way. I used every ounce of my boost, pushing myself to be even faster. Those brief handful of seconds were a blur of flailing limbs, blades, claws, and more as I danced my way through everything in that room, before finally coming face to face with the man himself. 

He snarled and lashed out with a fist as soon as he saw me, but my hand snapped up to catch it. Yeah, between my boost and my general strength-enhancements I caught his fist with my own grip. It hurt, but I didn’t care at that moment. It was worth seeing the look on his face, especially knowing what I did about the shit he had pulled. 

An instant later, before he or anyone else could react, I was inside him. Once again, I used my possession power. Today was the day I had used it the most in recent history. Probably because I was so far past giving a shit when it came to anything that stopped us from finding Denise. 

I was possessing him, but it wasn’t exactly an immediate take-over. I could feel the man struggling. For a moment, I thought it might go as far as a full-on sustained battle for his body, but with a last burst of effort, I managed to shove his consciousness down. 

Then, with the people outside the room still struggling to break the sealed door down, and the ones who were already inside staring at their boss in confusion about what to do next, I focused. I searched his memory for anything about Denise, and found… nothing. No, no, no, this couldn’t be for nothing! He had to know her. I tried searching for anything about the gas station, or Kalia and her father. He had to know about them, he’d been bugging them for money to the point of driving Kalia’s father to rob that gas station and get killed by Ammon in the first place! 

But no. There was nothing. He had absolutely no memory of any of that. How the fuck was that possible? What–what had… what? 

By that point, the door had finally been broken through, as the guys outside came bursting in. Beied was at the front, demanding to know what was going on while holding some sort of falchion in one hand. 

“Some Heretic chick!” one of the Satyrs blurted a bit frantically, gesturing. “She–she fucking possessed the boss or something! Crazy bitch said something about, what, Denise Copeland? Who the fuck is that?!” 

“Cartland,” Beied corrected, his eyes not on the Satyr, but on his boss. On me, possessing his boss. “Heretic! You’re looking for Denise Cartland?” 

Narrowing Mercer’s eyes, I made him growl out, “Where is she?” 

The Nekomata, in turn, held up both hands, the falchion gripped tightly in one. “Look, the boss there forgot all about some money a chick that works at some gas station owes him. I figured she did something to him, so I looked into it, checked out who was there the last time he stopped by just to see if she hired some sort of outside mind-fucker. Found out the only other person in the place was some kid named Denise Cartland. Looked into her, but it was a dead end. Except I found out she left town. She took a bus. You let my boss go, I’ll tell you where the bus was headed. Fair?” 

Making Mercer glance around at the roomful of eager guys waiting to stab or shoot me, I grunted. “Yeah, sure. But you and me, we’ll take a walk together, just the two of us. You tell me everything you know about where Denise went, then I’ll let your boss go. And for the record, you might want to hurry, so you guys and your boss can get the hell out of this hotel. 

“Cuz there really is a fight going on downstairs, and only a few of them are with me.”

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Commissioned Interlude 16 – Reapers (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – This is NOT the Monday’s regular chapter, it is an extra commissioned interlude. The regular chapter will be out around midnight mountain time/7 am GMT as usual.

About Eight Years Ago

“Hi!” a young girl, perhaps five years old, chirped up from where she was sitting in a sandbox behind her family’s suburban house somewhere in southern California. The girl had short blonde hair, and a bright, smiling face that was covered in dirt. She raised one equally dirty hand to wave at the figure who stood next to the sandbox. “I’m playing wif sand, you wanna play?” 

The subject she was addressing stood silently for a moment. She appeared to be another girl, one somewhat older than the one in the sandbox. An unknowing person would place her age in her late teens. Unlike the very human child she was watching, however, the figure standing silently nearby was far older than she appeared. Her skin was very pale, almost to the point of being paper-white. Her hair, worn all the way to the middle of her back, was very bright pink, with black highlights. Her eyes were red. And she wore very simple clothes. Black jeans, black shoes, and a black tee shirt. No frills, no design.  

After those few seconds of simply watching the younger child, the girl took a seat on the grass next to the sandbox. She had yet to speak, simply reaching out to brush one pale hand through the sand before finding an action figure half-buried there. Plucking it free, she examined the toy with a look of curiosity, fingers running over the points of articulation. 

“His name’s Casey Jones,” the sandbox girl informed her. “He helps the Ninja Turtles.” Pointing at herself then, she added, “My name’s Casey too. That’s why he’s my favorite. What’s your name?” Even as she asked the question, the girl was already plucking a Leonardo toy out of the sand and waving him around, making noises as though he was fighting legions of Foot soldiers.

In answer to the question, the pale figure tilted her head as though considering for several long moments before finally declaring, “Casey.” She pointed to herself. 

With a laugh, the younger girl shook her head. “That’s not your name, silly, it’s my name!” 

“I like Casey Jones,” the other informed her in a very simple, matter-of-fact tone. 

“Okay,” the little girl declared, “I’ll be Casey, and you can be Jones. Together we can be Casey Jones!” She giggled then, like it was a fun game they were playing. “How are you today, Jones?” 

Seeming to consider the question far more thoroughly than most would, the newly-dubbed Jones finally replied, “I’m hungry.” 

“Oh, my mama will bring us a snack,” Casey quickly informed her. “D’ya want me to go ask? Maybe we can have cookies, if it’s not too close to dinner. Do you like cookies?” 

“I don’t know,” Jones answered in a soft, curious tone. “I’ve never had them.”

With a scandalized gasp, the younger girl demanded, “How could you never have cookies? Everybody has cookies. You want me to go get some?” 

“It’s okay,” came the soft response. “I’ll eat soon.” Without a moment’s pause, she immediately asked, “What is a ninja turtle?” 

Casey, of course, was just as scandalized to hear that question as she had been the one about cookies. Immediately, she dug through the sand to find the rest of her related action figures and begin to explain the entire story behind the mutant brothers, their rat father-figure, and all of their assorted friends and enemies. She went on rather excitedly and at length, often doubling back on herself to explain something else she had forgotten before jumping forward once more. And throughout it all, she waved the toys around wildly, often smacking them together while making sound effects for the respective battles she was detailing. 

Jones watched intently through the whole story, never blinking. She sat completely motionless beside the sandbox, crimson eyes fixated on the human girl while she went on about the Ninja Turtles. To any who might have been observing, it would have been equally clear that this girl truly had never heard anything about the combative mutant reptiles and that she was completely fascinated by the explanation. 

Finally, the young girl finished with, “And April and Casey Jones got married but that’s dumb cuz I wanna marry Casey Jones. Then we can be Casey Jones and Casey Jones.” She laughed as though that was the funniest joke that had ever been made, falling backward into the sand. Then she popped up. “Oh! I gotta tell you ‘bout Baxter Stockman.” 

Thus, over the next twenty minutes, the two spoke extensively about those fictional turtles and everything surrounding them. Casey possessed an extensive collection of toys, and showed all of them off while telling her new friend all about them, while the other girl sat enraptured by the story, occasionally asking questions. Some of the questions were quite understandable and specific to the Ninja Turtles franchise itself, while others would have raised eyebrows. Such as what pizza was, or what the ‘hockey’ in Casey Jones’ hockey stick and mask meant, or even what sewers were. They were the sort of questions that would have raised a few alarms in the mind of someone older. But Casey simply thought it was curious, and eagerly explained everything. The more her new friend questioned, the happier the younger girl was about telling the story. 

Eventually, she stopped to ask, “How come you don’t know anyfin about this stuff?” 

“I am very new here,” came the response. 

“Oh!” the little girl tilted her head curiously. “Are you from Europe? They don’t have cookies there?” 

“I am not from Europe,” the older figure informed her. “I am a Reaper.” 

