April

Interlude 14B – Calendar (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the far corner of an enormous junk yard somewhere in the southern edge of Michigan, a glowing green portal abruptly appeared directly between a hollowed out sedan and the remains of several old washing machines. An old mutt of a dog that had been lying idly watching a nearby ball as though deciding whether or not to give chasing it a go made a noise in the back of his throat and looked up in time to see three figures emerge from the portal. One was a young girl about nine or ten years old with dark hair and very pale eyes that were almost white, while the other two girls appeared to be in their teens. One was a pale red-head, and the other looked Asian, with very short hair. In the case of the latter two, their actual ages were roughly twice what they appeared to be.

After emerging from the portal, the three representatives of the so-called Calendar slowly moved their gaze around the junkyard, looking toward the dog briefly before their eyes shifted to take in the rest of the area. The canine itself didn’t move other than to bump its nose toward the tennis ball so that it would roll up a few feet through the dirt, then roll back. Beyond that, he gave no real reaction to their arrival. He was old and quite done being a guard dog. Or perhaps there was another reason he stayed put and didn’t start barking to sound an intruder alarm.

“What do you think?” April asked, squinting in the direction of the mutt. “That easy?” 

“Could be a double bluff,” May pointed out while continuing to split her gaze between the dog and the rest of the junkyard. “Be right in plain sight so that we would think it couldn’t possibly be that one. After all, they know we have December with us. She tends to win at this game.”  

The particular game, in this case, was something that members of the Calendar played with one another when they had to meet up after being separated. They would possess various animals and make the new arrivals guess which ones they were. You got two points for successfully guessing on the first try, one for the second attempt, and if you failed then, the member who had hidden received three points. It wasn’t an idle game either. They kept obsessive track of the score and had actual prizes, including a jackpot that could be won once someone got high enough. Others, including Cahethal, thought it was a waste of time. But members of the Calendar took it very seriously. It was one of the ways in which they bonded with each other. And December did tend to have an advantage at it, for one particular reason. 

“Speaking of which, what do you see?” April asked the younger girl. She herself had already picked out three more potential options in the form of two rats under one of the washing machines, and a mangy-looking crow who had set up a nest in the old junked car.  

December, for her part, appeared to be gazing off at nothing, her eyes unfocused. “There’sfourteenpossibilities,” she informed them. “Fourratsunderthemachinesthere. Twomoreunderthecar. Twocrowsnestingontopofthejunkpilethere. Anotheroneinthatcar. Thatdogwiththeball. Threecatsaboutfiftyfeetthatway. Andarabbitunderground… throughaholethirtyfeettheotherway.” 

She was technically blind, of course, thanks to a rare genetic mutation that had arisen through experiments in earlier generations. But that same mutation had left her with the ability to see magical energies, including that given off by living beings. And not only magical energies. She also saw electricity, heat, sound waves and the way they bounced off of objects, and so on. Put together, it allowed the girl her own particular type of vision, a three-dimensional image of her surrounding area, full of various energy patterns that she had become accustomed to deciphering until she had reached the point where interpreting the energies she saw and mentally translating that came as easily and instantaneously as an average person’s ordinary sight did. 

“Only fourteen?” May asked, looking toward the rabbit burrow that the girl had pointed out. 

December’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uhhuhuhhuhuhhuh! That’sallthestuffthat’sbigenough. Toosmallisstillcheating,right?” 

May gave a very slight nod, considering those options. “Yes, using something too small is still cheating. The game has to be played with something at least the size of an Earth mouse.” 

“So one of those fourteen,” April murmured. “Who was supposed to be meeting us here?” 

“Tember and Julie,” May replied, focusing her attention on the dog once more. It had slumped over onto its side, enjoying the very end-of-fall sun. The air was briskly chill, though there was no visible snow anywhere. Shiloh, the Heretic student who had taken to hanging out with them a bit, would have been dismayed by that fact, given how close to December (the actual month) it was. According to her, snow at the very beginning of December meant there would also be snow at the end, when the holidays came. None of the Calendar trio were exactly convinced of that logic. And truth be told, they were certain Shiloh wasn’t either. But the human girl certainly played up the superstition, possibly for comedic effect. 

It was a strange thought to have in that moment, May realized a bit belatedly. She was standing here, attempting to identify which animals their fellow Calendar people had possessed, and instead of focusing on that, she had thought about Shiloh for the past several seconds. Odd. 

Setting those thoughts aside, she focused on the issue at hand once more. Fourteen possibilities, and two of their companions to identify. For a moment, she thought about what she knew about Tember (September) and Julie (July). Both had been members of the Calendar longer than any of this trio, long enough to have adapted their given monikers somewhat. Despite that, neither happened to work together that often. So May was assuming they would have separated and chosen different animals to hide in.

“I know Tember,” April announced. “We hang out a lot. I’m gonna say he’s…” Trailing off, she leaned over to whisper quietly to the other two. 

There was a very brief conference back and forth, before May gave one more look at the junkyard around them and stepped forward. “Tember is the crow by itself in the car!” she called, loud enough to be heard. “Julie is the rabbit in the hole, pretending to be asleep.” 

There was a brief moment of silence, aside from the old dog panting a bit as he looked at them. Then the rabbit emerged into view while the crow in question flew down. Both animals promptly broke their own necks by twisting their heads too far to the side. An instant later, as the bodies fell, glowing humanoid energy forms appeared before resolving into each respective Seosten. 

“Very good, I thought we finally fooled you that time,” Tember, a large man who would have been considered Latino were he from Earth, announced while dusting off his clothes. They were old, having been repeatedly patched and repaired to the point that almost none of the original material remained. The clothes were the first that he had been given here on Earth, and Tember was loath to either replace them or use magic to repair them. He preferred fixing them, as he put it, ‘the human way.’ 

“So did I,” Julie put in. She was a black woman who appeared to be in her early twenties by human standards, wearing dark pants and a pristine, button-up white shirt under a long tan trench coat. “Especially with the magical tranquilizer we gave the dog there. He was a noisy little thing before that. You were supposed to think he was Tember.”

“Youcan’tfoolusthateasily!” December declared, before abruptly sprinting that way. And in her case, that meant using her improved boost to turn into a blurred form, appearing directly in front of the two almost immediately. “HiyaImissedyou!” She was hugging Tember tightly even as the man reacted to her sudden appearance. “We’vegotsomuchtotellyou,” she added, figure blurring once more as she darted the few feet over to embrace Julie just as tightly. “WehelpedstopaGehennaprisonernamedKwur…andkilledFossorhimselfthebigmeanNecromancer…andwentonapirateship…and–” 

Chuckling, Julie gently eased the young girl back by the shoulders to look down at her. “You do know that May and April have been submitting regular reports about everything that’s happened, don’t you?” There was a mixture of amusement and fondness in her voice as she ruffled the girl’s hair with one hand.

“WellsurebutIwantedtotellyoumyself!” December insisted while eagerly bouncing up and down. “Theymight’veleftstuffout! AndI’vegottatellyouaboutTabbris!”  

“Yes, Tabbris.” Tember noted thoughtfully, giving the girl a curious look, his tone casual. “She’s the one who was ahh, giving our people so many fits, right? The one who made them lose their minds trying to figure out why the Chambers girl couldn’t be possessed.” Even as he said that, there was amusement in his voice. It was very clear the revelation of just what–or who–had vexed their fellow Seosten (including Cahethal) for so long positively tickled the man. 

December beamed at that, bouncing up and down even more as she launched into a full-on rant about how positively cool and amazing her new friend was. The spiel went on for awhile, as the girl went deep into all the things Tabbris had done, without much in the way of chronological order. She simply blurted out everything that came to mind all in a rush. But every member of the Calendar was well-acquainted with the girl and accustomed to listening through her extended and very rapid stories to pick out the details of what she was talking about. 

While Tember listened attentively, asking questions now and then to show just how much  he cared about what the youngest member of their group was saying, Julie stepped aside a bit to speak more privately with April and May. Her voice was soft. “You asked for a face-to-face with the entire Calendar, and then Cahethal. Is there something we should know?” The tone of her voice made the underlying question clear. Was something wrong with their assignment to the Fusion school? 

April shook her head. “The assignment’s going fine. We only…” She glanced at the girl next to her, raising an eyebrow as though asking how they should put it. 

May, in turn, spoke up flatly. “The humans have asked for a bit of information, which we might be able to provide.” 

Looking back and forth between the two, Julie considered their words. “And is it information that we would want to give the humans?” 

“They are on our side,” April pointed out carefully. “Or they can be. Helping them now is the best way to ensure they are actually in a position to help our real war against the Fomorians if this truce continues beyond its first year and we begin a full, official alliance with the humans.” 

“Yes,” Julie agreed, “if the truce continues. But if it doesn’t, what sort of information are we giving them? Don’t forget, this could very well be a temporary situation. If the Seraphs choose to move to full invasion, every bit of information you give the humans could be used against us.” Her gaze moved between the two, then glanced toward December, who was still cheerfully talking to Tember about everything she had been doing with Tabbris. “In a few months, we may be taking very different, more direct measures against the people you’re trying to help now.” 

“Nowewon’t!” That was December, who had abruptly pivoted away from Tember, revealing that she had actually been listening the entire time. Her face had grown heated. “They’reourfriendsandtryingtofightthemwouldbestupidandwe’renotstupidand–” 

“December,” May interrupted, giving the younger girl a firm look to stop talking. “It’s okay. We’re just talking right now. Remember, Julie hasn’t been there. She doesn’t know what they’re like.” Her voice was calming, even as she gave the older Seosten girl a brief squint while pointedly adding, “No one’s going to ask you to hurt Tabbris or your friends. Don’t worry about it.” 

A moment of silent conversation passed between May, April, and Julie, where the latter made her opinion on the situation very clear. She believed it was a mistake to get too close to the humans, and had thought that sending December there in the first place was a bad idea. Not that she had anything directly against the humans (she was, after all, using a very human nickname). But when it came down to it, she was loyal to the rest of the Calendar, and to Cahethal for giving them the opportunity to be together. And, of course, to the Seosten in general beyond that. Her own people loathed her existence, yet she still longed for acceptance from them. She still believed it was possible to change their minds simply by being effective enough at her job. No matter how emphatically so many of the Seosten rejected that idea. 

Tember spoke up carefully after that long moment of silence had dragged on. “Well, why don’t we head back to the camp and talk to everyone else? You did say you wanted to get everyone. Even Cahethal agreed to show up. She’s… interested in seeing what has you so worked up.” As he spoke, the tall man  reached down to pick December off the ground, setting her on his shoulders while the girl gave a squeal of delight. “And everyone else has missed you.” 

“Didyoumissus?” December cheerfully chirped the question from her perch on the man’s shoulders, leaning over to look him in the eyes (or at least as close as she could get, being technically blind) from an upside down position. “Didjadidja?” 

“Hmm,” Tember playfully teased the girl, making a show out of pretending to consider before nodding toward May and April. “I suppose I might’ve missed those two, just a little bit.” 

“Andmeyoumissedmetoo!” December insisted while patting the top of the man’s head empathically. “C’monyougottasayityougottasayyoumissedmetooplease!” 

For another minute, Tember continued to tease the girl by pretending to consider whether he had actually missed her or not. She clearly knew he was only teasing her, and yet dramatically played up her reaction, lamenting how terribly mean he was and making a show of telling the man, who was essentially like an older brother, just what a mean and terrible jerk he was. 

“Jerk?” Julie asked the other two with an arched eyebrow. “A very human thing to say.” 

“A very Tabbris thing to say,” April replied mildly. “They’re friends. They’ve gotten pretty close.” 

“So I see.” Julie’s voice was a murmur before she shook her head, clearly uncertain about how that situation was going to unfold in the future, and concerned about December’s reaction. “In any case, you’ve made the first jump and it’s obvious you weren’t followed. Our detectors would have told us if they put any tracking spells on you. So we can go back to the camp now.” 

They still didn’t go directly there, of course. The Heretic rebels were not the only ones who knew what sort of downsides could come from allowing others to track them back to what should be a private location. Despite the confidence that they weren’t followed, the Calendar quintet made a couple extra portal jumps, just in case. 

Eventually, they arrived at their home here on Earth, a former summer camp next to a lake, with several cabins, and some boats. One of which was in use at that very moment as two figures in a canoe in the middle of the lake, fishing. The Calendar Camp should have been too cold for any boating or fishing at all, this close to winter in a place that was actually pretty far north in Alaska. But it was a relatively simple bit of magic between them to keep the surrounding area warm. It was already hard enough for people like them to have a place they could call home as it was. Now that they had a place, they certainly weren’t going to spare any expense or effort making it as comfortable as they could. This was their place. 

As soon as she saw the pair on the lake, December immediately hopped down from Tember’s shoulders  and took off. She became a blur that raced across the water, using her enhanced boost to get all the way over there without falling in. A moment later, she was in the middle of the boat, gesturing wildly while already starting to tell those two stories of her time at Fusion.

“Still as excitable as ever, I see.” Those words came from a much-older man, standing on the porch of the nearest cabin. He wore a painstakingly tailored suit that perfectly fit his slim form, which only added to the dignity afforded by his silvery-gray hair. Bystanders who saw him thought the Calendar man known as August looked quite a bit similar to the human actor Charles Dance. 

“Did you expect anything less?” the long-haired black man beside him, who also wore a neatly tailored business suit (though his was very white as opposed to the dark suit of his companion) asked. February (or Feb, ever since he had lost a bet with April that made him answer to the shortened name), looked out on the water, where the boat was making its way back with its now three occupants. December was still emphatically waving her arms around, her voice carrying just enough for them to hear the excitement in it, if not her specific words. 

His question was answered by a six-foot-tall blonde woman, who emerged from the cabin itself wearing a long red evening gown that glittered with each motion as she stepped into what little sunlight was visible.  “I do not believe anyone expects, nor wants December to change.” 

“Good afternoon, January,” April greeted the other Seosten politely. Of them all, January was often seen as the leader of the Calendar, despite the fact that she was not the one who had been there the longest. And not because she had the earliest month name either, having replaced an earlier January who had been killed. No, this January being seen as the default leader of the group simply came from being the type of person she was. 

With a fond smile at the red-haired younger Seosten, January reached out to brush a hand over the girl’s face. Casual touch may have been unheard of between so-called ‘normal’ Seosten and those they called Lies, but among the Calendar, it was fairly common. Because from each other was the only source many of them would ever get such casual touching. “Hello, April. It’s nice to see all three of you again. Getting your reports is just not the same.” 

“She’s not kidding,” a thin, wiry blond man wearing a flannel shirt put in as he stepped out of the cabin, carrying a clipboard in one hand. “I think she might make me start reading your reports out loud in character if this goes on much longer.” 

April smirked a little at that, “I’d pay to see that, November.” 

By that point, the boat had docked, and December was the first off it. She gave a loud, squealed, “Januaryfebaugustnovember!” Once more, her form blurred as she raced over to embrace each of them in turn, clinging tightly before babbling a long, very involved story about attending actual school classes with Tabbris and some sort of history project the two of them were working on. 

In the meantime, the two other boat occupants had emerged. There was the very tall, very introverted March, whose only sign of standing out in any way from any other pale-skinned humanoid was his magically-colored green hair. He tended to stand slouched, attempting to blend into the background. Which was difficult for a man of his size. 

