Apollo

Patreon Snippets 15 (Heretical Edge 2)

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$10+ Donators on my Patreon get 500 words per month to put toward any ideas they would like to see, to add to any ideas someone else has, or to save up for later. Here is the next edition of the Heretical Edge requests for those snippets. 

Asmodaeus

 

Thousands of years ago, before the Olympus came to Earth

The main cafeteria-lounge aboard the Seosten ship known as the Olympus was busy through this early evening hour. The room was three-quarters full, with conversation among the crew and officers steadily humming along with the clink of utensils against plates and glasses. One of the things that made the Olympus fairly unique among the Seosten fleet was the fact that nearly every figure aboard it, with the exception of relatively few maintenance workers, cooks, and such, were all Seosten themselves. On most modern ships, there would be a smaller complement of Seosten who were supported by many more lower-class (slave) species. But on this explorer ship, set to search and discover new methods of combating the Fomorian plague, over ninety percent of the occupants were Seosten. 

That, of course, was in large part because of the fact that the crew of the Olympus was almost entirely composed of those who had been through the Summus Proelium project, and that power never would have been given to any non-Seosten to begin with. Still, regardless of reasons, it meant that there was a much larger percentage of their own people to speak to at times like these. 

It was through that crowd that Sariel, dedicated magical researcher and budding explorer, found herself hurriedly moving. Her gaze swept rapidly back and forth, searching intently. Where… where… There. Between two other figures, she saw her target. On the far end of the room, Kushiel stood near one of the ‘windows’ (actually a screen projecting a holographic image), speaking to a couple other officers. In one hand, she held a glass of cerulean liquid. Her head was bobbing up and down, as she responded to something one of the others had said, before lifting the glass. 

There. The glass. Sariel saw it. She saw it and knew. A rush of thoughts went through the young Seosten’s mind. She saw the glass. She saw Kushiel. She saw Lucifer, her best friend, her brother, in the medical bed she had just left him in after yet another of the impossible, suicidal missions that woman right there had sent the two of them on had ended up getting him hurt and almost killed. She saw the glass rising to Kushiel’s lips, knew that no one knew what she knew, that no one had any idea what was about to happen. 

Sariel’s hand snapped down, catching hold of a random metal plate from the nearby table. With a snap of her wrist, she sent the plate spinning through the air. It sliced neatly between two figures in mid-conversation, barely skimmed past the raised arm of a man gesturing wildly, and passed directly between three staggered wine glasses being carried past on a tray without disturbing any of them. Finally, the plate struck its target, shattering the glass in Kushiel’s hand an instant before she would have drunk from it. 

All conversation stopped. The crowd parted like twin waves in either direction, leaving Sariel facing Kushiel from across the room. The older Seosten, staring at the broken remnants of glass on the floor, raised her gaze to Sariel. Her mouth twisted angrily, before she began to snarl, “Now you’ve gone too far. If you think I’ll let you weasel your way out of this after a challenge like–” 

“Kushiel, look.” One of the other Seosten officers touched the woman’s arm, pointing to the liquid on the floor. The liquid from the shattered glass she had been about to drink. It was currently sizzling and burning its way through the floor. The glass had been enchanted to contain the liquid safely. But now, the image at Kushiel’s feet showed what would have happened if she’d actually consumed it. Everyone saw what would have happened, and what Sariel had saved her from. 

“Someone tried to kill you,” the other officer murmured, squeezing Kushiel’s arm. “Someone just tried to assassinate you.” He said it again, as though it was just so impossible to believe. “Heh. They would’ve managed it too, if it wasn’t for the kid over there. Guess you owe her your life.” 

One of the other nearby Seosten called out congratulations, prompting a line of applause from the still-baffled onlookers. They cheered for Sariel stopping the assassination attempt. 

“And here you thought she was such a waste,” another officer reminded Kushiel, patting her back with a chuckle. “Looks like you’d be dead without her now. All that shit from before and it turns out you needed her around after all. Isn’t that funny?” 

No, Sariel thought, as she saw the way Kushiel stared at her. There was no amusement. No gratitude. There was nothing but pure, unadulterated hatred. Kushiel was not grateful for being saved. She was livid. She had been made to look vulnerable, and she saw Sariel as the reason for that vulnerability. 

Sariel had saved her life, and Kushiel would never forgive her for that. 

——-

Some time later, Sariel stepped into the hospital room where Lucifer was resting. Another figure was already there, a man who stood facing the window beside the bed, his back to the door. 

“Asmodaeus,” Sariel started, eyes glancing toward the bed, then back again. Lucifer was fine, still sleeping. “What–” 

“Why?” The single word came before the man turned to face her. Far into the future and far away on the world that would eventually be known as Earth (or Rysthael to the Seosten), he would have been referred to as looking Asian, with somewhat darker skin, long reddish-black hair that fell to his shoulders, and piercing brown-black eyes. He stood two inches over six feet, with arms that were tightly corded muscle. Now, his gaze was focused on her intently. “Why did you save her?” 

Sariel was quiet for a moment, before lifting her chin. “I know why you tried to kill her. Kushiel sent Taynier on that mission. The one he never came back from.” 

Asmodaeus pointed at her, his finger shaking somewhat. “She killed him. I loved him. I loved Taynier. We were… we were happy, and she killed him. She sent him on a mission he didn’t need to be on. She got him killed. She might as well have murdered him herself. Just like Lucifer.” His hand moved to gesture toward the bed. “Next time, it might be him who doesn’t come back from that psychotic cunt’s missions. You think she cares? She doesn’t. She’ll keep sending both of you out on those missions until you die. 

“So why the void did you save her life?” 

“Yeah, Sar,” Lucifer, apparently awake, spoke up. “Why would you do something crazy like that?” 

Looking back and forth between the two, Sariel hesitated before shaking her head. “I don’t–because it was the right thing to do. I just–look, I was just trying to keep myself busy while you were out of it. So I started looking into those missing supplies. I realized they were being used to make that magic poison, checked the logs, figured out who took them and what happened to your lover. I realized who you were targeting,” she informed Asmodaeus. “And I just… reacted. It’s wrong to kill our own people. We don’t do that. Seosten don’t kill Seosten. We have to be better than her, not stoop to her level.”

Seeing the looks both of them were giving her, she sighed. “I just… I couldn’t let it happen when I knew about it.” 

“So what now?” Asmodaeus asked, staring intently at her. “I don’t… I don’t want to hurt anyone else. Not you. None of our people. But I will find a way to kill her.” 

“No,” Sariel replied, her head shaking. “You saw how everyone reacted. As soon as the danger was over, they laughed. They laughed because they thought it was one of the non-Seosten, and they thought a non-Seosten would never risk openly attacking one of us. As soon as the assassination attempt failed, they decided it was safe to mock it. Now they’re working their way through the non-Seosten crew, searching for the person responsible. But it won’t take them long to figure out the truth. And as soon as they realize it was one of us, they’ll track it to you.” 

“Then you better turn me in,” Asmodaeus retorted darkly, his arms folding across his chest. “Because if they track me far enough, they’ll figure out we were in here talking.” 

“We’re not turning you in.” That was Lucifer, sitting up a little in the bed with a groan. 

“He’s right,” Sariel agreed quietly. “We’re not turning you in. We’re not going to let them take you at all. 

“We’re going to fake your death, and get you the hell off this ship.” 

 

Present Day

“And that’s exactly what they did,” a much older (though still visually identical thanks to his Olympian-frozen aging) Asmodaeus concluded. He was sitting at a table in the main cafeteria of the so-called Fusion School. Across from him sat Vanessa and Tristan, both staring at him with wide eyes. 

“But why would Mom help you escape after stopping you from killing Kushiel?” Vanessa demanded, clearly confused. “Whose side was she on?” 

“Sometimes it’s more complicated than just being on one person’s side,” Asmodaeus replied, offering them a small shrug. “It wasn’t just about saving Kushiel. Sariel knew other things. She knew that Puriel loved her, that losing her like that would hurt him as much as losing my beloved hurt me. And she knew that the non-Seosten would be blamed for it before they knew the truth. If Kushiel was dead, a lot of the non-Seosten on the ship would have suffered and died just to root out the killer. When it was an attempted assassination, they were angry, but… also mocked it. Because it failed. But if I’d actually managed to kill the wife of the ship’s captain? They wouldn’t wait for proof about who did it. They’d kill those non-Seosten just for being around when ‘one of their own’ murdered one of their masters. Can’t have that getting out.” 

Tristan made a face. “I’m starting to think Mom’s people are screwed up. And where did you go after they got you off the ship? Where’ve you been?”

“Took up some other identities for a long time,” came the response. “Some Seosten, some others. Learned to make deals with the people I possessed, so we could work together. Figured out it was a hell of a lot easier to get around in the universe when you and the person you’re possessing actually work together. Eventually, Chayyiel found me. This was… over a thousand of your years later. She found me after she told Puriel where to shove it and left Earth when he pulled that shit with Arthur. She said she needed my help, that Sariel needed my help. She was still here on Earth and Chayyiel needed a way to pass messages back and forth. I already had a lot of experience pretending to be different Seosten, possessing others, using magic to change what I look like, all of that. I already knew how to work through the system, cuz I spent a thousand years doing it. So… I helped. I became their go-between. Did that until Sariel took off with your dad. Then I ahhh… kept a bit of an eye on her anyway, for Chayyiel. Just in case. But I stopped before all that went down with you guys. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I thought you were all okay by then. I didn’t… I didn’t know what happened until it was too late to do anything about it.”

That much said, the man pressed, “Now it’s your turn. I told you my story. Who do I have to talk to so I can buy a good memory off them of seeing Kushiel finally fucking die?” 

The twins exchanged glances, before turning back to him. Tristan spoke up. “Dude, you need to meet one of our friends. 

“Her name’s Theia, and boy do you guys have a lot you could talk about.” 

******

Marina Dupont

Flick was missing. No, worse. She had been abducted by the necromancer who had been targeting her for so long. The same necromancer who had taken the girl’s mother and was responsible for the Black Death. After a year of preparation, Felicity Chambers had still been taken and was now that psychopath’s prisoner. All that time, and she was still gone. 

Those words repeatedly rebounded through Marina Dupont’s head as she sat on a bench on the outside of the long-closed museum that was the current home of Wonderland. On her lap sat the tiny Lavinsi (bird-like humanoid) girl named Baiden, who was intently reading aloud the story she’d written for class about the time she’d met Captain Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, the giant along the same lines as Paul Bunyan, who was a sailor rather than a lumberjack. Stormalong was known even by Bystanders, particularly early American Bystander sailors. 

Baiden’s story was written the same way the girl tended to talk. In other words, with rapid changes of topic, run-on sentences, and a lot of gushing about how awesome everything was. Especially Stormalong himself, whom Baiden had been incredibly impressed by, and demonstrated that by going on and on about the man, including details of some of the tall tales that had been spread about his exploits.

Technically speaking, there was a lot wrong with the writing. But it was Baiden’s words, and she was a kid. She was so excited about having met one of her heroes that she took the time to write it down. Which, for a girl of her attention span, meant a lot. She put effort into this. In no way was Marina ever going to discourage that. So she sat with the bird-like girl on her lap, laughing and smiling through the story as she knew the others in Baiden’s class would.  

And yet, even while she listened to the story, Marina continued to think about Flick. It was she who (with help from Gaia) had restarted the whole war, her actions that had led Marina to make the choice that she did, the choice to take those children out of Crossroads and give them back to their parents. 

That was what had led Marina to where she was now. Here, Wonderland. Where she had never in her life felt more like she belonged. This place was her home. This was the place she wanted to stay, with the people she wanted to help. Wonderland was everything she wanted, and Marina would defend it with everything she had. 

