Heretical Edge

Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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Denouement 5 – Cercetare (Heretical Edge)

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The Committee’s primary headquarters was not something that anyone could just walk up to. Unlike Eden’s Garden, which kept their leadership at the top of the tree and in a very known location, Crossroads tended toward more obfuscation. There were several ‘offices’ kept by the leadership in various locations that could be accessed, such as J Street in Washington DC. But their actual stronghold was much more difficult to get to. It was that place, that most private and secure location, that Elisabet had disappeared from, which could only be reached by select people using a select few methods.

At the moment, Sariel, Jophiel, Mercury, and Larees were possessing four of those people, and were driving one of those methods. The Range Rover had been deeply enchanted, allowing it to pass through the dozens of shields and misdirects set up to keep intruders away and/or alert the Committee and their people. The spells were slightly altered every day, preventing one from simply finding an old copy and passing through that way. And they would have been altered automatically should anyone expect that this group had run into trouble. Hence the need for such subtlety to get to this point.

Driving the SUV along the street away from the Lannery Towers building, Jophiel reached down. Her hand (or the hand of the man she was possessing, in any case), found a button there, which she pushed and held in for five seconds. At that point, there was a crackle-boom of electricity that engulfed the vehicle, reminiscent of a certain famous Delorean traveling in time. Any Bystanders watching would immediately forget the other vehicle had ever existed. 

The Range Rover, meanwhile, appeared driving along a completely different road somewhere on the California coast. A bright blue light manifested itself in front of the vehicle, just as they passed through it. If the spells on the car had not been correct, they would have slammed into it like a fly hitting a windshield. As it was, they passed through like it wasn’t there. A second later, the crackle-boom was back and they were driving along some mountain road somewhere in the midwestern United States. A green light appeared that time, allowing them to pass. 

That continued another six or seven times, as they passed through shield after shield. The final light was gold, and it transported them to a small country road in a place surrounded by grassy fields, with high, snowy mountains visible off in the distant horizon. One more shield, a black one, appeared in front of the car. This one actually tingled as they passed through it. 

Then they were through, and a massive castle lay ahead of them. A literal fortress, perched on the edge of a deep cliff, a thousand foot drop into the ravine below surrounding three quarters of the enormous stone building. It towered over the surrounding landscape, bigger than any made by ancient humans. Three layers of black walls of ascending height, about fifty yards apart, surrounded the part of the castle that was still accessible by land, and each of those walls were manned by dozens of gargoyle statues. Not the literal gargoyles, those small creatures that piloted their suits of armor, but statues similar to those at the academy. Given provocation, the statues would spring to life and form a first line defense. 

There were more defenses than that, too many for Jophiel to easily name. But with any luck, they would not come into play. They just had to continue being… subtle. Which, given the presence of Sariel and Mercury, two of the Olympus’s best covert agents, should be doable.

Using the memories of the man she was possessing, Jophiel drove right up to the large gate at the first wall. His hand moved to press against the reader there, which read far more than just his prints before the gate began to slid open. They were able to pass through into the first courtyard, where a guard house stood. The Heretic there looked them over before stepping closer. He spoke a passphrase, testing them before Jophiel gave the answering code. Then he let them pass through. 

They continued that in the second courtyard with a new guard, before finally being admitted into the lot of the castle itself. There, Jophiel pulled the car around to park amongst several other cars along the side of the castle, before the four emerged, along with their non-possessed companions. A brief bit of small talk followed, before Jophiel’s group managed to excuse and extract themselves to their own business. Giving a brief look to one another, they left the others and started along the marble path to the main doors. On the way, they passed several small flower gardens and fountains before reaching the flight of steps leading up to the entrance, a pair of doors that stood a good fifteen feet high, each eight feet wide. The doors opened as they approached, revealing that they were also several feet thick and lined with powerful spell runes that glowed as the group passed through. It would take an army to break into this castle by force. 

Or a handful of Seosten could do it much more quietly. 

The inside of the castle itself was much more modern than the outside would suggest. It looked like the interior of any other high end office building, not that different from the one they had just left. People bustled to and fro, everyone clearly moving with a mission and not paying much attention to the Seosten-possessed group who had just entered. They were all quite busy. 

As were Sariel and the others, of course. Without looking to one another, they continued on. Jophiel took the lead, as she had been to this building far more recently than the others (Larees, of course, had never been there at all). She walked onward, guiding the other Seosten through the maze of corridors and a couple different elevators until they reached the right floor. Each Committee member commanded their own floor of the building. This one was Elisabet’s. 

Even with her gone, the floor was nowhere near empty. Dozens of Heretics moved through the various rooms and halls on this floor, their work continuing in the hope that their leader would be found soon. Elisabet’s focus had been on the security of every Crossroads-controlled place on Earth, and that kind of thing wasn’t going to go away just because Elisabet herself was missing.

Ignoring everyone just as they in turn were being ignored, the group moved down the hall. The main office belonging to Elisabet was, of course, protected from entry. Only other Committee members or those with the correct spell code could pass through the doors.

Jophiel, of course, had the codes. As they approached deceptively simple-looking wooden door, a holographic circle appeared in front of it. She reached out, and as her finger made contact with the glowing circle, a dot appeared there. Carefully, yet with a quickness born of so many years experience, she drew the symbol. It glowed briefly to match the circle, then both disappeared and the door opened. 

No one spoke until they had entered the room, the door closed, and both Sariel and Mercury checked the place for any listening or observation spells. Once the two gave a nod, Larees finally exhaled. “I’m kind of surprised they don’t have people all over this place still.”  

“They don’t see the need,” Jophiel informed her. “As far as they’re concerned, Elisabet wasn’t here when she disappeared. They believe she was ambushed elsewhere, by Prosser and his people. They have no reason to specifically lock down this office. Though we should be as quick as possible. Our… hosts have some time free, but they will be missed eventually.” 

This first room wasn’t the actual inner sanctum for Elisabet. Instead, it was the outer office where her assistant was supposed to work. But Elisabet had purposefully not kept an assistant for quite some time. Actually, she and Jophiel had entertained some possibility of asking Vanessa to take the job in a sort of internship capacity over the summer. That, of course, was before everything had happened. 

Passing through the outer office to reach the sanctum itself, the Seosten looked around briefly. Jophiel and Sariel took opposite sides of the office, making some preliminary inspections and preparations for the assortment of spells they would need to use. At the same time Mercury stepped over to the desk while using a Seosten field-engraver to draw a spell on the sleeve of the man he was possessing. He activated it a second later, producing a silver and purple orb, slightly larger than a golf ball. It was what the Heretics referred to as a PAWS, which stood for Panoptic Analysis Window System. Essentially, it recorded the entire area it scanned, including the contents of all the dressers, bookshelves, and so on. Later, it would be able to project a solid holographic reconstruction of the room and everything in it. If, by chance, there were any clues in the room that they didn’t have time to go through now (such as a note stuck or scrawled into one of the books), the PAWS recording would allow them to find and read it. 

The downside, of course, was that it (understandably) took a decent length of time to make a full recording of the entire room and every object within. Given the size of the place and the amount of books and other things in it, the scan would probably take at least twenty minutes. Between that and the spells that Sariel and Jophiel were working on, they weren’t getting done here any time soon. 

Moving back through the outer office and checking the door to make sure the hallway beyond was clear, Larees turned back, giving a beckoning gesture to Mercury, visible through the other door as he finished setting the PAWS to record the room. He nodded before joining her, and the two of them slipped back out into the hall. They had their own work to do while Sariel and Jophiel were busy. 

Passing other Heretics in the corridor and beyond that in the elevator, Larees and Mercury used the knowledge pulled from their host’s minds to greet them appropriately. To any and all who saw the two of them, they were those people. They knew names, histories, the way each person interacted with them, and more. They knew it all, passing seamlessly as the one they were possessing. They even knew what to say when asked what they were doing to allay suspicion. 

Riding the elevator several floors up, the two stepped off, giving a farewell to the ones they had ridden with before heading on through a softly carpeted, pleasantly lit corridor with paintings of various historical figures lining the walls. 

As they were passing a couple of other Heretics who were talking, Mercury abruptly stopped, looking back that way. Something they’d just said… “Hey,” he spoke up, drawing the attention of the other pair. “What was that about Joselyn Atherby?” They all knew the name, of course. After Gaia’s spell removed the memory eraser and flooded everyone’s minds with that rush of information (or misinformation, as many were calling it), there was no need to be coy about it. Of course a Heretic, even one working in here, would be curious about hearing the name. 

One of the other men, a guy named Turry according to Mercury’s host’s memories, gave that easy smile of one with gossip. “Yeah,” he replied, “one of the scouting pairs think they spotted her outside some mall in Timberline, Iowa. Can you believe it? They’re suiting up a group to go check it out.” He winked. “Who knows, maybe those fucking traitors are holed up somewhere in there. Get in one of the old stores, use magic to make it bigger on the inside? They could do it. Hiding in plain sight.” He shrugged. “Or maybe it’s bullshit. Everyone wants to be the one who catches these assholes, especially that psycho bitch. Maybe the scouts were just seeing things.”  

Reaching out, the man clapped Mercury on the shoulder. “But hey, man, either way, they’ll get ‘em, right? Those fucks’ll get what’s coming to them.” 

With an easy smirk, Mercury patted the hand on his shoulder, nodding. “Of course they will. Those guys are gonna get exactly what they deserve.” 

They split apart then, the two Seosten-possessed Heretics heading further down the corridor while Larees spoke through their silent connection. What in the living fuck? 

I don’t know, Mercury replied a bit tensely. But it’s obviously not any of us. Joselyn… why would she be at some mall to be spotted by Crossroads scouts right now, of all times? This doesn’t make sense

Should we tell the people back at camp about it now? Larees asked. Her real question, of course, was if they should tell Joselyn’s children about their mother potentially being seen. 