The man climbing out of the boat behind him, however, was at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as standing out went. Though also Caucasian in appearance, he wore a long, very obvious lab coat over a loud Hawaiian shirt. His hair was naturally light, but currently magically colored similar to his quiet companion. His was electric blue. 

“Hello, March, Otto,” May greeted the new arrivals in turn. “Catch anything interesting?” 

“Sure,” Otto (October) replied with a gesture toward December. “Think she’s big enough to keep, or should we throw her back?” 

After a few moments of good-natured teasing back and forth, the group was interrupted by the appearance of a new portal, as Cahethal herself emerged. Their true leader and benefactor came into view. She was on the small side, barely five foot three inches, with very light hair and intensely green eyes. Like Otto, she wore a white lab coat, and immediately got right down to business after brusquely greeting the three by name. “You’ve asked for an audience with everyone, something about questions that can help your new… friends?” 

“Um, yes,” May confirmed. “But we hoped to talk to everyone. Where’s June?” That made the rest of the group look around, as though only just then realizing that the man in question wasn’t in the background. 

“Ah, yes.” Cahethal took a moment before quietly, yet bluntly telling them, “Unfortunately, June did not return from his last mission. You have my deepest sympathies. I did what I could to aid him, but he… ahh… it did not go well.” 

Lower lip trembling a bit, December tentatively asked, “Wha-what happened to him?” 

“I’m afraid that must remain classified for now,” Cahethal informed her. “And please, take all the time you need to grieve, after I have left. There is no rush to return to work. But do not lose yourself to that grief, as this is an opportunity. Kushiel’s daughter, you may extend an invitation for her to join your group and become the new June.” 

Those words led the three Fusion-guests to exchange glances before turning back to her. April replied quietly, the words thick in her throat. “I don’t think she’ll be interested.” Beside her, May and December were still silently reeling from the revelation of June’s death. As were the rest of the Calendar members, though the others did a better job of concealing their reactions to the blunt news for the time being. 

“It is your job to make her interested,” Cahethal informed her. “All three of you. Now, what is it you wanted to gather everyone here for? As you should know, I am quite busy at all times. 

“But please, tell me how I can aid with your mission.”  

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Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

Virginia Dare

1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

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

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

******* 

Millions of years ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 6 – April, May, and December (Heretical Edge 2)

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“No, no, no! Bad stove!” Adding a flurry of her own people’s curses to that, the red-haired Seosten known as April quickly opened the oven before stumbling back with a cough as dark smoke came billowing out. It was accompanied by the obnoxious shriek of the alarm letting everyone within earshot know that cooking brownies had gone horribly wrong. She waved the smoke away, leaning in to grab the cookie sheet. 

“Wait!” A hand grabbed her arm, stopping the girl. So surprised was she by the unexpected physical contact, that April put up no struggle as she was pulled quickly backward. Glancing that way revealed that her accoster was the human named Douglas, the skinny blond Heretic boy. Only once she was safe did Douglas turn his attention to the smoke with a cough, waving his hand in front of his face. “Oh, that’s not great,” he managed before quickly making a fist and holding it near the smoke. When the boy moved his hand, a glowing yellow orb was left behind. With the sound of rushing air, all of the smoke was drawn into the orb, which turned darker and darker until it was black, then disappeared with the sound of a bubble popping. The smoke vanished with it. 

While he was doing that, a different figure stepped forward and reached in to grab the pan from the oven. It was Kushiel’s daughter, the Mendacia (or Lie) who called herself Theia. She simply caught hold of the pan full of its quite thoroughly burned, brick-like contents before setting it on top of the stove. 

“Theia!” Doug blurted. “I just stopped her from grabbing that with her bare hand, why would you do it? Are you okay?” Even as he asked that, the boy was leaning in to turn off the oven while holding his other hand up toward the smoke detector. A glowing energy construct shaped like a long pole with a finger on the end appeared and hit the button to silence the obnoxious alarm. 

Looking at the burn on her hand, the pale, brown-haired girl flatly replied, “I have felt worse.” With that, she looked to April. “We rang the bell, but the alarm was too loud. We… believed you could be in danger. Or that a very small mouse was trapped in your speaker system and desperately trying to communicate through very high-pitched scream-squeaks.” She paused. “But we only thought that for a moment.” Another pause. “… Do you have any mice?”

Straightening a little, April squinted, first at Douglas, who was adjusting the door of the oven to let it air out, then at Theia, who was looking around as though still partially-convinced there was a trapped supernaturally brilliant mouse somewhere. “Um, several, actually. But I promise none of them are trying to communicate. Or stuck in any of the stereo equipment.” Her head tilted as she looked at the New York Rangers hat on Theia’s head. “I thought that was the boy’s.” 

“I have tried to return it to him,” the other Seosten insisted, pointing to it. “He will not take it.” 

“I told you,” Doug insisted in a voice that made it clear they’d had the conversation before. “It was a present. You don’t take presents back. I mean, yeah, first it was just so you and Pace could both control her body, but now you’re out of her and… I mean, you’re you. You should keep it.” He turned away then, mumbling something about how Sulan already made him several replacements. 

“But…” April started before considering her words. “What… why are you both here?” 

“This is the house you and the other two Calendar members have been given to stay within while you are visiting the school, yes?” Theia prompted. “Douglas and I want to be… what is it?” 

“Welcoming committee,” the human boy supplied. “We’re here to be part of your welcoming party. We thought the others would be here too, ahh, where’s December and May?” 

Before answering, the red-haired Seosten looked back and forth between her fellow Lie and the boy. “If you are concerned about what we are up to, the security forces of this station have made it clear that any sensitive areas are under powerful protections and guard. We would not risk offending our hosts after agreeing to a truce by attempting to bypass those measures. That’s…” She paused. “That is strategically unsound.”

Doug exhaled, shaking his head quickly. “No, no. We’re not here to check in on you. I mean, we are, but not like that. We just wanted to see how you guys were doing. I mean,  I know everything’s pretty weird right now with Flick…” He trailed off, a grimace crossing his face. 

April gave a short nod. “The abduction of Felicity Chambers has upset many people. Not only her immediate family.” She looked toward the heavily burnt tray of what would have been brownies and gave a long sigh. “I… was attempting to provide a treat for December to take to Sariel’s younger daughter. She said that the girl has been… very sad, and hard on herself.” 

With a wince, the boy agreed. “Yeah, I mean, the others have been trying to help Tabs, but she’s not… taking it that great. Neither are Shiori and Avalon.” He sighed heavily. “And it sucks. But we’re not here about that. Sorry about your brownies, but I think we could probably help make more. You know, if you want.” 

Blinking at that, April didn’t answer at first. Instead, she asked, “You grabbed my arm. But you know what I am. Why would you do that?” 

As if it actually answered anything, Doug replied, “I didn’t want you to burn yourself.” He squinted toward Theia. “I didn’t want anyone to burn themselves, but I guess we’ll take what we can get. Next time, we’re using the oven mitt. Do you have an oven mitt? I’m bringing you an oven mitt.” He paused, then looked at her. “You mean why would I touch you when I know if you possess me I have to die before you can come out?” 

“Yes,” April confirmed, “that.” 

“Well,” the boy answered carefully, “the way I see it, you don’t particularly want to be stuck in me, right? You and me, we’re not exactly direct enemies or anything. Besides, you’re here on a truce, and you wouldn’t want to break that. Being afraid that you’ll possess me? I might as well be afraid that anyone around here will pull out a knife and stab me in the throat. You’ve been taught since you were a little kid that possessing people that you don’t mean to is bad and wrong and all that. It’s been drilled into your head forever. So why would I be afraid of you doing it anyway? You’re not a little kid or anything. Hell, you’re not even really a teenager, even if you look like you’re about fifteen. Theia looks like that too and she’s more like thirty.” 

“Yes,” April agreed with a squint. “She and I are close to the same age, I believe.”  

“Well, there you go.” Gesturing, Doug added, “You’re not some little kid. You’re an adult. I’m not afraid of you possessing me because we’re not enemies, and you’re not a sociopath. Trust me, I was teammates with a sociopath. I don’t worry about you possessing me for the same reason I don’t worry about random people in the hall pulling out a gun and shooting me in the face. I’ve got no reason to think you’re going to.” 

“They are very odd people,” Theia noted with a slight smile. “But I like them.” Head tilting to look at the oven, she wrinkled her nose at the smell. “I also like good brownies. Those are… not.  

“So, may we help make more?” 

******

The noise from a few dozen students in the college-level math class chattering with one another dulled quickly before silencing as their teacher stood at the front of the room with his hand up. The man was a Mezulef named Wuld. His people were slightly shorter than average humanoids, standing between three and five feet tall, and had thick brown fur along with ten eyes positioned in a ring all the way around their head. Wuld was on the taller end for his people, which still put him below average human height. 

Once the class was silent, the man gestured for the figure waiting by the door to come in. Promptly, May, who had been watching that, crossed the front area of the classroom and stood by the man. The Seosten, who by human standards looked like an Asian girl around eighteen years old (but was actually more like forty by Earth standard) stopped a few feet from the man, reflexively giving him the same space she had been taught throughout her life to give others. She had to be more than arm’s length away at all times if possible. 

“Okay, guys,” Wuld began in his people’s signature gruff voice, “this right here is May, one of our Seosten guests. I found her in the library earlier going through the same section on statistics we’re about to work on. Turns out she’s kinda good at it. Right, May?” 

Seeing everyone in the class staring at her, May hesitated slightly. She felt oddly shy, shifting on her feet while rubbing her hands against her baggy urban camo pants. Though she might have been considered a near middle-aged adult as a normal human, she was still quite young by Seosten standards. And more importantly, she was accustomed to being ignored at best, or more often loathed. Seeing people watching her with curiosity, as if they wanted to know more about her? That was… different. 

“Yes,” she finally managed, after taking a moment to collect herself. “I… enjoy math.” 

“And I enjoy teaching people who want to learn,” Wuld replied. “So May here is gonna sit in on a few classes. More if she wants to.” To the girl herself, he added, “Why don’t you go ahead and find a seat, then we’ll get started.” 

Find a seat? May blinked, turning to squint at the man. “With… them?” she asked blankly. 

Wuld, in turn, raised four different eyebrows before raising his voice. “Ah, quick question. Cooties. Does anyone in here have cooties?” Seeing no hands raised, he informed the girl, “By the grace of the pharaohs, I think you’re safe.” 

May still didn’t move immediately. She turned, looking toward the desks. There were several open, but all were in the middle of other groups. There were people all around  every open desk. People who were now waiting for her. 

“Here,” one girl finally spoke up, raising her hand with a mechanical pencil clasped in it. She was the Heretic known as Shiloh, a young Caucasian woman with dark brown hair that barely reached her shoulders in the back while the rest was shorter, leading to jagged, uneven bangs in the front. “There’s a desk here.” She indicated the seat beside her. 

May had been somewhat surprised that the teacher had told her to find a seat so close to his normal students. But seeing one of those students actively invite her over to sit directly next to her was even more unexpected. For a moment, she just stood there, staring briefly until Wuld cleared his throat. Then she found herself walking that way. With each step, May expected to see a shift of bodies away from the desk in question. But she didn’t. They didn’t. They stayed where they were. A few looked impatient to get back to the actual class. Which in and of itself was even more surprising. They weren’t paying attention to her every move. They weren’t staring at her with paranoia, waiting to slap her with punishment for getting too close, or even reflexively shifting their bodies away as she neared them.  

What in the name of the Fomorian progenitor was wrong with them? 

Shaking that uncertainty off as well as she could, May moved to the desk that had been offered and sat down. She placed the math book on the desk before looking over to the girl. “Thank you,” she started a bit awkwardly, unsure of exactly how to proceed. “Do not worry. I will try not to bother you.” 

“Try not to bother me?” Shiloh echoed in disbelief before shaking her head. “Dude, Mr. Wuld said you’re good at this math stuff, right? I totally called dibs on you helping me.” 

Immediately, the orange-skinned, purple-haired Querv boy who sat directly behind May leaned forward. “Hey, she’s gotta help me too. I’m totally lost on this stuff.” 

Turning a bit to put both of them in her line of sight, May stared for a silent moment. In the background, she noticed Wuld writing the next formula they would be studying on the white board. “You… want me to… help you learn.” Her voice was dull and flat from disbelief. 

“I mean, if you want to,” Shiloh quickly amended with a visible blush. “You don’t have to. It’s not like a requirement to sit here or anything. It’s just, I–” She glanced to the Querv boy. “I mean, we could really use some help.” Offering a slight, clearly nervous smile, she added, “Please?” 

“But you know what I am,” May pointed out. “You know I am… a Lie.”  

“Yeah, and like, everyone here has different powers and weapons and shit that could kill people,” Shiloh retorted. “But they aren’t good at math. Err, maybe they are… that’s not the point. The point is, you’re good at math. So, could you help us understand it?” 

“I…” Pausing, May finally gave an uncertain nod. “Yes. If you wish. 

“I would very much like to help you learn.” 

*******

“The people here are very strange.” 

As she made that announcement, April was sitting down in the main school cafeteria to eat dinner. December was to the right of her, with May on the far side of the younger girl. 

“That is understandable,” Theia, who had taken the seat directly across from April, pointed out. “Many of them are Strangers.” Her head tilted with a quirky, uneven smile, showing her teeth somewhat goofily. “Of both the capitalized and non-capitalized variety.” Leaning forward, she added in a quieter, somewhat conspiratorial voice. “That was a joke. I make them now. It’s fun.” 

“What’sstrangeaboutthem?” December piped up in a blur of words. She had been fairly quiet for awhile. Which was incredibly unusual for her. Now, she looked first to May to her right, then to April to her left.  

May, after giving Theia a brief squint, turned her attention to the youngest Calendar member. “They know what we are, yet they are not afraid of us. They… put us near their young. They want to learn from us. They touch us when they don’t have to. They are all very perplexing.” 

“Should, uhh…” Douglas, who was seated next to Theia, turned to look at Shiloh, who had just plopped down next to him a moment earlier. “Should we let them know that we’re sitting here and can actually hear them right now?” 

“My comment was partially intended for you, Douglas,” April primly informed him. “I still do not understand your actions earlier. We… don’t understand any of your actions. Why do your people insist on treating us as though we are not… what we are? Yes, you said that you are not afraid of being murdered, but… why would you treat us as though we are not… mistakes?” There was a bit of… worry, confusion, and disbelief in her voice. April had been treated a certain way her entire existence. Seeing a few people, such as the Las Vegas mission group, treat her differently had been one thing. But this was so much more than that. 

“Is it simply their trust in this protection spell that their archmages have been preparing?” May put in curiously. 

“Nah, that’s not it,” Shiloh, who actually looked a little amused by their bafflement, noted. “They have to do that anti-possession spell one-on-one the first time. Have they gotten to you yet?” she asked Doug. Getting a headshake in response, she gestured. “Me neither. Apparently they can like… renew the whole group once it’s applied, you just have to come back here once in awhile. But for the first time, they have to cast the spell on you directly. Lots of people don’t have it yet. It’s gonna take awhile.” 

Perking up a bit, December blurted, “Tabbrisishelpingwiththat! Orshewasbeforeshefellasleep. TheysaidIshouldlethersleep. Cuzshewasn’tsleepingforalongtime. BecauseofFlick.” 