For that, for waking her up to the way the world was and helping her, even coincidentally, to find her way home, Marina would do anything to help Felicity Chambers. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything she could do. No one knew where Fossor’s home was, or if it was even on Earth. From everything she had heard from people like Roxa and Shiori, they were stuck. So pledging to help Flick didn’t really mean much. But if there was anything… if anything came up… Marina would be there. She would help. Because she owed Flick that much. 

They all did. 

**********

Joselyn and Flick 

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn demanded while she and her youngest daughter sat out on the patio overlooking the grounds of Fossor’s estate, “Deveron treated you like what?” 

From her seat, Flick snickered a little, shaking her head. “It’s okay, Mom. He was acting like a dick intentionally. You know, to umm, to throw off anyone who might have started to suspect he was trying to help us, or something. He was trying to stay undercover and act like he didn’t care.” 

For a moment, Joselyn just stared at her. Slowly, she raised a hand to rub her temple as if to ward off a mounting headache, while exhaling long and low. “That man,” she murmured under her breath, “if I had a dollar for all of his impulsive plans like that, I could’ve fought that revolution with Bruce Wayne-level resources.” 

Flick’s hand covered her mouth with a snort as she barely managed to contain herself. “You–hey, he umm, he was trying at least. And he dropped the act. He’s…” She squirmed a little in her seat, hesitantly offering, “He’s a good guy, even if he’s not…” 

“Even if he’s not your dad.” Joselyn finished, smiling a little as she reached out to take her daughter’s hand, squeezing it. “It’s okay, Felicity. I love both of them for everything they are.” 

“I know something about loving multiple people,” Flick admitted, meeting her mother’s gaze. “Really, I’m… I’m okay with him. I like him. He’s not Dad, but he obviously cares about you, about me, about all of us. He… he’s missed you a lot, and for longer than we have. He loves you, Mom. That’s what matters.” 

Swallowing hard, Joselyn moved her free hand to touch her daughter’s face, brushing a hand through her hair. “I love you, baby. I love all of you.” 

There was a moment of hesitation before Flick glanced up, whispering, “Are we safe?” 

Joselyn took a bit of prepared cloth from her pocket, channeling the spell to check for any spies. Then she nodded. “Yes.” 

“What about Koren and Abigail?” her daughter hurriedly asked. “I mean, I know you named Abigail Koren first, but she named her daughter Koren and it’s weird that she remembered the name and all but what about them? Does Fossor–is he going to–does he have plans about that?” 

There was a brief pause as Joselyn sat back, folding her arms in her lap while quietly answering, “I don’t know. He’s… kept things to himself. I want to believe that he’ll leave them alone, that he couldn’t have planned to the point of taking them after taking you, but… I don’t know.” 

Seeing her mother that uncertain, that vulnerable, made Flick reach out to her. She took the woman’s hands in either of hers, squeezing them. “We’ll deal with that if it happens, Mom. Come on, let’s talk about something more fun. We don’t have to dwell on… on all that.” 

A small smile reached the girl’s face, as she slyly pushed on. “How about I tell you about the time Wyatt made up for all those birthdays and holidays he missed by giving Koren and me eighteen years worth of presents?” 

The words made Joselyn blink up, staring at her daughter. “He…” A small smile appeared, as she coughed. “He did what now?” 

Giggling a bit at the memory, Flick nodded. “Not just eighteen years of presents suitable for an eighteen year old either. They were like… presents suitable for each age. Even as a toddler. I still have them, errr… I mean, some of them. Others got left behind when we had to escape Crossroads.

“My point is, just imagine how many presents you’re gonna end up with when we get home.” 

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Commissioned Interlude 2 – Lucifer and Sariel (Heretical Edge 2)

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Author’s Note: Rysthael is the name of Earth as given by the Seosten.  

Several thousand years ago

Two figures stood atop a hill overlooking an ancient city. To its inhabitants, it was the pinnacle of civilization, a gleaming center of prosperity and protection. The magic along its walls protected its people from the wandering beasts and brigands who plagued the surrounding lands and ensured an area of safety for the populace to live and grow. Its standing guard were armed with swords and spears of iron, as well as heavy shields. All of them heavily enchanted to cut deeper, to defend against more, and to return to a hand when thrown. They used bows enchanted with fire and ice, the horns attached to their belts capable of producing a single blast of sound that could blow through great stone boulders before their magic would be expended. They were some of the strongest, most capable of any people who lived upon this planet.

The two figures who stood upon that hill, gazing down at the walled city, might as well have been twenty-first century scientists observing a village made of mud, stone, and sticks. 

“There it is,” the man casually announced while adjusting the fit of his leather tunic and hood. He smiled, staring down at the city with open and eager curiosity before turning a glance toward the woman who stood beside him. “You see, Sariel, I told you we’d make it before nightfall.” 

“You said we’d make it before nightfall yesterday, Lucifer,” Sariel reminded the man idly. “As I recall, your actual words were, ‘Rysthaelean maps show it only a fingernail width away, let’s walk.’” Despite her teasing, she felt no particular annoyance. Spending a couple of days walking across this land with the man who was a brother to her was a vacation from the myriad other tasks and seemingly endless array of problems that continued to pop up since they arrived on this world. Truthfully, she was all but certain that Lucifer knew exactly how long this would take and had been giving her plausible deniability about the mini-vacation he had brought her on. 

At the moment, the man simply shrugged. “Yes, well, I may have said it yesterday, but I’m quite certain I wasn’t specific about the day.” With a wink, he cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’re here. Time to go down and see what we can find out about these Rysthaeleans. But ahh…” He glanced to her with a small smirk. “What do you say we make a real challenge of it, hmm?”  

Flipping her own hood down to reveal her tightly braided blonde hair, Sariel replied without looking at him. “What exactly do you mean by a challenge, oh troublemaker of mine?” 

Grinning when she took the bait, Lucifer tapped a finger against his forehead. “Oh, I was just thinking it might be fun to see how much we can manage down here without resorting to cheating. No possession, no magic, nothing like that. Put some actual effort into this whole scouting thing. Talk to people, see what we can pull out of the populace the old-fashioned way.” 

Before Sariel could respond to that, they both became aware of the approach of several men on the back of the four-legged animals the locals referred to as horses according to the research they had already done. The men on their horses were coming at a pace much faster than ordinary animals of that type, a glowing mystical fog around their feet lending more proof to the idea that they were magically enhanced with a sort of speed boost. The men were certainly in a rush to get to the pair, though their weapons remained sheathed, at least for the moment.  

Glancing back to the distant city wall, Sariel noted several figures armed with bows that were drawn and ready. The archers appeared to be members of the bird-like Lavinsi people. Which made sense, given their remarkable vision capabilities. Marksmanship in general was one of their fortes. Which explained why the people approaching felt comfortable doing so without swords in hand despite not knowing who or what she and Lucifer were. They trusted the archers at their back to cover them in case of any threat, at least long enough to draw their weapons. 

“I suppose you mean for us to handle this without magic or other tricks as well?” she asked in a soft, private tone as her gaze went back to the approaching horsemen without making any sudden moves that might spook the archers. They could handle it if things went sideways here, of course. But getting into a fight would put a real damper on the idea of pulling this off subtly.  

“What fun would it be otherwise?” her companion drawled before adding, “First one to have to pull magic or possession before this is over has to do the other’s trench duty for a month.” 

Trench duty, in this case, referred to the act of performing the dozens of mind-numbing simple spells required to, among other things, keep their landed ship safely hidden and prepare it in case of attack. There were wards that had to be put up, countermeasures against spies and infiltration, even spells for safely luring in food for the crew, transferring fresh water, and eliminating waste. Everyone took turns contributing their own magic to keep such spells running properly, and doing so was referred to as trench duty because of how boring and repetitive it was. Not to mention the fact that, while boring, it still drained you. No one particularly enjoyed trench duty, least of all a couple like Lucifer and Sariel, who build their lives around creating and experimenting with new magic. Wasting their energy performing such incredibly mundane, though necessary spells was annoying enough that they often made these kind of bets. In truth, what they were actually doing was sharing the load so that one of them did trench duty while the other could perform all the spell research that they wanted. But they hid it behind these wagers. 

“Deal,” Sariel replied. There were a few in-depth tests she wanted to do with some of the flora and fauna of this world. From the little research she’d read, the native Rysthaeleans’ remarkable ability to form a genetic bond with other species only worked with creatures from other worlds. How and why a species would develop that kind of power and have it be utterly useless on creatures that were actually native to their world was… curious. She had some ideas, but they would require intense magical research. Particularly with Cahethal insisting on claiming the Olympus’s main labs for her own work throughout the foreseeable future. Though she had mellowed on the twins over the past decades that they had been shipmates and even allowed their assistance, the woman still preferred to work on her own, particularly with this sort of thing. She only truly trusted herself when performing research this important. Sariel understood that.

“Ho there!” The man on the lead horse called, riding his mount to within about twenty feet before drawing it up to a halt. The other two came up slightly behind him. While the man in front appeared to be Rysthaelean, the two behind him were a short, blue-skinned and four-eyed Pisendej, and a red-furred, long-eared Reusfeil. The two non-natives watched Sariel and Lucifer intently, hands on the weapons still sheathed at their sides while the horses whinnied softly. 

“Apologies for the tense greeting if you come in peace,” the Rysthaelean informed them in a voice that was casual, but could easily turn hard. “Things are just a bit tense around here lately, and we’d like to know where you come from. As well as your business at Ephesus if you don’t mind.” It was clear that, despite the polite way he spoke, this was not a simple request to be denied. 

Lucifer, as usual, took the lead in the conversation. “Hail and good evening, sirs. Our deepest apologies for disturbing the peace of your city. I am called Delian and this is my sister, Diana. We’ve left the lands of our parents far behind and have been searching for a quiet, peaceful place where we might live. We carry no trouble at our backs and mean you and yours no harm.” 

“I am Hector,” the Rysthaelean informed them. “And I’m afraid if you’ve come for peace, your journey has led you astray. You’ll find little peace in these lands, less if you keep going this way.” 

“I don’t understand,” Sariel chose to put in then. “Your city seems quite well-defended, and I see no armies camped outside its walls. Is there truly a threat to it that you cannot put down?”

“An army, no,” Hector confirmed. “One of those we could fight in a true battle and simply end the situation once and for all. No, the trouble in this case comes from the one called Faelt, a brigand, murderer, and king of bandits. He is a bad sort, an evil man. If you wish to avoid drawing the attention of him and his group, I would suggest you make a wide path around this place and push on as far as possible before night. It would be in your best interest to stay safe.”

Lucifer’s head shook. “What threat could a small band of murderers pose to a whole city? Surely your walls are warded against unwanted intrusion by such beings, and you have a night watch.” 

Instead of Hector, it was the Reusfeil who spoke, his tone one of long-stressed anger and helplessness, the tone of a man who was far beyond tired of seeing those under his protection die while he remained frustratingly incapable of protecting them. “We have all of those and more. They have always protected our city in the past. Now they do not, and we know not why.” 

“They are travelers and strangers, Sanja,” Hector reminded his companion sharply. “They are not here for our internal issues. For all we know, they were sent by the bandit king himself.” To the twins, he added a softer, “Apologies for any insult. We simply don’t know you, I’m afraid. We have problems enough without inviting strangers into our confidence. And I’m quite certain you have your own lives to proceed with. As I said, it would be to your benefit to push on while–” 

Before the man could continue any further with that, something exploded out of the ground directly near the feet of his mount. The creature’s head was split in two almost instantly. In that split second, Sariel triggered her boost. She saw the weapon that had burst out of the ground. It looked like a metal rocket of some kind. Having been launched vertically out of the ground, the bladed end ripped through the head of the mount and hovered there directly in front of Hector’s face. All around the cylindrical body, a half-dozen small arrows snapped down into horizontal position and began to launch out in every direction. Two were heading for the man’s eyes. 

