Day After Day 39-04

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“So you were a normal human and that… witch, or whatever she was, turned you into… uhh, this?” I asked a minute later (after I’d given the head back) as my new necromancy teacher led me to a secluded part of the woods adjacent to the lake, opposite the camp itself. There was a narrow little trail that wound its way in about fifty yards or so deep, and we moved along that together. I was holding Herbie up in one hand, having enchanted him to give off light (clearly turning his inner heroic glow into something literal) so that we could both see properly as we moved away from the camp lights.

The Headless–err, Abraha–wait, he said he preferred Brom. Brom Bones held his head up with both hands, tilting it up and down a few times. Belatedly, I realized that was his version of a nod. “Ayup,” he confirmed, tucking his head under one arm while using the other to point at me. “So do me a favor, you ever find a witch calling herself Katrina, run the other way. She’s scary as hell, and I don’t want you to have to deal with her. Those blood rituals of hers…” He shuddered and grimaced, which was an odd thing to see given how far his face was from his shoulders.

“Sure,” I easily replied, “I don’t really see the need to run out and find another enemy. I’ve got plenty as it is. But um, didn’t you say that Katrina wasn’t her real name? So… unless she’s using the same pseudonym again…” Giving a helpless shrug, I added, “Any description?”

Brom’s head shook, and he sighed. “That’s the thing. It’s been a long time, but she did turn me into this, and that’s not really the kind of person you forget. But you know, for some reason every time I try to remember what she looked like or any kind of specifics, it’s just… blank. I think about her face and there’s nothing. I think about what color her hair was and nothing.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like some kind of powerful memory spell,” I mused thoughtfully. “Can’t Enguerrand help with that? Or, if he can’t, I bet Sariel could if you asked her to.”

A rueful smile crossed the man’s face then, illuminated by the glowing Herbie. “It’d be nice,  yeah. Unfortunately, whatever the witch did to turn me into this dashing figure that you see before you also made me immune to any kind of possession, including the Seosten variety.”

Okay, that made me do a double-take, openly staring at the man briefly as I came to a stop on that narrow trail. “Okay, so this witch did a ritual that made you, among other things, immune to Seosten possession? Even though you were just a normal human before? She just made you immune, just like that. What the hell kind of witch is this and why isn’t she on our side, exactly?”

“Pretty sure she’s only on her own side,” the headless (or head relocated) man replied simply. “If she’s even still alive. I’d bet on it, given what I saw, but… who knows.” He shrugged before letting out another sigh. “And before you ask, I don’t know what she did to me exactly or how it worked. All I know is it made me immune to a lot of things, including the Seosten possession.”

By that point, we had reached the end of the short trail. It had brought us to a small clearing, about fifteen feet or so across. There was a cement bird bath in the center of the clearing, and I could see a couple paper grocery bags sitting next to it, along with a couple bottles of water and a six pack of beer. A shovel had been left at the opposite end of the clearing from the entrance.

“So how did you go from magic-altered servant for a dark witch to teaching a high schooler how to use necromancy?” I asked, giving the clearing a curious once-over. “And that sounds a lot darker when I say it out loud. I mean, how’d you get free of her control? And learn the necromancy thing. Was that the kind of stuff she had you do for her or something?”

He gave a light chuckle at that. “Yeah, I uhh, the learning bit was accidental at first. My assigned duty, my… reason for existing was just to protect my mistress or do odd jobs here or there. Scare townspeople, pick up supplies, guard prisoners or test subjects, that kind of thing.” Turning his head toward me, he winked. “Of course, the picking up supplies bit was easier once Katrina made my first special suit that let me keep my head where it belongs. Like a leather turtleneck with this wood and metal contraption that held it in place. Uncomfortable, let me tell you. But a good bit less uncomfortable than being chased around by people with torches.”

“You mean the Bystander Effect didn’t make them immediately forget there was anything different about you?” I asked while walking over to look at the birdbath. It was empty, save for a fair bit of red stain all around the inside that I was pretty sure had to be the remnants of blood.  

He moved to stand next to the thing as well, bending to pull off one of the beers. “BS Effect used to be a lot weaker than it is now. Even just a couple hundred years ago. Sure, they’d forget what they saw was ‘real’ fairly soon, but right at the time, they could react pretty badly. Especially depending on the specific person. Plus, there were Heretics to worry about, both of the Natural and Bosch variety.” He popped the can open. “You might’ve noticed that I don’t set off your special sense. Mostly because I’m not actually an Alter, just a… uhh, altered human. Anyway, point is, I don’t set off the sense for Bosch Heretics, but it’s not hard to look at a man carrying around his head and think something’s a bit dodgy about the whole situation, you see?”

I started to say something else to that, but then the man held his head up with one hand while using the other to bring the can to his lips, and I was suddenly incredibly distracted. Staring as he took a big gulp from the beer, my eyes reflexively looked toward the opening at the bottom of his neck. I waited… and nothing came out. “Errr, how do you–wait, why doesn’t it–wait. Huh?”

Chuckling, Brom took another long gulp of his drink. Now it looked like he was showing off, teasing me when the liquid still didn’t appear. “You like that little magic trick? Yeah, my throat’s uhh, let’s just say it’s basically magically connected somehow. What I eat or drink ends up in my stomach regardless. It goes from here to here.” As he spoke, the man first lifted his head, then gestured to the rest of his body. “I’m not exactly sure on the particulars in between.”

“That’s, umm… wow.” Watching the man put the can to his lips to drink while literally holding his head in the other hand was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. I couldn’t look away. “Yeah, quite some magic trick. I guess it makes sense, your body needs fuel. Plus, if you’re talking, the air would have to… unless it’s just sort of…  I just wasn’t… yeah.” Shrugging helplessly, I forced myself to focus on something else. “You said learning necromancy for you started as an accident because you were just an errand boy and guard?”

Using one hand to move his head up and down in his approximation of a nod, Brom replied, “Yup. When I wasn’t given a task to do, I was just supposed to stand or sit in the corner and wait. I ended up watching a lot of the rituals she did around that time. I think she figured I was a lot dumber than I was. Not that I’m exactly a genius or anything, but you let me watch enough of your magic and I’ll pick some of it up. It was interesting, and… well, part of me wanted to understand what she did to me. So I paid attention. I stayed quiet and watched. And whenever she left me alone wherever we were at the time without specific instructions, I read. I’m not sure she knew that I could read. But I could, and I did. I picked up books from the shelf and read everything I could get my hands on. Turned out the necromancy stuff really appealed to me. And not just because it was evil or whatever. It was just… you know, fascinating. I uhh, I suppose part of it was that with everything she did to me, I’m basically immortal. Haven’t met anything yet that can put me down and make me stay down. Hell, my body parts were scattered across the country once. Took me forever to find them and pull myself together. But I managed it. Another time I was basically reduced to just one of my hands. Everything grew back. Even my head.”

“Holy shit,” I managed then, eyes wide as I stared at him. “I say again, what the hell kind of ritual did she do to turn you into this?”

“I know, right?” The man gestured vaguely. “So yeah, pretty much impossible for me to die. Which made me interested in death and the magic surrounding it. I read all the books I could, practiced the symbols they showed whenever she sent me on missions. I’d draw them in the dirt, or on my hand or wherever. Always rubbed them out, of course. Didn’t want her knowing how much I was picking up because I figured she’d put a real quick stop to it.”

As he spoke, Brom reached into that long coat with his free hand. It must have been magic, because he pulled out one of those black stand things that people put sheet music or books on, with the long pole attached to the flat surface with the lip. In this case, however, the lip part was larger, and curved. It was just the right size and shape for…

Yup. He put his head down on the stand, balancing it carefully before giving me a thumbs up. “Perfect. Anyway, she found out, of course. But she wasn’t angry about it. Actually, she was intrigued. Said she wanted to know if I could actually do it. So, she uhh, taught me some. Yeah, I was surprised too. She made me practice it, said she wanted me to be able to do more than run simple errands and that if I could pull off actual magic, she’d have better ways of using me.”

“Well, she’s practical, at least,” I muttered. “And she must’ve been a pretty good teacher, if you learned enough to impress Gabriel.”    

Pausing for a moment as though thinking back to those times, the man finally grimaced and replied, “Let’s just say she was effective if not exactly nice about it. Very tough to impress, but I did learn a lot. And necromancy-practice was better than squishing people’s heads until they popped, or whatever other ways she’d have me terrorize and destroy her enemies.”

“Uhhh…” I coughed. “Yeah, I guess I can see why you’d like the learning part more. But um… what about how you escaped? I mean, you’re all intact and everything, so why aren’t you still working for her? You said you weren’t even sure if she’s still alive. What happened?” Yeah, he was supposed to be teaching me about this new power, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

Patting his own head, Brom replied, “It was actually that thing I mentioned before, the bit about being  almost completely disintegrated and coming back from just my hand? Yeah, let’s just say we had a confrontation with one of her mortal enemies and it didn’t go so well for me. But when I grew back, something was different. Before that, I could always feel where she was and when she wanted me, I’d be sort of… pulled to her, drawn that way. But once I regenerated from all that, I couldn’t feel her anymore. I kind of heard more about her later, so I know she survived at least past that, but other than that… it was like her pull over me was gone after my body rebuilt itself almost from scratch.”

“That must’ve been some enemy,” I observed, “if they were a threat to her and managed to do that to you.”

Brom coughed, his body extending hand out and down to cover his mouth. “Err, yeah. About that. Her enemy is kind of why she was good with me learning necromancy. And why Gabriel thought I’d be a good teacher for you.”

For just a second, I blinked at him. Then I got it. “What? Why wo–oh my God, it was Fossor. Katrina’s enemy that almost completely destroyed you, it was Fossor, wasn’t it?”

“That would be the one,” he confirmed. “So you see, I kind of have a little history with that piece of shit.” As his head spoke, Brom’s body moved over to pick up that shovel from the other side of the clearing. He came back, carefully starting to dig a hole.

Meanwhile, I was busy staring at his head (and trying not to be too distracted by the fact that his head and body were in two entirely separate locations). “If the witch who changed you hates Fossor so much, I kind of really want to meet her.”

“You really don’t,” Brom firmly corrected, his body pausing its digging to point at me. “Trust me. This is not a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ In this case, the enemy of your enemy is still a psycho hellbitch who will only ever work with you if it benefits her in some way.”

“Getting rid of Fossor seems like it would benefit her,” I pointed out mildly.

“And then you’d owe her something.” Brom gave me a hard look, all amusement vanishing from his eyes. “Trust me, Flick, you don’t want to owe her anything. Because she will collect. I’ve been the one who does the collecting for her, remember?”

“Fair enough,” I relented, shrugging. “But I’d still like to at least see some of her books, even if she wouldn’t be directly helpful. If she’s as powerful as you say, she probably knows a lot about Fossor, about everything he uses. Especially now. If, you know, she’s still alive.”

“I would imagine she is, and that she does have plenty of information,” Brom agreed. “An entire library full, most likely. Though where it is, or what the cost of seeing any of it would be… I couldn’t say the former, and my only guess as to the latter is ‘too much.’”

Remaining silent for a moment, I finally sighed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. And hey, it sounds like I got the better teacher out of the deal anyway.”

“You’re damn right you did,” the head-relocated man shot right back, his body pausing its digging once more to give me a thumbs up. “But that only matters if I actually teach you something before the sun goes cold. So let’s actually get started, huh?”

Nodding, I gestured, “What’re you digging?”

“The grave for the mouse after we finish with it,” came the response.

“Grave for what m–other of God!” I started while facing his head, turning in mid-sentence to find his body, sure enough, holding a dead mouse by the tail. Recoiling reflexively, I blurted, “Don’t do that!”

“Sorry.” I could tell he didn’t mean it. He was grinning too much. “Told you, I like pranks. And the classics are still great. Making girls squeal with mice.” Clearing his throat, the man’s body set the dead mouse in the middle of the bird bath. “We’re going to focus on just getting the mouse to get up and walk around a little bit, okay? Usually you have to do that with a bunch of rituals and blood sacrifice, but uhh, I’m told you can skip all that. Which sounds pretty damn useful, let me tell you.”

“I…” Swallowing, I stopped to look at the dead mouse. Part of me really wanted to just go back to talking about the witch Katrina, or even about Fossor. Or about anything else. This… scared me, and creeped me out.

But I needed to learn it. I needed to practice it. So I straightened up, giving a little nod.

“Okay, let’s see what I can do.”

*****

What I could do, as it turned out, was make the mouse get up and move… barely. It took almost an hour for me just to get that poor little dead guy to twitch enough that it definitely wasn’t the wind. After that, it was another half an hour before I got him to turn over and take a little walk around the empty bird bath. And I felt exhausted. Apparently doing this on purpose was a lot harder and more tiring than doing it by accident when I’d summoned Rudolph. Though the emotions and urgency involved there probably explained it. Or maybe I was just resisting the idea of this subconsciously. I wasn’t sure. But I managed to make the mouse walk in a circle a few times, and Brom said that was enough.

I was on my way back after helping him bury the little guy, and found my father waiting for me right by the lake as I approached the cabins.

“So how’s my little budding necromancer?” Dad asked with a raised eyebrow. “Did you make a skeleton army? Ooh, do you need a castle with a moat? Because I don’t think that’s in the budget. I can maybe swing an apartment with a really strongly worded no solicitors sign.”

Snickering despite myself, I stopped to stare at him for a moment. My mouth opened and shut, before I just walked up to wrap my arms tightly around my father. “I love you, Dad.”

I felt his brief surprise at that before the man returned my embrace. “I love you too, Flicker. But what’s this for? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Let’s have more of this.”

Obligingly, I hugged even tighter for a few seconds before leaning back to look up at him. “I’m just amazed at how well you’re rolling with… well, all of this. Every bit of it. You’re amazing.”

“Just remember that come Christmas time,” he teased me lightly, using one hand to stroke my hair back while smiling at me fondly. “And I’ve had some good people around here to help me sort stuff out. Honestly, I’m just glad I know what’s going on now.”

Feeling a slight pang at the fact that I couldn’t tell him everything that was going on, as far as Jophiel and Elisabet went, I swallowed before nodding. “Me too. Lying to you sucked.”

“Tell me about it,” the man muttered before nodding past me with a smile. “You should probably go see Avalon though. Pretty sure she’s been waiting for you all night. If you don’t go in there pretty soon, she might do something crazy like drag herself out here.”

Unable (and unwilling) to stop the immediate smile that came at the thought of seeing Avalon, I nodded, giving Dad one more brief hug before turning to start that way.

As I was heading off, he spoke up again. “I take it you like your necromancy teacher then?”

Pausing, I looked back while sagely replying, “Let’s just say he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

It took me a solid minute to stop snickering at that, while Dad continued to stare at me, utterly bewildered.  

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Day After Day 39-03

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“I mean seriously, dude, this thing was freaking huge! It was the Godzilla of Gajasimhas!”

The girl currently excitedly babbling on across from me as I sat at a table in the library back at Crossroads was Harper Hayes. It was April 30th, Monday. The weekend had passed since Rudolph’s funeral, and I was back at school once more. Harper and I had been assigned a project to work on together by Professor Vandel, our Heretical Geography teacher. We were supposed to pick one of the lost cities, places that had supposedly once been real and full of humans before they were overrun and destroyed by those evil Strangers. There were quite a lot of them, according to our books, places where thousands of humans were wiped out back when Heretics had been much fewer and further between, before they could be manufactured by Crossroads.

Somehow, I had stopped myself from asking how society had continued to exist and develop for thousands of years before Bosch had come along if their Heretics were so limited and every single non-human out there was a genocidal lunatic. But it was a close thing, and I deserved a medal for my restraint. I’d settled for a piece of pie.

Now the two of us were in the library after classes were over, and Harper was telling me all about the creature that she and her team had killed for their last hunt. Apparently a Gajasimhas was a huge monster, fifteen feet tall at the shoulders on average, with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, complete with tusks. It sounded pretty nasty, even before listening to Harper’s rendition of the story as she excitedly babbled on. She tended to repeat details, embellishing them further every time, and sometimes got so excited about what she was saying that she tripped over the words and got tongue-tied. It was kind of cute and endearing, almost making me want to protect the girl or something.

“You know, you’re really lucky,” Harper abruptly informed me. “I mean, in some ways. Not in every way, obviously. Lots of bad stuff happens around you, but still… lucky.”