Shiloh hesitated. Though the fact that the Seosten girl had possessed Flick for a long time was generally known, there were a lot of rumors and contradictory ideas. “Umm. They’re like… adopted sisters or something?” 

“Yes,” Theia immediately put in, leaning forward and turning her head to look down toward the other girl. “They are sisters. She is very upset about Flick Chambers’s disappearance. So… so are a lot of people.” 

“But they figured out the spell was some kind of time travel thing,” Doug put in. “Koren said Wyatt and Professor Dare went over it and they think it jumped her forward a few weeks. So–” 

“Her birthday,” May noted. “The necromancer sent her to her own birthday.” 

“Yeah, some present, right?” Doug muttered. 

“Tabbrishasbeenworkingreallyhard!” December announced, sounding worried. “Ithinkshe’sworkingtoohard. She’sdoingallthismagicstuff. Andshe’sdoingschoolstuff. Andshe’strainingwithAvalon. ShesaidshewantsAvalontoteachherhowtofight. CuzshewantstohelpsaveFlick. Sheknowsshecan’tfindherrightnow. Soshe’susingthetimetolearn. Andshekeepshavingnightmarestoo.” The last few words came out quietly, as she looked down. 

It was Shiloh who spoke up, reaching across the table to poke December. “Hey, they’ve got a sundae bar over there. Why don’t you grab something?” 

“Sunday?” December sounded baffled. “Butit’sstill–” Her confusion vanished as she saw what was pointed out. “Icecreamit’sicecreamwhocareswhatdayitis?!” With that, she was a blur of motion that disappeared that way. 

May looked to her new classmate. “Thank you. December is still young. She wishes to help Sariel’s… Tabbris. She wishes to help Tabbris, but she… we do not know how.”

“It’s no big,” Shiloh insisted a bit awkwardly, a blush touching her face. “It’s just ice cream. People like ice cream. You like ice cream, right? We could both go get it. You know, just–” 

Her words, awkward as they might have been, stopped as she instead squinted past the others. “What’s your friend doing?” 

“December?” Turning, May looked that way, to see the girl in question standing out of the way, hands clasped behind her back as she watched a couple other Seosten students filling their bowls with ice cream. 

“Hey.” Shiloh was up from the seat, stepping that way before the others could react. “That’s not fair. She was ahead of you and then she just put her bowl down and moved. What’d you guys say to her?” 

“What?” The young Seosten boy looked at his female companion, then shook his head at Shiloh, while she was joined by Doug, Theia, May, and April. “We just told her to remember the rules, that’s all.” 

“Yeah,” the female Seosten who was with him agreed. “I mean, I don’t really want to take ice cream once she’s… touched and breathed on all of it.” 

While the others reacted to that, Doug marched forward. The two unfamiliar Seosten each took up reflexive ready stances as though expecting him to start a fight. Instead, the boy walked past them, plucking a spoon from the tray. He leaned over, digging into one of the cartons to take up an enormous scoop of strawberry-chocolate ice cream. Then he walked over, thrusting the spoon out toward April. “Bite?” 

Looking very confused, the girl took a bit of the ice cream. Once she had some, Doug offered the still-quite full spoon toward Theia. “Bite?” He then waited as the other girl took a bite of her own, before offering it in turn to May and December. By that point, there was only a little ice cream left. Doug turned to the two newcomers and pointedly put the spoon fully into his mouth, taking all the ice cream there was before licking it clean to get every bit of it. 

“You guys… you don’t even…” The Seosten girl opened and shut her mouth before shaking her head as she turned to leave, the boy following after her. 

“Why did you do that?” April asked, squinting at Doug. 

“Cuz,” he replied easily, “with some people, it doesn’t matter how much you argue, how much you yell or fight or insult them. None of that’ll do anything. It won’t change their minds. Especially when they’ve grown up with it like those guys have. The only chance you’ve got is for them to see it for themselves. And not just a little bit, not just once. Over and over again.” 

“Okay, but dude,” Shiloh put in, “next time, I get to help. I like ice cream too.” 

Standing together, the three Calendar members looked at the two Heretics. April announced, “You see? Very strange people.” 

“Yes, they are strange,” Theia agreed, her voice quite cheerful as she put both hands on the sides of the hat Doug had given her. “But I am strange too. 

“And I would rather be strange together, than strange alone.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before we’d even managed to explain more than a few words to the collection of now-freed Alters (all of whom looked very freaked out about the whole situation), Miranda, April, and Jason showed up. They came in at a run, but slowed when they saw our group there simply talking. 

“Explain it to them,” I blurted toward Sands and Scout before turning away to grab my phone. Quickly, I typed out a message to Tabbris and sent it to her. After that, I only had to wait a couple seconds before hearing her voice in my head as she projected her consciousness to me. Flick! Mr. Haiden found flowers too! 

Rather than explain, she simply dumped the information into my head. Haiden’s group, as well as the others, had all found various hiding places for the plants. They weren’t just in the tunnels, they were in random buildings too. This was even worse than we thought. But according to Sariel (through Tabbris), what we really needed to do was find the part of the plants that had the strongest consciousness in it. Not his core, that was still back in the prison. But if we found the main part that was out of it, the biggest collection of Kwur’s mind that was here in Vegas, we would be able to actually do something about him and that would affect the rest of it. 

Thanks, Tabs. You and December stay ready, huh? We’ve got it here. I tried to sound encouraging, and not like this was all spiraling very quickly out of control the way a nagging part of my mind kept insisting. This whole thing was like having gasoline spread throughout an entire building. These plants were everywhere. If someone lit the match and a war started… it would get really damn hot around here. 

So, we had to find the main plant. To that end, after quickly passing the information to the others, I closed my eyes and focused on seeing through Marian’s eyes. I’d left my little fox-friend crouched at the bottom of those subway (seriously, what the fuck was one of those doing here in Las Vegas?) stairs, huddled in a corner where she would hopefully be out of sight unless someone walked right past her. 

Thankfully, it seemed we’d indeed gotten lucky on that point. There was no one in sight as my little fox opened her eyes and looked around. I could still see that forest-worth of plants and small trees all over the subway platform, but there were no actual people. As far as I could tell, no one had seen Marian huddled in that corner. Which might give me a chance right now to get a closer look at this whole thing before they reacted to us disabling the small army they’d sent. 

The other good part of exploring this place with my Theriangelos, of course, was the fact that I didn’t have to worry about being affected by the plant bastard’s emotional manipulation powers. I sent Marian scurrying quickly across the platform, starting to move between clumps of flowers and grass. On the way, I belatedly wondered just how much awareness Kwur had around him in this state. I knew his primary consciousness wasn’t here, but how much could the part of him that was in these plants… see or hear or whatever? Was he actually able to notice the fox? More to the point, could he communicate that fact to his minions? That seemed important right now, for some reason. 

Sending Marian down onto the grass-covered tracks behind one of the trees, I hesitated before scampering up the tree. Yeah, it was even more dangerous, but really, in for a penny, in for a pound. If plant dude was aware of the fox and knew what it meant, I’d find out really quick. Hitting the tallest branch, I made the fox look one way, then the other. The tunnels stretched out in both directions and were totally full of plants. Seriously, the garden here wasn’t so ‘little’ after all. It went on as far as I could see. I’d thought it looked like a small underground forest, but there was nothing small about it. The plants took up the entire subway system. A subway system that, as far as any of us knew, wasn’t supposed to exist

A hand settled on my shoulder back with my real body. Quickly, I shifted my attention more that way, opening my eyes to see Miranda there, looking at me with concern while Sands and Sarah continued talking to April, Jason, and the people we had just been fighting a few moments earlier. Her voice was quiet. “What’s going on, Flick? What do you see down there?” 

As she asked that, the others started paying attention. The werewolf guy, Pars, spoke up, sounding guilty. “Kid, are you okay? Barnyard and I, we didn’t mean to hurt you or anything.”

“Barnyard?” I echoed uncertainly before remembering. He’d been calling the troll Barny. 

Sure enough, Barny/Barnyard the troll gave a quick, frantic nod. He looked ashamed of himself, shifting on both feet while looking at the ground and fidgeting with his hands. “Barnyard is very sorry, Miss. Barnyard did not really want to smash with friend-hammer. Barnyard was very angry before. But Barnyard does not know why. Barnyard will be very good now. Please do not be mad at Barnyard.” 

Feeling bad, I shook my head with a glance toward the others. “It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault. I–they explained the whole flower thing and what’s going on there?” I asked, looking at Pars. 

“Oh, they did, they did.” It wasn’t the werewolf who answered, but the many-tentacled figure from Miss Handsy’s race. He too looked ashamed, shuffling forward while keeping his long limbs back behind himself. I had the feeling he was doing that to look less threatening, keeping his hands out of the way so I wouldn’t think he was trying to attack me or something. He came a bit closer, still fidgeting while adding, “I… we did not cause too much harm, I hope?” 

Sands nodded from where she was standing, offering a flat. “It’s okay, we’re all in one piece.” I saw her glance toward one of the other Alters in the crowd, adding a bit more weakly, “Mostly.” 

“It’s okay!” that guy (a dark green figure with white spots over his skin and a vertical mouth) called, holding up his arm where I saw he was missing a hand. “It’ll grow back!” He sounded fairly casual about the whole thing, which was better than holding a grudge, I supposed. 

Coughing, I rubbed the back of my head. “The point is, this isn’t any of your faults.” 

“Still,” the tentacles-guy insisted, “it wasn’t… good. But you could have killed us. You didn’t. You’re Heretics. You are, aren’t you? You don’t set off the… bad sense for some reason… but you have to be Heretics with all those powers you were using. You’re Heretics, and you risked your lives to free us, to knock us out. That’s…” He hesitated, then offered me one tentacle, very carefully. “I am called, by your people, Cake.” 

“Cake?” I echoed, taking a second before getting it as I accepted his hand. “Oh, Patty Cake.” 

“Yes, that,” he agreed. “I thought perhaps Patty, but that is apparently a female’s name. So I chose Cake.” After a brief hesitation, Cake added, “We… are all very sorry for what happened.” 

“Eh, some of us are more sorry than others.” That was one of the humanoid-looking Alters, who stood at the back with his arms folded tightly. “You are Heretics in Vegas, aren’t ya? What’re you doing here?” His voice was darkly suspicious, though I had the feeling he was just as embarrassed and ashamed of losing control as the others were and hiding it through this. 

One of the other Alters elbowed him hard, leaning in to mutter something in his ear. I caught the word ‘rebellion’ before my attention was drawn by Pars once more. The werewolf spoke tersely. “Look, all of us here were, most of us don’t know each other. Last thing we remember, we were at a restaurant having lunch and the waitress brought out those leis for some kind of Hawaiian theme or some shit.” He offered a shrug. “Next thing we know, we’re totally blinded by rage and just have to kill something. It’s… that whole thing is just really blurry. All we knew was that we were in the middle of some wild fucking fight with a couple kid Heretics. Now these girls here say there’s some evil plant piece of shit that turns people fucking evil or something? What the fuck?” 

Before I could respond to that, Jason suddenly moved up next to me, drawing everyone’s attention that way as he asked. “You guys know what’s going on with the royals around here?” 

One of the other Alters replied, “Their kids got nabbed or something, right? They’re pretty pissed off about it.” His voice darkened, sounding somewhat bitter. “My buddy’s church got raided just cuz he put out some newsletters about how they’ve got too much power like a year ago.” 

There were a few other agreements with that, and I realized once more just how bad this was going to get if we didn’t stop it. The Vegas leadership was already pissing people off with their reactions to the missing kids (understandable as their emotions were), and with Kwur’s plants around to make things worse and fan those flames… yeah, this could get very bad very fast. 

And speaking of getting very bad very fast, I looked to the others, speaking quickly. “I’ve gotta use Marian to explore. You guys explain what’s going on and try to get Sariel and the others.” 

With that, I poured my attention straight back toward my Theriangelos. She was still in the tree. At this point, however, there was someone else nearby. Turning her head, I looked down. Orcs. There were three orcs and a single human (or at least one that looked human and didn’t set off my Heretic-Sense) pacing by right beneath me. It looked like they were hunting for something? 

Me, I realized belatedly. They were looking for me. Which told me that either Kwur could communicate that there was an invader of some kind but couldn’t explain where I was exactly, or they just had some other way of knowing there was something around without specifics. 

Okay, so it didn’t tell me much at all. Still, they knew something was in the area. That much was made even more clear as one of the orcs shook a rusty old sword through a tall bush and bellowed, “Where you are?! Come face bad now or bad get badly worse!” 

A truly poetic argument toward me revealing myself, for sure. Somehow, I resisted the urge to comply, making Marian shrink back against the tree while shifting her fur to match the bark. From there, I crouched and watched the group below. At the same time, I shifted a bit of my attention back to my real body, whispering (for no real reason other than instinct), “Okay, guys, we might have to go with something more obvious. These guys know I’m there.” 

Sands and Miranda said something about being on it, but my focus was quickly drawn back to Marian, as the quartet below were joined by half a dozen more figures of various types. One of them was a lizard figure like the ones we’d fought on the roof of the casino while chasing Sarez. That one seemed to be the leader, looking around suspiciously before speaking, “Bring the others in. Spread out. Find the intruder. Send a group to check on our rabble rousers in sector Three-F. They haven’t hit the next checkpoint yet. And bring more fertilizer and water for the Potentate.”

Well, I’d heard of leaders wanting to be given nothing but bullshit, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t usually this literal. But seriously, this was bad. I shifted my attention, speaking to the others. “They’ve got more than one group like these guys. They’re calling them rabble rousers, probably because you were all supposed to start fights in the city. And they’re coming to check on you. Which I guess means they don’t know everything that’s going on with the people he’s controlling. I think his… control is limited right now? Still, they’re coming.”

By that point, I was looking around, only to see Sands, Sarah, and Miranda standing nearby with their heads down and eyes closed. They were focusing on Theriangelos of their own. 

“We’ll protect you.” That was Pars, his voice firm as he looked around the rest of the group, getting nods in agreement. He focused on me then. “We owe you that much for… for not killing us when you could’ve. Whatever you’re doing down in those tunnels, do it. We’ll keep the rest of those bastards off you if they come sniffing around.” 

“He’s right,” Jason confirmed, standing by April. He had a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, his expression solemn. “Do what you’ve gotta do down there. We’ll keep you safe here. And, you know, let you know if we can’t. Point is, we got this. Do your thing.” 

Right, so it was up to those of us who could safely move through this underground forest with the Theriangelos to figure out where the main plant was. We could do that, I hoped. 

Once more, I shifted my full attention to Marian. I’d been semi-watching what was going on before, splitting my focus just enough to know that I hadn’t been found already. Now I could see that there were about a dozen figures spread out across the whole platform, including that lizard guy who seemed to be in charge of this group. They were all searching the bushes intently. Yeah, they knew I was in here somewhere, but not exactly where. Not yet, anyway. 

There was also a heavily-armed group heading for the stairs. But before they managed to get out of sight, the whole group suddenly stopped short. I heard one shout out a warning, just before something slammed into him from above, knocking the figure to the ground. 

It was Sarah. Or, more to the point, her Theriangelo. Which was a crocodile. Specifically, a fifteen-foot long pink and red Nile Crocodile, slamming right into the guy before biting his arm with a quick, hard chomp that left him screaming and flailing. The others at the bottom of the stairs turned to help, but immediately had problems of their own in the form of Sands’ red and pink rhino careening down the stairs to slam into them. A raven, Miranda’s Theriangelos, was perched on the rhino’s back, with something around its neck that glittered in the dim light. 

