Andrew Bruhn

Patreon Snippets 12A (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Thanks to all $10+ Patrons who requested these snippets. These are the requests that were made for Heretical Edge. The two Summus Proelium Snippets, which are long enough to be their own chapter, will be released at the end of the current arc of that story. Thanks again! 

“Then add a little curl under the cross shape right there, like a tail,” Sariel Moon carefully instructed her eldest daughter while the two of them stood out in the woods a few hundred yards away from the lake where the Atherby camp was. “That’s right, just like that.”

Gaze intent on the metal bracelet she was catching the spell onto, Vanessa glanced up after a moment to her mother. “That’s it?”

With a smile, the older woman nodded. “Now you’re ready to power it. Remember, you want a very slow trickle of power in through the left side of the runes until it starts filling, and once it’s about halfway full, you want to go to the right side and flood it quickly so the two waves of power crash into each other in the middle. You have to get the fill-speed just right.”

Eventually, Vanessa had the bracelet enchanted properly. Clipping the thing onto her wrist, she touched it and murmured the activation word. It glowed briefly, and she reached out to pick up the dagger that her mother offered her. Taking a breath, she hurled it, the dagger spinning end over end before embedding itself in a tree a short distance away. Staring at the weapon, Vanessa flicked her wrist to the side, and an instant later, the dagger was back in her hand as the runes on the bracelet flared for a moment. 

It had worked. Her mother had taught her a spell to summon things back to her hand shortly after they left it. Sariel didn’t need it, of course, given her own natural power. But it would be very useful for Vanessa. And for Tristan, once his sister could sit on him and make him learn it. 

Watching her daughter practice with the spell a couple more times, Sariel finally, somewhat hesitantly remarked, “You haven’t really said anything about the other family, you know? It’s okay if you want to.”

Blinking over to the woman, Vanessa asked, ”Haven’t really said anything about who? What other family?”

Her mother offered her a small smile. “The one who must have taken care of you when we disappeared. You were still very little, I hope they found a good family soon, so you could have some stability. I was… thinking we might visit them at some point.”

For a long moment, Vanessa didn’t say anything. She fidgeted with the dagger in her hand before turning to throw it hard at a tree that was further away. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “I didn’t really get adopted or anything. People want little kids, not twelve or thirteen-year-olds with emotional development problems.”

Staring at the girl, Sariel shook her head. “I don’t understand. You weren’t thirteen when we vanished, you were seven.”

With a sigh, Vanessa summoned the dagger back before looking to her mother. “Yeah, but I was a seven-year-old with a perfect memory. The Bystander Effect didn’t exactly work on me, so I remembered everything that happened. All of it. And I was too dumb to know I shouldn’t talk about it. I thought you were supposed to tell the police when bad things happened. So I told them that my family was abducted by a bad magic guy. I told them about the orb that exploded and sucked you all into it. I told them about a lot of things.

“They took me to a counselor, who tried to figure out what mundane explanation there was for the things I was saying, because I was obviously traumatized. But I just kept telling them more and more about the things I knew, and none of them believed me. Of course they didn’t believe me. They thought I was emotionally disturbed because of the things that I actually saw. Even when I pointed out the actual ‘monsters’ I could see walking the streets, it didn’t help. Actually, it made things worse. They decided I was crazy. Not the word they used, but that’s what they thought. I was just the insane little girl.”

Sariel, who had been staring at the girl with mounting apprehension and worry, gently took the knife from her daughter’s hand and made it disappear before interlacing their fingers. Her voice was quiet. “What happened, Nessa?”

The response was a few long moments of silence before the girl gave a small shrug, staring at the ground. “They put me in a group home for awhile, with other kids who had ‘emotional developmental problems.’ I tried to take care of them, tried to help them deal with their issues instead of focusing on mine. It was good for them, the other kids. Even though a lot of them were older than me, I still helped. I took care of them when the adults got sick of dealing with us. It was a good distraction. But I was still worried about you guys, so I kept asking when they were going to find you, when they were going to put the orb back together. I kept talking about the stuff I shouldn’t talk about. Because I didn’t know any better yet. 

