Apollo

Interlude 13B – Vanessa (Heretical Edge 2)

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Two Weeks Ago

When they approached, Vanessa was studying in one of the starstation’s many greenhouses. It was peaceful and smelled really nice in there, with dozens of various examples of exotic plant life, from Earth and many other places, surrounding the table she had set herself up at. With the wide assortment of books (of both the physical and digital sort) arranged in front of her along with a bottle of water, the blonde girl had everything she wanted at that particular moment. Peace, safety, quiet, and the opportunity to learn things she didn’t already know. 

She wasn’t actually studying for any particular class by that point, of course. Vanessa was already over a full semester ahead in her actual school work, the various assignments as detailed in the course study guides meticulously organized through several color-coded binders back in her room, waiting to be handed in when the appropriate time finally came.  

Some might ask the girl what she would do in the case that one of the teachers significantly changed a particular homework assignment, rendering her earlier work useless. To which, she would have informed them that doing work which helped her learn was never useless. And also that she would be quite happy to get another assignment she could work on. Doing one assignment to prove she knew the material was fine enough on its own, but the opportunity to do another one weeks later simply to reassure everyone involved (including herself) that the lesson had truly stuck? In what reality would that be something negative? 

Tristan called her weird for things like that, but Vanessa didn’t care. He was her brother and always would be. She knew he loved her, even if they disagreed on things like this. They may have both now had the same perfect memory, but Tristan didn’t particularly care to utilize his to its full extent. The boy was happy just knowing enough to pass his classes before getting on with what he considered far more important things. But to Vanessa, nothing was more important than knowledge. Facts, figures, numbers, names, spells, truth, both good and bad, were all important things. They were all sources of power. Knowing the right thing at the right time could save her family, or other people. She had previously dedicated herself to studying in order to find them. Now that they were here, her devotion to knowledge was about protecting them. 

So, it was there, at the table in the greenhouse, that Vanessa was sitting when a group of people approached. She heard them making their way along the path, even as one of the powers she had picked up allowed her to sense the exact number of skeletons entering her space. Four. Four skeletons, all human-ish in size and shape. Pulled from her studying by the realization that they were deliberately approaching rather than walking past, Vanessa looked up and turned to see who it was. She expected to find her brother and friends. Instead, her gaze found unfamiliar figures. They were obviously Seosten. Well, that or a teen drama full of ridiculously good-looking supermodel ‘students’ was being filmed, and she was pretty sure the people in charge up here had more important things to focus on. 

Two of the approaching Seosten were male, the other two female. All four appeared to be a couple years younger than Vanessa, which of course meant they could have been anywhere from actually that age, up to their thirties or so. The two guys both had dark hair, one a shade lighter than the other. The one with lighter hair had quite dark skin, while the one with darker hair was the taller of the two and appeared to be caucasian. The two girls were both white as well, one with dark blonde, almost brown hair and a deep tan, while the other girl had red hair worn quite short, and was wearing a pair of pitch-black sunglasses. 

“Hello?” Vanessa greeted the quartet uncertainly, eyes moving back and forth between them. 

“Hi!” the girl with the sunglasses raised a hand in greeting, her voice cheerful. “Sorry, we haven’t met, but uhh, you’re Vanessa, right? Vanessa Moon?” Her hand rose as the girl used her index finger to pull down the bridge of her glasses so she could meet the other girl’s gaze with her own sea-green eyes. “Daughter of Sariel the Olympian and Haiden the Bane.”

At first, Vanessa started to reflexively nod. Then she blinked, squinting that way. “The Bane?” 

The black boy spoke up with a cough. “Ah, yeah, sorry. That’s sort of what our people call him. You know, after he spent like ten years in our space running all over, destroying, breaking, killing–” In mid-sentence, the boy blanched. “Sorry, that kind of sounds like we blame him.” 

“We don’t,” the second girl, the one with blonde-brown hair, put in. “I mean, we’d probably do the same thing if it meant getting back to the people we care about, you know?” 

“He was just so… ahhh…. effective?” the caucasian boy offered. “Yeah, so effective that people started calling him The Bane, and it stuck. You know, like, ‘The Bane hit Teverith Station last week,’ things like that. It started when they didn’t know, or care about, his name, and stuck.” 

“He has other names,” the red-haired girl informed her. “But a lot of them are pretty impolite.” 

“Hey, I know!” the Seosten boy with dark-skin quickly announced, with obviously exaggerated excitement. “How about we all just start over and introduce ourselves this time instead of making everything super awkward? Sound good? Good.”  With that, he extended a hand toward Vanessa. “Hey there. My name is Desenei, and this is Nithae, Hansurei, and Batreth.” With each name in order, he indicated the red-haired girl, the blonde girl, and the other guy. 

“Um, good to meet you,” Vanessa replied politely, shifting around in her seat to face them properly. She still wasn’t sure what was going on here, but it was clear they weren’t just walking past, so she didn’t want to be rude, no matter how tempting it was to go back to her book. It was a really interesting book, after all. But everyone in her life had made it perfectly clear that ignoring people who were trying to talk to you just to keep reading was a bad thing. 

Batreth, the other guy, offered Vanessa a smile. “Right, you were in the middle of something, and interrupting is rude. Sorry about that, really. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and ask if you wanted to come see a movie with us later. And uhh, it’d be great if you said yes, cuz we need all the help we can get.” 

Nithae, the red-haired girl, quickly spoke up then. “What he means is that we’re supposed to be learning more about humans and their culture. So we have a list of Earth movies to watch, and we were hoping that you could help… explain some of the things we don’t get.” 

Taken a bit aback by the request, Vanessa hesitantly pointed out, “Are you sure you don’t want to take my brother instead? He’s probably better for that sort of thing.” 

The Seosten, however, disagreed and insisted she was the one they wanted to go with. So, Vanessa finally agreed. They promised to pick her up by her house in the living quarters in a few hours, and asked that she not eat yet, because they were planning on making a full thing of it. 

After watching them head off, Vanessa glanced down at the nearby flowers. There were several thoughts running through her mind, mostly focused on why on Earth they wanted to get her help understanding Earth culture and traditions rather than Tristan’s. Did they think he didn’t know as much because he’d spent so long out in space? That had to be it, right? 

In that case, boy were they going to be disappointed when it came to which twin they thought was more in touch with Bystander society. 

******

As it turned out, the entire group didn’t show up at the house. Instead, when Vanessa opened the door several hours later, only Desenei was standing there. He had dressed up in crisp black slacks and a dark red silk shirt. When she saw that, Vanessa blanched. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize this was something formal.” She herself was only wearing (mostly clean) jeans and a hoodie. “Uh, I can go change into something better.” 

Desenei, however, shook his head. “No, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. I’m only dressed like this because we were just at an evaluation with Athena, to check on how we’re doing. The others are setting up the projector, that’s why I’m the only one here.” He offered her a wink. “I’m great at a lot of things, but put me near anything technical and either it, or me, is going to blow up. Maybe both. And that would be a damn shame.” His smile was broad. “After all, have you seen me? I’m adorable.” 

“Oh good,” Vanessa retorted, “I was starting to think you weren’t really a Seosten. But there’s the ego.” 

The boy laughed. “Yeah, we deserve that, I guess. Okay, we definitely deserve it. That and a lot more. It’s just… you know, the way our culture works. We’re all just a little bit… extra and proud of it. Really proud. It’s kind of a thing with us.” 

“At least you’re self-aware about it,” Vanessa pointed out, before squinting. “Why are you so self-aware about it?” 

With a shrug, the boy replied, “I didn’t used to be, believe me. I was a real… garbage person. Thought our people were the best thing to ever happen to the universe, and that I was one of the best of those. The best among the best. Gold standard Seosten. Which, I guess I really was, as far as being arrogant goes.” After a brief consideration, he shook his head. “Anyway, I was on my first combat mission about two years ago, flying a fighter. Our squad was chasing down these slaves who ahh, escaped on a freighter ship. We were about to disable them when some of Athena’s people showed up. There was a… I think you call it a birdfight?” 

“Dogfight,” Vanessa corrected. 

“But dogs don’t even fl–I’m very confused.” Shaking that off, Desenei gestured. “But sure, there was a flying dogfight and some of us got shot down before Athena’s people pulled us in and took us prisoner. That’s me and the other three you met today. Well, there were six of us, but the other two didn’t… really end up getting along with the whole program.” He sighed. “So they sent them away, back to the Empire. But the four of us, we decided to stay. We were… curious about things after those first few weeks. So we stuck around. It was very… bumpy for awhile. Still is sometimes. But we’re working on it.” 

“Is that why you wanted me to help you learn from these movies you found?” Vanessa curiously asked. “Because you think me being half-Seosten and raised on Earth would be useful? Because I really don’t know anything about the Seosten parts of me, and I don’t know that much more about human things. Believe me, I am not the best representative of human culture. I’m pretty sure you could teach me some things about that by now.” 

With an easy laugh, Desenei shook his head. “Nah, it’s–okay, little confession to make. I thought you were a full Seosten before. I mean, before I knew who you were. I sort of saw you from a distance a few times and thought you were one of the Seosten who grew up with Athena’s people. I was actually asking the others how they thought I should approach you when Batreth told me who you were. Then we figured… like you said, you probably don’t know much about our people, so maybe we could help you learn. But coming right out and saying, ‘hey, let us teach you about the culture of the species that makes up half your DNA’ sounds pretty awkward at the best of times, let alone when that species has treated the other half of your DNA like… uhh, well, the way we have.” He offered an awkward shrug. “I don’t think I was supposed to say that part out loud yet. It was just supposed to be like a… you know, back and forth. We teach you some Seosten things, you teach us whatever you want about humans. We were afraid that if we came out and said we wanted to teach you about Seosten stuff, you might just refuse because of how bad your family was treated. But there’s a lot more to our people than that.” 

That was a lot to take in, but Vanessa found herself focusing on one thing in particular. “Wait, you said you were planning how to approach before you even knew who I was. Why would you need to talk to me at all before you knew anything about me?” 

“Oh, that?” Desenei grinned. “Because I wanted to ask you out on a date.” 

Okay, now she was really taken aback. Rocking backward on her heels, Vanessa fought to find her voice. “And–but–and now you don’t, because you know I’m not a real Seosten.” Despite herself, she could hear the accusation in her own voice. 

The boy, however, just shook his head. “Nah, nothing like that. But the thing is, when I found out who you were, I realized you’re a complete stranger, like… in every possible way. If I did ask you out, it’d only be because you’re attractive. Which, don’t get me wrong, you are very attractive. But I don’t know anything about you. This way, we can just hang out in a group, teach you about our people while you teach us about humans. And I can get to know you. 

Then I’ll ask you out.” With that, he pivoted on his heel and started to walk. “We should probably go though, the others are waiting.” 

