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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Collectors 5-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Ten days. I had ten–wait, no, it was the day after I’d found Ashton, and Blackjack would absolutely count that as a full one. Nine. I had nine days to get answers out of the guy about where the rest of the vials were, before La Casa took their turn with him. And what was I doing right now? What was I doing during a time when the clock was ticking so audibly right in the back of my head, when every minute counted?

I was sitting at lunch, struggling my way through my chemistry homework in between taking bites of food. Not that I was a bad student or anything. I did decent in most of my classes. But I’d been a bit preoccupied lately, and if I let my grades slip too much, my parents were going to notice. I had to get this done and turned in before the end of the day. It was already late, but I’d told the teacher that I left it in the library and she’d given me that long to get it to her. 

I’d gone to my dress fitting the night before. After everything that had happened with catching Ashton and meeting Pack, going to a simple, mundane thing like that had been pretty disorienting. I’d barely had time to take a quick shower before the appointment, which had actually made me a few minutes late. But I’d figured that was better than showing up smelling like… well, smelling like I’d just chased a guy halfway across town in a full body suit. 

In any case, I’d made it and gotten the fitting for my dress, which would be ready for the ball. Now I just had to focus on my homework. I really needed to get it done, since I was pretty sure the teacher wasn’t going to give me any more time. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to do it after school even if she allowed it. I had to go see what I could do to help Wren build her truth-device. And, well, also check on that La Casa lizard girl to make sure she wasn’t trying anything. Not that I really expected her to, but paranoia was a powerful drug. 

Speaking of my increasingly rampant paranoia, it wasn’t exactly helped as a voice somewhere behind me abruptly announced, loudly and clearly, “Paintball.” I jerked a bit, twisting in my seat to look over my shoulder despite myself. Which, honestly, was really fucking stupid. 

But it wasn’t someone trying to prove who I was. Instead, at the next table over, there were a group of guys and a couple girls. One of the boys was the one talking, both completely unaware of my reaction. “Yeah, it’s definitely Paintball, dude. That’s what the little guy goes by. He’s the one who was out there being chased all over the city by that Cuélebre son of a bitch.” 

“I saw that, man!” another guy abruptly put in, taking a bite of pizza before continuing with a wild wave of his hand. “That kid was like, flip-jumping all over the place, with dragon dude right behind him. I was waiting for the bus and they went right over our heads. The little guy went through the alley and Cuélebre just kinda went… through the alley.” He made a crashing noise to illustrate his meaning. “I was so pissed that I couldn’t get my phone out before they were gone. You know how many views you can get for that kind of shit up close? That could like, launch my channel.” 

“Hey,” one of the girls at their table put in after taking a long drink of her iced tea, “just be glad you weren’t Paintball. I mean, powers or not, some scrawny twelve-year-old boy being chased by Cuélebre in full on pissed off mode? I hope the little guy’s okay.” 

Okay, ouch. Sure, she was being empathetic and all, but still, I felt a little indignant. Fourteen year old boy, maybe. But twelve? That was pushing it. I wasn’t that small, people. The fact that it made my disguise even more effective crossed my mind, but I still felt like grumbling to myself. 

The guys at the other table went on to talk about how cool the whole Paintball and Cuélebre thing had been. Which helped salve my ego about the whole twelve-year-old boy thing, while simultaneously making me remember the unholy terror I’d felt while the chase was actually happening. It was easy to sit here and think, ‘wow, that was badass.’ But thinking about being in that moment, mostly what I recalled was trying very hard not to piss myself in the middle of it. 

Before I could listen to much more, there was a squeak of the chair nearby as Amber sat down, accompanied by Jae. “Hey,” the brunette girl started when I looked that way, “how’s it going? You ready for tonight?” As she spoke, Amber started pouring ranch dressing over her fries. 

“Tonight?” I echoed blankly. How would they have any idea about my plans for the night? I was just going to help Wren with anything she needed for that truth machine and then–oh, shit. Wait. 

Jae spoke up quietly, confirming just as the realization came to me, “Library.” 

Right. Right, shit. We’d planned on going to one of the main city libraries to do some more work on that project this evening. Apparently it was one of the few times during the week that Jae and Amber weren’t busy with one thing or another, so I couldn’t just put them off. As much as I really needed to help Wren with her work, I had class stuff to do too. 

Geez, being a superhero and a student at the same time was already complicated enough. How did people with actual important day jobs deal with it? Because this was pretty exhausting. 

“You didn’t make plans, did you?” Amber asked, squinting at me. “I mean, I guess if we really–” 

“No, no.” My head shook. “No, I’ll be there, no worries. I’ve just got things to do after, but I can work out the scheduling. No big deal.” I offered her a slight smile, trying to make it sound like it wasn’t important before looking over toward Jae so I could change the subject. “Hey, you’re pretty good at science, right? Little help?” I turned the homework page around and pointed to the number I was stuck on. “I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to look for this.” 

Looking at the page, the pale girl nodded before getting up. She moved around to my side of the table, sitting beside me while adjusting the book. I watched as her fingers flipped pages back to an earlier chapter to show me what I’d forgotten. It was actually pretty simple, I’d just spaced on one little thing from the last section that made it clear. Which was probably a consequence of skimming too much while trying to blow through the homework so I could get out to the streets.

“Thanks, Jae,” I murmured quietly, skimming the page she’d pointed out. “You’re seriously a lifesaver. I dunno how long it would’ve taken me to remember this part by myself. I might have to borrow your brain some more just to get this whole thing done in time.” 

“Oh, she’s definitely a lifesaver,” Amber agreed, popping a fry into her mouth with a small smile before continuing. “I can’t tell you how many times she’s made sure I didn’t miss an assignment.” Winking at the girl in question, she added, “But I suppose I can share.” 

With Jae and Amber’s help, I managed to get the rest of the worksheet done before lunch was over. So I’d be able to run that down and turn it in, which solved one of my problems. Then I’d just have to get to the public library and work with them for a couple hours before going to check in with Wren. But hey, at least Mom and Dad were going to be ‘gone’ for the next few days, so even though it was Tuesday, I didn’t have family dinner to worry about. That was a plus. 

So I’d hit the library, then deal with the Ashton thing. One situation at a time. Nine days. I had nine days to figure this out and get the rest of those medicine vials out of him. 

Eight and a half.