“Lucky in that I’ve never fought a Gajasimhas?” I asked, confused by the shift in subject.

Her head shook quickly at that. “What? No, that’s totally unlucky. Those things are awesome. You’re lucky because you don’t just have a girlfriend, you have two. I mean, you’re dating super-hot warrior princess and super-cute Asian gamer babe. Seriously?” She held a hand up to me, gesturing to it. “Seriously, dude. Dude. Say what you want about all the trouble you get into, but as far as that goes, you pretty much hit triple sevens twice in a row.”

Well, when she put it like that, I couldn’t help but give the girl the high five she was looking for. But we also really needed to work. So right after that, I put a hand on one of the books we had found. “This one’s about places in Africa. You wanna look in that one and I’ll look at… what’s this one?” My other hand tilted up another book to read the spine. “Camelot: Facts In The Fiction?”

“Meh.” Harper shrugged at me. “The King Arthur stuff is a little overdone. Eiji says everyone wants to do a project on that. We should do something new. Besides,” she added sagely, leaning closer across the table, “I’m pretty sure most of these stuffy old professors wouldn’t know what Camelot was really like if it fell on top of them.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I teased, “Maybe they should consult you on the subject. Or me. I’m sure a couple of Bystander-kin know more about Camelot than people who might’ve been alive back then. Or at least had a father or grandfather who was. Actually…” Pausing, I pursed my lips thoughtfully. “That Percival guy on the Committee was part of the whole Camelot thing. I wonder if they consulted him for this book. It might be more accurate than you think.”

The other girl met my gaze for a moment before abruptly laughing. “Okay, maybe you have a point. I mean, if you want to do it on that…” Trailing off, she looked to me expectantly.

I thought about it for a few seconds then, letting my head tilt from one side to the other indecisively. “Hmmm…” In the end, however, I shook my head. “Nah, you’re right. Lots of people are gonna do Camelot. And they’ll definitely expect it from a couple Bystander-Kin. Probably lots of Camelot and Atlantis projects. Let’s look at one of the lesser used ones. Like in that Africa book.” I gestured to the one I had indicated earlier. “Gotta be something interesting there.”

She agreed, and we started poring through it together to find something we could both agree on. The hard part was actually settling on one. There was, utterly unsurprisingly, a lot of magical history in Africa. Lots of human settlements that, according to Crossroads history, had been wiped out in one way or another. A lot of that was probably pretty accurate as far as being attacked by evil Strangers went, though I had a few questions (that would probably go unanswered) about how much of the population in those ancient cities had been fully human.

Unfortunately, before we could finally pick one in particular and run with it, I felt someone approach our table from the back of the library even as a new (and unwelcome) voice spoke up.

“Careful Harper,” Zeke warned with a smirk that he had to have practiced in the mirror to look that annoying, “you don’t want to end up like other people that Chambers here works with. You know what happens to them.” As he spoke, the boy stopped to fold his arms loosely.

“No, Zeke.” The response didn’t come from Harper or myself. It came from the nearby bookshelf, where Doug was standing with his finger on one of the volumes there. His attention, however, was focused solely on the boy by our table, voice soft. “Why don’t you tell us what happens to people who work with Flick? I’m sure your perspective on it will be very illuminating.”

“Wh–” Zeke glanced that way, and for just a second I thought he would completely back off. He actually held a hand up in surrender, head shaking. “Look, I didn’t even–I shouldn’t have…” But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just completely let it go, no matter how much he obviously knew that he should have. “I just think it’s a little… you know, surprising that you’re okay with this.”

Slowly lowering his hand from the book, Doug turned to face him fully. His voice had gone even softer. “Surprising that I’m okay with what, Zeke?”

“This, her.” Zeke was gesturing to me, of course. “She brought Rudolph back and puppeted him through the halls of the hospital in front of everyone there, man! And you’re just completely cool with still being on a team with her? You don’t have a problem with that? Seriously?”

Right, the story of what had happened to reveal my newly inherited necromancer abilities had made the rounds well before Gaia or anyone else could do anything to stop it. Rudolph’s moving body had been seen by too many people, and the rumors had spread out quickly from there. So now the people around school had even more reasons to stare at me. Especially since the fact that Rudolph’s body had done the impossible thing of actually using his powers post-death.

For a moment after Zeke said those words, Doug was quiet. He just stood there, silently watching the other boy before looking to me with eyes that very briefly revealed just how lost the boy actually felt right then. Then he looked back to Zeke. “Yeah, I have a problem with it. I have a pretty god damn big problem with Flick bringing Rudolph’s dead body back and making it walk around. Specifically the part where my friend is dead. That’s the part I have issues with. Or did you just sort of skip past that in your rush to grab onto something else you could blame her for? Tell me something, Zeke, did you get necromancer powers too? Because I’m pretty sure you’re using Rudolph as even more of a prop than she did.”

Before Zeke could actually say anything to that, Harper was on her feet. “Okay!” she chirped, clearly uncomfortable with things getting serious at all. “I think that’s enough drama for one day. You wanna look through the book tonight and lemme know what you think we should focus on at breakfast?” she asked me then, smiling brightly. “I still think Amina of Zaria would be a great subject! But, you know, if you find a better one…”

“She sounds pretty cool,” I agreed. “And the ahhh… real story of Zaria could be a good project. Definitely lesser known than Camelot. But I’ll… uhh, I’ll take a look and let you know.” Even as I spoke, from the corner of my eye I could see Zeke. The boy clearly wasn’t accustomed to being ignored like this, particularly right after being put down the way Doug had. He looked like he kept wanting to either say something or walk away. But he couldn’t work out what to say, and walking away probably felt like he was retreating. So he stood there awkwardly.

Giving me a bright smile and nod that made her bright-pink pigtails bounce, Harper looked to Zeke. “C’mon! I made some raspberry chocolate chip cookies, you’ve gotta try one! Or two.”

With that, the girl basically dragged him away, while he made token noises of protest. Which… yeah, Harper clearly did all that specifically to avoid any more conflict, defusing the situation through offering baked goods. As far as that kind of thing went, it was nicely done. Except for the part where Zeke got cookies.

That left me standing there with Doug. Glancing to the boy, I hesitated. Boy, he looked different without his hat. Which he would hopefully be getting back soon, since his Grandpa Sulan had been working with Sariel, Theia, and the others at the Atherby camp for the past couple of days, ever since Larees had met with him at the funeral. Apparently not only had it not taken much to get him on-side, he actually was already pretty much read in on most things by Percival. Ever since he’d been banished from the old colony world, Sulan had been working as a sort of ‘fixer’ or assistant for Percival, doing things that the Committee member couldn’t focus on doing himself.

Which was all super useful for us, since it meant he was already onboard with what needed to happen. So he’d been at the camp teaching them how to use the anti-Whisper spell.

There had also apparently been a bit of a… conversation between Doug and Sulan over just how much Sulan had known about and not talked over with him. From what little I’d heard about it, Sulan had said that he wanted to wait until Doug was older instead of forcing him into making a choice while he was still a first-year student.

I obviously had questions about how much they knew about the Whisper spells if Percival had been so close to Sulan. But it was going to have to wait, since Sulan had been busy and Percival wasn’t exactly someone I had ready access to.

For the moment, however, Doug was still without his hat. Which looked weird, but I shook myself and focused. “Anyway, uh, I’m sorry he brought up–I mean…”

“It’s not your fault when someone else brings up painful subjects, Flick,” the boy tiredly reminded me. “And another thing.” Looking straight to me, he narrowed his eyes. “Weren’t you going to start learning about that necromancy thing from Gabriel Prosser’s friend?”

“Right, yeah…” Flushing a little guiltily, I nodded. “He said it’d take a bit to get his friend around, whoever they are. So I sort of told him to take his time. I’m not exactly in a rush to use it.”

Doug shook his head at that, sighing. “Look, don’t avoid using that new power of his just because it creeps you out, or because of what idiot jackasses like that think. It’s a useful power. If you handicap yourself by avoiding it, you’ll just be making things harder for everyone. Maybe it’s creepy and lots of bad guys use it. But so what? Bad guys use lots of things. It’s a tool. And you’re a tool if you don’t use everything you’ve got. You’re dealing with a fucking necromancer as like… an archenemy, Flick. Why would you avoid practicing with the same power he’s got? There is no scenario in which that’s not at least slightly useful.”

Once he finished, I opened and shut my mouth a couple of times before hesitantly nodding. “Yeah, I um… yeah, point. I’ll tell Gabriel I’m ready to practice with it, whenever his friend is available.

“I just hope practicing necromancy doesn’t require a wardrobe change, because I do not have enough black clothes and eyeliner.”

******

So, to that end (the learning necromancy part, not the needing more eyeliner part), I told Gabriel that night as I was visiting the camp to see Avalon, my father, and Tabbris that I was ready to meet the person he had in mind to teach me. He’d smiled faintly and said that they had just been waiting for me say the word because they didn’t want to rush me. My new teacher would be ready to meet me down by the lake after I took some time with the others.

So, I sat with Avalon for awhile (she was practically bouncing off the walls waiting to get out of bed), and had a snack with Tabbris and my dad. We also played a game of Clue at the table in Dad’s cabin. Tabs told me all about learning more of the anti-Whisper spell from ‘Mr. Sulan’ earlier. Apparently they were pretty sure they’d be able to cast the spell themselves within the next day or so. Which was fast for such powerful and unique magic, but then again, Seosten tended to have a leg-up on the whole magic thing with their perfect memories.

When I was done there, I gradually made my way through the camp, greeting people who greeted me in turn until I reached the edge of the lake and looked around. “Okay,” I murmured, “how am I supposed to know when my necromancy teacher is coming? And why do I feel like asking that out loud is the cue for them to be right behind me?” Turning with those words, I looked expectantly… only to find no one there. “Huh. Guess I was–”

“Wrong?” A voice spoke up from what had been in front of me a moment earlier before I turned. “Nope, I’m just one step ahead.”

Turning back, I found myself staring at a man in a dark blue coat that reached all the way to his ankles. It was open, revealing white pants, a thick brown belt with a golden buckle, button-up white shirt with frills, and a bolo tie. His body was big and burly, like one of those stereotypical rugby players or British football fans. I wasn’t exactly sure why that was the comparison that immediately leapt to mind, but it was.

Oh, and he didn’t have a head. Or rather, the head he had was held under one arm rather than being attached to his neck where it should have been.

“Get it?” the head asked with a wide grin. “One step ahead?”

Okay, even given everything I’d experienced that year, this one still threw me. I stumbled back with a surprised yelp, eyes widening. “Oh shi–” Catching myself at the last second, I stared wide-eyed. “You–what–what?”

Aside from the obvious fact that it wasn’t connected to his body, the head that I was staring at looked fairly normal. Actually, in some ways it reminded me of Ruthers. He had the same sort of bulldog appearance with the heavyset, stubborn face and a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. He looked, as Ruthers did, like a heavyweight boxer or, as my first impression had said, like a rowdy soccer hooligan who got drunk in the pub a lot. His dark blond hair was a bit long, and fashioned into a ponytail that I immediately pictured as a handle.

“Sorry.” The head had the sense to look admonished. “That’s my fault. Part of the deal with ol’ Gabe. I made him promise to let me meet you on my terms. I like to see people’s reactions. Always did like pranks… often a little too much, some might say…” His voice trailed off then, eyes looking out toward some distant memory before he focused.

“Ahem, sorry about that. Err, pleasure to meet you, Miss Felicity Chamber–Flick, they said you like Flick. Flick Chambers, was it?” The hand that wasn’t busy holding onto his head extended toward me. “It’s alright,” he assured me, “it won’t bite. It’s this end you’ve gotta watch.” His other hand waved his head demonstrably.

Right. Yeah, I guess I’d seen weirder. This had surprised me, but… well, he seemed friendly enough. And Gabriel had vouched for him. So I shook his hand briefly, “Yup, I’m Flick. And you’re… you’re…” I hesitated before wincing. “Um. I’m trying not to stare, but you’re supposed to look at people’s eyes when you’re talking to them. So I’m not sure what the etiquette is.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. If I was self-conscious, I’d find a better way than lugging this thing around in a hand,” the man informed me. “I do, sometimes. Got myself suits that can hold my head right in place where it’s supposed to be. But I wanted to meet you as ahhh… naturally as possible, you might say.”

His shoulders rose in a shrug before he offered, “Anyway, name’s Abraham Van Brunt, but I’ve always been partial to Brom Bones. Though these days, most people just know me as–”

“The Headless Horseman?!” I blurted out loud, eyes widening even more than before. “Like, the whole Ichabod Crane Headless Horseman?”

“You know,” the man pointed out, “that was intentionally left vague in the story. Me being the Horseman, I mean.”

“But you are headless,” I reminded him, feeling a bit silly. “I mean, not headless because it’s right there. But…” Trailing off, I hesitated before raising a hand. “You know, I’m getting a little dizzy trying to talk to you when you’re… umm…”

“What? Oh.” The man, who had been juggling his head, tossing it back and forth and in circles between his hands, finally stopped. “Sorry, habit. You’re right though, I’m the Headless Horseman. One and the same. Only the story wasn’t quite accurate. Let’s see… the short version is that Katrina was a witch, and ol’ Ichabod was a Heretic there to find her. Err, not that he knew she was the one he was looking for, specifically. Katrina wasn’t even her real name, just some pseudonym she used.”

“And the whole Headless Horseman story?” I prompted, fascinated by this.

He winced. “Yeah, that was me. I made it up. I was an even bigger idiot back then, you see. I was smitten by Katrina, and when Ichabod started investigating her, I thought he was courting her. So I made up the story to chase him out of town.”

A brief look of shame crossed his eyes then as the man muttered, “Ended up playing right into Katrina’s hands. Distracted Ichabod at the worst time, and she… well… she took him. I saw it from my disguise and tried to get away, but she took me too. Said she liked my ideas, so she used an old dark ritual and… well, here I am.” He gestured to himself.

“Wait, wait, you were born human and changed into this by magic?” I blurted, staring at him. “That’s–I didn’t know that was… I mean…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed easily. “Trust me, kid, you’ve still got a lot left to learn. And speaking of which, we should get started on those lessons. It’s gonna be a long night. So uhh.” He then proceeded to literally toss his head to me.

“Let’s get a head start.”

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Patreon Snippets 3

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The following is the third volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Columbus, Shiori, And Jiao

Through the pitch black night, three figures picked their way along a winding mountain trail. Trees lined both sides of the path, branches often sticking out in their way. Yet despite that, and despite the winding nature of the path that often seemed terribly random, none of the three ever missed a step. Through the complete darkness that came from the stars and moon being hidden behind clouds and the nearest city lights being many miles away, they nonetheless avoided every branch, stepped over every loose rock and random hole, hiking the trail as though it was illuminated by the bright light of noon.

Shiori, Columbus, and Jiao. Shiori and her mother had been spending a few days… or nights rather, each month meeting for things like these hikes, so that they could get to know each other. And this time, with her mother’s blessing, Shiori had invited her brother along, feeling that he really needed to get out. Manakel was now as dead as Charmiene. Avalon had been rescued and was recuperating at the Atherby camp. Things had… for the most part, settled down at least for the time being.

“Do you ever, umm, miss it?” Columbus, whose goggles really did allow him to see everything as if it was daytime, asked hesitantly while looking toward the taller of his two companions.

Jiao, whose vampiric gifts included the vision that allowed her to function perfectly in darkness, paused very briefly before guessing what he was referring to. “You mean the sun.”

Shiori paused as well, glancing over her shoulder at her mother. Though she wasn’t an actual vampire, she was a dhampyr, a hybrid. Which meant that her own night vision was good enough that she was no more inconvenienced by the darkness than either of the others. When she spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?”

“Two hundred and twenty-seven years,” the woman confirmed, her always soft voice even more so as she turned her head to look up at the dark, cloud-covered sky. “And yes, in some ways, I do miss it. It’s different now, with motion pictures. But back then, being away from the sun for so long was… sometimes very hard. All I had was my memories, and paintings. Over the years, I’ve seen more of it. Pictures, silent movies, when color came to the motion pictures, I was… I spent a long time watching them, because they allowed me to see the sun in real time.

“I–” Wincing, Columbus offered a weak, “I didn’t mean to make you sad or… or anything.”