The little girl stared at her with wide eyes. “Reaper? Nuh uh, you don’t have a big hood or a scyfe or anything. You’re s’posed to have a big scyfe, like the cartoons. And how come you’re h–” With a start, Casey looked to the house. “Oh, I gotta go ask Mama for the cookies!” 

“You should stay here,” the other girl solemnly informed her. “It’s bad in there.” 

Frowning with obvious confusion, the little girl asked, “Huh? What’s that s’posed to mean?” 

“You should stay here,” Jones replied, her tone just as flat and matter-of-fact, though there was a very faint hint of something more. “The bad man hasn’t left yet. Like Shredder.”

“What?” Staring blankly at her, the younger girl slowly asked, “What do you mean, bad man? There’s a bad man?” She turned then, looking at her house. “There’s a bad man… Mama?” She bolted to her feet, sprinting toward the backdoor. “Mama! Mama, there’s a bad man! Mama!” As her small figure disappeared through the door, there was a brief pause, followed by a soul-shattering scream that echoed through the backyard and surrounding neighborhood. It was the scream of a child who had seen something she truly shouldn’t have, something that would haunt her thoughts and memories for the rest of her life. 

Rising from where she had been perched in the grass, Jones strode toward the house. She walked at a calm, casual pace, unhurried despite the situation. Reaching the door, she paused briefly to glance at a nearby flower, extending a hand to gently brush over the colorful petals before disappearing into the building. 

Several long seconds passed, before the momentary silence was shattered once more. This time, the air was filled with the sound of breaking glass, as a man’s form came flying out through the window. He landed heavily in the grass, bleeding profusely. His face was badly burned, to the point that he would have been nearly unrecognizable to anyone who knew him. 

He pushed himself up and began to crawl frantically away, but Jones appeared next to him with a simple flash of light. Her foot came down on the back of his neck to knock him against the grass. One of her arms was covered in blood. His blood. Her shoes and the bottom of her jeans were also drenched in blood that was not his. 

“That was very bad,” she informed him.

“Wha-what?!” the man blubbered, his voice panicked. “I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to kill her! I swear, I just wanted to have some fun. But she wouldn’t stop fighting, I had to hit her. I had to hit her. I wasn’t gonna hurt the kid!” 

“Yes,” came the flat response. “You were. You would have hurt her. You would have killed her. Just like her mother. You are bad. You are not a ninja turtle,” she informed him. “You are a Shredder.” 

“A wha-what?” he stammered. “Look, just–” 

Without another word, the pink-haired figure pointed her hand down at him. A blue-white flame erupted forth, and with a momentary panicked scream, the man and everything he wore was turned to ash. In an instant, he had been entirely disintegrated. 

“Cowabunga,” Jones announced, in a flat, monotone voice. 

Pivoting on her heel, she walked slowly back into the house. A few long seconds of silence passed before she came back through the door, carrying the young Casey over her shoulder. Without a word, she walked the little girl back to the sandbox and set her down in it. The remains of a bit of the child’s previous meal were visible across her shirt, where she had thrown up. 

As she sat there, Casey stared ahead, seeing nothing save for the traumatic memory of what she had witnessed in the house, of what the man had done to her mother. A low, somewhat-keening whimpering sound escaped her after a moment, when she found some measure of her voice. “Mama.” That single word came in a plaintive, desperate tone. It was the voice of a girl who, despite her tender age, knew that her mother would never answer. 

For a few seconds, the older figure stood looking down at her silently. Then she sat beside the sandbox once more. Her voice was simple. “Your mother is gone. But so is the man who took her.” 

Trembling, the little girl looked to her and hesitantly managed a weak, barely audible, “But… what if he comes back?”  

The question was met by a flat stare as the older figure replied, “He will not. Your mother and he will never return.” There was a brief pause once more, then, “He was a bad man, and had to be sent away.”

“A-are you sure?” came the quiet little plea. 

Another pause followed, before the other girl confirmed, “Yes, I am sure. I am a Reaper. I know when people are gone and will never come back.” 

Curling in on herself, the little girl sat there with her eyes closed. Tears continued to stream down her face for a silent minute or so, before she made a gasping noise. “Police! I’m ‘posed to call 911! Bu-but I don’t have a phone. And… and…” She looked up, staring trepidatiously at the house as though terrified of the prospect of going back in there. Her words turned back to that desperate, animalistic keening sound. She knew what was there. She knew what she would see if she walked back in that awful place. 

So, it was Jones who rose to her feet. “You will stay,” she ordered, before turning to walk inside. The little girl was left alone, sitting in the sandbox with the memory of her mother’s remains for a couple minutes, before the other figure returned. She had the cordless phone in one hand, and a box of cookies from the cupboard in the other. Without a word, she set the box next to the girl, then put the phone in her hand. 

The child didn’t move at first. She sat there clutching the phone. Yes, she was supposed to call 911 when someone was hurt, so they could get help. But there would be no help for her mother. Even at her age, she understood that. Her mom was gone and would never get better. 

Still, she knew it was the right thing to do. So, her fingers slowly moved over the buttons, dialing the emergency services before holding the phone up to her head. “Hello?” she managed in a voice that broke from emotion. “You need to come please. 

“My mama died.” 

*******

Several hours later, the little girl was gone. The police had come and taken her away. The house had been thoroughly examined, and was now surrounded by yellow caution tape. It was late enough that everyone had left by then, save for a single policeman who had been stationed at the front of the house in a squad car to keep people away. 

He did not even notice the lone figure with pink hair standing at the very edge of the property. Nor did he notice the larger, male figure in a black trenchcoat stepping up beside her. The new arrival had short, dark blue hair and an equally pale complexion. He stopped beside the girl and turned slightly to look at her. No words emerged from his mouth, yet he communicated with her. With a single look, the older Reaper sent a full pack of information from his mind to hers. The transfer was instant, communicating frustration that she had disappeared for so long when he had asked her to stay where they were before, a request for clarification about why she had left, and chastisement for interfering with the natural progression of things. The young human child was meant to die there. It was what would have happened without any interference. And yet, she was still alive, and the man who should have escaped to kill several more times had been wiped from existence. All because of her interference. She had disrupted the balance. He required an explanation for that. As well as an explanation for why she had gone against his wishes as her superior, and assurance that she had not begun to fall to the Reapers’ curse. Certainly, becoming a Hangman tended to involve causing more living beings to die rather than less, but any Reaper acting out of the ordinary tended to be heavily scrutinized. None wanted a repeat of what had come before, so long ago.

That burst of information would have taken a species who communicated verbally several minutes to get through properly. In this case, it was instantaneous, as the Reaper man simply compressed a packet of information and sent it to her directly. 

In response, the girl sent back her own packet of information. In less time than it would have taken an average living being to say the word ‘hi,’ she communicated the fact that she had had a conversation with the young child and chose not to let her die. Because it wasn’t what the Ninja Turtles would do. That, of course, necessitated adding a whole explanation into the packet of who they were, before she sent it off to him. Again, several minutes worth of conversation compressed into an instantaneous burst of information. 

Immediately after absorbing that knowledge, the male Reaper sent back another packet of his own. This one included further chastisement for her actions, as they were, above all else, supposed to remain neutral. Not every single Reaper followed that completely stringently, of course. But he did, for he had seen some of the worst their people were capable of. He had perpetuated some of the worst, before being drawn back to some semblance of sanity. The fact that she was of his creation meant that she would follow his instructions. That was how it worked. Or how it was supposed to work. She was a part of him, a part of his whole, and thus she followed his instructions, as surely as an arm followed the instructions of its owner. And he had instructed her to stay out of any mortal affairs. They were to observe and add to the Archive, that was all. Their place was to stand apart from the universe and ensure that, whatever happened to it in the future, everything it had once been would be remembered. 