********

The trip to the library took a couple hours. I tried not to seem like I was rushing or anything. But honestly, Jae and Amber seemed fairly eager to get out of there too. They didn’t try to hang around after we’d done what we needed to. Which suited me just fine, though I did wonder where they were going. 

I also wondered if they were dating, considering Amber didn’t exactly keep her preference for girls quiet or anything. But I was pretty sure Jae was straight, though I supposed that was more a feeling, since I’d never seen her actually date anyone. Unless she and Amber were dating, in which case–

Right, it was none of my business. Moving on. I made my way to the bookstore where Wren’s secondary lab (and, I supposed, her new home) was. As I approached the door, it opened and I went right through to join the others in the basement. 

Pack was still there, obviously. And it looked like the two of them had had quite the evening. There were blankets and pillows scattered around, along with food carry-out bags and a handful of empty soda cans. A partially-finished Monopoly game was sitting on one of the tables, with a couple other board games nearby. And there were pages and pages of half-done blueprints and design ideas, most scribbled out or with various reasons why they wouldn’t work written over them in red marker. Some had bits missing that were cut or torn out, and there was a larger page, clearly haphazardly taped together from those pages, in the middle of the main table.

Pack was sitting over on the floor with her collection of lizards all over her. She was feeding them, looking up as I came in. “The kid’s a real genius, you know. Knows her stuff.” 

“Is that a ‘wow, I’m impressed,’” I asked as neutrally as possible, “or a ‘I could really get in good with my boss if I told him to really go after recruiting this kid before someone else snatches her up?’” New to all of this though I might’ve been, I knew just how valuable a good Tech-Touched was to these gangs. Let alone one as young and impressionable as Wren was. 

Her response was to lift her head a little. I couldn’t see her expression, but there was an obvious smirk in her voice. “Relax, man. I’m not hardcore or anything. I just joined La Casa a few months ago because they offered me better training, equipment, and help. I mean, it took me a week before I stopped saying ‘the La Casa.’ They really don’t like that.” There was a pause before she admitted in a quieter voice, “Sometimes I still say it like that, just to tick some of them off.” 

Okay, was it wrong that I kind of liked this girl? Because, well… yeah. Shaking that thought off, I focused on replying with a simple, “I’ll try to remember the etiquette for that. And got it, you aren’t some obsessed fanatic or anything. Good to know. Remains to be seen if that’s the truth, but still.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “So you guys look like you’ve been busy.” 

“Ain’t that the truth,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward Wren. “The kid kept changing the plans for this suit thing over and over. I think we went through about twenty-seven different blueprints.” 

“The others wouldn’t have worked,” Wren herself piped up after taking a gulp from a glass of what looked like orange juice. “Or they would’ve taken too long, or needed more than we could get, or–” Stopping, her head shook. “The point is, this should work.” As she spoke, the girl brushed some crumbs and food wrappers off that taped-up collection of different pages, holding it up for me to see a design not too-unlike the one she had shown me yesterday, with notes all over it, individual components scrawled in, and things like power sources and specific wiring details written along the side. 

“That’s the suit we’re going with?” I asked curiously. 

She nodded quickly. “Uh huh. It’ll work, I know it will.” Smiling at the taped together sheets before glancing up to me, she added, “But we need some things.” 

“Name it,” I replied, “we’ll pick up whatever you need to build this thing.” 

“I could name it,” she carefully informed me, sounding like she was trying very hard not to be insulting. “But you probably wouldn’t remember half the names. So I wrote it down, with details!” Scrounging around the table a bit, she came out with a smaller notebook, one that would fit in a pocket. “See, I wrote all the pieces down on different pages. These ones are easy to get and not too expensive. These ones are available but kind of expensive. And…” She flipped to the last page, with only one item listed. “This one isn’t really available for sale anywhere. It’s sort of an experimental piece of medical equipment. I’m pretty sure Seraph Hills has a few of them.” 

“The university?” I asked, thinking. “That place is pretty upscale.” It was, in fact, one of the best medical schools in the entire country, having been built only about twelve years ago, but had rapidly become what amounted to the foremost training center for doctors and medical professionals in a Touched world. It was also very well protected with its own private security team, many of whom were actually Touched themselves. Understandable, considering a lot of the research that went on in there. Not to mention all the equipment that Tech-Touched donated to keep the place as state of the art as possible. 

“Isn’t there any other way we can make it work?” Pack put in with a visible wince. “I mean, I’m not exactly super-eager to run up against Seraphs, you know?” Seraphs, of course, were the name of that private security team, a mixture of well-trained and equipped Prevs (humans without powers/non-Touched) and people who did have powers. Their entire job was to keep the hospitals and medical schools they were attached to safe from attack. And they were very good at their jobs. There was a reason the Seraph-protected hospitals were safe ground. It was an enforced neutral zone. Any hospital that got attacked had Seraphs protecting it, delaying the attackers while basically every decent Touched in the area would swarm in to provide reinforcement. No one bothered Seraph places and got away with it. 

Wren hesitated. “Yes and no? I could maybe build something that would work, but it wouldn’t be as good with the stuff we’ve got, and it’d take a lot longer to get done than ten days.” 

“Eight and a half,” I murmured under my breath before heaving a sigh. “And I’m pretty sure those Seraph guys won’t exactly be super-eager to share their tech, even if we ask nicely.” 

Pack shrugged. “I guess I could tell Blackjack he needs to send some people to pick up that stuff. He could probably mount a quick smash and grab just to get it and run.” 

“And probably hurt innocent people who are just doing their jobs?” I pointed out. “Not to mention potentially breaking a bunch of stuff that those med students need to learn to use so they can help people. And if anyone died in that ‘smash and grab’ just because your boss isn’t exactly in the mood to play nice?” My head shook. “No, I don’t want to ask Blackjack to do anything like that.” 

That blank black mask turned a bit to stare at me. “So what do you suggest?” she asked, while reaching up to scratch one of the lizards on her shoulder. “How do we get the last thing on that list without stealing it, if it’d take the kid there too long to build a working facsimile herself?”

That… was a good question. I hesitated, sighing inwardly as I tried to think. “I’ll work on it. Let you know what I come up with. Right now, let’s worry about the stuff on the first two lists. Stuff that’s easy and cheap, and stuff that’s more expensive.” 

“I can take care of the expensive stuff,” Pack put in. “I didn’t see anything on there that me and my friends couldn’t grab.” She gave me an obvious look. “You know, after the stores are closed so no one gets hurt.”