Meeting his gaze, the Asian woman gave a slight shake of her head. “You didn’t make me sad, Columbus. At least, not in the way that you think. Yes, being a vampire means that I cannot function in daylight. But it also means that I am alive. If I had never met Tiras, if he had never shared his blood with me, I would have died in that hospital. I didn’t lose two hundred and twenty-seven years of sunlight. I gained two hundred and twenty-seven years of moonlight. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of seeing the world grow, of seeing society develop. I was sick, I was dying. I did not lose anything. I gained. I gained two incredible men that I love very much, along with two beautiful, amazing daughters whom I would not trade for any amount of sun.”

“But you haven’t seen them,” Shiori pointed out hesitantly. “You haven’t seen Tiras in… over two hundred years, almost as long as you haven’t seen the sun. And then you fell in love with… with my dad… with Liang, and you haven’t seen him for years either.”

Jiao gave the slightest nod. “You’re right. And I miss them both terribly. I still believe that I will see them again, that I will find them, or they will find me. But if we don’t… if I live a thousand years and never see them again, that won’t erase the reason that I love them, or the time that we did spend together. There are so many bad things in this world, and so many good things. If you spend all your time dwelling on the bad, like the years that you spend apart from someone you love, you’ll forget about the good, like the reason you miss them to begin with.”

Her golden-amber eyes remained locked on Columbus’s. “The trick is to remember that no matter what’s wrong… whether you feel lost, confused, alone… frightened… angry… betrayed, that they are your feelings. And there is nothing wrong with you for feeling that way.”

“I–” Columbus spoke that single word before his voice cracked, breaking right there as he gave a sharp shudder. His eyes closed behind those goggles, his voice a whisper that barely carried over the soft breeze. “I’m afraid.”

The admission was accompanied by a sag of his shoulders, his entire body slumping a bit. “I’m afraid. She’s dead. She’s gone. He’s dead too. They’re dead. I have protection. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I’m afraid. I don’t…” Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, along with his fists, the boy shook his head. “I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be afraid.”

He felt arms wrap around him then, recognizing his sister as she embraced him tightly. “It’s okay to be afraid, Columbus. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

His mouth opened and shut before he managed to protest, “They’re dead. They’re gone. She’s dead.”

“Oh, my boy.” Reaching past her daughter, Jiao put one gentle, soft hand against the side of his face. “The hurt and fear that someone leaves behind after they’re gone doesn’t simply disappear when they do. Bad things can last for quite awhile. But so do good things, if you let them. You want to know how to fight this, how to move on? Make new memories, better memories. Be with your family, with your friends. Do things that you enjoy.

“The pain that your demons inflicted on you doesn’t fade when they die. It fades when you live.”

Columbus couldn’t speak for another few seconds, the lump in his throat taking his voice while he simply clung to Shiori. Finally, he managed to move one arm, opening it while Shiori did the same. His own voice returned, just enough for the boy to whisper, “Thank you.”

Jiao took one step closer, letting both of her arms wrap around the two. She embraced them, brother and sister, her daughter…

And the boy she would have proudly called her son.

 

******

 

Lincoln and Tabbris after the hospital.

 

The tiny blonde girl, face still adorned by fox paint, staggered through the portal that had been opened to lead her back to the Atherby camp. Two steps through, and she was there, standing on the grass next to the lake. Standing, that was, for all of a brief second. Then her legs buckled and the girl began to collapse.

She didn’t fall far, however, before a pair of strong arms caught her. Lincoln Chambers, taking a quick knee to grab onto the girl, lifted her up smoothly while rising. “Whoa, hey there.”

Starting a bit, Tabbris belatedly realized where she was, blinking up at the man who held her in his arms. A slight tremble came to the girl, before she turned a bit to hug onto him as tightly as she could manage. “M.. Mr… Mr… I… I mean… Dad. Dad. Avalon… Avalon–”

“She’s okay,” Lincoln promised. “They’re taking care of her right now. You kept her alive, Tabbris. Brave, brave girl. You kept her alive. You saved her.”

“Columbus too,” she murmured, not relaxing her grip at all. “He’s… he’s…” She could barely speak. The exhaustion from everything she had done, even with Columbus’s help, had left her entirely too far gone. She needed to sleep. But first, she needed to know that things were okay.

“He’s okay too,” Lincoln assured the girl. “And Flick. She’ll be okay.”

“R-Rudolph won’t,” Tabbris whispered, tears suddenly filling her eyes as she shuddered. “Rudolph. Rudolph’s–”

“I know.” His own voice cracking as well, Lincoln hugged the girl tight against himself. He couldn’t say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t. Not anytime soon. A boy had been murdered by a monster, and Tabbris had seen his body. She had seen… too much. She’d seen entirely too much. Not just that night, but throughout her life. She never had a real chance to be a little kid. Even when she had been hiding inside Felicity, the girl had still needed to worry about intruders, about monsters trying to enslave or abduct her charge. And she had had no one to help her.

But she would never lack for that now. Never again. Lincoln vowed that to himself. Tabbris would never have to feel that alone again.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, holding the exhausted girl close. “Flick is safe. It’s over, my little fox-girl. It’s done. You saved Avalon. You beat them.”

Her eyes blinked up at him then, still wet from tears even as she clung desperately, both to him and to consciousness itself. “Dad,” she whispered softly. “Daddy. Please don’t go away.”

Heart aching, Lincoln shook his head. “I promise, baby girl. I promise, I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone. I’m right here. My girl. My beautiful, brave little girl.”

Tears returning, Tabbris closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t find the words. And the thought of opening her eyes now that they had closed seemed an impossibly daunting task.

So she didn’t. Eyes closed, the girl turned her head a little to rest it against her father’s chest. Just for a moment, just to catch her breath. Just to feel, for a second or two, the unconditional paternal love and acceptance that she had been so starved for through so much of her life.

It would be hours before her eyes opened again. And true to his word, Lincoln stayed with her through all of it.

 

*****

Lies and Pace

 

They were in the forest of Eden’s Garden. Pace with her fellow werewolves Valentine and the pack leader Lemuel. Facing them was the blonde girl that Doxer wanted to play with, that Felicity Chambers. Somewhere in the distance came the sound of the other girl, the one that Lemuel had turned into a werewolf. That one was currently going through her first change, and from the sound of things, it was not going well.

Pace, or Lies in that moment, had just shared her secret with the Felicity-girl, had just revealed the hilarious truth that she was both werewolf and Heretic.

Werewolf, Heretic, and Seosten Lie, but the girl didn’t need to know that part. That was an even bigger secret. Couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t let her ruin it.

Aloud, she announced, “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

Technically, she was referring to the secret about her be a werewolf. But she also meant the secret about her being a Seosten. The secret that Felicity didn’t know yet. Sometimes Lies got herself confused about what people did and didn’t know. It was all so exhausting, keeping those secrets.

See? that voice in the back of her mind, the true Pace, who still refused to just be quiet and stop talking, put in. You keep pretending you don’t know her name. You call her Present to her face. But you think of her as Felicity. She’s a person. They’re all people. Roxa’s a person. Roxa. That’s her name. That’s the name of the person you let Lemuel put through hell. Felicity. That’s this girl’s name. You know her name.

The girl, Felic–Present was babbling. She was saying something, but then Rox–the new wolfie girl was very, very rude and interrupted with a scream of agony. So whatever Present was about to say had been forgotten, as she blurted the other girl’s name and moved as though to go to her.

Well, that was just rude. Growling deep in her throat at the sheer audacity, Lies quickly put herself back in front of the other girl. Her arms snapped up, her hands found both of Present’s shoulders, and she forcefully shoved her back a step. “No!” she blurted, “Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

Lies. Lies, look. Look. Focus. Look!

In mid-rant, the words of her host penetrated, and Lies found herself slowly lowering her gaze slightly, from Present’s face to a spot a bit lower. She saw then, what she had been too distracted by her anger to see before. She saw what her host had immediately seen, even in that brief split second when they had shoved Present.

She saw the other girl. She saw the child… the child inside of Felicity Chambers.

Seosten. A Seosten child. There was a Seosten child inside of Felicity Chambers. That was why she was immune to being possessed. All the manpower, all the time, all the arguments over what Joselyn Atherby had done to render her daughter immune to possession, all the ranting from Cahethal about the problem… and the answer had been that simple.

Felicity Chambers was possessed… by a child.

Chambers was saying something else, something about them making Roxa into a werewolf as that realization dawned on her.

“Isn’t it funny?!” Lies blurted with a loud, crazed cackle of laughter. She wasn’t talking about the Roxa girl. Who cared about the Roxa girl? She knew why Chambers couldn’t be possessed. She knew another secret.

But the others didn’t. No one knew what she knew. She had to cover. So she let them think she was talking about the Roxa girl, babbling on something ridiculous about not giving the girl her toy.

She brought up the choker, even flicking a finger against it, while keeping half an eye on the Seosten child. Was she a Lie too? Was she controlling this Felicity this whole time?

No. Felicity moved without the girl moving the same way. The girl wasn’t controlling her, she was just… standing there, so to speak. She was possessing her, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. She was just there… protecting the girl from being possessed.

This was hilarious. This was very… very funny.

So distracted was she, that Lies didn’t see the attack coming. She was caught flat footed as Felicity moved suddenly, lashing out with that staff of hers while triggering a kinetic blast that sent Pace flying off to hit a tree.

She recovered instantly, of course. But still, the girl sat there, thinking.

What are you going to do? The voice, fearful, came from the real Pace once more. You know the truth. So what are you going to do with it?

We could make Manakel love us forever, Lies pointed out. Manakel would love us. Cahethal would love us. Even Charmiene would be happy. They would tell Mama that we did good. Maybe–

You don’t believe that. The voice was soft, far different from the tone that had come before. Pace had seen as much of her mind as Lies had seen of hers. But you’re right about Manakel and the others. They’d be really happy. They’d reward you. All you have to do is tell them about that girl. All you’d have to do is tell them about the girl.

Chambers had sent herself through the trees, reappearing directly behind Lies as the girl picked herself up. Before that staff she had could reach her head, Lies had already reacted. She spun, ducking as she moved before lashing out with a punch.

The girl. The child. She needed to activate the choker again so that she could see the child.

The punch did the trick. As did grabbing hold of Felicity’s bicep to keep it active. Lies yanked too hard, breaking the girl’s arm as she threw her to the ground.

She could see her again. The child, right there in plain view. She was so… innocent, so young.

But they’ll take that away, Pace reminded her. You can make yourself the Seosten hero. All you have to do is sentence that girl to whatever Manakel and the others… like your mother, would put her through. Torture. Pain. Loss. They’ll take Felicity away from her. They’ll take that girl back to Seosten space and they will get answers out of her. But you’ll win. You’ll be the hero.

So again, what are you going to do?

In answer, Lies lashed out, kicking Chambers repeatedly while calling her a bad present.

Our secret, she informed her host. No one else’s. Ours. Maybe we’ll get the girl out later. Protect her. Have a friend. We could do that. That… that might be nice. But we don’t tell anyone. We don’t… do that to her. We make this look good. But we keep the secret.

She didn’t know this girl, didn’t know anything about her or why she was there. Or how she’d gotten there, for that matter. But she did know one thing. If it was the choice of  being the Seosten hero and subjecting this girl to the same kind of things she had gone through as a child, or keeping it secret… she would keep it secret.

Because what was the point of making Manakel and the others happy and finally winning the approval that she had so desperately wanted for so long… if she couldn’t live with herself?

 

******

 

Tabbris and Gabriel Prosser

 

“Mr. Gabriel, that train is pretty big. Are you sure you can stop it?”

The question from Tabbris came as the young girl waited a little bit away from the man himself. Gabriel, meanwhile, stood in the middle of a set of the road tracks, watching the incoming freight train as it bore down on him while seeming to pick up speed with each passing second. It was no ordinary freight train, but one that had been heavily reinforced, armored by both technology and magic. The train projected a force field around itself, had heavy plating mounted to it, and there were even turrets attached to the top all along its length, one to each car.

Meanwhile, the tall, yet unassuming black man stood in its path. One hand rested lightly on the handle of his ever-present shovel, which had been pushed into the ground a bit.

In answer to the girl’s question, he gave a slight nod. “It’s quite alright, thank you. Just stay there, and no one will see you.” He had put up half a dozen protection and cloaking fields around the girl.

He could have simply send her home through a portal, of course. They had been out looking at tropical fish near an island that he had wanted to show the girl when the call came in about a train carrying prisoners and slave labor toward a Seosten transport ship had come in. He could have sent the girl home then, but she had asked to stay and watch. He would still send her away the instant anything went wrong, but for the time being, he let her stay.

The train closed on him and the first few turrets spun toward the front to take aim. The ones behind the front each rose a bit more on platforms to shoot over the others. Leaving nothing to chance, as many as possible opened fire, while the train itself picked up speed, doubling in an instant, even as the force field around the front grew even brighter and stronger.

As dozens of blasts of powerful, pulverizing energy that could have punched their way through armored tanks shot toward him, Gabriel held up his free hand. The blasts were drawn toward it, narrowing into a single dazzlingly bright beam before disappearing into the man’s palm with no more apparent effect than a flashlight.

With all that power summarily absorbed, Gabriel immediately released it once more in the form of dozens of bright blades of energy, which appeared near each turret and instantly sliced through them, leaving the guns useless.

The train itself was still bearing down. As it neared him, in the bare couple of seconds before he would have been left as a smear on the tracks, Gabriel narrowed his eyes. At a thought, two things happened. First, a pair of portals appeared directly in front of him and a bit further back, just further apart than the length of the train itself.

Second, the train’s momentum was taken away. It immediately began to slow down, passing repeatedly between the two portals as it did so. He didn’t want to instantly stop the train, to avoid injuring those on board. So, he simply gradually stole its momentum while repeatedly sending it back and forth through those two portals. From the outside, the train appeared to stay almost in one place, repeatedly running over the same path of track, while from the train’s perspective, it was still covering lots of ground.

Within a few seconds, the train was safely stopped, unable to move no matter what it drivers tried. Almost as quickly, dozens of armored soldiers appeared, dropping off of the train or scrambling up on its roof to surround the man who had stop them. Their weapons were raised and ready. Before long, fifty troops of various shapes and sizes were there.

In response to all of this, as their weapons were leveled and the troops awaited the order to attack, Gabriel spoke three simple words.

“You may surrender.“

They didn’t, of course. But he had to offer. Instead, as their leader shouted a single word, the soldiers all opened fire, or used whatever ranged power they happened to have. Whatever it took, they would destroy him. Dozens of energy blasts, fireballs, jets of ice, hyper-accelerated metal balls, contained explosions, and more collided with the man in a terrifying display of power.

Then it was over. The dust cleared, and Gabriel Prosser stood entirely unaffected. Not a single attack had managed to so much as ruffle his shirt.

“Okay,” he said then, even as the troops prepared to attack again. With that simple word, Gabriel lifted his shovel from the dirt and drove it down hard once more.

As the blade of the shovel was driven through the dirt, dozens of copies of it appeared simultaneously. They shot up out of the ground, out of thin air, or out of the side or roof of the train itself. The duplicated shovel blades instantly grew to several times their normal size while glowing with unbelievable power. Each was positioned perfectly to slice straight through one of the soldiers. No armor or protection could save them. The troops, to a man, were instantly cut in half from every direction by that single thrust.

Throughout all of this, Gabriel had only moved twice. Once to raise his hand, and the second time to lift his shovel and drive it down once more. Now the train was stopped, its mounted weaponry destroyed, and its troops eliminated.

“Okay,” the man announced simply, turning to where Tabbris was.

“Let’s see how our new friends on board are doing.”

 

******

 

Young Chayyiel

 

“And then Trierarch Bayest drew his gun, pointed at the Fomorian on the ground, and said, ‘You didn’t leave one survivor, you’ve left two.’  And then he pulled the trigger and blew the Fomorian’s whole head into splatter dust like fwoomsh!

With the end of her pronouncement, the young Chayyiel suddenly threw her arms wide open, going as far as jumping into the air to demonstrate the explosive nature of the aforementioned head explosion. She added in her best approximation of gooey noises as well right at the end, as if demonstrating the resulting gore dripping from the walls.

The first of her two-member audience who had been listening to the girl’s story gave her a broad smile. Abaddon, his enormous figure completely dwarfing the child’s as they stood on one of the Olympus’s space observation decks, raised his hand. His thumb was lightly pressed against the side of his index finger, while the other three fingers were tucked down against his palm. Millennia in the future and far away, the human equivalent of that gesture would be a thumbs up.