Watching him start off, Vanessa swallowed hard. An apprehensive expression crossed her face. He wanted to get to know her? He thought that if he did that, he’d want to ask her out. But that was the whole problem. 

If he did get to know her, he’d realize what a very bad idea that was. 

*******

Present Day 

Soooooomebody’s sleeping on my couch.” The teasing words came from Uncle Apollo, as the man descended the stairs that led up to the loft where his bed was in his Starstation apartment. Obviously unsurprised to find Vanessa laying there, given how often his nieces and nephew came to visit, the man started to continue into the kitchen. “You hungry, kid? I think I…” 

He trailed off then, from a single sound which interrupted his words. A small, almost inaudible sniff. Only then did Apollo turn more toward the couch to see the huddled form there, her back to him as she faced the cushions. Then it came again, a very slight, quiet sniff, as he saw her shoulders shudder just a little. 

“Nessa?” After a brief hesitation, the man stepped over that way. He gently reached down, fingers brushing the girl’s shoulder, all teasing and casual cheer gone from his voice. “Vanessa, are you okay?” 

She didn’t respond at first, remaining silent and almost entirely motionless save for that almost imperceptible shudder that ran through her body. Then he heard her swallow hard before slowly turning to look at him. Her eyes were bloodshot, the remains of tears staining her face. She had been like this for awhile. 

“Uncle Apollo,” she managed in a voice that audibly cracked as she forced the terrible words to come. “I… think there’s something wrong with me.” 

“What?” Blinking, Apollo went down to one knee, his hand remaining where it was on the girl’s shoulder. “Vanessa, what happened? Do you want me to get your mother?” 

“No!” she quickly blurted, the terror of what her mom would think bringing new tears to her eyes. “No, no, don’t… please. I just… I have to talk to someone who might be able to help or know more than me. You’re a Seosten and you know things. You were a scientist. So was Mom, but I can’t talk to her. I can’t ask her. If–if I’m broken, I can’t ask her.” 

“Vanessa, you–” Stopping himself, Apollo paused, clearly considering his words. “Why do you think there’s something wrong with you?” 

Her mouth opened, but no words would come out. A thick lump had formed in her throat. God. She thought it would be easier with Apollo, after everything. At least he wasn’t her mother. The thought of seeing how disappointed her mom would be, how… how much she would blame herself, it made Vanessa want to curl right back into a ball. But she couldn’t. She had to explain, or try to. Maybe Apollo would have an idea. Maybe he could help. 

So, over the next few minutes, she explained about Desenei and the other Seosten, and how they had met up a few times over the past couple weeks whenever she wasn’t busy with other things. She told him about how interesting it was to learn about the Seosten from their point of view, and how they were genuinely interested in hearing what she thought. 

“Sounds good so far,” Apollo carefully noted, his hand gently brushing her hair. “What went wrong? Do I need to go swat a few Seosten heads?”

“No.” Vanessa’s voice sounded hollow even to hear own ears. “They didn’t do anything wrong. He… didn’t do anything bad. He’s fine. He–it’s… me. I…” She trailed off once more, going silent for a few long moments. She shouldn’t have come here. This was dumb. She was making her problems into Apollo’s. She couldn’t–

As though reading her mind, Apollo quietly urged, “Vanessa, it’s okay to talk to me. It’s just you and me here. What happened?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl slowly spoke. “My birthday is tomorrow. Tristan’s and mine, I mean. We’re nineteen. We’re nineteen years old, Uncle Apollo. I’ve been an adult for a year. In another year, I’ll be twenty.”

She went silent for a few seconds, but Apollo didn’t speak up. He was quiet, simply watching what the girl was doing and giving her time to gather herself until she finally continued. 

“Everything with Desenei was… fine. I like him. I like spending time with him. I like his stories. I like that he… he likes me. I want more of that. But…” Once more, she was silent, the confusion and shame of what was right on the tip of her tongue making it so hard to actually say. It took the girl another long minute before she managed to push out the words, briefly repeating herself. 

“I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve never… I–” She swallowed the thick, ball-like lump in her throat. “I’ve never felt… physically… I…” Sitting up abruptly, Vanessa pushed herself to the corner of the couch and drew her knees to her chest, arms wrapped around them so she could huddle there, staring at the man. “I’ve never been sexually attracted to anyone, Uncle Apollo. No one. Ever. Not a boy, not a girl, no one. I know what it should feel like, I know what– I’ve looked it up. I’ve asked people, I’ve read about it, heard about it, I know what it is. Academically, I know everything about it. I know what it should be like.” Her head shook slowly. “But I never felt it. I thought maybe when I got to know Desenei, I’d like him. And I do. I really like him a lot. I like being around him. I like talking to him. Last night he… he kissed me. And it was okay. I mean, I sort of liked just the… the ummm… touch. I liked when our lips touched. But that was it. I didn’t like… anything more than just lips touching. I didn’t… I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t want anything else.” The tears were back, her eyes closing as she couldn’t bear to look at the man. “I like spending time with him. He makes me happy. I even like hugging and really simple, normal touch kissing. No tongue, no… nothing else. He’s the closest person I’ve ever gotten to for that and… and I still don’t feel anything.” Her voice cracked, sounding like it was breaking apart. “Before I found Tristan, I used to think maybe it had to do with being half-Seosten. But he’s half too. He’s my twin, we’re the exact same age and both half-Seosten, but he feels that stuff all the time and has for years. And I asked some of the other Seosten, they said that it kicks in around the same time for them as it does for humans. It’s not the hybrid thing. It’s not the Seosten thing. It’s me. I’m the problem. 

“I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never felt any sexual attraction to anyone. And now… now I don’t think I ever will.”

After a brief moment, Apollo rose from his crouch and turned to sit on the couch next to her. Putting one arm around the girl, he half-embraced her before speaking quietly. “Vanessa, first of all, there is nothing wrong with you. Being different isn’t wrong. Whatever you feel or don’t feel, none of it is wrong. You have blonde hair, some have brown. You have white skin, some have different shades. You’re female in sex and gender. Some are female in sex and male in gender. Some are both at the same time. None of them are wrong, and neither are you.”

“But I…” Vanessa gave a heavy shudder, shifting a bit closer, her voice quiet. “I want to be with someone. I want to hold someone. I want to be close. I like… feeling that. I like him, just like that. I just… I never… I can’t… feel that. It’s like I’m empty there. How can I feel drawn to him, to anyone, one way but not the other? How can I like someone as much as I do, but not even feel the slightest hint of sexual attraction? It’s just not there, Uncle Apollo. I tried. I really tried to feel it, but there’s nothing, nothing. How can you say there’s not something wrong with me when I want the one part, but not the other? It’s just… it’s selfish and wrong and–” 

“No.” Apollo’s head shook. “Vanessa, absolutely not. There is nothing selfish about how you feel. Someone who is sexually attracted to girls isn’t selfish for not being attracted to boys. And you are not selfish for not being attracted to any of them. Listen to me, okay? What you’re describing is being asexual. I know you’ve heard that term, but you probably shied away from it because you were afraid of what it might say, right?” When she gave a silent nod, he continued. “You want to know why you could enjoy being with someone, like spending time with them, hugging, even some level of kissing, why you could even want to have a close partner like that, but not feel any sexual attraction? Because you’re not aromantic, Vanessa. You can be asexual and still want romance, still want someone to share your life with. You can still love people, just as much as anyone else. Asexual doesn’t mean you’re a robot, it doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions or feelings. It means that you do not feel sexual attraction. That’s it. And there is nothing wrong with that. Not one void-damned thing. It doesn’t make you any more ‘wrong’ than your blonde hair or your height or your eyes or your skin color.” 

“But…” Vanessa shifted a little, looking up to the man as she huddled against him. “What if Desenei leaves because he wants what I can’t–what I don’t?” 

“I can’t say he won’t,” Apollo admitted. “And that doesn’t make him a monster either. People need to be with those who make them happy, people they are compatible with. And if he can’t be compatible with you, that’s sad. But you will find someone who is compatible with you. It might be him, it might be someone else. But whoever it is and however long it takes to find them, you never hide who you are. You never pretend to feel things you don’t feel. Because you are brilliant, in every way. And you deserve to be happy, Vanessa. That means being who you are, every part of who you are, and finding someone who loves you for all of it. You don’t settle, and you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”

Vanessa was silent for a few seconds, the flood of emotions making it hard to even try to find words. Finally, she settled on, “I love you, Uncle Apollo.” 

His arm tugged her closer, hugging his niece. “I love you too, Nessa.” 

Another moment passed, before she lowered her head and nuzzled up against his shoulder. “Can we sit here for a little while?” 

“Yeah, kid,” came the quiet response. 

“We’ll sit here for as long as you like.” 

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Reception 13-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note, there was a Commissioned Interlude focusing on Chayyiel and Raphael posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

An hour later, we met back up with Apollo and Dare in one of the ship’s enormous crew cafeterias. It was eerily empty of anything but tables and (randomly sized) chairs. But at least it was clean. Sparkling clean, actually, which totally went against the mental image I’d had of a place where space pirates would eat. I was pretty sure the whole place was pristine enough to perform surgery in. Seriously, we were the dirtiest things in that entire cavernous room.

Persephone was in a corner of the gigantic place, barely visible as she had some kind of conversation with both Cerberus and Andromeda while playing fetch with the former. She was throwing this large metal ball that was as big as her head, then watching as the robo-dog chased after it, his three heads taking turns (well, mostly taking turns, there was a little snarling involved now and then) to grab the thing before he brought it back to be thrown again. 

“Well,” Dare herself started after giving a curious look around the room that told me she was thinking the same thing about it being weirdly clean as I was, “Miss Chambers and Mr. Frey, why don’t you and the others start things off by telling us how your side of this investigation went? I take it you successfully summoned the captain’s ghost?” 

Glancing to the others for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, with a lot of help to make it work without taking a lot longer.” My head shook then as I snorted, “Did you ever think you’d ask something like that back when I was still in your investigation track? You know, seventeen and a half years ago.” 

Her response was a raised eyebrow before the woman dryly replied, “I assure you, I learned quite early on in your time at Crossroads never to make assumptions about what sort of questions I would eventually be asking you. Among other things.” Her gaze moved to take in everyone around us, then the room we were in before admitting, “Though I will say that this situation is… perhaps a bit more than what I would have seen as my wildest imaginings.”

“Yeah,” Shiori cheerfully agreed while giving me a side-long look from nearby, “Flick does have a way of taking crazy situations and making them exponentially crazier.” The way she said it made it clear that she couldn’t have been happier about that. “But at least you’re never bored.” 