It wasn’t always like that, of course. They had not always kept themselves separate from the rest of creation. At one time, their people had stretched their will across the entire universe. And that will had been intent on nothing more than complete genocide of everything that was not Reaper. They had essentially been Fomorians before Fomorians existed. With their ability to gain both knowledge and power from the deaths of others, the Reapers had decimated every planet they came across. They killed everyone in their path and used that power to become even more unstoppable. They had, as a species, nearly one and all become Hangmen. 

That path of mindless destruction had eventually turned the Reapers on one another. They were no longer a united species, in any sense of the term. Each had instead become intent on being the last figure standing. They attacked and killed each other, absorbing the powers and knowledge of their own people. 

The universe itself would have fallen, save a very few remaining Reapers who had not entirely fallen to their people’s Hangman curse. They managed to pull themselves, and the universe itself, back from the brink of total annihilation. They saw what their people had nearly done, saw what could have happened to all life in existence. 

From there, the remaining Reapers had known that changes had to be made. Their people were no longer conquerors. They would be observers. They would step back and simply watch the universe. They would feed their people’s hunger for death the natural way, by arriving in places where it was already happening. They would not interfere. 

Some still fell now and then, of course. Some were lost, in one way or another. But, for the most part, the Reapers kept to their word. They had physically spread across the universe, scattered to the point that only a bare handful would be present on any world at any given time. Most of those were single Reaper ‘family’ units where the couple present on the world were actually aided by several who remained within the Archives. From there, they watched. They observed. They collected knowledge, power, and simply memories. They stood by as people died before absorbing the energy from that death and everything that came with it. They catalogued what they absorbed, storing it away for whenever the end of this universe came.

In answer to the chastisement, the younger Reaper (she was equal parts her male counterpart’s daughter, sister, clone, and more, having been created by him from a piece of himself) actually spoke aloud, rather than use their much faster communication method. “I am not a Shredder. I am a Ninja Turtle.” She turned slightly, watching him with that same flat, apparently emotionless stare. “The human child did nothing to deserve death. Allowing that would have been wrong.” 

A moment of silence passed, as the older Reaper considered the verbal words, as well as the fact that she had chosen to speak them rather than communicate in (what was to them) the normal way. Eventually, he turned and raised a hand. As he did so, a glowing portal appeared. He sent back another silent packet of information, informing her that she would follow him to visit the Archives, where he would ensure that she had not begun to fall. If she was becoming a Hangman, he would ensure his descendant/copy/sister did not go any further. 

Immediately, the girl turned and began to follow him through the portal. But she paused right at the edge, turning to look over her shoulder. Right there on the side of the sandbox sat the small Casey Jones toy. Extending her hand, she summoned the figure to her and examined it closely. Her finger touched the top of the toy, before she pulled it apart. Except she wasn’t breaking the figure. Her tug duplicated the figure, creating a second version. This one she tucked into her pocket, before sending the original back to the spot where it belonged. 

That done, she turned and finally passed through the awaiting portal, leaving the terrible crime scene behind.

The room they arrived in appeared to be a library. But if so, it would have been one of the largest libraries in the known universe. The room was circular, about a thousand feet in diameter with no visible doors or any other exit. Shelves of books lined the walls, stretching all the way up out of sight, to skyscraper heights. Trillions of tomes of every color and size filled those shelves. Here and there, in about a dozen different spots that were immediately visible, various books glowed a faint pink color, indicating that members of this Reaper family were accessing them for one reason or another.

The books, in truth, were simply visual representations of various bits of knowledge or even power the Reapers had absorbed. It was collected and stored here. Every Reaper Collective made their archive look somewhat different. Some went for far more elaborate creations, but this one was quite simple, with no frills or unnecessary effort. Their archive appeared as this library, their individual memories, skills, powers, and such were books. Whenever one of the Reapers from this collective called upon one of the stored gifts, the ‘book’ in question glowed.

After giving a brief glance over to a spot on the shelves where several books had abruptly lit up,  the man turned away from them and extended his hand once more. Again, a portal appeared. This one led not back to where they had just come from, but to the Prime Archive. 

Still without speaking, the male Reaper sent another burst of information to his younger, female counterpart. He informed her that she was to follow him so that others could examine her, and ensure all that she had not fallen. He also communicated his hope that she was truly safe, his concern that something might have happened and that she would need to be eliminated. Not as a threat, of course. His regret would be real, yet neither he nor the others would hesitate. If she had been corrupted, they would excise her from reality before she infected any others. He wished her luck, while simultaneously informing her that any attempt to escape before being examined would be an admission of guilt and she would be immediately eliminated. 

“I am not corrupted,” she informed him, once more choosing to speak the words aloud. With that, she passed through the portal. Now, rather than standing in a library, she appeared on a busy city street. Any mortals who looked at the city, however, would be immediately thrown, as it didn’t appear like any actual, single place. Rather, the place appeared to be several thousand different pieces of cities, from several thousand different planets and times, all bunched together into one place with no rhyme or reason. A house that would have belonged in ancient feudal Earth Japan sat next to a towering oval-shaped building that had seemingly been plucked straight from the world of Pevlefi, where the bird-like Seun lived. And to the right of that was a red-stone castle from the Akheilosan people’s medieval era. And so on it went. Thousands of different species’ buildings and structure-types were represented in this town. Except, of course, it wasn’t a town at all. This was the Prime Archive. 

Every Reaper Clan had their individual archive, where their personal gifts and knowledge were stored. But every clan also added to the Prime Archive, itself created after they had nearly wiped out reality. This Prime Archive was located in a separate piece of reality that was only accessible by Reapers themselves, and only through physically interacting with their individual archives. From there, they could enter this place, where every bit of knowledge they had gathered from many millennia of watching over the universe were stored. The beings who ‘lived’ here were artificial creations, just like the books back in the individual archive. Each ‘person’ held the collective memories of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of people who had once lived, and could essentially become that person at any moment. In fact, they did become any number of people at any given moment. As the artificial people made their way on predetermined routes through busy, crowded ‘city’, living some fake semblance of lives not too different from the nonplayer characters programmed into human video games, they also randomly shifted into different forms. A human striding confidently through the city would abruptly transform into a wooden Relukun who stumbled over his own feet and fearfully watched the people around him as though waiting to be attacked. By the same measure, a tiny, mouse-like Timper, creeping stealthily along one of the gutters suddenly became a massive Ogre, gleefully stomping his way forward while bellowing for people to get out of the way. Every manufactured ‘being’ shifted through dozens of different forms, as the Archive system kept that being active just long enough to run maintenance and ensure their personalities and memories were intact, then shifted to the next one. All while the forms bustled their way through the city, moving in and out of buildings, and generally looking, from the outside, like an actual living place. Albeit a place made up of a thousand different cities squished together and occupied by millions of constantly shape-shifting beings. 

As they arrived in the false city, the two Reapers immediately turned and began to walk toward the massive tower that lay at the very center of the Prime Archive. The tower was actually what remained of the very last weaponized ship the previously war-like Reapers had once used. At one time, it had been the most feared vessel in the universe, capable of casually destroying entire worlds. Now, this relatively small piece of it was all that remained. It loomed far into the ‘sky’ of this manufactured piece of reality, shaped like a massive, black and silver two-tined fork. From the bottom of its three thousand foot wide base, to the very tip of the two tine-like structures, the tower stood fifteen miles high. And yet, this small piece was merely a tenth of the actual size that the full ship itself had once been. Now its power was put to one purpose: maintaining the Prime Archive in this separated piece of reality so that knowledge and memories of what had once been would be passed on to whatever came next, should this universe ever be truly destroyed.

The male Reaper continued toward the tower, but the girl stopped, turning to face a passing figure. “Halt,” she ordered. Immediately, the artificial being did so. She, in turn, stepped in front of it and raised a hand, making a flicking motion with her fingers repeatedly. As she did so, the being transformed from one shape to another with each motion. Like flipping through pages of a book. Finally, it appeared as an orange-skinned humanoid with six arms and a very flat head. But it was not the arms or flat head she was interested in. Rather, her attention was drawn to the weapon that the being held in one of those hands. Specifically, a long, black scythe with a deep blue curved blade. 