The reptile guy was already shouting orders, but I quickly jumped down on top of his head and bit into his neck while using one of the fox’s claws to tear at his right eye. While he was reeling, I put one fox paw on the man’s shirt and focused. It took a lot of practice to use Heretic abilities through the Theriangelos. Plus, you had to practice with each individual power. Luckily, I had that practice thanks to Shyel. Not enough to use every power I had, but… well, I could use some. 

In that moment, I focused on my image-inscription spell. It created a rune on the man’s shirt, which I activated by saying (in my normal body, as distance apparently didn’t matter as long as part of me, the fox in this case, was there) the command word. Instantly, a shock of electricity went through the man as I jumped off him, leaving the poor guy to spasm, yelp, and hit the ground as if he’d been hit by a taser. 

The rest of the fight after that didn’t last long. These guys were basically taken by surprise, particularly when I ambushed their leader. Still, we couldn’t just kill them. There was no way to know how in control they were. Sure, none of the people here had actual flower necklaces on, but we still didn’t know how much of this was their fault. They could just be infected more permanently, or think that they were acting on Gehenna’s orders, or… anything else. 

So, we played… sort of nice. We hurt them, but we didn’t kill them. We knocked them out where we could, injured them, rounded them up into a group, and herded them into a side room before I used another quick-inscription spell to seal the door shut. They’d be able to break out of it eventually, but it would at least give us a little time down here. 

Still, we had to hurry. Thankfully, Sands had taught all of us the Theriangelos upgrade spell from Athena that allowed us to communicate what amounted to telepathically. True, we could’ve done it by talking in our normal bodies as we were right next to each other. But this was still faster and easier than constantly swapping our attention back and forth. 

Why don’t we just set fire to all this shit while we’re here? Sands demanded, her big rhino head looking back and forth as the four of us gathered near one of the trees. If this is all part of that evil plant fucker, let’s just be done with it

Sarah was the one who replied. Because we’re down here. And still looking.

Exactly, I agreed, hopping up to a nearby branch. We need to find the main part of him in the city before we start burning things. If we set fires down here right now, it’ll be harder to search these tunnels. 

From where her raven was perched on the branch just above me, Miranda added, That’s why I brought this. Her beak popped down to tap what I could now see was the enchanted green stone tied with a shoelace around her. It was glowing. I asked Sariel, she said the stronger the consciousness in these plants, the more it’ll glow. 

Right, Sands replied, so we find the spot where that thing glows the most, then burn this whole place down to make sure we got the evil motherfucker. 

And we have to do it before he starts the war that he seems to be like… ten seconds from doing right now, I added. Without most of our powers, because we don’t dare bring our physical bodies down here. But you know, no pressure or stress or anything. I’m just saying though…

If we pull this off, we better get some pretty impressive attaboys from the prison guys who were supposed to keep this asshole contained to begin with. 

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Perennial Potentate 4-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so… that was a lot to process, to say the least. We’d gone to Vegas to help find a missing little girl. When we were there, more kids as well as Asenath’s mother were abducted too. Then Heretics attacked one of the casinos and the information our two groups had gained led us up to Canada to meet King Oberon. From there, we’d been directed to some pure Alter town in the north wilderness. And because that clearly wasn’t enough, there turned out to be an outpost of an interuniversal prison up there, who were on Earth partially to eventually do something about Fossor. But while they were here, one of their other dangerous prisoners, a… sapient plant of some kind, had extended pieces of himself into the outside world, where they were infecting people to do bad things. If he managed to make enough bad things happen, he’d be able to manifest his primary consciousness in the outside world, escaping prison to do horrific things. 

Okay, one, my life was really fucked up. And two, the most surprising thing about all of this was that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Seosten at all. According to Prelate, the Seosten mostly left them alone (though they did have a few Seosten members), recognizing that the Gehenna provided an invaluable service. And, I imagined, recognizing the futility of attacking a group who could just decide to unleash all of the most dangerous and deadly monsters in the universe if you really pissed them off. 

So yeah, now we had at least some idea of what was going on. Even if it was really fucked up. Somehow, one of the Gehenna guards, this Azlee Ren, had been infected by spores from the prisoner they called Kwur. Azlee had set about trying to create a war in Las Vegas by abducting the princess, Rowan, with the help of mercenaries he either contracted or infected with more spores. Or both. Probably both. Some of those mercenaries thought they were working for Gehenna itself, which was why Sarez sent us up here to Canada. They’d also abducted the other kids as well as Jiao to continue pushing Vegas toward outright war with each other.  

It wasn’t a bad plan, overall. Especially when he brought Heretics into it. Vegas was a powder keg that could easily blow up. Seriously, I didn’t know much about the Oni, but the Vestil and the Akharu were eons-old enemies. They had found peace in Vegas because two of their number married and started a family. The best way to break that peace was obviously to break the family. They took the kid to light the fuse, then took more kids to make things even worse. And now, if we didn’t do something to stop it, Vegas would go to war and Kwur would be free. 

Obviously, we asked Prelate why they couldn’t just move this Kwur guy off-world. He said it wouldn’t make any difference. Kwur’s spores were out there now, and moving the main body wouldn’t change that. Someone had to find the spores and either bring them back to the prison to join up with the main body, or destroy them. That was the only way to actually fix this whole situation before everything ended up getting a hell of a lot worse. 

Prelate had also mentioned that they couldn’t just kill Kwur because if they killed the part of his body that held the core consciousness, that would allow him to manifest it into one of the other parts of his body. And while he was handing out warnings, he’d mentioned that possessing anyone who was infested would be a bad idea, because that would give Kwur a chance to infest the person doing the possessing. 

So yeah, that was all just great. We had to retrieve or destroy all the pieces of that plant asshole the hard way. Oh, and save the kids and Jiao, of course. We had to get those children back to Vegas to prove what really happened. 

And there was another reason to solve all this, as if we needed more incentive. According to Prelate, they could help me with my Fossor situation by giving information that might be useful. But they would only do that if we helped solve this problem and get their prisoner back under control. You’d think they’d be super-invested in dealing with Fossor too, but apparently this Kwur thing was a more immediate and dangerous problem. Which–yeah, I could see how him getting out would be bad. If he was capable of spreading through all of the plants on an entire world (or even potentially beyond)? That could be apocalyptically bad. So we had to make sure that didn’t happen. We had to find his spores and deal with them before he managed to provoke enough violence to escape his prison.

Find and destroy the spores, save Jiao and the kids, return said kids to Vegas, avert a war, and in doing so, get information from the Vegas people about where Asenath’s father was, as well as information from the Gehenna group that might end up helping me deal with Fossor. 

There was just one problem with all that, of course. We had no idea where this Azlee Ren was. Or where any of the spores were. What were we supposed to do? How could we track them down? Finding Azlee was the key, but Gehenna had no idea where he was. So what now? 

We were all still wondering about that an hour later, as we left the prison outpost to meet up with our escorts, and the rest of our group, once more. Prelate had said that they would help in any way they could to deal with Kwur. They had numbers, power, weapons, they just didn’t know where his spores were. Or what they called his spores. I’d come to find out over that hour that his ‘spores’ were essentially any plant that wasn’t part of his main self. So finding infested ones? Not easy. They’d given us a spell that was supposed to identify any infected plant or person once it was applied to them. But we couldn’t just wander the entire North American continent using the spell on every person and plant we saw. That would get tedious pretty damn fast. 

We were just going to have to talk it through and see if any of us could come up with a good idea of how to find these people. And I really hoped that one of the others would have something, because I was drawing a really unusual blank. All I could think about was the fact that those guys in that tower were supposed to keep Fossor prisoner, and the fact that he had escaped in the first place to ever be a threat here on Earth was their fault. And how did I meet up with them in the first place? Because another prisoner of theirs had at least partly escaped. 

Okay, I knew that wasn’t fair. These people were responsible for the worst of the worst. They kept the vast majority of them contained. Having one of their charges escape a few thousand years ago, and then another work on escaping now was hardly the worst track record. 

Still, logic didn’t always work against emotions. And my emotions right now were telling me that Fossor wouldn’t ever have been a problem at all if these guys had kept him under control. I just had a lot of extremely complicated feelings about this whole messy situation, to say the least. 

Nuliajuk was talking as we left the tower to join up with the others out front where they were still waiting. “This is very… troubling news. If the plants themselves may become our enemies, sparking violence in those who inhale their scent, King Oberon must be warned. Canada,” she added in a dry voice, “as you may have noticed, has something of an abundance of plants. Something will have to be done to ensure they do not present a threat to the Court.” 

April piped up, “You’re not going to burn all of them are you?” Her voice sounded accusatory as she squinted at the Inuit woman. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of those plants are completely innocent. You can’t just take a flamethrower to every tree and flower in the area because one–” 

“We are not going to burn our gardens and trees,” Nuliajuk assured her calmly. “But precautions will have to be taken while this situation persists. As I said, the King must be informed of this.” 

“Informed of what?” That was Paul Bunyan, speaking up as he approached, still in his much smaller (yet still tall) form. He stopped in front of us, hugely muscled arms folded across his chest. “And what’s this about burning plants? You know if you need a plant taken care of, all you have to do is point Babe at it. If there’s plants to eat, he’d give me the silent treatment for a month if I didn’t give him first crack at it.”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was staring at us. She clearly had been paying attention to what happened in there through her father, judging from the look on her face. Tristan seemed to know what was going on too, as he leaned over and whispered something in his sister’s ear. 

“We’ll tell you on the way,” Haiden replied with a glance toward the rest of us. “Right now, we need to get back to King Oberon and tell him what’s going on. Then we can start helping these Gehenna people put a stop to this whole situation. And that’s gonna be fun, let me tell you.” 

Decker and his group of armed soldier-types (Strangers, as they deliberately called themselves) escorted us back to the bus. We would take the bus to the hangar and then portal to Oberon. Even if we had wanted to stay longer, Strangefield’s residents apparently weren’t interested. Well, the ones who knew we were there weren’t interested, at least. They wanted us out of their territory so they could go back to their ‘normal’ Heretic/human-free lives as soon as possible. Which, again, was fair. These people had been screwed over by humans losing their memories of being allies and then trying to kill them more than once. I couldn’t blame them for giving up on us.

During the ride back to the hangar, we carefully filled the others in on the whole situation and everything we’d found out. I saw Decker and a couple of his men give us double-takes once in awhile, but they stayed out of the conversation. Clearly they were all serious about not getting involved in this kind of business anymore, and just keeping to themselves. Still, I was pretty sure they would be paying a lot of attention to any plants that were in their city once they got back.

Meanwhile, April and December were deep in a private conversation that seemed pretty intense. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that the guy we were after was a magic plant monster and they served the Seosten who had posed as Demeter, who was basically supposed to be goddess of the plants or whatever. Not that I thought there was any kind of connection between them beyond that, but still. Maybe they thought there was? Or that she could do something? 

“Prelate gave us a stone that we can use to contact him as soon as we have anything substantial about this Kwur guy,” Haiden was saying. “And he said their people are going to continue doing their jobs to track down those spores themselves. But for the most part, we’re on our own with this. They have no idea where Azlee might be holed up, but it must be somewhere near Vegas if he’s trying to start a war there. Not that ‘somewhere near Vegas’ tells us much.” 

Paul spoke up thoughtfully, “Now that the conditions of the secrecy spell have been fulfilled, King Oberon might be able to tell you more. Maybe he’ll have something you can use.” 

“Unless there’s a magic ‘point me at the evil plant dude’ spell,’” Tristan pointed out, “I don’t think even the King of Canada can help that much. I mean, he’s crazy super powerful, sure, but how do you narrow down a search like that? Besides having lots of manpower, and I don’t think sending a huge force of Canadian Alter troops to Vegas would do much to calm the situation. You’d be playing right into what this Kwur wants, provoking a war. Seriously, it doesn’t matter if it’s one he made or another, right? Violence and anger is violence and anger, and he’ll be right there to soak it in.” 

“At least he has to be nearby,” Miranda muttered. “Imagine if he could just take in violence from anywhere in the world to get stronger.”

April’s reply to that was flat, seemingly emotionless. “If he gets strong enough to spread, that’s exactly what he’ll be able to do. Think about it,” she added after letting that hang for a moment, “his growth is exponential. As soon as he’s strong enough to break out of that prison and put his full consciousness into the outside plants, he can spread through those and keep growing. He’ll spread himself out to everywhere there’s conflict, and keep generating more of that to get even bigger. The more violence and anger he incites, the stronger he gets, which will allow him to incite more violence and anger in more areas.” 

Asenath, speaking up for the first time since we’d left the tower, murmured a quiet, “This could be very bad.” Her voice was subdued. I had a feeling that she was getting more and more worried about her mother’s prospects with every bit of information we found out. After she said that simple sentence, Shiori leaned in and hugged her sister, the two of them sitting quietly like that. 

“The Heretic war,” I pointed out after swallowing hard to push away the thought of anything happening to Jiao. I had to focus. “The Rebellion. If he gets a taste of that, he’ll make it worse. It’s hard enough to negotiate and have conversations with Hardliners, but with someone like Kwur inciting things in the background? There’d be no chance for peace or any kind of… of understanding. He’ll make sure everyone kills each other, just for the power boost he’d get.” 

“Basically, the whole world is fucked if that son of a bitch breaks out of that cell,” Haiden summed up. “And he’s not even the biggest threat they’re holding in that place.” 

Nuliajuk, with what I was pretty sure was deceptive calmness to her voice, spoke. “That is perhaps the most pressing issue. This Kwur will not simply content himself to ravaging this world. He will put his efforts, once he is strong enough, toward freeing his master, the Dragon-Heretic they call Ehn. If that happens, I fear the fate not only of this world, but of all worlds.” 

“But no pressure or anything, right?” I managed with a slightly crazed, high-pitched laugh. “No big deal, just stop Apocalypse Plant from unleashing evil Dragon God and destroying everything everywhere.” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Tristan assured me. “We can handle this. We just need… I don’t know, Vanessa, what do we need?” 

Promptly, the girl replied, “What you really need is a spell to track this plant guy, or his spores.”

Tabbris piped in with, “You could do that with the spell they gave you, but if you want to do it… you know, faster and less… tediously, you need someone who was infested before, but isn’t now. I think…”  As everyone watched her, she went on eagerly with, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what you need. Someone who was infested but isn’t now. And is still alive. See, it’s like… there’s a couple spells that are kinda sorta right, especially if we change them a little bit. But none of those ones are ever gonna tell you exactly where to go. You can’t just like… enchant Google Maps and get an exact place.” 

Vanessa nodded along with our younger sister. “What she said. Basically, if you combine a tracking spell with the identification spells they already gave us, then get some of the plant or its remains, and some material from a previously infested person, you could probably jury-rig a spell to tell you if you’re anywhere near another infested or the plant itself. But the range wouldn’t be that long. You’d have to be within a short distance, like… a block or so, maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Butifit’sthateasy,” December demanded while her head snapped back and forth between Tabbris, who was sitting across the aisle from her, and Vanessa, several rows forward, “thenwhydon’ttheGehennaguysjustdothat? It’stheirjobtokeep… theplantguyinprisonright?” 