There was a brief pause from the man before he sent back, No. Not right now. We don’t know everything about it, and looking into that too much is going to draw suspicion we can’t handle. We’ll keep our ears and eyes open, see what we can take in. If we told them now, we’d just be distracting them right as they’re working on getting that Gerardo kid and the other prisoners out. We’ll see what happens and let them know once we have real information. No point adding more confusion and distraction right now. 

Larees agreed. She had agreed, actually, before even asking the question. But Mercury was the superior officer here, and she had defaulted to his opinion. 

The two continued on, heading through several more layers of security. These they passed not simply with information drawn from their own hosts, but also codes provided by Jophiel. They were ways through security that she and Elisabet had built in over the years without the other Committee members realizing, so there was no reason the codes would have been revoked after Elisabet disappeared. 

Security was tight here. Yet no one questioned them. The other side of having so many layers of protection that it was (supposedly) impossible to quietly break through them was that once you were past it, everyone there just assumed you were supposed to be. As long as you looked like you knew where you were going, you could be invisible. 

Reaching an unlabeled metal door down an unremarkable side corridor, the two exchanged brief looks. Mercury produced a pair of sunglasses from his host’s jacket, slipping them on. As one, the two turned to put their backs against the nearby wall. They checked for surveillance one last time, before Mercury stepped out of his host. As he did so, Larees put an arm around the Heretic, using a telekinetic power from her own host to keep her partner’s upright. She stood there like that, keeping the unconscious Heretic upright to avoid drawing any attention from someone who might pass by. 

Mercury himself, meanwhile, stepped right to the metal door. He input the code they were given by Jophiel, tugging it open before stepping through. As he did so, a warm tingle began to spread over him. 

This was the security measure that even Jophiel couldn’t do anything about. Elisabet had not been in charge of this section of the building. She could get them the code to go through the door, but could do nothing about the actual magical scan that was supposed to ensure that only those with access were allowed in, code or no code. The security scan would see that his host was not allowed in, and immediately alert security. 

Or… it would, if not for Mercury’s Tartarus-given ability to delay magic affecting him. The scan should have immediately shown he wasn’t allowed in that room, but he was delaying its work, slowing the magic from completing on him long enough to do what he needed to. It was why he had to be the one to do this.

The room was relatively small, mostly filled with computers, monitors, and a table with a holographic map on it. There were several wheeled leather chairs around the room, though only one was occupied. The man there turned in his chair, speaking up casually. “What’d you forget this ti–what the–” 

That was as far as he got before Mercury used his Seosten-boost to lunge across the room. His hand grabbed the other man’s, possessing him instantly. 

With his new host in hand (and immediately shuffled into unconsciousness), Mercury moved to the nearby console. The security station was just starting to flash its warning about the man who had just moved through it when he used memories drawn from his new host to silence it with a guest access code. He then added another couple codes before opening the door for Larees. The two of them brought in his earlier host, setting him on a chair. 

“I’ll deal with the blood,” Mercury informed the woman. “You handle the logs and cameras.” 

Larees nodded, moving to one of the nearby computers. Working quickly, she adjusted the security logs to remove all traces of their group’s access and presence in any of the places they shouldn’t have been. She also deleted them from any of the camera footage in those areas.

Mercury, meanwhile, moved to the holographic map in the middle of the room. It showed an image of the Earth, with various countries and cities listed and marked with different colors. In the middle of the table, below the map, was a vial of blood, set in a provided slot there with several green lights on around it. 

The vial was Elisabet’s blood. While there were many ways to shield against a scan like the one being performed here, intended to point out where in the world the person eventually appeared, there was still an off chance the scan might eventually pick up something if Elisabet were ever on Earth without such defenses up. 

Jophiel, therefore, wanted the vial for her own use. Tracking her partner (in every sense of the word) would be easier with the blood. And she definitely didn’t want Crossroads to have it. So, carefully, Mercury replaced the vial set into the map slot with an identical one drawn from his pocket. Identical, that was, save for the contents. The blood in that vial was taken from a long-dead Heretic woman who had been lost in the war against the Fomorians. The odds of it showing up anywhere on Earth any time soon were… slim, to say the least. But the computer would keep scanning for it, and the Heretics would be none the wiser. 

Both of their work done, Mercury erased the memory of his current host, leaving him to wake up in his chair in about thirty seconds with no idea anything had changed. He then repossessed his previous host, and they left the room, heading to rejoin the others. The work that Larees had done would continue to erase their presence for another hour, just to be on the safe side. 

By the time the two rejoined Jophiel and Sariel, the place was a lot more active. People were running around, orders were being shouted, and there was general barely ordered chaos. Not because they had been found out, of course. No, the reason this particular beehive had been kicked was that news of both distraction-attacks had reached them. Committee agents were being mustered to back up the other Heretics already being sent to respond. 

We should go, Sariel murmured as the four stood in the corridor, watching a group rush past. Before things get too crazy.

What did you find? Mercury asked, once they started moving together for the exit. 

The answer came from Jophiel. Not enough. There was obvious frustration in her voice. Someone went in and erased almost all of the evidence. There were trace signatures of a teleportation happening around that time, but not enough to get an actual location. 

Not yet, anyway, Sariel put in gently. This wasn’t a complete waste. We have the blood, so if we can get a general location, even just a place to start, we can use it. And there’s more we can do. Whoever cleaned up the room didn’t do a perfect job. Believe me, I have some ideas. But they’ll take time. 

Time that Elisabet might not have! Jophiel snapped, while they climbed into the same vehicle that had brought them here. 

I know, Sariel assured her. Let’s just go. We’ll leave these guys at a restaurant with memories of going to get food, and get out of there. Then find out if the others managed to save Sean and the rest of the prisoners. 

In the meantime, Mercury informed her, there’s something else we heard. Something we might want to go check out.  

It’s about Joselyn Atherby, and a mall. 

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Mini-Interlude 81 – Joselyn and Denuvus (Heretical Edge)

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Please note, the following takes places immediately following Mini-Interlude 55, when Denuvus revealed herself to be the ‘prisoner’ Ammon brought back from one of his outings and left her to help his mother. 

Also note, this is NOT the regular chapter whose early release is tomorrow. That is still coming as scheduled. This is an entirely extra (commissioned) chapter. I hope you enjoy it. 

“Hold that thought.”

Moments after she had simultaneously introduced herself and used her power to ensure that her command for Joselyn to answer all of her questions was actually followed, Denuvus held a hand up to stop her from doing just that. A small smile played at the pretty, yet unassuming-looking woman’s face. “You seem a bit surprised, Mrs. Chambers. Was it something I said? Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things I’ve said, you should stand there without making any move to alert anyone, attack me, or do anything else beyond breathe and talk to me until I say otherwise. And you can scratch your nose or any other itch you have. I’m not a monster.” 

Joselyn, staring at her for a moment, managed to breathe out. “You look different than I imagined, ‘Denuvus’. Unless you shapeshifted yourself to look like… this.” She did her best to keep her words calm, while her mind raced. Even for someone who had seen a lot in her life, finding out that this woman, who had appeared to be an innocent victim of one of Ammon’s temper tantrums, was actually the mysterious, whispered-about puppet-master whose potent ability was the basis on which Joselyn’s own son’s powers were based was… a lot.

“Yes and no,” came the clearly amused reply. “Yes, I’m using a power to change what I look like. I do that a lot, though I happen to be partial to this one. She’s… no one important, just a woman I saw once. But her face has stuck with me for some reason.” Denuvus mused on that for a moment before continuing with a shake of her head. “And no, I’m not really a man. Though people believing that is very useful for me. Oh, and ahh, my name is Denuvus, never tell anyone anything you find out about me, anything I tell you about my plans, goals, or even what I like to have for dinner. I’m a fish person, for the record. Deep fried catfish and hushpuppies, that’s basically my kryptonite.” 

The time that Denuvus had taken to say all that had given Joselyn a chance to regroup a bit. “Are you here to kill Fossor?” she asked carefully, unsure how she would be forced to react if the answer was yes. She was sworn, magically, to protect him from direct and legitimate threats. On the other hand, Denuvus had used her power to make her stand still. Which would win out in a direct competition? She genuinely wasn’t sure. 

“Kill him?” Denuvus echoed. “Eventually, I’m sure. But for now, what I need when it comes to that man is information. I’ve tried to extract it from him before but, well, our conversations never go very well. Even when he doesn’t know it’s me he’s talking to.”

She smiled a bit, clearly remembering a particularly amusing moment before shaking that off as she leaned back on her heels to look at Joselyn. “Anyway, getting information out of him, especially what I need, it’s a bit like getting blood from a stone. Although, I have actually done that, and it involves a lot more cayenne pepper than you’d think. But this man? I can’t get what I need out of him. Or I couldn’t, until you and your son came along. People close to him.”

Eyes flashing a bit with anger, Joselyn snapped, “I’m not close to him. And neither is Ammon. We’re both tools to him. If you think you can threaten either of us and make him do anything…”

“Physically close,” the other woman amended with a vague wave. “You spend a lot of time with him, and if he enjoys anything, it’s the sound of his own voice. We do have that in common, at least. I need you to tell me everything you know about him.” 

Joselyn just stared at her for a moment before speaking. “I’ve heard plenty about you, from a lot of people. A lot of it contradicts itself, and I’m pretty sure there’s as much bullshit as truth in it. And I sure as hell don’t know about you being a woman. If you even truly are, you could be lying about that. You could be lying about anything. But what all of those things agree with is that you are dangerous. You kill anyone who gets in your way, without batting an eye. You kill people just because they might be able to expose something about you. He’s a monster, but so are you.”