Touching a finger against the false weapon, the girl did the same trick she had performed with the action figure earlier. She pulled a copy away from the original. This, however, was a true weapon rather than a false construct. It was also black, like the first, though the blade was pink to match her own hair and aura color. 

Satisfied, she held the weapon in one hand while flatly informing her companion/father/brother/creator, “I am a Reaper. We are supposed to have scythes.” 

He, in turn, stared at her. A flash of communication informed her that he was even more concerned that she had fallen, before he pivoted to continue walking to the tower. One way or another, they would find answers there. The old ones would examine her, and determine if she could be released to continue about her way, or… not. 

*******

Present Day

“Boy oh boy was that a long and boring discussion.” As she cheerfully noted that, the pink-haired Reaper carefully drew a peanut butter-laden knife back and forth across a slice of bread while standing in the middle of a small apartment kitchen.

She wasn’t dressed nearly as simply as she had been years earlier. Now, she wore black military-style boots with pink laces, somewhat ripped black leggings, ratty jean shorts, a bright pink tee shirt with a black smiley face across the front, and an open black jacket. With, of course, a large hood. 

“Eighty-seven hours of–well, I mean I guess it’s eighty-seven? I’ve never really done the Prime Archive to Earth time conversion. Hang on.” In two swift motions, she slid both sides of the knife along the top of the peanut butter jar to remove the excess before dipping it into a nearby jar of jelly. Taking up a fresh slice of bread, she spread the jelly on it, considered, then added more before sticking both pieces together into a sandwich. 

“Carry the one, subtract for daylight savings, it wasn’t a leap year…” Her thoughtful murmurs turned entirely incomprehensible for a moment before she snapped her fingers. “Eighty-nine hours of interrogation. I knew I was close. And what an eighty-nine hours. Seriously, eighty-nine hours can go really fast if you’re doing something fun. But if it’s not fun, and believe me, this wasn’t, every hour can feel like ten. You know how that is? Yeah, I’m sure you do. You’ve had that kind of boss.” 

With that, she took a rather enormous bite of the sandwich, devouring almost half of it in a single chomp. Which included, of course, making the chomping sound in the process. Chewing that large mouthful, she stepped out of the kitchen area of the apartment and looked over to one side while chewing thoughtfully in silence for several long seconds. Finally, she swallowed and added a curious, “Bet you’re gonna have to have one of those long interrogations after this, huh?” 

The subject of her question, and of everything she had said so far in the long story she had been cheerfully telling, was a young Eden’s Garden Heretic, fresh from their academy. Barely twenty years old, the guy had very dark skin, an entirely shaven head, and was just a bit on the stocky side. He was also pinned against the wall by the shaft of the very same scythe she had created almost a decade earlier. 

Well, not the exact same scythe, technically. She had upgraded it repeatedly over the years, adding far more to its arsenal and capability. 

In any case, at this particular moment, the blade of the scythe was embedded deeply in the wall, allowing the shaft to pin the man against it as well. Runes flared up along the weapon, some of which prevented it from being moved at all by anyone other than its master. Once it was put in a location, it stayed there. By the same token, any person touched by the weapon stayed where they were as long as it was touching them. With very few exceptions (of which this particular Heretic had none), there were no powers that could allow him to either move the scythe, or himself as long as it was pressed against him. 

“I don’t know what you really are or what you want, creature,” the man snarled, “but I’m not buying any of this. We know what Reapers are, how dangerous they can be. Only a couple on the planet? Pretending to be some sort of passive, neutral observers? Bullshit. They’re monsters, and they’re all over the place. Those old executions they used to do all the time with the guillotines and shit, there were Reapers all over the place. You’re not even one of those, you’re just–you’re probably one of those body-snatching assholes people keep talking about. You–” 

Before he could say anything else, the knife (still holding traces of peanut butter and jelly) went flying past, embedding itself deep in the wall so close to his face that it shaved a bit of his five o’clock shadow away. Despite being very dull, the knife still went into the wall all the way up to the handle. 

“Don’t be rude,” the Reaper chastised. “I’m not one of the Seosten. If I was, I already would have possessed you and erased your memory. Besides, I told you my name. It’s Jones. Maybe you should tell me yours so I don’t have to default to one of the names I give every annoying punk who starts jabbering at me.” Her head tilted at his sullen silence. “No? Okay, Bebop it is. Anyway, Bebop, like I was saying…” She walked closer, reaching out to pluck the knife out of the wall  while finishing the last of the sandwich she had made. Standing right in front of the struggling figure, she watched him curiously, swallowing before speaking. “They made me stand there for all that time, interrogating me, scanning me, doing everything they could to find out what was wrong. I mean, for a given definition of wrong. Why I was different. Which isn’t even really fair, because there are Reapers out there who don’t toe the line. But they’re more… the adult Reapers? The progenitors. They’re the ones who have more of a choice in what they are, what they act like. Me, I was a daughter-copy-sister-clone. I shouldn’t have been so independent. But I was, so they needed to find out why. And do you know what they came up with? No, seriously, do you know?”

Bebop, as he had been dubbed, scowled at her silently for a moment. But in the end, his curiosity won out. “What?” 

Flashing a bright smile, Jones poked him in the forehead. “It was one of you. No, really. That’s it. It was one of you. Well, one of you and one of those Seosten you were just talking about. See, you know how each of you Heretics are connected to one of our Reaper Archives to store and use your powers? Yeah, we know about that, and there’s a reason you can only use the powers you put there. We sort of… shove everything you put in the Archive over into a corner. Anyway, it turns out, about eight years ago when all this was going on with me, one of your people was having some sort of thing with one of those bodysnatchers you were talking about. Not just a thing, a thing from clear across the universe. The Seosten was projecting past a lot of magic blocks, all the way here to Earth. Something went wrong and the Heretic ended up getting yanked off Earth and back to where the Seosten was. But she was using the Archive right then, using powers she stored away in our Archive. When that big universe-wide yank happened, all that power sent a little, ahh, feedback through the Archive. And poof, I was cut off from my father-brother-original-leader. I wasn’t linked to him the way I was supposed to be anymore. I had my own thoughts, my own wants, my own… urges. I had my own self. Which was weird. I saw that girl, Casey, in trouble and I didn’t want her to die. So I stopped it.” 

Clearly unable to resist asking, the Eden’s Garden Heretic managed a gruff-sounding, “So what happened after your little… examination?” 

Giving a broad smile at the fact that she’d managed to draw the man into the story, Jones replied, “I was banished. I mean, politely banished, but still. They knew I didn’t do anything wrong and I wasn’t all evil or whatever, but they didn’t want to risk whatever happened to me affecting everyone else and disrupting our very important work. So they sent me away. I had to learn how to really be my own person here on Earth. I had to get a job. I mean, I didn’t have to, but it’s the right thing to do if you want to buy food, comic books, video games, movies, and I love all those things. Especially Turtles stuff. I mean… it is how I got my start, after all.” As she said that, the girl nodded to a corner of the room, where a classic, full-sized Ninja Turtles arcade machine stood. “My pride and joy. I mean, I know, you can play it all on PC or console and all that, but it’s just not the same as standing at the machine, you know what I mean?” 

From the look on his face, the man had absolutely no idea what she meant. He shifted a bit from his pinned position, hesitating before demanding, “Say I even believe this story a tiny bit instead of going with the obvious bit of you being some trick from the Rebellion. What’re you gonna do with me now?” 

“Well, I mean, you did break into my home and try to kill me,” Jones reminded him. “But I suppose it’s not really your fault. Not totally, anyway.” Clearly debating with herself for a moment, she finally reached out, grabbing the scythe before yanking it free to let the young Heretic drop to the ground. Spinning the weapon around while stepping back, she rested it against the back of her neck, arms hooked over the shaft while casually informing him, “You can go.” 