“We don’t need to steal anything,” I insisted. “I…” Then I paused. How much could I say here without giving too much away. I glanced at the second list. The stuff on it probably wasn’t too expensive. Not for someone whose allowance was in the thousands per week and who hadn’t exactly spent all that much of it in her life. “I’ll handle the second list. You deal with the first. I–here.” Turning away from them, I unzipped the front of my costume, reaching in to find my wallet. There, I fidgeted with it a bit before coming out with a handful of twenty dollar bills, then zipped up the suit again and turned back to hold the cash out toward Pack. “Use this, get whatever you can on the first list. And pay for it.”

There was a brief pause as the girl stared at the money in my hand before snatching it. She gave a low whistle. “You came prepared, kid. Sure thing, I’ll get the stuff, and I’ll even play nice the whole time. But you know, at some point we’re gonna have to figure out what to do about that last thing.”

With a soft sigh, I replied, “Trust me, I know. Let’s just worry about the first two for now, huh? And hope that one of us thinks of something helpful before we get to that one.” 

Because getting into a fight with the Seraphs for stealing from a medical university probably wouldn’t do wonders for my budding superhero career.

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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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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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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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Interlude 4A – Wren (Summus Proelium)

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“Hey, kid.” A foot nudged Wren Donovan’s leg as the nine-year-old lay on a wheeled creeper board underneath a sedan. With a flashlight in her mouth and tools in both hands, the girl hesitated. She really didn’t like to interrupt her work when she was on a roll. Especially when the person interrupting her was someone she wasn’t exactly super-happy with at the moment. 

The nudge came again. “Come on, kid, I’ve got pizza inside. You’ve gotta eat.” 

That did it. She might’ve been upset with Uncle Fred for giving that bad guy the stuff he needed to hurt that girl, but pizza was pizza. Besides, he didn’t mean for things to go that way. Pushing her feet down, she rolled herself out from under the car and blinked up at the man while spitting out the flashlight. “Pepperoni?”

“Extra pepperoni with more pepperoni on the side just in case they don’t get the message, just the way you like it,” Uncle Fred assured her, reaching down to offer both hands to the girl. She took them with her own grease-covered fingers, and he grimaced a little before pulling her up to her feet. They were standing in the back alley area behind the ‘bookstore’ that served as the entrance to her back-up lab. The rear door into the store itself was standing open, and she could already smell the promised pizza beyond. It was quickly making her mouth water. 

“Uh uh,” Uncle Fred stopped her with a hand. “You go wash your hands first. Soap and water.” 

“Yeaaaah yeah,” Wren grumbled a bit. Not because she actually wanted to taste oil and grease while she was eating, but for the principle of the thing. Heading off quickly, she thoroughly scrubbed her hands in the small restroom attached to the store before going back. Fred had taken the pizza downstairs to the lab by that point, and she followed her nose that way.

Once the girl had filled a plate with food, she made her way to the couch to watch cartoons, switching the channel away from whatever daytime courtroom drama had been playing as she settled in to scarf hungrily at the food. Watching Pearl, Amethyst, and the other Gems was much more interesting than people complaining about someone stealing their dog or breaking their window or whatever. She could see her uncle watching her from nearby, but waited until a commercial before she addressed him. “Are you mad at me, Uncle Fred?” 

“Mad at–” The man sighed, moving around to sit on the nearby chair. “Kid, I was trying to figure out how angry you were at me. I mean, I did sort of really fu–screw things up back there.” 

He was right. He had screwed things up, and a girl was in trouble because of Wren’s inventions. But… she supposed he hadn’t meant to make that happen. Thinking through all that as she silently munched her pizza, Wren finally swallowed and looked back to him. “Yes. I’m mad at you. You were a jerk and you did what I said not to just because you thought you knew better. A girl is really in trouble, Uncle Fred, cuz of my stuff.” 

The man winced. “I… I know. I’m sorry, kid. You’re right. I didn’t think it–I didn’t think. That’s not an excuse. I royally screwed up.” 

Meeting his gaze, Wren slowly nodded. “Everyone messes up sometimes.” Her brow furrowed, and she added pointedly, “But no more selling any of my stuff without telling me, okay? If my stuff gets someone killed, I couldn’t…” She stopped, biting her lip while staring at the food on her plate before finishing with an awkward, “Just tell me. And no means no. You’re the adult, but they’re my inventions.” 

“You got it,” Fred promised, taking a slice of pizza for himself from the nearby table before asking, “You ahh, mind telling me what you’re planning to do with that car out there?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” Wren admitted. “Mostly just trying to get it running again. Then I was thinking about making a Transformer.” She said that just to watch her uncle choke on his food, snickering to herself before amending, “Or maybe I’ll just make it go faster.” 

While Uncle Fred was still trying to react to that, the phone rang. Dropping her plate next to herself on the couch, Wren dove for it, grabbing the receiver before hitting the button. “Mllohn?” 

Right, food. Chewing her pizza hurriedly before swallowing, she tried again. “Hello?” 

There was a brief pause, before she heard a by-now-familiar voice, “Wren, that you?” 

“Hi, Paintball!” Grinning at the sound of the boy’s uncertain words, Wren found herself nodding pointlessly while hurriedly blurting, “Did you find that guy you were looking for? Did he have the things he stole? Oh, oh, did you save that girl? Is she okay? Did her dad say thank you? Is he still a bad guy? Are you gonna–”

A hand touched the back of her head, as Uncle Fred stood behind the couch. “Maybe let the kid answer one of the questions at a time, huh?” he suggested before taking a bite of his pizza. 

“Oh, right.” Turning her attention back to the phone, Wren settled on a simple, “What’s up?”  

She could hear Paintball chuckle just a little. “Hi, Wren. Yeah, um, we sort of–yeah, we have the guy and one of the medicine vials. But I was kind of wondering if we could bring him over there for awhile so we can figure out how to get the location of the rest of the stuff out of him. I know it’s a lot to ask, but your place is hidden and I don’t exactly have much in the way of options.” 

As he finished saying that, another voice spoke up, saying something that Wren couldn’t catch. Then Paintball’s voice came back, “Yeah, I know your boss would take him off my hands. Call me crazy, I don’t really want to be responsible for sending this guy to be tortured and executed.” 

“Uh,” Wren had to put in, “tortured and executed?” From the corner of her eye, she saw Uncle Fred do a double-take while silently echoing her last words. His face looked funny that way, and she had to restrain a giggle. Giggling after saying tortured and executed was probably bad.