If she was offended, Denuvus didn’t show it at all. “And you have just… no experience in being close to monsters, right? Joselyn, I’m not here as a threat to you. In fact, I may eventually end up getting you out of here. Who knows? It would be nice to stick something to him that hard. He would be so pissed off…”

She shrugged, adding, “Besides, we shouldn’t fight. After all, we’re kind of co-mommies. My blood was used to make your son what he is. Which, given the whole Heretic thing, practically makes him my family. I mean, if they have a take your son to work day, we might have to thumb wrestle over who gets him. Although, isn’t it pretty wrong that he’d be both safer and less fucked up mentally if he came with me?”

She chuckled softly before letting out a breath. “So, let’s get down to business. Like I said, you’re going to tell me everything you know about Fossor and Ammon. Let’s start with the kid. I just have one very important question. When you were pregnant, did Fossor ever take you away from Earth?”

Joselyn clearly hadn’t been expecting any kind of questions like that, blinking in confusion. “Take me away from Earth? I mean, yes, we went to a few places. Why?”

Ignoring the question, the other woman asked, “Did he take you to his world?”

Slowly, Joselyn nodded. “We spent a little time there. He said something about it being important for the baby to have a connection to his father’s world. He said it was a tradition, but I’m pretty sure it was about magic.”

“Bright girl,” Denuvus agreed. “Let me guess, at some point, your memory has a big blank spot, where are you have no idea what happened.”

For a few seconds, Joselyn just stared at her, thoughts whirling in her mind before she confirmed, “I remember him giving me a tour of the house he grew up in. He was looking at a picture. Then it’s blank. The next thing I remember, we were on our way back to Earth, and it was two days later. . I have no idea what happened in that time, and quite frankly, I’ve been trying very hard not to think about it all this time.”

“I have some ideas,” Denuvus murmured. “But first, tell me what you know about Fossor as a boy. I want to know everything, even the smallest detail, about his life on that world. I want you to walk me through every little bit you know. Be completely honest.”

Sighing, Joselyn did just that. She told the woman about Fossor being a child gifted in his species’ rare gift to speak with the dead, and how his abusive father had reacted. She told her about the young Fossor trying to render his sister immortal and killing her.

“And then he went to prison,” Denuvus noted. “But not just any prison. He was sent to one of the single most secure prison facilities in the known universe, which just happened to be held on his own home planet. At least, at that time it was. He kills his sister, and ends up in a place that’s meant to hold the worst monsters who have ever existed? How exactly does that work? Did he ever tell you how he ended up there?”

“He was kind of vague on that,” Joselyn admitted. “I take it you know how he ended up there?”

“Yes,” Denuvus murmured, “it’s because he wanted him there. And even as their prisoner, he still had that kind of influence. Enough to get the young, untrained and incredibly powerful necromancer brought close to him.”

“Another prisoner?” Joselyn was frowning. 

“Not just any prisoner,” Denuvus informed her. “The prisoner.  The one the prison was built for. Literally, the one. You know the name Fossor is just Fah-Seur, thirty-four in their language? The thirty-fourth prisoner. The one we’re talking about now is their word for One. You know about Arthur? The King, not your father-in-law.”

Joselyn nodded. “Of course, I— wait. You’re not…”

With a soft chuckle, Denuvus shook her head. “It’s not Arthur. This was long before his time. Several thousand years ago. It’s another natural Dragon-Heretic, one that’s… let’s say less Camelot and more Genghis Khan. The prison was originally built to contain him and his personal minions. That is its primary purpose. When our friend here escaped, they moved the prison. There were too many defenses for him to get all the way to One and the other important prisoners before the people in charge could get out with them, and now the prison is somewhere else. One is still safely locked away.”

Joselyn squinted that way.  “And do you think you can control this guy? Is that why you’re so interested?”

Denuvus gave her a long look. “I am not suicidal. Nor am I quite that arrogant. No, I don’t believe I can control this man. He was a full fledged powerful Dragon Heretic who was dangerous enough to build the universe’s strongest prison for, over three thousand years ago. Now? Even locked up, who knows how strong he could be? No, controlling him is not my plan. But I do believe that he could be useful to my overall goal.”

“And what is that?” Joselyn probed. “Because as far as I knew, your only real goal was to be as comfortable as possible and live like a quiet emperor. Excuse me, empress. Sticking your neck out as far as looking for whoever this guy seems like a really good way of getting your head chopped off, at the very least. So what makes it worth that risk?”

“Perhaps some day I will tell you more,” Denuvus allowed thoughtfully. “But at this exact moment, let’s just say there is a creature whom I very much wish dead. Everything I have become, everything I have… sacrificed… turning myself into what I am and amassing as much power as I have, even keeping so many secrets about myself, has been toward the goal of killing this creature. He believes himself to be a god, and he’s not far wrong. But, even gods can be killed, given the right power in the right circumstances.”

Joselyn’s head shook slowly. “You want this… whoever it is dead so much that you’ve become a monster yourself. How many people have you killed to get here? How many of the people who actually cared about you or could have if you let them have you thrown away? How many lives have you destroyed with this obsession? You mentioned sacrifice, and that meant something to you. What was it? Who? Who did you sacrifice for your power? Because you clearly love them, and their death isn’t something this other creature did. You did that. Whoever this person was that their death still affects you after all this time, that was you. For everything this enemy of yours has taken away from you, it seems to me that you’ve thrown away just as much in this mad rush for revenge.”

An invisible force suddenly gripped her, lifting the woman off the floor and squeezing tight enough that Joselyn let out a gasp of pain. 

“I threw nothing away,” Denuvus announced in a low, dangerous tone. “She is still a part of me, as she always will be. Making a choice and standing by it doesn’t mean it will never hurt or that you will never regret it. But I would not change what I did. I accept the pain as part of the price for eventually killing the monster who took my—” She stopped, emotions warring on her face for a very brief moment before she contained them.

“You are far from the only one who knows what it is like to have a child taken away from you. Some in a more permanent sense then others. Whatever it takes, whoever’s life is lost, I will see this creature bloodied, broken, and dead. And in the end, as he falls, he will know it was me. He will know that his death and every loss he has suffered has been my doing. Before he dies, the last words that leave his filthy mouth will be the names of my son and daughter that he took from me. Then he will die, and every atom of his flesh will be incinerated.”

Swallowing slightly at the end of that, Joselyn spoke carefully. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what that creature did to you, and what it made you become. But you never had to do all of this. You didn’t have to make this whole crusade yours and no one else’s. If he’s as much of a monster as you say, you could have gone to…”

Denuvus raised an eyebrow. “Gone to who? The Seosten-puppeted Heretics? One of these other groups would not do what needs to be done to destroy him? People who would completely fail to understand the threat until it was too late? His tendrils are everywhere. He could control any of them. No, I will kill him myself, whatever the cost.”

She let Joselyn drop to the ground finally. “And thanks to our son, or at least his existence, I am several steps closer to that.” The woman offered a faint smile. “I suppose influencing Fossor  with the idea of using my blood on an offspring of his own was worth the effort.” 

Joselyn’s eyes widened slightly. “You… what? No, Fossor had to have your blood stolen, and then killed the intermediary.”

The other woman chuckled. “Well, of course. He’d hardly do what I wanted him to if I just handed the blood to him. It had to be his idea. Or, he had to believe it was. Planting those seeds took quite a while. But now they have paid off. He took you back to the world he came from. And if I’m right, he did exactly what I wanted him to.”

Smiling at the other woman’s expression, she waved a hand idly. “But, that is something that won’t come to fruition for sometime, as the lord of the house here furthers his plans. Which is just fine, as I am nothing if not patient. In any case, it will be fun to see him made useful to me again.”

“Again?” Joselyn carefully echoed. 

Denuvus nodded. “Yes well, the ritual which granted me my Djinn required an unbelievably powerful spell be cast so that I could draw the excess into mine.”

“Powerful spe—” Joselyn’s eyes widened. “ The banishment curse. The one the old Heretics used to try to get rid of Fossor. You took energy from it. If you hadn’t done that—”

“The spell would have proceeded exactly as it did,” Denuvus interrupted. “I know it would have because they came to my sister and I to ask for help. They were looking for the aid of anyone capable of contributing to their spell. So they let us see it. I knew what would happen. The loophole was right there. But I didn’t say anything, because I needed them to cast it. I needed that energy.  The energy from so many incredibly powerful people throwing their all into this spell was something I’d been waiting for.”

Shaking her head, Joselyn demanded, “How do you know that things would have gone the same if you hadn’t interfered?”

With a sigh, Denuvus answered. “Because my ritual did not take from their spell before it was cast, it used the cast-off energy afterward. Djinn are created in one of two ways, accidentally or purposefully. An accidental Djinn comes about when a world shaking spell is employed and the… let’s call it exhaust from that spell happens to miraculously find its way into a recently deceased body. Even then most of the time it will simply destroy the body. To form an accidental Djinn, the body must be far enough away that the energy has to strain a bit to reach it, thereby entering the body slowly enough that it doesn’t promptly explode. Yet if it’s too far away, the energy will drain away before enough pools to create the Djinn. It’s all very complicated, sort of like not only predicting where lightning will strike, but from how far away. And then, for good measure, do the same thing for every bolt in the entire storm.”

“Lightning rods,” Joselyn murmured. 

The other woman smiled once more. “Yes, the ritual I used was like a very specific series of lightning rods. They pulled the energy in just the right way, at the exact speed to create my Djinn. Think of it as a complicated recipe, where food must be cooked at precisely the right temperature for precisely the right amount of time, or it’s all ruined.”

Joselyn swallowed. “You mentioned a sister. What happened to her?”

