Alcaeus

By Blood 17-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You mean nobody recognized him? Not even Athena?” 

It was a couple of days later, after all the partying and recovery had basically run their course. I was jogging along the exterior of the housing area, with Shiori on one side of me and Jazz on the other, as the three of us got a bit of morning exercise in while chatting. We’d started out talking in the kitchen at breakfast, but when Jazz had mentioned needing to stretch her legs, it quickly turned into this. 

“Nope,” I confirmed in response to Shiori’s words. “Sariel took a copy of my memory of the mystery guy back on the ship, but nobody she’s shown it to has had any idea who he is. Which, I mean, he could be in disguise or something. Shapeshifting magic isn’t exactly super-rare. But that seems weird. Actually, the whole thing is weird. How come I could see him that nobody else did? And why didn’t I sense him with any other power besides just seeing him? Was he just projecting his way into my head or something? I wish Tabbris had been there right then so we could see if she got anything else from seeing him in real time. And so we could see for sure if he was in my mind or in my eyes.” 

Jazz spoke up as we went around the next corner. “It’s pretty obvious that he’s the one who took care of the traps that Whisper bitch was talking about, right? It sure wasn’t any of you guys, and you said she was surprised you made it so fast. So he was on your side. Our side. Whatever. He helped save the universe from those evil fucks.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. “The thing is, I’m not sure. Just because he was against them doesn’t mean he’s for us. He might’ve just wanted to stop them from letting out those monsters, you know? Not wanting the universe to be destroyed doesn’t make someone a fantastic person. It just means they live here and would prefer to keep living here. There’s levels to that whole thing. Hell, he might still want to destroy the universe but on his terms.” Having said that, I sighed. “I just wish we knew more about him. Being able to hide himself from everyone who was there, that’s… uh, kind of intimidating.” Boy was that an understatement. Just the thought that this guy could eliminate all the traps the Whispers had placed while being invisible to everyone else, including the Whispers themselves, was just… terrifying, honestly. We had to find out more about him. Or rather, anything about him. Because right now, we had absolutely nothing. 

Jazz thought about that for a second as we continued to jog before nodding. “Sure, I get it. The enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. Especially when you get into how big the universe is and how many assholes are out there with their own agendas. Still, it’s a good thing he was there right then.” 

“Good thing,” I echoed in agreement, picking up the pace a little bit. “And it’ll be an even better thing if we can find someone who actually knows who he is, so we can talk to him and find out what he really wants. I’d rather not get blindsided by some brand new threat. You know, again.” 

“That does have a tendency to happen,” Shiori murmured, shaking her head. “But hey, at least you guys made it out of there with everyone. You saved your grandparents and the others and stopped the whole universe from being overrun by giant monsters. Yay Team Continued Survival.” She gave a heavy sigh then. “I can’t believe I slept through the whole thing in Senny’s apartment.” 

“Sorry,” I replied with a wince. “We were sort of on the clock, and–” Cutting myself off, I hesitated before settling on a simple, “Trust me, you’ve been there plenty of times. And you’ll be there in the future.” My eyes darted to Jazz. “Both of you will.” 

“Got that damn straight,” Jazz immediately confirmed. “If those Whisper things show up again, Doug’s gonna want to be involved. And if he’s involved, so am I.” She reached over, punching me lightly in the shoulder. “You’re not leaving us out of that, you hear? Or you’ll regret it.” She squinted then. “I guess I sort of just threatened you with–never mind. The point is, give us a chance to help.”  

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. “But hey, if it comes down to it, maybe you’ll be the ones who have to call me in, you know? Let’s just promise we’ll keep each other involved.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “And you’re right about Doug. The second he heard what was going on, he uhh, he was ready to go. More than ready. I’m pretty sure he’s been practicing those anti-Whisper runes since I left his room. Someone might have to go check on him and make sure he eats something.” 

Jazz snorted. “Gordon and me are on top of it.” Right after she said that, there was a brief moment where she visibly flinched. Probably because it struck home yet again just what had happened to her whole team the year before. Rudolph and Paul were dead, Isaac… well, he was dead and an evil murdering piece of shit. And Roxa split her time between being up here on the station and with her werewolf pack. 

The point was, they really had gone through a lot in the past year and a half. We all had, but not all of us had lost half our team for various reasons. So it was no wonder that Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and even Roxa felt a pretty tight bond. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if half of my teammates had died or turned out to be psychopaths. What if we had lost… what if we’d lost anyone like that? As it was, the closest we’ve gotten to losing someone from the team was Sean, and he was still alive, at least. I couldn’t even think about how I would react to someone like Columbus or Sands dying. It would rip everyone apart. I– god damn it, I had to stop thinking so morbidly. 

Shoving all of that out of my head, I glanced around, realizing we had continued to jog. Now we were approaching the park where I had sat with Senny the night before. Seeing that brought the other situation to mind, so I spoke up with, “Speaking of Gordon, you guys think you’re up for this rescue thing we’re supposed to get involved in?” 

“Name the time and place, dude,” Jazz shot back without a second of hesitation. “If there’s a chance of finding Gordon’s dad, or even just getting an idea of where he might be, we’re there.” 

“Yeah, it’d be nice to kill two birds with one stone like that,” Shiori agreed, her voice bright and cheerful at the very thought. “Man, can you imagine if we save Gordon’s dad and Senny’s at the same camp? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” 

“The awesomest,” I murmured thoughtfully, slowing as we passed the park before coming to a stop. Taking the water bottle from my belt, I gulped some down, then tossed it to Jazz. “And yeah, even if we don’t find Sindri, I bet someone there will have heard of him. They might know where he is, where to look next, what–they might know something.” 

“It’ll be a start, anyway,” Jazz announced after gulping some of the water. “And speaking of a start, you guys realize it’s almost January, right? We’re over halfway through the one year truce. Do you think we’re actually going to be able to finish this situation with the loyalists so the Seosten don’t invade the planet en masse? Cuz I don’t know about you guys, but going from quiet infiltration and manipulation to an all-out war doesn’t strike me as an upgrade. There’s this guy in my trig class who was talking about these old books where some kids turned into animals to fight alien brain-slugs or something, and they were trying to avoid a full invasion too. Actually, come to think of it, there’s a lot of similarities between our whole situation and those books. Except our body-snatchers aren’t slugs. Except in spirit, sometimes.”

“I’ll have to read them sometime and find out how they end,” I replied with a very slight smile as my gaze glanced toward Shiori. “But as far as the truce goes, we don’t actually have to finish this war before it’s over.” 

That made both other girls blink, Shiori hesitantly speaking up. “We don’t?” 

My head shook. “I mean, sure, it’d be a nice bonus. But I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. We just have to convince the Seosten that it’s better to work with us than against us. And pulling off Liesje’s spell is a pretty good step in that direction.” 

Giving a double-take at that, Jazz tossed the water bottle to Shiori. “Wait, you think making that spell work so they can’t possess any of us is actually gonna make them more likely to work with us? I mean, instead of just invading the whole planet and putting a stop to the situation before we can spread it to everyone. Could you, uhh, explain that?” She sounded understandably dubious. 

“They could invade because of it,” I agreed tentatively before continuing. “But yeah, I think it’s more likely that they work with us. One of their big things is their whole population problem, right? They lose so many babies because they accidentally recall into the parent and just… vanish before they’re old enough to not be accidentally brain-crushed.” Saying it out loud and matter-of-fact like that made me grimace. It was such a horrific concept. No wonder the Seosten had parenting issues, considering how long that had been going on. Still, I pushed forward. “But right now, any Seosten who was pregnant could come here and get the protection spell put on them if they wanted. I mean, both parents and maybe any other close relatives that the kid could–it’d be a whole thing, sure. It probably wouldn’t help stop absolutely every situation unless we managed to put the entire species under the spell. And that would take more power than I think any of us have ever heard of. But it could cut down on the amount of children they lose that way just by blocking possession of the mother and father. That could revolutionize their entire reproductive situation, you know? And if there can be a lot more Seosten, they might have a better chance against the Fomorians. That was one of the biggest things holding them back before.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, Jazz slowly nodded. “Sure, I guess I see what you mean. But, you know, the problem is convincing them of that. Or at least convincing enough of the right ones. It doesn’t seem like they’re really quick to change their minds about stuff. Actually, kind of the opposite. They’re reeeeeeeally slow about changing their minds.”

“Yeah, humans and Seosten have that in common, at least,” I muttered while shaking my head. “But we’ve got time anyway. Hopefully we can settle at least a couple more of these other situations before that comes up.” 

“At least you don’t have Fossor hanging over your head anymore,” Shiori pointed out with a bright smile, hand reaching over to grab mine. “And I don’t think he’ll be coming back as a ghost.” 

The mere suggestion made me grimace, bile rising in my throat even as I squeezed her hand and tugged the other girl closer. Having her right there helped put thoughts of Fossor out of my mind. “God, don’t even say that. Don’t give the universe any ideas. It’s already got plenty of them and doesn’t need any extra help.”

Wincing, Shiori murmured an apology, just before leaning up to kiss me. Then she gave a slight smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll be here to help deal with anyone who thinks coming after you is a good idea. Right, Jazz?” 

“Sure,” the other girl confirmed. “I mean, not quite as close as you are, but I’ll definitely be there.” Her eyes glanced to me before she added, “And in the meantime, we made the full circuit around this whole place. You know what that means.” 

Shiori brightened, pulling back a bit to wink at me. “You did promise.” 

Glancing between both of them, I played up exhaling while waving both hands. As I did so, the two rings shot off my wrists and grew up to their full size, just large enough to hop through. “Sure, sure. Let’s take it again, all the way around. 

“And this time, we’ll use the speed boost rings.” 

******

A couple hours later, the loud and distinct sound of my staff clacking against another filled the air. Sweat poured down my face as I quickly snapped my weapon up to intercept a falling blow. It struck my staff with enough force to nearly make my legs buckle, even as a hearty laugh erupted from my opponent. “Good!” Uncle Al called while spinning the staff over his head lazily as he stepped back to give me a second to catch my breath. “You kept your feet under you. Maybe next time I’ll use a little more oomph.” 

His words made me squint. The two of us were standing in one of the training rooms. To one side, some other people were working out on the machines, but I could tell more of their attention was on us. Or rather, on him. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch the one-and-only Hercules, even if he was practicing against some tiny blonde nobody? 

Okay, practicing was probably a bit generous. He clearly wasn’t getting anything out of this. He just wanted to see what I was capable of, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t disappoint him too much. I had been putting enough effort into it that I was panting and sweating despite my incredibly-enhanced endurance. And yet he barely looked like he’d been doing anything at all. I was pretty sure a normal person would have been more winded by a light jog across the street than my Uncle Al was by ten minutes of me throwing everything I could at him. 

After catching my breath enough to actually speak, I demanded, “Exactly what percentage of your strength were you using right then? Please tell me it was more than an average person would use to stop a toddler from waving their hand around.”  

Al, however, simply smiled a bit at me. “That’s not really important. What is important is that you’re one tough little cookie. Trust me, you’re pretty far along considering how recently you started doing this. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, kid. But uhh, I recognize some of those moves. You’ve been learning from Sariel and Athena, haven’t you?” 

Coughing, I gestured. “Among others. They all wanted me to know how to take care of myself. It uhh, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with training. Avalon helps with that a lot too.” 

Showing his teeth with a sly grin, Al gave a short nod. “In that case, I wouldn’t mind jumping onto that list myself. Considering the sort of trouble I’ve heard you keep getting into, you could use all the extra training you can get.” 

Swallowing hard at that, I stared at him. “I am definitely not gonna object to Hercules training me. Heracles, Alcaeus, whatever.” 

“Uncle Al’s just fine,” he assured me. “But if you agree to this, don’t think I’ll take it easy on you just because we’re practically family. I’ll be working you to the bone.” 

“Oh, well in that case I better invite Avalon and the others,” I replied. “I mean, if Avalon finds out you’re putting me through real training and I didn’t invite her, she might never forgive me.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “If that’s okay, that is.” 

“The more the merrier!” Uncle Al informed me with a cheerful grin. “It’s been a long time since I had the chance to whip a few young upstarts into shape. You’ve put some good work into it, I’ll give you that. Solid base to work off of so we don’t have to start from scratch. But you give me some real time with you all and we’ll find out what you’re actually capable of.” After a brief pause, he added, “As long as it doesn’t make you ignore your other training. Give me a few hours a day, but you work on that whole necromancy thing too, you hear me? Especially with these Whisper things and the Seosten ghosts making themselves an issue, we’re gonna need you to be on top of that.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m still getting lessons from Brom Bones, plus Rahanvael and Persephone both said they could teach me some more stuff too. We’re definitely not gonna slack on that. Not that it’ll be an instant help or anything.” That last bit came in a mutter as I sighed. “I’m still not going to be strong enough to just snap my fingers and make them go away.” 

Uncle Al’s hand settled on my shoulder and squeezed firmly. “You listen to me. No one who matters expects you to be able to do that. Just do the best you can. Help buy everyone else time, so we can kick those ghost-asses, alright? You don’t have to handle the whole situation by yourself. And believe me, I know how that sounds coming from me. I’m not exactly the poster boy for working nicely with others. But you don’t need to be like me. You’ve got all these other people, and you haven’t fucked up your relationship with them. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Learn how to use your power to help deal with the ghosts. Emphasis on help.” 

Reaching up, I put my hand over his and offered the much-older man a hesitant smile. “Thanks, Uncle Al. I guess having so many people who can teach me how to do this stuff is my repayment for the fact that I have so much shit to deal with in the first place. Lots of problems, but lots of solutions too.” 

With a chuckle, he cuffed the side of my head lightly. “Now that makes sense to me. You’ve got a lot of shit being flung at you, but uhh, lots of people who can teach you how to dodge that shit too.” He grimaced then. “That metaphor sort of crashed and burned before it even got off the ground. Anyway, the point is, just keep learning and training, kid. You’ll get there. You’ve got all the resources you need. Just gotta use them. I know how easy it can be to feel… overwhelmed, trust me on that. But you’ll be okay. You’ve got these people behind you, and you’re one tough kid as it is.” 

“People like you behind me?” I offered with a raised eyebrow. 

That broad grin came back as he yanked me closer, put me in a headlock, and gave me a noogie. “Damn straight, people like me. You just point me at anyone giving you shit and I’ll redirect a river to drown them.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind the next time I run into any assholes who happen to be near a convenient river.” 

“Or lake, or ocean, or reservoir,” Al put in. “I’m not picky on the exact body of water I use to drown assholes. Might even get creative and use a tank of maple syrup, like this one time that–” Cutting himself off, he reconsidered. “You know what, maybe I’ll tell you that story later.” With that, he stepped back, pointing his staff at me. “First, let’s see you go another round.” 

“What–you mean I have to throw myself at you again before you’ll tell me the syrup story?” I demanded, huffing a little. 

“That’s right,” he confirmed, showing me his teeth once more. “I mean, come on, I’ve gotta hold some good things back. Just trust me, it’s a fantastic story. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of syrup, me, and a whole bunch of these five foot tall gremlin things.” Having said that, the man snapped his fingers. “Oh, and your old pal Hisao was there too.” 

My eyes widened a bit. “Hisao as in Professor Dare’s boyfriend?” 

“Well sure, he’s probably one of the few men alive who might be stronger than me,” Al pointed out. “Without cheating and stacking a bunch of other powers, that is.” 

“Hisao might be stronger than–” I cut myself off and exhaled. “Okay, now I really have to hear the rest of this story.” 

“Well, you know how to do it,” came the casual response as Al slapped the end of his staff into his palm hard enough to make the loud pop fill the room around us. “Bring it. 

“Show me what you can really do.” 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Christmas morning was, to say the least, a bit of a blur. It seemed weird to immediately think of it in the sense of a montage, and yet that was what it felt like even while it was happening. I had my grandparents back, and that was a whole thing. I spent hours just sitting on the couch with my parents in their apartment on the station, listening to Grandmaria and Grandpartie tell stories about what they had been through since they were transported to the Seosten homeworld. My grandfather, of course, compared everything to various adventures in Star Trek. That was a whole thing, especially since my father’s favorite captain was Picard and Popser’s was Sisko. My grandmother and mom, meanwhile, liked Kirk the best. All of which begat an entire conversation about various episodes and what-if situations. And apparently whenever Uncle Al showed up (he was giving our immediate family time to reunite), he would have his own very strong opinions to share. 

Personally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to that entire franchise, but it was still nice to just sit there and listen to them go back and forth about it. Though, to be fair, given the people involved I would have quite willingly listened to them go on about nearly anything. All that mattered was the fact that they were here now. They were all here, together on Christmas morning after we had been separated for so long. Hell, even the fact that it was Christmas was basically immaterial when you got right down to it. My grandparents had arrived. It could’ve been Arbor Day, and it would still be one of the most amazing and wonderful times of my life.

There was also the fact that through that, I found out that my grandmother had become a Puriel-Heretic. Seriously, she was bonded to him and it had stuck. She actually had his power, even if she was only a tiny fraction as powerful with it as he was at the moment. But she was learning. Baby steps, just like the way I was with my incredibly powerful Necromancy. Except even more, because it was goddamn Puriel

Which, of course, fled to a sudden moment of fear about what would have happened if the Whispers had decided to go after her instead. Whether their lack of attempt had more to do with not knowing about that, or her not being powerful enough for their purposes yet, I was just glad they had mostly left her alone. 

And she wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful grandparent I had, either. Well, she already wasn’t because of Dare, but still. She wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful paternal grandparent I had. Grandpartie had been bonded to the same sort of thing Gaia and Seller had been bonded to. He had picked up the technology control powers, like the former headmistress. Because of course he had. This was my grandfather we were talking about. He loved new technology. Given the chance to mentally control it? I was willing to bet that he had quite literally jumped at the chance. Possibly to the point of banging his head on the ceiling.

So, both of my paternal grandparents were bonded to incredibly powerful beings, and had their own absurd gifts that they were slowly learning how to harness. Which was… yeah, that was a thing. 

Not only did we sit there listening to Grandmaria and Popser tell their stories, but we also got to tell them our own. Well, mostly me. I ended up talking a lot that morning, from quite early, essentially re-telling the whole story about what had happened since I took the bus that morning a year and half earlier. A year and a half. God, it felt like so much longer. Most of a lifetime, actually. When I tried to think about what life was like before that day, through the first full sixteen years of my life, I almost couldn’t picture it. The whole thing basically felt like a story I had read somewhere, rather than what amounted to almost ninety percent of my life. 

In any case, telling the story (or many stories) about what I had been through up to this point eventually led to my grandmother insisting we make cookies and take them with us when we visited the others. She felt distraught that she hadn’t had time on Earth to actually buy presents, and assured us all that they would be doing that eventually. No amount of protests that it wasn’t necessary would dissuade her. She was going to get presents for everyone, no question about it. We would just have some sort of late/extra Christmas when the time came. 

That, of course, added to the ‘montage’ feel. I helped her bake cookies, while also taking the time to help my parents put the finishing touches on the gifts we were taking over to the others. Which was supposed to have been done the night before, but we’d been a bit occupied. 