Theia, of course, piped up then with an equally cheerful, “Oh yes. Even while I still wanted to kill her, I never thought she was boring. Fighting her was a lot of fun. Actually, so was fighting you. Remember when the three of us were at Wonderland with the werewolves and you both had–”

“Okay!” I quickly put in, raising both hands before that could go any further. “I think that’s enough of a trip down memory lane for now. How about we focus on this whole Whispers thing, huh?” 

“Yeah.” Doug’s voice was a little tight as he gave a single nod. “I think that’s a good idea.” This Whispers thing was definitely getting to him. I couldn’t even imagine what it had been like to be in his situation. He and Sulan had accidentally released the creatures that killed… so many people back on the colony world where he’d grown up. And now he found out that this ship had those same anti-Whisper spells on it, implying that… what, that they had been here too? The idea that those things, whatever they were, could be somewhere else in the universe, that they could be anywhere and could possibly show up sometime, really wasn’t exactly doing wonders for him. 

Apollo, who had been standing up and pacing a bit back and forth at the far end of the table, apparently lost in his own thoughts and musings, pivoted on one foot to face us. “What did you find out from the captain’s ghost?” His voice was serious, one of the few times I had seen him without a broad smile or even a knowing smirk. This Whispers thing was important to him too. Probably because he was still trying to figure out what the connection between them and the Seosten was, given the way those spells affected his own people vaguely similarly. Plus, while the Whispers didn’t exactly possess people, they simply… well, whispered in their ears and drove them crazy violent. Seosten possessed and controlled their victims like slaves. Whispers were invisible creatures who drove their victims to do horrific things by constantly whispering to them. Maybe it was just coincidence that the same spells that blocked the Whispers from doing their thing to someone would also allow a possessed person to retain partial control of their body, but it all seemed a bit too coincidental. So yeah, no wonder Apollo wanted to figure it out. Sometimes I forgot that he had been a scientist for his people too. Being an incredible researcher was the whole way he and Sariel had even gotten started on this entire life, after all. 

After those thoughts passed through my mind, I realized everyone was waiting for me to do the explaining part. Avalon even nudged me gently while murmuring, “He was your ghost, you tell it.” 

“He wasn’t my–” Flushing slightly, I shook my head. “Never mind. Yeah, well, first the guy told us the same thing that Gala lady did. They limped their old ship in on its last legs and just stole this one from a refueling depot before leaving the survivors there. Well, most of the survivors.” 

That made Dare squint my way, her tone curious. “Most of them?” she echoed while casting a brief glance toward Apollo. He looked just as interested in that, but remained expectantly silent.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Most. I guess no one else knew about it, not even First Mate Gala. But there was one guy, a troll with these like… mix of cybernetic and magical intelligent enhancements or something. Motzer said his name was Occillo.” That was Latin for ‘smash’, but I didn’t need to tell them that. “He was supposed to be like… super-intelligent thanks to those enhancements. Not just for a troll, but anyone. Motzer said this guy was the smartest person he ever met.” 

“Sounds like someone I’d like to meet,” Apollo murmured thoughtfully before focusing. “But I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a troll like that. I take it this Occillo wasn’t left behind with the others.” 

“No,” I confirmed. “Like I said, no one else knew about it, but he convinced Motzer to take him with and drop him off at another station on the way. He stayed in the captain’s cabin for the next week or so and got smuggled out in one of the resupply crates at some space mall or whatever. It was a big trading hub. The pirates dropped the remains of their old ship off and sold it for scrap, and while they were doing that, Motzer made sure Occillo got out safely and secretly.” 

Dare was frowning. “What did he trade for the passage that Motzer didn’t want the rest of his crew to know about? That seems like the only reason the two of them would go through so much trouble to keep his presence on the ship secret, even letting him stay in the captain’s quarters.” 

Doug and I both exchanged brief looks before I nodded for him to go ahead. After all, this whole thing was more his situation than anyone else’s. So, he turned back to Dare and Apollo. “Yeah, turns out Occillo was never part of the old crew of this ship in the first place. He just booked passage because he was trying to get to that trading hub. So he offered Motzer the same thing he offered the first captain, information about where something called the Pale Ship was.” 

Well, Apollo definitely had a reaction to that. I saw his eyes widen as he actually sat back a bit as if he’d been physically shoved. Suddenly, he was staring intently at us, his gaze switching from Doug to me and then back again. “He said that?” There was an intensity to his voice that hadn’t been there before. He’d been serious about this Whisper situation the whole time, but this was something even more than that. “With those exact words. He called it the Pale Ship?” 

“He used the Latin version,” I pointed out. “But basically, yeah. Why, is it something important? Motzer said we should ask you about it, because he didn’t feel like getting into the details. And Theia said she’s heard the term before, but never actually found out what it meant.” 

“To be fair,” the girl herself put in brightly, “I didn’t care at the time. It was something my mother was talking about to one of her subordinates who came to the house. I was supposed to be focusing on inscribing prototype spells on my bones to help me stop possessing people.” Sagely, she added, “It did not work the way she wanted it to. But I can do this!” Holding out her arm, she pulled the sleeve up and touched one finger to the space just past her elbow on the inner side. As she did so, a pair of half-moon and plus sign runes began to glow with a faint blue light right next to that spot. “It’s not actually useful right now, but if I ever find a way to possess an inanimate object, this’ll help me get unstuck.” In a stage-whisper, she added, “It only actually works on things that aren’t alive, and I can already get out of dead things just fine.”  

For a second, Apollo looked like he might pursue that whole prototype spell thing, mouth opening. Then he shook that off and focused. “Yeah, the Pale Ship. It was–” He cut himself off, considering briefly before asking, “You all know the story of Tabbris. The original Tabbris.” 

Blinking at that, I exchanged a look with the others before slowly nodding. “Yeah, Athena told Tabbris and me about it. He was the Seraphim guy who fought for better treatment of non-Seosten. When he couldn’t convince the other leaders, he bought an entire planet, surrounded it with every weapon and anti-Seosten defense he could buy, borrow, or steal, and let anyone who wanted to live there safely. And when that wasn’t enough, he gathered a bunch of magical energy from all the other Seraphim using traces from their own signatures so he could use their own power to make that entire planet disappear. Like, no one has any idea where it is, and they’ve never found it, even though it happened like a hundred thousand years ago. He literally erased its location from the mind of every person in the universe who knew about it and wasn’t living there. And from all the records and all that. His spell made all of that go poof.” 

That prompted a bit of conversation back and forth with the others about how exactly that worked, and I explained about Seosten putting bits of magic into their legal signatures and how Tabbris the Elder spent a Seosten decade (eighteen years of Earth time) attaching siphon spells to those signatures to gather everything he needed from the other Seraphim so he could make the entire Seosten leadership look like idiots, and protect everyone on his planet at the same time. And now he was basically a legend amongst the Seosten, while being seen as a fool by the leadership at the same time for ‘wasting all that effort’ to protect a bunch of non-Seosten. 

Finally, once I had explained all of that, I focused on Apollo once more. “And now that everyone is caught up, what exactly does all that have to do with some kind of ‘Pale Ship?’ Is the ship connected to this original Tabbris guy somehow? And why do they call it ‘Pale,’ anyway?”

The man rocked back on his heels, taking a breath before he started to explain. “Well, see, there was a ship–no one knows its name anymore for what will be obvious reasons– right on the edge of the area affected by that big spell. It wasn’t supposed to be there. He timed his spell specifically to put everyone he trusted inside the effects. But this ship, it was on its way out of the planetary system and they were running a few hours late. That put them right on the very boundary of where the spell was. They were sort of half-in the effect and half-out of it. It turned the ship and everyone on it into… well, sort of like ghosts. First of all, they were partially remembered. People knew the ship existed, and there were vague records about it, but no specifics. No one knew any names of the ship or the crew, only very general information.  And it wasn’t just facts either. The ship and crew were affected physically. Everyone who met them would forget them as soon as they were out of sight. They were invisible to spells and technology alike. It was as though they barely existed, and even then only when they were directly in front of someone. You could have an entire conversation with one, and the moment they were out of your immediate sight, you’d forget you ever saw them, along with everything you talked about. Even our enhanced Seosten memory couldn’t retain anything about them.”

“Hold on.” Avalon raised a hand, frowning. “If no one could ever remember actually talking to these people, how would anyone know anything about them? That doesn’t make sense. If your memories were always one-hundred percent erased, no one would know anything about it.” 

Apollo smiled faintly, giving a slight nod. “You’re right, that does seem like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it? See, Seosten memories are really hard to fool, and the crew of this ship were only half-affected by that spell. They’re ‘erased’ from our memories in the sense that we can’t consciously recall them, but the memories still exist. If we extract the right memories of those specific moments and examine them using magic, we can see what happened. Like…” He considered for a moment. “I know you’re a little young to have seen much in the way of human film projectors, but have you seen that thing where they take film and hold it up to the light to see individual images on each frame? It’s similar to that. When the memories are in our head, or the film is playing on the projector, we can’t retain it. But, if we take the memory out and hold it up to the light, or view it with a spell, we can see what happened. You understand?” 

“Uhh, yeah, actually.” A brief look with the others, I nodded along with them. “I think we get it. I mean, it makes sense in a magic way. So someone at some point checked their memory for whatever reason and that led to finding out about these ghost-Seosten or whatever they were.”  

“Pale,” Apollo corrected. “They were the Pale. Or rather, are. Yeah, it was a hundred thousand years ago, but we believe their descendants still exist, and are equally affected by that initial spell. They just stopped trying to interact with the regular universe and became incredibly insular. They stay on their ship, which they’ve upgraded over the millennia, travel where they want to go to collect food and supplies without anyone remembering them, and live separate from anyone else. They are, in effect, their own completely separate micro-society.” 

Dare spoke up then. “So this Occillo was supposed to know where the Pale Ship was. But you said it moves around a lot, that it’s still active.” She looked from Apollo to me. “So was he supposed to know where it used to be, or where it was going to go?”

“Supposedly he knew one of their common refueling and restocking spots,” I replied with a shrug. “According to Motzer, Occillo told him the Pale Ship used one main refueling depot whenever they could. He didn’t know exactly which one it was, but he had part of a journal from one of the crew members. And this crew member said something about marking a few specific spots in the main fuel depot the ship always used. There were descriptions about what kind of depot it was, the planets that were nearby, all that stuff. Plus the markings inside the depot. So Occillo tracked down all the possible places that would fit the descriptions and was checking out the insides looking for those markings. One of the options was the place where the pirates took this ship in the first place. That’s why Occillo was there, he hitched a ride on the ship from the first crew so he could check that place out. It just wasn’t the right one.” 

Squinting a bit, Dare shook her head. “Sounds a bit fishy, if you want to know the truth. This Occillo guy, a genius troll, finds a journal talking about how to find this long-lost mythical ship just by locating a few markings in a specific fuel depot somewhere? How could he be sure it wasn’t just some random guy making a fake journal to have a laugh at the expense of anyone who took  it seriously? What made Occillo or Motzer think there was anything credible about the thing?” 

