Heretical Edge

Class Action 14-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

“Okay, right, right.” Felix was clearly looking over the map, carefully scanning all the possible paths and comparing it to the details written out on the back. “Hang on, just a second.” 

“Take your time,” I murmured. “I mean, read fast, but read effectively. Read–gonna shut up now.” To distract myself then, I slowly looked around the space we were in. It was pitch-black aside from where my headlight pointed. For a moment, I covered the light with a hand and switched my vision over to see through infrared, checking for any heat signatures. There were a few spots, but nothing that looked like a living creature. Not that that was definitive, since even though I was sure Sinbad would play fair by giving creatures that were supposed to be warm the appropriate heat to give off, there were plenty of things out there that wouldn’t. 

“Hey,” Shiloh started, pointing up toward the corner. “Does that thing look like a camera to you?”

Switching my vision back and looking that way while moving my hand off the light, I saw what she was indicating. A little black dome with a red light darting around. Then it centered on us. I lowered my gaze to look at my own chest, seeing a dot of red there. “No,” I blurted while jerking to the side and lashing out with a foot to kick Shiloh away, “I think it’s a turret!” 

In the background, Felix was saying something about there being no turret on the map. And yet, the very much extant turret had already opened fire. Several literal spears went shooting through the water toward us, passing right through the spot where I had been an instant earlier. With my boost going, I could see that they were dull-tipped, with some kind of electronic thing on the end that would probably alert if they hit someone and how much damage it would’ve done. Whatever the case, the turret was definitely trying to shoot the two of us. 

“Distract it!” Shiloh called out, already swimming to the right to avoid the next spear as it narrowly missed her foot. I wasn’t sure what it would’ve done with her armor, but probably best not to test it if we had any choice in the matter.

Right, so apparently I was supposed to distract the thing, somehow. Thinking quickly, I created a portal between myself and the shielded turret thing. “Hey!” I shouted, as though that would matter to an inanimate object, “over here, stupid!” With that, I drove my staff through the portal to smack into the thing as hard as I could (which wasn’t nearly as hard as usual thanks to being underwater, but I was still pretty damn strong). The staff rebounded off the clearly heavily-reinforced dome while barely leaving a scratch on it. But it did at least make that red light twist over toward me. Quickly, I disabled the portal, just in case the turret got a bright idea to use it. “Uhh, consider its attention got!” I called out, even as the thing fired three incredibly fast spears at me. The first one froze partway to me as I focused on pausing its momentum. The other two kept coming, but I didn’t move out of the way. Instead, I focused on slowing one of them down by using the Fomorian Ape-Croc’s power to increase the amount of force needed to move it. I had frozen the first spear using the Lemevwik’s pause/rewind power, and slowed down the second one with the Ape-Croc’s ability. Which left the third spear. That one was coming full-speed. But I was boosting enough to twist out of the way, catching the thing as it began to shoot past me. My hand caught the shaft, and I twisted back just before the slowed spear managed to reach me. With the captured spear in one hand, I lashed out to knock the new one out of the way. Which came just in time before the pause on the last spear ran out and it came shooting at me again. But by that time, I was already throwing my actual staff that way, enlarging it just enough that the spear rebounded off the end and went spinning away while I recalled the staff back to my grasp. 

The turret was getting ready to fire again, but I’d bought Shiloh enough time to get herself into position. She extended her arm with the computer, sending a beam of silver energy from that to the wall-mounted weapon. There was a brief silver glow from the thing before it stopped. Then the red light flicked around a few times before settling on the nearby wall. 

“Got it, I got it!” Shiloh called, swimming closer. “It’s okay, the thing won’t shoot anymore. Uhh, Felix?” 

The response was immediate, “Yeah, apparently there’s still some unlabeled dangers in there. Sinbad says it’s to simulate reality or whatever. You know, cuz sometimes stuff happens you can’t plan for. That’s what he says, anyway.” 

“Right,” I replied while shaking my head. “So we’ll be even more careful. Did you figure out where we’re going next?” 

“Damn straight I did,” she assured us. “It’s the uhh, one in the floor that’s… nearest to the entrance where you came in. But don’t go yet. You have to go when the sun is behind a cloud. Err, you know, when the artificial sun is behind a cloud, not the sun we’re actually living inside of. Hang on a second. Get close to it and I’ll tell you when to go. Just be fast, and don’t pay attention to the voice that’s gonna be coming from a couple tunnels to the right as you go. No matter what it says.”

Go when the sun was behind a cloud, and ignore a voice coming out of tunnels? I looked at Shiloh and the two of us shrugged before swimming down closer to the right entrance. Yeah, something told me it was going to be a long and eventful journey to get to where this ship was. 

******

I was right. The next twenty minutes or so were pretty damn chock-full. Between all the dangers that Felix could tell us about, and the ones that we just had to find on our own, this exercise definitely wasn’t boring. Sinbad had made sure of that. Maybe a little too sure, but hey. I was enjoying finding ways around his little traps, and just generally stretching my skills in an environment that wasn’t really life or death. It was fun. Truly, genuinely fun. I even let the sharks out a few at a time as we went to let them scout ahead or watch behind us. They had a lot of fun with that, and were clearly taking the exercise very seriously. 

Eventually, we were guided down through the bottom of the maze and into what turned out to be a massive cave system beneath the lake floor. Which raised a few questions about what it was doing there, but I assumed it had been built in for training sequences like this. Or just for underwater-based people to potentially live, maybe? 

Either way, we made it into the huge underwater cavern, and saw the vague outline of what sort of looked like a ship in the distance. Sort of like a ship, but there was something odd about it that I couldn’t put together from here. Seeing that, we stopped and looked at each other before I asked, “Hey Felix, we see the ship. Anything we need to worry about between here and there?” 

“Nah, not that I can see,” came the response. “But there’s plenty of things to worry about on the ship itself. Not that I have any specifics about that, just lots of bad things. So be careful.” 

“Yeah, I figured.” With that, I took the time to release the last of my sharks from their vial so they could all swim out around us. Once they were ready, I nodded to Shiloh so we could set off. With the shiver keeping pace, the two of us descended deeper and deeper toward that vague ship outline. And as we got closer, I gradually realized what had been so odd about it from a distance. 

It wasn’t a ship. Well, it was. It was definitely a ship. But it wasn’t a boat. It was not a water ship. It was a spaceship. Or a mock-up of one. Or maybe just a broken one that didn’t fly anymore anyway. The point was, this was a two-hundred meter long metal spaceship shaped somewhat vaguely like what we’d expect a sailing ship to look like, except the ‘masts’ were actually gun-towers. And, obviously, there was no upper deck for people to stand on. The whole thing was enclosed. It looked sort of like a submarine with those four mast-like guntowers sticking out of the top, and a wide V-shaped ‘glass’ viewing port at the front. It wasn’t really glass, of course. Ships like this had some kind of incredibly strong, yet transparent ‘windows’ that could stand up to just as much damage as the rest of the armor. 

Or rather, it could have stood up to that kind of damage. But as we got closer to the sunken spaceship, I saw that most of that transparent front viewport was gone. There were six large holes punched through the ship at random spots, leaving just a few jagged remains behind. One of those spots was in the viewport. They looked an awful lot like something had taken a few big bites out of it. For a moment, I wondered if the thing had been in the water or in space when that happened. We didn’t know if this thing was a real ship that was damaged this badly in its normal course of operations and repurposed for this exercise, or if it had been specifically broken like that just for what we were doing. Looking at it from up closer, I was pretty certain that Sinbad had not built it from scratch. A wooden sailing ship, maybe. But this? No way. This thing had clearly been a real, flying spaceship at some point. The only question was whether the big bite mark in the side  that had torn through all that thick metal armor had happened in the course of battle, or was added for flavor down here. After all, I had seen and/or heard about plenty of Fomorian ‘ship’ creatures that could probably pull off something like that. Terrifying as it was to think about. But then, literally everything involving the Fomorians was terrifying to think about. 

Right, so we needed to go inside. It felt like the easiest way in would be through the broken viewport at the front, or through one of those six big holes. And I had no doubt that Sinbad had even more tricks and traps in store depending on which entrance we happened to use. But the point of the exercise wasn’t to fight monsters or survive traps. It was to get as much treasure as we could, and bring it back in a couple dimensional-storage bags we’d both been given. So, rather than swim closer, I reached out to touch Shiloh’s arm to make her stop. While she looked at me, I murmured, “Let’s play our own game with this thing, not his.” 

With that, I reached into one of the impossibly-deep pockets in the Seosten bodysuit, producing a small, blank stone. One of Herbie’s brothers. It took me a few seconds to remember the exact spell I was thinking of, but I finally got it, using the instant-inscription power to put a special rune on my rock. Then I triggered the spell and gave the thing a toss through the water toward the sunken ship. 

Shiloh and I both watched as the rock began to glow greenish white. Then it took off, and I kicked after it while calling for Shiloh to follow me. She was clearly curious, but simply followed while the rock led us toward the ship. Not to any of the openings, but more toward the back. 

“You guys okay?” Felix’s voice piped up. 

“All good,” I confirmed. “We’re just… finding our way.” 

As we neared the ship, I saw something move in the nearest of the openings. Even as I was looking that way to see what it was, the thing came rushing out at us. It looked like a scorpion with two bladed tails and four flippers (two on each side) rather than legs. Oh, and it was spitting some sort of gas at us through the water. I was pretty sure it was supposed to be either poisonous or acidic.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about it, because the water scorpion thing didn’t get anywhere near us before Brody and Quint both slammed into the thing from the side, each biting a flipper off. The creature twisted, stinger-tails lashing out. But it never got the chance to hit them before Princess Cuddles rose up from beneath the thing and ate half of it in one gulp. Of course, the thing vanished as soon as it was ‘killed.’ Just like other things we’d faced inside the maze had. And now just as then, even though I’d explained things to my sharks, I had the feeling they were still very confused when that happened. Not to mention hungry. I was going to have to feed them real food soon, because I was pretty sure they were getting tired of delicious-looking meals vanishing.

Belatedly, I noticed that Shiloh had moved closer to the hole in the ship, almost far enough to be out of range of my headlamp. She was staring that way, before kicking her way back. Once close enough, she spoke in a whisper. “There’s more of those things. I think it’s a nest.” 

“Well, thankfully,” I replied, “we’re not going in that way. Or any of those ways. Come on.” Rather than going immediately, however, I took a moment to thank the sharks for jumping in. My hands ran over their sides as I praised all of them for being such good guard sharks. Then I kicked out again, and we continued in the direction of the glowing rock. It had stopped a bit ahead of us once we were far enough away, then resumed moving once we caught up. 

“Dude, what is that spell?” Shiloh asked while swimming alongside me. “Are you sure this is a good idea? We’re not even in the ship yet, and we’re kinda being timed with this whole thing.” 

“Trust me,” I promised her, “just keep following the glowing rock. It won’t let us down.” At least, I really hoped it wouldn’t. I hadn’t exactly done the spell a lot, though I was reasonably confident about it. It was one of the bits of utility magic that Shyel (the Chayyiel copy in my head) had taught me over the past few months. Not exactly a spell that would change the course of a battle (probably), but she had told me that you never knew what little thing could be useful at some point. I wasn’t sure ‘winning a class competition put on by Sinbad’ was what she’d had in mind, but hey. Utilizing what I had available did sound like something she’d want me to do. 

We followed that stone away from the hole where the scorpion-things were lurking, following the intact surface of the ship. Shiloh looked a bit uncertain still, glancing back now and then toward the openings. I was sure she was calculating just how badly we would fail this exercise if I was wrong and we hadn’t even made it into the ship before our time was up. Yet, despite those doubts, she followed me anyway. I wasn’t exactly sure why, given the girl barely knew me.

Whatever the reason, she stayed close while we went after the glowing stone. It had stopped moving by that point, sinking down to attach itself against one specific part of the ship. It didn’t look any different from any other part, just a random section of undamaged hull. But I trusted the spell, swimming down that way while giving a quick glance around to make sure we weren’t about to be ambushed. The coast was clear. Something told me Sinbad was keeping most of the surprises at the entrances or spread through the interior of the ship, not out here. 

Even so, I still looked toward my sharks and told them to patrol and keep an eye out. Which they did, immediately launching into a coordinated system of having one shark near us at all times, switching on and off with the rest, who would go on elaborate paths through the water to watch for anything approaching. They even used the buddy system, every shark constantly in sight of at least one other. It was amazing to see them do all that like it was instinct. 

As soon as I saw what they were doing, my attention returned to the stone. Shiloh was flipping her attention between staring at that, at me, and at the sharks. She clearly wasn’t sure where to look next. Her voice was uncertain. “Okay, so now can you tell me what we’re doing over here?” 

“Yeah,” Felix piped up. “Can you tell me what you guys are doing too?” 

“Just gotta check one thing,” I assured her. “You play a lot of video games, right? You know that thing where people will cheat and skip over most of the level? It’s like that. Or it should be.” Belatedly, I added, “Oh, and uhh, we’re probably about to see a ghost so don’t freak out.” 

That said, while Shiloh was still giving a double-take, I focused for a moment and reached out toward a familiar presence. I had a lot of them in the back of my mind by now, but I extended my attention to one in particular. While doing so, I made sure to make it a gentle touch, a request rather than a demand. One he could refuse if he wanted. I wasn’t forcing anything.

A moment later, I felt a sense of acceptance before Jorsher appeared. After Ahmose had allowed himself to fade away, Jorsher was the most senior of the ghosts that I knew. Well, not counting Rahanvael, but I was going to let her rest. After all, she’d spent an indescribably long time waiting to have a chance to stop her brother’s reign of terror and genocide, culminating in helping to kill him only a few days ago. I wasn’t about to call her out for something like this. 

The humanoid man with the overly large eyes appeared and, despite my warning, Shiloh still jumped a bit. Or jolted, at least. My sharks didn’t seem to care. I wondered if that was because of their connection to me. Huh. Something to look into. 

“You requested assistance, Lady Chambers?” he asked, before looking around. “Do you require aid in returning to the surface?” 

My head shook quickly. “No, I uhh, it’s a school project thing. Could you poke your head down through here and tell us what you see?” 

Yeah, he gave me a brief odd look at that. But, in the end, the ghost offered a minute shrug before following my request. He poked his head through the hull of the ship and was still for a moment. Shiloh used that time to hiss at me, “You really are a strong Necromancer.” 

Coughing (also a strange sensation underwater, just like snorting had been), I nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, if I’m right–” 

At that moment, Jorsher brought his head out and looked at me. “It is a sealed room, protected by various magical traps on the doorway and filled with buckets of gold and jewels.” 

“Yes!” I pumped the air–err, water. “The ‘find gold’ spell worked! Told you I knew what I was doing. Ignore the part just now where I was super-excited at the fact that it worked.” 

“Find–why do you even know that spell? We never learned that in class,” Shiloh blurted.

“Long story,” I replied. “We just need to get that gold out of there. Actually, just in case…” I looked over to my sharks, still diligently patrolling the surrounding water. “Okay, guys, I’m about to go in. Can you watch over Shiloh for me?” 

They obediently moved closer to Shiloh, and the other girl offered Simpson, our current personal guardshark, a hesitant smile before asking me, “Do you have a phase through solid spaceship metal spell too?”  

“Better,” I replied before looking at Jorsher. “Do you mind?” 

“I will require assistance,” was his response. 

He was right, so I summoned another volunteer ghost from among those who were still waiting to be taken to a place where they could say goodbye and fade away on their own terms. This one was an older human guy named Clyde. As soon as he appeared, I produced another stone from my pocket, one that had already been prepared with an enchantment. “Could you guys hold this?” 

The two ghosts each reached out to take the stone, while I used the command word, “Mar’ah.” Immediately, both of them went from being mostly translucent, to being reflective. Clyde floated down through the hull, disappearing into the ship. Then I grabbed my treasure bag, passing it to Shiloh. “Be ready to start stuffing both of those,” I noted, before kicking out. I swam straight into and through Jorsher, using my transport through reflective surfaces power. 

I emerged through Clyde, appearing, as promised, in a smallish room. It looked like some sort of lower-ranked officer’s cabin. Something told me that Sinbad had avoided putting treasure in obvious places like the bridge, or the captain’s quarters, or even in the cargo bay specifically to mess with people making those assumptions. 

I could see some of the spells on the doorway. I had no idea what they did, but not triggering them seemed like a good idea. So, I focused on the other obvious thing in the room. Treasure. There were, as promised, several large buckets filled with treasure. It was just waiting there to be grabbed. But, of course, I did not immediately grab them. Instead, I inspected the buckets and found the trap spells that sneaky sneaky Sinbad had placed, clearly expecting them to be triggered by students who were super-happy to finally be at the treasure, tired from fighting their way through everything, and in a rush to escape. I took the time to carefully disable the spells, using what Shyel, Tabbris, Athena, and more had taught me. 

Finally, I started passing the buckets out through my ghost-mirror portals, telling Shiloh to hurry up and dump the contents in the bags while I kept one eye on the door into the room just in case there were roving ‘creatures.’ 

But it was all clear, and before long we had everything in the room. I came back out through the ghosts, thanked both of them profusely while again promising that I would help them get closure as soon as I’d had a chance to rest and regroup for a little while, then dismissed them. 

That done, Shiloh and I looked at each other. She gave me a thumbs up, holding the bags, which looked just as empty as before but were actually packed with treasure. “Ready to get out of here?” Her hand hovered over the badge with the teleport spell attached to it. 

In answer, I recalled my sharks before nodding as I put my own hand near my badge. “Yeah. Let’s go, before Sinbad has a bunch of holographic ghost pirates start crewing that ship to come after us.” 

I could hear the man himself shouting about what a good idea that was all the way through Felix’s communicator. 

Previous Chapter

Class Action 14-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Pushing aside all those thoughts about how amazing this not being a life or death situation was, I focused on activating my air-production and water communication spells. And boy was it still weird to breathe water. Seriously, it was one thing to hold my breath for a long time, but magically breathing in the water itself? Yeah, it was just… a hard thing to accept reflexively. I had to stop holding my breath and just… let the water flow in and out. Somehow, it provided oxygen without drowning me. Magic was weird. 

At the same time, I looked around. My shiver was already on their way over, and I greeted them cheerfully. For a minute, I took the time to say good morning to them all, giving each shark the rubs and kisses they deserved. Then I got them to line up in a circle and explained what was going on. To be fair, I still wasn’t exactly sure how intelligent they were, but they tended to do what I asked, and they were definitely smarter than, say, a dog. I just wasn’t sure where the line was between their actual intelligence and them simply doing what I wanted. It was a little blurry there. 

In either case, whether because they understood or because me putting what I wanted into words helped my power direct them subconsciously, explaining things to my sharks tended to help. So I spent a couple of minutes doing that, making as certain as I could that they knew this was all a game and nothing was really going to hurt them, before sending the whole shiver scattering away from me. They would come when called. And in what was, in my opinion, incredibly adorable, all of them made sure to swim away from the place where the sunken boat was supposed to be so they wouldn’t accidentally cheat by seeing it too soon. 

Smiling to myself when I realized what they were doing, I shook my head before speaking to Felix and Shiloh through the badge. Letting them know I was on my way, I struck out, swimming around the ship underwater until I saw the marked off (with buoys) area near the bow where we were supposed to wait. Then I rose up, breaking the surface just in time to meet up with Shiloh as the other girl dove in next to me. She wasn’t wearing a swimming suit. Instead, her body was covered from toes to throat with what looked like pristine crystal armor. It was very thin, looking more like a second skin, and gleamed in the artificial sunlight. I could see various rainbow designs flickering through bits of it. 

“Wow,” I remarked once she had surfaced and was treading water next to me. “Shiny.” 

Shaking that shaggy hair out of her eyes now that it was wet, Shiloh grinned. “Thanks. It absorbs energy and redirects it. I think you have a power like that.” 

“Yeah, but I didn’t get the spiffy armor to go with,” I replied. “And something tells me you don’t have to focus on it every time you want it to work.” 

“Nope,” she confirmed. “The armor can only take so much, but it’s set and forget.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sinbad leaned out over the railing to look down at us. “You two ready?!” When we called that we were and gave him a pair of thumbs up, he looked over to where Felix was perched on the railing, map in hand. “You ready?” 

“Now that you showed me which way was up on this thing, yup!” she cheerfully replied before waving down at us. “We’re all good!” 

“Excellent!” Sinbad offered that gold, silver, and ruby smile once more. “Dive, for treasure and glory!” 

Looking at one another, Shiloh and I each shrugged before doing exactly as he requested. We dove under the water and set off together. Time to get through the maze, find the ship, and bring back any of the treasure we could find. 