But Sariel was quicker. A thought popped one of her daggers into one hand, and she gave a quick snap of her wrist to send the dagger straight into the rocket-like weapon. As it struck home, the spell on the dagger incinerated the weapon and most of the arrows attached to it. The single one that managed to fire was thrown off course, barely grazing the man’s ear as it shot past to hit the dirt nearby. 

Of course, his mount was still dead, and the man fell. But the Reusfeil called Sanja was already off his own mount and there to catch him before he could hit the ground, his figure a blur of motion. Meanwhile, the small, blue-skinned Pisendej was standing on his mount, a bow in hand and arrow nocked as he scanned the area around them wildly while making a hissing sound. 

Catching himself against Sanja, Hector stumbled before quickly spinning. He drew a sword from its sheath and blurted a command word. As he did so, the sword began to glow with a faint green light, and a bubble-shaped forcefield appeared, “That was dwellershot, are there more?!”

“Checking.” The terse response came from Sanja, as he took a glass ball from the leather pouch at his side. Clutching it in one hand, the Reusfeil murmured a command word. As he did, a holographic image of the land around them appeared. He studied it briefly before reporting, “No more. I see the path it took. From up there on that ridge. Looks like they took off.” 

“Then we’ll track them back to their base and see about ending this,” Hector ordered. Despite his words, the man took a knee beside his dead mount. His hand moved to touch the body, and he murmured what appeared to be a prayer of some kind. The pain in his voice, and the way his hand shook, made it clear just how much the animal had meant to him. He rubbed its motionless side with a heavy sigh before his head turned.  He was staring, first at the incinerated pieces of the rocket and the arrow that had grazed his ear, then to the woman standing in front of him. When he spoke, his voice was strained. “My… ahhh, my thanks to you, Miss Diana. Goddess be praised, you were blessed with great reflexes, it seems.” As he spoke, the man reached down for the gleaming metal dagger on the ground. “But if I may ask, where did you acquire such a weapon?” He carefully picked it up with two fingers, studying the thing briefly. “You have an item of the gods, they are far too rare for simple travelers. And your skill with it…” He trailed off before turning to extend the dagger to her. “I have many questions, but you have saved my life, so I will only ask rather than demand.” 

Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel before replying, “We are travelers, as we said. Perhaps not entirely simple, but we mean no harm to your city. Perhaps we can help with this bandit problem of yours, and you can help us. We’re very new to this land and we’d like to learn more.” 

There was a brief pause as Hector considered before sighing with a nod. “As much as I loathe to say it, we may need the help of outsiders like yourselves to settle this without more deaths.” 

“In that case,” Sariel announced while turning to look at the distant ridge that had been pointed out, “it sounds like we’re going that way. On the way, you should tell us about this bandit king and why he is still a threat to your city despite your walls, magical wards, and guards.” 

Hector agreed, before starting to walk alongside the twins. The other two guards brought up the rear on their mounts, keeping a careful eye out. On the way, the Rysthaelean explained that this so-called bandit king, Faelt, had actually been the second-in-command of the city guard at one point. He was found in the midst of raping the leader of the city’s daughter, and was set to be executed. Instead, the man escaped and united the bandits of the surrounding areas beneath his rule. He had apparently been using some sort of secret way of bypassing the city wards, as well as his knowledge of guard routines and perhaps even traitors within the guard itself, to conduct a campaign of terror against the city. He and his people came and went as they pleased, killing a few here and there before they could be found, then retreating. None were safe. He targeted the young and old, rich and poor alike. 

“He is evil beyond any you may have seen before,” Hector warned them. “And he will not fall easily. Be ready, for this coming battle may be the end for us all.”

******

The body of Faelt lay at Sariel’s feet, his casually discarded corpse bleeding across his own makeshift throne room while she stood over him, liberated bow in one hand. Two dozen bandit troops, most felled by herself and Lucifer, were scattered elsewhere through the room, with even more filling the tunnels of this cavern complex. 

Standing at one end of the room, staring in open wonderment, were Hector, Sanja, and the Pisendej, whose name they had come to find out was Nep. All three had dropped their weapons, their mouths agape. 

“You… the way you fight,” Hector breathed. “You are truly blessed by the goddess.” His gaze took in Sariel as he murmured, “Her hand guides your bow, that is certain. Never have I seen such skill, such…” He swallowed hard, his voice dropping to a whisper, “…grace.” 

Lucifer took a step that way, his tone curious. “What do you know of your goddess?” 

Hector answered promptly. “She is the goddess called Artemis, Lady of the Amazons, queen of their hunters and protector of this land.” 

“She protects your people,” Lucifer confirmed, easily jumping on that without a second thought. “And this Faelt, he is the greatest threat your city has ever known.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he corrected, “…I mean, was. He was the greatest threat. One that only your guardian could put down, with you all as witness to her act of protection.” 

“Delian,” Sariel spoke warningly, using the name Lucifer had given for himself as she realized where he was going with this.

“No, ‘Diana,’” Lucifer replied with a shake of his head. “They have suffered too much. The people of this land have lived in fear for long enough. They deserve to know that their goddess truly stands with them, that she is here when they need her.” 

He turned to the assembled trio, all of whom had already fallen to their knees while staring in awed reverence. “Let it be known that the goddess has not forsaken you, that she has returned in your time of need. Tell your people that the cloud of darkness that had settled above your lands has been pierced by her arrows. 

“Tell them that the Lady Artemis is amongst them.” 

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Denouement 11 – Polemical Kin (Heretical Edge)

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The fighting, even over a relatively short time, had been unbelievably fierce. The battlefield around the fake town concealing the Crossroads prison was covered in the effects of various supernatural and magical abilities, as well as ordinary old mundane damage. Bits of ground, metal, various elements, and deep pits leading through portals were scattered throughout the area. Several variously-sized orbs containing effects such as gravity and spatial manipulations hovered here or there to disrupt opponents, along with random clouds depositing acid rain and other harmful effects. 

Many unconscious, injured, or even dead bodies littered the ground as well, though almost all belonged to the loyalist factions. Not because the rebels never fell, but because they had been magically prepped ahead of time to be teleported out if they fell or became too injured to continue. Scout was one of those who was teleported away due to her missing arm, along with Jazz when she took a spear deep into her stomach and had to be pulled out before it got even worse. Doug had lost an eye and ended up with three quarters of his face deeply burned before being evacuated as well. 

That was how it was going. The rebels had the surprise and momentum, but with every passing minute, more loyalists showed up and kept pushing the rebels back. It wouldn’t be long before they were routed completely. Fortunately, they didn’t have to hold on forever, only long enough. 

But everyone involved hoped that the people inside would be done soon. Because this was a situation that could fall apart any second. 

Virginia Dare, in the form of a giant wolf, caught hold of one of the opposing Heretics and, with a vicious jerk of her massive head, threw him into the air. She leapt, shifting back into her human form in mid-air before driving her sword through the flailing man’s arm. In the same motion, she triggered one of the spells stored in the hilt. Immediately, the man screamed and disappeared. 

As Dare landed once more, she was met by two young-looking Heretic loyalists, clearly newer soldiers who had come in response to the emergency. Both raised their weapons, but an instant before they could do anything, an invisible force slammed into them. The pair were picked up from the ground and sent flying across the battlefield. 

Gaze snapping toward the source of the blast, Dare found herself looking at Koren. The brunette girl, bloodied and bruised, stared at her open-mouthed. “Did you just disintegrate that guy a second ago?”

Smiling very faintly at her secret great-granddaughter, Dare gave a quick shake of her head. “No, I used a spell that triggered his panic response and made him teleport away. It only works when they suffer an injury, making them believe that it’s potentially fatal. It didn’t really do all that much damage, but right now, he is convinced that he’s dying. And that… what you just did, you couldn’t do that before.”

“That… that’s pretty cool,“ Koren announced in a voice that made it clear she was purposefully avoiding the part about what she had done to the two men, “can you teach me that?”

“Yes,” Dare easily replied, “someday. Right now, let’s just try to get through all this.” Her hand reached out to gently touch the girl’s hair. “Are you okay?” Unlike so many shows of affection she wish to give her lost family, this one would be completely understandable. Koren was one of her students, someone she had reason to care about, and she was in a dangerous situation. 

The girl hesitated, like there was something she wanted to say. But in the end, she just shook her head. “Maybe later. We’re kind of busy right now, if you hadn’t noticed.” The last bit was said with a very faint smile, trying to slightly (and mostly failing) make light of the situation. 

“Indeed,” Dare agreed. “We should get back to that.” 

Koren nodded, before the two of them, secretly great-grandmother and great-granddaughter, threw themselves back into the fight, side by side. 

*****

Two of the Atherby-allied Alters were hurled to the ground by an explosion of force. They scrambled to escape, clawing at the dirt while vines popped out of the ground to hold them down. A second later, their attacker appeared between the two, a dark-skinned man holding a sword while fire crackle around him. 

“You know what I hate more than finding your filth out in the world?” he demanded. “Finding it right in my own backyard.” With those words, he brought the sword up to drive it down into the nearest of their backs. 

In mid-plunge, his blade hit a distortion field that made it much shorter than it should’ve been so that it never came close to its target. 

“Aww,” a voice from nearby giggled, “are you having performance issues?” Nevada stepped into view, holding her chainsaw-sword with one hand, while her other arm was covered by some kind of combination shield and cannon. “I’m pretty sure the Bystanders have pills for that these days. Maybe you should look into it.”

The man spun to her, sword extended her way as he demanded, “How can you side with these monsters? How could you turn against your own kind, your own people, to wallow with the likes of these creatures?” 

Nevada gave the man a humorless smile. “You know, you probably couldn’t have given me a better opening for this if you tried.” In response to his blank stare, she added, “You have no idea who I really am, do you? You have no idea what you tried to do to me. But I do. I remember that day perfectly, Jackson, because that was the day everything changed for me. That day in the mall, when you chased me from the arcade where I was doing nothing but minding my own business. The day you tried to kill me in the hallway before I was rescued.” 

Through that, the man’s eyes slowly widened and he shook his head, face red. “No. No, you were a monster, not one of us. You can’t— you’re not… No!” He spat the last word.

“Yes,” Nevada retorted simply. “But you know what? You’re not chasing a helpless, scared little girl this time.” She lifted her blade, eyes narrowing. “So bring it on.”

He did so, lunging toward the woman with a furious snarl as his sword lashed up and around. At the same time, his other hand summoned lightning to send straight at her. 

Nevada caught the lightning on her shield, absorbing the power into it while blocked his blade with her own. He was strong, almost strong enough to knock the sword from her hands. But she was strong now too. And Nevada deflected his weapon off to the side before twisting away from the violent kick that he lashed out with. With the same motion, the man launched several metal spikes up from the ground, but she leapt, flipping over in the air above his head to land behind the man while blasting him with his own lightning, launched from her shield-cannon. 

He staggered a bit, yet stayed upright. There was a sudden explosion of kinetic force that caught the blonde woman and sent her to the ground in a sprawl. Her sword went sliding across the ground. Before she could recover, he was there, his foot lashing out to kick her in the face. Then he grabbed her shoulder and yanked her up right before slamming his fist into her stomach. 

Catching the back of her head while she was doubled over, the man tried to throw her face-first into the ground. But with a thought, the woman summoned a portal in front of herself. She was thrown through the portal rather than to the ground, reappearing directly above the man before crashing into him from behind. 

With a grunt as he stumbled, Jackson covered himself with fire. The flames burned with blinding intensity, yet did nothing to the woman. 