Once more, the rest of us exchanged looks before turning back. Doug was the first to speak. “Apparently the journal pages he had came with a… what did they call it, memory marker?” 

“A spell on the page,” Apollo confirmed. “Touch it, say the right word, it puts a memory in your head.” 

“Well, this memory marker convinced Occillo and Motzer that this was the real deal,” I replied. “It was a memory of someone on that Pale Ship, looking around the bridge, then checking out the computer log and walking through some of the corridors. I guess it matched up enough with what they knew to take the whole thing seriously.” 

“We asked if that whole Pale Ship business had anything to do with the anti-Whisper runes that were all over this ship,” Shiori explained. “You know, if they were connected. Motzer said that Occillo was the one who put the runes around here, because the Whispers were looking for the Pale Ship too.” 

“He’s supposed to be some big adventurer chasing after intergalactic myths, like Space Indiana Jones or whatever,” I added. “Except Indiana Jones as a giant troll with a bunch of magical and cybernetic intelligent enhancements.” 

“In other words,” Shiori quickly piped up, “better Indiana Jones.” 

“Don’t say that around Hisao,” Dare murmured, “or you might have a fight on your hands. That man’s love of Harrison Ford, I swear to…” Shaking that off, she focused. “So he’s an explorer and adventurer who knows a lot about different myths across the universe, real and fake.” 

I nodded. “Yeah. He knew a lot of stuff about the Whispers, and said they were looking for the Pale Ship too. Apparently they also had a bone to pick with Occillo himself because of something he did a long time ago, but he wouldn’t get into it with Motzer.” 

“In any case,” Avalon finished for me. “He put the protective runes around the ship. So he’s the one we need to talk to if we want to find out anything more about the Whispers.” 

“And we do,” Doug immediately insisted. 

“And we do,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, that’s where we hit a snag.” With a sigh, I explained, “Motzer said he smuggled Occillo to some friend of his who lived on the trading hub. They were supposed to work together to track down that ship, but… that’s all he remembers. He thinks Occillo and his friend used some kind of bare-bones memory eraser that cut out details about who the friend was, what he looked like, where he lived on the station, all that. So he did all that to cut his crew out of the deal just to make himself rich, which meant that when his memory was erased no one else knew anything about it. He couldn’t tell his people about it or they’d know he was trying to rip them off. And he couldn’t explain why they had to stay longer so he could search the place top to bottom for the same reason. So they just had to leave. I mean, he asked around a bit but no one ever saw someone like Occillo there. He thinks there’s magical disguises involved, or maybe the troll just keeps to himself and plays dumb while he’s there. Easy for a troll to blend into the background pretending to be muscle for that friend of his. And that station holds millions of people. It’d be impossible to check everyone.” 

Dare summarized. “So Motzer helped this Occillo escape and smuggled him to a busy trading hub, but Occillo and a friend erased Motzer’s memory about who this friend was and where he lived, leaving our dear pirate captain with a station full of a million people to look through and no easy way to find them. I suppose that would be a problem.” 

I started to nod, then blinked. “Would be?” 

Apollo grinned. “Yeah, see, she didn’t know the whole story, but it turns out Gala paid more attention than Motzer thought. She followed them when he smuggled his new buddy off the ship. Made it all the way to the apartment and saw them go inside and meet this friend. They never saw her, so I guess they never wiped her memory. She didn’t know what it meant or why her captain was smuggling this guy around, but she made a note of it and started digging a little bit. Then all that stuff with Persephone happened before she could get anywhere with it.” 

“So… so she knows who Occillo’s friend on that station is, and where he lives?” Doug realized. 

“She does,” Apollo confirmed. “And now so do we. She shared that, along with about a dozen other possible sources of information. We didn’t know which one would be important. You guys narrowed that down, and got the answers about exactly who the guy was and why he’s important. Congratulations on that. I ahh, I’ll talk to Athena and see about having some of her people go track these guys down.”

“I want to go.” That was Doug, immediately piping up. “If these people know something about the Whispers–” 

“We’ll see what happens,” Dare informed him. “It’s not exactly a quick trip to the grocery store. Athena’s people have ways of getting past the barrier, but it’s– yeah, it’s complicated. Believe me, at the very least, we’ll talk to Sulan and get him involved. And when we find these guys, you can talk to them.”  

Doug looked like he was going to argue with that for a moment, before stopping with a soft sigh. “Yeah,” he murmured, “that’d be nice.” 

Dare’s voice was gentle. “It may take awhile to organize a group that can pass the barrier, go out to that station, find Occillo and his friend, and get actual answers. But we’ll get there, Douglas, I promise. And in the meantime, perhaps all of you can do the most shocking thing I believe any of us could possibly imagine. 

“Actually attend classes for a few weeks.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Reception 13-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Apparently the pirate ship we were transporting over to was called the Quietus. Persephone showed us a hologram of it just before we went through the portal, and the thing basically looked like a huge metal sperm whale. According to a quick note from Andromeda, the ship was two miles long, with most of the space intended to be used for hauling cargo. But when the pirates took over, they had converted a large portion of it into living space, creating encampments throughout the ship. 

There were supposed to be specific areas to teleport onto when you did something like this, according to Apollo. But we didn’t exactly follow that. Instead, the portal took us straight over to the bridge. Normally a big violation, but considering Persephone essentially owned this ship, and all the pirates were locked in their quarters, we weren’t really worried about it. 

All the pirates, that was, save for the captain. Dare had asked that he be waiting for us to answer questions when we got there. So, he was the first thing we saw as our group came through the portal. Not only because he was the only living being there, but also because he would have attracted attention anyway. He was nine feet tall, covered with incredibly silky metallic blue fur, and had four arms. Oh, and he had more than two legs. More than four, even. The man had a total of eight furry, insect-like legs spread in an even circle all around his waist. Sort of like a spider centaur. That whole nine-foot-tall thing came from the legs being at average rest. If he had extended them fully, he would have been a fair bit bigger. 

Once I’d taken in the sight of the captain waiting there, my gaze moved over the rest of the bridge. It was essentially a large, slightly rounded triangle with two levels. The half with the pointed end was lower, and seemed to be where the pilot and normal crew would work. We were on the rear upper half, where the captain and executive officers did their thing. 

Speaking of the captain, he lowered himself very slightly at the sight of us. Or rather, at the sight of Apollo. His voice was surprised as he managed, “Loxias.” Then he spoke a bit more in Latin. I’d gotten better at that with all the work I put into it, enough that I could tell he was saying he didn’t know that Apollo (or Loxias) would be coming. 

Without looking at the Seosten man, Dare asked, “You know this guy?”

“We had a run-in or two before,” Apollo confirmed before gesturing. “So, are you going to introduce yourself like a gentleman, or make me do it for you? Because I guarantee, you’ll like your introduction better. And say it so the Earth kids can understand.”

There was a low chuckle from the eight legged, blue-furred man. Then he dipped himself into what looked like a bow. “At your command. I am Captain Motzer. This ship is mine by right of combat, conquest, and survival. Or, it was, until…” His eyes moved over to where Persephone stood. “Until the immortal dead one showed up. And here I’m just hoping that you’ll be taking her off our hands so we can get back to doing what we do best.”

Was I hearing that Barbossa guy from Pirates of the Caribbean in his voice just because I sort of expected it, or did he really sound similar? Shaking off that thought, I looked over just as Theia piped up. “Are you related to one of your kind named Streckth?”

There was a brief pause while Motzer took in that question before giving a slight shake of his head. “Can’t say as it’s familiar, no.”

“Oh good,” the Seosten girl sighed with relief, “he was one of my friends.“

Clearly even more confused by that, the captain couldn’t help but ask, “And me knowing him would be a bad thing?”

“Uh huh,” came the response. “My mother killed all my friends. I didn’t want to have to tell you if you were his next of kin.” She paused a bit thoughtfully then, adding in a murmur, “I should probably start that sometime, it’s going to take a while.”

Clearing her throat, Dare spoke up. “Always good to have a reminder of why no one misses that evil cunt. But in the meantime, we should probably focus on why we are actually here.”

Doug, who had been standing silently out of the way, stepped over and leaned to whisper something into Theia’s ear. Whatever he said made her giggle before whispering something back to him. 

“You’re a very curious group,” Motzer noted. “Which, I guess, makes you the perfect fit for our very strange little not-quite-dead girl here. In fact, which one of you is Felicity Chambers?” 

I felt Avalon touch the center of my back, clearly about to whisper something. But before she could, and before anyone else could say anything, Persephone suddenly hopped over to me. Her hands found my shoulders and squeezed. “This is my honeybunny! Sorry, potential honeybunny. We’re… taking things slow and getting to know each other before we do anything else as far as any potential relationship goes.” Even if I hadn’t literally seen and heard my mother say those exact words to her, it would have been obvious she was reciting them. In fact, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see her reading off the back of her hand. 

“Uhhhh huh.” Motzer considered. “Well, you’re here now and free to do whatever with all that. So, you’re welcome for the ride, but don’t you think it’s time that me and the boys got back to our lives with our ship?”

“You mean, the ship you obviously stole from other people?” That was Avalon, idly making that point while stepping away from the console she had been curiously looking at. “You’re pirates. I really doubt you paid for this thing. How many people do you think you killed to take it?”

Giving another bow, the pirate captain too-casually retorted, “Far be it from me to ask for morality lessons from a Heretic. That’s what your people call themselves, isn’t it? Yeah, I’ve had friends and even family that learned just how much your people value the sanctity of life.”

Dare spoke flatly while moving in front of the captain. ”We’re trying to change things. But, to do that, we need resources. Especially if…” she trailed off, glancing over to me and then back again. 

“Especially,” Apollo finished for her, “if my people decide to pull the invasion card once the truce is over.”

Brightening, Theia nodded quickly. “Oooh, yeah. With a ship like this, we could evacuate a whole bunch of people and go find a new planet before they even get halfway through enslaving the rest of—”

She was interrupted as Doug touched her arm and leaned over to whisper. Blinking at that, she looked at him and asked, “Are you sure? That seems kinda dumb. I mean, do you even know how many ships—” Doug whispered again, and she finally shrugged. “Or, you know, we can use it to fight them. Somehow. Which is not at all idiotic or crazy or doomed to total and complete failure.” 

“That unending optimism is exactly why we keep this girl around,” Doug announced while putting his arm around Theia’s shoulders. 

“She’s not wrong,” I put in. “Err, of course, we do need to be ready to try. But it’s definitely going to be pretty bad if it comes down to that. Which is why we need every single advantage we can get. And this thing right here might not totally change anything. But it’s an advantage. It’s one more arrow in our quiver, or whatever poetic reasoning you want to use.”