For a second, it was clear that the man was debating with himself as to whether he should try to attack again. Eventually, he just cautiously asked, “Are you serious? Why would you let me walk away after everything you told me? I could talk to people about it.” 

In response, Jones the Reaper raised both eyebrows. “Talk to people about it? Talk to them about the good Reaper who caught you, told you her life story and all about how much she loves Ninja Turtles and video games, then let you go? Sure, okay. You go ahead and tell your genocidal, xenophobic friends all about it. I’m fascinated to know how that goes.” 

From the grimace on ‘Bebop’s’ face, he had no more confidence than she did in how his people would take that story. He also looked like he was reconsidering the whole attacking her thing again. But in the latter case, a glance toward the sharp pink blade of the scythe made up his mind for him. He took a quick step sideways, hand rising to project a flat shadow-circle against the wall before disappearing through it. The shadow portal would take him… somewhere else. 

As soon as the Heretic was gone, Jones exhaled. Her gaze turned to the holes in the wall where the scythe and knife blades had been, even as she reached out to trace her finger along them. In the process, the holes were fixed, until there was no sign that anything had happened. 

“Crap,” she murmured with annoyance while tugging a well-worn (and clearly well-loved) Casey Jones toy from her jacket pocket to look at. 

“I’m gonna have to move again.” 

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions.

Finally leaving the chaotic rush of yet another school day behind her, Abigail Fellows said goodnight to Miss Handsy before heading out of the office, satchel full of files over one shoulder and a cup of steaming hot coffee in the other hand. She was walking briskly down the hall when a voice spoke up from behind, calling her name. Abigail slowed and turned to see the dark-haired Athena approaching. Waiting for the Seosten woman, she asked, “Didn’t you have something going on over with the… what was the name of that group again? The ones who want to build an elevator to the moon.” 

“The Kalsteren,” Athena reminded her. “And not yet. They want me there for a special holiday, but it doesn’t start for two more days. They’re still setting things up. Also, the elevator thing is a bit of a misnomer. What they actually want is a stable, permanent portal to the moon. Which is a phenomenally bad idea, given… well, you know. But try telling them that.” Pausing, she murmured, “Right, I’m going to have to actually try to tell them that. We’ll see how it goes.” 

Curious, Abigail asked, “Actually, I don’t know. Why would a portal to the moon be a bad idea, exactly?” 

Athena’s mouth opened to answer, but they were interrupted as a new voice called out, “Abigail!” It was Theia, popping out of a nearby doorway. She was giving the wide smile that only ever seemed to appear that genuinely when she was talking to very few people, including Douglas Frey, Pace, Koren, Miranda, and most of all Abigail herself. 

“Hello, Theia,” Abigail greeted the girl with a smile of her own. “What can we do for you?” She didn’t outright chide her for not acknowledging Athena at all, simply choosing to point the other woman out by very slightly stressing the ‘we’ part of the sentence.

“Oh, hello, Athena,” Theia promptly greeted the other woman, voice making it clear that she hadn’t actually noticed her at all. That done, she promptly turned her attention right back to Abigail once more. “I found this.” Raising her hand, she showed both women the large, blue-and-violet seashell that took up most of her palm. “It’s lucky. You should have it on your desk.” 

“Aww, why thank you, Theia.” Accepting the seashell, Abigail nodded. “It’s very pretty.”

“It’s lucky,” the Seosten girl reiterated. “You can’t lose it. It has to go on your desk. You have to keep it safe.” Her voice was oddly urgent as she stared at the woman intently, as though expecting her to walk right back with it at that very moment. 

And that was exactly what Abigail did. With a glance toward the woman next to her, she gave a short nod. “Well then, I wouldn’t want it to accidentally get put somewhere else. Why don’t you show me the best place for it? Athena, you’re good with tactics, perhaps you’ll have a thought or two.” She gestured, inviting both of them to follow as she pivoted and walked right back to the other room, passing Miss Handsy once more with a pleasant greeting. 

Theia followed, of course, with Athena behind. Though the Olympian gave no real input on the placement of the shell, she did watch with curiosity while the other two positioned it just so. Only once she was satisfied that the shell was in its proper place, did Theia nod with satisfaction. “Good, you will have luck now,” she announced. “You need it. The job you have taken on is very difficult, and you will probably fail without a lot of luck.” With that blunt pronouncement, she offered another smile. “And now you have it, so I will leave.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and began to walk away. 

“Oh, Theia, you’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Abigail quickly put in. “Koren wanted your help with some sort of vegetable dish she looked up. Apparently she thinks you’re better with a knife then she is.” 

“It’s true,” Theia agreed, “I have cut many things. And many people. And many things off many people.” With a bright, cheerful smile, she added, “I will be there to help cut more things.” 

And just like that, she was gone again, exiting through the door with only a belated, “Goodbye, Athena!” 

Only once she was sure the girl had left through the outer office, did Athena close the door and step over to where Abigail was. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do about that?” she asked while nodding toward the sea shell. 

Abigail, in turn, blinked. “The shell? Well, unless you’re about to tell me that it’s actually a monster that will eat me the first chance it gets, I was planning on leaving it right there. I mean, she’s not wrong about us needing luck to pull this whole thing off without ending up in a full-scale war against your people. Though I like to think our odds aren’t quite that bad.” 

Shaking her head, Athena looked to the shell briefly before turning back to Abigail. “That is the shell of a Kaula Mehyian. They are an incredibly rare creature, whose shell only turns that color once the animal itself has passed away of old age. Which only happens after ten thousand years. The same general life span as a normal Seosten. It’s part of why our people came to see them as lucky. The shell itself is proof that the Kaula Mehyian lived a full life and died naturally. If the shell is taken early, it doesn’t turn that color. Once the animal dies, the shell falls away and changes to what you see there. For Theia to have one means she either paid… an enormous fortune for it, or experienced what for almost anyone would be a once-in-a-lifetime find, and was able to pick up one of those shells on her own. That shell by itself would be considered…” She shook her head, trying to find some sort of comparison. “Your people have your four-leaf-clovers and horseshoes and such. But you have nothing like this. There is nothing even remotely similar. A Seosten with a Kaula Mehyian shell would never give it away, save for a true fortune, or… to someone incredibly important to them.” 

“Someone incredibly important…” Abigail echoed, glancing toward the shell itself once more with new understanding. 

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “That’s what it means. Do you see the way she smiles at you? She does not smile at others that way. When she smiles at most people, it’s… awkward. Something closer to predatory. It doesn’t look quite right. And yet, with you, she’s perfectly natural about it. And one other thing, did you notice that she left without saying goodbye to you? Twice, in fact. First she announced that she was leaving and began to walk out. The second time, she specifically said goodbye to me. Not once did she say it to you.” 

“Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Abigail murmured, “but I assumed she was just in a hurry. Or didn’t think it was worth saying, considering she’ll be around to help with dinner in just another hour or so. Hardly worth reprimanding her for, or even talking about, really.” 

“That’s not my point,” Athena informed her. “She isn’t saying goodbye because she doesn’t want that level of separation. It’s a… subconscious thing. If she never says goodbye to you, then you’ll never be apart from her.” She paused, then gestured with a sigh. “Sit down, please, Abigail. I think we should talk a bit more about this.” 

Her words made the school principal pause before nodding as she sat down. “You’re not about to tell me not to get so close to one of your people, are you?” Her tone was mostly light, but there was something more behind it. She would not have reacted well if the other woman actually pulled anything like that, no matter how unlikely it was. Theia meant too much to her. 