“Because it won’t be easy, right?” I put in. “I feel like we kind of skimmed over the ‘find someone who was infested, but isn’t now’ part. But wait, what about Sarez? You know, dealer guy? He was infected, he had to have–wait. No. Shit. Was he infected or just being used? Prelate said they used hired mercenaries who thought they were working for Gehenna because of who he was and–shit, he’s not, is he?” 

“We’ll find out,” Haiden announced. He took the phone from his pocket, making a call. As the rest of us watched, he went through a quick, private phone call. I saw him make a face several times, and it made my heart sink. 

“Okay,” the man finally announced while disconnecting the call. “That’s a no-go. Let’s just say if we need a living subject, Sarez isn’t going to be best choice. Someone assassinated him in the cell where they were keeping the guy. They’re working on finding out who did it, if it’s connected to our big bad or just one of their own people getting pissed off and making a move. The point is, he’s not gonna be providing any living material.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I managed. “So we have no host to work with. Which means we’re back to the plan of going door-to-door in Vegas looking for this Azlee guy. If we can find him, we can use him to find any of Kwur’s spores and deal with them. But we have to find him. Unless anyone happens to know where any other former Kwur hosts might be? Yeah, I didn’t think–” 

My phone rang. Blinking down at it, I checked the name. “It’s Sands. I–hold on.” Answering the phone, I started with, “Hey, Sands, we can’t really–wait…

“I’m sorry, you’re standing there with a little girl who was what?!

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay uh, wait, wait, wait! What do you mean you’re here to recapture Fossor?” Shiori demanded while I just stood there with my mouth open, unable to even think straight, much less talk. “You’re saying that you people are the good guys?! And you’re actually going to deal with the problem of the psycho evil necromancer who escaped from your prison?” Her hand was squeezing my arm almost painfully as she stared at the blue-scaled man. “Are you serious?” 

“Seosten call them Gehenna,” April informed us with a curious expression. She looked like she suddenly understood a few things better. “I’ve never seen any of them, but…” She glanced to Prelate Kotter. “Now that you’ve explained that much, that is who your organization is, yes?”

His head gave a short nod. “Yes, the Seosten and their adjacent peoples refer to our organization as Gehenna. We take the most wicked, those who could pose a true threat to the overall universe, and hold them where they cannot harm others. It is our purpose, and we hold no allegiance or debt to any government or individual save our own. We are neutral in all things save for our duty.” 

Haiden stepped in front of us, his back stiff as he stared at the man. “And the reason King Oberon didn’t tell us you were up here when we spoke to him was the oath of secrecy our friend over there mentioned?” he asked with a gesture toward Decker, standing nearby. “You actually got the King of Canada to agree to be bonded under a magical oath like that somehow?” 

“The good king understands that the service we provide to the universe should not be threatened,” Prelate replied simply. “The more who know of our presence and location on this world, the more dangerous that presence becomes, both to us and to his people.” 

Finally, I found my voice. “Because there’s gotta be a whole lot of bad guys out there who would love to smash their way into your prison here and release your inmates, right? I bet someone could cobble together a pretty damn good army that way. And if the people you’re holding on to are as dangerous as you’re saying they are… if they’re on the level of Fossor? That’d be bad. And you guys are up here all by yourselves.” 

“Indeed, Miss Chambers,” the man agreed. “It would be very… bad, as you say. Two points of correction, however. First, we are not alone. Not only would others of our organization arrive in short order to assist, but we would also have the aid of those who bear the Mark of Gehenna to bring forth their Leau Drema, their… as you would say, Spirit Animal.”

“Spirit Animal,” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Mark of Gehenna, spirit–you mean tattoos? Like Larees, she has a–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yes, a phoenix Leau Drema. Larees bears the Mark of Gehenna, and is thus bound to aid our organization when called for. Those of the Mark swear oaths to ensure, at any time of need, that our most important prisoners do not escape, and to thwart all attempts of their minions and sycophants to retrieve them.”

“But we saw another guy,” Vanessa pointed out. “He had a tattoo that could become a giant snake, and he’s definitely still loyal to the Seosten.” 

Prelate gave a short, careless shrug. “Loyalties to governments and ideologies do not matter when Gehenna is in need. The one you speak of is named Nahash. He and Larees may fight on opposite sides at any other time, as may any of our other Marked. But when Gehenna calls, they will fight together to ensure the overall preservation of the universe at large.” 

That said, the man looked back at me. “The second point of correction to your earlier remark is that our prison is not ‘here.’ The structure you see behind me contains an entrance to our prison, along with multiple temporary holding cells and a barracks for our troops on this world. But it is not the actual prison itself. There are several such buildings like this one spread across the universe, wherever Gehenna establishes an outpost. But there is only one full prison, connected through magic to each outpost for immediate transport of our subjects.”

“Sounds like the Pathmaker,” I murmured before focusing. “The King spoke to you before sending us up here, didn’t he? That’s what he was doing that whole time.” 

Again, he nodded. “He made arrangements for this meeting, but we asked that he not give you the full story until we were able to speak in person. You may call us paranoid, but keeping our secrets is an important part of how our prison remains secure. We asked for the favor that he direct you our way, yet allow us to decide when and how to speak to you directly. He agreed, again, because not allowing word of our presence here to leak is in everyone’s best interests.” 

“Wait, hold up.” That was Jason. “I know I’m just the clueless nobody new guy around here, but if that place right there is just an entrance that connects to the prison, couldn’t you just shut it down if you were attacked here? I mean, yeah, they’d probably be able to breach the building itself with a strong enough force, but then what do they have? If you turn off the connection to the prison or whatever you use, they’ve basically got nothing. So what’s the big deal, exactly?”

Tabbris was the one who answered him. “There’s still a connection to the other place even after they shut it down. Especially if the link between locations has been there for a long time.” 

Prelate actually gave a faint smile at that, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, as the young miss said. If they were to take this structure, we would of course close the connection to the prison. But a force that was strong enough to take this place from us would likely be skilled enough to reopen that connection through the lingering magic from the previous link. Perhaps before sufficient aid could arrive.”  

“The same reason we have to be careful about where we connect portals to our own base,” Haiden reminded us, while clearly taking care not to give away any more information than necessary about the star station. “Because Crossroads and Eden’s Garden could potentially grab the lingering energy from a recent portal and use it to create another one, leading them to our home.” 

“Right, I guess that makes sense. Bad idea to let them do that.” As he said that, Jason looked over to Columbus. “Didn’t you say those goggles of yours can see lingering magical energy?” 

“Among other things,” the boy confirmed while looking toward our new host. “And if I can do it, anyone strong enough to attack this place and get anywhere definitely could. Plus, they’d actually know what to do with it. So, we can’t really blame these guys for being paranoid.” 

“Blame them for being paranoid?” Asenath echoed, her voice sharp. “No. But I do want answers, and I want them now.” She moved up, stepping beside me to focus on Prelate Kotter. “Someone kidnapped the princess from Las Vegas. When we investigated, they came back and abducted several more children and my mother. One of the people who helped them get away with that second abduction was a blackjack dealer, who told us to come here to Canada for answers. And while that was going on, a group of Heretics invaded another casino. When one of them was possessed, he gave us a single name. Azlee Ren Kotter. Whoever helped the Heretics break into the casino was going to take the kids they abducted to see that person.” 

If he had any reaction to hearing that, the man didn’t show it. Which was probably because he’d already heard all of it from Oberon the night before. Instead, he gave us a slight nod before replying, “There is much to discuss. Which we should do inside. But first, there are a few steps to take to ensure that you may safely enter the outpost without any… unfortunate accidents. We need to sync you to our security spells to make the system see you as our guests.” 

December’s hand snapped up quickly. “Waitwhenyousayguestsdoyoumeanguestsorguests?” Her eyebrows waggled pointedly. “Youknowwiththesinistermusicandstuff. Cuzthosearedifferent.” 

“What the kid said,” Haiden agreed. “Exactly what do you mean by making us your guests?” 

In the background, I could see Paul (with Babe) and Nuliajuk watching us from their place beside Decker. None of them looked like they were about to interrupt, though the big lumberjack (still in his smaller, more manageable form) did meet my gaze briefly and wink with a mouthed, ‘It’s okay.’ Somehow, that actually was reassuring. Knowing that… okay, believing that they had our backs if this went wrong helped a bit. As strong as this Gehenna group might’ve been, I refused to believe that they would just willy nilly piss off the King of Canada by attacking us right now. 

“Your caution is understandable, given this situation,” Prelate was saying. “I can assure you that we mean you no harm. But, for your own peace of mind, if you would like, you are free to leave some of your number here. They may, in turn, act or call for assistance should you not return promptly and safely. It is entirely your own decision. But I can only answer further questions inside.” 

As a group, we all exchanged glances. I was going in there, no matter what. They didn’t just have information about the missing kids and all that. They also knew things about Fossor. Things that might end up being useful, when… when the day came that I had to face him. So, whatever the others decided, I knew that I had to go in and find out whatever I possibly could. 

Apparently that wasn’t even much of a surprise, considering Shiori promptly announced, “I’m going in with Senny and Flick.” Yeah, she knew Asenath would go in there too, for her mother. 

“We can stay outside,” Vanessa pointed out. “If Tristan and I each possess someone who goes in for a second, we can use that connection to know if anything bad happens in there.” 

“The last person I possessed is back home at the school,” Tristan put in. “If I just stand out here and don’t possess someone, but Vanessa does, she can tell me if something bad happens. Then I can recall to the school and grab a whole crapload of cavalry. You know, like Mom.” 

“Whatever you decide to do,” Paul Bunyan spoke up after exchanging a few quiet words with his group, “Decker and I’ll stay with whoever waits out here. Nuliajuk can go inside with the rest.” 

In the end, we went with Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, December, and Bobbi waiting outside with Paul. Tabbris had the same benefit with me that Vanessa had with her own father (he was the one she chose to briefly possess). She could check in on me from outside to make sure we were safe. And December wanted to stay with her. With Bobbi, Paul, Babe, and (hopefully) Decker’s group protecting them, there was at least a decent chance they’d be okay long enough for Tristan to recall up to the station and get help. Which… yeah, we were probably being overly paranoid, but still. Wyatt would say we weren’t being cautious enough. This felt like the least we could do while still getting the information we needed. At least, assuming this Prelate guy was on the up and up. And I thought he was.

Yeah, if this Gehenna group had anything bad in mind, the people out here were in as good of a position to deal with it as they could possibly be given what we had to work with. 

Which left Haiden, Asenath, Miranda, Shiori, April, and me to go inside. With Nuliajuk, of course. Once we’d sorted all that out, Prelate nodded acceptingly and stepped over to Haiden first.  Carefully, he used what appeared to be their own version of a field-engraver to draw a magic symbol on the man’s arm. When he was done, he powered it and the spellwork disappeared, apparently activated. His voice was calm. “For the next twenty-four hours, or until it is revoked, our defenses will not bother you. Do not attempt to replicate the spell you just witnessed. There are elements you could not see, and specifics are changed often.” 

“Darn,” Haiden replied, “And here I was hoping to cover my body in spell tattoos and magic Michael Scofield my way into your prison.”  

“He broke out, not in,” Tristan reminded him. 

“Depends on the season you’re talking about,” April of all people put in. “And it depends on–” 

“Are you guys really having this discussion right now?!” an exasperated Vanessa demanded. Despite everything, the look on her face was actually pretty funny. I stifled my reaction though. 

Under Vanessa’s squinting gaze, the rest of us had our spell tattoos put on. Once we were suitably protected from the prison’s defenses, Prelate pivoted on his heel and started to move while beckoning. A massive ruby-red door with a bunch of white spell runes appeared at the base of the building as we followed him toward it. When we got closer, the man held up his hand. I had a brief glimpse of white spell runes on his palm before he held them in front of the door. The spells on the building seemed to glow brighter for a second, then the door opened. 

We stepped through that massive door and found ourselves in the lobby. But this definitely wasn’t a welcoming lobby. There were heavily armed troops, a dozen of them, waiting for us. They were dressed similarly to Prelate, each of them holding a complicated-looking advanced  rifle of some kind that probably shot lasers or nuclear explosions or something. They weren’t pointing them at us or anything, But I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much if we were to act up. Plus, these guys were reinforced by a bunch of turrets all along the walls and ceiling. And I saw more spell work along every surface. Those runes glowed briefly when we stepped onto the floor, and I saw the spell that had been painted on my arm flash back to life for a second before it faded once more, with the defensive spells doing the same. Somehow, I was really glad that I hadn’t stepped into this place without that. It wouldn’t have ended well, that was for sure.

As for the room itself, it was circular, about a hundred feet in diameter, with a ceiling that was slightly curved and around thirty feet high. Beyond the turrets that I could see, there were also spots where I was pretty sure more defenses could pop out if need be. We weren’t seeing everything. Probably because they wanted to keep at least some secrets in case this went badly.  

Prelate said something in another language to the assembled soldiers, and they dispersed into pairs, going through various doors that appeared and opened as they approached before immediately disappearing again. He looked to us then, his tone softening somewhat. “Pardon our paranoia, this is quite an unusual situation. If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain what’s happening and how we can help each other.” 

So, we did. What else were we gonna do, leave? We trailed after the man as he walked to the middle of the room. Once there, a circular portion of the floor around us began to sink, as we were taken down on an elevator. There were smooth metal walls around us, with more obviously defensive spellwork.

Asenath clearly couldn’t wait any longer. She squinted at the man, demanding, “Would you like to finally explain what your people have to do with those kids and my mother being abducted? Because right now, it’s not looking very good for your people, I’ve gotta tell you.” 

“I’d also like to know why it seems that your people are trying to start a war in Las Vegas and using Heretics to do it,” Haiden lightly noted, though there was a slight edge to his voice. I was pretty sure he didn’t actually think the man in front of us was an enemy, but he also definitely wasn’t in the mood for any kind of runaround. 

“Yes,” Prelate agreed with them both. “First, I must confess that the spell I used to allow you into this building did more than what I said. Nothing harmful, but it also tested you for infection.”  

We all started to ask what he meant by that, but the elevator stopped. Rather than doors appearing, part of the wall turned transparent and we could see into a large chamber. It looked like some kind of zoo exhibit or something, a big rectangular room, about fifty feet by eighty feet with a twenty foot ceiling. The whole place was filled with plants. There was grass, a few gnarled-looking trees, some bushes, flowers everywhere, vines along the walls, the works.

The man spoke while we were taking that in. “As I said, we hold the most dangerous threats in our prison. But the single greatest threat is the being the prison was originally created for. The first prisoner. Or, as we call him, Ehn. One, in your language. Prisoner number one. Ehn, in our language. He is actually from your world originally. A human who became what you call a Heretic, bonded to a dragon.” 

That made Shiori’s gaze snap around, blurting, “Wait, like Arthur?” 

Like the king known as Arthur, but not him,” Prelate informed us. “Ehn predates that man by quite a bit. And he is far, far more dangerous. He is a monster who must remain contained. As must his closest followers. There are eight of them. The next eight prisoners after Ehn. All are potential world-ending catastrophic threats, given their own proclivities, strengths, and the fact that Ehn spent a long time using his dragon abilities to boost his lieutenants. They are dangerous, and they can never be allowed to escape.” 

He nodded then to the room ahead of us. “I already mentioned Kwur, or Three in your words. Kwur is different from the others. He cannot be left in the same place for long and must be moved every few months. The longer he stays in one general location, the stronger his ability to influence emotions becomes.” 