We weren’t too far through that before Tabbris arrived. She had been spending time with her other family, and popped up to meet our grandparents for the first time in an actual peaceful, quiet situation. Or at least, that was the idea. Except as soon as she arrived and saw them in the kitchen, Tabbris immediately hid behind me with her hands on my shirt. She was clinging to me while peeking out that way, making a very uncertain noise in the back of her throat. Apparently it was one thing to meet them in the heat of the moment back on the ship with everything that had been going on, and quite another to do so right now on Christmas morning with no other distractions or anything. 

Brushing her apron off, Grandmaria took one look our way and seemed to understand. She immediately reached out, plucking one of the just-finished cookies from the tray. Her voice was chipper as she took a couple steps our way. “Now, if there’s one thing I know about my Flick, it’s that she loves my coconut chocolate chip cookies. She doesn’t share them with anyone she doesn’t really care about. She especially wouldn’t break one in half except for the most special sort of person.” 

Having said that, she extended a hand with the warm, delicious, oh-so-incredible cookie in her palm, offering it to me. In the background, I saw Popser and Dad having a quiet conversation in a corner of the kitchen while occasionally glancing our way, and Mom was pretending to be busy with the mixing bowl, all of them giving us time to get through this.

Taking the cookie, I went down to one knee and looked toward Tabbris. My hands smoothly broke the treat in half before I spoke quietly. “She’s right, you know. I don’t share my grandmother’s special coconut chocolate chip cookies with just anyone. They have to be my top most favorite people in the world. And splitting just one?” I gave a low whistle before raising my half of the cookie to take a bite. Immediately, my eyes rolled back a bit as I gave a murmur of appreciation. Then I lifted the second half and offered it to the other girl while continuing softly. “That sort of thing is only for someone I love very much.” 

There was a brief pause before Tabbris, face pink, slowly took the offered cookie half and bit into it. Immediately, she visibly shivered and gave a very quick nod. Her voice was a whisper. “I wouldn’t wanna share a whole cookie either.” Having said that, she quickly shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth and murmured appreciatively. Then her eyes blinked open once more to focus on our grandmother, offering a tentative smile. “Um, hi… hi.”

Gesturing back and forth, I introduced them officially. “Tabbris, this is our grandmother. Grandmaria, this is Tabbris, my sister.” 

“Why, hello, Tabbris.” Grandmaria stepped over closer. She didn’t go down to one knee the way I had, instead reaching out to take the girl’s raised hand as she started to wave. “Do you know what my very favorite sorts of heroes are?” 

“Um, no?” Tabbris offered a bit uncertainly while letting the older woman take her hand (her other one was busy checking for any crumbs from that cookie). 

With a kind, gentle smile, our grandmother explained, “I have three favorites. My first favorite heroes are the very sneaky ones who do all this work to help people without getting a lot of credit for it. My second favorite are the people who help my friends and family. And my third favorite are my own family themselves. So, you know, by all that, I would say that you might just be my very most top favorite person right now. I’m not sure yet though, we need one more test, just to check.”

Eyes darting briefly to me, still kneeling beside her, and then back again, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “One more test?”  

Still giving the same tender, welcoming and yet somehow conspiratorial smile that I recognized from so many years past, Grandmaria gently replied, “Well, yes, before I decide if someone fits the family member sort of favorite person, I have to see how good they are at hugs.” 

A giggle escaped the girl beside me, before she managed to retort with a somewhat-straight face, “I dunno, that puts a lot of pressure on a first hug.” 

With a laugh at that, our grandmother tugged her over by the hand and the two embraced. It was somewhat tentative at first on Tabbris’s part, as she was obviously still a bit nervous about the whole thing. But that quickly vanished as she felt just how intently Grandmaria was hugging her, and she ended up latching on just as tightly. 

Watching that while smiling, I straightened and glanced to my parents. They were both watching as well, and Dad gave me a thumbs up. Then he leaned over to whisper something to his own father before both of them chuckled softly. 

By the time Tabbris and Grandmaria separated, Popser was right there. He reached down, taking the little girl by both hands and squeezing them. On a ‘one, two, three, hup,’ he hoisted her off the floor and into his arms for a tight hug of his own. 

It didn’t end there either. They both passed Tabbris back and forth for several more hugs before being satisfied for the moment. Then we got back to talking while finishing the last batch of cookies as I (with help from Tabbris, Dad, and Mom) finished getting them caught up on what they had missed. Or at least as much as we could think of right then. I was sure there would be a lot more specific details we have to get into later. But they had at least the broad strokes. And it also gave me a chance to let Tabbris know about just what our grandparents had been bonded to, so I could see if the look on her face was as great as the one on mine had probably been. So, of course, she had to hear all about that. And they both had to demonstrate, which was fun. Especially when Popser got Tabbris to ‘pull his finger’ and turned every television, radio, light, etcetera in the apartment on, including setting off a couple alarm clocks. And yes, that made Tabbris fall over giggling.   

Eventually, the cookies were ready and we packed them up along with all the presents, before heading out to go see Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt. They were waiting for us in Abigail’s apartment, and we all exchanged more hugs and greetings. Grandmaria and Grandpartie were both immediately taken with all three of the others, and stories were soon flying back and forth. Wyatt wasn’t exactly shy (awkward sure, but not shy), yet even he seemed to take to our grandparents incredibly quickly. Before long, he and Popser were sitting at a corner of the room, going over some sort of security device designs that Wyatt had scrawled on the back of a napkin. They sounded like little kids conspiring to build a tree house or something. It was pretty great, even if I was a bit nervous about what they would end up with. 

Koren, standing beside me as we watched everyone interacting and laughing like that, leaned over to whisper, “Did you ever think we’d be standing here like this back at school last year?” 

The thought made me snort at first, before shaking my head. A lump had formed in my throat. Looking at everyone, I stopped to think about how lucky I was in that moment. Sure, plenty of bad stuff had happened. And plenty of other bad stuff would happen in the future. But right then, I was celebrating Christmas with my father, mother, Grandmaria, Grandpartie, Koren, Wyatt, Abigail, and Tabbris. They all knew the truth, they were all on the same page, and we were together. What would the me from the year before even do if I had told her this was what the next Christmas would be like? I honestly had absolutely no idea. 

Of course, that led to the question of what next Christmas would be like, but I wasn’t going to focus on that right now. This was a day that I wanted to savor every last minute of. 

Finally, I found my voice. “Nope. I think I can safely say that I never expected to be in a situation like this.” Then I glanced toward the other girl and added, “Especially not when we first met.” 

Koren, in turn, snorted while giving a vigorous nod. “Especially not when we met.” After a brief grimace, she offered a small shrug. “I guess that just goes to show how much things can change, huh?” She glanced over toward Wyatt before adding, “Really, really change.” 

“Here,” I raised my hand with a treat in it. “Try one of Grandmaria’s cookies. Believe me, you wanna talk about change you’ll look back on? 

“After this, everything in your life will be ‘before cookie’ and ‘after cookie.’”

*******

So, that was how Christmas went. Well, that was how Christmas with the family went. We exchanged presents and all that. Uncle Al did eventually show up, which started a whole other round of stories, especially when who he really was got pointed out. And yes, they all made me change into my werelion form to pose with him. It wasn’t exactly the same as a real Nemean Lion (I was entirely too tiny), but the others got a kick out of it anyway. 

All in all, it was fun. And I also spent time with others, besides family. It was an entire day of that stuff. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was still deep in partying mode after that whole protection spell thing. Which they had gotten Puriel and everyone else linked into, so hopefully they would be safe from Whisper counterattacks. And beyond that, they were apparently working on security updates on the station to keep them out or monitor for them. I’d tried to get more information, but Abigail basically gave me a hard stare and told me to enjoy Christmas. I sort of heard an unspoken ‘or else’ behind her words, so I left it alone for the moment. Abigail could be pretty scary in her own right when she wanted to be. 

Late that night, after almost everyone else had already gone to bed, I was sitting in the park part of our housing area, watching a few people on the forcefield elevators as they came down. I had both of the rings that I had inherited from that Seosten ghost hovering close to the ground in front of me, as Jaq and Gus played by hopping back and forth through them from both sides so they could be faster or slower. They were clearly amusing themselves quite a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I glanced that way. 

“Well, it’s nice to see they’re having fun.” Asenath, seated beside me, noted. “Who gave them the Christmas hats?” 

Yeah, both cyberform mice were wearing little red Santa hats that had been attached to their equally-little heads. There were even tiny bells on the end that jingled softly whenever they did their hops back and forth. 

“Shiori,” I informed the other girl, as a fond smile found its way to my face at the thought. “I told them they didn’t have to wear the hats past the party, but you should have seen the look they gave me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to get that girl to make a whole bunch of little hats for them to wear. Otherwise I’ll never get those ones off them.” 

With a very low chuckle, Senny took a small piece of metal about the size of the top of a soda can from her pocket and tossed it down for the pair to immediately start munching on from either side. “Well, I can’t exactly blame them. They are very stylish.” 

“That’s for sure,” I agreed, before looking toward her. “It must be weird for you. I mean, you grew up before the whole Santa myth was even–” 

“Myth?” She glanced to me and raised an eyebrow. “After all this time, you really find the story of Santa completely impossible to believe?” 

Her words made me squint at the girl. “You are not about to tell me that Santa Claus is real. I’m sorry, but if you say those words, I’m just going to get up and walk away.” 

She, in turn, gave a low laugh. “Okay, the answer is no, he’s not real. And yet he is. Sort of.” To my confused look, Senny waved a hand. “It’s the elves that are real. Or rather, the LVS.” When I didn’t get it, she spelled it out. “The L-V-S.” 

From there, she told me the story about the tiny creatures who had arrived on Earth with no memory of their past, and their only clues being a badly damaged ship with the letters L V S visible. Letters the collective amnesiac creatures had taken as their name. LVS or ‘elves.’ Apparently they had been helped a lot by the actual Saint Nicholas way back in the days that he had actually lived. Once he died, they spread his legend and basically helped create and push the whole Santa Claus thing. And they tried to give gifts as much as they could. Clearly, they couldn’t do the whole world or anything like that, but they did do what was possible. And any parents that happened to see brand new gifts under the tree with no explanation, well, that was covered by the Bystander Effect. If they even got that far. According to Asenath, a lot of people just assumed either the other parent or some relative left the gift. They ignored it. 

Hearing all that kind of made me want to meet these LVS, but apparently they were pretty notoriously secretive. Asenath herself had only met them one time, a few decades back. Still, I’d met enough important people in the past year and a half that I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility. 

Before I could say anything else about that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I plucked it out and took a look before blinking. “Uh, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here,” I murmured. “It’s Jack Childs.” The Eden’s Garden Victor was calling me, and I could only think of one reason for that. 

“Hello?” I answered, hitting the speaker button. “It’s Flick, and Asenath is here too.” 

“Ah, good to hear,” came the response. “Heard a lot about you, Asenath. Good things, for the most part. And plenty of bad from the right sort of people.” 

“I do enjoy hearing that the right people have bad things to say about me,” Senny noted. 

We both heard the man chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth. Anyway, a happy Christmas to you both. But I think you know why I’m calling.” 

“You have a lead on Kyril Shamon’s secret prison,” I immediately replied. “I mean, where he might be keeping… Tiras.” As I said that, my eyes darted toward Asenath. She had gone a bit still, staring intently down at the phone. 

There was a very brief pause (which seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was) before Childs confirmed. “That’s right, we’ve got a lead on it. But even better, we have a lead on a transport that’s taking place. If you can take a group, subtly intercept that transport, and show up there, you’ll be able to get your entire group inside before they know anything’s wrong and when it all goes down, Shamon will think the Rebellion simply chased it down that way.” 

“So whatever resources you used to find out where it is won’t be burned,” I murmured thoughtfully. A part of me wanted to note that they also wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, but I knew better than that. This was about more than Senny’s dad. As important as he was to her, and to Shiori and me by extension, there was a whole war for the world and beyond to deal with. The rebel Victors couldn’t blow every resource they had to help save one guy. Or even a full prison camp. 

“Yes,” came the response. “The transport isn’t for a couple weeks, but if you’re interested, you should start putting together a group to deal with it. Be ready to get into the camp, find the prisoners, and get out before Shamon finds out and sends reinforcements.” 

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” I replied, smiling dangerously toward Senny. 

“Just give us the details. We’ll take care of the rest.” 

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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At Last 16-08 And Patreon Snippets 23 Concluded (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, something really fucked-up was going on around here. First we had found the Olympus seemingly abandoned when Puriel, my grandparents, and the others were supposed to be on it. Not to mention the fact that recall wasn’t working the way it should, cutting us off from getting any information from them at all. And now, shortly after we had transported over here to check things out in person, the ship was suddenly moving again? Someone else was in control, and they were sending the ship… somewhere. We had no idea who, and no idea where they were directing the ship. 

Apollo was already using his communication spell to call up to where Mercury, Haiden, and Larissa were. They answered immediately. Unfortunately, they didn’t know anything more than we did about what was going on. According to Mercury, he was totally locked out of the controls. They weren’t responding at all. He was going to try to get to the bottom of that, but it would take awhile. 

Worse, the connection was really faint. We could barely hear them. Mercury said something about interference, and that we should try to find the source of it because it was coming from somewhere on our level. 

Then the communication cut out entirely. We tried again, but got no more response from Mercury, or the other two. Nor did any of the other groups respond when Mom tried for herself, using multiple powers. Finally, she grimaced and looked to the rest of us. “It’s like he said, they’re being jammed somehow. Not just communication, but transport-type powers too. At least, within the ship. I really don’t like this. I hate to say the obvious, but this seriously feels like a trap of some sort. A trap that we just walked right into.”

“We can’t use the escape spells yet,” I immediately insisted. “We don’t know what happened to the others. If we transport off the ship, we might never find it, or them, again.” 

Dad’s hand found my shoulder, squeezing it. “If my parents and the others are on this ship, we’ll find them. And figure out what’s going on around here.”  

Mom sighed softly, nodding once. “Yes, we will. But if this gets to be too dangerous, I want both of you to use the escape spells. You too, Avalon. And–I know you’re not the original Miranda, but I want you to jump back to your original self and tell everyone there to get off the ship too, if it comes down to it. I mean it. If we have to, Apollo and I can keep the search going without you.” With that, she drew Clarent from its place at her hip, the black blade giving off that strange light in the process. 

Valley and I exchanged glances, but didn’t argue. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything right then. But I knew for certain that the last thing I was going to do was run away and leave my mother on a ship that was going who the hell knew where, controlled by who the hell knew who. Or what.

“So, we find the source of that jamming?” I finally asked. “Mercury said it was coming from somewhere on this floor. Uh, deck, I mean. That’s the ship term, right? Anyway, it’s coming from somewhere around here. And if the jamming is coming from around here, I bet we could find answers about the rest of what’s going on.” I made a show of turning in a circle with my hands out. “There’s gotta be something helpful around–” 

In my head, Tabbris piped up, Flick! Look to your right, over there in the corner next to the elevator doors. I–I just saw… There was something there, but I need to see it better. Not the A&M, something else. It’s down low.

Confused, but trusting her, I pivoted promptly and took a step that way before leaning down. At first, I couldn’t see what she was talking about. Then my eyes found it. A symbol etched into the metal, almost invisible. I was surprised she had noticed it at all as I had spun in a circle. But now that I had a closer look, it was immediately familiar.  

“Uhh, guys?” I spoke up, raising a hand. “Look at this thing. It’s the same sort of rune they used to drive away the Whispers back on the Quietus. And on Doug’s colony world.” 

Clearly taken aback by those words, Apollo moved closer and leaned down to look for himself. Frowning immediately, he ran a finger along them and murmured, “These are fresh. Someone put them here recently. I’d say at least within the past day. Probably less.”

Dad shook his head, having stepped over to look for himself. “Okay, but who would have put them there? Puriel?” 

“Him or Aletheia, maybe,” I pointed out. “Or maybe Uncle Al. They said he’s pretty good at magic, I think. But I don’t know if any of them know these spells. Wait, does that mean that it’s those Whisper things that are controlling the ship right now? Maybe they showed up and whoever knew these spells used them to try to protect Grandmaria and Popser, and the kids.” 

“That doesn’t explain where any of them are now,” Avalon pointed out. “Unless they’re holed up somewhere else in the ship and that jamming stuff, whatever it is, is stopping them from reaching out or responding. Or even knowing anyone’s here.” 

Apollo’s voice was grim. “I don’t want to think about what these things could be capable of if they’re enough to make Puriel hole up instead of blasting them off his ship. But that sounds like the best explanation we’ve got so far.” He pivoted. “We need to find the source of that jamming. And keep an eye out for more of those protection runes. They might lead us to answers too.” 

Mom gave a short nod, glancing around once more. “You take the lead. You know the ship. I’ll stay at the back, just in case.” Giving Dad, Avalon, Miranda, and me a brief look, she gestured. “Like Apollo said, you guys watch for more of those runes. I don’t know who put that one there, but I doubt it’s the only one.” 

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed, leaning in close to stare at it. “I just wish I could communicate with the other me’s to share information without poofing out of existence here entirely. It’s a one-way trip, and I can’t jump right back here to tell you guys anything they know.” 

With that, we started to move once more. It was basically the same as before, when we were searching each engine-connected compartment, only now we were moving faster, and we had specific jobs to do. Dad, Avalon, and I were checking each square inch of surface we passed, looking for more of those runes. Mom and Apollo were watching for threats and using various spells to scan for the source of that jamming. 

On the way, I spoke up. “So hold on. If those Whisper things are here, do you think we can’t hear them because of Liesje’s spell? I mean, the anti-Whisper stuff on Doug’s hat sort of protected against Seosten. Okay, not completely, but it let Pace and Theia both control her body at the same time. So if it works one direction, maybe it works the other way. The spell protects us from possession and might be shielding us from the Whispers too.” Even as I finished saying that, I found myself blanching. “Which means–” 

“Which means they might be somewhere around us,” Apollo finished, voice grim. “Possible. I don’t think so, but possible. I’ve got detection spells going and they haven’t picked up anything. Then again, I don’t want to stake anyone’s life on the idea that they’d be able to pick up these Whisper things.” Pausing briefly, he sighed. “Just keep your eyes open, I guess. For those marks, for any sign of these Whispers, or… anything else.”

So, we continued on like that through the engine deck, watching for anything that stood out. If there were Whispers around, we didn’t see any sign of them specifically. Nor did we find my grandparents or anyone else. On the other hand, we did find more of those runes. Hidden as they were, I was pretty sure we didn’t see all of them. But we found enough to let us know that they were all over the place. We checked a few more and all of them were quite fresh. This was definitely something new. And it made me even more intensely curious to find out what had actually happened here. Not to mention what was happening now. Why had the ship suddenly turned on? Where the hell was it taking us? How had whatever was responsible locked Mercury out of the system like that? And on and on the questions went. They kept replaying through my head while we walked, even as I forced myself to focus on watching for anyone.

On the other hand, maybe it was that slight distraction that ended up helping in the end. My thoughts were drifting slightly as I leaned around the edge of yet another doorway to scan it for any runes, when I felt something. It was very faint, but made my head tilt as the rest of me froze.

Avalon noticed immediately, stepping over to put a hand on my arm. “What is it?”

Everyone else had stopped to look at us, and I held up a hand for them to wait before closing my eyes so I could focus. That sensation had been at the very edge of my perception, almost too faint to catch. But it was there, barely. With my eyes still closed, I tried to stretch my senses that way to pick up more of it. Or even pull it closer. But it was like trying to grab liquid soap with splayed fingers. I felt a bit of its remains, even as the rest simply slipped away. And what little I had managed to grab faded before I could pull it back to us. It wasn’t the best metaphor, but close enough. The point was, I couldn’t keep hold of it. 

