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“Are you certain this is going to work?” The short, somewhat voluptuous woman with reddish-blonde hair asked the question a bit pensively. She wore a forest green tunic with a dark red belt and a black cloak with its hood down. At that particular moment, she was kneeling in the middle of a small cottage room, surrounded by spellwork runes that had been drawn all along the floor and walls. Four metal statues of humanoid figures, slightly taller than she would have been while standing, were arranged around her in each of the cardinal compass directions. The statues stood facing her with their cupped hands out, each holding a small crystal ball which glowed a different color. Red, blue, purple, and yellow.
The room’s only other occupant, the handsome blond man known as Apollo, offered her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, Cassandra. I’ve been checking out this spell of theirs for months now. They might think it’s unbreakable, but trust me, I can play it like a peunte.” After pausing, he added, “That’s an instrument that’s easy to learn.”
The woman swallowed a little nervously. “Of course I trust you. I’m alive because of you, after all these years.”
“You’re alive because you bonded with my blood,” Apollo corrected with a soft chuckle. “And now you shall stay alive for as long as you wish because of it. Through as many more centuries as you like.”
“If those centuries are spent with you,” Cassandra replied, her gaze meeting his adoringly, “then they will seem to be only moments.” She closed her eyes briefly and took a breath before opening them again. “And when this spell is done, I’ll be able to fix it for anyone I want?”
He nodded once. “Exactly. I’m turning you into a back door to their spell. Whoever’s targeted by it, you’ll be able to give their memories back. Void, you’ll be able to turn the spell off entirely for anyone you want so they stop forgetting everything magical they see.” Leaning down and reaching out, he gently brushed two fingers along her face. “You’ll have total command of it. Are you ready?”
Leaning into his touch, the woman shook her head. “Almost. Just one more thing.” With that, she pushed herself up a bit, touching her own fingers against his chin before gently kissing him. Her voice was a soft murmur, “I love you, Pollo.”
Her kiss made the Seosten man smile broadly. “I love you, my Cassandra.” He ran his fingers one more time along her face and through her hair before straightening up. “Let’s get this over with then. I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces. Puriel might just have a stroke when he finds out what happened to their precious spell.” Chuckling with amusement at the thought, he took a step back before touching the rune nearest the doorway. His eyes were watching the love of his life, a human woman he had met through sheer chance, with a sort of feeling part of him had never believed he would be able to have, let alone see returned in kind. “See you on the other side of this.”
And with that, he exhaled before speaking the command word that would trigger the elaborate spell he had spent so much time putting together. It would take some time, almost half the night they had left, but when it was over, Cassandra would be tied to the spell that would eventually become known as the Bystander Effect. After spending so long arguing against his people creating the spell to begin with, he had decided to deal with the problem his way. His intention was for her to be able to control the spell, to turn it off in whoever she wanted.
Unfortunately, intentions and results didn’t always go hand in hand.
Several Hundred Years Later
Sitting in the back of a tavern, Cassandra, once daughter of King Priam of Troy so many centuries earlier, put her cup down and looked over toward her waiting host, who stood with his hand out. “I still owe you for all the drinks I’ve had.” She spoke the words matter-of-factly, though she made no move to reach for any coin purse.
There was a brief pause before the man lowered his hand and barked a hard laugh. “You’ve drunk too much, lady. You paid for everything already. I’ll not have your drunk arse losing more of your coin and then complaining to the guards about getting cheated. Now, we’re closing up, so you better head out.” He gestured around to indicate the rest of the empty bar. “I’ll need to be getting some sleep myself before long. Early day tomorrow.”
Rising and drawing her black cloak around her figure, Cassandra flipped the hood up and began making her way out. Just as she crossed the entrance to the street beyond, the woman caught a glimpse of four heavyset men waiting for her to one side, partially hidden within the shadows of the nearby building. Drunk and armed with clubs, their intentions were clear. Particularly considering how long they had been staring at her within the bar while drinking only an hour earlier. Part of her had hoped they would content themselves with simply looking, but since when did men of that type ever believe that was enough?
With a heavy sigh, she turned to look their way as they stalked toward her. Her voice was calm, yet tinged with annoyance. “You find me incredibly attractive and desirable, and would like to initiate physical intercourse.”
The result was immediate. All the men stop short, looks of revulsion crossing their faces as they looked her up and down. One turned a little green and turned to spit on the ground. They murmured to one another about how disgusting the pig was before continuing to make their way down the street, leaving her alone. Their words turned toward mocking one another for ever thinking such an ugly creature could be suited for their beds.
“That wouldn’t work so easily if they weren’t affected by the Seosten memory spell.” A voice behind her, near the space between the tavern and its neighboring building, spoke up. “Would you have been ready for that if it came down to it?”