“Eventually, they decided I was too disturbed to be in one of the homes. They said I was upsetting the other kids with the things I talked about. But they weren’t upset. The adults were the ones who were upset. So they put me in a hospital for the psychologically disturbed.”

Abruptly, Sariel’s hand grew tight against her daughter’s and she made a noise of disbelief before using her free hand to tilt Vanessa‘s chin up, staring down into her eyes. “No… no, baby. Please tell me they…. oh… no…” Memories flashed through the Seosten woman’s mind. Memories of a childhood spent in the old mental asylum, with her own mother. Memories of hiding in the passages between the walls. Memories of the horrors and nightmares she had witnessed and grown up with until the day her Lucifer had found and rescued her. The thought of her daughter being in any kind of situation like that, let alone one without any of her family and with no one who believed her, made a horrible shudder run through the woman. 

Her arms wrapped around the girl, pulling her tight while she whispered, “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry. I should have been there. I should have been with you.”

Returning the embrace, Vanessa shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Mom. You weren’t exactly in a good place either. I know you would have stayed if you could. It wasn’t your fault. Besides, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Elisabet and Jophiel posed as one of the counselors and helped me sometimes. They took me out for ice cream and stuff.”

Sariel held her daughter tighter, demanding, “Why didn’t they get you out of there and put you in a better home?”

“I sort of asked Jophiel that awhile ago,” Vanessa admitted. “Or something to that effect, anyway. She said that it was safer for me to be there and out of the way where none of your people would pay too much attention to me until I was old enough to know how to keep quiet. She said it was best at the time because your people would have insisted I be taken or eliminated if I was even a hint of a threat. In the hospital, I wasn’t.”

Sariel was silent for a few seconds, considering that. Part of her wanted to scream at Jophiel still, for leaving her child in that kind of environment for so long. But she knew that a large part of the anger she felt now was actually guilt toward herself for not being there. Guilt for failing to protect her child. That, and the emotions from her own memories of a childhood spent in such a terrible place.

Vanessa spoke again. “I helped take care of some of the people in there too, like the kids before. People who really needed it. Eventually, the doctors decided I was okay. Because I stopped talking about that stuff. I learned better. They let me leave, but by then I was too old to be a good adoption. Like I said, people want little kids. So, I just sort of bounced through different homes. I’d spend a few months in one home, then they’d get a kid they actually wanted to invite to go to a different home. At least, that’s what I thought it was at the time. Jophiel told me they were moving me around a lot to keep me off the Seosten radar. She said they were afraid that some of your people would decide to get rid of the threat. You know, because I’m an abomination or whatever. Hybrid.”

By the time she was done explaining all that, Sariel could only hug her daughter tighter, so tight she was almost afraid she might break the girl. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m here now. I’m here now and I’m going to be here. But, for the times when I’m not, for the times when I can’t be, I want to show you everything I know, so you can take care of yourself. And your siblings. I know I can’t always protect you from everything. But I can help. I can teach you.”

Vanessa returned the hug before tilting her head back to look up at her mother. She managed was a very slight smile. “Trust me, Mom, if there’s one thing I really love to do, it’s to…” 

 

*****

 

“….learn from you?” the young man known as Amenhotep, sole ruler of the Egyptian Empire now that the death of his father had ended their brief co-regency, asked the man who stood across the fire pit from him. The two of them were standing out in the desert, where the elder figure was ostensibly attempting to teach his pharaoh all the magic he needed to know in order to rule and protect the lands he was now responsible for. 

Amenhotep, however, was impatient and annoyed about the entire exercise he had been dragged out on. Spending the past couple of years as a co-ruler under his father had made him long to be fully in charge, but without the maturity and grace that was needed for such a thing. He was far from actually ready, despite his impatience. Hence why he had just demanded to know what in this entire world he could possibly still have to learn from his companion after all this time.