Did you… I started, needing someone else to verify what I felt. 

It was there, Tabbris assured me. She sounded just as frustrated as I felt. But I couldn’t get anything else. It was right there, like… like seeing something out of the corner of your eye.

With silent agreement, I looked to the others as they watched me expectantly. Taking a breath, I explained, “Ghosts. Or something like them, I’m not sure. I can sense something, just… sort of on the edge. I can’t get hold of it. Like… like it’s only partially here or something. It keeps fading out whenever I reach for it. But there’s definitely something. It’s just… faint.” 

Mom’s voice was flat, as she glanced around us with that black-bladed sword held out, its glow illuminating the nearby walls. “Does it feel like Kushiel did?” 

I hesitated slightly before offering a helpless shrug. “Not exactly, but similar I guess? I need to get closer, but I can’t even tell exactly where it’s coming from. I can’t sense a direction, just that it’s barely there at all. I just…” Heaving a sigh, I muttered, “I’m sorry, it’s not really helpful.” 

“Yes, it is,” Dad assured me. His hand found my back, squeezing it. “Just knowing there’s something out there is helpful, isn’t it?” 

“Something,” I agreed, “but we still don’t know what. Maybe the–I don’t know.” Something about that feeling was bugging me. Which wasn’t exactly a useful feeling, considering I had been feeling bugged about this whole situation from the start. Still, even that faint, fleeting sensation of something at least ghost-adjacent was enough to send a shiver up my back. 

Pausing, I murmured, “Hold on a second.” Then I reached out, stretching my power toward not the feeling I’d just had, but to someone else.

It took a few seconds, but I felt the response just before Seth coalesced in front of me. His ghost form appeared, the man immediately speaking. “Right, this better be important. We have parties too, and I was right in the middle of teaching–” He stopped, blinking a bit while looking around to take in where we were and who was around. “I ahh, I haven’t been everywhere on the station, but… this isn’t the station, is it?” Focusing on me once more, his eyes narrowed. “Let me guess, you couldn’t even take one damn day off without–” 

Mom spoke up. “Seth, it’s Lincoln’s parents. And the others.” He looked to her and she gave him a quick rundown of what was going on. Only a few sentences worth, but enough that he immediately muttered a curse. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” I agreed. “I need you to come with us, and if we do find any ghosts, or anything like them… well, use a ghost to fight a ghost.” 

He regarded me for a moment, before giving a short nod. “You’re worried that they’ll be like Kushiel, that you won’t be able to control them yourself.” 

Shrugging, I replied, “It’s a possibility. And if I can’t affect them, maybe I can at least boost you enough to punch them in the face really hard.” 

“I do enjoy punching,” he agreed. “Okay, fine. I’m with you. But we better get back before the party’s totally over. I don’t know about you living people, but the haunted mansion is hopping.” 

“I don’t think it’s ending anytime in the next couple days,” I pointed out flatly. “Now come on, we’ve still got a lot to search.” 

So, we kept going. If I had been by myself, I would have had to try to split my attention between watching for more Whisper runes, and stretching out my senses to check for any sign of that ghost sensation. But I wasn’t alone. Tabbris was here, so we split the duties. She took control of my body, making me walk after the others while looking for the runes, and I devoted everything I had toward trying to detect anything I could as far as spirits went. Or anything else that tripped my Necro-senses. I was barely paying any attention to the world around us, trusting Tabbris to navigate and let me know if anything stood out. I had to put everything toward the single task of sensing for ghosts. 

In the end, it was a good thing I did so, otherwise I would have missed the tickle at the very back of my mind several minutes into our search. Even focused as I was, I still barely picked it up, almost dismissing it before stopping myself. I strained even more, like stretching up on my tiptoes to reach for something on a high shelf that I could barely brush with my fingers. Almost… almost… there. There it was. I could feel it, and that time when the presence withdrew, I was able to make my senses follow it. 

And with that, as soon as I kept my grip on that faint sensation long enough, I was finally able to figure out what was going on, what was really happening. As soon as I did, I stopped short, grabbing control of my body once more before holding my hands out for the others. “Wait, stop. Hold on.” 

Tabbris, who could already read my mind and had realized the truth right alongside me as soon as I had, gasped inwardly and immediately muttered a couple words in my head that she probably wouldn’t have said aloud. 

Everyone else was looking at us expectantly, and I took a breath before raising my hand and turning to point. “We need to go that way.” 

Without actually looking, my mother simply replied, “Honey, there’s a wall there.” The others gave assorted nods of agreement. Again, without looking. 

“Is there?” I insisted. “Mom, you trust me, right?” 

“With my life, and everything,” she confirmed without hesitation, meeting my gaze. 

“I know it’s going to be hard,” I informed her, my gaze laser-focused on my mother. I had to break through to her. “But that’s okay. You’re accustomed to doing hard things. You do them all the time. You survived everything this universe could throw at you. You did what you had to do. You won every time, no matter what it was. You saw what you had to do and you did it. Nothing else could have stopped you, and neither will this. So, please, I need you to do one more thing for me. For me, Mom. No matter how hard it is, no matter how much you don’t want to. You have to do this. Please. For me, for Dad, for the rest of your family. You have to do this one thing.” Letting out a breath, I finished with a firm, “Turn around and look at where I’m pointing.”  

She almost didn’t. The effect was that strong and that difficult to push past. But in the end, after several long moments of silence, Mom finally, with great mental effort, turned her head. She followed the sight of my finger first, every muscle within her clearly fighting the effort. Her eyes were downcast, one last effort not to see. And then… oh so slowly… they rose. 

That was enough. With a gasp, Mom jerked as though something that had been holding her was abruptly broken. “Door!” Her voice sounded like someone who had been deep underwater for too long and finally broke the surface, that almost violent exhale, that gasp. “There’s a door!” 

With effort, the others did the same, helped by Mom’s reaction as it broke through the effect. Everyone finally turned to look and saw the door there. When his own eyes found it, Seth cursed out loud, much more colorfully than Tabbris’s silent mutterings a few moments earlier. Finally, he ended with, “–the chocolate-coated fuck?” 

“It’s the Whispers, I think,” I quickly put in. “The anti-possession spell helps, but it doesn’t completely keep them out. They’ve been able to do a little bit, like stop us from noticing this door. Or the fact that we keep going in circles in this small area. We’ve barely gone anywhere on this floor. We keep turning around. Probably because you need to go through this door to get anywhere else.” 

Apollo, who seemed as shaken as anyone by the realization that something had been affecting his mind like that, spoke up. “Yes. We can’t get anywhere else on this deck without passing through that hatch. They’ve been running us in circles. I… I didn’t even notice.” 

“Fuck, dude, I didn’t notice either.” Miranda was clearly reeling, pivoting in place as she pointed one way, then the other. “We must’ve gone through this area… God damn it, how many times?” 

“None of us noticed,” Dad pointed out, his voice proud as he looked at me. “Except Flick.” 

Flushing a little bit despite myself, I waved that off. “I would have missed it too. I did miss it, repeatedly. Every time we passed this spot, I felt that little brush on my mind, but it wasn’t enough to figure out what was going on. Not until I really focused on it and let Tabbris control me. I just–even then I almost missed it. I almost ignored it, because it told me to ignore it.” 

Avalon gave a little shudder, head shaking. “If they can make all of us completely ignore a door and walk in circles for ten minutes, even with Liesje’s protection, what could they make people do without it?” 

“Very bad things,” Mom answered, already striding that way. “And now I, for one, want to find out why they were trying so hard to stop us from going in here.” 

“Mom, wait,” I interrupted, holding out a hand before looking toward Seth. “Could you…?” 

He gave a short nod before floating that way with a casual, “Sure, what’s the worst they could do, kill me?” Pausing briefly by the metal hatch, he looked back to me. “Seriously, they better not be able to erase me, I’m just getting the hang of this ghost thing.” 

With that, he pushed through the hatch, and I sent my senses into him, watching through his eyes as he came out the other side to a narrow corridor. There was nothing there aside from a second hatch about ten feet onward, so he kept going, passing through the next one. 

Now there was something. An octagonal-shaped room with doors on every side, including the one Seth had just passed through. In the middle of that room was a smallish black woman in a dark red suit, who stood in the middle of a circle of those Whisper runes. All around her were… distortions in the air, even as the woman herself seemed calm and collected, almost like she was ignoring them. But I could feel the runes around her starting to lose power. They wouldn’t last much longer.

“We have to get in there,” I blurted immediately as I snapped my focus back to myself, moving to the door while explaining in a rush what I had seen. 

We could all feel the Whispers trying one more time to divert our attention away from the door, but now that we knew what their influence felt like, it was much easier to shrug off. No doubt largely thanks to Liesje’s spell. If we hadn’t just finished that before doing this, I had no idea how this whole thing would have gone. Poorly, no doubt. 

As it was, we pushed through the effect and made it into the other room. The moment we did, I could feel the Whispers all around us. They weren’t exactly ghosts. Well, maybe they were. They were something akin to them, at least. Either way, I could feel a lot of them filling up the room. Immediately, I shoved hard with all my power while snapping, “Get out!” 

They vanished promptly. I wasn’t sure how much of that was from my power, and how much was because they chose to. But the point was, they were gone. Which gave us time to look at the woman standing in the rune circle. 

“Aletheia?” Apollo immediately put in, stepping that way. 

“Hello, Apollo,” she greeted him simply, turning to face us. “I’m glad you’re here. We have to find the others and stop this ship. 

“Before the Whispers finish piloting us straight into Tartarus.” 

*********

Patreon Snippets 23 – Concluded

A Short Time Earlier

“We’re here!” The excited cry came from the small, six-year-old dark-skinned girl with bright green eyes as she bounced up and down, hands tightly clutching Maria and Arthur Chambers’ hands. She’d had no name in the facility she had been kept within before being rescued alongside her fellow… experiments, but had since been dubbed Zahd by one of Puriel’s household staff. It was the word for laugh within the language of the woman who had named her. “We’re here, we’re here!” 

Her cry heralded much more excited chattering from the rest of the assorted children, all of whom were staring intently at the viewscreen, which showed the planet Earth directly ahead, taking up much of the view. It was zoomed in, of course. They weren’t that close to the planet. Still, they were close enough that it would not be long at all before they would finally truly be there. After all this time and all the close calls they’d had, the Olympus was finally at Earth. And everyone on board who had family waiting for them were about to have their reunions. 

Needless to say, Maria and Arthur were just as excited as the children around them. They even did a bit of their own bouncing, though theirs was considerably more restrained. Still, they exchanged smiles with one another, before Maria turned fully to look at Puriel by the captain’s chair. He wasn’t sitting in it at the moment. That honor, in this case, had been reserved for Spark. Which, yes technically she wasn’t actually sitting there. She was still inside Puriel’s body, using a tiny portion of his power to manifest a solid-light image of herself. An enchanted stone kept within the ‘head’ of the magical hologram provided all the sight, hearing, and other senses she needed, and allowed her to speak. It was as close as they could get to giving the girl her own body, so long as she was trapped within Puriel’s thanks to her own condition. 

“How long until we can contact them? And… and how long until we can be there?” Maria asked the man himself, unable to keep the anxiousness out of her voice. She wanted to talk to her son and granddaughter. And, now that she knew the whole story, even her daughter-in-law. There were many things she needed to say to that woman, most of them apologies for the things she had thought and said over the past decade. But she wanted to do it in person. After everything, she owed her son’s wife that much. 

Puriel glanced over from the screen, meeting her gaze with a soft smile that told her he knew what she was thinking, and how badly she wanted to be with her family. His eyes, meanwhile, showed that he had his own assortment of apologies to give. “Technically, we could contact them over coms now,” he replied. “But we are still far enough away that they would likely be picked up by other Seosten forces around the planet, including the outpost on the moon.” 

“There’s a Seosten outpost on the moon?” Arthur turned that way, suddenly interested. “What are they doing, spying on the planet with telescopes or something? Can we see them from here?” He turned his attention back to the monitor, squinting toward the small speck where the moon was, as though attempting to pick out the outpost for himself with his naked eyes. 

Chuckling softly, Puriel shook his head. “No, you would not be able to see them. They are very well-hidden. Particularly since your people began to truly study the place with their technology. And they are not spying on the planet. My people have agents down there to do that. They are standing guard over–” 

Before the man could finish what he had been saying, there was a whooshing sound as Alcaeus entered at a jog. “Did I miss it? Did we call them already to let them know we’re here? Tell me I didn’t miss it!” He was looking around rapidly, arms full of various colorfully-wrapped packages. 

“You didn’t miss it,” Maria assured him with a small smile before nodding to his packages. “What do you have there?” 

“This?” The large man smiled broadly, his attention centering on the assortment of children surrounding Maria and Arthur. “These are just a few gifts I wanted to hand out before we get there.” When there was no response from the kids, he cleared his throat. “Ahem, time to come get your presents!” 

That did the trick. The children, who had been entirely unaccustomed to receiving anything throughout their time as what amounted to medical experiments, had learned what ‘presents’ were throughout their time on Puriel’s island and then this ship. Arthur and Maria had made certain of that. Hearing the magic word made their eyes light up, as they stampeded that way. 

Laughing cheerfully, Alcaeus handed out the presents and watched as the children began to unwrap them to reveal various jeans, skirts, shirts, jackets, and shoes. 

Seeing that, Maria’s eyes widened. “Al, what did you do?” 

The man’s voice was fond. “If we’re going to be on Earth, I thought it would be a good idea for the kids to have some Earth clothing. Just used a little magic to turn the designs I drew from memory into the real deal.” 

“That is…” Maria shook her head before stepping over that way to embrace him. “You are a good man.” With that, she turned back to the kids, starting to address them, before her eyes fell on Spark, still seated on the captain’s chair. One other person hadn’t approached the gift opening either. Omni. He was standing by his sister, both silent. 

Before Maria could say anything else, Al was already stepping past her. He held two more gift packages, one of which he handed to Omni, before pointedly setting the other in Spark’s lap. “You should both open these together,” he informed them in a low voice. 

The siblings did just that, opening the gifts together. Both contained more clothing, similar to what the others had received. 

“I know you can manifest your… hologram to look like anything you want,” Al informed Spark. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve real clothes that you can put on, just like everyone else. And when we get you into your own body, you’re going to need them.” 

For a moment, it looked as though the girl was trying to find the right words to respond to that. Her mouth opened and shut, staring up at the man from the seat. In the end, she simply managed a soft, “Thank you.” 

Before Al could respond to that, Maria spoke up. “Puriel? What is it?” 

Turning, Al saw the man in question moving to the doorway leading out of the bridge. His voice was distracted. “Do you all hear that? Who– Aletheia?” 

Arthur, Maria, and Alcaeus exchanged looks. Whatever Puriel had heard, it wasn’t the woman in question. She was on the far side of the ship, taking care of a few extra things before they arrived. 

The three followed after him as he stepped out into the room beyond the bridge. They were trailed by Spark, Omni, and the rest of the children. Maria thought about telling them to remain there, but decided it was better for everyone to stick together. 

Spark had already transported herself to appear next to Puriel, as the man stood in that trapezoid-shaped room outside the bridge. He turned one way, then the other. “Someone was talking,” the man murmured. “Someone was whispering right outside the bridge. No, more than one. People. They were whispering. I… heard them. It was just on the…” He trailed off, a frown finding its way to his face as his head slowly turned to the side, as though listening once more. 

Abruptly, Spark did something none of them would ever, in a millennium, have expected her to do. She pivoted, lashing out with a hand to smack across Puriel’s face with as much force as she could muster. His head snapped to the side while everyone else gasped. 

“Spark!” Maria blurted. “What are you doing?!”

Puriel, however, held up a hand. “Stop, she was right. I was… losing myself. Those whispers, they were telling me to… oh.” His gaze snapped up. “Whispers.” 

“Whispers?” Arthur echoed. “Who’s whisp–” 

“Whispers!” That was Kutattca, the Native American man approaching from one of the elevators. His face was covered in sweat and a bit of blood. “You’re right, it’s those creatures. They’re here on the ship. I don’t know how, but they are.” 

“What creatures?” Arthur demanded. “What are you–” 

“We need to find a safe place to defend,” Puriel announced abruptly. “We’ll use the protective runes and block them out, before they have a chance to affect the others.” Even as he spoke, the man focused, using his power to cast a spell that would give him a communication line with Aletheia. “Whispers are on the ship,” he informed her. “We do not know how many, but… enough that I have been affected. I’m contacting Aur–Athena now.” 

“Oh, no, I don’t think you are,” came another response. This was from the doorway leading into the bridge crew conference room, across from the bridge. And it was more than a whisper. It came as a full voice, along with a figure who moved into view, visible to everyone. 

“What–” Puriel started, before his eyes widened. His communication with Aletheia had stopped, cut off from his distraction. “How are…

“You.”  

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Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 21st edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Virginia Dare

1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

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

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

******* 

Millions of years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 19 Including Fomorian Origin Story (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 19th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Months Ago, During The Night Of The Rebellion Being Reformed

There were three incredibly important things that one had to know about Malcolm Harkess’s father, Shane, if one was going to understand his son. First, the man was very rich. He had inherited a decent amount (seven figures) of money as an eighteen-year-old orphan. Second, despite inheriting such cash, Shane Harkess was still incredibly driven to earn his own way. He went into the US Marines and served his country for ten years on three different continents before retiring as a first sergeant. From there, he used the money he had originally inherited as well as the contacts he made in the service to start-up an armed private security company. 

Those were two of the three important things to know about Shane Harkess. The third, even more vital piece of information, was that he was also incredibly paranoid. Shane had been convinced since the time that he was a child that some sort of very dangerous and devastating war was coming. A war which would begin with most technology in the world being wiped out or eliminated. Which, of course, would make supplies quite hard to come across. Thus, he trained the men in his security company not only how to fight using their fancy guns and equipment, but also in much more archaic forms of combat. He had trained in medieval weapons construction, upkeep, and fighting, hand-to-hand, various survival and concealment techniques, and so on since before he had even entered the military itself. The Marines, of course, had taken these skills to the next level. And he passed that level to everyone who ended up working for him. 

But it wasn’t only his men that he taught. Shane Harkess passed everything he knew, everything he had trained himself to do, on to his son. Malcolm, from the time he had been barely old enough to walk, had been taught how to fight and survive by his father, as well as his father’s military buddies and security subordinates. He learned how to clean, maintain, and fire every type of gun imaginable, as well as how to fight without such an advantage. He learned to survive in the woods with nothing but a knife, and eventually with less than that. 

All that training had been instilled so thoroughly in Malcolm that he was incredibly competitive. That competitive streak had accompanied him here, to Crossroads. Yet no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he worked, he could never manage to beat Avalon Sinclaire. And he so desperately wanted to. Not because he particularly disliked the girl or anything. Not even because she was a girl, that was stupid. He knew too many really strong females to think something idiotic like that. 

No, Malcolm wanted to beat Avalon simply because she was better than he was. And if he beat her, he’d know he was improving. It was nothing personal. But he could never do it. Which led to him pushing himself harder and harder, training more, to the point that he received special permission to train in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. 