There obviously wasn’t enough time in the two hour class for everyone to have a turn, even in three-person groups and six different mazes/ships. But anyone who didn’t get to go today would get a chance next time. Sinbad had, of course, made it clear he would be changing the mazes and the ships enough that asking those of us who went today for hints wouldn’t help at all. And might even hinder, if it made people go in with certain expectations. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he’d cackled maniacally while saying it, so I was fairly confident he almost wanted someone to try cheating that way.

In any case, Shiloh and I swam toward the giant stone structure. We were next to each other,  just far enough apart that we wouldn’t smack one another while going deeper. On the way, my sharks came swimming in on all sides. I had a feeling their presence made Shiloh a little nervous, so I turned a bit to her and began to gesture at each shark, introducing them by name. That seemed to make her feel a little bit better. But I was pretty sure she still wasn’t exactly completely at ease. Not yet, anyway. I had confidence in my sharks’ ability to charm the girl before this was over. 

The sharks formed an honor guard around us, keeping an eye out for anything dangerous. Or, well, ‘dangerous’ as far as the exercise went. And so we continued like that, flanked on all sides by my sharks while heading down to where we could see the vague outline of the enormous building that held the maze we were supposed to work our way through. 

It was just like the others I’d caught a glimpse of on the opposite side, and I very briefly wondered why Sinbad would make a point of not wanting me to see this ahead of time when all I would see was the giant walls. Then I remembered, duh, people with vision powers who could see through those walls. 

Even once we’d reached the building, we had to dive deeper to get to the entrance itself. Those were the rules that Sinbad had been quite firm on. No going into the maze through some other way. Everyone had to start at the entrance. And once you left the building going back toward the ship, you were done. So no going in through the door just to fulfill the letter of the rule, then going back out and finding a shortcut. 

Yeah, I had a feeling Sinbad had a lot of practice with that sort of cheating. And every other kind.

On the way down, I glanced back over my shoulder, past the sharks bringing up the rear and toward the shape of the ship on the surface. “You hear us, Felix?” 

“Yup!” came the response. “Crystal clear. You guys just keep heading down. Oh, when you get to the entrance, don’t go right inside. There’s bad things that could happen if you do. Eesh, right at the start?” Her voice rose, and I realized she was calling out to the man himself. “Dude, you really don’t take it easy with this stuff!” 

Shiloh and I glanced at one another, both smirking a little. Up here, it was light enough that we could still see each other unaided. That was at about a hundred feet, which was already deep enough that a normal SCUBA diver would have to deal with something called the bends if they went up too fast. Basically, the pressure underwater was high enough that if you went back up out of that pressure too fast, it made bubbles of nitrogen and other gases build up and cause a lot of problems. Even fatal ones. So you had to stop for a little bit at certain depths and stay there until your body adjusted before going higher. 

Thankfully, in our case, a mix of the water-breathing spell we were already using, our own general regeneration/healing powers, and an extra spell coin Sinbad had handed over at the start of class for us to activate on our way up, we wouldn’t have to deal with that. Not that I really would have objected to staying down longer with my sharks, but I did have another class to go to after this. Calculus, which was gonna be a weird thing to jump to. 

As we got deeper, the light began to fade. It got dark enough that I called out through the water for Shiloh to stop. As the girl looked at me, I reached into one of the nearly-invisible pockets on the bodysuit, my fingers slipping into the much-larger-on-the-inside space. Fumbling a bit until I found what I was looking for, I came out with a headband. While the other girl looked at me curiously, I touched my fingers against the band and created a simple light spell rune. Activating it made a powerful flashlight-like beam project outward from that spot of the headband, and I put it on. Now it functioned like a headlamp, and I could see Shiloh’s eyes widen with realization. 

“You want one?” I asked, indicating my pouch. Thanks to everything that had already happened, I’d spent a couple hours the night before filling up my bags and pouches with all sorts of stuff I might need. It really paid to be prepared.

Shiloh, however, shook her head before pointing at her eyes. As I watched, they began to glow faintly purple. “Dark vision!” she called. “It’s as bright as the park at noon down here.”  

Grinning, I gave her a thumbs up. “Useful! All I’ve got for that is infrared, which doesn’t really help navigate underwater where everything’s equally wet and cool.”  

“Still pretty great,” she assured me. Then a brief pause before the girl added, “You’ve got a lot of powers, you know?” 

“Dude, doesn’t she, though?” That was Felix, sounding like she was lounging back somewhere. Probably lying on the railing of the ship, holding the map up. “How do you even keep them straight? Between all the powers and those spells you know right off the top of your head without even thinking about it…” 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Believe me, it’s not a big deal. The stuff you have to do to get that kind of boost…” Pausing, I grimaced before gesturing to the ship we were supposed to be heading for. “Let’s just get in there, find the ship, and see what we can grab.”  

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Shiloh wanted to say something more about all that. But she just nodded finally before starting to swim that way once more. Something told me the subject would come up later. If not with her, then with others. They were really curious about what sort of things I’d been through, especially if they weren’t really close to me and didn’t know the whole story. I could only imagine what they were going to think when word about Persephone started to spread. I just… yeah, maybe that whole newspaper article thing I’d come up with earlier was an even better idea than I’d thought. I needed to get my story out there in my own words. 

We reached the entrance soon enough after that. My earlier impression was holding up. This place was like a skyscraper that had been turned on its side, and the door we were going through was directly on what would have been the bottom if it was rightside up. 

The two of us began to tread water right by the entrance while Shiloh told Felix we were there. The cat-girl, in turn, promptly told us to look toward the top left of the doorway. We were supposed to be careful though, and not touch it, or go through the doorway. So, we got closer and peered over the doorway until we found a marking that looked like a four-leaf clover with squiggles coming out of each ‘leaf.’ Once we reported that, Felix very deliberately led us through the instructions on disarming that spell. Apparently, the deal was that she had a list of spells on the back, with pictures and instructions of how to disarm them. On the front of the map, all she had was markings of ‘dangerous spell here.’ She had to get us to describe the spells we found correctly to her so she could find the right one on the back. And there were some that were really similar, but had very different disarming methods. So yeah, we had to be very specific. It was all about telling her exactly what we saw and testing the way we all communicated. Not to mention making sure none of us acted too quickly. 

So, we disarmed the rune fairly easily once it was described properly for Felix. Just to be on the safe side, Shiloh and I double checked the rest of the doorway. Even though the map said it was clear, we didn’t want to take any chances. But sure enough, we couldn’t find anything. Shiloh even used one of her own powers, which made her fingers light up with a faint white glow, while running them along the doorway. Apparently if there was any active hostile magic within a couple feet of them, they would change colors based on what type of magic it was. But her fingers remained white. Between that and Felix’s map, I was satisfied. 

There was, however, one more thing I had to deal with. Turning toward my sharks, I announced, “Okay guys, I know this isn’t fair, but you’ve got to go inside for a little while. There’s no room in this part for you, and we don’t want you to end up being claustrophobic. I promise, I’ll bring you out soon.” With that, I recalled them to their private pool area in my special vial, before nodding to Shiloh so we could move on. 

We passed through the doorway together and were finally inside the maze. It was, as advertised… a maze. Yeah, shocking. Wait, no, amazing. Shiori would kill me if I didn’t jump for that pun, even in my own head. 

We were swimming in a narrow corridor. It was just wide enough for the two of us to swim side by side without hitting one another, and about eight feet from the floor to the ceiling. This first entrance area ran ahead about ten feet before reaching a T-junction with a split to the left and right. The left went straight that way, while the right sort of curved a bit. 

“Okay!” Felix was saying, “Don’t go forward yet. Do not go near that intersection unless you want the Kyerekeunk to use you for lunch.” 

“What’s a Kyerekeunk?” I asked while curiously glancing around. I didn’t see anything, or detect anything with any other sense, for that matter. 

“No idea!” the girl back on the ship replied. “But the picture has a lot of tentacles and teeth, so maybe that squid thing from before? I dunno. Just don’t go forward yet. This thing says that you have to pass through that area when it’s sleeping, and it only sleeps for about ten seconds out of every minute.”  

“Boy,” I noted, “I thought I got away with a weird sleep schedule. Oh, and I hope those are consecutive seconds.” 

While Shiloh snickered, Felix was murmuring to herself, obviously distracted as she focused on deciphering her map and instructions. “Okay, hold on. Right, got it. Okay, I got it. Look to your right. Do you see a thin vertical blue line partway up the corridor?” When we acknowledged that we did, she explained, “The timing starts as soon as any part of you passes that line. After that, it’s fifty seconds of danger. If you’re within the area between that blue line and another one further in, you get a free trip to pain town with the Kyerekeunk. Then you’ve got ten seconds to get through before the thing resets.” 

“Okay,” I murmured with a look to Shiloh. “Guess we need to be careful then.” 

She gave a nod of agreement, swimming past me to get close to the blue line without crossing it. “Felix, which way are we going once we get through here, left or right? And please, please make sure you’re looking at it the right way.” 

There was a brief pause while the other girl triple-checked that before answering. “You want to go to the right. And when I say that, I mean the one that curves. It should curve. You see that?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “we definitely see it.” 

“Great! Good, fantastic, super.” Felix was clearly excited, but composed herself quickly. “So you definitely wanna go to the right, the direction that curves. Oh, and stay to the inside of the curve. I mean stay against the right wall when you do that. There’s a pretty nasty stinger spell along the left-hand side of that. It just makes you itch badly if you get in range, but that’d slow you down so you don’t get out of there before the Kyerekeunk wakes up. If you hug the right wall before you start into the curve, you should be safe. Oh, and you’ll know you’re safe when you hit an open area with pathways leading up, down, and forward. Stop in that area and don’t go anywhere. Seriously, just get to that spot and stop. You do not want to find out what bad things you could run into if you swim through the wrong doorway.” 

“Go to the right, stay against the right wall, stop when we get to the open area with paths up, down, and forward,” Shiloh repeated. “Got it. Okay, hold on.” With a glance toward me, she held her hand out until it was right next to the blue line. “Sadie, put up a stopwatch, ready to start on my mark.” 

Apparently Sadie was her wrist computer thing, because a holographic stopwatch appeared in the water, clearly projected from that. Shiloh, in turn, took a breath before simultaneously dropping her hand past the line and saying, “Mark!” Then she yanked her hand back while the holographic display began to count off the time. 

“At least we don’t have to try to get the shiver through here in those ten seconds too,” I cheerfully noted while watching the seconds. “You wanna go first or second?” 

She hesitated before gesturing. “I’ll bring up the rear, you’re probably better on the front line if we run into anything unexpected.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably fair,” Felix put in, clearly not insulted in the least, “I might’ve missed something. I mean, I’m really trying not to, but this Sinbad guy is intense.” 

Snorting a bit (a weird sensation underwater) I put in, “It’s okay, he’s trying to make sure we’re ready for the unexpected. And probably having a lot of fun while he does it.” 

By that point, we had about ten seconds before it was time for the actual ten seconds. Shiloh and I both braced ourselves. Just as the counter reached fifty, I kicked off and started swimming as fast as I could. The other girl was right behind me. Briefly, I thought about using the Seosten boost, but I didn’t want to leave her behind. Besides, I could make it the old-fashioned way. At least, I hoped I could. 

We swam hard, making the turn and heading around that curve while staying close to the right wall. No way did I want to get hit by that itching spell. I had no idea how much time had passed, and didn’t want to glance back to see the clock. We just had to keep going.  

As soon as I saw the slightly more open area ahead I swam even harder, using a little bit of boost to get there. Finally, I emerged into that open foyer space, seeing three dark doorways up in the ceiling, two below, and one big one straight ahead. I didn’t take the time to look too closely, however, spinning around to look back the way I’d come. Shiloh was there, still back a little bit with only three seconds left. So, I summoned my staff, enlarged it to twice its size, and extended the thing that way. The other girl grabbed on, before I yanked hard to pull her all the way into the open area. 

She was through. We were both through. And not even a second later, the timer hit sixty. 

“Whew,” I managed. “That was a little close.” 

“Thanks,” she gasped out, breathing hard. “I got a little close to the wall and got caught up.” 

Felix quickly put in, “Close, but still good, right? You’re both good? I don’t hear any tentacle thrashing.” 

With a little smile, I confirmed. “We’re good. Thanks for the directions, Felix.” Turning, I looked over the area we’d made it to, with multiple paths up, down, and forward. “And speaking of directions, oh mighty navigator…

“Which way now?” 

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Class Action 14-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the archangels posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can see it right here

Pretty soon, Sinbad had us all divided into trios. Our job as a group was to work together to navigate one of several underwater mazes he had set up, reach a ship that would be waiting for us somewhere within, and then find the treasure on that ship. We were being scored on how efficiently we got through the challenge, how well we worked together, and how long it took. And, of course, on how much treasure we safely retrieved. There were actually six mazes, ships, and treasures, all of them apparently different. When one trio finished, another would start. 

As far as the groups went, one person would stay up on this ship above the surface, using the makeshift map and notes they would be given to direct the other two through the maze and into the ship. From there, it would be up to the duo underwater to find the treasure safely. Apparently, whoever won would get a special prize from the man himself. 

Of course, it wasn’t just about navigating the underwater maze and then ship. The pair down in the water would also have to deal with traps and fake attacks from ‘sharks’ and other potential monsters down there. Not my sharks, of course. I wouldn’t even put them in as fake opponents, just in case someone got carried away or they were confused. No, these ones were apparently entirely fake creatures summoned and controlled by magic. Though from the large octopus thing that Sinbad made poke its tentacles out of the water and wave, they were very realistic. Only once he made one of the tentacles extend and allowed us to touch it did it become clear that the thing wasn’t real. It felt like a warm solid-light hologram of sorts. It would definitely seem real in the heat of the moment, and they would react to being hit the way a real one would. We were going to have to defend ourselves, and do so underwater as best as we could while using the powers and magic we had available to us. Sinbad wanted to see how well we all did like that. 

In my case, I was grouped up with Shiloh and Felix, Triss’s Nekomatan-human hybrid half-sister. She was the one who looked like a pale caucasian woman with very light blonde hair that was cut short, with a secondary set of cat ears atop her head and a long, fluffy white tail. When I’d first met her back before the whole thing with Fossor happened, she was hitting on some guy’s girlfriend, and had made it clear that she was very bisexual. Also, she was into Tristan and Vanessa. Like, Tristan and Vanessa. Which quite understandably weirded them both out. 

Anyway, according to Sands and Sarah, Felix had mellowed a bit after being told about certain people being a little uncomfortable. She still teased and played things up, but made sure to leave anyone alone if they didn’t like it. Triss had convinced her half-sister to avoid, as Felix put it, ‘throwing bait out there’ for anyone who made it clear they weren’t interested. In her words, she wanted to have fun, not make people feel creepy. 

In any case, as the three of us stood at the edge of the deck staring down into the water while waiting for one of the other trios to finish their run, I asked, “So which of us is going down there and who’s staying up here to play director? Uh, Shiloh, your computer thing?”

“It’s fine with water,” she assured me, waving her arm around so I could get a good look. It was a pretty sleek device, running from her wrist almost to her elbow along the back of her arm. The sides were slightly rounded, with dark blue edges while the bulk of it was white, including the screen whenever it wasn’t displaying anything (it could show images and text across the screen itself like a regular cell phone, or project a hologram image). There were various buttons along it which only Shiloh seemed to know the functions of. Well, her and anyone who had built the thing or helped her maintain it. But it was all Greek to me. Aside from the fact that I actually understood a little bit of Greek, thanks to some late-night study sessions. When you only had to sleep a couple hours a night, you had time to pick up a few extra things.

Felix’s cat-ears twitched a little. “Not to lean into stereotypes, cuz I’m fine with water, but I’ll stay up here and let the big bad Heretics–sorry, big good Heretics go explore the boat. Besides,” she added slyly, glancing around before lowering her voice in a somewhat husky whisper, “this way, I get to stand here and watch you two jump in the water. If it’s not too much trouble, could you do the Baywatch slow motion thing when you come out?” 

Yeah, I said she was being a bit better about leaving people alone who were demonstrably uncomfortable. That didn’t mean she had totally changed. She was still Felix, after all. 

Beside me, Shiloh choked a little before retorting, “I thought you said you weren’t leaning into stereotypes, Miss Sexy Cat Girl.” 

That earned her a Cheshire grin from Felix, “The thing about stereotypes is that some of them are fun to ride as far as they’ll take you. And speaking of–” 

“Okay!” I quickly interrupted, clapping my hands pointedly. “Felix is staying up here and Shiloh and I will go underwater. Works for me, considering I promised my buddies down there I’d go for a swim with them anyway. This is their big chance to show off for an audience.” 

“Yeah, having a bunch of sharks at your beck and call does give you a bit of an advantage that way,” Shiloh noted, watching me for a moment with a curious look. It seemed as though she was about to say something else, but stopped and simply shook her head.

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Is something wrong?” Yeah, I knew people were looking at me funny after… everything. Between being abducted by Fossor, my mother being the one behind the first rebellion, the fact that I had triggered the spell that restarted that rebellion, and… and everything else, people were staring at me a lot since I’d come back. It made me feel funny. 

Shiloh shook her head quickly. “No, no, not wrong. Actually, it wasn’t really about you at all. I just–” She paused to consider her words before continuing. “I was just thinking about how I spent the whole year on a team with someone who has like… all the advantages and never even had a hint about it. I umm… guess I spent awhile wondering if I was just dumb.”

Eyes widening a little at that, I insisted, “What? No. Come on, you were on a team with freaking Lancelot-Guinivere. Do you have any idea how good she is at that sort of thing? Seriously, she fooled Gaia! And Gaia actually knew her! She tricked people who had a hell of a lot more time, skill, and power than any of us have. And it definitely wasn’t about making you feel dumb. She–I’m pretty sure she’d be upset if she thought she made you feel dumb, Shiloh.” 

Shiloh started to nod. “I guess you’re–wait.” She blinked at me then, head tilting as something else occurred to her. “What do you mean, Gaia knew Harp–I mean, Gwen? They met before?” 

Oh. Right, most people didn’t have Gaia’s adopted daughter as a girlfriend/teammate so they wouldn’t have been told about Gaia being Morgana. And boy had that been a surprise to find out about over the summer in my case. But Shiloh apparently didn’t know about that yet. 

My mouth opened to say she should talk to Gwen about it (at least she was involved in that situation), but before I could even get that far, Sinbad called our names along with Felix’s. The man was standing up towards the front of the ship, waiting for us to join him while the previous pair who had been in the water were pulling themselves, soaking wet, back onto the deck. 

Reaching out, I patted Shiloh on the back, murmuring that she should talk to Gwen about who she knew and how. Then I walked with her and Felix while trying to run through everything I needed to do before we jumped into the ocean, all the spells I had available, the ways I could get my shiver to help, the tricks and threats that might be waiting for us down there, and so on. 

We all glanced toward the three who had been ahead of us, but that wouldn’t reveal anything. Sinbad had erected a soundproof barrier around the member of each team who stayed on the ship, specifically so that the rest of us couldn’t hear what sort of problems that group was dealing with and get any sort of advantage for not going first. And the teams who went weren’t allowed to talk to anyone who hadn’t gone yet. He had a whole section set aside for the people who were done to get dry, have snacks, and gush over how they’d done, what they’d fought, and how much of the treasure they’d managed to bring back. 

“Good luck, Flick!” Sands called from where she, Roxa, and Sarah were waiting to do their own run together. The three of them waved, and I waved right back before focusing on the matter at hand once more. There were a lot of spells I could use that might be helpful, thanks to all the extra training I’d received from the Chayyiel ghost in my head (and the fact that I could think of that without being weirded out really said how much had happened in the past year and a half). The problem was knowing exactly what spell was the right one, and how to dole out my use of magic so I didn’t run out of energy to cast. Especially when I had no idea what was going to happen down there. Yeah, I had a lot of options, but I still needed to pace myself. 

Once we passed the little barrier line that prevented people outside it from hearing what was going on, Sinbad offered one of his trademark gem-filled toothy grins. “Now then! First things first, which of you three will be going under the sea? Hah! You see, I make poetry without even meaning to! Truly, I am a man of many skills! But now, tis time to see yours! So, who shall it be?” His intense gaze (everything about him was intense) passed over the three of us eagerly.

“Shiloh and me,” I announced, gesturing to the other girl. “We’re going down there. Felix is staying up with the map and directing us. Right?” I clarified, looking at them. 