The older man who had taken him here, to the wild lands away from civilization, was not human. He was a Rakshasa, an old cat-figure whose fur had deeply grayed with age. His name was Taleun, and he had served the pharaohs of Egypt for generations. Standing across the fire from the impetuous young man, he carefully replied, “It is the duty of the pharaoh to master the arts which have protected this land throughout its existence. There are secrets that only the true leader all of our people is privy to. Secrets about where we come from and the threat which lies in waiting should our guard ever fail. Secrets that could lead to the enslavement of all our people.”  

Amenhotep made a dismissive noise at that. “Our people are the rulers, not the slaves. We are far too powerful to fall to any of our enemies. You are a paranoid old cat, Taleun. Have you looked around at our people anytime recently? We are stronger than any who have ever set foot upon this world. Our Empire will not be threatened by your old ghost stories.” 

The Rakshasa pleaded with him, “We are strong precisely because of the precautions taken by your ancestors, young pharaoh. Do not believe that such a thing was easily gained, or that the threat has vanished. Those who lurk in the shadows ready to take our people for their own will not to be swayed by our power, for it is nothing to them. They will slither their way as serpents into your mind and take everything we have if you do not heed the warnings of the past. Learn the spells that will protect you, that will protect all of us. Learn to control the defenses that have been established by those who have fought and bled to erect those very protections. Or you may well rule over the collapse of this empire.” 

Pointing a finger at the old feline-figure, Amenhotep snapped, “I will not be threatened or spoken down to as a child. Do not forget your place. I am Pharaoh. I will decide how our people can be best protected. The gods have chosen me to rule our empire and I will not fail them.” 

Bowing his head, Taleun carefully conceded, “I mean no disrespect, of course. You are indeed the chosen pharaoh, and you will lead us to an even more glorious Empire than ever before. Yet to do that, you must utilize the power and knowledge that the gods have provided. Our true strength and glory is in the might of the Pharaoh himself, and you have the ability to be the greatest of them all. I believe you are more capable than any we have ever known. That is why I push you so hard. Because I know you can take it. Because I know you are the one who will expand our strength from one end of this world to the other. You are truly chosen.” 

Mollified by his teacher’s words, Amenhotep gave a short nod. “I suppose you have a point, yes. Strong as our empire is, the pharaoh must be prepared to lead it to even greater heights. Very well, I will learn these lessons you insist upon.” After a brief pause, he amended, “In three days, we can begin.” 

Hesitantly, Taleun pointed out, “This is something we should begin as soon as possible, my pharaoh. If our enemies learn that we are vulnerable now, that our leader is not prepared–” 

“I am prepared for all who may come before me!” the young ruler snapped, his voice a roar. “You forget that I am the most decorated warrior of our age. I am strong with or without your lessons. As I said, I will learn them soon. In three days. Now I have other business to attend to, business that does not involve standing in a desert learning from paranoid old cats. Be here when you are called to be, and I will learn your lessons. Do not trouble me before then. That is the end of it.” 

With that, he touched one of the many golden bracelets on his wrist and activated the portal spell upon it before stepping through, returning to his palace. The Egyptian Empire would not be led by paranoid cowards any longer. It truly would stretch across this world. 

Closing the portal, he looked around his private chambers before speaking up. “We are alone.” 

There was a brief shimmering in the air, before a remarkably beautiful and exotic light-haired woman came into view. Smiling at him, she purred, “I missed you, my pharaoh.” While speaking, she slinked toward him, taking his hand with a murmur of pleasure at his very touch. “Must you leave me alone for so long?” 

Hungrily kissing the woman, Amenhotep replied, “I came as soon as I could extract myself from the old man, Dumah. He’s so paranoid, if he knew I was involved with an outsider he might keel over and die on the spot.” 

Returning the kiss just as hungrily, Dumah snaked her arms around him tightly and murmured “Perhaps I would not be such an outsider if you were to allow me the great privilege of gazing upon you bare of all but the love between us.” 

“Would you be as bare, my love?” the young pharaoh asked with a needful murmur of pleasure as his hands ran up and down her lithe form. “Such a thing could tempt the gods themselves.” 