And that was why he was standing in the middle of the gym that night, when everything went down and that blaring music began to play. Malcolm had had no idea what was going on, only that he was locked in the gym by a passing security guard who told him to stay put. From there, he stared through the doors and out the various windows, trying to figure out what had happened. 

Then it came. The sudden rush of understanding that left Malcolm staggering backward. The rebellion, Flick’s mom, everything that had been done to shut them down. She–that chick did something to fill everyone’s heads with all that information. All that–and now they were leaving. They were going to take off. He could see the large group down by the ocean, through the window. Something was going on down there, and he had to get the hell out of–

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Malcolm, and he spun to find a completely unexpected figure standing there. 

“Counselor Leven?!” It was her. Zeke’s mother and member of the Crossroads Committee. “What–what’re you doing? Shouldn’t you be down… uhh, down there?” He gestured toward the scene going on in the distance through the window.

“Hello, Malcolm,” the beautiful, auburn-haired woman greeted him. “And no, I believe what happens there will happen regardless of my presence, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in what you plan to do now.” 

“I–uhh…” The tall, muscular boy hesitated, feeling uneasily intimidated by the smaller, yet profoundly more powerful woman. “That stuff, the memories or whatever, is it true?” 

There was a short pause from Sophronia before she gave a very slight nod. “You want to go with them?” 

The pause from Malcolm, in turn, was much longer than hers. Finally, he carefully replied, “I’m not sure how to answer that, ma’am.” 

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Then allow me to tell you what I would like. You are the closest friend my son has, Malcolm Harkess. Which, given his typical dismissal of Bystander matters, is quite remarkable in and of itself.” 

Offering him a very faint smile, she continued. “Zeke will not leave this place now, it’s not… it’s not who he is, yet. I believe he can be better, I have to. But I also believe that your leaving will sour him against the subject permanently. He will view his best friend joining the rebellion as a betrayal, rather than an informative moment.” 

Malcolm stared at her briefly before slowly asking, “You saying you want me to stay here because it’ll piss your son off if I leave?” 

“What I am saying,” she informed him, “is that if you choose to leave I will not stand in your way. I will even aid you in reaching those who are fleeing. But I ask… not as a Heretic, not as a member of the Committee, as a mother. As a mother, I ask that you stay and try to help my son. If you leave, he will be alone save for those who wish to make him even more of a fanatic.” 

“What about you?” the boy demanded. “You’re his mom.” 

“And there is some I can do, yet not enough,” Sophronia replied. “I am his mother, and also a member of the Committee. What I do, particularly around my son, is watched more than what you do. You are his friend, someone he has chosen to open up to despite his own prejudices. I believe that, with time and effort, it may be possible to reach him. If we do so gradually and give him more reasons to doubt his own beliefs.” 

Reaching out, she put one hand on his shoulder. “Say the word, and I will take you to the newly-budding rebellion. Or choose to stay. Not for me. For my son. I want him to be better, but it’s something he has to choose for himself. I would prefer he have a better chance of doing so by being connected to a good influence. Your influence.” 

Once more, Malcolm was silent, glancing to her hand and then to the window where people were retreating. Where the new rebellion was escaping. His expression was indecisive. Finally, he exhaled long and low. “Fine. 

“I’ll stick around for Zeke.” 

*****

Puriel And Company

With a slight squeak of metal, a two-foot wide, square panel was pried away from a wall. Doing so revealed an intricate network of tubes and wires surrounding brightly colored lights. Some of the tubes seemed to carry liquid of one kind or another, while others appeared empty. The lights blinked in various patterns that surely meant something to… someone. 

“Welp,” announced Arthur Chambers, who was not one of those someones, “Have you checked the oil?” 

Slowly, the man standing beside him, Puriel, turned his head to look that way. “Have we what?” As he spoke, the man was setting the metal panel against the nearby wall with a very soft ting. 

The two of them were in one of the Olympus’s many vast corridors. The hall was only lit by the dimmest of lighting, as most of the ship remained on extremely low power for the time being. It was an effect which left both men barely visible to one another. And most of that was thanks to the colored lights from the newly-opened panel. 

“Sorry,” Arthur murmured with a shrug, having turned his attention back to what they had revealed. “Usually the first thing you’re supposed to ask when someone’s checking for engine trouble. But ahhh, this might be slightly beyond anything I’ve ever worked with.” Glancing back that way, he added, “Not diesel, is it?”  

There had been a time when Puriel would have scoffed at that, when he would have treated the human as a useless primitive, barely capable of speech. Now, he paused before snorting softly. “No, Mr…” He hesitated before amending. “… Arthur. I don’t believe it’s diesel. Though as far as my people are concerned, most of this ship is little more than a quaint antique. Top of the line in her day, yet… yet she has fallen behind.” Despite his words, there was a clear fondness in his voice, while the man gently ran one hand along the wall. For a moment, he was lost in memories. 

“You think the kid can really bring her up to snuff?” Arthur asked after giving the other man a few seconds to reminisce. “That Spark, she’s like a real genius at this stuff. That’s not normal for your people, is it? Sorry, I mean it’s not usual.”

“Indeed.” The answer came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The small, black Seosten woman approached through the winding corridor, accompanied by Arthur’s wife, Maria, as well as the enormous figure of Alcaeus. “Spark is very much an unusual level of genius,” Aletheia continued to confirm, once they had all arrived. “Happily for us.” 

“How are they doing?” Puriel asked, his question directed toward Maria. He could easily tell for himself, of course. Spark was still connected to him, after all. She was simply using the projection spell to put an image of herself elsewhere. All he really had to do was stop actively shunting his attention away from the spell she was using to see through that hologram. But he preferred to give the girl as much privacy as their unique situation allowed. 

Maria, in turn, offered a grandmotherly smile. “Spark is assisting her brother and the rest of the children with sandwich preparations. Kutattca is with them. You don’t exactly have peanut butter and jelly here, but I believe Grandpa Kutty and I managed to piece together effective substitutes from the new supplies.” She looked toward Aletheia then, adding, “Your friend here is very good at acquiring things.” 

“Always has been.” That was Al, grunting the words before stepping up to join the men in staring at the flashing lights, wires, and coils. “So like Artie here said, between all of us and the kid’s super-genius, can we really get this ship into good enough condition to make it to Earth?” 

“With some luck and a lot of work from the rest of us, yes,” Puriel confirmed. “At least, I believe so. This ship was intended to operate under a much larger and… no offense intended, much better trained crew. But between general improvements, automation spells we can set up, and Spark’s own inspired upgrades, we should be able to pull it off, eventually.”

There was a brief exchange of looks then, before Maria cleared her throat. “Oh, honestly, would you all just spit it out.” To Puriel, she flatly continued with, “Everyone wants to know if that genius kid of yours got her spiffy tech skills from whoever her father might be. You know, since you said those superpowers could be passed on after all.” 

“You’re asking if Spark’s father is Radueriel,” Puriel finished for her. He paused, waiting for the collection of nods before giving a very slight shake of his head. “No. I have been through all of my late wife’s records. Spark’s father was an unremarkable volunteer from the front lines of the war, who wished to have some chance at passing on his genetics. He was unaware of the extent of what was happening at the lab, only believing that some of our scientists were working on creating children through… artificial means.”

The others absorbed that, before Arthur asked, “Does that mean she’s just… naturally coming up with this stuff? No offense, just seems like it’s about the same as a twelve-year-old on our world with no training randomly inventing… well… one of these.” He gestured at the ship around them. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel nodded once. “As far as we can tell, yes. There is nothing in her genealogical history that would account for some special Tartarus-derived power to explain her skills in design. Her mother’s ability is nothing like that, and her biological father has no such power, nor any particular skill in technology. From all of the very extensive research I have done, Spark’s genius is simply that. Her genius.”

Taking that in, the others exchanged looks once more before Arthur eventually spoke once more. “I suppose if Spark’s father is some random guy, so is Omni’s.” 

“Oh, no, not at all,” Puriel corrected. “Omni’s father is very much someone we know. 

“His name is Abaddon.” 

*****

Fomorian Origins

A/N – Sariel first told Larissa the Seosten understanding of the origins of Cronus and the Fomorians back in Mini-Interlude 37, right here for those who would like to compare.

Throughout the vast, unfathomable reaches of space, trillions of worlds existed. Some dark, dormant, and cold, others bright shining beacons. Some were small, churning balls of hot gases that would melt and twist steel within seconds, while others were goliaths of frozen liquids and mountains that towered into the sort of immeasurable size that would make the Earth itself vanish within a single cavern of such a world. 

Such incalculable cosmic phenomena existed within the bounds of only one universe, let alone several interconnected realities, that it was beyond the capabilities of even the most celebrated Seosten scientist to document even a decent fraction of them. Despite their own ten thousand year average lifespan and infallible memories, space was simply too large to be accurately understood and charted.

If it was beyond even the Seosten’s ability to fully detail the worlds within their own area of space, then those that lay beyond the battlelines of their war with the Fomorians were as mysterious and unknown as the land of Earth’s moon would have been to primitive, pre-fire humans. And like those ancient, aboriginal societies, many stories had been made up and spread throughout the Seosten Empire of what the Fomorian-controlled worlds were like. Or what Fomorian society itself, if it even truly existed, might have been. The Seosten scientists who detailed these ideas of their enemy’s society based them on millennia of observation and evidence that had been collected by their peers, or pieced-together witness reports from a few scattered survivors. They put together as clear of a picture of the Fomorian ‘society’ as they could. 

And they were, in almost every countable way, entirely wrong. Personal prejudices, misunderstood or even deliberately falsified evidence, survivors whose stories were exaggerated or whose memories had been tampered with by either side, and more problems made it entirely impossible for anyone to have anything even remotely close to an accurate view of what the Fomorians were like away from the front lines of their war. Or what the origin of their species had truly been. Their own worlds, the center of their society, were entirely cut off from any outsiders. Not one single non-Fomorian had laid living eyes upon those original worlds since before the great war between the genetic monstrosities and the Seosten Empire had begun, hundreds of thousands of years earlier. None who were not Fomorian themselves had ever stood upon the soil of their capital world and seen the truth of who and what these creatures were. 

Most importantly, none had ever laid eyes upon the world where all Fomorians were born.

There were many reasons for this, from the vastness of their owned space, to the ferocity with which they defended (and constantly expanded) their borders, to the atrocities committed by their people on those who wandered anywhere near the edges of their territory, let alone getting close to the center. But above all, there was one primary reason for why no living, non-Fomorian being had ever seen the planet all of them were born on, the seat of their civilization. Because the Fomorians, as the universe knew them, were not born on any world. 

They were born on a ship. 

——–

Under a veil of darkness, one pair of eyes opened. Those eyes, bred and enhanced through hundreds of generations, were capable of viewing the world around them through any of a dozen different vision modes. They could see perfectly within pitch-black night, would have been capable of counting the hairs on the leg of a common Earth housefly from a mile away, could stare directly into a star for hours without harmful effect, and could even view ultraviolet and infrared waves, as well as literal magical energy itself. Nothing that was capable of being seen by a living being (and many things that technically weren’t) could be hidden from this single pair of eyes. 

And yet, at that particular moment, the eyes saw nothing. The area around them was not simply dark, it was obscured, physically covered by something. The being attached to the eyes floated within what amounted to very thick, almost pudding-like nutrient liquid of pure black coloration, their body held rigid and motionless by four muscular tentacles coiled around their arms and legs (two of each). Those tentacles were attached to the inner walls of the cocoon or egg-like structure the being had awoken within. A cocoon which entirely encased the being and produced the nutrient paste their body had used to grow to its full size, while its attached tentacles held the being by the arms and legs. 

For many years, the body within this cocoon had been nurtured and maintained. Now, as the eyes of the body within opened and the body began to twist a bit, its job was done. The tentacles holding the being’s limbs retracted at the very instant that the occupant began to struggle in earnest, while the cocoon itself began to dissolve. The hard outer shell, capable up until that point of standing against even a full barrage from a capital starship, melted into the same pudding-like gel that had filled its interior. The tentacles followed suit, the resulting pool of thick liquid dripping through a thin, yet incredibly tough membrane that made up the floor below it.

As the cocoon dissolved and dripped through the floor, the being that had been held within was left crouching, naked on a small platform in the middle of a cavernous structure surrounded by dozens more eggs just like the one they had just emerged from. The walls of the cavern were flesh, with visible rib-like bones across the domed ‘ceiling’, and an overall general structure that looked like the inside of a mostly-hollowed out whale. 

After what would have been considered several Earth-minutes, the crouched, naked being straightened. Their gaze slowly turned to take in the area around them, absorbing the sight of those other cocoons before lowering their eyes to take in the sight of their own raised hands. Gray-green hands, thin yet unbelievably strong. Powerful, tough, incredibly dexterous, and… wrong. 

“No,” the being murmured under their breath, their head starting to shake. “No, this is wrong.” The words that emerged from their strange, unfamiliar mouth were what people of Earth would consider Latin. The Seosten language, though the exact words and pronunciation were quite different in many ways than what most would understand. Different, because they were many, many centuries out of date. 

“This isn’t me!” The being was shouting out loud by that point, their bellows filling the egg-filled cavern. “What is this?! Hey, what in the void is going on here?! Hey!” They pivoted, moving toward the nearest cocoon. If they had been trapped inside, maybe others they knew were trapped within the rest. 

Stop.” The loud, booming voice came from everywhere, yet nowhere. It seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, echoing throughout the biological cavern. It was a voice which, despite the confused and frantic newly-emerged being’s desperation, made them follow that single order and halt instinctively before slowly looking around as though searching for the source. 

“Where–where are you? Where am I? What is this? Come out, now!” The shouted command was a mix of fearful and angry, the being’s confusion warring with their rising emotions about where they had found themselves, and in what state. “I swear, if you don’t show yourself right now–” 

“Apologies.” The voice came from behind the confused new hatchling, and they spun to find a figure standing between two other eggs. Unlike their own awkward, unfamiliar gray-green body, the person who had now revealed themselves had pale skin, long brown hair, a slightly muscled physique, and soft green eyes. He wore nothing more than loose brown pants, and appeared completely out of place here in this cocoon-filled flesh cavern specifically because he looked entirely human. Entirely human, or–

“Seosten!” the hatched figure blurted abruptly, their surprise and relief audible. “You’re Seosten! Like me, like…” Trailing off, they looked down at their hands. “Like I’m… supposed to be. What did they do to me? What–I’m not–” Looking up again, voice and bulbous, too-large eyes pleading, they continued. “What is this? Wh-what happened to me? Is this… is this aliens?” Their voice had turned tentative, fearful as they took a step that way, reaching out to desperately grasp at the arm of the Seosten man. “Where are we?” 

After a very brief pause, the pale, shirtless man offered a slight smile before taking one of the confused, frightened figure’s hands. Squeezing reassuringly, he turned and began to walk. “Come, I’ll show you exactly what has happened. It’s alright, you have nothing to be afraid of. Please, what’s your name?” 

“I… I’m Lailah,” came the hesitant answer. “And I’m not-not this thing.” Their hands gestured toward the strange, unfamiliar body. “I’m a Seosten like you! I mean, a female Seosten. Not this, I’m not–I’m not this thing! What happened to me?! Please, just–just tell me what happened? Was it an accident in the lab? Was it–” 

“Shh, please, it’s alright.” Gently soothing her with his voice, the shirtless Seosten man continued to lead her through the large cavern as he asked, “I promise, we’ll get to the bottom of this, and you will be okay. Just try to calm down a little bit. Can you tell me the last thing you remember before waking up here?” 

“The last thing I remember?” Lailah echoed uncertainly. She had to think about it. And thinking was rather hard right then, though something about the man’s voice made it easier than it should have been to follow his instructions. He asked her to calm down, and part of her did, despite the insanity and terror of waking up in a strange body. “There was some kind of accident in the lab I was working at. We were investigating experimental treatments for diseases, like the one Caelus Euven–he’s my boss–the one his son has.” 

There was a brief pause while her guide stopped walking. He glanced away and seemed to think about her words before curiously asking, “Cron?” 

“You know him?” Blinking that way with more than a little surprise, Lailah nodded. “Yes, he’s been in our lab for a few months now. His father’s desperate to find a cure. I’m afraid… I’m afraid he’s been cutting a few safety corners. He has this strange idea that he can create a secondary… wait a minute.” As she trailed off, those large, alien eyes widened. “He wanted to make a new body and transfer his son from the sick one to the healthy one. Did–did he do this?” She had stopped walking again, raising those strange greenish hands up in front of her face to stare at them in horror. “Was I–was I his test subject? Wait, those other cocoons. Those other–the rest of–” 

Turning to face her, the still normal-looking Seosten man held his own pale hands out. “Easy–” 

“Easy?!” she echoed, blurting the word in disbelief and anger. “Have you looked at me?! What am I! What did he do to me?! What did that monster do?!” 

Immediately, the man closed the distance between them. Fury blazed in his eyes as he raised a hand, shaking from emotion. “He is not a monster. It wasn’t his fault. He was trying to save me!”   

“Trying to save…” Once more, the woman trailed off. She stared at him, placing the face as a very soft gasp escaped her. “Cron–no. You’re young–barely more than a child. How are you–years. Whatever happened, whatever this is… I’ve been out for years.” 

“Years?” A faint note of amusement entered the voice of her guide, Cron. “Oh, Lailah. It’s been a bit longer than that. Though, I suppose it really depends on how you count, to be honest. By your personal measure, it’s been a very, very long time. By mine, we had this conversation a few months ago. And a few years before that. And perhaps a decade earlier–your model is very prone to arrogance. It gets you in trouble.” 

“My–my model?” She took a step away from him, mouth working a bit as a wordless sound of confusion escaped her. “What are you talking about? What–what’s happening?” 

“It’s more about what already happened,” came the casual response. “And what happened is that my father succeeded–in a manner of speaking. He created a new body for me, with the help of you and your colleagues, of course. He also gave me the ability to create a connection to the new body, so I could transfer myself into it. Unfortunately, that new body he transferred me into wasn’t some empty, blank slate. 

“You see, it turns out there was a mind in there already, because one of your other colleagues had a brother who got into an accident and brain-damaged. This other doctor, he thought he could use my father’s work temporarily, just enough to transfer his damaged brother’s mind into the new body to have one last conversation. To say goodbye. He did the same thing to his injured brother that my father did to me, performed alterations to his DNA so that he could match it to the new body. He even managed to make that connection. He managed to transfer his almost brain-dead brother to the new body. But my father interrupted, and wouldn’t listen before he started the procedure for me. So when I was transferred, there was already a mind inside what should have been an empty body. A mind that was terrified and confused. He lashed out. I fought back. We struggled, and then my father tried to hug me. He didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t know there was a problem. A problem which got worse, because the method he used to allow me to transfer myself into the new body extended to taking him into the body as well. We absorbed him, my father.” 

“I…” Lailah was gazing off into the distance as screams and orders echoed through her mind. “I remember. I think I remember, anyway. We tried to stop it. We tried to get the situation under control. We were trying to sedate the body, but it didn’t work. He–you–it fought back. It… I was… you picked me up.” She stared at him, voice shaking. “You threw me across the room. I hit a table and… and then the wall. You were standing over me. You reached down, and I… and I was gone. Then I woke up here. Why–” She stopped, clearly trying to understand something. “Why can’t I be angry with you? Why can’t I–I want to yell at you. I want to hit you. I want to scream and run away. I can’t. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do any of that?” 

