Arthur Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Two Weeks Later

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 14 (Heretical Edge)

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

Gwen and Galahad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

******

Maria Chambers

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zeus.” 

 

*******

Amanirenas

Over A Thousand Years Ago, At The Fall Of Camelot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so they believed. 

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

Aylen Tamaya, daughter of Bastet. Granddaughter of Amanirenas.

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Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting.” 

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

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

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

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

“She is alive?” 

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

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

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

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

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, this was awkward. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Club

 

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

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

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 73 – Historical Figures Part A

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Heracles – California – Present Day

“You’re getting a little too obsessed with those toys of yours, Arthur,” an elderly woman with face that was heavily lined with age, yet still retained endless beauty, announced primly. She eyed the man beside her as they strolled together down the store aisle, the subject of her remark pushing a heavily-laden cart. “Honestly, computers in glasses. Who needs that?”

Arthur Chambers turned his head to regard his wife of so many years, winking at her from behind the high tech lenses that he wore. “Oh, don’t be such a fuddy duddy, Maria. These things are useful as hell! Look, I can scan the barcode here…” As he spoke, the man leaned over to stare intently down at a bag full of mulch in the cart. “And check the prices elsewhere. See, it’s three twenty-five at Home Depot.”

Maria Chambers eyed the man with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “I’m so glad that your thousand dollar glasses have managed to save us fifty cents if we drive another two miles, you economical genius, you. At that rate, they’ll pay for themselves in a few short centuries.”

“Hmmph,” Arthur huffed while lifting his chin. “Al likes them, don’t you, Al?”

Both turned to look behind them, toward the fairly enormous figure who had been silently following them throughout their discussion. Arthur Chambers himself was a tall man himself, standing a full six and a half feet in height, with a physique that made him look as though he could wrestle bears. But the man behind him was almost five inches taller than that, and if Arthur could wrestle bears, this man could have drop kicked them. Despite the lines on his face and his grayish-white hair, he still moved with all the sprightliness of a much younger man (much, much younger than Arthur and Maria knew).

“Don’t look at me,” he easily replied, “I don’t exactly keep up with all the new technology.” He left out, of course, the fact that things such as batteries, steam engines, the printing press, and the mechanical clock had all been ‘new’ at some point within his lifetime. Or, for that matter, glasses themselves.

Maria smiled, gesturing with her hand. “Well, that’s only because you’re so tall that it takes awhile for you to see what all us mere mortals down here are doing, Mister Caeus.”

Caeus. Albert Caeus. It was the name he used now, and so very close to the name he had been born with, all those many… many years ago. Alcaeus, son of Alcmene and Amphitryon. One of two sons, actually. Twins, the other being named Iphicles.

Then the troll had come. The troll who had killed the infant twins’ father in an attack which had resulted in its blood spilling in the crib of the infant Alcaeus, gifting the child with its incredible strength and regenerative power. Strength which had grown as the boy aged, drawing the attention of the being known as Zeus. That so-called god had taken an interest in the boy, beginning to train him. Which had angered his wife, Hera, who sent the boy on many errands designed to kill him.

Yet Alcaeus had persisted, had continued to grow in strength and power despite Hera’s attempts to kill him. So he had taken on a new name, one meaning ‘Glory of Hera’, to show that it was his trials brought by the goddess that would make him famous.

Glory of Hera. Or, in a word, Heracles.

For quite some time, Heracles had proven himself against all comers and challenges. His desire to win Zeus’ approval and best Hera despite everything she threw at him quickly became an obsession. He did many good things throughout his quests. Yet also many bad things, things that he could take no pride in now. Yet at the time, all that had mattered were the victories, which continued to pile up. He was the grandest champion in all the lands, in every land.

Then the Bystander Effect had happened. And when it had, Heracles had seen what the people he had spent so much time trying to prove himself to, so much of his life working for, had been capable of. He had seen the unprecedented deaths that happened due to them erasing humanity’s memory and understanding of magic and of other intelligent species. He’d seen entire cities fall, had seen families turning on one another. He’d seen death to a scale he had never before imagined.