Motzer was shaking his head. I could tell he really wasn’t happy about any of this talk. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. Persephone had taken over his ship against his entire crew, and now she was here with several Heretics and an Olympian. Through gritted teeth, he demanded, “You steal a ship from pirates, what do you think that makes you?”

Shiori, who had been quiet through all that, piped up with, “I’m pretty sure that makes us better pirates.”

Dare, however, shook her head. “What we are is representatives from the closest thing this planet has to an authority capable of interacting and dealing with interplanetary criminals. You know, like pirates. So, we’ll commandeer the ship and put it to better use.”

“And what of my crew and I, huh?” Motzer demanded. “Will you be killing us yourselves, or just marooning us down on that hell hole of a planet and letting the less ‘civilized’ members of your old groups do the dirty work for you? On the one hand, if you kill us yourselves, you can take our strengths. It would involve killing helpless prisoners, but hey, every possible advantage, isn’t that right? On the other hand, if you just strand us on that planet, you get to pretend your hands are clean.”

Apollo snorted. “Don’t be so dramatic. We’re not going to kill you. And we’re not stranding you on Earth either.”

Running a finger through her hair, Dare put in, “If nothing else, I don’t particularly want to be responsible for all the people you and your crew would kill carving out a place for yourselves down there. Believe me when I say, none of us are dumb enough to think that any of you are helpless.”

Changing tack a bit, the captain asked, “Do you really think you have enough people who can keep this ship flying without help? Especially if you’re right and things go bad. How many people do you have who could even find their way to battle stations?”

“You’d be surprised,” Apollo replied. He didn’t point out that we had a lot of people like that who were part of Athena‘s group and could step in. There was no reason to volunteer that sort of information. 

Instead, Andromeda spoke up, her voice rising from one of the nearby consoles. “I am more than capable of maintaining this vessel for the time being, and instructing others in its operation.”

“She’s a really great teacher,” Persephone excitedly informed us. “She showed me how to make a welcome us to Earth cake and it only took fourteen tries before it was good. Oh, and we have thirteen not so good cakes if anyone wants them.”

Coughing, Dare pushed the subject back. “The point is, we’re not going to kill you, or let you wander around our planet.“

Motzer tilted his head curiously. “Well, that seems to put us at an impasse, doesn’t it? I can’t really think of any other options. You’re taking our ship, so either you kill us yourselves or you send us down to the planet. Just depends on how dirty you want your hands to be.”

Persephone quickly raised her hand. “Oh, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty! I did that all the time when my Mannybear or Puriel needed help.” 

A slight shudder ran through me. I really didn’t want to think about what kind of special work those two had had someone like her doing. So, I hurriedly shook my head. “That’s okay, Persephone, I don’t think we need that sort of help right now. We’ve already got something else in mind, right?” 

Apollo gave a casual nod. “Yup. See, one of those Heretic groups, the one called Eden’s Garden, a bunch of their people are part of this whole rebellion. They’ve got some colonies on other worlds and moons that they’ve been setting up for a long time. Turns out, they’ve got a little jungle moon that’s totally inhabitable, but they already pulled everyone off it to help with things back here.”

Dare added, “They’ve already agreed to let us store prisoners there. So, we’ll send you to that moon and you can stay there. You’ll have food, water, anything else to survive. But you won’t be hurting other people. Unless you all turn on yourselves, and that’s up to you.”

Motzer obviously wasn’t happy. His eyes narrowed as he glared our way, clearly trying to find a way out of this. “You think that’ll be the end of it? Well, let’s get one thing straight, whatever little games you play right now, this won’t end here. You might think you’re pretty tough, but you won’t always have the advantage like this. Someday, I—”

Abruptly, before he could even finish that sentence, Theia produced a knife from her belt and casually slit her own throat. But, of course, she rebounded the damage so that it actually struck the pirate captain. Blood erupted from his throat, and his eyes got wide. He choked and gurgled, flailing a bit before collapsing to the ground. His body twitched a few times before going still.

Recoiling as Shiori did the same beside me, I felt a rush of conflicting feelings that the others obviously shared. The man had been a prisoner, a prisoner. Yet he’d also obviously done a lot of bad things. And he’d made it clear he wouldn’t have let this go. He couldn’t even pretend to play nice long enough to get out of a single meeting without starting to swear vengeance. He obviously would have been a problem in the future. And yet, killing a prisoner like that right in front of us… I was torn. I wouldn’t have done the same thing, but now that it was done, I… yeah, it was complicated. 

Meanwhile, Theia looked up after stowing the knife to see everyone staring at her. “What? He was swearing eternal revenge, or whatever. You never let someone finish doing that and then just walk away. Haven’t any of you read the Overlord pamphlet Apollo passed out?”

“See?” Apollo himself cheerfully noted in a way that seemed almost artificial, like he was trying to lighten the mood after that, “Chayyiel and I knew somebody would read the pamphlet.” 

Pointing at the Seosten girl, Persephone announced, “I like her. She’s efficient.”

“She’s certainly that,” Dare agreed before shaking her head. “Right, well, let’s get this body cleaned up and then take that tour of this ship. 

“And we should probably find whoever his first mate was, congratulate them on their promotion, and tell them what we just told this guy.”

******

So, we took the tour to see how the ship looked. We were going to have to do a lot of work cleaning up the pirate camps spread throughout what were supposed to be the cargo bays, but that would come later, after we sent the pirates themselves to their new home.

Speaking of which, the former first mate and now captain turned out to be a rabbit-like humanoid with reddish orange fur and a very clearly cybernetic left eye. Her name was Gala, like the party. She also didn’t seem all that broken up about the death of her captain, considering she was the first mate. I wondered what kind of relationship the two of them had had. 

In any case, Gala also took the news about their impending new home in stride. Something told me that she was the type of person to bide her time and wait for an opportunity to reverse her fortunes. Which was not all that far off from what Motzer had been saying, but at least she was smart enough to be quiet about it. Besides, we couldn’t just keep killing every pirate down the line every time we thought they might be planning something.

Gala also did something that the old captain hadn’t gotten around to. Namely, negotiate what supplies her people would get. 

“It’s going to take time to establish ourselves on this colony enough to survive on what we can forage and hunt,” The rabbit-woman was pointing out while we all walked through the positively enormous main engine room (seriously, the place was about three hundred feet long and about three-quarters of that wide). “If you truly do not wish to be responsible for many deaths, we will need more than just the clothes on our backs.”

Dare’s voice was casual. “Don’t worry, I spent the first few years of my life as a colonist. And I’ve seen a lot more since then. I know just how bad it can be when you don’t have supplies.”

“Luckily,” Apollo noted, “most of that old colony is still intact. They’ve already got food planted, and some livestock that were being watched over by a couple guys they left behind. But now, those guys can come home and you’ll just take over. From pirates to farmers. Or whatever it is you end up becoming. Either way, there’s a story there…” He trailed off thoughtfully, clearly already getting ideas. 

They went on to talk a bit more about that, but I was distracted by the big dog head that was pulling at my arm. We’d picked up Cerberus along the way on this tour, and Persephone had been hanging back with him a bit, excitedly and quietly telling the mechanical animal all about everything that happened since she landed on the planet.

“Hey buddy, yeah, I remember.” Back when we’d sent Cerberus back up here, I had promised the dog that I’d let him meet my own cybernetic animals when we visited. So, I produced Gus and Jaq, holding the mice up so the three canine heads could examine them. The little guys were nervous at first, but before long, they were clambering over the different heads, jumping back-and-forth while chittering. Pretty soon, Avalon let Porthos join in. 

They were having a grand old time, and we trailed behind the adults to let them work out the specifics of this whole situation. At least, until a shout from Doug, who stood next to one of the big, completely incomprehensible pieces of machinery that filled the room. 

In an instant, everyone was right there. Doug had his hand on the side of the machine, which looked basically like three big tubes filled with liquid attached to several metal accordions they kept pumping in and out. Theia stood next to him. 

“Mr. Frey, what is it?” Dare asked, her voice tense. “What happened?”

In answer, the boy moved his hand to reveal a series of runes that were inscribed on the side of that bit of machinery. “Those are the same things that we used to keep the Whispers out of our heads, the spells Sulan and I found.”

The Whispers, of course, were those invisible beings who drove all those people back on the colony world where Doug’s family had lived violently crazy as soon as Doug and Sulan had accidentally released them, or whatever. The spells were found in the same ruins, and ended up being useful for keeping someone safe from the Whispers. And, I remembered, the spells didn’t keep a Seosten out of someone’s head, but did allow the person being possessed to retain control of their body as well. Someone possessed by a Seosten while wearing those spells could move their body at the same time as the Seosten did, and couldn’t just be knocked unconscious or suppressed.  

“Those?” Gala had cleaned in close to look for herself. “Those things are all over the ship. They were there when we… ahhh… upgraded from our old one awhile back. Never did figure out what they meant or why they were there. But like I said, they’re all over the ship.”

“Who’d you take the ship from?” I quickly asked, with a glance to the others. Doug was still staring at the runes there on the machine as though he’d seen a ghost. “And did you leave any alive that we could maybe talk to at some point?”

Gala shrugged. “Didn’t really take the time to get a lot of names and identifications. We hit them at a refueling depot. Basically limped what was left of our old ship in and boarded the whole thing. Left the survivors there. I figure they called someone to pick them up at some point. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.”

Andromeda spoke up from a small console attached to the side of the machine. “They have done a very thorough job of erasing all specific mention of previous owners of the ship, and any logs there might’ve been. I will continue to search through everything that remains, if you like, but that will take quite a bit of time.”

“If it helps,” Gala slyly offered, “I can tell you everything about where that fueling station was, and anything else I can remember that might help you figure out why those runes are there. You know, in exchange for just a few concessions to make the transition for the crew and me as painless as possible. Things like certain crates of sweets and alcohol that we get to take with us, or pieces of entertainment. It’s in your own best interest anyway. Makes it come off as more of a vacation so you won’t get as much pushback.” 

Dare and Apollo exchanged brief glances before the latter gave a short nod and stepped away with Gala to arrange specifics. 

Shiori had stepped up to look at the engraved rune by that point, head shaking. “Why do you think the same anti-Whisper spell things are here on this ship?”

Doug had an intense look on his face. “I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing. I really want to talk to whoever was left back on that fuel station.”

“Why don’t you ask Captain Motzer?” Persephone asked. “He might know more about the ship he was captain of.”

“Uhhh, you were paying attention when Theia killed him, right?” Shiori asked. “She didn’t exactly half-ass that job.”

“I am very thorough,” Theia agreed. 

Persephone gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. He’s dead. But why should that stop you from talking to him?” Raising her hand, she pointed straight at me, even as the realization had just risen in my own head. 

“You have a necromancer.”