Cassandra gave a low, humorless chuckle. After a moment, she turned to face the man who stood in the shadows. When she spoke, her own voice gave no doubt as to the razor-sharp anger she felt. “Why don’t you come closer and see if I am prepared to defend myself from the most worthless dregs of society, Apollo?”
He took a step, not coming near her but at least emerging into the light where she could see him better. “It took a long time to find you, Cass.” While there was hate in her words, his were filled with remorse, sorrow, and loss.
“And I told you to stop trying,” she snapped testily. “Your arrogance already ruined my life once, do you truly wish to do so again? Because of your spell, the one you were so confident of, no one believes anything I tell them. No matter what I say, they think I’m wrong. Or worse, intentionally lying. Do you have any idea how hard it is to accomplish anything in this world, to be known for anything, to build a life when almost everyone you talk to always thinks you’re wrong or lying? I have found various tricks in getting through this life, as you just saw. But that can’t work for any true relationship. I can have no friends, nothing real and lasting. Even when I manage to use this curse properly, always saying the opposite of what I mean, they still see me as untrustworthy. That spell of yours makes people hate me. It makes them see me as a liar. You made me an outcast from every possible family and friend I could ever have had.”
Wincing, Apollo nodded. “I know. I… I’ll never be able to tell you how sorry–”
“I don’t need your apologies,” she retorted. “They are as worthless as ever.” She paused before giving a dismissive snort. “Did you know, I’m so connected to this Bystander Effect from your people, that it gives me visions. It’s connected to every human being, so it sees everything going on in this world, collects all that information, and makes me dream about things that have not happened yet.”
“It’s analyzing data and predicting probable outcomes based on that information,” Apollo replied slowly. “Because you’re connected to it, you see its predictions as dreams.”
Her eyes narrowed into a glare. “Yes, well, no one believes what I say about those predictions either. Not even those who aren’t affected by the spell to begin with. Every human believes I’m lying about everything I say, and every nonhuman believes I’m a fool. I tried to warn a village full of otherworlders about a plague that was coming. They laughed at my words, and I was forced to watch a hundred children suffer and die. Then they believed I was responsible and tried to burn me. More than a dozen times that and things like it have happened. I’ve watched so many suffer and fall who could have been saved if they listened to me. But because of your curse, because of your arrogance, they never do. They never will. I will see tens of thousands of deaths or more, and I will never be able to warn them.”
“It’s protecting itself,” Apollo noted with a grimace. “Anything you try to say about what the spell shows you would be wrapped up within the spell itself, the effect much stronger. That’s why it even works on nonhumans.”
Cassandra’s tone was mocking, though even that was tinged with despair. She felt so lost and alone, but would never accept help or comfort from the man she saw as responsible for her situation. No matter how close they had been at one time. “Thank you, I hadn’t realized that for myself over the past centuries. I’m so glad you’ve been able to track me down and save me from my ignorance.”
Apollo swallowed before starting again, even though he knew how useless it was. “Cassandra, I–”
“No,” she interrupted. “I told you before and I’ll say it again, I want nothing to do with you. Not after what you’ve done. You told me you knew what you were doing. You promised you could help. Instead, you made certain no one will ever trust me, or believe a word I say. You made me an outcast from everyone I could ever love, from any life I ever could have had. You made me see tragedies throughout this world that I can do nothing to prevent. You made everyone I could ever have loved see me as a lying fool. Leave me alone, Apollo. Next time, I really will show you how dangerous I’ve become.”
With that, she turned, adjusting her hood, before stalking off into the night.
As the sound of a soft chime filled the elaborately decorated office of the Olympus’s chief logistics officer, Kushiel looked up from her desk and smiled faintly. Her voice rose while she touched a button to make the doors woosh open with smooth efficiency. “Come in, Medea.”
The figure who came through the entrance was slender and quite young by Seosten standards. She had been barely fifty years of age when this journey of theirs started, essentially still a child in so many respects. Now closer to one hundred, she still appeared to be what the humans would consider her very late teens or early twenties, as she always would thanks to their Tartarus-gifts. Her hair was dark brown, almost black, and worn in a long braid. Her eyes, almost too large for her face, gave her an innocent, naive sort of appearance. She wore a dark green Seosten bodysuit rather than any more elaborate clothing, and had a pair of enchanted goggles set on her forehead. Those were often pulled down over her eyes, making them look even larger and earning her various teasing nicknames throughout the ship, often involving animals with very large, bulbous eyes.
“Y-you know my name?” the young Seosten officer managed, before blanching. “I m-mean, reporting as ordered, ma’am.”