“Sorry, sorry,” Paintball quickly replied. “That wasn’t–never mind. The point is, could we bring him over to your place until we figure this out? The um, one of… ahh, one of Blackjack’s people wants to come with to make sure he won’t get away and to see how we might get the truth out of him without her boss taking fingers and toes.” 

The person with Paintball spoke again, and that time Wren clearly heard, “Ehh, mood he’s in, I’m pretty sure he’d start with a full hand and just work his way out from there.” 

“Yeah, sure, bring him.” Wren said those words while giving her uncle a brief glance and an exaggerated thumbs up together with a wide smile to show him that it was all okay. “Wait, can you get him here?” 

“That’s actually the other thing,” Paintball reluctantly replied. “Things could get pretty nuts out here if people see this guy, so I don’t exactly want to go walking down the street with him.” 

Before the boy could continue, Wren brightly put in, “That’s okay, Uncle Fred can come get you.”

“He can?” The exact same words came from both Paintball over the phone and Fred himself from right beside the girl. 

“Uh huh.” Wren covered the receiver and gave her uncle a sharp look. “Dead. Little. Girl.” 

The man sighed, slumping a bit before waving his hand acceptingly. “Just tell me where to go.”

“Hey, Paintball? He’ll be there. Just tell us where you guys are.” Wren grinned. “See? You totally found the bad guy. I knew you would. Did the remote thing help a lot? Where was he? Did he fight you when you found him? Did you hit him really hard? Did he run away? Did you–” 

The phone was plucked from her hand, as Uncle Fred spoke. “Where are you? Huh? Yeah, got it. Bring a what? And–is there room in the car for a cage? A cage of lizards, as in multiple lizards? What kind of–never mind. I’ll be there.” Disconnecting, the man dropped the phone and heaved a sigh while heading for the exit, grumbling, “Car full of lizards, gonna ruin the upholstery. Never gonna get the smell out. Could’ve moved to Florida, but nooo.” 

As he left, Wren helpfully called, “I’m pretty sure they have lizards in Florida too, Uncle Fred!” 

*******

“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about your tech expert being a nine-year-old?” The girl who stood there in the main room of the upstairs bookstore, staring at Wren, wore a black and green leather jacket with a hood that covered her hair, her face hidden by a full black mask that didn’t even have any eye or mouth holes. 

Wren wasn’t offended. She was pretty used to that kind of reaction from anyone who found out that she was the one who built things back at the shop. Instead, she focused on the cage in the girl’s hands, blurting, “Oh wow, you really do have lizards! They’re so cute!” 

Head tilting, the lizard girl paused briefly before nodding. “Yeah, okay, I like her.” Setting the cage down, she extended a hand. “Name’s Pack. So you’re the genius, huh?” 

“I just like building really cool things,” Wren informed her while accepting the hand with both of hers. She shook it excitedly before blurting, “How come you’re a bad guy?” That time, it was both Paintball and Uncle Fred who choked and gave her surprised looks. Which was silly. Why did adults act so weird about actually asking the important questions or just saying what they meant? 

If she was offended or whatever, Pack didn’t act like it. She just shrugged. “Law never really did anything for me, so I don’t see why I should care that much about it. All the authorities have ever done is break up my family, take away my friends, repossess my stuff, throw us out in the street because we couldn’t pay rent, shit–I mean stuff like that. Not like I’m going around getting innocent little girls killed like some people.” With those words, she shot a look toward the handcuffed man nearby. “There’s levels of bad, y’know?” 

Wren blinked twice, thinking that through for a moment. It sounded wrong, but she wasn’t sure how to say it. Instead, the girl simply turned to Paintball with a grin. “You really found him!” 

“Yeah, thanks to your thing,” the boy replied before gesturing to the man in question. “So first up, any idea where we can keep him for the time being?” 

“You dumb shits know this is false imprisonment, right?” the man demanded. “Some heroes.” 

“Some of us don’t claim to be heroes,” Pack pointed out. Her expression was hidden behind that full mask, but her voice was dangerous. “And some of us have a boss that would really rather we take you to him instead of leaving you here. If you’d prefer that, it can be arranged.” 

Wren was pretty sure the guy didn’t want that, considering how quick he stopped talking. She looked back to Paintball, pointing to the stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you! There’s a room. I was setting it up for another lab, a uhh, soundproof one for little explosions and stuff. But it’ll work. Wait, he doesn’t have any powers, does he?” 

“Other than being a giant pain in the ass to track down?” the boy replied before shaking his head. “Nope. Not as far as we know, anyway. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve used them by now if he had anything. We searched him pretty thoroughly. No more weapons or tools. And no phones besides the one I was tracking.” 

“Don’t forget, also no vials,” the man pointed out with a tiny sneer. “And you’re not getting them.” 

Ignoring him, Wren led the group, with Uncle Fred bringing up the rear, down the stairs to the private area, then to a mostly-hidden door in the back. She fumbled in her pockets briefly, managing to bring out a small remote, which she pointed at the door. There was a beep as she pressed a button on it, and the door slid open. 

“It worked!” Wren blurted despite herself. Oh boy, that was perfect timing. The thing had been sticking for the past–The girl stopped, blinking over her shoulder at the assembled group. “I mean… he can go inside there.” She pointed into the room, which was basically a twenty-foot by twenty-foot square with blank walls, since she hadn’t moved anything in there yet. “We can get a mattress and a blanket or something for him, and some books. Oh, and we have pizza, and–” 

Paintball guided the man past Wren into the room, looking around for himself before pointing. “Just stay put, Ashton. Like she said, we’ll get you some stuff to take care of you. And you know, you could make this whole thing a hell of a lot easier if you just told us where the vials are. Do that, and I think I could probably talk Blackjack into letting you walk away from all this.” He paused, looking over to Wren and the others before turning back to amend, “Or at least give you a head start.” 

Paintball closed the door before giving the man a chance to reply, letting out an audible breath before looking over to Wren. “Thanks for helping take care of that guy. And um, I really hate to impose even more, but–” 

“You want something that can make him tell you where the stuff is, right?” Wren blurted, unable to keep quiet any longer. “I can’t make a telepathy thing. I mean, I’m pretty sure I can’t. I’ve never really tried, but I thought about it for awhile and I couldn’t think of anything. Usually it’s really easy to think of things. So I don’t think I can do mind reading stuff.” 