“Yeah,” Nevada hissed in his ear, “immunity to fire was one of the first things I worked to pick up. Thanks for that phobia, Jacksass.”

“Abomination!” Jackson screamed, hand reaching back to grab her by the neck. He yanked, throwing the woman over his shoulder into the ground. His sword came down, but she summoned her own back to her hand, turning just in time to knock his blade aside before it could decapitate her. 

Nevada regained her feet, and the two fought, swords clashing loudly across the busy battlefield as they remained solely focused on one another. Jackson was intent on turning the woman into a bloody smear on the ground, his hatred and disgust at what he saw as an appalling, unthinkably disgusting abomination blinding him to everything else. Every time Nevada blocked or evaded his increasingly destructive attacks that were now leaving deep gouges in the ground, he grew more violent and unhinged. “Just die, you evil bitch! You can’t beat me. No matter what you’ve done to steal those gifts, no matter what unholy, satanic magic you’ve performed here, you will never be as strong as a true Heretic. You are going to die!

“Someday,” Nevada agreed. “But not now. Because I have a question. Do you really think the only thing I did while I was on your back was whisper to you?”

The man blinked once, then his eyes widened as he jerked his hand up. But it was too late, as Nevada spoke the command word for the spell she had quickly scrawled on his back. It detonated, launching the man forward with a cry. 

Nevada was ready, already in mid-spin as she brought her chain-sword up and around, cleaving all the way through the flailing man’s neck. His body fell to the ground at her feet while his head bounced away. 

Nevada dropped as well, falling to her knees with a gasp as her aura flared up. After all this time, after decades of nightmares that reawakened every time she happened to see the man who had tried to kill her, it was over. Jackson was dead. The man, the true monster, who had chased her through the mall over thirty years earlier and started all this, was gone forever. 

Nevada had won. 

******

Koren and Dare were still side-by-side, covering one another as they stood over several fallen forms. 

“I really hope Flick and the others hurry,” Koren announced. “Cuz I’m not—”

“Virginia!” The voice that interrupted was accompanied by seven bolts of powerful energy that shot toward the pair. Her danger sense had already warned her, so the blonde woman snapped her arm up, conjuring a forcefield that easily caught the blasts. She and Koren both spun to face their attacker. 

“Elias,” Dare greeted Sean’s father. “This would all be over much sooner if you just hand over your son. In case you’re having trouble remembering, he’s the one you’ve been torturing for the past couple months. Or, how many years is it from his point of view right now?”

“How in the hell do you—” Elias stopped himself with an audible growl, shaking his head. “That’s immaterial. You need to leave here, now. Actually, what you need to do is surrender, but I doubt you’re bright enough to do that. You’re not taking my son, and you’re not—”

And then it was his turn to be interrupted, as a gust of wind shot through the air before transforming into his other son. Ian Gerardo slammed into his father with force far exceeding what he should’ve had. One of his powers allowed him to move a fairly short distance (anywhere between a few inches and about twenty feet) at incredible, blinding speed. During that movement, he would become all but invulnerable and, upon arrival, inflict damage far exceeding his momentum. He had simply shifted from his air elemental form back to himself and crossed the foot or so distance between himself and his father in an instant, crashing into the man like a cannonball. 

Both men went tumbling end over end, Elias ending up on top, holding his son down by the shoulder while driving his fist toward his face. “Ian, that’s enough!”

His fist went through air and struck the ground, leaving a hole there as his eldest boy shifted to his elemental form. Ian flowed around his father, re-forming into a standing position while driving his foot down to kick the back of the man’s head. Once again, he drastically magnified the force of his kick, sending his father tumbling head over heels along the ground.

Elias recovered instantly, as a metal arm and fist abruptly emerged from his back, crossing the ten foot distance between them to slam up into his son’s stomach, doubling the younger man over. A moment later, a twelve foot tall tree erupted from the ground right behind them, vines from the tree lashing out to wrap around Ian before seeming to pulse with energy. Immediately, the younger Gerardo felt his energy and will to fight begin to fade very quickly. He was tired, it was hopeless, why was he bothering to do any of this? He might as well just stay right here and stop moving. Nothing else would accomplish much. 

Koren, by that point, had already started to move. But Dare put a hand on her shoulder, looking off to the side. 

Koren followed her gaze, just in time to see a tiny object fly through the air. It was a pencil, which struck the summoned tree. An instant later, the spell on the pencil activated, and the tree was reduced to ash, releasing Ian. 

All four of them looked that way, in time to see Sean Gerardo, so much older than he should’ve been, approach. His eyes were on his father. “Hi, Dad,” he greeted in a voice that was somewhat choked with restrained emotion. “Thanks for the hospitality, but they say you’re supposed to stop living with your parents in your twenties.”

“Sean!” Elias snapped, trembling with anger and frustration. “You need to stop this now. This is for your own good, you have to understand that. I’d rather have a son who lost a few years of his life, his very long life, than one who was a traitor. You don’t know what you’re doing. You and your brother are both blinded by this.” 

“That’s rich,” Sebastian Gerardo informed his brother as he approached from the edge of the chaos. Moving to stand in between his two nephews, the man continued. “Talking about other people being blind, Eli, given what you’ve been doing to your own son. Que te paso, hermano?” 

“You…” Elias snarled the word, glaring at his sibling. “How can you drag them into this? How can you… how can you get in bed with these monsters?” 

Barking a short, sharp laugh, Sebastian retorted, “Interesting phrasing. Little brother, you’ve gone off the reservation. You, Andrea, and the others. This is too much. You tortured your own son for nothing.” 

Nothing?!” Elias’s voice was a roar, his face red. “We were trying to save his soul! What is a few years against a lifetime that could stretch for centuries, or longer?! Do you think it didn’t kill us to do this?! It was all we could think of to stop him from consorting with demons, as you seem intent on doing.” 

Ian’s mouth opened to snap something, but Sebastian spoke first. “Consorting? Brother, I’ve been having unbelievable sex with what you’d call a demon for decades. And when this is over, we’re gonna go have brunch.” In response to the other man’s open mouth, he added, “But for the record, Mateo’s a werewolf, not a demon. Oh and… he also saved Sean’s life when he was a kid, so… I’m pretty sure that puts him at least a step or two above ‘imprisoning him for years in solitary confinement’ on the scale of who the real evil piece of shit is.”

Face contorting with a mixture of rage and disbelief, Elias was left briefly speechless. In the end, he could find no words for his sibling. Instead, the man snapped his gaze to his two children, as though shoving Sebastian from his mind entirely. “Ian, Sean, you need to stop now, before both of you end up regretting this for the rest of your lives.”

“I regret a lot of things, Papá,” Sean murmured, “but turning against a murderous, psychotic cult who are so convinced literally every other intelligent being in the universe is evil that they want to kill every… single… one of them? Pretty sure I’m not going to regret that. You want to murder—no, genocide literally every other species in the universe. I know that word is thrown around a lot, but in this case, it couldn’t be more literally true. You want to kill… every… last… being out there that isn’t human. You know, because they’re evil.”

Elias slowly shook his head. “I don’t care how much time you spent in there, you are still behaving like a child.” The man took a moment to glance around at the fierce fighting going on on all sides of them, though some had stopped to look at what was happening. His gaze passed over Sebastian and kept going. “You and your brother, neither of you were leaving here. We’re going to put an end to this right now.”

“Sorry, Eli,” Sebastian replied, “but I think you just proved that this isn’t ending anytime soon. The war, at least. As for this battle, I do think it’s about time we left.”

With a dark growl, the man snarled, “You’re not going anywhere. None of you are. Leaving here, I think you’ll find it rather impossible.”

“Wanna bet?” The words came from Felicity Chambers, as the girl came jogging up, accompanied by Sands and Avalon. The trio had gotten briefly occupied in dealing with another threat (as well as handling the departure of Chayyiel, who had… other matters to attend to now that they were safely out of the prison). “Because we’ve been doing a lot of impossible things lately, and I’m feeling lucky.”

Seeing the blonde girl made Elias spit a dark curse word as he lunged that way, only to be intercepted by his brother, as Sebastian caught him by the arm, spinning to throw him to the ground. 

“The other prisoners?” Dare asked. 

“Athena’s handling them,” the girl replied. 

You.” The hatred and disgust in Elias’s voice was palpable as he glowered at Flick from where his brother had thrown him. Fire coiled around his body from the force of his rage when he looked at the girl. “You and your mother, your names… your names are going to be remembered. Oh, you’ll be remembered alright. Remembered as two of the worst, most evil traitors in human history. Your names will be spoken as the most vile curses, right beside the Devil himself.”

“Hey, someone call me?” It was Apollo, popping up nearby before flashing a smile at the man. “Sorry, I think we’ve left a pretty big mess for you to clean up. Maybe you should get on that while we get out of your hair.”

“Like I said,” Elias snapped sharply while an invisible force lifted him back to a standing position, “none of you are going anywhere. Do you think we weren’t prepared for something like this? Do you honestly think we wouldn’t have a way of containing any intrusion team? You must be stupid. There are four satellites in orbit right now, and as of this moment, all of them are projecting an anti-teleportation field over an entire twenty mile radius around this facility, along with a forcefield strong enough to keep you here for hours. Satellites, as in up in space. There’s nothing you can do about it. You all walked right into a trap. Sean being out here doesn’t matter, because every last one of you is going right back inside. You haven’t escaped the prison, all you’ve done is get a little yard time. All of this is the prison.” 

Sure enough, all around them, none of the escape spells were working anymore. The injured and unconscious were falling and staying where they were, unable to be taken to safety. 

“Oh dear,” Dare replied in a voice that was far more casual than Elias liked. “I think we’ve been outplayed. Unless… let’s see, phase one was the attack on the weapons depot. Phase two was this assault right here. Phase three was the prison infiltration. Was… was there a phase four?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Flick promptly replied, “I’m pretty sure there was.”

While Elias’s gaze snapped around, trying to figure out what the hell they were talking about, Dare touched the communication badge on her shoulder. “Phase four,” she announced simply. 

A few long, tense seconds passed before a hologram of a new Heretic appeared in front of Elias, looking frantic, “One of our satellites just went down!”

“What?!” Elias snapped in disbelief. 

“Sorry,” Apollo murmured, “Did I forget to mention that my Torchbearers — yeah, they’re my people — were going up with a friendly vampire and a few others to hit your satellites and destroy them? Because I could’ve sworn I brought that up.”

“They’re down, they’re down!” The hologram’s voice was even more frantic, as he snapped his gaze over to the other man. “Satellites are down, we need reinforcements right now! Now!” 

It was too late. All around them, the rebel army was disappearing. One by one or in groups, they teleported away, leaving their loyalist opponents looking confused and lost. 

“No!” Eyes wide as the rug was yanked out from under him once again, Elias lunged toward Sean. “You’re not leaving!” 

His lunge was met by a single piece of paper, with a spell drawn on it. The spell activated, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man’s face that blew him backward and down. He landed on one knee, only for Ian to slam into him using his own cannonball power that put the man on the ground in a deep crater. He tried to pick himself up, only for Sebastian to appear over him. “Take a vacation, little brother,” he snapped while using one hand to cover the man from his feet to his neck in a metal cocoon that would momentarily resist his efforts to teleport out. “You need it.” 

Sean and Ian were there, standing on either side of their uncle, hands on his shoulders. Together, three Gerardos stared at the fourth. Unspoken emotions passed between them, as both sides of the family division stood on either side of their line… and none budged. 

“Well, I had a bigger speech planned for this,” Sean informed his father. “But you know what, I think this suffices.”

Raising a hand, he flipped off the man on the ground. And a moment later, he, his brother, and the rest of their group vanished. 