“Come, sit.” Kushiel gestured to the chair in front of her desk, waiting until the girl did so. “I’m told that you requested leave to spend some time on the planet, away from regular duty.”
“Oh, not exactly, ma’am.” Blanching immediately as soon as she realized that she had just corrected the woman in front of her, Medea stammered. “I m-mean, I still want to do my job. I wo-work in botany, you see. I just wanted to take some time on-planet to document some of the rarer species of plants that I’ve been getting some glimpses of. It’ll take months to catalog everything I want to properly, but it’ll be worth it, I promise. S-some of the plant species on this planet are incredible. If I can build a proper database and connect the records we already have of the plants we’ve been growing on our greenhouse deck, I might be able to crossbreed them with the Rysthael plants to create… unbelievable hybrids. Plants that could cure more diseases than we ever thought they could, or feed entire populations with every bit of nourishment they need in one little bit of fruit.” As she went on with that, the girl forgot her own nerves, sounding more excited by the prospect and her own ideas by the second.
Chuckling softly, Kushiel leaned back in her seat. “Yes, well, I’m inclined to allow this extended leave. But only on one condition. You see, there is a human on this planet, by the name of Jason. He–well, let’s just say he aided me when he did not have to. Now he’s been on a bit of a quest to collect an enchanted bit of cloth. The details are unimportant. Suffice to say, I want you to aid him. Help the human find his bit of magical cloth, and protect him from those who would cause him harm. Keep an eye on the man for me. While you’re doing that, you may catalog any plants you wish.”
Taking that in, Medea rocked backwards, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “Oh. I mean, I’m not really much of a soldier or anything, ma’am. But… but okay. Anything I can do to help the mission. I’ll protect this human, and help him find the magic cloth he’s looking for. May I ask one thing though?
“What is this… Jason like?”
Ten Years Later
“You are a bastard, Jason.” As she said those words, Medea crouched in the dirt behind the home she had shared with the man in question for some time. Their two young children lay cradled in her arms, unmoving and pallid.
Jason himself, a human who stood just under six feet, with long, dark blond hair that fell in curls to his shoulders, shook his head while staring that way. “You would call me a bastard when you are the one who murdered my children?” Despite his words, there was little in the way of actual grief in his voice.
“You never saw them as yours in their lives,” Medea retorted. “You’ll fool no one by calling them such after their deaths. And did you truly believe that I would simply sit around and allow you to use me for your own ends?”
Jason made a scoffing sound. “Use you? You nearly ruined me yourself. Yes, you aided my quest for the fleece, but you also murdered the king who requested it, the man I intended to impress with it. You destroyed my chance to be recognized by him. The entire point of getting the fleece in the first place was to gain his favor, and you murdered him.”
“To save your life,” Medea retorted, still cradling her children’s bodies. “Pelias wished you dead, and would have ordered it the morning after his demise. But yes, you are correct. I killed for you then, as well as before and since. I have killed for you many times, and now you sought to throw me aside in order to marry this princess.”
“I would have kept you and the children safe,” Jason shot back. “Glauce would not have objected to your presence as a concubine.”
“A concubine?” Medea’s voice was high with disbelief. “You truly believed I would sit around as your sex toy just so you could have the political power you’ve always craved? I loved you, Jason. I truly did. I have done everything I could to protect you. But it was never enough.”
“When Hera sent you, I thought you had power,” Jason insisted. “I thought you were one of the Olympus’s leaders, like Artemis. But you were almost… nothing. You were a lowly crew member, who barely rated a mention on their ship manifest. Do they even think of you now? Has Hera summoned you back at any point in the past decade? Or has she forgotten you entirely? Even your gift isn’t that impressive, when put next to the feats of your betters.”
“My gift…” Medea echoed, raising her gaze to stare at the man for a moment.
Jason’s head bobbed. “Yes, what was it you called it? The ability to think? Assuming it exists at all and isn’t something you simply made up. After all, it’s not exactly something that we can see for ourselves. You say you can freeze time, but it’s not as though you can move while it’s frozen. You can accomplish nothing, other than ‘think.’ You say it gives you unlimited time to consider what you’re going to do or come up with the answer to a question, but you can’t actually do anything until you stop using the power, so what good is it?”
Medea was silent for a couple seconds, before speaking flatly. “You would be surprised how useful the ability to take as long as one needs to consider their actions can be. For example, I considered killing you for ten minutes just now. I decided against it.”
Jason took a step that way. “You think you can threaten me now? You’ve already poisoned the king and princess I was to wed. They’re dead, as are the children you were so proud of. And the rest of the court are coming soon, to put you to trial. There will be no escape for you now, no matter how long you can think about it.”