Taking the seat across from the desk, Athena shook her head. “No, Abigail, of course not. What I want is to ask you precisely how close you’re planning on being. You know how badly that girl’s mother treated her, how… rejected she was. Now I’m fairly certain she has latched onto you as… a replacement. You named her. You treated her like a real person. You… you are much more than a friend for her, and if that’s not… if that’s something you don’t want, we should find a way to take care of it before it goes too far.” 

Abigail leaned back a bit in her seat, watching the woman intently. “You mean if I don’t want Theia to see me as a mother, we should stop being so close.” 

“What I mean,” Athena clarified, “is that I think it would do her a lot of good if she didn’t have to tiptoe around the situation because part of her is afraid you will reject her if she brings it up any more directly than she already has. She needs to be accepted, fully accepted, if she’s going to move completely beyond the person her mother and our society turned her into. I think you can help with that–I think you have helped with it, more than anyone could have asked. But here I am, asking you for more. I know that’s incredibly unfair.” 

“What’s unfair,” Abigail retorted, “is what that girl went through for so long.” She exhaled, dropping her gaze to look at an unrelated folder on the desk while various thoughts ran through her mind. “She deserves a stable home, and people she can count on to be there for her. She’s had that, around here, to an extent. But you’re right, she needs more. She deserves more.” 

Both women went quiet for a moment then before Athena spoke. “As I said, I believe she has come to see you as a mother. But that leaves the question of whether you can see her as a daughter. But I think I had my answer to that when I watched your expression when you thought there was even a chance that I was going to say you shouldn’t be so close to her.” 

With a small, self-deprecating smile, Abigail admitted, “If you did try to tell me to stay away from her, I might have been thinking of throwing myself over this desk at you. You know, as effective as that would have been.” 

“Hey, you certainly would have had the element of surprise,” Athena pointed out with a smile before chuckling softly. She glanced away for a moment, seeming to think about what was next before turning back to the other woman. “My point is that what Theia needs is something more official. Something that can feel… firm to her. Something tangible, so she doesn’t need to wonder anymore about just how far your acceptance goes.” 

“Kushiel.” Abigail spoke the name with a harsh, spitting tone before shaking her head. “That woman treated her daughter like…” She trailed off, exhaling long and slow as she collected herself. “Whenever I think about how Theia was treated, it just… I want to… It makes me want to hurt people the way I’ve only ever wanted to hurt them when my… when Koren was hurt. I want… I want to be everything Theia needs. I want to be a better everything for her than her… than Kushiel was. I suppose I was just afraid that pushing on that too hard would make her think I was trying to replace her actual mother.” 

“Good,” Athena pointed out. “Kushiel should be replaced. An overfull lint trap would be a better mother than she was to that girl. The sort of upgrade you would be is just…” She coughed. “Abigail, she needs you to make it official. She needs you to be her mother. That means more than just hanging out. That means treating her the way you would Koren. It means making her part of your family, in every way. But only if you’re up for that. You can’t go halfway on it. Not with this, not with that girl. If you accept her, you have to accept all of her. Which means you’ll have to be ready to help her through some tough times. She’s been through more than either of us know, and I think there’s a fair bit she still has bottled up from the time she spent under Kushiel’s experiments.”

“And I want to be there to help her through that,” Abigail confirmed, in a soft, yet certain tone. “I want… I want to give her everything she never had the chance to have when she was with your people.” Pausing, she gave a very slight grimace. “I’d say no offense, but you know.” 

“You wouldn’t mean it,” Athena replied. “And it’s deserved. My people have a long way to go on a great many things.” With another sigh, she straightened, extending a hand. “I know there’s no real… court system for adoption up here. But I think it should be more than randomly telling her how you feel. She deserves something bigger than that.” 

Abigail accepted the hand, rising from her own seat. “Oh, don’t you worry, one word to Koren and she’ll help plan a party the likes of which you have never seen. And as for the official part, I think I can make up some papers and a certificate just fine. After all, I was a lawyer in a previous life.” 

“Well, here’s to previous lives,” Athena noted with a thoughtful gaze. 

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

“You remember when we took Lincoln on that road trip across the country?” Arthur Chambers asked his wife while the two of them stood atop a hill overlooking a wide valley between a pair of silvery-red mountains whose peaks rose clear out of sight into the purple-clouded sky. The grass beneath their feet was a faint orange color, tinged with white on the tips. Before the pair, the field itself was full of enormous herd animals that looked like a cross between elephants and giraffes, with incredibly long, thick necks, tusks, and big floppy ears. They stood ten feet tall at the shoulders, the necks extending the heights of their head at full extension to nearly double that. It allowed them to reach their favorite food as it grew within crevices in the surrounding mountains. Their tusks were used to break open smaller holes to reach the moss that filled intricate cave networks throughout those mountains. And the sound whenever one of those creatures reared its head back and slammed forward to break into those caves, or simply to break apart boulders to get at the moss growing within, echoed like thunder across the field. 

“You’re thinking about the buffalo, aren’t you?” Maria replied. Her own gaze was focused on the Seosten children, who were running through the field, laughing and playing with one another. She could see Omni, pulling his sister’s hard-light form right along with them. From what Puriel had said, the two had quickly become close as soon as they met. And by now, they were all-but inseparable. 

“I’m thinking about the buffalo,” Arthur confirmed with a small chuckle at the memory. “Do you think he’d chase these big fellas?” 

“I think he learned his lesson with the buffalo,” Maria murmured before glancing that way. “You always did like going on trips. This whole thing must be your dream come true.” 

Arthur, in turn, offered a slight nod. “Hey, in more ways than one.” Tugging his wife closer by the hand, he squeezed it before putting his arm around her. “Having you here for my Star Trek adventure makes it so much better than my boyhood dreams. If Linc and Felicity were here, that’d make everything perfect.” Belatedly, he added, “And Joselyn.” That was still new, getting accustomed to the fact that the woman who had apparently broken his son’s heart and abandoned her family wasn’t the horrible person she had appeared to be. He owed that woman a lot of apologies for the thoughts he’d had over the years. 

“And Joselyn,” Maria confirmed, clearly having the same thought. Reaching out then, she pointed toward the spot where the children were running in circles. A moment of focus created a small, red ball of energy in the middle of them. The ball floated there until they had all noticed it, before abruptly zipping away from them. With a collection of squeals, the children suddenly started to chase the ball, laughing with delight as it led them on a run through the field. 

From behind the pair, Puriel spoke up as he approached. “I notice your little game there happened to lead them away from that nursing Ceurth.” He nodded toward a pair of the large animals lying together near where the kids had been moving their game. 

“No reason to interrupt a busy mother,” Maria noted without looking at him. Her attention remained on making the glowing ball lead the children on a chase. “How are the others doing with the hunting?” Alcaeus and Kutattca had gone off to get food to restock the ship’s stores. That being the main reason for this stop, aside from allowing everyone to stretch their legs. They were all down here except for Aletheia, who was still up on the ship itself as it waited for them in orbit around this unoccupied moon. 

“You think this’ll be the last stop we need to make before Earth?” Arthur added. They were far past the barrier by that point, in an area of space where livable worlds were even fewer and farther between than usual. It was Aletheia who had remembered this particular moon and ensured it would be part of their trip. 

Puriel stepped up beside the pair, watching the children below. “Yes,” he confirmed. “This is the last one. Soon, we’ll be at your home. And you can rejoin your family.” Belatedly, he added, “You are becoming quite proficient with your gift, Maria.” 

A small smile played over the elderly woman’s face as she made the ball fly straight up in the air, then down again. “It’s nothing compared to the sort of things you can do with it. Making a glowing ball of energy isn’t exactly helpful in a fight.” 

“You can be far more helpful than you realize,” Puriel informed her. “And not everything needs to be about being useful in war.”

Maria and Arthur exchanged glances then, before the latter spoke up. “From everything we’ve learned about your people, they’d really take that as a sign that you’ve lost your mind.” 