Smiling, the beautiful woman stepped away and began to disrobe before his needful gaze. Soon, she was naked before him. “Your turn, beloved,” she purred. “All of it. Take away all that hides your strong body from me. I wish to gaze upon my beloved as he was born.” 

So he did. One by one, Amenhotep removed his clothes and the many rings and bracelets that adorned his body. Some of which had been with him almost from birth, their potent magics something he would have been taught about had he simply stayed with his tutor rather than pushing the lessons away. 

Once both were naked, Amenhotep reached out for his exotic mistress’s hands. “Will you give yourself to me now? Will you give yourself to your pharaoh?”

With a smile, Dumah accepted his grasp, her eyes gazing deeply into his. “My dear Amenhotep, beloved leader of the chosen Empire… it is you who have given yourself to me.” 

With that, the woman vanished, her form merging with his. Amenhotep jerked reflexively, a gasp escaping him before his body jerked once. Then again. His eyes closed tightly, then opened as he straightened. As Dumah made him straighten. 

“Thank you for your cooperation, boy,” his voice spoke aloud, while Amenhotep himself railed impotently against her control. 

“It will prove most… helpful.” 

And it did. For a few years, while the now-possessed pharoah set about removing all references, however hidden or vague, of the Seosten from the Egyptian religion. Pushing them to worship the new sun deity of Aten, Dumah-Amenhotep had entire vaults worth of records destroyed, going as far as erecting a new city for the sole purpose of pushing this new way of thinking and erasing the old ways, which gave these people entirely too much information about how to detect and counter the Seosten Imperium. She even had the pharaoh’s name changed to Akhenaten in honor of this new sun god. 

But those who had stood against the Seosten in the past, who had come here to this world and left warnings to their descendants, had been thorough in their teachings. They were prepared for this sort of thing. Taleun was prepared. And as much as it pained the old Rakshasa to do so, he and the secret cabal of priests and other loyal followers of the old ways were eventually able to confront the Seosten-possessed ruler. In the course of that confrontation, the enslaved Amenhotep did the one thing he could do to protect his people. 

He managed, through extreme effort, to seize control for a split second. That second, taken at the exact right time, allowed Dumah’s attackers to pierce the pharaoh’s chest with their enchanted blades. Blades that were spelled to strike not only the possessed, but the possessor as well. 

Dumah was killed, as was Amenhotep himself. In turn, his heir, Tutankhaten, was made the new ruler. And he was prepared from that moment to resist the Seosten. Specifically, he was prepared by being turned into a Natural Seosten Heretic with the blood of Dumah herself, taken from the blades that had pierced her as she possessed the now-dead pharaoh. 

And with that, the Seosten’s attempt to infiltrate and take over the Egyptian Empire their old way was brought to a halt. They would have to engage in some other method to subjugate the people of this world. 

Whatever it took, the Seosten would find the way to break these Egyptians. Because no matter how difficult it became, the Imperium would never…

*******

“Admit they might be wrong?” 

Third year Crossroads student, Andrew Bruhn, had barely finished the words before his roommate, a boy named Carter, slapped a hand over his mouth as the two of them lounged in the recliners in their own dorm room. “Are you crazy?” he demanded. “Do you want to be arrested or something?” 

Andrew’s eyes rolled. Sighing, the pale, muscular boy pushed the hand away from his mouth. “They’re not going to start putting eavesdropping spells on everyone’s room. And they’re not going to arrest me just for saying that the Committee might have to admit they’re wrong about this.” 

Carter, a thin, dark-skinned boy, shook his head. “Okay, first of all, I’m only entertaining this because we’re supposed to be best buds. Second of all, why would the Committee need to admit they’re wrong when they’re not. We know monsters are evil. Do you have any idea how many people we’ve saved in just the two years we’ve been here already? Oh, and third of all, if you believe the Rebellion’s crazy theories, why didn’t you just go with them? I mean, you were the mentor for the Porter, Tamaya, Fellows, and Jameson girls and they all took off.” 

Picking himself up from the chair, Andrew walked to the window to look outside. “I’m not saying the Rebellion is right either. Not exactly.” He turned back to his friend. “What I’m saying is, what if these monsters can learn to be better? What if it’s possible to teach them? What if that’s what the Rebellion is experiencing when they think that they’re around ‘good Strangers?’ You know, like how you can train an animal not to bite.” 