It had been too much, and the man called Heracles (or Hercules depending on the land he traveled through) had simply… disappeared. He left, disappearing into the mists of history and then myth. As far as almost all were concerned, he was dead.

For Heracles himself, it was a retirement. And a rebirth. Taking up the name of his birth once more, Alcaeus had kept to himself. He spent centuries simply traveling the world, moving often and sometimes spending entire decades living entirely alone and isolated in lands beyond true civilization. All that time had been spent coming to terms with his own anger, with the deeds he had done, both good and bad. The fury and obsession with proving himself against all odds had, in time, faded from a raging inferno to a spark held deep in his soul.

He had needed time to come to terms with who he was as a person. And who he was, was a very angry man who could quite easily lose himself in violence, and in drink. So he had sworn off both, had spent many years as a pacifist who did not raise a hand to others.

That too, had been going too far, only in the other direction. It had taken centuries beyond that for Alcaeus to find the concept of balance in his life. Balance which he was still striving for, but was at least closer to.

It was during one of those attempts at balance that he had met a then-young Arthur Chambers in a bar, and had become quite friendly with the man. After all, how could Alcaeus not make time to spend with a man after witnessing him, while a completely normal Bystander human in every respect, actually come out on top of a fist fight with a werewolf?

Seeing that remarkable event, he had bought Arthur a drink. Then another. And from that point on, the two had been friends. Even to the point of now, many years after that event, when Arthur and his wife had taken ‘Old Al’ with them to shop for new supplies for their garden.

It had been a long time, from their point of view. Long enough that, despite the fact that Alcaeus had been taking care to make himself look older over time, they had actually commented on his seeming agelessness.

He would have to leave soon, would have to fake a death just as he had with so many other Bystanders he had grown close to. It was a time he was not looking forward to.

“Well,” Maria Chambers insisted, “you are coming to dinner, anyway. And don’t give me any of that lip about not wanting to be an imposition. You’re coming and that’s final.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Al quietly acquiesced with a small smile. “Though I should probably find something to bring with, so I don’t feel like too much of a bother. I’ll meet the two of you up front.”

They made some noise about him not needing to worry himself about it, but headed off. Al watched them go, smiling softly. Slowly, he turned to look at the nearby shelf full of more mulch bags and other planting supplies. After eying the shelf briefly, he glanced up and down the aisle. Empty. Quiet. Not many people in the gardening section.

Without warning, his fist abruptly lashed out. He punched straight through the shelf and out to the other side. His groping hand caught hold of a startled figure there, clutching the fabric of his shirt before giving a hard yank forward. There was a hard thud as their head struck the shelf, and Al released them to collapse to the floor.

Whistling softly, he casually strolled around to the other aisle, where the figure in a dark trenchcoat was just starting to pick himself up.

“No,” Al calmly announced while putting his foot on the back of the figure’s head to keep him down on the floor. “Stay.” When the unknown man tried to grab his foot, he added, just as calmly, “If you try to possess me, I will crush your mind more thoroughly than I could crush your head by stepping down right now.”

The figure froze, and Al went on. “I told the last one of you who came sniffing around here, the Chambers are off limits. What part of that didn’t you understand?”

“Hey, hey, it’s not them, it’s not personal,” the hurried response came. “It’s their grandkid. She’s a Heretic, a Crossroads Heretic. But she knows about Seosten, and we think her dad knows, cuz he disappeared. So we’ve been trying to find him. But that means getting to his parents, her grandparents. He’s gone, we thought he’d contact them sometime. That’s all I know, I swear. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. I know what they tell me, and that’s to take one of those two and find out what they know about what their son and granddaughter are doing.”

“Lincoln Chambers is on a special investigation,” Al murmured, though that much obviously wasn’t true. “And Arthur’s granddaughter is–aww hell.” He muttered under his breath, stepping down a little more firmly. “You listen up. If I see, hear, or even smell you, or any of your kind, around my friends again, I will send you back to your masters taking up a third of the space your body ought to, with all the same parts still attached. And I do have ways of checking that they stay clean and unpossessed. You understand?”