Sounding unconcerned, the man pivoted and began to walk once more through the flesh and bone tunnel. “Come, you’ll understand eventually. Or not, but it hardly matters. I suppose there was a time when I would have tried harder to make you understand. And knowing how these things fluctuate, there will come a time when I try harder again.” 

As they walked, he explained, all-too-casually, what had happened to the Seosten after her memories faded out. He told her about how the combined form of Caelus and Cron, now called Cronus, kept absorbing more and more people in an increasingly desperate attempt to possess enough mental power to solve their problem and save themselves. He told her about how that was quickly twisted, their original goal forgotten as they sought only to absorb more Seosten for no particular reason, and how the genetic alterations to their body mutated, spreading out from them in virus-form to infect even those they didn’t absorb. He told her about how that mutation rapidly propagated through the remaining Seosten population, granting them the ability to possess and control others, and about how the subsequent war between Cronus and the rest of the Seosten population devastated their planet to the point of reshaping the world itself by turning what had been a singular massive continent into a much smaller one surrounded by thousands of islands. He was fairly candid about the lengths he–or Cronus–went to in their mad attempt to absorb as many people as possible. Thousands upon thousands of minds, hundreds of thousands, even. A million or more. All of them taken into one body, and all contributing to make him less and less sane. 

Finally, Cronus had left their homeworld. He–or they– abandoned Elohim using the experimental spaceship the Seosten had been working on, and set out to find a new home where they could sort through what was, by that point, hundreds of thousands of voices from all of the people they had absorbed.

Entranced by his story, Lailah only belatedly noticed that they had reached the end of the biological tunnel, and were now standing in what appeared to be the cockpit of that same, just-mentioned spaceship. Though there were various… additions to the space. Mostly consisting of several tentacles spread across the metal walls and over the controls. Tentacles with living, beating/pulsing organs attached to them, like those of a living creature that had been directly connected into the technology. 

“What… what is this?” Lailah tried to demand, yet her voice came out as a soft, uncertain question. 

“What is it?” her guide echoed before pointing toward the main screen in the center of the fairly cramped (particularly with the organ-covered tentacles running through it) cockpit. “Look, and see where we are. See the heart of what we have achieved. Or perhaps a better term would be, the womb.” 

As he spoke, the view on the screen flickered, before abruptly showing the outside of the ship itself from up close. They could see the cockpit window, could see themselves watching the screen. Seeing that, Lailah glanced that way, but the window was mirrored from this side, making it impossible to see anything beyond. 

Turning her attention back to the monitor, she watched as whatever was out there transmitting the signal began to pull back. She saw more of the ship. It was essentially a thick silver-white oval, like a semi-flattened egg. Larger tentacles, like the ones within the cockpit running through all the controls, were wrapped around it. They looked like the roots of a giant tree that had grown to envelop the ship, leading back to… to…

The best way Lailah’s mind could describe it was a gigantic snail, complete with (a soft, pulsing) shell. It was over a thousand miles from one end to the other. The opening of the ‘shell,’ where the snail’s head would emerge, instead had hundreds of various-sized tentacles. Some were as small as ordinary tree vines, while others were miles across. One singular tentacle-like tube attached the moon-sized soft-looking shell to the ship they were now standing on. That was the organic tunnel they had walked through to get here, and the cocoon-filled chamber was but one of what had to be hundreds within the shell itself. 

“We traveled for decades on this ship,” her guide murmured. “Years upon years where we spent most of the time hardly cognizant of our surroundings. We found that our body didn’t need nutrients. It took what it needed from the people we absorbed, storing the energy from their bodies and keeping it for later. Many thousands of our people, converted to the nourishment our combined self required. For decades, the ship traveled through space while we drifted within our own minds. Close to a million minds and personalities, all fighting and struggling to be heard, to be released, to be noticed. Many living out entire fantasy dream scenarios. It was impossible to think, impossible to focus through the noise. We lost ourselves for a long time. Years upon years passed while those minds within us fought for attention, or simply played out their imagined lives. We lived every life of every person we had taken, our focus and attention drifting from one to the next, aimless and chaotic. 

“Finally, we could go no further. Our ship reached this point, this empty area of space, and would proceed no more. We had fixed it before, but there was no fixing this. It was done, our physical, outward journey over. Yet our mental path, the dreams of nearly a million minds longed to have showed no signs of ending. For another dozen years after our ship had stopped, we lay here on the floor just where you stand, our body incapable of moving because of so many minds arguing over which direction it would go. Perhaps we would have stayed there forever, until the energy we had absorbed from all those bodies finally faded, and we simply died there. Perhaps, save for a single, chance encounter.” 

For a few long seconds, he simply stood there, staring off at nothing as though lost in those memories. Finally, the man slowly turned his gaze to her, their eyes meeting before he continued. “An alien ship found us. A ship full of refugees and explorers, who sent a team aboard. They found our body lying there, and they made perhaps the worst mistake they ever could have. They tried to save us by taking our body back to their ship, to their medical center. There, our body continued to lay while their doctors did what they could to determine what was physically wrong with us. They even installed a translator device allowing us to understand them.

“The main doctor had a child with them, a young boy who sat with us for hours that night, telling us stories of his world. He wanted to help us. His father told him that we could hear, because their instruments showed a mental reaction to his words. So he told those stories. Some were amusing, some were adventures, but many were horror. The boy liked those, the scary, disgusting stories the most. They were all nice to hear. We enjoyed them. We couldn’t show it, couldn’t find the way of guiding every mind within us to thank the boy for his stories.” 

“Did you kill him?” Lailah’s voice was quiet, though tinted with emotion. “Did you kill the alien boy and everyone else on that ship just like you killed all of us?”

He didn’t respond at first, instead simply meeting her gaze in silence before carefully answering with a firm, “No. The mistake those people made was not in taking us aboard and trying to help. It was in stopping to do so. They did not want to go any further until they understood what had happened to us, lest it be something that could affect them. So they waited. They stayed here in this spot where our ship had stopped. And that was their undoing. The monsters they fled from, soldiers from their own world who served a genocidal dictator, tracked them down to this spot. Their ship was overrun, and they were all slaughtered. Thousands of them, killed without mercy. The boy who told us stories was one of the last. He was here, hiding, when they came. He pleaded for help. His words, his voice… he begged for us to save him. We heard, and saw, as they gleefully murdered the boy. 

“And that was when our souls became united in one single, solitary goal. For the first time in decades, every mind we had absorbed had one thought: to kill those monsters. Our confusion lifted, burned away by white-hot rage. We moved. For the first time in so long, we moved of our own volition, and tore into those things. We avenged the deaths of those who had tried to help us. We killed every single invader who boarded the ship. Unfortunately, a few escaped back to their own vessel and fled.” 

Reaching out to gently stroke one of the nearby tentacles thoughtfully, the man continued after another moment. “We were alone again. Alone with a million minds trapped within us. But we did not fall back into our motionless coma, because we had a goal. Some of those monsters had escaped. And the dictator who led them, the one their victims had fled from in the first place, was still safe and sound back on their world. He would continue to thrive after his men butchered the people who had been kind to us. That was something we could not allow to stand. Our fury remained, the rage that gave us the focus we needed to be united. 

“But we knew that we could not accomplish true revenge in our current state. Powerful as we were, there was but one of us. One body. We had been defeated and chased away from our own home by our people because of that, because we were outnumbered by so much. That was our weakness. A weakness we had to do something about. And now, we had the materials to work with.” 

Swallowing hard, Lailah quietly put in, “the corpses who were left behind, the bodies of those who tried to save you, and of the ones you killed in retaliation.”   

“Precisely,” he confirmed. “Our rage gave us what we needed mentally. It united us, gave us a purpose to move toward. The purpose of vengeance. With that unity, we took the minds we had absorbed and put them all toward one goal: fixing the corpses left behind on that ship to create new bodies for all of the people who were inside us. We would overcome our singular weakness of being a legion trapped within one body, by creating a legion. We put the bodies back together, upgraded them, used materials from those too broken to be useful in order to add to others.” 

Slowly, Lailah held up her own green-gray arms. “These? This is what the aliens looked like. This is what their bodies were.”

With a slight nod, the man continued. “It took months of work. But we put the bodies back together. Hundreds of them, then over a thousand. They could support life again, yet had no minds within them. That was when the truly hard work began. Over more months, twice as long as it took to put the physical bodies back together, we learned to project those we had absorbed into those bodies. The first few attempts were… failures. We pushed too many minds, or broke the mind irreparably in the process of the transfer. Yours was one of those injured. We managed to put it back together, but your memories were damaged in the process. Now you and others who were similarly damaged in the process of our testing must be told the truth of things whenever you reawaken.” 

Lailah was about to jump on the many questions she had about that, but he had already pushed on. “With trial and error, and far too many losses, we finally managed to perfect the process of transfer. Over a thousand bodies now had minds within them, and we were alone no longer. And with our new bodies, we set to work repairing the damage to the alien ship that had been done during the invasion. When it was ready to travel once more, we used their computer to send the ship back where it had come from, back to their home planet.” 

From there, while Lailah watched and listened with rapidly increasing unease, the man detailed how their new army had flown back to the alien planet and began to attack them. They spread like a virus across the other world. For every member of the other species they killed, Cronus was able to put the body back into working order and inject one of his stolen Seosten minds into it. With that, their numbers expanded exponentially, and they began to use the biological expertise, which had been cultivated and boosted in order to make repairing the bodies possible in the first place, to enhance the bodies they were given. They didn’t have the original Cronus’s ability to absorb anyone they touched, yet their biological enhancements meant they remained a terrifyingly effective invasion force. 

The Seosten’s own homeworld had barely survived the attacks from Cronus specifically because he’d only had one body. With an exponentially growing army, that weakness was removed. The aliens didn’t stand a chance, particularly when they failed to recognize the true extent of the threat early on. Soon, there were enough dead aliens to give a (soon enhanced and improved) body to every stolen Seosten mind. Yet they were not themselves anymore. Decades of being part of a single body and connected to the corrupted mind of Cronus had twisted them beyond all recognition. One and all, the former-Seosten obeyed their master, the one called Cronus. 

There were, of course, far more dead bodies than they had minds to inject into them. At most, there were under a million Seosten minds, and billions of dead aliens. Not wanting to let such resources go to waste, and still needing more troops in order to continue spreading their war across the planet, Cronus and his former-Seosten began to use those bodies, and those of random animals they came across, to create even more troops. These had no real minds, no real sapience. They were simply predators, monsters who were twisted, improved, and turned against the world’s inhabitants as shock troopers. Soon, the despotic leader who had been responsible for sending his army to track down and murder the original refugees was dead, along with all of those who had supported him. 

“But you didn’t stop–we didn’t stop,” Lailah quietly murmured. “Why? You–we… killed the dictator and his men, but you kept going. You spread over the entire world, you killed all of them. Every single person on the world. Why didn’t we spare the innocents?” 

“The innocents?” her companion snarled in disbelief, shaking that off. “There were no innocents left on that planet. The innocents were those who fled and tried to help us. Anyone left behind was complicit with their leader. They all got the justice they deserved for aligning themselves with the monster. You may not remember the pleading of the child who told us stories, but we do. We hear his voice. We hear his screams, his terror. And we enacted his revenge.”

For years, then decades, and then centuries after that, Cronus and his altered people continued to grow and enhance themselves. They used the resources of the world they had taken over to make their bodies stronger, spending hundreds of years perfecting their skills of biological manipulation and enhancements. As they were no longer truly Seosten, they took the name of the species they had so thoroughly destroyed and whom they now resembled (save for the enhancements each member performed on themselves), the Fomorians. 

During the original fighting, it had been found that any of the former-Seosten whose new body was destroyed would instantly find their mind back within the body of Cronus himself. They were, in effect, immortal. Dying simply meant being sent back to Cronus and then injected into a new body. And over those centuries, they developed a new system. Rather than being put back within Cronus upon the ‘death’ of their physical body, their minds were sent to a ‘hive’, where new bodies based on the original Fomorian prototype were created within egg-like structures before they were released once more. This hive, the center of the Fomorian life, was created in where their original ship had shut down, built around the precise spot where the refugee ship had been. 

“Yet it wasn’t enough,” Cronus quietly noted. “Our guilt, over our failure to protect the child, over the loss of our original identity as a species, over everything…” 

“Everything we did,” Lailah put in. “We felt guilty because we were monsters. You turned us into monsters. You twisted us, made us… wrong. We were supposed to be Seosten and you made us something far worse. We spent decades with our minds trapped inside your body, our thoughts, loyalties, and personalities manipulated and corrupted. Then you put us in these strange, unfamiliar bodies. We were breaking down, our… our minds were falling apart.”

“And I fixed it,” the man informed her. “I removed the guilt, the confusion, the fear. Every new body your minds inhabit includes enhancements which ensure you feel none of that. You feel loyalty to me, and a desire to expand our people. Nothing more than that. You feel no sadness or guilt for what must be done. You do not feel the horrific remorse over everything that has been done to us, or that we have done. You feel none of it. You are incapable of feeling such things. That is my gift to all of you. One of them. The other is the promise that we will rewrite this universe–all universes. We will make everything like us. Connected, beautiful, and perfect. There will be no more random disease that ravages an innocent child, killing him in his bed while his father stands helpless and ashamed of his own failures. Everything in this universe will be connected to us. It will work. It will make sense, because we will create it to make sense.” 

That was the truth of the Fomorians. Almost one million former Seosten, their minds twisted in every conceivable way, with their new bodies intentionally engineered to render them incapable of feeling things like regret, guilt, compassion, or even empathy. They felt nothing, save for love of their own species and a desire to spread what they were across the universe. They saw every other living creature, everything not created and manipulated by them, as the enemy. And felt no pity for them. The only thing they truly felt was a hatred of everything different, everything  that was not Fomorian. 

“When you die as a Fomorian,” Cronus informed her, “your mind is reset to what it was before. Some of you are cast back to earlier times, some later. Either way, your memories return to your former selves, temporarily. But in time, anywhere from seconds to hours, the improvements I’ve included in your bodies do their work, and you become my people once more.”

There was no response at first. The figure he was speaking to stood silently, gazing off at nothing as though they didn’t hear him at all. Finally, after almost a minute of that, the figure straightened and looked to him. And in that gaze, he knew it was over. There was nothing of Lailah’s original mind left at that moment. The Fomorian body had done its job in suppressing her personality entirely. 

“Ahh, apologies, Lord Cronus. I appear to have experienced some… setbacks. There were humans there, on the Meregan world. More Heretics there to… rescue the one we were attempting to capture. And they were with Seosten.”

“Tell me more,” Cronus ordered, turning his back to the view of the birthing hive in order to focus all of his attention on his newly-reborn subject. “You say there were humans and Seosten working together. Elaborate. I want to know everything about them.

“This sounds… interesting.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – Maria and Arthur Chambers (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is a commissioned chapter. Many thanks should go to the commissioner.

One Day After Maria and Arthur Chambers and Alcaeus Arrived In Seosten Space. 

On a small corner of the island that held Puriel’s private residence, a simple rectangular metal table had been magicked into existence, complete with chairs that looked as stiff and hard as the table itself, but were actually quite comfortable and soft to sit in. In those chairs were three men, who sat facing the water of the strange, alien (to two of the men at least) ocean. 

The sole ordinary human among the trio, Arthur Chambers, spoke up in a gruff, yet also somewhat dazed voice. “Let me go ahead and see if I’ve got this all straight in my head between everything you people’ve said since we got here. Feel like I’ve been getting the recap of that…” He paused before turning a bit to glance down the beach a bit, where his wife of over fifty years was staring intently at the ocean water. “Maria! What’s that show you like with the man who has that thing with his eye and the limping sailor? You know, the silly soap opera you watch right after lunch that puts me to sleep.”

“You only pretend to sleep, dear,” his wife primly retorted without turning away from her intense examination of the water. It was as though she was trying to spot some difference, only by eye, between the water of this world and that of Earth. “And it’s called Crescent Falls. Which you know darn well if you weren’t trying to save face about enjoying a soap opera in front of Hercules and the alien wizard. Which is quite frankly silly.” 

Clearing his throat, Arthur waved that latter part off. “Ahem, as I was saying, feels like I’ve been getting a recap of about thirty years worth of plots in that Crescent Falls spaced into about ten minutes. Only while my wonderful, beautiful wife is giving me that summary in one ear, my granddaughter’s in my other ear telling me the plot of every single comic book movie in existence in chronological, not release, order. And while all that’s going on, I’m trying to watch a history documentary.” He paused to consider how he had phrased that. “Yup, soap opera in one ear, superheroes in the other, trying to watch history.” 

“That… is not a bad comparison,” came Al’s (Alcaeus, apparently) thoughtful response. In the time since they had arrived here, the nearly seven-foot-tall man had wiped away the mixture of magic and make-up that made it look as though he had actually aged at least somewhat in the decades that they had known him. His hair was now deep black without any gray or white to it, and his face lacked even the hint of wrinkles. He had used trickery to appear to age so that he could spend more time with his friends before he would inevitably have to disappear from their lives. Or… would have had to, before all this happened. Before he had chosen to tell his friends the truth about the situation they were in, only to be interrupted by a quick burst of events that had led to them being here, on the Seosten homeworld, about as far from Earth as possible.

Arthur continued after giving Al a brief glance. “So, if I’ve got all this right, you lot…” He gestured vaguely with one hand toward the seated and silent Puriel, “have been at this space war for about three hundred thousand years now, give or take. A space war with a bunch of genocidal monsters created by some medical experiment gone wrong. Wait, pardon me, the medical experiment ran away after accidentally giving all your people the power to bodysnatchers anyone you want to. He made his own damn species of monsters, then you all went to war. You’ve been fighting it for all this time and ‘for the Greater Good’, you’ve been enslaving every God damn species you come across to use as foot soldiers cuz you are fucking outnumbered as shit. And somehow every time someone thought to bring up the thought that playing nicely with people to stop the big bad monsters might be a good idea, they… I dunno, mumbled?” 

“We tried to make allies at first.” As he said that, Puriel’s gaze flickered over to watch the water himself. “At least, that’s what the histories tell us. In those days, we didn’t live nearly as long as our people do now. Longer than humans, but not the ten thousand Earth-year lifespan of a… ahhh, modern Seosten. And we still had the same problem with birthing live children that we’ve had since the moment we gained the ability to possess people. Shorter lifespan, less children, of course we tried to partner up with other worlds, other species against this threat. The Fomorians want to wipe out everything in every universe that isn’t them or their creations. Obviously, we would do everything possible, including ally with others. But… it didn’t work out.” 

His voice turned quieter then. “Our people were betrayed. Three different species we allied with, three species we tried to stand with as friends against the Fomorians. All three betrayed us, led our people into an ambush by the Fomorians. It turned out they had made a deal to be spared if we were destroyed. The Fomorians convinced them that all they wanted was us. So they threw us away. Three hundred and thirty-seven thousand Seosten were killed in three hours.” 

After letting that sit for a few silent moments, Puriel finally went on. “Our military was devastated. In more ways than one. With those forces gone, we would have been wiped out. It was the opportunity the Fomorians needed. They would have washed over us. So… our ancestors did the only thing they could do at the time. They infiltrated the fleets and political leadership of those three species who betrayed us and forced them to come to our aid. It was a desperate move of a people who were on the very brink of being wiped from all existence.” 