They were free.

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This isn’t over yet.”

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Denouement 3 – Fray (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are… you okay?” Rebecca hesitantly asked. 

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would be leaving this prison. 

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Epilogue 7 – Sean (Heretical Edge)

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Time flew when you were having fun. Or when you were stuck in a nightmare prison where time passed much faster than it did for the outside world. Which was the opposite of having fun.

Sean had no idea how much time had passed for everyone else. He genuinely didn’t, considering every single person who had come to visit him, including his parents on different occasions, told him different things. He’d finally managed to get one of the nicer guards to confess that they were deliberately telling him conflicting stories about how much time was passing in order to confuse and disorient him. He did know that it wasn’t all that long, though whether it was days or weeks he wasn’t sure.

As for Sean himself… one year. He had been in this house essentially by himself for one year since his parents had come that first time. He’d get visitors roughly once a week, sometimes twice. They would come in, sit and talk with him, and try to get him to see things from their point of view. Some were nicer than others, but he looked forward to all of their conversations. Which was the point of isolating him like this, he knew. Unfortunately, knowing something like that didn’t exactly make it less effective.

He did what he could during those times between visits to keep himself sane. He had found notebooks and pens and wrote in them. Sometimes he wrote random thoughts, a journal of sorts. Other times he wrote down jokes that he wished he could tell his friends. And stories. He wrote short stories. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes they were scary, other times they were romantic. It was just ways to occupy and exercise his mind.

And he cooked. He practiced cooking, going through all the recipe books in the kitchen. Sometimes he offered food to his guests, other times he didn’t bother. A lot of it ended up being thrown out. Anything he couldn’t finish within a day or so, he tossed. Because he could always make more, and making it was more the point than eating it was. Cooking kept him busy.

Beyond cooking and writing, he exercised. He worked out. He couldn’t exactly spar all that well with just himself, but he could do everything possible up to that point.

He also practiced with what magic he knew. He hadn’t yet been able to convince any of the guards who visited to let him see any spellbooks, not even if they went through and tore out all the potentially dangerous pages. But he was able to practice the magic he did know. And he’d been getting pretty good at it, considering he had to work with those same few spells over and over.

It was weird, thinking about the fact that he had now technically spent longer in this prison cell disguised as a suburban house than he’d actually spent at Crossroads itself. He’d been sitting here in this house being isolated for the crime of knowing Flick Chambers and Avalon Sinclaire for longer than he’d actually known them. How fucked up was that? Months had passed. Months, and he was just sitting here, alone like ninety percent of the time.

There were many times when he was angry. He’d punched more than one wall, had thrown entire cupboards full of glasses and plates, had screamed until he was hoarse. Sometimes he would be more angry at his jailers, other times he would be angry with Flick, or Gaia, or the entire Seosten Empire, or humanity itself, when he was feeling particularly lost. Being alone like this for so long, it wasn’t… it wasn’t good for him. He could feel himself slipping.

Vulcan. He wanted Vulcan. He wanted Roxa. He wanted Columbus. He wanted… his friends. He wanted more than this Gods damned house. He’d memorized every fucking detail of the place over and over again. He’d broken down walls, only to have them magically repaired the next time he woke up after sleeping (along with anything else he broke). Food was replaced, supplies came back, more blank notebooks were added for him to write in. He was sure they were reading everything he wrote, but he didn’t care. In fact, sometimes he entertained himself by writing what they might think was some juicy information or secrets, but it was all bullshit.

But yes, he got angry at everyone now and then. He would curse, scream, even cry. Being alone like this, it was… it was rough. It was hard. Venting helped… a little… sometimes.

At this particular moment, he was looking through the assortment of DVD’s that he had been left with. The guards changed them sometimes, adding different ones. It helped somewhat. Which was one of several things that made him think that not all of them were exactly completely on board with the idea of keeping him in here like this. A few of the guards visited more than they absolutely had to, and also brought more varied books and movies for him to pass the time.

That could’ve just been part of playing ‘good cops’ to the others ‘bad cops’, but he wasn’t sure they’d go to that extent. And he wasn’t going to question or push it, because the new entertainment and extra visits were basically the only thing keeping him as sane as he was.

Hey, kid, how you doing?

Well, he’d thought that he was staying sane. Apparently the jury was about to go back into deliberations on that one.

You’re not going insa–hang on. Look, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to take over for just a second so they don’t see you fall over or something and get suspicious.

With that, Sean found his hand reaching up to put a random DVD into the player. His body turned and moved to go sit down in the chair, kicking his legs up onto the end table. All of it seemed to be happening on autopilot. He had no say. His body was just doing whatever it wanted to. And as long as he’d been in here with no one to talk to and no better stimulation, it was only then, as the movie started up, that he realized what was happening to him.

Seosten!

He was fighting then, struggling to grab control of his body. Struggling to scream, to kick, to curse, to call any guard who might have been watching. There was a Seosten inside him. There was a Seosten inside of him!

No! No, no, stop it! Get out, get out of me! Get–get your fucking–

Hey, kid! Sean! Wait a minute, it’s okay. It’s all right! Listen, it’s me! It’s–

Then he knew. He knew the voice, and he remembered… You?

Yeah, me. Just hold on. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Just a second here. Let me… here we go.

And in that moment, for the first time in more than a year, Sean was standing somewhere other than the house. It was an empty white void, to be fair, but it was not the house.

He jolted a bit, eyes widening while he spun in a quick circle. “What the–”

A figure appeared in front of him, standing a few feet away with his hands up. Sean’s eyes jerked that way, mouth already blurting the name of his possessor.

“Apollo!”

“Yup.” Sure enough, it was old Uncle Satan himself, standing there in this blank white space, watching Sean carefully. His voice was soft. “You okay?”

“I–we’re–how did–” Tripping over his own words, Sean slowly walked forward. His hand, shaking a bit, rose and extended toward the man in front of him. Real. He was real. Apollo was there. Sure, the guy wasn’t exactly his first choice for someone he’d like to see and talk to. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. It wasn’t Roxa, or Columbus, or Mateo, or Uncle Sebastian, but it was someone. It was someone to talk to who wasn’t part of the hardcore Crossroads loyalist group.

It was a new person, a… a friend, sort of. And seeing him almost brought tears to Sean’s eyes. God, just seeing the guy here like this was nearly too much. Yet at the same time, not enough.

A look of sympathy crossed Apollo’s face, and he raised his own hand to meet Sean’s, squeezing it. Before the boy’s mind could run too wild, he explained, “We’re inside your mind. I just made a bit of a VR space for us to talk. Your body’s still there on the chair. As far as anyone watching is concerned, you’re zoning out watching a movie.”

“But how are you–” In mid-sentence, Sean stopped. His reeling mind found a little bit of purchase. “The vault. Last year–I mean a few days ago–I mean… whenever it was. When we went after the vault, you possessed me. That’s how we snuck you in past the security. You were possessing me.” He breathed the words, the shock of the realization (and of actually talking to someone from the old group after all this time) making him physically gasp.

“I was,” Apollo confirmed quietly. “And I still had my connection to you. Luckily.”

“How… how long has it been?” Sean asked, already afraid of what the answer would be.

There was a brief pause before Apollo answered. “About a week. But I’m pretty sure it’s been a good bit longer for you, huh?”

Swallowing hard, Sean nodded. Glancing away, he murmured. “A little over a year.” He saw the man’s mouth opening from the corner of his eye, and quickly looked back to interrupt. “Did it… take a few days to remember that you could do this?” He tried to keep the emotion out of his voice, but from the way the other man winced, knew he wasn’t entirely successful.

Instead of answering immediately, Apollo gestured with one hand. “Something tells me you’re probably not in the mood to sit down and talk,” he remarked, while grass appeared under their feet, trees appeared around them, and a stone path came into view. “So why don’t we take a walk? This is a place from one of my memories, a park in London that I like quite a bit.”

He was right, it was better than sitting. Sean barely hesitated before starting to walk with the man. He could see and hear birds in the trees, squirrels scampering along, and even caught the sound of a nearby brook quite literally babbling.

After a minute of walking in silence together, Apollo spoke quietly. “I didn’t forget that you were my most recent host. But they’ve had spells up on your cell that… wouldn’t exactly stop me from recalling to you, since that’s all but impossible, but would keep me out of your head. I’d just pop up outside of you. And that might have attracted attention, since I wouldn’t have any idea if there was anyone with you, or guards watching, or anything. Thanks, no doubt, to one of the Seosten working in Crossroads security. They’d know there might be Seosten on our side who could get to you that way. Anyway, I didn’t forget you. For the past few days I was working on a way of getting around that, a way of seeing through your eyes anyway, or contacting you.”

“Wait,” Sean realized after thinking about that for a second, “you were working on it? The way you said that makes it sound like that’s not what happened here.”

With a little smile, Apollo nodded. “Yeah, well, turns out I ended up getting a little bit of help from one Felicity Chambers. She showed up with… uhh, let’s just say she had basically had the codes to the spell that blocks you from being possessed. With those, I was able to make the counter-spell and get through. So here we are.”

“How did Flick get that?” Sean had to ask, despite feeling that he really shouldn’t have been surprised.

The answer from Apollo was a soft chuckle. “She said she couldn’t tell me yet. Just that she knew someone with access, and that she’d be able to tell me all of it in a couple weeks. She’s also the one who told me about the time dilation and what they were doing to you. Couldn’t tell me how she knew that either. Just asked me to trust her. Which… I do. Plus, I’m kind of good with people having secrets. Especially when they promise to tell me soon. Besides, it worked. I’m here.”

“You’re here,” Sean agreed. “But from the sound of it, you’re not going to be able to break me out.” There was a dullness to his voice that even he could hear. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Not yet,” Apollo confirmed. “I’m sorry, kid. Or not-so-kid, anymore. I may have been able to possess you, but they’ve got you locked down with so much security, there’s no way I could get you out before we had half the loyalist Crossroads army right on top of us. We’re working on that. Sariel, she’s got some spells for retrieving a possessed subject, but getting past the security they’ve still got up… we’re working, I promise.”

Trying not to cringe too much at the thought of being locked up in that place even longer, especially when Apollo was right here, Sean hesitated before speaking again. “Don’t take this the wrong way, because I am definitely glad to see you, but… then why are you here?”

“I can’t get you out just yet,” Apollo replied, “but I’m going to. We’re going to. We haven’t forgotten about you, Sean. No one has forgotten about you. Now that we know what they’re doing, and I can get in here, you’re not gonna be left alone like that again.” He paused, looking around the park they were slowly making their way through. “Listen, I can’t be here one hundred percent of the time. And I know that every minute I’m gone is going to be a lot longer for you. But I’m going to keep coming back as much as I can, you hear me? I’ve got this place’s number now, and I’m going to call it up as much as I can. You are not going to go more than a day or so without me visiting. I will pop into your head so often you’ll get sick of me. Sometimes it’ll only be for a few minutes, other times it’ll be a lot longer. I will come in here. I will keep you company. Those assholes out there, they’re not going to be the only ones talking to you anymore. I’m just… I’m sorry it took so long for me to get here in the first place.”

“It’s not your fault,” Sean murmured while trying to ignore his own feelings of abandonment that had been getting steadily stronger over the past year. “You know, so long as you’re actually working to get me out of here.” Though he tried to make it sound offhand, there was an emotional crack to his voice that he couldn’t stop. “I’d really rather not be an old man the next time I see any of the others.”

“You won’t be,” Apollo promised him. “I promise you, Sean, we are going to get you out. Whatever it takes, whatever we have to do, we will get you out of there. And in the meantime, I’m going to keep you busy.”

Sean blinked at that, looking away from the small bird he had been watching as it climbed along a branch. “Keep me busy?”