He felt the quick nod beneath his foot, then moved it. “Go.”

The Seosten scrambled up, giving a brief glance back before starting to hurry off. Al watched him go, sighing to himself. Maybe he would poke around a bit, see what else he could find out about this whole situation while keeping an eye on Arthur and Maria to make sure they weren’t dragged into it. The Seosten, after all, weren’t known for giving up quite that easily. In any case, it sounded like his latest retirement was about to come to an end.

But hey, it had been nice while it lasted.

******

 

Saint Nicholas – Turkey – March 15th, 2018

 

It was a quiet, lonely grave, set in an unknown grove far from any sign of civilization. The simple headstone, itself having been replaced and updated several times since the original burial, was marked by words carved in Latin reading, when translated: Father Nicholas – Immortal In Deeds And In Love.

Any who found the grave would not believe it contained the man that it truly did. Yet Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who had inspired the legend that would become Santa Claus, did indeed lay entombed here, far from County Kilkenny, Ireland, where Bystanders believed his tomb to be.

Here, in this quiet grove, a dozen figures stood in solemn, reverent vigil around the grave. Each stood no higher than a foot, though otherwise appeared to be adult humans. Seven males and five females, varying in apparent age. Each wore a patchwork outfit of various brightly-colored bits of fabric, including phrygian caps. Caps which, at the moment, were held against their hearts.

Their ancestors had come to this planet in a ship, though due to an accident in the cryo-freezing of those ancestors, none remembered precisely where that ship had originated from, nor what their race was called. The ship itself had been badly damaged in the crash that had awoken them, leaving only a portion of its name visible. Three letters: LVS. In time, they had taken that as a name for themselves. Lvs, or simply… elves.

While the current surviving elves had never truly met the man to whom they were paying homage, their respect and adoration for him could not have been greater. It had been the great Saint Nicholas, after all, who had taken in their ancestors and protected them from the Heretics who had come to kill them. It had been he who, through his incredible generosity and understanding, had given them a home and a place to work. He had taught them to make gifts for the children, before passing them out himself.

He had been a shining beacon of love and grace, changing the lives of those early elves roughly sixteen hundred years earlier. And after his death, they had grieved for him as if he was one of their own.

But they had done more than grieve. They, and in time, their descendants, had worked to ensure that the legend of Saint Nicholas’ generosity and love of children lived on. They furthered the legend of what became known as Santa Claus, so that every Bystander child might, for at least a time, believe in magic.

And every March fifteenth, they gathered here at his grave to honor the man who had given so much. He had been a human, an ordinary human in almost every respect aside from his gift to see through the then-much weaker Bystander Effect. That itself was something no one could explain. Nor did they want to try. That was simply who he was.

“Our sorrow is a hole which lies ahead of us,” one of the elves, a man known as Tuelen, quietly intoned.

Around him, the others all spoke as one, “Our joy will fill it.”

“Our grief is a pit which stretches before us,” Tuelen spoke next.

Again, the others spoke their part of the ritual as one. “Our deeds will fill it.”

“Our loss is a tomb which stands in front of us,” Tuelen finally declared.

“It is filled,” came the revenant chorus.

“It is filled,” Tuelen softly agreed. His eyes closed, and he thought of the stories that his own grandparents had shared with him, of the stories their grandparents had told them, of the man himself. A man he was entirely too many generations removed from knowing. Yet despite never coming close to meeting Saint Nicholas, he and the other remaining descendants of those original elves would continue the tradition. They would keep his memory alive.

They would defy the Bystander Effect and those who created it, by putting an old, ordinary Bystander human into the minds of as many as they could. Their ancestors had promised the old man that he would not be forgotten. Saint Nicholas would always be remembered.

One by one, the twelve small figures turned away from the grave and walked away. Tuelen was the last to move, staring at the marker for a few long moments after the others had departed. He thought not only of Nicholas himself, but of his dear, beloved family. They had all been lost over the years, some to age, others to more violent ends. Yet through it all, they had maintained the work. As would he.