“Influence emotions? So he makes people violent, scared, that kind of thing?” Columbus asked. “And where is he, behind one of those bushes or in one of the trees?” 

“He is the bushes and the trees,” Prelate corrected. “Kwur is a plant-based life-form, of sorts. He grows and spreads through the plants. They are his body. And yes, he can influence those within a certain range of himself to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions, given the opportunity and enough time in an area. Normally that is a fairly short time, but our defenses render him mostly safe, for awhile. Eventually, however, his power will overload our ability to contain it and he has to be moved again. This was his time to be here, in this outpost. Unfortunately, it seems that some of his spores managed to infect one of our people somehow, and that person carried more spores into Las Vegas.”

“But why?” Miranda asked. “Wait, spores? Like… pieces of himself?” 

“Yes,” the man confirmed. “While he is capable of influencing people’s emotions, he is also able to influence them even more strongly, sometimes directly, by infesting them with his spores. That is what happened with the Azlee Ren you are looking for. Ren was infested with spores and, in turn, infested several others. We learned the truth too late, and they escaped. We didn’t know where they escaped to, but sent forces to search for them, to no avail until we were contacted by King Oberon, who told us of your questions. We now believe that the infested Ren and the others have contracted mercenary groups on this world for aid.” 

“But why?” I asked. “And what does that have to do with Las Vegas, and those kids? And why did that guy tell us to come to Canada to find them?”

In answer, Prelate replied, “Kwur feeds off of hatred and violence. His spores can grow faster and stronger in the middle of a warzone. Particularly one where peace previously existed. We now believe that Ren and the others under his influence are attempting to create a war in Las Vegas in order to grow his spores. The more of his spores grow, the more people he will be able to infest. And the more he infests, the greater his ability to provoke even more hatred and violence on an exponential scale.

“As for the man who sent you to us, it is very possible that at least some of the mercenaries employed by Ren and the others are under the impression that they are following our instructions, that Ren is acting in some official capacity. Whatever they believe, the result is that they are working to destabilize Las Vegas in order to create an environment which will best allow Kwur’s spores to grow much stronger and more numerous. If they grow strong enough, he will be able to manifest his core consciousness beyond this prison. 

“And if that happens, his evil will spread through every plant on this world, locking every being who lives here in a never-ending cycle of violence and hatred.” 

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The portal took our group out to an old airfield in the middle of nowhere. We were met by a small army of Alters of all shapes and sizes, who were heavily armed and very clearly nervous about our presence. None of them looked happy that we were there. Our group stayed as still and non-threatening as possible, for whatever good it did, while Paul stepped over there and had a brief, yet clearly somewhat heated discussion with the futuristic metal-armored canine-humanoid figure who was apparently this group’s leader. While that was going on, Nuliajuk spoke quietly.

“They are some of the city’s guards for our time here in this place. They call themselves Strangers. And yes, that is a deliberate appropriation of the term your people use for all non-humans. They wear it as a point of pride, just as their entire town has dubbed itself Strangefield. It is entirely intentional.”

She was clearly making no attempt to hide what she was saying to us, because I saw several of the armed soldiers look that way at her words. A couple of them nodded and one stared right at me. He looked like a living squid with armored plating and a ring of eyes surrounding his entire head. Three of those eyes were focused solely on me, and I literally felt his determination. If we ended up being a threat to his home or his people, he would stop us, no matter what that cost him. 

Right, I had the feeling this guy had some kind of ability to project his emotions or his general… thoughts or something to that effect. Maybe that was how he communicated? Either way, I simply gave him a slight nod, hoping that he would get the point. We weren’t there for a fight. Okay, well, we were. But not a fight with him or his people. We weren’t there to attack Strangefield. We were there to get the missing kids and Jiao and get out of there, that was it.

Finally, Paul stepped back and the armored canine-like figure (he didn’t really look like a werewolf, more like an anthropomorphic doberman pinscher) cleared his throat before looking at us. “Right then! Here’s the deal,” he bellowed in a commanding voice. “You all are here to talk to those… outsiders north of town. You are not here to hunt or kill any of ours. You understand that?”

Outsiders north of town? These… Kotter people were outsiders? Hadn’t Oberon said that they were important within the town? I supposed the people being important in the town didn’t mean they lived there, or that they were actually part of it, or… Huh. Now I was even more confused about what was going on. 

The man continued. “You will be escorted everywhere you go, and if any of you try to pull anything, you will regret it. Our people are under our protection. We won’t put up with any bullshit!  I don’t care what you think you’re doing or who you see. If they’re not your targets here, you leave them alone, period.” 

Scanning the group with a hard, piercing gaze, he belatedly introduced himself once no one argued. “My name is Decker. All these people here, they’re my people. Any of you mess with them, and you’re going to mess with me. Now if we all understand that, we can take you up to the outpost.” 

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

Asenath took the lead, stepping forward as she spoke in a calm voice. “They understand. We understand. No one here wants any kind of war with Canada, or with Strangefield. We just want to find the children for Las Vegas to prevent a war there, and my mother. That’s all. These aren’t the same kind of Bosch Heretics that you or your people are accustomed to dealing with.” 

“Oh, we know exactly what kind of Heretics they are,” Decker assured her. “Believe me, we’ve had the experience. A few of our people, and many more of our ancestors, fought alongside humans before the Bystander Effect existed. They had an entire civilization together. Then the Bystander Effect came and erased all of that. It came and suddenly our ancestors were forgotten or hunted. Our families were torn apart and destroyed. For centuries it was like that. Then the first Rebellion came and our people were told things would be different. Again, we fought alongside the humans. We did everything we could to make this world better for everyone. We trusted the humans again. And once more, their memories of us were erased. We were taken from their minds yet again, our alliance broken and some of us killed in the process. Many of our own memories of the rebellion were destroyed until so very recently. So why would we follow such things a third time? Why would we open ourselves to yet another opportunity for the humans to have their memories erased and make us their enemies again? We have all been slapped in the face more than enough, thank you very much. We are of no mind to extend ourselves again. Our people will not take that kind of risk with humans who will only forget us, who will only turn on us. You can do your business here, then leave. We will have none of your trouble.” 

There was a hardness to his voice, but more than that. There was also pain and regret. It was the voice of someone who had been hurt too many times to risk being hurt again. He had definitely been part of at least this last rebellion, my mother’s rebellion, and had been hurt when it was erased. I wondered if my mother had known him. Probably. God, it was so easy to forget or not even think about what it must have been like for people living through the creation of the Bystander Effect, or the Rebellion Eraser. No wonder this guy, and his people, were so jaded. 

Yeah, I couldn’t blame him for any of what he said or felt. So, I just stayed quiet while Asenath replied, “You’re right, there’s a lot of pain involved in that entire situation. But that’s not what we’re here about now. Do you know anything about the one called Azlee Ren Kotter?”  

For a moment, the man didn’t answer. I could see a few of his people look at one another in a way that made it clear they recognized at least part of the name, which made sense given what we had heard. There was a general, quiet murmur before Decker quieted them with a glance. Then he turned back and pointed to the hangar nearby. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “We can discuss the situation on the way. As I said, we’ll take you to the outpost and you can have all the Kotters you need. The sooner all of this is over, the sooner you can all leave this place.” 

Haiden agreed. “He’s right, let’s go.” The man gave us all a slight nod of encouragement, his hand gently squeezing Tristan’s shoulder before he started to move. “There’ll be time to talk.” 

As we all walked together to the dusty and very clearly broken down hangar, I could see December talking quietly to Tabbris. The two of them had their heads close together, and there was a strange expression on December’s face. I couldn’t read it very well from where I was, but somehow I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t happy about something. I was going to have to ask my little sister about that later, if it was something she could actually talk about.  

Either way, we reached the hangar, where the bus was parked. It looked like any old bus I had ever seen. Nothing about it stood out. Which may have been the point. As a group, we filed onto the bus. Even Babe joined us, taking up a spot near the rear where a couple rows of seats had been removed. We were also accompanied by a dozen of our armed escorts, who took places in the back and front, leaving us to sit in the middle between both groups. Yeah, they weren’t taking any chances. 

Shiori and I sat next to each other. I let her have the window, glancing across the aisle to where Miranda was sitting with April. “Boy, Randi, this sure is some field trip, huh?” I teased. 

Snorting, the other girl glanced to me before noting, “Let’s just hope it goes better than the one we took to that soda factory. I don’t think these people would react as well as those ones did.” 

With a huff, I insisted, “I still say that guy looked really shifty and if we hadn’t gotten lost when we followed him, we totally would’ve blown that whole thing wide open. But uhh, yeah, let’s not wander off by ourselves this time. It’d definitely go a lot worse. And they might still call my dad.”  

Leaning up from the seat behind Shiori and me, Jason curiously asked, “So, uhh, is that the kind of story the whole class can hear about?” He grinned. “Because it sounds pretty interesting.”  

Exchanging a brief glance with Miranda, I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, we should probably focus on how we’re going to find this Azlee. Whoever they are.” 

As though in response to that, the bus started moving. I could see Haiden, Paul, and that Decker guy standing at the front, next to the driver (a short, totally white pudgy guy who looked a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with a trucker’s cap and flannel shirt). The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, occasionally glancing our way before returning to it. Obviously, it had to do with this whole outpost thing and the Kotter situation. Was Decker telling them that we had to leave the Kotters alone? Or that going after them was dangerous? Did he know who Azlee was in relation to the rest of the Kotters? Did–yeah, I didn’t know. I was just sitting there speculating wildly while they had their own private conversation. 

I wasn’t the best at sitting patiently while adults had secrets around me. It just wasn’t my thing. 

Finally, the other two sat down and Decker turned to face the rest of us. His hard gaze passed over mine before he spoke. “Okay, now that we have a minute, you should all know that you need to tread very carefully when it comes to the Kotters. This is not a group that you can run in demanding answers from. They’re not a group you can push around.” He held a hand up to stop any objections. “I know, you don’t feel like you’re doing that now. And you’re not. I understand, believe me. Sorry if I sound gruff about all this. You’re playing nice with us. Fair enough. How much of that is because of the king and how much is your choice, we’ll see. But the point is that even if the king didn’t exist, you would need to be careful with these people. They aren’t exactly from this place. And by this place, I mean Earth.”

From where she was sitting beside Bobbi, Asenath asked carefully, “That’s not exactly a rare situation, so why do you feel the need to point out that the Kotter family isn’t Earth-native?” 

“Because they aren’t a family,” the man replied coolly. “Kotter isn’t a family name. It’s a title, used within a certain organization. A title given to some people who work for this organization. And as an organization, they don’t react well to outsiders making any demands of them. They’re very… particular about their secrets, let’s say.” 

After letting that sink in, he continued with, “To that end, at their request, we keep their existence here very quiet. To almost anyone in the town itself, they would appear to be simple shut-ins. King Oberon is aware of them, of course, though he leaves them to their own devices for the most part, because of the service they provide.” 

My head shook quickly as I blurted, “What kind of service do they provide, then? What is this organization and what are they doing here on Earth that’s so important? Who are they, exactly?”

“We have made certain promises, enforced by magic, that prevent us from saying too much about who they are,” he replied. “It’s better if you talk to them yourselves to get your answers. With any luck, they will explain the situation adequately and you will be able to leave satisfied.” 

“Not without the kids and my mother, we won’t,” Asenath informed him. “Whoever this group is, whatever they’re up to, they have no right to start a war in Las Vegas by abducting children.” 

“I don’t believe they–” In mid-sentence, Decker paused. Then he shook his head, exhaling in a low sigh. “Sorry, you’ll have to see for yourself when we get there. There’s just some things that they are going to have to explain. I know how frustrating that is, believe me. But it is what it is.” 

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Vanessa asked from the seat ahead of Shiori and me. “Anything you can say to help prepare us for talking to these people when we get there?”    

Decker seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a short nod. “I can tell you that these are hard people, but generally not bad ones. They make very difficult decisions for what they see as the ultimate good of the universe and every person in it. Some of them are a bit too rough, that’s for sure. It’s inevitable in their work. Just keep in mind, when you find out the truth, what they’re trying to do and what kind of consequences there would be if they screwed it up.”

Well, those words sure led to a lot of questions. I had no idea what he could actually be talking about, what kind of group this was. There were a ton of possibilities swirling through my head, but we just didn’t know enough. One thing had become increasingly clear ever since we went to Vegas, however. And it was even more clear now. This absolutely was not a normal kidnapping.

We also still had a couple hours ride before we would get to our destination. So, I sat back and chatted with the others. Shiori eventually leaned her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I put an arm around her, gazed out the window at the beautiful Canadian wilderness we were driving through, and tried to keep myself calm for the inevitable… excitement that was probably coming. 

Finally, we reached Strangefield itself.  and boy was it aptly named. I had to wake up Shiori so she could see for herself. The whole city was built up into and around a canyon between two tall mountains. The buildings were a mix of styles from the past several thousand years. Some were modern, others look like they had come out of the old Revolutionary War times, a few were essentially Victorian or even older. I saw a couple buildings that looked as though they had been directly transferred over from medieval times. And more, different structures from every conceivable time period, all bunched up together as if they’d been transported directly here from wherever they had begun their existence. 

Then there were the futuristic buildings. Tall structures of gleaming metal and glass in fantastic shapes. A few of them, I belatedly realized, were actually ships. They were literal spaceships that had been parked and left as buildings, with fences and yards put up around them. 

“Holy shit,” I heard Columbus murmur from his seat with Twister, “this place is amazing. No wonder they have it all the way out here where no one will bother them. They’ve got the King to keep Heretics out, and they keep the city far from Bystanders so no one has to be nervous.”  

“Yes,” Decker confirmed with a glance. “That is the point. And it’s why you will do your business here and leave. Our people have no desire to spend any more time than they have to around humans who will inevitably forget any kind of alliance we have and turn to murder yet again.” 

Yeah, that one hurt. Flinching, I glanced back out the window. Not only was there a totally wild assortment of buildings, but there were plenty of people too. I could see dozens of figures all going about their ordinary lives. They were all Alters. An entire Alter city just existed up here far away from humans. They were all people who had been hurt and betrayed in the past thanks to memory alteration, people who had decided to give up on getting along with humans and simply created their own town, their own place to live where they could be safe and not killed or enslaved. It was like Vegas, or Wonderland, but on a much bigger scale than either of those. 

A few people glanced up at the bus as we passed, but none seemed to react much. I had the distinct feeling they didn’t know who or what was on it. The windows appeared to be pretty heavily tinted, probably for this very purpose. If Decker had his way, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t ever directly interact with any citizens of his town. They’d never know we were there.

Winding our way through the town, we eventually passed to the other side of it, and traveled for another fifteen minutes out of the canyon before finding ourselves at the base of a hill surrounded by a massively high metal wall and gate. Beyond the wall, a road led up the hill toward a black obelisk-like building. There were turrets positioned along the wall, making it very clear that whoever lived in the obelisk did not exactly invite many visitors. 

The bus only stopped for a few seconds before part of the wall slid aside. Whoever was in there had obviously been waiting for us. Once the gate was open, the bus pulled through and continued up the hill. Behind us, the wall sealed itself once more. 

At the top of the hill was a small parking lot, with a couple other cars and one rather spiffy looking spaceship the same size as our bus. As we parked, Decker gave one last look, his voice gruff. “Just remember what I said. Keep yourselves under control.” 