The other two confirmed that with a pair of thumbs up, and Sinbad immediately pivoted to me. “Excellent! I was hoping you would jump in so we can see your shark friends get involved!” He visibly sobered a bit then before adding, “Of course, you know the so-called monsters you may face down there are not real. We have guardians standing by just out of sight, ready to jump in just in case anyone gets… stuck or has any problems. And, you have these.” From seemingly midair, he produced a couple small badges. They were red circles with a white triangle inside. “They allow the three of you to communicate with each other. Push the triangle, hold it for three seconds, you’ll be transported right back here to the deck of the ship. You can also use that to get back here once you have the treasure. Push it three times quickly and you’ll be transported all the way over to the hospital wing.” 

Shiloh, Felix, and I each took one of the badges and clipped them on. After Sinbad was assured that they were secure and working properly, he clapped his hands loudly. “Safety first!” His voice lowered a bit conspiratorially, “I have to say that to keep my job. Do any of you have any idea how terrifying your principal can be if she’s annoyed?” He eyed me then. “I bet you do.” 

Smirking despite myself, I offered him a somewhat casual shrug. “I guess I have some clue.” 

“But!” Turning cheerful and cocky once more, the man waved a hand encompassingly toward the sea. “Now that all that is taken care of, on to the more exciting business!” His eyes took in Shiloh and me once more before slyly adding, “I trust you both know how to cast a water breathing spell, or something of that sort?” When we both nodded, he asked, “And what of a communicate underwater spell? The badges will carry your words to one another, but if you can’t talk, your words will be a bit… indecipherable.” The man laughed loudly, adding, “You know, glub glub glub. Hard to talk under the sea without a little help.” 

“Oh, don’t worry, we know how to use the talk underwater spell,” I assured him. 

“We do?” Shiloh was looking at me with a bit of confusion, clearly taken aback by that. 

“Wh–oh.” Right, that was one that I had learned from my special tutor. Coughing, I waved a hand. “No big, I’ll show you how to do it. Here.” With that, I took a blank metal coin from my pocket and held it up for her to see. “First, you put a half circle line along the top like this.” My finger tapped the coin as I used my image-inscription power to do just that. “Then you want two little triangles just under it, with the tips just barely touching the inner part of the half-circle line, but they have to be exactly here, with the lower inside corners exactly as far from each other as they are from where the curve of the circle is here. As soon as you have both of them done, you want to put just a tiny bit of energy in the left triangle, then sort of… focus on letting that energy bleed through from that into the right one, until they both feel full to you. Once they are, you stop and finish the bottom half of the circle, like this. Then you write the letter C on the left side of the circle and L on the right side. That makes the circle stand in as the O in COL. It stands for the first three letters of Collucutio, Latin for conversation. Once that’s done, in that exact order, just put some power into it again, starting in the circle and spreading out to the C and L. Let the energy fill it until you sense that it’s full. The spell should last about an hour with a normal amount of power. You can refill it with a touch if you need to.” 

“Dude,” Felix managed once I’d finished all that, “you know a lot about magic.” 

“What she said,” Shiloh agreed quietly, her eyes darting from me to the coin I was holding up, then back again. “I’m starting to think I should ask you to tutor me. Or, you know, teach a class or something around here. You sure you were raised with Bystanders?” Even as she said it, the girl seemed to remember the whole thing about my mother, flushing visibly. 

With a very small, embarrassed smile, I shook my head. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve just had a few teachers who knew what they were doing. You know, my own tutors. It’s–yeah, it’s nothing.”

From the looks that Felix and Shiloh were giving me, they didn’t quite believe the whole ‘it was nothing’ response. But they didn’t push it beyond that, though Shiloh did reiterate that she was going to come to me for help learning other spells in the future. Especially once I guided her through the water communication enchantment once more to make sure she had it. Then I showed the girl how to push it against her lips and trigger the spell. Now whenever she (or I, after triggering the same spell on myself) spoke underwater, it would actually be audible. 

“Well, that all makes things much easier, doesn’t it?” Sinbad noted. The way he said that made me realize that if I hadn’t known the right spell, he would have provided something. Now, he simply spread his arms cheerfully. “Time to see what you are all capable of! Let us–wait!” Clearly interrupting himself, the man snapped his fingers before pointing at me. “As I was saying before distracting myself before! Your sharks are welcome to join in on the adventure, and I assure you they will not be harmed. However, should the enchantment surrounding my little traps and monsters register that a shark should have been incapacitated, they will be transported to an enclosed underwater space over there.” He pointed past the opposite end of the ship. “There will be plenty of room and fish for them to gorge themselves, and as soon as you are through the test, you can have them right back again. I trust that is fair enough?” 

“Yup, definitely fair enough,” I confirmed immediately. “Just give me a minute to explain it to them before you start the timer, would you? Actually, I need to explain this whole thing to them. Not fair if they don’t know what we’re trying to do.”

After considering that briefly, Sinbad gave me a broad smile once more. “Of course! Of course, everyone should be on the same page, as they say! Yes, ahhh, you may have a few minutes to speak with your water-bound friends, naturally. But to keep things fair and not give extra time to study the maze or vessel you are about to go into, you must get into the water and speak to them on this side of the ship.” He indicated the opposite side from where our target was. “Take the time you need to make them understand, then you and Miss Lexx here can enter the starting area. And, of course, Miss Laja cannot begin to look at the map until then. No extra time for that!” 

Exchanging a look with the other two, I nodded. “Right, yeah, that’s fair.” With those words, I touched the small pouch on my belt that was currently holding the Seosten bodysuit, exchanging that for my regular clothes. It would do for going into the giant lake, given it was waterproof, temperature-controlled, protective, and all sorts of other fun things. 

“Dude,” Shiloh abruptly blurted, “you just have something like that with you?” 

“Not that we’re complaining,” Felix quickly put in, both eyebrows rising pointedly. “I mean, I’m not.” 

Face turning red, I muttered something about understanding why Tabbris had kicked me for the way I had looked at her mother. Then I left the other two to get ready, with a word about meeting Shiloh on the other side. From there, I moved to the edge of the deck before diving overboard. A second later, I hit the water smoothly, dropping down a good ten feet before righting myself. There was no rush to using the breathing spell, considering I could hold my breath for up to ten minutes. And thanks to the aforementioned temperature-control, the water wasn’t cold at all. Some part of me wondered if that part was an unfair advantage. But then again, there were people in the class who had their own temperature resistance. The point of the exercise was to see how well we could do with what we brought in with us, be that equipment or innate abilities. And I had definitely brought the suit in with me. Being able to change into it just by touching the suit and exchanging that with what I was wearing was one of my powers. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I glanced off into the distance. Two of the mazes were visible, though one of those was far off to the left. Essentially, they looked like giant underwater buildings made of thick stone, with only one entranceway. Like a massive skyscraper that had fallen on its side. And somewhere in there would be the ship each group was looking for. 

God damn, when Sinbad set up a project like this, he didn’t half-ass it. 

For just a moment, I had to stop and really let myself feel the reality of this. I was home. I was back in classes (ridiculous as they may have been). I was doing something fun. Challenging, sure, but fun. I was meeting different classmates and spending time with them. I was… I was enjoying this. Seriously, I didn’t really care if we won or lost this challenge. I was going to shoot for the former, of course. But it wasn’t life or death. And that, all on its own, was amazing. No matter what happened with this today, I was going to go to another class afterward. I would go to another class, then to lunch, and then… who knew? My afternoon was open. We’d see when the time came. 

The point was, whatever happened in this class didn’t really matter. 

And after everything that has happened over the past couple of months, all the life and death struggles and trauma that had seemed to come relentlessly, something not mattering… actually mattered quite a lot. 

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Commissioned Interlude 14 – Archangels (Heretical Edge 2)

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Zadkiel 

“Are you angry, sir?” The question came from a tall, thin figure wearing a dark hood and ruby-red metal mask that left his eyes exposed. Three other figures dressed similarly stood somewhat behind him. All of their attention was focused on the man who stood a short distance ahead of them, his back to the entire group. Although some might have objected to calling the being a man. He was half-Seosten, half-Fomorian, a creature born not of some romantic union, but two separate beings who had been forcibly merged together in the bowels of Tartarus. Standing almost eight feet in height, the creature’s normally Seosten-handsome features were broken by the influence of his Fomorian-self. His skin was gray and pallid, eyes almost twice the size they should have been. The wings that had emerged from his back were partially solid, bat-like structures where the bones in such a creature would have been, while the flat parts that would ordinarily have caught the wind to propel lift were filled by solid energy. 

“Angry?” the one who, as a potential point of contention against his missing self went by the title of Godfather (alternately Maestro and even his original Seosten name of Zadkiel), echoed with a small smile. A very slight giggle escaped him, which echoed weirdly through the underground cavern the group were standing in. “Why would we be angry?” 

That prompted the four masked figures to look at one another briefly, wondering if their report had been heard correctly. None of them knew who each other was. That was the reason for the masks, enchanted as they were to prevent any powers from seeing through them. It allowed their master to ensure that only he was aware of all those he had turned. They would leave this place separately, and for the most part would forget what had happened during their time here. It would sit at the back of their thoughts, a subconscious knowledge of who they belonged to, though they would be mostly unable to directly recall it until he called for them again. Another safety measure against their connection to him being uncovered. Not even Seosten possession would reveal his influence. 

His. Their. Which was it? The terms seemed interchangeable. The hybrid sometimes spoke as a singular, sometimes as plural. None who interacted with him (or them) knew the reasoning behind it. Perhaps even they themselves (or he himself) didn’t. He… they… simply were

Finally, the figure who had spoken first tentatively replied, “They know of your existence. And the Olympian has disappeared after the death of her Committee host. She knows you were responsible for her beloved’s presence on Aiken’te’vel, and clearly blames you for her death. Now she has returned to Earth safely. She and those who take her side will be watching for you. It is… not good news.” 

There was a moment of silence before the tall hybrid slowly turned to face them. He reached out, his long arms extending to put his hands against the mask of the man who had spoken. The minion froze, going completely still while Godfather very tenderly brushed too-long, too-thin fingers over the metal that covered his face. “We are not angry,” came the slow, deliberate response. “After all, to be angry would imply that their knowledge will make any difference. Forewarning of a storm does not prevent it from accomplishing its destruction. They may flee, they may prepare, they may do anything they wish in advance of our arrival. But when the time comes, none of it will save them.” 

As he spoke, Godfather’s fingers slipped under the mask. He pulled it down, looking into the face of the man beneath. The three figures behind stirred a bit, but remained silent. They could not see their companion’s face, not from that angle. Nor did they wish to. Seeing his face would have been against their master’s orders, and to go against their master was to face immediate death. 

But their master could see. He could look into all of their faces, could look through their souls. He knew them, he owned them. They were his tools, tools he would use to further his own goals. And if they failed him, if they faltered, he would cast them aside, their bodies and souls erased before they even touched the ground. 

“No,” Godfather quietly repeated, “we are not angry. Let them try to prepare. Watching the ants as they scurry in such panic may lead to something…” There was a pause before they gave another eerie giggle. “… interesting.” 

That said, he released the face of the man he had been holding and turned to face the nearby blank cavern wall. “Go now. Return to your lives. The time will come when I require you again.”

The hybrid figure stood there then, waiting for the group to obediently disperse. Only once they were gone did he reach out to touch the seemingly blank wall. Under his hand, part of the wall faded and vanished, allowing him to step through into what appeared to be the interior corridor of a ship, buried deep within this cavern far underground.

“Soon,” he murmured, reaching out to run a hand over one of the nearby consoles fondly. “Soon, you will be completed. They are already on their way. Before long, they will bring us the one we need to finish your construction, the one whose genius will finish what we began.

“And that will be the… Spark of the flames that will burn it all.” 

******

Remiel 

Stand! Rise!” The bellowed call, erupting from a figure who seemed entirely too small and slight to produce such a powerful sound, filled the air of the battlefield where a motley assortment of several thousand figures of various species had slumped in preparation of their impending defeat. The land, once a lush valley, had been scorched, burned to dirt and pockmarked by various craters from incredible impacts and explosions. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty seven beings lay in various states of exhaustion behind a makeshift dirt wall that had been built up to shield them from the army of steadily approaching biological horrors. It was an army that was repeatedly repelled, yet came onward inevitably. 

The army here had once measured several times larger than their current numbers. They had been fighting for their lives for days now, with barely any rest. And still, the army of Fomorians showed no real signs of abating. Their enemy was a tidal wave of death and destruction, one that could not be resisted. This world, a small out-of-the-way place near the edge of Seosten territory, had already mostly fallen to the monsters. The Seosten simply did not have the resources to defend it right now. Perhaps they would be back to wipe the Fomorians away before they could establish a firm foothold. But either way, it would be too late for the inhabitants of the place itself. 

Most of the actual Seosten had already abandoned this place, leaving on their ships to reinforce other positions. And they had taken the strongest among the planet’s defensive military with them. It hadn’t been the Seosten’s first choice, but they were needed to ensure the Fomorians could not overwhelm a different, more strategically important position. All of which left the planet’s only defenders as ill-trained, ill-equipped, doomed figures who could do little more than stave off the inevitable while allowing as many of their people to flee on ships as possible. 

Most of the Seosten were gone. Save, of course for one. The one who was already standing at the head of their embattled position. The small woman who barely topped five feet in height. Her coal-black skin was offset by brilliant blue eyes that seemed to glow with power far exceeding her very slight stature. Her dark hair was worn quite short.

“Stand?” one of the planet’s original inhabitants (tall, green-skinned humanoid figures with yellow faces and black lines across his arms) echoed, his voice full of disbelief. “Rise with what? Your people already abandoned us. They went off to defend something more important. We’re all gonna die anyway. Why do you think we should get up again? Why shouldn’t we just end it? Who cares if it’s now or when they get here?” His hand thrust toward the sound of the approaching Fomorians. His words were met with an assortment of exhausted agreement that spread through the mostly-broken people. They had lost all hope of escape from this place, and nearly all hope that they would be able to help others flee. Their faith was broken, their morale shattered. 

“What,” the Seosten woman returned, “is my name?” She stood in front of them, waiting a moment while they stared her way before raising her voice to a bellow once more. “What is my name?!” 

Finally, the group called back, “Remiel!” 

She, in turn, gave a firm nod. “I am Remiel. And by my name I will tell you this. The Fomorians come. I am going to meet their charge. I will take their approach and I will blunt it against myself, so that your people, your people may escape. Yet I am but one person. I will do as I must. I will stand in the path of these creatures to protect your people as I would stand to protect any in this universe against the scourge that approaches. These creatures are a flood. They are a rushing river. I will stand in the water’s path. I will hold back all I am able. But when they pass me, what will they meet? Will they see a wall of soldiers? Will they see brave forces, standing in their path to ensure your children and families have another second to flee, another moment to reach their ships, another minute to rise into the stars? Or will they see cowards, lying in the dirt awaiting their deaths?” 

With that, she turned and began to climb the dirt hill. 

A slight pause followed her words. The assembled exhausted soldiers looked to one another. Finally one rose, then another, and more. A little under three quarters of the almost thirty-five hundred motley soldiers tiredly took up their weapons once more and forced themselves to climb that dirt hill. Their bones ached, their eyes burned from lingering poison gas. They longed to lay down and sleep for days. Yet they followed the Seosten woman at her words. 

When they reached the top of the hill, the troops found themselves facing that woman. Her back was to the approaching Fomorians, still over ninety seconds away before the nearest would reach them. 

“And so here you are,” Remiel noted, her voice a soft rumble, like distant thunder rolling through their ranks. She raised a hand, speaking a single word. As she did so, a flash of brilliant blue light filled the air behind the assembled group. They spun back, to find that those who had chosen to stay behind, who had not risen to join them, had vanished. 

That, of course, gave rise to a rush of confused, fearful words about what she had done. But Remiel kept her hand in the air, speaking over the crowd. “They are safe! You will see them soon enough. Despite their fears and fatigue now, they served well. They tried their best for as long as they could. I do not fault their exhaustion, mental or physical. I have sent them to join your people as they leave this world. A moment of faltering does not erase the blood, sweat, and lives that all of you have sacrificed in this battle. Yet they were not prepared for what comes next. I had to know which among you were strong enough.” 

“Strong enough to die against those monsters?” one man demanded, barely capable of holding his rifle up to indicate the incoming horde, barely twenty seconds out. 

Remiel, however, gave a very faint smile. “No, I do not need those strong enough to die.” At those words, her own archangel wings emerged from her back. Made of brilliant blue energy, matching the color of her eyes, they stretched out impossibly wide, enveloping the nearly two thousand, five hundred troops in a ring of blazing, nearly blinding power. The troops were forced to look away, lest they be blinded. 

And then the wings were gone. As was the battlefield itself. They were somewhere else, some entirely different world. A world free from Fomorian invasion. 

“You may visit your people soon,” Remiel informed the confused group. “They are already safely fleeing. Once they are settled in a new home, I will ensure you are able to see them. Of that you have my word.” 

“What–what happened?” One of the troops stammered. “Why–how–what? Why… why are we here? Why did you bring us here?”

“Why?” Remiel echoed. “Because I do not need sacrifices. I do not need people to throw themselves uselessly against an enemy they stand no chance against, to protect a world that has already been lost. I need those, as you, that I can build into something more than you are now. As I said, I do not need those who are ‘strong enough to die.’

“I need those strong enough to train.”  

*******

Selaphiel 

A tall woman, fully six feet in height, with long, flowing blonde hair (including heavy bangs that covered her forehead down to her very light green eyes) stood at the very edge of a mile-wide crater that marked what had at one point been the Earth-based outpost of the Gehenna prison organization. Her face, which looked as though it had been chiseled from marble, betrayed no emotion as she surveyed the destruction. Not that there was much to survey in the first place. Nothing had survived the devastation of that magical explosion. 

“Fossor sure did a number on this place, didn’t he?” The man who spoke stood inside the crater. Yet despite the pit itself being almost fifteen feet deep, he was still almost eye-level with the woman as she stood on the edge of the lip. 

“Paul Bunyan,” she remarked simply, “I presume.” 

“That’s right,” he drawled. “And you’re the Seosten. Well, do they still consider you a Seosten these days? You’re the one they call Selaphiel.” An archangel (or Dyeus, as they were technically called) who had joined Gehenna. She was one of the organization’s leaders. 

“I shall always be Seosten,” the regal woman informed him. “Though I have endeavored to become more than I began.” She turned her gaze to him with a slight nod. “And yes, Fossor has dealt this organization quite a blow. Not a mortal one. But quite damaging nonetheless.” 

“The King wants to know what you’re all going to do now,” Paul informed her simply, turning his gaze away from her to look out over the vast barren emptiness. Roughly a quarter of the way into the crater, a much deeper hole stood. The magic explosion had been intentionally formed to force most of its destructive power to follow the path of the building deep into where the underground portions had once been. Nothing was left of the Gehenna structure. 

Selaphiel gave no response at first. Her pale green eyes simply passed over the same hole his own gaze had locked onto, while a very slight frown wrinkled the center of her forehead. Finally, she broke the lingering silence that had formed over those moments. “You mean, he wishes to know if Gehenna will rebuild here, move to somewhere else on the planet, or leave entirely.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” Bunyan confirmed. “With Fossor dead, he won’t be a problem anymore. But he’s not the end of the enemies you all have. And enemies targeting Gehenna, now that Fossor’s proven you’re not invincible, could bring problems to Canada. The King isn’t exactly bursting with joy at that idea.” 

“They are no threat to him,” Selaphiel pointed out flatly. As she spoke, the woman flicked her hand out, summoning a long golden staff, richly decorated with magical runes, with a brilliant gleaming emerald at one end. The jewel itself pulsed with power, sending lines of green light running down the shaft and over each of the runes in a clearly deliberate pattern.

“Nope,” the man agreed. “They aren’t really a threat to him. But he can’t be everywhere at once, and he’d prefer not to put his people in danger. Which is why he wants to make a new deal.” 

His words made the Seosten woman turn her gaze to him, one eyebrow rising. “A new deal?” 

“He says your people can rebuild here,” came the response, “but he gets to have a few of his own people on-site to help keep the place safe, and as outside observers to the situation.” 

“I do not know that the other directors will be eager to accept such a requirement,” Selaphiel carefully informed him. “We do not allow such oversight in other places.”

“Sure,” Paul drawled, “but something tells his majesty that your people really want to keep an outpost here. Fossor’s gone but you’re not pulling up stakes. There’s more to why you want to be on-planet. We’re not sure why, but he thinks whatever it is will be enough to make you agree to those terms. We put people in your new location, help you watch out for any of your new… friends that might take a shot, and we get to help make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.” He indicated the crater stretched out before them. 

After a few moments of silence, the woman finally gave a short nod. “Agreed. Have your king draw up the necessary contracts so I may peruse them. You have my contact information.” 