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Reception 13-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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With one quick little bound, Cerberus was right in front of Avalon, Shiori, and me. Then he–or they, I was still confused about that, started to excitedly lick us. Yeah, all of us at the same time. Three heads, three people to lick. The tongues were as metallic as the rest of them, though there was some kind of lubricating liquid that… yeah, there was fake dog slobber, and it was getting all over us. 

“Oookay, okay, hi!” Pulling my face out of range with a few coughs mixed with a giggle, I put both hands on the side of the head that had chosen to focus on me. “Nice to meet you too, I guess.” Still holding the head while it happily barked so loud at me it was almost painful, I looked toward Persephone. “So he’s your pet, huh? Wait, is it he or they? You know, three heads, one body.” 

Avalon, who had already stepped back away from the head that had been licking her, nodded. Her voice was flat. “What she said. Also, why do you have a three-headed robot dog?” After asking that, she extended her hand and gave the head in front of her a little rub under the chin that made him happy.

Answering Valley first, Persephone chirped, “Why not? Who wouldn’t want to have a three-headed robot dog?” To me, she added, “And he’s he. All three of them are he.” Taking a step that way, she brought her hand down to pat his black metal side a couple times. “One cybernetic brain, three heads. Multitasking.” 

Shiori, who was still giggling and rubbing at the head that was licking her face, turned a bit so she could talk. “He’s really friendly!” 

Smiling slightly at that sight, I turned my attention back to Persephone. “I think what Avalon was asking was where he came from. How did you get him? Who built him, and why? And how did you end up having him instead? Did he belong to Manakel like the myths?” I had more questions than that, of course. But that was a good place to start. Carefully, I reached out and followed Avalon’s lead by rubbing under the chin of the head nearest me. He seemed to like that, just like Vulcan enjoyed having his chin scratched. Both were metal, so I had no idea what they were feeling, if anything.

“Nope! Not exactly.” Shaking her head, Persephone explained, “He was built to kill my Manakel, actually. You know, metal so he couldn’t possess him. Special ghost-killing weapons so he could fight anything Manakel summoned. And–” 

“Wait,” I blurted, “What do you mean, special ghost-killing weapons?” 

“Oh, like this.” With that, Persephone ordered, “Cerberus, ghosthunt!” 

As soon as she said that, all three dog heads bared their teeth and growled. Their fangs lit up with glowing blue-white flames. A moment later, ten different small holes appeared along his back, five on each side. From each of those holes, metal coils emerged with a laser cannon and camera attached. The coils were flexible, able to point in any direction.

“Snakes,” Avalon muttered softly from beside me as we watched the weapons snap from position to position to check for threats. “They said Cerberus had snakes growing out of his back. I guess venomous snakes are easier to explain than cannons attached to tentacles.”

“That’s ghost-fire, isn’t it?” Shiori spoke up, gesturing to the flames billowing around the dog’s mouths. 

“Sorta!” Persephone confirmed. “It’s an artificial recreation his creators made. Does the same thing, lets him bite through spirits and intangible things. And his laser cannons help destroy a lot of zombies really fast.” 

“Because he was made to kill Manakel,” I murmured, shaking my head before pausing. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. “You know who a giant dog that could use three different heads to eat ghosts and rip through zombies with a bunch of independently aimed laser cannons would’ve been super-fucking useful to use against?” After getting a couple emphatic nods from the others, I added, “But who managed to make something like this specifically to target Manakel? And how did he end up switching sides?” 

Andromeda spoke up from my phone. Her voice, now that I had listened to it a little bit, was somewhat clipped and short, yet polite. It sounded almost like someone doing the accent of a proper English woman, but not quite the same. She would pause almost imperceptibly every few words. “That would be my doing, actually. I held no particular affection toward the man myself, but Percy was fond of him. So, I fixed the issue. My ability allows me to control technology. It required a bit of effort and rolled up sleeves, but was well worth it in the end. Cerberus is very loyal to his mistress and her friends. He makes for a quite effective guard. And a not-terrible companion during the times when Percy must be off on her own adventures.”

I still had a lot of questions about, well, all of that. But a different pressing one came to mind as I stared at this three-headed dog, with tentacle laser cannons, that was about as tall at the shoulder as I was. “You said this was his small form? First, how exactly does he have two forms? And second, how big is the other one?”

That time, it was Persephone who answered, sounding excited. “He has two different bodies! The one he’s not using gets transferred inside a dimensional pocket while he shifts into the other one. And the second body is… you know Amaroks?”

Coughing, I confirmed, “We’re familiar, yeah. So, you’re saying he’s as big as—”

“They look like his puppies!” Persephone interrupted. “You have to see him when he’s big. He gives even better licks!” Even as she said that, the white-haired woman was launching herself that way to hug the mechanical canine around the side. One of his heads turned that way to sniff at her, and she giggled. 

Shiori had moved next to me by then and whispered, “Can you picture her spending time with Manakel?”

Before I could respond, Andromeda’s voice emerged once again from my phone. “They were quite the odd couple, that is for certain. But, I do believe that she will be better off around more positive influences.”

“Okay, seriously,” Avalon put in, “Who are you, exactly? You said you have the power to control technology and you were being imprisoned until Persephone saved you? Oh, and Sachael was annoyed about that.”

“He tried to stop it, yes. And he failed. There was some drama around that fact.” Pausing briefly then, Andromeda’s voice took on a quiet tone. “I was locked in a Seosten lab and treated as a science experiment, as you would say, for a long time. I owe my freedom to Percy. As for who I am, I am Andromeda. You would consider me an artificial intelligence, but there is as much magic as technology in my existence.”

That made me do a double-take, staring down at my phone. “You’re an AI?”

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “Yes, of a sort. But, I have been consuming your media about those like me, and I assure you that I have no desire to either build an army of terminator machines, nor put all biological beings into little pods to use as batteries. And if so, I certainly wouldn’t do anything as energy-inefficient as providing elaborate virtual reality simulations.”

“Uhhh, great, I guess.” Unsure of what to say to something like that, I focused on Persephone briefly. “Hey, when you showed up and, uhh, splattered that thing, you fell out of the sky. And there was that whole thing about Cerberus being sent down. So, umm, where did you both come down from, exactly?”

Pivoting on her heel to face me, Persephone brightly answered, “From the pirate ship, of course!”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I managed a weak, “From the pirate ship, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvio—what pirate ship?”

So, Persephone told us about how she had been tracking down a special object for Manakel yet again, and had found it on some pirate spaceship. Then she got the word about his death and commandeered the ship to make them bring her here to Earth, so she could meet me. Apparently, they were still up there somewhere, using an invisibility field to stay hidden. It was the same thing the pirates used to ambush passing ships.

“Oh,” she added, “and we stopped long enough to pick up Cerberus and Andromeda, of course! I couldn’t meet my new wife without my best friend and my puppy!”

I felt like I needed to sit down for a minute, but equally knew that wouldn’t help. So, I pushed on. “What you’re saying is that there is a whole ship full of pirates, wait, space pirates, up there right now? Are you sure nothing’s going to go wrong?”

The answer came from Andromeda. “I am controlling every part of their ship, from its propulsion, to its weapons, doors, life support, and food heating appliances. If they manage to cause trouble anyway, they will have earned it. At the moment, they are sequestered in their quarters or the crew villages they have established, and I have sent an assortment of Earth entertainment videos for them to peruse. That should keep them occupied for the time being.”

Okay, clearly the world wasn’t done sending weird things at me today. Now, all of a sudden, there was a cloaked pirate ship in orbit, full of probably bloodthirsty buccaneers who were being distracted by what amounted to Netflix or YouTube by a friendly Artificial Intelligence, who in turn owed a life-debt to a Revenant-Possessed dead Seosten who thought she was married to me. I just… I couldn’t… I… yeah. Wow. My life had been a lot for a long time, but seriously. Not for the first time, I wondered how I would have handled all the stuff being thrown at me over the past year without the ridiculous stamina boost that I had gotten from the Amarok. It really was one of my most useful powers when you got right down to it. 

Physically shaking all that off, I focused on looking at Cerberus and Persephone. “Okay, we should probably get someone to go up with us to check out this ship and do something about those pirates. I don’t know if they’re good or bad, or if they’re vicious killers or…  yeah, we need to go through them and figure out what to do with all that.” 

Shiori, of course, pumped both fists in the air. “We’re going on another spaceship! I don’t care how much it happens, I’ll never get tired of that! And meeting space pirates? Dude, being around you so much is the best.” With that, she latched on to hug me tightly. 

I returned it and sniffed her hair briefly before glancing over to where Persephone was watching. She didn’t seem jealous or anything, just curious. It actually made me wonder how much open affection she had ever gotten from Manakel. Somehow, he didn’t strike me as the type. But, of course, I could’ve been wrong. After all, I hadn’t exactly seen him in casual situations. 

Finally, using one hand to stroke Shiori’s hair, I announced, “Right, I guess we’re doing that now.

“Let’s see who wants to go tour a pirate spaceship with us.” 

*********

Eventually, the group that ended up going to this pirate ship amounted to myself, Shiori, Avalon, Apollo, Doug, Theia, and Dare. My mother had a thing with some of the Atherby clan people that I didn’t want to interrupt. Not after they’d lost her for so much longer than even I had. 

We were back up on the Starstation by that point, waiting for Persephone and Andromeda (Cerberus had been sent back to the pirate ship already) to talk Dare and Apollo through setting up a transport portal over to the ship. 

Of course, technically, we could have had the thing dock here on the station. It just would have required creating a portal in one of the gigantic docking bays that was large enough for the ship to pass through. But not only would that require a hell of a lot of magical power on short notice, the adults also didn’t want to bring that ship in until they saw for themselves that it was safe. Which meant looking the whole thing over, and going through all of the pirate crew to find out just how bad they really were. 

While waiting for them to work with all that, I had stepped aside and sent a message to Tabbris saying I needed to tell her something important. So, a moment later, I felt her presence. She wasn’t fully recalling, just linking herself to me. Her voice was curious in the back of my mind. Heya, Flick. What’s goi–I left you alone for five minutes and you’re married?!?

Yeah, she had definitely read my surface thoughts. Wincing, I quickly opened up my mind to let her know everything that was actually going on and how exactly it had happened. I take it your mom hasn’t talked to you yet? 

After taking all that in, Tabbris’s voice sounded a bit sheepish. I uhh, I’m working on something secret, with Columbus and Nevada. I guess I’ve been really busy. I’m so–

Don’t you dare apologize, I interrupted. It’s okay. It’s great. It’s fantastic. You’ve got your own things. 

Weeeelll, technically it’s something for you, came the response. It’s a present. And a surprise! You don’t get to know what it is yet! You don’t get to know anything about it yet! I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget I said anything. You have to be surprised. 