Rising with the bodies of her children on either arm, Medea retorted, “That’s what you think.” As she said that, lights appeared behind the woman, revealing a small shuttlecraft, one of the Olympus’s many craft meant to ferry small groups or even individuals across the planet. The silvery-blue craft was teardrop shaped, standing twelve feet tall, twenty feet wide at the base, and thirty feet long. As Jason gaped, the side opened, extending a ramp, which Medea strode toward, still carrying those young, limp bodies.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jason snapped.
Pausing on the ramp, Medea replied, “I am going to bury my children somewhere they will be respected. Don’t expect to see me again.” With that, she allowed the ramp to close behind her and moved past the double row of seats, placing one child in each before vocally ordering the ship to depart. The console lit up, and the shuttle began to rise. As it did, allowing them to leave Jason and the approaching angry mob behind, she produced a handful of leaves from several different plants from her pocket, crumbling them together between her fingers, before putting the mixture in her children’s mouth.
After a moment of no response, they began to chew and opened their eyes, color returning to their faces. “Mama?” one of them asked, “what’s going on? Where are we going?”
The woman touched each of their foreheads. “You are hybrids, part-human and part-Seosten. My people would kill you if they knew about you. We’re leaving this place. We’ll find somewhere new to stay. I believe there is a whole new continent out there, begging to be explored.”
And thus, Medea and her children set out, preparing to settle in what would, in some far distant time, be known as Australia.
Jack o’ Kent
“Come on man, get those bags full. Quit stalling! Ain’t nobody coming to help you!” The shouted words came from a man in a dark ski mask, who held a pistol aimed toward another man in a security services uniform. That latter figure was carrying heavy bags away from the armored van that had been forced to pull into the dark alley they were in now, driven off the road by the Mercedes that now sat with its trunk open. In most cases, of course, an armored truck versus a luxury car wouldn’t have ended with the latter’s triumph. But this particular car had been magically reinforced, making it more than strong enough to force the van into this corner.
The driver of the van, a furry Rakshasa (cat-like Alter) was currently kneeling on the ground with his hands behind his head while the second thief (who also wore a ski mask but whose body was at least seven and a half feet tall and seemed to be made of rock) held a heavy-duty shotgun close to him. The rock-covered thief snarled, “And don’t you think about being a hero neither. You start shit, this buddy of yours’ll be the first to go.”
“I’m doing it, I’ve got it,” the driver’s partner held up two of the bags he had just taken from the back of the van. He was a plain-looking man in almost all respects, his straight dark hair cut to medium length, just past his ears. He appeared human or at least human-passing, standing several inches under six feet, with a wiry build. “Don’t worry, neither of us are being paid enough to fuck with you guys on this. See?” He walked around the back of the open Mercedes and tossed the bags into the trunk before jogging back to pick up the next couple bags under the watchful eye of the first thief. “I don’t even know what this stuff is. Too heavy to be cash. You guys stealing jewels?”
“Here’s an idea,” the humanoid masked figure snapped, “how about you stop asking stupid questions and just put the shit in the car before we blow your partner’s head off and then start taking turns having some fun with you?”
Meekly apologizing, the other man hurriedly continued carrying bags from the van to the car while the two thieves anxiously waited to leave with their loot. Finally, the last of the goods had been dropped into the trunk. Standing back there with his hands raised obediently over his head, the security man half-stammered, “Ok-kay, you’ve got what you want, now it’s time for you to leave, right?”
The rock-man with the enormous shotgun chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah, totally time to leave. Thanks so much for your business.” With that, he lashed out with the gun, smacking the Rakshasa driver in the back of the head to knock him out.
Immediately, as his partner fell limply to the ground, the man by the car lowered his hands. “Well, I’d say this was a productive outing.” His voice had lost all nervousness, adopting a completely casual tone. Likewise, his body language betrayed no worry about the guns the other two held.
“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” the humanoid thief retorted. “Are you sure you got all the good shit? Be a pretty damn bad waste to spend all those months getting you embedded in that company just to walk away with garbage.”
The man by the car in the security uniform gave a brief nod. “Oh yes, I’m sure. There’s just one little problem.”
“Huh? What problem?” The rock-man snarled, turning that way expectantly. “We just pulled off the heist of the fucking decade, don’t start talking about problems now.”
Their partner, the supposed armored truck escort, shrugged helplessly. “Well, you see, it turns out I was never that good at sharing.” With that, he hopped up on the bumper of the car, gave a cheeky wave, and then jumped into the trunk itself feet first, vanishing from sight.