Denuvus was quiet for a moment before answering. “Creating a Djinn requires a sacrifice, a blood cost. You can’t just put it in any old body. It must be the body of one you truly love. I truly loved my sister. But it was the only way to put a stop to this monster.”

“Or you could have told the Heretics who came to see you for help with the spell about him,” Joselyn pointed out. “With enough help—”

“We tried,” Denuvus snapped. “Right after we escaped from our confinement, we tried to tell others about the threat. Some didn’t believe us at all. Others just believed we were grossly exaggerating the threat. And others… others were agents for him, willingly or otherwise. We were nearly enslaved once more because we went to others for help.”

She exhaled slowly. “No, I learned a long time ago that I can only depend on myself and my sister. Now only myself.”

Her hand waved that thought away, after a brief troubled frown that was also dismissed. “But let’s get back to it, shall we? There’s still a lot I need to know about Fossor and our little boy. 

“So, I suppose it’s a good thing that we have all night to talk.”

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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Hand pressed against the red circle on the wall of his living room to activate the intercom linking his prison house to the guards, Sean Gerardo’s mouth opened as he called, “Hey, Cristof! You still out there?” 

There was a momentary pause before Cristof Manders appeared in a brief flash of light. The man was three inches shorter than Sean’s own six foot four, and much thinner. Sean may have been stuck in this prison for eight years (from his point of view), but over time he had convinced his jailers to provide a few extra amenities, including an entire, well-equipped gym to replace his own makeshift one. He spent hours each day in that gym, and it showed in his form. 

But while Cristof may have looked smaller than Sean, the power discrepancy had always been far lopsided in the other direction. Cristof was a full Heretic and had been for over forty years. Which could be said for any of the man’s coworkers as well. Sean’s personal training and workout regime meant nothing next to the powers that any of his jailers could employ. 

Squinting at Sean suspiciously, Cristof asked flatly, “What do you want, Gerardo? Your parents aren’t scheduled to visit for another–” He paused, clearly considering the time differences. “–another two days by your clock. And you’ve already had your groceries delivered this week.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Right, yeah. But I figured you might want to play another game.” He gestured toward the table where he’d set up the chess board. “If you’re not busy.” 

Again, the other man paused. His head tilted as though listening to something that Sean couldn’t hear, before he lifted his chin. “I don’t know if you’ve somehow figured out what’s going on, or if this is all part of a contingency plan for anyone who ended up like you, but it’s not working.” 

Doing an admirable job of looking confused, Sean’s eyes widened fractionally. “Uhh, what?” 

“The people you’ve got outside,” Cristof snapped. “They’re not getting in here. And you know what? Even if they do, you’re still not getting away. Because the instant they breach the prison is the instant we teleport you out of here. I mean hell, that’s not even something we have to do manually. It’s built into the prison defenses, Gerardo. The instant anyone who isn’t allowed in this prison sets foot in it, you and every other prisoner are immediately transported to a back-up facility on the other side of the ocean. So this whole attack? It’s completely pointless.” 

“Okay, well, I don’t know anything about an attack.” Sean’s shoulders shrugged. “Not sure how I could, unless you guys are a lot worse at security than you’re supposed to be. But if there’s something going on out there, do you need to go out and help?” 

The man gave him a dangerous smile. “Nah. They don’t need me out there to deal with this. Trust me, we were ready. I’m here to play backup for the backup. On the off-chance your old friends manage to bypass the automated security, I’ll take you to your new prison myself.” 

With an easy nod, Sean’s mouth opened to ask, “Well, it’d probably be easier to protect those automated security spells if you were in the room with them instead of here, wouldn’t it?” 

“And leave you alone in here?” Cristof snorted. “Nah, you’re up to something. I can tell.” 

“Sure, okay.” Sean’s voice was agreeable and personable. “Well, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to take me with you then, right?” His shoulders shrugged once more. “I mean, if my friends out there are coming here to get me out, my not being here would thwart that pretty effectively. You could keep an eye on me and the emergency security spells at the same time. Then if anything did happen to them, you could probably see it in time to fix it.” 

For a few long seconds, the man just stared at him. “Take you out of your prison cell?” 

“You have to admit,” Sean’s voice pointed out, “no one out there would expect it. They come bursting in, using all their plans and effort just getting to this cell and… whoops, I’m not here. I’m out there with you, in a secure room where they don’t have the slightest prayer of finding me. You’d be saving the day. Saving the whole prison, really. Hell, you could leave a trap here so that anyone who jumps in to save me gets caught in it.” 

“A trap…” Cristof echoed slowly, clearly considering it. “Yeah. Hey, you get over here.” He pointed to the front door. “Stand right there and don’t move, you got me? Do not move.” He waited until Sean had moved to stand there, then quickly scrawled a few quick runes around the walls, activating several prepared spells before backing up to join his prisoner. “Right. First one of your friends out there that manage to come here are going to get a real big surprise.” 

Sean’s head bowed. “I feel sorry for whoever ends up in here.” His mouth turned up in a very slight smile then as he looked at his jailer. “But hey, they did pretty much ask for it.” 

“Yeah… yeah, they did. Now come on.” Cristof grabbed him by the shoulder. “You try to pull anything right now and I swear, you won’t wake up from the coma for a month. Got it?” When Sean’s head bobbed in a nod, he grabbed the door, activating the spell on it to transport both of them out of the cell that the boy-turned-man had been trapped in for so long. 

They appeared together in a narrow corridor with metal walls lined with various glowing spell glyphs. Behind them was a vault door, apparently what Sean’s cell entrance had looked like from the other side. “You pull away from me,” Cristof warned him, “and those spells on the walls will put you on your ass so fast you’ll think you time-traveled.” He then yanked his charge along down the corridor. They passed several more metal vault-like doors. Other prisons. 

“I thought there’d be more guards out here.” Sean’s voice was contemplative, as they reached a short flight of stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. “You know, normal patrols just in case.” 

“There are,” his jailer snapped, grip tightening on his shoulder while all-but dragging him up those stairs. “Most of them are busy dealing with your friends outside. But don’t get cocky, I can deal with you myself, and I’m not the only one here. You’re not going anywhere, Gerardo.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Sean’s voice was smooth and quiet, a reassuring timbre that eased Cristof’s suspicion while the man pulled him along in a tight, inescapable grip. 

“Hold it!” The new voice interrupted just as they reached the top of the stairs, where a pair of double doors waited at the end of a circular landing. There was another Heretic there, a guard Sean knew by the name of Julien. He had a three-bladed spear in one hand, his face a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. “What the hell, Cristof? You brought Gerardo out of–explain this! Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? We’re under siege and you choose now to-” 

“Yeah,” Cristof snapped, “I know what’s going on. And I know that if those guys actually make it in here, the first place they’ll go is this guy’s cell. So better for him to not be there, get it? This room is the most protected one in the prison. I’m taking him in there. Anyone tries to get past you, I’ll teleport him the hell out of here and they’ll get absolutely nothing.” 

“It–are you sure that…” With a frown, Julien slowly asked, “Is that really something that we–” 

“You’re right.” Sean’s hand rose for attention, drawing the men’s gazes. “It’s not a perfect plan. But you know what would make it better? You keeping guard right here.” His head nodded toward the floor in front of the room. “Believe me, I know my friends and you should be ready to deal with them if they get this far. Don’t let yourself get distracted, because they’ll take advantage. You should be here, ready for them.” 

“I… right, yeah. Go inside.” Julien stepped away from the double doors, already watching the way they had come from. “Get him in there, lock the place down. I’ll make sure no one gets through.” He gave a sharp look toward Sean. “Your friends are about to fail, you know. Then you’ll have plenty of company in here. Hell, maybe we’ll arrange some play dates so you can all talk about how dumb this rescue attempt was.” 

“Hey, that’s enough,” Cristof snapped. “Yeah, the kid–err… guy’s not going anywhere. But you don’t have to be a dick about it. These people are just doing what they think is right. They’re wrong, but we don’t convince them of that by being assholes. They’re misguided, not some kind of… Strangers. Just protect the entrance, let me handle Gerardo.” 

With that, the man opened the door and pulled Sean in after him before letting it close. They were now in a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were lined with consoles, computer monitors showing various parts of the prison inside and outside, and lots of flashing warning lights. On the screens for the exterior of the prison, they could see dozens of figures fighting, spells and powers sending bright flashes of light here and there as the intruders fought against the prisons defenders. It was total chaos, impossible to easily follow over the monitors. 

“Nice place,” Sean’s voice murmured as he slowly looked around the room, taking in the security screens with barely a glance before focusing his attention back on Cristof. “I can see why you’d bring me here. I mean, if you’ve gotta hold out somewhere, this is the place to do it. Hell, you could probably stick the controls for every security measure in this prison here.” His head shook. “But they didn’t do that, did they? They didn’t put every security measure in this room.” 

“Hell no,” Cristof retorted. “We’ve got spells to stop anyone not authorized from teleporting in or out of this place. Not just here. Two redundancies in opposite parts of the prison. Three layers of security, counting the one in here,” he bragged with a confident smile. “And if one goes down, the other two activate emergency evacuation in seconds. Like I said, your friends out there don’t have a chance. We know what we’re doing here. They’re wasting their time.”

“They’re pretty good at that.” Sean’s voice was a murmured agreement before he added, “But I hope you guys didn’t put those redundant spells too close together. They’re not like, next door or anything like that, right?” 

With a snort, Cristof snapped, “How stupid do you think we are? Look, right there.” He pointed to a map of the facility on a nearby wall. “See these two rooms? That’s where the redundancies are. Like I said, completely opposite sides of the prison, and far from this room. We’re safe.” 

Sean’s head bobbed in a quick nod. “Wow. Yeah, you guys really thought of everything. Seems like it’s all handled.” There was a brief pause before he murmured a thoughtful, “Unless…” 

Frowning with equal parts anticipation and suspicion, Cristof demanded, “Unless what?” 