Setting the cage with her lizards down, Pack asked, “Can you do something to make sure that whatever he says is the truth?” 

“Like a Poliwag?” Wren started before frowning to herself. “Wait, that’s not right. That’s–polygraph!” She blurted that while raising a hand in triumph. “Nailed it! Polygraph. I… maybe can make a polygraph? I think. Wait, hold on. Gimme a second.” She spun on her heel to start away, stopping in mid-step to look back over her shoulder. “I mean, gimme a sec to plan something, not to actually make the thing. I’m not that fast. Okay, just a sec.” 

With that, Wren sprinted over to one of her tables of junk, dumping out a box before frantically moving parts and tools around. “Uncle Fred!” she called, “where’s Linus?” 

The man didn’t need to be told any more than that. He simply stepped over to one of the other tables, dug around in a box until he had a tiny screwdriver with tape over the handle and a happy face drawn on that tape, and handed it to her. 

“Hi, Linus!” Wren held the tool up so she could see the bright smile she had drawn on it. “We’re gonna figure out how to make somethin’, okay?” 

She set to work then, mumbling to herself as she moved parts around, undoing pieces of equipment with the help of Linus, Charlie, and Marcie. The latter two were her favorite wrench and pliers, respectively. 

It took about fifteen minutes. From the corner of her eye, she could see Paintball and Pack sit down to watch the TV, while Uncle Fred went to get that mattress, a blanket, and a few other things. Once that stuff was in the room with the prisoner guy, Paintball stepped in and came out a minute later with the cuffs that had been on him before returning to her seat. 

Through it all, Wren kept working. She didn’t want to tell them she knew what to make until it was definitely clear that she could do it. Grabbing a sheet of blueprint paper and a pencil, she scrawled on it for a few minutes, crossing things out and erasing until she had the right idea. It was a bit of a mess, but she’d clean it up later. 

Finally, she had enough. Checking her calculations one last time, Wren grinned excitedly while pumping her fist. “Gardyloo!” 

“Gardy-what?” Pack, jumping from her seat at the sound, stared at her. 

“Um, gardyloo,” Wren hesitantly explained while blushing a little. “It’s um, it’s something they used to say a long time ago in Scotland when they were throwing the, umm, slop from the windows out to the street. I just think it’s a funny word, so when I figure things out, I say it instead of eureka. Everyone says eureka. Nobody says gardyloo.” 

“Huh.” Shrugging, the lizard girl gave her a thumbs up. “Well gardyloo to you too. You figured out what to do, then?” 

Head bobbing quickly, Wren explained, “Uh huh. I can totally make something that’ll work. See?” She held up the sketch she had made of an armored suit. 

“What am I looking at?” Paintball asked, stepping that way to squint at the drawing of the armor. “You… uhh, you want us to build a suit that can beat the information out of him? Because that’s not exactly the way I was hoping we’d go.” 

In response, Wren grinned at him, tapping the paper. “Nah, silly. The suit is for him.” 

Paintball stared at her. “Okay, um, I think you might’ve been confused on the goal here. The point is to get him to tell us where he hid the vials, not give him a suit of armor.” 

Giggling, Wren glanced toward the snickering Pack before shaking her head. “The suit isn’t about protecting him, it’s about making him move around. See, the helmet there plugs into his neck and his head. If he’s wearing the suit and you make him start thinking about where the vials are, the helmet will translate his thoughts into movement, and make him go that way. All you have to do is follow.” She was grinning brightly. “See, it’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant. He doesn’t have to tell you where the medicine is. Just make him think about where it is and his body’ll go there. He can’t stop it.” 

“Oh. That…” Paintball trailed off. “That’s really cool, Wren. Yeah, you know, I think that just might work. And hey, you made it fit into that whole ‘movement’ theme.” 

Blushing, Wren kicked at the floor and shrugged self-consciously. “It makes things a lot easier to build if I design them around that. But it’ll take me about a week to make it. And I’ll need some special supplies. I’m not sure what yet, but… definitely things I don’t have here.” 

“I’ll take care of anything you need,” Paintball quickly assured her. “And a week… should be okay, right?” He looked over at Pack. 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dunno. I’m gonna have to call the boss and clear all this just to be sure. We’ve got the one vial, so that should keep the kid okay for a month, but he’s not gonna wait that long.” 

“Two weeks,” Paintball replied. “Like I said before, just tell him we need two weeks to get the truth out of Ashton. If Wren can build something to make him talk, we can get the rest of the medicine before she’s ever in danger again.” 

Once more, Pack shrugged. “Like I said, gotta call the boss. He’s the final say on all this.” 

“Use this phone.” Standing beside her, Fred offered the girl one. “It can’t be tracked, so they won’t know where you’re calling from. Just like you don’t know where you are.” 

“Gotcha.” Taking the phone, the girl stepped away, stopping by the cage to take one of her lizards out, setting him on her shoulder. Then she dialed the phone and moved to a corner of the room, murmuring quietly. After a minute of that, she turned and held the phone out to Paintball. “Boss wants to talk to you.” 

As the boy took the phone and had his own conversation, Pack returned to stand by Wren. “A week, huh?” 

“I can do it,” she assured the older girl. 

“If they come to a… an agreement on this,” Pack informed her, “it sounds like the boss is gonna want me to stick around here and keep an eye on that jacka–that guy. You mind if my little friends and me crash in the corner?” 

Brightening, Wren shook her head. “Nope, that sounds fun! It can be like a sleepover. I haven’t had any of those in a long time.” 

“Huh. A sleepover, huh?” Pack considered before shrugging. “Yeah, aight.”

Apparently finished with his call, Paintball disconnected. “Okay,” he announced, “ten days. Blackjack wouldn’t agree to two weeks. He said ten days. We’ve got that long to build this thing and get the rest of the vials out of Ashton. Then we ca–” There was a chime from the boy’s costume, and he dug around inside before coming out with a phone. His face was hidden behind the helmet, but his eyes very clearly widened as he blurted, “Oh shit! I’ve gotta go.” 

“Go?” Pack echoed, the frown evident in her voice. 

“Yeah, I’m gonna be late getting my dr…” Trailing off, Paintball coughed. “Late getting my drums.” 

Dryly, Pack gave him a thumbs up. “Smooth, totally saved it.” 