“That’s right, aucellus,” he announced, using his favored nickname for the child. “That’s exactly how that went down. I should know, I was the other survivor. And Bayest was one of the most badass trierarchs I ever had the pleasure of serving under.”

The other occupant of the observation deck grunted in disbelief. Cahethal, her incredibly, distractingly green eyes focused on the man, disbelievingly asked, “Are you quite certain that you’re not exaggerating even a little bit? I find it difficult to believe that one man, no matter how talented he may be, was capable of single-handedly wiping out an entire Fomorian strike force, no matter how motivated he may have been.”

Grunting, Abaddon thumped a fist against his chest. “You believe what you want, science girl. I know what I saw. Bayest is the biggest damn hero of the Seosten that I’ve ever met. And there ain’t never going to be another one like him.”

“You just said—” In mid-sentence, Cahethal visibly gave up and shook her head with a sigh. “Never mind.”

She focused on Chayyiel then. “Come, you know that you are here for more than simply listening to totally exaggerated war stories.”

Obediently, Chayyiel moved over to stand next to the woman who had, over the past year or so since the ship had launched, taken up a role as one of her teachers.

Once the girl was there, Cahethal asked, “You asked to work on your experiment here on the observation deck so you could watch the stars. Are you sure you won’t be too distracted? And did you bring your materials?”

Quickly nodding, the girl promised, “I’ll work on it. I have my things right over there.” She pointed to a couple of cloth bags sitting near the entrance. “Thank you, praeceptor. It’s so boring in the test lab.”

Grunting a little, Cahethal simply gave a single nod. “Just be sure that you do not make me regret this allowance. I will return in one hour and I hope to see some definite progress.”

As the girl fervently promised to get her work done, Cahethal and Abaddon stepped out, leaving her alone for the time being. On his way, the large man glanced back and winked at her. “Biggest badass of the Seosten, kid. You remember that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and meet him one day.”

Once they were gone, Chayyiel move to the nearest wall and used the screen there to call up an exterior view of the ship. She stood there, smiling giddily at the projected image.

“Oh Olympus,” the girl murmured while running her hands through the holographic shape, “you’re the most amazing ship in the universe.”

Bias aside, the girl wasn’t that far off. Though their crew was somewhat limited only to those who had passed through the Summus Proelium Project, it was early state of the art. The latest in technology and magic lay at their fingertips. The Olympus was truly remarkable in every conceivable way.

The main central body of the ship was made up of an orb exactly five hundred meters in diameter. This was where the living and science facilities, as well as the primary slide-drive that allowed the ship to enter what amounted to hyperspace, were. Attached to that orb in three separate places (the top and both sides) were three long structures that extended about twenty meters behind the orb, continued along the outside of the orb and ahead past it another one hundred. Each of the three structures was shaped roughly like part of a cylinder, curved inward so that they lay almost flat against the surface of the orb itself. They were wide enough that with one on top and the two equidistant apart on the bottom left and bottom right of the orb, each nearly touched one of the others. The far end of each of these half-cylinder structures narrowed into sharp points, forming a jagged end.

At an order from the ship’s captain, each of those three (or fewer if needed) could separate from the main orb. As it did so, that half-cylinder would extend its sides, opening wing-like structures so that it could function as a separate combat-capable ship. When all four of its pieces were locked in place, the Olympus was a terrifyingly powerful vessel for its size, precisely because it was essentially three gunships mounted against a very well shielded central core. It could fight like that, as one, or separate itself into the three distinct combat ships and one command orb that could stay to direct the battle, or flee with all of their intact leadership and resources if need be. The separate, incredibly heavily armed combat ships had their own slide-drives just in case, but they were only rated for a much slower jump, used for emergencies. The vast majority of their power and available space was given to shields and weapons. There was no doubt about their intended purpose.

As the girl stood there admiring the hologram, the nearby door slid open, admitting Amitiel to the observation room. “Hey, kid,” he started with a wave. “Thought you might like some company.“

Immediately smiling, Chayyiel nodded. “Hi, Uncle Amitiel.”  She paused, turning to look both ways before taking a bit of metal from her pocket. Her thumb pressed against it and she murmured a spell that she had picked up from a few of the adults. After a second of that, she nodded. “It’s okay, nobody’s watching.”

With that established, she then asked, “Did you think about what we were talking about? The bit about you having your own name, I mean.”

Shaking his head, the being who had once been known as a Lie before taking the body of the true Amitiel replied, “It might’ve been over a year, but I’m still getting accustomed to answering to his name. Besides, what’s the point of having a name that only you or I know about?”

Shrugging, Chayyiel answered, “Other people might know someday. You can trust Sariel and Lucifer, you know.”

Rather than directly respond to that, Amitiel asked, “How are you doing with them still being gone on that mission? You alright?”

Looking back that way, Chayyiel hesitated, biting her lip before honestly answering, “I miss them. I know we have to maintain radio silence and everything, but we don’t even know if they’re okay.”

“Don’t you worry,” Amitiel assured her. “You know how good those two are. Kushiel may have pushed for them to go that first time just to get rid of them, but they showed her, didn’t they?”

The girl swallowed at that memory before giving a short nod. “Why does Kushiel hate them so much?”

The question made him sigh, hanging his head before shaking it. “Why does Kushiel do anything? She pretty much hates everyone she can’t control, and you know how Lucifer is about people trying to control him or his partner.”

Frowning, Chayyiel folded her arms across her chest while her brow knitted. “Kushiel isn’t very nice. But Uncle Puriel is… usually. Except when he listens to her.” She paused briefly before amending, “Okay, sometimes he’s nice. But she’s never nice. So how come he likes her so much?”

Amitiel opened his mouth, before pausing to shake his head. “You know what kid, I think you just stumbled across one of the great mysteries of the universe. I mean, sure, she’s pretty and all, but…” He paused again, then shrugged helplessly. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”

Changing the subject then, the man asked, “So what kind of project are you doing for the old microscope?”

Giggling despite herself, Chayyiel chastised, “You shouldn’t call her that. Just because she’s short and has special eyes…”

“Still makes you laugh though,” Amitiel pointed out with a wink. “So about this project, you wanna show me?”

Brightening, the girl asked, “Do you want to help me with it? The stuff is right there.” She pointed to the bags next to him.

Amitiel glanced down before grabbing the bags to walk that way. “Sure, why not. Let’s see what we’re working with.

“And while we work, you can tell me what outrageous story Abaddon’s filled your head with this week.”

******

 

Aylen Tamaya

 

Alone in the room that she shared with Koren Fellows, Aylen Tamaya stood at the window, gazing down at the grassy field where her fellow students walked, sat, or even ran. They studied and worked there, enjoying the always-beautiful afternoon on the magical island.

The Native American girl’s eyes found their way to one group in particular. Sitting there on the grass, engrossed in another of their deeply private conversations, were Columbus Porter, Sean Gerardo, Felicity Chambers, Douglas Frey, and Scout Mason. Avalon wasn’t there, because she had been hurt, taken by monsters and terribly hurt in some way before being rescued by her team, and by Gaia. She was recovering now, apparently, off in some secret place with people the Crossroads headmistress trusted.

Aylen hoped that the girl was okay. Avalon had… had helped her when she really needed it. Without her, Aylen’s… secret would have gotten out. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it. She owed her life to the other girl, and so much more. If there was anything she could have done to help Avalon, she would have, without a second thought.

But the others, the rest of Avalon’s team, didn’t trust her. And she didn’t blame them. Why wouldn’t they keep secrets? After all, she was keeping a very big one. One that she had even convinced Avalon herself to keep for her. A secret from everyone, except for Avalon, now.

Whatever problems Avalon’s team was going through, Aylen wished that she could help. But that would mean revealing herself, revealing the truth about what she was. And that was… that was too much. She wanted to help, but exposing herself like that, revealing herself was… she couldn’t do that. Not yet. No matter what Avalon had said about how they could be trusted.

She’d promised to think about it, and she would, she had, quite a lot. More than once, Aylen had stood outside either Felicity or Scout’s door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and tried to work up the courage to knock. She wanted, so badly, to tell them everything.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Not only from a lack of trust, or an overabundance of fear. But also because whatever they were going through, it would be so much worse if they had to deal with her problems too. And that wasn’t fair to them. Felicity and the others had far too much to deal with as it was without Aylen piling onto the secrets they were keeping.

With a sigh, the girl gave the group one last look before turning away from the window. She walked from there to the wall, where a mirror had been mounted. Standing there, she faced the mirror and examined herself, seeing what others saw when they looked at her.

Dark hair that fell to her shoulders. Dusky skin. High cheekbones. Dark eyes. As she examined herself from each angle, Sovereign, her cyberform hawk, made a noise from where was perched on his wooden stand. The nest that he slept in was on top of Aylen’s dresser nearby.

“I know, Sovereign,” the girl assured her partner. “We’ll leave soon, I promise. I just have to see.”

From her pocket, she withdrew a small comb. The comb had been a gift. Running a thumb over the runes etched in it, the girl slowly touched it to the side of her face, and whispered the activation spell.

In an instant, she changed. And Aylen saw her true form. Her skin was still dark, testament to her true Native American roots. Or at least, those of her mother. Or at least… one of her mothers. What the comb revealed was the genetic contributions of her other mother.

Her first mother’s contribution to the child made possible by the being known as Grandfather was her Native American appearance. Sonoma had also passed along her werecrow gifts. Aylen had kept them secret ever since she had come to this school, though she had gifted herself a few private flights with Sovereign whenever she needed to clear her head.

But as the magical comb revealed her true self, Aylen saw the parts of her that she had inherited from her other mother.

Eyes that were a deep azure blue.

Hair that was much the same. Blue. The blue of the cloudless sky.

The blue of the Reapers. Or a half-reaper, like her second mother, Bastet.  

Bastet and Sonoma, her mothers. And with any luck at all, Aylen would soon be able to save her grandfather.

No, not that one. Her other grandfather. Bastet’s father.

What Crossroads called the Heretical Edge.

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Day After Day 39-02

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So Larees was with me as I walked across that cobblestone path, making my way with the Seosten woman around all the beautiful statues and fountains before reaching the building itself. Up close it was even more intimidating. The entire width of the front of the building was taken up by a wide flight of about twenty stairs to reach the midway point. There was a sort-of landing there with more gardens to look through that seemed to stretch all the way around the building before another twenty steps continued up, narrowing the whole way before reaching the enormous, fifteen-foot high double doors. Those were open already, while a couple Heretics stood on either side of them to let people in.

I didn’t recognize either of the doormen, which wasn’t exactly surprising. They each held enormous weapons. One was a sword that looked bigger than my entire body. Correction, it looked bigger than my dad’s entire body. The guy who held it was almost seven feet tall, and was holding the blade against the ground with his hand resting on the hilt. He gave me a brief nod as we approached, exchanging a brief look with his partner (who was only a few inches shorter than him and held an equally large axe) before turning his attention back to us. “Names, please.”

“Um, Felicity Chambers,” I replied before nodding toward the woman next to me. “This is Lara Rheese.”

“Guest of Gaia Sinclaire,” she clarified after taking a slow, deliberate drink from her flask.

The two men actually seemed to react more to my name than Larees’s. They barely acknowledged her at all. But in my case, they visibly rocked backward somewhat, giving me a much more thorough inspection before the bigger guy cleared his throat. “You can both go in.”

Once we had passed through the doors and made our way into what turned out to be a circular lobby area with twin staircases leading up either side to a landing and about a dozen doors scattered around both levels, Larees glanced to me. She produced something that I had to believe was a privacy spell of some kind before speaking. “Is it me, or were you a bigger deal to those guys than some woman they’ve never heard of that’s only here on their school headmistress’s say-so?”

“Yeah,” I muttered after glancing around at the small pockets of quietly murmuring people spread throughout the room, “I’m starting to wonder just how many people kept their memories of my mother. Or if I just have that much of a reputation already. It could be about my mom, or it could just be my own stuff.” Belatedly, I added, “And I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.”

Taking another swig, Larees offered me the flask. “If it makes you feel better, I’m pretty sure those big guys were intimidated by you. So I’d say whatever it is, you’re getting some kind of reputation.”

“Uh.” Pausing, I shook my head while waving the flask off. “No thanks. I’m not exactly a big drinker. And I have no idea what something that could affect a Seosten would do to to a human. Though the whole regeneration thing would probably–no, thanks. If nothing else, now’s just probably not the best time for experimenting.”

As Larees shrugged before taking a sip for herself, the others approached from the other side of the room where they had been waiting. Sean was first, and I had a second to appreciate how handsome he was with his hair slicked back. Like the rest of us, he was wearing his school uniform, while Vulcan, trotting alongside him, had a neat little bowtie.

“Hey, Flick,” Sean started before seeing exactly who was with me. “Who’s your–holy shit!” The last bit came out in a burst even as the boy’s own hand snapped up too late to cover his mouth. He stared, letting the others catch up before hissing, “Uhh, you’re–but you’re a–what–”

“He wants to know what you’re doing here.” That was Columbus, translating flatly while staying well away from Larees. His tone wasn’t exactly openly suspicious or anything, but it was clear that he had… let’s call it mixed feelings about the woman’s presence.

Quickly, I explained, “She’s here to speak to Doug’s grandfather Sulan. Sariel was going to come, but she doesn’t want Vanessa and Tristan’s mother returning to overshadow Rudolph’s funeral. So Larees came as Gaia’s guest.”

“Natural Heretic,” Scout quietly guessed after looking the woman up and down briefly.

“That’s the story,” Larees confirmed. “So don’t blow my cover or anything, okay? If could get pretty awkward if I have to fight my way out of here in the middle of a funeral. Oh, and uhh…” Belatedly, she looked toward Doug. “I heard you were close to him. So, I’m sorry for your loss.” Her tone had changed by that point, turning sincere as she offered her condolences. “And I want you to know that I didn’t come to make light of his death. I’ve seen too fucking much of it as it is. But I did want to look around and see what we’re dealing with, and beyond meeting with this Sulan guy, this was a… a decent way to see a lot of Heretics in one place.”

“It’s okay,” Doug informed her. “Most of these people didn’t really know Rudolph at all anyway, so what’s one more person? You–” He stopped, visibly flinching. “That sounded worse than I meant. I just–”

“Don’t worry about it.” Larees insisted. “You don’t have to explain anything. But I do want you to know that if you want me to leave and just meet Sulan somewhere else, you just say the word. This, this right here? It’s about your friend, about his life. And I don’t plan on being the one who fucks that up.”

There was a brief pause then before Doug shook his head. “Like I said, there’s plenty of people here who didn’t know Rudolph. Besides, if letting you get a look at the people around here, and meeting with Grandpa Sulan helps… well, Rudolph would’ve wanted it that way. He would have wanted his funeral to mean something, he’d want it to be worth something more than… this. Not just a bunch of people standing around making speeches about him when they never–”

He looked away then, choking up a little while reflexively reaching up toward his head. Only there was no hat there, so he just sort of awkwardly rubbed his hair.

I didn’t blame Doug for his reaction to all of this. The Heretics were mostly using Rudolph as a sort of… not quite a prop, but they were essentially saying that he was the last death from the infiltrators. There had been funerals for those who had died in that ‘final’ assault all week long, with Rudolph being the final and apparently grandest one. They were making a big deal out of it not because of who Rudolph was or anything he had done, but as ‘the final victim’ of the infiltrators that they believed they had destroyed. In a way, it was almost as much a celebration as it was a funeral.

So yeah, I really didn’t blame Doug one bit for his reaction. In fact, I was kind of surprised that he hadn’t hit anyone yet.

Professor Dare approached then, crossing the circular lobby to join us. If she was the least bit surprised by Larees’s presence, which I doubted to begin with, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad you all made it through,” she started softly before stepping back to gesture with an arm. “Come, I’ll show you where to sit. Douglas, your grandfather would like you to sit with him, but he said if you’d rather stay with your teammates until after–”

“It’s okay,” Doug replied simply. “I want to see him too. And–” He gave Larees a brief glance. “And I guess we should make introductions anyway.”

Dare nodded before leading us across the room. “We’ll take the others to their seats, then I’ll show you where Sulan’s box is.”