“Damn right,” the Seosten man confirmed with a nod. “You might not be able to gain new powers in that cell, but I can help you learn new magic right here in your head. Hell, I can help you train too. Fighting, magic, schooling, I’ll be here to help you with all of it. All while they think you’re just sitting there watching movies or sleeping. Okay? I’m here for you. You are not alone, Sean.”

A lump formed in the boy’s throat for a moment, and he had to swallow hard before he could speak. “I… thanks. Thank you. It was… this year, it’s been pretty rough.” He blinked rapidly, trying to get rid of the stupid wetness that had appeared in his eyes. “I said things… I didn’t mean them. I was just–”

Apollo’s voice was soft, and understanding. “It’s okay. No one blames you. We’re sorry. They’re sorry too. They didn’t know until now that… that those psychos were doing this.” He took a step over, hesitating slightly before offering his hand to Sean. “Like I said, you’re not alone anymore.”

After a year of being left in that house without anyone more than a few guards to talk to about once a week, Sean watched the offered hand for a moment before slowly accepting it. He squeezed the man’s hand, breathing out hard as he did so. Even that little bit of contact felt… huge, in a way that he couldn’t hope to explain.

“So… so you’re gonna be teaching me while I’m in here, huh?”

Apollo smirked at that. “Teaching, entertaining, training, keeping you on your toes all sorts of ways.” His expression sobered a little then, as he pulled Sean from that simple handshake into an embrace. “I’ll be here as much as I can, I promise. However long it takes, I’ll keep you busy.” He released the boy, stepping back to wink at him. “You and I are going to get to know each other very well.”

Another lump appeared in Sean’s throat that he had to force down. “I… listen, are Uncle Sebastian and Roxa–”

“They’re okay,” the Seosten man assured him. “Pretty intent on getting you out. We all are. You’ve got plenty of friends and family out there on your side.”

Sean was quiet for a moment at that, before hesitantly asking, “What about… my brother, Ian? Mom and Dad said something about him doing something they didn’t like. And if they didn’t like it–I just… I don’t know where he is or what’s going on. Can you guys…”

“We’ll find him,” Apollo promised. “If he’s turned rebel, we’ll pull him in. Either way, we’ll make sure he’s safe.”

Once more, it took Sean a couple tries to find his voice. All of this, after the past year of nothing happening save for worse and worse visits from his jailers and parents, was a lot to deal with. “Thanks. I umm… I owe you.”

“Oh, kid,” Apollo breathed, shaking his head. “No. You don’t. I owe you.

“And I promise, I will deliver.”   

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Summer Epilogue 1B (Heretical Edge)

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In the end, the group (consisting of Dare, Kohaku, Gabriel Prosser, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Larees, Haiden, Larissa, Theia, Metatron, Raphael, Chayyiel, Jophiel, and Cahethal) traveled through six different portals before finally reaching their destination. While the lab was located on Earth and would have been ordinarily reachable through a single portal, it was protected in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was a particular spell which functioned as a combination lock of sorts. If the person entering did not first go through each of the previous five locations just before entering the lab, all of the contents within it would disappear.

Once they were finally there, the group as a whole looked around. They had arrived in a perfectly white room just large enough to hold them. Every surface was pristine, without a single smudge or fleck of dust. The immaculate white walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to pulse a bit with power for a few seconds after their arrival.

Cahethal spoke for the first time as the pulsing glow faded. “A sterilization spell, to remove any exterior contaminants that might be brought in. And unless I miss my guess…”

Sariel confirmed, “A version of the expulsion magic, to ensure that no one enters carrying one of our people unknowingly.”

Metatron gave a dark look at that. “That spell technology is not allowed anywhere near this world. It is heavily regulated. You should not even have been taught how to use it.”

Apollo cheerily replied, “She wasn’t. She reversed engineered it after spending so much time in old Kushiel’s place.” Though his words were light, there was an underlying hardness to his tone as he stared intently at the old man while bringing up what his adopted sister had gone through.

Cahethal gave the woman a curious look at that, several different thoughts clearly playing out in her mind while she remained silent.

Metatron, however, wasn’t nearly so reserved. He gave both of the ‘twins’ a disbelieving look. “Even if that were true, which I have many reservations about, allowing power like that to be here on this planet, even in a controlled environment, is absurdly risky. If it were to accidentally find its way to anyone else—”

Apollo interrupted. “Oh, it’s finding its way to other people. Like Gabriel here. You can be damn sure that his people are going to have these things set up around their homes. So if you or any of your colleagues might have been thinking about any infiltration, they should reconsider.”

Giving them another incredulous look, Metatron snapped, “You would provide such dangerous magic to another species? Do you have any idea what you risk with such insanity?”

It was Chayyiel who spoke. “For someone who has ranted at such lengths on what sort of traitors Lucifer and Sariel are, you seem oddly surprised that they do not consider themselves loyal to our side.”

Her words were met by a brief look from the man, and a simple, vaguely disbelieving, “Our side?”

Before anyone else could respond to that, Raphael spoke up while cracking his neck. “As much fun as this banter is, it’s somewhat crowded in here, and I’m starting to feel claustrophobic. When that happens, my wings tend to come out. Which, in a place like this, could be dangerous for everyone else. What do you say we move on?”

Haiden nodded. “I’m with David Lee Roth over there. We’re not going to get along, so let’s just get this over with.”

“Yes,” Jophiel agreed quietly. “Some of us have other matters to attend to once this business is finished.”

From where she was standing, Larissa observed, “Like getting ready to leave the host you’ve been enslaving for so long once Liesje’s spell is fixed?”

Jophiel offered her a smile. “Fortunately, that is not a problem I have to contend with. The Committee’s connection to one another should be enough to dilute your little spell. At least enough for me to retain control. So I do hope that any of your future plans did not rely solely on us losing influence over Crossroads.”

While the others exchanged glances, Sariel and Apollo moved to the nearest wall and began to run through several unlocking spells together to open the way forward. it took over a minute of rapid incantation before a single doorway appeared nearby. It was a simple arch, revealing a much larger room beyond.

As a group, they moved one by one through the archway and into the lab itself. The place was as wide as a basketball court and as long as two of them. Dozens of tables were set up all around the room, with bits of equipment, half-formed spell runes, notebooks, computers, and more all over the place. In the very center of the room was a pedestal with a softly glowing blue orb slightly larger than a softball sitting on it. Patterns of white runic symbols danced across the surface of the orb, the spell that kept its contents contained, among other things. Stacks of paper as tall as a person surrounded the pedestal, while another had been knocked over so that its contents were spread all around the foot of it. There were notes sprawled on the floor, as well as on the pedestal itself. Notes which seemed to flip back and forth between Latin and English seemingly at random, as though the person taking them was absently flipping back and forth themselves.

Cahethal observed, “I see neither of you have yet mastered the art of a clean and organized workspace that I spent so long trying to instill in you. It is good to know that some things will never change.”

With a grin, Apollo agreed, “Yeah, like the way we’re still finishing the work you couldn’t get done.”

Raising a finger to point at the man, Cahethal started to retort before pausing. Then she lowered her hand and carefully replied, “The time will come, Lucifer, when we are no longer in a truce. You would do well to remember that.”

Before he could respond, Larees spoke up. “So hey, I’ve gotta ask…” She took a quick sip from her flask before continuing. “Exactly how many days or weeks do you think you devoted to trying to figure out why you couldn’t possess that Chambers girl? Is there a ream of notes with all your hypotheses about it? Ooh, or holo recordings. Because I would pay good–”

“Stop it,” Sariel snapped before adding a simple, “It’s easy to overlook the obvious answer to a problem. She’s the one who helped teach us that.”

With those words, the woman moved to the pedestal. “Come on. We’ll show you how to do this and then you can leave Earth.”

“Finally,” Metatron announced while they followed her, “you say something that I can fully and completely agree with. Being away from this planet and rid of responsibility for it, even if only for one of its years before your experiment inevitably fails, sounds quite pleasant right now.”

“If everyone is finished sniping at one another, maybe we should get on with it,” Chayyiel announced.

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed in a doubtful tone, “show us what you have done that is so different than what hundreds of our best scientists have been able to do with thousands of years of work.”

Apollo began to explain while Sariel did something with the orb. “See, your problem was that you’ve all been trying to open a new portal into Tartarus.”

A disbelieving came over Cahethal. “Yes, that is our entire purpose here. Have you misunderstood this completely?”

Sariel spoke then while rising from where she had been making one last adjustment to the pedestal. “He doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want a portal to exist. He means it’s wrong for us to try to open it. We can’t.”

Before any more exasperated demands could be made, she continued while picking up the orb. “This can. You see, thousands of years ago, long before we came anywhere near that spot of space, something came out of it. Something made that hole from Tartarus to our universe. Whatever it was punched a hole between realities. When it did, it left behind a trail of the same energy from that reality that we use to empower ourselves. Think of it as stepping out of a lake and walking on dry ground while leaving puddles behind you. It carried that energy with it when it came here. Energy which, I will remind you, can never be completely destroyed.”

“That’s what you have in that orb,” Jophiel observed.

Sariel nodded. “Yes. Over all those years, the energy trail drifted apart through the entire universe. We—” She indicated herself and Apollo. “— have been using magic to pull bits of it here for a long time. And this orb is what we have.”

Apollo clarified, “What she means is that we set it up to pull in that energy thousands of years ago and she’s been quietly working on it off and on all this time. She just needed a little help right at the end to get it fully contained and sealed up in that nice little package for you.”

Metatron raised an eyebrow. “So what you are saying is that you have worked thousands of years and have managed to collect just enough energy to empower perhaps one person. Somehow this is not the solution I believe the rest of the Seraphim were hoping for. And it is certainly not what you promised.”

Apollo just shook his head. “What you do with the orb when we give it to you is up to you. You can use it to empower one person. Or, you can be smart with it.”

Cahethal spoke then, understanding. “We can use it to get back into Tartarus. If we flood it with enough power to jumpstart it while those specific spells on that orb are active, the residual Tartarus energy will attempt to return home. We don’t have to make another portal. They will leave a hole when they pass through. A hole which we can catch before it closes and stabilize.”

Raphael gave a low whistle. “That simple, hmm?”

Chayyiel shook her head. “There’s nothing simple about it. But, yes. It should work exactly the way they say. We will be able to open the way to Tartarus once more. Or, as he said, empower a single individual.”

“I suggest you go with the first option,” Apollo put in with a smirk. “But, you know, you do you.”

“I would point out here,” Metatron noted, “that this entire situation has grown beyond your initial demand. First, you say that it is to create a deal where we will leave your family alone. And now, it is tied into the truce agreement with this planet.”

Sariel nodded. “Let’s just say our changing situation necessitated a more thorough agreement. Not that it changes anything. The Seraphim have already voted to give Earth one year to prove ourselves. And you already know that you’re agreeing to leave my family alone. We’re just putting the bow on both deals together.”

It was Raphael who agreed. “She’s right, it doesn’t change the agreement. If anything, it gives us an out. Because if this orb doesn’t do what they say it well, that provides you an excuse to break the entire deal. Or at least bring it up for review with the rest of the Seraphim. And I can pretty much guarantee that if this promise is broken, there will be enough votes to nullify the truce.”

The man let that hang for a moment before snapping his gaze to Apollo and the others. “So, I really hope that it works the way you’re saying it will. Because I kinda like this place and I’d really prefer not to go all full scale invasion and war on it. It’s a great planet to come vacation once in a while. You know, when you just need to get away from everything. It would just rip me apart to have to come here and… rip it apart.”