By that point, Maria had abandoned her ocean vigil and moved to stand next to her husband. Laying a hand on his shoulder, she watched Puriel for a moment. “That sounds quite horrible for your people, sir. Quite horrible indeed. I know humans have never been through anything… exactly like that. But we’ve had our moments in history, our betrayals and wars. That kind of thing can set the tone between two peoples for… well, forever.” 

“Indeed,” the former captain of the Olympus agreed, watching the woman with renewed interest. “And so it set the course of my own people up to this day. Our ancestors realized… or believed that they could never rely on anyone other than ourselves. Between the initial ambush and the subsequent attacks, our military was heavily damaged. It took over a generation to fully recover to the levels it was at before. In the meantime, we relied on taking over our neighbor species and forcing them to work together. More than once, our infiltrators discovered plans for truces with the Fomorians. These other species did not understand that they were being fooled, that the monsters would never truly leave them alone. Once we were destroyed, they would turn their attention to our betrayers and wipe them out as well, no matter what ‘deals’ they had.” 

It was Arthur who found his voice next. “Sounds like a real tough time for your people.” Where some would have had no small amount of sarcasm in that sentence, he was genuine. He thought of how a place like America would have reacted to something even vaguely like that in the Cold War. If the Soviets were trying to wipe them out entirely, literally trying to kill all of them, and kept making deals with all of America’s allies to betray them? Or worse, World War 2. What if, during D-Day, the American soldiers storming Normandy had been led into a trap by their supposed allies that nearly crippled the military entirely? How would America then react to outsiders? How easy was it to see the United States, given the same ability to possess their neighbors and finding even more potential betrayal, to entirely give up on any idea of cooperation-by-choice? Look at what the country did after terrorist attacks decades in the past. Arthur Chambers had been alive for a long time, enough to see a lot of changes throughout the world and his home. He could see, all too easily, what would happen if anything remotely similar to what had gone on with the Seosten  were to happen there. 

“It was quite some time ago,” Puriel noted quietly. “But yes. As I said, it set the course for my people. It convinced us that no one could be trusted, that we were alone in this war. And yet, we could not be alone, because we would be destroyed. Our only choice, they believed, was to force all non-Fomorians in the universe to follow our commands. There were, I believe, some noble intentions to release them once the war was over. But… no one expected it to go on this long. How could they? This system has been in place for hundreds of thousands of years, and the war has no particular end in sight. We have been at what amounts to a brittle stalemate for longer than human civilization has existed. I truly do not know what a galactic society without my people in control would even look like. I can’t imagine it, much as I have recently tried.” 

“And you,” Arthur pushed on, “or your people in general, you came to Earth and you… you took human’s ability to, what was it you said…. bond? You took humanity’s ability to bond with other creatures and created a whole school out of turning kids into soldiers for your war.” 

There was a brief pause before Puriel gave a slight nod. “It took some time to get to that point, but yes. There is… perhaps some context you should hear to understand everything that has happened.” 

Maria took a seat by her husband. “By all means, let’s hear the context for everything that has happened to humanity since the Seosten arrived. 

“But something tells me you better have alcohol somewhere on this island.” 

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

“Avia?” The small, hesitant voice spoke up in the fancy Seosten kitchen. It was accompanied by the sight of a very small, very young face trying to peer up over the far side of the metal counter that filled the middle of the room. All that was visible, however, was a mop of brownish-red hair and a pair of inquisitive green eyes. The boy who was speaking was not quite three years old, small enough that he’d had to climb onto a chair just to see partway over the countertop. 

Maria Chambers looked up from the mixing bowl she had been busily stirring the contents of. A smile touched the elderly woman’s face as she saw the child peering at her. “Why, hello there, Stavin,” she greeted him while dipping the wooden spoon into the cookie batter. “Would you like to help me over here?” When the boy gave a quick nod, she set the bowl down before walking around the counter to put herself beside the chair he was perched on. “Touch okay?” 

Eagerly, Stavin bobbed his head while staring at the nearby mixing bowl. “Touch okay.” 

Only then did Maria reach down to pick the boy up and set him up on the counter. Because it was important that these Seosten children understand that they had the right to choose when and how they were touched just as much as others had the right to choose when and how the Seosten children themselves touched them. Yes, it was proper that children (or people in general) with their conditions ensure that they had permission to touch people before doing so. But it was just as proper that they themselves be given the same courtesy. 

The idea that so many within the Seosten society were treated as outcasts, as… as less than slaves, appalled Maria to an extent that she hadn’t known she was capable of being appalled. ‘Lies?’ She refused to think of them that way, let alone call them that. Nor Mendacia, considering that was only the Seosten (or Latin) way of saying the same thing. It was positive poppycock. 

After some thought on the subject, Maria had settled on referring to them as Gummies (for gum, because they were hard to get out of things if you weren’t careful). The children seemed to like the term, especially when Maria explained both what gum and gummy candy was. They were fascinated by the concept of each.

“Thank you, Avia!” the tiny boy crowed while sitting cross-legged on the table. Avia, which apparently meant grandmother, was a term the children had taken to calling Maria over these past two weeks. Arthur, meanwhile, was Avus. 

With his gaze laser-focused on the large bowl, Stavin asked, “I can help?” Belatedly, he added, “What’s poppycock?” 

Right, she’d been thinking that word when she picked him up, Maria realized after a moment of brief confusion. Because like his fellow… test subjects from the prison lab, Stavin wasn’t exactly normal even by Gummy standards. Instead of being stuck in bodies he possessed, the boy was incapable of possessing people. Rather, he would immediately hear the thoughts and feelings of anyone he touched. If he touched them long enough, he could project his own thoughts and feelings into them, making the person believe those thoughts were their own. The belief was that he would eventually be able to essentially hypnotize people this way. 

With a slight chuckle, Maria explained, “Oh, it just means nonsense, dear. And yes, you certainly can. Here.” She held the spoon out to him, waiting for the boy to take it. “Now you stir everything in that bowl up real good, okay? Then we’ll scoop them out onto the pan.” 

Tongue sticking out one side of his mouth, the tiny boy set to work stirring with both hands. The bowl moved against his efforts, until Maria reached out to hold one side so it would stay in place. With a chimed, “Thank you!” Stavis began stirring once more. 

While he was doing that, the doorway into the kitchen opened, as four more figures entered, one notably taller than the other three. The larger figure was still fairly small for being an adult, a dark-skinned woman only an inch or two over five feet, who wore a dark red Seosten bodysuit with black piping. The other three figures were more of the Seosten children. First, the tiny six-year-old (also black) Zahd, a Gummy girl who was permanently stuck in her ‘boosted’ state without Puriel’s help in draining her excess energy. Then there was the brown-haired young boy called Omni together with his sister, Spark, a girl with hair that was half blonde on one side and half black on the other. 

Maria wasn’t… fully aware of exactly what the situation with Spark was, though she had the basic idea. She was a full Gummy, not a medical experiment like the other children, and she had possessed Puriel himself so that he could hide her from the rest of the Seosten who would have hurt her. Now she was… magic. That was about as much of it as Maria understood. The girl was magic, a hologram like in those space movies. She was still physically possessing Puriel, but his own powers were enough to allow the girl to create this hologram around the house and island. A hologram that was also somehow solid. 

“Hello, Avia,” Spark politely greeted her, standing up straight with both hands interlocked behind her back. She gave a single nod. “Zahd, my brother, and I wished to offer our assistance.” 

Zahd bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh! And not just to eat gams, even though they’re really good and stuff. But also buhcuz helping is good too and it’s good to be good.” It was very clear that she was reciting a speech she’d been told. Or at least, reciting the general gist of it. And from the way the girl looked toward Spark for approval, it was also fairly clear who the source of the speech was. 

It didn’t take long for Maria to hand out two more mixing bowls, one for Zahd and the other for Spark and Omni to use together. Which would be a lot of dough, but at least that meant plenty of cookies could be made, enough to feed almost ten hungry children. While they stirred, Omni himself piped up. The boy, as always, had dozens of questions. He was curious about every little thing, positively famished for information. The things he asked often followed no particular order or category, simply being whatever popped into his head at any given time. Maria loved that, she loved his enthusiasm for learning. 

She loved all these children, and could not fathom how their own people could abuse and mistreat them so much. 

While the kids were working on stirring up the dough, she focused on the woman who had accompanied them. “I’m sorry, it’s Aletheia, right?” Maria extended a hand to the woman after brushing it off on the apron she’d asked Puriel’s housekeeper, Olan, for. 

Accepting the offered hand, the other woman nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry I’ve been away. It’s been… difficult to prepare a way for Puriel to bring these children to Earth. Things have been very tense at the border between those who wish to leave the humans alone for good, those who wish to ally with you, and those who wish to openly invade the very moment the truce is over.”

Maria winced at that. “Yes, Puriel was explaining that. Apparently my granddaughter had something to do with the situation.” She didn’t bother keeping the proud smile from her face. Everything she’d heard from that man about what Felicity had been up to, even if, by his own admission, he only had a very small part of the story, made her love her granddaughter even more. 

The smile faded as she thought of the other things he had told her. The things about Joselyn, the truth about why that dear woman had truly disappeared. Thoughts of what she had to have been through, of what… of just what she had repeatedly sacrificed, still felt like a hand clutching Maria’s own heart. 

She owed that poor woman an apology for everything she’d thought about her. And the things she had said to her husband, even if said in error and in private, they were still wrong. And awful. 

“She was indeed,” Aletheia confirmed. “Your family has a habit of being involved in dangerous situations.”

“Why do you think I like them?” That was Alcaeus, the enormous man chuckling as he came into the room. “And that was before I even knew who the rest of the family was.” 

“Doesn’t that detract from your point?” Maria pointed out, giving him a raised eyebrow. “You never knew we were related to that Joselyn or that our granddaughter was going to this… Crossroads until recently.” 

“Semantics,” he insisted with a wink before focusing on the Seosten woman. “Puriel said you had news.” 

“Yes,” Aletheia replied. “Although it is less news and more of an… ally. An ally Chayyiel has spent quite some time procuring.” 

“You say that so dramatically,” a new voice teased as another figure entered the room. “Makes me feel like I should be a lot more help than I’m gonna be. After all, I’m not part of the Committee anymore.” 

With those words, the elderly, yet still-spry Native American man straightened to look at Maria. “Morning, Mrs. Chambers. Believe me, it is such a pleasure to meet another native Earther out here. I hear you’d like to know more about Joselyn Atherby.” 

“The name’s Kutattca, and despite my sister Litonya’s best efforts, I can tell you plenty.” 

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Patreon Snippets 14 (Heretical Edge)

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Every month, anyone who donates 10 dollars or more receives 500 words they can devote to a snippet of their choice, either one of their own or adding onto someone else’s. Here is the next edition of those snippets, and thanks to all donators who help keep these stories going. 

Gwen and Galahad

“You know, as a parent, sometimes you… you set a lot of high standards for your child. And while… yeah, you may really hope they meet those standards, in your heart you know you’ll be happy with anything they become, as long as they try. You know that you’ll love them no matter what happens, because you know they have to be their own person, not the person you want them to be. But right now, I just have to say that all the parents… all the parents in the entire universe who have ever lived… can fucking suck it, because my son is Optimus God Damn Prime!” 

With that declaration, as she stood in the parking lot of the Capital One Arena in front of the silver and blue semi, Guinevere spread both arms wide as though to hug the truck tightly. A wide grin stretched across her face, showing her gleaming teeth as she sniffed a little as though near joyous tears. “I’m so proud of you.” 

Snorting audibly (a deliberate sound given he lacked any actual nose), Galahad promptly transformed from his semi mode into the full robot form. The former Seosten-human hybrid, who had been adopted as a child by Gwen after his true father’s people attempted to exterminate him, sat down in front of the woman so that he wouldn’t tower over her quite as much (given his thirty-foot height, even sitting made him much taller, but it was an improvement). “See, Harrison thought you might be upset about all… this.” He gestured with one large metal hand toward his body. “I told him he really didn’t know you that well.” 

“Hand up.” Gwen ordered, raising her own until her adopted son had done the same. Then she pressed her palm to one tiny part of his. It was an old ritual, though one they had most recently done while his hand was much closer to hers in size. Her voice had sobered somewhat, staring intently at their hands. “I am very sorry about… about what happened to you, my little polecat. But you are alive.” The joy and relief she felt about that fact clearly outweighed her regret about his condition, as she raised her other hand to press next to the first. “You are alive. My… son is alive.” Saying that, Gwen stepped in to embrace the raised metal arm. 

“Someday, we’ll find the magic needed to return your real body,” she assured him. Turning her gaze up, the former queen of Camelot met his robotic stare. “Whatever it takes. I have spent a thousand years preparing to bring Arthur back. I will spend however many more to restore your body.” 

“Eh, guess me being a robot means I can wait that long,” Galahad replied, before bringing his other hand in. Large as it was, he put it flat on the ground, waiting for his mother to step onto it before picking himself up to a standing position. Keeping her level with his gaze, he added, “I missed you, Mother.” 

“My boy.” Those two words were filled with such fondness, such joy in the simple fact of his existence, that they were all Gwen had to say. Floating away from his hand, she hovered over directly in front of his robotic face. Her palms moved to touch it, and he felt no disgust or regret, only love. Love and confidence that they would find a way to return his body someday. But in the meantime, she would not allow his current condition to dictate how she treated him. 

“It occurs to me,” Gwen finally continued after remaining like that for a long moment, “that you used to love going and listening to the stories from the talespinners, then watching plays, and eventually movies. Ahhh, you and movies. But you and I haven’t gone to one of those in a long time.” 

“A movie?” Galahad echoed. “I do like movies.” 

“Oh, I know you do.” Smiling, Gwen added, “I still remember going to see the Lumiere brothers little film. There wasn’t even a story but you were enthralled. It reminded me of the first time we watched a play together. You remember what it was?” 

“The play or that first movie?” Galahad countered. “Because the film was just a short bit about two guys leaving a factory. Plus some other things like that. And the play was–” He stopped belatedly. “Ah! You’re trying to trick me!” The lights of his ‘eyes’ shrank a bit as though narrowing. “You want me to say it was the Castle of Perseverance, but we saw Fulgens and Lucrece first. Because I snuck in to watch it with you and you weren’t supposed to know. But you did.” 

“I did,” Gwen confirmed with a fond chuckle. “Fulgens and Lucrece was better anyway. Less hoity toity. And who doesn’t like a good fourth wall breaking joke? The way Servants A and B seem to start outside the play and end up being part of it? I mean, come on. It was very unique for the time. They really need to put it on again. Oooh, maybe we can talk the kids at Fusion School into doing something with it.” 

“Something tells me they’ll be putting that play on soon, if you have anything to say about it,” Galahad noted. “Even if they don’t technically have a theater department.” 

“I’ll let Nimue know that I have a brilliant idea,” Gwen confirmed with a wink. “But in the meantime, you and I are going to see a movie or three. And given all the times I let you ride on my shoulders as a kid, it’ll be good to let you give me a lift into the movie.” 

“You know, I can just switch to my smaller body,” Galahad pointed out. “I know you’re cool with it, but the other people at the movies might object to me crashing through the place like this.” 

Scoffing, Gwen shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. 

“We’re totally going to a drive-in theater.” 

 

******

Maria Chambers

 

Maria Chambers had been born in 1945. Though, of course, she hadn’t been a Chambers at that point. She had originally been Maria Oscars. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she had been… different from others. Her father had died in the last days of the second world war, leaving her mother to raise Maria and her two-years-older brother, Ronald, alone. Maria had repaid her mother’s hard work by being first a rebellious child and then a true terror as a teenager. She partied hard through high school, drinking heavily and generally causing her mother and much more straight-laced older brother no end of problems. She ran with a gang, took more than her fair share of alcohol and drugs, and generally made it her life’s goal to be a wild banshee and never care about the future.

Then came August 4th, 1962. The month before Maria’s final year in high school. On that day, Maria’s life changed forever. Because that was the day that Marilyn Monroe, beautiful, perfect, glamorous party girl of the ages, was found dead of an intentional overdose. 

The revelation that someone as… as perfect and rich and famous as Marilyn Monroe had so many problems that she had actually killed herself was… eye-opening for the seventeen-year-old Maria Oscars. She had spent that month doing a lot of soul searching, and entered her final year of high school a changed, more driven young woman. She abandoned (most of) her partying, graduated high school, went to nursing school (partly out of a desire to know more about exactly how her one-time idol Marilyn had died), and eventually served as an actual nurse. That was where she met Arthur Chambers, fixing him up after a brawl at a nearby bar. The two of them had fallen in love, and…

Well, then a whole bunch of years had passed all in what seemed like a flash. The next thing Maria Chambers knew, she was an old woman, sitting in a cabin in Alaska with her husband of nearly fifty-two years. Over half a century, she had been married to that lovable oaf now. 

“And I’ve kicked your bippy at pool the whole way here,” she announced pointedly, squinting across the dinner table at her lifelong companion. 

“Maria, dear,” Arthur asked, “were you doing that thing where you have an entire thought process in your head and only include one of us at the end when we have no Earthly idea what you’re talking about again?” 

Huffing a bit, the seventy-five-year-old woman carefully took a sip of her iced tea before pointedly replying, “All that matters is you’re terrible at pool.” 

“Well, maybe I’m just distracted whenever I play against a beautiful woman.” Arthur countered. 

Maria’s voice was dry. “I’ve seen you play old Thomas down at the rec center. He’ll be very interested to find out you think he’s such a pretty lady.” 

Before Arthur could find a retort for that, she added, “And that’s why I’ll be teaching Felicity how to hustle at the bars, thank you very much.”

With a chuckle, her husband pointed out, “You know, almost any other grandmother would be trying to steer their only grandchild away from that sort of thing.” 

“Our family’s never been ‘any other’ anything, and you know it,” Maria retorted, before adding, with a fond smile, “And Felicity exemplifies that…” With a sigh, she sat back in her chair. “Do you think Lincoln will bring her up for Thanksgiving this year? She must get so lonely in that stuffy old private school. Torn away from her father? How does Lincoln survive? That girl is his world, after…” She trailed off, forcibly directing her thoughts away from that woman

“That girl will thrive wherever she is,” Arthur reminded her, before exhaling long and low. “But I do hope Lincoln brings her for Thanksgiving. We… we all need it.” 

He was right, Maria knew. Felicity was… was so much like Lincoln. She wanted to be a reporter, just like him. She was stubborn and bullheaded, so intent on tracking down the truth. When she was in middle school, Lincoln used to send his parents weekly updates about what sort of injustice or mystery the girl was dealing with that time. She was a regular Encyclopedia Brown, her and that nice friend of hers who had eventually moved away. 

That was what worried Maria. Between losing her mother and then her best friend, she was afraid that poor Felicity would think everyone left her. She was afraid her beautiful, brilliant granddaughter would stop trusting people, stop opening up to them. And that would be such a tragedy. That was why Maria wanted Lincoln to move back to Los Angeles, so Felicity could be near them. Not only because she wanted to see her granddaughter, but because… because Felicity needed a fresh start, a big change to really, truly grow into the wonderful, brilliant woman Maria knew her granddaughter could be. A place like Los Angeles, where she could really spread her wings and her mind and be that amazing reporter she was meant to be, not stuck in a small town in Wyoming. Maria’s granddaughter deserved so much more than that. 