Without waiting for a response, Selaphiel extended the staff toward the deep hole. It began to glow brighter, even as the woman’s brilliant, nearly blindingly bright wings emerged from her back and spread out to their full extension. The wings were the color of malachite, nearly matching the emerald atop the staff. They pulsed with power of their own even as the woman began to chant a series of indecipherable words from some long-dead language. The power around them grew and grew, forcing Paul to withdraw several steps and turn his head away. 

Finally, an explosion of power erupted from the staff, careening toward the hole in the ground before impacting with enough force that Paul felt himself, despite his height, recoil a bit. When he looked that way, shielding his eyes with one hand, he saw the emerald light fading to reveal a tower standing there. It was just the same as the last one, a tall black obelisk rising toward the sky. 

“That was fast,” Paul remarked with a cough. 

“We have no time to waste,” she informed him. “There are no prisoners within the structure, and will not be until your king agrees. Go and see the contracts drawn up, so that we may put the building to use.” 

With that, she made the staff disappear with a flick of the hand that was holding it. Then the tall Seosten woman touched two fingers to her forehead, brushing her blonde bangs out of the way to reveal a tattoo there of two emerald-colored serpentine eyes. Those eyes began to glow under her touch, before rapidly becoming three-dimensional. The eyes emerged from her forehead, followed by the rest of a reptilian face. It grew exponentially by the second, a truly massive green lizard creature rising out of Selaphiel. 

No, not a lizard. A wingless dragon, fully large enough to swallow the twenty-foot-tall Paul Bunyan whole. It towered a full fifty feet high, scales gleaming with inner power. Not a true dragon, of course, but similar to the phoenix summoned through the tattoo of another Seosten member of Gehenna, the one called Larees. 

The summoned creature extended its tail, allowing Selaphiel to stride up toward its back. As she did so, her own wings faded from her body before reappearing on her companion, forming the actual wings of the dragon. From there, the woman stood atop her partner as those powerful glowing energy wings flapped down hard, sending both the creature and the Seosten herself upward. 

In a moment, they had vanished from sight, disappearing into the clouds. 

******* 

Gabriel 

Through the remains of the secret facility that had once belonged to Kushiel, three figures strode purposefully. Well, one strode more purposefully, with the other two hurrying to keep up.  The one in the lead was a woman who would have been considered Asian if she had been human rather than Seosten. She wore a sleek dark blue bodysuit under a long white leather coat. Her black hair was held in a long, tight braid, and her light brown eyes gleamed with anger.  

“Why was I not informed of this place while it was still in use?” Her demand came in a sharp, no-nonsense voice while she marched onward, heels clicking sharply against the floor with each step as she glanced briefly through various doorways leading into facility rooms where labs and prison cells were before making a disapproving sound and moving on after each. 

Of the two figures following, one was a Seosten man who appeared to be much older (but in actuality was several full millennia younger), while the other was a Relekun female hurriedly taking notes of everything that happened. It was the Seosten man who spoke up. “Ah, well, Miss Gabriel, the decision was made that there was no need to involve you, or distract you from your own work unless sufficient progress was seen. To avoid corrupting either your work or theirs with–” 

In a sharp voice, Gabriel interrupted. “I would hardly appreciate you defecating into your own hand and giving it to me as an explanation, let alone simply offering the excrement someone else has handed you to pass along. I am not a fool, Seurateis. I know precisely why I was not included.” She stopped, pivoting on one heel to face him. “Because I would never have approved of such a facility. I was told that I would be given charge of all research groups devoted to correcting our peoples’ population problem. And yet, I was kept entirely in the dark when it came to this place. Inform the Seraphs that if such a discrepancy is found again, they will not enjoy the measures I take to ensure it does not happen a third time.” 

“I–uh.” Seurateis faltered. “I am not entirely certain that I can pass along that tone of message. But I will… ensure that they are aware of your disappointment in the situation.”

Gabriel, in turn, made a soft scoffing sound under her breath before looking to the Relekun woman. “Daen,” she spoke the girl’s name a bit more gently, “what is the number one rule of working in such advanced scientific fields?” 

There was the slightest pause before Daen carefully recited, “Your actions have consequences.” 

“Precisely,” Gabriel confirmed, turning back to Seurateis. “The knowledge we gain, the power we unlock, the weapons and spells we create, everything we do can have untold consequences. We know that quite clearly from the fate of Cronus, and the rising of our Fomorian foes. We know that from the state that our own people have been in for hundreds of thousands of years. What we do carries repercussions, often grave ones. It is important that we remain respectful of those consequences, lest we create an even more dire threat than that which we already face.” 

She paused deliberately, allowing those words to sink in before continuing. “Let there be no misunderstanding, we have long-since sunk below the moral high ground. The things our people do in service of victory over the Fomorians do not make us heroes. Yet I do believe they are necessary things. But I will not tolerate such… evil as this, not for our own people and not for others. Every Seosten who worked within this facility is to be put to work going through every file, every scrap of information we have about those who were imprisoned here. Those who did not survive are to be identified, their families notified and compensated fairly. The bodies, if they remain, are to be delivered to their homes so that they may be disposed of in whatever manner their loved ones prefer. Those who survived, Seosten and otherwise, are to be released onto a world of their choosing.” 

“But most are criminals,” the man protested. 

Gabriel’s eyes sharpened, glowing amber wings appearing behind her as she dangerously replied, “They have served their sentence. Release them.” 

With that, she pivoted once more and began to walk away, wings fading from view. “Daen, assist him in the endeavor.” 

The Relekun woman gave a short nod before tentatively asking, “And what of the medical data that was collected?” 

There was a brief moment of silence as Gabriel stopped walking. Then she replied simply, “Moral or not, we will not cast potentially valuable information into the flames. That would simply make the sacrifices of the people held here even more pointless. Gather it, we will see if there is anything useful. And when you have taken all this facility can provide, I want it erased. Destroy every scrap of it.

“While I exist, such evil will not be glorified.”  

*******

Jegudiel

Is that all you have brought to face me?!” 

The bellowed demand came from a tall, shirtless Seosten man, who stood an inch over seven feet in height, his long black hair worn all the way to the middle of his back. His bare, heavily tanned chest, rippling with muscles and gleaming from sweat, was adorned by the tattoo of a sword that rose from navel to just under his throat. In one hand, he held a long, blood-stained axe, while the other gripped a hammer with one flat edge and the other a sharp point. The remnants of pulverised organs and various fluids adorned each. A pair of long, crimson red wings stretched from the man’s back, illuminating the otherwise dark area surrounding him with a deep red glow.  

His name was Jegudiel, and he stood at the center of what had, up until moments earlier, been a battlefield. Now, it was the site of a mass execution. Where once had stood hundreds of Fomorian monstrosities, now there was only ashes. Nothing of their intended invasion force on this moon outpost had survived his onslaught.

“I have been told so much of the ferocity of the Fomorian forces assaulting this place!” Jegudiel shouted into the darkness. “But what do I find when I come to face it? No worthy foe, no battle deserving of my name! Bring forth your creatures, bring forth your own people! Bring me a foe I can sink my teeth into, so that I may tear out their heart and bathe in the blood of one worthy of being torn asunder!” 

There was no response to his cry, the Fomorians who might have remained long-since having retreated from the field rather than uselessly throw themselves against the threat he presented. Finally, with a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, Jegudiel turned to stride back the way he had come. On the way, he paused before turning his head sharply to look out into the darkness, his tone dangerous. “Present yourself.” 

After a very brief hesitation, a smaller, slightly more pale Seosten man stepped into view. “I see your excursion here has been successful.” 

Jegudiel, however, scoffed at that. “Hardly a battle worth my time, Pravuil. But…” He paused before admitting, “I am glad that this place is protected once more. I do not fault those who require assistance, nor do I wish harm to them. Few can stand against the forces the Fomorians bring to bear. The people of this outpost are safe now, and that… that is good.” He sighed. “I only wish to find a true battle, one that will secure my legacy and ensure my name will never be forgotten.” 

Pravuil, in turn, offered him a faint smile. “In that case, perhaps you will be interested in a bit of information that has come our way.” He waited for the man to give him a nod to continue, then explained. Over the next few minutes, he told his leader exactly what whispers had reached him. 

When he was done, Jegudiel had straightened to his full height, gazing down at him intensely. His crimson wings were even brighter than before, glowing powerfully. “Is this true?” he demanded. “Do not give me such false hope, Pravuil.” 

“As far as I have been able to confirm it,” his subordinate confirmed, “it is true. My sources are quite confident.” 

There was no response at first. Jegudiel’s wings slowly folded in against his back. “Well then,” he finally announced in a far quieter, far more introspective voice. “Inform the leadership that I will be taking that vacation they have been insisting upon for so long. 

“Tis time I visit Earth. And see my daughter.” 

*******

Raphael And Chayyiel

“You must want this thing pretty badly, to ask for help.” The drawled words came from Raphael, as the tall, lanky man with long gray-blond hair stretched lazily. He was standing just outside of a small antique shop somewhere in Boston. The subject of his comment, the deceptively young-looking (they were all that, but her even more so) Chayyiel, stood in front of the door, reading the sign posted there about the hours. 

“It’s important,” she murmured absently, before glancing over to him. “And you are the one who sent a message saying you wanted something interesting to do.” 

He grinned in response. “That’s because I know you’re always doing something interesting, busy little feun.” He referred to a small mammal native to their homeworld that was essentially a miniature beaver that could fly like a bat with long wings. They created homes inside massive trees that grew up out of the abundant oceans. “Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention to what I hear about your trip across this world. You’ve been raising a few eyebrows back home. And that’s just from the parts they know about.”  

“I keep myself occupied,” she agreed idly before nodding to him. “If you’re ready for this?” 

He nodded lazily while stretching his arms over his head. “Sure thing, but ahhh, why don’t you take a step to your left? Scooch over.” He made a little flicking motion with his hand until she did so, moving out of the way. Then the man cracked his neck to both sides before glancing over to the nine-month-old English Bulldog currently sniffing a nearby fire hydrant. “Check this out, Zad.” 

The bulldog, in turn, plopped on its haunches and looked that way. He had been well trained to know what was coming when his new owner spoke in that tone of voice. Particularly as it often meant he would end up with treats afterward. 

And with that, satisfied by his audience, Raphael allowed his golden-white energy wings to emerge, flared them out behind him… and then fired a beam from each. The beams tore through the facade of the antique shop, literally erasing it (and the myriad of protective spells and weapons that had been waiting to cause problems) from existence within a bare handful of seconds. When the beams finally stopped, there was little left of the shop other than a smoldering ruin with a metal hatch in the middle of the floor. One more brief, incredibly casual shot from a single wing erased the hatch itself, revealing a ladder leading down. 

“Probably a good thing you had the right place, huh?” Raphael casually remarked. “Would have been pretty embarrassing for you to get that wrong.” Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that he himself would not particularly have cared that much. But he knew she did, and didn’t mind at least making the slightest attempt to follow her preferences in such a matter as far as collateral damage went. It was why he had made certain to contain his beams to only hit the building itself and not blast any further than that.   

“I made sure,” she informed him while already moving toward the hole in the floor. Zad accompanied her, leaning over it to stare down into the dark abyss while sniffing curiously. 

“Sure you don’t want any more help?” Raphael asked, stepping up to look that way as well. “No telling how much trouble you might run into down there. I’d feel sort of bad if I went to all the trouble of blowing away the front door defenses just for you to get in trouble down in the tunnels. Especially if you’re right about what’s in that place. They’ll be protecting it pretty heavily.”

“I can handle it,” she assured him, “but thank you.” Turning that way, Chayyiel listened to the sound of the people below reacting to the intrusion. “You should go, get Zad some lunch. He’s hungry.” 

“He’s always hungry,” Raphael pointed out before stooping to scratch behind the ears of the animal in question. “Maybe we’ll try that… what did you call it, a Morongleen Barby Q?” 

“Mongolian Barbecue,” Chayyiel corrected, even as the sound of multiple weapons being readied directly below them reached their ears. “Two blocks down to the west.” 

With that, she touched something on her shoulder, activating a protective spell before hopping into the broken hatch. As she fell toward the people below, the gunfire and screaming started.  

“Ahh well,” Raphael remarked, straightening and turning away from the sound of fighting going on below, “Let’s go, Zad. 

“I’d like to find out if these ‘Mongolians’ are any good at cooking.” 

*******

Michael And Chayyiel

Two heavily armed humanoid figures wearing golden armor stood outside the entrance into a clearly heavily reinforced bunker in the middle of the woods. The man on the left held an enormous trident weapon with a shotgun attachment, his gaze panning over the trees in front of them while he asked, “So what do they have the old man working on now?” 

His companion, a slightly smaller female figure with a sword at her hip and rifle in her hands, shook her head. “Fuck all if I know. You think they tell me anything more than they tell you? I’m only your senior by like three weeks. All I know is it’s something big and they don’t want any interruptions, so keep your eyes peeled. Hell, if we’re lucky, maybe they’re having him build something that could wipe out those fucking Boschers for good this time.” 

“Actually,” a voice from above and behind them remarked, “at the moment they want him to create something that hides all of you from any of those Boschers. You know, a permanent, perfect cloaking field around all your facilities that can stand up against their powers.” 

The sudden interruption was, to put it mildly, surprising. Both guards spun that way, snapping their weapons up. They found themselves staring at a small, young Seosten girl crouched there on top of the bunker’s roof, eying them curiously. The unconscious figure of the sniper who had been stationed further back on the roof lay next to her, his rifle discarded a bit to the side. 

“What th–shoot her!” the female guard snapped, already starting to open fire on the crouched figure. A rapid series of small purple lasers erupted from her rifle with the speed of a minigun, flooding the air with a hundred shots within only a couple seconds of pulling the trigger. The shots were intentionally spread out to cover an area roughly the size of a human male in order to hit any conceivable weak point on the body, and to cover any immediate attempt to dodge. 

Beside her, the male guard fired several quick rounds from his shotgun-like weapon. The destructive force from the explosive pellets the weapon fired could easily blow apart a car.  

All of that firepower, however, accomplished nothing. They simply hit a glowing forcefield that appeared in front of the girl. No, not a forcefield, a wing made of energy, which stretched out from behind the men and reached up to cover the crouched figure. 

Within seconds, the guards had stopped firing. Their heads slowly turned to find a slim man with gray hair and wire-frame glasses standing behind them. The glowing energy wings came from his back. 

“Afternoon,” Michael greeted them. 

“I’m truly sorry about this.” 

*****

Thirty seconds later, Michael used his wings once more to blow a hole through the bunker door. Then he gestured for his companion. “After you, my dear.”

Chayyiel, in turn, gave a short nod before proceeding inside and down the hall. She was already counting out a handful of previously enchanted marbles into one hand. At the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps, she reared back, triggered the spells upon the marbles, and chucked them. The marbles careened down the hall, bouncing off walls, floor, and ceiling. With each bounce, they emitted a stunning electrical shock. Soon, she heard them reach the incoming troops, who began firing uselessly at the tiny orbs while the sound of their cries filled the air, followed by dull thuds as their unconscious forms collapsed. 

“An elegant solution,” Michael noted. 

“Thanks,” she replied. “One makes do when you don’t have magic wings that can blast through everything in their way.” 

And so it continued. Chayyiel and Michael made their way through the entire bunker, casually dispatching anyone who happened to be in the way. Eventually, she reached the heart of the structure, a workroom filled with various tools, equipment of every shape and size, books full of spells, various types of field-engravers, and more. A single figure stood within that room. He was a tall (almost seven feet), heavyset male figure with dark blue skin, a turtle-like shell on his back, a pair of compound eyes centered on his face with two slits above that were used as a nose, and a mouth below. Four antennae, two small at only two inches and two large at almost six, adorned the top of his bald head. His long arms reached all the way to the ground if it let them droop, and had seven incredibly dextrous looking fingers at the end of each. 

“Are you here to kill me?” the man asked without looking up as the door slid open. His attention was on the oblong box he was carefully inscribing something into. “If so, might I ask that you wait until I finish this? An interruption could create a vortex that would swallow this entire facility and several hundred surrounding square miles.” 

“We’re not here to kill you, Quervus,” Michael informed the man before nodding to Chayyiel. “I was simply helping my young companion here find you. She’s been looking for quite awhile.” 

Chayyiel spoke up. “You did a job for a friend of mine about fifteen hundred years ago. You enchanted a piece of dragon bone and turned it into a sword.” 

There was a brief pause before Quervus nodded. “I remember it. You want another of those, I need another dragon bone.” 

“Not a sword,” she replied, reaching into her pocket to produce a bag, which she unwrapped and reached into, taking out a square chunk of dragon bone about three feet across. “Let’s just say, I acquired this from an old antique shop. I need you to turn it into the chest piece of a suit of armor.” 

Finally, Quervus turned to look at her. His eyes scanned over the bone she was holding. “For one of you, or the man the sword was for?” 

“Neither,” Michael put in. “But I have the measurements for you right here.”

Chayyiel nodded in agreement. “We have someone else in mind. 

“We need you to make it for a woman named Joselyn.” 

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Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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Class Action 14-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the the Heretical Edge noncanon right here and Summus Proelium noncanon right here

The next day was Wednesday, November 28th. It would also be my first day back attending actual classes since before we took that trip to Las Vegas. Which… felt like years ago, honestly. The intervening weeks had been so packed with emotional highs and deep, deep lows that I was almost certain there must have been some sort of time distortion involved. Err, besides the actual multiple instances of time travel. It felt as though I had actually aged the four years that I had been transported back and forth through. And yet, if that was the trade-off for getting my mother back safe, I would have gone through three times as much. Ten times as much, even. Mom was home. She was safe. We had won and killed Fossor. That was worth any amount of exhaustion, physical and emotional. And yes, I was probably going to regret having that thought, but still.  

“So this is the real deal Persephone, huh?” Columbus asked as he walked along my right side. Sands and Sarah were to the left, having a whispered conversation, while December and Tabbris trotted ahead, having their own less-whispered talk that seemed to be progressing at warp speed. They weren’t shouting or anything, they were just two little girls who were excited. December was going to be attending classes with Tabbris today, and they were really into that.

The six of us were on our way to the forcefield elevator to take us up to the main corridors. It was a bit too early for classes just yet, but we were going to go see Persephone. Columbus and Tabbris wanted to actually meet her officially, and the twins hadn’t had much time to talk to the woman yesterday. December was going mostly because Tabbris was. Plus she’d apparently heard a few stories about Persephone from Cahethal. Which kind of surprised me, as I hadn’t thought the woman was all that big on telling stories. But apparently she did occasionally trade rewards for good work. And while most of the other members of the Calendar requested more tangible things or even just vacation days, December had sometimes asked for stories. 

Either way, I nodded to the nearby boy while we stepped onto the lift. “Apparently. Perseus too, like I said. She’s… umm, interesting. I think what she really needs more than anything else is some more friends. People who aren’t going to tell her to go run off on her own for a hundred freaking years just to make her leave them alone.” The last bit came in a dark mutter as my head shook. I still couldn’t believe Manakel had done that. Apparently fairly regularly, even. 

As the elevator started to rise, Sands spoke up. “All I know is that she’s got really good aim when it comes to falling out of the sky. Seriously, that Nuckelavee was all, ‘oooh look some tasty little junior Heretics yum yum.’” She laughed then, slamming her fist into her palm hard. “And then bam! Splatter! Ksshhhhplooey!” The girl threw both hands apart, apparently pantomiming the monster exploding when Persephone had hit it. “Fucker never knew what hit him!” 

Snickering despite myself, I echoed, “Kshhhplooey? Can you narrate my battles in the future? Cuz I think you might have found your niche.” With a wink, I added, “Anyway, her aim is about as good as her timing. Common sense? Not really so much. But still, she’s… nice. Weird, but nice.” Seeing the way all of them were looking at me, I blanched. “Oh shut up. I don’t mean it like that. Seriously, I just think she could use a few friends a lot more than anything like that.” 

By that point, the lift had stopped and the six of us stepped off to move through the corridors to find our way to the Moon apartments. December pivoted and walked backwards while looking at me. “CanwemeetCerberus?!” The question came in a rush, her bright smile growing even wider when she said the robot dog’s name. “Cahethalsaidhe’sbig… andreallyhasthreeheads…andhecanfightghosts… andhehasalotoflasercannons… andsometimeshe’sevenbigger.” It was clearly taking genuine effort for the girl to slow herself down between every few words so it didn’t all run together in an incomprehensible jumble of syllables. She was also literally bouncing up and down while walking backwards, which Tabbris quickly emulated as both of them started giggling so much they almost fell over. Which, to be fair, walking backwards while bouncing up and down and giggling and only almost falling over showed how much my little sister had improved since the time she first started popping out of me regularly. She had been pretty clumsy for a Seosten back then, but it seemed her natural ability had quickly caught up and helped things. Part of me wondered how much of that came from the fact that she had unlocked the… gift from her biological father. I had no idea if accessing those wings and starting to exercise them actually helped with her physical coordination. But it probably couldn’t have hurt matters, at least. 