Both of the armed thieves looked at each other for a brief second before sprinting to the car. They arrived, standing in front of the open trunk, just in time to see a glowing portal in the bottom. A portal through which they could see what looked like an old furniture store somewhere far, far away. Their view was from the ceiling, looking down on the room. Their bags of loot were lying there, with their ‘partner’ crouched next to them where he had landed. Turning back that way, he saluted while calling, “Thanks for the help!”
“Hey, hey!” the humanoid thief started to scramble into the trunk, even as the portal began to close right in his face. “We’re partners, you son of a bitch! You can’t do this!” The portal was already too small to fit through, but he stuck his gun into it, only to have the barrel sheared off as the opening closed around it. “You fucker! You can’t do this, Jack! Jack!
Chuckling to himself, the man called Jack crouched to look through the bags of loot that he and his now-former partners had managed to liberate. Just as he dipped his fingers into one of them, however, his head tilted, and he spoke simply. “You know, it’s been a while since you tried to spy on me. I thought you were done with that.”
“Spy?” the man lounging in an old recliner on the far side of the open furniture show area replied. “I think you mean testing you.” With those words, Apollo straightened up and walked that way. He wore a crisp white suit over a red silk shirt, along with dark sunglasses. “After all, I have to make sure you haven’t been slacking off. Wouldn’t want one of my own Natural Bonded to get a bad reputation.” He paused, seeming to consider that before a flash of painful memories of Cassandra passed through him. “I mean, an incompetent reputation. Pretty sure you already have a bad one with plenty of people. Including those friends you just left behind.”
“Don’t worry, I know how to handle my own reputation,” Jack retorted smoothly, rising to his feet to face the other man. “Without making it boring.”
Apollo’s head shook. “Heavens forbid. Death before boredom.” A fond smile came as happier memories crossed his mind at the thought of days long past. “You always did enjoy being a handful.”
With an easy grin that seemed to light up his otherwise relatively unremarkable and plain face, Jack shot back, “Well after you saved my life, I felt like I needed to make the most of it.”
“I’d say you did that pretty well,” Apollo agreed. “Immortalized yourself in nursery rhymes and stories. Who knew you’d be able to turn your near-death experience falling down a hill after fetching water into something children would chant centuries later? How is Jill, anyway?”
The other man shrugged a bit at that. “Why don’t you ask her yourself? She’s still pretty shy, but she does like you.”
With that, his head tilted, turning one way, then another. Finally, his gaze found Apollo once more with a softer smile, body language changing to become visibly more uncertain and awkward. “Hello, Apollo.”
“Hey there, Jill,” Apollo greeted her fondly. “Keeping your brother out of trouble?”
“The worst of it, I think,” the female-presenting facet confirmed. “He does like finding it, though.” She added that bit with a tiny frown.
Apollo chuckled. “Oh, I know he does, believe me. When he’s not cheating to win bets with me about bridges or crop harvests, he’s using my power to make some magic dealers accept an old cow in exchange for enchanted beans so he can climb through a portal to steal a bunch of gold from a giant. Whom he then tricks into jumping off a cliff.”
Blushing a little, Jill offered a shrug. “He keeps himself busy, I guess. Did uhh, did you come find us for a reason? You’ve been gone for awhile.” Her tone on the last bit was curious.
“I figured you didn’t really need me that much anymore,” Apollo replied. “Besides, it seems like every time I come back around, your brother has a new wager he wants to make.”
“A new wager I want to win, you mean,” Jack, taking over for his head-sister, replied simply. His body language immediately became more confident and outgoing. “And is it my fault you didn’t think about the fact things like dogs and other animals would cross that bridge too, not just people? Or that some crops are harvested from the top and some from the bottom? Really, you were basically asking to lose those bets.” After a brief pause, he added, “Though it was Jill who wrote down the stories about them. She writes down all the stories, and keeps spreading them.”
“She’s always been proud of you,” Apollo agreed with an easy chuckle. “After all, you tricked the devil, more than once.”
Jack’s reply was casual, yet still somewhat pointed. “And something tells me you want more of that trickery aimed at someone else this time. You didn’t just track us down and show up for a simple social call, did you?”
“I really do want to catch up with everything you’ve both been up to,” Apollo insisted before giving a soft sigh. “But yes, I did have something else in mind too. Something important.”
“Whatever it is, we’re in,” Jack informed him. “We owe you that much. Though I can’t promise we won’t make a profit off it too.”
Apollo nodded. “I wouldn’t expect anything less. And believe me, there should be plenty of opportunity for profit with this. Not to mention bragging rights.
“See, you’re the best thief I know. So I want you to help us steal the former Headmistress of Crossroads away from the prison they’re keeping her in.”