While she was lost in those thoughts, the door of the cabin opened and their old friend, Al, stepped inside with an armful of grocery bags. Maria quickly tried to get up with Arthur to help, but Al made it to the table first. Setting the bags down, he insisted that they stay in their seats, while reaching in to take out several beers and a couple mason jars with a strange dark green liquid in them.

“Some kind of local moonshine?” Arthur asked, eyeing the jars. He sounded quite willing to give the brew a shot. 

“More like… a chance to share the truth,” Al replied thoughtfully, his voice a bit distracted before he shook whatever it was off. “Been waiting a long time for this, and… well, now it’s time.” 

“Time for what?” Maria pressed. “And what exactly is in these jars?” 

“Like I said,” Al repeated, “the truth. But I need both of you to trust me. Can you do that?” 

“You’re being very strange, Al,” Maria informed him. “But of course we trust you. We’ve trusted you for decades, why on Earth would you need to ask now?” 

“Because now is the big moment,” came the quiet response. “Drink, and I’ll tell you absolutely everything you need to know.” 

Maria and Arthur exchanged looks. But the fact was both of them trusted Al as much as they trusted each other. He had been their very closest friend for such a long time. If he was acting odd now, there was clearly a good reason. As one, they each unscrewed the lid of their respective mason jar, popped off the top, and picked them up. 

“Well,” Arthur started while holding his jar out. “Here’s to having the slightest clue what you’re talking about in a minute.” 

“Here’s to that,” Maria agreed, tapping her jar against the other before taking first a cautious sip, then a deeper gulp of the liquid. “This… tastes funny. What did you put in it?” 

“Yes, Alcaeus,” a new voice put in, “what did you put in it?” The question came from a man who had simply… appeared in front of the door, as if he had stepped right through it. He was an enormous figure, even by the standards of the men in the room, standing an inch taller than Al did at an even seven feet. He had long jet black hair streaked with a bit of white and gray, and a bushy mustache, but no beard. 

Jerking to his feet, Arthur took a step that way. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded while Maria quickly found her feet as well. “And how the hell did you–”

But Al stepped in front of both of them, facing the strange man. “Antaeus,” he snapped in a low voice. “You shouldn’t be here.” 

Baffled, and more than a little annoyed, Maria poked her head out from behind her large husband and even larger friend. “I’m calling the police,” she announced firmly, already moving to pick up the phone. 

“Oh, I’d stop her from doing that before I do it myself,” the man… Antaeus, warned. “See, this isn’t going to go like any of our other contests.” 

With that, he pointed a hand, and… and a beam of what looked like silver light… blasted from his palm. It blew apart the entire… half of the cabin that Maria had been moving toward. Instantly, all of it was just… gone. It was gone. Chairs, furniture, the walls, even a dozen trees that had been on the other side of the wall were annihilated. Half of the cabin was simply not there anymore. 

In the second that Maria stared at that uncomprehendingly, Al had shoved her husband next to Maria and leapt to engage their intruder. And just as quickly, he was sent flying away to land hard on his side next to the two of them. 

The intruder laughed. “Oh, that’s so much better. You see how easy that was? You see how much faster, how much stronger, how much better than you I am now? Even without using any other tricks.” 

In… in over seventy years of life, Maria had never seen anything like this. She couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t even fathom what this was. It simply did not make sense. It was a dream, a nightmare. None of this was real. None of it could be real. She had no frame of reference for this, and her heart… her heart couldn’t…

Shoving himself to his feet, Al stood in front of Maria and Arthur. “The Committee. They put you on the Committee.” 

“What committee?!” Arthur demanded. “What–how did–what the hell is going on?!” 

“They want those two,” Antaeus announced, staring at Maria and her husband. “That means I get to go through you to get to them. And… well, that’s just the icing on the–” 

On the nothing. Because they weren’t… there… anymore? 

At first, Maria thought the entire cabin had somehow vanished. But no… no, they were somewhere else. They were on grass, on an…. an island? Hand against her chest, the elderly woman looked around, mouth open as she took in the view around them. An island. They were standing on an island and… 

“What happened?” Al demanded, his voice suspicious as he made it clear that he was just as confused as the other two. “Where–” 

“Apparently, you were in mortal danger and moments from death, with no escape and no chance.” Another new voice, this one from a man who appeared to be about Maria and Arthur’s age, gray-haired with a neatly trimmed beard and thick eyebrows who stood before them wearing a brown suit and tie. “That, after all, is the condition I put in the spell that I etched into your bones when you were a child, that it would bring you to me when you were in true mortal peril from which there would be no way out.” He paused then before adding thoughtfully, “It seems you have brought friends as well.” 

“Who–who? What? Wher–What is happening?!” Arthur demanded, grabbing his wife’s arm and looking wildly back and forth between the men. 

“Well,” Al murmured, “good thing I had you drink that potion now, I suppose.” Straightening, he gestured. “Arthur, Maria… I want you to meet my old… mentor.

“Zeus.” 

 

*******

Amanirenas

Over A Thousand Years Ago, At The Fall Of Camelot

The battlefield was a wasteland. Over fifty miles of once-lush forest turned to a burned crater where little, if anything, would grow for years. All of this damage caused not by the clashing of many armies, but of a single army attacking one man. A man who was quite possibly one of the strongest beings in existence, such that the one who had finally defeated him was none other than Zeus himself. Puriel, as the Seosten called him. He who possessed such vast power to manipulate lightning, fire, even pure magic itself. And still, even he had only come out the victor of this struggle through treachery, through betraying the trust of one who saw him as a grandfather, and through bringing forth several ships-worth of armament to bombard his opponent. 

Even that may not have been enough to defeat the one called Arthur Pendragon had Puriel not been possessing the necromancy-reanimated body of the man’s own nephew. Blood magics prevented Arthur from putting his full strength against those of his family. They had weakened him, all together barely enough, to put the man down. 

Now weakened and only just capable of remaining upright through his exhaustion, the body of Mordred lying abandoned in the mud, Puriel stood over the fallen king. A Seosten shuttle was maneuvering to land, while the old captain gave orders into his communication device. “Bring the prepared container. I want the remains stored and under constant supervision on the way back to Elohim. The man may be as close to dead as he can be, but he’s a damned dragon-bonded. If I catch anyone being lax in–” 

At that precise moment, as a group of soldiers jogged toward that spot with what amounted to an enchanted sarcophagus floating in front of them, a sudden blast of pure white light lanced past Puriel to strike the fallen body of Arthur. In an instant, the body had vanished. 

A disbelieving bellowed curse burst from the old Seosten, his eyes snapping first down to the ground where the body had been, then to the source of that blast. Despite his weariness, lightning formed at his fingers, ready to lash out that way before he abruptly stopped. Nearby, the squad of sarcophagus-bearers had spun as well, their own weapons raised before seeing a single figure waiting there. 

“You…” Puriel muttered that single word, disbelief filling his voice as he stared. “What did you do?” 

The woman before him stood tall, as proud and strong as she had been a millennia earlier. She was dark-skinned, her body heavily muscled. The sword she held was as large as she was, its blade resting in the ground while she leaned on the hilt. Her one remaining eye glared at the figure in front of her with a hatred that burned as the fires of a thousand hells. The other eye had been long-since sacrificed in a ritual to empower a spell that had enabled her people to temporarily overwhelm and occupy three Roman/Seosten-held cities in Egypt. The woman who, through sheer force of will and battle acumen, had forced the Seosten-controlled Romans to allow her country to self-govern. The warrior queen who had fought enough to force a peace agreement with the Romans, preventing their further expansion for hundreds of years. 

“Amanirenas,” Puriel snarled the name while holding a hand out to stop his troops from advancing or firing. “I will ask you once more before burning you where you stand. What did you do?” 

Letting her enormous sword fall, the woman took a few steps closer, ignoring the other troops to focus solely on the subject of her hate. “I told you… long ago, that your people murdered my husband, the king of our people. You answered that by having your people kill my son.” 

“We were at war,” Puriel reminded her. “You, your son, and your people attacked our cities. We retaliated.” 

“We attacked to prevent you from invading, as you were intending!” Amanirenas snapped. “Had we not struck the first blow, your people would have destroyed us and continued your expansion. Your people began this.” Her smile was humorless, the barely-constrained fury radiating outward from her almost visibly. “Do you know what your people took from me? Do you have any idea? I sacrificed far more than my eye to give my people the strength to stand against yours. I sacrificed all other lives within me. I gave any opportunity for any future children to that spell, to give my people the strength to hold against your incursions.” 

Cracking her neck, she came even closer, her feet touching the edge of the ground where Arthur’s body had been. “It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, because I had my children. One a full man, given by my late husband. The other a child, an infant given to me by the one who replaced Teriteqas in my heart, who taught me the magic needed to see your kind burn. Your people stole both from me. Your people killed my son in battle, and trampled my infant daughter beneath their feet. The only children I could ever have were taken by your filth.” Her hateful words melted into a brief chuckle. “But I told you I would have my revenge, did I not?”

Hand snapping out to send quick bolts of energy into the ground, Puriel watched as tendrils of earth reached out, catching hold of the woman and yanking her bodily to the ground. His power overwhelmed her defensive shields, punching through her magic as though it was made of paper. She didn’t seem to mind, barely reacting as she was hauled down onto her back. 

“Tell me… what you did,” the man snapped, standing over the woman. “Or I will simply discover it for myself.” That was added while he reached down for her. 

“Your people have killed many kings, oh great and powerful god of gods,” Amanirenas snarled. “And you have never feared any of their return. Until now. And fear you should. Because the one called Arthur of the dragons will rise again. He will rise and he will destroy your kind. In time. When he is brought together once more.” 

Lowering his gaze and inhaling, Puriel murmured in realization. “You scattered the body. Do you really think that will be enough? I will reach into your mind and take the knowledge of where every piece has gone. Then all of this will be for naught.”

Amanirenas, held motionless against the ground, simply smiled. “Were that an option, do you truly believe I would have tarried here so long? I gave my first husband, my eye, my children both living and unborn, all to put a stop to your people. I make one more sacrifice to ensure your eventual destruction.” 

Those were the last words spoken by the warrior queen of Kush, who had brought the Roman expansion into her lands to a halt. She had poisoned herself before the confrontation, using the last of her power, the last of her life, to scatter the fallen body of Arthur across the world. And in that moment, she passed away. Peacefully, on her own terms, while giving one last look with her remaining eye at the man who represented the people she hated so thoroughly. At the same time, the spell she had inscribed into her own skin dissolved her body and disintegrated the remains, destroying any chance of the Seosten using their necromancer to draw her back and taking with her the knowledge of where the pieces of Arthur had been sent.

In her death, Amanirenas also carried with her the secret of what had first drawn her to Arthur, what had first led her to this place. Her second husband had sensed the man’s imminent death, and its location. It was he who had told her of what would happen, he whose words had led to this decision, even if he had not known what would happen at the time.

The Reaper who had once met Arthur as a child, shortly before his ascension as a dragon-bonded, had met Amanirenas many centuries earlier. They had borne a child together, after her son was grown. Their daughter, a half-Reaper, had been stolen from them and trampled beneath the enemy army before they could even name her. 

Or so they believed. 

Now, with her dying breath, the warrior queen had set in motion events that would eventually lead the Seosten and Arthur’s own wife, the Queen Guinevere, to desperately search out the one person capable of bringing the once and future king back to life. 

Aylen Tamaya, daughter of Bastet. Granddaughter of Amanirenas.

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks go to all of the incredible $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! Remember, $10 may get you one 500 word snippet per month, but a mere $5 gets you every chapter one day early, and $3 gets you the interludes a day early! Not to mention the ability to vote on upcoming end-of-arc interludes with bonus points! 

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

Listening to Professor Dare extol the evils of non-humans as well as the virtues of Heretics and the creation of the Heretical Edge thanks to the incredible genius of the clearly charming and handsome Hieronymous Bosch made Aylen Tamaya want to stab herself in the ears. At least then she wouldn’t have to listen to the bullshit until her hearing came back. Though, on the other hand, doing something like that might possibly attract some curiosity from the teacher who was, at this moment, going on about how Heretics were the lone defense against the hordes of evil that would wipe out civilization and so on and so forth. Frankly, Aylen didn’t think the woman’s heart was really in her explanation. It kind of felt like she was saying the right words without totally feeling it. 

But then, Aylen was probably just projecting her own feelings onto a woman who had given this same or similar speeches for decades. The lack of true fire behind the words probably had more to do with how often she’d explained all this rather than any lack of conviction. The worst thing Aylen could do here, right in the camp of the enemy, was start thinking that any of them could be trusted. While the majority clearly believed they were doing the right thing rather than being actively malicious, that was no consolation. They’d been raised to be fanatics, and she had no doubt they would take that fanaticism far enough to kill her if they knew what she really was. 

This was dangerous. It was so dangerous. Being here, talking to these people, letting them think she was one of them… it could go wrong in so many ways. But she had to. This was the best–only chance that her family had to free Mother’s father, Aylen’s Reaper grandfather. That was confusing, given the Grandfather she had grown up with. She needed another name.  

Lost in thought as she was (not to mention the fact that she was intentionally ignoring the ‘everything else is evil, humanity fuck yeah speech), she almost missed the fact that Professor Dare was activating the lever. Light suddenly filled the room, drawing everyone’s eyes while the woman called for them to gaze into it and to not look away. With the dramatic declaration that this was the Heretical Edge, the light grew blindingly bright, taking away all other vision as the students around her were all swept away into the Edge Visions that would turn them into Bosch Heretics. 

But Aylen was different. She was already part-Reaper. Everything the Bosch Heretics could do, she was already capable of. That and more, given Grandfather’s tinkering. There was nothing for the Edge to do to her. And yet, the light still blinded her. And as her vision cleared a few moments later, Aylen still found herself elsewhere, just as her fellow students would have. 

Specifically, she was standing in her own living room–no. No, this wasn’t their most recent living room. It was the living room of the house they had lived in when Aylen was still only seven years old. That was the first time she remembered hearing enough of the story about where Mother’s father was and what Heretics were to actually understand it. It was the room Aylen had been sitting in, with Mother and Mama, when she first resolved to somehow, someday, save Mother’s papa. The thought that her beloved mother had been without her own father through her entire life had left the young Aylen stricken, and she’d promised that she would someday help free him. Neither of her mothers had taken it entirely seriously at the time, but she was determined.

And now, here she was. Years later, facing the Heretical Edge, Aylen was here in this room again. 

“Interesting.” 

That single word came from behind Aylen, and she spun to find herself facing a figure she had previously only seen in drawings and in magic projections. It was a tall man, with sharply, almost achingly pretty features that reminded her of the elves in the Lord of the Rings movies. His skin was bone-pale, his hair as blue as the sky. Eyes that were deep violet stared at her, seeming to take in every feature with an intense curiosity. He gazed into her, reading things even Aylen wasn’t aware of. The power and authority radiating from his form made her reflexively gasp. She felt, in that moment, the way ancient, primitive man gazing up into the wonder of the sun must have felt. An apt comparison, for the power in this man compared to her own was that of the sun to a primitive human. He was more than she had ever truly expected him to be. 

“Grand…. father… “ Aylen whispered, staring at him as her mouth fell open. Everything she had planned out to say, everything she wanted to explain, was washed away in that moment. She knew nothing, she thought nothing. She could only stare. 

He had only said that single word, before falling silent when she turned to him and spoke her own single word. For the several long seconds, neither said anything else. Aylen could see, could practically feel, the old Reaper taking in everything about her. His gaze, once it was done taking her in, slowly panned around the living room. He looked to the pictures and paintings on the wall, to the television where DVD’s of her favorite childhood movies were stacked up, and to the baby blanket neatly folded on the nearby chair. A blanket she still had to this day. Through it all, Aylen remained silent. Something told her not to interrupt, to let this go at his pace, not her own. 

Finally, those intense eyes returned to her own gaze. And in that moment, they softened. The dark, almost black purple turned a more gentle violet as he spoke three words in a voice that was so small, so vulnerable and hesitant that Aylen thought there was no conceivable way it could have come from the blindingly powerful figure in front of her. 

“She is alive?” 

Those three words, that single question from the being who served as the linchpin of the entire Bosch Heretic society and empowered literally thousands of beings, came wrapped in the emotion of a man who had lost his child eons ago. It was the emotion of a man who had forgotten what it was like to hope that such a child had survived, whose heart had long-since abandoned those thoughts. 

The words came from a man who had entered this room and had that hope rekindled in the form of the girl standing before him. Those long-extinguished flames had begun to smolder once more. 

Somehow, Aylen found her voice. “My… my mother. My mother is your daughter.” 

The man said nothing, not aloud anyway. But his eyes. When she looked into his eyes, Aylen saw a rush of emotion. Those embers of hope she felt before had flickered into a small, yet fierce flame with a heat that drove away what had clearly been cold certainty of his daughter’s loss. 

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

So, she did. Walking through the house of her memories, Aylen spoke with her mother’s father for what felt like hours. She had no idea how these visions worked for the actual Heretics, but she seemed to be there for much longer than was actually possible. She told him of her mothers, of her own birth, of her other grandfather. She told him of her mission here. 

“I’m going to get you out of this place,” she promised him. By that point, the two were back in the living room. Through all of that, neither had touched the other. She didn’t feel right making that sort of assumption, and he had not extended his own hand through their discussion. “I don’t know how yet, but that’s why I’m here. It’s the whole reason I came to this place. I promise, no matter what, I–” 

In mid-sentence, the phone on the nearby wall interrupted Aylen by ringing. Her gaze snapped toward it with confusion, but her grandfather simply looked at it without moving. A moment later, it stopped. She was about to ask why the phone would ring in her vision, when he spoke instead. “You… you said your name was Aylen?” When she nodded, he continued. “Aylen, I believed my daughter, my only living heir, was dead since before I was trapped in this place. I have spent millennia believing the only child I would ever have was gone forever. Listen now. In telling me that she lives, in telling me that my… my child has survived all this time… you have already freed me from far darker a prison than this could ever be.  

“You, Aylen, are my granddaughter. You are my proof that my child is not dead, my proof that she has lived a life, that she has known happiness. Even if I could not be there, you are my proof that she has stood, learned, lived, and loved. You say you have come to free me? Your existence is my freedom.”

After saying those words, the old Reaper raised a hand. Only then did he finally touch Aylen. His palm pressed against her cheek, as he exhaled slowly. “Granddaughter. When your grandmother spoke of children, grandchildren, and on, I… I did not understand the concept. It took such time for her to explain the–” He stopped talking then, looking away as the phone rang once more. Again, the man made no move to answer it, instead staring until the ringing stopped. 

Aylen meant to ask about the phone. Instead, the words that came first were, “What about Grandmother? What… happened?” 

“That is for another conversation,” he replied quietly. There was pain in his voice, a deep ache that had clearly yet to heal even all these centuries later. “I’m afraid our time here is still limited. You’ll be waking up soon. And I would rather not end our visit on such things.” 

“Grandfather, there’s… there’s more, there’s a lot more I want to say,” Aylen pleaded, though she wasn’t even sure who she was directing the plea to. He held no control over the fact that she would have to wake up and be amongst the true Heretics once more. “I don’t know how we’re going to get you out of this, but we will. I will. I’m here to find out everything I can about how the Heretics have you trapped. Once I do, Mother, Mama, the other Grandfather, we’ll all get you out. I promise. We will get you out of this. You’ll see her again. You’ll see Mother again.” 