“It will work.” That was Kohaku. “You all sign the magical agreement to leave her family alone for good, and to uphold the truce agreement here for one year, to enact no substantial efforts against this world for that time. Then you can take that orb back to your space and play all the super soldier games you want. Go bowling with it for all we care. But take it and go.”

Raphael observed her briefly, his tone curious. “You were the one Manakel took as a host, right? I, um… I’m sorry you didn’t know him before. He used to be a lot more fun than he ended up becoming.” After a brief pause, the man took in a breath and then let it out in a sigh. “I know it means basically nothing. But I do wish you could have known him then. He would have been appalled and destroyed by what he became. And the Manakel I knew would have wanted you to have this.” Extending his hand, the man held out a simple necklace of sorts. It was a small clear crystal dangling from a leather cord.

“It’s okay. You can have all your magic experts look over it as much as you want. It’s not a trap.”

Rather than take it, Kohaku simply stared. “What the hell is it?”

It was Theia who spoke up. “Dead seer.”

Raphael nodded to her. “Exactly. See, back when Manakel was still new to his gift and exploring the art of necromancy, he created this. It doesn’t summon any ghosts or zombies or anything. Instead, when a person looks deep into the crystal, they will see an image from the life of someone they’ve lost. It’s sort of a window into the past. You can’t interact with them, you can’t bring them back, you can’t do anything except look. It’s like one of your human video tapes. Just look into it and think about who you want to see. Anyone you knew who passed away.”

Kohaku’s hand moved to close around the cord, but she didn’t take it. Her eyes bore into the ancient, powerful figure’s. “You expect me to believe that you’re just handing this over with no strings attached and no tricks. Forgive me, but I’m not exactly inclined to think the best of your people.”

Chayyiel spoke. “Manakel was his descendent, his great-great grandson, and his protégé of sorts. Raphael helped raise and protect him.”

The man himself gave a short nod. “As I said, I knew him a long time ago, and I know what he would want. He didn’t always make the right choice. And he got a lot worse over time. But he’d want you to have that. If you want to throw it away, that’s up to you. Take it, and do what you’d like with it.”

As the woman silently accepted it with a conflicted look, Metatron cleared his throat. His expression was annoyed. “If we are quite finished playing nursemaids to the humans and the traitors, perhaps we can complete this arrangement. We still need proof that the orb will work as described before we sign any deal.”

“Yes,” Cahethal agreed. “Unfortunately, we cannot risk breaching that orb to test the energy within without releasing all of it. Which would tend to defeat the purpose of taking it back with us.”

Sariel reached behind the pedestal to remove a much smaller orb, this one about the size of a marble. “That’s why we have this.” She tossed it to the woman, sending the marble perfectly into her palm. “It’s the same stuff from the orb. You can take it to the containment area there.” She pointed to where a series of protection spells had been drawn around a circle in the corner. “Do whatever tests you want until you’re satisfied.”

Apollo then added, “Though I would like to point out that it’s not exactly hard for you people to come back here if you get out to your space and find out we lied. That would be breaking the agreement. And, you know, it would also be pretty damn stupid. I mean, what are we gonna do, move the whole planet?”

After he finished that bit, it was Chayyiel who looked to him. “Our space?”

The man shrugged. “Something tells me that it doesn’t matter what kind of truce or peace agreement we set up, I am never actually going to be welcome out there. Call me crazy.”

Metatron snapped, “No one forced any of you to betray your people.” He gave Sariel, then Athena each a dark look in turn. “Or to lay with creatures far beneath us. Or tutor a man whose power could have threatened our entire civilization as a whole. You all chose that, and you will receive no pity for the repercussions.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Cahethal muttered in an uncaring and distracted voice, “Yes yes, they are such terrible people, of course. Now come here. I need your help to verify this.” Marble in hand, she moved to the containment area, with Metatron following after giving them all one more disgusted look.

As the two of them moved away, Jophiel turned her attention to Athena. “Speaking of your misguided efforts all those centuries ago, you must have been quite relieved during the… situation at Crossroads to see that your protégé’s top knight has somehow managed to survive all these years. Although, from the memories that I’ve seen, she looks more like his consort than his knight. Isn’t that funny? Because, as far as I knew, the two were secret lovers, not twins.”

From where she was standing, Theia offered, “I can go rent a backhoe if you’d like to keep digging.”

Offering the younger girl a brief smile at that, Athena nodded simply to Jophiel. “Yes, it was quite a relief to be reunited with… her. We had much to talk about.”

For a moment, it looked as though Jophiel might question what exactly they had talked about. But in the end, she simply looked away.

After a minute of silence, Raphael looked over toward Larissa and Haiden. “You know, if we’re speaking freely at the moment, I will say that I was fairly impressed by your antics in our space. Not that it would have stopped me from killing you, but still, given how isolated you were, you actually did fairly well.”

Haiden met his gaze. “Yeah, well, let’s just say you gave us plenty of incentive to get creative. Hell, if you’d just left my family alone to begin with, we never would have been out there.”

Sariel spoke up. “That doesn’t matter right now. We make this deal and our family does get left alone.”

“And you all leave,” Larissa added.

Raphael shrugged. “Well, most of us do. I’ll be sticking around for a little bit.” At the quick looks from the group he held up a hand. “Not to worry, I have no intention of violating the truce, I promise. My interest lies in reconnecting with an old friend, as I said.”

Before he could be asked for any information about that ‘old friend’, Cahethal stepped out of the containment area. A wisp of blue-black smoke was drifting around inside of it. “It’s real,” she reported. “They’ve contained the energy, and from what I can tell, it will work the way they claim. There should be enough in that orb to open the way to Tartarus once more.”

“Thank the Void,” Metatron muttered. “Then we sign the agreement and leave. I, for one, I am looking forward to not thinking about this dirt ball until the apes who live here have torn each other apart.”

“Aww,” Haiden put in, “we love you too.” He accepted the offered flask from Larees and took a swig. “Believe me, speaking for the apes, we’ll be just as glad to see you go.”

For the next two hours, the agreement was drawn up and several dozen spells were attached to it to bind all parties to the terms. If any knowingly violated those terms, there would be harsh consequences. Not only politically and monetarily, but also physically and magically. They would quite literally be putting their power and lives on the line to knowingly violate the contract.

Then it was done. All present signed the contract. Earth would be left relatively alone for one year. And Sariel and Apollo’s family would not be purposefully hunted or harmed so long as they did not initiate first attack.

Chayyiel, glancing back and forth between both groups once it was done, announced, “Good. Now those of us who wish to leave may do so. And those of us who have a little more business to take care of first can focus on that.”

Metatron gave her a look. “You have been quite thoroughly informed that your place is not here on this world,” he reminded her. “It is not your territory. An exception may have been made for this, but as I have told you many times,  I will not have you wandering this planet so long as it is under my control,.”

Chayyiel smiled slightly. “You’re right. But as you have repeatedly expressed with much gratitude and pleasure, this world is none of our responsibility after this agreement. During the truce period you are no longer responsible for it. Which means your permission for visitation to the world is not required during that time.”

As the man stared at her, barely able to keep his mouth from falling open as the trap was revealed, she continued. “Many, many years ago, you informed me that I lacked any subtlety or patience. You said that you would see through any childish plans I set toward ever coming back here. And you said that so long as this world was in your hands, I would not set foot on it.”

She let that hang in the air for a moment before taking a single step forward. In that motion, she stepped out of her shoe, placing one bare foot pointedly on the floor in front of it. Her voice was soft.

“I believe your ride is waiting.”

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Summer Epilogue 1A (Heretical Edge)

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They came in force. Three ships, each capable of carrying a hundred troops and their assorted weaponry, along with a dozen armored vehicles, all full to the brim, landed in an almost entirely empty field in the middle of Wyoming.

It was fitting that it was Wyoming, of course. Fitting that this meeting take place near the home of the girl who had helped contribute so much to this moment. Even if she was nowhere near this meeting, it helped contribute to the feeling that she was connected to it in some way.

Each ship was shaped like a letter D, the cockpit near the top or front where the curved and straight parts met. In normal flight, the ship flew like that, while in battle it would turn, the cockpit rotating to face the same direction as the flat side where dozens of cannons and launchers would emerge to create a weapons platform.

As the trio of ships landed equidistant apart, twin gang planks at both ends of each ship lowered and troops began to disembark quickly. They were followed by the tanks, all of them spreading out to take up a perimeter.

They did this in full view of their welcoming committee, which consisted of ten of the most dangerous beings to the Seosten Empire currently on Earth: Apollo, Sariel, Athena, Larees, Gabriel Prosser, Virginia Dare, Risa Kohaku, Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and the ‘Lie’ known to those here as Theia. Ten people who, though wildly varying in power, had managed to strike or contribute to very telling blows.

The offer that Apollo and Sariel had first extended to the Seosten Empire had been accepted, and the two groups had agreed to meet here this day. With a bit of an amendment, in that the promise to leave Sariel and Apollo’s family alone would be tied to the agreement to also leave Earth in peace for one year without bringing forces to take control of the planet by force. Both promises would be tied to the same binding magical contract.

Watching the troops spreading out, Haiden remarked, “You don’t think they’re stupid enough to try anything right now, do you? I mean, this has got to look like a pretty attractive target.” He gestured around at their assembled group.

Sariel shook her head. Her hand rose to point at the glowing blue symbol on the side of each ship. It looked like three interconnected circles with a triangle in the middle where all three overlapped. “They came under the sign of Pax, a woman from our far history who helped to unite disparate tribes and led us to perhaps the last true and lasting peace our people ever knew. If it were to get out that they broke a truce under that sign, they would face widespread riots and condemnation across the universe, from our own people.”

“As would we, for the same,” Athena noted. “We would lose all sympathy and potential allies. So no one makes a move against them unless they force it. There may be very tempting targets on their side as well. Do not take them. We need this truce now, even if it is temporary.”

Without being looked at, Theia chimed in, “We will not throw rocks first, no matter how many they deserve to be hit with.” Under her breath, the girl added, “Maybe because there aren’t enough rocks on this planet.”

She was more than a little uncomfortable right now. Not only because of the actual meeting, but also through the fact that Pace was not here. Though the two were physically separated, she still felt connected to her most recent host, and really did not like to be that far from her. She felt awkward and alone even when surrounded by many others.

Larees raised a hand as though to put it on the girl’s shoulder, then froze partway there. Her old and deeply ingrained hesitation to touch or have anything to do with a Seosten Lie was hard to shake. Finally, though she looked a little uncomfortable, the woman made a point of following through with the motion, putting her hand firmly on Theia’s shoulder. Even then, it took her a moment to speak while she kept her hand in place, refusing to allow her reflexive prejudice to control her actions. Her voice was a bit stiff, though she tried to force herself to relax a little.

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to run out of people who deserve to have rocks thrown at them anytime soon.”

Virginia Dare spoke up then, her eyes fixed on the troops. “She’s right, we have enough problems already living here as it is. I’d prefer these guys just get what they need and leave.”

Larissa glanced to her, speaking a single name. “Fossor.”

The other woman gave a slight nod, her expression darkening. “We need to focus on dealing with the necromancer before he finishes whatever plan he has for that rope. We don’t even have Gaia around right now, we—” She stopped, voice faltering a little.

“We’ll get her back,” Risa assured her. “And we’ll handle Fossor too. We’ll get Joselyn away from him. We don’t have to beat around the bush or be so quiet about it anymore. The cat’s out of the bag, so we might as well take advantage of that.”

Speaking for the first time, Gabriel Prosser announced, ”We have reinforcements coming in already, people from the old rebellion who remembered our contact channels. Some of them are bringing friends or family. We’re working on setting up new ones and verifying their intentions.” He glanced to Athena then. “Your people are handy for that. It saves Enguerrand a lot of work.”