“You mean they’re domesticating them?” Carter demanded, squinting at his roommate. 

Andrew frowned. “That sounds a lot like slavery, which isn’t what I meant. But… sort of, I guess. I just meant, we know a lot of them are intelligent enough to form traps and simulate society and stuff. They’re not dumb, mindless monsters. They just… they kill and eat humans. If the Rebellion has somehow taught them that eating humans will get them killed, then maybe they might have something resembling a point. Not that most Strangers aren’t evil right now, but that it might be possible, if we work hard enough, to make them not. I mean, wouldn’t that be nice? If we could have an end to this constant fighting?” 

Getting up from his own seat, Carter folding his arms over his chest. “You’re saying get them young and teach them not to hurt humans and if you do that long enough to enough of them, then the ones that know not to attack humans will outnumber the ones who do.” 

“Give evolution a helping hand, I guess,” Andrew confirmed with a shrug. “We did it with dogs. Who says we can’t stop all this killing just by incorporating a ‘reward-penalty’ system instead of just killing literally everything that isn’t human? If we can train them, if we can make being nicer to humans appealing instead of just murdering them instantly, maybe… maybe we could change things for good. Look, all I know is that this whole fighting each other thing is…”

******

(The following is Non-Canon/did not really happen. It is just for fun

 

“… not fun,” Bastet declared flatly. Her, as usual, intense expression that promised swift violence to those who happened to annoy her was somewhat muted by the… colorful clothing that she wore. A dark green sleeveless top over a long-sleeved red and white candy cane-striped shirt. Bright red tights. Green shoes with pointy ends that curled up and had tiny bells on them. A long, floppy, green felt hat with a white ball at the end. And, of course, long, pointy plastic ears over her own. She was, after all, an elf. At least, she was supposed to be. 

“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun if you let it.” The reply came from her wife, Sonoma, who was dressed almost identically save for flipping the red and green parts of the outfit. That and the fact that she wore a bright smile rather than a scowl. “Grandfather’s really looking forward to this. And you’re the one who lost the bet,” she reminded her with a wink. 

Huffing a bit, Bastet retorted, “I still say he helped that quarterback. No way a total Bystander high school kid has an arm like that. Their team should’ve been demolished.” 

Shrugging, Sonoma airily pointed out, “You were the one who gambled something like this on the outcome of a high school football match.” Grinning, she leaned in to gently kiss her wife. “And we do look adorable.” 

“Yes, yes, yes, you most certainly do!” Grandfather himself announced while leaping through the nearby doorway with a grand flourish to stand on the front porch of their cabin in front of the two. “And how do I look?!” 

Both women turned to take him in. What they saw was a full-on Fomorian. Tall, gray-green skin, bulbous eyes on an equally bulbous head. Long, gangly limbs with large hands and fingers. Over all of that, a Santa costume. A thick red coat with white trim, red pants, black boots, a floppy red hat with a white ball at the end, and a beard. A thick, very clearly false white beard. 

As both of them all-but doubled over laughing, Grandfather beamed. “You see, I knew I could bring joy to everyone as Jolly Old Saint Nick! People are afraid of Fomorians, but everyone loves Santa!” 

With that, he whistled. Which brought the sound of jingling bells as four reindeer came into view from the nearby woods, pulling a grand sleigh behind them until they came to a stop right in front of the trio. While there were four of them, however, there were actually eight heads. Each of the reindeer possessed two. 

“Well?” Grandfather cajoled with a quick wave of his arms. “Let’s go, let’s go! Lots of good little boys and girls to visit this evening!” 

With varying degrees of eagerness and reluctance, the two women climbed up into either side of the sleigh while Grandfather took the middle seat. Clearing his throat, he used long-fingered hands to pluck up the reins and gave them a quick snap while calling, “On Dashner! On Pranxen! On Compid! On Dondzen!” At the command, the four two-headed reindeer took off, charging across the field before great, expansive wings suddenly sprouted from their backs. That was the reason for only having one reindeer in each row, of course. Their wings got in the way and interfered with each other. But Grandfather couldn’t decide which of the classic eight he wanted to have, so he created reindeer with two heads and simply combined the pairs. 