Looking awkward and fidgety, Paintball cleared his throat. “I–uh, whatever, I’m gonna be late. Call your boss back and tell him to send a car with someone he trusts completely to the public library on Woodward. I’ll give them the vial there. But they better be there quick.” 

With that, he was gone, hurrying up the stairs and leaving the building like his pants were on fire. 

Watching the boy go, Wren asked, “Uncle Fred, could you go to the store and get some marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers? We’re gonna make s’mores! And then we’ll tell ghost stories, and watch silly movies, and play music, and truth or dare, and, and, and–”

Her excited rambling was interrupted once more by Pack. “Y’know, I’ve thought a lot about how my first official mission as part of La Casa would go.

“Gotta say, I did not see this coming.” 

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Summer Epilogue 21 – Avalon and the Victors (Summer Epilogue End)

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A/N – This is the second chapter posted today. If you have not read the previous one, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above to check that one out first. 

Through the light, yet steady drizzle of rain, a red, nondescript SUV pulled into the parking lot of an old motel several blocks from the beach in Panama City, Florida. The vehicle rolled to a stop just inside the driveway, as a tall man in a raincoat emerged from under the nearby stairwell. He crossed to the driver’s side as the window came down. Several words were exchanged back and forth before the man pointed to a spot. It was the only empty parking space on that side of the motel, sandwiched between two heavy-duty vans with delivery service decals. 

The driver’s side window went up once more, and the SUV pulled up to that spot. There was a brief moment of silence as the engine shut off, save for the patter of rain against the vehicles and the roof of the motel. Then the doors all opened at once. Four pairs of feet hit the ground almost as one, as Avalon Sinclaire and Flick Chambers stepped from the back, and Seller and Abigail Fellows emerged from the front. Wyatt Rendell, Miranda Wallbern and Gordon Kuhn emerged from the back a moment later to join the others, and all moved to the rear of the SUV. 

The seven came out to stand directly in the rain, but no rain actually seemed to hit them. Avalon gave a glance toward the water-repellent enchantment badge clipped to her jacket. Wyatt had passed them out to each of them just before they got out of the vehicle. It made the rain divert about an inch around them as they stood watching the big man from before approach.

His name was Croc, one of the Unset. Avalon had seen him around before she was forced to leave Garden a year earlier, though she hadn’t really spoken to him, of course. Flick had had more interaction with the man in her own short visit there than Avalon ever had. 

“Glad you could make it,” the large Native American man rumbled as he stopped in front of them. He hadn’t bothered with any kind of spell to keep the rain off, simply allowing it to run off his short-cut black hair and enormous arms. “Hope the runaround wasn’t too much.” 

Realizing after a second that the others were waiting for her to respond, Avalon cleared her throat, trying to ignore the sudden lump that had formed in it. Being here now, coming to see the leaders of the organization that she had loved so much before they had all turned their backs on her when she needed them the most, it brought up… feelings. Feelings that were best left bashed over the head with a shovel and buried in an unmarked grave. 

“Five false destinations in two different cities,” she managed after another second of collecting herself. “Not too bad. Wyatt thinks you should’ve gone with at least eight and three to be safe.” 

Wyatt himself gave a short nod. “And one of the spots before this should have seemed to be the right one. You could have had us get out of the vehicle, even go as far as meeting body doubles or illusions just to weed out any possible pursuit or deception.” Though his words were the same as he’d normally say, Avalon noticed the man actually seemed a little more… flushed than normal. He wasn’t really looking directly at Croc, but more toward the man’s abs. 

With a wink, Croc replied, “What makes you think that’s not what this is?” His tone was a bit teasing, making Wyatt flush before he looked back to Avalon. “Ah, do you mind if I ask, is it Avalon you prefer, or Miss Sinclaire? Or ahh, your old name? I’m not quite sure what you–” 

“Avalon,” she quickly put in after giving Flick a brief glance. The blonde girl had smiled reassuringly but silently at her, making Avalon’s own heart flip over before she forced herself to focus on the man in front of her. “Avalon’s fine. That’s my name.” She didn’t mind Hannah, honestly. Hannah Aken was also who she was, as she had so defiantly informed her father in his last few moments alive. That was a part of her that she wouldn’t let others take away. But to keep things relatively simple, Avalon would be fine. Besides, it was as close to a Garden name as she had ever received, and she wanted the Victors to use it. 

Also, it was the name Gaia had given her, and she was damn sure going to hold onto that now.

“Avalon it is, then,” Croc agreed. “And Flick, how’re you doing?” He nodded to the other girl before looking over to the one next to her. “It’s Miranda, isn’t it?” Receiving a nod, the man’s attention moved to the woman at the back. “Abigail,” he greeted her easily, getting a small smile in return.

Finally, the man looked to the remaining member of their entourage. “Sorry, you I don’t know.”  

“This is Gordon,” Avalon informed him, gesturing to the boy. “He’s here to ask the Victors something too. You know, while they’re feeling talkative.” She said the last bit with just a hint of the vast reservoir of resentment and anger that she felt toward that group. It was enough to make Croc raise an eyebrow, his gaze seeming to give her another thorough once over. 

Abigail spoke up then. “We’re all here to see what the Victors have to say. Some of us have questions. Others simply want to judge just how honest and forthright your leaders are ready to be.” Her voice was far more diplomatic than Avalon’s, though hers too had a bit of an edge to it.

Giving a slight nod, Croc turned to walk. “I’ll take you to them. They’re waiting in the dining room around the side.” With that, he led the seven through the rain. On the way, they saw a dozen more people standing around. There were two near a bus stop, a couple walking past with a dog, several more across the street seemingly arguing over a map, and more. Though they appeared to be civilians, Avalon knew better. They were Heretics, Eden’s Garden people who were watching for any kind of attack from their own former friends. Where the rest of what had to be hundreds of people were, she wasn’t certain. Probably still spread out up and down the Florida coastline to avoid drawing attention. And these, the ones they could see, were probably only the tip of the iceberg in the area. The Victors would be heavily protected. 

While she was considering all of that, Croc led them to a door with an unlit open sign. “They’ve cleaned the place out so you can have some privacy, but there’s food waiting.” With a small smile, the big guy opened the door while looking to them with a quietly murmured, “Turns out they really like having a chance to eat at actual Bystander restaurants.” 