Shaking off those thoughts after a moment, I nodded to December. “Yeah, she’s got Cerberus. He’s in his smaller form, which is still pretty damn big. We haven’t seen the bigger version yet.” I glanced over to Columbus and the twins while adding, “Apparently it makes full-grown Amaroks look like little puppies. Which is both exciting and terrifying. But he’s a good dog.” 

“Really wouldn’t want to meet a bad version,” Sands murmured with a little shudder. I had the feeling she was thinking back to that first hunt we’d all gone on together when we faced the actual Amarok long before any of us were actually ready for something like that. Except maybe Avalon. I had the feeling she would’ve taken on the Amarok pretty effectively if she had to. But that might’ve been my bias talking. 

Either way, Sarah glanced to her sister before reminding her, “He was bad before he was reprogrammed.” Then she paused, a frown touching her face. “Or good?” 

“He was programmed to attack Manakel,” I agreed. “Which makes it complicated. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meant to differentiate too much between good and bad as long as it meant killing that guy. He probably would’ve just gone right through anyone in his way. But whatever he was before, he’s a good dog now. A big good dog with three heads and anti-ghost and zombie weaponry.” 

“I’m pretty sure anti-zombie weaponry is decent anti-anything else too,” Columbus cheerfully pointed out while nudging me. “The benefits of something that hits hard enough to put a lot of things down really quickly kind of extends beyond that narrow scope, you know?” 

“Speaking of going beyond a narrow scope,” I replied while extending my hand, my finger finding the button on the glove before I summoned Simpson, the ten-foot-long lemon shark, into the corridor ahead of us. Encased in the bubble that followed him, the big guy swam up near the ceiling, then turned back and went down to where Tabbris and December eagerly gave him rubs and scratches as though he was a big dog. 

“What’re you doing?” Sands asked curiously, head tilting as she watched that. 

“Me?” I winked. “I’m taking one of my sharks for a walk. Come on, guys, let’s go.” And with that, I suited action to words by starting walking down the hall with Simpson eagerly swimming ahead, curious about this new environment he was in. We passed a few people on the way, most of whom seemed just fine with a shark swimming in a bubble through the corridor. Honestly, it probably wasn’t the oddest thing they’d seen even that very morning. A few even stopped and wanted to pat or simply touch him. Which, of course, Simpson enjoyed. I’d had to keep my sharks separate from me for so long that just being able to pull them to me and let them interact with people like this any time I wanted to was enough that I had to stop and give Tabbris a tight hug. Then I did the same for Columbus, thanking them both fervently. 

“Just don’t forget to give Nevada a hug too,” Columbus put in, still flushing a little as he gestured. “She helped a lot with all that, and I really don’t wanna see the terrible rampage that could happen if she finds out everyone else got hugs and she didn’t.” He gave a clearly exaggerated shudder then, which made Tabbris and December both giggle. 

My head shook quickly as I made a show of crossing my heart. “In that case, I promise I’ll give her every hug she deserves as soon as I can. Wouldn’t want to take any risks.” 

With that, we continued on, heading into the faculty apartments area. Mom and Dad’s place was right down that way, but we continued on for the moment. Despite my urge to pop in and just… physically reassure myself that my mother was still here and safe, I really needed to give my parents some time alone. They’d been cut off from each other for a decade. When I thought about how I felt being separated from Avalon and Shiori just for the relatively much shorter times I had been, and then compared it to the idea of being separated from them for ten years or more? Yeah. I was going to let them have some time to themselves. To say nothing of letting my mother and Deveron have t–okay nope, I wasn’t even going to think about that

Stepping up beside me as we approached the door that led into the Moon residence, Sands asked, “So, about this Whispers thing. Do you think whoever they send out to find that Occillo guy is actually gonna pull it off? Cuz, well, I don’t wanna just be making up patterns out of nothing here, but it kinda seems like the sort of thing you’re gonna be pulled into dealing with. You know, past history and all.” She nudged me with a little smile before adding, “I’m just saying, maybe it’d be a good idea for all of us to hook spells to you to be dragged along if you… get taken on an accidental and/or unwanted trip.” 

Squinting at her, I was about to respond when the sound of racing metal feet made everyone spin to the left. We’d been about to knock on the Moon’s door, but one of the reasons we were there charged around the corner. Yeah, it was Cerberus. The three-headed metal dog was running eagerly down the hall, with Vanessa and Tristan right behind, each holding a leash that was attached to the robot animal’s left and right heads. There was a third leash attached to the middle head. That one was held by that pale, dark-haired girl whom I had seen interacting with the Moons earlier. She wasn’t running along behind, however. Instead, the girl was sitting on Cerberus’s back, giving a loud squeal as she was carried straight toward us. When they were still only about halfway down the hall, the girl jumped backwards off the animal just in time for Vanessa and Tristan to release the leashes and catch her. 

Seeing what was going on, Simpson started to interpose himself between us protectively. I was pretty sure that if sharks could growl, he would be doing it then. 

“It’s okay, boy.” I assured him, reaching out to pat his side comfortingly. At least, I hoped it was comforting. Simpson seemed to calm down a little, anyway. 

At the last second, the three-headed dog pulled up short. The center head leaned in close to me, sniffing before all three of them barked loudly and the robot animal jumped up and down a couple times excitedly. 

“Well hey there, big guy,” I greeted him with a chuckle. “Nice to see you too. Here, meet some new friends. This is my little sister Tabbris. And this is December, Sands, Sarah, and Columbus.” With each introduction, the person in question was greeted with at least one head shoving up close to sniff and lick at them curiously. When it came to Columbus, Amethyst (the little porcupine-armadillo cyberform) poked her head up out of the backpack he wore, squeaked, and ducked back down out of sight again. 

Simpson meanwhile, ‘swam’ up toward the ceiling and floated there, staring down at all this with a clearly suspicious look. He was watching Cerberus like a hawk, ready to jump in the second anything happened. The shark clearly didn’t care for the big metal canine very much. 

Catching up by then, Vanessa and Tristan each came up on either side, the latter waving cheerfully while panting in a way that made it clear he’d been running for a long time. “Hey there, guys. Just taking the giant, three-headed robot dog for walkies, what’s up with you?” 

“Mom and Dad wanted to talk to Persephone for a little while,” Vanessa quietly noted while reaching up to pat the left head. “So yeah, we took… we let Cerberus take us for a walk.” The amendment came as she glanced down at the leash a bit sheepishly. 

“He’s pretty excited to be in a new place,” Tristan agreed from the opposite side of the big metal dog. “And hey, at least he doesn’t make a mess in the hall.” Grimacing, he added, “Can you imagine trying to clean something like that up?” 

“Tristan!” Vanessa protested while leaning across Cerberus to swat at his shoulder. “Don’t be gross!” 

At that moment, the robot dog bounded forward a few feet, eagerly moving to be closer to Tabbris, December, and the others. There was excited barking and head rubs from all sides as he moved right in the middle, spinning in a slow circle as though every head was trying to get close to everyone all at the same time. Which resulted in a lot of squealing, laughing girls (and Columbus, of course, who was just as loud as the others). 

It was enough to make me smile, watching them for a moment before turning back to the twins. Err, the fraternal twins. “Well, at least they’re all having… uhh, fun.” Trailing off, I focused on the unfamiliar girl who was walking up to join the other two. “Hey there, sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.” I extended a hand that way. 

Rather than accepting the handshake, however, the girl blurted a short, “Hah!” She was squinting at me with obvious suspicion. “I bet you’d like me to be dumb enough to give you all the skin and sweat samples you need to make a spell that could turn me inside out while making me survive to live a tortured existence for all eternity, wouldn’t you, minion of Galazien the Iron-Souled, ripper of the veil between all realities and devourer of souls?!” She raised a hand to point, voice a low murmur. “I’m onto you.”  

My mouth opened, then shut as I made a noise deep in my throat before managing to focus on Vanessa and Tristan while the girl continued to stare at me suspiciously. “Why didn’t you guys tell me Wyatt’s been messing with shapeshifting?” 

With a snort, Tristan gestured. “Dylan, it’s okay. This is Flick. She’s… trust me, she’s cool. She’s a friend and a lot more than that. Our families are sort of…” He crossed his fingers demonstrably before looking at me. “Flick, this is Dylan Averty. She’s umm, boy that’s a long story.” 

So, they gave me the short version. Dylan was the daughter of Haiden’s long-lost sister (the original Vanessa, whom our Vanessa was named for), who had somehow survived long past the time Haiden thought she had been killed while in training at Eden’s Garden. For whatever reason, however, she never sought Haiden or anyone else out. Instead, she had been living what appeared to be a completely normal life in the Bystander world over a hundred years after her supposed death, with a husband and daughter. Then some guys showed up, killed the husband and the original Vanessa herself, but Dylan escaped thanks to a Kitsune who showed up and survived just long enough to get her out of there and back to his special mansion full of magic books. He also bonded her to him before dying. Oh, and the guy who killed Dylan’s father? Yeah, apparently that was Jeremiah Dallant. As in the Baron of Wyoming for Crossroads. I’d met the guy once and… well, I certainly didn’t think he was this kind of evil. He was nice to me. Not that that proved anything or whatever, but still. The man had been intentionally making sure the Crossroads people didn’t find out about Asenath staying at my house, because Gaia asked him to. I just–Gaia trusted him, and now he was apparently out there cutting innocent men’s heads off to serve some weird, nebulous super-evil guy? I was confused, to say the least. Incredibly, indescribably confused. And I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to get any better anytime soon. 

“Dad and Larissa are looking into that,” Vanessa informed me, clearly recognizing the look on my face. She glanced to her brother briefly before adding, “They were really firm about that.” 

“Yeah, seriously firm,” Tristan agreed. “We are to take a break and go to class. No running off to investigate this Dallant guy ourselves. They said that three times. I tried to point out that it’d be kinda hard to get all the way down to Earth from inside the sun without them knowing.” 

“And,” Vanessa put in, “Dad told him not to treat them like idiots. And then told us for the fourth time to let them handle it for now.” 

“Four times, huh?” Sands, who had joined us with the others in time to hear most of that, whistled low. “Sounds serious.” 

“Super serious,” Tristan agreed. “So, we figure we’ll probably get dragged into it one way or another… what, next week? How’s all your schedules look?” As he said that, the boy winked at Sarah, who immediately turned slightly pink. The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds before he stepped over and whispered something to her. Which just made Sarah’s blush deepen. She then retaliated by whispering something to him, and it was suddenly Tristan’s turn to cough and look flustered.  

That Dylan girl looked back and forth between all of us through that before speaking up, her voice a conspiratorial whisper. “You don’t trust the people here on this station either? Good. Galazien has spies everywhere. They could be anyone and anywhere. Or anything. He likes to put magic in food. Who would suspect that the carton full of eggs sitting in your refrigerator is listening to every word you say, hmm? Who would believe that the milk you take out every morning for your breakfast is transmitting your secrets back to one of Galazien’s evil minions, just waiting for you to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and secure the doom of all reality?!” 

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I raised my gaze to look toward Simpson where he was still floating in his bubble near the ceiling. He, in turn, stared right back at me. He gave no gesture nor did he make any indication or change in facial expression. Because, well, he was a shark. But still, I sensed that he was just as baffled as I was by this whole thing. 

Columbus was the first to speak. “Don’t worry, we’re really careful about things like that.” 

Dylan, in turn, leaned closer to him and hissed, “Not… careful… enough.” 

“She’snotwrongaboutspies,” December hurriedly put in while literally flipping herself over to run on her hands. And she really did run. There was no awkward stumbling around on her hands, she was fully upside down, using her hands to move at a quick pace in a circle around Cerberus as she continued. “TheotherMonthsandme….wespyonpeopleallthetime…asanimalscuzpeopledon’t….payattentiontothemliketheyshould…imaginehowmuchstuff… wecouldoverhearifwewerefood!” 

Catching the other girl’s ankles to stop her, Tabbris pointed out, “If you were animals, you were technically already food.” 

“Nodon’teatmenoooo!” December protested while giggling. Which made Tabbris giggle and blurt something about gobbling her up right now. December wiggled her legs free and fell over, with Tabbris jumping on her with loud chomping sounds. That devolved to both of them squealing and giggling as they rolled over and over one another. 

Smiling to myself, I shook my head and let them be before focusing on the others. “Right, well, I guess we’ll see what happens with that whole… Dallant thing.” I still felt annoyed about all that, given I’d met the guy personally and thought he was fine at the time. But I shook that off before pushing on. “Meanwhile, we were hoping to grab Persephone so the others could meet her. You think she’s still busy with your parents?” 

Tristan shrugged, starting toward the door. “Let’s find out.” On the way, he glanced back to Columbus. “Seriously, dude, you have to meet her. She’s got some wild stories. Just uhh, you know, be ready. Cuz she’s a lot.” 

He definitely wasn’t wrong about that. And as I thought about Persephone, then looked toward Dylan while thoughts of her whole situation, this Galazien guy (whoever that really was), and Dallant himself came to mind, I grimaced. Then I grimaced even more as I thought about the Whispers thing and how they were going to try to track down that guy. Yeah, I should probably enjoy this time as a ‘normal’ student attending regular classes and all while I could. 

Because I had a feeling life would get insane again pretty damn quick. 

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Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 21st 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.

Virginia Dare

1943

The sound of a woman’s terrified scream filled the night air, cutting through the quiet noise of various nocturnal animals. It was a night brightly lit by a full moon and millions of twinkling stars, which shone over the narrow dirt road. It ran between two enormous fields of corn that seemed to stretch on for miles in either direction. Down that dirt road ran the woman in question, the source of the scream. Her face was covered in dirt and spots of blood from various scratches she had picked up by running through the nearby woods that had led to the road itself. The woman was barely out of her teens, a small, frail-looking thing with dark brown hair worn in a long braid. Her name was Vera Anderlie, and she was dressed in overalls and a checkered shirt, with muddy boots. 

Although Vera’s scream was loud, it was nothing compared to the deafening cacophony of half a dozen wolves howling. Large wolves, who at that very moment were tearing up the dirt slightly behind the fleeing woman. She heard them, not only the howls, but the pants, the yips, the excited, horrifyingly eager snarls. Right behind her, they were right behind her, barely a few steps back. Close enough to pounce if they had so chosen. As they had been throughout this entire chase, ever since she made the mistake of trying to walk through the woods at night. 

That was almost the worst of it, really. They were playing with her, torturing Vera by making her think she could escape while still staying right on her tail. They could jump her any time, take her to the ground and rip her throat out on this step, or the next one, or the next. Just one wolf by itself could have caught and killed her long before she even got this far, let alone all six. It was a game to them, a game with her own life. They loved hearing her whimpers, smelling her terror, the tears running down her face, the sound of her heart pounding out of her chest. 

Soon, they would end it. Any moment now, they would tire of the game. Then they would bring her to the ground with a single leap, and she would feel their teeth tearing into her. It would be the last thing she felt. The last feeling she ever had would be horrific agony, the last thought would be a desperate wish that she could go back and choose not to take a walk that night. Her last moments would be filled with nothing but terror, regret, and agony. Any second now, any step, any breath, any beat of her heart, and they would finish this the only way it could end. 

Then, a different sound pierced the air, one born not of the woman, nor her pursuers. It was a sharp, almost painfully loud whistle. Both Vera herself, and the wolves hot on her heels, stumbled to a stop and looked toward the source. 

A figure, another woman, stepped into view from where she had been hidden in the shadows of the corn. An aristocratically beautiful, blonde figure who appeared to be in her early to mid-thirties, with long blonde hair worn in a single braid similar to the girl who had been chased this far, though her own was dark compared to this woman’s quite-light locks. She wore black suit pants with a crisp white shirt that was tucked in, her entire outfit and look making the woman appear to be more at home working in an office. That was, if women could ever do such a thing without being laughed out of the building. It looked as though she had taken her husband’s work-attire and dressed in it for fun, yet the clothes fit her perfectly. 

And, of course, there was the sword hanging from a sheathe at her hip. 

“Having fun?” the blonde woman asked with a raised eyebrow. “Truly, you have my apologies. Had I but known the desperate plight of your pack, I would have extended a hand of help sooner.” Her head shook as she lamented, “To be so hard-up for food that you must hunt humans, and so pathetically weak to choose such a small, helpless woman as your target, your pack must be truly pitiful. I would suggest hunting the rats in the field behind me, but I would not wish to subject your people to such terror.”

Her words earned a low, dangerous growl from the wolves themselves. They… they understood her, Vera realized, eyes darting back and forth between the assembled monsters and the woman who stood there so casually. The wolves seemed to have forgotten her for the moment, but Vera didn’t dare move and draw their attention once more. They were slowly spreading out to arrange themselves in a half-circle around the newcomer, snarling dangerously. Clearly, they had both understood the insult, and taken offense to it. 

If she was worried by their reaction and threatening posture, the blonde didn’t show it. She simply stood there, not even so much as reaching for the sword at her hip. As the wolves gave their threatening snarls and bared their teeth, she offered them a very faint, humorless smile while making absolutely no move to prepare any sort of defense. “I would offer food of my own, but perhaps it would be better to remove a few of the mouths who need it.” 

They understood the threat just as well as they had understood the insult. As soon as the woman said that, the wolves braced themselves to lunge that way and tear her apart. However, at the last possible second, the blonde called out, “You’re some pretty big wolves, aren’t you? 

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

The werewolves were dead. They wouldn’t bother anyone else again. Certainly not Vera Anderlie, who had fainted shortly after Virginia had grown to her full-sized gigantic amarok form. Virginia had woken the woman up once it was over and she had disposed of the corpses, telling her that she had apparently been taking a hike and passed out from dehydration. She made sure the woman got back to her farmhouse before checking the woods around the area to be absolutely certain there were no remaining members of that pack hiding around. 

Now, she was leaving the woods surrounding the farmhouse behind and heading back to the dirt road. In mid-step, she paused, head tilting a little before she spoke up. “How long have you been watching?” 

Gaia Sinclaire stepped into view, curiously asking, “In general, or tonight?” 

Seeing her mentor standing there, the woman who had been a mother to her for so long, brought a rush of very powerful feelings to Virginia. Everything she had given up and walked away from in order to protect the world from the Fomorians had always been in the back of her mind throughout the intervening decades. But now it all came flooding to the forefront, almost making her physically stagger. Seeing Gaia reminded her of her husband… and her daughter. Her daughter, Joselyn…  It took everything she had not to visibly react. 

“Is something wrong?” she finally managed to get out, keeping her voice as steady as possible. Why was Gaia here? Staying away from everyone had already been hard enough as it was, but standing here face-to-face with the woman she cared about so much? It made things exponentially worse. Everything, all of those feelings of loss, separation, the terror and horrific guilt of walking away from her only child right after the death of her husband, it… it was too much. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t be here, couldn’t see Gaia right now. She couldn’t–

And then Gaia was there. Not only in sight, but right in front of her. The woman’s arms closed around Virginia, holding her close as the blonde felt all the strength leave her. She slumped against the woman who had been so important to her for so long. It was wrong. She couldn’t do this. She had to leave, had to walk away. Please, she needed an excuse to leave right now, before–

“Yes,” Gaia was saying quietly, her grip around the other woman tightening very slightly. “Something is certainly wrong. Sadly, I don’t know what that is. You see, I had thought for quite some time that keeping you away from me was for the best, so that your reputation among our people would not be drawn into the gutters after my decision to… sacrifice Desoto. There was no reason for you to bear any measure of the reactions from those who believe they know better, who believe they could have done better. I believed that leaving you out of my life in these years was for your own good.” 

There was a brief, poignant pause then. A pause during which everything inside Virginia screamed for her to make an excuse and flee. That would be for the best, the way to protect her secret and thus protect the world. She couldn’t risk Gaia realizing the truth, couldn’t… shouldn’t… And yet, no matter what her brain told her body, her heart had taken over and refused to relinquish control. For decades, she had been alone, wandering the same world she had sacrificed everything to protect. Right now, after all those years of being apart from anyone who knew her, the idea of walking away from Gaia was too much. She was just… tired. She was so very tired. 