With a small, inward smile, I assured her, I promise I will be surprised, whatever it is. And you’re getting help from Columbus and Nevada, huh? Well, color me intrigued. 

She responded with a sort of mental kick. Are you sure you’re going to be okay going to that ship? What if there’s a monster over there? What if the whole thing is a trap? What if there’s a malfunction and it jumps to another universe? Maybe I should tell these guys to wait, and come over.

My head physically shook in the real world, pointless as that was. Tabs, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, really. You do your thing and I’ll see the surprise when it’s done. And once we’re sure the pirate ship is safe, you and I can look it over. And you can meet Persephone in person. 

I can’t believe you didn’t even invite me to be a flower girl at the wedding, Tabbris teased. Or the ring bearer! Wait, Marian should be the ring bearer. The ring foxer. 

Flushing deeply, I gave her a mental swat and reminded her again that I wasn’t actually married. Not that that was going to stop her or anyone else from giving me shit about it until the end of time, of course. The two of us silently talked a little bit more, the other girl making sure I really was doing okay with everything, despite the teasing. Finally, she said that Columbus and Nevada needed her, but made me promise again to let her see the pirate ship and meet Persephone later. And Cerberus. She made it very clear that she wanted to meet Cerberus. 

Then she withdrew from my mind, and I glanced over to see Theia and Persephone looking each other up and down with obvious curiosity. The Seosten girl was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat. I was pretty sure she rarely took it off ever since he told her she could keep it even after she and Pace were separated. The two of them had become pretty good friends over the summer. And apparently that had continued throughout the time that I was gone. 

Still staring intently at Persephone, Theia asked, “You knew Manakel before he was so grumpy?” 

“Oh, he was always a little grumpy,” came the cheerful response. “But he definitely got a lot grumpier in the past couple centuries…” Trailing off thoughtfully, the woman finally added, “He was mad at me for a while at first because I took over this body and he was sad that he couldn’t save her. But then I helped and he liked me a little more. He kept sending me away, but when I was there, he was pretty nice to me. He taught me stuff about medicine and his family. I think he got sad again when I was there too much, because he’d send me away. But he always called me back and let me in when I found him again. I just had to give him some breaks.”

“So hang on,” Doug spoke up, rubbing a hand over the Seattle Mariners cap he was wearing. I was pretty sure it was also enchanted, just like the Rangers hat. “You said Manakel started being nicer to you or whatever for a while, but in the past couple centuries he got mean again?”

Persephone gave a little shrug. “He sent me away a lot more, and he didn’t tell me stories anymore. Before, when I was there and he wasn’t sad, he would tell me about all sorts of things from his past. He liked telling those stories. Or he used to. But in the last couple centuries, he didn’t do that anymore. Even when I was there and he wasn’t sending me away, he barely talked to me. And before, he made reasons for me to go do other things when he got too sad, but then it was more like he was making up excuses. He wasn’t sad, he was… anxious. Like he wanted to do stuff but couldn’t because I was there. Which was silly, because I’d never stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.”

Well, that was curious. And maybe a little suspicious. But then again, it was also possible that he’d just become more short-tempered in his old age and decided he didn’t want to play nice with her anymore.

While I was considering that, Theia gave a slow nod. “My father took me away from my mother’s tests. He said she wouldn’t kill any more of my friends, and that he was going to send me to his friend. He said I could learn a lot from him. But Manakel didn’t really want to teach me very much. He just told me what to do. My father said that Manakel liked to tell lots of stories. But he didn’t tell me stories.”

Yeah, that was definitely a whole complicated thing. Maybe something had been up with Manakel. After all, we did know for a fact that there was an incredibly powerful figure out there corrupting and controlling Seosten. Maybe Godfather had gotten to him? But to what end? I had no idea, and there wasn’t enough evidence to say one way or another. Just because he’d been different over the past couple centuries and didn’t like to share stories anymore wasn’t exactly proof positive. Still, it was something to think about. 

Avalon and I exchanged glances that made it clear we were both thinking the same thing. Then she turned that way to ask Theia, “Your father really said Manakel would teach you? When he said that, was he being nice or subtly menacing?”

Theia, of course, just blinked at her. “I think he was being nice. But then again, subtly menacing was nice compared to Mother’s total revulsion and loathing.”

Sometimes I definitely needed the reminder that I’d had a really good life compared to a lot of people. When I thought of the things someone like Theia had been put through just based on the fact that she was born with a disability, it made me want to bring Kushiel’s ghost back just so she could see how much better her daughter was doing without her. Not to mention taking a detour to show her how much Sariel was enjoying being with her entire family, including the girl she had snuck out of Kushiel’s facility right from under her nose. 

Yeah, there were definitely about a million things wrong with that thought. At least. Still, it came up now and then before I pushed it away. I wasn’t going to reach out for any ghosts of my dead enemies just to gloat at them. I wasn’t quite that dumb.

In this case, I dismissed the thought just in time for Apollo to straighten up from the magic teleport spell he had been drawing on the floor along with Dare. “Right,” he announced, “it should be good now. Who’s ready to go see a pirate ship?”

Straightening up as well, Dare looked at me. Our gazes met, and there was a brief moment of silent communication that made it clear she wanted to talk later when we had a little privacy. Probably about the whole Persephone thing, because she couldn’t exactly give me grandmotherly advice in public without raising more questions than we or the spell wanted to deal with.

After giving her a subtle nod, I turned back to the others. “Well, I’m definitely ready. But I do have a very important question before we go through that portal. 

“Did anyone try to call Blackbeard? Because doing this without him feels like it should be against the law.”

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Promise And Peril 11-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It wasn’t exactly a pleasant stroll to get back to the ship, even with everyone we had. The Fomorians had clearly had a long time to build up their forces on this planet, and it seemed like they were sending every fucking ground unit they had at us. Any hope I’d had that whatever was going on above us in orbit would distract the monsters enough for us to slip in and out had vanished a long time ago, of course, but still. This was pretty ridiculous. They were obsessed with taking us down. 

Worse, we still couldn’t just teleport back, thanks to whatever was blocking transportation powers. Sariel was pretty sure it had been seeded recently in the atmosphere by the Fomorians ahead of our arrival, possibly because of whoever those ships they were fighting belonged to. Whatever the reason, we had to resort to taking the long way.

We moved in a wedge formation. Mom, Deveron, and Lillian were at the front, with Kohaku and Elisabet down one side and Haiden and Larissa down the other. Jophiel was on the stretcher that had been summoned, being carried by Dexamene and Shiori so the adults could focus on fighting. Meanwhile, Avalon and I (with Tabbris riding shotgun within me once more) were backing up Kohaku and Elisabet on the left wing, as Vanessa and Tristan backed up their father and Larissa on the right. Sariel was bringing up the rear, working both to cover our retreat and help thin out the herds with her long range shots. 

Which also, I couldn’t help but notice, worked to keep Mom and Sariel as far away from each other as possible through this whole thing. I was pretty sure that wasn’t an accident. 

But in any case, despite any lingering issues they had and despite everything the Fomorian monsters threw at us, we made steady progress. We weren’t exactly sticking around to fight everything, of course. We were mostly just charging straight through, punching a hole in the Fomorian line and rushing onward. Like they’d already said, there was no way to save the Meregan world from this occupation. Much as it made me physically ill to think of these poor people getting the shaft again, there was literally nothing we could do about it, or for them. 

Instead, we just had to keep going. Jophiel was still completely out of it. She moved now and then, muttered something that took Elisabet’s attention or just groaned (which also drew brief looks from Elisabet), but nothing coherent. Whatever the Fomorian had hit her with was keeping her down and out of the fight. And, for some reason, she wasn’t just possessing Elisabet to avoid the poison effect. I just hoped that, whatever the full problem was, we could deal with it once we were somewhere safer, without a horde of incomprehensible nightmares lunging out of the sand at us. 

Not that the nightmares were all entirely against us. Elisabet had also brought what remained of her own co-opted monsters and sent them ahead to take the brunt of the damage. That was one of the things that allowed us to progress as quickly as we were. Another was the fact that every time I saw (or felt) one of the monsters die, I sent a burst of necromancer-energy into the thing with a single command to attack any other monsters around it. They didn’t tend to last long before being ripped apart, but it was a bit of a distraction. It helped slow our attackers down just a little more, and every second they wasted focusing on their already-dead companions was another second we could keep running. 

So yeah, between Elisabet and me, we helped turn some of the enemy force against itself. Between that and the fact that my mother and the rest of the adults around us were really good at killing things that got in their way, we made progress.  

In any case, those next few minutes were basically a completely incomprehensible blur. I killed a few more things and sent more dead things to kill their former allies, but mostly I just ran. There was blood and gore everywhere, all from things that tried to block us, things that tried to capture us. No one was taking the time to make this a real fight. They–we were just killing and running, killing and running. It was like throwing a bunch of animals in a woodchipper and then sprinting through the haze that filled the air. 

It was the stuff of nightmares, but I didn’t have time to think about such things. All I could do, all any of us could do, was shove it aside and try not to worry about what our dreams that night would be like. Step one was surviving long enough to have dreams. Then we’d fret about details.

There, there it was. The ship. I never thought I’d be so fucking happy to see a simple tube of metal. It was sitting there, still surrounded by monsters. But Athena and Sachael were dealing with the bulk of them. It looked like the others had already run onboard, leaving the two Olympians standing by the ramp to keep it clear enough for the rest of us. And boy were they doing a good job of that. 

I’d already seen what Athena could do, of course. When I’d first met her, she had completely destroyed a small army of Radueriel’s troops without even pulling Excalibur from its sheath. Then chased the man himself off just by putting her hand on the hilt. She was a certified badass, and calling her a war goddess had not been exaggeration on Apollo’s part whatsoever. And right now was no different. She wasn’t using Excalibur (actually, I wasn’t exactly sure who had that sword at the moment), but had one of those Seosten laser swords instead, along with some kind of enchanted shield. Not that she seemed to need Arthur’s personal weapon to slaughter everything in sight. There were so many dead creatures surrounding her that it was hard to see the woman herself. She was basically a whirling dervish of death. That woodchipper analogy I’d used earlier? Yeah, she was the real one. Nothing got within twenty feet of the ship and survived.

But then there was Sachael. I had never seen him in action, given I’d just barely met the man. He, of course, had been Poseidon. God of the oceans, named because he was one of the most powerful hydrokinetics in the universe. But we were in the middle of an enormous desert. That should have meant he was all-but useless as far as his power went, right? After all, what exactly was a man whose entire thing revolved around controlling water going to do in a desert? 