Box? I had a moment to wonder about that just before we went through one of the doors on the lower level. What we came into didn’t look like the meeting room part of a church. It looked more like… like the theater or an opera hall. There was a stage far below, with rows upon rows of comfortable-looking seats rising up toward the back where we were. Above, I could see the privacy booths or box seats or whatever they were that Dare had been referring to. There were a dozen of them, small balcony areas where important people could sit away from the crowd.

Jeez, what was this place being used for when there wasn’t a funeral to do? Was this an actual theater? Were there Heretic… performers? That made sense, but I was still a bit surprised. And it reminded me that there was still an awful lot about Crossroads as a society that I didn’t know.

Showing the rest of us to seats about halfway down, near the right-hand railing, Professor Dare asked, “Do you guys need anything else right now? It should be starting in about ten minutes.”

We shook our heads, and she went with Doug and Larees to show them to the balcony room where Sulan apparently was. I kind of wished that I was there for that conversation, but I supposed I’d just have to wait and hear about it later.

Which left me sitting there with Scout to my left, Columbus to my right, and Sean on the other side of him. Vulcan was sitting at attention on the floor right next to Sean, between his seat and the wall. We were only alone in that area for a minute or two, before Marina joined us, sitting beside Scout. A moment later, Shiori and Koren showed up with their team, escorted by their mentor, Andrew Bruhn. Both my niece and my girlfriend gave me brief looks before I nodded to show that I was alright.

Aylen was there too, her presence reminding me of that weird conversation we’d had before everything happened at the hospital. I still didn’t know what happened between her and Avalon. I was really going to have to ask about that eventually.

Leaning forward to see past Scout, I looked to Marina while whispering, “Do you know where Deveron is?”

Her head shook a little. “He said he was still helping Mr. Rendell. Do you… do you want me to text him and let him know you need him?”

She sounded a little hurt, and I knew why. Marina had to have figured out that we trusted Deveron more than her, that he knew more than she did. And she probably thought that it had something to do with what happened to the team that she was mentoring. There was no way she could understand that it wasn’t her fault, that no one blamed her for what had absolutely not been her fault. Unfortunately, there was no way I could explain that, no way I could make her understand without telling her too much. I didn’t know the girl enough to make that leap. I didn’t know anything about her or how she would react.

Still, seeing that look, I wanted to trust her. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. It was too much. But I didn’t have to add to it, so I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. He’ll get here when he gets here. I was just wondering.”

Sitting back, I reached into my pocket to touch my cell phone. My thumb found the power button, which I pressed quickly three times. As soon as I did that, the phone would send an alert to the phone that Gaia had given Tabbris. In normal cases, that would tell my partner that I suddenly needed her for something. But in this case, she was expecting it.

I felt her presence a moment later. As usual, it made me feel more complete, more of myself, just to have her there. Hey, partner.

We conversed for a minute while, outwardly, I simply sat there watching people file into their seats. I told her about Elizabet and Jophiel approaching me, and she was just as upset as I had been. She thought, just like I did, that the two of them could have saved Rudolph if they had stepped in instead of playing the middle ground.

I talked a little with the others as well, whispering back and forth until the main lights dimmed, and the lights on the stage came up. There were a bunch of people up there. I saw the entire Committee, a bunch of people that were either Parsons family members or their close friends, and other important figures.

And then the memorial began. There were talks from several people, speeches or eulogies or whatever one would call them. Some came from the people who were Rudolph’s family members. Doctor Therasis spoke for awhile, and my feeling of guilt just kept getting worse every time I thought of how confused and lost the man had to be feeling. He didn’t know what happened. He didn’t know the truth, why his grandson had really died. He knew… about as close as we could actually tell him, but that wasn’t enough.

He missed Rudolph. He missed his grandson. And the fact that we couldn’t tell him the whole truth about why the boy was dead just made me want to scream right there in the middle of the funeral. Seeing his sad eyes, seeing his grief, it… it was awful. It was all awful. Just sitting there, thinking about how much Rudolph’s family would miss him, it… it was a kind of pain that I couldn’t describe.

Then there were the people who clearly didn’t know anything about Rudolph. The political-type speeches that were all focused on how we should feel triumphant, because the threat against our society had been defeated, about how the intruders had failed just like every threat against Crossroads would fail. Those talks had nothing to do with Rudolph himself, and I couldn’t decide if that offended me more, or if it was the fact that they were wrong. The threat was still out there, and the more they talked about how it was over, the more I wanted to scream that they were idiots, because the threat was all around us, the threat was built into Crossroads at its core.

But that wouldn’t have gone over very well, so I just sat in silence and watched.

Then it was Gaia’s turn. The headmistress spoke toward the very end of the memorial. She moved to the front of the stage, standing there with her hands clasped behind her back. No microphone because she didn’t need it. Her words would reach everyone, no matter how quietly she spoke.

At first, the woman said nothing. She simply waited, silence slowly settling upon the entire room until you could have heard a pin drop. And then she started.

“Rudolph Parsons.”

Gaia paused, gaze moving slowly over the entire audience. It felt as though she made eye contact with every single person in the room. Then she said it again, loudly and clearly.

“Rudolph Parsons. I have come here to speak not of his death, but of his immortality.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and the woman allowed their reactions to continue for a few seconds before saying his name once more.

“Rudolph Parsons. I would like you all to remember the name. Because time and again, someone will ask you, or you will ask yourselves, why we devote our lives, often quite literally, to fighting monsters. And when that happens, remember the name of Rudolph Parsons. He died. But before he did that, he chose to stand by his classmates, his friends. He chose to stay with them, despite all the risks, because it was the right thing to do.

“He stayed. And he fought. And he died. But in so doing, Rudolph showed the kind of bravery and humanity that many of us should rightly stand in awe of. He faced a threat beyond what any student should ever be put before. But Rudolph Parsons did not run. He did not hide. It’s quite easy to be brave when you hold the kind of power and experience that many of us do. But it’s quite another thing to be brave when the thing that you are facing is exponentially stronger than you could ever truly imagine.

“Think for a moment. Think of being that boy. Be Rudolph Parsons. You are a child before a malevolent mountain. And you choose to stand against that mountain. You choose to climb it. And maybe you fail. Maybe you fall. But in so doing, you help others. You push others up that mountain. They climb it. They reach the top and triumph because you stayed, because you helped. You gave your life because it was the right thing to do. Could you do that? Could you stand against such a threat and surrender your life purely to help others?”

Gaia let the question stand for a moment, allowing the silence to make her point more clearly than any words could, before lifting her chin. “We teach our youth to fight. We turn children into soldiers because if we did not, those who come from the shadows to destroy us would find only children. But it would do us well to remember that they are children. And yet they choose to stand, often against threats far greater than they. They choose to stand, as Rudolph did.

“Rudolph Parsons was a child. And yet, he was brave. He was loyal. He was kind. Our world is worse for having lost him. But perhaps in so losing, it could also gain. If we remember him. If we strive to emulate his bravery and kindness, if we keep him alive in our deeds and our hearts… perhaps a part of him will live on.

“When you see someone suffering, when you see a threat, or a problem, or a danger and you wonder if it is your place to stop it, let Rudolph Parsons live on. When you see someone who needs help, even if they mean nothing to you, let him live on. When you see one who has fallen, friend or stranger, let him live on. Let him live through your actions, through the way you treat those around you. Let him live through your kindness and your bravery. Let him live on, and tell those who would ask why we devote our lives to slaying monsters that it is because Rudolph Parsons stood when he could have run. His immortality will be in your words, in your actions, in your hearts and in your choices. He will live forever if we remember him. Choose to remember him. Choose to remember Rudolph Parsons.

“Thank you all. And thank you, Rudolph. I, for one, will remember you.”

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Day After Day 39-01

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Boy, was actually attending classes again after everything that had happened ever an incredibly strange and surreal experience.

Even now, a couple days after I had started going back to classes, it still felt strange. Partly because Avalon still wasn’t there (she was still recovering back at the Atherby camp), partly because people hadn’t stopped staring at me when they thought I didn’t notice (and sometimes even when I made it patently clear that I did notice), and partly… well, lots of other things. Doing something as relatively normal as just going to class felt… wrong, somehow. It felt too mundane, even at Crossroads. Being able to sit and just read or eat without being in constant danger was weird.

Okay, there were still Seosten around (we didn’t know how they were going to react to losing both Avalon and Tangle), Fossor and Ammon were still a problem, Jophiel and Elisabet had yet to make their presence known again, Sands and the others were still out in space, and I had God only knew how many other problems to deal with. So, you know, I wasn’t quite sleeping like a baby. But still, the lack of an immediate threat had been kind of a welcome (if very strange-feeling) relief for the past couple of days.

It was Friday, April 27th. Everything that had happened in the hospital had been the very early morning of Tuesday the 24th. I’d spent basically all day at the camp. Then for Wednesday and Thursday I had come back to school. Which… again, had been very weird. Especially that first day. Lots of people wanted to ask me questions about everything that had happened, and I had to tell them the sanitized version that the Committee had decided was the truth.

Keeping track of who knew what about all this stuff was getting to be such a pain in the ass.

I’d been going back to the Atherby camp every night, of course. As far as the Committee and everyone else who didn’t know the truth was concerned, Gaia was keeping Avalon in a safe place with people she trusted. And, well, given what happened with their hospital, the Crossroads people weren’t in the best shape to argue about it, no matter what they might have suspected.

It was fun, honestly. Well, as much fun as your girlfriend being bedridden because a ten-thousand year old psychopath bodysnatcher tried to kill her could be, of course. I went back at night and spent time with the Seosten kids (who were seriously learning things really fast) as well as Avalon. The latter was obviously all but bouncing off the walls from being stuck in bed (actually, she might’ve liked to bounce off the walls, since it would be a physical activity), but both Gaia and I had made her promise to stay put and rest. And really, the fact that she hadn’t put up more of a fight about it just proved how much she needed that rest. Her color was getting better, and hopefully she’d only need to stay there for another few days longer.

Technically she should stay for another week just to get back to full strength, but I really didn’t think we should push our luck on that front. As soon as she felt relatively healthy, Avalon would be back on her feet, and back at school with the rest of us. Which, obviously, would be the cue for the next horribly dangerous thing to pop up. Because that was how this year worked.

But hey, at least these past few days had been nice. I’d also spent time with my father and with Tabbris, who was staying with both Dad and her mother for the time being. It was good for her to be out on her own (and the other Seosten kids definitely loved her), but… well, I definitely still missed having my partner so close. Still, I didn’t say anything. She deserved this break.

At the moment, I was sitting in Introduction to Heretical Magic. Which, honestly, had become a lot easier after all the time I’d spent learning from Tabbris, Larissa, Haiden, and even Athena. Some of my classes I was horrifically behind on, but things like magic and combat? Those I was right on top of. And, thankfully, even with spending time at the camp, I still had hours in the day to work on catching up on the others. Which I didn’t even mind. Honestly, the fact that I had time to sit and do homework or just study was kind of amazing by that point. I was enjoying it.

“Okay then, Miss Chambers.” Professor Carfried was standing next to me, tapping the head of his walking stick lightly against the side of my desk. “Let’s see, can you tell us… when drawing the paper-reconstruction spell, how many swirls are there on the end of the second symbol?”

Hesitating to think for a second, I ended up shaking my head. “The swirls are on the third symbol, not the second one. And it depends. If the paper was just torn up, you can use two. But if it was actually burned or destroyed more thoroughly like that, you have to use four. Oh, and for that second kind, you need the little o with the wing-things on either side at the very end.”

“Very good,” Carfried complimented, patting my shoulder before moving past my desk to ask another question, this time addressed toward Shiori’s teammate, Stephen Kinder.

As the other boy hesitantly answered, I felt a light kick against the back of my seat. Knowing who it was, I waited until Carfried moved further away before glancing back over my shoulder.

Tristan was there, at the next desk back. He mouthed, ‘we have to tell you something’ before nodding toward his sister at the next desk over. Vanessa, meanwhile, gave me a quick nod of agreement while pensively chewing on the end of her pencil. It looked like whatever they wanted to talk about was important. Which, it kind of had to be, since Vanessa wasn’t objecting to Tristan telling me that we had to talk instead of paying attention to the teacher.

The two of them had been visiting the camp too, and the kids loved them about as much as they loved Tabbris. Especially Tristan. They didn’t seem to care at all that the two weren’t full Seosten. Actually, they didn’t care about the Seosten or not-Seosten thing at all. They just wanted people to play with them. And take them into the lake. They loved the lake.

Wondering what they wanted to talk about, and praying it was nothing too bad, I nodded before turning my attention back to Professor Carfried.

Today was Rudolph’s funeral. They’d had to wait a few days to allow time for his family to make it, since a few of them had been off on various missions. But they’d made it back, so the funeral would be held that evening. It was open for anyone who wanted to attend, including students. I would be there, of course. We were all going. That was something we wouldn’t miss.

So today, of all days, I really hoped that whatever Vanessa and Tristan had to tell me wasn’t that bad. And honestly, it probably wasn’t. After all, if it was an emergency, they would’ve found a way to let me know instead of just making sure I knew to meet them after class.

But whatever it was, as long as nobody had died, I could handle it.

*****

“Isaac’s dead.”

Those were the first words out of Vanessa’s mouth as soon as we made sure we were alone and had a privacy spell up. And my face must have shown just how blunt that news had been, because the girl immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, I–um, Tristan said I could tell you, but he’s really bad at keeping that kind of promise. Plus, I’ve been rehearsing how to tell you ever since I got the news from my dad this morning and everything seemed wrong so I had this whole thing about how I should present it. But then I saw you right there so it just kind of–I didn’t mean to-oops.”

“Wait, wait.” My head was shaking quickly. “Just wait. What–back up, what the hell do you mean, Isaac’s dead? What–huh?”

Tristan looked to his sister as if looking for permission to take over the explanation. When she nodded, he turned back to me. “She checked in on Dad this morning, right after breakfast. They made it back to the Aelaestiam base and… well, it turned out Chayyiel visited.”

Okay, that made my reaction even worse. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Chayyiel?! What–how was–but–” Covering my own mouth, I just stared at both of them with wide eyes.

“Yup,” Tristan confirmed. “That’s basically everyone else’s reaction too. That and lots of cursing. But she didn’t… as far as they can tell, she didn’t do anything else. She just showed up and killed Isaac. She even apologized to the guards for knocking them out, and left a message for Athena about how she wouldn’t tell anyone about her base, but that if they move, she’ll understand.”

“But I–” Stopping then, I worked my mouth silently, unable to find the right words. My mind was racing, a million different thoughts colliding around against each other at once. Finally, I settled on the only thing I could possibly think of to say. “Are they sure? Are they–you know, absolutely sure it wasn’t a trick? Maybe she took him with her and left a fake body, or… or…” Helplessly, I gestured while making a confused sound that sounded almost like a puppy whining.

“They’re sure,” Vanessa responded quietly while giving a quick nod. “Dad said they went through every test they could possibly do. Athena’s positive that it was him. Chayyiel killed him.”

The words made me slump backward a bit, rocking on my heels as I stared back and forth between the twins. “Oh. Oh man. Oh. I… I feel like I… I feel like I should be happy about that. I mean, I am glad that he–I mean… oh. That’s a weird feeling. I was expecting–I mean I was kind of expecting there to be more to that. I thought we’d see him again and…” My head shook. “I’m glad he’s dead. God. After everything he did, he deserved it. It’s just that it feels a little… empty now. I didn’t see it, I didn’t–” Cutting myself off, I just sighed. “Good riddance. I’m glad he’s dead. Even if it does feel a little weird that way. I really thought we’d see him again. But you know what? I think I’m glad we didn’t. He didn’t deserve some epic rematch or anything. Fuck him.”

It was probably weird, working my way through all those feelings. But they were there, and I just sort of said them out loud. I was confused by my own reaction to the news, and worked my way through it. Isaac was dead. Good. Chayyiel going all that way to kill him was… well, confusing.

Wait, was this how so many other people had felt upon finding out that Manakel was dead? Was this how Avalon had felt about it when she heard the news? This was what it felt like to have some horrible bastard killed far away from you like that? I… huh.

Yeah, a lot of that was confusing. But at least he was gone. No one had to worry about that psychotic piece of shit anymore. And I understood a little bit about what the others probably felt as far as Manakel went.

“You okay there, Flick?” Tristan asked, sounding worried as he watched me go through all those reactions.