Puriel was silent for a few long moments, his gaze staring down at the children while his mind was elsewhere. “Yes, well, perhaps I have, at that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “He’s right about one thing, you are getting better. Almost makes me jealous that you took that gift.” 

“Don’t you start,” Maria teasingly chided. “You made your choice and have your own powers. And, the last time I checked, you were having a grand old time playing with the children with them.”  

“Yes,” Puriel agreed, “and yours have been quite useful already, even if they are still in their infancy stages. You will get better with them. But we will need to pay careful attention to that growth, and ensure there are no unwanted side effects. The DNA of that particular creature has always been a bit… unique in many ways.

“I, for one, am very interested to know whether the Djehuti gift will remain, as it is now, solely the same manipulation of technology as the woman who calls herself Gaia, or if you will eventually also manifest the same biological expertise as the man who now calls himself Seller.”

******

The house where Vanessa and Tristan lived with Sands, Sarah, and several others was dark as the blonde twins approached with Theia between them. The three were chatting about ways that they could potentially find out more about the Whispers and that whole situation, if Cahethal refused to play ball. Theia, of course, had her own ideas about good sources of information, and was just in the middle of explaining a plan that involved rigorous use of Flick’s ability to summon dead people and talk to them, when they reached the front entrance. 

As he unlocked the door, Tristan pointed out, “Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about being quiet. Even if everyone’s asleep in here, they’d all be in their soundproof roo–” 

That was as far as the boy got. Because in that moment, as he turned the knob and pushed the door open, his words were interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, several loud squeals, as a handful of party horns were blown all at once, to varying effectiveness. On top of that, the entryway just beyond the door was filled with people, all of them shouting something. 

Theia reacted instantly. Shoving the other two off to either side, she threw herself through the doorway and caught hold of the nearest ‘attacker’ by the arms. Her head slammed forward to crash into the person’s face, turning what had been a shout into a yelp of pain. In the next moment, she pivoted, hurling the dazed figure past the group before snatching two knives from her belt. One flew in the direction of the person she had headbutted and shoved, even as she pivoted to choose her next target with the other. 

All of that took place in what would have been a blink for most people. At her full boost, in fight or flight mode, Theia had done all of that before the average person could have even started to react. 

Which also meant it was only then that she actually took the time to see what she had thrown herself into. The people here were… Sands, Sarah, Koren, Ejji, Felix and her sister Triss, Columbus, and several more people from their classes. None were holding the weapons she had expected to see. Instead, they held balloons, whistles, and other party favors. 

“… what?” Theia finally managed, stopping short just before she would have thrown herself at the next person, blade in hand. 

“Hey!” Vanessa, poking her head in from one side of the door where she had been shoved, blurted. “What’s going on?” 

“Yeah.” Tristan joined his sister, head poking in from the other side of the door. “What gives?” 

“Uhhhhh…” The groan came from a low, wheeled table that had been brought into the hall behind the group. Jazz lay there, one hand holding her face where Theia had headbutted her. In her other hand was the blade that had been thrown, snatched out of the air before it could do any damage. Less spared, unfortunately, was the large cake that had been sitting on that table. A cake that was entirely destroyed by Jazz landing in it. 

“Happy birthday, you two?” the cake-covered, groaning girl managed, focusing somewhat bleary eyes on the twins in question. 

“And whoever’s job it was to tell Theia about the surprise, I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

********

“Fick, Fick!” The excited cries from the tiny, four-year-old Sahveniah filled the hallway. Within an instant of laying eyes on the older blonde girl, the dark-skinned blur raced across the distance separating them and hurled herself that way. 

Reacting quickly, Flick caught the girl in mid-leap and straightened, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, Savvy. Long time no see.” 

Holding on as tight as her little form was capable of (which was a surprising amount, given how quickly Seosten developed their physical prowess), Savvy didn’t respond at first. She simply clung to the older girl for several long moments before finally murmuring, “You were gone for a long time. They said you had to fight the bad guys. But you shouldna gone by yourself. You coulda beat the bad guys more easy if you wasn’t all alone.”  

Swallowing hard, Flick held the girl tighter against herself. “You’re right,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t have gone by myself. I’ll remember that. But hey, I brought my mom back.” 

“Yay!” After that initial cheer, Savvy leaned back to squint at the girl. Held up in this position, they were eye to eye. “I didna know you had a mama.” 

Flick gave a small chuckle at that before lowering herself down. She set Savvy on the floor in front of her while taking a knee right there in the Starstation corridor. “Oh yes, I definitely have a mama. You should meet her. I think she’ll like you.” 

“I’m a pirate,” Sahveniah informed her solemnly. “Does your mama like pirates?” 

“I think she’ll like one as adorable–” Flick started before amending, “Ahem, I mean as fierce and adventurous as you.” 

Her words made the younger girl give a brilliant smile, the entire hall around them seeming to light up. “When I get bigger, I’mma go on a ship, an’ take the ship, an’ go fight the bad guys, an’ steal all the bad guys’ booty. Fick? What’s a booty?” 

Coughing, Flick leaned back to sit on the floor with her back to the nearby wall, tugging the girl over. “Ah, in this case, it means their treasure.” 

Savvy cooed happily while climbing into her lap, nuzzling up against her shoulder. “What about other booties? Is there other kinds o’ booty?” 

Flick, in turn, simply hugged the girl tighter to herself. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find out all about every kind of booty. I’m sure you’ll grow up to be the most successful and dangerous pirate queen the universe has ever seen. Entire worlds will quake at the sound of your name.” 

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

“Only the bad guy worlds,” Flick agreed, moving her hand to gently stroke the girl’s hair. “You’ll steal all their treasure and make them walk the airlock. And your crew will sing all sorts of songs about the dreaded and beautiful pirate captain Savvy.” 

Giggling, Sahveniah gave a nod of confirmation, still leaning against her shoulder while making soft noises of contentment in her position. Eventually, she murmured, “Fick? I missed you.” 

“I missed you too, Savvy,” came the soft, gentle response. 

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

“Alright, all of you line up!” The order came from Larian Mondo, a two-hundred year old Heretic who had been brought in to take up the position at Crossroads that Virginia Dare had so loudly vacated when she left with the rest of the traitors. He was a deceptively small-looking man, barely five-foot-seven, with wire-rimmed sunglasses and long dark hair. He wore a dark blue suit, and carried a construction mace in one hand similar to the one used by Sands Mason. 

Sands. Thinking of the girl, Zeke Leven felt a sharp pang run through him. Fuck. He liked that girl. He’d liked her for years. Then that Chambers bitch had to show up and totally screw their whole society over, and confuse Sands and her sister so much they and their mother ran off with her. Just because her mom was a crazy, deranged traitor. 

And now here Zeke was, on another student hunt just a few days before Christmas, because almost nobody was allowed to leave the school to go on holidays thanks to this war draining all their resources. 

There were two teams assembled in front of Larian in this narrow alley in the outside world. Zeke, of course, along with Malcolm Harkess, Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Laila Kassab (their sixth member, Erin Redcliffe, had disappeared during their previous hunt) for one team, and Gavin Rish, Stephen Kinder, Russell Bailey, a tall Latino boy named Martin Gutierrez, and two girls named Noelle Starson (a dark-haired, light-skinned girl with light green eyes and a wide mouth) and Tracy Faulk (a deeply-tanned blonde who was almost always laughing at inappropriate jokes) for the other.

The eleven students stood in front of Larian, while three other adult Heretics were lined up behind them, along with both team’s older student mentors. Crossroads was taking no more chances with their student hunts. Not after Erin’s disappearance. The two teams would each be accompanied by two of the adults and their student mentor.

Larian looked the group over. “Okay. Behind me and through that alley, there’s a hotel. Our info says it’s infested with some real nasty pieces of shit. The leader’s a Marakeya, so don’t let him get his hands on you or you’ll regret it. We’ll be right there with you. We start at the bottom and work our way up. One team at the front entrance, one at the back. They’re all monsters in there, so don’t let anyone escape.” He paused before adding, “And yeah, I know you’d all rather be hanging out for the holidays. Three days before Christmas and all. So thanks for coming along on this. Sometimes saving humanity means not getting a full vacation.” 