She was embracing him. Aylen wasn’t even sure when or how that had happened. Her arms were around him, her face buried against his shoulder. She clung to the man, wanting to stay there and tell him everything about her life, everything about her mothers’ lives. That brief flicker of loss and pain she had seen when he thought of her grandmother made her want to stay forever and tell him everything he had missed. She desperately wanted to fill the emotional pit she had seen in him with everything she could. 

And then again, even as she felt herself begin to drift away from the vision, the phone rang once more. Aylen stubbornly clung to her grandfather, refusing to let go. The phone was louder. “What is it?” she demanded with confusion. “Who keeps trying to call you? I don’t–how are they calling you?” 

“It is symbolic,” he informed her in a quiet voice. “The phone you hear is a manifestation of my old power reaching out to me. If I establish contact, it will free me from this place.” 

Staring at him, aghast, Aylen blurted, “Wh-what?! Why–why wouldn’t you just answer then? If your power can free you, answer the–” 

“No.” His voice was sharp, even as Aylen realized that she had been reaching toward the phone herself. “It is the power of my darker self. The power of what the humans call a Hangman, an evil being bent entirely toward destruction and death.” 

Hand shrinking away from the phone, which had gone silent once more, Aylen murmured, “Your old power… it’s right there, and you’ve been ignoring it all this time. All you have to do is answer it, and if you did, you’d be free but… you’d be evil?” 

“Far worse than that,” her grandfather quietly replied. “I am connected to every Heretic created through the light or the apples. 

“If I become a Hangman, so will they.” 

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

“Don’t make me do this,” Cameron Reid pleaded. The black girl stood at the edge of a used car lot, beside a rusty old sedan that had been cleaned up as much as the employees could manage. She held a wicked-looking faintly curved short sword in each hand, with her favorite little friend, the blue-tongued skink named Tad Cooper (no one she talked to ever got the reference), perched on her shoulder. “Just walk away. We don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” 

“You don’t?” Standing in front of her, long pike raised and pointed that way, Foster Remels snarled the two words. Foster was a light-skinned red-headed boy with the tattoo of a flaming skull on the exposed left shoulder of his sleeveless arms. “Good, does that mean you’re giving up this bullshit and not being a traitor anymore? Because that’d be pretty fucking spiffy, Cameron.” His eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, we really do have to do this. You come back, tell the Committee you’re sorry and you were just confused. They’ll understand, Cameron. Stop this. Help me kill the monsters, and we can all go home.”

At the word monsters, Cameron glanced sidelong toward the small group of blue-skinned humanoids huddled next to one of the nearby trucks. They were the owner of the car lot and his family/employees. Seeing them like that, huddled together while staring fearfully at the two squared-off Heretics, the lump in her throat at the idea of fighting one of her classmates and friends hardened. She swallowed it down, turning her attention back to Foster. “If you think not wanting to fight you is enough to make me change sides, then you don’t understand why I left in the first place.” 

“You’re right!” Foster snapped. “I don’t! We’re supposed to be the good guys, Cameron! We kill monsters and save people! We–” His burst of anger softened, the boy’s clear frustration melting into a desperate plea. “No, you’re right. I do get it. It’d be really nice to see all those creatures out there and think that we could be friends with them. I understand! I swear, I get it. And maybe someday we can! Maybe someday we can find another species to work with us! But not like this. Not by betraying our own people. Don’t you see? You and the others are doing exactly what the monsters want. They’ve been trying to create a civil war in Crossroads for all this time! They did it once before and we survived, and now they’ve done it again!”

For a moment, Cameron was silent. She thought about the students she had mentored back at Crossroads over the past year. They were all so different. Zeke, his incredible pride and hot-headedness repeatedly getting him in trouble despite his intentions. He came to her several times over the year trying to get help with his anger issues. In calm, private situations, the boy repeatedly planned out how to be ‘nicer,’ but in the heat of the moment, repeatedly fell back to the same attitude that got him in trouble. He and Malcolm Harkess, the remarkably gifted athlete and fighter despite his Bystander-kin origins who had ended up being one of Zeke’s closest friends despite their differences and constant arguments, had stayed back at Crossroads. 

Erin too. She was at Crossroads, though Cameron wasn’t sure why. She would have thought that someone like Erin would switch sides, given what she knew about the girl. And yet, here they were. 

Travis Colby, another Bystander-kin like Malcolm, had joined the rebellion. Actually, he’d followed Cameron. When she’d made the choice to follow Chambers and the others that fateful night, Travis had been behind her. She warned him about what she was doing, and he’d simply replied that if Jazz had a boyfriend who was a Stranger, then he wasn’t cool with killing all of them. 

Then there were the twins, Vanessa and Tristan. They, of course, switched sides. They were part of the switching sides. They weren’t even fully human, but hybrids. Humans mixed with a Stranger. 

Her team. The team she was responsible for mentoring, had been split in half. So why had Cameron chosen to switch sides? Why did she choose to go with the rebellion? 

“I don’t know,” she started out loud, “how many of the things out there who aren’t human are actually good. I don’t know how many of those claiming to be good for the rebellion actually are! I don’t know how many are faking it or might just go back to being monsters the second they get a chance. I don’t know! But I know one thing. I know the only way, the only real way, that someone who is bad becomes good is by being treated like they could be! If you treat people like monsters, if you hunt and kill them just for existing, you give them no choice but to act the way you’re treating them. If all you ever do is look for monsters, that’s exactly what you’ll find!

“I don’t know how much this will pay off. I don’t know if we’ll be betrayed. But we have to give it a chance. We have to try to treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Pointing his pike past Cameron to the huddled figures, Foster declared, “They’re selling cars to humans and then selling their info to monsters who hunt down the humans in their homes.” 

“You don’t know that,” Cameron insisted. “That’s just what Crossroads told you. Why do you believe them?” 

“Because they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years!” he insisted. “Because they know better than you or me. I side with the people who protect humanity, Cameron, with the people who have always protected humanity. Maybe they’re not perfect, maybe we still have a long way to go as a group. But throwing that all away can’t be the right answer!” 

For a moment, the two squared off. Then Cameron turned her head and murmured something to Tad. The tiny lizard ran to the end of her arm, to her waiting hand. Cupped in her palm, the lizard started to glow as she used her favorite power before tossing him to the side. 

He was already growing. When he landed near the huddled family of Alters and straightened up, Tad Cooper was four feet tall and a solid twenty-feet long. He was a massive lizard, armored with scales that were as hard as steel. As he looked toward Foster, the lizard opened his mouth and sent out a rush of freezing breath that created an ice wall between them. 

“If he goes near those people, Tad,” Cameron ordered her empowered lizard, “put him on the ground.” 

Face sombering, Foster cracked his neck while lifting his pike. “So… it’s going to be like that.” 

“Yeah,” Cameron agreed, her own voice just as unhappy, yet equally resolved. “It’s going to be like that.” 

Then there was nothing more to say. The two former friends watched one another’s eyes, saw the impasse between them… and lunged to attack. 

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

Of all the great, remarkable, sometimes even terrible deeds that Alcaeus, once known as Heracles, had achieved in his incredibly long life, convincing Maria and Arthur Chambers to leave their home for an extended vacation had to be one of the most impressive.  

The two were long-retired and spent every day in their California home, where they had lived for almost their entire married life. When their ‘friend Al’ had come to them with a suggestion that they join him on a tour of the world, they had been a bit… uncertain, to say the least. When he explained that he was putting together a book about various tourist destinations specifically for the retired community and that he needed their perspective on all the places he was supposed to go for the book to work as intended, they had understood a little more. Though they had still been a bit surprised that his publisher was footing the bill for three people to go on this journey. 

But even with that explanation, Maria and Arthur had been hesitant. As much as this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything they had ever wanted, the two were content in their lives the way they were. Not only that, but with their son (as far as they knew) on a long undercover investigative assignment and their granddaughter away at private school, the two wanted to be close to home in case either needed them. 

Fortunately, Arthur was a bit of a tech-obsessed geek, particularly for an old man. He ended up pointing out to his wife that their cell phones would take calls from their son and granddaughter no matter where they were. And beyond that, their security system would let them know if anyone showed up at the door. If it was Felicity or Lincoln, Maria and Arthur would be able to talk to them through the doorbell camera and arrange for a flight out to meet wherever they happened to be. 

That was one of Maria’s primary conditions. She and Arthur set aside money for two separate plane tickets, enough to bring Felicity and/or Lincoln anywhere they were, no matter where that was. She insisted that if her son or granddaughter needed them, they would have the money, their own money, to fly them to DC, New York, London, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world. 

In the end, they did at least finally agree. Which allowed Alcaeus to get them out of their house and away from home on this globetrotting trip. It was a temporary measure, of course. But it would give him time to figure out just how serious the Seosten attempts to get at the two would end up being. It was a stop-gap, yet an important one. 

At the moment, they were in Alaska, staying in a hunting lodge. Al had taken his friends out to see all the incredible wildlife and stunning visuals that the area had to offer. They were in awe of it all, of course, and their own utterly stunned reactions to these things reminded Alcaeus of how much he took for granted. He had been on this world for so long, had seen so much, that he sometimes (often) forgot just how incredible it really was. 

They deserved to know more. They deserved the whole truth. And part of this trip, if the man was being honest with himself, was his own way of deciding if he should take that step or not. Because while they deserved the truth, they also deserved to live their lives without being dragged into the whole problems of Heretics, Seosten, and everything else. 

Yet, Al asked himself while standing on the porch of the hunting lodge with Maria and Arthur cuddling on the swing behind him, weren’t they already involved? Their granddaughter was a Heretic who had found out the truth about Seosten. Their son had somehow (assuming Al’s contacts were correct, and he believed they were) broken the Bystander Effect and figured out a lot of the truth on his own, and was even now living with Gabriel Prosser’s people. 

Yes, they were involved. The only real question was how involved. And Al thought he knew the answer. The only real answer was to give them the truth and let them decide for themselves. It would take some effort, there were things that needed to be collected to make the spell work. But once he did, he could temporarily remove the Bystander Effect and tell them the truth. Then he would let Arthur and Maria decide if they wanted to retain that knowledge and be a part of… of all this. Because the truth was, it wasn’t his choice. It was theirs. 

For now, however, he would simply keep them safe. And show them as much of the world as he could. To that end, he raised his hand to point. “If you’re up to it, in the morning–” 

Then it happened. In mid-sentence, a rush of memories burst forth out of nowhere, an explosion of knowledge that rocked Al backward. 

He had never been an official part of Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion. But he knew of it. And he had helped now and then, when possible. For the most part, the Alcaeus of that time simply wished to be left alone, if the threats weren’t world-ending, like the Fomorians. He had been trying to keep his ever-present temper in check, had tried to find true balance in his life between the good man he wanted to be and the embodiment of rage and destruction that he was so good at becoming. 

So, he had helped when needed, had served as a sort of… babysitter at times for those who were in danger and had nowhere else to turn. He had met Joselyn Atherby, had seen the strength in her. Strength was something he liked… a lot. And he liked her… a lot. For a man like Alcaeus, liking a woman generally meant one thing. And… well, this case was no different. The two of them had, with the blessing of her husband… Deveron, that was it, taken that liking to another level once or… twice or… 

Fuck, this was awkward. 

The rush of memories, the realization that he not only knew the woman who had supposedly abandoned Arthur and Maria’s son and granddaughter, but had actually slept with her (and quite enjoyed it, honestly), was almost more than even a man as strong as Alcaeus could handle. He stumbled back a step, gasping. Rebellion, Joselyn, the Atherbys, her daughter… Her daughter had awakened those memories, had awakened the rebellion. 

Arthur was suddenly there, a hand on Al’s arm while the other caught his back. Nearly half a foot shorter than Alcaeus despite being six-foot-five himself, he was still built sturdily enough to catch the stumbling man. “Whoa there! Hey, Al, you okay?” In the background, Maria was already insisting that her husband help him over to the swing while she called for a doctor. 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Al insisted, shaking his head. “Just got a little dizzy for a second. Long day.” 

“You come right over here and sit down,” Maria Chambers insisted, pointing to the swing. “I don’t want to hear any arguments, you understand? Get off your feet, now. You men, always pushing yourselves so far. Too damned stubborn to admit you’re getting too old for these things.” 

Letting himself be pulled by Arthur to sit down on the swing, Alcaeus mused inwardly. He’d thought that explaining the truth about this whole situation to his friends was going to be awkward before. 

Now? Now he was going to have to be good and god damned drunk before even starting. 

***************

Earth Club

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

As he blurted those words, the green-skinned boy known as Layuerk (or Lurk, as many called him), pumped his fists into the air and jumped up and down in front of the entrance to the most incredible, wonderful place he’d ever set foot near. Truly, the shining jewel of the vast universe.

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

“It’s radical, dude.” Stepping beside his friend, the Reusfiel (essentially an anthropomorphic fox-bunny) named Grisson added, “Cowabunga’s something you yell, like neat or yay. Something can’t be cowabunga. Come on, we watched every Ninja Turtles movie last week for a reason. So we sound like normal teenagers and don’t stand out. We’re supposed to be under cover.” 

As he said that, they were joined by a new figure. She stood two inches over six feet, with body entirely made of metal, and arms that reached all the way to the ground despite her height. Ferrdreis, the Ullmis. Her male twin, Aerlicht, was right behind her. “We are very good at being under cover,” Ferrdreis announced, before looking at a passing elderly couple who were on their way into the mall. “Greetings, Bodacious Lady and Sir Dude! May your days be totally tubular and free from bogus.” 

The couple stared at them for a moment, clearly confused before hurrying off. Watching them go, Ferrdreis tilted her head. “Perhaps it is my accent?” 

These four, the full members of what they had always called the Earth Club back in Seosten space, were finally here. They were here on Earth after so many years of picking up random toys, games, movies, and more from the place they had become obsessed with. With the arrival of the Aelaestiam station and its conversion to the Fusion School for Heretics and Alters, these four were finally able to live their dream of actually setting foot on Earth. And they were making the most of it. 

“I still don’t get it,” Layuerk insisted. “So you can yell radical, excellent, awesome, all those things. You can say yell those and something can be those. Like a radical car or an excellent movie. And you can also yell cowabunga, but something can’t be cowabunga? No, I refuse. This building is totally cowabunga!” 

“If you think this mall’s cowabunga, you’re gonna flip if we ever go to Mall of America.” The drawled announcement came from the Earth Club’s adult escort for this little trip, Deveron Adams. The handsome, dark-haired man stepped up onto the curb, accompanied by his teenage granddaughter, Koren Fellows. 

“One step at a time, Grandpa,” Koren teased the man. “Don’t overload their circuits.” Even as she said it, the girl was wincing with a look toward the two metal figures. “Errr, that wasn’t supposed to be a robot joke or anything. Not that I think you’re robots, it’s just–I mean I wasn’t–” 

“Would you like me to interrupt and pretend you never said anything?” Deveron asked conversationally. When the flushing girl covered her mouth with both hands and nodded, he turned his attention to the quartet. “Alright, guys, you remember the rules. We stay together. We’ll look at what you want to look at. There’s plenty of time and plenty of stores to see. They’ve got an arcade, a mini-golf place, a food court… let’s work our way toward the food court. We’ve got two hours before the movie in the theater. We’ll mosey that way, pick up some food, then see the movie. And what do you do in case of emergency?” 

In answer, all five teenagers held up their arms to display the wristwatches that had been enchanted with spells to teleport them to safety if a command word was spoken. 

“Good job.” With a smile, Deveron gestured. “Right then,

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

Stepping off the brightly lit sidewalk with a sharp pivot into a much darker alley, a frail-looking Asian woman wearing a long dark coat with a leather satchel over one shoulder strode smoothly in the shadows. Her feet announced her movement with each step that clicked against the dirty cement, until they simply… didn’t. Between one step and the next, she abruptly stopped providing any sound at all, her motions utterly silent. It was as if she had flipped a switch, no longer deliberately walking in a way to invite her pursuers into a false sense of superiority. 

It was to those pursuers that Jiao spoke, as she stopped walking a few feet from the wall marking the dead end of the alley. “If you would like to have a conversation, I have time now.” 

“A conversation?” The derisive voice came from the first of two orcs who stepped up into the opening of the alley. They were joined by a larger troll, who growled with annoyance while filling up the entire alley entrance. “Oh,” the orc continued, “we can have a really quick conversation. Just tell us where your husband is.” 

Still facing the wall rather than turning to them, Jiao tilted her head a little to gaze at the trio over her shoulder from the corner of her eye. “I would say you’ll have to narrow it down, given my apparent proclivity for wandering husbands. But I am afraid it would not be helpful, as I remain sadly unaware of the whereabouts of either.” 

The orc who had been speaking gave a dark chuckle. “You say a lot of words, but not the ones we wanna hear.” His eyes narrowed, and he produced a heavy flintlock-like enchanted pistol, pointing it at her. “We wanna know where Liang is. More to the point, our boss wants to know where he is. You can either tell us, or we’ll make you scream and see if he comes running.” 

Jiao’s response to the threat, as the second orc produced a glowing energy blade and the troll heaved a massive axe off his back, was a simple, “You are welcome to the attempt.” 

With a snarl, the orc pointed his enchanted gun and pulled the trigger, sending a concentrated blast of electrical energy (enough to put an Amarok on the ground), while the other orc dashed forward, energy-blade already lashing out to cut through the space the woman would have to dodge into. 

Or rather… the space she should have dodged into. But instead of moving that way, Jiao simply pivoted. Her left hand snapped upward, producing a small pistol of her own before firing off a single bullet, striking the hand of the lizard-like Alter who had been silently sneaking down the wall in an attempt to ambush her while she was distracted. With a yell as his hand was struck by the shot, the lizard-man plummeted off the wall and ended up falling directly into the path of the incoming ball of lightning. 

Meanwhile, Jiao’s other hand snapped backward and down, producing a pistol of its own before firing a shot into the knee of the orc who had just whiffed his laser-sword through the air where he’d thought she would be. He collapsed with a scream, before her pistol fired a second shot through the side of his head. 

Before the body could fall completely, the vampire used a very slight burst of speed to put herself on the opposite side of him just as another lightning ball from the first orc blew a hole in the wall where she had just been. Dropping both guns, Jiao hoisted the body of the second orc with one hand. A moment later, it was sent flying through the air. The first orc ducked, but the troll simply caught the incoming body with one hand. 

“That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch,” the orc snarled, already striding toward her with his magic pistol raised. “What the hell did you think that was gonna accomplish, huh?”

“What you should be asking yourself,” Jiao patiently and quietly replied, “is, if I threw him with one hand, why did I drop both guns?” 

“If you threw him with one–” As he echoed those words dismissively, the orc’s eyes suddenly widened as he saw that Jiao’s other hand wasn’t empty. Rather, it held a remote detonator. He spun back toward the troll, who was staring curiously at the dead orc in his massive hand. “Put him–” 

That was as far as he got, before the explosion blew the troll into little chunks. The force of the shockwave was enough to knock the living orc to the ground, where he lay with a groan before slowly lifting his head as the barrel of a pistol was placed calmly against it. 

“Perhaps,” Jiao began, as calmly as ever, “we can have that conversation about the gentleman who wishes to find my second husband now.”

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