“Okay?” I echoed, then gave him a little smile. “I’m better than okay. Isaac’s dead. We don’t have to worry about him anymore. I don’t know why Chayyiel did that, but you know… at this point I don’t really care that much. I’d send her a thank you note and chocolates or something if I knew how to get them to her. It’s–yeah, it’s a good thing. I guess I just…”

Then I knew. My smile dropped and I sighed. “… I guess I just wish the news hadn’t come today. Not today. This is supposed to be Rudolph’s day. Rudolph’s funeral. Tonight is supposed to be about him, and Isaac’s going to make it about himself even in death.”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitantly offered, “That’s not necessarily completely a bad thing.” When Tristan and I both looked to her, she quickly amended, “I mean, if we let Rudolph’s funeral be all about Isaac, that would definitely be a bad thing. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about… yes, Rudolph is… is gone, but Isaac still didn’t get away with his… with his evil. Isaac and Manakel both lost. They lost. They’re gone. Rudolph… he should still be alive. But he didn’t die for nothing. He helped. Chayyiel killing Isaac after Manakel’s death, it has to be related, right? The timing is too convenient. Rudolph died, and that sucks. I mean…” She took in a deep breath before letting it out as she repeated even more emphatically. “It sucks. And it’s a waste. But he didn’t die for nothing. Manakel’s dead. And because Manakel’s dead, so is Isaac.”

We were all quiet for a few seconds after that before I gave a little nod. “I’d still like to have Rudolph back. I didn’t know him that well, but he taught me how to use my bow. He taught me and he was…” My eyes closed, and I felt tears well up before forcing them back. “He was a good guy. Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t for nothing. But it was still too God damn expensive.”

******

In the end, we decided to wait and tell the others about Isaac’s death later. It wasn’t an emergency or anything, and we didn’t want to take the focus off of Rudolph during the boy’s own funeral. We’d tell everyone about it afterward, once Rudolph had his… well, his last moment.

The funeral itself was taking place inside some special Crossroads building that Rudolph’s parents had picked out. Apparently there were several like it. The place wasn’t exactly a church so much as it was a… an early training center, from what I had been told. It had been one of the earliest training buildings for Crossroads, before the actual school had been built on the island. Once it was obsolete, the place had been converted into a memorial building of sorts, where Heretics could go to learn about their ancestors, even those who had lived before Crossroads was a thing. And the place was also home to other presentations, including, as in this case, funerals.

We went through the Pathmaker building to get to it, coming out in a grand open field. The sight, even without the building itself, was beautiful. We were in the middle of a flowery meadow. The grass itself was the greenest I had ever seen, with flowers of every possible coloration. To one side lay the edge of a steep cliff, with beautiful blue ocean lying far below. To the other side, far off in the distance, was a forest that looked as enchanting as the ones in storybooks. A series of cobblestone paths led through the field and around various benches and fountains with statues of what looked like legendary Heretics scattered throughout.

And straight ahead, far off at the end of each of those stone paths as they eventually came together, was the building itself. It seemed to be made of beautifully carved white marble. The place stood four stories high, with a slanted roof that looked like solid gold. It started lower on the left-hand side before extending high above the rest of the building on the right-hand side. On that higher right-hand side, directly below where the roof stuck out, there was a glass observation deck of some kind. It was all glass (or whatever transparent material it actually was), even the floor, so that people there could look straight down at the ground four stories below.

There were even what looked like gold and silver gargoyles dotted around the edges of the roof. They were similar enough to the statues in front of the dorm buildings back at Crossroads that I wondered if they were also capable of coming to life and moving on their own. Probably, if this had been one of the early training buildings.

“Wow,” I murmured, staring around at all of that before repeating, “Wow.”

Beside me, Sean, Scout, Doug, and Columbus stopped. Deveron was helping Wyatt with something, Shiori and Koren would be coming with their own team, and Avalon still hadn’t been cleared to leave the camp just yet. Which she was upset about, not being able to come to the funeral. But the others had been adamant that she not push herself. I’d promised to stop by later so we could honor Rudolph our own way.

“Yeah,” Douglas agreed softly, staring at the building as well. “The cornerstone of that building is supposed to be the exact spot where the original Crossroads people agreed to work together, where Bosch told them about his device and explained what it could do. It–” He fell silent briefly before making a face as his voice turned dark. “It’s bullshit.”

“Not all of it,” I assured him. “Most of them probably really thought they were coming together to do good. The Seosten corrupted things, but they didn’t control everyone. They never have.”

Before I could say anything else, or any of the others could respond, we were joined by Marina Dupont, the pale, tall girl who was sharing mentorship duties of us with Deveron.

I was pretty sure she had no idea about anything that was going on. Except that almost the entirety of the team she was responsible for was either missing or dead by that point. As far as she knew, Rudolph and Paul were dead, and Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz were missing. Not to mention Roxa basically disappearing. The only one left of her original charges was Doug. Which had clearly taken a toll on the girl, given the dark circles under her eyes.

I really hoped that someone would eventually be able to explain the truth about what happened to her, and convince the girl that it wasn’t her fault.

“Okay, guys,” Marina started quietly while glancing around. “Let’s head inside.”

“If it is not too much of an imposition,” a voice nearby started, “I’d like to have a moment with Miss Chambers.”

Elisabet. She was there, standing inside my item-detection range despite the fact that I’d felt nothing. Clearly she could hide from that sense. And probably just about every other possible detection ability as well.

“O-oh,” Marina gasped a little. “Counselor, I didn’t– Um.” She gave a brief, awkward bow, as if she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Chambers?”

“Just for a minute, Miss Dupont,” Elisabet assured her. “I’ll send her right along, you have my word.”

The others looked to me, and I nodded for them to go ahead, murmuring that I’d meet them inside. Once they were gone, I looked back to Elisabet.

“I can’t even tell you how much now is not the time to demand something from me,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you have to try this herenow?”

Elisabet, or maybe it was Jophiel, raised a hand. “We do not come to ask or demand anything of you, Felicity Chambers,” she/they informed me. “You are absolutely correct, now is the wrong place and time for such a thing. This is neutral ground in many respects. Crossroads even allows those from Eden’s Garden to come and pay their respects to the fallen. We would not demand things of you here, even on a day other than this. But most especially on this day, we are not that… crude.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I asked, “Then what did you want from me?”

“We wished only to tell you that we are sorry for your loss,” they replied quietly. “We bore no ill will toward Rudolph Parsons. His death is a tragedy.”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and one you could have stopped at any point just by being more open about things. You could have stopped Manakel any time you wanted to.”

Before they could respond to that, Elisabet’s eyes moved up and past me, just as I felt someone enter the range of my sense. There was an actual look of surprise on the woman’s face before it was masked, and I turned to see what they were reacting to.

Larees. Dear fucking God, Larees was standing there. She was just… there, like it was perfectly normal.

“You look surprised to see me, Chambers,” the woman started with a slight smirk. “Believe me, Avalon’s still safe.”

“I…” Elisabet paused, looking to me and then to Larees. “You two know each other? I’m afraid I haven’t had the… honor.”

“Lara,” Larees informed her. “Lara Rheese. I’m a friend of Gaia Sinclaire, and one of the people looking over Avalon while she… recovers. That’s probably why Chambers there looks like that. She’s afraid I’m ditching out on my job.” To me, she added, “Avalon’s still in good hands, I promise.”

Elisabet had recovered by then, at least mostly. “You are… not of Crossroads.”

Larees laughed in her face. “No. I wouldn’t join this place in a million years. Like I said, I’m a friend of Gaia’s, from way back. A, ahh, Natural Heretic, not one of your… Light-created ones.”

A Natural Heretic. Larees was claiming to be a Natural Heretic. Of course. The Heretic Sense didn’t work on Seosten, so they could just claim to be a Natural Heretic. It wasn’t as though any Seosten who knew the truth could risk exposing them. Hell, Jophiel had gone through a lot to make the Committee believe the Seosten threat was over. She couldn’t turn around and reveal Larees without screwing all that up.

Lifting her chin after clearly realizing all of that, Elisabet settled on, “May I ask what your intentions are here, if you do not wish to join us? And if I may say, that is quite an interesting tattoo.”

“Just paying my respects,” Larees replied. “And meeting some friends that I don’t get to see that often. And as for the tattoo, let’s just say it means I’m part of a pretty exclusive group. One that has no intention of joining up with this place. I’m just here as Gaia’s guest. I hope that’s not an issue.”

“Not at all,” Elisabet claimed, plastering a smile onto her face. “You are welcome, of course.” To me, she added, “I will see you soon, Miss Chambers. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

With that, the possessed Committee-Heretic started off, before looking back toward Larees. “And perhaps you will change your mind about joining. We could always use more help, even if you choose not to… see the light.”

She turned back then, heading to the building while Larees herself waved cheerily with a muttered, “Fat fucking chance.”

“Lara Rheese?” I spoke flatly, looking to her.

She grinned. “You like that? I came up with it myself after flipping through some name books back at the camp.”

“But… but what are you doing here?” I asked, still taken aback.

Before replying, the woman took a flask from her pocket and took a long gulp before explaining, “Oh, that’s the stuff. Anyway, Sariel couldn’t show herself here without making a big deal about being Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Not if she wants to show up later. And she didn’t want to make a big entrance during this… Rudolph kid’s funeral. So she asked me to come and meet with that Sulan guy to find out what he knows. Gaia’s arranging it. That and I wanted to get out, stretch my legs, see this Heretic stuff for myself. And maybe I didn’t know this Rudolph guy, but it sounds like he was someone I might’ve wanted to. So I’m here. I guarantee there’s at least one matris futuor from my people hanging around today. Figured this Rudolph guy should have a Seosten attend his funeral who isn’t a piece of shit. I mean, at least not as much of a piece of shit as the other ones. Sounds like he deserved that much. Consider me a delegation from the ‘not-completely-evil assholes’ side of the Seosten.”  

She had no idea, I realized then. She had no idea that she had just been talking to Jophiel, or that Jophiel had to know exactly who she was.

Still, I had to point out, “It’s going to be dangerous in there. Even the people who aren’t possessed, a lot of them would try to kill you if they knew you weren’t human.”

Larees gave me a slightly dangerous smile then, downing another deep pull from her flask. “Don’t worry, I know how to be subtle and not start shit. Seosten are pretty good at blending in when we want to. It’s kind of our thing. Besides, if anyone tries to start anything right now, I promise you, they will regret it.”

Her knuckles cracked audibly as she tightened her fist. “For a few seconds, anyway.”

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Interlude 38B – Larees

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Larees, of the Tleken Choir, born on the fifth moon of Quoleinis, stared in awe and reverence at the item cradled in both of her hands. “This,” she announced firmly,  “is definitely your species’ greatest achievement, the pinnacle of your entire civilization’s growth out of the mud caves.”

“That,” Lincoln Chambers informed her with a raised eyebrow, “is a taco. With atomic fire sauce. Which you have… drenched said taco with. Are you sure you’re okay like that?”

The two of them were standing out by the lake as they watched Tabbris, Kaste, and a couple of the Seosten former prisoners playing with the toddlers in the water nearby.

In answer to the question, the Seosten woman took an enormous bite from the thick taco. A rumble of intense pleasure started in the back of her throat while she chewed rapidly. “Mmmph. Taco. That’s good. Just a little kick.” She took another bite, making equally pleased noises.

Lincoln shook his head in amusement, glancing from her to the kids splashing around under that close supervision. “Clearly we need to find you some spicier sauce.”

“Yes,” Larees agreed. “It could be hotter. I like it when my food fights back sometimes. Make eating a challenge.” She was  grinning as she said it, finishing the taco with the next bite.

She still seemed hungry, so Lincoln handed her the one he had been holding, along with the bottle of sauce. The woman proceeded to drench that one as well, quickly scarfing it down. Once she was finished with the second taco, Larees took a metal flask from her belt, twisting the top off before downing a long pull. “Ahhhh.” She made a soft sound of contentment while rocking back on her heels slightly. “Now that’s good shit.” She offered him the flask then.

Lincoln started to wave it off, before pausing. After considering briefly, he took the flask and gave it a brief, curious sniff. “The more I talk to you, the less surprised I am by the idea that you took a swing at your commanding officer for trying to make you slaughter a city of innocents.”

“Took a swing at, my ass,” Larees retorted. “I kicked that pompous shit-brain up and down the hallway. They had to pull me off of him. Why the hell would I stop at just taking a swing at him? They’d call it treason either way, so go big or go home. If I was going to be thrown into prison, I was damn well going in for breaking that irrumator’s arm, nose, and whatever the fuck else I could get my hands on. Took a swing at? Yeah, and fucking connected too.”

Lincoln shook his head in wonder. “I guess it’s like they say, might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. And yeah, absolutely not surprised by any of that.” As he spoke, the man took another sniff of the flask before tentatively sipping just a little bit. Instantly, he started coughing, eyes widening a bit as he sputtered at how strong the alcohol was.

Grinning, Larees gave him a couple hard slaps on the back. “There, see? That’s a real drink. Have another, it’ll wake you up and make you see colors that you didn’t even know existed.”

“I think one was enough,” Lincoln demurred while coughing another couple of times, head shaking in wonder. “Tell you one thing though, if I had hay fever that would’ve knocked it right out of me. Wow. I’m surprised you can stand up right now,  you’ve been drinking that all day.”

Smirking, the woman took the flask back from him and took another sip from it, smacking her lips a couple times. “Just gotta get used to it, build up a tolerance over a few hundred years.”

Lincoln started to say that he’d get right on that, when the pair were interrupted by Berlin, the young-looking portal-creating man with red hair and bright orange eyes. His species, the Abeonas, created the so-called ‘foldjump’ spots that allowed rapid travel all over the continent. Berlin had apparently worked for a group of not-particularly-nice smugglers before Joselyn had killed all of them except for him, sparing Berlin because he had been unaware that what they were smuggling had been child slaves. After dealing with all that, Jos had convinced him to turn over a new leaf to help people.

“Okay, okay,” the man started as soon as he was close enough for them to hear, “tell me you know where Gabriel is, or Misty and her brother. Or Enguerrand. Or–”

“What’s going on?” Lincoln immediately asked. “Gabriel had some kind of errand to run. Misty and Duncan are getting supplies. Enguerrand’s not back from wherever he’s been for the past week and a half.”

“Fils de pute,” Berlin muttered. “I’ll have to grab one of the combat teachers, or see if–”

“What?” Larees was frowning, clearly confused. “Is the camp in some kind of danger? Are the-”

“We’re fine,” the Abeonas man assured her, distractedly. “But one of the refugee groups I was supposed to grab and bring back here ran into trouble. I managed to grab most of them. They’re being debriefed and everything back there.” His hand waved vaguely over his shoulder. “But there’s a couple that ran into an old junkyard. They’re hiding, but there’s Heretics in there. Pretty sure I can’t get them out without help. But you know, who the hell around here is going to be crazy enough to volunteer to distract a couple full-power Bosch Heretics like that? You’d have to…”

He trailed off at the look on Larees’ face, a slow cheshire smile that was accompanied by a slow, deliberate chuckle, her words equal parts soft and yet dangerous.

“Distract? Oh… I think I can manage a distraction.”

*******

“Spread out!” Three Heretics stood at the entrance into the junkyard. Two males, one female. The first male and female had waited, watching the garbage-filled lot beyond until their commander, the other male, arrived to give that order. “They’re still in here somewhere. Find the monsters, put them down. We do a full sweep today, you understand? Nothing gets out to terrorize any more innocent people.”

“Now that… that’s funny.” Stepping around a large pile of broken appliances, Larees put herself into plain view in front of the three Heretics, turning her head from one side to the other to crack her neck as she regarded them. Her hands were empty save for the metal flask, which she took a sip from. “See, I didn’t expect you to say something I could agree with like that. But here we are. Nothing gets out of here to terrorize any more innocent people?  Yeah, sounds good to me.”

The trio of Heretics looked to one another briefly before spreading out from one another. Each produced a weapon. The female held a tri-barreled shotgun, her male partner a trident, and their commander held a thin rapier in one hand and a chain with a blade on the end in the other.

“Crossroads?” the female asked, watching Larees carefully. “What do you want?”

“She’s not Crossroads,” their leader informed the others tersely. “Never heard of anyone over there with that kind of tattoo. Maybe a Natural, or an Undocs. Either way, she’s hostile.”