Gaia’s voice continued softly while she held Virginia close. “And yet, the other day, an odd fact came to mind. You have not joined this new rebellion. You certainly have not worked against it. I know that there have been offers from both sides, people attempting to recruit you. But you refuse to be involved in any of it. I know you, Virginia. I know your opinions, and I certainly know that you would be at the forefront of such a conflict. Be it on the side of Crossroads if you believed their propaganda, or on the side of the rebellion if they were who you sympathized with. But staying out of it entirely? That is not the Virginia I know. And it gave me the realization that I was not staying away from you for your protection. You have been staying away from me, from everyone. That is the mystery I have been trying to solve. Why is my student, my girl, my… Virginia staying away from everyone who could possibly care about her?” 

No. No, no, she couldn’t… Voice cracking, Virginia managed a weak, “You need to walk away, Gaia. You need to go back to Crossroads and… help them. You need to go.” 

“Virginia,” came Gaia’s quiet yet firm response, “you know me better than that. Just as I know you. The only thing that could possibly make either of us walk away from…” She trailed off. 

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, Virginia couldn’t let this happen. She had to leave, had to disappear before–

“You.” Gaia’s voice was filled with sudden realization. “It was you. Of course. How could it be anyone else? The magic made it so hard to make that connection, but–” 

Her words were interrupted by a sound. A sound that nearly tore Virginia Dare’s heart from her chest. It was the sound of an earthquake, yet not anything that simple. It was far more than simply the ground shaking. The air itself practically tore itself apart as the banishment spell surrounding the planet, the spell that kept the Earth safe from Fomorian invasion, was shaken at its very foundation. Virginia sacrificing her identity, her connections to her family, was one of the main pillars keeping that spell going. And now, with Gaia’s realization, that pillar was being violently jostled. If it fell, if that pillar collapsed and the protective spell was broken…

Both Virginia and Gaia felt the spell wavering, like a stack of plates that had been jostled and was teetering back and forth. Looking up, they could see the night sky turn a deep, blood-like red, with thick clouds that were more solid than they should be. Yellow-orange lightning lanced through those thick clouds, as something began to reach through… 

And then it was gone. The sky went back to normal, and the air around them stopped trying to crack itself apart. The magic had been damaged, but held firm. Dangerous and terrifying as that had been, the spell wasn’t broken. 

Gaia, who had released Virginia through that, turned to face her once more. “That…” she said quietly, “was quite close.” 

Swallowing hard, the pain of what she was about to say nearly making it impossible to speak, Virginia replied, “Now you know why I have to walk away again. Please, don’t make this even harder, Gaia. You have to understand why I can’t be around anyone.” 

To her surprise, however, Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you see, my dear? You may have been right at one point. But now? The damage has been done. I know the truth, and the spell has stood firm. Be that a matter of luck or not, the fact remains that it is still holding steady. I know you the most, dearest Virginia. Of those who are here in the world now, I know you better than any. And others know that. They know that you have been my student. That much was not erased. Which do you truly believe would keep those others from putting too much thought to where you are and what you have been doing all these years, being entirely on your own, apart from everyone as a hermit in the wild who interacts with none of our people… or working for your old teacher, in a school where she was recently promoted to the position of headmistress and finally given the authority to hire any staff she prefers?” 

That brought Virginia’s gaze around to stare at the other woman. “You want me to come to Crossroads? You want me to help–I can’t–my daughter. My daughter is running a reb–” 

“I know,” Gaia gently assured her. “And yet, you cannot go to her. Horrible and painful as it may be, we both know that you cannot join that rebellion. Being that close to Joselyn is too much of a risk. But you can join me at Crossroads, and start to more… subtly help those who need it. There are students who are ready to switch sides, who are the right people to point toward Joselyn’s camp. But I need help to identify them. You cannot help your daughter directly, Virginia. This is something you can do. If you choose. Come in from the cold. Hide in plain sight.” 

There was a brief pause as everything that could possibly go wrong with this idea raced through Virginia’s head. It was dangerous, wrong, she had to flee, she had to walk away and be on her own again. She had to… had to… Tired. Gods, she was so tired of being alone. So tired of having no one to confide in, no one to talk about her beautiful daughter and lost husband with. So… utterly exhausted and lonely. 

Her eyes closed, and Virginia let out a long breath, pushing all those doubts and worries out. What else might come from this… they would deal with. Because at this moment, for the first time in decades… she wasn’t alone anymore. Finally, her eyes opened and she met Gaia’s gaze once more. 

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

“We know you. You’re Kushiel and Puriel’s child.” 

The announcement came from May, as she, April, and December sat together on a couch in a small waiting room outside the Fusion School principal’s office. The three were perched side by side, exactly where they had been told to wait while Abigail Fellows disappeared into the office to have had what had appeared to be the start of an intense conversation with the Olympian Athena and several others. They had been waiting for ten minutes before they were joined in the waiting room by a new, clearly familiar figure. One they had met before. 

“Theia,” the brunette girl informed them while folding her arms. Her gaze moved over the three with a look of intense scrutiny. “My name is Theia.” 

The three of them exchanged glances before looking back. December had already popped to her feet, unable to hold herself back any more. “Theywererightyoudohaveanamelikearealnamethat’sseriouslycoolhowdidyougetanameanddidyoureallykillKushielcuzsomeonesaidyoudidbutthenothersaidthat–” 

“December,” April gently interrupted, rising to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder without taking her gaze off of the subject of her wild rush of words. “She wants to know if you–” 

“I heard,” came the casual reply. “I’m a good listener.” Her eyes remained narrowed at them. “And an even better watcher. I watch and listen for bad things.” Taking a small step closer then, she added, “I like to watch and listen for bad things that might hurt my friends.” 

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

May stepped forward, putting her hand on December’s other shoulder while speaking up. “She’s right. We’re not here to hurt anyone. There’s a truce, as you know. We’re just here to observe this school and inform Cahethal about how the work here is proceeding so that she can decide if she believes it should continue when the time comes.” 

Meeting her gaze, Theia retorted, “That is not up for her to decide.” 

“And yet,” April carefully put in before May could say anything, “the Seraphs will look to her for an opinion and advice when the time comes. That is what we are here to help provide, simply by informing her of what we see. That is all. We have no ill-intent, and have been up-front with our intentions. Even with the fact that we are here in the first place.” 

“You’ve changed.” That was May, her gaze scrutinizing Theia. “Last year, you didn’t have a name. You thought it was strange that we didn’t use the L word amongst ourselves, that we used other names. And now you have your own. And you killed your mother.” The last bit, though it could have been an accusation, came off more… curious, as though she still couldn’t believe that part was real. 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “I killed my mother, because she tried to hurt my friends. She tried to kill my friends. She…” Her gaze dropped to the floor briefly as the girl took a breath before looking up once more. “She did very bad things and did not deserve to live.” 

Her attention moved back to May, their gazes locking before she added, “And yes, I have changed. Many things have changed. Most of them, for me, because of Abigail Fellows. She is… important. So, whatever your eventual intentions, remember what you just said. I killed my mother, Kushiel. I killed her because she was a threat to my friends. Remember that, as you follow any instructions Cahethal gives you.” 

“We will remember,” April carefully agreed. “As we said, we have no ill-intentions. And we do not believe Cahethal will request any of us. Not with the amount of attention, including your own, that will be on us here.” 

A long, silent moment passed as Theia seemed to examine them each thoroughly before she abruptly straightened and smiled. “Good. Then I will tell Abigail that you should be allowed to stay.” Her voice lowered a bit conspiratorially. “She asked me to come talk to you and tell her what I thought.” 

“You truly have changed… Theia,” May noted, clearly thinking about their previous meeting. 

“Yes, I have,” came the chirped response. “And do you know what? 

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

Being on the bridge of the Olympus brought back so many memories for Puriel. Some good, some very much not. But all of them, the positive and the negative, were incredibly strong and powerful memories, even after all these years. Some of that was due to the Seosten inability to forget anything without magical assistance. But most of it was far more… emotional than that. 

He stood at what had been his original station, the captain’s chair, staring through the forward viewport as his mind was cast back through images from far off centuries. Lost in those thoughts, he didn’t notice as the rest of his motley assortment of… ‘crew’ (in a manner of speaking) filed into the room and waited for him. 

Eventually, he felt a gentle, yet firm poke in the back of his mind by Spark, and looked up to see them all lined up there. Spark herself had appeared in her hardlight form, next to her brother Omni and the other seven Seosten children who had been rescued from the research facility. Behind that group stood Maria and Arthur Chambers, beside their old friend (and Puriel’s protege) Alcaeus, Kutattca, and Aletheia, the woman whom Puriel had shared nearly as much with as his wife. 

This was his crew for this ship. The old Puriel would have been horrified by that fact. Now… now the only horror he felt was at the thought of anything happening to these people. Any of them. 

But getting them back to Earth was how he would make sure that didn’t happen. And the next step of that was happening today, right now. 

“Thank you all for coming here,” he abruptly spoke, pushing all those thoughts and memories aside. “This is important enough that we felt that we should have everyone present on the bridge to witness the first test. After all, each of you helped build the system. If it works, it will be thanks to everyone here.” His gaze moved to the assortment of Seosten children who had helped carry things back and forth through long, winding corridors as he firmly reiterated, “Everyone.” 

Maria spoke up then. “This is the doohickey that’s supposed to get this spaceship past the defenses your people use to stop people from getting close to Earth, yes? The Berlin Wall of space.” 

Pausing as he realized that he truly had no idea what she was speaking of, Puriel coughed. “Ah, I assume that is an accurate comparison, yes. Ideally, we would have used the instantaneous transport system Spark designed over a year ago, but the materials needed for that are… out of our reach. Bringing the prototype vessel that is already on Earth is also not a good idea, considering we believe our people may have developed the ability to track its movements within our space, and its arrival would create… issues. Not to mention we would either be forced to abandon the Olympus or spend days or even weeks transferring the jump system and modifying it to work on a much larger scale. Neither of those options is appropriate. Thus, we find ourselves needing another way of bypassing those defenses. One that does not involve starting a war.” 

“Much as I’d like a good scrap,” Alcaeus noted, “that’s probably a good idea. So we’ve been putting this whole thing together, but I’m still not sure… exactly what it is.” 

“Brilliant,” Aletheia put in, her gaze locked on the magical holographic image of Spark. “That is what it is. Utterly brilliant.” 

“It is certainly that,” Puriel agreed, “but as for details, perhaps it would be best if Spark herself showed everyone with this test.” 

The girl in question hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable with the attention from everyone. In the end, however, she stepped out of the group and moved over to where the pilot and navigator stations were. Her gaze passed over their seats and controls briefly before she pivoted to face everyone else. “Um… so… many ships have the ability to cloak, to turn invisible both magically and through technology. But the Seosten know how to detect that, and have lined their border with those detectors. One of their uhh, main defenses against that are what you might think of as motion detectors. They blanket an area with an extremely low-level magic field, almost imperceptible. Like a sheet of paper so thin you can see through it. Thin, but present. The moment anything disturbs that magical field, it alerts their system and the intrusion is identified. The field exists both in real-space and the pocket universe our slide-drives use.” 

“Well, that sounds like it’d be hard to get past,” Arthur noted before raising an eyebrow. “So how are we getting past it?” 

“Like this,” Spark announced before turning to touch a finger against one of the controls there. As she did so, the ship abruptly began to shudder. It rocked back and forth a few times, while an alert began to sound. That was accompanied by a distinct and prolonged sinking sensation that made everyone’s stomachs seem to rise up toward their throats. 

The others jolted a bit and looked nervous, but Puriel stayed calm and raised a hand for them to be at ease. He could sense the power through the ship, and knew things were proceeding properly. Well, as properly as a first full-scale test could, at least. If anything had gone wrong, he was fully prepared to take the energy away from the system so it wouldn’t hurt anyone. But things were going, if not perfectly, at least within reason. 

Then it was done. The alert stopped, and the sinking sensation went away. As soon as it did, Spark gave a broad smile, raising both hands above her head. “It worked!” 

“Uhh… what worked?” Arthur asked, looking around. “What happened?” 

“Computer,” Puriel announced, “bring up the view of the exterior of the ship and surrounding space, then begin panning out.” 

The computer did just that, as a hologram appeared in the middle of the room. It showed the Olympus itself as they expected to see, with its main orb surrounded by three thruster-like gunships. As soon as they recognized that, the view pulled back. Immediately, everyone saw something… unexpected. An enormous metal thing, like another ship, a much larger one.  The whole thing was twice the size of the Olympus, and they had no idea how it could possibly have gotten that close. It was shaped like two crisscrossing blades spread slightly apart, leading back to a pair of slightly thicker, circular structures at the far end that were orange rather than the gleaming silver metal. Those parts could have been the living part of the ship or station.

Then the confusing shape slowly drifted in their view, allowing them to see a word printed across the top of one of the metal blade-like parts. 

“Fiskars?” Maria blurted, eyes widening. “Are those my fabric scissors?! Did you gigantasize my fabric scissors?!” 

“The opposite,” Alcaeus realized. “The ship shrank. They shrank us down so much your scissors are twice as big as this ship.” 

Puriel gave a short nod. “Precisely. And ahh, have no fear, Maria. We will retrieve your tool. You have my word. I merely required something you would be familiar with as a demonstration.” Clearing his throat a bit uncomfortably as she squinted at him for daring to endanger something as important as those scissors, he pressed on. “As we said, whenever something passes through the field blocking off entrance to your world, it is identified. However, there are many small asteroids and comets which repeatedly pass through the field. These are identified and heavily scanned every time they pass through, looking for people attempting to hide within them. But with the ship in this small state, we can simply stop it within one of the smaller asteroids just before it passes through the field, and we will be too small to pick up in their scans. They will detect the materials of the ship, but their system will register those as microscopic amounts, not worth pursuing. Trace minerals within the asteroid itself.” 

“Well, that sounds… terrifying,” Maria noted. “But if it works and gets us back to Earth and the rest of my family, that’s good enough for me. How soon can we do that?” 

“We need to thoroughly test the system,” Spark quickly announced. “Just to make sure it won’t suddenly fail in the middle of the trip. And then wait for the right asteroid to be close. There is a good candidate about three weeks out. We… we will have to work hard to make sure everything is ready before then.” 

Arthur gave a firm nod. “Then that’s exactly what we’ll do. You tell us how to make sure this system of yours is ship-shape. Put us to work. But uhh, can we go back to being full-sized again? This is making me nervous.” 

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

“No,” the man replied, “having Maria’s fabric scissors floating out there in space. We need to go back to full size and pull them in. 

“If anything happened to those things, I think she’d finish manifesting your Olympian powers from the bond you made with her and kill us all.” 

******* 

Millions of years ago

“It’s coming! It’s coming, we have to hurry!” Accompanying the frantic voice was the almost deafening sound of the planet seeming to shake itself apart. Buildings were crashing throughout the city, the cacophonous screams of the dying forming a terrible chorus alongside the unending quakes and explosions triggered by untold damage to vehicles and power sources. 

The long corridor filled by the shout was triangular, rising to a point fifteen feet in height. Which made it plenty high enough for the assortment of ten-foot-tall beings who were rushing through it at that very moment. They were of humanoid-avian appearance, though with two full sets of wings attached to their backs, one at the shoulders and one around the lower-middle of their backs. The higher wing-set tucked downward, while the lower tucked upward so that both sets interlocked with one another when not in use. When extended, the lower wings would invert themselves to point downward. They possessed two lightly feathered arms, separate from the wings, a beak-like mouth, and three eyes equidistant across the front of their face, two toward the sides and capable of turning to look in opposite directions, while the third was centered. They were capable of seeing and processing the view from three entirely separate directions at once. The six beings all possessed feathers of different colors, normally one solid shade across most of the body, fading into a different color toward the head, the hands, and the ends of the wings. Their taloned feet were black, though that was impossible to see as the avian-figures were clad in gleaming metallic blue armor, which included heavy boots. Each carried a grayish-green box about a foot across.  

The beings were known as the Kelensians, and there was a very good reason these six in particular were in such a rush. Even more so than everyone else in this rapidly shattering city, as the sounds of destruction, heralding the very real end of the world, grew louder with each passing second. 

Five of the beings continued to run toward a waiting elevator, but one had stopped. His main body and feathers were a dark, burgundy red, fading to a bright, gleaming white at his fingers, across his head, and at the tips of his wings. He froze in mid-step, looking through a nearby window at the world-ending monster who was approaching. He could see very little of it from this small window, only an indistinct shape as tall as a building. One of four different creatures who had appeared in the universe decades earlier and proceeded to wreak havoc, destroying and killing everything in their paths on every world they found. And now one of them was here, in this city. It would destroy the capital, and then move on to kill the rest of the Kelsensia across the world.

“Zien!” one of the other Kelensians shouted, shifting the weight of the box she carried. “Move your tail feathers! We didn’t do all this for the past year just to fuck up now, come on!” 

“I… I…” Zien stammered, staring through the window. “What if it doesn’t work? What if–what if–” 

Cursing him, a different Kelensian stormed that way. “Forget it, you know we can’t count on him. He’s a coward. Good old Coward Zien.” Reaching out, he snatched the box away from Zien and held that along with his own before turning to rush toward the elevator once more while snapping for the others to follow. They gave one last look back toward their companion, still-petrified from terror, before regretfully leaving him there. 

They were right, he… he had to keep moving. He had to help them. It was the only chance their people had of surviving this attack. If the stranger who had come to their world was telling the truth, the spell that Zien and almost a thousand others had spent the past year inscribing all across the planet, a world-wide rune, would banish the monsters who had carved such a path of destruction across the universe. 

But if it didn’t work, they would be at the very top of the tallest structure in the city, with no time to escape. Survival right now wasn’t likely at any stretch. But if he ran away, if he fled out of the building and hid in the forests, there was the slightest chance the monster might move to a new world before finishing with this one. It had happened before, on other planets. He might survive. He might escape and hide. But if he went up to the tower with the others and the stranger’s plan didn’t work, he would be dead the moment the monster reached them. 

But… but the others, his friends. If they… he couldn’t just… They were right, he was a coward. For almost five minutes, he stood there, frozen by indecision while the monster drew closer and closer. He could run. He could escape. He could try to survive. 

Before he knew it, Zien was moving toward the elevator. Frightened as he was, he couldn’t abandon his friends. He reached the shaft, only to find it unresponsive. The forcefield that should have lifted him toward the next floor had been shut down. So, he spread both sets of wings as much as he could and flapped down hard to send himself soaring upward. It was a long, arduous, and terrifying flight, trying to rise as rapidly as he could from the bottom of the building, all the way to the tip of the tower thousands of feet up. 

Finally, he made it, landing at the entrance to the tower control room where the spell was meant to be triggered. The doors were closed, so he had to pry them open. Eventually, Zien managed to squeeze through the space, emerging into the control room. He expected to see his friends all waiting to chide him for taking so long. 

Instead, what Zien walked into at that moment was a nightmare beyond any he could have imagined. 

His companions, his friends, were dead. But more than that, they had each been nailed to the walls by all four wings, with a series of eight-inch-wide metal spikes. Their faces had been burned so thoroughly that all three eyes in their heads had burst. Their throats had been slit, and their blood used to scrawl more spell runes across the floor and walls. Worse, their torsos had been cut across the middle, allowing several organs to be removed and deliberately set at various parts of the intricate spell lines. 

And standing in the middle of all that, just as he finished carefully arranging one of the hearts, was the stranger who had come to the Kelensian homeworld and claimed he could save them, the man Zien and the others had helped for the past year. 

The man who had just finished murdering all of Zien’s friends, and arranging their blood and organs across his spell.

Now, the man looked up to stare at Zien. He looked far different than any Kelensian. He was several feet shorter, at only seven feet. He had no feathers, his skin gray and tough, with black spots and lines scattered across it. His form was very sturdily built, like a boulder, and he had four arms, two eyes in the center of his head, and a thin mouth rather than a beak. That mouth was stretched wide in a smile. “Zien, so glad you came after all.” He spoke in his own language, words that he had used magic to teach the Kelansians he interacted with the meaning of. 

Reeling from shock, Zien felt both of his stomachs twist in on themselves. A scream tore its way through his beak as he used both wings to launch himself at the monster. The one in the room, rather than the one tearing its way closer and closer to this tower with every second that passed. He wasn’t thinking about that, wasn’t thinking about the fact that he would die any second now. No, he was only thinking of tearing apart the man who had massacred his friends. 

And yet, in mid-lunge, the stranger simply spoke a word and Zien found himself bodily yanked to the ground. An invisible force held him there, while the man spoke casually. “I’m surprised you bothered trying something like that instead of just running away. After all, what was it your friends called you? Coward Zien? What was that in your words? Coward, Gala? Coward Zien. Gala Zien, that was it.” 

An inarticulate scream of anger, frustration, terror, and grief ripped its way out of Zien as he struggled helplessly against the force pinning him to the ground. 