Touching his fingers to his lips, then to the name on the gravestone, he finally turned to walk away. The others were waiting for him as he reached the road beyond the grove several minutes later.

“To the workshop?” Frodey, the youngest of their group while still being an adult spoke up. She was a tiny female only nine inches in height, barely above a child, with a shock of bright purple hair that stuck out in every direction.

“To the workshop,” he agreed. It was only March, giving them around nine months before the next Christmas. But given what day it was, none would have been happy or comfortable doing anything but working. Working on the toys and gifts that they would give children, to commemorate Saint Nicholas.

They couldn’t really go to every house in the world, of course. Not even enough to actually make a dent in things. And in those places they did go, the Bystander Effect made the parents within dismiss the idea of a ‘real Santa Claus’ when they saw gifts whose sender seemed unclear. No, the so-called elves could only make relatively few children happy each year. But those few mattered to them. Because they would have mattered to Father Nicholas.

And really… was that true? Yes, they were only able to directly help relatively few on that holiday. But so many others came together to do even more work for one another. In a way, the spirit of Saint Nicholas was helping so many more than those few whom the elves could directly affect. Just as their ancestors had hoped for. Just as they had worked so long to ensure.

The elves worked through the year. Not only for the single night of Christmas, though that was their main show. They also worked for other nights, giving toys and other bits of help here and there wherever they could. They worked, they laughed, they played… And they remembered. They remembered the man who had saved the lives of their ancestors and given them so much to live for, all those many years ago.

They remembered the man called Saint Nick. And ensured that he would, in turn, be remembered by far more than they.

 

******

Vlad Tepes – Visegrád – 1475

 

The emaciated figure hung from chains in the dark dungeon. Dried blood decorated his otherwise naked, near-skeletal body. Scars ran freely over that nude form, while his dark hair fell long enough to obscure his face with his head held down. Several sharp hooks where various torture elements hung protruded from the wall just behind him. His toes were held an inch or so from the cold stone floor, where more blood had fallen to stain the area around a small drain. A curious rat sniffed one of his toes, preparing to take a bite until the dangling man brought his foot back and kicked it to send the rat scurrying away with an annoyed squeal.

“Ah, so you are alive.” The voice, speaking quietly from the nearby nearly pitch-black doorway, sounded vaguely amused. The man who entered was dressed in finery, his skin flawlessly smooth and perfumed. Clearly well-fed, the blond man slowly descended the steps into the dungeon, carefully stepping over another rat before stopping in front of the prisoner. “Aww, come now,” he cajoled the man, whose head remained down, “you know how I enjoy these chats. They have been ever so informative this past decade.”

Snapping his fingers then, he spoke brightly, “Ah, I know the problem. You wish to be referred to by name, yes? What is it the people call you? Impaler? Yes, Vlad the Impaler. Or… do you prefer simply ‘The Impaler’? Sir The Impaler, perhaps?” His taunting tone turned sharp as he smacked a hand through the dangling man’s hair to strike his face. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Slowly, the man in question raised his head. His face was just as scarred and broken as the rest of his body, though his eyes were sharp, with cunning that shone through even in his condition. “Impaler,” he spoke in a deep voice that rumbled through the dark, damp room. “It’s a bit… on the nose.” A small smile crossed his face. “I’d hate to see what they would have called me if I had followed my first instinct to have them fed to the pigs. Pigfeeder? How would you terrify a populace with a name like that?”

“Terrify?” His tormentor echoed before chuckling. “Oh, you’ll never be terrifying anyone again, Impaler. Except perhaps the children when your body is strung up in the square. My father has tired of keeping you here. You don’t even squeal the way you used to. You’ve become too boring to torture. Weak as you are, I give it another… few days before we put you out of our misery. Though if you beg very nicely, I may be persuaded to–”

“I like your clothes.” The interruption came from the hanging man, as he swept his gaze all the way down, then up again. “It has been awhile since I wore such finery. But the perfume? That has to go. Far too many enemies with sharp noses. And it’s a little bit… poncy, don’t you think?”    