The prisoner shrugged. “I dunno. I just… I mean, I certainly didn’t tell anyone about this place, right? And you know you didn’t. Seems to me like the only way my friends out there could know where this place was and how to get to it would be if somebody told them. But if it wasn’t me, because I’ve been stuck here the whole time, and it wasn’t you, then… it kind of had to be…” 

“Someone else,” Cristof finished, staring at him with wide eyes. “You think someone in this place told your friends about it. You think someone–one of the other guards– is a traitor.” 

With a cough, Sean’s gaze moved to watch the security monitors, his voice idle, as though it hardly mattered. “It’s kinda the only thing that makes sense. No other way for them to find this place. Lots of traitors going around, no way of knowing who might’ve changed their mind about the rebellion lately. And you know, if there’s a traitor in here, someone who told those guys how to get to this place, they could’ve done more than that.” 

Cristof’s weapon, a sword with two parallel blades that could each shift between various elements and metals, was in his hand. “More than that?” he demanded with a look at the door.

“Sure.” Sean’s head nodded toward the control consoles. “You know that security spell you were talking about, the one that’s supposed to teleport all the prisoners out of here the second an intruder sets foot in this place? Whoever that traitor is, he would’ve told my friends about it, right? No way he wouldn’t. So why are they trying so hard to get in here? Unless…” 

Eyes widening, Cristof’s gaze snapped from the door to one console in particular. “Unless it’s compromised,” he finished for the other man, already starting to step that way. 

“Yup.” Sean’s own voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I bet they changed it. They made it so the spells will transport you and the rest of the guards out of here instead. You’ll be teleported so far away you’ll never make it back in time. And they’re just waiting to activate it, any… second…” 

“Not this time!” Cristof retorted, shooting Sean a hard glare before his hands danced over the controls. It was a mixture of spells and actual technology. One hand dismissed a rune intricately drawn across the console, while his other hand punched in a code on the physical keypad. His voice was triumphant as he spun from the console with a laugh. “Sorry, Gerardo, your friends’ little tricks aren’t gonna work today. I just disabled that security spell, so let’s see them try–” 

“What the hell did you just do?!” The demand came from the figure who appeared with a snap of power in the middle of the room. Another Heretic, this one a dark-skinned woman carrying a bladed shotgun, had teleported in, already whirling to face Sean while snapping her free hand up, a ball of semi-invisible force appearing at the ends of her fingers. 

At the same time, the door slid open, as Julien came rushing through as well to see what had just happened. His spear was raised and ready to throw. 

With a flash of light, a bright, glowing figure stepped from Sean’s body. Apollo stood there, hand raised. Two of the rings on his hand flared with power. The first summoned a forcefield, intercepting the ball of energy the Heretic woman had just flung toward Sean. The other sent a burst of electricity back that way, flinging her into the far wall where she crashed through one of the screens there with a spray of glass and sparks. 

Simultaneously with that, another figure shot out of the back of Apollo. Felicity Chambers was there, hand already raised. As Julien’s spear flew toward Sean, she summoned a small portal. The spear sailed through it before reappearing behind Julien to slam into the man’s leg. An instant later, Flick’s kinetic-empowered staff slammed into the staggering man’s face, knocking him into the opposite wall. She followed that up with another blow before he could recover, even as two blades, hurled by Apollo, embedded themselves in the wall to either side of Julien. 

Cristof, by that point, had jerked around, two-bladed sword coming up. But before he could do anything, Sean slapped a hand against his arm. A napkin, pulled from his pocket, was there. The napkin he had spent hours subtly drawing a spell on under the tutelage of Apollo. With a single word, Sean activated that spell, and the napkin exploded into a sudden spray of liquid metal that enveloped Cristof before instantly hardening into a cocoon. A second later, the cocoon was filled with a potent knockout gas. Even as the cocoon fell to the ground and began to melt away into a puddle, the man inside lay completely unconscious. 

Meanwhile, the two daggers Apollo had hurled produced figures of their own. Sands and Avalon both appeared while Julien was raising a hand toward Flick. He had just summoned a bolt of power that would punch through the girl’s body, when her newly emerged teammates each struck the man from either side. Sands’ mace and a glowing warhammer conjured from one of Avalon’s gauntlets each slammed into him. That time, he collapsed and didn’t rise again. 

Quickly, Flick and the others took the man’s spear from his leg before using one of the enchanted rocks Wyatt had provided. This one wouldn’t teleport the man anywhere (that was impossible from in here until the security defenses were taken down), but it would ensure that he stayed unconscious for a few hours.

That done, the trio looked over first to where Cristof was, finding the man completely in hand. The woman who had appeared was down as well, Apollo tugging her limp form over to lie next to Cristof. 

Another glowing figure emerged, this time from Flick. Tabbris appeared, before she in turn produced Larissa, who produced Haiden. Athena emerged from him, Tristan from her, and Vanessa from him. Soon, the whole group was there in that room. 

“Sean!” Flick blurted the instant the initial threat was over and they were all present. With that, she threw herself that way, even as Sean reflexively opened his arms. The two embraced tightly, as Flick’s head shook. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took so long. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” 

Shaking his head, Sean tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t any of their fault. The words stuck in his throat, and he just clung tighter. They’d interacted before during all this, in his virtual reality space whenever Apollo brought her in. But that was different from this. He hadn’t even let Flick or the others see how old he was getting in comparison to them, preferring to project himself in his mind as the boy he’d been back then. This was the first time they had really seen him as he was now. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Tristan managed, staring at him. “You’re… you’re… fucking buff.” 

A hiss of disbelief that turned into a coughing-laugh emerged from Sean, as he shook his head. “I’m… a lot of things,” he muttered. “Mostly glad to see you, man.” The two boys embraced firmly. “Really god damn glad to see you.” 

Tabbris took her turn for a hug then, followed by Sands, Vanessa, and the others. Even Avalon took his hand for a moment, squeezing before leaning in for a brief hug as she whispered in his ear about being glad to see him. But before that went on too long, Athena spoke up. “Very good. But we have to keep moving. There are still two redundant defenses to take down. Thanks to Apollo and his Tartarus gift, we know exactly where they are.” Her hand gestured to the spots on the map that Cristof had so helpfully pointed out. 

“We split into groups. One group stays here to defend this room. Two more go to each of these places, and we shut down their security simultaneously.

“This isn’t over yet.”

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Denouement 3 – Fray (Heretical Edge)

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The secret Crossroads prison (or this one, anyway) turned out to be located in an old long-since abandoned mining town somewhere in southern Kentucky. Or, to be more precise… under said mining town. Despite the outward appearance of a few broken-down, cobweb-filled buildings, there was, apparently, an entire elaborate underground complex that had been constructed a mile and a half down. And every inch of that one-point-five miles was filled with various magic spells, traps, alarms, and other contingencies to keep the prisoners in and uninvited guests out. 

It was also a god damn hornet’s nest, because the very instant that the group of Atherby/Rebellion aligned Heretics and werewolves moved through the portal and appeared on a low hill just along the side of the ‘ghost town’, they were met with heavy response. Automated turrets appeared both from the ground and from the supposedly empty, broken-down buildings. Drones erupted into the sky and began to open fire as well, and several Crossroads portals opened up, releasing actual Heretics. A few of those had Cyberform partners to mix in with the drones and turrets. It was, in short, absolute and total chaos. 

Which, of course, was the plan. All this group had to do was keep the attention of the prison’s first line of defense. Guinevere and the others involved with the primary distraction would (hopefully) keep Crossroads from sending reinforcements immediately. It wouldn’t stop them for long, but a couple minutes was all they would need. Keeping the guards busy until the infiltration group could break down any anti-transportation powers that were in there and get out with Sean and the rest of the prisoners. That’s all they had to do. They didn’t have to win, just… survive. 

Unfortunately, that ‘surviving’ bit was going to end up being a bit easier said than done. In the mere twenty seconds that had passed since this attack began, it had already become a full-fledged warzone. Gunfire, laser blasts, balls of flame and ice, chunks of electrified sharp metal, bursts of intense gravity, and more were flung every which way. Entire sections of ground, some rather large, simply tore themselves up and went flying toward one enemy, only to be caught by another and returned. A blast of purple-tinted lightning, bright enough to blind one looking directly at it, crackled through the air before being converted into a chunk of frozen ice at a touch. A figure zoomed at super speed across the crater-filled dirt and grass, only to be struck from the side by a powerful wave of kinetic force, sending the figure sprawling. 

On one knee at the edge of a three-foot deep crater, Scout brought her rifle (Nothing) to her shoulder, peering through the scope. She cycled through several possible portals she had already set up in the midst of this chaos before settling on one that gave her a view of the sky. One of the drones flying overhead passed through, pausing briefly to reorient itself in order to open fire at someone else. But Scout took it out first, firing three quick shots through her series of portals that hit the drone repeatedly, sending it flying sideways before it exploded. 

Before she could adjust, she felt the sudden appearance of someone appearing through a portal or teleportation. Their hand caught her arm with a violent curse, and she felt it suddenly grow… hard. Her left arm had turned to stone, and it was already starting to spread up to her shoulder and down over her hand. She couldn’t move it, her rifle simply falling from her grasp. 

Then something hit her own attacker from behind. Scout fell hard onto her side, a shock of pain running through her as she twisted to see. Doug. The boy was about ten feet back, but he’d sent two metal coils from the palm of his hands to wrap around the person who had attacked Scout. 

She was a Heretic, of course, a short woman with fiery red hair and even more fiery eyes. As the metal coils yanked her away from Scout, she jerked her arms and both coils shattered under the force. This was no trainee, but a full Heretic. Strong enough to shatter coils that were made of what amounted to solid steel, and with the ability to turn someone’s arm to stone at a touch. 