“Hard to believe this used to be the headquarters of one of the biggest newspapers in the country, huh?” As he said that, Arthur Chambers stood in the middle of an old, dust-covered room. The whole place was full of desks and typewriters that hadn’t been used in many years, leaving the clear impression of what had once been a bustling main floor crowded with people shouting back and forth about stories and deadlines. Now the overhead lights barely worked, flickering, repeatedly, and sending shadows dancing through the room. Thankfully, he held a flashlight in one hand to take up the slack.
Maria, standing next to him, shook her head at her husband while holding a rock that magically glowed with its own flashlight-like beam. “Harder for me to believe that this place hasn’t been refurbished or just completely torn down for a new building. You’d think they would have put something else here by now. When did the paper close down, again?”
“Nineteen twenty-three.” The answer came not from Arthur himself, but from the headless man standing near the doorway. Well, not quite headless in the sense that he didn’t have one at all. He actually held said head tucked under his left arm. Still, it was a sight that might have been startling not so long ago, if Arthur and Maria hadn’t known him quite well. In fact, they had come here with Brom Bones after having a lovely brunch with the man at a place just down the street. He had quite rightly enthused at length about the hotcakes there and insisted they stop on their way to this place. What the Bystander Effect made the people in that place believe they were seeing as the head on the table called out orders to his body about what to select from the buffet was anyone’s guess.
Walking fully into the room, Brom continued. “It closed just over a year after her death, actually. Not that she still worked here. Hadn’t worked here in decades, actually. Not since they stopped letting her do the work she came to the paper for to begin with.”
“Well, that’s what I was hired for, wasn’t it?” The other new voice came from a nearby desk, where a glowing, semi-translucent figure perched on a chair that had been pulled out. She had been a handsome woman in life, with short brown hair and gray-green eyes. Looking down at herself, the woman frowned slightly at the blue dress she wore, waving a hand to transform it into suit and tie. Smiling then, she straightened up before looking straight at the head-carrying man. “You’re a necromancer. You’ve been feeding me power and calling for me since you came into this place.”
“We’re sorry to disturb you, Miss…” Maria paused. “I’m sorry, do you prefer Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Cockran? Or Elizabeth Seaman?” She ran through the famous woman’s penname, birth name, and married name in quick succession.
“Oh Nellie’s quite fine,” came the easy response. “After all, that is the name that people know me by. I’d say that’s the part of me that stayed behind in this place when I passed. It’s like your friend there said, I stopped working here in eighteen-eighty-seven. Do you know why I started in the first place, how I was hired?”
Arthur chuckled. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, our granddaughter, Felicity, wrote a school project about you when she was in junior high. You’re a bit of a hero to her, actually. If I recall correctly, it was eighteen-eighty-five when you took offense at an article you read about how women were meant to stay home cleaning house and making babies. And instead of just stewing about it, you wrote your own response back to them.”
“I did, indeed, Mister…” The ghost woman trailed off. “I’m sorry, you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
“Arthur,” he informed her. “Arthur Chambers. And this is my wife.”
“Maria,” the woman in question put in with a smile. “Our friend over there is Brom Bones. He agreed to help us out with this when we heard you might be haunting this place.” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “Is haunt a bad term?”
“Seems fairly accurate from where I’m standing,” Nellie replied. “As I was saying, I’m still not exactly certain why my ghost chose to appear and be locked to this place, when I only spent a couple years here. I suppose it was quite formative for my future. I wrote that letter and the editor enjoyed it so much he put out a message, asking me to identify myself. I had written under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl.’ But his response convinced me to reveal myself, and he hired me. I wrote a few more articles for them. It worked well for a while, then they got complaints because I wrote about women working in factories. The paper leadership decided to move me over to start writing the sort of thing women were supposed to write about. You know, fashion and society sort of things. The proper place for a woman writer, if you will. In their minds, anyway.”
“If I remember Felicity’s report properly, you didn’t exactly take that lying down,” Maria noted. “That was when you went to Mexico, wasn’t it?”
Nellie gave a short nod of confirmation, beaming at the thought that their granddaughter knew so much about her. “I spent about six months there, as it happens. Then I had to leave. The Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, didn’t seem to like my writing either. Probably because I didn’t like him imprisoning another journalist for criticizing him. But his anger was a bit more directly dangerous than that of a few disgruntled factory owners, so I came back to Pittsburg.” She gave a soft sigh of regret then. “Not that that lasted long, of course. They put me right onto those same boring old stories again. So I moved to New York. Had a devil of a time getting a job there, until I agreed to go undercover in a lunatic asylum.”
“That one I knew about,” Maria quickly put in. “Even before Felicity did her report, I mean. You spent ten days in one of the worst mental asylums in the country and put out a whole report exposing them. It actually forced them to reform the system somewhat. You led a whole new field of women into showing that they could contribute to journalism by going undercover like that. Stunt girls, they called them. Now that was glorious.”