“You…” Taken aback briefly, the finely-dressed man opened and shut his mouth before getting himself under control. “You clearly don’t understand your position here yet. Which is funny, because one would think that after so many years, even the least of–”

In mid-sentence, he stopped short as the prisoner abruptly moved. His body jerked as he twisted his wrists around the chains holding him before grabbing on tight to haul himself up. But even as his tormentor abruptly jumped back, the prisoner simply pulled up on those chains. With a grunt, he hauled his body up higher. A brief, wicked smile was flashed to the other man, before he abruptly swung his head back as hard as he could.

With a sickening thunk, the back of Vlad Tepes’ head was impaled on one of those sharp protrusions that held various torture instruments. His body went slack immediately, blood pouring freely down the already stained wall as his intelligent eyes faded.

And in the wake of that, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the now-dead prisoner. The light faded, revealing a pale man with dirty blond hair that fell to his shoulders. His face looked as though it had been carved from marble, his eyes a pair of twinkling aquamarine gems. He wore a dark red form-fitting jumpsuit of material far as far beyond the comprehension of the man before him as his sudden appearance was.

“Wha-wha–” the finely dressed man stumbled back, eyes wide with terror as his gaze snapped from the dead prisoner to the figure who had abruptly appeared in that flash of light. “Sorcery,” he blurted before starting to raise his voice to a shout, “Sorcer–

His words were cut off then, as the newly arrived man abruptly moved, turning into a blur that slammed into him. He was brought off the floor and pushed hard against the opposite wall with a hand over his mouth.

“Shhh, shhh…” the new arrival whispered. “We don’t want to be interrupted, do we?” Holding his hand over the other man’s mouth, he smiled. “I thought you wanted to meet the Impaler, after all.”

Watching the other’s eyes instinctively move past him to look at the now-dead figure hanging against the wall, the pale man chuckled softly. “Him? Oh no, no, no, no. Vlad. Vlad isn’t the Impaler. He was simply a boy. Simply a silly boy held hostage by the Turks almost thirty years ago. He wanted power, wanted a way to kill his enemies. I gave it to him. I believe… in the end… he found the cost too high. But I must say, all these years here in your dungeon have given me a new appreciation for the torment a human body can withstand. Your people, they are artists. I will most enjoy turning them to a better use of their talents.”

He slowly moved his hand from the other man’s mouth, to hear the whispered, “Wh-what… what are you?”

A new smile crossed his face then. “What am I? My people call me a Lie. But I am far more than that.” Leaning in very close then, he whispered almost seductively in the other man’s ear. “Let me show you.”

The finely-dressed man opened his mouth to scream, but it was too late. The figure holding him vanished, but the man remained pinned against that wall, trapped by a force far greater than he had been previously. His eyes slammed shut, and his body jerked once, then again.

Then his eyes opened, and the Lie looked out through new eyes. He surveyed his previous body, hanging there from the ceiling. A slight smile touched his new face, even as he straightened up. Glancing down at new hands, he turned them over a couple of times while ignoring the screaming, distant voice of his new body. It would fade away eventually.

“Yes,” he announced in his new voice, “no more perfume. And the hair… hmm.” With a thoughtful look, he stepped over to his old body. His hand reached past to touch the wall where the wet blood still dripped. Carefully, he dipped his finger in that blood, before drawing a simple rune on his own arm. After the spell was drawn, he touched it gently while murmuring the activation words.

His new body began to glow then, hair lengthening and darkening while his face reshaped itself. A moment later, it had transformed to look identical to the dead man, save for appearing much healthier and stronger, as he had in the time before his capture. He appeared to be Vlad Tepes, miraculously recovered from twelve years of torture and starvation and dressed in fine clothes.

“Better,” he announced then with a nod of satisfaction. “After all, what’s the point of cultivating a reputation if you just have to start over again every time you change bodies?”