The woman gave a very slight smile at that. “It is good for our people to contribute, and to see how well an alliance can work. Though it may be seen as unfair to some, to have their thoughts pried into.”

Risa shook her head. “They’re told what’s happening, and that it’s a condition of bringing them aboard. We have to be certain that they’re not double agents or spies. Besides, it’s good for them to see what your people are capable of. So they don’t underestimate them. Especially since we’re using that time to tell them exactly what your people have been up to and what they’re responsible for.”

“Yes,” Dare agreed. “The Seosten won’t be a secret anymore. Everyone who joins us is going to know they exist and what they’ve been doing.”

The arriving troops had settled by that point. Only a relative few were actual Seosten, of course. Most were various other species, though almost all stared at the assembled group with varying levels of disgust or distrust, particularly toward the four Seosten ‘traitors.’ Clearly the majority of this honor guard were deeply loyal soldiers, which only made sense.

There was, however, another group, located to one side and consisting of about a fifth of the assembled unit that did not look disgusted. Instead, they appeared curious, or even intrigued. A few looked as though they might come closer to talk to the group, but were prevented by decorum. Beyond that, they wore armor that seemed more individualized. Instead of the plain, uniform black, theirs were decorated with various colors and designs, some quite well drawn.

Dare started to ask why that group was different. But before she could do more than open her mouth, the rest of the soldiers all turned as one and stepped back to create a corridor. Through that corridor approached three figures. One was an elderly man, the second a young girl, and the third a tall, lanky-looking man who appeared to be almost all elbows and knees. His hair was worn long, almost to the middle of his back, and was a mix of gray and blonde. His face had a very slightly lined look that made so that if he had been human, his age could’ve been estimated anywhere between his late thirties and early fifties.

“Metatron,” Sariel whispered to the others with a nod to the elderly man. Then her eyes fell on the seemingly young girl, breath catching a bit before she added a soft, “Chayyiel.” Finally, she looked to the lanky man, who stood just over six and a half feet tall. “And—”

Before she could finish, the man himself stepped forward, tilted his head back and spread his arms wide while loudly declaring in what was essentially a shout to the heavens. “I’m home!”

Turning in a wide circle, with his arms still outstretched, the man continued while sounding almost like a rock star greeting a wild audience. “Hello, my people! Hello my beautiful, beautiful world! How are we doing today?!” He paused then, sniffing once, before doing so again. “Hmm. Bit more pollution.”

Athena spoke then, her words both a greeting and explanation to the others. “Raphael. We weren’t expecting you to come.”

“Raphael,” Larissa whispered softly. “He’s—”

Sariel nodded. “You would consider him an archangel. One of seven who were part of an earlier super soldier test like the Olympus program.”

“You’d also consider him a shit-scary motherfucker,” Larees added pointedly. “If it wasn’t clear already, don’t start anything. Like, double-don’t start anything.”

Raphael himself by that point actually came forward, his voice just as loud and carefree. “Auriel, it’s so good to see you… and not have to kill you.” The latter was added thoughtfully as he looked the woman up and down briefly. There was a hint of amusement and teasing to his voice that made it relatively unclear just how serious he was being.

Clearing his throat, Metatron stepped forward as well. “Our fellow Seraphim insisted on accompanying us for this brief visit.” His eyes narrowed at Athena. “And it will be brief. I have no wish to stay on this planet any longer than absolutely necessary to complete our… transaction.”

Giving the man a disdainful look, Athena coolly replied, “Of course. Why would you wish to spend any time on a world of such importance, which you are personally responsible for? This is your first visit ever, isn’t it? The first in thousands of years.”

The old man clearly restrained a snapped retort, settling on simply saying, “It shall cease being my responsibility for at least one of its years when we are through here. And, Void willing that your failure through that year is thorough enough, we will then exercise a far more permanent solution to the entire situation.”

“He means good luck.” The words came from Chayyiel as the girl passed Metatron. She also moved past Athena, though her hand very briefly touched the woman’s arm and squeezed. Instead, she moved straight to where Sariel and Apollo were. Stopping there, she looked calmly from one to the other, as though appraising them.

Then, without warning, she stepped forward and tightly embraced Apollo. Her arms went around the man to hug him firmly before she did the same with Sariel, hugging the woman tightly. For the latter, the girl leaned up and whispered something very quietly in her ear. It was a private, secret message that went on for several long seconds and caused Sariel’s eyes to widen a bit. Both she and Apollo belatedly returned the embrace once they recovered from the surprise of it, though whatever Chayyiel had whispered to Sariel made the woman freeze up briefly.

With a look of clear disapproval, Metatron made a noise in the back of his throat, glaring at the girl. “Have you forgotten which side you are on?” he asked in a somewhat dangerous tone.

In response to that, Chayyiel replied simply, “No, I haven’t.” She turned slightly, giving him a somewhat cheeky smile. “It’s called a truce, Metatron.  I don’t have to be enemies with anyone here right now. I can hug anyone I want to.”

As if to prove that, the girl moved to embrace Larees then, also whispering something to that woman that made her give a surprised double-take.

“Aww what the hell, she’s got a point.” That was Raphael, who abruptly and unexpectedly pulled Athena into a hug as well, while the woman made a surprised sound. “I like this human custom.”

With a clearly audible sigh, Metatron announced through gritted teeth. “We are here to complete this arrangement. Rysthael will be left to its own devices for one of its years while you find a way to prove this alliance possible. But only in exchange for what you have already promised. If you were not lying.”

Athena simply gestured then. “You have greeted us, Metatron. Of a sort. But you have said nothing to those who truly speak for this world.” She gestured then. “Humans. I’m certain you’ve heard of them.”

Taking that as his cue, Prosser stepped that way and extended a hand. As he did so, every weapon on the field was suddenly pointed his way. If he noticed, the man gave no indication. “Good afternoon, Seraphim. I am Gabriel Prosser.”

Metatron gave him a dismissive glance. “I am well aware of who you are, and how much trouble you have caused. You should count yourself lucky that we are not meeting under different circumstances.”

In response to the clear threat, Gabriel simply replied, “When I was a young child, I allowed slave owners to intimidate me. It has been a very long time since I was a child.”

He smiled then, showing a bit of his teeth while lowering his hand without shaking Metatron’s. “But as your hosts to our world, we will extend you every available courtesy.”

Bowing her head a bit, Chayyiel spoke up. “We thank you for your hospitality, Sir Gabriel. Once our field leaders to this world have arrived, we will be ready to begin.”

Field leaders. Dare and the others exchanged brief glances. They knew what that meant. They were waiting for the Seosten who had been put in charge of the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden groups. Most likely they were possessing a Committee member and Victor, respectfully. Not that they would show up in their hosts. They weren’t that stupid. Still, it might possibly lead to some hint in the future.

Metatron looked reluctant to agree with Chayyiel, But protocol and decorum forced him to give a slight nod. “Yes, for a backward dust ball of a world, I have certainly seen wo—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. His eyes had been casually roaming over the assembled group until he saw Theia. “You.” That single word showed more disgust and anger than an entire diatribe could have. He glowered at her, his hands slowly closing into fists. “What is that doing here?” The demand came in a brittle voice.

Theia, for her part, raised a hand to wave at the man. “Hi, Grandpa,” the girl all-but chirped.

That made several dozen eyes snap to the girl, while Metatron himself simply tightened his fists. His gaze moved to Gabriel as he spoke sharply. “I know that you are unaware of our people’s customs. But we do not invite Mendacia to delicate negotiations. Particularly Mendacia who murder their own mother.”

“Lies,” Athena translated. “He means Lies.”

Nodding, Gabriel murmured, “I picked that up.” He looked to Metatron for a moment as though choosing his words carefully. Finally he spoke. “While I offer my reserved sympathies for your loss, the girl stays. I assure you, if we were to refuse conversation with everyone whom we found morally, socially, and in every other way repugnant, this negotiation would not be happening.”

Raphael, who had been observing this quietly, spoke up then. “He’s got a point. It’s their world, their people. You don’t have to like the girl, but they don’t have to get rid of her.”

For a moment, it looked as though Metatron might actually snap at the much more powerful man. But in the end he stopped himself, taking in a breath and letting it out before pointedly turning his gaze and body away from his granddaughter. “No matter. All of them are traitors. I should expect no less for its company.”

“You know,” Haiden suddenly spoke up. “Maybe the fact that you refer to a girl, let alone your own grandchild, as ‘it’ might say something about why your civilization is so fucked up.” He started to continue, but Larissa silenced him with a hand on his arm.

Metatron, meanwhile, gave the man an unimpressed look. “You should measure your tone. You, who would defile one of ours, disgust me no less than the murdering Mendacia.”

Before anyone else could say anything, a pair of portals opened nearby and two figures emerged. Both were female, one a tall, beautiful brunette, while the other was a smaller woman with light hair and incredibly green eyes.

“Jophiel,” Chayyiel greeted the former, then the latter. “And Cahethal. Nice of you both to make it.” Belatedly, she added, “Or do you prefer Aphrodite and Demeter while still on Earth?”

“Our Seosten names are fine,” Cahethal replied. “We are no longer playing make-believe gods.”

Both newcomers were subsequently deeply and thoroughly examined by all of the Earth group. These two were obviously the ones who were possessing the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden leadership. However unlikely it was that they would betray anything that gave away their host’s identities, there was always the chance.

Jophiel, in turn, seemed to study them right back. Her eyes moved over the group curiously for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t see the representative from Camelot. Is she not a part of this?“

Her words made the assembled group exchange glances before Athena replied, “Lady Lancelot is… occupied at the moment.”

“Pity,” Jophiel remarked. “I am certain we all have a great many questions for her. Particularly given her long absence.” Pausing, she added thoughtfully, “And the fact that she is a ‘her’ at all. Is she the true Lancelot, a descendant, something else?”

“Good questions,” Raphael agreed. “But they fall beyond the scope of this meeting. I believe what we should be discussing now is the main thrust of the negotiations.” He looked toward Sariel and Apollo. “The Summus Proelium Project.”

Metatron nodded. His own tone was fairly dismissive. “You claim that you can bring it back, re-open our way into that place. That is the sole reason these negotiations are happening, and I assure you, if you do not follow through, we will not hesitate to—”

Apollo interrupted. “We’ll follow through on our end, old man. Don’t worry about that. But we can’t do it here.”

Sariel clarified, “If you wish to see our work, you need to come with us. It’s not something that can be duplicated right here in some random field.”

Idly, Apollo added, “And it’s not a place that will fit all your friends here, let alone their toys.” He gestured to the gathered tanks.

Metatron gave both of the ‘twins’ a brief look, his expression barely less than a disgusted glare at their very presence. Particularly Sariel, whom his annoyed and disgusted gaze lingered on the longest. It was clear that he was deeply offended by her mere existence.

Raphael, however, spoke casually. “I assume all of even your more overzealous people understand that our entire trip here calls under the sign of Pax.”

That earned a nod from Athena. “No one will do anything untoward, Seraphims. This truce is best for all of our peoples, and they will not jeopardize that.”

The three Seosten leaders exchanged looks with each other as well as with Jophiel and the completely silent Cahethal, who had yet to so much as greet anyone. Then Metatron spoke. “Very well, the five of us shall accompany you while the honor guard stay here. But you should be well aware that should anything happen, they will be but the very tip of a full invasion.”

“But we shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Raphael insisted. “I’m sure they get the point. Now let’s do this thing before I get bored and wander off to find my old friend Michael.” He pronounced it the old way, ‘mick-aye-el’, with a full I sound in the middle.

The name made Sariel and Apollo glance briefly at one another before nodding.

“Okay,” Apollo announced.

“Then come with us, and we’ll show you how to bring back the Summus Proelium project.”

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