Larees, meanwhile, simply stood there in plain sight. She watched them, taking a brief swig from her flask before announcing, “I made a promise to someone before I came here. I said I’d give you one chance to run away like the cowards you are. Tuck your tails and flee and I’ll let you live. Which is a hell of a lot more of a chance than you would have given your victims.”

“Ignore her,” the leader announced. “She’s a distraction. Put her down and move on. Same thing stands. Nothing gets out of here. We kill the threat, no matter what it looks or sounds like.”

“Fuck it.” Shrugging, Larees let the flask fall back into its spot at her belt. “I did my part, gave you a chance. You want to keep going, that’s your funeral.” Cracking her knuckles, the woman asked, “You wanna do this one at a time, or all at–”

Her answer came instantly, as all three of the Heretics came for her. The woman took two quick steps forward before lifting that shotgun. At the same time, both males went to either side before rushing to fill the spots that Larees would have to move to in order to avoid being shot. As the shotgun snapped into place, a deafening roar filled the air, even as an enormous ball of fire in the shape of a dragon’s head emerged from the barrels. The fireball flew at Larees, expanding to a solid eight feet in diameter, the roar of the gun sounding like that of the dragon that the enormous burning orb had taken the shape of.

Meanwhile, the male Heretic on her left flicked a hand up, summoning a wall of earth out of the ground. At the same time, the other male Heretic created a powerful glowing forcefield to take up the space on that side. Together, they trapped Larees so that she had nowhere to go, leaving an opening just large enough for that ball of dragon-fire to incinerate her.

The fire roared and spun within the confines of the shields that had been erected, growing stronger and more violent, a miniature sun that the Heretics had to shield their eyes from. They were leaving nothing to chance. Whatever that woman was, she would be destroyed by the purging flames, with nothing more than ashes left where she had stood.

Or so they expected. So it should have been. But it was not to be. As the flames began to fade, the heat and blinding light dissipating to reveal the interior of that forcefield and rock prison. And there, standing in the middle of the scorched and blackened earth, was the woman, unharmed.

She stood there, one hand touching the strange phoenix tattoo that adorned her face. The tattoo itself was glowing, the blue-green light illuminating her face like a small flame.

“Good,” Larees spoke flatly, “now it’s my turn.”

“Take her down!” the lead Heretic blurted, already sending his bladed chain that way. It extended to much longer than it should have been, a greenish gas cloud seeping out of it. At the same time, the female thrust an arm out, sending a powerful blast of energy from her palm. And on the other side of Larees, the remaining male Heretic broke the rock wall he had summoned from the ground into a dozen balls. Metal spikes grew from those balls as he flung them at her.

The glow of that blue-green tattoo suddenly grew much brighter, as the image on the woman’s face seemed to emerge, forming not only the head, but a complete, fully three-dimensional glowing creature directly in front of her. In an instant, the fiery phoenix grew half as large as the woman herself, giving a powerful shriek as its wings snapping outward to send blue-ish flames in every direction. The force of its powerful wing-thrust knocked the incoming chain to one side, while the flying spike-balls were sent back the way they had come.

The energy blast from the woman, meanwhile, was simply absorbed by the creature. It seemed to suddenly glow brighter, eyes blazing with fury as it sent the same blast it had absorbed back out once more in a beam from its eyes that took the Heretic woman in the chest and sent her flying backward with a cry.

While the woman was knocked backward, Larees spun toward the leader of this little group. Even as the man yanked his chain back, she was already running toward him. Meanwhile, the fiery bird that had been her tattoo (it had disappeared from her face to assume the solid form it had now) focused on the second man, flying at him with a loud, challenging cry.

The Heretic leader reacted instantly, as Larees ran for him. He suddenly grew to twice his normal size, his skin covering itself in metal. At the same time, the thin rapier that he held transformed into a much larger weapon, the blade growing and extending itself as he swung it at her with enough force to cleave through solid steel.

At the last possible instant, Larees spun sideways to let the blade careen past her, missing by only an inch before it slammed into the ground. A foot deep, eight foot long and eight inch wide crevasse stretched out along the dirt where the sword had impacted, even as a cloud of dirt was sent into the air.

Then the woman simply stopped. She skidded to a halt and stood there, eyes glancing toward the blade in the ground so close to her. Raising one eyebrow, she lifted the flask from her belt, taking a sip while asking, “That the best you got?”

In the background, the Heretic leader could see his female companion slowly picking herself off the ground, her clothes and face burned but healing. Meanwhile, his other partner was having problems dealing with that firebird she had somehow created, stumbling back and forth while the creature filled the air with flames that somehow seemed dangerous despite the heat and fire resistance that all of them possessed. Magical flames.

He needed to finish this, now. To that end, the man summoned another of his powers, sending an intensely blue beam straight out of his eyes. The beam would freeze anything it touched. If this… whatever she was wanted to play with fire, he would counter her with cold.

Except she wasn’t there. One instant, the woman had been standing right there. But in the next, even as the freezing blast from his eyes turned the ground where their attacker had been into a solid sheet of ice, she was gone. Superspeed of some kind, obviously.

“You know what?” She was talking again, from where she had stopped barely a couple feet away. “I’m just going to say it.” That flask was at her lips again, as she took a swig before smacking her lips. “I’m not really impressed so far. I mean, are you just not used to someone who fights back? Would you like it better if I was a defenseless little girl so you could feel like a big strong hero when you murder me? Is that the problem?”

With a growl of anger, the man snapped his chain back, intent on making the bladed end cut straight into her back. But again, Larees was too fast. She ducked just before the chain would have struck her, letting it pass over her back before abruptly straightening up with the flask pressed to her mouth once again.

“Whooo!” the woman declared, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of the dark blue shirt that she wore. “Now that is refreshing. But uhh, you know…” She blinked rapidly a few times. “I’ve got a really good tolerance to this stuff, but it’s pretty strong.” Pointing at him with the flask, she blurted, “Hey, I know. How’s about you let me finish this off. If I drink enough of it, maybe I’ll pass out. I bet you could win a fight with me then!”

Belatedly, she seemed to reconsider, making a hmm-ing noise in the back of her throat while indecisively moving her head back and forth. “Ehhhh… fifty-fifty shot. With unconscious me.”

At that exact second, the female Heretic arrived. She had split her shotgun apart and folded the pieces out into two blades, which she drove at the woman’s back… only for Larees to easily twist out of the way once more.

She stood there, turned sideways to see both of her opponents. “Well,” the woman murmured while dropping the flask back to its spot on her belt, “maybe this could be interesting after all.”

Both Heretics came at her then, full-strength. They were in perfect unison, their weapons singing through the air like a symphony. They had practiced working together like this thousands of times, and the evidence was in their cooperation.

More than once, only Larees’ Seosten boost saved her life. Yet, even that wasn’t enough to avoid everything. She dodged and avoided the absolute worst of their attacks, but a few got through. She took a deep cut across one arm, another in her leg. Finally, a lucky blow to her side put her in just the right position for the metal-armored man to backhand her with his solid-steel fist. Larees reacted quickly enough to snap her head back away from most, but not all of it. And even the glancing hit was enough to make her see stars as she was flung sidelong to crash into the dirt. That was quickly followed up by a kick from the female Heretic that spun her up and over, falling once more, even harder that time.

“Okay,” the Seosten grunted while spitting blood, “maybe a seventy percent chance you could beat unconscious me.”

“Enough!” The bellowed word came from the metal-covered man, who strode forward while summoning a forcefield to cover Larees. She was forced down once more, flat on her stomach against the ground with only a small opening right at the small of her back that was just large enough for the man to drive that sword of his straight down through her.

He was right there, weapon raised to do just that as the woman abruptly whistled sharply. The sound filled the air, and both Heretics abruptly remembered their companion… and his own enemy.

Their eyes snapped that way, in time to see their badly burned partner stumble to one knee. His right arm had been entirely severed, and lay in a charred heap nearby. But they didn’t have time to help him, because the blue-green phoenix was right there. Its rage-filled scream briefly deafened the pair, even as the heat and light from its flames forced them to stumble backward, shielding their eyes.

It faded quickly, but by that point, the firebird had destroyed the forcefield that was holding Larees against the ground. As the Heretics focused once more, blinking through the fading blaze of light, they saw the fiery creature hover beside the now-standing woman.

Then it merged with her. Attaching itself to Larees’ back, the bird’s body sank into her, until only its wings remained. They were hers then, enormous flaming wings that stretched out to either side before tucking themselves in against her back.

“Kill her now!” the metal-man bellowed, already suiting action to words as he went at her with all the speed and strength he could muster. His body was a blur of motion, the sword cleaving the air as he sought to finally end this problem.

But Larees was fast too. Even more so now when she was merged with her firebird. Her boost was stronger and lasted longer. She launched herself off the ground like a bolt of lightning, flames trailing around her as she shot at the man.

At the last instant, the Seosten twisted up and over so that she passed just above the lunging man’s head. Her hand snapped down to brush against his shoulder.

And then she was inside him. She felt his confusion as she brought his body to a halt, instantly crushing his resistance, standing right there.

“Verdediger?” the woman, standing there with confusion, asked. She had stopped short upon seeing their opponent disappear, and now looked uncertain.

Slowly, Larees made her new host look up at his companion. At a thought, his memories were hers to read. She saw his bloodlust. She saw the innocents he had killed, all while believing himself to be doing the right thing. These three had the blood of hundreds on their hands between them. She saw no chance of reasoning with them, no chance that they would stop what they had been doing.

She had promised Lincoln Chambers that she would try. And she had. But this was a lost cause. They were too devoted, too taken by their own power. The three could have let those that had fled into this junkyard escape, yet they would not. They enjoyed the hunt, enjoyed their targets,  be they actual threats or… fleeing, frightened civilians.

They did not believe civilians existed. To these three, there could only ever be monsters. And nothing that Larees saw in this mind gave her any idea that it could ever change.

“Okay,” she said with this man, Verdediger’s mouth, “I gave it a shot.”

The second man, still missing his arm, had picked himself up by then. He and the female Heretic stood there, confusion written across their features.

That confusion turned to shock, as Larees summoned her wings once more. They grew from her host’s back, extending to their full, fiery length. The steel-man floated up from the ground with a single flap of those burning wings, hovering with sword in hand.

“Now I guess we’ll just end this.”

******

“God damn.” A short time later, Berlin stood there, right in the entrance to the junkyard. He was surveying the resulting carnage, orange eyes skimming over the trio of bodies. “When you deal with a situation, you don’t play around.”

Larees, back in her own body, shook her head while taking a gulp from her flask. Sighing in satisfaction, she looked toward her phoenix, which had separated from her to hover there nearby. “Okay, Ustrina. Time to sleep.”

Obediently, the bird flew closer. Shrinking down as it approached, the phoenix turned back into its simple head-shape before merging with Larees. A moment later, the tattoo of the firebird’s head was back on her face, as if it had never left.

Blinking twice as that was done, the woman finally focused on Berlin. “The civilians? You get them out?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, they’re good,” he confirmed. “Ready to take you home now. Hey, that… thing, how’d you get that? The fire… tattoo… thing. That’s a weird power.”

“It’s magic,” she informed him. “Rare magic. Hard magic. Only those who are part of a certain… group are allowed to learn it. You learn the spell, and the animal that you tattoo to yourself becomes your partner. It becomes a piece of yourself. You give it life, and it will aid you. Ustrina has been a part of me for… a long time.”

“Gotta be part of the club, huh?” Berlin lamented. “Guess that means you won’t teach me.”

With a little smirk, Larees shrugged. “You never know. I can tell you a little more about it, at least. In exchange for…”

“For?” Perking up a bit, the man raised an eyebrow curiously.

“You can take us to many places, yes?” When Berlin nodded to that, Larees’ smile grew, and she walked to the man to put one arm around his shoulder. “Eximious. I will tell you more of this magic, and you can take us to where they make the best.”

“The best what?” Berlin, blinking a couple times as the woman led him out of the junkyard, asked.

“Tacos, amicus bonus meus,” Larees answered with a broad grin.

“Take me to the tacos.”

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Interlude 38A – Asenath, Bobbi, and Company

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It was a rather eclectic group that sat in the buffet restaurant at the table furthest from both the entrance and the food, away from where anyone else was. Two vampires, one pixie, a human girl in her early teens, and a green-furred sabertooth tiger cub. They were, to put it mildly, a group that would have stood out to anyone who was capable of actually seeing through the Bystander Effect.

Of course, to those who could not, the ordinary humans in this place, they still looked perhaps a bit odd. To those humans, sitting at the table were a white adult male, a half-Asian female in her late teens, a half-black girl in her early teens, and a cat.

Namythiet the pixie, meanwhile, was basically invisible to humans. They would see her at first, or when she deliberately drew attention to herself, and then instantly forget her before they could actually react to it.

Halfway through her second plate, Bobbi Camren pointed to the green-furred animal with her fork. “I still can’t believe they let us get away with bringing Clubber in.”

Smirking a bit at that, Seth reached out to brush the cloth animal-vest that Clubber wore. The vest designated him as a handicap assistant animal. “No one wants to be the one to tell a handicapped person they can’t have their assistance or comfort animal. Long as we keep him away from the serving tables over there, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Clubber, for his part, looked down at the licked-clean plate in front of him before turning a yearning gaze toward the tables in question while making a soft whimpering sound.

“Don’t worry, partner!” Namythiet gave her animal friend a quick thumbs up while launching into the air on fast-beating wings. “I got it!” She flew off quickly to retrieve more food for the hungry feline.

From where she was sitting, Asenath raised her hand as if to say something about that before simply shaking her head and lowering the hand. “Never mind,” she murmured.

Seth chuckled, spearing a piece of very rare, bloody steak with his fork. “Might as well let them fill up as much as they want. This next one’s going to be rough. Probably the hardest one out of the bunch.”

“That’s why we saved it for last,” Asenath pointed out. “We’ve got everything else Gaia asked for. This is the only piece left. Well, that and the fact that we had to wait for a time when it was even reachable at all.”

Bobbi blinked back and forth between them. “You guys said you already got a piece of a dragon, right? Weren’t they supposed to be like the most powerful things ever? You made me write that report on them a few days ago.”

“Yeah,”  Seth confirmed, “and you totally earned that B plus. But while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that math homework when we’re done with this.”

The vampires and pixie had recruited Bobbi to help them with their mission. They had explained everything they were doing, at least as much of it as they understood, and the girl had wanted to help. Not to mention the fact that they could explain a lot more about what the hell was going on in this world than she had managed to put together in her time working as a superhero with her inherited powers. Thanks to them, she knew about the world of Heretics and Alters, and about the Seosten. And she wanted to help, really help.

So they had taken a page from the Crossroads book and convinced her father that she was being recruited by a private school, with a full scholarship and everything.

To Bobbi’s surprise, it had turned out that her new friends actually took the school thing seriously. They made her study of human and Alter/Heretic subjects, quizzing her at times, and even giving her homework to do. If she didn’t get the work done, she didn’t get to help. They taught her history, math, magic, English, even a bit of foreign languages. They took her education very seriously between them. Just like they took her training seriously. They kept teaching her more ways to use her power, as well as how to protect herself with and without it. They put her through an educational and physical boot camp of sorts.

Asenath and Seth seemed to argue a fair bit. Okay, more than a fair bit. But on Bobbi’s education and training, they were pretty much always in complete agreement: she needed more of it.

“Math, got it,” the girl confirmed before asking, “but what about this really hard thing. You really mean it’s worse than the dragon piece? I might’ve gotten a B-plus, but I distinctly remember dragons being basically the most powerful things ever.”

“You’re not wrong,” Seth agreed, leaning back a bit in his seat before adding, “Bits of dragon are probably more rare, but the thing we’re going after is still harder to get to. It’s… complicated. Let’s just say, we got a bit lucky with the dragon piece. This one’s more specific. That could have been any bit of dragon. But the thing we’re after now has to be this one. Well… there’s another, but it’s even more impossible to get to. This is the only one that’s actually vaguely reachable. Which means we don’t get to pick and choose a piece that’s less guarded. This one’s going to be a pain in the ass to get to, but we don’t have a choice. It’s the one we need.”

“Which is why you need to eat up,” Asenath finished for him, using her fork to point at the girl. “And remember the rules. You have the necklace?”