“Sure, good luck with that, Gala Zien,” the stranger idly remarked. “I’m sure you’ll summon up the twenty tons of force needed to break that hold any second now. In the meantime, I’m just going to finish becoming immortal, if you don’t mind.” 

Head snapping that way as much as possible, Zien blurted, “Th-that will kill you!” His eyes were focused on the window where they could hear the creature steadily approaching. 

“That?” the stranger laughed. “That won’t be a problem for much longer. Why else would I come to this… primitive, backwater hole and convince all you sad, pathetic beings to create a sacrifice spell across your entire planet? You see, all spells require power. The strongest ones require a lot of power. Becoming immortal, truly immortal? That requires more power than you can even begin to imagine. The sort of power that sacrificing millions can’t come close to getting. But billions? Hell, trillions once we get into every living being on this world who isn’t actually a Kelansian. Every insect, every bird, every mammal, every living creature. Now that kind of sacrifice could fuel one hell of a spell.” 

Even as he said that, the tower violently shook. In mere seconds, the creature outside would be on top of them. So, the stranger grimaced. “Ah, sounds like The Next is almost here. Yeah, that’s what the civilized universe calls that thing. Now if you don’t mind… I need to finish this.” He reached toward a spot on the wall with just enough space between runes for his hand, already chanting words in some strange language. That spot began to glow brightly, and the man let out a cheerful, triumphant laugh while his hand reached for it. 

Then it happened. The tower shook violently once more, and a small chunk of debris from the ceiling fell. It collided with the stranger’s wrist, making him recoil with a yelp and curse. And in that instant, Zien felt the power holding him fade. He took immediate advantage, lunging to his feet and throwing himself that way. The stranger saw him coming and turned, but it was too late. Zien may not have been much of a fighter, but he had three feet on his opponent and a lot of anger fueling him. He collided with the man with enough force to throw him back against the wall, the sound of several bones cracking filling the room. 

“Won’t… take.. my… destiny!” the stranger bellowed, twisting to slap his hand out toward the still-glowing spot on the wall. 

Still bellowing mindlessly, Zien lunged to grab his hand, refusing to let him complete this spell. If he was going to die, if his world was going to die, so was this monster. However, he missed the man’s wrist. Instead, his flailing hand slapped against the glowing spot, while the stranger gave his own enraged scream. 

And then? Then there was silence. Silence, darkness, and a white-hot, agonizing pain that burned Zien up from the inside. 

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

“Well, that’s certainly an ambitious story so far,” the publishing agent by the name of Edwin Marls noted as he looked up from the papers he had been reading through. “And you say that’s only the start of the book, Miss…” 

“Holt,” the dark-haired young woman reminded him as she sat cross-legged in the guest chair across the desk from him. “Vanessa Holt. And yes, that is… definitely only the start.” 

“But what happens next?” Edwin demanded to know. “Is this… alien really immortal? What about the Godzilla thing that was tearing apart the city?” 

“Oh yes,” Vanessa Holt confirmed. “He truly is immortal, in every sense of the word. Nothing can kill him. And as it turns out, the ‘Godzilla thing’ was… well, you see, when the stranger created the spell to sacrifice everything on the planet aside from the person touching that glowing spot, somehow it… actually included the monster itself. Well, not enough to actually kill it. But it did enough damage to make the thing retreat back to where it came from. Which dragged the other three monsters with it, from wherever they were. The universe was saved. Sort of, whatever was left of it. And our dear Zien, he had so much power welling up inside him, power taken from every living being on that planet, plus enough from the monster to make it retreat.” 

“And then?” Edwin prompted. “You said at the start that this… guy in your story was supposed to be some sort of intergalactic warlord, a conquering monster trying to break into our reality and destroy or enslave all of us. Something like that.”  

Vanessa offered the man a smile. “Actually, what I said was that people see him that way. They think he’s a monster. The truth… that’s a lot more complicated. 

“And if you really want to know the whole story, you’re gonna have to buy the book.”

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Interlude 13B – Vanessa (Heretical Edge 2)

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Two Weeks Ago

When they approached, Vanessa was studying in one of the starstation’s many greenhouses. It was peaceful and smelled really nice in there, with dozens of various examples of exotic plant life, from Earth and many other places, surrounding the table she had set herself up at. With the wide assortment of books (of both the physical and digital sort) arranged in front of her along with a bottle of water, the blonde girl had everything she wanted at that particular moment. Peace, safety, quiet, and the opportunity to learn things she didn’t already know. 

She wasn’t actually studying for any particular class by that point, of course. Vanessa was already over a full semester ahead in her actual school work, the various assignments as detailed in the course study guides meticulously organized through several color-coded binders back in her room, waiting to be handed in when the appropriate time finally came.  

Some might ask the girl what she would do in the case that one of the teachers significantly changed a particular homework assignment, rendering her earlier work useless. To which, she would have informed them that doing work which helped her learn was never useless. And also that she would be quite happy to get another assignment she could work on. Doing one assignment to prove she knew the material was fine enough on its own, but the opportunity to do another one weeks later simply to reassure everyone involved (including herself) that the lesson had truly stuck? In what reality would that be something negative? 

Tristan called her weird for things like that, but Vanessa didn’t care. He was her brother and always would be. She knew he loved her, even if they disagreed on things like this. They may have both now had the same perfect memory, but Tristan didn’t particularly care to utilize his to its full extent. The boy was happy just knowing enough to pass his classes before getting on with what he considered far more important things. But to Vanessa, nothing was more important than knowledge. Facts, figures, numbers, names, spells, truth, both good and bad, were all important things. They were all sources of power. Knowing the right thing at the right time could save her family, or other people. She had previously dedicated herself to studying in order to find them. Now that they were here, her devotion to knowledge was about protecting them. 

So, it was there, at the table in the greenhouse, that Vanessa was sitting when a group of people approached. She heard them making their way along the path, even as one of the powers she had picked up allowed her to sense the exact number of skeletons entering her space. Four. Four skeletons, all human-ish in size and shape. Pulled from her studying by the realization that they were deliberately approaching rather than walking past, Vanessa looked up and turned to see who it was. She expected to find her brother and friends. Instead, her gaze found unfamiliar figures. They were obviously Seosten. Well, that or a teen drama full of ridiculously good-looking supermodel ‘students’ was being filmed, and she was pretty sure the people in charge up here had more important things to focus on. 

Two of the approaching Seosten were male, the other two female. All four appeared to be a couple years younger than Vanessa, which of course meant they could have been anywhere from actually that age, up to their thirties or so. The two guys both had dark hair, one a shade lighter than the other. The one with lighter hair had quite dark skin, while the one with darker hair was the taller of the two and appeared to be caucasian. The two girls were both white as well, one with dark blonde, almost brown hair and a deep tan, while the other girl had red hair worn quite short, and was wearing a pair of pitch-black sunglasses. 

“Hello?” Vanessa greeted the quartet uncertainly, eyes moving back and forth between them. 

“Hi!” the girl with the sunglasses raised a hand in greeting, her voice cheerful. “Sorry, we haven’t met, but uhh, you’re Vanessa, right? Vanessa Moon?” Her hand rose as the girl used her index finger to pull down the bridge of her glasses so she could meet the other girl’s gaze with her own sea-green eyes. “Daughter of Sariel the Olympian and Haiden the Bane.”

At first, Vanessa started to reflexively nod. Then she blinked, squinting that way. “The Bane?” 

The black boy spoke up with a cough. “Ah, yeah, sorry. That’s sort of what our people call him. You know, after he spent like ten years in our space running all over, destroying, breaking, killing–” In mid-sentence, the boy blanched. “Sorry, that kind of sounds like we blame him.” 

“We don’t,” the second girl, the one with blonde-brown hair, put in. “I mean, we’d probably do the same thing if it meant getting back to the people we care about, you know?” 

“He was just so… ahhh…. effective?” the caucasian boy offered. “Yeah, so effective that people started calling him The Bane, and it stuck. You know, like, ‘The Bane hit Teverith Station last week,’ things like that. It started when they didn’t know, or care about, his name, and stuck.” 

“He has other names,” the red-haired girl informed her. “But a lot of them are pretty impolite.” 

“Hey, I know!” the Seosten boy with dark-skin quickly announced, with obviously exaggerated excitement. “How about we all just start over and introduce ourselves this time instead of making everything super awkward? Sound good? Good.”  With that, he extended a hand toward Vanessa. “Hey there. My name is Desenei, and this is Nithae, Hansurei, and Batreth.” With each name in order, he indicated the red-haired girl, the blonde girl, and the other guy. 

“Um, good to meet you,” Vanessa replied politely, shifting around in her seat to face them properly. She still wasn’t sure what was going on here, but it was clear they weren’t just walking past, so she didn’t want to be rude, no matter how tempting it was to go back to her book. It was a really interesting book, after all. But everyone in her life had made it perfectly clear that ignoring people who were trying to talk to you just to keep reading was a bad thing. 

Batreth, the other guy, offered Vanessa a smile. “Right, you were in the middle of something, and interrupting is rude. Sorry about that, really. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and ask if you wanted to come see a movie with us later. And uhh, it’d be great if you said yes, cuz we need all the help we can get.” 

Nithae, the red-haired girl, quickly spoke up then. “What he means is that we’re supposed to be learning more about humans and their culture. So we have a list of Earth movies to watch, and we were hoping that you could help… explain some of the things we don’t get.” 

Taken a bit aback by the request, Vanessa hesitantly pointed out, “Are you sure you don’t want to take my brother instead? He’s probably better for that sort of thing.” 

The Seosten, however, disagreed and insisted she was the one they wanted to go with. So, Vanessa finally agreed. They promised to pick her up by her house in the living quarters in a few hours, and asked that she not eat yet, because they were planning on making a full thing of it. 

After watching them head off, Vanessa glanced down at the nearby flowers. There were several thoughts running through her mind, mostly focused on why on Earth they wanted to get her help understanding Earth culture and traditions rather than Tristan’s. Did they think he didn’t know as much because he’d spent so long out in space? That had to be it, right? 

In that case, boy were they going to be disappointed when it came to which twin they thought was more in touch with Bystander society. 

******

As it turned out, the entire group didn’t show up at the house. Instead, when Vanessa opened the door several hours later, only Desenei was standing there. He had dressed up in crisp black slacks and a dark red silk shirt. When she saw that, Vanessa blanched. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize this was something formal.” She herself was only wearing (mostly clean) jeans and a hoodie. “Uh, I can go change into something better.” 

Desenei, however, shook his head. “No, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. I’m only dressed like this because we were just at an evaluation with Athena, to check on how we’re doing. The others are setting up the projector, that’s why I’m the only one here.” He offered her a wink. “I’m great at a lot of things, but put me near anything technical and either it, or me, is going to blow up. Maybe both. And that would be a damn shame.” His smile was broad. “After all, have you seen me? I’m adorable.” 

“Oh good,” Vanessa retorted, “I was starting to think you weren’t really a Seosten. But there’s the ego.” 

The boy laughed. “Yeah, we deserve that, I guess. Okay, we definitely deserve it. That and a lot more. It’s just… you know, the way our culture works. We’re all just a little bit… extra and proud of it. Really proud. It’s kind of a thing with us.” 

“At least you’re self-aware about it,” Vanessa pointed out, before squinting. “Why are you so self-aware about it?” 

With a shrug, the boy replied, “I didn’t used to be, believe me. I was a real… garbage person. Thought our people were the best thing to ever happen to the universe, and that I was one of the best of those. The best among the best. Gold standard Seosten. Which, I guess I really was, as far as being arrogant goes.” After a brief consideration, he shook his head. “Anyway, I was on my first combat mission about two years ago, flying a fighter. Our squad was chasing down these slaves who ahh, escaped on a freighter ship. We were about to disable them when some of Athena’s people showed up. There was a… I think you call it a birdfight?” 

“Dogfight,” Vanessa corrected. 

“But dogs don’t even fl–I’m very confused.” Shaking that off, Desenei gestured. “But sure, there was a flying dogfight and some of us got shot down before Athena’s people pulled us in and took us prisoner. That’s me and the other three you met today. Well, there were six of us, but the other two didn’t… really end up getting along with the whole program.” He sighed. “So they sent them away, back to the Empire. But the four of us, we decided to stay. We were… curious about things after those first few weeks. So we stuck around. It was very… bumpy for awhile. Still is sometimes. But we’re working on it.” 

“Is that why you wanted me to help you learn from these movies you found?” Vanessa curiously asked. “Because you think me being half-Seosten and raised on Earth would be useful? Because I really don’t know anything about the Seosten parts of me, and I don’t know that much more about human things. Believe me, I am not the best representative of human culture. I’m pretty sure you could teach me some things about that by now.” 

With an easy laugh, Desenei shook his head. “Nah, it’s–okay, little confession to make. I thought you were a full Seosten before. I mean, before I knew who you were. I sort of saw you from a distance a few times and thought you were one of the Seosten who grew up with Athena’s people. I was actually asking the others how they thought I should approach you when Batreth told me who you were. Then we figured… like you said, you probably don’t know much about our people, so maybe we could help you learn. But coming right out and saying, ‘hey, let us teach you about the culture of the species that makes up half your DNA’ sounds pretty awkward at the best of times, let alone when that species has treated the other half of your DNA like… uhh, well, the way we have.” He offered an awkward shrug. “I don’t think I was supposed to say that part out loud yet. It was just supposed to be like a… you know, back and forth. We teach you some Seosten things, you teach us whatever you want about humans. We were afraid that if we came out and said we wanted to teach you about Seosten stuff, you might just refuse because of how bad your family was treated. But there’s a lot more to our people than that.” 

That was a lot to take in, but Vanessa found herself focusing on one thing in particular. “Wait, you said you were planning how to approach before you even knew who I was. Why would you need to talk to me at all before you knew anything about me?” 

“Oh, that?” Desenei grinned. “Because I wanted to ask you out on a date.” 

Okay, now she was really taken aback. Rocking backward on her heels, Vanessa fought to find her voice. “And–but–and now you don’t, because you know I’m not a real Seosten.” Despite herself, she could hear the accusation in her own voice. 

The boy, however, just shook his head. “Nah, nothing like that. But the thing is, when I found out who you were, I realized you’re a complete stranger, like… in every possible way. If I did ask you out, it’d only be because you’re attractive. Which, don’t get me wrong, you are very attractive. But I don’t know anything about you. This way, we can just hang out in a group, teach you about our people while you teach us about humans. And I can get to know you. 

Then I’ll ask you out.” With that, he pivoted on his heel and started to walk. “We should probably go though, the others are waiting.” 

Watching him start off, Vanessa swallowed hard. An apprehensive expression crossed her face. He wanted to get to know her? He thought that if he did that, he’d want to ask her out. But that was the whole problem. 

If he did get to know her, he’d realize what a very bad idea that was. 

*******

Present Day 

Soooooomebody’s sleeping on my couch.” The teasing words came from Uncle Apollo, as the man descended the stairs that led up to the loft where his bed was in his Starstation apartment. Obviously unsurprised to find Vanessa laying there, given how often his nieces and nephew came to visit, the man started to continue into the kitchen. “You hungry, kid? I think I…” 

He trailed off then, from a single sound which interrupted his words. A small, almost inaudible sniff. Only then did Apollo turn more toward the couch to see the huddled form there, her back to him as she faced the cushions. Then it came again, a very slight, quiet sniff, as he saw her shoulders shudder just a little. 

“Nessa?” After a brief hesitation, the man stepped over that way. He gently reached down, fingers brushing the girl’s shoulder, all teasing and casual cheer gone from his voice. “Vanessa, are you okay?” 

She didn’t respond at first, remaining silent and almost entirely motionless save for that almost imperceptible shudder that ran through her body. Then he heard her swallow hard before slowly turning to look at him. Her eyes were bloodshot, the remains of tears staining her face. She had been like this for awhile. 

“Uncle Apollo,” she managed in a voice that audibly cracked as she forced the terrible words to come. “I… think there’s something wrong with me.” 

“What?” Blinking, Apollo went down to one knee, his hand remaining where it was on the girl’s shoulder. “Vanessa, what happened? Do you want me to get your mother?” 

“No!” she quickly blurted, the terror of what her mom would think bringing new tears to her eyes. “No, no, don’t… please. I just… I have to talk to someone who might be able to help or know more than me. You’re a Seosten and you know things. You were a scientist. So was Mom, but I can’t talk to her. I can’t ask her. If–if I’m broken, I can’t ask her.” 

“Vanessa, you–” Stopping himself, Apollo paused, clearly considering his words. “Why do you think there’s something wrong with you?” 

Her mouth opened, but no words would come out. A thick lump had formed in her throat. God. She thought it would be easier with Apollo, after everything. At least he wasn’t her mother. The thought of seeing how disappointed her mom would be, how… how much she would blame herself, it made Vanessa want to curl right back into a ball. But she couldn’t. She had to explain, or try to. Maybe Apollo would have an idea. Maybe he could help. 

So, over the next few minutes, she explained about Desenei and the other Seosten, and how they had met up a few times over the past couple weeks whenever she wasn’t busy with other things. She told him about how interesting it was to learn about the Seosten from their point of view, and how they were genuinely interested in hearing what she thought. 

“Sounds good so far,” Apollo carefully noted, his hand gently brushing her hair. “What went wrong? Do I need to go swat a few Seosten heads?”

“No.” Vanessa’s voice sounded hollow even to hear own ears. “They didn’t do anything wrong. He… didn’t do anything bad. He’s fine. He–it’s… me. I…” She trailed off once more, going silent for a few long moments. She shouldn’t have come here. This was dumb. She was making her problems into Apollo’s. She couldn’t–

As though reading her mind, Apollo quietly urged, “Vanessa, it’s okay to talk to me. It’s just you and me here. What happened?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl slowly spoke. “My birthday is tomorrow. Tristan’s and mine, I mean. We’re nineteen. We’re nineteen years old, Uncle Apollo. I’ve been an adult for a year. In another year, I’ll be twenty.”

She went silent for a few seconds, but Apollo didn’t speak up. He was quiet, simply watching what the girl was doing and giving her time to gather herself until she finally continued. 

“Everything with Desenei was… fine. I like him. I like spending time with him. I like his stories. I like that he… he likes me. I want more of that. But…” Once more, she was silent, the confusion and shame of what was right on the tip of her tongue making it so hard to actually say. It took the girl another long minute before she managed to push out the words, briefly repeating herself. 

“I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve never… I–” She swallowed the thick, ball-like lump in her throat. “I’ve never felt… physically… I…” Sitting up abruptly, Vanessa pushed herself to the corner of the couch and drew her knees to her chest, arms wrapped around them so she could huddle there, staring at the man. “I’ve never been sexually attracted to anyone, Uncle Apollo. No one. Ever. Not a boy, not a girl, no one. I know what it should feel like, I know what– I’ve looked it up. I’ve asked people, I’ve read about it, heard about it, I know what it is. Academically, I know everything about it. I know what it should be like.” Her head shook slowly. “But I never felt it. I thought maybe when I got to know Desenei, I’d like him. And I do. I really like him a lot. I like being around him. I like talking to him. Last night he… he kissed me. And it was okay. I mean, I sort of liked just the… the ummm… touch. I liked when our lips touched. But that was it. I didn’t like… anything more than just lips touching. I didn’t… I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t want anything else.” The tears were back, her eyes closing as she couldn’t bear to look at the man. “I like spending time with him. He makes me happy. I even like hugging and really simple, normal touch kissing. No tongue, no… nothing else. He’s the closest person I’ve ever gotten to for that and… and I still don’t feel anything.” Her voice cracked, sounding like it was breaking apart. “Before I found Tristan, I used to think maybe it had to do with being half-Seosten. But he’s half too. He’s my twin, we’re the exact same age and both half-Seosten, but he feels that stuff all the time and has for years. And I asked some of the other Seosten, they said that it kicks in around the same time for them as it does for humans. It’s not the hybrid thing. It’s not the Seosten thing. It’s me. I’m the problem. 

“I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never felt any sexual attraction to anyone. And now… now I don’t think I ever will.”

After a brief moment, Apollo rose from his crouch and turned to sit on the couch next to her. Putting one arm around the girl, he half-embraced her before speaking quietly. “Vanessa, first of all, there is nothing wrong with you. Being different isn’t wrong. Whatever you feel or don’t feel, none of it is wrong. You have blonde hair, some have brown. You have white skin, some have different shades. You’re female in sex and gender. Some are female in sex and male in gender. Some are both at the same time. None of them are wrong, and neither are you.”