As it turned out, quite a fucking bit. Bodybuilder Santa was standing right at the bottom of the ramp. Dark clouds had filled the air high above, and rain was–well, it wasn’t quite pouring. It was barely a drizzle, probably all that even his power could summon to this place. But that wasn’t the point. No, the point wasn’t the water, it was the rest of what came with a storm. Namely, the wind and the lightning. At a gesture from the man’s left hand, a miniature tornado tore down from the sky, lifted half a dozen monsters into the air, and catapulted them off into the distance. A sharp sweep of that same hand sent three more whirlwinds to catch half the visible creatures between us and the ship, collecting all of them into one group. And once they were there, pummeled and tossed by the wind into a single location, Sachael brought his other hand down in one swift gesture. That motion brought down the biggest, loudest bolt of lightning I’d ever seen in my life. It was like the finger of a god, colliding with the stack of monstrosities with so much force that the concussive force nearly knocked me off my feet. I was briefly deafened by the thunder that echoed off of it. And as for the monsters? There was nothing but charred remains left. Charred remains which were immediately blasted to either side in order to make a path by two more gusts of wind. 

But he wasn’t done yet. Thrusting both hands forward, the powerful Seosten brought down a double line of more lightning bolts leading up toward where we were, a dozen on each side with a roughly fifteen-foot space between them. They all came down one after another, hitting like a series of bombs dropped from a passing jet. Almost thirty bolts all-told. Not as powerful as the main one he’d used a moment earlier, but still enough to utterly destroy everything they hit. 

With that opening, he created another series of whirlwinds. But these were different. I could see frost and snow collecting within them, little shards of ice being whipped around in a circle. Those ice shards within the whirlwinds were spinning fast enough that they cut through chunks of the next set of approaching monsters as the twisters were sent that way. 

And with those ice-filled tornadoes, the man dug an enormous trench all along either side of the path he had cleared for us, leaving two huge pits. Digging out all that sand served two purposes, of course. First, it left holes the monsters had to find a way over or around. And, just as importantly, the sand that was torn up into the tornadoes themselves served to block the monsters from seeing us, creating a shield wall of sorts on top of the ravines. A shield wall consisting of bone-crushing wind filled with ice shards and sand, both of which were being spun and propelled fast enough to sheer through bone. 

On top of everything else, that light rain I’d noticed had turned into a thick fog, covering the air above us and filling in the space behind as we passed through. Just to make it even harder for the things to keep track of us. 

Yeah, I… I was starting to see why Poseidon was considered to be part of the Olympian leadership alongside Hades and Zeus. Which, come to think of it, begged the question of just what sort of damage was Puriel capable of if he was the guy who had been in charge? 

Actually, considering he was still supposed to be a pretty nasty guy, I was hoping I wouldn’t find out. Not really counting on it, given my track record, but still hoping. 

Either way, the path was clear now. And we took advantage, sprinting all-out to reach the ship. There were more of the unending waves of monsters falling in toward us from all sides, but they wouldn’t get through the ice-and-sand whirlwinds in time. Waved onward by Athena while Sachael continued to cover the area all around the ship to keep them back, we ran straight up the ramp. It was long-past time to get the hell off this planet. Especially given I was pretty sure the longer we stayed, the more of their ground forces the Fomorians could point at us. This was one war of attrition we would never win. No, it was definitely time to get the fuck out of Dodge. 

The second we were aboard, Athena followed and Sachael followed us on. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw the man toss what looked like a canteen onto the ground. He just left it there, lying on its side in the sand as the door closed. Apollo, already in the pilot’s seat, called out to find a seat even as he was hitting the controls to lift off. So there wasn’t time to ask about it. 

Instead, I fairly dove for the nearest seat and buckled myself in. All around me, the others were doing the same. I could feel the ship shake and shudder as things hit it from either side. These things were all over us. They leapt up to the ship from the ground, and fell out of the sky to land on top of it. They were going to rip the thing apart to get to the juicy insides (us) before we could go anywhere. And we couldn’t use the special jump drive at all. Not only would it leave a trail for the monsters to potentially use to bypass the banishment spell, but with these minions literally on the ship itself, we might just take some back with us. 

“Can’t fire the weapons,” Apollo announced, “need all power for the engines, and we don’t have a lot of that to begin with.” 

Lillian was talking quickly. “We can use a magnified force spell in a three-sixty range, shove everything out of the way and–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by Athena, who simply announced, “Sachael, use your ace card.” 

“Gladly,” the man retorted. His eyes went blue then. I didn’t mean just his pupils, which were already kind of blue-gray. No, the entire eye went blue. As they did, I saw the image on one of the nearby screens suddenly shift. It showed a view from behind us, back toward the ground itself. There were dozens of monsters in view, but that wasn’t what the camera was focused on. Instead, in the center of the screen was the canteen Sachael had left behind a few moments earlier. 

We saw that, and the second we did, the canteen exploded. Not with fire, but with water. Not just some water. Not a few gallons, or even a few hundred gallons. Not a swimming pool of water. All of the water. Where the canteen had been, a lake had suddenly appeared. Seriously, it stretched out to fill a huge portion of the area we’d just been in. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that a lake appeared, because that was exactly what happened. Filling up that portion of the desert, turning it into a beach, was what had to be literally hundreds of millions of gallons of water. It didn’t just create some small pond, it covered that section of the desert with a roughly oval-shaped lake ten miles across from end to end and thirty to forty feet deep. 

By the time we had taken all that in, Sachael  had raised his arms above his head. His hands closed into fists, and  I saw a slight smile touch his face. Then, with a grunt of effort, he brought both arms forward and down. And as he did so, that lake he’d created out of a canteen exploded upward. Yeah, all those millions of gallons of water were suddenly spraying up toward us. 

Every last drop flew upward in a violent geyser. Every creature that was on the ship, every monster around us in the air, everything the Fomorians had sent to us, was slammed into by a lake’s worth of water hitting it at speeds faster than a car could reach. Millions of gallons of water hitting these things at hundreds of miles per hour. Many of them simply exploded, bursting apart from the force. But even those that managed to survive through various enhancements were still knocked out of the way. They were all carried upward by the force of the geyser. 

Meanwhile, the ship was left entirely untouched. Not a single drop of water came any closer than a few inches from it. Sachael’s power tore everything away from the ship, sending all that water upward to utterly destroy everything surrounding us, without so much as getting the ship itself a little damp. 

All of that was amazing enough on its own, of course. But, as it turned out, the man who had been considered master of the oceans wasn’t done yet. With a slight snarl in his voice, he spoke a single word. 

“Fulmen.” 

Thunderbolt. He said thunderbo–

The lightning came. Another dozen strikes, but these were each as powerful as that single one from earlier. They tore down out of the sky and through the water that was currently carrying all of our attackers upward. Nothing survived it. They were all dead, bodies burnt to a crisp. And, with every single one dealt with, the water stopped rising. It dropped back toward the ground, taking those hundreds of corpses with it to rain across the ground below. 

Blinking twice as his eyes returned to normal, Sachael announced calmly (though I could hear a hint of exhaustion in his voice that he was clearly forcing back), “Now we can get out of here.” 

And get out of there we did, as fast as possible. Sariel took her seat back before punching the engines. We climbed rapidly, rushing out of the atmosphere and back into–

Oh… right, there was still a battle going on out here. And it didn’t look like it was any closer to ending now than it had when we first arrived. If anything, the battle was even more intense. Yet, something was different this time. Even as Sariel and Apollo were plotting the escape course, a pair of what looked like fighters approached. They definitely weren’t biological, looking a bit like gleaming silver and blue metal manta rays. 

As they approached, Sachael started to say something about defenses, only to stop as Athena interrupted. “Wait. They’re hailing.” 

Roxa and I exchanged glances, since the two of us were across from each other. I saw the other girl mouth, ‘Who?’ and shrugged back at her. 

By that time, Apollo had hit the button to answer the hail, and a voice filled the ship. The words were completely alien and incomprehensible, and came with repeated clicking sounds. But they were accompanied by a robotic voice that was clearly translating. “–say again, is the one known as Felicity Chambers aboard this ship?” 

Well, that definitely made everyone look at me. Not that I blamed them. If I could’ve taken my own eyeballs out and turned them in my own direction, I might’ve. As it was, I simply reeled a bit in confusion before unthinkingly blurting, “That’s me!” 

That could have been dumb if those guys turned out to have a grudge against me for whatever reason (and there were a lot of possibilities). I saw that on everyone’s face, even as the translated alien-speak came. “Will escort behind battlefield. Friends. Follow for safety.” 

With that, the two fighters finished swooping around us, coming in on either side in escort formation. Which left everyone still staring at me. 

“I dunno,” I managed, shrugging in confusion. “Never seen or heard of these guys before.” 

“Boss?” Apollo asked, looking toward Athena. 

For her part, the woman considered for a moment. She looked to the ongoing battle, then to the screen that showed the fighters pacing us, then to me. With her gaze locked on mine, she finally answered. “Stay with them. I believe it’ll be okay. But everyone be ready, just in case. This ship is held together with what the humans call duct tape and prayers. Even with the recently revealed secondary combat mode, we can’t afford an actual fight.” 

So, with basically everyone still looking at me while I helplessly shrugged and insisted I had no idea, we were escorted along the outskirts of the battle. Some of the Fomorians tried to give chase, but other ships fell in to block them. Before long, we were away from the central fighting. Ahead were what appeared to be the main command ships of the unknown aliens. They looked–well, they looked like metal jellyfish, really. There were gigantic dome-structures surrounding a central orb thing, with dozens of energy-coils drifting under them, which occasionally fired hundreds of lasers off into the battle to rip through various Fomorian monstrosities. 

Our escorts called back then. “Hold for connection to friend.” 

“Connection to friend? Who–Flick, who are they talking about?” Sands demanded. 

“I dunno,” I started. “I don’t–” 

“Flick.” It was Tristan. He was standing up from his seat, pointing toward one of the screens that showed the various views around us, his eyes wide. “Look.” 

Turning that way, I saw what he was looking at. It was another ship, one closer and smaller than those big command jellyfish (but still enormous). This one looked sort of like a pyramid if you cut the top third off and replaced it with an enormous opaque glass dome, then also cut the back corner of the pyramid off in order to put in the engines. 

But Tristan’s attention wasn’t on those details. They were on the name stenciled across the main body of the ship. A name that… I couldn’t read. The symbols were clearly meant to be letters, but I had no idea what they meant. 

The blond boy read the name aloud, for me and for everyone else. “Binsayeac Two.”

“Binsayeac? Wait,” Roxa blurted, “What does that mean?” 

But I knew. I remembered the name as soon as Tristan said it. “It means that guy before wasn’t saying he was going to connect us to a friend, he was going to connect us to the Friend, the name of the ship. That name, it means Friend-Finder. The… second Friend-Finder. And it means they did it after all. That’s why this fleet is here. It’s why this battle is happening. They finally did it. 

“The Meregan found friends.” 

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Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes darting around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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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 seventeen 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 seventeen years of presents suitable for a seventeen 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 she 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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