Turning on his heel, he began to walk from the dungeon, only to pause at the foot of the steps. Head cocked to the side, he listened briefly to a pleading voice that only he could hear. “No, I am not Vlad Tepes. Though I have enjoyed being the son of Vlad Dracul.”

His voice was decisive, as he began his way up the steps. “Yes, I like the sound of that. That is a name that I will hold onto, a name that I will make my own. Son of Dracul.

“Dracula.”  

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Mini-Interlude 18 – Lincoln Chambers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Felicity’s father, Lincoln. 

Tugging the door to the newspaper office open, Lincoln Chambers stepped inside while holding his cell phone to his ear. “She’s getting a good education out there, Dad. Better than she could get here.”

Arthur Chambers’ voice came back a moment later. “Well, you know. I just don’t like the idea of Felicity being so damn far away from you, Linc. You already–” He stopped himself before continuing, though Lincoln knew that he had been about to bring up Joselyn. “A girl should be near her dad, especially for the last couple years of school. She’s about to go away to college, son. You should keep her as close as you can. Cherish the time you’ve got.”

Even being thousands of miles away from his father, Lincoln could picture exactly where the man was and what he was doing. He’d be standing in the middle of his garden, talking on his Bluetooth (he loved his tech toys about as much as he loved growing his vegetables) while puttering around in his greenhouse. Being able to garden year-round was one of the man’s favorite things about living in California.

Not that he looked like much of a farmer. Standing at a whopping six and a half feet tall and built like a truck even in his mid-sixties, people often joked that Arthur was well-named, since he looked like a cross between the mythological Thor and a pirate. Hence Arrrr-thor.

To Felicity, he was simply Popser, a hold-over from when she had been young and the man had teasingly told her she could call him Pops or Sir. The little girl had chosen to combine them into Pop-sir, which had gradually simply become Popser.

“I do, Dad. Believe me, I miss her every day.” Lincoln’s voice caught a little bit before he shook it off. “But I’m not going to take this opportunity away from her, just to make myself feel better. I won’t do that to her. This school is good for her, Dad. Better than being stuck in the public one back here. And after she’s done, they already have a college lined up. It’s direct admission.”

The response was a grunt as his father clearly worked out a stubborn weed to throw out before speaking again. “She jump on the newspaper up there?”

Lincoln sighed to himself, pausing briefly. “No,” he admitted. “At least, not that she’s mentioned.” And she would have mentioned it. Here, the newspaper had meant everything to Felicity. She’d practically run the thing herself through sheer willpower. But since she went up to the school, she didn’t mention it. Nor did the reporter subject come up much.

“But that’s okay,” he pushed on. “Dad, you know I’d love if Felicity went into reporting. She’s good at it. But if she was only doing it to be close to me…well, I’d rather she find out now that there are other things she’d rather do. I don’t want her doing something just for my benefit.”

“Hogwash,” Arthur retorted. “Even if you were a damn plumber, that kid’d be a reporter. She was writing stories in third grade, writing up that bit about the… what was it, the lunchroom thing.”

Swallowing a little, Lincoln answered, “Taco Tuesdays. They kept running out of tacos too soon and giving the kids sandwiches. Felicity figured out the lunch lady was taking a bunch of them home instead of giving them out. Took a whole letter about it to the principal, with pictures.”

“There, you see?” His father’s voice was firm. “That kid was meant to report thing, to investigate, find the truth. She’s got the head for it. And the stubbornness.”

Lincoln found himself nodding. Nonetheless, he insisted, “And if she wants to do that, she’ll come back to it. I can’t smother her, Dad. Not… I just can’t.”

Arthur’s voice softened. “I know, son. I… well, your mom’s yelling something about coming in for our shows. You tell that kid to call me when she gets back in from the trip with the vampire.”

Rolling his eyes, Lincoln chuckled. “She’s not a vampire, Dad. She’s just got a skin condition. Tell Mom we’re sorry we couldn’t make it down there for the holiday this year. We’ll make it another time. And we’ll call on Christmas morning.”