“But I…” Vanessa gave a heavy shudder, shifting a bit closer, her voice quiet. “I want to be with someone. I want to hold someone. I want to be close. I like… feeling that. I like him, just like that. I just… I never… I can’t… feel that. It’s like I’m empty there. How can I feel drawn to him, to anyone, one way but not the other? How can I like someone as much as I do, but not even feel the slightest hint of sexual attraction? It’s just not there, Uncle Apollo. I tried. I really tried to feel it, but there’s nothing, nothing. How can you say there’s not something wrong with me when I want the one part, but not the other? It’s just… it’s selfish and wrong and–” 

“No.” Apollo’s head shook. “Vanessa, absolutely not. There is nothing selfish about how you feel. Someone who is sexually attracted to girls isn’t selfish for not being attracted to boys. And you are not selfish for not being attracted to any of them. Listen to me, okay? What you’re describing is being asexual. I know you’ve heard that term, but you probably shied away from it because you were afraid of what it might say, right?” When she gave a silent nod, he continued. “You want to know why you could enjoy being with someone, like spending time with them, hugging, even some level of kissing, why you could even want to have a close partner like that, but not feel any sexual attraction? Because you’re not aromantic, Vanessa. You can be asexual and still want romance, still want someone to share your life with. You can still love people, just as much as anyone else. Asexual doesn’t mean you’re a robot, it doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions or feelings. It means that you do not feel sexual attraction. That’s it. And there is nothing wrong with that. Not one void-damned thing. It doesn’t make you any more ‘wrong’ than your blonde hair or your height or your eyes or your skin color.” 

“But…” Vanessa shifted a little, looking up to the man as she huddled against him. “What if Desenei leaves because he wants what I can’t–what I don’t?” 

“I can’t say he won’t,” Apollo admitted. “And that doesn’t make him a monster either. People need to be with those who make them happy, people they are compatible with. And if he can’t be compatible with you, that’s sad. But you will find someone who is compatible with you. It might be him, it might be someone else. But whoever it is and however long it takes to find them, you never hide who you are. You never pretend to feel things you don’t feel. Because you are brilliant, in every way. And you deserve to be happy, Vanessa. That means being who you are, every part of who you are, and finding someone who loves you for all of it. You don’t settle, and you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”

Vanessa was silent for a few seconds, the flood of emotions making it hard to even try to find words. Finally, she settled on, “I love you, Uncle Apollo.” 

His arm tugged her closer, hugging his niece. “I love you too, Nessa.” 

Another moment passed, before she lowered her head and nuzzled up against his shoulder. “Can we sit here for a little while?” 

“Yeah, kid,” came the quiet response. 

“We’ll sit here for as long as you like.” 

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Interlude 13A – Bobbi and Dakota (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Come on, Dakota. Trust me, what you need is some fun.” The words came from Bobbi Camren, as the mixed-race, dark-haired fourteen-year-old strolled casually backward down the sidewalk. Her attention wasn’t on where she was going, but on the girl who was walking along a bit behind (well, in front of considering Bobbi was walking backwards) her. “If there’s one thing I figured out after spending a long time with people like Asenath and Twister, it’s that you should have fun while you can.” After a brief pause, she added with a grin, “Well, that and how to kick a truly inspiring amount of ass.”  

Eyes darting around rapidly as the two of them walked along the sidewalk of the busy street several miles away from the motel where the Eden’s Garden rebels had set up, Dakota hesitated before finding her voice. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Even as she asked that, the girl flinched a little at how childish it sounded. Especially given the way her voice cracked. 

She was only a few months younger than Bobbi, but she felt like a child (though not an innocent one). Bobbi had done so many cool things, and Dakota… Dakota had done things too. Things like kill several members of her family while under the influence of Kwur, and spend years afterward in a mental institution because she couldn’t explain what really happened in a way that anyone would have understood. The voice from the plant made her do it? Yeah, no wonder they locked her up. Vanessa had believed her, and even sent that Doctor Folgers guy to help. But then they had both stopped showing up. The other doctors said there was no one named Folgers at the hospital, and that Vanessa was too busy to talk to her. 

Now, of course, the girl knew that was all part of the plan to keep her isolated and away from anyone who could help. Vanessa’s memory had been erased by that… that Fossor guy. It was a whole big thing. Still, it didn’t totally erase the feelings of being abandoned and discarded. Kwur made her help kill her family, made her the only survivor, and then trapped her in a mental hospital full of other damaged people and far away from anyone who could understand what actually happened. All because he wanted… he wanted what? Why did he make her a–what was the word… Natural Heretic? Why did he make her a Natural Heretic of himself? Was it intentional, or just something he took advantage of afterward? And either way, why? 

No matter what the evil plant’s reasoning was, every possibility made her shudder. 

Bobbi was talking, her voice helping to pull Dakota out of the spiral of dark thoughts. “Of course it’s a good idea. Come on, you’ve been locked up in that motel obsessing over fixing the plants for too long. You need to get out and have a little fun. Take your mind off that stuff for a little bit. We’re just two girls heading to the mall to hang out, watch a movie, and get totally sick off Twizzlers and Raisinettes. Unless you’re more of a Whoppers sort of girl. Which is cool, I guess.” She said the last bit in a voice that made it clear that Raisinettes were superior. 

“But if I can’t do it,” Dakota hesitantly pointed out in a weak voice, “if I can’t make the plants work right, they’ll feel like… like they wasted their time with me. And… and Noyade…” 

Bobbi had stopped walking by that point, standing still as she reached out to put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “If you can’t make the plants work, you’ll feel like Noyade died for nothing by protecting you,” she finished the sentence for her in a quiet, subdued tone. 

Not really trusting her voice, Dakota gave a hesitant nod. The thought of still failing to fix the plants kept her up at night, invaded her dreams (not that those were very good most of the time anyway), and made it hard to keep things in her stomach. The Gardener people were nice to her. They protected her. They were depending on her to help them recruit more people. If she couldn’t manage that, if she couldn’t give the Rebellion a way to make more Heretics, then what… what was she even doing there? Why did she survive this long? 

She had to do something good with this power. Otherwise, the only thing she would ever be was a girl who helped kill her entire family… and a tool for whatever plan that evil plant had. 

“Listen, Dakota.” Bobbi’s voice was serious. “I’m not just goofing off now, okay? I mean it. Obsessing over whether you fix those vines or not isn’t helping anything. It’s making you sick, it’s making you, like… doubt yourself. You need to get away from all that stuff, have some fun for a little while, then go back and work on it again. It’s like…” She trailed off for a moment, clearly trying to find the right words. “It’s like when a truck gets stuck in the mud, and they just keep hitting the gas so the tires spin and spin and spin without going anywhere. The truck just gets more stuck, see? You need to go at it from another angle, find a way to pull the truck out or give it leverage. So you walk away from it, clear your head, and go back later.” 

Dakota didn’t respond at first. She stood there, shoulders hunched a bit while staring at the ground. It took her a moment to breathe in slowly before raising her gaze to meet the other girl’s. “You really think… you really think doing something else might help?” She asked that in a small, quiet voice, which radiated vulnerability. Swallowing hard, the girl crossed her arms protectively over her stomach before adding, “I just.. I just want to do something right.” 

“Hey.” Squeezing the girl’s shoulders, Bobbi insisted, “Take my word for it, okay? You need to clear your head. You need to get out of there for awhile and not think about it. So, you and me? We’re going to go veg out at a movie. A totally dumb, totally absurd action-comedy that will turn your brain to mush. And when you’re sufficiently mushed, then we’ll move on to phase two.” 

Dakota blinked at that. “Phase two? What’s phase two?” 

“You’ll find out.” With that, Bobbi winked. “Trust me, it’s just like, a sort of favor I got from someone after all the stuff that happened last year. It’ll be fun, I promise. But it’s the sort of fun you need to ease into. It’ll be better when you’re a little more relaxed. Or at least not as stressed. So, let’s start with a movie. A simple, easy, utterly brainless movie where nothing matters.” With that, she raised a hand to point to the nearby mall entrance. “Ready?” 

Swallowing back her doubt and uncertainty (to say nothing of her guilt), Dakota made herself nod. “I–yeah. Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go see a movie. 

“Wait, hold on. It’s not that Sherlock Gnome movie, is it? Cuz I think I’d rather just find another monster to kill me.” 

******

A couple hours later, the two teen girls were emerging from the mall together once more. Each held a mostly finished soda cup, and Bobbi still held a box with a few Raisinets left. Both were giggling and nudging each other over the ridiculousness of the movie they had just seen (which was indeed not the gnome movie). They repeated lines to each other, laughing before the other person had even finished the quote, and engaged in a sort of rapidfire back-and-forth where each only had to say a few words for the other to completely know where they were going with it and start to react as though they had already finished the sentence.

Only when they reached the curb leading to the parking lot did Dakota pause. She stared at the pavement for a moment, then raised her cup to squint at the remains of the liquid inside. Her voice turned quiet. “You were right. I didn’t think about anything bad while I was there. Or anything at all about the Heretics, or the vines, or Garden, or any of it. I didn’t think at all.” 

Watching her curiously, Bobbi waited a moment before asking, “Are you… okay?” 

Dakota seemed to consider the question before taking a long sip from her drink. Finally, she gave a very slight nod. “I think so. I feel… I feel like… like I’m still worried, and I still want to fix things. But it’s not…” She trailed off, putting one hand on her own shoulder as though pushing it down. “It’s not right here.” Then she moved her hand to her stomach. “And it’s not right here. It’s more right…” She turned, indicating the space on the other side of her where Bobbi wasn’t standing. “It’s more right there. It’s still there and it’s still important. Really important. But it’s not right on top of me. It’s not crushing me.” She bit her lip before looking over to the other girl. “And part of me feels a little bad about that too. But maybe that’s okay. I guess it really has been awhile since I stopped focusing on that stuff.”

Offering Dakota a quick smile, Bobbi nodded. “See? And it’s not over yet. Remember, that was just phase one of getting you to stop obsessing for one night.” 

Clearly, Dakota actually had forgotten that there was supposed to be more to their day, because she gave a bit of a double-take. “Wha-oh. Wait, what else are we doing? You wouldn’t tell me before.”

“And you think I’ll tell you now?” Bobbi teased before waving both hands. “Okay, okay. Actually, come on, we’re supposed to meet him over on the other side of the parking lot, over there.” She pointed while hopping off the curb and starting that way. “You ever been to Disney World?” 

Dakota started to follow before quickly looking over, almost tripping over the curb on her way after the other girl. “Wha-what? Disney World? No? Wait, why? We can’t leave for that long.” 

Glancing over her shoulder toward Dakota with a sly smirk, Bobbi retorted, “Who said anything about leaving for a long time? My friend can get us there just like that.” She snapped her fingers in demonstration. “His name’s Berlin, and he’s an Abeonas. Trust me, it’ll be just like walking down the street. Plus, we’re meeting Twister there. She and Berlin wanna hang out too. We’ll see the park for a few hours, then we’ll come home. And that’s when you’ll–” Abruptly, the girl stopped talking. And walking, for that matter. She suddenly halted in mid-step, slowly lowering her foot while squinting at a camper van that was parked ahead of them with all the doors hanging open. 

“What’s wrong?” Dakota asked, gaze darting back and forth between the van and her new friend. “I guess it looks a little creepy, but–” 

“That’s Berlin’s ride,” Bobbi informed her. “This is where we’re supposed to meet him, but… where is he?” She took a step that way, squinting intently at the vehicle without calling out. 

Dakota made a face behind her. “You seriously wanna take a ride to Disney World with a guy in a van?” She muttered the words under her breath, marveling not only at how creepy it sounded out loud, but at the fact that it would hardly have been the weirdest ride she herself had taken. After all, she’d had to hitchhike her way from the hospital to her family’s old house when she’d heard Kwur’s voice in her head again and realized that someone found the hidden plant.

Bobbi, by that point, had reached the van and poked her head in to look around. “He’s not here,” she murmured worriedly. “He should be here. He was supposed to meet us right at his van.” 

“Maybe he had to go to the restro–” In her own mid-sentence, Dakota stopped and frowned. She stepped over to the nearby flower garden at the edge of the parking lot and crouched down, reaching out to touch a trampled flower with the very tip of her index finger before giving a soft gasp as a sudden rush of images filled her mind. “Three guys. They stomped all over. They were loud. They were… fighting.” 

“What?” Bobbi blinked, turning that way. “How do you–hey, what’s going on?” Even as she asked that, the girl was stepping over and crouching next to her. “It’s a broken flower.” 

Dakota’s eyes had drifted closed, as she kept her finger pressed gently against the poor mangled plant, adding a second one while the images continued to twist their way through her mind. The images were hard to understand. Some came in black and white, some in too much color, or upside down. And each came with a thought or a reflexive sort-of understanding. Or rather, a piece of a thought or understanding. It was difficult to sort through or find anything coherent within one image by itself, but putting them all together like letters or syllables of a word helped. As did speaking them out loud. So she did, her voice continuing in a dreamlike tone as she spoke the thoughts that the images brought to mind. “Three men. Two fighting one. Dragging him from the van. Hitting him with something shiny. Red hair, orange eyes.” 

“That’s Berlin!” Bobbi blurted, before clapping a hand over her own mouth to allow the other girl to continue. Even if hearing that Berlin had been attacked made her want to start screaming obscenities that would’ve made adults give themselves whiplash to hear coming from her mouth.

Dakota was still talking quietly. “They fought him right here, trampled these flowers and the grass. They dragged him… they dragged him that way.” Turning, she pointed down the slope and off into the wooded area beyond that ran under and beside the nearby freeway. “Just–wait a minute.” She focused again, going silent for a few seconds before adding, “They’re still there. The trees can see them. The grass, they’re trampling it, and the flowers. The bushes, they’re tearing through the bushes. They’re trying to get somewhere really fast…” 

“Wait, wait, they’re still here?” Bobbi blurted, bolting to her feet. “Come on!” 

Dakota blinked at that. “Wait, shouldn’t we call someone to go save him?”  

Grabbing the other girl by the arm and pulling her to her feet, Bobbi shook her head. “There’s no time! You said yourself they’re in a rush.” She put both hands on her friend’s shoulders and met her gaze. “Come on, we can do this. Remember I told you about how I helped people in my neighborhood before I ever met Twister and Asenath? You and me, we can save Berlin. Please? He’s my friend, and they’re running away with him.” 

Despite being as nervous as she was, how could Dakota argue with that? Bobbi was basically the first chance at a real friend her own age she’d had in a very long time. Not to mention that small part of her that was offended about the plants being unceremoniously trampled and broken. So, she pushed all her doubts aside and gave a hesitant nod. “It’s that way,” she declared while pointing with a hand. “But they’re already a couple miles away, and I saw a… I think it was a portal just ahead of them. I don’t think we can–” 

Before the other girl could continue with that, Bobbi was already moving. She snapped a hand out toward the row of parked cars nearby and drained all the energy from their batteries. Immediately after doing so, she created a glowing red cube around Dakota, making it hoist the surprised girl into the air. And then? Then Bobbi ran. She directed the cube with Dakota ahead of her while racing down the slope and into the woods the way the girl had indicated. The rest of the world seemed to stop entirely as she poured energy into her own speed and that of the cube, moving so fast everything else was almost motionless. Upon hitting the woods, Bobbi leapt over logs, ducked branches, sidestepped her way around clusters of bushes, and created energy-construct stairs and ramps ahead of her to get over pits, boulders, and similar obstacles. The woods were dense, but Bobbi’s speed and ability to simply create temporary ways around anything in her way meant very little could impede her progress. Meanwhile, Dakota was brought along right behind her in that cube, the whole experience passing by faster than it would even take for her stomach to register that it should be upset about this entire situation. 

In the end, the two of them crossed that two miles in less time than it would have taken the average person to finish getting up from their chair. Finally, Bobbi heard sounds up ahead and skidded her way to a stop while lowering the cube to the ground and dismissing it to release the other girl. Then she quickly reached out to stop Dakota from stumbling, raising a finger to her lips for quiet just as they heard men cursing nearby. Through the thick clump of trees just ahead, they could see a small clearing where there was a glowing portal that was clearly waiting for the three figures who were moving toward it. One of those figures was being carried by the other two, clearly unconscious.

“Come on, come on, before the bastard wakes up,” one guy was saying. As Bobbi leaned closer, she could see that he had light gray fur and very small brown horns that looked as though they had just barely started to grow. The other guy was a metallic man over seven feet in height, but quite skinny. They were carrying Berlin by the arms and legs, heading for the portal. 

“Yeah yeah,” the tall metal man snapped. “I’m coming. Keep your shorts on.” 

They were only a few steps from the portal, so Bobbi couldn’t wait any longer. With a hushed whisper for the other girl to wait there, she launched herself that way and turned into a blur of motion. It wasn’t quite as fast as she’d been when going from the mall to this spot, but still a hell of a lot faster than almost anyone else was capable of. 

In mid-sprint, Bobbi summoned her blue and white glass-like energy-construct armor. Electricity seemed to dance inside the form-fitting suit, while the helmet covered her head and face entirely with no apparent visor or eye slits at all. 

The shorter, fur-covered man reacted first, starting to pivot that way with a blurted warning. But Bobbi was already launching herself off the ground. At her speed, with the armor protecting her from damage, she slammed into him so hard, he hit the ground with her on top of him and didn’t move again other than to cough a couple times in pain. 

The metal guy was trying to react, but Bobbi had already rolled off the first man and pointed that way. As she did so, a glowing fist the size of a small motorcycle slammed into the man with so much force, he was hurled off to crash into a tree about twenty feet away. He tried to get up, but the energy-construct turned into an open hand and held him against the ground. 

“Hah!” Bobbi snapped, lashing out with her armored foot to kick the fur-covered man in the face when he started to move. “That’s what you both get for–” 

That time, what interrupted the girl was an incredibly thick bubble of strange sticky liquid that suddenly formed around her. She was torn from the ground and held in place, unable to move as a third man came into view from the other side of the clearing. He was almost as tall as the metal guy, and appeared to be made of chewed up pink bubblegum, all wrinkly and sticky. Instead of regular arms, he had a random assortment of pink tentacles sticking out various parts of his body with no apparent rhyme or reason.

“Both?” he echoed tauntingly. “What made you think there was only two of us? Now, how about you let my friend over there go, and–” 

Then it was his turn to be interrupted, as Dakota burst into the clearing with both hands raised. “Let her go!” she snapped. 

“Another one?” the bubblegum man lamented without too much worry. “Aight then, c’mere.” He started to extend one of his tentacles, a bubble beginning to form to pick the girl up. 

Before it could reach her, however, Dakota made a noise in the back of her throat that was half-terror and half-anger, then made a shoving motion with both hands. As she did so, a nearby tree straightened up a bit out of the ground and half-turned that way before one of its branches abruptly snapped down, slamming into the bubblegum man so hard he collapsed to the ground like he’d been hit by a car. 

Instantly, Bobbi was released. She took a quick second to make sure the full trio were dealt with, then raced over in a blur of motion to reach Dakota. “Dude! That was awesome!” 

“I made it move! I made the tree move!” Dakota blurted, grabbing Bobbi’s outstretched hands. The two of them jumped up and down a couple times. 

“Hell yeah, you made it move,” Bobbi agreed. “You wolloped that guy real good. He never saw it coming.”

“Yeah, that was pretty cool.” The words came from Berlin, as the Abeonas grunted and sat up from where he had been dropped in the dirt. “Ow. Hey, you’re Dakota, right? Good to see you. Thanks for uhh… jumping in there.” He looked to Bobbi. “You too. I ahh, dunno where those guys wanted me to go, but it probably wasn’t fun.” 

He’d picked himself up from the ground by then, already taking a phone from his pocket. “I gotta call this in, get some Atherby peeps to come grab these guys and get answers out of ‘em. Err, and they can get the Boschers involved, I guess.” After a brief pause, he added, “Oh, and uhh, sorry. I don’t think we’ll make it to Disney World today.” 

“It’s okay,” Bobbi replied, squinting at the metal man while reinforcing the energy-construct hand that was holding him in place. “We’ll go another time, right?” She was addressing the girl beside her. 

Dakota gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. Another time. Besides,” she added quietly, “I, umm, I think I’m ready now. I wanna try talking to Eden’s Garden vines again. But there’s something we’ve gotta do first.”

“What?” Bobbi asked with a curious look. 

“We’ve gotta go back to the van,” the other girl informed her. “To where that broken flower is. I promised it we’d help. I mean, if it didn’t tell me about what happened, we wouldn’t’ve found your friend. So we’ve gotta go back and help it. That’s… that’s not crazy, is it?”   

“Nah,” Bobbi assured her. “It’s not crazy. 

“And if anyone says it is, just hit ‘em with another tree.” 

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