Even as the woman spun toward Doug, Scout grabbed for the rifle with one hand. Before she could do anything with it, however, a pair of what looked like metal wings erupted from the Heretic woman’s back. One of the wings lashed out, smacking Nothing from Scout’s grasp and cutting her remaining arm pretty deeply in the process. The other wing moved just as quickly, pushing right up close to her face in a clear, sharp warning. 

“Stay down, girl,” the woman snapped testily, “before you get hurt. And you.” Her hand rose, extending toward Doug before she made a sharp gesture that brought the boy flying helplessly toward her before dumping him on the ground at her feet. “Both of you can cool off in–” 

Cool off was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because in that instant, the woman suddenly spun to the side while bringing her metal wings in front of herself as a shield. Her danger sense had warned her just in time, before a three-foot-wide fist made of ice collided with the wings in a blow that sent the woman stumbling back several feet. 

Gordon. The boy was covered in ice armor that made him much larger than he should have been. The burst of intense cold from the blow enveloped the woman as he sent as much of the power inherited from his father as he could into her. Instantly, the woman’s skin began to turn white-blue, her eyelids frosted over, and a rapidly thickening layer of ice rose around her. 

And then, in a burst of fire, it was gone. The Crossroads woman let out a loud, violent scream as she let loose with the ball of fire around herself, melting the ice and singing both Scout and Doug. Another ball of fire appeared between her hands, before hurling its way toward Gordon. 

“No!” With that cry, a much smaller ball of fire suddenly appeared. It intercepted the large one, absorbing it and preventing the fire from hitting the ice-encased boy. A second later, the ball of fire shifted, transforming into a small, unassuming-looking girl. Rebecca Jameson. One of her gifts allowed her to transform into an orb of either water, fire, earth, or air, and (among other things) absorb/collect any of the same element she directly contacted in that form. 

Seeing the girl appear where the fire had been, the Heretic woman summoned some kind of green goo in her hand before flinging it that way. Before Rebecca could move, the goo took her in the chest, expanding quickly to almost completely envelop her. She was yanked to the ground with a yelp, unable to stand.

Scout couldn’t use her rifle right then, unable to reach it from where she was lying (and unable to hold it properly with one arm turned to stone anyway). But she could still help. With a thought, she summoned her Tzentses-given power to conjure small items made of solid energy in order to create a dagger, flinging it at the woman’s shoulder from behind. Nearby, Doug had managed to click his pen to create a spear, which he hurled at her as well. 

Both weapons stopped an instant before they would have struck the woman. The spear from Doug hit some kind of forcefield, while Scout’s energy-dagger was caught by an opposing power. The woman growled, arms rising. With that, part of the ground rose up as well, coils of rock and dirt appearing all around the group. “That,” she announced, “is enou–” 

In mid-sentence, a glowing orb appeared at the woman’s feet, and she was instantly yanked down toward it. The orb was one of Jazz’s gravity-manipulation balls, as the girl herself dropped her invisibility (she’d been moving very slowly to get close enough without being seen), one hand outstretched to keep the orb up while her other hand pointed that way, mouth opening to shout, “Now!” 

With that, the Heretic woman, held against the ground by the orb, was set upon by an army of… rats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other small rodents. Dozens of the creatures, all that Jazz had managed to recruit around the camp using her power to vocally control any non-intelligent animal that met her gaze, and stored in a specially prepared extradimensional bag for just such an occasion. 

The army of rodents swarmed the woman with a loud series of chitters and squeaks. A dozen were instantly blasted away by a single laser from her hand, and several more were vaporized when the woman sent a second laser from her eyes. Their teeth could not even penetrate her skin. They were a nuisance at worst, not a threat. The gravity orb as well became an afterthought as the woman used a power of her own to negate it, pushing herself up. 

But both the rodents and the gravity orb were a distraction. A very effective one, as the woman couldn’t even pay attention to her danger sense anymore considering there were rats attacking her from all sides. She barely saw Gordon’s ice fist rearing back in time to fling one of those metal wings in front of herself, still taking a good blow from it that sent her tumbling. 

The woman ended up on both knees, skidding to a stop after the blow from Gordon. Her eyes snapped up as her power warned her of yet another threat, only to see Rebecca, apparently freed from the goop from before, there with her own weapon deployed. Her backpack, in full enormous cannon-mode, was pointed directly at the Crossroads Heretic, and already in the midst of firing. Once more, the woman was barely able to cross those metal wings in front of herself while summoning a powerful forcefield. 

The cannon blew through the shield and the wings, and even with that much of the shot dissipated, she was still flung a good twenty feet as a long, two foot deep ditch was torn through the ground along the path of the shot right up to the wall of the building she eventually crashed into. Her metal wings were left mangled and partially broken, bits and pieces missing. 

Bloodied and bruised, the woman rolled over, hand flinging out to conjure an eight foot tall, three-foot wide metal wall from the ground, which she sent toward Rebecca. It rushed that way, cutting through the ground it had popped out of as it moved fast as a car (and would probably hit just as hard). Powerful as the girl’s cannon was, it would take another second to recharge even to its least powerful state. The wall would hit her long before then. 

Or it would have. But Gordon was there, his huge ice form intercepting the flying metal wall. At the same time, he flung his hand forward, opening it to reveal Jazz and Doug. Both were sent flying toward the Heretic woman, crashing into her. Doug’s metal coils were back, wrapping their way around her while Jazz simply grabbed onto her arm, gripping tightly with her own enhanced strength. Both held on for dear life as the woman jerked first one way, then the other. 

“When will you kids learn?” the Crossroads loyalist snarled. “You can’t hold me.” With a grunt and a yank of her arm, she broke the coils once more before slamming Jazz and Doug hard into one another, then flung them to the ground in front of her with a curse. 

Her hand rose, but before she could do anything else, a shot ricocheted off of her forehead. It staggered the woman, making her head jerk toward an empty spot in the air just as a second shot from Scout’s rifle came through the portal there, rebounding from her cheek and snapping her head to the side with a sharp curse. 

Scout was laying on her side, using her one good hand to fire the rifle through the portal. She sent more shots that way, but they were caught by one power or another as the woman held a hand up, ready that time. Scout sent another handful of shots through more portals that she had erected around the woman, but none of those hit either. The Crossroads Heretic was ready for each of them, her warning sense giving her time to intercept each shot. 

What she was not ready for, was another shot from Rebecca’s cannon. By that point, it had recovered enough to fire again. As the woman’s danger sense flared up, she spun that way, hand up to intercept another shot from Scout. What she saw instead, was Rebecca’s glowing cannon in mid-firing sequence. 

She tried to dodge, of course. But Doug sent the remains of his metal coils up, smacking the woman in the back as hard as he could. At the same time, Jazz summoned another gravity orb directly in front of the woman. Between both, she was flung toward the orb and directly into the path of the cannon blast. With a scream of power, the blast struck her full on, and she was once more hurtled into the wall of the building. Reinforced as it secretly was, her impact still left a solid dent in the wall, and she fell limply to the ground in a heap. 

Before she could recover, Jazz was there, all-but flinging herself at the woman. She held a rock in one hand, quickly blurting the command word before shoving it against their dazed-maybe-unconscious opponent. The rock glowed brightly before disappearing. A second later, the woman did the same. 

Wyatt had made these rocks. They were all carrying a couple of them. According to him, the spells on the rocks would render the targets unconscious for a number of hours while also teleporting them to some random (relatively safe) location. The woman would wake up eventually, long after the fight was over. The only downside of the spell was that it wouldn’t work against a fully conscious and combative opponent. They’d had to knock her unconscious (or at least close to it) before using them. 

With that finally done, the small group gathered to collect themselves for a brief second. The battle continued to rage around them, but Gordon raised several ice walls around them, and everyone turned their attention to Scout, who stood there with one arm turned to stone. 

“Are… you okay?” Rebecca hesitantly asked. 

Scout hesitated before nodding. She hoped so. She really hoped that this rock thing was temporary or fixable. Having to regrow an arm would be hard even for regeneration. But now wasn’t the time to worry about it or be shocked into inaction. They still had a lot to do, even if they’d managed to dispatch one of the adult Heretic responders. One. It had taken five of them to even knock one adult Heretic out of the fight. 

At least there were a lot more here, many far more powerful than Scout and the others. And the group inside… well, hopefully things were going okay there. 

Because she wasn’t sure how long they were going to be able to keep this up. 

********

He knew it was coming. This was the day. Apollo had brought the spell in, and helped him place the very discrete beacon inside a book he was idly scrawling in. It was there. This was the time. They were coming. 

The problem, for Sean, was in not looking like he was waiting or anticipating anything. Because his jailers would definitely notice anything that was off. He had to go through the day like it was any other. Which was part of why he and Apollo had decided it would be better if he didn’t know the exact time they were coming. It could be morning or evening, or anything in between. He just had to play it cool. 

Well, as cool as he could. For the moment, that meant eating his breakfast of quiche Lorraine and skillet-fried potatoes while watching Jurassic Park yet again. He’d taken to watching movies by the year. This week he was up to 1993. 

Speaking in time with Ian Malcolm, he intoned, “That is one big pile of–” 

“–shit,” his mouth finished, as he briefly froze at the realization that there were suddenly a lot more minds inside his head than there had been a second earlier. Luckily, Apollo had quickly taken over to speak for him so any guards paying attention wouldn’t notice the stumble. 

Then there were voices. So many of them he couldn’t keep track, couldn’t hear them all. People talking. It almost made him drop his fork, but Apollo took care of that too, while telling everyone else to stop. 