It was the most obvious solution, of course. 

Flying up into the air, the four double-headed reindeer pulled the sleigh after them. The magic required for the group to actually visit every home in the world would be far too involved and likely to attract attention, of course. Not to mention how unlikely it was that Bastet would put up with it for that long, bet or no bet. But Grandfather had come up with a list of a few dozen very needy children who could do with waking up Christmas morning with some unexpected presents. 

As the sleigh found its way to the first house and hovered there over the roof, Bastet produced a small red ball. Judging her aim, she tossed the orb off the sleigh and down the chimney with perfect precision. 

In the living room of the house, the little crimson orb halted in the fireplace, floated out into the living room, and took a quick scan around. Finding the room dark and empty of people, it beeped softly once. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light as Santa Grandfather appeared with a pair of presents held in both hands. Carefully setting the gifts under the decorated tree, the tall Fomorian smiled at the sight. 

There was just one more thing to do. As quietly as possible, Grandfather reached into the pocket of his bright red coat and took out a handful of blue dust. Holding it up to his lips, he blew on it. The dust blew out through the room. It would wait for the parents to enter and then gently adjust their memories so that they would believe they had scrimped and saved to purchase the new gifts that were under the tree. They could be proud of what their children were receiving, rather than confused and possibly terrified of where it had come from. 

All that done, he grabbed a cookie from the table where the plate was waiting and ate it happily before catching the nearby floating ball. At his touch, it transported him back up to the sleigh. “Okay!” he announced, “one down. But next time, you’ll be coming inside, of course. Santa can’t do everything without his elves. Besides, that’s a lot of cookies and we know how much Bastet loves chocolate chip.”

Before the woman could retort to that, a sudden voice from above interrupted. “Fomorian!” 

It was a group of Heretics. Crossroads Heretics, to be exact. Ten of them, all bristling with weaponry and powers that seemed to electrify the very air around the group. They stood upon a hovering chunk of concrete that had been ripped from the ground. 

“Your evi…” In mid-declaration, the lead Heretic stopped, finally actually paying attention to the being who struck such terror into each of their hearts. A being… dressed as Santa… with the red suit… a clearly fake beard… and… and…

“What.” That was all he managed, in a flat voice of disbelief and confusion. 

“Why, hello!” Grandfather called cheerfully, waving. “I know our people have their troubles, but I’m sure we can all get along on this grandest of nights. The spirit of Christmas and all that?” 

Apparently not, because all ten of the Heretics immediately sprang to the attack, powers and weapons leaping into action to take down the monsters before them.

Approximately thirty-four seconds later, all ten of the Heretics lay on the snow-covered ground, covered in an assortment of bruises and energy-sapping spellwork. Their weapons were scattered around them, while Bastet stood in the middle of their group. 

“You’re lucky it’s Christmas,” she informed the groaning, pain-filled Heretics. “It means you get to live. Bother us again and we won’t be so nice.” 

“Ahem,” Grandfather interjected from where he was still standing in the sleigh, “Speaking of nice…” 

Rolling her eyes, Bastet nodded. “Right, right. Here you go.” With a wave of her hand, she summoned a piece of black coal for each of the Heretics, which flew out to land on top of them. “Welcome to the naughty list, assholes.” 

That said, she crouched before springing upward. A minor twist of gravity allowed her to reach the sleigh, landing lightly inside. 

“Well,” Grandfather began while giving the reins a quick shake to send them on their way, “let’s hope the rest of our visits aren’t interrupted like that, hmm?” 

“Actually,” Bastet informed him, “I’m hoping there’s a lot more where that came from. 

“Between beating the shit out of assholes and free cookies, there might be something to this Christmas thing after all.” 

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter 

Day After Day 39-02

Previous Chapter                           Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rudolph Parsons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                           Next Chapter