“Please, you’re going to make me use up all the energy poor Mr. Bones over there provided just by blushing,” Nellie objected. “I only did what felt right and just at the time. If others saw fit to follow that as an example, I am quite proud and far more humbled. I said it before and I shall say it again. Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything. Any of the women who came before or after me could have done the same. Many likely better than I managed. There’s nothing special about me aside from the fact that I did rather than simply think.”
“You say there’s nothing special about you,” Arthur objected, “but not only did you pioneer the entire field of investigative journalism, for women and men, you actually set a world record for traveling around the world.”
Chuckling a bit self-consciously at that, Nellie bowed her head in acknowledgment. “A record which only stood for four months before it was broken, as it happens. I was simply inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Around The World In Eighty Days.’ I wanted to prove it was possible, and the paper I was working for accommodated me. In the end, it took only seventy-two. And now I’ve heard that such feats are possible in mere hours for some. Less if you’re of the… magically inclined, though that seems to be a fair bit of cheating, by my thinking.”
“Revolutionized investigative reporting, showed that women could be real reporters, pissed off a dictator, went around the world in seventy-two days, and if I recall Felicity’s report correctly, even invented the fifty-five gallon steel oil drum we still use today after taking over the company your husband owned.” Arthur sounded awed. “That’s what I call making the most of your life.”
“You say that like I was perfect,” Nellie murmured a bit self-consciously. “Believe me, I was far from that. I did my best with Robert’s company, but I didn’t know enough to notice when certain people were stealing from it. The whole thing went under because I couldn’t stop their embezzling.”
“And then you went right back to being a reporter,” Maria pointed out. “You switched careers to run a manufacturing company, did what you could, then returned to your calling in time to report on World War One from the frontline. You were the first woman to go right into the war zone like that.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “All of which is to say, we would be incredibly appreciative if you might allow our friend Brom here to bring you with us on a trip. Our granddaughter’s away right now, but she would absolutely love to meet you.”
“Oh.” Nellie Bly’s ghost blinked before looking back and forth between them for a moment. Finally, she offered a faint smile. “Well, I have been stuck in this building for quite some time.
“And I always did love an adventure.”
The ship appeared to be damaged beyond all conceivable repair. It tumbled through deep space, far from any inhabited planet or sign of civilization. At one point, the thing had been quite impressive, shaped like a massive crescent moon the size of an actual moon. From one end of the ship to the other, counting the curved structure, was almost two hundred miles. Unfortunately, roughly fourteen miles of that along the inside curve had been blown apart, revealing the broken interior, where anything that had once been inside that portion of the ship had long-since been lost to the ravages of space. The rest of the structure had been locked away through sealed blast doors, but the damage was done. This was not a ship that would fly under its own power any time soon. Particularly not with the loss of its actual crew almost ten thousand years earlier.
And yet, that ten thousand year journey of drifting aimlessly through empty space came to an abrupt halt, as a second ship, this one undamaged, appeared in its path. This new ship was shaped like three arrows, stacked with two underneath the third. Where the individual pointed arrowheads would be on actual arrows was a single larger blade-shape attached to all three ‘shafts,’ and at the opposite end where the feathers would have been was a single large orb structure, also encompassing all three. The blade at the front was twelve miles across from one side to the other, three miles tall, and sixteen miles long from the sharp tip to the point where it connected to the rest of the ship. Each of the three connected ‘arrow shafts’ were three and a half miles across, and thirty miles long to reach the big orb at the back. Finally, the orb itself was fifteen miles in diameter.
The new, totally functional ship came to a halt once it was in position directly in the path of the drifting, broken one. They were still several thousand miles apart from one another, though that was practically eye to eye as far as distances in space went. The broken ship would be right on top of them within a relatively short time.
Or it would have been, had the functional ship not promptly projected a massive, colorful beam that way, sent from the tip of the suddenly-glowing blade-like structure. At first glance, the beam might have been mistaken for a laser, aside from the fact that it was colored like a rainbow. In fact, that was precisely what the beam looked like: a four-mile-wide, three-thousand-mile-long rainbow. As soon as the beam struck the other ship, near the undamaged end, its forward momentum came to a complete halt. It ceased its millennia-long drifting and froze there.
Meanwhile, inside the broken ship, at the point where the rainbow beam had struck it, was a pitch-black chamber. At least, it was pitch-black, until a bright glowing portal appeared on the wall directly connected to where the rainbow beam was hitting the opposite side. The portal, rapidly growing to become ten feet across and twelve feet high, illuminated what turned out to be some sort of cafeteria area, though the seats and tables were clearly designed for a species twice as large as humans, with six legs.