Voices. People. People besides Apollo. Sean had… well, he’d talked to a few others. Flick had visited him before by possessing Apollo so she could hitch a ride here, just as the group had just done. Vanessa and Tristan both had also done the same a couple of times. But this… the whole group being here, this was new. This was different. 

This was final. His last few minutes in this prison… one way or another. 

The movie continued, as Sean reeled inwardly, trying to collect himself. Apollo kept his face impassive, his body still, even taking the time to have a bite of his breakfast. Outwardly, everything was completely normal. 

You okay, kid? The Seosten man’s voice was gentle, clearly understanding even as he repeated, No one else talk. Not yet. This is a lot. 

I’m… I’m okay, Sean finally managed. He could still feel a lot of their… impulses, their reactions. He could sense their minds. This whole Russian nesting doll thing was pretty shaky to begin with. Who knew how long it would hold up. Let’s do this. 

Apollo took over once more, rising to his feet. His eyes glanced toward the mirror on the wall, and Sean felt the reactions of everyone inside him. 

He wasn’t a boy any longer. For Sean Gerardo, eight years had passed. Eight years. He had come in here a boy of eighteen. He was now twenty-six. 

It was time to leave this prison. Because if he didn’t…

He would be leaving this prison. 

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Denouement 2 – Appropriation (Heretical Edge)

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Four figures, three female and one male, sat in the back corner of a coffee shop. Given the beauty and general attractiveness of each of them, it would have been easy to mistake the group for being models or actors. Or even to believe that one observing them had fallen through a dimensional rift into the world of film or television where such stunning features could be found randomly wherever they went. 

Four ridiculously attractive figures. Four Seosten. Sariel, Jophiel, and Larees were the females. The male was Mercury. He was the one who spoke first, after taking a sip of coffee with his eyes on the nearby window. “I guess it’s almost like old times, huh?” 

“For some of you,” Larees pointed out before taking a gulp of her own cup. It was only about half-coffee, while she had filled the rest of it from her trusty flask. Swallowing hard, the spikey-haired woman added, “Some of us weren’t actually on that spiffy ship of yours.” 

“It’s too bad,” Jophiel noted, her own expression somewhat distracted. “We probably could’ve used another one of your… people.” She nodded slightly toward the younger Seosten’s face, where the blue-green phoenix tattoo normally was. It had been magically hidden for the moment to avoid drawing even more attention. “Could’ve been useful to have you around.” 

“Another?” Larees asked with a raised eyebrow. Her hand snapped out to catch hold of a biscotti from the middle of the table before popping it directly into her mouth. 

“Esconeas,” Sariel replied. “He was another from your group. His partner was a Laevok.” That was a creature about the size of a large moose, with an armored, tank-like shell fashioned similarly to an armadillo that covered a body that was very similar to one of Earth’s predator cats. It was a tiger with an armored shell it could retract or expand at will. Often it would use that by capturing its prey with the shell down, then raise it to trap the target inside the shell to be eaten.  

Larees nodded with a smirk. “That’s Esconeas alright. Never met the guy, he was before my time. But I’ve seen the holos. Pretty fierce fighter, from what I saw, and what others said.”

“Sounds like Esconeas to me,” Mercury confirmed. He shifted in his seat, his attention clearly focused somewhere off in the past. “Big guy, big temper. But useful to have around. Had some good jokes too. He was fun.” Heaving a sigh, he added, “Gonna suck if we have to fight him.” 

Jophiel spoke up, her gaze laser focused on the table in front of them. “I don’t care who we have to fight. If it turns out our people actually are the ones behind taking Elisabet, I will destroy all of them.” Her voice was dark, yet also very slightly hesitant through part of that before she pushed on. She really wasn’t accustomed to talking about her true feelings for her host/partner in front of others. Sariel had convinced her that they needed help if they were going to actually find out what happened to Elisabet, so she had agreed to bring in Mercury and Larees. But it was still a new thing, and she had made it very clear what she would do to them if the story got out. 

“Right, guess that’s us back on track,” Larees noted. “How’s our guy doing?” She was looking at the window once more, toward a tall office building across the street with various people in suits moving in and out of it now and then. There was a sign on the front near the doors denoting it as ‘Lannery Towers’ along with a list of the companies who kept offices inside the building. 

Sariel wasn’t looking at the building. She had a small hand mirror out, with which she was watching the view through the Lannery Towers’ security cameras that had been enchanted earlier that day. “Still in his meeting,” she murmured. “Looks like it’s about to wrap up, though.” 

“Time to move out, then,” Mercury announced while pushing himself up. “We’re all clear on how this goes? No one needs to check the notes again? Nobody has to pee? Cuz this operation is going to fall completely apart if someone has to pee in the middle of it.” 

Unamused, Jophiel grunted, “Just do your job and don’t screw it up. Understand?” 

He gave her a brief salute, before turning on his heel to head out. Larees was just behind him, while Sariel stayed back a bit, her attention on Jophiel. “I know this is hard. But–” 

“Is there a reason you didn’t involve Lucif–Apollo?” Jophiel cut her off, looking that way. “Or did you ask him, and he turned you down? Because I can’t see you not involving him. Though I suppose you did let him go off without you for a pretty long time.” 

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the woman winced. “I mean…” She sighed then, looking uncomfortable. “Right, I’m sorry to put it like that. I am curious about why he’s not here, but I didn’t mean to make it… confrontational. And I didn’t mean to imply that you were–” 

“I understand,” Sariel informed her quickly, “And he’s busy, as you know.” 

Jophiel gave a slight nod. “Of course. But we could have timed this to take place either before or after that little… mission. The distraction is not absolutely necessary. Which makes me wonder if you wanted it to take place now so that he would have an excuse to not participate in this one.” 

“That’s not it,” Sariel assured her. “He helped with some planning, and he would have come in to help. But I told him not to, because the time and effort for this is… a lot. He needed to focus on the plan to save Sean and the other prisoners.” She shrugged then. “We don’t know what might happen on either our mission or theirs. Security might be raised, so better to do this before they change too much from what you know about. Doing all this at the same time is the right call, and Apollo is exactly where he needs to be to get Sean out.”  

For a moment, the two Seosten women stared at one another, before Jophiel quietly noted, “If there was a way for Elisabet and I to have gotten the boy out without blowing our cover… I believe we would have, even if simply for the points it would have gained us in the eyes of our students. Not that our cover seems to have done us much good in this situation.” 

“We don’t know what happened yet,” Sariel reminded the woman, putting a hand out to rest on her arm. “Have you actually spoken to Metatron, or anyone else in command?” 

Jophiel gave a slight nod. “There was a message from him in one of the drop points. It said to report to an address in Chicago to give an explanation of what happened to my host. I was supposed to be there two days ago. I sent a messenger that I have the situation under control, but can’t report in yet. I’m sure he’s not happy about it, but I’m not leaving before I find Elisabet and get to the bottom of just what happened.” 

“And it could have been a trap,” Sariel noted, getting a nod from the woman. “He’ll probably start sending people after you. They won’t just let another of us defect. Especially one of your level.” 

“Let him send whoever he wants to.” The words came with a gaze that had turned hard. “I might be able to get answers out of them about how much the old man knows. Or suspects.”

With a brief look of understanding between the two, they moved out. Sariel took a moment to drop a twenty dollar tip in the jar for the time they had taken, before they emerged from the coffee shop to the street where Larees and Mercury were already waiting. The four stood facing the office building across from them, while cars and people passed steadily by. 

“Well,” Mercury started in a low, somewhat drawling voice, “what are we waiting for?

“Let’s do this.” 

*******

Larees

 

The pale woman with short, spiky hair that was black with blue tips strode through the alley. “Hey!” she called out, holding up an outstretched hand with cash in it. “Hey buddy!” 

With a snort and a cough, the homeless man laying on his side jolted awake. He blinked blearily at her, frowning. “I didn’t fucking do nothing,” he grumbled, “just tryin’ sleep. Ain’t you got no–” 

“Look, shut up,” Larees interrupted impatiently. “I don’t have time for it. You want this?” She held her hand up in front of his face, showing him five one hundred dollar bills. When he went to snatch the cash, she brought it out of his reach. “Not yet. I need to borrow you first.” 

The homeless man squinted at that, his eyes still a bit bleary and bloodshot. “Borrow? The hell is this, some kinda day labor thing? Cuz if it’s prostitution, I’m–” He burped, loudly. “I’m pretty sure you’re confused about how that whole thing is supposed to go.” 

With a soft sigh, Larees shook her head. “It’s not prostitution. Kind of day labor. I just need to borrow your body for a few minutes.” 

Her words earned a squint from the dirty, drunk man. “Sounds a lot like prostitution to me. But whatever floats your boat, princess.” He reached down to start undoing his pants right there in the alley, in broad daylight. “Just gimme a second to get m’self up to the task, and we’ll start–” 

That was as far as the man got before Larees sighed and grabbed his arm. A second later, she had disappeared, possessing him. His body jerked once, falling back against the wall before she took control of it. 

Wha–what the fuck?! the man blurted inside his own head. 

Don’t worry, Larees assured him. I’d explain it, but you wouldn’t remember anyway. Here, short version. I need to pilot your body for a few minutes. You won’t be in too much danger and I’ll eject from you if anything happens. You also won’t remember any of this afterward. You’ll wake up after that with the money I offered you and no memory of how you got it. Say no right now and I’ll find someone else to help. Say yes and I’ll put you into a… let’s call it a dream. The next thing you know, you’ll be five hundred dollars richer. Choose now. 

Ahh, body snatcher lady, the man hesitantly replied, if’n this is actually real, then five hundred bucks is five hundred bucks. But I want something else too. 

This had better not have anything to do with prostitution, Larees warned him sharply. 