The door opened and he climbed off. The armed escorts who were in front of us joined him, and we followed, with the rest of the escorts picking up the rear. All of us stepped down from the bus, forming a loose group in front of the base of the obelisk building. Up close, the place still seemed to have no windows or doors. It just looked like a black version of the Washington Monument.

There was a man there, I realized a moment later. He had been waiting in the shadows of the building, before finally stepping out into view. He had dark blue skin, somewhat reptilian with very smooth scales, and yellow, vertically-pupiled eyes like a cat or a snake. He also wore dark body armor, with a pistol of some kind strapped to one side of his waist and what appeared to be something similar to the laser swords I’d seen the Seosten use attached to the other side. 

“Good day,” he spoke smoothly once we had all noticed him. “I speak for our people. I am called many names on many worlds. Here, I am most known as Prelate. Prelate Kotter. I have been told that you seek business with one of our guards.”

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

“Many things,” came the reply, “including Kwur, the vile creature who, in an attempt to escape our facility, has caused the very situation which brings you to our doors. You see, we are a prison. More specifically, what you see here is but one simple outpost of a prison organization which exists throughout the universe. An outpost that has been established here on this world for several reasons.” 

He looked directly to me then, his gaze centering on mine. “Such as the recapture of the escaped prisoner Thirty-Four. 

“Or as you, Miss Chambers in particular, know him… Fossor.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Oberon wasn’t in his throne room. Instead, we were led through the top floors of the hotel that served as his Calgary palace and to an elevator. Conner, acting as our escort, produced a gold key as we stopped outside of it, glanced over to our group. He seemed to be doing a mental count before he stuck the key into a slot beside the doors and murmured some kind of incantation. 

He pulled it out then, and the doors opened to reveal a large elevator beyond, big enough for everyone to fit in. And that was everyone. Miranda, Vanessa, Tristan, April, December, Tabbris, Haiden, Jason, Shiori, Asenath, Columbus (with Amethyst hanging over his shoulder), and me. We all exchanged brief, curious glances, then stepped in. A moment later, we were descending, as smooth jazz music filled the air. The whole thing was honestly kind of surreal.  

“The king is waiting in one of his gardens,” Conner informed us. “Will you be okay with that?” 

It took me a second to realize he was addressing Asenath, who touched her shirt where the sun-protection amulet was covered. “Haiden and Bobbi gave the toy a bit of a recharge. It should be fine for now. I think,” she added a bit dryly, “If it’s not, we’ll find out pretty quick.”  

“As the reigning authority on things that people don’t find funny but really are,” Shiori informed her sister with eyes narrowed into a squint, “that was absolutely and definitely not funny.” 

Jason, however, chuckled a little. “Don’t worry, I’m sure someone around here knows a fire extinguisher spell. Or maybe someone has water powers? It’s hard to keep track with you guys.”

“If not, I’m good at the old stop, drop, and roll,” Asenath promised sagely. “Comes in handy.”   

Kicking her sister in the leg, Shiori retorted, “You guys think joking about dead vampires is sooo funny, but I don’t think you understand the stakes.” There was a brief pause then, a half-smile teasing the corner of her mouth before she hung her head and groaned. “I can’t turn it off.” 

The elevator door opened then, and we found ourselves facing something very different than the lobby I’d been expecting. Apparently we weren’t taking a car or something to this garden the king was at, the elevator had taken us there itself. Ahead of us was… well, probably the most beautiful garden I’d ever seen. There were brick pathways leading in a maze through hundreds of patches of exotic plants of every shape and size. Flowers so wild that some of them had to be from different worlds were everywhere. A few of them were as big as actual trees, with brightly colored petals on top that were as large as surfboards. Others were of a more normal size, but definitely didn’t look like any flower on Earth. Throughout the brick paths that meandered through the garden, I could see tall metal poles with beehives attached. Like the flowers, the hives were many different sizes. Which explained a few of the giant bees that I could see hovering up around the enormous flowers. Those bees were as big as a decent sized dog, which made the idea of being stung by one pretty scary. It’d be like being stabbed by a sword. 

Giving us a moment to take that in, Conner pointed ahead. “Follow that path right in the middle through the garden to the other side. You’ll know where to go when you see it, believe me.” 

Right, apparently we were supposed to go on without him, considering his words and the fact that he stepped back by the elevator. Wait. I glanced that way, finding the elevator door itself sitting there in the middle of the field. It was like the first time I’d woken up back with the bus, when this whole thing had started. Only with an elevator door instead of a normal door. 

“Deja Vu,” I murmured, receiving a curious look from Conner that I waved off. “Never mind.” 

We started walking, December’s gaze moving up to look at the house sized beehive perched several stories above our heads as we passed one of the giant metal poles. A wide, excited grin stretched across her face as she blurted, “Iwannabeagiantbee! CanIbeagiantbee?! It’dbesofunandtheylookstrongandfasttoo! I’dbeallBuzzBuzzBuzzhahI’verupturedyourspleen!” 

Before I could respond, Tabbris spoke up. “I’m pretty sure Mr. King Oberon Guy likes the bees, so it’d probably be a bad idea to do anything that means one of them would have to die, you know?”  

Poor December deflated visibly at that. “OhyeahIforgot,” she murmured in a voice that was somehow depressed despite still being very quick. The kid actually looked pretty sad that she wasn’t going to be able to possess any of the giant insects and fly around like that, giving a look up that way as we moved on with a little wave. “ByebeesIwon’thurtyou! Goodluckmakinghoney!” There was a sad sort of… resigned emptiness to her voice. 

Wow, that sucked. Every once in a while, the whole SPS thing snuck up on you. December didn’t want to hurt anyone. She just wanted to possess a bee and go for a ride. But she couldn’t even do that without killing the bee afterward. She couldn’t possess anything without killing it afterward. And she and all the others like her had to build their entire lives around that. 

Tabbris seemed very intent about that too, as I saw her staring at December while the other girl walked along with her gaze on the ground. April had joined her partner and was whispering something to her that seemed to make December feel a little better, but clearly didn’t change anything. The two of them walked ahead of us, and Tabbris glanced to me with an expression that made it obvious she was very deep in thought and planning mode. She kind of reminded me of her mother that way. Something was wrong, and she wanted to fix it. Somehow. 

I didn’t really have time to ask what she was thinking,  because it wasn’t long before we passed through the thick, tall flower garden and saw exactly why Conner had said we would know where to go. Mostly because it was pretty hard to miss the giant man waving to us. Yeah, seriously. And by giant man, I didn’t mean like… seven or even eight feet tall. No. The guy we could see standing off on the other side of the field was much bigger than that. My guess from where we were standing was that he had to be at least fifteen feet tall. Maybe even bigger. He was this massive figure who looked like the stereotypical lumberjack. Big and burly, wearing blue jeans and a red flannel shirt, with a thick black bushy beard and long hair. Actually, part of him reminded me of my own father. Not that Dad was that big, but still. The general look. That or Davis from the Committee, who also had the lumberjack look. But no, for some reason, my dad was the thought that leapt more to mind. Maybe it was his friendly and open expression. 

And even if that guy hadn’t been enough to get our attention, the giant blue ox standing next to him would have done the trick. The ox was big enough that it almost made the man himself look small, its shoulders standing slightly above the top of his head. The thing was gigantic. 

“Babe,” Miranda managed in a voice that was full of awe. “You… that’s… Babe. That’s Babe. Flick, that’s Babe. And that’s… that’s…” Her hand was raised, pointing that way shakily. “You mentioned him,” she whispered, clearly barely able to speak. “You mentioned him, but I didn’t think he’d be here.”  

Belatedly, I remembered something and looked that way, “Wait, you did a project about Paul Bunyan in school, didn’t you? About the stories, I mean. It was for English class. Wasn’t he like your favorite legendary figure or something? You– oh my God, you’re meeting your hero!”

My words made the black girl flush, ducking her head as she stammered something about meeting plenty of heroes and important people before. It honestly didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was pretty clear that she was incredibly embarrassed and nervous about the whole thing. 

April seemed surprised by the reaction, glancing toward December before offering, “If you want, I can introduce you. We’re on pretty good terms. Like I said, he let me sit on his ox before.” Belatedly, she added a thoughtful, “I suppose that sounds like an innuendo.” 

Tristan’s mouth opened, but Vanessa covered it without looking at him before speaking up. “It looks like he’s waiting for us with the king. We should just go over there.” 

So, we did. And I saw that my initial estimates had indeed been a little short. Pun intended. Paul Bunyan was more like twenty feet tall, his ox slightly taller than that and much bigger around, like a fucking truck. They were both utterly, almost mind-bogglingly enormous. As I stood there staring at the pair, part of me wondered if they both might’ve come from the same world as the Amaroks. Were giant human-like beings a thing on that world? I wasn’t sure, but it definitely looked like Bunyan and Babe belonged there. If nothing else, they could defend themselves. 

Oberon was standing by the giant man’s foot. He looked even smaller than usual like that. And he wasn’t the only one. There was another figure waiting for us as well. This one was a woman who appeared to be Inuit, with long dark hair that reached past her knees. 

Bunyan was the first to greet us, his giant hand raised as he called, “Ho there! And welcome to our garden. We were just talking about all of you. But I suppose a couple introductions are in order, aren’t they?”

Of course, Tristan immediately spoke up with, “Let me guess, you’re Thumbelina.” 

The giant man roared with laughter, head shaking as he slapped his ox on the side. “Thumbelina! You hear this one, Babe? He’s a funny one. Keep an eye on him.” With a wink, he added, “He keeps making such good jokes, you might have to step on him.” 

Then the man was laughing at his own joke before taking a knee. He still towered over everyone else, obviously. But it put him a little closer to our eye level. 

Part of me wondered if we were supposed to be going through any kind of special greeting with the king. But he wasn’t even paying attention to us at the moment. Instead, he seemed to be focusing on the long-haired woman beside him, the two of them deep in conversation. 

Meanwhile, the giant lumberjack lowered his voice and continued with, “Yeah, I guess you know who I am. Still, pays to be polite. The name’s Paul Bunyan.”

Oberon and his companion still seemed intent on their conversation, so we all introduced ourselves. When it came to April’s turn, Bunyan interrupted with a large pointed finger. “That one I know. April of the Calendar. You know Babe over here wouldn’t stop going on about how he wanted you to come back for another ride? If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was trying to replace me.”

Straight-faced, the red-haired girl informed him, “I’m afraid those would be some very large shoes to fill.”

Giving another loud, bellowing laugh that seemed to shake the ground around us, Bunyan slapped Babe on the side again. I had the feeling that he had gotten into the habit of doing that because he couldn’t smack the back of the person he was talking to. The ox didn’t seem to mind. “Yes! Big shoes! You have no idea how hard it is to find a Footlocker that carries my size!”

Grinning through his bushy beard, the man cleared his throat, seeming to try to get down to business despite his clear preference to keep joking around. “In any case, I suppose, when you get down to it, I’m here to stand in for what we like to call the Summer Court.”

“That’s the open warfare people, right?” Columbus asked while using one hand to carefully scratch under the metal porcupine’s chin. 

Bunyan gave a soft chuckle. “Well, I like to think we do more than fight wars. But if you mean are we the ones who act in the open and let everyone see us, then yeah. That’s Summer. We keep everyone’s attention while Winter acts more… subtly. And speaking of Winter, this here is their representative for this little meeting.”

As he said that, the Inuit Woman turned to face us, giving a very slight bow of her head before speaking in a quiet voice (or maybe it just seemed quiet after the boom of Paul’s). “I am Nuliajuk, also called Sedna.”

Vanessa‘s mouth opened, but that time Tristan was the one to cover her’s, as he spoke up first. “The girl who refused to marry anyone, so her parents left her and when she tried to climb into their boat her father chopped off her fingers so she sank to the bottom of the water and became goddess over the sea mammals?” 

Nuliajuk raised an eyebrow before replying, “Very good, Tristan of Moon. The legends you have read are not precisely accurate, but you clearly know what you’re speaking of.”

With a shrug, the boy removed his hand from his incredulous-looking sister’s mouth and gave a tug at the necklace around his throat, turning it into the large snake. He told me once that he kept Bobbi-Bobbi in her necklace form most of the time because she preferred to sleep through a lot of the day. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but then I’d asked Nevada and she explained that the more the snake was in recharge mode, the more powerful shots she could fire more quickly when a battle came. The snake personality she had been given was content to simply rest and observe from her necklace shape. 

He did, however, seem to wake the snake up whenever he was feeling anxious. Which he obviously was as he rubbed under her head while murmuring, “One of my best friends for a long time was a Nereid. Is a Nereid. It got me interested in sea myths.”

Yeah, no wonder he was feeling anxious enough to need comfort from his snake. It was going to be at least another four years or so before our timeline caught up enough for Tristan to see his old friends on Nicholas Petan’s ship. By the rules of time travel (which was still a really weird thing to even think despite everything), he couldn’t go see them anytime sooner than that or he’d risk exploding. And that would be a pretty bad way of having a reunion.

Oberon stepped over to join us, and we all bowed as much as we could. He returned it with a slight nod of his head before speaking. “Paul and Nuliajuk are here as representatives from their courts. They will be accompanying you as you search for this Azlee Ren Kotter.”

In other words, they would be making sure we didn’t overstep our bounds and act appropriately if we did. They were guides, but they were also babysitters of a sort. Which I couldn’t even start to blame these guys for. Not with our reputation. 

Haiden asked, “May we take this to mean that you have information that could narrow our search somewhat, your majesty?” 

Oberon confirmed, “Yes, in fact. There is a town far to the north. It’s not known to any Bystanders. It’s a town of Alters. They call it Strangefield. As it turns out, the name Kotter is… important within the town. Whether there is an Azlee or not, I can’t say. But that would appear to be your best chance of finding a lead for your quest. As I said, you will be accompanied by these two. They will take you to Strangefield and ensure there are no incidents, from either side.”

Right, a town full of only Alters. This would be interesting. Actually, part of me wished we were having this little tour and introduction to Canada under more pleasant circumstances. It would be nice to just be here learning this stuff without the added pressure of looking for Jiao, the missing kids, and trying to prevent a war in Las Vegas. To say nothing of needing to get the information about Asenath’s father when this was over. 

I also noticed that Oberon didn’t say that he didn’t know if there was an Azlee Kotter, only that he couldn’t say. I had a feeling that was deliberate.

For a while, we talked to the king and his people about specifics, where we were going, how we would get there, what rules we were operating under, that kind of thing. Apparently Oberon was going to allow us to use a portal to go a large portion of the way before we would take a bus the last couple hours or so. I had the impression that this Strangefield was going to use that time to prepare to receive Heretic visitors. This whole thing was clearly going to be very testy for everyone involved.

Eventually, Oberon dismissed us. But he made it very clear that he would involve himself immediately if we overstepped or caused any problems. Things were tentatively polite with the man, yet he was obviously not one to be trifled with. 

Once it was clear we had been dismissed, we all turned and started to leave the garden. We were accompanied by our two new guides. 

“Just out of curiosity,” Jason asked Bunyan, “how do you not stand out to normal humans? Does the Bystander Effect make you look like a tree or something? Does Babe look like a truck?”