First to arrive in the alien cafeteria through the portal was a human of incredible size for his species. He stood seven feet tall, with a heavyset body that was equal-parts bulk and muscle. He looked not like a chiseled bodybuilder, but like a man who competed in actual weight-lifting competitions. His red hair was worn long past his shoulders, with a matching thick beard. In one hand he carried a hefty-looking hammer with glowing runic symbols along both the handle and the metal head. He wore what appeared to be black and red chainmail armor, though it was clearly constructed from much more advanced materials than any found during the medieval times of Earth.
Right behind that man’s arrival, appearing through the portal as he peered suspiciously around the room, were a couple dozen small ravens. They might have been mistaken for cyberforms at first glance, but they weren’t entirely constructed of metal. Their wings and talons were, and their eyes were cybernetic as well, but they had started life as organic beings. They were cyborg-ravens gliding through the room (or in some cases outright stopping to impossibly hover in midair) while scanning every inch of it for danger.
“The least you could have done,” announced a voice as another man came through the portal, “was wait until the ravens ensured the place was safe.” The newcomer wasn’t quite as tall as the first man, though he still stood several inches over six feet. His own hair was brown, and he too wore it long with an equally impressive beard. His own futuristic chainmail was brown and amber, and he carried a long broadsword with its own glowing runes in his left hand. His right hand was made of metal, clearly robotic in nature.
“Bah!” the first man retorted, “where’s the fun in waiting around till they tell us we’re allowed to come through? We can’t let them have all the excitement.”
The second man started to reply, before a third appeared through the portal. This one stood shorter than both of them, not quite reaching six feet. He was not built as heavily or as muscular as either of them, appearing to be relatively thin. His hair was gray-white, with his own long beard. He wore no armor and carried no weapons, clad in what looked like a blueish-gray tunic and pants that would not have been out of place strolling through an Earth village a thousand years earlier. Another of the cyborg-ravens perched on his shoulder. One of his eyes was biological, the other replaced with a cybernetic implant similar to those of his ravens.
“There’ll be plenty of excitement, Thor,” Odin announced. “Heimdall already gave it another scan. We’ve got a small army of surviving Fomorian creatures and whatever they managed to turn the crew of this ship into. They were scattered throughout the whole place, but it sounds like they know we’re here, because they’re starting to congregate this way. Sif and Freyr took a second group through another Bifrost beam to come at them from behind. But we get the direct assault.”
Sniffing a little, Thor touched a finger to his eye. “I knew you loved me, Father.” Gripping his hammer tight, he cast a sidelong look toward the other man. “Ready to have some fun, Tyr?”
Grunting with a mix of acknowledgment and amusement, Tyr cracked his neck. “I suppose I must always be, if I am to stay at your side.”
“Remember, war is our tool, not our goal,” Odin advised. “We rid this vessel of the Fomorian infestation, then we search it from top to bottom for anything that could aid our actual quest.” As he said that, the man gestured with one hand. The actual lights of the ship immediately came to life, not just in the room itself, but everywhere within the massive, two-hundred-miles-long vessel. With that simple wave of his hand, he not only took control of the giant ship, but supplied enough power to run its vast energy needs.
Back on Earth, the Heretic known as Gaia possessed one-half of the powers of the Djehuti. The technopathy side. The Heretic known as Seller, on the other hand, possessed the biological-manipulation side. Odin, on the other hand, possessed both sides. And not the powers of the Djehuti, who were imperfect clones of Ymir, last survivor of his world in the previous universe. No, Odin was a Natural Heretic of Ymir himself. He possessed the full strength powers of both sides, and could build and control anything, be it biological or technological. And he was all-but unmatched in combining both aspects.
Along with the return of the lights, the doors at the far end of the room came to life as well and wooshed open. Thor and Tyr immediately began to stalk that way, with the cyborg ravens flying ahead. Watching them go, Odin trailed behind, his cybernetic eye scanning the structure of the ship, analyzing its make, the materials, design, everything it could.
It would continue to take quite some time, more than it already had. But even if it required another ten thousand years or more, Odin and his people, the Aesir, would find what they were searching for. Namely, a way to combine every bit of technology and magic they were able to scavenge together from millennia spent scouring every inch of a dozen galaxies in order to finally destroy the four universe-ending monsters who had emerged from Tartarus millions of years earlier.
Nearly every life in the previous universe had been wiped away by those four creatures, leaving a bare handful of survivors. Odin’s benefactor, Ymir, was one. And he had sworn an oath to never forget the threat that those beasts presented.
One way or another, Odin would put the proper pieces together, and destroy them.
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