With that, he split the groups up with a few muttered words and waved hands, then pivoted, taking Zeke’s team along with their mentor (the Native American girl Namid) toward the front. One of the other Heretic adults brought up the rear, while the remaining two would escort the other team to the back of the hotel.  

Unfortunately, even as the group approached the hotel, they found their way blocked by a figure standing at the end of the alley. A figure who, by that point, was familiar to everyone. To Zeke, especially, despite never seeing her in person. He had the memory of her appearance seared into his brain from the research he’d done to find out exactly who was responsible for the society he had grown up in being torn apart not once, but twice. Seeing her, he felt a sudden rush of anger. Worse than what he felt whenever he thought of Chambers herself. 

“Joselyn Atherby,” Larian snapped, snapping his mace down before giving it a flicking motion that made a handful of steel spikes rise out of the ground, angled that way. 

The other Heretic adult abruptly disappeared from behind the group and reappeared next to Larian. Where he had disappeared from, a water-shaped version of himself was left behind before splashing to the ground, and where he appeared, a burst of flame shaped like him filled the air, then dissolved into the man’s physical form. He was holding his own weapon, a long claymore sword that could shift into a musket-like gun. “You shouldn’t be here, Atherby.” 

“Someday, I’ll tell enough of you that my last name is Chambers now, that it’ll actually stick.” After muttering those words, the blonde woman focused. “I need you to back off for a few minutes. We’re… busy. A girl’s life depends on it.”

Larian snorted, shaking his head. “I knew you were stupid enough to defend these monsters, but I thought you had some standards. Defending the things in that hotel, that’s a new low, even for you. But hey, why don’t you try your lies on someone else, like say…” He trailed off, pausing before his eyes narrowed. “You’re blocking communication back to Crossroads.”  

Joselyn, in turn, flatly informed him. “Of course I am. I’ve done this rebellion thing before, remember? And I’m not defending any of the people who willingly live in that hotel. But as I said, we’re in the middle of something. The life of a girl who is not in that hotel depends on us getting information out of the ones who are. So back off for a few minutes, then we can both… go about our jobs.” 

Larian and his partner seemed to consider that for a moment, before the first man’s eyes narrowed. “No. You know what? I think you’re stalling for something. Giving them time to get out.” With that, he waved a hand back toward the students. “Get in there, wipe out everything in your path. We’ll deal with her ourselves.” 

The next thing Zeke and the others knew, they were enveloped in a rush of energy, before finding themselves deposited in one of the side parking lots with the hotel itself visible in the distance. 

“What–what do we do?” Freya demanded. The tall, red-haired girl was looking around in confusion while holding her warhammer in one hand and shield in the other. She turned toward Namid for help. 

Rather than wait for their mentor to speak, however, Zeke was already pivoting, stalking toward the hotel. “We do what the man said. Get in there and kill everything in our way.” 

“Gonna need you to stop right there, dude.” The new voice came from a figure who rose from behind a nearby car and moved to block their path. 

“Koren?” Summer blurted. The black girl was staring that way, mouth agape. “Wha-what the hell are you guys doing? You can’t seriously think this is right. Those are bad guys in there!” 

Rebecca Jameson, moving up beside Koren, gave a short nod. “Yeah, you’re right. Those are bad guys. But we’re trying to help a girl who isn’t a bad guy. And the only way to do that is to find her in there before you guys kill them all or make them run away. Or at least find out where they took her. Mrs. Chambers told your teacher guy that, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

Malcolm, enormous sledgehammer in hand, took a step closer while tapping the head of the weapon against the ground a couple times. “You guys really need a better excuse. Now either get out of the way and let us do our jobs, or we’ll go through you. Neither of you could match me in training last year, you really think you can do it together? Let alone all six of us.”  

Heaving a heavy sigh, Namid finally spoke up. “He’s right, you two need to get out of the way. Believe me, I really don’t want to hurt either of you. This whole situation is fucked beyond belief, but we’ve got a job to do. So move.” 

The two girls exchanged glances, before turning back to the six Crossroads students. Koren spoke first. “Sorry. We can’t do that.” 

Rebecca added, “I guess you’ll just have to go through us.” 

There was a brief pause before Namid gestured. “No killing, just make them stay down.” 

Immediately, Malcolm lunged that way, already swinging his hammer. He moved so quickly, his form was a blur. Koren, however, smoothly twisted aside, pivoting on one foot like a ballet dancer as the hammer swung past her to slam into the ground. As soon as the head of the weapon hit the cement, three blunt concrete ‘spikes’ erupted from the ground right where the girl was. But Koren had already flipped up and over, landing behind the boy. She lashed out with a kick, which collided with his back, knocking him forward into the concrete slabs he had raised. Except they weren’t concrete anymore. In that moment, with a quick look, she had transformed them into a gooey, sticky, tar-like substance that gripped the boy tightly. 

Malcolm immediately used his hammer’s ability to send himself back to any of the last ten spots he had hit with it in order to teleport to where he had been standing a moment earlier. But he was still covered in tar. Tar that was rapidly solidifying, even as he blurted, “The hell is this?!” 

“Just get rid of it and focus!” Zeke snapped. The boy was already going at Koren from the side, lashing out to bash her with his shield while simultaneously creating three glass-like balls behind her, which exploded with concussive force meant to throw the girl forward into his swinging shield. 

Koren, however, wasn’t there. She had already tossed one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes into the air, teleporting herself up to it before pivoting in midair to face the boy below. A moment of focus made a wave of concussive force slam into the back of Zeke’s legs, knocking him slightly off-balance. 

He, of course, reacted by snapping his gaze up to where she was. The front of his shield shifted, producing two gun-like barrels from the middle, which fired twin bolts of electricity, powerful enough to put a bear on the ground. 

But Koren wasn’t there anymore either. Just before teleporting herself up to the first Hunga Munga, she had dropped the other one. In the instant where Zeke was shooting his electricity at her, she teleported herself down to that one, appearing in a kneeling position right next to the boy while he was facing upward. Before he could adjust, Koren lashed out with her fist, which collided with the boy’s stomach with enough force to double him over. 

Malcolm, by that point, had gotten enough of the tar off himself to come lunging to help his friend. But Koren had already torn the shield from Zeke’s grasp and pivoted, Captain America-ing the shield that way to take the charging boy’s legs out from under him. He turned the fall into a roll, coming up nearby while swinging his hammer. 

At the same time, Zeke had recovered from the punch, and swung around to clap his hands together, creating a focused sonic blast that would have burst the girl’s eardrums, staggering her just long enough for Malcolm’s attack to put her on the ground.

Would have, that was, if Koren hadn’t already made a wall of earth rise out of the ground behind herself in a semicircle. The wall caught the sonic blast, shielding her from its effects. Which allowed the girl to thrust both hands forward, hitting the charging Malcolm with a telekinetic shove that halted his forward momentum and sent him flying backward to crash into a nearby wall. 

Zeke, stumbling backward from the wall, shot a look toward Malcolm, then over to where Summer, Freya, and Laila were clearly having their own problems with the tiny waif Rebecca. “The fuck?!” He blurted the words in confusion. “You two weren’t this good last year.” 

“Things change,” Koren informed him flatly, flipping her Hunga Munga around in both hands before facing him. “You’ve been in class. We’ve been in a war. So, you guys gonna walk away?” 

In answer, Zeke made a growling noise deep in his throat, glaring at her. “You know what?” he snarled, already readying himself. “I think it’s time to shut you up.” 

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

Wanna see more of this conflict and how it all resolves? Check out the end of arc interlude coming up in a few more chapters!

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