Nah, nah, nothing like that, he assured her, having adjusted remarkably quickly to the whole situation. It’s just, I dunno if I’m dreaming or if you’re really in my head. But if this is real, I figure you can do more than five hundred. Not more money, a ahhh, help getting a job. You help me get cleaned up and get a job, and you can drive me around any time you want. 

Larees paused for a moment. She hesitated, then poked through the man’s subconscious for just a moment, to see how serious he was. It was an invasion, but she tried not to look too far. In the end, she simply replied, Deal, it might not be immediately, but I’ll see what I can do. 

Well then, pretty lady, the man replied, you said something about me going into a dream? Could I make a request? 

Don’t worry, I can read your mind, Larees assured him. And I think you’ll enjoy this. With those words, she shifted the man’s consciousness over to the dream scenario she had built up for him, before focusing on the mission at hand. Lannery Towers was across the street and down a short distance. Reaching down to grab the nearby bottle, she made the man take a swig of it before heading out. Through the magical Seosten connection the four of them had set up, she reported, Got him. On my way to position. 

*******

Sariel

 

Striding toward the main entrance of the office building, Sariel carefully timed her approach to coincide with that of a man in a crisp, dark blue suit carrying a briefcase in one hand. Seeing her near the doors, the man slowed, tugging one open before standing aside with an easy smile. 

She returned it gratefully, quietly thanking him while stepping into the doorway. Her hand brushed across his arm faintly. 

And then she was gone, possessing him. Yet she didn’t take control. She didn’t read his memory, didn’t do anything aside from sit in the back of his mind. The man, stopping short as the woman in front of him disappeared, gave a soft gasp of confusion. Then that was gone too, as the Bystander Effect removed the memory of her disappearing. To the man’s recollection, she had simply passed through and kept going. He shrugged to himself, wondering which office the pretty woman had business in, before dismissing her entirely in the span of a couple of seconds as he stepped through the door and let it close behind him. 

There were locked gates with ID readers about halfway through the spacious lobby, with security guards at a desk nearby. One of the guards looked up as Sariel’s ride walked by, greeting him by name with a slight wave, which the man himself returned. His card found its way to his hand, and he flashed it in front of the scanner, which beeped as the gate opened for him. He passed through and headed for the bank of elevators at the end of the room with a few others. Together, the small group waited for the next lift to appear before stepping onto it.

Five people were in the elevator. Then six, as Sariel simply stepped out of the man she had possessed to get through security. The appearance of her glowing form resolving into her solid self drew a few startled gasps as everyone’s attention spun to her before just as quickly disappearing entirely as they too forgot what they had seen. To them, she had always been there. One of the men gave her a brief nod before turning his attention to the doors as they opened. He and one of the other men got out, while Sariel and the others continued on. 

Eventually, the rest of the people, including the man she had used to get past security, stepped off, leaving Sariel alone on the elevator as it reached the floor she wanted. Once there, she waited for the doors to open, then held them while glancing at her magic mirror. Through the security cameras, she could see the meeting had indeed broken up. Her target was heading for the elevators now, flanked by no less than three bodyguards and two assistants. All six were Heretics. The man Sariel had been watching was one of the Committee’s top aides, here at Lannery Towers in his guise as an ordinary businessman to keep real, tangible money flowing.

Each of the six Heretics wore glasses of some kind, the bodyguards sunglasses and the others normal ones. Except not normal. Because the glasses were the reason Sariel and the others had to do this whole runaround, subtle thing to begin with. The glasses were linked to the security room in the Committee’s headquarters, allowing people there to monitor everything they saw.  Lately, every time someone linked so closely to the Committee went out in public like this where they could be vulnerable, they and everyone connected to them wore the glasses. It meant that not only could Sariel and the others not depend on the Bystander Effect to erase the memories of the Heretics watching their targets if they happened to see, but even actively possessing and erasing their memories wouldn’t work, because they couldn’t do anything about the people sitting in the security office at the Committee headquarters watching everything. 

They had to be subtle. Hence, this plan. Sariel waited until the group were approaching, then held the door and glanced out as if just noticing them. “Going down?” she asked pleasantly. 

The men barely gave her a passing glance, enough to ensure (to their senses) that she wasn’t a Stranger or a threat. One by one, they stepped onto the elevator. As planned, given the routine the Seosten had noticed, the Committee’s aide held a large cup of coffee with a lid, and a tiny hole to sip it through. He took a sip then, after giving her a nod before turning to face the doors. The men, as a whole, dismissed her, though she had no doubt that their senses would pick up any actual threatening moves. 

So, she made none. Instead, Sariel linked her hands behind her head and leaned back against the wall. One of the men glanced her way, saw what she was doing, and turned back once more, wary for any trouble. 

With two fingers, Sariel produced a tiny, barely visible pill. She glanced up toward the corner of the elevator opposite her, then to the wall next to it, and finally to her target. With the tiniest, imperceptible flick of her wrist, she threw the pill toward that corner. It bounced from there to the wall, rebounded backward, and fell, completely unnoticed, through the tiny sipping hole in the cup. There, it would immediately dissolve, entirely tasteless. 

Without noticing a thing, the Heretic took another couple sips of his coffee while the elevator continued. By the first floor, however, he called for a stop, saying he needed to use the restroom. The group piled off, and they all, sans Sariel, headed that way. 

Coming your way, Mercury, she sent through their communication connection. Hope you’re ready. 

*******

Mercury 

 

Possessing a man to get through the ordinary security wasn’t hard. Mercury simply waited for someone to be going in, hitched a ride, then directed him to the restroom before stepping out once he was there. Nodding to the man who had unknowingly taken him into the building, he stepped into a nearby stall and waited. 

Before too long, the report from Sariel came, and Mercury moved. His hand touched a spell he had drawn on the nearby wall, activating it to turn himself invisible to pretty much any sense so long as he remained relatively still or moved slowly. A second later, two of the Heretic bodyguards entered. They held up an orb, activating the spell on it. Mercury felt it tingle against him. The spell would immediately disable any stealth abilities or magic being used to hide someone, revealing them. 

Well, for most people it would immediately disable them. Mercury’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, delay, or quicken effects like that. He delayed it, forcing the effect not to take place just yet. The men glanced through the room, made a thorough check, then left. Their boss, clearly wanting privacy, came in then and made a beeline for the nearest stall. 

Mercury let the man do his business. It was only polite. As he heard his target finishing up, he slowly eased himself down to the floor. His stealth spell was about to run out, and he carefully reached out. The man in the other stall stood up, and opened the door just as Mercury’s hand found his foot. His stealth spell ran out, but by that point, he was already possessing the man. 

He didn’t take control just then. Not yet. Instead, he sat in the back of the man’s mind, letting him walk them back out of the restroom to meet up with the rest of his entourage as they returned to the elevators and descended the rest of the way to the parking garage. 

*******

Jophiel

 

Waiting outside the building, near the entrance into the parking garage, Jophiel watched the street. Her eyes scanned the approaching cars before she saw the one in question. Spending so much time as part of the Committee, she knew all the vehicles that belonged to them. There, she sent to Larees, the dark green Range Rover. 

She watched then, as Larees, in the form of the homeless man she had possessed, approached that side of the street. The vehicle in question slowed to avoid running over ‘him’, and she directed her host to hurriedly go up to the windshield to start cleaning it with her rag and the spray bottle of cleanser she had picked up. Jophiel walked past, hearing the homeless man’s voice rambling apologies and promising to do a good job, a great job, at cleaning up the car while the lone driver repeatedly said that it wasn’t necessary. 

What he didn’t see, of course, was Larees using one hand to attach a small metal disc to the vehicle that would silently disable all of the security sensors on it. As soon as that was done, Jophiel reversed course, walking toward the vehicle while activating the spell on her jacket that would turn her invisible, immediately removing her from the memories of any nearby Bystanders.

By that point, the Heretic was getting out of the Range Rover. He pulled a couple twenty dollar bills from his pocket, handing them to Larees’ host while politely but firmly telling him to step away from the car. Not needing or wanting to push things, Larees did so, stepping back just as Jophiel reached the man. He seemed to feel something behind him, turning right when Jophiel put a hand on his back. 

She was possessing him then, immediately taking over while shunting the Heretic’s consciousness into dreamland. There wasn’t time to be gentle or polite about it. “Get in,” she ordered Larees, before stepping back to the driver’s seat. 

The driver wasn’t wearing the glasses connecting him to the Committee security room, so there was less need for subtlety. So, Larees simply stepped out of her host. She put a handful of more cash into his hands, thanked the thoroughly confused-looking man, and stepped into the back of the car, settling herself into one of the seats. Jophiel waited just long enough for the man to notice how much money he was holding and give a startled, yet shocked yip of surprise before pulling away to guide the vehicle through the entrance and down into the garage. There, she parked near the entrance. A moment later, the door opened and Sariel stepped down into the seat beside her. 

The call from Mercury came a moment later, prompting Sariel and Larees to activate their own invisibility spells, just as the Heretics emerged. One of the bodyguards stopped by the door, asking, “All that’s good?” 

It was a passphrase. Reading her host’s mind, Jophiel gave the positive return code. “Sparkles as gold.” 

That was enough. The doors opened and the men began to get in. Of course, two of those seats were occupied by invisible Seosten. But Sariel and Larees simply waited for the Heretics to almost sit on them, then reached up to touch their backs, possessing the figures in the midst of sitting down. 

Mercury was possessing the Committee’s aide, Jophiel their driver, and Sariel and Larees two of the bodyguards. Together, the four exchanged brief glances, while the people around them remained blissfully unaware. Then Jophiel shifted the car into drive, pulled away from the curb, and headed out of the garage. 

It was time to get into the Committee’s offices and find out exactly what happened to Elisabet.

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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