Nodding promptly, Bobbi reached into her pocket to take out the necklace that Namythiet had made for her. It was part of her agreement with them. If, at any point while they were on one of these missions, one of them felt that things were too much for the girl, they would give her the codeword. At that point, Bobbi was to touch the necklace and speak the word that would activate the spell on it. That spell would teleport her to safety.

They had sworn to the girl that if they told her to use it and she didn’t, assuming they all survived they would take her home immediately and leave her there. They only agreed to let her come with them and help on the conditions that she continue her schooling under them, and that she listen to all of their orders. And part of that was to retreat when they told her to.

Besides, Bobbi was pretty sure they had ways of activating the necklace against her wishes anyway, should she try to disobey and stick around. It just felt like something they’d do, given their obsession with keeping her as safe as possible while still letting her help.

By that point, Namythiet was on her way back to the table, carrying a plate laden with various meats. A few people glanced that way before turning back to what they were doing.

“Err,” Bobbi leaned forward a bit, lowering her voice reflexively. “What do people see when they look at that? Do they just, like, completely forget the plate, or think that they saw a normal person carrying it?”

“Eh,” Seth drawled while glancing that way, “you know, I’m not sure, exactly. Probably depends on the person, but I’d say… they mostly forget it. Yeah, they probably forget it.”

Namythiet had reached the table by then, carefully setting the plate down in front of Clubber, who immediately started to happily chow down on the selection of meat.

“See, buddy?” the pixie chimed while patting her furry friend on the head, “I’ve got your back.” She took a small piece for herself then before hovering over to sit in the middle of the table at the dish that she was using. “Hey, are we ready to plan out this job or what?”

Asenath gave a faint nod at that, taking a bite of her salad. “When Twister gets back from making sure there’s no last-minute instructions or advice from Sinclaire.”  

“Wait, when do I get to meet this Gaia person?” Bobbi put in quickly. “She sounds interesting. You said she’s like… the principal of the whole school full of these zealot guys, right? But she’s nice? How many other ‘nice’ zealots are there?”

“It’s complicated,” Asenath informed her. “But yeah, there’s some nice ones. And some really not nice ones. Mostly the latter at the moment, unfortunately. As for Gaia, you’ll meet her… eventually. Hopefully as soon as she can pull herself away from the school once we get this last piece.”

Seth grunted an agreement. “From the way she was talking, she’ll need everything pretty soon. Sounds like this spell she’s cooking up is gonna take some time to work.”

“Maybe she’ll actually tell us what she needs all this stuff for,” Namythiet huffed, clearly annoyed that she hadn’t been able to figure it out from the ingredients that they had been gathering. “Secrets are annoying, you know.”

By that point, Bobbi had been around the group long enough to know what that meant. “You mean they’re annoying if you don’t know what they are.”

“That’s exactly what she means.” The voice came from Twister, the final member of their group, as she approached the table. Like Bobbi, her skin was dark. She also looked younger than the other girl, though that much was… well, complicated, to say the least.

Sliding onto a seat at the table, Twister grabbed roll from Seth’s plate, munching as she continued, “Pixies like knowing secrets. Part of being sneaky little shits.” The last was said with a wink in the tiny, winged-girl’s direction.

Huffing at that, Namythiet folded her arms over her chest. “Hey, we’re so small, we have to take advantages where we can get ‘em. Part of that is not being noticed when people are talking about private things.”

For a moment then, Bobbi just sat in her chair and marveled at everything that had happened in such a short time. For a year, she had done everything she could to protect her small neighborhood from the worst of the monsters she found hunting within it. She’d had no idea about the wider world beyond, no way of understanding just what she was, why she’d gained her powers from the dead mobster, or why the non-humans who realized that the girl could see what they were happened to be so afraid.

She didn’t know anything. Then she’d met Twister and Asenath, and the others by extension. Through them, she had learned so much more. And now she was helping them do… well, she didn’t know what. And neither did they. But it was something important, that much was clear. She was helping them, learning from them. It was cool, but it was also dangerous.

And she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. She liked her new little family. She wanted to protect them, help them, learn from them. She wanted to be a part of them, even when they teased her.

She missed her father, and her imprisoned mother. But Bobbi truly felt as though she belonged here, with these people. Despite not knowing the group for very long, she felt close to them. Their problems were her problems, and she was going to help any way that she could.

“Yooooo.” That was Twister, waving a hand in front of Bobbi’s face. “Earth to space cadet. You okay in there?”

Flushing a little at the realization that she had been zoning out again, Bobbi quickly nodded. “Sure, yeah, I’m here. What’d you find out from the Gaia lady?”

So Twister told them, and the group finished eating as they planned out how they were going to grab what would apparently be the most difficult item on Gaia Sinclaire’s list of magical ingredients.

And once she heard what the thing they were going after actually was, Bobbi didn’t question why it would be so hard to acquire anymore.

In fact, she wondered if they would even be able to pull it off.

******

The horrific, deafening sound of a machine gun filled the air like the roar of a beast clawing its way up out of hell itself. Hundreds of bullets ricocheted off of the glowing, blue-white shield that Bobbi held in front of herself in those few seconds. Then the girl focused on the other aspect of her power: her speed.

Instantly, everything went almost completely still. She could see even more bullets almost completely frozen in the air. And beyond them, she saw the massive, eight-foot tall gray-furred figure holding the machine gun in one hand (he had a giant axe in his other hand). He was frozen in mid-laugh, head thrown back as he tried to mow Bobbi and the others down.

The others. Twister was a bear, one frying-pan sized paw currently busy slamming a green-skinned amphibian figure to the ground while his own broken gun lay uselessly nearby.

Senny had a knife in each hand, arms extended to stick the blades into the throats of two different figures. A short distance from her, Seth stood, surrounded by half a dozen bodies of his own.

They were in the front lobby of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The place looked like any other glass obelisk, just like the buildings around it. But most office buildings didn’t have quite this level of security.

The floor was littered with the bodies of the men who were trying to stop them from doing what they needed to do. Some of them were unconscious, while others were dead.

The first time Bobbi had seen her new friends actually kill people, even if they had been bad guys, it had sent her into a spiraling nightmare of a flashback. She had been back in that store again, back in the blood of the man whose powers she had gained. It had taken quite awhile for them to talk her around afterward, as they had explained that some people just couldn’t be left alive. There was no prison to send them to, and they would readily kill many more innocent people if left alive.

But Bobbi couldn’t kill them. She wouldn’t go that far. She’d even made the others promise not to kill anyone she incapacitated, unless they absolutely had to. Maybe it was stupid. But… she didn’t want to be responsible for it. She didn’t want to be responsible for people dying. Or at least, not more responsible than she already was for helping.

It just felt uncomfortable. And wrong. She helped, she participated, but she wouldn’t kill. She didn’t force the others to follow her own moral code or anything, aside from not wanting them to kill the people she personally stopped. That felt like… like the best compromise she could manage. She was slowly starting to understand the world beyond her little neighborhood and just how dangerous it really was. And maybe she was just being a stupid little kid about it.

But she wouldn’t kill. She just… wouldn’t.

Her own form was a blinding blur of motion to the outside world then, as she sprinted around the incoming bullets, glowing sword appearing in her hand just in time to cut the massive machine gun in half. In the same motion, Bobbi threw herself up and around into a kick. Someone her size kicking someone as enormous as her opponent would normally, of course, do basically nothing. But as fast as she was moving, the impact knocked the man to the ground with a cry, even as his gun fell into two pieces around him.

Landing in a crouch after that full-bodied hypersonic kick, Bobbi’s brief burst of superspeed ran out just in time for a second big guy with an enormous gun of his own to sight in on her.

And then his weapon fell apart into about a dozen pieces, right as the man was about to pull the trigger. As the machine gun collapsed, Namythiet appeared from where she had been inside the weapon, taking it apart from there. “Avast!” the pixie declared while swiping her sword back and forth in the air, “Not so big without your pea-shooter, are y–eeep!”

The big guy took a swipe at her, which the pixie easily dodged by flying straight up before driving her pin-like sword into his eye. As he roared and jerked back, Bobbi was there. She had conjured a glowing hammer, which she drove hard into his stomach. As he doubled over a bit, her hands grabbed his shoulders, and she sent a burst of electricity into him that put the man on the ground.

The fighting continued like that. For quite some time, longer than Bobbi had ever actually fought at one time, the group worked their way through the main lobby of the office building they had just broken into, moving into the stairwell and continuing up. They had to get to the top floor, and they had to do so before the reinforcements could be called in.

Even without the reinforcements, it was exhausting. She kept having to absorb more and more power from the nearby light fixtures and computers. And even then, by the time they reached the top floor, Bobbi was too tired to keep fighting. Which Asenath noticed and made her stay behind with Namythiet and Clubber to watch the stairwell while she, Twister, and Seth finished up.

So Bobbi sat there, panting and watching the stairs while taking a drink from the water bottle that Clubber had helpfully held up in his little mouth for her. She was panting, feeling utterly wiped from all the fighting. Using her power that much, even with plenty of energy to drain, still took a lot out of her. She needed to just sit and rest.

“No time to nap,” Seth called from the doorway at the end of the hall. “C’mon kid, we need your help to open this thing.”

With a grunt, Bobbi pushed herself up, bracing herself against the wall while Namythiet flew up to land on her shoulder. The poor pixie was exhausted as well. As was Clubber, who trudged alongside Bobbi as the girl tiredly made her way down the hall. She passed more than a dozen other bodies, trying not to think about what had happened to them, before reaching the actual doorway where Seth was waiting.

Looking past him, she saw what looked like a conference room of some kind. There were floor to ceiling windows all along three of the four walls, including the far corner from the doorway. Most of the room itself was taken up by a long table, with a three foot long, two foot high metal safe right in the middle of that table. There were yet another seven bodies laying around that room, their blood and… other things decorating the windows, floor, and table itself.

“You okay, Lite Brite?” Despite his clear impatience, Seth put a hand on the top of the glowing helmet that covered her head, making her look up at him. “Got enough oomph for one more thing?”

“I can do it,” Bobbi insisted, chin up as she stared at the safe. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Asenath confirmed. “Sorry, we’d give you more time but… well, we’re out of it. We need to grab this thing and get the hell out of here yesterday.”

“I’m okay.” Bobbi really wasn’t sure that she was, but she had to try. Getting the safe open was the most important thing. It was apparently warded against all kinds of magic. But not against her.

Nearby, Asenath turned, putting her fist through the wall. Tearing out some of the debris, she caught hold of some wires and yanked them free as well, snapping the wires in the process. Live electrical wires.

“All yours, Bobs,” she offered, “drink up.”

Holding both hands out that way, Bobbi focused on draining all the power she could through those wires. Electricity jumped visibly from the wires to the girl’s hands. She was draining everything she could, not just from the room, but from the entire building. The place was on its own separate power grid, and she was taking everything. She could feel the electricity filling her up, giving her a quick rush of euphoria.

Hard. This was going to be hard. It wouldn’t have been easy at the best of times, but now? Now she was already tired from everything else. It was going to be a nightmare.

And yet, she would do it. She would make this work, because it was important. Because her new friends had asked her to. She would do it.

The others were all waiting, standing guard while Bobbi gathered all the power that she could through those exposed wires. She was focusing almost solely on that safe, tuning out everything else as much as possible. Only two things existed, herself and the safe. And what was inside. More power. She needed more. As much as possible. Had to hold onto it, keep holding it… keep holding it…

When she could hold it no longer, Bobbi’s right hand snapped forward, away from the exposed wires. In the next instant, a powerful, blinding jolt of lightning-like electricity shot out of that hand to crash into the safe. Or rather, near the safe. The electricity actually stopped a few inches out, hitting a glowing red shield that popped up around it.

It was a magical forcefield, along with other protective spells. Namythiet and Twister had taught Bobbi about how she could use a powerful burst of electricity to overwhelm spells like that. Some spells could be overwhelmed by the judicial use of a taser. But in cases like this, that wasn’t normally viable, because it would take an entire building’s worth of power to knock out the spell that was protecting the safe.

So… it was a good thing she had an entire building to draw from, then.

The lights went out almost immediately, leaving the room lit only by what came in through the windows. Everything in the building went dead one by one, as Bobbi channeled the power through herself and straight into the continuous lightning bolt (was it really a bolt when it kept going on for a long time?) into the forcefield surrounding that safe.

Seth had a knife. He’d shown her to her. The blade could cut through spells, actually absorbing the energy from any spell that it touched in order to completely disable it. Unfortunately, the people who ran this building were prepared for that kind of thing. They had layered their protection spells in such a way that disabling one with that knife, or anything that worked in a similar way would result in the safe teleporting away. Simply cutting through the spell would send the safe away.

But this? Hitting the protective forcefield with enough electricity to completely overwhelm it, that was different. Different because the forcefield and the spell that would teleport the safe away both drew from the same well of power. If Seth were to use his knife to disable the forcefield, it would kill the shield immediately, at which point the teleportation spell would send the safe away.

But in this case, the forcefield was being hit by a building-worth of electricity. To keep itself powered, it would keep draining that well of power. Which meant that when it finally collapsed, it would be because there was no more power for it to draw from. Which, in turn, would mean that there was no power for the teleportation spell to do its job.

Of course, there were two back-ups for that. The first was that the teleportation spell was supposed to jump to powering itself with the building’s electricity if its normal energy well wasn’t there. But, well, that would be impossible because Bobbi was already using it.

If it failed to power itself through either of those means, the teleportation spell had a third condition, which was to drain ambient energy from the living beings who were trying to get at the safe and use that to teleport the safe away. But that third option was the last one specifically because it was the slowest. Only by a few seconds, but still. There would be a brief window where the shield was down, yet the teleportation spell had no power. And in that window, Seth would then use the knife to disable it.

Essentially, they had to overwhelm the forcefield in one specific way that made it drain the well of power before it was destroyed, leaving the teleportation spell no way to power itself for at least a few seconds, during which Seth could destroy it and leave the safe vulnerable.

Even this would have been impossible most of the time. The safe’s normal location was far more protected than this meeting room. But it had been temporarily brought here, only for a short window. And the time between when the safe had been placed there and when the main meeting that had been intended to take place in this room would take place was even shorter.

And they had absolutely no intention of being in this room when that meeting was supposed to happen. Being around any of the people involved in it would have been a bad idea. Being around all of them… suicide. They had this very, very brief opening where the safe was in position and before the big players had arrived for the meeting. This one chance. That was it.

It was an opportunity that couldn’t be wasted, and Bobbi didn’t intend to. She channeled electricity through that shield until the thing shattered. At almost the same time, she felt her own exhaustion catch up with her, and collapsed.

The world went dark, while the sound of Seth rushing past her to do his part filled her ears.

Sleep… she wanted to sleep… preferably for a month. But maybe just for a few seconds… or minutes… or…

Bobbi’s eyes opened some time later. She was laying in grass in the middle of a field somewhere. With a gasp, she sat up and looked around wildly.

The others. They were all there. All… eating cheeseburgers, actually. Greasy, yummy cheeseburgers that made her mouth water. After everything she had just done, fuel was needed. Lots of it.

Seth obligingly offered a paper sack to her, raising an eyebrow. “Dinner? You earned it.”

Quickly, Bobbi grabbed the sack and began to devour the first burger she could unwrap. It was only once she was halfway through it that she remembered to ask (through her full mouth) “Did we get it?”

“Did we get it, she asks?” Twister scoffed at that. “As if we’d leave a job unfinished. Pshaw. I am insulted.”

Senny shook her head and nudged the Pooka. “We got it.” She nodded toward a wooden box that sat between them. “Namythiet just finished taking all the tracking spells off it before we came here. We’re safe, for now.”

“Not that anyone’s safe near something like that,” Seth observed flatly, his eyes staring at the box.

“Can I see it?” Bobbi asked, curious about the thing they had worked so hard to get hold of.

Obligingly, Asenath picked up the box. “Don’t touch,” she reminded the girl before opening the lid.

For a moment, the girl just stared at the short, six inch length of rope within. “It looks so small…”

With a chuckle, Seth nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s because the Heretics have most of it. I mean, they think they have the whole thing. But they don’t know about this piece right here. If they knew this bit was out and about, they’d move heaven and Earth to get to it.”

“Of course they would,” Asenath agreed while showing her fangs in a smile.

“If they knew we had a piece of the rope from the Hangman that they’re all connected to, they would lose their fucking minds.”

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