Letting out the breath that she hadn’t even noticed she was actually holding, Avalon moved through the doorway first. The restaurant behind was fairly dimly lit, though whether that was for ambiance or just to save a few bucks, she couldn’t say. Behind her, the others came through, and Avalon walked toward the only real source of somewhat brighter light in the room, a series of long tables where seven figures sat, clearly waiting for them to approach. 

It wasn’t Avalon’s first time seeing them, but most of those instances had been either from a distance or very briefly. She’d never been important enough for the Victors to pay attention to until… well, until they had believed Trice and his cronies over her and refused to listen to her explanation. That flash of resentment boiled up once more before she pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time for dwelling on that. Not when there were much more important things. 

Instead, she focused on examining the group while Croc moved around to speak to them in a hushed (clearly kept private through powers or magic) voice. Her gaze moved over the group. In the middle of the table sat the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleo Selene. Their somewhat darker olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes made their relationship to Egypt and their more famous mother even more clear than the name of their tribe. The Dust Striders had gone through several names in the past, but they always in some way related to ancient Egypt or the desert. They were also, to Avalon’s recollection, one of the only tribes whose leadership had not changed the entire time that Garden had been a thing. Most of the others had at least varied it up somewhat over time, but the twin children of Cleopatra had kept a firm command over their tribe since its first inception. 

To the right of Alexander Helios sat the old cowboy, Jack Childs. To his right was his partner, the dark haired, wide-faced man called Lamorak. Both leaders of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe were watching Avalon with expressions she couldn’t read. The two men watched her like that for a moment, before Lamorak leaned over to whisper something in his partner’s ear. They too were obviously using something to prevent anyone from overhearing, because Avalon couldn’t make out any of it. 

The woman who sat next to Jack, at that end of the table, had long red hair, with a single bit at the front that was jet black, which matched the faint black flecks in her otherwise gray eyes. She looked young and beautiful, though Avalon knew she had been alive at least since before the black plague. Her name was Aniyah Keita, and she was one of the leaders of the Reaper tribe. The other Victor, the old Native American called Quevias Quarter, had apparently stayed with the loyalists. Their tribe had been split between their leadership. 

Finally, to the left of Cleo Selene, sat the also young-looking Asian woman known as Fu Hao, and her partner in leading the Vigilant Sons tribe, the small man with dark blue hair (dyed from its natural blond) known as Carseus Elsen. It was to those two that Avalon looked and focused on the most. They were the leaders of the Vigilant Sons, the tribe that she was supposed to belong to. The tribe who should have backed her up against threats both outside of Garden… and within. It was they who she felt the most resentment toward, despite herself. 

They were both staring right back at her, and she felt their gazes sizing her up, likely in more ways than she could possibly comprehend. For a moment, as Croc spoke in magically protected privacy, there was silence from Avalon’s perspective. Through that, she stood still, her gaze locked on the Victors of her old tribe. She would not be the first to look away. Not now. 

Finally, Fu Hao stood. The ancient-yet-young-looking Asian woman silently stepped around the table. All eyes moved to her as she moved smoothly and gracefully to where Avalon stood, stopping in front of her. 

“I am told that you prefer the name of Avalon Sinclaire now, after she who has stood by you.” The voice was loud, filling the room to ensure that all heard it, yet also somehow soft. There was incredible power and strength there, along with a soft reassurance that came from a hundred lifetimes of raising and caring for children, grandchildren, and all who came beyond. It was gentle now, but with a clear sharpness lying just behind that cotton coating. 

“Yes, Victor,” Avalon managed past the lump that had formed in her throat. How she had longed for this voice to reassure her before, the days and nights she had spent wishing that Fu Hao would speak up on her behalf when it had really mattered. She fought to keep her own voice, and her gaze, as steady as possible. She would not show any reaction. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing how they could still affect her. Not that it mattered, given how easily they could read her emotions using any number of their powers. But still, how much she willingly showed was her choice. 

“Avalon Sinclaire,” Fu Hao started then, the sound of her voice dropping to a far more personal level. “We… I… am sorry. I failed you. I failed to stand by one who belonged to my tribe. Not through any fault of yours, but because I did not see one person as being worth antagonizing the leadership of the Lost Scar tribe. Whether you were guilty or not… I did not put the time, effort, or resources into determining that I should have. And I certainly did not give you the aid to gain a fair trial that you deserved. That is my failure, and it was one made not from a lack of capability or by any mistake. It was a deliberate choice, one that I should not have made. I put maintaining relations with Victors Bennett and Dalal over you, because you did not matter to me. You were simply one more recruit. I was wrong. Not because of who your ancestor happens to be, but because if we do not stand up for our own, we have no reason to exist.

“I cannot promise to never make such wrong actions again, but I will, to the best of my ability, remember this. I can offer you nothing better than my deepest, most sincere apologies. I am sorry. I was wrong. I will not insult you by assuming you would desire a return to membership within the tribe, though if that were to be something you would like, it would be yours in a heartbeat. I believe, however, that you have moved on. So I offer you instead a promise that anything you need, should it be within my power to provide, I will do so. 

“You have my apology, my promise to remember this moving forward when it comes to others, and my oath to you that I will provide whatever is within my capability to provide. I was wrong to treat you the way that I did. I was wrong not to care, to see you as a simple number. I do not ask your forgiveness, not now. But I will strive, in the future, to be the sort of person who you deserved to have when you needed her, for others who come after.”  

That… was a lot to digest. As Avalon stood there in silence born more of surprise and uncertainty than the stoicism she had originally been going for, Fu Hao was joined by Carseus Elsen. The short man with his heavily muscled arms stepped around to stand by his partner, also watching Avalon. “She’s right,” he agreed. “We treated you like shit because you didn’t matter, because we didn’t see one person as worth risking conflict with the Lost Scar tribe. She’s also right that we can’t make up for that, and that the timing here, you being spoken to now because of who your ancestor is, that’s just… worse. It doesn’t help anything. So… yeah. I’m sorry too. Not that I expect it to change anything, but I am. Truly and genuinely, I’m sorry. We should have been your tribe leaders, we should have been your tribe, your family. We should have had your back and at least made sure you were given a fair shake. We didn’t. No if’s, and’s or but’s. We failed. I… I’m glad you found someone who you could count on. And I hope she ends up alright at the end of this.” 

“You want to make up for what you did by not being there when I needed you?” Avalon finally managed. “Then promise to help the person who was there for me. Gaia. She took care of me when you didn’t, when you wouldn’t. You want to make up for it? Promise you’ll help free her when we get the chance. They’re going to have more security and protection on her than on anything else. We’ll need really big guns, big guns they might not be expecting, to save her. Be those guns. Help us figure out where she is, and help us get her out when we do. That’s what you can do. That’s how you can make up for it.” 