“You better,” Arthur warned. “Or neither of us will ever hear the end of it.” He paused then. “Love you, son.”

“Love you too, Dad.” Lincoln returned the sentiment before disconnecting the call. He took a moment then, standing in the hallway outside the newspaper office itself, collecting himself.

His father was right, he did miss his daughter. And she had definitely changed over the past few months. For one thing, the way she looked at that Shiori girl that came to visit, or even just the way she sounded when she talked about her… he had a feeling there was a discussion that Felicity was going to want to have with him at some point. But he wasn’t going to rush her to it. He’d be there for her when she was ready.

More seriously, not only had his daughter stopped bringing up anything to do with reporting or the newspaper, but she had also voluntarily brought up her mother more times than she had in several years.

He thought he knew why, but it was something that he didn’t know how to bring up with her. Nor was he going to tell his father about it and worry both of his parents about their granddaughter.

Not talking about any investigation she was doing when he knew for a fact she enjoyed it too much to just abandon it. Asking about her mother so often. Actually being okay with him calling her Felicity instead of Flick. All of it came together to mean one thing.

Felicity was trying to find her mother. She was trying to find out where Joselyn had disappeared to, and maybe why she had disappeared.

He’d been down that hole so many times, and had gotten nowhere. He wanted to tell Felicity that much, but he also didn’t want to discourage her. She had been so… down on her mother for so many years. If this investigation at least gave her enough closure to not… to not hate Joselyn, then he couldn’t take that away from her.

But how could he talk to her about it? What could he possibly say?

Stepping into the wide open bullpen full of desks and people shouting over each other on their phones or to one another, Lincoln’s thoughts were interrupted as his eyes found his own desk. Sitting on the corner of it was a manila envelope. His name was written on the front. Picking it up, he felt something slide around. But other than his name, there were no other markings. It had clearly been delivered in person.

Opening the envelope, he found a single object: an unlabeled CD. Frowning as he turned it over in his hands, the man finally shrugged and put the disc into the computer sitting beside his desk before sitting down. A single video file came up in the list of contents, and he double-clicked it.

For a moment, Lincoln watched the video. With each passing second, his eyes grew wider. Finally, his hand slapped the button on the keyboard to stop the video as the man went back to his feet. His head turned, eyes moving rapidly to look over the room full of people. All of them were familiar, people he knew. No one new. No one that would have left the envelope without saying anything else.

“Ada!” Turning, he focused on the woman at the desk nearest to his. When her eyes snapped up from her computer, he snatched the envelope off his desk and held it up. “Did you see who left this? Do you know who it was?”

Her eyes lingered on the envelope briefly before she nodded. “Oh sure, yeah. It was a big black guy. Maybe a couple inches over six feet. Real handsome too. Said his name was uh… umm… “ She snapped her fingers a few times trying to recall. “Guh something. Gary, no. Jerr—no, Gah… gah… Gab-Gabriel. That’s it. Said his name was Gabriel.”

“Did you get a last name?” Lincoln pressed. Receiving a shrug in return, he turned his attention back to the computer. Slowly, he reached down to hit the button once more to let it play.

The video on the screen was poor quality, and obviously very old. From the look of it, the video had been taken from a Super 8 home movie and copied onto the disc. There were dark lines running down it here and there, and the movie itself had no sound. Despite the poor quality of the video, however, it was still quite possible to make it out. It showed the inside of what looked like a hospital waiting room. There were a dozen people in the shot, all of them staring a television in the corner. A television that showed footage that Lincoln recognized. It was the news report announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And going from the looks on the people’s faces in the home video, it was also the first time they’d heard of it. Fresh news.

Lincoln’s attention wasn’t on the recorded news report, however. Nor was it on the vast majority of people who were reacting to it with tears and disbelief. No, his disbelieving gaze was focused on a single person on the screen, a single young woman standing in the middle of the shot with two infants in her arms. A woman who looked remarkably good considering she shouldn’t have been born for another decade.

“… Joselyn?”

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