That loud, bellowing laugh returned. “Oh, don’t you worry. Bystanders mostly just see me as a tall guy. Which isn’t a lie! Hey, look at that, I’m a poet.” He grinned. “Anyway, we can still be a bit of an armful, which is why this is pretty useful.” As he spoke, the man produced an engraved bit of wood from his pocket, touched it to his shoulder, and activated the spell on it. Instantly, he shrunk down. Soon, he was ‘only’ seven foot, two inches. Still gigantic, but at least manageably gigantic. He did the same to Babe, who was then just a really big, though still blue, ox. 

“Well,” he announced, “shall we go save these kids and the vampire lady?”

We continued back toward the elevator, and I glanced toward Miranda, who had been pretty quiet throughout all of that, only speaking up in a very squeaky voice to introduce herself back there. “You know, Randi,” I informed her in a whisper, “I’m starting to think that it was more than academic interest that made you do a project on him before. Do you have a cru—”

It was in that moment that I found out that even a thoroughly embarrassed and shy Miranda could kick pretty damn hard. 

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Perennial Potentate 4-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, we told the King the whole story, everything we knew about the situation. I was pretty sure he already understood a large part of it, if not everything we knew. But he wanted to hear it from us, in our words. Through it all, he never interrupted or reacted much at all. He simply sat there on his throne, watching the person talking with an intense stare that made it clear he was focusing on every word, despite his lack of outward reaction. 

Finally, we finished, and the short, beautiful man glanced away from us. He gazed off into the distance, apparently lost in thought for a few long moments. I glanced at the others and they seemed just as uncertain. None of us thought it would be a good idea to interrupt or rush the man, that much was clear. So, we stood there and waited, despite the pressing urgency I felt in the back of my head about what could be happening to those kids and Jiao. 

Finally, the man straightened from his throne and stepped over in front of us. “This is quite the mystery you’ve been pulled into. Someone trying to spark conflict in Las Vegas by abducting children… or one child first, then others. Why do you suppose they did that? Why would they take one child and leave the others standing there, only to later engage in a much riskier operation to abduct more?”

I’d been thinking about that a lot and started to open my mouth when he asked the question, only to catch myself. Unsure of the etiquette, I, somewhat awkwardly, raised my hand. When he looked to me and nodded, I offered, “Maybe they couldn’t get the princess to do something they wanted her to do and took her friends hostage to make her listen to them?”

“That implies they had a reason to take her other than as the spark of a war,” he noted with a curious expression. “What could that possibly be? What could the young hybrid daughter of a Vestil and an Akharu actively do, that they would need so badly as to engage in this scale of operation?”

My mouth opened and shut helplessly. Honestly, I had no idea. I didn’t know what someone like that would be capable of, let alone what these people, whoever they were, would want her for. 

Then Vanessa raised her hand and spoke up once he looked to her. “What if it has to do with that throne thing, whatever it is? The thing on their home world that they were all fighting over for so long. The Akharu won it, and then the Vestil cursed them. So maybe these people, whoever they are, need someone who is both Akharu and Vestil to get to the throne.”

It was Miranda’s turn to snap her own hand up and blurt, “Maybe there’s two different groups involved, people who are working together. One of them wanted to spark the war in Vegas, and they were working with people who wanted the princess for this other thing, either what Vanessa said or something else.”

Tristan took his turn to add, “We know Eden’s Garden Heretics were involved at least in the assassination attempts, and those have to be related. Whoever let the Heretics in the backdoor wanted to cause chaos and do as much damage as possible even after they had Rowan and the other kids. That does kind of sound like one group that’s focused on hurting Vegas and another group that’s into whatever they wanted Rowan for.”

Oberon watched us carefully, his expression betraying none of his own opinions. ”So, you believe these two groups, whoever they are, became allies. One with the intention to destabilize Las Vegas likely for some kind of takeover, and the other with the end goal of actually using this hybrid princess for some purpose, such as the ‘throne’ on the Akharu-Vestil homeworld.”

Haiden finally spoke. “It makes a certain kind of sense. If there was one group that wanted to start a war in Vegas and another group that took advantage of that to get what they wanted, namely Rowan… otherwise taking the other kids doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re just her friends. They’re definitely important to their families, but I don’t think they’d do enough to help spark this war to warrant the risks and effort these people went to in grabbing them. They’ve already got the princess. And they can certainly do damage on their own, we saw that with the Heretics. Taking the children always seemed like a lot of effort for little pay off. But if they were taking them to get Rowan to cooperate, that implies something they want her to do. Which makes the whole Vegas conflict thing seem unimportant. Except they sent Heretics in to do more damage. There being two different groups does help explain that a little bit.”

Bobbi piped up then with, “So we find this Azlee Ren Kotter person and find out which of the groups he’s with. Or she. Whoever they are, they’ll be able to answer questions. So why aren’t we already out there looking for them?”

Oberon regarded her briefly, his expression narrowing slightly before he offered a very faint smile. “An impulsive Stardrinker-Heretic. How in the world did you manage to make a bond with something as powerful as that? Unless… a childhood friend?”

Her head shook rapidly. “Not a friend. Just a stupid jackass who was part of some crime family in my neighborhood, shaking down businesses. They were taking money from this gas station and things got violent. I distracted him and then he got shot.”

“Ah.” The king took all that in with a slight nod. “It does seem as though no matter how powerful one gets, arrogance combined with distraction often leads to a downfall.”

That said, the man exhaled and continued. “Which is why I’m going to let you search for this person you’re looking for. Make no mistake, I have very little love for most Bosch-connected Heretics, after all the things you’ve done on this world. And I appreciate the presence of their Seosten puppeteers even less. But I believe that you are different.” He glanced at me, adding, “And I owe Lyell a debt, both of friendship and for everything he did in his life.”

Letting out a breath of obvious relief, Haiden spoke up. “Thank you, your majesty. We have no intention of abusing this privilege, or any of your hospitality. We only wish to find Jiao, Rowan, and the other missing children. Then we will leave you and yours in peace.”

“No offense,” Jason put in from where he had been silently standing with December and April through this whole thing, “but how are we supposed to find this person? I mean, we’ve got a name, but Canada is a pretty big place. Do we just Google it, or what?”

Oberon replied, “I may accept your presence here, but neither I nor any of my people want to have Heretics traipsing all over our territory knocking on doors randomly.  The sooner you find what you’re looking for and with the least amount of attention, the better. You will retire to private rooms for the evening, while I have my own people look into this. We will give you as much information as we can about this Kotter’s location. My people will narrow down your search. Then you can take this person, find out what they know, and leave.”

As much as I didn’t want to sit around a room waiting for his people to do the work, I knew we weren’t going to get a better deal than that. Oberon was being pretty nice, as far as that went, but I could still detect simmering danger just under the surface. He was a man of great power who was accustomed to being obeyed in everything he said. Arguing with him felt like a bad idea, to say the least. 

Beyond that, I was also pretty sure he knew more than he was telling about this whole situation. It was just a feeling I had. I didn’t think he was a bad guy or anything. I just… had an idea that he was more informed than he was letting on. 

Everyone else seemed to feel the same way, at least about not upsetting him, because we simply gave our thanks before Oberon dismissed us and ordered a waiting Conner to take us to the rooms he had mentioned. Bowing, the dark-skinned man with those intricate red tribal tattoos all over his body turned and beckoned us sharply with two fingers before turning to walk to the door. 

We followed, and I glanced back toward Oberon on the way. He was standing there, meeting my gaze when I turned. He said nothing, though he did wink before turning to say something to a woman who approached him from the other side. I had no idea what that was about. Was he just winking to be friendly, or something else? Had the past year simply made me incredibly paranoid? Probably.

Either way, I was shaken out of my musing when Miranda spoke up, addressing April and December. And Tabbris, I belatedly noted, who had been standing very silently behind me through that. “You guys were pretty quiet in there.”

April simply replied, “As you heard, he has no like or patience for Seosten. We are here to aid you. Annoying the man into ejecting us from his territory would not be helpful.”

Tabbris bobbed her head up and down. “We didn’t want to make him mad.”

From in front of us, Conner almost cheerfully agreed, “She’s got a point. Keeping quiet in there was probably the most helpful thing those three could’ve done. Being visible and quiet, that is. The King may not like knowing there are Seosten in his territory, but not knowing exactly where they are in that territory would be even worse.”

“Which means no sneaking around,” Haiden informed the two Calender members with a sharp look. “No possessing random animals and ‘just taking a look.’ We’re here as very tentative guests. That means we don’t push our luck. He wants to know where you all are, so you don’t give him any reason to think you might be trying to hide, understood?”

The two agreed, as did Tabbris. Even December was clearly taking it seriously, despite how hard the order to simply stay in the rooms and not to go exploring had to be for her.

So, I supposed that was it. We were just going to go sit in these rooms and wait for Oberon’s people to find out whatever they could. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too long.

Because as frightening as the idea of upsetting Oberon might have been, tomorrow was Monday, and we could only miss so many days of school before Abigail would turn into her own brand of terrifying. As it was, I’d already missed the weekend visit with Dad. He understood, of course, but we really needed to deal with this. 

Because those two being annoyed with me and teaming up was almost more dangerous than any of these kidnappers could’ve been. 

*******

The rooms that we had been taken to were no less comfortable and extravagant than the ones in Vegas. It was obvious that the king spared no expense or effort in keeping the people he allowed into his palace happy. As long as you weren’t a prisoner, I supposed. 

Either way, it didn’t really matter how comfortable the place was. We all just sat around trying to will time to pass so we could get on with this. There were games to play, movies to watch, even ping pong tables, arcade machines, and the like. Not to mention the exercise rooms. We all drifted back and forth through them for most of the evening until people were tired enough to sleep. Then they rested, everyone taking one of the separate yet quite large bedrooms that have been provided.

I, meanwhile, had another training session with Shyel. She wanted to see the new powers I’d picked up and incorporated them into training. That was the way sessions with her went. Sometimes we used powers, sometimes not. She wanted me to be able to fight with and without it, as well as with and without magic.

I also asked her what she knew about Oberon, but it wasn’t much. She said the real her might have more knowledge, but it wasn’t something she’d included much of in her upload. Which made sense, considering she had been focused on making sure the tutor in my head was good enough to teach me how to fight and protect myself, not give lessons about Canada. 

Either way, it was a long and grueling session that left me exhausted enough to sleep for a full three hours afterward. Yeah, sometimes having the Amarok’s power was pretty damn spiffy. 

Anyway, I was awoken in the morning by the sense of someone watching me. Lifting my head from the pillow, I looked over to see Tabbris silently watching as she ate a piece of toast. Maybe the smell of that had helped wake me up too. 

“Hi,” she started. “What’d she say?”

Chuckling, I sat up and shook my head. “She doesn’t know anything about why they took those kids, or what this throne thing might be. The real Chayyiel might have more information, but it wasn’t part of the lesson plan. Any word from our host yet?”

Handing me part of her toast, the younger girl made a face. “Nuh uh. That Dia lady stopped by to say they’re still narrowing it down and that they should have something by this afternoon.”

Groaning, I bit into the toast and chewed it before looking back at her. “I guess there’s worse places to be stuck doing nothing, but I still don’t like it.” Deciding to change the subject, I added, “What do you think of December and April?”

Brightening a bit at that, Tabbris quickly replied, “December’s smart! And funny. And… and I wish she wasn’t part of Cahethal’s group. But… but if she wasn’t, she might be dead by now. Or just basically a slave. She’s only December because of Cahethal.”

“I’m really glad you made a friend, Tabs,” I said with a little smile. “She does seem cool. They both do. Makes me wonder what the rest of their group is like.”

“December says they’re her family,” Tabbris informed me. “They all take care of each other.” Belatedly, a slight frown crossed her face. “Why do you think they use our calendar month names and not the Seosten system? Or at least the Roman names. I mean, some of them are the same, but not all of them.”

Shaking my head, I got up to dress quickly. “My guess is to separate them from what Cahethal sees as ‘real Seosten.’ They’re here on Earth, so they use Earth calendar names. It reinforces that they’re not part of her real society, even if she is granting them their own identities. Hell, even calling them their own identities is a bit of a reach. The names are titles, they inherit them from other SPS Seosten who had those names before.”

Tabbris didn’t say anything to that at first. She just waited for me to get dressed, then stood up and walked over to silently hug me. Her grip was tight, and I returned it just as tightly. After a few seconds of that, the girl quietly murmured, “I hope they don’t go back to her.”

Running a hand through her hair, I nodded. “We just need to show them that they have a choice. They’re loyal to each other, so we need to make sure they know they’re welcome here and that they can bring the rest of their family, right?”

She agreed, and the two of us left the room. The bit of toast Tabbris had shared was good, but I was really famished and it was going to take more than that. I needed some real food. 

Luckily, real food was exactly what was on the menu as I walked into the dining area that had been provided. The others were all there already, and the table was positively bowing under the weight of the feast that had been laid out on it. Seriously, it was insane.

Amethyst and Choo were In the corner, having a breakfast of metal shards and pancakes, respectively. So I produced Jaq and Gus, sending them over that way before taking a seat next to Shiori. Columbus, sitting on the far side of her, leaned forward a bit to look at me. “You know, the next time Shiori and me go back to visit our parents, we’re not gonna know what to do when they just point at a box of cereal for breakfast.”

Snorting, I started to load up the empty plate in front of me. “I know, right? If these people aren’t careful, we’re gonna get used to this kind of thing.”

From where he was sitting on the far side of the table, Haiden noted, “That’s why the trick is for you to make this kind of food for them. I’m sure Twister would help you out.”

“Help you learn to cook it, maybe,” the Pooka replied. “You know, for a price. All you people keep forgetting that I’m a mercenary. One with a heart and standards, maybe. But still a mercenary. I like money. Especially the kind I can swim in like Scrooge McDuck.”

Before I could respond to that, Jason spoke up. “I can help you learn how to cook if you want.” He gestured to his head. “It’s a good way to keep one half of my brain busy when I’m stretching that whole ‘focus on two different subjects at once’ thing. I also paint miniatures and work on puzzles.”

Curious, I asked, “So what is the other part of your brain focusing on while one part is eating and having this conversation? Or is that split between the two of them?”

“Nah,” he replied, “I’m also obsessing over this whole situation and having a bit of a mild panic attack about how I’ve gotten in over my head and that I might die out here.” His voice was incredibly mild considering the actual words, and he followed it up by offering, “Syrup?”

Haiden winced while I took the extended glass jar. He looked to the boy. “Believe me, anytime you want to head back, no one would blame you. You were in Vegas as someone who might be able to help with that, but no one expects you to stick around when things get this crazy.”

Jason took a moment, staring at his plate before looking up to the man. “Yeah, I’m scared. Screw that macho noise, I know just how many things can step on me like I’m a bug. Especially out here. I don’t get special level-up powers every time I kill something. But I also know that this is important. And if it turns out I could’ve helped at some point and ran away, I’d never forgive myself. So, whatever, I’m here. I’m staying here. Just, uhhh, remember that some of us aren’t quite as durable as the rest of you, huh?”

We agreed, and breakfast continued. Then there were a few hours of waiting around some more. It was basically pure torture. Torture with movies, games, lots of time spent with Shiori, and so on, but still. 

It was vaguely possible that I wasn’t one hundred percent on what torture actually was. But hey, in a few weeks, I was sure Fossor would be all too happy to help me learn.

Right, my brain needed a change of subject. Which it finally got, about midway through the afternoon, as we got the summons to appear in front of the king again. 

He had something for us.

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