The two exchanged brief glances and silent communication before Fu Hao bowed slightly to Avalon. “You have our word. Our power and resources will be put to freeing Gaia Sinclaire and returning her to you.” 

That done, the two returned to their seats, and Cleo Selene spoke. “Avalon Sinclaire–Avalon. We’re told that you have something quite important that you would like to tell us. Something that will change quite a bit of how we see this entire conflict.” Her eyebrows were raised, as she sat back in her seat and watched the girl. 

For a moment, Avalon was silent. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing both Seller and Flick standing together. They gave her encouraging nods, and she swallowed before turning back to the assembled seven. 

“Yes. Yes, I do. But first, talk to him.” She gestured to Gordon, watching the group’s eyes move to the boy. “He’s got a question for you. Maybe you can answer.” 

With everyone’s attention centered on him, Gordon hesitated before taking a small step forward. His voice was mostly flat, with a very slight tremble of emotion. “Where is my father?” 

That made the group of Victors exchange glances, Jack Childs slowly speaking up. “I’m sorry, we weren’t aware that the father of a Crossroads student was one of our–” 

“Slaves,” Gordon interrupted before the man could finish referring to him as one of their Heretics. “My father is one of your slaves.” 

Cleo Selene stood from her seat, her gaze laser-focused on the boy in front of the tables. “Are you saying that–” 

“I’m a Hybrid,” Gordon interrupted. “Yeah. My dad is a Hrimthur named Sindri Koraug.” More quietly, he added, “If you know their names. If not, I can–”

“He’s not here.” The answer came from Aniya, as she tapped the table a couple times thoughtfully. “I know the Hrimthur you’re speaking of. Now that I think about it, I can see him in you.” 

Gordon’s eyes focused on the woman, as he swallowed hard. “You–you know him? He’s your–”

Her head shook. “Not mine. He was never part of the Reapers. He’s one of the Lost Scar’s… slaves. But I have seen him. We needed a group of cold-acclimated workers for the world known as T9T2 a year or so ago, and he was there. As far as I know, he’s still part of their workforce.” 

“How is it,”  Alexander Helios began, “that Crossroads has come to have Hybrid students? And how long has–”

“I’m quite certain those questions can wait,” Fu Hao murmured pointedly before looking to Gordon. “We will seek information about your father’s current whereabouts and condition. Anything we find out will be passed to you.” She waited for him to nod before returning her attention to Avalon. “Is that acceptable enough for you to deliver this important news?” 

Avalon hesitated, then inclined her head. “Yeah. And.. yes, I do have news. News that a lot of you and your people probably aren’t going to like. I want to tell you about people known as the Seosten. The people who caused all this. I want to tell you about the people who created this entire situation, who made the Bystander Effect, who use us as their meat puppets in their war against the Fomorians. I want to tell you about them, and… and about my ancestor. I want to tell you the truth about the man you see as a savior, the truth about Hieronymus Bosch and how he was used as much as anyone else.”

“Now hold on just a second,” Jack Childs interrupted. “Just what exactly are you going on about? What’s all this about Sausten?” 

“Seosten,” Avalon corrected. “Say-oh-stun. They’re the alien empire that rules half the universe, created the Bystander Effect so they could make us kill everything not-human we could find in order to make us strong so we’d be good soldiers for them to possess and take against the Fomorians, who control the other half of the universe.” 

“Yeah,” Flick finally put in, “the race of Imperialistic bodysnatchers who manipulate our entire society from behind the scenes and manipulate us into murder-machines are technically the de facto good guys in this situation. I mean, in comparison to the ones who just want to genocide the entire universe.” 

Alexander Helios looked from Flick to Avalon and back again. His mouth opened, but his sister leaned forward to whisper something in his ear, and he remained silent. 

When it was clear that neither he, nor any of the others, were going to say anything, Avalon pushed on. “It’s a lot, I know. The Seosten have been setting up Crossroads from the beginning. They have the ability to possess people, to control them completely, change their memories, all of it. We already know that there is at least one possessing one of the Eden’s Garden Victors. We don’t think it’s one of you, but…” This was going to be even harder. “… but we had to be sure.” 

“Excuse me?” Fu Hao started with a frown. 

Instead of responding, Avalon looked toward Croc. The man gave her a nod, tossing something her way while speaking up. “They’re all clear.” 

Catching it, Avalon showed them the choker in her hand. “This… used to be the ring of Anuk-Ite. It’s one of the only things that can identify when someone is possessed by a Seosten. Croc just checked each of you in the past few minutes while we were talking. You’re clear. Which means the Victor being possessed is one of the loyalists.” 

For a moment, the Victors all turned narrow eyes toward Croc, examining him carefully as they worked through whether they were offended by the duplicity or not. In the end, they chose to let it go, turning back to Avalon as she continued. “So you’re clear. Which means we can move on. And… and for the record, I know none of this is going to be easy for you to hear. No one likes to be told about how they’ve been manipulated at all, let alone for so long. But you need to hear it right now. Because most of all, I want to tell you about how we’re going to change things. About how we have one year to fix this whole situation. We have one year to pull ourselves together.” 

With a frown, Jack Childs spoke up. “Okay, wait. What are you talking about now? First you’re going on about these body snatchers and now you’re trying to–no. No, I think we need to go back to the start. Because with all due respect, this sounds like paranoia born of–”

“Quiet, Jack.”  The words came from Aniyah, the lone Reaper Victor, as she kept a hand on the arm of Lamorak. “The girl’s right about the Seosten.” 

“Yes,” Lamorak himself agreed, rising to his feet. “She is. Aniyah and I have been keeping stuff from all of you until it was time. Now it’s time.” He looked to Avalon, his eternally-surprised expression at odds with the knowing look in his eyes. “I guess if I was waiting for a sign to start talking about Camelot and who our true enemy was, having someone named Avalon show up is a pretty big kick in the pants.” 

“Lamorak?” Alexander Helios started slowly. “You have something to say?” 

“Yeah,” he confirmed, glancing to Avalon once again. “From the sound of it, we have a whole lot to talk about to get everyone caught up and on the same page. 

“So maybe we should go ahead and fill our plates before we get too far into it. Because this is gonna be a long night.”

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